“No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog. . .” (Edward Hirsch)

"Now you’re walking down to the shore. . ."

“Now you’re walking down to the shore. . .”

These days there’s a lot of prattle by the talking heads on TV from FOX to MSNBC about President Obama’s “legacy.” Usually the topic is what the President is doing to shape (or reshape or create or change or . . .) his legacy.

The other day Diane Rehm’s guest on her NPR interview show was the British actor David Thomson. I didn’t hear the entire program, but I heard a few moments of his speaking to the idea that all of us are to a certain extent acting—acting out the role in which we want others to see us.

Don’t jump to conclusions. He was not saying we’re all phonies. Far from it. His point was that we all decide (maybe several times in our lives) how we want the world to see us—what our role is in the drama of our lives. I think that’s a powerful idea.

I’ve been thinking lately about that concept. My legacy. That, of course, is a luxury. For anyone who is simply and constantly trying to keep warm or figure where the next meal is coming from, a legacy is the last thing they have to worry about. And that’s—what?—90% of the world’s population. That I have the time, the awareness that anyone might think of me when I am gone—the luxury of knowing who the “leader” of my nation is—places me in the tiniest minority of the people now living or who have ever lived.

I heard only a few minutes of David Thomson’s discussion with Diane Rehm, and I have not read his book. I can hardly claim to understand his ideas. No matter. My legacy. My acting. My acting as if.

We’re all “method actors,” I’d say. We feel the feelings, we immerse ourselves in our experience, in our real and perceived worlds, and then “act” accordingly. Somewhere along the line my experience, both real and perceived, took me down several conflicting paths. I suppose that’s universally true. I don’t need to rehearse mine—it’s pretty much in evidence throughout this blog.

Yesterday I saw my new talk-therapist for the second time, and I began revealing as best I could why I was there. First, I was having a minor version of what I have heard described as a “panic attack.” It’s just the way I live—and my guess is everyone else does, too. I didn’t want to be there. I suddenly was aware of my heart (I don’t know if it was racing or pounding or what—I was simply aware of it). I could not sit still. I seldom can except when I’m at my computer keyboard or working a Sudoku puzzle. I was acutely aware that I did not want to be there.

". . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . ."

“. . .but the sea and the sky were also yours. . .”

So we talked. I talked a little about me. He talked a lot about anxiety. My skin crawled and I had to rub my head, and I wanted to scream. He sat calmly in his chair wearing his tie with his handsome gray beard immaculately trimmed and prattling on, and I slumped in the easy chair in my t-shirt with my hair and beard that have not been groomed for two weeks. At one point he was talking about the experience of the victims of the Holocaust (he’s not Jewish—his father was a famous Methodist theologian) and the numbers tattooed on their arms, “Not like the impressive ones you have.” I wore a long-sleeved shirt the first time we talked, so he hadn’t seen them before. At one point I saw the skinny young intern—did I say skinny?—(my therapist teaches at UTSouthwestern Medical School—I see six doctors there, lucky me) staring at my tattoos, and I knew they were both curious about them. Why does a retired church musician/college professor have all those tattoos? I think—although I may be projecting or hoping—that was the unasked question of the hour.

So then he asked me something—I forget what—that the answer was logically to tell him about tutoring college athletes. Specifically about the one last semester that I bonded with in a way the NCAA says we’re not supposed to, but which—I am pretty sure (because he told me so)—has helped keep him in school in the midst of a situation I would not have been able to handle when I was 19 years old. And then the one this week who told me the story of his (for me, literally, unbelievable) growing up, and his violent high school years, and his landing in college with almost no preparation and no skill for staying there. And the words of the director of the program as I left at the end of the day were, “Have you gotten through to another one of the boys?”

So President Obama and I are worried about our legacies. I wonder what the most important thing is that he’s ever done. Bet it has nothing to do with being President. I’ll bet it has to do with his making a connection somewhere sometime with someone—someONE—who could barely connect with anyone. And it makes the fact that he has not written the great American novel or been a concert organist or published books and books of poetry or any of those other things he MIGHT have done pretty much irrelevant.

And in those days in 2031 when he’s 70 and looking back on his life and alone—of course, he’ll never be alone, but he’ll be lonely—it’s that minute when some kid who’s had a rough, even violent, life said to him, “But I’m going to do this,” and admitted he could use his help along the way, that will make him weep in a way no actor on stage has ever done.

“What the Last Evening Will Be Like,” by Edward Hirsch (b. 1950)
You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.

(About Edward Hirsch.)

"No one else is around to drink with you from the watery fog, shadowy depths."

