Archive for August, 2008

Release me

Friday, August 29th, 2008

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

CAPTIVE and CAPTIVATE

Today I’m addressing a couple of words that live in a sort of free and lawless place when it comes to usage.

They are words which, oddly enough, refer to states where there is no freedom. And I’m afraid that even without rules, they are nevertheless most often used … wrongly.

Captive as a noun refers to a prisoner or animal that is confined, usually against their will. In the cardboard box, the little girl held the turtle as a captive until her mother made her release it into the woods.

Captive is also an adjective … and here’s where the fireworks begin.

Captive refers to someone or thing that has been captured … and therefore is a captive. The captive finch refused to sing. (By the way, no need to use a redundant phrase like “captive prisoner.” A captive is a prisoner.)

Yet, there are times when we want to say that someone was so charmed or delighted, that it was as if they were held prisoner. This is what you call a captive audience.

The aria so spellbound the crowd that for the rest of the performance, the soprano sang to a captive audience.

Now, too often I’ll hear this usage: Since members of the board have to be at the meeting, you’ll have a captive audience. Or, the play was a requirement for graduation, so it was a captive audience.

WRONG.

Usage for “captive audience” and other phrases like it should refer to a group of people who seem to be held against their will because of the quality of the show.

It is used in the sense of “captivate,” which means to attract and hold the interest and attention of, to charm. (I won’t belabor the point or bore you with sentences about captivating beauties and their ilk.)

So if you find yourself tied up in a cage, you are captive. But if your captor happens to sing like Caruso, you may find yourself a captive, captivated, captive.

Playlist Week-Thursday

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

Today we have music from the upper regions, a distinctive collection posited by my favorite backyard astronomer and husband, Greg Eans.

He is quite dedicated in keeping watch over the heavens. Most every evening, just as I’m saying Goodnight Moon, he’s saying Hello Universe, and heads out to some field or sits on our back deck with binoculars. About once a week or so, he takes off to Goose Creek State Park with his telescope. A particular point of some pride is that on the coldest night of this year, when temperatures sank to 18 F, he was perched at Goose Creek looking for the Quandrantid meteors.

So today for your listening pleasure, is Greg Eans’ Telescopin’ Playlist. (You can find the music from this week on iTunes, Amazon and other Web sites.) His Web site, gregeans.com, has a completed chart of the Messier items, a cool indie soundtrack and his Sky Observer’s Blog.

The Notwist : “One With the Freaks” (Track 1): According to iTunes this is my most-played song. It’s got a great anthem feel and is a perfect choice to start out a stargazing session or as the first song you play when you finally get on the highway at the beginning of a long trip.

melpo mene: “Hit the Boy” (Track 2): The ultimate groove with stand-up bass, ride cymbal and sweet vocal melodies.

David Bowie: “Hallo Spaceboy” (Track 3): This one can’t be left out when cruising the Milky Way with the scope.

Nada Surf: “Beautiful Beat”: (Track 4)
: It’s got a great chorus that hooks you immediately.

Sigur Rós: “Inní mér syngur vitleysingur” (Track 5): I have no idea what the lyric say but what the hey.

Apparat: “Not a Number” (Track 6): This song makes me feel like I’m in the middle of things.

Thief: “Clouds” (Track 7): I’m reminded of XTC’s “I Remember the Sun” with this one.

The Most Serene Republic: “You’re Not an Astronaut” (Track 8): Imagine standing on the edge of the earth while listening to this song.

Le Loup: “Planes Like Vultures” (Track 9): Music from a very talented group of artists.

Ticonderoga: “Kim & Kelly” (Track 10): A great original tune by a local-ish band (Raleigh), recorded at home.

Edie Brickell: “Take a Walk” (Track 11): This one sounds really good out in the middle of a big field.

The Notwist: “Good Lies” (Track 12): Another great song from a great band.

Playlist Week-Wednesday

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

The best times always have a soundtrack … 1982 it was Joe Jackson, the Clash, XTC, Talking Heads, the Police, all the New Wave bands that gave every moment heightened meaning.

These days, there’s no club-hopping, but I manage to have fun every once in a while … usually when I’m running. I’m slow, but generally cover 15 or more miles a week.

Music can get me through the first half-mile when I want to turn back, or take me through miles five and six when I’m dragging.

Here are some good running songs.

Mr. Blue Sky (ELO) — If this song doesn’t make you happy, then you’re not breathing.

Beautiful Stranger (Madonna) — The pace is perfect for mid-run. Another sunny song that gets my legs moving.

