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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.

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.

My Own Personal Slush Pile

It is far better to create content of questionable value
than it is to absorb content, even excellent content.
– From the notional publication,
“The Provisional Proverbs of Vin Reilly”

When I first started going out on the World Wide Web, sitting in front of my Packard Bell PC clone in the evening, I would start clicking link upon link, getting lost on the Internet. I felt like I was running myself ragged going from one article to another, one photo to another, one graphic to another until I just had to go to bed. It was exhausting, and I realized that I had been using my time and energy to experience the work of other people, many of whom were no more professional in what they were doing than I was. I wasn’t cured of spending time in this fairly ludicrous way, but I did start to resist. This was when I started to put some ideas into my journal, ideas for stories and articles – much better than the god-awful boring accounts of my daily life and irritations. And now, I might need to use some of these ideas in order to take up the 30-day writing challenge. I have given myself a daily writing deadline. As editor and publisher, it is now my job to sift through the slush pile, the slush pile of story ideas that idiot writer I employ keeps submitting, all to ensure that I have something to post. Here are three from my slush pile, with working titles.

Pearls before Swine – a man claims that he has been abducted by aliens. He says that they had cured him of some inoperable cancer or other deadly disease, shows his medical records to prove both assertions, writes a book, goes on talk shows, only to be disbelieved and mocked as a fool.
Considering that the passage from Matthew says … “neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” I think it would have to be a tragedy.

Queens of Denial – science fiction story of alien beings who believe they are angels who do not eat, fight, or reproduce. They are adamant that this is the case, and it has become the chief tenet of their religion. It is only after humans make first contact and show them video of what they do not remember they do in the middle of the night that this becomes a problem. Just like in Pearls before Swine, they refuse to believe this and things get very hot for our intrepid heroes.

Iceman – you remember the Iceman, the frozen, mummified ancient shaman, whose clothes and accoutrements taught us things about early man that we had never thought about. I had this idea of the story behind the shaman’s death in the mountains – that he was going there knowing that he was pursued, because, as their spiritual leader, he was sacrificing his life to save his people. But reality completely trumped this imaginative story. It turns out he did not just wander away and freeze to death – he really was murdered.

The very few stories I ever completed were closer to essays or poems than they were to short stories – no character development, just setting out a situation and writing stuff that would make one think about that situation. But I have to say, I did enjoy coming up with these ideas!

A Superbly Singable Translation

What is the point of singing a song if your audience cannot understand it?

The job of the singer is to make it possible for the audience to understand the song, without you drawing the wrong kind of attention to yourself. You do not want anything to get between your audience and the song. This business of not drawing attention is actually a lot of work. I see this as having three parts: first, to know the song without question; second, making every word heard and understood; third, appropriate expressions and acting.

If you know the song well, you are far less likely to make a mistake. If you do make a mistake, you know the song well enough to know how to recover. If you know the song well, you can look directly at the audience in front of you, rather than looking at a piece of music. These are things that bring the song into the foreground, and the singer into the background.

Now that you know the song well, good diction is crucial, and there are two reasons this is so.. The first reason is that when the words are clear, the audience can understand them. If the audience understands the words they will have no need to wonder about you, the singer. They will not have to ask themselves, “Why is he singing that way?” It moves the song to the foreground, and the singer into the background.

Now that you produce the words clearly, it is important to act. Your face has to match what’s going on in the song. Your face must communicate the happiness, sadness, joy, and longing of the song. When your face shows the correct emotion for the song, not only will the audience understand these emotions better, they will not have to wonder about the expression on your face being wrong for the song. Again, it moves the song to the foreground, and the singer into the background.

Now that you have learned to do these three things all at once, you might learn and sing a song in some language other than English. This, of course, is a problem that strikes at the very heart of what the singer is trying to do.

There are a huge number of wonderful songs that are written in German, songs by Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, and others, all of which employ the best of German poetry for their lyrics. By definition, they’re meant to be sung in recital, accompanied by piano. The German word for them is lieder; in English we call them art songs1. One of my favorite such songs (and the first one I ever learned) is “An die Musik”, which means “To [the Art] of Music”. The German lyric by Friedrich von Schober and the song by Franz Schubert, were composed in 1818.  It is a tribute to the “gracious art” of music, personified. It is possibly Schubert’s most familiar and best-loved song.

An die Musik

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,

Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden,

Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,

in eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,

Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir

Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,

Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür!

(There is a short history of the song and its makers at <<>&gt; ).

This is really good, if you understand the German. But the majority of the audience will not (unless, of course you are singing in Germany!) You can memorize the song, produce the words clearly, and act appropriately, but the unfamiliar language gets between you and your audience and causes them to wonder about a lot of things. They’re wondering what it means, or wondering why they never learned German, or wondering if the singer is singing the language well or not. One way around this is to have a program to give to the audience that has the translation for them to read. It’s a good idea, but the program gets between you and the audience. While you sing your heart out in front of them, they will be reading the translation and not looking at you. Performing them in translation, of course, is the way to go.

