Friday, March 21, 2014

Is it all a dream?

from Wikipedia Commons (see link)
Once in a college English class, when we were supposed to write a short story, the professor threatened to give us an 'F' if the story ended with the realization the whole thing had been a dream. Fair enough. That gimmick has been used too many times and done so well already (The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, the final episode of Newhart) that people learning to write should not use it in their stories. But I sometimes wonder if my life, since I was about 8 years old, has just been a dream.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when this happened but I'm guessing that I might have been 7 or 8 years old. I remember that my friends and I were playing together near a side road where a lot of weeds were growing. I had seen Poke Weed before and I vaguely remember being warned to stay away from it. But the berries certainly looked delicious and I'd seen birds eating it. I don't remember if I ate them on a dare or whether I was just hungry and they looked too good to pass up. I don't remember how many I ate but I did eat some. I remember immediately being sorry I did. They were very bitter and I may have spat them out but I got enough of them in me to make me feel sick. I got light headed and I may have blacked out. I distinctly remember smelling something, too. It smelled like a hospital.

Before this berry eating episode, one of my earliest memories was being in the hospital to get my tonsils out. I think I was 3 or 4 years old. I remember being on the operating table and having anesthetic being administered. I remember crying, trying to get away and then floating with the smell of the anesthetic being overwhelming. That is the smell I remember after eating the berries. Did I collapse after eating the berries and was I taken to the hospital? Am I still on the operating table and just dreaming that I've lived the next 55 years? Or did I die and this is all in my head as I await the resurrection? When you read the article that I linked to above, you'll see that the berries and most of the plant are toxic.

What I think happened was that after getting dizzy, not being able to see for a while and spitting out the foul berries, that I kept playing with my friends. I spent the rest of the summer doing fun things and going back to school that fall. I graduated from high school and went to college. I graduated and got a job. After a long time, I got married and had a family. In late 2006, I started writing a blog and just today, I wrote this post. Or did I? Perhaps I'm just imagining all of you. If I wake up, I'll try to keep remembering you all

The photo of American Pokeweed is from this link.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

For my birthday - Part 3

This is the last of my posts about my 63rd birthday. Previously, I wrote about what we did on my birthday. Then I wrote about what I bought myself for my birthday. Now I'm writing about what my family bought me for my birthday.

My son got me the biggest surprise. He searched and searched and found a Samurai Jack T-shirt. Samurai Jack is an animated series that we have all liked for a long time. There were only four seasons made and we have them all on DVD. I want to talk more about Samurai Jack in a future post. It is a fascinating show with interesting stories and unique production. Sadly, the series ended with no resolution to the story. We still hold out hope that there will be a movie to wrap things up..

My daughter bought me the two shirts pictured on the left. She is quite a good, self-taught artist and she is fascinated by colors and I really like the colors she picked for these shirts. I would have never picked the rugby shirt on my own (the top one) because of the color on top but now that I see it and how it matches with the other two colors, I really like it. I have no idea what to call that top color. If I say it's "purple", she would say it's "lavender" so I won't even try to name it. It just works. I should have laid the shirts side-by-side in this picture. Also, I shouldn't have laid them over the edge of our bed because they look like they are really wide at the waist. But then again, maybe if they were this shape, they'd fit me well!

The next gift was from my wife. She knows I love coffee and that it is a special treat for the week-ends. We usually share a pot of tea each day during the week and I enjoy that, too. There is something about the ritual of making a pot of tea that enhances the enjoyment. And sharing it with someone I love is the best. But once in a while, I like a cup of coffee and Green Mountain Coffee is wonderful. For one thing, it's delicious. But the big reason I like Green Mountain is because it is the coffee that was served at the bed and breakfast where my wife and I spent our honeymoon. That was a magical time. Every time I have a cup of Green Mountain Coffee, it reminds me of being alone with my new wife in the winter in Vermont. And it's only gotten better. That's one of the reasons I don't mind my birthdays. It's the mark of another year with the most wonderful woman in the world.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

For my birthday - Part 2

This post continues with notes about my recent 63rd birthday. My last post was about the things we did to celebrate but this time I'm going to talk about a gift I got myself.

I have played the piano since I was about 6 years old. At first, my parents found old upright pianos that people were giving away. Then, they bought me a spinet piano. Then, when I moved away from home I took the piano with me because neither of my parents played. But as I moved around, the hardest thing to take with me was the piano. But I couldn't leave it behind. Playing the piano is like a combination of expressing emotions, reacting to beauty, creating art and providing entertainment. Leaving that behind was never an option. But then, in the 1980's, electronic keyboards became more practical and useful. They actually sounded good and weren't just gimmicks. Also, the key sensors were good enough that when you hit the keys with different velocities, the sound changed like it would in a real instrument. Also, you could connect a digital piano to a computer and record what you were playing and then play it back and accompany yourself. Also, you could purchase orchestral scores and enter each of the parts yourself and play it back through sound modules that sounded a lot like the instruments of a real orchestra. It was like having your own orchestra at your disposal but every part had your own individual interpretation.

