Friday, November 18, 2011

A little genealogy

Miriam's 6th grade history class assignment to make a family tree (Stammbaum) had us looking into a file folder labeled "Family History." Markus is a good filer, and over the years he's stuffed the folder with various documents representing both sides of the family.

While I was busy rehearsing and performing Mendelssohn all weekend, Markus and Miriam spent some time looking at the file. A neat tracing of the Vodosek line, in my father-in-law's handwriting, formed the basis of Miriam's project. I later found a piece of scrap paper in Markus' hand showing the mathematical progression backwards into a staggering number of ancestors: 1 Miriam, 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great-grandparents, 16 great-great-grandparents, then 32, 64, 128, to 256 direct ancestors 9 generations back. Being a pragmatist, Miriam was satisfied taking each grandparent back one or two generations (her great-greats and/or great-great-greats) and copying 10 generations of the Vodosek line back to Stefan Vodosek I. Stefan Vodosek I (1647-1707), Jakob Vodosek I (1693-1762), Martin Vodosek (1745-1816), Gaspar Vodosek (1762-1843), Jakob Vodosek II (1795-1857), Stefan Vodosek II (1831-1889), Stefan Vodosek III (1872-1953), Alfons Vodosek (Markus' grandfather, whom I knew, 1912-1996), Peter Vodosek (Miriam's grandfather, 1939-), Markus Vodosek (1966-), Miriam Craig Vodosek (1999-)! Of course, each of these men had a mother with names like Katharina, Jena, Mezo, Maria, Rosa. The one great-grandparent whom Miriam met in person was Marianne Kollik Vodosek (1914-2006), married to Alfons.

Although I had run out of time to help Miriam decipher the Craig/Williams side of the family for her assignment, I couldn't resist taking a closer look into the file anyway. I knew of the pride and fuss in both my grandmothers' families as descendants of the Lee family of Virginia. It is part of the family lore that General Robert E. Lee is the most famous ancestor in our predominantly Southern family tree. With organizations like the Society of Lees of Virginia, one has access to considerable information.

As for my grandfathers, the family roots are more humble and scantily recorded. My paternal grandfather, David Norman Craig (1898-1986) of Massachussetts, was son of David Craig, Jr., who arrived on a boat from Ireland as a child around 1887. This is the one branch of my family tree that is decidedly non-Southern, having been established in the U.S. in the North after the Civil War. We lose track of the Craigs in Ireland before his father, David Craig, Sr. (1835-?). There are a lot of David Craigs--including my brother!

My maternal grandfather, the Reverend Melville Owens Williams, Jr., stems from Virginia's middle class (e.g., an architect, a soldier "In Lee's Army" and tax collector, a butcher (on his mother's side)): Melville Owens Williams, Sr., David A. Williams, Edward Williams, Wilson Williams (one generation after the Revolutionary War).

Teasing out the Lee pedigree, traceable through both of my grandmothers, became the most interesting part of trawling the various photocopies of handwritten and typewritered documents. Because here is what I found.

In the mid-1600s, a man named Richard Lee "The Immigrant" came with his wife, Anna (Constable?), from Britain to the Virginia Colony. The second eldest of their eight children, Richard Lee II, married Letitia Corbin, and they had seven children.

One son, Colonel Thomas Lee (1690-1750), had a son named Thomas Ludwell Lee (1730-1778), who had a son named Thomas Ludwell Lee, Jr. (1761-1807), who had a son named Francis Ludwell Lee (1786-1848), who had a daughter named Nancy Eveline Ludwell Lee (1808-1884), who had a daughter named Sara Frances Wills (?), who had a daughter named Sallie Lee Angle (1855-1931), who had a son named George Osby Young (1877-1949), who had a daughter named Annie Lee Young Williams (1899-1996), who was my maternal grandmother.

The Robert E. Lee connection for my Granny traces through a brother of Colonel Thomas Lee in that first Virginia-born generation. I think that means Col. Thomas Lee was a great-great uncle of the famous general.

While puzzling over the document that traces the two lines (the one leading to my maternal grandmother alongside the one leading to General Lee), I noticed a name in the general's line that I thought I had seen before: Edmund Jennings Lee. And indeed I had.

