The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

“Be kind. It really is important.” – Dr. David L. Walters

One of my dad’s best friends, Pastor William “Bill” Ridgeway, once said, “Life is a journey.” The statement is both simple and profound. Everyday, we travel through life. We make footprints of different sorts as we go along. These rambles and ruminations are the footprints of my journey. I hope you enjoy them. And as I share these footprints, I will try to follow the advice of my college band director, Dr. David L. Walters: “Be kind. It really is important.”
All images copyright Stephen W. B. Rizzo
“Tarantella Americana for Clarinet and Piano” (c) 2021 Stephen W. B. Rizzo

Hymns

Over the last year, I’ve dusted off my trumpet. (Actually, I bought a new one. Thanks, Pastor Roger Daniel, for letting me try yours and, Scott Berry, for letting me buy one of yours.) And I’ve dusted off my composition and arranging skills, or at least I’m trying to. This arrangement of “Crown Him With Many Crowns” and “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” is a product of that. For the time being, this computer generated version will have to suffice until I can get a “real” recording made. (Pat Bowden and Cheryl Crauswell, thanks for the feedback on the piano accompaniment.)

This arrangement (c) 2021 Stephen W. B. Rizzo

I love hymns! I love to sing them and to play them. Unfortunately, the church tradition I grew up in used what is traditionally called gospel or convention or camp meeting songs but precious few traditional hymns. I was introduced to the vast corpus of traditional hymns of the Church in high school by two people. One was my high school  choir director Marla Wilson. (I was introduced to the quadratic equation and pressure on the trapezius muscles by her husband Jerald, which is a story for another day.)  The other was my band director and now long-time friend Allen Bailey. 

My senior year in high school, I was in Teen Talent, a talent competition hosted by the Church of God (Cleveland) to foster participation in the arts as a means of worship and ministry. Allen arranged “Savior Like a Shepherd Lead Us” and “The Church’s One Foundation” for trumpet and piano and accompanied me. I fared well in the various levels of competition, but  the real win was in getting to know these hymns that remain two of my favorites. 

Not to make this a music class, but hymns for the last few centuries tend to be strophic, syllabic, and homophonic. This is a generalization. Different church traditions adhere to or diverge from it. Of course, the primary purpose of hymns is praise and worship of God. I recall Dr. David Horton’s  (Lee University) discussion of traditional hymns, how they extoll or proclaim the attributes of God or make affirmations of faith. Generally speaking, they tend toward a more corporate than individual expression of worship. Also, they are chock full of theology, much more so and much more sound than gospel songs or contemporary worship choruses. In fact,  Dr. Timothy George of Samford’s Divinity School recalls his days of seminary and how various professors would parse the lines of the hymns and joined in or refrained from singing certain verses because of their theological content. I fear today we too often glibly sing along to contemporary church music because of the catchy rhyme or repetitive hook but give no thought to the Biblical validity – or lack thereof – of the lyrics. But hymns provide the depth of Biblical truth set to tune. 

Finally, some of those tunes and verses stretch back hundreds and hundreds of years. The melody of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded” dates back to the early Baroque. (Today, most are probably familiar with Bach’s chorale setting of the melody, but Hans Leo Hassler is actually responsible for the melody that is used for German and English settings of the hymn.) The lyrics date back to a Latin hymn Salve mundi salutare from the Middle Ages that speaks of the physical sufferings of Christ during the crucifixion. Therefore, when we sing this hymn we are singing a melody from 500 years ago during the heart of the Protestant Reformation with lyrics from the Middle Ages during a time of suffering and uncertainty when some fifty percent of Europe died from the Black Plague. Yet, this is more than an exercise in history. It is a recognition that the same pepituary death of Jesus 2000 years ago unites us as His Body, across time, geography, language, and culture. 

I still respond to the camp meeting songs I grew up with and see validity in worship choruses, both of which are a more personal expression of praise. But if these are the appetizer and dessert, the hymns are the main course, musically and theologically. If you participate in a worship tradition that uses hymns, don’t sing them dispassionately but do so with fervor and listen to the lessons of the faith contained in their lines. If you do not use hymns in your worship, may I invite you to consider adding them and join with your brothers and sisters in Christ who have sung hymns for hundreds of years to declare His majesty and love.

Cucuzza

Last week we had a diversity event on my college’s campus, and I was asked to prepare a booth on Italian-Americans. Since October is Italian-American Heritage Month, I thought I would share some of it as a blog as well. (Oh, and I’ve included a tarantella to put you in the right mood while you read.)

