Saturday, September 29, 2007

What's a Theory Comprehensive Exam?

This morning, I took the first of my comprehensive exams, one of the barriers between me and my degree. Today's exam was over music theory, which is probably better explained as music analysis. The exam had three parts: the counterpoint example, the tonal music example, and the 20th century example. I'll explain them all as I talk through the morning.

I arrived on campus at about 8:40 am. The exam begins at nine, and it's always good to be early. For just about everything. The exam is taken in the education building. It's just across the street from the main academic music building, but I'm not really comfortable finding my way around in there, so I arrived in plenty of time to find room 357. In fact, I've been in there SO infrequently, that the only other time I've set foot in the education building is when I took the entrance examination in August of 2004. My only memories associated with this building will be big, scary tests. Now that I think about it, that's a rather good marker for "education", in general.

I arrive at the room with plenty of time to spare, clutching two mechanical pencils (both found during the course of the previous two weeks) and a pile of blank paper I "borrowed" from my printer, which doesn't work. Two other students are already hanging around. We all smile nervously at each other. "Here we are," we seem to say, "ready to fight for our degrees". The room is approximately 20 by 20, rather small for a classroom. It's crammed with desks, and there are no windows. There are painted cinder blocks for walls, on which hang one blackboard, one dry erase board, and two motivational posters. The room is as about as generic as a classroom can be.

The other two students begin to complain about how little "real estate" the small desks have. "How can we prop scores up AND write graphs?" they say. Another student enters, notes the lack of audio equipment in the room, and realizes there won't be any music examples played. The piano player begins to rattle off the pieces he's scared of having to analyze. This litany doesn't help the room feel any more confident.

Another student begins methodically sharpening pencils. Everyone seems on the brink of laughing or crying. No one enthuses the "academic jock" outlook; everyone seems to realize their chances for failure.

I don't know if "zen dread" is a feeling, but I had it. The time for preparation had ended, and all I could do was sit and wait for the exam. People complained that the proctor had better not be late. I'm not really aware of the passage of time. I am simply in the room, there to stay until finished.

The proctor arrives, splaying the copied exams on the table before him. Four hours begins now.

Some people take all three exams. A friend (a soprano) and I take one. "Gotta do them all eventually," I say. I immediately wonder why I said that. Do those words even have meaning? Can't think about it now; the exam sits before me.

I grabbed the nearest to my seat, which turned out to be the Counterpoint exam. Counterpoint is the complex interaction between 2 or more individual lines of music. This exam covers a particular sub-species, 17th-18th century. Bach is the most famous composer of this style, and the exam piece is indeed a Bach fugue. Those keeping score at home can check off Fugue #22 in B-flat minor, from book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The front page has only one line of text:

"Analyze this fugue completely, including discussion of all contrapuntal motives, key areas, and structural elements."

My brain immediately grinds its gears. How do I do this again?

Working dilligently, I make good progress. I'm not confident enough, however, to escape the "am I even doing this right?" voice in the back of my head. A student next to me asks the time. The proctor responds, "10:16." I wrap up my analysis, knowing that I need to keep moving in order to get all three finished.

Turning the counterpoint exam in, I grab the next paper. It's 20th century analysis. I sigh. 20th century music is notoriously all-encompasing, with composers feeling able (and possibly even OBLIGATED) to pull techniques from all periods of musical history and all cultures. It can be a snap to analyze, or an impossible mire. The exam offers two pieces, choose one. One is a piano sonata (maybe) by Alban Berg. The other is a piano concerto by Webern. I quickly do mental arthmatic: is either one a 12-tone piece? The Webern is, without a doubt.

12-tone refers to a compositional method popular in the early 20th century. As the name suggests, it involves using musical lines that contain all twelve musical tones; every chromatic note in western music inside of an octave. In its strictest forms, it is highly ordered, with specific sets of 12 tones, which cannot advance to the next tone until the previous one (in order) has been played. For 12-tone serial works, the quickest way to analyze is to make a matrix. This is a grid, 12 by 12, which shows all possible transformations of a given set of 12 pitches. By filling in the initial order used by the composer, one can then speedily make a chart of all possible outcomes. Want to know what the original tone set would look like upside down, backwards, and up a minor sixth? The matrix will tell you.

