Friday, July 24, 2015

states' rights and textbook learning

Some friends of mine were discussing this article in the Washington Post, about Texas teaching standards for the War Between the States, and whether they should have talked more about slavery as a cause of the war, or just states' rights and sectionalism. What's amazing is that this lengthy, in-depth article makes no mention of the glaring fact about the states'-rights argument: that is, that the Southern states were very much against states' rights to, for instance, ignore the federal Fugitive Slave Act. One main reason for secession is that the Southern states were furious that the federal government didn't trample on states' 10th-amendment rights by forcing the return of escaped slaves to their owners. 

Not to mention, of course, the states' 10th-amendment rights to not recognize slavery to begin with, so that if you're vacationing in Pennsylvania and you bring your valet with you, your valet might not come *back* with you because that person is regarded as a free citizen by the state of Pennsylvania.

Needless to say, that particular states' right was hated by the Southern states, and the fact that the federal government turned a blind eye and didn't enforce it under the full faith and credit clause was another reason those states wanted to secede.

So, the states'-rights issue is a complete load of bunk: any true believer in our 10th-amendment rights would be (however dejectedly) in favor of those actions regarding the Fugitive Slave Act and the full faith and credit clause. (Just as a true believer in states' rights who hates marijuana and prostitution nonetheless affirms Colorado and Nevada, respectively, in their rights to decide for themselves.)

But of course they weren't true believers in states' rights, then or now. Not that you'd ever know that from reading a textbook.

On the other hand, demand from school the person you are today: could they produce that person? There's a reason they call graduation ceremonies "commencement" — it's when your education finally begins.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

a declaration for the ages

On other holidays, we honor our country's veterans; on other holidays, we memorialize those who have died in serving; there's also Armed Forces Day, and lesser-celebrated holidays for the various branches of the military and for various recent battles and victories.

Today, though, we honor an un-military group who did an un-military thing: they published a document, ink on paper, claiming some things to be self-evident that weren't self-evident to most of their international audience. They claimed that all are equal, and they have — by dint of their very existence, not by fiat of the state — the right to live, to be free, and to pursue happiness. Perhaps more audaciously, they claimed that governments derive their power from the consent of the governed, something they no doubt saw to be true of dictatorships as much as free lands. Every one of those assertions was controversial, and many have a hard time swallowing them even today — sometimes we ourselves have a hard time swallowing them.

But there they are, ink on paper, sent out into the world to change it. It's inarguable that they themselves saw those rights as available in their completeness only to white male landowners, but no matter: those words rang nonetheless. Over the years our republic has chipped away at the barnacled understanding of those words, the rough-hewn stone that covered the true polished shape of liberty, with much pain and with much howling. The pain continues, and the howling too, and there is still rough stone left, but our edifice is far more an edifice of freedom — of those radically-stated rights — than they ever could have imagined.

Take a moment to pray, sing, breathe gratitude for these people and their vision, and vow to continue chipping away, making those words true all over again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

a great dinner reminded me

When Jesus of Nazareth was asked for a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven, he didn't answer with blue cloudy mist and harps and wings — he answered with images of a happy feast. Every strum of the harp may recall Hollywood heaven, but every family meal with people laughing and talking and enjoying great food recalls the real thing.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


I've been wearing Oud, Maison Francis Kurkdjian's bewitching 2012 fragrance, lately.

Given a name like "Oud," you might think that this fragrance is the smell of oud, the unusual resinous Asian wood whose unduplicable smell has been valued since the time of the Sanskrit Vedas. Well, there *is* oud in Oud, but oud isn't the smell of Oud. The rush of saffron-flower — a burst of late-afternoon sunshine — followed by cedary, leathery, incensy smells, with a quiet but distinct trace of patchouli (a smell I usually find repugnant, as does Catherine, but which we both find just perfectly framed here), and swirls of half-hidden pepper and pine, is all held together by just the right amount of resinous Laotian oud.

It's like making a stew with fruits and vegetables and meats, and then making it all come together with just a touch of paprika, and then calling the soup "Paprika." You can see why when you smell it, but it's not really even the main part of the fragrance. Maybe it's more like calling this picture "Red":

Perfect, right? Some artist would name it that, and you'd immediately know why. The exact right red in that hat suffuses the entire picture with meaning. It's a perfect metaphor for the way oud operates in Oud.

This is one of those newer fragrances that revive an older trend from the 70s and early 80s. You're always in dicey territory when you do that, because nostalgia can go both ways. I lent a sampler of Cuir to a friend whose wife couldn't abide it because it reminded her of the going-out-of-date fragrances of her childhood, and couldn't get past it. Similarly, Catherine, though she liked the smell on paper, always ended up thinking "old man from the 1970s," which isn't a thought every husband wants to call up in his wife. (Bonus: a gay friend teases me to no end about wearing a cologne called "Queer.")

But Oud is simply beyond that. It's definitely in the musky world of men's colognes from that period, but updated to feel utterly modern. To my nose, it doesn't smell nostalgic at all: less like Ford's new Mustangs than like the new Thunderbirds, every line and contour justified and all else sent away.

It settles down into a very subtle glow that just smells like incredibly great-smelling skin, and stays that way for hours. Very very complex, as it's made from several notes that are themselves complex, it's divinely hard to pin down in the mind: celestial, dark, smooth as hand-rubbed mahogany, masculine, satiny, powdery, sensual.

This is the first fragrance I've been really excited about in a long time. Catherine is too. She can't stop sniffing and nuzzling. Near-perfect.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

the movie slide game

I just realized that a favorite pastime is gone! They used to show slides before the movies started in theaters: the game was to try to read the entire text — every word — on a given slide before it went to the next slide. A fun contest, now obsolete!!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

a mad men ending

Catherine and I have only just watched the first episode of this final season. (The second airs tonight but we won't watch it for a few days.)

