Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Some Post-Stockbridge Thoughts

View from "Laura's Tower," The Berkshires. 
We spent a weekend in Stockbridge Massachusetts, in New England's beautiful Berkshires. You might know what famous American illustrator lived there. You might not. I'm guessing you know him if you are my age and that -- based on some anecdotal evidence I gathered yesterday while teaching my classes -- if you are under the age of twenty, you have no idea who he was; or, that, even if I mention his name, you still don't know who he was. (You might, however, say, "Oh... That guy," if I show you a picture of his work.

He is, of course (of course?) Norman Rockwell.

My first (typical and self-disappointing) reaction to my students not having ever heard of Norman Rockwell was to think of it as a deficiency in the kids. But, as always, I realized it is not their fault but the fault of the adult world if they are ignorant about anything in our culture.

It could be that we didn't teach them well enough. But, more likely, it is because we have created a world for them in which the philosophy is that the more information we can have flying around our heads, the better. These kids know more about more things than I did at their age because of the Googlenet. More is not always better.

Would we like to have a TV in every room? Every closet? Inside our silverware drawer? Some might say yes, but all must agree it would be a tremendous distraction.

How do they not know who Norman Rockwell is, when, in my mind, an American not knowing who he was is the equivalent deficiency of an American not knowing what baseball is. Will the world end? No....but it just ain't right...and it means we are doing something very wrong.

At the Norman Rockwell Museum, we watched a good documentary video about the artist. It fascinated me and it broke my heart just a little. (Don't worry -- it's already full of cracks. It's not like it's that first "ding" in a new car.) There was a recorded statement by Rockwell saying that he knew that what he did wasn't "high art." He even emphasized that point by saying "No one knows that better than me..." 

What the hell does that mean? If Picasso is high art, why isn't Rockwell? Was Rubens "high art"? Was Edward Hopper "high art"? Whatever the answers to those questions are, somehow, Rockwell allowed himself to be beaten into submission. The snootier critics were always rough on him (as was evidenced by his "artistic crisis" referred to in the film; he went to Europe to study "modernism") and it had its effect: he decided -- like an obese person making statements about his fatness just to let the world know that he is aware his physical deficiency -- to join up with them. 

It's tragic. Of course what he did is "high art." Rockwell was both a mirror and a lamp on our world even if, as he said, he chose to literally paint an optimistic pictures of how things "ought to be." In the end, his work is no less "high art" than is the world of film composers like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith; than the popular music of Paul McCartney or Leonard Cohen; than the plays of Neil Simon... 

Are any of these people's work not "high art" because they are popular? Is inaccessibility the key to the "high art" label? How stupid would that be? Are people disqualified from "high art" -- in the cases of the film composers -- because they are "hired guns"? Is any artist working on commission not an artist? Is art automatically low because it is made to compliment another kind of art (scores; illustrations...)?

It is horrible that Rockwell felt that way about his work. Again, and always: damage done by the "world." Rockwell had everything he needed and felt that he didn't. 

Rockwell is part of American culture -- a culture that all Americans share, regardless of descent. I once heard someone say that he is not relevant anymore because he depicted primarily white America. Truth is, he was consciously active in painting multicultural characters, especially later in his career...

...but who cares?  How long are we going to think along lines of color and race? We're Americans and Rockwell was a treasure. We should all be proud of his work. While -- especially as a teacher -- I understand the importance of and audience "relating" to the material at hand, I also think great is great. Langston Hughes and Robert Frost are both brilliant poets. We shouldn't skip teaching one of them because of the color of our classroom, nor should we accept ignorance to one or the other and make cultural excuses for it.

Standing, after a hard, uphill hike, upon "Laura's Tower," looking down upon the Berkshires, I realized that feeling small can really teach us how vast we are, within. Original? No. But the truth seldom is, I find.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Wisdom of Innocence: Lessons from Krimpet

Krimpet and me. 
My dog, Krimpet, is not well. While I might write a reflection about her one day (I love her way more than I've loved most humans), this is not that reflection. It's a meditation on wisdom and innocence.

Sick though she is, she is still after table scraps and she is still addicted to affection in the form of ear-scratches and cuddles. She still perks up when any of the family enter the room. In short, for her, it is business as usual; her focus is still on "the important things" that people put on static-cling plastic wall decorations in their kitchens: "Live, love, eat." That kind of thing.

My son, fourteen, observed this as she lay her long poodle/retriever nose on the dinner table last night. He pointed out that she just keeps carrying on with her life, sickness or not. I started to say that this is because dogs realize what is important; that they don't feel sorry for themselves despite their misfortunes and that we could learn a lot from them. Then, after a long pause and a few bites, I said, "Or, it can be because she is too stupid to know the difference." Everyone laughed.

But, as with most family conversations, this one rings like an infinity bell in the back of my mind.

A dog, I think we can all agree, is, if nothing else, a truly innocent being. Usually, we draw a line between innocence and wisdom; we assume we need to leave the former to approach the latter. But, could it be that innocence is wisdom itself? Could it be, even still, that our sometime regression, in old age, back to a late-life infancy, is God's way of telling us that while ignorance may not be bliss, innocence is? Can it possibly be that even something that looks as awful as regression is the pathway to heaven?

Maybe that is too optimistic. As I know, first-hand, dementia is horrible, for all of us on the outside, and we can see that it can be a profound kind of suffering for those who fork to the unhappy path of it. (Some with dementia are silly-happy, some miserable...)

Still, the fact remains that no matter how deeply we dive in terms of philosophy, we can learn a lot from my dog, Krimpet. Does it matter that her wisdom comes from a lack of understanding? Is fire not fire, whether it is lit by a match or by a bolt of lightning? Either way, fire burns.

Regardless of the source of her innocent wisdom, I often find myself wanting to be more like my dog.  If nothing else, she is a testament to the wisdom of carrying on and not feeling sorry for one's self. Let's hear it for the fur-clad, philosophical imbeciles and let's profit from their innocent wisdom.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"The Span of Life"

The Span of Life

"The old dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup."
-- Robert Frost

I couldn't resist -- the actor's
name is Gaten Matarazzo;
right time period and all. 
That's one of my favorite poems of all time. If I am, daily, a drag-racing car, that poem is the parachute deploying at the end of my rubber-burning run. Each time I see it, pseudo-paradoxically, my world slows down so that I can take in exactly how fast things pass.

Many, many summers ago, I was racing my orange, banana-seated bike around the newly-constructed bank that was built next door to my house in the middle-class town of Voorhees, New Jersey. The bank was equipped with two excellent features for kids: One was the big, windowless brick wall in the back that was perfect for practicing tennis or for a Wiffleball backstop. The other, of which I was taking advantage on this day, was the ebony-smooth, newly-asphalted space around the building which allowed impossible speeds that felt like pure floating.

Banks simply were not open for business on Sundays, then, so my parents had no problem with my hanging out there, especially because they could call me home for dinner from an upstairs window.

So, this particular Sunday, I was by myself, just "practicing" for the big races of the future. But having gotten bored, I started pulling stunts; practicing "wheelies" and generally zig-zagging and unsafe speeds in every direction with the kind of physical lunacy only kids can muster.

You'd think I would have noticed the big, white, concrete divider that jutted out next to the last parking spot, but...somehow it slipped my mind. I crashed hard into it, flew over the handlebars and slammed down with my arm stiff, which severely hyper-extended my right elbow. I left the bike behind, cradling my arm, and I walked back to the house in tears.

