Giving Thanks for Beauty and Snow
Two days before Thanksgiving, and Winter is officially here in my back yard up by the Flathead. I could have waited until closer to Christmas for the snow to get serious enough to shovel, but, alas, that is not up tom me. Yesterday, though, the snow was not yet that heavy, but I still decided to shovel the porch and driveway – for the first time this Season. I figured that it would be wise to get the inch of snow out of the way, so that when the sun came out (which it did), the snow wouldn’t begin to melt and then freeze. The weather lady predicted light rain and snow showers (Xander calls this combination shrain), so I thought caution would be the best part of valor. I had a second thought: why not get my body to remember what it’s like to shovel snow, so I would be better prepared.
This morning at 3:30, there were better than four inches of snow on the deck and driveway. I was not about to shovel it all at that hour, and Di had to be at work by 4, but I did shovel off the porch. The snow was light and fluffy, making the job easier. I was particularly glad that I had gotten the more dense, half melted snow off the porch the day before, so I was not playing slip and slide, and so the work took very little time. I then drove Di to work as I am slightly more experienced driving in snow and as I would not have been able to rest well if she were on her own and as we like – crazy kids that we are – spending time in each other’s company even at 4 am. So here I sit, with my computer, at Glacier Perks telling you all this on the day before Thanksgiving.
I wanted to share a small bit I wrote in response to a question posted on the Linkedin Poets and Writers forum, to which I belong. The question was: “How would you describe beauty? It seems on the surface such an easy question, but I realized it’s like compiling a top ten list, very subjective and likely to be different for each person answering, even changing within that person depending on the hour. I wrote:
“Great question! My first thought comes from Danish composer Carl Nielsen, who said (I'm paraphrasing): Beauty can be many things to many people. If I take a hammer and strike a rock so hard that sparks fly, to me, that is beautiful.
“Personally, I wake up each day and look out my window into my back yard. Sometimes it's snowing. Sometimes the sun is shining and the light filters through the trees in wondrous patterns. Sometimes there are wild turkeys or white tailed deer looking for morsels on my lawn. Sometimes 'Jumpy the Squirrel" squawks at us, or a woodpecker drills a tree nearby. Sometimes a friend comes over for coffee and a cookie. Sometimes a poem begins in my head and finds its way scratched onto a piece of paper, later to be transcribed and edited onto my computer. Sometimes music plays in the background, sometimes silence. My bride of forty years shares it all with me, and it's all good, and it's all beautiful, and it’s not even noon yet.”
So this is my way of expressing thanks for every joy in my life. I am thankful for the sorrows in as much as they help me appreciate what I have. I am fearful of the future, but thankful for the possibilities and always, always, thankful for the work. And all of you.
51 years ago today, the world changed forever. This weekend, it seems America’s quantum shift will be complete. On November 22, 1963, our President, John F. Kennedy, was murdered. I was 13 – I remember everything about that Friday and the weekend that followed as if it had happened to me. of course, it had – as it happened to every citizen of the country, whether they actually liked JFK or not. My generation found its innocence trampled in the dust of the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald took aim and fired the lethal shots. When the Vietnam War escalated, it only proved our disillusionment was appropriately placed. Among very bad days, November 22, 1963, ranks as the worst in my own lifetime.
But when I look around today, 51 years later, the changes that evolved throughout those years have taken on their own peculiar bend. You see it readily in what has happened to Christmas: the shopping season grows longer and more intense every year. This year Black Friday starts on the Monday before in many places, intensifying on Wednesday. Some malls, as I understand it, are actually going to penalize stores if they do not open on Thanksgiving Day. All this so Americans can fill their shopping carts, drain their bank accounts, and exceed their credit limits. We are conditioned to buy, buy and buy some more.