Assuming you do it right.

It turns out that matrices can be a boon or an incredible curse. It's easy to transpose numbers, and if you don't double check, you can end up with the entire matrix being wrong and misleading. No fun.

My matrix works great. I can identify the retrograde inversion at the 6th. I can see the transposition at the 4th. I can see the retrograde transposition at the minor seventh. But then, I get to a passage of music I can't explain. The order seems wrong. I double check the matrix. I double check the music. I triple check. Quadruple check.

Too much time being wasted. I set the matrix aside, and pick up the final exam portion. The tonal theory exam covers a "standard" analysis, if such a thing can be said. This semester, the piece is Beethoven's first symphony, third movement. How is it typical, how is it remarkable. Standard analysis questions. Again, I hope I've giving the answers that are expected. Ask any music major, and I bet they'd tell you that theory is a crap shoot. It's only possible to be FOR-REAL certain about very specific things ("That note is a D-sharp! I swear it on my uncle's marble collection!")

I finish the tonal analysis and turn back to the 20th century. It still doesn't work out right. I call this matrix-analysis "calculator music", and like a calculator, there is only one right answer. The problem either works, or it doesn't, and my analysis has stopped working.

"Ten minutes remaining," says the proctor calmly. Nine groans can be softly heard. A girl behind me says, disbelieving, "there are no words...." She seems to be having a hard time. Eventually, time runs out and all sheets are handed in. I leave the building. Four hours have elapsed. In the room with no windows, it's easy to forget how long you've been there. Even more so if you're dealing with problems whose answer always seems to skitter away, convincing you that if you just had more time, you'd understand.

I drive towards home, but stop at a restaurant. I eat lunch alone, which I very rarely do. Ordinarily, if I'm going to spend money to eat expensive food, I want there to be someone there to enjoy it with. Today, it's all about not thinking. I flip through my newspaper, but I can't remember a single story I read. I came home, and immediately took a nap.

Next Saturday comes the Music History exam.

Friday, September 28, 2007

I think my brain is full.

This afternoon, between the orchestra rehearsal and the wind band concert, I studied. At one point, I went to the bathroom, partially to escape the books. While enjoying the time to just sit without having to think about tri-tonal relationships and invertible counterpoint, I started playing with the sink.

I turned the water on, in a small steady stream. Barely enough for the water to hold together into a cohesive pillar. I noticed that if I put my finger in about an inch down from the faucet head, I could get the stream to break into droplets again. I played with the water for about six or eight minutes. Faster stream, weaker stream, finger in, finger out, flat palm, close to faucet, close to drain.

Not once did I consider the physics of why the water behaved as it did. Not once did I stop to think about the applications of chaos theory in determining the course of the droplets.

I just kept playing with the water, smiling like a little kid.

I realized my ability to study for theory had left for the day. Hopefully, it will return again on Sunday, because I'll need to start studying for the second exam: history.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

If only we could have heard it coming...

Even weather computers apparently feel the desire to wax dramatic every once and a while.

From the current weather status:

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Political Suicide, before your very eyes.

Jerry Sanders is the mayor of San Diego, California. He's a Republican, and part of his most recent election campaign was promising to oppose legislation concerning the legalization of same-sex marriage.

On September 19th, he called a press conference and announced his intention to support a resolution attempting to overturn California's same-sex marriage ban. This is what he said:

Many theorize that this is the end of his political career. It is, to my knowledge, the only political statement that has ever brought me to tears.

It caused sober reflection, however. Here is a man who changed his position based on a feeling of what is right; a feeling that the constitution and freedoms of the United States cannot apply just to some people. How is he different from the pharmacy clerk who will not fill a contraceptive prescription? Both feel that their cause is righteous. Both agonize over the decisions. Both war with their personal vs. professional ethics.

Why is it I support the mayor, but frown at the pharmacist? Is it only because I support one ideal, but not the other? I would be ashamed if it were. Both are individual people making decisions which effect many more people. Both are is positions of power, supported by people expecting them to operate in a certain fashion. What do they owe to the people who support them?

