Thursday, December 31, 2015

Luis, Rest in Peace

A year ago, I wrote "Trying to Catch My Old Dog Luis," guessing that the day was coming soon when he would stop being the happy, grateful little dog he's always been since at least 2002, and I would have the vet put him to sleep.   I included many photos from our life together.

More recently, I wrote about the soul or anima of an animal, with descriptions of how desires and pleasures animate my younger dog Mia.   But I was thinking how tired Luis's anima had grown.  (See "Mia's Anima, A Dog's Soul.")


This holiday, even as I write this, Luis has often wandered listlessly, moaning, pausing at the waterdish and not drinking, turning away from food, pausing at the door, but not staying to go out.  Even when I pet him, though he will reach up and lick me once, or lean his face into my palm, he seems distracted and a little anxious -- I suppose because of aches that the pain medicine hasn't helped.
  
It's time.  Here are some recent pictures that show what a happy, contented, affectionate dog he can still be, at moments ever fewer and farther between.

PS - Thank you to friends Susan and Suzanne who went with me to the vet.  They have each cared for Luis over the years.  While we waited, he cycled among the three of us for affection everywhere he turned. 














Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Stoppard's The Hard Problem:
Dramatizing Thought

[Photo: Original production at London's National Theatre, with Damien Molony and Olivi Vinall, from theGuardian.com]

Tom Stoppard early in his career claimed to write plays because they provide a respectable forum to argue with himself.  He argues in his latest script The Hard Problem that both altruism and consciousness itself can be explained by evolutionary biology. Or not.  Though Stoppard argues the heck out of both sides, I'm not sure who wins.

But, reading the script, I noted with pleasure how Stoppard found dramatic situations to fit the thoughts. In drama class, I urge my kids to find ways to do what Stoppard does so well, to make thoughts visible. Like rhyme in essays by Pope and Auden, patterns of images can substitute for developments of substance, and, besides, they are a pleasure in themselves.

For example, there's a visual motif of kneeling in prayer.  We see the protagonist Hilary kneeling at her bed (8).  It's a sign of her belief, her hope, and also her guilt for something revealed shortly after.  The image of kneeling at prayer is repeated (46), then echoed in a scene at a Venice hotel room, where the concluding stage direction reads, "He [Spike, her materialist friend] pauses to listen, kneeling in the light from the minibar" (53). Her final prayer is just "Thank you," spoken aloud, to no one (72).  


The image of mother-and-child works into the fabric of the play's rhetoric and plotline.  Hilary alludes to the bereaved mother who breast-feeds a starving man in The Grapes of Wrath (6), and Hilary's debate partner Spike renames Raphael's Madonna and Child  as "Woman Maximizing Gene Survival" (13).  Spike says the universe is "no baby, just bathwater" (10), not bothering to reiterate for Hilary, or for Stoppard's audience, the whole argument behind the allusion. (Later, Hilary says there is nothing under science to explain the lowly gene's conviction that "life has a value" so "it's tortoises all the way down," oblique allusion to more than one myth.)   In all this banter about motherhood, Hilary inexplicably begins to cry (15).  We soon learn that she gave up her baby Catherine to adoption.  By coincidence, her wealthy employer has an adopted daughter of the same age and name, who first appears on stage asking her father, "What's 'coincidence?'" (26).

Another kind of repeated "image" is that of the psychological simulations or "problems" that deal with altruism.  First, there's discussion of a classic psychology simulation, "the Prisoner's Dilemma." Stoppard assumes we know it.  Later, as I guessed he would do, Stoppard makes the hypothetical dilemma into action on stage, when the protagonist Hilary is offered the chance to evade consequences of her collaborator's malfeasance (70).  Hilary also alludes to a psychological study called "the custody problem," for which subjects decide who should get custody of a child if one parent is average but dependable while the other is wealthy but erratic (37), the very situation we see.

Alongside the argument about the brain as a mechanism that either does or does not "cause" consciousness, we have analogs represented by characters in the play.  Market analyst Amal sees traders operating as one self-interested "mind," predictable by computer models, except when the market acts "stupid" (33, 68).  Hilary's nemesis Spike writes a paper about hormones affecting risk-taking behavior among gamblers and stock traders (56).

I enjoyed the play from start to finish, feeling sympathy for Hilary, and amusement at dialogue.  Variety's critic Matt Trueman was less amused seeing the original production at the National Theatre of London, but his analysis can't be faulted:
There’s no denying the richness of these ideas, jostling up to one another in myriad ways, but that’s the measure of good thinking, not good theater.   In a play that invokes emotion throughout, emotion is still hard to come by. Stoppard’s characters aren’t people, so much as opposing viewpoints with jobs and characteristics attached. (1/29/2015)
Trueman points to another theme in the play that I missed, how all of these experimenter / theorists  to some extent allow bias to determine their results, especially by discounting the "outliers" in the data.  In his view, Stoppard's shaping the story to fit the thought is tantamount to twisting the data to suit one's predisposition.

Still, Stoppard provides his actors with great text to say and lots of subtext to play. An old friend catches up with Hilary, and hears about the adoption. "So everything turned out all right. I'm sorry" (20).  A lot of perception and feeling happen between "all right" and "sorry."   I love the observation (concerning mice brains) "It's only amazing, not counter-intuitive": score for the materialists (36).

The end of the play is silent business of packing up personal items.  Is this emotionally satisfying?  Is it somehow a solution to the problem?  I'm puzzled. I may have to see it to understand Stoppard's thought.

(Read a more general reflection on Stoppard's work, "The Invention of Stoppard.")

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Big Short: How to Turn Misery to Comedy

By slicing different kinds of leftover fish, a chef can make a seafood stew more appealing to diners than three-day old halibut.

By slicing and bundling toxic subprime mortgages with more dependable kinds, mortgage lenders before 2007 turned junk loans into gold-plated junk that bedazzled big-name investors world wide.  The guys who first recognized the fraud behind that alchemy are the subject of The Big Short, a film directed by Adam McKay, based on Michael Lewis's book.

By slicing up the arcane technical details, human malfeasance and misery of the housing collapse and mixing in elements of buddy movies, mockumentary, and social satires like Network, McKay and his creative team have turned a grim and potentially dry subject into a sharp-edged comedy that keeps us alert and involved, laughing and sometimes crying.

So The Big Short's form follows its content.   Like playwright Tom Stoppard, McKay flies off on tangents to make sure we get the subject from different angles.  We get dictionary definitions, witty epigrams, a straightforward lecture from a super-model in bubble bath, and a demo of sub-prime "CDO's" with that celebrity chef's fish stew.  Characters make snarky asides to the audience during dramatic scenes.  A stripper writhing and caressing herself comes to the realization that her loan-fueled investments in five houses might be risky.

In an interview on Atlanta's local NPR station WABE, author Michael Lewis spoke with awe and appreciation of the lead actors Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling.  He said that they were professional, devoted craftsmen, meeting him and the characters they portray, putting their time and whole minds into mastering the financial background to their characters' stories.

