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Shelby Foote, The Civil War

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or the Whale

Michael Punke, The Revenant

Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island



The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Katrina Blog Project

Handel's Messiah and the 142

Here is a something to think about as Christmas comes: the number 142.

Let me explain.

George Fridrich Handel, though born in Germany, is best remembered for the many years he lived in England, writing music for a series of British monarchs and for English audiences. Trained in Germany and Italy, Handel was a master of Baroque art forms, and was the first to introduce the ideas of Italian masters to British audiences. For many decades, he enjoyed great success. But by the 1740s, British music tastes had changed, and the popularity of Italian opera, Handel's specialty, began to wane in favor of works with English lyrics.

After several failed operas in Italian, Handel was at a low point in his career. His interest turned to the oratorio, a musical form that involved the setting of prose or poetry to music, and, in Handel's case, allowed for the adaptation of sacred scripture, translated into English, to classical and operatic musical styles. Handel was hoping that oratorios in English and the familiarity of the Bible would appeal to English general audiences.

His friend Charles Jennens, a well-known librettist, assembled and edited the text of the Messiah especially for Handel, in the hopes that a successful oraratio on the life of Jesus Christ would improve Handel's fortunes. However Handel, perhaps feeling he should not personally benefit from such a holy subject, had his own idea. He would donate the proceeds to charity.

At first, Handel, busy with other projects, put Jennens off, but in the late summer of 1741 he composed the masterpiece with astonishing speed. In a mere 24 days, he had completely scored 53 movements, including the immortal Hallalujah Chorus.

After some delay, Handel decided to perform Messiah for the first time in Dublin in 1742. No one is certain why he made the decision to open in Dublin instead of his hometown of London. Possibly, it was because he had promised the Duke of Devonshire, who was serving as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, a series of concerts there. However, an equally plausible reason was that Church of England clergy were resistant to orotorios based on the Bible, because they believed sacred scripture should never be used as a form of entertainment. In fact, Handel's previous attempt at a biblically based oratorio, Israel in Egypt (1739), failed under withering attacks from the British clergy.

Handel may have sensed that Irish audiences, being somewhat removed from the reach of conservative Anglican thinking and more in line with Catholic tradition, would be more receptive. The Catholic Church, through its veneration of the Saints and its tradition of live Nativity scenes, was much more accustomed to dramatizations of sacred stories.

But for whatever reason, the Messiah premiered in Dublin, Ireland, on April 13, 1742, and would not appear in London for another year (where it was, confirming Handel's instincts, less well received).

In Dublin, the Messiah was a smash hit, and 700 people packed the New Music Hall to hear the opening performance. So many advance tickets were sold that the concert managers asked men to leave their swords at home and for women not to wear hoops in their skirts so they could pack more people onto the benches.

For one of the work's most famous movements, "He was despised," Handel chose Susanna Cibber, an actress who had been disgraced by a London sex scandal. A clergyman in the audience was so moved by her performance that he leapt to his feet at the end of the movement and cried out, "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!"

And in this vein of forgiveness, we come to the number 142.

The Messiah opening netted £400 on opening night, and true to his word, Handel distributed the proceeds to three charities -- two hospitals, and a debtor's prison. And so in April, 1742, 142 people were released from an Irish debtor's prison when Handel paid off their debts. Freedom for a song.

Perhaps, when you hear the Hallelujah Chorus or any part of the Messiah this Christmas week, you may think of forgiveness, and of the number 142.

Imagine: The Hallelujah Chorus bought the freedom of 142 Irish debtors. As if you didn't have enough reason to love it already.

Why did Handel do it? Perhaps we can see the answer in Handel's own words. After completing the Hallelujah Chorus, he told a friend, "I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself."

If this were a visual work I might close with a recorded section of the Messiah, but since I am restricted to words alone, let us close with a few exerpts from Jennen's famous libretto.

