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A beautiful piece on death, dying and grieving written by a friend of my poet friend Adam’s wife Lee, who passed away a few days ago, way too young, way too soon:

Saying Kaddish

I’m sorry I never got to meet Lee, and I’m heartbroken for Adam and their children. I cannot help but think of my mother, who passed away when I was 16, and of all the children who grow up missing their mother, for so many reasons. I’ve spent my whole life searching for my mother. The other day, for the first time I saw some old home movies of my parents and grandparents playing with my sister and I when we were very young. It was amazing to see my grandmother smiling, something I don’t remember her doing much, and most especially to see my mother, young, beautiful and alive…. I know I’ll be watching that DVD again many, many times.

I have, until now, refrained from commenting upon Republican Candidate for Spokes-Vice President Sarah Palin and her oh-so-many commentworthy characteristics. I do have my opinions about Palin, but so does everyone else – and as far as I could see, everything I’d been thinking was already being said by someone else.

But now I feel I must speak up, being uniquely qualified to comment upon one particular facet of this multi-faceted candidate: Sarah Palin as Flautist.

This is in my bailiwick.

By now you may have seen the video of Palin playing “The Homecoming” during the Talent portion of the 1984 Miss Alaska competion (Though her name wasn’t Palin then, she was Sarah Heath.)

In case you yourself are not a professional flautist or music journalist like me, please allow me to give you the benefit of my expertise in evaluating this performance.

The MC introduced Ms. Heath, saying the piece she was going to play was arranged by “Sarah’s favorite artist, James Galway”. Unfortunately, the Galway influence was in no way evident in her performance.

Palin’s posture was good, and her flute position was generally good as well, but not her finger position. Among other things, she makes the classic rookie mistake of moving her fingers way too much, and most especially, sticking her left pinkie way up in the air. Good flute technique dictates keeping your fingertips close to the keys at all times, and using the absolute minimum amount of movement required to play each note.

It’s easy to see Palin’s stage presence, self-possession and charm in this video, as she smiles unwaveringly despite her generally horrid playing. If you watched the video with the sound off, you would probably think she was feeling good about a very successful performance. Her ability to put the best face on things in this way has obviously served her quite well over the years.

But with the sound on… well, that’s another story. Her breathing is shaky and uneven – like many amateur flautists – making her phrasing short and choppy, and her tone shrill and unsteady. More experienced flautists learn how to breathe through the stage fright everyone gets, so it doesn’t affect our playing.

There’s no passion or genuine artistic expression in her playing; what we hear here is a pretty rote delivery of (approximately) what’s written in the sheet music. Worst of all is Palin’s pitch – really, really bad pitch.

In all fairness, I must say that the live house band accompanying her is also pretty bad, especially in the pitch department, and the whole lot get progressively more out of tune as the song wears on. Unfortunately they’re all off-pitch in divergent directions, resulting in a painfully dissonant ensemble, rather than the sweet, slightly chaotic disharmony of, say, Lisa Simpson’s school orchestra.

All in all, I’d have to place Palin’s performance on a level with an okay grade-schooler, or a not very good junior high student musician. That said, as far as I know, we haven’t had any decent musicians among our Presidential candidates for quite a while now. Ah, for the days when politicans valued the arts!


“I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”
– Pres. John F. Kennedy, honoring Robert Frost, October 1963


The Campaign Gets Personal – Episode 1

Or: The Green, Green Groceries of Home

So Wednesday night I’m chillin’, watching Countdown with Keith Olbermann, and, as per usual, Keith is talking about John McCain’s latest gaffe, and all of a sudden, he says: “In front of the cheese case at the King’s Supermarket at the Westgate Mall in Bethlehem, Pa, the Senator tried to clear up any confusion….” etc. etc. And I sit bolt upright, look at the screen, and sure enough, there’s McCain in the local supermarket right near my parents’ house!

This is the grocery store I drag my father to any time I need ice cream or potato chips or seltzer or whatever else I’m craving that my parents don’t tend to keep in the house. I know this store and the Westgate Mall pretty well. It’s barely a mall by today’s standards, just a little strip mall. The supermarket is not that super either, it just happens to be the closest one. When I go with my stepmom to do a real grocery shopping, we always hit the Wegmans that’s a lot bigger and much better, but a little farther away. Though it’s not exactly small, King’s is much more of a Bethlehem small-town grocery store, while Wegman’s is a megastore that makes its own sushi, espresso and focaccia inhouse – not the kind of store I grew up with, or ever expect to see when I visit Bethlehem, though it’s been open for several years now.

