In between gigs, in between boyfriends, in between cities, in between days, I just like to write.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tomato Juice, Airplanes, Faith and The Human Condition

Some people ask themselves, ‘What will happen after I die?’ 
Others ask, ‘Is there a God?’
I simply ask, ‘Why is it that I absolutely HAVE to have tomato juice on an airplane?!?’
At first, I considered this to be my own private little quirk, then I noticed that other people had this same preference. And then, the few flight attendants I’ve met over the years confirmed that they serve tomato juice to a large proportion of their passengers. Then Google, wonder of wonders, showed me that people all over the world from all walks of life share my passionate craving in the air - but never on the ground.
It’s not an issue that keeps me up at night, but I just happened to think of it again when I met a friend for coffee recently and he ordered tomato juice. How odd, I thought. So I inquired about his in-flight tomato juice consumption habits and he just shrugged. 
‘What? You mean you don’t have the same craving when you fly?’ I asked, surprised. 
Perplexed, I went home and looked it up again on Google to discover that curiosity about the subject is overwhelming enough to have warranted a few scientific studies, the most recent one from February 2010 having pretty much the definitive explanation to this phenomenon. Apparently, in the lower cabin pressure, our taste buds are less receptive to certain flavors, and the tomato juice satisfies the higher intensity needed to taste anything at all. Whatever. It was a lot more scientific than that - leave it up to ze Germans (Der Spiegel magazine via the airline Lufthansa) to be scientific.
Still, many questions were left unanswered. Okay, so fruity flavors are better perceived - then why not grape juice? Apple juice? Orange juice? And what about Ginger Ale, my second most favorite in-flight beverage choice? Why don’t I crave 7-Up? Or Squirt? (Man, I love Squirt!). Also, I had heard on NPR not too long ago that it was actually the constant droning sound of the engines which dulled our senses of smell and taste, not just the air pressure. What’s the real story here?
I thought my mind was going to be put at ease about this topic, but instead, finding “The Answer” has only raised more questions. How is it that something, which is supposedly so readily explained scientifically, does not hold true for each person? Why do some of us crave tomato juice on an airplane while others feel perfectly content ordering a cola? Shouldn’t we all be the same? What is it about my taste bud sensitivity that sets me apart from or connects me to my fellow human beings?
Not only my dulled taste buds remain unsatisfied about this. Instead of feeling enlightened, I find myself oddly disappointed in learning that my hitherto inexplicable craving is not an anomaly -- just biological and chemical reactions to certain stimuli. And yet I feel a sense of belonging when I meet someone who shares my craving, and bewildered upon encountering people who do not.

I wish I could unlearn everything I just found out about low cabin pressure, dulled senses and beverage choices, and just marvel at my undying desire for tomato juice on an airplane. It’s the special trait I share with probably millions of fellow human beings - something that I can’t explain, but that I definitely feel and hold to be true. 
It’s only a matter of time until ze Germans put their fastidious scientific methods to work exposing the truth about God and the Afterlife. Even if they prove that there is enough evidence to support one theory or the other, this will not possibly be able to apply to all human beings. Otherwise we would all crave tomato juice, wouldn’t we? 
I don’t feel compelled to convince the passenger in seat 9-B that he needs to want tomato juice, too. But I accept tomato juice as my personal beverage choice on an airplane. Take it the way you want it -- with pepper, tabasco, vodka, a twist of lemon or as is -- and enjoy! You are one of us!!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Your Own Personal Osama bin Laden - or - Everyone Needs a Bad Guy

We need bad guys. We need somewhere to focus our rage, and to divert blame away from ourselves.
This morning I woke up and turned on the news -- part of my daily ritual of making a cup of tea, checking eMails and making sure the world is still standing -- to find out that America’s number one “bad guy,” al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been found and killed.
Isn’t it strange that this very night I had a dream about my own bad guy? My own personal bin Laden. A person at whom I to this day direct rage, and who I blame for upsetting my world, albeit a while ago.
I'm not saying I'm without fault. It takes two to tango. Surely, I acted a little less than grown up and overstepped some boundaries or said mean things. But had he been just a little more professional than I (like we expect bosses and leaders to be), my life would look a lot different. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!
But what if had I taken a few steps back to see the whole picture and not just the strife and disagreement between him and me? There might be a lot less collateral damage (in this case, to my career).
So yes, Osama bin Laden is dead, but the damage has been done. Damage that will take years to repair, long after his death, because our side of the problem has yet to be solved. Perhaps it’s time we take a few steps back to see what we might have done differently, instead of rejoicing and dancing on his grave.
If the rumors I hear are true, my “enemy” is now, or soon to be, in the same boat as me. On occasion I think, ‘Serves him right!’ or ‘What goes around comes around!’ but for the most part, I can relate to him now more than ever. I clearly remember saying to him in my dream last night, “If there's one thing I don't do well, it's Schadenfreude.” 

“Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble.” Proverbs 24:17

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Please Delete Me: if Elvis had been on Facebook

When Elvis died, I was just going into the second grade. Four of my Facebook friends were in my second grade class. Used to be five - until one of them deleted me. I imagine if Facebook had existed back then, the song would go something like this: “Pleeeease delete meee, let me goooo...”
This morning I deleted someone from my list of Facebook friends. Not because I was All Shook Up about something she’d posted. Just because I figured that this ‘friendship’ with someone I’d barely worked with once two years ago wasn’t connecting or benefitting either one of us in anyway. 

I happened to notice I've been deleted - “unfriended” is now the official term - by at least three people, and in fact it has probably been more. One person I could’ve cared less about (didn't really know her anyway), the next such incident (aforementioned classmate) perplexed me but didn't upset me too much, and the final one actually left me feeling like I was In The Ghetto. I mean, Don’t Be Cruel - he could have at least said goodbye. Nowadays, about the worst thing you can do to a person you love is unfriend them on Facebook. 
But how could I get upset about being unfriended when I’ve deleted people myself? Before you get Suspicious Minds about my friend-deleting habits, here are some guidelines I follow regarding friendships on Facebook:
Return To Sender:
If I had a couple classes with you in school - who knows? maybe I even have a unique memory of you - but have no real investment in our real-life friendship, then I just might click “unfriend” without giving you a heads up.
Are You Lonesome Tonight: 
If I met you once at a friend's party five years ago and you sent me a friend request which I then accepted, and then I don't communicate with you aside from the occasional photo comment or "like", and then I decide to delete you, I'd say it's fairly safe to do so without a former farewell. I bet you probably won't even notice I'm gone.
Heartbreak Hotel:
If you are one of the several ex-boyfriends on my friend list, and I accepted or requested your friendship in a moment of weak nostalgia, I might unfriend you sooner or later. If I haven’t deleted you yet, then you’ll know that our being “just friends” is actually very important to me.
Fame And Fortune:
If I've met you in a professional sense and add you because I have a vested interest in your work, I might end up deleting you after I get tired of seeing all your Farmville posts or updates from your personal life that just don't interest me. Or maybe I’ll just "hide" you. Don't take it personally.
Love Me Tender:
If I consider you an actual friend friend in real life, or even if I've never met you but have extensive communication with you on Facebook or otherwise (like what we used to call 'pen-pals' in the second grade) and then decide to unfriend you, I should probably say goodbye. There's most likely a significant reason which merits explanation. I owe you that much, even if you are nothing but a Hound Dog. If for any reason I neglect to warn you of the impending fatal click, hopefully you'll notice that I'm gone. And I should hope that you would protest. Something along the lines of:

"Hey, where'd you go?"
"Are you mad at me?"
"Did those film compatibility quizzes mean nothing to you?"
"Didn’t you noticed I poked?"
A Fool Such As I:

If, after all your inquiries and protests (messages to my eMail address or Skype number, text messages or unanswered phone calls, or hey, maybe even snail mail), I still fail to give you a proper goodbye, then I was probably never a very good friend to begin with. Well, maybe I was in the second grade, but not now.

You're better off without me.

Now stop poking me.
Thank you, thank you very much.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Never Travel Without a Corkscrew: a Twisted Story of Triumph

