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When your vocabulary is limited, outcomes are not always what you desire at Il Barbiere di Roma!



It’s time to start a new category. Something like “Rants I Need to Broadcast”. Or, perhaps I should entitle it “Y’know What Annoys Me” as a tongue-in-cheek homage to my late, beloved Poppa.

I went to the local post office yesterday to buy stamps for an important mailing, and didn’t want just ‘anything’. They had two options: US flags and a person. Neither was appropriate. The reason given: “The postage lady has been on vacation for two weeks and we’re out of everything.” The [very pleasant] clerk suggested that I could “go to the post office just down the street… well not JUST down the street” (3 miles away) to see what they had available.


I called ahead. *ring* *ring* *ring* (about 20).

A woman finally answered. I asked what she had in stamps. She went away for a couple of minutes, and came back with news that they had one design that should suit my needs.

I drove out there (20 minutes), and stood in line for 20 minutes or more, chatting with two very friendly women ahead of me, one of whom commiserated about the sorry state of customer service at the USPS. She said that, after too many times waiting in long lines to buy stamps, she started buying them online…

…until the time that about $50 worth of stamps never showed up. And—can you believe this?!—since the USPS sends stamps ordered on their website by regular first-class mail with no tracking or guaranteed delivery, she had no way to prove that they were never delivered.

So, now she’s back to standing in line at the post office (or buying elsewhere, where you have much less to choose from).

I reached the counter, where the “stamps we have available” card on the desk showed about 8 designs…

…and was told that they had only 2: “Celebrate” and “Eid”.


I asked the agent what one is to do. She basically told me that they can’t order stamps as fast as they sell them, because the higher-ups don’t trust them not to lose or have them stolen.

People, WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?!?! This is the F#$%ing United States Postal Service. Their whole BUSINESS is selling stamps and delivering mail. I already know that they are, generally speaking, at least in Chicago, pretty incapable of the latter. [Remember when the slogan for Priority Mail was “2 days, $2”? Now it’s “About 6 dollars, and it probably won’t get there any sooner than if you had just sent it first-class, which is also pretty slow and unreliable nowadays, but you can hope that the recipient will be distracted by the swell of patriotism that comes from seeing all that red, white and blue on the envelope/parcel”]


From now on, at least until I no longer require the services of the USPS at all, I’m buying them on, which doesn’t charge me for delivery, and offers parcel tracking at no additional charge.

And I used to kind of like the post office when I was younger. I guess it was total naïveté.

And, by the way, where’s my mail?




Tonight, I am listening to “Simple Gifts: Shaker Chants and Spirituals”, a 1995 recording by The Boston Camerata with The Schola Cantorum of Boston and The Shaker Community of Sabbathday Lake, Maine, conducted by Joel Cohen At the time of its recording, only a few Shakers were still living at the only continuing Shaker community, Sabbathday Lake, Maine. I have pulled my two books by Sister Frances Carr, “Growing Up Shaker” and “Shaker My Plate” from my bookshelves, both of which Sister Frances inscribed for me during Hurricane Irene in August 2011, the first time we worshiped with the then three remaining Shakers. Today, I learned that Sister Frances, 89, died after a brief bout with cancer. She was the eldest Shaker and the senior member of the community she entered at the age of 10

Today, 2 Shakers remain, from a peak population of 6000 in the mid-19th century.

But do not forget that there are still Shakers, and Sabbathday Lake continues as a Shaker family. Even within the last decade, some have come to Sabbathday Lake to consider joining the community, though none have stayed. The family prays daily that they will receive competent vocations to grow and perpetuate the Shaker community. I join them in those prayers.

For more than two centuries, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearance has been an important and distinctive witness of God’s love for the world through their life, faith and work, not just resourceful inventors and creators of art and artifacts. Faithful people are called to discern God’s will for their lives and ministries, and a living Shaker community allows us to learn from those bearers of a different witness, rather than from relics of a dead faith. Long may the Shakers live and thrive, that they may continue to build up God’s family on earth, and we may learn from their vision.

Rest in peace, Sister Frances. May God receive your soul with a loving and joyful embrace.

Shaker Village, Sabbathday Lake, ME, August 2007


Bach & Mexico

Apparently, I said this 3 years ago today upon attending a CSO performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s B-minor Mass, not a bad piece of music. Facebook reminded me of it, and I thought it was worth broadcasting more widely.