“No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.”

sum link for other blog

“. . . more life and more adventure for the brave. . .” (Godfrey Fox Bradby)

Gibbons  and hymnal gibbons

Gibbons and hymnal Gibbons

I’m a coward.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. But then, most people who know me well are cowards, too. The people I hang with are pretty run-of-the-mill, don’t bother me I’m busy making a living kinds of folks.

If I had even a modicum of courage, I would be living in Bethlehem or Freetown or Mosul or Lake Providence. I’d at least be volunteering at the North Texas Food Bank or The Stewpot.

My default earworm is a tune by Orlando Gibbons (1583 –1625) published in 1623, his “Song 1.” It’s the tune for a strange hymn in the Episcopal Hymnal 1940 (number 470, I will remember ‘til I die).

The hymn is strange because it begins with a heretical statement,

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.

It’s heretical because, even though people think Christians believe we will die and then immediately go to heaven or hell, and that’s the purpose of life, true Christian theology is that when we die, we’re good and dead! St. Paul says we will be raised “incorruptible” when the trumpet sounds, but until then we’ll be dead. No Rapture there!

The statement, “We were not born to die,” is heretical.

I don’t care one way or the other what anyone believes about death. I think the orthodox Christian theology is correct—at least that we’ll be dead when we die—and I expect in 14.07 years (by the Social Security actuarial table) to be dead.

As earworms go, mine is pretty strange. I’ll bet no one reading this can sing it. No one who didn’t grow up Episcopalian between 1940 and 1982 has ever heard it . Not more than 5% of those folks can sing it.

I learned the tune when I was a junior in college, 1966. Dr. Spelman, Director of the School of Music, gave me his copy of the complete works of Orlando Gibbons from the Tudor Church Music collection. He bought it when he was a student in Paris in 1931. In 1966 I thought it was a venerable antique. He gave it to me because the University Choir, for which I was one of the organists, was singing the little Gibbons anthem, “O Lord Increase My Faith.”

The book was (and is) one of my prized possessions, a hefty tome. In order to show me it was not simply a historical relic, Dr. Spelman showed me “Song 1” from the volume was used in The Hymnal 1940, which the University Choir used. It immediately became my favorite hymn tune.

When I was pursuing my MA in composition four years later, my first extended work was a brass quintet, and the second movement is essentially a chorale prelude on “Song 1.”

The hymn may have been omitted from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 as much because it is confusing as because it is heretical. After beginning with the statement that we were not born to die, it closes with the stanza,

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.
“Beyond the grave, more life?”
Nothing that lives in God is ever dead?

Wait! We are—according to the most orthodox Christian theology—dead until the trumpet shall sound and we shall be raised. Now, lest anyone think I worry about the fine points of Christian theology, I must get back to my original topic. Bravery. Or was it earworms?

Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

So, according to Bradby, if you want life and adventure beyond the grave, you must live bravely here. Sounds vaguely like something a “Jihadist” suicide bomber would say, no?

It probably means Bradby would say I’m not going to heaven because I don’t live bravely here.

My favorite autograph

My favorite autograph

I’ve thought a lot about that for 50 years. Because of my earworm. Really. I’ll bet five days out of seven I hum at least the first three or four bars of the tune, and I have to consciously substitute some other earworm to take its place. That often turns out to be not much better, the hymntune “Salzburg,” with the original words, Alle Menschen müssen sterben (“all people must die”).

I’m a big baby. Scared of everything. Scared I’m going to hurt my hip again, so I walk with a cane (actually, about every 10th step does hurt, so that may not count). I never do anything dangerous. Never have done.

And, for the most part, my friends haven’t either. I have one friend who climbed some mountain in Tibet, but that’s not danger, that’s foolhardiness. I know a guy who races stock cars. Again, foolhardiness.

I am acquainted with a woman who travels all over the world saving girls from sexual slavery. She’s brave. A close friend has been in an Israeli prison for helping to feed kids in Palestinian refugee camps (Gaza and Lebanon). She’s the bravest person I know.

I saw on the PBS Newshour a couple of nights ago the attorney Nancy Hollander, whom I have met several times, who is representing Mohamedou Ould Slahi whose book about his imprisonment at Guantanamo has just been released. Nancy is brave. So is Mohamedou.

I hope it’s evident where I’m going with this. I don’t have much use for people who climb mountains or worry about heaven or hell—whether or not there are such things and/or whether or not they’re going there.

Bravery, in my book is doing something FOR someone else—probably someone you don’t even know—that might (probably will) make other people hate you and probably harm you.

Where is death’s sting? We were not born to die,
Nor only for the life beyond the grave.
All that is beautiful in earth and sky,
All skills, all knowledge, all the powers we have,
Are of thy giving; and in them we see
no dust and ashes, but a part of thee.