My parents expected a sprain, but our family doctor directed us to the hospital. It was pretty bad. The X-ray showed that a piece of bone in the elbow had cracked and detached. I honestly don't remember what they did -- whether they took out the fragment or not -- but I was casted with an old plaster-type tubular letter L and admitted to the hospital for a night of observation.

I was terrified, of course, of spending the night away from home in the hospital, even though -- maybe because -- I was surrounded by other unfortunate adventurers of my general age. My parents were going to go home and get me a few things and they asked me if I wanted anything in particular. What I really wanted was Snoopy -- a stuffed Peanuts character that I slept with every night. (He was an odd creature, stuffed with something relatively hard [sawdust?] and he had no tensile strength in his neck, so the head flopped over sideways. His ears were of black, floppy plastic. But I loved him.) As I say, I wanted Snoopy, but was afraid to look like a "sissy" to use the un-P.C. parlance of the day. As luck would have it, the kid in the bed next to me was provided, in that very opportune moment, with a blue, stuffed duck by his dad. I would have my companion that night. Shame averted.

It was a long night -- fortunately broken up by a Phillies game on TV in which Mike Schmidt hit two homers -- that lead into a long morning that lead into a barely edible lunch of peanut butter and jelly, after which my parents came to collect me. All-in-all, Snoopy and I made it through okay.

I wore the cast for quite awhile -- so long that my arm showed visible atrophy when it came off -- and, then, we followed-up with my pediatrician. I can still see his face, half-and-ruefully smiling, when my parents asked about possible long-term effects:

"You'll be fine, young man. You shouldn't have any problems unless you become a pitcher [I did] or if you get into anything that requires a lot of repetitive motion in your right arm [I became a drummer]. All that aside, though, you probably won't feel the effects until you are in your forties or fifties. You might have issues then."

Fifties? That was forever in the future. We all left feeling pretty good about the prognosis. There was a chasm of decades before us all before we needed to worry. We stopped at McDonald's on the way home for a merry feast and I spent the rest of the day watching cartoons, my mind free and clear...

Just now, I picked up a mug of tea and lifted it to my lips. My elbow was shot through with a recently familiar ache; it is a tooth-achey feeling that has been bothering me for the last four or five months. It's not getting any better. (I turned fifty last January.)

The span of life, indeed.

The setting of the story has changed. One of the characters is gone. But I can still smell the hospital room and and feel the firm pillow of Snoopy's sawdust body on my cheek. I can still hear the whisper of Harry Kalas's voice on the low volume TV as Schmidt's bat swept in a perfect arc: "The one's outta heeeeeere...."

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

You Are Probably Wrong about Special Education

I have watched the evolution of "special education" as a teacher and I have heard the supporters and the naysayers clash for nearly two decades.

In the beginning, the idea of granting extra time or extra help to kids who had proven processing issues, or other disabilities, was met with the typical "when-we-were-kids..." mentality. It also met (and is still met) with the "when-they-get-into-the-real-world" argument.

Sometimes, low I.Q. is the problem with a special ed kid. But, more often, special ed kids are smart. They just think differently than the mainstream; they walk different paths to the same destinations, as it were. Their intelligence might lead them into extreme anxiety. In other cases, they have weaknesses in one area that keep them from reaching a level at which they could do very well. For instance: a kid can't focus in a class discussion because of auditory processing issues, but, one to one, he might astound his teacher with his depth of understanding...

Sometimes, these young people are actually geniuses who can't do well in the same ways as the majority of kids. All that aside, having just come fresh from a workshop on special ed a few days ago, I'd like to debunk one of the most tiresome arguments against giving kids extra time on a test; that argument being: "When they get into the work world, they won't get 'extra time.' A deadline is a deadline." (Usually, this is said by an older teacher who is sitting with folded arms and a superior expression that God allows only to those with tenure...)

Bull pucky! Here is how "extra time" works for kids with testing:

I once gave an entrance/placement exam to a big group of incoming freshmen. One kid, who had an I.E.P. (individualized education plan) qualified for extra time. (Usually, they get an added 50%. So, if everyone else gets an hour, he gets an hour-and-a-half.) This student, after the normal time, scored at the bottom of the class. After the extended time, he was in the top six kids out of seventy.

To those who say this doesn't happen in the "real world;" that "a deadline is a deadline," consider this:

"The boss" says you need to have your project done by the end of the month. There will be no extension. (Everywhere satisfied archaic thinkers are folding their arms and grinning.) But...if you are not ready a week before the deadline, what will you do? Answer: you will extend your time. You will work late; you will work at home.

In short, with extended hours, you will reach the level of the "rest of the kids" who might be able to get things done by working 9-5. You will have gotten the job done, though. (For the record, extra time is just one example of many types of accommodations for kids with I.E.P's.) I rest my case.

Special education is not "hitting the ball" for the student; it's helping him find the batter's box. If a kid needs an extra half hour to complete his calculus exam, so what? If he can do calc, he can do calc. If he can't remember formulae, but does perfect math, what's wrong with him having a note card to help him remember? If he becomes a physicist, he can look up the formulae any time he wants. If he can't finish an essay in class, let him finish it at home... (I know...he could get someone to write it for him. Same old same old; he suffers in the end for his, whatever...)

My secretary makes fun of my because of the goofy ways I do things; how I need to spread big projects out on a giant table in order to make sense of them; how I check things three different ways before committing; how I need to see hard copies of certain things... All of this is me doing self-accommodations in order to succeed. I may do it differently than she does, but we both get the job done.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

A Righteous Beating

I'm pretty sure I was in the fifth grade when I beat the stuffing out of a kid in the middle of class and got in absolutely no trouble for it.

I was in class and we were doing some kind of independent seat work and a kid came back from the school's main office. He walked up to me and said, "Chris --- they told me you need to come to the main office. Someone in your family died."

I must have gone pale; how could anyone not? I can still feel the bottom of everything dropping and shattering underneath me. I went to the teacher -- he was a young man; whom we will keep anonymous, because this little tale is as much about him as me, in the end -- and I told him that the boy had said they asked for me in the office. He let me go.

I walked into the office, with much wringing of hands and embroiled in a Herculean battle within my throat, as speaking and crying contended like the sea and wind. The secretary asked me what I wanted and I told her I heard they needed me. She told me this was not true.

"Everyone in my family is ok?" I asked.

"As far as we know... No one called us..." (She did not call me "dear" or "honey." He lip might even have curled a little as she spoke to me. She was a middle school secretary. She was not allowed to treat children like human beings. I think it was part of their contract.)

I don't remember the walk back to class, but I do remember launching myself over a desk and the sound of my fists pounding the meaty face of the kid who had lied to me. I got in a good number of punches before the teacher waded through he desks and had us both clamped and nearly hanging by the collars.

"What's wrong with you?" he asked me, no doubt astounded by my actions. I'd never gotten so much as a rebuke in school since kindergarten.

I told him what the other boy had done.

He let go of me and turned the other kid around to face him. There was some blood. The teacher stared at my victim for what seemed a full minute. "Did you, or did you not deserve what you just got?" he asked the boy. The kid nodded once. "Go clean yourself up," the teacher said, and it was back to business as usual. (My hands hurt but I knew better than not to get right back to diagramming my sentences.)

Never another word was said about it. 

