Friday, November 21, 2008

Dr. Dick has Moved!

Dr. Dick's blog "Thoughts on a Train" has moved to -- it was just getting too awkward trying to explain to people how to find my blog at thoughtsonatrain (all one word) dot blogspot dot com... so hopefully you'll be able to find this.

I apologize for those who have links to specific posts (I was hoping everything would make the move smoothly but I'm slowly reposting some of the major posts at the old address). New posts will appear at the new address.

If you follow the blog, you'll need to update your favorites, feeds or any links you may have.

Dick Strawser
(a.k.a. Dr. Dick)

It's Friday Update with Dr. Dick


On Wednesday, I posted about the British magazine Gramophone’s “Top-20 Orchestras in the World” and forgot to mention, in a subsequent post prompted by complaints in San Francisco that too much public money was being spent to support the city’s orchestra, that the San Francisco Symphony had placed 13th on that list, just below the East Coast Regulars from New York and Boston. (You can also read reactions from London and NPR.)

Then today, at ArtsJournal, I saw I should also update that reference to Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, who’s received another significant accolade on another kind of list – this one, a list of the “Best Leaders of 2008” where he is the only musician among a wide variety of public leaders, some business, some political, some in science along with Steven Spielberg and Lance Armstrong and junior officers in the U.S. Military who “are rising in the military ranks with a hard-earned wisdom forged by war,” all inspiring and thought-provoking. Citing President-Elect Obama, these are people who could “help him lead us out of our doldrums.”

Caution, though: this report uses the “M” Word. They refer to Michael Tilson Thomas (usually abbreviated as MTT) as “a musical maverick.”

Speaking of mavericks, that maverick Sarah Palin ;-) ;-) is still in the news, pardoning a turkey in Alaska (not a recently defeated felon and long-term Senator). While you can watch the YouTube video, notice the guy in the background who it turns out is butchering two other turkeys during the filming of this press conference. Niiiiiiiice...

By the way, how would you like to be interrupted at the end of a presentation to be told you’ve just won $75,000? That’s how violinist Gil Shaham found out about his winning the Avery Fisher Award, finishing up a televised recital. Read it here.

Oh, and it’s started snowing again.

First Snow: Not Ready to Go All Piblokto on You Just Yet


Every winter, at the first snow, I remember my mother telling me how her father always told her “the date of the first measurable snowfall is the number of major snows you’ll have during that winter.” He was an engineer: he was very precise.

It doesn’t sound like a terribly scientific argument, especially considering both my mother and my grandfather were inveterate list-makers. Any lists of snowfalls during a given winter might rarely rack up to the date of the first snow. At least, in my experience.

One year (sometime between 2001 and 2006), the first snow – not the first siting of snow flurries, but the first snowfall you could actually go out and measure – was on December 3rd. We had something like ten snowfalls before the month was over, nothing really serious but all measurable. Another year, the first snowfall wasn’t until the week after Christmas but we only had three or four snowfalls the rest of the season, one or two of those being over a foot.

So this morning we had between a half-inch to an inch of snow across Central Pennsylvania, probably enough to snarl traffic, make people wonder if school would be delayed some, and think maybe they should’ve rushed out to stockpile bread and milk after they heard the forecast last night.

I never understood this Bread-and-Milk phenomenon. One night, I had to go to the store anyway and stopped on may home from work. It was after 1:00am and the store was as busy as it would normally be at 8:00pm. There was a woman with one of the large carts full of bottled water, egg cartons, several gallon jugs of milk and maybe a half-dozen loaves of bread. Maybe she was having a French Toast Block Party. And we were only supposed to get 6-8" of snow!

A chat acquaintance (not a friend, just a chattance) grew up in upstate New York (generally meaning anything north of the Bronx) but waaaaay north along the end of Lake Ontario and the Canadian Border. He said a foot of snow there is called a dusting.

When I woke up around 5:15 this morning and looked out, I wrote down on the calendar “1st Snow” and will probably keep track, if I remember and don’t get bored with it, of each measurable snowfall from now until the arrival of Spring. Will there be 20 more snows? How many of them, like this one, may be gone before noontime?

