Saturday, March 31, 2007

George Smoot's Wrinkles in Time: Thrill of the Hunt

(Reflections on WRINKLES IN TIME by George Smoot with Keay Davidson, published by Morrow Press.)

I never look at the stars without remembering that I'm looking back into time. The light of one star left its source a century ago, and the light of another left at the time of Jesus, and so forth. I also understand the Doppler effect, how we can know that an object is approaching or receding by the wavelength of its light. I "get" the idea that gravity is the curvature of space rather than some kind of magnetic tugging. But when I try to grasp George Smoot's lifetime work of mapping the universe's grand structure, well, it's like I've got too many variables to juggle in my mind at once, and I drop all of them.

Mapping the universe, looking at light from its first seconds, and measuring distances between clusters of galaxies: Wouldn't that be like trying to drive through town with blacked-out windows, using photos of the streets made during the previous decade?

So this book contains large swaths of text that I just had to take for granted, couched in a narrative of decades spent on one hunt, pursuing leads and double-checking results over a period of five decades. Smoot begins the story with a primer in ancient physics, mixed in with the story of his own childhood fascinations with stars.

Throughout the story, he communicates gratitude for others whose work flowed into his, and for many others who worked with him. The work takes him to mountaintop observatories, to launches of balloons three stories tall, to Antarctica (where he vividly describes his panic when his overexertion caused him to inhale too quickly, freezing the liquid in his runny nose, stopping his ability to breathe, doubling the gasping...) and to launchpads for satellites. Much of the work seems to be mundane problem-solving, such as how to screen out light and radio waves from earth when trying to detect those from outer space. He's always working in teams, and it always feels like guys in a college dorm room somewhere, puzzling over a problem together. Sometimes he fretted that another team would get the data first, but he seems to have been genuinely disinterested in the outcome, actively trying to prove himself wrong in order to be sure that he was right.

For me, the new concept that I can grasp is the idea that, in the first seconds of bang, there were "seeds" or wrinkles that, eons later, are the sources of inconceivably vast curtains of "dark matter" that dwarf galaxies by comparison, drawing those galaxies with gravitational force at outrageous speeds.

His conclusion mentions those who scorn the Big Bang theory because it seems to lend support to Christian fundamentalists. Smoot diplomatically slides to an assertion that he disagrees with his old teacher: the universe isn't pointless, isn't random. The discoveries of which he is a part point to an increasing sense of unity - as all organs and limbs of a human body stem from the same DNA, he says (p. 296). And, he concludes, "We are awed by the ultimate simplicity and power of the creativity of physical nature -- and by its beauty on all scales."

Tom Stoppard's Coast of Utopia: You Had to Be There

(reflections on THE COAST OF UTOPIA, comprising three full-length plays VOYAGE, SHIPWRECK, and SALVAGE, by Tom Stoppard)

Maybe if I had seen all three of these plays last month when they could be viewed over a single weekend in New York, I'd associate the names of all these characters with faces of the actors who played them, and some characters and some episodes would stand out. But I've only read them, and I'm unable to recall any action or words by any character in any situation (not counting one that was described in a review that I read).

In fact, after reading them, I can't say more than what I knew from reading reviews. The play more or less follows Russian radical Alexander Herzen and his friends and family over several decades during which his efforts to hasten the liberalization of Russia (mostly articles in journals) become relics and they themselves are derided: "We have left you far behind, and you refuse to notice. ...You're a poet, a storyteller, an orator, anything you please, but you're not a political leader or thinker" (Salvage 110). This image echoes earlier verbal images, and it relates to off-scene events in the trilogy, most memorably the shipwreck in which Herzen's estranged wife and beloved deaf son perished. I appreciate that, but it's not enough to pull these hundreds of pages together for me.

Maybe that's Stoppard's intended effect. Minutes from the end of the whole trilogy, Herzen says, "But history has no culmination! There is no libretto." So, Stoppard has fashioned a very long drama that constantly looks forward to an event that never happens. Herzen in old age, has learned, "A distant end is not an end but a trap." There is no coast. There is no Utopia. Anyone who believes in a Utopia must impose it on the rest of us with tyranny as oppressive and dumb as the czars'.

