Wednesday, December 28, 2016

La La Land Honors Traditions, with Affection

Original movie musicals were most popular in the 1950s, at the same time that classic jazz was at its peak of popularity.  In La La Land, writer/director Damien Chazelle honors both traditions.  The movie is his answer to a question posed by a synth-jazz musician "Keith" (John Legend) to acoustic jazz purist "Seb" (Ryan Gosling):  "How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist?"

Part of the answer lies in relating the tradition to the audience's experience.  Seb draws Emma Stone's "Mia" into understanding what he loves about jazz by relating it to the dramas that she loves, likening it to friends engaged in lively conversation.  The director draws his millennial audience into the idea that the world can be musical by panning through an L.A. traffic jam, driver after driver jamming to his or her own soundtrack from car music systems. It's not much of a stretch when frustrated drivers emerge from their cars to merge in a song-and-dance number that animates the interstate as far as the camera can see.  Other dances and songs start from characters' movements and dialogue; after a dance duet ends, Gosling naturally does a little soft-shoe as he walks away alone.

Those of a certain age will recognize the sound-stage setting from Singing in the Rain, the dance duet in a darkened park from The Band Wagon, and an art-inspired dreamscape from An American in Paris.  The story, in fact, is boiler-plate, familiar from iterations of A Star is Born and the recent Last Five Years: "Mia" dreams of acting; "Sebastian," dreams of playing piano in a jazz club of his own; they support each other until the divergence of their two careers threatens the relationship.  (See my reflection on The Last Five Years.)

But Chazelle puts a contemporary spin on those traditions.  It's not just the cell phones, the fashions, and the occasional four-letter word; it's also playing with time, wrapping different strands of the story around a single incident, so that we come at it from different perspectives (another element shared with The Last Five Years).  Composer Justin Hurwitz, with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, aims at a sweet spot between the kind of "specific" songs that fit the moment and the more generalized imagery of pop songs - focused on dreams,stars, and how everyone is looking for love*.

The exceptional song,  Hurwitz's favorite, is "Audition," a hint of what could have lifted this movie from pleasant homage to be a stronger, more "revolutionary" updating of the tradition.   Hurwitz cites Emma Stone's live - in - studio performance for why he loves it, as the song is specific to the character and the situation in the way he consciously avoided elsewhere (see his interview with Lambe).  "Mia's" future career is on the line when she is asked to simply "tell us a story."  Unsure what to say, she lights up when she begins to sing her aunt's story of an impulsive leap into the Seine in winter, and she grows in confidence as she adds to the story.

Chazelle missed an opportunity to create a musical scene even stronger than "Audition" when Seb, flying in from out of town, surprises Mia with dinner by candlelight.  It starts as a romantic, happy occasion, but dissolves into rancor over Mia's complaint that Seb is away so much, and his protest (totally justified, I think) that he has been away providing for her.  This scene is the dramatic heart of the movie, and, if Chazelle, Hurwitz et. al. had reached beyond the MGM tradition to what has developed on Broadway in Sondheim and in The Last Five Years,  this, too, could have been a musical number to integrate the musical style with the dramatic story.

Still, it's clear that the creators of this movie and their stars love what they're doing, They have fun.  There's no other excuse to build a song-and-dance number for Mia and her roommates' preparations to party.  No one could expect Gosling and Stone to measure up to Astaire or Charisse in their dancing, but they move with spirit, precision, and apparent ease, while the camera does most of the dancing for them - swirling around from above, or taking the dancers in silhouette across a starry sky.  The dramatic scenes are as real as they can be, even when Stone plays her character playing another character for an audition: it's a remarkable demonstration of the actor's craft.

Besides, the two characters are so appealing that we want their romance to succeed. For the same reason, we want the movie to succeed.

And so it does.

*(Stephen Sondheim, meticulous tailor of songs to situations, explains how rock 'n' roll's displacement of show tunes from the top 40 freed Broadway composers of the pressure to write "hits".  See my article about his conversation with pianist Marian MacPartland.) 

Lambe, Stacy. "Exclusive: La La Land Composer on How Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone Influenced the Award-Winning Music."  ET Online.  December 12, 2016.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Rejoice in the Lamb, Christopher Smart's Cat, and My Dog

Christmas Eve, finding no script at the lectern where I stood to lead the Prayers of the People, I improvised to fill the blank in the Prayer Book's petition, "I ask your thanksgiving for ___."   For my dog Mia came to mind before I resorted to phrases more appropriate to the occasion.