With all the laughter, the moments that stick out most were moments that brought characters to the point of dismay and pain:

  • Ryan Gosling's character stuns Steve Carrell and his cohort with the observation, "You guys think of yourselves as cynical, but you still trust that the system is basically fair."
  • The door opens to a McMansion in a deserted suburban development to reveal a big bruiser with tattoos, who seems threatening at first, but vulnerable and broken when he learns on-camera that his rent checks have gone to a landlord delinquent on mortgage payments: hugging his little boy, he wonders what he'll do if his family is evicted.  This makes an impression, and sets up a heart-stopping moment later when we see the father and mother trying to hold their family together living in their car.
  • A rep at Standard and Poor's apologizes for having to wear those flimsy sunglasses that optometrists provide, an odd and distracting detail, until the characters' questions make her reveal the truth: that her company doesn't dare give an honest rating to these junk products.  When she takes that clumsy visor off, her eyes express more than her words.
  • Christian Bale is totally convincing as the obsessive fund manager with a glass eye and the insight to see the coming financial meltdown before anyone else.  He's "pent up" in every sense of the phrase, guarded in emotions, holed up in his glassed office, often playing heavy metal music on speakers or earbuds to shut out the world.  As his character gambles with millions to make billions, all of his associates abandon him.  It's harrowing to watch him play drums in a sealed-off room at his home, releasing his pent-up feeling, but bringing no comfort.  
  • Steve Carrell's character "Mark Baum" comes across at first as the world's most egocentric jerk, but we come to appreciate what drives him.  It's not ego, but guilt.  His catharsis -- seated with his long-suffering wife -- brings sympathy from us.
  • "Mark Baum" has a couple more epiphanies that hit the audience hard.  One occurs at interview with a smug billionaire financier at dinner in Las Vegas, watched at the next table by Ryan Gosling and friends.  We get a play-by-play on what Baum is feeling, and a freezed frame at the precise moment that Baum realizes that the world's economy could collapse, and one-second flashes of scenes from the actual financial Armageddon.
  • Another epiphany happens when, suspicious, Baum asks his partners why two cocky young mortgage brokers freely confess their unethical loans to "Ninjas" ("No Income, No Job") and poor immigrants.  The answer is a kick in the gut:  "They're not confessing; they're bragging."
  • Two other characters on the periphery of the main story are their own buddy-picture, which might be called their "excellent financial adventure."  With their mentor, a disenchanted Wall Street Banker played by Brad Pitt, they pull off the deal that will make them rich, and they do their end-zone celebratory dance.  Pitt's character stops them, conjuring up the misery that this financial meltdown will cause.  It hits them, and us, hard.
On a totally personal note, I recognized some of these events from my own experience with the housing bubble.  A house that my mom bought for an investment of $87K in 1990 sold to me for $103K in 1999.  There were scads of forms to fill out, guarantees of income, inspections, repairs required, a coupon book for making monthly payments, etc., etc., etc.

But around 2002, acting on a whim, I stepped into the show room of a mortgage lender to look into refinance.  It was wall-to-wall atmospherics, airy, cobalt blue, animated video presentation at the entrance, and, behind glass partitions, sleek uncluttered tables with padded chairs.  Attractive young women and men roaming the room nabbed me.  I signed a few papers and walked out an hour later with over $103,000 and no obligation to pay back anything at all before a huge balloon payment due some years later.

It felt too good to be true, and I sensed that I had fallen into a trap.  I resolved to get out of this agreement a.s.a.p.  I paid off my old mortgage, fixed up the house with money saved by skipping monthly payments, sold the house for $136K, got rid of that other loan, and bought my present home with a conventional fixed-rate mortgage for $165.  Just before the bubble burst three years later, it was appraised near $200K; its value fell to $145K before the rebound.

In an epilogue, the movie warns us that it's all happening again. with CDO's (old halibut) under a new name, and skyrocketing values.  (My own house is up to $190K again).  Oh, yes:  the seer played by Christian Bale, the one who foresaw the coming collapse in supposedly secure market, is now invested solely in water.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited:
Real Prophecy


[Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited. Vincent Harding, foreword.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.  First published, 1949.]

Howard Thurman preached, taught, wrote poetry, and spoke as elder statesman of the Black Civil Rights movement from the middle of the last century.  But how does he earn the title of "prophet" bestowed in passing by the author of the foreword to Jesus and the Disinherited (viii)?

To appreciate Howard Thurman's prophetic vision, substitute "White America" for "Rome" and "the Black American" for "Jew" in the first chapter of his book, first published in 1949.  In his stark outline of the Jews' situation in first-century Palestine, Thurman implies a vision of his own time and of what was soon to come.

For a first-century Jew, Thurman writes, "Rome was the enemy, Rome symbolized total frustration; Rome was the great barrier to peace of mind.  And Rome was everywhere" (12).  A Jew could respond only two ways:
  1. Nonresistance, effected in two ways: 
    (a) more or less grudging compliance (e.g., Herod and Sadducees) along with hypocrisy and "strategic loss of self-respect" (13), or it meant 
    (b) strict self-isolation (e.g., Pharisees) along with bitter hatred and fear of any disturbance to the status quo that might bring down the wrath of Rome (14).   
  2. Resistance, effected in two ways:
    (a) guerrilla tactics, futility, fanaticism (as the Zealots of Jesus' own band) and danger to the community (16). 
    (b) The option proclaimed and exemplified by Jesus.
In the book's next three chapters "Fear," "Deception," and "Hate," Thurman considers three "hounds of hell" that do internal, spiritual damage to those who choose compliance, isolation, and violent resistance over the way of Jesus. Thurman writes as if with foreknowledge of those Black clergymen and white politicians who attacked King for moving "too fast" to bring change, of those isolationist Black muslims and Back-to-Africa movements of the 1960s and 1970s, and the armed Black Panther party. This isn't supernatural prophecy, but just what the Episcopal Church teaches as "theological reflection," drawing on illustrations from scripture, cultural artifacts of history and literature, and from personal experience.


In a final chapter called "Love," Thurman expounds upon the preferred option, what Gandhi called satyagraha, and King would translate as "love force."  We are told to love our enemies, Thurman writes, but we apply this only to personal enemies, the easiest kind of enemy to forgive (82).  The command doesn't seem to apply to two other categories of enemy, because they are thought to be beyond our capacity to forgive.  One is the Enemy (the "Romans"), and the other is the Collaborator with the Enemy, such as the tax collectors in the days of Jesus, so contemptible that one was insulated from having to "love" them (83).

But as Thurman points out, Jesus heals the slave of the Roman centurion, and takes a tax collector to be among his chosen twelve.  For African Americans to forgive and love their white oppressors, Thurman admitted, would take some "unscrambling," such as occurs when blacks and whites work together during a flood and status is momentarily set aside, for example; or, it could happen during worship (88).  One thinks of years later when the experience of worship with white men changed even the firebrand Malcolm X. ("Will you [now] shake hands with a white man?" asked a motorist who recognized X at a stop light, soon after the publicized return from Mecca.  "I'll shake hands with a man," X replied, smiling.)

Within his elegant outline, Thurman expresses incidental insights that caught me and my friends in the Education for Ministry program by surprise.  For Thurman, whose grandmother rejected Paul's letters as her plantation owner's scriptures of choice to justify slavery, Paul's deference to Roman authority was the understandable blind spot of a man born into privilege (22), though his remarks "bore bitter fruit" throughout the remainder of history.  About fear, Thurman reminds us violence is implied even within the confines of a pleasant-seeming segregated neighborhood, where people live inhibited by fear without ever having to come into personal contact with an individual of the dominant class (31). Jesus not only preaches against fear, but lives as though there are worse than things than death for a child of God:

One of the practical results following this new orientation is the ability to make an objective, detached appraisal of other people, particularly one's antagonists.  Such an appraisal protects one from inaccurate and exaggerated estimations of another person's significance. (41)

About deception, Thurman tells how we may accept some kinds of dishonesty to survive subjugation, but he cautions against the corrosive effects of dishonesty, describing the downhill slide of Macbeth from one lie to the next into madness and misery (55).  Citing Gandhi, Thurman asserts that we must have "confidence that the effect of truthfulness can be realized in the mind of the oppressor as well as the oppressed"(60).  He concludes:

If the position of ascendancy is not acknowledged tacitly and actively by those over whom the ascendancy is exercised, then it falls flat.  [If deferential hypocrisy] is supplanted by a simple sincerity and genuineness, then it follows that advantage due to the accident of birth or position is reduced to zero.  Instead of relation between the weak and the strong there is merely a relationship between human beings. (63)
 (I wonder, however, how to apply this analysis to the current eyewitness video of Sandra Bland, a black woman, whose assumption of equality seems to enrage the white male officer who pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change in Texas this past year.  He arrested her; two days later, she was found hanging in her cell, cause given as suicide.)

