The Story-Lives of Great Composers


Do you know what’s evil? And by evil I mean tempting like evil but without the collateral damage to the human spirit?

Book sales where hardcovers are selling for 33 cents a pop. Because I’m on a pauper budget and these are pauper prices. So, I feel like economic law demands that I walk away with stacks of books, some of which I only like for the campy pictures, or grandma-y smell.


That is how I have come to possess a certain young adult page-turner (in the sense that the pages turn if you have the will to move them) called Story-Lives of Great Composers by Katherine Little Bakeless.

I don’t know what drew me in first–the portraits of mustachioed men with long, symphonic-hair, the words “GREAT COMPOSERS” stamped in maroon capitals across the cover, or the fact that the author’s name includes two sad words: “little” and “bakeless.” Whatever it was, I slammed down my 33 cents and have since been working my way through vignettes about the (western) musical geniuses of the last couple of centuries.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter on Sergei Rachmaninoff:


“Sergei, who was an unusually bright and cheerful boy, was his grandmother’s favorite. How she spoiled him! No matter how mischievous he was, she was delighted with him….Piano was so easy for him that he shirked his practising…he played without worrying. What he liked to do was all together different and surprising. He went to the skating-rink as often as he could. He became a very fine skater, an even better skater than he was a piano player.”


“When he did something wrong and needed punishment, he was put under the piano. This wounded him deeply, for the other children were only put into a corner!”

I also learned that Sergei’s older sister Helena could bend a silver coin “with the fingers of one hand.” And that in 1917 during the Russian Revolution, he and his family had to cross the Russian border into Sweden by sleigh “while a blizzard raged.”

While I find all of these facts useful for boring the person beside me at my next Rachmaninoff concert, my problem is that the book is babyish–written for young adultish children as it were.

What I was really hoping for was DRAMA. The lost loves, depression, fury, grief and page-long accounts of Rachy’s sleigh escape from Russia, and that time Tolstoy told him his music sucked, and all of those other things that rattled his life to such a pounding tonal storm that it came out as this Prelude Op 32, No 1 in C.


But I think I’ll keep reading. It looks like there’s a semi-interesting passage in the next chapter about Richard Strauss in which we learn that he was “above middle height, with fair complexion, sandy hair and very pale blue eyes.”

Apparently he had “a very high, prominent forehead,” but THEN, “the sandy hair grew white and the high forehead became even higher as the white hair receded.”

I hadn’t known that about Strauss.

You’re Doing It Wrong


I might have said that one thing, but I didn't say that other thing


1538-“A man can not have his cake and eate his cake!” the Duke of Norfolk screams in a letter to Thomas Cromwell.

1773-“A great empire, like a great cake, is most easily diminished at the edges,” Benjamin Franklin writes ominously three years before the Revolutionary War.

1789- “The people can go eff themselves,” says Marie Antoinette while eating a huge piece of cake.

1864-“Johnnycakes are awful and not really cakes,” several people admit on their deathbeds during the Civil War.

1900- “What am i even fighting for??!!!” A British man cries and slams his fist into a sponge cake during the Boer War.

1945- “I was just following orders!” claims a Nazi army cook when asked why he doubled the amount of butter in a cake.

1995- “You can’t eat your cake and have it too,” writes the anonymous Unabomber leading to the arrest of Ted Kaczynski.

And now 2014, there are shockwaves in the world of cake cutting news. Last week NPR ran a story featuring Alex Bellos resurrecting the cake cutting methods of a deceased British mathematician named Sir Francis Galton.


Galton, you see, was Charles Darwin’s first cousin and “one of the fathers of modern statistics.” So the man knew how to cut a cake.

In 1906 he wrote a letter to Nature magazine explaining why cutting cake into wedges is total shite.


Basically, unless you eat the entire cake in one sitting the edge pieces swiftly dry out due to the loss of the icing sealant where the cake interior has been exposed.


Instead, Galton implored dessert eaters to cut long slices the entire diameter of the cake from the center and then slide the two sides of the cake back together and bind them together (Bellos suggests rubber bands). Then the next day, you quarter the cake, cut your slice from the middle, and ram it back together again. You basically keep doing that till the cake is gone.


It stays moist that way.

So how does it feel to be told you’re cutting your cake all wrong and always have been?

Is science right again?

Spartan Holiday Is Not Dead


Well, it’s happened. From the nest of Spartan Holiday has  hatched a hungry little cross-eyed blog called Disglossia. Spartan Holiday will be taking a brief hiatus to gather worms and such to feed it.


Meanwhile, I think you will find Disglossia to be refreshing, readable, and completely relevant to your eternal struggle for meaning-making in this cypress swamp of a world.

And that’s good.

