DEC. 30, 2013 WE ONLY DIE ONCE
My plane was mostly empty on September 28, 2001. As I arrived at my hotel in Times Square, a group of Broadway performers were proclaiming that the theaters were back in business by standing on a traffic island and belting out show tunes.
New York City did seem as crowded as usual. I wrote later that all seemed to be going about their usual activities, but without the effervescence, the swagger, the loudness that so characterized our pre-Sept. 11 lives, as one columnist put it. ...
Life went on, but nothing was quite the same, nor maybe ever will be.
But then, it never is completely the same, is it?
DEC. 25, 2013 LULLY, LULLAY
One Christmas song I enjoy hearing is the 500-year-old Coventry Carol. Its in a minor key with rather exotic harmonies, as the music was written during the reign of Henry VIII. The words, one assumes, are being sung to the newborn Baby Jesus in the manger, because the first line is
Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child.
But it turns out that lully is not a lullaby but a lament. One commentator says its old English slang for I saw what happened!
The song comes from a mystery play, in which the words refer to the Massacre of the Innocents as described in the Gospel of Matthew. King Herod hears that a new King of the Jews has recently been born in Bethlehem. He moves to eliminate his rival, but he doesnt know who it is, so he cruelly orders the execution of all Bethlehemite boys under the age of two. In the song, three women are trying in vain to save one poor youngling.
Willkommen, meine lieben Freunde, an diesem Weihnachtsabend! I bid you welcome to the Midnight Mass, wherein we celebrate the birth of our blessed Lord.
Im sure you have noticed already that theres something different about the celebration this year. My friend Franz Gruber, our choirmaster, is not seated at the organ as we have come to expect. Instead, hes standing behind me, tuning up his guitar.
On Tuesday, Franz tells me, he was preparing for tonights service and found that the organ wouldnt play. We think mice got into the bellows and gnawed holes in the leather. We immediately sent word to our repairman, Karl Mauracher, over in the Ziller Valley, but he wont be able to come to Oberndorf until after the first of the year.
So what can be done in the meantime? Franz said he could accompany tonights singing on his guitar. That was fine with me; I dearly love guitar music. But it seemed we ought to do more.
Two years ago, while I was assigned to the church in Mariapfarr, I wrote a Christmas poem. This morning I took it to Franzs apartment in Arnsdorf, where he teaches school. I asked if he could perhaps set my poem to music. Within a couple hours he had done so, and this evening he brought me the finished composition.
He and I have been practicing singing it as a duet. An hour ago, when the choir arrived, Franz instructed them to repeat the last couple of lines of each verse in four-part harmony. So were almost ready.
But first I should point out that this new carol with its simple accompaniment is quite different from the festive rejoicing with which we usually open our service. This is not the exultant Latin hymn Adeste, fideles, laeti triumphantes, with its loudly proclaimed summons to adore the King, Oh come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant! We will not hear the power of the organ.
Instead, in our new carol, the night is quiet. We will hear a single guitar.
We meditate upon the miraculous gift God has given us, and we marvel.
On this holy night, the little village of Bethlehem lies dark and still, much like this little village of ours.
The angels have not yet invited the shepherds to the manger, nor has the star beckoned the wise men.
In the stable there are only Mary ... and Joseph ...
and the newborn Light of the World!
Franz, shall we begin?
night. Holy night.
night. Holy night.
DEC. 17, 2013 BEEP CODES
When the washing machine has finished its cycle, it alerts me with a long beep. When the dryer has finished its alloted time, it comes to a quiet stop. No beep.
If I make a mistake while programming my microwave oven, it beeps twice. Later, when it's done cooking, it beeps four times. When I open the door, it beeps once more to inform me that I have indeed opened the door. If I fail to do so, after another minute it repeats the four-beep signal to remind me that my food is ready.
When I press the orange button on my key fob, my car locks its doors. It lets me know its done so by beeping and flashing its turn signals once. But if I make a mistake and press the orange button while a door is still ajar, my car beeps and flashes five times.
Later, my car beeps and flashes twice if I do any of the following: press the blue button once to unlock the driver's door, press the blue button twice to unlock all the doors, or hold the trunk button for at least two seconds. Merely pressing it does nothing, but if I hold it long enough, the trunk pops open.
When I want to start my car from inside my apartment, I use a different remote control. It has only one button. To start the engine, I press the button twice. I watch it flash blue in various patterns to confirm that the car is locked, all systems are go, the starter has been activated, and the engine is running. To stop the engine, I press it once, but for at least two seconds. Then I have to use the other remote to unlock the door(s).
When I plug in my cell phone, a light glows red. But when I plug in my electric razor, a light glows green. Later, once the phone has recharged, its red light changes to green. And once the razor has recharged, its green light changes to... flashing green!
The circuitry to produce a beep or a light is very inexpensive, which I suppose is why many of our devices use beeps or lights or repeated beeps or repeated lights to communicate with us. But why are we forced to learn the codes? Why do we have to remember whether a glowing green light means fully charged or still charging, depending on the device? Why do we have to remember that one monotone beep means I'm done or door's open or I'm locked, two means error" or I'm unlocked, four means I'm done, and five means door's open?
