August 2020

Of Note

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

I love classical music. Blame my mother. Also Walt Disney.

We had a Steinway baby grand. To a small child, this monster of an instrument, occupying a good portion of the living room in the house where I grew up, was a source of both wonderment and awe. Wonderment when my mother would sit down to play the entirety of Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue" from memory. Awe at the cascading, dramatic sounds it could produce. I used to just sit on the floor nearby and listen. 

When I reached my early teens, my mother insisted I take piano lessons. I had two or three, but lost interest when I discovered I could not play Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto by the third lesson. I wish I’d had the maturity to stick with the program. What I really wanted was a drum set. Might as well have asked for bagpipes.

Then there was Disney’s Fantasia. Seeing it for the first time at a very early age I was bemused by Bach’s "Toccata and Fugue," delighted by the interpretation (however fanciful) of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, mildly amused at Ponticelli’s "Dance of the Hours," enchanted by Tchaikovsky’s "Nutcracker Suite," awed by Dukas’ "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice," and terrified out of my young mind by Mussorgsky’s "Night on Bald Mountain." Disney added a nondescript animation of "Ave Maria" to the end of the film because he was afraid the Mussorgsky might be too scarifying a conclusion to the picture. He was right.

 

The first LP (hey, vinyl is back!) I ever bought was of Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring," because Fantasia’s dinosaurs (pace, Maestro). The dynamism, the stabbing chords of that piece never left me. Which was why, when I took Music Appreciation in high school, I was bored to tears with Schubert and even Schumann. But I continued to haunt a used-record store in west Hollywood, eagerly sifting through the racks of LPs for more Stravinsky and every new discovery (Wagner, Shostakovich, more Beethoven). When CDs arrived I was able to introduce myself to composers who never get played live, at least in this country. Bantock, Büttner, Braga-Santos, Touremeire, Pierné, Podesva — the list is extensive.

 

Then Havergal Brian’s Gothic Symphony arrived, in the form of a Marco Polo CD. It was a shock to my senses. The rare performance of the full symphony, employing a thousand performers, in London’s Albert Hall in 2011 remains the greatest concert experience of my life — and that of many other classical-music lovers. There is an excellent recording of the performance on the Hyperion label. If you search on YouTube you’ll find the brief excerpts of the final rehearsal that I managed to shoot before an usher shut me down. I believe it is the only video footage extant of that memorable rehearsal. And the BBC did not video-record the performance because they ran out of money, or so I was told.

 

Meanwhile I’ve continued to hear music in my head. As a member of the Havergal Brian Society once chided me at a meeting in London, “We all hear music in our head. What matters is writing it down.” He was tipsy at the time, but quite correct. As I tell want-to-be writers, many people have good ideas. It’s writing them down that turns them into authors.

 

Time progresses. So does technology. Just as there now exists excellent writing software, so, I found, there is also music-composition software. Though it would help if I could play an instrument (didgeridoo and taiko don’t count), I thought I ought to give it a try. Science learns from failures. So do writers, composers, painters, etc. After much effort, I produced a three-minute prelude for orchestra. The result sounded, to me at least, like — music. A few others thought likewise. I wrote another piece. Then I wrote a symphony, or tried to. Twenty-five minutes of orchestral playing, anyway. I may not be good, but neither am I discouraged.

 

My favorite band is the Finnish symphonic metal ensemble Nightwish. I wrote a short orchestral impression (not portrait) of each member of the band. After undergoing still more tech contortions, since Facebook does not allow you to post musical excerpts directly, I found something of a workaround and managed to get all six movements of my Nightwish suite posted to my Facebook page. You can judge them for yourself on my Facebook page.

 

I have no idea where or whether these efforts will lead to anything besides personal satisfaction. I continue to write books (and this little column). But if a 73-year old writer of fiction can do it, anyone can. Regardless, I’ll keep trying.

 

Blame those dinosaurs in Fantasia. And Chernobog. And my mother, who stood by patiently while I struggled with a stick to conduct those old 78s of Beethoven’s Fifth without breaking anything (much) in my room.

