Monday, August 31, 2009

The Book in Hand – Losing My Religion, Part 2

.In my previous post, I shared the first part of my review of Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace, a new memoir by journalist William Lobdell. You can review Part I HERE before reading the conclusion below.


At the end of the first part of my review, I mentioned that at the same time that Lobdell was deeply engaged in the catechism and indoctrination required for membership in the Catholic Church, he was also investigating and coming to understand the enormity of the sexual perversions that the Church had hidden for centuries. It is no surprise, then, that when his investigations revealed the extent of the rottenness within the Catholic Church, his faith, which had rested so strongly on the institution, its leaders, and its traditions, was shaken and ultimately destroyed. He found that he had built his house on sand.

Mr. Lobdell’s error, of course, was in confusing (or perhaps connecting too strongly) his personal faith in God with the religious institutions that men (mostly) have created, especially the Catholic Church. As Mr. Lobdell discovered when he investigated wealthy televangelists, faith healers, and some other religious organizations, many man-made religious institutions and businesses have very little to do with God and very much to do with power, money, and celebrity. God is not church, and churches are not God. Churches can at best be gathering places where like-minded people can share and enlarge upon ideas and faith that they hold in common. To expect much more is to be disappointed.

And when Mr. Lobdell looked into whether or not Christians (the book does not consider other religions) behave better, ethically and morally, than non-believers, he “couldn’t find any evidence within Protestantism or Catholicism that the actions of Christians, in general, showed that they took their faith seriously or that their religion made them morally or ethically better than even atheists.”

Worst of all for Mr. Lobdell, of course, was the moment when he realized that the Catholic leaders who publicly professed deep faith, and who preached damnation to sinners, had privately committed unimaginably dreadful sins against the most vulnerable members of their faith communities. Equally damning was the reaction of the entrenched Catholic faithful, who tended to embrace and support their sinning priests and refuse to accept the truth. How can people believe in God, he wonders, in the face of the institutionalized hypocrisy and perversion which is perpetuated in the name of that God? What does not God intervene?

It seems to me that true faith should always transcend religion, and that intelligent people of faith (is that an oxymoron?) should be able to differentiate between their personal beliefs and man-made religious institutions, especially institutions that are controlled by people who have so blatantly and criminally rejected Christian teachings.

Though Mr. Lobdell writes clearly and cogently, as would be expected from a professional journalist, the book is too long for its topic. Perhaps he uses nearly 300 pages to tell his story because, as he says, “My loss of faith had taken me years to recognize and then grow used to.” (p.259, but oh, such awkward syntax!) This story seems dominated by detail about the sexual abuses, and his journalistic instinct is too much in evidence here. However, I do understand why he includes so many sordid details, for it was the cumulative effect of those discoveries, made over months and years, which destroyed Mr. Lobdell’s faith, and it is natural that he wants us to feel the same horror and inescapable anger and disgust that led him to leave his faith and become, as he terms it, a “reluctant atheist.”

I’ve heard two radio interviews with Mr. Lobdell, including a fifty-minute, talk; in neither situation was he able to make his case as clearly as he did in writing. His comments dwell on the sexual abuses, and on the fallacies of all religious faith, without explaining sufficiently how and why these factors contributed to his own abandonment of his faith.

The most important and, for me, most persuasive part of the book came at the very end, after he had cataloged the myriad reasons for his abandonment of faith and religion. He expressed surprise and delight in his new-found serenity and spiritual self-sufficiency, which he attributes to his atheism, however "reluctant" he claims to be. That makes sense, of course, since he is now basing his behavior on his own internally-generated moral and ethical standards, not those imposed externally by an institution which he found to be, at its core, corrupt and sinful.

All in all, this is a good book and an important one, and is recommended.

The Book in Hand – Losing My Religion, Part 1

.When I visit my public library, I usually stop at the new book shelf, where the library staff has assembled many of their newest acquisitions. Most often, I seek out titles I’ve never heard of, such as Timothy Brook’s engaging book Vermeer’s Hat, which I reviewed HERE. Sometimes, though, I end up choosing books I’ve heard about through reviews or interviews. That’s what happened recently, when I came home with Losing My Religion: How I Lost My Faith Reporting on Religion in America and Found Unexpected Peace, a memoir published earlier this year by William Lobdell.

In this nicely-crafted book, Mr. Lobdell, a distinguished journalist, documents his journey toward spiritual and psychological maturity. Once a member of a mainstream Christian church, Mr. Lobdell experienced a “born again” conversion to evangelical Christianity during a low ebb in his personal and professional development. As his faith strengthened, he felt called to shift his professional focus from general journalism to exclusive coverage of religion, and he was able to obtain a satisfying position as religion reporter at the Los Angeles Times. Eventually, he was drawn to membership in the Catholic Church, the “mother” of all Christian churches. Coincident to his conversion classes, Mr. Lobdell was deeply involved in investigating and reporting the systematic sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the devastating repercussions of the Church’s largely-successful efforts to conceal the rapes and protect their employees (the priests) from prosecution.

