Make a Difference! 5/6 Music at Mass Review

Attended a lovely and efficacious mass at which a passel of 2nd graders received their first Holy Communion. The younglings cleaned up nicely, and were dressed in lovely little white dresses and little coats and ties, each according to the sex God gave them.

I mention this because we were in San Francisco, among people many of whom consider those who merely roll their eyes at Archbishop Cordileone reactionary troglodytes. Take nothing for granted. This lovely church is in North Beach, perched between the harbor below and Embassy Row above.

The views are nice. Million dollar, even.

We entered this lovely building and discovered a cacophony. It seems the idea that the interior of a Catholic Church especially in the minutes before Mass might be a place best reserved for silence or at least quiet is one of those ideas held only by the above-mentioned troglodytes.

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Virgil shows Dante the souls of the Wrathful. Not so much silent reflection on the sins that brought them here, but rather a whole bunch of wailin’ and railin’. Seriously, it wasn’t like this at Mass. The people were clothed. 

So, a minute or two after Mass was to start, the celebrant came out to ask people to please quiet down so we could begin. After a few moments, things settled down to the usual background of rustling paper and clothes and whispers, and we began.

Silly me – I looked at the hymn board, and looked up the opening hymn, which was Jesus Christ is Risen Today. Alleluia, indeed! Only to have my wife hand me a program a moment later, which had Sing a New Song as the opening ditty.

Aaaaand – it was all downhill from there. But let’s not bicker about ‘oo killed ‘oo. Rather, I here want to beat on another dead horse: participation in the singing was effectively zero: the nice lady sincerely strumming her guitar and singing into the thankfully not deafening sound system basically went solo. At least, the participation in the songs – and we’re talking songs that have been sung to death for 50 years now – was not enough to drown out the ambient (to borrow Brian Neimeier’s favorite word) susurrus. I, following my general rule of singing along if the song, however terrible, is not actively heretical, started singing – and drowned out the other hundreds of people there. With a lingering high chest cold and not going all Pavarotti on it, either. Just audibly singing.

The rest of the tunes were less well known to me, at least. The mass commons were in that style, praise music, I believe it’s called, where one note follows another without nearly enough structure to warrant being called a tune, yet the guitar strumming remains vigorously sincere. Since the sheet music was not provided and no mortal power could consistently guess what note was coming next, the song leader’s solo continued unchallenged, even by me.

Finally, right before the hellish cacophony resumed, we sang a little ditty I’d been mercifully spared from before, or else my mind purged the memory in an act of desperate self-preservation: Go Make a Difference. Check this action out:

Go make a dff’rence, we can make a diff’rence
Go make a diff’rence in the world
Go make a diff’rence we can make a diff’rence
Go make a diff’rence in the world

So, we are to go make a difference – excuse me, diff’rence – in the world. OK, then. My first thought was to find a freeway overpass and drop cinder blocks into oncoming traffic – that will make a diff’rence!

But of course, that’s not what the author means! He mean, I suppose, to make a difference – excuse me again! – diff’rence – by, oh, fomenting violent revolt by the oppressed masses. Because if it were anything such as feeding the hungry or, God forbid! repenting of our sins, he’d have said so right out front.

But he didn’t. In the verses, we get:

We are the salt in the earth, called to let the people see
The love of God in you and me
We are the light of the world, not to be hidden, but be seen
Go make a diff’rence in the world

We are the hands of Christ, reaching out to those in need
The face of God for all to see
We are the spirit of hope, we are the voice of peace
Go make a diff’rence in the world

Salt *in* the earth? Not *of*?  Like, salting the fields so that nothing will grow? Salt in food, is the Biblical image. Merely confused, and unnecessarily so, since in and of scan exactly the same here. So, why?

At least that God person does get mentioned, three times even, albeit not until line two of the first verse. On the other hand, counting the implied ‘you’ of the imperative ‘go,’ we have 27 references to you, we, us, and so on. So we see where this is focused.

But is that God person actually referenced 3 times? Glad you asked – not really, or at least in odd ways that point back to us. At no point is God simply recognized as our God and Savior, Creator of the World, worthy of our love and praise and source of all goodness. In each case, God is raised up only to be a mirror in which we see ourselves.