Since 5enses frequently deals with art and science, we see the word 'repurposing' a lot. This is the word that artists use when making “art” out of junk so they don’t have to use the word 'recycle.' In most folks’ minds, “recycling” conjures up images of garbage, of things we throw away, and for an artist struggling to sell their junk art, “repurposing” provides a less objectionable moniker.

 

Far be it from me to chastise the creative for their choice of certain labels, though. It's just that I have yet to see a contemporary repurposed piece of art to which my initial gut reaction is not “hey, that’s a pile of rubbish!” I understand that art is in the eye of the beholder. I’m just not so sure that it should once also have been in the nose of the beholder.

 

I guess it is better to have old cans, cardboard, glass, office supplies, paper clips, clipped hair, tree clippings, beautified baby diapers, and abandoned cars slapped with paint placed in museums and art shows than simply thrown out. If nothing else, this provides a useful service by freeing up valuable space in landfills. If we are really serious about recycling, it should be the law that a certain amount of money ought to be freed up for individual citizens to spend on art — so long as it’s “repurposed” art. Think of it: itinerant, impecunious artists would gain incomes, there would be less rubbish altogether, speeding up trash collection, and a general aesthetic edification would be inflicted on a reluctant public. A win all around.

 

Given the prices that some of the repurposed art I see bring, I am always surprised that our noble and hardworking refuse collectors do not all double as commercial artists. C’mon, guys, you know you can do as well as half the stuff you see in museums of contemporary art. As long as your wives are going to drag you to such venues because “it’s educational,” you might as well snap some pictures of samples, go home, and get to work in the garage.

 

I personally think that Prescott, a community proud of its artistic heritage and leanings, should sponsor a contest once a year open strictly to refuse collectors from around the world who have made it a point to repurpose a small portion of the crap they are forced to handle every day. Think of the national publicity!

 

By golly, if Sweetwater, Texas (a charming little community on the interstate to nowhere, now subsumed in a jungle of wind generators) can derive national notoriety out of annually massacring hundreds of innocent, vermin-eating reptiles, then how much more upscale would it be to throw a yearly bash celebrating the artistic accomplishments of men and women creating art out of the debris (excepting that hoarded by your Uncle Fred, who never throws anything out) they deal with daily? I tell you, The New York Times would send its art editor out to cover the event. Guaranteed.

 

Better for the environment, too. Not just because it keeps garbage out of landfills, but also off the necks and legs of small animals and birds that don’t know any better, and out of the stomachs of sea turtles. A floating plastic bag looks just like one of the turtles’ favorite foods: jellyfish. And surely there is a clever tinkerer out there who can figure out a way to do something with the tens of thousands of pairs of cheap flip-flops that litter beaches from California to the Comoros. Glue them all together to form a single pair of gigantic, multihued floppers. Call it “The Essence of Future Past” or something equally pretentious. Win prizes, impress your friends.

 

Having dumped, I hope with some small eloquence, on pretend artists and non-recyclers alike, I’ll offer a suggestion of my own. Why can’t we reuse the hundreds of thousands of pill bottles that are discarded every year? Surely there’s a quick, cheap way to disinfect them without compromising the integrity of the plastic. Each bottle already has the name and relevant information of the recipient on it. Save the pharmacist time looking up details. Take in your tough plastic Rx bottles and have them refilled. Every modern pharmacist has an electronic record of how many refills a customer is due, so pasting over or trying to change a label wouldn’t work.

 

Failing that, cut out the bottom of each bottle, glue ‘em together, and make a cockroach run. Fun for the whole family.

 

And if the kids get tired of it or your spouse threatens to leave you unless you get rid of the creepy thing, you can always enter it in an art show. Sometimes the roaches win.

July 2020

Planet of the Unrepurposers

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

Day after day we find ourselves bombarded with announcements, declarations, exhortations (and sometimes exorcisms) prodding us to recycle. Pretty much everyone I know dutifully complies, or uneasily says that they do.

If nothing else, this provides a useful service by freeing up valuable space in landfills. 

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.com.

June 2020

I know you’re sick (no pun intended) of hearing about the coronavirus. I’m sick of hearing about the coronavirus. The government is sick of hearing about the coronavirus (or is that the sick government?).

