Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"Into the Woods" on Film: Perfect Realization

Rob Marshall's film Into the Woods is a perfect realization -- I choose those words carefully -- of a delightful stage musical.

It's a realization in the sense that the film makes real what on stage had been implied.  Jack on stage sings of how it is to climb down from the sky, how "the world you know begins to grow: The roof, the house, and your mother at the door, ...the world you never thought to explore."  In the movie, we see that roof and Jack's mother from high above, out of focus between the vines of the beanstalk and Jack's feet in the foreground: It's breathtaking, all the more beautiful for lasting just a second.        

It's realization in the sense also of de-artificialization.  On stage, Cinderella's hearth, Jack's hut, and the Baker's cottage are presented side by side like panels in a comic strip; as each story reaches a climax, it is "framed" by an on-stage Narrator's storytelling and by each character's singing straight to the audience what he or she has experienced; our applause cues the next part of the story. In the movie, it's one continuous movement inside the frame.  We may miss some of the artifice, as if someone cracked open an ornate Faberge egg.  But, in an interview with The Sondheim Review (Spring 2015, pp.24-25), director Rob Marshall explains why this had to happen: "The biggest disservice you can do to a film of a musical is to be too faithful to the original.... You have to say, this is a different medium -- there's no fourth wall, and you have to figure out how to make things work."  So Red Riding Hood and Jack explain their stories, i.e., sing their songs, to the Baker;  the Baker's Wife and Cinderella sing their songs as if carrying on an internal debate.   

The film is perfect in the original sense of thoroughly made, better to my mind than mere "flawlessness."  Marshall says that the film was relatively low budget ("just" 50 million), but that was enough to pay for a company of actors and designers whose dedication to the story shows in every frame.  We see the Witch (Meryl Streep) hovering between hurt, tenderness, and fury when we watch her sing "Stay with Me" to Rapunzel.  Her eyes, her breaths, the sudden changes of tone and volume in her voice let us know every twist and turn in her thoughts.  Meanwhile, we also get a deeper sense of her character when the camera shows us the mixture of alarm and shame on Rapunzel's face.

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella conveys a half-dozen conflicting feelings when she wonders whether she should let the Prince catch her "On the Steps of the Palace," asking herself,
What would be his response?
But then what if he knew

Who I am when I know
That I'm not what he thinks
That he wants? 
Just as effective is Emily Blunt, as the Baker's childless wife.  She draws us into sympathy with her thoughts and feelings from the first time we see her, from outside the window, her eyes brimming with tears, as she sings "I want a child." She also grounds her character in our every-day world kind of reality, so that it's a laugh when she's a little embarrassed to explain that her husband's away breaking a spell.  When Cinderella's Prince wants to seduce her, Blunt's effectiveness at playing an everyday woman in a fairy tale world earned her a laugh at the multiplex when she sang, "What am I doing here? ...I'm in the wrong story!"  Later, reflecting on the possibilities of her new relationship, Blunt's face and voice vary with each line:
Why not [have] both instead?
There's the answer, if you're clever.
Have a child for warmth,
And a baker for bread,
And a Prince for -- (she smiles) -- whatever.
Never!   ("Moments in the Woods")
Her husband the Baker is played by James Corden, a British stage actor.  "I was actually excited by the fact that he doesn't have a huge film audience in America," says the director Marshall, "because he needed to play the everyman.  We needed to relate to him in that way."  He sings beautifully, falls and rolls, gets angry, gets flirty -- always believable.  After the Baker's traumatic loss and confrontation with his own guilt, Corden sits on a tree stump and weeps in a way that must call up memories for us all.  The director lingers on that moment, while we hear in the background an instrumental echo of  Sondheim's song of paternal regret from the original stage version, "No More."

In contrast, the Princes (Chris Pine for Cinderella and Billy Magnussen for Rapunzel) do "officious" and "smarmy" like the cockiest frat boys you ever met.  Singing their duet "Agony" about the challenge of pursuing damsels -- "Always ten feet behind, always ten feet below, and she's just out of reach" -- their one-upmanship got the heartiest laughs and even applause at our local multiplex. All of Pine's lines sound like they came from a prince handbook, but we still see something real in those eyes when he looks up from the golden slipper to recognize Cinderella's face.  He's especially funny in the song "Any Moment," as he manipulates the Baker's Wife into a little canoodling in the woods, rebounding from her every objection to find a new way to break down her resistance.

Big name star Johnny Depp appears only fleetingly, but a lot of thought went into every element of his performance.  Digital effects could certainly have made a canine Wolf of him.  Instead, he's made up like a creepy clown in a pimped out zoot suit -- Party City claws and huge tail, extra.  But this emphasizes the strong subtext of his song, fusing two kinds of "wolf" with two kinds of "appetite," as the Wolf sniffs Red and conceives his plan to eat Grandmother first and Red, second:
Think of those crisp aging bones,
Then something fresh on the pallet. 
Think of that scrumptious carnality
twice in one day!
There's no possible way
To describe what you feel
When you're talking to your meal!  ("Hello, Little Girl")
There's a gesture or look -- a leg up on the tree, a sniff, a widening of the eyes, a proffered flower and smile -- for every line in the song.

Marshall also worked with the original writers James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim to rethink the play's second act.  On stage, the Giant's long back-and-forth with the ensemble over justice and retribution derails the show, and the act stretches with a series of necessary but somewhat preachy ballads.  In the film, Marshall is better able to keep us focused on the most appealing characters Jack, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and the Baker, as they come to depend on each other like family.  Those preachy songs become heart breakers, now that the act is shorter, and now that we're up close and personal.   Around Meryl Streep's nuanced performance of the song "Last Midnight," starting from a soft lullaby to Streep's belting her loudest and highest note, Marshall pulls out all the stops in the orchestra and special effects department to make the whole screen dance with Streep - her hair, the wind, her cape, the lightning -- in the film's most spectacular number. 

The only thing lacking to make the film complete would be applause.  To see a musical number performed so well, all its parts building to climactic finish, only to cut abruptly to the next scene in a silent theatre -- it feels unsatisfying.  Let this blog post be my way of expressing satisfaction and gratitude to all concerned.
[In another blog post, Sondheim's "Fault" and Virtuosity, I examine the short song "Your Fault" as a "prism" through which the brilliance of the whole show is refracted. See my Sondheim page for many other reflections on matters relating to Sondheim, his shows, and musical theatre more generally.]

"It Takes a Pueblo": Richard Blanco's Loving Memoir

Like any good memoirist, poet Richard Blanco wrote The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (New York: HarperCollins, 2014) for himself as much as for his readers.  We are the beneficiaries.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/entertainment/books/article3342214.html#storylink=cpy
He wanted to honor the people and places of his life.  He dedicates the book to his brother Carlos (a.k.a. Caco), "my confidant, babysitter, cohort, superhero, ally, friend," and (in the acknowledgments) "a fixed star in my life who means more to me than I can express in these pages." After little Riqui meets his brother's challenge to ride the "Space Mountain" roller-coaster with him, Caco gives him five dollars and the affirmation that the overweight young boy with "sissy" tendencies needed. Later, Richard tries to teach his brother how to dance, "barefoot in Fruit of the Loom boxers" (location 1787 in Kindle edition).   Any sibling can recognize the mix of affection, competition, and, against the parents, coalition.

