Sunday, August 21, 2016

why you should em-quad

Thursday, August 18, 2016

fun with toponyms

2 things named after the city of Xalapa: the hot pepper that comes from around there, and the old cars patched together there from parts.
(Jalapeños and jalopies)

3 things named after Turkey, the very symbol of all that is strange and exotic in the Western European mind: the odd New World bird, the unreal sky-blue–earth-green stone, and the odd New World grain.
(Turkeys, turquoise, and 'granturco,' the Italian term for corn that means "Turkish grain")

Monday, August 15, 2016


I've been thinking about benemendacia — untruths that it's acceptable (both socially and morally) to tell. It's revealing that we don't have a more familiar go-to word for this in our language. We have "white lie," but generally that only refers to trivial things we say to avoid hurt feelings. Modern Americans in general and modern Christians in particular have really failed in not giving our children good guidance in the telling of benemendacia.

You have to think clearly about several issues all at once, including gentleness, candor, the real definition of "love" and not just namby-pamby "niceness." As is often the case, the Harry Potter books explore these topics well, though not didactically or explicitly. Over the course of the books, it becomes clear that sometimes it's best to tell a truth, no matter how uncomfortable, and sometimes it's best to tell a truth bordered with piles of love and diplomacy, and sometimes it's best to know the truth but shut up about it, and sometimes it's best to actively conceal the truth, and sometimes it may even be best to completely mislead.

Oddly, we think that those qualifications muddy the moral waters, but it's the opposite: refusing to teach children how to think discerningly about such things, both in what they hear and what they say, is what muddies the waters for them and for all of us.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

the humor-importance graph

In discussing an aspect of current politics, the phrase "court jester" helped me to isolate an issue I've seen cropping up in several places lately.

Let's look at four people on a graph that measures attempted humor and importance of topic:

(With all love to Steven Covey, who addled a generation of businesspeople, the quadrants go counterclockwise.)

The Boor is the radiologist who corners you at a party and solemnly recounts the entire plot of a movie on finding out you haven't seen it.

In the same no-humor hemisphere, the Statesman in Quadrant II is also humorless and possibly boring, but [ideally] is tackling important issues; you're [ideally] more motivated to stick with these people.

Down in Quadrant IV, the Class Clown uses humor to deflect from even the most serious issue — especially the most serious, even. Whether from shallowness or hurt, this frustrating person blockades any real topic.

Up in Quadrant I, the Court Jester uses humor in precisely the opposite way, to delve *in* to a serious issue — especially the most serious. Court Jesters therefore do the opposite of blockading real topics, because they're more likely to open that topic where it may have been closed before.

Each Quadrant has its temptations. The Court Jester's temptation is to put so much mayonnaise on the sandwich (in the form of Quadrant IV fart jokes) that you miss the meat. The Statesman's temptation is to think the meat, served dry, is the whole meal.

My least favorite kind of teacher, for obvious reasons, was the kind who could never tell the difference between class clown and court jester.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

picnic with Clara and company

Clara invites me to a picnic on the living-room floor. It's a French-fry–and–watermelon picnic, during which we build some stuff with Lincoln logs.

Abraham Lincoln, Frank Lloyd Wright's son, and ingenious Native American horticulturists gave us a delightful noon.

It's always noon somewhere, isn't it? There's always some aspect of your life that is reaching its height, its heat, to be enjoyed for a moment before it falls away.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

pocahontas and the west

I spent a moment rewatching some of my favorite parts of "Pocahontas" — "Colors of the Wind" and "Just Around the Riverbend."

Of course, the movie had so many bad choices, from the WonderPoncho to the complete rape of the historical record (which, most dispiriting of all, would have been far more entertaining). But many of its critics derided it for being "anti-Western" in its revisionist white-guys-get-it-wrong sentiment. They were wrong. That sentiment is one of the strongest themes of the West, from Socrates to the present moment.

Whenever you see Lord Byron in a turban, or his great-great-grandson, a white suburban kid in hip-hop gear, you're looking at the same thing. "Orientalism," as Edward Said called it, that suspicion that the Truth lies outside the West, in the exotic Other. It's one of our great traditions.

Plus, some really good songs there.

Monday, July 18, 2016

hyphens, en-dashes, em-dashes

I did this after seeing a web page that just used hyphens for everything. Take a nice close look.

Monday, July 4, 2016

july 4th and all

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...."

Generation after generation has held us to those words, insisting that all means all. Over and over: all means all. That point is never made without shrillness, haranguing, and bovine objection. But it keeps getting made.

To independence, interdependence, and a shining city on a hill.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

flag day

I've been thinking more about Flag Day. The mere sight of our flag stirs up great feelings of patriotism and love of our country in me. I see it and I see freedom and justice and equality and opportunity — a radical vision of how life on earth can be.

