(Not) Paying the Piper

One player, many pipes

Our church is weighing creative approaches to conducting in-person services next month. Pastor Bob sent out a survey recently asking we-the-congregation to consider options like outdoor church, weekday church, and evening church – all in the name of social distancing.  We’ll also be shaking up the service “touchpoints”, like sharing the peace, passing the (offering) plate, and partaking in communion. The Big Guy doesn’t care about the where’s, when’s, and how’s, of course – just that we have church.  On the other hand, He (She?) might have something to say about the music. After all, how does a church organ sound after a three-month absence from tuning?

It’s bad enough our congregation is gloriously inharmonious when we bellow out the hymns (no choir of angels are we), but add in a fully discordant church organ and you have a complete mess. Organs need tuning like the human back needs a chiropractor: maintenance is key. When dust accumulates and seasons change, organ pipes sound noticeably different than they’re supposed to (hence the term “off-key”).  Imagine the pitch-perfect tones of a bass saxophone, but instead you get more of a sour wail.  That’s an organ pipe sans “tune-up”.

Every one needs tuning

Tuning organ pipes is serious business and can run thousands of dollars per visit.  Consider, the biggest organs have as many as 25,000 pipes.  The booming bass pipes can be thirty feet long and two feet in diameter, while the little pixie sopranos look more like metal soda straws. Each pipe must be individually tested and tuned no matter how big or small.  Tuner A presses a key on the (up to four) keyboards down below, while Tuner B adjusts the pitch of the pipe up above (sometimes on a ladder, sometimes on a suspended platform).  It’s hours and hours of monotonous – and in the case of cathedrals, death-defying work, one demanding pipe at a time.  Better love what you do.

Here’s another reason organ tuners deserve hazard pay.  Imagine you’re suspended hundreds of feet above the sanctuary floor on a swaying rope-suspended platform (I’m already saying “no”), virtually floating like the angels, and as you reach over to adjust the pitch of a mid-sized pipe, bats fly out.  Yep, that’s the kind of critters tuners encounter when an organ wants for too long (or a single pipe sounds suspiciously out-of-tune).  Squirrels even make their homes in the pipes – though don’t ask me how they don’t go plummeting to their death the moment a note is blasted from the keyboard.  Maybe they’re flying squirrels?

The view from above

In the land of COVID-19 there are no organ tuners (or very few).  Those Peter Pipers are being denied access to their church-bound “patients” because a) COVID may reside on a surface like, say, a keyboard, and b) no congregation means no offering plate means precious few payments to the Piper.  So what do stay-at-home tuners do instead?  Why, they tune their pianos of course!  Then they play those pianos hours on end.  We may come out of COVID with a whole new genre of classical music called “tuner tunes”.

Talk about a sprint from feast to famine.  An organ tuner’s busiest weeks are those leading up to Easter, often requiring extra staff and longer hours.  COVID downpoured on that parade.  Demand for pre-Easter tuning disappeared faster than Mr. Bunny himself.  In the case of one tuner – profiled in the Wall Street Journal – 100 contracts withered to less than a dozen inside of two weeks.  He furloughed his entire workforce, worried instead over simply paying the rent on his shop.

One day soon, we faithful will walk away from our laptops and wander back into church sanctuaries instead.  We’ll spread out over more services.  We’ll wave hands instead of shake hands.  We’ll drop the offering into the plate from a “safe height”.  We’ll bypass communion servers and help ourselves to the bread and wine instead.  The organist will play and the congregation will sing; both noticeably off-key.  And when that happens give a nod to the organ tuners, who will someday get the pipes pitch-perfect again. 

Just hope they don’t need an exterminator as well.

Some content sourced from the 3/25/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “As Coronavirus Shutters Churches, an Organ Whisperer Changes Key”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Creamer Schemers

A couple weeks ago, my Nespresso coffee maker sprung a leak. As it brewed a cup, it also “espressed” a small river of coffee from the base of the unit. An online chat with the good people at Nespresso determined, a) the maker really was broken, b) the one-year warranty covered the repair (whoo-hoo!), and c) the fix would take up to ten business days. Well beans; ten business days meant regressing a full two weeks on drip coffee instead.  Hold the phone; did I just label myself a coffee snob?

Nespresso

Nespresso – for those of you not familiar – is one of the many capsule coffee systems on the market today. Unlike the Keurig K-Cup, “Nestle-Espresso” capsules spin as the water passes through the grounds (7,000 RPMs – vroom vroom!), adding a light-colored frothy cap of “crema” on top. The crema enhances the aroma, but more importantly delivers the mouth-feel of a latte, as if you stirred something in from the dairy family. But call me fooled; Nespresso’s nothing more than coffee in the cup.

Bunn’s coffee-monster

Coffee snob? Parvenu, perhaps. It wasn’t that long ago I contentedly drank “joe” from one of those big metal Bunn machines, flavor-boosting my Styrofoam cup contents with a sugar cube and powdered Coffee-mate. Then, I spent a year in Rome and my world was forever coffee-rocked. I returned to the States armed with words like cappuccino and espresso and caffe latte. But America didn’t even know the word Starbucks yet. A “coffee shop” was still a greasy spoon diner; forgettable joe in a forgettable cup.

Mind you, not having Starbucks didn’t mean I was gonna crawl back to the Bunn, especially after a year of Italy’s la dolce vita (look it up). Eventually I dropped hard-earned cash on one of those early model home coffee/espresso/steamed milk contraptions – a machine requiring twenty minutes, twenty steps, and a phone-book-sized operations manual to produce a small cappuccino. The birth of the American barista did not start at Starbucks, my friends. It started in the frustration of orchestrating an overly complicated home-brew system in search of pseudo-Italian-style coffee.

Sometime after Starbucks opened its first doors (but before Nespresso), Keurig developed the K-Cup. The Keurig coffeemaker felt like a huge step up from standard drip (and ushered in the concept of single-serve coffee at home). Keurig opened a seemingly new world of coffee to me – exotic names like Green Mountain or Paul Newman’s or Donut Shop – but let’s be honest. Keurig was basically glorified drip, and I still wasn’t taking my coffee straight, like I did in Italy. And that’s where Nespresso shines. If the K-Cup is a step up from drip, Nespresso is the entire staircase.

Ironically, the same company producing Nespresso markets a line of oil-based creamers sugary enough to make your coffee taste like Easter in a cup. Nestle already offered creamer flavors like Peppermint Mocha or Italian Sweet Creme or Toasted Marshmallow, before recently adding Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Funfetti. Not to be outdone, International Delight augmented its own coffee creamer line – REESE’S Peanut Butter Cup, Cinnabon, and OREO Cookie Flavored, with – no joke – a PEEPS flavor. Better check for bunnies before you take a sip.

For the record (if the Pulptastic website is to be believed), I’m not even close to being a coffee snob. I can choose from any of their twelve defining characteristics and come up short. I don’t read about coffee. I don’t speak the lingo (“Robusta?” “Arabica?”). I don’t know what “cupping” is. I do enjoy a Starbucks coffee every now and then. Finally, I’m half-tempted to check out the PEEPS creamer (maybe I won’t even need the coffee in my cup). See the Pulptastic list for yourself. Maybe you’re the coffee snob instead of me.

I’m still waiting (im)patiently for my repaired Nespresso coffeemaker to come back. I’m barely surviving on my backup K-Cups. But I’m no coffee snob. And I was just kidding about wanting to try PEEPS in a bottle. On the contrary, those creamer schemers can keep their product far, far away from my Nespresso.

Some content sourced from the 2/3/2020 Wall Street Journal article, “Rich Sales Boost Coffee Creamers”.

Personal Space

We’re in the midst of Holy Week (for us Christians), which for some means spending more than the usual amount of time in church. Starting with this past Sunday, most Christian denominations conduct a total of five church services unique to this week: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Our Methodist church here in Colorado devotes an hour to each of these services (short by Catholic standards); some during the day, others at night. No matter how you slice it, Holy Week means a lot of time in the sanctuary.

The church sanctuary wasn’t always a welcoming place.  Growing up in Los Angeles, my family and I belonged to a formal Methodist church, with a sanctuary I can only describe as intimidating (at least from a kid’s point of view).  You entered the building from the back, where the doorway greeters beckoned you to a narrow narthex.  So far, so good.  But the imposing sanctuary lay just beyond, through a wall of soundproof windows and closed doors, with stern-faced ushers protecting its every entrance.  The pews were hardwood and upright with thin cushions, thirty deep on either side of the main aisle, marching in perfect unison towards the steps of an even-more-intimidating white marble altar.  The booming organ drowned out any conversation (which was always at a whisper anyway), and the soaring structure of the ceiling made a kid wonder when it would all come a tumblin’ down like Jericho’s walls.

The congregation of worshipers was a lot of “old folks”; the kind of people who thought kids belonged in “Sunday School” instead of the sanctuary (that is, neither seen nor heard).  Hence as teenagers, my friends and I sat up in the balcony (at the back of the space, kind of like the last seat on the bus).  You couldn’t always hear the pastor, but at least we didn’t feel the eyes of the disapproving adults down below watching our every move.  From our vantage point they were just a bunch of suits and dresses, topped by a whole lot of gray hair.

“Sanctuary” took on new meanings as I grew older.  The San Diego Wild Animal Park (now the “Safari Park”) opened its gates in the 1970’s and put a completely new spin on the concept of a zoo.  Animals lived in wide open spaces instead of enclosures; broad, beautiful environments designed to mimic their natural habitats.  Instead of pressing noses against cages or glass, visitors saw the animals from a distance, confined to the seats of a quiet tram circling the park.  If I ever come back as a member of an endangered species (like the northern white rhino I mentioned last week), put me in the San Diego Safari Park.  That’s what I call an animal sanctuary.

Also in the ’70’s, Hollywood produced “Logan’s Run”.  The movie depicted a utopian society of the future, offering a wealth of pleasures and resources and good living… at least until you turn thirty.  At thirty you reported to the “Carousel”, where you were assured a place in “Sanctuary” – the supposedly better hereafter.  Logan and his friends decide to find Sanctuary before they turn thirty, and that’s where the curtain of the ugly truth is drawn back.  I can still hear Logan fighting the controlling supercomputer as he moans “THERE IS NO SANCTUARY!”  Logan’s world was seductive for sure, but it was the mystery of sanctuary that had me watching to the end.

Recently, sanctuary has taken on more puzzling associations.  In the 1980’s, American thrash metal produced the band Sanctuary (but nothing in my research explains the name).  Sanctuary Clothing is a line described as “…capturing the Los Angeles lifestyle… vintage styling with a handcrafted focus on detail…”  Again, nothing about the name.  The SyFy Channel’s Sanctuary ran for four seasons and explored gene therapy and cloning, and the “strange and sometimes terrifying beings” that emerged within the human population.  Finally, today’s sanctuary cities appear to be anything but, as the political feud between the Fed and the state overshadows any sense of actual security.

My definition of sanctuary will always be that primary space for worship in a church; or to put it in broader terms, “a place of refuge or safety”.  Whether that’s somewhere inside, worshiping in the pews as I’ll do tonight; or somewhere outside; say, walking on a quiet path in the forest, it’s more about a feeling than a location.  Sanctuary is all about personal space.