Friday, September 30, 2005

time for a trend to die

That's it; I've had it. Every once in a while, a T-shirted or bumper-stickered slogan appears one too many times and I can't leave it alone anymore.

Today, it's the familiar one in evangelical circles: the quoted phrase "God is dead," attributed to Nietzsche, followed by the phrase "Nietzsche is dead," attributed to God.

Leaving aside for the moment the obvious truth that, in the Christian worldview, Nietzsche's immortal soul is just getting started, let's set the record straight on what he said.

He never claimed that there was once a living being named God, who has now ceased to exist. His famous phrase refers not to the literal death of a real living being but to the death of an idea. In European society — and that's the only society he was talking about — people's idea of the summum bonum had gradually shifted by the late nineteenth century, so that the average educated person's view of the cosmos didn't include a God presiding over it. And he was right, though he spoke a bit too soon: most people then at least paid lip service to the existence of God. But he's really right now. In Europe, and Europe only, as distinct from Asia and Africa and the Americas, all of which are becoming more religious, God is indeed dead in the Nietzschean sense.

So get another T-shirt.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

stupid dvd features

We just watched The Red Violin. That's the one that traces a blessed and cursed violin from the Italian Renaissance to the present day by way of Victorian England, Communist China, and a series of gypsies, thieves, children, lovers, prodigies, obsessives, collectors, and the occasional good musician.

The movie itself is wonderful, as is John Corigliano's award-winning score. And the score is more than a score: for minutes at a time we hear the violin played with passion and brio by the various characters, in a way that's masterfully woven into the plot.

But we began to be frustrated with the DVD. The movie is in five languages: French, English, Italian, Chinese, and German. And, it skips around chronologically, with flashbacks and flashforwards galore. Both elements cause problems with the way they prepared the DVD for release. As it stands, you can turn the subtitles on or off. That's it. The subtitles, which often differ slightly from what's being said, are distracting when the characters are speaking English, but utterly necessary when they're not. Even more distracting, they include such stage directions as (loud knocking at door) and (children singing in Chinese). It's as if the only conceivable people who might need subtitles for this five-language film are the deaf, who are for some reason watching a movie whose centerpiece is a ravishing musical score.

Would it have been so hard to include an option for subtitles that show up only when your own language is not being spoken? Ya gotta think about these things.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

careers and responsibility

I was just talking with a friend about the various crappy stuff going on in our lives: Catherine's health, the fact that she now walks with a cane, the blisters on the eyeballs (now mercifully gone), the car theft and subsequent needle-prick, the dispiriting haggle with seventh-circle insurance people about the whole thing. To my surprise, the friend suggested that one of the solutions to all this was for me to settle down and get a real job (that is, a nine-to-five job) and a real house (that is, stop renting).

How those things are connected, I'll never know. I imagine that it's simply a case of human psychology at work. When life shows you a blank screen, you project your home movies on to it.

Catherine and I then talked a bit about the fact that we don't fit between the lines for so many people. We don't live on their grid. She battles not being taken seriously, and sometimes battles not taking herself seriously. I've never had it go that far, I'm glad to say. My only dissatisfactions about my career are about doing more of what I'm doing for a living, not about giving it up. To do what many of my fellow musicians do, which is have a day gig selling instruments, or working at a store, or selling insurance (God save them) or real estate — that would look very much like depression and defeat to me. Of course, to them, it looks like responsibility, and adulthood, and being able to afford the things they like, and providing for their families: I understand. Why don't they?

Monday, September 26, 2005

how republicans tighten the belt

So. How to pay for Katrina? House Republicans have suggested Operation Offset. Of course, you could simply roll back the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, but who would want to do that? (Doing that would pretty much pay for Katrina.)

The Republicans' plan, though, calls for "tough choices" as it cuts spending. Tough for whom? Let's see:

·Funding for the Peace Corps: freeze it.

·Global AIDS Initiative: freeze it.

·EnergyStar program: get rid of it entirely.

·State and local energy conservation grants: eliminate them.

·President Bush's hydrogen fuel initiative: cancel it. You heard me, at $3 a gallon, they want to cancel it.

·Amtrak funding: slash it.

·Funding for new light-rail programs: get rid of it entirely. (That's $3 a gallon.)

·How about grants for safe and drug-free schools? Well, "studies show that schools are among the safest places in the country and relatively drug free," so they're eliminating them entirely.

·Corporation for Public Broadcasting: cut all funding entirely. (Been waiting for something like Katrina for years, these guys have.)

·Subsidized student loans for graduate students: cut all funding entirely.

·Legal Services Corporation: wipe it out of existence.

·National Endowment for the Arts: Yep! Kill all funding! Hooray! Finally, an excuse!

·National Endowment for the Humanities: See above.

