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A Cathedral in the Cornfields of Beaverville, Illinois

St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, Beaverville, Illinois, on the National Register of Historic Places. (Wikipedia)

St. Mary Roman Catholic Church, Beaverville, Illinois, on the National Register of Historic Places. (Wikipedia)

I was once a Morocco Beaver. Let the titters begin.

Morocco, Indiana High School, 1963-64, 7th grade: there was no middle school or junior high. I was on the basketball team, though I was terrible and seldom played. My oldest brother Dick, a senior, was the manager of the varsity team, which played nearby schools in Beaverville, St. Anne and Sheldon, Illinois, as well as Indiana schools, since we were only four miles from the state line. I’m sure he rode the team bus ten miles to Beaverville – maybe it was an intense rivalry way back when, the Beavers against Beaverville – but today was my first time setting foot in enemy territory.

Morocco doesn’t have beavers anymore, and neither do Beaver City or Beaverville. This whole area was once part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, a wetland the size of the Florida Everglades, until settlers started digging ditches to get rid of the water. They committed a terrible environmental crime – but when the land dried out it was good for farming, and that’s the way of life here.

Beaverville and Morocco don’t have high schools or basketball teams now either, but they still have farmers and a grain elevator, located on a highway, a railroad or both. The elevator’s really the only reason these towns still exist; Morocco’s current population is about 1100, while Beaverville’s down to 300. I live in a metropolis of 1800 and we’re all 70-80 miles due south of Chicago.

Now about that church: it’s really something, especially for a town that tiny. I would guess the building seats 300, the entire population. There aren’t any other churches, because the original settlers were French Canadians who didn’t like being oppressed by British Canadians. Someone built a church, they named it after Mary (and the village too, St. Marie originally), a town grew up, a few stores and the grain elevator. (The Post Office made St. Marie change its name, since there was already a St. Mary, Illinois.)

I was urged to check it out by local readers who saw my previous post, Visit to a Smalltown Catholic Shrine in nearby St. Anne, Illinois, and got a little jealous perhaps, because they’ve got a great church too. And they’re right, so I owed it to B’ville and my own education to visit.

Front of the church from St. Charles Street, June 27, 2013 (Josh Thomas)

Front of the church from St. Charles Street, June 27, 2013. (Josh Thomas)

The draw at St. Mary’s is the stained glass windows and the architecture. The origin of the windows, all by the same studio, is not certain, but likely they came from Lascelles and Shroeder of Chicago, which served French Canadian congregations in the city and downstate.

The architect is known, Joseph Molitor, a partner with Charles W. Kallal in Chicago, the city architect who restored the famous Water Tower, the most prominent survivor of the Great Chicago Fire. A brochure says the Beaverville church is an eclectic mix of styles, predominantly Romanesque Revival, with a central octagonal dome over the nave, surrounded by small windows. Its ceiling is a moderately dark blue sprinkled with painted stars to resemble a night sky; it needs some work, but the rest of the building is looking good.

Angel with a font of holy water - or a moist sponge, anyway. (Josh Thomas)

Angel with a font of holy water – or a moist sponge, anyway. Gorgeous blue robe. (Josh Thomas)

The windows use a lot of opalescent glass made in Kokomo, Indiana (where my mother’s family are from) in the Munich Style as developed and refined by Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge. The windows are rare, numerous, and the parish was able to restore them ten years ago at a cost of $320,000 – or more than $1000 for every man, woman and child in town.

That was some prodigious fundraising, even miraculous, considering that first they had to spend another 465 grand redoing the roof. Those bake sales must have multiplied like Jesus feeding the 5000.

Windows and arches, with a glimpse of the central dome. (Josh Thomas)

Windows and arches, with a glimpse of the central dome. (Josh Thomas)

It makes a visitor wonder where they got such dedication. But they’ve always had it, from the beginning in 1851 when the town was founded, through erecting the present building in 1909, to today. Surely this reflects very strong family and community ties – as well as a succession of priests and nuns who flogged those poor folks mercilessly to empty their pockets, punching every guilt button they could find.