Letitia Corbin and Richard Lee had a son named Henry just one year younger than Col. Thomas, and here's one of the lines that flow into the present day from Henry. Henry Lee (1691-1747) had a son also named Henry Lee (1729-1787) who had a son named Edmund Jennings Lee (1772-1843). Edmund was the younger brother of another Henry Lee, nicknamed "Lighthorse Harry Lee," whose many claims to fame include being the father of Robert E., which establishes this Edmund as the general's uncle, just by the way. Edmund Jennings Lee had a son, the Reverand William Fitzhugh Lee (?-1884), who had a daughter named Mary Morrison Lee (1830-1891), who had a son named Robert Allen Castleman II (1857-1936), who had a daughter named Frances Funsten Castleman (1897-1981), who was my paternal grandmother.

So, Thomas and Henry Lee, born one year apart in 1690 and 1691 in the middle of a pack of second generation Virginian Lees, gave rise to both sides of my family. I imagine the two of them arguing over a toy or angling for the last slice of pie. According to a small write-up on Wikipedia, they lived near each other as adults. At one point, after a fire destroyed the home of Thomas, Henry took the family in until Thomas could rebuild. What would the two of them think about my generation's random re-intersection of the Lee line? I say random because there are other more obvious intermarriages in the Lee line--cousins, I believe.

I knew all of this, vaguely. That my family has the lap desk used by William Fitzhugh Lee around the time of the Civil War (a dark wooden box that looks like a silver chest). That my parents had a common ancestor at some point. But it was a thrill when I spotted old Edmund Jennings Lee's name on the document about my maternal grandmother and figured out the connection to my paternal grandmother's line. Interestingly, the Castleman/Craig side takes only 12 generations to get back to Richard II and Letitia, whereas the Young/Williams side follows 14 generations. It appears to be a function of parental age, with many of the fathers in the Craig line being over 40 and many of the mothers on the Williams side being in their twenties.

Miriam's family tree was pretty impressive even without the copious material from my side of the family. She'd assembled seven sheets of paper and gone back to an ancestor born in 1647. Her teacher had set the assignment as a competition to see who could go back the farthest. I figured European families would know their lineages back to Charlemagne at least. But it turns out that the Austrian-American girl in class, with a historian grandfather of Slovenian origin, won the distinction of longest family tree.

Stefan Vodosek I was born 13 years before Richard Lee I died in 17th century Virginia. Wouldn't it be fun if they could see Miriam.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Going biblical

Sunday's performance of Mendelssoh's Paulus ran smoothly, filling Heilbronn's Kilianskirche with people and melodious sound. The choir never did drop the exaggerated pronunciation of the word "Jerusalem" (see post of November 5, 2011), but you can't say I didn't make an attempt at correction. I think that word presents a legitimate point of debate because many of the German speakers I polled were either uncertain how to say the word or pronounced it the "wrong" way themselves. What that all means is that Hochdeutsch (especially as used in theater, broadcast, and music) is an artifice. One choir member told me after the performance that the Swabian dialect is especially challenging for those who train themselves to be radio broadcasters and the like. According to him, no matter how hard they try, they can never quite erase the Swabian lilt and twang.

In preparing for the Mendelssohn concert, I decided to something about my lack of knowledge of the story of Paul. Was he one of the twelve disciples? I didn't think so. I skimmed the full text of the oratorio, including its many recitatives and arias for soloists. About a third of the way in, there's a character named Saul who is "spoken to" in an eerily beautiful women's chorus. After that, there's a character named Paul. I asked Markus, who had been to catholic religion class growing up. Hmm, he said. Is that the one who turned from Saul into Paul? From there, I decided to have a look in the Bible.

For two semi-lapsed Unitarians (lapsed due to lack of our denomination here in Germany), we have a lot of Bibles: two revised standards, one Good News, one Die Bibel, and one Das neue Testament. According to the explanatory note in the Peters Edition of Paulus, the text is all taken from Bible verses, especially the Acts of the Apostles, with the exception of the chorale texts that came from the hymnal of Mendelssohn's day, the most prominent being a delightfully bombastic "Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme" with full brass flourish.

When I sat down with the Bible on my lap, I indeed began to find the story of Paul. As I read, I became slightly less uncomfortable with the oratorio's generally negative and/or dismissive attitude toward "the Jews" and "the Heathen." While it's good dramatic fun for the choir to play the part of the nasty crowd crying things like "Stone him to death!" it's also unsettling to see lines drawn so Christo-centrically. Taking a fuller look at the context helped me get a more nuanced view of the historical impact of Paul.