All the talk of Russian politics and Western culture is played against a background of family life. There are sibling affections and disappointments in marriages in VOYAGE; the loving tutor Matwilda and the sorrow and guilt over the wife and deaf son in SHIPWRECK; reunions of old friends in SALVAGE. Stoppard layers these in every scene, and that's another point: the family, the loves, the kindnesses and taking care of each other are in the end more important than all the writing and debating.

Grasping for a way to comprehend it all, I find an analogy to CANDIDE. Herzen and friends view the world, and find that it never conforms to their worldview. In the end, they realize that they should stay home and make their gardens grow. It's a good thought. But Voltaire expressed it in ninety pages.

I enjoyed many incongruities in the dialogue (when the personal and the political are juxtaposed humorously). I'd like to see it and compare the experience of reading it. But I'm relieved that I didn't slam down $1500 for that weekend in New York.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross: Fighting Words

"My daughter --" begins the has-been salesman as he pleads for a chance to swim again with the real estate sharks of David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. Three times during the play, he begins to use her to gain sympathy, and he never completes the thought. That's as close as we get to the lives of these characters outside of the arena where we see them.

That arena is everything. The men are all searching for points of advantage, points of the opponent's vulnerability. Like boxers, they spend a lot of time circling and stalling, and even when they lash out, they often hit empty air. They also connect, and it's painful and funny, too.

As in A LIFE IN THE THEATRE (see earlier review at this blog), Mamet trusts the actors to find nuance in apparently idiotic lines. So this play begins with a silent well-groomed young man listening less-than-patiently while the harried looking older man "Levene" searches for the right tone to begin his pitch. He's going to beg, but he doesn't want to sound like he's begging. So he tries five times: "John. John. John. John. (pause) John -- " When it doesn't work, and the other man interrupts, "Levene" says, "Hear me out," and tries a whole other approach. This happens a half-dozen different ways.

Later, there's a hilarious dialogue that includes variations on this line: "Are we talking about this, or just talking about it?"

What are the character in this play talking about when they're talking? There's something about a sales contest; there's a bit about some real estate. There's one extended speech about a particular sale. Once in awhile they mention money, and even pile cash on the table. But those all seem to be small objects in passing. It's all abstract. It's words and phrases used for positioning, daring, drawing lines, crossing them. A disgruntled member of the audience said, "Every two seconds!" and I knew that she was referring to the "f" and "s" words that are used for emphasis, for stalling, for attacks. (A sign at the door warns, "Parental Guidance Advised: There is strong language in this play, a !#$**?!! ton of it!")

In the production at the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage in Atlanta, the three scenes of act one take place in Chinese restaurants, and act two takes place in the real estate office. The verbal sparring is relentless. At the end, when all seven actors line up for their bows, it feels like we're applauding athletes at the end of an exhausting, exhilarating exhibition.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Pair of Parodies

I've always enjoyed the challenge of writing parodies, especially when they rhyme. For St. James Marietta's fund raiser "Bad Music for Good Causes," I wrote this couple of parodies:

If I Won the Lottery, with apologies to Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe

All I want is a double - wide*
Kitchen freezer with one outside
Hot tub to rest my bod
Oh, if I won the lottery!

High-def flat screen with DVD,
Ford like Dale's, and a red Humvee
With tires as big as me
Oh, if I won the lottery!

I'd be
Hot if I got some implants
And my tummy tucked.
Nose job,
Hair transplants, and then --
Get all of my lypo sucked!

Someone's head resting on my knee
Warm and tender as he can be...
To hunt and fetch for me --
A coondog would be loverly!

*"bod" is intended to rhyme with "outside" and "wide"

My Favorite Episcopal Things with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein

Beautiful flowers and vestments and votives,
Sounds of the bells and of train locomotives.
Incense so sweet that we asphyxiate -
These are the things that make St. James Church great.

"Wonderful Days," Christian Ed., Polk Street Players,
Words that aren't mushy in lyrics and prayers,
Prayer books called "new" since nineteen seventy-eight:
These are the things that make St. James Church great.

Sermons succinct with occasional lapses
Vergers who know their rear naves from their apses,
Ushers who don't pass the guilt with the plate:
These are the things that make St. James Church great.

When the Vestry
Says our giving
Isn't all we planned,
Our Warden reminds us of all these great things,
And -- POOF! -- there's a hundred grand!

v. 2

Vestments by Ruta, our fashion designer,
Hymns that are happy in keys that are minor,
Keeping our Christmas trees weeks out of date:
These are the things that make St. James Church great.

