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:

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.

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.