That first thought shows how my personal faith was shaped by composer Benjamin Britten's choral cantata Rejoice in the Lamb (1943), setting portions from Christopher Smart's book-length poem Jubilate Agno (ca. 1760).  I first heard it at age 16, when I was emerging from scornful teenage atheism.  Through decades of Bible study, theology books, services and sermons, my inner principle for discerning among doctrines, unconscious before now, has always been, "Does it go with Smart?"

My favorite portion begins:
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and daily serving him
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
Britten gives these lines to a boy soprano, the voice written to sound in rapt wonderment over the organ's impression of a cat's capricious movements, darting about, stretching, and circling a string of rapid notes "seven times round".

Smart begins every line the same way, purposefully invoking Biblical poetry. About Jeoffry, he continues:
For he knows that God is his Saviour.
For God has blessed him in the variety of his movements.
So Smart suggests by these lines, and others that follow, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are present and active in all of creation, and that salvation can happen apart from Creeds or Sacraments of the Church. In my evangelical phase, I'd have derided that as borderline pantheism, or "sloppy agape"; but my bedrock experience told me that Smart is right, and all the judgmental doctrines I'd accepted from teen Bible studies smashed to pieces on Smart's view.  Yes, he was put away for religious mania, calling to people in the street to kneel in prayer with him, but, as Dr. Johnson remarked, "I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as anyone else" (quoted in Karina Williamson, "Christopher Smart," at

Now, on the matter of God and pets, I find little in scripture.  Cats don't turn up in the Bible, to my knowledge, aside from some lions and tigers.  Dogs, when I find them, skulk around unpleasant things -- Jezebel's gruesome death, prophecies of doom, and Jesus's harsh response to the Samaritan woman (but see my reflection Jesus and Dogs).

C. S. Lewis once responded seriously to the question, "Do our pets go to Heaven?"  It's been thirty-five years since I read his essays in God in the Dock, but I recall the gist of his answer as, "I can't say for sure, but I cannot imagine a Heaven without them." Amen.

Writing these thoughts in bed on Christmas morning, Mia beside me asleep, lightly kicking me with her back paws in pursuit of some dream squirrel, I re-read Smart's line, "For there is nothing sweeter than [Jeoffry's] peace when at rest."  I appropriate Smart's feline thanksgiving for my dog Mia, pictured in many moods at left:  "For I am possessed of a cat, surpassing in beauty from whom I take occasion to bless Almighty God."

You may be interested in my earlier reflections connecting dog with God: Blessing of the Animals (Oct. 11, 2014), and, Dogs are Poetry (January 4, 2010).

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Gospel for Educators
from Forward Day by Day

[image:  The parable of laborers in the vineyard, from a book published by early blogger Desiderius Erasmus, 1536] 

Following the daily scripture readings in the Book of Common Prayer, I read commentary from the quarterly booklet Forward Day By DayWritten by Richelle Thompson, managing editor of Forward, the short meditations for November were particularly well-crafted, and sometimes seemed to be aimed directly at this Middle School teacher.

Here are highlights that might be collectively called A Gospel for Educators: The Bible on...

...grading:  Thompson writes, "Even as a child I felt badly for the good son" whose prodigal brother seems to get the attention.  Considering his story along with the parable of the vineyard laborers who receive the same wage whether they worked ten hours or one, teaches Thompson "that our idea of fair is perhaps not God's."  Instead, she concludes, "The question is not whether I deserve more than another, but whether I receive what I need."   (reading of 11/10)   When a colleague mocked the coach who gave everyone a trophy, and, by extension, any teacher whose kids get mostly A's, I should have reminded him that "trophy" comes from Greek for "nourishment".  A school where most kids are starved, or losers, isn't a school where I'd want to teach. I tell my kids they all earn credit (from Latin, trust) for completing their work on time, the best they can do, however many drafts that may take; grading (from Latin, step) one student's work above another's is of value to gatekeepers only.

...teen angst:  "Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness" (James 1.19-20).  James wrote to ancient churches, but Thompson applies the lesson to those dealing with "the whiplash emotions of teens," too.  We must listen well before we react to our "challenging, independent and precious teens," for their sake, and for the sake of our own spiritual growth. (reading of 11/11).

... developmental psychology:  Paul writes, "Like a master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it" (1 Corinthians 3.10).  Thompson had always focused on Jesus as the right foundation, but this time followed Paul's thought to its conclusion, where he pictures others building on the foundation with "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw," each life like "a giant parfait, with different layers being built by and with different people."  This reminds her "that our work is part of something bigger, our ministry a piece of the whole."  (reading of 11/22)  For this middle school teacher, it's a reminder that little Johnny may not "get" what his classmates all seem to understand; if I only prepare the foundation for him to get it in a later grade level, I've done well, and he's done well.

