Deborah Geithner, August 12, 2014

Duet with Deborah

Duet with Deborah

I’ve been working on a piano sonata by Beethoven (No. 31 in A♭, Opus 110) for a long time. That project may last a lifetime. But I plan to continue both for the sake of the music and for the person who had been guiding me to attempt this work at the edge of my ability.

The piece is beautiful, with contrasting moods, but overall a feeling of melancholy. When it was published, one critic said that its tonality was “emotionally as black as night” and another that it was “a key of the grave, death, the Last Judgement, eternity.” I can blame Beethoven’s music for only a part of that feeling. A larger reason is that Deborah Geithner, my teacher and friend is no longer here.

Deborah combined perceptive listening with helpful suggestions for performance and practice. But more than that, she brought wit, insight, caring, and encouragement to her teaching. I often had mixed feeling about the path of a lesson. I enjoyed talking with her about people, art, politics, travel, and life, while at the same time feeling that I should focus on learning to read music. But then she’d generously allow extra time so that my lessons extended well past the allotted time. This happened again and again, despite her amazing schedule of teaching, performing, writing, and supporting family and friends.

Deborah’s voice is still in my head, especially, of course, when I’m practicing. She would delve deeply into a piece of music, comparing editions, and trying out different interpretations. But that intensity only added, rather than supplanted, a concern for the person and enjoyment of the music.

Assignment book

Assignment book

She didn’t like talk about perfection (as in “but I played it perfectly in practice at home!”). The goal wasn’t to avoid mistakes, nor was it to strive for some fixed standard. Instead, it was to explore oneself and the music to have value in the present and nurture growth. Her students were all ages and ability levels. They included students of voice and other instruments. Always, there was an effort to expand horizons.

At one student workshop, one student might play a duet with another or with Deborah. Another might play only the right hand melody of a piece they were learning. Yet another might be tackling a difficult composition. Deborah managed to support students wherever they were, always opening doors to further development, but recognizing what they could do in the here and now.

There will be memorial services, laudatory obituaries, and other expressions of Deborah’s many contributions to communities around the world, and especially, to her recent years as a supporter of chamber music, literature, painting, and other arts on Cape Cod. Her unique energy, compassion, intelligence, and sensitivity will not be matched again. But most of all, for those who had the privilege to know her, she will be missed as a special friend.

Popper, Wittgenstein, and the raccoon

We had a visitor last night. Like a previous one of her kin, she managed to visit every room, leaving small gifts on the floor and thoughtfully rearranging books, wall hangings, pottery, and other items.

This one had a special talent for philosophy. She was particularly interested in Karl Popper’s critique of teleological historicism and his reanalysis of Plato, as he develops in The Open Society and Its Enemies. One question she wanted to explore was whether raccoons enter houses with the intention to be ornery or do they just fall in because I haven’t come up with a way to secure the skylight screen. Popper would argue that there are genuine alternatives in history, multiple causal processes, and a role for raccoon intentionality. But I’m not sure how that helps to answer the question.

Hoping to appeal to her desire for conscious agency as well as her stomach, I set out some cut apples and banana peel in a trail across the counter to an open window. But her drive to remain curled up in the philosophy section was too strong, and she ignored all my offerings.

I noticed that our visitor preferred to stay in the Popper section and didn’t give any time to poor Ludwig Wittgenstein, his antagonist in the famous confrontation at the Cambridge University Moral Sciences Club. As there was a wood stove in the room, I thought I might reason with her using the fireplace poker, just as Wittgenstein had done with Popper in 1946. In that event, Popper stormed out, which would have been a pleasant outcome in this case, given my moral perspective.

But she held her ground, insisting that Wittgenstein’s view of formal philosophy as nothing but language games was an abdication of moral responsibility, that the Open Society could not be maintained without strong raccoon ideals. I argued that “open” in this case did not include raccoons. This led to a discussion about the danger of a priori categories and the need for dialogue across differences. While I appreciated the general argument, I felt that Wittgenstein might have a valid point in this case, and that it was time to terminate the game.

