|February 2, 2020
I've heard it said that the 1970s gave birth to the Me Generation, a population whose only concern was for themselves. I don't think it was an anomaly; there have been many selfish generations throughout history, including the infamous Roaring 20s of the last century. But it seems as if the current iteration we're living through has added one more aspect: malice. It's as if the people currently in power are not only out for themselves but also purposefully want to do harm to those who can't defend themselves. I don't understand that. I have difficulty believing that if you have enormous wealth, you automatically become vindictive. There have been plenty of wealthy people throughout history who have used their resources to enrich their communities, whether by funding hospitals or libraries or charities. But this era is witnessing very little of such magnanimity. The wealthy in power seem to be focused on dismantling anything that was built to enrich communities, defunding everything that benefits society. And I wonder why. What bounty does a person reap by doing that?
And I wonder why so many of the wealthy seem to be displaying such ignorance about the world around them. Could it be they truly don't understand, or do they simply not care? There's an almost willful perversion of truth, a twisting of obvious facts that's so glaring I want to believe it's just a sick joke. But why do that? Why loudly proclaim untruths? Why denegrate everyone in disagreement with you? Why mock every person who is different? When the poor are derided and the lame are insulted, what bounty does a person reap by doing that?
I might have chalked it all up to a country that likes to play fast and loose with freedom. After all, we've been rewriting the rules of governance for over two centuries. But it's not just one country. The entire world is suddently in turmoil. The signs were there for decades, the unrest gradually building in intensity. I watched mass protests in other countries, thinking they were isolated incidents in repressive regimes. But now there are protests closer to home, waves of deep-seated anger and resentment that had been bottled up but are now erupting across the nation. What brought us to this flashpoint?
Some are saying that it's a reaction against too much political correctness. But that PC behavior itself was a reaction to a world that had grown crudely unforgiving toward those who were perceived as different. It was an attempt to restore balance, to create a sense of inclusion by changing the language we use. But it backfired. And the irony is that all the protests in the world can't alter the demographics. The world is indeed changing; that's the nature of life. Nothing remains still except the dead.
That's one of the few things that's never bothered me: change. Sometimes I don't particularly like it (I'm lazy, after all), but I've learned to adapt. Because in the end, change always brings about something worthy. And the more I allow change to happen, the more I grow as a person. Werner Erhard used to make an analogy of riding a roller coaster: those who reach out of the train and grab at the track to slow things down usually get battered. While those who sit back and enjoy the ride come out fine.
Maybe I have an easier time accepting change because of my profession. If I taught Shakespeare, I'd have comfort in knowing that every class would be routinely familiar. After all, he's not writing any new plays. But in Electronic Media, there's a major change every few months. For nearly a quarter century, I've been running to keep pace with the continually evolving technology. I've regularly had to adopt new ways of teaching. I've had to stay current with social media and the pop culture scene in order to understand the mindset of my students. That didn't necessarily mean I would agree with it all, but I needed to appreciate what it meant to them.
And most importantly, I've gotten to experience unrelenting diversity. I've come to admire how the majority of students were unjudgemental. They accepted each other (and me) by default, unless given a good reason not to. That reason was often pretense: a person is trying to fool the students into thinking that s/he's someone s/he's not. But if you allowed yourself to simply be who you are, you were accepted.
And I've noticed that the younger generation hasn't seemed to be as selfish as the Me Generation. They seemed to care about themselves only in relation to others. Even though they've been mocked for being obsessed with technology, that tech has been used mainly to keep them connected with others. Maybe that's why they've abandoned Facebook, a place where people are generally obsessed with themselves. The new generation has been more focused on apps like Snapchat and sharing experiences with their friends. Sharing experiences and building relationships is a practice that often can reap a bounty over time. I wish everyone else in the world could learn from that example.
Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton was remarkably prophetic. When we saw it on Broadway a year after it had opened, I viewed the lyrics through an historical lens. It was a novel spin on events that were familiar to most Americans, the almost mythological story of the founding of our country. But after the 2016 election, one phrase resonated with me more than any other: "The world turned upside-down." But this time it hasn't righted itself (at least not yet).
Just as with the events in that musical, the thought of a pandemic was a distant one. Of course, in life it's possible for anything to happen at any time. Life doesn't always consist of restraint. But I viewed a crisis of that magnitude as something for another generation to deal with long after I had left this world. As with colonies on Mars, it was something that seemed inevitable but fantastically far in the future.
So here I am, confined to my home with the media planting dire scenarios in my mind. Fortunately neither myself nor Karen currently have any symptoms of the dreaded COVID-19. Karen is still going in to work, but she's all alone in her office (which is a good thing). And all of my classes at Holyoke Community College are indefinitely on hiatus. We've been told to move all of our courses online, in the likely event that we don't return. My classes are already partially online, so that's not an issue for me. However I've never tried delivering the material completely that way. So I've been reconfiguring how the classes will be taught and what software we'll have to use. The main challenge is that I won't be there with the students to walk them through the more difficult sections. There's going to be a delayed feedback loop, where they'll have to send me something on which I can comment, then they'll have to revise it and so on. Instructing 25 students in that way will be tricky since they have less than two months to complete all the assignments and projects. But I don't have much choice in the matter. Even if we were to return to campus in a few weeks, all of my classes would then be working on their final projects. We would have jumped from mid-semester to the end. My dilemma is minor compared with classes like pottery or chemistry. You can't throw a pot online, just as you probably can't conduct chemistry experiments in your home. (If I were a parent, I certainly wouldn't want my kid trying!)
So this is how my final semester of teaching will unfold, sitting at home in front of a computer screen and interacting with my students via a discussion board. Maybe it's fitting after all, seeing as where education seems to be heading. Fewer and fewer full-time faculty are being hired. Unions are being undermined. Benefits are gradually diminishing. Rather than being true teachers and mentors, it's as if we're gradually becoming simple delivery mechanisms, dispensers of knowledge rather than guides on how to use that knowledge. Online delivery does that very well; it's a great well of information (and misinformation). But the most important aspect of education isn't the knowledge itself but the verification and application of that knowledge. That's where I hope to focus my attention, now using a fraction of the resources I normally would.
One thing I was looking forward to more than any other this semester was a concert in May. Ellen Cogen, the choral director at HCC, was going to perform a new piece I had written for her group. It would have been the first time I would have been able to hear one of my pieces performed. So far, I've sung in all the groups that have performed my pieces, so I've never gotten to hear them except through recordings. There's still an outside hope that the piece will be performed, but that will depend on when (or if) classes are allowed to resume on campus. With every passing day and the ensuing escalation of the pandemic, that hope is quickly fading.
For the past two decades, Karen and I had been talking about getting our passports so we could finally travel abroad. With our retirements approaching, we finally took the step of applying for them -- and now we have nowhere to go. Life can be astonishingly ironic. Our only travels for the foreseeable future will be to the grocery store. In a supportive nod to seniors, the local grocers have said that they will be open from 6 to 8 am only for those 60 and over. I'm not sure what exactly that accomplishes, since the virus doesn't suffer from age discrimination. And there's no guarantee that the store employees are virus-free. But I'm grateful for any kind gesture at this point.
We had planned our biggest coaster trip in many years, heading down to see our son in North Carolina and then making a sweep of the south through Kentucky and Indiana, then up to visit Karen's sister in Wisconsin. On the way home we'd visit our daughter and grandkids near Cedar Point (which this year is celebrating its 150th anniversary). Normally we'd being making reservations now. But all that is on hold, as is our planned visit to Nova Scotia.
But trying to look on the positive side, I wanted time to work on my music. And I did create a new one the other day, something I otherwise wouldn't have had time for. So that's where I'll focus my restless energy until classes -- in whatever form they take -- start up again for the final leg of this journey. Rather than following in the footsteps of Hamilton, it feels more like I'm trapped in The Poseidon Adventure. And I'm just hoping the ship stays afloat.
Today my career at HCC drew to a close, a challenging completion to an otherwise enjoyable decades-long tenure. Yesterday and today were the final student Portfolio Reviews in the now-defunct Electronic Media program. My colleague Justin West, who created the program in 1994 (before there was even a World Wide Web) foresaw the future and knew what skills and information students would need to navigate this new digital world that was emerging. The program was one of the first digital media programs in the U.S. At our peak around 2015, we had about 70 majors. The displacement of our program from the Media Arts Center in 2016 put a dent in our efforts. We went from seven specially constructed classrooms and digital labs, down to a single jerry-rigged room with 16 seats. It was two and a half years before we moved back into the renovated Campus Center where we were given no new equipment. We took with us only the equipment we had during our displacement and occupied just a single room in that vast complex. By that point Justin had retired and the decision was made not to hire any new Electronic Media faculty. So when I announced my retirement, the program was dissolved. Some of the classes were put back into the Communications program from whence they originally came. I don't think I will ever understand the reasoning behind the decision to dissolve a successful program, especially since the college was complaining that enrollment was down. Cutting programs usually doesn't help increase enrollment.
