When I retired as the keyboardist of the Pittsburgh Symphony in 2006, I, as anyone contemplating retirement, wondered how my life would change, what I would miss, and how I would come to feel about my decision.
I knew that I would miss my friends in the orchestra, the touring, playing great music on the stages of the world with acclaimed conductors and solo performers along with the adulation that comes with being a member of one of the world’s finest orchestras. All of that wasn’t easy to leave behind. And even now, eight years later, I try not to think too much about it.
Oddly, one thing that never crossed my mind as I was walking out of Heinz Hall for the last time as a regular employee was that I was leaving behind the concert grand Steinways – constantly tuned and magnificently maintained – that had been part of my life for more than forty years.
The concert grand Steinway, the “D” model, is nearly nine feet in length and has a rich tone, especially in the lower register, unmatched in smaller pianos. This top-of-the-line Steinway is found almost exclusively in concert halls and at universities. Most private citizens have neither the space, the need, nor the money for an instrument that currently sells for more than a hundred-thousand dollars. My house could accommodate one, and if I were younger and won the lottery a Steinway D is the first thing I’d buy. But at this point I’m satisfied with the six-foot Steinway Living Room Grand that has served me well for the last thirty years.
I can count on one hand the number of Steinway D’s I’ve played since I left Heinz Hall. One is at the home of an affluent friend who is also a master piano teacher. She bought one a couple of years ago for her home studio where it sits beside a smaller Steinway, and I occasionally play hers although I have to make my way to North Park to do so.
The First Unitarian Church in Shadyside, where I occasionally sub, owns a Steinway D. So I’m always happy to oblige when they call. And a few years ago I organized a fundraiser for a community organization that graciously paid the considerable fee to rent a Steinway D for the concert.
And that’s about it. My piano world has shrunk.
Many homes and most churches and clubs have some sort of grand piano. But the instruments are too often in poor condition. Most are not tuned often enough. Some have keys that don’t come back up after they’re played. Some have a tinny tone, because the felt hammers have never been voiced (softened), or the pedals don’t work the way they should. The individuals in charge of these instruments’ upkeep don’t understand that a piano is like a car – it requires regular maintenance, which occasionally means more than just tuning. But maintenance is expensive and not a priority in even the fanciest places. The fact that they have a grand piano seems to them more than adequate, and I have learned not to take the presenter’s word about the quality of a piano I’m asked to play.
I’ve played other fine pianos besides the Steinway among them the Bechstein, made in Germany, and the Bösendorfer, made in Austria. The concert grand Bösendorfer, called the Imperial Grand, has ninety-seven keys, for extra resonance, and although there a few artists who have worshipped them, from the late Leonard Bernstein to jazz great Oscar Peterson, you rarely see a Bösendorfer or a Bechstein. And a couple of decades ago, Steinway, to remind us of its preeminence, began putting their name on the side of their nine-footers so that it can be seen by the audience.
Steinway continues to be the world standard. And although most of the instruments we play in this country are made in New York City, there are also Steinways made in Hamburg, Germany. Many pianists, myself included, think are better.
I didn’t know about the Hamburg Steinway until the first time the orchestra traveled to Japan, in 1973. There were several large pianos in a backstage room including a Yamaha, a Bechstein, and a Hamburg Steinway. I had never experienced a piano like that Steinway, which seemed to play itself. And for the entire day, while my colleagues were traipsing from temple to temple and attending tea ceremonies, I was playing that magnificent Steinway. A colleague peeped in the door and was surprised that the wonderful music he heard was coming from me – with the help of a Hamburg Steinway.
But alas, my Steinway D days are mostly over, and I trudge from church to retirement village to private club never knowing what I might find. But because I still enjoy performing occasionally, I grit my teeth and agree to play on instruments with which I know I’ll have to struggle to produce an acceptable result.
Oh how I miss those big pianos.
It might make me seem a little odd, but among the books I’ve enjoyed the most are collections of medical case histories. My first foray into this genre was the by now classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Dr. Oliver Sacks, a renowned professor of neurology at New York University. First published in 1970, this collection tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who can no longer recognize people and common objects; who experience violent tics and grimaces or shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents. These strange tales make one realize that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Several of Dr. Sacks’ books have been made into films including the Academy Award-nominated “Awakenings” starring Robert De Nero and Robin Williams.
