Monday, December 31, 2012

Tony DeSare with Atlanta Symphony on New Year's Eve

Singing a rapid-fire version of "Just In Time," singer-pianist-songwriter Tony DeSare set off a fine New Year's Eve show with his trio and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.  Billed as a young crooner, he and his trio moved way beyond being a Sinatra tribute act.

He did, in fact, channel Sinatra over Nelson Riddle's orchestral arrangement of "Night and Day." but he then sang Prince's "Kiss."  Reducing that song  to its essentials - lyrics, barebones accompaniment, melody -- DeSare revealed it to be traditional blues, with the bonus of internal rhymes, making it a good companion piece to Cole Porter's standard. 

Craftsmanship is important to DeSare.  His Berlin song "I Love a Piano," besides showcasing his keyboard chops, also integrated the melody with its cousins "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Rhapsody in Blue."  Later, departing from the printed program, DeSare delighted the audience with seventeen variations on "Jingle Bells" with spot-on imitations of piano riffs and vocals of Michael McDonald, Elton John, and also  styles ranging from ragtime  to classical.

Beginning with just piano and vocals, bringing in full orchestra, he and arranger Tedd Firth freed Journey's  ballad "Faithfully" from its 80s sound, and it came out sweet and soaring.

His own compositions were effective.  There was a show-stopping "New Orleans Tango" that played with the musical conventions of two kinds of song, and "How I Will Tell You I Love You" (I may have the title wrong), in AABA form, which builds its lyric on subdued word play -- as, "When you break the rules, I'll bend them around you." 

He got laughs with "Fire," and then hushed the hall with an intimate original ballad, "First Last Kiss."

He was the headliner; the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra delighted us in the first half of the evening with light classical hits including "Dance of the Hours" and Leroy Anderson's "Classical Jukebox," which, like DeSare's "Jingle Bells," had us enjoying variations on an annoying tune, "Put another nickel in ...the nickelodeon...."

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Teaching Playfulness, Reaching God

(Reflection on blogposts of my own that are tangents to themes in yesterday's posting about John Polkinghorne and Kate Braestrup -- link http://smootpage.blogspot.com/2012/12/macro-god-micro-god.html)

This morning I re-discovered some long-forgotten insights while searching for something else.  I typed in "sondheim + god" to find a copy of my own article for the SONDHEIM REVIEW's issue #50,  but I found a lot more, besides, and they all interlock nicely with yesterday's posting, "Macro God, Micro God."

As a teacher of both middle school students and adult churchgoers, I want to remember "Teaching Beauty," a post from 2007 (http://smootpage.blogspot.com/2007/07/teaching-beauty-art-philosophy-and.html).  For teachers of children, there's this insight: "Interpretation will not get you to appreciate the beauty. The beauty attracts first, promising depth, and then you want to dive in. Interpretation is part of the diving." That is to say, we teachers who teach interpretations are slamming doors in students' faces just when we should be coaxing them through to undiscovered country.

This discussion of beauty leads by tangent to a commentary about interpreting the Bible, prompted by this exchange between a priest and the late, grating atheist Christopher Hitchens.  They found common ground in a belief that beauty transcends matter.  But they clash over Scripture:
Hitchens' critique of religion begins from reading Scriptures as a fundamentalist would. When the interviewer pointed this out, Hitchens snapped back, "It's either God's word, or what use is it?" He thinks that ends the discussion, but of course, it's only a start. Hitchens thinks religion is lies, and art is good. I'd simply retort, "Religion is art." That's not to say that Christianity and the Bible are fiction.
There's some explanation about the nature of the Bible before the article pulls together all the strands: "Can Hitchens see that a leap of faith is an act of imagination? ...[F]aith is a pleasure that changes lives and builds community."

Another article repeats Polkinghorne's question, "What is the evolutionary value of Mozart [or any other examples of gratuitous and graceful ingenuity]?"  The question arose when a book of puzzles based on New Yorker cartoons struck me as evidence of the real "Intelligent Design."  Will Shortz comments about the "snap" when all the interlocking pieces fall together, which reminds me of a quote from Ellington, to the effect that this snap "is happiness."  This leads in the article to a tribute for one of the most strikingly useless pieces of cleverness I've ever seen, a book of French "poetry" that's actually punning on English verse.  Got that? For a fuller explanation, go to http://smootpage.blogspot.com/2007/01/cartoon-puzzles-real-intelligent-design.html

Another article for teachers relates to gratuitous play, without reference to God.  We read about a corporate consultant who sets aside the agenda when there's an impasse, to "play." That means, he sets a goal and encourages divergent ways to reach it.  This is inclusive, not to be confused with exclusive "competition." There's a memorable anecdote connected to this, about an encounter between a polar bear and a sled dog on a chain.  What looked at first like a horror in progress turned into laughter.   http://smootpage.blogspot.com/2007/09/playings-thing.html

Finally, there's an article about ARCADIA, a play that incorporates every thread in this article.  In fact, it's all in one paragraph:
What Stoppard says, and demonstrates so convincingly through these polished but real characters, is that the big questions are interesting, the ones on the biggest scale and smallest scale - big bang, or sub-atomic particles -- but it's the unpredictable nature of what happens in between that makes life worth living. Hannah, after the big blow up, makes a comment about faith. She says that she has no problem with God or spirit, but she can't stand the notion of an afterlife: "If we're going to find out everything in the end [I'm quoting from memory].... if all the answers are in the back of the book, what's the point?" What these characters demonstrate as they talk and talk and talk, is the pleasure in finding out through investigation, surmise, and testing hypotheses. http://smootpage.blogspot.com/2007/08/stoppards-arcadia-math-and-tenderness.html

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Macro God, Micro God

(reflection on EXPLORING REALITY: THE INTERTWINING OF SCIENCE AND RELIGION by John Polkinghorne, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005; and on Krista Tippett's radio interview with Kate Braestrup about her memoir HERE IF YOU NEED ME.  Link to a transcript of the interview @ http://www.onbeing.org/program/presence-wild/transcript/4957#main_content  )

The old days were soaked with God, as we can read in European literature from Milton backwards. My forebears named Him casually in both contracts and curses, credited Him for both natural processes and chance incidents, and invoked His judgement upon every human action. Science wrung God from daily discourse, leaving behind a mere puddle. The Deity became a mere "God of the gaps," default cause for every effect that science hasn't explained - a set that shrinks every year.

Not so fast, says author John Polkinghorne, a quantum physicist-turned-Anglican Priest. I heard him on Krista Tippett's radio program On Being (nee Speaking of Faith) and have now read his book EXPLORING REALITY. He argues that science has found more room, not less, for miraculous events, response to prayer, and the ongoing involvement of a concerned and omnipresent Creator.

His view of a cosmic God who works miracles is irrelevant to Kate Braestrup, also a guest of Krista Tippett's program.  She says, "You know, God doesn't have to be out in the next solar system over bashing asteroids together."  She finds God in everyday life, but not in the way our forebears saw God's hand in every event.

The two authors look at God from opposing sides, but their perspectives are not mutually exclusive.
 
Polkinghorne Widens Gaps for God
In his book EXPLORING REALITY, Polkinghorne pulls together threads from his more substantial works in this slim book to make a sampler for those who won't deny science in order to keep faith. Here's a sampler of what I got from reading it:

First, you don't have to be a Quantum Physicist to ask the question that made a theist of me in my teens: What could possibly be the evolutionary "survival value" of Mozart's music, or the joy we have in perceiving it?   Asking myself that as an agnostic -- though for me it was "A Little Night Music" by Sondheim and not by Mozart -- I could answer only that there's more to us than mere matter, and It's good.  And It has good taste!

Science now supports the religious feeling that our universe is more than the sum of its particles, Polkinghorne tells us. "Reductionism" of everything to merely mechanical processes is so 20th century, he says; "emergentism" has replaced it, awareness that phenomena can "emerge" from interactions of objects, as "Wetness" emerges from interactions of water molecules. The quality that we call "consciousness" is another emergence, Polkinghorne says, concluding that "mind" and "matter" lie on a continuum.  He explains (but I still don't get) how quantum experiments were affected by the act of observing them.  At the quantum level, particles affect each others' behavior far beyond the reach of any communicating force. He speculates about the effects that minds, collectively, have on our universe.