The Portfolio class that Justin created was unusual for a community college. It was run like a graduate-level thesis presentation and was the capstone class, the final presentation a student would make in our program. The student had to choose two additional members to be on their Portfolio Review committee. Besides presenting a major project that they worked on over the entire semester, the student also had to present video and interactive media they'd previously done. That would all be presented on a date that they chose. They had one hour to show us their work. They'd have to answer questions from the committee and defend their artistic choices. It was Pass/Fail; either they made it or they didn't. If they failed, they'd be transferred from Electronic Media to Liberal Arts. They'd still graduate from the college, but not in Electronic Media. We'd sit down with them after their presentation, ask about their plans and offer advice. It really helped students to take their future seriously, and for many it was their first professional presentation. I was saddest about that opportunity no longer being offered.
It surprised me how quickly most of my students adapted to the new modality forced on us by the pandemic. We used Google Hangouts, basically texting, and they seemed comfortable with that. What I found most frustrating was that I couldn't be with them in person and see what they were doing. I just had to trust they were doing their work. I could send them texted directives during class time. But all I saw were their little icons in a row. Some HCC classes were using the video conferencing software Zoom. But that wouldn't have worked for us since students were supposed to be working on their computers, doing their projects. In class, I could walk around from student to student and check on their progress. But online, the onus was on them. I would say repeatedly, "Send me your work in progress so that I can give you feedback." But only a few students ever took me up on that.
Technology itself presented a challenge. Some students had Chromebooks. Some had ancient PCs. A few had Macs. Some had spotty connection to the Internet. Because of that, I couldn't teach with the software we would normally use for interactive media. I settled on Google Slides for interactive projects, since it was built into the HCC email interface and everyone would have access to it. But that meant drastically limiting the type of project they could do. Their final project in the Introduction to Electronic Media course was supposed to be basically a game built around a topic of their choosing -- and was worth fifty percent of their grade. Instead of a game, they essentially were reduced to creating a PowerPoint presentation.
The Game Design class also used Slides for their second project (a 2D game). Some actually did an admirable job given the limitations placed on them. For the final project (a 3D game) they were supposed to use Godot, a free game development tool from MIT with a steep learning curve. The challenge wasn't so much the software itself but with students' access to computers powerful enough to run the software. Chromebooks definitely wouldn't work. If we had been working in the Media Arts Center, there wouldn't have been an issue. But I couldn't expect students to have high-end technology in their homes. Many students struggled to get anything done. And when they ran into technical problems, it was difficult for me to figure out what was going on. It was like being on phone tech support where the user doesn't exactly know how to describe the problem.
But we all staggered to the finish line, with several students managing to produce some pretty impressive projects. As long as there were students in each class that did well, at least then I knew that the bar to succeed hadn't been set impossibly high under the circumstances. Those who put in the effort and asked for my advice along the way did well. But I certainly wouldn't want to teach like that regularly, especially given the hands-on nature of our program.
I guess the timing of my retirement worked out: the college made the decision to have the entire upcoming fall semester taught only online as well. I don't think I would have made it through three more months teaching that way. It was not only frustrating from a teaching perspective, it also wasn't good for my health. I'd spend the better part of my days sitting still, staring at a computer screen. On campus, I'd at least be able to walk around the room, checking on students, getting them set up in different labs. Just sitting in one place for that long a period was quite unpleasant. I could get up and walk about the house if I needed to. But of course the moment I did, a student would post a question. So I never wanted to stray too far from the screen.
My career at HCC career started like the proverbial lion went out like a lamb. Before the campus went into lockdown mode last month, I went to my office and cleaned it out. I shut down all the technology in the Media Arts Center, left instructions for how everything worked and dropped off my keys. That was the last time I would visit the campus. One of the custodians who I regularly saw at the college actually stopped by our house to drop off a retirement card from him and another one of the custodians I knew well. So there will definitely be people there who I'll miss, to whom I felt connected. But there were far fewer of those people compared to when I started at HCC. When I participated in my final HCC meeting (virtually with Zoom), it finally hit me how many people I no longer recognized. Most of the colleagues who were there when I started had either retired or passed away. And I realized I never got to know many of the new faculty and staff. Seeing that, I finally felt comfortable stepping aside and making way for a new generation of faculty who would be facing a very different educational system from the one I grew up with.
I also left behind the disc golf course I built over the span of two decades. I finally got the front 9 of the course back to more of the way I originally envisioned it, a family-friendly open-style course. Nearly a decade ago, I had listened to area pros who were encouraging me to make the course tougher. When I did that, we lost the families that used to play together. The revision was challenging to design, and I had to make a few compromises. But by and large, it's now much more friendly for beginners. So I hope that as word spreads, the community will return.
I received a heartwarming email from a former student who wished me well in retirement and said how much my teaching had meant to her. That was an encouraging sign that maybe I made a little bit of difference over the years. When Justin retired, he naturally was sad about the impending dissolution of the program. He said he had hoped that one day he could take his grandchildren to the Media Arts Center and tell them about the hand he had in building it. His son wisely told him that his legacy wasn't a building; it was the students he taught. All the technology I designed and implemented over the years at that college didn't really matter; it all would inevitably change. My name will fade from recognition -- except in the case of students I taught. I can still vividly remember the teachers who made a huge difference in my academic life. That was the kind of impact I had wanted to make. And for one student at least, I guess I succeeded.
The most common question I've been asked is, "What are you going to do with all your free time?" I find the question odd because I've never seen myself as having much "free time", before retirement or after. I have dozens of projects that had been put on hold because the free time's never been there. Since being confined at home, I've been able to write not just one but five new choral pieces. I have about a half dozen unfinished orchestral pieces to work on. I'm finally getting time to make some long-delayed home improvements. I have a pinball machine to repair, 3D models to build, a model railroad to complete, books to read, videos to create, an antique clock to reconstruct, the Mountain Park model to finish ... what is there NOT to do? And as I get older there's an increasing urgency to do it, knowing my window of opportunity is narrowing. So as my "career" comes to a close, I don't see myself as retiring. The fun is just beginning!
There are lots of television shows to choose from. Ironically, the proliferation of entertainment has not necessarily correlated with a proliferation of choice. What I mean is that there are hundreds of programs to watch every day, but they're not all too different from one another. The only distinction is genre. But within each genre (family, mystery, crime, medical, etc...) the shows are remarkably similar. There were jokes back in the 1970s about the absurd number of detective shows being broadcast, each one trying to distinguish itself from the other. That resulted in the fat detective, the old detective, the suave detective, the cowboy detective, the crippled detective -- all different canvases, but painted with the same brush. Each act was structured in the same way and each resolved in the same way. There were some that played with the formula (like Columbo, showing you the murderer at the opening) and style (Hawaii Five-O, with its frenetic camera work and pacing). But essentially they were all the same show. Only once in a while did a truly original series appear (like The Prisoner), either to be shunned or be rapidly imitated. It's not a new trend, obviously. The 1950s and '60s brought dozens of westerns and combat shows. Television, after all, is in the business of delivering what the customer wants to consume. And that has lead to a downward spiral in the quality of content. Businees has never shunned from giving customers what they want, whether or not it's actually good for them.
I rarely watch broadcast television anymore. I find most programs tedious, pandering and completely predicatable. But the main reason I don't watch is that I haven't yet found a main character I can admire. The original Fugitive with David Janssen had a shocking premise for its day: a man convicted of murder escapes from the law and the entire series follows him on the run. But the reason viewers came back week after week was the knowledge that this man was innocent, and they were hoping that somehow justice would prevail. Each week, the hero managed to evade the authorities and, along the way, help out someone in need. As portrayed by Janssen, Richard Kimble had incorruptible integrity. He always forced himself to do the right and just thing, even if it meant sacrificing himself. And that's what I'm missing from contemporary television programs: characters with integrity.
Writers and producers seem to think that what viewers want to watch are characters that are as flawed as we are. But throughout history, from the time of Ancient Greece, entertainment has been at its best and most memorable when it shows us characters of extraordinary valor, heroes who aren't necessarily flawed like us but are role models to whom we can aspire. "People like me" aren't role models. They're humans, and I see them around me every day. That doesn't mean they're bad people. It just means that I don't need to watch them on television; I'd rather interact with them in the real world.
Richard Kimble wasn't real and the show didn't try to make it look like he was. At their best, the shows were carefully constructed to show how the noblest of us could behave in difficult situations. One of my favorite episodes is "Nightmare at Northoak". Kimble has wandered into a small New England town and is sleeping by the side of the road when a school bus is in a accident and a fire erupts. Kimble is able to rescue everyone before the gas tank explodes and sends Kimble flying, giving him a concussion. He wakes up in a local family's home. He's considered a town hero and everyone wants to make sure he recovers. It turns out the family is that of the town sheriff, and Kimble is sure he'll be identified if he stays any longer. The sheriff's wife is a strict law-and-order woman. Her mantra is "What's right is right". When Kimble is exposed for who he is, she faces a difficult moral decision: save this stranger who sacrificed himself for their children, or send him to prison for an inevitable death sentence. Kimble professes his innocence, but who does she believe: him or the authorities? To its credit, the show didn't approach this in a sappy or simplistic way. You feel the struggle within the residents of the community to do what's right, unsure of what that really means.
