Wednesday, August 31, 2005

foregrounded and unforegrounded

I love noticing things and coming up with names for them. Toward a more precise communication:

There is a difference between unforegrounded terms of endearment and foregrounded terms of endearment. You use words for your foregrounded terms of endearment that you'd never use for the unforegrounded.

For instance, you might say, "I love you, my Schmoopy!" Or you might say, "I love you, my sweetheart!" Foregrounded. The term of endearment is an essential part of what you're communicating. But, while you might say, "Sweetheart, did you remember to call the laundry guy?," you'd never say, "Schmoopy, did you remember to call the laundry guy?"

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Recently, several friends have pointed simultaneously to the global rich list, a site that calculates what economic percentile you're in, and gives you a ranking (you're the 1,560,748,998th richest person on earth).

Despite the usual problems of such a thumbnail sketch — if you're married, do you count your own salary, or half of yours and your spouse's combined? either way, the result is misleading, because your household income is different; and how do you respond if you're a teenager? — it's nonetheless a sobering and fascinating exercise.

You and I are among the richest people who ever lived. If you make twenty-five thousand dollars a year, you're in the top ten percent of the richest people in the world. Fifty thousand puts you well within the top one percent. And that's just counting the ones alive right now. In world historical terms, of course, your riches are even greater.

Why not head over to the Christian Children's Fund and sponsor a child, or donate an animal to a village at

Monday, August 29, 2005

so-called suburbia vs real suburbia

In watching the wasted opportunity known as The Stepford Wives the other night, I remembered one of the reasons why I always enjoyed My So-Called Life so much. A current throughout the series, never bashed in your face but always sitting there waiting to be noticed, was the depiction of suburbia as a place where the deepest issues can be explored, where the human condition is paid attention to, where parents and children and spouses can work on their souls.

Friday, August 26, 2005

childish adults and childlike grownups

Adulthood and childhood: two words for which many of us have bad definitions. As a child, I took pleasure in subverting people's bad definitions of childhood, and I find myself doing something similar as an adult.

As Richard Linklater points out, in talking about his delightful School of Rock, your worst memories of childhood always involve someone treating you like a little kid. His art generally proves C.S. Lewis's observation in The Chronicles of Narnia that it's the stupidest children who are most childish and the stupidest grown-ups who are the most grown-up.

I'm not so sure I'd put it that strongly, but I see the point. These distinctions are false to the core. Who said that adulthood equals responsibility and childhood is carefree? Don't you remember being a child, and the relentless responsibility of becoming a citizen of humanity and of this civilization? It was a blast, but it was at times the opposite of play. No more: we adults are free to roam in the world now, our education finally begun. We're articulate and self-sustaining and sexy and never have to take a written test for a grade again.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

music and lyrics: "blessed be your name"

I've been thinking about Matt and Beth Redman's enormously popular song "Blessed Be Your Name." It's one of the few songs in Christian worship that frankly acknowledges hard times. There's no "and now I am happy all the day." This one's full of desert places and wilderness, and yet, using the phrase from the book of Job, arrives at a resounding praise.

What's interesting to me is how the song works as art. Most people, unfortunately, pay attention only to the lyrics of a song. But the best songs do more than speak. They sing. So it's profitable to point and click on a song that strongly sings to you, to see what it's made of.

Whenever I'm asked for simple advice to people who lead worship — by definition, people who are often more practised in the faith than in the notes — one of my first instructions is to listen to the form and let it speak. If it's in binary form, with alternating verses and choruses, try playing a whole different pattern on your drums or your guitar for the two different sections. Make one whisper, make the other shout. Songwriters gravitate to these forms for a reason, and we should perform them with that in mind. Take "Blessed." It consists of verses, a short bridge, and a chorus, and it asks to be performed in a way that underscores its own theology.

The verse is in a low register. Putting the song in the key of A, as it's often done, we're asked to sing notes ranging from A to E in the bottom of our range. Whether sung by men or women, it's just hard to sing those notes with an upright posture and a loud ringing voice. When I'm found in the desert place / Though I walk through the wilderness / Blessed be Your Name. Notice the anapestic rhythm: besides forcing the phrase's greatest stress, along with the downbeat, on the word "found" (an ingenious detail that speaks volumes about the speaker's theology), it forces us to speak the words "Your name" quietly.

I've quoted from the verse's second half here, but its first half does the same thing, only speaking of "the land that is plentiful" and "streams of abundance." These words, though, hardly sound joyous in context. In each phrase the last line is "Blessed be Your Name," and in each the downward direction of the melody, going from C-sharp down to A, the lowest note in the song, not only speaks of resignation rather than triumph, it forces us to sing it that way every time. It even demands a certain posture. That low A is hard for most men and women to sing with head held high. The note speaks better when your head is down a bit.

