“. . . then the scaffolds drop Affirming it a Soul . . .” (Emily Dickinson)

1-IMG_4214

My strange little abode

When my partner died in 2003, I went apartment hunting almost immediately, not for any deep psychological reason or because it was part of the grieving process. That was November, and our lease was to be up in January. I did not want to pay another year’s rent on a huge apartment in North Dallas, wasting money and rattling around in that space by myself. No single man needs two bathrooms.

A friend who knew the city much better than I helped me look for rental ads and then drive around to look at various apartments.

After a half dozen tries we came to the one where I’ve lived since, and I knew immediately it was for me. It is not a cute cookie-cutter place ready-made for a gay-boy’s au courant possessions or valuable art work or trinkets bought with too much “disposable” income. What I have (my stuff and what I kept of my partner’s stuff) is not fashionable or valuable, so it seems to belong in the weird “loft” space I rent― one big room with no walls or doors (except the bathroom, of course). It has popcorn ceiling (how last-year), in the center the huge cement pillar holding the whole building up, ugly (I mean UGLY) apartment-cheap carpet, and a tiny galley kitchen no real cook would want to use.

It’s in the building I fondly call the “dowager” of the neighborhood―built in the ‘50s of concrete and glass, it would take an atomic bomb to tear it down. It’s tired, and it lost its upscaleness about three decades ago.

1-sapp 2-001

My artwork: a painting by my uncle’s late parter, Victor Gugliuzza. Two paintings by the Canadian painter Allen Sapp.

In other words, it’s perfect for me and my odd assortment of furniture and decorations (really―so really you probably can’t imagine it). And for me. And for my cats (whose presence is ubiquitously obvious).

And since 2008, space for the pipe organ, Opus 1 of D. Steuart Goodwin Organ Builders of San Bernardino, CA. Yes, a pipe organ sits in the open space where my dining table once was.

I do not mean to imply, by the way, that I think only gays have finely appointed, stylishly decorated, and elegantly furnished living spaces. Nearly everyone I know does.

I’ve been thinking about my less than stylish surroundings because I have recently met several people who are of far different means and “lifestyle” than mine. I’m pretty sure I can guess that their digs are upscale. One of these folks and I are, I think, forging a friendship. The others I will probably have passing acquaintanceships with, if that. I’ve been thinking about whether or not I would invite any of those people to my home. I would not want them to think ill of me because of my less-then-stylish surroundings

Last night I was in a group in which we were talking about how one develops a loving relationship with oneself. Better late (at 71) than never, I suppose. I woke up this morning having been “warned in a dream” (Matthew 2:13) ―not warned exactly, informed, and not in a dream, in my rested mind―about a fact of my life that I often overlook. It starts with realizing that my apartment is an expression of who I am. I am not an expression of my apartment.

My apartment expresses a mind that is eccentrically organized―if it is organized at all. It expresses a spirit that has little interest in owning physical, worldly things. It expresses an understanding of the purpose of life as striving rather than accomplishment.

It may also be the result of depersonalization or dissociative disorder as symptoms of the wonderfully strange condition Temporal Lobe Epilepsy or something like it. All of that is so ephemeral as to render it impossible to talk about except with my neurologist and psychiatrist.

My apartment, if I could choose definitively what it expresses, is a manifestation of my caring little about what others think of me. That is not, of course, quite true. I care a great deal. But somewhere buried deep down inside me is a loving relationship with Me.

Not with what I own.

Not with my modest accomplishments.

Not with what I know.

With Me.

That relationship is not easy, and it is often obscured by fear and by doubt. I often mistake arrogance and self-righteousness for loving myself. And loving myself does not make me brave or strong. In fact, I most often want to cower in the corner and protect myself.

I’m not saying I am satisfied with Me. I wish I had done more and different things with my life. And I wish I could say I know myself completely. On the contrary, I keep discovering characteristics of Me, some of which I like and some of which I don’t like.

This afternoon I may not be able to say it, but right now I love myself, both what I like of myself and what I don’t like. Those friends I was in conversation with last night may not have heard what I said as an expression that I have a loving relationship with myself. (I said here at the outset I was told in a dream.)

