Thoughts on Popular American Music

In 1963, just after my parents were divorced and I lived alone with my father, he regularly drove me to school in the morning and picked me up in the afternoon. The British invasion was in full swing, and besides the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Herman’s Hermits and so forth on the radio, Motown music was also popular, with groups like the Chiffons, Stevie Wonder, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Miracles. Even though Dad complained about the popular music of the time, he let me control the car radio, and I kept it tuned to WSBA that served Harrisburg, York, and Lancaster, PA. It was an exciting time for music. Now, several events and conversations over the past few days have caused me to reflect on my early musical influences and my father’s reaction to them, and put them into the larger context of changing tastes in popular music within and across generations and subcultures.

It started when my friend Ruth and I were listening to one of our favorite podcasters commenting on how right-wing politicians have “appropriated” the term “woke” for their own purposes. The podcaster (David Pakman) was explaining how “woke” was a term popular during the civil rights movement to denote an awareness of social injustice, racism, and the need to work to overcome them. People on the left still use the term in a similar way, while politicians on the right seem to use it in a derogatory sense to imply that liberals who are “woke” are trying to corrupt America with vaguely defined progressive trends that are in opposition to fundamental Christian values. Ruth said she had heard that one of the first documented uses of the word was from the folksinger Lead Belly, as a spoken comment after he performed the song, “Scottsboro Boys.” In that instance he was warning young Black youth to be constantly alert to the threat posed to them by racists. This led to a discussion about cultural appropriation, and the irony of Lead Belly’s influence on folk music, along with his having been an early user of the word “woke.”

I believe cultures advance through the blending and sharing of art, science, technology, and other innovations. The influence that African Americans have had on popular American music is undeniable. Bela Fleck documented that the banjo came from Africa. We know that many woodwind and percussion instruments came with slaves from Africa as well. African Americans also brought many rhythmic and harmonic innovations to traditional European instruments and vocal stylings. Would we have blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll as we know it without the influence of African Americans? But I think it is important to distinguish between being inspired by, influenced by, borrowing from, and building on art from another culture on the one hand, and appropriating it on the other. The former happens when there is respect and sharing between and among cultures. The second happens when the contributions of one culture are denied or repressed by another, and when the art, science, technology, and/or other innovations are exploited for profit. I know that Lead Belly had tremendous influence on the American folk music scene. I don’t know how much recognition he got during his career, but I suspect he was highly respected by those he influenced, although I’m sure racism limited his opportunities to perform and earn a living doing so.

Elvis Presley is often accused of taking influences from the Black musicians in and around Memphis without given them credit. He clearly capitalized on their creativity, but did he give them their due? Did he recognize that he would not have been who he was without them? I do think that Elvis inadvertently made mainstream America aware of the amazing Black musicians that until then were making great music, but were out of the view of the music-consuming public. Similarly, there were so many great blues musicians who were not recognized by the general music-consuming American public, but who greatly influenced the music of British musicians like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, John Mayall, Jimmy Page, and others. The list includes B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Buddy Guy, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Freddie King, Muddy Waters, and many others. These blues musicians had careers that took off after British guitarists made young White Americans aware of the brilliant Black musicians who had been playing music in their own country for decades. My sense is that the British blues musicians always recognized, honored, and gave credit to their American inspirations.

I’m grateful that in my late teens I was able to hear the music of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell and others who broke through racial barriers to have their songs reach White listeners, albeit not until after they had been playing for many years while being forced to earn livings outside of music. I hope my friends and I who tried to imitate their brilliance would not be thought of as appropriators. I didn’t set out to write a piece on cultural appropriation, but it seems important to consider it when talking about popular music in America.

This past Sunday morning, CBS presented a piece on the Everly Brothers in which it was mentioned that when they first emerged, the popular thinking was that Rock ‘n’ Roll was a passing fad. Maybe the Everly Brothers had something to do with its endurance, smoothing the edges of Elvis’ rebelliousness, appealing to a country audience, and adding tight, accessible harmonies that Americans could relate to. Later that Sunday afternoon three friends and I got together in my living room with guitars (and one mandolin) to share songs, including at least one Everly Brothers song, as well as songs from the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and beyond. When we get together our eclectic tastes are apparent. We enjoy listening to and playing traditional Irish music, American folk music, music of the sixties and seventies we came of age to, country music, and anything else that we become aware of that we are challenged to learn to play. When our gathering was finished three of us went down to a local brew pub to listen to a bluegrass jam.

Bluegrass is enjoying a resurgence of popularity today, similar to what happened when my generation was introduced to it in the early 1970s. Bill Monroe gets credit for developing the style in the 1930s and 1940s, along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, by evolving it out of more traditional southern acoustic music. In his early career Monroe was influenced by his association with Arnold Shultz, a fiddler, guitarist, and son of a slave who developed what is today known as the “Travis picking” style of guitar playing. Bluegrass has always appealed to a largely White audience, although its roots drew from music that was not the exclusive domain of White performers.

The crowd at the brew pub was almost exclusively White that afternoon, as had been the crowd at the Midwinter Bluegrass Festival in suburban Denver a few weeks earlier. I had remarked at that festival how the crowd was mostly older and not very ethnically diverse. Traditional bluegrass musicians might be assumed to be conservative, but those recording and performing currently write songs with progressive political themes and appeal to a more liberal, urban audience. Still, my sense is that their fans are mostly White. How ironic that Bill Monroe cites the son of a slave as an influence on his playing. Regardless, bluegrass is energetic, personal, acoustic, participatory, and often available live. Today, if there is discrimination associated with it, I suspect that people of color hold it in distain for its old association with the racist south, even though today’s fans and practitioners are nothing like that with regard to their politics or their attitudes.

After playing our own music for over two hours and then listening to another hour of live music, Ruth and I were energized and hungry. We walked several blocks through dropping temperatures and increasing winds until we found a restaurant that had opened a few years ago in a redeveloped area on the southern edge of Sloan’s Lake where St. Anthony’s Hospital had previously stood. Ten years ago the hospital had been surrounded by old bungalows, duplexes and single-story apartments built in the thirties and forties. When the hospital was razed the residences were cleared as well, and replaced with condominiums in structures ranging from six to twelve stories high. The condos were sold to or rented, apparently, to young singles, who also were the primary patrons of the restaurant in which we found ourselves. Young women sat together at the bar talking excitedly to each other. Couples at the bar leaned into each other intimately. Other young couples sat at tables or in booths talking as if on a first date, trying to get to know each other better. The menu featured craft beers from local breweries, creatively named cocktails, and a trendy mix of Mexican, Asian, and burger offerings.

As Ruth and I sat down and tried to converse I found myself asking her to repeat almost everything she said. Speakers embedded above us, behind us, and apparently all around us broadcast a constant thumping bass that might have been part of a larger musical arrangement, but if there were any vocals, guitars, keyboards, horns, or strings, they were inaudible due to the imbalance of the mix. The longer we sat there the more irritated I became, and the more I wondered who was responsible for the environment created within the restaurant, and who would choose to be in that environment if given a choice.

There was a time not too long ago when hotels, restaurants, and stores all played soothing mood music constantly in the background. Some criticized this as subtle form of brainwashing, dulling the senses and numbing the public to the world around them. Was what Ruth and I were hearing something similar, but rather than attempting to numb us, trying to keep us in a state of excited agitation? I don’t know, but I thought about what I would play if it were up to me. With an almost infinite selection of streaming music to choose from, why select a booming bass at a volume that drowns out conversation? Why not put on a playlist of chamber music, or swing jazz, or fifties doo-wop, or disco, or blues? I also wondered how many patrons of the restaurant were paying attention or even cared. Were my old ears really the problem? This was not the first restaurant we’d been in recently where the music was so loud that it discouraged conversation and the bass overshadowed all the other tracks. Had research been done that determined that young patrons preferred this? Did new restaurant owners say to themselves, “I want to open an establishment that pipes in constant, loud, booming bass sounds”? And who is producing this music?

