Ah, yes, the Food!

One of the highlights of the most recent SETC Convention in Chattanooga, Tennesee, was discovering the rotating cake display at the City Cafe Diner.  Getting to Chattanooga the day before the auditions started was filled with various travel woes (delayed flights, missing pilots, and non-existent hotel reservations), so I felt that I was more than qualified and justified to treat myself to something sweet after I had finally gotten myself settled into my hotel room.  Besides, I needed something to snack on while I was watching "American Idol" that night.

I had been to Chattanooga once before when the SETC Convention was held there in 2004, but I had not ventured into the City Cafe Diner which is the house restaurant for the Days Inn by the convention center.  I had thought about splurging on some room service that first night, but after thinking about it, I realized that I was not in the mood for dinner, just dessert.  So, I headed out of my hotel, and across the street. I figured the Diner was bound to have some desserts, but little did I know that they would have quite the selection of cakes spinning around in a case by the front register.  Sadly, I did not take a picture of that diabetes-inducing display, but there were at least twelve different cakes available each night, in addition to a selection of pies, tarts, Greek pastries and cookies. I decided to stick to the cakes.

For that first night’s indulgence, I took a chance on their Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake.

It was a tall slice of alternating layers of chocolate cake and chocolate-peanut-butter frosting topped off with a miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.  It was good, not great.  Strangely enough, I thought the cake and frosting were not sweet enough, and both the chocolate and peanut butter flavors were somewhat muted.  I only ate half of the slice, if that. The cake itself had a great texture and crumb, but, overall, tasted sort of bland to me.  Maybe I should have tried the Butterfinger Cake instead? -Although, the almost-glowing neon-looking orange-brown coating of crushed Butterfinger bars kept me from exploring that option any further.

Well, after my first day of auditions – just under 280 people, I was definitely allowed to treat myself to another sweet indulgence that night.  So, I headed back to the City Cafe Diner, and checked out my other options.  I had noticed that they had just put something new in the display case.  "That’s our Baklava Cheesecake.  One slice and you’ll go into a sugar coma!" was the answer I got after I had pointed to the cinder-block slab of a dessert that was sitting in the bottom of the case.  Sure! Cut me a slice to go!  -And maybe a sugar coma would not be that bad a thing after watching the "American Idol" results show and "Lost" that night?

Once I was back in my hotel, I discovered that the Baklava Cheesecake was more of a layered affair.  The core of it was a plain cheesecake that was sandwiched between two thin layers of Carrot Cake, and the top and the bottom were composed of inch-thick layers of baklava (phyllo dough, walnuts, butter and honey-syrup).  Sadly, it ended up being too much of the sum of its parts.  I questioned the Carrot Cake layers at first, but then realized that they were probable there to shield the crunchy, flaky layers of phyllo dough from the moisture of the cheesecake layer.  However, the baklava portion of the dessert had not been protected from the moisture of the display case, and the flakiness of the phyllo dough ended up having a bit of a chew to it.  The cheesecake center was decent, but could have probably benefited from a few less minutes in the oven initially.  And just like the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup Cake from the night before, the whole concoction seemed somewhat on the not-so-sweet side, however, I’m guessing that whatever sugars were in the various components of the dessert may have cancelled each other out.  The Baklava Cheesecake was not a total waste of $4.95 (yes, all the cakes were just $4.95 a slice!), but I think it would have worked better if it were assembled á la minute rather than giving all the layers time to meld.  I finished maybe a third of it, so, alas, no sugar coma.

Day Two of the auditions came and went, and since I had managed to have quite a nice lunch at the Tallan Cellar restaurant (a good ole "meat & three") that day, I decided all I needed to eat during that "American Idol"-free night was another slice of cake.  I decided to pick something basic: Caramel Cake.

No problem with this slice of cake not being sweet enough!  Slathered between the layers of amazingly fresh and vanilla-infused layers of Yellow Cake were generous heapings of Caramel Buttercream. Caramel Cake is one of many Southern Classic Desserts, and this rendition was most certainly insuring that Classic status.  Yes, my teeth did ache a little bit as I took my first bite, but they were supposed to!  The Caramel Buttercream and Yellow Cake layers complemented each other perfectly, and, yes, the dessert was most definitely rich, but it was not at all heavy. I ate half of it. Then ate the other half about a half hour later.  I had to pace myself.

The third and final day of auditions came to a close, which also meant that the convention was also ending that night.  Of course, I had to celebrate that night with another piece of cake!  So, it was back to the City Cafe Diner for my final visit and my final selection of the trip.  There was a gentleman in front of me who was inquiring about the various cakes; he, too, was getting a slice to go.  The manager was answering all his questions, but then referred him to a young woman who had come out of the kitchen bearing a few just-made creations.  She was affectionately called "The Cake Guru". She explained what all the various layers were in the Chocolate Chip Cannoli Cake.  She showed him the California Cheesecake with it’s it’s layers of plain Cheesecake and Angel Food Cake, and fresh fruit topping.  Then there was the Key Lime Pie she had just made that afternoon.  The Devil’s Food Cake, the Red Velvet Cake, the Oreo Cake, the Checkerboard Chocolate Mousse Cake with it’s alternating blocks of White and Dark Chocolate Gooey-ness.  After he had walked away with a slice of the Strawberry Mousse Cake, I then turned to the Cake Guru and explained my situation, "It’s my last night in town.  I’ve come here every night for the past three nights, and I really want to have a great piece of cake tonight. What should I have?"  Without any hesitation, she proclaimed, "The Sampler Cake."

