“Baby, don’t hurt me no more.”

The incredible self-sufficient Jelly Fish

The incredible self-sufficient Jelly Fish




A couple of weeks ago I heard on the radio a song that Bugged me so much I had to look it up. “What is love?” sung by Haddaway  (of whom, of course, I had never heard). The song bugged me because—an unusual experience for me with recorded singing—I understood the lyrics.**

They are mindlessly (yes, mindlessly) simple. “What is love? Baby don’t hurt me.” Over and over and over again.

The answer to the question, “What is love?” is “Baby don’t hurt me no more.” Good grief! It’s not really fair for me to leave it at that. There is more to the definition:

 Oh, I don’t know, what can I do,
What else can I say, it’s up to you.
I know we’re one, just me and you.
I can’t go on

So the answer to the question is not a definition, but a plea followed by the self-annihilating assertion that the relationship is “up to you,” and the singer says he “can’t go on.”

This is patently absurd. But the lyrics of pop music have always been (generally speaking) absurd. Among my favorite absurdities (I loved it as a nine-year-old and pretended I was Joan Webber singing it) is

Oh, let me go, Let me go, Let me go, lover, Let me be, Set me free, from your spell.
You don’t want me, but you want me, To go on wanting you.
Now I pray that you will say that we’re through.

A few days ago I was part of a Facebook discussion about “What is love?” One person was quoted as saying love is a decision and that sparked a debate.

I completely and steadfastly agree with her. Love IS a decision. Certainly a complicated, difficult, dangerous decision, but a decision nevertheless.

Let Me Go, Lover

Let Me Go, Lover

Forget your Greek philosophy and forget your belief (conscious or not—we’re all Ancient Greek at the core) that there are different kinds of love. We know about philos (brotherly love), eros (romantic love) and agape (communal love). Forget it. That’s highly problematic thinking.

Here’s the example I used in the Facebook discussion: I am approached by a homeless person asking for money. I have absolutely no attraction to her. In fact, I am offended by her. I can, however, DECIDE to treat her with dignity, with respect, with concern – in short, with love.

I know all the arguments against that assertion. “That’s not love.” Well, I say it is.

Then, of course, there’s the guy at the gym I can’t keep my eyes off of, and I can barely keep my hands off him. Is that love? Well, yes. Some would say lust. I don’t think so. I have to DECIDE whether or not to try to seduce him.

Here’s my very simple point. The other person—the person who is the object of one’s “affection,” momentary or otherwise, has nothing to do with how one decides to react. It’s completely my decision how close I get either to the homeless woman or the hot man at the gym. I can decide to join or not to join a community of interest or mutual support. Those are all decisions.

I think those decisions make the difference between fulfillment as a human “being” and the superficiality of human “doing” (sorry for the cliché). If our reactions were not decisions, we wouldn’t be much different from the species of jelly fish I heard about on NPR that don’t even have sex. They somehow simply reproduce themselves. And—most unlike human beings—they’re immortal. They die, and a few of their cells stay alive and start splitting up and make a new jelly fish. They need no one else to continue the propagation of the species.

Here’s how we’re not like those jelly fish. We make decisions. For one thing, we decide whether or not to disclose ourselves to others. I’m not making this up.  I’m not smart enough to come up with such an idea on my own. Sorry for the long quote, but I’m not clever enough to paraphrase or condense it.

To disclose your fears to someone you have known for a week is one thing. . . . It is another thing to disclose your fears to . . . [someone] who knows what you have been through and has, to some degree, endured it with you. . . shared history. . . not only enables the encounter by allowing one to feel comfortable . . . It also . . .  giv[es] it a different meaning and significance. Shared histories and intimacy are thus mutually informing.

. . .  it is because having such relationships is of crucial importance to us that we regard others as irreplaceable. We need people in our lives who are not interchangeable with others so that we can relate to them in unique and specific ways. . . .  if there is no one in our lives who knows what we have been through, and who has been there with us, it is hard to resist the conclusion that we will be missing out on an important form of human interaction.***

I’d say it’s pretty much like deciding to be a jelly fish.

