Friday, December 25, 2009
Do you have a favorite treat you love to eat (or make) over the holidays?
I'm a "food memory" person, so although I'm sure this is of no interest to anyone but me, I'm going to jot down this year's Christmas indulgences.
Our Noche Buena Menu:
Baked brie en croûte with brown sugar, apricots, and walnutsBlack-pepper-crusted rib roast with balsamic-glazed roasted red onions and a side of riceBaked ham with honey glazeSalsa monja (a green olive relish my family in the Philippines really enjoys)Baby spinach salad with bacon, mushrooms, candied pecans, and warm vinaigrettePhilippine lumpia shanghai (spring rolls) with garlic-vinegar dipping sauceQueso de bola and other assorted cheesesFrozen mango-and-cream bars from Trader Joe's - we were too full to eat anything bigger!
Light Christmas Day Brunch:
Prosciutto with melonCrimini mushroom pseudo-souffléCalamansi juiceBuko Pandan (a Philippine dessert), though I didn't exactly have buko...
This year's memorable sweet treats:
Pistachio-cranberry Icebox CookiesButtery sugar cookies (or sugary butter cookies?)Chocolate-covered peanut butter ballsCandied spiced pecans and almonds
Now for some New Year's resolutions - less butter, more working out, right? :)
Thursday, December 24, 2009
In the Philippines, as in Spain, Cuba, and Latin America, Christmas Eve or noche buena is traditionally celebrated with evening mass followed by a feast. We had a small, quiet celebration tonight that couldn't have been lovelier. My rib roast turned out just the way I wanted it. My daughter, mother-in-law, and I sang carols in the living room after dinner. We laughed, we talked, we hugged, we laughed some more, we contemplated putting cookies and milk out for Santa...It was just the evening I was hoping for after a full day at work.
Tomorrow, Christmas day, my family and I will go our separate ways. They will go north to ski for the weekend; I stay behind for weekend duty at the hospital.
Ordinarily I would be moping and complaining about this; but as I've counted my blessings during this Advent season, and tried to keep focused on the true center of it, I find there's so much to be joyous about despite everyday stresses that I can't bring myself to whine too much. Such is the deep, healing power of Advent.
May your Christmas, if you celebrate it, be full of peace and light.
[Image source here.]
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Recently I was paged stat to the emergency department for possible intubation of an infant. When I arrived there were three doctors, two nurses, two parents, a respiratory therapist, and a nursing supervisor crowded into a tiny exam room around a baby less than a year old. The baby's skin was dusky. The oxygen saturation reading on the monitor was alarming. The parents looked lost and frightened.
The x-ray showed a pneumothorax, or a collection of air in the chest causing an area of lung collapse, at the top of one of the baby's lungs. One of the clinicians was getting ready to insert a needle into the baby's chest to remove the collected air that was compressing the baby's lung.
"Second intercostal, mid-clavicular line," he said to himself as he poised the needle under the baby's collar bone. He inserted the needle and there was a rush of air. His assistant used a syringe and sucked out about quarter of a cup of air - a significant amount considering the size of an infant's chest.
Almost immediately the baby's oxygen saturation started to improve. In less than a minute she had come up to 95%, then 97%, then 99%.
"I think we'll hold off on intubating, for now," the doc in charge decided after seeing the results of a blood gas.
With that I was free to return to my other duties.
I like standing by to offer help if needed. I feel like a true team member offering a service that helps a healing process run more smoothly. That day, I have to admit, I was a little jealous that it was someone else's turn to be of such concrete help (in a good-natured way, of course). What a cool procedure, and what a great save! But I was proud, too. Proud to be working beside such a talented healer who had so much to teach those around him.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Monday, December 14, 2009
Every work place has at least one person whose mode of discourse is permanently fixed at "complain or criticize as vociferously as possible." Often such individuals strike others as abrasive, unpleasant, irksome, or downright exhausting. Everything that comes out of their mouths is waah, waah, waah. They seem incapable of speaking in any other way.
I walked into the lounge when one such person was holding the fridge door open and accusing the housekeeping staff (in their absence) of consuming some leftover sandwiches that a couple of the surgeons had ordered for those who help out in the O.R.
Now, the fact that the sandwiches were no longer in the fridge could have been due to a number of things - hungry anesthesiologists or surgical house officers on call, disposal by someone concerned about old food in the fridge, nurses on break between weekend cases, etc. But this woman had it in her head that the housekeeping staff had taken the sandwiches, and the two others in the lounge who were discussing the issue with her were more than happy to accept her conclusion as gospel.
For at least five minutes they went on and on and on about how the O.R. wasn't truly a locked unit, anybody could get in, the housekeeping staff had surely gone in and helped themselves, blah, blah-blah, blah-blah. Back and forth, back and forth, complaints and criticisms, complaints and criticisms.
Then there was a brief lull. One of them took another bite of her salad. Another looked in the cupboards for sugar for her coffee. The third looked out the window.
I probably shouldn't have intruded into the conversation, but it was a small lounge, and their words were swirling around me like angry little gnats, and there was something I wasn't quite understanding. So when this pause in the diatribe came, I took a sip of my coffee and asked, "But why shouldn't they be included?"
All three heads turned toward me. What was that look on their faces - incredulity? Lack of comprehension? Annoyance that I had opened my mouth?
Finally one of them retorted, "The housekeeping staff?"
"Yeah," I said, taking another sip of my coffee.
"The whole housekeeping staff for the whole hospital?"
"You're saying the whole staff came here over the weekend?"
"Yeah. They have their meetings in this room."
"Okay, but why shouldn't they be included?" I repeated. "They do all the work in this hospital that no one else wants to do."
Just a few days ago when I arrived at the hospital I came across a man in uniform on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor around the toilet in one of the small lobby bathrooms. Clearly someone had had some kind of unpleasant accident or something. Who was going to thank him when he was done having his hands and face in someone else's excrement so someone else wouldn't have to be confronted with it?
The three women in the lounge stared at me for a second, then returned to their lunches in silence. When I left the room with my coffee they were still sitting there not saying a word. I would really have liked to know their answer to my question.
Saturday, December 12, 2009
My name is Quauhtlatoatzin. "Talking Eagle," you would say. I am fifty-seven years old, a poor farmer and a weaver of mats.
You'll have trouble calling me by my name, I'm sure. I understand. Our names are not easy ones. You can use the name the white people gave me six years ago. They call me Juan Diego.
I was forty-five when they came, forty-seven when they won, fifty-one when they gave me that name. My wife, who was given the name Maria Lucía, died two years ago. I have only my skin-and-bone farm animals and a sick old uncle now for company. And my faith. I always had that. I have always believed we can find the sacred even in this sorry world. The Spaniards have fancy names for it - "grace" and "sacrament" and "liturgy" - but we're all talking about the same thing, aren't we? The presence of holiness among us?
