March 27, 2012


trying to go to bed at 10 after spending several weeks going to bed at 1 is the equivalent of normal people trying to fall asleep at 7 or 8 in the evening. well-intentioned but, I'm finding, impossible. my normal method for trying to overcome insomnia, particularly when I'm restless because of nerves, is to lie very still and count, slowly, to 300. I usually begin to nod off in the 90s and my counting gets all wonky and then, poof, I'm sleeping. the rule is, if I get to 300, I'm allowed to get up and do stuff for awhile because it's clear I'm not going to fall immediately to sleep. I remember the night I devised this: it was late august 2005, the night before I began working as the receptionist for a staffing agency. I was nervous and I didn't want to get up early the next morning, and I lay in bed forever and ever, fidgeting, unable to sleep. I thought, I'm never going to sleep if I can't stay still.

tonight I got to come home at a normal hour for the first time in nearly a week. I left the office at a quarter to five and I've been home ever since. after so many long days at work, the empty space is almost crippling. you get into this groove, even if it's exhausting, and popping out of it even for a day or two is a challenge. sometimes I work as much as I do just because it's easier to keep the momentum going. once I begin to slow down, it's hard to gear up again. tonight I watched the last episodes of the first season of game of thrones, and when I was finished I sort of scratched my head. washed some dishes, ate an egg sandwich. now what? there are a billion errands, but my car keeps stalling out and besides, don't I want to be home for half a second?

my edges are really frayed right now from so many weeks of long hard days. I'm lonely today, a rare emotion in an ordinarily solitary soul. my loneliness isn't about wanting company so much as it is about wanting a particular kind of company. I don't even want to talk; I just want to sit in companionable silence. want a little love, want to be understood. there isn't anything to appease it. I found myself earlier heaped in a ball on my bed, staring at the flower print on my duvet, saying dully to myself, "no one is going to save you from this feeling but you." if this doesn't sound like your idea of a fun night off, you're not alone.

the exterminator came for the ants today. afterwards my landlord sent me an email which contained a thinly veiled accusation that the ants were actually my own fault, which my logical brain recognizes as patently absurd (I am a very tidy person by nature, and besides, the ants have been here since my very first morning), but in my semi-frazzled emotional state I took the accusation to heart, and it upset me a lot. my landlord is kind of an uptight person, and I think she's been suspicious of me since our very first meeting, when, because scott was ungraciously kicking me out of his condo, I told her that I would rent the apartment sight unseen. it was in a neighborhood I liked, at a price I could afford, and I had nowhere else to go.

when I was a small child, my mother, my grandmother, and I lived in a rowhome in irvington, a suburb just outside baltimore city. we lived on the top floor, in what I remember to be essentially just a long hallway; my mother's bedroom at the top of the steps, and then the kitchen (where I have a vivid memory of standing on a chair in an apron, helping my mother at the stove). then my bedroom, with its yellow curtains, and then my grandmother's room at the end of the hall, its windows facing the street. at night, my grandmother would get into bed and then I would be expected to walk down the hall and kiss her goodnight. I was very young, 4 or 5. she would always put pond's cold cream on her face before she went to bed, and I would have to go and kiss her on her lotioned cheek. my memory of this was already quite vivid when last week, I bought myself a container of cold cream, because I've been experimenting with different ways of washing my face. in the bath one night I opened the container, and -- what a miracle our olfactory system is, and time such an illusion; there I was once again in that bedroom, the wooden headboard up against the wall, the light from the streetlamp shining through the window, my grandmother in bed before me. those are the streetlamps I still picture when I remember my mother reading to me from robert louis stephenson's a child's garden of verses, her favorite of the verses being the one called "the lamplighter."

a writing teacher in college, having encountered my grandmother in a story I wrote once about the way she ate asparagus at dinner (horrifyingly), encouraged me to write about her at greater length. we lived with my her until I was 12. although everyone in the family called her 'grams,' I always called her 'ma,' which, to my constant frustration, she always pretended was really 'mom.' I only ever used 'ma' when I spoke to her, never when I spoke about her. she died in 2007, and it just struck me for the very first time that my usage of 'ma' is dead forever alongside her. good god, life. doesn't everyone die at last, and too soon.

it's 11:11 now. there are so many things to wish for. sleep chief among them.

March 26, 2012

there is so much about Galileo that I cannot fit into blog posts on the subject, despite devoting one post a day over on the opera blog, one for each scene of the show. there is too much to learn, and too much to say; I could write a term paper on every scene. I want to tell you how we thought the libretto was sophomoric, but how now, having read so much, I realize that nearly everything Galileo says during the show is taken verbatim from his letters. I want to tell you how well I understand his character, how much I feel for the pope, formerly his friend; I want to tell you how tenderly I feel for his daughter, devout and modest, full of love for her father; I want to tell you how every night when they release the lamps in scene 8 -- even here, I won't tell you more -- I get choked up. there is so much to say, there is nowhere to say it. the more I learn, the more I want to learn. the more I learn, the more I want to tell everyone. I am tired. I haven't paid my bills or read my email; I can hardly remember to brush my teeth. but one of our stage managers said it best, weeks ago: only once do you put together a show for the very first time; when it's over, it's over. you can sleep later. everything else can wait. it was on her sage advice that I finally decided to throw away the rest of my life for three weeks, which I have done without regret.