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-Flying out of Washington-National in the middle of a snow storm.  -The plane’s departure delayed due to de-icing.  Twice.  -Getting off the plane in Savannah, Georgia, and discovering that it felt like summer – it was only March.  -Buying pralines from various vendors along River Street, then discovering that they were giving them away for free at the convention hospitality booth.  -The mile walk between the hotels. That’s really all I remember about the 1994 Southeastern Theatre Conference Convention.  My first set of Spring SETC Professional Division Auditions.

The most recent SETC Convention was just held in Chattanooga, Tennessee; it was their 59th Annual Convention.  As I was preparing my opening remarks to the actors and actresses auditioning, I was all set to say that it was my 20th Anniversary year with SETC.  Well, after thinking it through, I realized it was more likely my 15th year.  Then after consulting the "Past Conventions" listing in the convention program, it turned out it was only my 12th.  I guess it only seemed like I’ve been playing the Spring SETCs for 20 years already.  *For anyone doing the math: I haven’t played for all of the Spring SETCs since 1994.  Due to work commitments, I’ve missed three of the annual conventions.  Strangely enough, the three years I missed (1997, 2001, 2006), the conventions were held in Florida (Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando). We’ll have to see if that pattern continues in the future.  (I also play for the smaller Fall Professional Auditions, so I’m guessing that may have contributed to my 20-year syndrome.)

My first SETC actually came about after I had lobbied for the job.  That year, a number of theatre students I played for at Virginia Commonwealth University had made it through the state screenings, and were passed on to the regional level.  I just wanted to see if I could play for them.  As it turned out, the pianist who had been playing for the auditions the previous couple of years was not available that year. After a few brief phone conversations, as well as some recommendations – including a particularly glowing, unsolicited one from the Theatre VCU secretary – I was hired for the gig.  It was basically a blind and deaf hiring.  No one in the central office had ever heard of me, let alone had heard me play. And, truth be told, I had no real idea what I was going to be in for once I got down to Savannah. I had heard tales of the "Big Convention", but I had never experienced one myself.

Besides the travel woes, the weather and the pralines, there really is not much more I remember about my first SETC Convention. Oh! I do remember that a group of students had gotten mugged while walking along the River Street Waterfront, and they took a collection up to help them with their food, clothing and other expenses.  But as for the specifics of the actual auditions themselves, well, there’s actually not a lot I remember about those.  I think I had a grand piano in the ballroom.  It was the usual three days of auditions, with about 250 people auditioning each day.  And I was asked to come back the following year – and the following years – so I guess I did a job.  What I tend to retain about my annual SETC adventures are the airports, the hotels, and, yes, the food.

There aren’t that many specific auditions or auditionees I remember from the past 14 years.  Yes, I can remember being generally entertained from time to time, but as for which song and monologue went with which number, name and face in a particular ballroom, hotel and city, well, all bets are off.  However, there is one young gentleman who totally caught me by surprise by actually including me in his audition…

(to the tune of the Gershwin’s "They Can’t That Away From Me")

The way you play my pitch
The way you hit those keys
I think you’ve found your niche
Oh, no, they can’t take Jose away from me.

…Or something very close to that – and he continued on through the bridge and final refrain.  It also turned out that the monologue he performed before the song was directed towards me, but since I was multi-tasking – getting the tempo and other info from the next person – I didn’t pick up on that until someone told me he had customized his whole audition package "towards" me.  His monologue, I believe, was one of Shakespeare’s Fools.  Alas, since everything had happened so fast – and since I was sort of in shock – I was not able to follow-up with him to thank him, nor to see how many callbacks he ended up getting.

Otherwise, what I tend to remember are "trends". The end of "Soliloquy" made a huge comeback in popularity the year the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel opened.  There was even one young gentleman who, as he was placing his music on the piano, asked me, "Do you know this? It’s from a new show."  After making sure I only rolled my eyes inside my head, I just responded that I did know it, and made a semi-obvious gesture towards the copyright date on the opening page. Then there was the year of the Damn Yankees revival where I believe "Goodbye, Old Girl" set the record for the most performed, most repeated song. There was at least one actor who sang that song in each group of 25 auditions, sometimes two; and in the final group of the day, of the convention, there were four renditions of that song, perhaps even five, with at least two back-to-back. I had blocked it out after a while, and had had the accompaniment memorized by rote by the middle of the second day of auditions. It had even become sort of a joke among the people auditioning. One guy didn’t even bother giving me a tempo indication as he put his book on the piano, "I guess you know this one by now."  The most recent trends seem to center around the Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster Songbooks: "Taylor, the Latte Boy", "The Girl in 14G", "Not for the Life of Me", "Astonishing", "Show Off", and, of course, "Gimme, Gimme".  And, yes, playwrights also seem to inspire trends from time to time.  If Christopher Durang, Jane Martin (the long suspected and speculated nom de plum of theatrical administrator, Jon Jory) and Neil Simon had a nickel for each time one of their monologues had been extracted, well, they’d have a lot of nickels.  -Too bad William Shakespeare’s benefactors and heirs(?) had not set up some sort of royalty agreement in place at the time of the Bard’s death.

I guess it’s a good thing I don’t remember more about the thousands of auditions I’ve played over the years at SETC and elsewhere. God knows, I kick myself enough during the process whenever I have a bad audition, I would go crazy trying to retain all the details of even just a fraction of the auditions I’ve played – the good, the bad, the ugly, the downright awful, the painfully oblivious, and the refreshingly brilliant ones.  Although, I have to wonder if somewhere down the line, something in my head will snap, and I will be found walking around Times Square re-enacting the audition packages I’ve experienced over the years.  So, if you happen to come to New York City, and run into a shaggy-haired Filipino with a sign around his neck reading, "Will sight read for food," and reciting the "Tuna Fish" monologue from Laughing Wild, and sprech-stimming "How Could I Ever Know?", well… Just remember: He likes the Monkey Cake from Amy’s Bread, and the Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies from Levain.

