It’s That Season of the Year

apple-2No, it’s not Christmas. It’s the beginning of the academic year—a date that always comes too quickly and catches us by surprise.

The start of the academic year affects most of us, whether by the need to watch out for school zones or to fight crowds of people loading up on notebooks and crayons. Parks empty, pools close, and there’s a sense that we need to be serious again. Yeah, boo, yeah.

“Won’t you miss teaching?” People asked me that a lot when I retired as a professor from SMU and, effectively, broke away from the academic calendar for the first time since I was six years old. A part of that question was: “how much will you miss the rhythm of life as a teacher?”

I did miss it, especially at first. Nostalgia washed over me in August as I romanticized my memories of making new syllabi. I missed the fun of assisting with Freshmen Orientation and the crazy adventures dashing off with my new International Students to buy pots and pans.

More than anything, I missed idly chatting with my colleagues in our office doorways during the week before classes started. I can’t explain why, but there is something utterly delicious about looking towards a new semester. Even professors who adopt a negative tone towards their teaching find themselves caught up in it. “Well, maybe this year’s students will be better,” they grumble, but with a slight smile of anticipation.

But I was headed to the ranch for good, or so I thought. I’d hung up a sign on my the wooden door saying “Gone Fishing.” My empty office loomed out woefully (how sad the walls looked without the rows of bookcases and decades worth of framed pictures). I was sad too, but I had a lot to do: I had my hands full figuring out how to keep my goats, cows, and horses alive.

What did I know about livestock when I began? Try zero.


Kurt Haubrich (CC BY-ND-2.0)

So, my new classroom became the Alvord Feed Store, under the tutelage of Roy. To describe him as a character out of “Central Casting” won’t suffice. To Roy I attribute one of the best remarks ever addressed to me: For someone who is supposed to be so educated, you sure don’t know nuttin’, do you?”

He was right. But he was willing to teach me. He, and a lot of others. No academic schedule dictated this classroom: just the realities of the agricultural and breeding season.

And I did learn, with certain disasters along the way (the worst being losing one of my loveliest goats to pregnancy toxemia because I didn’t realize what was happening). Many times, I found myself wishing I could have brought the wisdom and skills of ranching to my life as an academic, starting with faculty meetings. There’s a certain beauty in how one grabs the horn of a stinky buck and drags him back to the barn that could have been useful.

Later, new ventures would drag me back to the academic calendar. Never underestimate what the future holds. I could not have predicted either the amazing adventure of Professor Carol or my opportunities to work around the globe with The Smithsonian. What I feared was “lost” bloomed anew, and in abundance.

As you begin your new semester, let me congratulate you in advance. Enjoy that sense of embarking on a perfect, blank page. It won’t stay perfect, of course. But our desire to learn stems, in part, from our attraction to the perfect concept. We are divinely created with both a perfect capacity and perfect desire to learn.

If you doubt that, observe any toddler throwing himself headlong into every puzzle before him. I try to stay off the YouTube treadmill, but I admit to being caught up yesterday in a video where a toddler in diapers crawls up what looks like two metal baby-gates stacked on top of each other. Perhaps you’ve seen it. With determination and cleverness, he finds a way up, over, and out to freedom. Maybe the video was staged in order to go “viral,” but so what! It’s a good reminder that God gives us the both the gifts and strength needed to crawl over and conquer obstacles.

So, set up your obstacles, stand back, and plot your strategies. Don’t listen to someone saying “you can’t do it.” When has that ever been right? Rarely.

And may we all vault with joy to our goals!

Friday Performance Pick – 136

Haydn, Symphony No. 45 (Farewell)

I started this series almost three years ago with a work by Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). In between that first “performance pick” (No. 1) and this one (No. 136), Haydn has been missing. It confirms, I think, our tendency to take his music for granted.

Haydn’s sits astride the Enlightenment era, and his music exemplifies all the qualities that we call “classical.” His long career matches closely the dates musicians assign to the “Classical era,” spanning the time between Bach’s death and Beethoven’s breaking of the classical mold. Haydn gives us the paradigm, and we spend our energies examining the ways in which Mozart and Beethoven diverged from it.

In his lifetime he became “Papa Haydn.” Sometimes the term seems derogatory, casting him as an old fogey in contrast to the bolder Mozart. But the name arose from the musicians who worked under him, and the Farewell Symphony (composed in 1772) tells the tale. The musicians were stuck in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s remote Esterháza palace and wanted to get back to their families in Vienna. Rather than making a direct appeal on their behalf, Haydn sent the message more diplomatically with an unusual twist in his music.

The classical symphony typically had four movements. The first and last had a fast tempo and in between were a slow movement and a dance movement (usually a minuet). The Farewell Symphony follows this pattern but has a unique ending. In what might be considered either an extra (slow) movement or a long coda, the musicians gradually leave the stage. It was anything but conventional, and it was the kind of gesture that endeared Haydn to those who worked with him. They say the prince got the point and let the musicians go home.

