O Great Mystery

The other day, my son told me about a Christmas present he had seen:  wrapped in paper with “Happy Birthday” all over, repurposed for the holiday by adding “Jesus” to every single instance. This is not desperate like that, even though it is about the birthday of Jesus.

I posted it today in order to say “Happy Birthday, Jesus!” as well as “Merry Christmas” to all.

There is a text about the birth of Christ, that comes from the old Catholic liturgy. It is in Latin, and called “O magnum mysterium“. Here is that text along with a translation:

O magnum mysterium
oh great mystery

et admirabile sacramentum,
and wondrous sacrament

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
that the animals should see the newborn Lord

jacentem in praesepio.
lying in a manger.

O beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt
O Blessed Virgin, whose womb was judged worthy

portare Dominum Jesum Christum.
to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.


It is a text often set to music. In the 20th century, a famous setting is by the composer Morten Lauridsen; this one comes from the 16th century, set by Tomás Luis de Victoria. I love its four intertwining choral parts, and how they seem to make the words especially poignant and meaningful.

The Starlite Chorale has performed this version many times. While singing it, I once imagined particular images, each one connected to one of its phrases, including the stars, the Earth, the mountains of Ararat, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the virgin mother and child, and the shepherds and the Heavenly Host.

If I had been able to turn this into an animated short film, I would have done it by now. Unable to manage that, I’d like one day to perform it with the Chorale singing the text behind my meditation. This recording consists of my narration backed up by four choral parts which I programmed into a free and open source program called MuseScore. The Choral Public Domain Library is the source for this version of O magnum mysterium  (CPDL #26279), and was originally published in the 1853 collection, Musica Divina , so it is firmly in the public domain.

It starts without any music to accompany the following text.

As the silent stars go by,
one shines brighter than all her sisters,
reaching out with dazzling light
as if to touch the blue planet beneath.

Slowly, as we descend,
airless silence is replaced by the faint keening of the wind.
The mountains of Ararat are cold tonight,
and the vistas are harsh and stony everywhere.
They offer no comfort,
and give even less than that.

(Click here to play the recording.)

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.

The Lesson of the Cool White Socks

A life lesson in two parts

Part I

There was a fellow in my fifth grade class, John, who loved to make me the butt of any joke. He would be critical and joking about everything you did or said or didn’t do or didn’t say. I was unprepared for this, this constant barrage. It really was exhausting. When I was 10 years old, I spent very little time thinking about what I would wear. I would reach into the closet and reach into the drawer and mix-and-match without a thought. This meant that some days, I was wearing white socks with my school shoes (you know, back in the day when there were such things).

One day John noticed. He expressed, in typical mocking style, “Hey, Vinny! Why you wearing cool white socks?” He had a laugh and so did the claque of jokers who surrounded him. After that, I started paying more attention to these socks on my feet. I stopped wearing white socks and started wearing blue socks. Problem solved. I thought.

One day, he noticed the blue socks. He said, “Hey, Vinny! Why aren’t you wearing your cool white socks?”
< Click here for my reaction to this question. >
I couldn’t win, I couldn’t break even, and I would be compelled to be there the next day, so I couldn’t get out of the game. School kids do a lot of mocking and being mocked, but this in particular stuck in my mind.

Part II

Years later, at 17, I drove to my friend Bob’s for house a pool party. His sister was very attractive, sitting by the pool, and no doubt every one of us boys thought to catch her eye. One fellow succeeded, but not in the way he had hoped. You see, he was a bit chunky and not at all buff, and she was teasing him about having breasts. As you can expect, he didn’t like that one bit. So when I came up in a similar state of chunk and bufflessness, he pointed me out to her as being just like he was. This ticked me off. I was gratified that she ignored me and just continued teasing him.

“Ah ha!” I said to him, with a mocking smile. “You can’t get away from her that way, because she chose you!”