I assembled a set of tools in order to move to the next stage in this debate: the poker, large leather fireplace gloves, a broom, a blanket, a powerful flashlight, fresh fruit to appeal to her culinary desires. All I was missing was the courage to grab on to her and show her to the exit. As I said above, poking with the poker had no effect.

Fortunately, we had some helpers with more resourcefulness and courage than I. It took all three of them and a large plastic tub, but they managed to corner the raccoon in the tub, cover her with a blanket, and take her to the woods, where, I believe, her interest in environmental philosophy can be more profitably continued.

References

Threadgill’s Home Cookin’

A couple of nights ago, my sister, mother, and I went to Threadgill’s Home Cookin’ on N. Lamar in near north Austin. It’s not far from where I lived when I was in graduate school at the University of Texas.

I used to listen to Kenneth Threadgill and the Hootenanny Hoots when they played at the Split Rail in south Austin, so going to the restaurant brought back many fond old memories.

We had a delicious dinner in the kind of informal, but comfortable setting that I like a lot. At least for my own experience, I agree with the claim on the restaurant website that:

It is a simple fact that the Threadgill’s restaurants, museum and live music venues have more to do with Austin’s cultural and musical heritage than most any other institution within the city limits.

The history goes on to add:

Perhaps country music lover and bootlegger Kenneth Threadgill had more in mind when he opened his Gulf filling station just north of the Austin city limits in 1933, for the day that Travis County decided to “go wet ” in December of the same year, Kenneth stood in line all night to be the first person to own a liquor license in the county. Soon, the filling station became a favorite spot for traveling musicians since it was open 24 hours for drinking, gambling and jamming. Kenneth would sing songs by his beloved Jimmie Rodgers nightly. Musicians who came to play were paid in beer. Such was the atmosphere at Threadgill’s, it was only when a curfew was enacted in 1942 that its owner had to get a key for the front door, before that it had yet to have been locked.

Threadgill’s was important in the development of the Austin music scene. While Threadgill sang Jimmie Rodgers songs, Janis Joplin developed her country and blues hybrid. Other performers brought in rock & roll or music from Mexico.

Claude Matthews produced and directed a very good documentary video about Threadgill and his restaurant, Singin’ the Yodeling Blues. Here’s part 1, with links to parts 2 and 3 on Youtube:

My retirement plans

It’s with satisfaction, relief, anticipation, and a tinge of sadness, that I submitted my intention to retire in August of this year. I will have been with the University of Illinois for twenty years, half of those in the College of Education and half in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The retirement means that I’ll be changing my mode of work, with more attention to writing and more international projects.

I’ve enjoyed and benefitted greatly from my time here, and even more from working with you all. I can’t think of another group anywhere with such high collegiality, dedication, moral perception, and responsible leadership. The scholarship, teaching, and learning have always been outstanding and there’s been a lot of fun on top of it all.

I expect to continue working part-time on the Youth Community Informatics and Community Informatics Corps grants through June, 2011, and perhaps do other work after that, so this is not a good-bye, just an announcement about a new role for me.

Best wishes and enjoy all the snow,

Chip

Good-bye to my Alaska boots

There are times when it’s better to say good-bye.

Many years ago, I made several trips to Alaska for the Quill project. I recall it being in November when I first visited Shungnak, along the Kobuk River, about 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was beautiful weather, but cold, with temperatures in the afternoon below 0˚F, dropping to -20˚F or less than that overnight.

My hosts Bonnie and Hans were rightly concerned about my citified clothes, especially my ordinary hiking boots. They insisted that I needed Sorel winter boots. With fewer than 200 people, Shungnak had what you might generously call only one small general store, but it was no place to shop for fancy boots, or boots of any kind. Items like that have to wait on the infrequent air deliveries.