Polkinghorne wants us to know, above all, that Science has outgrown determinism.  R.I.P., Laplace (who imagined that the cosmos has unfolded, and will unfold, on a trajectory determined from its outset), and also Marx and Freud. Chaos theory interferes with the old view.  "Chaos theory" is a misnomer, he says, for the study of chance variations that  make great effects across a wide range of phenomena. This is the "butterfly effect," by which the fanning of a butterfly's wing in a tropical jungle can result in a windstorm on the other side of the planet.

Chapters on physics prepare Polkinghorne's reader for affirmations of the existence of free will. A chapter on "Time" disposes of the old idea that all time is contained as if in an aquarium. That old view is partly supported by Einstein's insight that observers can experience time in different ways, depending on position and speed, allowing the conclusion that our perception of time's passing is only a matter of limited perspective. But Polkinghorne thinks that's overreaching.  For him, time is more like a narrative, and trajectories can be knocked off-course.  He sees room in the universe for a God to interact with us, to make things happen, even resurrection.   

In the rest of the book, Polkinghorne applies "critical realism" to religious doctrine.  Here, I was on more familiar territory.  I recognized vintage C. S. Lewis when Polkinghorne reasons that men of ancient Israel would not have put their lives on the line for Christ without firm belief that Resurrection happened really (83), not as a stunt or a symbol; nor would they have composed Gospels in which they themselves would appear so foolish, nor women would appear so influential.

He makes a big deal of the doctrine of Trinity, something that I've always accepted without much thought as a kind of metaphor for a being beyond our comprehension.  For Polkinghorne, understanding the Creator as a being involved in time, not outside of it, is key to everything else -- free will, prayer, miracles, the Incarnation of Jesus, and the operation of the Spirit.  Jesus' calling to the Father from the Cross was an event within the life of the Trinity, even a crisis, but  not a charade played out for our benefit.  Polkinghorne uses ancient sources to reason that the Spirit is active in all human lives in all times, and other faith traditions are therefore Spirit-led, too, though incomplete without acceptance of Jesus' resurrection.

The life of the world to come?  Polkinghorne tells of "branes," short for "membranes," imagined in "superstring theory" as parallel universes layered together like layers of skin. Resurrection may have poked a hole in the "brane."  How will we all meet Jesus, face to face, if we are all resurrected bodies?  He imagines, half-seriously, the idea of a vast universal reception line where Jesus says a few kind words to each of us.  Instead, he wonders if Jesus is embodied by all of us, taking literally the metaphor of the church as "Christ's body."

More interesting than his speculations about how it all will happen is his wondering why -- or, more accurately, why not immediately?  If there will one day follow some universe free of two kinds of "evil" (natural and moral), then why should we have to endure the viruses and wars of this one? His best answer is that Creation is empowered to create itself - everything from galaxies to viruses, with humankind in between.

Braestrup Narrows God's Field of Operations
Kate Braestrup is both a cop and Unitarian Universalist pastor, working as chaplain for Maine's park rangers. In her work, she has been present at "miraculous" rescues of little children lost in the woods, and "tragic" recoveries of corpses. "Miracles" are what we call it when chance events lead to saving a life; but Braestrup observes that tragedies are equally improbable:  numerous chance events put  a predator in contact with his victim in an opportune time and place. She sees the hand of God, not in the chance incidents, whether "miraculous" or "tragic," but in the fact that teams of law enforcement officers and community volunteers give of themselves to help when bad things happen. She tells Tippett,

...God is love. And I mean that pretty literally, that God is, if nothing else, and that's a big if, but if nothing else, God is that force that drives us to really see each other and to really behold each other and care for each other and respond to each other. And for me, that is actually enough. That cultivating it, that thinking about it, worshipping it, working towards it, taking care of it, nurturing it in myself, nurturing it in other people, that that really is a life's work right there, and it doesn't have to be any bigger than that. You know, God doesn't have to be out in the next solar system over bashing asteroids together. Right? You know, it's plenty just the God that I work with.

Asked what she says in the worst cases, Braestrup replies, "If someone asks, you know, 'Where was God in this?' I'll say, 'God was in all the people that came to try to help, to try to find your child.'" 

She speaks with Tippett about events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy when communities pull together to help those in need, and someone invariably asks, as Dorothy Day did at the San Francisco earthquake, "Why can't we always live like this?" Braestrup tells us that such caring and courageous behavior is more common than these calamities, although she allows that sometimes "it fails," as in the case of Kitty Genovese.

At another spot in the interview, she takes issue with some Christians for whom life and life after death are paramount. She quips that life isn't really so important to us at all: "Half of the time when I'm ... responding to a tragedy, [it's] someone who was willing to risk his life for something really as evanescent as ... excitement. [For example] he was driving a snowmobile 70 miles an hour, and he bashe[d] into a tree. I mean, we risk our lives all the time."

Synthesis
While one author looks to the cosmos for God, and the other looks no further than the next person's eyes, they unite in believing that there's a shared spirit working in us, inspiring us to love, motivating us to risk ourselves for others, strengthening us to accept loss and move on.  For one, that's an aspect of the Trinity; for the other, one third of the trinity is enough, and the rest is just speculation. 



Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Miserables: Something Appealing, Something Appalling


Appealing actors give their all to make us believe that rhymes and melody arise on the spot, while an orchestra plays discreetly in the background, and we buy it.  The crowd in a suburban multiplex applauded at the satisfying reprise of "Can you Hear the People Sing," an effective transfer of curtain call to film. I heard sobs earlier, from different areas of the theatre. 

The director Tom Hooper told NPR that he approached this musical as an alternate world where everyone sings their feelings, and his job was to let the actors practice their craft.  He arranged for them to sing with live piano accompaniment transmitted to their ears by accompanists responsive to the actors' every pause and breath -- and copious tears. He shot many songs in close-ups, continuous shots that let us see that tears arose from within the actors, not from filmmakers' trickery. 

The picture's first twenty minutes give us harrowing images of class brutality, but it's not a Marxist manifesto: we end up unironically at Versailles (if my recognition isn't faulty) in fancy dress.  In between, the police chief's single-minded pursuit of justice can't help but appear ridiculous, though Russell Crowe sings well and acts with conviction. He has to sing one of the lyricist's egregious rhymes, "nip in the bud" to go with "blood."  My friend Suzanne and I snickered.  

I surrender to the movie. I love the characters, and the actors who embody them, and the orchestra that generates such lovely sound behind them. 

My reservations are as old as the original Broadway production's cast album. I'd heard so much about the show that I bought it immediately when it arrived.  I cried more than once listening to the two-LP set.  I also cringed with shame for crying at it, fully aware how I'd been manipulated both by the musical's creators and by Hugo himself.  It's a formula:  Give us appealing characters, put them in situations where they sacrifice themselves, and we'll cry.  An hour after listening to the music, I ran into former student Scott Johnson, then in high school, and proposed that we could probably sketch out a show as effective in an afternoon.  He wasn't so interested, though he has gone on to a career as songwriter-singer.

It's gripping, its cast members inspire loyalty, its music and lyrics (except for "in the bud" and Hugh Jackman's vibrato on "Bring Him Home") go by as if it were perfectly natural for charactes to sing: I'm sold.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The More Things Change: Ben Franklin's Fiscal Cliff

(Just a note about pages I've read lately from Walter Isaacson's book BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: AN AMERICAN LIFE (Simon and Schuster paperback, 2004).)

Either raise taxes on the wealthiest individuals or face drastic cuts to defense of homeland under attack:  we've been here before, in 1750s Pennsylvania, known to Middle School US History teachers (and a few dozen others) as the era of the French-and-Indian War, Ground Zero. 

The so-called Proprietors, descendants of William Penn and others named in the colony's original charter, were wealthy and privileged by birth.   When Ben Franklin proposed formation of a militia and proposed a self-tax to supply British forces coming to assist the colony in its defense, the Proprietors balked, and the Governor supported them. 

Franklin got the Assembly to set up a militia -- strictly voluntary, to appease the pacifist Quakers in Assembly.  To those who objected to fighting on behalf of Quakers who remained home, Franklin wrote, "That is to say you won't pump [water from a sinking] ship, because it will save the rats as well as yourself" (170). 

Eventually, the Proprietors agreed to a one-time voluntary grant, leaving their tax-exempt privileges untouched.

Franklin had no more success getting support from other colonies that shared interests in the western lands, as each colony's assembly was jealous of its own power.   It was in this context, not the later Revolutionary War, that Franklin printed the first political cartoon in North America, the segmented snake over the motto, "Join or Die."