Laughter is thine, the laughter free from scorn,
And thine the smile upon a cheerful face:
Thine, too, the tears, when love for love must mourn,
And death brings silence for a little space.
Thou gavest, and thou dost not take away:
The parting is but here, and for a day.

Fullness of life, in body, mind, and soul:
“Who saves his life shall lose it,” thou hast said.
A great adventure with a glorious goal;
Nothing that lives in thee is ever dead:
Brave living here: and then, beyond the grave,
More life and more adventure for the brave.

I’m pretty much chicken-shit.
photoApropos of almost nothing. This photograph was in the Gibbons volume when I opened it. Three of the players in as production of the Wakefield Cycle of Mystery Plays, the play for the Feast of the Ascension, produced my my choir at Grace Church Episcopal in Salem, MA, 1983. Jesus (not pictured) was played by a Cabot (yess one of THE Cabots), and God sat on the high altar throughout the drama. Some people didn’t like that she sat on the high altar. Some people didn’t like that she was African-American. Hardly anyone complained that God was she.

“. . . Through a lyric slipknot of joy . . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

Without thinking about it.

Without thinking about it.

Most of the time when I write—here or elsewhere as anyone who has read any of my stuff can readily see—my idea is only sketchily formed when I begin, and it may not be any more complete when I finish. I often follow the directive, “We write to know what we think.”

It’s unusual for me actually to be thinking about an idea long before I write it. I organize my thoughts as I go along. However, I have an essay (or a blog post or something) brewing in my mind that I don’t know how to finish. My mind was jogged into thinking about it during the every-semester tutor-training session at the Academic Development for Student Athletes Center at Southern Methodist University, where I tutor student athletes. My essay might begin something like this.

Listeners, if they happen to be where they can watch me playing the organ, often ask me (and I’m sure every organist gets the question), “How do you do that with your feet?” My answer is usually a flip, “I don’t know because if I think about it, I can’t do it.” What I thought about for the first time in that training session was the other necessary step in that answer, “But if I think about anything else, I can’t do it.”

If I think about my grocery list while I am playing the Bach E minor Prelude and Fugue, my playing will be either mechanical or full of errors, or both. On the other hand, if my imagination is not running wild when I am reading The Goldfinch, I may as well stop reading. I will not only miss the imaginary world Donna Tartt has outlined for me, but I will also, at the very basic level, not be able to connect the visual stimulus of the squiggles on the page (or the Nook screen) to words that have definite sounds that carry socially-constructed discreet meanings.

I don’t know how to research topics related to how we learn, how we train our different kinds of intelligence, what makes us good at some things and not at others. I have found one that has succeeded in confusing me—which means it is probably exactly the article I need to begin with.

Stevens-Smith, Debbie, and Deborah Cadorette. “Coaches, Athletes, and Dominance Profiles in Sport: Addressing the Learning Styles of Athletes to Improve Performance.” Physical Educator 69.4 (2012): 360-374.

Here’s the question I’d try to answer if I were half my age and looking for a career:

Is it possible that student athletes are trained to use their brains with so much focus that they learn not to multi-task mentally? Or that only students who are able to learn in that way become great athletes?

I was watching an SMU basketball game on TV last night (I would not have enough interest to watch any other). At one point the members of the SMU team passed the ball enough times preparing to make a basket that every player on the team had possession of the ball at least once—a couple of them three or four times. All of this passing was going on seemingly miraculously right through the arms of the opposing team. Finally one of the players wove himself between two of the opposing team, jumped up to the basket and dunked the ball.

An absurd focus

An absurd focus

That’s the way good teams play, of course. Nothing special about that. But I was thinking about focus. Obviously those guys have a kind of focus on what they and four other men are doing to tune out everything, from the noise of the cheerleaders chanting, “Defense! Defense! Defense!” to the chatter of the other team, to the lights, to their teammates sitting on the bench, to the other team trying desperately to hit the ball as they pass it around.

Focus! What kind of training does that take? If they think about it, they cannot do it. If they think about anything else, they cannot do it.

Because I’m so un-athletic and have turned into a fat old man with a “bad hip” and a “bad shoulder,” I really don’t like sports (never did, truth be told). But I think I’m hooked—not on the game, but on what basketball players do.

I’m mystified, bewildered, dumbfounded by the focus of those guys. How does one concentrate that way? Concentration that borders on the miraculous, on the improbable, the absurd. What percentage of the population can do what those guys do? It seems statistically impossible.

It is a kind of intelligence that I can only imagine—no, let’s be honest, I can’t imagine it.

Of all the organists I have ever known (and it’s a passel of them, let me be clear), those few who have had the ability to focus most completely have given up much in their determination to “do that without thinking” and to “think about nothing else” when they are performing. Social skills and wide knowledge of the world around them have in some instances passed them by.

