Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Only One?

"Have you ever gone to a Star Trek movie?" I said as I turned to the gentleman near me on the lawn at Tanglewood. I think he was stunned by the question that had been prompted by the Boston Pops presentation at John Williams' Film Night of the opening sequence of "Star Trek into Darkness."

"Well, I've seen some of the earlier ones," he replied, "but not the latest movies."

"I haven't even seen the early ones, and after seeing the sections of film presented here tonight, I probably won't see any of the movies."

His daughter overheard the conversation. "We (She and her sister) have seen a couple of the movies. You're probably the only person of your generation who has never seen Star Trek."

I was caught again, out of step with more than several generations this time. A few years ago, I was told that I was out of step with the latest generation because I had not read any Harry Potter. I remedied that by reading the first book and watching although it really hurt to do so the second installment. There were some good points made. Certainly there are some unforgettable characters, whom I can't remember now. But I now was in touch with a generation that I had not been in touch with before. Phrases and characters from the Potter series will live on for many years as they are incorporated into the dictionaries and Wikipedia.

While I was at a party a few weeks later, I sat with a couple of young girls, aged 7 and 10. Fresh from reading and seeing Harry Potter, I attempted to relate by using my new arsenal of information gleaned from Potter. "So, do you read Harry Potter?"

The ten year old replied, "Not really. I like Lemony Snicket."

She and her sister told me about Lemony Snicket. I listened the best I could, distracted, knowing that I had some more reading to do to relate to another generation. I didn't go out and by a Snicket book, but I Googled it, and found a few things that would help me in the future. On the other hand, the next thing is probably already out there, and the generations keep on coming.

"No, I don't read Lemony Snicket... I just read good stories," is the latest response.

After the Star Wars sequence, I used my flashlight to see what the second half of the pops concert was about, "Jurassic Park," "Jaws," Throne Room and Finale from "Star Wars." Yes, I'm out of touch with something. "Scent of a Woman," "Fiddler on the Roof." I saw those two. Maybe I'm okay.

The daughter was folding up some of the equipment they had used for their banquet on the lawn. I reached down and helped unscrew a table leg. I thanked them for the great crisp chocolate chip cookie that tasted like the ones my mother had made. Then I packed up my chair. The daughter helped me with that. She assured me. "You may be the only one but you seem to be a man who has done a lot over the years, so you probably shouldn't worry about it."

"If I'm that singular, it's one more achievement. This is a big crowd tonight and I'm tired. I need to get to bed early more than I need the second half of this program. Enjoy and thanks."

Am I really the only one who has never seen a full episode of Star Trek?

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Transformation: From host to guest

I sat dazed; not entirely sure of my feelings; where to start. I looked up, moved my head as if to speak. She gazed at me coaxing me with her eyes. "You want to say something… take your time…I'm listening." I had just been through one of the most moving experiences life has to offer on a Sunday afternoon in the Berkshires. The Boston symphony just completed a stirring rendition of Beethoven's Ninth. It's a tradition at Tanglewood to close the season with this inspiring piece that includes soloists and choir singing the Ode to Joy in German, but understandable in any language. You just know something great and wonderful is being spoken.

The wonder of this moment began about three weeks before. I am an Airbnb host. My guest was a young man named Nat who described himself as an extra viola player with the BSO. He wanted a clean place, where he could practice, and have some shelf space in the fridge. That was easy. I must say, and he would agree, that he got much more. A garage to park his bike, large bowls for morning cereal, a room with a fourteen foot ceiling and open sliding doors where he could practice without disturbing or being disturbed, and even a dresser that he could use as a workbench for his second career, rejuvenating bows for stringed instruments with horse hair.

Daily we sat at breakfast, he with his huge bowl of mixed cereals, fruits, and yogurt. Me with my cuppa. "So what's on today?" "Rehearsal for Saturday." "Who's performing?" "Andris Nelsons' wife will be singing. She's with the Metropolitan Opera. The second part is Richard Strauss, 'Ein Heldenleben', a story about a heroic life. Usually there is a story portrayed in the music; you notice it by the interaction between musicians and instruments" Nat then told me the story behind each of the movements. The next morning we talked about Beethoven's Ninth.

