|February 12, 2021
Entering year two of the pandemic (though it was probably here long before it was officially declared) and inching toward my first full year of retirement, the main difference I've noticed is a persistent weight gain. Now that we're in the deep of winter, going for long walks in 8 degree weather isn't that inviting. Karen and I do try to walk if it's sunny and up around freezing. But otherwise I don't think I've ever been so sedentary for so long. And that idleness is begetting more idleness. The longer I do nothing, the more nothing I want to do.
There are no end of projects waiting, something I eagerly awaited upon retirement. But rather than breathlessly jumping into them, I just stare at the list and wonder when they'll ever get done. Granted, last year I completed two major orchestral pieces that I'd been working on, along with about a half dozen new choral works. I worked a bit more on the Mountain Park model. The Greater Westfield Choral Association is cautiously approaching a virtual concert season that's still taking shape. The Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, which has been closed since last spring, is in the middle of a reorganization plan so that when we do reopen we'll be in a stronger position than we were. Plus I've been putting together the YouTube services for our church every week.
So I've had things to keep me busy. But it's never enough. My adaptation of the Carmina Burana score still needs to be completed. I've been meaning to create a MIDI transcription of the classic Sitwell/Walton recitative Facade. I have a piece for Wind Symphony I'm haltingly working on. I found the original photos I took when I constructed the Holyoke Community College roller coaster float, and I want to rescan them at higher resolution. And I have another collection of hymns I'm writing that I want to complete this year.
Even when I was young, I had a weight hanging over my head, a sense of dread that tomorrow could be my last day, that every hour that passes brings me closer to the end. And that has driven me to keep creating. But I now wonder why. What is the point of all this creativity? Back in the 1980s I was into oil painting and created dozens of portraits and still lifes. I gave them away as gifts to people who either tossed them in closets or in the trash. I designed and built a few pinball machines and gave those as gifts. They too were either stuck in closets or tossed. The creativity doesn't bring much satisfaction when no one appreciates it but me. At least when I was teaching, I could immediately see how I was affecting students. The feedback was very clear. But no matter what I create, it all seems to get sucked into a black hole, never to re-emerge. So why do I persist?
I'm not sure of the answer. My sisters told me stories of how, when I was about 5 or 6 years old, I used to stand on a phonograph machine and go around and around on the turntable while pretending I was conducting an orchestra. Music has always been woven into my life. And now here I am closing in on the end of my life and still focused on music. I've taken a lot of unexpected detours during my life's journey, but music has always been a part of it. It's one of the things that drew me to Karen (and in a few days we'll be celebrating 24 years together).
Maybe I'm just flowing along with the U.S. culture, where everyone needs a specialty to earn a living. Just as with my music, where I explore whatever style and content that happens to pique my interest, so it is with my life. I love writing, drawing, painting, sculpting; I also love mechanics and technology. I've always been a generalist, a jack-of-all-trades (and master of none). Artistically my heart has always been drawn to music. But I was never content to focus solely on that. My interests were always too broad.
So perhaps the best course of action is to stop worrying and just live. As was evident last year, when I set my mind to things, I get them done. The truly great artists in any medium know how to say "no" to anything that draws them away from their art. It's an obsession with them. For me, I tend to say "yes" to everything and get pulled in dozens of different directions. I can either enjoy my retirement or fret about how I'm not doing what I think I'm supposed to be doing. I spent most of my life fretting. Maybe now it's time for a change.
Disney's streaming TV service has topped 100 million subscribers. That means the company is now collecting close to a billion dollars a month in revenue. Most of the content is from their vast back catalog, so there's relatively little expense outside of the technical infrastructure and the few new series that they're producing. That means each year the company accrues an unfathomable amount of profit from that service alone.
In 2019, Amazon made over $13 billion in profit, and their tax rate was just 1.2 percent. Karen and I made a miniscule fraction of that in 2019, yet our tax rate was 24 percent.
Apple currently has over $100 billion in cash reserves. That's money they're simply sitting on in case of ... something. Why would they need that much cash? I don't know. I'm lucky if I can keep a few hundred dollars in reserve for emergencies.
There's a greater and greater disparity between what average people earn and what the big corporations and CEOs earn. It's no longer an income gap; it's an income chasm. Corporate CEOs (who now seem to be taking over education as well) typically earn nearly 300 percent more than their workers, even if they do a terrible job. Most of us have absolutely no hope of ever earning anywhere near that sum even if we do our best. But is there a reason any of us should earn that much money?
My parents bought their first house, a 3-story duplex, for $20,000 in 1969. My parents were lower-middle-class working people. For most of their lives, they rented apartments in whatever area of the town they could afford. The new home wasn't in the best of shape, but it was something they actually owned. They rented out one side and were able to earn a modest income from it. They became landlords, and with their small income were able to make ends meet and move up the economic ladder a bit. That was how the American success story was supposed to work.
When Karen and I were applying for our first homeowner loan in 1997, things had gotten a lot more complicated and a lot more expensive. The modest one-story ranch home we wanted was on a highway and across from an airport. The location wasn't great, but the interior of the home was attractive. Although the house was a fraction of the size of my parents' home, it was priced at nearly six times the cost. At that time, Karen and I had modest jobs with modest incomes. The roadblock was the down payment. How were we supposed to come up with ten percent of the purchase price? We had very small cash reserves; just simply surving took all our money. And the bank wouldn't allow us to get a loan for the down payment; we had to have that money on hand.
After exhausting seemingly all our options, we were rescued by a friend of mine who gifted us the money if I promised to get a better paying job. That same year I found work at Holyoke Community College, fulfilling my promise. We settled into our new home, and the money that once went to a landlord was now building up equity for the first time in our lives. Plus we were able to claim a tax deduction on the house.
Several years later, when the conditions in our area were deteriorating, we began looking for a different house. And I discovered something that most everyone in finance knew: because we already had a house, it was much easier to get another one. The equity on our home became our down payment.
I discovered the same thing when I got my first new car. I was able to get one because I had a small inheritance when my parents died. But once I had that car (which rapidly loses value, unlike a home which usually gains value), I could then use that as a down payment to get another car. Karen and I both did this several times, trading in our vehicles for new models and paying very little for them.
But in all cases, it was that first purchase that was the most painful and the most problematic. Unless a person has a generous friend or a high-paying job, they won't have the financial reserves for a down payment. Costs of everything have escalated in excess of the cost of living. While my father paid $2000 for a car back in the '60s, the cheapest models now cost nearly ten times that amount. Unable to make a down payment, an increasing number of people aren't able to take that first step into ownership.