Or perhaps they belong to a special group of people who are “wired differently” than the rest of us and are somehow naturally able to memorize a Widor Organ Symphony in a week (yes, I know an organist who did that—and a conservatory pianist who memorized and performed with orchestra the Rachmaninoff “Variations on a Theme of Paganini” in less than a month).

How are those few organists (and other “world-class” classical music performers) like the 450 men playing in the National Basketball Association this year? Something about all of them is different from all the rest of us.

I am not one of them (Duh!). I have no clue how it feels to have that kind of focus. And I have about a dozen ideas for writing on the subject—most of which I will not finish in the 14.07 years the Social Security Actuarial Table predicts I have left to write. Focus!

Slam, Dunk, & Hook, by Yusef Komunyaka
Fast breaks. Lay ups. With Mercury’s
Insignia on our sneakers,
We outmaneuvered to footwork
Of bad angels. Nothing but a hot
Swish of strings like silk
Ten feet out. In the roundhouse
Labyrinth our bodies
Created, we could almost
Last forever, poised in midair
Like storybook sea monsters.
A high note hung there
A long second. Off
The rim. We’d corkscrew
Up & dunk balls that exploded
The skullcap of hope & good
Intention. Lanky, all hands
& feet…sprung rhythm.
We were metaphysical when girls
Cheered on the sidelines.
Tangled up in a falling,
Muscles were a bright motor
Double-flashing to the metal hoop
Nailed to our oak.
When Sonny Boy’s mama died
He played nonstop all day, so hard
Our backboard splintered.
Glistening with sweat,
We rolled the ball off
Our fingertips. Trouble
Was there slapping a blackjack
Against an open palm.
Dribble, drive to the inside,
& glide like a sparrow hawk.
Lay ups. Fast breaks.
We had moves we didn’t know
We had. Our bodies spun
On swivels of bone & faith,
Through a lyric slipknot
Of joy, & we knew we were
Beautiful & dangerous.

Use that uncanny focus.

The most focused performer I ever met.

The most focused performer I ever met.

“. . . They will inherit the earth only when the final pilgrimage is done. . .” (Ellen Hinsey)

I’ve missed my calling. I should be a geneticist. I have much odd material to work with.

My mother’s family are prone to Rosacea. Red skin, appearing to be flushed with embarrassment or heat most of the time. The nose eventually swelling to look like W. C. Fields (whose nose was misshapen by Rosacea, not by booze).

It's all in the genes.

It’s all in the genes.

My father’s family are prone to barnacles, growths on the skin that serve no apparent purpose. The least fortunate of us have a plethora of them. My family and—more especially—my friends are kind to ignore the encrustments on my head. I imagine some people when they first meet me are put off. I’ve been asked by a couple of men who wanted to date me if there is something wrong that should be taken care of.

Well, yes, there is something wrong. Icky blemishes on my skin. If I were a billionaire, I’d have a private dermatologist to fix them. But, since I’m not, anyone who wants to be my friend will simply have to get over them. None of them are cancerous or otherwise dangerous, and they are mine to keep—not in any way communicable.

I’m not a billionaire, and that means (as all Americans know) I am lazy, or unfocused, or defective in some other way, because in America, under capitalism, I should be a billionaire simply by dint of my hard work and cleverness (I’ve worked pretty hard most of my life, and I’m moderately clever).

The truth of the matter is that genetics have prevented me from amassing great wealth. Unless one’s genetic makeup is white-European, male, and (not actually genetic, but a large essential component of the process) Christian, one has little chance of becoming a billionaire. Why, then, am I not a billionaire?

According to Forbes magazine’s annual listing, of the 400 richest Americans, 358 are men (42 women). Of those, only 14 are of racial/national backgrounds not thought of as white-European, and only one is a woman of color. Whether or not any is gay, the listing does not say. (There are actually 513 American billionaires, but Forbes lists only the top 400 in their statistics, so it is possible that some of the other 113 are people of color and/or women or gay.)

My genetic pre-disposition to skin blemishes must be the cause of my poverty. I am white-European and male, moderately hard-working, and clever, but with blemishes.

The other reason I am not wealthy is, since one’s genetic makeup can insure great wealth, only a certain evolved few can be billionaires. If one has the last name Getty, Perot, Nordstrom, Sacks, Carlson, Ziff, Kaiser, Cargill, Rockefeller, Kraft, Kohler, Kellogg, or Murdock, for example, one is almost guaranteed to be genetically predisposed to be on the list.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

The Pritzker family: Secretary of Commerce, third from right.

