Monday, February 24, 2020

"Rose Study, No. 10"

"Rose Study, No. 10" (it has been a while since I did one of these and posted it here).

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Signal Knob in the Morning Light

This is Signal Knob, the northern peak of Massanutten Mountain, as we see it from the East side in the late Winter morning light. 

We see it in so many places around here that we could almost get used to it. In the past, I drove by this particular view every day. I can still almost see the mountain from my window at home. It ends up in many of my pictures, somewhere on the horizon. 

It's a part of this place, and it's been here for a long long lonnnnng time.

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Remembering Luigi Giussani

Today is the 15th anniversary of the death of the Servant of God Msgr. Luigi Giussani. It is very beautiful that this great priest died on the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, in light of his remarkable devotion to Peter's successors.

His longtime friend, Saint John Paul II, would go to join him in eternal life a month and a half later.

But before that, the ailing Pope sent his personal representative to celebrate the funeral of this great “teacher of humanity,” a Cardinal who once said, "Fr Giussani changed my life." Within two months, that Cardinal became Pope Benedict XVI.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world from Rome, another Cardinal helped present his own country’s first editions of some of Giussani’s books, saying “He has helped me to appreciate and live more deeply my own priesthood.”

Seven years ago, as this Cardinal prepared to retire after a lifetime of intense service to the Church, planning to reside in and become chaplain of an elder care home, he received an unexpected call from Rome for one final service. A conclave.

But it turned out to be rather a longer task. On March 13, 2013, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis.

But Giussani did more than inspire the Popes of our time. He taught thousands of ordinary people in Italy and all over the world. One of those people is me, even if I have been one of the more distracted of his students. Still, insofar as I have anything worthwhile to communicate, the credit must go first of all to the two men in the first picture who taught me and showed me how to stay with Jesus.

My dear friends of the CL Movement: it is distance and distraction that keep me from seeing you more often, but it is also illness and my debilitating condition. I miss you all, but hold you close in my heart and prayers.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

"Is There Anyone?" Demi Lovato's Long Hard Road

"A hundred million stories / And a hundred million songs / I feel stupid when I sing / Nobody's listening to me / Nobody's listening."

I have a big place in my heart for Demetria Lovato.

She has had so much pain, and has been fighting so hard. Over the past decade, she has fought for success, and to use her talents and expand her creativity, while fighting against bipolar disorder, drug and alcohol addiction, anorexia and bulimia, and other forms of self-harm.

"Anyone, please send me anyone..."

The depression-and-mania-swings came first, before her days as a teenage star on the Disney Channel, where she introduced everyone to her remarkable charm and sense of humor, and before her career as a pop/R&B singer established her as a familiar face and formidable voice in the 2010s.

But all the fame and the money and the scrutiny of emerging social media platforms only made things more difficult for Demi as she struggled with her body-image and with the propensity for self-medicating that she inherited from her estranged (and since 2015 deceased) father. Still, she kept trying, not only to return from setbacks but also to share her vulnerability with a level of honesty that only proved itself more admirable by the generosity of heart and guileless effort she put into it.

After her first public breakdown in 2010, she went through treatment, wrote articles to encourage other teenage girls, and made a documentary where she spoke frankly about her illness and addictions and how important it is to get help. She seemed determined to set an example of "being in recovery." She wanted so, so much for things to work out. And she was very impressive... even a little bit too impressive.

"I need someone."

But being "honest" about such things is like peeling an onion: there's always another layer underneath. It's a process. I don't think Demi realized the layers of that process back in 2011. Still, her struggle was sincere, candid, and earnest. She helped raise mental health awareness especially with the younger generation.

"I tried and tried and tried some more / Told secrets 'til my voice was sore..."

Demi has tried and tried, and told plenty of secrets. She is generous and gutsy, and really has a passion for showing people that mental illness and addiction are real, by letting people see so much of her own suffering. It's inspiring. But I have many years of experience with mental illness and I know how it can drive or exacerbate all kinds of self-destructive behaviors. And I know that life is long and hard. A lot of things change. We don't have the strength in ourselves alone to engage and endure life's challenges, difficulties, and confusion.

We need roots. And good soil is hard to find in the storms of our times. So, dear Demi, I am worried about you. I'm concerned for you.

"I feel stupid when I pray / So, why am I praying anyway? / If nobody's listening."

I have been aware of Demi Lovato over the past decade, and I have followed her mental health journey with a sense of solidarity because I know some of these deep psychological and emotional holes she has been in, even if I haven't faced some of her other specific issues.

But I was not interested in her music.

It seemed like teen pop, and then later it took on the typical overloaded sexualization in style, imagery, and theme (though less than some of her peers) that so often spoils or banalizes music even as it objectifies and disrespects the female body.

This objectification is pushed on women artists today as "empowerment" - but this kind of reductive and excessively sensualistic pseudo self-assertion frustrates the deeper need for a relational intimacy within the inherent boundaries that guide and protect genuine human relationships. And for someone with body image difficulties, trying to wear all these outfits to "be sexy" (i.e. according to someone else's definition) and then trying to stay "sexy" day after day, constantly comparing your body and finding that it falls short of a (fake) "ideal" - all this must be a living hell.

Gosh Demi: you're starting out with serious bipolar depression (this chemical imbalance with a hereditary foundation in Dad and Mom too), which you aggravate with cocaine, anphetamenes, and alcohol addiction (throw opiates in the mix as well). And then you have to be even more obsessed with your body image, because (as you once put it) "no one loves a fat rock star"? So you binge eat even more (and purge it) and take more pills.

Demetria, you don't have to do this. You don't have to live this way. I think you are beginning and growing toward the realization that you can be free from all this junk. It's not worth what is ultimately an ephemeral affirmation from people who don't care about you.

"I used to crave the world's attention / I think I cried too many times / I just need some more affection / Anything to get me by..."

You deserve so much more than "anything to get you by." And you will find much more. But take all that aspiration and energy and all the talent (which has gotten you this far) and aim higher. In music, aim for the level of artistry that you are capable of achieving.

I find myself addressing Demi in my mind. Others must be saying some of these things to her, because she seems to be turning a corner, musically (and hopefully in other more important ways too).

I am definitely interested now in where she is taking her music (In retrospect, I can see how her voice has developed, and the prime years for her as a singer are just beginning.) She may be finding a new creative groove, and gaining the personal balance she needs to make some really outstanding music with her powerful emotionally evocative voice. (But, first of all, Demi, take care of yourself, please! You are a person first, a precious human person.)

Several weeks ago I wrote a couple of long articles about the Grammy Awards, or about topics more or less related to them: recorded music, celebrity, a few of the artists who won awards. I did promise to write one more article. Something awesome happened at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards last month. Though I didn't watch the show, I was able to see and hear it on the Internet the next day.

It was all over the Internet. Demi Lovato sang, for the first time since 2018. And she Brought. Down. The. House.

Behind this musical event, however, there was the resilience of her humanity and her determination to continue to live and tell her story, with new levels of honesty.

In 2012 she made a documentary called Stay Strong, in which she speaks openly about her bipolar diagnosis, her drug use, her self harm, her eating disorder, and her experience of being in recovery.

