mofembot in france & germany

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Wednesday 26 September 2018

Sixty dozen eggs and riding an elephant

Unlike my entry for Franconia Notch, my endless sifting through the plethora of brochures and photos and papers and so on doesn't always succeed in resurrecting memories. Two cases in point:

1. I found an early-1990s letter from Hunger Services Network in Pittsburgh thanking me for the donation of 60 dozen eggs. Um. I feel relatively certain that had I transported 720 eggs in our Honda Civic 4x4 from a farm to HSN's distribution center, surely I would have remembered it! — OK, maybe not, but I ultimately figured out what to me is a more likely and reasonable explanation: I was doing paid and pro bono production editing for HSN at the same time I was the Mormon rep on the One Voice Against Racism interfaith council. My best guess is that one of the other religious leaders let it be known that someone in their congregation had all these eggs, but didn't know what to do with them, so I provided the info about HSN, thereby facilitating the transfer of eggy goodness to those in need.

2. Before roughly two weeks ago, if someone had asked me if I'd ever ridden an elephant, I'd've said no. I was therefore completely surprised to discover a later-1990s photo of me (along with several others) on the back of a small (and not terribly happy-looking) pachyderm. A little more digging produced a map of the activities and attractions at King Richard's (Renaissance) Faire in the greater Boston area — and lo, yes, there was indeed an elephant ride there. I vaguely recall the Faire itself, probably because one of my AAVSO coworkers was part of a roving madrigal singing group there, but still no recollection of how it felt to ride an elephant.

(By contrast, I do remember how it felt to ride a camel in Tunisia, especially the bone-jarring dismount, which was unpleasant enough that I will likely never repeat the experience.)

Had I been a good journal writer — that is, had I written about more than just my Internal Frame of Mind and Soul and all (a.k.a. journal as therapist / punching bag), I'd have tried to capture these kinds of experiences: the smells, the sounds, the sights, the surroundings; perhaps musings about animal rights, and so on. I have been remiss about this sort of thing for most of my writing life, I think, except possibly when attempting to write letters (or emails) to other people in the hope of entertaining them.

The entire point of keeping memorabilia, of organizing scrapbooks, is not simply to catalogue the places we've visited, the shows that we've seen, the activities we've participated in — no, the point really is to have a means of capturing the stories associated with these things. What did we learn? What was the experience like? What was the takeaway? Why was it meaningful, or funny, or otherwise worth remembering?

As I keep discovering to my mostly minor dismay, so many stories are simply lost — I guess the synapses are recycled for other, more recent memories. For example, I have come across notes and cards thanking me for kindnesses and services rendered, humorous stories told, songs sung, lessons taught, and so on. Not only do I not remember these things (even when the thanks are reasonably explicit)… I often don't remember who the people are.

My takeaway from all this is — dear readers (especially my kiddies), if you're keeping a few things to remind you of various events, jot down the salient details while they're still present in your brain. Don't wait. Nor would it hurt to keep at least a bare-bones diary of the everyday events and activities in which you're engaged now and in the future. Sifting through papers and letters to … to recover and explain the course of your life long after the fact is hard. And you will not remember all (or even a small portion) of all of the things that you believed would be "unforgettable" at the time you experienced them.

Monday 30 April 2018

In memoriam, Odile (1960-2018)

My friend Odile died this past Saturday afternoon, April 28th, after a long battle with cancer. On Friday, I’d sent a couple of photos of me holding our first grandchild to Odile’s sister, Christine, along with a few thoughts on “the circle of life.” Christine wrote yesterday that she was able to tell Odile the happy news on Saturday morning during Odile’s last lucid moments, after which she lapsed into unconsciousness and died not long thereafter. (And yes, Christine used a close variant of the phrase “elle nous a quitté” — “she has left us.”)

I am glad Odile is no longer suffering, and that her loved ones are spared further pain in watching her suffer. She lasted far longer than I thought she would, and fought death like a tiger — not because she was afraid to die (at least such was her mindset when she and I talked so frankly about such things many months ago), but because she loved life so much. She had learned to live and rejoice in the moment.

She helped me when I needed help, going beyond cultural norms to do so. I know she thought of her intervention as small and insignificant, but just as the celebrated beating of a butterfly's wings in China potentially creates a storm in the Atlantic, her small acts of kindness, her frankness and honesty, calmed and helped me overcome the painful storm in my soul, and I will ever be grateful to her.

I hope in my heart of hearts to see her again.

Sunday 29 April 2018


I've been a professional writer and editor since my senior year in college, which was… oh, golly, some 40 years ago now. My first real job came about because one of my English professors was involved in a Mormon church project that required simplifying the missionary discussions, with the goal of reducing them from 18,000 to 12,000 words and taking the reading level down from roughly 12th grade to 6th grade or lower.

He and the rest of his team were stuck, and the deadline was hard upon them: each of the discussions was at least 500 words above the maximum and they simply couldn't get any further. I was initially hired just to count words. After I reported the numbers, this professor essentially threw up his hands and out of sheer frustration or desperation, suggested that I take a crack at it. I did, trimming and combining and simplifying like crazy. When I gave that first discussion back to him, easily under the maximum, he read through it and was utterly gobsmacked, pronouncing my work beautiful and inspired and, and, and. The upshot was that I did the final versions for five of the eight missionary discussions that (so I understand) served as the basis for translation into other languages.

Yes, I know how to edit. And yes, I know how to simplify content (see The Easy-to-Read Book of Mormon). There is an art to rephrasing, there is an art to abridging — to figuring out what content is essential to a work, to finding ways of making simple language convey powerful concepts in a way that is hopefully still… beautiful, or at least "better than adequate.” More challenging, perhaps, is the art of annotation — of adding material, usually as a footnote or endnote, that the original author has left out. Simple clarification or correction or expansion isn't especially difficult — adding, for example, notable information about a person to whom the author made passing reference in the body of the text; what is problematic is when the author is flat-out wrong (either carelessly or more seriously, deliberately), or has omitted information that is (in one's editorial opinion) essential to the narrative, but which the author felt was too embarrassing or personal to include.

I bring this all up because I'm currently typing in my mother's personal history, at this point a 62-page account all in longhand that goes up to 1990 or so. (I'm encouraging her to keep working on the rest.) I've found a couple of minor factual errors, such as the year our family moved from Canoga Park to Tarzana, and I've been adding a few things (photos of her elementary school, that sort of thing). But there are omissions in her account. Most of these I have no problem adding in (in square brackets), and I'm absolutely sure she will be fine with those additions, but there are a handful of other things that she left out, and I'm not sure what to do about them.

I already had a discussion with her some years ago about her leaving out some of the salient details about her first date with my dad. She felt that those details were not "uplifting," even if I found them hilarious. (Clearly I value humor over "uplifting," at least in this particular instance.) I… am still trying to figure out what makes the most sense to do with my mom's "untold stories.”

This all said, I'm trying to figure out what makes the most sense in telling or not telling my own stories. Some few years back I figured out that some fair bit of my writing, particularly my missionary stuff presented verbatim, was boring. There's very little depth in what I wrote down and shared with my family — mostly "this week we did this and that, taught x number of discussions, yadda-yadda." What I wish I had done, be it in letters home or to others, was describe events and people, paint word pictures of the places and experiences I had. I'm not sure if I can reconstruct from the bare-bones narrative style something that can convey the experience of serving a mission in NE France in the late 1970s. And what do I do about my missionary journal, laden as it is with punching-bag entries, hyper-religious self-condemning assessments, and so on? They reflect inner turmoil and lofty aspirations pretty well, but viewed 40 years later, and from a perspective far removed from the mindset I was in back then… it all seems over the top, and carries a different kind of distortion: there's a lot left out as well.

(I couldn't be as honest with my family, especially with my younger brothers, about what I was going through in the same way as I could with, say, Lianne, a missionary serving in Holland at the same time, but I have a lot more family letters to work with than I do letters to Lianne.)

In a different time period, all too many of my letters to Barbara and journal entries were very much in the "let it all hang out" style. And yet. I was very conscious of my audience — I wanted to impress Barbara with my … my what? Spirituality? Intellect? And I was too conscious as well that my journal was (per everything I'd been taught at church about such things) intended for Posterity to read — I was supposed to treat it as some kind of volume of personal scripture. So yeah. My mom's excising of the parts of her life story that she deemed unworthy of how she wants her descendants to view her is something I can understand pretty well, even if I lament the loss of those details of personal imperfection that make her story (and my own) more human and real. (And in some cases, funny as all hell.)

To be continued.

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Waiting for “elle nous a quitté”

I received a note the end of July from my grenobloise friend Odile's sister, C, telling me that Odile's health had taken a turn for the worse and that she no longer fully recognizes her surroundings. And two months ago, C wrote to say that “parfois elle est consciente de son état, autres fois, elle espère encore” — “sometimes she is conscious of her state, other times, she still hopes” — a sentence I find so poignant that it still brings tears to my eyes.