About hatred, Thurman readily acknowledges that hatred releases energy, and feels positive.  Recalling then-recent wartime experiences, he tells how hatred can "masquerade" as patriotism (64), or "the illusion of righteousness" (72).  He observes that hatred, once "released," "cannot be confined to the offenders alone" (76).

Early in the book, Thurman remembers representing Christianity to a Hindu man who shook Thurman's faith with probing questions about the crimes done to "brown people" in the name of Jesus (4-5).  Thurman came to downplay the other-worldly aspect of Christianity to focus on Jesus as one responding to oppression (18).  Thurman explains how the refrain "Take all the world, but give me Jesus," though "germane" to the religion of Jesus, "has to be put into a context that will show its strength and vitality rather than its weakness and failure" (19).

My friends and I were "surprised" for a few reasons.  As friend Susan observed, just a few years ago we considered that we lived in a "post-racial America' where Thurman's concerns were "so last century." The surprise was how relevant Thurman's analysis seems now, with a movement called "Black Lives Matter" responding to the justifiable conclusion that black lives have not mattered enough to local governments, with professional chatterers decrying the presence of Latinos and Muslims in America, and with backlash against LGBT citizens among evangelical Christians who say that they feel under attack.

Then, there's the surprise how directly Thurman revises our mostly personal view of our own religion in a way that suddenly seems like common sense, so obvious.

Finally, there's surprise in seeing how much of this work applies to my own experience as a teacher of Middle School.  I guess it could be argued that teachers are the oppressors and students, the oppressed; some days, it feels the other way around.  Thurman observes how those resisting authority "measure their own significance [by] the amount of power and energy [authorities] must use in order to ... hold them back" (16).  In the chapter on "Deception," he tells of the unprepared student who throws the teacher off-task by asking a question about the teacher's pet interest (49).  Thurman holds Jesus up as a model to all teachers for the kind of love shown to the woman caught in adultery:  Jesus "met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she were already where she now willed to be [and] 'believed' her into the fulfilling of her possibilities" (96).

Aside from all this wisdom, Thurman is direct in overall outline, economical in sentences, never chatty, polemical, or "academic."  He has gravitas.  He's just a great writer!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Miss Marple's Debut in Murder at the Vicarage

Agatha Christie was only 40 years into life and 10 years into writing when she created the elderly Miss Jane Marple for Murder in the Vicarage (1930).  We can cut her some slack for some careless writing.
 
Miss Marple herself scorns coincidence, allowing herself just one in her solution to the crime (250).   Yet much of the novel turns on coincidences, such as a crucial misdialed phone call that just happens to go to Miss Marple.  Her nephew Raymond is introduced late in the book just to bump into the one person that he would recognize at the small train station.

Christie gives us more details than I cared to enumerate fudging the time of the crime, which includes a forged note, a fast clock, and the coincidence of a late train.

Her prose is often first-draft quality.  She relies on silly adverbs:  Detective Slack tries "determinedly" to contradict his name, and our first-person narrator the Vicar tells us he looked "curiously."   When he asks a question, isn't curiosity implied? Can he see his own facial expression? Here's a paragraph I'd have my seventh graders re-write:

I was just standing in the hall, wondering whether I would not even now go over and join them, when the doorbell rang.  I crossed over to it.  I saw there was a letter in the box, and presuming that this was the cause of the ring, I took it out. (252)
Five clauses in a row begin "I" -- need I say, repetitiously? -- and, simply to pick up a letter, we slosh through colorless function words was,whether,when,there was,that this was the, and then wait for the vicar to hear, cross, see, presume, and take it out. This is padding.

At her best, Christie can write a witty bit of dialogue.  Told that an annoying witness fears she's next on the murderer's hit list, the detective remarks, "No such luck" (117).  Miss Marple explains that "Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out" (92), a skill that comes with experience.   Marple calls another character "morally colorblind" (281).   

For a novel narrated by the town vicar, matters of faith are pretty superficial, along the lines of tut-tutting infidelity and telling how a woman gives him every opportunity to notice her pink-striped silk knickers (81).  There's a remark about how the "high church" curate clashed with the church warden, "opposer of ritual in any form" (3).  The town doctor tells the vicar how psychology blurs any line between right and wrong. "I believe the day will come when we shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals," the doctor says (121).  It's out of character when the vicar finds himself extemporizing an emotional sermon on sin in his community that has consequences (240).  (Read my blog post about "Christ in Christie")

So the author develops her plot without showing much concern for its characters or their world: both would come in some of her later works. This earlier work was at least a diversion, a welcome return at the end of a long day.

  • Read more articles about Christie and others at my Crime Fiction page
  • Personal thanks to Agatha Christie for an idea I've borrowed from Murder at the Vicarage for this year's murder mystery dinner theatre play at St. James' Episcopal, Marietta: What happens when three different suspects confess to the same murder?

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Rediscovering Charles Addams' Family in a Musical


Before the musical, before the movies, before the first TV series, there were those exquisitely detailed one-panel drawings by Charles "Chas" Addams.  At five, I asked my baby sitter Mrs. Wilson to sit me on her lap and explain Addams' humor to me, my initiation to irony. 

But what I really loved were the drawings themselves.  I could spend quiet hours peering into his cobwebbed corners, imagining what lurked down dark halls, finding little faces in the black space behind shards of cracked windows.  Bliss was to watch the show before bedtime on Friday nights, to lay my Addams cartoon collection Homebodies on the bedside table, and to wake before anyone else in the house Saturday morning to leaf through those drawings week after week, admiring their skill, making up my own stories about them.

All of this is to say that I brought a lot of Addams baggage with me to see the musical.  To see those silhouettes emerge from memory onto the live stage was a visceral thrill, met with wild applause. [See photo:  This and photos following come from the collection of designer Bill Schreiner, the Walker School.]

The Addams Family was performed at the Walker School, Marietta, GA, by grown-up former students of mine, directed by choreographer Katie Arjona, designed by Bill Schreiner, with vocal director Samantha Walker.   I saw the show twice, on Thursday November 12 and Friday the 13th.  Aside from being delighted by the actors, chorus, and band, I came away admiring what the creators had done.

Working with the same plot as, gosh, every half-hour episode of the TV show -- normal people meet the Addamses -- the writers (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, book; Andrew Lippa, music and lyrics) gave themselves room to explore Addams' world.  "What's 'normal' for you may be asinine for others," Morticia says.  "Normal" means being from "the real America" outside of New York, where people adhere to life plans, and stay cheerful by keeping anything "dark" to themselves.  The Addamses are cosmopolitan -- we see ghostly ancestors from Spain, France, and even Viking territory -- and spontaneous enough to fire an arrow blindfolded at a lover or to rocket Uncle Fester to the moon when he gets a notion to go.  In an anthem intoned by taciturn Lurch, they "Move Toward the Darkness."  That thought is developed in a great parody of songs that tell us, when things are down, to look for "that silver lining," "flowers that bloom in May," or "pennies from heaven": Morticia thinks happily how Death is "Just Around the Corner."

