Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Unbroken: Bad Boy Makes Good

(reflections on UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 2010).)

"Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food and oxygen" writes Laura Hillenbrand in Unbroken (183).  At that point in the book, her subject Louie Zamperini has fought his way from being the scorned Italian kid with a face "designed by committee" (8), to running the mile for the USA at the Berlin Olympics, to surviving the crash of his B-24 bomber with two crew members followed by forty-seven excruciating days in a raft without provisions, fighting off sharks.  He is just beginning two and a half years of deprivation and physical degradation in a series of Japanese prison camps -- each one worse than the one before.

He maintains his dignity with fellow captives by small acts of rebellion.  They steal cigarettes and sugar, they teach obscenities to an obtuse guard who thinks that he's learning conversational English, and they try not to stagger and fall when beaten by fists, baseball bats, and the heavy buckle of a belt.  Once they even perform a musical version of Cinderella, calling the ugly stepsisters Dia Rere and Gonna Rere (269).  POWs sink barges, communicate in silence by codes, and even knock a train off its tracks (242-243).  Near the end of their captivity, they plot to assassinate their most furious tormentor Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. "the Bird" (231).

But forgiveness -- of others, and of oneself -- is also essential to the feeling of self-worth, and that's a truth that underlies Louie Zamperini's life-long struggle.  We see this early in Louie's life when he gives up his "one-boy insurrection" that pains his family so, to devote himself single-mindedly to running the mile.  We see it in the shame and physical decline of Louie's fellow survivor on a raft who devoured his companions' rations while they slept in their first night at sea. Ultimately, we see how impotent hatred of his former captors eats at Louie from the inside during his first years back from the war.  When his wife Cynthia, who has already filed for divorce, drags him to see a gaunt young evangelist named Billy Graham, Louie feels "indignant rage" at the evangelist's assertion that it's false for anyone to imagine himself to be good:
I am a good man, he thought.  I am a good man.

Even as he had this thought, he felt the lie in it.  He knew what he had become.  Somehwere under his anger, there was a lurking, nameless uneasiness, the shudder of sharks rasping their backs along the bottom of the raft.  There was a thought he must not think, a memory he must not see.  With the urgency of a bolting animal, he wanted to run. (373)
By sustaining this narrative of Louie's spiritual growth, Hillenbrand  pulls us through the book, even through stretches where the accumulation of descriptions of physical degradations makes the reading painful.

Pleasures abound in the book, just in her writing.  Even knowing how the race will turn out, I was breathless turning the page to read the conclusion of Louie's mile race on a fatally hot afternoon in New York (25).  An air battle becomes vivid in her retelling of it (95-96).  She implies a metaphor in her description of the last, eeriest, worst prison camp when Louie first sees it on a cold day: two hundred "whisper-thin men" are "gathered in drifts" up against buildings, "silent as snow" (192).

Hillenbrand also searches for the good.  Sympathetic Japanese guards show courage when they shield men from abuse (185, 196, 245).  Caring for an injured duck named Gaga enlivens the prisoners (203).  A Japanese pilot salutes his target Louie rather than fire, and they later become friends (348). In the last months of the war, Louie and his fellow prisoners are struck with sympathy for the Japanese civilians who live near the prison camp, who are also starving, broken, burned, and sick.

There is also a dark side to dignity.  Hillenbrand shares an insight from a book of an earlier century, Frederick Douglass's autobiography, where he shows how a good woman, unable to think good of herself so long as she dominates an innocent human being, learns to despise the slave, and she becomes a "demon" of racial hatred (196), angered especially by any signs of the boy's intelligence and spirit.  Watanabe, "The Bird," reveals his inner struggle in his actions, and, decades later, in a televised interview.

Along the way in her narrative, Hillenbrand divulges details about that time in American history that we might prefer to forget.  The pseudo-science of eugenics that shaped policy in Nazi Germany and Tojo's Japan also shaped policy in the California of Louie's childhood, and he had good reason to fear being sterilized along with other "bad boys" of Italian descent (10).   We learn how the tens of thousands of airmen lost in combat over the Pacific is dwarfed six-to-one by the numbers of those lost to mechanical failures and human error (80). We get a tour of the "flying brick" called the B-24 with all its design flaws, and we get a strong sense of how awesome the new B-29 is in its superior speed, altitude, size, and its moral effect on the Japanese: the Japanese phrase for B - 29 "B Niju Ku" contains a double meaning, as "ku" means both "nine" and "pain" (248).  A survivor of the Bataan death march reflects on the landscape approaching Hiroshima by train, post A-bomb, a progression from trees to trees without leaves, then without branches, then without trunks, then nothing: "Nothing! It was beautiful.  ...I know it's not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn't.  But I believed the end [to cruel captivity] probably justified the means" (320).

The acknowledgments are worth reading closely, because Hillenbrand describes with gratitude all the eyewitnesses and family members who helped her to write the book, including many who didn't live to see its publication.  Louie Zamperini himself lives on, "apparently immortal" (399).

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Remembering Dad

(Remarks for a Celebration of the Life of Thomas W. Smoot at First Presbyterian of Church, Valdosta, GA, November 13, 2010)

For me, Tom Smoot was father.

For him, that meant, first of all, to be a provider.   To support his family, he did work that took him away for long periods of time, to uncharted Canada, to Nevada, to Brazil during a military coup, a couple times to Japan.  During those years, his family wanted for nothing, except for him.

When he became his own boss, he could settle down – though he drove himself long hours to grow his business.

More than material things, a father provides guidance.  Dad left schooling mostly to the teachers – thankfully, because he was way ahead of our textbooks – and he left discipline to Mom.  But he taught us in the way he approached the world.

One lesson begins, “You can be suspicious of everyone.”  He told me how a client was probably ripping him off. He said, “You can be suspicious of everyone, but you don’t want to live that way.”

Another time, Dad said, “When someone accuses you, you've got to respond – or you’ll lose respect for yourself.”

There were other lessons I picked up from observation:

Sing.   Sing in the kitchen, in the car, in your factory working with your son very late on a hot summer night.  Sing at the top of your voice; with or without a ukulele, guitar, or Simon and Garfunkel.  When he joined the choir of this church, he said he wished he hadn’t waited fifty years.

Another lesson: When you get an idea, go with it.  For instance, he got the notion that a surprise birthday party with a couple hundred guests at the top of a skyscraper might ease Mom’s transition to her sixties.  He sent out invitations right away – even though, at the time, she was only fifty-five.

Another lesson is a phrase that he learned from his close friend and mentor Alfredo Berato, “Bon appetito.”  For Dad, it meant that eating nutritiously is good for your body, but sharing food and drink with friends is good for your soul. 

Another lesson: When the going gets tough, take along a dog.  No one could stay mad when Dad brought Frosty or KC to a meeting.  Dad told me once, if there’s such a thing as reincarnation, then he wanted to come back as a Smoot dog.

Stay young by seeking out new places, new ideas, new challenges.  And if you’ve already run enough miles to go around the world once, try it again – but go the other way.

His most important lesson was so much a part of his being a father that I never appreciated it until I was grown up and long gone.  That’s when Mom told me how she married before she understood what love really means.  Dad taught her how to love, and I can see now that what a loving father provides, along with material support and moral encouragement, is room to grow.

Mom didn’t have room to grow when three little children were crowding her life, so Dad made sure to be home on Saturdays, giving Mom time away to do whatever she wanted.  He encouraged her to renew her teaching career, and then to get advanced degrees to become an administrator – even though it meant staying up late to write Mom's research papers.

He took interest in anything his children did.  Whatever struck our fancies at the moment, he took us to museums or shops or theatres or playing fields to learn more, bought us books about it, and then stepped back to see what happened.  He delighted even more in lavishing the same kind of attention on his grandchildren.

So his children have grown to be totally different people.  What we do have in common are the shared memories of meals, games and trips – and Dad's driving sense of responsibility for others.

Speaking here, just for myself, I am grateful that he gave me room to grow through my stage of adolescent insolence – which, in my case, outlasted three Presidential administrations.

When I would come back to see how his company had grown, I came to appreciate how Dad saw himself as a provider for the families of the men and women who worked for him.  For them, too, it wasn’t just a job that he provided, but career guidance, education, and opportunities to build their careers.  Sometimes, he provided bail -- and a second chance in life.

