Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pondering Giving, Receiving, and the Burmese Way.

As summer turns into fall, I often sink into introspection, and over the last couple of weeks my mind has been contemplating giving and receiving.

Among the events that kept propelling me to this subject, was a conversation I had with Robin Rilette, when I visited her at home a week ago while she was nursing a painful broken foot. We got around to talking about how events in our lives sometimes force us to receive, for a change. Robin wrote on her blog:

"I'm learning that while it is "more blessed to give than to receive" it can sometimes be more challenging to receive than to give. It's necessary, however, to learn to receive gracefully, gratefully and without guilt. This honors and respects the giver."

In our visit, I had recounted to Robin the tale of my difficult lesson on receiving, following a devastating flood at my home in 2005. The entire basement of my home was wiped out along with many possessions. Having no flood insurance, I was on my own with this major loss.

Or so I thought.

In a matter of days, volunteers showed up at my house in rubber boots, shovels and buckets in hand, and toiled in awful conditions, nearly waist deep in mud and debris, clearing it out. About 70 people shoveled and hauled for four days, with tremendous esprit de corps. Donations of food, bedding, furniture and cash flowed in. People housed and fed us while the home was uninhabitable, and many gave me the gifts of their organizing skills and technical expertise.

Somehow I managed to stay cheerful through the clean-up phase of the flood, and held on to a good sense of humor. But when all the mud was gone, I paid a visit to my beloved parish priest, and wept my own personal flood of tears. It was not the loss that troubled me in the least, I told him - it was the outpouring of love and support from friends, strangers and my warm and loving community that humbled me....and was so hard to accept. I felt undeserving.

And Father Joe told me something which I will always consider a major milepost in my understanding. It is much harder to receive than it is to give, he said, but it was a lesson I had to learn: that overwhelmed as I was by care of the good people, it was a mere taste of the love God has for us all.

So powerful was that message, I had a physical reaction - a jolt in my chest.

The subject of giving and receiving continues to assert itself in my life. Today, it came in a BBC article on the Burmese monks at the center of the current crisis in Burma (I will use the old form of the name in this post - it is the name I grew up using, so will run with the familiar.)

In Burma, Thailand, Sri Lanka, parts of Vietnam and Southeast Asia, Theravada Buddhism prevails. It is common for every male to be a monk at some point in his life. Even career men will take one week a year to live the ascetic life of mendicant, donning monk's robes and carrying a begging bowl - his only possessions. He will depend on the charity of civilians for his daily meals.

From the BBC article:

"They give religious guidance and perform important duties at weddings and funerals.

"In return for these duties, they are given donations by laymen. As they are forbidden from handling cash, they are completely reliant on these handouts. Each full moon day, they are also given donations such as robes.

"If they refuse these handouts, they are denying the donor the potential to earn spiritual "credit" - the strongest possible penalty that can be expected from a Buddhist."

What a beautiful thing it is, I thought, to have giving and receiving woven tightly into one's cultural consciousness, and then be aware, daily, of the spiritual need and reward of giving and receiving. Yet this creed is playing into the current situation:

Myint Swe of the BBC Burmese service said the announcement by the monks currently protesting in Burma that they would refuse all donations from the ruling military (most of whom would be Buddhist themselves) was so powerful, because "the government wants the image that they are pious and helping the monks."

(Matt Frei of the BBC wrote a great piece on the Burmese people's lot, and on the grace and courage of Aung San Suu Kyi - read it here.)

But here in the US of A, why is it so hard for many of us to receive?

Back in the day, people HAD to receive in order to survive. Think of the Amish coming together for barn raising. All sorts of agrarian societies in communal plowing, sowing and harvesting. Villages communally raising children.

Has life in modern Western societies removed us so far from this, that many think of receiving as a sort of weakness, a loss of independence - or an obligation to reciprocate? Is this the result of some religious teachings, which stress the virtue of giving - but less conspicuously, on the virtue of receiving? Or could this be tied to self-esteem?

Whatever the reason, I say, from personal experience: give - a smile, a greeting, a helping hand, or something material. But also open up and receive - a compliment, a greeting, a gift, a friendship. Then give in turn once more.

It's a deeply gratifying cycle.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Don't Mess With Public Radio Hosts - You'll Be Sorry



Jodie Foster talked about playing Erica Bane on NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday - read and listen here

She's definitely one of the most intelligent actors today! What a pleasure to hear her expounding the intricacies of fear and darkness in the soul.


FINALLY! The public radio host becomes Hollywood action hero!!

