Tuesday, 19 April 2016

"We can live here"

We've been in Ohio nearly three years. Three years.
Neither my husband, who'd grown up in Orlando and DC, nor I, who'd grown up in a global city of 8 million people, had ever lived somewhere like North East Ohio. The closest I'd come were a couple of weeks spent with family friends in Western Michigan. The closest my husband had come was visiting his brother at university in Oklahoma.
Did we arrive with preconceptions? Yes, of course. He's east coast, big city. I'm a Londoner. There's a certain amount of unavoidable snobbery baked into both those world views. But there is also the very legitimate reality that the way one lives in big, metropolitan, cosmopolitan areas, the sources of pleasure, the expectations, the coping mechanisms, are very different to what one finds in the semi-rural rust belt. Putting aside judgments, it is simply true that, to an extent, a big city transplant out here is somewhat ill-prepared for this environment.
So there was some trepidation. Moving into the tiny town where the university I work at is based, just before the onset of one of the hardest winters in the region in years, did not help.
Perhaps the hardest thing to deal with initially was the isolation. In the winter especially, people don't leave their houses much. There are no pubs where one can find ersatz community as a newcomer. More subtly, people here are from here. Their families and friends from their whole lives are all nearby. Unlike in a largely transient city like DC or London, not everyone out here is desperate to make new friends. For newcomers, it takes a lot of work to build a social network, especially outside of work.
So it was hard initially. There were hard days, there were days when we both pined for our former lives in the big city. Yet also, from the beginning, there were good things: good jobs for both of us, good bosses who understood how hard life was sometimes, and, quicker perhaps than we thought, good friends. In this last regard, it helps that LBGT folk out here look after their own, once they find them.
And there are things to do. One has to drive more, and look harder, and develop new habits, but there are things to do. There are concerts and museums in Cleveland to explore. There are restaurants, ranging from country steakhouses unchanged since the '70s where you get an amazing steak dinner for 20 bucks, to fine dining restaurants. There are lakes and state parks aplenty. And there is space. And space means room to take up hobbies. I have my piano, my husband has a dark room in the basement and a painter's studio in the attic. We have two small yards, and for the first time in my life I can devote time to learning how to garden. There is cooking, and having friends over for dinner (as I say, our house is the best restaurant in our town, it's just hard to get a table).
For Easter, we had my husband's family over. Our large, old, slightly ramshackle, slightly run down but beautiful house has enough rooms that we had two couples over, each with their own room. On a beautiful, sunny Easter sunday, after service at the local episcopal church, I was finishing up supper in the kitchen. The family were out in the back yard, sitting around the table and drinking champagne. And it felt like home.
In the front yard, the daffodils and tulips I planted in the cold last days of fall have bloomed. When we moved to this house last October, I had also transferred to the soil a clematis and a rose bush I'd been keeping in pots on the balcony of our first place in Ohio. I trimmed them back at the end of winter, and they are growing like crazy. Soon the clematis will flower bright purple, and the rose bush will begin to put forth yellow flowers, as they will for years, even after we leave. We have left roots here now.
When I get up in the morning and look out on that front yard in the sun, like Tenar at the end of LeGuin's Tehanu, I know we can live here. I don't know that we will, but I know that we can, and that is an encouraging thought.

"One does not love breathing"