Through the window-paned doors he could see the last flakes of snow falling to the ground. They were big, fluffy, unexpected flakes – a reminder that even though the temperatures of the past couple of days had indicated otherwise, it was still Winter. Even the calendar mounted on the refrigerator said that the first day of Spring was still three weeks away. Alas, the recent warmer temperatures had also meant that as soon as each snowflake made contact with the ground, they would return to their original liquid origin, speckling the back patio with wet, irregular polka-dots.

He had wanted to run outside when the snow started falling, to be a kid again: looking up to the sky, opening his mouth, sticking his tongue out, tasting the cold. However, less child-like, more mature concerns kept him from flinging open the doors, and venturing out on to the patio. Should he put a coat on? What shoes should he wear? Did he really want to head out into the cold? Would he get wet? The snow was going to stop falling as soon as he stepped outside anyway, right? The snow did stop falling eventually, but much later then he had falsely predicted. As he watched those last flakes of snow slowly descend and then melt on the slate tiles on his back patio, that all too familiar sense of regret was reawakened in him again.

The past couple of days had been filled with many similar moments, small missed opportunities. Each time he would take a moment – and just a moment – to think about what he had just let pass him by. And each time that strangely hollow bit of emptiness inside of him would tell him You should have done that. But, again, it was just a moment, a split second of his thoughts, and then he would continue on with his life until the next such moment arrived sooner or later. Usually sooner. He continued to stare outside. By this time, there were no traces of white left on the patio, nor on the lawn chair that should have been put into storage months ago. That brief Winter Wonderland had simply become the remnants of a brief sprinkle of rain. Maybe Spring had come early? No!

He pushed himself away from the table, walked over to the front door where his shoes were, and slipped on his favorite pair of Winter mocs, and finally headed out onto the patio. As he opened the door, he felt the cool air brush against his face, and was disappointed to find it was not cooler, colder. A few steps later, he was standing in the middle of his small backyard, surrounded by the few shrubs and trees that comprised his bit of green in this corner of the city. As he stood on the graveled landscape, he looked up to the sky hoping for any stragglers. Nothing. He continued to look around, hoping to catch some sign of the brief flurry that he had just watched from the safety of his kitchen table chair. Again, nothing.

He was not anti-Spring, he just wanted Winter to get it’s full due. He wanted a return to the Winters of his childhood. Watching the snow fall and fall until it buried the small set of stairs that led up to his front door, and the resulting joyful anticipation of sitting by the radio as the announcer read off the list of school closings. The inevitable laughter that would burst forth after watching one of his brothers take a step off the back porch, and disappear into a bank of white – his brother would be laughing too. The joyous thrill of sledding down the big hill on an inverted trash can lid. The warmth and love of the triangles of grilled cheese sandwiches and bowls of tomato soup that his mom would have waiting for him and his brothers once they had shaken off all the snow from their dungarees, and removed the Wonder Bread bags (which were secured with rubberbands) that lined their boots. Life had definitely become much more complicated since then, and the meteorological patterns of the intervening years seemed to favor milder Decembers, Januarys and Februarys.

Trying to make the best of it, and to make sure his venturing outside was not for naught, he began to take a closer inspection of his surroundings. He observed the pattern of the snow-rain-drops on the leaves of a dormant azalea. He tried to discern which shades of gray on the large pieces of gravel were part of the stones themselves or bits of dampness. He reached over to the poured concrete border that formed one of the flowerbeds, and as he felt the cold coming off of it even before his fingers made contact with the manmade stone, he smiled.

Suddenly, his eyes caught a glimpse of Green. Leaves. He grew wary and weary again of the prospect of a pre-mature Spring, but he soon realized that the Green was preserved, not new growth. He breathed a happy sigh of relief. The leaves were at the base of a single flower bud. He thought it might be a daisy at first, but it might have been a rose, however, he could not recall if he had ever seen roses in his backyard. Truth be told, even though he liked flowers, he was never one to keep track of which fanciful name went with each formation of petals and colors.

He looked at the bud. It seemed as if it had been preserved right at the moment before it was supposed to open to let the enclosed petals expose themselves to the outside air and sun. He thought that if he touched it, that it might burst. Maybe it was hibernating. The green-ness of it puzzled and awed him at the same time. It was already the last week of February, and this bud had to have been formed months ago. It had survived the rainy October, the early chill of November, and the snowfall earlier in the month. Mother Nature at her most resilient.

He gazed over at the fence, and noticed another clump of flowers resting against the slats. However, these flowers were not Green. They were Gray, Yellowed, frail. He walked over to them, and as each step took him closer, his sense of marvel increased. It appeared that the whole plant was dead. There was no trace of green in the stems, in the leaves, nor in the petals, but like the bud, it had been preserved and had literally weathered the elements of the past couple of months. He noticed the network of fibers that formed the basis of the petals; they reminded him of a counted cross-stitch panel that was either still in progress or had begun to fray at the edges. Parts of it were exposed, while other parts still retained their original covering, now sun-bleached and parchment-like.

At the base of this plant, he noticed a piece of paper, a stray bit of litter that had most likely blown in from one of the adjacent yards. He bent down to pick it up, and as he began to stand up and turn his head, he found himself looking up into the sky through the faded bouquet he had just been admiring. The clouded sunlight only seemed to grow more intense as it filtered through the translucent petals. Bright, White, Light. Simultaneously, the flowers seemed to lose their fade as their silhouettes sharpened in relief against the backdrop of the still-Winter sky. For a split second he thought it was snowing again.

