Schumann stuff
I don't know why so many people are anti-Schumann--the symphonies, that is, most people seem to approve of the piano music. As an instrumentalist, okay, I can kind of see it--the man was a pianist, and he doesn't seem to have taken much in the way of advice about writing for other people's instruments. (Is there historical background for this? Must ask musicologist friend, though it's not really her period.) So the lines don't always sit comfortably on the instruments you're supposed to play them on (even so he's NO WORSE THAN Rachmaninoff, spare me).

But the music is so, so awesome. I've played the Third and Fourth symphonies and am waiting hopefully--with my neck stretched out, as we say in Japanese--for a chance to do the First and Second too. The Schumann symphonies are very melodic--not so much in the sense of big hummable melodies, but there's always melodic movement going on and it's always interesting, and the orchestration (while not necessarily considerate of the orchestra, as I mentioned) is fun, with the oboe solos in the First Symphony, the horns rocking the house at the end of the Third, the violin solo in the slow movement of the Fourth (I have a soft spot for that one because my secret-pointless-crush M was concertmaster when we did it), and so on.

It's funny--it doesn't fit with my image of Schumann-the-man at all, but there's something almost...conversational? about the tone of the music. I am a die-hard Brahms-lover, you can't beat Brahms for me with much of anything, but one of the differences for me between Schumann and Brahms is the sense of...the numinous, I guess, in the latter. I cannot listen to the second movement of Brahms Two without believing in some kind of God. Or the slow movement of the First Piano Concerto with the piano chords moving transcendentally over that long, long pedal tone, Jesus Christ, no pun intended. The Schumann symphonies feel much more on an earthly plane. Not a value judgment, just a difference in sensation, if you will.

Although there's always the fourth movement of the (five-movement) Third Symphony, with its dreamy baroque fugality and killer high trombone part. I always think of it as if it were a painting with a caption: "The people grieve as Bach ascends into heaven." But then you snap back into the cheerful allegro of the last movement... I don't know. Down-to-earth, conversational, often happy, but in jewel tones, not primary colors--darker, richer strains underpinning the whole thing, never just light-hearted. Life is more like the Schumann symphonies than like most composers, I think. (God forbid one should have a life like a Rachmaninoff symphony, oy gevalt. A life like the Musical Offering, say, that I could dig.)

Yuletide letter 2013
Amended from last year’s letter:
Thank you for writing something for me. With the exception of the do-not-like stuff, please take any and all of this as optional suggestions only, and do what works for you. Not all of the stuff I like, for instance, may be applicable to all the fandoms I've requested; choose what makes sense to you.

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orchestra stuff
Been listening to our last orchestra concert and the one before that (inadvertent 2-CD set, long story). I think honestly we're pretty good, for an amateur group with three hours' rehearsal time a week. There are occasional slips in the winds, but when they're good they're good, and the strings have it better with several of us on each part, and just enough good players scattered through the parts that the weaker sisters, like me, have something to hold on to.
"Like me" is partly true and partly disingenuous, I guess. We don't have a standout cellist, but T and S are very solid, and Y, K, and Little K average out to around as good as me--not spectacular, but hanging in. (We just started the new music last week, and I was shamefully delighted when T, our first chair, said to me "N, come and sit next to me, you're the best sightreader by a country mile" or words to that effect in Japanese. Trouble is, I sightread well but don't move on much from there...) Anyway, so our cello section is not brilliant but solid, and T's good-natured, slightly goofy energy seems to motivate all of us.
The violas are damn good (no viola jokes here), second violins and basses adequate, and the first violins have M...the concertmaster and human tuning fork on whom I have a longstanding hopeless crush...his wife A, cute as a button and also an excellent violinist, and the other K, a pianist at heart but still a good concertmistress. So on their good days they kick ass.
As for the winds, there's N the oboist (another longstanding hopeless crush, I've always had a weakness for oboe players), there was Iz the horn player except he's gotten divorced and moved away (but his solo in the Stravinsky "Kiss of a Fairy," you should've heard), there's his ex-wife playing trumpet, there's K the concertmistress' ex-husband on trombone and his current girlfriend KM on clarinet...sorry, I couldn't resist the soap-opera-yness of it all but it's a fact. And other good players, all in all.
The orchestra is honestly one of my biggest reasons for not wanting to move anywhere else, even though I would have a much better chance of finding the kind of job I want in Tokyo. I mean, you can't throw a stone in Tokyo without hitting an amateur orchestra, but it wouldn't be the same people.