She admits in the video that she is not always perfect. No doubt she learned much from her first rehab experience, but in fact she was already falling off the wagon. More interventions would be needed.

In her second documentary in 2017, Simply Complicated, she admits - with unflinching candor - that she was using cocaine even during the interviews on the 2012 documentary. We might wonder at this point: How can we believe anything Demi Lovato says about herself? But skepticism would miss the point of what's really happening here.

Demi is opening up about so many difficult and very complicated things that she hardly understands, while she is engaged in the very process of trying to cope with them. It's not surprising that she doesn't tell us everything, hides things, cheats and backslides and doesn't even want to admit it to herself much less us.

The fact is, she doesn't have to tell us anything at all. How many public people have faced similar circumstances and kept everything private? I don't blame them. But Demi - unpolished, beaten down, damaged, and confused on lots of things - has a big heart. She's trying to be open about an ongoing experience, to give us a window into the reality of her suffering. It's a long hard road she has to travel. Demi, her care givers, her family, everyone involved is undergoing a learning process, and she's allowing us to see that. It's pretty remarkable. Obviously, these documentaries are not for everyone. They really are for "mature audiences" who are able to use discretion.

In 2017, she celebrated five years of sobriety, and the latter documentary takes us through many of the ways that were helping her keep it up. It gives us a frank picture of how grim things had gotten beneath the surface before her second breakdown. Apparently, however, she had found some stability, although she admits in the video that the eating disorder is still flaring up sometimes.

But she had so much to handle in those days. Life got harder in 2018 (we don't know why, and she doesn't have to tell us) and this now 26 year old girl with a huge nine million dollar house in Southern California fell in with bad company. Somewhere in the midst of this new wandering into booze and drugs, she got onto some downers, something like oxycontin - but "from the street," jacked up with the cheap but dangerously strong drug fentanyl that is often used to "stretch" the quantity of illegal opioids (without informing the buyer).

On July 27, 2018, Demi Lovato nearly died from an overdose. After several days in the hospital, we all heard that she was going to pull through. But she pretty much removed herself from the unsleeping gaze of the public eye for a long stretch after that.

Then word came that she was working on new music and preparing a comeback. (This is another frustrating feature of pop music and entertainment culture: the relentless demand to stay up-to-date. Of course, many performers love the spotlight and are anxious to get back to it, and Demi had recorded six albums in ten years.) Everyone would have understood if she had decided to take a few years off. But some artists are driven to create and some performers are driven to get back on stage. They have the urge to give more of themselves, but also perhaps a distorted dependence on cheering crowds and the grandiose but fleeting euphoria they bring. The spotlight is a dangerous place.

She took the stage on January 26, 2020 in a billowy white floor length gown with just a piano player accompanying her. The crowd of celebrities and VIPs at the Staples Center seemed to remove their invisible masks for a moment. Everybody remembered that they were just human beings, whose hearts couldn't help rejoicing just because she was alive. People were glad to see her. Millions watching the awards show were glad to see her.

She began to sing and then faltered, choking back sobs. The crowd cheered her on. She could have sung anything if all she wanted was the approval of the audience. But in this moment, Demi showed her depth as an artist. She had a new song, shaped from out of the dark and seemingly hopeless caverns of the soul that she had fallen into (and that she is no doubt still trying to find her way out of). And she sang it with all of her anguish and all of her hope, in a bold, resonant voice that was impossible to ignore. People weren't expecting anything like this. They were stunned by what they heard:

I tried to talk to my piano
I tried to talk to my guitar
Talk to my imagination
Confided into alcohol
I tried and tried and tried some more
Told secrets 'til my voice was sore
Tired of empty conversation
'Cause no one hears me anymore

A hundred million stories
And a hundred million songs
I feel stupid when I sing
Nobody's listening to me
Nobody's listening

I talk to shooting stars
But they always get it wrong
I feel stupid when I pray
So, why am I praying anyway?
If nobody's listening

please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone, oh
Anyone, please send me anyone
Lord, is there anyone?
I need someone

There is another verse (which I quoted above) but this conveys the power, the moving quality, the soul-provoking character of this song which is called "Anyone." In this song, Demi reaches back and gets hold of something deeper than her own personal struggles or the struggles of people who suffer from mental illness and/or addiction: she finds a suffering, a terrible fear, a loneliness that every human being experiences in some form or other - the agonizing question that often lies buried deep in the heart but bursts open in all the painful and incomprehensible moments of life that we all face.

A question, a lament, an angry frustration that gives way to a plea...

And suddenly, in the very expression of loneliness it becomes a dialogue - it's a desperate, begging plea but there is nothing degrading about it. It's our plea, the cry of the human heart that knows its own need. The cry of the human heart, stripped bare, uncomfortably exposed for most of us.

We want quickly to cover it up, interpret it in terms of the sick person, the desperate person, the person on drugs with a broken brain who is crying for help. But the song doesn't ask for "help." It asks for "someone." It doesn't ask for "someone to talk to" or "someone to help me" or "someone to take this problem away." It just asks for someone. Indeed, it yearns just for the be-ing of another: "is there anyone?"

Demi herself can't bear to reflect on the absolute vulnerability of this song. She explains that she wrote it and initially recorded it four days before her overdose in 2018. It emerged from the particularities of her desperate state at that time.

Still, she sang it at the Grammy Awards in 2020, and the immediate and compelling character of the performance proclaimed it in the present tense, a year into her third recovery. The question doesn't go away. It doesn't get healed. It grows deeper.

"...why am I praying anyway? / If nobody's listening..."

This is a terrifying question, and something of an angry question. It doesn't assert that there is no one to hear her prayers. Rather it expresses frustration at the inaccessibility of this mysterious one who seems beyond the reach of words. This should be the point when the singer gives up. "Nobody's listening..." Instead, she plunges directly into the unbearable silence with the agony of her own need.

"Anyone, please send me anyone / Lord, is there anyone? / I need someone, oh / Anyone, please send me anyone / Lord, is there anyone? / I need someone"

On the second time around with this refrain, Demi cuts loose and puts all her voice into it, wailing but without losing her pitch. She slays some high notes that take your breath away. She's putting everything she has into this plea, this empty space, this eloquent wound: "please send me anyone ... / I need someone"

Demi is not a "conventionally religious" person, but she believes in God, and she prays. (Lots of music people believe in God, regardless of how messed up they are - because music is the sound of the human heart searching for transcendence.) Right now, I'm not interested in what she thinks about this or that. I'm just hearing her voice coming right out of her heart, and ... this is a prayer. This is a prayer. It's also an impressive work of art, making something beautiful out of these experiences of suffering, and putting it out there and lifting it up as far as it can go.

But first of all, it is a prayer.

"Lord, is there anyone?"

What can I say when someone is praying such an open and ardent prayer. I can join her in that prayer: "Lord, I need to see your face" because all the theology and eloquence in the world will not save me. "I need a human face that reminds me of your love, every moment, every day. You came into the world, Lord, in human flesh and blood, with a human face, and you gave yourself. You didn't give yourself to us so that you could become a myth or an ideology. You didn't come just to give us more rules. You came to be with us, and you called us together to accompany us on the journey that leads to you. And you told us to love one another, because we can't do this thing called life all by ourselves. We can't make this journey alone. We need someone. I need someone and it's too easy to forget that need during so much of my time. Please send me anyone ..."

