Alice in Texas

Not writing here anymore- see top post for details of my new blogs.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

my kids are the most wonderful people


It doesn't compromise their privacy, and it's worth saying. Their calm resilience and determination, their incredible optimism and enormous appreciation of everything fun and good in their lives, their deep consideration and caring for other people, and perhaps most of all their ceaseless quest for new challenges, new learning and new experiences, in different but never less than impressive ways, all make me feel incredibly lucky to be their mother.

Lots of parents regard their own kids as exceptional geniuses, of course. But also, lots of people unconsciously try to snuff out extraordinariness in children. One anonymous person suggested to me that my son and daughter needed "levelling out"- to have their weaker educational spots improved (nothing wrong with that, obviously) but also to have their strongest talents quashed. Fortunately, I never take in that kind of information till hours after the event, or I would have been completely dumbstruck and unable to continue the conversation. But I don't think it's as uncommon an attitude as one might expect.

Anyway, kids- well done, you're doing great, keep it up! (They won't read that, but I tell them whenever I remember anyway :-))

a post on a horrible subject

(I will be returning to happier subjects immediately following this, which needs to get out of my system.)

Can you name the world's worst ever serial killer? I have only heard of one person who, working entirely alone, murdered a minimum of two hundred and fifty innocent people before being detected. His name was Harold Shipman.

Or, to give him a full description, as the Guardian does on the bottom of their obituary after he committed suicide in prison:

Harold Frederick Shipman, general practitioner and murderer, born January 14 1946; died January 13 2004


"General practitioner and murderer." Does that sound a little contradictory to you?

Of course not.

"Shipman was excellent doctor," say colleagues.

There is currently a professional misconduct case running against those colleagues, without whose co-operation Shipman would not have been able to get so far, and who are claiming innocence on the grounds that he had an excellent professional reputation, and appeared entirely trustworthy. My guess is that they are speaking the whole truth as they see it, and there was no collusion, just collective blindness, which is not a criminal offence.

What kind of blindness? The blindness that accepts evidence at face-value and dismisses incongruities and dissonances that ought to be clues as trivial and not worth pursuing.

One example given of Shipman's exemplary professional character/reputation is his willingness frequently to visit his patients at home, and his involvement with their lives and needs.

Dr Dirckze added that Shipman would often go "beyond the call of duty" to help his patients and would visit people "two or three times a day" when they were ill.

"That was his way of giving them more appropriate care than just sending them to hospital," said Dr Dirckze.

He added that Shipman was a popular doctor among patients because he gave them "a more personal approach".

Dr Dirckze said: "He came across as very caring and would go beyond the call of most GPs' duty.

"Very often we heard stories of what he was doing that the rest of us wouldn't dream of doing.

To point out that we now have the benefit of hindsight is beyond an understatement. However: I personally find this exemplary behaviour immediately and obviously the opposite. Let me just illustrate how the above might have been written:

Dr Dirckze added that Shipman would often visit patients far more often than was medically necessary, using his authority as a doctor and their vulnerability as old, sick and needy people to ingratiate himself into their lives.

"Very often we heard stories of what he was doing that the rest of us wouldn't dream of doing. It never seemed odd to us that despite regarding Shipman as admirable, not one of us ever sought to emulate his example. We took for granted that other doctors obviously worked much harder and better than ourselves. Now we know that actually, the rest of us were getting on with our jobs, while he was using his medical authority to gain access into people's lives and murder them with morphine overdoses. But then our scepticism was blocked by our own complacency."

I have written before about how to tell the difference between genuine people and frauds, niceness and creepiness, common decency and charming manipulation. I don't feel like going into it all again. So in response to the inevitable question, "But how could those doctors have perceived that Shipman might be a fake?" (because a little suspicion is all it takes to start checking someone out, and uncovering the evidence if there is any) I have only one reply.

Were they looking?

And also, are we looking?

The fact that Shipman was a doctor still, to this day, excuses him in people's minds. "Maybe those people wanted to be put out of their misery..." But they were not, as it happens, terminally ill. Shipman's victims ranged in age from 41 to 93. Yet the "But he was a good doctor..." refrain continues, and Shipman is somehow regarded as not so much a cold-blooded serial killer as an unfortunately disturbed grief-stricken victim himself, as the abovementioned obituary illustates very well. The fact that good doctors do not murder hundreds of their patients seems irrelevant. One must wonder what people do regard as a "good doctor" these days.

Terrible lessons are still waiting to be learned. Anyone still not 150% clear on this should go here, and read the whole thing.

It takes a bit of scrolling.

Monday, June 27, 2005

flavours of the month

This might become a regular thing, with "month" applying to whatever time period I see fit.


chips and dips. I finally figured out why American potato crisp flavours are so dull (no cheese and onion, roast chicken, sun-dried tomato with four types of cheese and freshly picked thyme etc etc, as in the UK). It's because you're supposed to dip them in things. Having discovered this, I am now having a potato chips and French onion dip (home) and tortilla-chips and salsa (away) phase. This will be a short-term thing as proper cooking is likely to supplant it when the new house gets more organised, so please do not fear for my health or sanity.




Shiny chrome 50s bread-bin from Room Service Vintage. I would like to recommend this shop, but I can't, because you will all rush over there and buy everything and then I won't be able to, and that would be a disaster.