So much of the show is silly, but its creators take family seriously.  No one laughed when Morticia repeated the vows from her wedding to Gomez: "Dance every day, for passion; share everything, for honesty."  The opening number brings back generations of Addamses to witness and facilitate the action:  Here's a family for whom family is everything.

With strong voice and withering sneer, Briana Keegan played a thoroughly millennial "Wednesday," loathing herself for being "pulled in a new direction" by romance.  Every time she sang "pulled," she stretched her brother Pugsley with chains on a rack.  Dylan Alfi played a punk "Pugsley," getting laughs and sympathy at the same time when he sings of losing his sister and chief torturer.  Affable, energetic, and gloriously voiced, David Simpson played the love interest, who hands Wednesday a blindfold in my favorite moment of the whole show.  His tight-buttoned parents were played by Connor Barre and Meghan Dresdner, who both get to let loose, showing off their vocal and comic chops.  Sean Nesmith was "Uncle Fester," sweet and funny as our host for the evening.  His moon dance was an audience favorite.  Jesse Baynes made a gloriously earthy "Grandma."  On platform shoes as the giant "Lurch," silent Harrison Pritchett got some of the biggest laughs of the evening just plodding to a door and heaving his shoulders with one sigh of resignation. Deb Kemp, charismatic as "Morticia," was often the still center to a manic stage picture who could reduce the audience to helpless laughter with just the rise of an eyebrow.  But she could break into song and dance, too, with her perfectly matched "Gomez," Kenneth Laster, who performed with strong voice, sure step, and irrepressible enthusiasm.

Like Addams's original cartoons, Bill Shreiner's set gave us something interesting to look at wherever our eyes wandered in the vast space of the auditorium (formerly a basketball court).  Todd Motter kept up a spirited pace with the costumed orchestra from Vic Mizzy's inevitable theme (four note arpeggio, snap, snap) to the finale nearly three hours later.  Voices were clear, strong, in tune, and self-assured, thanks to Samantha Walker's vocal direction.  The whole package was the work of director Katie Arjona, who insisted on, and got, professionalism and warmth. 

Monday, November 30, 2015

Touching Music: Guitar in Recital with the Assad Brothers

[Photo: by KQED, recital by brothers Odair and Sergio Assad in 2012, similar to what we saw November 21 at Spivey Hall, Clayton State U., Morrow, Georgia]

The Assad brothers strum and pluck the strings, also press, tickle, and slide fingers along them.  They hold their faces sometimes right up against their instruments, cradling them.  I have never been so conscious of touch in music making. 

Guitar has always been a pleasant sound on recording, but three rows back, in such a "live" room as Spivey Hall at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, I was drawn into the world of guitar sound.  The music for two varied in texture, sometimes being dialogue passed in flashes and gestures between the brothers' instruments, sometimes combined in dramatic statements or ambient scene painting, sometimes like song with accompaniment.  The first half of the concert featured composers  Granados, Albeniz, Rodrigo, familiar from symphonic works.  The second half featured shorter pieces from mostly Brazilian composers, Piazzolla the exception:  Pernambuco, Jacomino, Baden Powell, Gismonti, and Bellinati.  Introducing us to works by their countrymen, some of them friends, the Assads spoke more and laughed a lot.

For once, I left thinking more of the instruments' sonority than of any particular piece.  The mood could change, but the voice of the guitar always felt affable, hopeful, and considerate.

I may be conflating the sound with the brothers' own characteristics.  Sergio (photo: R), the older one, did most of the speaking.  Both men have soft voices and unassuming stage presence.

The audience  asked for two encores before we let the brothers go.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Eleanor Spears, 7th Grade English

Eleanor Spears at Spalding Drive Elementary school in Fulton County, north of Atlanta, seems more remarkable to me every year that I teach seventh grade myself. 

We had no books, not even workbooks, only a classroom set of very dull grammar exercises. We sat in neat rows. We met her class just before lunch, just after a class called "Spelling" where my classmates mercilessly reduced the soft-spoken spelling teacher to tears by interrupting and ridiculing her. (I didn't -- that class was agony for me.) But then we'd file across the hall to Mrs. Spears, who never raised her voice, never punished anyone, and never had to. We never interrupted. We never misbehaved. 

How did she do it? That's a mystery to me even today. A student once paid me the compliment, "You're strict, but it doesn't feel like it." That's how it felt with Mrs. Spears, and she was much more successful at that than I've ever been.

[Photo:  While we had no class text to read, Mrs. Spears did show us Encyclopedia Brittanica's short film of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." The discussion that followed taught me how to test theories with citations of evidence from the story itself.  I now show the same film to my classes.]


What she taught was, I'm afraid, superfluous. My verbs had agreed since third grade, and I'd used commas and quotes correctly since fourth grade at least. From her I learned easily to diagram sentences, and never have found any use for doing so. 

What she did for her students, however, was to encourage what was good in our writing. It's the same technique that Dr. Sclater would use to teach me music composition (read more). From time to time, we would take a break from grammar exercises, and she would have us write stories that we could read aloud to the class. 

My first story was, I'm afraid, more sermon than story. It told of a boy who wanders off alone in a public place and gets in trouble with delinquents. He escapes, barely, and concludes that he has learned his lesson. She praised it to the class as a prime example of "dry humor."   I had no idea what she was talking about. She explained, "The story seems to be serious, but that's what's funny. It makes fun of that kind of preachy story that tries to teach children a lesson." 

She was wrong (or, as I think now, she was pretending to be wrong). I truly had taken my preachy story seriously. But I tried from then on to live up to her opinion of my work. 

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Dr. John Clum, Writer, Dramatist, Scholar

Dr. John M. Clum at Duke University showed me a deeper way to enjoy literature when he became the first English teacher to ask me a question I couldn't answer. 

"Don't you see the structure?" 

I was puzzled. "You mean, how many chapters the book has?" Yes, he said, that's part of it. "You mean, whether it's in first person?" Yes, he said, that's part of it. I ran out of ideas then, but I spent the rest of my semesters at Duke trying to find out what he meant. 

For the first time, after years of getting an A for essays that simply stated what was obvious to me, I started to use every essay assignment as a challenge to work out ideas that were new to me. I took risks, and, all of a sudden, the student who knew everything about art realized that he had barely begun to appreciate it (for the same lesson applies to music and visual arts). 

Dr. Clum led me to the right destination following the pivotal wrong turn in my life, the very same day it happened. Nothing in my freshman year had excited me or challenged me so much as "Music 101-102" taught by the university chapel's gentle and jovial organist Fenner Douglass. On the first day of classes in my sophomore year at Duke, I took my seat in "Music 103," anticipating that I would declare a music major and pursue a career in music composition. Then the head of the Music department entered and announced, "If you're interested in composing music, get out now: this department is for scholars and performers only." I stood, walked out, and phoned Dr. Clum to enroll in his class as a drama major. Years later, I had to recognize that music was my true love, and I still regret not withdrawing from Duke right then and transferring to some school where I could have pursued music composition. 