One of Walter Isaacson's themes in this life of Franklin is the idea that liberty is a communal interest, not just an individualist's privilege.  

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What We've Forgotten About Ben Franklin

(Reflection on BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: AN AMERICAN LIFE by Walter Isaacson, New York: Simon and Schuster paperbacks, 2004.)

One hundred pages into this one-volume life of Ben Franklin, he is already an appealing character and exemplar of the America I knew as a child.  I wonder if we've lost touch with him?

His biographer finds significance in Franklin's lineage.  He was the youngest son of a youngest son, going back four more generations.  His family name "Franklin" itself was originally a designation for "tradesman." Not one trade, but many; not one place, but dozens, as the scion of each new generation sought his fortune away from the family -- our famous Benjamin included, running away from his brother's print shop in Boston to make his fortune in Philadelphia.  Franklin's father Josiah was a non-entity in other biographies I've read, but he emerges as a type familiar to me from my own father and his father.  Taking issue with the accepted belief that Josiah nixed young Ben's advancement to Harvard solely because of expense, Isaacson suggests that Josiah probably judged Ben to be unsuited for the clergy (Harvard being primarily a seminary). Instead, when Benjamin showed distaste for his father's candle-making operation -- and an interest in going to sea -- Josiah took Benjamin on a tour of Boston's trade shops, giving the boy a life-long appreciation for all trades, and an instant liking of printing.

Through his twenties, at least, Franklin's energy was devoted to self-improvement.  That's not too surprising, and we see that in the ubiquitous sports culture today.  In fact, I learned this morning that "No pain, no gain" is a bumper-sticker version of Poor Richard's "No gains without pains" (99).  What's different is how self-improvement for Franklin was to be achieved largely through community involvement.  He studied "how to win friends and influence people" as the older people in my life used to do, and reached the same conclusions:  Ask more questions than one answers, listen well, look for talents in others and faults in oneself, avoid direct confrontation and change minds indirectly by asking questions that make others see faults in their reasoning, and give all the credit to those who support one's project. 

After a couple of misadventures, including a fool's errand to London where he found himself without means, Franklin began his own advancement by "networking" with other young men in Philadelphia.  This "Junta" practiced debate, supported each other in public and in business, and delivered papers to each other on improvements for the town and for themselves.  It was through the Junta that Franklin set up the lending library (for self-improvement through study), fire department, and a regularized system of "watchmen" (police), staying in the background as an organizer,  giving credit to those who contributed to each project.

By the time America reached the 1920s, Franklin's approach to success through civic organizations was both well-established and scorned by modernist intellectuals.  Isaacson quotes D.H. Lawrence in the 1910s on "escaping" the "barbed-wire moral enclosure" of Franklinesque thinking (100).  In high school, after reading BABBITT (1922), I felt that author Sinclair Lewis had scored some easy points making fun of the unoriginal, uninspired, unintellectual title character, but had missed the goodwill and energy that came through even Lewis's disdain. 

The 60s counter-culture was a reiteration of Lewis's smug-ugly attitude.  Since then, the ironic view of earnest self-improvement has dominated the popular mindset.  It rears up in school, often -- except when the subject is sports.  Well, that's a topic for another blog post.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Following Lincoln's Moral Compass

(Reflection on the film LINCOLN directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay by Tony Kushner. Based especially on Doris Kearns Goodwin's LINCOLN: A TEAM OF RIVALS.)

A compass will surely lead you North, says Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln in the recent film, but it cannot tell you of swamps and mountains in the way.   I'm paraphrasing Tony Kushner's remarkable screenplay, here, because that single line encapsulates one of the three qualities in Lincoln that I most admire, and this response to the accusation that he has "no moral compass" is the most succinct that I've encountered in a lifetime of reading about the 16th President.

The screenplay is structured to show both Lincoln's relentless pushing towards his goal (winning Congressional approval for the 13th amendment) and the maneuvering he has to do to get there -- including canny backroom political deals as well as personal moral persuasion.  His dream of piloting a ship towards a vague shore, shown early in the film, underscores the main line of the film.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film captures another trait of Lincoln.  Scene after scene, he is the least imposing character in the room:  gaunt, weary, intent on others' words -- whether these are tight-lipped politicos pronouncing their certainties about the future, or cheeky young soldiers black and white who voice their aspirations to their Commander-in-Chief.  Yet we are always drawn to watch him.  He was a man who listened.  He drew others out, hearing both what they said, and what they implied.  In the film, Lincoln is always taking into account the minutiae of political and military decisions and weighing the personal impacts they'll have against national, partisan, and moral concerns. Two moments stand out this way:  a scene in which Lincoln signs a pardon for a deserting soldier, and a scene at the telegraph office where, all alone, he listens to the young telegraph operator's opinion, then slyly revises his dictated telegraph message for Confederate negotiators to be maddeningly ambiguous -- affording his administration what would today be called "deniability."

In the movie, when Lincoln has made up his mind, he quietly turns the other person's speech around to persuade them face-to-face. It's in the White House kitchen, away from a state ball elsewhere, that firebrand abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens accuses him of having "no moral compass." Lincoln's answer sways Stevens and tips momentum towards passage of the 13th Amendment banning slavery, Lincoln's main objective in this movie.

The other trait that I've always loved is Lincoln's sense of humor.  The actor portraying Secretary of War Stanton (to my eyes a perfect embodiment of the Stanton I've seen in photos and read about in biographies) blusters away in anger when Lincoln begins "one of his stories" at the telegraph office where everyone awaits news from a critical battle.  It happened a lot in real life. I've read elsewhere that Stanton did publicly chide Lincoln for inappropriate levity, and Lincoln reportedly replied, "I laugh because I must not weep."

I searched the internet for any historical basis for the "moral compass" line, and, finding none, took time to read then-Senator Obama's appreciation of Lincoln in a speech at the Chicago Institute.  I share his vision of the man and President.  Link here: http://chicago.about.com/od/chicagopeople/a/ObamaSpeechAL.htm

I also happened upon this anecdote, of personal interest to me: 

Mr. Lincoln was so poor that when he was elected to the Illinois State Legislature, he had to ask his friend Coleman Smoot for a $60 loan. "Smoot," asked Mr. Lincoln, "did you vote for me? Admitted Smoot, "I did that very thing." Then, Mr. Lincoln responded, "that makes you responsible. You must lend me the money to buy suitable clothing, for I want to make a decent appearance in the Legislature." (Richard J. Behn, 2004 is Research Director of the Lincoln Institute.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Spies Like Us: Skyfall and Argo

(reflections on two movies, SKYFALL directed by Sam Mendes, and ARGO, directed by Ben Affleck.)

Affleck in ARGO; Bardem, Craig and Dench in SKYFALL
How refreshing it is to see two Hollywood movies that focus on personal struggles and leave the rest of the planet intact!   I once counted three different versions of the apocalypse during previews, before the feature film handed me a world-wide conspiracy that would end life as we know it. But let us give thanks this Thanksgiving for two tension-packed spy movies that give us more character than CGI effects. 

SKYFALL focuses on just a handful of characters.  Daniel Craig as James Bond has a face worth the close attention.  Craggy and a little goofy, it's the face of a boy in middle age, registering amusement, determination, fleeting self-doubt, and hurt disillusionment, even in the absence of dialogue.  Bond's boyhood is emphasized throughout this movie.  His past figures importantly in the plot, and he shares the film's focus with the character he jocularly calls "Mum," Judi Dench as "M."  She is the object of a personal animus from the villain, played by Javier Bardem, who tries to seduce Bond away from her. 

Director Mendes gives us lots of action choreographed for story first, spectacle second.  We get lots of laughs, including the chuckles of recognition whenever there's reference to a Bond trademark -- girl, the line "Bond, James Bond," the car, the gadgets, and the martini, the cocky theme: they're all here.   But affection and sympathy are the main line through the story, the action being incidental -- where other movies have been the opposite, injecting sympathy at intervals to relieve the monotony of mayhem. 

ARGO tells a real spy-story, the de-classified account of how six Americans made it back home from Iran via Canada in 1980.   Comic - book style story boards remind us how the US and UK raised up the Shah in 1952 to reclaim oil fields that a secular, democratically-elected president had nationalized, how the Shah enforced his regime, and how the religious revolution led to bloody and violent recrimination.  Seeing the storming of the US embassy from the inside, we appreciate how it feels that forces beyond anyone's control are engulfing the mild-mannered personnel inside.   Director Affleck thus gives us a broad view of how Iranians have legitimate gripes against the US, but we also see American individuals doing their best -- low-level diplomats, high-level bureaucrats, and humane soldiers. One officer goes out alone, unarmed, to "reason" with the mob, a valiant effort that fails. 

