“. . . ye, who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow. . . “

San Diego Food Bank, 2013

San Diego Food Bank, 2013

We go through life ignoring the major part of what we see and hear. If you couldn’t filter out the sounds you’re not specifically listening for, you’d hear the din. And if you’re driving down the street and can’t focus your eyes on the path ahead instead of taking in the entire panorama, everyone else on the road better be doing more than defensive driving.

I’ve often taught “music appreciation” classes with the goals of making listening to music consciously enjoyable for the students and helping them understand something of the history of musical style and the place of music in various cultures.

I always include lessons in singing various kinds of melodies—from medieval chant to folksongs to popular songs, to opera arias (anyone can sing a couple arias from Carmen). One of my favorite ways to teach such music is to help students hear dissonances and understand that in tonal Western music, dissonances propel melodies forward because they are set up with chord progressions and they resolve into other chord progressions. Dissonances are to music what “and,” “but,” “so,” “however,” “therefore,” “because,” “even so,” and hundreds more words are to language. Most English teachers call them “transition” words—if they mention them at all. I think, rather, they are “connection” words.

Because the Congress is useless” is not a complete thought. It’s a fragment—even though everyone knows what I mean and agrees with it. The bolded words are like dissonances in music—they make the writing complex and interesting, and they propel the ideas forward by connecting them together. Of course the “because” clause here is a fragment because it is not connected to anything (somewhat like the Boehner/Cruz Congress).

Connect musical ideas and make them interesting—that’s what dissonances do in tonal music. And, like the connecting words in writing and speech, they are so integral a part of our musical patterns that we hardly notice them or know what they are. I’d say—because I’m an elitist and a snob—most people would tell you they don’t like dissonant music. That’s tantamount to saying they don’t like music. Period. All music is (to some degree) dissonant. “Row, row, row your boat” isn’t. “Happy Birthday” has hung on as a cultural icon because it has one crucial dissonance—at the point where we stick in the celebrant’s name. A sort of mellow dissonance, but dissonance all the same, the dissonance for which the song exists, both musically and textually.

Unemployment line, Olympia, Washington, 2013

Unemployment line, Olympia, Washington, 2013

Take the Christmas carol “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” one of those so ubiquitous this time of year that it might be said to be part of the collective unconscious of the entire English speaking (Christian) world. But a Muslim student told me once it was her favorite Christmas carol.

The standard accompaniment for the tune has dissonances (some so harsh that, if most people heard them in isolation, they would say they were noise) at the bolded words:

It came upon the mid –night clear, that glo –rious song of old; from an –gels bend –ing near the earth to touch their harps of gold. Peace on the earth, good will toward men, from hea –ven’s all gra –cious King. The world in sol emn still –ness lay to hear the an –gels sing.

This little chart does not include the greatest dissonance—the complete change of “key” at “Peace on the earth, good will toward men. . .” It’s almost as if for one sentence in her essay, a tenth-generation American English-speaking student wrote in Arabic for no reason other than to spice up her writing.

I would not try to teach this tune to a group of Russian émigré students again for anything. It’s impossible to comprehend if you didn’t hear it in utero. I know. I tried it once at Bunker Hill Community College.

But the overwhelming problem with the carol—the reason almost no one knows more of the words than the first stanza—is the shockingly harsh dissonance of the words. They are not, like well-constructed dissonance in music, prepared for. They strike out of nowhere and leave the singer horrified. They are not what Christmas, or any other materialistic, capitalism-praising holiday can be about. Members of Congress, for example, cannot—could not, if they ever got beyond the pabulum of the first stanza—believe their ears upon hearing these words. But don’t go feeling all self-righteous about that. If we could believe our ears, Congress would be made up of a much different sort of people, that is, not so much like us.

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow,
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hast’ning on, by prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever circling years comes round the age of gold
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.

Nope, we don’t even hear the dissonance in that. It’s a hymn to, a prayer for, social justice. No member of Congress is bending low beneath life’s crushing load. Most of us aren’t either. But more and more of us are as the wealthy friends of Congress store up for themselves more and more of the stuff that makes people secure, such as food and clothing and health care and shelter (connecting words bolded).

I don’t know who the angels are these days. But they will eventually arrive. And when they do, those who rest beside the weary road will be able to send back the angels’ song of peace. If you can’t hear that, if it’s too dissonant for you, perhaps you need a course in music appreciation. Or ethical and socially responsible thinking and behavior. As opposed to unthinking militant christianism and capitalism.

I don’t know. Sermon over.

I’m sick and tired of hearing people talk about “entitlements” and other obfuscations of reality and morality –such as their irrational hatred of the Affordable Care Act

Is this reprobate giving back his Social Security check every month?

Is this reprobate giving back his Social Security check every month? Oh, and by the way, as an example of his generosity, did you know he sued his brothers to gyp them out of their inheritance?

