I’m extremely interested in the pairing of these performers. In the fall, Palmer taught a BCGS master class, the first of two, about using the a-m-i right-hand pattern to increase your speed when playing scales. (If that phrase is confusing to you, just know that most classical guitarists, upon hearing those letters, in that order, will automatically twitch the ring, middle, and index fingers of their right hands. They can’t help doing it.) In his discussion of how he developed this technique, Palmer referenced his youth as a heavy metal guitarist, with its emphasis on speed, noting that he didn’t begin his study of the classical guitar until he was eighteen.
For the record, that was the first time I ever heard a classical guitarist declare heavy metal as an influence on his or her technique. But these master classes can bring such surprises. I didn’t expect McFarlane to say that lute players need to swing when they perform the early repertoire. Not only did he say it, he also picked up his lute and demonstrated the difference between straight lute playing and swinging the notes. I had no choice but to think, Oh my god, the lute really does swing.
Tomorrow night’s concert will include three parts: a solo lute performance by McFarlane, a solo classical guitar performance by Palmer, and a final duet performance of “Night Rose,” a new piece for lute and guitar that was commissioned by the BCGS and written by McFarlane. (If you’re wondering how lute and guitar sound together, the BCGS has posted a sample from this work on YouTube.) I’ve bought the season pass for this spring’s virtual BCGS concerts, but even if I hadn’t, I would buy an individual ticket for this performance. It will cover a lot of ground, from early standards to modern repertoire to the final newly commissioned piece. Oh, and the performers are a swinging lutenist and a metal classical guitarist. By any measure, that sounds like a good return on the ticket price.
I just finished John Julius Norwich’s Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History. It traces Sicily’s recurring role in bearing the brunt of other regions’ conflicts, usually in the form of repeated invasions by and struggles for precedence between far-flung rulers. Norwich shows a healthy appetite for the absurd elements in the accounts, lingering over them throughout. The item that particularly caught my eye was in a footnote on page 142. It’s about Martin I, King of Aragon, also known as Martin the Elder and Martin the Humane, amongst other sobriquets. After detailing his typically tortuous line of succession, the footnote moves swiftly past Martin’s assumption of the throne, skips the entirety of his reign, and concentrates on his final days:
He died—of uncontrollable laughter at a joke by his jester, having just eaten a whole goose—with no surviving legitimate heirs, and the line which had begun with Wilfred the Hairy, Count of Barcelona, in the ninth century finally died out.
I’ve included the full sentence because, well, “Wilfred the Hairy,” but I already knew about him from earlier passages. No, the part that really got me was the aside about Martin’s death, spurred by laughter, but only after eating a whole goose. (An aside within a footnote, which is a species of aside itself, so we’re in the equivalent of the book’s sub-basement.) I can’t see myself in a situation that involves eating a whole goose, not at this point in my life, at least, but I suppose I can think of worse ways to go, particularly for a king of a perennially contested region in 1410 CE.
Here’s the thing: before encountering this footnote, I’d already spent a lot of time thinking about historical figures who died laughing, and I couldn’t remember whether any version of Martin’s name was on the list. When I say list, I mean of course the list, the one of laughter-caused deaths that appears in The Book of Lists #2. My buddy Paul had a copy of the book when we were in college. In our freshmen and sophomore years, we studied specific lists in it as if we were members of a religious order that considered them sacred texts. It troubled me that I couldn’t remember any descriptions of a goose-and-laughter-adjacent death, so I decided to find a reasonably priced copy of the same edition.
Now, I’m not saying we gave every list in the book the same obsessive attention. I don’t remember most, and I certainly just skimmed or completely ignored the lion’s share of them. John Wayne’s favorite actors, for instance. “Oh, look, he liked Spencer Tracy.” If you’re an intense devotee of John Wayne, that might be interesting, but I didn’t read it and feel compelled to spend the rest of my life telling people about it. I did, however, tell the story of the dolphins that saved a woman after her boat exploded. One buoyed her up and the others circled her to keep the sharks off. They kept her alive until they reached a sea marker two hundred miles away, where she climbed to safety and eventual rescue. I’ve told that tale to someone at least once every two or three years, probably, since I first read it on page 107. The list in which it appears? “8 Unusual Dolphin Incidents.”