Although he was an extra, Nat played most of the nights. Over breakfast we covered Mahler "Watch for the hammerschlag, a huge hammer"; Sebelius, "Kavakos on the violin, an imposing presence, but only about six feet tall"(I thought he was a giant).; Mendelssohn "Tetzlaff on the violin loves to play softly, challenging the orchestra to also play very softly; that can be difficult for the conductor"; Berlios "You'll like this one"; Shostakovich "Not everyone likes to play Shostakovich"; and others. We talked about conductors, why one such as Nelsons was able to get so much out of an orchestra with what seemed to me to be such erratic and eccentric movements, and "The orchestra picks up on the passion of the conductor. He puts out. The orchestra responds." "Keith Lockhart, conductor for the Boston Pops, limits his movements and is more precise… it's clear what he wants you to do." We talked about Yo Yo Ma, the renowned cellist who is traveling with the BSO now and on a trip to Europe next month. I went to three of Ma's performances during the three weeks. It's apparent why he is so popular. At least three great violinists also performed revealing different styles and different strokes, each engaging the audience in various ways.

We talked about having a cookout for some members of the BSO, but they were busy entertaining relatives and friends. I wanted Nelsons, and Ma to come. That didn't work out, so we went out to Lagonia's in Chatham for pizza, and talked for about two hours. I prepared and we shared Indian food and lasagna on a couple other nights. Nat's bright charming Irish friend joined us for the lasagna. He brought a different kind of beer in every few days for me to try. We made up beds for a couple of his guests who stayed on some nights. "I don't care how you use the space," I told him. "I'm getting an awful lot from this experience."

So that final Sunday was the culmination of a three week immersion for me into the life of a gifted, struggling musician. He got me passes to the lawn for four weekends. The last Saturday night, he actually found tickets that put us into the fourth row in the Shed, just short of the stage.

The us who sat in the fourth row, and the she who was gazing at me in the first paragraph, was Mary, Nat's friend. She's a PhD. Mathematician from Ireland. I had two mornings of math seminar with her over coffee. Geometry, and specifically symmetry was her field in math. She also baked some terrific bread/cake laced with raisins and chocolate chips. She accompanied me to the Saturday night concert with the soloist and the Strauss piece. She sat next to me on the lawn on Sunday afternoon under a maple tree, entranced by Beethoven's Ninth. The music, the friendship, overwhelmed me. I got my voice back. "I just feel so grateful." I had become the guest in a wonderful world for three weeks.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Treaty with Iran

In February 2002, President George W. Bush, in his second trip to China, recalled the meeting that came out of Ping-Pong diplomacy, telling President Jiang Zemin: "Thirty years ago this week, President Richard Nixon showed the world that two vastly different governments could meet on the grounds of common interest and in a spirit of mutual respect."

Read more:

In 1972, the world watched with suspicion the move of China into the gallery of great nations. They came through a back door. A ping pong tournament. Because of the respect born on the tiny table, Richard Nixon and Chou en Lai were able to open the doors to each other's nation. A wary eye from each side has marked this relationship ever since. It would be great if there were no sides and no wary eyes. We know that the world did not end when relationships were normalized between these two great countries. We know that there have been tests of will over the years. We know there has been great good done because of the relationship. China is a huge country still controlled by a powerful few. The results of cooperation have made the world more prosperous for all, and generally more peaceful.

Barack Obama has made a similar opening to another great country, Iran. It too is controlled by a  powerful few. It's a country rich in people, natural resources, and history bearing on our Judeo-Christian heritage. The country has been ostracized as a rogue state, similar in many ways to China. The efforts to open the door to Iran has been monumental, except for missing the ping pong. An agreement has been hammered out, not perfect by any means. Agreements, compromises never are perfect. They can only be evaluated by results. If a war is prevented, if lives are saved, if the breath of freedom can be felt by another country long suffering from sanctions imposed by other nations, then the agreement  is worth it. If it's war that nations want, that can happen anytime. We do that too often. When it comes to waging peace, it takes something else. It will be good to give peace a chance.

