Thursday, September 27, 2007

There and Back Again

I spent most of this week either sleeping, at work, or sleeping at work. (Nice work if you can get it.) I guess Kansas City was more exhausting than I thought, however receptive and rewarding it was, and it was. Maybe it was the heat, the four separate 60-minute flights, or the rapid-fire flurries of social interaction after so many months without. (Not that I minded the heat. In fact, after I saw the snow Monday morning, I spent the rest of the day in bed.) I got a great surprise when I touched down in Salt Lake City (no, not the snow): Mom was waiting with Morgan to pick me up and stayed the night once we got back to town.

Brent blogged a great synopsis of my visit, so I'll fill in the blanks.

I spent most of our time in the suburbs simultaneously impressed and disgusted. I will never again take urban life for granted; too long (almost seven years) have I languished without book stores, sushi, and coffee houses with free wi-fi. Brent's family and friends reside in charming neighborhoods with wide, winding streets and occasionally whimsical old world names (my favorite was Nottingham on the Green). But the new construction spilling out into the soft farmland around the city is a little disheartening, stacks of mustard-and-olive apartment complexes and pastel shopping centers so theatrically designed and perfectly maintained that they felt otherworldly.

Downtown was more like it. We only spent a few brief hours in the heart of the city on Saturday evening, and my eyes were on an intensely broad spectrum of art most of the time, but from what I saw, Kansas City is a surprisingly progressive urban space. It's unassumingly metropolitan, modest about its own beauty, impressively scaled, and unpretentiously classy. The original Spanish architecture has been cleverly preserved and updated, blending seamlessly with more modern structures and put to use in rather ingenious ways. K.C. might be the perfect poster child for Midwestern Urban Renewal.

Older residential areas border downtown, and most properties have been tastefully and skillfully renovated. I was glad to see that these surprisingly green (mostly oak and ash) and very pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods haven't been razed to make way for developments.

The art at the Plaza Art Fair made me want to run home and set up my studio in the living room. There were very few artists working solely in traditional media, which seems to be the trend currently, although I saw a few landscapes in oil and pastels and some watercolors of local landmarks that were done so faithfully they looked like photographs until you were right up close. There was a lot of glass and metal, including one woman who was twisting old silver spoons, arranging them with other found items in shadowbox frames, and engraving messages on them in long looping lines. Then there was the man who was using similar found metal to make crazy, occasionally anatomically correct robotic figurines. At least someone has found a good use for used spark plugs.

The media-du-jour I'm happiest to celebrate, however, is quilting. There were traditional quilts and wall hangings in gorgeous fabrics and designs so luxurious I'd never dare put them on a bed, but also something new that just zinged me: quilted landscapes, illustrations, portraits and signs with a satisfying layered, pieced complexity. Quilted art looks touchable, even behind glass. The possibilities seemed endless, with some artists embroidering text into and over designs, but no matter how complicated the construction of these pieces, they all exuded homemade charm, which made them all the more delightful.

I took hardly any photos during my stay. (I know, sacre bleu!) The only explanation I can come up with is that I was too busy holding Brent's hand. This may sound silly, and at one point or another I would find myself wondering if I was appearing too clingy, which I am generally not. But when you only see your other half every six weeks or so for a few days at a time, you don't waste time standing five feet apart.

His family and friends were as warm and engaging as advertised, and I think everyone was satisfied by the end of the brief visit that Brent has landed himself a pretty acceptable girl. I won't be the least bit upset if we wind up in Kansas City, but I'm going to have to get some intensive training from a qualified beautician. The moment I stepped off the plane into the humidity (and a spectacular thunderstorm) my hair exploded, and it was all I could do for the next five days to keep it from taking over the world. I've spent my entire life in desert climates. I don't know what to do with curls.