Beethoven's piano sonata #17 in D minor. It sounds so amazingly famous I can't believe it doesn't have a nickname like the famous other ones. Although I am often tempted to call most Beethoven piano sonatas "The Penelope Pitstop sonata" because, you know, they are quite da-na-na-na-NA!/ da-na-na-na-NA!/ pom- pom- pom- pom-/ pom- pom- pom- pom- (repeat).


This lecture series by the Chief Rabbi, which I have mentioned before, but I find absolutely grippingly interesting, as well as lots of fun.


red and white spotted fifties headscarf


The way human beings are able to ponder a difficult problem, say for several days, find ten or twenty different perspectives and insights, explore them all in effortful depth, then just stumble upon an amazing totally unpredictably original solution. Of course, I didn't create the universe and can't take credit for the existence of this phenomenon, but I do find it extremely cool.

big junk


I visited some old friends in Switzerland not too long ago, one of whom had just been to North Korea and told us about the same tall empty building that Harry Hutton mentions in this post. Apparently it's a bit like the World Trade Centre used to be, only there aren't actually any rich trading businesses in North Korea so nobody wants to rent the offices. I wonder if Kim the thirteenth or whatever he is called thinks this actually looks good. You would think he would make government officials move in or something. If he doesn't care if it looks good, why bother building it in the first place? I guess His Greatness thought it was a good idea then lost interest. Why bother with tall buildings anyway if you've got nukes.

It reminds me of the man in the vintage shop yesterday trying to buy an old Star Wars plastic lunch box for fifty dollars. Believe it or not, that is their actual "value" according to ebay. When human beings gain enlightenment, it will transpire that all those who bought beaten up ancient Star Wars paraphenalia, not to mention brand new Louis XV wood-laminate-look plasterboard-and-compressed-sawdust DVD display cabinets, for hundreds and hundreds of dollars, were making bum deals. For now, they are feverishly inflating their own markets in a joint ritual of of willing money-burning. South Sea bubbles still exist. They are just less obvious now that we all have so much more money.

I know, you think Star Wars lunch boxes ar beautiful and will only grow in value. Well, best of luck.

I would now reveal the Kim Jong building/ superinflated lunch box connection, but alas, it slipped my mind. Maybe you could try it yourself, as a sort of quiz? If I recall later, a suitable addendum will appear.



One of the things I find hilarious about human beings is how radically different their self-image can be from their real identity. Of course, often this phenomenon is a very long way from being amusing. But sometimes, when a person is harmless, it is really quite impressive and that's why we laugh: at the awe-inspiring ability of the human brain to accomplish the apparently impossible.

Children, especially young children, specialise in this skill. Many a three-year-old boy decided he was controlling the universe through a team of small robots in the corner of his bedroom, before the arrival of bedtime burst his bubble, for the next few hours anyway. And adult characters who routinely misperceive themselves as being successful, skilled, intelligent people while actually bumbling through life breaking every piece of china in the shop are the stuff of many a comedy series. We regard the Frank Spencers and Del Boys of life with affection, even though they may arouse us to rage when it was our china. We can't be angry for long, because despite their total lack of self-awareness, these characters are endlessly optimistic and well-intentioned, and most of all they keep on trying. If they weren't trying, the mistakes wouldn't happen. So we cannot but forgive them.

On the other hand, ill-intentioned or egotistical characters in drama etc are often bumbling idiots too, very often cut down to size revealing their true bumblingly idiotic selves by the triumph of good over evil. And that's funny too, because it's a revelation of truth. Not that their wicked deeds are bumbling errors- quite the opposite- but that despite doing bad things, they remain obviously awkward and silly at the same time.

That's why evil characters they are often portrayed with nervous twitches, bizarre obsessions and awkward, stammering modes of expression. Brecht's play about Hitler, The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, makes full use of the comic awkwardnesses of the Nazi dictator, and the way he turned them into those threatening expressive trade-marks: the stiff gait, the nervously feminine tightly folded arms, the Chaplainesque protective moustache that hides the upper lip and therefore any unwanted display of quivering emotional vulnerability. By contrast, Churchill's extremely relaxed and ponderous style of speech, familiar friendly V sign and great fat pleasurable cigar demonstrated the kind of deep, calm, moral authority that is simply impossible for bad guys to fake. So it was very easy for the Allies to make fun of the utterly inane and ridiculous Hitler, thus keeping up their morale and ensuring the outcome of the war.

We can tell from Hitler's body language that he was a highly self-conscious person, and from everything else about him that he had no self-awareness whatsoever. This is common because self-consciousness and self-awareness are pole opposites. You can have a little of both, but too much of one renders the other impossible.

Luckily deluded people are far more often "Ooooh, Betty!" than WWII. But probably the reason I found Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em scary as a child is that it describes a phenomenon that characterises evil as well as well-intentioned dumbness. I still don't really think it was funny. But growing up and earning your freedom changes things. I do laugh a lot at the real Frank Spencers in my life now - including any bad ones.

sounds of the spheres


Music is the divine language. It speaks to our emotions, which are our physical sense of the universe, and tells us of humanity. It is beautiful, because the world is beautiful.

