Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Tivon Pennicott and Quartet Play Spivey Hall

Tivon Pennicott and his quartet play jazz, but they also just play.

My friend Susan and I enjoyed them Saturday night at Spivey Hall, an elegant venue south of Atlanta.  For Tivon, who grew up north of Atlanta, it was a homecoming.  He warmed up a bit before he explained to us, "I'm waiting to play until my family sits down." He smiled at the crowd of people just then sliding into our row - his dad, mom, sister, nephew, niece, and music teacher.

Tivon is a diminutive guy with a big presence and winning smile.  He could concentrate our attention on him as he alternated between passages of soft lyrical melody and some aggressive marcato passages.  I especially enjoyed a moment at the end of a Coltrane piece, when he reshaped a squiggly little phrase  into a full-fledged version of "Stardust."   He was eager to connect to us, and connect us to his friends.

One game they played was, How many sounds can you make with your instrument?  Pianist Sullivan Fortner tickled the wires in his piano, and beat the sounding board; bassist Dominique Sanders plucked the strings below the bridge; drummer Joe Saylor scraped a cymbal with the head of the drumstick and once brought out a tambourine.  Tivon himself tapped the bowl of his tenor sax, and blew air alone, without tone, for effects in a couple of numbers.

But most of the time it was just the game of improvisation that makes live jazz fun.  It's a musical, visual image of male bonding, as the guys pass around the melody the way four guys might pass a basketball and show off with it.  Tivon and his musical partners made each other laugh at musical choices, as, just when they were all ready to come in at the end of Fortner's solo, the pianist took an extra pass at the chorus.  Tivon smiled throughout the show, often stepping to one side to enjoy interplay of Fortner and bassist Dominique Sanders.

During a break, his dad chatted with Susan about Tivon as a boy, telling how he was always at the piano; sax came in high school.  The family was proud to see him traveling the world and recording his second album.  He's working hard, just playing.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Episcopalian Church at Work

Though Sunday's service was just the regular 10:30 at St. James Episcopal church, I was acutely aware how much loving attention to detail lies behind our worship -- behind in hours and centuries. The form of our worship generates meaningful coincidences both by accident and design.

[Photo: View of the church at rest, late afternoon, St. James Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA -- ]

A meditative organ piece chosen this week by organist-choir master Peter Waggoner prepared us for something solemn; bells in the tower rang out over our silence.  Peter, with the clergy, chose the opening hymn Truro, a melody from 1789 that takes stately steps upward on the lyric phrase, "Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates (436)."  The verses, written around 1600, translated around 1860 by invaluable Catherine Winkworth, take off from a Psalm about entry of "the King of Glory" through the gates of Jerusalem, and end up at a more personal plea that the gates of our hearts might also open wide for our King to enter in.

Our readings from the Bible were prescribed by scholars here and abroad who've devised and revised the lectionary since our church broke from Rome in the 1500s. They chose the readings to fit the overarching narrative of our church calendar, and to relate in some way to each other.  The collect appointed for the day by the Book of Common Prayer, likewise composed for our prayer book to "collect" the thoughts and concerns raised by the readings, also paralleled the outward-inward arc of our opening hymn:
Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ is the light of the world:  Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ's glory, that he may be known, worshiped, and obeyed to the ends of the earth.... 

By accident, two of our oldest, most frail parishioners were designated Lay Readers on Sunday.  Their conditions added resonance to the substance of their texts. Dave read about youthful Samuel ministering to old Eli saying, "Here I am."  Anna, who needed help at the stairs, read how the body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  Their determination to step up to the lectern was an image of commitment to our worship.

Our choir director Peter Waggoner wrote the chant tone that we used for Psalm 139, appointed for today.  This one expresses God's love for us in terms unusually intimate -- "You have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up.... You press upon me behind and before.... Such knowledge is too wonderful for me."  It seems of the same character as the youthful Samuel.

Fr. Roger picked up on the "light" imagery in the collect and spoke about the Spiritual "This Little Light of Mine" -- appropriate for the Sunday of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.  He had learned the song as a little child, but had always misunderstood it, he said.  The light is not "mine," or mine alone; and, as every light needs an external source to stay lit, we need those words and sacraments; we need each other; we need what this very church service provides. 

