Schadenfreude Set to Music

My elementary school music teacher got kids excited to play music. She worked closely with us, teaching us how to play, encouraging us to practice, giving us not only the skills to play our instruments but also helping us see how much fun music could be. I’m sure we sounded as bad as any elementary school band, but we were engaged. We wanted to play.

I figured middle school would be more of the same, but then I met Mr. L. He was in his twenties, wore his hair long, and liked popular music. 

He was also the worst teacher I ever had.

I wonder sometimes who convinced Mr. L. to work with children. Because they did the world a grave disservice.

We all have bad days. But some people seem to have bad lives. And if their lives are bad, they want everyone else’s life to be bad too. The German word “schadenfreude” comes to mind here—gaining pleasure from observing the suffering of others.

Mr. L personified that term. In our “classes,” between one and four of us played the music he set out for us. His idea of teaching was to give us music we were not yet ready to play, and then berate us for how badly we played it. On good days, he was only snide. On more frequent bad days, he shouted his derision at us. On the worst days, he screamed so loudly—within the sound-proofed room he used as a studio/classroom—that teachers in adjoining classrooms had to come over and tell him to pipe down.

Band practice, of course, was no better. Instead of just a few of us, thirty students got to either hear him scream at us collectively, pick out a single section to rail against, or sometimes just berate an individual. By the time I met him, I assume he’d earned his tenure; he seemed little concerned that any teaching skills he might have once possessed had long been overshadowed by his foul temper and apparent joy at torturing middle-school children.

I played saxophone under this petty tyrant for three years of middle school. Partway through eighth grade, when it was time to decide whether or not to try out for high school band, he held a large assembly and told us how important music was, and how hard he’d worked to ensure we all went on to high school band. He then told us that if we weren’t planning to continue on that path, we could just get the hell out. 

So I did just that. I picked up my sax, walked out of the assembly, and gave no thought to making music again for many years. I ran into my elementary school music teacher around the time I graduated high school, and she told me how frustrating it was to spend a career exciting children about making music, only to have their interest crushed by this small, angry excuse for a teacher.

So thanks, Mr. L. I called you my worst teacher earlier, but in the long run, you turned out to be an excellent teacher—just not of anything related to music. Through you, I learned how influential a pathetic, sadistic excuse for a human being can be, and how much more influential a decent, encouraging teacher will be. I learned to repress any desire to take a personally miserable day out on everyone around me. Most of all, I learned how excellent it is to do things that bring you joy, even if you’re not very good at them.

Breaking Up is Not Always Hard to Do

Earlier this week, I broke up with my cable company. 

I hadn’t thought about it as a breakup, but that’s how they made me feel when I called to have my service disconnected. 

It’s been over twenty-five years since we started this relationship. Back then, there were no streaming services, and people with antennas atop their roofs were considered troglodytes. Everybody had cable, and everybody had a means of recording all the programs they wanted to from that cable connection. We turned on the service, and got a good monthly price…for the first year.

And that coaxial cable running into the house carried hundreds of channels. Even without paying extra for premium movie channels, there were hundreds of options to choose from, and “flipping channels” became a sport unto itself. Because, as anyone who ever played that game realized quickly, having hundreds of options does not guarantee the presence of any programming you actually want to watch.

It took a few years to get it turned on in my neighborhood, but the next big innovation was internet service over that same cable. Those of us who had been on from the early days of the web made the jump from a phone line to a cable modem, and the speed difference was astounding. Bundles were widely available that combined cable television, internet, and phone service, and we grabbed that deal eagerly. Once again, we got a good monthly price…for the first year.

See, after that first year, the price always went up. And then it began a steady uphill climb every year, with new fees added here and there. It’s the analogy of the frog in boiling water; customers are not likely to jump out of the service when it’s only another five bucks added each time. But at some point, we curtailed our premium movie services to cut our bill down a bit.

At a later point, we looked at those hundreds of channels and, realizing we weren’t watching most of them, we “cut the cord” and shut off our cable television service. Ironically, my company was acquired a week later by the cable behemoth who provided local service, and everything got turned back on. As an employee, my cable was free.

A couple years later, my company was hemorrhaging money, and the cable behemoth cut us loose. That meant cable had a cost again, and we reviewed our options, deciding to do internet only. Streaming was, by that time, a thing. So we went back to an introductory rate for, you guessed, one year’s time.

That introductory rate—for internet service alone—has almost doubled to our new monthly rate. In the interim, a new provider ran fiber lines in our area and, seeing some excellent offers and at last an opportunity for competition with the cable behemoth, we jumped.

That led to the breakup call. In order to cancel our service, I had to talk to a customer service representative. He repeatedly reminded me that we had been “with the company for over twenty years” as though that would sway my decision. When I mentioned cost as a reason for switching, he told me that since I hadn’t called them in a very long time, I was simply unaware of the offers they had. And suddenly, out of the blue, he was willing to provide the same level of service we’d just acquired with our new company, at exactly the same price.

So, cable behemoth…you really want to know why we’re breaking up?

In over twenty years, you never once offered me anything for being a long term customer. In fact, you raised my rates every year, even while offering constant discounts to new subscribers. Every day, you bombarded my mailbox with offers of things I didn’t want: overpriced streaming packages and cellular services come to mind. When I called to break up with you, suddenly there were other offers on the table, including rates less than half of what I was paying you.

If you could afford to offer me that rate, why didn’t you do that before we broke up? Why did it take the threat of me leaving to bring that offer forward?

I think I know. And it doesn’t reflect well on you.

I don’t know how my new relationship is going to work out. But, as is often the case after any breakup, I now have some clarity I didn’t have before.

Calling Out Evil

Earlier today, I berated my congressional representative in a public forum. I was upset at her use of propaganda, a tactic that’s typical of the American political right win. In my response on her social media page, I used a pejorative term to describe the politics of many of my neighbors, who after all elected this woman to represent our district.

I called them “trumpanzees.”

Someone else took issue with my post. They took the time to look up some information about me, noted that I am a member of the clergy, and asked me whether or not I had read the Bible. I started to respond to them, but then decided better of it. An online argument rarely accomplishes anything except creating bigger headaches.

So I’m responding here instead. On my long-neglected blog.

First things first. My detractor decided that, since I have the title of “clergy,” I must be Christian. That was his first mistake. I’ve been active clergy for almost twenty years now in the Pagan community, and recently completed my training and ordination in the Troth, establishing me with further credentials as Heathen clergy. I doubt whether either of those terms would mean much to my heckler, but it’s an important distinction.

See, I don’t follow the creed laid down by the Bible. Of course I respect other people’s property and right to go on living; that’s just common moral sense. I don’t pay attention to the numerous edicts handed down in, say, Leviticus, which in addition to making a scant mention of homosexuality, also damns the souls of those who eat shellfish or wear clothes woven of different materials.

As a Heathen, I do put credence in some of the lore I’ve read. There’s a lot of wisdom, for instance, covered in the Viking age Hávamál, and for purposes of this article today, I’m looking hard at Stanza 127, which translates to, “Where you recognize evil, call it evil, and give no truce to your enemies.”

Mind you, I have read the Bible several times. As I said above, it doesn’t represent my spiritual path, but there are certainly lessons to be learned from it. It didn’t take me long to find a verse that sounds an awful lot like #127 above, and that’s Isaiah 5:20 “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”

I think those lines are applicable because I see evil in the Republican party of today. I’m disgusted with the party’s willingness to vilify innocent people for the purpose of political gain – that to me is the epitome of evil. I’m disgusted that the party continues to follow a traitorous conman, because of his continued ability to sway opinion. The former president is evil to me because I see in him a person willing to say and do anything that will bring him personal gain, no matter who gets harmed in the process. And my representative plays along willingly, because it brought her to the position she holds today.

About that name-calling. It’s not the worst thing I could think of to call somebody who blindly follows a creature as hateful as the former guy. I feel almost sorry for them, they’re in that position that Mark Twain was thinking of when he said, “It is easier to con a man than to convince him he has been conned.” But if my using a negative term to describe a group of people makes even one of those people stop and wonder why I, a person who rarely ever has a cross word for anyone, would say such a thing? If that one person looks a bit harder and begins to question the beliefs they’ve subscribed to, the ones they’ve been told are the truth? Then it’s justified. Because I’m using that term to call out some things I see as evil.

Adventures in Language

There are a number of things a traveler should learn before setting out to a new land, especially one where he doesn’t speak the language. Things like numbers are highly useful when paying bills. Asking if there’s any rooms available, or inquiring about a menu. Determining the location of the nearest bathroom. 

We managed to learn none of those things in Spanish before traveling to Mexico. Now, if we were staying at a fancy resort in Cancun, it wouldn’t have been a big issue. But of course, we stayed in the much less touristy Guanajuato – and while we encountered a few English speakers, there weren’t many. 

Sam and I both speak a little bit of German. Just enough to get by, likely to the chagrin of our high school German teacher. But Spanish? If we hadn’t seen it before on a menu at the local Tex-Mex place, we were clueless. That made for an interesting observation.

In situations where people were asking us questions in Spanish, and we’d already tried our hand at “¿hablas inglés?” without any success? We both found ourselves slipping into German, as though that would somehow magically bridge the language gap. We eventually learned that asking for the check at the end of a meal could be accomplished with “por favor trae la cuenta” but we both tried—several times—to ask by saying “Zahlen, bitte.” Apparently there’s something in human psychology that tells us if our primary tongue is not being understood, then the only other language we know must work instead.

Now I would never discourage anyone from learning a new language. Before we go back to Mexico – and I’m sure we’ll go back – we’ll learn at least a few more basics. But we didn’t let that lack of knowledge stop us this time, and we managed just fine. Travel is too wonderful and enriching to pass up because of something as ordinary as language.

Life vs Work

Just about a year ago, I quit my job. At my age, that action can earn a different label. “Retirement.”

Admittedly, I was in a good place to do that. No crippling student loans, our house is small but fully paid for, and I’ll drive a car until it falls apart. I’d been saving like mad for the last 15-20 years, and so when the financial guys told me I could afford to get out, I got out.

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” For many years, I was able to do just that – I had a job where I could make a decent living doing the kind of work I liked to do, and things went well. Nothing lasts! The company changed and I got moved into different sorts of work, different responsibilities, and different expectations – and as a result, I fell out of love with my job. My investment in work had shifted, from a desire to add value to my company, to a desire to do what was expected of me to earn a paycheck.

I could have waited longer. There’s no mandatory retirement age, and in fact I’ve met people twenty years older than me who are just now thinking about retirement. But I’ve also known too many people who died long before they ever thought they would. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that dropping dead in the middle of a workday would be just about the worst possible way to go. Imagine your last conscious thought being about a timecard. Or worse yet, drifting away forever while connected to a company-wide Zoom call.

So yeah, I got out. I’m a much more avid gardener now, and I think within a few years the yard is going to shine as a result. I published some short fiction, drafted a novel last summer, and I’m polishing up another this winter. With the pandemic in remission, travel has again become possible, and I’m exploring some amazing low-cost destinations. I’m taking more classes, tinkering more, reading more, hiking more, and overall enjoying life more.

I’m one of those people who struggles at times to make even a simple decision. Blue shirt or red? Pizza or Chinese? Bus or taxi? But the decision to retire? As life-changing as it’s been, that was the easy one.

You’re Doing That Wrong

I’m sometimes invited to lead a Sunday service at my friendly local Universalist church, and on a recent occasion, the church posted this graphic of the “Wheel of the Year” – an image that led to one individual stating that they hoped it was not going to be “presented as representative of paganism.”

In other words, one of the two classic statements of Heathenism: “You’re doing that wrong.”

Of course, the only response to that classic statement is its rejoinder – “You’re not the boss of me.”

Below is my reply.

Undoubtedly the modern Wheel of the Year is exactly that – a modern invention. The mixture of sources for even the accepted names of the holidays makes that pretty clear, and yet my personal ancestry also involves a mixture of sources (as does most people’s). My spiritual interests – the things that resonate with me – provide an even wider mix that goes well beyond just my ancestry. That all adds up to a living spiritual experience which is uniquely my own, one I refer to as the “Church of Kurt.”

My beliefs and practices simply align more closely with a Pagan/Heathen worldview than with any other faith structure. I’m not a farmer, but I do stay in tune with seasonal changes. For me, the modern Wheel works as a tool to keep me aligned with those seasonal changes, and provides me some connection to my ancestors who were undoubtedly much more tied to the agricultural calendar.

Which is all to say, it works for me so it’s become a part of the Church of Kurt. YMMV.

Honestly, there’s not much of anything that I’d ever try to pass off as “this is what ALL Pagans believe.”

Can’t Be a Sinner, Cuz I Don’t Believe In Sin

Recently, my spiritual storytelling class spent an evening on the topic of repentance, and each of us was to bring along a tale from our respective traditions that clarified the meaning of the term. For my friends and colleagues practicing in the Abrahamic faiths, such tales abound, but what about a modern Heathen?

There’s no shortage of tales in the lore covering the costs of dishonoring oneself, but the idea of repentance depends on a related concept that we, like most neo-Pagan paths, do not share with our neighbors: that of sin. How can we commit a transgression against “God’s law” when our gods neither provide us with such laws nor stand in judgment of us? It is much more likely that we will be judged by our community than by our gods – if our greater community continues to like us, then we have little to fear from our gods.

Nonetheless, attempts to codify behavior across the wider swath of Heathenry are occasionally made, such as the various versions of “Nine Noble Virtues” or NNV. These are generally considered as Courage, Truth, Honor, Fidelity, Discipline, Hospitality, Industriousness, Self Reliance, and Perseverance. While few would argue that these concepts can each be considered as recurring themes throughout much of the surviving lore, the specific meanings of each of them can be called into question depending on circumstances. There are too many possible occasions when meeting one ideal might cause another to be set aside. For these reasons, plus the somewhat arbitrary way in which such lists of virtues tend to be assembled in the first place, the concept of the NNV tends to cause a lot of head shaking in Heathen circles. Regardless of viewpoint, such lists are considered as rules for living day-to-day in our communities, not as ironclad rules that, if broken, directly offend the gods.

Are there any rules which might establish a basis for something like “sin” in the Heathen worldview? One recurring theme in the lore is that of oath breaking. I’ve seen arguments that a distinction should be drawn between breaking a personal oath, e.g. “I vow to lose 20 pounds” and one which places the wider community at risk, e.g. “I vow to defend my village against attack.” I’m not so sure that such a distinction can be drawn – the mythology contains too many stories of an individual committing actions against his own community because he has been forced to swear a vow that he will do so. Oath-making is taken seriously now as it was then – the act of breaking an oath was beneath the contempt of our ancestors!

Without “sin” there is no “repentance,” yet there is opportunity for “redemption.” In this worldview, everyone is responsible for personal actions and consequences, and with the Germanic idea of gift reciprocation, just as every honorable act leads to some reward, every dishonorable one must be paid for in some way. Here the concept of weregild comes to mind – our ancestors placed a value on everything and everyone. Stolen property, persons injured or killed – in most cases the perpetrator could pay a restitution to the victim’s family or to property owner.

There’s an implication here. If I commit a transgression against a member of my community, I can redeem myself through a payment of some sort. If I commit a transgression against my gods, I believe a similar relationship exists. The nature of a transgression is likely to be one of oath-breaking – if I swear to a deity, or to a member of my tribe, that I will do something, it is up to me to do that thing, or make an appropriate payment, not unlike the weregild mentioned above, but usually agreed upon in advance. I cannot simply beg forgiveness, but actually atone for what I have done. That’s why oaths are often phrased the way they are, with a price attached. “I will quit smoking by Dec 12 or donate $100 to the Cancer Society” is a well-formed oath. “I will lose 20 pounds this winter or die trying” should raise objections.

As Heathens, we lack a concept of sin, but possess a code of personal honor. We lack repentance, but there are avenues for redemption. We do not so much fear standing in judgment of our gods so much as we do our community – for we can live on in the deeds that our descendants speak of long after we’ve crossed into the next life.


A few days ago, I saw a man at the side of the road with a “Homeless and Hungry” sign. Downtown Syracuse, like most cities, has its share of homeless people and those pretending to be so, and I barely gave this one a second thought. Later that day, though, I had three unrelated conversations in which street people were brought up, never by me. Coincidental?

It’s very easy in a mundane world to write off such incidents as “coincidental”: in other words, accidental or random. We are among the fortunate few who have gained at least an insight into a world beyond the mundane, a world where there’s a lot more going on than often meets the rational eye.

Carl Jung penned the word “synchronicity” to describe meaningful coincidences that occur in our lives. In essence, synchronicity belies the accidental nature of coincidence; the basic idea is of a Universe that is constantly trying to get a message through to each and every one of us.

So all we need to do is pay constant attention to every detail in our lives, and anything remotely repetitive is part of an important message from beyond, right? Well, you can certainly try to live that way, but I suspect you’d wind up a bit psychotic before the end of the first day.

Besides, synchronicity isn’t always repetitive. Have you ever felt torn by a hard decision, when all of a sudden something utterly unrelated pops up and pushes you one way or the other? It can be as simple as seeing a bus go by with a Nike ad; “Just Do It” might seem directed right at you.

As another example, perhaps at one time or another you’ve felt like all your choices were gone, and suddenly people came out of nowhere to help? Did you realize what was happening at the time? For that matter, have you ever called up an old friend, not realizing why you were calling, only to find out that they really needed you right then, at that moment? In “The Power of Myth”, Joseph Campbell calls this the “helping hands” phenomenon. When any of us puts out a psychic request for help, that help tends to be forthcoming.

If you consider synchronicity to be a Universal communication tool, then things might start to make sense. Your call for help is like pulling on one strand of a very intricate web, and that pull is felt in many places. The web is vast, and connects all of us to everything else in the Universe.

Of course, when you look at it, everything that happens has a rational explanation. If, for example, you’ve been seeing a lot more hawks than usual lately, the rational explanation may be that it’s simply time for their spring migration. That’s fine, but it doesn’t explain why your awareness of them is so great; after all, they migrate every year. Didn’t you notice them last year?

Personal awareness is a key. If ravens have moved into your yard, so thick that it looks like a fluttering black carpet instead of a lawn, and you don’t notice them, then one of two things is going on: either the message isn’t for you, or you’re too blind to pick up on it.

At least some synchronous events could be called omens. And, like any omen, the hardest part is to figure out what it means. Interpretation is another key to synchronicity; being able to determine the relative importance of an incident and then figure out what message it carries.

There are several ways to approach this. You can meditate on the possible meaning, perhaps even journey to seek answers on the spiritual plane. You can consult divinatory tools such as Tarot cards, runes, pendulums, anything that appeals to you. Perhaps the simplest solution is to simply ask the Universe for clarification.

On the topic of divinatory tools, I personally believe that they work because of the same principals of synchronicity that put a love song on the radio right at the very moment you begin thinking about someone you care deeply about. It’s your awareness that makes it all happen.

Great. So all of us can find our personal place in the Universe as long as we pay attention. Every crossroads we reach will have a marker of some sort waiting; every decision will be predetermined. Right?

Wrong. Before you run off to live your whole life based on things you glean from Tarot cards and the sides of buses, it’s important to realize that while the messages you’re receiving are generally accurate, your interpretations of them aren’t always so. Your identity, your inner awareness, should never be allowed to become lost in a sea of possible messages. Learn to trust your instincts, your gut reactions will tell you if you’re on the right path.

It’s about remaining open and aware for as much of the time as you possibly can. It’s about understanding that personal messages are often delivered in unconventional ways. Most of all, it’s about simply allowing the Universe to communicate with you and through you.


Thor’s Hammer


Originally published in GreenMan magazine in 1995.
This piece was my first real publication credit.

Words cannot begin to describe the powerful effect of the storm, but I must make do with what I have. From the first odd, orange colorations of the sky as dusk approached and the clouds rolled in, bringing with them the distant rumble of warning, to the first flashes seen in the distance like some great cosmic fireworks, it was apparent that the storm was going to be rather magical. And we were not disappointed.

We began on the front porch, simply talking and joking, but the power of the atmosphere quieted us down as the clouds thickened, until we were left talking only about the storm. As the last vestige of bright sky was swept away in the angry clouds, we felt the last of the breeze, and an ominous quiet seemed to fall into place; a calm that could only precede a storm.

Still hot and sweating from the oppressive heat earlier in the day, we welcomed those first few drops, huge wet kisses from the sky. As the intensity of the rain increased, it was no longer enough to feel it misting down through the leaves of Grandmother Maple; I needed to seek an open area where the wind and the rain could caress me without interference.

Standing in the backyard, the deluge began in earnest, accompanied by the continuing rumble of Thor’s hammer as the lightning flew across the sky in patterns never before seen, and never to be seen again, each a spontaneous, instant work of art. The energy was fantastic, and in the midst of this energy I felt the rain cleansing me, not only washing the sweat and dust from my skin but also deeper, cleansing down to the soul itself. I felt my feet connecting to the Earth herself, while my head was lifted high into the midst of the storm, a channel of energy flowing through me.

I faced each of the four Guardians in turn, thanking them for their part in bringing the storm to me and working this wondrous effect upon my soul. In the East, I thanked the Air for transporting the clouds and the electricity to me, and allowing it to move through the atmosphere. In the South, I thanked the Fire for evaporating the water and allowing it to be pulled into the Air, and for the spark that on such a huge scale is lightning. In the West, I thanked the Water itself for allowing itself to be moved through the air in such a fashion, cycling continuously through the world. And finally, in the North, I thanked the Earth, for providing the environment to allow it all to happen. Throughout it all, the rain continued to beat in torrents across me, cleansing deeply.

As the rain subsided, I returned to the front porch, joining in for an inspired chorus of rather appropriate songs that had begun in my absence. We drew close, still singing softly of the Earth and Air and Fire and Water within us, as the lightning, now distant, continued to paint across the magic canvas of the sky. The last flash of lightning, quite symbolically we thought, was not unlike a broomstick flying across the sky. We turned to go in, a little cleaner, a little wiser, and more fully connected with our faith than ever before.