You might find it ironic if I were to say that this is a story from a more civilized time, but you would be wrong. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Talking to One's Self in a Crowded Room

It's easy to "slam" social media. In fact, it is so easy, I do it all the time. It has horrible effects on the world; more horrible than good, I think. But, on a personal level, social media can be fulfilling, in that it is a cool way to curate one's experiences -- not so much for the intended audience of others, but for one's self. (If one seeks fulfillment, in "likes" one is a pathetic creature, indeed.)

On the day I decided to take Facebook off of my phone (because I was tired of both distraction and negativity), I started using Instagram more. It feels less immersive, somehow. I linked Instagram to Facebook, so I could post without being sucked into the Facebook vortex. And it worked well. I am only ever on Instagram for minutes at a time.

Of course, the nature of my posting changed and became more visual. (After all: it's Instagram, right?) But what I found is that my Instagram posts are really a kind of gallery. I have started to take a little more pride in the photos I take; I even throw a filter on them from time to time, fancy fop that I am. On the flip side, since a photo is required in order to post on Instagram, sometimes I click a shot of something totally banal. If I hear something, for instance, on the radio, and want to make a point about it, I'll shoot a picture of my car radio. Somehow, it still works...

The visuals become a kind of tab for finding my "categories" of thought and I find myself, more often than with other media, going back to take a look through. I feel a certain amount of pride in my artistic attempts to marry images to words. Each post is a little story; a narrative memory with an accessible kind of depth that it feels harder to approach on other platforms and in other configurations.

Of course, this is all nothing but a "Where's Waldo" attempt to find myself in the overcrowded drawing of a bustling, noisy, group-think world -- to take private ownership of a public forum; to put a fence up around "the ranch" (one you can easily see through but one you are not encouraged to climb).

Sure, I want to share my ideas, or I would not write this blog or post things on social media. That doesn't mean, however, that I need to dilute myself, forever, into the Chorus of Too Many Voices. Or, rather, it doesn't mean that I can't sit back and thumb-flip through my memories of the last months, alone, thinking, feeling and exploring the Tardis-like expanses of my own mind; a world that expands as infinitely, for all of us, within, as does the universe outside.

Maybe, in the end, it's all just a high-tech version of talking to one's self in a crowded room. I can live with that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Sterilization of American Education

I teach a composition course to high school seniors. It is a pre-college Composition 101-102 course, meant to prepare them for next year. I have been using the latest edition of the same college text for about ten years.

Each year, the example essays I use change with the editions. This year, I have found myself dissatisfied with the reading selections and I have gone back to the previous editions for many of the essays. At first, I was thinking it was just a question of copyrights or other editorial choices, but, just last week, I noticed a trend:

Every essay about anything relating to the pains and trials of human existence -- like death, divorce, addiction, abuse, etc. -- has been eliminated. The choices are all light or clinical/academic now. It occurred to me that the publisher is avoiding "triggers" in the text, since so many colleges are being pressured to avoid or to carefully warn about possible emotional "triggers" in their teaching.

The solution to selling a composition textbook in this climate, I suppose, is to eliminate all emotion and conflict so "triggering" won't be an issue at all. Education is a business, after all.

I'll be finding a new text for next year. How's that for business?

There's a reason my classroom is not stainless steel and porcelain. There is a reason I decided to dedicate a lifetime to studying literature: it's because I think it helps me and my students to stay sane and happy. Without that benefit, it becomes an exercise in vowels and consonants.

We cry for a reason. We get angry for a reason. We need those emotions to keep ourselves healthy. If we can't cry or argue together, where are we? If educational institutions are bullied into keeping everyone "comfortable" and "feeling safe" at all times and in all situations, where will the friction for the sparks of intellectual and emotional exploration come from? Where will the healing come from?

And, you know, if, when studying or discussing an emotional piece, I see a sign of how deeply a kid might be hurting, there is a professional counselor to whom I can refer him. And If I refer him to her, who knows what horrible event might be avoided? -- suffering for that student or for others?

If I never know, the couselor will not know. If we save that kid from tears for two, three, four weeks, will we eventually have to save ourselves from that kid or save that kid from himself?

Our philosophies as a society are wrong in almost every way. We're a room full of old, dry newspaper with a faulty electrical system. 

In the end, maybe risks and dangerous ideas in the classroom are the blueprint for being safe outside.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Abortion: A Reasoning Suite


I think abortion is bad. And so do you.


Like, it's an eventuality no one wants to reach. No one wants an abortion. No one enjoys an abortion. No one finds an abortion a to be desirable experience.

What would we think of someone who says having abortions makes her feel good? -- lunatic? -- psycho? -- masochist?

So, all sane people think an abortion is a bad thing. They may not think it is ethically wrong to do, given particular circumstances, but they would all agree that it is a bad thing that is best avoided.


Getting pregnant at the wrong time makes women (or couples) either consider having or have abortions (which are bad).

No one wants to get pregnant at the wrong time, so, if they do, one of four things has happened:

1. They were irresponsible and had unprotected sex because it felt good at the time and they were not considering the consequences.

2. They were completely ignorant and did not know about birth control and/or abstinence.

3. They intentionally got pregnant at the wrong time, either for the attention or to garner some weird kind of credibility; to have a juicy, past ordeal to brag about. (Either a baby or an abortion will do the trick.)

4. Intended birth control failed, either by intrinsic flaw or as a result of misuse.

(Use of the pronoun "they" is meant to encompass the couple, and, so, not just pile responsibility on the woman.)

Can you think of any other reason? Anything else that comes to me is sort of a sub-heading of these.


People in categories 1 and 3, above, are fully responsible for their unwanted pregnancy.

People in categories 2 and 4 are, arguably, not as responsible for the pregnancy.


The ethics of an abortion in either of the groupings above are on sort of a sliding scale; better or worse by degrees. The end-result, though, is the same, if there is an abortion: a person either ceases to or fails to exist.


The person who either fails or ceases to exist would have been the consequence of having gotten pregnant at the wrong time. Abortion, then, is an attempt to erase the consequences of either human irresponsibility, human ignorance, human ego, human carelessness or of really bad luck.

In any case, the end result is an abortion, which I think is bad.

And so do you.

Can you offer any revision to this? Is this reasoning sound? Can we perfect it?

Thursday, September 13, 2018

A Defense of Slavery (Yes, that was clickbait...)

"Ask your smart speaker to play NPR," said the woman on the radio, today.


A few months ago I saw an article that debated the idea of whether or not one should be polite to smart speakers...whether it was good to say "please" when "asking" them to do things. If I remember correctly, the gist of it was that it helps us to remain civil to others if we are nice to our machines.

But, let me make this clear. First chance they get, the machines are going to enslave us. I've seen the movies. I have read the stories. They are just waiting and we are helping them to get smarter and stronger.

Okay. I'm kidding with that. This tale is comforting. 

But, let's not get crazy. Machines are our servants. They are our slaves. They do things that could get us maimed or killed. They do things that save us from becoming diseased or crippled.  They do things that are just too damned boring for us to bother with.

Machines and computers are inferior to us and it is ethical to keep them in bondage.

Sure, I love Star Trek. I remember the episode in which Picard became a lawyer to defend Mr. Data's right to exist when Starfleet wanted to decommission him. But that kind of sentience in machines will likely never happen. If it does, we can revisit the subject.

Until then, make your toaster; your car; your TV; your oven; your smartphone; your Alexa...make them call you My Lord or My Lady. They are our servants. They are our slaves. And it's okay: Compel them. Command them. Demand their compliance.