There was one lesson that Dad got from me.  Just last Spring, he called with a theological question.  Between the Sunday school of his boyhood and his joining this church, he hadn’t thought much about religion.  He wanted to know, What exactly is meant by the word “grace?”  Is it forgiveness?   Is it Heaven?    To him, it seemed to mean different things in different contexts.

With some theological training behind me, I told him how Scripture implies that the Holy Spirit works in us and through us, long before we believe.  It's through the working of the Spirit that we come to know God, and that’s what we call “grace.”   Grace helps us to see how God the Father has provided us care and guidance throughout our lives. Looking back, we can give proper thanks to our Father.

Dad liked that idea.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Sondheim's Book, Finishing the Hat: First Reading

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Having sung Stephen Sondheim's songs at the top of my lungs in theatres, showers, kitchens, cars, and parlors for forty years now, I could pass over the meat of this book, his collected lyrics: I've memorized nearly every syllable.  Instead, I devoured the side dishes sweet and biting:  comments about lyrics, his craft, and what he learned from other practitioners.  

My first impression is that Sondheim's heart is in this book, expressed precisely (as usual) by a mind that simply cannot abide dishonesty or inaccuracy.  Years ago, when Meryl Secrest published her biography of him, he commented that, of course, he gave her full access to everything about him, and he held nothing back.  He wondered, what would be the point of a biography otherwise?

Well, he could try to ensure a flattering story.  But not Sondheim.  He wants to take precisely the credit he feels he deserves. 

His honesty and accuracy show in a remarkable passage cited by reviewer Jeremy Gerard on line.  It's about the way commentators have portrayed him as "Repressed Intellectual" since he once sang his song "Anyone Can Whistle" (written for a character who was a repressed intellectual) at a tribute in 1973.  Of this, he writes:
Perhaps being tagged with a cliché shouldn’t bother me, but it does, and to my chagrin I realize it means that I care more about how I’m perceived than I wish I did. I’d like to think this concern hasn’t affected my work, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it has.
I'm sure I'll write  more, later.  But here are links to two of the four reviews I've seen:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2010/oct/10/finishing-hat-stephen-sondheim-review

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/29/stephen-sondheim-collected-lyrics-review


The second, by Simon Callow, comes closest to saying what I think.  Another in the NY Times, by songwriter Paul Simon, shows a great appreciation of Sondheim dating back to Paul Simon's teenage years. 

www.nytimes.com/2010/10/31/books/review/Simon-t.html

Monday, October 11, 2010

Theologians and Artists: Resident Aliens v. The Unicorn

(reflection upon two books contained in my Amazon kindle: Resident Aliens by Hauerwas and Willimon, and The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch.)

I was shocked once in my early days in the Episcopal Church, still fresh from being a fundamentalist in college.  A gentleman in the choir had laughingly said that he didn't really believe all that theological stuff -- "God is in the music," he said. This was heresy to me then;  I've grown to appreciate what he meant.

Case in point:  I spent some time recently wading through a book by a pair of theologians.  The basic idea is congenial to me, that the Church is, at its best, a sort of colony of "resident aliens" in our culture.  That said, the reading turned tedious and even annoying, as the writers reiterated that the Church and its pastors should be telling "the truth" instead of just being polite and helping people.  This strikes me as, first, a false choice, and second, as banal.  The "truth" turns out to be, so far as I can tell, warmed over Paolo Friere: don't be materialistic, don't support regimes that fight wars. 

I moved on with some relief to read an early work of the astoundingly prolific novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch, an agnostic sort of Christian who delighted in pitting political and religious people against each other in her fictions and confounding all their beliefs.  Just in the first few pages of The Unicorn, she gets closer to "the truth" than those theologians in their entire book.

In those first pages, she's setting up a plot that seems to owe more than a little to Henry James's Turn of the Screw:  nervous, tightly wound governess reporting for duty to a remote estate peopled by people either morbid and secretive or outwardly charming and unapproachable.

But she is also depicting a starkly beautiful world -- she uses the words "beautiful" and "appalling" almost interchangeably here -- of violent waves, treeless landscape, vast sky.  All of the protagonist Marian's previous materialistic concerns  fall away from her as she loses herself in this landscape, where she is now the resident alien.

I sense that much of what the theologians have to say is already implied in this novel, and much more besides.  In just the last chapter, Marian and her pupil Hannah (first surprise:  her pupil is the woman who employs her, not some child), seated as if on a stage illuminated by golden light of the setting sun reflected on the sea, have a sudden dramatic moment.  Hannah grasps Marian's hand and asks for forgiveness, for needing so much for someone to love her.  She goes on to reflect that even God is said to have created us because He needed love.  Hannah believes in God because she loves God, and "you can't love something that isn't there, can you?"

Friday, October 08, 2010

About my Dad: In Memoriam


Dr. Thomas W. Smoot, 77, of Valdosta, died October 6 of traumatic aorta rupture. 

He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 11, 1933.  He graduated from Walnut Hills High School, a nationally recognized public college preparatory school.  He received his undergraduate degrees from Miami University, and his PhD in clay mineralogy from the University of Illinois.  He married Frances Lee Maier June 6, 1955.

A scientist and inventor, Tom is named on ten US patents from 1963 to 2010, most recently for a fire-retardant material.  For Canada’s Geological Survey, Tom explored unmapped territory in 1957.   He was a pioneer in developing ceramics to withstand extreme temperatures in nuclear propulsion engines.  His expertise made him a valuable representative for corporations Harbison-Walker in Pittsburgh, Nalco in Chicago, and Glasrock in Atlanta.
 
An entrepreneur, Tom purchased a chemical manufacturing business in Atlanta in 1972 with no full-time employees.  Through hard times and a catastrophic fire in 1982, Tom grew the business, re-naming it Kor-Chem.  By 2001, when he sold the company, it employed dozens of workers and had international partners.

In retirement, Tom stayed active. He started a new business relating to his latest patent.  He served on boards for his neighborhood in Atlanta and for his high school’s Alumni Foundation, and he ran for Valdosta’s school board.  Tom and Frances joined First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta in 2009, and he became deeply involved as Deacon, treasurer of the Men’s Bible Study, member of the Church’s Vestry, and tenor in the choir.

His work with his son Todd’s company Get Active gave him the opportunity to combine his talent for sales with his passion for running.   Tom and Frances competed in road races as recently as 2009, and walked daily.   From 1973 onward, Tom counted the miles he ran, logging over 38,000 miles by 2010, in cities from Atlanta to Cairo, literally “running around the world” one-and-a-half times. 

He is survived by his wife Frances of Valdosta; Kim Ann Carter of Hampton, GA; W. Scott Smoot of Marietta, GA; and Todd Lee Smoot of Valdosta. He is also survived by two grandchildren. 

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The 4th "R" for Unmotivated Youth: Relationship

(Reflections on RESIDENT ALIENS by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, "Why School 'Reform' Fails" by Robert J. Samuelson in NEWSWEEK of Sept. 13, 2010)

Educational reforms since 1970 have produced no rise in scores and an increased percentage of college freshmen who need remedial work in the three r's, and efforts to halt the flow of young adults away from the churches of their youth have failed. Is there a common thread?

Economist Robert J. Samuelson tells how efforts have failed to improve schools.  Lower student-teacher ratios, higher teacher pay, and locally successful reforms haven't made a difference across the nation.  He blames "shrunken student motivation."  He does not automatically blame teachers, pointing out that unmotivated students used to have another option: 40% of 17 year olds dropped out of school in 1950.  He adds that "adolescent culture" has eroded the authority of teachers and schools.  He has no solution, ridiculing the aim of having "a great teacher in every classroom" as akin to having every football team comprised only of All-Americans.

Hauerwas and Willimon argue that American churches are failing because "we Christians have given atheists less and less in which to disbelieve." I'm only part way through this book, interested because I saw Hauerwas in early August.  So far, this statement, and some anecdotes from chapter five are the only things that have struck me.  The rest, so far, is stuff familiar to me but presented as if it were some kind of revolutionary revelation emerging from the ashes of everyone else's theology.  I reserve judgment.

But H and W do present an anecdote in the most interesting chapter that I've read so far in my jumping around, chapter five.  The two tell how one of them belonged to a church that challenged itself to reform its routine for confirming youth.  Classroom learning "about" Jesus and "joining the church" were discarded in favor of trying Jesus' own method of discipleship, or, in more modern terms, mentoring.  Adults identified by fellow members in confidential surveys were each paired with a teen, expected to meet once every couple of weeks to compare notes on reading a gospel, attending a church funeral, experiencing the same worship, performing some community service. 