Blanco lovingly portrays many other characters for us to share.  His thrifty abuela panics in the English-only environment of "el Ween-Deezie" but comes up with "cubaroni" and a hybrid "San Giving" feast to please her grandson.  His abuelo helps him to build a backyard farm for cat, bunnies, and chickens; after town ordinances require the massacre of the chickens, the grandfather embraces the boy in commiseration, remembering a dog loved and left behind in Cuba.  Yetta Epstein, whom he knew only during a family vacation to a run-down resort, gets her own chapter, "Queen of the Copa."  She's a character I recognize from my own past, the kind of little Jewish woman with big jewels, big hair, big voice, and little tact.  She teaches him that it's okay to be "a little from everywhere."  When she takes him with her to the hair salon, she pretends he's her illegitimate grandson from Cuba, explaining in an aside to him, "If it's gossip they want, gossip they'll get" (1873).  We meet the charismatic class clown Julio in his Corvette, and the lovely Anita whose friendship with Richard ended sadly on prom night when a rote kiss revealed to each that they would never be more than friends:
I felt like I was in a movie, like I was acting.  I was there and yet I wasn't.  I felt the tenderness and intimacy, but not the passion that Julio had described.  I knew it should be one of the most beautiful, unforgettable moments in my life -- my first kiss -- but I also knew in that moment that I wasn't, and never would be, like other boys (2723).

Blanco tells in his foreword of writing "to discover what my life would read like without line breaks."  Foremost of the through-lines that he finds is his learning to appreciate his family's deep, visceral sense of yearning for the Cuba left behind.  He feels it in his last glimpse of the Magic Kingdom from the monorail, "nearly weeping as I watched my perfect world shrink to a handful of tiny lights as far away as the stars."  He asks, "Was this what my parents had felt when they left Cuba, not knowing whether they'd ever see such a magical place again?"  (1470).  He tells the Miami Herald, " The Cuban exile archetype is about loss, and as humans we all experience loss."  By the end of the memoir, we know that he will one day weep to feel the ground of Cuba.

Tying in with this theme of lost Cuba, there's another through-line that we'll all recognize, the workplace where we learn competence. For Blanco, it's his uncle's grocery store, El Cucoyito, "the little firefly," named for the fireflies that his uncle recalls lighting up the night sky in Cuba.   Blanco has included fireflies in descriptions of scenes, suggesting memory in their evanescence and elusiveness; but also drawing attention to El Cucoyito.  He's sentenced to work the summer there at age twelve to burn off baby fat, but he gains confidence and comes to love the place.  He learns to be swift at labeling prices, keeping inventory, lifting boxes, and displaying wares in pyramids.  He reflects,
El Cocuyito wasn't just a grocery store anymore, it felt like [my uncle's] village to me, a pueblo where everyone knew each other and where, for a few minutes every day, they could pretend they were still in Cuba... I thought about all I may have lost without knowing.  Perhaps El Cocuyito was my village, my pueblo, too (2474).
Through El Cucoyito, Blanco traces two other themes that make him.

First, there's the call of art.  We meet Felipe, who transforms boxes from the grocery store into a vast model of pre-revolutionary Havana.  Fascinated, Richard comes to visit each week:  "Every Friday, spread out before me, right there on his dinner table, was a Havana I could touch, a Cuba I could hold in my hands" (2230).  Richard would go on to become trained as a civil engineer.  Then there's Victor, hired to help at the store, who listens to opera on his Walkman and portrays life at the grocery store in a mural drawn on boxes stacked in the upper store room. Then, Richard discovers poetry by chance, when a substitute teacher gives the students an hour to write about anything in the textbook.  The day happens to be when Richard had already been shaken by the math lesson about "imaginary numbers," raising a question about the reality of everything for the rest of the day (2735).  Richard is drawn to "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," its sadness and longing, and especially the lines about "mermaids singing, each to each.  I do not think that they will sing to me," and the question, "Do I dare...disturb the universe?" 

Last, Richard encounters two men who show him what it might be like to respond to the mermaids' call.  One is that muralist Victor, to whom he has become close.  Victor invites him home to see a full-size mural that Victor calls "Los Cocuyitos," depicting Richard "with a halo of fireflies, floating above everything" at the grocery store (2950).   "It was beautiful," Blanco writes, "like the poem, like the mermaids, like imaginary numbers" (2956).  After dinner, Victor draws a realistic portrait of Richard, and kisses him.  For a moment, Richard wonders, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" but changes the subject (2969).

At "La Farita," a lighthouse where the extended family has a pig roast, Richard has a close encounter with Ariel, who seems to embody all the things that Richard has longed to be throughout the memoir.  Remembered as a sullen pudgy silent child, refugee from the Mariel boat lift of the mid-1970s, Ariel at seventeen is now a "superman" bigger than Richard, more Cuban because native, and more enthusiastic about American music and sports.   (His pug Yackson is named for "Reggie Jackson" - a Spanglish joke.)   When Richard's mother commiserates with Ariel over the lost homeland,
Ariel gently stroked her back.  Was Mama really that special?  I wondered.   For a moment, it felt as if I were watching a movie in which my mother was not my mother, but simply a her, full of loss and fear, love and charity -- a complex woman, not just the family overlord.  I wanted to kiss her too, and thank her -- but I didn't.  (3066)
Later, Ariel proves to be even more competent than Richard's older relatives at building a fire pit for roasting a pig and at dancing.  Richard has another epiphany when his family exclaims over the beauty of the hideously disfigured face of the charred pig: "The pig was beautiful not because of how it looked, but because of what it meant" as a reminder of "who they were" (3272).

Ariel's motto is "I like what I like," and he seems unafraid to go for anything, whether it's New Wave music, a sports car half-repainted gold (all he can afford for now), or Richard (3182, 3287).  When Richard dances with a girl cousin, Ariel audaciously cuts in to dance with Richard.    At the end of the memoir, we see that Ariel is a kind of lighthouse showing Richard the way to dare to go forward.

Is it too neat to be true?   Blanco writes in the "author's note" that the pages are "emotionally true," though he has compressed events, changed names, "collaged" different people in one, and imagined dialogue.  Finding the storyline in the facts of his life, Blanco has created for us a piece as engaging as any fiction, as meaningful as any essay..  

I've blogged about Blanco's poetry:  Not Grievance But Gratitude reviews Blanco's collection of poems Looking for the Gulf Motel; focusing on the last few poems of that collection, I find Solace in Blanco Verse for Midlife, Midwinter Blues.

I recommend Blanco's interview with Connie Ogle of the Miami Herald (article of 10/26/2014).  He says that the irony of writing a memoir is that "you’re being selfish and thinking about your memoir and life, but you have to tap into something universal, some common human denominator." 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Anglican Exceptionalism

"Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all others because you were born in it," wrote George Bernard Shaw.  Is my fondness for Anglican tradition anything more than self-congratulation for following the Episcopal church's call to me 40 years ago? On a day when Atlanta's dreary grey skies might as well be England's, minutes after the radio broadcast of the Christmas Eve service from King's College, while I sip Earl Grey tea, the time is right to consider the question of Anglican Exceptionalism. My heart and my mind do not agree on a single answer.

[Photo: Choir of King's College, Cambridge]

My heart was drawn to the Episcopal church through style;  the substance, I would absorb over time through participation in music, liturgy and study.  Teacher Frank Boggs prepared me to appreciate the distinctive quality of Anglican music by directing our high school chorale in Vivaldi, spirituals, and contemporary gospel music, all expressing faith from different angles.  In 1974 he introduced me to a recording that King's College choir made of church music by Britten and Bernstein.  The echo of organ and overlapping voices in a vaulted stone chapel still creates a space of its own inside me, where I find comfort and energy. 

