Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Tuesday Tonic - Make Your One Life Extraordinary!




"I was not argued out of faith - I was inspired out of it." Brandon Fibbs 

For your Tuesday Tonic today: a special treat from Plumbline Pictures. The elegant, inspirational and beautiful message of this video is only matched by its stunning visual beauty. Bonus: After the main video there is a seven-minute montage of iconic film images.

The video (linked below this post) is in HD. Do yourself a favor: close the office door, turn off your phone, bring the video up on full screen, turn up the volume and soak up the goodness. You'll feel relaxed and restored after this rejuvenating Tuesday Tonic!

Here is a transcript* of the video:


One Life...

As a Christian, I believed, as most persons of faith do,
that this life was temporary,
a sort of proving ground, in which we made ourselves worthy, through our beliefs and our deeds,
for an eternity spent with god in paradise.

The most critical decision anyone could possibly make, was to accept god's redemption
for their broken, sinful nature,
and to love others into the Kingdom of God.
Because this mortal existence was destined to evaporate in the blink of an eye
it was critical to understand the bigger picture
and recognize that only eternity mattered.

Absolutely everything else was superfluous.

All pleasure, all happiness, all love,
even all the good you did in this life
was to be jettisoned
if it in any way distracted you from your heavenly goal.

Pain and hardship was to be endured cheerfully
because the worst of it was nothing compared to the glory that awaited.
This life was merely a foretaste of things to come,
a trial run, an existential impostor, a pale reflection of future glory.

As an atheist, however, I have a very different perspective.

When I gave up a belief in god, I also relinquished any sort of claim on an afterlife
While such a surrender is not, by definition, required by atheism,
I have found as much evidence for life beyond death as I have for the god
who supposedly awaits us in it.
As with the concept of god,
I see far more persuasive evidence that the afterlife is an human construction
meant to allow us to pretend we can cheat death
and hold our tenuous mortality at bay.

The afterlife exists only within the pages of our ancient books;
we have no true evidence for it.

We have no reason to believe human beings have eternal souls
or that anything outlives the cessation of our wondrous but constantly degrading biological machinery.

Life is not some sort of launching pad for something greater.
The human story is far simpler
and far more profound:
this is the only life you and I will ever have. Right here. Right now.

The belief in an afterlife cheapens and diminishes the value of this existence,
and dehumanizes the people in it.

It hobbles our ability to live life fully
because we imagine there's something much better waiting in the wings. It's the ultimate greener grass.

If life is eternal, then where is the sense of urgency?
We take our pleasure and our pain less seriously.
Such a belief allows us to downplay our own discomfort, biding our time for relief later.

We consent, we surrender, we settle.

Such a belief gives us the ability to overlook injustice
because an omniscient god sees all and metes out punishment even after death.
But if there is no afterlife,
much less an ultimate judge keeping tally of our sins and transgressions,
it means we are responsible for our own choices, actions and deeds.

You are not some sort of spiritual marionette,
with the forces of good and evil pulling your strings.
No one made you do anything, and no one will absolve you of it later.
You are not born monster,
you become a monster through your own choices.

We must not shirk our responsibility to see justice done in the here and now.

Knowing that this life is all there is pushes you to live well,
not because of some reward or punishment, but because this is all you have.
The truth is, our desire to love brightly,
live fiercely,
hold death at bay
and mourn our dead
shows that, whenever we may claim to believe,
it's not how we actually live.

Look around you.

What you see is all there is or ever will be.
Don't neglect it. Don't trivialize what it offers or who you shares it with you.
The great American poet Walt Whitman said:
"O Me! O life!...of the questions of these recurring What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer: That you are here, that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse."
George Bernard Shaw said:
"Life isn't about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself."
Some people are terrified at the prospect of creating their own meaning and purpose.

They prefer to have something larger and smarter than themselves in charge.
Others, like myself, find it liberating.

You are the captain of your ship.

Your fate is in your hands.
You carve your own shape from life's marble.
While religion forces you into prescribed molds,
forbidding and punishing those who leak out into other shapes,
a life without faith has no prescribed limits.

Stop allowing religion to permeate you with fear,
and trick you into believing that your life must be lived within the tiny boundaries of suffocating ideology.

Your freewill is not the false freedom religion prescribes.
Don't live as if everything is predestined.
Your steps are not ordered.
You do not have a destiny.

You are not a automaton.

Nothing is written.

This is not terrifying, it is emancipating.

It is one of the great privileges of being human.

Instead of working toward some ephemeral reward,
turn those energies to the here and now.

Seize this empowerment.

Decide for yourself.
Your world is moldable.

You can change it.

It responds to your touch.

Death could come for us at any second.

We are breathtakingly fragile.

Recognize that you are human, that you are mortal,
that your time here, in cosmic terms, is a blip of a blip.
But that is what makes us so precious.

An eternal being is not rare or special.

Instead, our lives are defined by our limitations.

We are exquisite exactly because we are rare,
because we are born, bloom and perish.