I have two young dead men in my head. For various reasons both of them have been on my mind for a while now, making me cry when I think too hard about them—which isn’t a bad thing, because they were worth it. I didn’t meet either of them. One I might have done; I was ten years old when he died, and he was a friend of my father’s for a while, but we never intersected. The other died more than seventy years ago. They were both far too young, only thirty-three—almost the same age at their deaths, down to a couple of months. One succumbed to chronic illness; the other took his own life.

Atsushi Nakajima died in December 1942, of the asthma which had troubled him since his early twenties. Such a goddamn waste; if I had a time machine to go back and bring him modern treatment methods… . He was a writer, although he never made his living at it, and he needed to make his living: his family was well enough off but not rich, and he had a wife and two young sons. Takeshi was nine when his father died; Noboru was only two or three. Atsushi taught Japanese and English at a girls’ high school for several years, and seemed to enjoy it, popular with his students and fellow teachers and happy with his family, plus an avid gardener in his spare time.
His stories are spare and abstruse and difficult, drawing heavily on (Chinese) history and literary myth, and it can be surprising to find out that, while unenthusiastic about spending time with people who didn’t meet his standards, with friends he was a life-of-the-party type, interested in everything, active, merry. His story “Sangetsuki” appears regularly in high school Japanese textbooks, which I think is a terrible shame. It’s a story written in old-fashioned Japanese and set in old China, about a poet who turns into a tiger, and it’s wonderful, but not for teenagers: it’s for people who have learned, or are learning, about the way life turns and twists in your hands to betray everything you once expected, for good or ill.
They should have the high school kids read some of his letters to his wife from Micronesia. He was already in his early thirties when worsening asthma made his teaching job difficult; hoping for an improvement, he took a job editing Japanese textbooks for children in the Micronesian islands which were then Japanese colonies, Palau, the Chuuk Islands, Saipan and so forth. He spent a year or so traveling around the islands observing schools (both the “public schools” for “native” children and the “national schools” for Japanese children), finding that the tropical climate was not as good for his health as he had hoped, and writing quantities of letters to his wife and postcards to his sons. The letters are much easier to read than anything else he wrote, because his wife Taka probably had only about a sixth-grade education; she was a girl from the provinces whom he gave in and married after getting her pregnant (or so at least one source would have it), and in some ways it’s amazing that the marriage worked at all. Perhaps if he had lived longer it wouldn’t have, but at that date it’s very clear how much they cared about each other. And he was absolutely nuts over his sons, there’s no other way to put it, an absorbed, loving, thoughtful father.
The letters from the South Pacific make me cry every time; they’re vivid descriptions of what he sees and who he meets there, but they’re also spilling over with homesickness and longing for Taka and the boys, I miss you, I want to come home between every line, and when I think that he lived less than a year after returning to Japan, it’s unbearable. God, I would have loved to know him—not as “the great writer Nakajima Atsushi” but as a colleague in the school staffroom, or one of the guys a few years ahead of me in grad school. Why are there no time machines, or why do those whom the gods love die young.

I’ve written about Ohira-san—another Taka, although only a nickname—here before. If the gods ever loved someone it was him, surely: born in a well-to-do Osaka family, a violin prodigy from his early teens and a student at one of the most prestigious schools in town, winning or placing in two national violin competitions in junior high and high school, going to Tokyo University—the ultimate academic success—and serving as concertmaster of the orchestra there, eventually becoming an associate professor at the same university while still in his early thirties. And then killing himself at the age of thirty-three, leaving his wife of six months to find his body in the morning.
I’m not sure exactly why Taka died, because it’s a thing you can’t ask without more of a need-to-know than I’ve got. The most I can infer, from people who knew him, is that the intensely competitive pressure of high-level hard science research—in Japan in the late eighties—came to be too much for him, especially in an environment where his superiors gave him the fisheye for carrying a violin case to work with him. Maybe he regretted not having become a professional musician, but felt that it was too late to go that route. Maybe there were other things happening. I don’t know. He might have been clinically depressed. His wife, twenty-five when they married, was getting her master’s degree in piano performance at the time of his death; she took her exams, got her degree (in spite of collapsing into tears during one performance, and who in God’s name can blame her), and then, only a year later, entered a nationally well-regarded medical school to study psychiatry. Given the stiff entrance exams for any medical school (Japanese medical school is a six-year combined undergraduate/graduate degree), this would be a remarkable feat even without the tragic background. She gave up playing the piano professionally, and is now the head of psychiatry at a major eastern hospital.
Everyone I’ve been able to get in touch with—friends at the American university where he did postdoc research and played music with my father, friends in Japan, colleagues—seems to have fond and admiring memories of Taka. Where is that damn time machine? To go back and say, Taka, you have so many paths to take, you’re so gifted and so loved, there are other ways out, don’t do this, don’t take yourself away from us, from yourself.
I had one recording of Taka’s violin—playing the Tchaikovsky concerto with a student orchestra, under my father’s baton. The recording quality is lousy, but you can still hear how his sound shimmers. An unexpected benefit of asking around about him was that people gave me other recordings of his playing—Brahms, Schubert, Prokofiev, Dvorak, Bach—and they’re all wonderful. Not perfect, because nobody is, but brilliant, and with his passion for the music, sheer love of what he’s doing, shining in every note. And yeah, they make me cry. Oh Taka. 