Amazingly, there was an available pair of boots, just for me. Hans and Bonnie had about 25 sled dogs, who slept outside in that cold climate. Hans would warm up huge pots of food for them. One time, he got a small burn hole in his boot. You can see the small innertube patch in the photo. The boots by then had become a bit worn in other ways, so he purchased a new pair, but kept the old ones around. Fortunately, we both wear size 14, so his boots fit me perfectly.

I was very appreciative of them, especially on a long sled dog ride, which is a story for another time. Since I had more villages to visit, Hans graciously gave me his old boots.

Later, in McGrath, I met some folks waiting for the small plane we’d be taking towards Juneau. They asked where I was from, and I told them Cambridge, Massachusetts. They looked me over. My clothes were getting a bit travel worn from village life and sleeping on floors. But they especially focused on my boots. Finally, one old man said,

“There’s no way you came from Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking like this!”

That bare nugget of a story then started to spread. Somehow, in pre-web Alaska, people would learn within hours all that was happening in the next village 100 miles away. As I traveled, I first found myself being asked whether I was that city guy dressing up to look Alaskan. Then, I dropped out of the story entirely, and I began to hear about “some guy” who wore worn and patched boots, just as if he kept a pack of sled dogs.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to Alaska for a long time. The boots have been moved from one closet to another. I’ve been thankful for them on cold days with heavy snow, but I never felt that my climate did them justice.

I reluctantly decided that it’s time to say good-bye. Maybe I can find some guy who spends his life out on the streets, who has feet as big as mine, and who could make much better use of them. So, this is just a little message to say thanks to Hans and Bonnie, and to the boots that kept me warm and will always be in my memories.

Saving the coots, one dinghy at a time

Today is the 125th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Mitchell Ransome. He was an English author and journalist, who is best known for writing the Swallows and Amazons series of children’s books.

Ransome is still popular in England, especially among those who live in or travel to the Lake District or the Norfolk Broads, where the books are set. He’s less known in the US, which is a pity. The books relate holiday adventures of children, including sailing, fishing, and camping, and offer adventures for both young and old.

We lived with our kids inside of those books during our 1996-97 sabbatical year, as we traveled in China, Australia, and Europe. While in England, we visited many of the places described in the book. Little did I know at the outset that we would be living the adventures themselves.

We had an inauspicious arrival in England in March, 1997. We were tired from a year of international travel, living in strange places, eating new foods, and each living out of a ten kilo bag of clothes and toiletries. As we left Heathrow airport we encountered a huge downpour and to top it off, it was late afternoon and getting dark.

Coot Club, the fifth book in the series, was published in 1934. BBC produced a film based on Coot Club in 1984. In the book, Dick and Dorothea Callum visit the Norfolk Broads over Easter holidays, hoping to learn to sail.

Being devoted Swallows and Amazons readers, and as it was almost Easter season, we had to journey to the Broads ourselves. En route, I had this conversation with eleven-year-old Emily:

Emily: We’ll be staying in a houseboat there, right?
Me: Emily, I wish we could, but it’s after five already. We have no reservation anywhere, much less a houseboat.
E: But in Coot Club, they were in the Norfolk Broads and they stayed in a houseboat.
M: That was in the novel, but we’re not. You can’t just find a houseboat any old time,
E: I know we will.
M: It’s off season. I have no idea whether there are any houseboats, much less how to find one. I’m afraid we’ll be sleeping in the car.
E: I know we will.
M: [gives up]

Just as I was beginning to look for an unflooded spot to park the car for the unpleasant night ahead, we rounded a turn and saw a house lit up. There was a sign out front:

HOUSEBOAT FOR RENT

E: See?
M: OK, there are houseboats, but I still don’t know. Is it really available? Can you rent it for a couple of nights? Please don’t get any unrealistic expectations. I don’t want you (or ten-year-old Stephen, her silent ally in this parent-child struggle) to be disappointed.

Nevertheless. I went up to the door:

M: Do you really have a houseboat for rent?
Owner: Yes.
M: Is it available now for a short rental?
O: Yes, I hadn’t planned to open the boats up so early in the season, but decided just today to get one of them ready.

