Sunday, January 26, 2014

Another Perspective on Stopping to Smell the Roses (or to Listen to the Violin)

In January 2007, the Washington Post set up an experiment to see if people take the time to pause and appreciate the beauty that they stumble upon unexpectedly during the course of their everyday lives. The Post enlisted world-famous violinist Joshua Bell, who parked himself in a metro station in Washington, DC during rush hour and played six Bach pieces. They were some of the most complex musical pieces ever written. His free metro performance lasted 40 minutes. Just two days prior to his subway performance, Bell played to a sold-out theater in Boston (cost of a seat averaged $100). The violin on which he played in the subway was worth $3.5 million. Passers-by tipped him a total of $59 during the course of the 40 minutes of music.

The Post filmed Bell’s subway performance and you can find it online if you are curious. Those who set up the experiment wanted to see if anyone would stop to listen to this exquisite musical performance, if anyone would recognize the superb beauty in the moment and take advantage of it. No one paused to listen for the entire performance. Quite a few children who wanted to stop were hurried away by their parents. Over 1,000 people passed Bell as he played. Only six of them stopped for more than a minute to listen. One woman recognized him and she left $20 of the $59.

After the event, when the Post ran an article about it, those who set up the performance described it as “a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people.” They claimed they sought to answer the questions:  “In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?” After running the experiment, those who set it up concluded that if we don’t take a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the best music ever written, then there are certainly many other things of beauty that we encounter but which pass us by. True dat.

I am absolutely certain that I would not have stopped for 40 minutes to hear him play if I had been one of the 1,000 people. If I needed to be somewhere, if I was in DC on business, I would probably not have paused at all. If I was in DC on vacation, I would like to think that I would have stopped to listen for a while. But 40 minutes? No way. The reality, for me and most other people, is that our lives are mapped out and scheduled. We schedule time to listen to music, we make it a special event. We schedule time to go to an art museum or the theater or to walk in the woods. We listen to music in the car or during a night out dancing or in bed at night. Just because we don’t stop in a subway to listen to a brilliant violinist doesn’t mean that we fail to appreciate the beauty that graces our lives.

Perhaps it’s spontaneity that we lack. Or a more flexible sense of time. We are harnessed to a rigid system of measuring time by the clock. I have often wondered how life flowed before watches were invented. But I live in the now. So be real, Washington Post experimenters:  Bell played during the early morning rush hour. People were on their way to work. How many employers or bosses would be understanding if I was 40 minutes late to work because I had stopped to hear an impromptu violin performance by Joshua Bell? I must remember that excuse for a tardy arrival.

I get the point of the experiment, I really do, and it does remind me to remain open to life, to allow myself to pause for the magic that sometimes happens, to make time for unexpected beauty that may reveal itself, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. But I would like to see less judgment and more sympathy for the hurried harried workers who live in a world that does not give one permission to take time for unscheduled beautiful music.

In the metro.

In the concert hall.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


Living close to the land like I do, I can’t bear this lack of rain. This unprecedented, frightening, woeful lack of rain that has gripped Cali. Here on the North Coast, the wells are beginning to run dry. The lakes and reservoirs are disappearing. We ended 2013 with about ¼ of the usual amount of rainfall for this time of year. The Catholic bishops of Sacramento have called for people of all faiths to pray for rain. A formal call was not necessary:  people are holding spontaneous rain chants, prayer circles for rain, and rain dances. There has been less rainfall in Cali this winter than any winter since weather recordkeeping began. The snow pack in the Sierra Nevadas is 17% of the normal measure for this time of year. The bears at Mammoth Lakes are coming out of hibernation already (three months early), and man will they be hungry when they discover no food out there. The Coho and Chinook salmon are trapped in the Russian River, cut off from access to major waterways, stuck in the small streams where they have gone to spawn. Willits, just to the north of Ukiah, has established a mandated limit of 150 gallons per household per day because the city’s reservoirs contain only enough water to last for three months. But the meteorologists predict little or no rain until at least March. Whoa.

The hills, usually green this time of year, are dead gray. I often walk behind Lake Mendocino and it has been surreal watching it vanish. Maybe about 25% of the lake is left right now. People are able to walk across much of the bottom of the lake; but we wish we couldn’t. (Akili keeps begging for photographs of Lake Mendo because he can’t wrap his head around the idea of it emptying out like this.) There is a possibility that Lake Mendo could dry up entirely by mid-summer. This lake supplies drinking water to many surrounding communities. Obviously I am not planning a veggie garden for the coming summer. What do we do when the water runs dry?

