Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What Teachers Live for IV (with thanks to Christian Campos)

 Received this in an email yesterday:

"I just listened to a professional choir's recording of the Lauridsen Mid-winter Songs and I have to tell you that you still have -- by far -- the most interesting and engaging interpretation of the work I have ever heard. Even though the choir in this recording is fantastic, the interpretation doesn't come close to what you were able to do. In yours, the text and form of the work are made clear. You, sir, have such a rare gift."

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I've always said something like: "Choruses I train ain't technically perfect but, by God, once I get a good score in my head and stand in front of a decent chorus with it for a while, what comes out is--if nothing else--musical.   We make MUSIC, not just sounds."

Find out for yourself at williamdehning.com.  Lauridsen is there, along with a few other things.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Interview with Carol Glenn for In Quest of Answers II

No one knows this, but I was interviewed for the second edition of In Quest of Answers, the compendium of interviews by Carole Glenn with important American choral conductors, with the exception of one of the most important: Charles Hirt.  I was in the second batch along with Anton and Andre, to name two of the famous ones.  This second edition will be published, but I doubt it will be for a while and I would like this out there before I'm dead.  Just for the hell of it. This material will be included in the second edition published maybe by Hinshaw and edited for certain by Michael Miller, who I thank for forwarding this transcript.  It isn't perfectly edited, but enough so that you get the ideas, I hope.

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Interview with William Dehning by Carole Glenn, 10 September 1994, Los Angeles.

1.  What are the most important personal and musical qualifications for a conductor?

As far as personal qualities go, I think a sense of imagination, a sense of play, and an interest in people are important.  Although perfect pitch would help, it would not necessarily help get our jobs done more quickly, but a sense of rhythm and what’s inside a rhythm is very important.  And, of course, a conductor needs a good inner ear. 

One’s imagination is critical when coming up with the concept of a piece and how you want it to sound. You have to know all the technical things of course involved in being a musician but I think that concept, which comes from the imagination, is the most important. 

Conductors need to be widely read or else our imaginations become sterile. Reading stimulates the imagination. 

2.  What is one piece of advice that you would offer to a beginning conductor?

They get discouraged. The first piece of advice would be:  there is a way to do this and it’s worth pursuing and finding it.  I do get tired of a certain negativism, the “Oh, it’s tough in the field.” Yeah, it’s tough but it’s always been tough.  It’s never been easy. 

What we do as a conductor is a different sort of thing, but it is fun and richly rewarding. I’ve never for a moment regretted becoming a conductor. 

So be as prepared as you can be.  Be yourself and never forget the reason you got into this profession in the first place.  Keep that sense of joy that music gives you and never lose your sense of play.  

3.  Are you aware of any difficulties that minority and women choral conductors may have had?
Yes, of course, in the past. The avenues have not been open to them in the past. I think there has been a resistance—which you still see in Asian cultures to a--woman being an authority. The room gets kind of quiet when a woman gets up to conduct and that is still somewhat the case. I can think of a number of careers that, had she been a male, it’s possible that she would’ve gone “farther” by now, whatever “farther” means. And I think this has been true in the past but I no longer think it is and I’m happy to say that. [Boy! Did I ever get this one wrong!]

4.  What should be the overall objectives of a choral program?

That depends on the arena, whether school, church, community, or professional choir.  Regardless of the arena, the main objective of any program has to involve experiencing as much superb choral literature as possible; unquestionably proven, superb music. 

We all need to experiment with the trivial now and then in part to remind ourselves what the truly excellent music is, in part because it’s easy and fun.  We also have an obligation to build our audiences.  Taking it further than that, our goal should be the furtherance of the culture. Choral music is positioned to do that, more than any other artistic expression, with the exception of literature.

5.  Are choral conductors better prepared today than they were twenty years ago?

Without question, choral conductors today are better prepared than I was in 1970 – technically, especially. The world is smaller than it was 20 years ago and as a result, we’re hearing more music, and this is all to the good. We are also hearing the music of other countries to a far greater degree.

 Schools are turning out well-prepared people.  I know that we are at USC, and I know a number of other schools that are.  There are more people than there are jobs at present, but that’s the state of the profession, not the training. 

