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This year’s gift ideas

Christmas gift ideas are something I’ve done before, and it’s that time again, to say the least. Christmas is a week from tomorrow, so probably you want to order whatever it is you’re going to order in the next couple of days if you want to make sure it’s received on time. Here are this year’s gift suggestions, from me to you:

– Fr. Ivan Moody’s new book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music. I’ll be review this book shortly for Orthodox Arts Journal, but I’ll go ahead and recommend it to you now. It’s a fascinating look at how 20th/21st century art music from around the world engages Orthodox liturgical music and vice versa, and really turns on its head the idea that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”.

 

– Keeping with the theme, the CD Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music, with Fr. Ivan Moody conducting Cappella Romana. I reviewed it here, and it’s a terrific stocking stuffer for the lover of choral music who might like something a little different.

 

– The world-music collective Dünya has a really fascinating recording out titled A Story of the City: Constantinople, Istanbul. It’s a collection of Byzantine music, Ottoman classical music, and more; I highly recommend it.

 

 

– One more CD suggestion: Christmas in Harvard Square, by the St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square. I just blogged something about the school, so they’re on my mind; plus, it’s a really nice treble sound.

 

 

The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer briefcase was a gift suggestion here three years ago; this year, I’m pleased that I can finally suggest the Parental Unit, their brand spanking new diaper bag. I remain pleased with my Checkpoint Flyer three and a half years after buying it (as well as with Tom Bihn’s customer service; they’ve been as good as their word on the lifetime guarantee), and while the Parental Unit came along a little late for our needs with Theodore (as in two and a half years late), it looks like it’ll be great for future consideration. (Not an announcement, by the way.)

– Sometime in, I think, 1989, I read an interview in the long-defunct Comics Scene magazine with an animator named Richard Williams. He had just won two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and he talked about how this was allowing him to finish, at long last, his decades-in-the-making masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler. The story of why this turned out not, in fact, to be case, why instead Disney released its, shall we say, fascinatingly similar film a few years later (arguably getting away with murder), and why you might find a $2 DVD in grocery store bargain bins titled Arabian Knight using some of the animation produced for Cobbler is nothing less than one of the artistic tragedies of the twentieth century. Over the last few years years, there has been something of a renaissance of interest in Cobbler, with an unofficial, so-called “recobbled” cut having been produced by one Garrett Gilchrist. Over the last year, there have been a couple of screenings of Williams’ workprint, both at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and at the British Film Institute. Filmmaker Kevin Schreck has also produced a documentary about Cobbler and why you never saw it titled The Persistence of Vision, and it has been very well-received in the festival circuit for the last year or so. While it’s a difficult film to license commercially for a number of reasons, Kevin has been able to produce a limited edition 2-disc DVD release of the documentary, and it also includes Williams’ workprint among the special features. It is available for what it is officially being called a donation of $25, and I recommend it highly — it really is fascinating.

– Averil Cameron’s new book, Byzantine Matters, is a concise, readable overview of the state of the field of Byzantine studies, as she sees it. There’s a lot here that’s worth thinking about, and while much of it is prompted by her ongoing feud with Byzantinists who work a bit later than she does, she is up front about that disagreement and what she thinks the problem is.

 

– Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery. I’ve spoken my piece about Twin Peaks here already, so hopefully this speaks for itself. Just get it.

 

 

– If Twin Peaks is your thing, there’s also Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, a behind-the-scenes treatment of the series by Brad Dukes. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks really interesting.

 

 

 

StJohnDamascus-logo-color-420x230– Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, and there’s also a book called 75 Years of DC Comics that would be right up my alley. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this. Or even this.

Okay — Christ is born! Glorify Him! May you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!

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Two more last-nanosecond gift ideas

I meant to include the following items in the previous post, and, well, it just didn’t happen. So, here we go:

– All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service, by the St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (reviewed here). This is a half-in-Greek, half-in-English recording of Orthros for Holy Friday, and it’s a fantastic aural snapshot of what services are like in Holy Cross’ chapel. It’s chanted by the seminarians under the direction of Grammenos Karanos, the professor of Byzantine chant and protopsaltis for the chapel, and it’s a great addition to the growing number of recordings of Byzantine chant composed specifically for the English language. The St. Romanos Choir is a men’s ensemble; a recording of Holy Cross’ women’s chant ensemble, the St. Kassiani Choir, was made during the same sessions and will be coming out soon.

 

– The Choir (reviewed here). A fascinating documentary on a truly admirable musical institution in this country, the Madeleine Choir School. The Madeleine Choir School is a ministry of the Cathedral of the Madeleine (Roman Catholic) in Salt Lake City, and they do some amazing work. The DVD gives a look at the experience of participating in the academic and musical life of a choir school — an experience that might be relatively common — or at least not unknown — in England, but is esoteric in the States to say the least. This is a wonderful gift for anybody who is a choral singer or a music educator.

Need last-minute gift ideas?

It’s Monday of the week before Christmas. Do you have all your Christmas shopping done? Of course you don’t. So, here are some suggestions:

The Gifted Pan prosphora baking dish. For the would-be ecclesiastical baker who feels stymied by handheld seals that seem to have never been applied five minutes after what seems like pressing down with all your might.

 

Scapple. If you’re a Scrivener user, this is an excellent companion application that basically allows you to doodle your ideas without having to go quite to the intellectually self-conscious extreme of “mind-mapping”.

 

– Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church by Fr. Dellas Oliver Herbel (Oxford University Press, 2013). I reviewed the book here; in short, it’s a great book for anybody interested in North American religious trends or Orthodox Christianity in the United States, with a lot to digest in a very reasonable length.

 

– Stocking stuffer 3-pack of CDs: Cappella Romana‘s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (reviewed here) and Robert Kyr — A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio (reviewed here), with Archangel Voices‘ Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God (reviewed here). Three very different kinds of recordings of what one might broadly call “Orthodox music”, and each very good in its own way. The Kyr is an oratorio informed by Orthodox liturgy; the Zes is an Orthodox liturgy that at times feels like an oratorio; and Panagia is a themed recital of Orthodox choral music about the Virgin Mary. What’s funny is that the Zes disc is sung entirely in Greek but often seems quite Italian; Panagia is all in English but feels quite Russian. What can you do (or, if you like, Τι να κάνουμε)?

– Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist by Jane G. Meyer (reviewed here). A beautifully-illustrated (and not distractingly anachronistic) children’s book set in sixth-century Constantinople during an episode in the saint’s life. If you’ve got a young reader who’s interested in singing in church or who has started to develop an early fascination with Byzantine and hagiographic arcanity, this is the book you want.

– 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking by Paul Levitz (Taschen, 2010). And this would be the book for the reader who is simply a geek and unashamed to admit it. Like, you know, me. (Just sayin’, just sayin’s is all.)

– Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at 75 Years of DC Comics. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this.

Okay — may you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!

Some last-minute gift ideas…

Obviously it’s Thursday, and Christmas is Sunday, so this isn’t even last-minute but last-second. Last-millisecond, even. Nonetheless, here are some suggestions for those of you foolish enough to think that my taste might be the slightest bit relevant:

Consider giving a gift to International Orthodox Christian Charities. Their mission: “IOCC, in the spirit of Christ’s love, offers emergency relief and development programs to those in need worldwide, without discrimination, and strengthens the capacity of the Orthodox Church to so respond.” They do a lot of wonderful work throughout the world like Palestine, Syria, Romania, Ethiopia, and more — including the United States.
A Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer. My Samsonite leather satchel fell apart on me over the summer, and I contemplated whether or not I could swing a Saddleback classic briefcase (my godson Lucas has one and it is a thing of beauty), but then Larry Anderson suggested I check out the options from Tom Bihn. I got a great traveling laptop briefcase for about a third of what the Saddleback bag I was considering would have cost, it’s got a lifetime guarantee, and it’s been perfect for when I’ve needed to travel with my 15″ MacBook Pro. Of course, the day after the bag arrived I bought an iPad 2 (yeah, yeah, earlier than I said I would, but no regrets, let me tell you), so I have tended to need to transport the laptop less (short version: to the extent that laptops have become desktop replacements, iPads are laptop replacements), but it’s stil been exactly right for what I need. It’s very elegantly designed, and it’s very good at making sure there is a place for everything. The one caveat I might add is that while the bag is plenty sturdy, the stretchy shoulder strap may feel like it’s more stressed than it actually is if you overload it. Not an issue if you don’t, well, overload it, and the bounce the shoulder stap provides makes the bag a lot easier to carry once you get used to it (it basically seems to function as a shock absorber).

