Monday, March 29, 2010

The two matriarchs

A friend who reads my blogs aptly described them as "musings". Today's effort will stray a bit, and be more of a personal recounting of a special day.

After a couple of weeks absence out of state, I returned in time to appreciate the Palm Sunday service at St. Mark's, being escorted there by my granddaughter and her fiancé, Joe. Later, I selected wine to take to the potluck celebration of the birthdays of one matriarch, my dear wife Barbara, 84 on Monday, and that of the youngest of her three daughters, Lisa, who became 56 on the same day. With Lisa was her partner, Tristan, who had taken her, Barbara, and me out to dinner on Sunday at "Cafe Gratitude", a vegetarian/vegan/raw food establishment.

Barbara's son, Brian, and his partner, Marlene, very kindly opened their home for the celebration on Sunday evening. My daughter-in-law, Jennifer, brought two of our grandchildren: Anna (7) and Thomas (5). Lisa's daughter, Justine, came with Joe.

Marlene's mother, Nina, is 94. With her came Marlene's younger daughter, Alison, and her husband, Brad. Her elder daughter, Karen, came with her husband, Owen, and their son, Collin. Another of Nina's granddaughters, Dawn, came with her husband, Matt, and their son, Luc. Was indeed another example of happy "blending".

Several close family members could not be there. Barbara's eldest daughter, Kristin, and her husband, Chuck, had recently spent a lot of time with us at our "second home" in Colorado, and were about to leave to be with their daughter, Shannon, at a pre-graduation ceremony at UBC (University of British Colombia) in Vancouver. Barbara's second daughter, Laurie Lewis, and her partner, Tom Rozum, had gigs in the Austin area last weekend, and my elder son, Jeremy, was on his way back from a business trip to Nashville. My younger son, Nicholas, and his family live in Burbank, too far away to travel for a birthday party.

At first, I felt sad that so many of our closest family members could not be there, especially because three accomplished musicians were absent. However, Collin performed two of Beethoven's works - and the "Pink Panther" theme! - on the piano. Luc accompanied his cousin on the clarinet, and Anna played the violin. Matt had brought his accordion, but mostly left it to the children to play. (Thomas had forgotten to bring his violin!) So when the time came, we had a musical accompaniment when we sang "Happy Birthday" to each of the honorees.

The food was delicious, topped off by an uncooked dessert, created by Tristan. Lisa took three puffs to extinguish the candles, but when they were replaced and re-lit, her mother blew them all out at her first attempt.

I counted my blessings that evening, knowing that on Monday I would be working with two other members of our extended family, Jane and Nancy.

Matriarch? Nina already has great-grandchildren, and the other matriarch, Barbara, hopes soon to see our first great-grandchild.

Monday, March 22, 2010

In praise of "blending"

"Blending" is a word that often has very positive implications. In our personal life, Barbara and I are delighted that we have a "blended family": her children, my children, and our seven grandchildren all love each other.

True Sherry is made by blending in the "solera" system, which involves mixing wine from a recent vintage with that from many years past. My favorite is a Fino, a pale dry blend. Tio Pepe is widely available, but I prefer La Ina.

Vintners in the US went through a phase of meeting the demand for varietal wine by limiting or eliminating altogether any blending. More recently, blends of several types of grape have come back into fashion, perhaps particularly with red wine. What may seem as counter-intuitive is the practice of including some white wine to blend with the Sangiovese that makes up the principal ingredient of Chianti. Likewise, one may find Viognier blended with Syrah in domestic and imported Shiraz.

I know little about blended whiskey, and less about blended tobacco, but these products are also blended, I understand.

I have a positive attitude towards blended fabrics, such as a mix of wool or cotton with Orlon or other acrylic fibers. There is a biblical prohibition against this in the book of Leviticus, but only the most orthodox of Jews takes this seriously in the present era.

Where blending was generally not well regarded during the past few centuries has been with our fellow humans. We think first, perhaps, of Hitler's drive to produce purely "Aryan" families in Germany; Apartheid in South Africa; and racism in the United States. The offspring of unions of Jewish and "Aryan" parents in Germany were characterized as "Mischlings" - that is to say, Mongrels.

In Western movies, the union of Native American "Indians" and white settlers were known contemptuously as "Breeds", an abbreviation for "Half-Breeds". ("Breeds" were acceptable only for their skills as Trackers, Scouts and Interpreters.)
During the British Raj, "Half-Castes" was a favorite derogatory expression. Any liaison between "white men" and "natives" was abhorred: That between "native" males and white women was almost unthinkable.

I am told that being Muggleborn is another form of blending, not in itself negative, but less desirable than being of true stock.

How we have changed! Before I was married, I had a Tamil girlfriend, training in England to become a teacher in her native Malaya. I did not want to marry her: if I had, my mother would have been greatly distressed. I am now proud of my talented and beautiful granddaughters, whose mother is Korean. I rely heavily on the work done for us by Nancy, herself half Korean. We still talk about "thoroughbreds" in another world in which I claim no expertise: the breeding of racehorses. Yet it is generally accepted that many animals are stronger when inbreeding is avoided, and the same is probably true of human beings - notably, in dynastic families.

Living in California, we like the diversity at all levels of society, and rejoice at the success of men and women from many backgrounds and cultures that are successful in business, education, and professional sport.

Perhaps the biggest change in my lifetime has been the acceptance by a majority of voting Americans of a man of mixed race, President Barack Obama. Long live blending!

