Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Not All Those Who Do Not Wander Are Not Lost

A few months ago my friend Nick put up an excellent blog post entitled Not All Who Wander Are Lost, taking his cue from this Tolkien quote to discuss the idea of Christians as pilgrims, subjects of Christ as King.  I wouldn't think of this as responsive to that post, but of course I'd recommend you go read it anyway. He incidentally noted that probably most who wander are lost, which seems likely to me.  And yet, one need not wander to become lost.

Image result for bilbo baggins
Also, many of those who do not wander are hobbits.
It's amazing how "lost" one can get without ever knowingly straying from the path. That is, by a series of reasonable decisions with outcomes which may be anticipated, each of which fits neatly with the rest, it's quite possible nevertheless to stray far from the route intended. I've had frequent occasion over the last few months to reflect on decison-making processes and metrics, as well as the results I've obtained by them over the years.  It's a topic that naturally fills untold shelves in the business and economics literature, but is easy to gloss over in the day to day. My contention is that we (or maybe just I) often only make medium-sized decisions.  Things happen with regard to larger and smaller decisions, but I think it often falls short (or long) of conscious decision.

Sometimes you run into decisions that raise the stakes by inevitably impacting the way you live for the next year; the next five years; or the rest of your life.  Visible, high-impact decisions can call everything into question, and decision-making in that context is as much about reaffirming and rightly understanding one's identity as it is about making the decision. The decision flows from identity, and identity is defined by the decision. We are in large part defined by the commitments we make and how we fulfill them or fail to do so.  So the conscious decision to make or execute upon a commitment, or not, is defining of and reliant upon identity. It will make you and reveal you.

For the decisions big enough to warrant attention but not big enough to confront you with yourself, we think about it and do the best we can with the information available. That's the stuff of traditional economics, among other fields, and I needn't discuss it here.

I think the little things are more similar to the big than the medium.  I don't have the time or energy to optimize every detail of my life. They are built into habit; the result of latent decisions or dispositions acted out in tiny ways again and again. Over time I can try to adjust things to improve them on a one-off basis, but frequently that will only go so far without acknowledging the habit, addressing an underlying issue of identity, or healing a sinful heart.

What this highlights, to me, is just how fundamentally and pervasively debasing are the effects of the fall, and how critical for thriving it is to know God well and be reconciled to Him.  It is easy to become lost through the culmination of so many great and miniscule actions if we do not seek ardently after and hold fast to truth and an identity built upon the rock of our salvation.

I wonder, then, how many latent decisions I have made, large or small, without conscious deliberation.  I wonder where I will discover one next.  And I wonder if I will like what it reveals about my heart, or just show me to be lost, without having ever wandered.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Poem for Today

In the summer of 2011 my boss, a lively, big-hearted woman transplanted from Georgia, handed me a copy of this poem.  I don't recall the context in which that occurred, but it seemed quite random.  I read it, and again, and thanked her for it.  Days later, my wife left me for the woman she was seeing.  When I read this poem again, I wept (which I suppose I was doing a lot of anyway, but no matter). Since then I have often returned to it in times of difficulty, uncertainty, or conflict.  But especially in sorrow.

The poem is called Kindness.  The author is Naomi Shihab Nye.

[Update:  For copyright purposes, I am substituting a link for a reprinting of the poem.  I do hope you'll follow it.]

Kindness (

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dusting Off the Old Brain

My dear friend Nick McAvoy has, from time to time, used the charmingly grotesque imagery of "dusting off the old brain" to describe points of personal transition that awakened new or long disused channels and degrees of intellectual engagement.  I have begun to feel in the last few months that I may be coming upon one of those periods of renewal after a long and fitful slumber.

I like to fancy that I do have, at least on some occasions, the energy and focus required to think well upon a subject.  Yet there is a limit, imposed by the sheer physicality and temporality of life.  For several years my energies had been absorbed almost entirely into the work product of the law firm where I spent my days, nights and Saturdays (rarely Sundays, however, and delightfully not; on which, perhaps more later).  During this period, serious study and reflection were difficult in any area, because the time not spent in productive employment was either used in vain or vainglorious efforts at recovery, or in the practical busywork of maintaining my small household.  Before the firm, law school had a similar effect of crowding out other areas of study and reflection that would have yielded more satisfactory results. Just as early monasticism kept a sliver of ancient scholarship alive through the dark ages, so for me church and music have been continuous backstops against the total loss of intellectual engagement.  But it has been at a low ebb.

The horde of Ghengis Khan approaches!
The limiting reagent was time, but as I began to wind down my law firm job, available time quickly multiplied, and the buffer of renewed exercise could no longer consume it.  I started with a history podcast from Dan Carlin's Hardcore History series called 'The Wrath of the Khans."  Hearing of a time and place and people far from me, in addition to being absolutely fascinating in its own right, helped to take me regularly once again out of my routines of middle class subsistence and forced me to think about the world at large.  This blossomed into further pursuits of history and philosophy, and I feel that I am only just beginning to recover my faculties.  I look forward to giving my curiosity increasing time to roam in the future.