... and I could qualify that further with all kinds of words (I have already used too many) but I'm going to leave it open. Demi is taking that risk, plunging her heart into the Mystery of God. She has great courage. I don't, but I want to follow her as much as my small heart can right now, and join her in taking that risk... What am I afraid of? "God is good. All the time."

Demetria, let me tell you something. Often "I feel stupid when I pray." Yes, I do. You expressed it very well. There are lots of reasons why we might feel stupid when we pray or sing or do anything else.

You and I have these strangely wired brains that are firing all over the place, signals and chemicals, too much here, not enough there. We can trace the pattern of ancestors with these precious, odd brains who passed them on to us. But there's not just the hindrances of our complicated wiring; there are strengths and gifts and aptitudes that come with it too. And our brains serve our beautiful minds, our intelligence, our creativity.

I heard you say recently that you are going to "accept" your body. You're not going to pretend it's perfect, and you're going to keep fighting the urge to try to make it look "perfect" by messing around with the way it works with food. You also need to "accept" that very special part of your body that is your brain. It's not perfect, and you can't make it "feel perfect" with a sledgehammer of induced chemicals you get on the street (you know that better than I do).

Take care of your brain, Demi. It still has amazing possibilities to heal and to grow in new ways. Work with your brain.

There are fine tools that can give our brains a little help, and doctors who know how to guide us to use them very carefully. You may not be able to use those options, but I'm sure the people who are helping you with your recovery know what's good for you (and what's not good). Listen to them.

You're praying for "someone" and these people are part of the answer to that prayer.

Keep praying, especially when you feel stupid doing it. There are those throughout history who have great wisdom in the ways of prayer, and they say that - sometimes - "feeling stupid when you pray" can be a sign that you're getting closer and deeper to the One you seek.

That lovely name, "Demetria" - I don't know what your parents had in mind in giving it to you, but it's a Greek name and it links you to a very special young person from the early fourth century, Demetrios of Thessalonica. He was a warrior, a man of real courage, a defender of the poor, a martyr for his faith, and - according to the traditions of many peoples down through the centuries - a wonderworker, a worker of miracles, a source of healing. I'm just tossing that out there, because he's a real person and I have found that these people are not so far from us as we may think. There are others who can help you too - perhaps some people you have known during your own life. It's not superstition to ask for their help. It's a relationship with another person, a friendship with people who have gone before us.

We're not ever alone, really. Sometimes we feel that way because of our illness. Sometimes we feel that way because we are made for a greater love, and the whole of life is a journey to that Love. Sometimes when our hearts feel broken, it's because they are being made bigger. Or it's a combination of all these factors and others too, because God writes straight with crooked lines. Life is messy. Do your best, day by day.

And (I'll say it again) keep praying, no matter what. Never give up. This is fundamental and essential. You've got a song. Sing it.

Demi, I am not going to have to write a memorial article about you. Because you're going to make it. You may not always be able to "stay strong," but please, just "show up" every day. Show up for the people that matter, the people who have been given to you. Make your music, perform too, put on a show if you want, but don't get lost in all that. Don't disappear from the lives of the people who really love you.

This song shook me. Dang! There's a lot of pain here, beautifully expressed pain. It ends with "nobody's listening" but those don't feel like the last words, Demi. This is not the voice of somebody who is giving up. Bring whatever you're feeling to God, all the "nobody's-listening"-feelings however deep and awful. It has been a hard road. But the assertion your mind suggests to you from those feelings (that, really, "nobody's listening") - that assertion is not true. In any case, just give it all to God and let God carry it with you. Then keep going, step by step. "Please send me anyone...That is your heart calling out to the One who made your heart. The Lord will not fail you.

Be assured also of my own poor prayers for you, and my prayers along with you, dear Demetria, as a fellow sufferer and sinner and brother. And keep the plea, the yearning of this song in your soul, and of the songs yet unknown and unheard that will be born from it.

***Everybody else, listen to her. It's been a long hard road for Demi Lovato. Stick with her through to the end of this song. <<<<--- click this link.

Or here:

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Baseball 2020 Begins

It's "Spring Training" season in Florida.🌴 Even though we hardly have the weather for it up here yet, it's nice to have that sense of anticipation. Spring Training makes me feel the same as when I was 10 years old.

⚾“Exhibition Baseball” starts on February 22.⚾️ I can’t wait to see the DEFENDING WORLD CHAMPIONS in uniform again!!⚾️

Let's Go NATS!!!

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Political Idolatry of the Emerging New Epoch

These distinctive times of explosive technological expansion are ushering in a "new epoch" in human history in which humans have access to unprecedented levels of material power, and must grapple with the bewildering scope of possibilities and dangers entailed by that power. Among other things, the epoch of power poses dramatic challenges for politics — it gives humanity the "tools" to construct human (or inhuman) societies which immerse and involve their members on a larger scale than anything we have seen or imagined before.

For Christians who seek to follow the Gospel, this raises important issues regarding faith and the community within which we hold that faith. Living our faith in the context of a vital, concrete Christian community is first of all proper to our ecclesial vocation, but it also grounds our way of being in the world, and therefore has implications for our formation as mature and free persons engaging in the secular affairs of temporal human society. If faith is not incarnate in the actual lives of believers, in a communion of life through which Jesus is present to form, nourish, and hold accountable those who belong to it, the existential human need for "belonging" is left without an adequate object. History has shown (and current events continue to prove) that when Christian persons lack the experience of belonging communally to Christ (and therefore concretely to one another "in Christ" and radically to every human person), they inevitably gravitate toward some lesser commonality with a particular group and seek therein a definitive communal experience, a belonging that anchors and gives meaning to their personality, that provides an adequate measure (and limit) for their love.

Certainly there are levels of belonging and degrees of intimacy and affection that are natural to being human: the family (immediately and organically "given" as physical relation and basic, formative foundation of human communal experience), the neighborhood, the town, friendships and associations, clubs, etc., right up to the political community which concerns the temporal common good of a "people" and their homeland. All of these communal relationships are important and good, and in them we experience in different ways our flourishing as human persons and our responsibilities toward one another and the particular community as a whole. None of these communal belongings or experiences, however, fully correspond to who we are as persons or to the mysterious and entirely particular vocation of each of us to love and to be loved.

So far I have been addressing Christians. But any human person can grasp that his or her fundamental and definitive identity is rooted in and tends toward a transcendent love, a kind of belonging greater than any that can be found in this present material universe which may be vast and intricate but inevitably has limits. The person is made for a limit-less love, and will never be finally satisfied with anything less. The Infinite, however, is not something that existentially limited humans can construct for themselves. It is a Mystery they must search for and follow, a Mystery of Love that the human heart somehow senses wants to give itself.

Many people of good will sincerely seek to follow this way of love, often in a courageous and admirable manner. Others at least acknowledge that this is true, even if they don't measure up to it in their lives or are perplexed and hindered in various ways. Or they live within the heritage of one of the great religions of the world that seek transcendence, or are embarked on other particular journeys that their conscience has directed them to follow. All these people recognize that human society must have at its heart respect for the transcendence of the human person.