Throughout the series Kimble was more akin to a saint, morally consistent and generally selfless. Is that realistic? No, but it was incredibly inspiring to watch. I wanted to be like him. There were many characters on shows of that period (such as Peter Falk's portrayal of Columbo and Jack Lord's portrayal of Steve McGarrett on Hawaii Five-O) who had seemingly superhuman integrity. There aren't many characters on current shows that make me feel the same way. The shows can certainly be emotiionally manipulative, but it seems producers feel that's good enough.
Maybe if we had real heroes in stories that could set an example for us rather than portrayals of ordinary people who are prone to screwing up all the time, it might help us once again aspire to greatness as a society. Maybe if we had stories of conflict that didn't resort to violence, we could imagine other ways to live with our differences. Maybe we could rediscover the value of thinking more than just feeling. Maybe I'm asking too much or I'm living in the past. Maybe I'm stuck in the "What's right is right" dilemma. Shakespeare, after all, created some of his greatest plays with flawed characters at the center. But in those plays, the characters are heightened versions of us, far more eloquent and clever than we would ever be. So I'm not sure what the answer is. The only thing I know for certain is that there will be no Richard Kimble to come and rescue me from that dilemma.
I walked along the seemingly endless highway in the heat of summer, with a forty pound backpack strapped to me. I had never walked through that area before and wasn‘t sure where I was, nor exactly where I was going. I hadn‘t really planned out anything, except that I was going to meet a friend in Boston and then was going to head up into Maine and hike toward the White Mountains. It was 1982. I was 24 years old and fearless. The journey was a personal test, to see if I could survive on my own with nothing but basic necessities. But, like Jacob, I discovered something unexpected.
The journey began when my parents dropped me off in Amherst at about noon. The path I followed was Route 9, which at the time wasn‘t as busy as it is today. I figured it would take me four days to reach Boston. In my pack was a small tent, a canteen, some peanut butter, honey, dried fruit and some clothes. I had a small amount of money with me (in the days before the proliferation ATMs and debit cards) which I planned to use a few times a week at any restaurant with a salad bar. I also brought some change to use if I saw a laundromat along the way and a bottle of Dr. Bronner's all-purpose soap.
There were many unknowns on this trip, and mobile phones weren‘t an option back then. Where was I going to refill my canteen? Where was I going to sleep? How would I find my friend? But for some reason, none of those questions concerned me; I simply trusted that they‘d all work out.
As the sun began to set, I would scan the road ahead for any empty fields or forested areas, preferably on a hillside. When I spotted one, I would veer off the highway and wander into the area looking for a suitable place to bed down for the night. When I found one, I would take my bag of food and tie it up high in a tree branch in case any bears wandered by. I‘d pitch my tent, open my sleeping bag, rest my head against my backpack and drift off. The next morning I‘d pack up and head back down to the highway to continue my journey.
I noticed a trend that surprised me, something I couldn‘t explain at the time. I only had so much water in my canteen, and I tended to drink a lot while walking under the baking sun. I noticed that when my canteen became empty, a water source would somehow appear. Sometimes it was in a cemetery, with freely available spigots for watering plants. Sometimes it was from a kind homeowner who spontaneously offered their garden hose. But I came to realize that I never had to worry about dehydrating. Somehow, water always appeared. And I always had food. I always found a place to rest for the night. My basic needs were taken care of without my really planning for them.
In today‘s reading from Genesis we find Jacob, brother of Esau, on a mission given to him by his father Isaac, to go to Haran (which was home to Abraham) to find a wife. It was a long journey from Beersheba. While he was heading there he stopped at "a certain place" to rest for the night. Was it in the middle of the desert? An oasis? A town square? We‘re not told. All we‘re told is that he used a rock for a pillow and had a dream. In this dream, besides the famous anecdote of the stairway rising to heaven, Jacob was told that all of the land on which he is lying has now been given to him by God, and that God will look after Jacob and protect him wherever he goes.