I may have made a wrong turn, but Dr. Clum led me to the same destination anyway. (As Sondheim wrote it in a song: "I chose and my world was shaken / So what? / The choice may have been mistaken, / The choosing was not. . .") Besides the insight about "structure" in art, Dr. Clum taught me these lessons:
  • Following a monologue that I performed for his class, using all the actors' tricks I knew, he gently pointed out that I was "acting" instead of trying to communicate what was specific to the text. That was the first of many times that he confronted me with how much more I had to learn about things I'd thought I knew.
  • When he cast me as the husband of the heroine in the nineteenth-century classic Hedda Gabler, he created a seminar for the cast so that we could study the social and artistic context of that play. Rehearsing and studying for four months, I experienced depth in a role for the first time.
    Another experience I had for the first time in that course: He gave me the first grade lower than "A" that I ever received on a paper about literature. I was indignant. In a conference, he said, "Lord knows, it's a good paper. I just expected more from you."
  • That "B" actually precipitated a crisis for me, and Dr. Clum was again there to help me towards the right goal. After I'd calmed down, I recognized how right he was. After eight years of secondary education, I'd never had to think in a literature course. All of my work had been reporting or describing what was obvious to me. I went back to Dr. Clum, who was also my academic advisor, and asked him about that. His answer was simple: Enroll in a certain unusual course taught by General Irving B. Holley, and that course redeemed all the others, and became the basis of everything I've taught my students in history and literature courses ever since (read more about General Holley).
  • He did me a favor by casting me (for a class performance) in a play by Pinter. I hated the play, I hated the role, I didn't understand it, it seemed stupid, it seemed sordid -- and then he helped me to understand how the words could say one thing but mean another, how characters can use words for weapons (or defenses). Then his question, "What animal is your character like?" got me to think about a cat, with its caution, its alertness, its laziness, its hedonism. Portraying that part in that play taught me the main lessons that I've been imparting to my drama students ever since.
  • In a playwriting seminar, I treasure above all the conference I had in his office on the top floor of the old Carr building. My play about a busybody secretary named "Lotty" was going nowhere. It was a true-to-life depiction of real experiences I'd had in a summer job at a department store -- but, just like real life, it had no direction. "What can I do?" I asked him. Without speaking, he rose from his desk and closed the door to the hallway. Then, smiling, leaning up against the door, he said in a low voice, "Kill Lotty."  I laughed. First, it was such a shock, and it felt like a real conspiracy. Then, I saw pretty quickly that he was right. Murder would be an exaggeration of what we all felt, and that would make our feelings more clear than my accurate report of actual events. I'd learned how something can be more true than actual.
The academic program in Drama that he created now thrives. The story of his struggle to raise drama from a club activity to an academic discipline was the subject of my researched paper for Dr. Holley, which can be found in Duke's archives -- listed on the archives web page. I hear from Dr. Clum that my history "Dramatic Changes" stands today as a reference for researchers.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Frank Boggs, Choir Director

Frank Boggs taught me in "chorale" at Westminster Schools from 1973 to 1977, but he has remained my mentor and friend to the present day. 

If my deepest ambition is to write sacred music that communicates mystery and grandeur of God, that's my response to glorious music that I learned to love through Mr. Boggs. Throughout my adult life, I've spent almost every Wednesday night in church choir rehearsals, always seeking the joy of hearing my voice blend with others, creating a piece of music that glorifies God in its expression and craftsmanship -- regardless who else may hear it. Truly, my religious faith comes from music more than from scripture or doctrine.

If I love musical theatre (not just Broadway, but opera), that comes from Mr. Boggs, too. He directed me in OKLAHOMA and LITTLE MARY SUNSHINE, and he stoked my interest in Stephen Sondheim with clipped articles and saved programs, giving me the opportunity to direct a suite of Sondheim songs for our small ensemble (see photo below), and, later, to direct the full Chorale's Broadway revue.  My first song was a lyric that he set to music for me. 

Singing is not all that happened in choir rehearsals. Mr. Boggs exposed us to music, cartoons, reviews of theatrical productions, memories of performers, and discussions of religious meanings behind music. He once asked us, "Why did Vivaldi set the happy words 'peace on earth, goodwill to men' to slow, somber minor key music?" (I'd never thought to ask why any artist does anything -- and now it's what I always do.) 

At fifteen, I liked performances that were loud, fast, flashy, with some growls and maybe some screaming thrown in. Then I saw Frank in concert. I and my fellow members of the Westminster Ensemble had performed some numbers at a church in Tennessee, and we were pretty proud of ourselves. He'd told us that he'd be "singing a few numbers," but we realized later that he'd been kind: we'd been his warm up act. I remember that he sat at the piano, sang a song or two. Then, while he played some chords, he described for the audience how his grandfather used to sing a certain hymn while tending his garden. Then he lifted his hands from the keys, turned on the bench towards the audience, and sang softly, unaccompanied, a hymn of anguish:
Oh, Lord, if indeed I am thine,
If Thou art my sun and my song,
Say why do I languish and pine?
And why are my winters so long?
Drive these dark clouds from my sky,
Thy soul-soothing presence, restore --
Or take me unto Thee on high,
Where winter and clouds are no more. 
That night I saw the difference between showiness and authenticity, the same difference between entertainment and art.

Frank also gathered the young people in his care to discuss what he called "Quaker Questions," allowing us to share our memories, concerns, and questions -- bonding us and helping us to grow up. I remember asking him about the intense friendships I was enjoying at the age of sixteen: "Do adults have the same kind of friendship?" He answered honestly that the intensity probably would dissipate with time, but that friendship could deepen. Of course, now we're living that truth.


Two Mentors, 
One Photograph
[See photoFamed composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim sits on stage while my teacher Frank Boggs (the other bearded man) looks on. I am the worshipful seventeen-year-old second from the right. The photograph was taken in Broadway's Music Box theatre, June 1977. 

Knowing how I idolized Sondheim, Mr. Boggs had told me to write him to ask for an interview, and Sondheim instantly replied. This taught me a life lesson: If you don't at least try, you'll regret it the rest of your life. 

Twenty years later, Mr. Boggs again met Sondheim during a "meet the audience" talk at London's National Theatre. Sondheim asked, "Are you a teacher?" Mr. Boggs nodded. Sondheim said that he'd always wanted to teach, and he said how grateful he was to his teachers. Speaking of the importance of his teachers to him during a national broadcast on his 70th birthday, Sondheim actually had to stop talking, overcome with emotion.

Seated with us in the photograph are my peers in the Westminster Ensemble, who, under Mr. Boggs, sang a program of songs by Sondheim. On the way to a tour of Poland and Russia, we stopped in New York to see the Broadway revue SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM, when this picture was made. This photograph is a detail from a photo collage I made for Frank Boggs's retirement celebration. 

[See my Stephen Sondheim page.] 

Saturday, November 07, 2015

What is Sue Grafton's X For?

We loyal fans of Sue Grafton's long-running series of detective novels stayed awake nights wondering what her antepenultimate title would be.  From A is for Alibi to W is for Wasted, the titles have often suggested ideas for Grafton.  Q is for Quarry comes to mind, having been a "hunt" for the truth about a body found in a stone quarry. 

So would X stand for xenophobes, or maybe prescription drug abuse (X is for Xanax)?

Grafton's solution was simple and brilliant:  X doesn't have to be an initial to suggest myriad meanings.  Marks the spot?  Ten?  An unknown variable?  A chromosome?

Maybe because I was interrupted so often during my days of reading the novel, I'm left with a few strong impressions but no strong sense of a story, not even what "X" stands for, other than initials of several entities (a couple of characters' names, a firm called XLNT...).  We seem to have caught detective Kinsey Millhone in a bad week.   She falls for an elaborate hoax, finds contact info for an ex-con, takes marked bills from a years-old stolen art caper, deals with some parasitic neighbors, looks into a late colleague's unfinished business deals, and delivers a mailer packed decades before by a woman who may or may not have committed suicide:  all interesting, all resolved separately, none compelling.