After that tumultuous start, Affleck draws us into the true story of how a CIA agent named Menendez comes up with a plan to rescue the Americans.  Estranged from wife and young son, he has his brainstorm when he shares a long-distance moment of bonding with his son, watching a sci - fi movie together.  He concocts the scheme of rescuing the Americans by posing as Canadian producer of a sci-fi film to be called "Argo."  How he convinces the Brass that this is the "best bad idea they've got" and how he convinces dubious Hollywood professionals (played by John Goodman and Alan Arkin) to commit to pretending to make a movie that will never exist, make for high comedy.  Even then, we get one of the many touching moments in the movie -- when Arkin, as a director, dubious about the plot, glances at a TV clip of a blindfolded hostage, and his humanity overrides skepticism.

The rest of the movie is about relationships and trust.  Besides Affleck and his collaborators, we see the six Americans, holed up in the Canadian ambassador's residence, barely holding up under the pressure of hiding, watched with suspicion by their Iranian housekeeper.  Menendez as movie producer "Harkins" has to win them over, and then teach them to act.   Tension builds, even though we know how the story turns out, because new obstacles arise as the moment of escape approaches.  The pace quickens as we jump from locations around Tehran to offices in DC and a movie set in Hollywood, watching members of the team fight for the success of the mission.

The whole story is so unlikely that laughs come easily, even in the midst of real-life tension.  Iranian guards, earnest and frightening, are also fascinated by the sillly sci-fi story.  There's an extended sequence juxtaposing two media events across the globe:  a trumped-up reading of "Argo" by actors in cheesy Star Wars ripoff costumes alternating a reading of a revolutionary's indictment of the US. 

A student of mine recently disagreed with me when I said "the incidents of a story are nothing; it's about character." He said, "Wrong, incidents are everything."  In these movies, the incidents certainly had me kicking the railing in front of me at the local multi-plex, but characters and their choices are what remain with me.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Little Women, Big Voices

(reflection on a performance of LITTLE WOMEN, a musical.  Book by Allan Knee, Music by Jason Howland, Lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Production at The Walker School, Marietta, GA, directed by Mrs. Katie Arjona.  I saw the show at its opening, November 1, 2012.  Pictured:  Alex Catlin as "Jo" and Eleni Demestihas as "Aunt March," a screen cap from YouTube.)

More than the story, more than the songs, it's the sound of LITTLE WOMEN that has stayed with me since I saw it opening night.

As "Jo," the ambitious and loving eldest sister, senior Alex Catlin warmed the room with a pure, golden tone.  Whether she was singing all the parts in an imagined "operatic tragedy," mock-Donizetti in a duet with overbearing "Aunt March" (played by Eleni Demestihas, whose Broadway contralto voice brings to mind Kaye Ballard), or Jo's personal declaration of independence and ambition, "Astounding," Miss Catlin's voice was a supple instrument that expressed her character's thoughts.   (I heard her in a preview performance when a technical glitch prevented the orchestra from playing the first few bars -- and Alex was poised and pitch-perfect singing the part, as if it had been written a cappella)

The director, Mrs. Katie Arjona, chose this show because, in her words, "This year, we have the girls who have the pipes for it."   How right she was!   Each of the other leading women had distinctive sounds that reflected their characters.

Georgie Wilkins as frail "Beth" sang with a silvery sweet sound, affecting in "Some Things Are Meant To Be" about leaving life young, and delightful in a pastiche parlor duet, "Off to Massachusetts." Seated at a piano with elderly Mr. Laurence (Alex LaDue),  they began their relationship with that song -- we never see them together again -- but just their harmonizing generates a sense of mutual affection.   That's the magic of musical theatre!

As the mother, Rachel Novak responded to a letter from the absent father in the song "Here Alone" with a mature sound and quiet passion, more feeling than the absent patriarch deserves.  Younger sisters Meg and Amy (Shannon Keegan and Liane Houde), possessing strong voices with wide ranges, blended with the other women in a quartet early in the show that cast a glow over the whole evening.  The audience knew, even if the story turned out to be a bit thin, the evening would be beautiful.

Credit goes to vocal director Samantha Walker, who coached these young voices since September, teaching them technique to support the sound and to smooth out the highs and lows.   Individually, the men blended well with the powerful-voiced women in their characters' lives.  Senior McLain McKinney played the role of young Mr. Laurence (a.k.a. "Laurie"), a mostly comical juvenile role.  McKinney projected exuberance, whether he was dancing (and boxing!) to attract "Jo's" attention, or standing still to receive her scorn.   Junior Matt Zibanejadrad played "Professor Baer" with a strong voice and a slight German accent, generating sympathy for this stodgy character in his solo "How Am I," a self-disgusted response to Jo's question in a letter, "How are you?"  The youngest singer in the bunch, freshman David Simpson, sang a vocally demanding duet with Shannon Keegan, "More Than I Am," and the two of them sang this rangy ballad with more self-assurance than we would expect, and made us believe that their relationship was going to grow and last.

When the whole ensemble sang together, as in "The Weekly Volcano Press," counter-melodies intertwining and voices blending in rich harmony, they generated a wonderful sound. 

In the school's production, all of this was made clear with staging by director Mrs. Katie Arjona on a vast two-tiered set by designer Mr.  Bill Schreiner.  The set efficiently suggested a number of different Victorian homes merely by re-positioning a staircase, a bookcase, and some furniture.  

Heard but unseen, the orchestra supported the cast's luscious voices and brought different colors -- solo strings and sunny brass -- to the mix.  Mr. Todd Motter conducted the orchestra and also cued the singers via closed-circuit video monitors concealed in the "footlights" of the stage.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Who Puts the "Oh!" in Otello?

(reflections on the opera OTELLO, libretto by Arrigo Boito, music by Giussepi Verdi;  Met Opera HD broadcast Oct. 27, 2012: starring RenĂ©e Fleming, Johan Botha, Falk Struckmann.)

John Botha and Renee Fleming in Act One; Falk Struckmann in Jago's "Credo," Act Two.


Which is harder to believe: that Othello should, in just one afternoon, grow murderously jealous of angelic Desdemona; or that he ever loved her at all?  Yet
we do believe both propositions, against our better judgement, and we're moved to pity and terror by Shakespeare's Othello. When that happens during a performance of the opera Otello, is it because, or in spite of, the amendments of the librettist and composer?

Librettist Arrigo Boito telescopes Shakespeare's first couple of acts into just a few dozen lines of sung verse.  A composer himself, he minimizes words to maximize opportunities for his musical collaborator. I don't have the script in front of me, but the entire script for Act One goes something like this, minus repetitions and details:

CHORUS:  O, it's a terrible storm at sea. (Great storm music) We pray that our commander Otello will survive. (storm music subsides, and martial music begins)
OTELLO:  We defeated the Turks.  Now celebrate.  My captain Cassio is in charge. Come, Desdemona, let's go to bed! (she goes with him silently, smiling and beautiful)
JAGO:   (to Roderigo) If you want Desdemona, help me to disgrace young Cassio, whom Otello preferred for captain over me! I'll get him drunk.  You pick a fight with
him.
CHORUS:  Let's drink. (rousing drinking song
CASSIO:  My head is spinning.
JAGO:  Have more!  (His music snakes down a chromatic scale in a strange braying way. It's wonderful and creepy.)
RODERIGO:  [Insult]!  (Roderigo's fight with CASSIO becomes a general riot)
OTELLO:   (storms on with Desdemona, in bed clothes) Stop!  Cassio, you're demoted. 
(Everyone leaves, and Cassio exits, ashamed, watched by Desdemona and Jago.  Desdemona remains for long duet with Otello)  Remember how we met, Desdemona?
DESDEMONA: I loved you for your adventures as slave and soldier. 
BOTH:  I love you.  I always will. 


Boito sets everything up in just those words, while Verdi can sweep us along with storm music, dance music, fight music, and this great love duet. It ended, if I heard it right, with the lovers chanting in something close to monotone, while a bass droned underneath, and the upper notes of the orchestra pulled farther upward, straining the chords to an uneasy effect as the lovers sing of their eternal devotion.