So, we ended up in a dry houseboat that night, just as the Callum children do when they stay on the Teasel. There was even a dinghy attached, just as in Coot Club. More conversation ensued:

E: Tomorrow we can go out to protect the baby coots from the Hullabaloos, just as they did in Coot Club.
M: I’ll ask whether we can use the dinghy, but I don’t even know what a coot is.
E: I know we will.
M: Even if there are coots, I don’t know that any of them have babies now.
E: I know they will.
M: And there may not be any Hullabaloos either.
E: There will be and we need to protect the coots from them.
M: [gives up]

The next morning we went out in the dinghy, as I remember, just Emily, Stephen, and me. We followed along one of the canals so common in the Broads. Around a bend, we saw a water bird’s nest. Inside were baby coots. Just then, a large motorboat filled with Hullabaloos came into view, heading perilously towards the coots’ nest. We quickly maneuvered the dinghy so that it stood between the motorboat and the nest, protecting it from the Hullabaloos, just as the children did in Coot Club.

We came to know the boats of Coot Club: the Hullabaloo’s motorboat, the Teasel, the dinghy, and esepcially, the childrens’s pirate boat, the Death and Glory. The Death and Glory is described as “an old black ship’s boat, with a stumpy little mast and a black flag at the masthead.” It’s rowed with oars or propelled by a “grey, ragged, patched old lugsail, far too small for the boat.”

As we related our adventure to the houseboat owner, he reminded us about that boat, too. He asked, would we like to see it?

E&S: Yes!
M: But that’s not possible.

Then he told us that when the BBC produced the Coot Club film, they used the Death and Glory boat. He now had that very boat on his property, just 100 yards from where we had been staying.

Yes, we went to see it, yes it was wonderful, and yes, I learned something about arguing with my children about literature and life.

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

As a reward for hours spent with packing, house repairs, and financial stuff, my mother and I went to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History yesterday.

We had a good lunch at the Stars Cafe and a fascinating, though all too brief, visit to the exhibits, including interesting talks staff about the Museum’s history. In addition to being our reward, the visit was a commemoration. it was nearly 60 years ago, on George Washington’s birthday, that my parents and I moved to Fort Worth from Houston. On his birthday this year, my mother will be packing her belongings to move to Austin.

Not long after we arrived, she enrolled me in The Frisky and Blossom Club, the first class of the Museum School. So, a return to the Museum marked both her time in Fort Worth and the evolution of the Museum itself, from being a children’s museum in a house to the recently renovated, massive complex of today.

The current Museum is grand and spacious, with atriums and courtyards. But the prior Fort Worth Children’s Museum was a wonderful place in a different way, with a sense of mysteries tucked away in crowded rooms and clubs devoted to astronomy and insects. But it was my first encounter with the Museum at its Summit house location that hooked me on museums:

The museum’s history actually began in 1939 when the local council of Administrative Women in Education began a study of children’s museums, with the idea of starting one in Fort Worth. Two years later the charter was filed, but it would be almost four years before the museum would find a physical home. With the help of the city’s school board, the museum opened in early 1945 in two rooms in De Zavala Elementary School.

In 1947 the museum moved into the large R.E. Harding House at 1306 Summit, where it kept growing in size and popularity. Three years later two significant entities appeared: The Ladies Auxiliary of the Fort Worth Children’s Museum (now the Museum Guild), and “The Frisky and Blossom Club,” the forerunner of Museum School®. Soon it became apparent that a much larger facility was needed to serve the growing needs of the community. Ground was broken for a new facility in 1952. On January 25, 1954, the museum open the building at 1501 Montgomery Street. The following year the Charlie Mary Noble Planetarium, the first public planetarium in the region, opened.

In 1968 the name was changed to the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History so that adults even without children could enjoy the Museum. It worked! Today more than half the Museum’s visitors are adults. Much of that is due to the addition of the Omni Theater in 1983. The Omni was the first IMAX® dome theater in the Southwest and continues to be one of the most successful in the world.