Singing in the Choir

church choir
“Man, what a voice!” The wide-eyed fourth-grade boy had blurted these words of praise to seventh-grade me after I’d belted out a hymn during a Sunday school assembly. Emboldened, I mustered the courage to start singing around the house. Big mistake.

My mother had been raised by a judgmental single parent and never quite grasped the concept that positive observations build children up while negative observations erode their self-assurance. As a child, she once asked her mother that little-girl question, Am I pretty? Mouth sternly set, eyebrow severely arched, my grandmother responded, Pretty is as pretty does. End of discussion.

In her early 20s, Mom sang on the radio with a quartet, and she took great pride in that accomplishment. Hearing my pre-teen attempts at vocalizing, she zoomed in on the imperfections—oblivious to the fact that she was a carrier of her own mother’s parenting sins. “You’re just like your dad,” she opined with a dismissive laugh. “Can’t carry a tune.” Simple statement. Simply devastating.

My confidence shattered, I later dropped out of ninth-grade glee club because I was too self-conscious to project my voice sufficiently for our director to determine my range. The self-defeating fear of not being good enough robbed me of an opportunity.

Fast forward several decades. Our church choir is small, twelve members on a good day. But these folks have consistently delighted and transported me with their glorious choral productions over the years. And the congregation as a whole? I’ve sat in churches with three times the number of members whose participation was pathetic by contrast. My young pew companion, Naomi, and I have our favorite hymns. With an elbow and a wink or an exchange of smiles, we throw ourselves into these pet melodies.

But, still, I yearned to toss my two notes’ worth in with those stirring sounds generated by the choir. Now I was singing from the heart with the congregation, and no one cringed. I even got a few constructive comments, encouraging me to join the smaller vocal group. Really? Ol’ Can’t Carry a Tune Me?

Well, kids, it turns out Mom’s not always right.

These days, I show up early on Sunday mornings to practice with the official church choir. That half-hour immersion in learning challenging new melodies has revived a long-abandoned dream.

I’ll never be a great singer. But fortunately, I’m surrounded by people who—like the swelling waves that elevate all boats—lift me right along with them. (I’m thinkin’  dear mama could have benefitted from this experience.)

So, the final chestnut I offer today: Don’t be intimidated by talented people, surround yourself with them. You’ll better your own performance, and maybe even heal some old wounds.

February 1, 2020 at 1:30 am 4 comments

A Boy and His Dog . . . and His Cats and His Other Dog and His Chipmunk: Part II


chocolate labrador retriever puppy on floor

Photo by Ellen de Ruiter on

Benji is eleven inches tall at the shoulders, has seven inch legs, and weighs fourteen pounds. He has a hairless potbelly which is stained bright red from the iron ore-rich ground he walks on.

Benji loves everyone and is a patient and serene beast. He allows cats to sleep with him, as long as they don’t try to lay on him. When he walks, he wobbles from stern to bow in an appealing waddle.

Above anything else in the world, Benny loves food. Although dry food is left out for the dogs, they still receive a canned treat in the evening, and Benny’s day is centered on this event. While he’s sucking up this canned food, his little body stiffens like a puppy’s, and—between the slurping sounds—can be heard little snuffles, snorts, and moans of pleasure.

This [consumption] has to be done quickly, because the cats are sure to leave some food on their plates, and this fact is foremost in his thoughts before his food is even gone. If he’s not watched, he will bully the cats away from their plates and their food. Finally, he winds up laying on the couch, belly swollen and breathing labored, with a sickly look on his face and periodically passing a foul wind which has on occasion emptied entire rooms.

His constant companion and canine “sibling” is Ammers, the spaniel. She is half chocolate Lab and half Springer. She is a loving soul with eyes the angst in which few have ever seen. She is also loaded with sex appeal and draws males too our door monthly, but chooses to remain chaste. She has already fulfilled her destiny as a parent however, in the embodiment of her adopted son, Kuda the cat.

Two years ago, my daughter was riding home from school with a friend and saw a car stop at the side of the road. The front door opened, and out flew a small kitten, about two months old. When I got home that night, this little guy was already integrated into the household. About a week later, I noticed that Ammers was giving him baths and sleeping with him, and he had started to suckle on her. At first I found this disgusting; it didn’t seem natural to me. Shortly after, Ammers started to give milk, and Kuda continued to nurse on her for several months until she gently weaned him by moving every time he made an attempt. Now they are the closest of soul mates, sleep together every night, and continue to bathe each other. Kuda is the only creature Ammers will actually play with.

Old Peppermint, my fifteen-year-old white Tom, has never been much of a fighter or a hunter. When mice come out at night, Pep is sleeping with me, because he’s been terrorized by more than one vicious little rodent. Which brings me to Rodney. Rodney is a friend of Pep’s who lives in the woods behind the house. He’s a giant male chipmunk. I’ve seen these two wrestling and playing tag in the yard , and when they both tire, they take a little snooze together and then go their separate ways home. I suppose Rodney is exceptional for his race. He doesn’t seem to be afraid of me, either. If I get within a foot or so of him he simply walks away a little and then stops and gazes calmly.


November 7, 2019 at 7:48 pm 1 comment

A Boy and His Dog . . . and His Cats and His Other Dog and His Chipmunk: Part I

black and tan australian terrier puppy

Photo by Magda Ehlers on

(Note: This is an excerpt from a letter written by my brother, Bob Williams, on December 22, 1997. Part I is dedicated to Rae and Patti. Part II will follow on Thursday.)

The other day I was walking in the woods with a small companion who is a very close friend, you might say family status. I became engrossed in other things, and when I turned around, he was nowhere in sight!

I called for him, but there was no response. I looked for him down in the ditches, through the trees—calling his name all the while. After five minutes, I felt the back of my neck start to heat up, and my calls took on a desperate tone: Panic had set in.

It was exactly like the time my daughter hid from me outside the house for fifteen minutes because she thought it would be fun. Three-year-olds think that way; they really haven’t studied worry or panic at that age.

I remembered the sensations and I didn’t like the memory or the feeling. Finally, at full hysteria pitch, I ran down a side trail which hooks up 1/8th of a mile west of the main path, crying out his name. When I came back out, I looked to the east, and there he was, walking nonchalantly toward me, a look of greeting in his eyes.

At this point the sweat I had worked up was burbling at my collar. I could feel the steam hiss in my ears. Now in tantrum gear, I threw down my mittens and hat in W.C. Fields fashion and cursed the very universe he was born in. Suddenly I was flooded with relief, and I picked him up and held him with gratitude. Then I put him back down, and we walked on—me and Benji, the wood-brained Yorky.

How can a man love a creature that much? A lot of it is in him, his good heart and sweetness, but it goes beyond that.

My friend the Professor is a small, balding man with a mad glitter in his eyes. He’s a furniture builder, a violin maker, an accomplished father, and as good or better a blues-harp player as I’ve heard anywhere, in any format. He’s also knowledgeable in many fields of science, including astronomy and quantum physics, but his field is paleontology.

The Professor is the world’s foremost authority on the North American prehistoric bison. He’s published more research on these creatures than anyone else, and has  reconstructed two of the three known complete skeletons in existence. He’s a fascinating and engaging person to be around, and I enjoy his company.

This is all beside the point, however, when it comes to loving the man. Love goes beyond or around liking or interest. There is quite simply something about him that tells me he is my brother, and this sense is not intellectual in any way, but a visceral sensation of affection. As you can see, it’s not possible to put into words.

This is how I feel about my housemates—six little creatures who, in their innocence and joy in living, bring me so much happiness and contentment. You can’t explain this to someone who hasn’t connected with animals; they just don’t get it. Strive as I might to be non-judgmental, I actually think those people are depriving themselves of something good. I know they are missing out, and I feel sorry for them.

**To Be Continued**




November 4, 2019 at 8:03 pm Leave a comment

Finding Comfort in Consensus

10-12 blog

Spoiler Alert: This piece has nothing to do with politics and is rated I, as in Inoffensive for All Readers.

It happened again this morning. I awoke at 6:50 after seven-plus hours of sleep feeling not-so-rested and utterly lacking in ambition. Since this is a seasonal pattern for me, I took my concerns to that font of all wisdom, that oracle in the cloud, The Internet.

Type in Autumn Fatigue, and guess what? It’s a thing. Or at least it’s common enough to have a name. My search didn’t disappoint, and I’m hoping you’ll find the physiological explanations for this recurring complaint comforting.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one percent of Floridians and nine percent of Alaskans suffer from seasonal changes in mood and energy level. Clearly the Sunshine State has advantages over the Land of the Midnight Sun.

Well, duh, you say. But do you know why, smarty pants? With daylight hours shrinking as winter nears, receptors in the eye are the key. Exposure to natural light causes chemical changes that signal the brain to block the sleep hormone melatonin. Allowed to scurry around unfettered, melatonin convinces us that it’s nap time at 10:00 a.m. Not good.