In the scenes that follow, Boito preserves swaths of Shakespeare's dialogue, but he hands Verdi and the singers a couple showstoppers that only opera could devise.  There's Jago's "Credo," when he snarls that he believes in a god of destruction, and after death?  "Nothing!"  The music (and singer Falk Struckmann) dismiss all notion of afterlife or meaning with a wave of music - a contemptuous gesture. 

The temptation of Otello is chilling and hilarious, too, as Jago disturbs the trusting Otello's faith with nothing more than hints, mostly echoes of Otello:  "What do you think?" asks the general.  Jago echoes, "Think, my Lord?"  Once, Otello even mimics Jago back at him, tune and all -- getting one of the few laughs in the show. 

There's a quartet, as Jago fights with Emilia on one side of the stage while Otello wonders if, being a black man and a foreigner, he doesn't understand these subtle Venetians.  Here, by skipping all of Shakespeare's Act One, scenes 1 and 2, Boito sacrifices one of Iago's most effective insinuating lines:  "She did betray her father, marrying you" [and may betray thee].  Johan Botho, in the title role, effectively communicated Otello's bewilderment and self-doubt here, allowing us some sympathy with him later.  Yes, he's stupidly convinced by a flimsy piece of "evidence" -- that damn handkerchief supposedly given to her supposed lover Cassio -- but he also feels as if his great love and trust have been betrayed by a cabal of "super-subtle Venetians" (as Shakespeare put it).

In Act Three, Boito includes the horrible moment when Otello seems to ask Desdemona's forgiveness: "Forgive me," he says, and the music softens as Desdemona approaches him, "I mistook you for that whore of Venice who deceived Otello." Following Shakespeare's "Willow Song," Desdemona sings "Ave Maria," beginning as a monotone chant over turbulent music, deepening into an aching, hopeless prayer.  Renee Fleming is a beautiful woman who projects intelligence and goodness, but it's Desdemona's own intelligence and innocent trusting courage that comes through, no matter who plays her. 

These characters, this situation, these emotions, all shot through with Jago's vicious creativity, constitute a loom where actors, directors, and composer Verdi can spin their magic.   It's an ugly story, hard to swallow, hard to watch, but somehow worth the discomfort. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

O Praise Hymn: King's College Sings "Best Loved Hymns"

(reflections on a recording by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge of "Best Loved Hymns" from The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church, selected and conducted by Stephen Cleobury. Notes by Cleobury and Richard Abram.  Issued by EMI recordings, 2001. Also, Vaughan Williams on Music, by David Manning. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, displayed on Google Books. (p. 32). Reflections on the Hymnbook itself.)

If director Stephen Cleobury had asked for my favorite hymns from the Episcopal Church's 1982 collection, my list would've matched the program for his CD of "Best Loved Hymns."  Unfamiliar to me when the hymnbook was new, some of these songs affect me now as old friends.  Hearing Cleobury's choir sing "The Day Thou Gavest Lord is Ended," its tune gently rocking up and down like a lullabye, I recall how singing it by candlelight at Sunday evensong brought serenity to this young teacher, who always came to the service anxious about Monday morning.  But there are other features of these songs to love, and perhaps I can help some hymno-skeptics to listen to them the way I do. 

First, however, we must acknowledge a cultural prejudice.  There's a presumption that fast music is "happy" and slow music must be "sad."  Our culture has forgotten how a deliberate tempo can express a wide range of emotions that aren't in the vocabularies of my seventh graders today.  Serenity, contentment, yearning, wistfulness, resolve, and reverence require explanation.  Unless the reader understands how music can be solemn without being sad, then the discussion has to stop here.

If you're still with me, you may already understand that hymns are not "slow" in a strict sense: they just lack the rhythm track that fills between beats in pop music.  For example, both Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and this recording's stately performance of Herbert Howells's "All My Hope on God is Founded" move at 120 beats per minute; Jackson merely squeezes more syllables into each measure.  Hymns are often much "faster" than pop music where chord changes are concerned. We  are used to pop songs that repeat bass lines every four measures under three chords, or even two chords. We should appreciate the frequent changes that Vaughan Williams makes in every measure of "Come Down O Love Divine," relaxing the tension at the end of each verse, as on the phrase, "Wherein the Holy Spirit makes his dwelling."

If we think of melody as the lines of a drawing, then chord changes fill in color.  Herbert Howells (d. 1983) shifts harmonies frequently under his tune for "All My Hope on God is Founded," words by Seymour Bridges (d. 1930). He named his tune Michael, for his young son who died around the time of this song's composition in 1930.   (Tunes exist independently and are traditionally re-used for other words.  For example, the tune for "God Save the Queen" is used for "God Bless our Native Land" and "My Country 'tis of Thee").  Howells shifts to unexpected chords out of the home key while we sing that "change and chance" undermine our expectations,  and even "tower and temple fall to dust."  Howells' harmony comes back to the home key under the reassurances of the verses' final phrases: "Christ doth call / One and all; / Ye who follow shall not fall."  

Here, we should also appreciate the craftsmanship in the words of these hymns.  Notice, in the Howells, how the concluding clauses click in place with the added third rhyme: ...call - all - shall not fall.  This last line of all gives us a bonus with wordplay on "fall" and "follow."  An earlier verse makes a lovely theological point, too: "From His store / Evermore / New-born worlds rise and adore."  An alert choir director can find songs to relate to the readings for any Sunday -- even when the text is about Jesus as priest "like Melchizedek!"   The words often develop complex ideas in three or four verses, densely packed with meaning.

John Ireland (d. 1962) also uses harmony to paint such a rich text for "My Song is Love Unknown." The verses by Samuel Crossman (published 1664) reach their climaxes in lines about Christ's suffering, emphasized by inner rhyme:

...O, who am I
that for my sake,
my Lord should take
frail flesh and die? ...
..."Crucify!"
is all their breath,
and for his death
they thirst and cry....

Here, as in Michael, the harmony unsettles us.  The hymn, in both words and music, expresses reverence and reassurance, tempered by resignation and regret. Happiness? Sadness? We're way beyond those categories.

We can also appreciate artistry in the melodies themselves.  The tune we know as "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" by Joachim Neander (d. 1680) is danceable in a vigorous 3/4 time.  Neander works variety into the melody, while still repeating enough to make the song "catchy."  The first line starts low and leaps up a fifth to "the almighty," slopes down in small steps and then up again in a "V" pattern. The second line repeats the pattern, but the third line inverts it, starting high and dropping down, then stepping up and down ( ^ ).   The step-by-step motion continues in the last line, sloping upward ( / ) before settling on the home note, right when words reassure us that God "sustaineth" or "doth befriend" us. 

There's a different way to balance repetition and variety in the lovely folk tune Slane, to which we sing the words "Be Thou My Vision."  There's a catchy little slide that we do going down on the word "my" (sung "my-y vision") and up on "o" (sung "o-o Lord").  That's the song's hook, giving us something familiar while the melody changes with each phrase. At "Thou my best thought," we get two of those little hooks in a row signalling the climax at our highest note ("Thou my-y be-est thought") before we settle down to where we started.  So the melody, prase by phrase, tends upward, never repeating before it relaxes at the end.  But we recognize the hook wherever it happens, and each phrase picks up where the one before leaves off, so the song has a unified feeling.  Reaching upward and upward, then falling like a sigh: it's a musical metaphor for yearning.

Some Episcopalians complain that the hymns "aren't familiar," but Vaughan Williams, writing in the preface to a hymn book of 1909, faced the same complaints.  He pointed out then that the "familiar" tunes hadn't been familiar for long, all being less than fifty years old. The program for this CD spans 400 years, so that we are hearing music that worshippers have sung all that time, with words that go back much further.  Here's something else to love, then: When we sing, we share "one body, one blood," and one voice, in time as well as in space.

Listening to the CD reveals something else to love.  Even at our thinnest, on bad days, our choir reminds me how these songs sound in halls such as King's College, where the sounds fly to every dark corner and glowing window of a vast space, and pauses bring the flying notes back down to human level. Reverb captures the feeling on CD, and I can't help but think both of God's transcendance and his immanence when I hear both the grandeur and the silences in these recordings.


Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Chet and Bernie Alone: A Fistful of Collars

(Reflection on A FISTFUL OF COLLARS, by Spencer Quinn. Atria Books, 2012.)