And when this life ends-
and it will end for us all, prince and pauper-
all we experienced, all we loved, all we learned, all we changed,
will vanish.

This is not a hopeless situation, as some assert.

It merely transfers importance from there to here.
It exchanges false hope for present actions.

When I die,
my body will disintegrate back into the atoms which make up its constituent parts
I will, once again, become stardust.

I will feed the cosmos,
and I find that breathtaking.

You are but an infinitesimal speck in a Cosmos that has not the agency to know or care of your existence.

And yet, you -finite, fallible you-
are able to take it in, to investigate it,
to examine it, to interrogate it, and even,
to some degree,
to comprehend it.

You possess the most special power of all:
a human brain capable of rational thought.

The ability to reason.

That is what makes you marvelous.

It is what sets you apart from all the other animals sharing this planet with us.

You can peel back mysteries and see the clockwork of the Cosmos.

That should make you feel...

massive!

You only get this one chance
this one chance to experience this exquisite planet.

The world is vast and full of wonder.
Replace judgment with curiosity and explore.
Be famished, every day, to learn something new.
Love incandescently and be loved the same in return.
Laugh as often as possible.

Instigate happiness-
for yourself and for those around you.

Aid in transforming the suffering of others whose brief flicker in this universe may be one of pain and anguish.

Stop judging others and trying to control how they live and who they love.

Stop killing time, treading water and running in place.
Stop limiting yourself.
Risk standing out.

Dare to be unique and unfettered.
Dare to dream big and live even bigger.

This is it. This is all you get.

One life.

No exceptions.

It's not for the timid,
but it rewards the bold.
How will you make your life...
extraordinary?!


- Brandon Fibbs, January 2, 2013

I can hardly believe that this video has only about 6,600 views - I hope NiftyReaders will share the link and do something about that! (This video is a feast for the eyes: the niftiest way to view it is to turn off the CC and just take it all in).




* transcript via transcriptsearch.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday Music - Sisters!
















Today's Monday Music break is in honor of my sister, who celebrates a birthday today!

Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen (both parts sung by Rosemary Clooney): Sisters!

Happy Birthday, Sis!



Friday, September 27, 2013

Thank Gods It's FreyaDay!






























Good Day, Humans.

It is a glorious early fall day and it ought to be a very good day.

But it is not.

Why?

Look at us!

My human has shut us all up in her study to write.

Just look at us! Buried indoors while the sun shines outside!

Do you see that door, Human?

Do you see that glorious sunshine just outside there,

just beyond our reach?

This will not do! I must put my paw down.

Wait! She is getting up! She must have heard my impatient remarks!

She is closing that infernal machine!

We are going outside!

I am always so gratified when my Human listens to my wise words.

Good day, Humans. Yes, it IS a good day!

Thank gods it's FreyaDay!

That's betterrrrrr!

A wish

Of all our sunny world
I wish only for a garden sofa
where a cat is sunning itself.

There I should sit
with a letter at my breast,
a single small letter.
That is what my dream looks like.

- Edith Södergran (1892-1923)
   poet and photographer of cats
   via Cultural Cat








Tuesday, September 24, 2013

It's National Voter Registration Day!






















Rachel Maddow reminded her readers this morning that today is National Voter Registration Day. Seems like a very good time for a Nifty PSA!  Here is a little background about the currently dismal track record of our American citizenry regarding the exercise of our right to vote, and a little more about the dangers of allowing that dismal record to continue. Below, you'll find some useful links to learn more. 


"In the United States, voter registration is the responsibility of the people, and only 70 percent of Americans who are eligible to vote have registered." (RegistertoVote.org)

Let's do the math: There are more than 300 million citizens of the United States. 30% of 300,000,000 is 90 million people.  Even if only half of those people are over 18 years old and eligible to vote, there would be 45 million eligible voters who have not yet registered to vote.

Among the 70% of eligible citizens who have registered to vote, the number who actually do vote is shockingly low. The per centage of actual voters by age cohort ranges from less than 30% for registered 18-29 year olds, to a high of just over 60% for 60-69 year olds.  There is not a single age cohort from age 18-49 years old which has a voting record of more than 40%.

Why is it that in a nation that fought a historic battle for independence - not to mention the right to representative self-government - so few of the people today actually exercise that right by voting?  In a world where self-government and constitutionally-guaranteed individual freedoms are a rare and precious commodity, it beggars belief that people who have it do not appear to cherish it and fail to guard it vigilantly. The assumption seems to be that gains once made can never be lost. But millions of Americans are confronted with another, grimmer, reality.

"...that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address)

The underpinning ideal of our democratic republic is that the government is of the people, by the people and for the people, and our method of ensuring this as a people is through our constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. The people are empowered to fire legislators who do not represent their best interest. This power of the people is meant to balance the power of the corporate and religious elites who usually succeed in buying control over society - thus using it to further their own ends at the expense of the people - unless they are prevented from doing so by robust legal protections. The great American experiment was the first time in human history that a serious attempt was made to prevent political power from becoming concentrated into a few hands, where it can be abused. Wealthy aristocracies and priestly classes had controlled every society on earth until the American republic came into being. Tearing down the scaffolding which supports gross economic and political inequality is the very foundation of what makes America exceptional and it is the heart and soul of the American Dream. The United States became a beacon of hope and opportunity for ordinary people all over the globe - and it still is today - but the pressure has never ceased from conservative groups determined to return us to the medieval kind of social, political and economic inequality that has historically been the norm for human societies.