I still remember Schoenen’s, the little grocery store I went to with my mom a thousand times – a family business, much smaller and humbler – off the main streets in a little neighborhood on the way to my high school. I remember its little parking lot – maybe 20 spaces – along the side of the store, and the big church and associated church school across the street on two sides of the store. I never knew anyone who went to that church, and its little plaid-skirted students always looked very foreign to me; but my mom always ran into people she knew at Schoenen’s, and always chatted with them – sometimes a little longer than I would have liked. That’s probably why I remember the outside of the store better than the inside, because that’s usually where I was while she was chatting. She was friendly like that.

Schoenen’s is probably long gone now. Since my mom passed away, and my dad remarried and moved with the family to a new home or two, this King’s store has been my parents’ neighborhood grocery for many years. And seeing this little bit of home on the national news really got me. The same thing happens when I see the inevitable footage of Syracuse snow every winter on the news, or deco hotels I recognize from around town on old episodes of Miami Vice, and most especially when I see footage of New Orleans. I remember after Katrina seeing a particularly wrenching photo of the devastated St. Roch Market – I always used to drive crosstown to buy crawfish there – theirs was the best!

What is it about the places we’ve lived that even a glimpse of a grocery store there can so stir these feelings of yearning, longing and general tugging at the heart? I don’t have any brilliant or profound insights here, I’m just noticing how much these little sightings affect me, and wondering…. No doubt others have written voluminously on this subject, so maybe I’ll just read some of what’s already been written, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel here.

Anyway, back to Bethlehem: I’m sure anyone who watched the news at all this week saw McCain in front of the cheese, and I must admit there was a certain amount of snarkiness among the media towards the cheese. And I must also admit that I felt a certain amount of defensiveness on behalf of my hometown cheese. What did the cheese do? Did anyone ask the cheese if it wanted to be on the national news? I don’t think so! It was just an innocent bystander!

Days later, everyone in the media is still talking about McCain and the cheese, for example this from Olbermann last night:

“Rule #1: Always stay away from the cheese.”

I emailed my father to let my folks know about their grocery store’s fifteen minutes of fame, and he wrote back:

“Yes, I was at Weiss-Kings and the secret service arrested me because they heard me say I am voting for Al Obama. Could U send 25K for my bail? Otherwise everything is OK.”

My father has also determined that Obama is actually Irish: i.e. O’Bama.

While McCain has been touring a variety of food-related establishments this week, Obama has – well, if you’re breathing, you know where he’s been this week. But in all the coverage, I haven’t heard anyone mention how cute Obama looked in a yarmulke. (Is there a rhyme in there? Obama’s Yarmulke? Maybe Adam Sandler will write a song.) (Yeah, I know, cheesy).

So thanks Keith, for being the only commentator to be so specific about the location of the cheese, and making the campaign just a little more personal for me.

The Campaign Gets Personal – Episode 2

Dear Daddy,

Rather than send you a card this year – I know you don’t really want one anyway, considering your long-held conviction that Father’s Day is just a marketing scheme cooked up by greeting card manufacturers – I am sending you this entry on my brand new blog. You get the very prestigious honor of being the first person ever to whom I am dedicating a blog entry!

I am grateful that you changed your Father’s Day Policy a couple years ago, and we are now allowed to mention the existence of Father’s Day in your presence, and even send you a card if we wish. I always wanted to celebrate Father’s Day in the past, but felt that the best way to honor you was to respect your wish that Father’s Day not be celebrated, at least not around you. However, this was frustrating for me…. I did celebrate Father’s Day in my own way, but always wanted to share it with you – and now I can! The fact that you changed your policy on this, after so many years, shows me that you are still open to change, and that means a lot to me.

You are not the father of all those Home Depot and Auto Zone Father’s Day ads. For some reason, I don’t see a lot of commercials telling people what to buy their professor father for Father’s Day! (platinum slide rule?) But that’s okay, because I like making my own presents. I hope you enjoy this one I created especially for you.

You have always been way ahead of your time, for example in your pioneering use of recycling – greeting cards, come to think of it – decades before the rest of us started to think about it. (By any chance, did this have anything to do with your aforementioned suspicions about greeting card manufacturers?)

So following your lead here, I have recycled the thoughts of others, and compiled a selection of some of my favorite quotes below, ones that relate to you in one way or another. I predict you will like some of them more than others… but they all make me think of you.

I have also recycled some of my own words – here’s part of what I wrote for you on the occasion of your 80th birthday a few years back:

To Daddy: Thanks for being intelligent AND reading MAD magazine, for loving bad jokes, toys, tennis, science fiction, Rube Goldberg machines, mathematical jokes, musical jokes, puns and palindromes… for playing all different kinds of music around the house, for playing a million duets with me, and for following in my footsteps into the world of computers. Thanks for brainwashing me against cigarettes. Thanks for being willing to change even when you didn’t know how, and being willing to face the challenges I’ve thrown down in front of you. Thanks for loving your work, and for always having a couch in your office for naps. Thanks for the hot fudge sundaes at Lehigh before Hebrew school. Thanks for the perpetual letters, notes and e-mails, and for all the precious things you’ve shared with me from your diaries and memoirs.

