What is wrong with America? My Lord, it’s as if the earth had tilted in a unique way and most of the right-wing screwballs rolled over and ended up here. I see the polls (God knows where and with whom they take these things) and they continually show Donald Trump (I refuse to call I’m President) at an approximately 40% approval rating. I have a questions: who are these people who have deluded themselves into believing that this man cares one iota about them?
It’s been almost two years since moving to Houghs Neck; and it’s been a tumultuous year and a half in some ways. I’m sure a lot has to do with adjusting to home ownership after spending the greater part of my life as a tenant. Tending to matters such as mowing the lawn, tending to (treating, backwashing, vacuuming) a swimming pool, gardening, fixing/installing various appliances and equipment (as well as buying such things), taking Blaze for walks or to the dog park not to mention a general ennui about my continued, and constant external reinforcement regarding my dubiousness as a musician — particularly as a composer. Nowadays, I even find it difficult to listen to classical music and even harder to attend a concert or recital.
It’s become an albatross, having come to the realisation that all this time (now that I have come to the sunset of my life) my life’s primary endeavour, all that has defined me (even with those ancillary interests such as art, architecture, poetry, drama, dance) — that blossomed as a result of hearing Virgil Fox’s “Encores” album — has been, for the most part, a total waste of time — of one’s life. The fine arts are cruel mistresses and music one of the cruelest. It’s quite evident for all of my passion for music and my love of the greatest of all instruments, and what had been for years a perdurable yearning to compose, my capitulation to others’ concerns and desires, the poor decisions made (both professionally and personally), have left me now with a handful of works that nobody thinks worthy of their time. I’ve given up trying to ask people to even look at my work. I’ve grown weary of either the complete non-response or those who have “promised” to perform my music and then I never hear from them again. I’m not going to go entreating all these people about my music; my determination is: if they like it they’ll play it if they don’t, I’ll never hear from them again, and I’ll not pursue them any further. Grovelling is beneath even my diminished level of self-respect.
Moreover, the current political/societal situation with this blatant sociopath who has done more damage to our democracy than anyone, ANYONE before including such rabid animals like Joseph McCarthy, fools like Warren G. Harding, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney and all of Fox News, along with spineless, sycophants who make up the majority of the House and Senate. But, that’s another subject altogether.
And yet, now that I’ve just recently (since December 2017) found and have been given open permission to practise on a most suitable organ at nearby Episcopal church, a bit of optimism has strangely entered my psyche. I’ve been dusting off and relearning old repertoire and have resumed collecting my thoughts on the Franck Choral in a, a work of monumental importance to me. It feels good to be able to spend three to four hours a day 4-5 days a week (with Blaze patiently lying — mostly sleeping — in the nave) reworking music I used play. Currently I’m practising on: Bach Prelude & Fugue in a BWV 543, Fugue in g (“Little”) BWV 578, the above mentioned Franck as well as the Cantabile from his “Trois Piéces,” the Vierne Carillon de Westminster from the “Pièces de Fantaisie” (third suite) Op. 54, plus one or two pieces from the Orgelbüchlein. It’s been good for me if nothing else to stimulate my old memorisation synapses. I’d like to bring back the Choral in b and the Grand Pièce Symphonique as well as other works by Vierne that I used to play. I’m hoping that maybe in a year or two I might actually feel good enough to give a recital.
As to composing, maybe, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. One can only cram so much of 40 plus lost years into the few I may have left. We’ll see.
I’d been hoping to start writing about music and other art forms again, especially music; but a not-so-funny thing happened last 7 November 2016 that has put me into an emotional malaise that has virtually paralysed me; it put me into a funk from which I just can’t seem to arise: and that, my dear friends, was the election of Donald J. Trump and, since his inauguration the complete spinelessness of the major media, members of both branches of Congress — particularly Republicans, but Democrats as well — in not calling this man out for his flagrant and continued unbridled immaturity and arrant sociopathy (with its constant, insistent, pathological lying and associated narcissism). Almost everybody skirts around the true issue: that what we have in the White House is a buffoon, a fool who was (and still is) propped up and manipulated by the crazoids of the far-far (also referred to as the “alt”) right; i.e., racists, bigots and conspiracy nut-jobs who are just as sociopathic he is. No, I stand corrected: they are psychopaths.
My feelings of despair have harboured for a long time; however, there was always the caveat of hope that people of good will would ultimately find a way of prevailing this insidious — perverse — proclivity that the U.S. has manifested over the past generation or two; i. e., since the Reagan administration, of looking backward to a period of time when only white european (including middle/upper class hispanic) culture, “free market,” economics where wealthy, predominantly (though not exclusively) protestants prevailed. This regression, moreover, has included the dismantling of the governmental (both state and federal) protections and regulations we have since learned to be extremely beneficial to the well-being of the public’s health, safety and security (to name a few), all in the name of economic expediency; what is erroneously referred to as conservatism.
