Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hide and Seek at Amon Basin

I followed the rabbit trails into the hills above Amon Basin this morning
A bright, sunny morning, crisp with a reminder of winter's chill
I had my camera at the ready hoping for a shot of a Black-tailed Jackrabbit

I moved slowly, softly, in my white man's imitation of a Cayuse hunter
Avoiding the dry, broken sagebrush twigs littering the ground
Stepping over an abundance of scattered droppings

The rabbits were here, moving like ghosts through the underbrush
Every so often I would catch a fleeting glimpse of grey-brown
Disappearing behind a bush or the gnarled trunk of a Big Sage

The jackrabbits seemed to be playing hide and seek
But a shadow passed across the path in front of me
And looking up I saw a Marsh Hawk gliding high overhead
Descending in slow circles, following my progress
Using me to beat the bushes for its breakfast
Playtime was over

New shoots on the Hopsage
Trembled in the soft morning breeze
And I moved on towards Amon Creek

Where Red-winged Blackbirds perched on swaying reeds
Were displaying their plumage and screeching
Their alarm at the predator above

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Nessun Dorma: An Interpretation

Turandot is one of my favorite operas and Nessun Dorma perhaps my favorite aria. I found this very nice interpretation of the lyrics for Nessun Dorma on the web. It was written by Mark D. Lew.

The Italian libretto of Turandot is copyright 1926 by G. Ricordi & Co. The inclusion of the text of the aria "Nessun Dorma" is a quotation for the purpose of illustration and commentary, as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. All other text is copyright © 1997, Mark D. Lew.
The libretto of Turandot doesn't translate easily because it's so heavily poetic. Not just the lyrics, but the entire plot, which (as many befuddled listeners have complained) doesn't make much sense if taken too literally. Forgive me if I recap most of the plot, but the poetry of the aria is too tied up in the story not to discuss it.

As you probably know, Turandot is the beautiful cold-hearted femme fatale princess who lures love-struck princes to their death. Anyone who wants to marry her is asked three riddles: If he answers them right he gets to marry her, but if he doesn't he is beheaded. This is stated at the very beginning of the opera as "the law" ("La legge è questa:"). It is not so much a government decree as a mythopoetic law, almost like a magic spell, which no one in the kingdom -- not the emperor, not Turandot, not the ministers -- can go against.

In the first act Calaf, the "Unknown Prince", rings the gong, signifying his declaration as a suitor to Turandot. In the second act he correctly answers the three riddles. According to the law, Turandot now has to marry him, even though she doesn't want to. But instead of claiming his prize, Calaf now poses a riddle of his own, saying to her: Tell me my name before morning, and at dawn I shall die. ("Dimmi il mio nome, prima dell'alba! E all'alba morirò!")

Take this literally and it's a dumb move on his part -- he's already won, why should he give her another chance to get away? -- but of course nothing in this opera makes sense if taken literally. Naturally, the Prince's statement is poetic. Furthermore he WANTS to "lose" the game; he wants her to tell him his name and he wants to "die." Besides being another instance of the Lohengrin/Rumpelstiltskin guess-my-name game (which can be traced to religious beliefs of pre-Christian Germany) the Prince is telling Turandot of his true goal. (Notice that he does not say "IF you guess my name....") He doesn't want her to marry him reluctantly; he wants to defeat her cold-hearted defensiveness and have her fall in love with him.
This is, in fact, exactly what happens at the end of the opera, and the metaphors are quite explicit. The veil which Turandot wears (and which Calaf rips) is described as "cold" ("fredda"), for instance. So when the Prince poses the riddle, the name he refers to is not "Calaf", but rather the name she will ultimately give him: "Amor" ("Love"). That is, he wants her to love him. This, incidentally, also makes sense out of the scene where Liù is killed. When Turandot orders Timur to reveal the name, Liù says, "The name that you seek I alone know." ("Il nome che cercate io sola so.") Huh? Timur doesn't know his own son's name??