From Part I:

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given,
and the government shall be upon His shoulder;
and His name shall be called,
Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God,
the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
(Isaiah 9:6)

He shall feed His flock like a shepherd;
and He shall gather the lambs with His arm,
and carry them in His bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
(Isaiah 40:11)

Come unto Him, all ye that labour,
come unto Him that are heavy laden,
and He will give you rest.
Take His yoke upon you, and learn of Him,
for He is meek and lowly of heart,
and ye shall find rest unto your souls.
(St. Matthew 11:28-29)

From Part II:

He was despised and rejected of men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
(Isaiah 53:3)

From Part II: Hallelujah Chorus:

Hallelujah: for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.
(Revelation 19:6)

The kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ;
and He shall reign for ever and ever.
(Revelation 11:15)

King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.
(Revelation 19:16)

From Part III:

O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?
The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law.
(1Corinthians 15:55-56)

And finally, from Part III, my favorite, the Great Amen:

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,
and hath redeemed us to God by His blood,
to receive power, and riches, and wisdom,
and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.
Blessing and honour, glory and power, be unto Him
that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, for ever and ever.

(Revelation 5:12-14)



Post-Election Reading List

When the going gets tough, the tough get reading.

Here are a few books I've read recently that help make sense of the recent election.

Deep South, by Paul Theroux. A somewhat cantankerous but honest assessment of poverty in rural America. It helped me appreciate a part of America that is everywhere but poorly understood.

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance. The moderate-conservative answer to What's Wrong with Kansas. A look at the suffering in the rust belt with sympathy that is not, for a change, also uppity. For a taste of this content, Vance wrote a post-election essay for the New York Times that offers a taste of his worldview.

Dispatches from Pluto,by Richard Grant. A look at the poorest of the poor in America, the Mississippi Delta, from the viewpoint of an Englishman-cum-New Yorker. And with a kind eye and even a sense of joy, I might add.

The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt. An examination of the differences between right and left wing psychology. I found the most eye-opening aspect of Haidt's research his discovery that one of the traits conservatives have in common that liberals do not is the importance of the sacred. In Haidt's view, conservatives are horrified by the abandonment of respect for sacred things (like flags and prayer) in liberal life.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Although this book is not about politics, it may be the most important book about human thinking written in the 21st century. A summary of Kahneman's Nobel Prize winning research, it looks at how humans make decisions, and how our tendency is to make decisions based on emotions and then back them up with facts, instead of the other way around. In Kahneman's thinking, the gut feeling almost always wins.

The Unwinding, by George Packer. A look at how the American system, in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis, has failed middle class Americans. Packer's view is that the disappearance of traditional institutions that supported the American Dream has resulted in concentration of wealth and the erosion of much of American cultural life.The Unwinding won the 2013 National Book Award for Non-fiction.


Clinton v. Trump

A few rough thoughts about our election, and Donald Trump, who will be our next president.

  1. I wanted Clinton to win, mainly because I disliked Trump so much. But I voted against Hillary in 2008 because I didn't want the wife of a former president becoming president herself. The presidency isn't a prize to be passed among a small number of elite families. Was Chelsea to be next? Michelle Obama? But we didn't do much better with Trump, choosing a white male billionaire celebrity. That isn't exactly breaking the concept of elitism.
  2. People in the country hate the government. Many see the government as a mechanism for funneling money and power to the super-rich. In that respect I agree. I just think the solution is not to turn the apple cart over and set it on fire.
  3. People hate Obamacare not because it exists (though this is true of Republican elites) but because it doesn't work for them. One thing I think I heard loudly in the run up to the election is that people are upset that Obamacare has not solved their health insurance problems. I think they want help in health care, but they want effective help, not a bureaucratic dog and pony show.
  4. The problem the average American faces is a lack of hope. People work without any hope of seeing a better life. People are angrier about this than anything. Millions of people work jobs in fast food, driving, lawn care, and have no hope of doing anything else. This is a sad thing, and neither political party gives a damn.
  5. Barack Obama is disliked by millions of poor whites not so much because of racism (although I do not doubt that factors in) but because he represents globalism. As do the Clintons. Poor Americans have seen industry disappear in this country, and they watch as technology takes their lives away. Uber puts cabbies out of work. Computer systems have elminated the jobs of transcriptionists, secretaries, file clerks, librarians, and many more and replaced them with nothing.
  6. Technology ploughs along, destroying lives in the process, most all of them poor. Self-driving cars will end the careers of millions of employed drivers. Consider that one of the richest companies in America, Facebook, is worth billions and only has a few hundred employees. This is typical of tech companies. They generate a huge amount of money for a small number of lucky people, while putting regular people out of work.
  7. The key to this election was encapsulated in Hillary Clinton's problems with the West Virginia miners. These people have been put out of work by technology, and it was clear that Clinton had done little or no thinking about how to assure them that they would be able to make a living. She just offered more education, which to them means student loan debt and not necessarily better prospects.
  8. The great fault of liberal globalism is lack of religion. To people left out of globalism, liberalism feels like an atheistic denial of human values and God. It also feels like an abandonment of American values. To me, this makes some sense. You can't open all borders and have complete exchange of ideas without losing something of your own identity. Of your own religion. There has to be a balance between the two. Right now, there is nothing in politics designed to protect the culture and values of people not part of the technological revolution. That is, rural whites and poor blacks.
  9. To people who accuse Trump supporters of being sexist, racist, xenophobic, and small-minded, I agree with you up to a point. But people resort to these vices when they are afraid. What no one has wanted to do is ask where the fear is coming from.
  10. I fear Donald Trump is not a good vessel for this energy for change. He is not, I think, capable of tearing down Washington and erecting something useful in its place. Maybe he can, but I don't think so. We could be in for a hard time.
  11. Stop the crap about running to Canada. The reason the Democratic party keeps failing is because when it gets beaten it doesn't bind together. Everyone just runs off and hides. Ideas that are worth fighting for when you are ahead are worth fighting for when you are behind. Or they weren't ever ideas in the first place.
  12. Forget about the damn emails. There will be a lot of soul-searching and wailing about this issue, but I don't think it had much to do with it. Except to the extent that the emails revealed a Clinton who thought she was too big for the rules. She could have saved herself from the issue by handling it differently, but Trump would have found something else to pound her with. Clinton excudes a sense of being out of touch with the common people. Even I can see it, and I'm pretty elitist myself. I can't image her telling an off-color joke, drinking beers at a bar, pumping her own gas. I know Trump has similar problems, but somehow these limitations stick to her much more than to him. It is probably related to her association with globalism, which makes her an unsympathetic figure.
  13. Finally, I confess to the sin of hubris. There was way too much hubris on the Clinton side. Who is to say that educated liberals really know best? Who is to say voters are too dumb to know what they want? The people chose. They chose Trump by the tens of millions. Is it really my place to judge them as stupid, or racist, or wrong?