Maybe we should take Flag Day as a day to vow that that's what this flag will mean to *everyone* who sees it. During various blips of history, the American flag has indeed meant those things to just about everyone. In other times, when people see it they might think "That flag represents the people who needlessly slaughtered my innocent-bystander cousins," or "That flag represents victimization of my entire people." And validly so.

Old Glory is never more than a generation away from being a symbol of pure evil, and it's never more than a generation away from surpassing even what it has stood for at its very best.

It all comes down to how I talk, how I vote, how I spend my money and time. I renew my pledge that they will point toward liberty and justice — for all.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

kids and abridgement

A friend asks: what do you think about having kids read abridged versions of classics as a whet for the real thing later?

There are classics and then there are classics and then there are classics.

1. Folktales (broadly considered - Norse and Greek and Roman myth, for instance)
2. Children's books that have been around (Pooh, Stuart Little, Wind in the Willows)
3. Canonical literature that's often marketed to kids (Treasure Island, Ivanhoe)

1 - I see no reason not to have several versions of the various tales around, from simple picture-books to readers of various levels — there's often no one "real" version anyway.

2 - In general, children's books should be in their original version, so you may have to wait a bit till the kid is old enough. Abridged Narnia? Harry Potter? It seems almost not worth doing at all, right?

3 - All those Walter Scott and Alice Tisdale Hobarth books are wonderful campfire storytelling but I don't see any crime in adaptations so that younger ones can get to the stories. I had a "Moby-Dick (Abridged Version)" that was no more than about 20 pages when I was a kid! Hah! What on earth! But hey, what the heck. Certainly we do the same thing with our bowdlerized and simplified (and often heretical) Noah and Jonah and David and Daniel books, and rarely think anything of it.

The question, then, is where you'd put Little Women and Jo's Boys. Is it a 2 or a 3? Hm. On reflection I think I'd call it a 2 and let 'em read the real thing when ready. Same with the "Little House" books.

As a rule, 2s are good for reading aloud to the kid — the parental voice has its own rhythm and logic, and a kid can be thereby expanded.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

farewell miz oliver

In 80 and 81, I was in middle school. Every Wednesday, we would pile into Jay Victory's van and carpool to Amory Oliver's Dance Studio, where we foxtrotted to the Bee Gees, two-stepped to George Strait, and cha-chaed to Santana.

The girls would be seated along the wall. The boys would walk by to choose partners; then for the next dance the boys would line up and the girls would choose. If you were seated, you looked at the parade of choosers, knowing you were being evaluated and wondering who would deem you suitable; if you were the chooser, you walked and walked, wondering whether you were passing up your best choice or whether a better one was down the way. It was a mortifying and thrilling microcosm of dating and relationships, a one-minute picture of the next 20 years of my life.

The fact is that you are being evaluated, and you may as well put your best foot forward. Miraculously, during your most awkward time of life, you got guidance in manners, morals, and motion from Miz Oliver.

(That's right, Miz. She never ordered us to call her "Mrs," to my recollection, nor "Miss." You could in retrospect spell it "Ms," but spelling it "Miz" reminds you that the women of Texas had their own brand of feminism, and a form of address that fit it perfectly, decades before all that national handwringing that wound up with everyone saying ... Miz.)

She ushered San Antonio's cotillion-going crowd into the room. No exaggeration. I was on a date with an Oliverite when we both found out she was closing her doors. We stared at each other blankly and wondered what on earth people were going to do. To tell the truth, I still don't know — a world without Amory Oliver? How could younger generations have survived?

How indeed: she died the other day, loved by a terrific family and by countless people whose handshake is firmer and step more confident because of her. Maybe St Peter will finally win himself a chocolate bar.

Thank you, Miz Oliver. I just wish I could hear you remind me to smile one last time.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

vow to refuse clickbait

DO NOT click on this link. The writers of the headline (not Maher and not the interviewer, but editors of Salon) crafted the headline as clickbait. Every time you see something like this, your first question should be, "What did he *really* say, if anything?"

In fact, he *didn't* say, "I refuse to watch John Oliver" (as the URL implies), nor did he say "I won't watch John Oliver" (as the headline implies).

The interviewer asked if he watched Oliver, commenting that he'd heard Maher didn't watch other comedians. Maher responded that that's right: he tries to stay away from other people's comedy because he doesn't want to be influenced, subconsciously or not, by what they're doing. It's a way to stay original.

I post this not because of Maher's merits, or the merits of the interview, or even the wisdom or unwisdom of staying away from other people's work. I post this because this kind of headline is bad for you. It's not nutritious; it's bad for the brain; it's bad for discourse; it's bad for democracy.

Monday, May 2, 2016

that's my girl

5-year-old Greta announces from the back seat that she must use the restroom. I tell her not to worry; we'll pull over immediately.

Fortunately, we're just that moment passing by a business owned by a friend, who's there. We stop in and ask if we can use their restroom.

Back in the car, I mention to Greta that this is our friend's business and this is where he works. She says, "Well, he's not dressed for it."

