Tuesday, May 11, 2021

When Hymns Come In Handy

Me, age 3 1/2, leading music in my Sunday School class.
Note that no one is paying attention to me.
In January 2015 I was looking out over the ocean, thinking (and praying) about my father's decline in health, his admission to a nursing home, getting him and my mother on the right Medicare supplemental insurance, getting their finances in order, and working with an attorney's office on setting up the right legal paperwork so I could help meet their needs in the coming years. I was plagued by anxiety and confusion and fear that things would not work out right. Through a whipping rain (but behind the shield of a pair of sliding glass doors), I watched waves fighting each other and pounding the beach. I was reminded of the hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul":

    When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
    When sorrows like sea billows roll;
    Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
    It is well, it is well with my soul.

I did not feel like all was well with my soul. And peace did not "attendeth my way." Far from it. Instead, I felt buffeted by relentless forces standing in the way of caring for my parents. But in those times of distress, I prayed for peace, and wisdom to make the right choices as I upheld the Fifth Commandment.

Growing up with hymns

In my formative years I was -- thanks to my parents and several Baptist churches -- introduced to a great deal of church hymns. In Sunday School we learned the old standards, "Jesus Loves Me" and "Jesus Loves the Little Children." (See Matt. 19:13-15). As a three-year old I stood on a little chair in my Sunday School class to lead the music for us. (See photo above.) And whenever I see a sycamore tree I'm reminded of another song we learned as children in Sunday School (see Luke 19:1-10):

    Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he!
    He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see ...

One of my earliest memories is of my mother doing a solo at church of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow." She sang in the church choir. My father could have been part of the choir. He had a good voice, but we could never get him to join. Perhaps he was too self-conscious.

There was only one hymn I was told my father didn't like: "The Old Rugged Cross," because he considered it idolatrous. Philosophers refer to this as confusing the map [the representation] with the territory [what is being represented]. The lyrics of this hymn don't say we should worship the cross. The cross, as it says in the first verse, is "the emblem of suffering and shame." It is a representation of Christ's death and what it means to Christians.

As I sang in church, growing up, I realized I had a knack for picking up harmony while the congregation sang hymns. But it was not until I joined our church's youth choir that my harmonizing found the structure it needed as I started learning to read music and sing tenor alongside my choir friend Bob DuBois.

Nowadays, hymns are something I seldom hear, but they remain in my heart. They frequently come in handy, as when I contemplate a never-ending list of chores and responsibilities and hear in my mind the refrain of the hymn, "We'll Work Till Jesus Comes":

    We'll work till Jesus comes,
    We'll work till Jesus comes!
    We'll work till Jesus comes
    And we'll be gathered home.

I just hope He comes soon so I can get some rest!

What hymns and contemporary Christian music mean for me today

In the past fifty years Christian music has changed radically. In many churches where hymns are still sung, hymnals are a thing of the past. The lyrics are projected on a screen for all to see, but for those of us who read notes while singing harmony, we have no notes to guide us. I have to fall back on improvising, and not singing too loud in case I pick a discordant note by accident.

Twenty-five years ago my wife and I joined a church that had a "blended" traditional/contemporary service. We felt like we were getting the best of both worlds. (I made the "mistake" of singing tenor where the choir director could hear me, and soon I was drafted!) But blended services are increasingly difficult to find in our part of Ohio. And "praise bands" leading music in contemporary non-denominational churches, at least in our region, stick strictly to a repertoire of contemporary Christian music (CCM). This may be an important part of attracting younger families. Older church members are dying out, and that may also contribute to the shift from hymns to CCM.

I like and I appreciate CCM. I enjoy the "rock" feel to it. I've even attempted solos of a couple of pieces of CCM in church, with backing tracks, and I've enjoyed playing guitar and bass in a few praise bands. But CCM does not easily lend itself to congregational singing. There is a much greater variety to draw on, compared to the old hymns, but unless you listen to CCM on the radio/Spotify, you probably won't know how to sing the melody, let alone some kind of harmony.