Chicago, IL
16 April 2013

I ate salsa, guacamole, torta, and drank mescal and margarita. Then, I stepped outside into the cold, damp, gray, windy Chicago evening. A fitting reality check before a performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass. What would Bach, that dour old Lutheran, have known of the sultry, sensual pleasures of Mexico? Bach was a Chicago-style composer.

I heard Bach’s B-minor Mass this evening by the CSO. IF I had run into the composer at the bar afterwards, I might have said, “That was a pretty good song, Jack. Good effort.” Would a Lutheran expect anymore than that?

[delivered at The Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday 26 March 2016
at The Church of St. Paul & the Redeemer, Chicago, IL]

I stood before the stuffed & mounted bird, and read about Martha, the last passenger pigeon to die, and I wept.

Martha’s death on September 1st, 1914, marked the first documented extinction of a species at the hand of Man. Hundreds of millions of passenger pigeons had been sacrificed almost purely for sport, by selfish, myopic humans.

Consider the ram. The angel intervenes to save Isaac. A ram appears. Abraham kills the ram in Isaac’s stead, yet the angel did not command it.

Abraham ram passenger pigeon

God tells Adam and Eve, “subdue” and ”have dominion”, and for a hundred thousand generations, we have our way with creation.

Industrial agriculture leads to e. coli contamination, and the flesh of millions of animals is discarded. Animals are merely products, commodities.

We heat and cool and fly and drive and shop and waste, and polar bears starve and drown as the ice melts away.

The Son of God is sacrificed by human hands for human sinfulness, yet we continue to sacrifice God’s creation for our own vainglory and ignorance. How many more of God’s children must die to satisfy our craving for wealth, comfort, status, power?

The Psalmist says God does not require burnt offering. How many more substitutionary sacrifices do we require?

“The Lord will provide”, but for our needs only? Or also for our whims, capricious wants, selfish desires?

We the recipients of such priceless gifts as forgiveness of sin and eternal life through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ taunt God by despoiling the same creation that God deemed “very good”.

To use God’s creation gently, to care for it as if its Creator will return home from a long absence: these are true actions de grâces—thanksgiving—for the endless love and mercy of God toward us and all creation.

Consider the ram.

IMG_2411I barely knew the name “Maurice Duruflé” when in my first year in the Choral Conducting program at Yale, it fell to me and my fellow singers to learn “the Duruflé Requiem”. A classmate was preparing it for performance at the annual All Souls’ Eucharist of The Episcopal Church at Yale, and we fellow conducting students were in the choir.

I don’t remember much about the rehearsals, or my response to the music, except that it was positive. The sonic image seared in my memory, however, is of the sole
mn entrance procession that first Sunday evening in November 1995. We musicians sang and played the Introit in the broad, rounded chancel in Battell Chapel, while the clergy, acolytes and thurifer processed down the aisle silently… except for the quiet metallic clank of the chain against the thurible, wafting its perfume into the vast Victorian space of the chapel. Every time I listen to the Introit, my memory adds the clink of chain against brass, as if its part had been written in the conductor’s score by Duruflé himself.

Moe vivid than my memory of preparation and performance are the people and things that mingled in my mind with Duruflé’s Requiem. When I listen to it, I think of Doug, the conductor, who would become and remains one of my dearest friends, and of all my other beloved friends, places and experiences from those fun and deeply formative years at Yale.

Maurice Duruflé was active as a musician and composer at just the right time to nurture this piece into existence. He was a devout Roman Catholic whose theological and æsthetic predilections coincided perfectly with a brief revival of medieval musical practice in the church in France before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council began to take effect in the 1960s. The Benedictines at Solesmes were extremely influential in a revival of the Church’s ancient repertoire of plainsong (AKA, Gregorian chant) in the early 20th century, and the modal harmonies suggested by those old melodies aligned with and inspired a rich language that became one (conservative) thread in the tapestry of French music. Duruflé, who had been a choirboy in the cathedral at Rouen, was steeped in church music. While a student at the Conservatoire, he studied
under Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor, both monumental figures in the history of French symphonic organ repertoire and church music in Paris, and eventually with Paul Dukas, his most influential mentor in composition. All of these influences coalesce in his music.