Whenever political conservatives decry "activist judges", this is the sort of behavior they dislike: a unilateral approach to decision-making, which excludes expected behaviors. And so many times in the last years, I have heard politicians speaking of "the American People". As in, "the American People won't stand for this" or "the American People know we need to spend these dollars" or "the American People want to live in a world free of terror". Statements spoken as if the people were a massive cube of uniform consistency.

What is the place in our society for the person who stands as an individual and says "I will not allow this"? Are they whistleblowers? Are they patriots? Are they activists? Are they fools? How does one slice the cake of subjectivity so that one cuts out the rogue ideas, while allowing the true visionaries to speak?

Are there differences? Will "the American People" decide if some people are saints and some radicals? I watched the first episode of Ken Burns' "The War" on PBS tonight. It touched on the Japanese internment during the days after Pearl Harbor. American citizens forced to leave their homes and belongings and relocated to the deserts. No one spoke up. Many people privately thought, "Why is this happening?", but no one questioned it out loud.

One of the purposes of our laws is to protect the minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Can we function if people have different standards for what is right and good and true? When is the law too protective? When it's telling you who you can and cannot marry? When it's telling you that you must dispense a drug that will result in what you consider a murder?

And what does this have to do with a man explaining that he cannot face his daughter and explain that she's not allowed to do what "normal" people can?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Have our standards fallen so far?

I ask this question because its effects come up a lot. A friend is in the midst of a rancorous break-up with her boyfriend of a handful of months. I don't know the details, but I'm willing to take her side. After all, that's what friends do: snap to defensive judgements. Anyway, no doubt this fellow is a fool. My friend is pretty, smart, exciting, amorous, and has a good head on her shoulders. I'd snap her up myself, but she's butters her toast from right to left, instead of left to right. That's a deal-breaker for me, and no doubt thousands of other guys with TRUE priorities.

She said that when they started, she was certain he was a "good guy". This seems to be a term that, even though it seems obvious, is really a complicated subject. Like when politicians talk about "family values", they're not really talking about the values of any particular family. They're talking about whether or not you can kill embryos, whether or not people are having sex with a partner who has "opposite" equipment, and whether or not Jesus belongs on the dollar bill.

So when women talk about finding a "good man", the phrase connects to a part of the brain that deals with what is described (in grammar terms) as the subjunctive. The subjunctive deals with things that are not true at the moment, but could be possible in the future ("I would like it if my foot were not on fire.") Women who already have a "good man" no longer feel the need to speak of it at all (perhaps fearing being able to find wood to knock on), so the term remains mostly in the realm of singles.

I strove for most of my life to be a "good man". I wasn't always sure what that meant, and even now I'm not sure I have the complete checklist. Over my years, I just did what I thought was the best choice in most situations, without too much thought as to how it would go over with "the ladies". I assumed that if I did good things, guys would want to be my friend, and women would swoon. It doesn't really work like that, it seems.

Or does it?

A friend from a previous period of schooling and I took a brief excursion down memory lane. We were reminiscing about old acquaintances, and the subject turned to a mutual friend. Because I already have two other generic friends in this entry, I'll call this girl "Jasmine". Her real name is nothing like "Jasmine", and a name like "Jasmine" is not meant to imply that she was a sultan's harem girl at some point. It's just a way to keep people straight while still retaining the slightly-absurdist vein of all my other posts.

Jasmine and I had once approached the prospect of dating, but I had declined; she wasn't my type. Apparently, one of the roots of her interest in me was a particular incident of me escorting her from a late night rehearsal to her dorm. It wasn't very far, and the campus was not particularly dangerous. No doubt it perceived as a possible romantic gesture. After all, who escorts people to their doors nowadays? Hardly anyone, apparently.

For me, walking with girls at night is just something that's a good idea. There are enough news reports with college women being abducted and abused; I'm not the kind of person to just drive home in my car when a quick 5 minute walk can save me later anxiety.

Apparently, this isn't a common attitude. My friend assures me so. In any case, Jasmine interpreted it as tantamount to asking her out. Had I known, I would have set the record straight. I dislike leading people on. Of course, if I had explained that I was walking her home so that she wouldn't become an unfortunate statistic, that may have solved the misunderstanding. Solved it, but also convinced her that I was possibly a weirdo.

