BootsnAll Travel Network

What my blog is about

I'm a gay man living in San Francisco. Some years ago, I saw a group who defined their mission as covering "Art, Spirit, Sex, Justice". That pretty much covers what I'm likely to post about. And there will random musings regarding science and technology. And travel. I started by calling the blog "Music of the Spheres", without realizing just how many people had already used that phrase for their own purposes. Apparently, people don't think so often of the music of tigers. So here it is.

An adventure in canning

September 23rd, 2008

I’m not entirely sure why lately I’ve become so obsessed with being able to take care of myself.  The main way that I see this concern is a desire to stock up on food.  I’m sure that one contributor to this development is Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, which describes her family’s year of living locally.  As she describes that year, the chapter on August is called “Living in a Red State”–talking about the endless harvesting, and, more important for the family, preserving, of their harvest of tomatoes.

Lately, I’ve been subscribing to a CSA–community supported agriculture.  The farm delivers a box of seasonal organic vegetables to me–actually, to me at work–once every two weeks.  [They come every week, but, as a single person, I can’t get through it all in one week.]  In a recent newsletter, the farm mentioned that it was possible to special order a 20 lb. box of Roma tomatoes.  So, with a recipe in hand, I ordered the box.

When it arrived, I found that 20 lbs. is a lot more than I thought.  So I planned my strategy.  I started peeling, seeding and pureeing the tomatoes, and put the resulting puree in a container in the fridge.  By the time I was done, it came to 6 quarts of puree.  I have to say that the hint for peeling tomatoes from the Joy of Cooking really worked.  I put a batch of tomatoes in a single layer in a roasting pan, then covered them with boiling water.  By the time the water was cool, the tomatoes were easy to peel.

Then there was turning tomato puree into spaghetti sauce.  The recipe was very insistent on the importance of following the recipe exactly for reasons of food safety.  I’d just as soon not experience botulism, thank you very much.  And the thing that protects from it is either acid or high heat–higher than boiling water.

I was interested to taste the result–the recipe includes powdered dried lemon peel, which turns out to be an ingredient that I may need to add to my repertoire.  The recipe also include cinnamon and nutmeg, which add a bit of a Mediterranean accent–entirely welcome to my mind.

After a bit of exploration with the equipment that I had on hand, I realized that it was going to be necessary to acquire a canning kettle.  Not too much later, I had seven pints of sauce.  I suppose that I could have put it up in quarts, but as a usually single person, pints seemed more useful, and the canner holds only seven jars at a time.

As the jars cooled off, I was delighted to find that the seals held.  So now they’re acting as silent witnesses in my cupboard.  And I’ve moved on to pondering a pressure canner, so that I can put up pears.   I have to admit that I have a dreadful weakness for canned pears, but they have to be canned in a pressure cooker for food safety.

I’ve been trying to figure out the answer to the question:  If I had to live for a year on just the tomatoes that I canned myself, how much do I need?  I’m pretty sure that the answer is between a pint per week, and a pint every two weeks.  In either case, it really represents an investment of my time.

Once again, as a “city kid”,  I’m confronted with the fact that farm life is hard work–and apparently unending.  I can’t begin to imagine how hard it must have been for people, probably women, to just get the harvest in and preserved for the winter, to say nothing of the rest of the year to come.

 To circle back to Barbara Kingsolver’s book.  The answer to “What do you eat in January?” is “Everything”, but the time to think about it is August. 

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Frida Kahlo at SF MoMA

September 21st, 2008

A while ago, Jeremy and I went to a large exhibit of Frida Kahlo at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  They have a great informational feature here, if you have fast internet access.

This was my first opportunity to see a significant number of her pieces all collected together.  I came to the exhibit with limited background knowledge.  Jeremy is still trying to get me to watch the film “Frida”, but so far not.  I had seen the reproductions that graced the dorm rooms of my generation; but not much more.  I was amazed, shocked, fascinated, intrigued.