I have, though, come up with a great final scene for the series. Don gets out of the car, wearing one of his outfits that signals he's in California, and goes into some place (restaurant, hotel, something). The person brightens with recognition and greets him, "Right this way, Mr. Whitman."

Friday, April 10, 2015

'get hard' and sex

Tonight we saw "Get Hard," the movie about a white-collar criminal's attempt to harden up for a real (non-Club-Fed) prison. It's a negligible movie, but Catherine was so in the mood for something fun that she was thoroughly entertained, and *that* was quite entertaining to me.

It in no way passes the Bechdel Test — it's so un-Bechdel that the only actual female character is a cardboard first-prize fiancee, a near-total waste of Alison Brie's razor-sharp talent. Interestingly, there were two movies previewed that passed the Bechdel Test in the *preview*. And, not surprisingly, they look like actual good movies.

The main message of "Get Hard" is that there's nothing worse in the entire world than prison because prison means gay sex. What could be worse than gay sex prison? They may have gyms and yards and cells and cafeterias but the main thing is lots of gay sex, which can only be avoided by being protected.

As we were going out to the car, I chirped the remote to remind us of exactly where the car was, and Catherine, half-jokingly, said, "Male privilege." I can chirp my car remote because I don't mind everyone around knowing where my car is, because I'm a man. Interesting!

It hit me that men are so afraid of prison because it's the only place where a man is as likely to get raped as a woman.

Friday, March 27, 2015

the importance of shoes

A friend sent me this article on the importance of shoes. Too many men simply pay no attention to their shoes, either in buying or in keeping them up. My dad always wore good shoes, bought them for me, and showed me from an early age how to use a shoe-shine kit and keep my shoes looking spiffy. (My mom has fond memories of her German father doing his shoe-detailing routine daily. It was part of his entire air of rectitude.)

I have to say that once we decided that Greta and Clara were going to be our only two, I had a moment of sadness that I'd never bring up a son to enjoy all the accoutrements of manhood — the necktie knots, the importance of shoes and collar stays and good tailoring — that I always enjoyed. Of course, there's no guarantee that my son would value those things, so there's no sense sentimentalizing it.

The article goes a bit adrift when bringing in the choice of shoes that seem to the author inappropriate. After all, I've seen rhinestoned sandals with cocktail dresses that were a delightful choice. One gets the idea that this author would have disapproved of the first gents to wear tuxedos, though no doubt he does himself now. And he's on slippery ground in calling for hiking shoes for hiking, dancing shoes for dancing, and presumably never any mixing or borrowing: in a society in which a man wears a lounge suit to work and then comes home and changes into laboring-men's work clothes to lounge, that's a bit tone-deaf, right? If sailor suits were only used by sailors when sailing, we'd lose one of the icons of childhood, not to mention one of the icons of cheerful femininity.

But he's on much firmer ground in exhorting us all to enjoy our black lace-ups and take care of them. I've had my Florsheim Imperials for coming up on two decades and they look spectacular. It's my firm conviction that one of Greta's or Clara's sons will wear them with joy, just as I wore my own grandfather's gorgeous kangaroo-hide boots ... for dancing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

sympathy for the devil

Some friends and I were discussing (lowercase) sympathy for the devil, specifically in relation to Milton's "Paradise Lost," which is a seminal text in English on the topic: Milton allowed us into Satan's Satanic reasoning, and it looked awfully familiar.

William Blake famously said that Milton's writing of those scenes was so alive precisely because he was "of the Devil's party without knowing it." He couldn't help but make Satan sound more interesting than boring old God, because he, being so sinful, had some natural ... err, sympathy for him. Later critics repeated Blake while reversing him: Milton did know that he was of the Devil's party, and knew that you and I were too; he deliberately made Satan persuasive so we wouldn't kid ourselves about whose side we're really on. (Whether his trick was intentional or not, Milton's aggressive Protestantism, which held that we are all completely incapable of good without direct intervention from God, would absolutely track with that interpretation.)

This all got me in mind of one of the Rolling Stones' most notorious songs. I remember hearing that the Rolling Stones were Satan-worshipers (an allegation that was diluted by the fact that virtually all popular musicians were, in the eyes of many youth ministers in the 80s). Mick Jagger is even on record as saying that, because people thought of the song that way, later heavy-metal acts got in on the action, and that song is the genesis of an entire heavy-metal trope. It bears mentioning that in that same interview Jagger brushed off the idea that the song indicated anything like Satanism on their part — proof for many that he was indeed a Satanist, because that's exactly the tricky sort of thing a Satan-worshipper would do.

As usual (I'm looking at "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Bohemian Rhapsody"), the religious-minded critics of that song quite simply couldn't have really listened to it. At least, if they had, they might not have perceived what's there in black and white, instead trusting what they think they know.

Before we get into it, though, allow me to rewrite the song, or rather write my own song, with lyrics that could very well be forwarded in one of those horrible emails that your uncle sends around. I'll even cast it in doggerel form just to make it more realistic. The goal here is to write something that would give a more traditional view of Satan, something like a pop-culture Screwtape Letters, in which Satan introduces himself and reveals to the presumably skeptical listener that he's the dark power behind all the evil of history — a poem that your youth minister could have gotten behind, a song Carmen might sing. Let's give it a shot:
Please allow me to introduce myself
I'm a man of wealth and taste
I've been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man's soul and faith
And I was 'round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
I made sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate

Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what's puzzling you
Is the nature of my game

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the czar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain
I rode a tank
Held a general's rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

I watched with glee
While your kings and queens
Fought for decades
For the gods they made
I shouted out,
"Who killed the Kennedys?"
When after all
It was you and me

So if you meet me
Have some courtesy
Have some sympathy, and some taste
Use all your well-learned politesse —
Or I'll lay your soul to waste.
I like the references to Soviet Communism and WWII, which we think of in such human terms, but which we must realize have their roots in the spiritual world. I especially like the subtle and damning theology of "I shouted out, 'Who killed the Kennedys?' when after all it was you and me." Bam! Says it all, right? The sin in the world doesn't come at us; it comes out of us, to use Jesus of Nazareth's startling phrase. The evil that plagues history isn't some accident or flaw: it comes from Satan, and you and I are in league with him.