The balance of power between regular working people and powerful elites can only be maintained when the people vote. Various laws have been enacted over the centuries to try to protect this balance by protecting the rights of individual citizens against powerful elites, but the tension is always there, with the powerful constantly chipping away at citizen protections. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act  thus opening the door once more to the kind of voter suppression that the powerful can and will force onto the less-powerful whenever it is given the opportunity to do so. Within weeks, several states rushed to pass restrictive voting laws which will disenfranchise thousands of eligible American voters.

These voter suppression laws are written and passed by legislatures filled with representatives hand-picked by enormously powerful and wealthy corporate and religious groups in order to ensure an outcome which will suit their own interests and not those of the people of the United States. In a democratic Republic, the idea that corporate or religious elites could rise to such power and influence that they could establish a de facto feudal economic system and authoritarian theocracy - almost exactly the conditions over which this country fought the War of Independence - is startling.  It should only be possible if a majority of the people allow it to happen, through ignorance, through apathy or through intimidation.

Ignorance and apathy have been manifestly evident everywhere. Even people who vehemently describe themselves as "not racist/classist" nevertheless point to racist/classist justifications for these profoundly unAmerican laws and believe them to be simply "common-sense". The most frequently cited justification for these laws (and denial of their role in voter suppression) is some version of "I can't drive/buy liquor/open a bank account without a driver's license and neither can anyone else so I don't buy the argument that these people can't get a license!"

The claim that one cannot function in society without a license (and therefore it is already necessary for everyone to have one) is false, but there is also a subtler and more deeply disturbing denial of the truth by Voter ID supporters. Most people who support Voter ID refuse to accept the fact that voter fraud is almost non-existent (therefore eliminating the only justification for these dangerous democracy-crushing laws) and they also deny that there is any hardship involved in procuring a driver's license.

The reality is that thousands of Americans neither have a license nor can afford to get one. Many thousands of others choose not to drive and also do not wish to purchase a driver's license.  Many thousands of others are denied a driver's license - due to age or infirmity, for instance. These people can and do function in our society every day. Yet, millions of their fellow citizens are comfortably prepared to strip these citizens of their right to vote.

Gee, you don't suppose there could
be a politically-motivated strategy
behind voter ID laws?
There are fees which must be paid to obtain a driver's license. There are fees to keep the license valid year after year. The licensing process requires documents that many thousands of Americans simply do not have in their possession - original birth certificates, for example. Obtaining these documents costs more money. And time. Usually, obtaining those documents requires providing even more documents or proof which many thousands of Americans either cannot get (because they no longer exist or never existed due to clerical failures), or cannot afford to get because - once again - obtaining official documents always involves paying fees. For many thousands of American citizens, the fees involved are prohibitive. For many thousands more who do not intend to drive a vehicle, the fees are both prohibitive and senseless - why should any American citizen be forced to purchase a driver's license when he or she does not drive?

The "common-sense" apologist for these vote suppression laws argues that it is just one of the expenses that citizens must pay to get the drivers license without which no one can function in American society. The fact is that many thousands of people can and do function in American society without a driver's license, but the ones who do not have one or choose not to have one are being penalized with what is essentially a poll tax - they will be forced to pay for an unwanted or unaffordable piece of ID strictly so that they will not be denied their right to vote.

The argument for the so-called "free" state ID's is similarly flawed. These alternative state voter IDs are not free because in order to fulfill the documentation requirements to get that "free" ID, the citizen must pay numerous fees to obtain that documentation. You can't get the ID without the documentation and you can't get the documentation without paying fees. Once again, if the only reason to purchase these documents is to obtain the "free" state ID in order to exercise your right to vote, then that ID is a poll tax by another more politically correct name. These laws unfairly target the poor, the young and the elderly. It is the young and the poor that voter suppression advocates would really like to shut down, and with the help of the Supreme Court, they may very well succeed.

Will the American people allow this to happen?

Don't just stand there... do it!
When all eligible voters in the country perform their civic duty at every election, and when all eligible voters make it their business to stay informed about the issues that face the nation, then it becomes far more difficult for any one group, no matter how well-organized and determined, to seize control of the government. That is what Americans must do.

Make sure you are registered to vote. Don't assume that you are registered. During the 2012 primaries, thousands of people were shocked to discover that their names had been stricken from the voter lists without their knowledge. Florida has purged nearly 200,000 names from its voter list, including seniors and veterans and it continues to purge. Pennsylvania tried to deny voting rights to nearly 10% of its eligible citizens. The 2013 ruling by SCOTUS has opened the door to further restrictions which could prevent tens of thousands of eligible voters in dozens of states from exercising their right to vote. That is the intended outcome behind these laws: there really are groups of your fellow citizens who feel that large numbers of Americans should be deprived of their right to vote.