This year's Christmas Eve broadcast from King's College featured hymns spanning eight centuries composed or arranged by the likes of Holst, Howells, and Willcocks.  These selections, so different from each other, are alike in words that develop, not just repeat, ideas; stately pace; contrasts in dynamics and texture; and harmony used to color the text.  Singing such music with our parish choir at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, takes me to the vaulted nave and candlelight, even if it's just rehearsal.  I respond emotionally to this sound, to this repertoire, and to the richly-worded Book of Common Prayer that provides context for the music. (Read O Praise Hymn, my reflection on King's College Choir's recording of "Best Loved Hymns.")

Yet an Episcopal priest deflates my swelling pride.  In The Bush was Blazing but not Consumed (Chalice Press, 1996) Fr.Eric H. F. Law warns against "put[ting] God within our cultural frame." I shouldn't need reminding that "ethnocentric towers" can't contain God.   Law writes how we build our towers to isolate ourselves from others (Law 27) and how we make "golden calves" of rules (31) and rituals (33).  Jesus trampled the  Pharisees' prized rules, so he said, not to "abolish" but to "fulfill" the law," i.e., to re-open the path to relationship with God (29).  As Law orders responses to cultural difference in a spectrum that ranges from "(1) Difference does not exist" to "(7) I know there are differences, but they are not important," I'm not piggish enough to think, ""(3) You are different; therefore you are bad."  I'm somewhere between "(4) It's okay for you to be different, but I am better" and "(6) If you don't include like I do, you are bad." (I don't go to the oddball position, "(5) You are different, therefore I am bad," though I'm sometimes embarrassed by Americans' image).   I love the Anglican tradition for its present openness to otherness, even while I'm aware that others are alienated by our rituals and by our openness to evolution in our theology as well as to evolution by natural selection.

That openness flows from our earliest history, though I recognize a strong under-current of chauvinism and bitter conservatism that also surfaces from century to century.

[Photo: Westminster Cathedral — London.]
The Anglican tradition has been tolerant of difference since the Church of England's inception at the time of St. Augustine (missionary to Canterbury in 597 C.E., not the theologian from Hippo in North Africa of 100 years earlier).   On a stroll through Rome with Augustine, Pope Gregory I, "the Great", quipped that fair-haired slave boys from the British Isles may be "Angles, but they look like Angels" ("non angli sed angeli" - see image, dedicated to Anglican choir boys), and sent Augustine to reclaim the church of England for Rome.  Historian Diarmaid MacCullough tells how Gregory, motivated to prepare the world for its last days that he was sure must come soon, gained for Rome "an empire of the mind greater than anything which Octavian had created by force of arms in the time of Jesus Christ" (MacCullough 329).  But Gregory was "two hundred years out of date" (336).

Augustine found a church fragmented among various Anglo-Saxon kings, mixed with older animist traditions and sacrifices to Roman gods.  Writing 100 years later, the "venerable" historian Bede reports that Gregory's advice, "It is a good idea to detach [temples of the people] from the service of the devil, and dedicate them to the service of the true God" (Marshall 43).  Regarding meat sacrificed to the old gods, Gregory told Augustine to "let some other solemnity be substituted" and then let them eat the meat: "If they are allowed some worldly pleasures in this way, they are more likely to find their way to the true inner joys."  Gregory adds a note that expresses today's Anglican approach to Scripture: "[T]he man who sets out to climb a high mountain does not advance by leaps and bounds, but goes upward step by step and pace by pace.  It is in this way that the Lord revealed himself to the Israelite people."  We don't see Scripture as God's final word; we believe that God still reveals himself "step-by-step" as we are ready, by the interaction of reason and Scripture through the processes of our traditional institutions.

Gregory also was first to emphasize the important work of the lowly parish priest to preach and care for the local congregation, compared to the lofty work of contemplative scholars (MacCullough 329), an emphasis on "the local" that has been cited as central to the development of Anglican theology in other recent books by theologians Timothy Sedgwick and L. William Countryman.

At the same time as Augustine, England was being evangelized from a different direction from Ireland.  From the early 400s on, thanks to a former slave named Patrick, who became an "apostle to Ireland" after education in Gaul.  Patrick, with near-contemporaries named Ninian and Columba, helped to create a "network" of monk-scholars.  The monks copied manuscripts and wrote commentaries alone in their beehive-shaped rock huts along the rugged coasts of Ireland and Scotland (MacCullough 331), supported by hundreds of different local "kings."  The monks' writings, perhaps inspired by the "terrifying beauty" of their environment, emphasized grace at work throughout "a constant series of little setbacks" that could be paid for by acts of penance (333) -- an idea that, along with preservation of ancient texts, was their gift to the wider Roman Catholic church.  MacCullough characterizes this as an "optimistic" view found in a stark environment, especially compared to other Christians' view of humans helpless in their depravity.

Augustine and Gregory won the Anglo-Saxons over, creating unity through the Anglican church and, with it, "a precocious belief among the English in their special destiny among their neighbors" (MacCullough 341). According to MacCullough, Bede's own history helped the English to think themselves exceptional, "a covenanted people like ancient Israel, a beacon for the Christian world" (341).

Later history shows an independent streak in the Church of England.  Thomas Becket and Thomas More both represented the authority of Rome when they faced down Kings Henry II and VIII who asserted independence of England's church; both Thomases lost their lives.  Before Henry VIII was born, Renaissance scholarship had spurred questioning of Papal authority and independent study of Scripture, and even its translation into English.  When Spain interfered with the eighth Henry's desire to annul his marriage to Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, Henry instead divorced England's Church from Rome.  He had been something of a religious scholar himself, publishing arguments for Rome against the Protestants across the channel.  He wanted to retain the outward forms of Roman Catholic worship and governance while he appointed Bishops and authorized translation of the Bible into English, opening a Pandora's box: bloody massacres of recalcitrant towns, Catholic reaction, and martyrdom of faithful on both the Protestant and RC sides.  Elizabeth, third of his children to ascend the throne, decreed a "middle way" between "Popery and Puritanism" (Marshall 50).  She demanded support for the institutional Church of England, but no attendance or statements of belief: "I make no windows into men's souls," she said. 

In Elizabeth's time, theologian and priest Richard Hooker (1554-1600) made this "middle way" more of an "intersection" of truths and traditions, giving it a "solid theological platform."  Hooker's theology emphasizes God's presence in all things, allowing for experience and observation of the natural world to inform our faith, supported of course by Scripture.  Puritans, emphasizing depravity of mankind, relied on individual interpretation of Scripture, leaving them open, in Hooker's view, to confusion of "private fancies with the promptings of the Holy Spirit" (53).    As to ritual, Hooker advised, "Willful singularity must be avoided, but so must rigid uniformity among churches" (54).  Regarding the Catholic-Protestant controversy over the nature of God's presence in the elements of the Eucharist, Hooker reduces the question to an academic one with his meaningful common-sense approach:  "The real presence of Christ's most blessed body and blood, is not to be sought for in the sacrament, but in the worthy receiver of the sacrament" (55). 

Subsequent history of the Anglican church involves swinging between Puritan emphasis on scripture, Roman emphasis on ritual traditions, and "latitudinarianism," a kind of indifference to both in the name of just getting along.  I've seen the ineffectual church of Jane Austen's time mocked in Pride and Prejudice, and I've experienced personally the bitterness in communities that have broken away from the Episcopal church for a list of grievances -- updating of the 1927 prayer book, re-introduction of older hymns with newer music in the 1982 Hymnbook, ordination of women, ordination of a gay bishop.  (I say more on that subject in Tradition Isn't What It Used to Be, a blog post from the time of 2008's Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops). 

