Wednesday, January 27, 2010
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Frankton Muncie - the vicar in Pride and Prejudice ('While you were out, Miss Bennet, we received a visit from the good and distinguished Reverend Frankton Muncie.')
Marion Montpelier - used to sing cabaret songs with Richard Rodney Bennett (no relation)
Quincy Coldwater - produced Michael Jackson's first album
Three Rivers Jackson - early delta blues singer
Okemos Mason - world heavyweight champion, 1956
Well, it amused me at the time.
Friday, December 18, 2009
But that doesn't work here, because Americans put cheese in everything, and they don't tell you. Your innocuous can of pasta in tomato sauce, which looks just like Heinz spaghetti, will taste of cheese, and when you check the ingredients, yes, there it is about half way down. The meal I have ordered in a restaurant precisely because it does not, according to the menu, have cheese in it will appear at the table covered with a liberal sprinkling of grated cheddar. The stuff is everywhere.
Today I was at the supermarket looking for a sandwich to take with me in the car for later. The choices were beef and cheese, ham and cheese, cheese, or tuna. Checking the ingredients on the tuna sandwich revealed it had - yes, cheese in it. They had slipped it in surruptitiously and tried to hide it from me, but I foiled their game. In the end I bought a ham and cheese sandwich and took the cheese out.
What is it with Americans and cheese?
Monday, November 9, 2009
Well, my Oklahoman oddysey is coming to an end. I've got a new job to start in January in the UK. The house is on the market, and we're making plans to move on.
I feel somehow that the blog should end on a high note - perhaps a poem or even a musical number. But it'll probably just fizzle out in some kind of unsatisfactory way.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Added to which, we could have saved the trouble and expense of getting our trees cut back approximately six months ago.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I have mixed feelings about this. Like most British people of my generation, I grew up in a strangely conflicted environment, where I learnt about (and did calculations in) centimetres, litres and kilograms at school, but talked about inches, pints and pounds at home, because my parents and grandparents only really thought in these terms. Indeed, they were still only just recovering from the shock of adapting to decimal currency, and my grandmother never really accepted the fact that 10p was 10p and not two shillings. But there was no real choice about this for me: the old system was entirely obsolete by the time I was going into shops and buying things, so I only ever learnt about it second-hand (and imperfectly). But in other areas of life this was not the case, and even now I can only conceptualise height expressed in feet and inches, distances in miles, speeds in miles per hour, and drinks in pints. As for weight, I don't really understand that at all, and to this day remain hazy about whether a pound or a kilogram is heavier.
Which, you would have thought, should have set me up well for life as an American: but it's not that simple. The imperial system is endlessly complex, and incorporates several units which are pretty much obsolete, or only reserved for specialist uses, in either or both of the UK and America: furlong, pole, perch, gill. A gallon, for example, is something I previously associated only with buying petrol - here, it's used for mineral water, milk and orange juice too, so I can now, for the first time in my life, visualize a gallon in terms of size. On the other hand, the stone (as a unit of weight) is not used here, so I am forever trying to divide by 14 in my head whenever somebody is referred to as weighing so many pounds.
The ubiquitous use of the imperial system in America has its benefits: there is none of the confusion between generations or even within one individual which exists in the UK; everyone knows and understands one system. It has even resulted in certain accepted terminologies to describe things beyond the units themselves: a 'two by four', for example, is a standard size of wooden plank measuring two inches in height and four in depth (and varying in length according to need); everyone in America knows what this is, but I had to learn. But, as Europe worked out some time ago, the system is horrendously complicated and fiddly, and its retention here is one of the principal things which makes America feel a little old-fashioned and complacent to me.
Saturday, October 3, 2009
Dave Gorman points out, in his book 'America Unchained', that there are three US states which claim to have a panhandle, but Oklahoma is the only one whose panhandle really does look like the handle of a pan. I quite agree.
Actually, the story of why that strange slice of land is stuck on to the northwest corner of Oklahoma is quite interesting - I learnt it not long ago from a colleague who teaches music at the Oklahoma Panhandle State University (yes, really - despite my initial misgivings about that particular institution). Apparently, in the 19th century as America expanded west, the states of North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas were created by drawing latitude lines at equal intervals running south from the Canadian border. At that time, Oklahoma was still known as the 'Indian territory' or the 'unassigned lands', and was the area which had been specifically created - 'in perpetuity' - for Native American tribes after their enforced migration from other parts of North America.