Class warfare has raised its ugly head in the era of Donald Trump in unprecedented ways that are genuinely frightening. I’m a product of the 60’s and 70’s. I saw the riots in Watts, Chicago Democratic Convention, Kent State, and so many more. All of these resulted in promises of change; and gradually change had begun, until Ronald Reagan, unintentionally through his economic policies, emphasising corporate and upper income tax cuts under what has been historically proven to be the fallacious concept of “trickle down” economics, coupled with a gratuitous increase in military spending over domestic resurrected a class (and resulting racial) warfare on the the country’s less fortunate.† But, there’s plenty of blame to go around. Democrats have this convenient amnesia when it comes to Bill Clinton’s “Welfare Reform Act” which summarily caused millions of people to lose their benefits causing immense pressure on non-profits to try and cover the gap; and his signing away the Glass-Steagall Act paving the way for the recession of 2008.
Class warfare is easy. All that the wealthy have to do is throw money at Capitol Hill so that they (those who have that kind of huge money) can, and unabashedly, do their bidding on those we — the putative electorate — have supposedly (naively) elected to represent us. And what is the easiest of the easy ways of creating class warfare? Bigotry, racism being the most efficacious, followed by (not necessarily in any particular order) sexism, LGBT oppression, anti-intellectual thinking, and free speech suppression (on both the left and the right viz. college/university harassment of conservative speakers); though I’m sure there are more: bigotry covers a lot bases; which is why classicism is such an effective tool. When you have so many people quibbling and squabbling amongst themselves it’s easy to sit back, watch and exploit. The exploitation with all of the technological “bells and whistles” at peoples’ disposal has become the modern day equivalent to Juvenal’s “bread and circuses;” as long as the populace is sufficiently distracted with easily accessible toys (smartphones) and their accompanying diversions (games and social media primarily), as well as an educational system (both public and private) that is woefully lacking in teaching the art of critical thinking, and you have a perfect formula for keeping a large segment of the population acutely prone to demagoguery.
Just look at the current political situation. Contrary to the tendency of most pundits you hear in the media who flatter the American electorate by constantly saying “The American people aren’t stupid,” that somehow they manage to see through the sham and phoniness and make the right decision. Well, we’ve seen how well that worked out, and I’m not just referring to election of Trump; rather, I’m referring to how the power brokers — the folks that own the media — have saturated our society with extremely visceral, yet mind numbing distractions under the guise of entertainment. Entertainment which has insistently lowered the bar literally appealing to the lowest common denominator. That explains the election of the last two presidents and why so-called conservative Republicans have become the dominate party in our governments, both state and federal.
Elections, especially presidential elections, have become no different than any other form of entertainment; i. e., distractions that focus more on personality — the politician’s “star power” — than on what his or her agenda. Oh sure, there’s constant blather about focussing on those matters, but let’s face it, that very rarely happens. After all that’s not the sexy part.
Let’s look at the last two presidential elections. Why was Barack Obama elected president? Was it his policies on trade, healthcare, military spending, domestic spending, his experience? Maybe some of his ideas appealed to some of the more educated voters; but, that was not the reason he was elected: he was elected because he was black, young, photogenic and had the backing of the Kennedys. Let’s face it he might never have been elected if African-Americans hadn’t come out in droves to vote him strictly because he was of African-American descent and he was a Democrat. Moreover, he was young (relatively) and appealed to the “youth” vote simply because he was young, dynamic and black which made him very hip. Then there is the whole inexperience thing; although he had some experience in the Senate, he was only there a few months and had not really garnered the kind of experience one would need to be able to work with members of the opposing party (not that they would anyway, expressing their blatantly racist views to having a person of colour in the White House).
Then there’s Trump. First let’s consider how stupid the American electorate really is. After their experience with voting in an inexperienced junior Senator nine years ago one would think (don’t forget many Obama voters voted for Trump) that maybe, JUST MAYBE, they would have learned that voting someone in with not only less experience in government, but WITH NO EXPERIENCE in government, one who was used to running a business as a personal fiefdom wth 1) no concept of history, and 2) absolutely no concept of constitutional government; but, no, they turn around and elect (according to the anti-democratic Electoral College) a sociopath and sexual predator as president. And yet, this part of the electorate for the most part are still willing to turn a blind eye to what has become an innumerable number of improprieties and abuses of the office, because they continue live under the delusion that he’s going to change things for their betterment.