And even though Karen and I eventually earned nearly ten times the yearly amount my parents did, it felt like we were treading water even though we carried very little debt. My parents would go out to eat nearly every night of the week. They went for weekend trips to the beach in the summer. And they never seemed to struggle with money. They paid all their bills on time and were able to get by with a little cash to spare. But Karen and I always seemed to have just enough to get by and little else. We went out to eat once a week at the most. And we traveled just a few times a year. Even though we were earning more money, it seemed as if we had gone backwards financially. And the more extra jobs we took on in order to save up, the more the government punished us by taking it all back. The year after I wrote my Mountain Park book, federal taxes snatched the entire amount I earned from royalties. It was as if the more we worked, the deeper in the hole we got. So we just stopped trying to get ahead. The less we earned, the better off we were at tax time.
There's an insane amount of money involved in big businesses, but I don't see any of that money trickling down. And truthfully, I have no interest in earning billions of dollars. All I want is what many people want: food on my plate, a roof over my head and a purpose in life. What I fear is that for many people, those first two are becoming increasingly burdensome to achieve and their entire purpose is devolving into simply staying alive. That's not how the American success story is supposed to play out.
I've always been a bit wound up, which is why I've never done caffeine. Throughout my youth, I was physically just as manic. I had an outlet with my bicycle, which for many years was my only method of transportation. It wasn't unusual for me to travel about 40 miles a day. When I finally got my own car, I exercised far less. But I also seemed to mellow out a bit, at least physically.
I've been thinking about those times recently, mainly because of the hellish past year where I've been unusually wound up. I no longer have the outlet of riding a bike, though I usually walk a few miles a day. And suddenly last year, I developed fairly severe heart palpitations. They're not constant, but when they first happened they scared the heck out of me. They went away for a while, then came back. Now they're frequent though not nearly as severe. I went to my doctor, who set me up with a holter monitor. He said I seemed to be fine.
When I was 12 years old, I was a nervous wreck. Dr. Donais, our family doctor at the time who operated out of his house, diagnosed me with a peptic ulcer. He gave me a bottle of belladonna and told me to put two drops in a glass of water and drink it each day. I didn't know then that belladonna is a deadly poison. Maybe Dr. Donais thought that if it killed me, at least I wouldn't be wound up anymore. I remember that it didn't seem to help much and so I stopped taking it. Eventually I got into meditation and yoga, and that did seem to help.
Last year, I started researching heart palpitations on the Internet (not necessarily a great idea, since you can always find there what confirms your fears). The articles suggested that palpitations might be caused by an electrolyte imbalance. Both my doctor and chiropractor confirmed that. The Internet also said that dehydration could be a cause. But if I drank any more fluids, I'd pop. So I looked into my sodium intake. Many years ago, I had asked a previous doctor what my sodium intake should be. He replied, "4000 milligrams." So I never bothered watching my sodium intake, assuming I'd never hit that mark (although that's probably extremely easy to do at an amusement park). I generally ate a varied pescatarian diet, with a dose of processed frozen food. I never used to look at the nutrition labels on those, and now am shocked at how much sodium they contain. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 1500 mg a day, and many frozen dinners easily contain that amount.
So I began assiduously dialing back my sodium intake, going for lo- or no-salt varieties wherever Karen and I could find them. Then I read that palpitations can be caused by too little sodium. So once again I made some adjustments so that I'm right around 1500 mg a day. The result is that things aren't that much different for me. I'm still having regular palpitations, though not as severely as early on. I chatted with my sisters. It turns out both of them have palpitations regularly. And they told me that our mother did as well. So maybe it's just the genetic roll of the dice, and I'm stuck with them. As long as they don't impare my overall health, I can live with them.
But there's still one fix I haven't tried: meditation. When I began thinking of how wound up I was as a kid, it made more sense that I've probably internalized a lot of tension during this pandemic. I rarely let anything out. So it's just a matter of getting into a routine, setting aside at least a half-hour a day to do nothing but clear my mind (something I feel guilty about since I think I have to be busy every minute of the day). Even if it doesn't clear up the palpitations, at least it might bring a little calm to this bizarre existence we're all still going through.
For several years, I've wanted to experiment with alternative energy. We have a south-facing roof, making it a perfect candidate for solar panels. However, we have a municipal utility that places restrictions on the ability to install them. I checked into it with several companies, and we would have to foot the entire $30,000-plus expense ourselves, with no guarantee of ever recouping the cost. And though in theory we could tie into the electrical grid, during a blackout we would be forced to disconnect our system which would eliminate one of its advantages.
I've also been curious about wind turbine systems. While not nearly as efficient as solar, small wind systems are far more affordable. They also produce far less energy, so the cheaper cost doesn't necessarily bring much benefit. But we do have a nearly constant westerly wind at our house, so I figured that a wind system would probably be a good place to start my journey.
When I began my research many years ago, wind turbine systems were retailing over a wide range of prices and with a confusing range of included accessories, costing anywhere from a few hundred up to several thousand dollars. There were also a dizzying variety of turbines on the market, from standard horizontal propeller types to a seemingly innumerable number of permutations of vertical (Savonius or Darrieus) types. Each had good points and bad points. The horizontal types were fairly efficient as far as wind turbines go, but also large and expensive. The vertical types were less efficient, but much simpler and usually far less expensive.
Then there was the matter of the advertised power. Some claimed to output an absurd 30,000 watts. Most were in the area of 300 watts. But from reading reviews, real-world experience suggested that even the best small turbines generated a meager 50 watts or less. The advertised wattage was basically the maximum that the turbine could ever produce, and it would rarely (if ever) reach that limit. So I needed to determine how much power I wanted to produce.
The reason I began looking into this was because I wanted to build a garden railway in our backyard. That required power, and I would otherwise have to dig a trench and run an electrical line from our house to the shed. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to outfit the shed with a green energy system instead.
I assumed that even though a higher claimed wattage would produce a fraction of that, I'd rather have a fraction of 1000 watts than a fraction of 200 watts. So I went with a 4200 watt (theoretical) Savonius type known as a Chinese lantern that I found on eBay. It looked fairly compact and simple to set up. It also came with the charge controller (which, as you'll see, is extremely important). And it was only $170, so if it didn't work at least I didn't go broke finding out.
The turbine itself wouldn't produce any useable electricity, though. Turbines on this scale usually charge a battery, which then provides the electricity. So I ordered a 12 volt deep cycle battery (which cost more than the turbine). You can't plug the turbine into the battery; turbines usually utilize alternators (AC power), while a battery outputs DC. So I needed a rectifier to convert AC to DC power. So I ordered one of those. And even then you can't plug the rectifier directly into the battery. The turbine would keep charging the battery until it blew up. So I also needed the charge controller that came with the turbine.