My hope is that I may leave some record here, if not of understanding, then at least of curiosity and exploration.  I bequeathed myself a few old posts from 2012; great empty hulls that never made it out of dry dock, but I may soon attempt to bring them to completion. (One of these is an amusing missive, likely inappropriate post-Crimea, to Russian readers, who, to my surprise, I found to be surprisingly common among those who stumble upon this blog.)  In general, though, I will likely stick with shorter posts about whatever happens to intrigue me at the moment, from a deliberately limited perspective.  Rather than making an illusory assay at fairness or comprehensive coverage, I'll content myself to a pointed thought or two at a time, and perhaps something larger will emerge from the pattern. Or perhaps not.  Either way, I am excited to be writing something other than a mortgage again.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Songs for Today: Dies Irae

The Dies Irae is a sequence of the traditional Catholic Requiem mass. I expect to return to mass music, and especially Requiem masses, because of the richness of the Western canon in this area. Most great composers wrote several masses, but few have written more than one serious Requiem. Like the symphony after Beethoven, but to an even greater extent, the Requiem has become a powerful, singular statement by a composer. It's a massive undertaking, typically utilizing combined choirs, orchestra, and soloists. One does not simply write a Requiem mass. The composer of a Requiem looks death in the eye. Worse, he stands astride centuries of the greatest music ever written. His audience will know those that have gone before. Thus, it takes some substantial figurative balls to put notes on the staff under the title Requiem. This issue will be addressed further in The Burden of Culture, Part II (forthcoming).

The basic Requiem text is more or less agreed, although its use in music has fluctuated somewhat according to the direction of the church and the conscience of the composer. Composers divide up the Requiem mass differently. Sometimes modern texts supplement or replace all or part of the traditional text; a trend started by two of the all-time greats, Johannes Brahms (Ein Deutsches Requiem) and Robert Schumann (Requiem fuer Mignon, oddly, a requiem in honor of the death of a fictional character). Whatever the final text, the composer of a Requiem is expected to base their work on a musical exegesis of the spiritual themes of the original, and to integrate the ancient musical themes which are closely associated with them. These necessary similarities and the extraordinarily high quality of composition make Requiem masses an excellent point of comparison between composers, especially with regard to comparable segments of text.

The Dies Irae is one of the most enduring movements of Requiem masses. It's often included even where other texts have also interceded.  This is presumably because the Dies Irae is FREAKING AWESOME. (If you disagree on this point, either 1. you've never heard it; or 2. we probably can't be friends.) It's essentially a condensed book of Revelations, focusing on the final Judgment. Musically, it is closely associated with a 13th century Gregorian plainchant hymn. Later composers, particularly after Mozart, have cranked up the terror on "day of wrath," hitting the opening of the movement with everything they've got. Following the opening tumult, the composer backs off into a more contemplative mood to consider the implications of Judgment. Resurgent fear often intervenes, either in the course of the initial Dies Irae, or in a subsequent Libera Me movement.

Because of its ancient pedigree and ability to be easily recognized, the Dies Irae theme has been borrowed in other contexts by a number of composers to evoke the fear of death and judgment, and the broader theme of death in general. As a musical tool of communication, there is probably no easier way to place these themes in the mind of the listener. When you hear the Dies Irae, shit gets real. In just two bars, the listener is reminded of the coming Judgment. This is sometimes controversial when the Dies Irae is placed in irreverent contexts, as we shall see.

Below I've embedded some notable implementations of the Dies Irae. If you know of others in popular culture, please post them to the comments.

Composer unkown, Dies Irae, plainchant hymn, 13th Century
The original Gregorian chant is the musical root from which the others have grown.

Wolfgang Mozart, Dies Irae, from Requiem, 1791.
Mozart's Requiem was unfinished at his death. According to the Pedia,  the vocal and basso continuo lines of the Dies Irae were complete, but the remainder of the orchestration was supplied by later composers based on his implications. Mozart gave us enough raw material to work out an utterly frightening day of wrath.

Giuseppe Verdi, Dies Irae, from Messa da Requiem, 1874.
Verdi was primarily a composer of operas, and it shows. The work is well-balanced vocally, but, gloriously, he asks for more out of the strings than any reasonable person would. The result is something like an explosion followed by a desperate search through the rubble.

Benjamin Britten, Dies Irae, from War Requiem, 1962
This is a crappy recording, but you can get the gist of it. Britten's War Requiem is a reflection on the horrors of World War II, written for the recommissioning of a 14th century cathedral destroyed by the Luftwaffe. Britten went to America before World War II, but returned to Britain in 1942. He was a conscientious objector, and he had a few things to tell us about the war. Indeed, the Dies Irae comes up several times in his Requiem, in different forms. The War Requiem uses both traditional texts and modern poetry.

Some other top-notch examples of a classical Dies Irae are found in Dvorak's and Bruckner's Requiems.

