Saturday, June 20, 2020

getting political

This week one fellow went viral for complaining to a member of "Rage Against the Machine" that his music had lost its flavor for him because of the all the "political bs" that was now in it. This stance seemed odd to a number of onlookers, who wondered specifically what machine the former fan thought the group was raging against. Several suggestions followed (the toaster? the oven? the washing machine?). The point being that the group's music had always been political and that apparently the angry consumer hadn't noticed before.

It is a safe bet that when someone complains about an artist's political involvement, what they mean is that it is a political stance they don't agree with. Otherwise, they are not as likely to notice. This week, of course, everyone is embroiled in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, which seems to be this generation's version of the Birmingham church bombing, an incident in which white racism becomes so blatantly ugly that society is temporarily horrified and appears poised to take real action against the unacceptable. I wasn't alive during Birmingham, but the narrative was that it "shocked the conscience of the nation." A few reforms were made, some important laws passed. Then that nation hit the snooze button.

My history books lied. What they didn't emphasize is what a colossal struggle it was against the people who very much did not want things to change, even after Birmingham. The ones who were in secret sympathy with the bombers, even though they would have told you that that particular act of violence was going too far. The ones who have figured out racism is really really bad and will fight anybody who suggests they have a little of that disease in their blood because they don't want to feel bad about themselves for feeling that way. They are the reason President Johnson knew when he signed civil rights legislation that his party would "lose the South for a generation." Sometimes, when the war is not going well for them, they go underground like locusts for a period of time. And when it is safe to come out, they re-emerge. but they never go away altogether.

Some of those folks are laying low this week, trying to avoid having to notice that more and more of the neighborhood is going to hell, filled with discussions of things they don't want to discuss and which, in their hearts, disturb the peace merely by being noticeable. Others are pushing back, making the same arguments the Supreme court did in the late nineteenth century when it ruled that discrimination was entirely in black people's minds, even as those same folks were required to use the back entrance or go to the hotel at the edge of town. It's a very old argument, and getting older.

At least a few statues are finally being taken down. Most of them were put up during the 1960s to let certain people know that they needed to be afraid of certain other people. They aren't about honoring history any more than the ever-popular battle flag of the Confederacy is. Last year on vacation in a Southern state I only saw one of them the entire time. But back north, they are all over the place. They can also be found in Germany, where they form a work-around for Nazis who are not allowed by law to display swastikas, so they adopt the next best symbol of White Supremacy. Everybody knows what it means. You aren't kidding anybody.

Among the responses to the great national question that nobody can ignore these days (for a limited time, anyhow) were some outliers from people of color. One woman actually wished white people would just shut up about racism. While everybody else is chanting that silence is violence and that we all have a duty to speak out, she went the other way. Then there was a man who spent most of his time complaining that the only reason white folks were finally speaking up was that they'd had a really rough week (of rioting) and were basically not in it for justice, but for their own comfort. Black people live like this all of the time, he said. Give you guys a week of the same stress levels and now all of the sudden people come out of the woodwork and want change.

That seemed a little unfair, given how many of us have been speaking out, at least since Ferguson. I don't normally do it in this space because this is supposed to be a musically blog on a musical website. But the normal boundaries just don't apply right now. We are in a liminal time when something might be accomplished if we have the guts to shine a really bright light on it, in the usual forums and everywhere else. And in the end, I'm glad this fellow didn't have anything good to say about white people. For one thing the bill is due from centuries of oppression, regardless of whatever good things we've managed to do lately, or lip service we've managed to throw at it. And for another, as "a concerned citizen" wrote from the future last week on this blog, the danger is always that this is just about our collective comfort, and as soon as that is accomplished, we'll go back to sleep without fixing our system. He kicked us white folk in the butt. Good. Keep kicking, sir.

In the mean time I am trying to do what I can to help with the greatest social problem of our time--of every time. Working to change the system, and in the meantime treating people like people. Black Lives Edition. If the article I just saw is any indication, there is really no way to get this right, but you have to keep trying. The article was about how triggering it is for people of color to see all of these white people so easily discussing race all of the sudden--a topic black people have had to treat very carefully in mixed company, for their very survival at times. If it helps her any, discussions about race among white people can often be very painful, and cost friends and family. But it has to be done.

Eventually, I'd like to get back to writing about music again. But in some ways I've never stopped writing about it, as much as it may seem otherwise. This website, after all, is called "pianonoise." One of the reasons for that is that noise is often considered a derisive term to a musician. But terms of abuse, rather than being deflected, can be owned by their addressees, and used as a badge of honor. In a few weeks my fellow yankees doodle and I will be observing our nation's birthday. The British thought they had found the perfect insult while we were at war. But we liked it and it stuck. So there, Lobsterbacks!

but noise can also refer to the unwelcome political and social commentary that has sometimes been part of the music here as well. Some people would rather ignore it and simply bask in sounds. That is an ignorant approach, however. Music never did exist in a vacuum. Those who would like to avoid controversy can only do it by ignoring the circumstances in which so much of their favorite art was created. If the art is old enough it may seem nothing but a vortex of pleasant sounds made for no other purpose but my own entertainment. But not if I'm paying attention to where it came from. For a start, I was probably not the intended audience. And if I had been alive then, I may not have been allowed to hear it. Likely it was only for the rich few. If prince Esterhaza could come back from the dead for a bow, would he demand thanks from us for being able to listen to the glorious music of his servant Haydn? The prince is, after all, a "symphony creator," isn't he?

There are also plenty of works of art whose message is inherently political. We may be able to ignore that from a distance, but then we miss a great deal of what made the art powerful in the first place. Try to imagine listening to Finlandia as a turn of the century Finn, trying to get out from under the thumb of Russia. Or hearing a Shostakovich symphony in Russia under Stalin during the Second World War. Or Gottschalk's "Union" in 1863.

Not every piece has that function. A Haydn piano sonata is basically an essay in notes, but even so, it comes out of a series of expectations and societal practices that locate it in a very different time and place. One hears it differently if you have some ideas about what was in the air at the time.

It feels as though we are living history this week. That is mostly because the present moment seems like a particularly significant time, one that will be remembered when much of the rest of this turbulence fades. We are always living history. As it roars by, it changes us, and our attitudes. Things that used to seem like they belonged only to the past are now part of the present. Words that seemed like exaggerations from a different time, or customs that couldn't exist now are back. So are some of the same debates.  So are the same choices.

When I started this website some 18 years ago, I wanted to write about composers in a way that reminded us that they were human beings trying to exist in a distracted world. That their trials and disappointments, character flaws and temporary triumphs shaped who they were and the art they produced. Sometimes, despite my efforts, they may still be figures of history, from a time and place that is alien. At others, they leap off the page, and become real people again, restored in dignity and humility, bundles of anxiety and contingency all over again. Two things are needed to effect this: one is imagination and empathy, the other is an intuitive understanding of history. We are getting another sense of how the river is rushing by, and it informs all of us of their struggles as it teaches us about our own. This week the deep water runs fast.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Dear White America

Dear White America,

It happened again. That issue that you keep trying to ignore, hoping it will go away. That is, when many of you aren't actively, furiously, angrily, assigning blame to the very people who have been so grossly injured, and for so long, in the first place.

But it doesn't go away. Sweeping it under the rug doesn't make it disappear. I'm not sure if my contemporaries know what that saying even means anymore since the culture has changed so much that sweeping and rugs aren't even things that go on the same way. So many things have changed so much. But this lingers. It affects everyone, even those who think the way to handle it is to shunt all of those other people off to a corner where they can't hurt  all of us good people. It doesn't work. In wars everyone loses, even those who have supposedly won. And until you care to understand the real reason for these periodic outbreaks of unrest they will keep happening. And your own halcyon lives will be put on hold. Until you actually fix this. For everybody.

This round started with another silent protest, a simple gesture, as civil and respectful as it is possible for such a thing to be. But the outcry was unbelievable. How dare that person tell us we aren't perfect. How dare he point us to something better and say we weren't there yet.

People keep telling us we are a Christian nation, which is so full of ironies I don't even know where to begin. A very large percentage of the book that Christians claim is so important is full of prophetic writings which take the very same tone as that protester. Ceremonies don't do it. Caring for your neighbor is what I want. Says the Lord, that's who!

I've seen pictures of that president who once walked to a church across the street from the White House, tear gassing protesters all the way so he could hold a Bible upside down and look purposeful. I'll bet he has no idea what's in that book. Particularly a verse from Isaiah, chapter 30 verse 13: "your sins are like a high wall which is about to burst and fall down on you." Another verse from the later in that book has some crazy mystic (named Jesus, I think) saying "those who want to keep their lives will lose them." Now there is something to think about.

