Friday, August 31, 2007

Comics Characters Revealed - Ch'p

From the deepest dark of space comes the scourge of evildoers and nuts everywhere...


That's right, friends, for a time there was a squirrel in the Green Lantern Corp. Or maybe Ch'p was a Chipmunk. Not even the creators were sure as he appeared as both during his short and storied career. But whatever he was, he was from outer space, a fact you glean from the lack of an "i" in his name. Or maybe that just means that he's always thinking of others, never of himself. Whatever.

All I know is that a superhero with a cute bowtie wins in my book any day.

Unfortunately, Ch'p is no longer with us. He was dispatched to patrol Mosaic World and while there, was struck by a yellow tractor-trailer and was killed. A sad day for those of us who love truth, justice, and cute rodents.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Tropes, Paradoxes, and the U2charist

This morning, I've been preparing my lecture in the undergraduate Western Music History survey I teach every year. In some ways it is strange to mark my school year by the slow and relentless progression of history, from Greco-Roman times to the present, but it lends a certain liturgy to my days. This afternoon, not even two weeks into the march, I reach one of my favorite lectures.

Last class, we began digging into the codification and construction of the Roman Catholic Mass, how it came to be, its elements and practices, its place in Medieval society. But today, we reach an interesting crossroads.

For the Medieval Christian musician, there was an uncomfortable paradox in your job. You understood the Bible to be the immutable, infallible word of God. You also understood the Mass to be given by God, the service that all participated in to be in accord with the rules of the faith. There was One God, One Word, one Church, one Liturgy.

But at the same time, you were given a gift of creativity and encouraged to use it in service to the church. Think of how we speak of creativity even today. Creative people receive inspiration – “spir” as breath, the breath of God.

So the paradox is that God gives both His unchangeable liturgy and the ability and desire to create. So imagine that you are a musically trained monk, working with a liturgy that is already perfect. How can you add creatively to that liturgy? The church already has God’s voice, what good is yours? And, perhaps more interestingly, how will the Church respond to your tampering with something that is given by God?

My graduate school adviser first introduced me to this paradox of the Medieval era, but I quickly made the connections to the present day. Church music is a fine and tricky line. Let's face it, most of our theology comes from our music and parishioners have strong attachments to their music. For those reasons, almost all churches have disagreements and splits over their music as often as, if not more often than, they have disagreements and splits over theology and personnel. Go back and read older books and articles and you'll quickly see much music, now accepted by the church, labeled as evil.

In preparing to discuss this paradox with my class, I came across a provocative example. Within the past year, numerous Episcopal churches have begun holding U2charists, in which the traditional hymns and responsive readings used during Communion are replaced with songs and lyrics by U2. The idea came from the book Get Up Off Your Knees: Preaching the U2 Catalog in which various preachers offer mediative reflections and sermons based on U2 songs. It was then easy to take the Eucharist liturgy and insert "God Part II" into the Credo or have the congregation sing "All I Want Is You" during Communion. This has been adapted all over the place, and numerous examples of liturgies like this cover the web.

I've always found many U2's lyrics and songs theologically profound, but that old paradox rears its head as I ponder attending a U2charist. U2 receives no royalties from the services (in fact, U2 requires that all money collected during an event go towards the UN's Millennium Development Goals), but isn't there some part of you that hears about this and wonders if the Lord's Supper suddenly becomes more about Bono than Jesus's sacrifice and redemption? Or if you attend the service and can only think about how the band isn't quite that good a cover band? In other words, can you really add anything to a liturgy without taking something else away?

It's the same age-old question, dressed up in leather and sunglasses.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hot Young Composers

This past weekend, the Kansas City Star published its annual Fall Arts Preview, a section I always look forward to because I like knowing what's going on around and about the city. But this year's roundup of the top picks in "classical" music set my mind whirring so fast that it still hasn't stopped. In his coverage, the local critic had the following pick:

•Jennifer Hidgon’s “Blue Cathedral,” Kansas City Symphony, season opener with Michael Stern and pianist Garrick Ohlsson performing Chopin, Sept. 28-30, Lyric Theatre. Stellar orchestral work by America’s hottest composer, who happens to be a woman.

Two specific comments snapped me to attention as I lazed on the couch on an early Sunday morning. First, with Jennifer Hidgon, it amazes me that we still need the qualifier "who happens to be a woman." Those old habits of thinking of composers as men still permeate our classical music establishment. This fact shocks me every time because in studying music since 1945, women composers abound and the idea of composer = man no longer enters my thinking. It is as though, with this statement, we are seeing her as a woman first and a composer second, whereas with men, this never happens. The very Romantic attitude of "Isn't it quaint that women are writing music and getting recognized for it?" gets under my skin in an age when many of the top composers are women.

The second comment immediately precedes the "woman" statement, that she is "America's hottest composer." I know this statement came directly from her press publicity, where Bob Keyes of the Portland Press Herald so named her, but how is "hottest composer" tabulated? She is certainly performed often by major orchestras as "new" music that isn't scary, but is she hotter than, say, John Adams, whose every work is published and recorded immediately? And coming right before the "woman" quote it has disquieting undertones of judging on physical appearance.

I know, I shouldn't over think these statements, that they are quick blurbs. But often in our shorthand we reveal larger strains of thought. I'm not trying to pick on this specific paper or writer, but instead show the distance we still have to travel in understanding music today. There are strong power structures in "classical" music that are slowly weakening, and women and minority composers of all sorts are making inroads. I just look forward to the day when I students aren't surprised I teach women composers in my classes because, of course, in music history we study composers.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Hatchin' Grow Dino, Day Fourteen

The internet has asked for it, and I have responded. Ya'll have been clamoring for new pictures, new statistics, new anything about Hatchin'. Ya'll are the hungry public, aching for any glimpse of Hatchin' and I am the ruthless paparazzi, catering to your every whim.

You may remember how big Hatchin' had gotten last time we saw him. Well, behold his majesty now:He's so large that he is busting out of the top of the water. I'm going to have to move him to a bigger bowl for him to continue to grow! If this keeps up, I'll just throw him in the lake and he'll be enormous. In fact, perhaps that's where the Loch Ness Monster came from - he's just an ancient Hatchin- Grow Dino!

I think I'm on to something here.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Read More Harry Potter Book?

This summer, while traveling, Joy and I decided to read through Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince again to get ready for the release of the last book. We've done this on many occasions; it's almost like having a book on tape, only better. But this time, Sam was old enough to have his own ideas about what we were reading. So one day, while driving the back roads of Arkansas, I asked Joy to read a bit of Harry Potter. She was sitting in the back seat next to Sam, and so pulled out the book, showed it to Sam, and began to read.

Sam was intrigued for a few moments and then looked at Joy with his most serious expression and said "All done Harry Potter book."

Shocked, Joy dutifully put down the book. Immediately Sam smiled and muttered, "read more Harry Potter book?"

Surprised, Joy found her place, removed the bookmark, and began reading again. Sam quickly shook his head, "All done Harry Potter book."

You can quickly see where this went. Needless to say, we didn't get very far that day. But Sam's infatuation with Harry Potter continued. When we returned home, we put Half-Blood Prince next to my side of the bed along with the latest book and continued reading at bedtime so we could jump into The Deathly Hallows. Every morning, when Sam comes into our room now, he walks right up to the books, opens up Half-Blood Prince, and begins reading to himself. You never know what he'll read, but recently, it's been about how a young elephant named Babar meets Harry Potter.

Actually, that would make an interesting story. Any interest, J.K. Rowling?

But for now, as we're finally catching up with the rest of the world and reading the new (and last) Harry Potter book, Sam is right there with us:

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Entertaining the Neighborhood

Sorry for the silence over in our little corner of cyberspace; classes started this week for all of us (even though Sam only goes on Mondays) so our house has been a little crazy. But when things get crazy, you can always retreat to the 100 degree weather outside and play in your new red truck!The best part is that our neighbors have all noticed Sam in his truck and many have stopped us to comment on him. When I took the trash out Tuesday morning (in my pajamas no less) our next door neighbor was out as well and said that she and her husband had been sitting in their sunroom, enjoying the late afternoon when they saw Sam climbing in and out of his truck. That alone wasn't enough to induce the fits of laughter she claimed. No, those fits came about when Sam did this:
There's a little phone in the car and Sam, as soon as he gets in the truck, yells "Ring, Ring," picks up the phone, says hello, and then proclaims who he's talking to on his phone. He's already a soccer mom and not even two.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Dear Jesus, Thank You for Trucks. Amen.

I love finding things on the side of the road. (Unless they're dead things like birds or squirrels.) This weekend had a very happy moment when Andrew and I were driving down the road and saw a large battery operated truck for little people to drive with a sign in front of it that said FREE. This is my kind of side-of-the-road fare, especially since Sam's absolute favorite thing in the whole world is trucks.

Of course, we manhandled the silly things into the back of our car and headed on about our errands hoping Sam did not see what we were doing. Miraculously, Sam did not really see the truck then or even later when we manhandled it out of the car into our garage to store it till we could clean it out.

