Insisting on essays

The Gelberg Variations is a personal blog, which means that its range of topics includes whatever I think about that is worth publishing. That said, sometimes (a lot) I think about politics–about government, about elections, about the reasons why a culture goes in one direction and not twenty others. Which means that there will be political posts on this blog.

So, politics is on my mind, and the current tug of war over the state of health care in this country is at the forefront. But before I even get into what I think about that, I’ll state for the record that I am not a fan of this administration. I view the election of Donald Trump to the presidency–and as Republican, no less–as a very bad indicator on the current health of our country as a constitutional republic. It also taught me something I didn’t know about the current health of the electorate. I didn’t know that people who considered themselves Republicans would nominate a reality-show populist who campaigned on a nativist America-first platform and openly advocated violence against people who said things he didn’t like. And further, that the country would actually enthusiastically elect the creature. (I’m not very concerned about the distinction between the popular vote and the electoral college vote, because it doesn’t address the larger questions that I’m considering. The electoral college has been part of our government’s structure since the founding, and this is not the first time a president has won without the popular vote. So that’s that.)

So I am clearly not on the side of the current party in power. But neither am I on the side of the Democrats. I do not consider myself a Democrat, or a liberal (as the term is generally used) or a leftist, or a progressive, or any of the other things that left-leaning people call themselves. The Democrats now consider themselves the party of the opposition, based on the bare fact of not having won the White House. Okay, fine, except that when one considers the qualifications and record of the Democratic nominee for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, it becomes clear that our choices in 2016 were between two lying, corrupt, authoritarian leftists.

And given further that the left only started protesting after the election, this tells me that there is no widespread opposition in this country to having a grossly dishonest, corrupt, left-leaning authoritarian in the White House. They were only upset because the “wrong” one won. There were no widespread protests before the nominations–when any alarms could have done some good–or even after the nominations, which is when it became clear what candidates the two major parties had produced. We have now descended to the level of opposing gangs, and it scares me more than I can express. And now, for example, health care is the subject of  congressional deal-making and vote gathering. When one tribe is in power, the votes go one way, but they can be reversed once the other part is in power. The ACA may be replaced with the AHCA, (though it may not matter) but no one remembers–or cares to–that health care was not always a gargantuan, expanding, Gordian knot of impossibility when one tries to reconcile needs with expenses. No one is speaking up to say that doctors and patients and insurance companies and hospital administrators were not always–and need not always be–set in conflict with each other.

So to return to the title of this essay–politics is very often framed in binaries–left vs right, you vs me, Republican vs Democrat. But I’m increasingly finding myself without a “home”–without any sort of major political group or movement that I feel comfortable aligning myself with. Politics is very frequently pitched as true-false, when we ought to be insisting on essays. So this essay–and this blog–is part of my effort to establish a platform to get my voice heard–and to develop that voice, along with the thinking that goes behind it.

Because it always comes back to thinking. The choices people make–and the opportunities they think they have–are always the product of a long, long string of previous choices, and previous thinking. And if the Gelberg Variations can, by telling the truth in an insightful, engaging, illuminating way, spark some synapses–get people thinking–then it, and I, will have done what I set out to do.

In other lives

I’m not sure how I was introduced to the music of Vienna Teng. It might have been a special on a local PBS channel about bay area musicians. The special included short clips of the artists’ music, and I was intrigued. I’ve now become a fan of her music. I own several of her albums. The track “The Next Time Around” on Inland Empire speaks to me especially.

In another life
You and I worked West Virginia coal mines
Side by side
Collecting the black dust like sin
The day the main shaft caved in
I caught your eye
As the lantern light guttered out
And the after damp swallowed us slowly
I gripped your hand
And caught a glance
Of the next time ’round

I don’t believe in reincarnation, or any sort of afterlife. I believe that each person gets one shot to live, which begins when you’re born, and ends when you die. I don’t believe in reincarnation as a do-over, or as punishment or atonement, or–at all. Nevertheless, there is something here that speaks to me deeply. I don’t believe in literal reincarnation, but I believe in what I’ll call metaphysical oneness. Specifically, although each person is an individual in every way that matters, we are also one–each person is only aware of themselves, and that self is always, at base, the same. I don’t experience myself as any not-others, only as myself, and likewise for everyone else. This oneness is the essence of the human experience, and it’s the thing that enables us to read writing on a clay tablet or papyrus that an ancient scribe scratched out five thousand years ago and get it, to know that regardless of circumstances, people are basically the same no matter what.

I find comfort in this. I find comfort in knowing that no matter what happens to me–or to any individual, even though it pains me to think of anything bad happening to my loved ones–that human experience, that striving, that onward-ness, will continue. I am me, and only me, but it is not inaccurate to say that I am “the next time around” for any number of people who lived and died in much less comfortable circumstances.

The rest of the song continues, not, as one might think, as a discussion of reincarnation, but more as an awareness of the harshness of circumstances, and of the need to be grateful for when you land in good ones. I don’t know if Vienna Teng really believes in reincarnation, or, if, as I suspect, she’s using the form as a meditation on circumstance. It doesn’t really matter. The song moves me every time I hear it. Life is short, and sometimes harsh. Each of us gets a set of circumstances–givens–not of our choosing, and changing them can be hard. Nothing is guaranteed, but I find strength and comfort in knowing this–that I have, metaphorically, lived other lives, and that I am someone else’s “next time around.”