Cappella Romana’s new disc Mt. Sinai: Frontier of Byzantium. A full review of this is forthcoming, but for right now suffice it to say that it’s a beautifully-sung account of medieval Byzantine chant manuscripts from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Repertoire includes material for Vespers of the Feast of St. Catherine, as well as from the Service of the Three Youths in the Fiery Furnace, which used to be served on the Sunday before Nativity. Some of this has been recorded before by Lycourgos Angelopoulos and the Greek Byzantine Choir for a disc called “Byzantine Hymns” (and one can find the audio on YouTube but I can’t find out anything about the disc, so if anybody knows anything about it, please let me know), but Cappella Romana is a very different ensemble from GBC in a number of ways, and their rendering of the material is very much worth hearing. Like I said, full review coming, but this is a great stocking stuffer. For that matter, so is the reissue of the Epiphany disc under their own label. And, of course, their recording of Richard Toensing’s Kontakion on the Nativity of Christ is a must-have. One can also make a gift to Cappella Romana, either to their general operating fund or to support one of their several in-the-works recordings.

If you’re an iPad user who thinks that the soft-tipped styli that you’re likely to find at Best Buy don’t really do what you need them to do, I highly recommend the Jot-Pro. It makes handwriting and drawing much easier.

For another music suggestion, Marcel Peres/Ensemble Organum’s recording of Christmas music from the Old Roman Chant repertory, Chant de l’Eglise de Rome: VIe-XIIIe Siècles, is a fascinating and beautiful reconstruction of a time when East and West had a lot more in common, culturally and spiritually, than we’re used to now. “Reconstruction” is often a euphemism in early music circles for “making nonsense up”, but as I’ve noted before, I think Peres (collaborating with Lycourgos Angelopoulos) makes a pretty compelling case.

If you’re a Mac user and a writer who needs to manage a decent amount of research, notes, ideas, dates, etc., Scrivener and Tinderbox are a pretty powerful one-two punch. If you’re already a Scrivener user, there’s also deal on Tinderbox. I’m new to Tinderbox myself, but I’ve been using Scrivener for several years now, and I find it to be fantastically helpful in terms of its set of writing tools. I’ve written (and am still revising) a children’s book and several academic papers with it. The only thing I wish it had was cleaner EndNote integration, and I also have to make sure I remember to not send compiled *.rtf documents as finished drafts (must save as a Word doc or a *.pdf), lest the person on the other end simply open it in a text editor by default and think I’ve made the rookie mistake of not including any footnotes. (Yes, this has happened. Recently.)

Horrified as I am by the K-Cup craze, I’m going to suggest the paleocafephile route (I think I just invented a word) — the briki/ibrik, with which one makes Greek/Turkish/Arabic coffee. You don’t have little plastic containers that keep you from ever handling grounds; nonononono. Heh. No. Instead, you grind the beans to powder, boil the grounds directly (no filter), pour it into a cup, add sugar (and maybe cardamom if you’re Cypriot), and then you deal with the sludge at the bottom of the cup. It’s the only way to fly in a word that wants to make your coffee experience as safe and plastic and single-serving-sized as possible.

Michael Uslan is, without doubt, the comic book geek made good to end all comic book geeks made good. His memoir, The Boy Who Loved Batman, is tremendously inspiring, and is a must-read for anybody, whether they’ve read a comic book or not, who has ever been told, “Kid, you can’t get there from here.”

All right — may the last few days of the fast treat everybody well!

Another gift idea

As always, I know that the two of you of who look in on my blog on a regular basis are dying for gift ideas for me — I mean, did I really need 225 copies of Fr. John Behr’s book? Er, wait… Anyway, in case you think that’s too impersonal and/or obvious, there’s always this one: Diane H. Touliatos-Miles’ Descriptive Catalog of the Musical Manuscript Collection of the National Library of Greece. Nur sage, wenn du verstehst was ich meine.

Gifted education

Rod Dreher has a post about plans in Louisiana to cut the budget of their residential public high school for gifted and talented kids. Read the whole thing, but these bits stick out to me:

It’s distressing to me how gifted education is typically seen in this country. We tend to spare no expense to provide for the needs of students who are handicapped or challenged in particular ways by the normal classroom experience. But we don’t spend nearly the energy or the money on gifted education — this, even though many gifted kids face their own set of challenges that cannot be easily overcome in a standard classroom. When I was in college at LSU, I remember getting into an argument with a friend over this; he believed that gifted kids had natural advantages by virtue of their cognitive skills, and didn’t need or deserve any special consideration.

I don’t believe that’s true at all. Of course nobody feels sorry for gifted kids, and nobody’s asking them to. The point is that to the extent that it’s feasible, all kids should be in an educational environment in which they can flourish to the extent of their own talents. If a kid cannot do as well as he otherwise could because of a particular learning disability, then insofar as it is possible to accomodate that child’s needs, we should seek to do so. Similarly, though, there are reasons why many gifted kids struggle in standard classrooms, and their needs should not be dismissed simply because of their intelligence. In my case, my grades were good in my old public school, but I struggled with depression because I was such an outsider, and was constantly picked on by the in crowd. The great thing about LSMSA — and I think lots of kids from small-town schools like mine felt this way — was not so much the superlative academics as the great blessing of not having to bear the emotional burden of being bullied and socially marginalized because you got good grades and liked books. […]

[The Louisiana School] was a place where, for the first time, we could feel accepted and affirmed, not marginalized and bullied as nerds and outcasts because we liked books and ideas. We could hardly believe our luck to be living and studying in a place where we didn’t have to keep our heads down and our mouths shut to avoid crossing the dominant peer culture in our hometown schools. When I graduated, I took with me a powerful sense of confidence, of being at home in the world, one that I had not known before. That gift was, literally, priceless.

I’ve talked extensively about my (mis)adventures in higher education (starting here); I’ve not really talked about more, shall we say, elementary matters. I’ll start out by saying that while it’s great that Dreher and people like him have had this experience with gifted education, it is worlds away from what mine was like. Perhaps, like so many things, the best thing to say is that gifted education is one of those things to which you either have to commit fully and do it right, or don’t do it at all, because to to do it in a, uh, half-fast manner will be worse than doing nothing.

I started to learn to read when I was probably 3. My parents claim that nobody taught me how to read; they would read to me, I would memorize the books they were reading to me, and (so they say) I started instinctively linking sounds to text. I don’t know; I don’t remember. I do know that when I was four or five, I was reading, and memorizing passages from, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.

When I started kindergarten, within two weeks somebody realized that things weren’t quite right. I was given a diagnostic reading test after school one day; a couple of days later, I was told I was being moved up to first grade. What I found out later was that I had scored at the twelfth grade level, and that they had wanted to move me up to fourth or fifth grade. My parents decided that was probably going too far, and agreed to the one-year bump.

First and second grade, to say the least, were a struggle. I had, really, two friends, and they were both two grades ahead of me. (Aaron Spencer and Jamie Metrokas, where are you guys, anyway?) I tended to get along with adults better than other kids. It was really tough for me to stay engaged in class, because I would just read and work ahead very quickly, which of course isn’t what my teachers or fellow students wanted me to do. I would bring other books to occupy myself when I was done with what was assigned in class, which also isn’t what anybody wanted me to do. I soaked up whatever anybody put in front of me, and I had a big imagination that would start transforming the information into other things, too. Numbers I wasn’t (and am not) so hot with, but what that meant (at least up until high school) is that I was done with assignments five minutes before everybody else rather than a half hour.

Also, being less than athletic, I was at once the Smart Kid and the Fat Kid.

Like I said, it was a struggle. I just wanted to read my books, write my stories, and get along with people, and I didn’t understand why it seemed so hard. My first grade teacher told my parents that, realistically, it wouldn’t be until college before I’d really “come into my own,” whatever that really meant.

Just before I started third grade, we moved from Wenatchee to Woodinville, which back in 1984 was a reasonably-affluent almost-rural suburb of Seattle (as opposed to the nouveau riche extension of the Microsoft campus that it is now). The Northshore School District, as it worked out, had a (now much re-worked and re-titled) program for third through sixth grade called, prosaically enough, Talented and Gifted (TAG). My parents enrolled me, and hoped that it would mean better things for me.

Eh, not so much. Not really.

The trouble was multi-part. First of all, the program was a “magnet” (in other words, it was based at a particular school and you went there, rather than it being at your home school), and at least when I got started, it was floating magnet, having been at two or three different schools in the four or five years it had been in existence. So, we were among the “normal” kids, but we were sequestered from them somewhat because we were told we were “different”. That made for a weird, weird, weird dynamic, let me tell you.