Hector Berlioz, Symphony Fantastique, Movement V: Songe d'une nuit de sabbat (1830).
One of the most famous uses of the Dies Irae is not in a Requiem at all. Hector Berlioz scandalized early 19th-century Parisian audiences by putting the Dies Irae in a programmatic romantic work:  a movement of a fantastic (read: like fantasy) symphony, the song of a witch's sabbath following the execution of his beloved in the 4th movement. Truly this is a day of wrath, wrought in pestilence and perversion. It is a mockery of the Requiem; an audacious and haughty rejection of the dignity of its truth. Here is a new fear: what can man do against such reckless hate? But it is also a work of musical genius.  The Dies Irae theme is introduced by funeral bells after 2'30" (but do listen all the way through!).  It is raised again after 6', where it ultimately succumbs and merges into the triumphant revelry. I don't like Ozawa's interpretation of this piece in general (far too fast, for starters), but the funeral bells are spot on, and the vinyl just sounds right.

Honorable Mentions:
  • Berlioz (Dies Irae, Grande Messe des Morts)
  • Dvorak
  • Bruckner
  • Penderecki
  • Liszt ("Tottentanz")
  • Rachmaninoff (Variations on a Theme by Paganini, variation X)
See also:
>Rice & Webber (Requiem for Evita, from the musical Evita)
>Larson (La Vie Boheme, from the musical Rent)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Freedom With Content, Part I

A boat at dock is safe, but that's not what boats are built for.

Boats are built for sailing.
This is a dinghy-scale version of a phrase that I have seen and heard in several places. It has been growing on me as a partial reply to my earlier post, Freedom Without Content. After taking the bar, I realized that my perspective at the time of writing the prior post was greatly affected by the fact that my substantive freedom was yet inchoate. It was as if I got into my boat still strapped to its lift, looked around, and declared it stupid.  My boat was safe, but that's not what boats are for. My boat is for sailing, and I knew then that I wasn't sailing.

The joy of freedom, like the joy of sailing, is about process and movement. It's about choosing objectives and finding ways to get there. It's about careful preparation, followed by constant adjustment for conditions. It's about looking back to learn from the boat's reactions, and looking ahead to see what's coming next. My boat is a good boat; it's fundamentally sound. Within its structure I can set the base of the mast at different points; I can pin the shroud at different tensions; I can choose my sails. So I have. Once I'm moving, I can set the daggerboard depth, tension or relax the main sail in four different ways and the jib in two, set the angles of my sails, and steer myself wherever I desire. Getting to the other side of the lake is not the fun part. That's almost an annoyance. The joy of sailing comes from loving your crew, and from applying your understanding to turn a clever system of tension and compression into motion, to maneuver around obstacles, and to devour your french toast on the run. True story. That seems pretty much identical to the joy of freedom. What further content is needed? (but see Part II, forthcoming) There is always more to be done; do it with your might.

On the lift, there is only hidden, unknown potential. A practical nullity. On the water, in even the slightest breeze, the pregnant sails give birth to effortless motion. Fly your sails and be free.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Why I Don't Use My Porch

The great outdoors, more or less.
I have a nice little porch, with a view to the nice little park across the street. I don't use my porch, despite having a perfectly good lawn chair and nowhere else to put it.  Here are my excuses:

  1. It's too hot outside;
  2. The view from my desk is just as good.  See above;
  3. The Bar; and most importantly:
  4. Shelob lives in the space between glass and screen.
Where's Sting when I need it?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Songs for Today: The Moon

I plan to run a series of posts where I look at several pieces of music connected by a theme or common musical elements.  I'll start off on a lighter note this evening with a set of songs about the moon. The classical canon is rich enough here, but I have a few other directions in mind as well. (For the classical cannon, see Tchaikovsky, 1812 Overture.) Later posts will bear some degree of analysis; for this topic, I believe these settings can speak for themselves. They reveal night as a time for reflection, rebellion, or exultation, according to each writer's own unique... idiom. Guten Abend, alle.

Felix Mendelssohn, Der Mond: Mein Herz ist wie die dunkle Nacht, from the song cycle Op. 86, Six Songs for Voice and Piano, early 19C.
(first 2 minutes of this video)

Schoenberg, The Moonfleck, from the song cycle Pierrot Lunaire, 1912

Cat Stevens, Moonshadow, from the album Teaser and the Firecat, 1971

Jonathan Larson, Over the Moon, from the musical Rent, 1994

Spongmonkies, We Like the Moon, 2006

Honorable mentions:
  • Orff, Der Mond
  • Dvorak,  Rusalka, Song to the Moon (I recommend Renee Fleming's fully-staged performances)
  • Songs for a New World, Stars and the Moon
  • Les Miserables, Harvest Moon
    • See also Les Miserables, Stars
  • A lovely song in French and English called La Luna that I can't seem to find anywhere but my iTunes.
  • Ozzy, Bark at the Moon
  • Beethoven, Moonlight Sonata
  • Sinatra, Old Devil Moon
  • Rush, Between Sun & Moon