 

And yet, herewith a few sick (sorry: quick) thoughts on the matter, plus one genuine awkwardness involving the disease that only we here in Yavapai County have to deal with. 

CV Baby, You’re Driving Me Crazy

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

First, some perspective. Worldwide, seasonal flu kills about 646,000 people every year. That is likely an understatement because exact reportage from places like Burkina Faso (much of which looks a lot like parts of Arizona) and Borneo (which does not look at all like Arizona) is lacking. Also, local governments, depending on their degree of autocracy and the state of the bowels of their current despot, have a vested interest in not accurately reporting deaths from disease. Because nobody is in a rush to invest in places where potential workers are dropping like flies.

 

We’re so frantic and worried and paranoid about the coronavirus that we have a tendency to forget our history. It is estimated that worldwide, the great influenza pandemic of 1918 killed upward of 50 million people. That’s 50 million, not 50 thousand. And again, that statistic relies on reportage that was far less accurate that it is today.

 

Remember the Black Plague? (I don’t mean personally.) Nowadays it’s sometimes fodder for comedians, doubtless because it occurred so far in our past. It's believed that pandemic killed 60 percent of Europe’s population. If such a plague/pandemic struck Europe today, it would mean roughly 450 million dead. Nor do the mortality totals of the influenza of 1918 nor the Black Plague nor the coronavirus take into account the permanent damage to their health suffered by millions of survivors.

 

So when the airlines bitch about the loss of passenger traffic, or the cruise lines (most of which are not registered in the US, but rely heavily on American travelers) complain that they don’t qualify for relief from the US government, I think of history and tend not to throw too much sympathy their way.

 

Now, about that awkwardness I mentioned earlier.

 

The human mind works in mysterious ways. I’m saying that those neural pathways sometimes lead to some peculiar destinations. Currently the prime example has to do with a perfectly innocent (and, I am told, tasty) libation called Corona beer. Said brew has nothing whatever to do with the virus. Everyone with half an ounce (or maybe twelve ounces) of brainpower knows that the beer has nada to do with the disease. But small portions of our brains (larger portions in some unfortunate folks) make weird associations simply via the similarities of certain words. So yes, there are those who, even though they know better, hear “corona” and think “deadly virus” instead of beer. Which is harmless, except that when shopping they may well, consciously or subconsciously, just decide to avoid purchasing that particular brew and reach for another instead.

 

What is really screwy is that while that's an effect people might expect, the actual sales of Corona beer in the US are up five percent. I can’t explain that. While you would hope that people are intelligent enough to reject the notion that there is any connection between the beer and the virus, what explains folks buying more of the Corona-labeled brand? This would be excellent fodder for psychologists, except that beer sales in general during the pandemic are up 42 percent, which means that Corona may actually be losing market share/sales due to the virus.

 

I dunno. Where human impulse is concerned, sometimes my powers of cognition fail me.

 

I relate these sudsy minutiae to show how the human mind can work even in ways we do not want it to. Which brings me to that other, localized awkwardness.

 

Folks who have trouble with, or simply desire to avoid, multisyllabic words will choose to refer to the disease not as “the coronavirus,” but simply as “Covid-19.” Or, still more conveniently, as “CV.” My problem is that when I hear somebody say “CV,” I don’t think of the coronavirus.

 

I think of Chino Valley.

 

I know that nearly any local saying CV these days is likely referencing the virus. But I can’t help it. I keep hearing “Chino Valley.” Fortunately the national media has not picked up on this, or the poor residents of Prescott’s northern neighbor would find themselves deluged with a pandemic of another kind: reporters from national newspapers and TV looking for a “local human interest” story, without regard to what the local humans might think. And masks won’t help with that, though social distancing might. So let’s keep that particular abbreviation to ourselves, and if interviewed nationally, always say “coronavirus” or “Covid-19” and not “CV,” lest Chino Valley residents be subjected to the same sort of goofy detrimental word-association as Corona beer.

 

Or maybe it’s just my mind that works that way, and I need to go have a drink of something with seriously different initials.

