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Blog: On Health. On Writing. On Life. On Everything.

What Do A Book, Beethoven, And Bamboo Have In Common?

June 1, 2013

Tags: order, bamboo, Beethoven - Ludwig van (1770-1827), dancing, diabetes, direct mail, falling in love, house cleaning, hurdy-gurdy man, lawn, military band, pachysandra, piper, pub music, Rodale - publisher, roots, street music, String quartet op. 131, What Do a Book and Beethoven and Bamboo Have in Common?, wisteria, wormwood, writer

This morning, I listened to music while I was cleaning the house, after months of neglect. It was Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartet op. 131. I can’t help myself but I always think about Beethoven as writing street music: A piper comes around the corner, creating excitement. A military band is heard from afar, then is coming nearer – the brass glittering in the sun, and the tune tickling the ear of little Ludwig. Coarse pub music lures with a rhythm that makes your feet stamp. A hurdy-gurdy man takes your penny and plays an ear worm that won’t leave your head for weeks to come – or never (Beethoven wrote this late in life). None of Beethoven’s music seems to show the street influence better than this quartet, if you ask me – and I am not an expert, just a listener. And then, in some passages, the street music stops, and you hear all the longing for a better life in young Ludwig’s soul. For all these reasons, I think LvB still speaks to us. At least to me.

But that was not even what I wanted to talk about. Yesterday, it seems to be official now, my diabetes book (as my part as the writer is concerned) was finished, as per today I am not allowed to make any more changes. The book is supposed to come out in August – initially as a “direct mail” product from Rodale’s, my publisher. It will take a full year before they will release it as a paperback and will show up in stores. Of course, it is available at Rodale's before.

I am exhausted, clearly. And elated. I have an idea for (and the first pages of) a new book, but I am not sure I still have the strength to go through with it. Give me a few days to recover – and to clean up the house!

Another thing that happened today: With a friend, I spend the morning in the garden, trying to kill a bamboo that had sprung – and burst – the pot we had planted it in about two years ago. Or, I have to say, my friend worked and I talked – that’s probably the more truthful description of our endeavor. My family were in love with the bamboo at one time – until I noticed new strong shoots coming out beyond the circumference of the pot. My worst fears have come true: We followed one of the roots three yards into the lawn! Remember, I already have a beautiful wisteria that is crisscrossing my perennial bed with shoots thirty yards long (no lie!), and pachysandra that’s my bane, and wormwood that creeps deeper and deeper into my flowers. – That’s why the bamboo has to go – and don’t tell me, after you fall in love with a bamboo that I didn’t warn you! And, of course, I will plant one root in a pot on the terrace because I don't want to live without the beauty of bamboo.

Musical Education

January 16, 2011

Tags: order, Anka - Paul (born 1941), Bach - Johann Sebastian (1685 to1750), Beatles, Beethoven - Ludwig van (1770-1827), cello, classical music, daily practice, Everly Brothers, flute, gramophone, Holt - John (1923-1985), Kleine Nachtmusik, Monteverdi – Claudio (1567-1643), Mozart – Wolfgang Amadeus (1756-1791, music, musical education, Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story, Pachelbel - Johann (1653-1706), piano, pop music, records – 45er, Tchaikovsky – Peter (1840-1893), Telemann – Georg Philipp (1681-1767), Wagner – Richard (1813-1883)

Music, art, books – they all round out a healthy life to make it fulfilled and happy. Here I have a confession to make: When it comes to music, I am outmoded: I prefer classical music.

BUT it is not my fault. Here is how I was brought up and how my tastes were formed:

As a child, my father would sit the kids on the sofa, in a row, and would play endless records for them, mostly Beethoven and Wagner. We children were bored, predictably, and eagerly waited for him to get his fill of rum and milk to fall asleep. He was a brilliant doctor, and a hopeless boozer. At those moments, we children didn’t mind him drinking – we prayed he’d get drunk fast enough so that we could get away and play.

At around twelve – like all teenagers then – I fell in love with Elvis Presley, with Paul Anka, with the Everly Brothers. For my thirteenth birthday, I got a gramophone – the first among my friends; one could play 45er records on it.

But then my parents shipped us off to boarding school; family life had become too unpleasant. The boarding school was housed in an old castle, with bastion, cannons and forgotten towers, and the rules were strict: All music was verboten. No radio, no gramophone – cassettes had not been invented, I think, and CDs were far in the future. For several years I had no access to music – except for my piano lessons by a flamboyant Hungarian teacher who was a sensation in our all-girls boarding school.

Every morning, at assembly, some girl performed a musical piece, on the piano, violin, flute, for the edification of all of us, allowing us to doze a few more minutes. Tchaikovsky was already too modern for the taste of our stern headmistress, which resulted in a bland musical diet of Bach, Pachelbel, Telemann, Monteverdi. You get the idea – no more Everly Brothers.

