Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Seven Deadly Social Sins









Makes one ponder how we're doing when we look in the mirror and at our culture at large...

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Franz Liszt Rawks

Today is the 200th birthday of one of my Top Five composers, Franz Liszt. He is not only recognized as one of the greatest pianists ever with his unmatched technical virtuosity and flamboyant expression, but was also accomplished and influential with his orchestral compositions and arranging style. His emotive approach reflected the passion and culture of his central European heritage. He was one of the leaders in the Romantic Era, which also includes some of my other favorites like Mussorgsky, Wagner, Debussy, Rossini, and Chopin, among others.

I was smitten with Liszt's work at age five. My mother would play various classics while we did chores around the house on Saturday mornings, and I was immediately drawn to his sometimes moody and other times playful expressions. I fancied myself as some sort of apprentice understudy to Leonard Bernstein as I would direct the full symphonic assault in front of our family hi-fi with two of grandma's knitting needles.

You can listen (and read some intriguing facts about Liszt) on this Youtube piece that features one of his more famous works, the frolicking Hungarian Rhapsody #2. You may recognize it from a popular Tom and Jerry cartoon, or numerous bar room brawl scenes from the silver screen and television (the best part begins at 6:03):

When people ask of my love of progressive rock, I have to nod to Liszt's music as a cornerstone. In the 60s, when many of my comrades were listening exclusively to the Stones, Beatles, and Doors, I was doing likewise, but with a heavy dose of Franz, Ludwig, and Pyotr as well. I always felt that Romanic Era of the 1800s produced the most fully-realized sweep of music's emotional expression, and that even the most basic rock riff had its roots in the life embracing joy, grief, and fury of these composers from 150 years earlier. Additionally, when listening to cinematic scores of the past fifty years, or Broadway musicals, or many hymns (both sacred and patriotic) one has to hear the influence of artists like Liszt clearly embedded within. And certainly groups as diverse as Emerson, Lake and Palmer to Radiohead, or from Yes to Muse, or Kansas to Transatlantic owe a huge debt to Liszt and his cohorts from that bygone era for the freewheeling blend of musicianship and epic scope.

Thank you, Franz, for being a central figure in the soundtrack of my life. You were one of the best, sir, and your creativity will live for eons.

Here are a few other renditions of Hungarian Rhapsody #2 you might enjoy:

Solo piano:

Tom and Jerry:

Bugs Bunny:

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

I Miss Mark Heard

Mark Heard (1951-1992) was and is one of my favorite artists. He evolved from a James Taylorish folks singer to a Lindsey Buckingham influenced pop-rocker to a fully original Americana songwriter during his too short fourteen years as a performer. Among his admirers are Bono, T-Bone Burnett, and Bruce Cockburn. He was a deep thinker with a poet’s heart and a gift for deeply probing lyrics. From time to time I will highlight one of his songs here so those who remember can be encouraged again, and those who are unfamiliar can, hopefully, become fans as well.

But for starters, here’s one of my fondest Mark Heard stories…

Everyone was standing in an oval, hands clasped, heads bowed. It was that ritual of huddling-up before an event to dedicate the effort and ask God’s favor. These can sometimes devolve from a sincere moment of humility and contrite requests into a one-upsmanship of pious pontification. The latter was bound to happen since this was a major Baptist church in Houston, and the seemingly limitless array of staff pastors had all decided to attend this particular concert.

Alongside those dozen or so ministers were the concert promoter and the two featured artists for the evening: Randy Stonehill and Mark Heard.

In this particular rendition of the circular prayer, the promoter began, and then every person prayed in succession in a clockwise direction. Each subsequent petition seemed to gain in drama and length. As the round moved, the theological accoutrement began to adorn each soliloquy, featuring references to scripture, to hymn lyrics, and even excerpts from various creeds. Five minutes turned to ten, then fifteen.

Finally the sanctified spin made its way to the two final men who were to perform shortly, Mark and Randy. When the Minister of Music for the Post Divorce Recovery Group for Women Aged 32-46 finished his devotional on the implications of David’s dance around the Ark of the Covenant, it fell upon Mark to make the next prayerful oration.

There was a pause.

Followed by a lengthy silence.

Feet slightly shuffled. Soft murmurs of “Yes, Lord,” and “Praise you, Father” were meekly whispered by those somewhat unnerved with the quiet.