Voter suppression threatens our Republic, but there are still enough voters to put a stop to it if only every citizen who can vote, does so. There are as many eligible voters who do not vote as there are who do vote - more, in fact. Voter turnout could potentially be double what it has historically been. The current voter suppression tactics - ambitious though they undeniably are - would not disenfranchise enough people to overcome the will of the people if only the majority would take a stand against these undemocratic actions, register now and vote in every election.

Your vote counts. Your vote can help save the USA - seriously. It really is that important.

Remind your friends and family to be sure to register and be sure to vote.

Resources for Eligible Voters:

Register to Vote  General information about voter eligibility (and how to find out if you are eligible) as well as state regulations on when and where to vote, with appropriate direct links.

Fair Elections Legal Network: Gives an overview of recent states' legislation designed to further restrict voting rights and provides resources and strategies to help citizens to protect their rights.

Voter ID Toolkits:  Practical help in navigating the "free" state ID process. State-specific toolkits for Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Texas.

Can I vote?  Need help with voting? You've come to the right place. This nonpartisan web site was created by state election officials to help eligible voters figure out how and where to go vote. Choose a category below to get started.

Rock the Vote   Rock the Vote is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization in the United States whose mission is to engage and build the political power of young people.

Our Time.org   Declare Yourself is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign to empower and encourage every eligible 18-29 year-old in America to register and vote in local and national elections.

League of Women Voters:  The League is proud to be nonpartisan, neither supporting nor opposing candidates or political parties at any level of government, but always working on vital issues of concern to members and the public.

Register To Vote. org   RegistertoVote.org is a nonpartisan organization committed to reaching the estimated 30 percent of eligible Americans not registered to vote. We simplify the voter registration process, making it faster and easier for you to get involved and become an active voice in our democracy.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

It's The First Day Of Autumn!






























At 20:44 GMT (3:44 PM here in CST), the earth tilted just so and our planet experienced the second equinox of 2013. It is officially autumn in the northern hemisphere!

The September Equinox occurs each year on either September 22, 23 or 24. It is the moment when the angle of the earth is such that the direct rays from the sun cross the imaginary line we call the equator. On this date (as in March), the hours of daylight and sunlight are roughly equivalent.

From this point until the winter solstice in December, we in the northern hemisphere will watch our daylight minutes dwindle a little more each day as our nights lengthen. Those lucky ducks down under will experience the opposite - this is their spring equinox so the days will get longer there.

Here comes the autumn and with it, all of the wonderful family holidays that brighten the darker months of the year.


To Autumn
 by William Blake

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou mayst rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

"The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.

"The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees."
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.


For your musical inspiration today in the first moments of autumn, here is Julia Fischer accompanied by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, performing Vivaldi's Autumn. The performance is being made at the National Botanical Gardens in Wales.  Take a few minutes to enjoy!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Thank Gods It's FreyaDay!
































Cats are Wonderful Friends

Gentle eyes that see so much,
paws that have the quiet touch,
Purrs to signal "all is well"
and show more love than words could tell.
Graceful movements touched with pride,
a calming presence by our side
A friendship that takes time to grow
Small wonder why we love them so.

Author Unknown



Good Day, Humans.

I've been very busy all summer.

We have moved!

Again. Yes, again!

One wonders if my Humans are completely mad.

Not I, of course, but one might wonder.

Or two. The twins wonder about everything

every second of the day.

But not I.

For I am...


The Cat of the House

Over the hearth with my 'minishing eyes I muse; until after
the last coal dies.
Every tunnel of the mouse,
every channel of the cricket,
I have smelt,
I have felt
the secret shifting of the mouldered rafter,
and heard
every bird in the thicket.
I see
you
Nightingale up in the tree!
I, born of a race of strange things,
of deserts, great temples, great kings,
in the hot sands where the nightingale never sings!

Ford Madox Ford


Thank gods it's FreyaDay!




Thursday, September 19, 2013

Isn't That Just Ducky!






























Hello there!

Look at me! I am on top of the world!

I can see the sea and the sun and the hills and the sky!

Look at me! Look at the sea and the sun and the sky!

Mama and me walk on the paths nearly every day and I love it!

I am on top of the world!

Let's go again, Mama! Let's go!

Isn't that just Ducky!




Wednesday, September 18, 2013

More Than A Second String Queen!



(via A Capella Science - shamelessly ripped off Pharyngula)

Love science? Love Queen? 

Sit back, turn up the volume and take in the latest tour de force from a rising star in science education media.

Tim Blais has done it again! If you thought he could not outdo himself after "Rolling in the Higgs", you are in for a treat! This video has everything - musical talent, humor, an Einstein puppet and best of all - it condenses some difficult science concepts down to a nearly comprehensible 4 minutes! Sure, I still haven't a clue about string theory, (hello, people go to university for years to try to understand that stuff!), but oh it is thrilling to see the first glimmers of that distant light!