By now, you've figured out that those are the lyrics to the real "Sympathy for the Devil," by the Rolling Stones. That doggerel isn't an inexpertly-rhymed email forward or a Carmen spectacular: it's the original song.

So that's "Sympathy for the Devil?" Why on earth didn't every youth minister in the land latch onto it as a perfect bit of pop-culture theology? How could anyone look at it and conclude that these people are God-is-bad-Satan-is-good occultists? Certainly they weren't exemplars of sober and spirit-filled living, but few pastors went after Jerry Lewis. What's the deal? These guys succeeded in a rock-n-roll samba worthy of Screwtape himself.

Rule number one: before you criticize a song, pay attention to what the song is actually saying. You might be surprised.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

leaf work

Our yard man has steadfastly refused for the past 5 years to include our back driveway/parking court​ in his sphere of duty. (It bears mentioning that this was a stable back when the house was built! The pleasures of old homes!) I've steadfastly refused to let him off the hook, leaving the leaves to pile up till he can't in good conscience leave them unnoticed.

Well, gents, he won. Yesterday I decided to clear all that stuff away, and quickly decided I wasn't going to be the one to do it. The girls and I struck out up and down the street till we found some 10-year-old-ish boys bicycling around. I offered them a few bucks to come to the job. Their parents, from their porch, gave the OK and expressed enthusiasm that their boys were going to earn an honest dollar, but they didn't have a rake. Since we didn't either (we, after all, have a yard man who has a rake), I went to our next-door neighbor, a quiet older man who takes care of his mother, and borrowed *his* rake, took it to the boys, and brought them out back, where they worked for a good hour and a half.

As they worked, Greta and Clara came out to help/hinder, got to know the boys, tried to get them to play, jumped on the trampoline, fussed with a ball. Catherine came out and introduced the first cascarones of spring. (Greta's raison d'etre in spring is cascarones, and she's been talking about them for weeks.) The boys got a couple and exchanged a look that made it clear their victims would be each other.

13 bags of silty leaves, a fairly-well-cleaned-up driveway (I'll handle the remaining silt and leave the bright confetti), an ice-cold Coke for the boys to top it off, and a standing invitation to the trampoline, and I felt much more connected and grounded in our community, our little neighborhood with such a mix of people.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

the first 4000 days

Today, Catherine and I walked, talked, dined, smiled, hugged, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and each other, on the 4,000th day of our marriage. Four thousand days! We're old pros now, and we loved thinking up what we'd say to our younger selves 8000 days ago about what was to begin in their future: a beautiful lifetime together, who knows how long — a marriage of true minds.

Monday, March 16, 2015


I tried on Cuir for the first time today. Part of the Les Nombres D’Or series of fragrances by Mona di Orio. It came out in 2010; always good to try relatively new fragrances, if only to see what they're making and wearing these days. You don't want to be one of those people who stopped everything at the age of 28. So I treasure the fragrances of my youth — YSL and Platinum Egoiste and Kouros — but I occasionally try new stuff too.

Cuir is (as you may have expected if you know any French) very leathery. Zow! It's like it's 1977 all over again, except edited for modern tastes. Smoky, dusty, spicy, absinthey, and *completely* opposed to the watery-citrus smell of a college hangout on Friday night. Mellows out to a purer sandalwoodiness. Masculine, soberly intoxicating, well-balanced and daringly imbalanced. Not sure if I would wear it regularly, and it still hasn't passed the wifely gauntlet, but what an interesting side trip! It's like wearing a tuxedo at a campfire.

Friday, February 6, 2015

yea! we're nerds! oh, it's just me

True story: we were having a conversation about some weighty issue, and someone said, slightly ironically, "Let's talk about something more important. Did you hear the latest news about Gwyneth?"

I was delighted and surprised, thinking I'd found a kindred spirit ... till I found out they weren't talking about the opera diva Dame Gwyneth Jones.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

pawing into history

On this day in 1469 Johannes Gutenberg died. Gutenberg, the first developer of a reliable movable type printing press, helped bring on, um, everything including this blog.

I was just reading that his black ink is still superdark and glossy after over 500 years, as if it were brand new. Never faded. To this day, no one knows quite how he did it.

Then I got to thinking about this guy, the monk who was writing this page when, apparently, his cat got into the ink and then walked across the page, just late enough in the page's progress to keep it, and not doing quite enough damage to justify starting the page over.

We all think this picture is about the mischievous nature of kitties, but really it's about how this monk saw a repeated impression of the same shape multiple times stamped in ink ... and for the millionth time in history didn't put it together.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

song juxtapositions

There are different ways to sit around and think about one band doing another band's music: one is to find the common ground (on a Rush tribute project, "Limelight" should be done by the Dave Matthews Band); another is to come up with a loopy assignment and make it fit (Foreigner's "Cold as Ice" done by the Beach Boys? Perfect: piano riff now done by Wurlitzer organ, bass "ba-dump, ba-dump" doubled by loose toms; add some sleigh bells in there).

Just today I thought I'd like to hear Mumford and Sons do some 70s glam rock. First band to my mind was Queen, and then I immediately landed on "39," from their "Night At The Opera" album. Obviously! If Dar Williams's fans can get her to do "Major Tom," surely Mumford & Sons's fans could get them to do "39."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

an ironic fate

I just found out something absolutely shocking. (Shocking at least to me, a person of delicate sensibilities.)

What do you know about Mithridates? Many know the story of the king of Pontus who developed an immunity to various poisons and was an inspiration for the Dread Pirate Robert's greatest showdown.