near and faraway
In the second category: やっぱりoh, Taka. Lately when M does his thing at rehearsal of noodling madly away to himself during breaks, fancy double stops and bits of concerti and A's father's Hungarian stuff and God knows what, it makes me want to cry, because Taka should be in Tokyo somewhere (or in Ithaca, or anywhere on this side of the void) doing just the same thing. Only even more so, I guess, because as good a violinist as M is Taka was something else. Damn it to hell.

On the more immediately personal side: I still don't exactly see the point of kissing, but cuddling is some good stuff. It was also amusing to be able to predict with almost pinpoint accuracy, okay, from here on I'm going to get kissed.

long time no interface
Okay, it's about time. Where I am now:
Too much damn time at work, but otherwise it could be (knock wood) much worse.
Listening to Taka Ohira's violin, some of it recorded before I was born and some as late as 1987, the year he died. All I can manage is oh, Taka. How do you tell that story so it makes sense?
Actually dating someone for the first time in I don't even know how many years. Not a musician, but otherwise someone I like holding hands with. Who knew?
Trying to finish this damn Vorkosigan story that I've been working on for ages, even though it's not one a lot of people will read. Want it FINISHED still.
Went to a big used books fair today with K, the above person-with-whom-I-sometimes-hold-hands, and bought a lot more than I should have done, including some dance books for my mom--Toni Bentley's journal, because I like the way Balanchine's dancers write about their lives--and a Taisho-era guide to sex for young girls, because I was fantastically curious.
Trying to remember regularly that for all the things I bitch about in my life, I am so so fortunate right now, in almost every way I could be. 

yuletide letter
Thank you for writing something for me. I'm sorry this is so late. With the exception of the do-not-like stuff, please take any and all of this as optional suggestions only, and do what works for you. Not all of the stuff I like, for instance, may be applicable to all the fandoms I've requested; choose what makes sense to you.

Do not like: darkfic in general, incest, humiliation, NC-17 for either violence or sex (no moral objections, it's just not what I enjoy reading), blatant out-of-characterness, rape/dubcon, Christmas themes (again, not opposed to their existence in general, just not Christian myself). 

Enjoy in particular: snappy dialogue, families of choice, playing with language, cuddling, people being competent at their work/what they do, scenes from everyday life.

By fandom (characters):
The Steerswoman Series (Steffie): Maybe Steffie in Alemeth after Rowan and Bel have left, learning what he might need to know to be a steersman and working at balancing that with the very different way the town knows him? Or, while futurefic is hard for this series, Steffie back with Rowan and Bel or taking his own part in their quest, as long as it's consistent with the themes and atmospheres of the books so far. 

Young Wizards (Nita, Kit, Carmela): I've had Nita and Kit in the back of my head since I was nine or ten; I like them as friends and wizardry partners, as a couple, at the overlaps. The two of them on a very ordinary errantry, maybe, and/or (if it's all right to mention characters not requested--if it isn't, ignore this) Nita and S'reee having girl talk, or something about Kit's family--we know they speak Spanish at home, but I've always thought it would be fun to see their ethnicity developed more. In New York, in high school, in the future if you like. 

