• Goldberg Variations

    Goldberg Variations

    It was in one of William F. Buckley’s sailing books, I think, that I was first tantalized by his description (really, his praise) for Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations:

    The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations. First published in 1741, the work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form. The Variations are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer.

    I was in Miami in January 2013 when I had the chance to attend a solo performance of the complete variations by Simone Dinnerstein. In effrontery to the Bill Buckley, Dinnerstein’s rendition was not on harpsichord but, instead, piano. Luckily for me as an amateur appreciator with little ear for the technical soundness of a performance, it was a delightful hour and a half experience.

    Sharing impressions jotted down at the time: the Goldberg Variations can be tough listening even on piano at a slower tempo than almost anything a millennial would typically hear. Tonight’s rendition had strength and force enough to keep me attentive even as I shut my eyes to wander mental landscapes. It was a pleasant but not particularly transformative experience. I’d like to hear it again with someone able to dissect the performance’s quality and judge it sufficiently rather than sentimentally.

    Worth hearing? Absolutely.

  • Alan Jacobs writes something so pitch-perfect that I’m sharing it here in case his website ever disappears. On nostalgia:

    Whenever you suggest that history is a matter of losses as well as gains, whenever you call attention to what we’ve lost along the way, whether it’s something we deliberately set aside or something we just forgot to pack, a great chorus starts shouting “Nostalgia!” You may not even want to have packed it; you may think that we chose as well as we could have in the circumstances; you need only hint that something of value, even of some tiny tiny value, that we once held we hold no longer, and it starts: “always the loud angry crowd, / Very angry and very loud,”, crying: “Nostalgia!”

    It’s a bullying cry, but they’re not bullying you, at least not primarily. They’re bullying that little voice within them that wonders whether there might be more to the future than “everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly”. Nothing could be more essential than to silence that quiet, that ever-so-gently skeptical voice.

    Recalling better aspects of the past that seem to be missing from the present isn’t automatically a romanticization of the past, nor is it automatically a drippy sort of nostalgia. I think it’s more or less the definition of “perspective.” These two things don’t always go together, though often you can be nostalgic because of your perspective.

    Perspective can be dangerous though, thus it’s often maligned.

  • Napa Institute

    I’m taking part in the Napa Institute, which I learned about in May when I met John Meyer, its executive director, at the Becket Fund’s Canterbury Medal Gala. I’ll have more of substance to share next week, and in the meantime will be soaking the experience in as much as possible without writing more about it. In the meantime, I’ll share the Napa Institute’s background:

    In the article, “Catholics and the Next America,” Archbishop Chaput delivers a prescient warning to American Catholics regarding a growing trend toward secularization in American culture, with Catholics facing dwindling relevance, threatening their ability to be heard.

    In response, the Napa Institute was formed to help Catholic leaders face the challenges posed in the “next America” — to continue the work of the Apostles and their successors, the Bishops, heeding Christ’s call for ongoing evangelization.

    By leading participants to a deeper understanding of the truth behind the faith, the Napa Institute emboldens Catholics to live and defend their faith with a peaceful confidence that is borne out of solid formation, fellowship and spiritual enrichment.


    1)  To deepen Catholic leaders in the teachings of the Church, so they can evangelize others and defend their faith in secular society.

    2)  To encourage religious freedom throughout our hemisphere.

    3)  To inspire Catholic leaders to better stewardship of their time, treasure, and talents, especially in aiding Catholic organizations in their mission.

    4)  To better form Catholics in a life shaped by liturgy, prayer, fasting, sacred art and music, and habits of holiness.

    5)  To provide fellowship and recreation to relax the mind, body, and soul.

  • Mount Nittany Marathon

    The beautiful sun and breezes of summertime are here, and it has me thinking back on my first experience running the Mount Nittany Marathon a few years ago. The marathon went for three years, but I think it’s now a thing of the past. In memory of it, I’m sharing something I wrote after running it Labor Day 2013 and enjoying the experience:

    The Mount Nittany Conservancy, which owns/preserves 800+ acres of iconic Mount Nittany in Central Pennsylvania, hosted the Mount Nittany Marathon yesterday. It’s the first marathon in the Nittany Valley in, I think, nearly a quarter century. Since learning about the Mount Nittany Marathon last year I had resolved to run it.