There are recordings of almost anything nowadays and that is a tremendous aid to the conductor. In the bad old days, we used to have to figure it out at the keyboard and just sit there and kind of play through it in some manner to get an idea of how a piece went, you know, even if we were lousy pianists as I am. I don’t know that recordings are necessarily a blessing, though.  In many ways they’re a curse because there is less development of and reliance upon the inner ear that I spoke of in Question 1.  

6.  What do you do to preserve the vocal health of your singers?

Of course, it is very important to study the voice yourself. I’m surprised at how many pianists are in front of choruses who have no idea of how the instrument works. You don’t have to be a good singer yourself, but you should have an understanding of how difficult it is to sing a high F# in a work by Strauss or somesuch. The ability to reach singers through the imagination is critical to the functioning of an effective rehearsal. One must take the voice into account with the plan and pace of rehearsals.  I’m surprised by how many conductors I observed who ask their singers to sing something fast and forte three times in a row. Take it down the octave, or just rehearse the rhythm.  Be aware that, in a one or two hour rehearsal, a soprano only has so many high A-flats in her voice – only so many.  Don’t use them up on drills and sterile repetition.  Be cognizant and empathetic to the singers, as a singer.



7.  How would you compare the quality of published choral music today with the music published two decades ago?

 It’s far worse. There is so much junk being published.  To a degree, this is our fault. For one thing, good music is not as readily available and is often much more expensive. The expense is attributable to two things.  The first is “Theft,” plain theft. We’ve stolen music by copying it. Many people have been flagrant about it and it is criminal.  Publishers have to make money so they publish what is most accessible and in many cases, to be honest, it’s not good music. The second reason is decline in what we perceive our audience's tastes to be.  Audiences want to hear superb music done well.  They always have and I think they always will. The third reason is that our own taste has deteriorated.

Sometimes we have tremendous problems getting good music because it hasn’t been selling.  I think that much of this poor music is published to keep singers in programs, and I certainly understand the reason for that. But I think the best will always sell.  I applaud publishers who continue to try keep publishing good music. 

8.  What can be done about the elimination of music in many school districts?

This is both a cultural and political problem.  It would be solved immediately if the United States government said, “The Arts will be taught in schools, now shut up, and don’t argue.” If the government would have the courage to say that this is what should be done, and the government supported The Arts, as is the case in virtually every other civilized country in the East and the West, that would immediately raise cultural expectations of children. But barring that, I’m afraid since our government is a bit timid and only listens to the vocal and rich people, the parents will simply have to demand that The Arts be taught.  Then politicians will listen. It must be demanded. What parents demand, the school boards tend to give.

9.  What are your thoughts about the prohibition of sacred music in some public school districts.

I think sacred music ought to be approached the same way as history, science, world religions, or social studies. Western music is great art and needs to be taught in that way and for that reason. It so happens that much of this great art is connected to texts of religions. If the text is from the Koran, is universal and speaks universal truths, it should be done. Confucianism, Buddhism, Fundamentalism, I mean, what’s wrong with Amazing Grace?   It’s a Scottish melody, by the way, and is great art and should be approached that way. I am for separation of church and state, but great art doesn’t have to be taught as dogma. A Madonna and Child can be a beautiful work of art regardless of what it represents and what a person believes. 

Martial arts are taught, for instance, first as art forms, not as means of defense, or especially offense.  We in choral music have this problem of course more than orchestras and bands. But, just as we want the religious right to leave us alone in regards to secular music, we want the liberal left to leave us alone when it comes to sacred music. I’m afraid that teachers are going to have to be the ones who decide, and both the right and the left are just going to have to be quiet.

10.  What aspects of music are of particular importance to you now?

I think the process itself has become more important over time. I love rehearsing and I always have. It’s still a thrill, yes, to perform for 2000 people – though that doesn’t happen often anymore.  But the process of taking just a bit of noted chaos and a bunch of human beings who don’t have any idea about each other and putting those two together is just a miracle. Performances, yes, they are fun, but right in the middle of the rehearsal process when it all starts to come together, just after the beginning, and before the polish goes on- when it’s no longer chaotic, you watch the “ah-ha”  moments happen.  Again, its people and music and 'getting there' that I enjoy. I enjoy the ride, as JT said.

