Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Turn of the Screw in Atlanta

(Reflections on THE TURN OF THE SCREW, an opera based on the novella by Henry James.  Music by Benjamin Britten.  Libretto by Myfanwy Piper. Production by Georgia State University Opera Theatre, Carroll Freeman, artistic director and stage director.  Michael Palmer, conductor. Performance April 20, 2013.)
Ben Thomas as "Quint" (GSU Opera's Facebook page)
 
For the opera The Turn of the Screw, librettist Myfanwy Piper strips 99% of the words from Henry James’s ghostly tale of the same name, but her skeleton of the story leaves Benjamin Britten room for music that propels the story and sustains tension. Carroll Freeman, director of the recent production by Georgia State University Opera Theatre, made choices that kept focus on character and music.

Like the libretto, the set for this production was skeletal, mere platforms and a curtain of chains.  Lights on a scrim provided variety and mood, and, for the chapel scene, the projection of a rose window. Young members of the orchestra might as well have been characters, as we could see their intent concentration on Britten’s score.  The ghosts “Quint” and “Miss Jessel” were portrayed by trios of singers in shrouds and fright wigs.  Their voices emanated from behind us and before us, above and beside us.  They danced together around young Miles and around the Governess, and it was easy to see why the Governess and young Miles might be overwhelmed.  

Miles was played by a tousle-headed soprano in trousers whose bearing and costumes grew more masculine as the opera progressed.  The Governess’s affectionate embraces seemed to become more grasping, both protective and possessive. 

Those of us who have read the story can argue endlessly over whether the ghosts are “real” to young Miles and Flora, or whether those two children are innocent victims of a delusional Governess.  Britten keeps some of the ambiguity, as when the Governess sings that she hopes to see her absent employer one more time.  Immediately, she does see him, only to realize instantly that it’s a stranger who will later be identified as “Quint.” She thinks of the man, she sees the man, and is instantly frightened of him:  Has her imagination supplied the vision?  Britten’s music suggests that possibility when the malignant ghosts sing the refrain to their triumphant duet, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”  It’s a tune we first heard when the Governess arrived at Bly.

I am grateful to have been able at last to see this piece live.
 

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Perfect Ragtime by Atlanta Lyric Theatre


image from ALT's Facebook page
(Reflections on RAGTIME, the musical.  Book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.  Production by Atlantic Lyric Theatre at the Strand Theatre, Marietta, GA.  Production directed by Alan Kilpatrick.  Performance of April 18, 2013.)

Colorful, warm, ingenious, and crammed full of energetic and soulful songs, the musical RAGTIME unfolds the interrelated stories of three families and numerous celebrities of the early 1900s with clarity and efficiency.  Aside from narrowness of stage and muddy acoustics at Marietta’s restored Strand Theatre, nothing lacked in the production by the Atlanta Lyric Theatre.  Voices, staging, band, and design all sold the material to us with clarity and vigor.

The songs are beautifully crafted and fitting to the historical era and to the characters. Taken together, they move the story along, signaling by style when we move from the parlor songs of genteel Anglos to a honky-tonk or church with Black characters, to the Eastern European immigrants in town.  Ragtime is itself important to the story and a metaphor for a “ragged time” of transition when whites, blacks, and immigrants were all drawn to the sound.  Lyrics sound natural as speech, while neat rhymes point up meaningful thoughts; the songs build to climaxes sometimes loud, sometimes pensive.  Dances often reinforce the action. 

The only problem is that every second or third song seems to be teaching us something about America in the 1900s, until we feel that we’re watching a great story wrapped in an essay. We're taught by the remarkable opening number how everything certain in the lives of complacent wealthy Anglos is soon to be shaken by encounters with Blacks and Immigrants. This is acted out in song and dance, in which these groups cakewalk around each other and back away from confrontations.  It's very effective. But the next song tells us the same thing, from the point of view of the complacent Anglo “Mother.”  As her world does crumble, she tells us about it in three more songs, two shared with others who are having similar experiences.  By the end of show, when “Mother” reflected fourth time how life can’t go “Back to Before,” actress Christy Baggett's beautiful and earnest singing  could not keep us from feeling that she'd been used to reiterate a thesis statement.  With two anthems, “Wheels of a Dream” and “Make Them Hear You,” the songwriters use the character Coalhouse (played by Kevin Harry) as a spokesman for all people of color in America early in the 20th century.  Mr. Harry sang with conviction, his powerful voice sustaining long notes over the climaxes, and he earned thunderous applause -- as a spokesman.  Then he went back to being Coalhouse.

