“The Ill Wind that No One Blows Well”

I’ve taken up the french horn. When I pick it up to play, my cat slinks out of the room, her ears flattened to her head. Proof positive that cats CAN be trained – at least to avoid pain.

The horn was originally my brother’s. When he upgraded later in life, he passed it along to my father, who used it to make sounds that entertained my niece when she was very young. But it’s not an easy instrument to master, especially with dentures, and it ended up in his upstairs closet, where I found it, in its original case, covered with dust, wedged in between two rusting file cabinets, a week after he died.

I added it to my collection: two trumpets (also originally my brother’s), two ancient trombones (I don’t remember how I came by them), two serviceable saxophones (a tenor and a soprano), a cello (my mother’s), a viola (the one instrument I actually played back in the day), and a set of entry-level congas.

I don’t acquire as much as accumulate. I’m the shore – stuff washes up on me. Ninety percent of everything in my home came to me from deceased relatives. The rest from living relatives. I mentioned this to a friend who knows me too well and she nodded and observed, “you’re passive.” I objected. “We’re not talking about relationships with people,” I said. She shrugged. “People, things, whatever.” I proved how active I could be by making her lunch.

I’d been thinking about learning (or relearning) how to play one of the instruments in my collection for a long time, and – inspired by the second movement of Haydn’s Horn Concerto No. 1 in D major – I decided on the french horn. In the last several months, I’ve nearly mastered Lightly Row. Notes in the higher register give me trouble – I have to press the horn to my lips with such pressure that it’s pushing my incisors out of place. And yet, there is something gratifying about making such a racket.

My brother is an accomplished player and is pleased that I’ve taken it up. We’re an ocean apart but I hope, some day, we’ll sit down and play together. A duet perhaps. I have a two-part score for Lightly Row. If only I can keep my teeth til then.

What is True “for All Nations and Religions”

Wouldn’t that be nice to find? I guess each of us needs to find it for ourselves. I was lucky – my father found it and passed it down. It wasn’t easy for him. No matter how rational we are, we still look for something beyond. It can make you crazy – to know one thing and hope for another. To hold both in your head, until the day we take that last breath that we know is coming for all the years we distract ourselves from thinking about it. But that’s what makes us human.

My father lived the last 27 years of his life in Glens Falls, NY. In the Fall of 1982, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Glens Falls Post Star newspaper. It was published in the “Your Viewpoints” section. I have a photocopy of the article on my refrigerator, but I don’t want that to be the only surviving copy. So here it is, reproduced in full.

Reconciling Modern Science with Religion


Readers who may be concerned about reconciliation of religious beliefs and progress in science may be interested in an article that appeared the September issue of the British science journal Nature.

Entitled “Twelve Wise Men of the Vatican,” the article summarizes a recent meeting of scholars at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Participants included paleontologists, geneticists, and molecular biologists from six countries, chaired by Carlos Chagas, president of the academy and scientific advisor to the pope.

The following is taken from the Nature article:

“The highest scientific body of the Catholic Church produced a strong statement supporting the evolutionary hypothesis as the explanation for the origin and diversity of living primates – just a few weeks after the 100th anniversary of Darwin’s death… The pope reportedly takes a keen interest in the activities of the academy.”

This acceptance of scientific verities brings to mind the address of  Pius XII to the academy in 1946. Recognizing “that insights and perceptions of science are irrefutable,” the pope described and accepted the conclusions of astronomers and physicists related to the formation, properties, and evolution of the universe as known at that time (quoted from “The Bible as History,” by Werner Keller, translated by William Neil, author of “Harper’s Bible Commentary”).

In conflicts between religious dogma and scientific findings, science eventually prevails. This relates not only to the inductive methodology of science, but to its supra-sectarian constituency; all nations and religions are represented in science.

It is, however, not obvious that science and Christianity must be in conflict. The most significant and profound truths of the Old Testament and in the teachings of Jesus transcend dogma and are not at odds with the findings of science.

An integration of Christian theology with modern scientific humanism would generate greater spiritual force than either alone in coping with present, worldwide, societal problems.

Winfield W. Tyler
Glens Falls, NY

My father was not a genius. This is just rational discourse. And yet, look at what’s making headlines these days. As Einstein said, “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.” Starting with each of us.





Stollen Moments

The only time I have any ideas anymore is first thing in the morning. Or second, if you count coffee. Third, if you count a little fruit bread on a white porcelain plate, absolutely still, in the diffuse morning light washing over the kitchen table. Diffuse, because the big kitchen window faces north, overlooking the backyard, under the canopy of towering maples. Still, because everything is at that hour, inside and out. Still enough for thoughts to precipitate out of suspension.

The radio whispers in the corner, on the counter, which, is a more modern kitchen, might be occupied by an appliance garage. It’s the birthday of American novelist Francine Prose, according to Garrison Keillor. A novelist named PROSE? And I think, of course, it’s April Fools’ day. But it’s no joke, and he goes on with a straight face, or straight voice anyway, and mentions her 2006 book on writing, “Reading Like a Writer,” which I’ve heard of but never read. Because why would a writer need to read it? If you’ve done any writing at all, had your stuff workshopped, critiqued the work of others, spent any amount of mental energy TRYING to write well, you already read like a writer. You can’t help it, and that can be a problem.

Because the critical faculty can cripple the creative one. What we need is a guide book titled “Reading Like a Reader,” reminding us how to appreciate the art of the written word without constantly looking for flaws and ways to improve it. No doubt it would cure many a case of writers’ block.

The challenge is to write like writers and read like readers – and that goes for reading your own stuff as well. To avoid self-censoring yourself into silence. And to allow yourself to enjoy your work and the work of others for what it is.

Change Agent

It’s been so long since my last post, I’ve forgotten my password.

For months leading up to the workshop at Writers & Books, I gorged on sci fi and spec fi, trying to make up for years of not reading – or reading crap. Crap being writing that doesn’t unlock any rooms in your head, that doesn’t show you things. That doesn’t take you somewhere you don’t want to leave. Or can’t leave, even if you want to.

One of the authors I’m reading lately is M. John Harrison. I read “Light” and moved on to “Nova Swing,” which takes place in the world  – no, the universe – the Mr. Harrison has created in these thin, dense novels that bushwack you with mind blowing images and ideas. More than that – he nails aspects of the human condition that each of us thinks are ours alone. I’m getting close to the end of Nova Swing and am encountering literature that is absolutely genre agnostic, a thrill to find in a novel that is classified – because everything must be classified – as sci or spec fic.

It’s a paradox: it’s the universality of ideas that make them feel personal. This, for instance, spoken by Lens Aschemann, the existentialist detective haunted by the spirit of his dead wife:

“When I left Utzie,” he said, “she would dial me up and say, ‘People think it’s a failure to live alone, but it isn’t. The failure is to live with someone because you can’t face anything else.'” He chuckled. “Two days later it would be, ‘Cooped up with yourself 24 hours a day, that’s life, without remission. Lens, the worst thing in the world is to be inside yourself, you don’t even want to be rescued. Yet to be as happy as we were – to be so open to someone else – invites the failure of everything.'”

Was anything more true every written? All options are fraught. Most of us bounce from one to the other, ricocheting off pain like a pinball.

And later, when Vic Serotonin, an opportunistic “travel agent,” follows Elizabeth Kielar deeper into the twisted physics of the Event Site:

“The further off the beaten path Vic got, the more nervous he became and the easier it was to persuade him to take another wrong turn. It was what he had always feared.”

But it’s the thrill that keeps you going in the wrong direction, isn’t it? The unknown, inside or out. What you might encounter, or learn, or survive.

Makes for good reading, too.


Creatures of Habit?

Habit is a funny thing. It’s an amplifier. That can be good and bad. Washing your hands is a good habit. Doing it 50 times a day, not so much. It’s been said, and I think it’s true, that you can achieve great things if you control your habits. Discipline, in the form of habit, doesn’t feel like work. Exercise daily. Floss morning and night. Post to your blog every Sunday. (I was going to say, “post religiously,” but that would take this in a different direction.)

The idea seems to be: decide what you need to do to get where you want, train yourself to do those things habitually, then voila – you achieve your goal. Effortlessly! All you have to do is adopt The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and you’ll be, well, effective. At whatever you choose, presumably. Implying that otherwise you aren’t.

And no one wants to be thought of as an ineffective person.

Lately I’ve heard about some research on addiction that says it’s not chemical, it’s not genetic, it’s not a mental or physical dependency – it’s just habit! Habits cut both ways.

I have trouble with the concept of habit. That we do things without consciously making the effort to do them. I find it easier to believe that we do what we want. If we want to work toward a goal – and we ‘re not blocked by barriers of fear or time or expectation, or god knows what else (we all have our demons) – we do it and just may be “effective.” Likewise, washing your hands 50 times a day or drinking yourself blind every night might just satisfy some need, provide some pleasure greater than the damage it causes.

We never turn off our will power – we always choose. Whether it’s to post a blog or pick up a drink.

Take cats, for example. This entire post was inspired by the way mine likes to hang out in the tub after I get out of the shower in the morning. Is that a habit? Cats are mysterious. Dogs have habits. Cats do what they please and don’t give a damn about the rest. I like to think we’re more like cats.



THAT’S What I’m Talkin About

America’s Embrace of Ignorance

Politics, lies, religion, and “a new low in stupidity.”

UPDATE: No one embraces stupid like Sarah Palin…and whoever embraces her. Read “Sarah Palin’s American lobotomy: The Republicans keep making us dumber, and not even Stephen Colbert can save us

Disheartening. But there’s hope!

The American Psychological Association published a study that shows that Americans will stand by beliefs even when it is proven that their belief isn’t based on or can be proven by any kind of facts. This can be destructive, but that is up to the individual to change or not.

Politicians however, should be held to a higher standard because they make crucial decisions for the American people. …Barack Obama said it best when he said ‘You can ignore facts but you can’t deny the facts.’ The American people deserve honesty not deception, because that is the American way and it’s the right thing to do.

Unfortunately, you can’t expect a higher standard from politicians than that of the people who elect them. It’s hard to know where to begin. Preschool?


Dumbing Down

So I was going to write about profanity in the workplace as a sign of holiday stress, or death and dying, or some other upbeat subject, but I just checked my work email and saw this message to everyone in the office from the admin who organized the holiday dreidel hunt:

“The last one was found in HR who have 3 employees on top of a 3 whole punch.”

There are many things wrong with that sentence, but the lasting impact is visual: picturing three employees on top of a 3-hole punch. Some things just can’t be unseen.

This brings to mind “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss. Okay, so we are all punctuationally challenged at times, but what’s happening these days goes way beyond that. It’s not just that people can’t articulate clearly, it’s that they don’t care.

It’s possible for intelligent people to communicate sloppily. But I think it’s also true that low standards in the latter can dumb down the former. Call it a lack of critical thinking. You settle for sloppy writing and sloppy thinking naturally follows. The standard defense: “You know what I meant!”

Self-editing (or in the case of writer’s block, self-censoring) can be taken to extremes. The mind loops, indefinitely deferring the decision to act. That’s bad, too. I spend a lot of time there. But it’s better than the opposite. Because even if you’re paralyzed by the challenge of saying exactly the right thing, you can still appreciate good writing. You value people who think before they speak.

For example, you won’t vote for Trump.

Eschew sloppy writing. The nation you save may be your own.