Whatever Works

 

Occupation.

I’m not talking about a job.

 

I am referring to how one occupies time.

I try to keep myself mindfully occupied.

 

With purpose.

It can’t be all work.

 

One morning it hit me.

I am alone.

 

I focused on keeping myself occupied.

Too occupied that I forgot to smell the flowers.

 

While waiting for my ride to arrive,

This yellow flower greeted me.

 

Appreciation for the little things life offers.

Every day is a work in progress.

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In Praise of Tricksters

I feel tears pooling my eyes before he even utters his final lines:

 

Ditemi voi signori se i quattrini di Buoso potevan finire meglio di così.

Per questa bizzarria m'han cacciato all'inferno, e così sia.

Ma con licenza del grande padre Dante,

Se stasera vi siete divertiti, concedetemi voi [he gives a little clap] l'attenuante.

[You tell me, ladies and gentlemen, if you think Buoso's money could be put to better use.

Because of this bizarre event, I have been sent to hell – and so be it.

Still, with all due respect to the great Dante,

If you have enjoyed yourselves this evening, then why don't you plead [he gives a little clap] mitigating circumstances on my behalf?]

 

By now my eyes are brimming over.  I have no idea why the words of the protagonist in Puccini's only comic opera always stir something deep inside me.

 

Loosely based on real-life character, Gianni Schicchi – a 13th-century Florentine nouveau riche – is reluctantly called upon by the snobbish, upper-class Donati family to get them out of a very inconvenient situation. Old Buoso Donati has just given up the ghost and, after a frantic search for his will, the outraged relatives discover that he has left his entire fortune to the local monastery. Young Rinuccio Donati, who is in love with Schicchi's daughter Lauretta, and whose hopes of marrying her (albeit against his family's wishes) are now thwarted by the unexpected lack of an inheritance, sends for the nouveau riche wheeler-dealer.  If anyone can think of a way out of this impasse, then it's shrewd Gianni Schicchi. And so he does. After ascertaining that nobody outside the room knows of Buoso's demise yet, he puts on the dead man's clothes and nightcap, wraps a scarf around his face and takes his place in bed. The notary is sent for so that a new will may be dictated: one that will not increase the roundness of the monks' bellies and, instead, keep the Donatis in luxury. But as Gianni Schicchi itemises the list of Buoso's possessions, it is to himself that he bequeathes the choice morsels. Seething with anger but unable to speak out for fear of having their hands cut off and being exiled for aiding and abetting impersonation and fraud, the Donatis listen, powerless, as Schicchi goes as far as bequeathing himself the family's palazzo before unceremoniously booting them out of it, as the now lawful owner.  Once they have all gone, he sees Rinuccio and Lauretta embracing, happy than they can now marry.  Moved by this scene of young love, Gianni Schicchi addresses the audience in his short concluding speech.  This act of his made Dante consign him to his Inferno, but if we have enjoyed the show, then perhaps our applause will serve as mitigating circumstances.  And thunderous applause he gets as the curtain falls.

 

I have always had a soft spot for theatrical and literary tricksters. Scapin, Figaro, Harlequin, Truffaldino.  Gianni Schicchi.  Ever since I was a child, I have admired characters with the cunning to circumvent unfair rules or to give authoritarian bullies their comeuppance, not with any kind of violence or self-righteousness but the elegance and grace of their wits.

 

In the Russian fairy tales my grandmother would tell me when I was a child, my favourite animal was the vixen for her invariably imaginative ruses against stronger, larger animals.  As well as foxes, I now like cats and crows.  Intelligent and self-possessed, they find creative solutions to further their pursuits without losing any of their natural grace (cats especially).  From what I have seen of them, foxes, cats and crows are patient observers.  They watch, plan, calculate, then act.  I get a sense of inner negotiation, of weighing pros and cons, and, above all, of a thought process that is "outside the box".  They see things they way they see things and not according to the popular trend.  One could call cats, foxes and crows "original" thinkers.

 

My favourite literary heroine of all time, Sheherazade, is no innocent, man-dependent maiden.  She knows precisely what she is doing.  She uses her cunning to hold the king's attention until he has grown to love and respect her so deeply that he cannot bear to kill her.  Not only that but he also becomes a just ruler beloved of his subjects. Sheherazade has immense courage, yes, but it is her intelligence and cunning that transforms a predatory, bloodthirsty misogynist into a truly good man.  She does not opt for the dagger-in-the-heart-while-he's-sleeping-off-sex solution.  She thinks outside the box and that's what makes her a role model.