So, today, I was exhausted after teaching Kindermusik and trying to find things to amuse Sam that took little effort on my part when I thought of the truck. I sent Sam into the backyard to play for 2 seconds while I opened the garage and brought the truck around the fence to him.

I have never seen his eyes bigger. When I came around the side of the house with this beautiful, bright red Jeep his face clearly said, "For me? Really. No way!" Even better, it has a pretend walkie talkie so he can simultaneously pretend to drive the truck and pretend to talk on the phone. Great training for life, I know.

As I sat and watched our elated Sam playing in the truck, I suddenly realized how enormously happy I was to have given it to him, what joy it brought me to see him so very happy. And then I felt myself enormously blessed and cherished somehow as I remembered that Matthew 6 says our Father in Heaven loves to give us good gifts, that it gives Him great pleasure as well.

So, from me and Sam today, Dear Jesus, Thank You for trucks and the joy they give us and for loving us as your precious children. Amen.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Harry Partch - The Chromelodeon

The Chromelodeon is one of my favorite of Partch's instruments because it is an adaptation of a keyboard instrument, it has a wonderful name, and because it is just so darn colorful.

The Chromelodeon is actually one of Partch's earliest conceptions for an instrument; when he was studying in England in 1934, he drew up plans to build a justly-tuned keyboard instrument he called the Ptolemy. It was a reed organ with a typewriter keyboard and he had a mock-up built, but the instrument broke during shipping back to the states and he abandoned it in favor of the Chromelodeon.

There are actually three Chromelodeons:

Chromelodeon I - a six-octave melodeon (hence the final part of the name) that he obtained in Chicago for experimental purposes. He turned it to play all the chromatic "colors" of his scale (hence the first part of the name) and it has six stops and a series of sub-bass keys to augment the sound it is capable of producing. The keyboard is color coded with bright primary colors to represent the various harmonic relationships between pitches. This was the instrument he used in his early Americana works.

Old Chromelodeon II - originally a chapel organ with a five octave range and four planes of keys on the keyboard. This doubling of keys made it easy to play Partch's music, but he lacked the skills to service the organ and abandoned it in 1949.

Chromelodeon II - a full piano keyboard of 88 keys drew Partch to this version in 1950. It is another reed organ, but Partch tuned it to all the unusual tunings he used in Oedipus, Revelation in Courthouse Park, and Delusion of the Fury so he didn't have to constantly retune the Chromelodeon I.

The sound of all three is as you would expect - imagine being in an old country church singing hymns to a pump organ and you have the sound in your head. But what was amazing to me about Partch's use of the instrument was his ability to make it sound so fresh and new and unlike you might expect. Here's a clip from U.S. Highball, where he often makes the Chromelodeon sound like a train:

Friday, August 17, 2007

Hatchin' Grow Dino, Day Four

Well, it's been four days since I plopped my little egg into the water and look how big Hatchin's gotten:
He's like a monster, now! Ok, well, a dinosaur, but you understand what I mean. I didn't take any pictures to post yesterday because he was in that awkward teenage phase where his tail was too big for his body and his nose looked all funny so he wouldn't stand still for pictures. But now that he's 4 inches long (!) he's rightly proportioned again.

The company website claims that he'll grow 600% by the time he's done and ready to come out of the water, so hang in there. His Debutante Ball can't be too far away!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tikhon Khrennikov, A Cautionary Tale

On Tuesday, Tikhon Khrennikov, a prolific Soviet composer, died at the age of ninety four. I bring up his name as a cautionary artistic fable in these uncertain times.

Who was Khrennikov? His name is largely a footnote in the United States, even to those of us who study 20th Century music. But in Russia, his is a large and overwhelming presence, as noted by the press coverage and memorial service planned. The reason? He was able to climb to the highest levels of the Soviet artistic circle by conforming to and exemplifying the mandate of Socialist Realism.

In the early 1930s, when Khrennikov was beginning his career, the Soviet government formed the RAPM (Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians) to help enforce communist ideology in music. What was that ideology? It is best seen in the mandate composers embrace Socialist realism – “the truthful and historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development.” In other words, Soviet, communist, revolutionary music was to be lyrical, heroic, and easily understood by the masses.