The Brave One, directed by Neil Jordan, opens this Friday, and stars Jodie Foster as public radio host Erica Bane.

According to the New York Times, the choice of Erica's profession was Ms. Foster's idea.

"In the original script Erica Bain was supposed to be, of all things, a reporter for The New York Times, and Ms. Foster, who confessed to being a “serious N.P.R.-head” — the sort of person who will sit in her garage listening to the car radio until a show is over — changed her to the host of a public radio show." (New York Times review)

Ah! so Jodie Foster's prone to NPR driveway moments!

As she listens to these mellow public radio announcers, does she wonder what lurks in their souls once they switch off the microphone? (Well, don't you?)

"With her caressing alto, Erica guides listeners around New York with the suggestively titled program “Street Walk,” mapping the city like a cross between the radio performer Joe Frank and Walt Whitman. She sounds like a woman in love, and she is — with the city, with her fiancé (Naveen Andrews). But she loses all this love before we can watch her fully experience it."

I know little more than this, but plan to watch the movie. After all, how many plots involve a public radio host? The last time a movie featured a public-radio type announcer, that I know of, was the dreadful Requiem for Murder (1999).

Okay, she wasn't exactly in public radio, but Molly Ringwald's character Anne Winslow is a classical music announcer - close enough, right? She works at "one of the top five classical stations in the metro area." That line made me laugh so hard I had to stop the tape. Did the writers even bother to do their research on classical music stations? TOP FIVE? Out of how many? In one metro area? Oh come on!

Anyway, some of Anne Winslow's listeners die as they're tuned in to her program.

Think about it.


Did I mention Requiem for Murder wasn't supposed to be a comedy?

(If you simply must know more about the movie, check out this review of sorts. Skip past the first five paragraphs to get to the synopsis.)


I'm fairly sure that Jodie Foster's character will be stronger and more interesting than Anne Winslow. She's certainly not passive and whiny.

This is Erica's story:

“One evening, while (Erica and fiancé are) walking their dog in Central Park, the lovers are savagely attacked. He dies; she lives. She buys a gun. She points. She shoots. Again and again and again."

I'm not sure if the movie deals with her station's first pledge drive following her killing spree, along with new numbers for Average Quarter Hour and Time Spent Listening (numbers by which many a station lives or dies!) Maybe in the sequel. Who did Foster have in mind when she created Erica Bane? Nina Gun-Totin' Berg? Ann "So-What-If-You're-An-Insurgent-I'll-Kick-Your-Derriere" Garrels? (Any ideas?)

And here you thought public radio announcers were a mild bunch.

We're not all Margaret Jo McCullen or Lynn Vershad or Teri Rialto (aka Ana Gasteyer, Rachel Dratch and Molly Shannon) from The Delicious Dish on Saturday Night Live. (Watch the skits in which they interview Alec Baldwin aka Pete Schwedy here and here. WARNING: strong innuendo - follow the links at your discretion!)

Let's see what "The Brave One" does for our image!

vvvvvvvvv UPDATE vvvvvvvvvv

Here's the trailer for Requiem for Murder:

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Addio, Maestro.

On Thursday morning, I received e-mail from several friends whose tastes don't usually run to opera - and all expressed sadness at the passing of Luciano Pavarotti. Such was his universal appeal, and universal was the appreciation of that singular voice.

The voice was one of the most thrilling sounds of our time. Yes, much has been made of the high C's he hit again and again - but it was also the sheer brilliance and clarion exuberance it conveyed. A wonder.

Some critics felt a last need to assert their superiority on the announcement of Pavarotti's death by reiterating their tired claims that he sold out by performing with the likes of Sting, the Spice Girls and what not. They went on and on about how he wasn't the most intelligent interpreter of operatic roles. Blah blah blah. One of my friends said, "bastards! let them try to sing Nessun Dorma!" (Watch him sing it) Another said, "those who can, do; those who can't, become critics."

How quickly can you sing "sour grapes" in a falsetto?

Here's where my long-time favorite, Placido Domingo, shone. Set up to be Pavarotti's rival decades ago, the tenors instead reached across those petty expectations and became close friends. Together they teamed up to celebrate the victory over leukemia of their fellow tenor Jose Carreras. For that, all three tenors were harshly judged by those same critics, and adored by audiences across the world.

Said Don Placido: "I think the career of Luciano was bigger because I was there as his friendly rival, and I think my career is bigger because he was there also as a friendly rival," a somber Domingo told a news conference Thursday.

