Thursday, September 30, 2010

Full disclosure

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that my other favorite Bible verse is Deut. 23:1: No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

I try to apply it to some aspect of my life every day.

Atheists rule

In a recent Pew survey, self-identified atheists scores better than any subgroup on a quiz of religious knowledge. Jewish people scores almost as well, and Catholics ranked near the bottom. (Ah, my people!) At first, I thought this might be function of education — that skeptics and and Jews would tend to be better educated than the general population — but according to the times article, the difference obtains even after that factor is controlled for.
So the question is, Why? I've always been interested in religion, largely, I think, because I was devout as a child and became anti-devout later on. (And I aced the quiz.) I can't speak for all nonbelievers, but I think our relatively elevated religious awareness may be due to the fact that we are constantly called upon to defend ourselves. Being an atheist is like being a vegetarian: The first thing anyone does when you declare yourself is to try to talk you out of it. Keeping up with the competition becomes a good survival strategy. We also take the position that no one religion can claim a monopoly on truth — as opposed to the Catholic hierarchy, which does claim such a monopoly — and learning about other religions helps one make the case.
Catholics not only new less about other religions, they knew less about their own than other groups. And in all fairness, though, I should point out that there’s a lot to know about Catholicism. Dogmas have been collecting for thousands of years, and Catholics aren’t sending their kids to parochial schools in the same numbers that they used to. That’s where we had all that stuff drilled into us. Who would suspect, for example, that Cosmas and Damian are the patron saints of doctors, pharmacists and hairdressers? Transubstantiation, anyone? Pop quiz: Explain the distinction between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth.
On a side note, I have to say I rather resented the reporter asking the head of American Atheists (O’Hare’s group) for a quote. I suppose they have to go to the most obvious organization, much as they automatically go to Catholic bishops for anything having to do with religion, but for the record, these people do not speak for me. They always struck me as a too angry, and true to form, the guy said something predictably snarky. I’ve read the Bible. There are parts I like. Here, to close, is my favorite verse, Isaiah 1:13-17 (NRSV):

Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I have hitched my wagon to the Titanic

True story from a coworker (or at least she says it's true): She was having her gas pumped (that's not a euphemism for anything) and somehow got into a conversation with the young station attendent. She asked him what kind of music he liked and he said he liked everything, from C&W to hip hop. She asked him, "What about classical?" and he furrowed his brow and said, "You mean like Lynyrd Skynyrd?"

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

More on Cal

The link to my interview with Cal Schenkel, the artist who designed many of Frank Zappa's best-known album covers, appears at left. As always, I had more material than I could put in the article.

Schenkel included R. Crumb in his list of influences, which brought up the subject of drugs as a source of inspiration. Zappa famously did not use drugs himself, through Schenkel said that, as a believer in personal freedom, he did not object to anyone else ingesting recreational chemicals. Still, Schenkel told me he never dropped acid, as Crumb did, and he doesn't regard his own art as psychedelic, surreal though it might be. His work is hard-edged and rough-textures, he said, where true psychedelia is "smooth and swirly."

One other thing he told me that I didn't mention was that he became acquainted with Zappa while was bumming around out in California the year after he graduated from high school. He got to sit in on the recording sessions for "Freak Out," which is sort of like being present at the signing of the Constitution.

Schenkel lives in Willow Grove, Pa., which Forbes magazine has named one of the 10 most unhip places in the country. He has occupied the house in which he grew up since around 2000, when his dad died. Now he wants to sell the house and move to Florida.

Asked which of his album covers are his favorites, he named Cruising with Reuben and the Jets and One Size Fits All, although, he said, they are all his children.

By the way, there is a Philadelphia reference in the one Size Fits All star chart. Three of the stars are names Wyoming, Olney and Hunting Park, which are stops on the Broad Street subway. (Ben Watson, in his analysis of the album cover, mentions New York, London and Los Angeles, but like everyone else on the planet, he overlooks Philly.)

Hoping to meet Schenkel Sunday at the art show in Chestnut Hill. He promises there will be affordable art for sale.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I like this one

How many Julliard students does it take to change a light bulb?
Two. One to change the bulb, and the other one to kick over the ladder.