Perceiving this inviolable, mysteriously "given" and radically "guaranteed" basis for human dignity, they can make common cause with Christians in political action without fearing the intrusion of proselytism that would try to manipulate them, or that they are unwittingly furthering some secret Christian plan for the imposition of a "theocracy." Such tactics are unworthy of the freedom of the person, and the freedom of the Gospel. Christians are called to follow the teaching and example of Jesus, whose "kingdom is not of this world," and who always showed profound respect for human freedom even to the point of death.

Christians, of course, also deserve to have our freedom respected; we must be free to speak about our convictions and allow them to shape our political judgments regarding the good of the commonwealth. We are committed to the transcendence of the human person because we hold that human dignity is rooted in our belonging to God, who creates, redeems, and calls us to Himself; who took flesh in Jesus Christ and who remains with us in the unique communion of discipleship wherein He calls us to "love one another." This grace-given experience of belonging fills up our lives and also flows out to renew and perfect all forms of human relationships and community. It sustains our freedom. Without it, the Christian person is alone and isolated in living their faith, and becomes prey to illusions that lesser allegiances can take the place of communion with God.

If we lack an adherence and participation in the “gathering of people” (ekklesia) that Jesus consecrated to continue His transforming presence in history, our Christianity becomes abstract and “distant.” God appears to be “absent” as we face the difficulties and fragility of life. We neglect (or approach only with an empty formalism) the many ways that Jesus “accompanies” us through the communion of believers and the ministry which He has established and through which He has promised (even with all the failures of its members) to “be with us always.” With all this “empty space” that has crept into their lives, isolated Christians are tempted to adhere to anything that appears to be a plausible substitute, or to elevate lesser relationships to an "ultimate status" in the hope of finding some defining reference point in them.

This temptation affects not only Christians. It affects every person, because everyone desires to “belong” to something that secures their identity. There are of course many ways human persons “belong” together (as I noted above). The temptation is to turn a temporary, merely-humanly-constituted community into the source of ultimate meaning and the unconditional context and exhaustive object of a person’s vocation. This aims in the direction of what the Bible calls "idolatry."

It has political implications.

Historically, we have seen the destructive nature of particular important-but-limited communities that take on an "absolute" definitive status for their members. The result resembles a kind of idolatry — a kind of "divinization" of an ideology or a system, or of a nation, race, ethnic group, or tribe. And we see now the rise of "new tribes" not connected by kinship, but defined by what (or whom) they exclude, and by the pseudo-identities they generate through the images of electronic media, simplistic slogans, superficial "rituals," and other classic propaganda techniques that are accessible to everyone in this new epoch.

This kind of idolatry is casting its shadow over our times. It exists in full realization in some places in the world, while in others it lurks as a tendency, as the possible future of present unhealthy aspirations, as an inchoate or partial reality, as a danger, and — undoubtedly — as a temptation. This is not the old "hard" religiously-specified pagan idolatry of worshiping statues or personified forces of nature. It is the much more subtle new "soft idolatry" that marginalizes and effectively replaces God — the One who alone fulfills the transcendent destiny of the human person — with a merely human social or political project.

This new idolatry is subtle because its gradual but ultimately totalizing absorption of the human person spreads covertly within society like an incubating disease. It builds itself up through diverse inflammatory manifestations of social problems that often seem to contradict each other. It grows within societies when there is widespread insecurity about personal identity, weak interpersonal and communal bonds, rival ideologies, various artificially aggravated fears, rumors and confusion, negligent ignorance, cultivated superficiality, lack of civil discourse, lack of principles, reliance on pseudo-"authorities" and magnetic or manipulative personalities, pressure for cultural conformity, revenge, group-think, nostalgia, utopian dreams, excessive hopes for prosperity, for progress, for total safety from danger, for many other things (the list could go on and on) ... and — of course — the increasing (and always justified as "necessary") application of good old fashioned brute force.

It all conspires to eclipse the transcendence of human destiny, suffocate the heart of the human person, and preoccupy people with a multitude of distractions. It infects the politics of our time, which in various ways pretends in a practical sense (or sometimes pretends — which is already too much) to rule over all our thinking about the meaning of things, to fill our minds with its claim to be the highest measure of life.

The politics of the new epoch is idolatrous insofar as it aspires (even without the awareness of all who participate in it) to "deflect" the human search for transcendence and invade its space, or to use power to suppress it and take its place. It is accompanied (and "enabled") by the reduction of the scope of human desire to the empirical categories of objects-to-be-possessed, and the prevalence of practical materialism as the social norm.

In terms of depth and danger, these emerging forms of political idolatry are venturing into "uncharted territory." Politics now has at its disposal the continuing expansion of material power for everything from making things to processing and distributing information to bridging distances and gaining unprecedented dominance over space and time to enhanced forms of multi-sensory engagement through media technology.

What are the monstrous political possibilities that might emerge in the future, perhaps even the near future? Will we have the awareness and attention necessary to recognize them and the courage to resist capitulating to them?

[ be continued]

Sunday, February 16, 2020

The Rhododendron is My Favorite Wintergreen

Rhododendrons, you ROCK!💥

Cold nights are rough on those other plants when tiny buds peep out in February, but the Rhodos stay green all Winter and they are not conifers. Instead of looking like Christmas trees, they have a “tropical” vibe.🌴🌱☀️😉

I’m glad there is somewhere I can find green leaves all year round. It lifts my spirits to see them.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Human Dignity and Belonging to the Absolute

The human person realizes the maturity of his or her identity in relation to other persons, by living in communion. Various kinds of human interpersonal communion enrich the persons who give and receive love within them and also build up and strengthen the "common life" they share.

But the space of ultimate, definitive belonging for the person is sacred. It is transcendent. The person is "aware" (in some fashion, even if not explicitly articulated) that he or she "belongs," radically, to a Mystery, a Reality-of-Love-and-Affirmation that cannot be reduced to any person or group or object that is merely of this contingent, finite universe. The heart of the person cries out for the unique belonging to the Mystery that calls him or her into being, into a vocation to freedom that is inviolable, a vocation to love the One who is Absolute.

The dignity of the human person is founded on this belonging-to-the-Absolute. Any other person or community or ruler of this world who pretends to take the place of the Absolute in relation to a human person or group of persons violates their dignity. Sometimes we see this carried out in brutally obvious fashion, in an openly totalitarian dictatorship with a ritual personality cult. It happens whenever persons are reduced to the status of "things" and given over to the domination of others to use or dispose of as they wish. It happens to some degree, or casts its shadow over any human relationship insofar as it is not shaped by respect and love, but rather slips into even the most subtle forms of manipulation or abuse.

Every natural human mode of belonging has its proper place within that fundamental vocation of belonging to the One who alone establishes a person's identity, corresponds to a person's freedom, and constitutes a person's ineradicable destiny and radical fulfillment.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Taking Our View “From the Heights”

Cold hearts and narrow minds can easily turn a small perspective into "a great illusion." Saint John XXIII insists that "we must take our view from the heights and courageously embrace the whole."

