25 Things About Me (February 2, 2009)

1. I started private piano lessons at age 5. I ended private piano lessons at age 5. . . . I did learn to play recorder (self-taught), clarinet, and oboe as I was growing up. My oboe teacher was a protegé of Ralph Gomberg (longtime principal oboist of the Boston Symphony); the Dallas public schools had hired her as a strings teacher.

2. I took German in high school. I played Gandalf in a production of Der Hobbit at the state convention. I also wrote several plays in German, including one about asparagus soda and another, a courtroom drama, in which Santa Claus was on trial for, among other things, drug dealing and incest (evidence for the latter: elves). Tragically, none of my masterpieces was ever produced.

3. When I was a kid, I used to make and eat outrageous sandwiches to amuse/gross out my brother. I remember one that included crunchy peanut butter, grape jelly, cheddar cheese, lettuce, mayonnaise, jalapeños, and herring.

4. I won my elementary school spelling bee twice. The latter year, I was second runner-up at the next round, which was held at the neighborhood high school. The girl who won that round went on to win the national championship. (Susan Yoachum, 1969. You can look it up.)

5. I have entered three publication-naming contests as an adult and have won all of them: Sounds Delicious for the Jacksonville Symphony cookbook; Dim Innuendos and (later) Majestic Views for the San Antonio Symphony musicians' newsletter. I lost a naming contest in fourth grade, though.

6. At one time, I could name in order, by memory, all the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts and their spacecraft.

7. My mother taught me to spell pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis when I was 6. By the way, my mother earned an M.D. at 21.

8. Alaska, Hawaii, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota are the only U.S. states I have not been in. [Update, 2015: Alaska and Hawaii are the only U.S. states I have not been in.]

9. In preschool, I was sent to the principal's office for a dispute with a colleague over who would get to sit in the red chair at the end of naptime. (N.B.: My naps were taken on a Little Black Sambo beach towel. Apparently, PC was not a major consideration in 1960.) As punishment, I had to write a report on tapirs.

10. Though little boys of my era typically wanted to grow up to be cowboys or firemen, my dream at 6 was to be either a chemist or a AAA representative. (I liked Triptiks.)

11. I know pi to over 100 decimal places and can recite the alphabet backwards. You can only imagine how much these skills have furthered me in my professional career. (Come to think of it, I guess the latter can come in handy when you're looking for a rehearsal letter.)

12. I won ribbons for my prowess in the 60-yard dash and the running broad jump in third grade. That was the last time I was recognized (in a positive way) for anything remotely athletic. However: I did take badminton in college, and on the test at the end of the course, I made the highest score in the class . . . on the written portion.

13. I decided at age 6 that lasagna was my favorite food. Though I rarely eat it these days, nothing in the interim has convinced me to alter that designation.

14. My high school, Skyline HS in Dallas, was the first magnet high school in the U.S. The actress who played Roz on Frasier went there. So did the current world-record holder in the 400-meter dash. (Peri Gilpin, Michael Johnson) [Update: Michael relinquished his 400m record in 2016.]

15. My wife and I have been vegetarians for over 10 years. [Update: now more than 20.] We tried going vegan; that lasted for about a week. We do make efforts in that direction, though, such as buying soy milk and fake mozzarella.

16. I have a primal fear of public speaking. When, as a new member of the Jacksonville Symphony, I was required to introduce myself at a JSO Board meeting, it was all I could do to remain conscious.

17. Both of my brothers were in Cub Scouts, after which my parents decided it was too much of a hassle, so I wasn't allowed to. Both of my brothers were in marching band, after which my parents decided. . . . Both of my brothers got bicycles, . . . . . . .

18. I used to be pretty good with a slide rule. I still own two.

19. I've written computer programs in BASIC, FORTRAN, ALGOL, LISP, PL, PL-1, and a couple of assembly languages, but I've never earned a penny for it. My piece de resistance, which runs on my (still-functional!) Commodore 64, is a program that interactively plays Wheel of Fortune, complete with sound effects and Vanna White.

20. David Golub, the (late) famous pianist, came to our house for a chamber music evening when I was growing up. He was 17. He sight-read the piano part of the Chausson Violin & Piano Concerto, virtually flawlessly.

21. I've never played a "solo solo" with orchestra, though I've done one or another of the solo parts in the Vivaldi 4-violin concerto a couple of times. (I'm also not counting concertino parts in concerti grossi or concertmaster solos, both of which I've done numerous times.)

22. I've had so many strange coincidences in my life that I started documenting them. If anyone's interested, message me, and I'll share a long list. But I'll present my favorite here: when my dad, a fine professional violinist, first moved to Dallas in 1940, the house he was staying in was next door to a piano studio. He was jolted from his sleep early every Saturday morning for weeks on end by the same wrong note at the same point in the same piece. . . . Ten years later, he met and married my mother. When she sat down at the piano and started playing, he found out who the culprit had been.

