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

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 (  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

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.

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.

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 @  )

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."

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:

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.)