I'm not done yet. Subsequent posts will cover my observations of Midwestern college towns and Kansas City's bizarre obsession with food. But tonight is my Friday-on-a-Thursday, and I have some errands to run. Now that hunting season is officially in full swing and Jeff will be pretty much A.W.O.L. on weekends (there's a stack of hunting regulations on his desk about four inches thick, covering about eight different species and spanning several regions), I intend to catch up here. I know I say that a lot, but I always mean it.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Despite Evanston's no-smoking ordinance having gone into effect on the 4th, there's still plenty of smoke to go around. I got a portable fire pit, which M and I enjoyed last night, toasting strawberry marshmallows (which are vile when charred, but otherwise quite nice) and visiting in the dark yard between the lilacs.

There have been fires, too, forest fires in Idaho and wildfires in Utah. The smoke blows over the Wasatch range and irritates our lungs and sinuses. Strange weather this fall, rain and electric storms that make the hair on your neck stand up. The plant was hit by lightning two weeks ago with a crackling snarl nothing I've ever heard compares to, and it's been touch-and-go ever since. It fried two ports for the phone lines and the SCADA modem. We're back on the river, though, and our flows have dropped to 3.6 MGD. We're on our way to the 1.6 MGD average we sit at during the winter.

I was aghast at the little silver tufts made by my own breath this morning, not smoke, but frosty clouds of condensation. I'm leaving for Kansas City to meet Brent's family and friends in the morning, and the forecast is in the 90s there. I had a hard time packing. It's going to be strange to leave Evanston in the morning, where it might be 40 degrees, get on the plane in Salt Lake, stop over at the air-conditioned terminal in Denver, and step out into the humid heat of K.C. Still, looking forward to these five days has gotten me through the last month and a half of toil at the plant and at home.

No more smoke at home. Dean's gone. I don't know where he went, but he took his cheap cigarettes and the scary van and the crumbling Monarch with him. I'm all moved in, and it's heaven. It's so high. I had edited the way my body moved through the space around me to fit my life into the apartment downstairs. Now I can jump rope in my kitchen. It's really something. Fresh air, sunshine. The cats roll around in the sunbeams on the floor.

I won't be around for a few days, so e-mails will go unanswered and favorite blogs will not be commented on, but I'll have some photos and stories when I get home. And a big purchase to make. And fall foliage to try to enjoy, since I know what comes next. And it always seems like it gets here before it reaches anywhere else. It can't wait to get to me. Like smoke.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Giving up Fingers

I was going to play the French horn. With its foreign name and labyrinth of shining, curling pipes, it seemed deliciously exotic to a ten-year-old. I'd heard it was very difficult; I didn't care. It was the only instrument special enough.

But on the first day of band, Mrs. Clements gave her fifth-graders some advice. "I'm going to play recordings of several band instruments. Pick the one you like the sound of; that's the one you should learn to play."

I was already certain. I waited impatiently through the airy flute, the squealing, squeaking clarinet, the sinister, frothy sounds of the various saxophones. Woodwinds are too hollow for me, too vague and insubstantial. I giggled at the oboe and ignored the bassoon, which is a shame, because of all the woodwinds, the deep and sure bassoon and the sturdy, throaty baritone saxophone are dearest to my heart.

Next came the sharp, harsh trumpet, too brassy, too obvious. I knew we were getting close.

Then... had Mrs. Clements made a mistake? That couldn't be it. The horn gurgled and choked like someone was playing a water balloon. It was muddy and rude, spitting with a swollen tongue, sloppy and dubious. I can't play that. It sounds like a faraway cow. A sick one. A high, sustained note did me in with a rattling, unsteady edge to the watery tone.

I was still in turmoil when a new sound began to pour into my head, something strong but smooth as caramel, as sweet and buttery and thick. It descended into a pack-a-day snarl, still tuneful, still strong, swerving between notes just the way... why, just the way a human voice does. You don't even hear the buttons, the musician causing each note, the air stopping and starting. It has no buttons, no valves, no reed or keys. You just put it to your mouth and blow. The melody was bending, being strung, hopping from low octave to high octave with the mythical richness the French horn should have had. What is this? A three-octave scale, an easy, fluid jazz lick, a ferocious, speeding, pounding fanfare. The trombone. The tone was distinct and directional, round and rumbling, controlled and solid, purposeful. The last note was a long mellow purr. I was sold.