That word in my title, by the way – piblokto – is an Inuit word which means a kind of hysteria that might include “uncontrolled wild behavior,” screaming, depression, senseless repetition of overheard words and running around naked in the snow but which may not necessarily be an overreaction to the ubiquitousness of snow itself.

Tuesday night was the coldest it’s been here since last winter which was more of a shock having had temperatures in the 70s last week. It was 25° on my porch when I woke up around 5am Wednesday morning to discover that in fact my house was about double that. 55° is a tad chilly for a household temperature and I wasn’t sure, given the new Geothermal Technology that was installed in the house in August, whether the problem was the technology or something mechanical. Several people (who don’t have geothermal systems) warned me that when it got really cold out, these heat-transfer pumps can’t keep the house as warm as an old-fashioned, dinosaur-devouring furnace. But that’s a heat-pump that takes it heat from the outside air which seems a rather foolish thing to do in wintertime, considering if it’s 25° outside, there’s not much heat to transfer into the house. “Back up” or “auxiliary” heating would be more expensive and less effective. But then, my heat-transfer pump is taking its source from the pipes of water that circulate through the two 250' deep wells in my front yard where the dirt, once you get four feet below the surface, is a uniform 55° all year ‘round. Ah – did I say 55°? Does that mean on really cold days when my heat-pump fails, that’s all I can muster is 55freakin’°???

Groff’s Heating & Plumbing who’d installed the system for me called me back by 7:30am and had a guy on his way in minutes. It’s an hour’s drive from their place to mine. I had already figured out how to activate the “Emergency Heat” and in three hours got the house all the way up to 59° by the time he got here at 8:30. There was no easy explanation for what happened. It certainly wasn’t the technology nor did there seem to be anything wrong mechanically. There were no “error faults” in the system’s memory and somehow the thermostat had shut off and defaulted to a pre-programmed setting that dropped the thermostat down after 8am to 62° (huh??) and then kicked it back on at 5pm to 72°. I remembered changing that the first day it was running: I didn’t think it necessary to cool my house off in August down to 62°... So, something strange happened which the technician was kindly trying not to blame on me hitting the wrong sequence of three or four consecutive buttons accidentally and which I was trying not to blame on the cats jumping five feet up the wall and doing the same thing on purpose... Anyway, within a few hours, all was toasty warm in the Land of Dr. Dick, thus staving off the first attack of piblokto-ness of the season.

Meanwhile, I have to get back to work on the novel. Passing the 83% mark toward the goal, I managed 2,425 words this morning by 8:30, then took a break to write 942 more before continuing with the next “writing assignment.” The cats have already tired of watching the snow – especially now that the sun is out and most of it has already melted down a good bit – with three of them stretching out on the chair behind me, covered with an old sunflower afghan.

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Photos: My yard this morning - Floyd the Flamingo, not generally considered a snow bird, who is ready to come inside for the winter; the garden bench under the Japanese Maple; the dogwood outside my back door. Inside, Freddy, Abel and Blanche share the Sunflower Chair.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Arts and Cars and Economic Issues, Oh My!


Something else I caught over at OboeInsight (it’s not just for oboe players), check out the San Francisco Weekly’s grousing about the city’s support for the San Francisco Symphony and the fact that its Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, earns $1.6M in addition to other benefits from, like, producing a PBS TV series, Keeping Score, in which the orchestra plays to a nationwide audience in something comparable to the old Bernstein Young Persons’ Concerts with the New York Philharmonic that introduced a younger generation to great classical music.

(By the way, how many people in my generation, I wonder, were influenced by watching those amazing programs? *\o )

It would seem the orchestra’s concerts are attended primarily by the wealthy elite (really!?) and that the various arts groups in the city have “turned our local culture palaces into sites for air-kiss orgies among the superrich.” Huh...

This is the old “Shoes or Shakespeare” argument when it comes to tough times and the Arts. For most of the Arts in this country, that would be “Most of the Times.”

Now, as I understand it, Rick Wagoner, the CEO of General Motors whose “2006 pay package [was valued] at $10.2 million, up from $5.5 million in 2005” had a base salary of $2.2M which he voluntarily cut back to $1.3M or so. Yet, according to BloggingStocks, his take-home pay for 2007 was $14.4M, up 41% from 2006.

