Archive for September, 2018

Body of Opinion

After Redeemer’s new organist completed his first Sunday service of the new church year, I bounced up to the organ dais and declared, “I like your snappy style.  Those hymns bounced right along—no slouching to Jerusalem here!”  I wasn’t alone.  Several others of the choir had rushed the organ after sitting transfixed through the Bach postlude.  It had been a game-changer.


But I hedged the awkwardness of the moment, speaking to my stature as an ancient song-bag hanging on for dear life.  I surveyed the crowd and offered, “Sure, he really needed to hear that from me.  Actually, he needs to hear that from everybody!


“Hear.  Hear,” the group agreed–a jovial concession to elder wisdom.  What’s going on here?  Hmmmm.  I understand that it is jarring for young people to be presented with the spectacle of an old person, much less an old woman, flitting about dispensing compliments right and left.


The problem seems to be a readiness to give opinions where none is solicited.  Who asked me?  Nobody–but I have nourished a style of supplying compliments where, though none is required, I am nevertheless sowing in bounty.  At my age it is satisfying to count your many blessings.  One of the most delightful of those blessings is a constant parade of wonderful things and people doing their very best.  It seems most reasonable to report their accomplishments.  “The world is so full of a number of things; I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”


I haven’t always been generous with adulation.  When I was five, my father off to war and military hardware a big deal, I wore tiny B-17 bombers on my pigtails.  One day while lunching with my mother and her friend, the woman’s daughter began giving me a hard time about having airplanes on my braids where everybody knew ribbons were the required adornment.  Undaunted, I let the fatuity fly by.  Addressing the mother I sniffed, “Your daughter is a mighty big girl to have such a small mind.”  I might have addressed my complaint to the girl, but she was hardly worth addressing.


I don’t, you see, offer tribute where none is due.  Seventy-five years later, I provided a pat-on-the-back to Redeemer’s new basso=profundo section leader.  His is an arresting vocal apparatus that reminds me of Henry Kissinger.  What a voice!  He’s a marvel!  Why shouldn’t I tell him how his performance speaks to my soul?  Why?  Perhaps because others don’t spread compliments willy-nilly.  Others are more circumspect—more collected.  Others are more balanced in their adulation.  No wonder my mother’s all-time-favorite question of me was, “What will people think?”  What, indeed?  They might think I am claiming some superior knowledge—that I know better—that driven by some perceived surety of understanding I am weaponizing truth to my will.  Are they correct?  I hope not.


A 1970’s book, “What Others Think of Me Is None of My Business,” by Terri Cole Whittaker was a hallmark in sounding depths. or shallows, of people’s cognitive dissonance.  I took its admonition as a cautionary injunction and let the chips fall as they chose–weighted to the side of self-expression and pride-of-species.  It makes me feel good to speak of excellence; don’t ask me to defend that.  I am happy to be a human animal.  Homo sapiens sapiens is indeed the crown of creation, whether evolved or—if you wish—a body formed by God’s own true hands.


That doesn’t lead necessarily to pride of person.  At Redeemer Episcopal Church, I am surrounded by parishioners of superior intellect, more resplendent bono fides, and better connections.  In the face of such a daunting surround, I continue to offer my opinion as if it mattered.  Am I oblivious?  No.  It does matter.  One of our choir altos is a graduate of Harvard’s Graduate School of Architectural Engineering.  I am titillated with the thought of picking her brain for building design morsels.  What an opportunity!  My husband and I once made a living in the Sierra Nevada drafting building plans for people wanting elegant cabins and homes in their Mammoth Lakes and June Lake neighborhoods.  We launched High Country Drafting from our less-than-elegant cabin on Mono Lake—legal because we didn’t claim certification as anything at all.  Larry and I filled a need by providing affordable building plans for people who wanted the savings of forgoing an all-bells-and-whistles architect, who would gladly charge by the square foot.  We floated our boat under the sail of “designer,” not “engineer” nor “architect.”  Our plans could be handed to a contractor who would build our brainchild under his own license.  Clients had to choose their own accouterments.


We had one drawing table.  Adjusting it to vertical, he drew on the back; I drew on the front.  We agreed to announce incipient erasures.  We managed–and we had a marvelous time doing it!  We soon expanded to a Lee Vining office across from Niceley’s Restaurant and Bar, equipped with his‘n hers Vemco V-Tracks, where we turned out some memorable flights of creativity.  Does the honest humility of this situation dictate a future of not-good-enough?  I think not.  High Country Drafting did some good work.  We didn’t make a lot of money.  No matter.  I look forward to an exchange of war stories with my choir buddy from Harvard Yard.  Why not?


Who am I to render an opinion about anything?  A nobody?  A somebody who cares—who gives a damn!  I have as much right to an opinion as anybody who has eyes to see, ears to hear, and mind to assess.  It’s good to remember that this is an internal dialogue.  Nobody has raised this issue in the range of my hearing ears.  This is a castigation of and by my own devices—my very own Trojan horse.  It is up to me to lead him out, give him a swift kick, and scare him off into the hills where he won’t bother anybody ever again.


Our choir director, Dr. Brett Scott, is doing a wonderful job of selecting soloists.  He deserves an Atta boy.  If somebody doesn’t thank him for his good work, I will have to do it myself.  Somebody’s gotta to do it.  Inner dialogue suggests that he gets paid to choose soloists.  I respond, “He is paid to fill employee positions; doing it with panache must be honored in the coin of gratitude.”


Making a case for any and every-body’s right to an opinion is a worthy endeavor, not likely to win friends nor influence any-body at all.  If I insist on being opinionated, people will just think I am annoying, but I hope they’ll love me anyway.

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Fitting In

Yesterday at Sunday service I discovered something earth-shattering—something that caused the heavens to open and the lightning to rend the temple veil.  I do not usually expect such insights from a trip to my local episcopal church, but that was a signal experience.  My personal pattern, long acted out in a gathering of others, has been to dread the awkwardness that ensues with cessation of whatever might have been drawing attention to the front of the room.  At that point, each and all are abandoned to the devices of our own personal social graces—or lack thereof—and all bets are off.


I’ve been observing this quandary for nigh onto eighty years and was consistently puzzled about what to do.  At that point, everybody turns to each other and begins talking.  About what?

I don’t know.  Everybody else knows, and they’re not telling.


Maybe I was in the wrong place.  That was the most plausible explanation.  A change of place could solve the problem entire.  A new church.  A new town.  A new family.  A new religion.  A new politics.  If I could find the perfect place all would resolve, and I would fit in– or would I?


Perhaps a change of marital status would be most right and proper.  A life partner could make the impossible possible.  Someone who shared my own commitment to common bed and board would do the trick.  Yes?  No.  Well OK then.  Divorce was sure to be the answer.  A new and different partner would make the crucial difference.  If number two didn’t do the trick, then number three would herald the final solution, once and for all.  Yes?  No.


Maybe I’m not cut out for living-together.  Acceptance of one’s nature is a good thing and must lead to peace vis-à-vis self and others.  But living alone is quiet—too quiet—a jail of solitude.  Lonely.  What about joining?  Being part of some common effort—some sharing of values and ideals.  Just being part of a choir is something I have always done but never understood beyond technology and technique.  A choir is more than an enjoined effort to produce music.  It is people.  I signed up with the choir at Redeemer Episcopal Church, an aggregation of people who share my world view, religious philosophy, and who delight in the same enjoyment of music-making that I had experienced across the entire arc of my existence.  What better situation?


What indeed.  Perhaps the worst ever comeuppance was discovering that stopping for a break, for coffee and a bit of socializing, was as much a minefield in this so perfect place as was Miss. Chater’s first grade or Staples High School’s cafeteria.  Here were people who were as smart as me if not smarter, as educated as me if not more so, and who shared my social status, religious beliefs, political leaning, and who shared my love for all things musical.  So what happened?  Whenever the director called a halt, everyone–everyone but I–instantly fell into a mode of conversation.  I, I alone, stood in their midst and stared in disbelief at all these lovely people enjoying each other, while I stood– stark as a totem pole– in their chattering midst.


Maybe I am too old.  Maybe I haven’t been a member long enough.  Maybe oral or underarm deodorants have failed.  No?  No.  Enough!  I’m kidding myself.  There’s something else afoot.  I decided to set aside all the mental meanderings that led to some inadequacy on my part.  The problem is certainly not something that I am but something that I am doing.  I can’t change who or what I am, but I can and will modify behavior.  No wonder Rachael Maddow always says to watch, not what they say but, what they do.  Observing has ever been my favorite pastime.  I watched.  What I noticed was that as soon as the break was called everyone but I fell effortlessly into discussion.  They, as if hearing the clap of a starting pistol, turned in toward the center of the room and engaged whoever was close at hand.  These were people who had known each other for years as well as those who were newer to the group than even I.  They were employing a learned skill, something acquired and utilized for entire lifetimes of living in a world of naked and conversational primates.


Yesterday morning I awoke and promised myself a change—a change for the better.  After the Redeemer Sunday service, I gathered with others at the Adult Forum and expected to be a part—not an observer.  Rather than importing my considerable resentment at facing a social maze I could not penetrate, I simply determined to find any person and start talking.  OMIGOD.  It worked.


Sure, one Sunday won’t correct a lifetime of gawky, but it’s a start.  If I get carried away with the headiness of progress, I will approach a couple of old friends in earnest conversation who just want me to go away.  There’s a middle way to be steered on this path.  I can count on friends and neighbors to keep me heading straight.  You never get to be too old to learn a new thing.

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Consonants are important.  Nobody denies that, but it is what happens in between those t’s, p’s and d’s that dictate hearer’s perceptions of our divine nature or lack of it.  Nowhere is this more effectively driven home than in choral performance, where even the lowliest chorister has a stake in enjoined success or failure.


The French choral ensemble Arsys Borgoyne does a superlative job of delivering vowels beautifully.  A trip online to You-tube selecting Mozart’s Requiem will bear me out.  Arsys Borgoyne pops up as highly representative of the composer’s best expression.  Maybe it’s a French thing as in “French Fries.” Though once renamed “Freedom Fries” they soon happily reverted to the o-la-la moniker.


Wholesale vowel and consonant determinism accrues with a hop across the pond to Great Britain where any representative royal tenses vocal apparatus into a benevolent chasm for reverberation and projection.  It does sound great.  We all agree.  On TV news we watch Katty Kay and resent her nullifying every “r” in her daily drill. That makes her sound hoity-toity—an assertion that she is better—that hers is a superior vocalization.  Maybe it is.  Certainly it is more respectful of the King’s English than my own Texas drawl fracturing it anew with every breath.  Watching John McCain’s funeral televised from the National Cathedral (Episcopal liturgy), I hear that people are waiting to get in, not waitin’ t’ git eun. 


American choirs must, in pursuit of excellence, deal with Katty’s dilemma.  R’s are derided.  Crunching an r clenches the elocution of a singer.  Ideally, lower jaws must float, relaxed and agog.  We are told to mimic an idiot, with jaw seemingly untethered to intellect.  That produces a better sound than the alternative which intimates strain and pain—not gain.  Much like a stutterer who appears instantly cured when singing, I can drop my r’s in the choir room, but staunchly conserve them when speaking.  Vowel mindfulness is definitely a work in progress.


The musical play My Fair Lady features elegant speech for posterity, as Eliza Doolittle and phoneticist Henry Higgins battle the language war onstage, to the delight of audiences everywhere and every-when.  The fun spills over into the battle of the sexes where both sides are postulated to vituperative advantage.  The professor wins the speaking battle but loses the gender war as he succumbs to Eliza’s manifest female destiny.  Both singers make their final exeunt, embracing each other as indictable co-conspirators.


My Fair Lady’s cultural hallmark The rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain highlights the universal problem of the diphthong.  Injecting two linked vowels into a single word is a recipe for trouble.  Rain, Spain, stays, mainly, and plain all contain diphthongs—if you have a cockney accent.  What should be a long pure aaaa is tortured– stretched out across the rack of an i and an e– to the smirks and grimaces of listeners everywhere.  A cockney dialect renders it as “The rien in Spien sties mienly in the plien.” It is in the covenant of every choral conductor everywhere to lead singers safely through each and every vowel pair–indeed a valiant endeavor.


My favorite movie has ever been “The Sound of Music” with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.  I never tire of raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens.    Everyone in the cast is a British native speaker/singer.  All seven children pirouette through the musical score with the perfect vowels of the Kings English.  They were born to that ability.  The adults, too, seem to do it without thinking.  Other productions have been attempted but in my estimation fall short.


Choral directors work hard on vowels, since they are central to excellence.  They make much of precise consonants, but it is the vowels that sustain the sound and can make the difference between pretty-good and marvelous.  A note might be held through fourteen bars of music, and though an initiating consonant may get things started and a final one may signal the end, it is the vowel that sings through the fourteen lovely bars.  Adjusting the color of vowels can breathe beauty into vocal production.  A blatant eeee or aaaa will sing more sonorously if placed a touch farther back in the mouth where it is sure to benefit from complexity of tone.  Eeee mellows into a modestly covered ehhh while aaaa blooms into something richer that doesn’t rattle front teeth.  It’s complicated–but worth the effort.


Turning from sublime to ridiculous in the land of the vowel, we witness Donald John Trump’s abject evisceration of Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III–for what?  For southern speech.  At the beating heart of what southern speakers do to the language is a vowel problem as well as a consonant one.  Yes, his mouth is full of marbles, or at least it sounds like it.  I can forgive Mr. Sessions for his conservative agenda, but I’ll never forgive him for his day in and day out mindless murder of my mother tongue.  Harrump!  That is the kind of rapacious skullduggery up with which Sir Winston Churchill (and I) will not put, evidenced by its requirement that I agree with The Donald on something.


This writing won’t turn readers into vocalists, but it might curry appreciation of the attention to detail that separates good vowels from inarticulate ones.  Our complex human brains discriminate between vowel subtleties much as the eye parses angle of hat on head.  How differently we respond to a hat set straight and level, to one pushed back in affected innocence, to one drawn down shading eyes and visage, to another cocked saucily at an angle.  Who but the supercilious Brits could carry off a fascinator?  Any discussion of the English language leads inevitably to the British Isles, as well it should, in the same tenor as “all roads lead to Rome.”


Other cues, also visual, accrue to length of ladies hemlines as fashion flirts with global state of mind.  Whatever will we do to express our economic truth if skirts give way once and for all to modesty of trousers?  Of course exception often speaks more poignantly than rule, exemplified by a Scotsman’s jaunty kilt.  To a woman, nothing, absolutely nothing is sexier than a man’s bare knee.  To a man, however, a skirt titillates with the not-so-subtle suggestion that access might be gained, that he is free to fantasize at will, cock at-the-ready.


Our language is what makes us human.  While consonants evoke the hard bones of our language, its linguae franca, vowels are its soul, the twinkle in its eye, the moist rich carrier of its song.

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