He could only take advantage of that vantage point for a few seconds; any longer and he would have surely lost his balance and tumbled into the wooden fence, onto the plant, crushing that fragile Winter arrangement. Once he was standing upright again, he took one more look around the small garden before heading back inside. He kept his Winter mocs on and went back to his bedroom to fetch his wallet as well as his house keys, and walked out his front door. As he walked towards the grocery store up the street, he began to make his mental shopping list.

A can of tomato soup
A package of individually wrapped slices of American cheese
A loaf of Wonder Bread. Or two.

Well… There’s this:

cantumise1.jpg cantumise2.jpg

cantumix1.jpg

cantumix2.jpg cantulogs.jpg

cantubaked.jpg

cooling.jpg cantuclose.jpg

cantucup.jpg

And this too:

amazmise.jpg

amazmix.jpg amazpan.jpg

amazcake.jpg

amazslice1.jpg

amazslice2.jpg amazslice3.jpg

And these, of course:

 bowls.jpg dishes.jpg

*For the recipes for the goodies pictured above, just refer to the entries for February 22 and January 31.

SEVEN: Hey!  Quiet! Someone is coming!

TWO: What? We’re always quiet!  Oh… Yeah, someone just turned on the lights!

SIX: Hey! Someone just turned on the lights!

TWO: I just said that! Will you stop looking out that window!  I know you miss the building that used to be there, but it’s gone now, and it’s gonna take a least a year before something else is put up in it’s place.

SIX: Well, I still miss it. But I just noticed some sort of screen-printing business over in that other building. I keep seeing–

SEVEN: Whoa! I’m moving, I’m moving… He’s moving me, he’s moving me…

TWO: Probably just wants to get a better look at you in the light.

SEVEN: But he just turned on the lights.

TWO: Well, he just moved you closer to the window, so I guess he wanted to see what you looked like in the sunlight.

SIX: Or maybe he wants you to see that screen-printing business in the other building too.

SEVEN: Yeah, right.  Hey!  He looks really familiar.

SIX: You know, he looks familiar to me too.

TWO: Me too!

SIX: You’re just saying that.

TWO: No, I’m not.

SIX: Yes, you are.

TWO: No, I’m not.

SEVEN and SIX: YES, YOU ARE!

TWO: No, I’m– Why is he taking out a camera?

SEVEN: I think he’s taking a picture of all three of us.

TWO: Hey, I have seen this guy before! Remember, Seven? I was just telling you about him! This is the guy that was taking pictures of his lunch two weeks ago.

SIX: What?!?!?  That’s crazy.  Why would anyone want to do that?

TWO: I dunno.  But I swear I saw him taking pictures of his lunch.  And he kept setting the self-timer on his camera to take pictures of himself too.

SEVEN: I swear, they’re all narcissists!

SIX: Well, it looks like you’re right. He is taking a picture of the three of us.

SEVEN: So that’s why he moved me?!?  For a picture? And I was just tuned!

SIX: So was I.

TWO: We all were!

SEVEN: As if a tuning is gonna hide that big scratch on your fallboard, anyway.

TWO: It’s not that big.

SEVEN: Yes, it is.

TWO: No — Well —  So… Well, at least my bass notes don’t keep ringing!

SEVEN: Hey! Some people like the extra sound!

TWO: No they don’t.

SEVEN: Yes, they do!

TWO and SIX: No, they don’t.

SEVEN: Well, at least my damper pedal doesn’t squeak!

SIX: Hey! It only does that in the summer when the humidity is high! It’s not like I can control the change of seasons. We all have our faults. Just be thankful we all got tuned today. It’s been a while.

SEVEN: Guess you’re right, it had been a while. Of course, then he left us in front of the drafty windows and the radiators.

SIX: Well, nobody’s perfect, but at least we’re well tempered. Get it? Well tempered?

TWO: Trust me.  We got it.

SEVEN: And we got it the last time you made that joke.  And the time before that, and the time before that.

SIX: What do you mean "and the time before that"? I haven’t made that joke that often.

TWO: Yes, you have. I never forget a bad joke.

SIX: Shut up.

SEVEN: Now, now, now – No need to put a damper on the situation.

TWO: Oy! – And I’m the one accused of making bad jokes?

SIX: Oy?!?!  Where did you pick that up from?

TWO: With the number of bagels that get placed on me each week?

SEVEN: Oooh, I hate that too.  Especially when the sesame seeds and poppy seeds fall between my keys!  You think they would be more considerate, more caring.

SIX: And the cream cheese fingers!

ALL THREE: And the coffee!  Ah, well.  (sigh)

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Origami – from the Japanese ori meaning “folding”, and kami meaning “paper”

I’m not exactly sure when I started folding paper into shapes a bit more complicated than a paper airplane or water balloon, but I do remember buying, rather having my mother buy me my first origami book when I was eight or nine years old. I’m also not exactly sure just what sparked my interest in the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, however, when that spark hit, it lit quite the fire. At the very least, a glowing ember. I still remember coming up with an extensive Halloween bulletin board display when I was in Mrs. Wallace’s 5th Grade Class at Pleasant Valley Elementary in Groton, CT. I made witches on broomsticks, pumpkins, black cats, ghosts and other spooky shapes. It really was quite festively terrifying if I may say so myself. I also taught a few origami classes when I was in 8th Grade at St. Thomas More Elementary in Arlington, VA. (Yes, I was a Coast Guard Brat.) Who knew folding square pieces of paper could make someone so popular? *I believe my second "major" origami book was "Modern Origami" by Dr. James Minoru Sakoda.  It served me well when I was 10, and I still consult it regularly today – and his "Modified Chinese Junk (Ship)" still confounds my fingers and mind.