Knowing of his friend’s shyness around strangers, Randy decided to give a squeeze to Mark’s left hand to sort of help him along, to give him the nudge to go ahead and share with the group.

There were several more moments of soundless peace.

And then, just when it seemed that Mark would not “enter in,” he puckered his lips and began whistling the jaunty theme to the Andy Griffith Show.

Before he could get to the peppy chorus portion, Randy awkwardly interrupted with an earnest plea for God to be glorified in the concert, for hearts to be touched, and for the joy of the Lord to be manifest that night. He punctuated it with a loud “and everyone said Amen!” Then the two quickly exited to their dressing room, leaving the pious clan to wonder what had just happened.

This, among many other reasons, is why I miss Mark Heard.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Augur of Autumn's Leaves

This is a piece I wrote six years ago that fits my early October mood...

The last eight days I’ve been driving through Kentucky and Pennsylvania, two of the most forested states in the Union—in fact, the latter’s name means “Penn’s Woods.”

Seeing the riveting display of autumn’s final shout before giving-in to the inevitable next cycle of life got me thinking…

Last April, these hills became filled with greens, mostly very similar to each other. Young buds of rebirth and youthfulness. As spring evolved into summer, the trees were reaching skyward in their most accelerated time of growth, striving to gain more sunlight than their neighbors. The leaves are nature’s food factories, soaking up water and carbon dioxide to generate sugar. Through the energy provided by light, “photosynthesis” as I recall from my biology classes, there is spectacular advancement.

Besides the warming light, however, there needs to be moisture. It can come via glooming sprinkles, or frightening torrential downpours. It can sometimes hang thick in the air as sweltering humidity. It can appear as clammy, cold dew throughout each evening. What often appears as too much of it can accumulate as puddles, or bogs, or floodwaters overreaching nearby stream banks. Even the freezing snow and ice of the previous winter helped strengthen the roots and hardwood portions when everything else appeared dead on the outside. Unless the water becomes stagnant and inundates a tree, however, there can rarely be such a thing as too much moister. The growth pattern drinks it up, and stores it for future needs.

We all know that water can be a fun diversion for a time—but after a few hours of fun, it becomes a frustration. Often we are more interested in the happiness that it can bring in shorter increments, but forget that the ongoing consistency, even relentlessness of moisture is what is needed, along with the warmth and energy of God’s illumination, to help sustain us in times to come when the inevitable cycle of life will not provide the same levels. Perhaps this is the depth and meaning of joy—the felt knowing that we are being cared for, even when it may not make us happy, or even feels a bit uncomfortable at particular stages.

As winter approaches, there is not enough light nor water for photosynthesis to continue. The trees will rest, and live off the food they stored during the summer. The bright greens fade away, and we begin to see yellow and orange colors. Small amounts of these have been in the leaves all along—we just can’t see them in the summer because they are covered up with green chlorophyll of youth and discovery.

The combination of all these circumstances—when the sun’s warmth and moisture both lessen--leads to a much different kind of blooming—the fabulous fall foliage.

We can see the uniqueness of each type of trees’ transformation. American Chestnuts, six types of Oaks, Aspens, Sugar Maples and four other Maple cousins, Dogwoods, Sassafras, Black Cherries, Choke Cherries, Fire Cherries, Elms, Buckeyes, Ashes, Sycamores, a quintet of different Hickories, and Beeches, to name but a few. Like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two are alike. And each one is fully realized in its own way. It is as if they are celebrating all that they have learned and endured that summer. Their maturity and character on glorious display.

This final fling of exuberance comes out in scarlet, tope, mauve, royal purple, dandelion yellow, even some like orange sherbet. Hillside mosaics featuring brass, cranberry, blood red, various chocolates, magenta, osage, and a sprinkling in a sea foam tint. Pastiches of burnt sienna, maroon, salmon, lavender, and goldenrod. Fruity pigments like peach, lemon, plum, Granny Smith apple, tangerine, banana, watermelon, mango, and lime. Some licked in flaming yellows with torched, fire-engine red edges. I even saw the Oakland A’s uniforms from the early 70s dappled in some groves. Like a fluorescent Peter Max painting, the kaleidoscope of color pulsates with each gust of wind, and mutates in various hues and combinations with each passing day. If it had been a dry summer, none of this would look like it does now.