Sometimes, it’s just nice to have a glass of wine after a hard day. In fact, sometimes it’s just nice to have a glass of wine, period. But today was, well, kind of screwed up.
I’m away from home on business for three weeks, and I haven’t quite settled into my temporary quarters just yet - a small apartment on the upper floor of an elderly couple’s house. It’s in a nice neighborhood a bit far away from the city center, but a bus stops right in front of the house, as well as right in front of the theater where I’m working at the moment. The problem is, the regular buses in this small town stop running at 9pm, and my rehearsals go until 10pm. There is a so-called “night bus” which leaves at 10:30 from a stop a five-minute walk away from the theater, taking me to a bus stop which is about a five-minute walk away from the house. So, all in all, I get back to my makeshift home shortly before 11pm.
Upon arriving in town, I had managed to pick up a few things at the grocery store just to get me through the first day and breakfast the next. I’ve had enough experience with these temporary lodgings to know that they are not always furnished with all the “amenities.” We take for granted the existence of things like toasters, colanders, can openers or dish soap, never giving them a second thought until we’re ready to make some toast, pasta or soup and clean up afterwards. With this in mind, I refrained from buying any bread that needs to be toasted, and chose only canned food with pull-tabs; I bought a few cups of yogurt, some fresh fruit, some cheese and a bottle of wine, because I knew it was going to be one of those days.
After my first day on the job was done, I took the night bus to my new home, and, having walked in the wrong direction for about five minutes, at 11pm I finally trudged up the stairs. It hadn’t been an especially bad day, but I still wasn’t in the best of moods. I recently said goodbye to a budding love interest, life is confusing in general, and despite my current work, new contracts aren’t exactly pouring in. Speaking of pouring, I had not had any alcohol to speak of for the past week, so I was really ready to kick back and have a glass of that wine I’d purchased earlier before hitting the sack.
I panicked for a moment, because I realized I hadn’t packed my trusty corkscrew like I had last time. But never fear, there was a corkscrew here! What a relief, I thought, because lack of corkscrew would’ve increased the suck factor of this day by at least three points.
Oh, but I had no idea...
This “corkscrew” turned out to be a decent bottle opener with some spirally piece of metal attached to it. I inserted the screw into the cork, which was in fact one of those synthetic corks that would prove to be quite the menace on this already taxing evening. I pulled and pulled and pulled with all my might, but getting this piece of rubber out of the bottle by sheer force turned out to be an impossible feat. I had to get creative and think of some other way to reap my fermented reward.
As with many new-fangled kitchen devices and life itself, one only needs to know the secret trick and then everything becomes so simple. So I thought, maybe this is one of those corkscrews like the kind where you just need to keep twisting, and the cork comes out like butter. Not so. While attempting the twisty principle, I ended up breaking the metal spiral off of its plastic housing. Great. Now, not only had I already broken a teacup this morning that doesn’t belong to me, but I’ve also ruined their lame excuse for a corkscrew.
What to do, what to do?
I would have tried just punching the cork down into the bottle, but my host family was quietly slumbering in the house below, so I didn’t want to make a ruckus - it was after 11pm, mind you. Besides, if I had punched the cork down into the bottle, I couldn’t have sealed it up afterwards (and this would be necessary because...??).
The metal spiral stuck in the cork fortunately had a loop on the end, so I started thinking of ways I might be able to thread something through it to pull it out, much like they used to pull out teeth in the olden days - tie a string to your tooth, tie the other end of it to a door, then slam the door. But I was unable to find anything string-like to thread through the loop, nor did I want to slam a door, so I tried my keychain -- a somewhat large, heavy duty keychain that I could get a good grip on. I once again pulled with all my might.  Nothing happened.
At this point, I’m half laughing at myself and half crying. Damn it if I’m going to let the simple lack of a utensil get in my way of winding down!
Then the principle of leverage occurred to me (which is how a decent “sommelier knife” or “waiter’s friend” corkscrew works in the first place). A-ha! If I just find a straight object to put through the loop, leveraging it against the mouth of the bottle, then the cork will certainly give way.
Searching the drawers, I managed to find a sturdy plastic chopstick. It snapped like a toothpick when I tried to pry the cork out of the bottle, and I ended up toppling forward, catching my weight with my hand - precisely in the spot where the broken piece of plastic had landed before. So now I’d broken a tea cup, a corkscrew and a chopstick, and the palm of my hand was slightly punctured.
Like the monkeys at the monolith in the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, I slapped the bottle out of pure frustration, and it was all I could do not to shriek “Eee!!  Eee!! Eee!! Ooo!! Ooo!! Aaaa!!!” But again, I didn’t want to wake the elderly couple sleeping downstairs.
I started snooping through their closets for something that I might pry this damn bottle open with. Amongst tennis racquets, ice skates, baby furniture, various toasters, and clothes from another era, I found a tackle box. I was flooded with memories of my childhood summers at my grandparents, and was even put off the idea of wine for a bit, but I was determined to continue my quest for the right tool.
Nothing was coming to mind, so I went back to trying the keychain solution, thinking of the “I’ve already loosened it” theory. So far, this was the only object I hadn’t broken or bent. I pulled and pulled and pulled again until my fingers were raw, my face was red as the wine I was hoping to soon drink and my eyeballs were popping out of my head. To no avail.
My fingers now pulsating in pain, I thought, if the corkscrew has punctured a hole through the cork, why can’t I just puncture it all the way through and pour some wine out? Maybe the corkscrew wasn’t long enough, or maybe some strange law of physics prevents the liquid from leaking out, but this wasn’t working either. Plus, that rubbery cork substitute just kind of goes back into place after you pull the corkscrew out. 
Ever nearing midnight I may have given up on the glass of wine, but now it was a matter of principle. I was not going to be beaten by a three-euro Bardolino!
So, I got the one remaining chopstick (what’s the use of a single chopstick anyway? Sacrifices must be made) and inserted it into the hole already started by the corkscrew, thinking maybe I could make a bigger hole and then maybe the wine would pour out. It was taking forever. My wrists were tired, my hands were tired, I was tired. I was about to concede.
Then I saw one of my canned food items sitting on the shelf, and decided to try the punch-the-cork-down technique after all. Holding the bottle in my lap, so as not to make a hammering noise and wake my hosts, I whacked the can of pineapple slices on top of the chopstick several times. Whoosh! The cork finally went through, down into the bottle, wine squirting out only slightly onto the luckily dark blue and red Persian rug.
Triumphant, I sliced some cheese, and settled down to enjoy my now midnight snack, watch an episode of some TV show on my laptop and call it a day. I took a well-deserved sip and much to my dismay, the wine was terrible. But the more I drank, the less I seemed to care. I had conquered the cork, and I was happy.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How Learning to Sing Can Teach Us to Live

