Newsletter: Escapes: America’s choir? Yawn. But consign it to the ‘dull’ pile, and you’re missing out

In his New York Times piece about Andrew Gant’s book “O Sing Unto the Lord,” composer Nico Muhly likened choral music to “deeply seasonal and regional food.”

It is, he writes, a “kind of cake baked only on Advent Sunday … or a damson that ripens only after the seventh Sunday after Easter.”

“I find myself looking forward to a work’s annual visits,” he said, “as I could the arrival of a long-distant friend.”


Staff writer Christopher Reynolds wasn’t thinking of choral music as a friend, or if he was, it was a friend that was, in his words, “bland and monochromatic and predictable.”

When he heard the suggestion that we needed some choral music — perhaps the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square — as part of his Sites and Sounds series, which reports on different kinds of music and their performance spaces — he told me that the sound of foot dragging was coming from his direction.

But he went to Salt Lake City, anyway, to see and hear, and he came back with a different perspective.

“I started thinking differently about context,” he said. “If you look at the Sites and Sounds project as one entity, then juxtaposing those robed singers and their 1867 building with Carnegie Hall, a Chicago blues bar, a San Francisco rock palace, a Colorado amphitheater and a Tulsa [Okla.] haven of Texas swing, you end up with a pretty rich stew.”

But not the stew he thought he was starting with.

“I realized the choir is like the Grand Canyon or the Golden Gate Bridge, in that we think we know all about them,” he said. “Then we learn a little more and realize we know almost nothing.”

That’s what gives rise to the best travel writing — and the best travel. We begin with assumptions, and we come home with experiences.

The five essays in our “Laughing All the Way” package are pretty much the result of what we think we know. These perspectives on things that go wrong when we seek perfection remind us that we will laugh one day. The scribes, including an actor-director as well as those who toil for TV, remind us that gentle good humor may be the best salve for plans that have a mind of their own.

We also offer a tale of some ingenious thieves who helped themselves to half a million dollars from inside an airplane’s cargo hold, and an update on water-starved European rivers that are creating havoc for cruisers.

We’ll tell you about how to play basketball on a bus. And Christopher Reynolds also talks about costs — some of the bargains he found on the road and some of the things that weren’t. We give you a real New York City bargain, a way to get to the front of the boarding line and more.

Read on.

Some history and some harmony

You can hear a pin drop in the Salt Lake Tabernacle at Temple Square — in fact, at least once an hour to tout the acoustics where the famed choir sings. You may disagree about whether what’s referred to as America’s choir is the best in the land, but this is indisputable: The 360 members are dedicated — they practice and perform without compensation — and they rely, Christopher Reynolds writes, on a kind of service-above-self teamwork that resonates with what becomes a rousing musical experience.

This is our quest, misguided though it be

We expect perfection for special occasions. Holidays and honeymoon come to mind. But when travel and families are involved, you can expect to fall slightly short — OK, sometimes wildly short — of an unblemished adventure.

Five writers take a wry look at pursuits that went awry. These essays from Andrew McCarthy, Gayle Abrams, Peter Mehlman, Sandra Tsing Loh and Rachel Rowland may give you a new appreciation for days that are not always all holly and jolly but are always good reminders of what happens when you make plans.

Where's Santa? Trying to catch a 7:20 flight.
(Kagan McLeod / For The Times)

This was quite a steal

You probably didn’t read this in the papers. In fact, few people really know about it, but Elliott Hester, a 30-year-plus flight attendant for a major carrier, was there and saw it unfold. This is his tale of how thieves managed to steal half a million dollars from an aircraft as it was beginning its taxi down the runway.

Airport heists are rare, but they can happen.
(Fred Dufour / AFP/Getty Images)

We shoot, we score!

Never mind that FlixBus will take you where you want to go at a pretty darned reasonable price. Now it also lets you play basketball (and other games) on the way, thanks to the magic of VR. If hoops isn’t your thing, you have a choice of 50 games and travel and movie experiences. If you’re sitting in the top front of the bus, you can slip on the VR headset and be transported while you’re being transported.

How dry it is

During the summer, European river cruises ran into a problem: drought. It was so dry that passengers sometimes had to get off, get on a bus and return to the vessel. Late summer rains promised relief, but they didn’t necessarily materialize, Rosemary McClure reports, much to the dismay of some cruisers.

The Rhine is one of three rivers that are suffering from the European drought.
(Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

You call this a bargain?

In some cases, yes. Culling his experiences from a year on the road, Christopher Reynolds talks about the gems he found, sometimes by accident, and the goofs he made, which included a $17 milkshake that looked pretty but didn’t taste that way.

The focus on the wallet began at California Adventure for bargain hunter Christopher Reynolds.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Green line to LAX will take more time

We’re always preaching the gospel of “extra time going to the airport.” If you’re taking public transit to LAX in January, you need to heed that advice, Mary Forgione writes. Here’s what to do when the Metro Green Line shuts down Jan. 4 to 20.

You’ll need to allow more time to get to LAX, thanks to a Green Line closure.
(Mary Forgione / Los Angeles Times)

Go to the head of the class, you fashion icon

Alaska Airlines will let you go to the head of the boarding line if you wear a holiday sweater on Dec. 21. Given the tussle for a better place in line, this is quite a gift. Here’s how to secure one, Mary Forgione writes

Holiday wear earns you a perk Dec. 21 on Alaska Airlines.
(Eric Cabanis / AFP/Getty Images)

Get rid of these — by eating them

If you see kiawe, waiawi or strawberry guava on the menu and you eat them, you’re helping keep Hawaii a little more horticulturally pristine. Those fruit come from invasive plants and prove hazardous to koa and sandalwood. Read about how making your enemy your friend strikes back at these pesky plants.

Winter in NYC means a trifecta of bargains

This is what would happen if Broadway Week, Restaurant Week and Must-See Week had a baby: It would be NYC Winter Outing, in which you get two-for-one tickets to Broadway shows and attractions and pay $26 for lunch and $42 for dinner, Mary Forgione writes. Find out how and when.

What we’re reading

Dogs providing therapy for anxious passengers at the airport? That’s so last year. Now there’s a therapy gator, Harriet Baskas writes in USA Today. Gators are among the airport innovations designed to keep passengers focused on the trips, not on the obstacles to taking one. LAX also gets a shoutout for bathroom innovations in Terminal 4.

Afar had me at “dreamy Finnish igloo,” one of the romantic spots in Dana Brindle’s “9 of the World’s Most Romantic Winter Wonderlands.” Imagine lying in your igloo in Finnish Lapland and watching the northern lights or sipping warm drinks at one of Colorado’s ski resorts. And more.

Atten-hut! Here comes Brigadier Nils Olav III. You might want to see him next time you’re in Scotland at the Edinburgh Zoo. He is the third in the line of penguins that is part of the Norwegian King’s Guard. All in good fun, which is good because Nils the penguin now outranks Nils Egelien, who started this tradition, Atlas Obscura reports.

Nils Olav the penguin inspects the troops.
(Mark Owens / AFP/Getty Images)

To reach us

If you have a comment, question, concern, complaint or an opinion on whether a penguin should outrank any other military officer, please send that to

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End paper

As I was cleaning out some ratty old Christmas decorations the other day, I was surprised to find a heart-shaped holiday doormat. It belonged to my mother, to whom I gave it when I moved here from the Midwest more than 25 years ago.

I gave it a scrubbing — a mat bath, as it were — and although it’s not exactly pristine, it is clean enough to read the writing: “All hearts come home at Christmas.”

Despite the hassle, I sometimes miss the holiday travel that took me to a place I called home. I miss the snap in the air, the same kind of electricity that occurs before a snowstorm. Sometimes the two events coincide, resulting in missed airline connections, frantic phone calls, nights spent in airports and, then, the reunion made that much sweeter.

Even though I am here, my heart has gone home for Christmas — to those who are family and those who became like family, reveling in their embrace, whether it’s for a day or a fortnight. In my mind’s ear, I hear the songs that have filled the many places I have called home, the Hallelujah chorus and “Ave Maria,” “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Ang Pasko Ay Sumapit,” “Adeste Fideles” and “Noche de Paz.”

Wherever you go for the holidays, keep a song in your heart, travel safely and well, and remember we will be here to welcome you home.