If you're like me, you mainly know about him through A. E. Housman's poem "Terence, This is Stupid Stuff," in which the speaker defends his morose poetry as a way of inoculating himself against the evils of the world:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
–I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Hm. How did old Mithridates die? I actually never bothered to ask, nor, I'm ashamed to say, did I ever pay much attention to the actual plot of Mitridate, re di Ponto, the opera by the 14-year-old Mozart, instead just listening to the pleasant music the one time I heard it.

So, today, I just found out how he died, and I'm gobsmacked. No screenwriter (or opera composer) would dare to have come up with this fate. He was finally defeated by Pompey, and instead of being paraded around in defeat, in those death-before-dishonor days, he and his family protected themselves against rape/slavery/worse by entering a suicide pact, killing themselves ... by ... poison!

That's not all: wife and daughters keeled over as planned, but — as planned — the man himself didn't. He was last in line to drink, according to the morals of the time, and there wasn't enough left to overpower the immunity he'd spent his life building. Finally, he asked his friend to end it by sword so he could die with honor.

Like all of us, he'd protected himself against the wrong thing the whole time.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

bummers come in threes

Monday, January 12, 2015

black keys

Right this very minute, Greta is picking out tunes on the piano. She always tries to figure out her favorite songs — at the age of 3 she hammered away until she had "Ode to Joy" perfectly — and right now, on Monday, January 12th, she's picking out "O God You Are My God," starting on C, thus putting it in the key of F​. Black keys haven't been on her radar, so for a while she got stuck on the "I" of "I will ever praise You." But — one of my favorite sounds in the world, the rounding of a corner — a Bb! Haaaa!

She's now getting through the third line, through "learn to walk in Your ways," pretty perfectly, and stops, saying, "aaaah, this is impossible!!" I say, "you just did it!" And the painful and joyful job of joining civilization continues.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

here comes the bride or o tannenbaum

Here's how to play my new game 'Here Comes the Bride' or 'O Tannenbaum'?:

• Whistle or sing the first four notes of (your choice) "Here Comes the Bride" or "O Tannenbaum."
• The other person guesses which one it is.
• Then you tell them whether they guessed right.

Barry: ♩♩♪♩
Cate: ... "Here Comes the Bride?"
Barry: Wrong again. It's O Tannenbaum.
Cate: Dang it!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

empathic power and politics

Salon, as part of a series in which notable women share their wisdom, ran a piece by Anne Lamott, a favorite writer of mine, favorite partially because she doesn't hide her demons — the very subject that she hits on in the piece.

The whole thing is really about forgiveness. It's wonderful, but there's one phrase she uses that works like a bell tied to a preacher's wrist whose sound completely overtakes the sermon. Doesn't drown out the message — it's just than no one's going to really pay attention to it.

Almost no one: her close audience is made up of people who share most of her political views and they won't even hear the bell. They'll just hear a penetrating sermon on forgiveness, with real wisdom and insight. Others will hear a very marred piece; others will only hear what they perceive as a gratuitous and unnecessary political potshot that undoes the piece.

I don't think she intended it as a potshot. The "as told to" nature of this series means she was speaking extemporaneously or nearly so, and probably we just have an example of her ideology leaking out. Naturally, the editors put it in the headline.

That leak, and the thought process it revealed (that Tea Party people are the most hateful on earth), and the reaction it's gotten, from liberals and conservatives and centrists, got me to thinking about empathy. Not sympathy, the ability to see a person's problems, but empathy, the ability to share for a moment a person's point of view and feelings. When you do that, you can begin to see that there can be another point of view, another way to feel about whatever's going on.

The ability to imagine a different set of conclusions from the evidence the world gives you turns out to be one of the keys to life — and we're all guilty of inability in that area to various degrees.

Liberals often can't imagine why you'd ever want to restrict the rights of women and take away the measures that have helped minorities and make laws that burden the poor unless you are simply hateful and bigoted and repressive.

That leaves them unable to understand someone who wants to protect fetuses and have a meritocratic level playing ground and let the free market reign.

Meanwhile, conservatives often can't imagine why you'd ever want to snuff out the lives of the unborn and give minority students better grades than they deserve and restrict the trade that brings prosperity to all, unless you are simply hateful and repressive and don't care for human life.

That leaves them unable to understand someone who wants to lessen the instance of abortion by measure rather than fiat and give some people the academic and professional tailwind that others have always had and put reasonable harnesses on forces that tend to destroy if unharnessed.

When people have such different reverences, they begin accusing each other of opposite blasphemies, and then very little dialogue can actually take place at all.

One giant step we could take would be to make it so that, politically, we need each other a bit more: the scourge of gerrymandering, in which people from both parties have spent generations carving us up into like-minded districts where primaries and their purity tests matter more than actual elections, is a massive contributor to this talking-past-each-other effect, and, if reversed, could contribute greatly to a healing process in the way we try to appeal to and persuade each other.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

when and how to start piano lessons

Being an expert in all things musical (or at least perceived that way), I often get questions when it's piano-lesson time for people's kids. I've accepted that I'm not really a great teacher, but I can steer kids toward good ones, and give some advice based on my experience.

A friend writes:
When did you begin piano lessons? And knowing how musically gifted your family is in general, was it a requirement for you, or did you just naturally gravitate toward it (i.e., were you a modern day Mozart)? I would love for my boy to learn, but I don't want to introduce it too soon (or too late).
     And I don't know if it's better for parents to push kids to practice or to hope they will want to intrinsically. I had a couple of years of lessons as a kid, but most all of that knowledge has vanished and now I wish my mom had pushed.... And — last question — is it too ludicrous for me to contemplate taking lessons again at my age?
Piano: was it a requirement or did I naturally gravitate? Hm — both. All three of us took lessons, and it was very much a requirement. Just part of a good upbringing because everyone should learn to play an instrument. (We also had to play on the softball and basketball teams. Less of a triumph for me, but Paul and Rich took to it.)

