Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Another Musical Dialogue

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

The genesis for the essay below dates way back to May 2003, when I had a brief email dialogue with a disc jockey in Dallas. At that time, I didn’t have Internet access on my computer at home here in West Texas; I was using one of the computers at Sul Ross State University to write emails and posts for a previous blog. Since I didn’t have my own Internet service available for music appreciation, I was limited to my small collection of LP’s and the local radio station. All that was played on the radio was country & western and golden oldies. I like classical C&W but not the modern stuff, and I also like many of the old pop hits; but I would have preferred for the broadcasts to be dominated by classical music. Fat chance!
The radio station piped in its music (and national/state news) from Dallas. (By the way, the Dallas station has long since replaced its music format with right wing news and talk shows.) After several months of listening, I noticed that there was a lot of repetition; the same songs were played almost every day. I knew more old records were available, particularly at a shop on Garland Road called “Collectors Records”. I decided the Dallas station could use a little coaching from Bob Litton, so I emailed the disc jockey, Bud Buschardt.
In my first email, I mentioned “Collectors Records” to him and suggested he shop a little there. He replied that he knew of the store and in fact had helped the owner establish his inventory.
I also suggested about half a dozen titles to him, emphasizing the Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”, probably my most favorite of all, which I conceded might not be played much because it is a slight “downer”. Bud replied that he could not recall ever hearing Karen’ Carpenter’s song, that all the station’s music has to be tested in “focus groups”, and that “if it’s a “downer’, we wouldn’t play it because we have to keep all our music upbeat.”
I began to mull over the “downer” question and felt I had to write something about it, if for no other reason than my own amusement…and possibly Bud’s. I don’t know if it amused him or not, since he didn’t reply to my final email, repeated below with some slight editing in the interest of clarity and fullness.

 * * * * * *
Hi Bud,
¶A phrase in our recent email dialogue — “”probably a little bit too much of a downer” — settled in my brain, germinated into a theme, and now demands hatching. Two qualities in my character predetermined such an event: a lifelong tendency to melancholia, and a compulsion to analyze everything to death. I will write it, and you have the choice of reading it or not.
¶Actually, I fib slightly when implying that the subject of the psychology of popular music only recently occurred to me; I have considered the matter almost every time I have heard a popular song, and even some classical pieces, over the past quarter-century. Perhaps I should go back even further, and I might if we eliminate the philosophical plane. For, in my early teens I know I reacted very negatively to songs I considered silly, such as Eddie Fisher’s “O Mein Papa” and Frankie Laine’s “Cry of the Wild Goose”. On the other hand, during the high school years, I would put my ear to the radio and turn up the volume to listen to Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and Bill Doggett’s “Honkytonk”. However, these were all hormonal reactions, not discriminating ones. I never questioned whether any of the songs should have been recorded or aired.
¶Perhaps it was while I was at the university that I was first alerted to individuals’ clashing emotional responses to music. I was sitting in the student center at SMU listening to a song I had played on the jukebox — Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” (from the TV show “Peter Gunn”) — when a couple of coeds in a booth across the room reacted, one of them complaining, “Why did anybody play that depressing song?” I was surprised but didn’t say anything. I had never considered “Dreamsville” depressing — slow certainly, as most piano bar jazz songs are, but not depressing.
¶Also during my university years, I learned about Plato’s — and the Spartans’ notion that all music other than marches should be forbidden. I never liked marches, excepting the “Entry of the Guests” from Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser and his “Prelude to Act II of Die Meistersinger.  The idea that anyone would want to ban love songs and other non-martial music was worrisome.
¶I am much older now, and my blood has cooled quite a bit, so, when I hear young people driving with their car windows open and their radios blaring incomprehensible songs, I have to remind myself of the days when my sap was running strong and I had my head up against the radio. Also, I listen more attentively to the lyrics now (if I can understand them), and many of them strike me as not only silly but downright harmful.
¶As examples, I will cite the lines “Anyway you want me, that’s how I will be” (Elvis Presley) and “I would sell my very soul and not regret it” (Perry Como). I have met a few people over the years who were willing to submit themselves to their lovers’ designs, and I felt sorry for them. As for the Como bit, I can’t enjoy any of his songs anymore after hearing “It’s Impossible”.  One day, I was sitting at the bar in a small Dallas pub when a woman (one of the regulars) at the other end of the bar happened to mention that she liked “It’s Impossible” very much.
¶“How can you say that, Nancy?” I exclaimed. “This guy’s saying he would sell his soul and not regret it, all for some love interest. Your soul is your personhood.”
¶Another regular (man) sitting near me said, “It’s just a song, Bob.”
¶Since then, I noted the effect a song has on me as I listen to it, and I have come up with some interesting insights in the process. (At least I consider them insights.)
¶The most pertinent insight here is that the words alone do not necessarily make a song depressing. Sometimes, in fact, what on the surface might seem like a “downer” can be belied to a degree by the music. I think such is the case with George Jones’ “The Race Is On” and, to a lesser extent, with Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (naturally)”, where the tempo is fast in the first instance and lilting in the second. Moreover, parts of each song are rendered amusing — to my temperament even comical — by the lyrics: “My tears are holding back, trying not to fall” and “My god, that’s tough; she stood him up; not point in us remaining”. Another song where the humor of the lyrics counteracts the supposedly melancholy theme of the song is Kris Kristopherson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down (from a hangover)”: “No way to turn my head that didn’t hurt…looked into my closet and found my cleanest dirty shirt”. (The old C&W songwriters were really good at sensuously humorous lyrics.)
¶Before I depart from C&W, I want to say a little about a couple of my favorites, which in their narratives are “sad” songs yet arouse only admiration in me: ” Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil”. Both of these are true poems! Being a Texan, I have lived through enough summers, with the heat waves rising off the railroad tracks, to pick up on the sensual evocation of a southern country June in “Ode”. I love its detailed, sensual imagery. Of course, it’s the story of two lovers with a dark secret (presumably an abortion) which leads to the suicide of one and the anticipated suicide of the other, but their secret is perhaps too secret to involve me; and, after all, it is a ballad — a ballad in the tradition of “Edward” and “Barbara Allen”. They’re always tragic but tragic at a safe distance.
¶‟Long Black Veil” is balladic, too, in a different manner: it’s slower, deeper, more masculine, if you will. The words are very simple, almost all of one or two syllables; and the lines follow one another inevitably, rather like the better poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt. Of course, the story is supposed to be tragic; but I don’t get involved with it in that way because, had I been the defendant, I would have told the judge that “I had been in the arms of my best friend’s wife”. No hanging for love for me.
¶There are a few songs I would consider as genuinely touching the depressive nerve but which don’t go all the way because the protagonists are aware of a broader picture. One of these is Frank Sinatra’s “Cycles”. The singer acknowledges that he has been through more rough times than he would have liked “…but so have many others”. He recognizes that life is made up of cycles (“first there’s laughter then there’s tears”). He knows he’ll be able to sing a happy song again…sometime…‟just don’t ask me now”. So we know this guy’s in a bad spot, but he’s not knocked unconscious by it. It’s a moody song, a philosophical song, but not a particularly depressing one.
¶A song roughly similar to Sinatra’s is “You Gave Me A Mountain” by Elvis. Man! Everything happens to this poor chap! The whole closet of woes has been dumped on him. But that’s just it. So many bad things happen to him throughout his life — from his mother dying while giving him birth to his wife running away with his only child — that I am too overwhelmed with his long list of troubles to really empathize. It’s just too preposterous.
¶Now we come to my favorite pop song of all time: The Carpenters’ “I Know I Need To Be In Love”. (It was reportedly Karen Carpenter’s favorite, too.) Here again the singer-subject knows her down mood is not an untraversable chasm. She knows that the means of crossing over it lies within herself.

