Friday, December 23, 2011


Years ago, I contributed to a book of Advent devotions for my church. I was telling a good friend, who went to the church but didn't know I'd contributed, that she should really pick up the book. She immediately got defensive. In the ensuing discussion, it became clear that she thought I was saying she needed to read the book of devotions because I thought she wasn't devoted enough. I, of course, merely wanted her to read my spiffy article and be impressed by it.

Ah, relationships. Meanwhile, just this very day I came across a word that perfectly describes what was happening: I was unwittingly casting aspersions on her. You and I have used that phrase and encountered it all our lives. But what if someone asked you what an aspersion is? Now you'll know: it's the sprinkling of baptismal water on the head, in substitute for immersion in a river or baptismal font. Baptists baptize by immersion; Catholics (usually) by aspersion.

My guess is that our sense of an aspersion as an attack on a person's good name comes from the same connection made by my friend. There's something about the offering of blessings to someone that can backfire: it can seem like a judgment, a statement that the person is in need of some purification. Certainly it's common for atheists and other nonbelievers to get prickly when told that an evangelical is praying for them. And not just nonbelievers: Catherine was incredulous when her pious roommate informed her she'd been praying for her for some time, convinced as she was that Catherine — Catherine! whom she lived with every day! — was lost in spiritual peril. By sprinkling the holy water of praying for her friend's salvation, she was in fact standing in judgment on her friend.

So. That's what casting aspersions is all about.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

plus ├ža change

There's no sense in something new just for the sake of something new. Novelty itself is no reason to do something a new way. Change is good if it's a good change, but if it doesn't demonstrably improve things then it's foolish.

Ever know someone who said that? Ever said it yourself? The fact is that change for its own sake is very very valuable. The strong don't always survive, but the adaptable do: if you never build your muscles of adjustment, of embracing and living with and thriving with change, then you'll never be able to adjust when you really need it.

Your curtains are just fine. Nothing wrong with them. Your furniture arrangement works: piano over here, chairs over there. Great. But sometimes you should just get new curtains, rearrange the furniture, try a different brand of shampoo, get a new haircut, get something that's a different color than you usually get, take a different path to wherever you're going.

Novelty turns out to be a wonderful thing to chase. It keeps you young and vital and alert and in tune.

If you have to come up with some demonstrable reason for something new, some proof that it's a positive good rather than a neutral difference, then you're setting the bar way way too low. (The bar for stasis, that is, for stasis is what we should have to defend.) You and I know too many people who think every new thing is New Coke. They're just plain wrong.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

slavery footprint

I have 25 slaves working for me.

That's at least according to, the website that asks you eleven questions about your possessions and purchases, and then calculates how much of it was done by slave labor.

Slavery is alive and well in the world. There are more slaves now than at any point in history, and you and I pay artificially low prices for things because of their labor. (It's almost impossible, for instance, that your smartphone was not touched at some point by a slave.)

Take the test and see for yourself, then see what there is to do about it.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

handel's messiahs

A friend recently asked me which version of Handel's Messiah to get.

The recording conducted by Paul McCreesh in the late 90s was hyped as the "Messiah for the Millennium," and indeed it's pretty incredible. The performance is great: it's a period piece, done on authentic instruments, sounding very much like the sounds Handel himself likely heard.

If you like a more 20th-century sound, there's the massive version conducted by Bernstein in the late 50s, with the NY Philharmonic — one of my favorites, but very idiosyncratic. Overloaded orchestra, big slow rummy tempos, utterly entertaining and at times electrifying. Best "For Unto Us" in recorded audio history.

Then there's a Sir Charles Mackerras recording, with the Austrian Radio Symphony and Chorus. It's Mozart's arrangements of the Messiah: did you know he did this? great fun to listen to. It's Handel with a Viennese accent, "updated" to the style of Mozart's time. All sorts of weird/inspired changes and additions and subtractions. If you're accustomed to another version, then this one seems like a big creamy ice cream treat.

So. There you have it. Get all three. If you get one, do tell me which one!!!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

people in charge who get it

It's such a pleasure to be on a project where the person in charge understands. The deal is, if you hire a chef, you can get all Meg Ryan and start specifying exactly what you want down to the detail; when the chef tells you what's cooking you can ask for changes and modifications based on how you think it's going to turn out — but that's never going to get you the best result.