Of the three tenors, it was Luciano Pavarotti whose sunny, beaming visage became best known to the non-opera audience. The worldwide expression of sorrow at his passing is testament to the way that voice climbed seemingly unscalable heights and into people's hearts.

But there was so much more to like and love than that gift: there was an air of generosity about him, the way he gave his all in performances (yes, yes, I've heard about the declining quality of his singing later in his career - this is not about his fading years). Pavarotti oozed charm, playfulness and flirtatiousness.

Here's a side to the man not usually seen on stage, as related by British soprano Jane Eaglen, writing in Slate:

"My family has come to opera through my involvement, and so, when they heard I was going to be singing with Pavarotti, they decided to come to New York to see a performance. My brother asked me to tell the story of Turandot, so they would be prepared. I briefly told them about the princess who asks possible suitors three riddles, which they must answer correctly or die.

"My brother, keen on games, wanted to see if they could get the riddles, so roughly translating from the Italian, I came to the second: What is hot but also cold, can give you a fever but also a chill? Is it love? No. Is it passion? No. Then my mother, thinking carefully, said, "Is it mustard?" It took several minutes for us to stop falling around laughing, and in many ways it's almost a better answer than the real one: blood.

"This story became a bit of a legend in the family and beyond, as I told various conductors and singers about it when I sang the role. James Levine loved it so much he insisted that I tell Luciano in a music rehearsal. We had only been working together a couple of days, and I was a little unsure if he would find it funny, but I told the story, and he did indeed laugh heartily for a long time.

"On opening night, some three weeks later, I was in my dressing room having my makeup done, when he came in with a huge wicker basket, filled with 12 beautifully wrapped little parcels, which he placed on my dressing table. I was amazed and thanked him profusely, saying it was far too lovely to unwrap there and then. He told me to wait until I got home, but said, "I wanted you to have this—it's 12 different kinds of mustard!""

But that was not all, says Eaglen.

"I never expected him to have such a sense of humor, nor to take the time to make this gesture, and I was really touched. He followed it up when, unbeknown to me, he was in the same restaurant where I was dining with my family. We had just been seated when the maitre d' brought over a dish of mustard and put in front of me. Upon seeing my confusion, he couldn't wait to tell me, "Maestro Pavarotti sent it.""

I think we could always see humor twinkling in his eyes.

But what about the very thing that first shot Pavarotti to stardom, the high C? What's the big deal?

“It’s the absolute summit of technique,” said Craig Rutenberg, the Metropolitan Opera’s director of musical administration — in effect, its chief vocal coach. “More than anywhere else in your voice, you have to know what you’re doing. To me it signals a self-confidence in the singer that lets him communicate to us that he knows what he’s doing and he has something very important to express with that note.”

Daniel J. Wakin, writing in the New York Times, continues:

"The high C has a...visceral, spine-tingling lure.

“The reason it’s so exciting to people is, it’s based on the human cry,” said Maitland Peters, chairman of the voice department at the Manhattan School of Music. “It’s instinctual. It’s like a baby. You’re pulled into it.” When a tenor sings a ringing high C, it seems, “there’s nothing in his way,” Mr. Peters said.

"The pitch, in itself, has a satisfying quality. The key of C major, after all, is a stable, cheerful, happy key, the one with no sharps or flats.

"Fascination may also derive from the fact that high tenor notes are somewhat freakish. Women have high voices, and men have low voices. For a male to sing that high with such power somehow seems unnatural."

"In the mid-20th century, Alfredo Kraus, Franco Corelli and Jussi Bjoerling had great high C’s. Curiously, Enrico Caruso, arguably the greatest opera celebrity, had a weak one and had to work hard to develop his top. Plácido Domingo, who extended his voice up from the baritone range and who is widely admired for his musicianship and artistry, is also not known for pinging high C’s."

"Mr. Pavarotti won his place in the pantheon of high C’s with a run of Donizetti’s “Fille du Régiment” in the 1972-1973 season at the Met. The aria “Pour mon âme” calls for nine of them in a row, and Mr. Pavarotti tossed them off brilliantly."

"Mr. Pavarotti once described the feeling this way: “Excited and happy, but with a strong undercurrent of fear. The moment I actually hit the note, I almost lose consciousness. A physical, animal sensation seizes me. Then I regain control.”"

Listen to him hit all 9 high Cs in that famed aria from Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment":

This was the scene at the funeral in the Duomo (cathedral) in Pavarotti's hometown of Modena this morning, as reported by Opera Chic:

"...a recording of Pavarotti and his dad rings in Church now, Panis Angelicus.

"Hearing that unique, unmistakable voice, that wondrous sound, while the TV carries the image of Pavarotti's maple wood coffin.

