Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

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Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Birdsong in My Stride

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I was housesitting, and the homeowners had a collection of daily reflections sitting on the tank of the toilet. I flipped through and decided that I liked the collection well enough to get one for myself (Mark Nepo’s “The Book of Awakening”). I don’t always remember to look in the book, and when I do, I often find the comments and discussion to be sufficient and think no more about it. This time was different.

The koan was: Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.

The discussion was about being born a human and to think about what gifts that brings. It would be nice to be a bird or a tree or even a rock. They can do marvelous things. Or maybe their lack of human thought would be a nice respite. But think, for a moment, what it means to be a human rather than something else—and think what it means to be YOU, specifically. There are things you can do, and DO do, every single day, that no other being can do.

It’s kind of like counting blessings. When you list all the positive things that happen in a day, you start feeling better about your day, every day. In a while, it becomes a habit, to see all the golden sunsets, the birds soaring on a thermal, the well-crafted quilt or pie or computer, the way the laundry smells when it’s fresh out of the dryer.

I have several friends who suffer from depression. This koan made me think of them—how special each was, how much I love them for their strength, their humor, their tolerance of me and all my peculiarities. Could someone else be or do all those things? I doubt it.

Think for a minute about the many great gifts that you have and that you give every day. I often reflect on one friend’s ability to be part of a family. In her case, it’s not an easy thing—that’s why it’s so remarkable. It’s not just that her husband is indifferent to her much of the time, or that she has disabled children, or that her live-in sister is often difficult to be around. It’s that she has the fortitude to stay in the relationships. She could have scarpered. She could have refused the sister’s presence in her home. She could have demanded a divorce and buckets of money. She could have institutionalized the kids. But she stayed. And because she stayed, those four other humans have a decent life. Can’t she see how amazing that is? I couldn’t have done half of that.

Another friend has married a very nice fellow. Oh, some of her family doesn’t understand because he’s so different from how they are. But he adores her. He grows all cow-eyed and mushy when she walks into the room. He thinks she can do no wrong and boasts, all shy and embarrassed, about her many skills, gifts, and beauties. I know her because we share a hobby. She’s always prepared, she always arrives on time, she never asks for anything special, and she always does her best, and her best is pretty darned good. Everyone who knows her can find many things to appreciate. Her hugs and her big soft eyes that look at you with wit and humor are the best things, of course, but I suppose she can’t see those. Even her job is about helping others. Yet she suffers with thinking that she’s not enough.

Still another friend has a wonderful and heroic husband, the kind we all think of as the prototype for Prince Charming. And he chose HER. He chose her because she’s lovely, witty, clever, kind, and patient. She can’t see any of that. Sometimes her cheerfulness seems a bit false or her unwillingness to talk about herself or her current projects reveals her depression, but most of the time, she gets away with her secret. She’s another person whose job is all about helping other people.

One more friend, probably the most intelligent human I have ever met, suffers with this same kind of overwhelming sadness. She’s beautiful, wonderfully well-educated, has a great job that interests her, great friends, many hobbies, and a very quick wit. She’s the first to point out the beauty in something, the symmetry or similarity to some other thing (often pop- or movie-culture), and she makes you laugh so hard that the orange juice you drank yesterday comes out your nose. I admire her more than nearly everyone I’ve ever met (my parents and some of their friends are the only ones who can top her). And she thinks she’s nothing most of the time. She thinks that no one sees her because there have been a few blind fools crossing her path.

All of these women exhibit extreme cleverness, marvelous outside-of-the-box artsy-fartsy-ness. They make and maintain friendships, even with people like me, who tend to withdraw for no good reason (other than being introverted).

I’m not a sad person. I think I understand what my friends go through, but my times of sadness have been caused by something specific (like my mother’s death, or the end of a romance, job, or friendship), and in time, the darkness lifted or changed. I have a tendency to look for and find the silver linings in things. When I can’t find one, I feel desperate and keep looking until I do.

Thinking about this contrast makes me return to the koan. Is it uniquely human to suffer depression or to be permanently—or determinedly—happy?

On my walk this morning, I watched myself put one foot in front of the other. Do I choose to walk like this, the same pattern over and over? Why not put a foot to the side? Why not behind? What is it about that forward motion that’s so mesmerizing? I took a step to the side. I walked with my feet wide apart. I took some steps backward. I turned sideways and walked by crossing my feet grapevine-wise. (This is San Francisco. It wasn’t even REMOTELY a weird thing to do here. No one noticed.)

I thought about the uniquely human act of going for a walk that has nothing to do with getting food or shelter. My walks feel like they have purpose because they’re about health and meditation and writing scenes in my head, but what other animal sets aside an hour of every day for such self-indulgence?

Today, when I reached the bay, I came upon a goose couple with three little goslings, I stopped to watch. They were going for a walk too. They walked to the other side of the path and onto the berm. Then they turned around and walked back, just as I do every day. I walk to the ballpark, walk around the ballpark, walk back home up the hill. What I saw was just like that, those little goslings and their parents putting one foot in front of the other, coming to the turn-around, and heading home, one foot in front of the other.

I walked on and was about to warn a woman walking toward me to give the geese a wide berth (they can be aggressive, especially with the little ones around) when she cried out—”oh! The little ones! And I just saw a seal and her baby! What a beautiful day!”