"You could still play the flute," said practical Gram, drying her hands on her homespun cotton apron. "It's small. It's easy to carry." She looked doubtful, and in my heart I, too, was harboring a secret horror. It's so ridiculous. The thing has a slide. It plays cartoon themes and circus music. How can I play something so... silly? But I couldn't help it. I had to have one, jokes and all. Mom rented me a used student model King, a surprisingly delicate, simple tenor with a smooth, shallow dent in the nicely arched tuning slide at the top and scratches all around the small yellow bell. I still have it. I still love it.

Eighteen years later I also have a bass trombone, a beautiful confection of swirling, overlapping tubes, twisting like a racetrack in white Blessing brass. It boasts two tuning slides and two rotors that change the tone without moving the slide and a wide, gleaming bell with a worn place where the tips of my fingernails have marked third position on the fly for fourteen years. It has its share of dents and scratches now.

Grandma and Mom bought it for me brand new from the Elkhart, Indiana factory when I turned fourteen because I had to turn in the identical-if-prematurely aged school model when I left middle school and no other school horn would do, not even the lovely, single-rotor Holton with the copper bell or the capable bass Yamaha with the giant conical mouthpiece like a motor oil funnel. All through high school and out into community bands I played, jazz bands and concert bands, symphony orchestras, marched street and field with that wonderful weight pivoting on my right ring finger, resting lightly on my left shoulder. That finger has a permanent bow, my shoulders are permanently curved to reach, to wrap around, to stretch forward, my lower lip has a groove in the center and the bow of my upper lip is arched in what may not have been its intended form. The inside of my lips are scarred where the brackets of my braces were pressed into the tender skin. I am marked, shaped trombone.

And after a five-year hiatus, I'm playing again. Tom and Vern's no-nonsense big band meets once a week in the high school choir room and plays classic arrangements from the sweetest era in music history. Tuning note at 7 sharp, get down to business and read straight through as many charts as will fit in an hour and a half, shout a request if you've got one. "Take the A Train." "Satin Doll." "A String of Pearls." "Mack the Knife." Heavy on the Basie, don't spare the Sammy Nestico, a little more Gershwin please.

And I'm on the end of the trombone line, doing my favorite thing to do: playing the low notes, the ones that growl, that hum, the slow molasses whole notes or the quick, bunched quarters that get pushed to a borderline blat in that satisfying low brass way. Now and then there's a good jazz chart in which we trombones get to slide, to fall off the end with a dignified "wow" that can only be duplicated by human vocal chords.

I think I'm going to like this small, friendly group. They do their thing with modesty, class, and just enough humor to keep it light but not throw it off track. Most of the members are local music teachers, but for the first time with any adult group, I don't feel like a student. They haven't known me since I was 13. They don't coddle me. They don't ask if I'm comfortable with a part or if I think I can handle that 16-bar solo. They expect me to carry the bass line and for the first time I don't wonder whether or not I can- I just do. I'm a little rusty; I'm stiff and it's hard to swing, so I trip over triplets and stumble through syncopation. But I'm sight reading like it's all I've ever done and recognizing many charts like old friends.

For an hour and a half once a week, every thought in my head is gone. It's just me and the tangle of brass in my bare hands with the cold nickel mouthpiece that warms as I play, the weight of the instrument as familiar as my own bones, and the sounds that it makes as familiar as my mother's voice. I'm counting in my head as Vern counts out loud, "One and-a-two and-a we know what to do." Nobody directs. Nobody's in charge. That's the beauty of an ensemble like this. We don't care if anybody else hears us, although we may have a few performances a year. We're just there to play, and we've all missed it.

Ever since that fateful day at Canyon Elementary School, the day someone put that thing in my hands and I first felt metal glide down metal, buffered by grease and water, I've been hooked. It's elemental to me.

And I sure am glad I didn't play the French horn.