By and large, I try to resist the notion that I should interpret the work of an artist from their biography.  But the work of Frida Kahlo makes that position more of a challenge, because so many of her major paintings are self-portraits or contain images of herself.  Perhaps the most disturbing of all the paintings was “The Two Fridas“.    In it, she paints a double self-portrait–one in a Victorian wedding dress the other in traditional Mexican attire.  It was painted at the time of her [first?] divorce from Diego Rivera and contrasts the Frida that Diego loves with the one that he no longer does.  There’s much more going on, and I don’t think that I have even begun to digest it.  But, in this case anyway, it seems that it really helps to understand the image to know the facts of her life at the time that she painted it.

I think that another part of the impact of the painting is to see the original, full-size and full-color.  I’ve come to believe that something special happens when I’m actually in the room with the original painting.  Maybe it’s like the special energy that comes from a live performance of music compared with a recording.  The live performance may not be as “technically perfect”, but it can have a kind of energy that no recording can match.

The other interesting feature of the exhibit at SFMoMA is that there is a significant amount of genuinely biographical material, including both photographs and film.  In my view, the Frida of the photos and films is a more beautiful and happier woman that the Frida of the self-portraits.  But this perception just gets me tangled up again in trying to read psychology from art or to read psychology into art, which I’m still convinced, is no favor to either.


Use It Up, Wear It Out, Make It Do, or Do Without

September 19th, 2008

The title of this entry is a saying that I heard many times from my grandmother [Grammy–my father’s mother] as I was growing up.  She was originally from Maine, but had moved to the mid-Atlantic region as a new bride when she was in her twenties.  She never lost her Maine accent to the day that she died, in her eighties.

I always thought that this was one of those “frugal New England” sayings, stereotyping the region and Grammy all at once.  As it turns out, it took coming to California to allow me to see my mistake.

Recently, when Jeremy was visiting, we went to the “Rosie the Riveter Homefront Memorial” in Richmond, CA, near where I work.  It’s quite an amazing place, in a park on the old site of Kaiser Shipyard No. 2.  As it says at the website, an estimated 18 million women worked in the defense industries during WWII.

And a part of that story is the history of the dykes–the women who dressed in overalls and worked in heavy industry–and discovered that there were other women who felt like that, too.  But that would take us rather far afield. 

The main part of the site is a sculpture that outlines the form of a ship under construction.  In the pavement that defines the keel of the ship are a number of incised stones that give the chronology of the war and of the war effort.  There are also sculptural element that outline the main architectural features of the ship.  They include plaques including photographs and other items of life during the war.  One of these is  a brief notice talking about hardships during the War.  One way of mobilizing Americans to contribute to the War effort was the slogan above.

I’m appalled that Bush’s response to the events of 9/11/2001 was to tell us to go shopping.  I fear that, with the current crisis in the financial sector, we’re in for another very bad patch–perhaps as bad as the [Great] Recession of the 1930s.

I find that I’m more and more interested in putting things up–this weekend I’m canning spaghetti sauce.  Somehow, it feels like things are going to get much worse.  So I share the saying above.  And really, it’s time for me to act like there are limits to what is possible.

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Too Much of a Good Thing? All six Bartok string quartets

September 19th, 2008

I started listening to the Bartok string quartets when I was in college.  I liked them.  I really liked them.  And, as I’ve gotten older, my appreciation for them continues to develop.

So I was thrilled when I saw that Music at Menlo was going to do a concert program of all six of them in one day–starting at 10 a.m. and going into the afternoon, with breaks.  After consulting briefly with my “inner accountant” I ordered a ticket.

And I decided to take this a bit more seriously than I sometimes do.  So, I bought a study score for the quartets, and listened through some of my recordings while reading the score.  The score of a quartet is written, not surprisingly, on four staves–compared with what I think of as the usual two–like piano music.  So I found it a bit trickier to track along four lines all at once while I was listening.  On the other hand, I sing in a chorus, and the four vocal parts are often written on separate lines.  Hmmm.  If I had noticed that earlier, it might have helped.  Or maybe it means that when I’m singing I’m not paying enough attention to the other parts.  That could be a problem.