It’s the same way at nearby St. Anne; both French Canadian towns, devout in their beliefs, stuck in the middle of nowhere, just raising their crops, taking their kids to church every Sunday, watching them intermarry, and obeying the Fathers, Sisters, Bishops and Popes as much as humanly possible, when they weren’t out getting in trouble.

Regular readers know I am a sharp critic of the Roman Catholic Church – that is, the hierarchy, not the People. What these folks in Northeast Illinois built in their humble surroundings is two small versions of a great cathedral in Europe. So what if they’re on the prairie next to a cornfield? Their churches gave them an identity, a purpose, a mission. And they’ve stuck to it.

Comparing the shrine at St. Anne with the church at Beaverville, I see they both had their advantages. St. Anne always has been a place of pilgrimage, while St. Mary’s had a school for many years called Holy Family Academy, staffed by nuns from an order in France; the cemetery at St. Mary’s has a special section of the sisters’ graves, dozens of them, whose headstones are sensitively carved with both their religious and birth names.

The front of St. Mary's Cemetery was reserved for the Sisters. (Josh Thomas)

The front of St. Mary’s Cemetery was reserved for the Sisters. (Josh Thomas)

The school is gone now, with only mentions and artifacts available to visitors, but it must have been thriving in its heyday; I imagine, since it was an academy, it may have been more than just a parochial school, but drew from all over the area. Meanwhile nearby St. Martin’s, Martinton is only a simple frame building like you’d expect in such an isolated, rural spot.

Corinthian column under the organ loft, topped by gold leaf (Josh Thomas)

Corinthian column under the organ loft, probably topped by gold leaf. (Josh Thomas)

Martinton is on the highway (U.S. 52), as Saint Anne is but Beaverville is not. I took a county road to get there, called 2950/3000 North; tourists never see the light of day in Beaverville. Instead what it had (and still does, three tracks right next to the elevator) is the railroad – specifically the Kankakee, Beaverville and Southern Railroad. Amazing!

There ain’t no Chicago and Morocco Railroad, lemme tell ya. But Beaverville has always been on the line; David, one of my correspondents, said the stop there shows up as “St. Mary” on the old maps, from before the Post Office intervened to change the town’s name.

My point here isn’t a travelogue, much less an architectural review; I’m a layman. Instead it’s all the things the People built.

They’re not quite my people – my family and my town are English Protestants, not French Catholics – and yet they are my people; my drive today cost 50 miles and two gallons of gas round-trip. These folks were and are farmers, and wherever they started out from, I know where they ended up. We can still see today most of what they built, and we can guess at some of the reasons why. Nationality played a part – all the windows at St. Mary’s and St. Anne’s are inscribed in French – but so did faith, family, business and pure survival.

Organ loft and rose window (Josh Thomas)

Organ loft and rose window (Josh Thomas)

As much as I tease the Roman clergy and sisters about mashing all the guilt buttons, let’s think about their motives, too; it’s inherent in the Catholic religion that churches be as beautiful and edifying as possible, so they can reflect the glory of God and teach us who our Creator is.

That’s a very worthy project.

The rectory, behind the church before you get to the cemetery, has been updated a little since it was built; the pastor serves Martinton, too.

The rectory, behind the church before you get to the cemetery, has been updated a little since it was built; the pastor serves Martinton, too.

As an Episcopalian who is both Protestant and Catholic, I am used to beautiful churches in large towns. But I am awed by what these farmers did in these two villages. They built far beyond their means, but somehow managed to match their means to what they built – and all for a reason, the best reason, to glorify God. They didn’t go practical, as farmers usually do; for practical, see that little “nothing” of a church at Martinton. At Beaverville and St. Anne, they built their ideals – and this area is richer because they did.

I’m richer because I went there. If you ever get a chance, you should go too.

All three of them noticeably contribute to the food pantry at Martinton, which is exactly how it should be. So what if St. Martin’s never had a gimmick; it knows what its ministry is, because there are food-insecure folks in all of these towns and it’s the Church’s job to feed them. So they do.