The turbine arrived in mid-May. It was packaged in a large and rather empty box consisting of the four vinyl blades and the base. There was no charge controller. I was puzzled because the base had three wires coming out of it, which are indicative of AC power. I contacted the company and was told that they discontinued the charge controller because the new version of the turbines was DC. In other words, they switched to a less efficient system. So I didn't need the rectifier (which cost me only $10). But I did need some sort of charge controller. I hunted online for a few days, but all I could find for wind turbines were AC controllers. All of the DC controllers were for solar panels. Eventually I found a controller that supposedly worked for both wind and solar and it was affordable (about $60), so I ordered the 100 amp version (in case my turbine would ever reached its theoreticaly limit of 4200 watts). It was from China, so I figured it would take a while to arrive. What I liked about it was that it advertised a built-in inverter for connecting an AC line.
Meanwhile, the battery arrived. It was like a neutron star in a small box. It was incredibly dense. I couldn't lift it. At just 12x8x8 inches, the box weighed 65 pounds! My friend Marc happend to be visiting when it arrived and he was able to hoist it onto a counter in the shed. I built a heavy-duty shelf for it about two feet above the shed floor, underneath the counter. Using a rolling chair the same height as the shelf, I managed to roll it into place. Then I built a wood panel on the wall above the counter so that I could attach all the electrical components. I installed a gang box on the panel from which I could branch off AC connections. I also installed a ceiling box for a light and a switchbox by the door.
I continued my research and discovered that a solar charge controller is a completely different beast from a wind charge controller. When a solar controller finishes charging a battery, it simply cuts off the electrical flow to the battery. If a wind turbine were attached at that point, the turbine wouldn't have any resistance and would begin free-spinning until it basically spun itself apart. Turbines need to have what are known as "dump loads". The turbine has to be fooled into thinking it's still charging the battery, so that it has resistance and doesn't go free-spinning. The dump load is basically a giant electronic resistor. So I needed to buy a dump load and figure out how to wire it up to the solar controller. I found a helpful video made over a decade ago by Windy Nation that walked through the process. I wondered though whether it was necessary for my Savonius-style turbine. I couldn't imagine that spinning itself apart in the way a typical horizontal-style turbine would.
Mounting the turbine was going to present its own challenges. I wanted to put it on the east side of our shed. I needed a 14-foot high 2-inch diameter steel pipe to get it high enough above the shed roof. The only such pipes I could find were 10 feet long. That would mean I'd need two of them, cut one and connect the two pieces together. I didn't want the pipe to be too high; I needed the shed structure to help stabilize the pipe. I'd need to dig a hole, place the pipe in it and fill it with concrete. I'd need stand-offs to secure the pipe to the side of the shed. I'd also need to drill a hole through the pipe so that I could extract the electrical wire from the turbine. (Because of the turbine's design, the wire had to run down through the pipe.) The pipes I could get locally but the stand-offs had to be ordered online.
When the antenna eave mount came in, I attached it to the side of the shed. The mount came with two sections, but all I needed was the top section at the roof's peak. I decided to cut each pipe to seven feet; that way I could attach a compression fitting in the middle. I also decided to run the wiring on the outside of the pipe, though I still had to cut a hole in order to access the turbine's wires. I made a one inch hole about four inches down from the top. I purchased a weatherproof flexible conduit that had 6 gauge wire in it. It had two connections: on one end was a 90-degree plastic fitting while the other had a straight fitting. I struggled for a long time to attach the 90-degree fitting to the pipe. I just couldn't get the nut to screw on properly. It kept stripping the thread. So instead I attached the straight fitting and that went on without a problem. I attached the compression fitting to the two pipes. It didn't seem to hold very well. The top end was tightly secured. But I couldn't seem get the bottom end to lock in. The joint kept flexing, as if there wasn't enough pipe for it to bite onto. With the pipes placed across sawhorses, I next connected the turbine's wires to the conduit wires. Then I packed the wires inside the pipe, attached the turbine's base and tightened it down. I sealed any joints with silicone caulk.
I had a 6-inch diameter section of scrap stovepipe, about a foot long. I dug a hole through the shed's traprock base, centered under the antenna mount. I placed the stovepipe in the hole and leveled it, then backfilled it. Then I hoisted up the post with the turbine. It was awkward but not too heavy. I placed the end of the post into the stovepipe and then raised the structure up until it made contact with the eave mount. I climbed a ladder and loosely secured the post in the mount. The turbine was at a perfect height, about 3 feet above the top of the shed. I leveled the post and then mixed up some concrete with traprock dust. I poured it into the stovepipe and checked to make sure everything was still level. Then I tightened the eave mount. The turbine was up, and started spinning in the breeze. I then cut a hole in the side of the shed, near the peak, to feed the conduit through. I left some slack on the outside to let rain drip off. I caulked up any remaining gaps. The heavy construction part of the project was finished! Next I focused on the electrical system.
In that Windy Nation video (and other turbine installation videos I watched) I noticed that the electrical components were usually attached to a steel plate. That made sense both for grounding and for fire protection. So I got a steel plate, sized it to my wall panel and screwed it in place. A few days later, the charge controller arrived. The instructions stated, "NOT FOR WIND TURBINES" even though the online ad showed wind turbines. So that was a useless (to me) piece of electronics that I put up on eBay. Instead, I ordered the Xantrex controller that was shown in the Windy Nation video. I figured if I was going to follow that video, I might as well do everything they were doing. I also ordered some auto-reset circuit breakers, busbars, heavy-duty cables, connector rings and a grounding collar for the post. I found a 1000 watt dump load resistor at Missouri Wind and Solar, so I ordered that as well.
I also realized that the new controller had no inverter. So now I had to purchase one separately. I once again spent a few hours on the Internet searching all different types. I settled on one from Harbor Freight, which was conveninently a short drive away. It was less than $100. But I also needed the recommended cables for it, which alone were a whopping $35. The controller arrived, along with the separate readout panel I ordered. I needed to know my battery's bulk absorbtion and float rate before I could set up the controller. So I spent time researching that. The bulk rate is the maximum amount of charge the battery can take; the float rate is the amount of voltage at which the controller will kick back in. Every battery has a different specification. So I found it online and was able to set the dials on the controller accordingly. The dump load arrived a few days later. All I was waiting for were the cables, busbars, grounding collar and circuit breakers I ordered. Once those arrived, I could begin putting everything together.
