Private Audience

Ah February. Although the calendar page will tell you it’s the shortest month, it can feel like the longest.

Yes, there’s the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day, and, if you’re really hard up for an occasion, many people like to make a ritual observation out of the groundhog’s comings and goings. It’s a short stretch of four weeks that feels like an eternity.

For me, February is no different than every other month. I might make a pot o’ jambalaya for Fat Tuesday, but my daily life is pretty much the same as it is in September or June.

I enjoy watching the pro sports of the season on TV. I’ll pick up a book to read, and I’ll take walks with my dog.

I’m always on the lookout to fulfill one of my personal lifestyle goals — to see live music a couple times a month. When going to an outdoor concert is not an option, and I don’t want to hang out in a bar, this can be more challenging.

On the east side of Francisco, there’s an adorable collection of storefronts. It includes a dry cleaner, a beauty parlor, a neighborhood attorney’s office, the First Slice bakery and café, Le Petit Ballet Studio and Narloch Piano Studio, where private lessons are given.

A few weeks ago, as I was walking India, I looked at a couple handmade posters in the window of the piano studio. They were advertising a Friday night recital. It featured a youngish performer with an impressive resume. It was planned to be just over one hour and only cost $15.00.

The poster mentioned the composer and pieces slated for the upcoming Friday performance. Bach’s Italian Concerto, Beethoven’s Pathetique, and something by Schumann. Right away, I knew I had to go.

I asked a few friends to join me but was happy enough to go alone. The studio was only a five-minute walk from my home.

A small standing sign was placed in front of the studio. SHOW TONIGHT. At only fifteen minutes to show time, I seemed to be the first to arrive. There were cookies placed on a table at the back of the studio for after the show.

I liked looking at the walls. They were decorated like a bulletin board outside of a principal’s office in an elementary school. There were colored marker drawings of Mozart and Bartok and other composers with fun historical facts about their lives, contributed, I assume by young students.

The owner of the studio and the soloist, an attractive twenty-something year old- woman, sat in the back. There were maybe 25 or 30 chairs set up in a few rows and along the wall leading to the door.

The soloist wore gloves to keep her hands warm. A shiny black grand piano occupied the front of the studio.

At 7:55, the place just filled up. Local music lovers ended up occupying almost the exact number of chairs that were set out.

I had never been to a performance at the studio before, but it was clear that the other concertgoers knew the drill. A small metal cash box was placed near the front door. Everyone handled their monetary transaction themselves.

The soloist was very good. Each piece was memorized and a lot of attention was given to dynamics, to the subtle and grander changes in volume and mood.

I loved the music, but I really loved experiencing the music in this venue.

It was INTIMATE. And isn’t that what classical music is about? In a very small room, on a beautiful instrument, the nuances of each composition and the soloist’s personal rendering of them, felt like they were emanating from inside of me.

I got to see my neighbors’ faces. Even though I didn’t recognize anyone, I liked knowing that people living only blocks away from me would come to a local piano studio on a Friday night. I got to thank the performer personally for a great performance.

I really found the whole evening especially beautiful. It was so quiet in the room. The sound of the piano was the only thing that was audible.

I couldn’t hear the sounds of candy wrappers or rustling programs or latecomers taking their seats. I could only hear notes from the piano…and the silence in between the notes.

Hearing the silence between the notes is no small thing.

Midnight Circus

midnight-circusLight and fluffy snowflakes are coming down. I hear the sound of my neighbor running a shovel blade across the walk. I have food in the fridge and nowhere I have to be.

Here, at home, life seems very peaceful. Inside the snow globe, the movements of the world seem like MAGIC.

At this time of year, TV commercials show new luxury cars tied up in red bows sitting on suburban driveways, sending sparks of glee to the lucky family who unties the ribbon and enjoys keyless entry and the envy of their neighbors (at low monthly rates).

This image is supposed to convey the MAGIC of the season.

But I have another recent memory of magic, one that is far simpler and feels far truer.

Back in October, I went to see The Midnight Circus, at nearby Welles Park. During the summer months, The Chicago Shakespeare Theatre stages productions of the Bard’s works in neighborhood parks.