But there is a lot more going on in Bartok than in most choral writing–or at least any of the compositions that I’ve ever sung.  It did add another layer of intellectual processing to the experience of listening.  Even after all these years, I find that there are still things that I’m learning about these pieces; adding the visual representation of the music allows me to pick out things that I hadn’t noticed before.

On the day of the concert, I made a big thermos of coffee, took my score and headed off to the concert venue.  I hadn’t been before, so I left myself plenty of time.  Good thing; it took longer than I thought.  I settled in and the concert started.  The quartet [the Borromeo quartet] played the first two; then there was a brief break; then they played ##3 and 4.  Those were followed by a longer break for lunch.  The afternoon segment included the last two.  Each segment was roughly an hour and a half.

It was very reavealing to listen to them one after another.  It seemed that, with each new quartet, Bartok was asking himself to go farther into the music.  To develop more profound expression of what it all means.  Over lunch, I said to the people that I was sitting with that I hear the Bartok quartets as a kind of “even later Beethoven quartet”.  I hear them as pieces that come from a composer who has really internalized the late Beethoven quartets [some of the strangest music ever written] and then is looking for ways to go onward.  One of the things that I hear that ties them together in my mind is an almost architectural approach to the music.  That the composition must, first of all, fit together like a well-designed bridge.

I suppose that, of all of them, #5 is my favorite.  It’s full of the uneven rhythms of the Balkan dances that I’ve loved for a long time.  When it finished, I found that I had just run out of intellectual muscle.  I couldn’t muster the attention that #6 deserved.  But I was still delighted to have gone; and I’d do it again in a flash.  


Poll Traumatic Stress Disorder

September 18th, 2008

   My life [other than work] lately has been consumed by politics…or rather, obsessing about politics.  In a previous post, I recommended  And frankly, I still do.  The guys that run it are really trying to summarize the huge mass of data that is accumulating as the political calendar moves toward election day.

   But this isn’t just a statistical exercise for me.  I care deeply about this election.  It is, as Joe Biden says in his “fireside chat” with Hillary Clinton, the most important election that I’ve ever voted in.  Even more than Nixon vs. McGovern.  So, I’ve been caught in a loop of logging on to 538 in the morning, and then spending the rest of the day being either elated or depressed, based on their projections.

   As the folk at DailyKos say, if you’re feeling anxious about the polls, get your butt down to a campaign office and do some work.  Unfortunately, I haven’t made the time to do that.  So I obsess.

  But I’ve had an opportunity to remind myself that “statistics aren’t reality”.  A couple of my friends are dealing with a cancer diagnosis.  So I’ve had a chance to revisit a remarkable essay by Stephen Jay Gould called “The Median Isn’t the Message“.  In it, he talks about his own cancer diagnosis, and the scary news that he got from looking in the medical literature.  And he talks about recruiting his training as a scientist to understand the statistics, and comes to the conclusion that the news isn’t as bad as it seems.   It’s a wonderful essay; I’ll wait until you come back.

  On the way by, he reminds us that the unavoidable part of life is variability–and that summary statistics dismiss that variation as “error”.  So, any particular poll isn’t “reality”.  It’s a poll.  And really, the only one that counts is the one that will happen on November 4.

   I’m going to try not to obsess quite so much.  And to recognize that there are ups and downs; but one thing is to say that it is all part of the process.  It won’t be a simple ticker-tape parade; there is a lot to be done.  So, let me roll up my sleeves and get to work.