So, eyes wide open, acknowledging that the "middle way" is not the only way, I still can't help feeling when I open the Book of Common Prayer that God is on the same page.

Sources Consulted

Countryman, L. William.  Living on the Border of the Holy: Renewing the Priesthood of All.  Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1999.

Law, Eric H. F. The Bush was Blazing but not Consumed. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996. 

MacCulloch, Diarmaid.  Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  New York: Penguin, 2011.

Marshall, Michael E.  The Anglican Church Today and Tomorrow. Wilton, CT: Morehouse Barlow, 1984.

Sedgwick, Timothy F.  The Christian Moral Life: Practices of Piety. New York: Seabury Books, 2008.

Find links to many more of my reflections on the Episcopal church, scripture, and on others' perspectives of the same topics at my page Those Crazy Episcopalians 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Blue Lightning: Ann Cleeves Thriller

[See photos of the Shetlands.]
For the fourth in her series of thrillers set in the Shetland Islands, Ann Cleeves follows her detective Jimmy Perez when he brings his fiancee Fran home to meet the parents.  "Home" for him is Fair Isle, one of the northernmost of the British Isles, rocky and remote.  His parents want to lure him back to their isolated community; he feels guilty for disappointing them.  She wants to like the quaint, provincial life, so different from her London background.  To please Jimmy, she becomes the life of the party that Jimmy's parents throw at the local bird reserve on the campus of the village's lighthouse.  Murder of the celebrity birder who runs the reserve -- white feathers twined in the corpse's luxuriant long hair -- turns this situation into a story.

Reading Blue Lightning at the same time that I'm re-reading Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express (ca. 1930), I'm struck by one all-important difference.  Christie focuses on the thread of the investigation.  Characters' quirks, descriptions of spaces, and dialogue are all about matters pertaining to the crime, as Poirot selects one seemingly odd detail from every encounter to fit his evolving theory of the solution to a puzzle.  I just read, for example, how an oil stain on a passport, mentioned once in passing, may be obscuring a character's initial.  (See my reflection on Christie's work on page and screen.)

For Cleeves, the thread of the investigation is only a unifying feature for exploration of the place and its characters.   Cleeves' chapters alternate among various "central consciousnesses,"  often coming at a certain incident from two or more perspectives, told by an expressive third person narrator cognizant of the characters' memories and deepest insecurities.  This works well, though the field of suspects narrows every time we learn that another character has no clue -- not that this matters much to enjoying the story.

Cleeves is also interested in the atmosphere.  Her title comes from Shakespeare's description of a supernatural storm in Julius Caesar, matched in this novel by the relentless winds and thrashing rains that give the first chapters of this book a feeling of dread and claustrophobia.

Without spoilers, I can't tell about a couple of effective jolts that we receive during the story, made strong by Cleeves' care to draw us into the characters' world.

Here's a link to my reflection on the first three of Cleeves' Shetland thrillers, and a link to a reflection on the first chapters of Raven Black, comparing them in style to a best-seller by Mary Higgins Clark.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Saints in Spite of Themselves: Characters in Graham Greene's Novels

In Graham Greene's novels, religious people are usually fakes or fools, and just about everyone else is pathetic or cruel. Widely travelled himself, Greene shows us much of the world - Mexico, Haiti, West Africa, the Congo, Spain, Monaco, Vietnam, Germany, Switzerland, France, and of course, his native England. Wherever he takes us, it's an atheist's world. Into this world, Greene introduces men who somehow find within themselves a courage to act on behalf of someone helpless, always at great cost to themselves. As much as that sounds like a formula, Greene kept it fresh across decades of writing.
[Picture: Greene (1904-1991) by Anthony Palliser
Source:Catholic Authors.Com,]

In The Power and the Glory, it's an unnamed alcoholic priest on the run during the anti-Church persecutions of the Mexican revolution circa 1930. He's weak, dishonest, scared. Still, when the man who betrays him to the authorities needs his last rites, this priest does his duty -- at supreme cost. For ironic contrast, Greene interrupts the novel at intervals to show us bits of a Catholic comic-book that tells of heroic martyrs who never waver in their faith.

Decades later, Greene showed another priest in Monseigneur Quixote, an old priest losing his faith, taking a tour of Franco's Spain in company of his atheist-socialist friend who has lost his faith in Communism. It's funny, as the innocent priest steps out from his cloistered existence. Like Power and several other novels by Greene, the novel reaches its climax in a communion at the end of a life. The delirious priest administers no bread, no wine, to his friend who has no belief, and it transforms the friend.

For me, the quintessential Greene character is Scobie, a lifeless police sergeant in The Heart of the Matter. He despises himself, and seeks only to keep his miserable wife from being unhappier. Like the protagonist of The Comedians, Scobie defines himself by what he eliminates from his life: personal effects from his office, personal comments from his journal of pure facts, and personal involvement with the people around him. When Scobie's own choices hurt others, his self-sacrifice becomes the only good thing he can do for them all. (See my essay Escape Clause: The Heart of the Matter). 

Yes, Greene was Catholic, and yes, suicide is the unforgivable sin, so, yes, Greene certainly enjoys positing situations that belie doctrine while they insist on salvation through faith. In The End of the Affair, an atheist angry at the influence of religion in his lover's life finds himself praying in his anger that God will just leave him alone. God doesn't leave him alone, and that's the core of all Greene's work.

Greene also had a dry and wicked sense of humor. He seems to have despised Americans, whom he always depicts as self-centered, arrogant, vulgar, and dangerously naive about their role in the world. Still, he's an equal opportunity despiser, as no nationality, least of all the English, comes across any better, and ALL governments are excuses for bullies to dominate the innocent. My favorite of his comic novels is his prescient spy novel Our Man in Havana, in which the aptly named Wormold tries to sell vacuum cleaners in Cuba on the verge of its Communist revolution. An English spy offers him spending money if he'll just send reports every month. To increase the pay, Wormold sends drawings of vacuum cleaner components and reports that they are scale drawings of huge components being assembled into some giant machine in the hills of Cuba -- and this is three years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wormold has to become a real spy, but, after he bungles his one attempt at killing a murderer, the villain (who must be Catholic?) tells him that he's like a clown, taking the same pratfalls every day, just as God keeps forgiving the same sins.

So Greene's characters behave badly, and believe nothing. He contrives situations that force them to act because there is some kernel of goodness in them - a desire not to hurt someone, a sense of duty, a sense of honesty - and they become martyrs, saints, or heroes in spite of themselves. In the same way, God speaks to this world through miracles, coincidences, pain, and through the sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church -- in spite of what Greene depicts as the cycnicism or naivete of its priests.

(Between 1982 and 1985, I read most of the novels by Graham Greene, including  The Human Factor, A Burnt-Out Case, The Heart of the Matter, Our Man in Havana, The Comedians, The Power and the Glory, Loser Take All, The Quiet American, The Third Man, The Tenth Man  (not a sequel!), Monseigneur Quixote, The Geneva Bomb Party, The Honorary Consul and The End of the Affair.  I also read books of his short stories, essays, and Lord Rochester's Monkey, his biography of a man famous for drinking, gambling, carousing, and converting on his deathbed in the late 1600s. My review is based on notes that I wrote during those pre-internet years.) 