What will your decision be?

What will your decision be?

**Please understand before you read what I’ve written that I have almost no pretense of being a philosopher, a psychologist, a theologian, or a social scientist. I just observe what I observe.
*** Kadlac, Adam. “Irreplaceability and Identity.” Social Theory & Practice 38.1 (2012): 33-54.

The Artsy Lover

book rackMy guess is hardly anyone reading this has read The Art Lover by Carole Maso (New Directions, 1990).

In the 1950s travelers could arrive at Scottsbluff, Nebraska , by railroad or Trailways Bus. I think the Trailways depot was at the lower end of Broadway, across the street from the Lincoln Hotel (I’m sure my siblings will correct me if I’m wrong).

The depot was a dingy one-story brick building with a covered driveway where passengers could board buses sheltered from the weather. The waiting room comprised the rest of the building. I may, of course, be confusing this memory with one from—from God-knows-where.

The waiting room had a revolving wire book rack with books for sale. I clearly remember being with my father fetching someone from a bus. One of the books on the rack caught my attention, and I asked my father to buy it for me. His answer was, in essence, that any book one could buy in a bus station one ought not to read.

And so continued my education as a snob. One would hope merely an intellectual snob, but more likely simply “snob.”

That would not be a matter of concern if I possessed any quality, physical, mental, spiritual, or social, worthy of snobbery. But I don’t. And not buying books in bus stations (these days in airports) has deprived me of a great deal of pleasure without accomplishing much to improve my mind or my social standing.

Maintaining this questionable snobbery I’ve deprived myself of Mickey Spillane. Dashiell Hammett. Jonathan Latimer. Erle Stanley Gardner. Ross MacDonald. Michael Collins. Stephen King, Agatha Christie, and Danielle Steele. Hundreds of Westerns. Spy novels, detective novels, steamy sex novels, science fiction novels. J.K. Rowling. Much of what I have avoided is probably worthy of avoidance. But I have deprived myself of entertainment, of perfectly harmless but enjoyable means of passing the time. I have avoided “hidden pleasures” (or overt prurience).

As I reported here a couple of weeks ago, this spring I was introduced to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander novels (thank you, Jerome Sims). I am now 200 pages from the end of the last of the three. I have read them with pleasure, interest, and suspense—which is exactly their purpose. When I first began reading, I snobbishly thought Larsson did not have the artistic skills to write the number one best-selling work world-wide. And then I gave up my “attitude.”

I hadn’t read for pleasure since the summer reading program at the Scottsbluff Public Library in about 1955. Kids were in groups named after Western explorers. When one of us finished a book, our explorer went another mile along the Oregon Trail. Mine was the Jim Bridger group. We did not win—because my brother’s friend Delmar Coe was in another group, and he read a book a day.
I love The Art Lover. It’s a novel about art, and it morphs into an autobiographical narrative about a friend of Carole Maso’s who died of AIDS, a novelistic tour de force. I love the Wagner Ring operas. I love the El Greco St. Francis in Prayer I first saw at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha when I was in high school. I had no idea what made it great art or why it affected me so deeply.

We are all snobs in our own way. Some wouldn’t see a rock musical for anything. Some wouldn’t attend a concert of music by Stockhausen if it was the last music on earth. Some wouldn’t drive two miles to see a Norman Rockwell painting. Some would drive two miles to avoid seeing a Picasso.

I used to own Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste : Aesthetics in Religious Life by Frank Burch Brown. It’s an interesting book, but on the surface the idea is preposterous. I don’t know where my father learned what “good music” is (surely not at Immanuel Baptist Church in Kansas City in the ‘20s). But I knew from childhood until I was 50 or so, I thought “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” wasn’t “good music.”

I also knew—because his work didn’t hang in the Joslyn—Norman Rockwell wasn’t a great artist. Then I fell in love with the great-grandson of the old lady in his painting Freedom of Worship. Honest. My late partner.