For your Wednesday Wonder:  Bohemian Gravity!

Bohemian Gravity

Is string theory right?
Is it just fantasy?
Caught in the landscape,
Out of touch with reality
Compactified
On S5 or T*S3

Space is a pure void
Why should it be stringy? 
Because it's quantum not classical

Nonrenormalizable
Any way you quantize
You'll encounter infinity
You see

Quanta
Must interact
Via paths we understand
Using Feynman diagrams
Often, they will just rebound
But now and then they go another way
A quantum
Loooooop
Infinities will make you cry
Unless you can renormalize your model
Of baryons, fermions
And all other states of matter

Curved space:
The graviton
Can be thought of as a field
comic by xkcd

But these infinities are real
In a many-body
Loop diagram
Our results diverge no matter what we do...
A Quantum Soup (any way you quantize)
Kiss your fields goodbye
Guess Einstein's theory wasn't complete at all!

I see extended 1-D objects with no mass
What's their use? What's their use? Can they give us quark plasma?
What to minimize?
What functional describes this
String?
Nambu-Goto! (Nambu-Goto)
Nambu-Goto! (Nambu-Goto)
How to quantize I don't know
Polyakov!
I'm just a worldsheet, please minimize me
He's just a worldsheet from a string theory
Reperametrized by a Weyl symmetry!

Fermi, Bose, open, closed, orientable?
Vibrations
Modes! They become particles (particles!)
Vibrations
They become particles (particles!)
Vibrations
They become particles (particles!)
Become particles (particles!)
Become particles (many many many many particle...)
Modes modes modes modes modes modes modes!
Oh mamma mia mamma mia,
Such a sea of particles!
A tachyon, with a dilaton and gravity-vity-VITY

(rock out!)

Now we need ten dimensions and I'll tell you why
(anomaly cancellation!)
So to get down to 4D we compactify!
Oh, Kahler!
(Kahler manifold)
Manifolds must be Kahler!
(Complex Reimannian symplectic form)
If we wanna preserve
Any of our super-symmetry

(Superstrings of type I, IIa and IIb)
(Heterotic O and Heterotic E)
(All are one through S and T duality)
(Thank you Ed Witten for that superstring revolution and your new M-theory!)

(Maldecena!)
(Super-Yang-Mills!)
(Type IIB String!)
Dual! Dual!
(In the AdS/CFT)
(Holography!)

Molecules and atoms
Light and energy
Time and space and matter
All from one united
Theory

Any way you quantize...

Lyrics and arrangement by Tim Blais and A Capella Science
Original music by Queen


String Theory 2  (artwork via fractalpages)

Friday, September 13, 2013

If Clara Schumann Had Only Been A Man!



























“And if you were to be forgotten as an artist, 
would you not be beloved as a wife?"


I came across this google doodle while researching material for my article for Women's History month. When Google created the doodle to celebrate the birthday of Clara Schumann last September, the irony of the picture was probably unintended. The lovely image of a serene-looking woman surrounded by a boisterous group of children is both appealing and insightful. The picture is whimsical and delightful but, when viewed through the prism of the historical experience of creative women, there is a disturbing subtext. The viewer's first impression of the woman pictured is not of an acclaimed musical genius, but of a mother.

Although Clara Wieck Schumann was a world-renowned concert pianist whose career spanned over 60 years and whose influence is still felt today in concert repertoire, the piano keyboard which forms the bottom border of the doodle almost seems like an afterthought. The focal point of the doodle is a woman so thoroughly surrounded by her children that they are literally hanging off her body and hampering her freedom of movement. Even a woman like Clara Schumann, who had managed to carve out a bit of personal fame in a thoroughly masculine world, was ultimately depicted primarily in the role which her patriarchal culture insisted was the only legitimate one for women.  As an illustration of the recurring motif in women's history, this google doodle really fits the bill.

Maria Anna Mozart (30 July 1751 – 29 October 1829), a child prodigy like her younger brother Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a musician of uncommon ability. Before her artistic opportunities were abruptly cut off, it was Maria Anna, not Wolfgang, who often received top billing at the Mozart family recitals performed in Salzburg and more than 80 other European cities in the second half of the 18th century. By the time she was 11 years old, contemporary music critics were marveling at the perfection of her technique, reporting that her performances were "masterly". Her father, Leopold, had begun instructing her in music at the age of 7 or 8 and some of his surviving letters mention his pride and astonishment at her talent.

My little girl plays the most difficult works which we have … with incredible precision and so excellently,” her father, Leopold, wrote in a letter in 1764. “What it all amounts to is this, that my little girl, although she is only 12 years old, is one of the most skillful players in Europe.” 
Maria Anna Mozart: The Family's First Prodigy, Elizabeth Rusch, Smithsonian.com, March 28, 2011.