[I wrote this article pre-blog in 2006 for my personal website www.Smootpage.com. ]

Saturday, December 06, 2014

"The Annunciation" by Tanner Awakens Advent Thoughts

For a spiritual retreat sponsored by "The Pilgrimage" society at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, our guest leader The Rev'd Laura A. Bryant brought us a print of "The Annunciation" by American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (d.1937):

The painting elicited a great deal of thought and feeling from the twenty or so people there.

We then practiced lectio divina (a process of "divine reading") with Luke 1:26-38.  I personally was struck this time by Mary's ambivalent response to the angel's greeting her as "favored" by God.  She wonders "what sort of greeting this might be."  Then it hit me:  Whether the news is good or bad, it's going to mean change.  

By synchronicity, I'd awakened early this morning from a nightmare about judgement, and sat up in bed thinking a line from a letter by Petrarca, "My life must change."

During our quiet time, I combined that thought and Tanner's image with Luke's line about the angel's greeting, and edited the mix down to this little poem:  
Why wonder what sort of greeting this might be?
Whether its the angel's promise, 
A verdict, or a diagnosis,
The messenger will leave you alone in the dark
Fingering the thought
My life must change.
Rev. Bryant then introduced a wonderful retelling of Luke's story from the angel's point of view imagined by Frederick Buechner (who wrote my favorite of all novels The Book of Bebb), and a poem called "Annunciation" by Denise Levertov that made me want to read more by her.  Like Buechner, she emphasizes that Mary was free to say "no," the way most of us do.  God would not "smite" us, Levertov writes, "But the gates close, the pathway vanishes."

This was a somber thought to emerge from a stimulating retreat -- just right for the season of Advent. 

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Trying to Catch My Old Dog Luis

Luis is still with me as I write this at the end of November 2014, but dreary weather and his recent bout with vertigo remind me that he's going to get away from me sooner or later.  If I'm to catch him, the physical presence of him, it had better be now.

I say "catch him," because he has challenged me to catch him since he was the pup next door in 2002.  The man's wife didn't want a dog in the house, so poor Luis spent a couple years tethered beside the garage by a wire just long enough to allow him to shelter inside the rear door.  When I'd walk my two dogs, he'd leap up and yelp to call us over.  As we'd approach, he'd whirl and jump, tangling himself.  Regal Cleo ignored him, and stolid Bo was a bit alarmed by this smaller, feisty creature.  When the neighbor wasn't home, I'd take Luis to my enclosed backyard and let him loose.  He always challenged Bo to catch him, tearing around the fence and diving among the trees. 

The day I loaded my belongings in a rental van to move ten miles away, Luis appeared in my driveway, leash dangling, eyes bright, tail wagging, inviting me to run after him.  When I lunged, he darted off into the neighborhood.  I figured that was the last I'd ever see of him.

When Cleo died suddenly some months later, I revisited the old neighborhood to share the bad news with Kathay, who'd been my faithful dog-sitter.  Without hesitation, she told me to take Luis home with me, because he had no life where he was.  The owner took a couple weeks to think it over, then deeded Luis to me.  Luis was hesitant to jump in the car; but after a stop at the pet store to get him a new collar and tag, he put a paw on my shoulder and leaned up from the backseat to give my ear a lick, first of many expressions of gratitude that he has given ever since.  Arriving at his new home, he led Bo on a high speed chase around the property. 

After his first bath, I discovered, under all the red clay, fur the mixed light and dark caramel colors of dulce de leche, softest I've felt on the living side of a mink, thick and smooth.  It's always clean, perhaps because he sheds enough each day for me to make another dog.  He's a lean 36 pounds, with inquisitive round eyes that sometimes close halfway in languid contentment during a tummy rub.  His ears are triangles that flop midway, something I always assumed was just the way he was built.  But during his recent illness, his ears were flat against his skull, something I'd never seen before, and hope never to see again. 

Though he's usually playful, walks are always serious business.   Approaching a bush or clump of high grass, he'd fuss until he was positioned just right, wet, then tug me to the next landmark.  These days, he's too unsteady to lift a leg.  I think he dawdles over those bushes just to slow the pace.  My dog-walking friend Susan indulges him, so that Mia and I have to wait minutes while he rustles leaves.  His favorite thing on a walk is to plunge all four feet in mud, licking gingerly at little black puddles as if sampling caviar.  Even when he sinks up to his elbows, though, his paws are somehow clean by the time we get back to the car.  As recently as last month, he was walking six miles with us on weekends, but yesterday we walked a single forty-minute mile.

One day a few years back, instead of waiting for me to open the hatchback for our ride to the park, Luis took off out of the garage.  I looked up just as he rounded the garage door and I chased, but he was already out of sight!  Heart sinking, I walked Bo through the neighborhood, carrying Luis's leash, calling his name.  Three blocks up, I saw him marking bushes at the bottom of a hill. He galloped to us and let me fasten the leash to him like this was just another fun walk. (By the way:  when he feels the click of the harness buckle, he always bites my nose (lightly) and grins.) 

On a cold day two years ago, dogs in the car, I returned home to find water pouring into my garage from some massive leak in the house above.  I texted my friend Suzanne to come help, then turned just in time to see Luis climb over the back seat and out my driver's side door. Tail up, tongue hanging, ears perky, he seemed to laugh while I chased.  Fortunately, Suzanne's car stopped at the top of our street, she knelt beside the door, and Luis ran into her open arms.  That was the last time I saw him run.

Stairs are a challenge for him, now, but if I sleep even ten minutes past five, he'll plod up, climb the seat at the foot of my bed, and plant his front paws on either side of my neck to lick me awake.  These days, he likes to rest on the sofa in the den, though he remembers he's not supposed to.  He won't get in it when I'm seated there; and, last week, when I caught him napping on the big sofa in the living room, he quickly got down and wagged his tail innocently.

He's deaf, now.  I can't stop talking to him, though.  Unable to hear where I am, he'll search me out, happy to find me, so a day is one happy greeting after another. If I'm seated, he's bound to poke his nose between my elbow and the armrest -- reminding me that his face is there for rubbing.

Just this morning, he was late coming up.  Mia and I padded downstairs.  When he saw light on the stairs, he hauled himself up to attention on the sofa.  Mia got there first, and they touched noses and wagged tails. He has a feeding ritual:  He watches my descent to the basement with Mia and two empty bowls;  when we start up again with food, he takes one step down to greet me, eyes sparkling as he checks out both bowls full, as if each one is more wonderful than the other.

[Photo: Luis, with Bo]
A couple of weeks ago, he lifted himself up at attention when he became aware that I'd come home from work, but toppled over.  At the emergency clinic, they explained dire possibilities, but held out hope that it was just "idiopathic vestibular disease," meaning, something went awry in this inner ear just because he's old.  Before I could leave him overnight for observation, I had to choose a box at the end of a questionnaire: In the event of heart failure, do, or do not, attempt CPR.  I fell apart.

Well, for now, I don't have to make that choice.  Let me treasure him as he is. - December 1, 2014.

(I reflected on Luis and Bo and a couple of religious-tinged books about dogs and humans in a posting called Dogs Are Poetry.  After Luis was blessed at my church's annual St. Francis Day celebration, I reflected further on Blessing of the Animals.)

Friday, November 28, 2014

What Talking Walls Told a Teacher

[Photo: Approaching Powers' cabin, July 2014]
All those years I bused students to Savannah for tours of historical sites, I could have put them in touch with living roots of their own community.  Teachers drawn to the Talking Walls program in July 2014 saw wonders hidden in plain sight among the developments and retail spaces of Cobb County. 