A few other family names make billionairehood even more likely. Among those 400 richest Americans, at least three have the Koch family genes, five the Walton, four the Hunt, two the Bass, four the Pritzker, and three the Mars. Of the 400 richest Americans, at least 37 were born with genes that guarantee wealth regardless of hard work or cleverness.

At least one, Penny Pritzker, was guaranteed not only wealth, but political power. As the 263rd-wealthiest American (at $2.5 billion) she is the Secretary of Commerce, the head of all of the genetic wealth-regulating agencies of the government.

I think it’s fair to ask those billionaires who talk about the “American dream” and other religious mythologies to acknowledge their genetic predisposition to wealth. My genetic pre-disposition to obvious skin deformities might not have prevented me from having great wealth if I had had, for example, some of the Koch family genes.

Even though there is one person of color among the 400, we cannot extrapolate from there that other people of color have the same genetic predisposition to wealth as, say, the Hunts and the Waltons.

The genetic predisposition to wealth is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Forbes’ list of the billionaires in the world is now 1,645 worldwide. And remarkably enough, nine of those billionaires are people of color, disproving the theory that people of color never have the pre-disposition.

Aliko Dangote, $25 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Al-Amoudi, $15.3 billion – Saudi Arabia
Mike Adenuga, $4.6 billion – Nigeria
Isabel Dos Santos, $3.7 billion – Angola
Patrice Motsepe, $2.9 billion – South Africa
Oprah Winfrey, $2.9 billion – America
Folorunsho Alakija, $2.5 billion – Nigeria
Abdulsamad Rabiu, $1.2 billion – Nigeria
Mohammed Ibrahim, $1.1 billion – Britain

0.5% of the billionaires of the world are people of color. (Nigeria seems to be rich in the genes.) Two of the nine are women. Isabel Dos Santos is the daughter of Angola’s President José Eduardo dos Santos. In some few cases the genetic predisposition to wealth also predisposes one to political power (see Penny Pritzker above). Everyone knows who Oprah is.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the genetic predisposition to billionairehood is that one of the most common concurrent genetic predispositions these people have is to being, at least nominally, Christian. Which is strange because, according to at least one explanation of the tenets of their religion, perhaps they should not be rich at all.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
• Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
• Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
• Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
• Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
• Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
• Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
• Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
• Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

I’m not suggesting that the genetic predisposition to wealth means a priori that one cannot be “poor in spirit,” or “meek,” or “peacemakers,” or “persecuted,” only that I, in my limited experience, have seen little evidence of it. I don’t mean to judge, but to question. How does all of this fit together?

The Christ of the Christian religion is recorded as saying the “meek” (can I equate them with those who are not genetically predisposed to wealth and power) will inherit the earth. Ellen Hinsey says that will happen only when “the final pilgrimage is done.” I wonder when that will be.

“The Multitude,” by Ellen Hinsey (born 1960 in Boston)

Standing at the edge is the great Multitude.

They inch forward in their rags and hunger.
Their movement along the ground lifts
the sound of ancestral migrations.

They are carrying the dark water of need
in their eyes; they are carrying the first
vowels, the first consonants,

But their mouths are silent, and watchful.

And the great scavenging wings hang over them;
the raven eyes hunting among the muteness
of the winding cortege.

Beside them are the pools filled with the specters
of famine, civil war, drought—

They become one body, a muscle of need.
A testament of want.

And night—which is always upon them—rides them
like the wild horses of the storm-filled plains.

They will inherit the earth only when the final
pilgrimage is done.

For in this life, the crystal lake and the great sword
of understanding, raised high, will not show
them mercy.

Far off, in the West, a light burns brightly. But
it is not for them.
(written 2013—not yet published)

An interesting field of study, genetics.

when the final pilgrimage is done

when the final
pilgrimage is done

“. . . the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. . .” (Gertrude Stein)

I think Bill's Steamer was yellow.

I think Bill’s Steamer was yellow.

It’s the 16th day of my 71st year.

I have titled this blog “me senescence,” shorthand for “about me, growing old.”

A long time ago, I unsuccessfully decided I was going to figure out the writings of Gertrude Stein. “A rose, is a rose, is a rose” is a pretty straight-forward poem. Other than that one, every poem of hers I’ve read sounds to me like a Picasso painting looks. They were great friends, and their understanding of making art and perceiving it was apparently the same.

My favorite lines from Stein’s “IF I TOLD HIM. A Completed Portrait of Picasso” are

He he he he and he and he and and he and he and he and and as and as he and as he and he. He is and as he is, and as he is and he is, he is/
and as he and he and as he is and he and he and and he and he.

The poem seems to be about Napoleon. I don’t get it. I’ve seen both of the operas by Virgil Thomson for which Stein wrote the libretti, Four Saints in Three Acts and The Mother of us All. All I remember of those productions is my confusion—for years I thought I’d listen to them again to sort them out because I love—and play—Thomson’s music.

