Old folk at lunch

Sunday, November 29, 2009

An aria to remember

I have once again been listening to my DVDs of the Glyndebourne Giulio Cesare. As always, I particularly enjoy Cleopatra's triumphant aria towards the end of the opera. It is probably not one of the "great" soprano arias but it is certainly one of the longest. And with Handel composing it is superb as well as long. And the Glynebourne performance is sung by an Australian lady! The immediate and huge applause that comes at the end of the aria is amply justified.

As I write this I am listening to the energetic and marvellous brass fanfare that introduces the end of the opera. Quite incredible! It brings tears to my foolish eyes.

I have of course been to Glyndebourne myself but the DVDs are nearly as good as being there.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Murray Fastiere and my academic past

Paul's recent questions about my early life have brought a few things to the front of my mind so I thought I might scribble some of them down.

Let me start by saying that I am no good at most things. I am hopeless at all sports -- even chess! And I cannot even open a can of something without cutting myself around 50% of the time. And, any time I pick up tools to do something in the carpentry line or the like, I always hurt myself.

But, as is common, I do have one thing that I am good at: Academic tasks in my case. The first intimation of that was in my Innisfail Primary school, where I was known as the "walking dictionary". I ALWAYS got 10 out of 10 on spelling tests and always knew the meaning of any new word that came up in our reading.

Then in junior High School in Cairns I was known as the "Walking encyclopedia" -- because I always knew the answers to any questions that teachers threw at us. One example of that was when we were reading something about ships (probably by Conrad) and "thudding" engines were mentioned. The teacher, Murray Fastiere, asked us what that was about. The rest of the class kept their heads down and their eyes on their books but I popped my hand up. I said: "Probably triple expansion engines". I was a smart bastard already by then.

Fastiere hastily said: "Yes, yes, reciprocating engines". He was a man of culture so I imagine that he knew nothing of the triple expansion cycle in marine steam engines.

I liked him. He wore a yellow sleeveless jumper and green pants when no-one else at that time did. I have been a devotee of sleeveless jumpers ever since. He spoke with what I thought was an Australian accent but it could have been a Home Counties accent -- as an educated Australian accent and a Home Counties accent are quite close. But from the surname he probably had a French father and he did often mention to us that he was a pupil of Marcel Dupre. NOBODY in Cairns knew what that meant! But he was in fact a good organist so Dupre obviously did him some good. He introduced me to Bach, and I can never forget that. I hope some day some relative of his reads this (via Google) and asks me about him before I die.

But I also got on well with my Ukrainian teacher of German, Leonard Gavrishchuk. His favourite saying was: "You must be precise" -- accompanied by an upraised thumb! I was probably something of a star pupil of his. So when the Junior German exam came around and I forgot to turn up, he sent a kid around on a pushbike to remind me. So I promptly got on my own pushbike -- dressed only in khaki shorts and an old singlet -- and arrived 1.30 hours late for a 3 hour exam. But I still finished with half an hour to spare! I knew the answers. I just had to write them down. And I eventually got an "A" in the exam concerned, of course.

But I did not go straight on to my senior studies. I worked for a few years. But in the end I decided that I needed to do my Senior (Matric) exam so I did it in one year in Brisbane as an evening student -- teaching myself for 4 out of 5 subjects. Evening students were supposed to take 3 years so I again did an academic task in a third of the time. One of the 5 subjects (Italian) I took up only 4 months before the exam depite not having done it for Junior. So I did 4 years work in 4 months as well as having a full-time job. In the circumstances, I think I can be excused for getting only a "B" in the exam. I clearly had a lot of self-confidence even to undertake such a task but it was clearly warranted confidence. I already knew well how easy academic tasks were for me. I also remember owning and regularly wearing a green suit -- complete with a rather furry green felt hat -- in that year.

After that I did my B.A. (hons) at UQ in the minimum 4 years even though the first two years I did as an evening student. Then I went on to do my Masters at U Syd -- where evening students were required to take 3 years. Guess what? I enrolled as a day student (even though I had a full-time job) and did it in ONE year -- that magical third of the time again. I remember that I used to turn up to seminars in a natty brown suit with 3 covered buttons -- which rather stunned everyone. I don't think I wore my green felt hat with it at that time, though! My input to the seminars was always well-informed and frequent, however, so I was treated with respect, garb regardless. Doing an M.A. in one year did not really stretch me, however, so I enrolled in Introductory Economics at Uni NSW as well. I passed but I forget the grade.

And when my Ph.D. at Macquarie came around I could really have beat the band if allowed. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation in 6 weeks towards the end of my first year there -- but I had to wait the minimum 2 years to apply for the degree. And I eventually got around 10 published academic journal out of that dissertation, so that was unusually strong proof of quality in it. A Harvard doctorate takes around 10 years on average but I doubt that many of them generate as many journal articles

I often wonder why Harvard Ph.D.s take so long. Maybe it is to ensure quality and thus protect the Harvard reputation. It might also be some sort of flow-on from the destroyed standards of American High Schools. Harvard have never acknowledged it officially to my knowledge but around a quarter of their freshers have to undergo remedial mathematics and English classes before they go on to their university studies proper. And Harvard get the pick of the crop from America's High schools! An American High School diploma these days is roughly equivalent to a Primary School pass of yesteryear.