Each of the three cases, God twice and Christ once, do not refer directly to God. Instead, they not so subtly say *we* are God. In the first and most readily defensible case, the ‘love of God in you and me’ is what we’re talking about. Are we actually talking about our Creator Father here? Or rather about how cool we are that we are showing people a love already in us with no hint of a struggle let alone the real possibility that we could reject that love. Nope, a simple given.

In the second, the writer likewise uses a traditional formulation – many saints have said this – to say we are Christ’s hands. The difference is – oops, excuse… oh, heck with it! – that the saints were cajoling and warning us: don’t wait around for God to act in some miraculous manner. YOU are that tool, however imperfect, in God’s hands. The sense of awe and unworthiness, and concomitant need to rely entirely on God’s strength and grace, is not so subtly lacking here in this song. Nope, we got this.

Finally, the assertion that we are the face of God, while again true, is oddly backwards from how the saints talk about it – Mother Teresa, for one example out of many, recognized the face of Christ in the poor she served, and thus was strengthened in her efforts to serve them. It is others, largely to the horror of the saints so identified, who see God’s face in us. Well, in the saints, at any rate.

Read just about any old Catholic hymn to compare and contrast, and you’ll see what I mean here.

But, again, I am grateful to have attended Mass and received the Blessed Sacrament with my brothers and sisters in Christ on a lovely Sunday in a beautiful church, together with that passel of charming 2nd graders. In comparison to that great act of God’s mercy and love, my complaints are utterly trivial.

 

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Be the Wall & Weekend Bullet Points

1. Be the Wall. Many years ago, my beloved and I attended a few child rearing classes, from which the one thing I remember was the stern admonition to Be the Wall. Kids are going to want to test their ideas and your limits. If they get all emotional and vehement, interpret that to mean they trust you, their mother and father, enough to risk real exposure. This works from toddlerhood all the way to adulthood, and is in no way contradictory to being loving, supportive and gentle. Kids need to push to grow up, and pushing against people they love and trust, and who they know will love and trust them back even if – especially if! – the answer is ‘no’ is the best way for them to learn self control, self respect, and how to stand firm themselves.

So, parents must be the wall, neither giving an inch nor overreacting to the pushing. Not always easy, but necessary. A key part: knowing what you stand for, knowing the places you will not give. These should be few, and consistent. Everything else should be negotiable. With any luck, children so raised will be able to carry these lessons out into the world, and distinguish between principles and necessary rules, and things that can be negotiated. They will be able to behave as adults.

Image result for wall falling downWe live in a world of feral children – of all ages. They have pushed, and found no wall. Many times found no mother or father. They pushed, and one time, the wall fell with hardly a breeze; the next time, it pushed back violently. They pushed and pushed, and ended up in the streets, looking for something, anything, that will push back.

Thinks that should have been learned in the privacy of family life and that can only be learned in family life are now lacking in public life. Our feral children find no walls. The drive to push is unsatisfied and unabated.

2. Fight the Urge to Dirge. Ye Sons and Daughters is one fine Easter song, great tune, tells the story in a charming, memorable way. Only one problem: for some inexplicable reason, choir directors seem almost universally to take what should be something like a bouncy waltz, tempo and feel wise, and turn it into something more like a funeral processional. With a bit a vim, the song is catchy and easy; plodding, it is just another forgettable church song.

You can imagine what brought about these thoughts. We did do some glorious Easter hymns yesterday as well. But it hurts to see such a charming tune done so – bleech.

3. White Sunday/Mercy Sunday Pizza bash! Invited all sorts of Catholics with whom it is meet and just to be celebrating the end of the Easter Octave over – had maybe 30 adults and a dozen or more kids (many of whom wanted to make their own pizzas, which we did – maybe made 20 pizzas in all). Kept it going from 2:30 until after 9. A lot of fun.

Two thoughts, and if you have any suggestions, I’m all ears: when inviting people to something like this, it is customary for them to ask ‘what can we bring? aaaand customary for me (who tends to be the major cook for these things) to say ‘nothing’ or ‘something to drink’ – because trying to manage who brings what is just more trouble than it’s worth, But: people want to bring something, at least, I know I do when the roles (and, possibly, rolls) are reversed. So, this time, due to the large and uncertain numbers of people, I said: we’ll be providing main courses, you needn’t bring anything, but you can if you want.