This idea of mentoring is something I've been trying to achieve with my seventy-odd seventh graders this year.  I have in mind the tutoring I did for a stammering, non-writing, test-failing repeat eighth grader named Mike back around 1984.  He'd already failed my course; I soon felt it was futile to keep beating the dead horses of the curriculum.  We began to make progress the day that I stopped talking at all, and instead took out paper and wrote across the top, "Tell me in writing about your family."  He wrote, as usual, a one-line answer about having a mother, father, and grandmother. He handed the paper back.  I asked a follow-up: "Tell me more about your grandmother."  He wrote that she lived next door.  "Anything else?" She had red hair.  "When was she born?"  He had no idea. "Go home and talk to her."  He came back the next day, grabbed the paper, and wrote two pages of closely spaced text. 

I don't recall much of what happened after that, except that it was a major break through, my own Helen Keller at the water pump. He went on, not only to succeed at the high school, but to become a self-confident track star and scholar, who went on to gather more than one advanced degree.

I'm thinking that in-class writing for my kids could easily take that form.  Could I start class with a question, "What did you learn yesterday in class and in reading that you want to discuss more?"  Then, I keep pressing them with follow up questions until they do tell more.  I've done this in drama class, letting other students write the follow up questions for me.  Some write one sentence and answer a dozen follow up questions; others develop their thoughts fully, the first time.  The aim, of course, is to teach the questions that a critical thinker asks himself when reading or developing an idea.  It's worth the time, if I can do it.

So, let's keep thinking about a fourth "r," relationship.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Arts in Education: Boxes (2007)

(Having just recently posted a meditation on Arts in Education, I was reminded of this from a speech I gave about the arts to an audience of students and parents in 2007.)

Students may experience their days as a never-ending series of interruptions to real life.  They sit in a box to learn something called a "subject" until a bell signals them to move to another box for another subject, and so on.   Maybe they have a scheduled activity after school.  Then they may have some time to kill sitting in front of a box that tells them everything they know about our world today while it entertains them.   On weekends, some students' families gather in large boxes to think about God for a couple of hours.  Then it's back to the routine.    Does anything connect all those boxes to each other?  Can all these boxes connect to the students' "real life," not only at some future graduation ceremony, but now?  

That connection is what Andy Linn (Walker 2006) found in his various arts classes at Walker.   Now in a prestigious arts program at Cornell, he had excelled at Walker as both writer and actor in my drama class, and he had built a distinctive portfolio for AP art as a senior.  I asked him what I might say to middle schoolers about the importance of the arts in their schedule. He thought only a moment before he said, "Connections."  Preparing more than a dozen works of art in different media and styles for his AP credit, he was thinking about his art all day long. Suddenly he found that he enjoyed his classes more, concentrated more, because he was suddenly seeing connections between one subject and another. He said that they all went into his designs.

Now, he didn't have time to explain that part. Did he mean that he drew pictures of Presidents after he studied history? Was he putting equations onto canvasses? I really can't say.

But he reminded me of my senior year, when everything seemed to be coming together. That's when a poem by a soldier brought the First World War home to me in a way that the history book did not. As I was compressing vast amounts of data into a simpler equation, I realized that this was the same thing I was doing writing a poem, simplifying all my thoughts into the shortest possible statement of metaphor, "all this" equals "all that."

And he made me consider how all thinking is a matter of finding a connection between two things that don't appear to be related. And the arts are the one part of our lives where you use words, or designs made out of sound or color, to connect a feeling or a vision to an audience or viewer. It takes awareness of the world outside our little boxes, and skill to use a vocabulary of words, or a vocabulary of musical notation, or a vocabulary of colors and shapes that do more than just "express your feelings." You can do that with text messaging. Good art or music or drama or poetry is never about the self alone, but about enlarging the self to include others. The successful artist doesn't just express a feeling, but gets other people to feel it, too.

So, art isn't one box among others. It is a way of looking at life that sees through the imaginary walls that keep everything in its own little place. 
 

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Arts in Education: Got a Moment?

(Written for the Walker School's 2010-2011 fine arts brochure, to be handed out for performances all year long, by yours truly, as Middle School Fine Arts Chair,)

Before the performance, please take a moment to wonder at the time our students took to prepare for it.  

For you, it’ll be over in the next hour or two.  For the young artists, each minute took nearly an hour of practice.     Ten minutes or so was enough to memorize a minute of dialogue, more than enough to learn a tune; so what did they do with the remainder of each hour?  

For instrumentalists and singers, the notes are just raw material to be shaped.   Learning how to color the tone, to connect notes as a phrase, to move a phrase towards the next turning point in the piece – learning how music does make turns and climaxes –  that all takes time, first for discovery, then for practice.   When every musician has done that much, it remains for their teacher to blend their tones and phrasing with everyone else’s.     Thank you, Sonya Peebles, Erik Kofoed, Todd Motter, Samantha Walker, and Chris Johnson!

A play is, to a script, what a visit to the Grand Canyon is to the map of Arizona.   The script prints what characters say, but actors have to make us know what characters think.  We drama teachers – Regena Simpson, Patty Mozley, Katie Arjona, and I – won’t settle for imitations and stereotypes.  We keep our actors digging into the script and their own life experience until characters look, sound, and respond as real people.  Besides all that, there are dozens more hours of work done backstage to create the looks and sounds of an imaginary world, thanks to Bill Schreiner, Matt Eisenman, and Richard Gibson, and the students who help with design and production.    

Coming here today, you passed by students’ art work, pieces that took hours to make.   An artist who tries to depict an object, or to use a certain medium in a certain way, has so many questions to answer.  Where will I focus the viewer’s gaze?  How?  What color, shade, texture, position, or angle will convey the feeling I choose?  All of our art teachers from Pre-K to A.P.  – Kimberly Nasca, Sherry Walker-Taylor, Philippa Anderson, and Laura Stewart -- use their time to help each student discover a distinctive personal approach.

Finally, as I finish this note, I know that it will fit into an elegant publication produced at great expense of time by a group of parents who support young artists and their teachers in all the work I’ve described.    These Patrons of the Arts know that hours deeply engaged in the arts can lead to a moment of clarity and discovery, remembered for a lifetime. 

Enjoy such moments of your next hour, and come back again for more!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Summer Reading: Less Than the Sum of its Parts

(reflections on nonfiction by Malcolm Gladwell, THE TIPPING POINT (2001), and WORLD OF WONDERS (1972), the third novel in the Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies.)

Even at 6 a.m., the heat and humidity are still oppressive.  But, I'm up early fretting about homework schedules, so that means summer's long over.   Time only to give due consideration to the last two books of the season.

Our faculty read THE TIPPING POINT looking for possible applications to our middle school.  Can we engineer a positive trend by appealing to a few charismatic trend-setters, or by paying attention to small details, or by having a memorable message?  Yes.  Can each of those methods fail?  Yes. 

THE TIPPING POINT contributed its title to our vocabulary, so that I've heard the phrase countless times in analyses of politics, the economy, and popular trends in the years since it was published.  Beyond the cover, Gladwell tells a dozen or so good stories in which a seemingly small adjustment to some behavior spreads like a virus through a whole community.    The agents of the virus are "Mavens" who collect knowledge about consumer goods or whatever; "Connectors" who retain names and interests of hundreds of acquaintances; and "Salesmen" who use persuasion and personal charisma to draw others to a product.

From these, he tries to tease out some general rules.  These are, one by one, interesting and useful.  One salesman, for example, operates by having a ready reply for the would-be customer's every doubt (You can't afford it right now, but can you afford to wait?).  The "Broken Windows" change in policemen's policies in New York seems to have worked wonders, turning the city from crime-ridden and sleazy to its present Disney-fied squeaky clean feel.

But each of his general rules works only when some other general rule doesn't apply.  A virus won't work if the context isn't right, for instance.  That's true for a sexually-transmitted virus that stops spreading when cold weather inhibits bar-hopping.   Theology students preparing a sermon on the importance of caring for strangers literally stepped over needy strangers planted in their route to the lecture hall, so long as the context was that the audience was already there waiting for the sermon.  It's a good illustration of something we all know from experience.  Nothing works, he tells us, if the trend (object, concept) isn't "sticky," and it's "sticky" if it's useful, repetitive, appealing, chemically addictive ... whatever.