    Other than the Sloppy Cuckoo Trail Half Marathon in Philadelphia in 2011, I hadn’t run anything like this. In fact, the longest distance I had run prior to yesterday was 13.5 miles, most recently in February in Ave Maria, FL. In other words, I wasn’t sure I would finish, and mentally set the goal of “Lets give it a shot!” rather than “I must compete and finish with great performance.”

    Starting the run from Medlar Field at Lubrano Park was perfect. It was my first time inside the park and with its sweeping view of Mount Nittany, there couldn’t have been a better way to start the Mount Nittany Marathon. (I should start going to State College Spikes games next year.)

    The route turned out to be tremendous, offering an experience of the Nittany Valley unlike anything I had known before.

    Experiences: Running through campus and hearing the Alma Mater and fight songs playing across early morning fields, passing through covered wooden bridges, streams, and surreal looking woodlands throughout Millbrook Marsh, seeing people throughout Lemont and Oak Hall with their distinguished architecture, passing through neighborhoods both large and small and seeing the most beautiful backyards and walkable pathways, hearing the cows mooing so loudly as we passed that it seemed they were cheering us on, experiencing increasing heat and fatigue after the first 1.5 hours as the morning gave way to day, and returning to campus for the close to the bustle of Labor Day weekend life. It was a joy, even as it became a blur.

    I ended up syncing my pace with a Penn State sophomore who was also running his first marathon. We ran the last mile pretty hard and it was helpful having a “teammate” to come through the finish line with. The result was a finish in 4h:36m:57s, putting me 87th of 138 finishers.

    Mount Nittany Marathon map.png

    What were some lessons from the run? First, take everything offered at every watering station. I can’t stress this enough. On shorter runs I routinely wave off water/gatorade stations, but for a marathon I was ready to take almost anything I could along the way—cups of water/gatorade, bits of watermelon, sprinkler showers, etc.

    I also tried my first energy gel, Hammer’s Montana Huckleberry. A Ragnar teammate became nauseous and vomited during a stretch of January’s Miami to Key West relay after taking Gu gels, so I was a bit trepidacious about trying the Hammer gel—but I rationalized that I couldn’t afford not to, and am glad I tried it.

    Another thing: I doubt I would ever have finished if not for a child-helper at the Mile 7 watering station who offered me an entire, freezing-cold bottle of Aquafina. It wasn’t clear to me that entire bottles were an option—typically only cups of water are offered as you pass. I carried this bottle for the next few miles and it turned out to be critical—I went through six more during the rest of the race and felt like I was burning fluids fast. I’m sure I would’ve faced serious hydration problems without those full bottles. So, thanks kid!

    As mentioned, I wasn’t entirely sure if I would be able to complete the entire marathon. Along the way, a critical aid in completing the run was a lack of visible mile markers between Miles 11 and 19. It was a major mental aid, reminding me to just keep running. Even though I could guess roughly how far along I was, it would’ve been pretty burdensome to be told every mile that there were still many more left to run. Also: Vaseline at Mile 19 was extremely helpful, for reasons that should be pretty clear.

    I also broke with my customary practice of running with my iPhone for RunKeeper and music—partly because the battery would not have lasted for the entire 26.2 miles, and partly because I didn’t think I would want to be carrying the iPhone the entire time. This turned out to be the right call, at least for me. I only noticed a few of the ~150 runners with devices/earbuds.

    Running the Marathon (University Drive)

    The Mount Nittany Marathon was a really first-class event, with superb volunteers all along the way from the Nittany Valley Running Club, Penn State sports teams, families, and others.

    A great branding effort was obvious throughout, with the logo even appearing on the sneaker tracker visible on my right shoe. I was surprised not to find a brochure touting the Mount Nittany Conservancy in the runner packet, but if you’ve registered for the run maybe it’s assumed you know about their great work. Seeing the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s John Hook and Vince Verbeke, two friends over the years, was surprisingly energizing. John and Vince are the two signers of my Mount Nittany Life Estate Deed, so it was special for me to see them both along the way. I can see why so many runners have their families cheer them on.

    It’s safe to say that the Mount Nittany Conservancy really succeeded with the Mount Nittany Marathon, bringing people together from across the community to put on a great new event. A takeaway from Conserving Mount Nittany: A Dynamic Environmentalism is that this is the epitome of the Mount Nittany Conservancy’s founding mission—it’s meant not only to steward the Mountain, but also to create cultural experiences that enhance through first-person experience the magic of the Mountain.