I know I need to be in love;
I know I’ve wasted too much time;
I know I ask perfection of a quite imperfect world
a fool enough to think that’s what I’ll find.

Nevertheless, the danger is there and it’s real:

Wide awake at four AM without a friend in sight,
hanging on a hope that I’m all right.

She’s in a dark moment emotionally, and there’s no one available to talk her out of it…except herself. She has sufficient self-knowledge to pull herself together. The tension lies in the question of whether she will do it. I have been in that condition many times myself, so the lyrics ring very true to my ears. It is because they so well articulate my own self-criticisms that, instead of depressing me, they hearten me.
¶Well, Bud, that’s the end of my little essay on “downer” music. I hope you read it and get something out of it. As for me, the little egg that’s been pestering me has finally hatched.
Best regards,
Bob

Finis

Confession of a Grouchy Classical Music Lover

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Photo Credit: Patrik Goethe

©2017 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶I have written about my classical music preferences and biases previously, but I want to return to the topic now with hammer and tong. So, beware, faint of heart.
¶Firstly, the instruments. On the negative side of the ledger I enter the violin—at least the violin when played as a solo instrument; when the violins are part of a mass involving other instruments, as in some of Tchaikovsky’s fairy tale ballets or in Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”, they are pleasing enough to my ear. When the piece has been composed specifically for a single violin or a duet, then the often scratchy sound irritates my ear, much as when a chalk is dragged across a blackboard. I used to appreciate Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” very much; now they only irritate me, possibly because they summon up in my mind all those phony smiling faces of the Baroque era but more certainly because they sound so much alike.  Unfortunately for me, compositions featuring violin solos seem to dominate the playlists of most classical music stations. But that perception could be due simply to my sensitivity to annoyances.
¶Heading the list of favorite instruments come the classical guitar and the English horn: I can’t break the tie. Both of those instruments have prominent parts in Joaquin Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez”. Most of the other string and wind instruments I can appreciate, too, particularly the cello and the flute; sorry, but I can’t recall any particular compositions, besides Sergei Prokofiev ‘s “Peter and the Wolf”, where those instruments are focal. (But that’s just an index of my musicological ignorance; not a fair picture of our international repertory.)
¶Other instruments which can be pleasing when employed moderately are the coronet and the drums.
¶What it all boils down to, I guess, is that I generally prefer the quieter compositions, such as works the Impressionists Paul Ravel and Claude DeBussy gave us. Richard Wagner’s mystical preludes to “Lohengrin” and “Parsifal” also appeal to me. None of the louder compositions — especially Ludwig von Beethoven’s heavy, repetitive symphonies —appeal to me; yeah, I go against the general consensus there. (When I want something louder and faster I’ll tune in to a country-and-western station.)
¶Nearly all the adagios, especially the second movement of Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjues” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” easily fit into my comfort zone. The majority of classical music fans list those two pieces among their favorites, so I am “with the crowd” there at least. In fact, I can’t think of any composition finer than “Aranjues”.
¶It will probably strike the regular readers of my blog posts that I favor adagios because I am a melancholic, so it is natural that slower and moodier pieces would appeal to me. However, one does not reach seventy-seven years without learning that nothing is black and white. My tastes have changed over the years. For instance, I used to really enjoy George Frideric Handel’s entertainments for King George of England: you know, “Fireworks” and “Water”; now my awakened class-consciousness is repelled by them. Same story with Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”.
¶Of recent, I have found myself appreciating Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart more than I did back when I was in my twenties and thirties. Poor Mozart got off to a bad start with me because of a radio program to which I used to listen, the theme music for which was “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”. For some reason I can’t recall, it irritated me. During the same period, I saw the film “Elvira Madigan”, a depressing, romantic story that featured the andante from Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 21”; the concerto’s part in that film was so prominent that it gained the popular sub-title “Theme from Elvira Madigan”. Now, however, I have begun to favor Mozart because so much of his music is melodic and cheerful, especially when compared to Beethoven’s; a person can hum more of it.
¶I suppose I should apologize to any readers who don’t gain much from reading the above. True enough, there is not anything enlightening or entertaining in the content. But this “confession” is really just a “note-to-self”. I seldom attract any comments on my posts and only a few “likes” here and there, so I imagine I am writing mostly to myself anyway. By this point — four years into my blog-posting — I have begun to accept that reality. After all, I seldom read other bloggers’ posts either. And I think writing to one’s self is preferable to talking to one’s self (something I also do too much).
¶So, goodbye, Cyberworld. Have a pleasant 2017.