Her joy made me think about that little koan again. Humans share those little happy moments, even with strangers. We share little triumphs, even little annoyances. Even when the news is bad, it makes my day a bit brighter to know that my friends or a stranger has shared in this uniquely human way, and that I can be counted on for sympathy, advice, indignation, or happiness, as appropriate. We are most human in our responses to the things life brings our way.

Today, I honor the uniquely human part of us all, and I especially honor those people who suffer from depression, especially the ones who suffer who haven’t yet told their friends. Tell them. Tell us. We will love you because that is what humans do in times of trouble. It’s also what we do in the happy times. We might not understand, but we will listen.

Of all the things that exist, we breathe and wake, and turn it into song.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 2, 2016 at 12:55 pm

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Thoughts on the Olympics

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Every four years, my family and I are frustrated at Olympic coverage. Oh, I don’t just mean the usual US-centric complaint, or the banal announcer comments, or even that all they seem to show is swimming, gymnastics, and a few team sports. It’s that they don’t cover some of our family favorites.

I don’t miss boxing, the focus of a lot of coverage in my childhood. I wouldn’t know what I was seeing with judo, wrestling, or dressage. It’s that the one sport that interests us as a family, sailing, either isn’t covered at all (as in previous years) or has really dreadful unedited, hidden in the deep-dark-recesses-of-the-NBC-website coverage, like this year.

I watched about an hour of the online sailing coverage the other day on the website. There was no narration at all, and the onshore announcer wasn’t recorded. We could hear the lovely susurration of the water against the boats and the creaking of lines, and even the occasional shout from a sailor. But as far as announcing who had to round the mark a second time, who was disqualified and why, those were muffled comments picked up so poorly from the at-sea cameras that they couldn’t be understood.

They did have cameras onshore, though, just not near the announcer. They panned across the people in the crowd (not an insignificant crowd, either), and we could hear those conversations quite clearly. They just didn’t bother to set the cameras up for onshore announcer sound. I checked several of the recordings (there were dozens of them, thank you!), but none had better sound. I didn’t see the medal race—perhaps they had sound there?—because they wanted my email address and login information, and I didn’t want to get on their mailing list. I only wanted to watch the sailing. Fortunately, I could get to the final results without signing in (and what a surprise the medalists were!), so I know how it all worked out. But it was frustrating not to be able to watch the best of the best. Even if no Americans were in the particular medal race that I wanted to watch.

As an entertainment, I wrote my own narration to about an hour of the tape, pointing out the time stamp for significant events, in case I wanted to review them again. It was a lot of fun, really, and to me, made the point very clearly that sailing is quite exciting to watch. It’s more exciting to be on the boat, of course, but watching is a lot of fun too.

Then a friend commented on Facebook that he didn’t think rhythmic gymnastics seemed like a sport, that it seemed more like Cirque du Soleil. Hmm. It IS a lot like Cirque. Does that make it not a sport? It takes a lot of years of plain ordinary gymnastics and dance and THEN working with a prop, which means hand/eye coordination, to be any good at it. Yes, it is dancelike and entertaining on more levels than simply outrunning someone might be. But does that make it not a sport?

I started thinking of other sports where there seems to be even less athletic prowess, in my uneducated opinion. Like shooting.

Shooting an arrow from a bow is probably pretty hard. Shooting a gun might even be hard. But basically, both bow and gun shooting are about maneuvering a prop, about eye/hand coordination. Dressage looks like the hard part is controlling the animal, which could be loosely interpreted as a prop too. But the success of dressage performance depends entirely on the athleticism (and mood) of the animal, not the rider. Do people doubt that these things are sports? I mean, basically, someone stands or sits and points their prop, and hopes that they do it more accurately than anyone else. Now, I’m not doubting that there is some considerable skill involved, but are these things sports?

Throwing something, or lifting something really heavy, those are sports, right? Once again, it seems like manipulation of props, but to me, these things involve more than good eye/hand coordination. They also involve some sort of honing and refining of physical strength. There aren’t quite as many tricks to the shot put as doing a double back flip with a twist while catching a 5-inch ball on the sole of your foot in time with music, but, still.

Today, I was watching the long-distance swimming that was considered exciting enough to be shown on network TV. I have to say, after a half hour of coverage, it didn’t seem like as much happened as had happened in ten minutes of the sailing once the races began. In fact, it seemed like less. All that showed of the swimmers were their swimming caps and some splash. There was some jockeying for position, but basically, the same person who’d led the pack won. I did find the bow-wave-like ripples in the water that spread from the pack of swimmers to be quite beautiful. And there were panning shots of the audience. It looked like not quite as many people showed up for that as for the sailing. The viewing area wasn’t as deep, so I can’t be sure.

So maybe there is something more relatable about the swimming? No, that can’t be it. I’m pretty sure none of us can truly imagine that we are beating Bolt in the 200M dash, out-butterflying Phelps, or holding ourselves effortlessly in the Iron Cross position on the still rings.

Like shooting, sailing is about maneuvering a prop in terms of prevailing wind (and water) conditions. But it has the added excitement of being a race, the people in the boats have a lot of strength in their cores, limbs, and fingers, they have the stamina to sustain the effort for at least an hour and possibly all day, day after day, and they need tactical intelligence both against other sailors and against the wind and water.

So why does sailing get less attention than long distance swimming? Go on and see for yourself. Look it up on the NBC site. You’ll see. After the usual dithering around before the race begins (ten minutes or so), it’s pretty darned exciting.