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Politics of Loving Our Enemies

Christians who are serious about following Jesus seek to view the situation in the world today with the "eyes of faith." What we see, and endeavor to respect and promote in every way, is the inherent value, the unique preciousness of every human person created in the image of God and loved by Jesus. This recognition doesn't provide any easy solutions to the enormously complex problems people face in our world, but it invests with ardor and focus our commitment to engage these problems.

In politics and in the work of building a more just and equitable society, Christians collaborate with people of other religions or existential stances, with anyone who is dedicated to the transcendent and inviolable dignity of the human person. Not surprisingly, we have very real opponents in the current political and social realm. This ideological and practical opposition involves more than differences of opinion (of which we have plenty among ourselves). We have opponents who are aggressive, who want to undermine our work, and who actively perpetrate violence, confusion, and disorder in the world. Their efforts (in practice at least, if not in theory) attack the dignity of the human person.

In a certain respect, we cannot help perceiving them as "enemies" even if we are determined not to judge people, but rather to focus on the good and foster it as best we can in society. Even when we try to view individual persons and their motivations in the best possible light, we cannot deny that there are people and groups who engage in or advocate some very bad things in many societies. They sabotage the work of others who are struggling to live in peace and in economic and cultural conditions worthy of their humanity.

Indeed, we see all over our world forces trampling over the good with raw and obvious contempt for human dignity. We may try to seek justice from our current governments, but all too often these destructive forces are permitted, favored, or even unleashed by political leaders themselves.

What can we do?

We certainly cannot capitulate to being redefined by the ongoing social and cultural "revolution" fueled by the desperate alienation of our confusing times. (And it should be noted that this revolution — even as it claims victory and promulgates itself as the new measure of normality and common sense — is already breaking into fragments, engendering new forms of dissent, new factions, and new animosities.)

This makes it pretty clear that we have to regard some political leaders, groups, and cultural influencers as "enemies" — not in their humanity-as-such nor with regard to the good that is in them (and often they have very much good, and accomplish good and admirable things in certain contexts) — but only insofar as they actively promote an inhuman agenda or their own selfish whims or a pathological cult of personality as the norm for the common good in society. And even though they are "enemies" to the degree that they participate in destructive activity, we must still love them as human persons.

We cannot permit ourselves to hate — that is, to will evil precisely as evil toward any human person. Hatred is never an option for the Christian or for anyone who seeks the good with a sincere heart. But we must do more than refrain from hatred. We must love our enemies. This love is not a sentimental or emotional state, but a firm commitment of our freedom, to will what is truly good for them as persons, as brothers and sisters. We can love our enemies and still be "angry at them" because of what they are doing. But the work of cultivating agape as active love seeks to encompass all the natural human impulses and transform them into vital energies at the service of love. This is difficult work, but Christians have confidence that they will make progress in the ways of love through the One who is at work in them.

Loving our enemies is fundamental to political action, and we shall return to it again and again. Love — the commitment to the good of the person and the actions that flow from it — is the only dynamic that can generate change and true progress in the world.

We have seen the most obvious way to identify a "political enemy." But when we look to other public figures who claim to oppose some of the bad things our "enemies" want, we soon find that these would-be allies are not much better. Usually, if we're honest with ourselves, we realize that we can't trust them. They may in fact be our "enemies" in other respects that we don't yet perceive as such. They may be trying to co-opt our desire for justice and goodness into their own (ultimately violent) ideology. Or perhaps they are persons of such poor character or psychological instability that they are virtually insupportable as political custodians of the common good.

In any case, today's political game involves using the enormous power of communications media to "get inside people's heads." Political campaigns forcefully (and mendaciously) manipulate images to generate impressions (and illusions) about the office-seekers they promote and their opponents. As a result, we increasingly find ourselves at election time in a situation where all the candidates on the ballot are demagogues playing on the diverse, particular needs, fears, and overall sentiments and prejudices of their factions.

What can we do when the scramble to attain (and hold onto) public office inevitably favors politicians who are in one way or another inimical to our core convictions? We may face situations in which all candidates are likely to obfuscate, violate, or work against what we are convinced is the essential, integrally human approach to preserving and fostering the common good of a society of human persons called to live in communion.

When it comes to politics, I think many Christians stick with the "lesser evil argument" and therefore have no political enthusiasm. They try to withdraw from association with any of the shady characters of the political class, but they will "hold their noses" when election time comes and vote one way or another, for the candidate whose victory seems to them to be the "lesser evil."

This is an understandable strategy. But in this time of immersive, pervasive, invasive multimedia, once you pick a candidate it's harder than ever to escape the pull of partisanship, of wanting to belong to the winning tribe. Christians and other very fine people in my own country and elsewhere inevitably feel this force.

We must be aware of the influence of this pull toward factionalism, and how it can subtly manipulate our inclinations and constrict with an unwarranted narrowness the contours of our perception of political and social life. In our times, new and belligerent "tribes" are emerging, united by common orientations of sentimentality, desire, fear, and unconsidered impulses and aspirations driven by images of a violent "victory" over dehumanized "enemies."

If we allow the impulses of the new tribalism to take over within us, it will become harder and harder to recognize our political enemies as human persons worthy of love. And if we forget to love them, we will be drawn into an arrogant, dismissive hostility toward them. We will begin to hate them.

We must guard ourselves against these things. We must remember who we are. We must pray, humble ourselves before the Lord, and beg that in politics as in all things we might be grounded in the merciful and loving heart of Jesus.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

"World Day of Prayer for the Sick."

I cast this text for today's "World Day of Prayer for the Sick" in two different color schemes. Perhaps neither of them really works all that well, though I am inclined to prefer the second one.

In any case, the words of Pope Francis for this feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes mean a lot to me. As someone who remains one of "the sick" (a fact that still hinders certain aspects of my life), I am grateful to be reminded again of "that gaze into the heart of each person" full of healing and "tender love."

Jesus "embraces people in their entirety" by becoming our brother, which entails also the precious gift he shares with us of his Mother Mary who becomes our companion with all her maternal solicitude.

The motherhood of Mary brings the real humanity of Jesus "close to us," and she remains faithfully with us - as she did with him - in all our sorrows and pain.

Our Lady of Lourdes, pray for us.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Christina Grimmie's Great Affection For Life

There are good reasons why I have marked this day every month for the past three and a half years through some form or mode of engagement with the life and legacy of Christina Grimmie.

This is not simply an exercise in personal nostalgia. Indeed, I didn’t have much familiarity with her prior to June 2016.

I have been a musician for nearly 50 years, and avid appreciator of a wide spectrum of music for as long as I can remember. And though I was forced by health problems to step back from classroom teaching, I remain active as a university professor through writing and research on — among other things — the task of understanding the nature, impact, and pedagogical potential of “new” communications media.

By the middle of the last decade, I had seen quite a bit of the range of creativity and personal engagement taking place on YouTube and Instagram. Meanwhile, Christina’s stunning breakout on The Voice before millions of viewers on mainstream broadcast television could hardly fail to draw the attention of music people, even people like me who were not especially tuned in to the styles of pop music that the kids were listening to.

When I heard about Christina Grimmie's tragic and astonishing death I was shocked and deeply sorry. I started to give special attention to the YouTube videos of the small girl with the huge voice who had amazed everyone in 2014 and had been so suddenly, inexplicably taken from us less than two years later.