And Jacob suddenly realized that the "certain place" where he was sleeping, the place he thought was a nondescript area in the middle of nowhere, was nothing less than the house of God. From that moment, Jacob vowed that if God did indeed protect him on his journey and provide his basic needs, then he would worship the Lord all his life.
That wasn‘t an idle quid-pro-quo that Jacob was making. Remember at the end of the passage we just heard, it said that Jacob was afraid after hearing God speak to him. He was shaken up and changed by that encounter. Even though he knew he had woken up from a dream, he treated it as if it actually happened. He truly believed God had spoken to him, and placed his complete trust in God.
On the fourth day of my journey, I met up with my friend in Boston and we spent the day together. When it was getting toward evening, there was no hillside on which I could camp. What was I going to do in the middle of the city? It turned out that another friend of mine was staying in Boston for the summer and invited me over to his apartment for the night. Again, how did all those pieces fall into place without my intervention?
The next morning I continued on my journey north along scenic Route 1 through New Hampshire and into Maine. Although it might seem like a long distance to walk, I can‘t fathom the distance that biblical figures used to travel on foot. For instance, the distance Jacob was traveling, from Beersheba to Haran, was over 5300 kilometers, further than the distance across the United States. My little trek across New England was a leisurely stroll compared with that.
The Bible is filled with nomads and wanderers who usually got from place to place on foot (or in some cases, with the aid of pack animals), something we take for granted these days when we can hop in a car and drive 200 miles in a few hours. But walking on foot through a land of mostly desert is something for which most people in our current society have no frame of reference. Keeping fit by going for a two mile walk or run down your street or through a park doesn‘t come close to the endurance needed. Neither does running a marathon for that matter.
Long before Jacob's trip, Abraham had journeyed over 1200 kilometers from Haran to Egypt. And after Jacob there was Moses who wandered with the Israelites through the desert for forty years. No wonder so many of those biblical figures lived to be over 100 years old! Otherwise they never would have reached their destinations.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus, unlike Jacob, stayed in a fairly localized area. But even he covered a lot of territory. Just from Galilee, where he spent much of his time, to Jericho was over 100 kilometers. And many of his shorter trips could range 50 kilometers or more, one way.
Ironically, Jacob never did make it to Haran (which in Hebrew means "parched"). A few chapters later in Genesis, Jacob has settled down in the land of the Kedemites, married two wives and had eleven children. His life there was good, but he gradually became restless. After nearly two decades, God told him to pack up and move on. He journeyed with his family back to meet his brother Esau and along the way wrestled with a man who broke his hip. And when Jacob would not let go of him, the man blessed him and named him Israel. And Jacob realized that he was wrestling with God.
My own journey did not end as dramatically. After walking for miles through Maine, I had bedded down for the night in a lush low-lying field. I could have chosen a rocky hillside nearby, but the field looked more inviting. The long grass felt like a comfortable mattress under my tent and I quickly drifted off to sleep.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange floating sensation. As I snapped back to consciousness, I discovered that I was in the middle of a torrential rainstorm and the field in which I was lying had turned into a swamp. I was literally floating in my tent. So at three o‘clock in the morning I dragged all my waterlogged possessions to higher ground and attempted to wring them out as best as I could. Something told me my journey had come to an end and it was time to move on. I no longer had an interest in seeing the White Mountains. I longed for the arid conditions I could have found in Haran. So I packed up and began my long trek back home.
There was no need to continue any further. There was nothing more I could learn from that experience, just as Jacob had done what he needed to do and moved on. Like Jacob, I learned that God was indeed watching over me and providing for me, and the entire expanse through which I walked and camped was indeed holy ground. Although I wasn‘t granted possession of the lands on which I slept and I didn‘t build pillars and anoint them with oil, I came to discover that no matter where I was along my life‘s journey, surely the presence of the Lord was there. Amen.
If you've had a dog, you probably know the experience of taking it out for a walk. Usually you'll have an idea of where you'd like to go. And as often as not, your dog has its own ideas. So sometimes you'll let the dog pull you into uncharted territory. Sometimes you'll pull it back along the path you originally planned. Sometimes when the dog takes you off course, you discover a whole new area you'd never explored. Sometimes the area is a mess that you back away from.
That's what my process of musical composition has been like. I begin with a musical concept and a direction to follow, and gradually I'll wander off course. Sometimes the journey brings happy accidents that make me glad I took the detour. Other times I wander down a blind alley and can't seem to find my way out. I struggle in large part because I'm not yet familiar enough with music theory to know how to get to where I want to go. So I tug away at notes, pulling them one way or the other, wondering why they're not intuitively following my directives.