Obviously I'm not talking about heavy metal here. Some "music" is designed not to express truth but to block it out by making your ears hurt so much that if anything else ever mattered you can't remember it. Perhaps there is good heavy metal music, I wouldn't know. Where one person hears embarrassing sentimentality another person identifies with simple feeling. But people can and do use music to obliterate reality and affirm their worst ideas, which is a terrible way to treat the wonders of the world, and yourself.

Of course, harmonomelodical abuse crosses all genres. There are classical afficianados who wallow in Beethoven and Verdi for all the wrong reasons too. Music can be used like an addictive drug, for perpetuating the avoidance of unsolved problems and a troubled conscience.
It provides an illusory kind of emotional experience when a person is in retreat from their inner reality. It gives them the impression of having lived, integrated and resolved feelings they were merely observing from a comfortable distance. It's not appreciation, it's appropriation.

The calming effect does not last long, so they go back and repeat as needed. A person who is totally emotionless, insensitive and uninterested in intimacy in their real life, but who listens regularly to heart-wrenching great music at one end of the scale, or thumpingly simplistic and repetitive sentimental nonsense at the other, is probably a serial killer. If they can listen to Mozart's requiem and not be inspired to live better afterwards, or play the same 80s power-ballad sixteen times in a row and not actually smash up both the record and the record player by the end, then there is definitely something very wrong and potentially dangerous going on. Stay away from them.

I am enjoying my new piano more than I can say, but I fear that my piano teacher of yore, Miss Kitchin, may have been right when she said that the secret to lifelong pianistic fulfilment was keeping up one's Hanon exercises. Whereas my violin playing improved just from a change in mental approach, my piano playing is stuck because my hands won't move as fast as my brain is telling them. This seems to be a much bigger issue on the piano; because each individual note is easier to play, you have to do far more of them and quicker.

A lot of people trained as children give up music later on because they don't see the point in playing at all unless for professional performance. You're not being paid and you're not contributing anything new to the world's musical culture- it's too much hard work to be enjoyable just for one's own ears, and/or there are just more important things to put one's creativity into. For me, it is an opportunity to experience the divine one step closer than by listening. I said "opportunity" because it's not enough to bash out the notes- you have to make them into the real music they should be, which is very difficult. But as far as I'm concerned, there is vastly more spiritual truth and beauty in Beethoven, Bach and Mozart than most things one is likely to hear on the average religious music TV show. Like I said (and I had to make this word up because there isn't one in English for the physical nature of what music is, so, sorry) harmonomelodical abuse crosses all genres.

Friday, June 24, 2005

G-d is in the details


It's the fabulosity of all sorts of things in and about everyday life that I am loving at the moment. My piano. The cleverness of having lots of shady trees in a Texan garden. Antique kitchen cupboards vastly more sensible and helpful than modern kitchen units. Wooden floorboards. My piano. Also, my piano. On the other hand, I am finding supermarkets unpleasant, ugly and repulsive, with their wall-to-wall second-rate contents. And I have developed total TV intolerance. It's the adverts. They are like being SHOUTED AT BY IDIOT STRANGERS RIGHT IN YOUR EAR. It got turned on the other week for about five minutes before my protests resulted in a successful and ongoing TV embargo. Whew. The adverts, and also the shows. MORE IDIOT PEOPLE SHOUTING. However, my piano is great. And the neighbours like it too, luckily.

If you seek out beauty and disregard the vulgar and repellent, you may start to notice how they correspond with goodness and its opposite too. Or maybe those qualities are the same things. In the eighteenth century, people used to think that aesthetic appreciation was a matter of wisdom and education. Aesthetic value wasn't assigned to anything that happened to turn you on; it was the music of the spheres, a deep kind of perfection only detectable to human beings who took great pains to become aware of it. This phenomenon was known as "taste". It was a refined kind of wisdom, one which only morally sound people were considered capable of acquiring.

Well, I've been buying furniture lately, and I am here to tell you that taste still exists, along with its opposite, horribleness.

Apparently, attraction and repulsion are the first emotions human beings become aware of. This makes sense to me. They are the most basic instincts of relationship to the rest of the world. We should be drawn to what is good and repulsed by what is bad. And I don't have time for anyone who deludes himself that these instincts can be rightly completely overlaid with reasoning. Nobody is clever enough to get that right.

On the other hand it is mind-boggling folly to decide that anything you instinctively find attractive must be good for you. So how do we go about improving our instincts, informing them with sensible new information, tuning up our taste-o-meters?

It's an active process. We need to get out there, take risks, make mistakes, learn from them and build our mental muscles. We need to find and listen to good advice, then try it out, and learn from what happens consequently.

Everyone's path is unique, but one guarantee for all is that if you don't make the effort, it definitely won't happen. That seems like the biggest risk of all, to me.

And on the other hand, there are things like this. I'm not writing about politics currently, but I have to state one time that the whole Gaza withdrawl thing seems so obviously wrong to me it's pretty much beyond debate. The detail Robert Avrech blogs about entirely reinforces my views, as if they needed any reinforcing. I cannot imagine where this will end. If people don't seek enough of the right lessons, those lessons will seek the people out anyway before too long.

Time to play the piano. All the creative and entertainment benefits of a video games system, only more so.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

women and work


Snippet of conversation overheard in a public place yesterday:

"What does my mother know? She never worked in her life!"


