“. . . mordere means to take a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.”

Christmas Eve 1970 (give or take a year). The faithful of Christ Church Parish (Episcopal) in Ontario, CA, were making their communions during the Midnight Mass.

One more chorus of "Happy Christians"

One more chorus of “Happy Christians”

In the tiny choir loft, our choir of about a dozen or so, accompanied by a string quartet, a couple of oboes, a French horn—and not many other instruments, with me playing the rest of the accompaniment on the organ—performed the opening chorus from the Bach Christmas Oratorio.

The motley crew of the congregation ranged from single mothers on welfare to professors at the Claremont Colleges, to Miss Ruth Milliken (Google Milliken Avenue in Ontario to discover her family’s importance—I mention it only to indicate the bizarre mixture of folks at the Parish). One of those was a curmudgeonly old guy who attended services only to make his old girlfriend (I mean, they were even older then than I am now) happy because he was an atheist. After Mass, he said to me, “One more chorus of ‘Happy Christians,’ and I would have had to get in the communion line!” Our performance was—in reality—pretty strange and rag-tag, but the music came through.

I’ve been meaning for quite a while to look up Debra Nystrom to find out the background to her poem “Floater.” I assume Dan is her husband, and it’s a (sad) poem about his going blind (it’s also a personal, erotic poem). But it has everything to do with “Happy Christians.”

. . . listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Playing a mordent is taking a bite out of the music. Only a bite. It is not “to die.” One of the best-known mordents in music is on the first note of the first variation on the “Aria” from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

A motley crew of communicants

A motley crew of communicants

I cannot play Bach. Really. I’m no good at it. My personality and mind and body are much more suited to Mendelssohn or Reger or Widor. More suited, but often I don’t have the technique in my hands to play those hefty works. But I want to play Bach. Because Bach knew when to take a bite out of the music and when to give the aesthetic, the compositional technique, the mystery of it all over to thoughts of dying. “Happy Christians” (Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage) translates:

Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
let us honor the name of the Supreme Ruler!

Bach was 48 when he composed the Christmas Oratorio. (He would be 329 today, were he alive in any form other than his music.) But already he knew about the difference between dying and taking a bite out of something. The glue that holds the six sections of the Oratorio is the hymn tune most modern Christians sing with the words “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” But the tune was first sung to the hymn “My heart is filled with longing for blessed death’s release.” Bach has the congregation sing texts asking how we are to greet the one who came to die.

“. . . praise these days . . . sound forth full of delight and happiness . . .” Take a bite out of the apple, but remember, it’s a good mistake. Mordere is precariously close to morire.

Happy Birthday, Sebastian!
“Floater,” by Debra Nystrom
—to Dan

Maddening shadow across your line of vision—

Debra Nystrom gets it

Debra Nystrom gets it

what might be there, then isn’t, making it

hard to be on the lookout, concentrate, even
hear—well, enough of the story I’ve

given you, at least—you’ve had your fill, never
asked for this, though you were the one

to put a hand out, catch hold, not about to let me
vanish the way of the two you lost already

to grief’s lure.  I’m here; close your eyes,
listen to our daughter practicing, going over and over

the Bach, getting the mordents right, to make the lovely
Invention definite.  What does mordent mean,

her piano teacher asked—I was waiting in the kitchen
and overheard—I don’t know, something about dying?

No; morire means to die, mordere means to take
a bite out of something—good mistake, she said.

Not to die, to take a bite—what you asked
of me—and then pleasure

in the taking. Close your eyes now,
listen. No one is leaving.

What is a bucket list, and why is this so weird?

A few catfish friends

A few catfish friends

Who would have thought the origin of the term “bucket list” is from the phrase “kick the bucket.” You know, things I want to do before I “kick the bucket.” Die.

Never occurred to me until I did a Google search for the term.

I found many strange sites looking for the origin of “kick the bucket.” One is now on my list of all-time favorite internet grotesqueries. The MLA citation:

“Death” (redirected from “Kick the Bucket”). The Free Dictionary by Farlex. encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com. 2014. Web. 4 Jan. 2014. (Copied from the Wikipedia article on “death”).

The article begins, “Death is the cessation of all biological functions . . .”

There’s nothing particularly odd or grotesque about that. At the top of the page was the link to an ad. That’s not odd—advertising is the purpose of free sites. However, this one, I’m sure, was individually chosen for me, The Free Dictionary by Farlex’s page defining “death” (redirected from “kick the bucket”) is sponsored by, are you ready for this?

