Choral Harmonies

I have now sung in choirs for over 50 years. I began singing in the Lincoln Boys Choir, a mixed voice choral group that existed in the mid 1960’s. I sang in choruses in high school, and as an engineering student in college, singing in a choral group each year kept me sane. I veered into singing in musicals for a while, but returned to church choirs and other choral groups. My children had the opportunity to sing in the Appalachian Children’s Chorus while their voices were still in the treble range. Singing has offered me the opportunity to perform multiple times at the Piccolo Spoleto festival in Charleston South Carolina, and on the football field at the University of Nebraska. I’ve traveled to Scotland and Yorkshire with a church choir. My children performed in Europe, and in Hawaii. Throughout my life I have found fulfillment and excitement while singing.

What does singing (especially in a choral group) give to those of us who sing? There is extensive research that shows that singing and other musical pursuits does good things to the wiring of the brain. It seems to enable the two hemispheres of the brain to be in better connection with each other. It also appears to be beneficial to mathematical skill development. And I’ve already mentioned the opportunities for travel that can come with singing in a group.

But beyond the physical benefits that can come from singing in an ensemble, the biggest benefits come from subjugating your own individual will to that of the collective. You have to accept that you are not the leader. The leader is the conductor, and that person is the owner of the entire process. You are just a cog in the overall process.

Just being a cog does not mean that you cannot show leadership. The greatest benefit to a section in singing is to exude confidence (and actually be correct with the notes and rhythms). By leading, you can help the rest of the section gain their own confidence, as they lean upon you to show the way. But still, you must always make certain that your own voice blends with the voices of the section. It is only through this process that you can assist in your choirs increasing competence with a work, leading towards a successful performance.

It is my guess that Donald Trump has never sung in a choral group. Had he done so, he would show a bit of humility in his actions. He would recognize that, in order to be successful, you have to work in harmony with those you are trying to lead. No, instead of singing, Donald Trump is trying to emulate the flamboyant conductor (think Stokowski with his flowing hair). Donald Trump as a conductor reminds me of a performance I saw once where I asked my wife, “Is he conducting in 2, 3, 4, 6, or 7?” and she said “Yes.” I think that is an apt analogy to what I am seeing out of the Trump administration to date.

If you are a competent conductor, it is important to make a distinction between working with professional musicians, or working with amateurs. Since very few choirs are professional, it is necessary to deal with a wide range of competency in your choristers. It is different when you are dealing with professionals. There you can presume a level of competency and subject matter knowledge. Donald Trump pledged that he would surround himself with the best people, which I would take to mean that the level of competency and professionalism would be outstanding. Instead, what we have seen to date is an administration that is making a mark for itself in the incompetence it is exhibiting.

Think about the botched roll-out of the travel ban. It is a mark of rank amateurism to roll out such a sweeping policy without having consulted with the agencies that are expected to administer the program. The chaos that ensued shows that, far from working with a cadre of competent professionals, Trump has surrounded himself with those who have no knowledge of protocol or required communication and consultation practices. It is one thing to pledge to simplify government procedures. It is quite another to present a substantive change in processes via a simplistic administrative order, and expect the various functions of government to turn on a dime and implement these changes without generating upheaval. Maybe in Trump’s limited administrative experience where there were few links between the pronouncement of expectations, and the execution of actions to implement those expectations, maybe in a small organization these types of pronouncements from on high would be implemented successfully. To hold a belief that the same management style would work for the Federal Government shows a supreme hubris that is frightening to me, thinking that other program changes will be implemented in a similar way.

A good conductor will study the score so thoroughly that he or she knows every nuance of the piece. They will anticipate the section where the soprano’s may have tuning problems. They will know where the basses require extra monitoring to ensure that they don’t lumber and drag the tempo down. A good conductor of an administration should be able to understand the implications of what he or she is doing and have contingency plans in place to deal with the areas where difficulties may be expected. If there’s evidence of this type of care and concern in the Trump administration, I have not seen it yet. Instead, what I sense is that we have an administration that is reminiscent of the old Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney movies. “Hey, let’s put on a federal government administration!” , and just wing it. This lack of competence shows up in the almost complete lack of appointees for administration positions below cabinet rank. There are very few positions where someone has been nominated, and even fewer that have undergone Senate approval.

A hallmark of a musician, or a conductor, is whether they work well with others. Donald Trump, by his actions and by the actions of those who surround him, is exemplifying the exact opposite of working well with others. One can only hope that he learns from his experiences, although the chance of an intellectually uncurious person learning at age 70 is minimal at best.