I walk several miles to church every Saturday and Sunday. Let me tell you what happened on Saturday, the 9th of December, this year of Our Lord, 1531. Last Saturday. It was chilly that morning. I had my special tilma, the fancy hemp-and-linen one - the most extravagant thing I own. (I'm not even supposed to have one like this - only the rich folks are entitled to wear the finer things.) I was walking by Tepeyac and I heard birds singing on the hill. Strange, don't you think? Even stranger, I thought I heard a voice calling my name. Quauhtlatoatzin.
I ran up the hill and I saw a beautiful girl surrounded by a halo of what looked like sunlight, the pinkish-golden kind you only see at the very beginning or the very end of the day, my favorite times of day. She was no ordinary girl, that much was clear. She looked like an Aztec princess. And so young - fourteen, fifteen, sixteen at most. Yet she called me Xocoyte - mi hijito, my little son. Would you believe my cheekiness? I teased her and called her Xocoyote, my youngest child. She took it well.
Her Nahuatl was perfect, mind you. You have no idea what it is to have to adopt a language not your own, learn things you don't necessarily want to learn, then hear your mother tongue spoken so beautifully. You feel as if you're home again; it's familiar, it's what you grew up with, you're safe, you're known. I could have wept. I only get to speak it with those closest to me, and the one who was closest of all is gone.
Anyway, she wanted a shrine. "Just for you, my youngest child?" I teased again. She was so small, yet somehow I also knew she was greater than all of us put together, even the white people. Yes, she said, a shrine, a teocalli where people could turn to her, where she would give my people her love, her compassion, her help, and her protection. "Here I will hear their weeping and their sorrow. Here they will find help for their suffering."
I don't know when exactly it dawned on me that I was speaking to the most special woman in the history of the world, but I think by the time she said these words, I knew.
She told me to tell Juan de Zumárraga. Me? Go to the Franciscan in charge? "You think Fray Juan de Zumárraga will listen to a poor peasant, my Lady?" I begged her - I mean, got on my knees and begged her - to send someone else. But she wouldn't budge. Who knew that the Blessed Virgin could be so stubborn, I muttered, teasing her again. You won't find that in any book.
Well, I went to see Zumárraga all right. What do you suppose he said? Actually, it went better than I thought. He wasn't as arrogant and mean as I expected. He actually listened and didn't have me dismissed as a madman, but he was a little condescending, and clearly he was doubtful and thought he had better uses for his time. He said he needed a sign. I thought that was fair.
So on my way to church on Sunday I went up Tepeyac hill and saw my Lady again. I begged her again to choose another messenger - someone important, someone whose words would count for more than mine. You should have seen the way she smiled at me then. You know when your mother or your wife smiles at you as if you're the most wonderful, the most important, the most beautiful, special person she has ever seen? That's the way she smiled at me. She said I would have my sign the following day. "Not my sign, Xocoyote," I replied. "Zumárraga's."
When I saw Zumárraga after Mass he repeated that he still wanted this "sign." Proof, proof, I needed proof, proof of what I was saying, proof that I spoke the truth. Or rather, he needed it.
But that night I was preoccupied with other things. I went to my poor sick uncle's house, and he was in such a bad way. The next day I set off for the city to find a priest to give him the last rites. I was avoiding Tepeyac but she found me anyway. I felt a little sheepish but I told her where I was going, and she said, "Don't worry about that. Your uncle is well."
"What?!" I cried. "But I must go and see him!"
"You need proof, Xocoyte?"
She had me there. I asked her what I should do. She told me to go up high on Tepeyac to pick flowers.
"Flowers! But nothing blooms up there, Xocoyote, especially at this time of year."
Nevertheless, I went up Tepeyac on December 12, and there I found an abundance of Spanish roses. Beautiful, fragrant Castilian roses. She helped me put them in my tilma and told me to bring them to Zumárraga. "The real miracle," I said, muttering pointedly, "will be if such important people listen to the voice of someone so unimportant." She must have gotten used to my muttering by then. "Your name suits you, Talking Eagle," she said. She gave me strict instructions not to open my tilma for anyone but Zumárraga. She must have known people I'd pass on the road would keep asking me, "Hey, Quauhtlatoatzin, what's in the tilma?"
The hardest part was when Zumárraga's people were insisting on seeing what was inside before I was allowed into his chambers. She must have been protecting me, because in the end, I was able to see him without opening the cloak. His whole household was curious by then, and already gathered at the door, so they followed me in. There was a translator there, of course, and also a dark-skinned slave woman, the cook and her three children, and a couple of other men.
"The Lady asked me to bring you this," I said to Zumárraga. I opened my tilma and out spilled the roses. "I picked them on the barren part of Tepeyac this morning."
But he was barely paying attention to the roses. Castilian roses, man! I felt like saying to him. You can only get these back where you come from! Nothing grows up there! She had to explain to me what they are! His mouth was slightly agape and he was slowly kneeling, but he wasn't looking at the flowers. He was looking at my tilma. So I looked at it too, and do you know, I almost dropped the thing. Because there she was, my Xocoyote, just as I'd seen her on the hill.
Her words echoed in my mind at that moment: "Hear me and understand well, Xocoyte, that nothing should frighten or grieve you. Let not your heart be disturbed. Do not fear..."
That's been her message ever since.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
I am addicted to Sibelius.
No, not the composer - though there's some good oboe there - but rather, the computer program.
I started using it a couple of days ago to arrange some piano accompaniment for a vocal score I have (long story), with some help from an audio recording, and I am totally HOOKED.
I've neglected my blog for it. I've neglected my books for it. I've neglected some of my happy Christmas projects for it (this is the latest I've gone without sending Christmas cards). I can't get enough of it! Who knew arranging music could be so completely mesmerizing? I could play with it for hours. It's my World of Warcraft.
Let's try this harmony - no, actually, that first one was better. Triplets or dotteds? Oboe or flute? Ooh, we can transpose the whole score from E flat to E...Maybe I should throw in a whole new alto line...Ew, thank goodness for instant playback, that accidental's definitely in the wrong place! How I love rubby intervals that resolve...
Imagine how lost to the world I would be if I could actually compose?!
So alas, there's a powerful force behind this blog neglect. My music projects are like bright candles for this little moth. I'm even arranging some carol duets for my son and me to play on violin and oboe - two beginners, lotsa laughs.
I suppose there are worse vices out there... :)
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I think this is the best Christmas present the New York Times could have given us:
access to Charles Dickens' original manuscript of A Christmas Carol - "my own, and only manuscript of the book" - complete with crossings-out and rewrites.
The only thing more wondrous than being able to see and hold someone's thoughts is being able to see and examine a creative person's thought process.
Hat tip to Michael Leddy for the links.
Monday, November 30, 2009
In college the woman who was to become my mother-in-law introduced me and some of my classmates to the chants and meditative silence of Taizé prayer, from the ecumenical Taizé community in France.
The parish we belong to holds a Taizé prayer service every Monday evening during Advent. I had the privilege of being able to take time out of my day to attend and let music and silence wash away all the things that tend to wrinkle my brow.
