I need seven singers – or a conspiracy theory, whichever comes first (Singers, sign up below!)

It takes a conspirator to know a conspirator?

It takes a conspirator to know a conspirator?

December 7th, “the date that will live in INFAMY!”

That sentence is one that I use regularly to demonstrate to students how the careful use of one word can change not only the meaning but the import of a sentence.

FDR’s first draft of his speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan after Pearl Harbor began with the sentence (he wrote it himself, by the way), “. . . a date that will live in history.” Big deal.

Don’t all days live in history?

We don’t have a record of FDR’s thought process—my guess is there wasn’t one, that he knew it had to change because he had studied communications at the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU, and they teach people how to be effective—in changing “history” to “infamy,” thereby making the speech one that lives in history.

Teach people to be effective? Baloney. People with degrees in communications know how to follow trends, how to use tools, how to make money selling stuff, but no one—let me repeat—NO ONE can teach a person that “infamy” is more memorable than “history.” You’re thinking, anyone can see that. We have 72 years of saying the sentence over and over again to know that single word made the speech. FDR could have stopped right there, and Congress would have declared war (even Robert A. Taft voted in favor).

How do you start a conspiracy theory, anyway? As I’ve said in a post here before, you make people believe your explanation for an event is the evidence that it happened.

Dallas has been awash in conspiracy theories all this year. The 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination here in our fair city. The one person I know personally who is an authority—that is, he has been studying the matter and having his students research and write about it for 20 years or so—thinks there was a conspiracy to murder the President. I’ve told him I want to talk to him about it. Perhaps we will and perhaps we won’t.

It was revealed recently that Robert F. Kennedy did not believe the Warren Commission. So that is somehow evidence that there was a conspiracy.

Robert F. Kennedy got his start in government law in 1952 when his father, Joseph Kennedy, persuaded Senator Joseph McCarthy to hire Bobby as assistant counsel to McCarthy’s conspiracy-searching and character-assassinating committee in the Senate. Robert Kennedy got his start in government “service” sniffing out conspiracies. Does Bobby Kennedy’s explanation of his brother’s death count as evidence? No. Explanations and conjectures are not evidence.

The first great conspiracy theory?

The first great conspiracy theory?

So my colleague tells me there IS, in fact, evidence. I have not bothered to read any of it because—well, because what difference does it make? Will absolute proof that there were two killers change anything? No. The American people have already chosen their lot—let conspiracy theories make our decisions. To wit, September 11, 2001.

We have laid down our freedom at the feet of the federal government on the theory that there is a vast world-wide conspiracy of “terrorists” who will destroy society as we know it if we don’t kill them with drones and let our own government go sniffing in our private affairs just as Bobby Kennedy did for Joe McCarthy.

Rhetoric is the art of using all available means to make an argument (not to “argue” but to make an “argument”—there is a difference). That’s what Aristotle said, at any rate.

I have no idea what rhetorical strategy to use to get from Bobby and Joe sniffing around and the CIA and the DHS sniffing around to “infamy” and “history” and then to my need for some singers.

So I’ll just say it. What difference does it make whether or not my students understand the rhetorical power of one word over another? Conspiracies demand acquiescence. Young people have been so brainwashed by our concessions of our liberties that they have no concept of our rights under the First Amendment. There is little point in trying to help them have an “ah-ha” moment about writing, about the choice of words, when the only amendment to the Constitution they care anything about is the Second. (No, I don’t know what process of “logic” I used to get from one idea to the next here. Deal with it.)

And the power of language—of anything beautiful or expressive—has one purpose now. To make money. Or to wield military (or corporate) power. After all, according to one of the first great conspiracy theories, FDR’s choice of words was important because he was involved in bringing about the attack on Pearl Harbor.

I know, I know. I’m not making any sense, and I’m becoming one of those grouchy and irrational old men my mother warned me about. I want to draw myself into a cocoon and forget all of the nonsense of the world. You all can go ahead with your conspiracy theories, and with your forfeiture of your right of freedom of conscience if you want. Or any other freedom—like the freedom to get on an airplane without a stranger looking at your privates.

But all I want is to make some music. I can’t do it even as well as I used to (which was never brilliant, my degrees notwithstanding). So I want simple. And I’d love to have a group of singers to direct so the physical act of producing the music didn’t fall on my shoulders alone.

Singers. Send me a comment here—I’m not kidding!!!—and let’s withdraw from conspiracies together.

Here I am playing the notes without the words for Thomas Ravenscroft’s little anthem (1611). I need singers! I can play the notes for a work like this, but that cries out for the original (which has more stanzas than I have here).

Remember, O thou Man,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember, O thou Man,
Thy time is spent.
Remember, O thou Man,
How thou camest to me then,
And I did what I can.
Therefore repent.

Remember Adam’s fall,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember Adam’s fall
From Heaven to Hell.
Remember Adam’s fall,
How we were condemned all
To Hell perpetual,
There for to dwell.

Remember God’s goodness,
O thou Man, O thou Man,
Remember God’s goodness
And promise made.
Remember God’s goodness,
How his only Son he sent
Our sins for to redress.
Be not afraid.

“About Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples . . . “

A historic street

A historic street

A friend is in Boston this weekend visiting Emerson College with an eye to enrolling there to finish his undergraduate degree.

Yesterday on PBS radio’s “This American Life” the producer’s mother, Mrs. Matthiessen, challenged the staff to find and record conversations about the “seven things you’re not supposed to talk about” in order not to be boring. One of them is “routes,” that is, the route you took to get somewhere. Sorry, Mrs. Matthiessen, you can stop reading because I’m going to bore you.

The first time I saw Boston my late ex-wife and I were on our way to the wedding of my college roommate in Massachusetts and arrived in Boston in the evening. It was 1970 or so, and we had been married about three years and still had a good time adventuring together.

We arrived in downtown Boston at rush hour—I suppose we took the exit from the freeway at the Prudential (the name of which I can’t remember). We drove on Bolyston and turned up Charles Street, turned left at Beacon Street, somehow made our way to Storrow Drive and hightailed it out of the city on Route 1a. We went all the way to New Hampshire—way out of our way—and found a motel to crash for the night.

We had planned to stay in Boston and see the sights, but we were so overwhelmed by the city and the traffic that we drove right on through. We were used to L.A. traffic, so it was strange that Boston unnerved us so. But that was my first experience knowing that Los Angeles drivers pay no attention to each other but obey the laws; whereas, Boston drivers watch each other like hawks and ignore the laws.

My career was never brilliant

My career was never brilliant

After being overwhelmed by the traffic, we were overwhelmed by the high society folks we were thrown in with for the wedding. Let me say only that the bride’s mother was a friend (college classmate for starters) of Julia Child, and the Larousse Gastronomique would not have been available in English but for her translation.

Ann and I were reduced to scrupulously watching other people in order to obey the rules of the kind of society down into the middle of which we were dropped. The whole experience reminds me still of the movie My Brilliant Career, with the young Australian girl playing over and over and over on the piano Robert Schumann’s “About Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples,” Kinderzenen Op. 15, No. 1.The one right move I made in the entire three or four days was to suggest that the groomsmen’s gift to the couple should be a weekend at Tanglewood.

So my young friend is in Boston this weekend looking over Emerson College and being looked over by them. Emerson is a fine school, and my friend is as bright and personable and talented as he can be, and I am sure they will be a fine fit if they decide they want each other.

But Boston is, for all of its charm and history and elegance and sophistication, a difficult place. I never lived in Boston proper (or is it Proper Boston?) but up on the North Shore. I was, however, chair of the music department at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, and I knew Boston very well in the years 1978 through 1994.

Here’s the thing about a place like Boston. You shouldn’t show up there at the time you’re trying to learn who you are. You should either grow up there and have no choice in the matter, or you should go there when you know what you’re about and are not in a position to be influenced (perhaps even molded) by such a city.

I moved to the Boston area (to Methuen, which may not be the Boston area—but soon to Beverly, which is much closer and more Bostonian. One of my acquaintances (I knew many Brahmin types who lived up on the North Shore, both Cabots and Lodges [really!]—but that’s another story) drew herself up to her full height once (when I told her I could not understand the message she left on my phone—as it turned out because an important word ended in “R”) and said, “My deah, I don’t have an “AHHH” in my entirah vocabulahry.” I was out of place from the get-go, and I knew it.

One of my friends (who happened to be drinking beer out of the can at that moment), told me that a brass bowl on her coffee table that I was admiring came from Tehran. Her friend Alice brought back for her. From the Tehran Conference. Alice had accompanied her father, FDR. How’s that for communication links away from the rich, famous, and powerful? My friend lived on Chestnut Street in Salem—the whole street on the National Registry of Historic Places because every house is perfectly preserved from the Federal Period. The condo I owned in Salem was in a not-so-prestigious neighborhood.

He knew about Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples

He knew about Strange Lands and Foreign Peoples

Here I am in Dallas, having come here as a poor student. The suburban church where I directed the music for fifteen years had no Cabots or Lodges as members. I know none of the Bass family or the Hunts or the Crowes. (A friend of mine did have dinner with President Obama the other night.)

I began this writing with a point in mind. I’ve wandered somewhat away from it, but not really. I simply want to say that Mrs. Matthiessen is quite wrong. The “route” by which I arrived here this morning is interesting.  My whole life is about “strange lands and foreign peoples.”

But it’s not the society to which I don’t belong that makes me feel out of place. That’s only a symptom. “Sometimes I always feel like a motherless child a long ways from home.”
________________
(1) “The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About.” This American Life. thisamericanlife.org. Nov 8, 2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.
(2) “McIntire Historic District.” Welcome to Salem, Massachusetts, The City Guide.  salemweb.com/guide. 1995-2013. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.