In times of crises we always do this backwards. We want to preserve ourselves and our status quo. We feel threatened and we think if we meet perceived force with real force it will keep us safe. Some guy is out for a stroll in a park and someone with less melanin in their skin thinks they are a threat to the American way of life and the way to fix that is to call security.

So the last time, when people carrying signs were getting beat up for putting words on them others did not like, I was not surprised. I remembered the fire hoses. Then came tear gas and rubber bullets. This is how power always responds. Out of proportion and with a deep sense of anger. And always with not the least concern for anyone but itself. And then, invariably, the problem doesn't go away, because power is only out for itself. And it knows most of the citizens similarly worry about what might happen if things change.

America is like the lazy parent. Two children are in the backseat of the car while mom is driving to the grocery store. One child is punching the other. "Mom!" one cries. "Billy is hitting me!" Mom yells "cut it out, YOU TWO!"  This does not fix the problem. Billy realizes that mom is not especially concerned about his behavior. She just wants things to be peaceful. And so, as the hitting escalates until he is beating the ever living crap out of his sister, he is not worried about being punished. And inevitably, "Mom! Make him stop" delivered through tears this time, is met with an angry reprimand. "Kayla! Knock it off!" The little girl learns her difficult lesson. It is not justice mom is after, she just wants everything to seem peaceful. Any injustice is OK as long as you don't say anything about it. But disturb "the peace" and that is a grave sin. Eventually Kayla is going to have to learn to take care of herself, and on that day Billy better watch himself.

So this time, when well spoken, calm, peaceful melanin-Americans tried to get society's attention, and were ignored, and the inevitable wave upon wave of stories about wrongs done to our darker-skinned brethren kept leading to nothing but acrimonious debates and no real change, there was, once again, a flash point. And that  threat of imaginary violence that had led so many citizens to call out their personal security force on their fellow citizens for looking scary to them became, for a while, actual violence, which must at all costs stop. Because it is the property damage that scares us. Not the reason it is happening. We want to keep our lives, just the way they are. But somehow they keep slipping through our fingers anyway.

We didn't learn the right lesson the last time, and so it is happening again. Racism, like mustard gas, gets everywhere. You can't hide in a gated community and escape it. It still finds a way to diminish your life. Even you at the top of the pecking order. And still you won't change.

So there were riots. Cities burned, largely with the help of white agitators trying to reboot the Civil War, and then, when we thought we couldn't take it anymore (which was pretty quickly), hope emerged. The worst thing of all.

We started seeing pictures of black folks hugging white folks again. Police kneeling, and even joining the protesters. Protesters protecting police with their bodies from other rioters. Signs of humanity in the midst of an inhuman chaos. It made us feel all warm inside. A symphonic swell rose in the movie score of American life. We relaxed, and smiled, and realized things were going to be alright after all. Life got back to normal. The social contract resumed. The nightmare was over. Except for one tiny, nefarious detail.

We didn't fix the problem.

The national appetite for having things seem normal has certainly been challenged. It is not a surprise why people want to go back to feeling calm and peaceful and secure. But it is one of our deadliest enemies in one of its most hurtful disguises. It lulls us to sleep when we most need to be awake. It guarantees the cycle will begin again. For many it never stopped from the last time. When you can't hear their cries anymore, take those things out of your ears and listen. Because if you don't, eventually they will pierce your soul.

We have to do better this time.

A concerned American
Summer, 2045

Friday, May 29, 2020

Frick Park

One of the pleasantest things about our current residence is its proximity to Frick Park. Pittsburgh is known for several lovely parks, some of which are quite large. This one originated as the back yard for Mr. Frick's children, because rich children need a place to stretch out that includes several hundred acres, usually (at least I think that sounds plausible), and has now been bequeathed to the city of Pittsburgh and its residents, who are allowed to go walking in it whenever the mood strikes them.

My first year in Pittsburgh was not wonderful. In order to continue my wife's education we had to move while I was in cancer treatments. That first semester, still recovering, unemployed, friendless, in a strange city, my days began with a walk in Frick Park. I spent the rest of it at the piano in our townhouse.

I first became acquainted with the park in July, when it is a vast forest of green, when it is impossible to tell, once you are in the park, that you are surrounded by city. In other seasons of the year it is possible to see distant cars appearing to race through the treetops. Frick Park is actually not all that vast (I think it may not be half a mile wide), but it is large enough to seem enormous when covered in green. It is about three miles north to south, however, and I have since been able to go for long runs along a trail that begins near my house and stretches for 4 and a half miles before stopping. After it leaves the park it continues along the Monongahela river for the final mile and a half.

If you go at the right time of day there are not too many people, and it can be you and nature. There are, of course, some naturally occurring park benches at intervals, manhole covers, and well manicured paths, but the trees do not seem to mind. There are steep hills, just like in all of Pittsburgh. The network of paths provides many choices, and I spent many mornings exploring where they all led that first year. One of them goes to a science center, and flows past a scenic overlook. There are flowing streams, and a couple of empty fields. Pictures will really not do justice to the feeling of being there. I am not saying this to make you jealous; rather it is to remind me of what I have in the park, especially if we move next year and I no longer have it nearby.

There is a cast of characters in the park. A dog walking society comes through every so often. The dogs have been trained so that when someone comes by they all wait patiently in a large group by the side of the path. There also appear to be strange pixies that live in the trees, and if you look carefully you can find their habitations. There is also some artwork, provided by an artist who relishes terrible puns (which is redundant, I know. Is there another kind?)

I will be quiet now, and just let you experience the park, as well as two dimensional pictures will allow.


Saturday, May 23, 2020

Keeping Score

A few weeks ago I mourned the hard fate of an older fellow who found himself a ghost of a human. locked up in his house with nothing to do, and besides suggesting that one should try not to derive all of one's sense of self worth from that thing that you do for money, regardless of how hard society tries to get you to see it that way, it seemed to me that there must be millions of profitable and interesting ways to spend one's time during quarantine, even while fending off the inevitable anxiety of where the world seems to be headed. There is still joy to be had so long as we breathe. And as a wise teacher once said, "tomorrow has enough trouble of its own."

One of the really exciting things I've come across recently is a series of documentaries and concerts put out by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. There are only nine installments, and they were done at pretty much yearly intervals through the early year of this century, stopping in 2011. The symphony has recently decided to release them all online for free. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

For me it was a chance to return to some familiar repertoire, since, as a musician, I've spent so many years acquiring new and varied music to learn and play (not to mention write). Each of the episodes concerns a well-known masterpiece from the orchestral literature, which means I know it well (despite not being a conductor I have sometimes felt that if they pulled people out of the audience to conduct say, one of the Beethoven symphonies I could practically do it). The pieces are mostly from the Romantic era or 20th century. Ives's Holidays Symphony is the odd one out since it is not nearly so popular as the others, and I haven't seen that episode yet. The rest include the Beethoven Eroica, the Tchaikovsky 4th, The Rite of Spring, the Shostakovich 5th, and pieces by Copland and Mahler.

The hour-long documentary potion of each episode features the maestro going on location to houses in which the composers grew up, or visiting the concert halls in which the works premiered. The first program, on the Tchaikovsky 4th, show how the orchestra prepares for a concert. I may have already known what it feels in the moments backstage before you come out to perform, or that bassoonists are obsessed by the making of reeds, but it was still fun to watch Thomas pacing around his apartment, score in hand, singing the phrases (so it's not just me!), then seeing how he marks up the score so that each player has all sorts of interpretive marks to aid with their own practice. You get to see the library at the symphony, and how the librarian takes the conductors penciled marks and transfers them to every part for every player. (This was 16 years ago. Any chance the process is digitized by now?)

That sort of procedural minutiae might not be interesting to everyone, though I'll bet it would satisfy a lot of curiosity. Most of the time the programs are a mix of composer biography and musical tours through the great moments in the work. Each movement is explored in some detail. There is footage from the Symphony's "Family Concerts" in which the conductor talks through the music to the audience, inviting different members of the orchestra to talk about their parts in the piece being played, how the piccolo solo in the Tchaikovsky Fourth gives piccolo players nightmares, or getting to peer backstage and watch the two harpists practice their part in the Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, or watch Thomas work one on one with his concert master.

One thing that is really interesting is that you get to know, or at least recognize, the members of the orchestra. During the documentary they will talk about certain parts of the piece, but in the accompanying performance, which occupies the second hour of the program, you really get to see them in action. Most concerts on television focus mainly on the conductor. You get to see plenty of the mastro here, too, but the use of multiple cameras and clever editing not only shows the typical shots you get of the players alternating solos and important licks, but tight close ups, wide shots, and traveling camera shots tell more than the story of the symphony. They visually illuminate the symphony, but also put us right in the middle of the action, as if we are part of the orchestra.