For years four through six, we were at our own school, but it was the oldest and most rundown building in the district (built in the 1920s, had asbestos, fun stuff like that), and we were put there with the special education kids. This posed its own problems — we felt like freaks and afterthoughts, to a certain extent, and there was a certain amount of normal kid stuff which was expressly forbidden specifically because administrators were worried that the special education children might try to imitate us. We were “different”, we were “special”, but the way were treated, these terms did not appear to mean anything positive. It seemed to mean we were a problem best shoved aside and kept out of the view of everybody else.

As well, we were still kids, and kids will stratify themselves. It’s what they do. We were all theoretically “the smart kids,” so the smart kids separated themselves into “the popular smart kids,” “the not-popular smart kids,” “the smart smart kids,” the dumb smart kids,” and so on. Because we were smarter, part of what that meant is that we knew how to hurt each other more efficiently. Ever read Ender’s Game? It was sort of like that. Two of my fellow students absolutely brutalized me emotionally on a daily basis from third grade through fifth grade — and I mean they sought me out every free moment they had, and they were as intentionally merciless as they could manage. Their hobby was making me miserable, they were really good at it. My teachers told my parents on a regular basis that there was nothing they could do about it until it became physical.

Which, at some point, it did, when one morning I got spray cleaner blasted right in my eyes. Then somebody did something about it.

Another practical issue was transportation. We were bused to and from the school; that meant taking the bus on our normal route to what would have been our normal school, and then another bus picked us up there to take us to the host school. Getting home meant a special set of buses. I lived roughly five minutes from the school, but since they were trying to get everybody home from the host school on two or three buses, it took an hour to get home.

Since this program ceased after sixth grade, that meant that we were dumped back out among the “normal” kids in junior high. We had an Honors English and History program at that point, but that was it. In other words, we’d been kept separate from everybody for the last four years, and now were expected to “mainstream” ourselves. Since large groups of kids knew each other from the mainstream elementary schools, knew they didn’t know us, and knew why they didn’t know us, the 5-10 of us former TAG kids were instantly easy targets. Junior high was a long, agonizing three years — it was going to be anyway, of course, but this way it felt even longer.

A lot of us TAG kids wound up doing theatre in high school and thriving in that setting, interestingly enough. Make of that what you will.

All of this is to say, I’ve got really mixed feelings about so-called “gifted education”. I can’t lay all of this at the feet of TAG, necessarily; another issue was home life, which is its own long story. The relevant point I’ll share for the moment is that my parents, while not being stupid people by any means, are very practical people, and it was hard for them to relate to where I was. There were many times where I would tell them something I was excited about, and they would look at each other and say, “Are you sure this is our kid?” As a result, it was difficult for them to know what to cultivate in me or how to cultivate it, or to tell me how to deal with what I was going through.

Maybe the Louisiana School is a place that is able to do it right; maybe a residential high school, rather than a magnet elementary school, is a better way to go. If so, more power to it and to its students — but I’m not by any means going to cheerlead “gifted education” as an absolute.

So, that happened.

If we complain loudly enough to the management, can we take 2016 back for a refund? Or exchange it for a model that isn’t broken? The one and only saving grace of this year is that it started with the birth of my daughter, Katherine Claire Barrett. She is amazing and beautiful, as is the rest of my family. My wife is strong, graceful, beautiful, and brilliant; my son is strong, full of life, and curious; my newborn daughter is a person of wonder. Thank God for my wife and children. I, on the other hand, am a goddamned wreck.

I have spent most of 2016 being exhausted. Exhausted because of a new baby, exhausted because of a job in which, when push comes to shove, “Oh sure, take whatever time you need when the baby is born” works out to being “You understand you’re back the day after the birth, right?”, exhausted because of trying to figure out how to pretend to rich people  — who live in an area of New England where they know full well they’re rich and expect to be treated as such — that I’m sufficiently one of them and that I understand their interests well enough that they want to give money to my employer, exhausted because it’s a job that wears me out before I ever even get a chance to think about doing anything I want to do, including spending time with my family, exhausted because stress causes shingles, exhausted because, well, how about that, my sleep study shows 81 incidents per hour with blood oxygen saturation levels at something like 71%, exhausted because my body knows that my thirties are mere weeks from being over, exhausted because I’ve put on something like 40 pounds since Katherine was born, exhausted because having two kids where you have no family and a majority of friends who are in an impenetrable bubble that you are no longer in yourself is isolating, exhausted because we’re broke, exhausted because in all of this I’ve also been looking for and applying to jobs, and exhausted because whoever said “it’s easiest to find a job when you have a job” was out of their friggin’ mind.

Latest development: I got a job offer over the summer, despite an initial gut reaction that it was a bad idea and that I was being talked into something I already knew I didn’t want to do, I had been convinced would be a fantastic step forward and would be an initial step in a direction that would allow me to make a difference in some areas where I really hoped to make a difference. That turned out to be a big mistake, and I am now unemployed. (Well, underemployed. I have a chanting position, and I’m also adjuncting, but these don’t exactly pay the bills.)

Gah. <Very, very, very bad word>.  Seriously, 2016. Give me something to hold on to here, please.

So, Theodore is an energetic kid. He is always on, and he is always turned up to 11. What’s starting to go along with that is that his little will is developing into something to be reckoned with, too.

I see memes on social media all the time like “an uncoachable kid becomes an unemployable adult”, which says to me that our society only values you to the extent that you can make yourself a cog in the wheel. Such memes make me worry about Theodore a lot. I worry about the issues a strong-willed kid might develop in our world. I worry about the difficulties he might create for himself in terms of finding a place where he can thrive and grow, and really, where he can be himself.

But that’s the catch-22, right? If he’s too much himself, then he’ll never find someplace where he can be himself?

My parents raised me to be my own person. To think for myself, to have my own taste, to make my own choices, to forge my own path, to stand up for myself, and not to put up with bullies, with nonsense, with petty tyrants. Not that there would never be consequences for being my own person, but that being my own person was first and foremost what I had to do to be able to look myself in the mirror.

It’s certainly never been an easy path for me. In elementary school it meant getting teased mercilessly for being a bookish kid who used words like “educational”, carried a briefcase to class, and wore a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, with the bullying ranging from verbal abuse to getting sprayed in the face with glass cleaner. It freaked my parents out that they couldn’t keep up with what I was reading.

Being raised with the conviction that I should be my own person, however, meant somehow that I instinctively made a lot of The Right Choices. I got out of high school without having gotten anybody pregnant, without having tried drugs, without drinking, without having left Christianity (even though Evangelical Protestantism was already feeling like an awkward fit), and with what seemed to be reasonable prospects for college.

I followed my dreams, making big bets on them. I pursued being an opera singer seriously for a good 13 years; it took me getting beaten into the ground and having my 30s loom only months in the distance for me to say, at long last, “This isn’t going to happen.”

Orthodox Christianity had transformed my interests by this point anyway, and I shifted gears to church music and history. Here, my willingness to stake claims, put myself on the line, and persist paid off; I published early, and I distinguished myself.

You maybe know the rest up to here from other things I’ve written. When I came down with shingles and the sleeping problems became impossible to ignore (Flesh of My Flesh’s description of my snoring over the years had gone from “gentle little snorkles” to “you sound like you’re dreaming you’re a lion hunting antelope” to “OH MY GOD WAKE UP YOU’RE NOT BREATHING”), my doctor said, “I don’t care what you have to do; figure out how to reduce your stress or it’s going to kill you and you’re not going to ever have a chance to enjoy that new daughter of yours.” I hoped that the new job, being closer to home and theoretically more in my wheelhouse, would mean a reduction in stress, and that life would gradually even back out to normality.

And now — without going into clinical detail — I find myself now without a fulltime job, with no immediate prospects, two children with an eating habit, and the reality that thirteen years of near-continuous school have pretty much cleaned us out, and how. Let’s say that the hoped-for reduction in stress not only did not happen, but the situation started to veer out of control toward negative circumstances by the second week, and by Tuesday of last week it was already more than I could take.

There’s a lot more I could say. I’ll simply refer you to my description of how my parents raised me.

But here is the tension: my principles, my temperament, my choice to be the person my parents raised me to be now has the consequence of endangering my ability to take care of my family. I can not only look at myself in the mirror for the first time in a long time, but I can also look my wife and my kids in the eyes for the first time in a long time; the cost, however, is that now we have nothing. Expensive luxuries, principles — but it was plain that it wasn’t going to get any better, and I could not endure another day of how it was.