Now, you might not see a pattern there. You might think that the House Republicans are being entirely fair and balanced in their budget cutting. And it's true: they're not targeting left-of-right programs exclusively. No sir, these tough times call for budget cuts even in some cherished far-right regions. Defense and Homeland Security, to take one giant area.

What, you say? They're going to get rid of the highly useful and faith-based Strategic Defense Initiative? Press big-money big buddies like Halliburton to be more responsible? Fear not. The recommendations here are to give members of the National Guard the golden opportunity to have a less comprehensive health care plan. Ah yes, and we'll also be closing schools for the children of soldiers.

Way to tighten the belt!

Sunday, September 25, 2005

up the spout again

What a fun weekend of gigs I've had. Last night, I got to play with the redoubtable Ken Slavin, a smooth-as-silk baritone in the tradition of Sinatra and Bennett, for the first time. He enjoyed my playing, I enjoyed his singing, and all was good. Better yet, Eddie Torres was on the gig. Eddie's an old-school drummer who learned — literally — from Gene Krupa. He and I had never gigged together, either, and I'd always thought he'd underestimated me. Sure enough, in the runup, he said a few things about me and about the Protagonists that let me think, "Aha; just wait." And sure enough, after a few tunes, he said, "I take it all back." Very nice.

The night before, I'd played with some homeless Katrina victims, fantastic jazz musicians from jazz's great city, displaced to San Antonio for who knows how long. The entire evening glowed. We matched musically quite well, and they were a good hang on top of that. I opened up the last set with a swingy, lopey G-major vamp, and they matched it; I started singing Itsy Bitsy Spider to it, and it turned into a several-minute long bluesy jazz tune with multilayered meaning for us and for the audience. At the end, the audience applauded appreciatively, and the string bass player did this lick on the final fermata, hammering with both hands down the neck of the bass, left hand inverted. Perfect.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

ballet gig

I just got back from a nice gig. Catherine's sister, Ellen, is a ballet dancer and teacher, and called me to see if I wanted to play piano for a class she was teaching this morning. I did that as one of my first gigs one summer — right in that very room in Incarnate Word where I was this morning. What a fun time, hearing each set of ballet exercises and mentally composing some music to go along with the moves and tempo and number of counts, and then seeing if it all works out. I'll have to record the next one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

the needle adventure

A few weeks ago, Catherine's minivan got stolen. (A 93 minivan? not worth stealing!) When the cops found it and returned it to us, they warned us that among the open bottles, cans, cigarette butts, used underwear, and other detritus, they'd found some hypodermic needles. These guys had a rolling crack den for a week and a half.

So we cleaned it out and went over it twice just to make sure everything was okay. Then, yesterday, we took it to be detailed: every surface scrubbed, vacuumed, shampooed, whatever you could do.

Today, Catherine felt a sharpness in her rear and — sure enough — it was a hypodermic needle. Just the tiny, broken-off half-inch tip.

So we swung into action.

Several hours later, we're back from the clinic with a few more pokes in Catherine, some medicine, and some appointments for next week, next month, and six months from now.

The chances of her having contracted HIV are slimmer than slim. The virus dies when outside the human body for more than a few days, and we've had the car back for almost three weeks. Furthermore, the broken-off needle Catherine sat on wasn't in active use: she wasn't shooting up with it, thus sending fluids through the needle to pick up whatever else was residing in it — she just sat on it. And of course we don't even know what ailments the user had had to begin with. Even if she'd just shot up immediately after someone who was definitely HIV-positive, her chances would be one in two hundred fifty. Nevertheless, it's always safe to check.

As for hepatitis, she'd been inoculated for A and B before our honeymoon. There is, though, no vaccine for hep-C, which is the main one we'd be concerned about. There's also no cure once you're positive. You just live with it, and give it to everyone you share fluids with. So, if she's got it, and that's a big if, then it's no direct sexual contact, of any kind, forever. It's certainly none for the near future. So, please be in prayer.

Also, we learned something that turned out not to matter that much, but could have: You have a two-hour window of time, once you've been stuck, to get a prophylactic HIV inoculation. That would have, in other circumstances, been of incredible value to know. Starting from moments after it happened, we talked with several health-care professionals — family friends, the 911 people, Catherine's physician — and not one of them seemed to know that important fact. So, there you have it. If you get stuck with a suspicious needle, you have two hours to get the HIV inoculation.

Meanwhile, we'll be doing lots of snuggling, lots of praying, and as little worrying as possible. This is a remote possibility, but a possibility nonetheless. Thanks for your prayers.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

my 2,000th week

I'd mentioned that my 14,000th day happened last week. Doing a bit of math, you also see that it was my 2,000th week. Because of some discrepancy about the day (Eye on the Clock said it was Sunday the 11th, the k-days page said it was Monday the 12th), and because circumstances kept either of those days from being the remarkable ones I'd planned, I decided to celebrate all week long. Plus, I'm just that way.