The bridge is in an entirely different range. Its lowest note is E, the highest note of the verse. Of the three sections of the song, its range is right in the middle. And its lyric is transitional, too: Every blessing You pour out / I'll turn back to praise. This line is sung on an ascending scale, going from E right up to B. The voice, the posture, and the spirit are forced upward.

The highest melodic range, from the higher A to an even higher C-sharp, is saved for the chorus, which is the song's title sung again and again with slight variations. In the final line, "Your glorious name" shines especially, with a grace note of D, the highest note of the song, right on the word "glorious," the only time the speaker uses that word to refer to God's name, which indeed goes unmodified throughout the rest of the song. Given that most popular songs are sung within a single octave, this one's melody, which spills below and above the usual range (it's nearly as big as the famously unsingable Star Spangled Banner), has ambitions to match its lyrical subject matter, the highs and lows of the human experience.

Again the human voice and its cabinet, the human body, are brought into the deal: it's hard for most people to sing notes that high without straining a bit — you stand a little taller, hold your head a little higher, and brighten up your vocal cords a little more. It takes more air and more exertion. And so, as the spirit of the lyric is so beautifully embodied in the melody, there's an effect on us, too. Research shows that your facial expression and body posture and exertion actually affect your mood, and not just the other way around. Whether or not your mood is already in the depths, this piece of music takes you there, and from there to the heights.

The song itself, then, not only speaks a potent truth by choosing as its lyrical subject matter something grittier than the usual pie-in-the-sky stuff; not only speaks it by inhabiting a melody so well that form and function are wedded as they always are in good art; not only speaks it by demanding by its sheer technical qualities a certain performance trajectory. It not only speaks that potent truth, but sings it, and not only sings it but enacts it on the singer. The song becomes its own irenicon, its own sacramental ceremony of peace.

This is exactly what E.T.A. Hoffman was talking about when he referred to "the artist as priest and prophet." Thank you, Redmans.

Friday, August 19, 2005

pavior's rammer

The dental assistant was cleaning my teeth, using something called an ultrasound to get rid of the hard stuff that gathers where your ducts make mineral deposits. I asked her if it worked like a pavior's rammer; she said the old ones did, but the new ones use tiny vibrations to shatter the material. I asked if that wasn't indeed like a pavior's rammer, just on an even tinier scale than before. She said sure.

I was just glad to be able to use that phrase in a sentence, something I've been itching to do since I first read it twelve years ago in Dickens's mighty "Bleak House." Pavior's Rammer!

Man, you gotta read that book. It's his best. If you've been looking to settle down with some good August reading that's august reading, put yourself in the lap of the master.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Catherine and I just passed our five hundredth day of marriage.

Five hundred days! Half of them have been spent in poor health. About twenty percent of them have been spent on honeymoon, anniversary, or vacation trips. And all of them have been spent in the depths of a beautiful love that is only beginning.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

what goes on in those brains of theirs

Artists! They really are as odd as everyone thinks they are. From an article on Miyazaki:

Although much of Japan's kid-oriented anime has been exported to the U.S., a great deal more — such as "Anpanman," a hugely popular series about a bean-paste-stuffed bread roll — has not. (A fan Web site notes, "To a non-Japanese person, the concept of a living bread superman who fights giant germs and feeds the hungry with pieces of his head may seem bizarre.")

And from a recent book on Leonardo:

There was a monk on hand to make notes as he painted "The Last Supper," in Milan, recording with wonder that Leonardo would sometimes show up, stare at his own painting, and then walk away again, finished for the day.

These are my brothers.

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

suspicious lump

At the end of a long and good and slightly crappy weekend — good because I visited dear friends and played a great gig, crappy because of the hours of driving on little sleep and the expensive car breakdown that made the gig redundant — I felt myself up in the shower, as I often do. Promise me that you do too.

Sure enough. I found a pea-sized hard lump in my remaining testicle. So, I had to go to the oncologist today.

Catherine woke up sick, and hasn't stopped throwing up all day. My guess is that for once the phrase "worried sick" actually meant just that. She insisted, though, on going with me to the cancer center, where she wept and heaved and threw up into garbage sacks and styrofoam coffee cups until a gentle nurse came along and laid her hand on Catherine's shoulder and asked who her doctor was and maybe we could expedite things. I laughed and said that Catherine wasn't the patient, but expediting things for me would have the same effect of alleviating pain. The nurse was wonderful: I got right in, gave some blood for testing, and saw a doctor. After a thorough groping, he said he was confident there was no tumor. The texture I'd noticed was too much on the surface and the wrong size and shape. It's probably a cyst of some kind.

Of course, the blood test results should really clear it up — and I still have a scheduled appointment for next month, with a scan — but for now the official word is, "whew."

Thanks for your concern and prayers. Off to the sperm bank!

Tuesday, August 2, 2005

a good picture

Sean and Kathy McMains celebrated their tenth anniversary recently. They came to town for the weekend, and, among other things, visited the club where I play. Sean, who is a gifted photographer, took this well-composed picture of me there. Thanks.