Picking up the brush

Study from the Gospel of St. Mark, Ebbo Gospels, Rheims. Brush and ink on large-sized Moleskine squared journal

For the past month, I’ve been taking a little time as often as I can to draw something.  Sometimes I do calligraphy.  Why am I starting with these when I was a realistic portraitist before?  I have no idea.  It was just what appealed.

Why am I posting this here?  As a sort of accountability measure.  It might help me to keep at it and get better.  I am way out of practice, and it’s going to take a while to get back in the habit of producing artwork.

What were my rules?  Draw something you like.  It’s about the line quality, the first time it goes on the page.  When you get tired, stop.  (Which I did when I got to the border.  You can tell I was mostly interested in those agitated folds!)

What was my source?   St. Mark from the Ebbo Gospels.  This has been one of my favorite works of art since I first saw it in a medieval art history course, circa 1984.  The original has color and wash effects in the landscape, which I didn’t try to reproduce here.  I also didn’t worry much about taking liberties with the original, because I figure that the original artist would never have drawn this illustration the same way twice himself.  The perspective is wacky, and shadows bizarre, and I can’t even clearly see the lion at the top right of the page.  I love it!

Well, that’s the first one.  We’ll see if they get better, and where, if anywhere, this practice goes!

Update:  Adding a second attempt below.  This time I tried some washes and figured out that they really need to come first, before the more precise strokes. I corrected some of the proportions and didn’t even try the border. Also, I made more outright mistakes and possibly overworked the drawing.  But already, I think this one is closer to the spirit of the original.

Listening to Arvo Pärt, because that seems like the most appropriate music for this kind of thing. And for some reason the phrase “internet monk” keeps going round and round in my head.



My grandma flies over the ocean…


Sarie and her grandmother backstage during intermission at the Vercelli performance.

We had a guest for Sarie’s performance week–Bob’s mother!  This was Marie’s first trip to a non-English-speaking European country, and she would address Italians in English.  Sometimes we found out this way that people spoke more English than we thought!  But by the end of the week, she had mastered Ciao! and Grazie! and was working on some other short phrases. I think she has started to appreciate our new home.

The two photos below are from Vercelli. Marie really liked Vercelli, even in the dark. I took the photos of the pastries just for Bob’s dad, so he won’t be afraid to visit Italy.  See, they do have donuts!  And many other yummy things besides.

And Mom and Dad, you are invited back any time you want to come!  But to provide a strong motivation, Sarie will work on getting another solo ASAP–maybe even Sibelius.

IMG_1099 IMG_1101

A moment in the spotlight


This has been such a full couple of weeks that I can’t possibly tell it all.  But here’s the short version.

All violinists want to play solo with an orchestra.  Sarie finally got her chance this weekend when she and another conservatory student performed Bach’s Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins in two venues.  On Friday night they performed at their conservatory, and on Saturday night in Vercelli, a small town about halfway between Torino and Milan.  And then on Sunday afternoon Sarie was also in a small Mozart performance.

Sarie and Brice were placed together after an audition last year.  There were three other soloists (a cellist, flautist and clarinetist) performing the same night, all accompanied by a professional orchestra conducted by the conservatory’s conductor, Mario Lamberto.

On Saturday night in Vercelli, the organization that sponsored the performances was present with photographers and a very official, Italian-style ceremony at the end.  One of the photographers kindly sent me the photos in this post.  The performers even got a nice review.

Sarie’s comments on the photos: 2. “We were warming up backstage with the second movement, and the photographers kept clicking away.  We started to get amused, so when we got to the end of the second movement, we glanced at each other, grinned, and spontaneously launched into the third, for their sake.” 3. “That’s Lamberto’s happy face!”  3. The presentation at the end of the performance. Each performer received an art book from the Venice Guggenheim.

Update: Forgot to add that if we get a video eventually, I’ll try to post that, too.