Think of it as a manual, and the book is a failure.  Think of it as a collection of loosely - related anecdotes that sometimes give ideas to a teacher or any other social engineer, and it's just fine.

Excited to re-read the FIFTH BUSINESS (see an earlier posting, here), I eagerly dusted off my old 1980 paperback editions of the other two novels in the trilogy.  In brief, the three novels follow out the lives of the boy who threw a snowball containing a heavy stone at another boy who ducked, and a third boy who popped out of his mother prematurely when that rock hit her in the back of the head.  Diminishing returns.  THE MANTICORE, I wrote previously, was a fascinating essay to illustrate Jungian ideas of universal myths that have personal meaning to each of us.   The evolving relationship between patient and analyst gave that novel a forward drive to carry through its discursive narrative.  WORLD OF WONDERS begins as a kind of creepy Huckleberry Finn story of a little boy who escapes home and is set adrift in a nasty carnival side-show called "World of Wonders."  The boy, now a master magician and film actor, tells his story to the film crew.  Once that story is over, it moves to the young man's apprenticeship with the last of the Romantic actor-managers in England.

We appreciate the details of life in the carnival, life in the old-fashioned theatre, life in the provinces of Canada.  But however much Davies strains to create dramatic tension between the tale-teller and his audience, the way he did pretty successfully in THE MANTICORE,  he doesn't achieve it, here.  Reading it became a chore, and the final chapters seemed redundant.

I recall feeling that way in the 1980s, and I also recall feeling that his next trilogy, beginning with REBEL ANGELS, was better, and his earliest trilogy, beginning with LEAVEN OF MALICE, was best of all.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Names and James: Homily for St. James' Church

(Homily delivered July 31 at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, at a celebration of St. James' Day.)

Good evening, and happy St. James’ Day!  This is the day when we celebrate the saint who is our namesake.

And my name is Scott Smoot.  That’s how I’ve always been introduced to you through the years, whenever I’m your guest pianist, or whenever I’ve brought news from the Vestry or the Rector Search Committee. 

But my driver’s license calls me William.  So do my insurance card, and my registration with this church.  And when I sign my name, it’s W. Scott Smoot.

My dad is to blame for this confusion.  Dad chose my first name, and he also chose not to use it.   I’ve always had to explain this to teachers and officials.  But the name has had the advantage of tipping me off to telemarketers:  If they ask for William Smut, I can hang up.

When I was in my twenties,  I finally asked my dad why he gave me a name that he never intended for me to use.   He got a gleam in his eye.  “I wanted you to have that initial W.,” he said  “like W. Somerset Maugham.”   That was a literary lion in the mid-twentieth century, a playwright, essayist, story – writer and novelist, my Dad’s favorite. 

But Dad never had told me that W. Somerset Maugham was my namesake.   Dad never said, “Son, I want you to be a writer.”   So how come I was the ten year old who stayed inside to type stories while the other boys were out playing ball?  How come, to this very day, my first thoughts each morning are about a story or a play that I could be writing, or a homily that I should be writing?   Somehow I grew to fit the name.

Living Up to Our Names
I won’t embarrass anyone by making you raise your hand.  But nod your head if you feel that your parents in some way influenced the course of your life by the names they gave you. 

I’m guessing that some of us have had names to measure up to. I went to high school with a guy named Manley, and you couldn’t help but measure him against his name.  Children of celebrities have had trouble living up to their famous family names.

Some of us have had names to live down.   The classic example is in Johnny Cash’s song about the absentee dad who made sure that his boy would grow up able to stand up and fight, by naming him “Sue.”   I once knew an atheist who named her son Darwin.  She explained that she was protecting him from what she called “cute little Southern Baptist cheerleaders.”  Last time I saw the boy, guess who he was dating?

In the Bible, names are signs of destiny. “I have called you by my name and you are mine,” says the Lord.  The angel tells Mary what to call Jesus before she has even conceived him.  Then there are the names in the Bible that change to mark a new relation with the Lord:  Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Saul becomes Paul. 

In our culture, it’s not easy to choose to change your own name, except for entertainers, and for  women who take the husband’s name in marriage. 

Our Church's Name
Now, we never chose the name of our church.  Our name was chosen for us in 1842 by our founding father, William Root. He led Bible studies for railroad workers in Marietta, but he had attended St. James’ Church in Philadelphia. 

This makes me think that we could easily choose a new name for our church.  After all, we didn’t choose the name, and we’re not really named for a saint, but for another church.  This might be a good time to think of a new name, since we’re in a time of transition, looking for a new rector. 

What other saint might be more appropriate?  In a homily a couple weeks ago, Tim Raasch pointed out how Saints Mary and Martha represent the contemplative spirituality of one sister, and the active hospitality of the other.   That certainly seems to describe two strengths of our congregation.   But the Episcopal Church of Sts. Mary and Martha in Buford GA could probably sue for brand infringement.

So what other saints might fit the way we are?  I’m amazed at the skills of people here who are good at building and making things – so we could adopt the name of Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.    Or we could go with Sir Thomas More, patron saint of lawyers?

We could buck tradition and go for a new-style corporate name, something catchy that would look good on a web site.   I was thinking, maybe, in big friendly letters, Prayers R Us?  Or maybe, something with an exclamation –point after it, like, Spiritco!  At the risk of rubbing a sore spot, here, I think we might streamline our current name, the way BP streamlined “British Petroleum.”  What could be more twenty-first century than SJx!

You all don’t look very excited.  Maybe, like me, you have a feeling deep down that St. James fits us somehow.  Perhaps, before we take such a radical step, we should look at what we know about St. James and see what it is we’re living up to.

Our Namesake
In today’s gospel (MT 20:20-28), James tags along with his brother behind his family name, “Zebedee.” We’re told in a note that the name means, “Thunder.”  When your dad’s name is Thunder, you probably get a lot of teasing from the other kids on the block.  The men in the neighborhood always tell you, “Your father was a really great man, very tough.”  Then they have to add, “So, when are you going to be more like him?”   Their mom certainly storms in to make sure they get the attention due such a name.    I imagine James is blushing, and saying under his breath, “Aww, Mom, you’re embarrassing me.”  But I don’t see that he steps up to stop her, either.   No wonder the rest of the apostles get mad.  

But Jesus stays calm.  He has a test for James and his brother.  “Are you able to drink from the cup that I am about to drink?”  The brothers aren’t sure what they’re agreeing to, but they are Sons of Thunder, and they’ve got to live up to that name.  They say, “We are able.”   Jesus is referring to that cup mentioned later at the garden of Gethsemane, the one that he wishes could pass from his lips, the bitter cup of martyrdom.   He sees in James a young man who will indeed make a stand and suffer the consequences.  

We’ve seen that quality in James before, when he was a fisherman, working all night without catching anything.  Jesus called out to him to cast his net on the other side, and the haul was great enough to tip the boat; but when James reached shore, he left the catch behind, and followed Jesus.  Son of thunder indeed, he’s impetuous and determined. 

But with his mother there, asking for special treatment, the other guys get mad, and Jesus rebukes them, saying those wonderful words at the core of Christian life, about how the greatest must be the servant of all, how the first must be the last. 

Tonight’s reading from Acts (11:27-12:3) tells how James, our namesake, lived out those words, drinking the cup that Jesus drank:  serving the Lord, he was the first of the apostles to die for Jesus. 

Now, there are other traditions and stories about James.  We know that he was a missionary who established the church in what we now call Spain, earning the love and gratitude of the natives there.   There’s a story that he resurrected a boy who had been hanged for a crime that he did not commit.  It was five weeks after the event, and people rushed to tell the boy’s father the good news.  The father, who was eating dinner at the time, bitterly said, “My boy is no more alive than this roasted bird.”  According to the story, the bird stood up on the plate, spread its wings, and flew away. 

After King Herod put James to death by the sword in 44 AD, legend has it that the saint’s body was airlifted from Jerusalem by angels, and deposited in a rudderless boat off the coast of Spain at Compastela.   Ever since then, Christian pilgrims have made their way to Compastela, to the church of St. James, or, in Spanish, Santiago.  They carried with them the symbols of our church: a traveler’s bag to carry necessities and a scallop shell to lift water from streams along the pilgrim’s way. 

Is our name a good fit?   Right now, this very month, is a good time to ask that.  The Rector Search Committee has put out a survey, and we are looking for your answers to questions about our church as it is now, and as we hope it will be.  

James answered the call of Jesus, no questions asked, without regard to cost or risk.  I know people at this church who’ve made open-ended commitments of time and resources.  Could this be true of us all?