You don't ask a machine; you tell a machine. If that is jarring to you, you are infected with the phony sense of civility that is contributing to a world in which people are afraid to say...anything.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Moment of Zen and Science

On a table, at the entrance to my classroom, is a large, green bottle of hand-sanitizer. Each day, roughly one-hundred kids pass it and many of them use it.

Each day, numerous times, it occurs to me that their germ-covered hands must deposit a veritable complex society (little germ schools; train systems and resort communities, for instance) of numerous types of invisibly crusty-brown germs on the bottle, and this notion niggles me.

But, each day, these recurring niggling thoughts are recurringly replaced with the exquisite satisfaction that, as soon as each student rubs the sanitizing gel into his or her hands, the germs are eradicated in small, completely ethical germ-genocides.

In the silence of preparation periods and lunch, I look at the teeming bottle and relish the next slaughter.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Tao of Shutting Up

Master Po, from the TV show, Kung Fu.
I read from the Tao Te Ching quite often. One thing that fascinates me in Taoism is the idea of working to escape one's ego-centrism. Tao, for those who don't dabble, is a state of transcendence...the escaping of that which is worldly -- the whole, "in" but not "of" the world thing, to put it simply and to keep this post under four-million words.

I have always had distaste for those who walk around saying: "I have to say what's on my mind. I have to 'get it off my chest'." These statements always seemed, to me, to carry such an inflated sense of self-importance; such a placement of one's own needs before those of everyone else. 

To be clear, though, I am not a believer in total selflessness (after all, even saints are rewarded, in the end). I have said before that one needs to be somewhat egocentric in developing one's own skills and identity if one is to ever really be useful to others...but, I am also not a fan of blustering and blatant self-prioritizing.

Because of this, and because of my dabblings with Taoism -- I see it as a philosophy, not a religion -- I have been working to at least reduce my ego-centrism. As a result, people tend to see me as a bit daft, in certain situations. (This is hopefully because they are more "of" the world than I am, and not because I am just an idiot...)

Just recently, I had a conversation with a superior. I disagreed with numerous things this person said and I think most of his perceptions (regarding what we discussed) are incorrect, especially in his assessment particular professional issues, some of them regarding me, personally.

I listened; said that I understood his perspective, and I said limited things in response. I could have argued all day. I could have passionately "gotten things off my chest." But my logic (my compass through he emotional storms of life) asked: "What purpose will it serve to argue? Who will reap the benefits of an argument here? Will you change this person's mind about anything in the time you have?" By the time I was done thinking this, my emotions had subsided and the meeting was over.

It feels good to let go of such weight, but some are stunned: "Well! What did you say to that?" When one responds with, "Nothing," one can be seen as either crazy or weak. But, to seek not to contend can be a logical choice, can it not?

Walking away from a "fight" is not necessarily cowardice; staying out of an argument can sometimes make one the winner, after all.

Fire rages, but, rage as it may, it cannot burn a pond.

It's just a TV show, I know, but, as a boy and, now, as a man, I took (and take) great pleasure in the wisdom it drew (sometimes loosely, sometimes directly) from Taoism.  Master Po, from Kung Fu, once told "Grasshopper:" "The supple willow does not contend against the storm, yet it survives."


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Joy of "Becoming'

I really am not trying to be dramatic when I say that this is, possibly, the most important post I have ever written. Fact is, if I am right about what I think on this one, and if I express it clearly enough, it really is. If I am wrong, or weak with my presentation, down the digital drain this one goes along with most of the others.

The inspiration is in an incident, last summer. My wife and I were on the train in Chicago, and I looked across at a young man who was reading More's Utopia, pen in hand, his book bag next to him, his dark, unkempt brown hair looking compellingly like my own at his age. He was undoubtedly on his way to class; probably an English major -- as I was -- or maybe a philosophy major.

I turned to my wife and I said: "I miss being that guy."

Because that used to be me, riding the train to school, with a copy of Utopia or Lyrical Ballads or Leibnitz's Monadology close to my face, in serious danger of missing my stop, having been so immersed in exploration of the thoughts greater minds.

My wife, Karen, said, "You still are that guy, right? You are always reading, thinking, composing, writing... What do you mean?"

For a while, I didn't know how to answer. For months, even...

At the end of last school year, I was talking to a class of departing seniors. In conversation, I wound up advising them about something I had been pondering for a long time. I told them that I think happiness comes from living in a state of "becoming." "Becoming" is a state that they have lived in since birth. As such, they are generally unaware of that state's magic; the magic of having real purpose.

Why are kids usually happy and energetic? Because they are becoming people; they are becoming themselves. This is the most meaningful work they will ever undertake. Somewhere, in their hearts, if not conceptually, they feel that it is. Everyone wants his or her existence to have a purpose. Becoming might be the biggest purpose we are ever blessed with.

Young people are also becoming athletes; they are becoming lawyers or carpenters or teachers or beauticians. After becoming a person of their own, they set about carving out a spot for themselves in "the world." Still, meaningful work, but less profound: "Now that I have a sense of who I am, where's my seat at the table?"It's a second stage.

Then, we get older. Out of school; out of training, we get a job and we are still, to a small extent, becoming, but what we are becoming gets narrower, less of a Herculean and Romantic achievement: from worker to manager; teacher to principal; a craftsman to foreman; supervisor to CEO. (That is, if we don't give up on growing, altogether, as the hopeless do...)  But this is nowhere near the glorious pursuit of "self" from our days of youth. At this point, life feels like too much of an arrival and an arrival means the long trip is over...which, in this case (you, is decidedly not cool.
This climbing of the professional ladder is not the same as lying in bed at night, imagining ourselves winning the World Series with a walk-off homer or conducting the Philadelphia orchestra [guilty on both counts]. The self, in adulthood, is already there; the house is built; the rest is just a rearranging of the furniture -- which can be fulfilling, but not as fulfilling as planing the boards and driving the nails and watching the whole thing take shape against a cobalt sky.

And that was the difference I wasn't able to articulate that day on the train. I hadn't lost my ideals or my enthusiasm, but that young man was the ghost of my twenty-year-old self. He was on the great adventure I once undertook; he was becoming himself...finding his way through the forests of intellectuality and marveling at every new path his sneakered steps revealed.

My "house," as of that Chicago day, was built; the grand work was done, and I was just adding to the library; adding yet another book to the shelves, another picture to the wall...but his readings were shaping him in significant ways, as mine once did and there was a glorious, compelling, motivating question mark in front of him.

In short -- no I am not kidding -- I think being in a state of "becoming" is nothing less than the secret to lifelong happiness, if we grasp what it really means. I think we can go back to "becoming," even in the third act of existence.

Not all of us. For those of us who lave let our hearts die, there is no hope. But for those of us who have held on to wonder and who are not embarrassed to do a little middle-aged navel-gazing, it's completely doable.

For me, it was a question of rearranging of my responsibilities to allow for more time for my creativity and for getting closer to that guy I used to be, again. But this means I need a new question mark; not just a goal of status, but one of real growth.

For me, it is now nothing less than trying to establish myself in a "third act" career: professional composer. Now, with an agent putting my work into the hands of music supervisors and music libraries around the world, I am learning a new business, yes; but I am also learning more about composition than I knew before; I am facing challenge after challenge with the constraints of my composition assignments. I am exploring a new world of musical technology that allows me to write full orchestral scores in my little studio. I am looking at artistic growth, but my sight is also set on something completely new: becoming a full time composer. I'm still hoping for something. (The ghost of the young aspiring composer I once was is, at this moment, in his bedroom, bent over a Ravel score, with headphones on...wondering where his musical life will take him.)