And I wouldn’t be able to calculate how many times I’ve told the story of one entry from “7 People Who Died Laughing.” Let’s take a quick look at the full list, which spans pages 445-446, near the end of the book. It includes:
Calchas, Greek diviner from the 12th century BCE and character in The Iliad. Thinking he was about to prove another fortune-teller wrong, he died chortling over the insult he never managed to deliver.
Zeuxis, pioneering Greek artist in the realistic mode from the 5th century BCE, who choked in a fit of amusement while looking at a figure of an old woman that he had just painted.
Philemon, Greek poet from the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE, who died at nearly a hundred years old, laughing at a joke he had just made.
Chrysippus, Greek philosopher from the 3rd century BCE, who burst into death-inducing merriment when he saw a donkey eat some figs.
Pietro Aretino, Italian author who died of apoplexy in 1556 while guffawing at a dirty story his sister was telling him.
Mrs. Fitzherbert, English widow who died in 1782. She started laughing upon seeing an actor perform in drag, kept laughing for two days, and finally expired from her relentless amusement.
Alex Mitchell, English bricklayer who in 1975 watched a sketch about a fictional self-defense system called “Ecky Thump” in the television series The Goodies, laughed for a half-hour straight, and had a heart attack. His wife wrote the show’s creators to thank them, which might sound a bit suspicious, but she was appreciative that her husband was happy in his last moments of life.
But, hello, ancient Greeks! What was going on with them? They are hogging the “died laughing” list with a vengeance. Four out of seven—well done, indeed. Also, they apparently were huge fans of their own jokes. Calchas, Zeuxis, and Philemon all fell to the appeal of their own wit in one form or another. Only old Chrysippus was laughing at something else. His entry was and still is my favorite. The precise quotation from it is “Chrysippus is said to have died from a fit of laughter on seeing a donkey eat some figs.” That’s it. Not a hint of explanation. As sentences go, that is one of my favorites. Paul and I studied those words as if they themselves were written in ancient Greek. We pondered them like graduate students in philosophy discussing a single line from Aristotle’s Physics for weeks on end. What happened? What was the context, the scene? Just, wait…what, now, again?
Did someone give the figs to the donkey? Did the donkey eat them straight from the tree? Was this a farm or some strange banquet whose attendees included a donkey? Were donkeys particularly funny in ancient Greece? Were figs? How did the donkey, the figs, and Chrysippus end up in the same place at the same time? Why did he do this, or who did it to him?
I remember Paul acting it out. “I think maybe it went like this,” he said. He pointed at some random distance. “Do you see? It’s—but the animal, it—” His eyes widened, delighted. “It’s ridiculous, it’s just too—” His face puckered with horror. “The absurdity, it—no, it can’t, I can’t—oh, no, oh no, nooohahahaaaaa!” He choked off his anguished laughter and let his arms and head fall in full collapse.
“Yeah, that seems right,” I said.
I took Latin in high school and college, and I did a bit of Latin-on-the-fly when I was getting my masters. Occasionally in college I thought of switching to classics. Sometimes I still wish that I had. On one occasion, at least, Paul said that I should do it. “You have to, just so you can take ancient Greek and we can find out what the hell was going on!”
Now, we spent a fair amount of our time in the ample UT Austin libraries looking up information that had little or nothing to do with our coursework. That’s how I ended up photocopying cartoons of Paganini’s ghost playing his violin as Charon rowed him to hell. It’s how Paul ended up reading about the construction of the hurdy-gurdy and listening to recordings of its traditional performances. But we never checked the card catalogs for “Chrysippus” entries. I think we wanted to keep the questions. Everyone needs a mystery, a moving target at which to aim the capacity for wonder.