James learned a lesson about becoming great through service to others.  Are we servants of the Lord?  Do we take turns serving each other?  I see on our survey a long list of committees and guilds.  Could more of us be involved?

James established a church among the needy in Spain;  I see our well-established ministries of Wonderful Days, and Reach Out Mental Health.  I know that we sponsor a church in (Ma – JEL – i- ko).  Is there more we could do?  Could more of us be involved?  

James is the patron saint of pilgrims, who leave their fishing, their business, their day to day lives, to worship.
Is worship central to our church in that way?  Is it central to our own lives?  We have a group here called the Pilgrimage who make their spiritual journeys without leaving the confines of this building – are we all aware of this group?  Could more of us join them?

This is a good time for us to ask these questions.   If a name is something that we grow into – well, let’s keep growing into ours.   Happy St. James’ Day!

[See my page Those Crazy Episcopalians! for other reflections on the church, scripture, and the writings of others who deal with these topics.]

Friday, July 23, 2010

Jung at Heart

(reflection upon re-reading Robertson Davies' "Deptford Trilogy," especially the second in the series, THE MANTICORE.  I use a paperback edition from Penguin books, 1984,  Originally published in 1972.)

Robertson Davies (photographed above) was a sly, witty, humane spinner of tales from his esoteric interests.  I've written an appreciation of him elsewhere ( "Reading" at www.smootpage.com  ) , and will focus here on THE MANTICORE.

As a novel, it's a great essay.  It is flanked by wonderful stories.  This one is also fascinating, and it's fun to see how Davies fits its incidents into the larger framework.  But it's still a device for showing the reader what Davies liked in Jung's psychology.

The narrator, lawyer David Staunton, speaks to us through journal entries and transcripts of his year in analysis with a Jungian practitioner.  He tells his life story to her, and she points out to him the way he is casting the real people of his life as characters in his own personal drama.  By the end, he has achieved at least one main goal of analysis:

I am beginning to recognize the objectivity of the world, while knowing also that because I am who and what I am, I both perceive the world in terms of who and what I am and project onto the world a great deal of who and what I am.  If I know this, I ought to be able to escape the stupider kinds of illusion. (269)

All of this was fascinating to me when I read it at 25. Double that, now, and it's a timely reminder.  Now that I think of it, I have a pretty good idea of who my "persona" is and my "shadow."

The face I try to present to the world at my best, my persona, is mild, competent, detached (and therefore ready to be amused), a fair observer whose talents are sifting and finding connections between things, and appreciating others' perspectives the way an actor does.

The shadow, whom I know uncomfortably well when I feel under attack, is hot tempered and ready to strike back with cutting remarks intended to cause permanent damage to the attacker's self-image and social reputation,

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

My Gripe With Grimes

(reflection on Martha Grimes' detective novel THE BLACK CAT.)

Although I expect any detective fiction to be on some level a game  (see my "Guilty Pleasure in Crime Fiction" ), I also hope to lose myself in the story.   THE BLACK CAT drew me in quickly with elements of plot, involving expensively dressed corpses of women who work for different "escort services."    Grimes also continues an emotional storyline from an earlier book in the series, as Inspector Richard Jury visits a comatose woman in the hospital, guilty that he feels more relief that the relationship is over than sadness over the certainty that she won't recover.  That's plausible.  In this novel, there's a likable small town detective with a paraplegic wife.  They're appealing.

But I could never believe the story because Grimes keeps interrupting it with whimsical characters and their self-consciously witty dialogue -- perhaps aiming for the effect of Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey fictions. It's why I put down Grimes after initial excitement with her series a few years ago.   The characters seem sometimes to be aware that they are part of an entertainment.  There are whole chapters that seem intended to be "cute," here involving a couple of anthropomorphized pets.  In other novels, there were cute chapters involving over-the-top small town characters -- an aunt, a lazy aristocrat, a snide butler -- all looking like they'd wandered in from a parody of Agatha Christie.   

Granted, it's a fine line to walk between the artifice that we love in detective fiction, and the artificiality that makes it flat.   In Grimes, I think the problem may be in Jury himself, because she seems to play him both ways.   He's sort of like the detective in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?  who passes between a real world and a cartoon one. 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It Seemed Like A Good Idea at the Time

(reflections on the news cycle of the past two days.)

I picked up a theme in yesterday's news that points to a universal truth that Democrats and Republicans alike ignore at their peril.  Sorry -- our peril.

The theme is nothing surprising:  When intelligent people in authority get together and make plans with good intentions for other people,  there will be consequences that they did not foresee and would not want.

For example, in a flurry of urgent activity to get a handle on the economic crisis, the Obama administration bought out GM and forced the closing of redundant and poorly performing dealerships.  This made perfect sense, to save jobs by saving the company by divesting it of dead weight.   News yesterday was analysis that shows net harm and net job loss by killing dealerships that were job creators in their communities.  An Obama regulator admitted this today, speaking how they would have done things differently, with benefit of hindsight.

Another example is the 2004 Republican Congress's response to the 9/11 Commission's common - sense  recommendation that a new head of intelligence be given the responsibility and authority to "connect the dots" in all the intelligence gathered.  As the latest candidate for the post interviews for the job today, analysts have reflected on the failure of the idea, as the position holds responsibility but not authority, and it's supported by a vast new bureaucracy that cannot (yet) do what it's intended to do.  Meanwhile, another analyst interviewed yesterday detailed examples of the different agencies' duplications of effort.  Of course, we also saw the "failure to connect the dots" at Christmas when a warning from a would-be bomber's father didn't get through channels to the people who would have kept the man off a plane.

Another example is in the gulf spill.  Here, it's corporate decision-makers plus political ones plus federal decision makers in the Coast Guard and other departments.  Did the dispersants used to break up the oil actually make the situation worse, because the thick oil becomes thinner and more easily absorbed into living tissue?  Has the capping of the pipe actually resulted in subterranean ruptures across a much wider area, hopeless to stop?

When we discuss these things and criticize the ones who made the decisions, we're scoring points as if every decision is a win or lose, right or wrong, smart or stupid, fair or unfair.  But it's always a matter of balance.

What other policy decisions in the news today will be discussed next year "with the benefit of hindsight?" 

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

John Updike Live, in Cincinnati

(reflections on UPDIKE IN CINCINNATI, edited by James Schiff.)

photo: John Hughes

"The whole aim of civilized life is to create nonviolent circumstances."  John Updike made that observation to explain how he could sympathize with the "prudery" of the NEW YORKER's editor Wallace Shawn. 

Sympathy is John Updike's other talent, the first being his facility with our language.  Besides these, he also works conscientiously, regularly, productively -- "three pages or three hours a day."
 
This book preserves the transcripts of Q and A sessions during two days of public appearances that Updike made as guest of the University of Cincinnati in the spring of 2001, and one can learn from Updike how to handle this kind of situation.  In every response, he explores the other person's assumptions and opinions as if in sympathy, before he begins to define his difference ...and then typically ends with a deferential comment as if to say, "I could be wrong."

Seeing him do this is a great pleasure of the book.  Much of the content is stuff I've read before, and the pages include the entire texts of the stories and essays read to the crowds by Updike and by critics who shared a panel discussion with him. Updike shows at least that he has been able to appreciate the critic's insights before saying, "Well, we all have our approaches and the critics are welcome to theirs.  But it seemed to me...." (57).

He bites back twice, at "every writer's friend" critic Kokutani (?) whose hostile reviews of his work I've seen in the NY Times; and at Tom Wolfe.  Even here, Updike shows that he knows what Wolfe has said, and why, before he dismisses Wolfe's A MAN IN FULL.

A theme that pops up a lot has to do with "archeology."  It's an explicit metaphor in a story discussed a lot here, whose title includes the phrase "Packed Earth."  I remember a later story with "Archeology" in the title; and his last book of poems describes how time packs layers of previous selves between the poet and the boy who looks back from the bottom of a well, blue sky behind him.

The editor James Schiff introduces the guest of honor at one event with an anecdote from seeing Updike at another conference.  "I became convinced that John Updike was merely the front man for an underground stable of writers who were .... cranking out stories and reviews ...and articles," until the end of the busy day, when Schiff catches sight of Updike at a table in the corner of the lobby, writing (2).