Allow me to set your mind at ease about when to do it. You pretty much can't mess that up unless you somehow prevent your child from taking. It's not too soon or too late. Naturally, if the kid is 4 or 5 there's going to be a different approach, but by the time school starts a moderate amount of school-like discipline and the idea of practicing aren't that foreign. I recall that we had to practice 30 minutes a day. Had to, had to, had to — non-negotiable.

That said, I had two older brothers who took lessons, so I saw them playing and wanted to play myself. I got up on the bench and started farting around with notes and melodies. That interest, coupled with a natural talent, convinced my parents that I could start lessons at 5 rather than 6, which is when my brothers began.

I've got to say I wasn't a great student. I ended up practicing far more than 30 minutes a day — in Jr Hi and High School more than an hour usually — but hardly any of it was on the stuff I was supposed to be doing. Instead I just did what I felt like and what I was drawn to. So my teacher always thought I wasn't quite living up to my potential; nevertheless, the skills did build up one way or another and I was gigging professionally by fourteen.

All of which is to say that if your kid really takes to it there's not much you can do to stop him. (Think of the phenomenon of the 10th-grader who shuts himself in his room and plays the same Jimi Hendrix tune for 9 hours, till he can nail it.) And even if he doesn't take to it that way he'll still be learning valuable stuff that, we now know, is like learning a new language, along with mathematical and systematic brainstretching, a sense of accomplishment, comfort in getting up in front of a crowd, hand-eye coordination, pleasure in being able to do something pleasing — on and on! Good things come when you learn an instrument.

As far as taking lessons yourself, my guess is it would all come flooding back. You should do it! I have fond memories of standing there watching my mom play through Chopin books and "100 Piano Favorites" books when I was a kid. Really cool to see her calling forth such sounds from the piano, and easy to assume that I would someday do the same.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

"I don't understand," she said mondegreenly

Just got through with a hilarious conversation about Taylor Swift's song "Blank Space," in which she sings "Got a long list of ex-lovers; they'll tell you I'm insane," but tons of people hear something like "All the lonely Starbucks lovers...."

Haha!! There have been a couple of articles about it. They only give us half-baked ruminations on mondegreens. But they don't really tell you why you misheard the lyric.

The main reason is that she disobeys the laws of English lyric-writing. A pop song should rhyme and scan seemingly effortlessly. When you have to put THE acCENT on THE wrong sylLABle in order to make it fit the musical phrase, you'll always murder the phrase.

For instance, if she were to write a boppy melody that goes, with a steady BOM baBOM BOM baBOM BOMba, "GOT a LONG LIST of EX LOVers," the exact same phrase would be perfectly understood.

Or, conversely, if she kept the same melody and rhythm but changed the lyrics to "Got a longish list of exes" (admittedly a terrible line), then the scansion of the music would match the natural accents of the phrase and you'd understand it.

As it stands, she's constrained herself to say "Gotta long lst-OV-x-LOV-rs"— English is especially strict because of our tendency to assign any non-stressed syllable a schwa sound (that "eh" or "uh") rather than the vowel's normal value. So, speaking it, you'd say "LONG LIST əv EX LOVərs," something very different from the song's "LONG ləst OV əx LOVərs".

Yeouch! "LONG ləst OV əx LOVərs"?!?! Madness!!

That is why your brain goes to the trochaic "Lonely Starbucks." It's the closest thing you can land on.

So, in the language of scansion, the melody, which goes "badaBAAdump BAAdump BAAdump," asks for four trochaic feet in a row (or a pyrrhic and three trochees), but her lyric, "Got a long list of ex-lovers," consists of a pyrrhic, a spondee, an iamb, and a trochee.

got a | LONG LIST | of EX | LOV ers.

Catherine suggests replacing my awkward suggestion with "Got a longish list of lovers." PERFECT!!

got a | LONG ish | LIST of | LOV ers

Swift is pretty much a pop genius, but even pop geniuses can have off days. The best pop songs just pop right out of your mouth, with the spoken inflection matched perfectly by the rhythm and melody. Most "mondegreens" in modern pop result from the songwriter's failure to do that.

Also bothersome: the Nashville girl suddenly goes Cockney with "They'll tell you oim insane." Where on earth did she get that??

My experience tells me some misguided enunciation coach (called, wrongly, "diction coaches" for some reason), heard her "ahm" on the first take and told her to fix it. That's doubly funny because one of the nudgy things that nudges our ears toward "Starbucks" is the long history of r-dropping in American pop music, which is strongly influenced by singers from r-dropping areas, who also "ahh" out our "i" sounds. Ironic!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

a remarkable spaniard

This week, a true original died. Thursday, the Duchess of Alba gave in to pneumonia at the age of 88, in her 14th-century castle in Seville. Her full name was María del Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart, Silva, Falcó y Gurtubay. No wonder people just called her Cayetana, the Duchess of Alba.

But she wasn't just that. She was also the 15th Duchess of Aliaga, the 4th Duchess of Arjona, the 11th Duchess of Berwick, the 17th Duchess of Híjar, the 11th Duchess of Liria and Jérica, the 11th Duchess of Montoro, the 12th Countess-Duchess of Olivares, the 17th Marquise of the Carpio, the 10th Marquise of San Vicente del Barco, the 16th Marquise of La Algaba, the 16th Marquise of Almenara, the 18th Marquise of Barcarrota, the 10th Marquise of Castañeda, the 23rd Marquise of Coria, the 14th Marquise of Eliche, the 16th Marquise of Mirallo, the 20th Marquise of la Mota, the 20th Marquise of Moya, the 17th Marquise of Orani, the 12th Marquise of Osera, the 14th Marquise of San Leonardo, the 19th Marquise of Sarria, the 12th Marquise of Tarazona, the 15th Marquise of Valdunquillo, the 18th Marquise of Villanueva del Fresno, the 17th Marquise of Villanueva del Río, the 27th Countess of Aranda, the 22nd Countess of Lemos, the 20th Countess of Lerín, Constabless of Navarre, the 20th Countess of Miranda del Castañar, the 16th Countess of Monterrey, the 20th Countess of Osorno, the 18th Countess of Palma del Río, the 12th Countess of Salvatierra, the 22nd Countess of Siruela, the 19th Countess of Andrade, the 14th Countess of Ayala, the 16th Countess of Casarrubios del Monte, the 16th Countess of Fuentes de Valdepero, the 11th Countess of Fuentidueña, the 17th Countess of Galve, the 18th Countess of Gelves, the 16th Countess of Guimerá, the 21st Countess of Modica, the 24th Countess of Ribadeo, the 25th Countess of San Esteban de Gormaz, the 12th Countess of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the 20th Countess of Villalba, the 12th Viscountess of la Calzada, and the 29th Lady of Moguer.