Here is the truth. Stay-home mums (and/or dads, of course) don't get paid a salary. They don't get sacked if they are remiss or negligent. And there really are stay-home mothers who do not work. There are even "homeschooling" parents who do not work, barely lift a finger round the house and totally neglect their children. Take it from me, these people do exist.

The thing is, the young lady I overheard almost certainly did not mean this:

"What does my mother know? She was a completely irresponsible and neglectful parent who never bothered taking care of us kids or the house or anything to do with our lives!"

Almost certainly, she just thought running a household, having babies and bringing up children did not constitute "work".

I have to say that, having spent quite a few years earning money followed by more years at home with kids, the latter is vastly, infinitely harder work as far as I'm concerned.

That is, if you actually attempt all the jobs you are truly responsible for.

I say "attempt" because there are a great number of home-based parents for whom getting everything done, as you would in paid work, is basically impossible. For many, the most that can be done is simply to work incredibly hard and get the most done that you can do.

One of the characteristics of a brilliantly talented person is that they do amazing things while making them look effortless. If you think your mother "did not work", but your house was warm, welcoming and cared for, and if your childhood was happy and relaxed in general, and if you are in no doubt that your parents loved and cared for you (one good measure of that is- did they do considerate things for you based on a detailed knowledge of your preferences?), then I have some news:

All that stuff doesn't come out of the sky and just land there on all of your heads. It has to be created, maintained and looked after. Someone did it. Doing things is work.

How easy do most people find that kind of work?

On the other hand, some people manage to achieve almost nothing while making it look like they are dragging a truck up Mount Everest. But I think they mostly work in offices.

Anyway, we need to update our definition of work. It can be invisible to its own beneficiaries. It can be fulfilling, wanted and enjoyable, and it isn't measured by the monetary outcome. I don't know what it is measured by though, except perhaps one's conscience.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

one burger is not like another burger


I am never going to Macdonalds again. What is the point in paying too much for terrible food stuffed with chemicals when you can pay the right amount for good food of the same kind? There is no point. Last night I had a plain beefburger that was made from beef ground up and grilled, and it tasted exactly like that, beef, ground up and grilled. Meaty and charcoaley. And it came with french fries made from actual potatoes. Some of them even had skins, proving they were made from actual potatoes. I do not smother my burger with processed cheese, and I do not wash it down with melted ice-cream/ milkshake. Nor do I generally eat pudding (dessert). Nor do I have any spare weight to lose. So the entire meal was very healthy indeed, as well as delicious.

A meat sandwich with salad and some potatoes chopped and cooked in oil is a good plain delicious low-fuss meal.

new and old


We are in the middle of moving house to a different part of town which is very quiet with lots of trees and yet within walking-distance of shops, cafes and other good things. I don't know whether such places are common in America, but evidently they do exist (unless this is the only one). Anyway, this is very good news for me. There are also buses that go to other useful places, and they are regular, air-conditioned and very very cheap, so hooray to that too.

Also it is old, which means 1930s by US standards, which would be quite modern in most of England. However, 1930s houses here are more old-fashioned already than 1930s houses in the UK- Waltons-style wooden houses with gardens and often porches on the front for your swinging bench, probably much the same as houses from the century before only they didn't get eaten by termites. Nothing like those functional semi-detached homes with bay windows on the front that sprouted in the UK between the wars.

Who knows if one day I will change my mind, but for me the idea of living in a modern residential area of the kind that seems to be most popular with most Americans still fills me with horror. Being near shops etc is not, for me, about going carless- it's about feeling civilisation nearby. That is what I am used to, and it makes me feel at home. Modern American family homes are very impressive, with their double-height ceilings and enormous rooms and so on, but I grew up on a modern housing estate as a child and it gave me nightmares, and clearly I haven't got over that yet. I have to say that there is no comparison between the two- for one thing, American homes are nearly all detached, with garden all around, and each house different than its neighbour. But they still freak me out, and presumably other people too or Desperate Housewives and American Beauty would not have been invented. (Those are both metaphorical tales of architecture, right?)

Anyway, I have been thinking a lot lately about how both moral and aesthetic decisions are very often determined by one's situation and knowledge-base, rather than being blanket goods and bads that can be applied to everyone regardless of their uniquenesses. You often have to know yourself before making the right decision: will I realistically cope with adopting seven children at once, or am I going to mess it up because I just don't have the skills or the desire to learn them properly? Should I really eat another giant bowl of tater-tots with extra melted cheese and lard topping, or will the prison-guards start bringing us low-fat broccoli salad in the next few days? Adopting homeless kids is generally good, and junk food is generally inferior, but either can be fine or terrible depending on the individual circumstances.

Coming today: new fridge, bottom of the line, no ice-maker as the plumbing for it doesn't exist here. And the piano. It's a medium-sized upright about 25 years old, made by Baldwin, and it will be the first piano I have owned. Which is ridiculous. Still, life begins at forty so I am actually a few years ahead of the game.