Bernie Little is a private eye, veteran, ex-cop, and dog owner; Chet is his partner, his good-natured and highly distractable chronicler, and his German shepherd.  They are the central figures in A Fistful of Collars, latest in the crime series by Spencer Quinn -- pseudonym for an author successful in another genre (but that's all I know) -- and, while the twists and turns of plot are interesting, it's still the company of the narrator that makes this book such a pleasure.

The plot here involves a macho Hollywood star named Thad Perry, filming a Western outside of Hollywood.  Bernie is hired by the Mayor to keep an eye on the notoriously irresponsible star.  Characters from earlier novels make memorable appearances, here:  Suzy the reporter, Leda the ex, and Charley the young son -- who "dies"  on camera for the corny Western in a scene that was, for me, most memorable in the novel.  When Bernie has to dogsit for an ailing neighbor, we finally get to meet Chet's best dog pal Iggy, who has always been seen through a pane of glass up to now.    

In this novel, though, the supporting cast seems more peripheral.  Breaking a pattern set in earlier installments, Quinn keeps focused on the central plot, and he keeps the two guys together.  It feels good.

Quinn manages to give us humor and pathos at the same time. Here's Chet's commentary about Bernie's reaction when Suzy moves away:
I moved closer to Bernie.  He gave me a nice pat. His gaze was still on the empty intersection down the street. I let that slip from my mind and just concentrated on the pat.  You can feel things in the hand of humans, things that are happening deep inside them. I felt what was happening inside Bernie.

The only unpleasant thing about the novel is that Quinn early on foreshadows a confrontation between Chet and a scary, much larger, canine.  I had this feeling of dread as I started each new chapter!  I'll just say, I finished the novel feeling great.  That's the great benefit from seeing the world through Chet's eyes.   

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Aurora Theatre's Intense Betrayal

Opening scene of "Betrayal" at the Aurora Theatre, from the theatre's Facebook page.
The Aurora Theatre north of Atlanta has just opened a run of Harold Pinter's 1977 play Betrayal.   The characters -- married couple Emma and Robert, and Robert's best friend Jerry, her lover -- can't always tell what the other characters are concealing, but we in the audience can. Pinter puts us in the know by presenting scenes from 1977 backwards to 1968, so that we can "fact check" characters' recollections.  The dramatic irony and the characters' second-guessing each other make for a funny and intense experience, as layers of emotion underlie every second.  Betrayal is so funny, but so intense, that my friend Susan and I were relieved that it lasted just 75 minutes.  

Pinter once distinguished two kinds of silence, the speechless kind, but also the kind that covers feelings by "a torrent of words."   For much more on Pinter's technique, see my blogpost "A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter".  Here, I'll review particular's of Aurora Theatre's production.

We're treated to virtuoso acting, understated to give each nuance a highlight.  For example, in the opening scene, Tess Malis Kincaid ("Emma") and her real-life husband Mark Kincaid (as the ex-lover "Jerry") each has to repeat the line "How are you?" several times, during different "rounds" of dialogue -- the scene being structured like some martial arts match.  The first time, they ask, "So how are you?" to open the conversation.  It's old friends, meeting each other on uncertain terms, falling back on polite formulas.  Another time, it's a show of deeper concern.   Later, the question "How are you?" seems to be asking something more like, "How do you feel about us?"   It's a testing of the state of the old relationship.  

Mostly sitting at a cafe table, the actress worked the tiny space given her.  Her hands on the wine glass sometimes clutched, sometimes caressed, and sometimes explored the surface.   Her head bowed when Jerry turned to refill the glasses.  That's at the end of "round one," and she seemed to be struggling to find a way to communicate, or to discern, what she wanted from Jerry. But she faced him again, smiling.

For his part, Mark Kincaid's "Jerry" seemed to be keeping a safe distance from the fight, actually pushing his chair back from the table, smiling a lot.  It's only when Emma revealed that her husband had learned all about their old affair that Mark Kincaid became animated, a clue to where "Jerry's" strongest feelings and deepest vulnerability lie.

Later, with Jerry watching, Robert unleashes one of those "torrents of words" on Emma, and his words are weapons.   Director Freddie Ashley has staged this so that Anthony Rodriguez ("Robert" and also Aurora's Producing Artistic Director) commands stage center.  Jerry stands stage right, at Robert's back; drink in hand and smiling.  Emma sits on the far left end of the sofa, legs crossed, also drink in hand, smiling.  Interrupting a little dialogue between the men about who buys lunch after the next squash game, Emma suggests that she might come to watch and buy lunch for both.  Robert starts small -- "you have your game, then your shower, then your pint" -- and becomes increasingly animated as he develops his topic: "You've been at battle, you've been at it."   By the time he says that a man "doesn't want a woman in the locker room" or even "within a mile" of the squash game, Jerry and Emma are both receiving his barely-concealed hostility behind tumblers and their frozen smiles.  

We know what Robert is thinking:  his wife's lover has gall to come visiting them to flirt with her.  Emma is in agony.   At the start of this scene, when Robert called up to her to come on down, "Jerry's here," her response, off-stage, was, "Who?"  (after a pause, natch).   Meanwhile, Jerry is simply clueless.  Does he rise to the implied challenge to defend Emma's honor?   He fails to do so, and is out the door moments later.  For the audience, it's chilling and hilarious at the same time.  There's a coda:  In silence, Emma collapses, crying.  Robert slowly comes over to her, lays his hand on her shoulder -- comfort?  possession?  It's somehow both -- and they embrace.

The rest of the show is filled with so many moments similarly rich with nuance, that discussing them makes for great conversation hours and even days after seeing the show.  

We loved the set, by Isabel and Morley Curley-Clay.  At first glance, it's a high-ceilinged interior.  But on second look we see mismatched doors, window frames superimposed on mismatched windows, empty picture frames superimposed on others -- the effect being to show us several similar interior spaces superimposed on each other:  restaurants, a hotel room, and two families' living rooms.  Wall panels opened to admit sliding beds, sofas, and a wet bar.

The production as a whole, like Pinter's script, is elegant, understated, and efficient.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Holy Longing: Spirituality Needs Community

(Reflections on THE HOLY LONGING: The Search for Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser. New York: Doubleday, 1999.)

Ten years after I first read this book, I can attest to its staying power. Early on, Rolheiser tells of a frightened little girl, dissatisfied with reassurance that"God is with you." The girl needs "someone with skin on!" Rolheiser impressed upon me that I and every member of the church serve as Jesus, his spirit "with skin." We are the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27), he writes, and this is "no metaphor" (249).

Likewise, as part of the body, I have no choice but to be involved, whatever I may think of certain aspects of the institutional church or fellow parishioners.  Ecclesia (translated "church") he says, means being "called out," or "roped into service" the way a bystander becomes involved when there's an accident. He cites the notorious Genovese murder which neighbors witnessed, each assuming that someone else would do something to stop the perpetrator (122).

Rolheiser begins and ends his book with discussions of eros, a Greek word that has come to be associated in our culture with "genitality."  In Rolheiser's world, "sexuality" includes the pride and pleasure of a grandfather in seeing his grandchild -- what we might call a broad view of the term.  In his final chapters, Rolheiser cites the root of the word "sex" ("secare," to separate) to show that sexual desire is just one aspect of the "holy longing" to be part of God and part of others' lives. Augustine, that recovering libertine, had the same insight:  "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in You" (5).

Rolheiser emphasizes another Greek word, sarx, used by Jesus at the institution of eucharist -- "unless you eat of my body, you shall not have life within you."  The word suggests all the unpleasantness that we associate with bodies, unlike the word "soma" which conjures a Platonic perfect body in the abstract.  For Rolheiser, this means that Jesus demands that we partake of the bad with the good, or fail to be Christ's followers .

He aims to give us a "spirituality," but he eschews the popular notion that "spirituality" is some private, personal communing with the divine.  It's ministering to others, preparing others for death (as the woman anoints Jesus for death p. 134), and working alongside others for justice that consitutes true spirituality.  

His bottom line is that "spirituality" is meaningless apart from from "organized religion."

Of related interest:  My reflections on Rolheiser's Sacred Fire.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Primer on America's Middle Class


I heard a primer on the term "middle class" on PRI's Market Place on Friday (9/20/2012). Reporter Krissy Clark interviewed Michael Lind, author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

America's original "middle class" corresponded to the "yeoman farmers" of English tradition.  With some property, some education, and a stake in their communities, they were the citizens who would vote, stand for elections, serve in juries, and make our Constitution work.  The United States cultivated this class by intentional policies starting with public education in the Northwest Ordinance (pre-Consitution), Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, and the Homestead Act -- long-considered but only enacted during the Civil War, in the absence of Senators who foresaw that a giveaway of our vast western land would dilute the power of the slaveowning aristocracy of the South.