Even before the service, though, the day was already a gifted one. I attended a presentation at Boston College during which talks were given by the chancellor of the college, Fr. Donald Monan; by Fr. Jon Sobrino, writer and theologian; and by Professor Noam Chomsky. My mind is still processing these rich experiences, but I'll set down the words from Jon Sobrino that are still echoing in my memory:
On the suffering poor in Latin America and Africa: "Who defends these people? Who risks anything important to take them down from the cross?...In them, Jesus and his God passed through this world carrying his cross."
On the Salvadoran people: "Salvadorans don't use the phrase 'quality of life.' " And, "Salvadorans don't take life for granted."
On freedom and equality: "Very few people in this world are free to make their own decisions."
I never thought of the world that way. I've always known that very few people in the world are living comfortably, that most of the world is in a state of unending suffering. But it didn't occur to me in the way he phrased it, that this chronic suffering and slow death by poverty are intimately connected with the most basic personal freedoms. He's right. Most of the people in the world don't have much of a choice about anything.
These are perfect words and thoughts to reflect on during Advent. There is a quiet and darkness in Advent that restores the true meaning of the light of Christmas. Advent puts us out in the fields, in the darkness, under the night sky with the shepherds, the untouchables of society, and makes us look up and see glory. The darkness out there can help us realize why it's so vital to renew the light in the human heart.
Christ has left. For many, he was never really here, or his having been here doesn't matter. Those who do find meaning in his life are left with the reality of his physical departure and what remains. We are, in fact, those remains. The fact that there are dark truths in the world is no more God's fault or Christ's fault than it is the fault of the crucified peoples Sobrino talked about tonight. Advent reminds us to shine a light wherever these dark truths would take hold, both outward and inward.
Sunday, November 29, 2009
I decided to quit NaNoWriMo early. Congratulations to all the admirable writers who wrote 50,000 words or more this month!
I was only able to set down a little over 35,000 - some of it "cheat" material, like over-lengthy descriptions and quoted passages - but I decided to stop pushing several days ago.
When I told my children this last night over dinner, at first they were dismayed. "No! You have to keep going! Why did you stop?"
"Well," I said, looking at their adorable faces, "if I hadn't, I'd be doing THAT instead of sitting here having soup with you after a great movie."
They smiled then, so I smiled too. "You're more important than NaNoWriMo. I have so much I want to do with you and Papa, especially with Advent here. I just can't write that fast AND do all the things I want to do with you and your dad, and do a good job at work, and cook dinner every day, and work on the music project I told you about, and practice oboe, et cetera, et cetera."
They chewed on that for a moment. Then my daughter asked, "Are you still gonna keep writing the book, though?"
"Sure. Why not?"
With that, both kids were content and went back happily to their soup. It's such a warm feeling, the love and concern of one's own children.
Friday, November 27, 2009
Like blogger and literature professor Michael Leddy, author of the wonderful blog Orange Crate Art, I was disgruntled - nay, downright offended - when Disney brazenly presented its latest holiday project as "Disney's A Christmas Carol," with no mention of Charles Dickens. The gall. The arrogance. The presumption of entitlement, of some kind of right to creative ownership and license all because they've spent decades appropriating and making enormous amounts of money off classic tales. I was annoyed. (Eventually I did find a poster that acknowledged Dickens in tiny print.)
When my kids mentioned wanting to see it today, though, I was surprised to find myself curious and quite willing to go. I was over my initial irritation. When all is said and done, I am incapable of resisting a chance to see a presentation of Dickens' story, one of my all-time favorites. So off we went.
I was impressed. Believe me, I'm as possessive about A Christmas Carol as the next person who holds it near and dear. I was prepared to be dismayed at the over-use of bells-and-whistles, the catering-to-the-lowest-common-denominator type of flashiness, the uncouth departures from the original. But while there is, indeed, plenty of flashiness and reveling in high-speed special effects - I actually got quite motion-sick during all the flying around with the spirits, despite the incredibly beautiful scenery - I don't believe, as many negative reviews have described, that this film has abandoned the soul of Dickens' classic.
I disagree with most of this very critical review, in which reviewer Duane Dudek writes, "In technologically expanding this film, Disney and Remeckis shrank its meaning and spirit." I also disagree with Kirk Honeycutt who writes that Zemeckis "shuns the beating heart of Dickens' story" and that "On any emotional level, it's as cold as Marley's Ghost." My children and I found ourselves emotionally engaged and invested in these characters as interpreted by the astounding Jim Carrey and his colleagues, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, and Lesley Manville, who was a terrific Mrs. Cratchit.
My litmus test for any version of A Christmas Carol is this: is there an ache in my throat and the threat of a small tear or two in my eyes when, having rediscovered the power of being open to joy, Scrooge calls the young boy he sends to the poulterer's at the end "delightful," and when he humbly knocks on his nephew's door for Christmas dinner? The answer tonight was yes. I was still moved at these very moments during the Disney version.
In fact, Zemeckis, to my great relief, stayed quite true to Dickens' text. Most of the dialogue is straight out of the book. He does take some liberties, though, with which I don't agree - the insertion of a high-speed chase involving a hearse drawn by black horses and a mysteriously shrunken Ebenezer being the most jarring and indulgent example. But I was willing to accept those liberties out of appreciation for the work as a whole. Producers and directors do have some license to re-imagine and re-interpret classic works, and I won't hold against them the elements I'm not super-wild about if they show an overall reverence for their source, which I do feel Zemeckis did.
The most impressive aspect of this production for me was the eye-opening use of performance-capture technology in the animation. The Disney folks have always been pretty attentive to the use of true-to-life facial expressions in their animated characters, but now, with motion-capture, they can really go to town - and they did, and it was completely riveting, I thought. Cartoon characters who can actually look as if they're feeling what the story says they're feeling? Now, THAT is amazing.
I have a whole new respect for Jim Carrey as an actor, too, as well as for the creative possibilities of blending human abilities and performances with art and technology. I needed his Scrooge to be at least as good as the Scrooges I've known and loved - Alastair Sim's, George C. Scott's, and the one in my head when I read the book - and I thought Carrey's performance, in combination with the animators' thoughtfully applied talents, was easily up there with the best of them.
I can see why this film is drawing criticism, but I think it should be given a chance to work its own brand of magic. It's visually beautiful, from its views of snowy Victorian London right down to the very realistic knots and whorls in the wood floors and beams. It's creative - I was quite taken by the way the Spirit of Christmas Present showed London to Scrooge through a kind of scrying portal in his own floorboards, and the scene in which this same spirit passes away in the shadow of a great timepiece. It was also dynamic and showy, very much a 21st-century version. But it does respect its literary and cinematic ancestors. The film makes abundantly clear, somewhat ironically, the fact that it's still in Dickens - his language, his characters, his themes, his story - not in Disney, that the glory of this work ultimately lies. As I left the theater with my children, big smiles on our faces and warmth in our hearts, I found that very satisfying.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
There. I've admitted it. I am not that "into" Thanksgiving. I am a veritable Thanksgiving Grinch.