Villagio of Carrollton. “Assisted Living & Memory Care: Beautiful and Active Lifestyle.”

Beside the ad was the illustration for “Death.”

Retirement Living?

Retirement Living?

The description of “Villagio of Carrollton” begins, “Villagio’s vibrant Life Enrichment program features new adventures, exciting opportunities to learn, and wellness activities. Our programs help build meaningful friendships, allow freedom of choice . . . “ It’s a “Senior Living” facility.

I don’t know if these ads stay on pages, but I’ll bet this one appeared especially for me because my computer (and, therefore, Google) knows I’ve been writing about getting old. You probably won’t see it if you click on the link because such ads are individualized (big brother IS watching you!).

More Catfish Friends

More Catfish Friends

I was thinking about my “bucket list” because last night at my birthday party (what a GREAT party – thank you, my friends) a couple of people asked me about my list. Here is part of my list—not really in order of importance except the first two.

  • First or second is a trip to Easter Island. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know. I’ve been fascinated by it since childhood, that’s all. I want to see those big heads! And I also want to see the Andes, which one almost has to do to get there, going through Santiago, Chile.
  • The second or first is to teach for a semester or a year or some length of time at either Dar al-Kalima College in Bethlehem or Birzeit University in Birzeit (just north of Ramallah in the Central West Bank). This is not an unrealistic pipe dream

I have a particular reason from history or philosophy or music or some “discipline” for wanting to see each of these. Some are obvious, some are not—and some may not be for any reason anyone would guess. In no particular order:

  • attend the entire Wagner Ring Cycle at Bayreuth;
  • see the Angkor Wat in Cambodia;
  • see the Valley of the Kings in Egypt;
  • see the Emperor Penguins in Antarctica;
  • return to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and spend a week there;
  • visit Japan (no particular destination);
  • attend Christmas Eve services at St. Paul’s Cathedral, London;
  • play one of the Silbermann organs J.S. Bach is known to have played;
  • play the organ at St. Sulpice in Paris;
  • see lions, tigers, elephants, etc. in Kenya;
  • see all of the musicals playing on Broadway in one season (any season);
  • attend an opera at the Sydney Opera House;
  • see Machu Picchu.

I don’t have much to say about any of this except that the list has not changed over the years. And most of the list falls in the category of pipe dream. I have another list of activities I would like to participate in that don’t necessarily involve travel I can’t afford.

The reality of my bucket list, however, is that it has one item on it that outweighs all of the others together. And achieving it will make all the rest into nice fantasies, unnecessary ever to achieve to be happy.

I have a favorite poem about friendship. It worries me that I like it because Richard Brautigan was such a troubled person (a successful suicide). But the idea that a friend can drive lonely thoughts from a friend’s mind and, at the same time, the friend might not even know it is happening is comforting to me.

“Your Catfish Friend,” by Richard Brautigan

If I were to live my life
in catfish form
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
one evening
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond.  I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
at peace,
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish

in this pond?  It seems like
a perfect place for them.”

I’ve arrived at one of those places in my thinking and writing where I cannot pull together or finish what I intended to say. Some connection between “bucket lists” and friendship. My bucket list is really friendship. Relatedness. If Machu Picchu or Bayreuth, or even Dar Al-Kalima College ever become realities, that’s great. But at this advanced age (here I go again) what I really want is to be a catfish in a pond where you think one ought to be and vice versa.

How corny is that? Weird?

So I experienced that last night. Here’s a Christmasy little song for the 11th Day of Christmas while I show you the wonderful simple gifts my friends gave me for my birthday. My Catfish Friends.

Here we come a-wassailing
Among the leaves so green;
Here we come a-wand’ring
So fair to be seen.

Love and joy come to you,
And to you your wassail too;
And God bless you and send you a Happy New Year
And God send you a Happy New Year.

Call up the butler of this house,
Put on his golden ring.
Let him bring us up a glass of beer,
And better we shall sing.

God bless the master of this house
Likewise the mistress too,
And all the little children
That round the table go.

“. . . But down the ages rings the cry. . . “

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

The Song of Simeon, Petr Brandl, ca. 1725

CHRIST climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and ran away to where
there were no rootless Christmas trees
hung with candycanes and breakable stars . . .
  (from A Coney Island of the Mind, by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Christ doesn’t have a bare tree to climb down from at my house this year.