Friday, April 29, 2016

sucker dad and smart dad

SUCKER DAD: [makes smoothie]
PRECIOUS GIRL: "I'm thirsty."
SD: "Here's a smoothie."
PG: "No, thank you."
SD: "But it's good."
PG: "No, thank you."
SD: [jiggles it tantalizingly]
PG: [unmoved]
SD: "It's delicious and fruity and it's basically like a shake."
PG: "No, thank you."
SD: [again jiggles, despite concrete proof of this move's ineffectiveness]
PG: [still unmoved]

SMART DAD: [makes smoothie]
PRECIOUS GIRL: "I'm thirsty."
SD: "Here's a mermaid smoothie."
PG: [glows with delight] "A MERMAID SMOOTHIE?!"
SD: [smiles]

Smart Dad says, "You're welcome. Happy Summer."

Saturday, April 23, 2016

these new-fangled visible parades

I'm so glad. I hate those parades with long stretches where no one can see them.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

a kind of test

I'm teaching a college Intro to Jazz class. What's nice about it is that, though the students almost all came into the semester completely ignorant of jazz — the genre, its iconic tunes, its sound, its main artists — it's an upper-level Music School course rather than a general-interest (general-disinterest) requirement for non-majors. This means that they have real musical knowledge under their belts and so I can use technical terms and dig in to the nuts and bolts of a piece, and they'll know what I'm talking about.

During the first test of the semester, I noticed that one student had his phone out and was looking from the phone back and forth to the test, writing and copying. I wasn't worried at all: I make cheat-proof tests. There's simply no way you could cheat; you just have to do the work and prepare. Nonetheless: interesting.

Later, I was grading the tests, and came across the one from this student. I noticed that here and there on its 3 pages there was tiny writing. It was Chinese, obviously translations of the words I'd used in giving the test. In describing Ella Fitzgerald's sound as "ebullient," or a player's playing as "melancholy," I was going way beyond the capabilities of foreign students, even ones fluent in English.

Test taken, grade received. Lesson learned.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

haas effect

Daaaaaang!!!!! I finally understood the Haas effect and, in general, the precedence effect — technical stuff that has to do with where you perceive a sound to be coming from.

(Remember, you only have 2 ears, so theoretically you should only be able to place something left or right, but you have zero problem telling that a sound is in front or back of you, or above or below. How? Ah, your brain has clues that it follows.)

I'd studied this before, and encountered the concepts many times, and in fact plugged in these concepts in live audio settings as well as studio recordings... but never really grasped it — never really Saw The Matrix — till just this moment.

Zow!! I understand! This changes everything!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

artificial deprivation

We're meant to be running after animals, or running from them, or otherwise doing lots of physically stressful things. In the modern day, when most of our economic productivity comes from sitting still, we need artificial physical exertion — walking and running in circles, lifting weights.

Similarly, our kids can pretty much get every single thing they want. They could have slurpees and gum and multiple gadgets of every sort — but we limit them, often explicitly saying "you need to have the experience of not getting what you want."

If you chose a superstar football team consisting of only people from teams with career undefeated records, then you'd have a terrible team, because not a single person would have ever had the experience of losing even once.

I hope our girls lose, and are unpopular, and don't get everything they want — it's the way to make them the adults we want them to be.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

i write the songs

The musical I've been playing on (a high school production of 'The Little Mermaid') has some harmonic and melodic material that's indebted to Bruce Johnston's "I Write the Songs." (That up-to-dating of the secondary dominant!) We associate the song with Barry Manilow, but there was a little race to get the former Beach Boy's song into the public ear. Within a few months, Manilow, David Cassidy, and the Captain and Tennille all put out versions of it. Manilow wasn't first, but he won — his arrangement and voice sell it really well, no doubt.

Cassidy is the weak brother here. I like his folk-little-bro style usually, but this time it doesn't work, and whoever did the arrangement didn't know what to do with the sophisticated harmonies.

Tennille, though! Dang! Go Toni! I remember that this song was on the only album by them that I had, the one with "Love Will Keep Us Together." The backing vocals have a cheesy choir quality at times, and the mix suffers, with the awful dead Seventies drum set too far forward, but I kind of like the fact that there's no slowdown and key change from "worldwide symphony" into the chorus: they just bam into it. It works. And all those slidy harmonies rendered by vocals remind us of Johnston's Beach Boy pedigree.

Of course, no discussion of it is complete without mentioning Toni Tennille's voice and musicianship. Man! Especially on the verses she just steps out so soulfully. You believe that she's the Eternal Mother of Song when she sings it. (For the record, Johnston said that he always thought the song was spoken by God, the ultimate author of song.)

Ultimately, though, I guess the audience wanted Manilow's soaring climaxes. His verses don't do anything for me (nor does his unconvincing bridge: no one ever made anyone want to dance or take a chance *less* than this; and the "rock-n-roll" is an outdated Hollywood stab at Beatlesyness), but when he gets into the final buildup and out chorus, the solid arrangement and his clean but rich voice provide just the right amount of grandeur.

