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