I have heard the drought blamed on a high pressure system off the coast, which is preventing sweeping winter storms over the Pacific from making landfall, but the real cause, the one no one will speak about, is climate change. Can we actually convince ourselves that this unprecedented lack of rainfall is not the new shape of life as we know it?

Perhaps I’m taking the drought too personally. Today I find myself wondering about the fact that this drought coincides with the year that I have chosen to take a break from my creative writing projects. From one perspective, I’m on sabbatical. People do that from time to time; they give it a rest. But from another perspective, I’m living a year of creative drought. Come a little deeper into this Twilight Zone with me, my friends. The name of the novel I set aside for my sabbatical year is Guardians of Water. Seriously. It’s an ecological post-apocalyptic sci-fi romance. It would have been visionary if I had completed it soon after I started making notes for it in 2005. The way things have gone in the world has detracted from the scope of the visionary aspect since the imagined future I invented for the book is beginning to unfold for real in some respects. Water is the new gold. The water theme is only one piece of the larger novel, but this drought has me pondering the wisdom of pausing in my work on Guardians of Water to complete this nutrition certification program at this point in time.

Maybe it’s just that I’m feeling particularly drought-stricken today both literally and figuratively. Although I am kept busy with things I enjoy (I love my nutrition studies), I miss writing fiction. And I feel ill for the want of rain. Am I picking up a vibe from the thirsty trees and scorched greenly growing things now dry and gray? Maybe I need find a way to make time to resume work on Guardians of Water. Especially so if this drought is the new normal. In that case, I need to work on my novel to exorcise my fears for the future. Oh please let it rain. Quench my thirst. 

Snow pack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 2013 compared to 2014. Yikes.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Family Whispers from the Past

My baby brother, Dan, and his family traveled to Israel over the winter break. They spent time with Wachspress relatives living there, some of whom Dan had not seen in over 40 years and some of whom are in the younger generation (so he has never met them). One of our relatives was a military leader during the Six-Day War and he was among those who retook the Temple Mount. Dan sent me a scan of a page out of a history book that relates a story about our cousin, depicting him running to rescue wounded soldiers with his pipe clenched (and smoking) in his teeth.

Upon Dan’s return, he sent a family photo of the group to me and I forwarded it to some of my cousins with whom Dan is not in touch. The web of reconnection has taken off and blossomed and the latest development is that this morning I found a link to my brother’s photos of his Bar-Mitzvah in 1972 in my in-box. So here I sit, with a million things on my plate to accomplish this weekend, and I keep thumbing through these photos with heaps of images of my parents’ contemporaries in their prime. I could spend several hours pulling down pictures of the older generation and sending them to my peers. Not just my cousins, but friends and acquaintances with whom I remain in touch who would get a smile from seeing these photos of their parents and the older generation. Our ancestors.

In September I visited my aunt and uncle in the senior community where they live near Chicago. My uncle (now 90) is a techno-geek and an accomplished photographer. During the week that I visited him, he was in the process of digitizing “home movies” he had taken in the early 1950s. He fetched his laptop and played film footage for me of my grandparents (and my paternal great-grandparents). This was truly like seeing ghosts. In one of the films, my mother and father and my mother’s parents sat around a table outdoors with a number of friends and relatives eating a summer dinner. My grandmother (so like me) loved to entertain and to cook a beautiful meal for friends and family. I saw her on film at the head of the table with my grandfather, at that time much younger than I am now, and before any of her grandchildren were born. I saw her in her prime, stunningly beautiful even in an offhand setting. So happy. My grandfather laughing, sitting beside her. I could have watched that film a million times. My parents, so young, early 20s, my mother younger than any of my children are now, sitting at the table. Just starting out in life. I recognize that house and the yard and the people at the table. A long-ago time. Captured.

