Sunday, September 30, 2007

Rat Pack Redux: Grown Ups, ca. 1960

(reflections on the musical revue The Rat Pack Live at the Sands, performed at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, Sept. 30, 2007, and THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP by Diana West.)

Sinatra, and to a lesser extent Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, were the model adults whose images on tv and voices on the radio filled the background of my first decade. I can't say I liked them. In fact, they creeped me out. Somehow, though I was something younger than six, I knew that Frank Sinatra was singing about death when he got to the last verse of It Was A Very Good Year, "I'm in the autumn of my days." The lyric, the ominous strings, and his world-weary delivery spooked me. Now it makes me chuckle to think that Sinatra then was years younger than I am now. The whole song is a juvenile view of maturity, each verse remembering a decade in terms of girls' hair and alcoholic beverages. Around the same time I heard Sinatra's buddy Nat King Cole singing Young At Heart with its equally spooky last lines, "If you should survive / to a hundred and five. . .." If? IF? That song sent this morbid little child in a panic to his grandmother for reassurance that, yes, she and I would survive. Ditto, My Way, in which Sinatra describes his entire life in the past tense.

I've since grown to appreciate the craftsmanship of the great American Songbook that Sinatra championed, to admire Sinatra for championing it and for adding his own edge to the songs, and I've grown to love the sound of the fifteen-piece band that Nelson Riddle arranged for. So I attended a traveling revue that ostensibly recreates highlights from a two-week Las Vegas act that Sinatra, Martin, and Davis did.

I hoped that RAT PACK LIVE AT THE SANDS would give me a taste of what it was like to be an adult in 1960, and it did - revealing to me something unexpected: if this was entertainment for adults in 1960, then the great shift decried in Diana West's THE DEATH OF THE GROWN UP was already in full swing (pun intended). The whole Rat Pack shtick was one joke repeated endlessly: "We're grown men, behaving badly. See us indulge ourselves, insult each other with locker-room banter, and try on silly costumes." Not that this production did it badly. The Sinatra imitator's delivery of songs was to my ears indistinguishable from the original's. But in this context, even the best of the romantic songs came off as polished and bloodless, and the shlocky ones as ironic. No wonder the Boomers at first found them to be tired and phony.

In the foreword to a book of Sixties music that was published in 1971, the editor contrasted the "more authentic" Sixties folk-rock style with the artifice of the earlier era. That, too, is silly. The folk-rock style simply substituted a new kind of artifice, one that had been around for decades. I think of that atrocious faux-folk hymn by an Ivy League anthropologist "I Wonder as I Wander" (Christ would die "for you and for I" -- me shudders at the affected grammar). It's just the two hundred year old idea of the "noble savage" updated. Now, the songs in that book by Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell seem like Brahms compared to the audio graffiti they call hip-hop -- all in the name of being "real."

All of this makes me doubtful that Diane West has correctly diagnosed our problem. She acknowledges that the 20s pop culture was also iconoclastic and devoted to self-indulgence in sex and alcohol and making fun of responsible adults, but tries to make the distinction that the youth in 20s pop culture at least wanted to become adults, and the rules of adulthood were still acknowledged. That's a weak argument, as "being adult" in 20s pop culture -- that is, being a sophisticated adult -- meant casualness about sex and drinking. Think of the Algonquin Round Table, Cole Porter's best and worst, and Noel Coward.

I wonder what West would make of this lyric:

What's going to happen to the children when there aren't any more grown-ups?
Thanks to plastic surgery, and grampa's abrupt demise,
Grandma Rose has fixed her nose, but doesn't appear to realize
That pleasures that once were heaven
Look silly at sixty-seven,
And youthful allure you can't procure
In terms of perms and shots . . .

It's by Noel Coward, written in the Thirties, and revised for a 1950s TV special. I like Noel, but his stock in trade was naughtiness and making fun of people who obey rules. His "I Went to a Marvelous Party" is an egregious example of this, as every punch line sneaks up on a suggestion of nudity or sex, as if those were hilarious in themselves - talk about juvenile!

Truly, so long as Ms. West is pinning her observations on show biz personalities, she's missing the bull's eye. Show biz must be novel, must be "cutting edge," must mock status quo, and its performers are always posing and begging to be liked. That's inherently immature.