Had we engaged in research rather than speculation, we undoubtedly would have discovered the Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, written by Diogenes Laërtius or attributed to him, at least. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, the text is at my fingertips, and it lists two possibilities for the death of Chrysippus. In one version, he goes to a party, drinks too much undiluted wine, is “seized with giddiness” (330), and dies five days later. So, yeah, this is probably the true story. Plenty of booze at hand, but neither a fig nor a donkey in sight. Luckily, the other version of the story brings them back:
But some people say that he died of a fit of immoderate laughter. For that seeing his ass eating figs, he told his old woman to give the ass some unmixed wine to drink afterwards, and then laughed so violently that he died. (330)
So ends the life of a Stoic. I find myself disappointed that Chrysippus is depicted as owning the apocryphal donkey that ate the apocryphal figs. Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense, but I prefer my early imaginings, in which he just stumbled upon them in a grotto or some such. Still, I’m even more disappointed that he’s turned out to be another person who died laughing away at his own joke, particularly given that the joke was of the “Hey, let’s get the donkey drunk!” variety. If he was willing to waste his unmixed wine in that fashion, I’m guessing he’d been dipping into it himself for several hours, just hanging out with his donkey, day-drinking and eating some figs.
It probably happened every day. It was probably such a humdrum routine that the odds against a donkey eating a fig and making his inebriated owner laugh himself to death would have been extreme. That’s fine. I’m glad I know more about the possibly true death of Chrysippus. Knowledge is always useful and all that. Who knows? A year from now, this information may strike me anew, offering additional rich levels for imagining the scene of Chrysippus’ death. But I suspect I’ll always feel some nostalgia for that single, mysterious line in The Book of Lists #2, just eighteen words full of the unknown, and for the scenarios Paul and I generated as we tried to imagine the unlikely logistics, speculating: donkey, philosopher, figs, laughter, death—but how?
 Wallace, Irving et al. The Book of Lists #2. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. I must stress that we’re talking about The Book of Lists #2, not The Book of Lists, unnumbered, or The Book of Lists #3. I’d swear I’ve never seen either of them, but my memory may be playing tricks on me. I remember mulling over a list of people who had bought their own islands, and I’m not finding it in The Book of Lists #2. So maybe Paul also had a copy of The Book of Lists. Or The Book of Lists #3, even. I’ve asked him, but he doesn’t remember either, and I’m unwilling to chase down “unnumbered” and “#3” for confirmation. Somewhere, though, we saw that list of island-purchasers, and Marlon Brando was on it. Also, yes, this post is partly about a footnote, so I’m populating it with its own footnotes, the feature that enables dissertation-writers everywhere to plant their flags and shout, “No, I will not give up that quotation, or this anecdote, and if you think you’re taking away my tailor-made graph in which I extend Houston Baker’s concepts of the mastery of form and the deformation of mastery, you have obviously forgotten the power of footnotes!” That’s what a quick scan of my dissertation reveals, at any rate.
 Now, that would be some good TV. But was it a true story? I assumed that it was for a few years. Afterwards, I still repeated it, with the caveat that I’d read it in The Book of Lists #2 in the mid-to-late 1980s. But just now I checked for online corroboration. One “Was a woman saved by dolphins after her yacht exploded?” search later, and the first item returned is a New York Times archive piece from September 10, 1972: “South African Reports a Rescue by Dolphins.” The verdict? Assuming the Times fact-checked the story in 1972, pretty close to the truth. In the Times piece, the yacht overturned after experiencing engine trouble and being swamped by a wave rather than exploding, and the woman’s dolphin-assisted journey in the water was 25 miles rather than 200. However, the Times does stress, gently but carefully, that the account was provided solely by the protagonist, mentioning no witnesses. But close enough for Hoyle and The Book of Lists #2. Perhaps additional fact-checkers were employed to one-up the Times.