“Tarantella Americana for Clarinet and Piano” (c) 2021 Stephen W. B. Rizzo

There’s a litney of contributions by Italian-Americans I could have shared and a long list of names, nationally and locally, all of whom deserve recognition. But instead, I opted for something more basic, something we share, something that reflects us as a group – good, hearty, and comforting food. 

As with other immigrants, when Italians came to America most were leaving behind a difficult life in hopes of a better future. The bulk of Italians who made the Atlantic crossing were mezzogiorni  or Southern Italians, which reflected the historic reality that Southern Italy was significantly less prosperous than Northern. While in Italy, they lived and made the most of what they had. An example of this is the cultivation of cucuzza, an edible gourd that can grow up to five feet in length. 

The plant requires little space when trellised and is a prolific producer.

Southern Italians made the most of the plant, consuming both the gourd and its tender shoots and leaves.

Tenerumi

Tenerumi is made from the (deveined) leaves and tender shoots sautéed with garlic. Cucuzza can also be incorporated into soups and stews, stuffed, breaded and fried as a stand-alone dish or incorporated in cucuzza parmigiana, or served raw in salads.

As they immigrated, Italians brought the seeds with them. Today, it’s not uncommon to find cucuzza in the gardens of Italian-Americans across the country.  

Cucuzza Stew

If you are fortunate enough to have an Italian-American neighbor who grows cucuzza, ask for one. Trust me, they will have extras. Like I said, these plants produce. If you’re not as fortunate, then you can probably find cucuzza in a market that specializes in Mediterranean food or sometimes in Asian markets as well.)

Ingredients

One large cucuzza (3 or 4 feet long)
A large bunch of carrots peeled and chopped or large bag of baby carrots.
Three or four garlic cloves chopped
Two large (28 ounces) cans of petite diced tomatoes
(Fresh tomatoes are better if they are homegrown. But don’t use the tasteless ones you get from most groceries.)
Optional – one large can of tomato puree
Oregano, salt, and pepper
You can also add celery, potatoes, etc., pretty much veggie that strikes your fancy, of course. Adding stew meat is also an option.

Directions

Peel the Cucuzza. Slice it down the middle longways. Clean out the soft  interior with seeds. I usually use a spoon to scoop this out. Then cut the cucuzza into roughly half inch cubes.

In a ten quart soup pot or crockpot, combine cucuzza, carrots, diced tomatoes, and garlic.

Add dried or fresh chopped oregano, salt, and black pepper to tastes. (I really like oregano, so I tend to add a little extra.) Add two to four cups of water as needed water. 

You will probably need to cut the acid of the tomatoes. For this batch, I used about a tablespoon of sugar. Don’t worry, it does not make it taste sweet. It just balances the acid. There are other options as well. Mr. Maltese, one of my music  instructors from my undergraduate years added raisins to his sauces. I do this for sauces, but tend not to do it for soups and stews. Another trick that I have used is adding a whole, peeled Russet potato, which you remove before serving. Baking soda also could be used.

Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender. I usually like to let it set overnight to allow, as a friend says, the flavors to marry. 

Buon Appetito!

Buon Natale 2020

And when we have all known the bitter bite of cold

The pain of separation

The longing remembrance of loss

The horror of alienation,

Then may we learn the warmth of the love of Christ

That reunites, restores, and reconciles

Through manger, cross, and empty tomb.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been fortunate to engage in several arts events sponsored by the Walker County Arts Alliance, which has given me the inspiration and opportunity to explore my interest in photography. During that same period, my kids have gotten licenses and now chauffeur themselves around, which has given me a tad more time to pursue my photographic endeavors. Oh, and last but not least, my mentor Alice Wilson has given me ample direction and feedback to help me improve. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting better and having fun doing it. Of course, all of that rambling preamble is simply to say that for my Christmas card this year I got creative and used some of my own work.

The photo accompanying the blog, titled Winter Woods (2009), is one I made several years ago and used this year for the cover of my Christmas card, and the Christmas Meditation is one I included in the card.

No, I’m not about to start creating cards for Hallmark. In fact, I really hope my words reflect the opposite of the too sweet sentiment of Hallmark fare. The photo was for fun. But the meditation is about something more important.

The love of Christ is not a warm fuzzy that rolls around at Christmas and vanishes by New Year. When we truly encounter His love, we will not remain the person we were. To learn of the love of Christ is not just to hear of it, but to be changed by it. We will not do the selfish and self-destructive things we did. Instead, we will live out the new life he gives.

My prayer this Christmas is that you learn of the love of Christ and allow Him to change you from who you were to a new person in Him.  