Reading year 2012, with a few annotations


Honestly, sometimes I’m surprised that I read anything at all last year. Moving was quite an adjustment.  But I’m sure that even with distractions, it was therapeutic to read 1) in English, so I could at least feel competent in my native language and culture, and 2) in Italian, so I could learn about the place I’d stepped into.  So without further ado, here’s the list:

No Remorse: The Rise and Fall of the Killer John Wallace, by Dot Moore

About the sometimes violent place and culture my family is from, but not so well-written that I’d recommend it.  Flannery O’Connor is so much better!

Shantung Compound, by Langdon Gilkey

Interesting study of an alternate society and of human nature in a WWII prison camp.  Though he’s not a main character in this book, Eric Liddell from Chariots of Fire is one of the inmates.

The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, by Alex Ross

I really did learn a lot from this book, most especially why Germany was the cradle of 20th-Century modernism.  I enjoyed Ross’s way of describing the music.  Be prepared: It’s long!

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks

Sarie likes Oliver Sacks a lot, but I enjoy him less.  His books are full of interesting phenomena, but I prefer more theory and connection between my anecdotes.  Or maybe it was just February.

The Meaning of Marriage: Finding Happiness in Your Most Profound Relationship, by Timothy Keller

When I first read this, I confess I was less encouraged than I’d hoped to be. But I held on, and kept going back to the passages I’d underlined, and now the same parts that hit my ears with a thud the first time around are really starting to sing. Which is no doubt because I’m in a better frame of mind, and that’s part of Keller’s point about marriage.

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

I never want Murray to be right, but I remain fascinated by his willingness to ask hard questions.

The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, by Susan Wise Bauer

Even though we’re not homeschooling anymore, I’ll probably keep reading this series as long as I can manage to get its weighty volumes to Italy.  I probably enjoy them more than Sarie ever did, anyway!

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Pevear and Volokonsky translation)

Wow, this book is so much more vivid than I remember it being in high school!

The House of the Seven Gables, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Good Italy, Bad Italy: Why Italy Must Conquer Its Demons to Face the Future, by Bill Emmott

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson

The Abolition of Man, by C.S. Lewis

Because I’m always reading Lewis.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain

If you’re an introvert, and you didn’t read this when it came out last year, do so, because you might get along with yourself better.  If you’re married to an introvert or have one in your family, read it, because you might get along with them better.  It gives good reasons to let introverts be themselves and also good tips on when and why an introvert might want to act extroverted now and then.

Un Italiano in America, by Beppe Severgnini

Not the greatest book in the world, but still historic because it’s the first one I read all the way through in Italian.  Il barone Lamberto (see below) promises to be much better.

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh

If This is a Man/The Truce, by Primo Levi

These last three I read just so I’d be able to discuss them with Sarie, since they were assigned to her as part of the IB program she’s enrolled in.  All three were part of a unit called “Victims of War.” I liked Levi the best.  I even read some of my favorite passages in Italian. He’s from Torino and I know exactly where he lived, having visited an accountant’s office next door to his apartment.  My favorite chapter of If This is a Man is one in which, despite the horror of his surroundings, Levi spends the afternoon discussing the Odyssey with a friend.

Some books I hope to read this year: 

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens (deep into it already!)

Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy (Pevear and Volokonsky translation)

Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, by George Steiner

The Remains of the Day, by Ishiguro Kazuo

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

C’era due volte il barone Lamberto, by Gianni Rodari

The Dark Side of Italy, Tobias Jones

Every Good Endeavor, by Timothy Keller

Most of these I’ve listed because I’ve already started them, but that’s sort of a cop-out explanation since I must have had some reason to start them. So: I’m reading them because I love the Russians, especially as translated by Pevear and Volokonsky; because I want to keep learning Italian or learning about Italy, or because someone in my family is reading them and I want to discuss what we both thought. In the case of the Keller book, I’m thinking about my own future work.

And in the case of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, I want to read it because it’s not at all the sort of thing I usually read and maybe it will exorcise a few New York ghosts.  After all, part of the movie was filmed on our old street, with interior shots from the building next door to ours (the one where I think Flannery O’Connor lived).  That likely explains why everything looked so eerily familiar when I watched the trailer.