    I’m not sure if or when I might run another marathon, but I’m thrilled to have been a part of the Mount Nittany Marathon and hope it becomes an annual part of the Nittany Valley’s cultural environment.

  • Barking Spider

    Barking Spider

    In the spirit of sharing experiences, here’s something I wrote while sitting in a Cleveland bar in May 2013. It’s amazing how words, these little markings, can call into our consciousness an experience from years ago.

    What are the things that are real but pass into unrecorded history? That is, what are the experiences we have but do not document, and so we can only call forth in our memory?

    In this era of continuous communication, we can document everything, though some things are still sacred. Births, deaths, illnesses—these are still private, unrecorded moments in time. They’re real, but they don’t pass into a referenceable history. Years later, without a clear record, these moments are recalled through the fog of memory as if being rediscovered in a haze. What are the real parts, and what might we be inventing? What is there when no Facebook post, blog entry, or tweet has recorded the specifics of a special moment?

    I’m drinking Newcastle in a bar in Cleveland called The Barking Spider near the campus of Case Western in rapture with a jazz band. The middle aged singing woman crooning, the bassist peering at his notation, the pianist in the corner, the fat drummer melting with energy into the snare cracks and tsst-tsst-tsst of the cymbals. A lesbian couple sits off to my left, as into it as I am. Psychedelics, iron work, and art of the avant garde hangs about the place. It’s late May and a winter chill hangs in the air, but in here there’s warmth. The small place fills and swells, and lets out again. It hums.

    What of this living experience would pass into nothingness if I had not just here recorded it? What of it would have been real, but unreal in the future by being unremembered in the formal or even mental record?

    We discount feelings as fleeting things, and as chemical side effects—but what if they are ways we are transported into the pages of the unrecorded (even unremembered) reality of other moments?

    As I sit here in my $6 Walmart sweatshirt and overpriced jeans the ooze of jazz seeps in past the fabric, saturating me. I’m absorbed, and though I can know I’m sitting here at a creaky table in Cleveland I’m also now back in New Orleans of a few years past, in Preservation Hall. I look down and see the dusty wooden floor of the hall, see a knot in the one plank. I feel the bench, and catch a waft of that inviting mugginess in the air. The band is about to begin, and a fan is going gently in the hallway out the door. A child yelps with glee or surprise outside. I’m in Cleveland, living and recording, and the living has brought me back to an experience of my till-now unrecorded, foggy past. It floods back as a living reality, the specifics unprovable and subjective except for my reliving them, and being alive in them.

    I’ve got to stop writing, and return my whole attention to this woman singing in this Spider bar. It’s what real, even as real as the moment that I’ve just relived as surely as if I were looking at a Facebook photo from that afternoon in Preservation Hall.

    We can be real in so many more ways than even we expect. We capture glimpses of past reality from the fog and mist of time. They’re no longer present, but they’re no less real. They’re living, too.

    This woman sings as I write: “You can’t looooooose a thing… if it belooooonnnggsss to you.”

  • Scent of rain

    This is something I wrote two years ago, recounting an experience. I plan to write more of these, but figured I’d start by looking at where I’ve been before.

    After working into the early hours of the morning one night earlier this year, I decided to start the new day with a run through the city. I don’t run outside often in the winter months, but it was warmer than usual this morning. There was a surreal fog covering the city, and I was feeling keyed-up.

    There’s a word I learned recently: petrichor. It was coined a few decades ago by Australians, but its root is Greek, and it’s a word that tries to capture the distinctive scent of rain, or as I think of it, the distinctive scent of wet.

    So there was a petrichor blanket across the face of Philadelphia this morning, and combined with the novelty of shorts in January and the way the wet in the air seems to cleanse the lungs it was a beautiful running experience. I ran from Old City across Market Street into University City, eventually crossing back into Southwest Philadelphia and through Devil’s Pocket and the still mostly rotting infrastructure disaster zone that is Washington Avenue, especially west of Broad Street. Then through the potent scent of fruits, fish, and unknown foodstuffs of the Italian Market on 9th Street, and back north along Front Street. The blanketing fog had lifted shortly after I began the run, but the scent lingered in the air and still dominate my memory of that morning run.