The reason for the season tells us to spread love among those we treasure, and gifts are a way of showing that love. But in America, the giving has become extreme (I am guilty of this myself, continually wanting to get more, more, more – I am, after all, a well conditioned citizen). Schmaltzy Christmas movies try their best to remind us that what matters is each other, and not what we give each other, but it is hard to knock tradition. Still, the tradition of consumerism has plenty of detractors, which I will try to remember as I watch my family members unwrap their assorted gifts. It is better to give than receive, yes, but when I remember that phrase I remind myself of those who gave their everything – like the one whose birthday we are about to celebrate, and the one who died 51 years ago. They did not die so we could shop, but Capitalist America seems to think so.
A remarkable chain of events has reinforced my opinion that I can write. Last Sunday, Diane and I attended a concert with our friend Joop, of the Glacier Symphony. I blogged about the cocert on Monday with a deservedly glowing review. I had two aims in this: to pay tribute to what I honestly considered a marvelous performance from top to bottom; and to show my support for our local symphony. My friend Joop called me on Tuesday and strongly suggested that I adapt the material for a proper review, and submit it to the local newspaper, The Daily Inter Lake. I knew it would be an unsolicited, cold offering, but I liked the idea and decided to give it a go. I revised the review Tuesday evening and emailed it to the managing editor, Frank Miele, hopeful but expecting nothing to come of it. Of course, the paper had just run a feature on me for my poetry, so that familiarity may have helped. Frank emailed me Wednesday, saying he does not usually do reviews, but he liked mine, and rearranged things to get it in the Weekend Section, which came out Thursday. With my own byline! I have been on the fast track before, writing papers for a school teacher-imposed deadline (with a touch of procrastination pushing the envelope). But I have never been fast-tracked before, where from concert to blog to concept to publication, the process took only four days. For a writer, that’s the whirlwind.
Yesterday afternoon our friend Joop took Diane and myself to another concert by the local Glacier Symphony Orchestra. As I have stated in the past, it has been a surprise and a delight to find a full fledged symphonic orchestra in a town of 20,000 and a county with less than 90,000 residents. Then to find that they were a quality organization with a brilliant conductor who is passionate about the music and about his performers, and a group of musicians committed to doing their best, compounded our delight. We have head wonderful music performed with passion and professionalism, including Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Those are concert hall war horses that demand strong performance, as their notes are familiar and expected. But John Zoltek likes a challenge. His concerts also provide new music or unfamiliar music whenever possible. It is a delicate balance when you have a small audience and a small budget, but Glacier Symphony has pulled off some magnificent experiences.
Yesterday, however, Zoltek and company outdid themselves. The result was the best live performance I have ever had the fortune to witness, of any kind anywhere. I was there for the West Coast premiere of William Russo’s Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra with the Korky Siegel Band and San Francisco Symphony, Segei Ozawa conducting: a truly unique experience that brought the house down. Yesterday was even better than that.
They began with John Williams’ March from Superman. All season they will feature the orchestral arrangements to Williams’ movie scores. It made a rousing introduction, but gave no indication of what was to follow. Then pianist Robert Plano sat at the keyboard to perform Johannes Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2. This concerto is one of the m ost demanding for a pianist in the entire repertoire, and one equally demanding of the audience. It is also long, with an uncharacteristic four movement format. To say that Plano and the Symphony were perfect is to say that the concert was breathtakingly exciting from first note to last. Almost as enjoyable as the music itself was watching Plano’s obvious enjoyment at playing it. We gave the performers the response due them, and Plano offered a brief and robust encore that seemed to move at the speed of light.
After the intermission, the orchestra performed the Symphony No. 1 by Vasily Kalinnikov. Kalinnikov is a relatively unknown Russian composer, encouraged by both Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. But Kalinnikov contracted tuberculosis while studying and supporting himself as a student, and was destined to die before his 35th birthday. As a result, his music has been ignored outside of Russia itself. When Maestro Zoltek told the audience, this might me the Montana premiere of this work, he was not joking. Yet his own delight in being able to perform this piece was palpable: he told us the work was amazingly polished yet playful, and demanded the full resources of the orchestra. He was not wrong – and Glacier Symphony nailed it. The music skipped and danced and rejoiced. The performance was so animated that, when they had finished the scherzo and before they began the finale, Zoltek exclaimed to us all, “Wow!”
