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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?”

We were all worried, imagining what the terrorists might do next.  My thoughts that weekend are in this month’s "100 Moons" article.


DEC. 25, 2013     LULLY, LULLAY

One Christmas song I enjoy hearing is the 500-year-old Coventry Carol.  It’s 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 it’s 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 doesn’t 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.

     O sisters two,
     How may we do
For to preserve, this day,
     This poor youngling 
     For whom we do sing
Bye-bye, lully, lullay?

     Herod, the king,
     In his raging,
Chargéd he hath this day
     His men of might,
     In his own sight,
All young children to slay.

     Then woe is me,
     Poor child, for thee!
And every morn and day
     For thy parting
     Neither say nor sing,
Bye-bye, lully, lullay.

The words evoke a horrific scene, depicted in this detail from a painting by Giotto di Bondoni.  But at least the music is lovely.


DEC. 20, 2013    


I’ve colorized a photo of this memorial, which was carved to depict an event that took place in Austria 195 years ago.

It’s on the site of the St. Nicholas Church in the village of Oberndorf bei Salzburg. 

Leaning forward is the assistant pastor, Father Joseph Mohr.

I imagine him addressing his congregation on Thursday night, December 24, 1818.

Willkommen, meine lieben Freunde, an diesem Weihnachtsabend!  I bid you welcome to the Midnight Mass, wherein we celebrate the birth of our blessed Lord.

I’m sure you have noticed already that there’s 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, he’s standing behind me, tuning up his guitar.

On Tuesday, Franz tells me, he was preparing for tonight’s service and found that the organ wouldn’t 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 won’t 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 tonight’s 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 Franz’s 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 we’re 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?

Silent night.  Holy night.
All is calm.  All is bright
’Round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Silent night.  Holy night.
Son of God!  Love's pure light —
Radiant — beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.
Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.    

Gerrit Van Honthorst, 1622


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 it’s 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 children’s toys have sound-generating circuitry and speakers.  Why can’t 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!”



It’s a very chilly day here in Pennsylvania.  My apartment doesn’t have a fireplace, but I do have a video of a roaring fire.  For the past two days it’s 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 family’s encounters with Rodgers and Hammerstein.  There’s 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 that’s 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.”  That’s 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, I’ve modified that idea to allow for 252 possible numbers.  Let’s assign the first hundred to players who are likely to see action, with no duplications allowed.

Then let’s give the other players jerseys that have a combination of a digit from 2 to 9 and a letter, such as these.  The letters would be lower case for better legibility.  (For example, 5D looks rather like 50, but 5d is unmistakable.)

Digits 0 and 1 as well as letters o and i would be excluded to avoid confusion.  Also, any letter with a descender (g, j, p, q, or y) would be excluded because its tail, hanging lower than the adjacent digit, might be covered by the belt.

Pairing 8 possible digits with 19 possible letters gives us 152 combinations beyond the original hundred.  That should be enough, shouldn’t it?


DEC. 4, 2013     SNOWBALL AND ME

In my latest little story, Love the One You’re With, I pet Brett’s pets — one for real, one in my imagination.


DEC. 1, 2013     MY MISTAKE







If I had thousands of right-wing readers, by now at least some of them would have pointed out my error and demanded that I recant the heresy.

When I wrote the previous item about state funding for transportation projects, I casually sneaked in the insidious claim that “the bill could create up to 50,000 new jobs.”  As all good Republicans and Libertarians know, this is utterly impossible.  Mitt Romney and Eric Cantor and other leaders have repeatedly reminded us that government does not create jobs.

You see, workers in the public sector don’t have jobs.  Not real jobs, anyway.  They may think they’re employed, but their paychecks come from tax revenue, so they don’t count.  This includes such parasites as police officers, soldiers, teachers, bus drivers, highway construction workers, and Congressmen.

No, the only real jobs are in the private sector.  Governor Romney said that if we want to create more, we should become entrepreneurs.  We should become rich (maybe by borrowing from our parents), start our own small businesses, and hire a lot of employees.  Of course, according to the SBA, 90% of small enterprises fail within the first two years.  Some of the owners are left bankrupt with loans they can’t repay.  But that’s not Romney’s problem.

However, “real jobs” aren’t bestowed by rich people, either, as Henry Blodget points out in this article.  Entrepreneurs may start businesses, but it’s 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 don’t create the jobs.  “We're all in this together.  And until we understand that, our economy is going to go nowhere.”



Things are looking up for Pennsylvania highways.  Governor Tom Corbett signed a bill this week to repair the state’s decaying bridges, roads, and transit systems.

I griped on this website in 2011 that the plan he requested had been sitting on his desk for months.

Finally this year he took action on it and pushed it through the Legislature, so I apologize (sort of) in a new article, Problem Solved.


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.

In this century, as Professor Emeritus of the United Theological Seminary, Rev. Wagner still makes waves on behalf of “one great fellowship of love.”  His praise of an Islamic organization “for their credible, gracious and courageous witness to the Muslim experience in Ohio” has been frowned upon by those who disapprove.

And five years ago, he wrote me, “We are currently involved in interfaith peace and justice issues, particularly with the Muslim community here in Central Ohio.  The stereotypes of Muslim are being exacerbated by propaganda in the form of DVDs included in the advertisements of our major newspaper and individual mailings to Muslims in the area.”

My story about the statement he made in November of 1963 is this month’s “100 Moons” article.


A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece recalling Where I Was on a certain November afternoon in 1963.


NOV. 14, 2013     WALK THIS WAY

Click here for a brief account of my recent visit to a backstage room at Heinz Hall, home of the  prestigious band of musicians known as the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.



On the front lines, our soldiers are at risk from the enemy’s weapons.  When they return home, they’re 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 Veteran’s 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.  That’s a far greater tragedy, isn’t 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 University’s 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

I’m mildly annoyed when reporters split their writings in ways that make it difficult for readers to follow.  Perhaps it’s 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:

“Yes, I definitely do,” Pryor-Norman said when asked if she felt the fliers impacted the race.

You definitely do what?  We eventually find out, at the end of the sentence.  Better:

When Pryor-Norman was asked if she felt the fliers impacted the race, she said, “Yes, I definitely do.”

A columnist wrote this about a local alcohol tax:

Money is running like a river of wine (and beer and harder stuff such as ouzo, though the latter is a drink one should be very cautious with, based on personal experience) through the county’s coffers.

I would have begun with a cohesive statement, “Money is running through the county’s coffers like a river of wine,” and only then followed “wine” with the parenthetical booze joke.

Here’s one more example:

It was after A-Rod added lawyers from the firm Jay Z and his Roc Nation sports agency uses that talks went south.

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:

Talks went south after A-Rod added lawyers from the firm that’s used by Jay Z and his Roc Nation sports agency.

Newspapers are having a hard enough time keeping readers; don’t force the readers to work harder than necessary.