Alex Shapiro, composer email


Life Amidst Nature, Human and Otherwise



Cousin It?...
...as a gardener...?




The Gust of Honor



The weather could not have been more perfect: a balmy 78 degrees. That it was December 31st made this reality especially appealing. Eight friends and I had a tradition of getting together for holiday weekend slumber parties that revolved around cooking, eating, drinking, political conversations, musical eruptions, long beach walks and admittedly, more drinking, which shamelessly led to more of all the rest. We usually convened at one of the couple's homes in Laguna Beach, California, thus calling ourselves The Lagunatics. This particular year we decided to have the party at the house I was renting in Malibu, thereby turning the Lagunatics into The Malibums.

Our New Year's Eve began with a fire red sunset on the beach, a communally cooked parade of gourmet offerings consumed— inhaled, rather— on the deck underneath a glowing moon, and some light gusts of very warm wind which wrapped around our bare shoulders and caressed our naked feet. And then some more light gusts. Followed by some gusts that were not so light. Which were then followed by some remarkably strong wind. Followed by a group retreat back into the hearth-lit living room and the opening of more champagne bottles. Which was of course followed by more food, bad jokes and raucous laughter. Followed shortly thereafter by the earsplitting sound of metal violently clanging outside, as those little gusts had grown into hurricane-level, 80 mile-an-hour outbursts that had suddenly begun to tear apart my neighbor's empty horse corral next door.






  Southern California's famed warm, dry Santa Ana winds were about to bring in the new year with a vengeance.  

As the clamoring grew louder we peered outside, only to see sheets of corrugated metal roofing, 3' by 8' long, flying through the air, buffeted ever so aerodynamically one hundred feet or so above our little heads, and landing with a crash, one by one, perilously close to our little heads. At that point the men of our group became ever so manly, and bravely went out into the gale winds to capture these steely beasts which threatened to careen into the mostly glass house and decapitate us.

In the chaotic midst of the wind storm, the guys wrangled eight (of what eventually turned out to be fifty) pieces of airborne steel down to the ground like hunters making a kill, and crouching low to dodge the next onslaught, we tied each razor-sharp piece to the deck railing with seat belts pilfered from one of the cars (I don't think the makers of the Ford Windstar van ever envisioned this particular use of their safety equipment).

As we wrestled frantically with the debris, ducking for cover as each new gust blew another uninvited metallic guest onto my property, we resembled sailors lashing down supplies on a stormy, violent sea without water. The fact that it was two in the morning and we were all half drunk during this excursion (thus enhancing the sailor myth, no doubt) made it all the more comical. As I put it at one point, we were in fact, eight corrugated sheets to the wind. With every long gust the house shook as though rocked by repeated aftershocks; I was genuinely concerned whether the old wood and glass structure would withstand many more of these forceful shoves. But by four a.m. the storm had subsided just enough to allow all weary, woozy and wind-disheveled house guests their much needed slumber, and we were lulled into sleep by the swaying of my post and beam tree house as it tried to accommodate the forces of nature.


We awoke the following morning to an almost still sky; the view across the ocean horizon was clear for 30 miles. Birds whose flight abilities were seriously in question the evening before now bounced effortlessly between my feeders, and we all brought our breakfasts outside to the deck. Large pilings of metal sheeting securely strapped to the front porch reminded us of what the night had brought, literally, to my doorstep. There would be no need to hunt for kindling anytime in the near future; innumerable tree branches lay on the front field like fallen soldiers from the stormy battle.

Looking across the dirt lane which divided my property from that of my neighbor's, we were treated to a heretofore unseen vista across hills that had until the previous night been blocked from our view by a tall wooden fence, now lying in shards on the ground. A couple of our cars had been scratched by the flying aluminum, but as luck would have it the four-wheeled victims, though unable to defend themselves, were the oldest of the pack and their owners— myself being one— considered the marks to be war medals.

As we surveyed for damage around the grounds, carefully stepping past unceremoniously guillotined cactuses and odd pieces of debris, perhaps the vision that made us laugh the most was that of a porta-potty which had landed behind my house. A briefly airborne visitor from a nearby construction site, it lay on its side with the door flung open and a roll of white toilet paper gently unfurling itself down the hill. The new year had certainly blown itself in, and the old one apparently had flushed its way down the drain of history.

©2008 Alex Shapiro










What Key Do You Play God In?



The red violin was tattooed on her round black belly like a glowing Christmas ornament. Having declared ownership of a perfect hollow on my bedroom balcony, she returned each night to the silky tangle by the sliding glass door, her upturned body stretched to greet the moon. She was gorgeous.