Somewhere in the Middle

Life happens somewhere in the middle. It’s not at the apex moment of achievement, and thankfully it’s not at the lowest point of tragedy. But it happens somewhere in the middle.

I woke up this morning around 5. My son was already up getting ready to travel with UAB Marching Blazers for a ballgame in Mississippi. He marched with the band last year also. But last year because of Covid, they only marched to their seats in Legion Field. They were not allowed on the field, but continued to play in the stands and support their team and the University. This year, they are back in uniform and in a new stadium. But this morning, the Marching Blazers were in a knapsack on my son’s back, along with an extra bottle of water, some throat lozenges, and some snacks for the trip.

Last year, and I don’t think this will embarrass him, he was a bit trepidatious about driving into Birmingham for practice. Now he zips all over. In fact, he’s driving over early as a part of a service fraternity that is preparing things for the rest of the band to arrive.

We tiptoed quietly this morning because Mother is still at my house. About three weeks ago, she stumbled at home and injured her knee and broke her foot. So for the last several weeks he has stayed with me. Either one of the kids or I have been here with her the whole time. For the first week, she was in a lot of discomfort. But that has subsided. Her foot is healing, and she’s getting more mobile. She’ll be here another week at least, however. Still, she’s much more herself and hilarious without trying. And those of you who know my mother understand what I mean. But right now, she is sleeping.

My little girl is asleep too, except she’s not a little girl anymore, and she’s quick to remind me. But when she’s tired like she was last night, she still curls up on the couch beside her daddy. The kitchen is nice and clean this morning because her stress relief from homework is housework. So every night, I pray that her teachers give her lots of homework. (Let’s not tell her that.)

As the sun comes up, I’ll drink my Metamucil and track my son’s progress toward UAB. When he arrives in the next few minutes, I’ll go back to bed for a while. And then I’ll get up and do something mundane and thank God for life in the middle.

Juneteenth is an American Holiday!

Galveston, Texas, has from the time I was young has been a special place to me. My dad regularly took us to visit his father’s family in Galveston. Galveston held something of a magical, mythical place in my mind. Dad’s family came from Sicily, Italy, and Milos, Greece, in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Coming through the port of New Orleans, a port of immigration at the time second only to New York, the various families finally found their way to Galveston.

I knew about Galveston first-hand growing up spending time with my cousins, going crabbing or just playing on the beach. Oh, and there was that one time when my Maw Maw’s keys got locked in her VW Beetle on the beach in Galveston while the tide was rolling in. So, on Galveston beach I learned the importance of being able to unlock a car with a coat hanger. Of course, I loved Glenn Campbell’s hit song “Galveston” about a solider off at war dreaming of his home and love in Galveston. Like the solider in the song, “I still hear [the] sea waves crashing” in my mind.

I also know a bit about the history of Galveston and that those sea waves crash against a seawall that was constructed after the Great Strom of 1900 that decimated Galveston. In 1900, Galveston was home to many affluent citizens and was a popular up-scale vacation destination. But a hurricane made landfall on September 8, 1900. The death toll for the hurricane numbered in the thousands, but they could not be buried because the land was saturated from the flooding. Burial at sea was attempted. But the bodies floated back in on the tide. Eventually as this became a public health crisis, martial law was declared and men at gunpoint were forced to burn the decaying bodies of family, friends, and strangers. According to my dad’s cousin Benjamin Franklin Biannos, Mitchell Biannos, who was his grandfather and my dad’s great-grandfather, was among those who were required to under take this horrific task.

From Louis Ciaccio, another of my dad’s cousins, I know a more lighthearted story about the family’s “store on three corners.” It was a store run by Louis’ father Vincent with the help of my dad’s Uncle Nick, who was a young man at the time. The building that it occupied was physically moved three different times to three different locations on Galveston island. I know where my dad went to school at Stephen F. Foster Junior High in Galveston. I know where my precious Aunt Catty Mencacci lived just a few blocks from the beach. Though the last time I saw her I was young, I still remember her standing in the yard waving goodbye to us as I suppressed the urge to run back and hug her one more time. In fact, one of my few regrets in life is not running back for the one last hug.   

Another though different type of regret is that as much as I romanticize, love, and know about Galveston, until a few years ago I did not know about Juneteenth, a commemoration of the end of slavery initiated by African Americans in Galveston on June 19, 1866. To be fair, a “few years ago” in my convoluted memory could be two years or two decades. But even if it is two decades ago, that is still late in life for me to learn about such a significant event, not just in the history of Galveston, but in the history of my country. I have been a history buff (OK, geek) since I was a kid. I remember much from my history classes. But I absolutely have no memory of Juneteenth being mentioned in elementary, high school, or even college.

Though it should have been recognized long before, Juneteenth is now an official American holiday, and rightfully so. It is a day that we – collectively – recall that what was wrong with America began at long last to be put right. I am not a fan of many of President Binden’s policies. But I applaud him, the Senate, and all but fourteen members of the House of Representatives for making Juneteenth a national holiday as of June 2021.

For those who do not know, here is a brief history of the date. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation  (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/299998), a wartime executive order, declared that effective January 1, 1863, slaves were free in the states in rebellion against the Union. The eventual military defeat of the armed forces of the Confederacy enforced this act battle by battle and mile by mile. Texas, the most remote extent of the Confederacy, was last to give way to Union advance. On June 19, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston and issued General Order No. 3 (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/182778372) that announced the end of slavery in accordance with the provisions of the Emancipation Proclamation.  

But slavery still legally existed in a few states that had not seceded from the Union, and slavery ultimately could have been reestablished across the South. However, the ratification of Thirteenth Amendment on December 6, 1865, declared slavery at an end in America. Then, on June 19, 1866, the anniversary of Granger’s General Order No. 3, African Americans in Galveston publicly celebrated the end of slavery on what they called Jubilee Day. (The term Jubilee, of course, was taken from the Old Testament of the Bible as it was the year that Jehovah commanded the enslaved in Israel were to be set free.)   

I do not care whose granddaddy owned slaves and whose granddaddy did not. The fact is slavery is America’s original sin. As a nation we were born with this deformity. The Declaration of Independence‘s lofty ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” stand in stark contrast to the Constitution’s measurement of slaves as “three-fifths” of a person. This stain on the soul of our nation was excised only by the sufferings of generations of our brothers and sisters held in bondage and by the blood of hundreds of thousands in the American Civil War (as if any war could be civil). At great cost this was accomplished. Then should not we – regardless of race or creed or political inclination – exult in this together as one people. 

No, we have not arrived. There is much yet that can be done. Yes, we are very divided. We are divided on what to do and how to do it. But on this date, let us as Americans all celebrate, not what has not been accomplished, but rather what has been. On June 20th, we can again debate a host of things. But today is a day of remembrance, a day of Jubilee, a day of celebrating the end of the enslavement of one group of Americans by another.

Juneteenth is an American holiday!

I watched history today with my children. (January 20, 2009)

This is a social media post I made in January 20, 2009. With the exception of a few grammatical corrections, it is exactly the post I made at the time. This many years later, I’m sad at the division instead of unity in my country. Step back in time with me.

*******

Nothing I say below is necessarily eloquent or different from what millions of other Americans are thinking, saying, and blogging. But maybe that’s the point, we as Americans have the right and even the responsibility to speak. On this so very significant moment in American history, I feel the need to engage in this conversation.

I watched history today with my children, along with more Americans than had ever watched a Presidential inauguration in person and via all forms of mass communication. This alone was historic. Beyond that, on the platform were only the second father and son Presidents. Of course, the obvious reason so many were watching, not only was the son of an immigrant being sworn in as the 44th President, but Barak Obama was our first African-American President.

I say “our” President, yours and mine alike. He was not my candidate, but he is my President. I smiled with him as he and Justice Roberts got out of sink during the swearing in. It was poetic. I could see the excitement and restrained nervous anticipation in his face as this happened. It wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly acceptable. It added just that touch of humanity, flawed and imperfect, amongst all of the practiced precision of the military honors afforded the outgoing and incoming administrations.

I was opposed to him during the election because of his politics, not his skin. But I, like many of his supports, must confess a sense of … well, of I’m not sure what, a mixture of emotions. Tomorrow, or maybe next week, I’ll do battle with his political ideas, I’m sure. But today, I celebrate a fuller meaning of “we the people” than ever before in America’s history.

So many commentators said it today that it may begin to sound passé, but it is true, nonetheless, only in America could we watch and celebrate today’s events, the peaceful, and in fact, gracious transfer of power of arguably the most powerful nation in history. This alone is amazing enough that it should cause us to stand in awe, let alone witness the inauguration of a man, as President Obama pointed out, whose father would not have been served at a lunch counter in the city because of the color of his skin. But today we as a people – not a race, not an ethnicity – but a people created by an idea that “all men are created equal” turned a page in our collective history.

In 1903, W. E. B. du Bois declared that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.”  Another historic thing about today is that we are facing a financial crisis that if left unchecked could rival that of the Great Depression. So, I hope that we in the Twentieth-first Century have solved, or at least greatly addressed, “the problem of the color-line” because we have many problems facing us in this century.

As I write this, Denzel Washington is announcing the President as they enter The Neighborhood Ball in Washington, D.C., tonight. I’m watching the ball with my daughter and son. I’ve discussed with them that skin doesn’t matter; rather, it’s the person’s character. Maybe their kids won’t even have to have that discussion.

As I said, tomorrow or sometime soon I’m going to have an argument with my President. But, he’s my President. He works for me now, even if I didn’t hire him. I guess it’s OK to argue. After all, it’s all in the family. But tonight I’m going to enjoy the parties and the celebrations and being an American.  

How much polish does God’s altar need?

During the initial stay-at-home orders associated with the COVID outbreak, there were a number of things that went around social media “to keep us busy.” Now that my college is fully virtual for the foreseeable future, believe me, I’m busy! Teaching online takes lots more time. But I digress. One of the activities keeping me busy at the time was the twenty-day music challenge. The idea was to post one album cover per day for twenty days. Each album cover was from an album that was significant to me. So the twenty-day music challenge had me digging into some music deep in my memory and record bin. I even pulled my vinyl out of storage. But replaying some of the albums, I returned not just with nostalgia but a more seasoned musical ear. It was interesting and enlightening.

Since much of my musical life was in church music, I returned, hopefully, with a more mature theology also. My son, who is interested in church music, and I often discuss current songs, their musicality or lack thereof and their theology. I had those same conversations internally also as I returned to the music of my youth. (Stop laughing, yes, I was young once.)

I hear now the nuance and ever so slight deviation from Biblical truth in well-framed and well-intended songs that I grew up listening to. Now to be fair, song lyrics are often analogy or glosses of scripture. So it isn’t fair to overly criticize them. (And I split the infinitive on purpose – This is English, not Latin). Gross error cannot be ignored, but near misses may be the nature of encapsulating a message in a pop song genre or even a hymn, though hymns generally do a better job.

On the other hand, error, even slight, for the sake of art would not have passed muster with our American (OK, English transplant) Puritan forebears in their Bay Psalm Book who for the sake of truth over artistry boldly proclaimed that “God’s altar needs not our polishing.” While a caricature of the Puritans is that of backward and ill-educated, in fact, many were well-educated, enough so to take on a translation of scriptures from Greek and Hebrew to create songs for their new home in America. But they refused to sacrifice doctrinal purity for the sake of meter or rhyme.

So what’s my point?

Lots of things, including we old timers need to get the musical log out of our own eye before we criticize the youngsters… although our music was clearly better.

But more importantly for believers, if you’re getting your theology from your songs, you’re courting disaster. Read the Word, search it, study it, know it, and “hide it your heart.” Why hide it in your heart?

That’s an allusion to a passage of scripture. Look it up! Then go back to singing, but not before.

English Garden – Well, Maybe Not

There is nothing like Facebook to provide a forum for arguing with someone on the other side of the country or the world whom you will never meet in person.

My interests are varied: history, writing, music, and gardening. I’m a member of a number of Facebook discussion groups corresponding to my interests. In these groups, we have cordial and sometimes spirited discussions. But akin to those whom Stravinsky referred to as “arbiters of cultural taste,” there are some group members who believe it their job to correct the manners, politics, or in this case spelling, of absolute strangers. Normally I keep scrolling. Today my better angels did not prevail. I knew my response would be deleted by the administrator of the gardening group, as it eventually was, yet I could not resist the temptation for a tête-à-tête. (Yes, I know that technically a public post is not a tête-à-tête. But doesn’t it sound cool… and pompous.)

Let the snark begin!

The following is my sardonic critique for the group member who felt a need, in her words, to provide “this week’s lesson in English,” as she explained how to spell tomato and potato. (It’s not like Dan Quail is in the group.)

i no sum people dont no grammer as good as other’s. Butt i wood jest ruther leaf things along then other’s think im been a no it awl. 

Indubitably, the essential quality and nature of the English language is ne’er strained by one’s use of dialect, non-standard spelling, grammatical faux pas, or the garden-variety typo. 

I have a freaking PhD, but my great grandmother could garden circles around me. So there’s also that.

And that, gentle reader, is your life lesson for the day. You’re welcome.

Y’all come back now, ya hear.

From Lexington and Concord to Bagdad, thank you.

I can stand on the courthouse steps and criticize my government or gather with fellow believers and worship God openly without fear because from Lexington and Concord, to Fort McHenry, to Belleau Wood, to Iwo Jima, to Chosin, to Bagdad, and in thousands of other battles, large and small, for more than 200 years soldiers have put on American military uniforms and all too often have given their lives. Thank you!