Like Dukas, Duruflé was extremely self-critical of his own compositions, extensively revised his work, and published very little: only 14 works in a long life (By comparison, Bach wrote well over a thousand, Mozart many hundreds.). Attracted to the plainsong melodies from the Roman Mass for the Dead, he began writing an organ suite based on them prior to 1941. When, in that year, he received a commission for a major work, he decided to expand the organ suite into the piece we hear today. The Requiem was completed in September 1947, and dedicated to the memory of his father, who had died in 1945.

Duruflé’s Requiem bears some similarity in structure and tenor to that of Gabriel Fauré, which we sang here a year ago. It, too, omits or plays down some of the more wrathful themes of the Mass for the Dead, and emphasizes comfort and hope. Like Fauré, Duruflé omits the Dies iræ, the movement for which Verdi famously wrote truly terrifying music, and includes the burial hymn “In paradisum”, depicting angels leading the soul of the deceased to heaven.IMG_2630

Where Duruflé’s music moves beyond Fauré’s is in its rich and nuanced melodies, harmonies and moods. Duruflé did not explicitly associate his Requiem with France’s sufferings in World War II, but one may hear within it the sorrow, fear and pathos resulting from years of occupation and oppression. Duruflé was also a different person from Fauré. You might remember that Fauré claimed to have written his Requiem “for the pleasure of it”. Duruflé—much more sober, pious, insecure—might simply have evoked himself in music, as surely Fauré had.

Duruflé’s music is like that of the French symphonists, with complex accompaniments and polyphony, reflecting his musical pedigree. Fauré’s music is much more of the salon. There are darkness and depth in the Duruflé Requiem, both less evident in Fauré’s. Duruflé’s moments of beauty and peace are similarly multifaceted. The concluding ”In paradisum” is ravishing because of a stunning combination of near static peace and complex harmony, suspended from an ancient melody of the Church. Fauré may have been the first to be called a “voluptuous Gregorianist”, but of the two, Duruflé is the much more worthy recipient of the “Gregorianist” mantle. If Fauré’s ”In paradisum” depicts heaven as a garden with dewdrops falling like crystals off sun-dappled leaves, Duruflé’s imagines a much less familiar paradise, not quite discernible through a morning mist.

My other association, inexplicable yet profound, of this magnificent and truly life-changing work, is with the death of my maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, and who died only a few weeks after I sang the Requiem at that 1995 All Souls’ Mass. Nana had almost surely never heard of Duruflé nor of this work, and yet, every time I listen to, sing, or play the “Agnus Dei”, which we will sing at the Offertory today, I remember her. Not as she was that cool November evening, reduced by advanced Alzheimer’s Disease to a confused, dehydrated, murmuring stranger, a human vessel emptied of her soul and her understanding, but as the vivacious, social Italian American fashionista, who called me, alternately, “Chris” (one of very few people who ever did) and “Christian Clough”. The woman whose home was almost as much mine as was our own house; and where so many Sunday dinners, weeknight suppers, carefree overnights, and joyful holidays birthed my own understanding of family and hospitality. In the interlude after the altos’ first prayer, when the bass line makes its slow, haunting descent, and the violins and violas sing their first pleading melody, I see Amelia Piccolino Dowdall, hear her voice, and smell the aromas of another delicious and nourishing meal, to which we will soon be warmly welcomed.

“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant to them eternal rest.”

This is the power and sacred gift of music: to awaken mind and heart and soul to the blessings of joy and sorrow that embrace us in this brief and beautiful life, and perhaps to move us to offer thanks to God for them.
Chicago, Illinois; 27 October 2015

I consulted the following biography:
Frazier, James E. Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music. Rochester: U of Rochester P, 2007
in preparing this reflection.

The pollen of elms troubles my eyes

How mine eyes
Tear and weep.

Is it the pollen of elms?
New Haven’s eponymous trees?
The elms are back from weakness, disease.
I return from there, too.

We gather,
Sit beneath the great
Barrel vaults. The
Florid rood floats, almost,
Faces in faux-ancient
Glass gaze down.
“Do we remember you?”
Their stares draw my
Gaze to them, to the
Western light, the
Vesper glow.

What tears! Is it the
Pollen of elms, or the
Bright sun, which
Makes me weep?
Such distorted vision—
Prismatic view!