The world will not end when relationships are normalized between Iran and the rest of the world. There will be tests of will over the years. Great good will result from this new relationship. Although Iran is a huge country controlled by a powerful few, the results of cooperation will make the world more prosperous for all, and generally more peaceful.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Be careful what you drink!

Dylann Roof is not crazy. What he did is. He slaughtered innocent black people who had welcomed him into their discussion group last week. He was the only white person there. They thought he came to discuss. He knew that he had come to kill. According to believable reports, Roof was a member of a white supremacist group that has a stated goal to kill black people. Apparently that is covered by freedom of speech.
Roof is not crazy. He was simply following the logic of the group to which he belonged. The group is a garden of hatred.  Kill black people. He took his belief to heart. He is being cheered, I'm sure, by his fellow believers who hope that others will follow the dictates of  conscience inebriated by the draught of hate, and do likewise.
People drink from the draught they choose. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Communism, Buddhism, Atheism. There are divisions and subdivisions, offshoots and inbreeding, from all of them. Extreme versions of any of these ideologies often deny others the right to live, think, speak, even breathe, eat, or drink; they deny a right to an education, insist on inequality, supremacy for the few. They kill.

What I would like to see is something simple to happen. Thinking people, explore the destiny of the path of your chosen ideology. Where does it lead in this life? I am not talking eternity here. No one knows what happens in eternity. We believe or guess at that. It is important to know the logic of our path in this life. How does our chosen ideology allow us to interact with others on the journey who may be different from us. The common denominator: we are all on the journey. We were born naked. We go into the ground with nothing. What do our choices mean as we speak, act, live, love along the way. Bottom line…beware the draught of hate.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


I reached for the kit. It had dozens of little figurines in it, three or more littles statues of several different chess pieces, kings, queens, knights, bishops, pawns, rooks. It was unreal. The instructions on the test stated that I had to figure out the probability of several of these little people to pop up together under each set of circumstances that would be described in the first ten questions of the exam.

It was a standardized test. I was already way behind in the timing because of some irregularities that I demanded the test proctors remedy, and that they report to the testing organization, a branch of the SAT. I was so screwed. After they distributed the test packets, the area where I was to enter my personal information on the answer sheet was ripped off and lost. My question to the proctor- Where should I enter the information. Can I have a new packet? No, there are just enough for the candidates in the room. Write it on a little piece of paper and staple it to the place where it will go. But the testing company will just throw it away, it won’t fit into their scanning machines. Do it that way. I want you to report this as an irregularity so they know the problem and that I did the test. Yeah, right.  I was wasting precious time that I needed to do the test. I’ll do it and take care of making sure they handle it after I’m finished. I returned to my place, my chair was gone. The others were working diligently on their test. I saw a huge King James(LeBron) oak chair that I managed to lug to my place. I opened my booklet, prepared my answer sheet by printing my name along the margin, stray marks that would probably invalidate the paper, and invalidate me. I read the directions about the little people. One of the other test takers sneered as he shoved the box of little people in my direction. Then he returned his eyes to his paper fearful that he might be accused of cheating. As I opened the box that was tightly wrapped in cellophane for security, I felt much to do...they are so far ahead… they know what they are doing...

I woke up to a sunny day and laughed out loud. My interpretation....feeling inadequate.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Veni Sancte Spiritus

Thirteen of us, young men, mid-twenties and a few older, lay on the cold marble floor in the sanctuary of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, N.Y. The ceremony of ordination concluded eight years of study that prepared us for the priesthood. The choir in chant called on every saint that ever lived, and some that didn’t to “pray for us” and the angels “to intercede for us”. We all needed a lot of help to do what we were going to do. All those who ever were saintly in life would have our backs. We were not alone. Priests from within a hundred miles came and laid their hands on our heads as a sign that the Holy Spirit would guide us in some way to do a good job. One by one they came. Some pressed hard to ensure that the Spirit was there. Others not so hard. The Spirit smelled, some times like Aqua Velva, and others like he needed a bath. It had boney fingers and stubby ones. I learned that it takes all kinds to make up a Spirit. The choir struck up the 9th century hymn, Veni Sancte Spiritus, “Come Holy Spirit”. Finally we participated in our first mass with all those priests, and Bishop Edward Maginn as chief priest.

