The American Dilemma and How We Can Fix It

Archive for the ‘music’ Category


It seems that we just start recovering emotionally from one mass shooting and another occurs – this time at the Navy Yard in Washington, D. C.  The latest news is that thirteen, including the alleged shooter are dead and as many more are injured.

If you are a rational person as I believe I am, it must be hard for you to wrap your mind around this senseless violence.  The suspect is described as a Navy veteran with “mental problems”.  That he had some unresolved issues is obvious from his actions today.

The media will spend a significant amount of time over the next few days describing the details of the shooting as things are sorted out.  We will hear about possible motivations on the shooter’s part.  We will learn more details of his life than most of us want to know.  And after all is said and done, twelve victims will still be dead and twelve families will mourn their tragic, untimely passing.

At times like this, I have to turn off my rational self and try to find some solace in what has always been my escape when confronted with chaos.  That something is music.  So I spent a good portion of today listening to music.  That always helps to settle my disturbed thoughts.  I would like to share one of those pieces with you, music by the Welsh composer, Karl Jenkins from his work, “The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace.”

The portion of the Mass that I have selected is the Benedictus – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.”

I hope that peace and safety are with all of you.


In an era of jet planes and SUV’s most of us have forgotten, or never known, the importance of the railroads in helping America become the nation it is.  While the preferred Christmas gift for most youngsters today is the most recent incarnation of a smart phone or the latest violent video game, once upon a time, little boys wanted nothing more than to get a model train under the tree, whether it was a Lionel or an American Flyer.

My introduction to trains came from my summer vacations in the Catskills.  There was a bridge and if you walked over it, there was a stretch of railroad track – coming from somewhere and going to somewhere else.  One day I walked along it for several miles.  It seemed to be never ending with as much track ahead of me as when I had started my journey.  In my eight year old mind, the railroads introduced me to the concept of infinity.

This was a freight line, and as endless as the track itself seemed, the number of cars it carried were nearly as much so.  I remember watching one day from across the road as a train pulled through.  It took more than ten minutes from the time the engine made its appearance until the caboose signaled that its mission on this stretch of track had been completed.

I remember feeling overwhelmed that one engine, as mighty as it looked, could muster enough power to move all those cars.  I knew exactly how long this segment of its journey took because I was wearing my Christmas present – a Mickey Mouse watch with a bright red plastic band.

It was many years before I learned that the reason we have a “standardized system” of time was because of the railroads.  Before their initiatives, first in Great Britain and later here, most communities observed “sun” time, with noon being the moment that the sun was highest in the sky, in the same way that pre-industrialized man had kept time for millennia.

In the interest of commerce this was overthrown, although not before much controversy, by the establishment in 1918 of the “Standard Time Act” by Congress.  That divided the country into the time zone divisions that we know today.  The railroads had adopted a standardized time system in 1883 – thirty-five years ahead of those who made it official in Washington.  Commerce, via the railroads, helped push America forward once again.

Because of the monumental cost of building out a railroad, none of this might have happened had it not been for the incentives that the railroads received from government.  In the case of one of those railroads, The Illinois Central which became known as The Main Line of Mid-America, those came in the form of land grants made by the State of Illinois to the railroads’ founders.  Both Senator Steven Douglas and President Abraham Lincoln lobbied in favor of this award.

The Illinois Central was given land from its main terminal in Chicago to the most southern part of the state, Cairo.  This was known as the railroad’s Charter Line – and in return for its receiving this land, it was incorporated into the Illinois State Constitution that, in perpetuity, the state would receive six percent of all revenue that was derived from the railroad’s operations along this stretch of track.  Without this “gift” it is unlikely that the railroad, which served a vital role in both Illinois’ development as well as that of the Midwest, would have been built.

For those of us who are used to catching “Flight 229” or some other number which is equally impersonal, it might seem amusing that the railroads used to give their trains specific names.  The Illinois Central’s most famous was “The Panama Limited” which ran from Chicago to Louisiana.  It was later renamed, “The City of New Orleans” and became the subject of a song by singer/songwriter Steve Goodman, a Chicago native who died at the age of only 36 of leukemia.

I heard him perform this at “The Earl of Old Town” – a saloon on Chicago’s near North Side that, like Goodman, passed into history in 1984 after a wonderful twenty-two year run – but not before bringing us artists like him and Steve Prine and Bonnie Koloc.  You could also catch John Belushi there doing some impersonations if you were lucky.