 Actually, two tales about the cause of Calchas’ death are mentioned in this list. In one, he died of shame over losing a soothsaying competition (guessing the number of piglets that would be born in a specific litter). In the other, he was slain by his own wit while trying to back-smack-talk another seer. The rival saw Calchas planting some grapes and threw down with “I predict that you will not live to drink the wine you make from them.” And after however many months of slow burn, Calchas invited this jerk over for a cup of the wine in question. When the guy was unperturbed—“No, I still say you’re not going to be able to drink that!”—Calchas started laughing and howled “Ha! You idio—oop!”
 I haven’t searched for any proof that Chrysippus was drunk on the vintage he allegedly wanted to give his donkey, but I’m guessing the ready access to unmixed wine might have been the reason so many ancient Greeks made it onto the list of historical figures who died laughing. According to Laërtius, Chrysippus definitely didn’t avoid the drinking parties. Also, in both The Iliad and The Odyssey, servants and peripheral characters regularly haul out wine-mixing bowls, the “kraters” described by Mark Cartwright in “Wine in the Ancient Mediterranean.” Depending on the occasion, the precise mixture of water and wine could be altered, as Achilles indicates when he greets a delegation of his fellow Achaeans and instructs Patroclus to mix less water in the wine. Or, as Alexander Pope translates it, to “Mix purer wine, and open every soul” (The Iliad of Homer, Translated by Alexander Pope, New York and Boston: Thomas Y. Crowell and Company, Book IX, page 208). In Pope’s translation, Achilles is basically saying “Hey, make those drinks stronger, and maybe we’ll all tell the truth in here.”
If reading the word “lute” makes you want to take flight, fearing the likes of Ignatius J. Reilly, I urge you to pause and give it a chance. This is McFarlane’s second master class for the BCGS this season, and the first was excellent. I almost didn’t register for it, but then I thought, Well, wait, a lot of the classical guitar’s repertoire was originally for the lute. Hell, I play that one Bach lute prelude. My interest was also piqued by the fact that the class would focus on the notation and ornamentation used in Baroque lute tablature manuscripts, discussing how to interpret them for the guitar. It’s true: I love a good historical manuscript.
Skipping that class would have been a huge mistake. Five minutes in, I was thankful I’d decided to attend. McFarlane’s discussion was like a historical detective story. It included manuscript samples of lute compositions and explored their significance for performers in various historical periods, tying them to the ways the lute itself, as an instrument, developed over time. The class was a combination of several things to love, such as music, history, and the semi-secret codes employed in both.
Given the title of his upcoming presentation, I’m guessing that McFarlane, as both scholar and performer, will focus even more on the historical elements that were so interesting in his fall lecture. I will certainly be joining his class on February 28, notebook at the ready.
I should note one thing right from the start: I’ve never been to any version of the AWP Conference. Not because I avoided it. I just didn’t know much about it. It wasn’t on my radar when I was in my M.A. writing program, and if it had been, I probably wouldn’t have considered going, because I was in graduate school and never had any money. Then, when I became a technical writer and could have budgeted the money to attend, I was no longer in a writing program, and I assumed that I wasn’t supposed to go. It was right there in the organization’s name: Associated Writing Programs.
Later, its name was changed to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (Kate McDevitt discusses the inclusion of that ampersand in “Giving Thanks to the Ampersand”). The new name was more expansive and welcoming of writers in general, but it took some time for the news to filter to me. When it did, I thought that I needed to wait for a good reason to go, such as marketing a book. Anyway, when you work full time and you’re also writing, revising, researching literary magazines, reading new and old books, and just generally dealing with modern life, but you still want to see family and friends, you get stingy with vacation time. Then you get an email about how you should burn through a chunk of it at the end of the year to avoid losing it to the void where untaken vacation hours go. So you do, but you haven’t planned for the time off. Instead of going someplace like a conference, you spend your spontaneous vacation organizing your office, re-seasoning your cast iron, or learning to make tortillas. All. Important. Things.