    Every choice involves trade offs. In this case I was glad I decided to go for a cold, wet run through the city rather than retreat into the warmth of my sheets.

  • National Air & Space Museum

    I visited the National Air and Space Museum in Washington yesterday. First time being there in at least 15 years, I think. What an amazing place.

    The entire collection is worth seeing if you’re passionate flying, rocketry, navigation, etc. Something that makes it fascinating it that the history of air and space is in many ways still the history of only a few nations.

    Space, certainly. I wondered what so many of the younger families and kids thought (if anything) seeing the Soviet’s “CCCP” insignia here and there. And understanding how close the Soviet’s came to their own moon landing, if only they could have perfected their rockets, is still startling since we’re still in a time when we think American can-doism is something that’s magically transferred through the ether rather than cultivated and conveyed purposefully.

    In digitizing decades worth of family photos last year, some of the slides I processed were photos my grandfather had taken on a trip in the 1970s to the museum. It was much different then, of course, but I think his interest was largely in planes. He served in World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps, and I thought of him throughout. He sparked my visit, really, and I stopped for a long while in front of an Army Air Corps display.

    Worth going, if you haven’t. Elon Musk will have his own additions for the museum eventually; see it before history changes.

  • Running in Washington

    I’m on my way back to Philadelphia from Washington this afternoon. I came down last night to run this morning’s 12 K’s of Christmas Holiday Run that the DC Running Club organizes.

    I’ve run at least one official race a year since 2009, but this year I came close to falling away from that habit. I ran today’s Christmas 12K to keep that tradition alive, but also because I generally haven’t been running very much this year, and knew I’d head into Christmas feeling terrible about missing any major run this year.

    It was beautiful, running along Washington’s Canal paths. Lots of great people, some dressed wildly for the holidays, many who were helpful to keep pace with. A red-bearded guy was especially great; we ran along with each other for most of the second half, intermittently passing each other and keeping pace.

    It wasn’t a super run, but it felt good to get it done.

  • Anchor


    Writing from Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach, San Francisco, enjoying my first Anchor Christmas Ale of the season. Visiting for only a few days, and wanted to take my first Detour with a friend of mine who’s bullish on Andrew Mason’s latest company.

    The Detour experience was great—app driven audio tours of the city, each with a distinctive theme. Available in only a few other cities and still a bit buggy, but worth trying. One of those things that feels like the future.

    What I like about Anchor’s annual Christmas Ale is that it combines both tradition and freshness. An annual tradition with its roots deep in the past, yet with distinctive, never-to-be-repeated recipes to honor that tradition:

    This is the forty-first annual “Our Special Ale” from the brewers at Anchor. It is sold only from early November to mid-January. The Ale’s recipe is different every year, as is the tree on the label, but the intent with which we offer it remains the same: joy and celebration of the newness of life. Since ancient times, trees have symbolized the winter solstice when the earth, with its seasons, appears born anew.

  • A strange reflection. Too much of the Brothers Grimm in my childhood? I don’t know. In any event:

    There was something about Ave Maria that I really liked the first few times I visited the place, starting three years ago. In many ways, Ave is still a work in progress. It’s a little enclave amidst the wilderness of Southwest Florida. Ninety minutes from Miami, almost an hour from Naples and Fort Myers, its early neighbors were the people of Immokalee in the farmers markets and casinos. Other than that, just the local bear and panther population.

    Visiting Ave felt, I think now, something like I imagine some Austrian or Swiss castle three centuries ago. You arrive after a great distance at the edge of a settlement, a sleepy little village. Making your way past the mostly quiet and dimly lit alleys of the village proper, you navigate the narrow path to the castle grounds on the center hill.

    Within, you find great company. Faces you’ll come to know and love over a night together, rocked by the storm that began raging outside the walls. It’s a castle with a thousand rooms and one, yet it feels small and accessible in its own way. You feel comfortable with it, with its unknowns. There are some rooms and spaces you don’t enter. The time you share with your new companions will be yours forever; the candor and camaraderie of strangers creating friendships that will endure, even if you’ll never see each other again.

    You leave this place the next morning, making your way delicately past the still slumbering village and back onto whatever path it was that led you there. In time you wonder whether any of it ever really happened, and whether that place existed. Maybe it was an enchanted place.

    Enchantment’s distinctive allure. Ave has some of that allure for me.