I watch “Morning Joe” in the morning because it’s good for me to get the perspective of a legitimate conservative thinker like Joe Scarborough; and yet, what I see is this honest-to-God diehard fiscal Reagan Republican having to quit his party (of which he had been a lifelong member) and become an independent because he could no longer identify with the Trump/Bannon idiots and the completely spineless others of the “new” Republican party. Moreover, George Will, yes GEORGE WILL, that bastion of conservative intellectualism, again a staunch Republican, also felt the need to quit the GOP because he could no longer stomach the direction of his erstwhile party.
The thing that really gets me is the constant talk of “the base;” that 30-35% of the electorate who are more than willing to believe that the lies, deception, jingoism, racism, sexism (to point of predation) and the quintessentially narcissistic inability to take responsibility for any mistakes or any of the aforementioned foibles are perfectly acceptable, because none of these constantly and demonstrably (by his own actions and words) are real: it’s all “fake news.” Everybody knows that the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, Boston Globe, the major networks — even NPR/PBS — are all conspiring against him. It’s only Breitbart, Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, the Drudge Report that tell the truth; i. e., only what Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and their supporters say is true, no matter how contradictory or false their statements have been or currently are. The fact that he has that many people (don’t forget 30-35% means millions) unquestionably supporting him, or least willing to vote for him again is monumentally depressing to me. How stupid, how blind, how completely oblivious to reality can that many Americans be?
Ignorance is terrible thing for an ostensibly democratic state; but, stupidity is so much worse. The former is a result of insufficient learning of basic facts as supposedly delivered by our school systems — both public and private; the latter is the result of either a conscious decision on someone’s part to be able, or (more than likely) unwilling to engage in critical thinking, and thus ignore facts and simply go by what one feels is emotionally more satisfying: whether it’s voting for a narcissist/sociopath who will say anything to appeal to the most xenophobic, and base aspects of our species, or for someone, in spite of his/her determined efforts to try and appeal to the those higher elements of the human psyche; i. e., intellectualism, rationalism, open mindedness, will vote for that person because of some tribal or racial predilection; e.g, liberal/progressive, race. In any event either is deleterious to a democratic state; whether it’s the former, which would be ultimately destructive, or the latter which could possibly be beneficial, because the end was the result of a decision based on the completely wrong premise: not the qualifications or ability but on strictly emotional, narrow-minded criteria by an infinite amount of life saturating media whose primary purpose is to make extortionate profits by pandering to and sanctioning the public’s over indulgence for as many frivolous and jejune distractions as can be possibly absorbed. The result is an electorate that is virtually incapable to, or recalcitrant of, making a rational, informed, intelligent political decision.
What depresses me more about all of this is our current social structure, as a result of ultra-conservatives dating back to the Nixon administration, has become virulently anti-intellectual. The disparagement of scientists, artists, and educators in general has continued to grow as the far right and the financial-powers-to-be have managed to keep people ignorant, politically unaware and naïve; and, have continued to exert their powerful influence on the spending of government. As a result schools, libraries, and literally every institution and organisation dedicated to the advancement of human intelligence and social enlightenment and the betterment of the planet have been and will continue to be financially, and therefore culturally, starved of the resources they need to educate our nation. The last thing the GOP, as it stands now as Trump’s errand boys and girls, want is that the American public learn, critically evaluate, understand and ultimate realise how they (the GOP and a few Dems) will do anything to keep the public in the dark about who actually runs things in DC.
Contrary to the pundits and commentators on MSNBC, CNN, and network Sunday morning talk shows, the American electorate is pathetically ignorant and/or stupid politically. It’s not their fault; and that’s what angers me most of all. Politicians have done everything they can to cut money for education, particularly in the humanities and the arts. Not because (as they would lead you to believe) the arts and humanities aren’t important or are frivolous; rather, the humanities teach us the lessons of history and culture, the arts teach us discipline and how to think critically. These are exactly the qualities that those on the far right in particular do not want the public to possess; that would result in an ACTUAL DEMOCRACY in which the people are truly capable of choosing the representative or senator who not only represents but REFLECTS the people who have elected him/her.
This will NEVER HAPPEN in the United States until we, the people, compel those whom we have elected to do the right thing. In this case the impeachment and removal of a president who has every single day, during the campaign and since inauguration has (ironically consistently) bespoke not only his incompetence, but total (and uniquely) mental inadequacy for the job. The latest revelations are from Michael Wolf’s “Fire and Fury” book. I mean what the blazes more do you need?!