One priest's a jazzman, and one priest's a broker;
One priest does chili, her husband does yoga.
One's shippin' youth all the way to Taize -
Ces quelques choses nous feront admirees!

Bagels and coffee with someone remarking
How they beat Baptists to premium parking.
People who differ and yet tolerate:
These are the things that make St. James Church great.

When our Outreach
Needs some uplift
To work as it should,
St. James comes together for music that's bad,
To give to a cause that's good.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Lunch with W: Report from London Columnist

Columnist for the Sunday Times of London Irwin M. Stelzer contributed an item to The Weekly Standard (March 12, 2007) that he calls "Reader of the Free World: A Literary Luncheon with the President." I summarize his article for my own reference. I cringe often when I hear the President stumble through unprepared remarks, yet I've found much to admire in the President when he has been filtered through other sources (Bob Woodward's Bush at War, for example). This article is one of those. I have to suppose that this "filter" is a corrective lens, not rose-colored.

The occasion for the article was a lunch-hour seminar at which the President wanted opinions from experts on some books he has read recently. Stelzer had attended other such gatherings. This time, the guest of honor was Andrew Roberts, author of a sequel to Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples from which I taught history for years in the 80s.

Part of the discussion concerned the use of the terms "good" and "evil" in formulating public policy. Bush argued back when guests suggested that public officials usually must choose among "lesser evils." He said that the choice can be made between evil and good principles.

Some of the discussion concerned Britain's anti-American polls. "Is it due simply to my personality?" he asked. Answer: Yes, plus envy of US power and a preference for Palestinians.

On lessons of history from Mr. Roberts:
  • No deadlines for withdrawal. England did it in India, and bloodbath started one minute after the deadline. Bush has been seeking other guides, including a study of France in Algeria, where more Algerians were killed after French withdrawal than before.
  • Rich powers fall to poorer ones when they can't take the heat. The author states that World War II was "nearly over" before the public was permitted to see a photo of a dead soldier, and he muses that today's coverage is "sapping the West's will."
  • Intern enemies until the war is over. Example found in Ireland during WWII.
About the pressure in his office: "I just don't feel any." He is confident, says the author, that he is promoting good by his policies, in the long run.

In summary, the author writes:

Here is a man who is comofrtable in his own skin; whose religious faith guides him in his search for the good, without leading him to think he has a private line to God...; who worries less about his "legacy" than about his standing with the Almighty; who is quite well read; and who believes that the President of the United States must be, to use his much-derided coinage, "the decider."

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Tchaikovsky as Dramatist

(response to the Metropolitan Opera's production of EUGENE ONEGIN, opera by Tchaikovsky from the verse novel by Pushkin.)

I've seen EUGENE ONEGIN only twice, enough to know its dramatic shape well and its music only vaguely. I know it mostly by its a remarkable dramatic effect. Like tremors, the drama may leave structures standing, but it is felt deeply.

Its plot is minimal, something like this: girl tells boy she loves him; boy cares for nothing and no one; girl rebuffs boy when he realizes too late what he has missed.

The mood is autumnal, highlighted in the Met's abstract design by falling leaves that carpet the stage during act one. Acts two and three take place at two different soirees, represented in each act by a rectangle of straight-backed chairs within which the party-goers dance... though the rectangle is larger and the chairs are more plush in act three. During the preludes to the each scene, the director shows us the boy Onegin, now middle-aged, looking back on the events of his life with regret.

Tchaikovksy expertly focuses us on these people, and makes us care. He leads us into the opera with wistful and slow - moving music. During intermission, the audience who saw the show live via satellite at movie theatres got a glimpse of a rehearsal, when the conductor calls the music "dangerous" because it's so simply constructed -- a single phrase repeated in a sequence of pitches -- that the orchestra must use shadings of tone, dynamics, and emphasis to bring it alive.

Tchaikovsky sets each act with a social group, elevated at each act: peasants working at harvest, then provincial gentry, and finally, high society at a palace.

The action, such as it is, happens quickly. Music and words tell us immediately that the stranger Eugene Onegin "is the one" when Tatiana and we first see him; Onegin's speech destroying her hopes is direct and curt (and, in this production, we see Tatiana slowly crumpling her love letter to him behind her back). In act two, his flirtations drive his best friend to a rash challenge in just a couple of dances, and we believe it. The duel in which Onegin kills his best friend takes one minute or less to accomplish.

