The Allegory of the Long Spoon

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Today was my first visit to the Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, and there was a lot to like, beginning with this: Love is our doctrine, the quest for truth is our sacrament, and service is our prayer.

I also loved the fact that the second “hymn” was Bill Wither’s Lean on Me, very appropriate, since the focus of the service was on asking for help. Reverend Mara Dowdall noted that most of us identify with one of two groups – those who give help or those who need help, and how easy it is to forget that we are all part of both groups.

After noting that Unitarians do not believe that a loving God sends anyone to Hell, her sermon began with an allegory I’ve always treasured but had forgotten. My understanding is that the Allegory of the Long Spoon is part of many cultures and faiths – Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Oriental. The version below was adapted by Elisa Pearmain from Japanese and Chinese folk tales.


Long ago there lived an old woman who had a wish. She wished more than anything to see for herself the difference between heaven and hell. The monks in the temple agreed to grant her request. They put a blindfold around her eyes, and said, “First you shall see hell.”

When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was standing at the entrance to a great dining hall. The hall was full of round tables, each piled high with the most delicious foods — meats, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts of all kinds! The smells that reached her nose were wonderful.

The old woman noticed that, in hell, there were people seated around those round tables. She saw that their bodies were thin, and their faces were gaunt, and creased with frustration. Each person held a spoon. The spoons must have been three feet long! They were so long that the people in hell could reach the food on those platters, but they could not get the food back to their mouths. As the old woman watched, she heard their hungry desperate cries. “I’ve seen enough,” she cried. “Please let me see heaven.”

And so again the blindfold was put around her eyes, and the old woman heard, “Now you shall see heaven.” When the blindfold was removed, the old woman was confused. For there she stood again, at the entrance to a great dining hall, filled with round tables piled high with the same lavish feast. And again, she saw that there were people sitting just out of arm’s reach of the food with those three-foot long spoons.

But as the old woman looked closer, she noticed that the people in heaven were plump and had rosy, happy faces. As she watched, a joyous sound of laughter filled the air.

And soon the old woman was laughing too, for now she understood the difference between heaven and hell for herself. The people in heaven were using those long spoons to feed each other.

(Click here to see a very nice illustrated version)

So we learn that when we try to feed only ourselves, everyone goes hungry. But when we try to feed our sisters and brothers, we find enough for everyone. Amen.

The Story Behind Strange Fruit

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This is a fascinating story. Most people are familiar with the Billie Holiday classic Strange Fruit, but I suspect that many (including me until I read this) have no idea that the story behind the song includes Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – and Billy Crystal’s uncle.

I certainly can’t improve on NPR’s reporting, so click here to read the whole story.

And just in case NPR takes the link down, here’s a summary (their writing – not mine):

The man behind “Strange Fruit” is New York City’s Abel Meeropol. In the late 1930s, Meeropol “was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge.”

Meeropol once said the photograph “haunted” him “for days.” So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.

(See Billie Holiday sing Strange Fruit here.)

“Abel Meeropol’s pen name ‘Lewis Allan’ were the names of their children who were stillborn, who never lived,” says his son, Robert Meeropol. He and his older brother, Michael, were raised by Abel and his wife, Anne Meeropol, after the boys’ parents – Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – were executed for espionage in 1953.

Robert Meeropol says that in the months following his parents’ execution, it was unclear who would take care of him and his brother. It was the height of McCarthyism. Even family members were fearful of being in any way associated with the Rosenbergs or Communism.

Then, at a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B. Du Bois, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. A few weeks later, they were living with them.

“One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted,” Robert says. “First of all, Abel, what I remember about him as a 6-year-old was that he was a real jokester. He liked to tell silly jokes and play word games, and he would put on these comedy shows that would leave me rolling.”

There is something else about Abel Meeropol that seems to connect the man who wrote “Strange Fruit” to the man who created a loving family out of a national scandal. “He was incredibly softhearted,” Robert says.

For example, there was an old Japanese maple tree in their backyard, which sent out many new seedlings every year.

“I was the official lawnmower,” Robert says, “and I was going to mow over them, and he said, ‘Oh, no, you can’t kill the seedlings!’ I said, ‘What are you going to do with them, Dad? There are dozens of them.’

“Well, he dug them up and put them in coffee cans and lined them up along the side of the house. And there were hundreds of them. But he couldn’t bring himself to just kill them. It was just something he couldn’t do.”

Strange Fruit took extraordinary courage both for Meeropol to write and for Holiday to sing.

(Note: in the comments of the story, I found this: With regard to the courage shown by Meeropol and Holiday in writing and performing the song, a little credit is perhaps due to the man who had the guts to actually record it and issue the record: Milt Gabler, the owner of Commodore Records in New York. As one more fascinating coincidence, Gabler was the uncle of actor/comedian Billy Crystal.

A Tribute to Chet Atkins

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I had to post a link to this great story about Chet Atkins.

I love guitars and guitar players – never get tired of listening to what a master can do with this amazing instrument. So give me an hour of legendary guitar players sitting around RCA Studio B in Nashville, and I’m hooked. But I think anyone who loves music will enjoy this.

If you’re short on time, here are a few highlights to look for:

43:10. The story from Doyle Dykes about Chet giving him a guitar. All the preaching in the world may not move me, but this simple story from a man of faith restores something in me.

And right after that, at 44:20, Pat Bergeson tells the story of – the day he arrived in Nashville – Chet driving him to the musicians union and paying his dues, saying, “It’s a right-to-work state, but if you’re working with me, you gotta be in the union.”

45:06. A great message about hard work from John Knowles, “I’ve heard a lot of people say he had a gift … but he rolled his sleeves up, too, and he put his work in.”

And a lovely line where Knowles says, “There’s a handful of artists out there – Fred Astaire dances that way; Chet plays the guitar that way – where you do all your work, and then you step beyond the work you’ve done into an area of grace and elegance, and Chet absolutely had that.”

One of these days, I’m gonna sit next to Chet’s statue and take a picture, which I will post here. That’s on my bucket list for sure.

Watch the video here.


Torturing the Saxophone

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Writer, musician, painter, sculpture – if  you’ve ever attempted anything creative and felt the terror of “putting yourself out there” to be judged by the world, you’ll appreciate the response that Swedish free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson got when he sent a copy of his forthcoming album to one of his idols, the legendary comic book artist, record collector and musician Robert Crumb.
(This is from a good book called Letters of Note by Shaun Usher – you can buy it here.)

Gustafsson’s upcoming record was a compilation of his experimental interpretations of some jazz classics, and he sought Crumb’s opinion. Crumb, baffled, pulled no punches and responded with this brutally honest letter.

I finally gave a listen to those LPs and the CD you sent me, of your own saxophone playing and some Swedish modern jazz. I gotta tell you, on the cover of the CD of your sax playing, which is black and has no text on it, I wrote in large block letters, in silver ink, “Torturing The saxophone—Mats Gustafsson.” I just totally fail to find anything enjoyable about this, or to see what this has to do with music as I understand it, or what in God´s name is going on in your head that you want to make such noises on a musical instrument. Quite frankly, I was kind of shocked at what a negative, unpleasant experience it was, listening to it. I had to take it off long before it reached the end. I just don´t get it. I don’t understand what it is about.

You actually go on TOUR with that stuff. WOW. People actually… sit… and… LISTEN… to that. I mean, they voluntarily go to the place, maybe even PAY… PAY to hear that stuff. And then they sit there, quietly, politely… and LISTEN. Unbelievable. I should go myself sometime and see this. Witness it with my own eyes.

I don´t say these things with the intention to insult you. You seem to be a perfectly nice, civilized guy with a good sense of humor. I am speaking the plain truth of my reaction to the records and CD you sent. That this noise could give anyone any aesthetic pleasure is beyond my comprehension, truly. Is this the logical end of improvisational music? Is this where it ends up? Where does it go from this point? Is there any audience for this “free jazz” besides other guys who play it and maybe their wives who must patiently endure it?

I just don´t get it. Am I too un-hip? Am I a square from Delaware? A thick from Battle Crick? A shmuck from Keokuck?

—R. Crumb

I don’t know anything about Gustafsson, but I love his response to this letter. He named his next album Torturing the Saxophone.

Changing the Ending

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I’m very proud of this photo from the Marine Corps Museum in Quantico, Virginia, recognizing the service of my uncle, Edwin Treadwell, in WWII. It brings back memories of my uncle, my father, the men of that generation. And it reminds me again that Life isn’t fair.

At 18, I was chasing girls, drinking beer, and generally living it up at college – hardly a care in the world. The young men of my uncle’s generation were fighting and dying, trying to save the world from a madman.

It’s not my intention to glorify war. It’s awful, and I have no doubt many of those young men brought home wounds that couldn’t be seen and never healed. But this is where another saying comes to mind, “You can’t change the start, but you can change the ending.”

Many of those soldiers – my Uncle Edwin, my father, my Uncle Barney and too many others to mention – came back and found a way to turn that horror into something good, or at least find goodness in spite of those experiences. They lived productive lives, despite the horrors they experienced as young men.

If they can survive and overcome war, what can stop us? Life may not be fair, but we can change the ending.