Written by Melanie Spiller

August 10, 2012 at 7:19 pm

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The Sound of a Culture

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I work with a writer whose native language is Turkish. Turkish couldn’t be further from English as far as structure goes—Turkish is agglutinative, meaning that important bits are added to the beginning or end of words where other languages use separate words to provide the same information, like prepositions, articles, or gender tags. This difference in structure creates a certain uncomfortable formality when a Turkish-speaker writes in English.

A rigidly structured language like Turkish doesn’t leave a lot of room for slang or new words, and so it has to borrow from other languages to add new words. English is considerably less pure in its origins. English allows for many permutations and variations—multiple synonyms, oodles of ways to say the same thing, umpteen options for personal variation.

Thinking about the various languages and their structures got me thinking about how the language reflects the culture. And then I took it another step, and thought about how that culture is reflected in the music.

For instance, if you took away all the flourishes, trills, and bent notes in Turkish folk music, it could easily be Chinese or African. It’s the flourishes and the personalization of the music that make it distinctively Turkish.

I’m a lover of chant from all cultures, and there are also profound differences in chant from different regions.

  • Gregorian chant (Western Europe from 100 CE to the present) is angular, regular in note length, syllabic, and narrow in range.
  • Byzantine chant (Greece, Russia, and the Balkans from 800 CE to the present) is floral, filled with ornamentation, and with range limited only by the performer’s skills.
  • Arabic chant (the Middle East, including Israel, Egypt, and northern Africa) is floral, pentatonic (using five notes rather than eight for a scale), and rhythmically driven.
  • North American chant (the original indigenous people) is rhythmic, very narrow in range, usually pentatonic, occasionally quite high in pitch, and usually repetitive or cyclical. (Many North American languages are polysynthetic, agglutination’s near cousin. Perhaps that’s a clue!)
  • South Seas and Polynesia (including Hawai’i) is rhythmic, very narrow in range, and tells a story. It often has an accompanying dance.
  • Asian chant (including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam) is pentatonic, has specific sections reserved for ornamentation, and plays with overtones as an important aspect.
  • Carnaic chant (Indian, such as Kirtan) is repetitive, narrow in range, and leaves plenty of room for improvisation.

There are other forms of chant, of course. I itemized these few so you can see the similarities and the differences. The subject of this article is not chant, though; it’s about cultural influences on music as a reflection of language. Chant is simply the earliest form of music. I think that later forms make these cultural/language differences even more apparent.

Let’s look at German music from the Baroque period—Bach or Telemann will do nicely. German is very structured, very specifically organized (so much so that you can provide only the definite articles in the correct order, leave the nouns implied, and have a perfectly acceptable sentence), and although new words are adopted, they have to conform to the established order of spelling, case endings, and gender. German Baroque music does exactly this same thing. There are themes that are developed and repeated, there are rules of organization and structure, and there’s a certain happy predictability to the music. (I don’t mean that it’s formulaic, although that can be said too, to some degree. I mean that German music doesn’t leave you hanging, waiting for the final notes, and doesn’t suddenly veer off in a new direction.) Ornamentation in German Baroque music can be left out entirely, and the music is plenty lovely without it. Ornamentation with permission, you might say.

Italian music from the same period also reflects its language—consider Corelli or Scarlatti. Where the language offers implied words, elided words, and an almost reflexive bounce to the vowel at the end of most words, Italian music implies chords, plays multiple melodic lines simultaneously, and has a certain cheerful bounce to it. In fact, Italian music is distinctive in its bounciness—it’s not that there aren’t requiems and other sad music. It’s that there is a certain determined approach to sad music that cheers the listener up, where Russian or French music might enjoy being sad and linger there. The Italians also wrote particularly marvelous dance music. I can’t think of any sad dance music, can you?

Russian music offers the same stoic, almost military, precision that the language does. There’s a certain rigidity to the rhythms, a huge difference between the higher voices and the lowest voices (sometimes a gap of more than an octave), and a dramatic sensibility that might seem moody to other cultures. The language has a rigid structure, more cases than most other languages to complicate conjugation, massive gender differences even in family names, and a lot of poetic synonyms. You’ll find those sorts of idioms in Russian music, too.

Spanish music borrows heavily from Arabic influences. Just when you’re guessing that the music is Italian because of its bouncy cheerfulness, it careens into a wild ornament and confuses the issue. Like Italian music, there’s a certain rhythmic and melodic cheerfulness, but Spanish is more than willing to insert a little angst into a song. Remember that there was an astonishing confluence of cultures in Spain, where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in (relative) harmony until the Jews were expelled in 1492. The multitude of influences lingers on in the music, in the language, and in the food.

English music, like the language, is a wondrous mixture of German, French, Italian, and Celtic cultures. All of the elements are there, and like the language, the music is more of a compilation than its own entity. Composers like Purcell and Handel borrowed from other cultures (Handel was from Germany and the influence never completely faded), but there is still a distinctively English sound. Like German music, there is an orderly proceeding, like Italian music, there is often a subtle cheerfulness, and like Celtic music, there are fun ornaments and melodic meanderings, but never wandering as far from the origins as Arabic music. When I think of English music, I often think of a brass fanfare, like the olympic opening music or Masterpiece Theater’s theme. (I’ll bet you are too, now.)

