Friday, January 30, 2009

Maybe this isn't funny to people who don't live with Kiwis, but we do so it is

New Zealand's ABCs.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

People of the Book

I don't know what's gotten into me lately with all the reviews, but I finished Geraldine Brooks' People of the Book last night, and I can't keep silent: I can't think of a book that would more universally appeal to people. It is a powerful and enjoyable experience to read, and it was with reluctance that I turned the last page (if only it were longer!); I think that the decades will prove it to be a classic.

It spans centuries, tracing a detailed thread through diverse characters and cultures and weaving throughout the long, sad histories of the persecuted: Jews, Muslims, women. Most of her characters are female, yet despite dealing with some topics typically considered fodder for 'chick lit', the author respects her characters enough not to define them solely by their female-ness. Instead, they are well-formed characters whose gender is just as intrinsic as any of their other qualities, the subjects of fine literature dealing with women's issues among myriad other issues. As a man, I never felt alienated.

Yet despite its epic scope, it weighs in at less than 400 pages. I can't decide if I'm frustrated that the book is so short and want more or if part of its guile lies in how compactly it delivers such a sweeping story.

Read it. I promise you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

British Museum II

I love London. If you've got a free Saturday, your choice isn't which movie to go to, but which museum or which concert. Brilliant. And today we got back in the spirit with one of each.

We had our second taste of the British Museum today (we still haven't seen half of it yet), seeing the Europe from prehistory-present rooms (who knew that several former kings were buried in ships? Entire ships buried with a king inside! I sure didn't...) and, the highlight for me, the clocks and watches exhibit. I know, I know: clocks and watches... Tom, how boring ARE you? It was fascinating, though! It just reopened weeks ago (the curator of clocks and watches happens to be married to the head librarian at College, so I've been hearing about the process), and it is, like so many things in that building, utterly fascinating.

The mainstream stuff was impressive; for instance these proud grandfather clocks

with painstakingly intricate inlay.

Things only got more interesting from there. Here is an armillary sphere, "a representation of the heavens reduced to a series of metal bands."

And here is the actual chronometer used on the Beagle's famous 1831 voyage with Charles Darwin.

The most fascinating piece by far, however, was this:

A ship? Yes, but look at the detail:

Oh, and, I almost forgot to mention, it 'sails' across a flat surface and has dancing figurines, working canons, and a small organ with miniature bellows that plays music — all by intricate clockwork. Read on (please excuse the imperfect focus).

I had only heard of such things in a novella by Steven Millhauser, August Eschenberg, which I simply thought was another example of his typically fanciful, fantastical descriptions of excess. This, however, seems to have come from some other world, and I am unreasonably intrigued by it.

After a quick dinner, we then headed to the London Sinfonietta's concert (I hadn't been to a Sinfonietta concert yet... still haven't been to the London Symphony, only the Philharmonic and Philharmonia). We went to hear Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together (which I'll be performing at College in three weeks), which is a piece of music I can best describe as terrifying. The other two pieces were mediocre at best, but the Rzewski is such a powerful piece, even an uninspired performance is a visceral experience.

On a final note, I often muse about things the US and the UK would benefit from should they share their cultural advances (for instance, pub quizzes should be introduced in the States). I have long suspected but only today confirmed that drinking fountains are an exclusively American concept. I miss them; please, UK, implement this wonderful invention from the colonies.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Day and Age

I got the Killers' latest album, Day and Age, shortly after Christmas. If I had to pick one favorite band, it might be the Killers — in my top three without question. They mix rock with techno electronica with an energy that is both infatuating and somehow innocent.

It is this last quality, I think, that sets them apart from all the other electric rock bands (Shiny Toy Guns springs to mind) and makes them so exceptional. Their second album, Sam's Town, is in my mind the best rock album ever (rivaled only by Muse's Absolution) because every track bubbles over with catchy hooks, thumping beats, and passionate, risky vocals; every track a journey, a crisis. I can't wait to go see them in March —Teriann and I are going with a couple of our flatmates to see their concert in Berlin (because, if you live in London, it's cheaper to fly to Berlin and see them there than it is to buy tickets to their London show).

In any case, the first three tracks on the new disc are perfect, classic Killers. They have made some technological advances, and the production values are a big step up from other: it sounds fantastic. The energy wanes, though, and by the end of the album, they sound like they could be any average band.