Actually what happened was not a dream. Early this morning I was playing the organ for a few minutes as I often do for reasons of which I am often unconscious. The mystery of music is the same as the mystery of me. And of you.

Some people meditate. Some read inspirational literature. I play a simple organ piece.

“THE PROPS ASSIST THE HOUSE,” BY EMILY DICKINSON
The Props assist the House
Until the House is built
And then the Props withdraw
And adequate, erect,
The House support itself
And cease to recollect
The Augur and the Carpenter –
Just such a retrospect
Hath the perfected Life –
A Past of Plank and Nail
And slowness – then the scaffolds drop
Affirming it a Soul –

The little prelude by Friedrich Wilhelm Zachau (1663-1712) on Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr
(“All Gory Be to God on High”) which passed for my meditation this morning.

“. . . 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.

“. . . someone who vanished into the end of seeing. . .” (Russell Edson)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

Where the athletic tutors offer support (Ford Stadium at SMU)

The number of people I have kept in long-time communication with over the years is quite small. My parents’ Christmas card list was in the hundreds, recipients from as far back as their seminary days. Many of my friends have hundreds of friends on Facebook. Is that the same as my parents without having to address and stamp cards?

A couple of weeks ago the one friend from childhood with whom I’ve maintained friendship called to wish me a happy retirement. One high school friend and I have lunch together every three or four years in Oakland and read each other’s Facebook postings with some regularity. I have constant contact with two college friends and sporadic contact with two others. One friend from graduate school is a friend on Facebook. I’ve maintained friendships with a few friends from churches where I’ve been organist, and with a few former students.

My college friend, Steuart Goodwin, built the tracker-action pipe organ that resides in my living room. Anyone who can’t instantly think up every Middle Schooler’s joke about Steuart’s organ in my living room is far less creative more serious than all of my friends.

Steuart and I have carried on a language game of “can you top this?” involving spoonerisms, assonances, consonances, and malapropisms to make puns, often mixing English with parodies of other languages to make new words. I say it’s a “can you top this?” competition, but I’ve never won—Steuart simply thinks this way, and I have to work too hard at it. An example he coined decades ago is still my favorite. Our professor Dr. Spelman was president of the American Society of Aestheticians. Steuart announced one day that Dr. Spelman had a bad case of aesthete’s foot, that is, “Wherever I go, my feet simply ache for the beauty of it all.”

A couple of days ago, I emailed Steuart that I had taken the “orientation” for tutoring at the SMU center for Academic Development of Student Athletes. (Tutors must know and adhere strictly to the rules of the NCAA for helping student athletes. I’ll bet I know more about the NCAA than any of my jock friends.)

Steuart’s response to my email was
Are you going from being a classroom teacher to a new position as an athletic supporter?
Signed, Jacques Strappe

My stilted response to him was
Yes, my cup runneth over.
Signed, Shirley Goodness

I should not admit publicly to such silliness, and I certainly shouldn’t drag poor defenseless Steuart into it. I must hasten to say this is the only such spooneristic relationship I have—whereas Steuart is blessed with verbal adroitness in any and all situations.

Steuart Goodwin "voicing" a pipe.

Steuart Goodwin “voicing” a pipe.

In 1964 Steuart was a senior majoring in music composition at the University of Redlands and I was a freshman majoring in organ. He presented the required full recital of his compositions, including his Sonata for Organ. He asked me to play his Sonata—the first time I gave the first performance of a work.

In addition to our friendship, based on years of sharing important moments of our lives, on our love of the same music, on our understanding and knowing each other in a way reserved for a few relationships in a lifetime—even yelling at each other over ideas about which we disagree sharply—we share a mystery I’m not sure we have ever discussed.

I was too young in 1964 to understand the process of performing a composition by someone I knew. I admired Steuart in that way freshmen admire students preparing to graduate. I was at the same time full of self-importance at being asked to perform the Sonata and terrified that I would not, could not, perform it as Steuart wanted to hear it.

Frankly, the details of that performance have faded from my memory. I don’t remember if Steuart was pleased with my performance (I assume he was).