Monday, June 20, 2005



In the online etymological dictionary, I found this:

'Fundamentalism' ... appears to have been used first in connexion with the (American) Northern Baptist Convention of 1920 to describe the more conservative delegates who desired 'to restate, reaffirm, and reemphasize the fundamentals of our New Testament faith.' ... Now 'Fundamentalism' ... appears to describe the bigoted rejection of all Biblical criticism, a mechanical view of inspiration and an excessively literalist interpretation of scripture. [London Times, Aug. 25, 1955]

Lots of words change their meanings over time. My favourite one is "presently". It used to mean "now" and now means "sometime later when I get around to it." Words change to fit the ideas people are using them to express. They do this without anyone deliberately meaning them to. It happens because there is no way of fixing their meanings absolutely except in a historical context. This is why nobody can claim that a word absolutely means something specific unless they know its etymology. Which is why the old version of "fundamentalism" is based on a good idea. Unless you know where ideas come from, you're skirting around the surface of things instead of understanding them properly. It's impossible to criticise something unless you know what you're criticising in the first place.

Atheists can be fundamentalists in the modern, bigoted sense of the word, too. So can scientists. But they rarely get accused of this except by religious people, whom they then call "fundamentalists", thereby locking the argument. To some atheists, a "fundamentalist" is just anybody with any religion. No doubt some religious people think the same of anyone who thinks science is worth pursuing, also.

Anyway, we all have values which we are "fundamentalist" about in the good sense that we regard them as essential basic ideas on which to base other higher-level ideas. And most of us are also "fundamentalist" in the bad sense that we have dodgy ideas which we regard as essential and beyond criticism when actually they are deeply flawed.

What are you fundamentalist about- what do you regard as essential, base-level truth that needs to be reaffirmed?

Thursday, June 16, 2005

sidebar links

food blogs

It's been tricky getting started on my sidebar links. The problem is, I want to categorise them but am not sure how. By frequency of reading is too dodgy- it changes all the time. By blog topic doesn't work for the interestingly wide-ranging ones, which is nearly all of them. By nationality doesn't cover "Jewish" very well. I once had "Friends/ Romans/ Countrymen", which sounded good, but implied that countrymen could not be friends, and involved the misnomer "Romans" for all foreigners. "The good/ the bad/ the ugly" sounds cool and amusing, but insulting two thirds of my blogroll for the sake of sounding cool and amusing seems less than optimal.

Basically, trying to fit the strange and fascinating selection of human beings whose ideas I like to read into labelled boxes feels like trying to fold up Texas and fit it in an envelope. Perhaps alphabetical order is a better idea.

On the other hand, perhaps complete randomness would be even better.

I'll start with food blogs.

Gastroblog is a wide-ranging food blog with recipes and food stories, as well as good writers, who have opinions about all kinds of food. They are absolutely down to earth and sensible, and can even write about foie gras without a hint of snootiness. Gastroblog also has a handy sidebar from which to go food blog surfing. When I decide what my favourite food blogs are from their sidebar I will probably add them onto mine.

The kosher blog doesn't seem to be updated very often, but it's the only one of its kind I have found, and has useful links to Jewish recipe places. The Jewish tradition of eating is unlike any other, with its combination of religious laws that can be applied in any time, place or cookery-style, and its huge stock of very distinctive recipes that still seem to maintain their popularity. I am planning to learn some soon, watch this blog.

Though small, it is tasty seems to be the new name for "Let's eat with Meg and Ted", which title I personally loved, but never mind. They are in Dublin, don't update especially often, but write a good, no-nonsense, interesting food blog.

I was just really very hungry is going up because it includes posts about cookery and food books, and I love reading about food. And it is good.

If you are wondering now whether reading and writing about food is such a great idea, I refer you to Maki's post about what the whole enterprise means to her. I am definitely going to buy and read the book she raves about. Food is more interesting to me than, say, fiction, these days; it can be immensely significant (which brings to mind this post by Google Hador about the significance of the family table in Judaism. I found GH at Mirty's place, which I also mentioned the other day). On the other hand, some people treat food like it is religion, or like it is art and art is like religion and they are the High Priest Maestro, which is quite sad. But you knew that already.

More links later.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

"My darkness has been filled with the light of intelligence..."

(note: it was difficult to think of a decent title for this post, which is why a bad one was up for a while before I gave up and used this quotation instead.)


"... and behold, the outer day-lit world was stumbling and groping in social blindness." - Helen Keller

You will have to read the Chief Rabbi's whole "faith" lecture series to find out what he thinks about the Greek visual worldview and the Jewish auditory one; I can't summarise it. Although I am currently totally engrossed in these lectures and definitely recommend them. Lots there explaining how people make the mistake of dismissing things they don't understand because they think they understand them due to linguistic-conceptual miscomunications. I suppose that is another one of the many roots of all human failure.

One of the points the rabbi makes is that the Jewish people tend to produce different kinds of achievement than other people, because their culture is less about what you see and more about what you hear. There is a sense in which sound represents meaning and consciousness, in a way that sight does not, because sound represents language and communication and therefore human consciousness and the search for meaning. That is a very vague, poor and inaccurate summary. But I can think of more Jewish scientists and musicians than Jewish playwrights and artists.

Modern art tries to be more than physical. It wants to be invested with meaning beyond the beauty of what you see, hence the term "conceptual art". Sceptics argue that this enterprise is futile, but I think it is necessary and worthwhile, although its ambitiousness dooms it to failure most of the time. There is little point in art that just looks nice, because nature does that better already. In good art, you see the workings of (good, effective, enlightened) consciousness, which is something else altogether. For instance, there are stacks of old portraits in galleries around the world, but the Mona Lisa is popular because it is a picture of someone thinking. People are drawn to that. Of course, people will always be drawn to bad stuff too, but their generally greater instinctive attraction to what is good is visible in the greater popularity of Mozart over Salieri.

