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.