It was because of Maria Anna's influence on the young Wolfgang that his talents came to light at a very young age and it was because of the children's musical interaction that Leopold decided to begin Wolfgang's musical instruction much earlier than was customary - probably greatly increasing Wolfgang's ability to develop his musical aptitude. Nannerl, as Maria Anna was called by her brother, is known to have transcribed some of Mozart's earliest compositions (before he knew how to write music himself) and it is highly likely that she collaborated with him on some pieces. She composed works of her own, as well.

However, careers in musical composition (like any other career) were forbidden to young women in the 18th century - even for a girl described as a "prodigy", "virtuoso" and "genius" by the 18th century men who had been in a position to evaluate her talent. When young Wolfgang innocently announced after a performance one day that the composition they had just played was Maria Anna's, their father was scandalized. He ordered his daughter never to compose again.

While Maria Anna obeyed her father's - and society's - command that she retire from performing after she reached marriageable age and devote herself to more "womanly" pursuits (marriage, raising children and keeping house), it is known from Wolfgang's letters that she continued to compose in private throughout her life. It is possible that another Mozart might very well have contributed musical gifts to humankind that could have rivaled those of her celebrated brother, but we will never know for sure because not a single piece of her work was saved. She disappeared from public life and would have disappeared forever from history had she not been the sister of a very famous man who happened to mention her work in his letters.

What must it have done to this hugely talented woman to have been forced to give up all hopes and dreams of a musical career? Mozart's biographers usually mention that he and Nannerl drifted apart in adulthood - and that she is believed to have suffered from depression after her marriage - but the reason why this might have happened apparently arouses little curiosity and even less scholarly consideration. Even an armchair psychologist could probably discern that the frustration and emotional pain of being forced to suppress her enormous talent very likely resulted in bouts of depression as well as some unavoidable jealousy which could have contributed to the distance which grew between the once-close siblings. Maria Anna had to watch her younger brother receive the support and encouragement from their family that she herself had been cruelly denied, and as his renown increased, it is easy to imagine that Nannerl's painful frustration probably did, too.

Another woman whose existence has thankfully been remembered was another musical prodigy whose talent eclipsed that of her famous younger brother in their early years. Fanny Mendelssohn (14 November 1805 – 14 May 1847), eldest child in a distinguished Hamburg family, exhibited both a passion for and outstanding ability in music at a young age. Visitors to the Mendelssohn's salons usually expressed equal admiration for both Felix and Fanny but composer Carl Friedrich Zelter (who instructed the Mendelssohn children in music) recognized Fanny's artistic genius and singled her out for high praise.

"He (Abraham Mendelssohn) has adorable children and his oldest daughter could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special"
Carl Friedrich Zelter (Fanny Mendelssohn's music teacher), in a letter to Goethe, 1816.

Although it has been established by music historians that Fanny's virtuosity at least equalled and possibly even surpassed her famous brother Felix's, the strict rules of society circumscribed her artistic horizons just as it limited the opportunities for intellectual and creative fulfillment for all women. While under her father's control, her only creative outlets were her performances at private homes in front of small groups of trusted friends and family members. Fanny's sole documented public performance was for a charity benefit in 1838 where she played her brother's first piano concerto.

Unlike Maria Anna Mozart, however, Fanny Mendelssohn and her acclaimed brother remained close throughout their lives. This may have been partly due to the fact that Felix never failed to seek Fanny's expert opinion on his own compositions and he followed her advice when she recommended revisions. There is some evidence that they may have collaborated on some works, too, including an opera. The sincere respect that Felix showed his sister no doubt helped to secure their sibling bond even after any hope of pursuing her own musical aspirations that Fanny may have had were bluntly dashed by their father.

Music will perhaps become his (Felix's) profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament, never the basis of your being and doing.”
Abraham Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, in a letter to his daughter Fanny, 16 July, 1820


Fanny was also fortunate in that she married a man who encouraged her to continue to compose music - her husband, Wilhelm Hensel was an artist who often illustrated her musical compositions. Reviving a family tradition begun by her great aunts and continued by her own parents, Fanny was able to perform these works alongside her brother's at private salons she hosted at their home in Berlin. The general public, however, disapproved of the idea of a woman composer, so Fanny's talents were rarely on display to any wider audience. On a couple of occasions, however, Felix had some of her songs published under his name. 

Although no musical profession was considered a suitable occupation for women during most of her lifetime, toward the second half of the nineteenth century attitudes had begun to gradually shift and Fanny had the joy of being one of the first women to have any of her compositions published. During her short, prolific lifetime, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel produced over five hundred musical works, of which a handful were published before her death in 1847.

Biographical blurbs about famous people tend to gloss over the real life challenges experienced by their subjects. Rattling off a list of accomplishments in the glib language of academia often inadvertently conveys a false sense that the person's life was a neatly knotted string of isolated wins along a lifespan where laughing, crying, living and dying were merely blips along the way. But, when one takes the time to read between the lines and think about the events in a life - the brief references to pregnancies, childrens’ births and deaths, illnesses and upheavals; the casual mentioning of war, plagues and economic turmoil - it is impossible not to realize that human lives are more like a tapestry of interconnected relationships and momentous events. 