All that makes her not only the grandest grandee in the world (with more titles recognized by an existing government than any other person on earth), but one of its great landowners: if you planned it out the right way, you could walk from Spain's eastern border to its western one without ever stepping off her property.

Her marriage to a (lesser) noble in the 40s was Spain's last great feudal wedding, and one of the century's most dazzling — her jewelry alone was worth 15 million in today's dollars. But, for such a pedigreed figure, she was unbound by the restrictive rules of her class and time. After her first husband died, she married her confessor, a defrocked Jesuit priest; more scandalous, he himself was an ilegítimo, a bastard, having entered the priesthood in the first place by the old path of having been left on the church doorstep. The public was shocked; Cayetana, no respecter of persons, went right ahead. When he died, and she planned to marry a civil servant 25 years her junior, her family rebelled, no doubt concerned that he was in it to rob them. Her response was to simply sign over all their inheritances to them early, and marry the man. At the wedding, the 85-year-old countess/duchess/grandee kicked off her shoes and commenced to dance flamenco.

She loved dancing; she owned Christopher Columbus's first map of the Americas; she wore giant floppy hats, bright hippieish dresses, and fishnet stockings. By dint of various aristocratic fine-print, she was free to enter Seville Cathedral on horseback with impunity, didn't have to kneel before the Pope, and, whenever she ran into the Queen of England, the Queen had to curtsy to her.

No doubt a flawed human being, she nonetheless got the answers right again and again. Under that resolutely frizzy crown of hair was a brain that understood that her power and privilege could buy her the freedoms that few women of her place and time could enjoy, but which we should all aspire to — not the puny freedoms of riches and leisure that we too often settle for, but the real freedoms of the human spirit: to see people for who they are and love them and associate with them regardless of what others think, to recognize love when it comes your way, to do a stomping dance when you feel like it (and to put in the work so that you're in shape to do it).

When you preserve the Glory of Spain by gathering it in such concentration and then squandering it so happily, there's a name for it: kenosis.

Farewell, Cayetana, nobody's duchess, a spirit as free as ours were all created to be.

My favorite story? When she was 62, a lifetime of rebellion against society's rules found its peak: she curtsied to the Queen.

Friday, November 14, 2014

meat and buns and supply and demand

If you want to be thoroughly confused about the free market, consider the strange case of Kim Kardashian. There is, after all, hardly a shortage of pictures of women's naked backsides on the internet. How on earth does she get this kind of attention for something with which the market is so glutted?

I feel the same way about Sports Illustrated every year: it's nothing other than marketing genius that somehow makes a legion of people wait in eager anticipation for the release of ... a magazine with pictures of models in swimsuits.

With the McRib, McDonald's is basically a commodities trader: whenever pork prices fall below a certain margin, they roll it out and make money, benefitting additionally from the scarcity. No mystery there. But imagine a situation in which every year McDonald's introduced ... a hamburger, and people went nuts, even though they and every other hamburger place paper our world with hamburgers. We could only conclude that it's some sort of sorcery that's overriding the usual laws of supply and demand.

All this makes me hungry for Girl Scout cookies. Dang it! It's not February! How in the world will I get hold of the exact same mint chocolate cookies that are always available everywhere in every grocery store? Oh well, I'll just have to wait.

Monday, November 10, 2014

i loved your kids

I worked with teens at our church from my own teen years until almost the age of 40. I'd love to gather all their parents somehow and say, "I loved your kids! And, whatever your experience with them was, I feel fortunate because I suspect I got their best. As an adult who had no temporal authority over them, I got their deepest and truest thoughts, their most uninhibited laughter, their fresh insight. I loved every minute of it."

I got probing questions about the big-brush issues like how we know there even is a God at all, and the most fine-point issues like whether the Salmanticenses were heretical, and all in between. I got the most direct please-help-me pleas like "I've started doing drugs and I'm not sure my parents know but I'm not sure I can quit," and roundabout inquiries about whether this or that constitutes rape or whether I think smoking marijuana is a sin. (I derived great pleasure from dispensing guidance that, if followed, would lead kids toward a long, healthy, Christ-loving future with no baggage, without ever nagging or resorting to because-I-said-so.)

Most of all, I just got to see them being themselves, trying on different selves to be, and interacting with each other.

God designed these people to be choosing careers and getting married and establishing households and bearing children during their teen years; we have placed a near-impossible burden on teens by denying and delaying those steps. Nearly every clucked-over pathology attributed to teens can be traced to the frustration of those very real — biologically-mandated — urges to live in one's own space and deal with the opposite sex and take care of babies and make one's own decisions.

Merely respecting them, respecting the fact that they are fully people, respecting their interests, respecting this burden society has placed on them, will buy us all much. I always tried to do so with the kids I worked with, and, goodness, I hope I can remember to with my own children, which as we all know isn't guaranteed.

Meanwhile, I cherish those generations of kids, now adults with their own kids. I loved getting up early in the morning for them, staying out late with them, ingesting probably half a ton of semi-good food with them at EZs and Alamo Cafe, studying and studying to bring solid and memorable teaching to them. Most of all, I loved your kids. I saw many of them at their best, and I loved them.