So, yesterday, at 10:00 at night, I’m packing away A LOT of food. We ran through the pizza stuff, sure, but I made a vat of guacamole and about 8-9 lbs of pastrami with ciabatta rolls and fixings to match and – lots of stuff. But lovely and generous people also brought lots of delicious things, much of which got left. Into the freeze went pastrami, a couple chickens, a couple dozen ciabatta rolls. The fridge and a couple coolers are packed with salads and vegetables; my wife made delicious pashka and kulich – which got lost in a sea of wonderful desserts. So, into the freezer or coolers it goes.

There are only 4 to 6 of us at home (it varies because – story). I hate throwing food, especially really good food, out, so now I’m looking for homes for at least some of the more perishable stuff. Work, school, neighbors are all likely to get some nice gifts – but this becomes another task on top of set up, food prep and clean up.

I also hate telling people how to be generous and all the planning it takes to be able to say: no, we have enough salads, how about a dessert or some wine? Or whatever.

Thoughts?

Finally think I’m getting the hang of the brick oven. The usual advice is that each oven is different, you just have to use it and see what works. What works for this oven: at least a two-hour burn before you start cooking. Three hours is better, although this probably had something to do with all the rain making the whole oven a little damp. Then: just keep it going – at least 2 or three logs burning at the back in addition to all the hot coals while you cook. By the end, we were popping pizzas in and out in 2-3 minutes each. And they were excellent.

If I ever build another brick oven, please shoot me. I mean, I’ll make it more massive and better insulated. Also, getting the hang of Naples-style pizza dough, which you make a few days in advance and let chill until a few hours before you’ll be using it – slightly sour taste, excellent stretchy texture for making those lovely thin-crust pizzas that work so well in a brick oven. (I honestly cringed a little when the kids were manhandling those beautiful dough balls on the way to making cheese and olive or pepperoni over store-bought sauce pizzas – but that’s what they were there for! Deep breath. I do love kids more than cooking. Really. And they had a blast.)

Great fun. Looking forward to doing it again next year.

4. Finally, I compulsively reread this bit of flash fiction fluff, and got a little worried that people might think I was making fun of Southerners, when nothing was farther from my mind – Edgar and Bill are perfectly competent adults who love telling tales and maybe messing with the out of towner a bit. Colorful locals, in other words, not red neck morons. I worry some people don’t know the difference, one difference being that, in my experience, there are many more of the former than the latter.

Anyway, came across this YouTube video, wherein an English shipwright is rebuilding the Tally Ho, a hundred year old classic harbor clipper style racing yacht. He’s rebuilding it in Washington state, but needed a lot of extra-sturdy Southern live oak for the structural members.

Turns out that a man named Steve Cross in southern Georgia runs the only mill in America that handles live oak – the very characteristics that make it ideal for ship structural members render it very difficult and uneconomical for commercial mills to deal with. So Steve builds his own Rube Goldberg style mill out of parts from tractors, forklifts and combines and whatever else was lying around, and serves ship builders and restorers around the world.

He’s clearly a mechanical genius of sorts – and is just as clearly one of those colorful locals messing a bit – a completely friendly bit – with English Leo the shipwright.

Chairs… no – Music at Masses Review

A reader commented that my life must be pretty near to perfection if I can find the energy to gripe about church chairs. While he may have a point, sorta, the reality is more like I am so easily distracted that even something as trivial as weird church chairs can distract me from… uh…

Today, I went to a 9:00 Mass at one nearby parish so I could do the RCIA dismissal after the Scrutinies at Queen of All Saints at 10:30. We sat in these chairs:

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Clearly, they are intended and used as flexible pews.

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Vastly better construction than these chairs. Legs integrated into the seat and set at an angle to minimize pressure on the joints. Yet, I was distracted from the chairs which distracted me from Mass by the sweet smell of pancakes. One of the things these chairs tell you is that the parish is unsure of what, exactly, the church building is for. Normal pews commit one to viewing the building as exclusively a church. Evidently, this large box of a building is also for pancake breakfasts, because a bunch of tables were set up for one at the back of the church, and the smell of the pancakes cooking filled the church. There’s not even a visual barrier between the Mass and the breakfast – I walked through the tables on my way to the porta-pews.