Nice pay cut, don’t you think?

Incidentally, from that same 2007 New York Times article, GM’s CFO “earned $5.2 million in his first year on the job. His predecessor... earned $3.9 million in 2005.”

That same 2007 article also said Ford paid its “chief executive, Alan R. Mulally, more than $28 million in his first four months on the job. Most of that amount came in the form of a hiring bonus and compensation to make up for benefits he forfeited in leaving his previous job at the jet maker Boeing.”

When the union workers grumbled about this, the company gave all employees a $300 bonus (that would be $3H) and the A.U.W hourly workers a $500 bonus. Awwww, isn’t that sweet?!

These CEOs have now been lining up bumper to bumper in Washington begging Congress to hurry up with the Big 3 Auto Makers’ $25B (that’s B as in Beethoven... I mean, Billion) Bail-Out Program. And most people seem to support tax-payers’ money going for that, even though the Wall Street “Credit Stimulus Package” met with considerably less success on Main Street, something about going to bail-out greedy CEOs or something, as I recall.

As for the car makers, I certainly think its bad for the guys who build the cars to lose their jobs (speaking as one of the unemployed), but maybe it would’ve been better if these car makers didn’t con a gullible public into buying those dinosaur-devouring SUV’s and other fuel-inefficient guzzlers that litter our highways and drive-ways today, vehicles which people only began complaining about when gas got closer to $4/gallon.

Now, this economic bail-out is being viewed by many people as an economic necessity because, sure, the American economy spins on the wheels of its industries, considering most Americans do drive cars.

But when it comes to support for the arts, such issues and solutions would be called socialism and we are often told they should be allowed to survive or fail according to the free-market economy our society is based on.


Fortunately, recession aside, perhaps the drop in oil prices and the subsequent lowering of gas prices to around $2/gallon will mean there will be less “air-kissing among the super-rich” at the gas pumps.

Wouldn't it be nice, then, if some of these super-rich CEOs would do what people like Andrew Carnegie and other industrial philanthropists did in the past: contribute large sums of money to support the arts? Hey, what a novel idea!!

Oh, speaking of novel... I have to get back to work...

The Top 20 Orchestras in the World


Though I never had any interest in sports as a kid (or an adult), I would follow America's Major League Orchestras and their principal players much the way other kids (and adults) would follow its baseball and football teams and their players, with or without trading cards. So while there's no World Series among orchestras (much less a Super Bowl), when somebody comes out with a ranking for the best orchestras in the country or the world, I'm still curious how things stack up.

While tagging Patty over at OboeInsight, I saw this post from yesterday about the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam having been mentioned in the British music magazine Gramophone as the top of the recently announced “Top 20 Orchestras in the World.” The complete list was posted on a German site, Bavarian Radio On-Line, which I found at ArtsJournal. Here’s the complete list (auf Deutsch):

Die 20 Top-Orchester der Welt [The 20 Top Orchestras of the World]

1. Concertgebouw-Orkest, Amsterdam
2. Berliner Philharmoniker [Berlin]
3. Wiener Philharmoniker [Vienna]
4. London Symphony Orchestra
5. Chicago Symphony Orchestra
6. Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks [Bavarian Radio Sym]
7. Cleveland Orchestra
8. Los Angeles Philharmonic
9. Budapest Festival Orchestra
10. Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden [Dresden State Orch]
11. Boston Symphony Orchestra
12. New York Philharmonic
13. San Francisco Symphony
14. Mariinsky Theater Orchestra
15. Russian National Orchestra
16. Leningrad Phillharmonic
17. Gewandhausorchester Leipzig
18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
19. Saito Kinen Symphony Orchestra [in Japan]
20. Tschechische [Czech] Philharmonie

Note the American Orchestras’ placement in the Top 20:

5. Chicago
7. Cleveland
8. Los Angeles
11. Boston
12. New York Phil
13. San Francisco
18. Metropolitan Opera Orchestra

For decades, the Top 5 American Orchestras were (in no particular order) the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony followed by the Chicago Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra.

So who’s missing from this most recent list? Yeah! where’s the Philadelphia Orchestra?! What happened?