Nearly Africa, English Roundabout, Snowman (XTC) — XTC is rooted in ’80s New Wave sounds, but they’re so much more. Complex polyrhythms, percussion and melody distinguish these songs. Anything from 1982’s English Settlement and I pick up the pace.

Hours (David Bowie) — This eerie song played over the credits of the film “Memento.” Strange film, strange song, but the chameleon gives it the drama of an opera aria.

Focus on Sight (Thievery Corporation) — Also from “Memento.” Hopping, mysterious, with echos of India.

She’s Electric, Champagne Supernova (Oasis) — Just happy. I am still stuck on these guys, and their Wonderwall ways.

Man out of Time (Elvis Costello) — How can you not include such a great song? It’s an epic story of a fallen relationship, and you can dance to it.

Tears Dry on Their Own (Amy Winehouse) — This young singer’s album Back to Black is unmatched. Enjoy her talents while she’s still with us.

Every Picture Tells a Story (Rod Stewart) — Complex narrative of a young man’s heyday trying to find himself.

Milk & Honey (Beck) — I have an entire playlist of Beck songs, but this one is, well, the cream of the crop.

TOMORROW: A star-gazer’s list of space-age songs

Playlist Week-Tuesday

Tuesday, August 26th, 2008

Working it

Writing takes some kind of focus and very little disrupts the fragile flow of thought. When I’m trying to put together an article, that’s all I do for days, all I think about, eat, drink and sleep. Sitting at a desk is about all the sensation I can bear, and adding noise, conversation or any minor commotion at all derails the whole process.

Introducing music, then, is a tricky element.

Some music, however, is a potion for deep thinking. Today’s playlist features some of my favorite writing music.

Joshua Bell

Generally anything played by Mr. Bell is going to be welcome any time, for any activity. If you know this violinist, then I need not say anything else about him. He brings life to any melody, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, and for the great classical works, he brings passion and the breath of life.

O, mio babinno caro (Oh, my dear Papa) — From a Puccini opera. Nearly moves me to tears! Even though it’s one of the most overplayed arias you’ll ever hear, in his hands, it is an entirely new piece. One of my all-time greatest hits.

Elegie: O doux printemps d’autrefois (Massenet) —
Another melody you think you’ve heard before, but no, maybe not, certainly not like this.

Don’t think it’s all serious. The guy can rock with the best of them, or let’s say pick …

Death by Triple Fiddle — Joshua Bell, Sam Bush and Mike Marshall in a fiddle throwdown. Even the devil wouldn’t mess with these guys.

West Side Story Suite
— These songs stand among the best melodies of the 20th century (even if the characterizations in West Side Story seems racist now). In Joshua Bell’s hands these songs gain even more drama and depth. than in their original versions.

Other favorites are Bell’s Romance of the Violin and Voice of the Violin.

It’s not all classical music chez this writer.

Two of my favorites for writing these days are Boards of Canada‘s Music has the Right to Children and David Byrne and Brian Eno‘s new release, Everything that Happens will Happen Today. You can download it right from their Web site.

TOMORROW: More songs about running and washing dishes

Playlist Week!

Monday, August 25th, 2008

SOUL CHILL

This week FD looks at music. Each day I’ll post a new playlist of the music that keeps me sane. On Thursday I’ll have a special guest playlist that aims for the stars.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is the great soul chiller. Impressionism wasn’t just about canvas. This French composer captures fleeting sensations of joy, light and youth with tones you won’t hear anywhere else.

Debussy’s music for solo piano restores order to the disarray inside, stills the storm and brings soft winds. I have the complete works for solo piano on four discs, played by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Children’s Corner — These six pieces evoke images with unexpected chords, complex rhythm and playful, transcendent, melodies. Starting with Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum through the final Golliwog’s Cake Walk, it is a marvel. Snowflakes are Dancing was a childhood favorite and a benchmark for impressionism in music.

Suite Bergamasque — This great suite of four pieces is a triumph for piano. Claire de Lune is only part of the wonder.

Arabesque No. 1 in E — One of my favorites for its simplicity and joy.

Prelude: La Fille au Cheveau de Lin — Another simple melody that is arresting for its beauty.

Prelude: Minstrels — What a piece this is! It is so modern it could have been written yesterday, with its crazy flourishes. Yet it’s still cohesive and beautiful.

Masques — One of Debussy’s declarative pieces with an insistence and sense of rigor.

Sarabande — Another classic piece, with a sense of mournfulness.