23. Though I was born and raised in Texas, I have never been on a horse. I rode a burro once, though, when I was 5: they actually had a burro ride at Six Flags Over Texas (in Arlington). It was 1961, the first year it opened, and the park was mostly open space.

24. I've consumed no more than a few sips of alcoholic beverages in my life. (This includes swallowing a few drops of of wine during my Bar Mitzvah ceremony, after which I made a face.)

25. Things I used to collect include: stamps, coins, fossils (I have an ammonite in my back yard), sugar packets (with the names of restaurants or hotels on them), and banana stickers. I now collect pigs and especially prize ones that fly and/or play violin. . . . My mother used to collect owls; at one point she had more than 700 of them.

25 MORE Things About Me
(February 8, 2009)

At the risk of seeming self-indulgent (SEEMING???), I present . . . 25 more pieces of useless trivia from my life:

1. I have had eight teeth extracted. As anyone who has seen my midsection can tell, the remaining 24 do the job just fine.

2. Beethoven's 5th Symphony is iconic among classical works and has a reputation for being ubiquitous on orchestra programs. Yet I had performed each of the other eight Beethoven symphonies at least twice—as well as having performed at least once all four by Brahms, seven by Mozart, twelve by Haydn, three by Tchaikovsky, three by Mahler, three by Dvořák, four by Mendelssohn, four by Schubert, three by Sibelius, two by Schumann, and many others—before I did my first complete performance of Beethoven's 5th, at age 33. The first complete symphony (by anyone) I ever performed was Sibelius 1, at music camp (Sewanee) when I was 16.

3. I've played Madame Butterfly 46 times; none of those was in the 21st century. There are 17 different operas and musicals for which my number of performances has reached double digits.

4. I disliked Mexican food until I was about 12. As a kid, whenever we went to the local El Chico, I ordered spaghetti from the children's menu. My dad would tease me: "He comes to a Mexican restaurant and orders spaghetti." My retort: "It wasn't my idea to come here."

5. For several years during my childhood, we ate at Luby's Cafeteria two or three times a week (all you can eat for 98 cents). The one we went to (Lochwood Shopping Center in Dallas) featured an organist, Jerry Ward, who was quite good. One time I turned in a request card with "Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor." (He declined.) I recently learned that one of Jerry's organist predecessors at that very location was Ted Cassidy, who later achieved television immortality as Lurch on The Addams Family.

6. I never dated during high school; my first kiss was at age 19. A girl kissed me, though, when I was 6. I got the mumps.

7. I consider myself right-brained as a violinist but left-brained with words. I have always found playing expressively and "musically" easier and more natural than mastering technique. But I'm better with spelling, grammar, rhyme, wordplay, etc., than with communicating verbally in an engaging and aesthetically pleasing way (as you can tell from reading this sentence).

8. I'm a pretty decent cook and prepare the majority of the meals at my house.

9. I learned a lot in my two undergraduate years at MIT but have forgotten most of it since. Probably foremost among those things I have retained and found useful was learning how to cook.

10. I was a music major at MIT (one of eight at the time). I still took a lot of courses in chemistry, physics, math, and computer science, most of which were required, even for music majors.

11. Every day in my kindergarten class, each of us would be given a small carton of milk—with the exception of a couple of kids who got water or juice instead because they were allergic to milk. So I explained that I, too, was allergic to milk: I had to have chocolate milk.

12. My brother and I used to have horseradish-eating contests.

13. I am old enough to remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I learned that John F. Kennedy had been shot: I was a 7-year-old 2nd grader at Hexter Elementary School in Dallas and was told about it by the 7th-grade school crossing guard who helped me cross the street as I started my walk home. (During the day when it happened, the principal's office announced it over the PA, but only to the upper-grade [4th through 7th] classrooms.) . . . On the day Robert Kennedy was shot, my family left on a vacation to go to Hemisfair '68, which would be my first time in San Antonio.

14. I love making lists. It has been an obsession ever since I was little. You name it: I've made a list of it. Astronauts' birthdays, factors of numbers, All-State violinists from Dallas County, books I've read, teachers I've had, musicians I've played weddings with, etc., etc., etc.

15. April, my wife, is related to many famous people. She is descended from English royalty on her mother's side; among her direct ancestors are Charlemagne, William the Conqueror, Julius Caesar, and Old King Cole. Even without the royalty connection, I've traced connections between April and people including Jimmy Carter, Brooke Shields, Glenn Close, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George (and George W.) Bush, Felix Mendelssohn, and Monica Lewinsky. . . . Without using April as a connection, the only somewhat famous person I can connect to genealogically is Calvin Trillin (and I don't even have that one precisely; I only know that my great aunt's sister married into the Trilinsky clan). [Update: I now know of a few: see this page.]

16. "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" may be the only pop song for which I know the complete lyrics by memory.