Is it any surprise that Mr. Lobdell’s Christian faith and his new love for the Catholic Church diminished and eventually disappeared altogether? Well, of course not. To be honest, though, I was never convinced of the depth and authenticity of his faith, so I wasn’t surprised that it eroded so readily.

Now, when I question the authenticity of his belief, I don’t mean that his faith was not real for him; rather, I question its origin and how integral it was to his spiritual and psychological self. My doubts have their origin in Mr. Lobdell’s story of how he came to embrace hard-core evangelical Christianity. His conversion was not an impulse that originated within his heart or from his own spiritual seekings. Rather, it was the result of pressure from a friend who insisted that Mr. Lobdell “needed” stronger Christian faith. This “friend” essentially bullied him into attending a weekend mountaintop “retreat” where, unsurprising for one in a fragile emotional and spiritual condition, he was “swept away” (page 203) and succumbed to pressure from the group and its spiritual leader to be “born again.” His new-found faith seemed pasted on, and therefore was easily detached, disowned, and discarded once he learned more about the religious institutions in his life. That’s not a criticism; it’s just my observation.

Throughout his story, especially as he moved toward the Catholic Church, I sensed that Mr. Lobdell was choosing a religious life because it seemed the “right” thing to do, rather than living a life of faith inspired by a natural, irresistible belief in God. His faith, and his religion, seemed to be external moldings attached to his life rather than internal frameworks on which his life was built. He describes his quest, carried out in extensive research over a period of years, to find a Christian philosophy that suited his interests and leanings; as a result, he became attached to a series of saints and theologians, moving from one to another as his thinking evolved. On page 170, he described how during his years as a believer, he “gathered information about my faith from carefully written books, inspiring sermons, classes taught by and filled with fellow Christians, and well-choreographed church services.” He longed for the Catholic Church, confessing (on page 84) his attraction to the rituals and traditions of this sect, even though he admitted discomfort and even direct opposition to many of its doctrines to which he was supposed to adhere.

As it happened, he was deeply engaged in the catechism and indoctrination required for membership at the same time that he began to understand the enormity of the sexual perversions that the Catholic Church had hidden for centuries. It is no surprise, then, that when his investigations revealed the extent of the rottenness within the Catholic Church, his faith, which had rested so strongly on the institution, its leaders, and its traditions, was shaken and ultimately destroyed. He found that he had built his house on sand.

Jump to part two of this essay:

Thursday, August 27, 2009


In June, I wrote about a favorite old tree of mine, saying, “It's nice to see an old tree left standing; so many people are eager to cut down ‘ugly’ old trees. What good could possibly be found in an old, dying tree?” I went on to describe the activities of nearly three dozen bird species that I saw and/or heard in that tree during a half-hour period on a lovely June morning:

I concluded that essay with these words: “So, what good is an old tree, anyway? Plenty good for these birds and the other creatures that depend on it for food, housing, resting, and courtship. Next time you're thinking about felling a dead or dying tree, sit down and watch it for half an hour. You might be surprised at what you see.”

Yesterday D and I went to that park, owned by the town of Avon, Connecticut, to walk through the woods and fields. I promised to show him the wonderful tree.

When we arrived, I was shocked and saddened to see that the lovely old tree had been cut down to the ground. Gone. Removed. Cut down. Destroyed. Stumped. All that is left is a ragged, broken stump a few inches above ground level.

That corner of the meadow is a lot quieter without that lively gathering place.

I can’t even think about this without tearing up.

I’m stumped.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Flipped Out

At a recent performance at the Hartford Stage, I was distracted through much of the performance by a flip-flop. Several rows ahead, a member of the audience had one leg crossed high across his knee, and he jiggled and bounced that bare foot and loose flip-flop throughout most of the evening. My seat was several rows above his, so that when I looked down on to the stage, there was that silhouetted bare foot and its flip-flop, flipping and flopping, wiggling and waggling.

All other factors aside – the idea of walking through dirty city streets in near-bare feet and the detrimental effect of flip-flops on the muscles of the back, feet, and legs (read about it HERE) – I’m just tired of seeing everyone’s bare toes in times and places where a little decorum would be welcome. I'm not talking about the beach, the playground, or even the shopping mall. But in church, at the theater, in the concert hall, in restaurants, in the doctor’s office – the world seems overrun by bare feet, many of them dirty, and many made even more tawdry by scarlet nail polish. UGH.

The flip-flop flagrancy that really flips me out is the increasingly common wearing of flip-flops by some of my fellow choristers during performances.