I took great pride in showing a friend my little pet one weekend, and he appreciated her beauty as much as I did. But his thoughts immediately turned to the logical. Aware of my unwavering commitment to the Shapiro Arachnid Foundation for Entomological Relocation (SAFER), he suggested cautiously, "this is a female and it's likely that she'll lay eggs right here, so you might want to think about killing, or at least moving her, unless you really want your bedroom to be swarming with baby Black Widows." He had a point. That could certainly put a dent in my dating life.

It's nearly impossible to relocate these spiders. They're very fast, their elastic web is all but indestructible, and the instant they sense any movement they dart for a hiding place beyond reach. Trying to gently swish her out with a broom wouldn’t work: her palace and throne were positioned in such a way that it was more likely she'd run up my leg as the bristles bounced off the web, rather than nosedive safely off the ledge, her little parachute deploying just in time.


Late the next night I reluctantly did as my friend suggested, because I realized that he was right. As the unsuspecting black widow sprawled trustingly on her mezzanine web, I walked up beside her and opened fire with a can of Raid.

Lethal pesticide: 1, lovely spider: 0.


She went into the arachnid version of severe shock immediately, fell from her web and hit the ground in a pained ball. So majestic a moment earlier, her now tiny body was still convulsing; I took the broom and did my best to rapidly and humanely finalize my sad act.

I was unprepared for the flow of inconsolable tears that burst forth upon returning inside. I sobbed, guilt ridden for my role in the randomness of existence. I knew that I had to protect my home and my cats from her, but she didn't; she was innocent of everything, including intent. It was a miserable feeling to have stark and final power over the determination of another creature. I was probably crying about all sorts of other things that had nothing to do with the spider, but I couldn't think of what else they were; the sudden loss of something so beautifully developed was stinging. One minute you're hanging out in your web waiting for dinner, the next, you're dead.
Life lesson.

The following morning I knelt close to study her remains, gave her a noble send off and flung her over the rail to the soil below.
No parachute needed.




Around this same time, a healthy Western Fence lizard appeared to have taken up permanent residence in my garage. He'd already lived there for a month if not longer, and despite ample opportunity to flee for the great outdoors each time my Jeep and I did, he seemed to prefer the relative safety of boxes of tax returns and bottles of spring water. He was apparently fending very well for himself, but of course, Mother Alex couldn't resist helping out. And so each time I came across a house cricket I fed it to him, leaving it as a little gift in the dusty corner where he tended to spend most of his time.

There I was, playing God once again.
Subleasing lizard: 1, cute cricket: 0.


And then there was the time when I saw one of my cats starting to play with a black scorpion about four inches long who'd found its way into my living room. This was not an unusual event; five of my fifteen years living in Malibu were happily spent in a magnificent, if not tightly built home anchored into the very dry Malibu hillside above Solstice Canyon. Its foundation had enough cracks to allow pretty much anything smaller than the local bobcat to crawl in and take up residence-- without even offering to share the rent.

In addition to lizards, ants, beetles, spiders of all kinds and enormous cartoon-like Jerusalem crickets, I was regularly visited by two very different kinds of scorpions: wind scorpions, which are light colored and can offer up an unpleasant nip but no venom, and the more traditional dark ones which pack more of a pincer punch. I always keep a small plastic terrarium on hand, and at this particular moment rather than immediately relocating this critter, I decided to keep it as a pet for just a day or two before helping it find its way back home.


I went outside and dug up some natural substrate, added a few rocks (everyone deserves decent furniture), a hiding spot, and a tiny water reservoir in case the arachnid wanted some hydration. I also collected a few small insects for food (as mentioned above, I probably could have hunted them down in my bedroom), one of which was a juicy looking beetleŚ most definitely part of the food pyramid for scorpions. It wasn't very large, but it seemed like it would tide my new pal over for the night. The scorpion scurried easily into the subsidized housing; surely it sensed this was a better deal than mutilation-by-kitten.

I was delighted with my temporary companion, and placed the well ventilated terrarium in front of me on my desk. Glancing up often to see if this prehistoric looking beauty had taken any interest in the dinner menu, I continued my evening's composing under a dim lamp. Clawed Debussy, as I named my little muse, didn't appear to be hungry, but didn't seem to object to new music either. Around midnight I took one more fond look at my buddy, turned out all the lights, and went to bed.


The next morning I was eager to see my new friend again. I headed into the studio with anticipation, assuming I'd find a well-fed creature extending a sweet thank-you note to me with an appreciative pincer.

I looked into the little terrarium.
Indeed, there was my pet scorpion.
With the beetle standing on top of it.
The scorpion was not moving.
It was an ex-scorpion.
The beetle seemed just fine.

Not the result I had intended.
This playing God thing can be unsettling.

Ridiculously lucky beetle: 1, foster scorpion: 0.