But one limitation was always that the keyboards didn't feel right. They usually only had 61 keys and the keys didn't have the right feel to them. They were too easy to press and didn't offer the right feedback. Playing too long on those keyboards would ruin your touch for a real piano. Then I bought a Roland A80 keyboard controller It felt just like a real piano (and weighted over 40 pounds!) but it was only a controller. It also cost over $1,000. It made no sounds of its own. And the sound modules needed an amplifier. Over the years, I had all that stuff but it was hard to have enough room to keep it all going and whenever we changed the house around, it was hard finding a new place for all the stuff. When we moved, my amplifiers got ruined in storage and I haven't played by electronic instruments in over 7 years.

Enter the Yamaha P-35 (pictured above). It has everything I need all in one package. It has an 88-key keyboard that feels like a real piano. The piano sound is magnificent and it has its own amplifier and speakers. Plus, it has a headphone jack so I can practice and play as loudly as I want and make as many mistakes as I do and not bother anyone! It's like a dream come true. And all this for only $449. At that price, you know it's not perfect. It comes with 10 different sounds: two different grand pianos, two different electronic pianos, two different pipe organs, two different harpsichords, a string section and a vibraphone. I wish they would have replaced one of the harpsichords with a jazz organ and one of the pipe organs with a drum kit. But I bought it for practicing and performing the piano. Who cares what other sounds it makes? It comes with a duo mode that would be great for teaching (you each use half the keyboard but the sounds are in the same octave) and it even has a metronome.  It has MIDI ports (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) so you can hook it up to other sound modules and a computer, too. Many newer keyboards only have USB connections for a computer. That limits what you can connect to. I get excited just talking about it.

But if that wasn't enough, I found a great music store in Austin, TX called Austin Bazaar that sells this piano and includes a stand for the keyboard, bench to sit on and headphones at no additional charge. It's everything you need but at the same price that other places sell only the piano.

If I can figure out how to include a sound recording on this blog, I may record some of the things I play with this wonderful piano. That is, if I ever take time away from playing it!

[Update: Something else I wanted to add about this keyboard. I almost didn't get it because the P-35 has only 32-note polyphony. That means it can only produce 32 sounds at once. Here's a link to a short description of polyphony at the Yamaha site. You might think that's no problem because you have only 10 fingers and even if you're playing in Duo Mode, there would be at most 20 fingers. The problem comes in when some of the keys continue to make a sound after you release the key. That's the case when there is a decay of the sound like a normal piano. The sound doesn't just stop when you release the key like in an electronic organ. And the key sounds even longer when you hold the damper pedal. So, is 32-note polyphony a problem? Not that I have found so far. I use the pedal a lot (probably too much) and I am an advanced pianist and I'm often hitting 8-10 keys at once a lot. I have yet to hear a note being cut off when one of the 32 sound generators switches over to a more recent key press. Yamaha has somehow figured out how to handle this well. Granted, their newer keyboards have higher polyphony that this (most have 128-note polyphony) but that may have been to take some of the strain off the microprocessor doing the voice switching. I am more impressed than ever with this keyboard! I am glad I bought it.]

Monday, March 03, 2014

For my birthday - Part 1

As I mentioned in my previous post about my birthday, nothing much happened on the actual anniversary of my birth. All the festivities occurred this past week-end. We went out to have a meal at The Olive Garden and most of us had a good meal. I was one of the ones that enjoyed the meal. And I think that everyone came around to enjoying the food by the time the left-overs were finished the next day.

After the meal, we went to see the movie Son of God in the theater. We had already seen the mini-series The Bible on TV and Son of God was made by the same people. We had expected that, perhaps, there would be new content in this version but it turned out that we had already seen the majority of this movie on TV. That was a little disappointing. But that was the only disappointment.

On TV, of course, the screen is smaller and the sound is less involving. On TV, you have to sit through commercials and a break of a week between episodes. We did get the DVD of the entire series and that cut out the commercials and waits of a week between episodes but it still couldn't compete with seeing this film in a movie theater. There is nothing like seeing a good movie on a big screen with big, full sound. This story deserved that. Some folks complained that you knew what was going to happen because of already knowing how the TV series was written. Well, in Titanic, you know the boats sinks and in Gone With the Wind, you know the North wins. And in every James Bond movie, you know he is going to get the bad guys. But many people still go to those movies and enjoy them.

In this version of the story, the writers put a special emphasis on the tough spot that the Jewish religious leaders were in. They were trying to balance keeping their faith and helping people survive in the face of the tyranny of the Roman occupation. I know they made the wrong choices but it was very interesting to see both their internal struggles and the outside forces forces vying to change them. If only they would have accepted Jesus as the true Messiah! But we knew how it was going to turn out. The real story is about how much God loves us. That never changes and it as compelling today as it was two millennia ago.

I felt this movie was well acted and beautifully staged. Also, there was great excitement when we found out that the actor playing Jesus is Portuguese. My wife is half Portuguese and my mother-in-law is second generation Portuguese. Another interesting part of the writing was the decision to have Pontius Pilate be such a strong character. I thought this was very realistic as Rome would not have allowed a weak governor in such a contentious region of their empire. And the ruthlessness that Pilate showed was just one more stress put on the Jewish priests making their characters a little more interesting than the simple, conniving, evil men of some other depictions of this part of the Bible.

In my next post, I'll talk about some of the gifts I got for my birthday.