So, of course, we sang, or rather listened to, Jebbies and Haugen. This mass had a children’s choir, a small passel of cute little girls miked up like they were calling for the repeal of the 2nd Amendment – more than one mike for every two girls. Otherwise, it would have been pretty darn quiet during the ‘singing’.

We listened to them singing Jerusalem My Destiny, a little ditty I’ve somehow missed.

Refrain:
I have fixed my eyes on your hills,
Jerusalem, my Destiny!
Though I cannot see the end for me,
I cannot turn away.
We have set our hearts for the way;
this journey is our destiny.
Let no one walk alone.
The journey makes us one.

Other spirits, lesser gods,
have courted me with lies.
Here among you I have found
a truth that bids me rise. (Refrain)

See, I leave the past behind;
a new land calls to me.
Here among you now I find
a glimpse of what might be. (Refrain)

In my thirst, you let me drink
the waters of your life,
Here among you I have met,
the Savior, Jesus Christ. (Refrain)

All the worlds I have not seen
you open to my view.
Here among you I have found
a vision bright and new. (Refrain)

To the tombs I went to mourn
the hope I thought was gone,
Here among you I awoke
to unexpected dawn. (Refrain)

Aren’t we wonderful! References to I, me, we, us, etc: 31. God: 1, and the one verse that even mentions Christ turns Him into some sort of abstract expression of group identity:

In my thirst, you let me drink the waters of your life, Here among you I have met, the Savior, Jesus Christ.

Pronoun trouble: the ‘you’ here seems to be Jerusalem at least some of the time, but not always? You’d be hard pressed from context to figure out when it is or isn’t.

This song represents perhaps the nadir of content-free hymnody. It says nothing and means nothing. It invites the question ‘what is that supposed to mean?’ without providing any sure context within which to to figure it out. Take the opening line, or any line, for that matter, of just about any classic hymn, and you’ll see what I mean:

Praise the Lord, Ye Heavens adore Him

Joyful, Joyful, we adore Him

Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All

Jesu, Joy of man’s desiring

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow

And on and on and on. A relationship between the singer and the Savior is established within the first 10 words; God is the subject of the hymn, praise the objective. God is described as the Giver of Blessings, the Joy that answers our desires, the Object of our adoration. Jerusalem My Destiny? Not so much. Evocative words and phrases  – Jerusalem! Destiny! – end up meaning exactly whatever you want to imagine them to mean. It is an anti-hymn, an anti-psalm.

On Saturday, went to a Catholic Men’s Conference. Our beloved – and he could sure use your prayers – Archbishop Cordeleone of San Francisco celebrated mass at noon, with a lovely choir doing chant and motets and a couple nice songs, some in Latin. We sang as Byzantine-style 4-part setting of the St. Michael’s Prayer. No question Who this mass and its music were directed toward.

On the whole, the weekend was a huge plus on the music at mass front.

Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent 2018

Up at Lake Tahoe for our annual President’s Day weekend snow trip with friends from Diablo Valley School. ‘Snow’ being pretty much nominal this year, unlike the 10′ high drifts last year.  So off to the striking church of St. Theresa’s Parish in downtown South Lake Tahoe for the 8:00 Mass. A lovely group of people with a good, humble priest.

One amazing thing happened. This building has a large window behind the altar through which one sees forest and the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra – very striking, especially on a windy winter’s day when clouds whipped by, sunlight dappling the sanctuary as they flew past.

At the Elevation, the altar was in shade. As the priest lifted the Host, It was brilliantly back-lit while all else remained in shadow. Very beautiful and appropriate.

In previous years, I found the amateur woodworking on the pews distracting, as discussed in the post linked above. I think I’m finally over that particular temptation. The music, however…

Again, some sweet people are doing their best. A young woman with a lovely light voice lead the singing. But if all you know is Ripple, good red wine will be spit out of your mouth.

Theory: contemporary church songs are particularly bad in Lent, because contemporary writers have no concept of repentance. How could they, when, at least in the West, the whole project since V-II seems to be to get everybody to accept everybody (themselves included) as, essentially OK as they are. Repent from what? in other words. Hurting Gaia’s feelings, I suppose?