The obvious thing was for Texas (which had briefly been an independent country earlier in the 19th century) to claim the land to the west of Oklahoma running up to the Kansas border, but according to the rules of the time, in order to maintain its status as a confederate (slave-owning) state, it was not allowed to claim any land north of the Mason-Dixon line. So all the land to the south of that line became part of Texas (the 'Texas panhandle', in fact, though it looks nothing like a panhandle to me - or to Dave Gorman), leaving a thin slice of land by itself. When Oklahoma was granted statehood in 1907, one of the conditions was that it incorporated this slice of land which up till then, no-one had known what to do with (evidently Texas, by that stage, didn't want it).
According to my colleague, this history has resulted in a certain sense of autonomy and rebellion amongst the Oklahoma panhandlers, many of whom don't really feel part of Oklahoma to this day, and there is even some kind of secessionist movement. It is, as far as I understand it, pretty empty of anything apart from cows, and the Oklahoma Panhandle State University. I met this colleague again yesterday at a conference, which is what reminded me about this issue. I mentioned to him that when the Oklahoma weather comes on TV, the far western part of the panhandle is actually obscured by the TV station's logo. 'Oh, that's all right', he replied, 'no-one lives there anyway'.
By the way, in case you're wondering, the third 'panhandle' state is Florida.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Monday, July 27, 2009
Today I drove there, in the pouring rain. It closed down two years ago; it's now a Chinese tailor's.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Sunday, July 12, 2009
I had a similar experience a month or so ago when I was in California. After about an hour's drive from San Diego airport, I arrived in the town I was staying in quite late in the evening, and, pretty hungry, stopped to eat at the first place I saw, which was a kind of fast food/diner place selling burgers, pizza and ice cream. I opted for a pizza. The lady serving behind the counter - who I think, like about 50% of the population in that part of the world, was of Mexican descent - asked me what kind of pizza base I wanted, and pointed to a chart on the wall showing the options. I decided on butter, and informed her accordingly. She didn't understand, so I repeated the word. And again. And again. Eventually I was reduced to pointing to the picture on the wall. 'Oh, budderrr!' she said. I suppose my 'proper' English pronunciation of 'butta' must have sounded as far removed from her conception of the word as could be imagined.
All this leads to a dilemma. Once you've been here a while, you know that the way you pronounce certain words sounds odd to the locals. I'm perfectly well aware that if I ask for tomatoes, or refer to my garage, or ask what route to take, I am likely to get a quizzical stare in response. At the very least, I feel self-conscious. But on the other hand, if I force myself to ask for tomaydoes, or refer to my garage, or ask what rout to take, I feel like a patronising fraud. Suggestions would be welcome.
Let me round off with a story which I fervently wish had happened to me, but was in fact told to me by another British person I know in Oklahoma. A friend of hers, visiting from the UK, went into a shop to buy something, and received the inevitable 'Oh, I lurrve your accent? Where are you from?!' 'England', she said. 'England? Oh wow! Hey, say something in English!'
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
In most contexts with which I'm familiar, saying that would hardly be controversial; in fact it would pretty much be assumed. But here in Oklahoma, it's a minority position. Actually, Oklahoma City itself is probably reasonably well-balanced, and certainly during the election last year (see 'Anti-family', 6 October) I saw at least as many yard signs and bumper stickers for Obama-Biden as I did for McCain-Palin; and I've since spoken to a number of people who seem supportive of the new President. But the fact remains that Oklahoma was the only state in the US in which every single county voted for McCain ('Oklahoma facts', 17 December), and there is definitely a very well-entrenched conservative streak here, particularly among the churches.
I wrote a few posts ago ('Organs and Churches', 15 June) about Bill, who told me that 'it's a bit like the Federal Government at the moment - you may not like what they're doing, but you just have to accept it'. Last Sunday there were two other small events which served as jolting realisations of the political culture here. As I drove out of the church parking lot after playing the organ, there was an enormous SUV in front of me with a sticker in the rear window which simply read 'NOBAMA'. And earlier, I had fallen into conversation with a lady who told me she was from Hawaii. 'Oh, like President Obama', I said. Her face looked pained. 'Well, you know there's no record of him having been born there', she said. Evidently there is some kind of right-wing conspiracy which seeks to persuade people that Obama's not really American, but is some kind of dangerous foreigner, and probably a Muslim and a terrorist to boot. 'And he lived in Indonesia, you know. It's like he can't make up his mind'. But she had just told me that she lived in the UK for a few years as a child.