Yet Tchaikovsky takes time to make these points of action meaningful. After a fond nurse puts Tatiana to bed, we see Tatiana's long night awake to write a love letter to the man she's just met, and we see the sun rise. We appreciate her courage and her certainty in her feelings. In act two, there's an odd intrusion as a lightweight French singer interrupts the party to sing a banal and fruity lyric to Tatiana. It seems like a mere comic relief, but Tchaikovsky is achieving something dramatic, here: everyone's watching Tatiana, including the man who rejected her, and the words are all about her blessings and beauty, and she's bravely enduring not just one verse, but an encore. It's an effect that takes time, and nothing obviously dramatic is happening, but we feel it. Before the duel, Tchaikovsky takes time for Lensky to remember his happy childhood and happy love while he waits for Onegin to show up. The duel over, Onegin turns away in regret.

At that point, this director skips to Act Three without intermission. Dressers change Onegin's costume in full view during the glorious and grand prelude to the party at the palace. Now it's years later, and Onegin tells the audience that his life has been a bore, traveling and caring for nothing, but always haunted by the fact that he killed his best (only?) friend over a meaningless flirtation. Immediately, Tatiana enters the party. We and Onegin learn how Tatiana has matured into a gracious and wise lady, not by hearing her, but by hearing the adoring guests as she silently greets them in the background. Tchaikovsky gives her husband Prince Gremin a long aria of affectionate appreciation for her.

In all these instances, Tchaikovsky achieves drama by evoking context swiftly, and probing inner action patiently.

I understand that Pushkin's original novel is satirical, and we do see signs of that in the libretto. But instead of laughing at the girl Tatiana for the romance novels that she takes so seriously, or laughing at her brother in law Lensky for his jealousy, we sympathize.

Finally, we all feel Onegin's regret, what might have been if he had been less wrapped up in his own ego.

Monday, March 05, 2007

A Precious Detective: Agatha Christie's Opposite

(Response to novels by Alexander McCall Smith, featuring Precious Ramotswe.)

"Even Agatha Christie, two-dimensional as her writing is, has a worldview," a director of one of her plays told his cast, "and hers is, 'everyone's hiding something bad.'" The mystery novels of Alexander McCall Smith aren't really mysteries, and they're not really novels, and Smith's world view reverses the usual detective novel's: there's always more good to discover in a person.

Smith has now fashioned six books around his character named Precious Ramotswe, founder of Botswana's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. About forty years old, "traditionally built," and old-fashioned, "Mma" Ramotswe is the root of the series while characters branch off and grow from book to book. Crime is little more than a pretext for our time spent with the characters. In Smith's latest, In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, there's a mysterious intruder who steals trousers from Mma's clothes line, an embezzler from Johannesburg that she's been hired to find -- but these are forgotten for chapters at a time as we get involved in Mma Ramotswe's looming encounter with her Ex, and her secretary's enrollment in dance class, her husband's new apprentice, and the dangerous liaison of the young apprentice who quits.

The central characters are motivated often by a sense of duty and heartfelt gratitude, as they discover "precious" qualities in people whom they've judged by appearances. Smith's loosely tied plots give him room to have his characters ruminate on good old days, on modern manners, on dancing, on the almost-human character of automobile engines, on women's figures, and on tea. I heard the author in an interview say that he thinks of his fiction as "tea-drinking books," to be enjoyed and savored in a relaxed way.

Through these books, I have absorbed a mental impression of Botswana at odds with all the other images I have. Smith, a Scot, lived in Botswana for many years. Is he showing us the Africa he saw, or is it a highly selective vision? Checking the internet, I found Smith's own comment about that:

One or two people at signings usually ask me … am I ignoring the harsh realities of life … We have all become familiar with the images of boy soldiers and hungry children and cattle dying in dried-up river beds. We need to see all this … but we should also bear in mind the magnificent humanity and sheer decency [to be found in Africa]. There are legions of people trying to lead good lives - and doing so - in the face of difficulties which would floor most of us in no time at all ... The world which I try to portray in these books … seems to have resonated with a vast number of people who, I suppose, want to believe that the human spirit can transcend the horrors which confront us.
Smith, quoted in Frank Devine, "The World of Precious Ramotswe" in Quadrant Magazine, October 2003

Devine adds: "[From Botswana's] apparent hopelessness, McCall Smith has conjured a universe of light and cheer, of tranquillity, good manners and comic warmth."