"Until I feared I might lose it, I never loved to read.
One does not love breathing" Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Two weekends ago I was in Washington DC with the husband. The weather, which was supposed to be cold, turned out lovely, one of those perfect DC days when the sun is warm but not hot, the sky is blue, and the exuberant mid Atlantic spring turns every yard and every park into a riot of colour.
We were staying in north east, just off H street, at a friend's town house. We've stayed there many times. In fact the husband lived there for the year we were apart after I had to move back to the UK after finishing my PhD. So I know the area well. On the Sunday morning (to overcome the over indulgence of the night before), I went for a walk in the glorious DC spring. Ostensibly, I went in search of coffee. In truth, I went in search of what has always been my third place.
I grew up (as I may have mentioned before) in the heart of a big city. A big city where driving is very much optional, and far from practical. From the time I was old enough, I walked with my parents throughout our neighborhood. I walked to the gated square at the end of the block for which we had a key. Then later I walked to Holland park. My school was a twenty minute walk away, so sometimes my older brother or sister would walk me home. At eleven, I was giving my own set of keys, and permission to walk to and from school on my own. And from that day, London was to me as the Shire was to Bilbo: a place to explore on foot. In my head I have a mental map of most of the center of that city. I have walked from Ealing to St Katherine Docks, and from Camden to Clapham.
Walking in London became my third place: the whole city, as long as I was on foot, a place for thought and escape, a place that was neither at home not at work but that was mine. Walking home from school, I would take detours through the parks if it have been a long day, or if it was a sunny day. I remember once stepping out of school into driving summer rain. Rather than go home, I went to Hyde park, and walked in the downpour until I was soaked through. Walking became how I process my thoughts, how I establish what's important, how I calm my nerves.
In French, there is a word for walking aimlessly in the city: "Flaner". The closest equivalent in English is to stroll, though one can stroll through the country, or one can stroll to a destination. "Flaner" can involve neither. "Flaner" invites, encourages serendipitous, aimless exploration of the city. "Flaner" is what results in stumbling on a tiny church park one has never seen behind one of London's busy shopping streets, or stumbling on the Monument to the great fire on a sunny day and climbing it.
As I was strolling in vaguely aimless search of coffee in DC that sunny sunday morning, I felt closer to home, and closer to myself than I had in long time. And I realised, not for the first time, how much this inability to walk chafes me living in Ohio.
One can, and I have, debated quite how inimical to walking my current situation is. But it was in DC that I realised it was not so much the physical activity of walking that I miss here. It is the impossibility of "flaner". When I lived in the small town (little more than a highway exit) where our university is based, there was literally no where I could walk from my doorstep, not effortlessly, not pleasantly. The roads had no sidewalks and narrow verges, cars went fast, and there were no paths through the countryside to explore, no byways. Even the state parks, pretty as they are, have limited walking options. Paths are short and disjointed, and one must drive to the state park which to me, limits the spontaneity. The counrtyside of France and England that I am used to has footpaths at every doorstep, leading to fields and forests and home again. My aunt's house in Alsace has the local equivalent of Bilbo;s map of the shire in it: each path marked from doorstep to mountaintop. I could write an entire blog on how my European hiking habits are poorly adapted to American hiking, even though the rewards of American hiking are breathtaking.
 Even back here in the city, the walking options are limited. The layout of most American cities, ravaged by the construction of transurban highways, is confusing to the pedestrian. One will quickly end up on a busy road, side walks vanish, and, for the most part, there are no shops to discover, no hidden pubs to find, no magnificent flower beds in tiny squares hiding behind rows of sedate houses.
And so, here in Ohio, I have been robbed of my third place. And I am often restless, frustrated, in ways that I cannot quite identify, until I remember how I used to deal with that feeling: by grabbing my keys and my wallet and walking somewhere, anywhere, through the streets of London, my own Shire.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Learning Bach to play Beethoven

I'm back on a piano playing kick. The urge has taken me and I feel the need to do something productive, but non work related. So I've dusted off the ivories and am trying to get a good half hour to an hour's practice in a day.
My long term goal is, as it has been for the past decade, to play the entirety of Beethoven's Moonlight sonata. It's been some years now that I've been able to play the first two movements passably to well (depending on time of day, phase of the move, and state of my motor neurons). But the third movement is this:

Technically, it's a very different beast to the previous two. Rapid finger movements in both the right and left hands, and essentially a style that is more baroque (and reminiscent of the harpsichord) then the other two movements. From a simple physical performance stand point, my hands cannot yet handle that sort of athleticism.
A few years later my mother sent me some pieces to practice that her piano teacher had recommended for me. One was a book of basic exercises I was familiar with, and hated. The other was Bach prelude #2 in C minor from his Well Tempered Clavier series, which is a series of preludes and  fugues written, in part, as exercises for the harpsichord. Unlike the other book of exercises however, these pieces are actually fun and pretty on their own.

So I'm putting aside the Beethoven, and focusing on this prelude (at quarter tempo, let's be honest). And while my aim is to be able to play the whole prelude, I'm also using it as a learning tool. I'm focusing on my finger work, and practicing my sight reading (which is terrible). I'm working on strengthening the little finger on my left hand, and making my movements quick and precise. These are all skills that will be vital for eventually tackling the 3rd movement of the Moonlight, but I'm working on them in a context that brings more immediate rewards.
In many ways, much of what I'm doing as a postdoc (though not all), is playing Bach. I'm funded out of my PIs R01 for now, so that means I didn't design this project. And my long term goals (by definition, as a postdoc is a training position of determinate length), are not going to be realised here. So much of what I am doing here is learning skills that I will need to fulfill my long term goals. Yet, on the other hand, I am also doing something that is important and interesting in and of itself in the science I am doing here. If that were not the case I would be as bored and resentful as I was playing scales on the violin. Finding the balance here, between learning what is needed for the future, and doing what is needed for the project now, is key.
Ultimately, I will move on from the Bach when I feel there is nothing more for me to learn from it, and I will tackle what I planned. But I will enjoy learning to play Bach (and who knows, maybe I'll take another detour, and another). And ultimately, I will move on from this postdoc and do my own, other thing. But I will enjoy doing this science while I learn.