Finis

Profile #1: Don and the “Bwō Cháng”

©2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

¶One thematic idea that has occurred to me was to write a series of “profiles” about people who have deeply affected me during my life, for good or ill and sometimes both. Both good and ill aptly describes the person who will be the first subject of a profile here: Donald L.  I hope you readers will find the portrait below edifying or amusing or, again, both.

* * * * * *

¶Don L. was in the same “flight” as I during our basic training at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio. Don was about the same height and build as I, a slender six feet, but he had black, slightly curly hair; while mine was sandy brown with only a cowlick to disturb the front. I wouldn’t have imagined him a cologne model, but he was at least as good-looking as I; anyway, I doubt that any young lady would have declined if he asked her to dance with him or to go out on a date. There was an intensity in him that I didn’t catch onto at first; it wasn’t as primary a feature then as it would become a couple of years later. There were about sixty of us airmen in the flight, and I had minimal contact with Don during that time; he was at one end of the barracks and I at the other. I can recall only three incidents in which he compelled my interest.
¶The first was on base orientation day, when one of our two training sergeants, S/Sgt. D. marched us to some of the facilities we might wish or need to visit: the chapel, the cleaners, the Airmen’s Club, and the bookstore. While we were in the bookstore, Don bought a German language self-study book. A few minutes later, as we stood in formation out in front of the bookstore, Sgt. D. chewed him out for buying the book; I wasn’t sure why, although I surmised it might be because WWII had ended only thirteen years previously. Then there was the conning possibility: the very next year, newspapers reported a scandal at Lackland AFB in which airmen and airwomen had been treated as “pigeons”, i.e. subjects for fleecing by some on-base businesses. However, Sgt. D. wasn’t above fleecing either; he conned us trainees out of fifty cents each to buy some super-duper shoe polish — polish that never appeared, not for me anyway.
¶The second occasion for my noticing Don in a direct way was while we happened to be walking from the cleaners on base back to the barracks. We chatted off-handedly, and he confided to me that he was a Germanophile—fond of German culture, including Friedrich Nietzsche, Richard Wagner, Thomas Mann, and even Adolf Hitler. At the time, the only one of those names I recognized was Adolph Hitler. During our conversation on the Lackland road, I argued weakly with Don about the Nazis because I was ignorant about all the other Germanic figures that entranced him; but before our acquaintance was but a memory I would learn much about them from Don and my own reading.
¶The third event that brought Don closer within my orbit was when Don and I were sent to a building on the base where we and perhaps a hundred other airmen were told we were “the cream of the crop” and were to be tested to determine our language-learning abilities. Based on the results of our tests, some of us would be sent to Yale University to study Chinese, and the rest would go to Syracuse University to study Russian. The week after that, Don and I were told to go to yet another building, where we and other selected airmen spent at least a week being taught some basic Mandarin Chinese and tested. When we were finished, we received our orders to report to Yale University’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages to begin our intensive study, in November 1958. I was somewhat disappointed because I had imagined that if I went to Syracuse I would get an assignment in Europe—Parisian cafés, Pamplona bull-runs, etc. China was a very dark place, almost invisible, in mid-20th century American minds. It wasn’t until Nixon and Kissinger visited Mao Tse-Tung in 1972, that China’s colorful culture appeared in American TV, newspapers and magazines.

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A 1958-59 seminar at Yale’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages. This group is part of Don’s and my class,
but neither of us appear in the photo.