I have not heard from C since, although she has said that my weekly emails are appreciated. As is so often the case for those suffering from long-term illness, no direct contact with anyone other than a tiny circle of intimate friends and family for many months means that it is easy to be — not forgotten, exactly, but no longer a focus of attention among one’s larger circle of friends and colleagues. This is normal.

I feel I owe Odile so much that I want her — or at least her family — to know that I have not forgotten her. I understand that C is the gatekeeper and conveys as much or as little of what I write, and the photos I share, as she thinks Odile can deal with. I also understand that the cancer has had significant and increasing cognitive impacts, and for all I know, Odile may not even remember who I am at this point. But I will keep writing until C tells me that Odile “nous a quitté” — “she has left us,” which is the French equivalent of our own “she has passed.”

Odile’s situation, along my father’s very recent serious health scare (and ongoing issues pertaining to home hospice, aging, disability, and so on)… has been very sobering. I don't mean in a depressing sort of way, exactly, though I have to say that being here at my parents’ and watching my dad struggle, and watching my mom flailing about trying to cope, has done nothing to sell me on the desirability of living to a(n over)ripe old age. Au contraire. I marvel, however, that despite discomfort and difficulty, and despite the fact that both Odile and my parents do not fear death (and quite honestly, I think Odile consciously came to terms more readily with dying than my parents have — or at least than my mom has done thus far) — anyway, despite all this, Odile lives on, my dad lives on (and much better now that he’s received a pacemaker). The will to live is very strong despite pain and disability and death’s inevitability.

As for my mother, she seems so stressed — not without cause — that I honestly wonder if she might precede my father in death. So far she has not figured out a way to cope with his infirmities (especially his deafness and physical slowness)… along with her own aging and slowly-decreasing auditory acuity. My dad hopes that I can help my mom change some of her habits and expectations. I am armed with some relatively straightforward suggestions that in principle, if she adopts, will make life easier. Straightforward or no, it is hard to change a lifetime’s worth of certain behaviors. I will try — it is disquieting and sad to see how hard this is for both of them.

Well. Back to Odile. I have no way of knowing if she will make it to Christmas this year, and of course even if she does, whether that would be a happy thing for her loved ones. The last time I saw her in person was in October 2016, and I have known for nearly a year that I will not see her again in this life. Her sister has assured me that Odile is not physically suffering, and hopefully that will continue to be true right up until the end. That being the case, my thought/prayer is that — if it is a comfort to them that Odile linger longer, may she do so; but if it is a continuing source of sorrow to see her in such a diminished state, then may she die soon in peace.

I don't know if there will be a funeral or memorial, and even if there is, I don’t expect to be able to attend. I have drafted a letter to C and to her and Odile’s mother expressing my profound appreciation for this very frank and kind woman’s help to me at a time when I was in such great need. And for as long as I am cognitively capable of doing so, I will remember her.

I will update this post when Odile is gone. Update, 30 April 2018: In memoriam, Odile (1960-2018)

Friday 3 November 2017

Meanwhile, back down in The Run…

Mr Mo, the Embot, and I spent a couple of days back in Pittsburgh at the end of August. It had been a while since we'd each visited, and of course no trip to da Burgh would be complete without the pilgrimage to our former homes there.

Accordingly, we went back to Greenfield and discovered that The Greenfield Organization (where I used to work) no longer exists (at least in the physical world — there is still apparently some kind of internet-based community entity), among other changes. After visiting Greenfield Elementary School, we headed down the hill to Lower Greenfield, a.k.a. Four Mile Run, a.k.a. The Run, where we'd lived for eight years, and where we were resident when all three of our children were born (albeit only briefly wrt Youngest).

I had already discovered via Google Earth a few years back, much to my enormous surprise, that one of the houses next door to us (the one on the uphill side) had disappeared. While some further googling informed me a bit about what had happened to the neighbors: the wife (whom we knew when she was a teenager and who had very occasionally babysat our kids) left that house — her childhood home, followed by an ugly divorce and custody battle, followed by the death of her loutish AK47-toting ex-husband at a young age … I couldn't find anything about what had happened to the house. In the interim, the next uphill neighbor had purchased the lot and essentially allowed the back part — where the house had stood — to turn into a little pond-like wilderness, complete with cattails. That neighbor was not home. Despite certain parties' misgivings, I went over to our other next-door neighbor's house and knocked.

Jeanne was home, and pretty much the first thing out of her mouth was to say that she had hardly recognized me, given all the weight I'd put on in the intervening years. I laughed and observed that she, by contrast, had lost a lot of weight.

As neighbors, we had remained simply friendly acquaintances over the eight years we lived there; in fact, we usually talked only when we happened to be outside at the same time hanging up our laundry on our respective backyard lines. Married to Leon (deceased for about 10 years now, I think), Jeanne had legal custody of her daughter's first two children, Missy and DJ. Missy was disabled — and my understanding was that Missy was disabled because her father had seriously abused her. In any event, Jeanne kept her grandchildren under close watch. There were occasional loud squabbles that emanated from their household over the years (of course, I'm not sure our own contretemps were all that quiet; and, too, the Embot hated getting her hair washed so much as a young child that she would scream utter bloody murder every time) — but it wasn't necessarily Jeanne vs. Leon: sometimes it was between her and her daughter, who lived across town; sometimes it would involved Jeanne's son Danny.

I think I went inside Jeanne's house only once the entire time we lived in The Run, and that was when I came to collect the Embot and the Ner: I'd received a call from Mr Mo's boss after lunch one fine day. "I think Mr Mo has eaten something that disagreed with him," said he. "Oh?" I replied. "Yeah, the paramedics are working on him now." Umm. I took the girls next door and asked Jeanne if she could watch them while I went to the hospital. (Verdict: Mr Mo cannot eat scallops ever, ever, ever.)

Anyway, after the emergency wound down, I went home and picked up the kids. Jeanne's living room was clean, the furniture a bit worn but conventionally so; there was a large TV,… and there was not one book nor magazine in sight. I perceived not too long after that that Jeanne was functionally illiterate, after she'd come over with some kind of letter from a utility company that she asked me to explain to her.

The last time I'd spoken with Jeanne — several years after we'd moved to Europe and all, I was pleased to find out that DJ had graduated from Allderdice High with honors and was successfully managing some kind of big box store. Given the mentality of so many people in the area, kids in particular (including DJ) — that becoming a sports star was the only ticket to success, I found his turnaround very heartening. This time Jeanne related that DJ lived in Florida with his wife and 4 (or 5?) kids and was still doing very well for himself. Missy, however, had been taken from Jeanne's custody and was institutionalized; and Jeanne's son Danny had been killed in a motorcycle accident just a couple of years ago. Jeanne now lives by herself and rather likes it, seeing her family (both near and far) when and if she pleases (though she seemed pleased that DJ flies her down to Florida every so often to see her great-grandchildren). She'd had a pretty rough life in a lot of ways, but she seemed in decent health and spirits for all that.

As for what had happened to the other house next door, it had burned down. Our former babysitter had remarried and apparently still lived someplace nearby. Whether she regained custody of her kids from her noxious ex-inlaws, I don't know. Jeanne's news about other neighbors that were from our time was a bit sparse, though we also learned that both the deaf man and his vicious dog had died; so-and-so was in the hospital; other folks with familiar names had died or moved away; the druggies down the street were druggies still, and their kids were even worse, etc.

Following all these revelations, we went down to the end of our old street and explored a bit behind Big Jim's (best pizza in town, at least when we lived there). Mr Mo and the Embot went up into Panther Hollow while I knocked on the door of what had been the Parish House attached to St Joachim's Catholic Church. The parish had been shut down some years before — swallowed up by St Rosalia's up the hill after many years of trying to stay afloat. The man who now owned both the parish house and the church (using the latter as a sound studio) had been our newspaper delivery boy all those many years before. He remembered us, these odd folks from the outside who took up residence in what had been a fairly tightly-closed enclave, particularly during its banner years (i.e., when the steel mills on Second Avenue were still operating). We never really fit in: though the Embot attended half-day kindergarten at Greenfield Elementary, both she and the Ner ended up going to CMU Children's School rather than to St Rosalia Catholic School; and apart from a nice young couple on Acorn St (who have long since moved to a farm about an hour north of Pittsburgh), we were never more than friendly acquaintances with a handful of other folks in that little blue-collar neighborhood. (Nor did we fit in "upper Greenfield" itself, for all that I worked for the G.O. and edited/produced the Greenfield Grapevine monthly for a good decade.)

—At the time, that was OK: we had friends at church with whom we're still close, and likewise we still have dear friends from Mr Mo's time at CMU. There is a little part of me, however, that wonders if we ended up missing out on more than we knew then — and now.

Monday 30 October 2017

OK, fine, typewriters.

