Reading: A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. I seriously cannot put this book down. It could be called Science for Otherwise Educated Dummies. You do have to pay attention a little, but if you do you'll understand everything (assuming it can be understood) and it's fascinating.
(Like I wouldn't give you examples.)
Remember those charts we saw in grade school that showed us all the planets, spaced more or less one after the other? Well, that's totally wrong, but it's because it has to be, otherwise there wouldn't be paper long enough to show them all. If you wanted to build an actual to-scale model of the solar system and your Earth was the size of a pea, Pluto would be a mile and a half away. And the size of a bacterium!
Marie Curie's books and lab reports have so much radiation in them that they have to be kept in lead boxes and you must don protective gear if you want to look at them.
Want to know how wide an atom is? Take a millimeter. (It's about the size of a typewritten hyphen.) An atom takes up as much of that millimeter as a flat piece of paper takes up of the height of the Empire State Building.
When Edwin Hubble - he of the Hubble telescope - died, his wife refused to turn over the body and never told anyone what she did with it. To this day, no one knows what happened to his remains.
And Yellowstone National Park could blow us all to kingdom come at any moment.
This book is very cool.
Most things, I have to say, are the same, and there's not much I can think to do. Bide my time, and search high and low for the good, and hang onto it with not a little desperation.
Let's go back a ways, a long ways, to February 2002, when I bought a violin on Ebay and decided to start taking lessons.
In typical Elizabeth fashion, I didn't. I got the violin and played around with it a little. I tried to tune the strings and broke them. I bought new strings and tried to put them on. The bridge kept slamming down with great force that could not have been good. I kept putting it back up, which also could not have been good. I rosined the bow every five minutes.
In short, I killed the poor thing. I only paid $50 for it, and I did take it to a shop and was told that it would be a waste of my time to try to learn on it. So I took it entirely apart in that fifth-grade "Let's see how this works" way, and then it sat in my closet for a few months, and then, when I moved, it got tossed into a dumpster.
But it was always in the back of my mind.
So one day last March I was sitting at my job with nothing to do, and with the same amount of contemplation I usually give to deciding whether to go get a diet Coke, I decided I needed to sign up for violin lessons as soon as possible. I googled "Alexandria music" and found, not surprisingly, the Alexandria Music Company. I drove there after work and walked in. The violin teacher happened to be hanging out at the counter waiting for her next student, so she got out her calendar and we picked 8:30 on Thursday nights. I was on my way to California to visit Elise at the end of the week, so we decided to start the first Thursday in April.
I didn't get the instrument until I showed up for the first lesson. I figured I'd be spending it learning about the violin itself, and she'd tell me about the scroll and the neck and the fingerboard and the soundpost and the f-holes and here's the lowest note it can play and here's the highest and here's what first position is.
Well, not exactly. Before we went into the practice room, she selected a shoulder rest and put it on the violin, then handed it to me. I asked her to show me how to hold it. "Just stick in under your chin until it feels comfortable." Okay. "Here, take the bow." Okay. "Now, here's Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Play." Okay.
The thing is, I did. Not well, obviously, but recognizably. Student violins generally come with tape on the fingerboard that show you where to put your fingers down to play the next note up on the scale, and conveniently, all the first songs in Suzuki have numbers above the notes that correspond with how many fingers to put down. All you have to do is figure out which string the note belongs on, and you're good to go.
So five minutes into my lesson, I played my first song.
And I was hooked.
I really can't get enough of it, and I'm glad, because sticktoitiveness is not exactly my strong suit. I was afraid when I started that it would be just one more thing I decided to do on a whim and then gave up on. But there are days at work where all I want to do is go home and play, and play and play.
However, I live in a condo, and I have a neighbor on one side of me and another neighbor below me, and I probably like to play a little more than they like to listen to me. At my second lesson I was explaining to my teacher that I didn't get to practice as much as I wanted to because I was concerned about annoying them.
Turns out, there is this ingenious invention called a practice mute, a metal device that fits over the bridge and deadens the sound. It's not mousy-quiet, by any means, but it's much quieter than normal, especially for me, because at this point I can only play at one volume, and that's loud. (Or forte, if you will.)
So now I play whenever I want, and it's all the time. I usually get in a half-hour of solid practice a day, but I also pick it up and run through a minuet or two and then put it back down again. I'll sit on the couch and noodle around while I watch TV. I suppose it's nine years of piano lessons and a fairly well-developed ear, but it doesn't take me long to find the right notes of a song I happen to be listening to, so I'll amuse myself by playing along.
Keep in mind, it's all bad. It's scratchy and squeaky and I play notes that don't belong and ones that do belong I play wrong. Sure, I'm mildly disappointed that I don't sound like Hilary Hahn after three months, but I'm not exactly discouraged.
There is a DVD called The Art of Violin. As someone who could name only about three (no, wait, four) well-known violinists, it was a great introduction to all the classical masters of the last hundred years or so, with tons of footage of people like Menuhin and Heifetz and Milstein and Stern. Then there are modern players, like Hahn and Perlman and Gitlis, serving as commentators, discussing the violin in general and the different strengths of the others, their reputations and styles and innovations.
One thing Perlman pointed out (and I swear, you just want to have him over for dinner, it is so obvious that he is the life of every cocktail party he ever goes to) is just how personal an instrument the violin is. If you sit someone down at a piano and tell them to play a C-major triad, it won't really matter whether it's Vladimir Horowitz or the kid who mows your lawn, it's going to sound the same. With the violin, there is so much that goes in to creating every single note, and because of that, there is a great opportunity to express one's individuality. Every single person who picks up the violin plays it differently, and you don't have to have a well-trained ear to hear it. On the DVD, they piece together five or six different musicians playing the same concerto, and everyone sounds amazing, but everyone sounds unique.
Right now, I don't sound so much unique as, well, crap. But I'm enjoying it. Playing it makes me happy. I'm proud of the callouses on my fingertips.
More good news.
This past Saturday morning, my best friend of 26 years, Elise, had a beautiful, healthy, 9-pound 5-ounce baby boy. We are the closest thing either one of us has to a sister, and I know she played as much of a role in who I grew up to be as any of my family members. So, I am claiming aunthood. I already told her that I'm going to come out there sometime in the fall and do all the things that not-quite-related aunts get to do, like give him junk food and take him to R-rated movies and play Grand Theft Auto with him.
But mostly, I can't wait to see my friend, because she's a mother now, and that's just so amazingly good.
In case you didn't know exactly who it was in the picture from the last entry, I met Eddie Izzard, and I have a second-row seat for his show in October. I am feeding both sides of my brain courtesy of Bill Bryson and this maddening violin. It is thunderstorming right now, and although we've had plenty of rain already, I will never begrudge a good thunderstorm. I have new Buffy DVDs. My parents get back from a month in Scotland on Monday. I'll be seeing my girls over the Fourth of July. My pain-in-the-ass job will be over soon. A week from Saturday, someone will appear at my doorstep carrying the new Harry Potter book.
Actually, some other people will be appearing at my doorstep that day too -- the Rummel-Hudsons, who will be dropping by on the first day of their drive across some crazy-ass number of states. I'm looking forward to seeing them and having some food and talking about all of you. (No, just kidding. We'll probably only talk about one or two of you, maybe three, tops.)
So, yeah. Good things abound. I just have to keep remembering them, is all.
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