I've recommended many of Grafton's other books on this blog (see my Crime Fiction page).  Not this one.  Grafton told in an interview how the alphabet ploy opens her to snarkiness, at least since a review was headlined, "B is for Boring." For this one, my capsule review would have to be Zzzz.  

Friday, November 06, 2015

Sunday, Art, and "Forever"


[Note: This article was prepared for middle schoolers who visit my class web site.]

What does this painting have to do with classes I teach?   The short answer is, we make stories, even history, from little pieces, and it takes our imagination to bring it to life.  That's one reason my middle school students have seen, for decades, this iconic pointillist painting on my bulletin board, on my necktie, on a coffee mug, on my class web site.  

More Alive
The artist George Seurat painted this "Sunday in the Park" on a canvas twelve feet wide, using tiny strokes of unmixed paint. Seurat's notion was that the viewer's eye would take in the dots' clashing colors, while the viewer's mind composed the peaceful scene. The result would "shimmer," be more alive to our eyes than if he had done all the mixing for us. 

Everything we do this year will reflect the technique of this painting. We will collect the pieces all jumbled together, and we will use our imaginations to compose something satisfying from them.

Musical Play Based on the Painting
The painting became important to me because of another work of art. The musical play Sunday in the Park with George (1984) by James Lapine, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, captures what it feels like for an artist to concentrate, to be "in the world of" a work of art. 

The play introduces us to the artist as he interacts with the real-life people in a real-life park. These people "do not belong together," clashing like the colors on the canvas, like Sondheim's dissonant clusters of notes; yet the story, the staging, and the music all come together at the end of Act One at the moment that the artist speaks the word "harmony." The artist composes the painting before our eyes, moving characters and even repositioning trees (and that monkey!) into the pleasing patterns of the painting. 

Art and "Forever" 
An odd thing happens in the theatre whenever the play reaches this climax: all over the room, people cry. My student Katie Friedgen, age fourteen, laughed through her tears, asking "Why am I doing this?" Letters to the New York Times from audience members asked the same question.  No one dies at the end of act one, the lovers already split up several scenes before, and the words of the stately, hymn-like song are as detached and cool and odd as the painting itself:
Sunday
by the blue
purple yellow red water
on the green
purple yellow red grass.
Let us pass
through our perfect park...
forever!
That last word is one key to the audience's reaction. We cry at loss. That's why we sometimes cry at the best moments in life, knowing that they cannot last. The play, like the painting, brings everything together -- story, words, staging, costumes, music, ideas -- then holds up that ideal moment for one verse of a song, and is gone. The best things in life are like that, holidays are like that, seasons are like that, and so is life itself. 

Art and Faith 
Sondheim has no faith in any religion of the world, but this show is a religious statement. It expresses what's at the core of every religious person's belief: nothing in this world lasts, but what we do matters. We're all "just passing through," like the people in that painting on that perfect Sunday. Yet what we create (be it art, or understanding, or family) gives those passing moments meaning to others.

Novelist John Updike, who does accept the Christian creed, says that art for him is an act of worship, to honor with his creation what God has created. Sondheim says something like this in non-religious terms, when his artist sings:
"Pretty" isn't "beautiful"...
"Pretty" is what changes.
What the eye arranges
is what is beautiful...
I'm changing, you're changing:
I'll draw us now before we fade...
Translate "beautiful" as "eternal," and Sondheim will be speaking the same language as Updike.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Dr. James Sclater, composer


[Photo from Dr. Sclater's website jamessclater.com ]

At age twenty-eight, I had to admit to myself that musical scores, not words, were what I wanted to write more than anything else. I thought I'd quit teaching and go back to college. Fortunately for me, a top-rate composer lived nearby and he took me on as a private student. He told me not to quit doing what I loved, and he advised, "If you get a Ph.D. in music composition, you'll still end up teaching," adding, "unless you're Andrew Lloyd Webber." 

Seriously, he assured me that I'd learn as well by composing what I wanted as by reading about others' works or by doing workbook assignments. There's a lesson in that for all teachers.

Dr. Sclater (pronounced "slaughter") taught by encouragement, and that's not the same thing as praise. He'd study what I'd composed, withholding comment for what seemed to me a long time. He'd ask questions about why I'd written certain passages. Finally, he'd point to a portion of my work and say, "Now, that is interesting!" and he'd point out how good it was, in ways that I wasn't even aware of. Then he'd advise me to "do more with it." That's as close to praise -- or disapproval -- as I ever got. Still, I always left his office feeling that, though it would take work, there would be something good and my own at the end of my labors. That is, he gave me courage to go on.
Here's what I wrote about Dr. Sclater in the preface to my Master's portfolio:
My musical composition teacher, Dr. James Sclater, freed me right away from a misconception. Composition was not about fulfilling grand harmonic designs, though music theory class and program notes at the symphony might give that impression....
Instead, musical composition is about playing with sounds the way children might invent a game with some found object. "Find something that sounds good and develop it," Dr. Sclater said.
But he cautioned, "You need rules, even if you have to make up your own." 
For example of both principles, Dr. Sclater showed me a stripped-down notation of Brahms's Second Symphony, final movement. He pointed to the start, a flourish of just twenty notes. For the remainder of the movement, Brahms tosses around the first four pitches; repeats, transposes, segments, elongates, shortens, and reverses them. Each new use leads to another musical episode, until he moves on to do the same with another distinctive passage from that opening flourish. Dr. Sclater's punch line was that the opening theme itself grew from the bass part in the first measure of the symphony! But one idea's leading to another helter-skelter doesn't satisfy an audience's need to feel a piece's movement towards a goal, just as a game without rules is only chaos. For this example, Brahms followed models that limited his options of key, length, tempo, and final chord. 
Dr. Sclater gave me another useful piece of advice, another way to use material economically. "Never think of just one song," he told me. "Make it a suite."

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Stephen Sondheim, teacher by example

Stephen Sondheim once remarked that making art and teaching are both attempts to share a vision of the world. In this sense, the artist Sondheim has been my teacher. 

His music and lyrics for the show A Little Night Music revised my view of the world. No production I've seen has ever lived up to the one I imagined, so probably it was a good thing that I missed my first opportunity to see the show. It was 1974, on a visit to Broadway with Atlanta's school of performing arts. The school's pianist Paul Ford invited me to see Night Music with him, but I saw a rock musical (Raisin) instead. (Read more about Paul at the end of this piece).

Later, on Paul's insistence, I bought Night Music's original cast album.  At first, I wasn't interested. I preferred loud, flashy, blatantly emotional stuff. But Night Music conjures a twilit world where love is the only concern, and where an orchestra fills the air "like perfume" (as Sondheim intended). A month later, nagged by the refrain to "A Weekend in the Country," I gave the album a second listen.
This time, I "got it." I remember the moment when I saw how everything fit together perfectly. It's in the song "Now," when the lawyer Fredrik plans a "suggestive" strategy to put his wife into an amorous mood:
In view of her penchant for something romantic,
Desade is too trenchant and Dickens too frantic
and Stendhal would ruin the plan of attack
as there isn't much blue in The Red and the Black...
In just those last two lines, there are four rhymes,a sly pun, with vocabulary that I had to open a dictionary to appreciate; and yet it all seems conversational, specifically suited to a late-Victorian Swedish lawyer who would likely have Stendhal on his bedside table. And though the musical accompaniment builds to a passionate climax here, it all grows methodically from the very first notes of the strings -- mirroring the lawyer's logical thought process. 