That was when I began to see that her achievements as a singer, a musician, and a "presence" in the emerging environments of digital interactive media were beyond any ordinary measure. I was struck by the depth and commitment of her faith in Jesus Christ, but with time I realized more and more how pervasive that faith was "within" everything she did.

She didn't hide her faith, but she spoke of it with simple directness, and not all the time — indeed, not very often — but in a timely fashion, in those moments when it was "necessary" to "use words." Otherwise, she carried out a vigorous engagement of her music and many other interests with a vitality and affection that were so evidently human, and at the same time so 'different' — in a way that was fascinating and provoking.

People found that they wanted to respond to her immense affection, in which her whole life was invested with joy, spontaneity, gratitude, positivity, sincerity, hope, and humor; a great embrace that she opened up to everyone and invited them to share, always with tremendous respect for their freedom and their own particular personal gifts.

I never met Christina in this world. I wish I had. Still, I have found that her luminous life is a gift to me. Her humble, courageous, confident living of her faith in the midst of a difficult and often discouraging world is a sign for me that I have come to cherish.

I never expected to find anything like this on YouTube, or in 2010s popular music. It's easy to grow cynical, to forget, to assume we have nothing new to discover in life. Yet it always remains possible to be surprised. I return to Christina's legacy at least once a month (often in the midst of many other preoccupations) and I find myself surprised all over again.

She helps me to remember to continue to hope, to persevere even when I feel helpless, to grow in the conviction that in the mystery of life (and no matter how it may appear to our narrow vision of a given moment) evil does not have the last word.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

"Then Light Shall Rise For You..."

Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

~Isaiah 58:7, 9-10

Saturday, February 8, 2020

The Witness of Saint Josephine Bakhita

Today we celebrate a woman who was empowered by the love of God, and who gives hope to all powerless women, abused women, trafficked women - to oppressed women and men throughout the world. 

She was abducted from her African village and native people of South Sudan in the latter half of the 19th century. She never remembered her birth name, but the Arab slave traders had called her "Bakhita," which means "lucky." 

There was nothing that looked lucky about the horrible abuse and mutilation that she suffered for years as a slave in Northern Sudan, but then she was brought to Italy, found Christ, and was baptized Giuseppina Fortunata ("lucky"). She became a religious sister and for 40 years worked at the convent and among the people simply but with profound charity. She not only forgave her oppressors, but said she would kiss their hands if she saw them, because they brought her to Jesus.

Jesus overcame evil with good, hatred and violence with the love beyond all measure, the love of God poured out and given to free us from sin, to free us to share in eternal life - to attain the joy for which every human person was made.

Jesus gave Bakhita her true freedom, and formed within her a heart overflowing with mercy and compassion. 

Saint Josephine Bakhita, you have a lot to pray for. We need you. Pray for an end to violence, human trafficking, and child abuse. Pray for South Sudan, for those suffering persecutions, hunger, the ravages of war in Africa and through the world, for an end to all forms of slavery, for respect for the dignity and beauty of every woman and every man, for the perseverence to never give up searching for God's will, and trusting in him when he shows us the way. Pray for us, that we might love and forgive our enemies out of the conviction that God loves us and them, and orders everything in his wisdom and mercy to the good.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Show Us Your Beautiful Face

The world we live in is so ambivalent, complex, and disappointing, with much that is good but very little that is not tainted by human weakness and too many scars from the perpetuation of malice and violence.

We who want to follow Christ in good faith can so easily become afraid, confused, defensive or cynical.

It's hard to be true disciples: to be living in the world — with a vital affection for the good and a compassion for concrete human realities — while at the same time sustaining the awareness that we are not of this world. 

We become insecure, because we ourselves depend too much on the vanities of this world that are passing away. We are too anxious to define our identity on their terms, which can lead us to try to conform our lives to these vanities or else become sad and self-doubtful when they don't affirm our Christian vocation.

This is not surprising. We are weak and full of vanity in our own lives. We so easily forget that the foundation of our lives is the transforming love of God that comes to us through Jesus Christ. I forget all the time, every day.

What is really wonderful is that sometimes I remember Him. I remember the reason why I exist, and the One who is the meaning and fulfillment of all things. He is source and sustenance of that memory, and I want it to grow in my heart, in all our hearts. Yet, why is there this "insecurity," this fear of being loved by God, this "lack of faith," lack of trust?

I want to bring this to the Lord in prayer.

I pray that God would touch with His creative and transforming love that deep place in my heart, and in the hearts of so many people, where we are afraid of Him — afraid of losing ourselves if we let Him love us "too much." I pray for greater trust in Him right here, right in this place where we try to resist Him because we think He wants just to destroy us; we fail to believe that it is right here that He wants to lift us up with His love and make us new and whole.

Jesus, give me complete trust in you. Jesus, you are my Lord! Jesus, I believe in your Infinite Love for me. You thirst for me. Make me the person you have created me to be.

Jesus, on the cross you understood me. You suffered me. You knew and you embraced my terrifying fragility, my weakness, my fear. You know the road of conversion for me; you are that road; you have died on the cross that is me, and you are rising in me in a love that heals and transforms.

You love every single human person, without exception, especially those who are the most lonely, the most troubled and confused, the most burdened with affliction. You love those who do not know you, but whose hearts have been made for you.

Jesus, show us your beautiful face.

Jesus I trust in you.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

On the Fortieth Day of Christmas...🎶

Happy FEAST OF THE PRESENTATION of Jesus in the Temple. Forty Days after Christmas. "Candlemas Day" for blessing candles.

Today our Christmas decorations come down, but we pray that Jesus grows as the Light in our hearts and in our days as we prepare for the journey toward the Cross and Easter.

(But Lent doesn't start until the end of the month, sooo... for now it's "Carnevale season"!👑😉🍝🍕🎉)

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Recorded Music Awards, Part 2

My last post was pretty theoretical, so let's get right to some real music and some real people. There is a lady playing the violin in the picture. I'll talk about her further along in this article.

First I should make some remarks about the big winners at last weekend's Grammy Awards — the O'Connell kids — even though I don't quite know what to say. Wait... who am I talking about? I'm talking about Finneas O'Connell, songwriter and producer, and his little sister (who gets all the attention, because she sings, has green hair, and is apparently willing to put large spiders in her mouth, among other strange things). "Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O'Connell" is the name her parents gave her — really, I'm not kidding. It certainly is an interesting name.

No, they are not from Ireland. They're from California.

What's the deal here? "Ocean Eyes" — the song (written by Finneas) that started it all a few years ago by going viral on SoundCloud — is a nice bit of music, especially considering that they recorded it in their parents' living room. None of the rest of their award-winning collection has made much of an aesthetic impression on me, except that there's overall something kinda morbid(?) about it. That aspect is hard to miss.

If there's humor, satire, parody, or some other kind of context for the "morbid" here, I'm not in on it. Morbid needs some kind of context if it's to be more than just fooling around. It needs context to be perceived and considered in an artistic sense. Otherwise it either won't be taken seriously, or it will be regarded simply as a straightforward (and urgent) expression of a pathological condition that calls for therapy rather than awards.