Each of the ensembles in which I sing has guidelines for concert attire, including requirements for both men and women, for footwear (usually close-toed and black) and hosiery (required). Each group has unique policies, of course, but the goals are the same: to ensure that we present a uniform appearance, that individual singers do not stand out, and that our attire be in keeping with the formal presentation of (generally) classical music.

In most cases, when singers join an ensemble they agree to follow all policies, including attire. It’s always a disappointment and somewhat a shock, then, to see some of the women show up for concerts wearing flip-flops instead of hosiery and close-toed shoes, or at least dress sandals, which I think are OK during warm weather. It is a distraction, it is unprofessional, and it is a real sign of disrespect for the ensemble, its leaders, and the other singers who do comply with the attire policies. I can’t understand why the people in charge of enforcing the attire rules don’t actually enforce them. There seems to be a double standard, too: If a male singer showed up in flip-flops, he’d be shown to the stage door.

More of my essays on the life of a chorister, and more about choral rehearsals and choral music, may be found here:

Friday, August 21, 2009

Packing and Churning

This morning as I read a news story about Hurricane Bill, I noticed for the zillionth time how often reporters use the same old language to write about hurricanes. Hurricanes seem always to churn across the Atlantic, and they are always packing winds. It makes me think of a butter churn with a sidearm.

Out of curiosity, I ran a search in Google just to see what would turn up:

"Hurricane Bill" churn OR churning OR churned OR churns

The result? When I looked this morning, limiting the search to the past week, about 230,000 items containing these terms had been posted to the Internet (that includes news, blogs, general sites…everything). Because I had limited the search by date, it’s a good bet that nearly all of these hits are about this particular storm.

A similar search yielded 130,000 items that described the hurricane as “packing” winds of various sorts:

"Hurricane Bill" winds pack OR packing OR packed OR packs

Now, churn is a good word to describe the intense, destructive rotation of the storm. But there must be other words we can use to describe how hurricanes move. If we want to mark its rotating action, we could say that a hurricane whirls, or twirls, or spins. (OK, whirl and twirl are a little silly; one doesn’t want to visualize a hurricane in a tutu.) If we want to emphasize its destructive and stormy nature, we could say it howls, screams, or rampages. In the case of a fast-moving storm, we could say that it races, or courses, or gallops, or speeds. Or, we could just say that it travels, moves, progresses, or advances. These are perfectly adequate, if less dramatic.

How could we describe the high-velocity winds? If one can't find a word other than packing, then just stating the wind speed will make an impression.

Here’s a sample of plain writing:

With sustained winds of 125 mph, Hurricane Bill is moving NNW at 30 mph, and is expected to reach Neverland by 9:00 this evening.
I don’t mind hearing once in a while that a hurricane is packing and churning. But after decades of hearing the same tired language trotted out at the beginning of the hurricane season and used over and over until November 1…. Well, it will be a relief to hear about the deadly, massive, winter storms that will come howling down to batter New England this winter. If the news stories are correct, we’ll stock up, batten down, hole up, and, of course, dig out.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Judging a Life

Yesterday our friend Bob Satter celebrated his 90th birthday. And his is a life worth celebrating! In a career devoted to public service (most notably as a Superior Court judge in Connecticut), he’s crafted a full and satisfying life, enriched by his curiosity, love of adventure, and wonder at life’s endless variety. We are lucky to be members of the same book group, where we’ve heard Bob’s views and railings on almost every aspect of human endeavor: our strivings, achievements, and failings, and what we make of ourselves along the way. Several days ago, an essay that Bob wrote (he’s an accomplished writer) was published in The Hartford Courant. Take a few minutes to read what this remarkable man has shared about his state of mind as he celebrates 90 years of living:


Turning 90, With My Life In Front Of Me
Robert Satter
The Hartford Courant, August 9, 2009

Ninety years of age is not just old, it is ancient. The saying attributed to Satchel Paige, "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you," doesn't even apply. Whatever it was, it passed me long ago.

I was born when Woodrow Wilson was president. One of my earliest memories is of kids stopping our ballgame to watch in wonder as an airplane flew overhead. My generation — that knew the hardships of the Great Depression and fought in World War II — has mostly passed away. It is lonely to outlive one's generation, to be unable to share its remembrances.

I'm the beneficiary of the miracles of modern medicine. I've had one disc operation, two shoulder rotator cuffs repaired, two knees replaced, five heart arteries bypassed and one pacemaker inserted. Sometimes I think old age is punishment for crimes I did not commit.

My heart surgery was an epiphany for me. The day after it I felt so bad I thought, "This is what it must be like to die." I had no fear, no remorse, no regrets. I had lived a long and full life, and if this was the end, I was accepting of my fate. But I did not die. Rather, I lived to say, as the soldier hero in "The Red Badge of Courage" said, "I've been to touch the Great Death and found, after all, it is only the Great Death."