We were proud of the journey through the years in the seminary. The church was different from the time we first began to study. The second Vatican Council had occurred . Pope John 23rd had opened the doors to the fresh currents that flowed into religious circles- the use of the vernacular in rites and ceremonies instead of Latin, increased tolerance for other religions, active participation of the congregation in liturgy and parish governance, lifestyle changes for priests and religious. Perhaps a softening stand on contraception. This group of newly ordained became the vanguard to initiate the changes on the local level. We had nothing to do with the changes that were handed down. We looked forward to those in leadership positions to guide us.

Little did we know about the politics of change. We did not appreciate the depths of the old roots. Like playing follow the leader, we accepted celibacy as part of the terms of our service. “Promitto” “I promise” we responded when asked in Latin if we would be faithful and obedient to the Bishop and his successors.

Why wouldn’t we accept celibacy? We all had lifelong schooling that taught this as an excellent way to serve God. We had anticipated this commitment, had warded off temptations to abandon the pursuit of the priesthood, and here we were. There were many talks given about the value of celibacy in order to dedicate oneself to God’s work.

The first conversation I had with a spiritual director in minor seminary- the first two years in college after high school- I was asked “ Why don’t you want to get married?” My programmed response was “Because I want to be a priest and do God’s work.” I was so sure at the time. The director then said “ Wouldn’t you like to have a nice house in the… barbecuing on the patio?” I guess he didn’t know much about my small city background far from the suburbs. Our family of seven lived in a two story brick house in a residential neighborhood, with a small fenced in yard. I never dreamed about the suburbs. I had never been there. We only had a family car for the last three years of my high school career. Besides, that lifestyle did not fit in with the life of poverty that Jesus led. “No…,” I responded, “I hadn’t really thought much about that.” “It can be a great life,” he suggested. I thought..If that’s so great, why aren’t you there?... and then said “I would rather be a priest.” With this answer, I was cleared to go on. “You will do okay,” as he affirmed my desire.

Through the eight years of study, I managed to stay focused on my goal. Shortly before the eighth year began, I was called into the office of one of the priests at the Theological College in Washington, D.C. where I had been studying, for what was known as a “canonical examination”. This was an interview to determine my general thoughts and intentions about being a priest, and about celibacy in particular. The Church was in a state of flux. Vatican 2 had raised hopes for change in so many areas of church practice. The law of celibacy for priests was different. An effort was made by officials to assure that no one was entering the priesthood under the delusion or condition that the law would be changed. I honestly assured the examiner that my acceptance of celibacy was unconditional, and I was ready for the commitment.

Within a few months, I was ordained a deacon, and a year later, I spoke the word “Promitto” as Bishop Maginn held my hands within his in the ceremony of ordination.

“Veni Sancte Spiritus” echoed in my mind,
Come father of the poor, come giver of gifts, come light of hearts
The best Comforter, delightful guest of the mind, sweet relief.
The spirit descended and I was ready.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The House

The frustrated anxious realtor brought us to the last house of the day. “This house has been on the market a while,” she said. “I haven’t seen it yet, but it’s old.”

The aroma of baked ham, drizzling fat mingled with pineapple and cloves inhaled us into the unpretentious little house that we had passed so many times on our way to Chatham. A half mile up the road from where we were living in one of the oldest houses in Austerlitz, Dorothy and Howard Twiss were sitting in the brightly lit living room warmed  by a  glowing fire. “It’s cozy in here,” Dorothy said. “Put the baby down here while you tour.” Phyllis put Dan down on the couch next to Dorothy. Dorothy reached out and patted him a bit. “You’ll be alright. Mommy will be right back.” It was safe and warm.