However, over these fifty years since, that performance has come to embody one of the enormous mysteries of my life. That I could translate the musical notation in Steuart’s own handwriting, squiggles on the page, into movements of my hands and feet guided by my best understanding of their meaning (itself a mystery) so the audience at the recital could hear what Steuart had imagined (or at least a fairly good facsimile)—while he sat in the audience!—is incomprehensible.

During these fifty years I have participated many times in the first performance of a new work, but my mind goes back to Steuart’s Sonata because that performance was the one that established the mystery in my mind and soul. How? How does it happen, this performance of another’s music, new or old?

Obviously all great performers have somehow answered that question for themselves. They could not continue if they had not. Or perhaps living in that mystery is the only way truly to perform whether the music was written by a friend or by César Franck.

Perhaps a friendship in which that mystery was shared at the beginning can survive even flirtation with the Tea Party on the one hand and virtual socialism on the other.

I may be wrong, but if “music” is substituted for “fiction” in the following third stanza, the poem is about the vanishing “vanishing point” between musicians.

“Of Memory and Distance,” by Russell Edson

It’s a scientific fact that anyone entering the distance will
grow smaller. Eventually becoming so small he might only be
found with a telescope, or, for more intimacy, with a
microscope….

But there’s a vanishing point, where anyone having
penetrated the distance must disappear entirely without hope
of his ever returning, leaving only a memory of his ever having
been.

But then there is fiction, so that one is never really sure if
it was someone who vanished into the end of seeing, or
someone made of paper and ink….

It seems appropriate to play something on the first organ Steuart built. Soon his Sonata again, but for now, an example of the kind of music I play these days (simple enough for the old man to learn) trying to understand the mystery. Is this, indeed, the melody César Franck had in mind? (from L’Organiste; Non troppos Lento in E Major)

César Franck, from L’Organiste; Non troppo Lento in E Major.

 

Three (piano) pieces in the shape of a what!!??

Everyone (I’d mark as unacceptable a student essay beginning with “everyone,” but I happen to know this is true of everyone) knows that experience of getting an idea in mind that will

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

John F. Francis (American, 1808–1886), Still Life with Pears

not go away.

I’ve been wondering why Dr. Leslie P. Spelman, Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands way back in the ‘60s, with whom I was lucky to study organ, chose The Mass of the Poor by Erik Satie for me to learn. Odd. But then, most of the music he chose for me was—as far as the standard repertoire for a college organ major goes—strange. He loved strange music himself. He had studied organ with Joseph Bonnet in Paris (I know he was there in 1934 because I have music of his inscribed “Paris, 1934”).

I have forgotten the details of the stories he told. He did not, of course, know Erik Satie (1866 – 1925), but he knew and studied with musicians who did (perhaps Bonnet himself). At any rate, the Satie Mass was in Dr. Spelman’s repertoire. He assigned it to me, he said, because it would give me a somewhat uncomplicated introduction to training a small choir and then playing and conducting from the organ console.

He also told me (as he quite often did when he assigned me an “out-of-the-mainstream” work) that someday I would understand.

The fact is, I’ve performed the Satie perhaps ten times since then. I love it.

I woke up this morning with the Mass of the PoorMesse des pauvres (orgue ou piano)—firmly in my mind, and it would not go away until I found the score and played a bit of it. Of course that made it worse. Now I believe I shall have the Kyrie in my mind until the day I die.

Satie was a wonderfully eccentric man, to all accounts. He lived in the pre-World War I Paris of artists and musicians such as Debussy, Braque, Picasso – and so on. He was somewhat older than that generation of innovators, so his music was seen (heard) mainly as strange. The (true) story is well-known that when critics complained his music had no form, he immediately composed “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear” for two pianos.

I intended to record a couple of movements of the Messe this morning, but it would have taken longer than I have time for to work out how to make it sound well on the Steuart Goodwin Opus 1 in my living room. Here’s the first recording made of it, by Marilyn Mason. I was going to record the 4th and 5th movements.

A few days ago I went with a friend to Houston to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition of paintings of Georges Braque (1882-1963). Braque was a close associate of Picasso at the time the two of them were “inventing” cubism. I have loved his work for many years. I don’t remember where I first saw a work of his. But I have been fascinated by the paintings in which he included words. My favorite, of course, are those with the name “Bach” inhem. None of them is in the Houston show. It would be hard to say which of the paintings is my favorite. One of those is certainly “Violin and Pitcher.”