That experience left me pondering what my passing means — the passing of, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, "this wonderful and unique 'I' that never was before and never will be again." Externally, I am a person with a recognizable appearance and mannerisms. I have a characteristic way of talking, walking and gesturing, a distinctive tennis stroke and golf swing.

Internally, I am a bundle of memories of people I've known, events I've experienced, books I've read and poems I can still recite. More and more I live in that interior space, recalling the past. When I die, that presence and circuitry will vanish.

Touching death made me appreciate even more the preciousness of each day. Yet, my life is constricting about me. Friends die and each of their deaths diminishes me. My inability to walk long distances has ended my traveling abroad with my wife. The softening of my voice inhibits my entering into group conversations, and my diminished hearing, when I don't use my hearing aids, isolates me even more.

In gatherings of lawyers and even judges I am one of the oldest present, and know only a few of them. I feel like a spectator at those events, observing from the sidelines. Even at dinner parties, sometimes I feel removed, as if watching my friends enacting their lives from afar.

Often when I do things like vacation in the Berkshires or go to Fenway Park, I have an overwhelming sense of nostalgia that I may be doing them for the last time.

The cruelest irony of old age is that now that I have finally learned to drive a golf ball down the middle of the fairway, it doesn't go very far.

After my death, I will live on in my judicial opinions and my four books, but mainly in the memory of family and friends who loved me. In the end, though, like the men down at Mory's, I "will pass and be forgotten like the rest."

And yet despite this gloomy intimation of my mortality, I am a happy man. I cherish my wife dearly; delight in my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and friends. I go to the courthouse each day, eagerly anticipating the challenge of trying a case or drafting an opinion. I read books and write essays. I see plays and go to concerts. I play tennis with old-timers, and attack the golf course with a fierce determination to shoot my age. I lose regularly in rollicking games of poker to a bunch of scoundrels. I root for the Red Sox.

In the next few years, or who knows when, death may take my life, but in the words of Thomas Wolfe again, "I have lived it 'ere he took it." Really lived it.

Robert Satter is a judge trial referee sitting in the Hartford Superior Court and author of "Doing Justice: A Trial Judge at Work." He turns 90 on Aug. 19.

Link to the essay:,0,162457.story


If you’d like to know more about Bob Satter, read this engaging oral history interview:

And Bob has written four really good books. Highly recommended, all of them.

Doing Justice: A Trial Judge at Work. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980; 2nd ed.. 1990)

A Path in the Law. (Hartford, CT: Connecticut Law Book, 1996)

The Furniture of My Mind: Collected Essays. (Hartford, CT: Carriage House Press, 1999)

Under the Gold Dome: An Insider's Look at the Connecticut Legislature. (New Haven, CT: Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, 2004)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

In the Catbird Seat

Years ago, I had a little dress that I just adored – it was a lovely dark grey heathered ponte knit, closely cut (in those days I was slimmer) with three-quarter sleeves and a deep V neck. As the V was a little too low-cut for daytime use and I wanted to be able to wear the dress to work, I sewed in a panel of black velvet that contrasted beautifully with the heathered grey and added an elegant touch.

I’m often reminded of that dress (and a slimmer me) when I see Grey Catbirds in our yard, for these slender birds have the same colors – a smooth dark grey set off by an elegant black velvet cap.

Catbirds have nested in the shrubberies at the edges of our yard for as long as we’ve lived here. They arrive early in the spring to set up housekeeping, looking for likely nesting spots and visiting the feeder area to see if the suet is still there (it is). The male’s squeaky-warbly-throaty-rambling song is one of my favorites, probably because I associated it so strongly with our own home and yard.

But of course it’s that endearing “mew, mew” call, from which the Catbird gets its name, that really charms me.

As they are usually deep in the brush, it’s a treat to see them as daily visitors to our suet feeders where we can see them closely. They eat directly from the suet feeder, but they also watch the woodpeckers hacking away at the suet, dropping to the ground to pick up the crumbs that fall there. They also enjoy the orange halves that I put out for the orioles. (The orioles never come to our feeders, though they do pass through the yard; the catbird, woodpeckers, and blue jays eat the oranges.)

Friday, August 14, 2009


Today I launched a second blog, Peregrinations, where I will share the “intellectual wanderings of a professional researcher-writer.” “Peregrination,” which means “wandering,” refers to Peregrine Information Consultants, the research consulting business I started in 2003. (No, I don’t wander around my office; I chose the swift and elegant peregrine falcon to represent the quality of service I offer to my clients.)

When I first started this blog, I had expected to write about birds, music, books, and ideas, but I had also expected to write about the work I do at Peregrine; hence the title, Quodlibet (“what you will,” or “a bit of this and a bit of that”).

As you can see, the birds, books, and music have taken over, and my musings on research and business issues now seem out of place here.