As a preliminary test, I connected a multimeter to the wires coming from the turbine. There was an intermittent mild breeze outside. The turbine spun easily, but the readout from the multimeter wasn't very encouraging. On average, it was generating about 1.5 volts and about .25 amps, just about enough to power a small LED flashlight. A strong breeze increased the output briefly to about 5 volts and about 1 amp. So at least I knew the generator was working. And thankfully, its only function was to recharge the battery. But it remained to be seen if there was even enough voltage produced to do that. A 12-volt battery needs about 14 volts to charge, so my turbine still had quite a ways to go. I don't think 1.5 volts would count as a "trickle charge". On the bright side, it's recommended that turbines be located in an area with a monthly mean wind speed of at least 5 meters per second and we live in an area rated at 6-7 mps.
About a week later, the rest of my supplies arrived. It took me about two hours to connect everything. I used some spare 4 gauge wire I had. You're supposed to use stranded wire for connections, and keep them really short. I placed the two big busbars at the bottom of the panel. I placed the Xantrex controller at the upper left. I attached the two 50 amp auto-reset circuit breakers below it. The dump load coil went between the controller and the busbars. The inverter went at the upper right. It was challenging to bend the wires to fit where they needed to go, since the wires were so thick. But with some coaxing, everything fit.
Everything had to be properly grounded. There was a ground screw inside the controller, but it didn't lead anywhere. That's why I had bought the grounding collar. I bolted it to the turbine's post, near the bottom. I attached heavy copper ground wire to it and ran that inside the shed and over to the controller. The controller's ground screw was pretty small, so I replaced it with something beefier so that I could fit the three ground wires around it: the turbine's, the inverter's and the post's. I triple-checked all my connections. Then I connected the battery. The light on the controller began flashing, so I knew everything was hooked up correctly. Then I installed the controller's readout panel next to the shed door so it would be easy to see, and connected it with the supplied phone cord. The readout came to life and showed that the battery had 12.7 volts. Ironically, I got everything working on one of the few days where the air was dead still. So the turbine was doing nothing. I would have to wait for a breeze before I could tell how much current it would produce.
The next day, there was a steady breeze and the turbine was spinning. I checked the charge controller display which showed that the turbine apparently was producing no current at all. The battery voltage had dropped to 12.6 and there were .2 amp hours of service logged. I tried resetting the system but that didn't do anything. I disconnected the battery and put my multimeter on the turbine leads, which showed that the turbine was producing about 2 volts and about .25 amps. I checked all my connections once again and confirmed that everything was correctly wired. I decided to give it a few days to see if there was any change. If not, I'd write up this experiment as a failure and consider my next steps.
I finally located online the manual for the Xantrex display and discovered that the readout for "Current" is actually amps, not volts. That would explain why it almost always read zero, because even at its maximum I couldn't get the turbine to go much beyond a quarter amp. And that explains why when the display would briefly flash 1 amp, the readout would then show 12 watts. (Volts times amps equals watts.)
A few days later I re-installed the junction box and wired up the ceiling light and switch. I turned on the inverter and flipped the switch, and the light turned on. So at least the inverter was working. But the readout still showed 0 amps and 0 watts coming from the turbine, even though it was spinning in the breeze. The battery was now showing 12.4 volts, so it was evidently draining and not being replenished.
So I went back to the website of Missouri Wind & Solar. They offered complete turbine kits, including all the electronics (minus the battery and inverter) for about $1000. If I had started there, I probably would have saved myself all this time and trouble. I chalked it all up to a learning experience. And what I learned was to not buy cheap Chinese turbines. Missouri Wind sold only horizontal turbines (or HAWTs), all AC, but they had several different models to choose from. So I sent them an inquiry asking about the difference in their turbines and whether they'd fit on my existing mounting post. The owner responded promptly. They utilized a 1.5" post, so unless I replaced my post their turbine wouldn't fit.
Meanwhile, I wrote to the Chinese turbine vendor and explained the situation. He asked for a video demonstrating what was happening. So I made one, showing the turbine spinning away and as I walked into the shed and showed the readout of zero amps and zero watts. Oddly, just before I made the video, the readout briefly showed 1 amp and 15 watts. Then that disappeared, never to return. I assume that was a glitch. But that made me start thinking that it could be the readout, not the turbine. But I would expect if the readout was faulty it would be completely bolloxed up, not show the battery voltage and amp hours correctly and nothing else. The vendor said they would have their technicians look into the matter. But I didn't expect any revelations from that. And sure enough, when a video from the manufacturer arrived it made me laugh out loud. They had one of their older AC turbines mounted in front of a giant wind tunnel that was expelling typhoon-force winds. They showed that the turbine was producing 14 volts. So I knew then that, since I didn't live in Tornado Alley, my turbine would never manage to produce a fraction of that.
A turbine's power is linked to its weight (with current technology). The heavier a turbine is, the larger its rotor and stator are and therefore the more power it can produce. My turbine was really light, in fact surprisingly so. The housing for the rotor and stator was also fairly small. So it would have been unusual if that turbine were able to generate any more than 100 watts, never mind 4200 watts. I subsequently discovered dozens of YouTube videos exposing the turbine I purchased as a scam. All of them demonstrated why the turbines could never produce their claimed amount of current. If I had only seen those videos before I bought my turbine....
I also noticed that my turbine rarely spun. I might as well have installed a solar panel in the basement. Once in a while, I'd get the right conditions to produce some power. But most of the time it was idle. I learned why wind power isn't very popular: it's just not consistent enough. With solar, there are always cloudy days. But when there's sun, solar panels consistently produce useable current, unlike the turbine. I'd see trees nearby blowing wildly in the breeze, but my turbine would sit there, stoic, as if the air was dead. Wind, it turns out, is not a giant wall of pressure but more like small streams following their own paths. If one of those streams happens to bump against my turbine, it spins. But otherwise it would just sit there. I understood then why so many wind farms are located in open praries or on seacoasts. That's where the wind is strongest and most persistent. If I had a really powerful turbine that could produce a ton of current, would my idea work? Powerful turbines have to overcome more resistance to spin, which means I'd need higher wind speeds. So probably not. Even if I went with a new system from Missouri Wind, there's a strong chance that I'd spend another thousand dollars with nothing to show for it.
Probably my best alternative was to put a solar panel on the roof of the shed, since it faces south. When the panel didn't produce anything (for instance, at night or in a storm), there might be a faint possibility that the turbine could pick up some of the slack. But at least for most of the time, I'd be able to recharge the battery.