 

The first fairy tale I wrote, when I was about eleven, features a princess who delivers her father's kingdom from an evil witch by dressing up as a boy, entering the witch's service, gaining her trust and watching her every move until she discovers the weak link in the castle's defence.  In the process, she also frees the knights her father sent, who are locked up in the witch's dungeon.  Impressed with her courage, the king allows his daughter to chose a husband from among his most valiant knights.  At this point, the princess weeps at the sudden realisation that she will never marry.  For she can only be the wife of a man she looks up to and there is no such man among all those who did not think to put away their swords and shields and fight by cunning instead.  And so the princess eventually becomes a much-respected, much-loved and very lonely queen.

 

I was severely bullied at school.  I couldn't fight back on the same terms.  I simply didn't have the resources.  So, when I was about twelve, I bet the class that I could stop the English language test from taking place that afternoon.  Nobody believed me, of course.  I walked into the classroom more slowly than usual, wearing my most anxious expression.  I glanced at the teacher.  He looked at me quizzically.  I frowned, made to open my mouth, then shook my head, went to my desk and sat down, still frowning, knowing the teacher was still looking at me, wondering.  I was top of my class in English, so I knew he would never think my anxiety was in any way connected to the scheduled test.  I looked up at him again, then repeated the slight head shake.  "Are you all right, Katherine?" the teacher asked.

"Yes, yes, sorry.  Well, no, I mean – no, it's all right."

"What's the matter? Tell me."

I gave him a hesitant look.  "Well, if you insist, sir... It's just that I've been wondering... Who was the first king of England?"

The teacher froze and the classroom fell silent.

"I'm afraid there's no straight answer," he replied. "You see, it's rather complicated.  There's Offa and Egbert, then Alfred..."

He stood up by the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk and began tracing names, arrows and dates.  He spoke for about twenty minutes.  Then he dropped the chalk back into the tray and looked at his watch.  "A bit late for the test now," he said, "but don't you all get too comfy because tomorrow straight after recess..."

 

In case you are now thinking that I am a natural cheat, please let me assure you that I am not.  I am not a liar, either.  The tricks and tricksters I enjoy cause no harm or real disruption.  What appeals to me about them is not the dishonesty or manipulation element.  It's their courage, their daring to imagine a different possibility to the one dictated by narrow-minded authority or lazy, unquestioned custom.  After all, isn't "thinking outside the box" a way of honouring life's hidden yet available resources and possibilities? Isn't thinking outside the box the resounding YES to life against the self-limiting NO?

 

Perhaps it's the reminder of all these wonderful possibilities and resources, suppressed or forgotten, that brings tears to my eyes when I hear Gianni's Schicchi's apology.

 

And, Ladies and Gentlemen, if in any way my views have offended, then I ask you to forgive me.  But if anything in this post has made you smile or nod or even suggested further thought, then, pray, leave me a comment.

 

Scribe Doll

 

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The Seventh

The Third is heroic.

The Fifth is iconic.

The Ninth is a miracle.

But of all the Nine symphonies, my favorite has always been the Seventh. I don’t know why exactly. It just appealed to me immediately, the rhythms and melodies, the energy pulsing through yet not overwhelming. More subtle than the others, yet somehow truer to itself.

And there is a joy that runs through it, different from the Ode to Joy of the Ninth, more self-contained and pure, especially in the Allegretto, the second movement. You can hear something similar sometimes in Bach and Mozart. I don’t know what it is. But I think of it as the joy of a master engaged only in the work.

Just vague impressions I know.

Hard to explain.

How do you judge a symphony?  Or greatness? Or art?

Mozart and Shakespeare are at the top for me. Old Bach is not far behind. Michelangelo perhaps belongs near. And somewhere not too far down the list is Beethoven.

To some extent, maybe a great extent, it is a personal decision. You could break it down into categories I suppose. Originality. Breadth of expression. Depth of emotion. Uniqueness. Capacity.

But in saying that the Seventh is my favorite, I am not really judging it. I’m just expressing a preference. Though somewhere down deep maybe there is little difference, since judgement has to be based on something, and if you go far enough down there are likely personal choices supporting whatever criteria you elect. 

So I was delighted today, listening to it on the radio, when the announcer noted that the Seventh was Beethoven’s favorite too. When asked why it was not as well-known as the others, Beethoven reportedly said: “Because it’s better.”