One number, "He Wanted to Say," is led by socialist activist Emma Goldman (Ingrid Cole) with a big voice and big heart.  Eventually, the entire ensemble is singing a rousing anthem consisting of all the things that "Younger Brother" (Matthew Kacergis) feels about the injustices of life in the USA.  Yet this lecture on social ills and White man's guilt is made funny and personal because it's all the stuff that the character cannot put in coherent form. 

Social commentary is acted out for laughs with "What a Game,"  depicting the Father's misguided effort to connect to his young son by taking him to a baseball game.  Father learns to his discomfort, and to his son's delight, that the "gentleman's game" has been appropriated by the working class, and it isn't as genteel as it used to be in his days at Harvard. 

Other songs could be magical. "The Courtship" alternates music and dialogue, covering months during which Coalhouse tries to atone for the way he wronged Sarah (played by Jeanette Illidge), mother of his child. There's a gentle duet between immigrant father Tateh (Stanley Allyn Owen) and "Mother," discovering kinship as parents across a wide social divide ("Nothing Like the City").  Deep in the second act, when Coalhouse seeks vengeance for the killing of his beloved Sarah, he remembers meeting her at the club where he played piano, and he re-enacts his love song to her, “Sarah Brown Eyes.”  Sarah appears upstage of him, and each mimes dancing with the other, several step apart.  We know it’s a memory, and we can guess what’s ahead, but this bittersweet interlude was a highpoint of the show.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Poet Richard Blanco: Not Grievance, but Gratitude

(Reflections on LOOKING FOR THE GULF MOTEL by Richard Blanco. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012.)

Blanco at inauguration, Jan. 2013
President Obama may have appointed Richard Blanco his inaugural poet because a gay son of Cuban immigrants unites two categories that divide our parties. Publicity suggested as much, focused on his Cuban grandmother’s scorn for her grandson's "effeminacy."  Interviewers were interested in his causes for grievance.  But, while poems of his latest collection frequently relate to his growing up “a boy afraid of being a boy” (“Afternoons as Endora” 33), who “had to sing with [his father] like a real Cuban” (“Cousin Consuelo, On Piano” 12), his main impulse is to preserve memories of those people he has loved. 

The first poem, from which LOOKING FOR THE GULF MOTEL takes its title, gives a keynote.  ”There should be nothing here I don’t remember,” the epigraph tells us, and we can hear a driver muttering that the motel he remembers from childhood “should still be / rising out of the sand like a cake decoration” (1), but then, “My brother and I should still be pretending / we don’t know our parents,” embarrassed by their “scruffy” appearance and “reek” of garlic; and his father “should still be” poolside watching the two sons “he’ll never see / grow into men who will be proud of him.”  The ambivalence is thick, but the conclusion is clear, that the poet, now ashamed of the shame he felt, wants to redeem that time.

That idea of memories “still” living comes up often in this collection.  When he visits on his mother’s patio, “It’s always summer” and “Everything I am is here still” with a banyan tree nearby “dropping roots / as thick as my legs from its branches,” a fine image of how self is rooted in memory of a place (27).  The home of his Americanized aunt is both “the house we never went to again, [and] the house I never left” (Tia Margarita Johnson’s House in Hollywood” 11).  His own wide fingers, the veins on his knuckles, and ten little mirrors that are his fingernails reflect his father (“My Father, My Hands” 45). 

