There are few words in the English language that are more overworked than awesome, except perhaps iconic, whose promiscuous use may soon impel me to leap off the West End Bridge. These words are used so indiscriminately and with such frequency that their original meanings have been lost, their usage reduced to watered-down imitations of the real thing.
But there are developments that, blasé as we are, might legitimately be considered awesome. Here are a few that get my vote:
The microwave oven: It’s been around for so long that it gets no more respect than a toaster. But think about how it has changed our lives. My first microwave, forty years ago, was a premium for opening a CD account at a local bank. Although it didn’t take long for me to realize that the appliance wasn’t going to be the last word in cooking food, it revolutionized my kitchen in terms of heating, reheating, and defrosting food – and making popcorn!
I’ve written before about the dinner party for eight at which the main course was Cornish Hens with Autumn Fruits. Eight little birds fit snugly in a roasting pan, which I placed in the oven for the required hour and a quarter. But when I took them out of the pan they weren’t done!
A year earlier I would have had a disaster on my hands. But in 1984 I simply said, “Oh, dear,” opened another bottle of wine, and encouraged our guests to mix and mingle until, in a matter of minutes, the microwave had performed its magic on each little bird.
Printable business cards: For years I would love to have had business cards to hand to new aquaintances rather than scribbling my information on a paper napkin. I considered having cards printed but, until recently, one had to order business cards from a professional printer, and the smallest number you could order was five hundred. I doubted that I would live long enough to need five-hundred cards. So paper napkins it was. But now when I need business cards I simply buy printable sheets of cards at the local office supply store and design my own. If my information chages or I want a different graphic, I can make the corrections and print up a fresh batch, as few as a dozen at a time.
Google and YouTube: As a musician I’ve written program notes for my own recitals and various chamber music concerts. A trip to the Music Department of the main library in Oakland, with its inevitable parking hassle, used to be obligatory. I would pore over assorted volumes for hours searching for information on composers and their works. Now, without so much as opening the front door, I can find all the information I need, while sitting at my computer in my nightgown, by Googling any composer or work I need to know about. And I can listen to portions of their works on YouTube.
Digital video recording: Gone are the days when you would miss your favorite TV show if you had to leave the house. Your only recourse was to catch it in reruns. Now you can schedule it to be recorded by your digital video recorder – mine is TiVo – where it is saved for you to watch whenever you’re ready. And if the phone rings while it’s playing you can hit the Pause button, have your conversation, and not miss a second of the program. And best of all, you can fast forward through all of the commercials.
GPS: How much time and gasoline have we wasted getting lost? How many gas stations have we visited and local residents have we flagged down trying to find our way to some obscure destination. Then along comes GPS, the global position system, “which uses, at any one time, three from among a group of thirty-one satellites in earth orbit that transmit precise signals, allowing GPS receivers to calculate and display accurate location, speed, and time information to the user.”*
When I’m using my GPS, there are times when I would like to strangle the voice I call “Little Missy” who taunts me with her “re-CAL-culating” if I make a wrong turn. Some day I expect her to burst through the tiny screen, grab me by the throat and scream, “Are you STUPID?” I probably am. I really do believe that Spell Check makes us lazy and GPS makes us stupid.
Regardless of Little Missy’s somewhat surly attitude, to have her telling me, turn by turn, how to get where I’m going makes it worth putting up with her guff.
To young people these developments seem no more remarkable than the kitchen faucet. But to those of us who have circled the track a few times these gee whiz gizmos seem like magic, and we wonder what our grandmothers would think. I even wonder what my father would think, and he’s only been gone for thirty years.
Our smartphones and iPads, touchscreens and video streaming, and assorted other recent developments truly are awesome, awe-inspiring to the degree that we can’t quite believe the breadth of functionality at our fingertips and are helpless to resist, while we neglect our houses – and sometimes our spouses – as we text one another, Google one more celebrity’s birth date, or become mired in the worlds of Angry Birds and Candy Crush.