An accomplished person’s “wins” could have been thanks to or in spite of some of those relationships or events, but they are never unaffected by what is occurring in the rest of a person’s life.  Notable women in history were no exception to this, but there is still a tendency to report their contributions and achievements as if they occurred in a vacuum.

“Composing gives me great pleasure... there is nothing that surpasses the joy of creation, if only because through it one wins hours of self-forgetfulness, when one lives in a world of sound.”
—Clara Wieck Schumann


Clara Wieck (13 September 1819 – 20 May 1896), was yet another musical prodigy whose ability to develop her prodigious talent as a pianist and composer was abruptly curtailed upon her arrival at young womanhood. We know about her thanks to her marriage to Robert Schumann, a less accomplished pianist than Clara was, but a gifted composer who went on to enjoy considerable acclaim, largely thanks to Clara's promotion of his works.

Clara Wieck Schumann bore eight children within thirteen years, and eventually became the main breadwinner for her family as her husband withdrew deeper into music while battling his psychological demons. While raising her large brood (virtually alone because of Robert's illness), she resumed her performing career to support the family, and was instrumental - some would say indispensable - in introducing and popularizing Robert's compositions in European society.


Clara has composed a series of small pieces, which show a musical and tender ingenuity such as she has never attained before. But to have children, and a husband who is always living in the realm of imagination, does not go together with composing. She cannot work at it regularly, and I am often disturbed to think how many profound ideas are lost because she cannot work them out.”

 - Robert Schumann

The domestic challenges and responsibilities that she faced and conquered are testimony to Clara's inner fortitude but she was not just a strong and capable wife, mother, businesswoman and concert pianist. She was gutsy as well. There is a famous story that during the May Uprising in Dresden in 1849, Clara faced down a mob of armed men, walked into the city through the front lines to rescue her children and walked right back out again through the same, undoubtedly astonished, line of revolutionaries. All this, while she was seven months pregnant with her son, Ferdinand.

It has been noted by some of her biographers that Clara Schumann "lost confidence" in her ability to compose as she got older and that her output virtually ceased when she was about 36 years old. What is rarely mentioned is that an enormously significant event occurred in Clara's life during this time which almost certainly contributed to her loss of confidence. Her husband, Robert, who had been mentally ill for years, attempted suicide in 1854 and had himself committed to an asylum where he remained until his death two years later

"I once believed that I possessed creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not desire to compose — there has never yet been one able to do it. Should I expect to be the one?"
- Clara Schumann

Faced with the reality that what they had been pretending was a 'supplementary' income was actually the only income upon which her family could rely, Clara resumed her performing career in earnest. Raising seven surviving children, managing her household and expenses, maintaining a rigorous performance schedule with concerts all over Europe and coping with the loneliness of the loss of her beloved partner, is it really surprising that her ability to compose had suffered? One wonders how she managed to juggle so many responsibilities at all: Clara did the work of several people and she did it very successfully. Although she certainly never again had the emotional and physical leisure to devote to composing, in her later life Clara Wieck Schumann earned a reputation as one of the greatest pianists of her generation, and her influence upon recital repertory persists to the present day.

Maria Anna Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Wieck belong to a small but distinguished company of hugely talented women whose existence we only know about because they were connected in some way to famous men. While their accomplishments were severely limited by the strictures of patriarchal society, they were nevertheless the lucky ones.

"The Triumph of Death"  Peter Bruegel, the Elder
Life, as Thomas Hobbes so memorably said, has been 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' for most people for most of human history. Only when the terrible burden of eking out a living is lifted are most people able to turn their attention to intellectual or artistic pursuits, which is why intellectual and artistic greatness has always been almost exclusively the province of the wealthy.

It is a reality that the vast majority of extraordinary human beings never enjoy great fame and are not remembered - not even by their kith and kin - beyond a generation or two. World renown and the opportunity to achieve it has always been mainly the privilege of wealthy or powerful men. Poverty, sickness, brutal living conditions and lack of education have robbed humanity of the chance to have known the potential contributions of more than 95% of all the people who have ever lived. This tragic loss has been universal, affecting both men and women in every region of the world in every century.

In very rare cases, a talented poor man might get very lucky. If he managed to bring his talent to the notice of a powerful man - if he succeeded in gaining the patronage of a nobleman, bishop or king - then even a lowly peasant might have had a chance to rise up out of obscurity. For gifted women, however, there were virtually no available avenues out of obscurity. Poor women worked as hard as poor men, bearing and nurturing children, growing and gathering food to feed their families, struggling for survival. Like their male counterparts, poor women lived a hand-to-mouth existence from the cradle to the grave, but unlike men they almost never even had the chance of becoming the charitable project of a wealthy patron due to the oppressive societal mores which restricted the freedom of "respectable" girls and women. To do so would reduce a poor woman to the status of a prostitute or worse, and her life would be ruined anyway.