Photographs would seem to preserve memory, but Blanco invests some photos with meanings that are at least double.  He was posed to look perfect for a photo at Sears, except that he wouldn’t smile (“Birthday Portrait” 57). He poses a cousin at the Statue of Liberty with some irony (13), praying “may this be her country more than / it is mine when she lifts her Diet Coke like a torch… and hold still when I say, Smile.”  In childhood, Blanco is alarmed and mystified by a cheesy staged photo (“Mama with Indians: 1973, 2007” 59).  No irony, only gratitude, colors a memory of his father at the kitchen table planning how he’d provide for his son, “though there’s no black-and-white to prove it” (“Papa at the Kitchen Table” 43). 

The theme of memory takes a new direction in his apostrophe to a cousin (whose photo, he thinks, must be “somewhere”):  “Tell me / it’s true, we’re everything we remember, / tell me memories never fail us…” (68).  But what happens when the memory’s gone?  He remembers for his aged aunt what she cannot (69), and he reminisces with another aunt to avoid discussing the prognosis that brought him for the visit (72).  With his mother, he visits the grave where there’s surely nothing left of Blanco’s father but cuff links, the wedding ring, and “Bones, Teeth” (73).  Watching his mother step into the water at the beach, worrying the way she used to worry about him, Blanco sees her as Boticelli’s Venus in reverse, stepping back into the sea, “her eyes fixed on the horizon / at nothing I can see” (61).

Blanco gives us a lot of laughs for a “sad” boy who wouldn't smile for his portrait, who fit nowhere.  His family makes bets about who’ll be Miss America.  But, when Miss Ohio is crowned, “Gloves up to her elbows, velvet down / to her feet, crying diamonds into her bouquet / the queen of our country,” no one in the family knows where Ohio is (“Betting on America” 9). Considering celebrities with his name, he affects the pinky ring of Richard Dawson on Family Feud and knows he’s “as wholesome as Richie Cunningham” on Happy Days (7), and eventually arrives at an Anglicization of his name that encapsulates all of his adolescent pretensions.  “Killing Mark” tells about ways that an active imagination can kill a loved one who hasn’t arrived home at the expected time.  As the more sedentary of two middle-aged brothers, I especially appreciate “My Brother on Mt. Barker” (41) in which the less athletic one envies the one who skis with apparent ease:
…Funny, that’s the way
It’s always been: me looking up at him
conquering mountains, secretly wishing
I could be as daring as he, less like me. 

The poet wonders how “blood is not enough / to explain this handful of memories” that relate them.  But all’s well when the brother “tumbles down” and complains, “Damn, my bones are killing me.”  Been there, felt that!

Blanco often uses balanced phrases that reflect his in-the-middle, neither – one – nor – the – other identity.  So, his Tia Margarita Johnson’s home was “the house with a flower garden, not chickens” (11), a formula ("house with... not...") repeated many more times.  Blanco frames his ambivalent thoughts about America and Cuba in a sort of prayer for his cousin, that she “may always” do some things, and “may never” do the others (13). Other poems are built on repetition of single phrases:  “some days" and  “sometimes” (“Some Days The Sea” 77);  and “Maybe” (48).  A striking poem closes the collection asserting “I’ve been writing this since” a certain summer, since a certain class, since a certain night, and “since my eyes started seeing less, my knees aching more” (“Since Unfinished” 79-81).  He has arrived at another great "middle" condition, middle age.

Even in this cursory survey of the poems, a reader may pick up on an image that repeats in this collection: the sea.  Of course, writing of Florida, Cuba, and of his present home in Maine, he often pictures the sea.   “Today," he writes, "the waves open their lions’ mouths hungry / for the shore” (“Some Days the Sea” 77). But the previous poem in the collection asks, “Why am I always imagining the sea?” (“Place of Mind” 76), and it suggests that, like drops of rain that gather into streams and flow to the ocean, our individual lives and memories flow back into the larger sea of family history.  Imagining his great-grandparents’ love and life in Cuba, and what he might have been had they settled elsewhere, he concludes, “I’m a consequence, a drop / of rain,” “in the middle of a story I don’t know” (15).  An aunt at the end of her life is “like a wave drunk by the sand” or “a raindrop returned to the sea” (70).  The image is comforting in one way, though disturbing for a childless gay man when he watches his mother tend his father’s grave:  “Who’ll visit with flowers, speak to what’s left of me?” (74). 