I grew up without it.
I don't particularly care for turkey.
The settlers brought smallpox, not good will, to the natives.
And frankly, with tongue somewhat in cheek I ponder the idea that it has become the one occasion wherein blatant misogyny is still condoned, institutionalized, perhaps even celebrated (mental soundtrack: Topol as Tevye singing, "Traditio-o-o-o-o-on, Tradition!"): guys with drinks in front of the football game, women in the kitchen slaving over a hot stove. Hmph. (I know, I know - lots of guys do a lot, perhaps even most, of the work to pull off Thanksgiving. I really am half-joking.)
I am on call for Thanksgiving. I offer to take Thanksgiving call every year. I am having a small pre-Thanksgiving dinner with my children tonight - baked ham with a sweet, autumn-spice glaze and a side of stuffing (no poultry). Tomorrow I'll be at the hospital till evening, then with any luck I can take call from home for the rest of the night and spend some time with family.
I am, in the end, a Christmas person through and through. Thanksgiving is just a non-entity for me. Once dreaded Halloween is over, my Christmas preparations begin.
I absolutely love Advent, liturgically and otherwise. Advent is already here for me even though it doesn't officially start till Sunday.
Inspired by my friend's sister's blog Slow Christmas and this post about constructing your own personal advent calendar, I have already begun my slowed-down, drawn-out celebration of my favorite season of the year and the only holiday, really, that I enjoy. It's amazing how doing one beloved, celebratory thing each day can bring such happiness.
-listened to Christmas music
-lit a Christmas-scented candle ("Christmas Tree" by Village Candle Co.)
-sent a Christmas card
-sung a Christmas song
-bought cute holiday socks for my daughter
-drunk a mug of peppermint-flavored hot cocoa
-lit a cozy fire and snuggled with my Hunny in front of it
-seen a friend from college whom I don't get to see very often
And before the season passes I hope to
-watch a Christmas movie (or two, or three...)
-attend a Christmas concert, play, or dance performance
-read a Christmas story
-maybe even write a Christmas story
-trim a tree
-take a walk under a light snow
-cook a meal that brings people together
-see more friends from long ago and/or far away
I love Christmas because it re-teaches me every year how to live each moment fully and let my heart be filled with gratitude for ordinary moments made extraordinary by wonder, mindfulness, reverence, warmth, generosity, and love.
I wish everyone a wonderful holiday season and much happiness in the celebrations that truly move your hearts and give you joy.
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Last weekend I went to Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America and one of the ten largest churches in the world.
People either love the Shrine or they're repelled by it. I'm one of the former. I used to go there a lot during high school. The vastness of the interior and the beauty, to my mind, of the art work had the power to lift my spirit and give me a sense of calm and focus.
I was in D.C. for a wake last Sunday. A beloved matriarch in my family passed away. The week prior, my mother-in-law suffered a leg fracture and underwent surgery. The opportunity to visit the Shrine again after all these years away from my home town was a real gift, a chance to find some much-needed renewal in sacred space and time.
The friends with whom I stayed affectionately call the 3,600 square-foot mosaic of Christ - the largest mosaic in the world depicting Christ seated alone, with nearly 3 million tiles - "Angry Jesus."
"I love Angry Jesus," one of my friends said to me.
Now that I've seen the image again, I have to agree: I love Angry Jesus too.
Like the Shrine itself, this colossal icon by Polish artist John de Rosen (or Jan Henryk de Rosen) inspires mixed reactions. Just scouring the internet for people's responses I found a lot of discomfort - along the lines of "He looks so intimidating," or "It's so scary the way he's frowning down on everybody" or "Such a stern expression, with those flames coming out of his head and that bright red robe..."
Angry Jesus is a powerful image. The minute I see his face, I start hearing the "Kyrie" from Mozart's Requiem in my head. He's not the kind and gentle Jesus of the Gospel that everyone wants as a best friend. He's been to hell and back and he's way past all that. He has been wounded and tortured but now even the deep jab to his heart from a Roman lance is no more than a scratch. This Christ isn't here to pray fervently in the desert or smile at us. This Christ is done. With his open arms he seem to ask either, "What the hell are you people doing?" or, "Well? Are you ready to open your arms, or aren't you? Have you stepped up and lived up to the goodness within you, are do I have to smack you upside the head?" I love Angry Jesus.
I never felt put off or afraid of Angry Jesus, even in high school. Perhaps it was because I never took his wrath personally, and I felt there was some solidarity between it and the idealistic anger I felt at the time at various world issues. Back then it was, oh, I don't know, the Cold War and the Ethiopian famine. Now, as my son observes, "He's angry in a special way. I think he's angry about pollution." Out of the mouths of babes! Because, of course, there's pollution everywhere - in the world, in human minds driven by prejudice, in human hearts fueled by hate.
When I pray in the presence of this striking icon, in that enormous space filled with light and hope and the faith of many nations, I feel stronger, ready to face the world again. It may just be that the act of meditation, as I've heard some studies have shown, causes electric and neurotransmitter changes in the brain that promote a sense of well-being. It doesn't matter. We are creatures of imagery and sound, of smell and touch. For me the smell of the rising incense in that basilica, along with my prayers - thoughts of hope and desire and love for my family - floating together toward de Rosen's Christ in Majesty had the power to heal and give me rest. I think it was Franz Werfel who expressed it best: "For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not, none will suffice."
Monday, November 16, 2009
Are there any causes for which you would give your life?
I wonder - somewhere in the world, are U.S.-trained death squads still murdering people who try to serve the poorest of the poor, or give voice to the voiceless, or use centers of learning and intellectual debate - schools, universities - as ways of working toward social justice?
We should never forget sacrifices like these. It's so easy for us to sit here in our colleges and news rooms and talk and talk and criticize and talk some more. How many of us are courageous enough to act on and live by our convictions?
It was a small remembrance, but tonight in memory of the UCA martyrs (and to celebrate a belated National Pupusa Day, which was on November 13), we had pupusas for dinner. I've had El Salvador on the brain lately. It's always a blessing, this power food has - the way food can express, can connect us.
1 small minced onion + 3 large garlic cloves + 1 lb. bison meat + half a bottle of Sofrito cooked together, plus some grated 6-Italian-cheese blend (mozzarella, asiago, fontina, provolone, parmesan & romano) to go on top of the meat when it goes in the pupusa
My (experiment with) dough:
3 c masa instantanea de maíz or masa harina (corn flour from the Spanish food aisle) + 1 c all-purpose flour + 2 1/2 c hot water
Mix together, then separate into 8 balls, flatten each into a disc, put filling in center, take edges over the top so it forms a little purse, seal, then smoosh down so the whole thing's flattened again; sauté in oiled pan 2 min. per side.
Served with tomato and chive salad and some peach salsa (I didn't have curtido, unfortunately). Husband and kids loved 'em.
Tuesday, November 10, 2009
During a terrific writing workshop I attended in 1994, author Larry Woiwode said two things that have remained with me to this day:
"Writing is a confession of sin."