I don’t know why the Christmas season always causes me to think back to the time when I was a kid.  Looking in the store windows with their displays of villages all snow covered and the little electric train pulling into the station, ready to unload their gift of friends and relatives for the welcoming residents to greet.  Or maybe it’s standing with my Mickey Mouse watch with the bright red plastic band to see how long it would take the freight train to pass by.

Those were simpler times – before we had to deal with mass shootings and mass mania.  I can’t speak for you, but I miss them.


As tomorrow is the beginning of Advent which commences on that Sunday the closest to the Feast of St. Andrew (November 30th), I thought it would be appropriate to put up a post on a religious theme.  Well, mostly a religious theme depending on whether or not you consider Xmas to be a religious event.

I remember as a child that during the summer the vestments worn in church by the clergy were green.  A never ending sea of green, week after week and month after month.  And then suddenly they took on the color purple as Advent began.  (This was a clue to the faithful that something was up – and what was up was that we were awaiting the arrival of Christmas – and, no that is not a misspelling of Xmas).

If I had somehow missed the hint dropped at church I received a reminder when I went to school as casting for the Christmas play had begun and I truly hoped that I wasn’t going to be the ox as had happened the previous year.  As is appropriate to the season, my wish came true.  I got to be the ass that year.

Now my school was way ahead of its time.  It was a private but non-religious place of learning.  It was a very ecumenical place.  We students, as nearly as I could figure out were either Christian (in various forms), Jewish (in various forms) – well it was in New York City – unidentified, or unconcerned about the whole religious experience.  Amazingly, we all got along quite well.

I always thought that it must have been hard for the Jewish kids to get into the spirit of a Christmas play – but they were all good sports about it.  I give credit to the school staff for that.  As we all know, Jesus was a WASP, but in our play they had dabbled in revisionist history and turned him, his father and mother into Semites.

This, of course, opened up a number of roles for the Jewish kids in class to play.  If they didn’t get cast as Mary or Joseph – there was still plenty of room for them as one of the shepherds stage right.  We didn’t have to worry about accommodating the Muslim kids as we didn’t have any in my class and the one child who was Buddhist just sort of transcended the whole thing.

Well it went on that way for years.  We would send people Christmas cards to which we had affixed Christmas stamps.  We would wrap Christmas presents and say to those we passed on the street, “Merry Christmas.”  I remember saying that to Mrs. Rappaport who always wore her Star of David and lived in our building and she just smiled broadly at me and said, “Well, Merry Christmas to you too, sweetheart.”  Then she bent down and kissed me on the cheek.

I’m not sure what Madalyn Murray O’Hair would have thought about my exchange with Mrs. Rappaport but it’s safe to say that she probably wouldn’t have been amused.  But as I was in a private school and this was before the Supreme Court decided that prayer and Bible reading was a no-no, I suspect we really didn’t need to hear from her on the subject.

Well we meandered through the four weeks or so from the start of Advent until the big day finally arrived – or more correctly the big night – Christmas Eve.  We would all trundle off to church for the Midnight liturgy filled with the old war horse hymns that we loved and which I still love.  You probably know some of them, “O, Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and the excellent choir would always sing “Silent Night” a cappella in the church which was illuminated only by the flickering of a sea of candles.

That service was always my favorite of the year.  You see, for just a few weeks, suddenly we all seemed to be just a little nicer as people.  A little kinder.  A little gentler.  In some ways it was with melancholy that I walked home with my parents and grandmother.  I knew that seven days hence we would start a new year.  And with that new year, most of us would return to our old ways.  It would be eleven long months until the spirit of compassion would once again reach out to us.

I’m not quite sure when Christmas evolved or devolved into Xmas.  As I understand from a friend who’s spouse works at a division of Kroger Foods, the staff have been informed that the proper greeting for their patrons is, “Happy Holidays.”  That is the only reference to the season which is permitted and should someone violate that they are subject to termination.  Talk about a way to infuse a little holiday spirit in your employees and make their season bright.

I would be remiss if I didn’t introduce a little history here.  You remember St. Andrew whose feast day is used to determine the start of Advent?  Well he was crucified on a cross that was in the form of an “X”.  So that might be the origin for our referring to the upcoming holiday as Xmas.  I don’t think with our current need to sanitize, whitewash and PCify everything that Xmas is in any danger of extinction.  I’m pretty sure it’s here to stay.

I admit to being old-fashioned in some ways and am going to keep a few traditions as I learned them in childhood.  I am looking forward to the thought of a service starting at midnight, a choir singing a cappella and a church in total darkness other than the light cast by a sea of flickering candles.