The next morning I turned on the radio and heard an interview with Ricardo Valdez Valentine, Jr., who records and performs under the name 6LACK. The interview made him sound like an interesting singer/songwriter. I had never heard of him, so I thought I’d look up his music. I expected it to be sensitive and personal, based on what he revealed about himself in the interview. An internet search revealed that he is signed to the record label Love Renaissance, whose creations are distributed by Interscope Records, which falls under the umbrella of Interscope Geffen A&M. When I heard 6LACK’s music I was disappointed. There was nothing about it that allowed me to connect personally with the songwriter or the singer. While I’m sure the musicians on the recordings were outstanding and the singing was amazing, what stood out was the engineering. The music was highly digitized. 6LACK’s voice had so many electronic effects applied to it that he sounded robotic. The instrumental tracks were all synthesized with pulsating volumes and rhythms. I don’t want to take anything away from the production and the engineering of the recording. It was amazing, but it hid who Ricardo was, in my opinion, and what he had to communicate. I wondered how much control he had over the production. I listened to some other artists signed to Love Renaissance and the few that I sampled had production values similar to 6BLACK’s. The same holds true for their live performances. Most rely on pre-recorded tracks, sound effects, elaborate light shows, moving stages, and exotic costumes.

I’m not the target demographic of the artists signed to Love Renaissance. They are an extremely successful company founded by a small group of students at Georgia State University in 2012. They have probably found many talented artists and made them successful, but I do wonder how much creative control their artists have to give up in the process, and how different the popular music scene would be without the control of recording companies and their promotion and distribution mechanisms. Maybe there wouldn’t be a popular music scene. If not, would it be so bad if we just had live performers in coffee houses, bars, brew pubs and street corners, who posted their performances on YouTube? Certainly no one would be getting rich off of music.

The other night I watched “Hallelujah,” a documentary about Leonard Cohen, his career, and perhaps his best-known song. The film documents that Columbia records rejected Cohen’s album “Various Positions” for release in the United States in 1984. That album contained the single “Hallelujah,” and sent Cohen and his team on a search for an independent label to release it a year later. Cohen already had a well-established career by this time, and the album had been released in England, but had he been struggling to establish himself and been rejected, he might never have had a music career and his beautiful, influential song might never have been known. How many brilliant, deserving performers and songwriters have had their careers thwarted due to the fickle, unfounded whims of record company executives? And how many boring, tasteless, untalented groups have made the airwaves because these same executives thought they could push them onto the public?

I want to believe that my tastes in music are eclectic – that they are not bound by eras or genres or languages or cultures – but I’m probably wrong. I’ve probably proven that I’m wrong by what I’ve written here. I started this piece by related how my father would listen to the Beatles but complain about how the music made him tense and irritable. Now I hear myself sounding like him when I discuss the music that’s being recorded and released today. At the same time, I wonder why I don’t see a connection between the music the artists signed to Love Renaissance perform and the music that has shaped the popular music that appeals to me. If the first bluegrass musicians were influenced by Arnold Shultz, why does bluegrass only appeal to White audiences? Many say jazz is the greatest American form of music, born from the blues when Black musicians moved to the cities and applied the blues to keyboards and horns. So why are people born in 1990 and later rejecting it in favor or hip hop, rap, and highly-produced electronic music? If the folk music scene of the early 1960s was spawned by Lead Belly, Josh White, Big Mama Thornton, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Odetta and Elizabeth Cotton, I ask the same question.

My only conclusions are that I could listen to Jaco Pastorius, Tal Wilkenfeld, Victor Wooten, Charlie Haden, Stanley Clarke, and Charlie Mingus forever, but I don’t want a thumping bass drowning out my conversations over dinner. I wonder what Ricardo Valdez Valentine Jr. would sound like if he presented his lyrics simply with just his voice and a guitar? I think bluegrass music has something for everyone. It’s easier for me to appreciate my father’s music than for him to appreciate mine. It’s easier for my son to appreciate my music than for me to appreciate his.

Knee Surgery Update

Yesterday, Thursday, January 12th, marked five weeks since my total knee replacement surgery. The surgeon told told me that at six weeks I would be recovered to the point that any pain or disability I experienced would be no worse than the state I was in before the surgery. I don’t think this will be true across the board but it is already true in some regards. Before surgery, whenever I stood up, especially getting out of bed, the first step on my right leg was painful and immediately caused me to shift my weight to my left leg. Now, when I get up, I stand slowly and carefully, expecting the same pain I used to feel, but it is no longer there. This still surprises me and it seems too good to believe that it will last, but I know that it will. For years I have protected my right leg, using my left to bear most of my weight when I stood. I don’t need to do this anymore, and I’m consciously trying to stand evenly on both feet. My right leg used to be slightly misshapen, with my knee unnaturally bent inward. That has been straightened, and when I start cycling again I will probably find that I don’t need the shim that I wore beneath the cleat in my right shoe to adjust for the leg length discrepancy.

The physical therapists judge recovery progress by how much range of motion I have, and I have been at or ahead of goals with each visit, although it is not comfortable when they force my knee to achieve maximum flexion. The knee is still swollen and stiff, though, and not close to being able to bend as far as it could before surgery. They have been reluctant to tell me how active I should be, other than emphasizing the importance of the strengthening exercises they prescribe. They just say I should do as much as I can tolerate. At my three-week visit I was still hobbling around with a cane but was feeling pretty good about getting out and taking a walk around the block. The therapist said that was great, and then went on to tell me about a patient that, although he said was an extreme case, was only a few weeks past his surgery and was walking ten miles a day. He said he had others who were still barely able to walk across a room, and that recovery was an individual thing and everyone had to set their own pace.

The physical therapy sessions have been very helpful. On my own I’d been hesitant to do things like walk stairs normally or get on the stationary bike when it hurt. I’d been afraid I could do damage. But they had me try climbing and descending stairs using alternate steps, and even though it hurt, I could do it and was told I would not do myself any harm, and in fact would strengthen my leg and increase flexibility. So, even though it isn’t comfortable at this point to walk down stairs, I try to do it normally. Going up is easier than coming down. The stationary bike has been great. I knew I wouldn’t be able to use my smart trainer for a long time (it uses software to simulate outdoor rides, including long, steep climbs), so I found a fairly inexpensive spin bike on line, and set it up about two weeks after my surgery. At first I could not do a full rotation, but would go as far as I could in one direction and hold that position, forcing it as much as I could tolerate. Then I would reverse the direction. At one of my therapy visits the therapist suggested raising the seat to see if I could make a full rotation without having to bend the leg so much. Voila! It really hurt at first but after a few pedal strokes the knee started to loosen up and I could even increase the cadence. Since then I’ve been slowly lowering the seat, increasing the resistance, and staying on the bike for longer periods of time. Now I can work up a sweat and get my heart rate into the aerobic zone.

But I expect that in another week my knee will still be stiff and sore, and my leg will still feel weak. I don’t trust it completely, although I think this is mostly in my mind. But before surgery I didn’t have any limitations with regard to cycling. I think I’m months away from being able to go out and ride forty miles at a fifteen-mile-per-hour pace, but that is one of my goals. Walking and hiking were where my knee damage really showed up. It’s been several years since I could hike steep terrain without a lot of pain on descents. My physical therapist said I should be able to do some moderate hiking this summer, but he recommended using trekking poles. That would be fine with me. This past summer even long walks on flat ground got to be painful after fifteen or twenty minutes. When I walk outside now I am slow and careful, and there is some discomfort. I don’t think this will change over the next week, but maybe in a month or so I’ll be able to take a fast-paced walk around Sloan’s Lake without wincing.

The week before my surgery I had a consultation with a surgical nurse practitioner. She wanted to make sure I knew what to expect during my recovery, and give me a final chance to confirm that I wanted to go through with the operation. She told me that since my right knee was having the procedure I should not expect to drive for six weeks. I’m hoping I am cleared to drive next week, and I certainly feel as though I can drive. Besides the lack of physical mobility as a result of the surgery, not being able to drive and the subsequent isolation have resulted in a great deal of restlessness and even depression. I’m going to mention to the surgeon next Thursday that the psychological aspects of recovery, though not as significant as the physical aspects, are still very real and should be considered when putting together a recovery plan. I think at a minimum it would help to be able to join an online group of people who were in the same stage of recovery as I am to talk about progress and coping strategies. Before my surgery I met with a friend of a friend who had undergone surgery several months earlier and she offered me some great strategies for how to prepare my house and what to expect that weren’t specifically covered in the materials that Kaiser and St. Joseph provided.

Generally I’m encouraged and I see small progress day to day, but I am very eager to reach the point where I can start doing more normal physical activities, and especially regain the independence that will come with driving. It doesn’t help that until earlier this week the streets and sidewalks had been frozen and sketchy for someone to walk on who wasn’t completely confident of a new knee. But spring isn’t far off, and I still expect to be able to repeat what I’ve heard so many others say, “I don’t know why I waited to long to have this done.”

A View From The Couch – December 16th, and 17th, 2022

“I don’t know why I waited so long.” “It’s the best decision I ever made.” “I wish I had done this years sooner.”

