CELEBRATING 50 YEARS ON A SINGLE PODIUM

Okay, I know churches don’t have podiums for their music directors, but Rick Gremlitz at First Parish Church (UCC) in our town does conduct with a short white baton. What’s amazing is that he’s been doing this, in that venue, for a half century.

Among other things, the house of worship – serving the oldest congregation in the state – has its Belknap concert series where world-renowned organists perform on a remarkable hybrid organ. Parts of it are historic, as it Hastings and Hutchins, and part are state-of-the-art electronics, probably installed during Rick’s tenure. Any doubts in my mind about the sound itself vanished when bete-noir Cameron Carpenter did one unforgettable, amazing workout on the machine one afternoon a few years ago. It survived. The audience was left in a swoon.

Look, I’m a purist and lean toward the E. Power Biggs line of thinking that contrasts sharply with the Virgil Fox excesses that Rick adores. He addresses the man as the great Virgil Fox. I forgive him. We all have our icons.

So be it.

In his ministry, Rick’s led a number of Handel Messiah performances in the sanctuary. Last year it became an open sing with prepared soloists and two guest conductors. Seated between two seasoned voices, I discovered that the choruses are easier than they sound, not that I was anywhere near perfect. It was a most exhilarating event.

Today, though, Rick’s acclaimed friend Hector Olivera returns to the console, with a twist.

An ecumenical community choir, including yours truly, has been rehearsing to join in the performance.

We’ll be performing the world premiere of an anthem composed by Kevin Siegfried for the occasion, and we’ve been rehearsing weekly since mid-September at the Methodist church. How can you possibly keep something like this a surprise?

We’ll see. It’s still a special occasion. And, I might add, one of the joys of living in a relatively small community.

I’m hoping it comes off well. Especially if I don’t miss a cue while we’re singing.

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THIS MATTER OF BRANDING AND SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

The Mixmaster is back.

When my first novel was published, back in 1990, I was described as “a mixmaster of ideas, images, jokes, philosophy, and nonsense that defies categorization” – as well as “very eclectic and ebullient.”

I’m realizing how much that still fits, and so I’m returning to it as a core of what some might call branding.

As one longtime friend recently described me, I’m “an eclectic human being with a funky sense of humor and a large perspective.”

That’s what I like to do as a writer and thinker – toss a wide range of colorful things together and concoct fresh and exciting connections.

So if that’s what I do and, as I hope, do well, that leads to a new label: Mixmaster Supreme.

Now, where are the frozen strawberries?

Remember, the drink is shaken, not stirred. As for the emotions? Let’s go for both. 

PLAYING WITH CROWNS, LIKE IN CHECKERS

Last week, I wrote about relearning Spanish and the tree of Crowns the online Duolingo course uses.

As I’ve been earning Lingots for rebuilding those, I’ve had a series of sessions where I’m presented with a sentence or phrase to translate and a set of mosaics or buttons to choose from, one word on each. It’s kind of like a Magnetic Poetry Kit, except that you have to click on the word you want.

In the first hour of my day, my mind wants to run off in whimsical directions.

Here are a few examples.

Approved answer: The girl wants sugar on her apple.

Rejected answer: The girl wants sugar on her husbands.

(Or just a sugar daddy?)

Approved: Are you going to school today?

Rejected: Are you going downstairs today?

(There are days we don’t want to get out of bed, right?)

Approved: I want to go to the movies with my friends.

Rejected: I want to go to the movies with my girlfriend.

(Except that she doesn’t like the action-adventure stuff we do?)

Approved: I always go to work by bus.

Rejected: I always go to work by duck.

(There’s an opera about a guy who goes to work on a big swan. I’d settle on a big yellow duck, wouldn’t you?)

Approved: Do you have to work today?

Rejected: Do you have to speak today?

(Some days simply speaking is a lot of work … especially if it’s in Spanish. That’s the polite explanation. The other one is “Firme la boca,” I think.)

Approved: We don’t open the messages.

Rejected: We don’t open the refrigerator.

(You never know what’s inside.)

Approved: We are buying a car.

Rejected: We are buying a brother.

(Hope he’s worth it.)

Approved: My husband never gets up with me.

Rejected: My husband never gets up on me.

(That would lead to a lot of words we haven’t learned yet.)

Approved: I want a modern kitchen.

Rejected: I want a modern husband.

Also rejected: I want a modern dog.

(Oh, don’t even try to make the connection. Puleeze!)

COMMEMORATING 250 YEARS IN THE QUAKER MEETINGHOUSE

Dover Friends Meeting where I worship is the fifth oldest congregation in the state – and the first that was not part of the governmentally sponsored parishes that are now affiliated with today’s United Church of Christ.

Our meetinghouse – the third we’ve had, in fact – is the oldest house of worship in the city, and this year marks the 250th anniversary of its construction.

It went up on a single day in 1768, much like an Amish barn raising in our own time. There were likely 150 men and boys at work on the construction itself, plus an equal number of women and girls preparing food and the like.

To commemorate the occasion, we’re holding an open house at 2 p.m. There will be tours, a reading of John Greenleaf Whittier’s “How the Quaker Women Came to Dover” (his parents were married in the meetinghouse), presentations of activities we’re involved in, light refreshments and conversation, and a closing concert by musically talented members and the audience.

All are welcome.

I START MY MORNING WITH SPANISH

For the past two years, a daily online language class has opened my day. The practice began shortly after the annual sessions of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, where repeated happenstances with our guests from Cuba had me realizing how much of my high school Spanish I’d forgotten.

Well, a lot of my recall also got tangled up in my college French, but that’s another story.

A conversation with my elder daughter, the linguist, convinced me to try a free online refresher course via Duolingo, which some of you probably know of. The high school text I’d carried since 1964 soon went into the trash – it was terribly dated.

So I rise, usually before dawn, brew some full-bodied, fair-trade Cuban-style coffee beans we get at Costco (they’re like espresso but better), and head off to my laptop in the attic for a half-hour of language learning. Let’s say that at that hour, I make a number of stupid mistakes. I’m still groggy.

A few months ago, the powers-that-be behind the free course decided to alter a few things. It’s inevitable when it comes to anything computer, isn’t it? So instead of seeing something like “You are 67% proficient in Spanish” on the home page, they were taking a different tack. Most startling was that my Crown Level had decreased significantly. Look, that was something that would occur if I missed a few days of practice, but I had been faithful. I felt robbed.

That’s when I started thinking about some of the motivating factors the Duolingo brain trust applies.

The first is something they call Lingots – kind of like Monopoly game cash you can hoard, like me, or spend on things like commentary or idioms. If you do 10 uninterrupted days of study, you’re awarded Lingots – one point when you hit the first 10 days, two more at 20, three at 30, and so on. You can also wager some of yours for other accomplishments. Look, it’s stupid but highly addictive, especially when you reach 150 straight days. That’s 15 Lingots, hombre.

The Crowns, meanwhile, are part of a “learning tree” Duolingo has for advancing. When you start a language, you begin by clicking on a little button labeled “basics,” do the required number of lessons within it, and it soon turns color. You earn a Lingot or two and move on to the next, maybe “articles” or “vocabulary.” Eventually, all of them – 30 to 50, maybe? – change color and you go back to raise each of them to the next level.

Or from that point you can simply do a random set of practice questions. Oh, but that option doesn’t win you a lot of Lingots.

What I really want at the moment is to hit a thousand in my account. Hoard them, in fact. Es muy loco, verdad, but it keeps me going.

And then I move on to the latest manuscript in progress or check up here at WordPress. Both in American English.

TIME TO BLOW THE DUST OFF A FEW STACKS

As my wife and I started listing what’s keeping us busy these days, we were both surprised to find that one thing – one important thing – was missing.

What we both realized is that regular reading … as in books … had been pressed out of our schedules.

Instead, we’ve been doing bits and pieces of reading online. It’s just not the same as luxuriating in a deep volume.

How about you?

THE IMPORTANCE OF SMALL TOUCHES OVER TIME

From our perch today, it’s hard to believe that a Broadway musical like “South Pacific” could have been a bold statement on behalf of racial tolerance a half century ago.

I’m encouraged, of course, to see a Quaker connection.

First, even though the novelist James A. Michener, whose book was the basis of the show, had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was raised by a Quaker adoptive mother and attended Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College. In other words, he had been exposed to both pacifist and racial equality values.

Second, as Vanity Fair writer Todd S. Purdom notes in “The Road to Bali-hai,” is that librettist Oscar Hammerstein’s wife’s niece Jennifer attended the George School, another Quaker institution, one where Michener also taught briefly. The Hammersteins’ own son Jimmy also went there, as did a young family friend named and future Broadway great Stephen Sondheim. (And to think how vigorously earlier Quakers denounced theater as vain entertainment!)

Purdom’s article contains another telling point. The hit song “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” was originally a flop. In the preview performances before the Broadway opening, director and co-author Josh Logan was perplexed to see it wasn’t connecting until he realized that star Mary Martin had the women in the audience so abuzz about whether she was actually washing her hair onstage that nobody ever heard the lyrics themselves. He fixed that by having her belt out the first stanza before working her hair.

I wonder about how many other small changes in any art form spell the difference between boffo hit and mundane shelving.

A similar tweak in “Wonderful Guy” changed the song to a soliloquy with the word “you” substituted for “they.” As Logan recalled, “That night they tore the house apart.”

As I was saying about small changes or a simple touch? Never underestimate the importance of revisions in art. Or maybe life itself.

~*~

Michener, by the way, wrote of his experience on the Electoral College elections with the telling title on his political science volume, Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble on Our Electoral System.

He was so prescient there.