I’ll keep writing here at Quodlibet, and I’ll use Peregrinations to talk about my business and technical research and professional writing projects. Many of my consulting projects are very interesting, and to the extent that I can discuss them without violating client confidentiality, I’ll share some of my experiences looking for good information in a rapidly-expanding online universe. I hope to post a few times each week.

Do visit Peregrinations and let me know what you think.

Here’s where to find me online:

This blog, Quodlibet

My new blog, Peregrinations

Peregrine Information Consultants, my business research service –

GraceNotes, my program annotation business –

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Chewing the Fat

Our “suet tree” is a smallish elm that overspreads our deck, where two metal-wire suet feeders attract a nice variety of birds.

Until a few years ago, we offered suet only in the winter months, gradually stopping at the end of the winter, assuming that the birds would just fend for themselves. And I guess they did.

Two years ago, though, we decided to keep offering suet through the spring and summer, and see what happened. Now, we offer suet year-round, and we’re treated to a daily show of beautiful birds and their always-fascinating behaviors.

During the winter, of course, the suet feeders are busy, with the expected crew: woodpeckers (up to five species), Black-Capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Blue Jays, White-Breasted and Red-Breasted Nuthatches, and the occasional Brown Creeper and kinglet. I wrote HERE about the “woodpecker wars” that ensued when a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker moved into the neighborhood last winter and laid claim to the suet feeders.

This spring, I wrote HERE and HERE about the swarms of fledgling Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers that came to the suet feeders. It was great fun to see the young birds with their parents; the adults showed the fledglings where the suet was and pulled off little bits to feed to them until the young ones got the hang of climbing onto the wire cage and feeding directly from the suet. (They’re still around, though in smaller numbers.)

Other birds that feed from our suet include Carolina Wrens, Grey Catbirds, Purple Grackles, and American Crows. Yesterday, a young male Northern Cardinal visited many times to sample the suet. He seems to have developed a taste for it; he was back this morning.

There’s one bird I really don’t like to see at the suet (or anywhere): House Sparrows. These noisy, messy, fast-breeding invasive birds take food and nesting areas from our native birds. They can gobble seeds and suet with rapacious rapidity and destroy the nests of wrens, bluebirds, and other small birds. An enormous juvenile female Cooper’s Hawk hurtled through our feeder area the other day; perhaps it was the same bird that came by a few weeks ago and took a House Sparrow (read it HERE). I hope she eats them all!

Here’s a bit of pretty bad verse about my least-favorite birds:

Those darned house sparrows eat the suet!
I wish they wouldn't bite or chew it!
I've put out plenty of tempting seeds
which should be sufficient for their needs!
I'm glad the big bold male red-belly*
turns their little legs to jelly!
He swoops in fast from the mulberry tree
(his white rump flashes – lovely to see);
and off they go. They really scatter!
But alas, they resume that mindless chatter!
I wish they'd stay at the house next door
and not come to my feeders any more.

* The Red-Bellied Woodpecker, an assertive bird that is at the top of the pecking order at our feeders.

© 2011 Quodlibet. Dissemination, re-use, or duplication prohibited except by express permission of the author.I pay attention and I will find you if you cite, republish, or use my work without credit or without attribution.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Noteworthy Tale

This little cautionary tale has been in circulation for many years, but it’s so good that it’s worth sharing again. I’ve added my own observations and augmentations at the end.

A C, an E-flat, and a G go into a bar. The bartender says: “Sorry, but we don't serve minors.” So the E-flat leaves, and the C and the G have an open fifth between them. After a few drinks, the fifth is diminished and the G is out flat.

An F comes in and tries to augment the situation, but is not sharp enough.

A D comes into the bar and heads straight for the bathroom saying, “Excuse me. I'll just be a second.”

Then an A comes into the bar, but the bartender is not convinced that this relative of C is not a minor.

Then the bartender notices a B-flat hiding at the end of the bar and exclaims, “Get out, now! You're the seventh minor I've found in this bar tonight.”

The E-flat, not easily deflated, comes back to the bar the next night in a three-piece suit with nicely shined shoes. The bartender (who used to have a nice corporate job until his company downsized) says, “You're looking sharp tonight, come on in! This could be a major development.” This proves to be the case, as the E-flat takes off the suit, and everything else, and stands there au naturel.

Eventually, the C sobers up, and realizes in horror that he's under a rest.

The C is brought to trial, is found guilty of contributing to the diminution of a minor, and is sentenced to 10 years of DS without Coda at an upscale correctional facility. On appeal, however, the C is found innocent of any wrongdoing, even accidental, and that all accusations to the contrary are bassless.

The bartender decides, however, that since he's only had tenor so patrons, then the soprano out in the bathroom, and everything has become alto much treble, he needs a rest, and closes the bar.

