Monday, October 20, 2014

The Matter of Music

Did you ever get into a what-if discussion with friends about which sense you'd prefer to lose if you had to lose either your sight or your hearing? Everyone I've ever discussed that with always say that they'd rather lose their hearing. When I ask why, they say that if you lose your sight, you lose your independence and that's the worst of all losses.

I have always said that I would not want to live if I lost my hearing. Let me tell you why.

One of the greatest gifts of being human is being moved by music. In the world of quantum physics, string theorists propose that at the heart of every particle  are "strings" of matter that vibrate constantly. These vibrations create a cosmic symphony and could explain why music is so central to the human existence. We are each a walking symphony of matter.

There are as many anti-string theorists as string theorists. Einstein was one of the "anti" crowd. Einstein believed that everything could be measured. String theorists, however, have never been able to find a mathematical equation to explain and predict string behavior.

Now, you can say that because Einstein's theory of relativity proved Newton's long-held theory of gravity wrong, the evolution of physics is such that Einstein's theories could, at the very least, be enhanced by new theories.

I am not a physicist and would never claim to know enough about the subject to prove any theory wrong. But as my favorite science teacher told me when I was in high school, science starts as individual experience.

In 55 years, I have yet to meet a person who is not affected by some type of music. Oftentimes, when discussing music with others there is an emotional piece to the discussion. How music makes us feel is very primal. We are drawn to different types of music because of internal buttons that are pushed. No one can explain that feeling precisely but at a higher level we might use terms like inspired, joyous, agitated, "pumped up", and sad. 

Music soothes the dying, helps us celebrate moments like weddings and birthdays, leads us into battle both literally and figuratively, gets under our skin if its key is not in synch with our idea of harmony. Think of all the times that music has changed your mood, or your resolve, or your life.

Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, according to Shakespeare. And words of love and encouragement can be music to our ears. How many times have you been out with friends (or even home alone) and heard a song that made you get up off your feet and dance around? Has a book or a painting ever had that effect on you? Probably not.

I don't know if string theory will ever be proven in my lifetime. Maybe if we get a fast enough or big enough particle accelerator it will. But, regardless, even if string theory doesn't prove why music is such an integral part of our being, I'd still never want to lose it in my life.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Shared History

We were sitting at a table in the corner so we were able to take in all of the restaurant from there. It's an old building - restored, improved, added onto. But the wood is original and it's all you see: floors, walls, ceilings, beams. 

The Mill on the Floss is an ancient place in the Berkshires. It used to be an inn at one point but now it's a French restaurant. It has a long history and the maitre'd explains some of it to the two couples at the next table.

When he gets to the 1940s, I smile. He describes the previous owners who bought it then and made it what it is today. 

"That's my aunt and uncle," I say softly to my husband. Hearing your family history as described by strangers to strangers is a unique experience. 

My grandmother's sister moved to NYC to get out of Lowell as soon as she could. She had no desire to be stuck in a mill city. In NYC, she met and married a rich older man who was taken with her smarts and her beauty.

My aunt then went to cooking school to follow a dream. When she graduated, my uncle bought her the Mill on the Floss and she became the chef. It was basic American fare but the locals loved it. The Mill is close to Williamstown and a short drive from NY and the artistic and educated filled the tables. 

My aunt told a story about how the Clarks (from the Clark Museum fame) used to come for the Thursday night roast beef special. They were millionaires but still wanted good ole home cooking at a good price. 

My aunt and uncle ran the Mill until the late 1970s. By then my aunt had hired a chef so she could focus on the business and the mingling. My uncle was the bartender and hand-shaker. Because they were both comfortable running in more elite circles, the Mill became a popular stop for well-bred NY and Berkshire diners. 

I look around the restaurant as we sit there and wonder at how little it has changed since I was a kid. The old plates in the corner cabinet could easily be my aunt's and the expensive oil paintings were likely bought by my uncle. 

My husband and I stopped in the kitchen before we left and said hello to the owner - the wife of my aunt's chef - and her daughter who is now head chef. We talked about who's gone, including her husband and my parents. My aunt, uncle and grandparents have been gone even longer. 

We talked about how their spirits still visit there. There are times when doors open for no reason and the owner says, "It's your aunt. She loved it here."

Driving back to the B&B in the dark, I thought about the family history I hold in my mind. I thought about the stories I know but more about the stories I don't know. There is no one left to fill in the blanks. I am now part of the oldest generation in my family.

Will my niece and nephew be interested in the old stories? Will they pass them on? Or will they die with me? I think about how I have very few stories of family members who died before I was born. How can I expect the next generation to be as interested in these stories as me?

Maybe it's best that way. The Mill owner has lived in and worked that place now longer than my aunt and uncle did. It's their story to tell now to their generations. And that's where my family's story will live on.