One of my favorite moments shows a close up of the horn player playing his solo, before the camera backs away from him until it is right over the shoulder of the maestro. Now we can appreciate just how far away the player actually sits from his conductor. Many similar shots show the relationship between the players and their music director. As the timpanist furiously rolls out the final chord, you can see Thomas facially communicating the intensity that he wants, and the expression in the timpanist's face matches it. It is almost as if the two of them are locked in a duel, except that here the timpanist is acting as an extension of the conductor, focused acutely on every move of the other man, who is some 40 feet away, but has banished every other thought from his mind. It is spellbinding.

The performance itself is so good that after watching the Tchaikovsky episode I thought that if I were ushered to a room in Hell and told I must take dictation of the entire Fourth Symphony from a recording (a punishment doubtless thought up as revenge by my students for taking too much enjoyment from watching their suffering when I announced a dictation in theory class)--faced with such an immense challenge, and having only one recording to listen to in order to write out the complete score, if I could have the performance from this series, I think I could nearly do it. Every note was important, every detail noticed. And there was passion to spare.

I enjoyed being on stage as part of the orchestra, spending time with the players, watching them in the heat of battle. I've spent a little time in an orchestra myself, but not a great deal (this is different than being a soloist in a concerto; there the social arrangement is different. You are out front, and spend your time mainly seeing the conductor from the back. Your only real visual friend is generally the principle cellist). When you are in the audience you rarely are able to familiarize yourself with the visage of the principle bassoonist, even if you are in the front row. Now, just after a few episodes,  I think I could pick most of the woodwind players out of a lineup. I can also tell you how they play, how they move their muscles, what they look like at rest.

Michael Tilson Thomas was at Tanglewood at least one year, where an important award helped him at the beginning of his career. He made his debut a year sooner than Bernstein (I'll bet that ate at the older man). And occasionally, from the right angle, when he makes one of the gestures he seems to have inherited straight from Bernstein, (which isn't all that often; he certain has his own conducting language), you'd swear Lenny lives again. But Thomas was also the inheritor of the New York Philharmonic's "Young People's Concerts" after Bernstein left. The brilliant educational series and the philosophy of connection to an audience are clearly in evidence in Thomas's makeup. But now, over a half century after those concerts began, this video series is able to do things the earlier series couldn't. It is able to take full advantage of visual appeal, recent research, and creative ways to bring the audience along for the entire journey, not just the final product, viewed from a distance.

If you're looking for a productive and exciting way to spend quarantine, and you've gotten tired of watching dysfunctional people do terrible things to each other on Netflix, you should really try this series out. I'll see you in 18 hours.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Just out for a run

One morning I went for a run. By morning I mean about 4:30 a.m. It's usually cool enough in the summer at that hour, and it's quiet. Plenty of street lights, but it's still pretty dark. I like it.

The first hill is a serious climb. Once I get to the top, and on through a pleasant neighborhood, I descend into the park.

A short way down the hill I saw someone coming toward me. I'll admit to having my guard up for a second. It was not yet 5 a.m. and nobody was around.

It was a large, black man. He had his shirt off, and he was ripped. As soon as I saw he had running clothes on I relaxed. I've gotten mugged before so I have visceral reason to know not all random encounters with strangers on city streets are friendly.

I kept running. He kept running. He was running toward me, and I was running toward him. In a few seconds we....

passed each other and kept running.

Why, did you think that story was going to be more interesting?

Here's why I remember this guy at all. A couple of days later the same thing happened. We ran passed each other at around 4:45 in the morning outside the park, and in pretty much the same location. He was the same tall, seriously ripped dude he'd been the last time. He obviously knew his way around a gym. I tried not to be jealous.

We may have met a third time, I can't remember. Then, I went for a run and did not see him. In fact, I've never seen him since.

There aren't a lot of people out running in the predawn hours. You get to know them. For instance, there's this woman I keep passing in the same neighborhood, again going the other way. We'll wave at each other as we pass. I haven't got a clue who she is, but apparently she is used to getting up around the same time I do and running a route that takes her in the opposite direction through at least one major section of town. When I am running ten minutes late or she is early we might pass a few blocks over in one direction or other, but it happens enough that I always notice, there is that woman again, out for a run. You start to feel like part of the same club after a while, even though you will never actually know each other.

So when this athletic fellow stopped running by, I wondered what had happened. Maybe he moved, or changed his route, or decided to quit running. But it is at least as likely--let's not be too naive, now, it's probably the real reason--he didn't feel safe running by there at 5 a.m.

I hope I didn't have anything to do with it, but again, let's be honest, maybe he wasn't sure he wanted to keep running past a white guy in the dark. Sure, I'm a small guy, not very muscular, and this guy could have taken about six of me in a fight, but I am the one statistically more likely to be carrying a gun and to use it when a person whose skin color makes me think he's probably a criminal comes along and makes me feel scared because of his mere presence. Is that too much honesty for some of you?

Two months ago Mahmoud Arbery was out for a run and was gunned down by two white men. They later claimed that he looked like a suspect in a string of robberies in the area. The problem was that there hadn't been a string of robberies in the area. The last time anything had been reported was 7 weeks earlier when the assailants themselves had a gun stolen from an unlocked vehicle. There is nothing to indicate that they had any idea what the thief looked like.

So without Mr. Arbery actually committing any crime, which is what most laws require before you are allowed to play vigilante, they just assumed he was a criminal. This is the basis for most of the deaths-by-racism in this country. Somebody just feels in their bones that someone else is a criminal, and acts accordingly. Even when the police dispatch tells them not to pursue. Even when they are not in any danger. They confront, and ultimately kill. And then they have to tell a story about how threatened they felt. And I'm not sure they aren't telling the truth. The problem is they have a pretty screwed up sense of who a threat is. And, of course, it never occurs to them that they themselves are a much larger threat. Two white guys with guns in a state with a long history of lynching are chasing a black guy in a truck. Don't you think he had a right to be frightened?

We are in the process of finding out who was a threat to whom. Nearly two months after the killing, which was never even going to even be prosecuted before a national outcry, we are learning about the participants' shady pasts. Not the victim--although attempts were made to make it look like he somehow deserved it. Did you know he was arrested for shoplifting a couple of years back? Of course you did. No word on what he took. It's also irrelevant. He was justly arrested (we hope). That is not a license to shoot him on sight two years later.

But the assailants have, not surprisingly, problems of their own. The not unfamiliar background of a screw-up police officer who was not keeping up with his training, was not meeting the qualifications, had to be taken off the street, seemed very interested in combating jihad and not at all interested in community relations, because getting those people was more interesting than keeping real people safe in real situations.  But if Georgia was ever invaded by Isis, he would have been ready.

It's only funny on television. In real life, Barney Fife gets people killed.

Let's have a little training exercise of our own, shall we?

I live in a narrow row house with a tiny backyard. I hear a sound and when I look up I see a black man going through the trash within feet of my window. Do I

a) run out to confront him with my gun
b) call the police
c) realize he is my neighbor taking out his trash and leave him alone

I think you realized the correct answer was C. If you have no idea what my neighbor looks like, then I suggest waiting to see if the person in question actually does something illegal or dangerous before taking any action against him. In this case, the worst thing he could possibly do would be to steal my trash can, which, frankly, he can have. And seriously, what are the odds he'd want it?

Let's try another one. We got a locked bike stolen off our back porch a couple of years ago. I see a black person walking up the street. Do I

a) question him about the bike
b) make him wait while I call the cops
c) not assume he must have stolen it unless I see him riding it, and even then proceed carefully

The reason for the back half of letter C is because I do not want to create a situation in which either of us might get killed over an old bike. Not worth it. Also, you could still be wrong. Maybe the bike just looks like yours, or maybe he got it from somebody else. The point being, yes, let's not be naive, crimes happen, and sometimes they are committed by people of color. But here's a thought. Let's actually be sure a crime is being committed (not just has been but is in progress) and people are in real danger before we put them in real danger because of an assumption.

Sure, there is a small chance the African American I meet on the street just committed a crime that I
don't know about, but for all he knows, I knocked over a bank this morning before breakfast. I mean, you don't know. I'd rather he not decide to question me about it with his gun. You neither? What a coincidence.

But I am probably not going to be randomly stopped by a vigilante because I look like a guy who may have robbed a bank sometime in the last year someplace in the county. Because I'm white. We all need to be aware of that.