That Desert Father and Counter-Reformation Jesuit recognition that we’ve screwed up both individually and as a Church and could not possible do enough to correct it (we need a Redeemer, after all – another thought conspicuously absent from 99% of modern songs) is completely foreign to enlightened sensibilities. The idea that it is meet and just and ESSENTIAL TO OUR SALVATION that we throw ourselves weeping on the Mercy of God, despairing of our own strength and trusting solely in grace of Christ’s Holy Sacrifice as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world – not so popular. Am I saying we’re not OK? How dare me!

Pick any Catholic Lenten hymn more than 75 years old, and it’s easy to see St. Francis fasting and lying on the cold ground while praying those thoughts, or St. Catherine of Sienna weeping her eyes dry. It works. Now, imagine St. Teresa of Avila, in her stern humor, or Mother Theresa or even Dorthy Day reading over ‘Ashes’ and – I think some anathemas might be forthcoming.

Continue reading “Music at Mass Review: 1st Sunday of Lent 2018”

Music at Mass 01 14 2108

Robert Hugh Benson’s book Lord of the World has been praised and recommended by both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict. In the story, set in some future Britain in which a Humanitarianism indistinguishable from modern Progressivism rules with an ever-tightening grip, an Oliver Brand, a junior member of Parliament, is to give a speech in Trafalgar Square to a vast crowd that includes his mother and his wife Mable. Before his speech, the crowd is lead in a hymn.

In the following passage, his mother, a simple woman and still a Christian, is faced with the meaning of the hymn:

The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:

The Lord that dwells in earth and sea.” …

She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough—the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ’s, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.

She glanced at Mabel, and saw that the girl was singing with all her might, with her eyes fixed on her husband’s dark figure a hundred yards away, and her soul pouring through them. So the mother, too, began to move her lips in chorus with that vast volume of sound.

This sprang to mind as we – excluding me – sang the following entrance song:

Let us build a house where love can dwell
and all can safely live,
a place where saints and children tell
how hearts learn to forgive.
Built of hopes and dreams and visions,
rock of faith and vault of grace;
here the love of Christ shall end divisions.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where prophets speak,
and words are strong and true,
where all God’s children dare to seek
to dream God’s reign anew.
Here the cross shall stand as witness
and as symbol of God’s grace;
here as one we claim the faith of Jesus.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

Let us build a house where love is found
in water, wine and wheat:
a banquet hall on holy ground
where peace and justice meet.
Here the love of God, through Jesus,
is revealed in time and space;
as we share in Christ the feast that frees us.
All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.

And so on. He Who Shall Not Be Named other than to mention it’s Marty Haugen tosses together a word salad of nice biblical-sounding phrases and, as part of his ongoing efforts (largely commendable in themselves) to reinvent the Lutheran hymn, sets those words to a fairly straight-forward and singable tune.

What here would give Fr. Benson pause? Weeeell…

  • The house doesn’t exist?

One might imagine – hope and dream, even – that those attending Mass at a Catholic church might share the vision that the Catholic Church is the House of God and the Body of Christ, and that we cooperate with God in building it up through humility and sacrifice. Or something like that. Let’s just say that this hymn (unlike others, thankfully) doesn’t actually go into the bulldozing of existing structures to prepare the ground for us and our new building project. It assumes that’s already happened – an understandable position – and starts right in with us building a new ‘house’ no doubt way better than the old one.

  • Note the ‘we’ are building a house remarkably free of God’s help and influence.

“Built of hopes and dreams and visions” – Whose? Do we care if such hopes, etc., comport with God’s will? Well, if we’ve more or less unconsciously absorbed Hegel-flavored modernism, we don’t, or rather, the question has no meaning. See, once God entered capital ‘h’ History, His only valid expression is His Spirit’s unfolding in that History – meaning, of course, whatever the enlightened people on the Right Side of History think. It’s not reasonable – the law of non-contradiction does not apply – and it is by definition certainly not traditional – history is becoming, in the sense of becoming something different that renders the past irrelivant.

The hopes, etc., of the proper set of hopefuls of course, ARE the Will of God. No need to trouble one’s head any further about that. Who constitutes the correct set of hopefuls is also not a question allowed – the detail that not all people share the same hopes, dreams and visions is something it is assumed the Spirit will unfold out of the way, if it is even considered at all.