A Halloween Horror Story

It was the was the first Halloween after Hurricane Katrina. Most of the people of the town of Metairie, which had been severely affected by the storm, had not yet come back home, having evacuated to other cities. Ordinarily, Metairie was not a spooky place, crowded as it was with stores, restaurants, and rows of houses built at a time when people were in such a hurry to build houses that they were all almost exactly alike. But after the hurricane, almost all of the houses were abandoned. Everyone who had lived there fled because of the hurricane, and very few had returned yet. Windows were boarded up, houses were full of garbage from flooding, shingles had been stripped off of roofs, and entire blocks of houses sat, abandoned, dark, and empty.

At the end of one of these dark streets was a single inhabited house, and standing in front of the house at this early evening hour were two children — not too young, maybe twelve and thirteen. They were about the age many kids stop going Trick-or-Treating. Both of these children had thought about not going out this year, thinking they were too old, but at the last moment they decided not to give up.

This year they were the only children on their block, maybe the only children in all of Metairie, for all they knew. Their little house had been built on a small hill that made it higher than any other houses on their street, and that made it one of the few that escaped any flooding. Most of their neighbors came in during the day to clean up their damaged homes, and then left for the night.

And on that street children had been going Trick-or-Treating for as long as they could remember, and well beyond that, beyond what their mother could remember, back to the 1950s at least. On this, the first Halloween after the great hurricane, they felt it was important to go out for candy, if for no other reason but to carry on the Halloween tradition, to preserve it for the other kids who would return later and go out again next year.

One child was dressed as a witch and the other as a mummy. These costumes may not have been their first choices, since they had both worn the same thing last year. They wore what they could find in the attic. There were no Halloween stores open so soon after the hurricane.

The kids knew it would be difficult to find candy, and in fact wondered if anyone would be giving out candy at all this Halloween. But they intended to try. They went from house to house, and most of the lights were out. Many yards were full of garbage that the people living there had thrown out out because of flood damage. There were piles of wet carpet, moldy furniture, and entire refrigerators full of spoiled food, sitting on the side of the road waiting to be picked up and carried away.

The girls found a few houses where the owners had left buckets out on the porch with candy in them for whatever kids happened to come by. They could take what they wanted. But even these the houses were empty, and no one answered when they knocked.