... looking for potential in the difficult student:  Zacchaeus the tax collector, collaborating with the Roman oppressors and cheating his neighbors, is doing well for himself at the time Jesus enters Jerusalem, but, "Something inside of Zacchaeus makes him want more (the name Zacchaeus, after all, means pure)."  He climbs the tree, sees Jesus, takes the hint to invite the rabbi to dinner, donates half his wealth to the poor, and pays back fourfold what he stole.  "Meanwhile," Thompson imagines, "the neighborhood grumbles about Jesus' choice for dinner companion."  She adds this prayer: Lord, help us be more like Zacchaeus, curious and earnest, and keep us from being quick - to - judge and slow to see you in every face and every place.  Amen.  (reading of 11/23)

... looking for potential in the difficult student, part II:  Taking her cue from Luke 19:40, "the stones themselves would shout out," Thompson observes, "Stones play a starring role in some of the biggest stories of the Bible."  Examples include Moses' stone tablets, the tribes' stone altar at the Jordan, the cornerstone that the builders rejected, Peter "the rock," the "first stone" that nobody dared to cast at the woman, and the stone rolled away from Jesus' tomb.   In Luke, Jesus tells us "that what is hard can be made flesh, what is mute can cry out, and what is inanimate can become life."  Thompson asks, "If Jesus can do that with stones, what can he do with us?"  I only add, what, then, can we do with the hard, mute, listless kids who choose the back row in our classrooms?  Thompson ends with Ezekiel 36.26: "I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."  (reading of 11/25)

... accepting help:  Thompson turns around the familiar line from Psalm 102:1, "hide not your face from me in the day of my trouble."  We're the ones taught to hide our faces in times of trouble, to "pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps."  Thompson dismisses the bootstraps line as nonsense, giving Jesus' alternative to it:  "When we stop hiding our faces from the Lord in times of trouble, we can begin to embrace the weak as strong, the poor as mighty, and God as constant companion."  (reading of 11/18)

... teaching poetry:  Responding to a psalm about God's "holy mountain" from her Appalachian background, Thompson points us to great lines of poetry from scripture:
So many of the psalms use nature to describe our relationship with God - and God's relationship with us.  Listen to the poetry:   Mountains skip like rams and hills like young sheep (Psalm 114); rivers clap their hands, and hills ring out with joy (Psalm 98); the Lord makes us lie down in green pastures and leads us to still waters (Psalm 23).  Scripture seems to want us to feel the mountains in our blood, the wave of grain at our fingertips, the rush of an ocean's wave in our hearts.  God the creator of all invites us to be one with nature, to be faithful stewards of it, so that we might enter the gates of Zion from atop the holy mountain. (reading of 11/12) 

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Rough Waters: A View from the Nave

The central part of the church, where worshipers face altar, clergy and choir, is called the "nave" for a reason:  related to the word "navy," the name describes the room's traditional ship-like shape, and implies that we are on a journey together.  The metaphor calls to mind the Gospel story of the apostles in a boat on a stormy lake, freaking out until Jesus calms the waters.

It's a good metaphor for the way I've felt since I woke up around 2:30 this morning, as if waters are shifting around me and I'm insufficient to deal with it all.  Just a quick list of things that worry me as this day begins:  Mom's fretting about a move she initiated that now appears to her my scheme to put her away; anxiety that I won't have thought through all the ins and outs of staging the next scene in the middle school musical before today's rehearsal; guilt that I succumbed to plates full of artichoke dip and sweets at a reception yesterday, gateway to devouring gift cookies before bed -- and that I'm up three pounds since yesterday at this time; shame to discover that I forgot to pay my credit card bill last month and so have a whopping balance now; disappointment that every other cabinet choice seems to be ones least likely to teach our Adolescent-in-Chief anything that he doesn't think that he already knows; cold weather; sore throat; and, to wrap it up, dread that a social visit to Mom planned for this evening will turn out to be a futile confrontation.

Okay, rough waters, Jesus asleep in the stern:  Thank you to Forward Day by Day for reminding me of this metaphor this morning.  I'll do what I can and have faith in Jesus for what I can't fix.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Framing Memories of Ed Calhoun

Even with reflections in the glass of the reception hall's lighting, this photograph is striking.  Edwin "Ed" Calhoun took the photo around twenty years ago at the finish line to the Peachtree Road Race, capturing this moment when a Marine in full gear completed a run that he'd dedicated to fallen comrades.