Here’s what you can expect:



Words: Lots of them (but not too many).

Timelines: I like history and following lines of history through time all the way into the present tense, sometimes skipping over vitally important things just for revisionist purposes.

And more!

Meanwhile, Spartan Holiday is not dead. If it were, I would not say it was out “looking for worms.” I would say it was killed, murdered, or crushed by army tanks.

Antarctica Myths Unraveled


Finally! Here we are in beautiful Antarctica where scientists roam free as seabirds in the summer and the sun never sets but just keeps circling elliptically.


What’s it like to live in Antarctica? Most of us would like to be told second-hand from our comfy armchairs beside a crackling fire.


So that is just what’s going to happen. Dial up the thermostat. Pour yourself some hot chocolate. Get comfortable. You’re gonna wanna be really warm and indolent while reading about subzero temperatures, and polar winds, and the Frosty Boy ice cream machine. I have compiled below a list of Antarctic myths and then cracked them wide open, beaten them to a pulp and shipped them off continent. We’ll have no dirty Antarctic lies soiling the pristine snow-blanketed land. (Is Antarctica blanketed in snow??! Scroll to #7 to find out.)


How do I know so much about Antarctica, never having been there myself, you ask? Well, I hear about it incessantly from Dave who has gone there every field season (October-January) for the last five years. Turns out Antarctica is sort of the measuring stick and ne plus ultra for every uncomfortable or extreme situation.

Obviously, it is never as cold in New Mexico as it is in Antarctica, a fact I’m reminded of whenever I gripe about the cold. If I say, “Isn’t the landscape desolate and barren here?” Dave would say, “Not as barren as Antarctica.” If I say, “We live in the southwest.” Dave would say, “Well, this isn’t really south. Not as south as Antarctica.”

Stuff like that.

So I’ve learned a lot about Antarctica, actually, some of which I wish I could unlearn, but I can’t. And so:


Antarctic Myths Unraveled

1) It makes total sense to have time zones in Antarctica

At the poles the time zones converge, like stripes on a watermelon at the ends of a watermelon. This means that at the pole proper the time is always all times at once, or more accurately no time at all. It’s crazymaking. (See Myth # 3.) So how are time zones chosen at each of the bases? Some observe the time of the home country. Others, like McMurdo, the U.S.’s base, observe the time of their country’s official port of departure–Christchurch, New Zealand. As you can imagine, it is total bedlam and leads to lots of funny misunderstandings re:times of dinner parties and countdowns at New Year’s Eve, etc.


The view from McMurdo

2) You can pee anywhere you want in Antarctica

False. The overarching mantra in Antarctica is “leave no trace.” You cannot steal rocks or pee on the ground willy nilly or even bury a piece of macaroni with your girlfriend’s name written on it in ballpoint pen for future generations to discover. So if you’re working in the field, you pee into a Nalgene bottle. On a bad day your bladder holds more than a Nalgene bottle does and you need to switch bottles in mid-stream.

Although the waste at McMurdo is treated and then dumped into the sound, the waste from the camps is either incinerated in what is known as a rocket toilet or shipped off continent back to America. Dave says the ships come bearing supplies and leave bearing shit, which could be a metaphor for so many things in life.


Don’t even think about peeing there

3) Impeccable mental health is a requirement for a tour of duty in Antarctica

Scientists who “winter over” at the South Pole station must undergo rigorous mental testing, the average work-a-day summer scientist does not. Almost every year, someone goes crazy, what with the cold and endless daylight and effed up time zones. Sometimes people just wander off into the Antarctic weald. Sometimes people at the south pole snap and the FBI has to go remove them, like the galley cook who attacked another cook with the claw end of a hammer in 1996. Even when you don’t go crazy you may need to do crazy things, like the south pole doctor who diagnosed herself with breast cancer, biopsied herself, and administered her own chemotherapy while waiting for rescue.


4) Rubbing your hands together is a great way to warm them up.

False. Dave says rubbing your hands together is crap. What you really want to do is drop your arms to your side and vigorously jerk-shrug your shoulders to forcefully shunt blood down to your hands.


5) Fumbling, mumbling, stumbling, and grumbling are nothing to worry about in Antarctica.

FALSE this string of behaviors is known as the “umbles” and is a good sign that you are suffering from hypothermia. This is one of the cutest survival tips they teach you at snow school before you are allowed to work in the field.


A scene from snow school

6) The food sucks in Antarctica

While it’s true that “freshies” are a rare delicacy, Lake Hoare Camp (soon to be featured in an upcoming issue of Food and Wine) is a culinary mecca by any standard grace à the impressive skills of Rae Spain, camp manager for the last 18 years. So while I am sitting at home slurping lukewarm soup from a box, Dave will be dining on paella or pad thai or freshly-baked bread.