Literally, of course he does know; but poetically, Liù's statement is correct, because she's the only one who is in love with the Prince. Where the Prince says "then I shall die", he really means "die" in the sense of lose himself completely to true love. Yes, I know, death-equals-love sounds like a pretty perverse metaphor, but it's a persistent one (and more common in Romance languages than it is in English). For an example in English (albeit written by an Italian), when Laetitia in The Old Maid and the Thief sings, "O sweet thief, I pray, make me die," she isn't hoping that he'll murder her.

The aria "Nessun dorma" is near the beginning of Act 3. At the end of Act 2 Turandot hasn't yet figured out all this love poetry business, and still thinks that she just has to get someone to reveal the Prince's name and then she can chop off his head. So she puts out a decree that no one in Peking is allowed to sleep until the name is revealed.

Act 3 opens in gloomy night with lugubrious chords in the orchestra (technically, minor chords with augmented 7ths and 11ths). Some heralds are announcing Turandot's decree, "Tonight no one in Peking sleeps" ("Questa notte nessun dorma in Pekino"), and the chorus gloomily repeats the words "no one sleeps" ("nessun dorma"). In the first words of his aria, the Prince is repeating the words of the chorus. The G major chord that opens the aria is the first optimistic-sounding chord we've heard since intermission and it breaks through the gloom like the light of dawn.

The translation:

The Prince
Nessun dorma, nessun dorma ... 
Tu pure, o Principessa, 
Nella tua fredda stanza, 
Guardi le stelle 
Che tremano d'amore 
  E di speranza.
No one sleeps, no one sleeps... 
Even you, o Princess, 
In your cold room, 
Watch the stars, 
That tremble with love 
  And with hope.
Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me, 
Il nome mio nessun saprà, no, no, 
Sulla tua bocca lo dirò 
Quando la luce splenderà, 
Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio 
  Che ti fa mia.
But my secret is hidden within me; 
My name no one shall know, no, no, 
On your mouth I will speak it* 
When the light shines, 
And my kiss will dissolve the silence 
  That makes you mine.
Il nome suo nessun saprà 
E noi dovrem, ahimè, morir.
No one will know his name 
And we must, alas, die.
The Prince
Dilegua, o notte! 
Tramontate, stelle! 
All'alba vincerò!
Vanish, o night! 
Set**, stars! 
At daybreak, I shall conquer!

 * "Dire sulla bocca", literally "to say on the mouth", is a poetic Italian way of saying "to kiss." (Or so I've been told, but perhaps a native speaker can confirm or deny this.) I've also been told that a line from a Marx Brothers movie -- "I wasn't kissing her, I was whispering in her mouth" -- is a conscious imitation of the Italian phrase.
** "Tramontate" literally means "go behind the mountains", but it's the word Italians use for sunset and the like. It's also a word Turandot uses after Calaf kisses her: "E l'alba! Turandot tramonta!" ("It's dawn, Turandot descends!") This suggests yet another mythopoetic theme which pervades the Turandot libretto -- the sun god's defeat of the moon goddess -- but I won't get into that.

Copyright © 1997, Mark D. Lew

Postscript: Since writing this, I have been informed by an Italian speaker that "dire sulla bocca" is not a common Italian phrase, as I incorrectly suggested, and that he has never seen it anywhere but in the Turandot libretto.

Self-Publishing: Proof Copy of The Lion and the Sun

I received the physical "proof copy" of my novel, The Lion and the Sun, from CreateSpace last week. I'm too busy preparing my tax return to go through it, but here's what it looks like.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pasta con Vongole -- My Recipe

I adapted this recipe for Pasta con Vongole from a recipe in the Time-Life book, Foods of the World (1968). It's a favorite in our house, because it's delicious, fast, and easy. Can't beat that!

I usually serve this dish with a side vegetable, like broccoli (sauteed in olive oil, with grindings of black pepper). Add garlic bread, and a nice white wine (e.g., pinot grigio), and you have a very satisfying, and healthy meal.