¶Since Don’s last name and my own began with the same letter, we were assigned the same dorm room along with another airman named Dale L., an airman from Pittsburgh. I didn’t like this Dale fellow at all; but the causes of our disconnect don’t fall within the purview of this profile, so I will ignore him.
¶Don and I, however, developed a strange kind of “odd-couple” relationship, sometimes a bit antagonistic but often almost brotherly. We walked around town together occasionally, but mostly had discovering conversations in our room. He related to me his fascination with Thomas Mann, suggesting that I read in particular Mann’s short story “Tonio Kröger”. He also bought an LP album of selections from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre. Those I could appreciate, but I still found his admiration for Hitler disgusting. For whatever reason—and it was not sexual—a strong affinity was developing between us, although at Yale it was still in its embryonic stage.
¶At this point, I need to introduce a Chinese term that plays a major role in my relationship with Don over the next five years: that term is “bwō cháng” (transliterated using the Yale romanization; in Wade-Giles, it is “pwō ch’áng”; in Pinyin, it is “pō cháng”). The phrase translates as “wave length”. Our class was introduced to “bwō cháng” near the end of our first eight months, when we concentrated on military terminology.
¶ Don was among those who stayed another few months (four, I believe) to learn more Chinese characters; I and several others received our “diplomas” after eight months. (I had contracted chicken pox shortly after Christmas and spent a week or two in the dispensary, so I left Yale a “straight-B” student.)
¶My initial orders indicated I was to go to the Philippines; but by the time I reached San Diego a few months later—after a brief detour to Fort Meade, Maryland, to learn the technical aspects of my assignment—I learned that, no, I was to fly in one of those old twin-engine DC-7’s to Okinawa.
¶I was assigned to the Group HQ on Kadena AFB. My duties, as I soon discovered, had little to do with the Chinese language. I was told that, because there was a surplus of Chinese linguists and no translators were needed at the group level, I was to perform clerical tasks. Initially, that meant stuffing paper burn bags with secret documents, toting them out to an incinerator, and burning them. I was disgusted by the whole bureaucratic mess and wrote a letter of protest, which got some higher-up’s attention only months later. After a few months, I was engaged in cryptanalysis work, receiving reports from the field and trying to extract usable intelligence from them.
¶But back to Don. I really thought I would never see him again, for I assumed his assignment would take him to Taiwan or South Korea. One day, however, he showed up at Kadena, although his base was a field station at the other end of the island. I can’t recall whether he first appeared in my barracks room or at the base library, where I spent a lot of my free time reading.
¶The barracks room visit, I recall, was unfortunately timed, because, although it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, I was on my bunk near the end of a marathon sleep after a long night of wine-drinking and seeing three movies in the nearby town, Koza. I could hear one of my roommates explaining to Don how I had been asleep a long, long time. But I was still too drowsy to want to get up, so I just let Don go on his way.
¶Later, I went up to where Don was stationed, and we went to see a movie about Franz Liszt—“Song Without End” (1960)—at the station’s movie house. Liszt, as most classical music fans know, became Wagner’s father-in-law.
¶But the most memorable incident happened the day I was sitting at a table in the Kadena library reading a book. All at once I subconsciously sensed a presence nearby, and then a hand clapped me on the shoulder. A warmth extended from my shoulder all over my back: it was the strangest feeling I had ever experienced, but I have felt it several times sense when I hugged certain women, and a kind of coolness when I have hugged others. I turned and there was Don standing just behind me. Later, when I read Bertrand Russell’s account of his first meeting Joseph Conrad, I felt confirmed in my belief that two persons of the same gender can have strong affinity without its being sex-based or even inducing physical warmth. It was primarily an intellectual/spiritual connection.
¶Don and I met only a few times on the island, but, unfortunately, I don’t recall the substance of most of our conversations there, just a couple of Don’s remarks. Once, when I had brought up the subject of our odd affinity, he acknowledged it and dubbed it the “bwō ch’áng”. I liked the analogy. Another time, he said to me, “Litton, sometimes when I think about you, I positively blush.” Although I felt slightly flattered by that comment, I didn’t ask him why; it had a certain aura of potential homosexuality about it, and I knew I wasn’t designed that way, nor did I believe Don was. It might, in fact, have been love, but I didn’t think Don was aware of the difference between philia and eros; while I had been in DeMolay, where brotherly affection was cultivated.
¶While on Okinawa I bought an LP album of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When I listened to it, in stereo, I was entranced. At least as far as Wagner was concerned, Don had influenced me positively about German culture.
¶After I had returned home and been discharged from the air force, I spent a semester at SMU and didn’t do well grade-wise. While at SMU, I read “Tonio Kröger” and the rest of Thomas Mann’s short stories as well as his novel Buddenbrooks. I wrote to Don, who had returned to his home in Seattle, asking if he could host me a brief while as I searched for a job there. After checking it out with his mother and grandfather, he sent me a positive reply. How recklessly carefree that train ride to Seattle now seems to me! I don’t mean the ride itself, but the risking myself into the unknown with very minimal resources and uncertain prospects. Maturing certainly drains one’s capacity for adventure.