When the Air Hits Your Brain: Tales of Neurosurgery by Pittsburgh area native Frank Vertosick Jr., is described as “The story of one man's evolution from naive and ambitious young intern to world-class neurosurgeon.” A graduate of the Pitt Medical School, Dr. Vertosick served for many years as the Associate Chief of Neurosurgery and Associate Director for Neuro-Oncology at West Penn Hospital.
Although there is much humor to be found in his book, this skilled surgeon describes some of the most serious challenges of his career, including a six-week-old infant with a tumor in her brain, a young man struck down in his prime by paraplegia, and a minister with a .22-caliber bullet lodged in his skull. “Told through intimate portraits of his patients and unsparing yet fascinatingly detailed descriptions of surgical procedures, When the Air Hits Your Brain – the culmination of decades spent struggling to learn an unforgiving craft –– illuminates both the mysteries of the mind and the realities of the operating room.”
A skilled writer, Dr. Vertosick has written two other critically acclaimed books, Why We Hurt: The Natural History of Pain, and The Genius Within: Discovering the Intelligence of Every Living Thing.
If you love animals but know little about the training and knowledge required to treat them, you would love Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon by British-born Cambridge-trained veterinarian Nick Trout. I had not realized until I read Tell Me Where It Hurts how different animals are from humans, the kinds of conditions they develop, the medicines used to treat them etc. And of course, unlike human patients, they cannot tell you where it hurts.
He describes the book as “twenty-five years of veterinary experiences compressed into twenty-four crazy hours at my place of work, Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston.”
In the first case Dr. Nick is awakened in the middle of the night to come to the aid of a German shepherd named Sage who has gone a little too heavy at a bag of kibble and developed a terrifying condition – to the dog and to the vet – called GDV, or gastric dilatation and volvulus, in which the animal’s stomach twists and rotates so that the esophagus becomes blocked and the animal has no way to empty its bloated stomach.
The dog’s worried owner is a little elderly gentleman who has recently become a widower. Of Sage he says, “She’s all I have.” Sage’s innards were untwisted and she went on to be a good companion for several more years.
I recently became aware of a book, The Joy of Medical Practice: Forty Years of Interesting Patients, by retired ophthalmologist John C. Barber, who resides in Thornburg. Don’t allow yourself to be put off by the less-than-scintillating title. This is one fascinating read.
Dr. Barber has stories to tell that are every bit as interesting as those of the preceding authors such as “The Nun Who Could Not Wear Black” and “The Myopic Librarian,” the kinds of tales that might have you turning to your spouse saying, “You have to hear this one.”
Although his descriptions of ninety cases are of necessity technical and detailed, you don’t have to have a thorough understanding of every diagnosis or procedure to get a tremendous amount of enjoyment from this book.
Until I read The Joy of Medical Practice my knowledge of the human eye was minuscule. I could locate the pupil and the iris, but not much else. Preceding the case histories are a few pages of simple illustrations of the eye intended to be helpful as one begins the journey into the mysterious world of the eye surgeon. When I examined the pictures – it was nearly midnight after an evening of wining and dining at a big downtown function – I was hoping there wasn’t going to be a pop quiz in the morning.
However, after reading many of the stories I went back to the illustrations – “Oh, that’s the cornea, that’s the macula” – and was better able to visualize the various procedures.
Each case history is a detective story in which the surgeon is a private eye – pardon the pun – examining clues to figure out the cause of a patient’s problem. And as each one is solved Dr. Barber tells us what he has learned from the case, not only about the eye but about the patient.
Some of the stories are amusing, some astonishing. A few are heartwarming such as that of a man who had been blind for twenty years until Dr. Barber repaired his eyes so that he was able to see his grandchild for the first time.
I always have a feeling of accomplishment when I finish a non-fiction book from which I’ve learned about a topic I knew nothing about. And reading The Joy of Medical Practice also left me brimming with admiration for the courage and skill required by Dr. Barber and his colleagues to treat that most fragile of structures, the human eye.