Indoor gloves

I live in northern California, where the weather is generally mild and Mediterranean. People in this area worry more about rain–which comes during the winter season, if we aren’t in a drought–and earthquakes. The weather here isn’t generally severe enough to be a health or safety problem. People usually dress for fashion, rather than warmth. And the weather is rarely a problem that would prevent you from safely traveling wherever you want. So when the rest of the country is in the depths of winter, it’s hard for people here to understand what winter–as in, a Midwestern winter, with actual snow and blizzards–can be like.

I’m not a native Californian. Not a lot of people here are, actually, but many of them appear to be from other places that also don’t have severe weather. I grew up mostly in downstate Illinois, and before that I lived in New York (state, not city) and New Hampshire. And whenever the subject of winter comes up in conversation, and I find myself trying to explain what real weather is like, I tell the story of my indoor gloves.

 This is a pair of gloves that I’ve owned since I was in college. I think I bought them at some outlet store, and I’ve had them ever since. They’re made of leather and lined with what is probably Thinsulate or similar. These have become the only gloves I now own, for the reasons described above, which means that whenever I’m wearing a coat, the gloves are probably in the pocket. So I pull out these gloves to explain. Here’s a pair of nice leather gloves that I’ve had for years. They’re well made and lined with Thinsulate. Great, warm gloves, right? Okay, here’s the thing: when I lived in Illinois, I wore these gloves indoors.

People usually do a double-take when I tell them that. So then I explain that these gloves are more accurately referred to as my driving gloves, because when you live in a place with four seasons coming at you hard, there’s a lot of things you have to think about in order to safely get from point A to point B, and keeping your hands from freezing when in subzero conditions but still able to manipulate car controls is one of them. I also tell them a bit about what it’s like just getting dressed to go outside, and then having to climb into a car that has its driver’s side door frozen shut, climbing over the gearshift in heavy winter boots, and starting the engine–and the heater–up. Then and only then do you get out of the now-running car and start cleaning it off.

This commercial is a pretty good illustration of what it’s like to get going first thing in the morning after a significant snowfall.

For the record, this guy appears to be wildly unprepared to live wherever he does–nobody who’s lived in a northern climate for any length of time would go outside without a hat or their coat open like that in winter conditions, and not having one of these in your car during the winter is…well, never mind. This guy also clearly doesn’t know that you have to get in the car before you do any cleaning, to start the engine and get it warmed up, so the punchline of him cleaning the wrong car is funny but not realistic.

So the point of the indoor gloves story is that the weather in places that aren’t California can be so bad that a pair of gloves that looks perfectly serviceable and warm is actually completely inadequate to keeping your hands warm in actual winter conditions.

So I’ve shoveled, and scraped, and swept, snow, face-planted on frozen driveways, hydroplaned in storm conditions, fishtailed on black ice, run for cover when tornado warnings sounded, and felt my lungs burn when opening the door in Illinois on a July afternoon during an extended 100-degree-plus heat wave. I’ve seen the rust on my car advance from season to season, and wondered for how much longer the car would be structurally sound, i.e., safe to drive. I’ve heard the windowpanes in old apartments rattle in blizzard conditions, and I’ve turned the key on a car during a cold snap only to hear nothing from an otherwise serviceable engine that was temporarily felled by the cold. Compared to that, drought and seasonal flooding and occasional earthquakes aren’t weather, they’re entertainment.

Culinary horse blinders

After several years of living in a tiny San Francisco apartment with my husband, we finally moved into our peninsula home that has a full kitchen (and a garage!). Due to a number of factors, including long commute times, crowded living conditions, plus abundant restaurants within walking distance, I had gotten out of the habit of cooking at home. It was something I wanted to get back into, for a number of reasons, including health, quality control, time spent in transit, cost savings, and sheer enjoyment of cooking. So when we moved, I set up my kitchen in the new space and got to work. But a problem that I faced when I was single–the last time I did any significant cooking–cropped up. We live in a time and place where you can have pretty much any food year round. By itself, this is a good thing, but it creates what’s been called the paradox of choice–if you can have anything, at any time, the sheer volume of choices can generate a lot of anxiety. I’ve faced this, and in the past have tended to fall into the habit of cooking the same set of familiar meals again and again. I wanted something better, especially now that I’m not just cooking for myself anymore.