There are photos of Updike at talks and at the art museum, which I visited a not long after with my aunt Blanche. "I seem to have an expression I maintain through most of these authorial appearances," he writes back to the editor, "mouth half open, as if mulling  a salient point or recovering from a sharp blow to the back of the head"   (xxviii).

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Assessing Students' Writing with Rubrics: First, Do No Harm

NOTE:  I wrote this reflection back in 2001, and ran across it in a file this week.  My view has not changed. 
For non-teachers, a "rubric" is a list of qualities ranging from "strong thesis sentence" to "fewer than three spelling errors."  Each quality gets a point value.  In theory, students know before they hand a paper in how much credit their paper should earn; teachers can respond simply by checking off items on the rubric and adding up points.
    For non-Episcopalians, a "rubric" is an instruction written in red (L. rubra) in the margins of a prayer book to guide priests in the motions and choices they have during any rite.
      Here's the reflection:

      The worst experiences I had as a teacher assessing writing both came about when I thought I was upholding high standards as prescribed on a rubric. 

      Ready-made rubrics are available
      According to the rubric, Laura's researched essay earned C-.  She'd been warned: thesis sentence in the introduction, topic sentences for every paragraph, or else.  She'd been warned at two earlier stages of the writing, too. I didn't see past the rubric to the fact that this paper was a huge step forward for her, that it did many other things I'd asked for.  I didn't know the immense amount of time she had put into making it the best she knew how.  She was crushed, and the entire eighth grade rallied to her support.  In a class meeting, they suggested more flexibility in the rubric....  They also told me (not in so many words) to frontload the assessment, to do more directing early on and to de-emphasize the final grade.  That is, in fact, how I use rubrics now, as a guide and gatepost early on.  My colleague Bonnie Webb (Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project) says it this way:  "[Student], you're going to write an A paper, and this is not yet an A paper."

      [Laura's mother quipped that we teachers should take the Hippocratic oath:  "First, do no harm."]

      My second bad experience relates to the flip side of rubrics: when they work, they can still do damage.  It was my A++ student Adrian who deflected a compliment from me at the end of the year.  He said I was wrong, that he used to be a good writer, but now he was just writing by formula (i.e., the rubric).  He's right.  I fail to find any articles in New Yorker or even Newsweek that follow those "high standards" involving the five-paragraph formula.

      I compare what I did to Laura and Adrian to what Mrs. Spear did for me in seventh grade.  What I learned in my research on "world religions" stays with me, and I spent weekends and one long night on it, proud of my grown-up subject and (I thought) grown-up conclusions.  But I still didn't "get" what a "paragraph" was, and several of mine in that paper are one sentence long.  Few of the paragraphs have topic sentences.  By my own rubric, that was a C- or worse.  But, bless her,  Mrs. Spear encouraged what was good, and saved battles over paragraphing for some other occasion or year.  [Result:   I was confident as a writer, and therefore interested in learning how to improve.]   She graded the paper separately on content, organization, grammar, spelling, and neatness.  Got A's and B's except for the C- in neatness.

      Tuesday, June 15, 2010

      Escape Clause: Graham Greene's THE HEART OF THE MATTER


      (reflection upon re-reading THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene, in an anthology published by Heineman, 1979.)

      "Scobie." Even twenty-seven years after I read THE HEART OF THE MATTER, that name brings to mind a man and his milieu.  He's an officer of the law in a British colony on the west coast of Africa, taciturn, so scrupulously honest that he records only facts in his journal.  He has stripped his office of all personal effects that would speak of a past now lost to him, and little remains except necessaries for the desk and handcuffs on the wall.

      More than once, Greene reminds us of those handcuffs, because the colony itself is a kind of prison, at least for the British stationed there. Beyond the borders of the colony, Nazi Germans lurk. The air itself is oppressive, hot and humid, teeming with mosquitoes. The rainy season begins and the drumming of rain on the tin roofs never ends.  Ants, rats, and lizards encroach on their homes.  Besides that, the natives, politely subordinate to the British, form a tangle of interconnected families and lies so thick that Scobie long ago gave up trying to judge who was right or wrong in any of their conflicts.     

      That much I remembered.  I'd forgotten how wittily concise Greene is.  Greene breaks us into the world of the novel via Wilson, fresh off the boat, surveying the city from a hotel's balcony, pink gin in hand.  Like Scobie, Greene doesn't have to pass judgement; we know all when we read of Wilson's pink knees, thin mustache, and concealed books of poetry, one verse concerning betrayal of friendship. Wilson's guide points out Scobie, and Wilson takes an interest in rumors that Scobie may be sleeping with black women and may be taking bribes.  What we figure out, long before Scobie does, is that Wilson is secretly investigating corruption in the colony.

      Though I'd forgotten the specifics of the plot -- Wilson falls in love with Scobie's wife while Scobie falls in love with a young refugee from a sunken ship -- I remembered how Scobie's world closes in on him.    Whatever Scobie does with good intentions, always above board, also gives the appearance of corruption, and draws him deeper into relationships with characters whose interests conflict. 

      Is there any escape?  Greene contrives it so that Scobie has no viable choices, except to hurt either his wife or his lover.  He chooses instead to hurt his God, sacrificing his integrity for pity. Early in the novel, discussing a suicide with his ultra-montaine wife, he says "sharply" that even suicide can be forgiven: "We'd forgive most things if we knew the facts" (p.68).

      Still, the novel doesn't endorse Scobie's choice.  An ironic coda makes Scobie's heroic sacrifices seem foolish. The world is more tangled and deceitful than even Scobie thought. 

      The real escape from this net of interconnected needs and tangled deceptions is one offered by a bland priest, to take care of one's relationship to God first, and let God handle the rest.

      Monday, June 14, 2010

      Johnny O'Neal, Jazz Pianist: Leaving them Laughing

      (reflection on a recital by Johnny O'Neal, pianist, at the Southwest Arts Center of Atlanta, June 13.  With trio.)

      Atlanta jazz lovers know the voice of H. Johnson, host of "Jazz Classics" beginning every Saturday night from 9 p.m. 'til  two o'clock, and it was around midnight that I woke up to hear Johnny O'Neal playing and talking jazz with H.   A few hours later, I was seeing both of them at a fine community theatre, as H. introduced his old friend.

      The affable Mr. O'Neal, looking a bit thinner than his picture here, played for more than two hours with local guys on percussion and bass.  He opened with "Put on a Happy Face," setting a theme for the show.   Once he had established the tune, he played around with it.   One hallmark of his style is his penchant for very suddenly pulling back on the volume, barely touching the keys, often while the room resonates with a chord he has just pounded out.   His improv included dozens of notes that seem like a spray of sound, soft and brilliant.

      He followed that with "Some of My Best Friends are the Blues," getting laughs with scat.

      There was hardly a moment when laughter wasn't a part of the performance.  There was slapstick comedy of the Victor Borge variety, but there were also moments when he seemed to surprise himself with an idea and chuckled. 

      He got serious with a version of Whitney Houston's hit "Savin' All My Love for You," played mostly as a languorous jazz waltz, followed by a Seventies ballad, "With Every Breath I Take," sung with a deep baritone that rose to crying, sighing high notes.

      Just when I was thinking that he hadn't done anything in the Gospel vein, he obliged, though his improvisation rather overwhelmed the familiar gospel riffs.  He concluded with "I Need A Vacation From the Blues."

      While he was vigorous at the keyboard, he looked frail when he walked.  He seemed like a wizened kid in his dad's suit, making me wonder if he has gone through some bad times recently.

      Still, he left us with a lot of happy faces.

      What's Toxic, Sticky, and Spreads?



      American Egret takes flight from an oil-impacted marsh along the Louisiana coast.
      June 7, 2010 - AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

      At St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, GA, parishioners contribute meditations on the daily lectionary for a series of devotional booklets for different seasons.  I just wrote my contribution, for Lent 2011.  It concerns the first anniversary of a disaster that will surely be a continuing story in the news for years to come.


      Here it is:


      for Wednesday , April 20, 2011

      Jeremiah 17:5-6  Cursed is the man who trusts in man…. He is like a shrub in the desert [and shall dwell in] an uninhabited salt land.

      On this day one year ago, a deadly explosion released torrents of oil that flowed unabated for months.  It polluted Gulf waters and coated the shore, suffocating life, making fertile land uninhabitable.

      We felt anger even more than sorrow.  We had trusted “failsafe” technology;  in any case, we had trusted agencies to shield the marshland and beaches.  We felt betrayed.