Stay safe. And don't kill anybody. Is that really so difficult? For most of us, I think not. But for the Barney Fifes of the world, I'm afraid we'll never get through to them. Because at its core racism is an irrational fear, and people who have the greatest amount of this disease (everyone has at least a bit) spend an awful lot of time and energy trying to make what is irrational seem rational. That's why some folks are going to believe that there was a good reason to kill Mr. Arbery. No matter what. Trying to get people to see that in themselves usually produces a lot of anger, which is the only way to protect that inner wound from the sting of the antiseptic that is reality. Sometimes it is known as "white fragility." If this column has made you really angry and you want to fire back with a thousand reasons why I'm wrong and it makes logical sense to chase a guy out jogging in a truck with a gun and if he'd just made nice with them everything would be fine, I'd urge you to think about why you need to believe that. Why is it so hard for you see that there is something wrong with this? Why do you feel so threatened by mere words? Or is it something else?

 If you need a little feel good story to end on, one about how we're really making racial progress in this country, like the pablum I grew up on, here's one.

A black man went jogging in past a white man one morning. He didn't get shot.


Saturday, May 9, 2020


My sixth grade Sunday school teacher had a favorite word. It was "choice."

When I was in college, I heard that she had left the church in a dispute with the pastor. Lots of other people had done that, too. I remember feeling disappointed in her, though years later I wonder whether perhaps she did make the right choice. I wasn't around for that particular pastor war so I don't know where I would have fallen, or if I would even be seeing the issue the same way now. I only know she made a choice.

Last week's news cycle centered around the choices we are or aren't making. It is time, some say, to re-open the economy. In some cases, that means workers are required to go back to work, whether or not they feel safe doing it. There will be no unemployment check. They will, you might say, not really have a choice.

Mamon is once again taking human sacrifices.

In the noisy market of arguments and counter-arguments, there are also the "peacemakers." Be kind, one of them says, to everyone, regardless of their choices. If someone wants to rush out and get their nails done right away, let them do it. If you want to stay home, that's fine too.

To me, those are the worst kind of arguments. Someone who claims to be neutral, above the fray, and a diplomat, actually chooses a side and then says, "why can't we all just get along?" I've seen it a million times. And since we'd all like to be kind and civil once in a while, it does kind of suck us in. Why not be kind to everyone? Diversity is good, right? I always feel better when I affirm everybody else rather than feel threatened by them.

But when it comes to a disease that will keep spreading indiscriminately, and killing as long as it can find hosts, some of us choosing to let it continue is not going to be much help to any of us, including those who chose to stay home. And we'll have to keep staying home longer.

The exaltation of individual choice has been around in our society for a long time. The arguments for it, however, usually don't need to be made unless I'm defending something that someone else finds a problem. If I want to defend my right to do something destructive to myself, like smoking or not wearing a seat belt, I'll argue that I can take a risk if I want to and that nothing bad is going to happen to you.

But it isn't true. Back when smoking was allowed in restaurants, those of us with asthma, who sat in the "no smoking" section, got to breathe in plenty of smoke that drifted over the useless partitions. It was like sitting in a crowded movie theater and being told that if the guy next to us wanted to hold a loud conversation during the movie, that was his choice, and if you want to be quiet and listen to the movie, that's cool too, just do it and don't complain about the other guy. Just everybody do their thing and get along. And good luck hearing the movie.

The individuals making their individual choices also don't consider that maybe we don't want all of our relatives who smoke to die of lung cancer (true for me, except for the one uncle who almost died and then recovered) or have somebody's guts splattered all over the road because they exercised their divine right not to use restraint. At the least that's going to make me late for work and cause everyone's insurance to go up a little. But I can still remember a radio talk show host from a couple of decades ago getting really exorcised about it. Nanny state government, he roared. Trying to take away our individual choice!

Generally, it's the right of the individual to make bad choices that has to be defended. And if history is any guide, this fall, like the autumn of 1918, six months into that ancient pandemic, could see the deaths of millions and be much worse than what we've seen so far. And why do I have the feeling that the people who are now screaming about being allowed to take their own risks (assuming that it isn't going to kill grandma) are not going to be so sanguine when the consequences start rolling in? Getting what you asked for can sometimes be a real problem.

Scientists are also realists. They had built into their computer models that only half of us would take their warnings seriously. So it was a bit of a surprise that the death toll wasn't considerably higher this spring. But we've already lost 75,000 people or more in the U.S., and this virus is just getting started. It is time for a different argument. One they don't have to try to sell.

The White House now admits that in June we will probably lose a 9/11's worth of Americans every single day. And they want business as usual anyhow. And their reason is this: we are going to make you do it. You can't stop us. People will die. Too bad.

Millions of human beings don't get to make individual choices and never have, their lives wasted by the exploitation and greed of others. As a society we sometimes seem to be overcoming some of that tendency, but it is slow, it is uneven, and it is ugly. In my time I am fortunate to have escaped being in the mist of a destructive domestic war, being forced to fight and perhaps die in such a war, or being enslaved or incarcerated. I am one of the truly lucky ones in the larger picture. You probably are, too.

I suppose I should feel lucky that this is a pandemic and not a war. It will involve lots of death but at least leave the spectacular property damage. Human beings feel the need to kill each other in large numbers every so often. I've never been able to figure out why but it keeps happening. But hey, if you don't like being in a war zone, just don't shoot anybody!

And keep your head down.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Coping Skills

From my quarantine hut to yours: I hope these words find you well and well-adjusted, under the circumstances.  There are many of us who are having a difficult time with all of this, even in situations where their external circumstances are not all that unfortunate, and then there are some people who sound as if they are having a very very very very very very bad time indeed.

One of these persons, a friend of a friend, confided to the Facebook universe recently that he moped around all day feeling like "the walking dead" and wondered what on earth was the point of even living the next 14 years until retirement given how cruel his circumstances currently were. His lengthy rant caused me to wonder how on earth this fellow could feel so bad about having to stay home from his job for a few weeks, especially as he provided little actually evidence that, apart from the anxiety of not having a paycheck for the time being, that his life was in complete disarray, though I imagined he is one of these persons who has been taught that he has no value outside of what job he does, and now that he is not allowed to do it, all of his self-worth has vanished. His routine is gone as well, and as he probably has no skills at directing his own activities, he kept going on in the most hyperbolic language about how there was nothing to do, sounding like a bored teenager. I kept thinking of the millions of entertainment options he could access, all of the things he could learn, the opportunities for self-improvement, the people he could catch up with by phone or internet. Surely this man is thirsty in the midst of a freshwater ocean.

I considered responding to this comment on my friend's thread, but I've never met the guy, and I imagined nothing good would come of it. He seems determined to feel put upon, I thought. It's not that he has no misfortune, but his response seemed totally out of proportion--is life not worth living because we are temporarily furloughed? Does he really think he lost everything because, through no fault of his one, he won't be allowed to report to work for a few weeks? (No sign that he actually lost his job, by the way) I realize we all are having a hard time adjusting to disrupted schedules and the threat of worse to come, but we do not need to succomb to our worst fears just because we have to stay home for a while. We need not compare it to slavery or imprisonment, either. Calamities come in different sizes. Most of us have not experienced the worst of our fellow beings, we have been merely set back a little. And while it may knock you back at first, life can go on.

But that depends on your ability to cope. I took a wild guess as to this fellow's age, education, and political affiliation, and turned out to be correct (clicking on his picture I was of course able to read his profile). He appears to have been only high school educated, older, white, pretty angry, and I think you can guess who he voted for in the last election. I was able to confirm this by some of his previous posts.

The reason I'm bringing all this up is because his patron saint has some pretty poor coping skills as well. In fact, the entire movement on which he rose to power is based mostly on the feelings of relatively well-off people who, old, cranky, and without having learned the kind of emotional intelligence that some of us take for granted, feel endlessly persecuted and put upon by everybody else--foreigners, the media, liberals, people who don't pay their elders enough respect, and so forth. There are people who have really suffered, and whose situation is being made worse by their leader's policies. But a great number of them whine about being constantly denied the good things in life while simultaneously rolling in those very things. Far from being grateful for life's gifts, they are always complaining about how someone is trying to take away the little they have, even in the midst of their plenty, and with no evidence that they will truly have to give any of it up. It is no wonder that neither they, nor their leader, know what to do with themselves when they are asked to make so great a sacrifice as to lie on their couch for a few days. (And no, I am not unaware that in some cases that can lead to financial issues as well. This is not that.)

The kind of directionlessness that I'm talking about has its roots in the domination of the mind by what has been come to be called "magical thinking." Imagine a four-year old in his room thinking about how great it would be to become President some day. How he would make the best rules, and say the wisest things, and how everybody would think he was wonderful. There isn't the slightest connection with the way the world actually works in this thinking, but there doesn't have to be. It's all in the mind, and the mind, in absolute control of the situation, can conveniently remove the inevitable opposition from the other party under practically any circumstances, good or bad, the difficultly of getting policies made and laws passed, rather than simply speaking (or tweeting) them into being. But when you are four, with no sense of the Constitution or human nature, what does it matter?