I am going to hold on to Christmas and not be ashamed to call it that.   I will try to be a little nicer, a little kinder, a little gentler to others and spread good cheer and warm wishes to those I meet.  And I’m going to hope, as I do each year at this time, that the idea catches on.

I’ve been hoping that for a long time.


No comment needed other than to ask, “Does anyone know a good trumpeter?”


I must admit that my favorite season of the year is autumn.  Growing up in New York it meant I was in the midst of another school year which I loved, piano lessons had resumed, which I loved, and the leaves of the trees in Central Park were turning their incredible shades of gold and red, which I loved especially.

In addition to all these, autumn was a precursor to the Holidays.  When the leaves began their transformation, Thanksgiving and then Christmas could not be far behind.  And I always looked forward to those because there seemed to be such a spirit of gentleness and kindness that people naturally acquired during that time of year and freely shared with others whom they met.

When I was seventeen I moved to Chicago for college.  Like New York, Chicago had lots of beautiful trees which performed their rainbow dance in the same way.  But what I discovered was that Chicago, unlike New York had only two seasons -winter and August.  What had been a progression that mimicked a long term transformative counseling session in New York had been transmuted in Chicago into shock therapy.

Well, the advent of winter was alright with me as it was my second most favorite season of the year.  The fact that it seemingly lasted forever until the first few brave crocuses would poke their heads out of the ground in early spring in the park across from the apartment didn’t bother me.  Nor did the cold winds or the streets filled with snow, then snow with salt, then slush.  Because I had a defense against all these.  That shield which held off all assailants was flannel and it never failed me.

Most people are grateful for the weekend because it is a respite from going to school or work.  I never minded either of these and yet I looked forward to my weekends because it was then that I could set aside the business attire I had worn for five days and slip into a warm, comfortable, ever-so-soft flannel shirt.

Once upon a time Lands End had graced my mailbox with one of their catalogs.  Now I have never been someone who could be described as a clothes horse and I think their first attempt to gain my interest resulted in my placing this rather hefty document in the recycling bin without thumbing thru it.  But then they struck a chord on a subsequent effort.  There was the picture of a beautiful flannel shirt on the cover and it intrigued me enough to turn to that section of the catalog.

I bought four flannel shirts from them in various bright and vibrant colors, two solids and two plaids.  I remember removing them from the box the day they arrived.  Taking off the plastic outer wrapping of each shirt, the cardboard stay in the collar and removing all the pins which held the shirts in place.  I knew that I was going to enjoy these shirts.  Their quality was apparent in each garment.

And so began my love affair with my flannel shirts.  And the bond between us grew deeper with each washing as these amazingly soft shirts became even softer and more inviting.  While I could only wear them during winter, still they got a tremendous amount of use and were hung in a special place of honor in my closet.

After ten years of wear I noticed that the cuffs on several of the shirts had begun to fray slightly and the same had happened to one of the collars.  But I viewed this as a badge of honor – a job well done and lovingly performed.

But the frays got more noticeable, so I reversed the cuffs and the collars and held on to those treasures for another four years.  By now, with their frequent washings they seemed to me to be less like shirts than they were outgrowths of my own skin.

One day I realized that I had worn a thin spot in the elbow of two of the shirts.  But I still wore them around the house until the thin spots became tears in the fabric.  After fourteen years of a beautiful relationship I realized that my shirts had done their duty and been good and faithful servants.  So I removed all the buttons and turned them into rags to dust and polish around the house.  It was a sad moment when I took them apart – as close as we had been for so long.

Although for my friends in the northern hemisphere it is not winter, I am writing this now because I wouldn’t mind if it were.  Hundred degree plus heat becomes tiresome after awhile (which for me is about two hours).  Talking about winter cools me off almost as effectively as a quick dip in the pool.

My point in this post is not only to reminisce about my flannel shirt fixation but to speak of merchandise that is made with quality.  I do not know if these Lands End shirts were manufactured in the United States or elsewhere.  What I do know is that the retailer obviously insisted in providing a high quality product for its customers.  I think you would agree that a shirt that withstands the ravages of fourteen years’ wearing meets that definition.

This occurred to me this morning because as I put on a pair of cargo shorts which I had purchased a few months ago at Walmart I noticed that the cuffs were already starting to fray.  As I examined this I also noticed that the material where the cuff met the leg of the short was beginning to separate.  I don’t think these shorts have been washed more than five or six times.

I thought to myself, “Where were these things made?”  So I looked at the label and saw that they had been manufactured in Bangladesh.  Who knew that the Bangladeshis made garments for sale in America?  I certainly didn’t.