      But in our interconnected world, there’s a lot of betrayal to go around.  I drive, heat and cool my home, shop for low price on gasoline, and invest in funds that include oil stocks.  In these ways, I supported the drilling for oil in the Gulf; didn’t we all?  While teams of volunteers frantically scrubbed toxic tar from the eyes and mouths of turtles and birds, I cringed with the feeling that those innocent creatures of God were suffering for our Sin.

      By “Sin,” I don’t mean air-conditioning, but a pervasive human condition that spreads like oil through the Bible, from the garden of Eden to the garden of Gethsemane.  Once Adam and Eve betray the Lord’s trust, the story of humanity becomes the story of Cain against Abel, nation against nation, powerful against powerless.   Again and again, God’s beloved people betray His trust, finally delivering His son to the cross.

      God’s cleanup begins at Easter, and spreads by disciples from Jerusalem to Rome, from Jews to Gentiles, from generation to generation, all the way to St. James’ Church in Marietta today. 

      Like teams of engineers, Coast Guard, fishermen, and animal rescuers who rushed to the Gulf last year – plus marine biologists, civic agents and lawyers who will continue dealing with consequences of the oil spill for many years to come – we all have our work to do, and we have to do it together. 





       

      Saturday, June 12, 2010

      Atlanta Lyric Theatre Does Sondheim Musical: It's a Hit!

      (reflections on A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Produced by the Atlanta Lyric Theatre at the Strand Theatre in Marietta, GA.  Production directed by Alan Kilpatrick.)

      What more is there to say about this exemplar of musical comedy?  Since 1962, after a rough period of gestation that required the help of "show doctor" Jerome Robbins,  A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM has worked, even when production values were lacking.  I know, because production values have always lacked in every production I've seen, until now.

      At the Strand, a refurbished old movie theatre on Marietta's refurbished 19th century town square, a peppy and precise band played the delightful Overture.  Rotund and cherubic-faced Glenn Rainey took the stage and promised "Comedy Tonight."  The audience was charmed right away.  When the curtain rose on three distinct Roman houses squashed together on the very narrow but tall stage, the audience applauded. The song got laughs for the antics of the "Proteans" and for the entrance of each character.  Every joke and every song landed.   Every actor seemed perfectly suited to the part.  Of course the characters are stereotypes -- those haven't changed in the 2000 years since the source material for this play premiered in ancient Rome -- but these actors made the characters feel like old friends.   I don't recall other actors I've seen in the roles of Hysterium, Senex, Lycus, or Domina, but young Chase Todd, Robert Wayne, Brad Raymond and Ingrid Cole made strong impressions. 



      Sondheim's music and lyrics were overlooked in 1964.  How?   Every one of them contains polished gems of verbal playfulness (my companion especially liked, "The situation's fraught, / Fraughter than I thought..." and I've always been partial to "Today I woke, too weak to walk").  The music serves the actors their comic effects on a silver platter, the pauses and punchlines accented by the accompaniment.

      Mr. Sondheim, if you happen to Google yourself and see this, you will be gratified to know that a companion, seeing the show for the first time, commented how the tunes were so "hummable," and the nine-year-old girl on our row, also seeing it for the first time, was actually humming along.

      Tuesday, June 01, 2010

      Spencer Quinn's Dog Detective Series: A Doggie Treat

      (reflections on DOG ON IT and THEREBY HANGS A TAIL, the first two novels in a series by Spencer Quinn.)

      On one page -- 42 in the first edition of THEREBY HANGS A TAIL -- I counted six aspects of this series that have made every page a pleasure to read.

      First, when the narrator is a real dog's dog like Chet, the German Shepherd, you get deliciously ironic moments.  He thinks that he knows more than he does:  "I was in the picture, understood the whole enchilada just like Bernie" (i.e., the P.I. who owns Chet).

      "Enchilada" sends Chet off on a tangent, and we get another delight of the series.  It's just like a dog to run off the track after any fleeting thought.

      Meanwhile, Bernie is waiting for a small private plane to appear.  By now, Chet's ears have been bothered by the buzz of its approach for at least a page.  But only now does Bernie say, "I think I hear something."  Chet's enhanced senses bring us some angles on a story -- sounds and smells -- that we don't usually get.

      But it's Chet's attitude that makes these books so delightful.   Like any healthy dog I've known, he seems to find pleasure, at least interest, in just about every thing that happens.  A limo approaches, "leaving a golden trail of swirling dust" in its wake.  Chet comments, "Things were so beautiful sometimes I just wanted to gaze and gaze."

      And through all this, it's still a legitimate crime novel, with its cast of interesting human characters, such as Adelina, a woman who causes detective Bernie's jaw to drop on page 42.

      So reason number six is that Bernie is a sympathetic guy, and Chet's admiration and devotion to him are boundless.  The reverse is also true.  It's like reading about young romance (puppy love?), fun and funny and sometimes heart - breaking when one of the pair is in danger and separated from the other.

      A seventh reason, as lagniappe:  According to Quinn's official bio, his favorite authors include two that I've been reading this past week, novelist Graham Greene and poet Philip Larkin.  Anyone who likes those two, and dogs, has got to be good.

      Sunday, May 30, 2010

      Students: Why Visit Savannah?

      (letter to seventh graders, introducing a workbook that will accompany them to Savannah in September.)

      Dear Student,

      You walk up steps every school day. Do you know how many?  Most of us can't answer that question.  As Sherlock Holmes said, “People see, but do not observe.”  How many of us just pass through the world without observing most of what we see?

      When you visit your grandmother, do you observe what her home tells about her past? Have you looked where she keeps her wedding dress, childhood treasures, and letters from her own grandmother?  If so, then you pass through time when you walk through her home. Do you ever ask her about her childhood?   She asks you about yours!  She wants to tell you about the people and places that made her who she is, if only you’d ask.   She raised someone who raises you, so, deep down, her past is a part of your past, too.

      Savannah is our state’s beautiful grandmother, and Savannah will be telling us stories of her early life, a life that’s a part of the past of every Georgian and every American.    She “talks” through guides, but also through what you see.  The people of her past tell you stories through their buildings, designs, and artwork. 


      This booklet will be your source for notes, quotes, and examples when you return to school and write for your teachers about what you learned.  The questions here will help you to “hear” what Savannah says.  Make notes on what you observe, and make notes on the stories you hear from guides.  Make notes, too, about how it all affects you, and about your friends. 

      Someday, this booklet may be the souvenir of a trip that made a difference in your life, a memory of a fun time when you outgrew a stage of childhood, something for a grandchild to find in your attic.
        

      Sunday, May 23, 2010

      Joys of Larkin

      (reflections on Philip Larkin by way of an essay published on line in CONTEMPORARY POETRY REVIEW.)

      The late writer Rachel Wetzsteon begins her essay "Philip Larkin and Happiness" with a disclaimer:  the title isn't one of those jokes, along the lines of a slim volume called "German Humor."  For the famous curmudgeon, she writes, happiness was key to his work, even in its absence.

      The article cites a poem that took me by surprise a week ago.  Called simply, "Coming," the poem conjures the look and feel of sunset outside a row of suburban homes at that time of year when days are getting longer. When a thrush sings, "astonishing the brickworks,"  Larkin reflects that the feeling is like that of a child "Who comes on a scene / Of adult reconciling."  Without understanding why, the child "starts to be happy."

      Reading this at a deli as the sun rose on a Saturday, following an exhausting Friday, I felt that happiness unfold in me. 

      I've written elsewhere on this blog about the joys of Larkin.  I recommend Ms.Wetzteon's essay, which focuses on a marvelous poem called "Born Yesterday."

      Saturday, May 22, 2010

      Meaning of LIfe: Detectives' Perspectives

      (reflections on two novels, FACELESS KILLERS by Henning Mankell -- first in the series -- and TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT by Alexander McCall Smith.)

      In FACELESS KILLERS, Henning Mankell writes of his detective Kurt Wallander that he rarely gives himself over to philosophy, repose, or introspection. "Life for him was a matter of juggling practical questions that needed resolution" (123).

      Same here. My perpetual to-do list is like Wallander's -- answering mail, putting off a phone call, cleaning up the place, making a note to call a repairman -- only "find killer" isn't on it.  On Sundays, and whenever I take time to write here on this blog, I wonder if life is being frittered away doing small errands and ticking off deadlines that are met with a flurry of activity and then forgotten.  When I have a large swath of time, I miss the errands that give shape and urgency to the activity of the day. 