So, if sunlight is such an important variable, we need to soak it up at every opportunity. And when those nimbusy snow clouds make this impossible, I guess fake it with ion therapy lamp exposure.

Advice to rehydrate seems less obvious, even though reliable sources have long advised that insufficient fluid intake slows the metabolism. In the summer heat, thirst nags at me. But as a chill creeps into the air, I’m more likely to sip hot tea than chug cold water. May have to set up some daily reminders for this one.

Some tidbits were more intuitive: listen to serotonin-boosting music; find a way to get those seven-to-nine recommended hours of sleep; make time for stress-clearing exercise, since it boosts endorphin production and helps immensely with that sleep thing; pay extra attention to your diet.

The food aspect grabbed my attention. After all, we have more control over our diets than over gray skies and the earth’s rotation patterns. Thinking of it that way makes it easier to give up the Cheetos in favor of some of Autumn’s colorful, vitamin-rich offerings. (There are multiple lists of “good mood foods” available online.)

On Wednesday, as I started this, I opted for canned pumpkin stirred into my morning oatmeal, poached a salmon filet to add to my spinach and fresh mushroom salad lunch, then enjoyed a slab of roasted pork loin and a huge pile of roasted root vegetables for dinner. Dessert was apple slices poached in cider and topped with vitamin-D enriched vanilla Greek yogurt and toasted pine nuts. No sacrifices there.

Also on Wednesday, I ditched my treadmill workout for a fifty-minute power walk under sunny skies. Alas, the photos above document the radical detour today’s weather took.

Having done battle with fall fatigue, I’ll be rephrasing my next search. Meanwhile, let’s pray that today’s white stuff was a fluke and we won’t have to deal with winter weariness any time soon.



October 12, 2019 at 7:41 pm Leave a comment

Paper, Paper, Everywhere!


I am staring at a pile of assorted documents, and I’m confused. Am I supposed to read and retain the information in this 29-page Important Notice Pertaining to Changes in Your Homeowner’s Policy? Am I really required to hold onto the fifth 10-page Claims Report I’ve received from my health insurer this month? Or the eight pages of mumbo jumbo stapled to the prescription I’ve been taking for the past twenty years? I mean, is someone monitoring me? (There is that little camera lens implanted in the frame of my computer screen . . . )

In last week’s mail, I got a 22-page Summary Plan Description from the Star Tribune Media Company. I worked for the Strib for seven years in the early 90s. I get a whopping $38.15 monthly pension from them now. It hardly seems worth the ink and postage to provide all this material to ‘lil ol’ me, since I can’t decipher it anyway. (Not absolutely sure, but I’m thinking it may be written in Hungarian?)

Yes, I know. I enthusiastically chose to return to the land of 10,000 government regulations; the reach of this State’s intrusion into the lives of its citizenry is numbing to contemplate. And yes, I know. This degree of oversight generates miles of Required Disclosures for the brave corporations who choose to wade through it all. But even techno-idiot that I am, I check my email daily. Think of the savings in paper pulp and postage if all this stuff at least got delivered to me electronically instead.

But apparently that’s not an option. So the same government that nags us incessantly about conserving natural resources also issues so many mandates that businesses have to sacrifice a tree branch or two issuing the requisite Important Notices. Ironic, isn’t it?

The seeds for all this ranting were sowed in my brain last March. You can thank the IRS for planting them. That’s probably all you can thank the IRS for, but—another subject, another day.

Not having done taxes for a while, I was horrified when I sat down to report the October 2018 sale of my Texas house. I have a college education. I read a lot, with a good level of comprehension. I do much of my communicating using the written word. But the “written words” in those hundreds of pages of Federal Income Tax Instructions might as well have been Sanskrit.

What does this mammoth agency have against the simple declarative sentence? I asked the cat. (He doesn’t know either, by the way.)

With infuriating frequency, form 1040A directed me to supplemental booklets, appended worksheets, and related schedules. Each time, I reached out to a patient acquaintance who deals with this institutional insanity regularly. She doesn’t speak governmentese, but she understands it. Without her, I would have been sunk.

I would love to spout on a bit longer about this, but today’s mail included an 11-page questionnaire to fill out before I see a new doctor next week. Based on previous experience, I’d better get started on it now.

September 13, 2019 at 11:57 pm 1 comment

Two-Way Blessings

keyboard and mouse

I’ve been hovering in emotional limbo lately. Mildly depressed about navigating the summer holidays solo. Disappointed in myself for shrinking from new challenges. Bored with my routine.