Our anthem by Healey Willan, who wrote the organ voluntary at the start,  was his setting of words I recite many mornings, recommended for the daily morning prayer: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee...." (from Isaiah).

Of course, communion is beautiful. Around 200 parishioners walked, skipped, or limped forward to the altar; clergy and lay ministers went out to those who can no longer walk that distance.

We sang two hymns, "What Wondrous Love is This?" from the early American shape-note tradition (echoing the Psalm's phrase, "knowledge too wonderful for me"), and another early tune new to me, Hymn 702.  The verses were rhymed versifications of the day's wonderful Psalm 139:

Lord, thou hast searched me and dost know
Where e'er I rest, where e'er I go;
thou knowest all that I have planned
and all my ways are in the hand.
I saw in the room many others involved in different aspects of the Church's operation and ministry -- ushers, decorators, servers, committee members, Sunday school teachers and adult education students, lay eucharistic ministers who take the sacrament to some 15 different shut ins, choir, acolytes, bell ringers, technicians.  Down the hall were those working on hospitality, and promoting our day care's big fund raiser this month.

While I felt buoyed by the service, in the back of my mind are the money worries that have nagged me as long as I've been involved in the church's vestry, about twelve years.

When the church is working well, as it was this morning, I feel like we've got to keep it going, and, should we need to chip away at the Endowment, well, let the chips fall where they may.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

"Fighting with the Bible" by Donn Morgan: "Why Scripture Divides Us and How It Can Bring Us Together"

Fighting with the Bible by Donn Morgan,  is part of this year's curriculum for Education for Ministry (EfM), an extension program of the School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee.  Morgan is Dean of Old Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.  As a co-mentor at St. James Episcopal, I'm writing after our class's discussion. (More of their comments are at our class blog.) 

Morgan first writes about "Why Scripture Divides Us." As he demonstrates with several juxtapositions of passages, Scripture gives us ammunition to fight opposite sides of issues, religious and social.  The funniest example is a selection of Proverbs, one that condemns bribery and one that recommends it.  A telling example is Morgan's offering of vicious passages about Moabite intermarriage and about expelling Moabites back across Israel's border, subverted by the lovely story of Ruth, the Moabite woman whose progeny includes David.

But, telling us "How [Scripture] Can Bring Us Together," Morgan offers two insights that have caught me off-guard.

The core insight is what Morgan calls "the surprise of canon."  Describing how the Hebrew Scriptures came to be canonized for one book, he tells how "the existence of strong and important Jewish communities outside Israel forced the canonizers to include books such as Esther and Ruth" (79). Ironically, the canonizers who wanted "limits, scope, and control [instead] got diversity, difference, and variety, all within a single authoritative book." 

Now we have a Torah that mixes the final perspectives of several sources, as witnessed to by ... two very different stories of Creation (Genesis 1 and 2). Now we have two different "official" stories of the history of Israel (Samuel-Kings; Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah).  We have ended up with a canon that lifts up both the universal [i.e., God's promise to all nations] and the particular [i.e., to Israel], that bashes foreign nations on the one hand and makes them vehicles of God's love and justice on the other.
This dialogue, set up between outlooks in the Hebrew Scriptures, multiplies in the dialogue between those and the Christian canon.  

Another insight is in the way that Morgan foregrounds the exile of the Jews. Until this year, I've been more focused on the dramatic foundational stories of the Torah, from Abraham to David, a narrative of God's favor to a particular people.  I missed the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, in which the foreign king is God's agent.  I missed the exiles' evolving lines of defense against despair: to expect a hero in the line of David to restore the Kingdom; or, to accept exile as part of God's plan to make them "a light to the nations."  Morgan, and our EfM group's "theological reflection" on passages from II Kings 22 (here) and Nehemia (here) have made me more aware of how much of our tradition and prophetic passages (about "remnants" being saved, for example) come from that post-exilic period. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Churchill, the End of 2017, and Darkest Hour

For the end of 2017, a film and its book companion Finest Hour about Winston Spencer Churchill make a fitting prism for personal reflection.