Some things I did:

tended the sick
Catherine had been feeling more and more terrible, in spite of her new meds, the whole week before. So I just hung around and took care of her, and felt awful that she felt awful.

It was a reminder of where I've been and how far I've come.

got rid of the needles
For some reason, I'd never thrown away all the needles I used during the cancer episode. It's illegal to throw them in the regular garbage: you have to take them to a hospital so they can be disposed of. And all the times I'd been to hospitals over the last — can it be? — two and a half years, I'd never remembered or bothered to do it. But, this week, I passed by the ever-present box, and thought, "No more."

The Protagonists played at a fundraiser for hurricane victims.

The next day, I played with Mike Brannon's band, Synergy, at the extremely hot opening of a new outside (in Texas) mall. Cool mall, bad idea.

It just so happens that my 2,000th week came to an end with my high school's twenty-year reunion. There were more of the right people there than I'd figured on. It seemed perfectly natural to sit and eat with all the people in our lunch crowd from the early Eighties. And it seemed natural that no one had changed much at all. Catherine enjoyed meeting all these people she'd heard about in bits and pieces, and I basked in the repeated Aha of renewed friendships.

Monday, September 19, 2005

1066 continued

By the way, continuing yesterday's note, to make something sound more Latin or French, all you have to do is reverse the order and add in some articles and prepositions. Where we would refer to the United States Tariff Regulation Commission, in a Latin language it would be the Commission for the Regulation of Tariffs for the United States.

That last one sounds so bloated and awkward. But, used in moderation, the wordy reversal can sound perfectly grand where its Germanic cousin sounds blunt. Das Rheingold sounds fine in German, but The Rhine Gold wouldn't sound nearly as satisfying a title to us as, say, The Gold of the Rhine. Much better, eh?

As far as I can tell, that's a legacy of 1066. The classiest people were Normans, and so French words and constructions began to sound classier to us. This is why (Germanic) "underwear" sounds much more undignified than (French) "lingerie." Same with "smell" and "fragrance," or "food" and "cuisine."

Of course, the words that come straight from Latin sound classy to us in a different way: they sound more intellectual. But they also sound more stuffy, as opposed to their unsophisticated but powerful Germanic counterparts. You could say, "transform the multifarious oceans incarnadine," or you could say, "make the green sea red with blood." Two very different effects, there. One is perfect for a starchy orator, and one is perfect for a movie trailer. (Shakespeare, of course, played to the nobles and the commoners by using both phrases back to back.)

Think of how Winston Churchill stirred the hearts of his island nation: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender..." Only one word there dates from after 1066: "surrender."

Songwriters have to have a good ear for these things. I think of the Sherman brothers, who wrote songs for the Disney musicals of the sixties. They were masters of the language. That's even evident in their nonsense syllables: the same guys who came up with the farcically hyperintellectual Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious turned around and treated us to the comically humble and somehow touching Chim Chim Cher-ee. Perfect! The Germanic and Latinate trends in our language, and all their effects on our minds and hearts, distilled into new words, nonsense words, that are instantly recognizable.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

fun from before 1066

We used a cardboard packing box the other day that had a little logo on the side with the words:


Pretty good noun chain there. Actually, the "Corporate" is an adjective, but the effect is the same. The thing about noun chains is that each new word places a frame around the entire preceding idea, distancing it that much further. "Hi. I'm the Poison Prevention Week Council Corporate Sponsor ... Guidebook ... Design ... Team ...


... Advisor.

Still, the record in my direct experience belongs to the ALASKA AIRLINES MILEAGE PLAN TRAVEL SAVINGS COUPON BOOK. No joke.

Ah, the English language and its German ancestry!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

a meta-dream

I had an unusual dream last night, one that is, I believe, the first of its kind for me. A meta-dream.

I was flying somewhere, cross-country perhaps, and the flight had to have a layover on Mars. I got out and went over to a small observatory station while there, and experienced the dizzy feeling of being on another planet. What a feeling! And, of course, even though I didn't get to stay there long, it was fun to be able to tell people I'd been.

Then there was a little interlude in which a friend and I were helping a guy who was a Sasquatch get a job. He was all dressed up in suit and tie, and, it turns out, very angry with us for lying to him about the world, for leading him to believe he could be treated normally, while the fact is that he was a Sasquatch. He chased us through the Baylor University campus. I took refuge in an empty ice-cream building in the middle of campus.

Much later on, I was telling someone about the fun thing of having gone to Mars on a layover, and they didn't believe me. I told my brother Paul about it, and he said, "You had a layover on Mars? How long was your flight? A year? It takes six months to get to Mars."

I was stunned. I realized that I hadn't been at all. I'd only dreamed of going to Mars, and the dream was so vivid that I'd mistaken it for reality.