I think it's less about maturity, and more a version of the classic country-mouse, city-mouse fable - or their cousins the ant and the grasshopper. Today, thanks to education and media and brand name availability, we're all city mice and grasshoppers, oriented towards consumption, novelty, and the expectation of instant gratification, and expectation that someone else will provide - because we city mice have more important things to do. Isn't that the essence of childishness?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Curmudgeon with a Heart of Gold: Philip Larkin

(reflections on Philip Larkin's Collected Poems, Anthony Thwaite, editor, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2003.)

I didn't think I knew Philip Larkin's poetry until I came to page 57 in his Collected Poems, where I recognized a poem that I read thirty years ago for a high school exam. I didn't have to re-read it; I've remembered it by its outline all these years.

The poem is "Wires," and its eight lines rhyme in this distinctive pattern: A B C D D C B A. The "A" rhyme is "fences." The poem depicts young steers on the "wildest prairies," brushing up against the wires (rhyme D), challenging the limits of their lives only once, and, discouraged by their "muscle-shredding violence," retreating back to the A rhyme -- "Electric limits to their wildest senses." Figuring all this out, and how the poet substitutes cows for those of us who experience a pain of rejection and never try again, and seeing how the rhyme scheme mimics the sense of the poem, I got an "A" on my in-class essay for Dr. Roberts.

Coincidentally, the poem that caused me to buy this collection is on p. 58, "Church Going," a title that suggests both going to a church, and a church going to seed. Discussed elsewhere on this blog, the poem describes a man on a bike stopping to investigate an empty, barely-used antique church, sensing an importance to this "shell" of an almost extinct faith, dedicated to the most important things in life - "marriage, and birth, / and death, and thoughts of these."

Together, these two poems exemplify Larkin in two of his favorite modes. Sometimes, he looks with some regret on a wiser or more beautiful past. Sometimes he looks upon life as a thing of beauty that people like him miss because of their own cussedness, shyness, or distractedness. His earliest published poems in this collection are the least interesting, encapsulated by a bitter little poem about being outside of a dance club, looking in ("Reasons for Attendance," 48).

His mastery of language and form allow him to compress a lifetime of incidental pleasures in single lines of a seemingly bitter reflection on old age ("Sad Steps"144 between toilet and bed in early morning, looking at the cold distant moon, or "The Old Fools" 131) .

He often seems to be a curmudgeon, cynical and dismissive. The truth is, he's grateful for the beauties of life and bitterly regretful for being one of those cows afraid to take what life has to offer.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Third Take on Second Coming by Walker Percy

(reflection on Walker Percy's THE SECOND COMING, New York: Picador, 1999. )
When I graduated from college and started teaching in Mississippi at an Episcopal school, in 1981, it seemed to me that everyone I knew was around 45 years old and much enamored of Walker Percy. His father W. Alexander Percy was a beloved author of Mississippi, and Walker was a celebrity in New Orleans, a city that Mississippians seemed to adopt as their own. On top of all that, he was a convert to Roman Catholicism from atheism and thus very attractive to all my Episcopalian friends. He'd had several bestsellers and prize -winners around that time, such as THE LAST GENTLEMAN, LOVE AMONG THE RUINS, and LANCELOT. I enjoyed THE MOVIEGOER, his first novel, and experienced what he describes in that book -- a kind of alienation from our own lives as we compare actual places with their equivalents in the media -- when I found my first experience of New Orleans being mediated by his descriptions. I read his non-fiction about human language's qualitative difference from any animal communication (MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE).

Percy's best-seller at the time was THE SECOND COMING, and I bought it eagerly. Two or even three times I tried to get through it, but bogged down around the third chapter. Recently, I returned to it, determined to finish it. I've succeeded, and here's my report, 27 years late.

There are two threads to the plot. We see middle aged widower Will Barrett in a crisis. His symptoms include sudden blackouts, emotional detachment, and obsession with the idea that current (1979) trends show Jews heading for the Holy Land: a sign of the End Times. Two memories haunt him: the hunting expedition with his father who botched an attempt to kill his son and then himself, and a teenaged encounter with a beautiful girl. He plays golf and socializes with a pretty unpleasant group of golfing friends.

That beautiful girl is a connection to the other strand of the story, grown up and doing everything that money can buy to keep her deranged daughter safely out of her life. That daughter, Allison, follows a detailed set of instructions written to her by herself, just prior to electroshock therapy, telling her how to escape from the asylum while doctors presume her to be too disoriented to need minding. She finds shelter in an abandoned estate's decrepit greenhouse, close to the the golf course where Will Barrett plays.

Naturally, the two meet, and, not coincidentally, both are heirs to a great deal of money. That's the plot, and things click satisfyingly into place at the end.