In King Lear, Gloucester famously begins to "see" truth only when his eyes have been put out. There is a similar theme in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, involving the Johnny Depp character. The message is obviously not that blind people are better than sighted people, or that hearing is better than sight. It is much more general and metaphorical than that; the observation that the forced removal of one's familiar relied-on systems, while threatening total breakdown of the human spirit, can also inspire a person to do better than they ever did before. Eyeballs are undoubtedly very useful, but the most important achievements of human beings are dictated by something greater than their individual physical senses. Having stuff, even having useful stuff, even having useful bits of your body, is not what counts: it's what you do with it all. Loss can raise our awareness of that truth more powerfully than any other challenge we face in life. Or it can indeed lead to our ruin, or leave us alive but crushed and struggling and regretful for the rest of our days. It depends how we deal with it. And sometimes we are useless and just have to keep struggling to find better ways of doing the dealing. That's fine.

I googled the Bach chaconne I have been attempting to play, and found a legend that he is said to have written it to commemorate the death of his wife and intended it to represent "the cycle of life". There are also lots of transcriptions for other instruments, including a piano one by Brahms for left hand only. Ravel wrote a whole piano concerto for left hand only. You can't do as much with only one hand, but you can do what you can do, better; it's the meaning that counts. The greater our awareness of that, the further we can go. Truth is not a one-phrase theory, it is a practical reality which we never stop learning how to live.

native v. foreign food update


And on the subject of local authentic fare, we had the most amazing tortilla chips and salsa last night, and what is more it came free with the Mexican beers. Big huge crunchy slightly warm chips and home-made spicy tomato stuff. You are supposed to scoop up great dollops of salsa with your chips. I dipped the corners of my chips tentatively in the salsa and even then thought I was burning my mouth. Perhaps this will change.

We also played darts. They opened the whole upstairs bar specially for us. "Darts isn't so big anymore," said the landlord. The reason being that they banned smoking in the darts bar. Austin recently passed a law banning smoking in all public places (ie, privately-owned public places) although it has not come into full effect yet. There are a lot of smokers in Austin and the ban on indoor smoking is going to be bad for some people's businesses. If you don't have an outdoor seating area you could lose all your customers to somewhere else that does. There hasn't been a revolution in Ireland yet, which also recently imposed this kind of ban, but the weather there is less good. I imagine smokers would rather sit unsmoking in the warm than spend their evenings shivering outside, even if there is a beer garden.

Personally I prefer sitting outside anyway if possible, unless it's the hottest part of the day in summer. What is the point in being somewhere so sunny and spending all your time indoors? Pizza, coffee and tortilla chips are all better in the open air. They just need to fix up some al fresco dart-boards next.

Fact of the day: cilantro is Spanish for coriander leaves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

in search of halloumi cheese


I like nearly all cheese, and grilled halloumi is one of my favourites. Berlin has a large Turkish community, and when we were staying in the middle of it in Kreutzberg the other month, we bought three packs of halloumi for five euros from one of the local Turkish food shops. It's a little more expensive in Texas.

This place could not be more different than the little Turkish shop in Kreutzberg. It is so vast it even has its own classroom. The website explains their ethos thus:

Remember what it was like to visit Grandma's and walk into her kitchen?

Um, yes, but to be honest, my grandma's kitchen was more of a tiny overflowing place than an aircraft-hangar-sized showroom for All The Poshest Food In The World. While in search of halloumi, possibly for making this Nigella Lawson recipe, we helped ourselves to of the free cheese sample of the day. I only had a tiny crumb because it was solid old cheese that looked like dark Parmesan, so I thought it would be very strong.

Ten minutes later, I couldn't stop thinking about the cheese. It was five-year-old aged Gouda, which doesn't sound very impressive, but it was so deep and mysterious I think it was made in the Brothers' Grimm fairytale woods, around the time of Cinderella. Bought some of that, and some other exotic foreign fare as well: a baguette, some Italian cheese, an empty cigar box for putting things in, and a curly-wurly. Which is a bit like an American going to Fortnum and Mason and buying a Twinkie bar. Although I bet you can actually do that, at least in Selfridges or Harvey Nicks.

Some time ago, an American beer company decided to call itself by the same name as a Czeck beer company which had the name first. When the Czeck company tried to reclaim their name, they failed. Ever since then they have been called Budvar- the original Budweiser in Europe. But in America, as I know since seeing it yesterday in the fancy shop, they go by the dreadful name Czeckvar. Bought some of that too.

Which concludes my shopping journal. There is no food better than absolutely brilliant bread with absolutely brilliant cheese and maybe an apple. I can't believe how easy it is in life these days to eat like a king. Best supper I've had since the last one. Amazing.

Monday, June 13, 2005

built-in obsolescence

nail varnish

When women all over the world went bonkers about the famous Chanel rouge noir nail varnish worn by Uma in Pulp Fiction, it was the beginning of a nail varnish trend that led eventually to the establishment of "nail bars" on every street corner all over the place. These days manicures are as common as haircuts. If you want to smarten yourself up and feel pampered, they cost much less, can be even more colourful, and don't involve sticking your head in a sink. They are also less touchy-feely. Not everyone likes touchy-feely, and hand-shaking is definitely less involved than a head-massage.