Both sets of my grandparents lived through enormous changes — from starting out in the horse-and-buggy era to owning and driving automatic transmission cars; from seeing the first airplanes overhead to jetting from New York to California; from operator-assisted party-lines to private telephones (first rotary, then touchtone); from silent black & white films to color talkies to drive-ins to special effects (though wrt this last category, I went to see Star Wars with Grandma B, and she honestly had no idea how to interpret what she'd seen).

Anyway, they lived through some amazing technological transitions while experiencing the big events of the 20th century — two world wars (with voting rights for women and the Great Depression in between), the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement, … and the list goes on.

When I thought about the technological transitions I've seen, baby-boomer that I am, my first thought was — honestly, my first thought was typewriters. I started out in the era of full-manual, push-the-damned-platen-back-to-the-left-by-yourself machines — of which my family owned two, neither of which I used very much, mostly because I completely and totally resisted taking typing lessons in junior high and high school. I was absolutely not going to be a secretary — but I hadn't realized that I'd need to type my papers in college.

So OK, I ended up taking a typing class in college, and by then America had moved forward through electric typewriters that still involved individual keys striking paper, but moved the platen (the carriage) back with the press of a button, to wholesale adoption of IBM Selectric-style machines that moved a type-ball instead of the platen itself.

The Selectric was a marvel: you could put on different type-balls with different fonts or italicized fonts — what a wonder! And painstakingly erasing errors with an honest-to-God eraser (or in the worst — and for me, the most common — case, giving up and typing the entire page over again) was replaced by eraser tape and white-out.

A greater marvel was the advent of so-called self-correcting Selectrics — machines that had eraser tape built right in. This was the pinnacle of the One True Typewriter right up until word-processing on desktop computers became affordable and commonplace. (I did work a little in emacs, but I'm going to forget that ever happened; the Mac came along in time to largely spare me.) To be able to look over and format documents and fix problems on-screen before sending something to the printer (aside: in the early 1980s, we borrowed from my in-laws the $3,000 that it cost to buy a LaserWriter), being able to print multiple copies without using carbon paper! — it was mind-boggling to me then, and I sometimes frankly envy my kids for never having had to deal with the more primitive technology.

I've yet to use much in the way of voice-recognition to set down my ideas and clever turns of phrase and all, though I've ventured a tiny way into machine-assisted musical notation.

There are obviously plenty of other changes I've seen — but honestly, unlike the changes in my grandparents' lives, most of what has come into my life seem to have been improvements, sometimes massive improvements, to existing technologies rather than outright innovations. (I recognize that I am not particularly privy to lots of cutting edges in the world at large, nor to all of the background innovation responsible for such vast improvements; I'm speaking simply about common daily first-world life as I experience it: computers, telephones, transportation, and so on.)

I have lived through the duck-and-cover of the Cold War, Kennedy's assassination, Vietnam, … all the way up until the present horror of America's downward spiral, of huge environmental degradation, of ever-accelerating climate change, of massive overpopulation and all that that portends. It is less and less clear to me that technology will be able to save us from our human-generated catastrophes, even if it makes it a lot easier to write about them. Here's hoping I'm wrong.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Greatness and glory

I read a quote this morning taken from the brilliant xkcd comic (no. 896, “Marie Curie”), to wit: “You don't become great by trying to be great. You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process.” I am also put in mind of a small laminated poster that was on my side of the large mirror in the bedroom I shared with my sister in Los Angeles: it featured Linus (of Peanuts fame), holding his blanket and solemnly proclaiming, "There is no heavier burden than a great potential."

… And I think the latter quote, that being conscious of the burden, can go a long way in short-circuiting the wisdom of the first quote. It's kind of like being too audience-conscious when writing: for many years I felt that whatever I wrote, whatever I'd intend to write, had to be done with the idea in mind of Leading People to the Church, and the result was… a lack of results — very little writing, and certainly what writing there was pretty bad overall (even my small efforts at sci-fi always had an LDS missionary undercurrent). Definitely not publishable.

Among the notable exceptions were The Easy-to-Read Book of Mormon (ETRBOM), "Buttons" (Sunstone piece), and some of my Mormon feminist essays. I felt deeply about all of these things, about the importance of doing them. It helped that the audiences I had in mind were almost entirely LDS, yes, and that it was relatively easy to adapt some of the mofem essays for a non-Mormon audience thereafter. Simplifying but retaining the message of the Book of Mormon, trying to explain things, making arguments to promote or defend a point of view that seemed (and still seems) morally and intellectually just — I feel, in retrospect, that I lived up to my (writerly) potential with those projects.

Doing so, however, exacted a cost in other areas of my life (and no surprise there): with the ETRBOM in particular, I felt pushed and compelled such that I feel to this day that there were times I neglected my family, neglected myself, too. And at the height of my mofem-ness, the same was true. The satisfaction — the enormous satisfaction of writing, of receiving praise as a writer (I treasure in particular Mario de Pillis, Sr.'s assessment of my cool-headedness and logic when debating issues on-line with various shades of Neanderthals) — all this was in some measure undercut by hearing in my head/heart the church's insistent message that The Most Important Calling for Women in This Life is Motherhood, and that our kids were spending far too much time at the babysitter's or in front of the TV while I fanatically worked on the ETRBOM and/or engaged online.

…I would like to think, and indeed I hope that I didn't cause our daughters any permanent damage.

So here I am at roughly the start of the last quarter of my life — or, the gods willing and genetic trends upholding, the last third of my life — and I find myself a bit at loose ends. I have a few artsy things that I feel reasonably enthusiastic about doing this week (e.g., painting in oils while Mr Mo is away, odor be danged). I am all too conscious that my contributions to the family coffers have been fairly minimal since I parted ways with SAP … nearly two years ago now. I was too ill to work in any way approximating full-time for a long while — more ill than I or Mr Mo may have realized — but even though I'm sorta kinda pretty much back to normal, I've yet to find a focus. (It's true that I would have been and would still be totally fine with working for my Paris client a LOT more, but the volume comes and goes in fits and starts, and I don't think that's going to change anytime soon, alas. My illness did not affect my translation and editing skills, thank the gods.)

A lot of people, myself included, joke about figuring out what they want to be when they grow up — but the joke is less and less humorous the closer and closer I get to my (wildly theoretical) retirement.

Well, time to get cracking. Awakening to "falling back" an hour was a gift this morning, as is the burst of sunshine right this minute on a day when storms and rain and gray are predicted.

Monday 23 October 2017

Ratting out Ludmilla

When I am old — I mean, so old that I can't hit the high notes and moving down to alto or tenor isn't a solution because I cannot hear the notes well enough to sing them on-key… well, may I perceive this all by myself and retire gracefully, rather than become a burden to whatever choral group I may belong to at the time.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa's recent retirement at age 70 put me in mind of this, as well as in mind of hearing Beverly Sills’s performance in April of 1974, well into the last stages of her career: her voice was noticeably tired at the end, and she was not quite on-pitch with her highest notes, even if her coloratura runs were still light and silvery. But what really prompts this post is that I ratted out Ludmilla during choir practice in Berlin a couple of weeks ago, and then interpreted her absence at subsequent rehearsals as a direct result of having done so.

I have been placed during a concert or two and have often ended up in rehearsals between two of the choir's oldest sopranos, Ludmilla and Marlene. Marlene has inconsistent vocal quality, with a noticeable wobble at times, and it seems clear that she doesn't study her music as assiduously as she ought to. She laughs off her mistakes — but sometimes so often and so close to performance dates that I want to snap at her that it's no laughing matter. (Yeah, I get that laughter is a cover for embarrassment, so I refrain. Besides, I am not perfect either — quelle surprise — despite consistent practice.) But it was Ludmilla's increasing pitch problems that finally induced me to talk to our section leader, Sabine. Although I can usually hold my pitch and prevail, having a next-door neighbor consistently sing flat is distracting and grating.

(It's one thing, by the way, to belong to a choral group whose principal function is as much social as it is musical, as was/is the case with at least two out of the three French choirs to which I belonged in Grenoble. Local people pay their dues, they get together to sing, they enjoy chatting together. The essentially geographically-bounded nature of those two French choirs contributed to the sociality: these are people who often see one another in other venues throughout the week: they are friends before they are choir members together. A choir such as the one here in Berlin — one with pro-level aspirations and potential, one that draws singers from all over Berlin, one that requires a level of trained musicianship to belong — is quite another thing. Although friendships do form, thankfully, our goal is to perform, and we try to sing to a standard that makes the choice of venue, the Berlin Philharmonie, seem appropriate rather than absurd.)

With all that in mind, I went up to Sabine during the break and talked to her about Ludmilla (not for the first time, I confess, but this time with some real urgency). I am not the only person to have complained about her — which is why I ended up having to switch places with a less-dominant soprano at the last minute to stand between Ludmilla and Marlene just before a recent concert. But… Ludmilla. She is a lovely woman, kind and funny, a devoted member of the choir for many years, full of good works and fundraising efforts. A widow now, with no children nearby, the choir seems to have been her major social outlet for a long time. How do you put someone like that out to pasture, how do you tell someone that they're no longer good enough to sing, how do you tell them that they've become a detriment to the group's performance?