Haydn achieved remarkable fame, especially for someone employed at court. He had been trained as a chorister at St. Stephen’s in Vienna. But he had few prospects as he entered adulthood. Before obtaining his very secure and prominent position with the Esterházy family, he mostly taught himself composition. His compositions and entrepreneurial efforts finally brought him to the attention of major patrons around 1760.

Haydn died in May 1809 in Vienna as Napoleon bombarded and conquered the city. The convergence of those two events might mark the true end of the Classical era.

Dog Days of Summer

I thought “the dog days of summer” referred to the conundrum some of us face in August: Should I chase that rabbit? Or just lie here and pant?

Tiptoe around every corner and you’ll find a Classical root. Dog Days comes from ancient astronomy and refers to the heliacal rising of the star Sirius in late July. Apparently people feared the onset of disease and other disasters associated with heat of August. In the Iliad, there is an association of this period with war.


Illustration of the constellation Sirius (c. 820-840)

Knowing the background doesn’t change how we moderns use the term, though. For most of us, “dog days” evokes the late summer when we feel lazy and unmotivated. We long for crisp fall air to help us get things going again.

But what do dogs want during dog days? My guess is air conditioning and a cool tile floor. That’s how our old Border Collie Josie is spending her dog days. Stretched out as far as her arthritic body will allow, she sleeps the hot weeks away. We have to coax her out for walks: she isn’t going to move a muscle unnecessarily.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Josie was a canine bullet. She could outrun any dog on the ranch, which is saying a lot if you knew the parade of dogs we had.

We got her in 2005 from the Wise County Animal Shelter. It’s hard to get dogs adopted out in the country: everyone has too many. There’s a place in Hell for people who drop unwanted dogs down country roads on the theory that “they can survive” in the wild. Yup, until nightfall and that first pack of coyotes.

But back to the story. We had “auditioned” her the previous afternoon to make sure our tempestuous Lab-Chow “Buddy” would accept her. He did, despite disliking virtually all other dogs. So the next afternoon, we drove back to Wise County to get her.

But it looked like we were going to arrive past the closing time, so we called the attendant to ask if he’d stay a few extra minutes. “Ma’am, I don’t care if it takes you ‘til midnight. I’ll stay here if you’ll just come adopt one of our dogs,” said Joe.

I’ve never forgotten Joe’s words. Many a time I’ve recalled the commitment he expressed in that moment: whatever it takes, I’ll do it.


Photo by Evgeny Fouk

So Josie got a version of his name and went on to have a great life. She had total freedom on the ranch. Every morning she would make the rounds with big dogs (Anatolian Shepherds), frolic in the tanks (ponds), and eat whatever they found in the woods or pastures.

But there were bad times. She indulged her herding instincts with a Fed-Ex truck that sped down our dirt road. I won’t gross you out describing her injuries, but let’s just say she was stitched back together by a glorious vet named Beth Winingham. Beth attended all of Josie’s disasters, included a drastic hip surgery and a nasty rattlesnake bite. She called Josie the most pain-tolerant dog she’d ever treated and she wasn’t just doling out compliments. It’s hard to diagnose an animal that doesn’t whimper, despite severe pain.

Still, Josie survived. And when we moved back to the city, Josie was the only dog to make the cut. Livestock dogs that bark all night aren’t going to be welcome in a modern urban neighborhood, nor will they be happy.

Why am I writing about this, you might ask? Ordinarily I write about the arts and education. I write about travel. But not dogs. I’m not even a “dog person” for that matter. Cats are more my style.

But I admire dogs. Moreover, I’m fascinated by how people feel about their dogs. In each of my tour groups, people start passing around pictures of their grandkids on Day 3 or Day 4. But I know they’re ready to go home (no matter how fantastic the tour) when they start pulling out pictures of their dogs.

We cherish our dogs. They exhibit virtues that our frantic, rude society has abandoned. They wait. They rejoice in a butterfly or a corner of cookie found in the grass. They rejoice in us, no matter what.

In a sermon long ago, Fr. David Allen (St. Francis Church, Dallas) made a comment that has never left me. “There is no such thing as a good dog.” I remember my eyes widening. What? He reminded us that dogs do not, and cannot, make moral choices. Yes, they have enormous capacity for loyalty and extraordinary instincts. But they learn to behave in ways that please their masters and avoid punishment. And they rejoice in what pleases us.

It is we humans who can be “good” or “bad.” We were created with a conscience and the ability to make moral judgments. That conscience has to be nurtured. Children must be prepared for a lifetime of distinguishing good and bad. Each child is endowed with the capacity to measure and understand the difference.

Josie does not wrestle with moral dilemmas. But we are called upon to make moral choices every day. Daily I need to strengthen commitment to the pursuit of “the good.” And I need not to fade in nurturing others along the same path.