And academic journal articles were where I did best of all. In my heyday, I was getting them published at around one a fortnight. The academic average is around one a year. And I was up against the handicap that most of my articles drew conclusions that ran contrary to the accepted wisdom. So they had to be of a very high standard to surmount that barrier!

So if I am not a born academic, no-one is. Maybe we are all good at something.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

An oratorio and a beard

Last Friday I went, as I usually do, to the annual performance of Handel's "Messiah" put on by the Bach society here in Brisbane at the magnificent Cathedral church of St John the Divine. If ever a building suited the music .... St John's is a sandstone cathedral in the Gothic style, said to be modelled loosely on Salisbury cathedral in England. It is rather marvellous to be in a such a vast stone cavern but an Italian would look around and wonder when the real work was due to begin. In the Northern European style, the walls are mostly bare and there is very little ornamentation or colour of any kind. It is an Anglican cathedral so the sermons are never much but the music is often good and they do a good ecclesiastical procession.

Anyway, the music was great as usual and I am still singing snatches of the "Messiah" to myself. Anne accompanied me, much to her satisfaction. She is a "going out" lady and she can never get me to go out enough so she appreciates the rare occasions when I do so.

Then last Monday Jenny put on a small "Bon voyage" dinner for Paul and Sue. They are off on a two-month overseas holiday, mostly in America, I gathered. They will be in NYC for Christmas so I told them to go to the Episcopalian Cathedral on Christmas morning. Neither of them are religious but nor are the Episcopalians -- but they should enjoy the show.

Jenny gave us Korean egg-rolled pork for dinner -- a family favourite -- complete with Kim Chee and Japanese ginger. Yum! No matter how much egg-rolled pork Jenny makes, there is never any left over!

We talked a bit about the various diet myths and Paul quizzed me a bit about my early life. So it was something of an evening of reminiscences. Joe updated me on how his Ph.D. studies in mathematics are going, which I like to hear. He seems to be forging ahead and quite engrossed in his reading. I think he is just as much a born academic as I am.

But the highlight of the evening was to inspect Joe's newly grown beard. He has been shaving it off ever since it started to grow so we had no prior idea of what it would be like. And it is red! He is a genuine "bluebeard". I was quite delighted. There is red hair on Jenny's side as well as on mine so we were rather hoping that he would be a redhead before he was born but that was not to be. Being a blond is pretty aspirational anyway. Women spend a lot of money going blonde. So although I wanted a "bluey" as a son, a 6' tall "bluebeard" is just as good, if not better. My father had red hair and was always known as "bluey".

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A soprano worth listening to

Although there are some marvellous arias for sopranos, I usually find contraltos much more pleasant to listen to. My favourite contralto aria is "Quae moerebat et dolebat" from the Pergolesi "Stabat Mater" (See here for a beautiful rendition of it as a duet -- in the setting of a beautiful Italian church).

But last night Anne and I were listening to "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" sung by Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny and I was rather mesmerized by her performance. Such a strong pure voice.

I couldn't find a video online of her singing it but to give you an idea of the song, there is a video here of a very attractive Norwegian soprano singing it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Paul and Joe

As everybody who knows both of us knows, my stepson Paul and I get on exceptionally well and always have done so. He is constantly falling out with his father -- and even his mother is disapproving of him from time to time -- but he and I just keep on getting on. Even into his 20s he would ask my advice on various things and would sometimes even take it! Pretty much every father's dream, I think. Why?

You can analyse feelings until the cows come home and not really get anywhere but I thought it might be worthwhile to note down a few stray thoughts anyway.

An obvious thing is that Paul and I are both very assertive. Very few people try to push us around but if they do we push back. And yet that is only a broad similarity. I am in general not much of a talker and Paul is very voluble so we are assertive in somewhat different ways. There were certainly some occasions, though, in Paul's childhood, when he saw me being assertive in some way and he recalls those occasions with great delight to this day. It helped legitimate his own instinct to be assertive. Since both his parents are unassertive, he needed a model that was more appropriate to how he himself felt.

I think another helpful factor is that I am not very judgmental in general. So where others would condemn Paul in some way, I just accept it. He is very much an individual so does tend to do some things that are outside the normal envelope from time to time but I do that too so I see his point of view and don't criticize him.

And I think that is one reason why I am just about the only person Paul listens to. It has been amusing over the years that people who want to persuade Paul of something have often asked me to speak to Paul about the matter. They realize that I am the only one who might influence him. Sometimes I do raise such matters with him and sometimes I just say that Paul has his own way and there is nothing wrong with it.