These books are available in paperback or download at Amazon.
For our neighborhood book club I’ve been re-reading Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, portions of which are laugh-out-loud funny. Although Bryson was born ten years after I was, in 1951, his hilarious reminiscences about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, bring back a flood of memories much the same as my growing up years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Although the country was to see much turmoil in the coming decades, we look back on the 50s as achingly sweet and simple. We didn’t need whizzy electronics to have fun. My friends and I whiled away many an hour skating up and down the street, skinning our knees along the way, wearing skates that attached to our shoes and had to be secured with a skate key, and playing Hopscotch on a crudely-drawn chalk grid on the sidewalk.
Before a house was built on the vacant lot next to our house, I spent hours picking raspberries from the abundant bushes there so that my poor mother, already up to her ears washing and ironing and waxing floors, could rustle up a few pies.
Those were the years when television first came into our homes, when we had, as Bryson puts it, “a wonderful simplicity of desire.” We would gather in front of the TV just to watch the test pattern hoping that any minute "Rocky King" or "Captain Video" would burst onto the screen.
On the way to school, morning and afternoon, we would stop at Predmore’s penny candy store where we carefully deliberated on what to buy with our precious coins. Would it be wax lips or false teeth? Licorice sticks or jaw-breakers or little wax bottles filled with assorted colors of sweet syrup? We tried to get some mileage out of those wax bottles long after the syrup was gone, but plain wax was disappointingly tasteless. And my decision to find out what it was like to chew an entire pack of gum at one time was not especially gratifying. It was awfully hard to talk when my mouth was bulging with gum.
In those days we walked home from school for lunch. My mother and I would immerse ourselves in “Love of Life” and “Search for Tomorrow” while I ate my chipped ham sandwich. And I remember the McCarthy hearings playing on our black and white TV although I was much too young to understand what they were about.
There was a bustling one-block shopping district on Lincoln Avenue in East Liberty including two grocery stores, Harry Finkelstein’s on one end of the block and Clem Fuchs’ on the other. And in between were Saul T. Glass’s five and ten and the Thorofare super market. Imagine how brilliant I felt when it occurred to me that Thorofare was a bit of a play on words.
For our medical needs there was Freebing’s drug store right next door to the Lincoln Bakery where I would buy a half-dozen chocolate chip cookies or yummy pull-apart maple rolls and eat them all, not having a clue that I was filling my little body with wicked fats and carbohydrates. It’s a wonder I survived.
Another of the thriving businesses was Conklin’s Appliances. One year, when it was still thrilling to own to own a toaster, I decided to buy my mother a Sunbeam pop-up toaster for her birthday from Mr. Conklin’s store. In those days not just anybody owned a pop-up toaster. And the Sunbeam, whose slits went from side to side rather than from back to front, was considered especially upscale, what today we would call top of the line.
I arranged with Mr. Conklin to pay him a dollar a week until every penny of the twenty-one dollar price was paid. You can imagine how clever I felt to have cooked up this secret arrangement and how eagerly I anticipated my mother’s delight when she opened her gift.
For each payment Mr. Conklin gave me a receipt, which I hid in a book in the bookcase at the top our stairs. Little did I know that somehow my mother had found the receipts, and she wrote the following about her discovery:
If snooping in recesses is a mother’s privilege,
Then reading notes discovered there
Is very close to sacrilege –
When they disclose deals, problematical...
With scrawled notations, mathematical...
How much is due; how much is paid
On a birthday present to be made – to ME!
Now I’ll have to feign the widened eyes
Since I’ve spoiled my very own surprise!
I’ll make a game of the stoic pretense.
The lump in my throat, deserved, immense
Is not imagined. It’s as real
As the self-reproach I humbly feel.
But owning up, I guess, would be
Beneath parental dignity.
Moreover, a confession might
Despoil the giver’s whole delight.
So I’ll hide my guilt with widened eyes
And do my best to act surprised.