11.  What changes in choral philosophy and procedures have you noticed in the past twenty years or so?

I see more of the emphasis on the medium than the message. I’m surprised at that.  I once read something that Charles Hirt wrote to Theron Kirk over 20 years ago, saying, “We are to the point now where we have purchased our instrument and we are now exploring the music.” I don’t think that’s as true in this country as it maybe could be. I hear a lot of perfectly blended, perfectly in-tune choruses that fail to get inside the guts of the piece. I’m amazed and I marvel but I am not moved. I’d rather hear something that is rough around the edges but really gets inside the composer’s head, when you can tell that the performers get it and they communicate that to the audience. Yes, I like to hear choirs in-tune, perfectly together, and perfectly lovely—that’s very nice and I always enjoy that. Occasionally, I come close to that with the groups I conduct but it’s not really what I’m after.

I also have a bit more of an acceptance of the straight tone sound than previously.  To get many difficult 20-century pieces perfectly in-tune, you need to leave the vibrato out… that’s when the chords and clusters really sparkle.  There are times when, at a certain dynamic level, I have asked for that, never at a forte, but when mezzo forte or less.    

I thought we fought this battle with our voice teachers 20 years ago and apparently it’s coming around again. And I think, to a certain degree, that this is an influence of European choirs, especially Northern European.  A lot of Americans have been over there to study and I think they are hearing that sound again and liking it.  You also often hear that straight tone in Asia and Korea where they really sing foot to the firewall.

In modern music, and in very old music, it works.  I think that’s quite a change, but I think we need to be extremely careful about its use with young students.  You work with pros, demand it, fine.  They’re paid and they know how to do it without harm. 

12.  What trends do you see for the future?

Recently there’s been a trend where the importance of music in the schools is falling away. I see that for the foreseeable future, too.  What has replaced that scene, as we all know, are tremendous children’s choirs in the community, tremendous youth choirs. This is a very European concept. The choruses in European schools--I know the German schools firsthand--are really not very good but they learn how to analyze Schubert melodies, by golly, and they learn chord progressions at a very early age. When they leave schools they, then as adults, sing as informed musicians.  And so it’s the church choirs, and community choirs, and the semiprofessional groups that are very prominent there.  

I’m seeing that happening here, especially with children’s choirs and there’s a tremendous burgeoning of community chamber choirs all over the place. I’m glad to see it with the children involved because we are tending to lose them, of course, in the schools, especially in junior high and high school.  Unfortunately too, what that means, is that those who can afford to pay get musical experiences, while those who cannot afford it, don’t.  It’s unfortunate and sad, and it doesn’t bode well for the classroom community. But I don’t see that changing in the immediate future, I simply don’t see it changing.

13.  What are your favorite musical compositions and why?

That would be hard to say. I’m very lucky that I’ve done a lot of music that I love. If someone said, “You can only do one piece for the rest of eternity, pick one,” that might be Bach’s Singet dem Herrn.   I like music— and I don’t know how to say this—in which “gimmick” is not at all obvious, and in which the craftsmanship that expresses the text, and which stays true to itself; not quoting anyone else.   The music should meet the essence of the text and speak well to the singer. This is not to say that I don’t love a piece of schmaltz now and then, I sure do.  Some schmaltzy pieces are exactly what I mentioned; they can be true to themselves and express the text beautifully.  Ultimately, the craftsmanship has to be part of it.



75% of the time, I program music which I know is unquestionably superb. Of course part of that, too, is because I have been a teacher all my life and it’s my job to do that for my singers. About 25% of the time I experiment with “fluff and folk” stuff because that’s fun, too. 

14.  How did you happen to make music your career?

I don’t think “happen” is the right word. It was a conscious decision I made when I was a little bit older and only after I’d been miserable studying engineering and business and god knows what else. 

I thought that music would be better than misery and I was right. I was 21 when I began to really study music, so I came to music through the back door and I’ve struggled to catch up ever since. I’m still catching up.