Context is intrinsic in artwork. It's what makes the work "hang together" with concrete meaning and value. It can be subtle and difficult to articulate, but it needs to be more than just an arrangement of things in superficial relationships that owe their coherence mostly to chance, an extrinsically imposed agenda, or the instincts of fashion.

So I wonder, "Where is this coming from?" Is this a sophisticated form of "acting out"? Is it weird jokes played for their shock value? Is it just immature silliness that I'm over analysing because I've become as boring as I used to think my parents were? Or is there an incipient artistic intuition here that's mixed up with lots of other factors that may be magnifying its momentary popularity while hindering it from maturing and growing? If the "adult world" is going to give these kids so much attention and so many awards, I hope I can be forgiven for wondering "why?" So far I haven't grasped the significance of what they've accomplished.

To be fair, I haven't really tried. I don't know where to begin to get a grip on it. Frankly, I don't think it's "healthy entertainment" for adolescents, but it may tell us something about the haunted, alienated desert that is the "terrain" of the adolescent mind in our society. This is not "innocent fun," but it's also not the usual kind of in-your-face hypersexualism that attacks with wearying relentlessness in most pop music (though there are enough weird twisted allusions here too).

Dear young people, you are so unmoored, so lost in the cosmos that an old man like me doesn't know whether you're being silly or actually mentally disturbed. And that's not your fault — it's our generation's fault, and it's the-world-upside-down because of forces unleashed that we haven't even begun to understand. There is a lot of work to be done, and it begins with the essential questions about being human, about what we are really seeking in all our desires and aspirations, about what causes us to be so dissatisfied and even cynical sometimes, and what reawakens hope.
For regular readers of this blog, let me clarify: you know where I'm coming from regarding the kind of Christ-centered, constructively human environment — the pedagogy for genuine freedom — that you want to build in your homes and communities with your children. There is room for learning many things, at the right time and in the right place. But when I consider music on this blog, I am looking at it as a mature adult, searching for whatever aesthetic or human value, or whatever authentic expression of human desperation and need, can be found therein. This is a distinct consideration from the particular questions you want to address in the vigilance, concrete judgments, and boundaries you give to your kids in the music they listen to and in wider socialization.
Of course, this is 21st century "pop music," the trends of which I observe primarily for their illustrative value in displaying the (unnerving?) plasticity of our expanding communications media. But, with few exceptions, I don't like it much. I really need to get "hit over the head" to notice something musically important in today's world of mainstream pop-stardum (other than "talent-not-being-developed-to-its-potential" — and there's plenty of that).

Still, occasionally I do get hit in this way, even when I least expect it.

Really, I don't want always to sound like a party-pooper. There's lots of beautiful, intriguing, skillful, well-crafted music out there in many styles. I try to keep an ear on lots of things, but my preferences, prejudices, and just the-luck-of-things are always going to play a role in what I listen to and take time to appreciate.

Having won five Grammys this year, 18-year-old Billie Eilish can't be ignored. I'll have to keep an ear on how her career develops.

She doesn't seem nearly as bizarre in interviews and on late night television shows as the impression she gives in her songs. She can certainly sing, and she appears to be articulate and clever. There's potential, talent, creative personality, and intelligence in her. Finneas must have a good handle on what can be done with today's tech, given that he won the best production award from what was literally a "mom-and-pop" studio.

Is the Billie Eilish sweep actually a victory for greater opportunities and real diversification in music? Is it a sign of another crack in the wall of the music business model and the celebrity monoculture?

In any case, the wall remains standing, even if these outsiders were permitted in. Billie is a full-blown celebrity right now. Why is she suddenly Such A Big Thing? It feels like the fad of the moment. Perhaps there's hope that the O'Connell kids won't let it go to their heads, and that they'll go on honing their artistic skills. The industry has been too successful in commodifying and stagnating (if not suffocating) so much talent in the past. I really hope (even at the risk of being foolish) that this long-standing pattern is changing.

I want to move forward to a couple of other things that impressed me from last Sunday's big event.

I am very happy about another Grammy given much further down the list to a record involving two of my favorite musical people. It wouldn't be one's first intuition to associate these two artists, but they have more in common than one might think. Their fascinating collaboration on a musical recording that came out last year won the Grammy for "Best Classical Solo Performance." This one I already knew well, and I was rooting for it.

Wynton Marsalis has attained legendary status in American jazz (and he's only a couple of years older than me). He is also so many other things: in addition to his playing jazz and classical trumpet, directing the Jazz Orchestra at Lincoln Center, and dedicating himself to music education of current and upcoming generations, Wynton is a composer of both contemporary and classical-style music. Not only can this man jam the blues with Eric Clapton; he can also compose a Violin Concerto and a set of solo pieces specifically for one of the most brilliant young classical violinists in Europe, Nicola Benedetti.

This is one of the things I love about Wynton: He is knowledgeable about so many different kinds of music, and he cultivates a wide range of connections with musicians.

He is also a tireless and prolific composer, performer, and teacher. He loves weaving together diverse musical heritages and furthering them in new contexts, so that in effect he is fostering a deepening of musical traditions as they encounter one another. He knows well the many strains that have contributed to the rich music of North America — including Anglo-folk and Celtic traditions.

It's not surprising, therefore, that he is friends with the 32-year-old energetic virtuoso violinist Nicola Benedetti who — in addition to an impressive catalog of classical recordings including magnificent interpretations of the two breathtaking, "impossible" Russian concertos (the Tchaikovsky and the Shostakovich no.1) — also has great interest in the music of her native land... Scotland! (😮)

I wonder if she's ever been stopped in the street in some Italian town by bewildered Scottish tourists, who ask her for directions in whatever broken Italian they can manage, only to be delighted with a response in English flavored with the distinctive brogue that makes them feel like they're back at home.😉 (Something like this often happened to me with American tourists when I lived in Italy, who took me for a "local" and were surprised to hear me speak like them, so I know it can be fun.) What I mean to say is that, other than her very Italian name and her very Mediterranean face and complexion, this first generation native-born daughter of Italian immigrants is Scottish to the bone — the toast of North Ayrshire on the Firth of Clyde in Western Scotland.

Clearly, the Americas are not the only places with Italian immigrants. There are Italian-Scottish people, and that's a very happy thing. Of course, it's something you notice especially because — like many of the new generation of classical artists — "Nicky" Benedetti is accessible (and quite articulate) on interactive media. In fact, she has some really good educational projects on her YouTube channel; like Wynton Marsalis, she loves teaching music and inspiring young people, including those just starting out.

She can also relate to Wynton's passion for both honoring and bringing forth new fruit from musical traditions. (Nicky has an entire album of Scottish themed music that includes collaboration with folk artists.) Some time after 2010, these two technically brilliant, generous-hearted, musically adventurous people began to collaborate and even challenge one another. What started as a plan for some pieces for solo violin (which would eventually become the "Fiddle Dance Suite") soon grew into aspirations for a full Violin Concerto.