No hurry

Friday, August 22nd, 2008

FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING

Opening my beloved Roget’s International Thesaurus 6th edition this morning, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. All week I’ve looked forward to the moment when I could look up a word that came to mind as I was avoiding something, probably a deadline.

images.jpgimages.jpg

LOLLYGAG.

What a word! As a child, how often did I hear it! You need to get dressed and go! Stop lollygagging!

That word came to represent the Promised Land, where I could amble around dreaming, without a commitment, free to explore the world. I imagine my parents and teachers saw it differently … trying to figure out how to get their slowpoke daughter moving

Lollygag is an informal term that means to spend time aimlessly. It is of unknown origin from the 19th century.

Mr. Roget has some other terms to describe wandering around without a purpose. Shuffle, stagger, totter, toddle, saunter, stroll, amble.

My favorites are dawdle, tarry, dally. If I had to choose, my top choice would be mosey.

Why rush, when you can mosey? Actually, this term originally meant “to go away quickly.” Now, it is an intransitive verb that means to walk or move in a leisurely manner. (An intransitive verb — What a joy to find one!)

For the British, it came also be a noun meaning a leisurely walk or drive.

Now I’m not advocating laziness, procrastination or cultivation of boredom. “An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop,” they say, and I’m inclined to agree.

Yet these words of lingering conjure a life lived in the moment … dreaming of projects, good works, stories to write … hiking with your own thoughts, observing trees, moss and wildflowers, thinking about what a gift we have with each breath.

It also evokes intention in every act, even when there’s a deadline.

Of course, there are times when we have to get a move on, and it’s no good to dilly-dally. Yet even punctuality can be mindful, as the Buddhists might say. Moving without haste and with compassionate intent.

Image by Heavy Petal

A Streetcar Named ‘Peripheral’

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Though I’m pretty good with computers, at some point I am helpless. In those times, I become a character from a Tennessee Williams play … Blanche DuBois, in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” whose famous line goes, “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite and even embrace technology used morally and humanely. It has made my work larger in scope and purpose, allowed me to fight the good fight in a larger arena and construct articles and stories that have more facts, and more confirmation of them.

Back in the day, I worked with DOS functions … yes, the old IBM model operating system … I could sort by date or name, find hidden files and create trees. Not too shabby for a writer.

Now, however, then when I see a DOS prompt I panic like everyone else. But I can ping if requested to test my Internet service.

I recently purchased a new computer and transferred all files, even redid my iPod, restocking the iTunes library one recording at a time. Earlier this week, I had to trade in my old 2gen iPod for a 3rd gen … the wireless router’s going bad … yes, it’s been a tech-heavy few weeks, with all that entails.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post. While I can find and connect to wireless connections, figure out POP and IP addresses, there’s always a dead end … when I’m backed in a corner with a tech problem I can’t get out of.

That’s when I become all Blanche Du Bois in “Streetcar Named Desire.” I can’t breathe, I’m fainting in that classic Southern way. Then, defeated, I ring some nice gentleman in tech support, and he will talk me through a solution. Sometimes they are in foreign countries, other times here at home.

Believe me, these guys are platinum. They are patient, respectful and concerned about rescuing this distressed damsel.

Yesterday, I realized my car radio transmitter wasn’t going to work with my new iPod. I called the tech support department at Griffin Technology and the young man offered … without my asking … to trade in my old transmitter for a new one.

“We want you to be happy,” he said. I wanted hug him through the phone, but that would have embarrassed both of us. Instead, I pledged to sing their praises.

Other tech support heroes include Best Buy, who helped me buy this computer, as well as a front-loading washer; Earthlink, Embarq and Hewlett-Packard (I know, hard to believe, but true for a price).

Runner up to Griffin, however, probably goes to the tech team at Yahoo, which hosts my Web site. They are gems, who’ve talked me through starting this WordPress blog, assured me Vista 64-bit would work with my Web site, and helped when my very crucial statistics function wasn’t working.

To all these people I say, as Blanche DuBois might, thank you. Sometimes I’m just a lost Southern Belle in New Orleans.

Summer, good-bye

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

The first school bus drove past our house this morning and with it, summer draws to an end. The days have been cooler and over head, a certain crystal sunlight that only comes in autumn.

With it, a cerulean color that comes this season. It’s time for football, blankets, cool mornings and leaves falling.

It’s been a fast summer, but then again, as a writer summers usually mean more work, as everyone tries to catch up from the year. In this deeply agricultural place, where many of us grew up working on a farm, living on a farm, or around a farm … or our parents or grandparents did … we follow the same traditional cycles: Summer is for working. Fall for canning. Winter is for learning and reading. Spring for getting ready.