No one, that is, until they came to a house down on the opposite end of the street. While every other house was dark, windswept, and vacant, this one was glowing with light, and sounds of ghosts and spirits emanated from it loudly. There was ghoulish music wafting through the air, organ music, and the cries of spirits in hell. With trepidation, the children knocked.

A vampire answered the door. He looked surprised to see the children there, and had not expected anyone to be out that night. "Good evening, my young ones. We are surprised to have visitors tonight! We thought all the children had gone. Come in for a moment, and we will see what we can find for you. In the meantime, please accept one of my evil candied apples!” He emitted a diabolical laugh and disappeared down a hallway.

The two girls stepped inside the door, out of the cool fall air. The door slammed shut behind them. Inside, the house was full of Halloween spirits of every kind. There were mummies and ghosts, zombies and demons. Off to one side, two witches stirred a caldron that overflowed with vapor. On the other side, Frankenstein's monster faced a ghost that glowed in the dark.

The girls were old enough to understand that this could be a Halloween party for adults, but the ghost seemed to be levitating above the floor. The witches seemed to be concocting a poison that was real. Could they have stumbled into a real party for the damned?

The vampire returned carrying a tray full of human eyeballs. "I found something for you to feast upon!" he said. The two girls screamed and threw open the door, disappearing into the darkness of the night. The entire room erupted with laughter, and as girls ran for their lives, the electricity failed, and the entire haunted house disappeared into blackness.

The next morning, that very same haunted house appeared as quiet and unoccupied as any other house on the street. The yard was covered with trash left over from the ghostly revelry the night before — discarded beer cans and paper plates and chicken bones. Pieces of a smashed pumpkin littered the porch, and the caldron the witches were stirring the night before lay overturned on the brown grass. But in this respect the rundown house hardly seemed different from any of the other houses on the street, which also had discarded trash on their lawns. There was no sign of life at all in the previously haunted house -- could the spirits have all gone?

But there was a stirring in the back. A young man, probably in his twenties, could be seen coming out of the back yard and walking between the haunted house and the wrecked and empty house next to it. He was carrying a trash bag and was picking up the garbage. As he circled around to the front, he looked at the mountains of garbage everywhere in the yard and sighed. Then he looked down the street.

"One of the houses down there is inhabited," he said to himself. "It was wrong of us to scare those children that way. I think I know which house they came from, since only one other house on this whole street has people in it. Perhaps I should go down there and make sure the kids made it home all right."

He put down his garbage bag and began walking, past blocks and blocks of empty houses. Towards the end of the street, at the second house from the last corner, he found what he was looking for — a house with a clean lawn and a car parked out in front, the only one on the street that was clearly occupied. "Certainly the children came from here," he said. “There is nowhere else they could have come from.”

He approached the door. “I should have done this last night,” he thought regretfully, as he knocked. A silver-haired woman answered.

"Hi, I live in the house four blocks down," the young man said. "Last night, two children came to my house looking for candy while I and my friends were having a Halloween party. I'm afraid we may have frightened them. I just wanted to see if they are all right this morning."

"Two children?" the woman said.

The young man described the two young girls who appeared at his door, one a witch and the other a mummy. The woman listened, and as she did her eyes widened.

"No," she said, "there are no children living here. But what you are saying is very strange. You’re describing my two daughters, who are now twenty-one and twenty-two, and live out of the state. They’re going to college now. But about ten years ago, they looked and dressed for Halloween exactly like the children you described.”

Just as the woman said that, a phone rang behind her. "Let me get that. Stay here, I’m curious to know who these children could have been. Since the hurricane, I have not seen any children in the area."

While she was away, the young man looked at the sidewalk and saw that a candied apple, one of the apples he had given the kids last night, lay partially smashed on the sidewalk. A horde of fire ants swarmed over it.

The young man waited on the porch, and a few minutes later the woman returned to the door. Her face was ashen, and she was stumbling from what appeared to be an enormous emotional blow. "You must leave now,” she said, her voice shaking. “I just received a call from Tennessee. About two in the morning my two daughters were driving home from a Halloween party in Nashville. They were killed by a drunk driver."

The woman fell to her knees, clawing at the door frame in desperation and grief. The young man, in shock himself, turned around and faced the street. He looked at the apple in the street, and remembered that the two children had left his house just as the party was beginning, about eight P.M.

A wave of horror came over him. He last saw the two girls at eight -- six hours before the woman's two daughters had died in Tennessee. What if he had run after the two girls last night to make sure they were all right, as he knew he should have? Were these two girls ghosts? If he had followed them, would they have led him back to this woman's house?