For example, nestled in woods behind upscale shopping and homes around Powers Ferry Road, there’s a little cabin lived in and cared for by a lady named Morning Washburn. We got some sense of Morning’s life there when she ladled into our cupped palms cool water freshly drawn from the well; when we stood in the shade of the vast cedar tree behind the cabin; when we walked half a mile on a grassy trail to see the fields and barns of her late neighbors, a place now preserved as Hyde’s Farm.

With Talking Walls, I found so much that I’d overlooked in my own back yard.  A long-time member of St. James’ Church, I’d never explored east of Marietta Square, nor visited Root House, home of one of the church’s founders.  Cutting through Kennesaw to the interstate, I’d driven a segment of the storied Old Dixie Highway without knowing it.  For me, Acworth had been just a spot on my way to other places, so I felt acute regret at what I’d dismissed when Talking Walls took us through sites on both sides of the railroad tracks, including an elegant turn-of-the-twentieth century home and Bethel Church, lovingly constructed by its original members (now preserved with help from Cobb Landmarks and Historical Society). 

I connect to all this through my own memories of grandparents; but what can these Talking Walls say to children now generations away from the world of small farms and sepia-toned memories?  Looking into everyday life in earlier times, my students typically dwell on deprivation: no “technology,” no showers, no air-conditioning.  They assume that time was tedious without the screens and wheels that take us to our entertainments today.

Talking Walls can teach students how time itself felt different.  From Morning Washburn, they’ll get a sense of time as a resource, one which must be used in season and tended.  Morning often mentioned "stewardship,” how she spent her days caring for the land and the cabin.   She described some repairs she made to the roof, the limbs sawed off the cedar, the time she climbed down the well, her competition with numerous deer for the fruits of her garden, and the process of washing clothes and hanging them in the sunlight. In her telling, stewardship of this place is a responsibility both solemn and joyful.  

Talking Walls can give our kids perspective on the lives we lead now.  I don’t suppose Morning Washburn gets to listen to Ravel while she sips a cold cocktail at the end of a hard day.  Still, when my smart phone dings in traffic to inform me of new meetings added to my agenda, it’s refreshing to think: it doesn't have to be this way.

(This article was written for the October newsletter of Cobb Landmarks, co-sponsor of the program "Talking Walls."  It is an expanded version of an article I wrote for this blog while still involved in the program, Georgia Landmarks Take Me Back.)

She Knows her Place: Ann Cleeves' Shetland Island Thrillers

Place always preceded plot for the late novelist P. D. James, remembered this week with thanksgiving by crime fiction afficionados.  Her legacy lives on in a series by Ann Cleeves.

Cleeves makes the Shetland Islands (northwest of Great Britain) more than a backdrop for novels Raven Black (2006), White Nights (2008), Red Bones (2009) and Blue Lightning (2010 - I've just begun to read it).  Certainly the starkness of life that clings to the rocky edges of these remote islands provides striking scenery: black ravens swarm a corpse on the snow, waves higher than a house crash against the craggy coastline, fog approaches a ferry boat and swallows the horizon, a farmhouse on a spur of land overlooks the sea on three sides, a row of homes and little shops comprise an entire village, eerie never-ending twilight casts shadows on an incongruously remodeled art gallery, relentless storm winds buffet a repurposed lighthouse while rain hits the trembling window panes "like bullets." 

But the location shapes the action, too.  First, where communities are so small and routinely immobilized by rough winds, everyone's into everyone else's business.  Old rumors define life for the developmentally challenged Magnus (Raven Black), for the artist who once hosted a sort of artsy-hippie-commune (White Nights), and for the relatives of a scandalous widow (Red Bones).  Cleeves folds layers of culture into her setting:  a clash of the ancient and the contemporary in a touristy pagan festival, a pop star who trades on his quaint background, and an archaeological excavation of violent deaths from the 16th and 20th centuries.  Then, as islanders are infiltrated by contemporary commerce and by visitors from "down South" in London, opportunism and class resentments provide motives for characters to behave badly, a plus for any mystery series.

Ambivalence to the islands gives detective Jimmy Perez something to care about besides the crime at hand.  Dark-skinned descendant of a Spanish sailor shipwrecked from the doomed attack of the Armada  in 1588, he's both native and outsider, taciturn and curious, diffident and intuitive.  He falls in love with the divorced mother who discovers the corpse in Raven Black, and ever after wonders what his life has to offer her, a sophisticated artist transplanted from London.  He is nagged by the thought that he has disappointed his parents by choosing not to ride the fishing boats with his father and the rest of "the boys" on Fair Isle. 

The most exotic location of all, in my favorite pages of the series so far, turns out to be the one most familiar to readers: a city street.  It's strange only to deputy Sandy Wilson, lowbrow island native. On impulse, Perez has sent him to interview a victim's mother in London. "[Sandy] was still astonished that his boss had trusted him to do the interview, felt extreme pride and extreme fear in the space of a minute" (217).  Afraid of the underground because it's "unnatural being shut in a tunnel" and "too complicated," Sandy boards a bus where he can't get help from any sympathetic fellow-passenger because their eyes are closed or they don't speak English.  More closed off from the horizon than at any time in his island life, he feels claustrophobia and "a feeling that the city was endless; there would be no escape from it" (218).  Afraid of being flattened on the sidewalk if he doesn't keep pace, struggling to make the receptionist understand his thick accent, lost in the grandeur of his room at the Travel Inn, he feels even more out of his depth when confronted by the witness, a wealthy member of Parliament who suppresses her own emotions when she mentions her late daughter's many letters to her:
       Sandy wondered fleetingly if he should try writing to his mother.  'I don't suppose you kept her letters?'
       'I did actually.  Isn't that sad?  I have them all in a folder.  When I feel especially lonely I re-read them.  And do you know, she probably thought I just glanced at them then threw them away.'
       Sandy didn't know what to say so he kept quiet.  That was what Perez did.  'Just give her time and sense that you're really listening to her.' (221)
Silence works for Sandy.  Within moments, the mother trusts him, and he has the presence of mind to request the SIM card containing the daughter's distraught voice in a final phone message.  Then the mother explains how she'd been so relieved of constant worry when her mentally-troubled daughter had moved to the remote Shetlands:
...She paused, breathed in a sob.  'Now I'd give anything to have the worry back.'
       Sandy held his glass and sipped the wine.  He wished he could say something to make it easier for the woman.  Perez should have come.  He would have known what to say.
       "Do you think Hattie killed herself?'  Gwen's question came at him so hard and fast that it made him blink.
       'No,' he said without thinking.  Then, blushing, realizing what he'd done, 'But you mustn't take any notice of me.  That's just my opinion and I get things wrong all the time.'
       She looked at him.  'I'm grateful that you've come all this way.'  (225)
Following this great personage's benediction for his arrival at a new maturity, Sandy contemplates taking the Underground back to his hotel, but chooses instead to walk through "the mild city night all the way back to his hotel" (226). 

Sandy's more fun, and more appealing, than the snippy London-based detective Taylor who intrudes on Perez's earlier investigations. Sandy's rise from comic bit player to a role of trust and responsibility makes Red Bones the most emotionally rewarding of the series, so far as I've read.

So place may define the story, but character fills it.  Plot comes in distant third.  When all was revealed at the end of any one of these novels, I have to admit that I only half-understood the motives and means, content to have lived awhile among these islands and their people.