A related problem, in my mind, is this. Too often, it feels like the praise band leading CCM is putting on a performance instead of gathering voices from all over the church in praise to God. Darkened auditoriums with spots on the praise band only bolster that impression. Congregational singing consequently falls by the wayside. Without a strong participation by the congregation, the church misses out on "the fellowship of kindred minds" who together proclaim the glory of God in song.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Ensuring the Survival of Life's Details

Second Lt. Andrew Jackson Lacy,
Eighth Tennessee Cavalry (CSA), 1862

My family is fortunate and privileged to have a massive amount of photographs, correspondence, and recordings that detail the history of our family, going back to before the Civil War. This information includes:
  • deeds from the 1850s to the early 1900s
  • dozens of letters written during the Civil War (see my book, Battlefront and Homefront: The Lacy Family's Civil War Documents)
  • over 800 letters written since 1879 (though in recent times the family basically quit writing letters because of email)
  • over 1000 photographs (and color slides) from 1862 to the advent of digital photography
  • extracts of my father's diaries from 1969 to 1981
  • all the articles and newspaper columns my father wrote
  • over 200 cassette recordings ("letters") between my family and my grandparents from 1972 to 1988
  • cassette recordings of interviews of family members (including both toddlers and elders)
  • informal memoirs by several family members
  • VHS tapes of special occasions
The problem is preserving this information. Documents can burn. Photographs fade. Tape recordings deteriorate. Entropy is the enemy.

Digitizing and sharing

I have digitized (scanned, ripped) and/or transcribed all of this information. In some cases I've had to physically disassemble photo albums and scrapbooks in order to scan the material. In the case of color slides and recordings on tape, the original media has been thrown away because it was deteriorating, and it becomes more difficult with each passing year to find equipment that the original media will play on. 

This information has been preserved, but the main task now is to remove duplicates and curate all that information (label it, date it, arrange it chronologically). Even though my parents always admonished us to label photos with dates and names of who was in the photos, well-annotated photos over the broad timescale we're talking about are the exception rather than the rule. In many cases the only way to determine chronology is to study the details (like a baby's outfit), tap the details in our family tree (like when a couple got married, or when a person died), or cross-reference a photo using information from a letter.

A concurrent challenge is that of finding the best way to share all this information. Most online systems I've found don't meet my criteria for ease of use, free or low cost, broad applicability, or facilitating the kind of annotation that is needed. Anyone I share this information with probably can open an Excel spreadsheet, a Word document, a JPG image file, or an audio file. I set up a method for labeling each file and listing those files, with dates or approximate dates, peoples' names, and other information, in an Excel workbook. All the files are organized in folders arranged by information type (letters, photos, other documents).

What good is it?

Yes, I'm crazy to take all this on, but I can't bear the thought of this information being lost, unavailable to future generations. There is enough material at-hand that a family historian could piece together a very detailed chronicle of the lives of my family's members from the time the family settled in the Upper Cumberland region of Middle Tennessee around 1850 to today.

Posterity is the word. Immortality is a pipe-dream, but no one will every have this information if it's not conserved.

For further reading

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

My Eyes Are Bigger Than My Brain

I'm not sure what a "Deligetful Salad" is ...

Growing up, when we took road-trips to visit grandparents or when we needed to take visitors out for dinner, Dad would take us to cafeterias, like Davis Brothers and Piccadilly. Invariably one of us kids would wind up with more on our tray than we could finish eating. Mom would say, "Your eyes were bigger than your stomach!" She would claim that she put little on her tray because she knew she could finish off what we couldn't.

I remembered this because I eat information and I've been putting way too much of it on my tray. I frequently use Instapaper to grab interesting articles on the web for reading at a later time. My inventory at the moment is about 300 articles waiting for me to read. This inventory has grown like it has because I seldom go back to read what I save. I wanted to read these articles when I first saw them; I just didn't have the time or the gumption (or attention span?) to read each one as I came across it. So basically my eyes are bigger than my brain.

We already know (see this post) I have a similar problem with reading books. And with e-books for my Kindle it's like finding online articles to save using Instapaper. In each case, it's a matter of "out of sight, out of mind." If I don't look in my electronic pantries, I don't realize all the articles or books I've stored for future consumption.

Self-discipline is overrated.