As we pick the last of the strawberries and peaches, I remember the days at my Grandparents’ house, churning ice cream in the back yard while the “women” cut fruit for freezing, vegetables for canning. The big mason stove in the back yard burned all day long with the large pot on top, as they boiled vegetables for canning.

Music & writing

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Talking with a friend yesterday gave me a chance to tell someone about the two volumes of Debussy (complete works for piano, by Jean-Yves Thibaudet) that have just come in the mail. They’re loaded onto my iPod and have already gotten some serious airtime.

Music is like breathing to me. No, I’m not myself in any way musical, and struggle as a writer to bring melody and sonority to my words. For years I was a clarinet player, in wind ensemble and even one summer at Governor’s School in an orchestra. What an eye-opening experience to play Bartok, Ligeti and Respighi at 17 years old!

I was not, however, in any way a standout.

Today, music allows me to find peace when my insides are churning. Interviews, talking and visiting empty me. Writing pulls everything out of my brain. Sitting at a desk all day makes my physical self feel alien. All of these forces leave me a stranger in this world.

Many writers, I believe, get exhausted by the world and their work … just look at the ranks of alcoholics, smokers and opium users. Fortunately, I don’t turn that way. So what’s left? Well, the little writers secret we don’t talk about is food … and that’s often the way we will replace what writing takes out of us. That’s no good, either.

After years’ struggling to know how to restore some sense of peace and wholeness, I realized it’s been there all along. Music. My mother played Debussy on the piano when I was a small child, and I still remember seeing white stuff when she played “Snowflakes are Dancing.” At 13 years old, “Ancient Airs and Dances” was my first “classical” LP, and at 16, I discovered Gershwin.

Of course, pop music of all kids followed me through those years … in college, I played Joe Jackson’s “Night and Day” every single day after classes, before trudging back to campus to close down the library each night. That record … the LP I mean … now resides in my iPod, recorded, with scratches intact.

These days, listening to Debussy piano music is like breathing fresh air, one strain at the time. I also drink up Joshua Bell … anything he plays, really, but especially his collections. Yo Yo Ma, the Unaccompanied Cello Suites, is also a favorite.

I had to trade in my old iPod yesterday for a new one (I had a “replacement plan,” thank goodness; the battery stopped working). Today, it’s sooped up with all four discs of Debussy, all the Joshua Bell I own, Beck and Madonna and yes, Joe Jackson.

You never know what kind of day it’s going to be.

Sumptin’ to say?

Monday, August 18th, 2008

Again a Monday, and there are lots of assignments on tap for the week. After completing a draft of a lengthy, complex magazine article, I’ve found myself … well … at a loss for words.

You’ve probably heard the term “writers block.” It’s something romantic types like to use to describe the so-called angst and suffering they feel when penning their thoughts.

The term “writers block” doesn’t exist in my world. Think about it: Writing is never easy. You just sit in the chair until you finish. To moan doesn’t help. What’s more, if for one minute I thought I could be somehow “blocked” and unable to write, it would be like a carpenter losing a thumb. You can’t work like that.

Writers block, then, is a cop-out, an excuse. Still, there are times when I simply have nothing to say. The past few days have felt like that — after wrapping up such a long piece, my mind is empty, but not in that good Buddhist way. It’s empty like a pot that’s drained. No more soup to stir.

Sitting down today and counting up the assignments, deadlines and calls to make, I feel apathetic about all of them. It seems overwhelming to try to bring meaning and significance to these topics — and yet, that is the very thing I must do.

One of the hardest jobs in a newsroom is writing editorials. If you don’t believe it, just try one day, sitting down and writing with great passion about a 1/2-cent sales tax or government-bond issue. Editorials are tough because you have to persuade a reader … you have to write with energy and conviction. Yet, they’re usually short — a few hundred words — so once you muster the passion, you only have to maintain it a little longer.

As anyone who writes for a living will tell you, our job means mustering that conviction and energy for every job, for every article, every day. If you don’t care about your subject, the reader won’t, either.

On days like today, I have to remind myself I have the greatest job on the planet — that I am a lucky dog to be able to make a living without a tool or skill … and using only my mind.

Under these circumstances, how ungrateful it is to complain of something like “writers block” — it’s just like any other job, sometimes you feel a little tired, but you get started and remember that it’s what you do, who you are, and it’s like coming home.