Sabine said she would talk to Johann, our conductor, about Ludmilla… again.

Who wants the job of breaking people's hearts? When I sang with the 110-voice So. Calif. Mormon Choir, the problem of aging voices pulling down the entire choir finally became such an issue that founder-conductor Frederick Davis made everyone reaudition. I was one of the principal accompanists for the reauditions, so I heard nearly everyone sing. And there were some truly noticeable problems with more than just a handful of singers. However, at the end of the reauditions, no one was asked to leave. No one. Even though Frederick's own hearing was getting a little iffy, it wasn't because he couldn't hear the problems that he chose not to ask anyone to leave. One of the worst singers was the wardrobe mistress, followed by the social chairperson, followed by the choir secretary. How do you retain people filling such key non-musical roles if they are no longer allowed to sing?

When I was the choir director for our church congregation in Pittsburgh, I understood and accepted the idea that the choir was a way to engage people, and that that was reason enough to allow musically-interested but not especially talented people to sing. One man in particular, Chris, had an okay voice, but was usually on the planet Jupiter when it came to actually learning whatever music we ended up presenting during church services. People would occasionally perceive his off-the-beaten-track tenor warbling above (or alongside) the actual musical number. It drove some choir members crazy, and once in a while drove me crazy, too. But the overarching idea of giving this man a reason to come to church ruled out refusing to let him sing: after all, he showed up on a regular basis, so it's not as though I could have legitimately used attendance as a reason.

Anyway. Ludmilla has not been present at any rehearsals that I know of since I talked to Sabine. (I was away for three subsequent rehearsals, so I have no idea if she was there for those or not. I haven't seen her since my return.) The other night I expressed my regrets about Ludmilla’s absence to Sabine, who then told me that no, she had not talked to Johann about Ludmilla and that — I'm not sure I caught it, as Sabine was talking to me in German —that there was an altogether different reason why Ludmilla won’t be singing in the upcoming concert. So my semi-guilty conscience is assuaged. I still have to deal with singing next to Marlene, however, and I swear to God if she keeps laughing off her bad entrances or notes held too long or other errors, especially during the last rehearsals before our performance, … I’ll probably keep my mouth shut. Except when singing.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Um. I'm back. It's been too long.

I've been AWOL (or certainly "absent") from the blogosphere for nearly a year now. How time flies, and not just when having fun. I've had a fair bit of fun since my last mofembot blog post, done a fair bit of traveling… while processing and processing and processing and processing all kinds of $h¡† related to my last blog entry. Processing was hard and not always helpful while in the midst of it, but now that I've come out the other side… well.

My way was littered with more tears and more bottles of Red Stag and other powerful beverages than I would have imagined possible. I understand very well the desire — maybe the need — to feel numb when processing stirs up thoughts and memories and feelings that are too painful or embarrassing or otherwise overwhelming. "Lean into the pain" is good advice (and yes, a big h/t to Tara Brach's "Radical Acceptance" for the thought), but doing so too early or for too long seems frankly counterproductive, especially when someone (and that would be me) tends to obsess and have a terrible time letting go of whatever has captured my attention or interest at any given time.

Anyway. It is a relief to feel "normal" (or perhaps more accurately, "normally weird") again. I expect I'll be writing more often, and writing about things that are not quite so much navel-gazing in nature. So yeah. Hi.

(Update, 26 Sept 2018: I've been far more sporadic in my writing than I'd anticipated when I wrote this. I hope to do better.)

Wednesday 10 August 2016

What I want to say is this

A few months ago a Grenobloise friend of mine sent me a link to a long talk by a Québecois psychologist. I watched the talk — navigating through the ravaged "a" vowels of Québécois French — and came away with a number of helpful insights. The one that has stuck with me is this: "A large part of suffering is due to not accepting that which is" ("une grande partie de la souffrance est dûe à la non-acceptation de ce qui est").

It is well more than a year since I dragged my bleeding psyche out of Grenoble and headed home to Berlin, devastated by having lost the friendship and respect of someone I loved, in some ways most particularly because I had not had a clue as to why things had ended so horribly. I mourned this loss in much the same way as I grieved for the death of another important friend, Barbara, much earlier in my life. My Grenobloise friend kindly acted as a liaison and was able to furnish me with some reasons for the rupture with the lost friend. I didn't like the reasons I heard. I had a hard time accepting that my over-the-top behavior had turned me into someone too difficult, too toxic, for this friend to deal with. Despite the hard truth, I honestly shudder to think where I might be today if this kind friend had not intervened. Ignorance is not bliss — not at all.

I have gone through so many mental conversations, mental apologies, appeals to untoward circumstances (my being clinically depressed, etc.), recognition of various incompatibilities between us, rationalizations about the unlikelihood of a continued relationship even under the best of circumstances… and all such pretend conversations with the lost friend have been quite fruitless in mitigating my feelings of failure and regret. I am not capable of changing the situation. I cannot fix this. It is possible that the passage of time may prove me wrong, but for the foreseeable future, this friend is lost. I am dead to her, buried alive, a voice she cannot bear to hear, a writer she cannot bear to read. Accepting this without continuously beating myself up over it has been very hard.

But if I have not arrived 100% at acceptance, I am a lot closer to it today than I was before. Learning to practice self-compassion, forgiveness, coming to terms with an ugly ending in a way that does not promote bitterness, that does not require me to find fault with my lost friend… sigh. This episode was such an unexpected event in my life from start to … current finish. Some amazingly naive part of me thought that at my advanced age, there was little I didn't understand about relationships and friendship and caring — and about myself. Mon frickin' Dieu.

I owe much to several people, among whom are Mr. Mo first and foremost; to my American confidantes, "Ms Arizona" in particular; to Oldest, whose advice to "let go of the narrative" has been so helpful; and to this Grenobloise friend. After a few months of letting me vent, she finally lost patience with me, and understandably so: she is dying of cancer, and quite apart from whatever discomfort she may have felt by finding herself between me and the lost friend, she seemed to find it unbearable that I should waste so much precious time and energy stewing in my regrets and mourning someone whom I had to let go of — for my own sake, if not for her sake and for the sake of others dear to me.

Letting go takes a lot of effort, especially when what we want to hold onto seems so precious and irreplaceable. But hanging onto something hopeless makes it hard to hold onto what we still have that is equally or even more precious, and makes it very hard to reach out towards new experiences and possibilities.

I still have times when I wonder if I will ever truly get over what happened. Past experience is indicative that yes, I will. It will not be today, it will likely not be tomorrow, and possibly not for quite a while yet, but the passage of time does indeed help. If life allowed for do-overs… ah. But it does not. So forward we go, forward I go, grateful for all the good people and things I have in my life, less and less prone to look back with regret at the people and things I have lost. Accepting what is does, in fact, help to mitigate sorrow… Gott sei Dank.

Friday 26 February 2016


It has been just over a year since my last blog post, and… what a year it has been. As 2014 truly qualified as a turbulent "Z Cam" year, I'm not sure in which stellar category I could possibly place 2015 — perhaps a series of Type II supernovae?

The short (!) story is that I suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder while in Grenoble, brought on by a number of factors, including the resumption of choral singing and meeting someone who reminded me a lot of my late friend Barbara. That person became very important to me. Unfortunately, the PTSD had the effect of my becoming largely the same person I was 40 years ago — a teenager, with all of the same kinds of obsessive behavior and hyper-perfectionism and so on that the passage of time had tamped down (at least to some degree). I was able to be "myself" again during those too-brief intervals when I was able to go home to Berlin (and sometimes to Quinson, but mostly whenever and wherever Mr Mo was)… and then I'd relapse shortly after going back to Grenoble.

To say that this was upsetting and disorienting doesn't come close to describing my inner turmoil. After many ups and downs (a.k.a. the Z Cam year), things smoothed out emotionally for me during the first quarter of 2015; and then, unhappy with my job agency's chronically late payments and refusal to allow me to work from home even just one week per month, I accepted a different job that would let me go home and pay me 25% more.

The new job started the beginning of May, and since I could do it long-distance, and had invested so much time in the three French choirs I was singing with, I decided to stay in Grenoble until the end of the choral season. But pretty much from the moment I accepted the job (the end of March), I was once again in the thrall of PTSD, and this time overcome by feelings of great grief and loss. — I ended up reliving Barbara's death and all of the terrible aftermath… and by the end of my time in Grenoble, and in no small measure due to the intensity of my feelings, I lost my new friend.