So here's the dilemma: I thought it was a practical thing. Walking someone home while having conversation is an easy way to avoid the sticky trap of implying that a woman can't take care of herself. Once, a woman was miffed that I was walking her home, because it implied that I thought she (as a weak woman) couldn't handle an assailant. She thought it an affront. I had never considered that anyone might think of personal defense as a "competitor sport", but to each there own.

This misunderstanding (and others like) have dogged my steps for years. A few years ago, I came to the realization that I had retroactively "dated" someone in high school. At the time, I had no idea. Apparently, I initiated the relationship by offering my jacket to someone who was shivering during lunch period. We had this crazy idea to eat outside in all weathers; I don't recall why. This girl, Ka'tisha, apparently decided that me having concern for her comfort indicated a deep and burning desire towards romance. I was clueless, and had no idea why she would want to keep my jacket after she returned to the building. I told her "fine", and probably ran over the list of visible symptoms of hypothermia. She said "great", and probably ran over the list of romantic first dates.

My time with Ka'tisha was basically attending a volleyball game. I didn't mind going, since other friends would be there, and there were one or two cute girls on the team that I had crushes on. I recall several long phone conversations, with me spent listening politely while shifting the phone from ear to ear. I recall her reading some of her own poetry to me, but I never had an ear for the "early adolescent" period works, and still don't.

Eventually, our love had run its course. I received a nice breakup letter, which assured me that it wasn't me, it was her. It was very flattering, and I particularly recall a mention of my "heartbreaker's face", which still eludes a proper visualization in my mind. I remember receiving this letter, and basically shrugging, having had no idea what was going on. Since I didn't know what HAD been going on, I wasn't particularly worried about what WAS going on in the letter.

To this day, I think the reason I got that "girlfriend" was because I was one of the few guys who had ever treated her nicely. I'm not sure she understood the difference between "I hope you don't freeze to death" and "I want this jacket, which was so near my skin, to be near you always". Me, being very dense about this sort of thing (a pattern I continue to this day), had no inclination that anything needed to be clarified.

But now we're in the present. I'm no longer a shy 15-year old. Neither, I should state for the record, is anyone else I'm involved with. I'm starting to become quite self-conscious about who I am and how I am "different" from other guys my age. Last week, I was helping to clean after a party. Rising out empty beer bottles at the sink, the hostess suddenly chuckled. I looked at her, and she demurred.

"Is something funny?" I asked.

She smirked. "You're very thorough."

My brain skips a bit. Is this a compliment or a criticism? I respond, "Well, I suppose I am fastidious when it comes to cleaning these bottles."

She barks a laugh. I frown and say, "I should probably avoid using words like 'fastidious', shouldn't I?"

She shakes her head, in disbelief. "Yeah."

I had a great time at this party, but so much of it made me feel like an outsider, even though the party-goers were mostly friends. When I first arrived, having changed shirts to a nice button-down, people commented, "Gosh, you didn't have to dress up." When I unveiled my beer, I had to explain why I liked it. As the evening progressed and the alcohol flowed, I actually eavesdropped on conversations about me, taking place across the room. Then, having some of the actors in the evening's major relationship drama talking in "party conspiracy whispers" as though I wasn't standing right in front of them, about things I probably don't need to hear.

If I'm refilling my glass and heading to the kitchen, I ask if anyone else needs anything. People laugh and call me a waiter. Anything but. It's just common courtesy; at least, I assumed it was common.

I'm not about to change my behaviors. I think they're the right thing to do, most of the time. I like the reactions they receive from people who haven't ever had someone treat them with respect. After all, it's not something funny about me.

It's the bulk of the other guys who are doing it wrong. Too bad there's only a small comfort in doing something just a little better than people who don't do it well in the first place.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Dangers of an Open Mind

Two articles in different sources about different topics really caught my eye this week, and I couldn't shake the feeling that they were somehow deeply related. One concerns driving in Saudi Arabia, and the other is about mainstream religions tentatively adopting yoga. These stories are pretty far apart, probably only to have their rhetorical distance increased if something truly bizarre was added, like something about one of Johnny Carson's ex-wives or about the ice rings of Saturn.

