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 (]
"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