** Please see the NYT link at the end.

I don’t want to hear that my Social Security check or my use of Medicare is an “entitlement”—especially hear it with that sneer that our ridiculous politicians and some of my Republican friends plant on their upper lips when they say it.

I’ve been paying into SS since I was 12, and I deserve the modicum of return on my investment that I’m getting.  And I’ve been paying into Medicare since it was established.


The politicians who sneer at entitlements are – in case you hadn’t noticed – totally incompetent. They are a bunch of losers that somehow we have been bribed and hoodwinked into electing (if you voted for a Tea Bagger, don’t complain to me when you discover that you don’t get to start SS until you’re 80).

We have no one but ourselves to blame. But don’t you – if you want to remain my friend – use the word “entitlement” in my presence,

He's so incompetent he doesn't deserve any of the multiple pensions he will be given.

He’s so incompetent he doesn’t deserve any of the multiple pensions he will be given.


If you use the word, you are implying (no, saying outright) that my 56 years of work is not worth the paltry $1350 a month I get from SS. If it’s not, it’s because the geniuses who have shut down the government for the last week through their own selfishness and incompetence (especially the newest members of the lot) have managed my “contributions” badly.

Can you tell I’m furious. This whole business is a crock of shit. I mean that literally. I am not swearing. The shutdown of the government is fecal matter. And the Republicans, especially but not exclusively, ought to be ashamed of themselves.

New York Times


My grandparents were not “takers”

Nina Huntley Knight

Nina Huntley Knight

My paternal grandmother, Nina Huntley Knight, was a commandingly and elegantly beautiful woman.

Two days in to the Great Sequestration. Do you suppose President Obama’s Presidency will be known a hundred years from now as the “Great Sequestration Administration” the way the Warren G. Harding’s is remembered by the Teapot Dome Scandal? My guess is not. In the long run it will be seen as so petty, as so absurd that people will simply forget it. Or it will be, if the White House is politically clever enough (which I doubt), known as the work of the Second Great Do-Nothing Congress.

My maternal grandfather, Edward Leroy Peck, was a jovial and warm-hearted, somewhat ordinary looking guy.

I have been wondering what “sequester” means, and I finally got around to looking it up. It is absurd to call what’s going on in Washington the “sequestration.”

Sequester, verb, late 14c., from Old French sequestrer (14c.), from Late Latin sequestrare “to place in safekeeping,” from Latin sequester “trustee, mediator,” probably originally “follower,” related to sequi “to follow” (see sequel). Meaning “seize by authority, confiscate” is first attested 1510s.

I have been thinking a great deal the last few days about the direct line of personality traits from one generation to the next to the next in my family (we are not unique, but I’ll not extrapolate and let you think about your own family).

Or, perhaps, we are experiencing a “sequestration.” The Congress has certainly “seized” and “confiscated” the means whereby we “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” We ought to demand a special election right now—today—and throw the entire 535 of them out.

I’m enchanted by old family photographs, especially if they are of me—or show a connection between who I turned out to be and my immediate forebears. I’m neither commanding and elegant nor jovial and warm-hearted. So I wonder sometimes how I ended up in my family.

My grandparents, in their own noble ways, were the common folk we believe were the backbone of this country. Grandmother Knight managed to arrange for her two sons to attend a private college during the depression—when Grandfather worked only sporadically as a carpenter. Grandfather Peck had a steady job with sufficient income to support a family of five children through the depression. He was “only” the elevator operator in one of Kansas City’s early skyscrapers, but it fed his family and allowed him and Grandmother Peck to own their own home—the home where my mother and her four brothers grew up and where we visited Grandmother until she could no longer live alone in the 1970s.

Both Grandmother Knight and Grandfather Peck had earned Social Security benefits. Grandfather Peck died too young to draw his, but his Social Security allowed Grandmother Peck to live in dignity without want. Social Security was an important part of the support of both of my grandparents Knight. I used to have (but it has gone the way of so much family memorabilia) the check stub from Grandmother Knight’s first Social Security payment. She saved it for years because it was such a blessing to her.

Edward Leroy Peck

Edward Leroy Peck

My grandparents were not “takers.”

More than usual, the connection between my ideas is vague. So I will throw in one more disconnect. Once about twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents, my father showed me the service leaflet from a funeral he had recently attended. He wanted me to see the words for a song that had been sung.

You can picture happy gath’rings ‘round the fireside long ago.
And you think of tearful partings when they left you here below.

His question for me was his usual one. “Where do they get this stuff?” It was my introduction to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” I, like my father was (and his mother would have been)—well—appalled at the sentimentality and, to Dad and Grandmother, the deplorable theology.

I care little for most country music, and I have no belief that I’m going to meet Grandmother Knight or Grandfather Peck or my dad in the sky by and by.

But I think it’s fair to ask John Boehner (and, let’s be fair, President Obama, too), “Will the circle (of decency and ‘the common welfare’) be unbroken?”

How’s that for stretching an idea to the breaking point?