I’ve been listening to a lot of French composers lately, trying to see how my theory of the music and the language reflecting one another. Charpentier was probably the greatest of the French masters, borrowing both from Germany and Italy—somewhat predictable proceedings but with implied rather than specified chord members, dangerous dissonance that resolves in surprising ways, and wonderful, unusual voicings. The French language has implied endings, elided words that depend on specific rules, and looks vastly different from how it sounds. Couperin, Lully, DuMont, and Rameau are French Baroque composers, and when I stop obsessing with a particular album of Charpentier, I’ll start listening to some of those guys too. DuMont, the least famous of the French Baroque composers I found, used many of Charpentier’s tricks—slow trills, open fifths, and interludes of dance rhythms surrounded by more serious proceedings.

Research reveals that Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Australia don’t have a clearly delineated Baroque period (although in the Americas, the Baroque period marks the beginning of western-sounding music, it is clearly applied heavy-handedly to the existing rhythms and scales, much like other cultural manifestations, like religion, fine art, architecture, food, and language). I’d love to hear from ethnomusicologists who can clarify things in those areas.


Written by Melanie Spiller

May 10, 2012 at 1:38 pm

What’s Your Purpose?

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Thrice in the recent past, I’ve encountered writers who are stuck in their writing. In the case of one, he’d been working with a critique group and didn’t know how to proceed. One critic said do this, another said do that, and neither thought he was on the right path. In the case of the second writer, there was just so much to write about, she was stopped in her tracks. The third was trying to do everything at once and although he wasn’t having trouble writing, he was overwhelming his audience.

The problem of the first writer (shall we call him Vincent?) was simple. He had a story to tell, but people wanted him to tell their stories instead. In an effort to please them, he was getting stuck. It wasn’t his story anymore. We stood on a street corner saying goodnight one evening, and I could see from the bleak look on his face exactly what the problem was. He was trying to please his audience before he knew how his own story ended.

The second writer (let’s call her Alexandria) has done a lot of writing. Newsletters, blogs, journaling, and so on. She has had an extraordinary life so far, and there are parts of it that really should be told and heard around the world. She’s stopped in her writing because she has a largess of resources. It’s hard to begin when there’s so very much to do.

The third writer (I think I’ll call him Mike), falls between the two. He wants to tell the story of his family, but he’s also charmed by the way he heard it himself and wants to share that. He wants first to recount sitting at some elder’s knee and then to recount the stories they’d told. Even his own family is having trouble reading through it and they share both the experience and the history.

All three have the same problem. They don’t really know why they’re writing. They just know that they want to or need to.

Vincent’s case is easy. He needs to tell his own story in his own words. Once he’s finished it, or he’s far enough along that he has some distance from the earlier chunks, he can start seeking the advice of others. But until he has his own clarity about where he’s going and how he’s getting there, any advice he gets, even advice that coincides with his own designs, will divert him from his goal of writing, After all, no matter how well he’s written or how pristine his prose, he has many rounds of editing ahead of him. He has his own multiple passes, the passes he makes after other people tell him what they think, and if he’s lucky enough to find a publisher or an agent, they too will tell him what to do.

My advice: Just write your story. Worry about what other people think later. There will be plenty of time to please them.

Alexandria’s situation is more complicated. First, she has to pick out the stories that she feels convey her message, knowing that along the way, she will change her mind a hundred times. Then, she has to understand that she has more to offer than a single flavor. There’s a memoir, there are instructions about the line of work that she’s in, there’s a sort of love song to a mentor, and there’s her own very interesting take on life and all its turns and twists.

My advice: Make some outlines, apportioning each bit to its assorted corner. Things might wander from one place to another, but at least she’s got a place to start.

Mike’s problem is that he wants all things to be in one place. He wants to share this great experience of learning about the Ancient Ones from the merely Old Ones. He has done a whole lot of research to back up his story, and he’s cleared time in his life to write it. All advice that he needs to separate the tale from the telling falls on deaf ears.

My advice: Decide whether you want to tell your tale or whether you want to get published. If you just want to tell your tale, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you want to get published and everyone tells you it’s too complicated, it’s probably too complicated.

All three have the same issues. They believe that they have something to say that people will want to hear. In Vincent’s case, he just needs to get past the fear of dropping the new baby on its head and know that no matter how carefully he watches, the baby is going to eat some dirt or fall over or some such dreadful thing at some point. (Please excuse the metaphor. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

In Alexandria’s case, she has a traffic jam. Once she figures out which story belongs where, she can pick and choose which one she’s ready to work on. It’s a kind of Rubik’s cube of writing.

In Mike’s case, he needs to decide whether he wants to get published or just finish writing it all down. If it’s the latter, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s more of a journal that way, or a blog, perhaps, than a book.

You might have noticed a contradiction in what I’m telling Vincent and what I’m telling Mike. I’m telling Vincent not to listen to his critics until he’s gotten some distance, and I’m telling Mike to listen to the critics who say it’s too much information and too much swobbling in time and place to follow the story easily.  What’s the difference? Vincent is writing a memoir that he might later fictionalize, and Mike is writing fiction based on facts.

Alexandria will encounter some of these same issues, I suspect, but right now, she just needs to get started and the path will get increasingly clear. Frankly, I can’t wait to read all three.

Written by Melanie Spiller

October 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

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Virtue and Vegetables

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At meditation the other night, someone said something about vegetarianism being more virtuous than being omnivorous. I don’t know about that—and I’m a vegetarian.

Two things came up for me: Being a vegetarian amounts to being a picky eater and virtues are not generally lifestyle choices.

First, the human body is designed to be omnivorous. Tooth and stomach design, not to mention inclination, are evidence of this. Humans don’t have the ripping teeth or beaks of a predator, but they do have the grinding teeth like other meat eaters and that vegetarian animals are conspicuously missing. The enzymes—and the sheer length—of the digestive organs are specifically meant to break meat down and distribute its various nutritious elements throughout the body. But even more than that, no amount of coaxing will make a giraffe eat meat. Meat simply does not smell or look like food to them. Humans, for the most part, do like the taste, sight, and smell of meat. That some of us don’t is parallel to having a favorite color or preferring the countryside to the beach.

There are many reasons for being a vegetarian. Some choose this path because they object to the way the animals are treated during their short lives. Some choose it because they don’t like the idea of eating something that could look back at them. Some have religious reasons—whether or not they agree, their religious beliefs or cultures proscribe eating either all animals or certain animals. And some choose not to eat meat for health reasons—in some cases, the body simply has to work too hard to digest meat, leaving them vulnerable to disease, and in others, there are allergies, sensitivities, and digestive complaints that are solved with this simple change.

I’m in that last group. I stopped eating red meat when I was a teenager (mostly because I didn’t like it much, and partially because I was a bit of a hippie and the diet fit into that) and almost immediately I stopped getting colds and flu. More recently, my liver has decided that fat is not my friend, and it’s way easier to eat a controlled-fat diet without animal products of any kind.

Gosh, and I feel better too. Again.

Now that I’m a vegan, I find that it’s hard to keep my protein levels up. When I was a teen, it didn’t matter much, but now, I pay for those sorts of imbalances. I’m probably also paying for the imbalances of my youthful ignorance about balanced nutrition. So I count protein intake much as others count calories. I have all kinds of supplements and processed foods that give my protein count a boost when I simply cannot eat another bite of tofu, nuts, or beans. There is a significant improvement in how I feel when my protein count is above 40 grams a day, so I’m pretty committed to counting protein grams. (Protein requirements are determined by body weight, so your requirement could be higher or lower than mine.)

But none of this feels particularly virtuous. Oh, it’s true that I make most of my own food—that’s one truly beneficial side-effect of this choice. I have more control over the fuel I supply myself with than omnivores with a typical American-style diet. But there’s not much that can be counted as virtuous in a typical American-style diet. It’s full of processed foods, has a horrible imbalance of meat and dairy products, and seems to eschew carbohydrates as evil rather than as a good source of energy.

But is avoiding an American-style diet  enough to make vegetarianism into a virtue?

It seems to me that a virtue is more like a personality trait or a natural inclination than a choice. I mean, a person can choose to be kind, gracious, merciful, charitable, or wise, but really, these things come more naturally to some than to others. There is the instinct to make a sarcastic remark just as there is the instinct to hug someone who weeps. Not having the sarcastic impulse is a virtue, as is the impulse to comfort someone. Squelching the one and acting on the other impulse might be considered virtuous too.

Does being virtuous mean denying natural urges? Like not punching the cretin who cut you off for the third time while on the freeway today or jumping into bed with that hunky construction worker or spending beyond the budget? Does it mean keeping the house clean, volunteering to charitable organizations, calling parents regularly, and respecting other people?

My first encounter with a raw-food vegan (not only do they eat no animal products, but nothing can be heated over 110 degrees Fahrenheit either), led me to think that this diet was an enormous inconvenience. Eating in an ordinary restaurant was a problem, making a meal without a lot of warning was a problem, and frankly, he was constantly eating something, which was a lot like being friends with a caterpillar. He thought of his diet as “taking the high road.” I didn’t see it that way at the time, and I still don’t see it, nearly a decade later. Besides.  I like less of my day to be devoted to fueling myself and more of the fuel to be about pleasure than function.

But that’s just my choice.

I talked to a vegetarian friend about this issue, and she said that she doesn’t tell dinner hosts that she’s a vegetarian. If she is served chicken, for instance, she just eats it. She said that she doesn’t seem to suffer for it (physically or psychically) unless she’s eaten more animal flesh in a short period of time than usual (like three times in a week). But she’s not a vegan, and her diet is about ethics, not health. Inconveniencing a host is less ethical to her than eating the meat, so she just goes along with the crowd.

In her case, eating meat is more virtuous in certain circumstances than not eating it. On her own, she doesn’t eat meat, though, and I haven’t noticed her being uncomfortable staying vegetarian around non-vegetarians or judging when other vegetarians step off the narrow path.

It seems like people who are NOT vegetarians are the ones who think of being a vegetarian as virtuous. Is it that we’ve now labeled any sort of abstinence as virtuous? Does that make subsistence farmers more virtuous than those of us who work in an office because they procure their food from their own sweat equity rather than from the corner market?

I guess I don’t think of my dietary habits as virtuous in a general way. I think of some of the details as virtuous, such as counting protein intake or baking my own bread, but in general, it’s just a choice, like wearing certain clothes or living in a particular place. But if you want to think of my diet as virtuous, I can live with that.

I can also live with it if you think I’m just being picky.

Written by Melanie Spiller

September 7, 2011 at 3:24 pm

Posted in Food, Thoughts

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Role Models

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Another rock star is dead before the age of 30. On Facebook, in among the expressions of sadness, people are ranting about what a bad role model the dearly departed was. Does everyone in the public eye have to be a role model? Really?

I started thinking about other public figures and whether or not they were always considered role models. Politicians? Check. Writers? Check. Millionaires/billionaires? Check and check. Opera singers? Check. Actors? Check. What about on a smaller scale, like teachers? Check. Religious leaders? Check. Business owners? Check.

Other than teachers, it seems like all these folks have a reputation for running amok. What’s the deal? Is there something about being in the public eye that attracts people who are damaged? Or is it that being in the public eye causes such damage that the psyche breaks down and indulgence takes over?

I started thinking about the nature of over-indulgence and self-indulgence. It seems like the line of work influences that too. Rock stars overdo with substance abuse. Opera singers with food. Actors with ornamentation like jewelry, clothing, houses, and cars. Politicians seem to indulge in many directions, often including the thing they most vigorously campaign against. Religious leaders seem to fall off the straight-and-narrow when it comes to making predictions or caring for young people. Business owners get obsessed with the bottom line and step over the ethical line.

What’s the deal? As a musician and a writer myself, I thought for a while about the people with whom I do these things. Do we over-indulge too? Hmm. Not that I know of. Is that why none of us are famous?

Now wait a minute. Do you have to be famous to be a role model? My parents were my role models, and some teachers. I can’t think of a single famous person that I considered a role model when I was young. Oh, there were people that I idolized—the Beatles, Amelia Earhart, Jean-Pierre Rampal, Isadora Duncan, Louisa May Alcott. But did I want to grow up to be just like them? Not really. Did they inspire me to do my best in some things? Absolutely.

So what is it about today’s youth that needs to emulate famous people? Has it always been true? Did I want to be Bach when I grew up? Or Agatha Christie? Do they make it look easy enough that the rest of us think that we can do it too?

Are we, in the end, drawn toward role models whose virtues—and failings—we want to emulate? Did I become a classically trained musician because I want to feel a little out of touch with my own times? Did I choose writing, technology, and music because people with the same inclination toward introversion, introspection, and celebration are also involved?

Do I still have role models? Well, yes, I suppose I do: My parents, certain teachers, several of my parent’s friends. Oh, and there are those individuals who teach me about kindness and humor and grace in the tiny little lessons of living their lives in light of those things. These are my role models now, and frankly, the list looks much the same as it would have when I was thirteen even though many of the names have changed.

There are still the Theodore Bikel characters, the Pete Seegers, those standing up for truth and against injustice, and those committed to their craft, whatever that might be, and who follow their destinies even if that doesn’t make them rich, famous, or even popular. These perfectly ordinary people are my role models now, and apparently, have always been my role models.

Perhaps there is no famous person with whom I would trade places—isn’t that what a role model is? No, I would rather achieve my own fame and notoriety under the steam of my own efforts and skills. It’s not that I don’t want to be rich and famous, of course. It’s that I want to be expert at my own craft and be recognized for it. I don’t have a problem with working hard to achieve whatever it is that I’m going to achieve, either. If it were easy, I probably wouldn’t value it as much.

So, do people who, say, choose rock and roll, do they choose it because it represents a lifestyle that they want for themselves? And is that the same for all rockers?  Is it loud guitars, driving bass, crashing drums, and mind-altering amounts of drugs and alcohol? And those who choose writing, is it because they like being alone, being moody, and experiencing a lot of rejection? What about opera singers makes them so obsessed with the pleasures of the senses?

Is this a chicken and egg question? I don’t know.

This week, another famous person is dead from self-indulgence (presumably) and people are decrying the poor thing as a bad role model. Isn’t it really the obligation of the individual to choose role models who inspire us to do our best and not our worst? And when we choose a role model who proves to have a tragic weakness, is it their fault that they fail us? Or is it our own bad choice that is at fault?

Is it our wanting them to be perfect that drives them to the point where they are completely consumed by their own imperfection? Shouldn’t we pick role models without such obvious defects? Or do we choose them because they succeed despite their failings? Do their failings become huge and inescapable because we expect impossible perfection from them? Or is it their imperfections that allow them to become the role model in the first place? Did someone who knew that the individual had issues choose them as a role model expecting that somehow, the result would be different this time?

I don’t know what the answers are, but I wish we wouldn’t berate the dead for having not lived up to some indefinable standard. Let’s choose role models based on the whole person and not the surface of them. I think that means that we mustn’t idolize people we don’t actually know without reading about them in the tabloids. And it means that if they are only public figures but not otherwise living their lives in a way we would emulate, let’s admire their gifts but not call them role models. Let’s let the poor things own their own lives without being responsible for ours by implication.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 27, 2011 at 12:53 pm

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Making Jam

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I love my bread machine. No, really. I’ve made bread pretty much every week since I bought it, spending seventy-five cents per loaf rather than three dollars plus AND I can completely control what goes into it (okay, I’m not grinding the flour myself, but other than that…) so I know that it’s not just homemade but it’s actually healthy and nutritious.

But I also love that my bread machine has a wide variety of settings including a knead-only dough cycle (great for making free-form loaves like focaccia, plus pizza dough and homemade pasta), sourdough and whole wheat settings (for different crust types and crispiness), and, wonder of wonders, a jam setting.