So yes, I have no hope. Even if the Democrats manage to take back the House and the Senate, the damage that has been done by Trump and his fascist zealots will take years, even decades, to undo. Just look at what the bungling Devin Nunes and the Republican members of the Congressional Intelligence(?) Committee have done to totally and deliberately destroy any credibility to that committee, the GOP, and the concept of representative government.
Then there are the things that Trump has managed to do (about which, of course, he brags as his HUGE accomplishments) by executive order in despoiling generations of protective regulations against health, civil liberties, the environment, you name it , and staffing his cabinet with people who, because of their vested interests in deregulating, who are bound an determined to castrate those organisations of which they are supposed have fiduciary responsibility. It’s enough to make an intelligent, rational person vomit.
Of then there is the latest in regard to the mass murder in Parkland, Florida. I mean, seriously, does any sane, rational, moderately intelligent person seriously believe that arming teachers, who are so incredibly overburdened, under paid and disrespected as it is in this country, is a remotely responsible idea? Unfortunately, there are many people, mostly Republicans, who actually think this is a good idea.
To sum up and reiterate, I am sick and tired of the folks (like Donny Deutsch on Morning Joe, as well as Joe and Mika) who keep saying that the American public isn’t stupid. They supposedly know what going and they’ll change things in November, blah, blah. NO! Let’s be clear the American public IS STUPID! Otherwise people like Donald Trump, Devin Nunes, Ron Johnson, and host of other ultra-rightwing nut jobs would never see any part of Washington, D.C. I’m with Bill Maher this one.
†This “theory” of economics perpetrated by Milton Friedman’s version of Adam Smith’s school of laissez faire economics is often referred to as the Chicago [University] School of Economics.
It shows that I haven’t added anything to this column since the end of May. I must admit I’ve been a bit of a recluse as of late. Maintaining a house with a large (12,000 gallon) above ground swimming pool coupled with my natural tendency towards ennui, my increased depression over the state of our once great, now widely disparaged, nation, my preoccupation with my wonderfully loveable, extremely handsome, funny, doggie-dog Blaze, plus my growing disconcertion with social media as a rule, among other matters, I just haven’t had the will to express my thoughts; notwithstanding, I continually wish to do so.
It’s interesting; I haven’t had to mow a lawn since my high school days back in Pitman, NJ. Then there’s the pool: skimming, vacuuming, treating the water, backwashing, it’s been a bit of an effort but one well worth it; on a hot day (yes, we do get them up here in New England) there’s nothing like diving into that pool. I still “pinch myself” realising that I own the bloody thing.
Then there’s Blaze. What can I say. He’s not only one of the most beautiful dogs (I’m almost embarrassed by the number of time people tell how pretty he is) I’ve seen, but he’s a total baby. He has the most even temperament, loving disposition anybody would ever imagine. When Rosemary comes home from work he’s so excited he wags his tail AND his head! He has the physique of a runner, and he proves it. He is the fastest dog I’ve seen and it is (to coin a cliché) poetry in motion to seen him run. There is a very large dog park in Hingham, MA (about 15 minutes away); it’s the size of any other state park (they call them reservations up here), but it’s primarily an off-lease park for doggies. I can’t tell you how much Blaze loves this place. First, it’s on Weymouth Bay so dogs get to swim if they so desire, it’s big with lots of open space to play and run, which are two of Blaze’s favourite things to do (the others are sleep and eat — surprise, surprise). One of the traits I love about Blaze is he so, so friendly. He thinks every other dog he meets is his new BFF — big, medium, tiny it doesn’t matter; all he wants to do is play. As to his speed, he has yet to encounter a dog that’s as fast (much less faster) than him. He is truly amazing to watch. And LOVES to run. So yeah, I spoil Blaze something terrible; but, what am I supposed to do? He’s such a loveable baby. And he behaves (for the most part).
Okay, so what’t the problem? Well, two things: First is me, I must admit I’ve been having difficulty with motivation: more importantly prioritisation. I can’t get my butt in gear until later in the day. Unfortunately, it’s usually the time I need to think about getting dinner together. If I could get my “chores” (including walking Blaze) done before noon I’d have at least four hours to what I used to think was important to me — music and art. ADD and low level depression (what used be call Dysthymia) have been, I must admit, an hinderance to my focus. The problem is I know that I still have much to offer (not that anyone would take me seriously, since I don’t have s PhD or am not an internationally recognised performer).
Then there’s the organ/church thing. I approached a nearby Congregational church (about two blocks away) about permission to practise on their organ. It’s not much, a two manual Allen from probably the 80’s; but, it was something on which I felt I could start playing the organ again. I even offered my services as a substitute — gratis — for the privilege of practising. So, here were the church’s criteria:
Notwithstanding my resume, etc. they don’t give out keys to the church, so I could only practise there when some one else or other activity was at the church: in this case it the Boy Scouts, who met in the basement on Monday night (right about our dinner time, but, eh, I figured): i.e., once a week for about 1½ -2 hrs.