According to Lind, the shift from farm to factory early in the 20th century brought new policies meant to support the new middle class consisting of blue collar workers and small-scale entrepeneurs.  These included Labor reforms, Social Security, government involvement in the home mortgage service, and the GI bill. 

But America no longer makes things, and corporations do the bulk of our farming.  Writes Clark,

We’ve got a void where the bulk of the middle class used to be and we haven't quite figured out how to fill it.  Both visions -- of education and entrepreneurialism -- can be inspiring, says Lind. The problem, he argues, is “the math simply does not work.”

And he means the math on both sides. On the one hand, only about 10 percent of Americans are self-employed. On the other hand,  70 percent don’t have college degrees. So, the bulk of Americans won't be owning small businesses or becoming white collar professionals with B.A.s anytime soon.  (from the story at marketplace.org)

For the foreseeable future, the bulk of Americans will work in restaurants, retail, and hospitals. Pay in the service economy isn't enough to achieve the security and comfort central to our idea of "middle class."

Will we have that core of people with a stake in stability, an interest in government, an awareness of civic responsibility?  Will the vast majority of people feel they have no stake in the status quo, and no hope of climbing up to the plateau where the middle class used to be?  Hamilton, Washington, and their crowd feared that possibility in 1787; FDR feared in 1933 that America might go communist or fascist. 

Hearing Clark's story, I'm reminded that propping up the middle class is as traditionally American and conservative as any policy can be.  Republicans needn't get so prickly about "class warfare" when talk turns to income distribution, 1%, 47%, "Nickled and Dimed," etc. 




Sunday, September 16, 2012

NPR's real bias

The radio program "On the Media" aired this week highlights from a series of programs examining the charge that NPR is biased towards liberal positions.  The highlights of the highlights for me were these tidbits:

  • studies that compared NPR news programming to other sources found that NPR more frequently sited right-leaning sources (i.e. those self-identified as conservative and sited most by Republicans in Congress) than liberal ones at least 55% to 44%, both when Republicans dominated Wasington in 2003 and when Democrats did in 1993.  In the same study, the Wall Street Journal sited liberal sources much more frequently.
  • an extended set of interviews with an evangelical conservative listener to explain his perception of bias led to his keeping a journal of bias.  In the end, he admitted that the reporting was uniformly fair, high quality, and interesting.  He was willing to allow that his own sensitivity was causing him to hear a "tone" of liberal bias in the voices and questions of interviewers.  He sited Michelle Norris's question, "Can the nation afford that right now?" about a proposal to suspend corporate taxes.  Commentator Ira Glass suggested that she would have asked the same question to a proposal to increase spending, and he theorized that the same question from a FOX news anchor would have been perceived differently.
  • polling of media consumers revealed a 2-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans listening to NPR, compared to 4-to-1 for New York Times, and other higher ratios.  The outstanding result in that study was in the response to questions about why consumers are attracted to certain media outlets:  news accuracy?  in-depth stories?  commentary?  entertainment?  variety?  Only NPR was consulted for "all the above."  Also unique was the finding that 10% of each age category listened to NPR.
  • regarding the percentage of air time devoted to gay marriage, abortion, and other perceived liberal causes, coverage was two to three times more frequent on conservative programs (presumably because dramatisation of wedge issues attracts audience.)  While other media covered wedge issues of American politics, NPR was covering international stories and policy debates.
  • Coverage of the Obama administration was more neutral on NPR than other outlets, and much less frequent than on conservative outlets.
My own sense is that NPR is biased in two ways:

First, Reporters, commentators and interviewers search diligently for some common ground where opponents can meet with civility and goodwill.   This summer, for example, I was delighted to hear Romney's lead economic advisor say straight out that the candidates differ by degree, only:  a little more taxation one way, a little less spending the other.  Obama is not a socialist, he said, and Romney would not abandon the needy.   The voices I hear on NPR are unfailingly civil, if not downright convivial. 

There is another bias in the way that stories play up any angle that gives us a narrative of a small David facing a giant Goliath, whether it's a community of poor people against a giant corporation, or a small company against government regulation:  I've heard both.  Goliath always gets equal consideration, however. In another way, NPR favors the Davids of the world by devoting equal air time to interviewing up-and-coming popular artists, elucidating "classics," and bringing obscure artists and thinkers to light.

While I'm on the subject, I've come to rely on the program "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" for laugh therapy when the news has added stress to the week.  Listening on a long bike-ride through urban neighborhoods of Atlanta yesterday, I laughed out loud when Peter Seigel emphasized the amateurish quality of the repugnant video that provided pretext for anti-American violence last week.  "Reviews all over the world were uniformly negative," he said.  "Saudi Arabia gave it two thumbs off." 



Monday, September 03, 2012

To the Seventh Grader Who Knows Everything

You can figure math problems. You know where babies, rocks, diseases and planets come from.  You've read every kind of literature.  You can write paragraphs and read musical notes.  You know about ancient Egypt and Colonial America. Goodness knows, you can work your way around electronic devices.  Now you wonder why you have to face another decade covering all the same basic material.

I wonder what you would say to Ronald, a student I taught around 1985 in Jackson, Mississippi.   Kids were talking about their travels to Paris, Colorado, and Disney World.  Ronald announced that he had never been outside of Jackson's city limits.  That wasn't far:  you can drive from one end of Jackson to the other on I-20 in about five minutes.

His classmates were incredulous, then pitying.  He didn't mind.  "I've seen pictures of all those places. I know the facts about them.  I can see them on TV."  But what about the experience of going there, they asked? "Riding in a car is no big deal. I can get foreign food at the Mall." As for the fun things, like rides at Disney World, he said, "I've been on roller coasters at the State Fair.  I get the idea."

What would you say to him?  Doesn't he have a point?  You could say that a picture of the Eiffel Tower doesn't give you the feel for what it's like to round a corner and see it loom before you, or to hear what's behind and beside you there.  You could point out that visiting where the language and customs are different gives you a new perspective on yourself. But whatever they said to Ronald, he remained unconvinced.  "You have some souvenirs," he'd say, "but the experience you talk about is all in your head, now, isn't it?  You might as well have gotten it from books."  (I may need to explain: The internet did not yet exist.)

Ronald is to you what you are to your teachers.  You think it's enough to know the facts about history and science; you think that sounding out words is "reading," and you think that arithmetic is math.  But your teachers have "been there," and they share experiences of the mind that you cannot conceive.  Their world is layered with meanings that come from memories of history, science, and art.  To us, math isn't just useful; it's beautiful.  To us, Lincoln and Juliet aren't just their character sketches; we know them and talk about them the way you talk about your best friends. 

Your teachers offer you experience in the world of the mind.   They tell you that it's worth working to get there.  You say, "I don't need it."

Like Ronald, you just don't know what you're missing.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Kiss of the Spider Woman: The Musical We'd Expect from Kander and Ebb

Brent Carver and Chita Rivera, original cast, 1992
(photo from www.chitarivera.com)
A cast of energetic actors with fine voices fully inhabited their roles in this 1990s musical.  At the intimate King Plow Theatre, they performed on a versatile multi-level representation of a penitentiary.   The story is direct and relentless:  Valentin, a leader in an underground movement to topple the (unnamed) country's despotic regime is thrown into a small cell with a pederast Molina.  One is a man's man; the other is flamboyantly effeminate, so of course, we wonder if they will become friends, or more.  The plot ramps up a notch when the sinister warden orders Molina to extract information from his new roommate. Molina's frequent escapes into fantasies of screen idol Aurora give the audience exuberant musical numbers to enjoy between scenes of suffering, degradation, and violence.  In her role as "The Spider Woman," death personified, Aurora seduces Molina from the first song, promising "pain will cease" and "I can bring you peace."  Everything at this final preview performance was exactly right.

So why was the applause for each number merely polite, and why did my mind wander so often?   What more could we want from the show?  The material, admirably well-made, let down the actors and the audience.  How?  I kept wondering.