Still, I'm willing to forgive them a few less-than-stellar tracks here and there; I'm still really looking forward to Berlin.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Navigatin' Troubles

This morning was horrendous — the worst I've felt in years. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm obsessive, or at least overly proactive, about navigation, knowing where I am and where I need to be going. That's all well and good in Phoenix's grid. But in London's spaghetti roadmap, I'm completely at the mercy of landmark navigation, something I loathe but accept partly because I have to, partly because I chalk it up to the quaintness, the different-ness of London. In other words, you don't go north on 'A' road and then take a left onto 'B' avenue, you have to go sort-of left across the street from the tube station towards the museum until you get to the Starbucks where you take the street up the hill with the funny median. No street signs, no cardinal directions. If where you need to go is a short distance from a tube station, it's easy enough, but if not, forget it: there are no comprehensive bus maps.

I needed to go somewhere a bit off the beaten path, this morning, Brentfield primary school, to help give music workshops to fifth-years (roughly ten years old? That's only a guess). In lieu of comprehensive bus maps, Transport for London has the Routefinder; like Mapquest directions, only using public transport. So this morning I got off the train at Alperton station, like it said, took the 224 bus from stop B, like it said, and, lo and behold, ended up miles from where I needed to be. It turns out that the 224 stops at this particular stop in both directions (something I've never come across) because it makes a separate loop to (of all things) the local Sainsbury's. In any case, I was supposed to be at the school by 8:30, and by the time I figured out that I was on the wrong bus, crossed the street, waited for the 224 in the opposite direction, went back the way I came, made the loop to Sainsbury's, traveled the distance I had needed to in the first place, got off at the second Beresford Avenue stop (two bus stops, many blocks apart, same name?), and walked to the school, it was 9:15. I wasn't so much worried about being late (though I was) as I was frustrated with this particular gap in TFL's logic.

Enough of that... the actual workshop itself went quite well. I was less uncomfortable/annoyed with working with kids than I had anticipated, and the other team leaders (also RCM students) were great and easy to work with. At one point, I was asked to talk to the kids about being a composer (this on the heels of another leader's talk — on the saxophone — how could I follow gleaming gold keys, reeds, and smooth jazz?). I have a hard time conversing on the what, how, and why of composition with an adult; how does one explain it to 10 year-olds? I made my way through it okay, sputtered a bit, and was rescued by the workshop leader who was clearly more experienced in communicating with kids.

Next week, the workshop should be even better — you know, because I'll get there on time.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Back to It

Well, I finally got my jet lag sorted out (but not before sleeping through my first lecture of the new year) and I'm back to the daily grind. I don't know why it's so much easier to eat healthier over here, but I can already tell my body's happy with not being stuffed T-Bell and Chipotle every day.

I also forgot how much walking I do here: my legs, grown weak from weeks of only being used to operate pedals, complained loudly on the stairs up from the tube yesterday, and a bit less today. By the end of the week, I probably won't notice it.

I'm reading a fantastic book: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. I'm not even halfway through it yet, and I can already highly recommend it; I can only think of a small handful of books that are as rewarding to read. 

As a final note, this morning was the first real fog I've seen since moving here. The picture doesn't do it justice, but here's the view out our front door this morning anyhow:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Post-Vacation Slump

It happened at the end of our honeymoon, and even at the end of our Vegas and Venice weekend trips, but these were nothing when compared to the magnitude of the current, the dreaded, POST-VACATION SLUMP! 

Consider how thoroughly the odds are stacked against us at the moment:

We just got back from three and a half glorious, sun-soaked weeks in dear old Arizona, dear old home. I can't express how good it was to see everyone: family, friends, you will be missed.

Our internal clocks are still on Arizona time: we slept until 2 p.m. this afternoon.

The weather is downright freezing here (and that's not hyperbole!) and most likely will be until late March or even April.

School starts on Monday, as does a new job for Teriann.

And on and on... moan, moan, moan. For all this bellyaching though, we have a lot to be thankful for: it's great to be back with the flatmates; once the initial push of getting back into school passes and I get some inertia built up, I really do enjoy school and the people there; and it's not everyone that has the opportunity to live in Europe for two years. As long as it seems right now, the next year and a half will fly by, and we'll have some amazing times traveling. 

So it's a temporary slump, to be sure, but do I ever wish April would hurry up and get here.