Fire and Hemlock (Ann Abraham, Ed Davies): I'm an amateur musician myself and would like to see Ann and Ed (and Sam? I'm not sure how he didn't end up in there) interacting through music--in their orchestra days when they met Tom, as conservatory students, with the quartet, whatever. Specifically magical events or only mundane ones, either way, but maybe a sense of the complicated interactions between people who work together intimately and may or may not be intimate in their private lives? Or maybe something about the families they come from? Ann might be Jewish, Ed's name sounds Welsh, Sam's family might have been Polish refugees...or not.

Anyway, as above, please take from this what you see fit; this is my first Yuletide and the idea of somebody writing anything for me is enough to make me happy. Many thanks.

learning experiences
The thing is, this is why (one of the reasons) I like my job. On my own time, I would never, ever seek out information about autophagy, or chemicals management regulations, or the fifty-year history of an industry fair. (I might about Josiah Conder, but that was an exception.) If I'm translating or editing lengthy reports on these subjects, though, I have to read through them in detail, and there's a weird pleasure in it, a kind of pure knowledge satisfaction which my more interest-focused private life doesn't always offer. The really technical ones are also soft of satisfying because, with the help of an online terms dictionary, I produce English texts that I couldn't possibly understand if I'd just run across them on the web or in a bookstore, but I'm pretty sure they make sense. 

(fictional) baseball love

I want to write a little about Ookiku Furikabutte, a Japanese manga (also made into an anime series) by Asa Higuchi. In short, it’s about high school baseball, it’s nineteen volumes long so far and not even close to finished (I hope; also, this is by no means an uncommon length for a manga series), the art is somewhat on the crude side, but obviously as a deliberate style choice rather than through lack of talent, it’s funny and touching and realistic (mostly) and goes into more detail about baseball games than even I can deal with.

The story centers on the baseball team at Nishiura High School, which has never had a baseball team before; hence there are only ten team members, plus student manager, supervising teacher, and coach, and all the players are sophomores (Japanese high schools are 10th-12th grade). Their ace pitcher is Ren Mihashi, who makes up for slow pitching speeds with incredible control, and comes in completely unsure of himself because of the way his teammates in junior high treated him. Catcher Takaya Abe, strong-willed and short-tempered, recognizes Mihashi’s gifts and commits himself to getting the best out of him, never mind that Mihashi is absolutely terrified of him most of the time. The others are neat people too, and they come together quickly into a strong team, both on the diamond and in their mutual bonds; I like best the story lines which show us the team just hanging out together.

We also get to know numerous other teams who are Nishiura’s opponents; honestly I have trouble keeping them straight, but each has its own personalities and its own issues. The two I don’t lose track of are Motoki Haruna, a brilliant pitcher who played with Abe in junior high school and parted less than amicably with him, and his laid-back, observant, only moderately gifted catcher, Kyohei Akimaru, one of my favorites (I have a thing about catchers in glasses). They turn up in and out of Nishiura’s orbit, following their own story.

Anyway, there you have the basic outline. At the moment in the series, Nishiura and Haruna’s school, Musashino Daiichi, have both lost in the summer prefectural tournament, meaning their hopes for the national tournament (Koshien) will have to wait till next year; they’re getting busy training again. Volume 19 is full of delicious bits, but—well—a lot of people write fanfiction about this series slashing any number of the main characters (mostly Mihashi/Abe and Haruna/Akimaru), and I have to say this volume makes it hard to NOT see them that way, even if one wanted to ;) . Examples follow.

Just for one thing, apart from Mihashi and Abe sharing a hotel room (on a team trip, two beds, very innocent), we get the two of them alone in a room while Abe has his shirt off TWICE in one book. Once is in the hotel room, Abe emerging from the shower with a towel across his shoulders; the other is in the school weight room earlier on. Thanks to Abe’s one-track baseball mind and Mihashi’s, um, quirkiness, I would not say that sexual tension was a prime feature of either scene, but it’s entertaining. Oh, and at the team retreat we get the endearingly domestic scene of Abe waking Mihashi early so they can make breakfast for everyone (and it turns out Mihashi’s the one who knows what he’s doing in the kitchen, he even gets up the nerve to yell at Abe about dumplings).

What else? Abe and Mihashi go to talk to Haruna (with Akimaru standing by) just after the latter has lost his big game. Abe and Haruna end up yelling in each other’s faces, rehashing the past, with Mihashi wide-eyed and Akimaru obviously taking mental notes; and then the scene ends on a silly note with Mihashi blurting out “Haruna-san, c-c-can I feel your muscles?”