Whom do I see?
Friends long since departed,
To both other places and planes.
The bat boy flitters nude across the parlor,
The chunky one flounces before the tube,
Taunting the weird, bearded one.
Beets pour forth,
An endless sea of beets.
And the fragrant, baked egg yolks.
The lazy man naps in the dining room niche.
Jolly rings.
The first real love approaches—
What fear!
Funky, chunky,
crazy, annoying,
Krauts, Canucks,
Tiger Lily,
Beer me!
Leona Helmsley lives again.
Miner, Murray,
Lara, Lackstrom.
Faces pass in eye mist:
Newberry, Dwight, Marquand—
Pipes by the thousands.
Velut maris stella!

Two Dots… then a dash?
No, stay!
I cannot.
I must go
To grow.

I have gone.
Are you still there?
Yes. No.

When I close my weeping eyes,
I see you.

I open my eyes,
And you are there
In the tears.
“There we sat down,
Yea, we wept.
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?”

I am back!
You are here…
You are gone.
Your face, your smile,
Your voice.
We meet, embrace,

Friendly faces
Peer from the windows I pass.
Again, I return,
Must go.
All my godsons,
How they’ve grown!
And my Mentor
Prepares for a final

I can’t see.
My nose drips.
Images and memories
The allergens,
But not the irritant:
It is the absence,
The distance.

I hear “Singet”
And remember when
I last sang
Truly well.
Under the elms.

I am here again—
Must I say good-bye?

A score of years
Since I arrived,
Yet even after so many away,
It is still a reuniting
To return.

Could I have left
My heart in New Haven?
Hardly, you say,
And yet,
Why this weeping
When I return?

Is it only the
Myopia of age and
Nostalgia that makes me see only
Your warm smile?
Has the cheek sunken?
The hair thinned?
The waist grown?

Or are you still the
Rough Beauty
I came to love?

Wipe the tears,
And let me see
You, in the
Vesper Light
Filtered through the saints,
And the elms.

High-Acreage Curiosity

I’m getting ready to take Putney (my dog, for those who haven’t met him) to Camp Clough (AKA my parents) for the summer. I’m leaving soon for 20 days, part of which is a liturgy conference at Yale.

I’m expecting a house guest for two nights, immediately before departing. I haven’t had an overnight guest for months, and the guest room is the staging area for storing winter clothes and disposal of things I no longer need.

Behind my piano is a pile of music: ten volumes of piano rags and French romantic chansons from the Chicago Public Library, a tote bag of choral octavos from Ellen Fisher, a borrowed collection of Schubert piano duets.

Behind my couch is a basket of issues of Maine: the Magazine, Vermont Life, National Geographic, unread, awaiting reading.

My refrigerator is packed full, most of its contents a large collection of sauces, relishes and other accompaniments I’ve picked up in stores trading in local and artisan foods. They keep well, but get used in exceedingly small quantities. On the kitchen shelves is a similar collection of unopened toppings. There are five jars of different kinds of mustard from Raye’s <> in Eastport, ME . One is open.

Mustard jars

I live alone.

And then there are the books.

A friend of mine popped his head in my office last week, and said, “It looks like a dorm room.”

Scattered about therein are more books and scores.

I need to say right now that I am NOT a collector. In my twenties, I realized that the few collections I had collected for the sake of having collections brought me no joy. There was remorse for spending money on things that had no utility. I committed to no more collecting. No thimbles, no bone china plates of exotic places. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.

In tidying for my guest’s arrival and my departure, I see the problem, arising from my being a curious person. Working with a life coach <> a few years ago, I articulated a life purpose that is, briefly, to guide others to uncover their own curiosity to lead them to discovery and learning. My life purpose grows out of my own attitude. I find meaning and joy in vacuuming up experiences, then letting them shape my perspective and choices. I thrive on exceptional sensory experiences. Five jars of mustard could tell you that (actually, there are seven jars, but only five from Raye’s) with a translator.

The musical scores, the magazines, the Mason jars. These are containers for experiences. They gather around me, offering adventures. But they compete with each other for my time and energy, and my space. They conflict with my desire to simplify, to live more like the Shakers I visited a few summers ago.

I am immensely blessed to know that curiosity will never, ever let me be bored in this too-short life.

But it’s taking up a lotta space in my apartment!