Monday, February 22, 2016

super sounds of the 70s

A friend asks for a 70s playlist. Heavy on the rock and pop, heavy on the feel-good.

Lotsa Steve Miller Band (Jet Airliner, Swingtown, Fly Like an Eagle). White-guy-groovy at its finest.

Gotta have the one Yes song: Roundabout. Space-tastic and thoroughly rocking, with great solos and those amazing vocals. It's got that sensitive deep spiritual part, and then no end of totally fun sing-along choruses to spazz around and sing with.

Then, for easy listening with plenty of fromage, and a bit of spice just for interest: the entire album "One on One," by Bob James & Earl Klugh. Romantic, chillin', and superb. Light a candle, pour a red wine, and imagine.

One Michael Jackson above all others: "The Force (Don't Stop Till You Get Enough)." Man, that thing kicks. Please listen to it loud enough.

Also, you gotta have some semi-country: Bellamy Bros "Let Your Love Flow" could convince you that dipping is cool. Love that easy energy. Ronnie Milsap's "Almost Like A Song" is so teary-beery that it reaches a kind of grandeur.

Kind of cheating but yes-its-true: some of your favorite 80s songs are 70s songs, so... The Cars, the entire album (that was 1978, people). If not the entire album, "Good Times Roll," "Best Friend's Girl," "Just What I Needed," "Moving In Stereo," "Bye Bye Love."

In the same vein, from the Police: skip Roxanne and go to "Can't Stand Losing You," "So Lonely," "Message In A Bottle," and "Walking On The Moon." Bonus: "Bring On The Night" and "Does Everyone Stare."

OK, back to the trapped-in-the-70s 70s. How about skipping all the usual disco stuff and going to "A Fifth of Beethoven?" Tons of fun. And "Sweet Home Alabama," because also fun.

A high point: "Hold The Line," by Toto. Gets you playing air piano like no other.

Two versions of "Bridge Over Troubled Water": the original Simon & Garfunkel, and Aretha Franklin's amazing live version.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

jane mecom's social media

I was reading some of the writings of Jane Franklin Mecom, Ben Franklin's sister. She never published anything: it's all personal letters, mainly to her brother. But she wrote to other friends, too. She finally got around, in her later years, to reading her brother's political writings, but she was all along mainly interested in hearing about the lives of the people she loved.

Read this, from a letter to her niece. After telling an amusing story, she says,

but tho I am Pleas'd with this it does not give the Satisfaction I wish such Near Relation as you, and I should write more constant and circumstantially I want to know a Thousand litle Perticulars about your self yr Husband and the children such as your mother used to write me and tho I readily Excuse yr not writing more at this time I cannot so Easely Excuse yr long Silence who have it allways in yr Power to send sure without Expence or troble, it would be Next to Seeing the little things [that is, the children] to hear some of there Prattle (Speaches If you Pleas) and have you Describe there persons and actions tell me who they Look like Etc— Etc—

Here's what struck me as I read it: this woman, writing in the mid-1700s, wants Facebook.

I know people use Facebook for different things, including professional networking and business promotion, but I mainly use it for the same reason Jane would have. You occasionally hear someone speak disparagingly of typical Facebook posts, saying that we really don't want to know what you had for breakfast or that your kid won a trophy or what mood you're in. But the fact is that we do want to know those things, when it's someone we know and care about.

We often think of new technology as creating some sort of "need" that isn't really there in us in order to fill it. It's not true, though. The need that Facebook meets was always there. It was there in the 2000s, before Facebook came on; it was there in the 80s, before the modern internet; it was there in the unplugged 7th century BC, and well before, and well after; it was certainly there in Jane Franklin Mecom's 18th century, when even a few miles away from family was a real separation.

Passages like this remind us that it's now, miraculously, allways in our Power to share daily details that are the bread and butter of life with the people we love, sure without Expence or troble — and that it's as false to think new technology brings new alienation as it is to think spelling and grammar are deteriorating.

Monday, February 15, 2016

buckner fanning and the men of athens

"Men of Athens...." That's the beginning of one of my favorite sermons. It's by St Paul the Apostle, delivered at the Areopagus in Athens. Paul was a Pharisee, and a Christian proselytizer; by all rights you'd imagine he would be knocking down graven images and shouting about hell in this pagan city. But nope: he instead compliments the people of Athens, quoting their own literature and finding the spiritual aspirations in it, and remarking on how religious they are, with altars all over the place, even one inscribed "To An Unknown God" (legend: built by Socrates!). He says, today I have come to tell you about that Unknown God. To this day it chills my spine and brings tears to my eyes.

Every good sermon begins with "Men of Athens...." Every good sermon speaks to the people it's speaking to, and takes them from where they are to the cross of Christ.