Harbor Freight was selling a 100 watt solar panel for less than a hundred bucks. So I got one. The instructions said that a roof mounting kit was available, but the store didn't carry one. I contacted Harbor Freight but they didn't know where to get one. So I went to the hardware store and got two five-foot long right-angled steel perf rails. I cut them in half and ground down the edges. After mounting two of them to the frame on the underside of the solar panel, I cut a piece of wood to fit between the two rails and marked its center. I removed the stock connector cord that came with the panel and instead attached 25 feet of #12 ROMEX copper wire coated with UV-resistant sheathing. I measured the area I needed on the roof and used the piece of wood as a guide. I attached the other two metal perf rails to the roof, starting with the left side. I used two machine screws on each rail, with fender washers atop and underneath the rail. Using the wood guide, I lined up the second rail and secured it to the roof. Then I lined up the panel's rails with the rails on the roof and used #10 bolts and lock washers to secure them together. I drilled through the upper front of the shed and fed the cable through, routing it over to the wall panel. Before connecting it, to prevent any current from short-circuiting in the wires, I tossed a carpet over the solar panel. The solar charge controller that I put up for sale on eBay had zero bidders. I was glad I still had it. I attached it to the wall panel, just under the inverter, and connected wires to it from the battery busbars. The controller sprung to life. I went through the menu system and adjusted its settings. I connected the solar panel's wires to the solar controller input (with the positive end first going into an auto-reset circuit breaker, like the turbine). I took the carpet off and the controller indicated that it was receiving power from the solar panel. In a couple of hours, the battery in the shed was fully recharged. Ironically, it was also a windy day and the turbine, spinning wildly, was still producing nothing. It was pretty obvious to me at that point why most people opt for solar panels over wind turbines. For the amount of money I had sunk into this project, I could have placed ten solar panels on the roof and have powered not only the shed but our home as well.
After a few days with that setup, I still was puzzled by the wind turbine. Why wasn't it producing anything, even in a strong wind? So I re-watched the Windy Nation installation video and something caught my eye. When they connected their auto-reset circuit breakers, they wired them backwards from what I had done. Each breaker had two terminals, one labeled "BAT" and the other "AUX". So I logically connected the BAT terminals to the cables attached to the battery and the AUX terminals to the controller. Windy Nation did the complete opposite. I had read that those circuit breakers pass current in one direction only. So for the heck of it, I switched the terminals around -- and the controller's display instantly showed power coming through. Even in a light breeze, the turbine began feeding energy into the battery. Within a day, the turbine had generated 17 amp hours. Over the previous week, it had generated just .4 amp hours. For the first time, the Xantrex controller showed that the battery was fully charged. The only odd thing is that the controller then began emitting odd (and loud) beeps. There was nothing in the manual about that. Everything else seemed normal, though. The wires were cool to the touch. The dump load, though, was really hot, which meant that the controller was properly diverting excess energy that the turbine was producing.
I emailed the turbine company and apologized. They were right -- the turbine worked perfectly well. I just hadn't wired it up correctly. So I didn't need the solar panel after all; I probably could have powered the shed just fine with only the turbine. But in any case, this way I'd have a backup. No matter the weather conditions (except rainy days without wind), I'd be able to recharge the battery.
All I really wanted to do was power a garden railway. I simply could have chosen to run an underground electric line from the house to the shed. That would have been way cheaper and much more practical. But it certainly wouldn't have been as challenging. And it wouldn't have opened my eyes to the fascinating if complicated world of renewable energy.
If you'd like to see a video series of this experiment, it's on my YouTube channel.
And just a quick update: by the end of the summer, the turbine had generated over 1000 amp hours. The first few weeks of autumn generated an additional 200 amp hours. I was also able to run an electric leaf blower off of one of the outlets. So the experiment was indeed a success.
When Karen and I were newly married, we were living with the kids in a modest second floor apartment. It was a place that Karen had called home for several years. But now with five people there, its shortcomings became more obvious. It was too small for all of us and the apartment building was opposite an old factory and busy railroad tracks. For the amount of money Karen had been paying for the apartment, I thought we could do better. And thus began our journey into home ownership, a journey that at the time I didn't realize would become fraught with unexpected complications. It wasn't as treacherous as the journey to Mordor in Lord of the Rings, but at times it felt that way.
Karen at first was reluctant. I was thinking in terms of building equity and making an investment in our future and becoming a property owner. Karen was more practically concerned about whether we could afford it. Plus, moving into a strange new building in a new community is like starting your life all over again. But I saw it as an opportunity to move forward, and all such moves come with risks. The feeling of being home isn't just the building or the smoke detectors or the color of the paint. It's where you make the memories that stay with you for the rest of your life. And I wanted to us to have memories that were pleasant.
I've begun to realized how much I lean toward comfort in my life nowadays. When I was young, it wasn't much of a concern. When I lived in Holyoke and was studying theater at the University of Massachusetts, I sometimes wouldn't finish my day there until the early morning hours. So I would just find an empty classroom and curl up on the floor until morning. In 1982, when I hiked across New England with nothing but a backpack and a small tent, I made camp at whatever location was convenient when I was tired. And none of that bothered me. I would make my home wherever I happened to be.
I wonder what was going through the minds of the Israelites as they followed Moses for forty years. Even though they were eventually heading to the promised land, that was an imagined home. For an entire generation, they were nomads drifting through a desert. My current concept of a home is a stable address; I wonder if the Israelites had a different concept of home, more similar to when I was younger and on my own nomadic journey. When home is more spiritual, it's wherever you happen to be, especially if you realize that God is always there with you.
Sometimes when Karen and I are on a drive, we pass by magnificent houses on large plots of well-manicured property. The structures clearly appear to be too large for most families. The size would be more appropriate for a small hotel. And we wonder: are the people who live there happy? In Moses' time, there were magnificent structures built for kings and their families, while the king's subjects lived in extremely modest accommodations. Was one home better than another?
There's a quote from Proverbs: By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures. That to me is what a home represents. It's not a building, but experiences and ideas that create a sense of belonging. A building can simply be a shelter, a place to stay as you're making your way to somewhere else. But a home is where you set down roots. That's the way I felt about the situation Karen and I were in: to me, the apartment was more akin to a hotel room, a temporary residence until we could find our real home.
On the quest to set down our roots, I found that unlike the writer of Proverbs, I had little wisdom nor much understanding about the process of acquiring a house. Karen and I both had low-paying jobs. The trick was finding a house that we not only liked but could afford. I knew that the cost of a mortgage could be comparable to the rental cost of an apartment, but I had no idea how to make that happen. So we approached a realtor.
It took me a long time to figure out what a realtor does. I thought their job was to make our dreams come true. But their job is just to sell houses. That's all. If the sale happens to make us happy, so much the better. But that's not part of their job description. They need to move product. But we didn't know that back then, so we described to the realtor what we were looking for in a home. I was concerned for the future, so I wanted a ranch house that was all on one level. I wanted a sizable amount of property around it. I was fairly handy, so I wasn't too concerned about the house's condition (unless it was falling apart). Besides, finding a "fixer-upper" could lower the purchase price.