But I found a solution that has been working very well for us–every other week, we have a farm share box delivered. The service we use is Farm Fresh to You, which has a variety of boxes of produce available for delivery at the interval of your choice. So now, a box of fresh, seasonal produce appears on our doorstep every other week. And I have to do something with this produce, which will go bad if we don’t eat it. So now I’ve limited myself to cooking with the contents of the box. I can–and do–supplement with trips to the grocery store, which is a quick drive. But using up what’s already in the fridge is a priority, and I’ve learned to cook with kale, dill, and beets, to name a few that I never had occasion to use before. When a box appeared with sweet potatoes, a quick search online found a recipe for sweet potato pie. I tried it and we enjoyed that pie for a week. I found a recipe to use up a bunch of parsley in a green olive-anchovy pasta sauce. I’d never had anchovies before, because I assumed I’d hate them like so many people claim to. Having finally tried them, I don’t know why I thought that, and I can’t wait for more parsley so I can make the sauce again. The previously mentioned beets became borscht, which I’d never had. I made roasted rosemary potatoes and paired it with a wilted greens salad–using up the beet greens–on the fly. I made a cilantro-garlic sauce to go over chicken and pasta. My husband tasted the sauce and liked it so much he immediately began imagining it as a spread on toast or other meats.

The selection changes from week to week, and not every meal I make is, or has to be our favorite. But I no longer have to come up with a varied list of meals from scratch. The produce in the box is seasonal and local, which means it’s traveled a shorter distance to us, which means it’s fresher and has more nutrients in it. I don’t feel strongly about the organic-vs-regular produce debate, but I don’t specifically object to organic produce, which this is. It’s true that we could also go to one of the farmers’ markets that are in the area. However, this would take me back to the issue of choice that was paralyzing for me–I would still have to plan meals and then schedule time to go and shop, which I don’t want to do. Perhaps paradoxically, by limiting my options, I’ve set up a situation where I’ve required myself to become a better cook, rely less on recipes than I ever did before, and meals are much more varied than I could have planned myself.

Fancy that.

Bach Cello Suite #1 in G

Although the Gelberg Variations has nothing to do directly with Bach, or even with the Goldberg Variations themselves, one of my very favorite pieces of music is the Bach Cello Suite no 1. I love the intense simplicity of it–just a single instrument, playing a very complex melody. It sounds to me like what a person’s thoughts sound like when he’s working through a difficult problem, and finding the answer. The melody is both the thought process and the result.

And I especially love this ad from a number of years ago. It’s by American Express, and it combines the prelude from the Cello Suite with a series of images of broken items, plus voiceover. Each item by itself is inanimate, mute, but when viewed together, in combination with the voiceover and music, we learn that something is wrong. The second half of the commercial shifts–the music shifts to the sound of resolution, and the items shown are positioned so that they now look happy. The intended message is that although things sometimes go wrong when we make purchases, American Express has the tools to make things right.

I don’t have an American Express card. I don’t work for American Express, nor do I have any relationship with them. But I keep coming back to this ad, because there’s something so pure in its expression–images of broken, then fixed, things, plus music, plus simple dialog. This ad achieves something that I want the Gelberg Variations to achieve: each post, each work, should be a single, cohesive piece, whose purpose and message is clear. If a post is long, it should reward the reader for sticking with it. If the subject or style seems random, there should always be a reason for it.

The Bach connection here is somewhat tenuous, but so be it. Enjoy, and until next time.

The pleasure of being there

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, Delft 1632–1675 Delft)
Young Woman with a Water Pitcher, ca. 1662
Oil on canvas; 18 x 16 in. (45.7 x 40.6 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Marquand Collection, Gift of Henry G. Marquand, 1889 (89.15.21)

My favorite painting is “Woman With a Water Jug” by Johannes Vermeer. The painting itself is fairly simple: it portrays a woman in everyday 17th century Dutch costume and surroundings, holding a gold pitcher in one hand and a leaded glass window pane in another. Compositionally, the woman acts as a bridge between the room and the world outside. The painting has been analyzed in depth elsewhere, and such analysis is not my purpose here.

I love this painting not only because of the sheer skill of execution, or the beauty of its composition, or the richness of texture and light, though without these things, the painting would not be the visual and contemplative jewel that it is. I love this painting most because it portrays in the purest form I have ever found, a moment during everyday life (in this case, likely during a woman’s routine morning toilette) when someone stops and notices–not the glass of the window, or its frame, or the light that filters through it, though these things are plainly there and beautifully rendered. This painting portrays a moment of awareness of awareness itself–a moment when a woman pauses to see not only the beauty of what’s around her, but something beyond that–a moment of appreciation, and even insight, into the nature of existence–the texture of the universe. This painting portrays a moment when someone experiences the pleasure of being there. And such is Vermeer’s skill in every detail that the more one studies this painting, both as a whole and detail by detail, the more one is drawn into its intricacies and its calm, serene, and yet, very “present” mood. The more you look, the more you see there is to look at, and the more you experience the pleasure of looking.

And away we go…

This is the first blog post of what I hope will be many. The Gelberg Variations is my corner of the Internet. Its name comes from the fact that my maiden name is Gelberg, which is similar to Goldberg, which happens to be the name of a very well known work by Bach. Since was taken, it occurred to me that The Gelberg Variations had a distinctive sound that would work for my purposes. I have the following goals for this blog:

  • Develop the practice of writing every day (my initial target for this blog is to add one entry per week)
  • Strengthen my writerly voice
  • Cultivate an audience for my writing, and learn how to best connect with that audience
  • Develop my presence as a voice on the Internet, whatever that turns out to be.
  • Test drive excerpts from my novel in progress, and someday be able to remove the “in progress” part.

So with that…