Here we go (I can do this in 30 min, but I've had a lot of practice).

First, get your pot of water on the heat.

Chop 2 or 3 cloves of fresh garlic (depending on how much you like garlic), and set aside.

Open 2 small cans of chopped (not minced) clams, or buy 3 dozen fresh clams and shuck them, saving the juice (making this recipe a lot less "fast and easy"). Drain the clam juice into a measuring cup and set aside the juice and clams.

Pour 1/4 cup dry white wine and set aside (also pour yourself a glass of pinot grigio to sample while you cook; it makes the process seem to go faster)

Chop about 2 or 3 tbs fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley (regular old garden-variety parsley will do, but you won't experience the robust taste you get from the Italian variety). Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat 4 tbs of olive oil (I use regular, not virgin) and 1 tbs butter (don't substitute margarine -- this is an Italian recipe). Before the oil-butter mixture starts to smoke, add the chopped garlic and stir constantly for a few SECONDS -- don't allow it to burn (like this guy). Immediately add the clam juice (not the clams) and white wine, turn up the heat to high, and boil off the liquid until you have about 3/4 cup left in the skillet. Immediately remove the skillet from the heat.

Your pot of water should be boiling by now. Add 1 lb of linguine (you can substitute a common, long-noodle spaghetti, or flat-noodle fettuccine, or any number of pasta varieties). Add the pasta about 1/4 lb at a time to keep the water boiling. Boil over high heat, stirring occasionally, for 9 to 11 minutes. Test it by cutting a strand against the inside of the pot, or by lifting a strand and tasting it (my method). It should be al dente, -- slightly resistant to the bite. Remember, hot pasta will keep cooking even after you drain it (so err on the side of removing it from the boiling water a little before you think it's done). Immediately drain the pasta and transfer it to a heated serving bowl.

Toss the pasta with 1 tbs of soft butter and season it with salt and white pepper (I also add a few sprinklings of red pepper flakes, but I'm Sicilian).

Put the skillet with the clam broth mixture back on the heat and add the clams. Heat them for 1 or 2 minutes, whisking them around to ensure they're evenly heated (don't cook them too long, or they'll take on the consistency of rubber).

Pour the clams and sauce over the pasta, and mix together with a large fork and your pasta spoon.

Sprinkle on a little freshly ground parmigiano cheese (put a bowl of the cheese on the table to add to taste), and then add the fresh parsley. I also like to add a few sliced grape tomatoes, mostly because I like the way the dish looks that way (but it also adds another flavor to savor).

When every one's served and you're ready to eat, raise your glass of wine and say, "Salute!"

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Turkey Vultures & Condors

The Turkey Vulture is a large soaring bird that feeds on carrion. It's recognized by the featherless red head, white bill, large brown-black body and yellow feet. I spotted these along Vineyard Dr just west of Templeton, California, in early March 2013.
Turkey Vultures fence sitting, west of Templeton, California. 
Turkey Vultures wing span averages 6 ft,  making them excellent flyers.
Turkey Vultures and Condors are "birds of a feather," with the Condor simply being a very large vulture. Its wing span averages about 9 ft.

Imagining what early Native Americans, e.g., the Chumash, must have thought seeing this giant bird soaring overhead, I wrote:

We watched this giant bird
soar so far above us
Surely its wings
would shade us from the sun
and beating the air
would cause the birch to sway and bend
the leaves to flow along the dry river bed
and soaring into the heavens
would bring us rain
So great a creature
we made it a god

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Arrival in Tehran, October 2, 1978

Tehran traffic in 1970 and it only got worse by 1978 (Samuel Coulbourn photo)
I arrived at Tehran’s Maribad Airport on Wednesday, October 2nd at 10:30 pm, after a 16-hour flight from Dayton Ohio, with stops in JFK, London, and Frankfurt, Germany. The airport was dirty, crowded, and noisy, with a lot of shouting and gesturing. It seemed chaotic to me, but I was to learn later that things at the airport would get far worse.
Stone-faced soldiers were posted at all the entrances and exits. Passengers on our flight were directed to Customs, where agents, with soldiers looking over their shoulders, made a cursory check of passports and shot records. I was surprised when the agent didn’t my check bags, but just waved me through dismissively.