Friday, September 26, 2014

a star wars epiphany

Wow. A thought just crossed my mind. I was thinking about how the best Star Wars movies were the ones where Lucas remained in charge but left the screenwriting and directing to others (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) — and it hit me.

If there are lucky stars out there, thank them profusely that George Lucas wasn't an amateur composer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


This summer I went into a completely new salon, introduced myself to a stylist, and said, "Do something stylish." I do this every so often, just to stay fresh (with mixed results). I didn't even tell her how I normally do it. She ended up giving me a sweep-back slickish cut that made me look like a character on "Suits"... plenty dashing, but then after a week or so Catherine said I looked like a televangelist.

So then I went to another new person and said I wanted something stylish. This one gave me a shorter, spikier look that befits a musician (it's what you'd expect of the contemporary worship guy at, uh, St Thomas Episcopal, for instance). Nice middlingly stylish cut. She said, "This makes you look like a very handsome older man, who looks young." Hey I'll take it.



It's New, It's Now:

Friday, September 19, 2014

hugo energise

The past couple of days I've been wearing Hugo Energise, a several-year-old fragrance from Hugo Boss. Apparently, experts and critics think it's ho-hum, but I think I like it. Nice peppery and fruity smell right up front, and then it mellows to a warm spicy, slightly chocolaty smell. After a few minutes, though, there's a powdery thing to it that's extremely synthetic and industrial-smelling. Hm. Don't like that. But it doesn't stay that way.

Overall, very pleasantly manly, just off-center enough to be non-cliché, probably very good for fall and winter.

Monday, September 15, 2014

busy beaver

Greta gets numbers. I think she'll end up being like her mother that way. She's like me, too, in that she gets the poetry of numbers, even if she doesn't quite understand them natively yet.

She debuted a song that she wrote the other day, called "Busy Beaver." Yep — a reference to the busy beaver, a "Turing machine," really a theoretical way of producing mind-bogglingly high numbers. Greta just can't get over the mind-bogglingness of busy beaver numbers, and regularly tries to compare them to real-life sizes and distances.

So, a new song that brings together her love of God, her love of music (listen to that nice pop melody! when she sings it, she does a very pop-music dropped "r," so that it's "Busy Bea-vehhh"), and her love of numbers, all in one place.

Click to enlarge.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

eau de lacoste L.12.12 blanc

Recently I'm wearing Eau de Lacoste L.12.12 Blanc. When it first goes on it smells very typically guy-ish, that sporty citrusy smell that dominates dorms across the land (though it's on the grapefruity side, so that helps). But after a few hours it mellows into a sweet woody smell with just a tinge of something distantly flowery that makes it fairly distinctive — but only fairly.

I'm not sure it passes the distinctiveness test, which is really my only test for a fragrance. Sure is nice and clean and pleasant, though. If L.12.12 Blanc went to high school with you it would be that guy on the tennis team who's athletic and "popular" but also actually popular — nice to everyone and pretty smart and fun and great to hang around with. Terrific August fragrance.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

that's one happy marriage

Thursday, August 21, 2014

the tongue p

Stick out your tongue and then use it to make something like a "p" sound. Is there a name for that sound? It's not really a "t" or a "th" or a "p." It's a whole separate thing. Surely *some* language uses it, right? 

Greta came up to me and said a new word in an unspecified foreign language (as is her custom); "Wun-∞a."

"Wun-tha?," you ask.

No! "Wun-∞a."


NOO!! "Wun-∞a."

Friday, August 15, 2014

a huge gift

Over the years, I've been the beneficiary a couple of times when a longtime musician retires. Yesterday I was honored to be bequeathed the massive music library of Loretta Cormier, who's moving to a smaller place — complete collections of many of the greats: Harry Warren, Sammy Cahn, Yip Harburg, Irving Berlin, Porter, Kern. Wow! All those back numbers to go through!

Thursday, August 7, 2014


A flashback from my childhood: I remember sitting in Ms Goodenough's class in 4th grade, listening to two songs at once in my head. We had the soundtrack to The Sting at home, which included my favorite Joplin, then and now, "Solace." Abba's song "Fernando" was on the radio, meanwhile, and I realized that their choruses had exactly the same chord structure and the same faux-Spanish sound. I'd sit there with both songs going on in my head, listening to how they collided and danced. I've still never heard it done physically, but I just now enjoyed the same modern motet all over again.

No doubt school wasn't entirely worthless, but I did and do tend to grade my classes based on how much opportunity they gave me for that kind of reflection — which, after all, is what helped give me the skills I use today.

Questions for discussion among teachers:
1. Was I goofing off, in a daze, or hard at work?

Friday, July 4, 2014

on a patriotic mood

God shed His grace on thee. What are you saying when you say that? If you're quoting the song "America the Beautiful," then you're not saying that God did shed His grace on America. Nope: you're praying that God will shed His grace on America. That phrase is in the subjunctive mood.

The fact that "shed" [subjunctive] is the same as "shed" [indicative] can be confusing. So confusing that many people mistakenly go on to the next line to sing ...and crowned Thy good with brotherhood. But that's not how it goes. It's "crown," not "crowned." So, the whole statement is
America! America! God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
Interesting, right? The key there is really the "crown," which has to be subjunctive. Like many such statements — "God bless you," "Peace be with you" — the telltale may is missing. It's understood: "May God bless you," "May peace be with you." Except that may has been missing for so long we sometimes don't even hear it.

"Goodbye" is subjunctive, then. It's a shortened way to say "God be with ye," which is a shortened way to say "May God be with ye."

The may does show up in later verses, though, just to reassure us: May God thy gold refine.

My July 4th wish? May we always remember that that line is subjunctive.