When I wrote this, I forgot to mention your reading me my favorite bedtime stories over and over again no matter how many times I asked, teaching me to ride a bike, doing my times tables with me so exhaustively that I still remember them today, teaching me to drive, and introducing me to everything from O Henry to Oscar Wilde. For all these things, and many more, I thank you….

I see you in myself in a million ways, and know that so much of what makes me who I am came from you: your values, interests, intellect, and constant explorations. I may not have been your best student, but I can’t imagine you had a greater impact on any of your countless accomplished students than you did on me (and Eleanor).

And as much as I have, in the past, rebelled against some of these things I got from you, I can see now that they are among my best qualities – and a few of my worst. I treasure the things we share – the jokes, musical research, cultural observations, wordplay, and so much more. I’m excited about our new songwriting collaboration, and touched that you accepted my invitation to write together. I hope we can do more of this!

I have tried many times over the years to tell you what you mean to me. I hope at least a little of what I’ve tried to communicate has meant something to you. And I hope that at least some of the things I’ve done in my life have made you proud of me.

So Happy Father’s Day, Daddy! This blog’s for you!

I Love You…..
Laura Sue

P.S. Get one of the grandkids to show you how to enter a comment and subscribe to the feed on my blog!

P.P.S. For those of you who don’t know my father, here’s a website that will give you a taste of his most famous creation/discovery: Smith Numbers You can see by the many scholarly articles written over the last 25 plus years listed on this page how widespread the interest in Smith Numbers is. To me, the most interesting thing about this phenomenon is that Smith Numbers are something my father came up with when he was just playing around. Although Smith Numbers have become famous in the math world – and even a bit outside it – I think my father feels his body of “real” mathematics work is more deserving of attention than this bit of recreational math. And having had a ringside seat to his dedication to this work over the years, I can certainly understand that feeling (even if I don’t understand the work itself). He recently proudly told me that Dover Books is planning to reprint his “Topology for Analysis”. While this and his other books have become standard required college texts, and thus have at least some guaranteed buyers, I have suggested he change the title to “Topology for Dummies”, which will no doubt sell a million copies and make him rich.


Quotes for My Father

Being a father is just a job: long hours, no pay, and at the end all you get is someone yelling: “You screwed me up!” – Homer Simpson, “We’re on the Road to D’Ohwhere”, The Simpsons, 2006

We do allowance in reverse in my home. Once a month they give me 20 bucks. And as a result, I’m a good Daddy. – Stephen Colbert, The Colbert Report, 4/3/08

President Bill Clinton’s prescription for 21st Century America: Giving through charity, and I believe, if I may say, I’m paraphrasing here, naps. – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show 9/20/07

Hercules: I know you want what’s best for your daughter, but this is her dream.
Althea’s father: I am trying to protect her!
Hercules: If you really want to protect her, then encourage her, support her. If you don’t let her dance, you will break her heart. – Hercules, “… And Fancy Free” episode, 1997

I still think Nature could learn to be a little more tolerant of vacuums. – Rob Miles

If we listened to our intellect, we’d never have a love affair. We’d never have a friendship. We’d never go into business … Well, that’s nonsense. You’ve got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down. – Ray Bradbury

Rituals? Ridiculous! My only ritual is to sit close enough to the typewriter so that my fingers touch the keys. – Isaac Asimov

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious. – Albert Einstein

There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats. – Albert Schweitzer

What, Me Worry? – Alfred E. Newman

There was a survey conducted by Esquire Magazine in 1965 which revealed that self-described college radicals ranked Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk among their favorite revolutionary icons right there with Bob Dylan and Che Guevara and Malcolm X. – Bradford Wright, author of “Comic Book Nation”

From the Prairie Home Companion Annual Joke Show:
When God was creating the world, he made many animals. When he got to the snakes, like all the others he told them to go forth and multiply.
“We can’t multiply,” the snakes said, “We’re adders.”

Think Globally, Nap Locally – Steven Colbert, The Colbert Report, 4/28/08

Actual e-mail exchange, March 2008:
Laura Sue: “Why did the physicist cross the road?”
Daddy: “The physicist crossed the road because the road was an inner product and his calculations required an outer product. (I can’t stop laughing!!!)”


Great Words from Great Wordsmiths

“I am the strings, and the Supreme is the musician.” - Carlos Santana

“What a wonderful life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner.” - Collette

“I have spent my days stringing and unstringing my instrument, while the song I came to sing remains unsung.” - Rabindranath Tagore

“A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” - Maya Angelou
October 2021