The actor Gary Oldman, director Joe Wright, and writer Anthony McCarten have beautifully portrayed a character who's practically a member of my family.   Memoirs by and about him lay around our home;  Mom and Dad admired him and referred to him often; I went to Winston Churchill Elementary School in Homewood, Illinois, 1966-1969; I lived off of Churchill Rd. in Jackson, MS; the first dog I adopted in my adult life was named Churchill; and my first several years in education were spent finding a way to make Sir Winston's History of the English-Speaking Peoples accessible to 13-year-olds in Mississippi.  For my students, I wrote a biography of WSC, alongside biographies of Hitler and FDR.  A fifty-pound clay bust of the man, gift from a colleague in Mississippi, still presides over my classroom.  I know the subject well.

Winston Churchill in many ways bears comparison to our current U.S. President.  I've often observed that WSC was a perpetual adolescent, mischievous, fond of secret strategems, liable to disappear underwater in his bath while he dictated to his secretary.   In the movie, he's viewed as erratic, "delusional."  In the book, he's also labeled "narcissistic." Unlike the current President, however, he was also voraciously curious and deeply aware of history.

McCarten follows daily events May 1940, but structures the story on three speeches that Sir Winston gave that month.  We get to see what goes into each speech through intense encounters with politicians and military advisers. In the first one, his "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" speech, Churchill proclaims, "Our policy is victory at all costs," but he seems to be spitting into the wind.  In the second, a radio address, his upbeat assessment of the situation in France is pronounced "delusional" and he admits to shielding the public from the dark truth of the situation.  Things get considerably darker before he gathers his wits and strength for the third speech.

During each of the speeches, we get close-ups of the seething, silent Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) and the man Churchill replaced, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), the one who proclaimed that his agreement with Hitler had ensured "peace in our time."  Writer McCarten stacks the deck in favor of Lord Halifax, who appeals to common sense regarding Hitler's superior forces, and also tearfully appeals to sympathy for the men who will be sacrificed by Churchill's blithe command to "stop Hitler."  Halifax says exactly what we in the audience see:  Hitler is invincible, the good guys are powerless, and it's time to save the children and everyone else by making peace with him.

[Photo collage:  Actor Gary Oldman, left, and his remarkable transformation into Churchill, lower right.  Upper right: Kristin Scott Thomas and Oldman tete a tete as "Clemmy" and "Pig" ]

For a private view of Churchill, the creators of the film give us his interactions with two women, his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James).  Through his private dialogues with them, we see the personal agony and uncertainty as WSC chooses between the certain loss of 4000 men in Calais, the expected loss of 300,000 men in Dunkirk, and the option of coming to terms with Hitler. In scenes between Churchill and Clementine, he calls her "Clemmy" and she calls him "Pig."  The two are flirtatious, witty, adolescent, and combative. She sums up his whole life when she recasts his doubts and the many failures in his decades of public life as the very qualities that make him the right leader for the moment.

Typing the man's words, the secretary Layton helps us to appreciate what goes into each of those speeches.  Sometimes he rumbles with an avalanche of clauses, and sometimes he rambles, paralyzed by uncertainty.  Her own agony over a brother in battle touches Churchill.  We also get to see what I'd read about in her real-life account of those times, how he'd give dictation to her from the bathtub and wander around au naturel.

King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) sides with Halifax and Chamberlain early in the film.  But, looking out from Buckingham Palace at London blacked-out, the King comes to appreciate Churchill's defiance of Hitler.  In a scene meant to contrast his first meeting with Churchill, when Churchill approaches stiffly through a vast Palace hallway for a stiff formal kiss of the King's hand,  the King calls on Churchill at home, sitting beside the rumpled Prime Minister in a dark garret where Churchill seems to have retreated, and says, simply, "You have my support."

At the titular "darkest hour," Churchill gathers strength from "the people" and calls the secretary to help him dash together the third speech, one that really did turn the tide.  The United Kingdom was unprepared to fight Hitler, but, in a phrase that writer Anthony McCarten borrows from an obituary for WSC in 1965, Churchill "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle."  McCarten writes in his book, "With words, Churchill changed the political mood and shored up the nervous will of a shaking people" (intro, xi).  The unexpected defiance of Prime Minister, Parliament, and the public gave Hitler pause, just long enough for WSC and FDR to cobble together a military defense.

It's a lovely movie that made me cry and laugh in equal measure - as did the year 2017.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Privilege is Mine

Me at 5, a little prince
A man in that white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last fall told NPR's reporter that Christian white males are "the most endangered species in America today."  I agree that men of European descent are now under scrutiny for our privileges, and that people of other backgrounds are standing up to insist that their lives, too, matter.

But those developments, long overdue, hardly matter when I walk into any public place.  I'm a medium-small white guy with glasses, age 58.  Whether I wear khakis and a tie, or jeans and a tee, I'm protected, connected, respected: in a word, privileged.

For example, when I entered different car-repair establishments one week last fall, better-dressed black men behind the counters straightened and smiled. In each place, those same men were wary of a casually-dressed black man who passed through the same doors moments after me. 

With my privilege comes confidence. I gulped when they told me the cost of repairs, one-third of my savings, but I recovered quickly. My assets include mutual funds, a retirement fund, and my house. Should all that go away, I still can expect a share of Dad's estate.

Now, I have worked hard for what I've got, but I'm aware that others also worked hard for what I've got.  Mom and Dad both had full time jobs to pay my tuition to a prestigious school, where well-connected teachers got me a scholarship to Duke with their recommendations.  The school network kept giving: for each teaching position I've held, a phone call from a well-connected friend moved my file to the top of a pile of applications.  I humbly acknowledge that I deserved those good recommendations, but I'm aware that others who sent their applications must have worked just as hard.

[Photo: Graduation, with Mom and Dad, May 1981, at the door of my first apartment. I'd already signed the contract for my first teaching position.]

The network I was born into helped me to build my net worth.  A lawyer friend of my parents helped me, while I recovered from an accident, to get a settlement that I invested in mutual funds.  My retirement fund comes from my generous employers.  My current home is worth more than my previous two homes, combined; but I got it with help from some crazy loans before the sub-prime lending bubble burst; house number two was bought cheap, one of Mom's investment properties; and I couldn't have qualified for my starter home without Dad's guarantee, sale of my uncle's stocks, and going in 50-50 with my brother.

The network isn't just wide; it's deep, reaching back decades.  Mom and Dad got their starter house in 1963 with loans from my uncle; the same uncle helped Dad buy the little business that Dad worked so hard to build up.  One hot summer night, when Dad and I were carrying hundreds of pounds of iron castings in buckets of hot acid across a slippery concrete floor, Dad quipped around midnight, "I got my PhD so I wouldn't have to work this hard."  My uncle, in turn, built his business from a small restaurant started by his father-in-law during the 1920s.

That young man in Charlottesville would probably say how this just proves that it's not privilege, but a strong work ethic, that earned me such advantages: True!  But I'm also aware that, during the same decades that my relatives built up all that value, discrimination against people of color was official federal government policy and unofficial social practice. Up to the Fair Housing Act of the mid-1960s, Black families faced higher hurdles to get loans, and were officially "red-lined" to be segregated near garbage dumps and factory fumes;  existing neighborhoods were intentionally bisected by the new interstate highways.  Their starter houses were dead ends. Add more than a century of official and unofficial racial discrimination for hiring, schools, and incarceration: I've started way ahead of others whose families worked just as hard.

I'm also aware of the black men who got a different treatment at those service desks where I was treated like a prince.  I used to be puzzled that an imposing black man, father of a boy in my class, always wore a suit, even to a middle school basketball game, even on a Saturday night.  I learned why, when another black man on NPR explained that he'd wear dress shoes and a suit to town on Saturday, because even other black people presume he's dressed for purse-snatching if he's wearing running shoes.

We don't have to be "racist" to place a burden on our friends of color.  An earnestly well-intentioned student, discussing black poet Langston Hughes' "Theme for English B,"  said that Hughes wanted us to understand that a black man was "just like a normal person."  

My privilege is something I wear that opens doors to me, a protective aura, a network that guarantees my net worth.  As others are finding ways to build the same networks, demanding to be presumed innocent, credible, friendly and intelligent until proven otherwise, I don't feel endangered.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Tony Bennett's Just Getting Started: Joyful, Thankful

Tributes to Tony Bennett's mentors have been piling up in my music library since the 1990s - the singer's recordings of music associated with Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, and his collaborations with Bill Evans and Lady Gaga.

Bennett's Thanks for Others
No surprise, tributes to those musicians are among those collected in Just Getting Started. Written with NPR host Scott Simon, the book is Bennett's memoir, 91 years ingeniously meted out among 42 appreciative profiles of musicians, actors, writers, and family, with a lesson he learned from each person (or place -- his grandparents' home in "rural" Queens, for instance).

But Bennett springs some surprises in his memoir. (Tony Bennett with Scott Simon.  Just Getting Started.  Harper Collins. Kindle edition, November 2016.)

His long appreciation of Frank Sinatra alludes to "another side of his character" that Bennett knew only through gossip in the press.  To Bennett, Sinatra was kind and courteous, bestowing invitations and one heckuva compliment that catapulted Bennett from being just one of many crooners to being Sinatra's heir apparent: "For my money, Tony Bennett is the best singer in the business.  He excites me when I watch him.  He moves me.  He's the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more" (quoted from Life magazine, April 23, 1965).

Sinatra makes a surprising appearance in a chapter about Judy Garland.  A little woman under five feet tall, a child star who'd never had a childhood, Garland's appeal was due to her genuine vulnerability, Bennett says, even more than it was due to her vocal power and interpretive skills.  "When she came out onstage -- small as a wounded bird but with that huge, gorgeous voice that reached the back of the house -- everyone wanted to take care of her."  Bennett tells about taking an urgent call from Garland just before he went onstage in London.  She was in London, too, and pleading for Bennett's help, because a man she had invited to her hotel room was beating her up.  Bennett tells us, "Some people would have called the cops.  I went one better: I called Frank Sinatra."  After his set, Bennett checked in with Garland, who laughed, "I wanted help, but this is ridiculous! ...There are nine hundred cops downstairs and five lawyers in my room."

Bennett includes a chapter on Abraham Lincoln, because, "Hasn't every American been influenced by Abraham Lincoln?"  Bennett, whose paintings of landscapes and still life arrangements conclude every chapter of the book, sees "the very face of America" in photos of Lincoln.  Bennett applies his singer's sensibility to the Gettysburg Address, analyzing it as he would a song.  "[Lincoln] begins with a phrase that draws you in and puts what follows into a rolling tide of a story. He sets up a rhythm and cadence... on his way to a shattering end."

Two chapters concern substance abuse that killed two of his collaborators.  "I loved Bill," Bennett tells us about the pianist Bill Evans, with whom he recorded the two albums he's most proud of in the mid-1970s. "A lot of people in show business (including me, I have to confess) used cocaine during that time, and we all kind of pretended with each other that it wasn't a problem... that drugs were just what creative people used to open their imagination...."  Evans's death by hepatitis, due ultimately to the needles he used for his addictions, was "an alarm bell" that scared Bennett straight.  He writes ecstatically of getting to know the young singer Amy Winehouse when they recorded "Body and Soul" for his Duets album, and tells how he wept when she died of alcohol poisoning.  He gives us good reasons why a word from him would have probably made no difference to her addiction, but concludes, "I said nothing on the day that I might have had a chance."

Silent film pioneer Charlie Chaplin gets a long biographical chapter in this singer's book, but not because Chaplin sent Bennett a rare gift as thanks for his recording of Chaplin's song "Smile."  It's because Bennett, strolling past Chaplin's home on Lake Geneva, hesitated "the better part of an hour" to knock on the door. "I guess I wondered how he would receive an uninvited visitor from the United States.  I guess I worried that he wouldn't recognize my name at first... I guess I just didn't want to disturb a great artist...."  So they never met. Bennett's missed opportunity to express his gratitude is a singular moment of regret.

My Thanks for Bennett

I'll take that cue from Bennett to express my thanks to him for his two albums with Bill Evans.  "You couldn't give them away at the time," he writes, and it's true.  In 1979, I was in New York to see Sweeney Todd.  I found the LPs at Colony Records on Broadway, a store famous for having music that one could find nowhere else.

I fancied myself a singing actor, an apprentice saloon singer, an aspiring pianist-composer.  I'd read with interest an article about Bennett that started, "The most underrated singer in America today is Tony Bennett.  Tony Bennett?! "  With that intro, the reporter acknowledged that Bennett was a dinosaur, repudiated by Boomers.  Compared to rock, folk, and soul, the polished American standards in Bennett's songbook were considered inauthentic.  But Bennett told this reporter the same thing that his mother tells him in the first chapter of his memoir, that he would stick to quality.  So Bennett had lost his contract at Columbia, and was gambling on his own recording company, called Improv.

In the article, Bennett claimed to have a new song written for him by Stevie Wonder.  He told the author something that doesn't show up in the memoir, how he would sing along with recordings of jazz pianists, "to learn their phrasing." I was intrigued.

Then I was disappointed.  Bennett's second album with Evans, Together Again, was the first one I heard.  His voice seemed gravelly, he strained for high notes, his New York accent distorted some syllables.  I was mystified by Evans' piano playing - understated, not flashy.  I wanted bass and drums, some "production values."  My friend Matt Hutchinson winced. "You can tell he has a good voice," Matt said, "but he's not using it, you know what I mean?"  I did.

But I'd had a similar experience listening to Cleo Laine, so I gave Bennett another listen.

What we hear on the album is exactly what my generation said we wanted, authenticity.  Bennett remembers,

It was one of the most intense musical experiences of my life.  I'd suggest a tune, and Bill would say, "Good, let's try that."  We'd find a key, than work it out note by note.  No take -- no measure -- was the same as the next.  Bill was always changing, jamming, winging it, and inviting me to come along.

You'd think you'd know a song...but Bill would turn it over, note by note, phrase by phrase.  It was like setting off on great expedition and never knowing what was around the next turn - but you couldn't wait to find out.

That joy in discovery, almost childlike excitement, comes across in Bennett's first song in the set, "Lucky to Be Me," music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.  To this day, that's the song that comes to mind when I'm happiest, and I hear Bennett and Evans when I sing it. The next song, lyrics by the same Comden and Green, with music by Jule Styne, is "Make Someone Happy," made a little sad, tinged by regret, in this performance.

Sometimes Bennett belted, sometimes he whispered.  I learned to hear expressiveness in the gravelly voice, energy in the reach for the high note, and color in the bend of a syllable. 

Just Thanks
Only once, in his appreciation of Duke Ellington, does Bennett speak of faith. Ellington told him that the Bible was the only book he ever read cover-to-cover, and the only one anyone needs to read.  Ellington drew the conclusion, "God is love."

It's synchronicity that, midway through reading Tony Bennett's tribute to his mentors Just Getting Started, I happened to hear a discussion of songs in the Bible, collected as the Psalms. The episode was called "Anatomy of Gratitude" for Krista Tippet's program On Being, and a monk Bennett's age, 93, discussed with her how the Psalms cover the full range of human emotions, yet often "choose" to be grateful.  "You can't be grateful for everything that happens," said her guest David Steindl-rast, "but you can be grateful for every moment."

There's pain in this book.  Bennett tells of unrelenting cold and horror, of arbitrary death in war -- and the unexpected gift of Bob Hope's USO performance.  He writes earnestly of Civil Rights struggles, and he records some indignities suffered by people he revered -- as when a white man mistook Count Basie for a valet after their Carnegie Hall triumph, and when Duke Ellington could not join Bennett in the club where both of them had just performed.  He tells us how, like every son, he saw his dad as strongest  man in the world, but how illness killed his dad when Tony was ten.

But Bennett chooses to be grateful: for others' generosity, for their wisdom, for Bennett's own opportunities, for his successes, for the principles to which he held during the lean years.

Thank you, Tony Bennett.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Square in Marietta: Far Enough

My takeaway from weeks in England, France, Italy, and Quebec is that other people live differently. We Americans take fast lanes to fast food on the way to consume the next entertainment.  The Old World way is to slow down, enjoy time with your family, get to know a place and its people.  That's what the Square in Marietta, Georgia, is for.

Twenty years ago today, my brother took this photo of his wife and children with me on "the Square," Marietta, Georgia.  I was on break from the school in Mississippi where I'd taught happily for 17 years.  At age 38, I had just determined to rejoin my family in the Atlanta area, to enjoy Mom and Dad's last healthy decade or two, and to be there when they'd need me;  to see my sister and brother-in-law; and to be the indulgent uncle nearby for the sibling niece and nephew (my "niblings").  At the moment of this picture, charmed by the breakfast cafe, the fountain, the park, the antebellum buildings, I had also decided to live somewhere near the Square. 

Plans change.  Only my sister and her husband are as they were then.  In just a year, my brother had moved his family a couple of hours south, then a couple of hours even farther south; Mom and Dad moved around 2005 to be near the grand kids.  Dad died in 2010; Mom came back up in 2012 to be around old friends, just as her memory of them slipped away.

In some ways, I'm not yet fitting into Marietta. Twenty years after I moved to the area, I still get lost.  Streets change their names (Roswell Street becomes South Park before it becomes Whitlock Avenue, all in sight of the Square, and then it morphs into Dallas Highway). No major streets go in straight lines, all routed around untouchable properties -- Lockheed plane factory, Dobbins Air Force Base, and a Civil War Battlefield Park with its nature trails through woods and meadows.  We call Highway 120 our "loop" in an aspirational way, as it isn't close to being circular, and it intersects itself.   I'm not sure where the sprawling town ends and surrounding towns of Kennesaw, Smyrna, Sandy Springs, Powder Springs, Dallas, and Hiram begin.  I'm pretty sure that "Marietta" encompasses one or two dozen "centers" of each type: medical, big box shopping, retirement, and sports -- including the new nationally known Suntrust Stadium.   We have a couple of performing arts centers, including a gorgeous home for the Atlanta Opera.

But the Square is one center with no duplicate, and all roads leading there now have newly-widened sidewalks lined with attractive brick, retro streetlamps with super-bright LED bulbs and safe crosswalks.  The closer one gets to the Square, the more houses one sees that are designated "historic," or else they're newly built in the style of the old ones.

[Above is a collage of personal images from the past year (clockwise from upper left):  Mom and Sassy at one of numerous cafes on Marietta's newly widened sidewalk; my buddy Jason's photo of me at the excavation where the scion of an old Marietta family wants an office building to tower over the square, and the city won't let him build it; my friend Susan's photo of me during one of our summer evenings at Shillings, a pub that used to be the hardware store; and Mom and Sassy again.]

Retro isn't an affectation; Marietta does have a history. From the Confederate Cemetery to the Gone With The Wind museum, from the railroads to the B-29 bomber that beat the Axis, from the infamous lynching of Leo Frank to the filming of Oprah's recent movie about Martin Luther King, Jr.   There's a restoration of the home of William Root, who helped build my church St. James Episcopal in 1847. (See photo above: North Park Avenue from the west end, and a shot of the same avenue from the east end, Strand Theatre the identifiable landmark in each view). 

My friends Susan and Suzanne, with whom I've spent dozens of great hours on the Square, both love to travel.  I'm surprised to find that the urge to fly away, once so strong in me, has totally disappeared. Suppose I go to some distant land: what's there to do, but take walks during the day, and, at evening, seek a clean, well-lighted place to have a cocktail, hear music, and read?

I can do all that right here.  The town sponsors concerts, "art walks," a winter skate park, annual art fairs, and weekly farmers' market.  (Below, clockwise from upper left: the Square, the fountain, national artists gathered at the annual "Chalktoberfest"; an aerial view looking west, with Kennesaw Mountain in the distance).  

Ten minutes away from the Square in my suburban subdivision, located on the edge of a Civil War battlefield, I still don't know my neighbors.  I'm the only person I ever see on our streets, as I walk my lovely Mia.

But the Square is always crowded with people of all ages; hair colors natural, tinted, or bald; bodies fat or fit; walking children or walking dogs; black, white, Hispanic, Asian. or Middle Eastern of descent.  For food, there's French, Italian, Mexican-Japanese fusion, Thai, "pub," gourmet Southern, Australian, Arabian, and pizza.  There are churches, Lord knows.  And every hour, late into the night, there's one of the trains that put this town on the map. Alongside the tracks, a new walkway-bike way passes from Kennesaw Mountain to the bike trail that I ride every day in summer, and (eventually) Atlanta, and eventually, to the east coast.  

Far enough. 

Greta Gerwig on "Lady Bird," Church, and Sondheim

My friend Suzanne's choice of Lady Bird for this year's Christmas movie date turned out to be perfect for us.  For her, writer-director Greta Gerwig dissects the special relationship between mother and daughter, in dialogue always teetering between hilarious and harrowing.  For me, there's the intersection of the movie with two of my lifelong interests, Church and Stephen Sondheim's Broadway musicals.  The director discussed all three threads of the movie in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air in November.    

Like any Sondheim musical, the opening scene sets up motifs and patterns for the whole movie:
High school senior Christine (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are sharing a moment in a road trip, crying at the end of a book on tape.  In mere seconds, silence erupts into conflict over Christine's desire to go to college as far as possible from their home town Sacramento, over her dim prospects of getting into any college anywhere when she "can't even  pass her driving test," and a line that Gerwig conceived before she even knew what the rest of the movie would be about: "Why don't you call me 'Lady Bird?'  You promised that you would."  The girl throws open the door and escapes the moving car.  

The rest of the movie unpacks that scene.  "Lady Bird" tries to escape through relationships with a sunny drama geek named Danny (Lucas Hedges), a darkly pretentious loner named Kyle (Timothee Chalomet), and a popular rich girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), sacrificing her friendship with Julie (Beanie Feldstein).  She enlists help of her gentle father (Tracy Letts) to get a scholarship to an eastern school.  She cheats to boost her academic average.  When the girl finally asserts her real self, she gets out of another car -- while the pop song "Crash" plays on the radio.

At every turn, the daughter bumps up against her mom's money worries and disappointed expectations.   "I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be," the mother tells her daughter, who retorts, "But what if this is the best version?"  The mother has no answer.  Gerwig told Terry Gross that this is the kind of moment she loves, when language fails to express what characters are feeling.  Gerwig says that the mother is afraid for her daughter.  We can see her point, and her daughter's, too; "neither one is the villain," Gerwig says.  

While I appreciated all that, I was thrilled that the relationship with Danny develops in the context of rehearsals for Merrily We Roll Along.  Gerwig tells Terry Gross that she chose that show for its resonance with her characters, mother and daughter. "The show has a central ache -- about how where you end up and how where you're from are so connected and so different."  An article in Spin online dwells on this point, how both Christine's parents are dealing with the disappointments in their own lives.  "In the end, Gerwig juxtaposes images of both women driving through Sacramento, making their lives feel, for a moment, like different stages in the same story."   (Winston Cook-Wilson in  (About the musical and its themes, see my blogpost.)

I was also delighted that the biggest breakthroughs in the movie come through interaction with the Church.  Christine attends a Catholic high school, so there's the expected snickering at the girls' uniform code, the nun who swoons over a paragraph of romance in Kierkegaard, and the chaperone's requiring "six inches for the Holy Spirit" between dancing couples.  But the passage of time is marked by communion and the reminder of Ash Wednesday, "You are dust and to dust you shall return." 

An elderly nun (Lois Smith) gives "Lady Bird" wise advice with a mischievous twist, pointing her in a new direction each time.  Considering the girl's college application essay, the nun observes that the girl's vivid description of Sacramento bespeaks deep love for her home, but Christine vehemently denies that, saying she was just paying close attention to detail.  The nun counters, "Love and paying attention:  Aren't they the same thing?" The question begins Christine's re-examination of all her beliefs and relationships.  At a low point, Christine stumbles into a church and stands in luminous sunlight, dumbfounded by the beauty of the choir's song.

Gerwig is no Catholic, she told Terry Gross, but she found the nuns and priests in her own Catholic school days to be "interesting," the stories and liturgy "enriching," and singing in the choir a joy.  Her understanding of the saints is important to the whole movie.  Their stories frequently are those of arrogant, difficult teenagers whose ambitions "can be translated to something holy." Ignatius, for example, turned his childish desire to be "the best" saint into a spiritual practice that works.  Gerwig named the girl "Christine" partly in homage to her own mother Christine, but also because it's the feminine form of "Christ."  

The chosen name "Lady Bird" suggests both Christine's arty pretentions and  flying away; but the film's poster, posed to suggest a stained-glass icon, with crucifix in the background, is reminiscent of portraits of "Our Lady" Mary.  A detail in the back view of the poster  (see photo, below) uses the "bird" to suggest that it's another Christian symbol, for something we see moving through all the ups and downs of Christine's story, the Spirit.