If that wasn’t restrictive enough, since I was compelled to only be there (mind you I was up in the sanctuary, the scouts were down in the basement; i.e., I had no [nor did I want any] contact with them; but, since I was in the same building as them, even though they had more than enough adult supervision, they requested that I fill a CORI (Criminal Offence Record Investigation) form!!
Just so I could have access to lousy electronic organ on which to practise at a most inconvenient time for me. I wanted nothing to do with those kids — or anybody — all I wanted to do was practise the organ; in exchange, I was willing to offer my services as a substitute organ (and as a scripture reader) for free. Needless to say, after being gratuitously insulted, I’m on the prowl for another organ on which to practise.
Why is it that my first major disappointment with my new home involves a church? What is it about suburban churches, especially non-liturgical protestant churches, that often manifest those paranoic tendencies which are so contradictory to their so called “Christian Message” of openness and love? Those signs of “All Are Welcome” outside the doors are such a prevarication of who they really are It’s such a sham. I’m sick of it. It’s come to the point I wish, I really do wish at times, that I never, NEVER, became an organist, almost to the point of despising the instrument.
Thank God for ragtime.
Not that it matters much, but I thought that some my friends might be curious as to where I’ve been. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything at all, though it’s not for lack of intent. Mostly, so much time has passed and so much has happened this year (2016) that I find myself stumped as to where to begin. I guess a general approach might be good: sort of an overview of things. Actually, it’s more a matter of the past three-and-a-half years.
Back on 15 April 2013, two events happened; one is still etched into our collective memory as both a city and a nation, the other considerably less significant; i.e., I and my wife of less than a year moved to Boston that day. However, we were more than impressed with how the city and region pulled together and quite literally became Boston Strong. We moved into a lovely second-floor apartment of a quintessential “triple decker” building in the equally charming neighbourhood of Jamaica Plain (JP colloquially). Of course, since we were renting that made us vulnerable to the caprice of the landlord who chose to sell the building out from underneath us after one just over a year. So, here it is in August 2014 and we have to find another place to live (that we can afford) at the worst possible time to look since by this time all the college kids (and God knows who else), have already signed leases or moved in. Thereupon we were somewhat compelled to move to Chelsea into what at first seemed to be a nice, two-floor apartment in one of the few half decent parts of town. However, shortly after our first year, we realised that (for reasons too extensive to enumerate) we were in a most untenable situation. It was at that point we realised our imperative was to not only move again but, to buy; not only to buy but, to get the heck out of the unwashed armpit of Massachusetts known as Chelsea. Ultimately, after a little searching, and with the help of a great agent, we found what can only be considered a little piece of heaven on earth in the delightfully idyllic community-by-the-bay of Houghs Neck (those of you who familiar with the Boston area know what I mean). We found a perfectly sized cape cod just a few blocks away from Quincy Bay and Rock Island Cove, yet we’re high enough not to need flood insurance. We have a lovely fenced in backyard with a tool shed and a 10,000 gallon, above ground swimming pool. The finished basement is now my study which, unfortunately, I haven’t fully utilised.
The problem, especially for me, has been — adjustment. For someone who has had issues with low-level depression (what used to be called dysthymia) moving three times within four years has taken its toll, particularly as a sixty-eight-year-old man who has watched his dreams gradually fade to barely a vapour of what they were. My main predicament is personal organisation. It seems every time I try to establish something akin to a regular routine so many exigencies seem to interfere that I can’t seem to get a handle on anything. I’m generally a creature, maybe not of habit per se, but of consistency; and, for the past three-plus years I haven’t had that. Moreover, as a musician — a composer especially — my despondency has grown exponentially: not that it was all that great in Philadelphia. Up here in New England, I don’t know anybody; the only caveat being: having acquaintances in Philly didn’t help any more than if I knew one as up here in the Boston area.
As to the organ: I have summarily abandoned any hope of ever playing again. I haven’t been able to find a decent organ on which to practise, much less find a worthwhile church. Churches up here are no better (probably worse) about allowing access to their organs than Phila. I miss practising at St. Stephen’s at 10th and Market Sts. more than you can imagine. Moreover, not unlike the Philadelphia chapter, the local (Boston) chapter of the AGO is, by its cliquish nature, unwilling to be of any assistance; hence my decision to terminate my membership
My melancholy has had a stifling effect on my feelings toward music in general. Music was always my first love… now I can barely listen to it. I haven’t touched my piano or written a note in months. On those occasions in which I do listen to music all I think about is why am I not writing something? Why am I not practising? And then I think: why bother? Who is ever going to hear my music? Why work up a programme when I have no singer with whom to collaborate? Having absolutely no standing anywhere in the musical world, who’s going to take me seriously about anything I have to say or offer?