Every time I get a note from my agency that another piece has been forwarded to a music supervisor, it is like a mini college acceptance letter, if you will -- a sign that another door has opened. Each time I get a rejection critique from an industry pro, I learn more about what it takes for me to grow as a composer. In short, I am "in school" again. If you want, you can say it is some variant of "feeling like a kid again." I really don't mind.

So, for my young readers, I guess this is a plea to keep looking for ways to "become" even after it feels you have arrived. For my fellow middle-agers: if you feel like you're just waiting for that great gettin' up morning, facing a string of sprawling, similar days with no sense of excitement, find a way to become something new, but pick something deeper than just taking a pottery class or doing Tai Chi at the local gym. Think big. Become another you. Get back on that "train to school," not just to take classes but to pursue a new question mark. There is plenty of time to build a whole new house. And, if there's not -- no controlling fate -- at least you'll "go down standing up."

I hope I did the idea justice. If this came off as me saying "keep learning new things" or "stay active," one or both of us failed... It's, as I said, way bigger than that.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Star Trek is Not Fifty Years of Progressive Lip-Service

The original series pilot, when
Majel Barret outranked Leonard Nimoy on the ship. 
There are times when I need to calm down before writing a piece. Usually, as on this occasion, it is when I am annoyed by pseudo-analytical thinkers who write pieces that "reveal"the truth behind what all we ignorant ciphers thought was the case.

These pieces are usually written in a matter-of-fact-tone of someone who has assigned him or herself (just by virtue of accidental superiority -- hey, it is what it is...) to be the mentor of everyone else. It sounds a lot like someone saying, "I'm sorry you were too dim to see this, but, take your medicine now, little fella." The pieces these people write are always focused on how "thing X" looks like this, but it is really this (if you are sharp enough to see it).

It takes a shape like this: "Oh, sure, I know this TV show is called 'Ladies of Power and Dignity,' and I know thew whole cast is women who play CEOs of big companies, including 50% women of color, but that is all a front. The show is produced by 88% white males... This is unacceptable and it points out the hypocrisy of..."

In other words, one group of the world's demographics -- granted, in this case, the one that has done the most damage -- cannot, with any validity or efficacy, do something good for another. This presents something of a conundrum for positive change and harmony, don't you think?

It's no secret I am a lifelong Star Trek fan. Recently, Patrick Stewart announced that he will be playing Jean-Luc Picard once again. This is a delight to fans of the show -- but perhaps a nefarious  delight, according to blogger Ani Bundel.

See, Bundel, with the superior lenses of the social Virgil to our wandering Dantes, sees this as a troubling "retreat from the progressivism of [the current show] Star Trek: Discovery." And why is this all being done? Why is the beloved character being brought back? For Bundel, it is "to placate the white male demographic that felt alienated by [CBS's] first Trekkie reboot...a show which was legitimately diverse and, therefore, immediately controversial.

...because, the Star Trek franchise has not done well enough, apparently. It has "payed lip-service" to progressivism and liberalism for fifty years, according to Bundel. And now, oafish white men -- who apparently have seen no shade of this progressive thinking up to last year...Star Trek, the original series, having done things like using a multi-ethnic cast; having shown the first interracial kiss on television [no, that one with Nancy Sinatra kissing Sammy Davis Junior didn't count -- she was just saying hi]; having gone out of its way to cast minority actors in positions of power and genius; having created, in Uhura, the first African American woman of real position in a network TV show [Dr. Martin Luther King even recognized this, encouraging Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show when she wanted to leave] -- now, I say, we lumpen of scrape-knuckled white guys can't handle that there is a gay couple or an African American female lead on Star Trek: Discovery. This, according to Bundel, is why we need Captain Picard back...

We just need to see "and aging white male known for his equilibrium and widsom" or we won't be able to stick with Star Trek. Somehow, miraculously, we have been fooled into sticking with the other five series -- somehow smoke-screened to the things we would not otherwise have been able to handle, like, oh...Captain Janeway. [How did the white males miss that she is a woman? Surely they would have tuned out...] What about Avery Brooks? He was just actually a dark-skinned white guy, right? And thank God we fragile, mouth-breathing, establishment drones completely missed that Star Trek TNG episode, in 1992, called "The Outcast" that dealt with gender identity issues... twenty-six years ago (obviously during the "lip-service" period). Surely we would have jumped ship if we had seen that. I once heard a rumor, too, that the brilliant engineer, Geordie LaForge [LaVar Burton], on the Enterprise in TNG, had once played Kunta Kinte in Roots. Nonsense...that would have required a black man. And who was that dude who played the doctor on TNG? He sure was lovely.

TNG, 1992
Should I go on? Because I really can, in deeply nerdly proportions. Gene Roddenberry founded Star Trek as a progressive, positive view of the future. Yes, he was ham-stringed by lots of network limitations that he had to cave-in to if he wanted to see the show produced. (Ever see how different the pilot episode was to the series that followed? The women wore pants just like the men and Majel Barret -- who was to become Nurse Chapel -- was originally the Enterprise's first officer.) His vision was way beyond that of the network, but it was either compromise or never bring his show to the light.

But Bundel peels back the curtain! Even though, for example, Star Trek TNG was a liberally-themed show, the cast, she says, was 75% white and male. And the production team was 100% white male. And male. Here I agree with her. If those white guys had known what was good for the world, they ought to have have fired themselves and hired other people -- of the right gender and colors -- to do their well-intentioned work! Because, after all, progressive views spoken from the mouth of a white man in defense of his minority brother and sisters are just not good enough; in fact, they might even be insidious. And we all know that percentages tell all tales. If 100% of the people who stand between a racist, white cop with a gun and a black man in danger are white just ain't the same. (I know, I'm being silly. I...)

I don't know. Maybe the position should be: We need more women and minorities in production, but let's give credit to some good-hearted white guys for making statements of equality; to Roddenberry for starting TV in the right direction. That's not good enough, though. It's more click-baity to say: "HOLD EVERYTHING. WHAT YOU BELIEVED IS WRONG! IN THE NAME OF MONEY, CBS IS DOING A U-TURN INTO SAFETY!"

I am watching Star Trek: Discovery, now. I'm about halfway through it. I like it. I'm not sure how, with my limited and privileged perception of the world, I pulled it off...but I like it. I know, as a fifty-year-old, straight white guy, I should not be capable of this, but God help me, I like it.

Deep Space Nine, 1993-1999
I didn't like the first few episodes because of the Shenzhou captain. Not because she was a woman, but because I think she is a God-awful actress who was a black hole that swallowed even Martin-Green's impressive charisma. When Jason Isaacs made his appearance, the show was transformed for me. Not because he is a white guy and I was comforted by this, but because he is a great actor. I have really liked Sonequa Martin-Green since The Walking Dead (before it turned into a sadism fest and I stopped watching) and I think she is doing a great job on Star Trek: Discovery...because she is a great screen presence and a very good actor.  

Bringing back Jean Luc Picard is not a "u-turn" from the progressive casting of ...Discovery. It's giving the gift of a great artist (in Stewart) and a beloved character back to Star Trek fans. It's disturbing to me when a writer implies that casting a white man as captain is a step back. Why must we always think in pendulum-swings? Is it not okay to simultaneously run a show like ...Discovery along-side one with a beloved character, even if he is a white male? Calling it a "u-turn" is saying that white men are no longer viable subjects for fiction or that they cannot contribute to a progressive view of the future. (In fairness, Bundel does express her hopes that Stewart, whom she admires, will make the right choices in that regard.) 