“Take your time, look around; check out the upstairs,” Howard urged. “We don’t get up there much anymore.” The steep stairs brought us to three dark cob webbed laced bedrooms. There were lots of beds. “We used to take in borders,” Howard exclaimed. “It helped pay the taxes.” The upstairs hallway was tiled, but seemed to have a bulge. The bedroom doors were original and sported original 18th century hardware. The ceilings had cracks, but it was warm up there. I spied a hatch to the attic.

“We seal that off in the winter,” Howard said. “In the summer, there is a fan to cool the attic.”
“Is the space usable?” I asked.

“Well... there are no floorboards up there.” he sheepishly replied. “I needed money to put in the furnace, so I sold them to pay for it.”

We tromped down the stairs. Dan was beginning to stir. While Phyllis picked him up I studied the woodwork in the living room. It was similar to what was in the house where we were living, 1788. The plaster was cracked in a few places. The floor there was shiny, well cared for,and  ancient.

“A little  linseed oil once a year is all I do to keep them nice,” Dorothy offered.

Beautiful!!“ Phyllis told her.

Dozens of little window panes magically filtered the early moonlight, distorted through the molten glass that had drooped over hundreds of years.

“The house was built around 1790,” Dorothy informed us as we continued to wander.

The kitchen, where the roast was baking had a new linoleum floor. “We wanted it to be easy to take care of….just use mop n’ glo“ Howard boasted. “The floor’s a little uneven, but it will last a long time.”

So’s the ceiling, and it probably won’t last long at all. I thought to myself.

There was a slight uphill rise toward the chimney. “There used to be a fireplace that took up this whole wall,” Howard explained. “The floor is built over the stones where it was… that’s why it’s so uneven. The Mercer’s before us took it out so they could have a bigger kitchen.We had a wood stove here before we got the furnace.”

I opened the door to the pantry. The handwrought hinges creaked. “It gets cold in there,’ Howard said. “Cans freeze in there. We try to keep the heat in the kitchen.” I quickly closed the door. Dan was restless in his mother’s arms.

“He’s hungry. Can I nurse him in the living room?” Phyllis asked.

“Sure she can,” Dorothy shouted from the other room. “Come in here and relax.”

Dan had his first of many meals in that house.

“That small bedroom upstairs is warm and quiet. Good for the baby.” Howard said.

While Phyllis took care of Dan, Howard showed me the other living room that was set up as a bedroom. “This room used to be a post office. Maybe it was used before that as a store.” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“The floor was really a mess when we moved in,” he explained. I put in new floorboards and then the rug to keep it warm.”

It was warm. There was a picture window facing the back of the house. “We used to take that window out during the summer,” he said. “We had cows here at one time… scared the heck out of us one day when one of ‘em stuck her head inside and mmmooooed.”

Dan was content, and back to sleep. Phyllis said, “We love it.”

“I guess we’ll get back to you,” I said. “we want to look around outside in the daylight.”

“Come any time,” Howard said. “There are five acres, and another 39 up the hill. You can buy it all if you want.”

We were excited. “Make an offer!”  the realtor suggested. “They are asking $35,000, but are anxious to move south where they have family.”

The next day, we went back. Despite the snow, we looked around outside. The garage housed Howard’s elongated 1967 Pontiac. The wall had been bumped out to accommodate that. There  was also a 1938 Rototiller that Howard had used to plant a potato garden. “It’s one of the first ones built by Frazer!” he remarked. “I’m going to leave that here if you don’t mind. When it warms up in a month, I’ll show you how to start it.” He wanted the tiller to have a new life, that he knew he could not give it. A younger man, a younger couple, children can bring life to the cold, tired landscape.The stream flowed rapidly between the ice sculptured banks toward the south. There was a small hill, apple trees, and blueberry bushes poked through the snow. Visions of sledding, pies and more pies danced in our mind.

The asking price was $35,000. We offered $25,000, and we finally agreed on $30,000 for the house and 5 acres.