¶Don met me at the train station, and we rode a bus to his grandfather’s house, a two-story structure in a block of houses set on a hill. His mother greeted me warmly, telling me that Don had informed her that I was of the same socio-economic class as they, although she didn’t express it so academically. If I recall aright, I didn’t meet his grandfather immediately and can only dredge up a vague vision of seeing him sitting in a chair in a back bedroom; perhaps he was handicapped and couldn’t move elsewhere; I don’t know. That night, I did meet Don’s sister, who also resided there; she was nearly his own age, but whether older or younger I never inquired.
¶One night, Don and I walked to a lake within the city, where we tossed some stones and talked a little about his fascination with Nazism. I asked him why he admired a racist philosophy. His replied actually shocked me: “Litton, you don’t know how much fun it is to hate!” I also asked him why he drank so much beer.
“Do you realize you are going to die?” he asked.
“I know it.”
“I know you know it, Litton, but do you realize it?”
I had never thought about the death question very deeply, and I sensed that I hadn’t enough self-awareness yet to respond, so I just let his question remain unanswered.
¶On a more positive note, one day while we were engaged in a conversation concerning some subject I cannot recall, Don remarked, “I think about these things, Litton, but you will do something about them.” I have since regretted my failure to follow that up by asking him to be more specific.
¶Don was working as a page at the public library. As soon as the next business day (probably a Monday) came, I took the bus downtown to look for a job, carrying a hefty sack lunch which Don’s mother foisted on me. When I told her I could pay for my own lunch, she replied with words I would hear from her a couple of times afterwards: “It just doesn’t add up in dollars and cents.” Seattle’s employment market was a good deal thinner than Dallas’ at that time, so I felt lucky to have found a job within the first couple of days of my search; it was a stockman’s position at a hobby-and-craft wholesale business. The owner, a cordial and honest man in his thirties, told me the day he hired me that he was reluctant to hire anyone right then because he might have to lay me off, and he hated doing that, but he took me on with no guarantees.
¶In fact, a few weeks later, he did let me go, although not personally. However, that was not as unfortunate as the fact that he also let another young man go, and that youth was to have been my roommate in an apartment on which we had just paid a deposit. The apartment owner gruffly declined to refund our deposit. So, I wished my erstwhile “roommate” good luck and went to Don’s house to tell him the bad news: I couldn’t afford to stay any longer.
¶I had already checked on the train fare prices. “If you can loan me ten dollars, I can return to Dallas,” I said, as we stood by the bus stop. “If not, then I’m off to San Francisco.” He pulled a ten out of his billfold. When I bent down to pick up my military-issued duffel bag, the handle broke. Was that a bad omen? I wondered. Occasionally since that day, I have fantasized how my life might have turned out differently if Don had not had the ten to loan me or if I had not asked for it.
¶After I had returned to Dallas and to SMU, Don and I resumed our correspondence. But I am a very wordy letter-writer, and Don was brief in the extreme as well as hypercritical. One time, I wrote him a letter using many of the 300 Chinese characters I had learned at Yale. I also included a satirical cartoon depicting a man in a Nazi uniform, holding a swagger stick and looking over a fellow who was sitting in front of an easel and drawing on it. (I was majoring in art at the time.) A cartoon “balloon” above the Nazi’s head contained the letters “Click, click!” (Don had some kind of nervous tic that occasionally caused him to utter clicking noises.) In a separate section of the drawing’s page, I conceded that my artistic ability was not in commendable condition and I perhaps should give up the effort. In his reply letter, Don wrote that I should give up writing in Chinese, too.
¶I haven’t related all the instances of Don’s hypercriticism, but there were several. Finally, after I had sent him a copy of a very brief story I had entered in a short story contest sponsored by SMU’s student literary magazine, he replied by panning my story for its inadequate characterization and anti-intellectualism. He concluded with one of the most cliché-burdened sentences I have ever seen: “For poor writing, your story takes the cake palms down. Hope you can get it back before the judges see it.” In a fit of angry exasperation, I wrote back saying, in part, “I’m tired of your vapid little notes to me.”
¶And that was the end of one of the most interesting relationships of my life. I have softened over the years and now wonder how Don’s own life turned out. He had told me he was going to return to the university he had attended before joining the air force, and probably major in Chinese. Apparently he lost interest in German. Hope he finished and benefited from that education.
¶One question Don asked me while I was a guest in his grandfather’s house—another one of those questions and remarks directed at me throughout my life which I did not respond to—was, “What do you want from me?” I did not answer, and now I wish that I had, for the answer was what I was all about at the time: “I want to discover what the bwō cháng is, but it seems to have faded away before I could find out.”