I’ve never known anyone who knew Gertrude Stein. But when I lived in Salem, MA, I taught organ to an old man who had been in the Harvard Glee Club with Thomson in the ‘20s. (He was at the time probably but a few years older than I am now.) He owned the only Stanley Steamer I’ve ever seen.

The Harvard Glee Club traveled to Paris when Bill and Virgil were in it, and Bill told many titillating stories about Thomson. He told me he had a photograph of Thomson standing by a wall in Paris pissing under a sign that said, Défense de urine. I never saw the picture, but I have every reason to believe Bill had it.

Recalling all of that perhaps flies directly in the face of Gertrude Stein’s “conception of a continuous present is when everything is unique, beginning again and again and again” (Leslie Scalapino).

I’m not hanging out in the continuous present.

The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. Nothing else is different, of that almost any one can be certain. The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition (Stein, Selected Writings).

I’m looking backward. I’m not “living in the living [I am] doing.” As I write, I am not “composing of the composition at the time [I

THE Christmas tree

THE Christmas tree

am] living [which is] the composition of the time in which [I am] living.” I am not living in the present, the “continuous” present.

Gertrude Stein lived to be only 72 years old (1874-1946). She died 18 months after I was born. However, she cast a long shadow over parts of American culture. She influenced (or at least was friends with) Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Orson Welles, and many more American artists who spent the obligatory time (for anyone who wanted artistic success in the ‘20s ‘30s, and ‘50s) in Paris.

For 10 Christmases beginning in 1994, my late partner put up spectacular Christmas trees in our apartment—12 feet tall with his 2,000 ornaments and at least 10 strings of lights. The tree had been his tradition long before we met. These days, when I think of Christmas trees, I think of Jerry, of Jerry’s tree. Still. No one can do a tree like his.

When I think of Jerry’s trees, I wonder if I am living in the “continuous present,” or am I living in the past. Or is the past part of my present? Is it important to understand what Stein meant?

Yesterday a short conversation with a friend—he told me he had played the piano at the celebration after his mother’s funeral the day before—reminded me of Jerry’s funeral. He died in November, 2003, and his funeral was in his family church in Arlington, VT. I went to Vermont. His family and I had gathered on the front pew of the Community Church in Arlington and were waiting for the service to begin. The pastor came in and whispered to Jerry’s mother. She turned to me and said, “He can do it.” The pastor whispered to me that the organist had called to say she had forgotten the funeral. Could I play the hymns?

I remember the sense that my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment, these three hymns. I remember also wondering how I could be performing at the funeral of the man I loved. It’s not possible.

The other day I was sorting old photographs and came upon pictures of Jerry’s trees and of that church in Vermont. I can’t claim to know what Stein meant by, “The time when and the time of and the time in that composition is the natural phenomena of that composition.”

The time of helping Jerry with his tree, of giving Bill a few organ lessons, of Virgil pissing in a forbidden place, of Frank playing the piano, of my playing the organ at Jerry’s funeral (and for another, that of a complete stranger, two days ago), of celebrating my 70th birthday, of reading Stein’s writing, these I will take as the “composition of the living I am doing, the natural phenomena of the composition of my life.”

That’s probably belittling the importance of Stein’s writing, but it’s an OK way for this senescent to think.

. . .my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment. . .

. . .my whole life of playing the organ had been for this one moment. . .

“. . . those angels, forever falling, snare us and haul us. . .” (Sherman Alexie)

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

Mechanical Action, Goodwin Opus 1

In the fall semester of 1963 at the University of Redlands in California, Steuart Goodwin—a senior composition major—arranged for and directed the process of moving an organ built in New England in the mid-19th century by George Stevens into Watchorn Hall of the School of Music.

The organ arrived in (thousands of?) pieces shipped in wooden crates. The good-clean-fun of helping unload the organ from the truck and carry it into the Hall made for lifetime memories. Over the next months, Steuart reassembled the organ.

The impact of that uncommon event on organ students varied. The organ was the first mechanical action (tracker) instrument most of us had ever seen. Some of us hardly ever again practiced on any other organ on campus. Some would not venture into that studio. For me, mechanical action instruments became absolutely preferable to others—at least in theory. I’ve played many awesome organs with electric action and some ugly tracker organs. (See this article for an explanation.)

In the fall of 1964 Steuart went off to The Netherlands on a Fulbright Fellowship to learn to make organ pipes at the Flentrop factory in Zaandam. When he returned home, he began his life’s work as an organ builder.