To Thy Happy Children of the Future Those of the Past Send Greetings

July 24th, 2008

Jeremy and I were visiting the US Midwest recently, and one of our stops was Champaign-Urbana, Illinois–home of the University of Illinois, where I was in graduate school.  At the entrance to the school is one of my favorite statues, Alma Mater by Lorado Taft [The link is wikipedia].  It was a commission from the Class of 1927 (? I think) and the inscription on the base is the title of this post.  It strikes me that this inscription is the hope of what education is really all about.  The first picture on the Wikipedia link is the statue. [And here’s a picture that Jeremy took:]

Alma Mater

I went mostly to visit friends from my school days.  But, not surprisingly, they had lives that they were busy leading.  They provided a guide to art at the Univerisity of Illinois.  Jeremy and I worked our way around the campus, seeking out pictures and sculptures located in out-of-the-way corners of the campus.

I think our favorite discovery was a picture in the reception area of the President’s Office: We the People: The Land-Grant College Act Heritage, painted by Billy Morrow Jackson in 1987.  [The link is the page from the art guide, with a black & white version of the painting.]  The color image is much more interesting.  I’ll try to add one, if I can.

We ended our art tour of the campus at the Krannert Art Museum, the main art museum on campus.  There were a number of high points–there were some of the prints from the Carceri d’Inventiones [Imaginary Prisons–or Prisons of the Imagination, as you translate] by Piranesi.  These prints played an interesting part in the series Inspired by Bach from Yo-Yo Ma.  In the series, he worked with artists in different disciplines to create realizations of the Bach cello suites in their medium.  Some of them are much better than others, but they’re all interesting [and available on DVD].  In one of them, some acoustic engineers manipulate the sound from Yo-Yo Ma to place him sonically into these environments created visually by Piranesi.

Another amazing piece was another sculpture by Lorado Taft.  It’s called, I think, Les Aveugles [the Blind–with a Flickr link].  It’s based on a Nineteenth Century one-act play by Maeterlinck, describing a group of blind people that were marooned on an island.  At some moment, they realize that a baby born to the group can see, and that encapsulates hope for the future.  The sculpture captures the moment when an older woman is holding the baby up to the sun–and it’s clear both that the baby can see and that the rest of the group cannot.  In many ways, the group reminds me of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais–a large sculptural group, each an individual, united by their situation.

It was wonderful to discover a new side to a place that I spent such a long time, and that I have so many good memories of. 

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An Expedition to the Midwest (I)

July 22nd, 2008

Jeremy and I spend about two weeks in the Midwest.  The main purpose was our annual trip to the convention of the  IAGSDC [the International Association of Gay Square Dance Clubs], held this year in Cleveland.  Jeremy and I met at the convention in Portland ten years ago, so this is an easy way for me to remember our anniversary.  About one thousand people usually show up, and we have a great time dancing–and visiting.  At this point, I probably spend more time visiting with friends than I do actually dancing.

Though, as one of these friends says, these are friendships that are “a mile wide and an inch deep”.  We see each other once a year, and in between usually don’t keep in touch.  That’s not to say that it isn’t a real pleasure to run into folk.  Partly, there is also the problem of being slightly distracted by yet another person walking by that I want to say hi to.  And, somehow, I seem to feel that if I don’t take some time right now, I won’t have another chance.

There’s always a big banquet, and that’s where Jeremy and I met, so I’m glad to reminisce.  At the conventions that I went to before Portland, seating at the banquet was always a scramble–the doors were kept closed during the set-up, then at a certain moment, everyone was admitted, and people wandered around trying to figure out where to sit, and with whom.  It was a zoo–and I wasn’t a huge fan–to say the least.  So, when I arrived at Portland, I found that the organizers had put up a map of the hall, and allowed people to make “advance reservations” at half the tables.  I said to myself, what a great idea–and I signed up for one of the tables as the first of twelve.  Shortly thereafter, a friend came along and signed up, thinking–I’ll sit here.  Then his ex signed up, with his “entourage”–so the table was full.  So Jeremy was a “friend of a friend of a friend”.  We were sitting too far from each other for easy conversation; but at desert, people tend to table-hop to visit other friends, and we took the opportunity to get acquainted.  Our connection took off from there.