Today’s Traffic Scofflaw

Fellow Illinoisans, native or neo, reluctant or rejoicing (or anyone, really):

Which of the following three excuses offered gets the woman off the legal hook who both failed to stop at a stop sign and failed to yield to a pedestrian (yours truly) in a crosswalk?:

1) “I slowed down.”
2) “I’m rushing to get home.”
3) “I saw you.”

I confronted her after she blew by me, and these are the three proffered explanations for her behavior. She was convinced of her innocence.

And this behavior behind the wheel immediately adjacent to two public schools during dismissal hour on a school day.

Happy St. Jo-Pat’s Day!

I volunteered to bring snack for tonight’s choir rehearsal, which fell on the fallow day between St. Patrick’s Day (and its drying pools of green sidewalk vomit) and St. Joseph’s Day (and its decadent ricotta-filled southern Italian doughnuts). I wore a red t-shirt and red socks (St. Joseph) and a green-and-white striped button-down shirt (St. Patrick). I bridged the gap.

I decided to bring both Irish Soda Bread <> 


and zeppole


<;, which I bought at Il Giardino del Dolce (“The Garden of Dessert”), in Chicago’s Elmwood Park neighborhood <;, to build a sweet culinary bridge between the two feasts, too.


It’s too bad that St. Joseph’s Day isn’t better known as an Italian American feast, so much less fraught is it than Columbus Day, tainted by the disease and suffering inflicted on native peoples following Columbus’s “discovery” of America. The consumption of zeppole alone would make Italophiles out of everyone—and unlike the elixir of St. Patrick, you needn’t be 21 to consume them.

I grew up in and around Utica, NY, which to this day has a strong Italian American community, and several thriving Italian bakeries, pastry shops and markets. I remember eating zeppole every year, though I only knew them as “St. Joseph’s Day pastries” until I met the Italian Americans of New Haven, CT. I think one of the reasons I grew to love New Haven so was that many of the foodways that I treasured from my childhood in Utica remained strong there, too. I didn’t have to drive back home every time I wanted a taste of my old world.


Laying out both of these traditional foods side by side, with their strong cultural associations, reminded me of the way in which my mother’s family was a living example of this spread. My Poppa was Irish American, or at least the Dowdall family claimed Irish as their predominant ethnic strain. My Nana was first generation Italian American, both her parents having emigrated from two tiny villages in Lazio (Selvacava & Ausonia), near Formia. (By the way, the scenery is mountainous, dramatic and beautiful, and I just discovered that there’s an agriturismo in Selvacava: <;!)

When Poppa (Jack) told his eldest brother, Jim, that he was dating an Italian girl (Amelia), Jim punched him. Italians and Irish didn’t mix in the 1930s.

By the time I was a kid, though, things were calmer on the multiethnic front lines of 1016 Rutger Street in Utica. For St. Patrick’s Day, we wore green and hung Hallmark® leprechauns in the windows. My Italian Nana would cook corned beef and cabbage and bake soda bread for my Irish Poppa et al. Two days later, on St. Joseph’s Day, my Irish Poppa would buy the zeppole at the Florentine Pastry Shop on Bleeker Street in the heart of Italian East Utica for my Italian Nana et al. (We didn’t think to wear red, though, and Hallmark® didn’t sell St. Joseph’s Day decorations.)

The father of a dear friend of mine was named Joseph Patrick. He was Pat to us, but others in town knew him as Joe. I was confused the first time I heard him called Joe. That’s when I learned his full name. Only later did I get it: he was Italian Irish American. He married a Polish Italian American. 

Nowadays, people are both fascinated, yet unbothered, by many of these ethnic distinctions. Are we thus richer or poorer? As in Andersonville, just down the street from me in Chicago, which bears only the palest shadow of its earlier “Swedishness”, what have we lost as our ethnic enclaves have been assimilated and their children dispersed?

On St. Patrick’s Day, they say, we are all Irish. If so, then on St. Joseph’s Day, let’s all be Italian, and on Pulaski Day, let’s all be Polish, and on Chinese New Year, let’s all be Chinese, and on and on.

But, even more importantly, cherish your own heritage; nurture and share it. If you don’t, who will? And who would be poorer without it? You would be. And so would everyone around you.

Happy St. Jo-Pat’s Day, friends!