During September and October, The Midnight Circus sets up its tent, and parks its popcorn machine in many of the same parks.

I had no recent experience of going to the circus. I remember when I was around four, my father pulled some strings to get front row seats to the Ringling Brothers Circus.

My sister, who was only one year older, and I got upset and scared by the humongous elephants. And when the clowns (face it, clowns are pretty scary) pulled a stunt where they pretended to set their hair on fire — well, we screamed so loudly, that our poor father had to take us home.

The Midnight Circus was a much tamer affair. The largest animals they had were dogs no bigger than a Cocker Doodle. There was a high wire act, but the wire was about as high as a basketball net.

The circus troop consisted all of young people, spanning in age from ten to twenty-five. Mostly acrobats and jugglers, they wore tight fitting and colorful outfits and moved with energy and grace.

There was no balding middle-aged ringmaster in a top hat and red jacket with gold epaulets. And thankfully, there were no scary clowns.

A very eclectic range of music was amplified and, except for one intermission, there was no stoppage. I watched a constant flow of acts.

A young girl dangled from the top of the tent on a large swatch of purple cloth, arranging her Gumby doll-like body into configurations I didn’t think possible.

A teenage couple leapt and danced across a wire, stepping through hoops and tossing each other different objects from opposite ends.

There were comical chase scenes and dancing segments featuring the whole ensemble. Two hours of non-stop entertainment. In my little neighborhood. UNDER THE BIG TOP.

I enjoyed the skill and simple beauty of human bodies in motion, but there was another element that was MAGICAL to me.

As I looked around the crowd, maybe around two hundred in total, all sitting on benches, arranged in tiered circles, everybody’s eyes were on the performers. There were families with young children and twenty-somethings on dates. All ages were represented – and nowhere did I see the glow of a smart phone.

This shouldn’t be so rare, but I’ve been to too many concerts and too many nice restaurants where it seemed that the main attraction was texting cryptic conversations with people who were not around.

Here, people were sharing an actual experience in real time. They were seeing the same thing at the same time and fed off of everyone else’s awe and delight. Everyone together under the big top. To me, this was magic.

Enjoying entertainment with friends and neighbors – in the moment — is no small thing.

“Mine” Fields

book box ourtsideI was walking down Wilson Avenue the other day, only a couple blocks from my home, when I saw the silhouette of a wooden box on a post on the edge of a front lawn.

On closer inspection, I discovered the orange and black box was an informal sort of library and, dare I say, a social experiment.

Sporting a graphic depicting a row of hardcover book spines, as if lined up on a shelf, and the invitation to Take a Book, Leave a Book, the box represented a mini lending library, one with no requirements for membership cards or due dates (or fines). appeared in smaller print on a silver strip near the bottom of the box in case passersby wanted to learn about the movement and how they might install a similar box in front of their home — and, maybe, change their neighborhood.

When I visited their website, I was charmed and inspired by both their mission and testimonials from Littlefreelibrary stewards, as they seemed to call themselves. One attested to an important secondary benefit, after promoting literacy, getting to know your neighbors.

I found myself delighted at the idea but a little skeptical.

Their mission: To promote literacy and the love of reading by building free book exchanges worldwide and to build a sense of community as we share skills, creativity and wisdom across generations.

Sounds good, but does the system get used? Do people ever open the box? Do they take a book and leave a book as they’re instructed to do.

Several times over this past week, I walked my dog in the direction of this mini library. I observed other dog walkers, teens, young fathers and mothers -– swinging open the Take a Book, Leave a Book door and perusing the titles. I witnessed a couple pick-ups and drop-offs.

When no one else was in front of the box, I took a look for myself.

There were large print Doctor Seuss books, a book by Maeve Binchy, a popular Irish author who turns out novels for a fairly literate crowd, and a couple John Grisham or Robert Ludlum page turners. In a collection of maybe 30 books, I saw something for most tastes.

Chalk it up to the perfection of randomness… or maybe something else was at work. Maybe we can find most of what we need — even when it comes to entertaining reading — within our own community, from what someone else doesn’t now need.