It was a ghastly ending to my time in Grenoble, and I was completely shattered as I drove home to Berlin for good in mid-July. It was only thanks to the kind intervention of a mutual friend that I found out what had gone so terribly awry, as I was entirely blind to my own emotionally-intense behavior, and my friend never talked to me about what was wrong (and I could never ask her). It took about another month (after being tested for hyperthyroidism in Berlin) before I was able to accept a diagnosis of profound clinical depression. My psychologist in Grenoble had suggested I was depressed (I started seeing her at some point in May when I kept crying uncontrollably night after night)… but I couldn't believe it. I was working! I was still enjoying singing and playing piano! How could someone so active be depressed?

… It was exactly the same kind of behavior as I had experienced in Pittsburgh 30+ years ago after Barbara's death, but I had forgotten. Further, this time around, in a bizarre kind of emotional multi-tasking, I was experiencing overwhelming feelings of gratitude. I didn't believe it was possible to feel thankful and be in the throes of this insidious mental illness/affective disorder at the same time. (It is.)

Anyway, I began treatment right after the diagnosis. I cannot now remember if I had the same kind of problem with "neurological fog" 30 years ago as I did this time around, but it took me until roughly this past December to be able to see certain things with clarity in retrospect (which produced no little dismay and not a few tears) and to feel as though I was starting to think/process things normally again. The fog affected my ability to do certain parts of my job. It was very distressing to have to read and reread instructions again and again instead of remembering them as I normally would. (I grant that sometimes the instructions were not wonderfully written and that the procedures themselves were sometimes ludicrously complicated and not at all intuitive, but still.)

Up until mid-December, I believed there was a remote possibility of repairing the broken friendship. But then I heard again from the mutual friend, who essentially said that there was no hope, that this friend had "turned the page" on our friendship, and little wonder. It was so hard to accept that I was persona non grata, that even sending a Christmas card would be viewed as an intolerable intrusion. That hurt. Worse is having all avenues of communication cut off. (It has been my happy fortune in this life to make and generally keep friends fairly easily, so being in this position has been largely rough and unknown terrain to me.)

It took me some time to get to what I think is the final step in getting over Grenoble, in getting over this lost friend, in getting much further along in my recovery from this episode of PTSD and depression. I didn't plan it this way, but I ended up posting a farewell letter to my lost friend on the 31st anniversary of Barbara's death. I don't entertain much if any hope that she will read what I wrote. I needed to write it, and I needed to send it — mostly so I can tell myself that I did everything I could to try to apologize, to try to explain, to try to fix things. I am sad that our relationship ended the way it did. I am sad that some of the lessons I learned (listed below) came at the cost of this friendship, and that I was not the only one who ended up paying that price.

I do not need my lost friend to read the letter to provide closure, and I think that conclusion will stand even if she sends it back unopened. (Update: As she signed for it at the post office, I know she received it.) Of course I hope she will read it, which would be miracle enough (a positive response would herald the Second Coming). My mailing the letter was analogous to going through the exit door of a theater: it's soundproof, so once outside, pounding on the door and shouting does no good. There is no handle on the exterior of the door, and quite honestly, were the door to open from the inside, there is little appeal in going back into a dark place. The only healthy way forward is to let the door close entirely on this part of my life.

I have learned many lessons from all of this. In no particular order, here are a few:

• Love and appreciate the people who love and appreciate you. And do your best to show it.

• It is important to cultivate gratitude. In some ways I think gratitude saved me from the much darker and more quickly dangerous type of depression that I went through 30 years ago.

• There are some wonderful people in this world. I owe so much not just to Mr Mo, but also to a handful of very kind other people whom I love, and especially to that helpful mutual friend who was willing to listen and to talk to me frankly when I most needed it.

• Music is extremely powerful and evocative.

• Alcohol is not helpful.

• It is important to assess emotional risks along with everything else when making major decisions. Feeling detached and uprooted contributed to becoming depressed, and doubtless made me more vulnerable to PTSD.

• Forgive others. I thought about the few people in my life whom I hadn't fully forgiven and hopefully have finally done so now. And I thought about how little I know about what other people are going through that could explain behavior that I might find hard to handle.

• I also thought about and forgave myself for the one particular instance in which I had to cut off someone from my life. (I didn't have much choice — I was only 14 years old, and my parents and bishop and other adults insisted that I stop communicating with a very troubled girl who'd been my roommate at a BYU summer program… but I still lived that as a huge personal failure for many years after.)

• If someone, such as a psychologist, suggests that you are depressed, believe her/him.

• Being too busy, as in workaholism, can be a masking behavior, a way to avoid taking the time to truly look at what is happening (both inside and outside oneself).

• Stonewalling behavior is very, very damaging to both the one stonewalling and the one being stonewalled.

• It is never too late to say you're sorry, at least for your own peace of mind, even if the apology cannot fix things.

I may add to the list later on (I am sure there are other lessons I've gotten from this), but I will end for now with this: About 34.5 years ago I wrote a man a letter in which I apologized for my stonewalling behavior. Just before I started dating him, I had gone through two heart-wrenching romances, and the one with him seemed to have started in the same manner, with lots of obvious mutual interest and attraction right away. I couldn't stand the thought of being burned again — and this even though I'd had a very clear impression that I would end up marrying him! But instead of talking things over, I started avoiding the man, who ultimately got the message and went away.

Anyway, a year after I'd dumped him, I sent the letter to his last known address. I had no idea where he was, and for all I knew, he could have already been married — I was not writing to pursue him nor to try to renew the relationship. I simply and very sincerely wanted to apologize for not communicating and for having treated him so poorly.

He wrote back. It was and remains the greatest second chance that anyone could have ever hoped or prayed for. (It was only recently that I realized that he, too, must have wanted a second chance with me as well.) I remain grateful that the person who is and ever will be the most important person in my life, the one whom I love and appreciate more than my generally undemonstrative self tends to say or show — he wrote back. I cannot ask for more.

Monday 23 February 2015

Toujours en deuil? (Still in mourning?)

Today and tomorrow are both part of one harder-than-usual anniversary this year (multiples of 10 being tough on us 10-digited homo sapiens, so it seems): on this very day 30 years ago, my friend Barbara Clark died in a car accident. She was one of the most important people in my life, and truth to tell, I think she probably always will be, even though I think she would find the very notion surprising, were she still alive. (She'd like the phrase "il ne faut pas exagérer.")

Tomorrow will be hard because it was on Sunday night, February 24, 1985, when my mother called me in tears to tell me that Barbara had been killed. I was stunned, and as the days progressed, I became increasingly grieved over the unfinished business I had with her. The situation was all the more poignant because had life permitted, we seemed to have finally, finally been on such terms that we might have been able to talk about everything that I at least needed to discuss with her.

The consequence of such apparently never-to-be finished business (along with hormonal chaos during and after pregnancy, among other factors) was a depression so profound that I came very close to dying by my own hand. (Note to the kiddies: do not neglect unfinished business.)

Were Barbara still alive, she'd be 74 years old, retired, and… who knows. Given where life has taken me and mine over the years, I suspect that she and I would never have become any closer than we were when I last saw her just a few weeks before her death. — Which is to say, closer than ever before, but still not very close in a personal way, for all that we genuinely liked each other: up until then, there had been too much of a gap between our respective life stages to have had that kind of friendship.

Tonight I honored her in a more practical way than I did by dressing in black today — by diligently practicing several different piano accompaniments that I will play at rehearsals for one or two of the chorales to which I belong. Barbara was a wonderful pianist and served for several years as the associate accompanist for the Southern California Mormon Choir. I learned a lot from listening to and observing her play.

The one thought that has brought tears to my eyes yesterday and today and very likely will produce tears tomorrow is — how very much I have missed my friend over the years. Not every day, thankfully, not constantly, not at all like that, but sometimes when I sing I can still hear her lovely alto voice. (She was the alto section leader at the time I joined the choir.) And she had such a wickedly fine sense of humor. I find myself wishing from time to time that I could share a good joke or anecdote with her.

Barbara would have loved the internet, I think, though it is probably (no, make that definitely) just as well that I was no longer a teenager but rather a married mom with children by the time email became commonplace. She put up with a great deal of on-paper verbiage from the adolescent me (so helpful to me at the time I wrote them, I suppose, and yet all of those letters turned out to be such a huge source of distress to me after she died). I am glad she was kind and patient and apparently could see enough potential in me to treat me in many ways like the adult I so sincerely wanted to become.

I end this all-too-personal entry by relating what happened about a year or so after Barbara died, after I had finally begun getting treated for depression (yay for Western Psychiatric Hospital and its experimental programs that made it possible to trade my body for "free" medication and therapy). One night, I was just coming back to bed around 4 am after dealing with one of the girls… and Barbara came to me (unseen but very present). Yes, yes, I am well aware of the brain's ability, of the human psyche's propensity to manufacture what it needs to survive, but peu importe: for the rest of that night and well into the daylight hours, she (whether real or manufactured) went through all of that soul-killing unfinished business with me, went through everything that made the phrase "to die of embarrassment" so literal in my life at that point. It was a very healing experience. Nor was it the only episode of its kind during the months and years to follow.