Memes and Antimemes: Mental Contortions

Mind-bending stories

There are many popular movies and books known for bending the mind of the viewer or reader. Movies like Memento (2000), Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Looper (2012) are just a few examples. Many of the storylines for these movies are built on notions of memory and time. Some, like The Matrix (1999) and Inception, deal with layers of reality nested like Russian dolls. In The Matrix, you may discover you've been living in a simulation. In Inception, you may discover you've been living in someone else's dream. In movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you find yourself encountering mysteries of epic proportions.

Reading the sci-fi novel There is No Antimemetic Division by author "qntm" (yes, that is his/her nom de plume) is like turning your brain inside out. This mind-bending goes beyond mental yoga. It falls in the category of mental contortionism.


We all know what a meme is. We've all shared the frustration of being unable to rid our conscious thoughts of a meme. Sometimes it's a tune or jingle -- an "earworm." If an earworm sticks to my brain like a remora to a shark, I have a "treatment" that sometimes works: I sing the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner with each line reversed:

See you can say oh  
Light early dawn's the by
Hailed we proudly so what 
Gleaming last twilight's the at

An antimeme, as imagined by qntm, does the opposite to us. If a meme is something you can't get out of your head, then an antimeme is something you can't keep in your head. You hear an antimeme and there is instantly no way to recall or recover its content. You read an antimeme and not only have no recollection of what you've read, you don't even realize you were reading something.

The premise of There is No Antimemetic Division is antimemes can be sentient and monstrous and, in general, dangerous. They can sometimes be fought -- but then you can't remember what it was you were fighting. They have been around us for millions of years, effectively invisible because as soon as you see one you instantly forget what you've seen. They can drive a person mad.

Wisdom tooth extraction and drug-induced amnesia

Encountering an antimeme results in selective amnesia. When I had my wisdom teeth removed by a dental student at the Medical University of S. Carolina, I was given an IV of Demerol and Valium. I was told this was an amnesiac mixture (not unlike, in effect, what you receive for "twilight sleep" before certain medical procedures). I would be able to respond to questions or instructions ("are you feeling any pain? can you open your mouth a little bit more?") but have no ability to recall any discomfort. In one moment I could feel a tooth coming out, but in the next moment, I would immediately forget it. The drug mixture they gave me acted like an antimeme.

Well, whaddya know!

An antimeme messes with what you think you know. It's a fifty-dollar word -- epistemological -- problem. Epistemology is one of the pillars of philosophy. It concerns knowledge -- what it is, where does it come from, what does it mean to know something.

There is No Antimemetic Division is an epistemologic nightmare for its characters. We often say "you don't know what you don't know." But in this novel there are things you do know but you don't know that you know them. What you think is real is incompletely real. What you experience is an inadequate representation of reality. The mental health of several characters in this mind-bending novel suffer from epistemological panic attacks when they come to realize that, somehow, their knowledge is dangerously incomplete.

But sentient antimemes are more than just a threat to our mental health. They are also an existential threat to the world, threatening life as we know it (or think we know it). For this reason, the Antimemetics Division (which the title of the book says does not exist) is charged with trying to rid the world of antimemes, much like Ghostbusters (1984) did with ghosts, or Men in Black (1997) with aliens. But there is nothing comedic about the tricky business of trying to fight something you can't recall or understand.

The verdict ...

There is No Antimemetic Division is not an easy read. You not only have to allow your mind to bend -- you also have to hold your mind in a twisted position as you follow the course of the story. Picking up again where you left off after you set the book aside requires getting back into that twisted position. In the end, your brain will feel comfortably stretched, but grateful to return to "normal."

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Deep Geographic Memory, Bagpipes, and Electronic Music

MacDuffee Clan Society Tartan (modern)
This past weekend I attended the graveside service of a dear cousin of mine. Just before the service began, a bagpiper approached playing a solemn tune. When the service was finished, he departed the same way he had come, slowly crossing a rise in the cemetery, signifying the departure of my cousin from this earthly life. We were moved by the occasion, and we were moved by the music.

I was reminded of heritage, and music. I was reminded of writing, and our sense of place on this planet.