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

Braque. Guitar with Pitcher.

But the painting which haunts me still is his last. A painting of a piece of farm machinery, “The Cultivator.” He painted it in the year before he died. It is stark, dark, and hopeful. Don’t ask why I describe it as “hopeful.” I don’t know. But that’s the way I experienced it.

Satie wrote the Messe des Pauvres about 25 years before he died. It was not, however published until after his death. I don’t know why.

I seem to be saying “I don’t know” more often than usual. I don’t know why.

Except that I am finding I don’t know much about anything. Dr. Spelman used to tell me that someday I would understand. I think I am beginning to understand the Messe des Pauvres (as a matter of fact, I’m looking for a church where I can give a small recital and play it).

A wondrous mystery surrounds the last work of many artists and composers. Brahms, for example. His last work is unlike anything else he composed. Opus 122 is a collection of eleven chorale preludes for organ—about half of which are settings of hymn tunes having to do with death. Or Mozart. His last two works are The Magic Flute—an opera unlike any other he wrote, either in subject matter or in the style of the music. And his unfinished Requiem is his last work.

Bach’s last composition is an unfinished chorale prelude the title of which can be translated into English. “I am standing before God’s throne.”

The last four Beethoven String Quartettes have an intensity and a musical language more advanced than anything before them. And Verdi came out of retirement to compose Falstaff, his only comic opera.

I am not saying I think these artists had a premonition they would die soon. The mystery is far greater than that. I think it’s what Dr. Spelman meant when he kept telling me I would understand some day. I don’t understand yet. I’m only just beginning to understand what needs to be understood. Those artists and musicians understood. Ask me in a few years if I can explain what they understood.

Braque. The cultivator.

Braque. The cultivator.

It’s my Christmas, and I’ll Whine if I Want to

Slumming?

Slumming?

This falls under the category “bellyaching.” But if you can slog through the self-pity, you might find a joke at the end.

I have an average of 37 tasks to complete with student essays (grading, checking, averaging grades, etc.) every day for the next five, and here I am writing this nonsense. Even worse. I took the time to make the recording attached here. I can’t help myself. I wish I could. But, you know if you’ve ever read my blog before (same old, same old) my little compulsion to write, and it has to be satisfied before I can do much of anything else except drink coffee.

If I don’t do those 37 tasks (or more) every day, the SMU Registrar and I are likely to be having conversations on Christmas Day. That thought prompted my singing to myself, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas.”

Have yourself a Merry little Christmas, Let your heart be light;
From now on your troubles will be out of sight.
Have yourself a Merry little Christmas, Make the Yuletide gay;
From now on your troubles will be far away.

I won’t have any trouble making the Yuletide gay, of course. And, in fact I will have a Merry little Christmas. My brother, sister-in-law, sister, and I will be together—just the four of us—without a failing loved one to care for or anyone to move or, well, ANYTHING to do but be together.

A commonplace we all know is that depressed people are massively depressed around Christmas. I’m not yet, but I could be. I can’t drive. I have this enormous ridiculous sling on my arm—except when I take it off, as I have at the moment (I’m wearing the little take-a-shower sling; don’t worry, I’m crazy but not stupid). I have work that piled up starting when I was out of class for a week instead of one day because the surgery was suddenly fixing the biceps tendon in my shoulder not a little tear in the cuff.

You may rememberthe concert Carol Burnett and Beverly Sills gave at Met together a long time ago. Someone asked Beverly Sills if she thought she was “slumming” by doing comedy sketches and singing with Carol Burnett. She said of course she was—but not because the music wasn’t worthy of her. No—because she was not in the same comedic league as Carol Burnett and didn’t really belong on the stage with her.

Most of my friends, I think, see me as a serious music snob. A couple of years ago, my brother, sister-in-law, sister, and I were

I DO have a sense of humor.

I DO have a sense of humor.

visiting Dad in the extended care facility where he lived. There was a piano in the “common room,” and I sat down to play. I played a few hymns, and a little crowd gathered. I tried to stop, and they wanted more. A book of show tunes happened to be on the bench, so I began playing show tunes. I went on longer than I should have, but the old folks were eating it up, and who am I to pass up an audience?