He was, however, everywhere present at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Richardson, TX, where I had the pleasure of playing the magnificent little organ for the service yesterday. It was the First Sunday in Christmas, and the congregation were joyful and at one with each other, and they expressed great gratitude that I was able to substitute for their organist.

The service was easy. The liturgy music except for traditional ELCA settings of the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, was carols—great fun. The pastor changed the Gospel lesson from the one appointed, so we heard the story of Jesus’  presentation in the temple, with the Song of Simeon—instead of the story of King Herod killing baby boys.

I played a prelude (a schmaltzy setting of “Silent Night,” by Gordon Young), an offertory (a clever setting of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” by Mark Sedio) and postlude (“God Rest Ye Merry” variations by Samuel Walter, a jolly, quirky piece). I might have played Bach’s setting of Mit Freid und Freud, Luther’s hymn based on the Song of Simeon, but my shoulder isn’t working that smoothly yet. The Bach would have sounded spectacular on the Schudi.

But I had fun. My, oh my, did I have fun!

The closest my house comes to a bare tree for Christ to climb down from is a jumble of furniture and some decorations I got out so when I make a little video to post here, there’s something to look at besides the blank side of the organ case. I’m certainly not going to put my face here for the world to see for a lifetime of lifetimes, in saecula saeculorum, Amen.

Showing my face in juxtaposition to a Christmas carol would be (in addition to countering the rules of physical attractiveness our society lives by—you can never be too thin, too white, too young, or too smooth-skinned) something of a visual/auditory oxymoron. The one would cancel out the other. It would ruin the effect of the carol and be disingenuous on my part since I don’t really believe any of the words. Lovely mythology that certainly would make the world a better place if it were true, and if everyone who believes they believe it acted on the principles of love the baby in the manger would grow up to teach.

Peter Paul Rubens, "Massacre of the Holy Innocents"

Peter Paul Rubens, “Massacre of the Holy Innocents”

I’m just enough too smart to fall into the trap of thinking mythology is reality. On the other hand, I’m just enough too stupid to figure out what to put in mythology’s place as I try to maneuver through this vale of years. I use “years” rather than “tears.” It’s Shakespearean, from Othello. Poor Othello, having had the wool pulled over his eyes and coming to believe his (loyal) wife is having an affair says,

. . . for I am declined into the vale of years. . . ‘Tis destiny unshunnable, like death (Othello, Act III, scene 3).

“Vale” is “valley,” whether it’s “years” or “tears.” I’m in the dual valley of years and tears. Forgive my corny use of the metaphor. It’s all I’m able to do. I am not a poet or philosopher. But the valley of my years keeps getting narrower and narrower, and as I go along, the grief and sadness I see all around me seems more like Herod killing the boy children than old Simeon seeing salvation just before he dies. I’m not as old as Simeon, so perhaps there’s yet a chance.

I didn’t provide a tree for Christ to climb down from in my apartment this year. It’s not that I don’t want the fun and the loveliness and the conviviality of Christmas.

You see, I don’t get it, that’s all.

Othello and I are pretty much alike. We don’t know what’s real and what’s not, whom to trust and whom not to trust. I’ve been recording Christmas carols for weeks now, and loving every note I’ve played (sometime soon I will write about the absurdity and patheticalness of my recordings—part of my not knowing what’s real and what’s not). But I “believe” none of stories of angels and shepherds and wise men and . . .

My version of Christ's bare tree.

My version of Christ’s bare tree.

Is it all a giant metaphor for something? I don’t think so. I don’t have a clue what it is. I love the music. And the glass balls and the candles and the amaryllis plants and the Fontanini figures and . . .

And then there’s yesterday morning. I was having a jolly time (my shoulder was hurting and I was nervous as a cat on a hot tin roof, but having a jolly time). The good Lutherans came to a part of the service I could lead from memory either there or in an Episcopal church—the prayers of the people—if I believed in prayer. I burst into tears. I wanted them to pray for me.

And for the children of Gaza. And more.

My guess is not ten Episcopal congregations in the country know the hymn from their Hymnal 1982 written especially for the Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28). Who’d want to sing this smack in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas? Not me.

“In Bethlehem a Newborn Boy”
Words: Rosamond E. Herklots, 1969
Music: Wilbur Held, 1983

In Bethlehem a newborn boy
Was hailed with songs of praise and joy.
Then warning came of danger near:
King Herod’s troops would soon appear.

The soldiers sought the child in vain:
Not yet was he to share our pain;
But down the ages rings the cry
Of those who saw their children die.

Still rage the fires of hate today,
And innocents the price must pay,
While aching hearts in every land
Cry out, “We cannot understand!”

Lord Jesus, through our night of loss
Shines out the wonder of your cross,
The love that cannot cease to bear
Our human anguish everywhere.

May that great love our lives control
And conquer hate in every soul,
Till, pledged to build and not destroy,
We share your pain and find your joy.

“So as not to be the martyred slaves of time. . . “

howtheuniverseworks_artheadA funny story.

Twenty-ish years ago my psychiatrist in the Neurology Department of Harvard University Medical School decided he and several patients could benefit from a seminar on ending procrastination. One of those “life-changing” seminars such as play interminably on PBS during pledge campaigns. The psychiatrist intended to make reservations. Finally at about 5 PM the day before the seminar, he called and apologized for waiting until the last minute and asked if they had room for three or four more participants.

The woman in charge of reservations, he told me later, laughed and said, “Of course we do. We have almost no reservations. This IS a seminar in procrastination, after all.” Of course.

I forgot to go.

My psychiatrist’s patients were exclusively Temporal Lobe Epilepsy patients . . .

[If you read my blog, you’re tired of hearing about it. But, please, my writing yesterday was the beginning of writing about the gift I now understand TLE to be.]

. . .  which I have known at some level, since Dr. Donald Schomer gave me a name for it, is more a blessing than a curse.

I love “How the Universe Works” on the Discovery Chanel. 16,000,000,000 years ago. Physicists talk about quantum physics or parallel universes, ideas that boggle the mind. The Swiss Institute for Particle Physics and its atom-smashing machine. But my understanding of creation is stuck at laughing at Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory.”

But there’s something about thinking about time. Is time real? How do we know we’re not going backwards? Or that everything in the universe is happening at once in a zillionth of a second and it will be over before you read the next word?

TLEptics experience dissociation on a grand scale. Lasting for days. Weeks. We also have astonishing déjà vu experiences. I’ve lived entire days over in a second or two. And no one else has a clue what’s going on unless the TLEptic tells them. Most of us never do because it would seem we were frankly crazy.

Perhaps we were (are).

Or perhaps we have momentary flashes of experience of the passage of time the rest of you don’t get to have. What does it mean to

First Methodist Church, Omaha

First Methodist Church, Omaha

live a day again in a second? My neurologist says he can touch a certain place in my temporal lobe with an electrode (assuming I let him poke a hole in my skull) and give me as long a déjà vu experience as I want.

So what is time? Experience stored physically in the brain? And what time is it now? Who knows?

When I was in high school (we say “when” as if we are measuring “time” and some has passed since the experience we’re talking about—perhaps it hasn’t happened yet and I’m imagining it’s going to happen, or perhaps everything we know is happening all at once), I was a darling of the little old ladies (mostly younger than I am now), members of the American Guild of Organists in Omaha, NE.

The Guild met monthly at yet another church with some organist playing to show the capabilities of the organ. After a meeting at the First Methodist Church, I found a copy of J.S Bach’s The Little Organ Book on the organ bench. I brashly sat at the organ and played number 45, Ach wie flüchtig, ach wie nichtig!

Ah how fleeting,
ah how insubstantial is man’s life!
As a mist soon arises
and soon also vanishes again,
so is our life: see!

I played the little piece to the oohs-and-ahs! of the little old ladies. I’ve played it countless times [“times”] since, mostly at funerals with those congregations totally unaware of the appropriateness of the music.

A student in one of my classes would, by this point in her essay, have a comment from me to the effect, “What’s your point?” I would point out to her that she had not begun with a clear thesis, so her writing seems to have no point. So I’ll create a thesis right now [“now”]—or tell you what my point has been all along although you’d never guess it.

The passage of time may be a figment of our collective imagination. We have clocks, both analog and digital, to measure a “reality” that we cannot prove is real. I know this is one of those sophomoric twists college kids like to ponder and argue well into the night (as long as they have enough beer). I admit to being sophomoric.

Or. . .

I still play the Bach Ach wie flüchtig! I play it much more slowly than is normal (or than I played it to show off for the little old ladies). I like to hear all the notes in my old age. [You can listen to the Dutch organist Ton Koopman play it in the standard fashion here.]

Or perhaps I play much more slowly now because I think this is beginning to be the end of my life when in reality it’s the beginning. Or this very moment is eternity. Or we don’t exist at all. Or, if we do, we should be getting ready to die. Is that too startling, depressing for you? You should be a TLEptic. You’d have had a lifetime [“time”] to think about these things.