Photo: M. Gulich

Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. 
Those are the five essential steps in singing. Sounds simple enough, and yet, after 20 years of voice lessons and over 10 years of singing opera professionally, I am far from being perfect. With each practice session, I have worked towards perfecting these five steps, so that I may produce my sound more beautifully and efficiently. In the process I have begun to realize that these five steps can be applied in many facets of life.
Whether you’re standing on the stage singing high C’s, or sailing the high seas on a fishing boat, whether you’re going for your black belt in karate or belting out a show tune on Broadway, mastering these five steps can make the song and dance of anybody’s life more melodious. 
Even before you begin to sing, even before you take that first breath to enable you to sing, you have to think. Am I singing an A vowel, or an E? An O or an U? Or how about an I? Each one of these vowels requires a different position in the mouth. What is the mood of the phrase I am about to sing? It could be joyous or triumphant, disastrous or tragic.
Maybe you’re going to confront your boss today about that raise you’ve been asking for. If it’s raining, you consider taking an umbrella with you. Prepare yourself mentally and physically for the task at hand.

To sing a musical phrase, I need to ascertain just how much breath is required to sufficiently sustain the voice throughout. Too many breaths can be just as detrimental as too few. So, I portray my emotion, form my mouth in the shape of the vowel, progressively contract my internal intercostal muscles in combination with my oblique abdominal muscles -- I mean, breathe -- and start the process of singing.
Breathing is something we do subconsciously. To be aware of the breath, however, is to live in the moment. Managing the breath gives you more control over the present situation -- before diving into a pool, calming ourselves down when we’re nervous or upset. A simple breath works wonders.

When I inhale, my vocal cords move apart (abduct), and when I begin to sing, they come together (adduct), and that precious moment between those two junctures is called suspension. It’s when the muscles work together in opposing directions to set the vibratory cycle in motion. Dynamic Equilibrium. It sets everything up for success. 
Without suspension -- well, let’s just say a slack tightrope is every funambulist’s nightmare. It’s the suspenseful (pun intended) moment when the acrobat takes her first step on the highwire with her frilly umbrella in one hand and concentration in the other. It’s the exact point in which gravity takes over, forcing the ball you just threw straight up in the air to come back down again. It’s the instant in which you activate your leg muscles in order to parachute out of a plane. It’s the moment of turning the door knob (after you’ve taken a deep breath, of course) to walk in your house and tell your spouse that you didn’t get the raise. The point of no return.

This is it. This is the moment you’ve spent an entire nanosecond preparing for. Noise is emanating from your body. You are phonating. You are singing. You are alive. You’re flying in the air, you’re under the big top above a cheering circus audience. You’re having that conversation.
Sustainment of tone is life itself. It’s how and what you do with it that counts. Think of the hamster running in his wheel. If he stops, even for a split second, he loses his momentum and it’s all over. All that preparation for naught. So sit back, enjoy the sound of your voice, and don’t stop until you...

No matter whether I taper off a phrase gingerly or finish with a smashingly loud consonant, swoon for a smelly tenor or skip offstage with the ballet, there’s only one thing I must do to release a tone: breathe. Sound familiar? You got it. With a fleeting moment to think about the next phrase, the whole process starts all over again. 
Releasing a tone is a wonderful opportunity to recover from all that has gone before. Each successive breath offers a new chance to improve, or even to fail. Louder, faster, softer, slower. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. This microcosmic phenomenon of five steps containing practically everything anyone really needs to know, occurs hundreds of times within any one opera before the conductor puts down his baton, and millions and millions of times within any one lifetime before joining the choir invisible. Hopefully. 
Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release. Think. Breathe. Suspend. Sing. Release....

This is a reprint of an article which already appeared in June 2009 on my opera blog:
 Christine's Voice

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