Playing for Janie

Tonight, after she put her cello away, Janie tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Mom? Will you play for me?”

I looked up from my e-mail. “Play what?”

She held out the bassoon reed I’d bought on a whim when we’d picked up her cello at the music store.

I’ve acquired several of these whims over the years. I encounter one once in a while, aging bamboo held together with wired and coated thread, pristine in their plastic tubes. I look at it, think about it, tuck it away again.

I haven’t played, really played, the bassoon for almost fifteen years—and I don’t think I’ve opened the case for ten.  My point of pride is that I once played, a long time ago.

But see, I bought this reed  in front of Janie. Jane does not let go of things that interest her.  Music interests her.   And the idea that Mommy was a musician fascinates her.

I look at her hopeful expression.  I take the reed.  I sigh.  She bounds off to find the bassoon case in the back of my closet, buried in shoes.  While she’s gone, I stick the reed in my mouth to soften it up, unwilling to go find something to soak it in—why bother?

Oddly enough, this morning, over at Betsy Lerner’s place, I asked myself, in passing, why I’d quit music.  The answer was easy enough—I wasn’t talented, skilled, or interested enough to play professionally and there weren’t enough available opportunities—even for the player of a relatively uncommon instrument—to continue to be an active amateur.

It’s not particularly a solo instrument, not for someone at my level, or something to noodle around on without any particular purpose.  You don’t normally think of bringing a bassoon out at parties to impress your guests or at 3am to play out your existential angst,  unless  you truly hate your neighbors.

“All I see is this suitcase,” calls Janie. “It’s heavy.

“That’s it.  Bring it in here.”  She lugs it in, I set it on the couch, release the pitted catches.

The inside of the case smells a bit musty and some of the pads and one cork are off-color, but this is just to show my daughter what a bassoon really looks like, just for fun.  Just to see.

I put it together, slightly surprised I remember how.  I have two bocals—the curved metal tube that holds the reed— and when Janie holds them up, I choose one over the other without knowing why.

I hook the seat strap to the ring and perch on the end of the coffee table.  I adjust things to my liking, or what I think my liking should be, fit the reed on the end of the bocal, position my fingers, take a breath, blow.

The note—an F, I think—is louder than I remember, stronger than I thought it would be.

I try an F scale, since I’m there, and it sounds just like a scale, B-flat and all.  I try the lowest note on the instrument and it shakes the windows.  I try a high note or two, just for fun, just to see, and my fingers play the first bar and a half of The Rite of Spring, before the Centipede’s Dilemma kicks in and I lose the tune.

Janie is impressed anyway.

I send her to the piano to help me figure out what this note is, or that one, and when she starts picking out “Mary had a little lamb,” I join her, trying not to think too much about it.  She runs to get her recorder.  It’s in C, and I fumble around until I can match it, though I use the B-flat and pinch the reed because I don’t remember how to do a B-natural.

There’s clapping, and Sunny and my husband join us—they could hear us from downstairs. “That sounds good,” he says, almost as surprised as I am.  “Uh, I mean—”

“I know,” I say.  Isn’t that weird?”

“Play Twinkle Twinkle,” says Sunny.

And I do. 

My lips are buzzing now, and it’s beginning to frustrate me that I can’t figure out how to work all the keys, that I remember this much, but no more.  It’s better than I deserve, maybe, but still.  So I put it away, cleaning the pieces with cloths that should have been laundered a decade ago and belatedly recalling that bassoons accumulate as much spit as French horns—though bassoonists are usually more apologetic about it.

It should be cleaned, repadded, shined.  It doesn’t deserve to molder—literally—in a worn-out case.  This will be expensive for an instrument that most likely won’t be played as it deserves.

But instead of the closet, I set it along the wall next to my MIL’s venerable upright piano.  I toss the cleaning cloths in the laundry hamper.   And after I wash the tarnish off my hands, Janie and I search the Web for recorder and bassoon fingering charts, which I promise to print out at work tomorrow.

Just for fun.  Just to see.



“Why did you stop playing?”

I don’t remember.


Janie wanted to know what the opening to the Rite of Spring sounds like by someone who can actually play it.  On the way to a recording of that, I noticed this:

They’re called the Breaking Winds, out of the Eastman School of Music.  If you want to know what a bassoon (or four of them) can do when played by those who do have enough skill, talent and interest to be professionals and enough humor—not to mention upper arm strength—to pull off this kind of thing with utter aplomb, check out their Youtube channel.