It's far far better to hire a good chef and say "Knock me out." That way, the chef, who knows how to get results, will knock you out with something you might not have allowed to happen if you'd been constantly there offering over-the-shoulder advice, calling for more salt or less tarragon or how-bout-some-good-ol-chicken-breast. Sometimes the hardest thing in the world is for the person in charge to let the expert be the expert and resist ruining the recipe.

So. Recently I've been on several projects, and in several long-term settings, in which the message is "knock me out." And I'm pleased to do so, or at least knock myself out trying. Just the other day I was in commercial-music mode, saying to a client, "Here's what I've got, this gentle moment. If you'd rather have something more energetic there, just let me know, but I'd rather do this." The person waited just a beat and then said, "Barry, I've worked with you for years. I hired you because I trust your instincts completely. If this is how you think it should be, then that's how it's going to be."

Ahhhhhh. (Turned out great, by the way.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

yes, virginia, they know where you are

I was just taking a look at the famous "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus" article from the New York Sun in 1897. And something about it struck me that had never struck me before.

Check out the original press clipping. I always find it freshly inspiring.

But does something stand out to you, now that we're in the 21st century?

Here's what stands out to me, shocking as day:



A distinguished paper has actually published the full name and address of a little girl! An 8-year-old girl! Right there in the paper for every creep and pedophile and murderer and rapist and kidnapper to see!!!

Never mind that anyone can find out the address of anyone, of any age, using something called the White Pages. In our day, it's I say "never mind" because people never mind the facts. It's only the hysteria that counts. How could a newspaper do such a thing?

Certainly, the New York City of 1897 was far far more dangerous than it is now. Then again, the New York City of 1897 had no television or movies, where there are roughly 8.6 million kidnapping/rape/murders every week, so it seems more dangerous today.

Maybe, the newspaper editors didn't allow media-fueled panic to cloud their thinking. If you were to go back in time and harangue them about it, I imagine their response would be something like, "Well, you see, 115 West Ninety-fifth Street is actually there. Any ruffian could see the building sitting there on the street, and break into it, and steal everything. Putting the address in writing doesn't really help any lawbreaker or thief, any more than refusing to put it in writing would hinder him."

Of course, that's far too reasonable a response now, and anyway, today, they'd have to be saying that in a court of law.

As recently as the 1970s, when I was a kid, our big-city newspaper did the same thing. When a citizen was mentioned in an article, that person's address was too. We thought nothing of it — because there's really not much to think of it. We do of course feel differently about privacy now, and after all there's no real value in publishing a person's address, beyond distinguishing one John Smith from another. So, I don't feel any sense of loss that this isn't now the practice. But imagining the public outcry that would happen today provides just another example of how we allow hysteria to overtake our common sense.

Anyone can find out where you live. So what? Your next-door neighbor also knows where you live, and somehow finds the self-discipline not to kidnap, rape, or murder you on a regular basis. It seems that our culture, though, sees as much need to put imaginary fears into the heart of childhood as our great-grandparents' culture did in imaginary delights.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

secret messages in music

Forget the boring load of crap your youth minister dumped on you about backward messages in 80s music. Honestly: did anyone reeeally think that the most disastrous thing the members of Queen could come up with is "decide to smoke marijuana," which they then had to encode so as not to get caught?

As I said, forget that stuff. Amateur hour. It turns out that the musicians of the 80s were doing waaayyy more sophisticated stuff.

Read and be amazed.

Friday, December 2, 2011

the opposite of onomatopoeia?

A friend recently asked if there was a word for the opposite of onomatopoeia. His example was "monosyllabic." Onomatopoeia, as you recall, is the phenomenon of forming a word in resemblance to whatever it describes: slurp, fart, cock-a-doodle-doo.

But I think you could call "monosyllabic" an anechoic word, and not strictly anti-onomatopoeic.

That's because, strictly speaking, onomatopoeia doesn't just refer to words that in some way happen to resemble what's named (like the very quick word "quick.") It refers to words that are formed by imitation. So, no one formed the word "monosyllabic" to deliberately be multisyllabic to spite its meaning. It just happened that way, like "quick."

That got me to wondering whether there are words that are more than merely anechoic. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you "break wind." "Break wind" not only doesn't sound like a fart the way "fart" does; you could argue that its formation came about as a deliberate way to avoid sounding too farty.

And, by the way, the term I shall use is anechopoeia. So, there's one example. Any others?