I do not know what I am going to do from here. I am nearly 40 and have years of school plus a spotty history of entry-level jobs; the things I have been most specifically trained to do are things it is unlikely I am going to be able to make a living at any time soon. I have things that I am very good at but that in and of themselves are difficult to turn into a living; they have to be applied to something else, and the areas where I can apply them do not really represent high earning potential. Also being nearly 40, my threshold for nonsense is much lower than it would have been at, say, age 24. I could be a great worker and a great collaborator and a great ideas person and a fantastic writer, speaker, teacher, thinker, or leader, but you’re just not going to look at my resume and see a great employee.

Being myself seems to have indeed carried the consequence that I have never found the place where I can be myself.

And then I look at Theodore.

Who dresses up in a homemade Batman costume, just as I did.

Who asks lots of questions about words, just as I did.

Who got bumped up a grade, just as I did.

Who is mostly friends with older kids, just as I was.

I worry. What is the future going to hold for my beautiful, energetic, strong-willed son? Is the world going to be just as unrelenting in trying to crush his spirit as it has been to me?

And then I get mad as hell, and I think to myself, Then I better teach him to be himself all the more, so he can live with himself when it comes.

I still don’t know what I’m going to do, but there is no other choice, for him or for any of my children.

I have been in a place like this once before. I’m forcing myself to remember some advice I got the last time I was anyplace like here, although now it’s worse, I’m older, and the stakes are higher.

This last week, I have had occasion to think about my time at The Archives of Traditional Music this week with the news of the passing of somebody I worked with there, Clara Henderson. She was a dear soul.  I remember as well the brief time I knew George List.

I was extremely circumspect about how I talked about this on the blog at the time, and I’m still not going to go into detail about it here, but I had come to the Archives rather bruised and bloodied from my previous place of employment. In addition — and this certainly was thoroughly discussed on the blog — I was despondent over the possibility of ever getting into grad school. Thankfully, ATM served something of a hyperbaric chamber for my battered psyche, and even if it took a few months before I no longer instinctively wanted to burst into tears every time somebody looked at me sideways, I was able to start pondering, now that I was out of the worst of my negative circumstances, what it might look like to start working towards something positive.

That’s when I met George.

George was emeritus faculty and one of the previous directors of the Archives. He ninety-seven, and had retired some 30 years previous. I had spoken with him on the phone a number of times; he was still working, and he still had an office that was maintained by the Archives, but since he had lost his sight many years ago, he was largely bound to a retirement facility, and had a series of short-term student assistants who helped him with his ongoing projects. Unfortunately, his final assistant failed to work out in a rather spectacular fashion, leaving George in the lurch.

So it was that one summer day in 2008 George called me at my desk. “Can you help me?” he asked, with a note of desperation in his voice. “I’ve just published a new book, I need to inscribe several copies to send to people, and I’m not going to be able to do that on my own.”

Well, I wasn’t unwilling, but it would require me to go out to his retirement home during the day, and it was thus a question of whether or not I could actually do so on university time. I put the question to Alan, the Archives director. He looked thoughtful and said, “This place wouldn’t exist without George, and we really try to show him what kindnesses we can. Yes, go ahead and help him; he’ll probably try to reimburse you for gas — don’t let him, we’ll take care of that.”

The next morning I drove out to George’s retirement facility, and did what he needed. The book was a self-published collection of poetry, short stories, and essays he had written over the years, and even the cover was his own work, a painting he had produced in 1933. He was sending it out to old friends and colleagues from various chapters of his life. Some of the names I recognized as people I had had to communicate with on behalf of the Archives. I saw from the publisher’s imprint that it was a local self-publishing outfit, so I knew he had paid for this himself, it must have been very important to him to actually produce it as a book, and all the moreso to send it to this collection of individuals. Each name was a story, and he told me some of them as we went. He also told me that he had been a widower for “seven long years” as he put it, and that he had even outlived his son.

As I was getting ready to leave, George said to me, “So, you’ll come back tomorrow so we can mail these off?” I said yes. Then something happened that I will never forget.

Suddenly he said to me, “Richard, I want you to know that I have reinvented myself many times over the course of my life, and had to do it on multiple occasions even before I turned forty. I turned out just fine.”

He said nothing else. I stared at him for a moment. Why did you say that to me? my head wanted to yell at him. How on God’s green earth did you know to say that to me? But I let it be.

I helped George for a few days; he passed soon after. To this day I have no earthly idea why he told me what he did. It was nonetheless something I very much needed to hear at that particular moment in my life, and it has continued to be a tape I need to play back for myself with some frequency.

Memory eternal, George. I think of you often, and with fondness.

So here I am. I’ve lost every last one of my professional and vocational bets. I’m feeling about as useless as I ever have. I have to reinvent myself, and I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I’m exploring a number of options. I’m sure I’ll figure it out, but the coming weeks, if not months, until I do are going to be… rough, let’s say.

I will say that some people have asked if they can do anything. Please pray for me; pray for my wife and kids; if you are aware of opportunities in your own social/professional networks for a 39 year old Boston-based individual with a BMus in vocal performance, who is ABD in History, and has a variety of work experiences and a broad-based skill set, please pass them on (LinkedIn profile here); you can make a tax-deductible gift to The Saint John of Damascus Society (since some of the options I’m exploring would be done under the aegis of SJDS, which would require SJDS to have a much-expanded budget).

So it goes. Onward and… well, onward, I guess. But I can’t say that this bit from The Fisher King doesn’t hurt to watch right now.

An Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it

Since I’ve just run a couple of posts that have touched upon the topic of choir schools, and last week I had occasion to run the pitch — such as it presently is — past a couple of friends, maybe I can take a moment to go into detail about how I could see an Orthodox choir school coming together.

First, what have I already done? Well, in 2005, I went to New York for the first time. While I was there, I visited St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Ave, and heard their choir of men and boys for the first time. I learned more about the St. Thomas Choir School (there’s a video here that I can’t embed), and became fascinated by the model and its heritage, and convinced that it would be fantastically worthwhile to adapt it for Orthodox use. In 2007, I published this piece as a blog post (it originally had been intended for The Word, although, alas, the submission was never acknowledged). In 2009, it was picked up by AGAIN Magazine as an article titled “Teach a child to sing: Thoughts about Orthodox choir schools”. Fr. Chris Metropulos noticed the article, and interviewed me on the OCN show Come Receive the Light. All of this really amounted to me throwing the broad strokes of a big idea out there to see if anybody would run with it; I can’t really say I wasn’t given a platform, because I was, but nobody ran with it.

Which isn’t to say that nobody responded at all. I got an e-mail from a Mover and Shaker who was really intrigued, but who said, frankly, we’re so far away from being able to speak meaningfully of what a school could accomplish that there’s just no conversation to be had with anybody right now.

And that was that, until 2013, when a documentary on the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City titled The Choir was released on DVD. I immediately bought ten copies in bulk and sent them out to various musical leaders on the American Orthodox scene with a copy of my AGAIN article saying, in essence, This is exactly what I was talking about. This is what we should be doing. Watch this and then let’s talk.

The same Mover and Shaker who had responded positively to the article was the sole person to respond to the mailing, and this person continued to respond positively. In fact, this person said — that’s great; now, here are another ten people who need to see this. So, I sent out another ten copies of the DVD with the article to the suggested names; no response.

Well, now there’s been a piece on a Catholic choir school that has run on CBS Good Morning. It’s a moment, a fleeting one, but I may as well try to take advantage of it.

So, I’m going to give you my pitch. If it inspires you, makes you want to help, please talk to me. This is a vision, to be clear, that I want to see succeed because I want there to be just such a school I can send my kids to. Certainly I want to facilitate the vision, but I want to be a participant, not an overlord. I’ll do whatever I have to, but I don’t need to run the show. I’m shouting it from the rooftops as much as I can until there’s a critical mass of others to do it, and then if there’s a capacity I can serve in that I’m actually suited to, I will, but I’ll be happy just to be a parent of a student. This is my vision thus far, but it need not be mine alone, and it need not be my baby that I guard jealously.

An Orthodox choir school is a parochial school attached to a parish or a cathedral that has as its educational mission the training of primary school-aged children from all Orthodox jurisdictions for excellence in Orthodox Christian musical service. They will receive, as part of their standard curriculum, a high level of musical education, both in terms of general musical skills as well as skills specific to Orthodox musical service, and they will be exposed broadly to the rich heritage of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music — Byzantine chant, Slavic chant and polyphony, Greek-American choral music, modern composers who engage Orthodox spirituality in concert works, and so on. The students will contribute regularly to the liturgical life of the parish/cathedral by singing services throughout the week; they will function as outreach to the community at large by means of concerts and recordings; they will also represent the school, the parish/cathedral, and the musical traditions of Orthodox Christianity by touring. Historically, many such schools are made up of boy trebles, who must then leave when their voices change; the vision here is that an Orthodox choir school will be co-educational, and there will be choirs for students to sing in as they get older.

The value of such a school hopefully is obvious. The next generation of musical leaders in America’s Orthodox churches is not going to fall out of the sky, and the major concern expressed at every Orthodox musical event I have ever attended is, “How do we get our kids involved?” This is a way to do it.

What is necessary to move forward? Well, a lot. How I’d do it, if resources were no object, is this:

I would first form a planning committee made up of people familiar with the broad range of Orthodox musical repertories and who had experience with working with children in particular. This planning committee would make an initial presentation to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and get their blessing to proceed. The committee would also seek to talk to organizations like PaTRAM, Cappella Romana, the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, Axion Estin, the Antiochian Department of Sacred Music, and so on, as well as music faculty at the Orthodox seminaries, and others, to get their input. From there, the job of this committee would be to assess how choir schools operate in this country and how Orthodox schools operate in this country. For the choir schools, we’d visit the Madeleine, St. Paul’s, St. Thomas Choir School in New York, and then also for perspective we’d go to England and spend some time at Westminster Cathedral’s choir school, as well as the Brompton Oratory’s choir school and a couple of others. For Orthodox schools, we’d look at Agia Sophia Academy in Portland, the Theophany School in Boston, the school of St. George Cathedral in Wichita, and then there are, I think, some in California we’d look at as well. (I’m already going to be visiting St. Paul’s at Harvard Square in January for an initial observation.)

The kinds of questions we’d be asking everybody are these: what’s the curriculum? How do you find students? How do you find teachers? What are the benefits and pitfalls for kids — spiritual, physical, emotional, otherwise? What are the benefits and pitfalls for the church communities that are served? How does everything get paid for? How do you keep it financially accessible for students, assuming that’s an objective? How does everything keep runing smoothly? How does accreditation work?

The next question we’d have to answer would be location. My guess is, at this point, such a school would need to be someplace where there is a diverse and sizable Orthodox community already, and where there would be a parish or cathedral big enough to be able to accommodate such an undertaking, given that in all likelihood such a school would not have its own classroom facilities at first. Perhaps the choir school could represent an expansion of a school that already existed. I’m not sure. In any event, I’m guessing there are very few places in the United States where this could be done successfully the first time, and that would have to be very carefully considered.

Probably, the committee would zero in on three candidate locations, and then survey Orthodox communities in those locations to see where there might be the largest concentration of prospective students.

Then, there would need to be a careful consideration of staffing. Who are the teachers? Where are they going to come from? What will they need to be paid? I anticipate that here, the committee would put together a wish list of faculty, and then make informal inquiries about interest, willingness to move if necessary, what it would take for them to accept an offer, and so on.

We’d then take our findings from all of these inquiries and create a planning document. This document would include the faculty/staff wish list, a projected budget for 5-10 years of operations, a narrative of what the school would do in its first five years from an academic standpoint, a musical standpoint, a recruiting standpoint, a facilities standpoint, and a development/fundraising standpoint. There would a curriculum plan as well, and sample concert programming.

This planning document would then serve as the basis for a major gifts campaign, at which point we would open our doors when we could do so responsibly.

Most, if not all, of these tasks could be undertaken under the aegis of the Saint John of Damascus Society; it would be well within the Society’s mission, and it would certainly be easier to perform these initial tasks via the mechanism of a nonprofit that already exists. Certainly, when it came time to move beyond planning stages, in all likelihood it would be ideal to spin the school off as its own entity, perhaps with its own foundation.

So, there you go. That’s the sketch of what I think would need to happen to move forward. There’s much more I could say, but that’s the backbone.

The Madeleine Choir School sends out a season booklet every summer, and last year that inspired me to try to put something together that’s similar, as kind of a proof of concept. I didn’t quite finish it — I have a dissertation to write, after all — but here are some pages from what I did finish. The names I list are nobody I’ve actually asked to do anything; they’re simply there to indicate real people who could serve this kind of school were it to be up and running. The concert programs are also strictly intended to be representative ideas. Nonetheless, see what you think.

If I might make a plea from the heart — if you’ve read anything I’ve written or seen anything I’ve done that has to do with Orthodox music, you know that this is a labor of love for me. Nowhere in that brochure mockup do you see my name; I am not trying to promote myself by any stretch of the imagination. I believe strongly that there is a desperate need that this fills — a desperate need for our churches, certainly, but also a desperate need for our world — and I hope to see that need filled. No more, no less.

If this is of any interest to you at all, let me know. If you want a copy of anything, ask — I’ve got a lot of resources related to choir schools, including somebody’s dissertation about the use of the choir school model in America. I’ve still got copies of the DVD of The Choir I can give out if that helps. I’m entirely and absolutely serious about wanting to see this happen; if you’re at least halfway serious about wanting to help, I’m all ears.

Okay, back to work for me.

An itinerary and a couple of labors of love

I’ve got three things to pass along, and I suppose I should relate them in order of interest from least to greatest. Otherwise, you’ll just read the first item and skip the rest.

First — I’m going to be mildly peripatetic in the coming months. 9-12 February I will be in New Jersey to participate in the Georges Florovsky Patristic Symposium, and then 12-15 February I will be in Boston to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. 2-4 March I will be in Emmaus, PA to give a presentation on church music as part of a Lenten retreat at St. Paul Orthodox Church. Then, looking ahead a bit farther, 24-26 May I will be participating in the North American Patristics Society (NAPS) annual meeting in Chicago. I realize that maybe I’m up to three regular readers (counting my parakeet), but if you happen to be anywhere near any of those places when I’m there, by all means let me know. I had the odd experience at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute last summer of meeting a couple of people who said upon meeting me, “Oh! I read your blog,” and then I also met this gentleman at the Byzantine Studies conference this last October (although neither of us realized whom the other was until after we were both back home). Anyway, I won’t look at you funny or hiss at you if you introduce yourself, promise.

Second — my first peer-reviewed article, “Sensory Experience and the Women Martyrs of Najran”, has been accepted by The Journal of Early Christian Studies. It’s been an interesting road with this project; five years ago, during my initial year of being a non-matriculated continuing student, I took my first graduate seminar, a course on the Middle East in late antiquity, taught by the professor who would later become my advisor. It was my first exposure to scholars like Peter Brown and Susan Ashbrook Harvey and so on, and was a significant broadening of my horizons. The student makeup of the class was very telling; it was a History course that had no History students in it but rather three Religious Studies kids and me.

Anyway, among other things, we read Sebastian Brock and Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s translation of the section of the Second Letter of Simeon of Beth-Arsham that deals with the martyrdoms of the women during the Himyarites’ sack of Najran, and the in-class discussion sparked something for me. Other students were focused on the gory nature of the martyrdom details for their own sake — I specifically remember one person commenting, “I never understood the connection people draw between martyrdom and sadomasochism before now” — but it was clear to me that there was something else governing how those details were conveyed, namely shared liturgical experience. I raised this point, and I still remember the look that I got as clear as day. Needless to say, it didn’t get a lot of traction in class, but when paper topics had to be proposed, I mentioned it to the professor as a possibility. “I can almost guarantee you I won’t buy your argument,” he said. “You’ll have to go a long way for me to see it as at all legitimate.” Well, that’s a challenge, now isn’t it? I wrote the paper, making what I saw as explicit as I could and relating it to known liturgical practices as clearly as I was able. I presented an overview in class, and the professor was quiet for a moment. “You know,” he said, “not only am I convinced, but now I can’t see it any other way. Good for you.”

Later, as I was applying for IU’s Religious Studies graduate program, the paper was used as my writing sample. At the same time, I was alerted to one of the big religious studies journals doing a themed issue on religious violence; I figured, hey, what the heck, if it gets in it can only help the application, and I sent them the paper. I also submitted it to Dorushe, a graduate conference on Syriac studies that was being held at Notre Dame. Well, the outcome of the Religious Studies application was detailed, if somewhat obscurely, here; as far as the paper went, it got into Dorushe, but the response from the journal was a little more ambivalent. The answer was ultimately no, but they included the reviewers’ comments, and said that if I were to revise it they would be willing to look at it again (while making it clear that this was not a “revise and resubmit”). Since at that point I didn’t think I was going to have the chance to go to grad school, publication didn’t really matter anymore, and I shoved the paper and the comments sheet in a drawer. The Dorushe experience was a little weird in some ways (maybe due more to some heightened self-consciousness on my part than anything), but I met some interesting people, and Sidney Griffith, at least, liked the paper, saying, “The way you lay it out, it’s obvious.”

After actually getting in to grad school, I thought to myself a number of times, I should go back and look at those reviewers’ comments, and finally last June I spent a few days thoroughly reworking the paper. I transferred it from Word to Scrivener, I restructured it following the reviewers’ suggestions, and did what was nearly a page one-rewrite so that it reflected better what my scholarly voice (to the extent that I might pretentiously assert the existence of such a thing) actually sounds like these days. Part of this involved reducing block quotes of secondary literature (a bad habit of which I was cured by the wonderful Prof. Sarah Bassett over in Art History, who in the three years that she’s been here has really proven herself to be one of the great, if somewhat unsung, reasons to study Late Antiquity at Indiana University) down to footnotes and paraphrases, and it also involved an overall refinement of the writing style. Don’t worry, I’m still wordy as hell, but I’ve tried to make the wordiness a little more elegant. Also, there’s some additional literature on the Najran incident that’s come out in the intervening five years, and I had to make sure that all got referenced properly. Anyway, once it was done, I opted to not go back to the original publication, instead sending it off to The Journal of Early Christian Studies. In September, I got a note back from the editor telling me that the reviewers’ recommendation was “revise and resubmit”, saying that this was good news and if I took the feedback seriously, there was no reason I couldn’t have a publishable article. By November the revision was re-submitted, and I got word back this last Tuesday that it was in. Now, I have some style adjustments to make before it’s totally done, but at this stage of the game it looks like it will be appearing in the Spring 2013 issue.

So, that first seminar five years ago got me my advisor, my overall area of interest (the interaction of liturgy and history), and my first published article. (Although, while the Najran paper is related conceptually and methodologically to where I think my dissertation is going, it looks like a paper I wrote for a class I took the previous semester, fall of 2006, served as a first stab at the actual dissertation topic. I’ll have more to say after NAPS, I think.) It’s been the gift that’s kept on giving, to say the least.

Okay, on to the final, and most interesting, bit of news.

Third — on or around 26 June 2012, assuming all goes well and without incident, there will be another Barrett on the earth. Yes, be afraid, my genes are propagating, insanity, puns, tendencies towards a prolix approach of oversharing, and all. Thankfully, this child will also be carrying the genes of Flesh of My Flesh, and those characteristics involve practicality, common sense, order, and normality. (To say nothing of great beauty and brilliance.)

We had intended for the last couple of years that we would start trying once Megan got back from Germany, and we were told to prepare for it taking awhile. Well, apparently not. By the beginning of November we at least knew informally, and then our first OB appointment was Tuesday of Thanksgiving week, which confirmed matters and indicated we were nine weeks along. We spent most of the drive to our Thanksgiving destination on the phone with my mother and then Megan’s mother and stepmother; my mom got the first call, since she’s the one parent who doesn’t have any grandchildren already, and she burst into tears immediately.

We’ve been telling friends and family ever since, but a couple of things made it desirable that we wait a bit before making it “Facebook public”, as it were. Anyway, here we are, and I suppose it will be a source of reflection in the coming months/years/etc. If you’re on Facebook and want to be kept more or less up-to-date, you can join the group “Fans of Baby Barrett“; there’s not a lot to tell at this point except that we’re choosing to not find out whether it’s a boy or a girl. We’ve got some name ideas, yes, but it’s hardly practical to openly discuss those when you don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, so I’m not going to go there except to say that there are some “legacy names”, as it were, that might make sense, and you know that we’re going to be getting one of these. We’ll see.

By the way, if you happen to be having a baby in or around Bloomington, Indiana, I really can’t recommend Bloomington Area Birth Services (AKA “BABS”) enough. We’re doing their eight-week birthing class (cue Bill Cosby: “Natural childbirth… intellectuals go to class to study how to do this”), and while, I must admit, it’s a little more of the NPR-listening “educated class” culture than I really expected, it’s a lot of excellent information that’s provided very sensitively and accessibly. I kind of surprise myself with my own reactions to some things; it should really be no surprise that “birth culture” a) exists b) is hyper-feminized, but I find a certain kind of stereotypical “maleness” emerging in how I’m processing some of the information, and it is very much out of character for me. It’s probably mostly a reflexive reaction to the explicit hyper-feminization of what’s being presented, which probably has everything to do with me and nothing to do with them, because they really are terrific at what they do. I’m just really not used to what they do. Anyway, I’ll have more to say about this as time goes on, I think.

So, there’s the news. Two different kinds of babies, I guess. There’s a third kind of baby on the way that I hope to be able to talk about more in depth soon, but it’s an outgrowth of some of the musical efforts I’ve had going here the last couple of years. For now, follow this, and I’ll be able to tell all in the next month or so, I think.

Prayers for all of these babies, please, and prayers most of all for Flesh of My Flesh. She’s got to carry our child in her womb and write a dissertation.

On the difference between καιρός and χρόνος and building a church that makes the difference clear (Part II)

Organizing an event is a heck of a lot of work.

I had originally contacted John Boyer in late fall of 2008; I was looking around for Western notation transcriptions of Byzantine chant in Greek, and my friend Mark Powell said he was the guy with whom to inquire, and that I might also be interested in the curriculum he was developing for Byzantine notation. John was more than generous in providing very useful materials, and I figured, while I was corresponding with him and he was seeming friendly, I may as well ask what it would take to get him out to Bloomington for a workshop. This had been an idea I’d been trying to develop for a couple of years, since we were encouraged at PSALM in 2006 to try to put together local and regional events, but I’d never gotten more than a lukewarm response — “Who?” “Isn’t he too far away and too expensive?” etc. I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask him while I had his attention, however, so I did.

He quoted me a much more reasonable number than I was anticipating. I told him, right, let me check on a couple of things; I was able to convince a private donor to pay John’s fee and travel, Fr. Peter had no problem with it (particularly since it wasn’t being paid for by the parish), and I wrote back and said, let’s do it.

Well, then it took a year to make it work with everybody’s schedules. We decided on this last weekend back in August, and what I will say is that given a host of factors (not the least of which was the decision, made a month later, to bring out Andrew Gould the weekend before John’s visit) I would not have wanted any less time to get everything together. Even with five months’ advance planning, a significant chunk of my choir still couldn’t make the weekend work (although, in all fairness, one of them, Megan’s goddaughter Erin, was busy winning the Met auditions, so I guess that’s an acceptable excuse).

In October, the money from West European Studies happened; this really expanded the scope of what I had originally considered from maybe my choir and a couple of other interested parties to something that could be (well, had to be, given WEST’s terms) open to the public and conceived of as an educational outreach event. John and I finalized the schedule and the repertoire on 23 December; the Friday evening session would be the “lecture” of the series, intended to function as the academic side of the weekend, and then Saturday would be the all-day practical part. I set up a Facebook event and sent out press kits to 30 different churches, chairs, institute directors, community choral ensembles, and local news organs the first week of January, and was astounded at the responses that started rolling in. I heard from School of Music faculty; both an Early Music Institute and a Choral Conducting professor registered, and it came back to me that the Choral faculty member was even telling her entire doctoral seminar to come. I heard from a faculty member at University of Louisville presently teaching a seminar on early notation (although she ultimately decided she couldn’t make it); I heard from choir directors and priests in Indianapolis, Evansville, and Louisville; I heard from a Medieval Studies professor at Wabash College; I heard from local people in the community. By the time the registration deadline passed the week before, 45 people were registered; another ten confirmed over the course of the following week, and then still more showed up unannounced.

The last week before the workshop, the event planning was approaching a fulltime job; I had to make sure food got ordered and picked up, I had to track down CD shipments so we could have things to sell over the course of the weekend, I had to bug overworked Cappella Romana executive directors for scores (sorry to have been a nag, Mark, truly), I had to get registration materials printed and assembled, and I had to field phone calls from people who wanted to come but lived a couple of hours away and wanted to make sure it would really be worth their time. The last couple of days I wasn’t quite a one-man army; Megan, God bless her, helped with a lot of the last-minute errands and the putting together of the registration binders. I put together a couple of displays of Andrew’s concept sketch (pictured) so that workshop attendees could see it, at least trying to give a nod to the non-singer-friendliness of our space and indicating that we intend to do something about it.

On the other hand, once John actually got here, my job was significantly easier — I pretty much just got to sit back and enjoy the proceedings.

I must say it was worth it; all in all, throughout the course of the weekend, about 65 different people came. Not bad for an event centered around this obscure, gaudy Eastern repertoire that supposedly we Westerners can’t stand without the edges sanded down.

I picked John up at the airport last Thursday evening; his flight arrived at 10:30, and then between his checked luggage taking forever and my very smooth wrong turn leaving the airport, we didn’t get back to Bloomington until about midnight. Luckily, Megan had a wonderful meal and a good bottle of wine waiting for us when we got home (a Saveur recipe that turns lentils and sausages into a bowl of gold), and we three were up talking until around 2 in the morning.