Throughout high school, I continued to fold.  I would buy a new book every now and then, and when I found out that the local art supply store carried different types of origami paper, I became more or less a regular there.  -Although, I would also by my Letraset sheets there too, but that’s a topic for a post I don’t feel needs to be written. Origami is basically something I do to pass the time.  I don’t fold on a regular basis, but every now and then, I will pick up a pack of paper and start going through a new or old book, folding as many of the "folds" as I have the time and patience for. There are still many folds in my library of origami books that I have yet to try, but, on the other hand, there are many I come back to time and again for their ingenuity, their simplicity (or their challenge), and their beauty.

I usually get back into folding mode whenever I’m playing in a show. Some people do crosswords between songs, some people knit, other read magazines. I fold. It keeps my fingers warm, and my mind engaged. Origami has always been like math to me without the burden of having to remember formulas.  For the most part, any time you make a crease, you are folding the piece of paper in half, or folding a section of the piece of paper in half.  There is geometry involved, but it’s magically simplified in the third dimension: you match one corner up with the other, and/or match one side of the paper with the other, then crease. You do have to think about what you’re doing, but the paper really does tell you where the creases should go. And if you happen to over or under compensate one way or the other, the paper will tell you that too. At the very worst, you’ve wasted a couple of minutes of your time, and a half-cent’s worth of paper. -How many lopsided paper airplanes and swans have you seen?

During one show – again, I can’t remember the exact one – the conductor turned to me and said that someone in the front row was admiring the various paper animals, flowers and geometric figures I had placed on and around my keyboard. It turned out to be a young girl, probably around age six or seven. It was around Christmas at the time, so I had folded a bunch of stars – four- and eight-pointed ones – in metallic gold and silver papers, of course. I asked her if she would like something for her Christmas tree, she nodded Yes, and I handed her up one of the stars. A tradition was born. I began folding and giving away my creations on a regular basis. Depending on the configuration of the pit, I was usually able to keep some books down there with me, so I could also take requests!  Of course, if a show had a short running time, or if the scenes between songs were short, my folding output would be affected.  On the flip side, during a run of Camelot, I folded a lot. A lot!

The fold illustrated below is one of my favorites.  It comes from Kunihiko Kasahara’s wonderful book, "Origami Made Easy". I bought the book in high school – after checking it out countless of times from the library. There are some truly wonderful folds. Yes, it is "easy", but there are some "not-so-easy", and a few advanced folds to keep one interested and entertained. I’m going to refrain from putting any textual instructions, and just let the pictures speak for themselves.  I hope. Traditionally, origami books instruct through the use of diagrams that use different types of lines and arrows to indicate how to fold the piece of paper. A dashed line indicates a "valley fold", and a dotted and dashed line indicates a "mountain fold". Essentially, if you fold a piece of paper "away" from you, you are creating a "valley fold". If you are folding the piece of paper "towards" you, you are creating a "mountain fold". The labeling of those folds becomes evident upon visual inspection. There’s also great deal of perspective involved: one man’s valley could be another man’s mountain. There are also inside-reverse folds, outside-reverse folds, blintz folds, squash folds, etc.  But again, I don’t want to deal with that code, at least not right now.

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I guess the first few weeks of 2008 with their leisurely, almost worrisome pacing have finally given way to a virtual flood of work: auditions, auditions, and yet more auditions. Over the past two weeks, I have found myself sitting at a different piano, on a different bench or chair, in a different studio from practically one day to the next. A variety of shows, styles, people and situations. Lots of changes and adjustments, and a bit of self-appraisal along the way.

From the multitude of self-help and self-image books lining the best-sellers shelves, it seems (and reassures?) that all of us go through times in our lives and in our careers when we begin to question the Why, the What If, the Is It All Really Worth It aspects of our Existence, of our Happiness.  Well, I guess I’m going through one of those phases right now.  Rather, I’m coming out of one of those phases right now.

As one best-seller states in its title, "Don’t sweat the small stuff." But what if your Life is made up of the "small stuff"? What if your daily routine centers around deciphering small black dots and lines of ink on a page?… Of trying to read words printed in newspaper-sized typefaces under dim lighting that still somehow manages to cause a glare?… Of determining whether that was a nod to start playing or just a simple breath?… Of wondering if that smile was genuine or simply polite?

I will be the first to admit that I do not do everything well, that I do not play everything well – in the brief life-span of this blog, I know I’ve already stated that a few times. We all have our specialties, our comfort zones, our limitations. I will be the first one to turn down a job when I know I will feel like a fish out of water the whole time I am in the room. I hate being uncomfortable when I’m sitting down at the piano, and if I know that I am not able to fully contribute to the process at hand, then I would rather not be there. Alas, due to the nature of my work, and the nature of the biz, sometimes what looked like a "comfort zone" on paper, turns out to be anything but comfortable.

I’ll spare the specifics – the small stuff, as it were – but I will say I recently had one of those days. It’s natural to have those thoughts of I can’t play, I’m not good enough go through my head whether or not I happen to be playing at the time – I could have just been listening to some music rather than playing it. But I happened to find myself unexpectedly put into a situation where those thoughts, those doubts were just reinforced and, in a sense, amplified over the course of a few hours. At the end of the day, I could not help but feel a bit disheartened, small… Helpless and Non-Helpful. Nothing was said directly to me at the time, even though my own mind was filling in the blanks throughout the day, however, the coda for my day consisted of a pleasant phone call, followed by a not so successfully suppressed flow of tears on the subway ride back home.

