Monthly Archives: September 2008

It’s snowing on Mars…

Yup. The Phoenix Mars mission has discovered that it snows on Mars. News release on their Web site. They also have this video showing clouds on Mars — and although they don’t claim it’s snow, in the video you can see occasional white schmutz blowing by the camera.

I grew up on science fiction stories that talked about life on Mars. Planetary science long ago demonstrated that the Martians of H. G. Wells, Stanley G. Weinbaum, and Ray Bradbury are nothing more than fairy tales. Now science is showing us something even more fascinating than the old science fiction stories:– the existence of frozen water on Mars, and the possibility that Mars have have seen liquid water in the past; all of which suggests a possibility that Mars once had life forms of some kind.

Autumn watch

This year, I’ve been so busy that I’ve been watching the emergence of fall colors through car windows. Two weeks ago, the trees along the highways here in southeastern New England were almost entirely green. But as I was driving into Providence this afternoon, I saw lots of maples tipped with red or orange, and I saw several trees that were completely red.

I don’t particularly like the fact that the only time I get to look at fall color is when I’m driving. That is a sure indication that I am too busy — busier than I need to be. No one is so important that they can’t take a few hours each week to walk around a park, or out in the woods if that’s possible, and look at trees. No one is that important, yet somehow I have managed to set up my life so that the only time I get to look at trees is when I’m driving madly to get somewhere else.


I spent this past weekend at the Nutmeg Dulcimer Festival, an annual gathering of mountain dulcimer and hammered dulcimer players. I have to tell you, a whole festival with nothing but dulcimers is too many dulcimers. This time, I brought my guitar as well as my dulcimer. When there are ten dulcimers playing in one room, another dulcimer is too many, but a guitar is welcomed like rain in a drought.

At lunch today, I was talking with Chuck about this phenomenon. I knew he’d understand because he plays hammered dulcimer and guitar. “Yeah, I do know what you mean,” he said. “The last two years, I never took my hammered dulcimer out of its case.”

Yeah, there’s a metaphor here, or a moral, or whatever — you can make it up to suit whatever ideology you’re trying to push. Or just take my advice:– if you go to a dulcimer festival, bring a guitar, not a dulcimer.

“Do not re-use!”

Sometimes you just have to catch up with filing. For the past five years, I’ve been stuffing my sermon manuscripts into a file drawer in rough chronological order, but the file drawer was getting full and it was time to put all those manuscripts into three-ring binders so I could actually refer to them if I wanted. What’s the point of keeping all those manuscripts if I can’t use them?

As I sorted through all those manuscripts, things would catch my eye. I had labeled one sermon, preached five years ago at a church which shall remain nameless, “DO NOT RE-USE!” in big purple letters. Oh yes, I remembered now — that was a real stinker, probably the worst sermon I’ve ever given. Another sermon was labeled “Blah” — not surprisingly, I have no memory whatsoever of that one. A dozen pages of handwritten manuscript were labeled, “Never finished, never used” — I have no idea why I kept those pages, but under the assumption that I must have had a reason I dutifully inserted them into the appropriate time slot in one of the binders. Another sermon caught my eye, because I remembered that when I wrote it I thought it was pretty good — I re-read it, and it was not very good at all.

But who cares if it was the failed sermons that caught my eye. It has very been satisfying to get all those manuscripts organized. For someone like me, a good filing system is its own reward, regardless of what the files actually contain.

Good neighbors

Here in Massachusetts, come election day we’re going to vote on Question 1, a ballot initiative that proposes to eliminate the state income tax. Opponents include everyone from business people like the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce (“it’s irresponsible”) and union leaders, cops and hippies, the Republican leaders in the Massachusetts House and Senate (“it goes too far”) and Democratic lawmakers. Even so, it could pass. The same ballot initiative appeared in 2002, and got 45% of the vote.

Tonight, I went to a meeting here in New Bedford to begin to organize against Question 1. It was a real mix of people: people of all skin colors from dark brown to pale white like me; people of all ages from self-professed elders to teenagers; people dressed in everything from suits to baggy hiphop pants. I said hi to the people I know, and then the speakers started up. Nurses, cops, teachers, the county DA, people in the non-profit world, human services people, all spoke at this meeting, telling us to vote against Question 1. Some of them spoke well, but basically all they were all preaching to the choir.

Then a firefighter stood up. “I’ve lived in New Bedford for 55 years,” he said. He spoke briefly about why Question 1 would be bad for the fire department. Then he went off in a different vein. “Over the years, in my house up at —— St. — it’s a matter of public record where I live, you can look it up because I’m registered to vote [laughter] — over the years, I’ve put up lawn signs every once in a while. But not much, not often. Then a couple of years ago, I put up a lawn sign in front of my house for my friend Scott Lang, when he was running for mayor. And people, neighbors, they came up to me — are you really going to vote for Scott Lang? — I’d be out in front of my house — tell me why you’re going to vote for him? All these people asking me. And you can do the same thing. The people in this room tonight, you’re the kind of people who are out there picking up trash, being good neighbors, shoveling snow off the sidewalk so the elderly woman down the street can walk — you’re the kind of people who your neighbors respect. When you put a lawn sign outside your house, people are going to pay attention to it.” Then he pointed out the lawn signs at the back of the room, and he was done.