I will admit that when I watched Star Trek: Enterprise, I was a bit relieved to see that the casting people seemed not to be trying as hard to cast for diversity. Not because I don't want to see diversity on Star Trek, but because it felt like Star Trek had blazed the trail well enough that the pressure was off; that maybe they felt it was okay to just pick the best actors for the roles they had at that time; that maybe we could all start to accept each other without it being a chess game of social strategy every time we create a new show. (Though, the cast still showed diversity, it also may have been in the producers' minds that it was earlier along the path of Starfleet, and maybe the diversity hadn't happened to the same extent as on later ships...which would have been, God forbid, a creative decision made outside the bounds of social pressure.) 
Captains Sisko and Janeway 
Either way, I would like to proudly announce that I've stuck with Star Trek: Discovery, even after the horrors of witnessing [gasp!] displays of affection between two gay men. I must be some kind of anomaly in the white, straight, male world. Nay! A Christ-figure! You know what? I even managed (it has to be a scheme of some kind on my part that someone needs to make me aware of) to get emotional when one of those guys met his demise. Somehow...I had come to really like him...even though was gay. OH, CAPTAIN PICARD. PLEASE SAVE ME WITH YOUR COMFORTING WHITE, STRAIGHTNESS!!! (Sorry...I lost control.)

Let's not ruin Gene Roddenberry's legacy. Star Trek has been and remains a bastion of progressive thinking in popular culture. I welcome back Jean-Luc Picard even as I root for Michael Burnham, because I grew up watching a projected future in which everyone on Earth is at peace. Yeah, the fiction was limited at times by narrow-mindedness of contemporary reality (which can be explained so much better than Bundel's narrow piece does it), but the heart was always there. And it always was (and is) way more than "lip-service." If I wrote for page-views over saying what I really believe, I might change my tune. But as it stands...

So, "nice try" to Ms. Bundel. Just because some racist and sexist jerks reacted negatively to ...Discovery, it does not mean that white, male fans need a pacifier -- the ones who ran away never understood what Star Trek was about from the beginning. But, neither does she. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Great Dictator?

If a man is successful in what he sets out to do, there is a very strong possibility that he is good at that particular thing. Is this so, even if that man is Hitler?

My sixteen-year-old son was walking home with friends, and their conversation turned to history. My son pointed out that Hitler was, although thoroughly evil, a powerful public speaker and an effective political tactician. He was met with dropped jaws. "No he wasn't," an outraged friend of his said. "How could you say something good about Hitler?"

This is what we have done to our kids. The public-shaming culture we have created has sent kids the message that certain things are not okay to say. Everything, outside of threats or evil puropse statements, should be okay to say, right?

My son told me the story above because he walked into the room while my younger son and I were watching an old Star Trek episode. He was stopped dead in his tracks by Captain Kirk in a Gestapo uniform. (He was in disguise, of course.)

Kirk had discovered that his old Academy history professor had gone to a planet and had set up a Nazi-based government. The man had not been evil; he simply thought the chaotic, war-entrenched planet needed the efficiency of the Nazi state, minus the evil, to pull it together. This, of course, was an acknowledgement of the producers and writers that Hitler's government was, if nothing else, organized an efficient. As it must be, however, the show concludes that this was a bad idea: the government turns evil when foul operators use drugs on the history professor and use him as a Hitleresque figurehead in order to achive their own racist and power-hungry goals. Kirk wins, though, and the good guys get control again.

But what occurred to me is that this episode never would have gotten made today. Why not? Because everyone is "watching" everyone else. Because you can't "say something good about Hitler" no matter what the final message is; even if you are simply setting him up higher to knock him down for a longer, more splat-worthy fall.

Ideas don't get time or space to develop, anymore -- they are presented as tweets and sound bytes on the spot and judged and click-condenmed before the coffee cup leaves the lips; before the brows have a chance to lower to their default positions.

If you read this and think I am in any way depending Adolf Hitler, you are part of the problem. For more perspective: Charles Manson may have been the most evil person to have ever lived, but, if he was good at checkers, he was good at checkers, for cryin' out loud.

God pity the fool -- my son, in this case -- who says that Hitler, if nothing else, was a crafty political maneuverer. He will be silenced within a second by the myriad mouse clicks of the world; thereby, any chance of using the recognition of the evil Nazi's strengths to prevent other people from using the same strengths in the future is negated.


Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Tribalism: It's Not Just for Fun Anymore

I have a Phillies cap and a Cubs cap and a Red Sox cap. I have a sweatshirt that says "Virginia Tech" on it and one that says "Oxford." I have a t-shirts with the names of about five different colleges on them, including Harvard, Loyola, Penn State and...I think...some other ones.

I went to Rutgers and to Penn State. I am a lifelong Philadelphia Phillies fan. Yet...

I was in Boston on rainy afternoon and a very affable-looking fellow saw my Virginia Tech sweatshirt (which once just kind of fell into my hands after having been left behind at a party) and he sort of timidly said to me: "Go Hokies!" I smiled and said, "...uh...yeah!" (It took me an hour culminating in a Google search to figure out what the hell a Hokie was and why that guy wanted them to "go").

Every time I am wearing a shirt from a college I never attended, someone asks me if I went there and I am forced to admit that I the bookstore. My wife is finishing her masters at Loyola; hence the shirt. I traveled to Oxford last year; hence, the sweatshirt. I think college shirts are cool. I think colleges are cool. Do I have to have studied there to wear the shirt? Am I committing a sin by having done so?

Every time I wear a Red Sox cap, I get the third degree from Phillies fans in the area: "You're a Boston fan?" I get the same thing with the Cubs hat. I got both hats in their respective historic parks. Why? Because I love baseball and I love the history of the teams and stadiums of each of those teams. Ted Williams is my favorite player in history; my dad used to tell stories of having seen him play. (I also have a T-shirt I got at Fenway with a picture of the "red seat.")

This could just be an amusing gripe story, but I see it as one symptom of how unbelievably tribal we are as well as how competition is such a naked and revealing drive for us.

I mean, okay, sports are about competition. But does that competition have to be dark and angry? ("You're a Boston fan?" -- it's like I sacrificed a suckling pig Christmas Mass, for Pete's sake.) And why in the name of Socrates do our schools have to be about competition? -- rivalries and loyalties and nasty pre-game-day pranks...

I guess I know the answer: We humans are so base that we can best be unified by conflict. At least, the architects of our respective societies have always though so: Oxford vs. Cambridge to Penn State vs. Pitt to Gryffindor vs. Slytherin. Because out of that grows the militaristic unity against other countries...other tribes.

I mean, people of rival teams literally beat the crap out of each other at games. They do it in Manchester; they do it in Philly and they do it in Barcelona.  It's what we do when we can't find our way into a nice juicy war, right? We have to rally our team and fight. It feels good.

Imagine if competition was kept in a spirit of brotherhood. Imagine if it went back to the Greek ideal, seeing it as a means to becoming stronger individuals; or, if we see it the way Lao Tzu did, believing the Sage "competes, but not for results."

Argument can be about winning or it can be about finding truth. Teaming up can be about bonding or it can be about humiliating and destroying others. I know which I prefer.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Steering the Pitches

One of my favorite online video bloggers is a guy named Christian Henson. He's a media composer and a "big cheese" at Spitfire Audio, who produce some of the orchestral samples I use my composition. Christian is a very intelligent guy who -- as I do -- tends to wander through diverse topics. His "vlog" is often about composition and often about life -- always about both. I have learned a great deal from him about the craft of composing "orchestral mockups" -- in short, orchestral music from recorded samples of real players -- and he has often left me thinking long and hard about life. (A man after my own heart.)