I've been working on my first symphony. It's more of a symphonic suite along the lines of Grand Canyon Suite or Scheherazade. During the composition of the first three movements, the paths I followed led to some interesting areas, and the pieces flowed naturally and easily. Now I'm on the final movment. I've restarted it three times. I knew basically how I wanted to begin, and I know how I want to end. But I just can't seem to get from point A to point B. Every path I take at this point is leading me down blind allies. The melodies seem forced and unpleasant.
Counterpoint has been my weakest area, creating lines of harmony between all the instruments. I think I prefer composing for small ensembles, where I have a limited set of instruments. With a symphony, there are so many moving parts that I start to lose track of which instrument is doing what. So I tend to bounce back and forth from one section to another, treating the orchestra like a disjointed collection of small ensembles. "Okay, now I'll write for the brass section. And now I'll write for the woodwinds. Now I'll have everyone play together." That creates a fragmented feeling to the piece.
I also find that I'm using a pop song writing style. I write four bars, make a slight variation in the next four bars, repeat the eight bars and then introduce a bridge. That's great for a three minute song, but doesn't hold up over the long-form structure of a symphony. I keep going back to the classical symphonic music I love: Debussy's "La Mer", Vaughn-Williams' "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis", Hovhaness' "Mysterious Mountain", Bartok's "Concerto for Orchestra", Janacek's "Symphonietta", Beethoven's sixth symphony. All of those pieces flow so naturally. I never hear four-bar or eight-bar melody lines. There are definite melodies, but they blend and move along gracefully. The musical journey isn't necessarily predictable and yet it feels inevitable, as if all the notes belonged there from the beginning. That's the kind of piece I want to create. For the first three movements, I seemed to be able to do that. But it's as if that creative force dried up for the last movment. My dog ran off and nothing's pulling me along; I'm just wandering idly.
My first instinct has been to refocus on what I'm trying to say. With the first three movements, I knew exactly where I was going. I had vivid pictures in my mind associated with each section. For this last movement, I know a general mood I want to create but I haven't latched on to any strong images. I can clearly see the end of the piece. But it's as if a sinkhole developed along the way and I can't bridge the gap. With each of the other movements, I found an interesting combination of instruments to explore, interesting sounds that gave me interesting areas to explore. But now it's as if I've exhausted them all and am just repeating myself. Obviously, I have so many instruments to work with, there are plenty of combinations I haven't yet discovered.
I assume I'll eventually get there. I've been working on that final movement for only three days. And this is only the third piece I've written for a large ensemble (not counting some pretty terrible pieces I wrote as a teenager). So perhaps all I need is a bit of patience. That's about the only positive aspect of the pandemic -- it's given me a lot of time to sit at home and write. There's no urgency to finish the piece in the next week or the next month; there won't be anyone to perform it until next year at the earliest. So I'll just keep practicing my craft and watching YouTube tutorials. I have to remember that this piece is just a journey, one more step toward becoming a better composer.
December 25, 2020
I feel a certain amount of relief, as many do, that 2020 is finally ending. The year that seemed like a decade will have repercussions far into the future, but at least it wasn't the end of civilization. Much in the world has been altered, certainly. But with vaccines now rolling out, the pandemic will gradually ebb and this time next year people should be able to resume their old routines. That's one thing about the human race that's both a blessing and a curse: short-term retention of disasters. Once the shock wears off, life resumes with seemingly little learned in the long-term.
My first year in retirement has been instructive. My plan was to focus on music. I certainly have been viewing dozens of music theory tutorials online, and that's certainly been a help. But I've written relatively little. I completed six short choral pieces during the year, plus the orchestral mass I'd been working on, as well as my first symphony (described above). But much of that was finished by the end of the summer. As autumn crept in I found myself busy making videos for our church, since all the services had to move online. Early on, it was a simple task: I live-streamed the service at the otherwise empty church using a Chromebook, while at the same time recording an HD version with my iPhone. When I got home, I'd simply upload the HD version and be done. But after the summer, our pastor decided to have services pre-recorded. That created four times the work for me. I had to coordinate all the separate pieces of the service and then stitch them all together on my computer. In the end it became a part-time (unpaid) job requiring up to 20 hours a week to complete. Over just the Christmas week, I had to assemble four separate services. So that was an unexpected distraction.
