Musical Logic in Writing Words (2)

Tonal music is written in keys, that is, establishing the starting point for the tones that make up the major and minor scales. Any tone can be that starting point and therefore a key. That means that there are twelve major and twelve minor keys from which to choose. It’s also arguable that there are seven more keys possible if one assumes that enharmonic equivalents are actually different tones. On keyboard instruments such as the piano, the tone F-sharp is the same as G-flat. But on other instruments, it’s possible to make F-sharp higher than G-flat. That allows for another seven keys.

Then there’s rhythm, the amount of time devoted to each note. In western music, rhythmic patterns are defined by beats and a brief time period called a “measure” which in most music is two, three, four, or, occasionally, five beats long. The beats themselves can be subdivided into two or three sub-beats. In complex music, composers sometimes write melodies or harmonies with two different rhythmic patterns sounding at the same time.

Tonal music reaches its artistic apex in counterpoint or polyphony, the sounding of multiple melodies at the same time. Melodies in counterpoint must be individually satisfying and go together in ways that adhere to the rules of harmony to be pleasing to the human ear. That makes composing them mammothly difficult.

Counterpoint’s most celebrated form is the fugue which sets a single melody against itself. The best known fugues are those in Johann Sebastian Bach’s Das Wohltemperierte Klavier (The Well Tempered Klavier), a collection of 48 preludes and fugues. In the view of many, myself included, Bach’s fugues are the highpoint of tonal music.

More tomorrow.

Musical Logic in Writing Words

I have just finished reading and reviewing Wolf Wondratschek’s Self-Portrait with Russian Piano (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020). You can read my review at This book is the only one I have ever read that uses the logic of music to construct sentences, paragraphs, even whole chapters.

The logic of music is based on moving from a place of rest to tension or imbalance resolved by a return to peace, all expressed in sound. Music is constructed in phrases, drawn from human breathing. A phrase is as long as a person could sing on a single breath. A section within a piece of music is made up of a series of phrases that either take the listener to a place different from where the music started or sometimes returns him to the spot where he began.

Western music—tonal music—uses the major and minor scales made up of seven tones each. Melodies result from arranging a series of tones drawn from the scales so that they take the listener from a place of rest into tension and then return him to a place of rest.

Harmony results from sounding more than one tone at the same time creating chords. A triad, a chord made up of three tones three and a five steps away from one another, can be constructed on any tone in the scale as the bottom note. The resulting seven triads have harmonic functions that determine how they are used. The tonic chord, that uses the first note of the scale in the lowest position, is the starting and ending spot for a musical piece. The dominant, based on the fifth note of the scale, is the point of departure and return, always propelling the listener back toward the tonic. The other five chords push or pull the listeners in various direction. The seven chord, constructed from the seventh note of the scale, also called the leading tone, seeks resolution to the tonic and is sometimes used in place of the dominant chord.

More tomorrow.

The Nug

I have just finished resurrecting and resubmitting s short story of mine published many years ago called “The Nug.” It’s based on my experience working with soldiers on the battlefield during the Vietnam war. In the story, a news reporter on assignment with the troops in Vietnam helps three soldiers build their new enlisted men’s club, where the men can relax and drink. By the end of the story, the Tet Offensive has been launched. The club has been destroyed by enemy artillery fire, two of the three soldiers have been killed, and the third has lost a leg. The reporter grieves alone.

The title of the story comes from GI slang I learned in Vietnam. A “nug” was a new guy. As one of the characters in the story explains to the reporter, a nug is a new girb—that is, a new GI rat bastard—“a new troop. A tenderfoot. A new guy. Wet behind the ears. Can’t find the latrine or his ass in the dark.”

The character of the reporter is, of course, based on myself. The soldiers are drawn from men I knew on the battlefield. So many of them didn’t survive. Their loss is an enduring wound to my soul.

I wrote “The Nug” to memorialize the young soldiers killed during the Vietnam war and to vent my own grief over them. Rereading the story all these years later reminded me that my sorrow is still with me and always will be.

Trump: A Danger to the Country

Donald Trump is endangering the U.S. in a number of ways during his final days in office. Two stand out.