There are generally two kinds of  translations: literal translations that accurately describe the meaning of the words and expressions in the song; and singable translations, which attempt to preserve the original sense of the lyric, while at the same time being singable. The second sort is fiendishly difficult, due to differences in sound and idiom between two languages.

On the Web I found the following translation of An die Musik2. It is very rare when one can find a translation that is, at the same time, both literal and singable.

To Music

Oh sacred Art, how oft in hours blighted,

While into Life’s untamed cycle hurled,

Hast thou my heart to warm love reignited,

To transport me into a better world,

transport me to a better world!

How often hath a sigh from thy harp, drifted

a holy chord from thee, and full of bliss

a glimpse of better times from Heaven lifted,

Oh sacred Art, my thanks to thee for this!

Oh sacred Art, I thank thee for this.

This is the most singable translation of the song I have ever read. For instance, of the total number of words in the poem, half of them are not only accurately translated, they are, both poetically and musically, in the exact same places. (They are printed in boldface.) That is really good. But, looked at line by line, it’s even better. Of the 10 lines of the poem, nine of them say exactly the same thing in English as they do in German. And it even rhymes! This is what I mean when I say something is superbly singable. And so, I have sung it.

Please visit my Youtube channel, SingingWheelchairDude! defines “art-song” as a song intended primarily to be sung in recital, typically set to a poem, and having subtly interdependent vocal and piano parts.


2Copyright © 1995, Walter Meyer, and printed here with the kind permission of its author. Please contact the copyright-holder (walterm (AT) erols.com0 when requesting permission to reprint.


Let a smile be your umbrella & a song your medicine

YIP Day 305 - Dale Carnegie

Image by Auntie P via Flickr

I’ve started reading Dale Carnegie‘s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, as part of a class led by our pastor. He tells us that the Bible has been the most influential book in his life, and the Dale Carnegie book is the second. The book is organized according to principles of this method, and under “Six Ways to Make People like You” is the chapter about smiling. People who smile are viewed more positively by everyone. If you smile when you’re talking on the telephone, people can hear that you are smiling — it has a significant effect on how you say things. Sometimes it’s hard to smile — some days are bad days, full of bad weather and misunderstandings, after all. The thing to do in that case is to smile anyway — and not so that you will put a good face on for the world — the smile itself will help you feel better. Carnegie quotes William James, the philosopher and psychologist of the nineteenth and twentieth century, and here I paraphrase — action often seems to happen after you experience emotion, but it is often the other way round — the best way to recover your cheerfulness is through action — to act as if that cheerfulness has already arrived.

I’m sure that anyone reading this book will discover that he or she has already figured out some of the points and put them into practice. With me, it’s choosing to smile and choosing to be as cheerful as possible. Even when I’m sad, I don’t let it affect my wish to offer people a smile. Smile at people you meet — because they’re your friends, or could become friends. Your smile makes them feel good, and their answering smile can do the same for you. It’s a source of strength in adversity — letting a smile be your umbrella against the cold rain of reality..

There is another thing that makes me feel very well even while carrying a load of bad day on my back. It is singing. I know a lot of songs, and I will sometimes choose one that makes me feel better, and sing it to myself. If I find myself alone behind a closed door — I will sing it out.

On one of those difficult days, the door in question being on the Men’s room, I was still singing while washing my hands, when another fellow came in and walked over to the stalls. As he passed, he said “Wow, you must be happy!” Reaching for a towel, I said “No, I’m not really happy today — singing is my medicine.”

There are different kinds of things that you can choose to do to help yourself out when you’re feeling sad. You could eat some chocolate — that’s almost always good. You could have an adult beverage — helpful, but more perilous. If you’re a shopper, maybe you could buy something to wear — pretty good but possibly hard on the pocketbook. These things are closed and self-directed — you do something for yourself in order to feel better.

Reinhard Trachsler, a 20th-century writer and philosopher, once wrote:

Laughter is a creative act that opens up the world of
fantasy and amusement; it is also a generous gesture.

It seems to me that smiles and songs, along with laughter, are also generous gestures, and forms of such self-medication that are open — they can make everyone you meet feel better, and there is no limit to how far your smile might go in making the whole world a kinder and happier place.

I am smiling at you right now, dear reader. Try it — it changes everything.

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Shield the Joyous

Dear L___,

I thought of the following prayer last Sunday in church, watching the bell choir, and noticed your son S___ at the end of the song holding his bell aloft and turning it for the best ring sound. He  seemed to be filled with joy.
I was reminded of a prayer.

My sister first heard the prayer in her Episcopal church, where it is said in the final prayer service of the day — the Compline.

The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a ...

Image via Wikipedia

I have learned that it was one of the prayers of Saint Augustine. The thing that struck her was one phrase above all the others —  — that God should “shield the joyous”.

Keep watch dear Lord with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over
those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary, bless the dying,
soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.

I will think of God shielding S___’s joy whenever I remember the prayer.

Your friend,