The idea that pride is the first sin and humility the gateway to all virtue are more concepts the Spirit has clearly folded away.

  • We do not bring forth both old and new – just new, thankyouverymuch.

In the same way, “all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew.”  Paul’s epistles, while full of admonitions to keep God’s commands and stick to the teachings of Jesus, seem strangely lacking in the dreaming God’s reign anew department. For example.

“We claim the faith of Jesus.” Note the direction of the action here. What ever happened to pure, unmerited grace? Neither Luther not Calvin would be pleased. Catholics, while recognizing the small but sacred role played by that great good gift of our free will, nonetheless never imagine faith as something to be claimed, as if it were our due or some primitive wilderness.

  • We must embrace the symbols while subtly rejecting the reality they are symbols of.

“Here the cross shall stand as witness and as symbol of God’s grace” and “love is found in water, wine and wheat”. No mention of the Cross as the *means* of our redemption from sin by Jesus’ obedience to the Father – talk about harshing our mellow! – nor of God’s real presence in that wine and wheat.  Nope, we define those realities away by redirecting our attention to superficialities.

Just as in Benson’s “The Lord that dwells in earth and sea” uses imagery and phrases meant to evoke traditional understanding while at the same time subverting that understanding, Haugen drops phrases like “rock of faith and vault of grace”, “where peace and justice meet” and even “as we share in Christ the feast that frees us” in order to invoke sentiment and cash in on unspoken associations while at the same time undermining everything those associations and sentiments were built on.

Don’t sing this song. Ever. But double don’t sing this song at Mass.

Personal Interlude

I’ll be 60 in 2 months. This is cause for self-indulgent navel-gazing self-reflection. Also, I’m feeling a bit better, let’s see if I can write anything.

The only things in my life I’m unequivocally happy about are my marriage and our children. Work? Nah. Grim necessity that is made worthwhile by the just mentioned wife and kids.  I’m a stone expert in certain arcane corners of equipment finance. Not a great conversation starter. I dread answering the question: what do you do for a living? I tend to say ‘sell software’ because it’s true, although not really the heart of the story – which no one wants to hear anyway.

Got a boatload of hobbies that have evolved over time. Love to make things out of wood – our house is full of bookcase, tables, shelves, and boxes I’ve made.

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e.g., this triple bunk bed for the younger daughter’s room. Put in rails after this picture. 

For the last few years, it’s been bricks:

The woodworking I’ve been doing since I was 5. The first thing I remember trying to build was a boat, out of scraps of paneling left over from redoing the garage. Remember cutting a piece into a gothic arch sort of shape, and trying to attach sides with finish nails – yikes! Didn’t get real far, but kept at if for a good while, as my handsaw chops were, I imagine, only slightly better than your typical 5 year old. Realized it would never work because I could never get the seams closed enough to hold water. I remember sitting in it and pretending, though.

My proudest childhood achievement was a total remake of a 4′ x 8′ playhouse my older brothers had built earlier, when I was 11:

  • Added a 2nd floor, which required reinforcing the ceiling/roof;
  • Repurposed a ladder from a bunk bed into a super-cool retractable ladder hinged to a board that fit into the ceiling – the whole thing was balance by a series of pulleys, nylon cord and a coffee can full of rocks, so that when you lifted it, it just rose right up into the ceiling;
  • Added a door and windows that could be closed.
  • Added some railing around the top floor so kids wouldn’t fall 60″ to their deaths.

Ended up converting the playhouse into a workspace for balsa wood models, of which I made maybe 3-4.

Also, at age 5, my mother let me plant some pansies in a little spot by the front porch. I was fascinated by them, watched them grow. I have no green thumb, but do love growing things. Put in an orchard this past spring:

I’ve tried and mostly failed to grow stuff over the years, in the sense that, for example, the few tomatoes I’ve grown are very expensive even if I value my time at next to zero. I can’t even grow zucchini. But I keep trying.

Back to my wasted youth. Then we moved. At age 12, started working for my dad on Saturdays and eventually summers at his sheet metal fabrication shop, sweeping floors and cleaning up the scrap metal. Eventually learned to do most activities except welding (a failure I regret to this day) and set up of the fabricators and presses. (I was pretty good with a blowtorch – 35+ years ago!)