It's no accident that St Paul's words strike me so. I grew up on them. I can think of few sermonizers who embodied that ideal more completely than Buckner Fanning, whom I heard roughly every week from when I was in utero to my thirties. I'm now nearly in my fifties, and it all seems like the other day: the rich chocolate voice of the man who baptized me, always pouring the Gospel into new wineskins, never changing it by an i-dot, and bringing with it a joyous demeanor that I always think is the true mark of the Spirit in a person. He had laughter in his soul that you can't fake. And he spoke to the people of San Antonio, the people of America, the people of the 20th and 21st century — the people who were who they were, and were where they were, and needed to hear the good news he brought.

He had the Shakespearean gift of speaking in a way that poor and rich, educated and uneducated, churched and unchurched would hear and respond to. He quoted generously from Shakespeare, and more generously from Browning, whose prosy spiritual grandeur-in-the-everyday most resembled him, I think. He also quoted from Kierkegaard and Pascal, Kennedy and Eisenhower, Willie Nelson and Michael Jackson, finding everywhere the human heart that yearns for God.

I just this moment learned that Buckner died. This man, the most effective public communicator I ever saw in person, this media-friendly grandpa with evangelical fire in the belly, had no precedent and no successor. In his decades of ministry he tried to get people to see that they too were sui generis, irreplaceable, and completely loved by an all-embracing God.

He will be missed greatly on this earth. I can't help but think that in the hereafter he will be greeted by ancient men of Athens, and by men and women of San Antonio, and their great-great-great-great-grandchildren, whose path to the cross was paved by so many stones laid by him.

Friday, February 5, 2016

the noah of genesis

We're all familiar with the story of Noah and the Flood, which appears in the Biblical book of Genesis.

God saw the wickedness of man, and was angry at so much evil. He told Noah to make an ark and put two of every animal on it. The people where Noah lived, not believing there would be a flood, mocked him and his family for making the ark. But, as the flood was coming, and Noah’s family was getting on to the ark, those same people begged to be let on. After forty days and forty nights of rain, the flood receded, the ark landed, and Noah’s family and all the animals got out. God made the rainbow as a sign, so that man will always know that God would never destroy the world again.

You may know the above story, but you don't know it from the book of Genesis. Every sentence in that paragraph comes from the popular imagination and not from Scripture.

According to Genesis, when God saw man's wickedness, He was sad — He felt regret that He had made man, not anger.

Noah was told to bring in 14 of every clean animal — and 2 of every unclean one.

There is no mention that Noah's neighbors mocked him, or that they disbelieved him, or that they begged: in fact, there is no mention of them at all.

It did rain for 40 days and nights, but Noah and crew floated around for months and months, and then when things dried out and they landed on high ground they spent more time waiting around before disem-arking.

And the rainbow was not a sign made for man. It's a sign for God. In making the covenant, God never says what we should think when we see the rainbow; instead, He says that it's there to remind Him of his promise. And, for the record, the promise is that He'll never destroy the world by flood, not that He'll never destroy it. (Though, to be fair, before the actual covenant is given, He mentions that it will never be destroyed period. It's just that when He gets around to making the actual promise He inserts the most staggering escape clause ever.)

So, now you know.

Monday, January 11, 2016

speaking from ignorance on david bowie

A friend asked me for my insights on why David Bowie was so monumental.

I'd love to be able to weigh in: unfortunately, I just don't know his stuff. I heard the songs that got popular when I was a teen (like "Let's Dance" and "China Girl"), and was aware that he was connected with stuff that was highly regarded art; over the years I've seen and heard this and that, but just never really sat down and availed myself of his massive body of work. Love to do it sometime, because people I regard well just love him.

It seems to me, from this distance, that he falls into the category occupied by, say, Leonard Cohen, where dazzling skill isn't necessarily the draw as much as an authentic presence that happens to be weird. There's plenty of weirdness that's inauthentic (sometimes entertainingly so, as in Lady Gaga's showpieces or Nicki Minaj's fauvist hair), and plenty of authenticity that's ho-hum (this abounds in folk rock, for instance). But when you find someone who's authentic and weird, and can transmit that vision into a body of art, especially in popular music, which by nature affects people right at their core — teens aren't categorized by their favorite visual artists, for instance, but by their favorite popular musicians — people respond because we often feel that it connects with their own oddness, that part of oneself that can never be reflected in majority pop culture.

We feel that an artist like Bowie is telling the truth about the world, then, in a way that, say, Taylor Swift isn't. (Comparisons of Bowie to Swift might be taken as snarky, but I chose her on purpose: she's a terrific performer who somehow connects with the average listener by affirming her odd-girl-out persona. Song after song is about how she's *not* one of the Taylor Swifts of the world.) Swift's art is, no matter how you slice it, pure majoritarian pop culture: she's a Coca-Cola — incredibly well-done, slick but not nutritious.