I still wouldn’t cross a county road to see the pope, even this new one Francis; but once you get past the Vatican’s sexual obsessions, the People are living out the faith despite it all. That’s my kind of church.++

Good work, Sister Holy Cross. (Josh Thomas)

Good work, Sister Holy Cross. (Josh Thomas)

Excelling without Recognition

What was it like for Vincent Can Gogh?

Blooming Plum Tree, 1887

Blooming Plum Tree, 1887

The public hated his paintings. Critics abused him, gallery owners threw him out in the street.

At age 37 he killed himself. Today his paintings go for $100 million.

He’s only the most famous example of a common phenomenon, the unrecognized genius – and now, his story has become too easy for us. We pigeonhole him as a tragic figure and tell ourselves he just lived before his time, as if that’s all we need to know.

What we never say is, “If I’d seen his work back then, I’d have hated it too. He was crazy, the poor sot. No one cared when he died. I didn’t either.”

We’re as guilty of rejecting excellence now as people were back then.

Have you noticed that, when the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grants come out, you’ve never heard of any of them? Or do you have Benjamin Warf, Nancy Rabalais and David Finkel on your Friends’ list?

I don’t either. Nor Terry Plank, Junot Diaz or Claire Chase. Wouldn’t know them if they showed up on TV, which they don’t.

It’s a mystery how the MacArthur Foundation finds out about these folks. But I figure they employ specialists to scour the world looking for geniuses.

They’ve sure never knocked on my door, nor of anyone else I know. My friends do tend to excel, though; maybe not geniuses, but they’re all pretty darn good.

Clearly there’s a big gap between doing great work and being well-known. That’s surely true in every field of endeavor.

This guy is suddenly well-known:

Omar Borkan Al Gala has manufactured publicity by claiming he's too sexy for Saudi Arabia. However, he was supposedly one of four men kicked out of the country, and no one's seen the other three.

Omar Borkan Al Gala has manufactured publicity by claiming he’s too sexy for Saudi Arabia. However, he’s supposedly one of three men kicked out of the country, and no one’s seen the other two.

This guy isn’t much known, but should be:

John C. Bogle, father of index investing and founder of The Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has made more "nobodies" rich than anyone in the history of the world. That's an awful lot of grandparents. (Scott S. Hamrick)

John C. Bogle, father of index investing and founder of The Vanguard Group of mutual funds, has made more “nobodies” rich than anyone in the history of the world. That’s an awful lot of grandparents. (Scott S. Hamrick)

I’m sure you can come up with your own examples – a favorite actor or singer who never quite made it, an unknown writer whose sentences take your breath away, a social critic who’s so accurate that no one can hear her, the rabbi who liberated Buchenwald but got shunned in Jerusalem.

Some people are good at the publicity machine and some people aren’t. If Theo Van Gogh had had the internet, Vincent would have died rich at 92.

Mr. Bogle’s a good example; he’s a titan of the mutual fund industry, but Wall Street billionaires won’t even make eye contact with him. He’s onto their game. Fame doesn’t interest him, but investor education does.

For a rich guy, he doesn’t orient his life around greed, but around ethics. Which makes him a worthy subject for the Gay Spirit Diary.

He was interviewed recently for Frontline, the PBS documentary series. Turns out he doesn’t think money is God.

Here’s what prompts my musings: A little while ago I posted tomorrow’s Morning Prayer on my Daily Office site for the Eastern Hemisphere. It’s a fairly ordinary post, the kind of thing I do every day – but it’s great, if I do say so.

Sometimes a person excels quietly, just doing what they do every day, whether people notice or not. There’s a lot to be said for consistency.

This post, if you haven’t seen it yet, celebrates the Saint of the Day, a poet named Christina Rossetti; notices the death of former Congressman Bob Edgar, a Methodist minister and social action leader; features a Song of Creation written by my friend Maria L. Evans, praising God for the landscape and critters of northeast Missouri; asks for prayers for the Diocese of Nevada by showing a photo of a country church on the edge of Lake Tahoe; and ends with a hymn by Charles Wesley, sung at the Anglican cathedral of Portsmouth, which isn’t one of the prestigious cities in England.

All in all, the post is kind of ordinary and kind of brilliant. For those who get into that sort of thing, it will satisfy the soul.

I like doing that. I am happy with my life. And I’m good enough at it that my prayer sites have had 2 million visitors; I have almost a thousand members on Facebook.

These things make me a “success” on some level. They don’t make me a MacArthur genius, but I’m doing pretty good. I will die content.

Part of me knows that Vincent Van Gogh didn’t give a solitary crap whether anyone liked his stuff or not. And part of me knows that he really did.

I feel the same way, both sides of that duality. I care, and I don’t. After all, you’re reading this; thank you!

I don’t need anyone to read it but you.

On the other hand, the more the merrier, and I sure would like a few more donations from the people who are getting my fabulous prayers online. Money’s the only thing I worry about – and then I shrug, because you have to; it isn’t God.

This happened to me recently: I found out that someone read my new book, understood it and liked it. Five stars on Amazon – to go with my previous one-star review.

I’d quit looking, frankly; I don’t market my books, I just write them. I don’t know who this woman is, or how she found my book. I do know that she understood it, and that’s very gratifying. “Vincent sold a painting! Yay!”

Of course I don’t compare to him; I only compare to me, though every publisher will tell you that all writers compare to everyone else in their “genre.” Amazon keeps track of these comparisons, it’s all numerical. I’m probably # 2,000,000 today; oh well.

Encouraged, I decided to check if any of my other books have reviews I hadn’t seen. Murder at Willow Slough, my first book which sold the best of the three, has 27 reviews – but look at this list of the headlines on them:

• Thoroughly unreadable
• Beautiful Gay Man meets Straight Cop
• Josh Is THE MAN
• A thrilling read
• Interesting plot, poor writing
• Great Thriller!
• Interesting plot, but could have been better
• Contemporary classic for the Hoosier State
• Stunning
• Compelling!

Keep in mind, Mark Twain gets mixed reviews on Amazon, and Shakespeare’s often called “overrated.” No one gets universal acclaim, and if they start to, there will be a backlash. I spent enough time in the newspaper business to know that the media builds you up one day, only to tear you down the next. Reporters have space to fill; that’s their job. And the public is fickle and mostly apathetic.

So I’ve learned not to expect much, though it does seem odd that I’m so polarizing to people. I get lots of love and a fair amount of hate. For every “thoroughly unreadable,” there will be an “OMG, this writing is perfect.” This is why I go months without reading reviews.

The worst, of course, is no reviews at all. If you want reviews, you have to work the publicity machine. And that takes a value set I just don’t have. (Mindset –> value set).

I look more like John Bogle than Al Gala! Though 30 years ago I was kinda cute. Didn’t take advantage of it; didn’t believe in it.

Recognition is important; it keeps an artist like Vincent alive. But at some point a real artist has to say, “Fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke.” Do what you do, keep at it, and maybe you’ll get recognized, and maybe you won’t.

Don’t kill yourself if you don’t.

IN CONCLUSION… I don’t really have a conclusion, except to take your comforts where you can. Be thankful for what you have, not regretful for what you don’t. However bad you’ve got it, somebody’s got it much worse; and similar clichés that are completely true. You have to be self-motivated; someday Al Gala will be admitted to Saudi Arabia without a second thought. What goes up must come down.

Make sure that what goes down, you bring back up.++

Luke loves me, whether you do or not!

Luke loves me, whether you do or not.

New Art, New Computer, New Novel

Steve Tobin: River. It's 60 feet tall, made of glass.

I need to buy a new Macintosh. Some months ago my then-new Mac got fried in an electrical storm, and I got an insurance settlement (and a new surge protector). Up to now I’ve held up on buying the new Mac, making do with the older laptop I’m writing this on. But I’ll have to bite the bullet, because not having a new desktop unit is preventing me from completing my next novel.

In other words I’m being neurotic again. It’s very hard for me to spend $1100 on anything these days. My financial situation is very shaky and I feel a bit immobilized. It doesn’t help that my usual supplier MacMall has ripped me off in the past with rebate come-ons (though they’re prompt and accurate about shipping the main unit). I mean, rebates? All rebates are dishonest. Just give me the discount now, don’t make me mail something, wait and forget about the money you owe me.

(I once got a 23¢ rebate check, which promptly bounced and cost me $10 for depositing a bad check.)

There are other Mac resellers, of course, and I suppose I should go with the cheapest one. Still it takes a couple of leaps of faith, and I’ve been procrastinating.

But I’ve got to get this novel out; it’s pretty central to my identity, my mission, my vocation. The book’s about a Gay Christian marriage.

Gay marriage is a hot political issue, but this book goes farther than the headlines of the day, because it locates the relationship within a defined spiritual system (the Church) and a theology (mainstream Episcopalian).

One of my grooms is a nominal Methodist who goes to church weekly because “it’s a family thing; we go to church because, well, we always have.” Kent loves the Christmas holidays, but doesn’t think all that much about God or Jesus the rest of the year; he goes to church to see his cousins, aunts and uncles.

Jamie, the man he marries, doesn’t go to church as often, but thinks intensely about the fathersonandholyspirit. I hope you can see some conflict coming already!

This book, tentatively titled “The Centurion’s Boy” and available in blog form here, starts with a sex scene – or rather, it starts with a betrothal that leads to a sex scene.

This is because the book is a sequel to my 2001 novel “Murder at Willow Slough,” in which Jamie and Kent, a gorgeous young reporter and a hunky young cop, solve a serial murder and fall in love. “Slough” may be the first Gay novel ever written without a single sex scene. It does get steamy at points, but that book ends with declarations of love.

So it only makes sense that the next book should open with them tearing their clothes off. Even so, Jamie wants more than mere love, he wants commitment.

That’s why it’s a book about marriage; any marriage, Gay or Straight, Christian or atheist.

Jamie’s been married before, to a man who died young. (In some ways this tracks my own biography, but that was only a jumping-off point.)

Jamie’s the one who knows what marriage is. Kent just wants to get married because that’s what people do; his version of the normal family narrative.

Jamie has very little family, but Kent’s the center of a big, rich, even historic network of blood relatives.

Putting together two guys, two sets of expectations and two families is what the book is about – while also investigating another murder.

You can see already it’s a sprawling novel; that’s how I tend to write. I’ve got Civil War and Underground Railroad history in there, the whole thing could spin out of control if I let it – but I won’t.

In nearly every Gay male novel, the two protagonists are independent actors, footloose and fancy-free, living in a big glamorous city, having left behind their (homophobic) families in Costa Rica or South Africa or Utah.

I don’t blame those authors; real Gay life often happens just that way. But my characters are located in a particular place, smalltown Indiana, where one is very much involved with his relatives, who aren’t homophobic at all.

I like upending some of the usual conventions. I like that Kent is part of a big loving family for whom “church” is more habit than anything else.

And I like making him confront, through his lover, the reality of God. I think that’s a worthwhile thing to write about.

Meanwhile Jamie is stuck without a car, living in a giant old farmhouse that’s so historic it hasn’t been redone since it was built.

No matter how much today’s Gay people want to reinvent ourselves, we’re all tied to the families we grew up in, even if our relatives rejected us decades ago or we rejected them.

If your husband’s a family man, what can you do but join the family – and remake it according to your own understandings, needs and vision?

Do we have to reject all that came before us, including our religious background, because of idiotic things some profiteers of faith said and did on TV?

Do Gay Christians have boring sex lives, when the unofficial Gay religion is hedonism? Or does making a commitment and keeping it free up believers in surprising ways?

These are the questions I wrestle with. But I can’t come to any decision until I decide to buy a new Macintosh.

While I’ve sat here and stewed about this the past few months, my thoughts about Jamie and Kent have raced ahead. I’m constantly writing dialogue for them in my head, new scenes, disagreements, sexual episodes and religious ones too.

Jamie decides that if they have to live in the old family homestead, it’s got to be redone, even if that means criticism from the rest of the family. He’ll preserve the most historic features and not violate the spirit of the place, but everything else is up for grabs. He loves art, but the relatives never got past paint-by-number. They are Hoosiers, he respects that (and is one too), but since they’re rich it’s time to spend some money.

He’s also going to reform their sexual politics and replace the patriarchy all family relationships have been built on. Relatives who don’t like it can “blame the Gay guy,” which will leave Kent as popular as ever.

New generations have to renew the old ways of doing things; thesis, antithesis, synthesis. All while chasing after some bad guys.

The point of Jamie’s being religious isn’t so I can say, “This is how you’re supposed to be and do and believe,” but to illustrate which side God’s really on. It isn’t the side of the bogeymen who claim to speak for Christ on TV.

The fact that Kent and Jamie have a very sexual (and semi-kinky) relationship is also meant to make this point; God loves sexual love, that’s why s/he built it into our bodies. Gay or Straight, it’s all the same to her; what s/he cares about is the quality of the relationship – the faithfulness of it, which is a lot more than “who puts what in where.”

So these two guys set out to find ecstatic delight in each other.

All permanent, loving relationships are a new synthesis, even though as Tolstoy said, happy families are all alike. “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…”

Steve Tobin’s art, which I’ve only recently discovered, makes me itchy to start writing again. Jamie’s going to fill that house with spectacular joy; that’s how he reflects the God of creative beauty, and how he loves his lover.++

Steve Tobin: Exploded Clay.

Minor League Symphony: Fun at the Ol’ Ballpark

Tonight I went to the season opener of the local minor league team. The Twin City Crescendoes play a good brand of ball, the tickets are affordable, parking is always free and their home field, though not the newest stadium you’ve ever been in, is comfortable, well-maintained, the perfect size for seeing all the action, without a bad seat in the house. The ushers are friendly, the crowds are enthusiastic and you never get hit by a foul ball.

The Lafayette Symphony Orchestra opened its 60th season at the Long Center for the Performing Arts with a world premiere Fanfare for Freedom, Verdi’s Overture to La Forza del Destino, Elgar’s Enigma Variations and Bruch’s Concerto in G Minor with Bella Hristova, violinist. I had a great time, even if you’ve never heard of the home team.

Sixty years ago this team was semi-pro at best. They were starting from scratch without any money in a small market, where no one really knew whether there was any interest in their brand of ball. But a few fans got together, formed a syndicate (they called it a board of directors) and issued a call for players. That first year they could barely afford uniforms and equipment; they played their first game in a room built for dancing, not for playing ball. But they were good enough that they attracted some fans and investors.

It took a decade or so before they could afford to pay a first baseman. Then they got a pitcher, a catcher, an outfield, a double-play combo and a big guy to cover the hot corner. But the key, of course, as with any team, was that first player-manager, who taught them to work together and win ballgames.

They stopped playing rookie league and took their place as professional ballplayers in Class A. I think they’re breaking into AA right now.

The current skipper, Nicholas “Dizzy” Palmer, has just signed a five-year contract extension. He also leads the Kentucky Opera, the Owensboro Symphony, the Duxbury Music Festival Orchestra and is a frequent guest conductor in Prague, Sofia, Milan, San Remo and Lausanne.

The Dizzy Dean of the podium, Dr. Nicholas Palmer.

In person he is warm and engaging, a fan favorite; he seems like a perfect fit in this small (150,000) Indiana city. He is a passionate conductor; his players are precise, integrated and coherent.

Still, classical music isn’t baseball. On the minor league diamond half the excitement is seeing young guys on their way to bigger and better teams, if only they can impress at this level. Go to a minor league game and you’re pretty well certain to see one or two future stars – get ’em while they’re young, so you can brag, “I saw him when.”

It’s different on the classical music scene, in age, experience, maturity and individual goals. Age is an enemy in sports, but it’s a friend in the arts. Among the LSO’s 72 players, ages range from early 20s to late 60s. This isn’t a naive orchestra like you often see a brash young baseball team, full of promise but also quick with an error. A company like the LSO that’s grown and lasted for 60 years has learned all along the way, with everyone who’s been a part of the effort, whether musician, patron or volunteer. This band has developed an institutional memory, and that translates over time into an identity – a place in the community – a network of friendships (and occasional foes) – and a level of competence and artistic mastery you’re not going to get with a bunch of talented rookies, each out for himself.

So I was completely happy with the musical experience; these people are damn good. The fact is that what separates a world-famous orchestra from one you’ve never heard of is less the talent level than the size of the city, the wealth of the company and the amount of publicity garnered. A professional musician – one who gets paid to play – can fit into any number of slots depending on the group and the venue. One week s/he might be a local hire for a touring star, the next week playing on “Prairie Home Companion,” teaching classes at the conservatory, and the next week playing midnight mass on Christmas Eve at my home parish. (The LSO’s where we get our string quartet – and I swear to God, those people can walk on water.)

The snootiness and snobbery that surround the serious music scene are really mostly reflections of competition among big-city patrons to appear more knowledgable (richer, better connected) than others in the audience. It’s not generated by what the musicians do – and there are no sharp elbows in the audience here. The musicians like playing, performing and sharing what they’re good at, whether they’re wearing white tie and tails or a pair of jeans. They don’t care what the audience wears either; some people dress up out of respect for the music and the players, and other people come as they are. (I aimed for the middle, office clothes but no tie, and fit right in.)

Most musicians at the LSO could move up to bigger, more prestigious companies if they had the ambition and life circumstances to allow that. But climbing the musical ladder is a young person’s game, a single person’s game. Once you get involved in a relationship, maybe get married and have kids, Carnegie Hall loses some of its allure. Your parents are getting older, you want to stay close to home. You take a job at a university, a regular weekend gig with a jazz band, and all of a sudden you’re not going to jump on a plane for Los Angeles for $500; who would take care of the dog?

For a minor league orchestra, the key thing is how well it fits the local community. Tonight in Lafayette I saw a company that really fits well.

Many of the people in the audience know each other; it’s a small city. Many of the ticket-buyers are also donors and volunteers, for many years or just a few. The LSO has a family feeling to it, without coming across like a suffocating clique. The audience wants the home team to do well, and rewards them when they do; Ms. Hristova, tonight’s soloist, received a standing ovation. She also brought a certain glamor to the evening, and that’s a fun part of the classical music scene too; she’s 25 and gorgeous, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University’s music school, which has produced concert stars like Joshua Bell (whom I heard at Purdue two years ago). When she stepped onstage in her bright red strapless gown, with her 1665 Amati instrument under her arm, she brought excitement with her.

Combining serious musicality with small-city friendliness and affection is, I think, the LSO’s specialty. Here’s an example. At a previous fundraising auction, a longtime patron won the right to conduct the National Anthem, which opened the concert. But he’s no conductor, so he gave the baton to a friend, who then got called out of town. So we got a second pinch-hitter, a fellow named Dick Jaeger, a retired choral director and arts teacher at the local high school (whose theater is named for him) who for years has written music and theater reviews for the newspaper. Even I know who Mr. Jaeger is – and when he came on stage, there was an outpouring of affection, from people who know how long and how well he has supported local arts and the LSO in particular.

That wasn’t any ol’ pinch-hitter up there, “It’s Larry Doby!” And even at 80 he can still swing the bat.

Being no slouch, he even had a little comedy bit with the maestro; it was fun. The orchestra then proceeded to fondly ignore him, since they can play that number in their sleep.

There’s no more beautiful version of The Star-Spangled Banner you’ll ever hear than that of a symphony orchestra. Yes, you get the military drums and the bombast from the brass, but for the pretty part in the middle, professional violinists take over and make you proud to be an American; proud that this is your song.

The Cincinnati Symphony always used to start every concert with the Anthem; in Lafayette tonight, the audience sang along, hands over their hearts like Hoosiers still do.

This band fits the city like a bespoke glove.

But the ultimate question perhaps is this: why go to a symphony orchestra concert at all? If you want the best rendition of the best music in the world, chances are you listen to a CD in your living room by some famous guy with a famous band conducted by a major-leaguer. You don’t have to dress up, you can pause the music while you run to the fridge, and the admission price is cheaper than even my front-row center seat in the upper deck at the Long Center, which was only $20.

What you hear through your headphones or speakers will, if you’re lucky, transport you to a sublime mental place – unless the dog starts wanting attention.

But that’s listening to a recording, not attending a live performance – and being there to see it and hear it live makes a big difference.

A live concert is better than a recording in that there’s so much to look at! You might not think so if you only know classical music from records or the radio, but when it’s live, you can watch this group of musicians produce their sound out of their bodies as well as their instruments. It’s a physical thing. In that sense it’s almost like baseball. The body (heart, mind, soul) is what makes the sound.

Bella Hristova, tonight’s soloist, looked the part of a concert violinist, and made music like one – but she also worked up a sweat doing it. And the 73 people behind her got a workout too.

As the composition changes and develops, you hear new sounds and look intently; flutes, oboes, clarinets? Who’s singing that? Then the brass comes up, and look at those trombones!

My favorite thing (and this is really homely, I admit) is watching the string players when they’re called upon to pluck instead of bow. For some reason I love plucking. And yes, I can tell you certain favorite recordings where I know that sound (say, the very ending of Schubert’s Unfinished) was produced by a finger plucking a string, though I could not see it happen. But it’s so much better, more exciting, more thrilling, to watch them do it live, as the cellists did tonight. Here these players have spent their entire lives learning how to master the bow on those strings, but the ending to my all-time favorite piece is just them and their fingers on a taut piece of catgut. It’s so basic, elemental and physical that it reminds us that all music – the New York Philharmonic, villagers in Soweto or the Rolling Stones – comes from inside our bodies.

So the big reason why people in Lafayette, Indiana and surrounding areas ought to support their symphony orchestra is because it offers high musicianship with the thrill of live, once-in-a-lifetime performance, much like a night on Broadway.

We go to the theater to be lifted out of ourselves and shown other planes of existence – where we can dwell for two hours or, if we make it happen, the rest of our lives.

We pay musicians like these not just because they’re technically proficient and united as an orchestra, but because, whatever their individual stories, they live both in the world and beyond the world – which is the way we’d all like to live if only we knew how.

I knew a guy named Gary once, a nurse in Cincinnati who was really good at honky-tonk piano; his idol was JoAnn Castle of the Lawrence Welk Show. But he only came alive when he was performing at the Gay piano bar in Clifton; then he had a great time and gave others lots of fun. But when it was over it was over; he went back to his humdrum existence. Nursing was his safe job, not his vocation. (He did play professionally when he was younger, but when the pickings got slim he didn’t have the finances to continue. Being an independent musician is hard.)

The difference between a bassoonist in New York and one in Chicago is infinitesimal; between the Chicagoan and a bassoonist in Indianapolis, barely detectable; between Indianapolis and Lafayette, non-existent to the untrained ear.

But the difference between any professional bassoonist and someone ordinary like you and me is that the bassoonist or typanist or oboeist made a commitment to pursue his or her vocation instead of a safer job. Maybe it works out well; maybe it’s a constant struggle. Musicians in the LSO will never be rich and famous (and neither will a mere bassoonist at the New York Phil). But the reason to support a minor league orchestra is that even the unknowns can show us to reach for the sublime and not settle for less.

If during a concert they can also make us sit back, close our eyes and just listen – then sit up and look, look, look at these folks making beautiful, intelligent noise – that $20 ticket for the upper deck in an old refurbished movie house in a minor Hoosier town is worth more than the Yankees or the Reds.

Those guys are just batting a piece of horsehide with a stick, chasing after a ball. The Lafayette Symphony Orchestra transported me to New York on 9/11, Milan in 1862, Bremen a few years later, and an English country house in late Victorian days, while welcoming me as a newcomer to their extended family.

Whether theater, dance, opera, orchestra, visual arts or baseball, go, see the professionals play. Don’t get caught up in the hype of who’s got the big reputation; those people may disappoint you and they’ll surely be overpriced. Look around you in your own area, find the arts and the artists where you live. They’re worth knowing and you might actually become friends.

Then watch out; that tuba player may secretly double on the honky-tonk piano.++

Bella indeed: Ms. Hristova and that gorgeous violin.