We spent the next several months with the realtor showing us capes and colonials and Victorians, with an occasional ranch that was way out of our price range. We were basically being shown anything that was on the market. In each house there were one or two aspects that we liked, but overall none of them felt like home.
But what was "home"? Was it a memory of where we grew up? What would feel like home to the kids? They seemed perfectly happy in the apartment which was part of their own childhood memories. We looked at some homes along one of the most desirable streets in the city, but those homes were out of our price range.
The price range was another interesting learning experience. We couldn't just pick a house we wanted and then somehow pay for it; we had to get a loan through a bank. And the bank was really the final determiner of whether we got a house. That added another layer of complexity and stress to the process. I was slowly gaining the wisdom and understanding that I needed.
We finally found a house that felt like home. It was a spacious ranch on three acres, centrally located. It needed a little bit of work, and it was going for a surprisingly low price. The couple that owned it was going through a divorce and simply wanted to get rid of the property. We began the next phase: hiring a building inspector and getting the bank paperwork ready. After we paid the building inspector for his work and paid the initial bank fees, the bank told us that the deal was off. We heard through the realtor that the couple realized they had underpriced the house and they had their lawyer tell our bank that we didn't want the place after all. That's why the bank cancelled the paperwork.
So we were nomads once again. My first thought was to simply stop searching and just be happy we had a roof over our heads. But a short time later Karen spotted a house that had promise, a ranch that was once again centrally located, looked fairly new and was going for about the same price as the previous house. So we contacted our realtor and set up a showing. The house's exterior was fairly nondescript, but once we entered the front door it was as if we entered a magic portal; the house seemed to get bigger as we walked in. There was a large open floor plan, an updated kitchen, updated heating. The house was in move-in condition with no extra work needed. It sat on only a quarter of an acre, which was smaller than I wanted. But Karen loved the layout. So we made an offer. We also went to a different bank. And within another month, we were first-time homeowners. Coincidentally, at the same time Karen and I both acquired better jobs that made our house even more affordable.
In late summer of that year, we moved in and began making the house our home. Our son loved to draw, so in the large basement I built a room for him made of dry erase board so that he could practice drawing. Each of the girls had their own rooms for the first time. We finally had a place where we could set down roots. On our first day in the house, I saw someone riding a Model A car across the four acre field next to our house. It was our new neighbor, Charlie, who was in his 80s. He tended a large vegetable garden in his yard and like a Welcome Wagon brought us a bounty of fresh vegetables as a welcoming gift. That was an unexpected gesture that made me feel like we belonged there.
Ironically, it was also just a few years before the kids would enter high school. Then our son went into the army and the girls moved out when they entered college. Karen and I were left with memories of only a brief time when we were all together in that house we called home.
I can't imagine what it would be like to be a refugee, to be driven from my home because of oppression or brutality, to give up everything I've known, not only my possessions but my community and culture, in order to survive. Ironically, the Israelites were a people displaced when they were in Egypt. Yet when they were freed and went in search of their new home, many regretted that decision and wished to return to the land of their captors where they had certainty in their existence. Even though God promised them a new home, the comfort of what they knew exerted a strong pull on them. Uncertainty can be more unsettling than a life in captivity. When at the mercy of a tyrant, the rules for existence are very clear. But how do you exist when there are no rules handed down to you?
Paul answers this in his second letter to the Corinthians: For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, and eternal house in heaven not built by human hands. Our home, the place we long for, that place of comfort and security, is not here on earth. We are all nomads wandering this planet, unless we can rest in the knowledge that the houses we have are temporary dwellings until we finally move to the place that we can truly call home.
When conditions changed around our house, Karen and I began searching for somewhere else to call home. The reluctant search ended up consuming three years involving multiple realtors. A helicopter base had just been built across the street from us, and its noise regularly rattled our windows. There was also a sizable increase in truck traffic down our street. It was predicted to get worse, and I became worried that we were going to end up in an industrial zone with no way out.
After nearly three years of looking for a new home, we gave up. Even though the money was no longer an issue since our current house was our collateral, we couldn't find any place we liked more than where we were … until one day when I happened to drive down that desirable street and noticed a house for sale. It definitely was a "unique fixer-upper", with an exterior badly in need of replacement. But it was going for a good price and it was in a much quieter residential area. So even though Karen loved the home we had, I convinced her to go to the open house.
The interior was even worse than the exterior, featuring mold, a completely outdated kitchen and bathroom, along with tiny rooms and closets with doors that collided into each other. One of the few positives was that it sat on a lot that was double the size of our current home. I asked the realtor there if she could sell our current house for the same price as we'd pay for this one. She immediately agreed and I put down a deposit, to Karen's horror.
My attempts at soothing Karen by telling her that, "We weren't buying a house; we were buying a location", and, "We have a blank slate; we can make this house anything we want", didn't work. She didn't understand why we should leave a beautiful home and move into a dump. But I strongly felt that the new place was where we needed to be.
Even though this time the process was financially and logistically easier, it was emotionally much more difficult. Like the Israelites slogging through the desert or Frodo climbing Mount Doom, we were leaving a place (though certainly not as idyllic as the Shire) where we not only had comfort and clarity but more importantly an emotional attachment, and we were heading once again into the unknown. In my view, this was the next step in our lives and I was praying that this was finally the home that was meant for us. With the help of friends and family, we were able to get the new house into decent shape before we moved in. But the process of turning it into a home had just begun. Gradually, Karen realized that it truly was home. Now that decades have passed, we can't imagine anywhere else we'd rather be. After years of wandering, with patience and persistence, the Israelites had finally reached Canaan.
As anyone from Paul McCartney to Drake to Taylor Swift can tell you, making money in the music business is tricky. McCartney famously lost his early song catalogue to Capitol Records. Even though he wrote the most covered song of all time (Yesterday), he wasn't making any money off of it because he didn't own it. Then the early Beatles catalogue was bought up by Michael Jackson, of all people, after he was inspired by advice from none other than McCartney himself.
The way business has been done in the music industry for nearly a century has been that performers make money from performing, and writers make money from their songs every time they're played. If you're both a writer and a performer, you essentially can have double the income. But that's only if your publisher and distributor keep accurate books and give you the cut of money you're entitled to. This was the intention of licensing organizations (such as ASCAP, BMI and SECAC). Their job was to get the money you were owed as a writer. And they've done a decent job of that. When I first licensed my music to BMI back in the 1990s, all I had for distribution were cassette tapes and gigs at local bars. I mailed my music off to radio stations and magazines around the world, but I never expected much from that. I was surprised to receive my first check from BMI about a year later. Radio stations in Germany and the Netherlands took a liking to one of my songs and apparently were giving it a lot of airplay. (If you're curious, it was Everybody's Got Somebody from my first album.) I received a whopping $36, with which I was completely thrilled. But that was also the last check I ever received. So as the years went by, I forgot about BMI.
