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]

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.