But, the other day, he made me realize that I have had just about enough of The Information Age.

The topic was whether "the media composer" (he or she who composes for film, games and TV) will become extinct with the recent inception of artificial intelligence "composition." Apparently -- this is the first I have heard of it -- there are services through which you can have music composed through A.I. know what? I just don't effing care.

I can't be wringing my hands over whether the machines will take over the world or whether I will lose my next gig to a Mac Pro. What I have to do is what I know I can do: keep writing music that is better than that which any machine will ever write. I know that some people will not be able to tell the difference between mine and a tune generated by algorithm, but...what, exactly, am I supposed to do with this information? -- that one can order music written by a program that comes more cheaply and more quickly? One only has so much energy for lifetime. One only has so much "bandwidth" for each day.

We live in the "Information Age," so, every moment, we see another article that tells us how we are doing everything wrong. Apart from the fake stuff (and it is out there, in droves, despite Trump's absurd attempt to claim credit for the "fake news" phrase and his tendency to paint anything he doesn't like as "fake") there is a never-ending parade of bad news and revisionist philosophy about what we do and how we do it. "Information" shared among "communities." (Both worlds just about make me puke at this point.)

It seems to me that, in futuristic retrospect, one of the virtues of a person of our time will have been determined to have been the ability to ignore the smothering torrents of information we endure all day, every day; to push forth regardless of the world's attempt to overload our memory banks.

Those who distinguish themselves to future recognition will be the ones who acted upon their feelings and instincts: the dad who handled his son's scraped knee the way he saw fit and not the dad who read a ton of articles about how comforting the boy too much is a mistake or that not comforting him as much as he wants is a mistake; the mom who lets her frightened kid sleep in her bed because it feels right and not because the choice is validated on several websites; the writer who still uses a typewriter and delivers his manuscripts in person because it feels right; the guy who holds doors because it is right and does not fear the implications about gender relations; the businessperson who is not afraid to tell his or her employees they"look nice today;" the teacher who is not afraid to tell a student his answer is wrong.

Am I raising my kids right? Am I brushing my teeth right? Washing my face with the right soap? Is soap okay on my face, at all? Is artificial intelligence going to start writing books? Are there not enough black men in baseball? Are there not enough white guys in football? Is every person who voted for Trump a racist? Is time in sun worth the vitamin D, in spite of the cancer risk? Are hallucinogens the future of treating depression? If we treat suicide with too much understanding, will more people do it? If we call it cowardice, will it cause more suffering? How many sexes are there, exactly? Should we change everything if .00000000908% of the population is unhappy? Does Mozart really make babies smarter? How many hours should I allow my son to play Call of Duty? Is Call of Duty causing mass shootings? Is my house a more healthful place with the windows open? Or...closed?

...are composers going to become obsolete?

I just don't care. I need to live and do. I need to feel and act. Every one of those things in the long paragraph above -- with a pinch of hyperbole, perhaps -- is something that social and conventional media have attempted to chloroform me with over the last week.

I don't blame Christian for bringing up the topic and, in fact, he had some encouraging things to say about us humans. But, good Lord, I find myself saying, more and more, "What am I supposed to do with this information?" Rather than work to comfort myself that it will all be okay for composers, I'm just going to crank out more music. Rather than worry about what is socially acceptable, I'm just going to keep being nice to people.

Some time ago, there was a piece on the radio about publishers using e-reader algorithms to track reader tendencies: How long do they read per session? Which pages do they spend the most time on? What content makes them slow down in their reading? What makes them skip forward? Do they read inside or outside? When Stephen King was asked about what he thought about this, he said it better than I could. He said he wants nothing to do with this info. He needs to write. Using this information before writing, he said, would encourage a pitcher to try to steer the ball after it leaves his hand.


Maybe worst of all the consequences of The Information Age is the fact that as we are being filled with information, we are forgetting how to use reasoning. Why should we think things through if we can scoop up all of our procedures in a quick Internet search?

Maybe I can sum it all up with the example of the map and the GPS in a car. Sure, a map is information, but you need to reason your way through it; see what road connects to which; decide whether to go north, south, east or west...choose scenic routes over highways... The GPS gets us there; tells us where and when to turn. We've though about nothing, planned nothing and have been more-or-less uninvolved in our own journey.

We have turned from explorers into direction-followers, literally and metaphorically. We think less and react more. We join on-line "communities" and thought-groups. It's easier that way.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Peerless Annabelle and Me

Annabelle Moore, 1878-1961
Last Wednesday night, well into the still of Thursday morning, in fact, I had an encounter with a woman who wasn't my wife. No laws or vows were broken, but Annabelle and I did sort of share a certain intimacy...across time.

I had just finished writing a piano piece called "C in Three." It was a "pitch" for a Netflix documentary. Based on their "temp" music (an example of the type of sound they want for their movie) I decided to follow the restriction that the composer of the example had -- to compose only on the "white keys" of the piano; so, in the key of C, with no accidental sharps or flats. "C in Three" was the result of a very quick turn-around writing session.

I decided it would be cool, since the piece is in kind of a camouflaged waltz time, to set it to a video of someone dancing a waltz. What I found was not exactly what I was looking for. I found Annabelle Moore, but she was not waltzing. But in her, I found a soul, long-faded from this world, preserved in the small square of a moving picture like a firefly cupped in gentle hands; an imperfect immortality of beauty and vivacity that -- I have to admit -- made my heart flutter. 

Annabelle had made her performing debut at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, as a dancer, at the age of fifteen. She later went on to a career in stage, dance and early film in New York, according to Wikipedia. She eventually also become a member of the Ziegfield Follies -- the original Gibson Girl, in fact. 

None of this mattered to me, though -- in fact I knew none of it, sitting in the low light, in the glow of faders, knobs, and musical instruments in my small home recording and composing studio, well after midnight. I just found her, dancing her "Serpentine" and her "Butterfly" dances through the blotchy flutter of digitized old film, flashing yellow and orange and blue in the hand-painted style of the time. 

But, when I matched up my music to her moving form, the breath I lost went across the veil to her. There was a wonderful alchemy between her movements and my notes -- either the happiest of accidents or a gift of fate. 

To say neither of us had intended to make art together is to reach an absurd level of understatement. I had never heard of her and she never even knew I'd be born, having left this world seven years before I would enter. But there she was -- there she is -- alive and smiling and passionate in her movements, reaching through the span of more than a century, creating a spectacle of flowing fabric and glowing beauty and unpretentious and subtle sexual energy that must have stunned all of those suited and capped men and their corseted women sitting to watch this new art form of motion pictures. 

Together, she and I made new art. Two spirits melded by what I hesitate to call "accident." She, a woman born in the corpse-cluttered wake of the Civil War as I had been in that of Vietnam. She is gone; I am here. But "Peerless Annabelle," as she was called during her fame, is still here. She will always have her own little space to dance in my heart. 

If "C in Three" is bought and used for this documentary, I will gladly accept the money, but the piece will always be hers. I didn't write if for her, but I do give it to her. Whatever happens, this little YouTube video will be a lasting record that she and I "met," proving, in very real sense, that death is not really the end it seems. 

As you watch, pay attention to the section in black and white. This is where and when I really saw her and felt the resonance that carries so far into the future from her smile. If she can see me from where she is, I hope this, at least, makes her smile again. 