“Be Drunk,” by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
(translated by Louis Simpson)

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

“Shall we who have it no light let them borrow?”

(I found the picture.) The land of the 2 AM sun. Rauma, Finland.
(I found the picture. Yes, really, 2 AM in Rauma.)

Being in the land of the midnight sun is a truly disconcerting experience for those of us from warmer [at least more southern] climes. Somewhere on a flash drive I have pictures I took at 2 am on a morning late in June, 2013, from my room on the campus of Eurajoki Christian College near Rauma, Finland. I wouldn’t say it was light as day out, but it was light enough that I was having trouble adjusting—as were others of our Texas group.

The opposite effect would be, of course, the day that never quite gets light. I’d rather be awake taking pictures at 2 am than unbearably gloomy at noon. I would be, I think, suicidal in Rauma in January. No, it’s not ‘think.’ It’s ‘know.’

On the other hand. I also think Finland is the most civilized place I’ve ever been—and, if I knew how to support myself there, I’d go back in a minute to stay. So there you have the kind of contradictions that play themselves out in my mind always. Everything is a contradiction.

As the organist for a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (please take it out of your mind that this progressive church has anything in common with the fundamentalist Christians in America who mistakenly call themselves ‘evangelicals’) I learned many Scandinavian hymns. One of my favorites is the Finnish folk hymn, ‘Lost in the night.’ I discovered it inadvertently in [I think] 2002—give or take a couple of years—when the new pastor of the church was installed. That service took place on the First Sunday in Advent, and I found the hymn inadvertently looking for special music. The hymn is not in the Advent section of the old Lutheran Book of Worship, so I’m not sure how I discovered it. The people of my congregation had not known it before that service.

Today is the First Sunday in Advent. When I was professionally and emotionally involved in the church, Advent was my favorite time of the year. It is contemplative without being penitential. And some of the greatest music of the church is written for Advent. We are told that J.S. Bach, when he was a teenager, walked halfway across Europe to attend the Advent Vespers presided over by Dietrich Buxtehude, and that experience helped shape his musical vocabulary.

Bach’s own Advent Cantata No. 140, Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (“Wake, awake for night is flying”) includes one of the two or three best-known of his cantata movements. Bach himself transcribed the movement for organ, and all organists drag it out to play sometime during Advent.

Apropos of little. The near Rauma into which our party jumped after the sauna.

Apropos of little. The lake near Rauma into which our party jumped after the sauna.

Frederick Buechner, is an American writer and theologian, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and the author of more than thirty books. Quite frequently someone will send me a quote from his writings that they think will help me in my “spiritual” quest. The most recent came in my email this morning.

Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.

I guess I qualify on all counts here. I don’t know whether my faith is in God or in no God, but, whichever it is, I doubt not only the proposition but my own reaction to it.

This morning very early I was aware that today is the First Sunday in Advent. I haven’t thought seriously about the Sundays of the Church Year for quite a long time. But this morning I wanted to observe (for want of a better word) the beginning of Advent. Not necessarily in any religious way, but at least musically.

Because I am very limited in the range of motion of my left hand (my physical therapist told me I should not do anything that requires me to hold my hand flat with palm down), I thought I’d find something I could play on the organ mostly with my feet and right hand. The Finnish hymn “Lost in the Night,” because it is a simple folk melody came to mind. I discovered I could play it easily enough to make one of my ridiculously non-professional recordings of it.

As I was playing, I began noticing the words and realized they say much of what I feel about religion, about our vitriolic politics, about the economic plight of 99% of the world, about pollution and global warming, and about my own—and, I think, nearly everyone else’s—loneliness.

So I offer this little recording and the words of the hymn. I don’t have to figure out for sure what I mean or what the hymn means. Buechner has probably said it best. Whatever you believe, if you’re absolutely certain of it, you are kidding yourself or are asleep. We have time for Bach’s “Wake Up!” later, perhaps. But for this moment, “lost in the night” seems to me to be an apt metaphor for my life.

Lost in the night do the people yet languish?
Longing for morning the darkness to vanquish,
Plaintively heaving a sigh full of anguish:
Will not day come soon? Will not day come soon?

Must they be vainly awaiting the morrow?
Shall we who have it no light let them borrow?
Giving no heed to their burden of sorrow:
Will you help us soon? Will you help us soon?