Of course, if Blanco keeps producing works like this, he can find his answer in Shakespeare:  “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” It also gives life to your father, the aunts, and those other places and times you want to honor.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Parable of the Ski Instructor

You know the parable of the Prodigal Son, and the one about the Good Samaritan, but here’s the newly-discovered parable of the ski instructor.  Our Education for Ministry (EfM) class didn’t so much write it as uncover the implications of a single metaphor that we found to describe common experiences in our own lives -- a process EfM calls "theological reflection."  Once we saw the metaphor, we agreed that we'd been in this situation many times --  "every day of my life," said one participant -- and we saw how God works in all of the different outcomes.  
I've taken it upon myself to turn our metaphor (see picture) into a full-blown parable. So, here goes:

There once was a ski instructor who led three novice skiers to the pinnacle of a high hill.  The instructor put his arm around the shoulders of the first skier and said, “You have the training you need to try this hill.  Won’t you go ahead?”    Down the skier went, avoiding the trees and rocks, arriving at the resort below, where she yelled, “This was the greatest experience of my life!”

The instructor put his arm around the shoulders of the second skier and said, “You have the training you need to try this hill.  Won’t you go ahead?”  The second skier asked, “If I discover that it’s too scary, can I return?”  The instructor explained that, once launched, the skier would have no good way to stop. The second skier said, “Here goes!” and launched, but struck a tree.  Alerted by the ski instructor, EMTs from the resort rushed to save him, and airlifted him to the hospital.

Seeing this, the third skier said to the instructor, “I know that you have given me the training I need to try this hill.  But I’ve decided that this is not the time for me, just yet.  I will remove my skis and take the ski-lift down to the resort.  Perhaps I will take up canoeing instead.”

The ski instructor put his arms around her and said, “I’ll see you down at the resort.”

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Robert Spano and the ASO: Bringing New Composers into the Family

(reflections on a concert April 5 by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, music director Robert Spano conducting.)

Robert Spano’s long-range plans for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra are coming to fruition.  He has
ASO's Kurth with young composer Primous
intentionally developed an “Atlanta School” of composers over the past decade, so that we’ve grown used to hearing new or nearly-new works by Higdon, Gandolfi, Golijov, and Theofanidas, among others.Though four of five works on Friday night’s program date from the 2000s, the audience responded as if this were nothing unusual, and they welcomed even the most unfamiliar pieces into the family.

The youngest composer was fifteen-year-old Commodore Primous III.  Brought to the ASO through its “Next Generation” program and mentored by ASO bass player Michael Kurth, Primous endeared himself to the audience during a recorded interview with Mr. Spano, who asked him to play his piece on piano.  The gangly young man played octaves with his left hand while the thumb and forefinger of his right ran a rapid descent from the high end of the keyboard, and it was very pleasant in a George-Winstony kind of way.  With Kurth’s help, Primous added layers of harmony and countermelody to those parts for left and right hands, and built his “Lullaby” into something very different that he now calls The Triumph of Day. After the piece was over, Primous bounded up on stage for his standing ovation – pretty common response by our affectionate audience. 

Kurth’s own composition Everything Lasts Forever takes inspiration for its three movements from graffiti in the neighborhood not far from where we were seated.  He, too, got the video interview with Spano, and he admitted that, as a player with the ASO, he knows what’s frustrating and he knows what kind of challenges the players want.  It sounded to me as though he exposed each section of the orchestra enough to justify caling this a concerto for orchestra. 

Kurth’s interview included photos of the graffiti that he used for his “program.”  Images of feet by a tagger with moniker “Toes” suggested a foot-stomp motif that kicked off the piece.  Dancing around different sections of the orchestra, these stomps developed through different colors and moods.  A black-and-white image of a bird to which some tagger later added a red heart, inspired “Bird Song Love.”  It’s a simple song played first on celesta, repeated with new colors added on top, until it developed into something much bigger for full orchestra.  The foot stomps returned in the sweet third movement, gently this time, to tie the piece together in a way that satisfied and charmed.