I was in Tehran to participate in something called “Peace Log;” a program sponsored by the US Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG)1 to train the Royal Iranian Air Force in the basics of logistics management. Peace Log was managed by Detachment 30 out of the San Antonio Air Logistics Center.

I was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force assigned to the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), School of Systems and Logistics. I was 40 years-old, married, with two children; boys 13 and 12. I was scheduled to be gone for 5 weeks; the second time in my tour at AFIT that I would be on temporary duty (TDY) for that long.

The other three members of my team had arrived in Tehran several days ahead of me, because I had been delayed in my departure from AFIT. I had been instructed to wear civilian clothes, and to wait for pick up by a MAAG detachment driver or members of my team. A “lessons learned” that we’d been provided advised strongly against any single individual from the team taking a taxi from the airport.

I went into the baggage claim area, and then to main terminal of the airport, searching out a driver from the detachment, or members of my team. Failing to find one, I went outside the airport to check the arriving and departing cars. I was approached immediately by a very scruffy-looking Iranian man asking me in Farsi if I needed a taxi. I answered in Farsi and English, shook my head, and finally just turned away from the persistent man, only to be approached a few minutes later by another man offering taxi service, and then another. I’d been instructed to wait for a team car, so I waited, constantly harassed by taxi drivers, or wanna-be taxi drivers, or kidnappers, or whatever the hell these insistent men were. I worried about the soldiers who were posted along the airport drop off zone becoming suspicious about my “loitering.”

I waited 45 minutes, becoming more and more concerned about where my ride was. I went to the terminal counter and asked to use a phone to call the MAAG duty officer, but was told phone service was down. Just as I was about to risk accepting a taxi ride, I spotted several tall guys wearing checkered sports coats loading their luggage into station wagon. I sidled over and heard them speaking American English. It turned out they were going to the same hotel where I’d be staying my first night -- the Evin -- and I was able to hitch a ride with them. They were US Navy personnel who were to be consultants to the Royal Iranian Navy.

We had an animated conversation as we drove out of the airport and on to the main highway into the city, discussing our various military assistance and technical advisory missions, but conversation petered out when we saw the large military presence along the highway. We passed by the Shahyad Monument, which had been built in 1971 to celebrate the rule of the Pahlavi Dynasty. Sandbags and artillery were positioned all around the the floodlit, soaring, white stone monument. Army personnel carriers were parked there, and soldiers with machine guns slung over their shoulders stood about watching the traffic flow by. This scene was repeated at strategic intersections and buildings along our route to the hotel. That was probably the point when I realized that the situation in Iran was more tenuous then our State Department had led us to believe.

Traffic became heavy and chaotic as we neared the outskirts of Tehran. I wrote in my notebook, “Iranian drivers are crazy -- absolutely nuts!” There seemed to be no rules; speed limits appeared to be determined only by how fast a car would go. The right of way was determined by who got there first. Cutting in front of other drivers was done as a matter of pride, often by veering into the opposing traffic lane and racing the on-rushing cars to that moving space in front of a line of cars all observing the anything goes culture of driving in Tehran. One taxi driver I rode with later in my tour turned onto a one way street, and when I yelled at him and pointed to the sign, he turned his car 360 degrees, and backed down the street, presumably in the belief that backing down a one way street in opposition to traffic was consistent with the spirit of the law.
Recent photo of Evin Hotel in Tehran
The Evin Hotel was on the Vanak Parkway, west of the center of the city. We arrived at the hotel a little before Midnight. Despite the late hour the place was buzzing. I found the members of my team in the bar. Larry Smith, like me a lieutenant colonel, was our team leader, and greeted me with warmth and some relief. He told me that there were strikes and an escalation in civil unrest, martial law was still in effect in Tehran and other major cities in Iran, and all US personnel had been restricted to the city. Max Furrer, a big, red-headed Oklahoma boy lumbered over, put his meat hook of a hand on my shoulder and said, “Man, are we glad to see you.” Mac McChesney was right behind Max. “How the hell did you make it here?” he wanted to know. Max and Mac were majors, and like Larry and I, associate professors at AFIT.