17. I have not had a pet since I was about 7. Before that there were two: Pegasus the canary and Hammy the hamster.

18. According to my mother, I ate Gravy Train out of a neighbor's dog's dish when I was 2.

19. To the best of my knowledge, I have been outdoors in below-zero (F) temperatures only once in my life, when it was -3 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, in 1984. I've been in below-zero wind chills many times, most memorably for the entirety of the 1979 Cotton Bowl game in Dallas (estimated wind chills hovered around -20 throughout). My team, the University of Houston, had a 34-12 lead with 7 1/2 minutes remaining in the game, and managed to blow it, losing 35-34 to a Joe Montana-led Notre Dame team. (This was one of a series of games in various sports in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s that contributed to Houston's nickname of "Choke City.")

20. I was a wild and crazy guy at MIT. Activities I participated in with various dormmates included playing hearts in the dorm elevator, playing ping pong in the elevator, staying awake for 60 hours straight (which started when two other guys challenged one another to see who could stay awake the longest, with me as the judge; the judge ended up winning), and riding the entire Boston subway system in one day (during the aforementioned 60 hours).

21. April's great-great-grandfather Adolph Strauss (1830–1905) had a summer home in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, which has since been converted into a museum and is the home base for the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. The interesting thing is that no one in April's family (including cousins et al.) knew about it until two years ago. A board member from the AHHS found my genealogy database online and contacted us, which eventually led to a big family reunion in New Jersey in 2007.

22. I've played very few dramatic roles in public. One, as Gandalf in Der Hobbit, was mentioned in my previous list of 25 Things. The only others I remember were Prince Tenor in The Kingdom of Music (4th grade) and a banderillero in A Day in Old Mexico (5th grade). I still remember both my lines in the former:
"I like the high notes myself."
"Wake up, Princess Soprano! They brought a dragon from the Land of Fantasy!"
(The banderillero was a non-speaking role.)

23. My favorite smells (in no particular order, and yes, I know this is all over the map) are gardenia blossoms, mulling spices, vanilla extract, and horseradish (in the jar). Honorable mention: dill weed, garlic, honeysuckle.

24. I have never been overseas. I have been in 44 U.S. states (plus DC), four Canadian provinces, and four Mexican states. I have been in Texas for all or part of every one of the 54 calendar years of my life. Second on my list of states ranked by number of different calendar years in which I have set foot in them is Oklahoma, with 13; New York and Virginia (12 each) are tied for third.
[Update, 2023: I have now been overseas twice. I have been in 48 U.S. states (plus DC), five Canadian provinces, and four Mexican states. I have been in Texas for all or part of every one of the 68 calendar years of my life. Second on my list of states ranked by number of different calendar years in which I have set foot in them is Oklahoma, with 17; Virginia (15) is in third.]

25. I have won one trophy and one blue ribbon in my life, and those wins occurred within the span of a couple of weeks in 1968. The trophy was for winning the Elementary String Division of the Dallas Symphonic Festival (Vivaldi Violin Concerto in A minor, first movement), and the blue ribbon was for winning the 6th-grade division of my school science fair (Rockets—Their History and Their Future). [Correction: I also won a team blue ribbon in 11th grade for my participation in a Volkswagen rally at a convention of German students.]

1 1/2 New Random Things (March 5, 2009)

1. When I was in college, I attended a cooking demonstration. While the chef made an omelet, an assistant passed out plastic forks to the audience. When the omelet was done, it was passed around to the attendees to sample. I had the dish in my hand, but since I don't like eggs, I declined the opportunity to taste the omelet and just passed it on to the next person.

1 1/2. The name of the chef was Julia Child.

1 1/2 More New Random Things (April 7, 2009)

1. About a year ago, I was ordering books online. I was aware there was a history of the Houston Symphony written in the 1970s by Hubert Roussel. I was interested in owning a copy, so I searched for it at Amazon.com. Amazon listed several (used) copies available from affiliated booksellers. Naturally, I picked the cheapest one: a merchant in Tennessee had it for $10. When the book arrived, I figured the seller had deemed that the scrawled inscription on the title page detracted from its value. Some woman who had given it as a gift had written an affectionate message to the recipient and signed it.

1 1/2. The woman's name was Ima Hogg.

A couple more random things (May 9, 2009)

1. You know those groovy, totally shagadelic '60s outfits Austin Powers wore in the movies? The producers purchased that fabric from Esther's Fabric Company in St. Joseph, Missouri. The owner/proprietor of Esther's at that time was Judy Brahinsky, my second cousin. Esther Brahinsky, the store's namesake, was Judy's grandmother and my great aunt.

2. S. S. Conner, the elementary school in Dallas I attended for 4th through 7th grades, was featured on national TV and likely seen by hundreds of millions of people in 2006. Many times throughout the basketball playoffs that year, an NBA promotional ad was aired featuring Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki visiting with kids in the Conner gym.