29 September 2007

What weekends are for

Friday night birthday parties. (Try to avoid the part where you get inexplicably dizzy all of the sudden in the middle of talking to that nice American girl--yay! another American! a rare sighting, indeed--and have to run to your hosts' bathroom where you can't find the lights to save your life and meanwhile you have to puke.) (No. I'm not pregnant.)

Sleeping until noon. (Preferably wearing your favorite pajamas.)

Reading aloud in bed. (The best way is taking turns. Helps if the chapters are short.)

Talking about European history, with a focus on Lenin and the Russian revolution, in bed. (Yeah, I know! Whatever floats your boat!)

Doing other things in bed. (No comment.)

Frying eggs and refried beans. (And eating them.)

Talking to far-flung family in Spain and the US. (Or, you know, wherever yours happen to be. Go Skype!)

Meeting friends for a Belgian beer. (Recommended: a bar where old men are playing chess.)

Going to see a movie on a cold and wet Saturday afternoon. (Preferably something kind of Hollywoody, in English, but that has gotten at least some decent reviews, bonus points if from the NYTimes. If that doesn't work out, a Romanian art-house film.)

Meeting other friends for a city-wide music fest, trying out a few venues and listening to French pop, jazz, and blues. (And maybe some reggae.)

Going to church. (Wear thickest possible tights. See aforementioned "cold and wet" weather.)

Buying fresh vegetables at the market. (To make soup. See aforementioned "cold and wet" weather.)

Making soup. (See aforementioned "fresh vegetables.")

Playing cards with your husband. (Try to win at least once.)

Denying that it will ever be Monday again.

28 September 2007

Chum Frink

I've been doing some work for my brother, who has a super cool graphic design company. They do everything from branding to product displays to websites to photo shoots. He asked me to write copy for a catalogue of high-end sport sunglasses (think Oakleys, but they're not Oakleys).

My job was to write a spiffy history/mission statement, descriptions of all the different styles of glasses, descriptions of the super duper fancy schmancy "tech features" that make these glasses the thing you absolutely have to get if you're at all serious about your sunglasses, and mini-bios of the four famous people who are wearing the sunglasses in the photo shoots (this last one I ended up editing, not writing from scratch).

What took me by surprise was how much I enjoyed doing this work, mostly because of how creative and--dare I say it?--poetic it was.

I was drawn to the challenge of saying normally boring or cliché phrases in a way that was fresh and invigorating. I loved thinking about how to describe a sunglasses feature with style and panache. Ultimately, I found myself using creative language that approximated the poetic process much more closely than I expected.

Of course, I didn't have any illusions that this was poetry, and knowing that my name wasn't going to be on it was pretty nice--kind of lifts the pressure of greatness. (It is only product copy, after all.)

The question of poetry in advertising made me think of the character in Sinclair Lewis' book Babbitt called Chum Frink (his full name is T. Cholmondeley Frink, and that alone is worth the price of the book). Chum Frink is George Babbitt's next door neighbor, and his is "a Famous Poet and a distinguished advertising-agent." He is the author of both "Poemulations" and "Ads that Add."

At a party, Frink gets going about which of his callings is more difficult:

"I’m doing a series of ads for the Zeeco Car and I want to make each of ’em a real little gem—reg’lar stylistic stuff. I’m all for this theory that perfection is the stunt, or nothing at all, and these are as tough things as I ever tackled. You might think it’d be harder to do my poems—all these Heart Topics: home and fireside and happiness—but they’re cinches. You can’t go wrong on ’em; you know what sentiments any decent go-ahead fellow must have if he plays the game, and you stick right to ’em. But the poetry of industrialism, now there’s a literary line where you got to open up new territory."

The poems--not advertising--are the "cinches" if you just "play the game." On the other hand, advertising has true style and panache. So in Frink's world, the poems are the manipulative clichés and the language of advertising is where true artistry happens.