These are quotes from people who underwent total knee replacement surgery before I did, knowing that I was considering it. As I lie on the couch eight days after my procedure with my knee elevated and on ice, I doubt any of these people were saying these things a week after leaving the hospital. I told my surgeon an hour before they wheeled me into the operating room that I wasn’t sure my knee was bad enough to warrant the intervention.

“This is the perfect time to have it done,” he told me then, just as he had told me a month earlier. “You’re not yet in serious pain, and you’re not yet severely limited in your activities. But you’ve suffered some trauma, your x-rays show deterioration compared to three years ago, and it will only get worse.”

I had known for years that a visit to an orthopedic surgeon would mean a recommendation for knee replacement surgery. I had been told twenty years ago that my right knee was shot, but as long as I could cycle and hike with only moderate discomfort I wanted to avoid the weeks of pain and disability that come with surgery. But for the past three years the pleasure of a long uphill hike was tempered by increasing pain coming back down, and last winter I found myself unable to hold a turn on a descent while cross country skiing. One day this summer I had to apply a little too much force to free my right foot from my bicycle pedal and a sharp pain shot from my thigh to my ankle. For three days I could barely put any weight on that leg. At that point knew I had to see the orthopedist.

My knee problems started over winter break my senior year of high school, when some friends and I got together for a pick-up football game. As I caught a pass over my right shoulder a defender dove into my right leg, pinning my foot to the ground as he rolled his body across my leg. I felt something tear in my knee, and when I tried to stand and walk my leg was unstable. After a few days the swelling and soreness went down and I didn’t think about it until one afternoon when I was throwing a baseball with my father. As I stepped to pitch my best left-handed curve ball, I planted my weight on my right leg and twisted, and the knee locked. Two days after Christmas my meniscus was removed through a three-inch horizontal incision on the inside of my knee.

From that point on my knee popped and clicked with every step, but was generally stable until one day ten years later when it collapsed on me while I was playing racquetball. The surgeon who examined me said there was an additional meniscus tear and I was lucky, he had just purchased an arthroscope and could repair the tear with a new, less invasive procedure. But in the recovery room I learned that there was a new three-inch vertical incision on the outside of my knee. The tear had been more extensive than he thought, so he had to resort to an open procedure. Since 1977 I’ve been going around with very little soft tissue in my knee.

After this most recent surgery, Oxycodone helped me ignore my pain from Thursday afternoon, when I was sent home, until Sunday morning, when I was finally able to tolerate a straight leg raise with only a reasonable amount of agony. I put away the strong pain pills at that point, and have been able to hobble around with a cane since then. My instructions are to spend most of my time with my foot elevated above my heart, knee straight, ice bag on the affected joint, and take it easy. But, I’m supposed to be up and around for fifteen minutes of every hour, bearing weight on the affected leg as much as I can tolerate, and do light physical therapy to improve the flexibility in the joint. At first getting off the couch was hard, but it gets easier every day. My sisters were here for a week, and I could not have managed the first three or four days without them. Now I feel pretty independent on my own, although I will not be able to drive until I am six weeks post surgery. I’m grateful that King Soopers delivers and that I have friends to drive me to appointments.

In my mind I believe all who tell me I will be glad to have had the procedure, but right now, as slow as it is to get around, how awkward it is to take care of even the simplest of tasks, and how much my knee aches, it just doesn’t seem possible that I could be back on the bike in two months and hiking by the summer. My pain is temporary, and the most severe part lasted only for a few days. I am still put out by the inconvenience of it all, but it will pass. I have been thinking throughout this whole experience of people who are permanently disabled, living with chronic pain, have suffered disfiguring, crippling injuries, and otherwise suffer their whole lives physically, emotionally, and socially. I have felt sorry for myself this past week, have been frustrated, discouraged, and depressed. But I have a full recovery to look forward to, and each day I can see progress toward that recovery. The most courageous people on Earth are those who manage to face life each day permanently coping with such obstacles, and still find reasons to live and help others likewise find their own reasons to live and serve others. They have my complete admiration.

I was given a spinal to numb me from the waist down, and a drug called Versed to induce what they call “conscious sedation.” While I may have appeared conscious to the surgical team, I have no memory of the procedure. A friend who underwent a hip arthroplasty tells me she asked the surgeon to show her her hip joint as he removed it from her body. I certainly don’t remember interacting with anyone while on the operating table, and was told not to expect to remember any of it. But apparently patients on Versed can be pretty chatty. I was given the drug once before when I dislocated my thumb in a snowboarding accident, and as with this case, I did not remember their resetting my thumb, but afterward the nurses joked with me about some of the things (quite embarrassing, actually) I must have said while I was sedated. I wonder what confessions and narratives OR nurses, anesthesiologists, and surgeons are privy to that ethical considerations prevent them from revealing? If Versed relaxed any filters one might apply when more fully conscious, things might be said under its influence that could be offensive to some. I imagined as I sat in the recovery room a scenario where I began spouting my political views just as the surgeon, who might have had opposite views, was in the middle of a delicate and critical part of the operation. What if I had said something insulting about people with views opposite mine? Would it cause him to slip and make a mistake? Of course, this would never happen, I knew.

Versed had placed me in a deep, relaxed state where I imagined myself on stage with Ray Wylie Hubbard, Gaby Moreno, and Nick Forster, singing Ry Cooder’s “Across the Border Line.” It was from this wonderful fantasy that I was thrown into the reality of feeling nothing from the waste down except the pain of an overfilled bladder, and no ability to do anything about it one way or another. I guess it’s not the most embarrassing moment of my life, and surely not the last time as I age that I’ll share the experiences of a three-year old learning to get along without diapers.

As I lay in the hospital awaiting discharge instructions I got emotional thinking about all the people who had cared for me throughout the day. I had arrived at 5:00 am, and it was now after 3:00 pm. Education and healthcare are two fields where it is difficult to recruit and retain employees, and there is a need for people of all levels of education, training, and expertise. What is common to both fields and all positions within them is the need for compassion, kindness, and a desire to serve humanity. I was treated very well across the board during my stay. The world is full of self-serving, selfish jerks, but the people who dedicate themselves to education and healthcare do it because they care about people, and care about making the lives of people better. I thought about this constantly during my hours at the hospital, and am so appreciative of the care I received. What could matter more than having a smart and healthy society?

Most of the things I worried about before surgery have not been as bad as I had feared. I worried that I would not be able to cope around the house after my sisters left. It has been easier than I thought it would be. Sleeping is a challenge, since my knee aches at night and I can’t find a comfortable position in bed, but I know this will pass. I cannot yet bend my knee enough to get a sock on my right foot, and I worry that it will be very cold on January 22nd when I go to my surgical follow-up visit. Maybe I’ll have achieved that goal of a 90-degree bend by then. And six weeks is a long time to depend on others for transportation. My front porch steps don’t have a railing, so I’m going to wait a few days before making my way out to the mailbox, and there are certain other activities I’m advised to refrain from for several more weeks (drinking beer and wine) and other physical pleasures for even longer (not sure exactly why). I thought I’d have lots of time to play guitar during my recovery, but it is not yet comfortable to rest my guitar on my right thigh, so the guitar remains in the case. I’m grateful for New York Times word games.

I’ll close by telling myself that I should do an update in a few weeks when I’m getting around without the cane so that I can note the point at which my recovery has me back to the level of functioning I had right before the surgery. These memories become less reliable as time goes by, so if I write them down as they are happening they are more likely to be accurate – only subject to my self-deception, rationalization, and denial. So, for now, I will stop writing.

A New CEO for the Faithful

Jealous of Elon Musk, Donald Trump has made an offer of an undisclosed amount to purchase the Catholic Religion. Sources say the transaction has already been approved. The Pope, when asked to confirm, replied, “Yes, I’m sad to say it’s true. But honestly, I don’t think a purchase was necessary, since we’d mostly sold out already. When asked for details of the deal, Trump said, “Jesus Christ. We worked them down to such a low price that it was literally a steal. I mean, God, you wouldn’t believe what we got it for. It was criminal.”

Trump said he plans to make The Ten Commandments the law of the land, and added these additional stipulations. “I will see that my profile is mounted above every alter of every church, next to the crucifix, and the revised Communion service will now include the distribution of golden threads to be worn around the wrist, which, through transubstantiation, will become actual strands of my hair. I swear to God!” He went on. “I will encourage Sunday afternoons to be devoted to ‘Make America Great Again’ rallies and promotions for ‘My Pillow’ products. “I will encourage children to recognize the role of the New Catholic Church, and to reject their mothers and fathers if their parents do not also recognize the values so central to ‘Make America Great Again.’ “

When pressed for further details Trump was glad to elaborate, “We’re working to revise the Apostle’s Creed to include language attesting to the theft of the 2020 election, and confirming that RINOs and Democrats are led by the Devil.”