Seeing in an instant all that Sondheim had worked into just this portion of the song, I gave a little laugh. It was a pivotal moment for my life. I'd been a scornful atheist, but then I came to an important conclusion: there's more to life than mere matter. Evolution alone could not explain Sondheim's imagination, or the drive to work out so thoroughly the small wonderful details of that one song, or even the impulse to create such a perfect piece of music, words, and theatre. Nor could Darwin explain the pleasure I got from apprehending it all. Listening to the Night Music recording, I concluded that there must be a Creator, and Sondheim's art is a glimpse of the Creator's image.

From then on, I followed strands from Sondheim outward to other interests. Recordings of his music by Cleo Laine and Bobby Short led me into jazz (thanks to tips from my chorus teacher Frank Boggs) and, from there, the great American songbook of standards. Composers compared to Sondheim brought me to Bernstein, Ravel, Reich, Janacek, Britten; and each of those pointed me to others, until I appreciated centuries of music. His artistry with words set a standard as I learned to appreciate Shakespeare, Beckett, Stoppard, and Updike. I studied music composition. The stories that I wrote for my Master's degree in Professional Writing connect to his art.

Sondheim taught me directly once, as my college counselor. On another tip from Frank Boggs, I wrote Sondheim a letter asking for guidance about selecting a college. In my letter, I quoted an interview in which his mother said that young Steve always wanted to write words, compose music, and perform: "He wanted to be Noel Coward." I told him I was the same way, that I wanted to be him, and I asked for his advice. 

Sondheim responded that, first, it was his mother who probably wanted to be Noel Coward. Beyond that, he said to skip music appreciation, because even a little knowledge of music theory would do more for me than any course in listening (an insight that proved true, and that I use to guide me when I teach music to children). A year later, I wrote him again, asking if my friends and I could meet him during a brief stay in New York. He's had a few more notes from me in the decades since then, as when I heard the recording of Sunday in the Park with George, and I've always received a kind reply.

Every angle of my inner life converges on the moment that I "got" A Little Night Music. Writing music for theatre and for worship; helping students to create art and to apprehend history with an artist's imagination: what else do I ever think about? what are all my daydreams? how do I spend my free time? It all meets in the work of Stephen Sondheim.  (See my Sondheim page.)
 
Paul Ford soon left Atlanta for New York, where he quickly became the pianist of choice for Broadway shows. Looking up from the pit orchestra of Into the Woods in 1987, he recognized me and warmed up with a song I'd done with him in ninth grade. Sondheim's Assassins originally played with just synthesizer, drums, and Paul at the piano. He's currently touring the country as accompanist/arranger for Mandy Patinkin's recital of Sondheim songs.

Mia's anima, a Dog's Soul

Do animals have souls? 

Because anima is Latin for "soul," the answer by definition seems obvious.  By "soul," do we necessarily mean immortal spirit?  I'm okay to leave speculation on the afterlife for others, and to define "soul" as "that which animates us," i.e., our desires. 

Now, my dog Mia is certainly animated by desires for food, companionship, adventure, and what I see in her eyes, pictured below, looks to me like soul.  What the pictures can't show is how her whole sinuous body wriggles in her anticipation of joy that is itself a joy -- for her to experience, for me to share.

[Top photo:  Posed in her compartment of my hatchback, Mia decided mid-selfie to see if she could just bound over the barrier.  No problem.]

[Second photo:  Mia enjoys visits to the vet.]
[Third photo:  Mia napped in my lap on the back porch one summer evening.]
[Fourth photo:  I wasn't home when friend Susan arrived at my front door early for a dog walk.  Mia knew what was ahead.]


I wrote about a conflict with Mia that disturbed me enough to dream about it, and I included another photo of her at "Jung Over: Dreams the Morning After."

Friday, October 30, 2015

Barry Moser's We Were Brothers:
"Let Them Grow Together"

Here's serendipity: on the same morning that I finish reading a memoir of brotherhood, I read a gospel meditation that turns on memory and the phrase "let them grow together." .

Jesus' parable of the weeds sown among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30) gets a new spin in today's meditation by Christine McSpadden in Forward Day by Day.  When the landowner directs his servants to let both crops "grow up together" until the weeds can be reaped and burned, I've always taken that for an image of retribution for unrepentant sinners.  But McSpadden applies the landowner's wisdom to something in all of us, our memories.  She writes
Very often, the core of our stories begins in childhood, and over time we sort through experiences, aligning them with that core or discarding them.  We compose a narrative line, cobbling together even the most disparate of fragments, weaving meaning and purpose into our stories.  Over time, we create a cohesive tapestry of identity for ourselves. ...Then, as we go forward in our lives and ministries, we can choose again those bits that give life, hope, vitality, and promise. (Aug-Oct 2015. p. 92)
McSpadden's view fits what I've learned in the Episcopal Church's "Education for Ministry" program, for which participants re-examine their life stories regularly, looking for threads, especially any sign of God's influence.

In the new memoir We Were Brothers by famed book illustrator Barry Moser, brothers growing together turn out very differently.  In adulthood, one is a cosmopolitan artist known to readers of The New York Times Review of Books while the other is a small-town banker and overt racist.

Writing perhaps in the same way that he makes his famed wood cuts, Moser sketches the whole story in early chapters before filling details in second and third passes over the same outline.  His was a genteel Chattanooga family fallen on harder times; he and brother Tommy were apart three years but only one grade at the local military academy Baylor; by mid-book, we understand how the older brother bullied the younger one; by the end of the book, we've read bloody details of their most memorable fights.  Through all, Moser traces a theme of the family's relations with African Americans: Klan members, yet cordial to individuals such as the mother's best friend Verneta.

As the meditation on the parable suggests, however, Moser's memories differ significantly from his brother's, as they discover in a remarkable set of long letters to each other that bring reconciliation after years of estrangement.   

Moser naturally illustrates his own memoir with delicate renderings of family photos. His own writing gives us more than the visual.  Here is a complicated incident where the stepdad, evidently fed up with young Barry's hiccups, pulls the family car over, kicks the boy out, and drives away.  Sure, he comes right back -- it was all to cure the hiccups -- but the damage is done:

Daddy kissed me -- smooched me, actually -- several times, put me down, and opened the back door.  I snuffled my way back up onto the backseat behind Mother.  Tommy wouldn't look at me.  He was crying.  Daddy picked up my shoe and put it on my foot before he closed the door and drove on. (286)
The fight scenes are tremendous!  There's a big fight in the basement when mother sends the stern uncle in to stop the teenaged boys:

...but perhaps our shared, pent-up anger at him for his years of sullenness and irascibility toward us kicked in.  No matter, we took him by his arms, dragged him out onto the front porch, and threw him bodily into the front yard... (1042) 

...and kept fighting.

I'm hardly estranged from my own brother, but I can attest that Moser's tale is universal.  For that matter, so can the Bible, in every story of brothers from Cain and Abel to James and John: Rivalry, shared interests, common memories, conscious differentiations, and affection.  Once after I'd beaten him up one afternoon in second grade, Mom told me that he'd spent all afternoon waiting for big brother to come home from school.  I never think of him without thinking of that! At a crucial time in our twenties, he shared his perspective on our lives, stunning me:  I'd had no idea.

[Photo:  This is my favorite among all our family photos. I remember coming home from the bus stop after a day at first grade, to find the photographer at our home.  ]

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Nixon's Voice




Nixon was my first President.  I recall JFK's death; I remember Johnson on TV; but I stayed up late to see if Nixon would pull ahead of Humphrey and Wallace in November 1968.  In Mrs. Finkle's  Fourth Grade classroom, I watched his inauguration and his daughter's wedding.  I cried at my summer job, hearing on the secretary's radio his farewell at the White House.  I know his voice:  a little coppery in timbre, growly and husky in texture, deliberate in rhythm.