Actually, I conjecture that an aversion to general touchy-feely (as distinct from intimacy with your closest loved-ones) is less weird than Jackie Danicki might suspect. In particular, the recent Western custom of hugging and kissing everyone you know every time you meet and greet them is, I think, due for a major backlash. It has become extraordinarily difficult to avoid, but I am quite certain that a large number of people find this practice quite unpleasant.

When rouge noir happened, so did short nails. Previously, most nail varnish but especially strong colours were expected to be worn on long, impractical ones. I recall trying to grow mine as a teenager, and horrifying my viola teacher. It was the blue nail varnish that shocked her the most, though. You can't wear blue nail varnish and play the viola. It is distracting for the audience and looks out of place in the orchestra. Something like that. I don't know whether things have changed now or not.

Blue was more or less unknown then, I would guess it was a tiny new-romantic spinoff, as those people were heavily into make-up generally. But after rouge noir, there was a big colour explosion in the nail-varnish world. Rouge noir was the ultimate in red. Red could go no further. But the nail-varnish box had been opened, and women wanted more. So they got everything: gold, blue, chocolate brown, all the metallics, and it hasn't stopped since.

Short nails staked their claim, but long nails came back soon afterwards and have sat quite happily next to long ones ever after. Because length doesn't matter anymore: nail bars do fibreglass extensions that last a few weeks, if you even want them for that long, because long nails are impossible to live with. Hair extensions, fake sun-tans and fake nails are all temporary, which is just how we want it.

Which is a long way round to saying I have decided to buy an acoustic piano. Not that there is anything wrong with digital ones- but I don't want an infinitely-variable instrument, I want one that stays the same so I can get to know it properly. I will never get "bored" with a piano that has a beautiful sound I love. I'll just keep learning more music from the huge and amazing repertoire that has already been written and which there is no hope of my ever exhausting. If digital pianos are like a nail-bar in your own front room, then acoustic ones are a simple bar of soap. There is definitely room in the world for both rainbow colours and the natural look. What really matters is what you do with your hands.

Anyway, if there had been digital pianos when I was a child, I am fairly sure my Great Aunt Mona would have used headphones while playing Chopin at night the time my sister and I were staying, so as not to disturb us in bed. And then I would never have had the chance to hear her at all.

Friday, June 10, 2005



Quiche is good, because you can vary it lots of ways and use up things in the fridge. Today I am using up three kinds of cheese (American Parmesan, Mexican Panella and orange American Cheddar). I'm also experimenting with the dried tomatoes that came in a bag from the fruit and veg section of HEB. They're not in oil but seem pretty much like Italian sun-dried tomatoes.

I am the kind of puritan cook who still instinctively feels that cheeses named after Parma or the Cheddar Gorge should either be made there, or choose other names. However, Wisconsin seems to produce quite a variety of different cheese-types now, so they could not all practically be called Wisconsonian, and anyway another part of my puritanism is about cooking in a way appropriate to wherever you are. Which I'm not doing. But cooking with imported cheese would be even worse.

But I like quiche. And I did figure one thing out before coming back to Texas this time, and it's a thing that applies to more than just the kitchen; America is not about learning and becoming part of the culture in the way that, say, moving to Poland or Italy or rural Spain would be. In those places, you slowly pick up the language then adopt everyone else's habits and routines. But in America, there are no habits or routines. Everything is open all the time and you do whatever you want. So the best thing is to bring the positive national identity you had already, and build on that. Being yourself is more American than anything else you can be. And that, paradoxically, is why I am an Englishwoman in Texas.

Quiche, of course, is French. Because British food, of course, is mostly Italian, Indian, French, Greek and Middle Eastern, among other nationalities. Small world.

notes in D minor


My violin playing has improved more in the last week than it ever did during years of study. I can actually make a decent sound now, when I know the notes well enough to stop thinking about fingering and just listen instead, and have decided that the Bach Chaconne from partita #2 in D minor is playable. Not that anyone would want to listen to me playing it quite yet. But still, great strides.

Here are some lines from Once Upon a Time in Mexico:

Piano teacher: Music is pure, from one's soul. If the soul is pure, the music flows free.
Barillo (bad guy): And if the soul isn't pure?
Piano teacher: Then you must practice like a (censored)

Of course most of us need both. We can't learn to play the violin or the piano (or the guitar, the central metaphor in Rodriguez's movie) without lots of practice. But the sounds only become music when one's mind is in the right place.

However, the piano teacher is also right. Practice for its own sake is useless. If all one does is repeat things, mistakes as well as skills will be reinforced. My violin playing is improving because of the way I have been practising, not just because of the fact I have been practising. Unlike when I was a music student in my youth, I have been playing for the sheer enjoyment and beauty of it, and only music I love a lot. Not one negative thought about lack of innate talent or comparative lack of skill has passed through my mind. I feel incredibly lucky to have the knowledge I do have, and wanted only to use it to make and enjoy music.

I haven't bothered with technical exercises, set fingering or bowing markings, and I haven't got hung up on the fact that two of my strings are poor quality and need replacing. Most of all, I have been feeling confident. I am pleased and happy with what I am doing, instead of regarding it as pointless because there are plenty of other "proper" musicians who could do it better.