Once again, I almost put the book down. The problem is that Barrett is tedious, as his creator (Percy, not God) plays him two ways, both as a deluded man to be mocked for his paranoia, and as a wise fool whose bemusement at the foibles of life in the USA, ca. 1979, echoes Percy's own in his non-fiction. Sometimes, Percy doesn't even seem to be trying to disguise that his character is only a mannequin to dress up, as when he asks, "What to make, reader, of a rich middle-aged American sitting in a German car, holding a German pistol with which he will in all probability blow out his brains, smiling to himself and looking around old Carolina for the Jews whom he imagined had all disappeared? (134)" Barrett is most tedious in a far-fetched scheme to prove once for all if God is real. I could take that, but his rambling letter about it nearly kills the novel. The energy is sucked out of the narrative by something that he identifies early in the novel as "the great suck of self (14)."

The most real and lively parts of the novel are the ones that focus on real and specific details, when Percy lets us follow the thoughts of the main characters as they solve problems. Both Will and Allison are pretty lethargic and detached, but they (and Percy's book) come to life when they have some specific problem to solve, such as how to move a heavy stove or how to engineer an escape from a mental institution. Allison is funny as she applies this same kind of mechanical problem-solving to her growing feelings of love for Barrett (239-240).

At one point, I thought that the gist of the book might be the one expressed, tongue-in-cheek, by Voltaire in CANDIDE: the only real happiness in life is "to make our garden grow."

What ideas does Percy want to convey? He often writes of people living comfortable and evidently good lives who are somehow unhappy. I was reminded of 9/11/2001 in this book from twenty years earlier, when a sniper fires on Barrett and he suddenly springs to life, once aware of the "concealed dread and expectation which, only after the shot is fired, we knew had been there all along" (16). Barrett's father, he realizes, was trying to save his son from a living death, and, by implication, all the other characters in the book (and readers) are living such lives. "Ah," Barrett thinks, "there is a difference between feeling dead and not knowing it, and feeling dead and knowing it. Knowing it means there is a possibility of feeling alive though dead (324).

The medical crew in this book and the lukewarm Episcopal priest, a self-conscious do-gooder, seem to see life as mechanical. Percy, himself a trained doctor, is keen on showing that we are more than mechanisms. (This is his MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, with language the key.) When Barrett is under psycho-tropic drugs, and feeling fine at last, he wonders, "Does it all come down to chemistry after all" (307)? We are encouraged to see that his contentment is not life, and the seemingly contented characters all around him are similarly drugged by TV, social projects, fitness, and fundamentalist religion.

An incidental pleasure of the book is Allison's peculiar way of speaking, as her repeated electro-shock treatments have made her native language strange to her. For example, she realizes that she loves Will Barrett as she reflects, "With him, silence didn't sprout" (251).

Overall, I'm glad I visited Walker Percy one more time. But, on the whole, I'd rather spend the time with Updike or Buechner, authors with similar concerns and a greater love of the their characters.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Playing's the Thing

(reflections on Stuart Brown's discussion with Krista Tippett on the radio program SPEAKING OF FAITH. See links.)

After retirement, workaholic researcher Stuart Brown started the National Institute of Play to study "play" behavior in humans and other animals. I was struck by a few points that he made.

As an educator, I was interested in an anecdote about a businesses that innovates through play. The boss says to a group, "Here's the general problem, here are the general parameters. Now, create a solution. When they get stuck, it's time to play -- and the solution will emerge."

I was also struck by his emphatic separation of "play" from "competition." In animal play, he notes that the larger and stronger creature handicaps the smaller one to even the game. Competition, by definition, is working to exclude; play is inclusive. I've learned to use the format of competition instead of tests in my history class, but I try to put the emphasis on everyone's learning and everyone's enjoyment. There may be a better way to do it.

Finally, as the radio show focuses on faith, he was asked about religious ramifications of his studies. Having just described lionesses engaged in a spontaneous ballet -- movements imitated for pleasure, for their own sake, with no purpose -- he concluded, "There's more in us and in other animals than ions zipping around a nervous system." The exact same thought brought me to believe in God, listening to Stephen Sondheim's gratuitously layered trio at the start of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC's ("Now," "Soon," "Later") which is intricate far beyond an audience's ability to appreciate it at first hearing.

Visiting the web site, I was treated to a slide show of what happened when a wild polar bear encountered sled dogs on chains. The photographer braced himself for an ugly event - but the creatures cavorted and tumbled. The bear returned the next few nights for more! Here's a direct link to that slide show: Speaking of Faith, polar bear slide show.