Akimaru’s teammates, rhapsodizing about how playing on a team with Haruna has made them feel they can aim for the sky; and Kyohei Akimaru standing there while they talk at him, wondering “How could they think I make a difference to him? Teamwork…confidence…dreaming big…?!” as if he’d never heard the words before and wasn’t sure he wanted to hear them now. This is both why I like Akimaru so much and why I think this is such a good manga in the first place; individuality which doesn’t fit into any of the expected patterns.

the melendys

I want to talk about the four Melendy books by Elizabeth Enright: The Saturdays, The Four-Storey Mistake, Then There Were Five, and Spiderweb for Two. These concern the varied adventures of the four Melendy children, Mona, Rush, Miranda (Randy), and Oliver, growing up in New York and then the countryside in the 1940s. Elizabeth Enright does something that should really be very difficult in the Melendy books, and makes it look easy: she tells her stories from the viewpoint (in tight third-person) of children ranging from six to sixteen, without ever lowering her narration to become simplistic or sentimental or limited, and likewise without ever dragging the reader out of the perspective of the child in question. “Child” seems like the wrong word: Enright’s Melendys are people, among whose characteristics are being eight or eleven or fourteen, but who are never simply defined that way.

They grow up a little at a time over the four books, and this is most visible in the youngest, Oliver, who begins as a six-year-old with the limited perspective and abilities thereof, and by the last book is tough, humorous and capable, well able to skewer his dreamy sister’s flights of fancy. Artistic, accident-prone Randy may be the least practical of the family, but she is brave (going out to Meeker’s farm with Rush in the middle of the night to investigate the fire) and never lets her romancing blind her to the realities of life. Like her older siblings, she understands that artistic brilliance, for instance, comes through hard work. (Randy’s arts are drawing and dancing, but somehow it’s easy to imagine that she will be the one who grows up a writer and records her family’s exploits as we are reading about them, like Titty Walker in the Swallows and Amazons books.)

Mona, the oldest, is a genuinely gifted actress whose family prudently keeps her down to earth, giving her scope to express her talent without making her into a spoiled princess. The closest to the adult world, her share of the books decreases gradually as they continue. Rush, though, holds center stage (or shares it with Randy) through at least the third book. A polymath who enjoys physical activity as much as reading and who looks forward to a career as pianist and composer, Rush’s intellectual and practical curiosity as well as his unfailingly sarcastic good humor are among the things that most make the books come alive.

Rush provides two of my favorite moments in the whole series. One comes late in The Four-Storey Mistake, when Rush reports on a disastrous piano lesson he has just given: “Judge Laramy, I just socked your son. I socked him pretty hard…” to which the judge replies “If socking is included in your technique of education, well, that’s none of my business as long as they really learn.”

The other is near the end of Then There Were Five, when all four Melendys are packed into their old surrey to meet their father at the train station. Willy Sloper, their handyman, is driving (how could I not mention Willy earlier? Unflappable, Brooklyn-accented, able to turn his hand to anything, and with a fondness for tootling on the recorder) and reflects aloud on the way people’s characters settle as they grow older, leading to being “farsighted when you look at the paper, and kinda nearsighted when you look at the truth—“ Rush picks up and elaborates enjoyably on the theme, only to be shocked by Willy’s peaceful declaration that “you ain’t got no character at all yet…All of you. Just a lot of little jellyfish.” Rush, Mona, and Randy plunge into silent and serious analyses of their own characters, while Oliver placidly contemplates fishing.

I loved the Melendy books as a kid, but it’s particularly delightful to find that they are still enjoyable as an adult, with precise characterization and satisfying, natural yet lively dialogue, and an authorial voice which moves from humor to serious emotion with a steady, subtle hand; full of details of time and place which glow; and with just enough plot arcs to hold the discrete episodes together. I could go into endless details—Rush’s opera-going experience in New York, the tower room at Mrs. Oliphant’s country house, the manicurist’s escape to New York City which she tells to Mona, Randy’s creek-found diamond and what she does with it, the alligator, the four windows of the cupola, the old newspapers on the walls of the Office, Mona and Rush and Randy with their feet in the stream, Oliver’s caterpillars, Jasper Titus’ cakes, Rush and Mark’s terrifying late-night adventure, Randy and Oliver’s detective adventures… so wonderful. More people should read these.

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