The French philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote (I can’t quote it exactly) that one should not try to make art “Christian,” that the quality of love is what makes a work art.

So I’m hoping to give up being a snob, reverse or otherwise, in my old age and begin to experience what people make and do for the quality of love they put into it—not for my opinion if it’s great, or, for that matter, whether or not I like it.

The Coffee Cantata—A Fond Personal Remembrance

RhinocerosAs I was pouring my first cup of coffee this morning (4:47 AM), I had one of those delightful flashbacks that pop into one’s head, uninvited and mysterious. I was remembering a cup of coffee. It may well have been my very first cup. At minimum, it was the first important cup of coffee, the first that meant enough for me to file it away for further reference.

My friend Ann and I were at a coffee shop in Redlands, CA, late at night. We were students at the University of Redlands. It must have been 1965 or 66. We were great friends. Truth be told, we had been (somehow) friends since we were toddlers. Our parents had been, that is. Her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Douglas, Wyoming, when my father left that position to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Worland, Wyoming. I was six months old and she was 18 months old at the time.

Later on, when my father was an executive in the Nebraska Baptist Convention and we had moved to Omaha (1960), her father became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Wahoo, about thirty miles west of Omaha. Our parents had been friends since 1945, and they renewed their friendship. Ann and I were (somewhat long-distance) high school friends.

Sitting in that coffee shop in Redlands, Ann ordered a cup of coffee, and I said I didn’t understand why people drank that bitter stuff. She ordered me a cup, poured about half a cup of cream into it, and said I should taste it—that I’d be glad I’d learn to drink the stuff when it came time to study for finals. I had already had the study-for-finals experience at least two semesters at that point, and I couldn’t imagine why coffee would help.

But I drank it, and the rest—I will not resist the clichéd temptation—is history. We were married May 28, 1967. Our marriage lasted until July of 1975, but I still, obviously, drink coffee. She married the Canadian novelist, William P. Kinsella a couple of years after our “no-fault” divorce in Iowa, and I’ve been serially monogamous since then.images

Ann died in 2002.

I am grateful to Ann for much more than teaching me to drink coffee. As a small but non-trivial example, she taught me to appreciate (no, love) contemporary theater. Her M.A. was in theater directing. In 1970 she directed Jean Genet’s The Maids and Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano as her thesis at California State University at Los Angeles (where I was working on an M.A. in music composition). Ann was so fascinated by Ionesco’s work that she produced and directed his Rhinoceros at Colton, CA, high school where she taught.

Ann was indomitable and fearless. We were traveling in Massachusetts in 1972 and were at Tanglewood to hear a Boston Symphony concert. We were having—what else?—a cup of coffee at a hotel in Lenox when Ann jumped up and accosted a total stranger. “Mr. Ionesco, won’t you join us for coffee?” Yes, it was he, and, yes, he did join us for a cup of coffee.

A huge chunk of my autobiography someday will be about my relationship with Ann. I won’t even mention here her glorious soprano voice and the role music played in our lives from high school almost to her death. One of our hopes was someday to perform together the soprano aria Ei! Wie schmeckt der Coffee süsse from the Bach “Coffee Cantata.”  We worked on it in private, but never had the time or discipline to perfect it.

The last cup of coffee I had with her was in 2002 in a mall café in Edmonton, Alberta. I won’t detail that experience except to say that after we had coffee, we went to the church where she was a member, and I played the piano for her to sing the “Holden Vespers” by Marty Haugen.

For most of our married life—and during our rekindled friendship after her divorce from Kinsella—we had a favorite bit of nonsense music. The words are from The Bad Child’s Book of Beasts, published 1896 by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953), sung to the tune of the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We learned this hymn from Fr. Jon Hart Olson of Christ Episcopal Church in Ontario, CA.

Rhinoceros, your hide looks all undone,
You do not take my fancy in the least:
You have a horn where other brutes have none:
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast.
Rhinoceros, you are an ugly beast;
You do not take my fancy in the least.