I am pushing 60 with a vengeance, and even after 30 years, the grief is still fresh and present at times like these, but there are nonetheless moments of grace: during that initial experience, Barbara told me that she had been allowed to come to me because my need was so great. And for 29 years that was my principal interpretation: she came because of my need. But a few months ago a new friend of mine, on hearing this story, responded that "she must have loved you very much." The truth of that observation took my breath away: yes, my need was acute, but Barbara came to me because she loved me. That belatedly-received insight has meant a lot to me, skepticism and agnosticism notwithstanding.

In memoriam, Barbara Clark (September 18, 1940 – February 23, 1985). Her (Utah) grave marker reads "beloved daughter, sister and aunt"… and there are many of us who loved her who were sorry that "and friend" was not part of the epitaph. May she rest in as much peace as the Mormon view of a totally frenetic afterlife can permit. (And yes, she would have appreciated the ironic tone of that last sentence.)

Friday 2 January 2015

Highlights and lowlights, 2014 (a Z Cam year)

For any non-astrophysicists out there, all Z Cam(elopardalis)-type stars are wildly erratic and highly unpredictable, as can be seen in the light curve for RX Andromedae: Note the irregular high- and low-amplitude periods over the course of more than a half-century of observations (light curve courtesy of the AAVSO, for which I used to work):

RX And(romedae), a Z Cam star


  • Oldest daughter's marriage: Given that middle daughter Ner's marriage qualified as the top highlight for 2013, it is only fitting that the Embot's marriage should top the list for this past year. It was a lovely wedding in a lovely setting.
  • Music: Not long after starting work in Grenoble, I joined a local choir and discovered how much I'd missed choral singing. I currently belong to three such French choirs, all of which have brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction.
  • Old friends and new: Since returning to Grenoble, it has been a pleasure to renew several friendships, particularly the one with my Italian doctor friend and her family. I have also been very fortunate to have found myself among friendly people both at work and outside of work; even more important, I have made a good friend at work and another good friend outside of work (the latter thanks to a very serendipitous set of circumstances that led me to join her choir). For this latter friend, getting to sing a couple of duets with her at her father's 80th birthday celebration was one of the highlights of my summer.
  • Most humorous moment: This past fall while at Tuesday night rehearsal, the conductor started us all laughing… and then, just as we were beginning to recover, one of the sopranos piped up and said that she thought it a shame that our emphasis on a couple of onomatopoeic syllables in the overture to La Petite Suite Québécoise (having to do with the sound of a windmill — "ti-qui ta-que, ti-qui ta-que") sounded to her as though we were singing "ta queue" … which means quite literally "pee-pee tail" (as Oldest called that part of the male anatomy when she was about 3 years old). I cannot remember when the last time was that I laughed so hard, tears streaming, and we were all completely helpless for a good long 5 minutes or more. (I do not know even now if that soprano said what she did innocently, but if not, her deadpan delivery was totally perfect.)
  • Runner-up for most humorous moment: the "brown lace" incident (in one of the episodes of Cranford, a marvelous BBC adaptation of several short novels by Elizabeth Gaskell).
  • And speaking of Elizabeth Gaskell, having my new musical friend introduce me to her (both via the several BBC series and via her books) was certainly the literary highlight of my year.
  • Snooker also qualifies as a highlight, even if my 30(+)-game winning streak was broken this week. Rrrr!


  • Oldest daughter's accident: I think I aged 10 years in an instant when I saw this email subject line in early December: "Embot has been hit by a car." Fortunately (and miraculously, given the speed of the car when it hit her), Oldest's injuries were nowhere near as severe as they could have been, and she is on the road to recovery.
  • My paragliding disaster: My new friend at work paraglides, and after a couple of trips up and down the mountain (ferrying fliers up and then picking them up at the bottom), I had earned myself a tandem flight with an expert. I was already dubious about flying conditions even before going up the mountain in early September — it seemed too windy to me. But I suited up and was attached to the expert pilot, and then… two aborted take-offs should have been enough to convince both of us to stop, but alas, for some unknown reason on the third try, I tripped and slid along on my stomach. The sail had actually gone aloft this time and was dragging us forward. I'm told that the pilot kept to his feet and that we almost managed to take off despite my position.
    … And had we taken off, would that have been before or after I broke my right wrist? All things considered, I was/we were very lucky: we came awfully close to the edge of the first "junior" cliff, stopped by the shrubs and trees. The drop was not as significant as the real cliff, but I've no doubt that we would have been far more seriously injured, possibly even killed, had we gone over. (The pilot came away with bumps and bruises; in addition to my wrist, I had a slight concussion, minor whiplash, and was black and blue all over.)
    My wrist is still not 100% recovered, and it looks like I've got a couple more months of unpleasant physical therapy to deal with, but I can type and play the piano and eat normally and even floss again. (I ended up doing all of my professional work left-hand-only for about a month. Fun! — Not.)
  • Exile and overwork and emotional turbulence: I was dreading having to live in Grenoble by myself. While renewing old friendships and making new friends and finding interesting things to do has been very helpful, being away from Mr Mo and family has been much more emotionally difficult than I expected. And having a huge amount of work from Paris — almost full-time for about 2.5 months this fall — on top of my already full-time Grenoble-based job… was financially a good thing, yes, but otherwise horrible.
  • Bureaucratic… idiocies: This is a late-comer for 2014: Yes, it sucks to have to go through two agencies to be able to work for the giant company that I do in Grenoble, and while I didn't have a very high opinion in the first place of the man who in theory "supervises" me in the one agency, my opinion of his professionalism plummeted when he made trouble for me by contacting my manager to object to my working from Berlin during the holidays. Rrrrrrr. The immediate situation got resolved, but at some cost to me and my family, and likely to my ability to work long-distance in the future. I hear that this guy has been "promoted" — and that he will not be around to meddle this year. To which I say: Yes!

In summary, it is my hope that 2015 will be a bit less chaotically variable and a whole lot less stressful. Happy New Year to one and all!

Thursday 1 January 2015

So no, I don't read music

Well, OK, yes, of course I do, but I know only the American system of solfège. (And how is it that I only just discovered that this word is the same in English as it is in French?) It is embarrassing, occasionally humiliating, not to automatically know what note (e.g.) "ré bémoule" is. I end up comparing the do-re-mi vs. ABC scales in my mind, much as innumerate people count on their fingers to calculate. Even with that, I am sometimes wrong (and laugh it off though I may in public, it's excruciating to me inside). And then I see terms such as "fixed-do" and "movable-do"… and am filled with dread and fear that this will all be too hard and complicated to learn — at least on my own.

— Indeed, it was the fear of being continually embarrassed by my ignorance that greatly contributed to my not having joined any choirs since moving to Europe in late 2001… until this past year in Grenoble, when the need to find some kind of non-work social outlet to keep from going crazy with loneliness and boredom turned out to be stronger than my fear.

So I rediscovered choral singing in early March 2014, and it has brought me a great deal of joy and satisfaction. Since buying my electric piano in October ("physical therapy for a broken wrist!" :-), I have also rediscovered how much I have missed piano accompaniment. I am nowhere near the level of either Roland or Laurène, who have accompanied (in concert) the choirs I now sing with, but with practice, I can be a competent rehearsal accompanist. And I've actually been a very good accompanist for soloists — I know how to follow. But I can't accompany a choir, even in rehearsal, without knowing the French system of solfège with as much automaticity as I know the multiplication tables. If the chef de chorale were to tell me to play a "mi" for the basses, for example, I need to know instantly what note to play.

I had budgeted for ping-pong lessons throughout 2014, but given that (a) I much prefer German training methods to what I've seen in Grenoble, and (b) my right wrist is not fully recovered (strange that I didn't blog about my parapente accident — but I digress), I want instead to take some lessons, to get coached in solfège so I will not feel so embarrassed and hobbled and restricted in what I can (offer to) do musically.

Finally, the theme for the 2014-15 musical season is light, and I've composed an entire (short) cantata… in my head. Even were I to miraculously get it all written out at this point, with or without help from notation software, it's essentially too late for any group to choose to sing it (assuming it would meet with artistic/musical approval). But I ought to write it down anyway, along with all of the other songs and themes & variations that I hear within.

Seems like I should start trying to become a better "European" musician and composer during this first part of the year, given how ghastly busy I was with work and work and work and work during the latter part of 2014 (and that may prove true for the latter part of 2015 as well).

Au travail musical!

So no, I'm not fluent in French

I have been living in Grenoble since the very tail-end of February 2014. Even when I lived in Grenoble before, and even when I was head of the American school at Europole, I was not quite as surrounded by and immersed in so much French language as I am now — and this is true even though I write technical documents in English at work. There I speak English only with the other technical writer (a completely bilingual Brit, and one of the kindest people I've ever met): all of my other colleagues speak (and generally write) in French to me, and I to them. The (three!) chorales I sing with are all French (see "So no, I don't read music"). Ping-pong is also French. With one important exception, I speak French with nearly all of the people I interact with outside of work.