OK, that’s quite a tale, but obviously some major facts have been left out. Here’s some additional material that I haven’t seen reported in any version of this story.

This story could have included more notes about the trial. For example, one of the attorneys, B, was accused of using a leading tone with key witnesses. The judge didn’t like his mode of questioning. And under questioning from a staff attorney, the bartender admitted to having a second bar exactly like the first (that is, a double bar).

Why weren’t charges of indecent exposition brought against the E-flat, who disrobed in public? That would have been an interesting development. I didn’t note this information in the recap published above.

And no one mentioned the pick-ups hanging around in front of the bar. They were all short, and some were carrying flags; they were protesting that the bartender wouldn’t let them past the chord he had strung across the opening of the bar. “He lets minors into the bar, why not us?” complained Dot, the shortest of the Anacrusis Sisters, who led the protest.

After he was cleared of wrongdoing, C sued the bartender, accusing him of casting a slur on C’s character. “Slurring?!” the bartender scoffed. “You should have seen him slurring after he and G downed that open fifth. They really tied one on!” The two parties eventually composed themselves and agreed to discuss the situation in more measured tones. The bartender agreed not to repeat his mistakes, and C agreed to offer only tonic to minors in the future. Thus, harmony was restored.

Well, even if C had been sent to the “upscale” correctional facility, he probably would have been able to create a key by which he could have escaped. If the facility had been secured with a combination lock, he would have to learn the secret coda, of course. (Thanks, D.)

It’s interesting to note that these events were not widely reported. “It’s offbeat news, of course,” said one newspaper editor, “but it’s not really the kind of upbeat story our readers enjoy. Sometimes a local musician will pitch a story like this, and if we can find some theme to connect it to larger developments in the community, we’ll run it.”

Of course, this is a work of ficta. Any resemblance to real music is entirely accidental.

The original story has been circulating, without attribution, for many years. If I knew the author, I would give credit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Scrap Paper

As I’ve written earlier (read it HERE), one of my favorite choral “desk jobs” is editing my choral scores from the “edit masters” provided by my favorite choral director. Digital copies (pdfs) of the scores, annotated with the director’s instructions for breathing, interpretive dynamics, divisi assignments, etc., are made available online at the start of each choral project. Because I prefer to work from paper copies rather than from the on-screen images, I print out the edit masters and copy the marks from them into my scores.

Because copyright law prohibits my keeping the printouts permanently, I turn them into scrap paper, cutting the 8 ½ x 11 sheets into quarters, just the right size for shopping lists, book marks, and phone messages. I keep a stack of these little sheets in a kitchen drawer.

This makes for some interesting déjà vu moments.

When I grab a piece of paper from this little pile, I turn it over to see – and hear! – a fragment of whatever’s printed there.

Each little scrap, with its few measures from a musical score, represents a brief glorious moment of beautiful music. In recent days, I’ve picked up snippets of the Verdi Requiem, Handel’s Messiah, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the “Laudamus te” duet from Vivaldi’s Gloria (from last summer’s duet with Jane).

Sometimes the little scrap provides an amusing or startling commentary or aside to whatever task I've assigned to it. This morning, I finished reading Robert Lobdell's book Losing My Religion, his memoir of his journey from evangelical Christianity to atheism.* As I closed the book, I realized that the scrap I had been using for a bookmark contained a portion of Handel's Messiah, from Chorus 46 (Since by Man Came Death): "Even so in Christ shall all be made alive." A wonderfully incongruous coincidence.

Here's my review of Losing My Religion:

Monday, August 10, 2009


The other day, during a visit to the website of a local classical music performing organization, I couldn’t help but notice the following:

The ensemble is promoting its fall season, which features works by Schubert and C.P.E. Bach. But ... the primary image on the site (aside from a photo of the ensemble) is a photo of a bust of Beethoven. And a large “Beethoven” is very prominent, in a larger font than the type used for the name of the ensemble.

The organization is a choral ensemble. But ... The background image on the home page features a picture of instrumental sheet music: Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, No. 2.

So…the choral ensemble that is preparing to sing Schubert and C.P.E. Bach is promoting itself with images of Beethoven and an instrumental score of music by Chopin.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

As Near to Infinite as Anything in This World

.Why We Sing, Part VI

As a chorister and as one who writes about choral singing, I’m always interested in understanding more about our communal attraction to the choral arts and to music as a whole. Here’s a compelling statement of faith from eminent program annotator Michael Steinberg, who died just last week.

“…That in the end the only study of music is music, that program notes and pre-concert talks are helpful ways of showing you the door in the wall and of turning on some extra lights, but that the only thing that matters is what happens privately between you and the music. That, as with any other form of falling in love, no one can do it for you, and no one can draw you a map. That listening to music is not like getting a haircut or a manicure, that it is something for you to do. That music, like any worthwhile partner in love, is demanding, sometimes exasperatingly, exhaustingly demanding… That its capacity to give is as near to infinite as anything in this world, and that what it offers us is always and inescapably in exact proportion to what we ourselves give.”