“Finally,” Trump concluded, “we shall hold all those who do not convert to the New Catholicism in absolute contempt, especially those who live in close proximity to us. Our neighbors who don’t agree are the worst. Furthermore, we declare that to not follow the Ten Commandments will be considered a capital offense, punishable by death. We shall place adherence to the Ten Commandments above all else.” When asked about adultery he said he would have an assistant look that word up in the dictionary and get back to the questioner at a later date.

At this time comments from other world leaders were not available, but Ted Cruz, Lindsay Graham, Marco Rubio, and Mitch McConnell made assurances that Trump’s purchase would be met with enthusiasm by the international community.

George, and the Songs We Go Out On

It’s been six weeks since George died after a little over a week in the hospital and two or three days in hospice. I’ve put together several pages of videos and songs in his memory, but I’m writing this now to explore my reaction to his dying and his death, and to reflect on how he chose to live out his final few months. I hope it will serve to also remind me that the way I choose to handle my dying, if I have a choice, affects others.

My mother died at the age of 84 in late November of 2012. She let everyone she was close to know that she had cancer of the esophagus soon after she was diagnosed, and when she knew her death was imminent, she wanted my sisters and me to be with her for her final weeks. In her last six months she enjoyed as much time as she could with her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and enjoyed travels and other activities as her health allowed. In this way she celebrated her life with those around her, and together they reflected on it in a way which helped make it complete.

My father died barely a year later. His dementia sometimes prevented him from knowing where he was. I had moved him from California to a memory care unit in Denver where my wife and I visited him almost daily in his last few months, and his daughters and grandchildren were able to visit during that time. He usually recognized us, but was often disoriented otherwise. The time we spent with him allowed us to come to terms with his passing, but his compromised cognitive state robbed him of the chance to acknowledge the ending of his life in a way that was meaningful to him. It seems a great tragedy to not know who we are or who we have been as our lives are coming to a close.

My wife, Leslie, was diagnosed with a brain tumor less than three months after my father died. She immediately reached out to her brothers, friends from high school, college, nursing school, previous jobs, and many other people who had meant something to her at different stages in her life. Her response to treatment was positive and we were sure she would be one of the rare people who survived many years with a glioblastoma, but sadly she took a turn for the worse a year after surgery and died on March 31, 2015. Up until then we traveled to New York, New Mexico, and California, and welcomed many visitors into our home. She ran foot races with her son, step daughter, and daughter-in-law, rode a bicycle through the Colorado and New Mexico mountains, swam in the Pacific Ocean, and sang songs with her friends. She died after spending her last year visiting and sharing good times with the people she loved, and allowing them to love her in return. Leslie wanted to die at home and I did all could to make this happen, but we reached a point where I was not able to manage her pain. Many friends were with her in a local hospice facility during her final week. Lukas, her son, had been with us at home the week before in Denver, but had to return to Albuquerque. When he got word that she was in hospice he rushed back to Denver, but by the time he arrived she had been comatose for nearly two days. There were a handful of us in the room when he entered. We all observed a visible reaction on Leslie’s face at that moment. I’ve related this event often, as I think about the power of love, the nature of consciousness, and how we should not make assumptions about things we can never understand. I’m reminded of it now, thinking of how George spent his final days.

I’m not sure of the timeline, but I think it was less than two years later, at a concert at Red Rocks, when my good friend David told me that he had just been diagnosed with lung cancer. He said there were treatments that could probably keep him relatively symptom free for several years, but the disease would ultimately prove fatal. From that date until Covid-19 forced us all into isolation, we enjoyed bike rides, hikes, and concerts together. One especially fun event was a cabbage-chopping party Nichole, his wife, organized as part of her preparing a large batch of sauerkraut. This event brought together friends, neighbors, and relatives. David loved the Grateful Dead, Frank Zappa, and the jam bands and other groups that carried on their traditions. He and a group of his friends would get together for dinner, beer, and concerts to see Phish, Dead and Company, Phil Lesh and Friends, Dweezil Zappa, and other artists. When Covid-19 hit David had developed a chronic cough but still was strong and feeling healthy, but we didn’t see each other. A year and a half later I got a call from David asking me to meet him outdoors at Sloan’s Lake. When I got to the agreed-upon meeting spot I found him in a wheelchair, looking frail, and dependent on Nichole for mobility. It brought back memories of Leslie’s final days before she went into hospice. Tragically, Covid-19 had robbed David of the comfort of sharing time with those he cared about and those who cared for him. Like my mother and Leslie, and to some extent my father, he wanted the time between his diagnosis and his death to be enriched by sharing it with the people he cared about, and doing the things he loved.

Of the four people with whom I had been close between 2012 and 2022 that I had accompanied up until their deaths, Obviously I was closest to Leslie. I was privileged to let her show me and the others around her how much life meant to her, and how much the people in her life meant to her. She freely allowed us to tell her and show her how much she meant to us. Not only did she demonstrate and express her love for life itself, but also how much she valued the life she had lived and those who had shared her life with her. The experience of having lived is different in some ways from the essence of being alive, and I watched this play out in hearing her recount, sometimes in the presence of and sometimes not, those who had shared those experiences. In a sense, knowing that she was losing her life gave her the chance to enrich the lives of those who would survive her.

I just heard that Peter Schjeldahl, a long-time art critic for New Yorker magazine, has died. In 2019, when he learned of his diagnosis of lung cancer, he wrote an essay called The Art of Dying. In fact, it was much more than an essay. It was a memoir – a reflection on his life. I started writing this piece about George several days ago and was about to give up on it when I started reading Schjeldahl’s piece from 2019. I have read many of his articles in the New Yorker in the past and often found his writing irritating. I wondered if it annoyed me because as an art critic, he did not consider me, a naive reader, to be his intended audience. I would read his articles hoping to learn more about modern art, but found that he was writing for people who were already there, people who knew the world of modern art very well. But his writing was also very clever – so clever that I thought he was showing off – not so much trying to communicate as he was trying to impress. The truth was probably that his writing was so brilliant that it was too challenging for me. I struggled to make sense of his metaphors, similes, and analogies. The Art of Dying is, in contrast, an honest, touching, amusing reflection on his regrets, achievements, insights, and other personal observations that one might be expected to have upon learning of a terminal illness. Reading it has further helped me to understand why George’s dying and his choice in dealing with it has left me, six weeks later, still coming to terms with it.

I met George in late 2015 or early 2016, when I decided that joining the Acoustic Music Community and taking part in open microphone events would be a way to help me cope with my own grief. For those who might not know, an open mic is an event where musicians, comedians, and storytellers, who for the most part are amateurs, can sign up to sing a few songs or otherwise perform in front of a crowd at a coffee house, library, church, or brew pub. The first one I attended was at a brew pub where I sang a song I wrote and also sang an old Bob Dylan song. George approached me afterward and said he liked my guitar playing and my choice of songs, and thought perhaps I could back him up in the future on some songs he’d like to sing. Through George I met nearly a dozen other amateur musicians who have come to be good friends, and I give George credit for helping me find a new focus for my music. Together we worked out a half dozen or so songs that we performed at various venues and events over the next several years.

The way George and I met was the way George had met everybody else that I came to know through him. As far as I know, the only friends George had were friends he had met through his interest in music, which centered on folk singer/songwriters on the 1960s and 1970s. George was opinionated. If he liked a song, he liked it very much. If he didn’t like a song, he didn’t want to hear it, didn’t want to consider singing it, and didn’t want to hear anybody else sing it. There were aspects of the singing and playing of each of his friends that he appreciated, but he was very specific about each of our shortcomings, as well. If he asked one of us to play guitar or piano for him on a song he wanted to sing, he was quick to tell us when he didn’t like how we played it, although he couldn’t always articulate what we should do differently. Although he was a good enough guitar player that he could accompany himself on most songs he liked to sing, he preferred not to play when he sang.

George said at least once that it was impossible to play a song too slowly. He preferred ballads by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Richard Thompson, Lennon and McCartney, Phil Oaks, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt that allowed him to show off his ability to reach high notes, and he liked to slide into those notes, then hold them in long, drawn-out hums. Not everyone appreciated his style but it was distinct and some – many, I think – found his singing very moving.