Finis

A Child’s Song

©2016 By Bob Litton

¶Can you play this? I’m serious, because I composed it and yet can’t play it. 

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¶Of course those two sentences above require some explanation. You see, I was ten years old when I submitted the lyrics to a poetry contest jointly sponsored by the Dallas Independent School District and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. At the time, 1951, Walter Hendl was music director of the DSO; and he was an enthusiastic promoter of children’s music programs.
¶Our music teacher, a young woman whose name I don’t recall, announced the opening of the contest and gave us the rules for it. The competition was divided into two parts. The first was to write a poem about one of five subjects: homeland, school, play…and I forget the remaining two. The second contest was to compose music for the winning poem.
¶Now is the time for a bit of full disclosure. I couldn’t read music; nor could I play an instrument, even though I had a guitar my father had bought for me, and took a couple of lessons from a man who tried to switch me to the violin. I did enjoy listening to the popular music of the day, but my only acquaintance with classical music came from listening to the themes of radio shows such as “The Lone Ranger”, “The Shadow”, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon”, etc. And I wasn’t even aware that those themes were not composed for the radio shows but were instead segments from famous classical music compositions. I didn’t even know what classical music as a “genre” was.
¶However, I often wrote little two-page stories which I also illustrated, so writing and drawing were already “in my blood”. I still find it odd then that one or two days after I heard the announcement for the contest, I busied myself in art class not with drawing anything but with writing a poem on a large sheet of manila paper, with crayons. I think now that I actually believed that the variety of colors would give me an edge in the contest.
¶Several weeks later, the music teacher informed me that I had won the poetry contest. Now I was faced with the ordeal, for me, of trying to contrive some music for it. At the end of the school day, the teacher sat at the piano, with my poem and a sheet of music paper before her, while I stood by a corner of the piano feeling like an idiot. I don’t recall how she managed to lure some tune out of me, but she did and scored it; and the result is what you see above.
¶After a few weeks had passed, my music teacher informed me that the contest judges had considered my music as “too jazzy”. That surprised me because, although I too viewed the music as too lively, in places, for its theme, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could see it as “jazzy”. However, I wasn’t crestfallen, for I hadn’t been very fond of my melodic result either.
¶ Fortunately, a fifth grade class at a school clear across town, in Oak Cliff, won the music composition part of the contest. When I heard their music set to my lyrics I was very much pleased with it. Although that class was credited with composing the music as a group, I supposed that the actual composer was the little girl who waited in a stage wing with me; we walked out on the stage together at Maestro Hendl’s invitation. That was a big day in my life, at Southern Methodist University’s McFarlin auditorium, hearing the DSO play the music and children from schools all over Dallas sing my lyrics.
¶I carried that music among all my other belongings for most of my adult life. Three times I asked friends who were adepts on the piano to play my version of the song for me. They tried but gave up. Too easily? I don’t feel qualified to say. Once, I called the DSO office and asked if they might have the “Oak Cliff version” in their archive, but the woman on the other end of the line acted as though she thought I must be some kind of a nut and said they don’t retain stuff like that.
¶One day a couple of years ago, I got disgusted because the music is way below par and apparently unplayable. I tore up the sheet music; but I keyed the lyrics into my computer, so it was not lost entirely. (Well, actually they  were pretty much embedded in my memory, but at my age memory is not a very reliable repository.) Recently, an acquaintance of mine in Dallas informed me that, while reorganizing her files she had noticed a photocopy of “In My Sleep”, and asked me if I wanted it. “Certainly!” I said, and she sent it to me.
¶Now, since the lyrics are slightly difficult to read in the photos above, I will present them here:

When the clouds have hurried by,
And the evening moon is nigh,
To my bed I fairly fly,
And there I sleepy lie.
Castles of dreams come into sight,
Lands of wonder every night.
To the many lands I go,
To bold deeds long ago.
Dreams of battles and marching soldiers,
Story books and picture folders,
Dreams of cowboys and painted Indians,
Pirates and sailors and Mounted Canadians.
I never fuss; I never weep
When I must go to bed to and sleep.

¶Obviously, the song is more descriptive of a boy’s day-dream than of something he is likely to experience in his sleep. Let’s just grant it the excuse of “poetic license”.

Finis

Meaningfulness

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Peter: Jesus, you are my Ground of Being!
Paul: Lord, you are my Ultimate Concern!
Jesus: Whaaattt?

This past Friday, my friend Chris and I met in my humble lodging for our regular bi-weekly, two-hour conversation and coffee-sipping. Over the past two months, we have been viewing DVD lectures by the late philosophy professor Robert Solomon, a specialist on Friedrich Nietzsche (N.). Solomon’s wife, Professor Kathleen Higgins, also a Nietzsche scholar, participates in the series. The lectures are about N. — his life, personality, and philosophy — of course; but interspersed among all of them are some comments on previous philosophers who had positively influenced Nietzsche, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (S.), and those who had negatively affected him, such as Socrates. This essay is partly my own take on S.’s and N.’s views concerning the meaning of life. The later part is my own view of purpose and meaningfulness — what the philosophers call teleology.

I have read very little of S. the pessimist, for I don’t need to read anything that will make me more depressed than I already am. Besides, everyone who is literate in Western philosophy, even in the most minor degree, has read or heard that S. considered life as essentially “suffering and death”, and that, given the choice of whether to live or die, the better option would be to die, but that an even better option would be not to have been born.

What I did not know, however, and one of the bits of interesting notions in Schopenhauer’s weltanschauung, is that S. eschewed Immanuel Kant’s view that one could justify life and find meaning through rationalism, and progress through rationalism to the Christian faith, according to Prof. Solomon. A more visceral response, particularly through an aesthetic appreciation of music, was more effective, S. believed. The benefit of music S. attributed to its abstractness as contrasted with the representational character of pre-20th century visual arts. Listening to, and contemplating, music, he held, would lift the suffering human out of his or her pointless individuality into a consciousness of a larger Reality, or “life as a whole”. But, as I mentioned in one of my early poems, that lift can last only as long as the music lasts.

I have read a few of Friedrich Nietzsche’s works but, unfortunately, not the one which is most pertinent on this topic, The Birth of Tragedy. So, I will have to rely again on Prof. Solomon’s — and Prof. Higgins’ — interpretations. They say that, while N. agreed with most of what S. had to say about life being almost totally a matter of suffering and death, he differed with S. on finding it pointless. Where S. postulated that humans proceed from desire or hunger to satisfaction and back to desire/hunger, always longing for complete satisfaction or contentment (picture a “couch potato”) and never finding it; N. believed that absolute and permanent contentment is not really any human’s desire at all. Rather, N. theorized, meaning is to be found in the passions, i.e. dedication to a person, to a project, or to an art can give meaning to life. Here, again, arises the question of how long that passion can last.