Michael Steinberg, For the Love of Music: Invitations to Listening (2005), p.10

Friday, August 7, 2009

Spiritual Chiropracty

Why We Sing, Part V
As a chorister and as one who writes about choral singing, I’m always interested in understanding more about our communal attraction to the choral arts and to music as a whole. Here’s an excerpt from a welcome address to freshman at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director of music division at that institution.
Serious music…has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. … Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. … Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.” … Music is not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.

… Being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevies. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well. … Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do.

Please take a few minutes to read the entire speech here:

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"How Strange and Godlike"

.Why We Sing, Part IV

As a chorister and as one who writes about choral singing, I’m always interested in understanding more about how music moves us and re-creates in us the longings of our entire race. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, describing Tess’s reaction to the ancient music she hears in church one morning. Though rejected by her neighbors, she feels a certain connection to the long-dead composer whose music thrills her senses.

In the course of a few weeks Tess revived sufficiently to show herself so far as was necessary to get to church one Sunday morning. She liked to hear the chanting – such as it was – and the old Psalms, and to join in the Morning Hymn. That innate love of melody, which she had inherited from her ballad-singing mother, gave the simplest music a power over her which could well-nigh drag her heart out of her bosom at times.

To be as much out of observation as possible for reasons of her own, and to escape the gallantries of the young men, she set out before the chiming began, and took a back seat under the gallery, close to the lumber, where only old men and women came, and where the bier stood on end among the churchyard tools.

Parishioners dropped in by twos and threes, deposited themselves in rows before her, rested three-quarters of a minute on their foreheads as if they were praying, though they were not; then sat up, and looked around. When the chants came on one of her favourites happened to be chosen among the rest – the old double chant "Langdon" – but she did not know what it was called, though she would much have liked to know. She thought, without exactly wording the thought, how strange and godlike was a composer's power, who from the grave could lead through sequences of emotion, which he alone had felt at first, a girl like her who had never heard of his name, and never would have a clue to his personality.


Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), Chapter 8

Learn more about the tune "langdon" here:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

An Art Which is A Part of Infinity Itself

Why We Sing, Part III
As a chorister and as one who writes about choral singing, I’m always interested in understanding more about our communal attraction to the choral arts and to music as a whole. Here’s an excerpt from a speech given by American composer Howard Hanson in 1936 at the Eastman School of Music, in which he articulates the place in our lives of music, which he so aptly calls “an art which is part of infinity itself.”
“Music has a strange physiological and psychological power. We rediscover music not only as a tremendous emotional force in the lives of men but as a sociological force in education. We realize that these simple vibrations which proceed from the elastic string of the violin are potent, potent both for good and ill. We ponder upon the intricacies of the human mind and the unfathomed depths of the human soul. We salute music not as an abstract art but as a great social force. We call upon ourselves to utilize this force for the benefit of mankind. We call upon the spirit of beauty to make clean our hearts that we may be fit servants of so great an art... a divinely great art. We study an art which is a part of infinity itself. It is tangible, it is intangible. It is science, it is art. It is emotion, it is intellect. It is a part of society, yet it carries us to heights where we exist for a moment in the fearful and awesome isolation of interplanetary space. It calls for our deepest emotional development, the greatest use of our intellectual powers and a supreme devotion to beauty–”


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Singing Improves Children’s Lives and Futures

Why We Sing, Part II

As a chorister and as one who writes about choral singing, I’m always interested in understanding more about our communal attraction to the choral arts. Here’s some interesting information about children’s involvement in choral singing, taken almost verbatim from a news release issued by Chorus America in June, 2009. In an earlier post (HERE), I shared the portions of the study having to do with adult choristers. Here’s the good news about choral singing for children:
According to a new study by Chorus America, an estimated 32.5 million American adults regularly sing in at least one of 270,000 choruses nationwide, up from the 23.5 million estimated in 2003. And when children are included, there are 42.6 million Americans singing in choruses in 2009. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.

That’s good news because singing in one of the 270,000 choruses in the U.S., such as a community chorus or a school or church choir, is strongly correlated with qualities that are associated with success throughout life, the study finds. Greater civic involvement, discipline, and teamwork are just a few of the attributes fostered by singing with a choral ensemble.

The 2009 study included a new component that explicitly examined the effects choral singing has on childhood development. The results show children who sing in choirs display many of the enhanced social skills found in adult singers, substantiating earlier conclusions that singing in childhood is likely to have an enormous influence on the choices individuals make later in life. Additionally, both parents and educators attribute a significant proportion of a child's academic success to singing in a choir.