Then you listen to Real Time with Bill Maher, as I do every week, and you become aware of a creeping frustration among liberals - which I share - that Obama's too soft and timid, that he's not going far enough, that the promise of change he brought with him is in danger of compromise. It reminds me of a similar problem I've often encountered as a composer - a piece of music can be thought rather uninteresting, unoriginal and timid when played in a concert of contemporary music, yet dangerously radical and mystifying when played to an audience of people who don't usually listen to modern music. (My friend Derek Bermel made this point very eloquently and forcefully on a recent post on his blog, which you can read here.) You can end up with a profoundly uncertain feeling about where to position yourself.
Saturday, June 27, 2009
I've just got back from playing the organ at my first Oklahoma wedding, in a Baptist church. I was expecting it to be a little on the, er, saccharine side, and to that extent it did not disappoint. I was, however, genuinely shocked by the Bible reading, which was from Ephesians Chapter 5, and included the following:
"Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing."
I think someone forgot to tell my wife about that bit.
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The Oklahoman reported this with the headline 'Criticism from US Senator Jim Inhofe echoed by Republicans', which seems to imply that the most significant thing about Inhofe's comments were that they led the way for other Republicans, rather than that they are inherently stupid.
You can read the Oklahoman's story here. (To be fair, the video segment embedded in this page does give a more rounded view.)
I remember seeing lots of yard signs out for this guy Inhofe during the elections last year, and I decided to find out a little more about him. It turns out he is a Bible-thumping, right-wing, global warming denying, homophobic ultra-conservative nutjob.* I refer you to Inhofe's Wikipedia article.
How good to know that I am represented at the national level by this esteemed gentleman.
Bill Maher had a good comment on Inhofe. 'What's he talking about? Obama's speech was thoughtful, well-crafted, subtle, nuanced ... oh yeah, it is un-American.'
*In my personal opinion, in case Mr Inhofe's lawyers are watching.
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Velma (unaccountably, Shaggy and Scooby don't seem to exist)
Other place names, as well as being slightly odd, conjure up more positive, even romantic associations. Imagine the hope which Fort Supply must have instilled in the hardy frontiersman in the 19th century. Other names indicate a spirit of optimism (Friendship, Okay) or wild idealism (Eldorado). White Eagle and Lone Wolf refer, no doubt, to the Native American heritage. Gene Autry is just bizarre.
I like 'The Village', however. All it is really is a little parcel of semi-suburban Oklahoma City, about 10 miles north of the city centre, which has a measure of civic independence. The Village has its own City Hall, police and fire departments, services and utilities. My address, correctly, is The Village, Oklahoma: I don't technically live in Oklahoma City. Apparently, The Village takes its name from 'The Village Store', which was a local meeting place in the 1940s when this area was mostly just farms and open country.
You can read about it here. This history reads like it was written a few years ago by someone old enough to remember when The Village was planned and built, and who now has too much time on their hands. After all, there's only so much you can read about what was said in town meetings in 1953, or the history of the sewerage system. But despite the rather weighty and purple prose, parts of it are interesting, and it gives you a sense of how this area has developed over time. The funny thing is that when it talks about the 1940s and 50s, it sounds like an age ago, but it's not really. Many people I meet every day will remember that time perfectly well. In the UK, that era really doesn't seem like a long time ago, perhaps because so much of what we see around us today was already firmly in place by that time. Here, the scale and speed of recent development is such that this area is no doubt completely unrecognisable compared to that time.
In America people talk about 'The State of...' and 'The City of...' when they want to refer to a political or civic entity. In the UK, we talk about county councils, city councils and borough councils. So, I live in Oklahoma, but the governmental level of the state is known officially as 'The State of Oklahoma'. States are divided into counties, which in turn are divided into cities. The term 'city' here does not carry the same inferences as it does in the UK: for one thing, it doesn't have to be very big (a city can have just a few hundred people living in it). The Village is technically a city, which means that at the official level, it is The City of The Village. Bizarre.