I was standing next to Jose. We turned and looked at each other. “He was good,” said Jose. “Yeah,” I said. Then it was pretty much over. People began to drift out. Lots of people picked up lawn signs; those of us who are apartment dwellers got smaller signs we can put in windows. As I picked up my sign for our front window (“Protect Education. Vote No on Question 1. It’s a reckless idea.”) and headed back home to eat a late dinner, I decided the firefighter was right — the people at that meeting are the kind of people who shovel sidewalks and pick up trash and understand that tax money goes towards helping other people — in short, they’re good neighbors, the kind of people you want to live next door to.


Carol went up to Maine to sell her books and composting toilets at a fair. She came back with a sinus cold. I’m worried she’s going to give it to me. I don’t have time to have a cold! Work is crazy! I need to spend long hours working!

What’s that you say? Overwork can cause increased vulnerability to illness?

Uh oh.


A few days ago, I was walking down by the waterfront late in the day, hoping the low dark-gray clouds wouldn’t dump any rain on me. Suddenly the sun, low in the western sky, came through a break in the clouds, and the low clouds began to dissipate, revealing clouds higher up that the sun turned a luscious pink color. Twentieth century American writers and painters taught us to ignore sunsets : we were supposed turn our attention inward to thoughts and emotional processes and small emotional dramas, or turn our attention outwards to signs, or turn our endlessly recursive attention to self-referential mass media. Sunsets were supposed to be trite. But I’m tired of hearing about every single thought Leopold Bloom had in the course of a single day; I’m tired of paintings of soup cans; I’m tired of mass media that is about nothing except mass media. So what if they’re trite by 20th C. standards, I want more luscious pink sunsets.

Ruth Crawford Seeger

Yesterday while hunting around in a used book store, I found a biography of Ruth Crawford Seeger tucked away in the classical music section. But, I thought to myself, shouldn’t this be in with the folk music books? Wasn’t Ruth Crawford Seeger a transcriber of folk music field recordings, and an arranger of folk tunes for children? It turns out that while she did do those things, she was above all an excellent composer of classical music. (There’s a wonderful lecture about Ruth Crawford Seeger as composer, including recorded performances of her compositions, here, on the Library of Congress web site — skip ahead to 8:50 to avoid the interminable and boring introduction of the speaker.)

Over the past twenty-four hours, I have been reading this biography, Ruth Crawford Seeger: A Composer’s Search for American Music by Judith Tucker, in every spare moment.I discovered that Crawford Seeger’s interest in folk music was part of who she was as a composer: in a sense, she was applying some of Bartok’s ideas about folk music to the American scene. She took folk music seriously as music, and used it in her serious compositions. Then too, as a mid-twnetieth century woman composer, trying to balance her artistic work with her responsibilities as a wife and mother, she got involved in music education, arranging American folk tunes for children and their teachers and parents.

All this led me to dig out my old copy of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s American Folk Songs for Children. I remember when my mother gave me this book. We were down in the basement of the house where my sisters and I grew up, standing in front of the set of shelves where mom kept the things that she had had before she got married, including her old books on teaching and education. I had been working as a Director of Religious Education for a few years, and although mom never fully approved of religious education as a career (she would have preferred it had I become a real schoolteacher instead of a religious educator), I think she had decided that at least I was doing good work. “Here,” she said, “You can probably use this,” and without any ceremony handed me Ruth Crawford Seeger’s book.

This afternoon, I opened this old book yet again. My mother had written her name on the fly leaf: “Nancy Allen”; and Ruth Crawford Seeger had signed the book on the next page. Mom wrote her name again at the top of page 33, so someone couldn’t steal the book and cut out the flyleaf (I do the same thing, but I put my name on page 101). There’s still an old rusty paper clip mom had used to mark the song “There Was a Man and He Was Mad.” On one page, there are some of my pencilled notes next to a song I once used in a children’s worship service. I’ve used the tunes to many of the songs in the book, but this afternoon I realized that I had never played through any of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s piano arrangements. Most piano arrangements for folk songs are boring and trite, so I tend to ignore them.

But I sat down at my cheap little digital keyboard and played through some of the arrangements. They are astonishingly good. They are simple enough that even a lousy pianist like me can get through them. They may be simple, but they are not trite : some of the arrangements are polished little gems that delightfully combine Crawford Seeger’s modernist harmonic and tonal sensibilities with the folk tunes. “Bought Me a Cat,” for example, is in the key of F major, but her arrangement opens with F in the right hand, while the left hand plays D a minor third below that — is that F6 or D minor? And then the second measure has A in the right hand, with E and C below that in the left hand — is that a C6 chord, or an inversion of an A minor chord? These harmonically ambiguous chords continue through the arrangement, but it’s all very satisfying to play, and satisfying to sing along to; I found myself wanting to play this song over and over again.

As I was playing this and others of the songs, I struck me that one of the hardest things to do is to write really good music that is also simple. Any trained composer can write complicated music that (at the least) sounds imposing, even if it is playable only by virtuoso performers. And many people write arrangements that are relatively simple, but that are also boring or trite — the current Unitarian Universalist hymnal supplement is full of such arrangements. But to come up with music that’s simple and good — that only comes from a genius, or from the folk process.