Friday, May 28, 2010

Going downtown

We collected our allowance and walked downtown. Past the stone house that was the oldest house in town - the old land office. Past the house where my old teacher lived. All the way to our church - perhaps we'd make a quick detour and go up the side street where the playground was. That playground had the most unusual merry-go-round... instead of the usual wooden platform that spun a few inches off the ground, this one rested atop a five-foot high metal pole. There were chains attaching the platform to the top of the pole. If you were tall enough, you could spin the platform, then grab ahold and haul yourself up to the spinning ledge. Or more scary yet, you could hang from the chain as the thing spun like crazy. I was never tall enough to reach it, but watched in awe as the older kids dangerously careened around and around, feet kicking and voices hollering.

Then back to Main Street and over the bridge. The bridge had white concrete walls, over which you could peer down at the dam and the waterfall. Along the sidewalk, there were small holes in the wall, for drainage I suppose. I was afraid that I might slip through one of these holes. What would happen if you fell into that green water below? Especially if it was winter, when the bridge was particularly slippery. The dam was encrusted with snow and ice, and the creek was nearly solid. But even in mid-winter, you could hear the sound of water running below the icy surface, especially under the bridge.

The bridge safely crossed, we had arrived downtown. Shelby's jewelry store on the corner, and down from that, the Italian restaurant where you could get fried clams every Friday. The 5 and 10, with its large windows and funky smell of goldfish and hamsters in the back. In there, they sold outfits for Barbie and Tinkertoys and sleds as well as undergarments and tools. There was a counter where the town folks could enjoy coffee and gossip. The front of the store had large glass counters to peer into. I can see the collection of combs and hair decorations, and a rack of hairnets.

Next to the movie theater was the soda fountain place. A glorious place of high red-topped stools along a marble counter, with large phosphate dispensers that had huge handles. Large colorful bottles of syrup lined the back counter below the big mirrors.  Once you climbed up onto one of the stools, you could see your face reflected back to you, a bit faded or warped, but looking you directly into your eyes. There were booths in the dim store, with cracked red leather banquettes and crowds of teens giggling and sipping.

On to the main event! the Saturday matinee. Kids ran in and out of the lobby. Here we bought our ticket from the musty man in the threadbare suit. We pushed our way to the candy counter, if we were lucky enough to have an extra dime or two for Snoballs or Malted Milk candy. If not, we rushed into the auditorium and found empty seats, where we flopped down and tore off our coats and hats. The room was never dimmed until the main feature started. Cartoons and newsreels played non-stop. Sometimes a man dressed as a clown would come and make balloon animals, or chase kids around the aisles. If it was a holiday, there would be little presents of candy or penny-whistles or tops.

I remember counting down the days until Mary Poppins came to our town. I had a calendar and, with a red crayon, I made a big X each evening on the date that we had achieved. Several months went by before the big day finally arrived. I can't remember if I knew the story from having read it, or if I was hyped up from the advertising that they no doubt ran every Sunday night on the weekly Wonderful World of Disney tv show. The movie did not disappoint. I will never forget magical moment when Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke jumped into the chalk drawing on the sidewalk. I think it has given me a lifelong appreciation of magical realism and the permeability of seemingly concrete objects.

The seats were rough and cracked and the cushions were long since collapsed. When the seats were up, you could see the thick layer of gum that had been smashed there by generations of children. The gum was grayish pink and had a sickly smell. It was hard as a rock and on some seats, looked like lava, all pitted and encrusted with dirt.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Two Points for writing

Shall I continue this experiment, or leave it be with two points for writing just one day in the month of May? Two measly points - it doesn't seem like much... it seems connected with basketball, but actually any contest can be decided not only by a two point margin, but with one teeny tiny point. While in sports, the point difference is made by the effort and result of that effort by the players. In adjudicated contests, the point is given by the judges - that point could indicate the total of all the judges individual scores, or it could (I suppose) be added on as a flourish, to the competitor who truly seems to be the best of the group.

This could have been the case during the winter Olympics ice skating contest. Johnny Weir, the seemingly queer and definitely flamboyant, feather- and fur-wearing black sheep of the skating world, was up against the manly jet-black haired hetero champ, Evan Lysecek. (It's true that after the Games were over, Evan appeared on Dancing with the Stars, which is not exactly gay, but could be construed as such - despite his tough-guy attitude and Brill-Creemed hair.) Johnny was, by my judgment, the best by far - he may not have the exact angle of skate to ice needed by the rule book, but his grace and bravery and artistry, both in his movements and his costume, were off the charts. However, it's the rule book that rules. And Evan's muscular, fortified jumps took home the gold.

I'm sure I've written about this before, but what if singing competition were judged mechanically? What if the digitally recorded sound could be run through mechanical ears and measured for clarity of tone and perfect pitch? Each chord could be seen as it lined up or didn't, and overtone monitors could capture the wave lengths of each note as they passed through the microphones. In a perfect world, that would leave the human judges to act only as humans - to observe their own emotions as they listen to the music, to feel the hairs raise on their arms or wipe the sweat from their brows. The humans provide feedback about the poetry of the song, the beauty of the lyrics, the passion of the singers. When you watch a performance, you know it's good when you become the singer, you empathically become them as they take you up and down on the ride. You remember your own story, but you are prompted by them to do so. You travel along the notes to the deep part of a story that you know but yet do not know. You hear your story amplified and shared with a crowd. You have an emotion or two as a result. No machine can measure this.