Who am I to argue with the master?

(Image: A Beethoven Enthusiast by Moriz Jung. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/649890)

 

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Melbung smellee welly high

 

It’s hard to imagine that almost 130 years ago, Melbourne in Australia was considered the smelliest city in the world when today, it’s voted the world’s most liveable city.

The Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was established in 1891 to manage Melbourne's sewage. Its crest bears the motto 'salas mea publica merces', meaning ‘public health is my reward’.

I think they call that transformation.

 

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

 

How fine this grand Dame of cities is, my Melbourne town. Yet such a past has she, before the first sewage flows from the All England Eleven Hotel in Port Melbourne traversed pastures of graded green at the Metropolitan Farm in 1897.

Ten years earlier, mortality rates from diphtheria and typhoid in our fair Melbourne town numbered 86.3 for every 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 16 in London and 66 in Paris. The idea to establish a Royal Commission to inquire and report on Melbourne’s sanitary condition was indeed, a splendid one. It came at the eleventh-hour when our fair city was gripped by demonic disease.

Very soon after, in 1891, the authoritative and very official Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was formed. Their business was to provide water supply, sewerage and sewage treatment for our fair city.

Until that time, this admired Queen City of the South had a rather unsavoury means for disposing sewage.

All liquid waste, one day to become known as liquid gold, was thrown into the streets to mix as free as those on the recline of debauchery at Madame Brussels in Bourke Street. My Melbourne town had ‘borne testimony to her evil reputation among travellers as one of the unhealthiest cities in the world,’ according to a journalist of the time.

We all saw it, couldn’t hide from it. Slums in Melbourne town as far back as the 1850s spored faster than mushrooms in an asexual orgy steeped in high humidity and moist damp. People lived in squalor, with no bathrooms or sewerage and in homes held together on scant thread. Rooves leaked and drafts blew through holes in walls. People crammed in close and often shared beds. There was little room to hang laundered washing out to dry and keeping it clean was nigh impossible.

slumsStrolling through streets and children playing outdoors meant an Irish jig within a cesspool of urine, night soil, kitchen and bath water, soap suds from washing clothes, drainage from stables and cow sheds, liquids from trades and manufacturers, and water running off rooves and overland. All would meet in open street channels made from stone, often running into earthen ditches as sluggish glob or collecting in pools that would flood and overflow in rain, giving it free reign to meander into waterways.

‘Tis no wonder typhoid and diphtheria proliferated. No adult or child was safe, even when many claimed it was purely in the slums. 'Twas an inclement falsity. From mine church cometh my dark demise.

 

Riverine Grazier, Friday 15 February 1889

MARVELLOUS SMELLBOURNE.

[by an original in the Adelaide Observer]

"Those who know say that Port Said is the champion filthy city of the universe. If we are to believe Mr Cosmo Newbury, Melbourne, which claims to be 'the Queen City of the South,' is in a fair way to thrust Port Said from that eminence" - Register.

“Bill,' said I to my erratic Friend, who's travelled just a bit,

"Name the strongest aromatic City you have ever hit.”

Then he bowed his head in silence, And a study that was brown,

And - when out of reach of violence - Said "I name your Melbourne town!"

“William,” said I, “thou art witty with the music of thy mouth!

Knowest thou that glorious city is the Queen of all the South?"

"Yes," he answered; "well I know it! Heard it till mine ears do ache;

And, believe me, gentle poet Still in this she takes the cake!"

Then I asked a chewing Yankee, Lantern-jawed and most uncouth,

One of that cadaverous lanky Sort who always tells the truth.

Wal, Siree, he kinder reckoned Melbourne's people like to blow,

So he'd mark her down as second, Just to give Port Said a show.

Then I asked a dark Egyptian, Who had sojourned in the East,

Answering the true description Swathed in linen like a priest;

Rarer far, he said, and rankers than others Melbourne's ware

Ah, she had a lot to thank her stars for in the way of air!

Then a frugal child of China for an answer I cajole -

One of those who can combine a head and tail upon one poll;

One who'd found a way of making both ends meet.

To him I cry –

And he says, with laughter shaking –

"Melbung smellee welly high!"

Then said I, the fates are in it! When will Melbourne's honours stop?

Others have no chance to win it, For she always comes out top!

Energy? She'd do without it! And ascribes it not to pluck!

This it is, and do not doubt it - Melbourne's wonderful for luck!

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