Bowie, by contrast, is more like Joss Whedon than Coke: pure pop culture no doubt, but with an off-center-ness that draws in people who are frustrated, or just bored, with what's on the other channel. You can allow yourself to be amazed that such an artist got such traction in the first place. You can phrase it like "The great strength of Bowie is that he'll never play the Super Bowl. He'll never win American Idol." Yet, crucially, he's perfectly terrific, and appealing to a broad audience nonetheless.

Anyway, after all that, I'd love to be able to speak authoritatively about the actual music. It's why we're even talking about him — but it's one of my many large gaps.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

mary, did you indeed know?

A friend posted the above — funny! But it got me to thinking. Maybe this song deserves a line-by-line.


     Mary, did you know
     that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?

Nope, she had no way of knowing that. There is no Old Testament prophecy concerning it, and Gabriel made no mention of it.

     Mary, did you know
     that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?

A solid yes on this one. But we'll give it a bit of understanding since it's very very obvious that they were just trying to find a rhyme for "water." ... Come to think of it, that's double points OFF, because there is no excuse for a labored rhyme.

     Did you know
     that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?

At last, an interesting question: what *was* Mary's understanding of Moshiach? Did she really see that she herself would enter into redemption this way?

     This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Just a restatement of the above, really. But a chance to dig that paradox in a little deeper just in case you hadn't noticed.

By the way, the gleefully blammy exploitation of paradox owes much, in a that-blow-your-mind-guy-in-your-freshman-dorm kind of way, to John Donne's "La Corona," a wreath of poems that contain all sorts of linguistic games but center on the richly paradoxical fact of Christ's incarnation: "Oh, to vex me, contraries meet in one!"

The great line "Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb" always gets me trembling and teary-eyed.

     Mary, did you know
     that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?

Again, sorry Batman, she could have no way of knowing that. That said, he actually healed nine blind men. That scans just fine, but of course "men" doesn't really rhyme with "hand."

*That* said, "daughters" doesn't really rhyme with "water," so.

     Mary, did you know
     that your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand?

Also, the way the melody and rhythm happen, the accent is on the "His" of "His hand," which doesn't sound right. Nonetheless, nope, she didn't really know that.

     Did you know
     that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?

Aha! Another interesting one! Did she know that? What exactly does a peasant girl in Nazareth believe about heaven? Is she, in other words, more Sadduceeical or Pharisaical? Does she believe that her son-to-be coexisted with God from the start? (Almost definitely not.) Does she believe that he has indeed walked where angels trod? "Trod?" Songwriters! You wouldn't really use the word "trod" at all unless you-know-what-word is coming.

     When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

It's almost guaranteed that this Nazarene girl did *not* see Moshiach as a person of the Holy Trinity, since the doctrine of the Holy Trinity didn't arise until much later.

     Mary did you know.. Ooo Ooo Ooo

Blessedly, Mary did *not* know anything about this modern tic in music.

Hmm... wait a second. Even as I write this I think that probably the "Ooo" is an older component of song than language itself. Hmm!

     The blind will see.
     The deaf will hear.
     The dead will live again.
     The lame will leap.
     The dumb will speak

Alex says, "Sorry. Not phrased as a question."

Nonetheless, did she know these things? One could argue that if she really knew her prophets she might have encountered passages in Joel and other Messianic texts that touched on these things. That's a bit of a stretch, though. And she was far far more likely to have an intimate knowledge of the Torah (and its interpretations) than of the prophets. Still, it's iffy.

     The dumb will speak
     The praises of The Lamb.

Now we're getting into end-times prophecy. Sorry, folks. It's unlikely that she knew, unless Gabriel said a bunch of stuff that didn't go down in the book.

     Mary, did you know
     that your Baby Boy is Lord of all creation?

Doubtful — this goes back to the concept of the Triune God, which doesn't begin to be revealed explicitly until roughly 31 years later.

     Mary, did you know
     that your Baby Boy would one day rule the nations?

A solid yes: it's been announced that he'll be the Messiah. She very likely envisioned him ruling the nations, albeit in a temporal way that we now know was limited.

     Did you know
     that your Baby Boy is heaven's perfect Lamb?

This particular Lamb mention gets a few more points than the other one, simply because she may be familiar with that great passage in Isaiah.

     The sleeping Child you're holding is the Great I Am

Blasphemy! (That's at least how she'd respond if someone told her that.)

Taken as a whole, I'd say the overall answer here is a soft "no." Robin, it's time to slap back.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

peter wins the internet for today

Paul: Backing up six terabytes. See you in eleven hours.

Patrick: Backing up from what to what? Laptop to external drive? Desktop to cloud?

Peter: I assumed 6 million floppy disks.

Patrick: You're making me laugh in the middle of business meeting at church.

Peter: People still go to church in the middle of the week? Now I am reminded of floppy disks.