Here's how I understand the story. Saul was a Jewish man living in Jerusalem in the first century after the death of Jesus (Wikipedia has his date of birth as AD 5). Saul also happened to be a Roman citizen, a circumstance that not only afforded him certain benefits but also seems to have played a significant role in the spread of Christianity. In Saul's Jerusalem, followers of Jesus went about preaching their gospel and facing persecution, among them Stephen, whose death by stoning occurred under Saul's approving watch. Saul had made a name for himself as a persecutor of Christians, and he asked to be sent to to Damascus to round up people who were speaking out against Jewish faith and tradition. On the famous road to Damascus, he had a vision, immediately followed by a loss of his eyesight. The vision instructed him to go to Damascus and await further word. After three days of solitude and prayer, he was found by Ananias, who was also following a vision. Ananias baptized him as Paul, upon which he became fully devoted to the Christian path and regained his eyesight.

Once Paul is an apostle, the remainder of Acts reads a bit like a road movie. The Mendelssohn piece makes it clear that, frustrated by his lack of progress in converting the Jews (my Bible says Hebrews), he turns to the Heathen (my Bible says Gentiles). Paul seems to be credited with loosening rules about circumcision and Kosher eating, a necessary compromise, I imagine, when appealing to Greeks and others for new converts. He travels with a variety of companions far and wide, a true traveling missionary. He nearly always evades persecution. Late in his life, he is captured in Jerusalem and imprisoned in Caesarea. As a Roman citizen, he claims his right to be tried for his crimes in Rome. Thus, courtesy of the Roman authorities, he enters into his final voyage.

The oratorio ends with Paul conquering the world in ecstatic praise. (Vocally speaking, you have to save a few high A's for the final moments of a 2-hour performance.) The Book of Acts also gives no details on Paul's demise (perhaps that is elsewhere in the Bible). Wikipedia informs me that Paul was put to death in Rome by beheading (a more merciful form of execution on account of his citizenship). And although Paul met a bad end, it seems quite clear that his voice must have been one of the first and most convincing to reach Rome and plant the seed of Christianity. It is strange to picture Rome and Italy without Christianity's central presence, as a place where no one revered Jesus, the Pope, and the Virgin Mary. Yet it all seems to have come about as the result of real people taking real trips and telling others their stories.

Why on earth, you might be wondering, am I blogging about the Book of Acts? Well, for one thing, I am amazed myself that I read an entire book of the Bible. It was not an easy text to read, but it wasn't as difficult as I anticipated. It's not at all unusual for me to check sources and do background reading on topics that grab my interest. But it is unusual for me to interact this directly with a Bible story. I really did need to know what was going on in the oratorio I was rehearsing hour after hour. That's a personal requirement. The fact that I came away from my reading with a moment of historical wow (the vagaries of the life of Paul just happened to transport Christianity to Rome) may have been teased along by my current reading: Geoffrey Blodgett's Oberlin History. That book is about many, many things, but most vivid to me is the keen sense of history, its making and its telling, that infuses every word.

Would you believe that, when I sat down this afternoon to blog, there was a different question altogether that had me reaching for a Bible? I was wondering about the word "begat" because I am working on some intriguing genealogy. He begat him, who begat him, and so on seems to be a rather efficient way of listing out a lineage. And I didn't want to imitate the begats without knowing my source. But, as it turns out, that formulation is a thing of the King James version. My reader-friendly mid-20th century Bibles say "had a son named so and so". Wordier. Anyway, I didn't end up blogging about the family tree stuff today, did I?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Skill Set

While rehearsing this afternoon for an upcoming choral project with Mendelssohn's oratorio Paulus, I had a chance to help out in a way I might not have expected. I joined Heilbronn's Vokalensemble in April, and next weekend's performance will be the first major work, with orchestra in Kilianskirche, that I will perform as a member of the choir. Together with a second and slightly larger group, we are about 120 voices strong.

During rehearsals, I have been puzzled at times about pronunciation, always tuning my vowel color to that of my neighbors. After all, they are native speakers, and we are singing in German. Now and then, particularly on "e" vowels, I've had the feeling that I learned a different pronunciation, back in my diction classes at Oberlin Conservatory in the 1980s.

Whether you're singing on an "eh" (as in "head") or closed "e" (not found in English, but like the second syllable in "obey" without the drop into the diphthong) makes a big difference in terms of vocal color and resonance. Apparently, as I learned in the spring, people with the local Swabian dialect throw in some closed "e" sounds where they don't belong (that is, according to the rules of Stage German (Bühnendeutsch) that I was drilled in during college). So, I went home from rehearsal in the spring and spent some time with my dictionaries to clarify vowels for myself.