The food is less spectacular at the McMurdo galley, save for the Frosty Boy ice cream machine.


7) Antarctica is covered with snow

I know this one is especially hard to swallow for those of us who picture an entire continent of shimmering snow drifts, unending as a Texas sheet cake, but it turns out that part of Antarctica is desert which means no precipitation, which means no snow. The Dry Valleys get around 10 centimeters of precip per year, most of which ablates. Here is Dave in what appear to be moon boots rather than snow boots.


8) Antarctica has a ton of polar bears and sled dogs

Wrong. Those things only exist at the north pole, which yes, I know, we should call them north polar bears. Although early explorers used sled dogs to slog from one creaky, frigid little shack to another, dogs are now illegal on the continent because they spook (and eat) seals. You can stop searching for a Puppies in Antarctica slide show on Youtube and instead look at this cute picture Dave took of a seal.


Well! I hope I have successfully identified and obliterated all of your long-cherished myths about Antarctica. Everything else you believe about Antarctica not mentioned here is probably true.

But do you have a question? I invite you to post them in the comments. Remember, no questions are dumb questions except for ones that are really ignorant.

Anti-Artikos: Prologue



It’s time. It’s time to shake off the shackles of grad school. Are you in grad school? Join me in my freedom fight! It’s spring break here and we can all just walk away and never look back. At least for a week…if we didn’t have a mini-inquiry power point presentation due when we get back. Solidarity!


This Soviet family is sticking together through graduate school.

Are you not in grad school? You can stand by grad schoolers by inviting them to share in the fruits of liberty…like having a beer on a week night or patronizing a movie theater. You can refuse to laugh at their pale faces and shifty eyes. You can sneak them a cigarette or slip them a sharp-edged object. You can send them air mail letters.


We will revel in the winter wheat for it is spring break.

Oh…what? It’s too soon for gulag jokes?

Prison itself could be funny someday when it ceases to exist because 1) all criminally disposed DNA is bred out of the species 2) every last person on earth is in prison or 3) prison becomes a much posher place than the outside world.

So we are off to Antarctica, land of scientists, libertines and mummified penguins. Won’t you come along? Won’t you? In a few days I mean. When we go to Antarctica.

Bundle up. Get ready to pee in a jar. Say goodbye to your loved ones. Things are different there.

Two Things


I have taken a break from my studies to share a couple of things: 1) The Antarctic Mystique blog is still in progress. Keep in mind that it’s a blog about an entire continent–a rather inaccessible, morbid and glacier-slammed continent at that.

What should you expect? The same balls-to-the-wall, ends-of-the-earth drama as my Artikos series. Which takes time.


Right now I would say I’m in the middle stages–conducting interviews and gathering data. I’m processing the data and collecting waivers to shield me from any possible litigation. I’m photo-shopping pictures. I’m also doing some other stuff.

Other things I’m doing: corroborating inflammatory claims. Claims like: “There is no ‘pole’ at the South Pole.” and: “Ernest Shackleton was a much nicer guy than Robert Falcon Scott, as evidenced in the layout of his Antarctic headquarters in an egalitarian fashion as opposed to Scott’s more hierarchical design.”

I’m asking hard-hitting questions: “Is it true that the Americans have not scored a single point against the Kiwis in the 25-year-old annual Antarctic rugby game?” “Is the Frosty Boy soft serve machine in the McMurdo cafeteria really that much better than other soft serve machines on more civilized continents?”

These are the sorts of questions I’m asking.


Also, I am in grad school. Remember??? Jeesh. I’m busy!

Okay, onto the second piece of news: 2) The Winter Olympics are over and I only watched two events. (Thank you Grace and Will for hooking me up.)

What was it like? Instead of Men on Skis there was just a bunch of Kids on Snowboards doing whirly twirlys and these weird jumpy thingies over giant nesting dolls. That’s when I decided that the magic of the 1988 Calgary Games that I’ve been trying to recapture for 26 years is gone…vaporized like snow in certain atmospheric conditions.


Let’s review the facts: Palm trees grow in Sochi, the cold war is over, and I don’t even recognize half of the events anymore.

Am I the only one that feels this way??? About the Olympics??? No, I’m am NOT.

Here’s a brief interview with the paragon of old-school Olympianism (and by “old school” I mean the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics), men’s downhill gold medalist and Swiss skier, Pirmin Zubriggen.


Spartan Holiday: Pirmin Zurbriggen, there seems to be a sort of romantic alpenglow around you that I haven’t noticed around today’s Olympic athletes. Why is that?

Pirmin Zubriggen: Well, I live in the Alps and the sun is now setting.