Divisions and Divisiveness

Looking back at my working career, it is obvious to me that I was extremely fortunate to spend my entire career at a manufacturing company, and even more fortunate that I did not have an interruption in service where I was without a job. There were multiple times during my working career where I thought that I was going to draw the short stick, where I awaited in my office (yes, an actual office with a door that could be shut) for a phone call that would start the process of separation from my employer. I never received that call. And thus was able to retire at an early age with a significant pension and retirement savings.

What that means is that I never experienced the personal economy that so many folks have suffered with over the past 4 decades. I was never forced to raid my retirement savings in an attempt to stay afloat. I was never required to work in the service economy at a starvation wage rate. Since I did not have these types of experiences, it is difficult for me to understand the pent-up anger that was released in the 2016 Presidential election. I am on the plus side of the economic divide.

This economic divide is the key driver in the divisiveness that permeates our society now. Looking back over my working career, I had the good fortune to be one of the haves in locations surrounded by multitudes of have-nots. I spent 10 years in Memphis from the mid 1970’s to 1985. That city was an island of relative prosperity encircled by a sea of dire poverty. Drive 30 miles south of Memphis into the Mississippi delta, you would find at that time ditches with raw sewage flowing around plank shacks dating from sharecropper days. I moved from there to Charleston West Virginia, where if you drive up into any given holler you still see ramshackle mobile homes surrounded by the detritus of lives ill spent.

Up until the economic turmoil surrounding the 2008-2009 recession, the growing economic divide had not resulted in overt divisiveness. Sure, you had Rush Limbaugh and similar talk radio messiahs proclaiming their particular and peculiar form of gospel. But it was a fringe group that paid obeisance to these prophets of the airwaves. Then came the “Great Recession”. And in its wake came the election of, gasp, a half-black man who had apparently never paid his dues in the private sector or in the military. Followed swiftly by the interventions of an activist government that took measures never considered in the Constitution, all in the hope of preventing the economy from totally seizing up.

So those who were not part of the haves, those who lost their jobs, those who were foreclosed upon by uncaring corporate megaliths, those who were forced to accept extended unemployment, and perhaps food stamps, and other government handouts meant to prevent starvation, those who lost everything saw that the perpetrators of the economic crisis were bailed out and made whole. Banks were merged with brokerage houses, and big banks swallowed regional mortgage providers, and slowly, the lubrication provided kept the gears of the economy from seizing up. The measures taken did work. As bad as the events of 2008-2009 were, students of history understand that it could have been a whole lot worse. However, those who caused the problems did not pay the price. There were no perp walks due to the financial crisis.

But for those who were on the losing end of the equation, what they saw was a lack of consequences for those who were guilty of the hubris that led to the financial crisis. They looked beyond their own circumstances where they received sustenance, to the unfairness of the social order. They realized that their own economic life had trended down over a long time, and this last disaster removed all remaining safety margin that had kept their lives from spiraling out of control. Now they realized that the deck was stacked against them, and that no one was on their side. This new black president? Well, according to the media that inveighed against him, no one was really sure he was even a citizen. Mother – dead. Father – a Kenyan Muslim who had communistic roots. He actually lived in Indonesia as a child. No way he could ever be one of us.

Barack Obama was in a no-win situation. He could not relate to the pain of the ordinary people, like Bill Clinton could, because the ordinary people could not see him as having validity. In fact, the chief denouncer of Obama’s legitimacy was a dilettante from New York who had a very spotted career as a developer of real estate and casinos, and a claim to enduring fame from his reality TV series. Donald Trump made it permissible to expound racist memes while maintaining a veneer of civility. His crusade to invalidate Obama finally failed with the release of a birth certificate, but to those who were invested in the beliefs of Trump, they never accepted the President’s legitimacy.

History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Those words that are part of our consciousness now come into play as we see the results of the long game. The economic disruption that hit in the late 1920’s enabled the populist and fascist regimes of the 1930’s to take power. This led inevitably to the conflicts of the late 1930’s and then World War II. What I have seen in the rise of the nationalists across the globe – whether it be Donald Trump, or Marine LePen, or the forces for Brexit, or for the Dutch nationalism movement, it has accentuated the divisiveness that now infests our global society. We must find a way to tackle the divisiveness that infests our political discourse. The way to do that is to tackle the economic divide within our societies. How to tackle that? That is a topic for another discussion.