"Write every day."
Well, I have been bad about that second item. I have not written every day, even though writing is important to me. This is the reason I signed up for NaNoWriMo this month. I wanted to jump-start a daily writing habit, come hell or high water.
The good news is I have, in fact, been writing every day.
The bad news is I'm over a thousand words behind. I'm supposed to be at 16,667 words by the end of the day. I'm at 14,855 for a piece whose subject matter (and please don't ask me what it is) would be of no interest to anyone other than myself (and, maybe, my loving husband and children).
Here's what I've learned so far:
1. I love writing. Even when it's going badly (and it almost always is, for me, with this project). Writing is wonderful and awful and incredible and worthwhile.
2. Unlike the girl in the delightful cartoon above by Debbie Ohi, I can't write around other people. This is a considerable handycap when one is a wife and mother. I have to be alone, uninterrupted, without music or noise or coffee or any other sensory distractions.
3. Even if I try to sneak away and hide, my family knows how to find me, and find me they will.
4. My commitment to never saying to my kids, "Not now, I'm writing" is still more important to me than my commitment to the writing itself. I have won many supportive "Good luck, Mommy" kisses just by including them in the loop.
5. The author pep talks on the NaNoWriMo website can be really helpful. My favorite so far has been this one by Neil Gaiman.
6. Word counts can indeed be stretched. Character descriptions, interviews, and conversations are great for that, as are setting descriptions, dream sequences, poetry written by characters, famous passages quoted by characters, radio announcements, newspaper articles, thought soliloquies, childhood memories, and my personal favorite, descriptions of the foods being eaten by the characters.
7. Sometimes the act of writing itself reveals things about the characters or story that days of planning would never uncover. Another reason just sitting down and pumping out words, even mediocre ones, is worthwhile.
8. Writing down each scene as it enters my head, no matter how "random" or how out of order, makes the writing flow better than trying to write billiard style (trying to call "ball in corner pocket" for a ball that just won't go there).
9. Epistolary sections seem to flow more easily than straight prose...which is perhaps a cop-out...
10. I can't decided if the pain and challenge of a tighter structure like the short story are better or worse than the prolonged, spread-out, mentally preoccupying chronic illness of a novel (I am definitely brooding a lot more, about a world that doesn't even exist!). But it's a good kind of pain, either way.
I may not make it all the way to the 50,000 word finish line. But it has already, after only a week, been a tremendously worthwhile exercise.
Friday, November 6, 2009
This past week I took care of a woman in her nineties. She did fine during surgery and slept peacefully in the recovery room after I dropped her off.
At the end of the day I was tired. It had been a long day. I had one more patient to drop off in the recovery room, and when I arrived there with him, this other elderly woman was still there from earlier in the afternoon, the only other patient. She had an oxygen mask on her face and was still resting with her eyes closed.
On the small rectangular table at the foot of her bed was a vase containing pink roses and gladioli. Beside her in a wheelchair sat her husband of over 65 years, holding her hand and gazing at her while she slept.
"He wheeled himself in here with that bouquet of flowers for her on his lap," one of the recovery room nurses told me.
I reported on my last patient's condition to the nurses who were receiving him, then lingered in the recovery room for about fifteen minutes making sure my i's were dotted and t's crossed on the requisite paperwork. I couldn't help glancing from time to time at the elderly man nearby who had lived almost a century and whose humble, quiet way of expressing his love hinted at a lifetime of untold stories, of sorrows endured and joys shared, and a closeness deeper than any of us could imagine.
When I walked out at the end of the day to go home, the man in the wheelchair was still holding his wife's hand, watching over her while she slept. I'll always remember the steadfastness of his gaze, and the soft, pink hue of his hopeful gift of flowers in that place where hope and blossoms could be so hard to find.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
I just read a couple of haikus by Dr. Ramona Bates, who writes at Suture for a Living, and got inspired to try my own. It's about my day job. Here it is:
Hard metal, soft flesh,
cylinder poised, larynx found:
the pillars of life.
Now it's time to make some lunch before reporting for night duty. Have a great day!
Sunday, November 1, 2009
NaNoWriMo has begun! This blog might be quite neglected for the next thirty days. Or I might use it to procrastinate...
Notes of encouragement will be quite welcome this month. I'm going to need them!
I have a question for you writers / composers / painters / creative types out there: are there certain work conditions, instruments, or times of day that seem conducive to your creative activity? Do you write on yellow legal pad, computer, or blank journal? Pen, pencil, or keyboard? Morning, or night?
I find I get ideas I like right before falling asleep or right after waking up; in the shower; or while driving. I brainstorm with a black Sanford Uniball Rollergrip pen with microfine tip, but I write on the computer (because I can get my thoughts out faster).
I hope I'm in the call room scribbling away as you read this!
Saturday, October 31, 2009
I am some sort of tavern wench or something from some other century. (I cannot find my Wili veil.)
My spouse, Zorro, has gone out into the neighborhood with Black-robed Metallic Skullhead and friend Harry Potter in tow.
Daughter, a.k.a. Elle Woods from Legally Blonde: the Musical, is at a Halloween party.
Giselle, Act 2, is playing.
Butternut squash is ready for me to cut into chunks for a risotto inspired by this article on pumpkin eating and Halloween in France by Peter Mayle.
I am of course on call for the kick-off of NaNoWriMo tomorrow, but no matter - I am determined to get words on the page, and I have another creative project that's occupying a great deal of my attention (read, obsession) right now as well. Hence the patchy blogging.
I can't really complain. Halloween ain't so bad. And I gotta admit - the kids coming to our doorstep are REALLY cute in their little costumes. There's still nothing like a sheet over the head with holes cut out for the eyes and a big black-markered smile under them to make your day.
I hear it was magical out there - fast clouds rushing over an almost-full moon, balmy weather, people in good spirits, cute costumes (not too much gore). A good Halloween was had by all.
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
I've discussed this before. I really, really dislike Halloween. I'm especially grumpy that I'll be missing out on the pumpking carving exhibit / interdepartmental contest at my old hospital. [Click here and here for photos from the past two years.]
What can I say? I'm a Christmas person. Joy, light, hope, wonder, love. I get no enjoyment out of death, decay, gore, monstrosity, and terror. Scrooge is to Christmas as I am to Halloween. Bah.
But I've got kids, and my kids (like most kids) LOVE this so-called holiday, so I'm stuck with it for another few years. Not wanting to be a total party-pooper, I try to play along a little. This year my daughter is going to be "a creepy doll" and my son a metallic skull-head enrobed in black. Last year he was an exposed cerebrum enrobed in black (see above). The year before, a faceless phantom enrobed in black.
These are the things that make Halloween somewhat bearable for me:
6. Chocolate. Bags and bags of chocolate.
5. Costumes. I enjoy helping the kids create their alter egos for the night. And yes, I dress up too. Even half-heartedly getting in the spirit of things (mwa-ha-ha) takes the edge off.
4. Music. Time to break out the Giselle: Act II CD.
3. Movies. NOT the scary kind. I am a wimp - just reading about this year's blockbuster, Paranormal Activity, creeped me out. But I wouldn't mind something like Young Frankenstein, or a nice, benign ghost story, like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, or even a slightly more sinister (yet somehow still wholesome) one like Lady in White (1988), starring Lukas Haas of Witness fame. Or maybe even Ghost this year, in memory of the late Patrick Swayze. And of course, there's the George C. Scott rendition of A Christmas Carol. Anything to Christmas-ize this.
2. Literature. There are some great books out there for this time of year. This year's big discovery for me was Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Clever, unique, well-written, right in the spirit of Halloween but somehow not scary at all. Perfect. Or maybe I should finally get around to reading Mary Shelley. Seems criminal that a physician-ex-English-major hasn't read Frankenstein.
1. The virtual pumpkin carving activity Lisa of Anali's First Amendment led me to a couple of years ago. I could do this over and over and over. This is at the top of my list of things I actually enjoy about this otherwise unbearable annual indulgence in our darker aspects. THANK YOU, LISA!
Sunday, October 25, 2009
"Hate is a strong word," parents often tell their children. "You can say you dislike something."
The implication: the word hate should be avoided.
That's fine, but what about the sentiment? Are we in denial that the sentiment exists? Is it too much to ask for people to avoid the sentiment too?
Recently my daughter got into a discussion with some of the neighborhood kids in which she found herself in the minority. The other kids were saying that it was wrong to be gay, and my daughter was trying to assert, "No, it's not!" As the other kids looked more and more askance at her and got more vehement about decrying homosexuality, my daughter finally suggested they agree to disagree. She didn't back down from her position, but she saw no use in further escalating a discussion that was becoming increasingly non-rational.
A couple of nights ago she attended her first middle school dance. It went off without a hitch, much to my relief. But something did happen to one of her friends before the dance. A friend who happened to be one of the neighborhood kids in the discussion about homosexuality. A boy came up to this friend at school and said to her, "No one's going to ask you to dance tonight because you're [insert name of religion here]." The girl walked home to school in tears with my daughter. My daughter tried to be supportive, telling her the guy was just a stupid, ignorant jerk whose opinion didn't matter.
But his actions did.
I didn't hear about all this till later. When I did, I was livid, upset at the boy who would say such an awful thing, and at whatever elements in his life would signal to him or model for him that such thoughts and actions were acceptable. While the girls were at the dance I knocked on our neighbor's door to see if my daughter's friend had told her mother about the incident. I mean, if this were your kid, you'd want to know, right? My daughter's friend hadn't said anything, and her mom was appreciative that I had come to speak to her about it.
"Of course," I said to her. "It's a hate crime and I totally abhor it. Well, maybe not a CRIME in the legal sense, but it's hate speech. The kids should know we consider it very wrong, and a big deal."
Hate speech. Toward a seventh grader. A hate act. Which leads to hate crimes or other hate acts. And worst of all, hate mentality. And if it's starting this early, what does that say about how far (or not) this nation and world have come?
I came to the conclusion long ago that disdain is the root of all evil. Disdain, arrogance, and indifference to the worth of others. We haven't come far enough to grow out of the propensity for scorn.
Do I hate?
I hate the disdain of members of one religion for those of others.
I hate the disdain of believers for nonbelievers.
I hate the disdain of nonbelievers for believers.
I hate the disdain of men for women.
I hate the disdain of women for men.
I hate the disdain of white people for black people.
I hate the disdain of black people for white people.
I hate the disdain straight people have for gay people.
I hate the acceptance, indeed the encouragement, of disdain by people and institutions that are supposed to abhor it, like the members of my own church and of other Christian churches.
I do hate.
I hate disdain.
Why can't people just live and let live? Is that so hard? Really, is it?
A Hindu proverb passed along by Retta Blaney: "There is nothing noble in being superior to some other person. True nobility is in being superior to your previous self."
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
I cannot believe I never knew about NaNoWriMo until just this month. Where have I been for the last eleven years? (Thanks for the heads-up, Fizzy! I told my fellow-blogger friend K. about it, and I think we're in!)
National Novel Writing Month was intitiated by Chris Baty in 1999 with 21 San Francisco area writers. Now it has grown to an international month-long write-fest, with over 15,000 participants this year in countries all over the world - Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, England, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Micronesia, New Zealand, Norway, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, and the United States.
Everyone's talking about it. Well, not quite everyone, but you can read about it
The rules of the game (and that's essentially what it is - a giant, worldwide game) are these:
Start from scratch - no pre-written pages allowed - and write 50,000 words of a work of fiction between 12:01 a.m. on November 1 and 11:59 p.m. on November 30.
You "win" NaNoWriMo by getting to the 50,000 word finish line. You upload your writing to the site for word count validation between November 25 and November 30, then they purge it. That's IT. No one even reads it.
You don't win for writing well. You don't win for making sense. You don't win for writing in a particular genre of fiction (fantasy, thriller, mainstream, etc.). All you have to do is make it to 50,000 words in the space of a month, and you can consider yourself a NaNoWriMo winner. The bar is set as low as it can go. Quantity is far more important than quality. No nudgy self-editing, censoring, re-writing - there's no time! The point is to just crank it all out and worry later. (And no, I am NOT cheating with pre-written manuscript. I'm starting with a blank page on day one - which isn't to say I'm not doing some pre-writing in my head...or even on paper...)
The whole exercise may sound pointless, but I hear it feels really great just to make it to the end and to have kick-started a daily writing habit with the pressure of a deadline but without the anxiety of having to produce good work.
So how about it - are you game? Want to NaNoWriMo with me? Eleven more days...
As they say on the NaNoWriMo website: "Win or lose, you rock for even trying." So I'm gonna try it this year and see what happens!
Above image courtesy of the Parody Motivator Generator at http://diy.despair.com/motivator.php.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Today is the Feast of Saint René Goupil, patron saint of anesthetists. Time for a saint cake! (Any time it's the feast day of a saint we like, my family and I try to celebrate with a special cake. Good excuse, right? :) )
From time to time I try to reflect on the intangible, even spiritual, aspects of my profession. I have come to be wary of this now-irritating word, "spiritual;" it means so many different things to different people. I write about faith and medicine, but that too leaves me feeling cautious; people sometimes equate the word faith with belief or religion, whereas to my mind faith is a more catholic term, signifying a way of relating to the world and one's life, based on deep convictions. By this definition, theists and atheists alike have faith - a way of approaching and living life, and a vision of what a person's life should be.
My personal faith is informed, but not defined solely, by my upbringing as a Catholic Christian. Sometimes I feel I am very much an agnostic, almost an atheist. But not quite. There has always been a part of me that is drawn to the hope and joy of Christianity. I have written about all this at length on this blog and won't rehash it now, but today's feast day calls to mind the way my faith enters into (or sometimes fails to enter into) my work.
