Monday, January 4, 2016

Feel Better Soon

Pretty lame words, on the face of it.

I have a friend, one of my best friends in the world, who is having a rough time of it right now.  We've known each other for over 15 years, and each of us has been heard to describe the other as "my brother from another mother."  It was one of those friendships that was immediate.  The more we discovered about each other, the more we realized how very much alike we are.  Same eclectic pop culture tastes.  Same books and authors loved.  About our only major difference is that he is a die-hard Pittsburgh Steelers fan, while I have always loathed football.  Apart from that, though, we are the two peas in the proverbial pod.

I'll call him "Dan."

Dan went to San Francisco to visit daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren for the Christmas holidays.  He was going to come back to work after Christmas weekend while his wife stayed on to help with child care.  The daycare out in Frisco closes for the week of Christmas/New Year, but their parents' jobs do not, so Dan's wife was going to help out as a live-in nanny-granny.

Just before he was due to travel home, right after returning from a tour of Alcatraz, Dan suffered what he later called a "small stroke."  He lost speech for about 20 minutes, but recovered.  He was hospitalized and spent two days in hospital out there.  The doctors pronounced him well enough to travel and he flew home as scheduled so that he could resume work on the Monday after Christmas.  I learned all this when he called me to ask if he could rely on me to pick him up at the airport, should he not feel up to driving home from the airport in Baltimore.  I, of course, said yes.  Dan called me when he arrived home to let me know that he felt well enough to make the trip alone.  He sounded fine.  A couple of days later, on the 30th of December, he called me again to ask me for my doctor's phone number.  His own doctor was not returning his calls.  Again, Dan sounded fine.  He saw my doctor, spent a couple of hours with him, and my doctor also thought he was OK, even though the circumstances were somewhat worrying.

Then on New Year's Eve we got a panicked call from Dan's wife, still in California.  She had tried to reach him several times, and when she finally got hold of him, he sounded "off" to her on the phone.  She asked us to go over to their home and check on him.  We ran right over.  We found Dan disoriented, having trouble finding the word he was looking for, and generally not himself.  We got him to the ER, and that's where I spent New Year's Eve.

Ultimately it was decided to admit Dan.  He's been in the hospital ever since.  It was determined after testing that he had suffered at least six or seven strokes since returning home.  They also discovered that he was a previously undiagnosed insulin-dependent diabetic.  We also learned that in between his doctor visit here and his New Year's Eve crisis he had been involved in a fender-bender in a parking lot a couple of miles from his house, and after he was ticketed by local law enforcement, he decided to walk home rather than risk driving.  None of his friends knew about this until afterwards, nor did he call any of us for assistance.

Dan is currently in hospital while the doctors attempt to determine where the blood clots are coming from that are causing his strokes.  He is having extreme difficulty with names and finding words.  He may or may not recognize friends.  And his right hand isn't "working right," as he puts it.  All of which is extremely frustrating for him.  Right now he's mostly agitated and angry, but I'm afraid that depression isn't too far away.

I feel pretty depressed myself.  I tell myself that there isn't anything more I could have done, that I couldn't possibly have known the extent of the problem, but all that leaves me with is the hope that he will "feel better soon."

If you are over 50 and not regularly seeing a physician, start seeing one.  If you smoke, quit.  If you drink, cut back.  There are people who care about you, and who want you to be around for a long, long, long time ... without the emptiness of hoping that you might "feel better soon."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Why I Sing

Back at the beginning of the Unisinger year, our choir director asked us to think about why we sing, with an eye towards maybe using some of our thoughts in some future music service.  We do one annually that is called "Music For The Soul."  Not only have I not forgotten about this, it’s actually weighed a little heavily on my mind from time to time.  Not in a bad way, more like a sound in the background that you can’t identify that periodically weaves its way in and out of your consciousness.

Recently I was reading Stephen King’s latest book of short stories, “Bazaar of Bad Dreams,” and he mentions that he is often asked why he writes stories.  His answer is pretty much why I sing in church.  He says that he was born with a gene to entertain people, and he sure as hell can’t tap dance, so…writing.