I had never heard a conductor make such an utterance during a performance. And yet, there was still one movement to go. The late Romantic symphony by the doomed yet cheerful composer made its mark on us all. For me, it was particularly satisfying to see and hear the music of an obscure composer championed. I have spent my life calling attention to the undeservedly unknown, partly because I am unknown myself – and when a fine symphony orchestra does the same, I feel myself a kindred spirit to them, even if the best I can do is appreciate the effort. Yesterday, that effort surpassed anything they had ever done before to my sxperience, and I sit here, grateful, hoping they managed to record their work so I might enjoy it again, and again.
Yesterday evening Diane and I caught ourselves watching a Hallmark Channel original Christmas movie, one of those schmaltzy, predictable holiday fares that used to be confined to the 25 days before Christmas but now begin on All Saints Day. We did not want to watch anything with weight or that was overly dramatic or requiring a great deal of thought. This was perfect.
This particular genre of film has many detractors, myself included until recently. I have modified my opinion not because I think this is great motion picture fare, but for other reasons. These films seem to be where solid character actors go to die. They also provide a chance for unknown but attractive actors and actresses to cut their teeth (although one wonders about listing one on an actor’s resume). Then there are the director, writer, producers, cameramen, grips and crew to consider. In other words, these films provide a good deal of work for a good many people. Dean Cain has stayed alive doing them, and he is not alone. And, if the script is decent, with clever dialogue and reasonably good direction, these films can be a guilty pleasure, and I am no longer ashamed to say so. If films are meant to entertain, these do try.
This particular film was called One Starry Christmas. If it had been called Starry Starry Christmas instead, it might have been about Vincent van Gogh’s Christmas in Arles. But no one, to my knowledge, has ever told a Christmas story with Vincent as the protagonist. Mmmm. Maybe I should. File for future reference, Idea #529.
This film concerns – spoiler alert! – a cowboy who rescues an astronomer and wins her affections from away from her self-centered lawyer boyfriend. Suspense: none. Predictability: total. But the journey was mind-divertingly enjoyable, the storytelling uncomplicated, and the acting sincere. Not one member of the cast was familiar to me, but I liked the people I was supposed to like and I-Snidley Whiplash booed the one I was supposed to boo. Plus, the story proved that a twang doesn’t guarantee simplicity or stupidity, while holding a law degree doesn’t guarantee complexity or intelligence. As for the female lead with the biggest smile I’ve seen in awhile: being a pretty, desirable, up and coming astronomer – priceless.
I noticed another element to the broadcast: the ads. They were geared toward someone on or approaching Medicare, with ad after ad addressing Medicare supplement plans. Other ads dealt with being a grandparent, or, most blatantly, selling a toy for smaller kids specifically to us, replete with the young baggers saying, “Thank you, Grandma,” or “Thanks, Grandpa.” I have found my demographic at last!
There are, however, a set of Christmas movies that rise above the schmaltz. We all know which ones they are (among others): Love, Actually; It’s a Wonderful Life; The Bishop’s Wife; Elf; and Die Hard. After all, nothing says Christmas better than a full grown human sitting on a tiny elf’s lap, or Alan Rickman blowing the top off a building in LA. Now, that’s distracting.
I apologize in advance for returning to the world of politics. I cannot seem to help myself – I guess that comes from being what one calls “involved.” I say that yet always remind myself that no one is listening, at least not outside the small choir to which I belong. That does not mean I should be quiet; on the contrary, I need to yell louder in order to be heard. And if I reach one person and only one, I will have done my job.
The fact is, I feel great frustration, not with anyone or anything specific but in general. I have come to a disturbing realization. My entire life has been spent trying to find new ways to express the futility of war with language that actually reaches you. Over and over again, the words tumble out, like a crazy man locked in his own Ground Hog Day. But now I realize I am really screaming about the futility of peace. and, crazy or not, heard or not, it’s my job.
I was born in Holland in 1950. My parents immigrated to the US when I was two. I have many close friends and family on both continents. My wife Diane and I have been happily married since 1974. I have four children and one grandchild (two more are on the way). I love writing and sharing what I wrote most of all..