From reading his self-justifications in print and from researching him myself, I also know his writer's voice.  It jumps out at us early in Stephen Ambrose's biography, a portion of an interview late in Nixon's life:
What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid... [but] if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance, while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.
He thinks he's Everyman, telling everyone what "you" go through; and he thinks he's the hero of this tale.  He tried to turn his story into an uplifting one, but uplift doesn't go well with bitterness.

In 1987, I saw the premier production of the opera Nixon in China by John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman.  My friend John Davis, polymath and astute observer of everything, opined at the time that Nixon would long be a source for artists, while Reagan, Johnson, and most others never would be.

Why?  Davis suggested that, for a man so determined to control his own image, Nixon's inner conflicts and torments were always on view.  Nixon argued endlessly that he made all of his choices for the right reasons.  His good intentions make him tragic; his lack of self-awareness makes him comical.

Adams, Goodman, and their director Peter Sellars caught some criticism from Nixon haters for presenting Nixon at his height, using only resources pre-Watergate, putting verse in his mouth that represented him as he might have seen himself.  Thus, Nixon sings
On our flight over from Shanghai,
The countryside looked drab and gray.
"Bruegel," Pat said.  "'We came in peace for all mankind,'"
I said, and I was put in mind 
Of our Apollo astronauts, simply achieving a great human dream.
We live in an unsettled time.
Who are our enemies?  Who are our friends?

... As I look down the road, I know America is good at heart...
Shielding the globe from the flame-throwers of the mob.
                  
                               (quoted from memory - apologies if I miss some words)
There we have laconic Pat, Nixon's pretentions and his goofy inability to separate personal from public.  Biographer Stephen Ambrose tells how Nixon, awaiting  medical help beside an injured woman struck by his motorcade,  crowd and cameras watching, asked her opinions about taxes!  That's the Nixon we have in the opera, wanting desperately to be good, unable to connect to Mao or even to Pat, and apt to orate.

That's the Nixon we see in the best parts of Austin Grossman's 2015 novel Crooked.  Early in the novel, Grossman's Nixon tells us:
This is a tale of espionage and betrayal and the dark secrets of a decades-long cold war.  It is a story of otherworldly horror, of strange nameless forces that lie beneath the reality we know.  In other words, it is the story of a marriage. (16)
That mordant punchline is a bit out of Nixon's range, but the plan for a story is a good one, to move forward on parallel tracks of marriage to Pat and of supernatural cold war.   The novel is eventually derailed when apocalyptic events overwhelm the more personal story.

Grossman is at his best when his narrative voice is closest to Nixon's own: pedantic, dignified, stern,  misty-eyed patriotic, and doggedly determined.   

Grossman's Nixon remembers that he romanced Pat "with exactly the same no-brakes determination with which I later ran for public office," and Pat "sensed that I was as desperate as she was, as angry as she was, and that I was struggling to go places" (Kindle edition 14).  That sounds right; the intervening commentary that "the heart lives by unreadable codes ... [and] knows nothing of dignity or humanity" seems a step away from Nixon's earthbound self concern.

Still in the setting-up phase of the novel, Grossman's Nixon gives us these insights:
My other asset was that, as I discovered, I wasn't a nice person. (18)
I never hid any of this from Pat.  ...She believed I was doing it for the right reasons, that this was a small price to pay to get a decent man into Congress (or at least a man who was decent before the campaign and had very sincerely promised to become decent again once he got there).  (19)
That idea seems key to Nixon's whole career: he's decent except when decency isn't practical. Grossman's Nixon seems to see the irony of this; real Nixon called it realpolitik.

At a reception with Pat, neither of them like the sensation of being liked: "They liked me now that I'd had a success, but I'd spent too long hating them to value what they had to say to me.  I'd seen what they were like to people they couldn't use." (68)

There are other delights in Crooked, as when Nixon considers killing Howard Hunt during their first meeting, feeling found out, and when Nixon has to smuggle a message hidden under carrot cake (76).  The sight of Ike, stripped to the waist dripping blood and sweat onto a pentagram is one that Grossman's Nixon and I both will never forget.

For the true voice of Nixon, elevated to EveryWhiteAmericanMan , I'll return to the opera.

Related Blogposts

  • Austin Grossman's earlier novel Soon I Will Be Invincible was a delightful mix of super-hero characters in the style of a first-person noir detective story (read my blogpost).   
  • "You Never Get Over It" reviews the film Frost/Nixon
  • "How Little We Knew How Little They Knew" responds to the book Nixon and Kissinger. I'd always believed that Nixon was at least a competent President; this book, using those famous tapes, dispels that notion.
  • "Thanks to and from Composer John Adams" gives much space to his appreciation for librettist Alice Goodman's Nixon in ChinaJohn Adams' Musical Landscapes tells how, a bit baffled at the premier, I learned to love this opera above almost any other piece of musical theatre I know.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Martian's Intelligent Design

Director Ridley Scott lays out Author Andy Weir's premise with breath-taking speed during the first few minutes of the film: astronauts abandon Mars during a storm, leaving for dead a crewmate who spends the rest of the film trying to survive alone.  Once he finds a way to contact NASA, all earth  becomes engaged in his rescue.

Weir created The Martian on his personal blog, accepting readers' help online to solve each insurmountable obstacle threatening the protagonist.  In Ridley Scott's lavish film, scene after scene shows us astronauts, suits, and many species of Geek collaborating via social media to find ways past dead-ends.   The film is all the more enjoyable for being a meta-mirror of the manner of the story's creation, ending up explicitly celebrating the power of patient creative problem-solving and community. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Liaisons Project:
Entering the World of the Song


Liaisons is the perfect name for this project, as each of thirty-six composers has created original pieces that have "loving relationships" with songs by Stephen Sondheim.  NPR reporter Ari Shapiro hears composers working with Sondheim's music in the way that Sondheim works with the music of composers he admires.

[Photo: Anthony DeMare, from Boise State Public Radio]

Each composer has, in the words of a Sondheim lyric, entered the world of the song, "coming back to this one from that."  They return with pieces that build on as little as a measure or two of accompaniment, or pieces that elaborate a single song to capture the sweep of an entire story.  All the pieces demonstrate techniques that Sondheim himself uses to get, as he says, "maximum development of the minimum of material" (see my article on How Sondheim Found His Sound).

The results are sometimes so far afield from their sources that I, who have known the songs for decades, had to check the track listing to know what song had inspired what piece.   But all the pieces show seriousness of purpose, personal reflection, and care in execution. 

Pianist Anthony DeMare commissioned and recorded the first pieces over four years ago; I'm proud to have been one of the contributors who responded to a crowd-funding campaign to complete the project.  The result is the best tribute of all to the composer-lyricist whose artistic integrity and generosity in collaboration have by now inspired generations of admirers, emulators, and teachers.

Back when I was the first kid on my block to own the LPs of A Little Night Music, Company, and Follies, I wanted my guy Sondheim to be as popular as those guys who wrote Hello, Dolly! and Jesus Christ Superstar.    I wanted to see his music on the Billboard Charts.

Well, this tribute, which has indeed hit the Billboard charts, is more satisfying than popularity.  This project distills generations' appreciation for both Sondheim's achievements, and Sondheim the man.

See my Stephen Sondheim page for other articles about Sondheim, his music, and his shows.  


Sources consulted
Liner notes by Mark Eden Horowitz 

Ari Shapiro's interview on NPR's All Things Considered

Review by John Kelman.