What could I have done? It’s not like I was hired blindly for the gig – someone thought I was good enough, the right person for the job. And for a portion of the day, I was "right", I was more than "good enough". Then came a part of the day which had me summoning up a skill set I have never had to use, I never studied, and, frankly, never wanted to use nor study. But I was the one who got the call that day, who was sitting at the piano, so I did the best that I could do. I even voluntarily abstained at times when I knew any contributions from me at the piano would hinder rather than help – at least I had enough knowledge to discern when those situations would arise. Alas, getting that phone call confirming my "lack of ability" (the quotation marks are mine) did nothing to ease my own self-analysis of the day’s proceedings. Even though I fully understood what was being shared with me at the time – and, in retrospect, it allowed me to take a very real sigh of relief –  the phone call just confirmed, albeit falsely, the thoughts and doubts that had been lingering in the back – and sometimes in the forefront – of my mind throughout the day. I can’t play. I’m not good enough. And worst of all: I did not help today.

It’s amazing how fine and malleable the line between a "Can" and a "Can’t" can be from situation to situation, from moment to moment. The Mind is most certainly a powerful Thing, and sometimes that power is used for Good, sometimes for Bad, and sometimes for the In Between. Lots of gray. Now that I’ve had a few days to process everything, well… Maybe "process" is not exactly the proper word. If anything, I’ve "displaced" what happened, or "re-placed" it. The whole situation was unexpected and new to me. In a sense, it was also new to the people who had hired me: they had never seen nor heard me using the skill set that I was called upon to use that day. In fact, after my work for them in the past, they had assumed that I could play Everything, and play Everything well. Now they know. Now I re-know. (And this was truly not a case of, "You know what what happens when you assume?…")

When I was in college, there was an inevitable sense of competition – some would call it jealousy! – between piano studios, between teachers, between students. Comparisons were unavoidable due to the closeness of the practice rooms and the not-so-soundproofing of the studios. Sometimes, I would even go as far as accompanying someone else’s solo piano part in a concerto through the cinder block walls. Or, if I was feeling particularly feisty that day, I would play a song accompaniment at the same time – up a half step! My teacher was a wonderful Polish woman who came to the States in the 1960s. She was – and still is – a fine Pianist and fine Teacher. Growing up and training in Europe at the time that she did, she was very familiar with the "Russian School" of piano playing that was personified by Emil Gilels, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Lazar Berman, Vladimir Horowitz. She, too, was a part of that pianistic royal lineage having been a pupil of some Star Pupils both in Poland and in the United States.

My first lesson with her was not really a lesson at all. It was an interview. A two-way interview. After she had asked me some questions about my musical and personal preferences, she then asked me to ask her some questions. At first, I didn’t know what to ask, what I wanted to know, so she started off by giving me some answers: 53, married, two sons, two dogs (standard poodles), New England Conservatory, Catholic University of America, Prokofiev piano sonatas, Purple. Needless to say, I was caught off-guard by her frankness, her openness; consequently, I was also a bit in shock to inquire about anything else personal, musical or pedagogical at the time. However, that first lesson perfectly set up the Teacher-Student dynamic for our time in and out of Studio B-16 over the next couple of years. She had already begun planting, nurturing and insuring(!) the Idea that Music is not and can not be isolated to the piano studio. Whatever else was going on in our Life would most certainly affect our Music. It was all connected. Music was an integral part of our Life, but not Life itself. -She even required that we take at least one class outside of the Music Building each semester: she would not allow her students to isolate themselves figuratively, academically nor geographically.

I believe one of the greatest lessons I learned from her – as if that were not great enough – was that there was a difference between being Good and being a Virtuoso. Being Good ultimately results from one’s own honest self-appraisal. Being a Virtuoso is a label applied by someone else. Yes, one could be Good and a Virtuoso, but one did not have to be a Virtuoso to be Good. I did not have to be a Virtuoso. I did not have to work, to strive for something I was not meant to be, for a goal I never really wanted to achieve. It does sound very pat and simplistic – and maybe even a cop-out to some people – to say that someone knows how they fit in the larger scheme of things, but there is never anything wrong with Honesty. It truly does take all kinds. Just because I was not playing the Liszt "Transcendental Etude" that I could hear coming through duct work, did not mean that I could not still enjoy the Music that was being made.

So, as the proverbial dust settled from the events of earlier this week, and as I realized that the tears that I cried were a result of that situation and many other smaller matters preceding it, I remembered and was reminded (with the prompting of a very dear friend) that I am Good. It was the luck of the draw. It was not a matter of being "good enough" or "not good enough". I was simply the one who got the phone call to come in and play, when I would have been happier in the hallway listening through the door that day.

I believe this was the first recipe I tried out of "Baking With Julia", the Julia of the title being the late, great Julia Child.  The book was published in conjunction with the same-named PBS series: each episode featuring a different baker baking with Julia.  The series and the book provided a wonderful cross-sections of baking techniques and traditions, as well as a varied selection of both sweet and savory baked goods. I believe it’s the one cookbook on my shelf out of which I’ve at least attempted a majority of the recipes, with "The Joy of Cooking" a most likely close second.

These biscotti are one of the classic Italian double-baked cookies.  In his introduction to the recipe, contributing baker, Nick Malgieri, states: “The traditional accompaniment is vin santo, but they’re great with espresso or tea. No matter the libation, they’re meant to be dipped.” I’ve found that if sliced to just the right thickness, they can be easily and satisfyingly eaten right out of the cookie jar – no dipping required. Or as an accompaniment to a generous scoop of ice cream or gelato.

Cantuccini

2 cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon salt
1-½ cups unbleached whole almonds
3 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350℉.  Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside.

Put the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl and stir with a rubber spatula to mix.  Stir in the almonds.

Whish the eggs and vanilla together in a small bowl, then stir them into the flour mixture. The dough may seem dry at this point, but it will come together as it is kneaded.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead, folding it over onto itself until it is smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Divide the dough in half and shape each half into a 12-inch-long log. Gently press down on the logs to flatten them until they are about 2 inches wide and 1 inch high. Transfer them to the prepared pan.