It sounds a little flip, but it fairly accurately sums up why I sing.  I do love to entertain people.  I also sure as hell can’t tap dance.  Or tango, or lambada.  Before my poor health took it away from me, I had hoped to be a professional entertainer.  Specifically,I wanted to be an actor.  I got rid of most of my New Jersey accent.  I learned to sing, and to sorta, kinda read music.  And I acted and sang and sometimes even danced a little (poorly!) for about 11 years.  When I had to give it up (and I really HAD to give it up) it just about broke me.  I got through it by searching around for something else that I loved, that I could do, that wouldn’t hurt the world or others, and what I came up with was books.  I have always loved to read, and I have always loved turning others on to a good read or a favorite author.  (I often tell people who are about to read a book by someone I love, but someone they have never read before, that I am a little jealous because they still get to discover this for the first time.)  So I became a librarian and worked with children and youth, and got them to maybe discover their new favorite author for the first time.  I did this by not just reading books aloud to them, but by performing them.  I’d learn the book, create the characters, and give voice to them, and it would scratch that entertainer gene and maybe do a little good.  Certainly no harm was done, I think.

But my health continued to decline and pretty soon I had to give up working 9 to 5 altogether.  So when I happened to be standing next to my friend Donna at a Clover Lane “Deck Our Halls” one year (1997, not that I’m keeping track or anything) and she suggested I might want to try out for the Unisingers (our choir) a little light bulb went off as I realized that I might have found a way to scratch that itch once again.

For some reason, I have so far managed to hang on to a good speaking voice, which I am very pleased to use at church from time to time when they let me, and I love to sing with the people I have come to love so deeply in the choir.  And Brian too.

All kidding aside, I can’t do much physically around the church.  I can’t build or repair things.  I can’t serve at the CafĂ©.  I can usually throw a little money at some of the good work we do, but not nearly as much as I would like to, or as much as the church deserves.  But I can give my voice, and what talent I have hung onto, and if it makes a church service a little more memorable or meaningful for someone, or helps to bring a little beauty into someone’s life, then I am profoundly grateful for the ability to do so.

In an article in “Time,” Stacy Horn says it better than I can, much though I wish the words were mine: 

“Group singing, for those who have done it, is the most exhilarating and transformative of all. It takes something incredibly intimate, a sound that begins inside you, shares it with a roomful of people and it comes back as something even more thrilling: harmony.  Singing is like an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirits.  Singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. It turns out you don’t even have to be a good singer to reap the rewards.  Group singing ‘can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.’  Singing in a choir at Christmas [was] an experience so euphoric I never forgot it.”

So, I sing to make church a little better, to make me a little better, and to make the “us” that is my church community a little better.  I sure as hell can’t tap dance, but I sure as hell can sing in the choir.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Movie Ratings

When I was in college, my good friend Ralph Cohen and I would watch a LOT of movies.  We became friends because of this, in fact, because we kept running into each other at midnight screenings of films like "The Maltese Falcon" which we of course had both seen dozens of times.  But not that often on a big screen, so if a film class or the local theater was showing it, there we would be.  We ultimately wound up living in the same building, so it was just a short walk down the hall to whatever was playing on TV at 1:00 AM on the local Richmond, VA, station.

We came up with our own rating system for the stuff we watched.  Initially it was quite simple:  in descending order of perceived quality, it went --

• Film
• Movie
• Flick

But then for some reason we progressively hit a string of movies that were so awful that it seemed wrong to dignify them with the designation of "Flick."  So Ralph and I kept coming up with lower and lower qualifications for our system.  Ultimately, it went like this:

• Film
• Movie
• Flick
• Talkie
• Mere Use of Celluloid
• Complete Waste of Celluloid
• Kaiju Crapfest
• "El Topo" Special
• Ed Wood Must Have Been Behind This Somehow

I have no idea why this came to mind today.  I never forgot it, though.  Miss you, Ralph!

Friday, December 4, 2015


Completely missed November, folks!  Sorry about that!