I suppose much of this is coming to terms with who, where and what I am and developing a routine that I know what I’m supposed to do and when. Having undiagnosed ADD I’m sure has a lot to do with why and where I am at this late stage in my life. It’s a bit ironic, sufferers of ADD have a tendency to become very self-absorbed worrying about priorities; i.e., the result being jumping from one thing to another trying to decide which to do first, which is more important; ultimately nothing gets done. Then the depression sets in because you’ve just spent another day achieving nothing. Yet, mutatis mundatis, when I do become focused on something, say practising the organ, I completely shut the world out to the point that I don’t eat or even sleep. I short I become obsessed. I just wish that happened more often. Presently, I’m currently in a quandary. Do I waste my time composing knowing that I’ll never hear any of my music performed, or do I waste my time practising the piano knowing that I’ll never find a singer to do the programme I want or just play in public in general?
I suppose, also, that I’ve become too complacent. For the first time in my life, I feel as if I have stability. I finally have a permanent home consisting of a perfectly sized house with a substantial 10,000 gallon, above ground swimming pool, in a truly idyllic community, the perfect mate, an absolutely wonderful dog, and a steady income. Perhaps it’s too good, in so far as not having a burning need or compulsion to prove anything to anybody. The farther away I’ve moved from the organ world the more I’ve realised, notwithstanding my ingenerate love of the instrument, how toxic an environment it is.
I guess with all of this change I still a little more time to figure out where to go from here. I have a number of ideas, most of them have little or no direct connection to music; I suppose now it’s more a matter now of motivation. I realise I can’t sit on my butt all day watching re-runs of “Star Trek Voyager” (I never got the chance to watch it originally) or MSNBC (which has become more and more conciliatory to Trump and his henchmen).
Of course, it being New England in February (it’s currently [the 12th] snowing like crazy with a lot more to come) there is a tendency to just hole up and wait til Spring. However, I know that’s not good. There’s much more in life; I just need to feel as if I can actually contribute something and make some kind of difference not only in my life but for others.
So, we’ll see what happens. I just hope this ennui ends and I figure out a routine in my daily life that grants me the chance to do all the things I wish to accomplish — no matter that they aren’t my dreams anymore — before I die.
Throughout most of the history of the Christian Church the bedrock to the worship service has been the liturgy. It has been the liturgy that has set Christianity apart from other religions, particularly other monotheist religions. Even those Protestant churches to which we refer as non-liturgical are liturgical in some fashion, just in a more simplistic way devoid of any mystery or ontologism.
And that is why I find so many non-liturgical churches wanting. Whereas, such churches as the Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ, Baptist and other less ceremonial mainstream churches (leaving out wacko fundamentalists and cults like Mormons and Christian Scientists, etc.), the focus is on the sermon. The problem with sermon oriented service is the congregation is mostly passive, sitting there for 20 minutes to over an hour* listening to someone blather on about what they are supposed to believe from what was read earlier in scripture. Moreover, there is very little congregational participation outside of the singing of (usually 2-3) hymns (which occurs less and less nowadays) and the occasional responsive reading of a psalm, reciting the Apostle’s Creed (because it’s shorter and easier than the Nicean Creed), and the Lord’s Prayer. Presently, in unfortunately more and more cases, the what now passes for congregational participation is nothing more than clapping to some, mediocre at best, commercial style praise band. The result is there is no introspection, no penitence, or spirituality, no existential perception of a greater phenomenon: just entertainment.
So, what’s so special about the liturgy? Well, for pretty much the opposite reasons of the sermon based service. First, and most importantly, the focus of the liturgy is the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper to the non-liturgical), not a sermon. Although there is a spoken lesson or, homily, by the priest, that’s all it is. Although the dictionary defines an homily as a type of sermon, it is usually of a nondoctrinal nature, and is usually only 10 to 20 minutes in length (of course, there are always going to be anecdotal exceptions). What is important to remember about the homily, is that its not the focus or even the summit of the service; rather, it is merely a part of the liturgy, one of its numerous aspects, which ultimately climaxes in the taking of the elements; i.e., communion.