During a break today, I had pointed out two vowel questions to our conductor, who seemed a little too harried to work on the finer points of diction. But he diligently made note and said he'd see what he could do. He is not from the Heilbronn area, although his Black Forest roots don't necessarily bring him closer to the Hochdeutsch of the Hannover region. To my ear, his spoken pronunciation is spot on, but (like many conductors of my acquaintance) he hasn't learned the code (International Phonetic Alphabet) and lacks the vocabulary to describe the sounds. Which is usually just as well, since most choral singers go cross-eyed when I bring it up. (Here's a quick test: did you like that link? If it looks like magic, you're with me. If your eyes are crossed…well, I've seen that look before.)

But to my point. Toward the end of rehearsal, we came across the word: Jerusalem. In English, dzeh-ru-suh-lemm. In German, ya(y)-ru-za-lemm. But in Swabia (where I live), apparently ya(y)-ru-za-la(y)m. It was one of the words that had bugged me, and I'd looked it up. So, when my German choral conductor cast his eyes toward the choir for verification on the final vowel sound, he looked at me, the American in the second sopranos. Lemm, I said. Like "Bett" (bed) or "hell" (bright). I'm sure about that. I looked it up.

Little Miss Diction hasn't lost her touch.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

About a pumpkin

I still grow the pumpkin my son Simon brought home from first grade as a sprouted seed.
So begins "Simon's Pumpkin," a short piece of writing (vignette, essay, meditation, rumination?) that I posted to Simon's Place on July 25, 2007 and polished to read at conferences in the summer of 2008 (Wesleyan, Writers at Work in Salt Lake City). The January 2, 2008 entry offers an intermediate version of the final essay, while the July 2007 entry tells the history and shows photos of this special pumpkin from 2004 to 2007.

The reason I bring up Simon's Pumpkin is that I am watching it grow again this summer in our backyard. It's the 8th generation--or vintage, as I like to call it. Technically, there was no pumpkin crop in 2010 because we spent the summer relocating from Salt Lake City to Germany. However, one very persistent pumpkin from the 2009 batch held on as a decoration for more than a year. My friend Maritza harvested its seeds in early winter 2010, thus creating an honorary seed for the missing year. Mysteriously, the "2010" seeds were the first to sprout when I started this year's crop in May, followed closely by seeds from the original 2004 pumpkin.

There's more to show and tell about this summer's pumpkin, but I'll end for now with a current photo, followed by the most recent "finished" form of the essay (the last of six vignettes collected with pertinent quotations in 2009). Open-ended, like the pumpkin project itself, the writing remains unpublished.

Mid-summer pumpkin, August 16, 2011.

Simon's Pumpkin

“How do you parent your deceased child?”
Markus, on Simon’s “ninth” birthday,
May 2006.

I still grow the pumpkin Simon brought home from first grade as a sprouted seed. The tiny plant sat in a styrofoam cup by the kitchen sink, bent and wan with its companion sunflower sprout. We nearly forgot about the little plants, but some impulse of preservation possessed me to plant them by our backyard fence.

Now, when the newest generation sprawls across the yard each year, I relive my first encounter with Simon’s pumpkin. I remember the children who planted seeds while Simon missed school for a whole month. It was the spring of 2004. A painful tumor appeared in Simon’s jaw—the first one we could actually see and touch. The severity of the tumor propelled him into a week of radiation treatment—strapped flat on his back like a mummy, pinned under a tight-fitting mask, and left repeatedly in isolation with the beam-throwing machine. Radiation stopped the tumor’s assault but raised life with cancer to a new level of torment.

I took Simon back to school a little late on a morning in mid-May. He stopped short of his classroom, too shy to enter. His teacher shot me a “what now” look. I shrugged. I coaxed. Then all twenty-three first-graders appeared in a circle around him in the hallway—close, but not too close. Simon inhaled their affection, and I felt his head burrow into my shoulder as I crouched beside him. One friend broke the silence: “I hate it when Simon isn’t here.”

As we proceeded into the classroom, the children told us all about their seed-planting project. Simon’s seeds had sprouted first in the whole class—his pumpkin and his sunflower, they reported. Then, I easily believed Simon’s seeds had special magic. Now, I carry a riper view of rapid growth, having witnessed cancer gone wild.

Simon’s pumpkin and sunflower grew side by side that first summer. The cheery orange-yellow pumpkin blossoms burst open every morning until one day we discovered a mottled green sphere below a broad leaf. I think it was the size of a grapefruit in early July when Simon lost interest. My attempts to show him the plant—to break into his boredom and distract from his misery—met with disdain. Despite his indifference, I nurtured my own connection between Simon and his garden.

“Save the seeds,” said Simon’s hospice nurse one morning near the end. “That’s Simon’s pumpkin. Grow it every year.”

And I have. The sunflower, too, which opened its first bloom in a deep rust-brown, solemn and majestic, the day after Simon died.

Intrusive as a bee, I inspect each blossom. When I discover a pale green ball, fertilized and starting to swell, I relax a little and wonder if this one will grow to Jack-O-Lantern size. Or if I’ll make soup, or another pie inscribed: We miss you Simon.

Each year’s vines emerge from the earth like cords reaching into the present from an ever-receding past. Something is preserved in this ritual garden, some part of the bond begun when Simon’s embryo found my uterine wall. The plants grow, heedless of the ache I need their help to bear. And I measure the distance between my reality and the one I imagine in other families' homes where seedlings shrivel by the sink while children play in the summer sun. (c) 2009

Monday, July 18, 2011

In case an actual person cares…

I have temporarily retired a post from December 16, 2010, about shopping at IKEA. Apparently, a robot or two have turned up that post and are generating page views to that particular post. A similar thing is happening with the Google translate feature, through which someone (thing?) is calling up a mediocre rendering of the IKEA post. The care label images that I posted there have also made their way into various image databases.

I can see basic information about traffic to the site through blogspot statistics, which is how I have an idea of what's going on. I wondered if, perchance, someone had taken particular interest in my thoughts on IKEA and had forwarded the link to a bunch of people. But I think the robot theory, which I read about on a google forum, is a more likely explanation.

Anyway, in case you are a real PERSON and are interested in that post, please contact me via email at

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ending a long blog break

The Fourth of July has come and gone, and I have taken a long break from blogging. Among other impediments, the slow and methodical collapse of my laptop has kept me distinctly off-line. I'm working my way back into things electronic.

When was that wedding in England, Kate Middleton and her prince? Miriam was searching for images of Buckingham Palace for a school report. She was working at my desk, on my laptop, because that's where we have a printer. Suddenly my computer screen began to shudder. There was even a Safari screen warning of a possible Malware site, which at least opened the idea of something suspicious having happened. I rebooted and had several OK days. But the problem returned. Was it the screensaver going kerflooey? Then things worked fine again--well enough to download "The King's Speech" and play the whole film from iTunes to our TV screen. (If you've never rented a film on iTunes, you might not know that it takes several hours to pull in a feature-length film.)

I ran the little diagnostic CD, but it cheerfully reported finding nothing amiss. Repeatedly. The final death throes involved a flickering screen, freezing mid-task with no response to force quit moves, loss of mouse functionality, and finally the dreaded "You will have to shut down your computer and restart" in English, French and Japanese before the whole thing just stopped reacting at all when I pushed the power button.

Due to geography and the scarcity of Mac repair service, we got two trips to Stuttgart out of our quest to revive my 2008 MacBook Pro. Its predecessor had required a new hard drive at about this age, so I wondered if it might be that. The tech simply took the machine in hand, looked quizzical when I mentioned the virus alert, and said they'd be calling us.

Am I making this dramatic enough? It turned out to be the graphics card. A new motherboard took care of that. And they replaced the DVD drive, which I'd noticed failed to play a disc once, but I thought it might have been the disc. The motherboard was under warranty, and the DVD drive was a reinvestment we decided to make. We bantered back and forth on terminology until I grasped what had been repaired. "Hauptplatine" is a motherboard, for example. But not the "Festplatte," which is the hard drive. Nothing amiss with my data. All done.

In other news, we had a quiet celebration, just the three of us, on the Fourth of July. No one else around here seemed to notice, although if I mention "Unabhängigkeitstag"* (Independence Day), my German counterparts nod their understanding. Still, no fireworks (I understand you see them around the US Army bases in places like Heidelberg). No holiday. Just a Monday evening, and us three having a little pan-fried steak (we don't have a grill yet, having left our ashy Weber back in the States). And Miriam's fabulous flag cake.