In what would prove to be a pattern for the weekend, four hours later, it was necessary to be up and about. It was, as I told John, the “showpony” day; he was doing a radio interview for Harmonia in the morning (watch this space for details), a mini-lecture for WEST in the afternoon (no thanks to me; I had both the time and the place wrong, forcing us to rearrange our afternoon a bit), a coaching with Lucas, Megan and me on epistle cantillation, and then the first formal session of the workshop in the evening.

One thing that putting on such an event at All Saints did was push us to the absolute limits of what we’re able to do in our current space. John had a PowerPoint slide deck as part of his lecture; well, we’re a pretty low-tech parish on the whole, so I had to go out and hunt down a projector and a screen. WEST loaned us the projector by way of the Russian and East European Studies Institute; my old employers, the Archives of Traditional Music, were good enough to loan us the screen. Even so, it was difficult to figure out how to set up the presentation in our nave to maximize the size of the slides, minimize keystoning, and be within reach of our power outlets (even with extension cords). We managed, but I’d want to figure out how to do better next time.

We had made the decision to install a comprehensive sound system in the nave as the only real cost-effective solution to our acoustic woes for the time being; we gave the thumbs up to the order on 11 January, and the guys at Stansifer Radio turned it around as quickly as the possibly could, knowing that we hoped to be using it by 22 January, and they got it installed by Vespers on Wednesday, 20 January. John had also wanted to be able to plug his laptop into the sound system; I told Greg at Stansifer what I needed to do, and he told me, “Give me an hour to make you a cable.” An hour and twenty dollars later, I had exactly what I needed, and it worked beautifully.

In the end, where we needed to set up John’s presentation was nowhere near the condenser microphone installed for the homilist, so we still had to give him a handheld mic hooked up to Fr. Peter’s old amplifier so he wouldn’t kill his voice. (Why, you might ask, did we not plug the handheld into the nice sound system? Well, the mixer is back in a closet in the sanctuary, roughly 30 feet away from where John was standing. We had a long enough cable, but plugging it into the mixer produced no result. “Oh, right,” Fr. Peter said, stroking his chin. “I forgot — the long cable is dead.” Like I said — we’re kind of a low-tech community. Note to self: replace long cable before next such event.)

Nonetheless, John was a hit, a big one, and something that I heard from more than one person at the end of the session was, “You know, I was only going to come for tonight, but I need to rearrange my day tomorrow so I can come here.”

Following the lecture session, in lieu of a formal reception (which I’ll have to remember to set up for next time), a number of us tried to go to Finch’s for dinner, it being one of the nicer places in Bloomington. Alas, we got there just as the kitchen was closing, and so we relocated to Nick’s. It was a bit louder than we we might have liked otherwise, and they didn’t quite know how to make a Manhattan properly, but perhaps not an inappropriate venue, given that it was founded by a certain Νικόλαος Χρυσόμαλλος (Nick Hrisomalos).

It was a full house at Chez Barrett; besides John, our friend Max Murphy, my counterpart at Ss. Constantine and Elena in Indianapolis, was staying on our other futon for the night so that he wouldn’t have to commute. Once again, we found ourselves up until about two in the morning chatting, and needing to be up by about 6:30 to make sure our houseguests would be sufficiently plied with coffee and eggs, pick up the food for Saturday’s lunch (shout out to Eastland Plaza Jimmy John’s; three 30-piece party platters was a perfect amount of food for a very reasonable price, and they were gracious enough to have somebody there at 8:30am so I could pick it up, since All Saints is waaaaay far out of their delivery area), and get everything at the church set so that the 9am session could start on time.

Well, it didn’t quite. We might say that everybody was inspired enough by the previous evening to recalibrate their clocks to “Greek time,” and we didn’t get started until about 9:30am. Έτσι είναι η ζωή (that’s Greek for c’est la vie, which is itself French for “Life sucks, get a helmet”).

Without giving a blow-by-blow of the whole day, I’ll say that much of the day was dedicated to rehearsing the Divine Liturgy music, but there were a couple of theoretical points made that I’ll note. First, there was the issue of time, which John got at a few different ways. He has a principle, stated many times over the course of the weekend, that “If you think you’re not going fast enough, slow down.” Too often, he says, we just zip through the text like it doesn’t mean anything, which makes it not mean anything. This can be in chanting a hymn, reading the epistle, whatever. We treat hymns and readings like they’re just the next thing to get through so we can be that much closer to getting out the door, rather than adorning them with the beauty that a) they deserve and b) will make us want to be there and take part in the services as though they are gifts from God rather than as burdens to bear. So, again — if you think you’re not going fast enough, slow down.

Another way he stated this was to discuss the difference between χρόνος (chronos) and καιρός (kairos). The former is the world’s time; the latter is the Church’s time. This came up when he was talking about why some hymns are slow and melismatic, and even sometimes will revert to nonsense syllables — in the case of the latter, when this happens, the text has been stated thoroughly in a slow and melismatic fashion, and the hymn is now using “terirem” or some such to provide the opportunity to meditate on the text. Not only that, however; the whole point of the slow, melismatic style has a practical component — to cover a liturgical action, for example — but it also emphasizes the reality that in the liturgy, we are no longer in the world’s time (chronos) but on God’s time (kairos). I was reminded of what Met. Kallistos Ware says about the first time he was in an Orthodox church:

…I had no idea how long I had been inside. It might have been only twenty minutes, it might have been two hours; I could not say. I had been existing on a level at which clock-time was unimportant” (“Strange Yet Familiar: My Journey to the Orthodox Church” in The Inner Kingdom, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000, p. 2).

As he acknowledges in the same essay, this itself was a trope (albeit realized after the fact) of what the Kievan emissaries are reported to have said after their visit to Hagia Sophia: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth…”

Another thought came to mind during this discussion — what do we sing in the Cherubic Hymn? “Let us now lay aside all earthly cares.” What do most of us do with the Cherubic Hymn in our parishes? Sing a setting short and fast enough so that we repeat it three times, because we worry that people will get bored otherwise. Isn’t that rather missing the point?

The other theoretical point John made was that there are three textures of singing in our liturgical practice: soloist (priest or deacon or cantor, depending on what’s happening), choir, and congregation. “We need all three,” he said repeatedly. “It’s very much a dance of who sings what when, and if you limit yourself to only one of those textures, you lose something important and beautiful.” As you may recall, the week before, somebody told Andrew Gould that they didn’t come to church for the beauty but for the participation; one wonders how such a perspective would understand what John had to say on this point. My thought is that he’s right, but dances have to be both taught and learned or they become mass confusion.

The services themselves were an adventure, but a good one; at the kliros, the weekend suddenly turned into Byz Chant Boot Camp (or Parents’ Weekend of same, as our friend Laura Willms suggested), and John was the drill sergeant. This Was A Good Thing; he was able to do get away with making certain points in a way I simply can’t, partially because a) he won’t have to see these people next weekend b) we paid him to be here specifically to do that c) he’s Greek. He was not shy about being emphatic in terms of instructing people during services; if you were on the isokratima, for example, and were sleeping on the job and missed his cue for the move, you got an elbow in the ribs. (As John said later, and I absolutely agree with him, “Please tell me a better way to communicate with people who aren’t watching me while I am singing.”) The thing is, coming from him, people ate it up; after the service, a lot of the folks who got the business end of his drill sergeant-ness said only, “Wow — what an amazing teacher.” For me, how this manifested was him pointing to the Byzantine scores he was following and saying, “You’re reading with me, got it?” Up to that point, I hadn’t dared putting enough confidence into what I had learned over the summer to actually use it during services, but much to my own surprise, I managed to keep up. I wasn’t perfect (and when it was just me on my own I fell down and went boom a couple of times), but I kept up.

After Vespers, we were all tired and hungry enough that it seemed best to simply call off the 7-9 session — we had reached enough of a logical stopping point that anything further that evening would be a matter of diminishing returns. It was early enough that Megan, Laura and I were able to take John to Finch’s for dinner after all, and once again we all found ourselves up until 1am or so talking.

Matins and Divine Liturgy the next morning were not without their speed bumps — everybody was just enough out of their element to make sure of that — but everything went quite well regardless. (We even made it successfully through the Cherubic Hymn, which had been a cause of some lack of sleep on my part.) A lot of non-Orthodox workshop attendees came, so we had a very full church. That said, I’m not entirely certain that everybody in the parish knew what was going on or why we were doing what we were doing (despite my plugs for the weekend along the way), and some of the reactions I got from parishioners were worded accordingly (“That was beautiful, Richard, but I will be very happy when we go back to normal” was one example). On the other hand, there was the chorister who told me, “I felt like my musical soul had been fed for the first time in a long time.”