I had played instruments and sang since I was ten.  Music always moved me.  It was something I enjoyed and through which I met a lot of nice people, so I thought, “Well, I might not make money, that is true, but I will enjoy my days and enjoy getting up in the morning.”  And that’s still true.

15.  Which conductors have been an inspiration to you?

This is really easy.  In chronological order, and for different reasons, Charles Hirt in the late 60s, Helmuth Rilling in the mid 70s, and John Alldis in the early 80s.  I was inspired by these men and in very different spheres and for different reasons. 

As far as the orchestral sphere, Erich Leinsdorf.   He wrote a book that came out just after I’d seen him conducting. I was in Europe observing him, sitting back by the string basses.  I was really inspired.  He showed no pretense, was utterly clean, and yet beautiful.  That was one of the few times I’ve seen the players applaud the conductor after a performance. They were playing Debussy’s La Mer, and I think something as prosaic as Peter and the Wolf, and if the players are going to applaud for Peter and the Wolf and La Mer, that conductor is on the ball.  

I was also inspired by observing Georg Solti in late 60s.  Those five people, but I still have to go back to Charles Hirt and the influence he had on me, especially in terms of choral sound.  His was vibrant and with vibrato. He had good voices at USC and he let them sing.  It was a very vital, exciting sound that still rings in my ears.  I still have trouble accepting the use of straight tone.

16.  How does choral music in the United States compare with choral music in other countries?

We are less nationalistic and more universal in repertoire than most European countries. Asians are almost as universal and program a lot of music.  If you hear a German choir, you’ll primarily hear German music. If you go to France, you primarily hear French music.  I wish we did more American music today in this country than we do because it is there.  We are less parochial in this country and I think that’s good. I think we are freer and more soloistic with the use of the voices in the ensemble, and I think that’s good, too. They tend to do less cheap music in other countries than we do, though.

17.  How may music serve as a force for understanding between diverse groups of people?

I think there are times when we all ask, “Is what I’m doing important?”  There are times when it might not seem to be.  We don’t make $30 million a year.  Rock stars do.  We aren’t looked up to as heroes.  Athletes are.  But the answer is always a resounding “Yes.”  Music is one of the only things which involves not only the body, but the brain and the spirit. 

Let’s get this straight, the greatest athletes are artists, too, just as some great musicians are great athletes.   We can each participate in choral music at some level.  It is important because by involving ourselves with something greater than ourselves, as we with great literature, and music—especially choral music, by participating, we become better ourselves even if it’s only for a moment, it’s important. 

I can’t think of anything more important than becoming a better human being, or at least more fulfilled, and music can do that, just as great literature does. 

Reading a great book can be a lonely experience but you come out fulfilled, you come out better, and you know it.  Ultimately, it is just you and the author.  Choral music is not lonely. We do it with other people and we come out not only better ourselves, but we’ve helped others become better, too.  I can’t think of anything more important--except food, water, and rest--than becoming a better human being.

18.  Why is music important to humankind?

I just know it always has been.  It’s more than the cliché of a common language, it’s a common experience. This is especially so in choral music— a common experience.  Even if the language is different, you’re still using one instrument that is the same as everyone else’s.  It is not like one person having a fiddle and the other having a flute.  Yes, the sopranos are different, and Lord knows tenors are, too.  But it’s all the same instrument.  It’s the one God gave us, and we all have a voice.  Choral music speaks immediately to whoever is making it.  I think this is because singing is so close to speech, the element of human language.  It is also so close to laughter and tears— it is all the same in any language. 

I once ran across a quote by Hindemith: “People who make music together cannot be enemies at least while the music lasts.” I think that’s true. We can become enemies again after rehearsal, but not while the singing is going on.



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Monday, August 11, 2014

More Three-Dot Posting . . .

It's been over three months since I sat here and did this and I suppose I feel a bit guilty about that though am not sure why I should.  And I'm only doing this to type my way through a minor depression (I can't see my shrink until 3 Sept: I was absent from her for over a year and she got a bunch of other clients in the meantime). . .