But suppose seven decades later you still see the world the same way. You haven't grown at all in understanding or emotional intelligence. Now you are at a press conference lapping up all the attention, and because you always assume that whatever occurs to you is worth sharing with everyone, you mention what you think is a potential cure for the disease that is plaguing the county. You expect praise from all of the medical professionals around you, wishing they had thought of something so brilliant. And instead, you get criticized. So you take your ball and go home. For a few days, anyway.

I'm sure he was gobsmacked. After all, he didn't actually command people to go and inject disinfectant. Contrary to our darkest opinions of his learning skills, he actually was listening after the last time he pedaled a quack cure, one which, to be absolutely fair, was the subject of a study (if shoddy and since unreplicated) and his unsolicited Presidential medical advice only killed a couple of his followers because, without asking a doctor, they took the drug in an improper form and dosage. Someone seems to have gotten through to him in the meantime about how it is necessary to do studies first to see if a drug really works before you just go randomly injecting them into people's veins en masse. So this time he added, well, I'm not a doctor, but I am brilliant, and you guys should go check it out. Do your scientific doctor thing and get back to us when you find out what a genius I am later.

And then they moved the chains on him. Because in this case, they don't need to do a study. We already know what happens when you put disinfectant into a human body that is still alive and it isn't good. That's what he could have found out by reading the warning label on the bottle.

But perhaps the sadder example of his narrow emotional capacity involved the question he was asked at another press conference. "What would you say to the millions of Americans who are scared right now?" And because he is always wired to start conflicts without cause, and because he has decided "The Media" is his enemy, he naturally tore into the person who asked the question. If you are a supporter of The Donald (tm), and have somehow read this far, you probably also assume that there was no other response he could reasonably offer. Let me show you one.

He could have made a speech in which he acknowledged that we were in for some difficult days and that he understood our anxiety. Then he could have talked about all of the brave Americans who would see us through this crises, the innovators who would find a cure, the thinkers who were putting their best ideas forward. Then he could tell us that America has been through tough times before and has had some of its finest hours in times of crises. He could have assured us, inspired us, filled us with hope, and had us, by the end, cheering like a football team at the end of a rousing half-time speech by a great coach. It could have been his FDR moment, his JFK moment, a phrase or two from it going down in history as the thing that galvanized America when we needed it most.

But he's not that kind of man. Instead, all he could see was a reporter he couldn't stand, and the voices in his head were telling him that now that he was President people were expected to be universally happy all the time and that this very bad man was telling him it wasn't so and bursting his bubble. Every president in his lifetime had their opponents but still four-year old Donald was sure that when he got in there it wouldn't happen to him because opposition is for losers. Nobody would be afraid on his watch. Not even so that he could have his finest moment and encourage the nation, not even so he could shine in history as the man who led us through a great crises. He can't see that far.

He could have hit a home run. The reporter gave him a belt-high fast ball with a full count, bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, and instead of drilling it way over the center field fence, he whined to the umpire that the pitcher threw the ball too fast.

A few days later, Nancy Pelosi did a radio interview in which a reporter started off by saying that critics of her bailout measure said that it didn't include enough aid for states and localities, and how would she "defend [her]r=self." She told the reporter that she was a very rotten person.

I'm kidding. Of course Ms. Pelosi answered the question. She simply did as requested and defended herself. Whether you thought she sold her position or not, at least she kept her eye on the ball instead of yelling at the pitcher.

There are an awful lot of people who think the guy in the first two examples is a great guy and doing a wonderful job. Their ability to deal with real and perceived adversity is limited. They believed their leader when he told them that America in 2016 was a complete disaster, because they felt that way themselves. When he dropped gems about our airports being like third-world countries, these folks in no way found that ridiculous, in part because they'd never actually seen an airport in a third-world country, but mostly because they hated the man in charge and nothing was allowed to be better than awful because of it. These folks make political decisions in a democracry, and those decisions can lead to things like upwards of a hundred thousand people dying in a pandemic (so far). The last guy we put in charge dealt with an Ebola pandemic in which there were only three American cases and nobody died.

If this civilization collapses before we figure this problem out, then let us at least document it so the next one can work on the problem: in an advanced, partially educated society, what to do with the large number of people whose uncontrollable anxiety, distrust of and lack of education cause our country to make so many boneheaded decisions that so negatively effect all of us and may eventually spell real, rather than imagined, disaster for everyone. This is really part of an even larger problem: when some people choose not to quarantine, we all are at risk, just as, if some people have no clean drinking water, or live in poverty, or think violence is the answer to a problem, or feel alienated, opressed, and alone, and lash out at what they perceive as a cruel, uncaring society, or blame it all on a particular sector of it, we all suffer. Of course, teaching more people to widen their hearts and use their brains (from which so many useful things emerge, from coping skills in a pandemic to making the world a better place) is something that will always be difficult as long as it is not in the best interests of those in power to have independant thinkers who are harder to manipulate and perform repetitive tasks, or who think more for us is less for them. That is what makes this a conundrum for the ages. And maybe, someone reading this a thousand years from now will be shaking their head and muttering that they still haven't figured it out.

Friday, April 24, 2020

More sparks, flying upward

Ok. I'm not exactly Job. I get it. That guy had some serious stuff go down. Lost his wife, his kids, his cattle, his house. Got a bad case of boils, which his insurer somehow determined were a pre-existing condition (I know, crazy, right?)

But it does feel sometimes like somebody with some clout is really messing with me. I've got some pretty decent coping skills, I think. But when you try your five or six back-up plans and they all fail, you've got to wonder...

(Satan, aka Lou Seefer, is having a meeting with one of his minions)
Lou: So, Dee, whataya got on this Hammer guy?
Dee: He's a musician. I think I figured out a way to get him to stop doin his thing.
Lou: Oh yeah, what's that?
Dee: There's this mega-virus goin around, right? We'll get his bosses to close the church. Can't play the organ anymore.
Lou: That whole pandemic thing is just to mess with him?
Dee: Oh no. I talked to a bunch a demons in another department and we got it all coordinated. With resepect to the very excellent job you did with Job, we don't make disasters that affect just one person anymore. We're all about efficiency. This is gonna make life miserable for a whole lotta people. This is just one of the side effects.
Lou: Nice. So he can't play the organ at his church. Has he got one at home?
Dee: No, but he does have a piano.
Lou: Well, look, you're gonna hafta do better'n that.
Dee: Hey, what do I look like? We arranged so his wife has to stay home with him.
Lou: Isn't she in health care?
Dee: Yeah, but they got this screwy scheduling thing where the residents are spending one week at home. An entire week. And..
Lou: And?
Dee, And, she has back issues. Gonna spend her time on the couch which is three feet from the piano.
Lou: You know the floor plan?
Dee: I put in the orders for the house four years ago. There is no way you can get a grand piano anywhere but next to the couch.
Lou: You planned ahead!
Dee: Damned straight, we did!
Lou: And she don't like to hear no piano.
Dee: No, she ain't got no problem with it, it's that he can't concentrate. Sudden outbursts from her when somebody did something stupid on Facebook or the computer won't cooperate. Doesn't go well with creative work. Deep concentration, that sort of thing. At the old house he used to have the piano in a bedroom where you could close the door, but you can't do that here.
Lou: I see. Well, hasn't he got a hobby?
Dee: Running, but we made sure the weather sucks. See, that makes him despondent, AND he has to bundle up like a bag of marshmallows. He doesn't like to do that, see he tries not to run when it's cold.
Lou: Which is how cold exactly?
Dee: Well he went once when it was nine degrees. But that ain't the point. See, with him the idea is to grind him down with a long winter where the overnight low is the same in April as it was in January. He can take it for a while, then he starts looking for ways to beat the system. He'll try to go in the afternoon when its warmer. So we get the weather bureau to predict nice balmy temperatures which never materialize. Or make sure it rains any time the temperature goes above 40.
Lou: And weeks of grey skies.
Dee: Hey, that's easy. It's Pittsburgh.
Lou: So you're keeping him indoors mostly.
Dee: hashtag stay at home! And don't go creating endorphins by excercising!
Lou: Anything else?
Dee: Well, he's a writer. Blogs, mostly. But we're trying to make sure nobody reads 'em. That way they whole thing will feel futile. At the moment we got this kid who used to eat worms on the playground that our deparment got the folks down there to elect president and he's sucking up all the oxygen saying things so dumb nobody can talk about anything else. Really paralyzes the mind, it does. Great stuff.
Lou: Well, you've certainly covered your bases. I'm impressed, Ms. Mon. You've really thought this through. Very thorough, if the set-ups are sometimes a little complicated, and the payoffs take a while to devvelop. The only thing I would suggest is that sometimes you aren't really very efficient. In soul-torture, it is important to take the shortest route possible to get the maximum effect. And of course not to let the subject know what you are doing.
Dee: But Lou, if he realizes the complexity of our efforts, that everything he tries is just being countered with more and more effective measures, won't he start to feel the futility of it all, AND develop a nice persecution complex? And then it's just a short route to WHY ME which is a great way to develop a wounded ego narrative and start thinking this whole worldwide disaster is all about him.
Lou: Well, don't let him see all your cards.
Dee: But that's exactly what I intend to do. Let him realize how self-centered he's being.
Lou: But that will make him start to realize how silly it all is, and make him healthier and more empathetic?
Dee: No, that will make him feel guilty for feeling that way in the first place.
Lou: All I can say is you better know this guy.
Dee: Hey, I know people.
Lou: And I know that the biggest way for a promising young demon to tank in the career trajectory is to get over-confident.
Dee: You really think so?
Lou: Psyche! I'm just messing with you.
Dee: Wow. You had me worried.
Lou: That's the great thing about getting inside people's minds. It's a never ending game.
Dee: It sure is.
Lou: Well, back to work. And Dee...don't screw this up.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Easter Comes Anyway