If a machine could measure this, what kind of machine would it be? A computer with millions of blog entries and novels and every story of every kind. The words of the lyrics would be compared with those stories. The lyric words would not need to match, but share certain algorithms with the story words: shared meaning, matching emotional tags. Perhaps "moon" in a lyric would match up with "midnight"; "love"; "space"; maybe even "vampire". In this way you could count how many lyrical words or phrases matched the most stories in the database. This takes care of resonance of theme and sharing of the common thread of the song. But to measure the emotional response we might have to have machines attached to human receptors - our judging panel now is wearing heart monitors and skin patches with wires attached. Do the panel members' hearts beat together? Do the heartbeats all speed up at the same time? Do the brainwaves get in synch? In fact, which portion of the brain is most stimulated by this song? Moving further into science fiction and the possible future, could we manufacture a body part in a laboratory that could capture the feel of music? They are just now starting to grow human organs in a lab. Which organ is this one? A heart, a brain, a skin, an eye, a soul, a memory, a face, love?

It looks like I may achieve my two points, after all. The grand total will be four - two points gained per day of writing. This system must have been designed by a competitive type person - and what reward will there be for attaining these points?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

There seems to be a problem

There seems to be a problem. It's a disconnect. Lyrics will not register in my brain. Notes, yes. Melodies, sometimes. Accompaniment, yes. Feelings swirl amid the notes and ricochet off the time signature and bounce against the treble clef sign. The words, however, those language elements, the elements that are so dear to my heart, will not stay stuck. I can look at printed lyrics and think, I have never sung this song... even if I know for a fact that I have once sung it every day for a year or more.

I hear a song on the radio. I enjoy it. I hear it again. I learn the ins and outs. I recognize the singer's voice. I hum along in harmony. I request it on the station. I purchase the cd or download the song to my ipod. The following week, we hear it together. She sings along with the singer, knowing each word. I realize that I have never, ever, thought about the words to the song, despite my obsession with it. I am amazed to hear that the topic is thus-and-so.

The song that sounds like a happy sunlit day turns out to be an ironic tale of love gone wrong. The bouncy melody that brings to mind a trip on a train in a foreign country is instead, in the stark lyrics, a nyah-nyah romp of "I told you so". Why are so many songs about loss? I'm thinking that the pop music formula must be this: make it sound one way and make it read the opposite.

On the flip side of this problem is that lyrics I learned by reading never leave my memory. We used to get the lyrics delivered to us, in a largish font size, on the liners and insides and backs of long-playing album covers. I would sit by the stereo, pouring over each word as the songs played repeatedly. Using that method, the lyrics stuck. In fact, I can picture Joni Mitchell's songs in the exact typeface that was used, and with the poetic line breaks intact. This memory must be at least 40 years old.

But when I need to learn a new song that I want to sing, the fastest way is to listen to a recording over and over. This solidifies the notes. I can listen to a recording a number of times without looking at the sheet music, and the next morning, I will awake with the song running through my head. Then I can open my mouth and sing the notes. The words however, are not necessarily there. They will follow later, delinquent and stubborn, until I read the written text enough times.

What parts of my brain are being accessed here? They say that lyrics learned will not vanish despite damage to the part of the brain that controls language. Does that same part of the brain control note memorization? Seems possible but doesn't feel the same.

In other areas of my comprehension of the world around me, my eyes do not play such a vital part. I am sure that, because I came into the world with my eyesight impaired, I never completely relied upon it to bring me the important news of perception. I rely upon my ears and my ESP, for lack of a better term, to recognize a person. I know their voice, I know their essential quality of BEING. I pick up their vibe. I scent their odor. I have been known to completely reject someone based on the pitch of their voice or the terrified smell of their sweat.

We visited a bakery every day for a year or so. The regular man behind the counter was jocular and friendly, serving us muffins and coffee. The other worker in the shop was equally young, brown-haired and slouchy, but was not always there. He would come by to clear the tables and had a jangly, plate-crashing attitude. One day, he took over at the counter and for the days that followed, made our visits there just a little less pleasant. I commented to my partner that I wished the other guy would come back. What followed was a complete shock to me - she insisted that there was only one guy that worked in the bakery. The same guy sometimes was pleasant, sometimes wasn't.. but there was only one guy. Her theory was that this one guy's vibe varied so that I distrusted the evidence that his hair and clothes were the same.

We continued to argue this point until I became convinced that my ESP had failed me. One day we came in for our muffins, and behind the counter stood TWO guys. They looked like brothers. She had to admit that I had been right all along - that the personality difference made them, to me, as different as two guys could be.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


These days, if I am actually mailing a letter through the post, I make an educated guess about the weight of it and stick an extra stamp on or two for good measure. After all, stamps cost less than a dollar each .. I use the kind that never expire, so I'm not even sure how much they cost individually any more. I buy them at the ATM on sheets the size of twenty dollar bills.

But in my youth, which after all was quite a while ago but not so long ago as all that, it was ever so important that one never put on even an extra penny's worth of postage. We had postage scales at home, or always conferred with the grumpy people at the post office. If you accidentally sent a letter that lacked a penny or two in postage, the letter would arrive "C.O.D." and the mailman would ask the recipient to pay up. There was actually a form for this. I remember taping pennies to the form and handing to the carrier.We cared about pennies! Waste not, want not!

Sending a letter overseas could not have been that expensive. But maybe it was? because we always took great care to avoid using heavy paper or regular envelopes when sending a note abroad. Aerogrammes, as thin as toilet paper and nearly transparent, were single sheets that could be folded up carefully and glued around the edges, making an envelope obsolete.If the aerogramme got wet or if you tried to open it with oily fingers, most of the writing could be destroyed. It was also hard to open one without ripping away parts of sentences.