Monday, June 15, 2009
In Oklahoma City, as I have written elsewhere, the churches are many, large, and ostentatious. But I held back from advertising my services, as their websites seemed to suggest that they were already more than adequately provided for, by 'music ministry' teams drawn from their ample congregations. Not to mention a nagging feeling that I wasn't really a proper organist, and wouldn't be good enough. Anyway, eventually, having made a few enquiries, I joined the OKC chapter of the American Guild of Organists and added myself to their substitute rota.
When I got back from my recent trip to the UK in March/April, there were 3 messages on my cellphone offering me work. The only one which I hadn't already missed was a gig playing at a large Presbyterian church in a couple of weeks' time. Subsequent enquiries revealed that they had a membership roll of 1800 and three services on a Sunday morning, at 8.15, 9.30 and 11.15. I swallowed hard, but decided to accept. After all, if I was terrible and died on my poverbial backside, I could just retreat graciously from the Oklahoma City organists' scene and no-one would ever need to know it had happened, apart from the 1800 members of the church. Oh, and the people who watched the broadcast of the 9.30am service which went out on local TV. And my parents, who happened to be visiting from the UK that week.
When I turned up at the church to practise, I found the usual enormous Microsoft-corporate-headquarters-style complex of entrance hall, offices, educational suite, and eventually, somewhere inside, a church - or sanctuary, as they (quite correctly) call it here. The organ was a huge 4-manual beast with ranks of stops, pistons and switches which made it look like the flight deck of Concorde. But I stealed my resolve and attempted to tame it.
On the Sunday morning, I was, to put it mildly, extremely nervous. I didn't play well at the 8.15 service, possibly because there were in fact only about 40 people in the congregation and I had planned my registrations for a full church, so I had to cut back at the last minute. But I got into the swing of things in the 9.30 service (congregation: approx. 300) and by the 11.15 (approx. 200) I was coasting. Lots of people congratulated me and said they'd like to have me back. I breathed a sigh of relief - perhaps I wasn't too bad after all.
Since then, I've had a lot more emails and phone calls requesting my services - some simply having got my details from the AGO substitute list, at least one as a direct result of my triumphant debut at XXX Presbyterian Church (not its real name, I hasten to add). It's summer, of course, and a lot of people are on holiday ('vacation'): I'm actually completely booked out now for every Sunday until I go to Malaysia to examine in August. One church nearby (which has an absolutely delightful, lovely, friendly lady as their regular organist / director of music) has asked me to treat the church as my 'base', with an offer to practise the organ whenever I need to. I'm really starting to enjoy myself.
And it's well paid. The churches here are well-resourced, and able to pay very well. The instruments are in good condition and enjoyable to play. And people seem to appreciate what I can do.
Last Friday morning, I went along to a church where I had been engaged to play the organ on Sunday, in order to practise. I was met by a gentleman who I'll call Bill. Bill is in his sixties, I would guess; he's sung in the choir at this church for most of his life, and he assumes a role of deputy choir director when the regular organist / choir director is away, as he is now (which is why I was playing of course). Bill wanted to go through the service with me, and explain what I had to do, all of which was very helpful. Bill had iron-grey hair which was parted in a razor-sharp line and brushed perfectly to one side; he also had the typical expansive girth of the Oklahoman of a certain age (which is to say, almost any age you like). At one point, apropos of something which I now can't remember, he said 'It's a bit like the Federal Government at the moment - you may not like what they're doing, but you just have to accept it'. Ouch. I replied by saying, with a smile 'Well, let's not get into that!' I was worried that if we had got into it, I might have been out of a job for this Sunday.
As it was, I maintained my political neutrality and kept the gig. This particular church had only one service, at 11am. The building would have easily seated 1000 plus, but the congregation (I counted them) numbered around 50, most of whom looked to be over 70. It was just like being back in the UK. After the service, chatting to various people, it became apparent that membership has declined somewhat in recent years. Another church I've visited recently, close to where I live, is clearly in the same position. Maybe the churches in Oklahoma aren't all as vibrant and well-resourced as I thought. Maybe, even here in the heart of the American Bible belt, social trends are going the same way as they have been for years in every other industrialised country in the world.