The country is moving quickly into a new wave of Covid-19 cases. We suffered 153,496 Covid-19 cases Thursday, the country’s highest daily caseload and the first time the number of coronavirus infections have exceeded 150,000 in a single day. That makes the tenth consecutive day cases have topped 100,000. As I write, the U.S. has recorded almost 11 million Covid-19 cases and nearly 250,000 virus-related deaths, according to Johns Hopkins.

In the midst of the carnage, President Trump does nothing to cope with the pandemic. He has ranged from declaring that Covid-19 would soon disappear to mocking the use of masks, one of the most effective means of curtailing the spread of the virus. Had he pushed preventive practices, such as the use of masks, social distancing, hand washing, and avoiding gatherings, he could have saved as many as a hundred thousand lives. Every day that he does nothing, more people die.

And Trump has become a security threat. He possesses detailed information on U.S. intelligence sources and methods and classified data on U.S. defensive weaponry. He has already disclosed highly classified information to foreign leaders, including Vladimir Putin. In his funk over election defeat, Trump might well decide to reveal the nation’s secrets, perhaps making them public or maybe sharing them with dictators he admires.

And these are only two of the many ways that Trump can inflict severe damage in vengeance for his election defeat.

Beware, Americans. Trouble lies ahead.

The Wall

“This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is home of the brave.” When I recently came across that quote from Elmer Davis, it made me think of the Marines. Their birthday on 10 November and Veterans Day on 11 November reminded me of my long association with them and made me recall my visits to The Wall, the Vietnam Veterans Monument in Constitution Gardens next to the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Throughout my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam, I worked often with the Marines. I had great respect for them. But I have only visited The Wall only three times. It is too painful for me to be there.

I’ve written several times in this blog about Marines. I admired them, and they respected and used the intelligence I furnished them through the intercept and exploitation of North Vietnamese radio communications. They found it hilarious that I was on the battlefield with them, under cover as one of them—an enlisted Marine—when I consistently outranked their commanding officer. I will never cease grieving over the young Marines who died in combat near me. They were fine young men who had everything to live for.

I found some of their names on The Wall when I could bring myself to visit it. But it was too painful for me to return often. I do not relish weeping publicly.

When the pandemic is past, I’ll visit The Wall again. As much as it hurts, my time there offers my soul peace. May it always be so.

Luck, Talent, and Hard Work (2)

Through all those years, I continued to learn new languages. In all, I worked in seven. Friends have expressed awe that I am so facile in languages, but I deserve no special credit. It’s an inborn talent I’m lucky enough to possess.

As I moved up in the ranks at NSA and became a boss with people working for me, I had a new challenge: how to make the unit I headed effective and productive. My years of working with the military in Vietnam had taught me that leadership, not management, is the key to creating an effective work group. So I made it my business not to control my subordinates but to support and encourage them, urging them to be the best that they could be. I got spectacular results and more promotions.

Once again, my choice of leadership over management was not for the purpose of getting ahead. I had learned to lead in Vietnam where, as a civilian working with the military, I had no authority but urged my military counterparts to achieve the best they were capable of. I loved being a leader who supports and uplifts those he is responsible for. And because I put the good of my subordinates ahead of my own, I earned the respect and loyalty of those working under me.

Through it all, I worked hard. Three times—once when I graduated from college and twice while an NSA employee—I suffered exhaustion. And because of my devotion to my job, resulting in much time in travel away from home and long working hours, my family suffered from my neglect. When I was home, I did more than my share and was something of a super father. But too often, my children had to do without me.

Before retirement time arrived, I was promoted into the senior executive service (SES) ranks. I served my last years in the agency as an SES-04, the equivalent of a lieutenant general in the army or air force, only two steps down from the top executive, the deputy director (the director was a military general).

None of my success in moving up through the ranks was the result of any intent on my part to do so. I loved my work and devoted myself to it. Talent and hard work were essential to my success, but the major ingredient was luck. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right aptitude.

So here I am with an income that allows me to fulfill my destiny: to write. I now have six books and 17 short stories published. I’m working on two more books.

Talk about luck . . .

Luck, Talent, and Hard Work

I am fortunate to have a steady income that allows me to write full-time. My government annuity, earned by more than 35 years of service, is generous enough that I have no money worries. That means I can fulfill my life mandate of writing without concerning myself about earning a living since, famously, writing doesn’t pay.