When I finally stopped, my brother and sister each told me they had never heard me sit at the piano and have fun. Whoa!!!! Where have they been all my life? Sacramento and Baton Rouge, I guess.

I’m like Beverly Sills. How’s that for ego? Of course, I mean I’m not very good at playing the piano and having fun. What PhD in organ is?

Here’s the point. When I play “serious” organ music, I try to do it just right. You know, professionalism and all that nonsense. I am not a natural performer. Ask any of my real-organist friends. So when I’m having fun, no one quite knows what to do about it. I recorded “The Chipmunk Song” and posted it on Facebook. You should have read the comments about how wonderful it was that I could (apparently for once in my life) have fun.

I hope at least a few people who read this have figured out by this time that I’m having fun. Oh, yes, it’s dead serious, too. I am stressed out almost to the breaking point. But I also think it’s pretty funny. (Those of you who are not Bipolar really can’t imagine, I suppose, how something can be eating my lunch and making me laugh at the same time.)

I’ve recorded “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” on the mechanical action (church) pipe organ in my living room. It sounds (if we are honest about it) pretty silly. It certainly does not show off Steuart Goodwin’s organ-building in the best light. But then I’m not sure anything I could play would do that.

So here I am, alone in my apartment (where I have been alone for most of three days) trying to catch up on work I should have finished days ago, but writing this because I can’t stop. And I recorded (inappropriately) one of the great songs of all time—I’ll write about irony in music someday. And my experience teaches me that hardly anyone will know how much of this is a joke and how much isn’t. Except me and the Chipmunks.

Merry Christmas, all!

I love to tell the story

Classical revival splendor

Classical revival splendor

.

.

.

.

.

.

The First Baptist Church of Omaha, Nebraska, perches at the top of a small hill at the corner of Harney and Park in a kind of neo-classical revival splendor. I don’t know enough about architecture to describe it adequately, so you will have to figure it out for yourself.

Perhaps the building’s most remarkable characteristic is survival.

Interstate 480 cuts a swath through downtown Omaha that’s a near miss for the building. Perhaps the route was carefully chosen to miss the church and other important buildings in the city. The church’s website says the church has been in its present location since 1904 when the current building was constructed.

The church’s organ is (my goodness! I hope it’s still there) a giant 4-keyboard Austin tubular-pneumatic beast with three divisions spread across the front of the church, and a solo division (complete with tuba mirabilis, as loud a reed stop as an organ ever ought to have).  I know the building was built in 1904 because between 1960 and 1963 I sat for countless hours staring at the nameplate on the organ console, “Austin Organs, opus __, 1904). I don’t remember the opus number, but I would guess it was at the time Austin’s crowning achievement. Its preservation should have been a concern of the Organ Historical Society.

During high school, nearly every day after school I took the twenty-minute walk from Central High School at 20th and Dodge up the hill to the church to practice the organ. Roger Wischmeier, organist of the church, was my teacher. My parents were members of the church, so the church allowed me to practice there.

When I was a senior in high school, I played my first real organ recital on the Austin. I remember a few details of the program.

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

A glimpse of the Austin Organ

The most important of those details is that I played the Bach “Gigue” Fugue in G major from memory. At the time I had a girlfriend (didn’t every gay boy in the world in 1963?). She had a man’s name, as did her older sister. Their father was a Bach aficionado, and he raved about my playing, which pleased me more even than my teacher’s praise. My playing of the Bach went on to bless (or curse) me. When I went to college, fully expecting to be an English major so I could write (what else?), I auditioned for the music faculty because I wanted to take organ lessons for fun. I played the fugue from memory, and Dr. Spelman offered me a scholarship as an organ major on the spot. What defense did I have against such recognition?

Back to my high school recital. I also played three chorale preludes by Donald Hustad, at that time and for many years thereafter the music director of the Billy Graham Crusade. His music was favored by my teacher, and he assigned me much of Hustad’s music to learn. Hustad, was a formidable musician and musicologist. For years after high school I dismissed him because of his connection with Billy Graham, but have come to my senses as an old man and understand not only his solid and inspired compositional ability but also his contribution to understanding the history of Evangelical music in the United States.