Friday, December 11, 2015

why the carpenters soothe

A friend asks, "Why are The Carpenters and, in particular, Karen Carpenter's voice an immediate salve to all that might rattle one's mind?"

There's a lot going on there. First of all, she's a terrific musician who sings (for the most part) great arrangements of first-rate songs. There's something deep inside us that is simultaneously calmed and energized by good music.

Second, the person asking is around 50 years old. The familiar and favorite music of one's childhood will always soothe.

Third, there's the actual quality of her voice. We've all heard shrill voices, and shrill voices do cut through rock 'n' roll better, but to hear a woman with a low, warm voice (plenty of 300 Hz in there) activates all the "pleasant" cues in us.

Fourth, and here's where I really think she touches the culture, she often sings sad songs with her sunny voice. That juxtaposition creates a very interesting recipe. When you're feeling down, it's good to hear her radiantly croon "Rainy days and Mondays aaaaalways get mayyyy down." This is just another example of what's going on with, say, the blues, in which we hear characters sing about their woes with wit and verve. It's a way of telling your subconscious mind that everything's going to be OK, that you'll live to sing about all this someday.

We also like gloriously happy songs sung by people with sad voices. Paul Buchanan is the modern master, and any of the Blue Nile albums (particularly Hats) is immensely satisfying because of it. He sings, "I love an ooooordinary girl; she makes the world alright," with such sorrow and pain in his voice that you can't help but know that love and joy are possible no matter what you've been through.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

the vanishing subjunctive mood

Wow! I just came across something striking.

We all know that the main features of the subjunctive mood have been disappearing, and in a generation or two will be gone. But much has already been lost, even before an old person's lifetime.

We always trot out the usual examples and say that if Tevye were singing today instead of in the 60s he'd say, "If I was a rich man..." (Of course, Browning said "If this was ever granted" a hundred years before, in his prosily sublime "Guardian Angel".) Fewer people notice the source of Ray Charles's mistake in those same 60s, when he sang "America, America, God shed his grace on thee ... He crowned thy good with brotherhood...." Charles misses that both phrases ("God shed his grace," "and crown thy good") are actually subjunctive: May God shed his grace, may god crown thy good. So he, quite naturally, assumes it's in past tense. In some versions, he sings "God done shed his grace on thee." And no one blinks!

OK, anyway. I was reading some Chesterton, which you should always do after discussing what was wrong with the Stoics. It all came from a Facebook discussion, in which I'd said that, as opposed to their fellow pagans, who lived in festive cities in a dark cosmos, and to later Christians, who lived in gloomy towns in a joyous cosmos, the Stoics somehow decided that gloominess and festivity are all peripheral to the issue of goodness — something a Christian today can only half-agree to. My phrasing owed much to a vivid thought, in "Orthodoxy," that has stayed with me since college. In a shimmeringly Chestertonian passage, he says:
I freely grant that the pagans, like the moderns, were only miserable about everything — they were quite jolly about everything else. I concede that the Christians of the Middle Ages were only at peace about everything — they were at war about everything else. But if the question turn on the primary pivot of the cosmos, then there was more cosmic contentment in the narrow and bloody streets of Florence than in the theatre of Athens or the open garden of Epicurus. Giotto lived in a gloomier town than Euripides, but he lived in a gayer universe. 
BAM! Ya gotta love him. But did you hear that: "if the question turn...." That knocked me for a loop. I've read that passage a dozen times, but never really noticed that lost subjunctivism. Plenty of people would still say "If I were a rich man," and plenty would still say something like "God give you grace." ... But there is no living person on this planet who would say "If the question turn on it." That's just crazy!

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

my charlie grinch

OK, I love the Peanuts special as much as the next person. But, amid all the glowing reviews and tributes, I have to say there's one thing that never fails to get me cranky about it: the dance scene.

It's the laziest bit of animation in a notoriously lazy era for animation. It's essentially a GIF: each kid doing, literally, one move on a half-second loop, and then the camera just switches between the whole scene and zeroing in on one at a time.

Insult to injury: the "twins" are just reversed clones of that same loop. Further insult: they don't even pan and scan *differently* throughout the segment; they just clone the back-and-forth pattern — several times. I feel certain that the brief (and jarringly unmatching) new dance close-ups for the swingy bridge were grudgingly done at the last minute for a disgusted exec.

The casting of actual kids for the parts? Genius (and still rare). Linus's Scriptural speech? One of the most touching moments in television history. But that dance sequence — to what has become one of the most recognized and beloved pieces of music in our culture — ? Three minutes of lazy inferiority. It's an embarrassment.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

everything old was always new

Here's a way of getting a handle on a deeply odd fact about our culture: suppose someone came to you and said, "I'm making a movie about a half-man/half-robot who battles evil aliens in outer space — what kind of music should be on the soundtrack?" Think of the choices at your disposal at this point in history: hard-edged rock, hip-hop, computer-generated electronica ... but of course you know the overwhelming answer to that question in American cinema. It's the symphony orchestra, mostly unchanged for a couple of centuries.