A dream in which I'd been fooled into thinking a dream was reality. Now I've got to go back and watch The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie again.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

christmas record

This must be a record. Foley's has Christmas decorations up as of last week.

Monday, September 12, 2005

tafelmusik and its virtues

Sometimes people want to have classical background music to study to or dine to, but they choose the wrong stuff. Mahler symphonies have their place, but they're far too attention-getting and dynamic — too soft, too loud, too dramatic — for such a purpose. It's like having Vasari's Last Judgment for your wallpaper.

George Philip Telemann's Tafelmusik, though, is perfect: great to just have on as you think and write, or play, or dine, or party, but also it rewards any level of attention you give to it. Superbly mapped out and executed, it's one of the great unsung works of art.

And all of it was written to be enjoyed while eating. What a testament to the enduring power and nobleness of having a good meal in good company with good music. Just at the dawn of an era when composers were beginning to think of themselves as outcast priests and prophets and misunderstood geniuses, Telemann was pouring all his mighty creativity into music not for the concert hall but for the banquet hall, knowing that it wouldn't be studied and listened to with bated breath by some respectful audience listening in silence, but rather it would be background music, to lend delight and wit to every conversation, to make the food better, to make people friendlier and heartier. It's an affirmation that every single thing can and should be done well, and that no aspect of life should be overlooked.

Thursday, September 8, 2005

prayer and connection

St Paul's instruction to pray without ceasing is often misunderstood. We think he's referring to the head-bowed-hands-folded capital-P Prayers that begin with "Dear God" and end with "Amen." That's how we think of prayer. Especially people who come from liturgical churches seem to have trouble with the idea of spontaneous prayer.

But even evangelicals sometimes miss St Paul's point. He's obviously not saying that you should have a wreck because your eyes are closed while driving. (Much of the world's evil is caused by those who think we should have our eyes religiously closed while driving through it.) Knowing that, it seems that we just take his order as a metaphorical instruction to take things to God a lot.

That's not bad, of course, but what if there's some other kind of communication he's talking about? It hasn't been too long since the days of dial-up, when you were writing and you needed something, so you connected by clicking on the dial-up thing, waiting while it hummed and buzzed and tweeted, and then you were online. Then you looked up whatever it was you wanted to look up, or emailed whoever you needed to email, and then when it was done you clicked on the disconnect thing, and waited a moment while it disconnected. Back to work.

That's how a lot of us think about prayer, as well. But perhaps it's time to upgrade. These days, most of us are never really offline. When you're writing and you need something, you just go over to the web, or iTunes, or your email, and zip away. Your connection doesn't have a beginning, middle, or end. You're just on, and you always know that. You're always aware of it. Sometimes you foreground it by actually doing something, but most of the time the Internet is simply a presence.

Veranne Graham, who in Catherine's church holds the office of mother hen at large, said offhand once that "washing dishes is a prayer; stubbing your toe and hurting is a prayer." I've never forgotten it. When we're practicing the presence of God (to use Brother Lawrence's cosmos of a phrase), everything we do is done in his presence; everything we think is thought in his presence.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it well:

Earth's crammed with heaven,

and every common bush afire with God.

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

Wednesday, September 7, 2005

pain pain go away

We just got back from downtown, where Catherine's doctors met with her. She's flat on her back now, for the severalth day in a row. Being home instead of at the hospital helps her, but she's still feeling pretty low. It just kills me to see her in this much pain. She usually cries with any change of position: standing up, sitting down, lying down. When will it end?

Tuesday, September 6, 2005

a preventable disaster

Nearly 80 percent of New Orleans lies below sea level — more than eight feet below in places — so the water poured in. A liquid brown wall washed over the brick ranch homes of Gentilly, over the clapboard houses of the Ninth Ward, over the white-columned porches of the Garden District, until it raced through the bars and strip joints on Bourbon Street like the pale rider of the Apocalypse.

It took two months to pump the city dry, and by then the Big Easy was buried under a blanket of putrid sediment, a million people were homeless, and 50,000 were dead. It was the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

When did this calamity happen? It hasn't — yet. But the doomsday scenario is not far-fetched. The Federal Emergency Management Agency lists a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the most dire threats to the nation, up there with a large earthquake in California or a terrorist attack on New York City.

That's from an article in National Geographic, from last April. You gotta read it.

Saturday, September 3, 2005


What a couple of days. The tumor scare set Catherine's health off — her UC responds to stress events — but this time the usual treatments didn't do it for her. It was as if she hadn't been taking the medicine at all. Yesterday, she called her office and said she couldn't go because she couldn't walk. It was too painful. That's when we decided to check her in to the hospital.

She's still there, and will be there through the weekend. They've got her on powerful powerful steroids and other medicine. Her suffering is worse than usual: the pain medicine they're shooting her with burns her veins so much that she wails like it's 1899.

What next?