• Still no budget in Pennsylvania, but both sides are talking.  Maybe by Christmas, maybe not.

• So, still no full-time job offer for my daughter, who works for the Commonwealth as a permanent temp.  Maybe by Christmas, maybe not.

• People, it's the so-called Holiday Season.  Try to keep your assholery to a minimum on the highways and in the parking lots, OK?  (Yeah, I'm looking at you, guy who cut me off for no bloody reason.  There was open sailing behind me; what made your errand so important, you selfish git?)

Other than that, nothing to report.  

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

PA's Budget Impasse

OK, Pennsylvania, it's now getting to be goddamn ridiculous.  119 days and counting with no budget.  State House and Senate have both borrowed millions of dollars in order to pay their staffs, because the last time this happened, we made it illegal to not pay state workers in the event of a budget battle.

It's hitting close to home now.  My daughter has been effectively laid off for a month.  She works for the State as a permanent floating temp, going from office to office as needed.  She was forced to leave a great position at the Department of Education because they had nothing for her to do; all the work was on hold pending approval of the state budget.  Which was supposed to be done by July 1.  Instead she had to go to another department, to a less attractive position, which was then cut completely in a frenzy of cost-saving.  She can only earn pay for hours worked, and because of a statewide hiring freeze, no new position is forthcoming.

People all over the state are suffering because of this idiotic pissing conteste between a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor.  It's time it was ended.  I don't want my tax dollars to be spent on loan interest because the Republican senate can't get their minds around a tax on fracking.  (PA is the only state out of 50 that imposes no such tax.)  There are other sticking points, but that's the big one.

Cut the crap, do your freaking jobs, and get the state workers back to work.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Oh, Heavens, It's More Kvetching About Church

I grew up Catholic.  I'm 62 years old as of this writing, and that means that when I was first exposed to Sunday services, they were performed in Latin, with the priest's back to the congregation to preserve the mystery of transubstantiation (or whatever) and apart from the sermon (usually a request for money rather than a lesson of any sort) it was in large part unintelligible to me.

Then Pope John XXIII held Vatican II and the world went crazy.  Suddenly the Mass was being said mostly in English, everybody could see what the priest was doing (it wasn't much, it turns out) and it was all done in understandable colloquial English.  In an effort to add more community to the service, a bit was added where we all had to greet our neighbors and "offer them a sign of peace."  ("Peace be with you.")

Man, I hated that.  Not Vatican II or the English, but that greeting of strangers.

I am fairly introverted, and extremely uncomfortable around people I don't know, even people who are only acquaintances.  So when my Unitarian church added a bit to the Sunday service which involved getting out of the pews and greeting your neighbors, it gave me fits.  I don't like it, and I rarely choose to participate in it.  I don't feel like I'm being true to myself when I'm forced into phony sociability with things like "greeting my neighbor."  So, just like I drop out of prayers or meditations that mention God (I am atheist, strenuously so,) I only choose to greet the friends immediately around me and I don't go looking for others.  I'm not antisocial, I'm just a bit shy and a bit introverted, which is why I sing in a choir.  It does me good to get out of my comfort zone a little, and generally on Sunday mornings I'm already surrounded by people I like so I can get away with not wandering out into the congregation at large.

Now this will seem like I'm going off on a wild tangent, but bear with me.  Like most librarians, I hate the movie/TV stereotype of The Librarian who is a buttoned-up plain woman who likes to SHHH people.  However, we have in our church a librarian who is, unfortunately, the living embodiment of that stereotype.  Severe clothes, permanent scowl, and a tendency to over-enunciate when talking to you as though you were some unfortunate idiot with comprehension issues.  She chose this morning to barrel her way through to where I was sitting and frown a stern "Good morning!" at me.  It was anything but a wish that I have a good morning.  The tone was definitely one of admonishment, with an undercurrent of "why don't you get up off your ass and get out there good-morning-ing with the rest of us?"

So I wished her an oblivious "good morning" right back and stayed right where I was, on my ass.