And if the two ghostly girls had led him to this house last night, he would have described the two girls to their mother. Would the mother, out of concern, have called the two daughters up in Tennessee and told them what had happened?

And then the greatest horror of all surged over him: If he had come by last night and upset the mother enough to call her daughters and check on them, would the daughters, frightened by the peculiar story, have decided not to go out on Halloween night, and thus might have lived?

Something within him, as he watched the ants carrying off tiny pieces of the apple, convinced him that it would have been so.

He staggered out into the yard and the sunlight overwhelmed his eyes. He fell down on the clean lawn, the only clean lawn on the entire street, and collapsed, senseless.


Dylan the Laureate

Almost lost in the inexcusably bad news about the presidential election is a bit of truly good news: Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in literature. For me, this was a true shock — not because I doubt Dylan’s talent, but because I have not known the Nobel committee to ever give the literature award to anyone who didn’t write books. Yes, I know Dylan has published a memoir, a novel, and even a children’s book, but he is primarily a songwriter, and the poetry he won the Nobel for is almost exclusively  song lyrics. This is like a huge departure from typical Nobel awards, and a profound statement about the importance of Dylan’s work on worldwide music.

Being the only songwriter ever to win a Nobel for lyrics is an unexpected achievement.

I must admit I have not always been a fan. I didn’t have anything against Dylan, but his music never appealed to me. That changed a few years ago when I started exploring the music of the 1960s rock band the Byrds, who, like most people, I best knew for the song “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” a folk-rock rendering third chapter of Ecclesiastes.

While listening to the Byrds’ first album, I was struck by the beauty of the lyrics to “Chimes of Freedom.” My first thought was, this sounds like Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan’s phrase style and language are so distinctive that even I, the most casual of fans, had a sense of it.

And of course it did, because it was. The song was a cover from Dylan’s 1964 album Another Side of Bob Dylan. This should not have been a surprise, since the album I was listening to was entitled Mr. Tambourine Man, which is of course another Dylan cover.

So it turned out that, while Dylan recordings didn’t appeal to me, I liked the songs very much when they were done by other artists. For me, a different performance brought out the quality of the songwriting. As is sometimes true with great art, seeing a work in a new light changes its appeal, remaking it entirely.

So I went back to Dylan. Gave Highway 61 Revisited a revisit, then checked out Blonde on Blonde, and The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Yes, I had to concede there was something there.

But it didn’t change a basic fact — I prefer Dylan in translation. When someone else performs his songs, to my ear, it usually sounds better. Dylan, God bless him, is a poor singer. While I can appreciate the many who say his vague mumblings that pass for vocals are interesting and give a certain wildness to his music, I still don’t like it. I don’t like mumbling. I like singing: Go figure.

Why shouldn’t I prefer better performance? Would I insist that Bach play his own violin concerto, or Mozart take the role of the Don himself in Don Giovanni? Who said the artist has to be the best renderer of the material?

We all know that Shakespeare was an actor, and probably acted in many of his own plays. And while seeing Shakespeare play Hamlet would probably be an interesting and even illuminating experience, Sir Laurence Olivier would have wiped the floor with him in an act-off. I’ve never seen the Bard on stage, but have seen Sir Laurence on film, and  am satisfied that I got the better part of the deal.

 And so it is with Dylan. As a musician and singer he has his merits, but the Byrds did it better. I prefer music that is precise and, um, melodic, and Dylan can’t do that. His recordings are good, interesting, and even cast a useful light on his work, but Dylan would benefit from a Laurence Olivier.

He needs to find one. Plenty of great musicians have recorded entire artist catalogs. Some have recorded all of Beethoven’s symphonies, others entire cycles of opera, pianists have done complete sets of concertos, actors have done all the major Shakespeare plays. We need a truly great musician to do the Dylan cycle. To give all that Nobel-winning poetry the platform it deserves, so stuck up elitists like me can appreciate him for all his glory.

It would be fitting to close with a few lines of Bob Dylan. So: The opening stanza of “Chimes of Freedom.” I am especially mesmerized by the third line, “As the majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds,” a bizarre mix of sound and visual imagery. What in the world does “shadows in the sounds” mean? Nuance, perhaps?


Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll
We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing
As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds
Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing
Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight
Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight
An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing


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