ERIN just became a professional Christian for a United Methodist church about an hour away in  Cullman.  She loves the staff and the people and of course they all love her.  I know for a fact that rotten college kids love you for three weeks and then find something to bitch about.  That makes working with adults rewarding: they stay loyal and will do whatever the hell you want.  This of course is offset on the negative side by the fact that the rotten kids are smarter, more energetic, better trained, and usually more talented than the loyal adults.  But they will bring you vegetables from their garden, home made bread and other goodies ...

MY HEALTH is static: the heart has been stabilized beautifully by drugs, my formerly hyperactive thyroid is now fully under control.  I'm down to only 12 pills a day and I haven't smoked since 5 November.  I resumed lifting weights at the YMCA in March, but did so very gently, taking 20 lbs. off  the weight of all 10 machines and upping reps from 8 to 10.  Last week, after over five months of just cruising, I am back to where I was: all 20 lbs. are back on all machines and the reps are the same.  I think I'll stay there for the foreseeable future in terms of weight, but will increase reps if I start to feel lazy.  I'm back up to 16,000 lbs./session 3x/week = 48000 lbs/wk.  I haven't been back to phys.therapy since, though I did recover what the heart incident lost.  Here is where I am and where I think I will be from here on out: outside the house I use the Lofstrand crutches and I need both; it's a fantasy to think that I will ever get around with two canes; inside the house I use the walker because I can carry stuff better; for extended distances/times outside the house, I need the wheelchair and some one to push.  I doubt that these conditions will ever change and I have to be ok with that.  I think I am reconciled to it, but I need a bit of help from that shrink . . . Point is, I will never walk normally again, though this happens periodically in my dreams.  No kidding . . .

TRAVEL has been extensive: a week in May with Erin's chorus and a band in London and Paris, followed by just us 6 adults in Paris, Prague, Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin.  I hadn't been to the latter three since '92 and boy have they improved.  They've almost retrieved their former glory, though I doubt that Dresden ever will.  And Berlin: My, My.  You couldn't look in any direction without seeing at least four cranes. (But cobblestones and wheelchairs don't go together too well. Poor Gene).  In June, we went to LA for a week with my daughters (Meg over from the Big Island) and my grandsons, who have sprouted in the year and a half since I last saw them into big boys with all their teeth and way too much hair and energy.  Whew!  It was a wonderful time with my family, and I will be joining the boys and Libby and Lee (who are divorced, as you may or may not know) in Davis at Xmas.  I may even grill a bird for them.  It will be the first Christmas in a long time that I have not been to Green Bay, and I will miss New Year's Eve at Hinterland with Erin and her folks.  Erin of course, will be in church . . .

TIME seems to be a fickle bitch who sneaks up and beats me about the ears.  I turned 66 a couple months after arriving here and in a couple days I'll be 72.   I occasionally receive extremely nice posts and messages on Facebook from former students or fans of my books and work, and these are very gratifying.  Meanwhile, my former students and younger colleagues achieve, date, marry, and breed (or adopt). . . 

And that's the way it should be.  Y'all just go on ahead without me, now.  I'll hang around here as long as I can.

Looking forward to my birthday coupon and a couple martinis in a couple of hours.  I can't do it on my actual birthday (Wednesday) because Erin will be at church (this could get old).  I may celebrate with Sam on Wednesday by pouring a little beer in his dish . . .

What the hell . . .

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Leaving Home


See that picture at the top?  That's the township of Swatara in northern Aitkin County, Minnesota.  And I mean, that's the whole township. My mom and brother Rolf and I lived there in 1954-1956.  The picture was taken in 1947 and the only difference when we lived there was that the road you're looking at was paved all the way to the top of the small hill you see, when the crossroad became gravel again.  The road coming at you goes west three miles over forested hill and dale until it meets up with US 169.  I walked that three miles many times because I could catch the bus to Aitkin at 169 and ride it the thirty-two miles into town to see my friends and my uncle.  Unfortunately, I also had to walk the three miles back home, usually at night, usually in winter. The last time I walked it in June, 1956, leaving my mom and brother behind, I caught the bus and rode it 2500 miles to Los Angeles to live with my dad and stepmother.  I never walked it back home again.