But what did "easily understood by the masses" actually mean? By the 1940s, when the RAPM was replaced by the Union of Composers, official pronouncements from Andrei Zhdanov, the man Stalin put in charge of governmental cultural policy in the 1940s, was making clear and easy distinctions as to what Soviet music sounded like and what music was acceptable: “Reflecting the general evolution of class society, the music of the past evolved along two main paths: on the one hand the music of the toilers, the exploited, and the oppressed classes (the so-called folk music), on the other hand the feudal bourgeois music, which comprises virtually the entire bulk of written ‘cultured’ music....Bourgeois music in its latest period (that of the entrance of capitalism into its highest stage, financial capitalism) has reflected the process of general decay and disintegration of bourgeois culture. During this period music begins to cultivate decadent moods, and engages in the following pursuits: ... cultivation of sensual and pathological erotic moods as a result ... of a bourgeoisie degenerating morally and physically; cultivation of primitive, coarse subjects." The distinction continues, but you get the idea. Strangely enough, this notion of folk music vs. bourgeois music played out in Soviet culture by exalting the 19th-century Russian school as drawing from the music of the oppressed and exploited classes and therefore worthy of emulation. The highest form of Soviet music was bold symphonic music that praised the people who never had access to it before or during the early Soviet period.

Khrennikov's musical style, which was lyrical and stridently anti-modern, fit well with this ideology right from the beginning. And where it didn't, Khrennikov made sure that his music fit with the times. The first purge of musicians came in 1936, when Pravda attacked the most successful composer of the day, Dimitri Shostakovich. Shostakovich was at a high point with the overwhelming success of his opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtsensk. Unfortunately, Stalin came to a performance and the next day an article appeared in Pravda titled "Chaos instead of Music."
The article ravaged the opera, ominously claiming that "The power of good music to infect the masses has been sacrificed to a petty-bourgeois, 'formalist' attempt to create originality through cheap clowning. It is a game of clever ingenuity that may end very badly."

Usually that bad ending was a bullet to the head, but Shostakovich survived and watched, three years later in 1939, as Khrennikov's first opera, Into the Storm became a hit, largely because of its singable melodies and its plot based on Loneliness, a novel by Nikolai Virta that was commonly known to be among Stalin's favorites. Khrennikov's star continued to rise in the 1940s as he produced patriotic songs and symphonies and endeared himself to Stalin and Zhdanov. By 1948, he was so well-like among governmental artistic leaders that he was appointed Secretary of the Union of Composers, which meant that he had to take Zhdanov's ideology and put it into practice. The result was the final consolidation of the Soviet government's rigid control of musical production, a series of condemnations of prominent composers by labeling them "formalists" and enemies of the people, and the beginning of Khrennikov's 43-year reign as secretary, a post he lost only when the Union of Composers was dissolved following the Soviet Union's collapse.

Khrennikov was a big shot. He controlled Soviet musical policy and had his music played as soon as it was written. He derailed or destroyed the careers of countless composers, including Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Schnittke, Denisov, and Gubaidulina. But his music is almost never played outside of Russia and his name is largely unknown. The composers he criticized and banner, however, enjoy prominent places in the modern musical world. Just search for any of those names in this paragraph's second sentence and you'll discover riches Krennikov denied.

So what's the moral in this. Was Khrennikov a bad person? By all accounts, he could be quite kind, as when cellist Mstislav Rostropovich persuaded Khrennikov to provide money so a sick and dying Prokofiev could buy food, and he occasionally supported composers under official attack, as he did with Moshe Vaynberg during the anti-Semitic purges of 1948. But he chose to protect himself above almost all else and was willing to change his art to do so. One of the reasons I find Harry Partch so compelling a musician is that even in the face of incredible opposition, he never wavered from his aesthetic convictions. That focus is rare and valuable in the arts, and it translates into compelling music. Even when the state, the culture, your closest colleagues tell you to compromise just this once to get by a little easier, remember Khrennikov.

Shostakovich understood this and continued to write music as he wanted, even though he never published much of it. As a fitting end to this tale, one of those "desk drawer" pieces provides Shostakovich's view of Khrennikov. His cantata, “Rayok,” was written in the late 1950s as a four-voice, satirical view of Zhdanov's decrees and the speeches other composers made in support of it. When the work was finally performed publicly in 1989 (14 years after the composer's death), guess who's words made an appearance? I suppose Khrennikov will live on in history after all.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hatchin' Grow Dino - Happy Birthday!


The packaging said it would take Hatchin' 48 to 72 hours to break out of his shell. He did it in 24! I don't want to say that my dinosaur is better than everyone else's, but he is obviously exception even at birth. Now we'll just have to watch and see how big he gets!

Checks celebrating Hatchin's birthday can be made out to Hatchin', care of Andrew. His wishlist will be up shortly.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Hatchin' Grow Dino, Day Two

So, as of this morning, here's how Hatchin's doin':
As you can see, he was a busy little dinosaur last night. Look, he's even got a leg out!

Also, since I'm sure many of you were wondering, here's a small note to let you know some important information about Hatchin'. The package clearly states that he is "Not For Consumption." So no dinosaur eggs for breakfast this morning. And I suppose that I can't grow him to full size (the packaging does also claim that if I keep changing the water, Hatchin will "grow and grow!") and have dinosaur legs for dinner either. Where's the fun in that?

Well, that's all true if by consumption they meant ingestion. It could be that the Hatchin's makers are back in the 19th century and they really meant that he is "Not for Tuberculosis." Dang it, and here I was hoping I'd found a cure in an egg.

More later.

Hatchin' Grow Dino, Day One

We'll get back to more serious, weighty topics eventually, but I wanted to take time out to chronicle the amazing development of my Hatchin' Grow Dino:
Hatchin', as I've taken to calling him, was a gift from some dear friends for my birthday. He arrived in the mail while we were gone to the lake, so I'm only now helping him out of his egg. The package boldly claims that if I allow the egg to sit in the water undisturbed for 48 - 72 hours, my "Hatchin' Grow Dino (tm) will break out of its shell and begin to grow!" This afternoon, Sam and I gently put Hatchin' in his watery nest:
There he sits, and here we wait. I'll keep posting pictures and let you know how Hatchin' grows.

Monday, August 13, 2007

I've Got the Wrong Degree

In case you missed the announcement at this year's Southern Baptist Convention, Paige Patterson announced that starting this fall, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary will be offering a Bachelor of Arts in Humanities with a Homemaking Concentration. That's right, he's making the MRS. an actual degree at a seminary. Patterson claimed that in forming the new course of study, "We are moving against the tide in order to establish family and gender roles as described in God's word for the home and the family."

Open only to women, the degree includes 7 hours in design and clothing construction, 7 hours in cooking and nutrition, and 3 hours in "the value of a child." I'm not sure why they aren't teaching homemakers how to actually rear a child, but at least they will be valued.

I actually have nothing against a home economics degree. As Joy mentioned when I showed her this story, there are many skills she wished she had only once she had decided to stay home with Sam. But two things about this specific degree bother me. First, do you really need a seminary degree in homemaking? And second, will 23 hours, which would take about a semester and a half to fulfill, really prepare you? It seems as though they are going halfway in the program.

Besides, can men not be homemakers and Christians? There are two fathers on my street that would argue strongly that they can be. Besides, given how much housework and childcare I do even though I work fulltime and my wife does not, couldn't I benefit from these classes? Where does God say that men cannot do work in the home? I wouldn't trade my time with Sam for anything in the world, and I know that God has called me to be with him and a large part of his life. Can men training to be ministers or missionaries not have the same calling?

Ok, so there is a third thing that bothers me about this degree being created, and that is the way women professors have recently been treated at the seminary. As the Dallas Morning News reported, one of the only women teaching in the School of Theology, Professor Sheri Klouda, was fired last spring after five years (in other words, right before tenure) because she was "a mistake that the trustees needed to fix." *sigh* Only Dorothy Patterson, the seminary president's wife, remains on the faculty. I suppose I know too many women who have deep relationships with God, are extremely intelligent, have profound insights into theology and Christian life, and have taught me much about my own faith walk to believe that women shouldn't teach theology.

Ah well, might as well go with the tide, right? So here, courtesy of Rev. Ben Cole, is a lost homemaking skill, resurrected for your edification - how to thread a vintage Kenmore sewing machine.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ms. Constance

While living out our month by the lake, we were hampered from living our modern lifestyle by one middling fact - we had no internet. I shouldn't say we had no internet, because that isn't strictly true; we had dial-up. But once you have crossed over into using broadband, there is no going back.

Once a day, we would check e-mail, an hour's activity at least. If I decided to blog and did not have a pre-made post waiting in the wings, that hour could stretch to two. Most of those hours were spent staring out the window, watching boats pass with screaming children careening behind on various shapes of tubes. When a page would load, I would quickly read or write whatever e-mail was at hand, click the appropriate button, and go back to watching out the window until the next page appeared. The internet, like life that month, was slow.

Since Joy was in the middle of registration for fall Kindermusik classes, such a slow internet was not merely an inconvenience, but a detriment to her business. So, we sought out other means of procuring the internet. In a small Arkansas town, that meant the local public library.

The library had just moved into a new home, a narrow but surprisingly deep storefront in a freshly-built strip mall that was slowly sucking business away from the old one right next door. We drove to the new residence on a Monday afternoon around 4:40, figuring that although the library would soon be closing, we might have time to procure a library card. No such luck. The library's hours, clearly etched on the glass front door, were Monday, Wednesday, Friday, from noon until 4:30 and Saturday mornings from 9:00 until noon. Caught off guard after our years of 24-hour Wal-Marts and late-night Taco Bell runs, we retreated home until Wednesday.

Two days later, Joy ventured out alone while Sam napped. She discovered that the library was one single room, with shelves at least six feet high lining three sides of the room and identical shelves lined up at an angle in its middle. Three computers dominated the remaining wall, two for internet access and one devoted to the card catalog. The back corner was given over to children's books, videos, and DVDs, which meant that the shelves were half-height and a cozy rug stretched over the industrial carpet, inviting browsers to plop down and read a while.

Two other features caught her eye as she walked in: The first was a rack of fishing poles; in that small lake-hugging town, you could check out a pole for an activity that, I suppose, was as quiet and reflective as reading so was a natural fit for the library. The second was desk in a small alcove next to the entrance's airlock. And at that desk, presiding over the comings and goings of the library and, realistically, the entire town's populace, was Ms. Constance.

Ms. Constance's name, like the adults in the Harry Potter novels. was wholly appropriate, - as far as I could tell, she never left her desk. The shelves were angled so that, with the help of ceiling-mounted circular mirrors certainly swiped from a dying convenience store, she could monitor if books were reshelved after being slid from their spots or, following library policy, placed on top of the shelfs for later collection and redistribution. Each of the computers was pivoted so that she could see each screen, noting the internet traffic that came into her library. You came to Ms. Constance for help, never the other way around. The library was her domain, and she ruled it completely.

That muggy Wednesday afternoon, Joy approached her desk, armed with a piece of mail that proved we were living in town, for at least the month. She wasn't the only one after a library card that day, so Ms. Constance waved her hand at Joy for her attention, and exclaimed that she would only be saying this once, so be sure to listen up. She went on to explain that anyone wanting a card needed to have a personal reference, so Joy needed to be thinking of who could provide that for her. Taken aback, Joy put down her mother (at the local address) and hoped that close relatives would suffice. They did, and Joy received her card along with a list of rules and regulations for the library and, most importantly, internet usage.

The two computers were numbered capriciously; there was no indication on the physical computer as to which was #1 and which #2. Ms. Constance would simply tell Joy which computer she should be on and which one was #1 (or #2) for that day. Joy would then sign in and commence her work.

Being that close to the desk allowed Joy to hear the interactions between Ms. Constance and her patrons. Everyone who entered greeted her warmly and asked after her husband, who, evidently, had recently undergone surgery. Ms. Constance, as befitting her name, always replied, "Well, he's in a lot of pain." Following this interchange, Ms. Constance would change the subject, invariably asking after the book the patron was reading and if they were enjoying it. Most responses included a remark on how much they enjoyed it since it didn't have any of that cussing or foul language. Ms. Constance would shake her head in agreement and suggest a new book that the patron might pick up. She knew what everyone was reading, had read, and might be interested in reading.

I learned firsthand Ms. Constance's interest in reading habits when I attempted to find a book in the library. I had recently finished Under the Banner of Heaven and knew that the paperback version contained a response to the book by the Mormon Church. Wanting to read that response, I approached the card catalog and began to type.

"You don't want to do that," a voice to my right said, "I can find it a lot faster than you." Suppressing the urge to tell her I had used an electronic card catalog a time or two in my life, I told her the title of the book I sought.

"I haven't heard of that one," she responded. "What's it about?" I told her while she discovered that the library did not currently have a copy, but one could be sent from another branch in a few weeks. I declined and backed away until a few minutes later, when I returned with a book for Sam I wanted to check out. I handed her Joy's card and she looked quizically at me.

"You don't look like Joy to me." I explained that it was my wife's card. She responded that she'd let it slide this once, but she was going to call me "Joy" from then on until I got my own card.

This was at the beginning of our, and mostly Joy's, trips to the library. More, so much more, to come.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Happy Frank Zappa Day!

In case you missed the announcement, today is Frank Zappa Day in Baltimore, Maryland. The Mayor's proclamation begins "The City of Baltimore is proud of its rich musical heritage, and is honored to claim the prolific composer, musician, author, and film director Frank Zappa as a native of our fair city."

Zappa is one of my favorite musician/composers to teach because he crossed so many boundaries in his music. Here is a man who was incredibly influenced by Edgard Varese (finding the composer after reading an article that described his music as "a weird jumble of drums and other unpleasant sounds") and claimed influences as wide ranging as Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, R&B, Doo-wop groups, and modern jazz. His music, which can be found on the over 60 albums he recorded during his lifetime, is as eclectic as you might imagine, but is inventive and refreshing and audacious. Never one to mince words, he also regularly made proclamations on music like:

"The creation and destruction of harmonic and 'statistical' tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) which remains consonant and 'regular' throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only 'good guys' in it, or eating cottage cheese."

Or on the power of music to influence our moral behavior:

"There are more love songs than anything else. If songs could make you do something we'd all love one another."

And then there are the quotes just designed to show off his wit such as "There is no hell. There is only France. Or "Tobacco is my favorite vegetable." Or perhaps my favorite from an interview when he was asked "So Frank, you have long hair. Does that make you a woman?" and he responded "You have a wooden leg. Does that make you a table?"

In the final years of his life, he stopped writing rock albums (he was a phenomenal guitar player) and began writing orchestral music. He was invited the year before he died to write for and conduct the prestigious German group "Ensemble Modern." Fortunately the results were televised, so I leave you today with a bit of Zappa's orchestral writing that demonstrates his remarkable synthesis of musical style. Here's the "BeBop Tango:"

Be sure to notice the piano player performing the very Henry Cowellesque piano clusters. This is why I teach him and why Baltimore is honoring him today. So check out the rest of his music, but do be warned that he does tend to talk dirty.

This Time, the Name is 4Real

When we were naming Sam, Joy and I went through numerous possibilities and tried to think of every eventuality. We imagined calling a name from the back porch, hearing it read at graduation, and the derivatives that young boys would use in making fun of our son. An example - for a long time we wanted to name any son we had Jackson, but Joy and I both thought that carrying on the family name Samuel was also important. As you can imagine, Joy quickly nixed my idea of naming our unborn child Samuel Jackson.

We scoured the internet, playing with fun toys my brother showed us like the Baby Name Wizard's Name Voyager where you can track the popularity of any given name. We read articles forwarded to us by friends about how names migrate down the socioeconomic ladder and the implications of a name on our child's future success. We tried out numerous combinations, searching for the perfect name.

In other words, we drove ourselves a little silly.

This fanaticism is common, I've come to discover, but I've also found that once parents settle on a name, there is little you can do to change their minds. The name becomes that child's. Joy and I often remark on how Sam's name fits him. What does that statement really mean? Nothing beyond how pleased we are with the name we've chosen, that we feel it works for our son. We're glad we named him what we did.

So, with that background, I wasn't too surprised to see this little news item in the paper this morning. It seems that when a New Zealand couple first saw their baby on an ultrasound, they realized their baby was "for real" and so named him on the spot. They christened him "4Real." Only problem with that name? The New Zealand Government Registry does not allow names with a digit in them. What's a determined couple to do?

Register the child as "Superman" and keep calling him "4Real." The Telegraph's article on this story includes many odd children's names, including the extremely close Kal-el Coppola, son of Nicholas Cage. We do have a tendency to be tenacious about the names we decide upon, don't we. It got me thinking, what are some of the strangest names you've come across? Many of you are teachers, and I'm sure you've stories to tell. 4Real!

Monday, August 6, 2007

More Boomwhacker Fun

Yesterday I introduced you to Boomwhackers. Today, because I'm still obsessed with them, I went on youtube and found out that church children's choirs, professional men's choruses, and music majors in college sitting around trying to entertain themselves have all posted video of Boomwhackers. But here's my favorite, an example of what happens when members of a drumline get a hold of them and have too much time on their hands:

Words cannot express how happy this makes my child-of-the-80s heart.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Whack Them and They Go BOOM!

Joy recently purchased the coolest musical instrument you can buy for your child. I'm not kidding. These things are so addictive you'll be wrestling your child for the chance to play with them.

They are nothing more than plastic tubes that have be cut so when you hit them they produce fixed pitches on the diatonic scale. So when you hit the red tubes, you get a "C," the orange one gives you a "D," and so on. And when I say "hit," I mean "hit." You get to smack these things on the wall, the floor, the table, your arm, your child's head, anything really and you get a note. Whack three together and you can make a chord. Sure it comes with mallets, but where's the fun in that?

Best part? The name - Boomwhackers! Doesn't it just make you want to whack the tubes and yell "BOOM!"? Ok, maybe it's just me, but Sam's doing it too.

You also get a black plastic cap that drops the pitch produced an octave, a cap they call the "Octavator," which when combined with Boomwhackers makes these things sound like they will either save the world or take it over (The Octavator is attacking with his Boomwhackers! Take Cover!")

The octavator works on elementary Partchian physics - the octave is produced by vibrating something at twice the length. So that got me to thinking what would happen if they made justly tuned Boomwhackers? Even Boomwhackers to Partch's 43-note-to-the-octave scale. How impossibly cool would that be and how impossibly much could we mess with kid's musical training for life? I tremble at the thought.

Anyway, head over here for a sample of what the Boomwhackers can sound like. And then go buy a set!

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Keep Your Hands Off My Son's Harness

I'll get back to Greers Ferry stories tomorrow, but I just needed to share this morning's experience.

Saturday mornings, we usually go to the Farmer's Market here in town around 7:00 since Sam is up anyway. This morning, Sam slept until 7:30 (wonder of wonders), so we decided to eat breakfast before going.

Bad idea.

The Market was packed. There was no strolling through the aisle, you were carried along by the current. Nervous about losing Sam in such a crowded place, we asked him if he wanted to sling or wear his monkey. He opted for the monkey, so we slipped it on his back and he and I wandered the Market's perimeter while Joy picked out our produce.

Right off the bat, a grandmotherly lady stopped me to ask where I found Sam's harness. She related how grand it was using one for her children, and now that she had a new 10-month-old grandson, she wanted to get one for him. After I told her where and when we got Sam's, she walked away declaring she would go buy one today. Sam and I went about our business, listening to the musicians playing, talking to big dogs, sitting on the curb watching the world go by. Then a couple approached me and the husband bent over Sam and asked him: "Has your daddy taught you to lie down and roll over yet?"

Waves of fury, no, tsunamis of fury rose up to my mouth and began to pour forth with retorts like "If you have something to say about my parenting, have the nerve to say it to my face and not to my son," and "If you'd like to be responsible when my son is abducted, I'll be happy to take his harness off." But before anything could come out, his wife began talking about how great harnesses were and how her noisy neighbor was always complaining about them but had forgotten what it was like to parent and blah blah blah.

I walked away.

Now, I've mentioned how Joy and I used to scoff at harnesses, but never in my wildest dreams would I have let such a comment come out of my mouth in public or private. Memo to the nice lady at the Market this morning: your husband needs a leash for his mouth.

Friday, August 3, 2007

More Proof that Sam's a Fish

In case you didn't believe me when I posted about Sam being a fish, here are a few pictures from our days playing in the lake.

There are Bubbles Everywhere, originally uploaded by agranade.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Days of Grace

After a long month's absence, we're back home. We pulled into our garage yesterday afternoon and Sam immediately had to touch every toy, push every car, and explore this home that he had forgotten about while we were gone. For our part, Joy and I looked around and began to remember the small things we had forgotten while we were away - the piles of new Kindermusik equipment for the new location, the washed dishes left to dry for a month by the sink, the hum of the air conditioner and fan murmuring as we go to sleep.

Mainly, though, we noticed how much stuff we have. The past month we've been on Greers Ferry Lake, living in the cabin Joy's parents purchased a few years ago. They've slowly been fixing it up, and since it exists as a get-away, not a full-time home, it hasn't accumulated the detritus of life. Our home is full of stuff you pick up and bring home, always meaning to throw away but never quite moving it out from under the pile of other stuff you pick up and bring home. We both looked at each other as we wandered around our house, looking at it as though it were someone else's, and declared August a month to shed a few pounds of stuff.

Living in Greers Ferry was an exercise in living life more simply. Last night's excursion to the grocery store to restock our refrigerator is a good example. Wandering the florescent aisles was like a small miracle after shopping in Greers Ferry. Here were items we only dreamed of in that small hamlet and all reasonably priced. If we wanted something, we reached out and took it. In Greers Ferry, we bought fresh and had luxuries (like hummus) brought in by parents coming to visit. Sure, they had food both prepackaged and suited to more exotic tastes, but it was hit and miss what you might find. It was a life more in tune with the rhythm of the area rather than the rhythm of the world trucked in to your doorstep.

A typical day this past month was one where I wrote and watched the water while Joy and Sam played and read. Family came to visit and we had long games and longer conversations. We played in the water and on top of it and took walks so Sam could see the horses and cows down the road. They were days of grace, rarely obtained, that made us want to clean out the clutter of our existence here at home.

The next few days I'll fill you in with stories from our month in between the hectic runnings here and there that comprise life as usually lived, stories of a small place and a way of life we had almost forgotten. And maybe we'll be able to slow down, move some of our stuff to Goodwill, and bring a bit of that time home to Kansas City.