Some of George’s opinions were fixed and firmly held. He and I agreed that we liked Bob Dylan songs from the mid 1960s, especially from the albums Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. But there were times when I would bring up a song that I liked, expecting him to agree with me, and he would tell me in no uncertain terms how wrong I was. It was just as likely that if I criticized the same song he would defend it. These exchanges didn’t consist of debates, but rather George’s matter-of-factly expressing what was the correct position to hold on the merits of the song.

Several of us worked with George to put together performances of three hours each. George selected the music and had the most input into the arrangements, and for the most part they went well. There was one that was different. I was working with him on another performance about a year ago but backed out when rehearsals became contentious and time consuming. It was partly an issue of his not liking the way I played an accompaniment. He would stop me midway through the song, saying it wasn’t right, but he wasn’t able to explain what he didn’t like. And he started expanding the scope of the performance. Not only was I expected to back George up on guitar and add harmony where possible, but I was to provide the sound system and make adjustments to the balance, volume, and equalization with each number. As he brainstormed other performers he wanted to include in the event, I realized I would not be able to manage everything. What I thought was going to be a simple evening of George and me together had turned into a rotating list of five or six different acts over a three-hour time period. I don’t think he ever forgave me for backing out. But now I think I understand what was going on in him mind, even though he never explained it to me. He probably never understood his unconscious motives himself. The others George intended to include were people whose talents he had come to love, and I think he wanted to, in his way, let them know how much he appreciated them, and also give himself the gift of having them perform for him. Although I didn’t know he was dying, he did. He was planning a celebration for himself. I believe he was more accepting then of his mortality than he came to be months later.

More than two years earlier, when the pandemic first hit and we stopped meeting in person to play music, I began hosting song circles on Zoom. George joined enthusiastically and helped me pick a list of people to invite to participate on a weekly basis. For over a year we shared songs every Wednesday evening from 7:00 pm until 10:00 pm. After that we decided to only get together once a month. Looking back now, I can see that George had a reason for picking the songs that he chose to sing week after week. It wasn’t so apparent at the time.

One of his favorites was Carrickfergus, a song written by Dominic Behan that was popularized by the Chieftains, and includes the lyrics:

But I'll sing no more now til I get a drink.
I'm drunk today and I'm rarely sober, 
A handsome rover from town to town, 
Ah but I'm sick and my days are numbered, 
So come all ye young men and lay me down.

He also liked to sing Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s Talk To Me of Mendocino:

. . . and let the sun set over the ocean,
I will watch it from the shore,
Let the sun rise over the redwoods,
I'll rise with it til I rise no more.

I was not familiar with Sandy Denny’s song, Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, when he sang it one night, but it, too, contains lyrics hinting at death (or perhaps immortality):

How I'd love to remain
With the silver refrain
Of an old fashioned waltz,
As they dance round the floor,
And there's no one else there,
And the world is no more.

On a different night he sang a song by Danny Flowers, James Hooker, and Nanci Griffith called Gulf Coast Highway with the lyrics:

And when we die we say we'll catch some blackbird's wing
And we will fly away to heaven
Come some sweet blue bonnet spring.

And George was always game for singing a Bob Dylan song. Forever Young was his favorite, but he surprised us one night with Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues with these lyrics:

I don't have the strength to get up and take another shot,
And my best friend, the doctor, won't even say what it is I've got.

Toward late 2021, George started joining less frequently. He had undergoing bypass surgery a few years previously and suffered from COPD, and cited breathing difficulties sometimes as a reason for not joining. I was surprised one night in June when I reminded him of a scheduled Zoom meeting, only to hear from him that he was in the hospital. I went to visit him the next day and he told me that another friend, Lonny, whom he had known since the 1970s when he lived in Cincinnati, had been keeping in close contact with him and when George had stopped answering his phone Lonny had the police make a welfare check on him. They found him nearly unresponsive in his apartment and had him taken to the emergency room. It was during this visit in the hospital that George told me that he had metastatic prostate cancer (it turns out he had been diagnosed many years earlier), but made me promise not to tell anyone. He said that Lonny and I were the only ones who knew. He intended, he said, to let the rest of our circle of friends know in person when the time was right.

Two weeks later George was transferred to a rehabilitation facility where they hoped to get him well enough to return home. I tried to visit him there but because I had been exposed to someone with Covid I was not allowed in. More than a week later, when he was transported home, he asked me to meet him at his apartment because he didn’t think he would be able to negotiate stairs. He told me then that he thought he had between six weeks and three months to live. I was still asked to keep his condition to myself. In the mean time, he hoped to put together a list of all his friends he had heard perform or who had performed with him, and note the songs that he thought they performed the best. He intended to share this list. He never did. Again, he told me that he planned to tell everybody in person his his condition when the time was right. I urged him to change his mind and tell people immediately. I knew people would want to know and would want the opportunity to visit with him, and that he would benefit from their company. He never did.

I had been dismayed at the condition of his apartment. It had been nearly a month since he had been there, and clearly he had not been able to manage for a long time before being taken to the hospital. I offered to pay for a professional cleaning but he assured me he would be hiring someone to get it back into shape. He never did.

Another week went by, and I received a call from George. He had a prescription for pain medication that he wanted me to pick up for him. He was barely able to rise from his chair, so driving was out of the question. I could hear voices in the background. He told me that a home health team was making a visit. Several hours later I delivered his pills. The apartment was in even worse condition than before. He told me the home health team would be back in a few hours to take him to the hospital. I was relieved, and asked him to contact me when he was admitted. Two days later, on a Saturday afternoon, I called the hospital and they had no record of his being there. I called his doctor’s office and they would not give me any information on his condition or status, but apparently my call triggered a welfare check to his apartment. He was found nearly unresponsive again, and taken to the hospital. I found out later that the team that was at his apartment when he called me was there to take him to the hospital, but he refused to let them take him.

The following day I received a call from the hospital social worker who was hoping I might have some information on George’s next of kin, power of attorney, and end-of-life wishes. It seems he was being combative, insisting that he didn’t need to be in the hospital, and expressing anger with me for making the call that resulted in his being there. He wanted to be discharged. I knew George had no siblings or children, and he never talked of any other living relatives. At one point the social worker and his attending physician got me on the phone with George where I was encouraged to talk sense into him, but he became angry with me, so we ended the call. I thought perhaps this would be the last contact I had with him.

The next morning I was several miles into a bicycle ride when my phone, mounted on my handlebars, rang. The caller ID said it was George. As angry with me as he had been the day before, and as disoriented as he had been, I did not think he’d be calling me. I expected it to be a hospital professional calling on George’s phone to inform me of a crisis, or worse. Instead it was a calm, lucid George sounding like his old self, taking his time finding the right words, slow to get to the point, repeating himself, getting distracted and asking questions off topic, but sounding like the George I had known these past six years. When I realized the call was going to go on for a while I moved out of traffic into a shady, secluded spot and listened to him ask me to help him invite all his musician friends into his hospital room that evening to play for him.

Amazingly, ten of us were able to mobilize on short notice and take guitars, autoharps, mandolins, and a bass ukulele into his hospital room and play whatever songs he requested of us from 6:00 pm until 9:00 pm. George was happy that night, but not well enough to play or sing himself. I kept think that if he’d have let people know months ago that he wasn’t well we could have had dozens of events like this. As it was, most of the people there that night didn’t know he wasn’t going to get better. The following Saturday he was admitted into hospice. Several of us visited him the next day. As my friend and I approached his room we could hear him groaning in pain. The nurse told us his dose of medication had just been administered. We sat with him as he tried to speak but was unable to make himself understood. As the medication took effect he became still and quiet. We left when it appeared as though he had fallen asleep. He died the next day, September 5, 2022.

His healthcare providers had asked him if he had designated anyone to have power of attorney. On the first day of his second hospitalization he told St. Joseph Hospital that Alan, a friend in New York from many years ago, had power of attorney. Alan was contacted and said that although he was willing to accept the responsibility, no documents had ever been signed. Then George said Lonny was actually his power of attorney. This, too, was not correct but the following Wednesday the necessary documents were executed to make it so, although George had trouble accepting that it needed to be done.

George would not say what he wanted done with his remains. Lonny tried to get him to express his wishes several times, but his unwillingness to answer seemed consistent with his denial that his death was imminent. This was similar to his thinking that the right time would come later on to tell people of his condition. When he died without having made a decision his body became the responsibility of the state. This means there is no grave or other memorial site.