Geographic Memory

Cherokee linguist Tom Belt is a descendant of the Native Americans who left their homelands in the Southeast U.S., forced to follow the "Trail of Tears" and relocate in Oklahoma in the 1830s. Robert Moor, in his book On Trails: An Exploration, explains that as a child in Oklahoma, Tom Belt would fantasize, while playing war games on the prairie, "that he was in a land of mountain slopes, soaring trees, and murmuring brooks." It wasn't until Belt moved to North Carolina at the age of forty that he realized this was the landscape he had been imagining. It's like a "sense of deep geographic memory," writes Moor. And while it "may seem mystical ... it isn't--or at least, isn't entirely--because the landscape is 'encoded' directly into the [Cherokee] language."

Scots-Irish Heritage

I believe this would resonate with Sharyn McCrumb, award-winning author of a number of historic novels set in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. I was fortunate to hear Sharyn speak at the first Lost State Writers Conference in the foothills of the Appalachians in 1998. Many of us in the audience were descendants of the Scots-Irish who came to America in the 18th and 19th centuries, and we have roots in the Appalachians. Sharyn said that our Scots-Irish heritage has followed us in our music, our writing, and especially our choice of where to live, for the Appalachians closely resemble the Scottish Highlands. While my McDuffee ancestors were not Highlanders (they came from the island of Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland), surely some of my ancestors were Highlanders.

Bagpipes, Drones, and Electric Guitar

Scots-Irish heritage following us in our music?! And not just music played on a hammered dulcimer. Take the bagpipes, for instance. The Great Highland bagpipe. When I was somewhat taller and older than a wee lad, I really wanted an electric guitar effect (similar to a "fuzz box" or a "wah-wah pedal") that would allow me to create a drone on the electric guitar. As far as I know, it wasn't until advances in digital signal processing made it possible that one could purchase and use a drone effect. (Or, use what is called a "pad" on a synthesizer.) And I wonder, did my desire to create a drone on a guitar arise from what Robert Moor referred to as a "sense of deep geographic memory"?

The Drive Home

Not long after my cousin's graveside service, near Chattanooga, Tennessee, I got back in my car and headed home to Ohio. There is something I've not yet put my finger on that causes me to feel like "I'm in the right place" when I'm in Tennessee. It could be topography, natural history, or the fact I was born there. Though I never really lived much in Tennessee, I consider it home. This is something I will have to explore.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Wilderness and Italian Gardens

Our backyard, partly by design and partly by serendipity, transitions from a typical suburban lawn to sixty-three acres of maturing forest, Dudley Woods Park, along Gregory Creek, a tributary of the Great Miami River in southwest Ohio.

Years after downsizing to a condo in 2006, we had decided it was time to take the unusual step of upsizing ("right-sizing"). In late 2020, we moved into a new home that borders Dudley Woods. The backyard is fenced, and for the first time, our small dog (Scooter) has a place to run and play. (He pretends to be the dog on the Mighty Dog commercial.) 

Nature close at-hand

We have a great view of the forest, including spectacular fall colors, active wildlife (red and gray squirrels, rabbits), and pleasantly-noisy birds (chickadees, flickers, robins, cardinals). Once the leaves fell last autumn, we could see a number of dreys where the squirrels lived. Then, when the ubiquitous honeysuckle lost its leaves and we were treated to some significant snowfall, we could watch deer approach the fence that separates the yard from the woods. As one deer pawed at the snow, I thought it might be looking for something to nibble on. Instead, it was simply clearing a little spot to bed down and rest. There is a prominent boulder beside a nearby trail in the park that displays deep grooves where bucks have been rubbing the velvet off their antlers for probably years. Paths through the park have led us to cedars, hackberry, honey locust, black cherry, and osage-orange, as well as giant sycamores along Gregory Creek.

Transition from suburban lawn to wilderness

Okay, so maybe "wilderness" is a bit of poetic license. (Okay, it's an exaggeration. Humor me.) 

Our backyard is divided, from one side to the other, by a natural, descending swale that drains surface water from our neighbor's yard and ours. It's not enough to cause any erosion, but we learned, once we moved in, how difficult it was to mow, and how it stayed wet most of the time. (If we were to follow it into the woods, no doubt it would empty into Gregory Creek.) And we hired a landscaper to create an artificial "creek bed" in the swale to help control the drainage. A small garden-bridge lets us conveniently cross the swale and get the lawnmower to the other side. Sometimes Scooter will use the bridge, but sometimes he will run and leap the swale without slowing down.