See some of my other posts about Cleeves's works:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

"Music from the Heart": Georgia Festival Chorus' Carols by Candlelight, November 23

[Photo: Frank Boggs with GFC, April 2014]

The kind lady who made room for me in the second row at McEachern UMC Sunday night volunteered that she hadn't seen "that man," pointing at the director of the Georgia Festival Chorus, since 1972.  That happens to have been the year when that man, Frank Boggs, teaching chorus at the Westminster Schools in Atlanta, first took care of me.  I needed a costume for the middle school musical; an accident in my family had my parents visiting intensive care at all hours; so Frank brought me in to his house where his wife Doris took measurements and created my costume.  Through four years in Chorale, he led me through a vast repertoire from Vivaldi and Brahms to Gershwin and Ives, singing around Atlanta, South Carolina, Poland and the Soviet Union.

From the looks on faces of the Georgia Festival Chorus singers as they boomed, whispered or floated their notes at their 24th annual Christmas program, Frank Boggs figures prominently in many of our best memories. Both tone and feeling are warm.

In his 80s now, his 71st year as professional musician, Frank sat magisterially center stage while his associate director David Scott and assistant directors Ken Terrell and Michael Cromwell led the group.  After pianist Cathy Adams and Organist Phillip Allen played a virtuosic organ / piano arrangement of "The Nutcracker," the program opened with "For Unto Us A Child Is Born" sung by a small ensemble that stood in the middle of the choir, sounding joyful while they contended with Handel's sixteenth-note melismas.  Suddenly, the whole choir stood to raise the roof on the words "Wonderful!  Counselor!  The Mighty God!"  I noticed Frank was singing, too.

After breaking us in this way, Frank paired Beethoven's grand "Hallelujah" fanfare with the contrasting lovely "God So Loved the World."  In the latter song, on the phrase, "should not perish," Frank punched the air on "perish" and got a sharp, cutting sound in return.  The group's musicality has learned a few things from Frank's love of theatre!

The music of John Rutter, Frank's longtime mentor, figures prominently in the program, along with the work of composer/arranger Mark Wilberg.  David Scott directed Rutter's "Carol of the Magi," a sensitive piece of choral storytelling that touches a deep place in the heart when the Kings, finding the baby Jesus, reflect, "It seemed we'd known Him from long before."  Ken Terrell directed the chorus in Rutter/Wilberg's "Child in a Manger," a tune I've known as "Morning has Broken," with a four-hand piano arrangement that dances and sparkles.  Other Wilberg pieces included "In the  Bleak Midwinter" arranged with "bleak" dissonance in the accompaniment, and a Calypso carol "The Virgin Mary Had A Baby Boy" which had everyone swaying and smiling.

Michael Cromwell conducted the Ensemble in "The Work of Christmas," the music of Dan Forrest sensitively interpreting a thoughtful text by Howard Thurman about the work that begins when the angels, kings, and shepherds have gone on with their lives.  The text tells us that it is our work "to find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry" and "to make music from the heart." 

Frank introduced Barlow Bradford's arrangement of "Angels We Have Heard on High" by recalling Ken Terrell's first reaction to the score: "It has 14 keys and 14 different tempos!"  Every time the familiar "Glo-o-o-ria" came along, voices launched into a higher-than-expected key. It kept the song fresh.

Frank always looks for contrast and variety, this time including flutes, bass, and percussion. Some songs came close to "pop" (I heard "Close to You" in the vamp to one number), while others borrowed from mid-20th century avant garde.  But it was all informed by faith and love for the whole enterprise of communal singing.

As Frank Boggs himself is wont to say, "Bravo," and, "Ay-men, Brother!"

See earlier blog posts about the Georgia Festival Chorus:  Carols by Candlelight (2008) and Total Praise (2009).

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crime Drama Reset: 8th Graders Find their Story

[design by D.Alfi]
If you discover that one of your friends has killed the professor, do you still have to complete your class project? That's the premise of Reset. When eight college students show up at their professor's mountain lodge on a snowy weekend to play his famous international simulation game "Global Crisis," they find his car, but no sign of him.

Through October and early November, the students and I improvised the scenes first, finalizing the dialogue on a shared document after class. Because the actors seriously bought into their characters' feelings and dilemmas, they performed with intensity.

As their teacher, I was especially pleased at the tight construction of the play. Lessons that emerge from the simulation game early in the play become the template for choices made in the end: Respect is more important than money; Don't act before you have all the information; Coalitions are good; and If one player wins, everyone loses.

Collaborating with eighth graders on Reset,  I once again felt that we didn't so much build our play as find it. This is often my experience in creative work, and yet it's always a surprise.

They found the outline early, once they decided on some kind of crime drama.  They would all play college students because the nine young actors didn't want to play anyone "old," nor anyone their own age, explaining, "we have no personality, Mr. Smoot."  Grabbing the opportunity to improvise on the Upper School's unfinished set for another play, the actors "arrived" at their professor's mountain lodge for a class "retreat."  As they arrived, other elements of the story emerged:  Snow was coming, the professor was missing, but his car was parked outside; the rich kid's dad and fortune were both in legal jeopardy; the students discovered video cameras hidden around the lodge.  They came up with their reason for being there, to play an international relations simulation game.  When one girl proclaimed, "I wannabe Vladimir Putin!" I knew we had a good premise.

We put some time into creating that game because, unless its elements could somehow inform the rest of the story,  playing the game would detract from the action. The kids took this to heart, and found ways to connect their characters and dialogue to themes of "respect" being most important, and "coalitions" being good, and knowing all the facts before taking action.

For example, three different characters point guns at others over disrespect.  The play's climactic moment comes when all but one of the college students join a coalition to protect the guilty.  Our title first surfaced when our improvised game ended in simulated global destruction: "Reset!" said the young Teaching Assistant, handing us a theme that ran through other scenes.

Then we hit a wall:  None of the characters had a goal.  When I asked the actor/writers, "What is your character hiding?"  I love that they were such nice kids that they could not bear to have their characters be guilty of anything worse than cheating on a test.  I talked them into committing felonies, from use of performance-enhancing drugs to parricide.

We still couldn't answer, what was the crime?  And where was the professor?   Just asking the questions gave us both the answer and the professor's name: Dr. Boyd, anagram of "body."  To find out who he was, and why someone might kill him, the T.A. and I improvised a scene at the professor's home prior to the retreat.  Egged on by the class, we escalated tension by adding detail to each "take": the professor's wealth,  the papers discovered by the T.A., blackmail, Boyd's attempt to burn the evidence of plagiarism, and what happens when he pulls a gun. 

One of the students loved that scene, and said that we should put it first in the play.  That would not have occurred to me.  I thought we would "discover" all those facts through investigation, and might have a "flashback." But if the audience knew all the details of the crime from the first, then  the play wouldn't be about the audience finding out "who dunnit," but the friends of the killer finding out -- and then deciding what to do about their own "crisis."  Suddenly, we had a situation that would mirror the game, and we saw our way to the end of the play! 

The kids and I relished the melodrama of it.  One of the actors, an upbeat and energetic young man, bounded over to me after a rehearsal to tell me, "I just got really mad at him!  And I never get mad at anyone!  It felt great!"   Here's a sampling of lines that they wrote for themselves:
  • "Reacting" is screaming at someone. Shooting them in the head is murder!
  • Professor Boyd's car smells of old tacos, and disappointment.
  • This isn't a game anymore.  And I'm tired of waiting.  If you don't do something about him, I will!
  • You think you're so smart! You think you've found a way to make your future out of my past!  [That's my own melodramatic line; the young T.A. couldn't keep a straight face when I growled it at him!]
As we worked, I remembered how my number one ambition at their age was to act in a script that would allow me to aim a gun and say, as I do in this play, "I can't let you leave here alive.  Will you please stand over there -- away from the carpet?" 