The first article is in this week's (9/17/2007) Newsweek, in an article by Lisa Miller. The article is talking about yoga, and how some Jews and Christians are adopting the practice and allowing the meditative aspects to inform upon their own connection with the divine. It mentions a Christian DVD called "Christoga", which is NOT some sort of religious "Animal House" party (much to my disappointment). The full title is "Christoga: Yoga Filled Body... Christ Filled Soul". Apparently, the Christian-influenced yoga will "improve your ability to perform activities of daily living." Raise hands, all those who think that's an incredibly well-crafted statement, which tries to sound powerful without any actual accountable promise.

Now, I've done some yoga. At home, watching artful videos, usually of attractive middle-age people up on mountain tops, who look more incredibly serene than someone in a lycra bodysuit has ANY right to be. The camera pans around them, showing them in the middle of a Colorado mountain range, or on a promontory in a Hawaiian jungle. How hard did they have to sweat to get up on these rocks, I wondered. Do they need to cool back down and change sweaty clothes before appearing serene?

At any rate, my experience was rather like trying to take a book and fold it around, spine in and covers together, and set it back on the shelf: there was a lot of cracking, some spines may have been damaged, and nothing looks quite right when finished. The article states that what makes the yoga Christian is that the Sanskrit chanting is replaced by Bible verse repetition, and the students are asked to dedicate the exercises to Jesus. I don't remember Sanskrit from my home methods, just a calm female voice telling me to "let your pelvis reach for the sky!"

Apparently some more orthodox (small 'O') Christians feel that any combination of Christianity and Hinduism (infamous for its many gods) amounts to a violation of the First Commandment. For clarity's sake, that's the commandment that says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." After all, we can't just co-opt some other religion's features and beliefs *cough*JUDAISM*cough*, because that would be like worshiping a different god! We've got to at least change the names.

And viola! Christians developed "Praisemoves". It's like yoga, only you don't have to worry about the foreign-sounding position names. I mean, "Triang Mukhaikapada Pascimottanasana" is too long to be just a position name; it's got to mean something like "Jesus isn't as divine as you might hope; he burps after dinner" or something equally suspect. Thank G-d for Praisemoves, which the website goes to great lengths to clarify: "Praisemoves is NOT 'Christian Yoga'. Praisemoves is a Christian ALTERNATIVE to yoga." There seems to be some sensitivity with even the name 'yoga'. I modestly propose renaming yogurt as well. Not because the name has anything to do with yoga, but because the name "yoghurt" was originally used by Arabic scholars in the 11th century to describe it. Coming soon, a sensitive Christian alternative to yogurt: righteous-milk.

The founder of Praisemoves explicitly states that she considers the cultural penetration and ubiquitous exposure of yoga to be "the Missionary arm of Hinduism and the New Age movement". The founder grew up in the culture of yoga, until she "came to the end of [herself] and surrendered [her] life to Jesus Christ in 1987".

*** *** ***

The other article was in today's Kansas City Star. The article was about a group of women in Saudi Arabia who are seeking the right to drive. The Saudis are the only country that does not allow women to drive. They must be driven by a man, even if it is a "hired driver", which costs about $300-400 per month. The conservatives in Saudi society believe that women should be shielded from male strangers.

It sort of short-circuits my Western-raised brain to read that the reasoning behind the conservative position is that, should women be able to drive, then women would "be free to leave home alone and go when and where they please. They would also unduly expose their eyes while driving and interact with male strangers, such as traffic police and mechanics." I suppose it's a kind of progress when they'll tacitly admit that women couldn't drive safely while blinded behind the burka.

The kicker seems to be that this gender bias is based on a clerical edict, not on Islamic or civil law. This is serious business, though; in 1990, 50 women decided to drive their family cars. They were each jailed for a day, had their passports confiscated, and lost their jobs.

*** *** ***

I associated these stories with each other after talking with a friend of mine about the Christian yoga. She said that when she was growing up, her church was warned about the dangers of "clearing and emptying" their minds, as often occurs before and after yoga sessions. I suppose the implicit terror is that if your mind is open and unguarded, who knows what might take root? I immediately pictured someone sitting in the lotus position, then suddenly opening their eyes. "Wow," they say. "Upon further reflection, gay marriage isn't all that bad."