The three preludes I played on that program were on the tunes of the hymns “I Love to Tell the Story,” “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” and “Children of the Heavenly Father.”

I am grateful that I still have the (bedraggled) book of preludes from which I learned those pieces—with Mr. Wischmeier’s performance notes in them.

As organist in Lutheran churches, I discovered the usefulness of many of Hustad’s compositions. He seems to have had an affinity for Scandinavian Lutheran hymn tunes. The “national anthem” of Swedish-American Lutherans is “Children of the Heavenly Father.” Over the years I have used that Hustad prelude many times.

I’m now headed for Sweden (five days and counting). I will be playing several organs in Scandinavia. The choir I will accompany (Calvary Lutheran Church, Richland Hills, Texas) will sing “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and I will introduce it with the Hustad setting. Fifty years of my life will come full circle.

I will also play a setting of “I Love to tell the Story,” but one I have recently learned, by Emma Lou Diemer, Professor Emeritus of Composition at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

I won’t try to wax eloquent about the importance both to my musical development and to my sanity of these hymn tunes and music I learned practicing at the First Baptist Church of Omaha. I will say only that in my (nearly life-long) confusion-bordering-on-apostasy about religious matters, this music is the constant, I could even say the anchor, of my life.

Donald Hustad’s “Children of the Heavenly Father” played on my small practice organ, recorded with a tiny digital camera.

All I have time for is to quote from a letter I wrote today

The deadline for submitting semester grades is tomorrow, and I still have two classes to finish. I am trying to be responsible (and keep my job).

Akhenaten - is there but one god?

Akhenaten – is there but one god?

Instead of giving in to hypergraphia and writing a less-than-coherent piece especially for posting here, I will use the piece of writing I had no choice but to do when I first woke up this morning.

It’s not in any way humorous or necessarily about growing old. Or, perhaps it’s both humorous because I continue to believe that I have something worth saying, and about growing old because when I write this sort of thing, I realize how old-fashioned I really am. The very fact that I mention Alan Watts (a reference to my friend’s suggestion that I need to read Watts) is enough evidence that I am a fossil.

Below is the substance of a letter I wrote this morning to my dearest old friend (we go back exactly 50 years). We have had a constant (and, I fear, sometimes contentious) debate about politics and what-little-we-both-know about economics. He is staunchly an old-style (think Robert A. Taft, Everett Dirksen, and William F. Buckley instead of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Ted Cruz) conservative, and I an old-style lily-livered liberal (think Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, and George McGovern instead of Dianne Feinstein, Michael Moore, and Al Franken).

Dear _______ ,

You will say that I’m, oh what? not doing research and being mindlessly liberal or something, but this is a concise statement of the sort of thing I fear.

I.e., the wealth of corporations

I.e., the wealth of corporations

“Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think—of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster—depression, hyperinflation—and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome—conqueror of its own people. ” – David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (the fact that this is a quote from a work of fiction makes it more, not less, true in my estimation).

The problem with capitalism is that it makes profit the telos. The invisible hand perhaps at some mythical time in the 18th century guided the marketplace in something like benevolence, but corporations are not invisible or benevolent. They are omnipresent, omnipotent, and (they believe of themselves) omniscient. The power human beings used to attribute to the gods, Western capitalism has granted to corporations.

I’m not sure how you reconcile the mysticism of, say, Alan Watts with the horrific materialism and all-consuming (all puns intended) greed of the corporate life of America (and, in the past 50 years, “globalization”). Just as our education system is designed not to educate but to make sure that a certain percentage of students are failures, so our economic system is designed not to lift everyone’s wealth and comfort but to make sure a certain percentage of people remain enslaved to poverty.

The only students who ever ask me if I “grade on the curve” are B students desperate to be A students. The only people, I would guess, who think it’s OK for 1% of the people of the world to own 50% of the wealth are those who think they have a chance of becoming part of the 1%.

Mysticism and materialism (for every mystic I’ve ever read, beginning with Socrates and moving forward even farther than Alan Watts) do not, cannot by definition, coexist.