My husband Charles Johnson and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary on July 27th. During thirty years of wedded bliss I have never used his last name, except on our income tax return, for a couple of reasons not the least of which is that the name Johnson is so common. But more importantly, by 1984 I had become pretty well known around town by my current name and didn’t think I needed to shake things up by changing it.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been taken aback when, during the cocktail hour at a recent dinner party, a first-time guest suddenly asked, “Are you guys really married?” I can’t be sure from what recesses of his psyche this inquiry bubbled up when it did, or how long he had been wondering about this, but everyone at the table was as surprised as Charlie and I were by his tactlessness. They didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp.
But it has occurred to me that there probably are a few people who wonder, because I don’t use his last name, if my husband and I really are married. The fact that we’re different races doesn’t help. On a group tour a few years ago a lady asked Charlie if I was his caretaker. I am, but not in the sense she had in mind. And the difference in our “look” isn’t helped by the fact that he’s fifteen years older than I am. Even so, time and again people have remarked, “You two are such a perfect match.” Yet even so, after all these years there will still be some who harbor seeds of doubt.
Nobody thinks much about celebrity couples using different last names, but when it comes to the people who live next door, many find it peculiar in our Judeo-Christian “love, honor, and obey” culture.
A woman retired from local media, whose name would be familiar to many of you, has been married four times. But she is known to everyone by the last name of her second husband. She arrived in Pittsburgh using that name and will use that name for the rest of her life.
My harpist friend Paula Page has kept her maiden name, except when her children were small, for several reasons: she is a prominent musician – recently retired as principal harpist of the Houston Symphony; her father, Robert Page, is a nationally-known Grammy Award-winning conductor; her married name, Fay, wasn’t especially attractive; and her first name and maiden name are nicely alliterative, which gives her name zing and makes it easy to remember.
Paula and I don’t pretend to be in the exalted category of Caroline Kennedy, but does anyone even know her married name? How many people could come up with it in a man-on-the-street interview? Not many. And in case you’ve forgotten or never knew, it’s Schlossberg.
Some women don’t use their husband’s name for reasons other than because of the way they sound or because they’re well known. These are the feminists who do not wish to have their identity subsumed into that of their spouse, to be an appendage, secondary to the Master of the House.
Certainly there are husbands who would be highly offended if their wives didn’t wish to adopt their surname. But others are proud of their wives’ accomplishments and feel that the marriage, regardless of what name is used, reflects positively on them.
When Bill Clinton was campaigning to become president in 1992, I seem to recall that Hillary was known as Hillary Rodham. She had been prominent in her own right for many years before stepping onto the public stage. But the culture warriors wore her down until she surrendered, became Hillary Rodham Clinton and eventually plain old Hillary Clinton, although she could have done worse than to share a last name with the President of the United States.
Our last name arrangement has been an amusing source of befuddlement to those wishing to address an envelope to us. They’re not sure if “Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Johnson” will do it. After all, “Are those guys really married?”
We’ve gotten envelopes addressed to “Patricia Jennings and Charles Johnson.” He’s received mail addressed to “Charles Jennings,” and we’ve gotten at least one envelope addressed simply to Pat and Charlie – no last name – but the address and ZIP Code got it to our mailbox. It doesn’t really matter to us if our mail is addressed to “Resident.” As long as the address is right, we’ll get it.
And while I’m on the subject of my name, I’ve kept my maiden name as part of my identity because my father, like Paula Page’s father, was a well-known figure. He had neither sons nor brothers, so there’s no one but me to keep the name alive.
Jennings was the name of my late, first husband. I haven’t kept the name in tribute to him although he was a perfectly nice man. But you might agree that Jennings is more interesting than Johnson – unless it’s preceded by Lyndon or Howard – although if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called “Jenkins” since 1969, the year of my first marriage, I could feed a homeless person for a year.
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: