Key choices in the direction of a career

My worst subject in elementary school was penmanship. My handwriting has always been bad for two reasons. First, when I was young, my fine motor skills were, well, not very fine. Second, my mind moves much faster than my hands, so I am always in a hurry to get things written.

My parents, consulting with my teacher, decided that I would practice handwriting at home. I had a set time for penmanship practice, a certain number of minutes each day. They had me copying sentences out of my favorite books, which made sense for a while. Eventually, I wanted to go beyond copying what others had written; I wanted to create my own material. Even in the third grade, I sensed that everything I wanted to read had not yet been written, and I was determined to write those books myself. My parents permitted me to write my own stories. I doubt that decision helped my penmanship—once again, my mind was racing far ahead in the story, and my hand couldn’t keep up the pace. But my career as a writer began in that way.

In spring of my fourth grade year, the music department tested our hearing to determine which students had the best perception of differences in pitch. Also, the music department brought in middle school students with their instruments to encourage us to join the band and orchestra. My pitch perception tested very well, and the music department told my parents that I would be good at string instruments like the violin, or at the trombone. My parents thought they would prefer a beginning trombonist in the home over a beginning violinist and encouraged me to volunteer for the trombone. I accepted their challenge and was a trombonist from the summer between fourth and fifth grade through my first year of college. I think a lot of other families in our region followed the same process. It seemed that competition was high among trombonists everywhere I went, from high school honors bands to summer camps to municipal summer programs. Even when I was the best trombonist in my school, I couldn’t always stand out from the crowd in larger groups. My life might have been different if my parents had encouraged me to play the violin.

Still, I loved music almost as much as I loved writing. My sophomore year, I had to choose between two after-school activities. I had already become involved with the high school newspaper, a natural place for me to land as a budding author. But I was also active in the music department, and the spring musical was a big deal at our school. That year, the department had chosen Music Man. I could not play in the orchestra for the musical and also work on the newspaper. I know I thought about it for a while and weighed both choices. In the end, I chose to go with Music Man, making me one of three trombonists to represent the seventy-six trombones of the script. I never regretted that decision. My high school friends were in music and drama, not in the newspaper. I worked up the courage to appear on stage my senior year. I had many good experiences and still have many good memories because of that choice. I cannot help wondering, though, where life might have led me had I stuck with the newspaper and given up the music and drama.

Either the summer before or the summer after that choice (I cannot remember which summer it was), I made another important choice. As a child, I had dreamed of many possible careers: astronaut, fireman, pastor, writer, and other possibilities which do not come to mind at the moment. One night, my parents and I were in a motel, returning from a family vacation. My mother and father were sound asleep, but I could not fall asleep. I thought about what I wanted to do with my life, and I prayed. I asked God to guide my decision. Somehow, during that night, I concluded that I wanted to write, but I wanted to write for God. I wanted to write for the Church. I wanted my writing to matter, not in the realm of my favorite writers (including Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, Mike Royko, Kurt Vonnegut, and Roald Dahl), but among Christians.

Later that summer, I discussed that thought with my pastor. He knew me well; even when I was a confirmation student, he had been impressed with my thinking and my ability to handle difficult concepts. Pastor Hoffmann thought I could be a valuable theologian in the Church. Generally, theologians teach in the seminary, which means they must first receive a seminary education. Pastor Hoffmann also told me that the best seminary teachers have served in the parish. They are more helpful to their students because they have done the work that their students are preparing to do.

I did not think that I could be a pastor. Speaking in front of people was not my strong suit. Nor did I expect to be able to handle the other duties that are expected of a pastor in the congregation. My peers had spent several years telling me—and reinforcing the message emphatically—that I was different, that a lot of people did not like me, that I did not belong to the “in crowd.” For this reason, I wanted to write. I enjoyed writing, I seemed to be good at writing. I would be able to write in solitude, and I could send my books out to speak for me. But, because Pastor Hoffmann assured me that the seminary degree and some experience in the parish were important preparation for the writing I wanted to do, I began to chart my course in that direction. From that point in high school, and on through the college years, I was aiming to be a pastor—not as my final goal, but as steps on the path to writing for God and for His people. J.

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Growing up in the Seventies

Some readers might wonder whether my formative years, spent in the Chicago suburbs, resembled the teen world depicted in movies written and directed by John Hughes. My best answer to that question is, “Somewhat.” My family and the families of my classmates were not, for the most part, as affluent as the families represented in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Home Alone (or, for that matter, in Risky Business, another teen-centered movie set in the Chicago area). Probably the 1980s movie that comes closest to depicting my memories of high school is Lucas, also not a John Hughes movie. But Hughes did capture some of the themes and nuances of adolescence in the Chicago suburbs during that era. The stereotypes depicted in Breakfast Club match the groups I knew in junior and senior high school.

I just pulled out my Middle School and High School yearbooks to confirm my memories of those years. Nearly every boy in my class was involved either in athletics (such as basketball) or in more academic extracurricular activities (such as the photography club). My better friends were in the latter group. A larger range of opportunities in high school allowed more overlap, but more prestige belonged to the athletes and cheerleaders than to the future chemists, physicians, or business leaders in the student body. The Swing Choir was also a prestigious group, and it was notable to be involved in the spring musical. (My four years, the high school put on “My Fair Lady,” “Music Man,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and, “Hello, Dolly!” I played in the orchestra for “Music Man” and “Fiddler,” then auditioned for an acting role in “Dolly” and won the part of Horace Vandergelder.) Looking at the accomplishments listed for each graduating senior, some were active in many groups, others did only a few things, and some went through four years of high school without taking part in any activity outside of classes.

One feature of high school life missing from the John Hughes movies is religion. Most of the students I knew in middle school and high school were active in a church, generally the same church their parents attended. Some families were Catholic; many went to the Bible Church or other nondenominational congregations. Being near Wheaton with its Christian college and its Christian publishing companies, the students in my community had a higher than average Bible literacy and participation in faith-based groups.

But my other memories of those years involve bullying. Around fifth grade, other students began noticing that I was “different.” Without much racial or cultural diversity in our neighborhood, small things were enough to mark someone as “different.” I was called “the brain” and other less complimentary terms, including some words whose meaning may not have been known to the students who used them as insults. I was the first member of the class to wear glasses. I was the last to learn how to ride a bicycle, always being mildly awkward. When assaulted, I did not fight back. For about five years, I found myself at the receiving end of mild abuse—nothing horribly violent or humiliating, but abuse all the same.

One of my middle school teachers took me aside one day and advised me to fight back. He believed that one solid punch in the nose might set the bullies straight and end my troubles. I didn’t have the confidence to follow his advice. When I was a high school freshman, a Physical Education (P.E.) teacher deliberately put me in a difficult position. We were playing dodgeball in PE, the bane of all tortured, non-athletic students. He had a variant of the game that required a student to guard an orange traffic cone while the rest of the class tried to knock the cone over with the rubber balls. Because I could not wear my glasses during PE, certainly not in dodgeball, I could not see the balls coming my direction to catch them (which would have disqualified the thrower of the caught ball from the contest). But, blinded though I was, I doggedly guarded the cone and kept it from being hit. Needless to say, I was thoroughly pelted during the moments the game continued—probably a much shorter time than it seemed. As the PE teacher may have respected, I did not cry or lose my composure or complain in any way. My endurance, perhaps, helped to win respect for me from at least some of the more athletic types that had felt only disdain for me until that day.

I have good memories from high school. I learned many important and helpful things in the classroom. I took part in the marching band, the orchestra, the musicals, the district math contest, the student newspaper, and the Honors Society. I made friends, some of whom are still valuable to my life today. At the same time, I also learned that many people will dislike me, just because I am “different.” I believed my mother’s advice, that “if you show people that their pestering bothers you, they will keep on pestering.” (Therefore, I did not learn how to confront a bully.) I learned to dig in, to hold my ground, to keep on doing the right thing, and not to care if that makes life tough for a while. I learned that bad times end and that better things can be expected down the road. I learned to live. J.

Lammas Day

August 1 is Lammas Day. This holiday was once an agricultural festival in parts of Europe, marking the end of cutting hay and the beginning of harvesting wheat and other grains. As the midpoint between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, Lammas Day was well-placed for an excuse to celebrate, but the day has fallen into neglect in recent times.

Solstices, equinoxes, and the midpoints between them were always excuses for a party, although no single culture observed all eight occasions. Christianity successfully overwhelmed the winter solstice with its celebration of the Incarnation of Christ, being the twelve days of Christmas; likewise, the spring equinox was overshadowed by the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, or Easter. A few contemporary Christians back away from those celebrations out of fear that our revelry has been tainted by pagan customs. Paul wrote to the Colossians that Christians are not to judge one another regarding food (kosher laws), Sabbaths (Saturday, Sunday, or some other time in the week), or holidays. We are free to celebrate as we wish, provided that Christ remains at the center of our celebrations.

In the United States, Memorial Day and Labor Day have replaced the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox as the start and end of summer. Independence Day, on the Fourth of July, has become the new midpoint for the summer season. The other three midpoints linger on the calendar as Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween. Lammas Day is forgotten, and the month of August is barren of days to celebrate. Some of us have birthdays and wedding anniversaries in August, and many families mark the month of August as back-to-school time. Poor Lammas Day has nothing to connect to those themes and observances.

On my Facebook page this morning I said a few words about Lammas Day. I also claimed that the harvest workers would dance in the fields, singing this song (click here). Maybe, just maybe, we can work together to create a new Lammas Day tradition to share with our families and friends, another day on the calendar for us to stop, relax, and rejoice. J.

Beatles and their mothers

One odd fact about the Beatles and their life stories is that both Paul McCartney and John Lennon lost their mothers during their teen years. Paul’s mother Mary died of an embolism as a complication from surgery for breast cancer. She died in 1956, when Paul was fourteen. John’s mother Julia was struck by a car and killed in 1958, when John was seventeen. Neither George Harrison nor Ringo Starr lost their mothers in their early years. Still, there would have been no Beatles for George and Ringo to join if not for John and Paul.

Julia Lennon was a free-spirited young woman and was not John’s primary caretaker. John was raised by his Aunt Mimi, Julia’s sister. Still, Julia and John were close, spending time together almost more as friends than as mother and son. John was, of course, crushed by his mother’s death. Among his solo recordings in the 1970s is a song called “Mother,” in which John sings, “Mother, you had me, but I never had you.” Before that, John wrote and performed the dreamy ballad “Julia,” which is included on the Beatles’ White Album of 1968.

Mary McCartney, a midwife, was the primary wage-earner of the family when Paul was young. Paul’s father Jim held several different jobs during his adult life (in part, due to economic dislocation during the War). He was an accomplished musician, playing both piano and trumpet. He gave Paul a trumpet for Paul’s fourteenth birthday. Paul traded the trumpet for a guitar because he could not sing and play trumpet at the same time. Paul’s famous tribute to his mother is heard in the song, “Let It Be,” in which Paul says that in times of trouble his mother, Mary, comes to him. Over the years, many listeners have assumed that the reference is to Mary the mother of Jesus, but Paul most definitely was singing about his own mother in that song, not about the mother of our Lord.

Biographers and music historians try to assess the importance of the deaths of their mothers to the careers of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Did they dedicate themselves to their musical craft to compensate for their losses and to handle their grief? Would either or both of them have given up on music and entered other careers with the encouragement of their mothers? It is hard to imagine the world without the musical contributions of the Beatles, as well as the other cultural contributions their group made to the 1960s. History is a fragile thing, and many of the bits we treasure could easily have failed to exist for us to enjoy. J.

Easter hymn

Christ is arisen

From the grave’s dark prison.

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ with comfort lights our eyes. Alleluia!

All our hopes were ended

Had Jesus not ascended

From the grave triumphantly

Our never-ending life to be. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ, our comfort, fills the skies. Alleluia!

Traditional German Easter hymn, ca. 1100.

Still disturbing, two years later

A bit over two months ago—October of 2018, to be precise—I was driving with the radio on, and I heard two songs played back to back. They sounded like they should be interspliced, as a conversation between the two singers. I created a post at that time, portraying the conversation, and describing it as “disturbing,” given the age disparity between the man and the woman. Imagine my surprise this week to find the two of them posing together on the cover of Rolling Stone. I will try to insert that picture [here]:

And here is a transcript of their songs, as they appeared on my blog two years ago:

Posted on October 26, 2018

WARNING! Some people will find this conversation offensive and disturbing.

Very disturbing.

Paul McCartney: I saw you flash a smile, that seemed to me to say

You wanted so much more than casual conversation

I swear I caught a look before you turned away

Now I don’t see the point resisting your temptation

Taylor Swift: This ain’t for the best

My reputation’s never been worse, so

You must like me for me

We can’t make

Any promises now, can we, babe?

But you can make me a drink

Paul: Did you come on to me, will I come on to you?

If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

Taylor: Dive bar on the East Side, where you at?

Phone lights up my nightstand in the black

Come here, you can meet me in the back

Dark jeans and your Nikes, look at you

Oh damn, never seen that color blue

Just think of the fun things we could do

‘Cause I like you

Paul: I don’t think I can wait like I’m supposed to do

How soon can we arrange a formal introduction?

We need to find a place where we can be alone

To spend some special time without an interruption

Taylor: This ain’t for the best

My reputation’s never been worse, so

You must like me for me

Yeah, I want you

We can’t make

Any promises now, can we, babe?

But you can make me a drink

Paul: If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

If you come on to me, will I come on to you?

Taylor: Is it cool that I said all that?

Is it chill that you’re in my head?

‘Cause I know that it’s delicate (delicate)

Is it cool that I said all that

Is it too soon to do this yet?

‘Cause…

Paul: Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do, do, do-do, do

Do, do-do-do, do

“Delicate” © 2018, Taylor Swift

“Come on to me” © 2018, Paul McCartney

John Lennon (1940-1980)

John Lennon was born eighty years ago today—October 9, 1940.

Without John Lennon, there would have been no Beatles. Surely some other group or individual would have filled the gap that the Beatles occupied, but their artistry and creativity would have been different. As a result, the 1960s and history since that time would also have been different.

When Paul McCartney met John Lennon in 1956, John was leading a skiffle group called the Quarrymen. (Skiffle is a British folk music, not unlike some of the Appalachian and Ozark folk music still performed today in the United States.) Paul and John established a musical partnership, that was soon joined by George Harrison. Other members came and went, and various names were used by the group. The Beatles did not approach the peak of success, though, until Ringo Starr became the regular drummer of the group in 1962.

In their early years, the Beatles performed many rock-and-roll hits from the United States, from black performers as well as white performers. They paid as much attention to B-side songs as to the promoted hits. They also wrote their own songs and performed them. An early Beatles hit, “Please Please me,” reveals both the word-play for which John became famous and the innovate harmonies that helped the Beatles to stand out from the crowd of early Sixties musicians. While Paul is sometimes considered the more musical of the pair, comparing Paul’s “And I Love Her” to John’s “If I Fell” (both from the album and movie Hard Day’s Night) reveals that they had equal and complementary talents. When the Beatles stopped touring and became a studio band, John was able to direct his word-play into more complex songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and, “I Am the Walrus.” But his musical abilities were also evident in songs such as “All You Need is Love,” which sounds like a simple rock anthem but has a complicated rhythmic structure which, every so often, drops half a beat.

John had a troubled childhood. Both his parents were absent, and John was raised by an aunt; his mother, Julia, died while John was still a child. (Oddly, Paul’s mother Mary also died while Paul was young.) John was perpetually contemptuous of authority and found it hard to maintain stable relationships. He was the first of the Beatles to marry; also the first to divorce and remarry. He was as absent from his sons’ lives as his father had been absent from his. John admitted that his promotion of love and peace for the world did not match the life he was living. John also experimented with a number of mind-altering substances, drawing his fellow Beatles and many other people into the drug culture of the later Sixties. He was briefly interested in Transcendental Meditation, a version of the Hindu religion promoted by a yogi who became very famous and wealthy as a result of his teaching. As the members of the Beatles sought meaning for their lives in various forms and aspects, the group fractured. John’s solo career was noted especially for the anti-war anthem “Give Peace a Chance” and the ballad “Imagine,” both of which are frequently quoted in contemporary conversations about life, politics, religion, and idealism.

John retired from the musical scene for several years, then began a comeback with new music in 1980. In December of that year, he was shot and killed by a deranged fan. As the Beatle martyr, John’s image and reputation became even more strongly associated with the values of peace and love. The Beatles remain cultural icons today, not only as representatives of the Sixties but as creators of music that continues to entertain, having passed the test of time. In the decades since the Beatles, many performers have enjoyed successful careers, but no one has shaped and defined music and culture as much as the Beatles did in their time. J.

A brief and pointless observation

One night last week I wanted to fill an hour with mindless entertainment and scanned the DVDs on the shelf for something that would be less than a feature-length movie but more than a half-hour episode. (Yes, I could have watched two half-hour episodes, but never mind about that.) On a whim, I grabbed my set of Van Dyke & Company DVDs and selected episode six. If anything brought about that particular choice (aside from ethanol-induced randomness), it was the Justin Timberlake song “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” that I have heard too many times on the radio in recent days.

Let me explain. For reasons that elude my thinking even on ethanol-clear days, Justin Timberlake chose to record and release a song that strongly resembles the disco anthems of the mid-1970s. Van Dyke & Company was recorded and broadcast in 1976 and 1977. Being a variety show, it had musical guests, and some of those musical guests performed disco music. Trying to understand why anyone would want to revive said music, I chose an episode that features a performance of one of the original perpetrators of disco music—namely, KC and the Sunshine Band.

Van Dyke & Company was more than just another variety show. Seventies television was crowded with variety shows—some of them great, including Carol Burnett’s shows, but many of them average to poor. Dick Van Dyke was already a very popular entertainer; he had hosted his own situation comedy (sitcom) and had appeared in classic movies such as Mary Poppins. Everybody knew Dick Van Dyke. Rather than create just another variety show, Van Dyke chose to risk a parody of variety shows. Several running jokes fed subtle humor into Van Dyke & Company. For example, Dick Van Dyke presented himself as a star who was completely in control of his own show, yet he continually found himself forced to change his plans by the producers of that show. (One of those producers, also a writer of the show, was the comic genius Bob Einstein, who also played his character Super Dave Osbourne in two of the episodes of Van Dyke & Company). In episode six, Dick Van Dyke complains to the studio audience and viewers about a letter received by the show claiming that he only provided space to popular music performers to enhance the show’s ratings. Van Dyke emphasized that he personally chose the music performers and was close friends to all of them; he then completely garbled the name of KC and the Sunshine Band, leading to corrections from off-stage by Bob Einstein. Later in the show, Van Dyke complained that the producers had promised KC and the Sunshine Band two musical segments; Van Dyke went on to say that he was not consulted about that promise and that he demanded the second musical segment for his own song. As he began his song, his seat was wheeled off-stage and a curtain lifted to reveal KC and the Sunshine Band, who proceeded to perform their second song—a disco anthem which repeatedly informed the hearer, “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.”

Andy Kaufman appeared on most of the twelve episodes of Van Dyke & Company. Any fan of Andy Kaufman should own the recordings of this show, since they include Andy Kaufman performing before audiences who did not yet know what to expect from his act. In this sixth episode, Andy appeared as a cowboy. Dick Van Dyke had already selected four volunteers from the audience before Andy appeared. When he came on stage, Andy started a record and convincingly lip-synced the performer on the record, who was leading four children in singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” Part of the joke was that the four volunteers apparently had no indication, when they were chosen from the audience, that they would be expected to lip-sync parts of a song. Andy was able to appear totally in control of the act, to the point of pushing his four volunteers into place and backstage as they performed for the audience in the studio and at home.