But this year I’m going. It was a bit of an accident. I kept reading advice about attending writers’ conferences to find publishers and agents, and I thought, “I wonder if any of those conference things are online this year,” and I Googled “virtual writers’ conferences,” and boom: Virtual AWP Conference, March 3-7, 2021.
Here’s the lowdown. It still costs money to attend, but a lot less, mainly because you don’t have to pay for travel and accommodations. It also seems that the conference fees were reduced this year. In her March 2020 article “The Problem of Money and Access at AWP,” Alison Stine mentions that the conference costs $250 for nonmembers to attend, but this year’s rates don’t list a nonmember option. Instead, you can get a membership-and-attendance-fee bundle for $160—or $140 for anyone who was aware enough to know about the early-bird rates. That’s not zero, but it’s extremely economical when you factor in skipping the travel costs, not to mention that it includes a one-year AWP membership.
Stine details issues with the AWP Conference that involve inaccessibility for the differently abled and a possible lack of concern about economic inequity. She also notes the flak the organization received after organizers decided to continue with its physical conference in San Antonio last spring, despite the coronavirus-induced state of emergency declared by the city. However, Stine acknowledges that there are huge benefits to attending the conference, notably those involving possible connections with publishers, agents, and other writers.
Here’s a story about that. Until I signed up for the conference, I didn’t know that applying to participate in the Writer to Agent program was free with registration. The program provides an opportunity to get your manuscript query to several agents at once and possibly discuss it with them at the conference. Similarly, I didn’t know about the existence of the AWP Writer to Writer mentorship program, which pairs new and emerging writers with published writers for a three-month series of advice and guidance sessions. (To be clear, it’s free to apply to these programs, but applying does not ensure that you will be selected to participate. Also, the current application deadlines have passed. There should be a new set of Writer to Writer sessions in the fall, and the next Writer to Agent application period will be for next year’s conference.)
Still, obtaining Internet access probably presents fewer difficulties than making the journey for a five-day conference in a distant city. At any rate, the 2021 Conference and Bookfair may provide a test case for AWP on how to extend their resources to writers who would otherwise be unable to attend in a given year. For me, the cost of registering this year was definitely worth the risk.
I’ve been an amateur classical guitarist for more than thirty years, and when I lived in Baltimore, I had access to resources that are hard to find elsewhere. There was the Peabody Conservatory, which hosted free noon recitals, usually by undergraduate and graduate performers. There was the Community College of Baltimore County, where I could enroll for a semester when I wanted to take a class and bolster skills that had reached a plateau. And there was the Baltimore Classical Guitar Society, which offered multiple events: a concert series, usually at Towson University; master classes by local classical guitarists as well as visitors such as David Russell; an annual guitar festival; and regular opportunities for members to perform on stage.
Since moving back to New Orleans, the BCGS is a Baltimore institution that I have missed. Recently, however, I’ve been able to reconnect with it. The pandemic is consistently horrible, but it has at least inspired several organizations to create a new wave of virtual events. The BCGS is one of them, and I hope they will continue providing virtual access to their offerings when the world is able to shift back to in-person performances and classes.
As an observer, I attended multiple master classes led by these performers. I also went to their concerts and recitals whenever possible. They are both incredible guitarists as well as patient and knowledgeable teachers. On Thursday night, they will be teaching Peabody students only, but members of the BCGS can audition by video to participate as students in the Sunday and Monday classes. Membership in BCGS is extremely affordable (the basic membership is $25.00 a year), and members participate in master classes for free. Membership also gives you reduced rates for concert tickets.
Over the past year, the BCGS hosted several virtual master classes. They were arranged in a lecture and demonstration format, but, thanks to the chat function, the instructors were able to respond to the questions of the attendees. With the added participation of student guitarists, the BCGS Guitar Celebration Weekend master classes promise new levels of interactive instruction, and I hope that they will generate future classes and similar opportunities. Guitarists and music fans should make every effort to attend the classes and the concert.
