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Shelby Foote, The Civil War

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or the Whale

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Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island

 

Disclaimer

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.

Thursday
Mar102016

Seven Last Words: Introduction

As part of my Lenten devotions, I started reading the book Seven Last Words by James Martin, SJ. As Fr. Martin explains, there is a tradition, today more common in Protestant churches than Catholic ones, of reflecting during Holy Week on the seven phrases that Jesus uttered on the day of his crucifixion. In the Catholic version of the tradition, churches will invite seven different people to comment on each one of the quotations at a service on Good Friday. The invitees are not all priests — some are laymen, women, and sometimes even non-Catholics.

The practice is not widely observed; I have never been a member of a church parish that practiced this. I have seen it at a few Baptist churches, however. Since I know that no one is ever likely to invite me to do anything of the sort, I am taking it on myself in the time we have left until Easter (March 27) to do the reflections myself.

This is a departure from the usual subject matter of my blog, I realize. But it is an exercise I would like to go through, if for not other reason than to give voice to ideas I have touched on at various times in my essays, but never directly expressed.

In the world, we can find every degree of spiritualism, from those who live practically every moment in prayer to those who reject religion in every way. My sympathies lie towards the religious side: I have never thought it possible to live without some kind of spiritual life. To live with the belief that there is nothing transcendent about the universe is, in my view, to live an empty life. Many people, I know, strongly disagree; but for me, the universe cannot simply exist, it must have a meaning, a purpose. There is no sense in my fighting the idea. Purpose has much more of a hold on me than I have a hold on it.

I have never attempted biblical reflections before, at least not aloud. These reflections are solely my own, but they are informed by my Catholic faith. I lay no claims on them as infallibly adhering to Church doctrine (although I think they are close). I do not desire to play the theologian. I say this not because I have anything against theologians, but because arguments about things like the biblical justification for the sacraments, or the meaning of “justification through faith,” or the meaning of the Eucharist, are not my focus here. They are interesting, but not essential. They are endpoints for belief, not its foundation.

The central challenge of religion for me is not theological knowledge, which is arguable, but faith, which is not. Faith is a profound mystery. How it works, what it means, these things elude me. This is not to say that faith itself eludes me; I feel it, but I don’t know exactly what it is. Faith, in this sense, is like love. Sometimes we find that we have loved another person without realizing it, such as when a friend moves out of town and we feel his absence. Brothers and sisters can love like that — they may live in and out of contact with one another for decades, only to discover late in life how deeply they cared for each other after all. Other times love is palpable and constant, like a mother’s love for her child, or the love of newlyweds, of of partners who have been committed to one another for decades.

Faith is like this. Sometimes faith is bold and intense, as present and awesome as a mountain. Other times it is present, but unnoticed. We have faith in things that we may not realize we believe in until that faith is threatened or betrayed. My faith in God has been like that. I am not always aware I believe in God, and sometimes almost think I don’t, until something happens that threatens that faith, and then suddenly it is plain. Then it emerges, like a flag out of the fog of battle.

And that is what these reflections will be about. Not about theology, not about religion, but about something deeper. Faith, made plain.

The Seven Last Words of Christ are:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:24.

“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43.

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.

“Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother.” John 19:26-27.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46.

“I am thirsty.” John 19:28.

“It is finished.” John 19:30.

 

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Saturday
Feb202016

Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird is in the upper echelon of American novels, one of the books widely taught in American schools that allows me to continue to hope for the future of public education. It was a runaway success because Lee was able to take a serious literary concept and made it optimistic and accessible to the general population. This is no mean feat. If it were easy, all literary giants would be billionaires. We all know how that is working out.

In Mockingbird, Lee had something important to say and found a nation of readers that wanted and needed to hear it. She made her statement in a succinct and entertaining fashion. Rarely do literary writers combine a crowd-pleasing, popular style with a timely and important message, and Harper Lee was able to do that.

Her great achievement was to be the right writer at the right time. An accomplishment, indeed.