I thought about friends who are dealing with aging parents moving into retirement complexes, or even facing their own challenges to downsize.

Over time, people collect so much stuff. Even after receiving advice from professional organizers or some list-icle type article from a lifestyle magazine about getting rid of things that haven’t been used for six months, people seem to be reluctant to give up their stuff.

People so often think of things in terms of owning or possessing them.

I think of young children learning the word MINE shortly after they learn to say momma and dadda. This brings up lots of serious conversations with caretakers.

It seems like a big sacrifice to a three-year-old to SHARE a cherished plaything after brandishing it about screaming MINE, MINE.  Even at an early age, people identify so much with objects as belonging to them.

There are so many traps in thinking of yourself in terms of what you possess; what objects are in your home and how much you paid for them.

To some extent, the only thing you can claim as YOURS are your experiences.

Take a book. Leave a book. I love it!

Isn’t it great to know that others are reading what you’ve read?   They might have similar experiences or maybe very different ones from the same material.

Expanding your understanding that BELONGING is more about sharing an experience and values than it is about claiming something as a possession is no small thing.


book box inside

Artist Among Us

ravenwood manor park concertA few weeks ago, I went to Ravenswood Manor Park for a neighborhood concert. It’s a small patch of trees and greenery with an adjoining playground where three residential streets dead end.

It’s home to a handful of great old trees and is resting spot for a few benches. A trellised redwood shelter is happily situated in the center. During past summers, I’ve unknowingly tripped upon small theatrical productions taking place there.

Though not restricted to area residents, I found out about the Spektral Quartet’s chamber concert there when I was walking my dog, India. I saw a flyer in the window of the music studio next to Le Petit Ballet, where SUV driving moms drop off their munchkins for dance lessons.

I had never heard of Spektral before, but I liked what their flyer noted would be included in their program. The program was to include a few traditional chamber pieces by the likes of Mendelssohn and some contemporary chamber works.

CONTEMPORARY CHAMBER? Is that some sort of oxymoron? I didn’t think contemporary composers gave much attention to developing works for two violins, viola and cello?

But their mission involves both showcasing local (composing) talent and creating programs that bring out something special about the venue.

On this perfect mid-summer night’s eve, in a park only blocks from where I spend far too many nights on my couch tuned in to whatever options Comcast is offering, I gave in to the spell of the Spektral Quartet.

Here were top-notch musicians bowing their way through works by Schubert and Steven Reich (a peer of Phillip Glass).

Even before a member of the group shared a few remarks about their philosophy, I had already slipped into appreciation mode. It seems, in grokking on this site-specific concert, I was the perfect audience for what they wanted to impart.

When sitting down to listen to trained musicians, it’s automatic to tune up your listening senses.

The precision of their runs, their changing pace and dynamics seemed to render the natural noises of the environment (the sound of the descending gates at the nearby train crossing, pets and their people enjoying the park) especially BEAUTIFUL.

The incidental sounds of our lives can always be thought of as the background score to our personal movie. Although usually random, they seem to fit the whole of our experience in the moment and are worth remembering.

Sound itself is MUSIC.

I was becoming a little intoxicated by this thought.

After one piece, a member of the ensemble provided a little narrative on the origins of the composition and asked the composer to step forward. True to the blurb on their website, they purposely mixed the contemporary and local with the timeless and European.

A little buzz traveled around the park as people on their folding chairs and blankets looked around to see if the composer turned out to be sitting close by.

It was a special thrill I think we shared — to think that there was a composer among us; to imagine that something or someone special could go undetected or unrecognized until the right moment.

Like the incidental sounds of the summer evening contributing to the atmosphere, knowing that there was an artist in our midst, also seemed enhance my pleasure.

Enjoying what’s obviously present in the moment was wonderfully paired with not knowing who might be sitting next to you and holding the possibility that things reveal themselves at the right time.

That we can hear sounds we don’t normally pay attention to as MUSIC and embrace the possibilities of who we might find ourselves sitting or walking alongside us is no small thing.