Light o’er the land of the people is beaming,
Rivers of life through its deserts are streaming,
Millions yet sigh for the Savior redeeming:
Come and save us soon! Come and save us soon!
—Finnish folk hymn, Tr. Olav Lee, 1929

N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:


I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.


Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8

I am much too easily entertained

St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg. Don't ask me who built it!

St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg. Don’t ask me who built it!

In about 1975 when I was a doctoral student in the University of Iowa School of Music in Iowa City, a friend from Muscatine, IA, where I was music director at Trinity Episcopal Church, asked me if I didn’t think it was wonderful that we were part of the “intelligentsia.” She was the program director for a foundation that presented educational forums at a center they owned in Taos, NM. She was well educated (an MA from the University), and I was supposedly becoming even better educated than I was. We were both moderately intelligent persons.

At the time I told her I thought her description of us was a bit of a stretch.

Over the years many other people have asked me similar questions, usually in the form of “Do you consider yourself an intellectual?” or some such. (Or, worse, they state it as a fact!) My answer has always been without reservation, “No, I do not.” I am intellectual enough to know that I have been in the company of—have close friends who are—“intellectuals.” Most of those friends are much too modest to say they are.

That one has a PhD is no indication one is an intellectual. It merely indicates a certain kind of perseverance, a willingness to play the trained seal and jump through a certain number of hoops. That one teaches in a university is no indication one is an intellectual. I hardly even need to give evidence for that. Usually what passes for “intellectualism” in university faculties is the ability to focus on one tiny aspect of one tiny subject and carry out arcane research to the point that one knows more about that tiny subject than (almost) anyone else.

The fact is, I am too easily entertained to be an “intellectual.”

I go to the opera to be entertained, not to analyze either the work itself or the production. I cannot now, and could not the day I saw any of the operas, tell you the name of one singer I heard at the Dallas Opera last season. Two of the three productions were entertaining, as far as I was concerned. The other was bizarre, hard to follow visually, and confusing. That’s all I know about them.

Sunrise over UNT Dallas

Sunrise over UNT Dallas

I have been to Palestine (and therefore to Israel because you can’t get to Palestine without going there) twice. I have read, I think, three books on the history of the current plight of the Palestinian people. I have Palestinian friends—both in Dallas and in Bethlehem. I am committed to helping Americans understand the real situation there as opposed to the one our government and the news media present. But I have absolutely no scholarly ability to discuss the situation and no “intellectual” prowess with which to convince anyone of anything.

I have now been to three of the four Scandinavian countries and St. Petersburg in Russia. I went with the choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, TX. One of my friends loaned me a very large book, a biography of Catherine the Great of Russia, to read before we went. I cannot imagine reading such a tome. I learned half a dozen short pieces of organ music by American composers to play on the instruments we used in the performances we gave. I also had the Bach G Major Prelude under my fingers. I don’t have a single recording of my playing any one of those works on the glorious instruments I was privileged to play. Snippets, yes, complete works, no. I can’t tell you the history of any of those organs—or even the makers of all of them. Any of my real organist friends would have recordings of each and know exactly the specifications and history of all of them. I was entertained playing them.

Yesterday a group of workmen using a huge crane and a “cherry picker” attached signage to the front of the building across Main Street from my inamorato’s apartment. The building is now marked “UNT SYSTEM” and is the home of The University of North Texas at Dallas. I watched them lift the “T” up from the street and attach it. I want to know if the workmen were sign makers or employees of the construction firm that remodeled the building. I want most, however, to know how they attached the letters to the building. From our vantage point across the street there was nothing on the wall with which to hang the letters. I think they used crazy glue.

I have now been entertained for 24 hours by three big green letters—not the stuff of the intellectual life.

Why I’m writing this I don’t know except that I’ve been thinking more and more often (is it possible to think more often than always?) since I’ve become senescent about what’s important in my life. I don’t think it’s “Human Rights and a Post-Secular Religion of Humanity” (1) or “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions” (2).

I’m not saying someone shouldn’t explore those ideas. Just not me.

(1) Calo, Zachary R. “Religion, Human Rights, And Post-Secular Legal Theory.” St. John’s Law Review 85.2 (2011): 495-519.
(2) Paul, Gregory. “The Chronic Dependence Of Popular Religiosity Upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions.” Evolutionary Psychology 7.3 (2009): 398-441.

“The bait is the hope for a hand on your brow” **

Samuel Pepys tells all

Samuel Pepys tells all

We know I spew too much stuff out in public that I should keep private. Unlike Samuel Pepys, I am not yet dead, so publishing details of my life is probably more exhibitionism than literary inventiveness, and talking about other people is, I suppose, rude. Yesterday (that is, March 31, 1660) Pepys reported that, “At night Mr. Sheply, Howe, Ibbott, and I supped in my cabin together.”

That I post stuff here (and on Facebook) and that you read it and then you post stuff and I read it is a phenomenon I am beginning to study. Is this taking the place of actual face to face encounters? How is it that society has changed since the advent of this online stuff? Why I write is a life-long mystery that has something to do with the seizure activity in my brain, but these days everyone is doing it.

The choir of Calvary Lutheran Church in Richland Hills, Texas, is making a “Musical Mission Trip” to Scandinavia and Russia in June. Viktor Anderson, the director, asked me months ago to go with them and play a little organ music. I was so excited about the trip when he first asked that I immediately paid the fee to hold my place, cleared my calendar, and began talking with Viktor about music (and the amazing organs I will get to play).

Then came a series of events over which I had no control (in some ways they were my choices and actions come back to haunt me), and I slumped into the kind of depression and fear that have been the stuff of my life so much of the time.

This is neither a “tell-all” about the vagaries of my little life nor a contemplation of depression (which I know intimately but know very little “about”). I will report the three main depressing events.

  1. Winter (I need say no more except March 21 is the most important day of the year because it is the day sunlight takes over from darkness).
  2. I fell on (not in) my bathtub on February 1 and have had pain in my right hip ever since (muscle relaxants, pain killers, and physical therapy notwithstanding).
  3. SMU’s English Department decided I must retire after the spring semester, 2014.

Rather than a “tell-all,” this is a “ponder much.” The pondering is this. This is a time when I am in love (old farts like me can fall in love), when I

Holy Cross ChurchFinland

Holy Cross Church

have weekends free for the first time in over 50 years (the church where I was organist closed), when I am caught up in (when I have time, which isn’t much lately) researching the life and musical work of David Diamond, when I have a spiffy brand-new car that’s paid for – I could, and should, simply to remind myself, go on and on.

And with all of that, I am fighting off the kind of depression that has in the past landed me in the hospital (yes, the mental hospital). Sheesh! How do you explain that? You might have an explanation, but I don’t.

Except for this. I can’t help it. It’s the way the universe put this particular manifestation of homo sapiens together. It is what it is. Much of the time these days I can say to myself, “Self, you’re depressed. So what? It is what it is. Carry on. Deal with it.”

But sometimes I can’t when it piles up and rolls over me. I am neither unique nor particularly interesting when this happens. But I can’t belittle it or underestimate its power, and if you do, you are a jerk.

Why do I write at 4 AM?

Why do I write at 4 AM?

Things pile up in my mind. That saps my energy (as does constant dull pain in my hip—which is, thank goodness, getting better). Then I can’t make myself work, do things like grade papers. That makes me angry with myself, and I get more down, and I can work even less, which makes me angry at myself which makes me more depressed . . .

And in the middle of this I’m in love, I have a new car, AND there’s this trip to Scandinavia. I can’t afford it now. Who in my financial position can take $4,000 out of their retirement pittance (it really is a pittance—remind me to write about what happens when you don’t start your career until you’re 42).

Then generosity steps in. I can’t say how. But it’s gracious. I think it’s what the Southern Baptists sing about. “Amazing grace.” It’s not that I was lost and now am found. And I’m pretty sure it’s from people, not from God. Pretty sure. But I’m ready to accept it.

Do you get the import of the lines from Liz Walner’s poem?

. . . the blind river of sadness rolls
on and in it, a hand is always reaching up
to pick fish from the night-time sky.

I do.

** A  Calculus of Readiness
by Liz Waldner

I, too, come from the city of dolls.
A small palm is my umbrella.
This takes care of above
but below, the blind river of sadness rolls
on and in it, a hand is always reaching up
to pick fish from the night-time sky.

The lines on the palm of the hand lure a trout
with a strand of hair from the head of a doll.
The bait is the hope for a hand on your brow.
Shadows play on the wall. Or the face of a doll.
The plants eyeing each other
is all.

I would not call the stars generous.
They don’t cry enough for dolls to play Drink Me.
They don’t cast a covenant’s fishy rainbow
yet leaf faces watch the open window
where they hang far and hard.
The rein of starlight a second hand
with which to play Go Fish.
Now Give me a hand, plants. Now give me
good-night, stars.

Sighs too deep for words

On a day like today when I need comfort for reasons some of which I know but most of which I don’t know, I am grateful that I have available (with imperfections of which I ought to be embarrassed, but I am not) music that must be what the writer of the book Romans in the New Testament meant when he said,

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

Religion confounds me these days. That anyone can believe in the Spirit is a mystery that I cannot fathom. And I don’t know how to pray, as I ought or not. But my sighs are too deep for words. Perhaps the writer of Romans knew Bach and Vivaldi.

I had planned to attend Maundy Thursday Services this evening, but I think I cannot. I will play instead.

Organ Concerto in D minor, BWV596
(Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto Op.3, No.11, RV565).
Second movement, Largo e spiccato.

The most important day of the year

I loaf and invite my soul

I loaf and invite my soul

On March 21 nearly every year I give my students a quiz of one question. “Why is today the most important day of the year?”

Almost never does a student pass the quiz.

And I’ll bet I’m safe in assuming that almost no one who might be reading this today can guess why this is the most important day of the year.

It’s obvious.

Today is the 328th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach.

But for the birth of J. S. Bach, music would not exist as we know it.

Music purists and historians and better-musicologists-than-I can (and may) dispute that assertion. Of course it’s not true. Or is it? The harmonies, the contrapuntal designs, the musical forms both great and small perfected by J. S. Bach are the touchstone for all of music since 1685. The Beatles, Beyonce, John Cage, Madonna, Arthur Sullivan, and Arnold Schönberg notwithstanding.

I’m not going to get into an argument here. Arguments require evidence. I have none.

When I was a sophomore at the University of Redlands, my organ professor Leslie Pratt Spelman (1903-2001) invited three organ majors to hear him play a small recital in the university chapel. It was a private Sunday evening recital for his Quaker Meeting. It was delicious playing, slow, simple, accurate, and idiosyncratic. He played Frescobaldi, Brahms, pieces by a couple of 20th-century Dutch composers (friends of his), and Bach.

None of the great Bach show pieces, but three or four of the rarest musical gems from the Bach Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book). One of those was Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (The Old Year now Has Passed Away). When I asked him later to study it with him, he told me I could not play it until I was an old man.

He was sixty-two at the time.

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

Leslie Pratt Spelman, 1994

I am now sixty-eight and have been playing Das alte Jahr since I was about fifty. It is a setting of the tune for a New Year’s Day hymn,

The old year now has passed away;
We thank Thee, O Our God, today
That Thou hast kept us through the year
When danger and distress were near.

(Anonymous, Erfurt, 1568)

Johann Sebastian Bach was, in his own time, a relatively obscure composer and a not-too-famous church and court musician stuck off in the hinterlands of Protestant Germany. To wit, his six Brandenburg Concerti, which are now considered the towering examples of the Baroque form, were never performed in his lifetime. He wrote them for Chistian Ludwig, Margrave of Brandenburg, most likely hoping to be noticed as worthy perhaps of a higher position than Kappelmeister at Köthen, a fairly insignificant music center in 18th-century Germany. He wrote an introduction to the Margrave saying he was

. . .  begging Your Highness most humbly not to judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste, which everyone knows Him to have for musical works, but rather to take into benign Consideration the profound respect and the most humble obedience which I thus attempt to show Him.

Right. “. . . judge their imperfection with the rigor of that discriminating and sensitive taste. . .”

judge their imperfection

judge their imperfection

When I heard Dr. Spelman play, he was presenting music (not himself) for the contemplation of his Meeting of Friends. My friends and I had to rush from the chapel stifling laughter because we did not understand the silence that followed or the speaking  about the affect of the music by one after another of the members of the Meeting.

Finally at age 68, I’m beginning to understand. Bach died when he was sixty-five. Dr. Spelman lived forty or so years after that evening in the chapel.

The repertory I studied with Dr. Spelman is limited and, perhaps, odd. What he taught me was a most important life lesson, and I did not understand until decades later. It’s very simple. He told me I must learn to “invite my soul.”

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loaf and invite my soul,
I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(“I celebrate myself” from Song of Myself—Walt Whitman)

I am now that old man Dr. Spelman said could play Das alte Jahr vergangen ist. One might think that on this most important day of the year, I would record something that sounds important. Only those who have reached a certain age can understand, I think, the joy, the beauty, the importance of this small work. Sadness is, I am beginning to understand, necessary in order to experience joy. I am in a time of intense sadness the likes of which I trust I will never need to feel again because it will always be eclipsed by joy.