The Greater Westfield Choral Association (of which I'm currently president) was facing an uncertain future. Our 2020 spring concert happened right before the pandemic lock-down. It looks certain that we won't be able to have an in-person spring concert in 2021. So the Board of Directors has been looking for alternatives. We settled on doing a virtual concert in the spring, as many other choirs have been doing. As with the church, it would fall on me to put the whole thing together, and I'd never done anything like that before. So we decided to do a test song and asked for volunteers from our choral group to help out. So far seven vocalists (including myself) have lent their talents to the project. And I've been working on putting all that together, syncing both the audio and video tracks.
I also returned to Heritage Park in Holyoke to reclaim the Mountain Park model I'd been working on. With everything at the park shut down during the pandemic, the only way I could continue to work on it was to bring it home. But I had nowhere to put it. So I made a massive purge in our basement, throwing out an enormous amount of stuff I had saved for one reason or another and clearing a space in the room that was supposed to be used for the model railroad I haven't completed. I was able to make a lot of progress on the model, completing about 3/4 of it. Then came another distraction.
For the past couple of decades, I've been searching for a particular pinball machine that I used to play in arcades back in the '80s. At the time, it was one of the most technically advanced pinball games, computer-controlled and incorporating digital audio rather than the bells and chimes that the previous generation of pinball machines used.
But more important to me is that it was themed around an amusement park. In this particular instance, it was Chicago's famed Riverview Park. The manufacturer, Williams Electronics, thought that the name Riverview would be too obscure to the general public, so the name was changed to Comet in homage to one of the park's roller coasters. The machine was designed by Barry Oursler (now a legend in the pinball community) with artwork by the great Python Anghelo.
All modern pinball machines have a fairly intricate rule set. If you know the rules, you're more likely to do well. Comet not only has a rule set, but also delivers them in a unique way. When you launch the ball, it rolls to the top of the table where there's a parking lot. It then drops through one of four lanes representing the park's ticket booths. From there the ball passes through a bumper car arena (filled with pop bumpers, naturally) and then onto the main playfield. Anghelo designed the playfield to appear as if you're above the midway looking down. There are hundreds of people milling about, and each one is uniquely drawn. There's a train and a go cart track. The detail is really impressive. On the left side is a Duck Shoot game. On the right side is a Rabbit Shoot game. Those targets trigger other targets on the playfield, including the Comet itself, a winding ramp above the center of the playfield.
At the upper left is the Corkscrew that whisks the ball around and back up to the entrance. On the far right is the Fun House with a laughing clown. And at the upper right is a motorcycle jump, designed like a SkeeBall game with three targets. The small hole at the back features pinball's first million point shot. And just to the left of the Comet ramp is Dunk the Dummy, a target that taunts you during the game with, "Hey! Turkey! Hit me!"
The lighting effects during the game are stunning (blinding, actually). Hitting the Cycle Jump causes fireworks to go off. Other targets will either rapidly flash or black out the table. There's a simple musical soundtrack that plays and alternates with sound effects (including of course a rollercoaster and screams from the riders). It's a multimedia tour-de-force.
Over the years I've seen Comet machines for sale. Several years ago, one a few towns over from me was going pretty cheap ($500) but was also a mess, with much of the machine not working. Fully functioning machines occasionally went for sale, but in the thousands of dollars and out of my price range.
Back in October, I spotted a Comet for sale in New York. It was in pretty good condition (for a machine built in 1985), and was going for a reasonable price. So I contacted the seller and made arrangements to drive out there (near Binghamton, NY) just before Thanksgiving with Karen. It happened to be pouring rain the whole day. The seller was a really nice guy who had several arcade machines and just needed to get rid of this one. After taking it for a test drive and liking what I saw, I paid him and we disassembled it. The entire machine fit into the back of our Subaru. I freed up some more space in our basement. Karen and I lugged it down there and I set it up. It's been one of my best investments. Karen and I play it nearly every day and it brings us a lot of joy. I had to make a few minor repairs and adjustments to it, but other than that it's been working great. But of course, that's one more distraction.
Karen and I just finished watching the new Pixar movie Soul (which I highly recommend). It was a perfect analog to my situation: a person who really loves music and wants to do it for a living but is torn between other commitments. The message of the film is pretty simple: just live your life. Let everything else sort itself out. So maybe I should stop worrying that I'm not doing the right thing or that I'm not reaching my potential and just go where life takes me. That grates against my nature: I keep thinking I need to focus and push myself toward where I want to be. But then again, I pushed myself when I was younger, and it got me to ... here.
There are still several months ahead of mostly being quarantined. So I have the perfect situation for writing music: I only have to choose to do it and ignore all the other distractions competing for my attention. Let's see what surprises the New Year will bring.