At first it was Nicky's aspiration, but she found a way to convince Wynton to compose it for her. His 2010 "Swing Symphony" made her want seek a commission for a bold, full-orchestral piece with solo violin. Here was a chance to explore the vast terrain of Anglo-American music watered by many streams of classical structure, folk traditions, Celtic, African-American, blues, jazz, and contemporary idioms. Apparently it took some convincing to get Wynton to accept this challenge to write for violin and orchestra. Then, in an early stage of the work, Nicky prodded him to make the violin part more technically difficult. Judging from the final piece, I think he really decided to let her "have it." And she took it and ran with it.

The Concerto premiered in 2015 and has been well received in concert over the past five years. The performance that makes up part of the Grammy-winning record was with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Cristian Macelaru in November 2017. The Fiddle Dance Suite was recorded in March 2019. The whole record was released last July.

I don't have to tell you I love stuff like this. What fascinates me here is not only the continuance and further fruition of different streams of musical tradition (some of which have already been blended, while others have rarely met before). I also love the collaboration of outstanding musical artists at the peak of their creativity. Often such collaborations prove to be impossible, but when they do manage to work, they are unforgettable.

The focus of the Grammy is "best solo performance." That's not to shortchange the collaboration. But, among other things, this is one of the best examples of a composer writing music for a particular musician, and that music being played by the musician, that I have heard in a long time. To put it in simpler terms: Wynton Marsalis gave Nicky Benedetti a showcase. And she SHOWED!

I know, I used a sight metaphor for music. I do have a bit of synthesia. But also, it's pretty awesome to watch Nicky play. I can only imagine the stature she has on a live stage. It certainly comes through on video, and maybe there will be a video recording of these works somewhere in the future. In fact, she played one of the solo pieces at the Grammy Awards (not during the prime time broadcast, but still they live streamed it that afternoon).

For now, what we can be grateful for is that we have a recording, which is in itself an admirable work of art.

This article is too long and I'm not finished. The last part will wait for another time. In any case the final story I want to tell goes beyond an awards show or a single stunning performance — it's a larger story about a person who is struggling, who turned anguish into music, who we almost lost a couple of years ago, and who we hope and pray will be with us for a long time to come.

Stay tuned for that, coming up sometime soon....🎵

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Award Shows: The Art of Being a Celebrity

Once again I had the annual opportunity to NOT WATCH the Grammy Awards last weekend. And, I didn't watch them. On Monday, however, I read the whole list of winners and nominees with much interest.

I am not a snob. Really, I'm not!😉

You all know I love music. And every year, the Grammys draw attention (with their nominations as well as their winners) to some really outstanding works of recorded music. Indeed, the Grammy Awards recognize the whole concept of "recordings" as artifacts in themselves — "works of art" that can be appreciated in various distinctive ways, and that need the expert attention of many people in order to be made well.

A "record" is about singers, songwriters, musicians, music, recording technicians (who are themselves contributing artists), and the collaboration, dedication, and patience required for "sculpting" a first-class audio recorded performance. These people deserve to be recognized and honored. I salute them, and thank them.

The Grammys are a chance for recordings (primarily but not exclusively musical recordings) to get recognition from a substantial "guild" of people with experience in many aspects of the craft as it is practiced and distributed among what is the most high-profile and (theoretically) the most prestigious music public in the world.

This is the value of the Grammy Awards. Most of the awards that interest me were given out in the afternoon, in front of smaller crowds at the Staples Center, before the prime-time network television broadcast of the "awards show." Some of the winners were not even present because they were off somewhere else making music, or engaging in other human endeavors. No one was bothered by their absence. No gossip was generated. They eventually acknowledged the honor (in part) by means of a genuinely grateful tweet or Instagram post when they received the news.

This is not surprising. Artists are focused on their craft.

Generally, excellent musicians are also pretty cool people. They want to make music and share it with others. Recognition has value for them because it means the music is reaching more people. Some enjoy "standing out" in performance, while others prefer to collaborate in an ensemble, a session, or a band. What they love, more than anything else about the "business," is making music.

The "Awards Show" on TV doesn't really focus on any of this. Nor does the hype leading up to it.

Rather, the show is a spectacle for the place where music and musical talent intersect with another ruthlessly competitive form of "performance art" — the art of "making" one's entire external life into a persona that can capture and sustain the fascination of masses of people. This is the "art" of being a celebrity.

Ah, the celebrity! What is this strange love-hate, attraction-repulsion, adulation-scapegoating "energy" that connects an individual to a crowd, or even a movement of people? Why do some people crave it and cultivate it? Why are so many of us drawn into its weird pseudo-intimacy? I can't do the philosophy here.

"Fame" is a complex phenomenon with so many levels (especially with the possibilities of today's interactive media). There are some people who seem almost to have a natural aptitude for it, a charisma, a "star" quality, ultimately maybe even a vocation to it. For artists and musicians, there are some levels of fame that are bearable, even fruitful — I'm going to present some examples from Sunday's Grammy winners if I ever manage to get to the end of this article.😉

But the artistic celebrity is particularly fragile, I think, perhaps because they are always conscious — in some way — of the labor of making or sustaining the artifact of their self-image.

I see celebrities and their often unbearable pain. It can be "intriguing" to observe and analyze pop stardom, though it's hard not to veer toward a kind of morbid curiosity or cynicism. I try to give them a different kind of attention. Today they are more "open" about their struggles and problems, but even here there is an ambivalence — a mixture of sincere personal frankness and more work to make an image of one's self as an "open person" (here too, last Sunday offered a poignant example at one point, which I will also get to eventually). How much is the artist really being vulnerable and how much are they just hiding in the shadows of the most recent image they have made? That's probably a question we can't ever really answer. But it frightens me to think that the arduous work of creating a sculpture out of one's own life can become the building of one's own tomb.

I really want to empathize with and love the celebrity as a person, insofar as there is some realistic possibility of doing that. This means praying for them, certainly. It also means appreciating their music, the genuine expression contained within it, and the often-frustrated possibilities of their talents, as well as respecting the mystery of their suffering. That's all I can really do, because I don't know any big celebrities personally.

The annual Grammy Awards Prime-time T.V. Extravaganzas (and other awards shows like them) are too much weighed down by everything that is not helpful here: they are gatherings of celebrities covered over with strange display, vulgar bling, posturing, melodrama (not everyone, of course, but this is what clamors for attention, and increasingly generates controversy). The music that is performed shows gigantic effort but too often with "strained" results. One wonders what might be possible with less self-consciousness.

So I don't watch. It's more than I can take in one sitting. Maybe, I'm too sensitive. Or maybe I don't want to deal with the garish, excessive, laborious and desperately hypersexed performances that inevitably happen at some point[s] during the evening. I know, in any case, that if there is a genuinely remarkable artistic moment, I'll see it eventually.

Occasionally there are moments powerful enough that they impress everyone. Then of course it's all over the Internet the next morning. The human heart can still be reached. And that is what happened, I think, on Sunday night, in a way that was stunning and surprising to a cynic like me. I don't mind being surprised. Thank God for surprises!

But I'll have to treat these particulars in a continuation of this article (because it's too long for one post). In the next post, there will be some good news from the 62nd Grammy Awards.

I'm sure I'll finish this before next Sunday. That's when I plan to NOT WATCH the Super Bowl... unless someone is having a party and there's beer and snacks...😉