on my weekend away from work, I drove two hours to eat pizza with a friend; I babbled ceaselessly out a car window; I wore sunglasses and sang justin timberlake; I had a very fleeting and momentary dance party; I awoke with a headache which was easily quenched by four cups of coffee (my minimum lately -- seriously) and two ibuprofen; I lay in fuzzy blankets and watched game of thrones; I read game of thrones; I nerdily read more galileo biographies; I drank beers; I drank good wine from a friend's "sorry you're busted" gift basket; I sang loudly through rehearsal, from my spot in what I always call 'the eyrie'; I discovered I did not need the score at all in order to call the show. I slept not nearly as late as I'd hoped; I cleaned; I cursed the ants; I thought fleetingly that I should probably be spending my precious free hours doing something glorious but instead was almost totally content to lie still and be idle.

I broke a streak. or let it be broken.

I ran 3 miles.

in the garden the kale is bolting. the chard, having overwintered, looks glorious. the hyacinths came and nearly went unnoticed; I bent my face close to the earth to smell them. they'll likely be withered and dead by wednesday. nothing is planted because I am too tired.

somehow I have to start working on another show. I'm so behind on everything that when I'm at the office, I'm usually close to tears. one afternoon last week, driving home from the grocery store in a stolen moment away from work, I realized that no matter how hard I worked, or how many hours I put in, I was still going to be behind. a dreadful feeling. I'm content to work more, but I cannot work harder. I need more time.

driving the conductor home in the rain late one night last week, after a long rehearsal, she said, "you work so hard." funny how four words can make it all worth it.

March 18, 2012

I don't even know how to tell you my feelings about galileo. today, I got to the office at 11, in order to snap photos for the blog during the morning's scene shift rehearsal. we haven't even gotten to tech and I already know most of the score by heart. at 2, there was a run of the piece; I was on-hand to take notes for our conductor, anne.

anne is a hard personality to describe. very kind, very pleasant but also all business. she knows exactly what she wants in the music and manages to ask for it without being demanding -- like the nicest tyrant you've ever met. she's petite and blonde and type A without it being the slightest bit annoying. she smiles a lot. she gives praise where it's due, and is never mean or scary in rehearsal. I loved her utterly during our production of orphée, and by now, having worked so hard with her on this piece, I feel certain I would run in front of a bus for her.

before rehearsal she turned to me and told me what she wanted in my note-taking. "just give me scene, measure number, the word, and the character who sings it," she instructed. we begin, and the notes fly one after the other. note-taking requires a different kind of concentration on the music. as she dictates them to me, conducting all the while, I begin to understand what she's listening for, and can sometimes begin pre-emptively writing the note before she's had a chance to tell it to me. "Cardinal 1: make sure to hold that note all the way to beat 4." "Galileo: don't forget to enunciate the final consonant on 'waited' so it doesn't sound like 'wait.'"

when we finish the show, I have teared up again. leading up to the start of rehearsals, we found the ending to be utterly cheesy and awful, but now that it's staged, it's incredibly moving. anne turns to me and says, "would you mind separating the notes out by singer and giving the list to each of them? and a copy for me, plus a list of whatever I said we needed to rehearse tomorrow?" I nod, and then she pays me the highest possible compliment: "I wish I could take you with me to all my opera productions!" she says. "you have the greatest and most variable set of skills."

the thing about galileo that makes it so special to me is that everything has come together to create an environment where I am inspired to be my absolute best self. pieces like this, so rarely performed, are exciting to me, for reasons I think I've already talked about. the endless weeks of editing the score -- they were mind-numbing and exhausting, but they were also important. the changes we make to the parts and to the score will matter. we'll produce the first commercial recording of this piece, and if we do it right, more people will want to perform it. right now, I'm an expert on this opera -- one of the few in the whole world. I almost know it by heart. I know the score better than I've known any score in years.

and I have such unflappable respect for anne that I am willing to do backflips in order to please her; I feel about her the same way she apparently feels about me, that I wish I could have her as my conductor always. I don't want her to ever catch me not knowing what I'm doing, so I make sure to always know. in orchestra rehearsal yesterday, I had to pull out the master list of patches I programmed into the synthesizer (because yes, I taught myself how to program the synthesizer, and stayed at the office on midnight thursday to finish it); when she saw it, anne gasped and said, "oh jess, this is outrageous, this is so much work." in the car tonight, as I drove her back to her hotel, she admitted to me that she's terrified of synthesizers, having had a number of bad experiences with them, including an entire rehearsal in london that was lost to having a poorly programmed instrument. there are so few conductors I have worked with who manage to be both excellent at their jobs and also so utterly friendly. how can I not do my best work for such a person?