Well, for the past several years they’ve been grumbling about playing under their conductor Christoph von Eschenbach so maybe the deterioration from the Golden Age of Ormandy and Muti has been noticed in the wider world? The last few times I heard them playing familiar repertoire under Eschenbach, things had happened that you don’t expect to hear coming from an orchestra the caliber of the legendary Philadelphia Orchestra (in fact, most of them I didn’t expect to hear from the Harrisburg Symphony), so it makes you wonder...

Now, also look how high the Cleveland Orchestra placed – and this, after some of the complaints I’ve read and heard about this orchestra’s problems with its conductor Franz Welser-Möst (and not just the Plain Dealer’s critic, Donald Rosenberg which I blogged about here and here).

I just find that interesting.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Memed Again


No no, not Mame (as in “You coax the blues right out of the horn, Maa-ame” - oh great, now I've got “We Need a Little Christmas” stuck in my head...).

Not even maimed. Close...

MEME. One of those annoying on-line phenomenae where you write cute little factoids about something and then pass it on to other unsuspecting bloggers. The cure has yet to be found.

Okay, so I’m up to my gonnectigezoink in this novel right now – trying to reach 50,000 words by the end of the month as part of the NaNoWriMo Challenge (having written almost 4,000 words today puts me over the 75% point) – when Alex Shapiro of Notes from the Kelp bememed me with this latest... uhm, thing going around.

The object is to give seven facts about yourself and then tag seven blogger-friends to do the same. I actually don’t know too many people who blog and most of the blogs I read are by people I don’t know, personally at least. And of course Alex has already tagged the one person I could automatically think of who would help perpetuate the annoyance and who knows tons of bloggers out there. And now I have to post this before he does and then tags everyone on my list. So, here goes:

First, the Rules:

1. Link to your tagger and list these rules on your blog.
2. Share 7 facts about yourself on your blog - some random, some weird.
3. Tag 7 people at the end of your post by leaving their names as well as links to their blog.
4. Let them know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog (or e-mail if they don't allow comments).
5. If you don’t have 7 blog friends, or if someone else already took dibs, then tag some unsuspecting strangers.

(Wait - shouldn’t there be seven rules? Oh, I see... 7 Facts + 5 Rules = 12 - so it is another serialist conspiracy... hmmm)

and now, the Facts:

1. Having absolutely no interest in sports whatever (and I do mean whatever!), I won my first game of Trivial Pursuit (Genus edition which is, I believe, spelled correctly) back in the mid-‘80s with a baseball question. But I couldn’t tell you anything about who it was or what it was asking about him because it made no sense to me even then. It was True/False so I had a 50/50 chance... but hey, I still won!

2. When I was teaching at the University of Connecticut, I sang in a Russian Orthodox Church choir near campus even though I wasn’t Russian or Orthodox. I just liked the music (and could read the alphabet) - and the people were great, too. Usually I sang bass – but if the bass showed up, I could sing tenor. It was a cappella and we got our pitch for the responses from the priest who was tone-deaf. The choir director would try to give us our starting pitch from his chanting but by the time we were supposed to come in, he’d slid down another few tones. Sometimes, we were singing a diminished fifth lower than written. Since I couldn’t sing below the staff, I had to transpose the bass part up, a very un-Russian thing for a bass to do.

3. I was always interested in Russian music and literature (I read War & Peace the first time when I was in 6th grade). I wanted to study the Russian language when I was in high school but they didn’t offer it back in the ‘60s - this was the Cold War era. My Latin teacher was taking first year Russian as part of her Masters program and was willing to teach a class if we got enough students to sign up for it. When we did, the principal told us they would not offer the class. I was repeatedly asked if I was a Communist.

4. When I was attending grad school at Eastman in Rochester NY where they have two seasons – winter and the 4th of July – I would walk several blocks to school on some very cold mornings. I soon figured out how to tell the temperature by how quickly it took my mustache to freeze over, then check it against the Time/Temperature clock a block from the school. One morning it froze before I even stepped off the porch. That meant it was below zero. I was pretty accurate, not that it would ever have gotten me a job working for the Weather Channel. (Not that my degrees from there were all that more practical, but hey...)