I joined the team at the bar where we had a couple of beers, talked briefly about the “disturbances” in Tehran and across the country, made our plans for the next day, and retired to our rooms.

Despite feeling exhausted, I had trouble getting to sleep. I thought about where I was, how things would go, whether I'd have the opportunity to get away and see more of the country, whether our "students" would speak sufficient English to grasp our lectures, and what cultural problems we'd confront. I finally got to sleep telling myself that everything would work out. They did, but in ways I hadn't imagined.

Self-Publishing Update

In my last update I talked about selecting the cover for my novel, The Lion and the Sun, and selecting a font for the interior of the book. As I wrote, I’m working with CreateSpace. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but so far the process leaves something to be desired.

Most of the CreateSpace process is conducted on-line. But there are times when one requires the less proceduralized process of real-time conversation. My primary complaint is that when I want to talk with a real person, I’m connected with whomever is available at the time. I’d like to talk with the same person each time, but in order to do that I’d have to leave a message and wait for them to call me. So far I’ve talked to: Daniel, Martin, Kelsey, Tora, Norma, Chelsey, and Liz.

All of the CreateSpace “creative consultants” have access to my file, which includes the proofs I’ve approved and the comments I’ve made, but the reason for calls is to clarify things included in the comments. When I talk with different people all the time, I find I have to go back over the same ground, and this is frustrating.

My latest challenge has been to get a fix on the interior font for the book. I asked to look at three fonts: Garamond 3, New Baskerville, and Palatino. I was sent a single proof with different sample sections of the book in each of the three fonts. This makes it more difficult to cross compare the fonts. I wanted one section, the Preface, in the three different fonts. In addition, I wasn’t told what the font specs were, with font size and leading (pronounced "ledding") being my primary consideration.

I called CreateSpace on February 22nd and talked with one of their consultants, who said she’d send me an email with the font specs. She did this the same day -- great turnaround. Unfortunately, it was obvious from a comparison of the fonts with previous proofs, that the specs in the email were incorrect. It was the next day before I was able to talk with yet another consultant, who sent another email with the correct specs.

Based on the proofs and the specs in the corrected email, I went on line and using the Comments section wrote that I wanted Garamond 3, 12 pt, 15.4 leading for the book’s interior. This font and leading will increase the page length, but I feel the added readability is worth it.

On February 25th, I received an email from CreateSpace indicating that I still needed to  “accept the third mock up” so that I wasn’t charged for additional work. This was a problem, since the third mock up was in three different fonts.

I called CreateSpace on the 26th and talked with “Tora” and told her the situation. She said to go ahead and accept the third mock up and she’d note that I wanted the Garamond 3/15.4. She said if I wanted to submit an edited manuscript, I should do it along with accepting the mock. Tora said it would take about 15 days for the design team to format the book, and estimated that I’d receive a physical copy for review and approval sometime around the third week of March.

While I was on the CreateSpace web site, I set up a “Preview” of my book. A preview can be for a book in process or a published work, and allows one to share their work with friends, colleagues, or the public.

To create a Preview, simply upload an excerpt of your book, ask specific questions, and circulate your project to friends, family, and colleagues. My questions were:

  • How do you rate the overall preview?
  • How do you rate the writing in the introductory section?
  • What interested you in the synopsis?
  • How likely are you to read this book?
My preview is here.