My mother gave her body to the University of Minnesota for research, but we were given her cremated remains eventually. My sisters and I, along with our spouses, held a ceremony at Solana Beach in California, a favorite vacation spot of Mother’s, where we sent her ashes floating out to sea. My father was also cremated. We held a small ceremony at Seal Beach to offer his ashes to the Pacific Ocean. Leslie, too, was cremated. One third of her ashes were buried at the base of a memorial tree in her hometown of Voorheesville, New York, one third at the base of a memorial tree by Sloan’s Lake in Denver, and one third at the top of Lookout Mountain, one of her favorite cycling destinations. I can think of my parents when I think of or visit the west coast of the US. I often ride to the spot where I distributed Leslie’s ashes on Lookout Mountain, and I end most of my bike rides by stopping at Leslie’s memorial tree by Sloan’s Lake. George has no spot that holds any physical remnant of him, where any of us can go to remember him.

I’ve tried different explanations for George’s handling of his own terminal illness. One is to tell myself that, although he kept up the appearance of a rational person through most of it, he wasn’t really rational. Maybe he thought, in some unconscious or unstated way, that if he didn’t tell anyone he was dying, then he wouldn’t be giving nature permission to take his life. Telling people you were dying was letting nature know it was true, but keeping it quiet was to keep the fact at bay. Likewise, nature couldn’t have its way with you if you stayed out of the hospital. Nature couldn’t shut down your organs if you didn’t put your initials on a piece of paper expressing your wishes for what to have done with your no-longer-functioning body.

This sort of made sense with regard to his behavior in his last few months of life, but looking back at the songs he chose to sing a year or two before that, he seemed to be more accepting of his mortality. Maybe knowing that he still had several years to live made the prospect of death easier to accept. I don’t know how long he had been on pain medication, but the prescription I picked up for him was a strong narcotic. Who knows how that might have been affecting his cognition and reasoning.

When we tried to get George to give Lonny permission to take responsibility for his car, at this point five days before he died, he asked three of us individually if we thought he would every drive again, and when we said no he argued with us. The Sunday before that, when I was advised by his caregivers that anyone who wished to visit with him might only have several days left to do so, George was arguing that it was being in the hospital that was keeping him from hearing live music, driving around town, and attending fun events. In reality, he hadn’t had the strength to walk across his living room. I wonder if this kind of thinking hadn’t taking over his mind months before.

Why had George been so different from my mother, my wife, and Peter Schjeldahl, who, knowing they were dying, wanted to relish every remaining moment with friends and loved ones, and reflect on the lives they had lived, honoring both the blunders and moments of pride? Unlike David, who had the opportunity to do so robbed by the pandemic, or my father, whose dementia kept him from being aware of how his life was ending, George could have celebrated himself and allowed those who cared about him to join in that celebration. Now he’s gone and he’s left many of us feeling we didn’t help him through the end of his life properly. I have friends who have lost spouses or loved ones suddenly, to heart attacks, strokes, or accidents. They didn’t have time to prepare for this loss. I suppose going suddenly is a blessing in that there is little or no suffering, but those who are left never have a chance to say proper goodbyes, settle unresolved issues, apologize, ask for forgiveness, forgive, or say “I love you” one final time.

George had to opportunity to let the people close to him know how he felt about them, and for them to let him know how they felt. Instead he died angry with those who tried to help him, and he left them feeling angry with him for not letting them help, and for not letting them be close to him as he was losing his life. It was his life. It was his choice and his absolute right to make that choice, but unlike the other deaths of people I’ve loved, his is an unsettled one. There is no summary or conclusion to be reached. George’s behavior dealing with both music and illness is easy to describe, but hard to understand. Was he private and aloof because he didn’t want people to truly get to know him, or is the George we saw all there was to him? Was he sometimes disagreeable and contentious because it was a way he could flatter himself, or was he just confused and inconsistent? Maybe beyond the way people made him feel when they sang and played instruments, he had no feelings for others. Maybe his friendships went no further than asking someone to play a few guitar chords behind him when he sang, or no further than feeling special if asked to sing some harmony. Many of us are left to wonder.

Cold Snaps, Climate, and Evolution

I’m going to try to connect two different discussions I’ve heard recently using climate change as the bridge. I heard last week from someone living in rural Idaho that they experienced a record cold snap the week of April 10th through the 16th, providing evidence that God and Mother Nature, rather than humans, were in charge of temperatures on Earth, counter to what global warming alarmists contend. Then, on Saturday (April 23rd), Colorado Public Radio rebroadcast a production of RadioLab that originally aired in March on which the hosts discussed a study conducted in the 1970s by Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Simberloff, David Raup, and Thomas Schopf that raised questions about Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest.

I’ll begin by making the point that has been made repeatedly, and should not ever have to be made. Day-to-day, week-to-week, and even month-to-month variations in weather cannot lead to inferences about climate unless they are trended over many years. Furthermore, climate includes other elements of weather besides temperature, including wind, moisture, ultraviolet radiation, cloud cover, and snow pack, year after year.

Nonetheless, I was curious to see how the week of week of April 10th through April 16, 2022 in Coeur D’Alene compared to the previous 25 years. Using the website, I was able to look up the high and low temperatures for each of the dates in this range for the past 26 years. For comparison purposes, I looked up the same data for Fairbanks, Alaska, since I had heard that climate change was more extreme closer to the Arctic Circle. Though still nearly 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, I thought Fairbanks might offer some insight.

I was then challenged with how to summarize the data to provide some useful information. I decided that for each of the twenty-six years in question I would average the seven daily high temperatures for the week and the seven daily low temperatures for the week for both cities. When I plotted the data I ended up with a busy and rather inconclusive graph.

The mean high temperatures for Coeur D’Alene show a slight downward trend, while the opposite is true for Fairbanks. Both cities show a downward trend for mean low temperatures. Interestingly, the week in question was unusually warm in Fairbanks in 2012, and unusually cold the following year. 2022 showed the lowest mean high temperature for the week in question for Coeur D’Alene, but had been preceded by two fairly warm years. The mean low for the week in question in 2022 in Coeur D’Alene (24.4) was about 2 1/2 degrees colder than the second coldest mean low temperature recorded in 1999 ( 26.9). If nothing else, the graph shows that for the week of April 10th through April 16th, year-to-year since 1997, for both Fairbanks and Coeur D’Alene, the average high and low temperatures vary quite a bit. No single year is a good predictor of what will happen the following year.

I’m told by climate experts that these seasonal variations are to be expected, but more stable indicators of climate change can be found in shrinking polar ice caps, rising sea temperatures, chronic drought conditions in some regions and chronic flooding in others, changing migratory patterns of birds and mammals, and changes to floral habitat. Those who think that God and Mother Nature control daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly weather events must also think these changes, clearly documented over the past fifty years, fit into the plan.

When I hear friends argue that God is in charge of weather, I wonder what they imagine. Do they see God looking down on Earth as he files his fingernails and clips his toenails, trying to decide whether to inflict meteorological pleasure or pain on the creatures below that day? Perhaps he suddenly sees Ricky Gervais and decides he will cause a blizzard while blowing Ricky’s furnace pilot light out. Regarding climate, maybe God is just bored with polar ice caps and wants to change the shape of the continents by raising sea levels.

To counter the evidence of human-caused climate change, skeptics point to Earth’s history of repeated ice ages followed by spells of exceptional heat. But these arguments overlook the known fact that carbon dioxide and methane are heat-trapping gasses and their increased concentration in the atmosphere over the past century can be measured. They also overlook how quickly the climate is changing now compared to the historical record, and how we have fashioned civilization to make life for humans comfortable in the climate the existed before the human-caused acceleration began. If the acceleration continues at this pace we will not be able to move our cities and adapt out technology to accommodate it.

This brings me to the RadioLab segment entitled “Life In a Barrel.” In a computer simulation of evolution conducted by Stephen Jay Gould, Daniel Simberloff, David Raup, and Thomas Schopf, they discovered that, rather than survival of a species turning out to be a reward to those most “fit,” extinction seemed to happen at random. The broadcasters also pointed out, independent of this research, that 99% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are now extinct.

I haven’t read a lot of Darwin’s original work but I have been taught it and have heard his theories discussed and repeated. Most people I have heard who talk about evolution explain it as a process that results in continuously improving species on the planet – both within the species and in the creation of new species. Some people think of this as akin to a divine process, and think of “survival of the fittest” as meaning that the creatures which survive are meant to survive, because they are more suited for survival, or more “fit.” They attach a qualitative value to the term “fit.” But it is important to think of “fit” more in terms of a match to the environmental conditions that exist on Earth, and to consider that conditions on Earth are constantly changing. Most of the changes take place too slowly to be observed by a single generation, although there are exceptions. Floods, volcanoes, tidal waves, earthquakes, and other natural disasters can change the natural environment in an instant. A creature that is “fit” to survive on a dry shoreline one day is no longer “fit” to survive in the same spot after a flood. The waterfowl that were “fit” to live in a bayou would give way to scorpions and tarantulas after years of prolonged drought.