Thanks to secondwind at

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Exciting season forthcoming from PCMS

I've been looking over the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society's prospectus for next season, and I'm finding a lot of can't-miss and shouldn't-miss programs. It's an inviting mix of the modern and the traditional: Martino beside Beethoven, Webern and Kurtag sandwiched between two Mozart quartets, Ligeti beside Britten, Bach next to Crumb. I won't have the time or the money to hear everything, but the temptations are great. Three of Bartok's string quartets are planned, and even some Stravinsky, and you don't hear much of Stravinsky's chamber music anymore.

I was especially happy to that see Elliott Carter's two wind quintets, written sixty years apart, are scheduled for performance next April by the New York Wind Quintet. (The second, titled Nine by Five, was premiered in New York last February. I dug my car out of the snow in Philadelphia just to be able to attend.)

Also listed are premieres of works by David Finko, Richard Wernick, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Bernard Rands and others. There's plenty of Schubert and Brahms, too, but I still wonder how Philadelphia audiences will react. They are inclined to grumble at any inclusion of new music, even if they're offered some chestnuts at the same time as a sweetener. (And by new, I mean a lot of stuff written after 1900.) Listening to modern music live in Philadelphia is rather like seducing a woman in front of her parents. You get what you want, and you might even have a good time, but only if you can endure the withering, accusatory stares.

Monday, September 6, 2010


I don't want to be one of those overbearing scolds who correct other people's grammar in public, but I was startled the other day by this sentence on page 68 of James Shapiro's informative book, Contested Will, which discusses a lawsuit filed in 1600 by one William Shakespeare: "Scholars still can't agree whether this was our Shakespeare or another who sued Clayton; whomever it was, it fit the pattern of a tight-fisted Shylock all too well."

Whomever? I realize that there are times when the who/whom distinction can be tricky, but this isn't one of those times. "Whom" should appear only as the object of a verb or preposition, and this sentence contains no verb or preposition of which whom could possibly be the object. The only verb is the vicinity is "was," which is a linking verb and doesn't take the objective case anyway. No matter how you parse it, "whomever" is out of place. And if you want to make the case for "fit," then whomever is being used incorrectly as the subject — drop the comma and the second it, and you get, "Whomever it was fit the pattern ... all too well," and the incorrect use of "whomever" stands naked before the world.

I do hope this was a copy-editing mistake and was not done at Shapiro's insistence. The guy is an English professor at Columbia, for heaven's sake. A slip like that makes me wonder about the value of higher education. (And so the grammar scold in me, so long suppressed, rises to the surface once more.)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Rereading Gatsby

Summer heat interferes badly with my ability to concentrate. It’s hard to pick up a new book and absorb new information, so last month I re-read Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, which I first read at age thirteen. (I was my first grown-up piece of literature.) Enjoyed it so much that I went through it twice. Hadn’t intended to do that when I started out, but the book is like a great string quartet, something I can listen to again and again with pleasure. You can open to any page at random and find a memorable phrase or sentence, often more than one. It strikes me very much as a writer’s book — that is, a book everyone who cares about words wishes he or she could write. I know the rap on FSF is that he left behind only a small body of enduring work, but damn, if I had written Gatsby, I would have been comfortable taking the next decade off, too.

The only other news is that I am enjoying this new computer keyboard I purchased this afternoon at Radio Shack. My old one (which was actually the second one I’ve used on this computer) was gradually losing its key functions. First the directions keys went, though I was able to compensate for that by using the redundant keys on the number pad. Then a couple of days ago I couldn’t get the w’s to print without hitting the key hard. Then, this morning, the w was gone completely, and so was the k. It’s one of those petty annoyances that, for me, at least, require immediate rectification, especially since I wanted to do some writing and blogging over the holiday — and what would this very clause look like without w’s or k’s? (I tell you what: and hat ould this very clause loo lie ithout ‘s or ‘s?) So I drove right out to Roosevelt Mall in NE Philadelphia and got a new one before doing anything else. So I learned something about myself today: I learned there is one thing I cannot force myself to live without. (And look at this W. Just look at it.)

Roosevelt Mall is a sad place these days, by the way. The best old stores are gone, and are a lot of vacancies.