The instant my friend described the imperative of keeping up what I'll irreverently call the "Jesus Shielding", it seemed to explain so much. After all, if you're in a state of hyper-vigilance, you're not going to stop to examine everything that comes along. You're going to toss babies out with bathwater as if they belonged together in the hydrangea bushes. You're going to be far less likely to critically examine everything that comes along. After all, you might be tainted by association. If you think too long about whether or not you're gay, you might end up *ahem* choosing to be gay. Choosing it because you... um... like the uniform, and are interested in some of the fringe benefits, like people coming to you for fashion advice.

What need have you for critical thinking and self-evaluation, if you've already been exposed to the one Actual Truth? Who are we to be deciding the relative merits of anything, when Jesus got up and died for us all? If the Jesus Shields stay up, then everything will be fine. Right? Is it the goal of being Christian to (like the Praisemoves founder) come to the end of ourselves and just surrender to Jesus?

Be careful, though. Islam means "surrender", so make sure you don't accidentally surrender to God, but only to Jesus. But wait, Jesus is God. So, by the faith associative property.... if A = B, and B = C, then C must equal A. Uh oh.

Woe and teeth-gnashings! They were right about the terrors of the open mind!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wracking my nerves as well as my brain

I haven't composed as much as I used to, and there's a very good reason for that. As each day passes, I grow more and more nervous and frazzled, and it prevents me from sitting down and thinking about other things for very long.

My comprehensive exams are approaching. For my particular doctoral program, after all university classes have been passed and everything except the research projects have been completed, it's time for comprehensive exams. The exams are given once a semester, and require the student to demonstrate a broad knowledge of music history, theory and analysis, and the major area (in my case, trombone). The exams are universally loathed, even by the professors who administer them. Because they are so loathed, they are being revamped for all incoming students. It remains to be seen if the revision will be more or less tedious.

The history and theory exams are each "three hour" examinations, but they are booked from 9am to 1pm on successive Saturdays. I don't know that I can be bothered to take tests for people who clearly failed basic math. The first exam, Theory, will be administered this Saturday. The first Saturday in October brings the History exam. The exams are pass or fail. Any exam that is failed can be retaken ONCE.

It is this last point that haunts my days and interrupts my nights. There is, effectively, two chances to pass the exams. After two, that's it. Finished. The student is no longer allowed to progress on the degree. If the exams are passed, then the student will be considered a "candidate" for the degree. One of my professors lamented the name "comprehensive"; she felt they should be called "barrier" exams.

For my part, the whole "barrier" idea is nauseating. I have spent nine academic years to reach this point. Then I get two strikes, before I am dismissed with a kindly pat on the head. My cousin recently took the bar examination on the route to becoming a lawyer. It can be repeated until passed, or until the death of the student from old age prevents further testing. Why does a music degree have stricter standards? Is this why there are so many lawyers, and not as many D.M.A. recipients? I always thought it had to do with the pay...

I've spent the last month reviewing. I have a thousand different musical facts floating free in my head. Quodlibet is a compositional style characterized by the use of several complete musical pieces in several languages combined into a single piece; popular in the 16th century. Opera-comique is a stage work, usually French, which involves vocal and instrumental music and spoken dialog; popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

My friends and family have offered plenty of support and reassurance. I have only myself to rely upon, however. I don't mean that to sound fatalistic; it's just that there's very little anyone else can do for me. My brother can't judge my fugal analysis, for example.

In contrast to the above tone, I'm not all that worried yet. Sure, it's a concern that there's only a limited number of attempts. I'm studying hard, however, and definitely trying hard to pass the whole thing in one go. And even if I don't, I get a whole 'nother chance to study hard for whatever I don't succeed in.

And no matter what happens, it won't ruin my holidays at year's end. So there's no need to get all bent out of shape.

Not just yet.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Not Just in Keith Carradine's TV shows...


From Germany, Reuters is reporting that a 17-year old attempted to mug a blind man in a train station. I'm sure he assumed the blind guy would be an easy target for a quick credit card or cash. The kid threatened the blind man, then punched him in the face.

At this point, the blind man flipped the mugger over and held him to the ground until police arrived. Turns out the blind man is actually a world-class blind judo fighter. Talk about picking the wrong target.