No one likes being teased. I realize, looking back, that I was trying to manipulate the jokers into ignoring me by striving to be inoffensive. I told my kids the story of the cool white socks more than once, at times when they complained of being teased at school. Experience had taught me, and I hoped they would understand not to bend to that kind of pressure. Doing that wouldn’t change anything. Once someone identifies you as a target, you are a target. Capitulating just encourages such people.

I also told them the ancient Aesop’s fable, “The Old Man, the Boy, and the Donkey”:

A long time ago, one market day, an old man loaded his donkey with baskets of goods to sell. His young grandson went along to help. The grandfather put the child on the donkey and walked alongside. That was how they did it. And everything went fine until they met a group of people on the road. They laughed to see the child riding the donkey and told the old man that it was shameful how a perfectly healthy boy was riding while his old grandfather trudged in the dust. They suggested the boy should walk and the old man should ride.

So that’s what they did. And everything went fine until they met more people on the road, coming from the other direction. They criticized the old man for making his grandson walk along the hilly road and suggested he let the boy ride along with him.

So, that’s what he did. And everything went fine until they met another group of people on the road. They angrily told him that it was terrible how they had overloaded that poor donkey, making him walk with the baskets and two people on his back.

The old man stopped to think. He finally said to himself, “It’s impossible to please everyone in the world, so I’ll just have to do things my way.” So he sat the boy among the baskets, and walked to market, leading the donkey.

Here ends the lesson.

What Time It Is

(Soundtrack, should you wish to click it: “Clocks” by Coldplay.)

“What time is it?” It is a question which suggests it has only one answer.

Once upon a time, if someone asked you what time it was, the question did have only one answer. You checked the position of the sun or looked at the clock. It was easy to check and easy to agree upon, because there was after all, only one Sun in the sky, and this being about 500 years ago, likely only one clock in town. There was only one answer. But the proliferation of technologies changed that.

It all had to do with speed. First was the reduction in price of clocks through mass production, which caused them to quickly proliferate everywhere. Then came railroads and telegraph offices which increased the speed of travel and communication. Before then, your town, your village was in its own little world. It was noon when the Sun and the hands of the clock were at their highest point. After that, every place became increasingly and more speedily accessible to every other.

Aware of all the clocks in our world, we know there are any number of answers to the question.

“A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two watches is never sure.” – Lee Segall

But there is a way to cut through all the readings of all the clocks in the world. Pick one clock and stick to it. The most accurate clocks are the atomic clocks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. This past August, they unveiled two still-experimental clocks that run using the radioactive element ytterbium, which are more accurate than the current atomic clocks that they use.

And it is not hard to find out this time. You don’t even need to go to the Web. Just open your mobile phone. You have never set the time on the clock in your phone. The time comes from the atomic clocks and is used by all mobile phone providers. So as it was 500 years ago, it is now. Once again, there is only one answer.

Long Shadows

I sit facing the late-afternoon sun. It makes it hard to text, hard to see the screen with all the bright sunshine. I don’t care. I am there to soak up as much sunshine as I can in the year’s remaining shirt-sleeve weather. I look at the plants before me in the flower bed, with petals of periwinkle, violet, and lemon yellow. Against the dark mulch, the flowers fairly glow in the sunlight, shining through each little petal like through a stained-glass window. The flowers are small, but they have long shadows.

I’m done with work for the day , so I’ve gone down to the lobby to watch for my bus. It’s not cold out, so I don’t have to just peer through the glass of the doors. The weather is nice enough to wait outside in shirt sleeves, which is pretty good for mid-October. The angle of the sun in the sky seems surprisingly low, and the length of the shadows makes it seem later than the clock says.

A few years ago, there was a very popular song by Five for Fighting, entitled “100 Years”. (It is from 2003, surprising me with its being already 11 years in the past.) Listening to it, I visualized each person as having their own personal area, 100 years in length. Most people will not last the full hundred years; some will live longer, but not by very much. It belongs to us, and we may do with it whatever we can.

I visualized a green progress bar, such as you see when downloading and installing a program. When the bar reaches the end of the space, the download is over. The space is our hundred years; the download, of course, is our own life. But there is a glitch in the programming on the progress bar. When the download is done, the bar might not have reached the end of the space allotted, so you have no idea how much of the download is left. Do you have time to duck out for a cup of coffee or a smoke before your computer reboots? You sure can’t tell from that progress bar.

Life. Looked at in retrospect, it resembles a TV cop show – all shootouts and car chases and courtroom drama. In prospect, however, it more resembles police work – long stretches of boredom, piles of paperwork, and occasional moments of sheer terror. It isn’t the years that make you old. The years burn up like paper in fire, but you have to live 24 whole hours, every day of that vanishing interval. It’s not the years, but the days that wear us out.

I made an Excel spreadsheet that would automatically calculate the number of the current day of my hundred-year life, which if fully downloaded, would come to 36,525 days. Tomorrow will be my day 20,200. For a while, I kept going to the spreadsheet and putting the number of the day on that day’s page in my datebook, but when I thought about it long enough, I quit. It really doesn’t matter what day it is, as long as you remember that there is a limit. One day will be our last, and we are just going to have to be okay with that.

So while the autumn sun shines, be marvelous like flowers, glow like sunlight through a stained-glass window, and mulch and protect the young, new flowers coming up. One day, someone in the future, similarly to Sir Isaac Newton, will be thinking “I stand upon the shoulders of giants.” Those shoulders will be ours, and we will be those giants.

Ask not – we cannot know – what end the gods have set for you, for me; nor attempt the Babylonian reckonings, Leuconos. How much better to endure whatever comes, whether Jupiter grants us additional winters or whether this is our last, which now wears out the Tuscan Sea upon the barrier of the cliffs!
… Even while we speak, envious time is fleeing: seize today, putting as little trust as possible in tomorrow! – Horace 65 – 8 BC

As a Strong Man to Run a Race

Our son is resisting standing up for the Pledge of Allegiance. He has his reasons. He sits quietly and unobtrusively while kids are reciting it, reminiscent of the several kids in my fourth-grade class whose family were Jehovah’s Witnesses. It seems like the teacher never had any kids in her class who did that. She questioned it, but didn’t really give him a hard time about it. Today she asked him why. It being an English class, it occurred to him to ask if he should write down his reasons. She said it wasn’t necessary. But he had other ideas.

Upon arriving home from school, he started writing a formal five-paragraph essay to explain his reasons anyway. It seemed to put him in a marvelous mood, the attempt to write meaningfully and persuasively about something he believes in. He was not in the least put out about being questioned. It put me in mind of a Bible passage, describing the rising Sun.

Which is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race. – Psalm 19:5

Dexter writes well. It’s one of his strengths, and he knows it. It feels good, knowing that one is taking up the challenge on one’s home ground.

I belong to a choral group called The Starlite Chorale. After a concert, there is usually a large group of 15 or so that will go to eat at it diner near the venue. Why a diner? Our director is a minister, so one might imagine he does not wish to be going into a restaurant where alcoholic beverages are served. But that’s not it at all. It is because a diner manager will turn off their music and let us sing after dinner. That’s what it’s all about – we get together to perform a show because we like to sing together, and then after the show we go out to eat in order to sing some more.

One evening, at dinner, someone suggested we perform a piece where I am the soloist – “In the Still of the Night”. Our director looked over at me, asking, “Do you think you’re up to it?” I laughed, partly because I know that solo backward and forward, partly because the show had warmed my voice up. But that isn’t why.

I laughed because I feel like that strong man, ready to run a race, eager to fight the good fight once again, to bring music to the ears of an audience. People ask me if I ever have stage fright, but I tell them no. Its because it is my home ground – on the stage, at the front of a group.

Bring it on.

A Cosmic Mission

Only the unexpected can bring good fortune, but it must come up against much of the expected and disperse it.
Elias Canetti

I follow the blog of the young Scottish woman, a college student who wants to make her eventual living by singing in the opera. She’s made a wonderful start of it, and she performs everywhere she can. She seems to have all the pieces in play – performing, teaching, and publicizing herself. She posts a lot of photos of herself standing in front of or performing in various musical venues all over Western Europe, and many links of her performing. She also writes interesting articles about opera and how to sing. Generally, she posts very regularly – every Wednesday and Sunday afternoon. Talk about someone who can not only sing, but writes well and at length, and illustrates with plenty of photos, maps and diagrams, and even the occasional music link. But if I have stayed away too long, and have let her posts pile up, there is so much information that I can’t read all of it. I skim a lot of it. Sometimes the huge number of her postings just irritate me.

One thing I worry about, when I have time to worry about it, is how people who read it receive this thing that I write. Will they like it? Will they be offended? Shouldn’t I go back and revise it over and over, so that no one could be offended or dislike it? This is why my posts have never been prolific. I usually take a lot longer to come up with an idea and a lot longer to execute it. I like to have a picture, footnotes, links, music, you name it. But it’s a different thing when I set myself a deadline every day. Under this deadline, I don’t have time to worry overmuch about it. Maybe people will like it, maybe they won’t, but there it is. But at least it is there.

Yesterday, I read this opinion on the web about blogging, that it’s for morons who think everyone is interested in what they have to say. That’s pretty harsh, but the person posting it was probably nothing more than a troll. However, it does raise the question of why I even have a blog. I don’t think absolutely everyone would possibly be interested in everything I have to say, but I’m not writing for them – I’m writing for myself. But then why do I have to make it available for other people to read? The idea that I am the only reader of what I write – it’s boring. I lose interest in writing for myself alone. I wonder why I’m even bothering to put my thoughts in order, or make an argument in favor of something or against something else. I already agree. But all these things are knocking around inside of my head, banging against each other and sometimes creating an unexpected spark. That’s my favorite thing to do, to share any surprising, unexpected connections.

It is a well-worn joke I keep making to my family and people I know, that I have a cosmic mission, self chosen. I find it very rewarding, and this blog fits right in. If I happen to know something and I find out that you have a need to know this thing – how to learn something you need to learn or get done something you need to get done,, I am honor-bound to share what I know. My mission is the same mission as the old “Whole Earth Catalog” – Access to Tools.Wh-earth-69-cover

Marconi Monument Inscriptions, Somerset, New Jersey

The smallest public park I know sits at the corner of Easton Avenue and John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Near this intersection, a historic event occurred – the first inter-continental wireless communication, and all due to Guglielmo Marconi. This is the beginning of the inter-connected world we live in today. But it’s something we rarely think about, nowadays.

The park is charmingly small. The park is ridiculously small. Really, depending on the day, I vacillate between these two statements. Marconi Park is a traffic island covered in trees and grass, between the busy southbound jug handle right turn going from Easton Avenue up to JFK Boulevard and northbound JFK Boulevard itself. The shape is an irregular quadrilateral, coming to a point at the southern end, where the jug handle and road come together. It is the least-convenient to-visit park I’ve ever seen. So, without a car, I traveled there on a sunny summer day, simply because , most of the time, the park is empty of people and looks lonely.

To its credit, it is the most park you could put in such a small place. There is a decorative flower-garden along the edge of the North and East sides. There is grass and there are tall trees, and plenty of shade in which sits its single park bench, on the back of which is a dedicatory plaque. There is a flagpole, and there is even a gazebo. There is a ridiculously small parking area. Every year, the Township has its holiday tree lighting there. There is also a monument, which is a gigantic rough-hewn stone with bronze plaques on two of its flat sides. I just felt I wanted to record what was on them. Knowledge of the historical event, and knowledge of the beginnings of the park are both evaporating from living memory, as is true of everything.

The back of the park bench reads:
Craftsmanship donated by Boy Scout Troop #113
Materials donated by Lattanzio Lumber Company.