I am not complaining, not at all. But the longer I live in this Francophone environment, the more I realize just how very far I am from mastering French, how extremely far from "native speaker"-level I am. And I find this more and more distressing, and less and less acceptable. (I am not particularly concerned with my accent, though that could use improvement as well.)

My business French is very good — good enough that I earn a fair bit translating technical and marketing documents from French to English. I cope quite well at work, in large part because the linguistic contexts are fairly limited and obvious. But in everyday life — oh dear, oh dear. My coming late to this belle langue means that I do not grasp culturally-ingrained nuances. I am entirely ignorant of certain idioms (even some quite common idioms). I miss verbal cues (as well as other kinds of cues).

So yes, one of my concrete resolutions for 2015 is to improve my French. I intend to do this by reading more in French — not just books, but well-written "prose de passage" (writing that does not necessarily rely on the literary past tense) at least once a week. Although I am loath to start watching TV, I will see if I can find a program or two to watch on a regular basis (or now that I've been introduced to Florence Foresti, for example, perhaps I can watch youtube clips instead). I will also make a point of listening to French (cultural) talk radio when I travel by car.

But I need to do more. I am going to see if I can find a good advanced French course to follow online. I will dig out and haul back our Larousse and other reference texts the next time I am in Quinson — and I will study them, hopefully as assiduously as I studied German in Berlin in 2013.

Further, if I write to any French person in English (outside of a business context, that is), I will also include my best effort to say the same thing in French as a postscript following my signature. (This said, even if I see any grammatical mistakes in my French emails, as I so often do, I will send a correction only if there is an error that affects the meaning, but not if it's just a "mechanical" problem.) (Update, 17h48: I was very bad today: very pressed for time, I used to deal with part of the French version of a much-too-long email to a friend. Even though I quickly went through the google version and fixed many things, I now see quite a few other mistakes. My friend, if she reads this, will doubtless be relieved to know that I will not send corrections, as I stated above. But I have learned my lesson and I will not do that again. I am surprised, however, that google seems to be getting worse instead of better: at one point not long ago I had high hopes for it — but as ever, I digress.)

There is one more big thing that I need to do to make progress: Although it is very useful for successfully playing certain kinds of games (e.g., Dutch Blitz and Set and similar), my ability to correctly anticipate simply doesn't work anywhere near as well for French (and truth to tell, not always in English, either). That (often misplaced) confidence and strong tendency to anticipate, coupled with my vanity and my pride — particularly my hatred of appearing to be ignorant — has far too often stopped me from saying, "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you just said. Can you repeat / can you explain / can you rephrase?" So one of my goals is to stop being so stupid, to stop pretending that I fully understand something when I don't.

That will be hard — the hardest thing of all for me. But I need to do this — in English as well as in French, because I have on occasion missed out on important information, on critical communication, on necessary comprehension. If nothing else, this "exile" in Grenoble has made me see just how much more I care about better understanding my family and friends than I do about the risk of appearing ignorant. (And yes, I am rather more aware and accepting of the truth that it is OK not to know everything. :-)

En avant! Ne désespérons point, la bataille n'est pas finie… not by a long shot.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Weighty matters

Since writing (but never posting) the following in early February 2014, I've lost 18+ kg (40 lbs) so far. Goal is 23 kg (50 lbs), sooner rather than later, but definitely by my birthday in April. The secret? Well, ever since roughly mid-May of this year, I've restricted my intake to half-portions, and have eaten (almost) no cheese, no bread, and no salty greasy snacks (sweet things are thankfully not tempting to me), and I've drunk very little alcohol. I've experienced a fair bit of unusual stress in Grenoble, but the silver lining to that has been that it has greatly contributed to a lack of appetite. Overall, I feel good, I look much better (even to me — clothes shopping is no longer quite the horrifying activity that it had been for so many years), I am once again wearing certain clothing that I thought I'd never fit into again, and so... onward toward the goal!

I was a skinny kid. Not painfully thin, not emaciated-looking, not a stick-figure, but thin. I was also short, so my thinness didn't seem particularly out of proportion to my entire being.

To me, there were a couple of problems with my thinness: First, come puberty (or worse yet, come junior high and mandatory showers after gym class), I had no boobs. Flat as a pancake… not quite, but almost. "Little raisin cookies" is how my mom lovingly described my chest.

(Aside, "Adventures in breasts": Although I mightily resented my flatness, I was still able to appreciate that I didn't have to deal with the same kinds of problems as some of my overly-endowed friends. I can see in my mind to this day one such friend holding up her massive breasts as she jogged around the track. This was never going to be a problem for me, I realized, although at the time it was not a particularly consoling thought.

I found some temporary relief in high school and college (and yea, verily, beyond) in a succession of padded bras that helped me fill out my blouses a little bit… and hopefully without grossly exaggerating my natural (lack of) endowment too much. But more on this in a different adventure. (And perhaps a word or two about my Aunt who sucked up all of the breast tissue for generations….)

Second, I'd inherited what my mom also lovingly described as "the Bellmore butt" (and being a Bellmore, I can only assume that she was in a position to know). I had a generous (but objectively speaking, not outlandish) gluteus maximus, whose prominence was likely augmented by lumbar scoliosis that went undetected until just a few years ago.

Anyway, the point is that I was thin. Once I stopped growing upwards — attaining a maximum height of 5'3" or at best perhaps 5'3.5" (that's 160-161 cm for you metric folk) first thing after getting out of bed in the morning (still too short for the LAPD's height requirement of 5'4" for policewomen at the time — so much for my career in law enforcement!), my body decided that my maximum weight would be 103 lbs (about 47 kg) for the next 20-25 years.

I could weigh less than that, but never more. In fact, I dropped to 93 lbs (42 kg) after I had pneumonia while in the missionary training center. This was probably as low as I got as an adult, and once I got to my first city in France, I put on the lost weight again, thanks ever so much to French bread and pastries and all. But I didn't go above the line — except once.

That one time was when I was working as a part-time teller at Coast Federal Savings about two years or so before finishing my university degree at BYU. It was summertime, so I was putting in close to full-time hours covering for people on vacations. Someone, perhaps then-Chief Teller Katie, came up with the plan to have a weight-loss contest. I protested that that was totally irrelevant to me (a fact which did not especially endear me to those struggling on the opposite side of the scales), so we struck a deal: whoever showed the greatest change in weight over the month-long (or perhaps six-week-long) contest period would win. (I no longer remember what the prize was.)

I thus embarked on a massive eating spree. In addition to beefing up my usual breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, I had milkshakes and other fattening things at least twice a day (morning and afternoon break) from the local burger joint right across from Coast. I ate other snacks besides, and had essentially at least one more meal before bedtime. In short, I utterly and completely pigged out as much as I possibly could for that entire period. (Jughead of “Archie” comics fame and Jeremy in “Zits” come to mind.)

I did not win the contest. A colleague who'd lost nine pounds (4 kg) did. However, I did come in second — I'd gained 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg)! An honorable if entirely gluttonous effort. But… not much more than a week after I resumed eating normally, I'd shed my hard-won weight — to the infinite disgust and envy of my coworkers.

Such were the blessings of a fast metabolism. Even giving birth to all three daughters did not make a difference: yes, of course I gained weight while pregnant — somewhere upwards of 50 lbs (23 kg) even. But it didn't take long for the weight to melt away of its own accord with no especial help from me — no diets, nothing out of the ordinary exercise-wise. It was a gift.

It was also a curse: I thought my ability to eat anything in any quantity with impunity (let's save "adventures in lactose intolerance" for a different entry, shall we?) would last forever.

But it didn't. My weight crept up a little bit by around age 40. I wasn't complaining, mind you, because 103 lbs was in many ways too little, and if I dropped below that magic number (which I would occasionally due to stress or illness or some such), I really felt it — as not exactly weakness, but as lacking in stamina or reserves.

From age 40 up until nearly the present day, my weight crawled upward, exacerbated by bad habits such as munching my way through bags of chips while production editing at the AAVSO (especially during tight deadlines and the Hands-On Astrophysics project). In fairness, I was playing soccer and basketball, so I wasn’t leading a completely sedentary lifestyle — until I killed my left knee for the second time. Still, I have photos of myself during our first few years in France that suggest to me that my weight really hadn't become a problem… yet.

I started noticing my weight while I was the headmistress of the Marshall McLuhan American School (now American School of Grenoble). Stress, overeating, being mostly sedentary (despite constant running up and down the staircases in the host school)… all contributed, but I'm kind of inclined now to point a plump finger at menopause as the true killer of my once astonishing metabolism. (Doesn't help, I'm sure, that my thyroid has been hovering at low-normal for years.)