This all adds to my pondering about the cycles of my life. Maybe it’s due to the fact I’m about to celebrate another birthday, or that I’ve been working on my Last Will and Testament, or that I am spending the week with my aging father in a retirement community with other souls in their final glory. The wind and cold will finally have their say, no matter how hard we wish otherwise. When we see a few straggling leaves that are hanging on, it is not attractive. By not letting go, we end up embarrassing ourselves and the dignity of our role. In the process, we miss out on the deeper joy that comes from knowing this is all part of the plan.

Even in the regular, tighter cycles of our lives when the winter winds begin to blow, it’s best to bow in humility. And we also need to yield for our cleansing, our scrubbing away. This can only happen when we are stripped. Hopefully, with each new round we learn to acquiesce to the de-clothing with a willing heart. That surrender is part of the joy. Like an infant who often initially kicks and screams before a bath, but then can be cooing as her mother carefully washes and wipes away to prepare for re-dressing.

Soon enough, there will a fresh robing in vibrant greens come next spring. And hence, the cycle continues. So I want to enjoy the colorful celebration of what I’ve experienced this year. Some dark, murky, and even dank colors for sure. But those are the ones that give perspective for the exuberant tones. Beauty, what Aristotle called “the magnitude of truth,” comes from these contrasts. And the deepest joy results in an unmatched vista.

Friday, October 7, 2011

"Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often," Mark Twain Quotes Part 2

More of my favorite quotes from Mark Twain. Just as relevant and hilarious today. Let me know which ones resonate with you.

Laws control the lesser man... Right conduct controls the greater one.

The first of April is the day we remember what we are the other 364 days of the year.

If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.

The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

One of the most striking differences between a cat and a lie is that a cat has only nine lives.

It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.

Man - a creature made at the end of the week's work when God was tired.

But in this country we have one great privilege which they don't have in other countries. When a thing gets to be absolutely unbearable the people can rise up and throw it off. That's the finest asset we've got--the ballot box.

Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.

It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.

Not until you become a stranger to yourself will you be able to make acquaintance with the Friend.

Often it does seem a pity that Noah and his party did not miss the boat.

It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.

Only one thing is impossible for God: To find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.

Repartee is something we think of twenty-four hours too late.

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.

It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.

The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.

I don't like to commit myself about heaven and hell - you see, I have friends in both places.

The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.

Grief can take care if itself, but to get the full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with.

The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.

Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.

No party holds the privilege of dictating to me how I shall vote. If loyalty to party is a form of patriotism, I am no patriot. If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn't. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the sixty millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism.

There is no sadder sight than a young pessimist.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

Thunder is good, thunder is impressive; but it is lightning that does the work.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.

To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence.

Under certain circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.

What would men be without women? Scarce, sir, mighty scarce.

Man is the only creature who has the ability to blush or the need.

Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.

When angry, count to four; when very angry, swear.

Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.

Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman knows.

Wrinkles should merely indicate where smiles have been.

A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.

You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

It is easier to stay out than get out.

Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.

That's the difference between governments and individuals. Governments don't care, individuals do.

Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

"When in doubt, tell the truth" and other Mark Twain Quotes

Some of my favorite thoughts from this American original. Let me know which ones resonate with you...

There is no distinctly American criminal class - except Congress.

When in doubt tell the truth.

The trouble ain't that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain't distributed right.

It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

Senator: a person who makes laws in Washington when not doing time.

Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.

Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she laid an asteroid.

It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it.

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.

If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times.

A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.

When a person cannot deceive himself the chances are against his being able to deceive other people.

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.

Truth is mighty and will prevail. There is nothing wrong with this, except that it ain't so.

All generalizations are false, including this one.

There are lies, damned lies and statistics.

I never can think of Judas Iscariot without losing my temper. To my mind Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature, Congressman.

Necessity is the mother of taking chances.

Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

Be careless in your dress if you will, but keep a tidy soul.

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.

Deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie - I found that out.

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native criminal class except Congress.

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.

Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.

Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.

The government of my country snubs honest simplicity, but fondles artistic villainy, and I think I might have developed into a very capable pickpocket if I had remained in the public service a year or two.

Familiarity breeds contempt - and children.

The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heal that has crushed it.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.

Golf is a good walk spoiled.

He is now rising from affluence to poverty.

The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.

Humor is mankind's greatest blessing.

Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul.

I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.

More to come in my next post.

Favorites? Thoughts?