One of the best though tardiest lessons I ever learned was that regular settings and reviews of goals are very important. I recall reading, while a senior at the university, an article that related how frequently college seniors commit suicide. Of course, several reasons can cause young people to kill themselves; the later teens and early twenties are emotionally tumultuous years; but what struck me about this article was that it was specifically about college seniors who were soon to graduate. Either the article stated or I inferred (can’t recall which) that the most likely cause for many of those deaths was that the students had not set any goals beyond college; campus life was all that had mattered to them, and they could not see anything meaningful beyond it.

It is indeed an interesting contrast between S. and N. that while the first sought respite, the latter sought strife (not strife against other people but a continual struggle within the self to make one’s self better). N.’s view is very much in keeping with that of the ancient Athenians. Consider the following passage from Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, in which a Corinthian ambassador, while urging the Spartans to aid them in their conflict with Athens, criticizes them for their lackadaisical attitude:

“The Athenians are revolutionary, and their designs are characterized by swiftness alike in conception and execution; you have a genius for keeping what you have got, accompanied by a total want of invention, and when forced to act you never go far enough. They are adventurous beyond their power, and daring beyond their judgment, and in danger they are sanguine; your way is to attempt less than your power justifies, to mistrust even what your judgment sanctions, and to think that there will be no end to your dangers….So they toil on in trouble and danger all the days of their life, with little opportunity for enjoying, ever engaged in getting: their only idea of a holiday is to do what the occasion demands, and to them laborious occupation is less of a misfortune than inaction and rest. In a word, one might truly say that they were born into the world to take no rest themselves and to give none to others.”[1]

As for myself, I believe that the most contented people are also the most active people. To that extent I certainly agree with N. But I also believe that there is a Reality — a spiritual Reality that surrounds us and yet is much too much beyond our capacity to understand. Each of us must search and discover it on his/her own without over-reaching.

A recent NOVA episode on PBS hosted by astrophysicist Brian Greene reveals how the latest frontier of cosmology has forced scientists into theories they are sometime embarrassed to present. One of them is that our universe is actually two dimensional with an edge to it that is comparable to a holograph. Also, they say that space is nowhere empty, not outer space nor molecular space, but that in every part of it “things” are constantly moving, from particles to planets; and that space is not like a vapor but more like a piece of pliable material that can bend and be stretched. Even more nonintuitive: There is no past, present or future; there is only NOW.

I do not mean to imply that all of this new scientific theory-developing is an argument for a higher being: most of the scientists, I think, would deny that absolutely. All I am saying is that, as S. and N. should have, we should refrain from placing absolute designs on “the real world/universe” until a good deal more evidence is in, probably beyond my own remaining lifespan.

In the meantime, we can each discover our own Higher Power (I read that there must be 7.4 billion of them about now), purposes and life-meanings. Let’s just don’t try to impose them on others.

Bob Litton, March 1967, reading An American Tragedy in Wesley-PCF office

Bob Litton at Southern Methodist University in 1967.

[1] Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, ed. Sir Richard Livingstone, (Oxford University Press:1943), Book I, ¶70.

Finis

NOTE TO READERS: For some reason I don’t know, WordPress.com (WP) does not allow non-WP bloggers to register “Likes” on my or other WP bloggers’ posts. However, anyone can enter a comment in the “Comment” box and it will be published, after I have “moderated” it. I am inviting non-WP bloggers to comment, even if it just to say “Like” or “Don’t Like”. And, although I prefer positive comments, disagreeing or critical remarks are fine, too, especially if they might help me improve my writing; but no snarking, please: that’s rude!
— BL

Beauty in Ordinary Things

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One of the fleeting, annual days of beauty at my apartment complex. Photo: Courtesy of Chris Ruggia.

© 2015 By Bob Litton

“You find the beauty in ordinary things. Do not lose this ability.”
                                                 — Note from a fortune cookie

I love serendipity. It has played such a prominent role in my adult life that I have granted it mystical powers, for the things I find while looking for something else have often spoken eloquently to my mind, my heart, my soul. Sometimes the messages have not been as positive as the epigraph above: sometimes they have been melancholy, but more often they have indeed been enlightening and even funny.

That cookie fortune, for instance, I came upon serendipitously just a few days ago while clearing my computer table of the mass of larger papers on it. Of course, I obtained the fortune months ago when I ate lunch at a local Chinese restaurant. I saved it for some reason I have forgotten; I would surmise, however, that I liked its assessment of me and the sentiment attending that assessment. Even the imperative sentence that follows is appreciable: it both exposes the fragility of the attuneness and enjoins me to nurture it. Not the sort of “fortune” I expect to find in such cookies; it does not predict anything.

So, how does that relate to the above photo of leaves? Well, the more obvious connection should not be difficult, dear reader, for you to perceive. Most people, I believe, look forward to the few weeks when the crisp air causes the leaves of the many trees to change from green to russet, gold, yellow, maroon, brown and even combinations of those colors within the same leaf. The last mentioned aspect is typical of the non-bearing mulberry trees on my apartment’s campus. I have been fascinated and amused by the color combinations in some of the leaves on the sidewalk and the driveway: one leaf, for instance, was a perfect imitation of a soldier’s camouflaged field jacket — tan and olive; another leaf was yellow with small brown dots, almost uniform in size and shape, that reminded me of a ladybug.  I picked up four of the leaves the other day and laid them on my computer desk, where I am admiring them now even as they curl with dryness.