(Of course all of this is Lewis' commentary on the way poetry in the 1920s was changing to include language of popular culture and advertising, as well as the rise of mass culture in general.)

But that leads me to the part about writing catalogue copy that I didn't like as much: the creative language and metaphorical imagery was being used to--basically--manipulate someone into thinking that they should buy these sunglasses (or a store into thinking they should sell them). Where Chum Frink sees poetry as manipulative (and perhaps it is, in its own way), the language of advertising is overtly designed to cause consumer behavior (and even more, create a consumer identity).

In other words, even though the exercise of language for this job was sometimes just as fun as writing poetry, I am more comfortable with poetic language being used to provoke thought rather than the urge to buy. A more cynical view might insist, like Frink, that poetry is "selling" something, even if that something is a sentiment or a thought or a political/aesthetic perspective. But I'd like to think that there's still a difference there, even if it's a question of degrees (and I don't mean that PhD that's hanging over my head).

I should add that my brother's company is run with integrity, skill, and artistry. And (psst, bro) I would totally work for them again. But the whole process made me think about what creative writing means, what advertising does, and the aesthetic philosophies of T. Cholmondeley Frink.

Piano saga, part trois

After yet another week with no piano in sight (despite promises to the contrary), we fired the piano moving company. They better give us our money back. M. went to collect this morning.

But now we're stuck with our original problem, which is how to get a big honking piece of wood and metal and ivory and stuff up to our apartment. I realize it's just not that easy to do this sort of job, which is probably why the "professionals" get away with all that craziness they pulled.

Does anyone know exactly how many people it takes to carry a piano? And how brawny those people have to be? We're wondering if it would work to just individually hire people, starting with our former Polish neighbor (I mean not formerly Polish, formerly our neighbor) and going from there.

I'm getting a sinking feeling that I won't even have the piano by the time I leave for the US, next week. And since I'll be there for almost two weeks, it will have been A MONTH AND A HALF between the day we bought the piano and I finally lay eyes on it again.

25 September 2007


Still no piano. After several hours, and several phone calls unanswered to the delivery man who called me in the first place, I spoke with the piano company man, who told me that the delivery men had attempted to pick up the piano "three or four times" over the last week but they hadn't ever let them take it because they didn't have "the ticket" (i.e., the sales receipt). It was absolutely necessary, it transpires, that I go down to the store in person and bring them the receipt.

What I want to know, is why I only found this out after THREE attempts at pick-up, over the course of TWO weeks, and why they never CALLED us to get the receipt instead of banging their heads repeatedly against the same difficulty? Why, during ANY of the several times M. e-mailed or called in an attempt to move things along, did they not mention this detail? (At one point they even told us--patently untrue--that they had already picked the piano up from the secondhand place and was being stored at their piano shop.) It all boggles the mind.

It's tempting to blame such blatant demonstrations of ineffeciency and incompetence (repeated over and over again in our day to day life in Brussels) on the government. Or, I should say, the non-government. Belgium just celebrated (with a big sparkly cake) the 100th day of having no elected government.

Everyone's talking about whether the country will split in two or not; certainly we've been astounded by the palpable sense that there is greater division between the two parts of Belgium than any two neighboring countries. But evidently Belgians are fond of their monarchs, and besides, Brussels would be an unsolvable mess: a mostly francophone city in the midst of Dutch-speaking Flanders.

The complexity of regional, city, and town governments are astounding; nothing gets done because there's just too much governance. Especially because it's just a little sliver of a country not much bigger than my home state, Vermont, it's hard to imagine why it is so difficult to smoothly run a bilingual and multicultural country.

Anyway. I just want my piano.

PS: for a nice recent review of the Belgian-split problem, see this NYTimes article.