This is the text of the historical plaque, on one side of the monument:
This monument is dedicated in memory of Guglielmo Marconi (1874 – 1937), and the accomplishments which occurred at this site in the field of wireless communication. On this corner in 1913, the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co. established a 200- kilowatt station, known by the call letters NFF. With 13 antennas supported by 415-foot poles, NFF became the most powerful wireless station of its time. Taken over by the Navy at the outbreak of World War I, station NFF carried the bulk of the radio traffic between this country and Europe. This included transmission of President Woodrow Wilson’s “14 Points” message delivered to Congress outlining his plan for an armistice. In October 1918, station NFF called enemy German station POZ to transmit Wilson’s address to the German people, calling for peace. After the war, station NFF became part of RCA and continued to operate until the late 1940s. The antennas were taken down in the 1950s, with the main station demolished in 1974.

And this is the text of the dedication of the park itself, on the other side of the monument:

Guglielmo Marconi Memorial Park Dedication

April 26, 1992
The dedicated leadership provided to obtain, develop and name the site was spearheaded by local residents:
Joseph Fama
Mayor Helen Reilly
John Carlano
Vito Mastretta
Jane Santangelo Juzwiak
Santo Porrovecchio
Angelo Rossi
Michael Giannotto
Joseph Scalzone
William Grippo
Lynn Lazzara
Thomas E. Zweigard

Special thanks go to the Franklin Township Mayor and Council, Township Manager John Lovell, Assistant Manager Greg Howarth, Alice Osipowitz, Department of Parks and Recreation and to the Somerset County Board of Chosen Freeholders for their approval and assistance.

This giant rock monument generously donated and placed by the Kingston Trap Rock Company.

War Defines Humankind

Years ago, in a National Geographic article, Jane Goodall was interviewed about some of her findings over the years about chimpanzees. Living in one particular group was a family of chimpanzees – one older female and her two daughters – that was different from all the rest. They were cannibal psychos that would eat other chimps’ babies if they could get their hands on them. Other chimps stayed the hell away from them.

I imagined how the situation might be among human beings. Chimpanzees do organize themselves into groups for specific tasks. The group that reminds me most of human beings is the males who band together in order to hunt. They go out in the forest and work together, often hunting red Colobus monkeys, shaking them out of the trees, and eating them. It takes a certain amount of teamwork. So the concept of group action is not alien to them.

But it never occurs to them to work together to deal with the problem of the cannibal psychos. Humans are very good at imagining the world being different from what it is right at this moment. At first, certainly, humans would stay away from a family of known baby-eating cannibals. But, eventually those psychotically violent people would catch one more young mother unawares and kill again. I don’t think it would take very long for a plan of action to crystallize in the human mind.

We would realize that, although it it was possible to drive this monstrous family far, far away from where our group lived, our ability to image the world that does not yet exist comes into play. It might lead us to realize we would just be passing the problem off on other people, who would have to learn the hard way about the cannibal family. We would realize that we needed to band together to hunt and kill the cannibals.

This is our blessing, this is our curse: partially mediated by our cultures, we know the difference between good and evil. We understand when a situation is unendurable, we must try to make the world conform to our understanding of good, and minimize or destroy evil. It is why war is possible among human beings. Even if we were able to create an entirely peaceful world, war will always be stalking around in the background, a human ability waiting to be called upon when needed, and it will be needed. As long as one person can make war and teach others to do the same, it will have to be possible for the rest of us to band together, to resist war and to make war.

This is who we are. We don’t have to love war. When it’s needed, we just have to be able to do it.

To Love War

It is not easy, nor can I recommend it, that one love war. It seems to true to me, although paradoxical, to say that in order to love war one must simply love war, but what I mean is that it requires particular skills and habits of mind. How can you be happy, although in a state of constant warfare?

To love war, you must first LOVE your own, and take your identity from them – they are MY family, MY neighbors, MY customs, MY country. These are the judgments you make in order to create your boundaries. And your own must agree and share these same boundaries, and keep themselves within them. Second, you must HATE everyone outside these boundaries. “Loving them less” won’t do. For attempting to trespass these boundaries, you must be prepared to eject your own from them, so that they will know they are no longer welcome inside. This is so that you may purely love your own and purely hate the others. They have a new status: ENEMIES.

You must be prepared to deal with your enemies if they, by force or force of argument, attempt to change these judgments or cause you to redraw the boundaries – this is an attack! You must counterattack. Keep in mind that enemies lack many essential human qualities, and therefore can’t be considered anything more than simulacra of people. Their suffering is nothing more than an appearance, so the quicker they are killed, the better. And the more stuff they will leave behind for you to take.

Always keep in mind how much they deserve their fate, and memorize the following quote:

““The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” – Genghis Khan

Also, keep this in mind when you study war. You will not be the only, or even the first, person, group, or nation to believe these things. And they have judged that you are an enemy, as you have judged them. So, time is wasting. You’d probably better strike first.

A Happy Telemarketer

For the past six years, I have been a business-to-business telemarketer for a New Jersey-based business newspaper, and an independent contractor rather than an employee. It’s a very small office, so while I work I get to hear the writers and other creative people doing their jobs. I like that. I also like that I don’t sell anything, rather I give something away – complementary subscriptions to this publication – in the hope that the newspaper will sell itself to the people who find it useful. A typical call:

“Smith Smythe Smits Schmidt and Smith. How may I help you?”

“Hi, I’m Vin, I’m calling to confirm a mailing address for NJBIZ, which is a business publication. These are complementary issues and we will be mailing them to PO Box 1001, Smithville, NJ 08201… If that is correct.”

Between 70 and 85% of the time, the person on the phone confirms the mailing address, and I set the wheels in motion to get a 12-week subscription to that address. On average, I make 140 phone calls in a four-hour shift, and speak to between 50 and 60 people

Sometimes people say to me “Oh, we are a very small business, so there’s no need to spend the postage.” If they seem to be in a mood to listen, I might tell them the truth, which is that our advertising rates are based on how many subscriptions we send out every month, regardless of whether they are paid or free subscriptions. They really are doing us a favor by accepting a free subscription. Sometimes they sound dubious, wondering to me why we would be sending them free subscriptions, but I tell them that the best advertisement for our publication is the publication itself – only if they see it, will they know if it will be any use to them at all. And I habitually add to the end of each successful call, “We hope you will like our publication.”

I have really learned to listen to the people on the other end of the line, and I make subtle or not-so-subtle changes to my patter. If the person who picks up the phone speaks softly, I speak more softly; if they sound assertive, then so do I. Sometimes, in smaller companies, the person who answers the phone sounds to me like the business-owner. To them I get to the point and speak very quickly, because they already understand what I’m doing and why I am doing it, and they sound impatient for me to get to the end of my patter if I take too long.

Sometimes I get on the phone, I speak to someone who has a rare combination of being pretty sure that they have no need of my publication, and aren’t angry at me for calling. They speak very courteously to me, a lowly telemarketer who has interrupted their day. To them, I might say: “well it sounds like, for you, NJBIZ.com might be the best solution. That’s our website, and if you go there, maybe you’ll discover that you will like NJBIZ. There’s a lot of free information on that site. Also, if you like what you see, you can get the same free subscription that I would give to you over the phone.” All I have done is given them a different thing for free, which I already was intending to do.

When I do that, the person on the phone thanks me, and it sounds like they really mean it. I didn’t see what I was doing as going above and beyond the call of duty. All I had done was continue to serve my original purpose, which was to publicize NJBIZ. Nothing was really different, but it was as if they considered me a prince. It took me a long time to see what they might be thinking. I didn’t react angrily when they said no, and hadn’t alienated them by hanging up abruptly, I had listened to them and taken their concerns seriously. I guess I had treated them like princes.

The New Jersey office will be losing its telemarketing function at the end of the year – the parent company has decided to do all telemarketing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It has been a good job. It allowed me to work when my strength permitted, and when weather permitted. For me in winter, that is like gold. Also, it’s a very good job for a frustrated actor. 50 times a day, the curtain goes up on the new performance of Vin, the Happy Telemarketer, who likes his job and who even likes the people he speaks to on the phone. If things go badly, the phone call ends and the curtain goes down. But a couple of minutes later, the curtain goes up again. I really have enjoyed working this job. I’m going to miss it, and remember it with a smile.