 Spartan Holiday: That’s one explanation. But wouldn’t you say that the belle epoque of the Winter Olympics are over?

Zurbriggen: I wouldn’t say that. There are many, wonderful people…dedicated athletes…still competing..

(We lose Skype connection)

So there you have it. If Pirmin Zurbriggen, the Swiss deity on skis says the Olympics are ruined, you can hardly argue. But I do sort of wish I had a TV. And free time.

If you have free time, you should share your favorite Winter Olympics moments here. Wouldn’t it be fun to reminisce? Freely? With your abundance of time? I think it would.

Stuff I Learned in Grad School: Part One


Things have been quiet in the Spartan Holiday offices of late. Production outputs are down even as demand for new blogs is skyrocketing. And by skyrocketing, I mean somebody mentioned that they were still waiting to read Spartan Holiday’s Insider’s Guide to Antarctica.

Well guess what, Demanding Public? Somebody else just started grad school and is burning the candle double time, reading scholarly papers night and day, day and night, so maybe all of you leisurely, indolent, brick-throwing blog readers should GET OFF MY BACK!!!

That outburst was intentional and meant to illustrate two points: 1) Grad school is stressful and can cause people to snap at the slimmest provocation. 2) Grad school is mentally taxing and can make you forget the second point of your outburst. 3) Social media research shows that angry outbursts receive more “likes” than posts that assume a neutral position.


Is my daughter pretending to be trapped in kitchen cupboards as a last ditch effort to get Mommy’s attention? This never happened before I started grad school.

So don’t worry, lathered-up readers, the Insider’s Secret Unlicensed Uncensored Guide to Antarctica is coming, but for the next few months you should expect a leaner, meaner, greener Spartan Holiday. (Less blogs means less chance of tree killers printing off the blogs…which calls to my attention that “blog” sounds an awful lot like “log.”)


Spoiler Alert: An Antarctic hut or lab or something.

You should also expect me to frequently list Things I Learned in Grad School. I can’t help it, it’s the budding, dewy-eyed educator in me. So let’s begin, keeping in mind that learning is not merely transmitted; it’s an exchange, the respectful co-creation of ideas. Please share your own rich stores of knowledge and experience below.

Things I Learned In Grad School

1) In First and Second Language Development within Cultural Contexts, I learned that some cultures teach babies to wield knives before they can even walk.This means that instead of overprotective Westerners having their baloney-handed, pin-cushion babies bat at mobiles, they could be training them to slice, dice and cut various items such as fruit, meat, rope or twigs–a useful skill! This is but one illustration of how human potential is limited and channeled by cultural expectations.


(A few of my friends argued that this Efe baby did not look all that “skillful” in his knife work, but that’s because they are interested in maintaining colonial power dynamics.)

2)  In my Intro to Linguistic Analysis class I learned the articles “a” and “the” are primarily used in information structure to convey and reflect whether or not we have addressed certain information before, or to designate identifiable (given) concepts versus unidentifiable concepts. We use the definite article (the) when the concept is identifiable or when a unique concept is intended. We use the indefinite article (a/an) when the concept is new and not identifiable. The fluent use of a/the displays an intricate unconscious system of shared conceptual categorization and remembered discourse.

I pretty much knew this before, but I could never have explained it at parties so succinctly.


Would you like *the* canape from *a* tray?? Oops, I mean *a* canapy from *the* tray.

3) In that same class I learned this joke: There’s a German guy and a French guy and a British guy arguing about whose language is the best.

German Guy: German is off course zee best language. It is zee language of logik and philosophy and wiz German you can communicate wiz great clarity and precision even zee most complex ideas.

French Guy: Aaaaah non! But French ees ze language of lurve! En Française you can capture all of ze subtleties of romance wees great flair wheech ees good for ze survival of ze species.

English Guy (after long contemplative pause): I see what you’re saying, and it’s all well and good, but…take a spoon: you Germans call a spoon a “löffel” and you French call it a “cuillière.” But we call it a “spoon” and when you really stop to think about it, isn’t that what it really is?

Oh man. It’s funny because it’s true! English just makes sense! (It’s also funny because it reinforces cultural stereotypes in a world where generalizations are becoming more and more compromised by multiculturalism)

spoon - goodSo as you can see, grad school is not just laborious, it’s also fascinating…and making me a more fascinating person at parties…and maybe more employable. For that I am grateful.

If I learn anything else, I’ll be sure to post it here either immediately, eventually, or never, depending on my workload.

Until then, fare-thee-well and start getting pumped for Back Stage Pass to Antarctica: The Truth Behind the Lies: Microbial Life in the Dry Valleys. (Don’t get too pumped, as I mentioned before, I’m pretty busy with grad school.)