5. I am a very shy and insecure person. As a full-blooded introvert, I find it difficult talking with strangers though I can stand in front of a class or audience and talk about music with no problem. People find this amusing, considering I spent 18 years on the radio – but people, I was alone in a small room with carpeting on the walls, talking to myself all evening. That’s not the same as talking to a live person who comes up to me and says “Hi” and expects me to make conversation. Insecurity would probably rate its own chapter...

6. When I was 6 years old and had just started taking piano lessons, hating having to practice those stupid little beginner’s pieces, I decided I wanted to become a composer because that way nobody would know if I was making mistakes.

7. Despite the fact I am very organized when it comes to composing (or rather have a very systematic approach to writing music), my life is chaos. My mother and maternal grandfather kept lists about everything and probably somewhere there’s a list of how many lists they kept. This was something that missed my genes completely. Me, I made a list to help me organize cleaning my apartment, what tasks I should do on which days: I lost the list.

8. I find that after decades of relying on pocket calculators, I actually can no longer count...

OK, let’s see... I think I’ll tag (1) Stuart Malina (might get him to write a new post), (2) Matthew at Soho the Dog, (3) Marc at Deceptively Simple’s new digs, (4) Patty at Oboeinsight, (5) David at Oh My Trill, (6) David Duff and for the feline point of view, (7) Abbie the Cat and his posse.

Yeah, so there ya go... Follow the threads. Enjoy.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

November & Concertante


This was the view in my back-yard today.

November is not a favorite month of mine though it’s not on the bottom of the pile, either. Cold rainy days in November, though, generally leave me, well... cold, usually from the inside out. It’s the kind of day I would like to snuggle up in a comfy chair with a good book and some cats (if the cats would allow me to read: usually the book is in the way of where they want to nestle) if I had the time for that. Oddly enough, now that I do have the time for that, finding myself one of the highest influx of unemployed Americans in the past seven years, I don’t have the time for that today.

Tonight there’s a performance by Concertante at the Rose Lehrman Arts Center at Harrisburg Area Community College that begins at 8:00. They’re playing two movements of the String Quintet in D Minor by Alexander von Zemlinsky, the Piano Quartet of Robert Schumann and Ernő Dohnányi’s first published work, his Piano Quintet in C Minor, one of the few “other” piano quintets available beyond the standard handful of Schumann, Brahms, Dvořák, Shostakovich, maybe Fauré and Franck... who’m I leaving out? Those are the basic ones you might hear (often enough) when a pianist joins a string quartet for an evening of chamber music.

I’ll be doing the pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15, gathering in the “Black Box” theater down the hall to the left of the auditorium’s entrance.

My starting point for the talk is one thing they all have in common: they’re all, at one time or another, better known for their relationship to someone else. And I discovered, thinking more about it, another common denominator, a composer not on the program (at least on this one) but whom I’ve already mentioned.

Schumann, in his day, was better known as a writer about music than a writer OF music. And his wife happened to be one of the greatest concert pianists of the age, Clara Schumann. In fact, though she would perform his music on her concerts, he often felt like a lap dog trotting after her when he went on tour, a consort who was treated by the press and the public like Mr. Clara Schumann.

Zemlinsky, almost forgotten today, is best known as the mentor of Arnold Schoenberg and, as it turned out, his brother-in-law. Zemlinsky also worked with Gustav Mahler in the early years of the 20th Century, championing new music (some of it his own, some of it by his brother-in-law) as well as conducting and teaching. One of his students, by the way, was a woman named Alma Schindler who would shortly become Mrs. Gustav Mahler.

Ernő Dohnányi – or to use his more frequently seen German-form, Ernst von Dohnanyi – is the third of three major Hungarian composers anyone talks about in the founding of the 20th Century Hungarian Style, with Bartók, Kodály and... uhm... oh yeah, Dohnányi. He’s the one most people haven’t heard anything by, or if they have, it’s that treacly cute set of variations on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for piano and orchestra, written in various and sundry styles, a delightful pastiche that has little to do with his real worth. These days, since even that has faded from the concert halls and probably the air-waves, he’s remembered more as the grandfather of the former conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi.