In 2017, I finally figured out streaming. I had wanted to get my music onto services like Spotify and Apple Music, but I needed an intermediary, a distributor, which in the past had been the all-powerful record labels. But with the advent of the Internet, a lot of online distributors began springing up. I took a few years to research the different companies and settled on Distrokid. The costs for using the service were minimal, the interface was intuitive and the analytics they offered were good. It took some effort to enter all the required information, but within a few months my entire catalogue was available on all the streaming services. I was thrilled and waited for the money to start rolling in. And I waited. And waited.
So I now had a licensing organization and a distributor -- but I had no record label except for my own little Lazy D Records from the past. Without a major label behind me, I was essentially putting my music into a bottle and throwing it into the ocean, hoping one day someone would find it. With tens of millions of songs to choose from, how would anyone find mine? Why would anyone bother to look? That was a valuable service that major lables provided (for a price): publicity and marketing. They would let the appropriate people know that you existed.
But without that kind of backing at my disposal, I just sat tight and let the bottle drift along with the currents. And something surprising began to happen: people discovered my music. I assume it was because of the algorithms used on streaming services that suggested songs based on listening habits. But gradually the number of listeners increased. Some days peaked at over 100 streams. I began to monitor it daily. One thing I noticed that hardly ever changed though was the amount of money I earned. In the first few years, the combined amount never climbed above $10. Now in my fifth year, and with an average of 200 streams a month, I've earned a little over $25. I'd make more than that selling 3 CDs at a concert (which I'd never be able to do now because hardly anyone has CD players).
The problem is the amount collected for each stream, which varies wildly and even within the same service. On average, each song played nets me about $0.006. So 100 plays of that song would net me six cents. If you're Adele or Beyonce with nearly a billion streams, that can add up to real money. They're in a league where they have lawyers to watch over the music industry to make sure they get what they're due. But for a penny-ante operation like me, it's, well ... penny-ante.
One year ago, a new company formed, the Mechanical Licensing Collective. Its mission is to work with licensing agencies to make sure that writers get what they're owed from streaming services. I joined them shortly after they formed. Over the past year, it's been a learning curve for me because I was mostly ignorant of the ins and outs of the music publishing industry. I rekindled my BMI membership after decades of dormancy. (With BMI, once you join you're always a member unless you give them notice in writing that you're not.) So the volumes of new works I've written in intervening years had to be registered with them. Then I've had to learn what IPI and ISRC numbers are, along with other facets of publication and distribution, in order to register the works with the MLC. It's a slow uphill climb right now, but I'm hopeful that I won't end up as Sisyphus.
Although I wish I had all these resources at my disposal decades ago, I'm glad that I'm finally taking advantage of them now. The MLC just reported that over the past year they distributed about a third of a billion dollars to songwriters in the collective. Perhaps in a few years, I'll be able to share in that bounty and rise from a penny-ante operation to a nickel-ante operation.
Stephen Sondheim has passed away, and it feels as if a little bit of myself has left this earth with him. In 1979, my family was having a picnic at Mountain Park. In those days, I was living alone in an apartment in Holyoke and was completely absorbed in modern classical music. As I was walking from Mountain Park's picnic grove up toward the midway, I passed underneath the Sky Ride. Someone in one of the cabs high above was listening to a portable radio. And I could hear music coming from it. My ears followed the sounds as they passed by. There was a chorus singing ominously in loud cluster chords. I was instantly drawn to it. I continued following the music on its arial journey. It turned out it was being broadcast on the local PBS station. So when I got back to my apartment, I pulled out my WGBY broadcast guide (since I was a station subscriber) and looked up the date and time. What I had heard was the soundtrack from a new musical by Stephen Sondheim: Sweeney Todd. I rushed out to the nearest record store and purchased the double album set. It came with the entire libretto, so I followed along and by the end of the recording I was weeping. A musical theater production had never moved me like that. So I had to find out more about the author.
At that time, there wasn't a whole lot of information available on Sondheim. This of course was long before the Internet. I read up on how he got his first big break working with Leonard Bernstein on West Side Story. After that success, he was going to write the music and lyrics for a new musical based on the life of Gypsy Rose Lee. But the lead actress in the production, Ethel Merman, refused to be in the show if an unknown (to her) talent wrote the music. So instead the ever-reliable Jule Styne was brought on board to write the music and Sondheim got credit for the lyrics. The musical, of course, was Gypsy and was a smash hit that cemented Sondheim's reputation as a lyricist. But he didn't get music credit until A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which became another big hit on Broadway. Interestingly, it bombed during tryouts in Washington. And Sondheim learned a valuable lesson that I later read about in my theater classes, and it's stayed with me. The people involved with the show were convinced it was hilarious, but the audience wasn't laughing. All the jokes and schtick were falling flat. So they brought in Jerome Robbins (the West Side Story choreographer) for some advice. And Robbins spotted the problem immediately. The show at that point opened with Love Is in the Air, a sweet little love song (a sort of soft shoe number) that set the tone of a charming romance. In actuality, the show was a bawdy burlesque. So Robbins told them they needed a new opening number, something that told the audience what they were in for. That night, Sondheim wrote the song "Comedy Tonight" and it went into the production's next performance. From that point on, the audience loved the show. That demonstrated to me the importance of a first impression, whether writing a poem or a symphony or making a film. The first thing an audience encounters sets their expectations, and you had better deliver on those expectations or have a really good reason for why you're not.
While I was attending the University of Massachusetts, I spent months saving all the money I could. I bought a bus ticket to New York City to go see Sweeney Todd in 1979. It was still in its original run at the Uris Theater. I had been to the city before, but under the guidance of my godmother who lived there. This time, though, I was on my own. But I managed to find the theater and secure a ticket. I had nosebleed seats, high up at the back of the cavernous space. The set far in the distance looked like a tiny model. When listening to the album, I imagined a very intimate space, somewhat claustrophobic. The Uris stage seemed to be the size of a football field. The design of the set was very industrial, with all sorts of flywheels, pistons and gears moving. There was also an iron bridge that spanned the length of the set. I found it really distracting. The show began with a prolonged organ solo (which wasn't on the album) as gravediggers dug a grave and then unceremoniously dumped a wrapped body into it. That triggered the piercing factory whistle that began the first number. Sweeney Todd was one of the first Broadway productions to attempt a new microphone technique, using wireless embedded mics on the performers and a grid of wires on the stage floor. It occasionally caused odd interference, especially when actors got close to each other. I could understand why they did it: the theater was so huge, the actors wouldn't have been able to project well enough to sing Sondheim's intricate lyrics. But the result was that it felt much less intimate than the recording.