I have always enjoyed the color changes of autumn, but it seems that only this year have they meant so much to me that I practically adore them. This sudden acuteness to the sight of leaves is akin, I believe, to the vividness that the sounds of the acorns falling and rolling down my roof revealed; remember that I wrote about the acorns a few blog posts ago (Oct. 3). All the senses participate in this miracle of perception.

You remember, don’t you, Karen Carpenter’s song “Where Do I go from here?”? The early lines are:

Autumn days lying on a bed of leaves
Watching clouds up through the trees
You said our love was more than time.
It’s colder now;
The trees are bare and nights are long;
I can’t get warm since you’ve been gone….

Well, without the evocative music — not to mention Karen’s voice — some of the point I wish to make loses some of its emphasis. Those words remind me of my youthful days in Dallas, during the early winter, when the skies were a solid gray, with sagging clouds promising snow. The darkness of such a day was paralleled by the stillness of it. Someone unattuned to the fall season might imagine that such a scene would be depressing, but it did not strike me that way; as long as there was not a strong, cold wind I felt comfort in that setting. Now that the seasons are vanishing, the romance has diminished also.

Another old song — from ancient days when lyricists actually said something worth paying attention to in their lines — is “Autumn Leaves”, one of Andy Williams’ first hits:

The falling leaves drift by the window
The autumn leaves of red and gold.
I see your lips, the summer kisses,
The sun-burned hands I used to hold.

Since you went away the nights grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song,
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall.

Now, I will concede that these two songs do reflect melancholy, but it is a melancholy of gentle love…of the yearning for coziness which only two bodies hugging each other can provide…which a fireplace cannot.

We also view the color-changing and falling leaves as symbolic of the transiency of Life itself. The curse in the fruit of Eden’s tree is not just new awareness of nakedness and fear; it also includes more momentously the anticipation of death. While fore-knowledge of death is not restricted to humans, we do seem to have a more lifelong curiosity and occasional fear of it; perhaps what sets our knowledge of death apart from that of other creatures is that we can visualize it, to an extent, as pre-existing within ourselves.

But then, after the leaves have been swept away and a few snowfalls have bonneted the bare limbs for a few months, the buds of new leaves appear. I wonder how many people, like me, are a bit disconcerted by this cycling from chartreuse and forest greens to a multitude of fiery tones. And then their disappearance. Yes, it is a topsy-turvy world where winter symbolizes our giving up the ghost, and then the spring interrupts our acceptance with a “Hey, hold on there! Don’t give up just yet! There is more to this show!”

And so, we start all over again…a bit surprised, a bit amused, a bit perplexed.

Finis

To add a little seasoning to the above essay, readers, you might want to check out the YouTube presentations of the two songs I mentioned. Try the URL’s below:

“Where Do I Go From Here?”  (Karen Carpenter)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDvDd-kW8Os

“Autumn Leaves” (Andy Williams)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMfzXpI98-0

 

A Bit Of Prowling About

Text: Bob Litton
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Howard

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In contrast with my self-description as a flaneur, I seldom go out at night anymore. Most of my sauntering about town is done during the morning and late afternoon.

One recent evening, though, I roused myself to venture to a local venue called “Brown Dog Gardens” where native plants and large crystal rocks are sold, and where small social fetes are sometimes conducted. The reason for my outing was that my friend Chris Ruggia and the two women who have joined him in a group they have dubbed “The Swifts” were slated to hold their first “gig” at BDG.

The crowd wasn’t huge — only twenty to thirty persons, several of whom I hadn’t seen since I quit the night-time bar scene a few years ago — but they comfortably filled up the available area. Most of the folks stood, sipping their wine or water and supping on chili con queso; but a half dozen folding chairs were there, and I seated myself on one near the small stage.

Nearly a year ago, Chris (at my request) brought his guitar over to my apartment and sang a song. I can’t recall which one, but it was an old pop song or maybe a folk song…one I knew. His voice at that time was soft and seemingly hesitant, and his playing appeared the faltering effort of a new guitar student. The other night, however, he came on strong vocally during the three numbers in which he was the singer. His fingering on the strings was likewise much more professional, it seemed to me. In one rendition, especially, he reminded me of Paul Simon doing one of his more energetic vocals. The heavy-set woman did most of the singing — very powerful lungs.

I really enjoyed the performance, which extended for only about an hour, beginning at 6 p.m., with a brief break. I guess they played and sang a total of approximately twelve songs, none of which was recognizable to me. The genres were a mixture of blue grass, American folk, and New Orleans blues. Chris told me this morning that one song was a slightly modified version of Elvis Costello’s “Blame It On Cain” (Post Punk Rock). A few others were “How Dark My Shadow’s Grown” (a contemporary blue grass borrowed from The Bad Livers), a rendition of Doc Watson’s “Lone Journey” (old time country), “Three Is A Magic Number” (an educational TV song from School House Rock), and the Depression era song “One Meatball”.

I regret that I don’t have a recorded file of any of the The Swifts’ songs to share with you, but maybe one day soon they will produce an album, and we can return for an encore.

The Swifts debut was very enjoyable! I wish them much success!

Above is a photo which one of my other acquaintances — Mike Howard, a former NYC fashion photographer — took at the musicale.

Finis

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