But I digress.  The house that you see straight on is the house where we lived for two years with the 5-8 grade teacher, I forget her name, even though she was my teacher.  Mom taught the 1-4 grades, and was therefore Rolf's teacher.  I don't know why either of them was hired, especially Mom.  Anyway, after their first year there was a trial of sorts and they were both fired for, I think, incompetence.  I can't think of any other reason.  The new 5-8 teacher that I had wasn't any better than the old one.  The school I refer to is in the second picture. You're looking at the back door.  To the left of that door were the two classrooms; to the right was an auditorium/gymnasium where dances were held and where we had recess if it was too cold or wet to play outside.  I don't think I was ever upstairs. This picture was taken before all the windows were broken.  The last time I saw it was on the occasion of Mom's funeral in '04 (which was in Aitkin, thank Minerva, not in Swatara; it was bad enough living in Swatara, no one should have to die there), all the windows were broken out.  Not a shred of glass left.   I have no happy memories of my two years at that school, but it was still sad to see the shell it had become.

But I digress again.  Back to the house.  The bottom right window was the living room, where the heater was.  The bottom left window was the kitchen without indoor plumbing; we had to catch the water from the sink in a pail and empty the pail down the two-hole toilet, which was out of sight to the far left.  The upstairs windows were our bedroom, where the three of us slept in the winter to stay warm.  Directly across from us was the bedroom where the other teacher slept.  To the left of those bedrooms was an attic with just a bunch of junk in it, where my mom hid her money in a coffee can.  The front of the house also had two windows, one on the right which looked into a small closet usually full of cat turds, as well as a very small room where I slept in all seasons but winter.  The window on the front left was the one Mom and Rolf watched and waved from and cried as I left Minnesota for California to live with my Dad.  For the full story on all of this, go to the Family label of this blog and look up--in this order--Mom and then Dad and then Rolf.  You'll be able to read all about it.

The store/gas station to your left also contained the post office, and was where we bought groceries and where I bought cream-filled cookies and milk to have while reading the science fiction library books I brought home while Mom and Rolf were still in school.  The building across the street was a small eatery where I would sit at the counter for hours, drinking cokes and rotting many of my teeth (with help from the cookies, of course).  I sat there and talked with older guys who smoked and  worked and who could drive. (They made me want to smoke, too, so when I graduated high school in Cali, I started to smoke and continued to do so for the next 54 years). All my school friends lived out in the country and came to school in buses so I never saw them outside of school.

So I have no happy memories of the township, either, much less the school.  It was especially sad seeing my brother cry as I walked away that June. 

But it was with a light heart that I caught the bus at Hwy. 169 headed via Greyhound for Aitkin and then Minneapolis and then Los Angeles.

I was thirteen.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Thailand

Erin and I spent nine days in Thailand rehearsing, lecturing and giving workshops, thanks to Jodi Piriyapongrat of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and the U.S. Embassy there.  We were primarily in Bangkok but also flew up to Chiang Mai for a few days for the purpose of Embassy Outreach in their schools.

The people in that country were wonderful to us, especially the teachers and their students.  We are also truly indebted to The Three Lads--three of Jodi's students--who drove us everywhere and were in all ways so helpful, including Wheelchair Management when distances were a bit long for my crutches.  The teachers received our work warmly and we even managed to make a few of the students laugh from time to time, despite language difficulties and necessity for translation.  Most Thais know English--it seems to be their second language--but the younger/less educated they are, the less they know.  Their kindness, however, knows no bounds.  While visiting Buddhist sites, we were at the Reclining Buddha (Obama saw it some years back) and I was in my wheelchair.  The steps into the shrine were just too tall for my crutches, so I was just going to stay out.  The man managing the entrance called up three of his buddies and the four of them lifted me up those steps and into the building, wheelchair and all.  (It was quite the sight; google it).  They also did the same thing at the exit.  You can't get any kinder than that and I really can't imagine anywhere else where that could have happened.

AND. . . . Jodi managed to get us housed in the Siam Kempinski Hotel in Bangkok (google Kempinski).  It was the most lavish, beautiful hotel with the best service that I have ever experienced.  And the included breakfasts were not to be believed.  Run by Germans, natch.  The handicapped room we were in was spectacular and was the finest and most efficient I have ever experienced.  And the mini-bar was included, as was morning coffee service.  Sigh.  Double Sigh.