I intended to write about Ann on our anniversary May 28 but couldn’t figure out how. Coffee. From one cup of college student coffee to Rhinoceros.  Fitting metaphors for one of my most complex relationships.

The most beautiful college campus in America

The most beautiful college campus in America

“Is it odd, or is it God?”*

(*A question heard in a twelve-step meeting.)

The Swedish Lutheran poet

The Swedish Lutheran poet





If you’ve been reading my postings, you know I’m getting ready to hustle off to Oslo (and points east, ending in St. Petersburg) with the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas.

I’m going as accompanist (mostly organ, some piano), not as a singer. After 15 years of smoking—I quit in 1979—and 20 or so years of drinking way too much (mostly vodka, 90-proof)—I stopped in 1986—and now not seriously singing for many years, I make pretty awful sounds when I try to sing outside a range of about five notes.

At times during our performances I will be expected to play organ music. This may sound a bit over-the-top sentimental (it is not), but when we are in Sweden, we will be prepared to sing a hymn known to all Lutherans in the United States and presumably in Sweden, “Children of the Heavenly Father,” the words by Lina Sandell, and the tune a Swedish folk tune arranged by Os­kar Ahn­felt. The English translation of the first stanza is

Children of the heav’nly Father
Safely in His bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in Heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given

The Swedish original is

Tryggare kan ingen vara,
Än Guds lilla barnaskara,
Stjärnan ej på himlafästet,
Fågeln ej i kända nästet

Viktor Anderson, the director of the Calvary Lutheran choir, and I decided I should play a chorale prelude on the tune before the choir sings it—and we invite the audiences in Sweden to sing along. We decided that because I told him I have in my repertory a lovely organ setting of the tune.

Thinking about the hymn, I had in my mind’s ear the beginning of that chorale prelude (a chorale prelude is an arrangement of hymn tune as a solo work, usually for organ). As a matter of fact, with my vodka-tenor croaky voice in private, I could sing through the first section of the prelude. I knew I was not making it up.

The American composer

The American composer

When I got out the score of the collection of pieces I thought it was from, I was (mildly) horrified to discover it was not there. I could not for the life of me remember the composer or where the piece might be filed in my apartment. I fretted over the dilemma for three or four days, not wanting to tell Viktor I had imagined the music.

The last few days, I have been in a divestiture mode—that is, sorting and pitching stuff from my computer room which has essentially become my attic. Several boxes of stuff have been there since 2004 when I hurriedly moved in.  Sorting one of those boxes of (mainly) old photographs, I was pitching all that were of scenery I had forgotten or of people I did not recognize. I came to the last layer in the box, having thrown away most of its contents, and on the bottom was a single volume of organ music.

It is a collection of chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, for many years the organist of the Billy Graham campaigns whose work as musicologist and theorist of Evangelical worship is of the highest importance. The third of the preludes in the collection is the setting of “Children of the Heavenly Father” I had been singing to myself for a week.

The volume has performance markings from my high school organ teacher. I learned it in 1962. I am not sure I’ve ever played it since then.

Yesterday afternoon I was depressed. If you have to ask about what, you obviously don’t understand depression. I was about to indulge myself doing something that would have made me feel worse. My phone rang. It was a friend who had just received from an academic journal a rejection letter for an article he had submitted. He was having trouble working through his disappointment, so he called me. Our conversation helped him decide what to do that would be constructive rather than giving in to some indulgent behavior to mask his hurt. When we ended our conversation, I went to the organ and practiced for two hours—the one thing that will always lessen, if not lift completely, my depression. I know that absolutely, but when I’m depressed, I forget.

Some of my best friends would say these things are “God deals.” That is, God arranged them. If I believed in God, I’d be surprised if God didn’t have better things to do than serendipitously show me where an old piece of music is hiding, or prompt a friend to call me to find some solace for exactly what I need to talk to him—or someone—about.

But it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?

The heavenly father?

The heavenly father?