The situation was little better for women born into wealthy circumstances. All wealth and property was owned by their male relatives so no woman ever possessed the kind of personal wealth which might have conferred some independence and freedom to pursue creative dreams. A noblewoman who attempted to defy patriarchal rules of feminine conduct could very well have found herself disowned by her family and out on the street.  She was expected to embrace marriage and motherhood and what is more, she was expected to be satisfied with whatever contentment could be found there and expect nothing more. Robert Schumann expressed this when he wrote to Clara, “And if you were to be forgotten as an artist, would you not be beloved as a wife?"

While both men and women were permitted to share in the joys and tribulations of parenthood, the intellectual satisfaction of education and the challenge of explorations in art, science and philosophical ideas were strictly reserved for men. Women's intellectual or artistic aspirations were barely acknowledged, and the emotional toll of their deprivation was attributed to female hysteria. In essence, patriarchal culture reduced women to little more than the status of animals - human broodmares whose only valued function was reproduction. Indeed, it was not until the last century that the church recognised that women have souls. Women were, quite literally, considered to be no better than animals. As the property of their male relatives, powerless and penniless,  women have been forced by patriarchal culture for thousands of years to make the only viable "choice" available to them after puberty - retirement into marriage, motherhood and almost always, inevitably - invisiblity.

The world of music, art and intellectual pursuits has been the jealously guarded world of men for most of human history, while the talents, hopes and dreams of women have been largely suppressed, ignored and dismissed. During Women's History Month, we celebrate the great strides that women have made in the last century, while paying homage to the remarkable women who managed to overcome almost overwhelming social obstacles to make their mark in history. 

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Google Hits Just the Right Note - Claude Debussy
























Check out today's Google doodle. In celebration of the 151st birthday of composer Claude Debussy, Google put up this charming animated doodle and included the music of Debussy's classic piano piece, Clair de Lune (Moonlight).

Except that it cuts off the piece right before one of the nicest passages, below is a very nice little video giving a bit of information about Debussy and the musical composition.

For a little more biographical information about Debussy, check out this article in The Guardian.

Check it out on Google homepage, too!


Sunday, August 11, 2013

Tonight's The Night! (Perseids!)




























Around 11:00 PM tonight, the show of the summer begins! Skygazers will be treated to the annual show of shooting stars from the Perseids meteor shower.

The name "Perseids" is derived from the fact that the annual celestial show appears to originate from the part of the night sky occupied by the constellation Perseus. This constellation appears in the northern sky - look to the northeast if you are in North America.

The Perseids meteor shower is caused by a collision of the earth's atmosphere with debris leftover from a comet. As the earth crosses the orbital path of the Swift-Tuttle comet each August, it blasts through the comet's debris field, and little pieces of that debris burn up in our planet's atmosphere, causing the "shooting stars" which delight stargazers every summer.
The constellation Perseus

If you are lucky enough to be at a distance from city lights, and can sit out under the stars between 11:00 PM tonight and dawn tomorrow morning, just do it! You won't be disappointed. The show gets better as the pre-dawn hours approach, due to the tilt of the earth. If you can't stay up late, set your alarm clock and get out there before sunrise tomorrow morning.

At it's peak (tonight and tomorrow) the Perseids can produce more than one shooting star a minute - 90-100 per hour. It is going to be quite a show!

ENJOY!!

If you cannot get away from city lights, please take a moment to enjoy this wonderful video produced by stargazer Henry Jun Wah Lee at Joshua Tree National Park, August 10-15, 2010.


   

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Music - Girls Just Want To Have Fun



For your Monday Music entertainment - Cyndi Lauper!

Girls Just Want To Have Fun


I come home in the mornin' light
My mother says, "When you gonna live your life right"
"Oh Mommy dear, we're not the fortunate ones
And girls, they wanna have fun
Woah girls, just wanna have fun"

The phone rings in the middle of the night
My father yells, "Whatcha gonna do with your life?"
"Oh Daddy dear, you know your still number one
But girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls, just wanna have"

Thats all they really want
Some fun
When the workin' day is done
Oh girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls just wanna have fun

(Girls they wanna)
(Wanna have fun now)
(Wanna have)

Some boys take a beautiful girl
And hide her away from the rest of the world
I wanna be the one to walk in the sun
Oh girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls just wanna have

Thats all they really want
Some fun
When the workin' day is done
Oh girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls just wanna have fun

(Girls they wanna)
(Wanna have fun now)
(Wanna have)

They just wanna, they just wanna
(Girls, girls just wanna have fun)
They just wanna, they just wanna have fun
Girls just wanna have fun

(They just wanna, they just wanna)
They just wanna, they just wanna
They just wanna, they just wanna have fun
(Girls, girls just wanna have fun)
Girls just wanna have fun

When the workin'
When the workin' day is done
Oh when the workin' day is done
Oh girls, girls just wanna have fun

They just wanna, they just wanna
They just wanna, they just wanna
Oh girls, girls just wanna have fun

(They just wanna, they just wanna)
When the workin'
(They just wanna, they just wanna)
When the workin' day is done
(Girls, girls just wanna have fun)
When the working day is done
Oh girl, girls just wanna have fun

(They just wanna, they just wanna)

-Cyndi Lauper