Interestingly enough, the music we’ll hear by Zemlinsky was composed the year he formed an amateur orchestra of which the sole cellist was a young man who also wanted to write music, named Arnold Schoenberg. Dohnányi’s quintet was composed a decade before Bartók had begun collecting the Hungarian folk songs that became the foundation of the modern Hungarian “school.”

The other “common denominator” is Johannes Brahms who was a protege of Schumann’s and a mentor of sorts to both Zemlinsky and Dohnányi! Zemlinsky had joined one of the major music organizations in Vienna in 1893 when Brahms, who turned 60 that year, was the leading figure in the city’s musical universe. Several of Zemlinsky’s early chamber works were performed in their concerts and he got some very complimentary comments from Brahms whose endorsement certainly helped his career. Zemlinsky had turned young Schoenberg on to Brahms’ music which would be a major influence on the development of his style, even beyond tonality, but it was Wagner that would become the biggest immediate factor in pushing Schoenberg into the 20th Century.

Brahms had heard about the young Hungarian pianist and composer Dohnányi and decided to arrange to have his Piano Quintet premiered in Vienna, an endorsement that also led to its publication. As Dvořák's music was full of the sound of Bohemian folk music, Dohnányi's music brought to cosmopolitan Vienna the unexpected sounds of actual Hungarian folk music, not the urban popular music of the Gypsies that everybody always associated with Hungarian music, most notably in those popular dances that made Brahms’ fortune.

Just as Schumann’s passing the mantle on to Brahms had far reaching consequences, Brahms own mentorship may have been more profound on someone like Dvořák, though time, temperament and perhaps talent may be more at fault for the failure of Zemlinsky and Dohnányi to benefit comparably. As styles changed around 1900 and Schoenberg went off in one direction, Zemlinsky was not comfortable in following this infusion of air from another planet (to quote a line from the poem Schoenberg set in his 2nd String Quartet, one of the first “official” atonal pieces). Zemlinsky’s career was further hampered by both world wars as was Dohnányi’s: both composers, like Bartok, found themselves ex-patriots living and dying in the United States.

Dohnányi spent much of his time rebuilding the musical life of Hungary during its independence following World War I and the collapse of the Austrian Empire (or, as it was mollifyingly known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary still ruled by the Emperor of Austria), and before the government was taken over by Nazi Germany before World War II. Much of his creative energy was sapped by the government administrative posts, the concertizing and above all the teaching. He was often taken to task by his more ethnically-minded colleagues Bartók and Kodály for being too conservative in his musical style.

But it is easy to forget that, when he attended the Conservatory in Budapest, he was the first ethnic Hungarian student to graduate from there as a “star.” It is also important to note that Vienna, for all its Imperial cosmopolitan-ness was still xenophobic enough to consider a composer like Dvořák from the province of Bohemia and the Hungarian Dohnányi were, essentially, “hicks,” inferior to the good Germanic culture that was Viennese Art, even though the most famous Viennese composers (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and now Mahler) were all transplants (from Salzburg, from rural Austria, from Bonn, from Hamburg; and Mahler was a Jew from Bohemia). In fact, three composers who were actually born and raised in Vienna – Schubert, Zemlinsky and Schoenberg – received barely any recognition from their home town! So much for prophets in their own land...

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Meanwhile, I’m hard at work – though today, hardly working – on the November Novel Challenge that is NaNoWriMo (November is National Writing Month). The goal is not so much to hurry up and write a novel during the month of November, the goal is to push yourself to write 50,000 words whether or not the novel is completed in time, so you have something to go back and edit, pare down or add to or even finish at a later date. Without goading yourself toward this goal, you might never sit down and actually write 50,000 words. I can vouch for that: twice I’ve tried getting this novel started and twice it got put aside for other things (called “reality”). So far, just about half-way through the month, I am half-way toward that goal with 25,012 words under my belt as of yesterday afternoon.

So here, on this drizzly dreary November afternoon, rather than curl up in a chair with the cats and read a book, I am trying to hunker down at my desk and write a book, though the cats are still trying to claim their share of the turf: everybody needs a muse or a proof-reader or an editor, right? (see Freddy, Charlie and Max, my support group, right).

And now, back to work.

Dr. Dick