Maybe people should stick to taking money from the elderly, except...


In New York, a 32-year old man tried to rob a 74-year old man by assailing him at his car and threatening him with a tire iron. What did the old man do? He grabbed the tire iron. The younger man was disarmed and ran. He tried to escape in his car, but it stalled. Running home, he was still there when the police came to arrest him.

Candy from babies may be the only "safe" option remaining.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Deprived of Motivation

My car went to the shop yesterday. It stayed there.

I drove the car over and commenced waiting. I don't have a significant other or family in the area, so I don't have anyone who MUST give me a ride when my car breaks. I brought books and my German homework and set up camp in the Honda dealership lobby. There was a nice supply of people continually hurrying around. It was rather relaxing to be at the center of this whirling arena.

There were two types of car salesmen walking the floor: the new guys and the old guys. The new guys were wearing extremely pale blue-gray oxford shirts with short sleeves. They looked young. They didn't talk much, except to each other. They were instructed on the characteristics of the new model RAV-4, vs. previous models, and also how to tell the trim lines apart. Apparently, they don't sell the Camry EX here in Kansas City, because that's the model that doesn't have air conditioning.

The old guys wore button down shirts in bold colors. They had short haircuts, no facial hair, and moved swiftly with purpose wherever they were headed, even if it was just the automatic coffee machine.

The hours passed, and the mechanic finally came out to tell me that there were four things wrong. Two were related to the heat problem, and two weren't. All told, the repairs will cost approximately $620.


There's a required part that's coming from their warehouse in Ohio. It will arrive the next day (today). I hitch up my backpack and my doubles-as-a-walking-stick umbrella, and start walking home. I have a rough idea how far it is. I mean, it's right over there!

It was a pleasant, overcast day so the temperature was good for walking. Apparently, between the dealership and my home lies a large hill. I estimate at least a 10% grade, and it took a fair amount of effort to hike up. It turns out I didn't REALLY have a good idea how far it was. What looked like a close distance on overhead maps turned out to be about 4.3 miles on actual roads.

It was good exercise, and I'm glad I brought my umbrella because a torrential (but brief) rainstorm occurred about half a mile from my destination. I was the only person using the sidewalks during my entire route. No dog walkers, no joggers, no people taking trash to the curb. Nothing.

The only "on foot" people I saw were the Hispanic work crews. More so than any place I've lived, the lawn and garden crews are Hispanic. The construction crews (but not the supervisors) are Hispanic. The street repair crews are white (go figure), but I didn't see any yesterday.

Stuck to the back of one of the street signs was the remnants of someone's location game. It was a note, slightly yellowed, that read, "Christine, find the next clue where the ducks wear sandals." Based on only this information, I could never have found the next clue. Who knows how long the note has been stuck there. Did Christine ever find the end? What was her reward? Or did she give up, not knowing anything about mallards and footwear, leaving her prospective fiance holding a ring forever?

I passed by the house in Kansas City that I think most about. As a rule, I don't really ponder houses much, but this house is mysterious. It's in a row of other modest houses, but behind a fence, in a lot covered with dense and overgrown trees. There's no indication that anyone lives there. The gates are never open. All the times I've driven by, there's never any traffic. I got excited a couple of times for seeing a car in the driveway, but it was only to turn around. The house looks old and fragile, as though it has quietly aged as people forgot about it under the boughs of the trees. Every time I pass, I wander what people live there. I gained no more insight by passing by on foot.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Hard-y Handshake

Last week, I went out to a bar with some friends and acquaintences. I wasn't friends with most of the drinkers, but almost everyone was already known to me. People laughed, I had some tasty (but expensive) beer, which subsequently got forgotten (by the waiter, on purpose) from the bill. It was a beautiful night, the sort that makes you tip back your head every 10 minutes, close your eyes, and just smile while exhaling, because it's just so NICE out.

One man arrived late. He was a blunt-looking fellow, with a head very nearly square, and the neck you might find on a LEGO person (i.e., mostly invisible). He was speaking vociferously about having finished his long day at work. He was the sort of person who speaks so loud in casual, close conversation that you suspect he may ALREADY be drunk. He was introduced around the table and came to me last.

I happened to be sitting next to an attractive woman with an easy and comfortable conversational manner. She was one of those people whom the party seems to flow around, simply because she looks great and talks great and is probably important. As I said my name, his eyes flicked to the woman next to me (who I'm not really affliated with), and I perceived the sort of change in expression a man has when he's supressing instant jealously over a woman. It's easy to notice, in most cases, because of where the eyes go. And after the eyes return to me, the smile gets wider in an extremely small but cruel way, with slightly gritted teeth.

We extended our hands to shake. For those not up on the finer points of hand shaking, it's not usually a contest. There's some unspoken protocol that everyone seems to agree on, which is the best suggestion I know for some sort of genetic factor, deep in our "junk" DNA. Don't be limp. Don't do more than three pumps up and down. Don't use two hands in ordinary circumstances. Make a show of wiping off your hands before the shake, to distance yourself from whatever you were just doing, even if it wasn't anything messy (eating grapes, for example). These are just some of the many rules that are understood by almost everyone.

This fellow came to me with a very agressive grip. Not the typical "handshake" grip, but more along the lines of holding on to the handle of a jump rope, if the other end were being yanked on by a small tyranosaurus. It's difficult to know where to situate one's hand in response to such a grip, but I gave it my best shot. Then he just squeezed. No up and down pumps. Just stationary. Squeezing. All the while, we both smiled.

It's funny how we watch nature specials about wild dogs, laughing at how the dogs establish a natural pecking order. We smile at the beta dogs who walk lower than the alpha dog, and are forced to eat after the big dog finishes. Aren't those animals silly, we say. And how different they are from us! Unbelievable, we say.

Except that the same thing happens today. This fellow felt threatened by something about me, perhaps. He was intimiated that I was taller than he, or that I had to cock my head down to look him in the eye. Or that I had a more appealing seat partner than he did (his was an unfortunate art student with hair-issues and a cold). Whatever it was, he felt the need to attempt to dominate me in the most socially acceptible way. A covert way, which can only be perceived and understood by the two people on either end of a handshake. All others at the party went on, completely oblivious.

Brr! Does anyone mind if I turn on the heat?

It was 90 degrees today as I drove to campus. It's a half hour drive from my home to the parking garage. I drove the entire way with my windows down, and not because my air conditioning was malfunctioning. I drove with my hands outside, trying to scoop as much of that 90-degree air inside to me as possible. Why, when I hate summer and warm weather so much, was I bothering to make such effort to get the outside in? Shouldn't I have been tightly sealed in my car and blasting the arctic air as fast as I possibly could?

No, and for one good reason: I had the heat on in my car, as high as I could crank it.

I hear the collective scratching of heads. Why, Doctor Andy, why? Why would I willingly turn the heat on full in the hottest part of the summer? Is it because I'm a masochist? Perhaps I really do enjoy baking in the heat? Did I want to see if I could pop those last few unpopped popcorn kernals I ate last night? These are all good reasons. Well.... mostly good reasons.

No, I was running the heat to try to ventilate my engine. I noticed over the last couple of trips I made that a fan under the hood was running long after I stopped the car. Strange, said I. Usually the car is silent. I chalked it up to being excessively hot last week. But then on Friday, I drove on the highway and smelled rubber after I exited. Very odd, I thought. Must be someone else. But then I looked and the temperature guage was all the way at the top. No bright lights or warning alarms, just a guage out of place.

I was, to say the least, nervous. Would my car explode at any moment? I'd appreciate a blinking red light, if that's the case. Would my hood pop open, and superheated water and steam come geysering out, like in Abbot and Costello movies? I hoped not.

I made it safely to my destination, and found I could manipulate the temperature by turning the heat on full and driving conservatively. And boy, was the heat hot. It's coming out at approximately 160-170 degrees, such that it's uncomfortable to place my hand in the stream. I directed all the vents away from my face, and tried to enjoy how nice and relatively cold the air outside was.

Tomorrow, I'm taking it to the shop. Hopefully, there will be a simple fix that's cheap. However, as my car gets older and older (while having more frequent problems), everything seems to get more and more expensive. I mean, I'm even on my first engine! It's bound to be time for that to catch fire, melt, and seep out the bottom.