and then there is the music itself, which I was not sure I'd like but which I love completely, which I cannot stop listening to or singing in my head, which makes me choke up every time I hear certain passages. it continues to be a surprise to me that music that seems to just motor along of its own accord can, in fact, contain moments of such devastating beauty. the libretto, which at first we found a little sophomoric, also floors me again and again. and the singers are singing the absolute shit out of it; every voice is beautiful. the direction is exquisite; the show, still a fledgling, is intense and dramatic, touching and beautiful, and imbued throughout with a profound and very earnest sense of wonder and joyfulness. a celebration of the process of scientific discovery, learning for learning's sake.

how bittersweet it is already to be here, though, because I am painfully aware that I cannot be my best self forever; this pace is unsustainable. I am tired beyond all imagination, and often it feels like it's only my passion -- for the piece and the cast and the conductor and my coworkers -- that's keeping me going. I had six cups of coffee today. it means that maybe you can't always live up to your absolute best. and of course, being at this level in rehearsal has meant accepting piles of laundry heaped in the bedroom, and dishes in the sink; it's meant giving up time with my horse. even things like responding to personal emails have fallen by the wayside. what does it mean, then, that you so often have to settle for 80%? I don't know. it makes me a little sad. except I'm too excited, and possibly delirious, to allow myself to be sad.

I haven't even started running titles yet! there is so far to go. please, let's not end it.

the world was made so perfectly; we only need to look. and when we look, we learn all of god's perfection, his deep perfection. our looking is like love, like praise: praise for this world, this lovely world our god has made.
- from scene 8: lamps

March 14, 2012

there is nothing these days for me but galileo, eating, sleeping, breathing. on friday night, I stayed up until 1 AM reading biographies of the astronomer. on saturday, the first of my final two weekend days in a row for the next six weeks, I stayed at the office from 10 until 6, at first watching rehearsal and then, that afternoon, having been tasked with translating the liturgical latin in one of the opera's final scenes, I came back from the library with eight books, which I stacked one on top of the other as I combed through several dictionaries. how fast could I remember noun declensions? I took half a latin course in college before dropping out.

if this sounds like complaint, rest assured: it is not. I leapt at the opportunity; if I could have taught myself latin in an afternoon, I would have gladly done it.

on sunday, strong winds and rain kept me from my original intention, which was to spend the day at the coast. instead, I sat wrapped in blankets in my living room and read all 124 letters that galileo's daughter wrote to him from her life in the convent at san matteo.

on monday, I rented the synthesizer. then I drank about a hundred gimlets with one of my coworkers and fell asleep at 9:30.

yesterday I nursed a terrible hangover, attended half the day's rehearsal, and processed all 60 orchestra contracts for next season.

today, I spent half the day teaching myself how to program the synthesizer, and the other half watching the first 'stumble-through' downstairs, where the cast ran the whole show for the first time. I cried at the end. then I went next door and finally unlocked the secret to making the footswitch work on the keyboard. our percussionist showed up with the chimes, and taught our principal accompanist, who's doubling on celeste and percussion for this show, how to play the maracas.

we're all doing things we never thought we'd do.

I have temporarily given up everything else in my life for this opera, gladly. I haven't had dinner yet. I'm still sitting at my desk, drafting questionnaires for the cast to run on the opera blog, writing article after article about the opera's ten powerful scenes. in rehearsal, the cast rolls balls down an exquisitely beautiful inclined plane; science experiments are recreated in silhouette, including the astronomer's telescope. the costumes are breathtaking, unbelievable. this pace is breakneck, and I can't keep it up forever. but who needs to run, or sleep, or eat?

March 10, 2012

'the summer day,' mary oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean--
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down--
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

March 2, 2012

books 2012

1. george r.r. martin: a clash of kings
2. george r.r. martin: a storm of swords
3. stieg larsson: the girl who played with fire
4. john & mary gribbin: galileo in 90 minutes
5. suor maria celeste & dava sobel: letters to father: suor maria celeste to galileo, 1623-1633
6. george r.r. martin: a feast for crows
7. stieg larsson: the girl who kicked the hornet's nest
8. tea obreht: the tiger's wife 
9. lauren groff: delicate edible birds
10. piper kerman: orange is the new black: my year in a women's prison
11. rebecca skloot: the immortal life of henrietta lacks
12. abraham verghese: cutting for stone
13. ali smith: there but for the
14. karen spears zacharias: the silence of mockingbirds
15. rudyard kipling: the jungle book
16. marilynne robinson: gilead
17. george r.r. martin: a song of ice and fire: a dance with dragons
18. c.s. lewis: till we have faces: a myth retold
19. cheryl strayed: tiny beautiful things: advice on love and life from dear sugar
20. madeleine l'engle: a wrinkle in time
21. madeleine l'engle: a wind in the door
22. madeleine l'engle: a swiftly tilting planet
23. madeleine l'engle: many waters
24. ursula le guin: lavinia
25. margaret atwood: oryx and crake
26. rebecca stead: when you reach me
27. cheryl strayed: torch
28. leanne shapton: swimming studies
29. cheryl strayed: wild: from lost to found on the pacific crest trail