The other aspect of the liturgy, and perhaps most significantly, is music. One of the saving, and ultimately civilising, graces of most major religions (with the glaring exception of one — hence its continued barbaric nature) is the incorporation of music into their various worship services, or liturgies. In Christianity music to the Ordinary of the Mass (Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Benedictus) acts as the catalyst for the metaphysically, spiritually and overwhelmingly mystical experience of liturgy. This usually occurs in what we commonly refer to as “high church.” What defines high church (to me) is not only the highly ritualised format of the liturgy (colloquially known as “smells and bells” because of the extensive use of incense and the ringing of bells at critical points of the eucharist), but that it is primarily or almost entirely (except for the homily) sung. The singing can consist of intoning (i.e., speaking on primarily one musical note) by the priest and occasionally the congregation, the singing by the choir and/or soloists, and of course, the congregational singing of hymns.
As you can see, participation by the congregation is and has been (even in the old pre-Vatican II days) an integral part of the liturgy. That’s how it is, and that’s how it should be. But, this depends upon the congregation’s ability to participate naturally, so as to fully descry the essential and ultimate beauty of the liturgy. Here’s why:
The mystical experience that only the liturgy can give depends on many factors not easily, or phlegmatically, achieved: a polished flow from Prelude, Introit, Kyrie, Credo, etc. to Benedictus and Postlude is paramount, and monumentally difficult to achieve. Too many churches are all too willing to settle for the substandard, even clumsy execution of the liturgy; the result is a congregation feeling, not so much that they may have wasted an hour of their time (though many do, hence the low attendance) but, of wanting more — more metaphysically, spiritually. On the other hand, when the liturgy is right — i.e., when the combination of superior organ playing, singing and intoning by all involved flows seamlessly from Prelude to Postlude, particularly during the eucharist — the spiritual transcendence simply cannot be described. The problem, of course, is: will that church be willing commit to the one thing that seems anathema to the mystical or otherworldly experience? I’m referring to that most mundane of tasks… rehearsal.
Achieving the ultimate meaning of the liturgy — which requires us to travel mentally, or spiritually beyond our empirical, material, circadian lives — is a delicate, gossamer phenomenon. It, like so many other worthwhile things in our lives, such as learning a language, practising music, writing poetry, painting, cooking good food, etc. demands from those leading the liturgy — the pros, so to speak — to make it work. It’s not up to the congregation to make it work (they are the recipients not the purveyors); rather, it is the serious collaboration between musicians and clergy that “makes it work;” and that, quite simply, requires rehearsal. I’m not referring to a simple, slip-shod run-through like most wedding rehearsals, rather, a serious detailed rehearsal. As they say, timing is everything; that couldn’t be more true when trying to achieve a smooth, fluid liturgy. Even the most experienced participants, including those who have worked together for years, need to have an occasional in depth rehearsal of the service/mass so as to maintain continuity and thus ensuring the transcendent experience for the congregation. Because, let’s face it, it is for them, those who have come to church to find, within that brief hour away from their daily struggle with the empirical world, a chance to commune with and connect to something far greater. It’s an empyrean experience; and that comes only if the machine is well oiled and in excellent working order.
Now, there are going to be those who are uncomfortable with the liturgy of the Mass. It all just seems so complicated and “involved.” You are right! Getting the hang of the mass: figuring out where you are: the standing, the kneeling, the sitting, the kneeling some more, the standing again, etc. When, or do or should you genuflect (which way does it go?), am I allowed to take the elements, should I take the elements, do I have to take the elements? Yes, there is a lot involved for the congregation to do. But, that is part of the beauty of the liturgy. The congregant is not just a spectator. The congregant is a participant. What needs to be understood is that the liturgy is the great equaliser; Clergy, musicians and congregation all have their part, each substantial, each vital, to arriving to the transcendent and ineffable moment in which all become one through the unifying transcendence in that consummate mystery of communion in which all partake of and become part of the “Body of Christ.” Whether you believe in that aspect of the theology or not is really quite incidental: It’s the experience! It’s what happens to you as a person and the spirituality, the metaphysical sensation — the peace — that you experience that counts. A beautifully conceived, performed liturgy will do that, no matter what your theology or spiritual tenets.
To those of you who find dealing with “high church” too cumbersome, or too complicated, or too “Catholic (Ugh! I hate that),” or don’t think that Christianity is, should be, deeply metaphysical, or preternatural, then you are more than welcome to take the easy way out and worship at a church where you just sit most of the time and watch as the praise band, or whatever singers and the preacher basically do it all for you. Go ahead. All I can say is that you are missing out on a truly resplendent, and wondrously enigmatic experience. To bad for you.
* Curiously enough, I’ve found that the length of the sermon is often inversely proportional to the intellectual level of the theology of the clergy.