We performed Reset for an audience of parents at the end of six hours' rehearsal.  The kids were proud, the parents, impressed.  We played it one last time for their classmates during school the next Tuesday.   

I've been involved in other crime dramas, reflecting on them in this blog.  With members of the parish, I wrote "Curse of the Waffling Bishop" for St. James' Episcopal church and wrote a Post-Mortem  on the process; another essay, "From Zero to Murder Mystery under 21 Hours" tells how 8th graders and I created a successful play over nine weeks.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Tom Magliozzi's 4 Million Friends on NPR

[Photo: Tom and Ray at play, at work (IdeaConnector.com)]
"With that laugh, he was able to make everyone around him feel better about everything," said radio producer Doug Berman earlier this month.  He was remembering Tom Magliozzi, who co-hosted NPR's program Car Talk from 1987 to 2012 with his younger brother Ray.  The day before, NPR had announced Magliozzi's death from complications ensuing from Alzheimer's. "Car Talk was a way to sort of mass-produce that feeling.  You put him and his brother [Ray] in front of a microphone and suddenly four million people a week feel better." 

The many tributes to Tom Magliazzi on NPR media made me wonder if there's a mass-produced intimacy here that's different in quality from other media "communities?"

Tributes from fans at the site of NPR program Fresh Air thanked Tom and Ray for years of shared laughter.  A recovering alcoholic got a morale boost from Car Talk; the brothers' banter kept a long-distance driver company; others (myself included) had the show on during years of routine Saturday chores.  Listener Sarah Pinho said a lot of what I would like to say with her posting:
Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers have probably been in my life since birth. Just hearing the words "Car Talk" makes me think of the taste of sawdust, Saturday mornings, and Dad in the workshop, saws and sanders buzzing away. They were just part of life, part of weekends, part of Dad.  I'm being reminded this week, even more than usual, that public radio is a national treasure. Thanks to these two brothers for loving each other and for adding so richly to American culture.
Since the age of Mass Media began -- sometime between the serialized blockbusters of Charles Dickens and the mourners lined up around the block to view the body of film star Rudolf Valentino -- we consumers have shared emotional connections to distant celebrities.  We've also had connections to each other through events shared live: JFK, Watergate hearings, the Challenger, 9/11.  We've connected through fictional characters, too, tuning in at the same time across the country to see season finales and series finales from M*A*S*H and Dallas to Breaking Bad.  It's cliché how a recorded song can conjure up a time, full-force.

But NPR is more than a single program or personality; it's almost a parallel society, defined by curiosity, appreciation, and civility.   "All things considered" is more than the name of its flagship program; it's the creed.   Co-hosts on the national and local programs are convivial, and never antagonize their interviewees, though they do press a question if they receive an evasive answer.  Just recently, in stories about the President's deportation relief plan, they interviewed an attorney of Latino descent who has defended immigrants from deportation -- who is now a Republican congressman.  He was asked open-ended questions to expound his views, and follow-up questions about a range of responses by opponents.  It ended with a cordial sign-off, and news that a Latina congresswoman on the other side would be interviewed the following day -- and more reporting about the ins and outs of the new policy.   News stories and investigative stories all get a 360-degree treatment, more than "left/right" or "pro/con." 

This parallel society is funded by listeners, and most of us have common memories and share this ethos.

In emergencies, I go to NPR for perspective and some comfort.  Some weeks, I feel that I need to hear the weeks' bad news turned into comedy for Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me.    I remember the shock of the exceptions, as Tom and Ray said in sober voices that they didn't feel like laughing on the Saturday following 9/11.  There was a shocking silence in October 2008 when the Morning Edition host asked an economist, "Wow!  Is there any silver lining to Lehman Brothers' collapse?"  There was a long pause before the expert replied, "I don't want to think about what's ahead.  This will be the worst financial crisis in our lifetime."  Long pause. "Well," said the host, "all right then.  Thanks.  This is Morning Edition."

In a way, NPR's like the Episcopal Church, complete with traditions, familiar old tunes, openness to new things, refusal to get too riled up about things.  It's ritual, too:  voices in the car, the Saturday bike ride to Stone Mountain with Car Talk and Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me! on my radio app, Saturday night with a martini and Prairie Home Companion, evenings with Fresh Air and classical concerts.

So, Tom lives on in memory and "the Best of" Car Talk; and NPR continues to amuse, engage, and enlarge my view of the world.   

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Evening Prayer with Pastan's Poetry: A Liturgy for Reflection

We Episcopalians love our Book of Common Prayer.  In fact, we love several Books of Common Prayer.  While we mix the language with special flavorings (Gender Neutrality, U2-charistic Hip, Ye Goode Olde English...), the basic outline for any worship goes back to the days of Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth I, and it's both steady and flexible, able to withstand innovation.  

For our latest class meeting of Education for Ministry (EfM), I brought out a liturgy for evening worship based entirely on poetry by Linda Pastan.  Why?  She often works with figures from the Hebrew scriptures, and some of the class had read Exodus this week.  Also, she reflects deeply on ordinary things. Last, I expected her many images to stimulate memories and tangential thoughts in members of the class, which we would in turn use for a theological reflection.  

It worked!

Here is the short service, with just enough of each poem to give a reader its flavor.  I am a fan, and wouldn't want to make Ms. Pastan have to call her lawyer.  I post the service here just as an idea for others.  As my 7th graders would say, "If you want to know what happens in the rest of the poem, go buy her book yourself."   My interpolations are in italics.


Liturgy for Reflection
Using poems by Linda Pastan
From C arnival Evening: Collected Poems 1968-1998 and The Last Uncle, 2002,
edited for collective recitation

Opening song of praise  to be read responsively, by verse, after each asterisk
Wearing their formal clothes,
their serious, funereal expressions*

The last things of our lives prepare
their final speeches.

While they are busy, let me praise
penultimate things: *

the bent branch
outside my window,

due to be kindling
next fall;*

the car I taught my next to last
child to drive on...

ALL:  Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever. Amen.
(“Penultimate Things” from The Last Uncle, p. 33)

A  Reading that reflects on the Hebrew Scriptures , a different reader after each space break


I set my table with metaphor:
the curling parsley – green sign nailed to the doors
of God’s underground; salt of desert and eyes;
the roasted shank bone of a Paschal Lamb,
relic of sacrifice and bleating spring.
Down the long table, past fresh shoots of a root
they have been hacking at for centuries,
you hold up the unleavened bread – a baked scroll
whose  wavy lines are indecipherable.

The wise son and the wicked, the simple son
And the son who doesn’t ask, are all my son
Leaning tonight as it is written,
Slouching his father calls it.  ...

excerpt from “Passover,” from Carnival Evening, p50-51.

A Homily – “The Vanity of Names”

When the house of flesh disappears
in an earthquake of its own making,
this house of wood and glass
will stay fixed in its landscape.
Rooms will be swept clean
of all memories.  Doors will close.
I know all this.  But to acquiesce
is never easy. ...

from The Last Uncle, p. 38

Prayer - “Grace” responses added.

When the young professor folded
his hands at dinner and spoke to God
about my safe arrival
through the snow, thanking Him also
for the food we were about to eat,

                        We thank Thee, O God

it was in the tone of voice I use
to speak to friends when I call...
                        We thank Thee, O God...


from The Last Uncle, p. 13