One thing that is definitely involved is the fact that Paul's religion/hobby is money. He has always been a lover of money and will do lots to get it. And he saw from early on that I was rather good at getting money so I earned his respect in terms of what was/is his highest value. So when we discussed things, my view was always treated with respect.

And we did discuss lots of things when he was a kid. And he seems to have found those discussions helpful. What I told him was congenial to his own instincts.

And I mentioned previously that it has now become clear that Paul and I are both great sentimentalists with an appreciation of the past. But that has emerged only in recent years. Paul and I got on very well before that was evident.

So in the end I can only say that there are important personality similarities between us and we get on for that reason. But just what those similarities are is probably best left for others to say.

A small caveat: Paul is in general a very positive thinker (And I think I am too) so, although he and his father used to fight like cat and dog when Paul was younger, Paul has in recent years developed a more positive view of his father. He sees things in Ken that he disagrees with or disapproves of but he sees a good side too and appreciates some of the things that Ken has done

I probably should mention that my own son, Joe, and I also seem to get on perfectly well and I have been able to help him on various occasions too. Joe has been Mr Independence ever since he could crawl, however, so he seeks my advice and assistance only when he has really hit a rock. But I am perfectly happy that he does that. What would upset me is if he had hit a rock and NOT sought my assistance. And, being very independent myself, I am certainly not going to complain about having an independent son.

And I think that the fact that both Joe and I are born academics means that I can help him in a quite old-fashioned way. In times past it was common for fathers to pass on a trade to their sons and various bits of specialized knowledge would be passed on as part of that. As it happens, Joe seems to do all the basics needed for success at university quite off his own bat but I probably reinforce his ideas in some ways about that and add a few ideas here and there. I certainly know what he is talking about when we discuss academic matters and you need a fellow academic for that.

There is a comments facility on this blog so anybody else with thoughts on the subject can add them. I did of course consult both Joe and Paul before posting this but my comments are my own.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A good time was had by all

Or so it seemed, anyway. Last night I put on a champagne, pizza and memories do for the 6 "kids" (all of whom are now in their 20s or 30s) plus those who helped bring them up plus current partners. So a small family do ended up with 17 people present around a long set of tables -- rather Italian in fact. But we have always had a lot of family occasions like that. The kids probably don't know it but in some ways they had a typical Italian upbringing -- though none of us are in fact Italian.

I had 10 pizzas delivered from the local Pizza Hut so all I had to do was make sure that I had plenty of my favourite Seaview champagne in the fridge. Jeff came over the day before to mow the lawn, set up the party flares etc. And the ladies brought desserts along, including some yummy trifle.

The theme of the evening was for everybody to tell stories about the funny bits they remembered from the 6 respective childhoods -- with Paul and myself taking the lead. I hope the partners present found it at least interesting and maybe enlightening. Those who were present at the time in which the stories were set certainly enjoyed it all. I was sitting opposite Lady Von for most of the evening and I could see that she enjoyed it from beginning to end. I think Timmy really enjoyed it too -- seeing he was in a lot of the stories concerned. I had lots of jokes and silly games with the kids when they were little but my "Two cents for blood" game was probably the funniest and Tim was usually the central character in that game, though he took it very seriously at the time.

Ken came well prepared with a small collection of things that the kids had written when they were young -- including a love-letter from Davey to Vonnie that praised her to the skies. I had thought that Ken was too unsentimental to keep such things but I obviously misjudged him. Ken really liked the idea of a family-tales night and several other people said to me what a good idea it was too.

We had the do in my recently returfed backyard with 6 party flares for illumination. Fortunately, the rain held off. Paul and his Susan seemed to be taking a lot of video shots so some of the stories should now be preserved indefinitely. I think one of the reasons why Paul and I get on so well is that we are both great sentimentalists. We appreciate the past. That also of course makes us both conservative politically.

I forgot some of the stories I should have told and others probably did too so I am thinking about having another such night some time in the new year in which everybody will be encouraged to make notes in advance of things that they remember. There might even be some "favourite" stories that people like hearing again.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A complex world

All conservatives agree that the world is a complex place that is very resistant to summarization. But sometimes it is also complex enough to be amusing.

A couple of weeks ago I arranged for my son Joe and me to have dinner together so I could point out to him a few things he should know about England -- on the safe assumption that he will go there someday.

I left him to choose the restaurant but he is (like me) very pro-Asian so he drove us out to Sunnybank Hills, which is almost entirely inhabited by people with straight and very black hair, good skin, patient attitudes and narrow eyes. It was almost like being in Asia. We were definitely the odd ones out.

Joe wanted to get us into a very good Japanese restaurant that he knows but there was a long queue of the said black-haired people waiting to get in to it so we went to a nearby Korean restaurant instead - where the food was of course first class.

So the mildly amusing thing is that we discussed England over Korean food amid East Asians! No roast beef or spotted dick in sight!

I did of course mention to Joe the importance of real ale and the inadvisability of shell-suits! I may even have mentioned the significance of Watford to him.