As the winter snow diminished, we toured the old cobbler shop behind the house. It housed fire wood, and old tools. There was a tumble down turkey coop, a little tool shed, and a ramp that ended in  mid air where the entrance to the barn once stood.  Parts of the barn were stacked, rotting around the back of the ramp. Much of the barn had been taken away, sold to pay taxes and put a new roof on the house. “When the roof goes, the house goes” Howard advised.

The snow had covered a lot of problems: piles of debris from the barn, little hills of garbage here and there, old wagon parts rotted into the ground, wire fences along the boundaries, lying where their posts had died, now rotting, and a junked 1960 Rambler .

In mid-March, the spring sun encouraged crocus and other bulbs to peek up, and the outline of Dorothy’s gardens were revealed. Periwinkle poked out around the foundation. A bed of rudbeckia was outlining itself near the driveway. Howard dragged out the tired old Rototiller, and gave me lessons. “It’s pretty heavy, but you let it do the work… It just goes along...wear boots… sometimes you hafta’ help it out,” he explained as he ran the tiller again and again over the Rudbeckia. He let me start it. I too made a pass over the RudbecKia. “It won’t hurt the flowers,” he assured me. “They’re tough, and the tiller isn’t going too deep. Ground’s still frozen.”

We walked around a little. He opened the tool shed. “I’m leaving you these mowers… they run...I used ‘em last year. They need fresh gas,”he advised, “but they’re all you need..” The treasures were not impressive.I was not brought up with engines of any kind, and suddenly I was inheriting a barnful of yesterdays toys.

Wherever I went, outside or inside I saw work. Phyllis also saw work, but concentrated on the beauty, the setting, the antiquity, the possibility.

On April 1st, Fools’ Day, we had the closing. We checked hourly from 11:00 a.m. until 2:p.m. and by 2, the Twisses had gone south. They left a studio couch in the living room. By 3:00 , we had moved enough things in so we could be comfortable, including the crib for Dan and a changing table. With firewood, courtesy of Howard and Dorothy, I started a fire in the fireplace. Phyllis prepared shipwreck in an electric frying pan also left by the Twisses.  While the baby slept,we were warm and together by the fire. In our new space, there was no "spaces". We were all babies.

Resurrection required?

I have been thinking memoir almost around the clock lately. Then, Holy Week arrives. I continue to be  intrigued by the story of Jesus, his life, teachings, cruel and inhuman death and improbable resurrection. The stories about Jesus written over time by the"evangelists" portray a very good person, betrayed, disgraced, and crucified. We would know little about Jesus if it weren't for the writings that we have come to know as the gospels, and the new testament. He would have been a footnote in history along with the other messianic figures and rabble rousers that came on the scene to oppose the domination of the Jewish land by the harsh Roman Empire. That harshness is evidenced by the method of execution for the worst revolutionaries who challenged the rule of the Caesars, including Jesus. This humble teacher was considered a threat. He had to go.

If you follow the story in the gospel of the author called Mark, there are parables, events, miracles, and relationships. He ends it with the story about Jesus being seen by the women in his life, some disciples that are not too well known and finally by the apostles who traveled with him most of the time.

Remember Jesus. It’s a memoir.  It's similar to what I'm writing. Different in that the author of Mark tells the story in the third person. A memoir is usually in the first person. Perhaps the epistles of Paul are more akin to the first person memoir.

The stories of Jesus are compelling adventures of a great teacher, who attracted a faint hearted band of followers. The teachings stand on their own as timeless truth, lessons to live by. The parables attach new meaning to scenes from everyday life.

The tragedy of the crucifixion of this good person would be a sad and brutal ending for any story. The short resurrection ending helps us forget the tragedy and revert back to the teachings. A story of goodness requires a happy ending. A resurrection. Not only did this provide a wonderful ending to the sad story, but it made a great spin into a belief system for generations.

New endings are written every day as people encounter and survive tragedies.  New beginnings are required for the survivors. A personal resurrection.

As I write more and more of my memoir, I realize the need for a resurrection narrative of my own. I know it is there, and it’s real. What do I write? How do I write it?