My friend Susan may have identified the problem right away.  She came to the performance recalling the movie starring William Hurt as Molina. (1985) .  At intermission, she asked, "Why does this story need music?"  I suspect that Kander and Ebb kind of skirted that question because they saw such a tempting opportunity to use musical numbers in the way they did in their breakthrough show CABARET, to mirror grim reality with ironically cheerful numbers.   Besides this, the story and setting gave the songwriters -- pigeon-holed as the guys who wrote snappy ironic pastiche for Cabaret and Chicago --a great reason to write full-throated ballads and anthems.   These are the outstanding numbers of the show.   In "Dear One," Molina's mother and Valentin's beloved Marta sing a tender double duet, their voices overlapping in canon like waves of constant longing. All the prisoners join in Valentin's fierce anthem of hope for the Marxist future:
Someday we'll be free
I promise you we'll be free
If not tomorrow
Then the day after that...
Or the day after that.
The late Fred Ebb's choice to build his lyric on that plodding phrase "the day after that" demonstrates his artistic integrity.   How effective would it be if rough-hewn Valentin and his uneducated cohort of "the people" sang with Ebb's trademark snap and polish?  Even so, there's a strong undercurrent of despair in the song that belies the explicitly hopeful lyrics, as the day of arrival recedes further away with every repetition of "the day after that, or the day after that...."  It's a wonderful marriage of form and content.

My own restlessness during the show may have something to do with the fact that, leafing through the lyrics printed with the original cast recording, back to front, I ran across several variations of the same sentiment in different numbers:  somehow... someday... sooner or later... there's going to be good times... so I wait to [get] over the [prison] wall...someday you'll believe the lie..."Someday you'll hear a cry."   Whenever the chorus of men geared up to dance behind "Aurora," I thought, "Well, here's another number to express what we just heard expressed, but with skin, kicks, and big high notes."

Every scene and song felt like exactly what we've come to expect from the creators Kander and Ebb, Terrence McNally and Harold Prince.  Insofar as that means efficiency, integrity, ingenuity, and an arc of story that brings characters to confront the lies they've believed (such as Valentin's prejudices against Molina), that's a great thing.  But we come to art hoping for more than we expect. 

(Reflection on KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, book by Terrence McNally, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, based on the novel by Manuel Puig.  Originally driected by Harold Prince.  Produced in Atlanta this month by Actors Express.)




Thursday, August 23, 2012

Partners Across Party Lines: The Presidents Club

(reflections on The President's Club, by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.  Published by Simon and Schuster, 2012.)

(Notice who set himself apart from the others!)
The Presidents Club is an informal fraternity with unwritten protocols that have been honored for over sixty years by Republicans and Democrats both.   There's even a clubhouse, though it's only a suite of "shabby" rooms near the White House reserved for ex-Presidents' use. Focusing entirely on the relationships of ex-chief executives to President-du-jour, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy reassure us in these rancourous partisan times that it's been this bad before, and that good sense and common courtesy often transcend party.

Beside the burden of life-and-death decisions, they all have in common the experience observed by a "senior advisor to three presidents."  He writes,
When you get in, you discover nothing is what you expect, or believed, or have been told, or have campaigned on.... It's much more complicated. Your first reaction is, 'I've been set up.'  Second is: 'I have to think differently.'  Third is: 'Maybe they had it right.' And it isn't long before they ask, who am I gonna talk to about this?"  (8)
Similarly, Henry Kissinger heard a warning from his aide Daniel Ellsburg, who had worked for Johnson. A new President and his advisors will be exhilarated by revelations.  This turns quickly into feeling foolish for all the things said by the ignorant candidate, and then contempt for all the mavens who criticize without knowing what the President knows (272). 

Among the surprises in the book is the emergence of Herbert Hoover as a model of unselfish service and bankable competence. Demonized by Roosevelt -- who comes across as charismatic, erratic, and ruthless in this book -- Republican Hoover was rehabilitated by the Democrat Truman's sending him to Europe to administer relief after World War II.  The two men became friends, and Truman called upon him again to head a commission to re-organize the vast array of redundant Federal agencies that had sprouted in World War I and grown during the years of New Deal and World War.  Hoover's plan won near-unanimous bi-partisan approval in Congress, and his reforms continued to earn praise and thanks on into the 1960s.

Another surprise is the portrayal of Eisenhower, superficially sunny and personally cold, petty, and vindictive. Championed unabashedly by Truman, Eisenhower turned on Truman in the campaign for Republican nomination, starting a feud that would last until Trumans and the Eisenhowers shared coffee after Kennedy's burial (159).  Over those years, Truman attempted many gestures of reconciliation and support, all received coldly or even returned with insult.Truman's correspondence with him at this time is terse, anger seething under the two men's civility. "I am extremely sorry that you have allowed a bunch of screwballs to come between us," writes Truman, "From a man who has always been your friend and who always wanted to be! / Sincerely, HST" (81). Ike denounced that note to others, but did not reply.

"No man is less loyal to his friends" than Eisenhower, Kennedy observed.  Eisenhower shafted his loyal and subservient Vice President Richard Nixon at the Republican national convention in 1959, saying this of the eventual nominee: "I am not dissatisfied with the individual that looks like he will get [the nomination]" (107). 

Partisanship was so ugly in the early 1960s that Eisenhower could believe that his Democratic successor had engineered the Cuban Missile crisis to influence the next month's midterm elections (David Eisenhower, p. 147).  The insouciant younger President referred to Ike as the "that old a------" (105), but summoned him for consultations and reassuring photographs of the two men together after JFK's Bay of Pigs fiasco.  Ike chided Kennedy for the loose organization that enabled unspokenunderstandings to be so badly misunderstood, and Kennedy learned his lesson.  He was much more careful during deliberations about the missiles in Cuba.

Ike also opposed Senator McCarthy, not so courageously as he should have done.  Truman was infuriated by Ike's failure to defend former Secretary of State George B. Marshall from McCarthy's "communist" label.  Campaigning in Wisconsin, Ike prepared a denunciation of McCarthy and "disciples of hate," and the text was made available to the press, but then Ike omitted the paragraph out of deference to McCarthy's popularity in his home state (85).  There's a comical photo of McCarthy grabbing Eisenhower's hand for a shake, while the President, looking away, tries to dissociate himself from the lout (after p 182). 

About the Presidents of my own lifetime, there were fewer surprises.  LBJ's abuse of power gave him intelligence that Nixon secretly encouraged South Vietnam's president to wreck LBJ's peace agreement in 1968 -- helping Nixon to win the election and prolonging the war six years.  LBJ couldn't reveal what he knew without accepting blame for domestic spying, and Nixon could have been accused of outright treason.  I knew all that, but not the extent of Nixon's fixation on the physical file containing that information.  He told his men to do anything -- burglary, whatever it took -- to get that file.  Thus, Watergate.

I was also amused to learn that LBJ had taken Nixon on a tour of the White House, pointing out to the incredulous newcomer how tape recorders were scattered throughout the place, even under the guests' bed in the Lincoln room.  Nixon was horrified, and had all these discarded -- until his mistrust of media led him to install a new system, to ensure accurate quotations and proof for what he would write in his memoirs.

Ford was kind to Nixon, and his decision to pardon his disgraced predecessor is now seen as a wise one -- something I agree with, but I'm surprised to hear that it's now the consensus. I love Ford's comment, "If politics isn't compatible with compassion, there's something wrong with politics" (310).

I witnessed Nixon's efforts to restore his own reputation, and had a sense of how this led to his overtures to all his successors, accompanied often by back-stabbing comments in the press.  Evidently, Clinton called on Nixon for advice many times, having the ex-President enter the White House after dark, from the back.

I knew about Ford's and Reagan's mutual disdain. 

The fact that Clinton, W., and Obama all feel fondness for George H. W. Bush is news to me.  I love the anecdote about how Bush I's shmoozing with Clinton during a visit led to W's message, "Tell 41 and 42 that 43 is hungry".

The one I haven't mentioned is Carter, and it is a surprise to me how his much-publicized missions to North Korea and Iraq reduced his successors to apoplexy.  He comes across as the one whom no one likes. It's "treason" said Bush's men, and he's a "treasonous p---k" says a Clinton aide (440).  He negotiated a nuclear treaty live on CNN news without consultations.  His efforts in Haiti worked out well, though, when he suddenly cut loose from diplomacy and screamed at the military dictator, "Resign or you and your children will die (446)!"

Overall, I found confirmation of my sense that Presidents haven't much leeway for their decisions.   The human interactions are a pleasure to read about -- these presidents being for us, at least since the days of FDR's fireside chats, almost a part of the family.