Not so Random Thursday — the MIL Birthday Conundrum

Tuesday was random enough for the weekly requirement, so I’m breaking with ‘tradition’ to ask you all for help—even those of you who reached this site by googling cider recipes and newborn panda photos.*

Here goes:

What are my husband and I going to get my mother-in-law for her eighty-fourth birthday?

We’re already taking her out to dinner so I don’t have to figure out how to make chicken Marsala and we’re picking up pumpkin and/or cinnamon ice cream on the way home.  But we want to give her something to unwrap, too.  The kids are probably going to get her a mug with a version of Grandma is the Best on it, but the adults are fresh out of ideas.

She crochets, but isn’t interested in fancy yarn and has four spares of her favorite crochet hooks.

She loves the Cadfael mystery books and owns the entire set in paperback—maybe a set of the DVDs with Derek Jacobi?**

She loves to bake.

She’s a Cubs fan, but has a cap already.

She isn’t big on spa days.

She doesn’t drink.

She doesn’t wear t-shirts with pithy sayings.

She has “all the jewelry I need,” doesn’t have an inch a space for more artwork or family photos, and doesn’t listen to music much—nor does she go within three feet of any electronics more advanced than her cell phone, of which she is not fond.

She likes crossword puzzles, but we gave her a set of books and a dictionary last Christmas.

We have one week to figure it out.



*The one time I went for cute over content and it’s the third most popular post since I started.

**By which I mean starring Sir Derek Jacobi.  I doubt I could afford to have him hand-deliver the set, as marvelous a present as that might be . . .

Poetry Wednesday: Gaudeamus Igitur

What with one thing and another,* my thoughts this week turned to medical poetry. I didn’t have any on hand,** so I googled.

The first thing I found was “Poetry Ward,” a brilliant article written about five years ago by Dr. Danielle Ofri, who uses poetry to help both her patients and her medical students.

Poetry isn’t frivolous y’all.  It’s a vital connection.

Near the end of the article, I found a reference to “Gaudeamus Igitur,” a poem written by John Stone for the 1982 commencement ceremony of Emory University’s School of Medicine. The few lines Dr. Ofri quoted were so evocative, I had to find the rest.

John Stone was not only a respected poet, but a cardiologist who obviously had a deep understanding of the emotional complexities and paradoxes of practicing medicine. But I believe this poem will also resonate with any human being who accepts the responsibility for the welfare of another human being, whether as a healer, guardian, or caregiver.

The experience, as Dr. Stone explains, is full of joy and terror, brilliance and stupidity, wisdom and doubt, victory and tragedy—sometimes all at once:

Dr. Stone died in 2008 of cancer. I find myself hoping that his attending physician knew this poem.

During the course of my research, I found two fascinating things that I stuck here at the end so they wouldn’t interfere with your reading:

“Gaudeamus igitur,”or “So Let Us Rejoice” is the common name given to a popular European commencement hymn.  The formal title is “De Brevitate Vitae,” or “On the Shortness of Life,” which in my opinion couldn’t be more fitting for this poem.***

The explanation behind the “Christopher Smart’s cat” reference is flat-out whoa^:  Stone borrowed the form of his poem from “Jubilate Agno,” which was written by Christopher Smart while he was incarcerated in a mental asylum, with only his cat Jeoffrey for companionship.

Layers upon layers.


*I spent the morning taking the requisite Basic Life Support training so I can be a CPR-AED trainer for the city.  This is one of the most important things I will ever do.

**Except for that one about a dentist and a crocodile by Shel Silverstein, which wasn’t quite the thing.

***What may or may not be as fitting, depending on your interpretation,  is that the lyrics to the original song poke affectionate fun at the academic  life.  According to my research, it was used as a carpe diem drinking song in the 18th century.

^Your whoa may vary.

Puppets Against Banning Books, Eventually (PABBE)

I posted this first video during last year’s Banned Books Week, but I’m gonna do it again.

It offers a good explanation of why banning books isn’t a good idea and has a hungry sock puppet.  What’s not to like?


And for something a little more contemporary, I give you a video that highlights the most recently challenged books. No puppets, but the soundtrack is kickin’.

Five assorted things . . .

I will never do:

(because her warm up stretches would put me in traction):

I might do someday:

(while wearing my “Mind of a Ninja, Body of a Manatee” shirt, of course)

I will eventually visit:

(If Sarah P. or Downith has a spare couch I might borrow?)

I will use as a story prompt:

funny pictures history - The Refined Ladies   Jaunty Hat and Gun Club
(the one on the far right is named Jocasta—don’t ask me why)

I find inexplicably awesome:

(Why I married my husband: “That . . . is the coolest thing I have ever seen.”)

Anyone else want to play?