Yesterday, intending to make fig jam but finding a great price on apricots (no, this did not stop me from buying rather a lot of figs), I used the jam setting for the first time. Talk about easy, even on a hot day! You cut up the fruit, drop some pectin (I found a nice fruit-based one) on it and let it think about stuff for ten minutes, then throw lots of sugar/honey/agave and some fresh lemon juice at it and turn the machine on. The machine heats quietly for about 15 minutes, which starts melting the sugar and encouraging the pectin to do its thing. Then it starts to stir. Every five seconds the little stirring device gives a single whirl for about an hour, and then there’s a quiet cool-down of another 15 minutes.

The result is a glorious color, and after another 15 minutes cooling down away from the machine, the jam is ready to be put into an ordinary jar. No sterilizing, no tragic glopping on the counter (because the loaf pan is square, it has those nice corners to facilitate pouring), and a pint of so of fabulous summer-fruit jam is ready for consumption. I don’t have to have a hot kitchen or a huge pantry or any special supplies at all.

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’d made a loaf of wheat bread earlier in the same day that had a little orange zest in it, and I was pretty eager to see how these marvels went together. Still hot from the machine, the jam was delicious. Three hours later when it was room temperature, it was happy-dance worthy. In the morning with peanut butter…I don’t actually have the words.

I immediately began plotting to make fig jam. All I needed was some more pectin from the grocery store.

So I went for a walk to the grocery store, thinking about the magic of pectin and sugar and fruit, which is already sweet, and a little heat. You just sprinkle a little pectin on, let it sit for a bit, add sweetness and acid, and agitate for a while. More sitting makes it astonishing.

It struck me how making jam this way was like a koan. You receive/hear the koan and think about it for a bit. After a while, it begins to change, both in meaning and in context. Then you actively agitate it and see what happens to it. Then you sit with it again. The longer you sit with it, the more precious and amazing it becomes, even if you come back to it after it’s had some time to cool.

All this magic in a bread machine that cost about $50. [Editor’s update: It took me two days to post this because the fig jam was so amazing, I had to lie on the floor in a sugar-happy coma or something.]

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 22, 2011 at 5:38 pm

Posted in Food, Thoughts

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Worlds Merging

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Last night my Jewish choir joined forces with my Gregorian chant choir. I’d set it up with the same anxiety that prospective brides have about the two families meeting for the first time. But I needn’t have worried. It was as if we’d all known each other forever.

I’m so proud of all of them—all of us—I feel like I could float.

The Gregorian chant group has existed for about a dozen years, and I’ve been part of it for most of those. We sing from the block note neumes (see my post on the History of Music Notation, if you’d like more about that), and meet every single Monday night except for December, and sing at a proper Gregorian mass on the fourth Saturday of every month except December. Some in the group do not read modern notation and others are accomplished musicians from a lot of eras and instruments.

The thing about the group that is most striking is not musical ability or the music we do. It’s the uniformly sweet temperament. Oh, sometimes we get a bug up our noses about whether there should be a breath here or not, and whether this could be sung with that emphasis or another, but it’s always about the music and never about the person whose opinion we’re ignoring. Some of the sweetness could be that I’m the youngest person in the group by at least a decade and the older we get, the more inclined we are to be sweet, or it could just be that no one is fighting for prominence because we’re all made better by every other person who shows up and we know it.

And some of the people who’ve been in the group but aren’t anymore, some of them are the most special people on the planet too. (And we miss them regularly.) We’ve had a transfer teacher from Poland, a music major from U.C. Berkeley, a math doctoral student, professional translators, editors, peace activists, school teachers, engineers, and cancer survivors. (Rather more of our share of cancer survivors than is comfortable, but I suppose that’s better than the other way around.) We’ve had marriages and babies from among our number, and cried on each others’ shoulders about relationships and politics (a lot about politics) and natural disasters, jobs, health, and just plain being in a bad mood. We’ve had former and current monks and nuns, we’ve had Buddhists, Episcopalians, Jews, and Quakers—oh and a few Catholics, while we’re at it—we’ve had people who wanted to chant as a form of worship and people who wanted to chant as a musical expression and people who just wanted something interesting to do on a Monday night.

Yes, some of the best people in the world have sung with that little group over the years. And I, for one, am made better for it.

Now, the Jewish group, they’re new. This is their third year (I think—it might only be their second). They sing music from all eras, the only rule being that it’s either by a Jewish composer or expresses Jewish sentiments. Again, I was astonished to find the nicest people on the planet in their rehearsals. Like the chant group, it’s a diverse crowd in skills, age, and faith. I knew a few of the members before I showed up for the first time, so I felt quite welcome from the start. But others have joined since, and I can see that that is just their way—they are a very nice bunch of people.

The thing that struck me from the beginning was how alike the two groups are—in skill, in musical focus, in temperament. So it was natural that when the Jewish group took the summer off, I invited them to sing with the chant group (they rehearse on the same night and I’ve had to alternate which group I rehearse with). Things went swimmingly, with people saying whether they could or couldn’t come, and if they were interested in hearing the chanted mass rather than singing it. And I didn’t have any doubts at all until I was driving to the rehearsal.

Then I had a moment—what if this is the night one of us is having a bad day? What if it’s harder to sing from the neumes than I made it out to be? What if we get locked out of the hall for some reason, and have to stand on the sidewalk until someone can find the priest to let us in? What if no one shows up after I talked it up so large????