I raised a corn snake from its infancy a number of years ago. The only world it knew was that which existed within the confines of its glass terrarium. I’d spy a boost in activity as his chessboard underbelly hypnotically circumnavigated the cage in an earnest hunt for food. And within a day, two at the most, a small rat would magically drop from the sky. His sky. My snake had no suspicion of another sentient body supplying his meals; he was as blind to my service to him as I am to the greater powers hovering over the terrarium of my own small universe. And what of the poor rat’s role in this trade-off?

Hungry pet: 1, small mammal: 0.


corn snake









Maybe we're just supposed to coolly accept the imbalances of survival and death. The perceived worth of a life differs greatly around the world. Many are offended by the thought of eating a dog, many others would never harm a cow. Some countries treat their poorest citizens far worse than the simplest of animals. I go out of my way to use a glass and an old postcard to gently relocate insects and spiders of nearly every kind, yet still choose to obliterate thousands of equally innocent ants in my kitchen with a swipe of a wet paper towel. Do my efforts of saving creatures I deem to be worthwhile absolve me of guilt for eradicating those I deem to be a threat or merely food? Or am I the only one even keeping score?

When I eat a fish, I silently thank it for giving its life. When I kill a moth too small to do anything other than crush it with my thumb, I apologize to him for the necessity of my murderous action. I find myself saying thank you and making apologies more often than I’d like. I am remorseful for having been given the ability to play God and reign over the very existence of all these fellow, worthwhile beings.

©2008 Alex Shapiro





Flow and Feel



I am back from three days on the ski slopes of Mammoth Mountain, California.
Best of all, every limb with which I began the journey has returned with me, arranged in remarkably the same order as when I left. Hooray.

I had a fantastic time. Although I must admit, whoever devised the plan of ardently trying to avoid maiming oneself while careening down thousands of feet of icy mountain and calling it fun certainly had a bizarre sense of amusement.

Once an avid and daring downhill schusser, I hadn't been on skis in literally ten years. I was slightly concerned, to say the least, that I might not have the foggiest idea of what to do once I plunked my butt down onto a chair lift and was presented minutes later with the imminent and time sensitive prospect of having to hop off. But miraculously, my body responded as though I'd been on this mountain every week for the past decade. Not that I was skiing particularly elegantly, with any semblance of grace or grand form, but I was incredibly comfortable on the things, and after one utterly cautious run down the bunny slope (named, appropriately, Sesame Street), I realized that I was better off than I had given myself credit for and within the hour, was running the double black diamonds at full speed with no problems whatsoever.

  For this inner nerd, a great triumph indeed.  
Then there was the whole thing of reconnecting with the wonderland beauty of the mountains at 11,000 feet. The absolute quiet. The snow laden trees. The sky and the clouds and the wind and the occasional harsh rush of ice across the face. And of course the stunning and hilarious moment when skis slip unexpectedly out from under legs, and butt and all other attached parts slide for an undetermined time in flailing ridiculous free fall down the slippery substrate as thickly gloved paws stab frantically at the snow to stop the skidding body from covering too much downhill acreage oh my god I sure hope I come to a stop soon but I probably won't die at least I hope not. All the while, laughing uncontrollably, with enormous delight. Everyone should play in the snow as often as possible.

The last two days I was there, the weather was fabulous: mid forties, clear, wonderful. But the very first day I skied, I was reinitiated by a true trial-by-ice: it was pure sleet and wetness and cold and damp and rather miserable. The wind driven crust of slush was so thick that given the view through my goggles, I might as well have fallen into an iced-over lake. Yet I was so damned elated to be back on the mountain, that I was nearly oblivious to the awful conditions until the very end of the day, when I could no longer ascertain that my fingers were still connected to my hands. This signaled to me that it was time to head back to the lodge for a glass of wine.

As I did my best to blindly maneuver down that frozen 40 degree slab of 10,000 foot high ice, I was immediately reminded that the beauty of these occasional sleety, whiteout conditions at the top of the mountain is that they force us to TRUST in gravity, and in all that is downhill beneath us. They force us to LET GO and HAVE FAITH and just FLOW down the steep hillside. You can't see, you can't think, you can't really tell which way is up or down as some level of vertigo settles in, you can't see the ground under your skis, and you can't control the horrid conditions, but YOU'RE THERE so YOU DEAL WITH IT and godammit, this is, after all, supposed to be FUN. All you can do is FEEL. FEEL the mountain. FEEL the bumpy terrain. FEEL the slant of the hill and the weight of your body making its way down it. FEEL the reality of gravity, and trust in it. Just FEEL.

It was a tremendous wake up call. I loved it.
I was alive.

I needed this primal reminder.
And its parallel to music was overwhelming: never let my intellect overpower my feelings. Flow and feel are what matter most in this steep, slippery life.

So there's my class report of my three day winter vacation.
I came, I skied, I felt.
Now what do I feel?
I'm sore in parts of my body that I didn't even know had muscles attached to them. But it was worth it.

And I'm hopeful that my music will feel that way, too.

©2008 Alex Shapiro


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