May these last weeks of August bring you chances for spiritual refreshment (“cool tile”). May you find the inspiration to cut through the heat and tackle the tasks required as you prepare for the new academic year. And may you find the same kind of admiration we see in our doggies’ eyes as you begin the substantial work that lies ahead.

Friday Performance Pick – 135

Bartók, Out of Doors — The Night’s Music

Carol’s essay a few days ago on night music prompts this week’s performance pick. Why not follow up on her post by featuring the movement she discusses from Bartók’s Out of Doors?

bartokCoincidentally, just two weeks ago I was discussing night music and Bartók with a friend and colleague at the Circe Institute’s Annual Conference. Carol was not in on that conversation, so I found it interesting that the sounds of North Carolina prompted her to write on that topic.

Different geographic regions naturally have different sounds.But in South Louisiana where I lived for many years, insects drown out everything else. It’s hard to hear anything over the cicadas. On our North Texas ranch, the nightly contest between the coyotes and our big dogs was most impressive aural feature, although I would occasionally hear some truly astonishing sounds that were beyond my ability to identify.

Bartók uses several techniques to capture the sounds of the Hungarian night. He sets up a slow repeating pattern of dissonant tone clusters in the background. Short motives intrude at irregular intervals. His melodies are ethereal and unobtrusive. The overall soundscape takes precedence over harmonic and melodic forms.

A Little Night Music

It took me back nearly 40 years, this wash of chirps, clicks, and hoots surrounding my sister-in-law’s screened porch outside of Chapel Hill. A nighttime symphony cascading through the Carolina pines brought me back to a rickety trailer not far away and the cinderblock stoop upon which I sat nightly.

My trailer was nestled in the woods down a country lane called Manns Chapel Road. I lived there for all four years of graduate school, making an uphill transition from my background as a pianist into the field of musicology. The isolation was perfect. I could rant and rave at any hour about the difficulties of my music bibliography assignments and the raccoons didn’t mind. I could practice at any hour. And I could sit on that stoop and talk to the stars about how my dreams might play out.

Back then, trailers and clapboard houses speckled Manns Chapel Road. And, yes, a few dwellings did have freezers or washing machines on the porches. Today, the road is beautifully paved. The fragrant corner store with its barrels of pickles and blocks of cheese has been replaced by upscale commercial development. The forests are carved into luxury, wooded developments with properties worthy of Architectural Digest. In short, you’d never recognize the neighborhood.

But the bugs, bats, and birds haven’t changed. Hoot owls, crickets, whip-o’-wills, and night sparrows still weave their hypnotic music, creating a soundscape that, once in the ear, is never forgotten. At the time, I didn’t realize how much this night music brought inspiration to my weary mind and blurry eyes. I didn’t realize that these sounds were shaping my soul.

Smell evokes the deepest memories, they say. But sounds unleash a cascade of memories too. The rusted hinges of a childhood pantry door. The creak of a certain bottom step. The whirl of an aged appliance or perk of a coffee pot. These sounds may not inspire symphonies, but they cause a flow of melody inside of our hearts.

Not surprisingly, the aural palette of night creatures has inspired many musical compositions. One of my favorites is a piece from Out of Doors, a suite written in 1926 for piano by Béla Bartók. In the fourth movement, swirls of pitches delicately layered and punctuated by irregular rhythms realistically evoke the tapestry of nighttime sound. Close your eyes, and you will be transported to Bartók’s beloved Hungarian countryside, a place beautifully captured by the painter László Paál.


Paál László, Landscape with Cows (1872)

Bartók wrote Out of Doors while still in Hungary. Unhappily, European chaos caused him to emigrate to the United States (1940). Despite much effort, he could never replicate his success. Everything that worked artistically and personally in Hungary did not work in the New World. His artistic soul was rooted in his native soundscape. His health deteriorated. Little in his new environment brought him peace or joy.

Memories. Why did grownups talk so much about their memories, I wondered as a child. Didn’t they have anything interesting going on their lives now?


Ken Thomas, Tufted Titmouse

How could I understand that memories build columns that nurture us throughout our lives? How could I realize that we can spend a lifetime trying to recapture our sound memories. Amidst his struggles, Bartók did reunite with the aural richness of memory. In the last year of his life while in North Carolina, the sound of a tufted titmouse inspired the slow movement of his final composition, the Third Piano Concerto.

Imagine how deeply this sound touched him. A vital font of memory suddenly poured out once again in music.

Maybe my reminiscences of nocturnal sounds on that screened porch were not so profound, but the experience still captured me. It was a vivid example of the music created by God. It was a gift we all crave: a reminder of where we’ve been, and what we have valued—a soundscape of our hopes and dreams.

Practice What You Preach


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Friday Performance Pick – 132


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