But back to the present.  We stayed at the Renaissance Hotel in the City Square district–not too far from Civic Center.  I think that we were both surprised at how much life there was in the evening–there were quite a few clubs with live music.

One thing that we had to get used to was the fact that midwestern portions at restaurants are, shall we say, generous.  In fact, one evening three of us went out and shared what was “officially” a dinner for two–it was plenty for all three of us.

There are a number of hotels clustered around a shopping mall that includes a “food court”.  Astoundingly, the food was both good and cheap.  And fresh–there were a number of establishments that prepared food to order.

But I most wanted to mention an amazing water feature.  In a long oval, there were between ten and twenty jets.  Each one generated an absolutely smooth column of water that arced back into the pool–almost a parabola of plexiglass.  There was also a sound system playing various selections, some classical, some country, some pop.  And, in an unpredicatable but seemingly choreographed way, a jet would suddenly stop, and the column of water seemed to leap from the jet into the pool.  It was a truly remarkable visual effect.  Jeremy and I made a point of visiting most days–besides, it was on the way to coffee.

Since we were “in the neighborhood” we also stopped in Bloomington, Indiana and Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.  More about them next time.  On top of everything else, it got Jeremy to two new states–Ohio and Indiana.

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On marine aquaria

July 22nd, 2008

When I was a youth, I had a fresh-water aquarium.  It was a certain amount of trouble, but not too much.  The fish were attractive, and some of them managed to reproduce, which was a pleasant surprise.  The main reason that it was a tolerable hobby for a young person is that there are plenty of fresh-water plants that can grow, and even take root.  This means that the whole issue of the various interlocking cycles of nutrients–but primarily nitrogen–can stay in pretty good balance.  The basic idea is to keep the fish and the plants in balance–and then be sure to take care of routine maintenance.

At that time, I believed that marine aquaria were harder, much harder.  Partly, most marine organisms have a narrower tolerance for changes in the environment; and partly, it’s harder to establish appropriate plant life to deal with the excreted nitrogen.

During my recent travels, I spent some time with friends who have marine aquaria [not just one, but three!].  I spent lots of time watching.  One of my prejudices is that the marine life other than fish doesn’t get around much.  Wrong!  One tank contains the “exiles”–creatures that are not good company.  Besides the catfish, which seem to be able to eat anything smaller than them, there was a sea urchin.  Silly me, I thought that sea urchins sat in one spot.  Not a chance–every time I passed by, Spike [the sea urchin] was in a different spot in the tank–and I suspect that if I had hung out for a while I could actually have seen him moving. 

In talking to the owners, I found that the difficulties of maintaining a marine aquarium are more challenging than I had imagined.  The nitrogen cycle is crucial, of course, but the limited range of tolerance of the life can mean that you can wake up and everything is dead.  Ugh.  One factor can be the complicated way in which the processing changes with the day/night cycle.  In this case, they finally found a way to cycle the water from the tank into another holding area that is full of algae.  There, the light is on at night, when it’s dark in the main tank–so the algae are processing the nitrogen while the fish sleep.  And, ultimately, one way to remove nitrogen from the tank is to scoop up a handful of algae an get rid of it.

On top of the biochemistry, there is also sociology–it turns out that lots of the creatures that one might want to have do not “play well with others”.  In some cases, they take it to the extreme of eating them–that’s why Spike ended up in the exile tank.  In my fresh-water aquarium, I was dealing with only fish and plants–and maybe a snail or two–it was easy enough to get good advice about what fish did well in a “community tank”.   But in a marine tank, we might want a whole variety of phyla–corals, starfish and sea urchins, molluscs, crustaceans–in addition to fish.  And even the fish can be quite aggressive toward one another.  There was a guide to the various creatures that pointed out these problems; oh, and one other–some marine creatures can be fatal to humans. [The guide gives the example of the blue-ringed octopus, for which there is no anti-venin available.  They do say not to try to keep one; but I imagine that there are people crazy enough to think that they can manage it.]

