Wednesday, July 11, 2018

More Gerd, More Jan

The Müller organ at the Chapel at Alkmaar

Don’t know much about the well-born Junker (Jonkyr) Johanna Geertruida le Chastelain, besides the fact that she had a sister with the mellifluous name of Lambertina Petronella and that the Junkers were German and Dutch nobility and that she was born in the town of Alkmaar, about 40 km northwest of Amsterdam, where she would at some point in her life “nobly” donate an organ to the Chapel Church (I trust the Dutch word Kapelkerk sounds less goofy) for which the Lord Mayors would be grateful. The plaque on the organ reads:

Ter duurzame eer van de Edel welgeboren Jonkyr Johanna Geertruida le Chastelain welke dit orgel edel moedig bekostige heeft hebben Heeren Burgemeesteren dit dank en gedenkteeken doen stellen. Anno 1762.

To secure the honor of the noble-born Jonkyr Johanna Geertruida le Chastelain who has nobly paid for this organ, the Lord Mayors express their gratitude and place this memorial. In the year 1762.

I am privy to this information because I’m on a roll worshiping a Dutch young man from afar. I was a church organist at 16 in a small town in New England where Junkers, far as I know, were few and far between (like probably zero). And I had not the hundredth part of the talent of Dutch organist Gerd van Hoef, whose YouTube videos I’ve been voraciously consuming this past twenty-four hours. But what I got from the experience was a full appreciation of what is involved in managing one of these giant machines with all the keyboards, and the requirement to play with both hands and both feet simultaneously, and the advantage of having a handsome sidekick to pull out all your stops for you.

 I believe I’ve seen all he’s posted so far. “Not the hundredth part” sounds like false modesty, but I believe it’s not. This guy is restoring my faith in humankind’s ability to renew itself. He’s part of my go-to reservoir of good things on the planet I need when confronting the long overdue knowledge of just how much black Americans have had to undergo, for example, and just how much of our history of slavery and genocide and segregation has been withheld from our history books because white people might find it too unpleasant to contemplate. All those details now finally trickling down about how we spend more money on imprisoning kids than educating them, how the rich just get richer by the minute, all those examples of how misplaced our faith has been in our "values" and institutions, the electoral college, the power of Texans to determine the content of textbooks nationwide, the power of Republicans to keep blacks from voting. And then there are the fires burning in my state thanks to Republican denials of global warming, etc. etc. Gerd van Hoef keeps me from despair.

He’s not my only source of balance. The heroes of the Thai rescue had me blubbering in front of the computer screen as I watched how they got 1000 people together to rescue those eight young boys, aged 11 to 16, and marveled at how smart the doctors were when they wouldn’t let them have spicy pork and noodles or hug their parents after getting out because they were so concerned over possible infections and overtaxing their digestive systems after not eating for a week. Heroic people. Talented people. People with compassion and competence. All those things I ache for here in the United States of America, now held in thrall to the most despicable bunch of self-serving folk in the 242 years of our national history.

I have burned out. Just burned out. I can’t stand to watch the screamers on the left like Morning Joe, much as I appreciate the fact that they are keeping track of the Trump shenanigans along with the New York Times and the Washington Post and MSNBC and other lefty sources of information. The jokers, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Seth Myers, much as I admire their talent and wit and want to believe that ridicule is perhaps the most effective tool we have against tyranny, all strike me as coming with nothing more than a knife to a gunfight. What good does it do that Rachel Maddow digs for facts? She tells the truth for all intents and purposes 100% of the time – if she gets a fact wrong it's immediately corrected. She has an audience of 3.2 million people. Trump lies 75% of the time, and his American twitter audience is about the same size. Add Fox and Breitbart and it's much larger. (And his worldwide twitter audience is some 20 million.) How do you win with facts like these?

The damage has been done. Americans failed to vote for a liberal president because they didn’t take seriously the specter of forty or more years of right-wingers on the Supreme Court when they let in the likes of the Orange Shitstain. They let it happen. Much as people like Robert Reich and Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker and all the heroic democrats trying to hold back the tide of votes for Republican justices are out there busting their asses – I think it’s too little and too late. We’re screwed for a generation, I’m afraid. Hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. You didn’t vote, you lazy bastards. Now you’ve got the government you deserve. And the rest of us have to go along because we too didn’t set up adequate barriers against ignorance and malicious misinformation.

And I know I sound like a broken record, but as important as the abortion issue is to poor women and to women in general, and to the families of women forced to bear children they are not ready for, what is equally troubling is the destruction of the environment, the failure to stop the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, the risk to the economy, the plundering of Social Security, the removal of health care for those with pre-existing conditions, because "(leaving it intact)...would bankrupt our country" (thanks, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch for that bit of wisdom) the lack of investment in the future when taxes are cut and schools are defunded and the mentally ill are thrown into prison and forgotten about, and relations with the rest of the modern world are strained, all because the rich are concerned only with getting richer. These things bother me and make me ache with frustration, as I observe that our law-abiding ways keep us subordinate to an established “system” we are powerless to change.

Maybe I’m being unduly dark, maybe this listing of one wretchedness after another is just a ticking off of worst-case scenarios, and not information with any predictive force, but what if the decision to pack the Supreme Court with right-wingers gives Trump the support he needs to dismiss evidence that he manipulated the last election?  With all the folk in the Trump camp now already admitting they are guilty of such manipulations, the suggestion is strong it will turn out to involve Trump himself. But his supporters will give him a pass because his big three supporter groups – the self-serving supergreedy, the authoritarian religious, and the racist thugs – want it that way and are about to appoint a justice who believes a president cannot be found guilty of crimes.

How many Americans are aware that America’s support for Netanyahu’s rightwing policy of using Jewish settlers to colonize the Palestinian territories comes mainly from Evangelical American Christians, and not from Israelis themselves, many of whom fear this policy only prolongs the division and endangers both Jewish and Arab lives?  How many Americans are aware of the split in the Catholic Church between the majority of decent catholic folk and the radical right traditionalists who believe God wants them to impose their authoritarian (sex for reproductive purposes only) view of Roman Catholicism on the world, civil rights be damned? And while there is no evidence yet that the Catholic majority on the Supreme Court are Opus Dei kinds of conservatives, men who would put church doctrine ahead of a more balanced understanding of the constitution, you can't blame the left for panicking at the moment. Who is this guy Leonard Leo who seems to have finagled a way to get control of Supreme Court nominations? 

How many Americans know that since Reagan we have been warehousing our mentally ill in prison because we don’t want to tax the rich to keep them cared for under more humane circumstances – a policy that is stupidly counterproductive, actually more expensive than the humane solution?  

All policies of the far right. All put in place by well-organized Republican politicians and enabled by the silence of Americans, no more than four out of ten of whom actually vote in non-presidential elections.

Not that this is the whole story, of course. And much of the fear is fear of the trend, rather than an actual demonstration of destruction. I hope the talking heads who insist abortion and gay rights are now established law and will not be questioned are right, but is one to know?  The only way we are going to find out is after Kavanaugh or whoever takes his seat on the Court and a test case comes up. By then it if he turns out to be an Opus Dei type, it will be too late. We simply have no way of heading him off, the way the rules are set up. And unfortunately, in any case, the cumulative effect of the downward spiral of civil rights and equity in America is unmistakable, and it’s depressing as hell.

So I seek refuge in the next generation – those smiling Thai kids who meditated for a solid week while people figured out how to rescue them. And my latest fascination, young Mr. van Hoef and his buddy Jan de Rooij – he’s the Tonto to Gerd van Hoef, the Lone Ranger of the Keyboard – are keeping me in good spirits. Well, OK spirits, at least.

I’d love to hear what’s floating your boat these days.

But just in case you share my love of baroque, the genius of the likes of Bach and Haydn and Händel, and the inspiring sight of young talent like Gerd van Hoef and Jan de Rooij, here’s a couple more YouTubes to lift the spirits:

From the Chapel at Alkmaar: here
From the Orgelzaal Booy: here
info on the Booy organ concert hall: here 

There's much more: There is, for example 

Conquest of Paradise: here

And if you’re a serious fan – here’s a full concert at Victoria Hall, Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, from three years ago. If you’re not up for the entire hour and thirteen minutes, at least tune into his Dvorak – Minutes 50-1:03. And to get a smack at his delightful nerdy personality, check him out addressing the English audience starting at minute 10.

You can also go to his webpage: , where you can find a guide to the site in Azerbaijani, Chichewa, Hausa, Latin or Yiddish.  (That’s another thing about the young’uns. They find their way in cyberspaces where no old fogey would dare to tred. And what’s not optimist-making about that?)

photo credit

Monday, July 9, 2018

Give your kid an organ

Hold the jokes about Dutch boys with their fingers in the dikes, and don’t come at me with noise about how boys should be out playing with their balls and not inside playing on their organs. What’s not to love about Gerd “boy, you need a haircut” van Hoef?

Have a listen to how he plays Händel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.

OK, so he can’t read notes, (well, he couldn't for a long time, but I guess now he can) and don’t ask me to explain why he’s playing Händel while he’s got a Bach score sitting there in front of him. He’s only 24. Cut the kid some slack.

And I'll wager you've never heard a better rendition of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-Minor.

I translate for you from the Dutch:

Gert van Hoef groeide op in Barneveld.
Gert van Hoef growed up in Barneveld.
Pas op 13-jarige leeftijd kreeg hij belangstelling voor het orgel
At the tender age of 13 he began longing for the organ.
en door zijn grootvader werd hem de kennis over het orgel bijgebracht
and through his grandfather was him the knowledge over the organ brought by.
... hij dat in praktijk bracht op het van zijn ouders gekregen huisorgel.
... he practiced the house organ which he got from his elders (ouders = mom and dad).
Hij was autodidact en kon geen noot lezen, maar door zijn gebleken talent en oefening speelde hij al snel een aantal klassieke werken[1] uit zijn hoofd.
He was an autodidact and couldn’t read no notes, but through his blinkin’ talent and practice played he fast a selection of classical works out of his hooves caput head.

I’ll stop here. I’m sensing that translating from the Dutch is not my strong suit.

Point is, though, I had been busily at work at the university teaching job which I began at fifty for four years already when this little tyke was just being born. Wish now I had not used up my quota of future shock examples. This one's a wowser.

I wasn’t born yesterday. I realize not everybody likes organ music. But I do. And I needed some relief from the bitter news that the U.S. Constitution will now be in the hands of traditionalist Roman Catholics for the next forty years or more, and that means sex is for reproduction only and gay people and women need to follow the law and become second-class citizens again. I know it’s a small minority of Americans who go along with this notion, but somebody (not me!) put together this form of government and it's not in our national DNA to go banging on pots and pans in the street to change it. So here we are. And you people over there in Ecuador who want to breastfeed your newborns? Suck it up (no pun intended). We are America. We are the Corporation. Nestle, in this particular case. What we say goes in your country. It's the American way, and along with citing scripture to justify pulling babies out of their mothers' arms, maintained that way by law-abiding people.

Any questions?

Leave me alone with my stupid jokes about pulling out all the stops and the erotic effect of watching young feet fly across the pedals. I’m trying to keep sane here.

Stop ranting about what a mess the world is in.

Give your kid a house organ.


Saturday, July 7, 2018

Two steps forward, six steps back

The Johnston House, built by Gen. -3 and miraculously still
standing, although admittedly on its last legs
Dear Joe III, Nicholas, Clara, Caleb, Grace and Jewel:

One of the things Cousin Betty (Imlay, from Halifax) and I do is work together to piece out the family tree. We don’t do this with deadly seriousness. It’s more like a casual hobby we have played with the past couple of decades, a practice that actually began when I was young and spending the summers in Manchester, outside of Boylston, in Guysborough County, Nova Scotia. Betty was living there with her aunt, my great aunt Carrie, and Uncle Charlie Simpson. In those days my father’s many uncles were still alive and we went from one household to another visiting them all in turn on a regular basis. There wasn’t much to do in those days. Households commonly lacked indoor plumbing. Telephones were a rarity. They themselves had grown up with horses and buggies.

Visiting meant sitting around and talking. A couple uncles were great story tellers. And everybody knew everybody else. The women, especially Aunt Carrie, would keep track of all the aunts, uncles and cousins and could rattle them off as if they were listing the names of their own children. One of the things I would do if I could go back in time with paper and pencil would be to capture this information. At the time it didn’t strike me as relevant to my life. I think most young people care little or nothing about the folks who came before. It’s in the nature of things. If a curiosity develops at all, it is likely to come only with the passing of time.

In 2012, I came across this online program called Family Echo, a program for making family trees. That got me started and curious about filling in the missing pieces. Over the years, I have made 295 entries onto my personal family tree, spreading back from my mother and father to their mothers and fathers, and siblings. I could make a lot more entries, because each entry could build an entire tree of its own. But I’ve stuck to people I have known or who have had a direct blood relationship to those people, including myself.

I believe I’ve reached the end of what I can accomplish short of going to archives and doing this in a more thorough way. There’s more to do on the Johnston line, but I thought I’d pause and send this to you just for the fun of it.

If we were chronicling the ancestry of some European nobility, we’d simply move through the male line from son to father, to his father, to his father, etc.

But we are not nobility, and we can only go back four generations from Generation Zero (I get to call it Generation Zero since I’m the one doing the data collection – there is no meaning to zero other than as a marker of an arbitrary starting place.) And I see no reason to slight the role of females in keeping track of who made life possible for us all. Mostly, in any case, I have what information I have managed to piece together that others have made available to me.

Someday, I might go to the Mormon archives in Salt Lake City and do a more thorough search. Not likely, since I am not as comfortable traveling as I once was. More likely, but still not all that likely, is the possibility of getting to the Nova Scotia archives in Halifax – or persuade one of you Nova Scotians to do that search for me.

In any case, here are the pieces of the ancestry puzzle I have been able to assemble. They are just a handful of the 295 names I have managed to put on my family tree. If you’d like to see all the names and family connections, let me know and I’ll send you the link.

What I am presenting to you here is information selected for its direct line relevance to you. It takes you back through several family lines: Onion-McCornick-Johnston-Nickerson to Charles Nickerson, who was born in the late 1700s.

Because I don’t have the birthdays of the people in Generations -5 and -6, I’m arbitrarily using 26 as the age of parenting. I arrived at that number by looking at the age of parenting in the succeeding generations (the number in parentheses after their birthyears.) Not a reliable figure, but “good enough for government work.”

That would mean we can trace your bloodline back to the time of the American Revolution.

I have no expectation that you will do anything with this. I just thought I’d share with you one of the things I do when I get tired of watching the news, streaming Netflix and Amazon Prime, and reading.

I enjoyed meeting Joe III and Nicky and Clara when Taku and I were able to get to Winsted for a quick visit last May. Hope to see you all – perhaps especially Caleb since you were just a baby when I last saw you, and Grace and Jewel whom I’ve never met at all!

All good wishes to you of the Plus-2 generation.




Great great great great great great grandparent
Charles Nickerson
1783? (26 est.)
Great great great great great grandparent
John and Eunice Nickerson
1809? (26 est.)
Great great great great grandparent
Sophia and James Nickerson; Margaret and Robert Johnston
1835 (32)
Great great great grandparent
Mary Nickerson and Thomas Johnston
1867 (25)
Great great grandparent
Mabel Johnston
1892 (24)
Great grandparent
John McCornick
1916 (29)
Karen Onion
1945 (17)
Joseph Onion Jr., Julie Halfpenny
Joe III and Nicholas Onion; Clara, Caleb, Grace, Jewel Halfpenny

Thoughts before breakfast

I keep hearing the sentence in my head, “I never promised you a rose garden.”

Life isn't meant to be a rose garden. It's meant to be whatever we make it, and what we’ve created for the poor in America is largely a garden of misery.  Especially a poor woman who wants an abortion.

I've always seen the abortion question as more about money than religion. It’s about both, of course. Religious people of a certain stripe like to think they’re doing God’s work when they act on their belief that preventing you from deciding you’re not ready to have a baby is what God wants them to do, individual rights be damned. That’s religion. But in practice abortion is available to anyone with money. It’s only poor women, women who can’t travel because their kids won’t eat if they take time off work, women who can’t afford a hotel room and enough gas in their tank to drive to the next state, women who don’t have the family support to get through the arduous process of an abortion who will suffer. That’s one of America’s most distinguishing features: fucking the poor.

And that’s what we’re about to go back to. “Conservative” means, among other things, slowing down the progress of change, going back to the way things were. The good old days, when men decided things and their little women deferred, demurred, capitulated. Subjected themselves to their will.

The black cloud, for those concerned with individual rights in this country, is the likely overturn of Roe v. Wade. It has been a generation coming, but we’re apparently here, thanks first to McConnell, and now Trump – and, of course, the American populace that put the reins of power into the hands of these two men.

We like to talk about ourselves as a democracy, a society governed by majority rule, subject to the wise supervision of a judiciary that assures we never lose sight of basic rights for all, never allow a tyranny of the majority, but we’re not that. We have this thing called the Electoral College, which allows a minority to determine who becomes president, and we allow individuals who play the system the ultimate say in how we are to be controlled. It’s not a government of the people, by the people, for the people; it’s anything but. It has shaken down to a government of the people by the evangelicals and their ilk for the 1%.

Over the years, the original notion that the balance of power should be centered on the legislative branch of government has shifted gradually toward an ever stronger executive to the point where we now sit and watch, hands tied by laws of our own making, the daily outrage of cruelty of a self-serving narcissist. And because we allowed him to take over the controls, he’s about to tie up the judiciary for the next generation, and there is, for all the noise and banging about, not a damn thing we can do about it.

Much as I’d like to think we shouldn’t screw the poor when it comes to abortion, my chief concern is the packing of the court with men working under the assumption that wealth is its own justification, that in practical terms the curiously American notion that you can spot God’s approval when you come across a wealthy man can serve as a guiding light in forming our institutions. “Conservative” here means going back to the days when you could pretend that the justice was blind, that the law against sleeping under a bridge applied to rich and poor equally. Conservative means destroying the last of the labor unions, removing the strictures of government oversight, putting all our faith in laissez-faire capitalism, making the generation of wealth the goal at the cost of a fair distribution of wealth. That’s what’s almost certain to come down the pike with the appointment of conservative judges.

I’ll admit I’m looking at the news as an outsider here. I have no background in politics, know precious little about economics. I admit that, as much as I try to read broadly, I am as limited to the particular news sources that tell me what I want to think is true as anybody these days. But that’s how I see what appears to be happening.

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” someone asked Benjamin Franklin at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

  “A Republic, if you can keep it,” he is said to have responded.

We define republic as a representative democracy.  A form of government without a monarch, with separation of powers and regular elections, but above all a representative democracy. Democracy doesn’t describe what actually happens in government; it describes a dream, something to strive toward. We have given that up now, handed the country over to special interests, to the rich and the well-connected and those who will do their bidding. Think Citizens United was a bad decision? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

I’m nearly eighty. I have lived through some wonderful progress toward that dream in my lifetime. I saw up close the end to segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, those heady days of the march from Selma to Montgomery. I saw women gain the right to control their own bodies in Roe v. Wade. I saw the stigma removed from gay people and their right to marry guaranteed. I was born under Roosevelt and saw in the New Deal how a fair distribution of wealth lifted domestic boats. I saw in the Marshal Plan how America could combine self-interest with a helping hand to former enemies and use policy to lift boats internationally.  I saw America, born in slavery and genocide, could nonetheless set a trend toward greater individual freedom for all. For the time I have left, I expect I will have to live in an America that no longer represents that striving. I hope it’s only a misstep, that in time the next generation will take back the dream and bring it to life again. But for now - and probably for the (for me) foreseeable future, that is apparently not to be.

Getting out the vote isn’t everything. But it would have prevented this disaster. And it is the only thing I can see that might set things in the right direction again.

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