I’m not especially sophisticated when it comes to coffee. I love the stuff, but after my morning cup, the first few sips of which is like dipping a toe into heaven, that’s it for the day.
My morning brew is a combination of regular and decaf. If I were to drink an entire cup of caffeinated coffee you could expect to hear me chattering like those legal disclaimers that pop up at the ends of certain radio commercials.
As one who grew up with percolators and Dripolators, I well remember that the arrival of instant coffee represented an exciting step forward in human progress. It was a time saver, and the knowledgeable, up-to-date hostess could impress her friends by presenting a tray that included a bowl of sugar, a pitcher of cream and a jar of instant coffee. It took us a while to realize that the flavor of the instant bore little resemblance to the real thing.
Since then, it’s been amusing to watch the evolution of brewed coffee from ten-cents-a-cup diner staple, served from a Bunn carafe by a waitress who calls you "Hun," to designer coffees made in brewing systems. When I walk into Bed Bath & Beyond the first thing that catches my eye are shelves groaning under the weight of boxes and boxes of flavored coffees as landfills are buried under the weight of millions of used, non-biodegradable coffee capsules.
The other day the mailman brought a brochure for the Nespresso VertuoLine espresso machine, or should I say espresso extractor, a high-end version of new machine in which you place a sealed capsule of coffee, or tea, from a multitude of flavor choices, push a button, and voila! – out streams a “custom-crafted” cup – or demitasse – of freshly brewed deliciousness. If I were a more determined coffee drinker I’d get myself one of these super-deluxe contraptions, which can be purchased for a mere $299.00.
The Nespresso brochure invites me to “experience the revolution of coffee.” My first experience of this revolution was a few years back with a Nespresso machine at a hotel in Brussels, Belgium. From my travel notes:
Seven a.m. Time for coffee, made in this shiny machine, a Nespresso, which uses sealed capsules of coffee. An impressive looking device, far nicer than the government issue coffee makers found at the Holiday Inn. But no matter what I did I couldn't get the darned thing to work. First, a cup of hot water came out. The machine made a grinding noise like a jet engine, but the unopened capsule kept clunking into the bin below. I tried everything I could think of. No luck as I became increasingly frustrated.
Nearby was a beautifully rendered book of instructions, but the contents looked like a "How-to" on assembling a Space Shuttle.
I called the front desk for help. The clerk asked, a wee bit snippily,
"Deed you plug eet een?"
"Yes, I plugged eet in." What kind of idiot did he think I was?
"Deed you turn eet on?"
"Yes, I turned eet on."
"Deed you poot een zee watair?"
"Yes, I poot in zee watair."
"I zend zumone."
A half hour later a fellow showed up with a plate brimming with coffee capsules, sugar, tea bags, and creamers. I ushered him and his supplies into the room explaining that I didn't need anything from his plate, of which I already had plenty, but that I couldn’t figure out how to work the machine.
Of course, he walked over to the machine, placed the capsule in its little chamber, as I thought I had done a dozen times and – you guessed it – out came a steaming cup of espresso, which was without a doubt the best-tasting caffeine beverage I had ever had. And, following his lead, I got the procedure right for the rest of our stay.
Nespresso capsules come in a dozen flavors, "each with a distinct profile," that will help you brush up on your Italian – Altissio, Melozio, Elvasio, Voltesso. Other than the laughingly obvious Decaffeinato, the only other flavor that gives a clue is Diavolitto, which I assume is devilishly delicious.
Remember when for breakfast you would drink a cup of coffee-flavored coffee? But why should you continue to settle for something so pedestrian, so 20th century, when you can have a frappe-cappu-lattecino in seventy different flavors, hot or iced, with regular, soy or skim milk, in small, medium, large or abbondanza?
If my husband were a coffee drinker, or more of our dinner guests were after-dinner coffee connoisseurs, I’d be inclined to throw my budget to he wind and spend three-hundred dollars to have the “all-new Centrifusion technology for a new level of brewing intelligence” on my counter top. And for another hundred bucks we could entertain ourselves with the delights of the Aeroccino-Plus Milk Frother. Wowie-wow-wow!