I'm not especially inclined to reveal what my peak weight was, although I am hopeful never to, um, see that number (or higher) on the Mrs Sporty scale ever again. Whatever the method or madness, I have lost a few kilos and hope to lose more. (The phrase "unexplained weight loss" keeps rattling around in my head, however, with all of the worrisome googled possible causes such as diabetes and cancer and so on… but I'm hoping that it's more the case that I'm just not eating as much and that between Mrs Sporty, walking around a fair bit, and ping-pong, I'm burning off more calories than I'm taking in. Hope!)

OK, I should also add that one incentive for weight loss was that… I really didn't like how poofy I looked in Middle Daughter's wedding photos — face in particular. It was nice to have cheekbones again in time for Oldest Daughter's wedding this year.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Meeting wickedness (thunder)head-on

I was stuck with my France-based colleagues in a god-awful boring horrible useless netmeeting with people across the Atlantic at the end of our work day here today.

It's probably because I was (am) so desperately tired from sleeping so poorly for so many nights in succession that I've lost track of how many, but I was very wicked. After setting the stage for an emergency escape by saying that there were thunderstorms in the area (true, but my characterizing them as "severe" was a bit hyperbolic, I'll admit), I went ahead and found a youtube video of a thunderstorm and jacked up my laptop speaker to the max after quietly sampling where the best crash-and-boom was. (Thank God for mute buttons on our phone consoles, given the French-side reactions to these antics.)

The overseas colleagues were convinced. The next step was to have been playing another youtube clip that I'd found, this time of a fire alarm (which would be attributed to a short circuit caused by a lightning strike, and not to an actual fire), at which point we could all have excused ourselves because we would ostensibly have to leave the building. Safety first!

I regret that I didn't have the nerve to go ahead and click on play. As it turned out, we were already slated to give up 90 irreplaceable minutes of our lives for this wretched meeting, and yet even that was not long enough to wring out every last bit of pointlessness. Even occasionally interjecting myself into the conversation (to the amusement of one or both colleagues), just to make those in North America think that we were fully engaged instead of dying to be done with the whole business, did not really mitigate the boredom at all.

How I loathe useless meetings. Meetings generally, for that matter. Argh.

The end.

25 June addendum: Perhaps my unprofessional conduct did not go unnoticed after all: first email told the three of us that we would no longer have to attend these meetings; but the terse second (in response to my asking if the meeting convener wanted us to instead submit bi-weekly reports) seemed to make it clear that the convener was offended. Convener did not provide any opening for an apology, however, so I am waiting for one of my colleagues to make contact before I, abashed and a bit ashamed, try to make amends.

Friday 28 February 2014

Uh-oh Danny Boy

Well, that's another blog post lost to the vagaries of gandi's time-out and lack of automatic saving, goddammitall to hell.

Synopsis: Sad about not having been able to play my own arrangement of Danny Boy all the way through. Worse yet, not being able to play more than a few bars of other compositions. There's a piano here at my Grenoble landlady's, but too painfully out of tune and not in "my" part of the house to want to play it.

Should sing. Am thinking about joining a chorus here. Not that anyone much cares if I sing or not (pity party paragraph).

Parable of the talents, and mine's one of the ones that has been buried.

A nice line about ADD/OCD humming of "theme and variations beyond belief" of whatever earworm has seized my brain at any given moment. Even this has largely ceased because the asthma inhaler I use to deal with a chronic cough has adversely affected my vocal cords.

And so on.


Monday 17 February 2014

Watching it spin out of control

Yes, another doom-and-gloom post. Given my hand-wringing to follow, it may seem a bit hypocritical for me to fault hyper-righteous religious bigots for their hand-wringing over gay marriage, but I do so mostly because of their conviction that gays and feminists and liberals are the cause of natural disasters, which to their evangelical eyes are punishments from God for sinful permissiveness. (Let me refer you, gentle reader, to my religiously-based counter-assertion to this entire idea here.)

But still, I flatter myself that my hand-wringing has at least some basis in science, and the only judging I do is — OK, fine, I seem to end up comparing the entire human race to locusts quite a bit these days. But at least I'm not singling out vulnerable populations, right? (I do not count wealthy narcissistic over-indulgers as "vulnerable," by the way.) Anyway, while I try to confine myself to worrying about real problems stemming from real causes, I have been wrong before, and at least once rather spectacularly so (i.e., my firm belief that Y2K could possibly lead to The End of Technology… but hey, the Red Cross was grateful for the generator I donated when we moved to France the next year!).

I am an admitted catastrophile, which in addition to my hyper-religious background puts me in a reasonable position to understand several facets of the eschatological mindset, in particular how exciting and dangerously titillating the End Times can be. Yes, it is scary but also energizing to be engaged in a battle against evil, especially when people are convinced that they are fighting on the right side. And when the overarching cause is heavenly, so what if the tactics used are devilish? (The ends do indeed justify the means for so many, it seems.) Preparing for the battle is nearly as exciting as actually engaging in it!

Of course, my catastrophism is no longer religious in nature, but it is probably good that I got caught up in Y2K-ism back in the day so that I am less prone to go all-out in trying to do something about my current concerns about the many-headed manifestations of climate change. (This assumes that I can figure out exactly what makes sense to do, apart from trying to pressure lawmakers and doing my wee bit to recycle, and so on.)

This article was the impetus for this little blog entry. "Fish Out of Water" is a pretty reliable source for information about sea temperatures rising and polar ice melting, and this latest bit of documented news is… sobering. Per my comment on Fish's story, I've been watching the wind map as Ireland and the UK have been getting clobbered repeatedly by big storms. I've also taken to keeping an eye on the California Drought Monitor. Little wonder that the saints have been praying for "moisture."

Oh, I do think it's going to take more than just prayer to deal with the droughts in the western U.S. and in Australia and all (even if the saints and evangelicals repent of saying "moisture" and start praying for rain and snow in drought areas instead). My biggest concern is that there are so many people living such ordinary lives from day to day, contributing our own tiny, seemingly inconsequential bits to the overall problem, that we simply and catastrophically will not be able to act in a concerted manner as a species to stop destroying our biosphere. We seem to be crossing more and more thresholds at an accelerating pace.

I don't have answers… and even were it a good idea, we aren't in any position at present to be building and stocking our own Survival Fortress.


Update, 18.02.14: Science published a study (as it turns out, back in Nov. 2006!) that says that unless we change our ways now, there will be no saltwater fish left in the oceans by 2048. Why do I think we haven't changed our ways at all since then? Mon frickin' Dieu.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Praying for moisture

California has been in the grip of a huge drought for quite some time now, and today being the first Sunday of the month, "Fast Sunday,"† Mormons are being asked to pray that the drought will stop. And what have I been seeing over the interwebz? Calls for the Saints to "pray for moisture." Not for rain on the plains nor snow in the mountains, but moisture, as though California were some kind of armpit slathered with too much antiperspirant. (Which it may be in some respects, but that is not the point here.)

Mormons are not alone in believing that it takes special vocabulary to get God's attention, though they're among the last holdouts to use "thee, thy, thou" in prayer (and often not especially correctly, come to think of it; of course the Star Trek franchise bolluxed that up worse with the translation of Old High Vulcan… but I digress, I really do). Nor are they (the Mormons, not the Vulcans) alone in their predilection for employing euphemisms when (avoiding) talking about Unpleasant Things. Other denominations talk about being "called home," "passing," and "passing away" instead of dying, although I'm not so sure how many resort to the same kind of noxious death-related meme of "God needed him/her" and "s/he's serving a mission on The Other Side" that Mormons do with too-great frequency.

But back to Moisture. There seems to be up to a 60% chance of showers in parts of central and northern California today, and one can be sure that if any rain is observed at all, especially late in the day after church is over, such rainfall will be regarded by the faithful as an answer to prayers… no matter how little rain actually falls, and no matter if it does not do a damned thing to mitigate the drought. —In fact, any kind of "moisture" would be regarded as an answer, even inland fog — but again I digress, at least a little.

California needs a very, very wet February to have a prayer of having enough water to meet agricultural and other human needs, and apart from the possible showers today, there is no "moisture" in the 10-day forecast. And if this turns out to be as dry a winter as feared, despite all the prayers and pleading and church-going and all, what will the consequences be?

— I mean, apart from the actual physical consequences of water shortages, desiccated farmland, crop failure, skyrocketing food prices. Well, active Mormons seem to be as likely as winger fundamentalist evangelical Christians to believe that (semi-)natural disasters are punishments from God for sin. But what kind of sins? Willy-nilly exploitation of the planet? Overrunning the biosphere like locusts? Greed and corruption and rising, massive inequality? Mistreating the poor? Profits over people? Worshipping riches? Hypocrisy?

… No, no, no. Much easier to say that withholding Moisture is God's way of showing anger about the "immorality" of gay marriage and its as-yet still-undefined and unsupported threat to heterosexual marriage. That's certainly the biggest "sin" on the Mormon hierarchy's mind (and on the minds of evangelical leaders, too). To them, I reply with this fine cartoon by Crowden Satz (attached).

† And yes, there's a wikipedia article about this. I stand (or more accurately, sit) all amazed.

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