Yet a third video interview (the most I’ve seen in one concert) re-introduced us to Marcus Roberts, whom I last saw when he improvised fresh cadenzas for Gershwin (was it Rhapsody or his Concerto?) some years ago.  Roberts composed Spirit of the Blues: Piano Concerto in C minor at an electronic keyboard, layering different parts on top of each other to build the orchestral score.  He admitted to Spano in the interview that he’d had trouble with structure, and my own impression on first hearing is that he never did escape the box of the classical formula of  orchestral passage – solo cadenza – orchestra passage, etc.   Even playing his own solos, Roberts seemed constrained.  While every bit of the piece was fine in itself, I didn’t feel that it took us anywhere.

The other two pieces on the program were textbook examples of how to take a listener on a journey, and they are both “in the family,” too. 

Bernstein’s West Side Story dance suite had been in the repertoire only ten years, when I and my sixth grade classmates sat in the balcony of this very hall to hear the ASO play it in 1971.  As often as I hear this familiar piece, Lenny catches me by surprise with the ways that he prepares the transitions from one melody to the next.  Admittedly, he made that easy for himself when he’d built many of the songs in his musical on the interval of the augmented fourth that the “Jets” gang uses for its signature whistle.  It plays at the start of the suite, emerges again from the busy texture of the Prologue to mark its transition to “Somewhere,” and reappears in tunes we know as “Maria” and “Cool.”  Bernstein reuses certain textures to mark our progress from one movement to another, as when we hear fragmentary flights of melody by flutes chasing little bursts of percussion while the orchestra sits in tense silence; and when the bass section plucks a funeral march under stretched out song-lines in the high strings. 

Rainbow Body by Christopher Theofanidas premiered in Atlanta in 2000, so it’s already older now than Bernstein’s piece was when I first heard it.  Spano and the ASO schedule Rainbow Body every fiew years, and their recording of it is played often on our local NPR station, so it’s an old friend in the repertoire.   Based on a line from 12th century composer Hildegard van Bingen, the piece builds like a dance from some characteristic gestures:  a stately statement of the melody in the brass, a sparkling fountain of sound that rises suddenly as punctuation at junctures of the piece, and a dark rumbling fragment of Hildegard’s melody.  By the end, when these sounds reinforce each other, they all contribute to a glorious finale for the piece, and for the concert.  

Monday, April 08, 2013

MAD Sanity

A cover I loved at age 8, blending my two favorite icons
(Reflection on MAD magazine, after hearing an interview with John Ficarra on Bob Edwards' Weekend radio show.)

"Everyone thinks that MAD was at its best the year they first read it," says John Ficarra, editor of MAD today.  MAD's mission, he says, is "subverting minds."

Truly, MAD was a sane balance for the craziness of the time.  My introduction to MAD was 1968, one of the single most tumultuous years in American history, when national self-confidence was shaken by "generation gap," political assassinations, riots and the exposure in Vietnam of our leaders' dishonesty and incompetence.

My window on all that was Alfred E. Neuman's "What - me worry?" face.  Hippies v. Hardhats, Spy v. Spy, Hawks v. Doves, KKK v. Black Panthers-- MAD's creators found a laughable angle on just about everything but assassinations, and that helped when the world was too scary or depressing.  (Note: NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!" serves this way for me today.)

I recall a feature "If Comics Adopt Nudity like the Movies," and take-offs on "Midnight Cowboy" and "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice," making fun of promiscuity, hypocrisy, and Timothy Leary's drug culture.  My introduction to the Ten Commandments was through a feature that juxtaposed images of Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, et. al. with "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife," and an actress kissing Oscar beside the ban on graven idols.  In a mock advertisement, Adolf Hitler endorses cigarette companies for their success killing more people than he ever dreamed.