"In a spontaneous breach of etiquette, a standing ovation, and long applause echoes through the Duomo. It just never ends.

"A brief, quite eloquent -- for his standards -- speech by the Italian PM: "Sometimes we don't need words because sorrow speaks for us; and everything today demonstrates how deeply Pavarotti became part of our lives".

"It's over now -- Luciano Pavarotti will shortly be buried, in the Montale Rangone cemetery next to his beloved parents and his only son, Riccardo, stillborn in 2003."

Here's the young Pavarotti, in the days before the trademark look:

And finally, I want to share this song with you. It's not opera - rather, the Italian folk song "Mamma," and one of the things I most love hearing Pavarotti sing. It never fails to cheer me up:

Addio, Maestro. You will be sorely missed by many.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

So that's where the missing syllables went!

Follow up to the missing syllables in Oregon and caramel:

I think that shwa has been dropped off, like unwanted goods tossed at a Goodwill donation center, on to realtor.

That is a two-syllable word, or should be, anyway. But so often, it's stretched tight in its lycra leisure suit to ree-luh-tor.

The poor word even been stretched on the rack by people in that very profession! Shouldn't that be part of basic training for them?

I suppose it makes up for the animal doctors whose titles are often shortened to vet-tree-nare-ree-uhn. (Oh, all right - I suppose if you have that many syllables, you can afford to lose one!)

So - can you think of any other words that are commonly pronounced with added or subtracted shwas/syllables? Please share!

I must say I enjoy hearing small children being liberal with syllables. Examples from my children in their pre-school days include:

straw-buh-rary (strawberry)
wool-fuhs (wolves)
lye-berry (library)
feb-yoo-ary (February).

Incidentally, there are terms for these practices. When you drop a syllable from the middle of a word, and turn Oregon into Organ, it's called syncope.

When you add a syllable to the middle of a word like realtor and turn it into ree-luh-tor, you are practicing epenthesis.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Oregon has three syllables, people.

Have you noticed more and more people dropping the middle syllable in Oregon?

I hear it everywhere, even in news stories from journalists based in that wonderful state.

Oregon has a beautiful lilt to it. Organ is somewhat less mellifluous.

This pronunciation, in my observation, is fairly recent. Oregonians used to correct another mangling of their state's beautiful name: ory-gone. From

"I remember (long ago) watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. (Yes, there was a time when Dan Rather was just an upstart kid!). The previous evening Walter had done a news story on Oregon, and as most easterners are wont to do, pronounced it Ory-GONE. Well, he must have gotten a snootful of complaints from Oregon residents, because the next night he apologized for his transgression on air, and clarified the pronunciation is ORYgun." (Correct pronunciation: OR-ih-guhn)

My guess is that somewhere along the way, the middle ih became a shwa (the neutral vowel that occurs in unstressed syllables - as in the, and the third sound in banana)

It's so easy to drop a shwa.

Just ask caramel.

According to Daniel Jones' English Pronouncing Dictionary, the word is pronounced kare-ruh-mel (sorry, I don't know how to get IPA symbols on the keyboard.) Americans, more often than not, say kar-muhl.

From Common Errors in English:

Take Highway 1 south from Monterey to reach the charming seaside town of Carmel, of which Clint Eastwood was formerly mayor. Dissolve sugar in a little water and cook it down until the sugar turns brown to create caramel. A nationwide chain uses the illiterate spelling Karmelkorn (TM), which helps to perpetuate the confusion between these two words. (Link)

What happened? I think somewhere along the way, kare first turned into kar (Merriam Webster does it that way). When the first vowel is long, it then becomes quite easy to drop the shwa, doesn't it?

Hardly anybody in the US pays any attention at all to that caramel's middle syllable (a practice which is called syncope).

That common pronunciation has now infiltrated the written form: it's not unusual at fairs to see signs advertising carmel apples or (as noted in Common Errors) karmel korn. It used to drive me absolutely crazy, but after years of inundation in floods of carmel, not only have I caved...but even find myself uttering the two-syllable version of the word.

Bobby Flay is practically alone on the Food Network in correctly enunciating all three syllables in caramel.

But in a recently aired episode of "Boy Meets Grill," he said something which is another of my pet peeves: to melt the brown sugar in the rum. Virtually all the Food Network chefs say this in one variation or another. But one doesn't melt sugar in rum or water - you dissolve it. If one were to melt sugar, and keep it on heat, it would eventually turn to - caramel.

OK, rant over. Now off to create a recipe of Organ Karmel.