One teacher had a young wife who was just a bored as we girls were. She invited a few of us over for tea and – gasp! – subversive music; she also owned a gramophone. The music she introduced us to, never had I heard anything that heavenly! It was Mozart’s Kleine Nachtmusik. This music became the battle song of our secret rebellion – those sixteen-year-old girls in their school uniforms, sipping tea, and plotting their future lives. Oh, our lives had to be so different from our parents!

In case you think that the morning assemblies were our only exposure to music – we also had ballroom dancing lessons. Without boys, of course. And what we learned was – foxtrot? No! waltz? No! rumba? No! – we learned quadrille! Quadrille is an old-fashioned dance, slightly more modern than minuet, and actually the forerunner of square dancing. No wonder that the summer I turned seventeen and learned English in Bournemouth/Great Britain, I went out every single night to the Ritz Ballroom and danced rock’n’ roll. Except for Sundays, when everything was closed. And I thought it must be awful to be old – like, twenty-five! – and not go rock’n’rolling anymore.

When I came out of jail, uh, boarding school, to my own surprise, I had outgrown Elvis. The world meanwhile was crazy about the Beatles. But I had become jaded; I couldn’t get interested in pop music anymore. Instead I went to endless Wagner operas – they couldn’t be long enough for me - and classical concerts whenever I could afford them.

For fifty bucks I bought an old piano plus a piano stool and a huge heap of ancient sheet music. All classical. Playing piano all night helped me greatly getting over boyfriends that had dumped me.

Fast-forward to my six-year-old son declaring he wanted to learn cello. Nobody in the family had ever thought of cello! In his first Suzuki lesson I fell in love with the sound of the cello (which in itself is another convoluted story). Because I didn’t want to take it away from him, I waited until he turned to acoustic bass in his teens. Then I took up cello lessons – am still taking lessons now, years later. Even as a late starter, I am finally out of being a beginner; I am solidly intermediate now and play my cello every day.

There is a wonderful old book by John Holt: Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story. He took up the cello later in life – a story similar to what I am telling here, only degrees more obsessive!

If you do something only ten minutes every day, you can’t but get better. And: It is never too late.

The End of the Year in Maine

December 28, 2010

Tags: movement, food, order, artichokes, baking, balance, Beethoven - Ludwig van (1770-1827), Brendel - Adrian (born 1976), Brendel - Alfred (born 1931), cello, Christmas, cookies, cooking, cross-country skiing, Cutting For Stone, exercise, healing food, Maine, pesto, piano, red cabbage, sauerbraten, shoveling snow, skiing, The End of the Year in Maine, Verghese - Abraham (born 1955), writing

We are in the cabin, away from everything during the time we call between the years in German. Nowhere in the world do I sleep as deeply as here, nothing makes me so content than being here with my loved ones.

Not to sound too pollyannaish: The adjustment to being in such confined room is usually a loud affair for our family – we have to rearrange ourselves and our egos. But the result is good, and I think, lasting.

In the snowstorm, we got ten inches of snow (I just stuck a ruler into the snow on the porch). During the snow last night, we went for a walk along the beach, fighting the wind and swirling snowflakes on our way out, and having them nicely at our backs on returning.

In spite that I brought my equipment (the ancient three prongs- shoes), I haven’t been cross-country skiing yet because I get so much more satisfaction out of shoveling snow – a movement with purpose. Always change hands; for balance, one has to work both sides of the body, even if it feels a bit clumsier on one side.

Shopping is not celebrating the season - snow-shoveling is. And sitting in front of the wood stove, listening to Beethoven (my favorite at the moment: The complete Beethoven piano/cello music as played by the father/son team Alfred/Adrian Brendel), reading a book.

You think snow-shoveling is a chore, and you would rather go without? Imagine you couldn't do it because you were sick. You had to hire someone to do it, pay for it, and miss out on the exercise. How much you'd long for snow-shoveling then! What a desirable activity it would become!

During the holidays, the family didn’t mind eating my sauerbraten and red cabbage for three days in a row. They were actually looking forward to it – savoring it so much! I am a good cook but a lousy baker – don’t follow instructions well. But this year, my self-baked cookies came out right – the Florentines being the favorites of all times. Luckily, all cookies are nearly gone.

In the sauna, after three days of feasting (we celebrate on Christmas Eve), I noticed that I looked like a pink pig – and felt like one, too. But after one day with a light dinner (artichokes with pesto) and lots of outdoors activity, I am back to being my old self again. Artichokes are healing food for the liver - we all can use them after the holidays, I'd say.

All that is only the setting to tell you from where I am writing. What I really want is to share my present reading: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone. It is a medical novel, and surely I am biased as a physician, but I would award him the Nobel Prize for Literature – the book is that good! It spans three continents, giving us a flavor where we Americans come from – namely, the whole world. His observations of people and how they function (or not function) are deep and true. I wish I could write like that.

For a writer it is always upsetting to meet a book that is better than her own but I don’t care; I just care about that Abraham Verghese has written it - and that I am lucky enough to have found it. And I am not yet done: There will be a few days more of this exquisite pleasure!
Aspen eyes, by Peggy Peters

Iguazu Falls, by Xin Liu

Alexa Fleckenstein M.D. 2012, by Lolita Parker jr.

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