Something else that MAD always showed was consistent craftsmanship.  Mort Drucker's caricatures were dead-on target; Sergio Aragones' marginal cartoons were admirably compact, of necessity;  Al Jaffee's fold-ins were ingenious and skillful;  I loved the cover art.  I learned irony from Dave Berg, as in his "lighter side of fitness" cartoon feature, when an older man at a gym asks a younger one why he spends his time on machines that row nowhere, run nowhere, and bike nowhere.  "They get me somewhere," the young man says, "Away from my wife!"  MAD's parodies of poems and songs, meticulously matching original rhyme-schemes and meter, got me started on a life-long hobby, as in this song from MAD's sequel to "The Sound of Music":

You are forty,
Going on forty-one,
Already past your prime.
No man has wed you,
Each man has fled you,
Except for Father Time....

I find online many MAD tribute sites where covers and articles are available for viewing. 

Sunday, April 07, 2013

The Coup, Chapter One: Updike's Playground

(reflections on The Coup by John Updike. New York: Fawcett Crest Paperback edition, 1979).

John Updike overlays so many strands of story, cultural commentary, and jokes in the first chapter of The Coup  (1978) that  I want to underline every paragraph.  So I’m reflecting on it right away. More may follow. 

For The Coup’s first chapter, we’re in the land of Kush,  a constitutional monarchy “with the constitution suspended and the monarch deposed” (17).  The first incident of the book occurs in 1973, “at the end of the wet season, which had been dry”(21).  Being an artificial political state imposed by European colonialists on a kingdom called Wajiji, Kush doesn’t even have a history.  Its borders bracketing clashing tribes with different languages and traditions, Kush is only “an idea” (21), but in that way, it is no more imaginary than most post-colonial African nations  in the 1970s.  Kush’s political system uneasily combines populist Islam and atheist Marxism.  Its economy is perpetual disaster, its Saharan north starving in drought and its south subsisting on peanuts.  (Doh! Another joke!)   The land is rich only in diseases (16).

Our guide to the nation is narrator Colonel Hakim Felix Ellelou, whose narrative voice is Updike’s playground.   Writing in exile or prison (we’re not told which, yet), Ellelou writes in decorous third person, except when the mask slips, which is often.   “There are two selves,” he explains, “the one who acts and the ‘I’ who experiences” (17).  He admits that the “historical performer bearing the name of Ellelou was no less mysterious to me than to the American press wherein he was never presented save snidely… in the same spirit the beer-crazed mob of American boobs cheers on… the crunched leg of the unhome team left tackle.”  Mixing “wherein” with “boobs” and “the unhome team,” Ellelou’s English is that of a foreigner who has absorbed some American slang into his outdated formal training – a formal trainwreck.

When dialogue begins, between President Ellelou and the old king whom he has imprisoned,  it is rich in polite hostility, rhetorical arabesques, and drole commentary on the World.    Here are the very first lines:

 “Splendor of Splendors,” Ellelou began, “thy unworthy servant greets thee.”

“A beggar salutes a rich man,” the king responded.  “Why have you honored me, Ellelou, and when will I be free?”

“When Allah the Compassionate deems thy people strong enough to endure the glory of thy reign.”  (23)

Because “all their languages were second languages,” the French and Arabic (and English) that replace their tribal tongues are “clumsy masks their thoughts must put on” (23). 

I read the book thirty years ago, and I retain vague memories.  In flashback, Updike will give us Ellelou as a foreign student in a small Midwestern college, attracted to a blonde coed who’ll end up as one of his four wives.  Near the end, there’ll be a scene of a hapless, well-intentioned American official atop crates of breakfast cereal when Ellelou sets the whole supply on fire.  The wives and the fire are both mentioned in this first chapter. 

A year after The Coup was published was celebrated by Van Morrison in his song “Dead or Alive” as 1979, “the rule of the tyrants’ decline…/ From Uganda to Nicaragua, / it’s bombs and bullets all the time.”    Updike was paying closer attention than I and my pals at Duke to the rise of Islam as a strong political force that was about to burst into American headlines. 

There’s a lot to look forward to.