Coincidentally, the University installed a modern tracker-action organ in the recital hall the next year, built by Hermann Schlicker. I played my junior recital (a “half” recital of the Hindemith Second Sonata for Organ and the Bach E Minor “Wedge” Prelude and Fugue) on it, the first student recital on that organ.

Steuart’s Opus 1 is a small instrument of two keyboards and pedals with six stops. He built it as a “house organ.” I—in my dotage—have forgotten its full history, but it spent many years as a practice instrument at Redlands. In a reshuffling of teaching space, the University needed to divest itself of the organ, and once again I helped Steuart move, unpack, and rebuild an organ—this time his Opus 1 in my living room.

I cannot overstate the personal and emotional, as well as musical, importance of the Goodwin Opus 1 for me. It has been a constant in my life for 50 years—as has been my friendship with Steuart. Ours is the most lasting friendship of my life.

In the last few weeks I have become fascinated by music by various composers over the centuries based on a tune by Hans Leo Hassler (1564-1612). The tune is a love song from Hassler’s courtly collection, Lustgarten neuer teutscher Gesäng (“Pleasure garden of new German songs). The opening lines of the words:

Mein G’muth ist mir verwirret,
Das macht ein Magdlein zart.
(My comfort is confounded. A maiden is the cause.)

In 1613 Christoph Knoll (1563-1621) set his funeral text Herzlich tut mich verlangen to Hassler’s tune. Henry S. Drinker (1880-1965) translated the words to English:

My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.
From ills that here surround me and woes that never cease.
The cruel world to banish would be a blessed boon;
I sigh for joys eternal, O Jesus, Lord, come soon.

Most people know this tune as the melody for the 1656 Good Friday hymn, “O Sacred Head, now Wounded,” by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).

I began to be interested in organ settings of this tune (with the Knoll text) when I rediscovered a setting by Johann Kirnberger (1721-1783) in a collection I’ve had since Redlands days. I was looking for simple (simple!) pieces I can memorize to help keep my old brain functioning.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall.  If I ever knew what it is, I've forgotten.

A frieze over the door of Watchorn Hall. If I ever knew what it is, I’ve forgotten.

I’ve found ten settings of Herzlich tut mich verlangen. This is not a longing for death. It is a musicological exercise in finding music I can easily play and perhaps memorize. The fact that all of the pieces I’ve found so far are perfectly suited to the Goodwin Opus 1 gives the process purpose and delight.

A word about playing and recording on the Goodwin, and uploading the results online. It is not false modesty for me to say I am not a “natural” performer. Anyone who doubts that has only to listen to my playing. And Opus 1 is not representative of Steuart’s mature work as an organ builder—especially as a tonal finisher. I think he probably cringes at some of my uploads, especially when I have not had Ross King tune the organ recently enough.

My musical purpose is simple. It’s probably too personal to discuss here. However, I’ve come to a place (remember this when you reach 70) where I have little concern about criticism. My playing is my most immediate means of communicating the delicacy and the mystery of life as I know it. If anyone finds it lacking, I can say only that what anyone thinks of me is none of my business.

A “sea-change” has come over me in the last year or so (see Ariel’s song in Act I, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest). I am not afraid of death, and I have nothing to prove. I have only myself to share as best I can with anyone who wants to know me. I have some loose ends I’d like to tie up while I have time.

Lack of civility and violence and purposeful ignorance still roil me. And my own foibles—both the purposeful ones and those caused by neurological mishaps in my brain—make me sometimes want to start over again 50 years ago. But I don’t say (or think) with Christoph Knoll, “My heart is ever yearning for blessed death’s release.”

I hope, I yearn (isn’t that a funny old-fashioned word?) for some peace, here and now. And I wish I could communicate that to others. My halting playing on this wonderful unusual little organ will have to do.

I read a great deal of poetry, and I found this poem that, even though the poet is only 49 years old, seems to fit what I’m trying to say. The connection may not be clear to anyone but me, but the poem is lovely.

“Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World,” (2009) by Sherman Alexie
The morning air is all awash with angels . . . – Richard Wilbur

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.

I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?

Who is most among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because

He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,

I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father

Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—

How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee

This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—

And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs

At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days

And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.

Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.

Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.

Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born on October 7, 1966, on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.


My recordings of the organ are obviously less than professional. The camera is too close to the organ, so the movement of the “trackers” is audible. The camera also does not record bass sounds well. And then there is the occasional airplane noise (in the flight pattern of Love Field).

None of that gets in my way. I hope it doesn’t yours.

“. . . You gave me What you did not have. . .” (Alberto Ríos)

If everyone lit just one little candle on WABD (now Fox WNYW) TV

If everyone lit just one little candle on WABD (now Fox WNYW) TV

In 1952—the year Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected President, defeating Adlai Stevenson—Roman Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) defeated Edward R. Murrow, Lucille Ball and Arthur Godfrey for the Emmy for Most Outstanding Television Personality. He was a televangelist before there were such things.