They start asking you about your future employment much earlier than age ten, of course, those strangers who say hello to your parents in the supermarket or auto repair shop and then try to gin up some banter with you. As I remember, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was the main conversation opener adults used with me, even before I was in kindergarten.
For a long time, I said I wanted to be a fireman, but that was a lie. I only said it because I’d read it in a book. It was never going to happen. I ran and hid at the sound of the train whistle rumbling through the woods behind my grandmother’s house. Even today, much like my dog, I have trouble with sirens.
Later, I landed on the idea of being a scientist—specifically, a physicist, for three reasons: I liked the strange sibilance of the word, it seemed to be the field that covered the most territory, and I thought it was unlikely to involve animal dissection. When I was about twelve or thirteen, I interviewed a university physicist as part of a “my future profession” school assignment, but I can’t remember his name. Most of his responses to my questions were along the lines of “Well, no, it’s not going to be much like that.” I remember feeling that he was nice to bother talking to me at all.
I also had a running, secret list of what I wanted to be. At one time or another, it included:
Wizard. It’s tough to find the right school for this job. You have to stumble onto a mentor.
Shaolin monk, thanks to the 1978 film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and the 1972-1975 television show Kung Fu. Remember when Harrison Ford was a business agent for the railroad company in Kung Fu, after he was Bob Falfa and before he was Han Solo? Well, I do, anyway.
Spider-Man. Of course, he was studying to be a biophysicist, so this one has a bit of overlap. He also had to use detective skills now and then, though he was no Batman. So, yes, Spider-Man summed up several unrealistic goals for me.
I considered jobs that were more mundane, but I just couldn’t decide. Choosing one thing to be for the rest of my life was too hard. I didn’t know then that most people are several things over their lifetimes. Throughout the deliberations, I did have one certainty, thanks to the books I read: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and David Copperfield and Bridge to Terabithia and horror collections and science fiction series and mystery books and things that didn’t fall into strict genre categories, like the Henry Reed books, which began to fall apart as I turned the pages again and again. I still love The Planet of Junior Brown. After checking it out from libraries in different cities over several decades, starting from when I read it in junior high, I finally bought my own copy last year. Because I of what I read, I wanted to write.
The problem was, I thought that I also had to choose a job title, mostly to be able to tell people something recognizable when they asked what I was. But one day I gave up on the professional identity and decided to focus on books. It was a teenage epiphany and possible rebellion. I wasn’t going to choose a job. I would just pretend to have job after job. My working theory was that if I became a writer, I wouldn’t have to decide what else to be. I could on some level be whatever I wrote about.
Of course, as I’ve practiced writing fiction and poetry, I’ve spent more time learning how to join words and less cataloging job descriptions. But my plan succeeded, for the most part, on both the professional and the creative fronts.
When I had to find work after my master’s program, I searched for jobs with “writer” in the title, and one of the interviews that I landed led to my first stint as a technical writer. I took a break to work on a Ph.D. in English, but since that first contract position, most of my workdays have been devoted to thinking about how other people do their various jobs. Even during the Ph.D. program, I picked up contract jobs as a technical writer. I’ve built a career learning about random topics, from UNIX administration to HVAC installation and repair. (I now know enough about air conditioners to determine what’s probably wrong with them when they stop. I also know enough to be too afraid to fix them myself. I wrote the safety manuals. I saw the pictures. Two words: coolant burn. Do not type them in a search bar.)
When I’m not on the technical-writing clock, I do what I’ve always done: turn words around and make things up about people who are not me. I may write about characters with skills or knowledge that I already have, such as playing guitar or cooking, but I also end up learning new things because those characters take paths I didn’t expect. I then find myself reading reference books and ordering lockpicks or telescopes. I’m a recurring amateur. It’s not too bad a thing to be. Anyway, it all worked out. Being leery of making a final decision was my best choice, and I’ll probably keep at it. From what I can see, I’m not the only one.