So, have you read and enjoyed any of the books I’ve listed?  Would you like to join me in reading any of them this year?  What would you put on a book list of your own?

Our little corner of the Alps


Time to add a new post, is it not?  We’ve been back for a week.

Last week was the first time flying back over the mountains that it seemed a bit like we were coming home.  Maybe it’s because the trip was so long, 20 hours with stops in Chicago and Frankfurt.  We arrived back in Europe at 5:45 a.m., also known as 11:45 p.m., feeling a bit stiff and fuzzy tired. The plane taxied past section after section of spotless German glass, revealing a cross section of a clean, gray interior punctuated with orange. Sarie and I had never been to Germany before this trip, and though we never left the airport, we enjoyed watching the other passengers and even appreciated the free, watery macchiato hidden away behind the Lufthansa gates (or I did).

We were really looking forward to the flight back over the Alps. Before Christmas, during the first leg of our flight to the US, I had noted every lake and creamy mountaintop as we flew across northern Italy and then to Germany in a prop plane, chased by the sunrise. On the way back, ragged clouds covered many of the mountains, but occasionally they opened up to reveal dramatic views.

Tolkien based his Misty Mountains on the Alps.


The first photo above is from a previous trip, but it approximates the altitude from the prop plane.  The second photo is from last week.

Shortly we were over to the Italian side of the Alps, seemingly back in the land of the sunrise (in winter the sun always comes from the south) and as the landscape flattened out, the pilot said, “To your left you can see Milan.”  This is what we saw (a little blurry because of the plane window).


Almost immediately we banked right, flew just south of Torino, banked right again, and flew into the Valli di Lanzo between Torino and the Alps, towards the airport.  As we did so, I could see all the small towns along the Stura and on up into the mountains. I had never realized the whole plain was so utterly full of houses and towns. And the Alps seem to form a corner there as they turn south towards the Italian-French border. We made yet another turn so sharp that I thought the wing was going to do a cartwheel in the pasture below, and we were home.

(Too bad I didn’t get a picture of the valley, but you can get the general idea with Google Earth.  Maybe next time!)

Piemonte–home to robiola, toma, gorgonzola dolce, dolcetto, arneis, gavibarbaresco and in general the biggest list of DOCG wines and cheeses in Italy.  Home to hazelnuts and gianduiotti and hot chocolate so thick you could walk on it, to vitello tonnato and bagna cauda. Home to a Frenchy sort of Italian known as Piemonteis. Home to charming old men in loden coats and checked berets who sometimes still hold hands with their wives on the street. And now, home to us.

There’s graffiti across the street from our building that says, “Leggi Hobbit.” (“Read The Hobbit.”) If the Misty Mountains are the Alps, the cozy valleys of Piemonte must be the Shire.  It’s a second breakfast kind of place.

Christmas trip

DSC_1157 DSC_1194 DSC_1107

Top to bottom: Withholding carrots from greedy Freddy Boy, the game “Things” degenerates into the same five silly answers, and the free sticky pad from Aeroporto Malpensa is a hit gift.

Sometimes it happens this way.  You have one of those Christmas vacations where it rains almost constantly, where people get sick or are going through a hard time, and where the young people are saddled with so much homework that they hardly have time to visit.  In general, the time seems entirely too short.

Still, you do what you can. You stay inside and build a fire, and pile blankets on the sick.  You forgo the gifts or else become very creative with what you have on hand, and you play games, read Dickens, or do puzzles instead. There’s a Pileated Woodpecker in the front yard. You turn one of your homework assignments into an essay on the absurdity of having so much homework.  You walk in the woods or feed carrots to horses. You laugh at the disruption of it all.

It’s still Christmas.  We still get to see both sides of the family.  We still get to visit the place (more or less) where we were all born.

It’s still a good trip.  I hope yours was too.


Top to bottom: Talking around the tree, toasty hand warmers for the musician from my gift-creative sister, this year’s puzzle (my mom sends her regrets as she evades the photo).