There was a time when I, too, confused art with entertainment. When very young I tended to assume, as all young humans do, that everything in the world around was designed to stimulate me. Its value was primarily, if not entirely, in what it had to offer the pleasure centers of my nascent little brain. Fortunately, I grew out of that. Not all of us do.

But there is another reason I chose not to listen to the secret wisdoms buried  inside the sugary presentations of the books and television specials. They seemed a bit over the top. That can't happen, I thought. The real world was much more humdrum, and luckily for me, far less prone to existential crises than was the one on television. Adventures were had to escape the predictable routine, but they did not tell us what to expect from life, or how to deal with those adversities.

Live long enough, though, and you will see reality do all kinds of things it wasn't supposed to do. Time bends, light is subject to gravity, and now and then, we really are about to lose the bedrock of our happy little lives, one piece of it at a time.

For all of those years of my childhood it was Christmas that was constant under attack of not coming and needing to be saved. Nobody seemed to realize that one day it would actually be Easter that didn't come. Or at least, the way it was supposed to.

When the Grinch grinchily stuffed all 8,000 of the Who's little Christmas packages into his enormous bag and managed to get them all up to the top of his private mountain, he learned a lesson that we were all supposed to learn, comfortably, and from a safe distance.

I watched the animated version of the tale last year for the first time in many Christmases. The first thing I realized was that the Whos were a seriously consumerist bunch of little buggers who did in fact purchase everything you could imagine and seemed intent on going all out. The second, of course, is the thing you remember, which was that on Christmas morning, with all of their stuff gone, without tears and recriminations, and without missing a beat, they all gathered in the town square to sing and to celebrate the day, presents or no.

And in the real world, last Sunday, Easter came, ready or not. Those of us who are used to gathering in churches managed to find community in front of our computers, with all of our brethren gathered in little boxes like the cable news shows had taken a large dose of steroids. Those for whom dinner is the main, or only, attraction of the day must have found virtual meetings to be similarly accommodating for their families. We had dinner with some of ours that way. Otherwise it would have just been the two of us and our cat.

Whatever you think the message of Easter is, it comes anyway, with or without the traditions or our ability to mark the day according to our own wishes. The ability to recognize that it exists independently of our need to observe it in any particular manner is a way to achieve peace.

There are other messages I wish we would learn from our corpus of movies, books, and television endlessly recycling our collective mythology. One of the themes we could absorb is that a powerful person who values personal loyalty above service to a greater good is not a good person. Or that letting feelings of hate take charge of you never has a good outcome. The consequences of these choices are playing out in America now, writ large.

Our mythologies go much deeper if we want them to, and tell us things about death and rebirth, conflict and companionship, and all manner of secrets pointing to a life well lived. But in a society with an attention span not gauged to value these things we will let one miracle of modern technology charm us into the realization that one day, and all that it can represent, can come to us under any circumstances. It cannot be lost because it was never ours in the first place.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Garden Variety Hymns

I groaned when I opened an email from a former church and looked at the worship order. Most of us have hymns we don't care for and since I've never served anyplace called the "First Church of Michael Hammer" I think some forbearance is in order. But this is about more than personal taste. And it is hardly the first time I've seem this happen. There it was, part of the order for Palm/Passion Sunday, right before scripture readings about the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Christ:

In the Garden

If you aren't paying any better attention than the throngs of pastors past and present who thought this hymn was a good idea for Good Friday (or passion Sunday), you are probably thinking, "Hey, Jesus got arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. A garden. In the garden. Boy man, are you stupid, thinking this is inappropriate. It's right there in the story. It's a garden, for Pete's sake!"

It's not the same garden.

I'm not doing this to show off my knowledge of horticultural minutiae, either. Even if it had been the same physical garden, the circumstances are entirely different. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus goes off to pray, knowing that he is about to be arrested and killed. The scene is fraught with tension and despair; in Mark's version, Jesus is sweating drops of blood, and chiding the disciples, who keep falling asleep, unable to provide companionship when he needs it most. Jesus is utterly alone, and hell is about to break loose.

In the hymn that C. Austin Miles wrote in 1913, two figures are in a garden having a nice conversation. One of them is "I" and the other is Jesus. Birds are singing, there is "dew on the roses." The tune is pleasantly saccharine; Miles wrote that as well. It is hard to notice any actual connection with scripture since the lyrics seem only concerned with painting a Norman Rockwellian picture of me having a good time with Jesus, but they were derived from the story of Mary seeing the risen Christ in a garden on Easter. My Methodist hymnal puts the hymn in the section on "resurrection and exaltation" and if you care about liturgical placement you really should sing the hymn on Easter, or the week after. There are good reasons for not singing it at all, and though anyone not wishing to make a congregational ruckus knows not to try that route with older church bodies (it was the most requested hymn for inclusion in the aforementioned hymnal) in this instance some of the general issues conspire to make our liturgical ignorance worse.

St. Augustine once stated that a hymn needed to have three things. It needed to be a song, of praise, directed to God. This is at least sung, and though it is happy, it does not direct itself to God in praise. Instead it is about how I feel (pretty good!) and about how nice it is to spend time with "him." This makes it a forerunner of all of those "Jesus is my boyfriend" contemporary praise choruses. Indeed, some people have complained about the hymn being too "erotic" although I don't notice it too strongly. Perhaps if we concentrate on who the actual subject is supposed to be (Mary, not me) and note that she is "alone" with him; still, all they seem to be doing is walking and talking anyway. Gabriel doesn't really need to chaperone, does he?

The last line really annoys me, though. While in some ways it's just another "walking talking Jesus" hymn from the last century, it isn't content with a little euphoria and instead has to indulge in competitive joy: "and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known." So apparently me and Jesus are having more joy than the rest of you turkeys'll ever have, got that? Me and Jesus rock!

You know, maybe it is a little erotic (just noticed the line about "the melody that he gave to me"). Anyhow...

It is definitely self-centered, because clearly the hymn is really about me and how I feel, and only secondarily about Jesus at all (who is only named once). But the "sweet-voiced" Jesus who can even make the birds stop singing (why do birds suddenly stop singing every time you are near?) might wonder where you were two nights before in a different garden when he was about to suffer greatly and needed someone to pray with him. Did you skip that part?

There is a major push in Christianity to skip the sad parts of the story, which is one reason we now have something called "Palm/Passion Sunday" instead of just "Palm Sunday." It is because people don't want to go to church during the week and besides the crucifixion is such a downer. Noticing that people only got the part where Jesus was triumphantly entering Jerusalem one week and triumphantly being raised from the dead the next (wait? Did he die?), worship planners began reading the passion story on Palm Sunday at the end of the service so people wouldn't miss it. Substituting one garden for another lets us ignore one of the pivotal parts of the story, arguably the foundational story of Christianity. Forget the passion! For that matter, forget the Resurrection! I want some facetime with Jesus all to myself. The rest of you just get in the way (besides, social distancing.)

Ironically, it also puts us in the role of the clueless disciples. Finding the disciples asleep in Gethsemane, a tormented Jesus says "Are you asleep? Couldn't you stay awake with me for just one hour?" And the disciples, dreamy expressions on their faces, say "We were walking and talking with you in a garden, and it was so pleasant." Then they fought with each other over who had known the most joy with Jesus. And Jesus wept.

That's not what it says in my Bible, but maybe it ought to. It might sell more copies.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Infinity Plus One

I spent an awful lot of time in first grade standing in line. The teacher would line us up to go out to recess, and then, tragically, insist on the lot of us being silent before she would dismiss us to the bedlam of the school yard. But a moment of order imposed on young humans is far too much to ask. Our young are endlessly fascinated by every syllable that comes out of their own mouths, and it was simply impossible to expect them to realize that 30 seconds of silence meant 30 minutes of play time. Instead, we stood in line for 20 of those thirty minutes nearly every day until some of them got the message.