I remember the show because my father belittled the good Bishop, not (overtly) because he was Catholic but because he was sentimental and entertaining. I also remember ad nauseam the last phrase of his show’s theme song, which swelled in the background as he gave his blessing, “And if everyone lit just one little candle, what a bright world this would be.”

That song was not the stuff of my father’s Baptist preaching. The actions of human beings, no matter how noble or well-intended, were not going to make the world a better place. That job was for the deity.

The good Bishop was recently on his way to Canonization as a saint, but the process came to a halt last year when the Archdiocese of New York refused to give his body to the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, for the examination—and taking the “relics”—required for sainthood. New Yorkers know the value of an Emmy-Award-Winning Personality.

Most of us believe we have award-winning personalities (caveat: assuming most of “us” have the time and wherewithal to be thinking about ourselves, as opposed to most of “them” who are struggling simply to survive). If we don’t assume we have award-winning personalities, we have plenty of clothes from Ross-Dress-For-Less or Nordstrom-Dress-For-More, and apps for our iPhones, and Rear-View-Monitoring Systems for our cars to make up for it.

I used to worry about my personality. I began worrying when I began to understand (in about 4th grade) I’m an odd duck. I’ve never quite fit in. That’s not sour grapes, it’s not trying make excuses for myself, and it’s not wishful thinking. In 4th grade I was the teacher’s pet, overweight, an organ student rather than a Little Leaguer, and often wore clothes my mother made. The preacher’s kid, too. And gay. And knew it.

If you didn’t worry about your personality in 4th grade, you were either one of the in-crowd and knew it, better adjusted than any 4th-grader I’ve ever known, or hopeless.

The odd duck

The odd duck

I’ve written several times about the $20 bill I keep folded and hidden in my wallet for the purpose of giving it to a (homeless, street, needy, crazy) person. I began the practice when I received a tearful, grateful hug from a small elderly Asian waitress for whom I left a $20 tip at a Denny’s restaurant in Seattle about 15 years ago. It’s no big deal. It’s not generous or gracious or altruistic on my part. I’m the one, this odd duck who almost always feels out of place, who got the hug—the assurance that I’m still part of the human race and not an Anas discors.

If I am making the world bright, the light’s falling on me, not on the recipients of my $20 bill. But it’s not because I’m doing something so wonderful that I deserve it.

So now I drift off into the same kind of sentimentalism my father found in the teaching of Bishop TV Personality.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll probably say it again. If you want to stop feeling like an odd duck, or even a Cygnus buccinators, give someone who needs it a $20 bill. I know most everyone who might be reading this gives a beggar on the street corner a quarter now and then, mostly to assuage guilt for all the times we have “passed by on the other side” (Luke 10:25-37).

Advice: It’s a lot more assuaging to drop a $20 bill in the woman’s hat. You can not only feel noble, but you might—if you’re lucky and the world’s truly becoming a “bright place”—get an unmerited hug out of the deal. You know, physical human contact, probably contact you’ll remember all day because you’ll worry that you’ve picked up some of her odor. You’ll remember it because you don’t deserve it

I have a couple other suggestions. If you’re worried about, terrified of, disgusted by “illegal immigrants,” go teach an ESL class at, say, the Aberg Center for Literacy in Dallas. Or send Judge Clay Jenkins an email offering to help take care of some of the illegal kids down on the border (his program turned out to be unnecessary, but you’ll be on his distribution list and learn about all sorts of stuff on the other side of Dallas you didn’t know about).

Or get yourself a meager-paying job as a tutor for athletes at some college who are being abused by “the system” of school athletics and help them find their true potential (or if you don’t want to be grandiose, just help them pass College English 101).

Or the next time your church sends you an email asking you for a donation to help Syrian kids in refugee camps in Lebanon, send them the $20.

Or tell your friend who puts racist comments about President Obama on your Facebook page to cut it out. Tell them. In public.

Want to see the jolliest moment of your day? Watch the instant and oh-so-real communication between a guy with a cane holding the door for a guy with a walker. You’re not going to get a ray of the brightness of the world any better than that.

This sentimental old fool has two words of advice for you youngsters. If you plan on being old, take care of your hips. And, if you plan on being old, cut out living as if you’re the only non-odd duck in the world and start carrying a $20 bill.

This is not new advice. I just keep discovering its aptness day after day. And I am more grateful than I can say for all the people who light candles to light my way.

“When Giving Is All We Have,” by Alberto Ríos (b. 1952)
One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

The Ugly duckling grown up.
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