A year ago my daughter had to write a paper about To Kill a Mockingbird for school, and since I had forgotten a lot of the details, I re-read the chapter where Atticus shoots the rabid dog. I had forgotten how tightly woven and concise Harper Lee was, her writing as clear and concentrated as nectar. In that chapter, a rabid dog is loose in town, and several citizens get together to draft Atticus to shoot it, knowing Atticus had the reputation of being the best shot in town. Atticus was reluctant to do the job because he had so carefully taught his own children to reject violence and didn't want them to see that he was an expert at a violent skill.

But in the end, Atticus shot the dog because the job had to be done and he was the best candidate to do it. Rather than turn away, he faced the duty, and did so with dignity and compassion. Scout understood this to mean that violence should be avoided, but when it cannot, violent power is best wielded with compassion, skill, and good judgment. If you are going to do a nasty job, do it right.

A great chapter and a great novel. And as it true with all great novels, it was even more of a pleasure sharing it with my daughter than it was reading it myself.

Atticus said to Jem one day, "I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "Your father’s right," she said. "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
Tuesday
Feb162016

Quote of the Week

"I mean isn't that what's the matter, when you get right down to it? I mean even more than the profit motive or the loss of spiritual values or the fear of the bomb or any of those things? Or maybe it's the result of those things; maybe it's what happened when all those things start working at once without any cultural tradition to absorb them. Anyway, whatever it's the result of, it's what's killing the United States. I mean isn't it? This steady, insistent vulgarizing of every idea and every emotion into some kind of pre-digested intellectual baby food: this optimistic, smiling-though, easy-way out sentimentality in everybody's view of life?"

-- Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road, 1961.

Saturday
Feb062016

"Stop Playing That Song!"

One of my favorite features of Apple Music is its curated playlists. These song lists, which are created by Apple music experts, are collections of recordings that often center around a central concept, sometimes almost randomly chosen -- anything from a road trip to the best hits of a decade to songs about math.

The world of music is broad and deep. I believe in the curator, the person who sounds out the depths, throws out the seine net, and returns with a variety of experiences that, left to myself, I would never have considered. Some are completely new experiences. Some are simply a new look at familiar music. I, as anyone, can be sadly predictable in my choices, even when I think I am searching out new things. It helps to listen to people who have different tastes or attitudes. They take me out of my usual rut and help us to see things in a new way.

Lately I have been listening to an Apple playlist called "Stop Playing That Song!" It is a compilation of recordings used in political campaign rallies that the artists forced the candidates to stop playing.

The description reads: "Politicians love to pump up the crowd at rallies and events by blasting rock classics -- but unfortunately they don't always ask the artists for permission. This killer collection features...rockers who weren't exactly thrilled to find their songs hijacked by politicians on the campaign trail."

The list includes a few songs that are obvious when you think about it:

             "Born to in the U.S.A." -- Bruce Springsteen

             "I Won't Back Down" -- Tom Petty

             "We're Not Gonna Take It" -- Twisted Sister

             "Right Now" -- Van Halen

 

Others make no sense to me, like "The Sprit of Radio" by Rush and "The Boys of Summer" by Don Henley.

The fun is guessing which politicians were told to get lost by the artists. In my mind's eye I can see Chris Christie getting a cease-and-desist from the Boss, and Ted Cruz being told to take off by Tom Petty.

But the list doesn't say who the offending politicians were, and that is part of the pleasure. Each time I listen to the list, I think of a different politician attached to each song, and it quickens my step on the treadmill.

 

Friday
Jan222016

Glenn Frey

This past week marked the deaths of two important figures in popular music, Glenn Frey and David Bowie. Of the two, David Bowie is likely the more important musician. Bowie was a chameleon of popular music; no two hits of his were ever alike, many startlingly different from each other. An endless innovator with an inimitable voice, Bowie was always distinct, always strange. An artist's artist.

Glenn Frey, best known as one of the founders of the Eagles, was the opposite. The Eagles were always consummate pop. In their time they sold records by the metric ton; their music was in every jukebox, back in the day when that meant something. But the Eagles weren't simply a popular group, they were a popular group of quality, whose albums were anticipated, who never recorded a bad song or an album not worth buying. Their "Greatest Hits" album, a phenomenon in music history, is 29x platinum, and the second best-selling record in music history. The Eagles rewarded loyalty, because their music was always listenable, always buoyant, even when it was trying to be dark.