I didn't realize then how the rest of life was really just an extension of first grade. The bad kids got all the attention. Everybody got punished for the behavior of a few. The dumb kids won every argument by saying "I know you are but what am I?" over and over in an effort to irritate the ones who could think. Now they call that "owning the Libs." Back then it was just being a jerk. Eventually their opponent would just get tired and give up. So much winning.

This week we started to find out that not being able to discipline ourselves in the short term could actually get people killed. Most of us have been under some kind of shelter-in-place order for at least the last two weeks. Some of these orders, which are largely voluntary, full of exceptions, and kind of vague, have been periodically supplemented with more stringent orders which turn out also to be largely voluntary and vague ("hey kids, I'm really serious this time!").  Some of us are taking these directives seriously. Sometimes I actually feel like I'm quarantining so hard it might even make up for three other people. Can you hear the sound of me quarantining?

Didn't think so. But you did notice the kids who crowded the beaches for spring break. Already dozens of them turn out to be infected with Covid-19 and are spreading it all over the U.S. I can see you are thoroughly shocked. The virus is also spreading wildly through nursing homes. I cancelled a gig I would have had in one a month ago so don't look at me. Then there are the politicians who insist that our freedom and our economy must be protected from having to give up massive profits for a few weeks so large numbers of people don't die. Is there a real price for quarantining? Sure is. Does our economy matter? You better believe it. But not so much when everyone is dead. It's a balancing act. Last come the preachers who insist it is religious persecution not to let them hold services to spread contagion to everybody in their church. Just like Nero told the early Christians to gather on line for a few weeks until they'd flattened the curve. Lots of martyrs came out of that period in ancient Roman history.

There's been a pretty serious failure of leadership at the top as well, which is truly unfortunate because regular people are not going to suddenly, of their own volition, behave themselves any better in times of crisis. Now lots of them are sorry, which is always good to be when it is too late and the history books are looking for a slight variation on the same old story of people not seeing any good reason to put enough life boats on the Titanic until it actually sinks. We are coming up on a time when you no longer have to believe what the scientists and medical experts were telling us for months and can just look out your window and see it for yourself.

Over a thousand people died yesterday from Covid-19 in the United States. That's not really as bad as it sounds, although it is twice as high as the number who have ever died from the flu on a single day. The real problem is that it's just the beginning.

pianonoise Radio: Music in a time of plague

Friday, March 27, 2020

Time Shall Be No More

There is a verse from the Book of Revelations that, slightly mistranslated, includes the phrase "Time shall be no more." Oliver Messiaen used this verse as the epigraph for his Quartet for the End of Time, composed during his time as a prisoner of war during the Second World War. It is hard not to imagine a certain autobiographical resonance in this; though Messiaen often experimented with very slow tempi and enlarged time schemes, it should be clear that being a prisoner would change one's daily experience of time considerably.

Those of use sheltering in place these days may feel a certain kinship, though I would advise caution in our application. A few hours ago someone on facebook was telling us that maybe now we knew how zoo animals feel, and while I can understand the desire to arouse empathy (which is usually a doomed quest), none of us are incapable of leaving our dwellings. Our imprisonment is voluntary, and our notions of hardship are a bit underdeveloped.

Actually, I was having some frustration making a recording from my home piano this afternoon because we live near a busy intersection and the noise of so many people "sheltering in place" at high speed was quite intrusive to my zen. This might explain why Pennsylvania is currently tenth in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths. We are just too important to stop what we are doing, even for a few days (never mind several weeks).

The ones among us who are taking these quasi-orders seriously are currently experiencing time in a completely different way. It is much harder to know what day of the week it is now. And many of the deadlines and appointments that made up the weigh stations of regular life have disappeared. This could be terrifying, but since I happen to know what to do with vast quantities of time, it made me quite calm for a few days. Since my spouse happens to be in the medical field, and still has a job to go to each day, while I have been locked out of mine, I stayed home and practiced music not too differently than usual, spending my time on an art that is itself chiefly concerned with the passage of time.

In the last few days, interestingly, some of that calm has left me. It is natural for human beings to feel stressed, and, given new projects to work on, whether there is an upcoming performance or not, always seems to presuppose a deadline because my mind is never satisfied to make a reasonable amount of progress every day, but continually expects more of itself. Stress feels more natural anyway. It is useful to remind myself of this natural trick of the mind, however, or I could be easily overwhelmed. There is always so much music to learn--oceans of it. And never enough time, even when you have all that is available.

And there are still demands on my time anyhow, from a job that hasn't completely gone away but is trying to resurrect itself online, to persons with requests, mainly small, but occasionally even the easy things take far too much time due to device malfunctions and the like. It is curious how time, or the pressing demands of it, seem to be reborn out of the ashes, like a petulant phoenix. Time shall be no more? Eventually, but not this time. Not the time I know.

It may have slowed for a moment, but people still have things to do, and a pressing envelop in which to do it. Time will not stop for them until the next person kills himself at our intersection, and then, and only then, time shall have ended its tyranny.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Interesting Times

I don't mean to make light of a terrible situation, particularly in Italy, Iran, and China, but so far the United States is more in a state of tension that tragedy, and if we can't laugh at our fears a little we will succumb.

There was a drawing going around on a Facebook organist's group last week showing an organist protecting himself against coronavirus. He wore what appeared to be a plastic wrapper from head to foot, and was totally encased in protective fabric as he sat on the bench, save for a drinking straw (helpfully labelled "breathing tube") coming out of the top. Actually, he looked a little like a banana.

The British members of the group thought this was pretty funny, despite having several deaths to the disease already. The Americans, living in a country where few people have yet died, were offended.

My first thought, frankly, was how could I play the organ in that thing? I have enough trouble enmeshed in your standard robe.

Anyhow, the Google must not have thought it was funny either, because I can't find it. And the members of the Facebook page, after getting several nastygrams about it, seem to have taken their posts down. So you'll have to use your imagination.

If laughing at something is a substitute for action, or if it woefully underestimates the seriousness of a situation and thus causes irresponsible behavior then we certainly would not want to encourage it. There are, however, some of us who can both laugh at our fears and realize why caution is necessary.

It is not impossible that I acquired the disease myself, travelling through LAX two weeks ago. At the time there were a grant total of 6 reported cases in California, which has 40 million people. I thought it was highly unlikely we'd contract the disease. What we learned since was that cases have been severely under-reported, given that tests were not available, and after I got back I read that two health care works came down with it at LAX while screening passengers in late February. I've also read that 80% of the people who develop Covid-19 only experience mild to no symptoms at all.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the illness is that it takes upwards of a week to become obviously sick, during which time its host is unwittingly spreading the virus to others. I developed a slight tightness in my chest last week, which is only enough to be moderately annoying, and would be a great way to develop anti-bodies for the future with a minimum of suffering, but I would not want to pass the thing on to others who might have a much worse time of it. My symptoms are so mild I won't be getting tested so may never know if my hunch is corrected.

This morning I read about attempts to develop a blood test to check for the presence of anti-bodies to the disease which would of course indicated that a patient had contracted the virus, which would be helpful to medical experts to determine the scope of the spread and check for herd immunity. It would also answer my question.

Meanwhile, I, like you, am staying home and avoiding contact. I am keeping up on the latest covid-19 statements from everyone I've ever known at any level. So far my dentist, my eye doctor, and my gas company have seen fit to issue emails about how they are dealing with the disease. My grocery store, the library, my congressman and my landlord have followed suit. Also my gym. I am not making any of these up. I am kind of peeved that my mailman has not come out with his own statement about covid-19. Nor have I heard from the gas station down the street. How are they dealing with the spread of this contagion?

While we all hunker down and try to adjust to a completely different lifestyle, remember to wash your hands, for 20 seconds. Every time you are stuck for something to do, go and wash your hands. Some day, some young person is going to wonder why the old dude keeps washing his hands all the time, and for so long. It will become the weird thing that is part of my experience, the way my grandparents hoarded money under their mattress because of the depression, or my parents hide under their desks whenever they hear a civil defense siren (I think they stopped doing that a while back, actually). And I, like Lady Macbeth, will keep washing my hands. It's not such a bad tic to have, actually. And now I know what interesting times I will have seen when I am old enough to share stories of the times I survived. I just have to survive them first. And so do you.

As Edward R. Murrow used to say*, "Good night and Good Luck!"