A family collaboration: "Bisquit" cake (Mary), whipped cream as frosting (Markus), and the stars and stripes in blueberries and raspberries (Miriam--who also served as instigator of the project).
*For anyone with a desire to pronounce this delightful word:
["ç" is the phonetic symbol for the sound at the beginning of the English word "hue"]

Monday, May 16, 2011

May 17th Coming Up

Certain dates acquire meaning. For most of my life, May 17th was a day I wouldn't notice passing by for any particular reason. Then I gave birth to my son, Simon, on a May 17th. And suddenly that date took on a grandeur and importance beyond any I had ever known. Not my own birthday, nor any other member of my family's. Not the day I got married. But May 17th, the day I became a mother.

Simon arrived eight days "late," having been predicted to arrive on May 9, 1997. It was a cool spring, and the flowering trees still huddled with their blossoms tight in buds. I don't recall being terribly impatient, that last "extra" week. Markus and I went in for one "post-due" monitoring appointment with an ultrasound check-up to see if things looked OK in there. I remember walking, in my winter coat, that Friday after the appointment. We strolled in the Arboretum at the University of Michigan, up near the hospital entrance. The nurse had offered to apply a bit of prostaglandin gel to my cervix to "help things along." But after checking for signs of softening and dilation, she decided I was on my way and would probably have my baby before the weekend was over.

She was right. I woke to sharp cramping pains in my low back the next morning. By mid-day it seemed like time to go in to the hospital. By 2:30 that afternoon we were holding our little boy (7 pounds, 13 ounces and fabulous).

When we took Simon home the next morning, the crabapples and cherries had begun to burst into voracious bloom. I wondered if Simon had been waiting for the warmer weather, just like the trees.

Tomorrow will be my first May 17th since moving back to Germany. And, as has been true for the past seven years, we have the strange task of marking the day of Simon's birth without him here to celebrate with. His last birthday was in 2004, when he turned seven.

For the first four years, we held Lemonade Stands on his birthday to remember him and raise money for childhood cancer research. In 2009 we took a trip to visit family in Germany (and for Markus to attend a conference in Istanbul). We celebrated Simon's birthday with my parents-in-law, eating a cake Miriam baked with her grandmother. In 2010, we were in Salt Lake City and kept the day just for the three of us. If I recall, we went out to eat at The Spaghetti Factory (in Trolley Square), which had been a favorite of Simon's.

We haven't made particular plans for tomorrow. We'll light our candles to remember Simon. Maybe we'll bake a cake or a pie. There's no easy way to do it. May 17th will never return to being any old day in May. And we had eight really good ones--the day Simon was born and the seven celebrations of that day with him.

Without him, we do our best. Maybe we'll take a short walk tomorrow. Or a bike ride. And remember.

A brief photo history:
Early May 1997

About a day old (1997)
Happy Birthday at Linda's house (1999)!
Happy Birthday in Family Housing, Ann Arbor (2000)!
Happy Birthday in Salt Lake City (2004)!
Lemonade Stand 2005.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ten Years Ago

Listening while I type to The Takeaway--streaming radio from the USA to get a grasp on the news that Osama Bin Laden was found and shot and killed yesterday. The incidental music, of which there is a lot today, twangs and twists through an impure internet connection.

Where were you when you heard? asks John Hockenberry, the show's host. If the world were a facebook page, its status would have changed overnight, he states. I was in the car this morning, having dropped Miriam at school, then Markus at work, giving both of them a bus holiday on this first day back after Easter break. The German newscasters, it seemed, were talking about Osama Bin Laden in the past tense. What's this?

I admit that I do not often give coherent thought to Bin Laden. But hearing the news of his death has opened a pathway of thought that reaches back ten years.

Remember ten years ago? For us, April 2001 was a family trip to Germany and Austria. Almost-four-year-old Simon, eighteen-month-old Miriam, and Markus and I, still in our thirties. We visited Vodosek grandparents in Stuttgart and extended family in Austria. Airport security focused on Mad Cow Disease back then. When we returned to Detroit, the customs folks asked if we'd been near a farm. We hesitated. We'd walked out in the country a bit. Just to be sure, customs staff briefly confiscated our shoes and washed them clean.

Pre-September 11th. Pre-2001. A different world.

For us, the year brought considerably more than the stupefaction of being distant observers of horrifying events in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. In November, the father of my dearest childhood friend died of prostate cancer. I sang Vaughan Williams at his memorial service: Bright is the Ring of Words (Robert Louis Stevenson). Already unsteadied by world events, we of Oak Street in Oberlin, Ohio, had lost our invincibility. We needed no further convincing that it is possible to die of unfairness. Yet immediate, additional proof nonetheless came when Simon (then four and a half) was diagnosed that December with the cancer that took him when he was seven.

I remember that April trip as being rooted in BEFORE. Before so many difficult changes. Below are a few photos that came before our first digital camera (scanned in from prints). We didn't know anything yet. But looking at Simon now, I can't suppress an obsessive thread of wondering if he was already carrying cancer. What's that yellow color in his skin? Just an off-color in the photo? It's hard to let that sort of thing go.

I have a volume of Vaughan Williams (Songs of Travel) out from the library. When the Bin Laden news cut me loose from any feeling of planned activity this morning, I eventually found myself at the piano, singing through the song I had sung in November 2001 at the memorial service for Jeff Blodgett, a man noted for his oratory:

Bright is the ring of words
When the right man rings them,
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Still they are carolled and said --
On wings they are carried --
After the singer is dead
And the maker buried.

Low as the singer lies
In the field of heather,
Songs of his fashion bring
The swains together.
And when the west is red
With the sunset embers,
The lover lingers and sings
And the maid remembers.
(Robert Louis Stevenson)

I'm not sure that I can make sense of any of it, even ten years later. But I do know that certain events require us to live through past events again. And perhaps during these iterations we come closer to glimpsing what has actually occurred.

Today I remember Jeff Blodgett. I remember traveling with two adorable young children in Europe. I remember the eerie stillness of every plane in the United States being kept on the ground. I remember singing in Jeff's honor. I remember (barely and with effort) how we exited the highway of life as we knew it and began to travel on this other one.

So many things, not least of them 9/11, could have turned out differently. But here we are now, and it's the only place we can ever hope to understand anything from.

Flashback to April 2001
Strollering in Stuttgart, April 2001.

Miriam, the architect.

Simon, the tree climber.

Simon making Easter eggs with Oma.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Signs of Spring

Having recovered full use of my right arm, I'm back to typing and other activities as usual. Just under 4 weeks to get rid of the stiffness and shooting pains from my elbow down to my wrist. I have a new respect for the complicated mechanism that is my arm. As I recall it, the soreness I used to get from hitting a tennis ball was never this difficult to shake.

We're having another day of balmy temperatures--a real feeling of summer at 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit). This evening we plan to head to one of our favorite "Besen." Here in the Heilbronn area, where there are so many vineyards, the vintners run temporary restaurants at different times of the year. The tradition developed to help winemakers sell off older wines to make room for the new ones and also to offer another source of income. At a Besen, you can expect to find a list of 10-20 wines and a menu of local specialties. When the weather's nice, you can sit outside. Last Saturday we spent an idyllic evening (joined by my sister, Julie, who was visiting) at Weingut Drauz (I like the place a lot better than their website, which is one of the more bizarre websites, complete with goofy music, that I've seen in a while). After wine with tasty food (I had Maultaschen--or Swabian Ravioli) we finished the evening with Hazelnut spirits (grappa/schnapps that's clear, not sweetened, and goes down with a punch of flavor).

The word "Besen" means broom, and you literally find the establishments that are currently open by looking for the brooms that hang outside or along the road, like balloons marking the site of a party. The idea being that they are sweeping out the old, I guess. Here's a link to a German wikipedia article on the topic:ßwirtschaft (even if Deutsch isn't your language, you can enjoy the photos).

So, on another topic, I have watched with puzzlement and some horror how the locals go about caring for trees. Especially in February, there was a rash of pruning. Piles of boughs lined the roads next to what remained of the trees. One explanation, I learned, is that February 28th was the last day that tree pruning was permitted. After that, the habitat needs to be there for birds to nest.

Okay, but what explains the amputation-style pruning method? Below are two photos of rather mild examples. As you can see, the main branches have been hacked off at a certain point, leaving the trees to send out new, thinner branches there. I trust there's solid reasoning behind the practice, but I haven't figured it out yet. Here are some of the theories so far:

1) Wine growers trim back the grape vines to two main stalks before the growing season and the practice is carried over to trees (from my British friend Andrew).

2) They do thorough pruning because it's expensive to undertake and you don't want to have to do it again very soon (from my mother-in-law).