Children who sing in choruses have academic success and valuable life skills. Several of the study's major findings for young singers include:

♪ Approximately 10.1 million American children sing in choruses today.

♪ The majority of parents surveyed believe multiple skills increased after their child joined a chorus. Seventy-one percent say their child has become more self-confident, 70% say their child's self-discipline has improved, and 69% state their child's memory skills have improved.

♪ More than 80% of educators surveyed—across multiple academic disciplines—agree with parent assessments that choir participation can enhance numerous aspects of a child's social development and academic success. Educators also observe that children who sing are better participants in group activities, have better emotional expression, and exhibit better emotional management.

♪ 90% of educators believe singing in a choir can keep some students engaged in school who might otherwise be lost—this is particularly true of educators (94%) who describe the ethnicity of their schools as diverse.

♪ Children who participate in a chorus get significantly better grades than children who have never sung in a choir. Forty-five percent of parents whose children sing state their child receives “all or mostly A's” in mathematics (vs. 38% of non-choir parents) and 54% get “all or mostly A's” in English and other language arts classes (vs. 43%).

A conclusion of the 2003 study was that choral singing is an accessible entry point for arts exposure, with fewer barriers—economic, cultural, and educational—than posed by other art forms. This is still true today, suggesting that the decrease in choral singing opportunities in schools and communities is a missed opportunity for bolstering student achievement and engagement in their schools.

Here’s a link to the full report:

Monday, August 3, 2009

Communal Expression, Creation, and Performance

Why We Sing, Part I

As a chorister and as one who writes about choral singing, I’m always interested in understanding more about our communal attraction to the choral arts. Here’s some interesting information, taken almost verbatim from a news release issued by Chorus America in June 2009:
According to a recent study by Chorus America, an estimated 32.5 million American adults regularly sing in at least one of 270,000 choruses nationwide, up from the 23.5 million estimated in 2003. And when children are included, there are 42.6 million Americans singing in choruses in 2009. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children.

That’s good news, because singing in one of the 270,000 choruses in the U.S., such as a community chorus or a school or church choir, is strongly correlated with qualities that are associated with success throughout life, the study finds. Greater civic involvement, discipline, and teamwork are just a few of the attributes fostered by singing with a choral ensemble.

Chorus America first evaluated the benefits of choral singing and its impact on communities in a 2003 study. The results from this latest research support and advance earlier findings that choral singers exhibit increased social skills, civic involvement, volunteerism, philanthropy, and support of other art forms, when compared with non-singers.

A few of the current study’s major findings for adult singers include:

♪ Choral singers exhibit higher levels of civic involvement, with choristers almost 3 times more likely to be officers or committee members of local community organizations such as the PTA.

♪ 78% of choral singers indicated they “at least sometimes” volunteer their time in their communities, while only 50% of the general public say the same.

♪ 74% of choral singers agree or strongly agree that singing in a chorus has helped them become better team leaders or team participants in other areas of their lives; nearly two-thirds agree or strongly agree that being in a chorus has helped them socialize better in other areas of their lives.

♪ Choral singers donate 2.5 times more money to philanthropic organizations than the general public.

♪ 96% of choral singers surveyed who are eligible voters said they vote regularly in national and local elections; only 70% of the general public cites the same level of participation.

♪ Civic engagement also extends to patronage of other art forms, with choral singers at least 2 times more likely to attend theater, opera, and orchestra performances as well as visit museums and art galleries.

A large percentage of the American population appears to be drawn to choral singing and the desire to participate in the communal expression, creation, and performance of beautiful music. Whatever motivates choral singers to sing, the data indicates that choral singing is a thriving and growing form of artistic expression in America, and can be acknowledged not just for providing great musical performances, but for advancing many of the positive qualities associated with success in life both for children and adults.

Here’s a link to the full report:

Chorus America also looked at the effect of choral singing in children’s lives, and I’ll share those findings in another essay here.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Here We Go ’Round the Mulberry Bush

In our backyard, a large mulberry tree provides food and shelter for a variety of birds and animals. Now, in early August, the plump berries are almost gone, but in June and July they were thick on the branches and attracted a rainbow of avian visitors.

During the few weeks that the berries are ripening, the tree is alive with birds: the Baltimore Orioles, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Robins, Grackles, Catbirds, Woodpeckers (Downy, Hairy, Red-Bellied, and sometimes Flicker), Goldfinches and the occasional Scarlet Tanager and Rose-Breasted Grosbeak light up the old mulberry like a Christmas tree. Gray squirrels, hanging by their back toes as they feed, grow increasingly plump as they days and weeks go by. Occasionally one of them will lose its grip and fall clumsily to a lower branch, where it calmly resumes stuffing its little face.

Some of these birds also visit nearby feeders; the resulting diet – suet, seeds, insects, and mulberries – strikes me as a sort of avian pemmican.