Thursday, March 18, 2010


Last Fall, we were guests of a thoughtful business friend, who took us to the opening night of the San Francisco Symphony. I really do need a shirt with a collar one-half size larger, and my tuxedo trousers are a bit tight these days. So I'm not enthusiastic about attending Black Tie affairs, and I have even given away my expensive (but uncomfortable) patent leather shoes.
When we attend a performance by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, I take pride in the audience's silence between movements, however exciting has been the coda to the movement. If the occasional neophyte to a concert hall starts to applaud, and then realizes she or he is "out of line", I smile to myself rather smugly: that person will soon learn good concert manners!
Initially, I was quite shocked when what seemed like half the audience at Davies Hall burst out into applause. Of course, I told myself, these are the wealthy elite, who don't come so much to listen to the music, but rather to "see and be seen".
What does a conductor do in such circumstances? I certainly think that Michael Tilson Thomas has it right. He turns to the applauding folk, smiles, and gives a little bow to acknowledge their enthusiasm.
I tell myself that these good people don't know any better; they are obviously enjoying themselves; and at least they are not booing. Nevertheless, I must admit that I don't like applause in the wrong place.
I don't often attend a professional baseball or football game these days. When the National Anthem is played at sporting events - a custom that someone told me began during WWII - 
I dislike the extravagant interpretations of some popular singers. I like my anthems played straight. Another thing that I abhor is the custom of the crowd to beginning to applaud before the Anthem has been completed.

Perhaps all this makes me a "music snob", but so be it...

Monday, March 8, 2010

Some "pet peeves"

These are hardly "rants". I move slowly these days, because I want to be sure that I don't fall. Well-meaning people always seem to be saying to me "Take your time". I know perfectly well that this is well-meant - but, folks, this is not helpful! I am already "taking my time". I wish I didn't have to do so, but I do. Sometimes, I remember to dredge up a ghost of a smile and say "thank you". Much of the time, however, it is all I can do to stop snarling "what the hell do you think I'm doing?".

Sometimes, Barbara will ask me to "put away the silverware". Now, we do have a few knives, forks, and spoons which have at least some silver in them, but most of the time the word should be "flatware". It's a pathetic thing to complain about, I know, because "silverware" is what most people say. Sometimes I will refer to these items as "cutlery", ideally I think that should only refer to items intended to be used for cutting.

I also grumble internally when somebody asks me to "pass me a glass, please", and there is only a plastic drinking container available. Yes, I know - I should get over it. I dislike eating off paper plates, but at least these are not wearing the mantle of china. And what about bottles? We have essentially phased out plastic "bottles" in our house, but I still don't know what I should say when someone offers me a "bottle of water".

I guess that once a nitpicker, always a nitpicker. I remember being profoundly shocked a few years ago, when my good friend Robbin Clark, my parish rector, said to me in a meeting "Oh, get a life, Nigel!".

Monday, March 1, 2010


Probably most folk who read this will have seen Andy Rooney speaking at the end of the CBS program "60 Minutes". He has a great job. Although some of his efforts, we recently learned, do end up on the equivalent of the "cutting room floor", he is given great latitude on what he chooses to talk about.

One of Andy's recurrent themes is that from time to time he receives unsolicited gifts, most of which he really doesn't know what to do with, other than give them away. Sometimes, I feel a bit like that myself. Barbara and I make valiant efforts to "simplify", and to insist to family members that we don't need any more "stuff". I was given a very attractive cardigan sweater on my recent birthday; I like it very much, but I also wish that the impecunious donor hadn't spent precious dollars on it.

We recently received little plastic cards from "The Charter Hill Society", which describes itself as "Berkeley's Annual Giving Recognition Program". I looked in vain to see if this would grant me lower cost admission to a concert or even some sporting event. I looked on the back, and see that this came from the "Donor Stewardship" department, on a street near the U.C. campus. Also listed was a telephone number and two separate email addresses.

Now why would I want to keep such a card? I even wonder if Barbara has already thrown hers away. In my case, I was raised to respect orders, so when I receive a document that says "keep this for your records", my instinct is to comply. The local public television station uses a raffle to raise funds. I don't really "approve" of raffles. For years we have supported public TV stations in both California (and Colorado, where we maintain a second home). We would rather not have normal programming interrupted on PBS or NPR for their too-frequent "tin cupping", but we understand the necessity for it. Each year, as I mail in my allocated raffle numbers, I only half-believe the statement that the numbers have been pre-selected, and a donation will not improve my chances of a prize. I am on to their games, calling on me to mark on the envelope whether or not a contribution is enclosed. I respond honestly, but will probably go to my grave without a prize, especially not the "early bird" award. Getting to the point, there is always a tear-off part of the entry form which instructs me to "keep this for your records". Obediently, I do so, putting the document in a special place in the china cupboard, from which it is recycled by the time the next year's raffle tickets arrive.

I also have the instincts of a squirrel. Until one of the good friends of our granddaughter (Justine) intervened, I stored away tax returns dating back over fifty years.

Mind you, there are items I do like to retain, including the beautiful multi-colored birthday card presented to me recently by the next-to-youngest of our wonderful seven granddaughters. Such items may start life on our refrigerator door, but soon graduate to a folder for "items to retain".

I usually retain unsolicited credit cards, and they have their storage place in our house. (This past week, one of our young helpers successfully persuaded me to cut up several expired credit cards from that storage place.)

When I went to work every weekday, I seldom finished the newspaper, the same was true for other publications. Nowadays, I usually finish reading our daily newspaper with my second cup of breakfast coffee. We are enthusiastic recyclers, and today the last print issue of The Berkeley Daily Planet arrived, already put aside for recycling. Incidentally, Berkeleyians are good recyclers, so much so that many citizens have exchanged larger garbage cans for the minimum size, or even taken to sharing cans with a neighbor, thus severely reducing the city's income.

Several organizations accept donations in kind - for Thrift Shops or even for export. It is amazing how many items of clothing not worn for at least two years, that I have donated to Good Will or other organizations. Those, too, are "unwanted", but so far I have only made a small dent in my stock of "stuff".