First Baking Bake the logs for about 30 minutes, or until they are slightly risen and firm to the touch. Slide the logs, parchment and all, off the baking sheet and onto a cooling rack. The logs must be completely cool before you can continue with the recipe. Since they will take about 30 minutes to cool, you can either turn the oven off or leave it on for the next step. You can bake the biscotti up to this point several days ahead. Wrap the logs well in plastic and continue when it’s convenient.

Second Baking When the logs have cooled completely, preheat the oven to 350℉, if necessary. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.

Working with a sharp serrated knife, cut the cooled logs diagonally into ¼-inch-thick slices. Place the sliced cookies cut side down on the pans and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the biscotti are crisp and golden. Cool on the pans.

Storing There biscotti will keep for up to a month in an airtight tin or plastic container.

My Notes and Observations

  • The recipe states that it makes 8 dozen biscotti. I’ve usually just managed to get about 6 dozen slices.
  • Make sure your baking powder is fresh – check those expiration dates! It’s the only leavening in the recipe, and it contributes greatly to the airy-crunchiness of the finished product.
  • Once the dough starts to come together, it really does come together quite fast.  I’ve found it easier to knead the dough while it is still in the bowl, and then transfer halves of the dough directly to the parchment paper-lined baking sheets.  Your hands will get messy!
  • Besides the vanilla, I also like to add a ½ teaspoon of almond extract to help round out the almond flavor and aroma.
  • As a final fillip, you can dip the cantucinni in the melted chocolate of your choice once they are cooled.

I’m here.

Just an hour before I arrived at the rehearsal studio, I was still slumbering away in my bed on my still somewhat comfortable mattress, cocooned in my still surprisingly insulating comforter. I could hear the muffled vibration of my cell phone buried in the pocket of my winter coat which was across the room.  Of course, by the time I had put my feet on the floor, stepped over some stray laundry, and fumbled through the pockets of my coat, the vibrating had stopped, but now the little red light was flashing. You have voicemail.

I didn’t even bother checking the message, I just went ahead and called back the "Missed Call". I had suspected why I was getting that call at 9:00 on a Sunday morning, and sure enough, my suspicions were correct. Someone was sick, and they needed someone else to come in and cover the day of auditions. Sure, I can come in. See you soon.

In retrospect, I’m not really sure just why I said, "Yes." Under normal circumstances, I would have just let the phone ring, and checked to see if someone left a message later on; but since WQXR had been quietly sounding in the background since 8:30, I was already coming out of my slumber to the strains of some Bach and Elgar. When I called back, I may have just been too tired to say anything but "Yes".  A pianistic Pavlovian response – Work equals Money, Money equals Rent. I guess I could have said, "No. I’m sorry, I already have other plans today," then gone back to bed for a few more hours.  Or, at the very least, "I’ll come in today, but only if I’m paid double the usual rate due to the last minute notice." Hindsight is 20/20. But I just hung up, and started getting ready.

It wasn’t until the D Train reached Rockefeller Center that I realized I had not brought my laptop with me. No book. Not even a magazine. Nothing to help me pass the time, nothing to keep me company. I stopped by one newsstand in search of the Sunday New York Times… We only carry the weekday.  What?!?! I passed a Starbucks – one of the twenty (at least) that bask directly in the neon glow of Times Square – and thought about getting a coffee, but then remembered that they carry the New York Times. I was able to grab one of the last two copies they had, and the barista/clerk even let me cut into line since she could tell I just wanted to buy the paper.  Nothing Tall, Grande or Venti for me at that time.  Another block or two later, I realized that I should have at least have gotten a Mocha.

I’m here.

The day was quite leisurely paced. I had plenty of breaks, plenty of time to read. Plenty of time to text silly messages to some of my friends – although, I had to step out of the studio into the hallway to do so since the signal was pretty week behind the closed doors. Plenty of time to give a listen to the audio-feed of the show that was running in the theatre next door.

The studio itself was very conducive to reading, if not ideal for reading. High ceilings, one wall lined with mirrors, a decent grand piano, but despite the number of recessed lighting fixtures, the general lighting was surprisingly dim. It was just The Room and I and the Times for most of the day. No distractions. It was an interior room, so there were no windows which made me feel better about not having my camera with me since there was really nothing to take pictures of.  Even the two big, round windows in the hallway were frosted – they were there to let light in, not to let one’s gaze out.

Every couple of minutes my reading would be interrupted by a familiar face coming through the door.  Some I knew by name and greeted with a hug; others I recognized from a Playbill bio, a television appearance, a movie role, and greeted with a smile, keeping a professional distance. Each person was taught a few short sequences of steps, and some were asked to improvise some movement accompanied by my own improvisations at the piano in the designated, requested style. It was during those brief exercises that I really wished I had not forgone the caffeine that morning.

That was pretty much the routine for day, interrupted only by a very quick lunch break. Work, work, work. Read, read, read. By the time the casting director informed me that I was done for the day, I had managed to make my way through the Sunday Times. Consequently, I was brought up to date on matters International, National, Local, Arts & Leisure, Style and Magazine. Even Real Estate.

I bundled myself and my newspaper up – I would take it home with me and put it in the recycling bin –  and headed back down to the street. As I stepped out of the stage door, I realized it was the first time I had been outside since rushing to the studio that morning. That first intake of the cold, NYC-fresh air into my lungs finally cleared away the bits of my interrupted morning slumber. Just a few feet later I found myself in the middle of Times Square. Like most New Yorkers – native and otherwise – I have a love/hate relationship with Times Square. Sometimes all the people, the noise, the lights, the smells are just too much to deal with, something to be avoided.  Other times – and this was turning out to be the case this evening – it feels great to be a part of all the fabled and infamous hustle and bustle of those few blocks of midtown. To be both and Observer and Participant. Native and Tourist.