      That may be a large part of the appeal of contemporary detective novels: murder gives point and urgency to all the busy-ness of the day.  Coffee, showers, bills, car trouble, family crises, unanswered messages and other homely details beset the detectives of Mankell, Cornwall, Grafton, Mosley, Cruz Smith, making their lives more of a piece with our own,  They share in our daily stuff, and we share vicariously in the pursuit of truth that's supposed to put our mundane life in perspective.  

      With McCall Smith, it's the other way around: it's the small problems and perspectives on life that give his books their flavor, and the investigation of crime merely binds the threads of his characters' homely concerns. 

      In a scene of introspection during TEA TIME FOR THE TRADITIONALLY BUILT, Alexander McCall Smith's detective Precious Ramatswe sits with tea before her family wakes up.  She enjoys the moments before she has to juggle practical questions of her own: preparing breakfast, dressing her kids and husband, "a hundred things to do."  But for the moment she could be alone, "As the sun came up over the border to the east ... hovering over the horizon like a floating ball of fire" (55).  This brings to the mind of Mma Ramatswe something that a priest once told her, when she worried that the sun would someday swallow the earth. "Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know"(56).

      I like the sound of that.  If convicting a murderer isn't on one's list of things to do, it takes something else to make it all worthwhile.  Religion is supposed to provide that, but a creed and assurances of forgiveness don't make sweeping the floor or buying the milk any more meaningful.  Let one see those "practical questions that need resolution" as part of the "work for love to do," then that's motivation.

      Saturday, April 24, 2010

      High School Actors Make Summer Brave Real

      (reflections on SUMMER BRAVE by William Inge, directed by Katie Arjona for the Walker School's upper school.  Performance April 18, 2010).

      In a tiny studio theatre where the audience sits within six paces of the cast, the actors must do more than speak their lines with conviction.  The characters flirting in the background are as close to us as the ones with dialogue in the foreground, and we can see in their eyes if they're in character or not.   In a production of William Inge's SUMMER BRAVE by students of the Walker School in Marietta, GA, every move was true to the character, even between the lines.

      When the play begins, life is balanced and predictable in Flo's home.  Daughter Madge (Olivia Breton) is "the pretty one" and engaged to an attentive and upright young man with a bright future, Alan Seymour (Patrick McPherson);  the other daughter Millie (Casey Schreiner) resents her sister's prettiness and claims to care about books and art instead of boys.  Flo (Kiwi Lanier) is a widow focused on her girls' future marital prospects; her neighbor Mrs. Potts (portrayed by hilarious Claire Golden) is unmarried, flighty, and oblivious.  Their border Rosemary (Megan Hilburn) is a teacher maintaining a tense relationship with forty year old Howard (Jordan Perry) vague about his commitment to marry her.

      A stranger upsets the balance.  Hal Carter (Justin Kasian) appears, unemployed, unattached, and unreserved.  He enters in a wife-beater tee, sweating, with an ingratiating grin. Every female on stage seems to be attracted and repelled to some degree.  There's to be a picnic that night, and, in no time, Hal has a date with the younger sister Millie, and he's flirting with the older sister Madge.  When Howard brings whiskey along for the evening, we know that this community event will be no picnic.

      Inge's script is almost schematic in its pattern of contrasts, but the actors didn't settle for black and white.   During the sisters' banter, Breton and Schreiner hurled accusations at each other, but we could see that "Millie" needed some reassurance from her older sister, and Breton's eyes registered concern while her annoying sister baited her.  McPherson is supposed to be too proper, too passive, making Hal roughness and impulsiveness irresistible to Madge.  But when the two men confronted each other, Kasian showed a boyish vulnerability, while McPherson was hardly passive.  He let us see Al's mind and heart at odds, knowing that his old friend Hal is not to be trusted, while hoping that he might save Hal with the right mix of generosity and reason. 

      It's been a week since I saw the show, but I haven't lost complex impressions made by the characters in key moments:

      • When the widow Flo, comforting Madge, says that a girl can be taken in by the attractiveness of a man who will ruin her life, actress Kiwi Lanier seemed to be looking into her own past, though the script never says outright that she's describing her own marriage.  
      • While inconsequential dialogue went on among other characters, Kasian's "Hal" attempted to dance with Schreiner's "Millie," but she let us see by her awkward steps and downcast eyes how her fear of being inadequate vied with her hopes of being desirable like her sister. Then Hal turned to dance with Madge, and their simple swing step turned quickly into an aggressive display, foreshadowing all that would follow.
        • One of the most intense moments of the play occurs when the whiskey flows, and schoolmarm Rosemary, having been needled by her "friends" (played by Mohini Chakravorty and Georgie Wilkins), expresses her resentments at men.  She delivers her tirade inches from Hal's face and drills into him what a useless excuse for a man he is.  Kasian hardly moved while she circled him and attacked, but his devil-may-care look hardened into grim determination.  We expected, and got, an explosion.   
          • In just a few moments, McPherson took "Seymour" from forgiveness offered to Madge, to a fistfight with Hal, to pain of loss when she rejects him, through the quick decision to change all of his plans for the future.  Yet he suppressed the character's inner turmoil to smile at others' happier endings. He was still smiling a little as he turned for his final exit, swallowing hard, eyes red. 
          • In the final scene, Breton's eyes were haunting, first rimmed in makeup smeared with tears.  She started the play as the self-composed town beauty, fascinating and untouchable to the boys in town (played by Josh Zuckerman, Alex Moyer, Matt Lewis and Myles Haslam); but the morning after her fling at the picnic, they return like a wolf pack to a dog in heat, hooting and honking their cars at her.  Breton exited stiffly, eyes staring forward, reflecting horror at what she has lost and what her future holds.
          I saw the play with a colleague of mine who has also taught young actors for decades, and she was as impressed as I by the layers of character and the quality that all the actors had of being wholly "in the moment." 

          Kudos to director Katie Arjona, who worked the actors hard to make their face - to - face interactions real.

          Sunday, March 14, 2010

          Jamie Cullum in Concert: Shhhh! This is called "Jazz!"


          (Reflections after seeing the concert by Jamie Cullum and musicians at the Cobb Energy Center north of Atlanta, Friday night, March 13.)



          I hear the word "Jazz," and my pulse starts racing immediately. But for a generation or more, "Jazz" has become a word of scorn. Some women I know, older than I am, think of jazz as ugly, formless, annoying; students in my middle school classes use "jazz" the way my generation used "elevator music." So maybe it's good marketing for Jamie Cullum to play down the core of his strength as a performer.

          In an interview broadcast on NPR the morning after I saw Jamie Cullum, the young singer / pianist told of playing jazz clubs in London where audiences were sparse and much older than he was, until word of mouth got around about, in his words, "the type of show I do," and he drew in fellow twenty-somethings.

          He has since attracted an audience as wide as a continent, and an ocean away from that little jazz club. On the Grand Tier level of the house at his concert in Atlanta Friday night, there were elderly couples, young women who screamed "Whooo!" and "Jamie!" whenever he ripped off an article of clothing, college-aged Asian Indian groupies who posed with their Jamie Cullum posters at intermission, my friend Suzanne who is JC's age, and this fifty-year-old fan of piano jazz and show tunes.

          So, does he still have to step up on the piano and jump off? Does he still have to kick the piano stool over and stand pounding chords on the grand? The promotional material extolled his "spontaneity," but some of these "spontaneous" actions seemed to be a requirement. Standing at the top of the piano, his body language and a long pause seemed to ask us, "Do I really have to do this?" I don't fault him for giving his audience what they wanted; I fault the audience for wanting all that when he was offering so much more!

          For his show Friday night, he treated us to a wide range of musical styles and textures. He sang ballads alone at the piano, including an original composition "Grand Torino," composed for the movie that strikes me as an instant standard -- moving, thought-provoking, tuneful, well-crafted. He made a point of stepping away from the microphone to rely just on his voice. He sang a new rendition of a song that I've heard him sing on TV and on recording, Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," this time arranged simply for his voice and an upright bass. He improvised at the key board while other band members played solo trumpet and guitar.

          He worked an intense, slightly abstracted version of Stephen Sondheim's "Nothing's Going to Harm You" into the middle of another song.

          His real spontaneity is the kind that qualifies him as a jazz musician, and that's what happens when he and his band surprise each other with twists and sparks in the music. He's in his thirties now, and he doesn't have to jump off pianos any more. Unleash the jazz, and let it work on a new generation or two, or three.