Like those other inimitable gifts of the West to the world, the piano and the suit, the symphony orchestra keeps on getting talked about as if it's obsolete and passé. And yet it keeps on getting used. Why?

Think of the way people talk about suits. Constricting, old-fashioned, not with the times. Now look around: have we lost any appetite at all for seeing our talk-show hosts, sports announcers, politicians, bachelor-contest gladiators, and news anchors (if they're men) in suits?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015


A friend writes:
You know, I was just thinking... if everybody in the world were musicians, there'd probably be a lot less wars. Of course, nothing would get done before noon, but there'd be a lot less wars.
"Man, we were selling missiles for $12 million a piece, but then that sax player came in and started selling them for $4 million. 4 million?!?! Come on, man, you're just making it worse for everybody. Have some respect!!"

"OK, we told you the raid on their redoubt was at 0600, but I forgot to tell you to load in at 0300 and be completely set up by 0500 because there's a program. Still paying you the same."

"Sources say that Obama and Putin were making progress toward a solution, but then Putin brought up his girlfriend, who is a singer. Obama displayed his famous cool demeanor until Putin mentioned that she only sings 'Summertime' and 'God Bless the Child.' The White House has now announced that troops will be deployed on schedule, as before."

"Bill O'Reilly says that the conflict dates back to the aftermath of WWI, but he's only partially right. It really goes back much further, to the late 1800s, when the Bosnians were angry with the Serbs for switching from upright to electric bass on club gigs. The Serbs angrily countered that they can make their electric bass sound *just* like an upright, and that's when the legacy of violence began."

"The French offered support to the Mohawks and surrounding Native American tribes, but those tribes refused, because the French kept calling 'Cherokee' at 260bpm, then soloing for 7 minutes."

"Eventually, tensions reached a breaking point in the summer of 1789, when the peasants stormed the Bastille after finding out King Louis was charging $4000 for gigs but only paying the band $80 a man."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

on leaving the greenhouse

It's inevitable that your kid will begin to learn more from the world outside your home than inside it — and, over all, it's a good. But it's sad when there's something you've carefully sheltered them from arises. Today, Greta said, "This is boring." Boring?!?! And to add insult to injury, she pronounced it "boreen," doing the maddening -een ending that drives any Brake berserk. ("Good morneen." Blech!) Of course, such things give us the opportunity to verbalize our values. Felix culpa!

Monday, November 2, 2015

why i have the best friends, part 2

Thursday, October 29, 2015

one man's treasure

There's never been a better time to invest in excellent editions of good books. The reason? Fewer people value them.

I've been buying up gorgeous editions at prices I'd be embarrassed to share — wonderful sturdy children's books, finely printed and illustrated, classics and first editions, including a first edition of In Cold Blood and a superb printing of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from a run of only 1000 — all because people are selling them to used bookstores at an unprecedented rate (and, less directly, because the people who valued and bought them in the first place are dying and their relatives sell off their libraries for pennies).

Just the other day, a new treasure came in the post: Doctor Dolittle's Circus, in a 1952 printing. I've been collecting all the Dolittle books for a couple of years now, one at a time, as I see ones come available at a good price. This one is absolutely a gem: it's in perfect condition, with pristine pages, black-as-black-can-be printing (including Lofting's wonderful illustrations), and the attention to typography typical of the best of the era.

It's just a pleasure to read!! Can't wait for our girls to be able to digest these.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

writing by hand

A friend showed me this article, entitled "What's Lost as Handwriting Fades," which unveils some research about writing by hand as opposed to using computers or tablets (or, for that matter, voice-to-text, which I use all the time).

It's something to keep in mind for other disciplines as well. I've been amused at the number of people who've forwarded that video of the new music software that allows you to write on the tablet to create a music score: invariably, it's from a non-musician to a musician, saying, "You'll be interested in this!!!"

Of course, actual musicians have been using music software for decades, far quicker and easier than this. It's like telling a professional author they can now use a tablet to write a book in longhand. Hate to pop your enthusiasm, folks, but typing *really* is easier.

On the other hand, articles like this show that there's a neurovalue in doing it by hand — one that we shouldn't ignore. I remember reading a thesis that compared bestselling novels from the age in which a manuscript would be written in longhand (Austen, Dickens) to ones from the 20th century written at a typewriter (Hemingway, Steinbeck). The idea was that using both hands, connected to both hemispheres, somehow affected the type of writing and even the subject matter, as compared to using just one hand. Not sure that was a great thesis (knowing what we now know about the hemispheres not being quite so divided as all that), but still interesting.

And here we have evidence that the connection of writing to the hand, making a mark on a page, is somehow deeper than we'd thought.

Catherine still writes longhand in journals. I confess that I even write digital thank-you notes now!! Ah well, maybe that'll change.