And my newfound sensible positive attitude has vastly improved my playing. I have made lots of technical adjustments without thinking of them as such, just from being more aware of what it's all about. Instead of trying to wipe out obstacles and difficulties, I get insights about where better to aim, and they very often work. Because, where I'm aiming at is making music, which is over and above notes, fingerings, triple-stops and bowing techniques. The music is not contained on the page of notes, waiting to be liberated: the page of notes is only part of the music. The music is the sounds, and the listening, and the dynamic relationship between the two. Listening is the key to making better music.

I have more to say about listening and seeing in Once Upon a Time in Mexico, King Lear and a speech by Dr Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations
of the Commonwealth (go here then click on "faith" and it's the fourth lecture down), but my ideas will have to distill somewhat first.

By the way, I don't necessarily recommend the movie to everyone. It's very violent. The most violent scene, though, comes directly from King Lear. Score ten bonus points if you know which scene I am talking about.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

covering up


The Manolo, he is absolutely right. Of course most people look abominable with their jeans falling off, their bellies wobbling about all over the place and their chests popping out like half-set jello. And judging by the commenters on his post, women are more than ready for some more decent clothing trends now. And by "decent" I basically just mean "reasonable" as opposed to "utterly ludicrous".

(Note on the latest wide-belt-under-the-bare-belly trend: do not do this. It makes you look like an all-in-wrestling champion. Thank you.)

If I knew where to find factories to make them, I would set up my own Dignified Clothing company right now, starting off with swirly cooling kaftan dresses for the Texas summer. There are many advantages to covering up when the temperature is high. Lawrence of Arabia would not have got as far as he did in a pair of baggy shorts and a t-shirt, because sunburn, heatstroke and various snake and insect bites are not good things to have in the desert.)

Anyway, it seems like everybody and his favourite Spice Girl can design clothes these days without having acquired sixteen years tailoring and pattern-cutting experience first. So watch this space.

Also on the subject of apparel, some of you may not yet have seen this very useful ebay product- protective cat helmets. Of course we must all ensure the safety of our domestic animals from the threat of government-controlled mind-rays these days. And ourselves as well- I wonder if there will soon be a human protective tin hat, that could be worn discreetly underneath one's stetson or kippah? Perhaps those in the know have been building anti brain-scan technology into their headgear for centuries already. Hmm.

digital or analogue?


I will be buying a piano sometime soon. This is good because I haven't had one for many many years, and will now finally be able to learn all the Beethoven sonatas, which will be very useful advance preparation for if I am ever shipwrecked on a desert island with only a piano and the complete Beethoven sonatas as my luxuries.

So I went to a piano shop to look at pianos. It was slightly embarrassing because I didn't know the answers to any of the shopkeeper's questions. No, we didn't have a budget. I couldn't explain what kind of music I would be playing (what does he think I am, psychic?) I had no idea how "brilliant" (there is a knob for it) the digital demonstration piano should be turned up to. Should have asked if it went up to "Vladimir Horowitz" level, he was pretty brilliant. Then I couldn't tell if I liked it anyway, not being used to hearing the thing through headphones.

"I'm used to normal pianos," I explained. They had a couple of those there too, but I didn't like them either. Maybe something will turn up in the musical instruments for sale section of "craigslist". This is an online free local small ads place. It's great. Apparently they are everywhere, just google for your town. People give things away free there. Like this:

FREE ~ TV, only 2 years old, picture does not work, must go today as I am moving tomorrow, thank you.

Don't ask me.

Anyway, I am tending towards the analogue at the moment, partly because I don't want to have to read an instruction-manual just to play the piano, partly because I am not convinced that replicant music is truly the same thing as real music and partly because it's probably going to be cheaper. But do tell me any advice you may have.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Here I go again...


Back in Texas, life is good.

Not even real summer yet, and some of the day the patio is too hot for sitting outside already. And the air-conditioning in the car has broken down. And a new one costs about twice what the car is worth. But it's still unhot enough for open car windows to do an OK job. So far.

We are moving next week, to a lovely little old wooden rented house, with a nice garden, with trees, and shops and cafes in walking distance, and buses to places good to go. This is brilliant because my brain did not grow up in America and I can't do Car Culture because I don't want to do Car Culture. Not saying I'll never get around to driving a 2CV. Or a Cadillac. But I still don't want to have to jump into it and start burning gas every time I run out of milk.

There is a mumps epidemic in the UK. We brought it back with us. I don't know if it's true mumps, but it has some of the symptoms and seems to go on for weeks. I nap in the afternoons, wake up a little more energised, then bash out Bach partitas on the violin until it's too hot to go on.

I avoid the supermarket. It is too confusing and full of rubbish and gives me a headache. The TV stays switched off. I prefer quietness. When I move house I will order some books from Amazon so they go to the right address.

I'm cooking this Nigella Lawson chicken recipe, right now. I'll let you know if it was any good, but it definitely smells great already.

Today I read this and this (latter hat tip Rishon Rishon ). Ah, the pitfalls of logic that sees not its own flawed premises... I also found this, which made me happy as it combines several of my favourite Jewish bloggers in one place (namely, Treppenwitz, Renegade Rebbetzin, Mirty and A Simple Jew).

The smell from the kitchen is getting better and better as I write.

Life is good. Did I say that already? Oh, yeah.