This Christmas was more special for me: it’s the first Christmas I can remember in a very, very long time in which I can safely say I’ve enjoyed and fully appreciated the season. You see, for the past 30 plus years I’ve worked in what is probably the most Scrooge-like, coldblooded, mean spirited business in which a person could work at this time of the year — retailing. Actually, I’m insulting the Dickens’ character because he, at least, became repentant toward the end. Retailing on the other hand, especially what are referred to as the “big box” stores, primarily (but not exclusively) department stores has no such scruples. Moreover, the American consumer has become equally coldblooded in encouraging major retailers’ (and many small ones’) behaviour by gorging themselves in spending and debiting themselves to borderline insolvency in order to slake a need to be accepted by others through a superficial act of materialism.
The problem lies in that this act of buying “things” in voracious quantities has been so conditioned into the American psyche that those who don’t (and even a few that do) work as retail sales clerks — oh, excuse me: “associates” (as if that reflected that they aren’t considered the low life scum that they are considered) — don’t even give it a second thought that these stores have to be manned by people during those wee hours of the morning in which these stores insist upon being open. When stores like Kohl’s are open 24 hours during the week before Christmas I’m sure the people who shop at 3:00 a.m. are so incredibly selfish, or absolutely stupid/clueless to understand that just because they can’t sleep at night, it doesn’t mean that that sales person, who is doing everything he or she can to stay awake, doesn’t want to be at home sleeping next to a partner or spouse. The thoughtlessness of the American consumer is one of the most telltale examples of our material obsession over life affirming values. It is significantly indicative of how petty and shoal American society continues to devolve.
We could give a s— about those essentially indentured servants to our beck-and-call to which they must respond (at 4:00 a.m.), and who must deal with the most petty of enquires about those things that are no longer in stock and for which there is no longer a supply and the irate self-entitled behaviour such circumstances engender. Hey Ms/Mr. shopper, do you think that: 1) what you ask is reasonable? 2) That the person of whom you are demanding your petty concerns actually gives a damn? Moreover, even if you don’t acknowledge what kind of loathsome creature you are, do you think making some one else’s life miserable just so that you can buy a few trinkets for somebody you wish to impress with your “thoughtfulness” justifies your incorrigible behaviour?
Nevertheless, I still blame retailers for taking Christmas and making it into something so less than the religious and (dare I say?) spiritual holiday that it is supposed to be. It is simply a reflection, a byproduct, of the materialism as generated by the avarice defined by the nature of Capitalism. Greed has not only become the dominant force behind this holiday, it has become the expedient tool by which the avaricious have asphyxiated the original concept of Christmas by quite literally eviscerating it. A recent Wall Street Journal article shows how the season has been co-opted by businesses appealing to recent societal trends by capitalising on trashing Christmas for the politically correct and the monetarily fruitful vomit of “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings.”
I, for one, am sick of it.
The lust for profit has driven retailers to take these extraordinary and ultimately unprofitable extremes with little or no consideration for the fiduciary responsibilities to their employees welfare. The amount of business they do in additional sales relative to the cost of good will and additional expense to their employees (I’m sure there are egregious anecdotal exceptions) much less operating overhead, simply goes against any rational business sense. But, that’s what we’ve come to expect from these big stores: desperation over rationality.
Anyway, I’m glad I’m out of it and am in a position to say “no” to working weekends and late nights. This year I was able to do what little shopping I needed to do with ease and no stress or pressure. I was able to simply spend quiet evenings listening to REAL Christmas music, watch “It’s Christmas Charlie Brown,” have a simple yet elegant meal by candlelight, and just overall simply relax and absorb the the wonders (again through the true music of the season) and mystery of Christmas with my beloved. Whether or not one adheres to precepts of the theology associated with Christmas Day is irrelevant. There is something much more — a metaphysics if you will — that, if you’re simply willing to give yourself the time and honesty, transcends all the commerce, and avarice that have become such an unfortunate aspect of Christmastide. Hey folks, there are twelve days in Christmastide, not one; do something more than just buy a present or two for someone. Find yourself.
Contrary to what some of you might have been led to believe, I will still continue to compose and make my comments here. I wrote the previous column because I needed to say this. This has been something that has been eating at me for a long time; and, I felt that if I didn’t finally express my thoughts and feelings I simply wasn’t going to move forward.
Ergo, for those of you who do think I have something to contribute to this world, I’m sorry to say that you will see my comments from time to time here.
Welp, the “procedure” was done yesterday, and I must say, 9 hours prior to and for about 5 and a half hours after were some of worst hours of my physical existence. Since they found and snipped three polyps they want me to do it all over again in 3 years. I suppose it’s better than dying of cancer — at least until some of my music is performed and I finish the Piano Quintet.
Sorry about the slowness of this blogging business. In fact, my next entry will possibly explain some of this cunctativity.