“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.

Cats, Henry Kemble Oliver, and Roger Ebert



“One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to live, and, which may surprise you more, an entire lifetime in learning how to die.”  –Seneca (Roman philosopher and statesman who died in 65 CE)

I have written many times about cats. I’m a cat person.

When I moved to Dallas, I brought with me two black and white American short-hair alley cats, brothers, Henry and Oliver, named for Henry Kemble Oliver, the subject of my dissertation—a 19th-century church musician and composer from Salem, Massachusetts. His most important legacy, however, is not musical. The governor of Massachusetts appointed him to make an exhaustive study of the exploitation of children and young women working in the cotton mills. His work resulted in the formation of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. His work led to the first child labor laws in America.

In 2002 my cat Henry died of congestive heart failure. He had been sick for about six months, and I had spent more than my meager income should have allowed caring for him. But I loved that gentle, cuddly old cat, and spared no expense to keep him alive until the vet told me I should let him go.

After Henry died, a friend asked me why I loved cats so much and had spent so much money on Henry. My immediate response—so immediate it surprised both of us and stuck in our memories so we talked about it many times—was, “They help me understand my mortality.” I did not know why I said it or even what I meant.

My father died in 2011 at age 97 and my mother about three years before that. We had time to anticipate and think about their deaths. I did a great deal of reading about preparing for death—for the death of a loved one and for one’s own death. In a search for academic articles, I found Todd LeRoy Perreira’s article, “Die before you die” (1).  This article transformed my contemplation of my mortality.

. . . this is not simply a question of learning how to anticipate death, of being prepared for death. . . [but also the] recognition that the scandal of death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent. . . concomitant with this demand is the acquisition of a certain knowledge of the self. . .

ebertthumbsWhen someone I admire dies, I am given again to contemplating how one prepares for death. I have come to understand that living a good life is the preparation for death, that is, living so one experiences the “transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.” I have yet to discover what that means, but I know it is true.

As a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas in the 1990s, I learned of Roger Ebert’s film criticism. He wrote in the highest tradition of criticism, that is, he helped the reader understand not only the technical accomplishment of the artist, but the substance of the work.

Yesterday, the day after he died, I heard a recording of Roger Ebert interviewed by Terry Gross in 1996 in which he said that good film making is important because film has the ability to help us inhabit someone else’s world, to understand and empathize with other people. Later in the day, Scott Simon said on NPR’s “All Things Considered” that

Roger Ebert wrote simply, abundantly, gorgeously, and on deadline for 46 years at the Chicago Sun-Times . . .  and over the years his work reminded us that empathy is the grace note of a good life, not just great art.

Empathy is the grace note of a good life. One must spend an entire lifetime in learning how to die. And death demands of one a transformation of the self as a living subject and moral agent.

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

Broad Street Cemetery, Salem, MA

I know why I told Kay my cat helped me understand my mortality. It’s because I don’t know how to live in empathy. It’s easier for me to love my

cat unconditionally than to love another human being with empathy. I can love that loveable old cat more readily than another person. The catch is that, while a cat may have nine lives, they are short. And every time I lose a cat I love, I am reminded that I need to get on with the business of the transformation of myself as a moral agent. And that, I’m pretty sure, has something to do with empathy.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s empathy with child laborers. The empathy Roger Ebert understood to be the meaning of art.
_(1) Perreira, Todd LeRoy. ““Die before you die”: Death Meditation as Spiritual Technology of the Self in Islam and Buddhism.” Muslim World 100.2/3 (2010): 247-267.

Henry Kemble Oliver’s compositions are limited to hymn tunes and choral anthems. His hymn tune Federal Street (the street in Salem where he lived) has appeared in many hymnals with many texts. The hymn stanzas I think of when I play Federal Street are below. The entire hymn text is here.

The mighty God, the wise and just,
Knows that our frame is feeble dust;
And will no heavy loads impose
Beyond the strength that He bestows.

He knows how soon our nature dies,
Blasted by every wind that flies;
Like grass we spring, and die as soon,
Or morning flowers that fade at noon.