*I'm not old enough to remember when he used to say that, I just know some history! working from home edition is available today. The PianonoiseRadio program, "Music in a Time of Plague," should be ready Sunday.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Reflections in the water

I'm putting together a PianonoiseRadio program for next week entitled "Music in a Time of Plague" and in the process of looking for recordings stumbled across one I had nearly forgotten about. The piece is based on the hymn tune "Shall We Gather at the River?" and its appropriateness is suggested in the following remembrance by the author of both its text and tune (which is unusual), one Robert Lowry, as found in E. W. Long's "Illustrated History of Hymns and their Authors:"

On a very hot summer day in 1864, a pastor was seated in his parlour in Brooklyn, N. Y.  It was a time when an epidemic was sweeping through the city, and draping many persons and dwellings in mourning. All around friends and acquaintances were passing away to the spirit land in large numbers. The question began to arise in the heart, with unusual emphasis, 'Shall we meet again? We are parting at the river of death, shall we meet at the river of life?"  "Seating myself at the organ," says he, "simply to give vent to the pent up emotions of the heart, the words and music of the hymn began to flow out, as if by inspiration."*

The piano piece based on this hymn by my friend Marteau is simply titled "River" and I made a recording of it in late February 2016. This makes it one of the 'tumor' recordings. At the time I had a very large tumor in my chest. I felt unwell, had trouble breathing normally, and tended to cough every time I exhaled, which made it miraculous each time I was able to get through an entire take without coughing. The tumor would be discovered a week after the recording was made, after which I had the better part of a month to contemplate my own imminent mortality before receiving a much more positive diagnosis. At the time, however, I already knew something was very wrong.

It was my own personal plague, though in this case, all of my friends who were not dying around me; in fact, the lingering cough they'd had all winter had finally gone away and only mine remained. But it does lend an interesting additional layer to the recording I'll share with you next week.

The program includes pieces which were written during and about times of rampant disease, but also music of comfort as well as grief. It is a reminder that the music many use to escape life (i.e., as pleasant noises in the background to make us feel better) actually deals with the whole of life, giving voice to a variety of human expressions on a panoply of subjects, the music itself written during daily harrassments and dramas and threats to our existence.

It may be a little dark for some; I've been hearing from you folks all my life, including my favorite comment from the time we did a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (!) in which the king dies of grief at the end. A handwritten note delivered after the play said "We prefer happy endings." Using music as a way to constructively deal with negative emotions rather than suppressing them has its analogue in the real world where denial can often lead to a lot of damage. In fact, one can lead to the other, as music which dares to be negative can lead to emotional growth. That isn't really the point here, but it may be a nutritive side effect. It may also somehow contain a message of hope in dark times, of which there have been many on planet earth and of which many wise composers and authors have left us records of their experience.

*from John Julian's "A Dictionary of Hymnody" (1907) as found in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (1993) p. 592

Friday, March 6, 2020

What it was like

Greetings from the west coast.

Not that it really makes any difference where I am. Or where you are, for that matter. We're both here now. Sort of.

I've always found it interesting that we are a species that can communicate over vast distances. I may be playing the piano right now for people on the other side of the world. Or they are reading something I wrote several years ago when I was in a very different spot on the planet myself.

We can bridge great distances in time as well. Most of the people whose music I play are dead (some just live thousands of miles away) and many of them have been dead for several centuries. And yet their music is still having an effect on somebody somewhere.

On Tuesday night we attended a concert at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. It was a chamber music concert consisting of the music of Ives and Dvorak. They started with Ives. I've always felt like maybe I had something of an inside track with the gentleman from Danbury. I also grew up in a small town that was becoming much larger as I reached adulthood. My family attended a white wooden Presbyterian church with a steeple and we sang many of the same hymns the Ives knew and used in his works. When I was in graduate school and an academic pointed out in a dry, informative way that Ives quoted this particular hymn tune in the 5th measure and extended that one as the bridge to the second theme I already knew it because I recognized the tune and had maybe even sung it or played the organ for it the previous Sunday. My cultural upbringing and Ives's milieu had some things in common, even if I was born a hundred years later.

This seems important for another reason. Ives wrote in words, too (Memos and Essays Before a Sonata being two important sources) and often spoke of trying to capture his boyhood experiences in sounds. For him music wasn't about the expositions and the modulations to the submediant--in fact, he liked to make academic procedures and analyses a target. Instead, he used musical quotations in a very different way: to conjure up not only the musical memories of his time and place, but to record the way those musical sources made him feel. That's why snippets of tunes drift in and out, veer off in unexpected directions, flow contrapuntally, or get extended in surprising ways. Ives employs a host of useful compositional procedures to make symphonies out of tunes that just want to be tunes, but the effect explores the psychology of the composer in a way that is not so obvious with other composers. It may be the closest thing we have to Freudian composition.

I wondered how much of that would translate to the stage of Disney Hall. Already, in her opening remarks, the violist for the Dvorak piece that was to come later had introduced the Ives and informed us that the quartet wanted us to know that the place where Ives is in two meters at once is supposed to sound a little sloppy so we shouldn't think it was their fault. This is virtuosity anxious that it is being undermined by something that isn't. I don't think Ives would have been happy.

The performance was quite correct, of course. And more, I think. It was lively, and not at all sterile. But I wonder how much the performers knew about Ives and his world and whether they wanted to enter into it. It must have been very different from what they knew: A world of constant practice and perfection meeting a world of experimentation and scoffing at boundaries. They made a fine performance out of it, but was the result really Ives or some other fine composer borrowing his notes?

The audience was enthusiastic. They may have been a bit too enthusiastic. I don't want to be a snob here, but it would have helped if they waited until the movements were over to being clapping loudly. I am not much of a purist regarding not clapping between movements; in fact, some of the time I think it is perfectly appropriate, and other times not so much. But after the slow movement, which is really an unusual time for a major display of enthusiasm, parts of the audience which had been set on hair-trigger applause all night burst into raptures before the group could resolve the final chord. It would be as if I told you that

You can tell that sentence isn't finished, right? It needs more words to finish the thought. Music works the same way, only people don't speak music, and some of them can't tell when a musical sentence is over. I wish they could. One of the most wonderful moments in the entire concert got interrupted by the sound of many limbs smashing together because several people couldn't wait for everyone else to know how much they were enjoying themselves. I hope it was at least genuine enthusiasm, but it may have been because they wanted everyone to know how cultured they were, in which case it backfired.

In any case, it was an enjoyable concert. I don't mean to interrupt your cheery Friday, but if we aren't brave enough to consider where we may be falling short we will never grow. An immature spirit will naturally assume that playing the notes on the page means communicating the intention of the composer. A more courageous sort is strong enough to ask whether that is really the case.

I should mention in passing that the Disney Hall organ, which some have compared to a pile of french fries or pick-up stix, is actually far more chaotic looking in real life than in 2-dimensional pictures. I rather wished I had brought my organ shoes and persuaded the management to let me play Ives's Variations on America at the intermission.

This week Marches on.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Winter Carnival continues

There is something to be said for a winter celebration. When the atmosphere is forbidding, we who have to live in it like to find ways to make it more bearable. That's what many of our holidays are really about. Winter carnival season fits perfectly into the month that I like the least. That may not be exactly why it's there, but it works for me.

Lent began on Wednesday for most of the Christian world. Somewhere in the distant past, the church decided to have a period of fasting and self-examination to prepare for Easter, a little fast before the feast, which is an important part of each year's psychic sculpting. We can't feast all the time, and having to do without for a while should make it all the sweeter when the feast finally arrives. That theory works for some people, but not for the party-all-the-time crowd, who, however, lacked the discipline necessary to get themselves into power and thus effect the rules very much. But probably due to their overwhelming numbers, they were still able to make some impression. When Lent was introduced, many people's first reactions must have been: oh dear, this sounds like it calls for too much self-discipline. When exactly does it start? Because up to the last possible minute before it takes effect I want to party my brains out! And thus Fat Tuesday was born. And people created pancakes so they would have something to eat on said festival day. Doesn't my little history sound authoritative?

I can understand the need to make things a bit more cheery during these cold and dark winter months. I have need of it myself. This year I found a couple of fun musical selections to take my mind off the month. Last week I shared with you some variations on Yankee Doodle. This week, I thought it would be interesting to take one of Antonin Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, originally written for piano duet and then orchestrated, and translate it again for organ. I was planning to play it as a duet by utilizing the playback system, but then I decided to just try my own on-the-fly arrangement of both parts, which mostly meant having the secondo part in front of me and playing the upper part from what I could remember.

It's my musical version of a winter carnival. Took my mind off the immediate circumstances. Had nothing at all to do with what music needed to be prepared for anything. A little boisterous for all that, actually. I'll be playing some nice, restrained Bach for church this weekend. But in the meantime, here I am having some fun with an  ad-hoc organ transcription. Enjoy!

Dvorak: Slavonic Dance in g minor, op. 46 no. 8

the last weekly edition from the infernal month of February is at right now!