Dad had a heart attack at 59 that nearly killed him, and turned him from a high-energy maniac into a more plodding and easily-tired maniac. His doctor told him he had to sell the business. Neither of my older brothers was interested in working with my dad, I was all of 18 at the time – and so, after a 15 year run, Astro-Fab was sold, and my parents and youngest brother moved to Newport Beach.

Skipping over the boring basketball/drama/choir combo that occupied my time in highschool (and made me the oddest of ducks even before you factor in my reading habits – V-II docs, Plato and Asimov’s non-fiction, for example. Fit right in!), we get to a possibly odd little fact: I grew up in a blue-collar household, where achievement meant making something you could see. There was no value placed on what might be called intellectual achievements.

This bias toward stuff you can, as Ted Nugent says, bite and away from less concrete achievements I absorbed with my mother’s milk. It just is. College was, in some sense, baffling to me: unlike high school, which was filled with students who could have hardly cared less (or were careful to project that image) about intellectual stuff, here were all these people my age who, for example, kept papers they’d written! Like the written word was some sort of achievement to be proud of!

I could not imagine. Intellectually, I get it, but even now there’s a part of me that whispers: writing is not work, it’s not worth anything. (This same voice tells me in the same way that I, likewise, am not worth anything. Package deal.)

I try to battle on. When I decided to write music (left out the part about taking piano at age 15 – bless them, the folks were cool with it), I developed a beautiful music script, even going so far as to get some calligraphy tools to make sure it was pretty. This, despite my handwriting being all but completely illegible. See, I think I needed to make it pretty to look at in order for me to think it was worth anything. Or something – all I know is that, when I wrote music, I compulsively wrote it out again at least once, to get the spacing right and clean it up. Pretty sure I spent as much or more time writing it out as I did composing the music in the first place.

Had one musical triumph: got a composition teacher in Santa Fe when I was maybe 23 who also directed the Santa Fe Women’s Ensemble. After a few lessons, she told me the Ensemble would perform a piece if I wrote one for them.

Wow. So I threw myself into writing something, decided to go ultra traditional and set the Kyrie. The first part was very much inspired by traditional polyphony; she told me to make the Christe part contrasting – which I overdid, a little harmonically adventurous, let’s say. Anyway, it was OK – I spent hours writing out a beautiful copy, even got a calligrapher friend to do a cover page – and they sang it, people paid to go to that concert, even got reviewed (favorably – the reviewer compared my piece to Victoria – I blush!) .

And – can I find that review? Can I find that recording? I can lay my hands on the music, I think, because I made a bunch of copies for the Ensemble – in a accordian folder somewhere.

Was I thrilled? Did I go on to be a composer, at least as a hobby? No, and pretty much no. Have a small pile of pieces, almost all incomplete, almost all 35+ years old. They molder.

Around this time I decided I actually enjoyed writing. This is pre word processor, and I don’t know how to type (this self-indulgent dump is brought to you by fast hunt & peck). Don’t know why I liked it. But here we are: half a dozen years, 1200+ blog posts and a million words later. Got piles of mostly unfinished stories and parts of maybe 3 novels accumulated over the last 30 years doing the electronic equivalent of moldering.

So: can I spend the years left to me overcoming a lifetime of failure to follow through and complete intellectual things, and get some stuff finished?

Stay tuned.

And pardon me for the self-indulgent nonsense.

 

Bach is Good

Bach is good. I just know you were all waiting breathlessly for me to tell  you that. But really, Bach is good in so many ways. Trying to play some Bach on the piano focuses and calms the mind. Even fairly simple Bach – all I’m ever likely to try – occasions that lovely combination of real learning and humility one gets, often, from reading Great Books – on the one hand, you have the thrill of learning new and beautiful things, while on the other, a growing certainty that you’re missing even more, and more profound, stuff, so that if you kept at it for the rest of your life you might not plumb the depths.

The side benefits include improved technique – I don’t know if I’ve ever tried a new piece of Bach’s without running into some requirement that I’d never run across before, framed up so that you’re dying to get it down. Also, the thrill you feel the first time, however haltingly, you play one of those little pieces all the way through – hard to describe, other than ‘satisfying.’

Bach may be the poster child for Chesterton’s quip that whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly.