My uncle also showed me a home movie of my father’s family at a dinner party, a family gathering after a Bar-Mitzvah. My father’s father died when I was two weeks old. In this film I saw him in motion. I saw him with my grandmother and she was so busy in the kitchen, preparing food. She, too, loved to cook and to entertain. She was a brilliant cook. The images of her in the kitchen, the way she bustled around, well, it could have been me. I have seen film footage of myself doing the same at Thanksgiving-time, moving in the same manner. And to see my paternal grandmother’s parents, themselves immigrants from Eastern Europe, in action, moving, talking. Ghosts captured.

These people, these moments, they stay with us somehow, somewhere. They stay imprinted on the universe somehow. They are in the past but they have left a residue. It is in my DNA. It is in my children’s DNA. It is in the air we breathe, this disintegrating air that is of lesser quality, that is loaded with carbon emissions, that will probably do away with humans eventually. Even when people have dissolved into the distant past so that no one remembers them anymore, no one remembers even the slightest shred of them, there remain traces of them. Just because we cannot see something does not mean it does not exist, did not. Generations of ancestors are imprinted in unknown ways in the landscape of today; humming in my blood, whispering in my spirit.

1972 Photo:  On far right is my great uncle Saul, my Grandma Mildred's brother, and directly behind him is Grandma Mildred her always elegant self. The woman in the middle front is Saul's wife Sylvia. Counterclockwise from her and the woman furthest to the left is Grandma Mildred's sister Hattie.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ready Set Go

For the past few years we have gone dancing with the same group of folks on New Year’s Eve every year. I wanted to do something different this year. 2014 will be a year of change for me so why put it off, why not get started? Bring it on. We did something different alright. We drove into the boonies to a little get-together and got lost down a dirt road and nearly ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere. But just about when things got a bit sketchy, we found our way to our destination (and we made it back to town afterward on the gas left in the tank). There’s probably a lesson for the coming year in that scenario somewhere. Remind me to look for it.

Our NYE event was a group of old folks chatting (but old folks have good stories). The big excitement for the evening occurred when everyone retired to the sitting area to engage in what they called “felting,” which I had never heard of. The felters proceeded to continuously poke wads of fabric with needles and somehow produce little fuzzy fabric animals this way. The process vaguely resembled the production of voo-doo dolls. They invited me to felt with them, but I declined. I preferred to eat potato chips dipped in hot sauce. The hot sauce was extremely good and there was almost nothing in the way of food that I could eat since it all had gluten or meat in it. I never eat potato chips because they make me fat, so I quite enjoyed the indulgence. Did I already say the hot sauce was extremely good? The hot sauce was definitely more stimulating than felting (unless of course you are the fuzzy animal being needle-poked, I suppose).

The house itself was enchanting. It was loaded with the most marvelous art work. A feast for the eyes. I know my hostess quite well but I had not yet had the pleasure of speaking with her relatively new live-in boyfriend. He explained to me how they soaked and ground acorns to make an acorn meal that they add to breads and pancakes. I was fascinated since I just read The Education of Little Tree in which much acorn meal is eaten and it sounded tasty. I want to try making acorn meal sometime, but not this year because I have too much on my plate for 2014 to find the time to crack acorns, although heaven knows I have enough of them in my yard. (Maybe I can dupe some squirrels into cracking them for me.) I find it comforting that I have learned how to convert acorns into food, just in case all the systems collapse in 2014 and I have to forage for edibles in my yard. Could happen. We seem to be going to hell in a hand-basket, as they say.

I could have gone for some dancing on NYE. But no dancing happened at this gathering, which I suppose was just as well since Ron can’t dance right now (he’s still recovering from foot sores on his left foot). However, the entire odd assortment of people in the house bundled up at midnight and we went outside to bring in 2014 with some fanfare. We blew shofars, hooted, howled, banged on pots, and beat a rhythm on an array of percussion instruments. The clear sky burst at the seams with a wild abundance of stars (since we were so far from any light pollution emitted by city illumination). It has been many years since we left the Ranch and I tend to forget what the night sky looks like when no lights bleed into it from Earth. It looks, well, heavenly. At midnight I kissed my husband under the bazillion stars. I am grateful that we are still here and still do that together.

My resolution for the coming year is simply to get all the things done that I need to do. I don’t have time to list them since there are so many. If I had the time to list everything I have to do in 2014, I would have the time to crack acorns. At midnight under the stars on NYE, after I kissed my husband, I thought:  Ready, Set, Go. I’ll be running now until next NYE. No time for acorns or felting.