3) Restrictions about tree size and/or overhang on neighboring property require the practice (my best guess).

4) Someone went crazy with a chain saw (OK, more a description than a theory, from my sister).

In any case, in my opinion, it's hard to comprehend the practice as something that is driven by aesthetics. If anyone knows something on the subject, I'd be interested to hear from you!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Back to being a nurse, for the time being

A couple of situations account for my recent silence. Physical incapacity in the form of lateral epicondylitis (good old tennis elbow) has curtailed my ability to type for the past 2.5 weeks. Intermittently quite painful. Effectively self-limiting. Typing LH only. Big bummer for the status of a manuscript I'd hoped to submit for a memoir essay contest, deadline March 20. Trying very hard to keep my right arm immobile so it can recover. So many things I can't do! Using my LH to handwrite notes--sometimes the letters remind me of my son Simon's writing. He was a lefty and struggled with writing.

Now Miriam is laid up in bed with heavy upper bronchial congestion, moderate fever, sore throat. Doing what I can for her, trying not to catch what she's got. Poor kid. She's been sick pretty often this year. I'm using my handy link from this blog to the Celsius/Fahrenheit converter. Latest data point: 38.8 C/101.8 F.

Good travels during March break (no school 3/7-3/11 for the week of Fasching/Karneval) to Austria for Miriam & Markus to ski (I walk, read, sleep) and to the Ruhrgebiet to the north in Germany for general tourism (fascinating old industrial cultural sites, e.g. Essen's Zollverein) and the Taylor Swift concert in Oberhausen on March 12 (only performance in Germany, and Miriam's a fan). On the way home, reconnected with hometown friend (and former baby-sittee of mine!) Jennifer (née) Zinn and her family near Bonn.

A glimpse of the Zollverein, where slick new escalators convey visitors into what once was a massive coal washing plant and now houses a cultural/natural history museum in and around the plant's equipment:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Davids of Note

Apart from my brother, who has life-long rights, here are two important Davids in my life. David Owens (red tie) is music director at First Unitarian in Salt Lake City and my collaborator in 7+ years of making music and making music my own. David Zabriskie, composer of the Requiem we premiered on February 6, 2011, has quickly won my musical respect and gratitude. Both of them have lavished their composerly talents on works written with my voice in mind. For a singer, it really doesn't get any better than that.

February 5, 2011 after the dress run of David Zabriskie's Requiem, Salt Lake City, Utah.
For more on the Requiem and my recent trip to Salt Lake City, see In Sunny Utah (2/4/11)

Friday, February 4, 2011

In Sunny Utah

A new post is long overdue, and so I am sending out a brief missive from my old hometown of Salt Lake City.

I have returned to be part of the world premiere of a Requiem by Salt Lake Valley native David Zabriskie. The piece was commissioned by First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, where we became members in 2003. I am honored that the composer had my voice in mind when composing the soprano solo, and I decided to make the trip from Germany to be part of the performances.

It's an exciting process. Last night was our rehearsal with the chamber ensemble: 2 violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, and piano. Additional soloists include alto Erin O'Connell and baritone Jim Thornburg, both of whom are old buddies from my days in the Chancel Choir at First Unitarian. There is also a saxophone solo--the fourth movement of the Requiem is a jazz number.

In addition to seven movements that follow the Latin Requiem text (Requiem Aeternam, Dies Irae, Sanctus, Pie Jesu, Agnus Dei, Lux Aeterna and In Paradisum), Dave Zabriskie has included two song texts by Kathleen Cahill (a playwright located in Salt Lake City and a dear friend). He closes the Requiem with a setting of a poem by early 20th century American poet Sara Teasdale. The eclectic mix forms an astonishingly unified entity. In some cases, Dave has opted to use English translations of the Latin texts, making the Requiem highly accessible. I have the pleasure of performing the Pie Jesu and the Teasdale "There Will Be Rest."

The Zabriskie Requiem is the latest in a series of Requiems performed at First Unitarian for an annual Remembrance Sunday, at which we remember those from our congregation who have died during the year and in the past. So far works have included: Durufflé, Ellingboe, and Cherubini.

If you want to attend the performance, please join us in church this Sunday. There are two services (both of which will be crowded, especially the later one) at 9:00 and 11:00 am. The church is located at 569 South 1300 East in Salt Lake City. Parking can require creativity and some walking.

If you've been reading this blog and did not know about the part of my life that involves singing, now you do!