My faith teaches me to regard every individual - patient or coworker - as sacred and endowed with intrinsic dignity, regardless of what he or she has done or experienced.
It teaches me that suffering, sin, and death are part of life - and that the face of each patient is the suffering Christ right beside me.
The clues I derive from Christ's actions in the Gospels - especially his acts of healing - suggest to me that suffering is not the will of God - if such a God as Jesus described exists - for the people of the world. That pain and violence are NOT what we're meant for. That we should spend our lives trying to reverse it, prevent it, heal it as much as we can (as Jesus did), and serve others, or we are wasting our time.
My faith defines love for me as the energy behind such work: a living, working affirmation of the dignity and sacredness of another. Being a good professional, an educated physician, a doctor with integrity, a reliable colleague, someone my patients can trust to care for them - these are all acts of love in my worldview. My faith.
My faith was criticized - attacked, even, I felt - on another blog's comment board a couple of years ago. I felt hurt by the narrow-minded and openly hostile attitude I encountered there. But after I picked myself up and dusted myself off, I decided that what I had described about my approach to medicine had to remain unchanged. I had a clear definition in my own mind of what I meant, and perhaps expressed it inartfully or too cheesily for others' comfort, but it was still true and I hoped it always would be.
I think it's all too easy to forget the meaning and spirit of service - the subject of the Gospel reading for this past week. Fatigue and frustration can make for lapses into cynicism or scorn or whiny complaint; I was engaged in the latter just this past weekend, when we had to be in the O.R. off and on all day and in the middle of the night, until about three in the morning. But I believe we're constantly supposed to try to work past that self-centered attitude.
I believe there should be reverence in every touch, word, look, and smile; this is the standard to which I try to hold myself. Competent medical practice and patient care are more than a duty; to me they are a way of living out the kind of love for fellow-human-being that our daily life and work should entail. I echo, then, the words we say at liturgy on occasions when we renew our baptismal vows: "This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it."
Friday, October 16, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
At my oboe lesson today Kyoko and had a good laugh over the fact that a Baby Einstein video she saw recently introduces little kids to the instruments of an orchestra but does not include an oboe.
"No oboe! Can you believe it?"
"I guess they skip tuning altogether," I said wryly.
"The wind section did have a saxophone and recorder, though," Kyoko recalled.
On my way home I started thinking about videos and television for kids. I do think these media get demonized a lot. They're not all bad; some programs are quite good and well-produced, in fact. I can still sing some of the Sesame Street jingles from my 70's childhood. I think it's excess or poor quality that should be criticized.
That's one thing I have to admit I found annoying during Obama's campaign: he kept telling parents to turn the T.V. off in a tone I found rather critical. I whole-heartedly agree in principle that too much T.V. can be a bad thing - as can too much of anything - but I found such an unqualified imperative presumptuous. There are many things on T.V. my kids and I would not have wanted to miss enjoying together, just as there are things on film, in books, in museums, and in any number of sources that we would cherish as well. I didn't appreciate being judged for something that so far has not been a hindrance or a big problem to our children's development.
I have a couple of pet peeves when it comes to parenting advice.
On the one hand I resent the manipulative condescension of some parenting books, gurus, and medical personnel - those that claim to know what's best for children, assume that we don't, and proceed to tell us that we should do as they say, or else our children might not grow up to be smart, talented, successful people - the implication being, of course, that it's not enough to be an ordinary, hardworking, decent person; one must be smart, talented, and successful (whatever that means).
There's a fear-mongering tone in some of the patronizing "advice," almost a superstitious-ness: Oh my goodness, better not let your toddlers even SEE a television set before the age of two; they might grow up to be illiterate, violent pot-heads! They might not become "worthy" of an Ivy League School! Ack! Don't let little ones crawl into bed with you when they have nightmares! They might not learn to be independent! Hmm. An independent three-year old? Isn't that an oxymoron, and isn't it SUPPOSED to be an oxymoron? Isn't it better to console a fearful, tearful child and let him or her know there's someone to turn to for help, and it's ok to ask for it?
On the other hand, I deplore the equally manipulative messages of companies that market products designed (supposedly) to boost children's developmental capabilities, intelligence, or whatever else people think needs boosting. There's magical thinking in such messages - an appeal to our superstitious side, the part of us that needs to try to control what happens in life. Hey, folks - what we do now can make them geniuses later! Don't you want to do what's best for your child?
I am very much in the moderation camp. What we do for, and more importantly with, our children has some impact on their future, but so does what our children are physically and chemically born with, and what they discover apart from our influence. There's only so much we can control. Mozart isn't a magic spell; sharing music with our kids, and really listening to it and each other, might be, though.
Do I let my son play video games? Sure. I'm comfortable with that because he also reads at least two grade levels above his actual grade and voraciously devours books with curiosity and thoughtfulness. Do I let my daughter watch T.V.? Yup. We try to watch with her. We respond to the shows she likes. We also respond to the songs she composes and the stories she writes, the films she dreams of making, the shows she's in. We try to put nutritious food in front of them but we don't criticize them (or beat ourselves up) as if it were the end of the world if they have a slice of cake every once in a while. Moderation.
There are a couple of things we do try to be consistent about. We try to make sure we can answer yes to the following questions -
1) Can our children perceive and be absolutely sure of their parents' unswerving love?
2) Are we teaching them right from wrong?
3) Are they learning, and motivated to learn? and
4) Are we spending quality time together as a family and with each of our kids?
Perhaps this sounds simplistic. Perhaps it's a little smug of us not to read piles of parenting books and stick to a hundred little rules we and our babysitters absolutely must follow. But here's the thing I can guarantee ANY parent, whether they fall closer to our style on the parenting spectrum or to some other style:
Are you a terrible parent?
YES, you are - sometimes.
Am I? Ditto.
Are you a wonderful parent?
YES, absolutely - sometimes.
Am I? I certainly hope so, at least some of the time.
Will most of our kids turn out just fine even if we make a few mistakes along the way?
I believe they will, barring any special problems or situations, provided we proactively teach them right from wrong, and they can perceive and be absolutely sure of our unswerving love.
That's my approach to parenting. I didn't get it from a book, or from my master's degree in child development; I just try to take my cues from my kids and to be there for them when they need me. I guess we'll see how that works out!
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Many Filipinos have tried to do their part to help victims of the recent, devastating typhoon catastrophe that, unlike other recent natural disasters in neighboring Asian countries, has been largely ignored by the international press.
In one correctional facility in Cebu prison inmates gave up their rations as a way of contributing to the flood victims.
This foodie and blogger put her cooking talents to the service of her fellow Filipinos during what she described as her "most memorable cooking experience."
And last night, our nation's very own world-class, Tony Award-winning Broadway star, Lea Salonga, who originated the lead role in Miss Saigon and also played Eponine and Fantine in Les Misérables, gave an intimate benefit concert at the Philippine Center in New York which raised about $20,000 (about 1 million pesos) for flood victims. My daughter and I attended, and we could not have been more proud or more impressed.
Lea looked beautiful and radiant and was totally spectacular. Her musicianship is top-notch; her sound rich and moving, more so than ever - both lyrical and powerful; and her rapport with the audience more natural and comfortable than I've ever seen. She is really at the top of her game - a mature artist whose interpretations are imbued with the depth of her experience as a performer, wife, mother, and woman.
Accompanied on the piano by Larry Yurman, she sang
On My Own
Someone to Watch Over Me
Gone to Soon
A Whole New World
Everybody Says Don't
I was blown away when my daughter went up on stage after Lea invited audience members to come and sing "A Whole New World" from the Disney movie Aladdin with her. Boy, the kid has guts! I could never do something like that. So my daughter and two random Filipino guys sang the prince's part, taking turns, and Lea sang Jasmine's part. We're never gonna forget that!
Between this amazing benefit concert and our whirlwind visits to Rockefeller Center, Times Square, and our old stomping grounds in Tarrytown just 40 minutes north of Manhattan, we had an amazing mother-daughter trip that was well worth the missed day of work and school. New York has always been special to my daughter and me, and I plan on making memories there with her as much as I can!
Saturday, October 10, 2009
Last night I took my daughter to see Boston Ballet's world-class production of Giselle. It was superb - one of the best I've seen. The dancing and acting were first-rate, and Ricco Chicorelli's lighting - especially the spooky effects in Act II, in which the zombie-like Wilis really looked like they were specters rising from their graves and flitting eerily through the forest - made this production extraordinary and memorable.
The role of Giselle was danced by the talented Lorna Feijóo, who accomplished exactly what I hoped: a blending of contemporary ballet technique and virtuosity with the delicacy of the Romantic style, surely a result in part of her rigorous training at the National Ballet School in Cuba where, under the tutelage of the great Alicia Alonso, one of the greatest ballerinas of the 20th century and considered one of history's greatest Giselles, the discipline and artistry of classical ballet tradition has been passed on to generations of young dancers.
Let me try and explain what this ballet means to me. I have been haunted by Giselle since childhood. I have known the choreography by heart since the age of nine or ten, when I would watch a battered video of it at home almost every day and practice parts of it in the studio before and after my ballet lessons. I was quite serious about ballet then and even went to New York every summer for intensive training. Giselle was one of my dream roles - as it is for almost every young girl who wants to be a ballerina. I can probably hum Adolphe Adam's entire score from start to finish.
I had the opportunity to learn parts of the ballet directly from prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn during a master class she gave at the Joffrey Ballet School in 1987, arranged by my mom, who was very good friends with her. One of the last pieces I performed before going off to college was the peasant pas de deux from Act I for a group of elementary school kids, and the version performed by the Boston Ballet was almost identical to the one I performed in my youth - what a nostalgia trip! While I eventually gave up my ballet ambitions, Giselle will always have a special place in my life.
Giselle is one of the great classics - right up there with Swan Lake (1877) and The Sleeping Beauty (1890) - but is in a class by itself among the great ballets of history in part because it is the oldest of these, though not the oldest of all. It's like a living relic of an artistic period we can only imagine from its surviving music and poetry. It premiered at the Paris Opéra on June 28, 1841; ballet companies around the world have been performing it for the last 168 years. In addition it's been featured prominently in the films The Red Shoes, The Turning Point, and Dancers.
On the surface it is about a young girl named Giselle who has a weak heart but who loves to dance. She is in love with Prince Albrecht, who visits Giselle's village disguised as a peasant and keeps secret his noble identity and the fact that he is betrothed to another aristocrat. Hilarion, a villager who is in love with Giselle, exposes the truth in a dramatic confrontation; Giselle goes mad and dies of a broken heart. This is Act I. The fairy tale has gone horribly wrong. What else can there be? Why, ghosts, of course.
In Act II we meet the Wilis, the spirits of young maidens who have been betrayed by their lovers and who die before their wedding days. They lurk in the forest and take their revenge on the opposite sex by luring men into the woods to dance to their deaths. They murder the hapless Hilarion, who has come to pay his respects at Giselle's grave, and would do the same to Albrecht but Giselle protects him with her love and forgiveness and dances in his stead. Dawn breaks; the Wilis disperse; Giselle must go back to her grave; and Albrecht is left alone with his remorse.
It is quintessential Romantic Period stuff, complete with a score that would almost sound like the melodramatic soundtrack to a tragic and spooky silent film if it weren't so glorious. But the love story and ghost story are just part of what makes this ballet a classic; another beautiful facet of Giselle is that like the film The Red Shoes, it's a dance piece about the consuming power of dance.
Giselle is full of "classic" moments that ballet audiences recognize, and indeed look for, when they go to see it - Giselle's entrance and first dance with Albrecht; the hops on pointe across the stage during her solo; the famous "mad scene" - Alina Cojocaru's is the best I've seen; the crossing of the Wilis in Act II - a show-stopping moment (see here, time index 6:03) that usually garners applause for the corps de ballet, as it did in last night's performance; Giselle's high-speed promenades in arabesque for her entrance dance in Act II (see here or here or here); the pas de deux and Albrecht's two dozen entrechats toward the end of the ballet.
How is it that despite the fact that I know this ballet so well, and have seen it literally hundreds of times, I was still on the edge of my seat not only awaiting these classic moments but also at every thrilling turn of the story, as if I were seeing it and worrying about the characters for the first time? I KNEW Albrecht would get found out, but still my heart beat faster when Hilarion was about to blow the hunting horn and expose the truth. I KNEW Giselle would grab the sword during the mad scene and try to stab herself, but still a voice in my head warned the other villagers, "Uh oh, don't let her take that! Better get it away from her!"
I think Adam's expressive score (which, of course, has lots of great oboe parts in Lanchbery's arrangement of it) has a way of pulling us into the story time after time, allowing us to forget for a moment that as adults we're probably inclined to consider this a silly story. Instead, with the open-hearted suspension of disbelief children like my daughter still have - children who can believe in falling in love in a flash, in dying of a broken heart, and in being haunted by Wilis - we enter into the story and identify with the characters: Albrecht who wants to have his cake and eat it too; Hilarion, for whom life is not fair; Giselle who wants to believe in true love, but whose disappointment literally kills her; the Wilis who, having been betrayed by love, both fear it and hate it - two sides of the same coin - and allow their bitter vengefulness to destroy their very souls; and again, Giselle, whose love protects her beloved and whose forgiveness is redemptive.
I was browsing old ballet footage on Youtube a few days ago, rekindling my Giselle obsession, and one of the oldest clips I found was of Olga Spessivtseva dancing the title role in 1932. This is just a little bit past the halfway-mark between the first performance of Giselle and today's, making it a link to the Romantic Period, a clue to how not only this ballet but also ballet itself have evolved over the last several decades. What I wouldn't give to transport myself back in time for a while to watch Carlotta Grisi in the 1841 premiere! Giselle has withstood the test of time, and I have a feeling it will continue to haunt us for centuries to come...
Giselle at the Paris Opéra, 1867