The six Mma Ramotswe novels are:
The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Calm Advice for Episcopalians in Opposition

(response to an essay in WEAVINGS: A JOURNAL OF THE CHRISTIAN SPIRITUAL LIFE, March/April 2007. The theme of the issue is "Abide in Me.")

Elected to my first year on the Vestry of my Episcopal church, I suddenly find on my plate the ugly conflict(s) over "the gay Bishop." He's not the real problem, of course; he's just the reduction of a long-simmering brew of differences about scriptural interpretation and ecclesial authority.

So I'm getting it from both sides. A friend from another branch of the Church was unable to hide his schaudenfreude when he related a news item that Bishop Alexander seems to be losing a struggle with dissidents over use of church property. Parishioners have taken me aside for whispered pep talks about fighting the "liberalism" in our diocese and in our national church, and others who know me better look to me to voice their understanding that the Church is a body that continues to mature, any changes of outlook being a sign of collective experience and wisdom. I said to one parishioner, "Being Episcopalian means that we believe the Spirit has guided the processes of selecting our leaders through the centuries; and if the Church is leaning away from what we believe, then it's probably time that we should re-examine what we believe (with reference to earlier teachings about race and divorce)."

For self-defense as I wade into this war, and for soldiers on both sides, I recommend an essay, "The Christians are Fighting -- Again" by Robert Corin Morris. He takes the long view -- very long -- starting from the partisanship among Jesus' twelve apostles, and the decision of the early church to accept different practices of Jew and Gentile in the same church.

Far from being a new problem, war within our church is something we've always had, and, Morris writes, "something in us likes it a lot." (He cites a book by Chris Hedges, WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING (read reviews), and asserts that war is "our default position.") He tells anecdotes of how Christians have denied each others' faith since the days when Athanasius called a childhood friend "The First-born of Satan" for a nuanced difference in their ways of describing the divinity of Christ.

Morris agrees with all sides that "doctrine matters" as the "common ground of belief and practice" for any group to "hang together." But the agreement doesn't have to be absolute, any more than it was at the Council of Jerusalem, where the early Church drew a line at "the pollutions of idols and from unchastity and from what is strangled and from blood" (Acts 15:20).

But Morris presents Jesus himself as the unifying factor beyond doctrine. While some parishioners in my church have derided "warm and fuzzy theology," they'd have to admit that a lot of what Jesus said was to blur the sharp and hard lines of the theology of his day. He reduced the ten commandments to two, he cheerfully broke sabbath laws in the name of kindness, and he makes "love" the defining characteristic of his true disciples. His opponents use doctrine against him, and he always subverts it towards something warm and fuzzy, like humanity, and caring for the poor and the prisoners.

In our present conflict, Morris suggests that we adopt "the Gamaliel Principle." A Jewish leader named Gamaliel spoke in defense of Peter and John, saying that if their new Christian movement is of God, it will last (Acts 5:26-40). Morris concludes the main part of his argument by facing the present controversy directly:

Is it so impossible to imagine part of the church calling gay and lesbian Christians to live according to the same principles of sexual fidelity in consecrated relationships that bind heterosexuals, while other parts of the church demand that homosexuals consecrate themselves to celibacy as the only discipleship option? We don't know the long-term consequences of the "innovative teaching," spiritually or socially, though both sides claim they already know the answer. What if both proponents and opponents prayed the same Gamaliel prayer: "O God, if this is from you, let it flourish; if not, reveal its flaws"?
Finally, Morris suggests that, in the worst case scenario, we could make the best of it by aiming for an "amicable divorce." Some divorced couples, workingout shared responsibilities, find "new, if more distant, relationships." He imagines ways "to recognize that we're still estranged parts of the same family...not able to see eye to eye."

Morris is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Newark, and the founding director of Interweave, "an interfaith adult education center for spirituality, wellness, and the common good in Summit, New Jersey." His books include the Isaiah section of the SPIRITUAL FORMATION BIBLE and the recently published, PROVOCATIVE GRACE: THE CHALLENGE IN JESUS' WORDS. (Link to his page at