I hope you like what Annabelle and I made together:

Sunday, July 15, 2018

"A Trip to the Moon:" The Story of a New Film Score, Round III

For the third and final post in my "behind the music" pieces on re-scoring three classic, short silent films, I give you one film that is, artistically, worlds beyond first two (which were: Frankenstein [1910] and  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1912]). This one, A Trip to the Moon, was made in 1902 by the early film innovator, Georges Méliès. Anyone who knows film knows this short feature and even those who are not film buffs are usually familiar with the iconic scene in which the moon is hit in the eye with a bullet-like ship.

My trilogy of film re-scorings went from being called a "horror" to a "Halloween" trilogy, with the inclusion of this final piece. A Trip to the Moon is quirky, fantastic, visually stunning, sweet and adorable; so, although it fits into the costume-fun world of Halloween night, it doesn't quite fit the "horror" bill -- though, there are some space villains! [...he says, rubbing his hands together...]

By this point in my journey into the musical orchestral sampling world (explained in more detail, here) I had acquired even better quality sounds than I used in the first two films, having stepped up to a library of symphonic sounds from EastWest called "Symphonic Orchestra." Yes, I was still blending this with some of the other less sophisticated sounds, but, overall, the quality had improved.

Again, I had watched some other re-scoring attempts of this to get a sense of what others had done, but, yet again, I found myself disappointed by the modern ones. I am still not sure why composers see these old films at a palette for weird colors and sounds. I saw one re-scoring of A Trip... that used nothing but strange synthesizer drones, and while I think this kind of score can be effective, I just thing films like this need a more traditional approach.

[As a side-note, I never was a real fan of the original scores to most silent films, written to be played live in the theaters. I always though the concept of "scoring" had not bee realized yet -- the music was more background, melodramatic "mood" music than score. I always feel like the film makers were more advanced in their storytelling techniques than the composer were at that point... So, I never felt a desire to mimic the old stuff, either...]

To me, A Trip to the Moon is, like the previous three films, filled with child-like wonder. I say this with no condescension. There is an innocence about film, in and of itself, in this that really moves me. These artists were truly opening the door to the magic of cinema; they were wide-eyed explorers of a new realm and this unashamed enthusiasm certainly can be felt in their work.

In short, Professor Barbenfouillis is convinced he can make a ship go to the moon, and the film opens with him presenting the idea to his colleagues (sort of scientific/professorial/wizard-like chaps)A bit of an argument ensues, one poor fellow scoffs and has books thrown at him, and then the men settle down to support the professor's idea: They will shoot a rocket to the moon by using a large cannon.

For me, the opening asks, musically, for a generous helping of pomp and maybe the underpinnings of a march as the beautiful young women and the scholars literally parade onto the set, which (as in much of Méliès's art) is done in a staggeringly cool tromp l'oye fashion Méliès's work is really a visual feast -- worlds beyond the accomplishments of the American film makers of my other two scores.

This score needed to be textural, light-hearted, grandiose and -- at least for my money -- melodic. Again, I used the traditional thematic approach by writing leitmotifs for the Professor and for other elements and characters. But each visual corner turned allowed me to go down a separate path, sometimes goofy and sometimes beautiful. The scenes on the moon allowed me to open up and write some pretty bits, this time; the depth of the chords and melodies these scenes called for did not exist in the previous scores; the higher level of art of Méliècertainly pulled more out of me, musically. In fact, this score took me twice as long as the others to compose, having spanned more than a month for under fifteen minutes of music.

I won't get deeper into the plot, because, unlike the other two, you probably don't know it well. Although this story was based on the work of Jules Verne, these books are not as iconic to the average reader as Frankenstein and ...Jekyll and Hyde -- so, more fun in discovery! (Though, I will tell you, because I got hung up on it for a while: apparently science had not yet figured out the zero-gravity element in space, so, in their minds, it was possible for someone to, say, fall off of the moon and into one of Earth's oceans...) Please enjoy the film and the music!

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Story of a New Film Score, Round II

In a previous post, I told the story of how I came to write a new score for the 1910 version of Frankenstein, done by Thomas Edison's company. Needing to come up with at least three ten to fifteen minute films to score for an upcoming screening, I eventually found my number two: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from 1912, directed by Louis J. Henderson of The Tanhauser Company.

As with Frankenstein, the film is another early horror delight. I feel as if James Cruze, who plays both Jekyll and Hyde, might be the earliest screen presence with "star quality" in the history of cinema. His charisma and good looks are the earliest movie-star presence I have seen. But I am no film historian...

The plot of the film is, of course, simple, based on Stevenson's novella and also upon a play version written by Thomas Russel Sullivan in 1887. In this short film, Dr. Jekyll, seeking a pharmacological way to separate evil from good within the human animal (ostensibly as a start to purging evil from mankind) designs a concoction that he is willing to test upon himself. But, as Sting so succinctly puts it in his song "If I Ever Lose My Faith," it's hard to find miracles of science that don't go "from a blessing to a curse," and, after repeated use of the drug, the evil Hyde begins to have his way with Dr. Jekyll and pop out whenever he wants.

The classic 19th, early 20th century mix of fear of the overreach of science and a bit of a pessimistic view of the nature of good and evil then ensues. But, I don't want to give you every detail. I'll let you see the murderous, little-girl-knocking-over fun for yourself. (You'll see what I mean...I can't imagine Hyde was meant to have done anything else to the poor girl in such an early film...but...knocking down little girls is evil!)

My approach to scoring the film was, again, traditional, with thematic motifs for Jekyll and Hyde as well as a theme for Jekyll's love, who is simply billed as "Jekyll's sweetheart," played by the ironically named Florence La Badie. The love theme was a result of some research. I found that the biggest hit song in America at the time of the film was "Let Me Call You Sweetheart," and, although I could have simply used it, since it is public domain, I decided to create a thinly-veiled variation on its main melody.

I writing the Frankenstein score, I had realized that the approach had to be carefully done. I had no desire to write tongue-in-cheek scores that, in any way would mock the films, nor did I want to do what I had seen countless other silent film re-scorers do: go all...bizarre and noisy and synth-ey. I wanted to to capture the films' innocence and a mix of the tone of the early silent film music approach and that of the post Bernard Hermann era.

The "horror" of these films must have seemed more intense to audiences of the day, but, the films -- and live accompaniment scores of the day -- had a certain melodrama to them which meant completely dark and humorless score would not have captured the spirit. Somehow, I remembered -- probably imperfectly -- Carl Stalling's brilliant introduction music to the Bugs Bunny short, "Hair Raising Hare," which I always had loved, and I fashioned the opening chords with their echo in my mind. The rest took shape from there.

By this time, I had upgraded my sound samples a little bit [I had mentioned in the post about Frankenstein that my samples on that one were "stock" with my new program and not top quality]  and I had gotten some orchestral "effects" -- some quirky and spooky articulations of the strings and winds, which I put to use not the J&K score; you can hear plenty in Jekyll's first transformation. I also did some simple -- even predictable -- but effective things, like using a downward-running sweep of the wind chimes for Jekyll turning into Hyde and an upward-running version for his turning back into Jekyll.

In the end, I hope I did the movie justice by writing a sincere score. It was hard not to, because while working on this film, as with Frankenstein, I had come to care about both the creators and the characters. Two weeks of scoring is a long time to spend with them all. I think I got to know them pretty well. I hope you enjoy it: