Sunday, August 20, 2017

Disarming Confederate Memorials without Disowning the Past

The ongoing debate about removing Confederate memorials has its personal parallel in a mother who kept on display the family photos with her ex, even after their divorce.  In the marriage's last month, her son overheard his father say, "Nothing good ever came from our marriage!"  The boy asked, "Dad, what about me?"  After a pause, the man growled at his wife, "Nothing!"  The boy was devastated.

She told me, "If I disowned our past together, I'd be disowning a part of my son." 

To accept the whole past, unpleasant and undeniable, is both honest and healthy. Our language connects health, and integrity.  Integrity  derives from Latin, integra, "whole"; and health, from Old English "wholeness." As psychologists from Jung onward would say, to deny our shadow side is, by definition, to disintegrate, both futile and unhealthy, for communities as well as for individuals. 

As another friend pointed out to me this past week, it's no accident that statues of Confederate heroes stand near courthouses, institutions of higher learning, and legislative bodies, all saying to people of color, "Stay away:  We here honor a past when you were little more than an animal, and we put up this memorial to the 1860s in defiance of federal interference in the 1950s."

Let these memorials be where they no longer serve their purposes to intimidate, but where they can teach.  Set in a park where they tell a story, set in a museum where there's a guide, they serve a higher, necessary purpose.   Own the past, and disarm it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Give Me That Organized Religion

Fr. Roger Allen told us Sunday about a tour he made some years ago, following in the footsteps of Paul.  Two guides schooled in history and theology arranged the trip, looked ahead to accommodations, pointed out features, answered questions, told stories. He could have arranged the trip himself, and could have had a good experience, but he was grateful for the guides, their expertise, their planning, and the company of the others on the tour.

Fr. Allen spoke at the celebration of our patron saint James, who is often depicted on pilgrimage.  Our own youth group just returned this month from their own pilgrimage across Spain on "The Way of St. James" (Camino de Santiago). 

"Pilgrimage" also applies to the individual's walk through life.  So many say, "I'm spiritual" or even, "I'm a believer," and then add, "but I don't go in for organized religion."  By his personal anecdote, Fr. Roger gives us reason to value the support, institutional memory, expertise, liturgy, and procedures afforded us by the Church, with a capital "C," and companionship within our own church.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Frank Loesser's Musical Martinis

Frank Loesser would mix his martini at sunrise, having worked on songs through the night while friends and family slept.

As a fan of both Loesser and the martini, I was gratified to hear that tidbit from an interview with his widow Jo Sullivan, because it fits.  Loesser explains why, in the only song of his I know to mention the cocktail:  
To see the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet with the slam, bang, tang
Reminiscent of gin and vermouth --
Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you!
      - Frank Loesser, music and lyrics, from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying

[Photograph: Young Loesser's face on a recording of his own renditions of songs, including "Heart and Soul" with music by Hoagy Carmichael; Loesser's image on a stamp in a series honoring the classic American songbook writers; and Loesser during the War with a young Frank Sinatra.]

Loesser's work, like his favorite cocktail, is always fresh.  Many Loesser songs have that "slam, bang, tang" every time we hear them.  Here's an example of a lyric I know by heart that still takes me by surprise.  It's "Adelaide's Lament" from the musical Guys and Dolls:
You can spray her all day with the Vitamin A and the Bromo fizz,
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the (sniff) trouble is.
If the girl has been getting a name for herself, and the name ain't his --
A person can develop a cough.  
Loesser wrote lyrics, or lyrics and music, for hundreds of popular stand-alone songs, and songs for forgettable movies.  Four unforgettable Broadway musicals are graced by his music and lyrics, Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.  

Stephen Sondheim writes early and often about Loesser in his memoir - cum - lyricist's manual Finishing the Hat.  Loesser had been first choice to write music and lyrics for a show called Saturday Night, but young Sondheim got the job. He admits to imitating Loesser unconsciously in his first professional score (Sondheim p. 6).   Loesser, he writes, was a master of writing "conversational lyrics" that he "tailored" to characters, "able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time, a skill only [Dorothy] Fields and occasionally [Irving] Berlin possessed before him."  Sondheim calls Loesser "The Idea Man," because his notions for songs were, and still are, funny, growing naturally from character and situation. Later in his book, Sondheim brings Loesser into thumbnail assessments of other Broadway lyricists, citing Loesser as equal to some, superior to others. (see my Sondheim page)

From American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein, I learned that Loesser originally had a reputation for writing off-color specialty songs, such that Hollywood producers were leery of hiring him.  Erotic currents flow just under the surface of Loesser's "Slow Boat to China," especially at the slow tempo that Cleo Laine purrs, "I'd love to get you / on a slow boat to China / all to myself, alone,"  though she hits at a plaintive note when she sings of "melting your heart of stone." (Cleo Laine and Laurie Hollowell, Loesser Genius).

Other songs play with fire.  A friend of mine hears date rape in the charming duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside," a conversational song of lines for Her and Him (left and right, below) that overlap and rhyme prodigiously:
My mother will start to worry - Beautiful, what's your hurry?
Father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I'd better scurry - Beautiful, please don't hurry
Maybe just a half a drink more - Put some records on while I pour

The neighbors might think - Baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink?      (from Frank Loesser, "Baby It's Cold Outside")
Loesser probably got whoops from the troops when he wrote a lyric for a Hollywood entertainment aimed at boosting morale during the Second World War. For "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," Bette Davis speak-sings constantly surprising variations on the title.  With young men overseas, the lyric says, her soldier boyfriend needn't be jealous:  
What's good is in the army.
What's left will never harm me...

I'm either their first breath of spring
Or else, I'm their last little fling
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup
I either have to hold him off
Or have to hold him up.
  - (lyric by Frank Loesser, music by Arthur Shwartz)
But Loesser wanted to be remembered, not for sexy and funny songs, but for love and passion.  Sondheim suggests that Loesser failed when he tried too hard to be meaningful or touching.  Sondheim introduced me to the word "twee," which applies to every cut on the cast album of Loesser's forgotten show Greenwillow, which starts with the very "twee" lyric, "'Twill be a day / borrowed from heaven."

I've heard somewhere that he thought "I Believe in You" was going to be a great love song, until the director gave it to the young leading man to sing to his own reflection in the mirror of the men's restroom for How to Succeed.... 

Feinstein tells Terri Grose that Loesser's older brother Arthur had some classical music cred and that he disdained his brother's work.  Undeterred, Loesser wrote a near-operatic score for The Most Happy Fella, for which he created songs in counterpoint, a modern madrigal ("Song of a Summer Night"), full-throated arias for an operatic baritone in the leading role, and this delicious comedy song for the Broadway singer who portrays a waitress in the opening number:

Oh, my feet, my poor, poor feet,
Betcha your life a waitress earns her pay.
I've been on my feet, my poor, poor feet
All day long today.....
(four "piggies" in)  This little piggy feels the weight of the plate
Though the freight's just an order of Melba toast.
And this little piggy is the littlest little piggy,
But the big son of a bitch hurts the most!
    (- lyrics and music by Frank Loesser, "Oh My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella)

But Loesser didn't have to try so hard to be touching.  Look no further than poor Adelaide, years into her relationship with Nathan Detroit, who sings to him,
When I think of the times gone by...
And I think of the ways I cry...
I could honestly die.

   (-"Sue Me", music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls)
It's a funny song, but there's not doubt, she's wronged, he's a jerk, and something has to change -- and it does.  Funny as it is, I feel that line more each time she sings it.  It just stops being funny -- until Nathan sings his last rhyme for "sue me" - "Shoot bullets through me!  I love you!"

With so much to his credit that's clever, showy, funny, and sly, it's a little throwaway number that makes me think of Loesser as one of Broadway's greatest artists.  Here's the cocky gambler Sky Masterson singing about New York in the early morning:

My time of day is the dark-time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone
When the smell of the rain-washed pavement
Comes up clean and fresh anc cold
And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold
That's my time of day
My time of day,
And you're the only doll I've ever wanted to share it with me.
 - "My Time of Day," music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
That's the entire song, music meandering and short on pattern, designed to sound like natural speech. It's almost recitative; it's almost a song; it's straight from the heart of the character, down to the reference to gambling ("just a couple deals before dawn"), and it's as touching as any song I know.

I've heard that Loesser fought unsuccessfully to get Sinatra to sing his music as written for the film of Guys and Dolls, that he called his first wife "the evil of two Loessers," and that he was so unsure of his own composition skills that he would call his wife in to hear any new composition, to tell him if she recognized the tune from some other songwriter.

But, at his best, he was the best.  Here's a toast to you, Frank Loesser, with my third martini of the night.

Fresh Air interview with Terry Grose / Michael Feinstein  Loesser's 100th birthday, June 29, 2010.

From memory, I'm citing anecdotes from singer Jo Sullivan, Loesser's second wife, who spoke with Grose another time.  That show isn't archived on the web site. 

See a webiste devoted to Loesser with involvement from his children at

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Let the Poetry do the Work":
Kwame Alexander with Rachel Martin on NPR

Waking every morning from a nightmare of disappointing the students who will fill my classroom in a couple weeks, I was inspired by something I heard on NPR's Morning Edition.  Host Rachel Martin swapped lines of poetry with poet-educator Kwame Alexander.

[Photo: Pictured with fans with one of his novels - in - verse The Crossover on his website.]

Martin called their session "Poetry play" and, later, "our poetry party."  She wanted to know how we can get kids not to be scared of poetry.

Alexander observed that parents learned in high school to be scared of "Auden, Frost, Shakespeare." They learned to forget the fun, "whimsy, joy, passion" of poetry that his mother instilled in him when she'd come into a room and quote Nikki Giovanni or Lucille Clifton to him. For instance, he threw out "Advice" by Langston Hughes:  

Folks, I'm telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.
Martin and Alexander shared a laugh and made his point.  Martin requested a reading from Shel Silverstein's "My Rules," and then she shared a wonderful bit of "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes....

Martin skipped to the last lines:  "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"  Listening to this while I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, I felt amused, involved, convicted, all at the same time.  And I saw the grasshopper!

Alexander tells students to "distill it into a few digestible words to get [at the same] feeling."  I can imagine asking kids to think of a time they had a strong or mixed feeling, and to list all the ingredients that went into making that moment.For teaching poetry, Alexander says "Let the poetry do the work."  He read a poem, no attribution given, that drew us in with Seuss-like rhymes, "I love to ride on a plane, I like to take the train," and so on, but "if I had my 'drothers," he concluded, "I'd get my exercise in your arms."

For the pièce de résistance, Alexander challenged Martin to improvise a poem on-air.  He prompted her with questions. "What's an age you remember?  What did you see?  What was that like?"  When she said that summer evenings on the porch at age eight were "green," and "like grass," she wasn't satisfied.  He kept pushing her until memories bubbled up that got her excited - sweet tea, lemons, "sweet like my mother's smile."  Suddenly, Rachel Martin, Kwame Alexander, and I were satisfied.

I'm more convinced than ever that reading poetry aloud and writing poetry are the most important things an English teacher can do at any age.  At least do it before the kids learn that poetry is a problem to solve for credit. 

"What about essays?" ask some educators.  "Stories?  Novels?   Don't kids have to learn to walk before they can run?"

That last analogy is a bad one, not least because kids do run before they learn to walk, stumbling all along.  Kids also speak gobbledygook with the inflections of whole sentences before they learn words, crayon full pictures before they learn techniques, compose songs before they read music.   Kids play games of basketball before they've "mastered" the "fundamentals."  The teacher who says, "No, don't try to learn that thing you want to learn" should be suspended for malpractice.

Besides, any halfway decent poem gets its effect by doing all the things that a good essay would do, mixed with the things that a good story would do.  The poet will necessarily make choices about how to focus the reader's attention, how to draw the reader on to something that builds to a conclusion.  That's called structure.

The halfway effective poem will also use clues in diction and details to conjure a sense of character, and some kind of story. 

For grammar, there are the tricks poets use to link ideas and minimize verbiage.  Mostly, they reduce clauses to phrases and cut out the dull verbs of being.  I've seen grammar books that don't get that far into practical grammar.

And if any given poem doesn't do all these things, well, poems are short.  What one lacks, another will provide.

I'm refreshed, thinking how I can make poetry a part of our regular routine, not just a now-and-then thing.

Read my earlier reflections on what students learn from responding to poetry without teacher's active involvement, Plentiful Payoffs from Poetry Playoffs.  One of my biggest "hits" on this blog is my reflection on Mary Oliver's book Thirst.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Teach US History with the Pledge of Allegiance

Through years of teaching US History to 8th graders, I found that kids would forget in spring what they'd studied in fall - or, worse, they reverted to what they'd understood in second grade, involving happy Pilgrims, a cherry tree, and Abe Lincoln freeing all the slaves. 

My solution was to tie American history the Pledge of Allegiance.  Though we'd repeat the whole history four times, each time we would pick up a different strand suggested by the Pledge's last words: One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  The strand for each successive quarter emphasised an event later in the time line.  That students would have already memorized the phrases from the Pledge in order, that these phrases suggest the themes, and that these are tied to key events, should make remembering it all easy. I would be sure to convey the material through engagement with art, primary sources, and personal stories.

I started each quarter with an examination of current events and opinions about them, hoping to excite the students' curiosity.  We then reached back centuries to see how the USA got to be this way.  Here's how it worked:

First Quarter:  One Nation?
500 years, emphasis on early 1600s
In what way(s) are we truly one nation?  Related to native and nationality, the word nation suggests that we are in some way one people.   But a quick survey of current census data shows how many peoples, languages, religions, ancestries, and independent tribal nations rub shoulders within our borders.  Is this diversity something new?  We look at current attitudes towards immigration and nativism.

We jump backwards to pre-Columbian times simply to see what other nations occupied this same continent before there was a USA:  native American tribes, empires, leagues; Renaissance European colonizers from Spain, Portugal, France, and Holland; the forced importation of Africans.  We examine maps, discuss what artifacts tell us, view Renaissance art, read primary source accounts of international encounters.

We pause to look in-depth when we reach the English at Jamestown in 1607 and their countrymen who followed them to this continent, because their language and peculiar national traditions shape the eventual USA.

Then we proceed through waves of immigration and reaction back to the present day.   At the end of the quarter, we try again to reach a consensus on the way(s) in which we are "one nation," and ways we are not.

Second Quarter:  Under God?
emphasis on late 1600s to 1700s
In what way(s) are we truly under God?  The phrase was added late to the Pledge of Allegiance to draw contrast to "godless Communism" during the Cold War, and was borrowed from a phrase that Abe Lincoln added to his neat handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address on the day after he had delivered it.  The phrase might suggest that we are "under" God the way we're "under" the sky; it might suggest that we all follow the same faith.  Again, we make a survey of current attitudes and issues regarding faith in the USA today before we recycle through the centuries.

This time, we look more closely at how the European colonizers came from a world divided by the Protestant Reformation.  We look at the close connection between Church and State in all European cultures involved on this continent up to that point: most thinkers could not conceive a government not authorized by religious authority.

We focus more this time on the consequences of the Mayflower's accidental landing in Massachusetts instead of their target Virginia.  The Puritans who came with John Winthrop intentionally set themselves apart to create what Winthrop called "a city on a hill" to show the world a Protestant Christian government.  Instantly, their unity splintered, each offshoot becoming a new colony; through conflict and the witch debacle, official clergy lost credibility.   By the time we get to Thomas Jefferson's line about "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence,  the Enlightenment had reduced God's role in political life, if not in family life.  The Constitution enshrines the idea that reason and mutual agreement are the source of authority in the USA, not the church.

We look at revivals and the role of faith in the Abolition movement, and note periods of revival that swept the nation, and the development of a quasi-civic religion -- in "Manifest Destiny" and the Pledge itself.   At the end, we try to reach a consensus on what it means to be Under God.

Third Quarter:  Indivisible?
emphasis on the 1800s
In what way(s) are we truly Indivisible?  The obvious area of focus must be the division of states during the Civil War, but we begin, as before, with a survey of current events, looking for signs of division, and of unity in spite of division.  

A survey back to colonial times reveals regional animosities, civil conflict, and threats of secession going back to the 1780s.  The fear of a nation within the nation (Native Americans, African Americans held in bondage) would be part of this.

Of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction will take up a lot of the quarter's time.  After we review the cultural divisions exposed by the Depression, the Vietnam War, and perhaps "the war on terror," we might be in a better position to evaluate whether we've still got what it takes to keep us indivisible.

Fourth Quarter:  Liberty and Justice for All?
emphasis on the 1900s

What different ways do Americans today define liberty and justice?  Then, who is meant by all - "all men [who] are created equal?" All people living in America?  Only American citizens? 

By this time in the year, the kids should be able to survey the centuries pretty rapidly.   They'll see a gradual widening of the definition of "all."  In the 20th and 21st centuries, they'll see expansion and contraction, as we reach out to spread liberty and justice to other lands, and then retreat.

Looking Back: How Did it Work?
I didn't notice any particular difference in the way the kids perceived history.   From my point of view, we were seeing the Big Picture four ways, combing through history four times with deeper and broader perspectives.  

From their point of view, it was just the next reading, the next essay, the next discussion, the next map.  I was the only one connecting the dots.  

I tried this one time before I moved on to another position in another school.   If you want to try it yourself, I'd be glad to help.  I still think the idea is a good one.

See my blogpost of related interest: Does God Bless America?

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Sympathizer: Page-Turner Hard NOT to Put Down

"But amnesia was as American as apple pie," muses the double-agent who narrates Viet Thanh Nguyen's first novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015, p. 195).

That's the kind of off-hand observation that makes this page-turner so hard not to put down -- because on every page the reader wants to make a note of a witty observation, provocative statement, or apt simile.  For instance, Hollywood, by "softening up the world," functions as "the launcher of the intercontinental ballistic missile of Americanization" (172); Vietnamese refugees are exiled in time as in space, keeping their clocks set to Saigon time and always thinking "When can I return?" (199); men at the end of a long banquet "nuzzle [their] cocktails with the affection one reserved for puppies" (261). 

The story is simple enough.  Our unnamed narrator serves a General of the deposed Saigon regime, first helping him to exile in the USA,  assassinating two of the General's enemies, and finally spearheading an armed incursion against the unified Vietnam's communist regime. 

What complicates the story, and what allows Nguyen so much room for trenchant wit, is that the narrator is a double agent. Son of a single Vietnamese mother and an odious French priest, he has the "destiny" or "talent" of a "bastard" for "seeing from two sides"(314).   He was educated in the US; he knows how his homeland appears in Western novels and pop culture -- Graham Greene's The Quiet American earning particular scorn for treating Vietnamese women as metaphors (114).  But he's not blind to the weaknesses and corruption in Vietnam, or in himself. After committing the first assassination, he goes on a drinking binge, writing,  "Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body" (114).  The ghosts of his two victims literally haunt him.

A long satiric interlude in the story concerns our narrator's serving as consultant to the Auteur of an Apocalypse-Now kind of movie.   Until our narrator gets involved, the epic movie has no Vietnamese characters.   Besides being viciously funny, this portion of the novel takes time out from comedy for a touching moment when the narrator mourns at the grave of his mother -- in a phony cemetery on the set of the movie.  

One of the novel's most concentrated passages for political banter is our narrator's confrontation with Richard Hedd (I got the joke, Professor Nguyen, but I don't think it seemly to mention it). Hedd is revered by American hawks as more expert on Vietnam than the natives, if only because of his British accent (259).  Quoting from pages of Hedd's book that describe "categories" of Vietnamese people, our narrator develops those literal pages as a metaphor:
These categories existed as pages in a book exist, but most of us were composed of many pages, not just one.    Still, I suspected, as Dr. Hedd scrutinized me, that what he saw was not that I was a book but that I was a sheet, easily read and easily mastered.  I was going to prove him wrong.  (252)
Hedd, as a non-American, comments freely on the pursuit of happiness. For Americans, he says, that's a "zero - sum game," measuring one's own happiness against someone else's unhappiness (255). Our narrator and his boss the General turn the discussion around when someone avers that Afghanistan, "the new Vietnam," supersedes Asia as America's concern.  "As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite."  The narrator continues...
We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist's office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. ...[W]e probably did know white people better than they knew themselves.... (258)

...though mysteries remained, such as how to make cranberry sauce or throw a football.

Nguyen chose for his epigraph a statement by Nietzsche that there's "something to laugh at" in torture.   Our narrator's book is a confession addressed to the official in charge of his reeducation, and torture is involved.  I can't say I agree with Nietzsche on this one, and I had to fight myself not to put the book down, this time for good.

But I do agree with wonderful writer Robert Olen Butler, author of stories of Vietnamese exiles collected in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.  He writes of Nguyen's book that it "transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity."

And, it's funny.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Me and Mia

We walk mornings around the perimeter of the Publix shopping center nearby.  She's unpredictable around other dogs, so the neighborhood is out.  Besides, there are orts and puddles of spilled stuff to sniff, and trucks to bark at.  We took a moment to send a selfie in response to an early birthday wish from Susan.  I want to preserve the picture.  Mia's happy, but eager to get moving again.