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24 Days of Blogging Day 14: Making my list and checking it twice (Part 2)

Friday, 15. December 2017 4:27

Yesterday I introduced my new fascination with creating bespoke playlists to be used for occasions. Today I am going to talk about the decisions and steps that are going into the playlist I’m making for my friends’ Christmas party. My two previous experiences with this have been for dinners of six or fewer. Moving to a party environment obviously adds complexity of time and numbers and thematic purpose.

Analyzing the relationship of the crowd to the event is central to everything that follows. This is particularly tricky with Christmas, a holiday with profound but diverse meaning from person to person. A party for a church group would be relatively easy to program, choral favorites accentuating the “reason for the season,” punctuated occasionally with just enough tame secular standards to acknowledge the presents coming after church. A party for children equally simple, tons of Santa songs with a few sacred carols like vegetables to remind them of the other side of the day.

Most adult Christmas parties are more complicated, as there is little consistency in views of the holiday from person to person. Also Christmas is a complex holiday, usually provoking a deluge of emotions and memories, but not all positive ones. How does one find music that respects all of this, yet provides effective background for an enjoyable event?

I’ve decided for this list that my underlying theme will be nostalgia. After one’s early 20s, the sights, smells, tastes, and sounds of Christmas are carpet-bombed triggers of memory. The act of setting up a Christmas tree each year is a reliving of the oral history of family, comparing to past trees, remembering who did what, and laughing (or crying) about the stories of the past. The small of Christmas cooking is a Proustian link between the years. Everything is designed to remember the joys and the losses, like a crutch carefully preserved against an empty chair.

A word about timing. If I were really good at this, I would program the list in order to capture the different moods of the evening. However, that would take an inordinate amount of time and I believe I’m already over-thinking this ūüėČ . So I always shuffle the list, which means that songs have to flow somewhat in whatever order they occur. To test this I play the list on shuffle a few times and quickly move from song to song to see if anything sticks out or is an unpleasant transition and delete it.

My approach to this list is similar to trimming a tree, lights, ornaments, tinsel. First I lay down a base of standards, familiar songs by familiar artists. For this list I’m going for a Rat Pack, crooner vibe to help the nostalgic feeling. Sinatra, Martin, Crosby, Clooney, Garland, Cole, Mathis and others bring standard melodies by familiar voices but with instrumentation that contrasts the crass pop sounds and gives a warm feeling to the room. Next I add color with finds. New songs with a clear Christmas feel, older recordings of unfamiliar songs, or familiar songs sung by unsuspected singers. I’ve put quite a few treasures on this list, an old song by Bessie Smith, a couple from the Lawrence Welk family, and one by the Platters. There are also a few familiar songs in different musical styles, ukulele, surf music and Cajun. Finally I add just a few (very few) novelty songs to wink at anyone who is listening. “The Christmas CanCan” by the a cappella Group, Straight, No Chaser was one I struggled with, but I decided the feel and musicality of the piece merited including it despite the silly message.

The list is currently 62 songs, and I’m aiming for 100. I’ll share the list after the party so you can weigh in on my choices.

But until then, I welcome your comments.


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24 Days of Blogging, Day 13: Making my list and checking it twice (part 1)

Wednesday, 13. December 2017 18:56

Last summer I was invited to a dinner party at the house of some friends.  When I asked what I could bring, the hostess suggested that I make a playlist to accompany the evening.  So my covered dish for the evening was a curated digital list of songs to set background to our conversation and enjoyment of excellent food. I was called on to bring a similar dish to Thanksgiving, and I am currently working on the menu for a Christmas party this weekend.  I have found this new style of cuisine as challenging and exciting as any recipe I have prepared for guests, and as much as I may stress over choices, I have come to really love it and see it as my attempt at a gift to all who attend.

Of course, the playlist is nothing new. ¬†From written lists to prepared mixtapes, music lovers have been putting together thematic groupings of favorite songs for years. ¬†However, these efforts have always been limited by the practicalities of storage and portage. ¬†The advent of the digital era has made the combining of long lists of songs possible, and services like Spotify give access to nearly unlimited resources from which to choose, elevating playlist composition to a true art (I am not suggesting I am an artist in my playlists, or if I am, it is on the level with ‚Äúsandwich artist‚ÄĚ).

It is risky and intimidating to share a playlist with those for whom you have respect.  Musical taste is one of those credentials that joins groups.  We assume that our friends have similar tastes to our own, and though we are understanding of a degree of idiosyncrasy, finding another’s tastes completely different is like being surprised by a major difference in political beliefs.  There is a legitimate fear of being judged for ones choices, which makes the creation process a tightrope of the safe and the authentically personal.

Another challenge of bespoke playlist creation (yes, I am using that word ironically) is fitting choices to the occasion. While you are bringing songs for your friends to hear, you are not bringing songs for them to listen. ¬†A playlist like this is background music. ¬†If everyone is silently listening to the songs, the party is failing. ¬†However, you hope for your effort that the music isn‚Äôt essentially white noise, that there is some recognition of what‚Äôs playing and that this is not accident, but curation. A perfect reaction would be an occasional pause, punctuated by someone commenting on how much they like a song, or a comment about the artist, or an anecdote about seeing the band, before resuming other topics. ¬†A nod with the comment “good choice,” is all the thanks I ever need.

Tomorrow I will comment on the specific challenges of composing a playlist for a Christmas party.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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24 Days of Blogging Day 12: Elf Lives Matter

Tuesday, 12. December 2017 23:29

I was working on a Christmas playlist for a party (more on that tomorrow), and I came across a song I hadn‚Äôt heard before. ¬†Though I didn‚Äôt include it in the playlist, I must have listened to it a dozen times as I was going around today. ¬†The song is called “Elf’s Lament” by the group Barenaked Ladies. It was recorded in 2004 and features vocals by Michael Buble (no stranger to Christmas music) Here is the song

and here are the lyrics

I’m a man of reason, and they say
“‘Tis the season to be jolly but it’s folly when you volley for position”
Never in existence has there been such a resistance
To ideas meant to free us
If you could see us, then you’d listen
Toiling through the ages, making toys on garnished wages
There’s no union
We’re only through when we outdo the competition
I make toys, but I’ve got aspirations
Make some noise, use your imagination
Girls and boys, before you wish for what you wish for
There’s a list for who’s been
Naughty or nice, but consider the price to an elf
A full indentured servitude can reflect on one’s attitude
But that silly red hat just makes the fat man look outrageous
Absurd though it may seem, you know, I’ve heard there’s even been illegal doping
And though we’re coping, I just hope it’s not contagious
You try to start a movement, and you think you see improvement
But when thrown into the moment, we just don’t seem so courageous
I make toys, but I’ve got aspirations
Make some noise, use your imagination
Girls and boys, before you wish for what you wish for
There’s a list for who’s been
Naughty or nice, but consider the price to an elf
You look at yourself, you’re an elf
And the shelf is just filled with disappointing memories
Trends come and go, and your friends wanna know
Why you aren’t just happy making crappy little gizmos
Every kid knows they’ll just throw this stuff away
We’re used to repetition, so we drew up a petition
We, the undersigned, feel undermined
Let’s redefine “employment”
We know that we’ve got leverage, so we’ll hand the fat man a beverage
And sit back while we attack the utter lack of our enjoyment
It may be tough to swallow, but our threats are far from hollow
He may thunder, but if he blunders, he may wonder where the toys went
I make toys, but I’ve got aspirations
Make some noise, use your imagination
Girls and boys, before you wish for what you wish for
There’s a list for who’s been
Naughty or nice, but consider the price
Naughty or nice, but consider the price
Naughty or nice, but consider the price to an elf

The song appeals to me musically, thematically, and linguistically. ¬†First, the music has a decidedly un-Christmasy pop beat, characteristic of other songs by the group (someone will tell me what this style is, but I can‚Äôt think of it) ¬†The song follows a standard verse-chorus-verse format, but there is a complexity to the interwoven melodies that does not allow the listener to fall into complacency. ¬†Despite the “less than merry” message, the musical feel is happy but slightly plaintive, musically capturing the dichotomy of the tortured symbol of the joviality often season.

in terms of message, “Elf’s Lament” takes the by now somewhat tired trope of Santa as a harsh taskmaster and fleshes it out in a quasi-Marxist commentary on the dehumanizing effect of Capitalism on the workers. ¬†Our speaker multiple times refers to his aspirations. ¬†He has dreams beyond the merciless, rewardless, drug-assisted, grind of production, not the least are his ideas for improving the situation for himself and his co-workers. ¬†In the third verse our hero laments not only his existence as part of the proletariat machine, but also the banality of what is produced, ‚ÄúAnd the shelf is just filled with disappointing memories,” (a poignant reference the the further humiliation of the whole “Elf on a Shelf” triviality). ¬†In the final verse, the unnamed cog in the Santa machine plans (or are these plans only a fantasy brought on by the delirious of overwork?) a coup d’elf, bringing the master to his knees with a threatened work stoppage. ¬†It is a victory, but at what cost? “Consider the price to an Elf.”

However, it was the wordplay, ahead of anything else, that first drew me to the song. ¬†The verses are tied together by a complex interlacing of rhyme, alliteration and assonance. ¬†The pairings, though not always a perfect rhyme, are ingenious: “Toiling through the ages, making toys on garnished wages,” “Absurd though it may seem, you know, I’ve heard there’s even been illegal doping,¬†And though we’re coping, I just hope it’s not contagious,” “We know that we’ve got leverage, so we’ll hand the fat man a beverage.” ¬†Through these sound techniques, the listener is handed off from image to image, from idea to idea in a whirl of frosty Christmas snow.

Whether it is as Christmas classic or not, it is ingenious and made me happier than any other song I heard today.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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24 Days of Blogging Day 11: Beginning to look a lot like…

Tuesday, 12. December 2017 4:12

Christmas tree went up today…always a wonderful day.

That’s all.

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24 Days of Blogging Day 10: Comfort ye, my people

Monday, 11. December 2017 8:03

Image result for second sunday of advent

For obvious reasons, I have not talked much about leaving my position as Superintendent last summer.¬† However, I can say that my approach to this leaving has been as complete a severing as possible.¬† That part of my life is over, and though I have been invited to visit schools or attend events, I Have consistently declines. I have no desire to stay attached to the life that made up 35 years of my career.¬† I’m sure this decision was based on a mixture of not wanting to be caught in the past as well as anger over everything that happened.¬† It has been easier to maintain a very few friendships and put the rest behind me.¬† It was another life.

So I have turned down every invitation to participate in the schools where I no longer had a role.  That is, until this week.  Every year I have attended the Mater Dei Madrigal Feast.  This yearly celebration of Christmas always was an essential kickoff to the holiday, presenting excellent choral music of many periods and styles, and of all the things I was missing, this stood out for me.  So I decided to break my rule and come to the concert portion of the evening.

I was very nervous about coming back, and very much wanted to just fade in to the crowd.¬† However, once the music began, I knew that I had made the right choice.¬† The choir always begins the program with “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” a perfect Advent song, and the arrangement is so beautiful, contrasting male and female voices and culminating with a very dramatic final verse with the voices of several hundred choir members as the stage is bathed in dazzling light.¬† This was followed by nearly two hours of choral pieces, handbell selections, and solo songs.¬† The evening ended with the traditional singing of “Peace, Peace” overlaid with “Silent Night,” which was appropriate because that was exactly what I was feeling.¬† For all my nervousness and concern, I was so happy that I was there.

Today is the Second Sunday in Advent.¬† The readings for the day begin with primary theme:¬† Comfort.¬† I found comfort, joy, and peace in tonight’s concert.¬† ¬†Not everything has to be left behind.


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The 24 Days of Blogging Day 9: Before there was “Elf on a Shelf,” there was…

Sunday, 10. December 2017 5:08

The Advent Calendar traces its origins to 19th Century Germany, where it was used by Lutherans to encourage children to count down the days to Christmas.  Generally it consisted of a paper picture, often of a religious theme, with 24 doors.  Each door concealed a picture or a Bible verse or (usually very bad) candy.  As  Christmas approached, the doors usually became larger and more central, and the prizes grew in value.  There is no data available about the number of Advent Calendars that are started and never finished, or creating candy feasts of missed weeks.

Most ironically, the Advent Calendar is almost never a calendar of Advent, which begins 4 Sundays before Christmas however the calendar falls (of course these blog posts also follow the calendar of December and not the Church calendar.

Most Advent Calendars are secular now as the tradition has been embraced by parents of all sorts, trying to find creative ways to teach children to wait through the months.

There are also some weird Advent Calendars

Image result for weird advent calendars


Image result for weird advent calendars

Image result for weird advent calendars

Image result for weird advent calendars

Asa always, I welcome your comments.

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24 Days of Blogging Day 8: And a peacock in a pear tree

Saturday, 9. December 2017 5:57

Image result for nativity scene peacock

There is no more central image of Christmas than the Nativity scene.  Physical reenactments of the great day in Bethlehem trace their history to St. Francis, but the iconic grouping had been found in art for long before that.  I was looking at one such painting by early Renaissance painter (and delightful liqueur) Fra Angelico.  All the elements are there, Mary, immaculate as ever (shout out to the feast today), Joseph, almost painfully irrelevant, visitors (a huge group, including three or four partially clothed men in the back), ox, ass, horses, peacock.


Quickly googling “peacock Nativity” I found an number of similar paintings as well as peacock figurines for use in Nativity sets.¬† Now there are other birds, but doves, I can sort of see as a symbol of peace.¬† Ducks and geese seems suitably “stabley,” The rooster is there because of the story of the cock crowing at midnight on Christmas.¬† But I couldn’t think of any historic or symbolic reason for the peacock to be represented in a non-native part of the world, so I had my favorite thing at this time of year, a weird tradition to explain.