 Blog Note: I’ve read all of Updike’s novels, stories, and poems.  I’ve written about him many times on this blog.  Use the search bar at the top of this page especially for observations about his last books of poems and stories, his hits COUPLES and WITCHES OF EASTWICK (with sequel WIDOWS…), and his problematic novels TERRORIST and SEEK MY FACE.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Jung Over, Part Two: Geography of the Self

Last month, I took instruction from a dream concocted by my unconscious mind, and wrote about it on this blog. It was confirmation of Karl Jung's theories of dreams.

This time, I've re-read something in John Updike that I experienced in a dream, and once again I find confirmation for Karl Jung's teachings.  Jung thought that dreams of homes are dreams of our own bodies;  the human inhabitant is the soul. 

Updike begins his memoir Self-Consciousness with a long essay about his childhood home.  When he was around 50, he left his Mother and second wife watching the movie Being There in the old cinema of Shillington, PA, while he took the chance to wander up and down the street where he'd lived as a young boy, and where he'd strutted as a teenager.  "You had to be there" never was more appropos, as he detailed ordinary places to the point that I was just about exasperated. That the whole town was merely the furniture of his consciousness, and he, center of this universe, was almost embarrassing.  But then he reached his conclusion:
Billions of consciousnesses silt history full, and every one of them is the center of the universe.  What can we do in the face of this unthinkable truth but scream or take refuge in God? ... [Reviewing the town] I had expected to be told who I was, and why, and had not been entirely disappointed. (40-41).
Elsewhere in this blog, I review Updike's final book of poetry, in which he writes one more time of his Shillington childhood, admitting that he has written of these many times, because "for me, they have no bottom." (See my Updike page.)

My Shillington is Cincinnati.  My grandmother lived in a modest but immaculate home in Madeira, north of the city.  It was a home purchased by her son, my Uncle Jack, in the late 1940s.  She moved in when Jack and his wife Blanche moved to the swanky Indian Hills neighborhood. 

Not long after my grandmother died, I had a vivid dream from which I awoke with tears streaming down my face.  That was unprecedented, and I took notice!  In the dream, not so different from my actual final visit to her home following her funeral, I searched every room of her home for "the secret to me."  Something there, I didn't know what, was the key to my personality and my future.  I cried because I could not find it.

A moment's reflection, after I awoke, revealed that the "key" was nothing in the house, but the house itself:  a sense of myself as loved, worthy, special, that I felt whenever I visited my grandmother's home.  Her antiques and her notions of interior decoration (pink shag rug in the kitchen, pink marbled wall paper and chandeliered sconces in the tiny bathroom)  made the place, for me, the epitome of class.

Updike's memoir moves on to other topics.  He modestly focuses on his physical weaknesses that, by forcing him to compensate, contributed to his eventual success.  His sense of indignities as one of the poor boys in Shillington motivated his "revenge" of becoming the town's single celebrity.  His account of the humiliations of stuttering turns into an account of his success as a writer in a chapter called "Getting the Words Out." 

I'm amused, at 54, to read his description of being in his mid-50s, a bit foolish-looking to others, a bit oblivious to the current popular trends, and yet feeling that his life is really just beginning.  He had become like the father-in-law that he used to ridicule.

I wonder at the fact that I've now spent time rereading a memoir by an author whose complete works, based on memory I've read.    There's a part of me that feels ashamed to be spending my time and energy on someone so self-absorbed. 

Still, as Updike tells us, the materialists have it all wrong.  If they deny God and the realm of spirit, they deny the "very realm where we exist and where all things precious are kept" (250).

Well, Updike is wise, and Jung is right:  my Grandmother's house is also me.  When I was about to leave her home for the last time, I burst into tears and sobs that I hadn't had at the funeral.   I ran back to her bedroom and sobbed, not for her, but for the loss of the little boy who had been her grandson: no one else would remember him.  Thankfully, I was able to keep a couple of chairs from her home, which had seemed to me thrones for a young prince.   I have them, still.

So the places of our youth are also symbols of ourselves.  Jung is right, Updike intuits that, and my dreams to this day confirm it.