Friday, June 13, 2014

political people of the people

I just read an article about Hillary Clinton and her money that frustrated me because neither of the quoted team opinions got the issue right. The various facts are that the Clintons didn't start off super-rich, and that they now are, and that they entered the White House after a long period of government service and law practice, and that they didn't have much in savings or investments, and that from November of 92 on it was certain that they'd eventually make millions from book deals and speaking engagements, and that they had tons of legal fees and didn't actually own a house, and on and on — a goulash of extremes that typifies many people's experiences in today's public life. Those extremes in no way typify my life or, probably, yours, but then we're ordinary.

I hate these attempts to seem "ordinary" by emphasizing money problems — just as I hate the modern attempts to smear candidates for not being "ordinary."

There was a time when we wanted our politicians to be people at the top of their game. Rich lawyers are in fact what we need in government. Law is the language of all three branches of government, and expert lawyers make lots of money, in government or out of it.

We should be proud of the country that produced the Bush family, a generations-long dynasty of super-rich people who have a family ethic of public service; and that produced the Clintons, born into middle-class and lower-class obscurity but with hard work and drive made it to the the top. People on Team Red and Team Blue have a great time deriding one or the other — and often switching opinions to fit team jersey as candidates (humble-origin Nixon and Reagan, landed gentry Carter, poor-smart-kid Obama, patrician Bushes, married-into-money McCain and Kerry) come in and out — but that derision only hurts us, I think.

It would be great to get rid of the corruption and collusion that so damages our commonwealth, and it would be great to get rid of opportunistic politicians who go through phony put-on antics every election season. But it would also be great for us, the voters, to be big enough to get past team jersey and be thrilled that America has produced such a variety of success stories.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

instinct and wind instruments

Clara is trying to play my melodica. First, I blow into the mouthpiece and encourage her to play the notes. They toot in little random toots. Then, inevitably, she goes for the intriguing mouthpiece and tries to blow into it herself.

Once or twice, she succeeds — at first. Then, very soon after that, she stops blowing and starts vocalizing, "uh... uh... uh... uuuuuh...," into it, with the mouthpiece just sitting in her open mouth.

I was puzzled at how this development went backward, and has done so a few times, until now all she does is the vocal sounds. Then I remembered the pigs.

A while back, when places had window displays, a bank thought it would be cool to have one with live pigs depositing money into piggy banks. They trained the piggies the way you train piggies: by rewarding them with food. Every time they deposited coins, some food was released. (At a rate of tuppence a bag, I'm guessing?)

This worked for a while, but then eventually the piggies started just nuzzling the coins. A puzzlement, until figured out that the piggies were rooting at the coins. They were digging at them, the way they dig for food. So, the training that gets them to associate food with depositing those coins properly eventually goes so deep that they associate the coins themselves with food and promptly start rooting uselessly at them.

Thus the question of instinct versus culture is answered. (Partially.)

So, I figure this is what's happening with Clara. She knows how to blow, and she blows and gets sound, and then, associating the making of sounds with one's mouth so strongly with vocal sounds — the sounds she's best at producing — she just starts singing.

(Not really Clara. No Brake kid would ever have hair that long.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

an american original: chester nez

Just days before D-Day, one of the most fascinating stories of the war comes to an end.

In 1942, Chester Nez was a 10th grader in boarding school. 6 weeks later, he was serving. His first message: "Japanese machine gun on your right flank. Destroy."

When Nez was a kid, the US government took Native American children off reservations and put them into boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native languages, and were abused severely if caught. But, being five percenters, they still whispered Navajo to each other, keeping the language alive — which later benefited that same government, and all of us, by forming the basis of the only unbroken oral code in modern warfare.

The Navajo Code Talkers took part in every Marine assault in the Pacific war, flawlessly.

His mission was secret. Even his family and fellow Navajo didn't know what he did, because the mission wasn't declassified for over two decades. Only in 1968 did the truth come out.

At age 90, he wrote a bestseller. At 91, he completed his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Just today, he died, the last of the original Navajo Code Talkers. Thank you, Mr. Nez, for a remarkable life and example.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

someone's daughter

I just read that "As the father of a daughter" thing that's been going around — one thing got under my skin till I named it.

"As the father of a daughter, I promise ... to remember that all women are someone's daughter, and to be brave enough to remind others of that when they need reminding." 

It seems to me that this good man who doesn't want to be part of the problem still is. Really, he can't see a woman's worth unless he remembers that it resides in the man she belongs to? This line of thinking has always bothered me, but I'm just now putting my brain around it: "Think about it: she's someone's daughter, someone's sister, someone's ... — she's *someone's*." That's the problem, right?

May I suggest: "She's someone."

Monday, May 26, 2014

a salute

You I'm thinking of today, who gave so much of selves unseen, do you know the power of your sacrifice?

Some of you signed up, knowing it was against regulations for our military forces to enlist men or women like you. You signed up anyway, defying the rules to defend American soil or American allies. You served and died in 1775, and 1861, and from then to now.

In World War II and Korea, you died before you had the chance to be dishonorably discharged. You never knew that your brothers and sisters in arms were not only discharged but reported to their local draft boards, and thus revealed to their entire communities — communities they sometimes couldn't then return to. Many stayed in the cities they landed in, groups of unmoored veterans gathering in New York's Greenwich Village or the San Francisco Castro, the army of the banished, forming gay ghettos where you could have lived less hidden, if not entirely free, had you lived. Those communities have lasted to this day. People who speak dismissively of them may not realize how they got started.

Jesus of Nazareth said there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends; you laid down your life for those who never accepted you, and who would have drummed you out of service if they'd known. Many would have cruelly mocked you, and did, and worse. But they owe you their gratitude, as do we all.

Soldiers who survived returned to embrace their loved ones as a grateful public looked on — but not the ones like you. Other servicemen and women retired and received pensions that are every soldier's due — but not the ones who got dishonorably discharged for being gay, and struggled for the rest of their lives, some even today.

But you never faced those later-in-life things. You fought, and died, and now you lie beneath the earth. We who remain must remember.

You may never have been saluted in life by anyone who fully knew who you were and what you gave to serve. Today let us, at last, salute you.