24 September 2007

In which I promise to have some thoughts

I just realized that the iTunes thingamabob that I tried to put up a while ago actually IS there. I thought, mistakenly, that the Blogger template stuff hadn't accepted the coding and anyway...shrug. But there it is. And I don't like it! I can't figure out why some of my favorite music shows up but others are random albums that I don't really like that much at all. And while the scrolling words are nice for about a minute, they're all grey and boring and repeat over and over. You can click on the artist to see the album, but even that is only interesting maybe the first couple of times you do it. Am I right? So, I will be deleting the iTunes thingamabob.

Also, apologies for not blogging in, like, forever. I promised my grandparents I'd keep it up, and then I slacked off for almost the whole month of September. So here I am, grandpa and grandma! I'll try to blog more so you know what I'm up to!

What I'm up to lately is more of the same, which means: trying to work diligently, studying French, singing in choir, trying to swim more regularly so I don't turn into a couch-shaped blob, and traveling to places like Barcelona (two weekends ago) and Liege (yesterday, to see the opera there--Nabucco--and do a bit of sightseeing). Ooh, and my good friend Amanda is coming to visit tomorrow! Also, I'm doing some work for my brother, which I think I'll have to save for another post because I have some, you know, thoughts on that.

Do, re, mi oh my

So, we bought a piano. It's not, shall we say, something one typically expects to do on a regular old Friday afternoon.

But the Victor Horta House Museum, which we thought would occupy our time until our dinner reservation, actually only took about an hour (being rather more "house" than "museum").

Whiling away the rest of the afternoon meant strolling through the Chatelain neighborhood, and in the Chatelain neighborhood, on the same street as the museum, there is a huge secondhand shop called Les Petits Riens (The Little Nothings).

We had our eyes peeled for a sofa or a coffee table, and didn't see anything. However, we saw a piano. Two, actually.

I should mention here that my mother was with us, and I should mention that my mother is a pianist by trade. We started playing the pianos, and noticing that they were only 200 euros. We also noticed that one was both decidedly more antique than the other AND decidedly of richer sound, tuning, and all around beauty. This is where my mom came in: she knows what to look for (uncracked sounding board? good. a cracked key? replacable. tight tuning pins? good. a couple stuck keys? no problem.) and she helped us realize that yes, we could buy a piano in a random thrift shop on a regular old Friday afternoon.

Then the friendly people at the store started to realize that we might actually take one of these pianos off their hands, and they reduced the price by another 25 euros, while pointing out that they had originally priced it at 500, and had no idea what it was really worth (hinting that maybe it was worth a lot more than that).

Nervously (can one really buy a piano, just like that?), we handed them the credit card and were the proud owners of a beautiful antique piano.

Now, here's the rub: one can't exactly take a piano home in one's back pocket. After a few phone calls the following morning, we discovered that transporting the piano up to our fourth-floor apartment was going to cost us more money than we paid for the piano in the first place. Most companies wanted us to rent a furniture lift, which is very expensive and involves reserving the street in front of our house from the town government etc. etc. We did find some professional piano movers who were willling to CARRY the thing up our stairs (heaven help their backs), and so we paid them to do so.

And then waited. All of this happened, let's see, over THREE weeks ago. And we're still waiting for our piano. After numerous phone calls and e-mails and consternation-ful conversations with the piano people, it appears that at long last, TODAY is the day. The piano was due to arrive twenty minutes ago (the dudes called me earlier this morning), so I am holding my breath and crossing my fingers (you know, to limber them up for the scales I'm going to be practicing shortly).

Our neighbors are probably going to hate us, but I am hopping-up-and-down to have a piano. Last time I was home and played a bit, I could tell I had lost so much of what I had (which wasn't a whole lot to begin with, to be honest), after years of having nowhere to play. I'm looking forward to sharpening up some piano chops, and also to being able to practice my choir music without having to resort to a. awkward solo pitch-guessing, b. singing along with recorded versions of the pieces, or c. attempting to use an "internet piano" by which you click on keys in sequence to get a computery approximation of the melody. (Believe me, it's not worth the trouble.)

So here's to secondhand shops, and piano chops. May the piano be light on their backs, and may it come within the hour.