The audience cheered wildly as Len Cariou, the original Sweeney Todd, rose up out of the grave to sing his solo. But his voice wasn't nearly as expressive as on the recording. It was raspy and nearly lacking in melody. It became obvious as the show went on that he had no voice left. The nearly three hour production was essentially an opera. There were some breaks for dialogue (which weren't on the recording), but the bulk of the show was constant singing. Cariou, after less than a year in the role, had destroyed his voice and could no longer sing well. Much of his dialogue was shouted out. Even from my distance, I could see spit flying out of his mouth each time he spoke. He looked completely spent. Angela Lansbury, on the other hand, played Mrs. Lovett as if it were her first day in the role. It seemed like she was trying to make up for Cariou's shortcomings by amping up her energy and mugging for the audience. I was dazzled by the main setpiece, a giant cube that was rolled on and off the stage by chorus members, spinning it as they went. It functioned as the pie shop's exterior, interior and basement, plus the barber shop. It was an ingenious theatrical solution for creating multiple locations. But the sad thing for me is that the entire production took away from the intimate story that Sondheim was trying to tell, a story of blind obsession and impulsive revenge. The spectacle smothered the story. It also didn't help that the orchestra was nowhere to be seen, hidden somewhere below the stage (which gradually became standard practice on Broadway). The production struck me as spectacle for spectacle's sake. Sondheim's remarkable music and lyrics were treated almost as an afterthought. I did still cry at the end, but not from the production. All the way through I was still hearing the soundtrack recording in my head.
A year later, I was living in New York City. One of the students I knew at Columbia University asked me to be his accompanist. He was going to audition for a new musical by Sondheim, Merrily We Roll Along, and wanted to sing a selection from Follies (with which I was unfamiliar). He picked me because he had heard me play piano and knew I wrote music. But he didn't realize that I couldn't sight-read music very well. I told him as much, but he said his chose piece was really easy to play. (Try telling that to anyone who has actually played Sondheim!) So we got together in a rehearsal room. He set the music in front of me; it was the first time I had seen it. He obviously knew it really well and launched into singing it while I clumsily pecked out the few notes that I could actually read. After a few minutes he called it quits and said he would get another accompanist. Before we parted ways, however, I asked if I could tag along with him anyway and audition too. He said sure.
So a week later we took the subway to an office building on the lower west side. It was early in the morning but already a line was snaking down the street, eager thespians hoping for their big break on Broadway. I knew nothing about the proposed show, although I had once read the play on which the musical was going to be based. An assistant arrived to give us our numbers for audition purposes. I think mine was number 386. We followed the slow-moving line into the building, up flights of stairs and down non-descript corridors. After about two hours, we arrived at a stairway that had an open door at the top of the landing, and people were filing inside. Another assistant was telling us to make sure we had our resume and photo ready. I had a Xeroxed photo of myself and a hastily typed list of credits from my high school and college years. As we entered the dark and mostly empty room, there was a long table over to the left. A woman stood behind it. She would take the person's resume and head shot and very briefly look at the person. Then she would make her pronouncement. Some people were told to go to a different room. Some people were told to stand to the side. Some people were immediately dismissed.
Next to her was a very tired looking man who I later would realize was Harold Prince, the great Broadway producer who had worked with Sondheim since the 1960s, including as producer and director of Sweeney Todd. As I approached, he got up and told the woman, "I'm going to get a coffee," and left the room. I handed the woman my resume and photo. She took one look at me, said, "Too old," and then turned her attention to the next person in line. That was it. That was my audition. My classmate, on the other hand, made it to the next round and then got eliminated. I had hoped I was going to get a glimpse of Sondheim, but he was nowhere to be seen. I assume he was at the musical auditions in another room.
A few months later, it happened to be Sondheim's 50th birthday and the New York public radio station created a three hour birthday salute to him. That was the first time I got to hear the surprising variety of material that Sondheim had written. The station focused on more obscure works, including Anthony Perkins performing his intense opening number from Sondheim's only television musical, Evening Primrose, a disturbing story that should be required viewing on Halloween. The 50th birthday celebration radio show is what made me completely fall in love with Sondheim's writing.
Five years later, I encountered the soundtrack to Sondheim's then recent musical, Sunday in the Park with George. It was as if it had been created specifically for me at that point in my life. I was feeling lost. I had put aside my creative writing impulses in pursuit of a steady paycheck. I was getting a Master's degree in theater, but I didn't know why because I didn't really like theater anymore. But I felt it was all I knew how to do. I wanted to write music but was told I had no talent. It was as if I had come to a dead end in my life at 26 years old. I cried for a long time after listening to "Lesson #8". It echoed exactly what was going on in my mind. But the song that followed "Lesson #8" opened a door for me, an almost spiritual one: "Move on/Stop worrying where you're going/Move on/If you can know where you're going/You've gone/Just keep moving on." And that became my life's philosophy. It's what got me through many difficult times. And it helped me to get over my fear of writing music and performing it. "Stop worrying if your vision is new/Let others make that decision/They usually do." After that, I no longer paid attention to critics. I just kept moving on.
The next year, my friend Dave treated me to a return trip to New York, this time to see Sunday in the Park with George. And again, I ended up in tears at the end. To me, the magic of Sondheim's writing is how it works at a subconscious level. There are certainly entertaining sections and moments of clever wordplay to keep me amused. But just on the surface, a story about an obscure painter that's then grafted onto a story of his grandson shouldn't tear at my heart like that. Sondheim - in all of his great musicals - is able to tap into something fundamental about the human condition. Even if I don't understand the musical intellectually, I absolutely feel it emotionally. My heart understands it, and that's what really matters in any great work of art.
I found the same experience with Into the Woods, which kept me somewhat amused during the first half, but little else. By the end of the second act, though, I was once again in tears. The song "No More" affected me in much the same way as "Lesson #8": it brought to the surface my fears of leaving the world having accomplished nothing. (I was disappointed that such an important song was omitted from the movie version.) The concluding song, "No One Is Alone" was something I disagreed with at the time. In fact, it was the genesis for my counter-argument song, "Stand Alone". As time has passed, however, I've discovered that Sondheim was right: it's better to rely on each other than to act in isolation.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Sondheim's pair of books about his career, Finishing the Hat and Look I've Made a Hat. I finally felt like I had gotten to know him. He had a very sharp and wry sense of humor, which I really appreciated. And he also had a piercing intellect filled with curiosity. He's left an indelible mark on musical theater for generations to come. And he's also helped me navigate the convoluted path of my life. "We disappoint/We disappear/We die, but we don't". Thankfully, he's never disappointed me. And thankfully, his music will live on, inspiring the lives of others.