On Monday I wrote across the top of my journal page: Fresh start. New ‘tude. Return to the basics. Morning devotions, lunch dates, confronting the to-do list.

I have a number of extraordinary people in my life who propel me over these bumps in the road. Most often they don’t realize what’s going on. They just happen to excel at this friendship thing. But I can’t expect even these pros to read my mind. Or my mood.

So, this morning I push myself off the couch after breakfast. (Yes, I confess to eating all my meals sprawled across the living room sofa, talking back to the television—the single girl’s version of table conversation.)

Next, I resist punching the dismiss button when the cell phone buzzes a reminder of my first self-assigned task of the day right in the middle of a really good crossword puzzle.

And then I pray. This is something I did continuously while hyperventilating my way through the worst twenty months of my life a while back. Comfortable and secure these days, I tend to recite a few formulaic lines of gratitude, then roll ahead. But this morning I focus. Dear Lord, Help me to be a blessing to someone today.

Whoosh, that lovely thought takes flight the first time somebody cuts me off in traffic. Idiot. Oops. And once my body is parked at the public library’s computer, I grumble under my breath about the irksome noise level. Oops, again.

Eventually I get lost in internet research and forget to be disgruntled. When the burka-clad young woman beside me encourages her son to keep his voice down, I smile to myself. And as I stand to leave, I am pleased when she asks, “Excuse me, but could you look at this sentence and tell me if it is too wordy?”

Seems she is applying for a job. The prospective employer has given her suggestions for improving her cover letter. Confident that I can help, I gently critique the weaknesses of the paragraph in question: passive voice; repeated terminology; unnecessary qualifiers. I suggest some cuts and we work together to tweak the word choices. Ultimately, I come up with the perfect action verb to energize her closing lines. She is delighted. I am delighted. We giggle in celebration and do a virtual high five in victory.

I wish her the best, and float out of the library feeling every bit as blessed as this person I’d been led to assist. Back in my vehicle, wrapped in wonder, I think about how a mean gesture rains harm on both parties and a giving gesture does the opposite. But if she hadn’t asked . . .

And Who orchestrated all of this? The One who does read minds and moods. The One with the power to counterbalance our “oops” moments. That One.

June 27, 2019 at 9:47 pm Leave a comment

Impact Has Lost Its Impact


I heard someone use the word affect on the 6:00 news last night. I almost fell out of my recliner. Not an easy trick.

I’d been preparing to post an R.I.P. blog piece about the sad demise of many valuable verbs, of which affect is one. Other M.I.A. action words include influence, improve, change, shape, enhance, magnify, involve, sway, disrupt, disturb. The list could go on.

The point is that all of these perfectly lovely, clearly descriptive verbs have incrementally been replaced over the past few decades by a single, often jarringly misapplied, word, the aforementioned impact.

Typing i-m-p-a-c-t into your thesaurus window on MS Word won’t yield any equivalent predicates. Impact is denoted as a noun only, equivalent to such other nouns as crash, collision, shock, bang, blow, force, contact, brunt, impression.

My personal definition carries a distinct mental image of a force-driven object colliding with a more stationary one and leaving a dent. Think fender-bender. So I checked out Merriam Webster to see if that revered old lady of references agrees with me or with common usage, then held my breath as I read:

1a : to fix firmly by or as if by packing or wedging
b : to press together
2a : to have a direct effect or impact on : impinge on
b : to strike forcefully also : to cause to strike forcefully

Here, they do allow its use as a verb. But as you can see, it’s a verb with a highly specific meaning. Like, the sort of action that might very well have a subject leaving a dent in its object.

Journalist and former NBC News correspondent Edwin Newman forewarned of a budding problem with impact back in 1974. His fascinating book, Strictly Speaking: Will America Be the Death of English?, critiques the decline and abuse of the English language in great detail.

I’ll admit that my past experience as a nursing home aide figures in to my  alertness to this particular verbal corruption; in the medical context, being impacted describes a decidedly undesirable condition. But I am mostly driven by a reverence for language. How in the world did we ever develop this bizarre compulsion to apply the term to every action which can be shown to have a result? On anything. Or anyone.

I blame the Lazy Language Lemmings in the “professional” media, following the leader in the latest Conga line of regrettable trends. But just maybe, if a few of us can raise awareness, we can stem the tide. Redirect the drift. Even make a small dent in this large problem.*

*I was tempted to close with the too-obvious, If we take notice, band together, and champion the cause, surely we can impact this situation. But then I would have had to set fire to my keyboard. And burning plastic creates such a stench.

June 11, 2019 at 4:09 pm Leave a comment

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