Did I mention the food?  Well, now I did.  Wonderful, but my favorite is still tom yum soup.  The hotel's western food in one of their three restaurants wasn't bad either, though the wiener schnitzel left a bit to be desired.  Oh.  And I had to teach them how to make a martini, a task that seems to follow me all over the world.

The only bad thing about the adventure was 20-hours of flight time each way.  And our return flight Tokyo-Houston was delayed seven hours, which meant spending a night in a cheap hotel in Houston.  Groan.

Small prices to pay, though, for nine wonderful days.  Lucky us.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Billy's Bad Bod: Backwards, Hey

Yesterday afternoon I got discharged from the hospital after a long talk from the resident MD and my current nurse: take it easy for a week; realize that a good portion of your problem with your heart has to do with your thyroid, which is producing too much bad stuff, making your heart race, filling your lungs with water, scaring the shit out of you as you try to breathe. So I'm seeing a Thyroidologist  on 3 December to see if he can figure out how to deal with it.  And of course, new drugs to address the problem and drugs to address the drugs.  Get it?

Yeah, but my cardiologist said, as he prepared to poke et, al, 'you did indeed have a slight heart attack. You wanna call it congestive heart failure, go ahead."  This was the day before yesterday, and, boy, them surgical nurses was cute!  Naturally, I charmed them from here to Chattanooga.  Drugs weren't much (proponol), but the girls made up for it.  Procedures didn't take long and proved: 1) zapping my heart four times (I was asleep) couldn't bring my heart back into rhythm.  This is not uncommon, but I think they're blaming that dirty ole nasty thyroid; 2) the rapid pulses I had experienced the day before had not done substantive damage to the chambers of my heart.  This was very good news.  And the witch doctors and mechanics and medicine men will see what they can do with this almost-71-year-old-machine called my body.  BTW: everyone who came into my room to poke, zap, measure (every 3-4 hours) remarked how I looked more like fifty rather than 71.  Heh, heh. 

OK. Now the fun part.

I usually lie down to read in the afternoons, hoping I'll fall asleep.  I usually do. On Tuesday, I didn't. At about 300 I noticed a little difficulty breathing.  I got up, walked into the bathroom (not sure why), noticed a lot of difficulty breathing, came back out and dived for the cell phone on the bed.  911 was really good, and as fast as they could possibly be. Not fast enough: I was gulping shallow breaths so that by the time they tossed me into the Unit, I was a wild man: wouldn't calm down, kept tearing the cup off my face.  I could only speak one word at a time, and could not talk to Erin.  It was a mess.  Poor Erin: she was scared almost as poopless as I was when she came home and found me gone, and all my modes of transport still there.

So yeah, folks, I'll tell ya that not being able to breathe is quite possibly the worst thing that can happen to you: no defense; no cure.  In the ER, they opened both arms and the back of one hand and pumped me so full of stuff that I could almost not hold it.  The mainlining of Ativan put me out, thank God, and whatever else they pumped into me seemed to correct the breathing problem and the pulse of 130-140 (think about that for a second).  They told Erin that my situation was very severe.  Poor thing.  When I woke up, I was fine.

As of this morning I feel great except for a pronounced weakness in the legs: to be expected after over three days on my back and butt.  Looking forward to a real breakfast, a little college football (no a lot).  Probably a nap.

All told: happy to be here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Anecdote V: Billy Basque

I discovered Basqueland (Euskadi in Basque) in the beginning of the new millenium, 2000.  The USC Chamber Choir had won the competition in Varna, Bulgaria the year before, thus qualifying us to compete with the winners of five similar competitions in what is known as the Grand Prix of Choral Singing.  We lost to a Russian children's choir, but that is another topic.