I’m here.

As I navigated the crowded sidewalks, I noticed a couple trying to take a picture of themselves with the lights of Times Square as their background. Would you like me to take your picture? They kindly refused stating that they had perfected the art of the outstretched-arm-point-and-shoot self-portrait.  However, they did ask where I had picked up my copy of the Times. I told them that I had picked it up earlier that morning, and had managed to read all of it during the course of my work day. I then offered it to them. At first I could sense that they were waiting for me to attach some sort of catch to my offer, but they eventually accepted my gently-used newspaper. They even said they would make sure to put it in a recycling bin. Nice catch.

As I looked out through the window – a window in dire need of some cleaning or at least a good strong rain – just staring somewhat blankly into the distance seemed to muffle the din of room. Observing the buildings in the distance, the brightly clouded sky, the water towers on the rooftops across the street provided a pleasant distraction. At least momentarily. At least for me. Shuffle-hop-step… Reverse Cramp Roll… Push… Pull-back… STOMP! Over and over. Again and again. The roomful of Hopefuls – at this moment all men – were learning or, at least, attempting to learn a tap dance combination. Not easy stuff today. Very aggressive, very athletic. Very loud. Thankfully, I always keep a set of ear plugs – two sets, in fact – in my bag, so those helped to protect my ears from any possible auditory damage. Alas, there’s only so much noise they can keep out, and since I still had to hear the "sounds" in conjunction with my own playing, I could not totally isolate myself from the twenty pairs of tap shoes making contact with the studio floor.

I noticed the small length of pink ribbon sitting at the top end of the keyboard, just resting quietly on the highest B-flat. Previously, it was used to tie up a small bag of macarons that I had bought at lunch. I just happened to come across a recently opened café on 36th Street: a sliver of a place which consisted of a counter, a display case, a set of chairs and a small couch. More of a café in spirit, if not in execution or square footage. Besides the macarons – one violette and matcha green tea (which always seems somewhat redundant labeling to me) – my petit déjeuner included a baguette layered with a few slices of jambon and gruyère, sliced cornichons, moutarde and beurre.  A Ham and Cheese Sandwich which the café’s management called a "Paris".  Alas, when the order was called back to the kitchen, it was a "pair-riss", and not a "pah-ree". Ce ne fait rien. At least the proprietor was a true Monsieur.

As I played the brief excerpt of music, the piece of pink ribbon proceeded to do its own dance. Not only was it rocking along to the shuffling boogie that I was playing, but it was also succumbing to the room-quake caused by the 20 men dancing just a few feet away – the literal repercussions of each footfall. Between repetitions, it would settle back into place, although, if a breeze would come through the window, I would watch to see if it would get blown further down the keyboard or onto the floor, but it managed to stay put.

After the teaching phase was done, it was time for the Hopefuls to dance for the judges: the assistant choreographer and the casting director. The assistant choreographer’s assistant, the "dance demonstrator", for today went through the combination one more time before each Hopeful went up for their final exam as it were. He counted off the tempo, "5… 6… 5, 6, 7, 8…".  I started playing. As he danced/demonstrated, he called out the names of each step – a vocabulary still somewhat embarrassingly foreign to me after many years of playing dance auditions. Some of the Hopefuls just watched and listened, others moved their feet along with the demonstration checking to see if their movements were in sync. Still others just closed their eyes, running the steps in their head, hoping (and praying) for the best.

Three names were called out. The first three Hopefuls were lined up left to right. This time, after receiving a nod from the people behind the table, I started the count-off… 5… 6… My left hand hit the first octave of the descending bass line… 5, 6… My right hand started playing the offbeats… 7, 8… And we were off. The three Hopefuls picked up their left foot for the first step, then three taps made contact with the floor a fraction of a second later, while three pairs of eyes and ears watched and listened and evaluated. Two hands, ten fingers played along, emphasizing the rhythms, accenting the downbeats to help keep everyone from rushing. Eight short measures of music, 12 seconds later, it was over.  Well, at least for a few seconds, just enough time for the three Hopefuls to catch their breath before running the combination one more time. And then it was over. Another three names were called out, the next three Hopefuls lined up, the nod from the table… Line Up. Dance. Repeat.

By this time in the day, this whole routine had already been completed three times. The day started off with a group of women and a group of men before lunch, and another group of women after lunch. We were dancing the final group of men for the day before moving onto the singing portion of the process. Due to the number of people that were called back, that needed to be heard, the singing part of the day was a flurry of 16-bar cuts of pop/rock songs, or at least something resembling a pop/rock song for some of the Hopefuls. Lots of Billy Joel and Elton John, Cyndi Lauper, Janis Joplin, etc. Towards the end of the session, I found myself just playing what was put in front of me, not really recognizing the titles, the melodies. It had all become a visual and aural blur.

After the last singer had come back to the piano to reclaim his "book", the three-ring binder filled with the copies of his music, I began to put the piano back in order. As I lowered the fallboard, I noticed the length of pink ribbon still sitting quietly on the upper keys. After the countless repetitions of the dance music, it was still there. After all the dance-induced rumbling, it’s shiny finish still reflected the dull, yellow-gray output of the fluorescent ceiling lights. It reminded me of the café I had discovered on my lunch break, and of the two dainty, delicate and delicious pastries that were placed in a small cellophane bag that was then tied and sealed with that piece of pink ribbon. I continued to close the fallboard, leaving the ribbon undisturbed, content in its stillness. I wondered if it was afraid of the dark, of being closed off from the rest of room. And I wondered – No! – I Hoped that the next person to open the piano, after catching a glimpse of that piece of pink ribbon out of the corner of their eye, would suddenly think to themselves, "Ah, macarons."



May 2017
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