Something the landscaper said stuck with me. The part of the yard on the other side of the swale is -- esthetically -- a transition zone from our grassy yard to the forest behind us. The trees in the transition zone have not leafed out yet, so I've only identified a beech tree so far, but I believe several of the saplings are sugar maples. Beneath the trees, grass and moss cover most of the ground, with a sprinkling of bright red elf cups (a fungus) and early-blooming wildflowers like cut-leaved toothwort. Thankfully, our fence restrains the honeysuckle (for now).

Italian Gardens?

I have trouble remembering the locations of the light switches in our house, but my brain did remind me of a book that discusses transitions between carefully manicured, designed arrangements of plants (in this case, Italian gardens) and the not-as-random-as-you-think "arrangements" of plants and trees in an area of wilderness. The Wildest Place on Earth: Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness, by John Hanson Mitchell, is not your typical book on gardens or wilderness. The best summary of this interesting book can be found in a Barnes & Noble review on Goodreads. Mitchell, writes the reviewer, uses "Italian garden design as a framework for exploring the meaning of wildness. This is not as much of a stretch as you might imagine. Over the centuries, Italian gardens have always incorporated wild spaces as part of the overall design. It is the balance of order and disorder, of control and freedom that gives these gardens their special qualities." I highly recommend Mitchell's book for anyone who likes novel juxtapositions of concepts.

Though our yard is no Italian garden, our "transition zone" is something I'm sure Mitchell would appreciate.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Music, Soundtracks, and Accompaniment for an Apocalypse

Pleasant surprises

We all know the power that music has to evoke emotions. Several months ago, as I was driving home at the end of a long day, a colorful sunset lit the sky. I felt enraptured as I listened to "Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity" from The Planets, by Gustav Holst. My favorite part of "Jupiter" comes as a surprise (see "Rock Music and the Element of Surprise"): a slower-tempo segment of grandeur sandwiched in between frivolity. I have no idea why Holst composed "Jupiter" the way he did. The segment I so appreciate was later turned into a tune used for the hymn "I Vow to Thee My Country," a patriotic piece particularly appreciated by the British and performed (for example) at the funeral of Winston Churchill.

The power of spectacular soundtracks

Like many people, I appreciate spectacular soundtracks for movies. I remember, when I was a boy, repeatedly resetting the needle on my father's turntable as I listened to his LP for How the West Was Won (1962), long before I was able to actually see the movie for myself. By that point, I had already pictured much of the story from the titles and musical dynamics of the tracks on the LP.

But I can't begin to express what I felt, at age 13, when I heard, for the first time, Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, used in both the opening sequence and the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). I had to purchase the LP  for the soundtrack so I could listen to this piece again and again. And, feel the sadness behind the Adagio from Khachaturian's Gayane Ballet Suite #3, another piece from the soundtrack for 2001. This soundtrack was just as much an act of genius as the visuals of the movie, given how the skillful use of these pieces helped to convey the vastness and mystery of space.

Inspiration for writing

For both inspiration and pure enjoyment, while I was writing my Civil War stories (MISSING IN ACTION, 1863, and Battlefront and Homefront), I must have listened to the soundtrack of Gettysburg (1993) hundreds of times. While writing fantasy I've listened to Scheherazade, by Rimsky-Korsakov, to put me in an inspired state of mind.

Endings, and an apocalypse

But some of the most moving of orchestral pieces are those used at the climax of movies. Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, like Khachaturian's Adagio from Gayane, is a slow and sad composition. Barber's Adagio was famously used for the pathos of the final scene in Platoon (1986). 

And I cannot think of the sci-fi movie, Knowing (2009), without pondering the apocalyptic conclusion to the movie. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the movie, devastation runs rampant as the world comes to an end. The power of this ending is a result of two things. First, there is neither dialogue nor voiceover. And second, the first part of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, opus 92, II. Allegretto is used to communicate the depths of despair as both the movie and life on earth comes to an end.