May 2020

Critical Mess

Perceivings by Alan Dean Foster

Toilet paper — what we regard as modern toilet paper — was invented by the American Joseph Gayetty in 1857.

There. That’s out of the way.

 

The current recurring dearth of toilet paper in stores seems to suggest that society is on the brink of collapse. In today’s news I saw that a truck crashed on a freeway in Texas, dumping its entire load of — toilet paper. I fully expected to see follow-up scenes of folks leaping barriers at the risk of their lives to score an armful of Angel Soft three-packs, with commentary by breathless TV reporters (“Oh, the humanity!).

There have been fights in supermarkets between people competing for the last rolls of t-paper. Just saw a report on one involving three women in Australia. Diapers I can maybe understand. But toilet paper?

 

I checked with Wikipedia and yes, civilization did exist before 1857. Thrived, depending on where you happened to live at the time.

 

I received a solid lesson in the recent history of toilet paper from my wife of 45 years. JoAnn was raised on a small farm outside the town of Moran, in west-central Texas. Her family did not have indoor plumbing until she was 14. I realize that this bit of information may stun those of you under 30, but it is a fact that much of what we now take for granted did not exist within the borders of the United States prior to 1857: flat-screen TVs, cellphones, the Internet, Facebook, skateboards, and toilet paper, and that not all persons born after that date gained automatic access to such goods.

 

My wife’s family used a two-holer outhouse for applicable business. When said structure was torn down, we had the wood salvaged, heat-treated, and fully disinfected. It now panels the walls of our guest bathroom. The double-hole platform itself is not up yet, but the other wood is a small way of reminding visitors that not so very long ago, indoor plumbing was not an everyday thing. Additionally, it’s difficult to imagine anything more appropriate, décor-wise.

 

In lieu of toilet paper, the Sears-Roebuck catalog was a popular national substitute. You remember Sears-Roebuck: the company that had a head-start with what we now call online shopping. Sears could have owned the Internet, but to its managers the ‘net was just a fad, soon to fade away.

 

Sears is just about gone, but t-paper is still with us. When you can find it.

 

So how do we solve the current toilet-paper shortage? Common sense and anti-hoarding aside, you might consider purchasing and installing a fancy Japanese toilet. These have heated seats, clean you with warm water, and then air-dry the relevant geography. Think your local drive-through car wash, only on a smaller scale and without any need to tip an attendant. Though you still need to put yourself in neutral.

 

You can of course use toilet paper with a Japanese toilet, and the same t-paper shortage panic currently exists in the land of the Rising Sun, but if you can afford a top-of-the-line Toto, you don’t need to worry.

 

In many middle-eastern countries a regular toilet comes equipped with a shatafa. This is an attachment consisting of a narrow hose that terminates in a small shower head, the kind you find everywhere in European bathrooms and increasingly here in the States. Someone had the bright idea to eliminate the need for either a bidet or a fancy toilet by simply attaching a shatafa to the existing water line feed to the toilet. Employ the shatafa to clean yourself, use a small paper or cotton towel to dry off, and hey presto: no need for scarce t-paper.

 

You don’t encounter a great deal of toilet paper in China because it tends to jam up older pipes. It has nothing to do with culture. Or as JoAnn pointed out, “Haven’t people ever heard of washing machines?”

 

Costco and other stores are stocked with bundles of small, cheap hand towels and washrags. Use one, toss it into a pail designated for the purpose, then clean them in your washer. But we were all born into a disposable society, so no one thinks of reusing things in such a manner. We’re wasteful, we are.

 

While we’re on the subject of waste, the newest Japanese toilets use less than four

liters of water per flush compared to the 13 required by traditional western toilets.

You would think that statistic would prompt the installation of a fair number of

Japanese johns here in Arizona, but I don’t know anyone who has one. We would, but we live in an old house. There’s no electrical outlet near our master-bathroom throne, and we’re not about to rip up historic tile work to install one. But I think of it often when ensconced in that place where thinking comes easy.

 

When the Sears catalog was out of pages and magazines were not handy, JoAnn’s family had recourse to corncobs. Think of that the next time you’re tempted to bitch about a shortage of ultra-soft four-ply.

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