But alas, other than an occasional indulgence in a tall soy latte, no foam, at Starbucks, I will content myself with the half-decaf bubbling away in my four-cup Mr. Coffee, $14.99 at Target.
People occasionally follow through on my suggestions of books to read or TV shows to watch. We all have different tastes and limited time and are pretty much married to our old favorites. So I’m grateful when my suggestions are heeded. With that in mind, I’d like to tell you about one of my favorite television shows. And if you don’t happen to be a fan already, I hope you’ll give it a try. I have no vested interest in it other than a fervent hope that it continues for many more years.
Long-running CBS “Sunday Morning” recently celebrated its thirty-fifth year on the air. That it has lasted so long, amidst a sea of dreck, is a miracle. Week after week, year after year, from 9:00 to 10:30 on Sunday mornings, you are presented beautifully produced features on just about every subject and well known person you can think of – and many that would never occur to you.
A month or so ago it was announced that following the commercial break there would be a feature on doodling. Have you ever seen a TV feature or even read an article about doodling? I certainly hadn’t.
A friend recuperating from a broken arm in is a fanatical doodler, at least she was until she broke her arm. During the commercial I called her to tell her to tune in. Amazingly, she had never watched “Sunday Morning.” But she loved the report on doodling although she protested that she’s nowhere near as accomplished as the featured Olympic-level doodlers. And she became an instant fan of the show.
The segments on “Sunday Morning” give you a nice meaty serving of topics that interest you but aren’t so long that you’ll be bored even if there happens to be a topic that doesn’t pique your interest. It’s hard to imagine that the show hasn’t covered every possible subject in thirty-five years, but sure as the sun comes up on Sunday morning, “Sunday Morning” has unearthed a trove of new things for us to learn about.
The first host was the late Charles “On the Road” Kuralt, who retired in 1994 to be followed by the avuncular Charles Osgood, an affable host who has been known, on occasion, to play the piano and sing his own witty poems near the end of the show.
There are many charms about “Sunday Morning,” not the least of which is opening sun logo and the colorful variety of suns that fill the screen at the end of each segment. Others are the invigorating trumpet fanfare that introduces the show, played by Wynton Marsalis, and the nature segments that take up the last 60 seconds of the show. My husband refers to them as the “whiffet bird” minutes. I’m not sure why. There’s no such thing as a whiffet bird.
“Sunday Morning” features stories about the fine and performing arts, including all styles of music. The highbrow reports are handled by veteran Martha Teichner who adds a touch of class. There are profiles of movie stars, chefs, winemakers, collectors, and all sorts of other interesting people in this country and around the world.
Always amusing and thought-provoking are commentaries by Nancy Giles and Ben Stein as well as reviews of pop music by Bill Flanagan and movies by David Edelstein. Humorous off-beat segments are courtesy of Bill Geist, whose tongue is permanently planted in his cheek, and Mo Rocca, who recently did a piece about people who hug for a living, professional cuddlers, who provided a perfect platform for his curious schoolboy persona.
Segments can vary from badly injured Army Ranger Cory Remberg’s “long march back from war” – he’s the soldier who received a 90-second ovation at during the State of the Union speech – to a piece about an eighty-seven-year-old lady’s glowing reviews of her local Olive Garden, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, which went viral on the Internet and led to a book deal with celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain.
Over the years reporters have come and gone. Among those who have gone was the late, great jazz pianist Billy Taylor, who, during his time on “Sunday Morning” interviewed more than 250 musicians and won an Emmy for his interview of Quincy Jones. The classical music correspondent for several years was flutist Eugenia Zukerman – a music-campmate of mine in the mid ‘50s known then as Jeannie Rich – who was married for seventeen years to violin/viola virtuoso Pinchas Zukerman.
Although “Sunday Morning” might be thought of as appealing primarily to the senior contingent, it has placed first in its time slot in the key 25–54 demographic, beating all of the other Sunday morning talk shows. Even for people who are “too busy to watch” because they’re getting ready for church or their morning jog, with a DVR in practically every home, there’s no good excuse not to record the show and give it a whirl.
If you don’t like it I’ll give you your money back.