But then, people started to arrive. People who’d never met each other before hugged. There were smiles and laughter. And when we went in to sing, there was focus and fun and a lot of good music. The Jewish group sang as if they’d been reading the neumes all along and the chant group was helpful and welcoming and—all those things I went on and on about in the earlier paragraphs.

I’ve made a lot of music in my lifetime. It’s one of my favorite activities. But that rehearsal made the best music ever: the music of love and friendship and a common purpose.

Maybe I am actually floating.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 12, 2011 at 5:31 pm

Posted in Music, Thoughts

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Taking the Train

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Last week at meditation, the koan was about a student going to the master and plaintively asking to be shown the light. The master responds that the light is nothing but the reaching for it is of value.

What struck me about this was not the obvious—that it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. For me, it was about fighting the urge within myself to resist change that I do not originate.

First, the destination versus journey words came up for me and then I got an image, the metaphor of a train. I am traditionally the engine, pulling things where I want them to go, riding high near the light, large and in charge. But the truth is, some of the best journeys I’ve had in my life were from the caboose, content to see what comes as it comes, not to control or direct.

I thought about this for a while, seeing how the metaphor fit into various aspects of my life present and past. Yes, as an introvert, I have a tendency to be the engine and not notice or know whether there are other cars on the train. But what I love about travel is exactly the caboose metaphor. I might have a plan and know how I’m getting there, but I love to let things unfold and just see where the train goes and where that trip takes me. I love to flip a coin to decide my path when I’m on vacation.

Why do I have such a separation between my “normal” life and my traveling self? How can I put that willingness to go with the flow into my daily life?

Hmmm. There is change afoot nearly everywhere I look. Some of it excites me, some frightens me, and some I seem to be ignoring. If I think about the exciting changes, they have to do with the season (figs are in the stores again—did you hear me? Figs!) and with some creative endeavors. If I think about the frightening ones, they are mostly creative and somewhat financial, which I suppose ends up being creative, and they are also somewhat physical, with some concerns about health, mine and others that I care about. And the changes that I ignore? They are too numerous to count and I suppose mostly in the category of the mundane (such as the dust accumulating on things), some more things to do with the seasons, and a kind of relaxing of musical effort as the season comes to a close.

So creative things are both exciting and scary. What does that mean? And what if I think that nearly everything I do is creative? That would seem to mean that I find creative efforts exciting, scary, and mundane. Hmm.

So where does that leave me on the train? Can I make my way to the caboose? Is it possible to instigate creative things and then let them run amok without taking charge of them? Just let them go wherever they go and not try to take charge?

Perhaps the expression shouldn’t be “taking” the train, because that implies control of it. Perhaps it should be “riding” the train.

Written by Melanie Spiller

July 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm

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Stage Fright

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I don’t get stage fright. After all, one way or another, I’ve been on a stage since I was four years old—ballet, playing the flute, ballroom dance, a brief theater period in college, teaching in a classroom and privately, and of course singing. But when I went to that historical novelists’ conference, lo and behold, I got a little stage fright.

It was standing outside the room where everyone pitched their books to agents and publishers that did it. I was fine, didn’t expect much, thought of it as a way to suck information out of people more than a way to get into print. I got to the room in plenty of time, signed in, and then lurked, listening to the others talk about their books, their pitches, or the weather. Suddenly, my stomach lurched up into my throat. Apparently, it showed on my face, as the nice woman signing us all in came over to me and asked if I was okay.


Here’s the thing. I’ve been around plenty of people who get stage fright. You can feel it, almost smell it on them, a kind of quivery stomach, heart in throat extravaganza of sweating palms and loose bowels. But *I* don’t get it. Nope. If you’re prepared, even if you make mistakes, you will recover. Heck, as I always say after singing a solo, “no one was killed.” You just can’t take it so seriously.

But I did. I seriously did.

I pulled myself out of it quickly enough, though. Here’s the tale.

The night before, there was a reception, and we all stood around pitching our books to one another while we sipped adult beverages. This nice young man, a graphic novelist specializing in the Trojan horse era, asked me what it was that I thought would go wrong. I realized that I couldn’t explain. So then he said to me—and here’s the really clever part—give me your bad pitch.

So I did. I slumped my shoulders. I pinched my voice up into my nose. I whined on academically about the driest aspects of my book. I pretended that I was proud of how LONG the book is. I used long words and foreign words to make myself seem smarter. I checked my teeth repeatedly for savory morsels.

Those were all the things I didn’t want to do. So then, he said—knowing I was ready now—give me your good pitch. And I did. I was funny, engaging, and told my story with light in my eyes. I could feel myself just flat out enjoying that I’d come up with this idea and seen it through. I mentioned my second-draft trimming efforts and my plans for the next book.

Ta da!

So there I was, getting nervous in the line to present to important dignitaries, and I just ran that little exercise again. I got all the ickies out before I went in to see someone who could decide whether or not I really did have a good idea.

You know, this works, or so I’m told, for proper stage fright as well. I’ve read that if your hands are all sweaty and your heart is pounding away like it’s a conga drum, you try to make your palms sweatier and your heart beat harder by just willing it so. Apparently, that makes these unpleasant fight-or-flight instincts quiet right on down.

You’ll have to let me know though. Even though I’d only known about the solo for four days (someone had to bail at the last minute), I got away with it at this weekend’s concert extravaganza without a peep of stage fright. After all, no one was killed.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

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