Having sat through their service, I may have a suggestion as to why. The form of the service, the selection of music (not my own), the content of the sermon and the childrens' address, and the simplistic, sub-Victorian theology on offer, were so dull, uninspiring, and irrelevent to modern life of any description that I couldn't imagine that anyone would find it interesting or uplifting. One of the hymns I had to play (words and music by Clara H Scott, 1895) was the kind of mission-hall drivel which no-one in the UK has sung since 1956. (Actually, I think that's another reason why I'm popular as an organist - I tend to choose good music, like Bach, rather than the home-grown, tinkly 'contemporary Christian' stuff that most churches here seem to restrict themselves to.)
I wouldn't be surprised if, as in the UK, the only churches which are actually growing here are the charismatic, evangelical, gospel-guitars-and-tambourines, speaking-in-tongues megachurches. If, meanwhile, the mainstream denominations - which at least have a certain dignity about them - could move forward with the sort of progressive Christianity espoused for example by liberal theologians like John Shelby Spong, they might maintain some kind of relevance. But this is basically a very conservative culture, and I can't see that happening. Meanwhile, the younger generation, as they have everywhere else, will find enough alternative excitement and entertainment via technology and the consumer and celebrity cultures, and will simply stop going to church.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Saturday, May 9, 2009
Well, the trip proceeds with unpredictable and hilarious consequences, as you can imagine, and it's a fun read. But I was struck in a way by the similarities which his book has with my blog, in that he's a British bloke of about my age, who thought he knew America reasonably well, discovering things about the places, people and culture of middle America which were new to him. Indeed, some of his observations are uncannily like my own. Take this one, from towards the end of the book when he's driving through Mississippi:
"Outside of the towns Mississippi seemed to be mostly trees and churches. The road we took sliced through a blanket of evergreens, punctuated by the odd rust patch of something more autumnal and then suddenly, there'd be a patch of open land and set back from the road would be an enormous, gleaming white Baptist church. They were mind-bogglingly big places and I couldn't help but wonder where on earth they drew their congregations from. We might drive through a community with a population of less than 400 people and then two or three miles later find ourselves driving past a church that could surely seat 4,000. And then 15 miles later we'd pass another one. These churches weren't relics of the past: they looked new and shiny - white palaces not white elephants - so presumably they'd been built to satisfy demand ... Whichever way I looked at it, I just couldn't make sense of the vast capacity for worship. There didn't seem to be enough people or homes around to make the numbers add up. Maybe the people of Mississippi are really good at hiding? Or perhaps all those trees go to church and nobody told me?"
Although it's an urban rather than a rural area, Oklahoma City is just the same. The ratio of huge churches to residential areas seems strongly out of kilter. Last Sunday I played the organ at a church which has three services on a Sunday morning, and claims to have a membership roll of 1800. (To be fair I wouldn't say the combined congregations that Sunday amounted to more than half that). But what really amazed me was that at one point the minister said that a recent survey had shown that 'in this area' (and I don't know whether he meant OKC in general, that part of it, or just the streets around the church) only 40% of people went to church. 40%?? That's surely nonsense. Everyone in Oklahoma City goes to church.
What I did realise for the first time though was that the actual level of religious involvement of many of these people is quite limited. There was a strong sense which I picked up of a social obligation fulfilled. People filed in to church, sat and listened to the service, stood up and sat down in the right places, and immediately the service was finished they streamed out of the door, got in their SUVs and drove away. It reminded me of one time years ago when I was in rural western Ireland and attended mass at the local (Catholic) church. It was a vast, dark building, completely packed with people. At the back it was standing room only, and I was vaguely aware of the priest a long way away at the front, performing various ritual incantations with incense, bells, etc. As he did so, people would pop in and pop out, chat to their friends about weather and the current prices of livestock, and I'm sure there were a couple of children playing a game together on the floor. Attending mass was clearly part of the culture: something you did because everyone else does, not through any particularly strong personal religious conviction.
I had intended this post to be about Dave Gorman's book but I seem to have strayed into writing about churches yet again. So let me add one more quotation from America Unchained, this time from near the start of the book:
"New York and LA don't really tell you what life in the rest of America is like. To judge America on those two cities alone is to admire a man's bookends without reading any of his books".
How true. But it might be a more apposite metaphor if you imagine a shelf of bookends with a book at either end.
Saturday, May 2, 2009
Remaining on our list of possible places to visit are the Oklahoma History Center, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Science Museum Oklahoma, and the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. I am still trying to persuade my parents to try the Oklahoma Museum of Telephone History and the World of Wings Pigeon Museum, but sadly they don't seem so interested in those...