Between Frey and Bowie, I find myself thinking about Frey more. Bowie was an innovator, and one never knew what he was going to come up with next. With Frey, one knew. But not in a bad way. Bowie was steak tartare and Frey was cupcake dessert, but there is certainly no shame in being the best cupcake chef in town; cupcakes, done right, are a marvelous thing.

In their day, the Eagles were mainline pop music. Not at all edge seekers, but good songwriters and musicians just the same. I for one do not demand that rock music always be avant-garde. Compared to classical and jazz music, rock is comparatively simple and musically safe -- one can listen to a rock station for quite some time and never hear a 13th chord, or change of key within the song, let alone a chromatic scale (music that does not conform to standard musical keys). These are regular features of jazz and classical music, which means that even rock songs that are considered innovative and sophisticated are, compared to classical and jazz, technically basic.

So I don't put sophisticated rock music much above the popular variety. Indie rock is just the Eagles with more distortion.

But sometimes straightforward turns out to be something more. The Eagles's style of music was a blend of country and pop music, long before country went big time. Many Eagles tunes used slide guitar accompaniments, and "Take it Easy" even features a good ol' fashioned, finger-pickin' banjo. The classic Eagles sound is the dubbed guitar -- a guitar backup that stacks guitar on guitar on guitar, giving the music a jangly, almost infinite depth. Some songs, like "Hotel California" seem to have at least 4 overdubbed guitars, an illusion complicated by the use of a 12 stringed guitar, which by itself sounds like two. Thus the Eagles, while sticking to standard country and blues accompaniment, sound much deeper and more complicated than they really are.

What is interesting about the Eagles is that, while their musical technique is not complex, their sound is never imitated. Even former Eagles, such as Glenn Frey in his solo efforts, sound nothing like the Eagles. It is a truism that talent makes the difficult seem easy, but whatever it was about the Eagles' sound, no one afterward attempted the deep overdubbed country polyguitar sound that characterized the Eagles. Rock went in another direction -- loud, throbbing, arena anthems and overproduced dance music -- but abandoned the open, placid, groovy style of the Eagles.

Perhaps no one imitated the Eagles because no one wanted to sound like Eagles imitators, but that is the hallmark of a good musical idea -- something that sounds so much like you that no one can approach it again without coming off as a cheap knockoff.

In that sense, the Eagles were innovators. Innovators in plain pop music sight.

As a guitarist, I find myself in a paradox that many musicians are familiar with -- I like to play music I don't like to listen to. Country music is a prime example. I like the bright, bluesy style of country guitar, the use of the blues pentatonic scale in broad, smooth strokes. I love to play it, that slinky, smooth, sliding sound. But I don't like to listen to it. Most country music is too simple and syrupy for my taste. But it is easy and enjoyable to play.

This is one of appeals the Eagles have for me -- they made country music listenable. The Eagles are country with the bounce of pop music, a clever blend of Country-Western, the folk rock of the 1960s, and the more progressive, polished studio rock of the late 70s and early 80s. This country-LA blend is a style of music that I liked to play when I was younger, and liked to listen to as well. This sets the Eagles apart from any other country music band I know.

One of the first serious attempts I made to learn a song on the radio was "Hotel California." My guitar teacher transcribed the whole song out for me in tablature on a yellow legal tablet, including the great Joe Walsh-Don Felder guitar solo in the coda that I learned by heart, every note, every bend, vibrato, and snap off. That solo was the piece I played as a teenager when people asked to see how good I was.

After "Hotel California," I learned "Try and Love Again," a filler song on the "Hotel California" album with a Joe Walsh guitar solo that remains one of my favorites even to this day. I love its cool, laid back style, complete with a couple of phrase inversions that for me is the epitome of tuneful, unpretentious pop music. Glenn Frey sung the lead.

This is why I will miss Glenn Frey. The Eagles's recording days are long gone and would have been even if its band members were all still living. But Frey's presence in the music scene always reminded me that there was a time when popular music wasn't trying to invent the next cool thing, create an internet viral sensation, or start the next dance craze. A time when the only goal of music recording was to sound good. And the Eagles always sounded good.

Photo courtesy of Steve Alexander.

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