We were housed in a beautiful seaside town west of San Sebastian called Zarautz (someone once said that a Basque typewriter only has x's, k's, and z's). The town had a gorgeous promenade and our hotel was in the main plaza: la Plaza Muzika.  Basque country is half in Spain and half in southern France, all of it beautiful.  Simply and quickly put: It was love at first sight for me.  And since most Basques also speak Castilian Spanish (castellano) I could stumble my way through happy hours and stores even though Spanish is my weakest language.  I fared marginally better in French Basqueland even though that was my second weakest language. The other three in order of strength are English, German and Italian.

I vowed I would return.  Two years later, for my 60th birthday, and after winning another competition, our English friends and four other close friends met in San Sebastian and we spent two weeks exploring the area, including to the land of the Three Musketeers where we got to sample a number of Armagnacs and visit a farm where ducks gave up their livers for foix gras (another great story, but not for here).  We were a party of eight living like lords, including an evening at the world-famous Basque restaurant, Arzak, that took three hours and was worth every minute (worth every Euro, too).

Again, I vowed I would return.  So our party of eight visited Zarautz and I visited a real estate office for rental information.  The fall of '02 was a sabbatical for me, so I made arrangements to rent an apartment on the fourth floor of a building right on the Bay of Biscay.  I arrived on 1 October and stayed for a month, finishing the book I had started in September.  That month cost me $3000, a thousand each for rent, plane fare, and food and drink (ca. $33/day).  At that time, the dollar and the Euro were almost exactly equal (yea!).

Here's what those days were like.

I got up at 830, put my espresso on the stove, and went out to the seaside balcony to open a window and watch the folks running on the beach and strolling the Paseo. When the espresso was ready, I brought it into the coffee table in the lounge and drank it with my roll, serrano ham, and manchego cheese.

I started writing at 930 and wrote until 1230, when I went in to shower and shave.  Then I would go to lunch between 100 and 130, always choosing the restaurant's lunch special that was usually three courses, with dessert being ice cream.  I went back to my FourthFloorSeasideApartment (ahem) at 300, napped for a half hour, and resumed writing at 330.  I was always armed with a novel at both lunch and dinner, by the way, because I didn't have enough Spanish for cheery conversations with strangers.

At 630 I stopped writing and proofed what I had done during the day.  With my first martini by my side, of course.  At 730, I left the apartment, walked the Paseo for a while, had my second martini in the bar right across my street (I had taught them how it was made) and made my way to a restaurant at 830.  This was a relatively expensive meal because I always ordered foix gras if they had it, with a small glass of red vermouth, followed by a meat entree of some kind and a suitable Spanish wine.  At 1030 I went home, got into bed and read one of my novels until midnight.

About once per week, I would buy my breakfast at the small coffee shop across the street and read the paper, which was my only source of news (television news was far too fast for me to comprehend).  My paper was El País Vasco ('the Basque Country') and I could slowly make my way through it with about 75% comprehension. It was there that I read about the latest shootings in the US and the terrorist bombing on Bali.  On Saturdays, I rented computer time at a small shop and read about college football in the US, called home and the like.

I wrote six hours/day every day in that October except for three, when I rented a car, drove to Gascony to buy Armagnac, stayed at a neat little Auberge and came home, whereupon I drove around the mountain to a restaurant that I could see from my balcony but had never been to because I didn't want to decipher bus schedules.  It was all fish there, with a grill that was kept burning all day.  They brought around a large platter with raw fish on it, I chose the one I wanted and they grilled it.  It was exquisite, as were the side dishes.  I had draft beer for dessert, drove back and returned the car  (a small Peugot).

 *****
If this sounds like heaven, that's exactly what it was.  And no, I was not lonely, though I occasionally did long to speak English.  Fortunately, a German chorus came into town for a few days (they won Tolosa that year) and I spoke it with them once German became too much work for me (usually after the third beer).  I only learned one word of Basque ('augur') and have forgotten utterly what it means, though I think it meant goodbye in the sense of 'hey, later, dude.'

I'd do it again if I could.  You want to read about these unique people who I dearly love, I recommend Mark Kurlanski's A Basque History of the World, which I bought just before my Birthday Jaunt in '02 .  Don't google them until you do.  Okay?  Okay.

Grafitti message in English on the side of a building in the passage just below me: "Tourist--you are neither in France nor Spain."  Got that?  Good.