catching fireflies

It’s not a perfect analogy, but that’s what gathering my thoughts to write a post is like. Little scraps of ideas flicker in and out of my consciousness over several days, appear at varying degrees of brightness as I listen to podcasts or engage in conversation. I capture a few especially sparkly ones by writing them down. Some that I forget to write down keep fluttering in the back of mind, and if they’re persistent enough, they join the ones that are already on paper. When I sit down to write a post, some items on the list seem to have faded so much they’re not worth talking about, and I let them go. [Remember, I said that it’s not a perfect analogy. I’d hate to think the ones I delete are the fireflies I killed by leaving them in the jar too long.]

I continue to find contentment in the gift of unstructured time the pandemic has brought me. I’m getting more practiced at ignoring my inner harridan that squawks “Sloth!” in my head whenever she sees that I’m “off-task.” She’s kind of an idiot, really — doesn’t seem to notice that the more quiet, unfocused time I give myself, the more productive I am when I turn my attention towards a specific goal. She’s definitely a slow learner, but I didn’t study special education for nothing. Eventually, she’ll learn and be more fun to have around.

Birds

Jill Lepore is a historian (I refuse to say an historian) I have followed for a while now. When I heard that she had started a podcast, I subscribed, if only to hear her flute-like voice presenting brilliant information and insights. This is how The Last Archive is described: “…acclaimed historian Jill Lepore traces the history of evidence, proof, and knowledge, in troubled epistemological times. From archives and libraries to interrogation rooms and evidence vaults, Lepore takes listeners around the country–and across the passage of time–in search of an answer to the question: Who killed truth? Season One begins with a murder in northern Vermont in 1919, and ends in Silicon Valley in 2020. Produced in the style of classic 1930s radio drama, The Last Archive is a show about how we know what we know and why it seems, lately, as if we don’t know anything at all.

The subjects of the episodes are far-ranging, and I’m not sure my mind has grokked how they address, much less answer, the question “Who killed the truth?”, but the whole idea is intriguing. I’ve started re-listening to them now to get a firmer grasp of the topics. It’s well worth the time (especially if I’m doing a jigsaw puzzle while I listen).

Jill (I won’t say an historian, but I will call her by her first name) is unpretentious and fun. Her July 9 episode, “For the Birds,” was spell-binding. Rachel Carson, best known for her 1962 book The Silent Spring, was an avid bird enthusiast. She is the main subject of the episode, which starts in the spring of 1958, when there was an unmistakable decrease in the bird population compared to all the years before. From there, the story unfolds, the reason for decrease in bird numbers is revealed, the investigation and journalism that led to The Silent Spring is completed. On the way, the listener is treated to bird sound recordings from — and even a visit to — the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Mecca of birdsong data. We hear about which filmmakers take the time to make sure the bird sounds they use are actually native to the movie’s setting, and bird counting becomes popular and essential to understanding how humans are affecting the planet. E.B. White makes an appearance near the end. I’ve been loving Zooming with kids a couple times a week just to read them stories. The next one-chapter-each-week book will now be Trumpet of the Swan, which I’ve never read before.

Sandhill Crane Antigone canadensis photo by Parker Davis

Speaking of bird-counting and birdsong, I must introduce you to Parker Davis. My offspring, Sam and Katie, have always had impeccable taste in friends, and Parker is a fine example. He was, I believe, in Katie’s preschool class and has been woven into the fabric of both Sam and Katie’s lives K-12 through the present. Parker, who describes himself as a “birder, musician and sound enthusiast” has chosen the peripatetic life of biological field work, which often involves counting birds. I can’t keep up with all the places he’s been, but like me, he has chosen pandemic time to start writing a blog. His is called Birds Make Sound. I recommend you give it a look and a listen, starting with the Whitewater Draw Mystery, his adventure with Sandhill Cranes in SE Arizona. He is fine writer, photographer and sound recorder. The spirit of Rachel Carson lives on.

Literature

In one of my first dispatches, I mentioned that my friend Ken alluded to Boccaccio’s Decameron in connection to this pandemic. I recognized the title, but was not familiar with the work, so I searched and found this article that gives a summary of the plot: It’s 1348, and the Black Death is raging. Some young people escape to the country to get away from it and amuse themselves by telling stories to each other. In the spirit of that classic book, the New York Times commissioned 29 authors to produce short stories inspired by the pandemic, calling the collection the Decameron Project. You can read them here. You can also listen to actors reading some of them on the Sunday episodes of the NYT The Daily podcast. Here is the audio from July 12, July 19 and today, July 26.

Now resting in peace…

Ennio Morricone died on Monday, July 6. Hard to believe, but I have not heard reruns of old interviews on podcasts. This NPR article gives an overview of his life and includes a link to a 4-minute radio story about him. He wrote the scores for over 500 movies. In 2004, Yo-Yo Ma made an album of Morricone’s gorgeous film score themes. This one, Gabriel’s Oboe, is certainly one to remember him by. I’m going to search out an interview with him somewhere — I’d love to hear his voice.

Diahann Carroll died a while back, in October of 2019, but because July 17 would have been her 85th birthday, the podcast Code Switch presented Remembering The ‘Divine Diahann Carroll’ that day. I remember her from “Julia,” in which she was “the first Black woman to have her own TV show not portraying a domestic worker.” That was only one of her many firsts. The podcast includes a interview with her daughter and many fans, upon whom she left an indelible impression.

Then there’s Rep. John Lewis. Ah, that one. We watched the documentary “Good Trouble” the day after he died, and it left us even more in awe of what he survived and accomplished with courage and grace. “But you have to have hope. You have to be optimistic in order to move forward.” There were a couple of really charming scenes of him with his office staff, joking and dancing. He was a whole human being, not just an icon. If he, in the face of what he witnessed and suffered, could be hopeful, then there’s no excuse for me to not be hopeful, too. The NYT Daily podcast episode The Life and Legacy of John Lewis was great. A transcript is available on the same link for non-audiophiles.

Music

Many of you know that Richard and I are Unitarian Universalists. If you’re not sure what that means, you can look it up. Briefly, UU is a religion without dogma, but with mutually-held beliefs about how to live together.

The national Unitarian Universalist General Assembly gathers each June, and this year, it was all virtual. Our music director at UU Congregation of Phoenix, Benjie Messer, was chosen to be the music director for the whole event. This was a huge job, part of which was to direct an 180-voice choir, each member of which had to record their own voice from home. I’ve sent virtual choir videos before, but these are especially dear to me because of Benjie’s leadership and our son Sam Plattner’s work in audio editing. These two productions are the result of the collaboration of so many singers and instrumentalists.

  • Isaye Barnwell (from Sweet Honey and the Rock) got sweet-talked by Benjie into singing the solo on her own song “We Are.” The choir members rehearsed and recorded the song in the key in which Isaye originally sang it only to find out that her range has dropped, which necessitated lowering the choir parts by a minor third. Sam managed to do this with some kind of magic. It was tedious work, but in the end, gratifying.
  • Tomorrow” by Kate and Justin Miner was the more complex of the two pieces to put together, I think, even though no key change was needed! I did not participate in the choir, but I feel such pride in this work. These are my people. The UU view is that, in actuality, you are all my people. I send you love, and another kid quip.

from the mouths (or pencils) of kids

[from Feb. 2015] One of my many favorite students was “translating” similes today, by which I mean reading a sentence that included a simile, then writing a sentence to explain what it meant. The sentence was “Abraham is as strong as an ox.” He thought a minute and said, “Abraham is buff. I could say Abraham is ripped, but that might mean he’s dead.” I asked what he meant and he pointed out that lots of gravestones say RIP.

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