Unintended (I think) additional humor contained in this episode lies in the fact that KC and the Sunshine Band were also lip-syncing their two songs, but Andy’s lip-syncing talents completely blew them out of the water. Especially notable are KC’s hands on the keyboards—he appears to be striking the same chord repeatedly throughout the entire song without any change in hand position. (Given the lyrics of the songs, it’s entirely possible that they also involved only one chord.) Andy’s lip-syncing as a joke contrasted with KC’s lip-syncing as a serious attempt to entertain made this episode of Van Dyke & Company even more amusingly surreal than the writers and performers had intended.

Viewing this episode did not help me to ascertain why Justin Timberlake would care to revive a style of music that quickly became obsolete and deserves to remain forgotten. This noon in the car I heard once again his rendition of “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and I thought I could hear one of the background singers slipping into “That’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.” J.

The Beatles

In April 1973, Apple Records released two double albums (eight sides in all) containing fifty-four songs that had been recorded and released by the Beatles between 1962 and 1970. Officially named The Beatles 1962-1966 and The Beatles 1967-1970, the recordings quickly became known as “The Red Album” and “The Blue Album” because of the color of the album covers. (A double album of new material from the Beatles, released in November 1968, had been named The Beatles but is usually called “The White Album.”)

Other compilations of Beatle music had been released before 1973 and have been released since 1973, but for many Beatles fans the Red Album and Blue Album are the definitive collection of Beatle songs. Fans can easily debate the selections. I, for example, would have included “If I Fell,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Got To Get You Into My Life,” “Here, There, and Everywhere,” “I Will,” and “Sexy Sadie,” among others.  With the coming and going of compact discs and the current availability of digital recordings, the red and blue albums are likely irrelevant to newer fans of the Beatles. But in the history of Beatle fandom, those albums have an important place.

A few days ago I tested my memory to see if I could recall all fifty-four songs included on the red and blue albums, as well as the order in which they appeared. Some sides I remembered easily; others were dimmer in my memory. Finally I had to pull them out of my collection and fill the gaps. (Yes, I still have my vinyl albums that I bought in the Seventies and Eighties.)  Interestingly (to me if to no one else), the songs I had forgotten were largely from the Rubber Soul and Magical Mystery Tour eras. “In My Life” and “Hello, Good-bye” are both songs that I like, but for some reason I had forgotten that they are included on the Red Album and the Blue Album, respectively.

Last year’s movie Yesterday imagined a world in which the Beatles had never existed and almost no one had ever heard their music. One man could remember and reproduce the songs of the Beatles, and he introduced them into the world. At first he found it difficult to get people to listen, but eventually the songs made a big impact. The first time I saw the movie, I didn’t like how the Beatle music was scrambled together, not showing the development of their musical styles and interests. But I then realized that younger Beatle fans know the music of the Beatles exactly in that fashion—all one package, without context of years and albums and formative influences. My children grew up hearing the Beatles music at home, and they probably remember some songs by album—Abbey Road, for example, or A Hard Day’s Night. But even for them, hearing “And I Love Her” side by side with “Oh, Darling” would probably not strike them as essentially different songs—just two of the many great songs written and recorded by the Beatles. J.

Keep Flying High

(chorus)  Reach up your hand and touch the sky. Look around you and wonder why.

Take the worst in the world and try not to cry, and keep flying high.

 

Take a journey far away. Don’t be afraid.

Be ready to take off today. The plans are made.

The stars are calling out, so don’t be afraid.

Lift up your voice and shout, I’m on my way.

 

Take a journey far away. We love you so.

Tomorrow’s dreams begin today. You’re our hero.

You carry our desire in all you do

And wherever you fly, we all go too.        Chorus

 

Smile and look around you now. Keep flying high.

The work you’ve done is over now, up in the sky.

You’ve been training for so long, so keep flying high.

We salute you in song. You’ll never die. Chorus

 

When you leave this surly sphere, reach out and touch God’s face.

Confide in him and have no fear. He suffered in your place. (instrumental interlude)

 

Take a journey far away. Don’t be afraid.

Be ready to take off today. The plans are made.

The stars are calling out, so don’t be afraid.

Lift up your voice and shout, I’m on my way.        Chorus, two times