Microchips are so cheap nowadays that even childrens toys have sound-generating circuitry and speakers. Why cant manufacturers spend a few extra cents? They could give us different tones for different circumstances, as on a computer or cell phone, rather than merely beeping at us. Better yet, they could give us specific voice warnings as in an airplane cockpit, such as Please close the right rear door or Pull up! Pull up!
DEC. 12, 2013 ALSO: NO ROASTED CHESTNUTS
Its a very chilly day here in Pennsylvania. My apartment doesnt have a fireplace, but I do have a video of a roaring fire. For the past two days its been continuously running in a DVD player. If I need coziness, I switch the TV to that input and throw a blanket over me. I can see and hear the crackling logs, and I can feel warmth (and not just on one side). Only two small things are lacking: no smell of the fire, and no worry that it might burn the place down.
Oh, by the way, the recent live telecast of The Sound of Music has prompted me to write a Timeline of my familys encounters with Rodgers and Hammerstein. Theres a merry Oldsmobile in there somehow.
DEC. 10, 2013 SORRY, 4 IS TAKEN; HOW ABOUT 4a?
Football jerseys have numbers on them, one or two digits to identify the players. There are a hundred possible combinations of digits. But thats not enough for some college football programs that welcome too many walk-on participants.
When I worked the telecast of an Allegheny College game in 2011, the roster included 131 players, so some jersey numbers had to be duplicated. Both the starting fullback and the starting cornerback wore 4. Both the split end and the placekicker wore 9. Thats an intolerable situation for spectators and the media.
I suggested at the time that hexadecimal digits could solve the problem, as a pair of them can represent 256 possible numbers from 00 to FF. But a jersey labeled E0 would look odd.
Since then, Ive modified that idea to allow for 252 possible numbers. Lets assign the first hundred to players who are likely to see action, with no duplications allowed.
DEC. 1, 2013 MY MISTAKE
However, real jobs arent bestowed by rich people, either, as Henry Blodget points out in this article. Entrepreneurs may start businesses, but its customers who keep the businesses running. Middle-class customers, mostly.
Nowadays those customers have less to spend. The middle class is being taxed more than its share while the top 1% gets all the breaks, in the hope that those riches will trickle down to the rest of us. But the trickle is dammed up. America's companies are currently being managed to share the least possible amount of their income with the employees who help create it. Corporate profit margins are at all-time highs, while wages are at an all-time low. ...America's richest entrepreneurs, investors, and companies now have so much money that they can't possibly spend it all. So instead of getting pumped back into the economy, thus creating revenue and wages, this cash just remains in investment accounts.
Blodget reiterates that rich people dont create the jobs. We're all in this together. And until we understand that, our economy is going to go nowhere.
NOV. 25, 2013 JOIN HANDS, THEN
So on that day when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, where was my pastor? Rev. John C. Wagner was in the South, demonstrating for civil rights. In particular, he was supporting the efforts of black Mississippians to worship together with white Mississippians in Methodist churches.
NOV. 11, 2013 EIGHT THOUSAND SUICIDES A YEAR
On the front lines, our soldiers are at risk from the enemys weapons. When they return home, theyre at risk from their own minds.
If this is a typical week, wrote Nicholas Kristof in Time magazine last year, about 5 American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan will be killed.
But today is Veterans Day. This is the day when we express our thanks not so much to the brave active-duty servicemen but to the veterans.
And if this is a typical week, by Sunday about 154 of these former soldiers will kill themselves!
Thirty times as many die after they come home. Thats a far greater tragedy, isnt it?
The figure of 22 suicides a day comes from a 2013 Veterans Adminstration report, based on 2010 data. Another 2013 report, this one from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, says 45% of those who served know a veteran who has considered suicide, 37% know a veteran who actually went through with it, and 30% have considered ending their own lives.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted former Marine Sgt. Theo Collins, president of Duquesne Universitys Student Veterans Association. Some of the life-changing experiences that combat veterans go through on a nearly daily basis while they're deployed, those lead to medical conditions. They come back from incredibly stressful environments; then they're instantly back home in the civilian world where you're expected to put on a happy face and move on.
Former Steeler Rocky Bleier, who was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his service in Viet Nam, noted that advances in battlefield medicine are allowing more wounded soldiers to come home alive. But then they must struggle with scars both visible and invisible. The despair of post-traumatic stress can take months or years to set in. We thank them, but we don't go home with them. It's not enough to say, Thank you.
NOV. 6, 2013 COPY EDITING
Im mildly annoyed when reporters split their writings in ways that make it difficult for readers to follow. Perhaps its because of my background in broadcasting, where poorly constructed sentences must be avoided because listeners have no chance to go back and re-read them.
For example, from an article this morning about local election results:
You definitely do what? We eventually find out, at the end of the sentence. Better:
A columnist wrote this about a local alcohol tax:
I would have begun with a cohesive statement, Money is running through the countys coffers like a river of wine, and only then followed wine with the parenthetical booze joke.
Heres one more example:
What did you say? His sports agency uses that talks? I had to read the sentence again to figure it out. A-Rod added lawyers and talks went south are separated by too many other words. I would have arranged the sentence in this easier-to-comprehend order:
Newspapers are having a hard enough time keeping readers; dont force the readers to work harder than necessary.