Luckily I Googled it so you don’t have to.¬† It turns out there are three possible reasons for the inclusion, each slightly odder than the last.¬† First, the many eyes on the feathers of peacocks were thought to represent the all-seeing eye of God, watching over the entire scene.¬† Looking at this picture it would seem that he would need multiple eyes to keep track of the throng outside the stable…my gosh there is a crowd!¬† The second explanation references a belief by St. Augustine that the peacock had “antiseptic qualities,” thus was an instrument of healing.¬† The other belief of the time was that peacock flesh was incorruptible.¬† I don’t know where this belief came from…perhaps peacock meat was so delicious that there was never any left to rot.¬† Thus the incorruptible peacock symbolized the incorruptible Christ child.

These esoteric traditions reflect humanity’s ongoing need to add to and put their own stamp on the story.¬† Whether it be pooping figures (see last year) or peacocks,¬† the Nativity is a starting place for human imagination and creativity.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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24 Days of Blogging Day 7: Fire

Friday, 8. December 2017 3:26

Wildfire, Fire, Flames, Hot, Burning, Heat, Dangerous

Today I returned from a job in the Bay Area (more about the whole job thing later) and I was planning to take a leisurely drive down the scenic 101, but last night I realized that I had to take the potently un-scenic 5.  The reason for this change came completely down to one word:  fire.

Anyone following the news this week has seen the startling pictures of forests, brush, and houses engulfed in flame.  I was put off from my beachside drive by pictures of traffic creeping through areas with fire only yards from each side of the freeway.  As upsetting these pictures may be, made more so by the direct incursion into populated areas, they are to some extent as typical of the late fall in California as hurricanes are to the East Coast, our rolling natural disaster.

When I see these pictures I am always torn.¬† What am I supposed to feel?¬† Of course my heart breaks for any loss of life or loss of property.¬† It seems every year we are told that this is the worst ever. I’m wishing that there were no fires and dreading the winds and heat that are their harbinger.¬† However, is this the right way to feel?¬† Fires existed long before humans moved in to California.¬† In fact the appropriate amount of fire is necessary for the health of a forest.¬† When humans incur in a natural environment, it is not possible to eliminate these threats, so while the destruction is sad, it is the playing out a deal made in our natural cohabitation.

On the other hand, I worry about broader trends that this destruction reveals.¬† There has been a clear shift of weather from my childhood.¬† The late summer heat lasts longer and longer.¬† No “natural” phenomenon can be seen as unaffected by climate change, and every year, every change makes me wonder when a tipping point will put things completely out of joint.¬† Is this a fire created by the natural environment, or an effect of everything that is being done to the earth as a whole (this is not even considering the human carelessness or recklessness that start fires)? Are the losses of so many home and business owners and the struggles and losses of fire fighters solely a natural disaster, or was nature given a push?

So while my sympathy is unquestioned, my reaction is confused.

As always, I welcome your comments.


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24 Days of Blogging Day 6: Jolly old St Nicholas, lean your ear this way

Thursday, 7. December 2017 4:49


December 6 is the Feast of St Nicholas, which has two distinct traditions. Children in Western European countries put their shoes out in the hall for the Saint to fill with goodies. Also children (and others) enjoy candy canes, commemorating the Saint’s Bishop staff. In Catholic Schools in the United States, these two traditions are often convoluted, as children leave their shoes outside the classroom to have the Saint put a candy cane in them.

Apparently there is also a blessing for candy canes:

May these sweets, these candy canes,

be a sign of Advent joy for us.

May these candy canes,

shaped just like your Bishop’s staff,

be for us a sign of your benevolent care.

Wherever these candy canes are hung,

on tree or wall or door,

may they carry with them

the bright blessing of God.

May all who shall taste them

experience the joy of God

upon their tongues and in their hearts.

We ask God, now, to bless

these your brightly striped sweets

in the name of the Father,

and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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24 Days of Blogging Day 5: Our finest gifts we bring

Wednesday, 6. December 2017 6:57

Image result for jazz

I have only a short time tonight because I am working with colleagues generating and editing an assessment report for a school in Central California.¬† It is my first time through this process, and though I’ve done accreditation visits and generated those reports numerous times, it is still learning a new language with a new set of terms and nuances.

What I want to comment on tonight is the immense satisfaction that one finds in working with a team.¬† I always think of myself as a loner.¬† In school I hated group work, and if I’m at a workshop and the speaker tells me to turn to my seatmate, I develop a need to run to the restroom.¬† However, working with a group of intelligent people on a shared project is an exhilarating experience.¬† Each person writes a section of the report, and the group edits the draft.¬† It is a highly intimidating experience for a person who takes pride in his writing to put work in front of a group for the first time, and it can be ego bashing if they don’t see it as brilliant.¬† However, in the process of sharing ideas, there is a collegiality, a collectivity that you don’t find anywhere else (feelings that are exacerbated by pressure to get things done and growing weariness).¬† the work stops feeling like work and starts to feel like jazz, a free form collaboration leading to something beautiful.

Oh…I have to get back to work

As always I welcome your comments.


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