Which she can kiss if she doesn't like it.

You don't get to judge me, or anybody else, lady.  You don't know what kind of baggage or damage people might bring with them, whether it be from previous church experiences, or family experiences, or life experiences.  If someone doesn't want to hop up and glad-hand with strangers simply because they were ordered to, that's their business.  Leave them the hell alone.

If I see someone I particularly wish to have a good morning, I'll tell them.  Otherwise, as Unitarians, I expect to have my privacy respected.  If there are elements of the service that make me uncomfortable, whether it's being asked to say that "what we know about God is a piece of the truth" (because what I know is that THERE ISN'T ONE) or if it's processing down the center aisle like an Episcopalian or greeting our neighbors and wishing them peace which makes me feel like I'm back in a Catholic service ... I reserve the right to refuse to participate, and moreover, I ask that those reservations be respected.

That's all I'm looking for.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Autumn Anthem Antinomy

"Antinomy: a contradiction between two beliefs or conclusions that are in themselves reasonable; a paradox."  (Okay, I'm stretching the word "reasonable" here in the service of alliteration, but I'm getting ahead of the story.)

Last night at choir we began rehearsing a song called "Autumn Canticle" which is, as our choir director commented, one of those pleasant musical pieces that we can pull out of the hat when there's nothing obvious in our playbook to tie in to the theme of the sermon.  Luckily for us, choral composers have given us a plethora of seasonal songs to choose from throughout the year:  if you think about it and know anything about choral music, there are a ton of songs about Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter out there which are relatively church-friendly.

In last night's piece, there are a couple of lines about the Lord's blessing and other such nonsense that some sensible humanist Unitarian choir director changed to "the Earth's blessing."  (And this is why I feel like I'm stretching the word "reasonable," because I find nothing reasonable about belief in God.)  We have a couple of Jewish folks in our Unitarian choir.  They are not members of the church, nor are they Unitarians or Universalists -- they just come to sing with us.  During the rehearsal for this piece, one of them muttered quite angrily, grumbling, "Why do they have to take God out of everything?"  I leaned over and whispered, "Because He isn't there."

It was not particularly well-received by the mutterer, but I frankly don't give a single crap.

First of all, I was offended by the use of the word "they" in her grumble.  I always find language that uses some form of the phrase "those people" or "you people" offensive, and this was no exception.  Secondly, if you are going to sing with Unitarians, you have to be at least a little sensitive (or at least knowledgeable) about their history.  While recent years have seen an increase in spirituality in the music and language of Unitarian church services, the fact remains that for a good stretch of our recent history -- say, the 1960's through the early 1990's -- Unitarian congregations were largely white, liberal, humanist, and agnostic or atheist.  (I myself am a large, white, liberal humanist atheist.) So probably twenty or so years ago, some previous choir director thought to themeselves, "This is a really nice piece of music.  We can do this easily.  All I have to do is change the God language."  (Well, probably the thought was more likely, "All I have to do is change the 'God" crap," but I digress.)

I regret my flip response to my fellow singer, even though it prompted a welcome chuckle from the people sitting around us, but I feel entirely justified in my bristling reaction to her use of the "they" language, as well as to her frustration with our removal of God language where possible.  I appreciate that she and others in our community value their theism, but I also feel disrespected when objections are raised to our humanism and agnosticism in the Unitarian church.  Especially when those objections are raised by people who refuse to fully join the church.  A lot of us joined the Unitarian Church because we were damaged by religion.  We are deeply uncomfortable when we find God in our language and music.  I personally take it a step further.  I find the idea of God not only to be completely unreasonable, but an active negative force in how human beings act with one another.  "Imagine no religion" indeed.  As an atheist, I sing because I like performing, and I sing in the Unitarian Church because I believe that, unlike many, they walk the proverbial walk by actually doing good work in those parts of our community that most need it without worrying about who or what might be one's Personal Savior.

I'm very happy to raise voice in song with anyone who wants to join with us.  Anytime.  Ever.  But if you're missing God in your music, well...I hear Temple meets on Friday nights.