Seeing the care that’s necessary in the microcosm got me thinking again about the extent to which the ocean out there needs me to be more careful–and needs me to encourage my government not to underestimate the ways in which humans can disrupt an ecosystem that we can’t do without. 

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A quick apology

July 21st, 2008

To my regular reader–if any–I’m sorry that I let you down.  Partly, I was away, and I found it remarkably difficult to blog from out of town.  At this point, since I don’t have a laptop of my own to connect via WiFi, it turned into an expedition to find somewhere just to print boarding passes for flights.

The other thing that has taken me away from writing myself is getting lost in the blogosphere.  There is waaaay too much interesting stuff out there.

For the nerds among you, I cannot recommend too highly the site [see the blogroll].  The guys who run it are major statistics geeks; and their goal is to try to predict–as accurately as possible and with minimal bias–the results of the election in November.  Or rather, I should say elections, since they have recently added predictions for the Senate races.  I’m really impressed with their dedication, their transparency, their methodology, and their general geekiness [that’s meant for a compliment]. 

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Shakespeare’s Pericles: Prince of Tyre

June 18th, 2008

Last night I saw Pericles for the second time.  Both of the productions were very fine, and very different from one another.  So…why does Pericles have such a mediocre reputation?  [On the other hand, it’s apparently always been popular with audiences.  I guess I’m not “sophisticated” enough to know not to enjoy it.]

In the chapter of his Lectures on Shakespeare about Pericles and Cymbeline, W.H. Auden takes a few moments to discuss the whole idea of “late work” by great artists.  He explicitly mentions the late quartets of Beethoven, describing the ways in which the choice of materials and expressive modalities comes from the artist trying to work out for himself, and not necessarily for any audience at all, particular artistic issues.  Auden also talks about these romances [along with Winter’s Tale and The Tempest] of Shakespeare as being “late works” in this sense.

Given the complexity of the plot, it’s a good thing that Shakespeare included a narrator to remind us of what’s going on where, with whom.  Both of the productions actually included maps in the program, with–as Arlo Guthrie would say–“lines and arrows” showing where Pericles, his wife Thaisa, and their daughter Marina end up going, after being separated because of a storm at sea.

The production that I saw some years ago in Vancouver at Bard on the Beach [this season’s program] set the play as a Victorian traveling theater troupe–with Gower, the narrator, in a frock coat and top hat, and musicians to provide somewhat Victorian sounding songs. 

Last night, at Cal Shakes, the setting was much more “oriental”.  The stage was covered with oriental rugs, and there were low tables and pillows that could be moved around for “set”.  Gower was imagined as an African storyteller.  The music was also more oriental–influenced by the music of India and the eastern Mediterranean.  One amusing touch was to have Antiochus–an evil king who is commiting incest with his daughter–enter accompanied by four actors padding in on all fours with tiger face masks.

The whole play was performed by a cast of about eight, parceling out about forty roles–with even the actors playing Pericles, Thaisa and Marina being multiply cast.

And then it all comes down to the scenes where the family is reunited.  First, Pericles discovers that is daughter is not dead, but alive, and standing in front of him.  And then, that his wife had not died in childbirth, but had been living all these years as a priestess of Diana at Ephesus.

Maybe it’s not as poetic as The Tempest, but both times I’ve seen it, I’ve ended the performance with tears running down my cheeks.  Perhaps the resistance to this play is that it is a genuine tragicomedy.  There are so many way that things could work out badly–the pre-performance lecturer commented on the similarities between Pericles and King Lear in the relation of fathers and daughters–but they don’t.  Call it fate; call it grace; call it pure luck; or call it the reward of virtue; it still has tremendous power to move me.

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