You are without doubt the worst pirate I've ever heard of ...
Going the other direction, here: he can only be the worst pirate you’ve ever heard of if, indeed, he is a pirate. 

I am a terrible piano player. No false modesty here – I suck. But, like Jack Sparrow being a pirate, I am a piano player – just not a very good one. To put it generously.

Over the last decade or so, I’ve been hacking away at the Well-Tempered Clavier off and on. It’s Just So Good. My playing would cause good musicians to cover their ears or leave the room. I’ve hacked through maybe half a dozen of the preludes and fugues so that I at one time could kinda play them all the way through without cratering too obviously, and a dozen more where there’s at least a few spots, often more, where, as they politely say of Rolls Royces, it fails to proceed.

The pattern: I get all enthusiastic, have my 40 year old copy of the WTC open on the piano, and start hacking away. My reading sucks – I look like a nearly blind man deciphering hieroglyphics as I stare at the mysterious black squiggles, and sound almost that good. Painful. But after a few tries, my one musical talent – I can memorize, at least short term, like a boss – I’ve uploaded the music into RAM. (This talent, not coincidentally, contributes to why I’m such a poor reader. That, and my squirrel-level attention span and focus. And lazy. Always figure lazy into it.)

So I start pounding away. Bach is very unforgiving of poor fingering, and of course my default fingering sucks, so I start in with the pencil, writing little numbers next to notes, circling them, arrows, stars – whatever it takes to remember I need a ‘1’ there or my left hand will look like a knot by the end of the phrase. And it won’t sound very good.

Hack hack hack. After a hundred times through, the fingering starts to feel natural, things start to get a little smoother. And –

Ever seen a little kid playing basketball start throwing up 30 ft shots?  Because his idol Steph Curry throws up 30 ft shots? The little kid ignores his own inability to make a layup and the couple of decades Curry spent honing his ungodly natural talents.  The kid doesn’t make very many Curry style.

Invariably, right about the time I start getting it down at a nice slow pace, I go all Glenn Gould or Vladimir Ashkenazy, playing it way too fast for me, because a lot of these little pieces sound good real fast, and that’s how the big dogs play it.

Here’s Daniel Berenboim playing the C# Major Prelude. This isn’t even particularly fast for this little piece.

I can play it that fast. Kind of. Even sounds OK about every third try if you don’t listen too hard. But at about 75% of that speed, I can play it so it’s not horrible – where the two hands mostly stay together, and the little turn-arounds Bach puts in about every 2 measures (anybody who’s tried this knows exactly what I’m talking about) where there are fingering landmines and just awkward bits (like notes that need to be crisp, fast and played with the 4th and 5th fingers of the left hand) – well, still working on getting those right at pro speed.

Anyway, the next step, after a few weeks, couple months, tops, is I get frustrated, bored or distracted and wander off to the next shiny object in view, with another 2-3 preludes and fugues almost down, not quite – and the memory bleed-off starts.

A year or three later, after ignoring the piano or playing blues and lame renditions of jazz and ‘free improv’ (to give a hoity-toity name to just futzing around to see if I can make something pretty), I’ll see that WTC sitting there, and maybe try to play one of the now half-forgotten pieces, and maybe remember how much fun it was, spend most of the time trying to relearn what I forgot, then add maybe another piece or two…

So, I’m in maybe the second or third week of another Bach WTC obsession. Got the E-Minor fugue nearly down (at light speed, with brio, because I’m weak – I do not play it nice and restrained and tidy as in the following video)

and the C# Major prelude, but still need (need?) to get it ever so slightly faster than Berenboim’s tempo above (Why? Don’t ask that!). I’d almost had these 2 down last obsession cycle. Then, need to dust off/relearn the four preludes and fugues in C  – the 4 part C–Major fugue it the hard one, for me, about as hard as anything I’ve ever played. Fingering from hell, and trying to play so it’s 4 lines, not just a bunch of notes. And the D-minor set, which I had pretty cold at one point years ago, but has bled away…

Then pick a couple new ones to learn (I’ve hacked through 90% of them at some point, so I have ideas.)

And get this done while I’m still hot to trot. Because, if history is any indication, in a few more weeks something will distract me…

Bach remains good, even when I abuse or ignore his little masterpieces.