Now I am not trying to make a case against the quality of workmanship that is the output of the people of Bangladesh.  These workmen are doing their job with the materials that are specified in their company’s contract with Walmart.  I am sure that they do so in a very workmanlike manner.  But they are obviously starting with inferior materials – and the result is an inferior product.

If we think about it, Walmart which bills itself as the “low price leader” may well  live up to their motto.  But we should remember that “low price” and “low cost” are not synonymous terms.  These cargo shorts have a life expectancy of about one more wash before they start falling apart completely.

It makes a great deal of sense for us to stretch our dollars as far as we can.  But making decisions based simply on price do not accomplish that goal.  The difference in the value I received from my flannel shirts and my cotton cargo pants demonstrates that principle.  So I learned something from this and will not be making further purchases of cargo pants or any other clothing at Walmart.  I simply can’t afford to buy clothes that are that cheap.

This reverie about winter has made me feel a deep need for some spiced apple cider, so I think I’ll go downstairs and make myself some.  But as this is a winter’s tale as told in July, I believe I’ll serve it over ice.

And what better way to enjoy that than by listening to some Vivaldi:



There are few of us who will, through some specific action, have the power to change the world in a dramatic way.  Considering the manner in which many of us approach life, that is probably a good thing.

But each of us does change the world every day – either by what we do or fail to do when we interact with other people.  I have written about this in several posts.

We can change the world through exercising courtesy, thoughtfulness and respect for those we meet along the way, lightening their day and their load.  Or we can change the world by interacting with our fellow human beings with rudeness, selfishness and disregard for their needs and add to their burden and to the storm clouds overhead.

Courtesy costs so little yet brings so much both to the donor and the recipient.  Selfishness costs so much, robbing us and those on whom we inflict it of a personal sense of self-worth.  Courtesy is its own reward and selfishness its own punishment.

A simple warm glance;  a touch extended in consolation or encouragement; a kind word.  These are little things.  But they truly do mean a lot.


It’s Sunday – even here in Las Vegas.  We are currently enjoying a much needed break from the sweltering heat that made its way here and across much of the country.  We’ve even had two days of substantial rain and last night I stood in the dog park with Gracie and enjoyed the coolness as the droplets soaked me through and through.  (I think Gracie was less impressed with this than I was).

So even though the casinos are saying farewell to their weekend visitors, many of whom said farewell to their stash of cash while they stayed here, it is important to me to try to keep things in perspective and try to set aside some time away from that which is worldly and direct myself toward higher things.

On Sundays. as part of that discipline, I try to do some contemplative thinking.  That may take the form of reading or it may incorporate listening to music or a combination of both.  But this was a busy Sunday.  I had a few grocery items I needed to purchase for the dinner I was making and a car battery to replace.  Car batteries in the desert have about the same life expectancies as fruit flies.

So as I was coming home with a new battery installed and my groceries on the passenger seat, I had rolled down the windows as it was still in the mid-80’s and there was a nice breeze blowing.  As I waited for the light to change, a man pulled up next to me in a large, new SUV which obviously had a very high-powered radio installed.  He was playing rap music and I’m sure that the volume was sufficient that it could have been heard in our state capital, Carson City nearly 450 miles away..

One of the things you learn when you live in Las Vegas is that we have some of the longest street lights in the world.  When I first moved here I wondered whether some of them at which I had been stopped ever changed.  I now know better.  They do change eventually – but in this case the wait seemed interminable.

I thought about rolling up the windows – but I thought that would have been as rude as the driver’s behavior in subjecting me to this “music”.  So I waited somewhat impatiently for the magic green disk to appear on the signal.  It finally did, but not before I had heard more than my fair share of M*ther F*cker and B*tch.

I realize that my classical music traditions would seem as strange to the driver of this car as his music does to me.  Well, there’s no accounting for taste – or lack of it.  But since music has been such an important influence in my life I can’t help but feel that the kind we choose to hear has a significant impact on how we see the world and how we treat each other.  Or perhaps the way that we view ourselves and the world determines our choice in music.

Somehow I don’t see a person who listens to music which through denigration and vulgarity demeans others as a person who is likely to be one of those “touchy-feely” types.  I could be wrong.  But I believe that we are what we eat – and that is true of the food we consume, the literature we read and the music to which we listen.

I do know that for me music is a refuge.  It brings out the best in me and comforts me when I am troubled.  And this being Sunday, I thought I would share the hymn which I played when I came home from my excursion.  It is of American origin, probably dating from the mid-19th century and was composed by one of those best know authors, Anonymous.

I played it several times just to unwind from the traffic light episode.  I hope that you enjoy it as much as I have over many years.

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