I wonder if the Gould computer simulation found randomness in extinction due to the random fluctuations in Earth’s environment? It is widely accepted that dinosaurs died out suddenly after a meteor hit the Earth. They were probably quite “fit” to survive until that happened. Most natural disasters are huge but don’t affect the entire planet. They kill many creatures locally, but are not widespread enough to cause extinction. Apparently the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs was an exception. However much Earth has changed since humans came into existence, these changes have happened slowly enough, or been confined geographically enough, that humans have continued to be “fit” enough to survive. However, I do question our fitness in one regard. Unlike most other species, we don’t seem to be able to survive on Earth the way it is. We have to modify the environment in order to live comfortably on Earth. Ironically, these very modifications are what now threaten our “fitness” for survival, due to the way they are affecting our climate at such a rapid pace – a pace that does not appear to be giving us a chance to adapt. And the changes we are bringing about are happening on a global scale.

These changes are harming other species more quickly than they are harming humans, too. We only have to consider the animals that have gone extinct in the past 100 years to recognize how humans are changing Earth in a way that threatens all species. These include the paradise parrot, the passenger pigeon, the Sicilian wolf, the Japanese sea lion, the Bubal antelope, the Tasmanian tiger, the heath hen, the golden toad, the Carolina parakeet, the Caspian tiger, and the Guam flying fox. Besides these recent extinctions, nearly twenty species are considered critically endangered currently, all due to environmental changes that are human caused.

It is widely held that our large brains are what set us apart from and make us superior to other creatures on the planet, and that the mutations that led to our having more sophisticated language, speech, and other forms of communication were part of an ever-improving process. Walking upright and having opposable thumbs also set us apart from all but a dozen or so other species on the planet. But what if what we call evolution isn’t really part of an ever-improving process. Mutations happen randomly in species all the time – most are too subtle to detect, while others are considered deformities and often are incompatible with life. If humans have survived so well for so many eons due to “fitness,” would we need to use our opposable thumbs in conjunction with our tongues and oversized brains to modify our environment to make it “fit” us? It is these thumbs, after all, that allow us to grip the tools that we use to so drastically alter our environment. Here I must also say that thumbs allow us to play musical instruments, which, as far as I’m concerned, demonstrates what beautiful creatures humans can be.

I know this next idea contradicts the genetic, chronological, and paleontological evidence, but why don’t we amuse ourselves for a moment and consider that the great apes might have evolved from humans to be a better “fit” for the natural world. Gorillas, bonobos, chimps, and other primates can live in the natural world as it is, without having to modify it and make it less survivable for other species. Doesn’t that make them superior to us? On the other hand, we do believe we have the ability to study, learn, teach each other, and collaborate. But the evidence is that we rarely practice these skills in a way that enhances human survival in the long run, especially now, when faced with such existential threats.

Planet Earth will only continue to support human life for so long. Barring some some disaster such as a meteor strike or a seismic or volcanic event releasing toxic gas across the entire planet, it might take eons for conditions to change enough that humans and other mammals could no longer survive. And if changes to the environment on Earth happen slowly enough, random mutations to some humans might produce a new species of human-like creatures who can adapt to these changes. But the struggle to maintain our quality of life in the midst of rapidly occurring human-caused climate change is a different challenge. It would be hyperbolic to suggest we’re facing imminent human extinction due to our continued burning of fossil fuels. But the threat of economic collapse, the demise of commerce as we know it, crop failures and resulting food shortages, and new pandemics are real. I wish I could believe that one cold week in Idaho meant we didn’t have to do anything to prepare for all this.

What Olympians Must Overcome

It’s so moving to hear the stories of hardship that competing olympians have had to overcome to reach the heights they have achieved. NBC has gone to great lengths to provide us with details of their personal lives in order to add a human interest touch to their coverage of the winter events. I was particularly touched by what the young woman from Bogart, Kentucky, who is competing in the crock-style brake sled event, has had to deal with. When she was conceived her unfortunate parents lived in an apartment without air conditioning. While copulating they were forced to leave the windows open and had to endure the sounds of street traffic below, not to mention heat in excess of 85 degrees and barely tolerable humidity. It’s a wonder her father was even able to do the deed. Then, nine months later, when her mother went into labor, her father started the car to drive to the hospital. He noticed that the gas gauge registered only one third of a tank. What if the hospital had been farther than ten or fifteen miles away? He might have had to stop to refill the tank. She related an incident once, as a child, when she wanted oatmeal for breakfast, but much to her mother’s dismay, the microwave was not functioning. She realized she would have to use the conventional oven. To make the tragedy even worse, there was only standard oatmeal, not instant. She would have to stand for a full ten minutes while it cooked, just to prepare breakfast for her hungry daughter. Lastly, when the poor girl applied for her learner’s permit, they misspelled her name. She was forced to return to the department of motor vehicles and wait a full ninety minutes to have the error corrected. Yet here she is today, in spite of these unbearable setbacks, representing our country so proudly.

Are You Christian Enough?

We know you’re going to Heaven. After all, you’re reading this post. But what about all those people you shared a Thanksgiving table with? Sure, they all said they were Christians, but there have been so many Revelations since 2016 that we now know so much more about what it takes to please Jesus than we did before. Here’s a little quiz you can use to gauge what the chances are of those who sat with you at that most American of holidays to meet the Lord’s criteria. And if you probed enough to find out if they might not really be trying to subvert our country, then you should be able to tell for each and every one of them whether they will share the hereafter with you. Are you ready? You will find the answers to each of these questions at the bottom of the post.

  1. If you don’t own a firearm, will St. Peter let you pass?
  2. We know that God frowns upon electric cars, but are there any Prius owners in Heaven?
  3. How many episodes of Tucker Carlson can you miss in a week and still get in to Heaven?
  4. If your gross annual family income is less than $100,000 it is a clear sign that you are not blessed by God. Does this also mean that you are condemned to eternal damnation?
  5. If you live in New York City, is it enough to call Sean Hannity your hero, or must you or an immediate family member also have contributed to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign when he was running for Mayor of the city?
  6. Some people might actually like broccoli. But if it is eaten with a meal that does not include beef, will Jesus forgive you?
  7. There are several things black people can do to get into Heaven. Which of these qualify:
    • Acknowledge that the Civil War was about States’ Rights, and not slavery
    • Appear behind Donald Trump on camera at one of his political rallies
    • Send your children to a mostly white, private Christian elementary school
    • Deny ever having heard a James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Snoop Dog, or Run-D.M.C. song
    • Assert publicly that welfare perpetuates poverty and a national healthcare program would encourage people to stay sick
  8. During an NFL time-out, can you momentarily switch channels to a soccer game and not incur God’s wrath?
  9. Can you get into Heaven if your neighbors have solar panels on their roof and you still talk to them?
  10. Is getting a college degree a mortal sin?

And here are the answers:

  1. If you don’t own a firearm, will St. Peter let you pass?
    • Recent court rulings have made it clear than owning a gun is a “God-given right!” Even though guns are an invention of modern history, and traditional Christianity is based on writings a thousand years old and older, we know now, based on teachers of the NRA, Southern Lawyers, Republican lawmakers, and Evangelical preachers, that these esteemed individuals have a direct line to the workings of God’s intentions. So, not only is owning a gun a “God-given right,” but to pass on this right is an affront to God’s wishes. Therefore, if you do not own a gun, you will not see eternal glory.
  2. We know that God frowns upon electric cars, but are there any Prius owners in Heaven?
    • Why would God have put petroleum in the ground if He did not want us to pump it out, refine it, and burn it as fuel? The sun is for tanning flesh, not making cars go or lighting our houses. There are no Tesla, Chevrolet Bolt, or Hyundai KONA owners in Heaven. However, when hybrid owners present at the Pearly Gates, assuming they qualify on all other grounds (which is rare), St. Peter flips a coin to determine admittance.
  3. How many episodes of Tucker Carlson can you miss in a week and still get in to Heaven?
    • Increasingly Tucker Carlson has God’s ear. But we know Tucker Carlson to be inconsistent, so this varies from week to week, depending upon Carlson’s mood and his relationship with God at the time. Is it one episode, or none? I would not take a chance. Play it safe, and never miss an episode.
  4. If your gross annual family income is less than $100,000 it is a clear sign that you are not blessed by God. Does this also mean that you are condemned to eternal damnation?
    • Clearly Jesus has had a change of heart when it comes to the poor. Forget that “eye-of-the-needle” nonsense. If you are not wealthy, especially in America, your hell on Earth will continue on into Hell in the afterlife.
  5. If you live in New York City, is it enough to call Sean Hannity your hero, or must you or an immediate family member also have contributed to Rudy Giuliani’s campaign when he was running for Mayor of the city?
    • Both conditions must be met.
  6. Some people might actually like broccoli. But if it is eaten with a meal that does not include beef, will Jesus forgive you?
    • Jesus forgives those who hunt deer, elk, caribou, bear, moose, javelina, and other forms of large game for their primary source of meat. Domestic fowl and small game birds and mammals, as well as fish, do not count. Keep in mind also that hunters who are unlucky in their quest to “bag” something must pray for success. And if they pray for success but still do not kill any big game, then God is fucking with them. He is, of course, in control and enjoys frustrating you from time to time. If this happens, and you won’t know if it did, maybe you’ll be forced to eat broccoli without meat, but you won’t know if it’s your fault or a divine joke. Remember, the Lord works in mysterious ways. Can you still get into Heaven? Wait and see.
  7. There are several things black people can do to get into Heaven. Which of these qualify:
    • Acknowledge that the Civil War was about States’ Rights, and not slavery
      • Of course
    • Appear behind Donald Trump on camera at one of his political rallies
      • By all means
    • Send your children to a mostly white, private Christian elementary school
      • No. What do you expect to achieve by educating your children in the first place?
    • Deny ever having heard a James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Snoop Dog, or Run-D.M.C. song
      • No. He’ll know you’re lying
    • Assert publicly that welfare perpetuates poverty and a national healthcare program would encourage people to stay sick
      • That’s the ticket
  8. During an NFL time-out, can you momentarily switch channels to a soccer game and not incur God’s wrath?
    • This depends on the teams you switch from and switch to. God will never forgive the 49ers, so you can turn them off any time. In fact, you are already in his bad graces for watching them in the first place. Like our founding fathers, Walter Camp was in direct contact with God when he developed the first rules of football, and God does not like sports that compete with it. But, he kind of winks, knowing that Texas has Major League Soccer teams in Dallas and Houston. But if you should happen to switch to a televised soccer game from England or Mexico (football and futbol, respectively), you would be instantly condemned to Hell.
  9. Can you get into Heaven if your neighbors have solar panels on their roof and you still talk to them?
    • There are only a few topics that would be acceptable in this case. You could tell them that climate change is a hoax, that Donald Trump was the real victor in 2020, that the sun’s purpose was to tan skin and not to produce electricity, that you value horsepower over fuel economy, that you use your AR-15 as a handle for your dust mop, and that any sperm that leaves the male body but does not find an ovum with which to unite is murder. Should you say anything suggesting that you regard this neighbor as a reasonable human being would be to condemn your soul.
  10. Is getting a college degree a mortal sin?
    • Higher education in and of itself is not a sin, depending upon the institution and the nature of the curriculum. In choosing a school, first look to the results of the previous football season. Jesus shows his colors during college football, as coaches and players know, and that’s why so many pray for success on the gridiron. But Jesus has his favorites. First, choose a winning football program if you want to pick a college. Second, pick a school that has “Christian” in its name. It’s hard to go wrong there, but some might have deceptive, liberal, humanistic tendencies. Do your research and stay away from these. Third, find schools associated with Evangelical leaders who endorse Donald Trump and who, in turn, Donald Trump endorses. You can be sure that both the Heavenly Father and his only begotten Son are on board with these guys. Avoid any school that includes “technology” in its name, has a medical school associated with it, or is located north of the Mason-Dixon line. Most universities in the south that have law schools are all right.

So, let us know how the people you shared Thanksgiving dinner with did. How many can you safely say now are going to Hell? Of the ones you told to go to Hell that day, how many times were you right? What about your kids? Do you have them in line? It might not be too late if they don’t meet these criteria. Like I said at the top, we can be sure you are Heaven bound, or you would not be reading this post, but what about your friends? What about the people you work with? What about your spouse or the person you date? Now you have the tools to be sure you are associating with the right people. Question number 11 doesn’t appear in the quiz and doesn’t have an answer, but if you are close to someone who is going to Hell, are you going with them?

Walnut Valley Music Festival, Winfield Kansas

In 2016 I submitted a song I wrote to the New Song Showcase contest that is a small part of the Walnut Valley Music Festival. My song, “I Dreamed Terry Gross Came To Interview Me,” was selected as an alternate in the “Songs for a Better World” category, one of ten song categories in the contest. The winner was unable to appear at the festival, so I was invited to perform my song. I was a little nervous as I stumbled over the words early on, and wasn’t exactly on pitch in a few places.

I’ve entered songs in subsequent years but didn’t win again until 2021, when my song, “That Brick House North of Colfax,” won in the same category of “Songs for a Better World.”

The song is about what I’ve witnessed in northwest Denver since moving there in early 2011, and specifically in the area bordered by Colfax Avenue on the south, 20th Avenue on the north, Federal Avenue on the east, and Lowell Avenue on the west. In 2011 this neighborhood consisted mostly of modest single family homes, duplexes, and a few row apartments that were built shortly after World War II and as of 2011 were rented out to working class families. In truth, there were also some very run-down properties and the neighborhood had issues with crime and drugs, so it was a mix. When property values began escalating, landlords, rather than pay for upkeep and collect rent, found they were being offered hundreds of thousands of dollars to sell their properties to developers. Developers, in turn, evicted the tenants, scraped the old dwellings from the lots, and put up multiple-unit condominiums that sold for $500,000 to $600,000 each for 2-bedroom units. The previous renters were unable to find other places to live in the area, and some, although steadily employed, ended up homeless. The neighborhood has been transformed from one that provided affordable housing to working class families to one of single young adults enjoying the proximity to trendy bars and restaurants in downtown Denver, and who somehow are able to pay for the rapidly escalating property values.

I hope the song speaks for itself. As our economy presents opportunities for some, and many in America are now enjoying unprecedented wealth, the real estate boom has created victims, and we have a growing underclass suffering in our country. Every person living without shelter in America has a different, unique story, and I wanted to counter the stereotype of the homeless man as a lazy, drug-addicted or alcoholic criminal. I don’t know all the causes of homelessness, and I certainly don’t have a solution, but we can’t dismiss our fellow Americans who are suffering by simply saying they choose to live that way.

Here is a video of my performance, which I did along with my friend Ruth Price, at the 2021 Walnut Valley Music Festival. I wasn’t nervous this time, but I wish the mix would have included a little more of my guitar.

David Hakan, a DJ with KC Cafe Radio in Kansas City, operates Gypsy Wagon Studios, and invites song contest winners at the Walnut Valley Festival to give interviews and perform their songs in his mobile studio on the festival grounds, which he then records. Here is the recording he made for us.

I have a lot of friends who are better song writers than I am. I encourage each and every one to submit songs to the New Song Showcase for 2022. Their ten songwriting categories are 1) Songs about Winfield, 2) Sweet memories, 3) Songs suitable for children, 4) Love songs, 5) Songs of religion or spirit, 6) Songs about feeling blue, 7) Instrumental, 8) Songs for a better world, 9) Humorous songs, and 10) None of the above. And if you are a bluegrass and/or Americana fan, think about going to Winfield, KS for next year’s Walnut Valley Music Festival for the great lineup of entertainers that appear there. In years past the following have appeared: Lester Flatt; Doc & Merle Watson; Mark O’Connor; Alison Krauss; Byron Berline; Dan Crary; Norman Blake; John Hartford; Tom Chapin; David Grisman; Merle Travis; Hot Rize; Tim O’Brien, New Grass Revival; Nickel Creek, and Billy Strings. Two of my favorites that have become regulars are The Steel Wheels and John McCutcheon. Walnut Valley has four stages going simultaneously from 8 am until late into the night, as well as national championships in guitar flat picking, finger-style guitar, bluegrass banjo, mandolin, hammer dulcimer, mountain dulcimer, autoharp, and old-time fiddle.

I can’t close without mentioning the Carp Camp. A huge proportion of those who attend Walnut Valley camp in the area adjacent to the fairgrounds where the festival is held. The campground area is known as Walnut Grove. Within Walnut Grove, different groups of musicians gather nightly to sip tea, imbibe in other preferred indulgences, and engage in jams of various degrees of structure. Carp Camp is one that is more highly structured, and has been ongoing since 1985. It is most enjoyed by those who access and download their homework material prior to joining the group live.