Here’s a comment made by a workshop attendee to which I keep returning — the commenter in question is part of the local UUC congregation and retired English faculty here at IU:

Excellent workshop on Byzantine chant this weekend at All Saints Orthodox church in Bloomington, with John Michael Boyer, cantor and teacher… The whole attitude of the Orthodox faith tradition is very flexible, welcoming, inclusive, and constantly changing–such a welcome change from most of the Western Christian churches… As it happens, I’m not a theist of any variety, but if I were monotheistically inclined, I’d give this church a serious thought. Good people all around… This was my third visit to your church and in every case, I was much welcomed.

Seems to me that’s successful outreach right there.

John’s flight out was scheduled for 4pm on Sunday. However, as we left All Saints around 12:30pm, he looked at me with deeply exhausted eyes and said, “Would you mind horribly if I changed my ticket and stayed an extra day?”

Well, I told him, I didn’t know for certain where he’d stay, but I’d see what I could do.

Megan and Laura made biscuits and gravy, which I think may have cemented John’s friendship with Bloomington (to say nothing of his arteries). He got a nap, and made a wonderful dinner for us that night — a recipe of his own devising, incorporating pasta, kielbasa, kalamata olives, mushrooms, and green peppers.

(Tellin’ ya — how do we rate all of these friends who ask, “Hey, can I cook in your kitchen while I’m here?”)

And, once again, we looked at the clock while talking, found that the hours had slipped away and it was three in the morning.

On the way out of town the next morning, we had lunch with Vicki Pappas, the chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians — also a Bloomington resident and founding member of All Saints (alas, in absentia for years, since she commutes to Holy Trinity in Indy). It was a very interesting conversation for which to be a fly on the wall; the musical situation in GOArch has its own intricacies, complications, and vicissitudes, to say the least.

The drive to the airport (no wrong turns this time, thank God) mostly consisted of us discussing how to get John back here, and soon. Watch this space.

Just to make sure I’ve said it: as with Andrew, I wholeheartedly recommend John if you’re looking for somebody to bring out as a speaker or as a guest instructor with respect to Byzantine chant. He’s knows his stuff inside and out, both in terms of chant and in terms of liturgics in general, he’s a great teacher, and of course he’s a wonderful cantor. He is a very effective speaker and teacher for an academic audience, an Orthodox audience, and a general audience — not something everybody can claim.

All in all, the weekend was a huge success in terms of being outreach, being educational, being of musical interest, and, more personally, building friendships. It’s very true that there’s very little in the way of specifics you can cover in a weekend; notation wasn’t discussed beyond some theoretical ideas, and there was only so much he had time to do with respect to the tuning systems, but I think what it did was threefold: it established that there is in fact interest in this material here in Bloomington, for the School of Music, the greater community, and the parish, it proved that you could talk about this subject from an explicitly confessional standpoint and have it be more informative for non-Orthodox participants than it would have been otherwise, and it stimulated interest in doing more. The School of Music faculty who came were very clear about wanting to participate more directly the next time John is here; people from the parishes of surrounding areas said, “Hey, how can we help with the next one?” and it’s also been expressed to me that there is a desire to figure out what portions of what we did last weekend we can keep as our normal practice. That will likely be a complicated conversation with a complicated outcome, but it’s a better response from the people in question than “That was nice, now let’s never do it again”.

What I will say is this: by virtue of the fact that we were open to the public and not charging admission, our own success made it quite a bit more expensive than we had originally planned. If you participated and would like to help, or would like to help regardless, please contact me (rrbarret [AT] indiana.edu). Our original donor has been very generous, but we had hoped to come away from this event with perhaps some seed money for the next one as well. Looking ahead, I am contemplating starting something which we might call “Friends of Music at All Saints” or some such, specifically to exist as some kind of a booster organization for such things; again, I am pretty much a one-man army here, so if you’re interested in participating, please let me know.

So, we had two visitors two weekends in a row. One told us about beautiful churches, another told us about what we do in those beautiful churches. Now what?

I think, if we want a useful synthesis of Andrew’s and John’s respective messages, it boils down to John’s point about kairos and chronos, and how that relates to the church building being an icon of the Kingdom. As Lucas pointed out to me, the word kairos kicks off the whole Divine Liturgy: Καιρός τοῦ ποιῆσαι τῷ Κυρίῳ — it is the time/moment/opportunity of acting for the Lord. Even better, if we want to read τῷ Κυρίῳ as a dative of the possessor, it is the Lord’s time of action. And what is the priest’s first blessing? Blessed is the Kingdom… The Liturgy is the Lord’s action in His own house on His own time. (I will note that this does not go well with the populist misunderstanding of “liturgy” as “the work of the people”, but it goes much better with the more accurate rendering of it as “public service”. It is the Lord’s public service being offered to His people, in other words.)

So, you have to liturgize in a way that emphasizes the fact that it’s God’s time, and you have to have a worship environment that emphasize’s that it’s God’s house. As Lucas also put it, you have to get across the idea that, no, actually, you don’t have anyplace better to be.

Schmemann, of course, talked about the idea that we should liturgize in a way that takes the Liturgy back out into the world. What I wonder is if we have a problem with the valve running the wrong way — that we bring our busy lives, our distractions, that is to say the world into the Liturgy with us and then expect the Liturgy to be run in a way that accommodates us. As I said with the Cherubic Hymn — we say that we are now laying aside all earthly cares, but do we really approach that text in a way that indicates we believe that that’s what we’re doing?

And when you’ve got a building that, no matter how you cut it, looks like an office building with icons and which traps our psalmody rather than lifting it up to heaven, is it any wonder that that’s our approach? Andrew was absolutely right — we’ve got the saints and the angels, but no City.

We’ve got our work cut out for us. On the other hand, here’s the good news — Fr. Peter told me a couple of days ago, “You know, a comment I got from a few people was that things seemed too slow. But you know what? In a lot of places, by having the choir sing it so slowly, I found that it matched better with the liturgical action, and it made a heck of a lot more sense.” We talked about a lot of this stuff, and it seemed to click with him that we need to figure out, and make a concerted effort reinforcing, the difference between kairos and chronos. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re at a point where it’s what we have to do.

The project that All Saints has ahead of it is not a building project or a musical project. Those are components, yes, but what it really is is a spiritual project. We’ve got to be the City on the Hill, the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem, the Light that is not hid under a bushel. It is desperately needed in this town, in this area, in this world, and we’ve got to convince ourselves that we want to be that, that we want to be an icon of the Kingdom, more than we want to be what we’ve been pretty good at being up until now, which is a little, struggling church in a little, struggling Midwestern town.

If we can do that, then we will have the hard part out of the way. If we can convince ourselves that we believe that and that we can walk in faith, then the temple will just about build itself, $2.5 million or no, and people will stop worrying about whether or not the music is too Byzantine or too slow or not congregational enough or not “American” enough or whatever. (By the way, I found over the course of the weekend that just joining a good English translation with a melody written for the English made things pretty well more “American” on their own. Others may disagree with me, but that was my perception.) If there’s a point that both Andrew and John made, it is that the ethos of the received tradition is not a buffet, not a “meat and three”, not a list of things from which you pick and choose. There are things that we can adapt for local circumstances, but you do that after you’ve received the tradition, and then only in a way that doesn’t obscure what you’ve received. You don’t filter out the parts of the received tradition you don’t like pre-emptively. You may well come to church for participation rather than beauty, but that doesn’t mean that beauty isn’t part of the organic whole.

The church building and the liturgy have to reflect the fact that we worship a God who is bigger than we are. God already “met us where we’re at” in the Incarnation; it is up to us to respond to that in faith.

Now, having said all of that, I’m at the head of the line of people who need to figure out chronos and kairos. With these two weekends out of the way, I have a ton of reading to do on Ancient Greek democracy and a couple of weeks’ worth of working out on which I need to catch up. I’m going to be juggling things for a bit yet before I’m really into the rhythm of the semester. Along similar lines, last Wednesday, John texted me at about 8pm my time: “I’ve turned nocturnal. Just woke up. I’m not sure, but I think it’s Bloomington’s fault. :-)” I guess the gap between chronos and kairos gets us all in the end. Pray for us.

More importantly, however, pray for All Saints. We’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of us. With God’s help and by your prayers, we can do it. If you want to be involved more substantially, I’ve suggested a couple of ways you might be able to do so; contact me if you want more information.

Okay — back to being a student.

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