A Bit of (Climate) Perspective

Weather is not climate. Most humans conflate the two, such that they consider the fact that it is snowing outside as irrefutable evidence that global warming cannot be possible. Yet it is possible for me to acknowledge that today on March 1,  the Ohio valley today had a storm system pass through that was reminiscent of late April. I’m sitting in my den and see that the daffodils that I’ve worked to cultivate over the decades are at peak bloom – on March 1!  We had crocus bloom in January. Now, I am the first to acknowledge that, just like the presence of snow in winter does not refute global warming, an abnormally warm winter with early blooms does not prove global warming’s existence.

What has become evident is that, regardless of source, the climate is warming on this planet. The evidence of this warming is more pronounced in the polar regions, where we may hear in a few weeks that the Iditarod is once again suffering from a lack of snow. I am totally upset when I see a show like CNBC decry the notion that CO2 emissions cannot cause warming of the planet. I see talking heads nodding sagely in agreement that increased CO2 levels will be a huge advantage as it will foster luxurious plant growth to help to feed the increasing population. I wish to provide some guidance in this post as to why these popular beliefs are not correct.

Part of my college education involved a study of thermodynamics. You know, one of those classes that require the use of advanced calculus to be able to understand and use the principles of thermodynamics. One of those courses that only those of us elites think are important. Well, one concept that is taught in thermodynamics is that of  black body radiation. It turns out that this is the key concept in understanding why CO2 and other greenhouse gases are so potent in adjusting the earth’s thermostatic control.

Now, I think of black body radiation around my house, as our black cats absorb the heat emanating from the furnace vent, then re-radiate it back over time. Well, the concept also works with the atmosphere as well. The earth’s surface absorbs heat from the sun during the daylight cycle. Once the sun is below the horizon, radiation of the absorbed heat begins. Now, once heat is emitted in the infra-red portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, it will leave the earth and its atmosphere – unless it is intercepted. Nitrogen and oxygen do not absorb energy in the infra-red spectrum, so that part of the atmosphere is transparent to the infra-red, and the heat leaves the earth.

But trace gases in the atmosphere can intercept the infra-red radiation. And once they absorb it, they can release it back as they cool. Now, when they release it back, they do it omni-directionally. Some continues on to space, and some returns back to the surface of the earth. Water vapor is one example of a trace gas that serves to return heat energy to the earth. And, so is carbon dioxide, and methane, and many other compounds that have been created through organic chemistry and disseminated throughout society. The increasing levels of these trace gases does indeed have a significant effect on the ability of heat to leave earth’s atmosphere, thereby inducing a rise in the thermostat of earth.

Many who deny anthropogenic climate change throw out other factors that can affect climate as well. It is true that we on this planet are inextricably bound with the solar input, and if the sun changes the amount of energy we receive, then it will affect global climate. The effect of the sun is greater than any amount of climate forcing that we humans can cause. Likewise, volcanic eruptions can result in significant global cooling, as the particulates from the eruption and from sulfates forming from the eruption shield earth’s surface from the sun’s energy. I understand and accept that those factors can cause effects many times greater in size than the effects from the gases that man has emitted.

Still, the thermodynamics of black body radiation cannot be denied. And it is true that, in the absence of other external factors, trace gases that absorb and re-emit infrared radiation will increase the black body temperature of earth. This is the basis for taking action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in order to minimize the total amount of temperature change that we face.

One area of concern for me is that denial of human-caused climate warming leads to denial of the possibility that global warming is happening, and therefore we don’t need to mitigate the risks. I see coastal states where governors have forbidden their state employees from using any resources into planning what to do in order to mitigate sea level rises. These are states that are already facing tidal flooding at an increasing rate, and are also subject to salt water intrusion into ground waters. Even if humans are not responsible for the changes we are seeing, is it not prudent for our government to be preparing to deal with the effects that are already happening? Or will we be like ostriches that stick our heads into the tidal flats, only to be drowned by the ever-higher tidal flood?


Why Here and Now?

Welcome to this expression of my vanity. Why am I writing for an unknown audience? Because I believe I have some ideas that are worth sharing, and experience that puts these ideas into context. Permit me to introduce myself. I am now a retired chemical engineer living in one of the politically reddest states in the nation – West Virginia. I have seen how the direction being taken by todays Republican party will lead to disaster as the nation veers away from science and reason-based policies, and veers towards protectionism and isolationism and unleashes the racism that abounds underneath the thin veneer of civility in our society.

This blog represents my small attempt at providing input into the public square in order to provide a dissenting view to that of the political party currently in power. This is not to say that the Democrats have the answers either. They are just as likely to try to put an antibiotic salve on the problems of society when we really need open heart surgery. We need another way altogether.