But that I find myself so well situated is in no way due to any intention on my part to work toward that goal. Rather than seeking well-paying jobs, I always did work that I enjoyed the most. The most important element in my financial success was luck.

Granted, I was exceptionally good at what I did. I had the talent required. And I worked as hard or harder than anyone I knew. And I was willing to put my life on the line for the good of my country. There again, I was lucky. I survived. But I didn’t do any of these things to get ahead. I did them because I wanted to.

It all started when I graduated from college in 1958—with a BA in Music of all things—and enlisted in the army to go to language school to study Chinese. Languages had always fascinated me. As a child I taught myself French and Italian. In college, I added German. I yearned to learn Chinese, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to teach myself—a language written in characters would require teachers. So I wanted to go to the best language school in the world, the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, California. When I arrived at the school, the army told me that I was to study not Chinese but Vietnamese, a language I’d never heard of. Back then we called that part of the world French Indochina.

Language school proved to be ideal for me. I spent all day every day five days a week for a full year submerged in Vietnamese. I loved the language, so different from anything I had encountered before, and graduated first in my class. I was then assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) where I worked full time in Vietnamese. When my army enlistment ended, NSA hired me not as a GS-5 or GS-7, the standard starting grade for a new employee, but as a GS-11. For the first time in my life, I felt like a rich man. NSA immediately sent me to Vietnam.

Between 1962 and 1975, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. After the fall of Vietnam to the communists in 1975, I began studying part-time as a graduate student at the George Washington University, not to get a degree but to learn—the same reason I’d gone to the University of California as an undergraduate. Meanwhile, I went on with my job at NSA. I had a wife and four children to support. My studies led, almost incidentally, to degrees—a masters and a doctorate. And those degrees led to more promotions on the job.

More tomorrow.

Socialism and the United States

Several men with whom I correspond have suggested that Biden will lead the country into socialism. When I asked them for a definition of socialism, they couldn’t come up with one but gave examples: the Soviet Union and North Korea. So I did research to determine what the word actually means .

Amalgamating all the definitions I found, I define socialism as a system which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole. In other words, socialists believe that the means of making, moving, and trading wealth should be owned or controlled by the workers. To me, that sounds like economic democracy.

The U.S. is a capitalist country. It’s a long way from being socialist, but it has several very popular socialist programs: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. I don’t know anyone who objects to those programs on the grounds that they are socialist. In fact, I don’t know anyone who objects to them period.

I have long believed that the U.S. overstresses rugged individualism and personal achievement and gives too little attention to what we can achieve by working together. As a result, for example, unlike most other advanced democracies, we lack a national health care system. Health care in the U.S. is a way to make money rather than a natural right.

Despite what Trump and his supporters say, Biden offered no socialist programs as part of his platform nor has he mentioned any since his election. My hope is that under Biden we will see national progress toward equality. That will mean providing government services for those who would otherwise go wanting. I hope we are wise enough not to condemn those provisions under the rubric of socialism.

Splendor in the Trees

I have written here several times about the magnificent view to the north and rear of my house in Columbia, Maryland. The deck on the back of my house looks out over a pond some hundred feet in diameter half filled with water reeds and surrounded by trees. Those trees are now creating a display I don’t ever remember the like of. Yesterday, a warm day for November, I ate lunch on the deck and surveyed my realm.

A young tree grows ten feet or so to the north of the western half of my deck. It is not yet as tall as the house and is surrounded by trees twice to three times its height. What distinguishes it is the brilliant and luminous yellow of its leaves. When caught in the late morning sun shining from the southeast, it fairly shimmers. Looking at  it takes my breath away. It is beauty incarnate.

Directly across the pond, among the tall trees is one now vivid in orange. A few feet to the east is a much shorter tree whose yellow coloring is demure compared to the one by my deck. I see no red trees behind my house, but there is one in front whose leave are intensely crimson.

I am, in short, surrounded by the dazzling colors of fall. They seem more radiant to me this year than at any time I can remember. I wonder if the heavy rains of last winter and spring might be the cause.

Whatever the reason for the display, I’m grateful and humbled to be able to witness it.