At a memorial service in the beautiful mountain chapel at Big Canoe, GA, the family's three heartfelt, lovingly crafted tributes to Ed, the "fun uncle" and father, dwelt on his voracious appetite for life as his motivation for capturing so much life on film, with his penchant for "framing" moments.

I've known him as jovial host to me and adoring spouse to the lady who brought me into the Walker School north of Atlanta. (Read my tribute to Nancy Calhoun, delivered at the time of her retirement.)  Ed's family agreed: while he doted on family, cultivated his friends, and made friends of strangers, his love for wife Nancy was his core, from age 16 on.  The preacher took the title of his tribute from what Ed said to Nancy after a rough patch in their lives together: "Thank you for not giving up on me."  And his family remembered Ed's answer whenever someone asked how long he had been married to Nancy:  "Not long enough."

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Scott Johnson's Going Somewhere

Over chords on acoustic piano, songwriter / harmonica virtuoso Scott Albert Johnson sings as a young man looking up at stars in "a dark and ghostly screen," while his companion is "looking at the spaces in between" (from "Fragments").  Other numbers on his album Going Somewhere do drive hard to get somewhere fast -- the title song most of all -- but the lyrics focus on those "spaces in between," where characters long for connection.

When Johnson pivoted from his cosmopolitan post-Harvard life back to his Mississippi roots, he drafted a song on a napkin in an airport bar: "If I Only Knew the Words."  Ten years of re-writes later, it's eloquent about what's inexpressible in a relationship, punctuated by expressive harmonica solos.

Other songs dig into characters who feel alienated.  "Jailbird" is a rip-roaring rockabilly song for a man 30 years into his sentence, regretful but upbeat. In a cover of Peter Gabriel's "I Don't Remember," Johnson shifts his voice into high gear, an octave above his main vocal line, to intensify a political prisoner's protest that he's "got no memory of anything / absolutely anything at all."  Johnson's meditation on what it means for an artificial intelligence to be "Simply Human" is reinforced by a synthetic echo of Johnson's voice that overtakes the human sound even while the harmonica solo grows increasingly spirited: an aural image of the ghost in the machine.

Johnson rounds out the set with numbers that inspire foot-stomping and dancing (I've seen both at a Scott Johnson concert).  There's a cover of "Haunt My Dreams" by Brett Winston; Johnson's paean to unbridled appetite with a catchy hook, "Gimme - gimme, gimme - gimme - gimme all!"; and "A Bigger Gun," a honky-tonk romp with a killer piano solo and a political edge.

When I first knew Scott Johnson, he was playing guitar and learning piano; but when he went pro, Johnson chose the perfect instrument.  The harmonica fits in his pocket; it doesn't present any competition except from Stevie Wonder and that recluse with the Nobel; and it's ideally suited for his theme of longing for connection.  We hear a harmonica and think either of a musician at a backwoods juke joint playing on the bandstand apart from the roiling crowd, or one at a campfire, playing in the wilderness to the night sky.

Johnson's harmonica provides my favorite moment of the CD, at the tail end of "Jailbird." After the song's clever tag line and a sly melodic quote from a Beatles tune, Johnson adds a whimsical coda on harmonica.  What instrument can sound at once so lonely and so hopeful?

(See my reflection on Johnson's earlier recording Umbrella Man.)

Thanksgiving Ride

I drove back to Mississippi to celebrate Jason's recent birthday, his 39th, with a 39-mile bike ride.  We started riding when he was in 8th grade and I was his teacher.  Seven years later, a month before my 39th birthday, he helped drive my furniture in a rented truck to Georgia, as I relocated close to where my family lived - Mom, Dad, brother Todd and his wife and children, sister Kim and her husband, Aunt Harriet and my grandmother Mamaw.

This week, the drive on I-20 for Thanksgiving triggered memories of making that same trip during my 17 years in Mississippi.  Gone are Dad, Aunt Harriet, Mamaw; Todd and his family moved years ago to south Georgia. It's just me and Mom, with Kim and her husband far enough south of Atlanta to be isolated.

Here's the view on Thanksgiving Day, 4/5 of the way around the Ross Barnett Reservoir on bike, a ride I used to do with Jason in the early 1990s.  I remember riding it alone one Sunday morning: faster than now, I could finish in time to shower, eat, and make choir practice.

No need to belabor the metaphors of life's cycles and life's road. For where I've been, for what -- and whom -- I've still got, I'm giving thanks.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Scholars in Love: What the Nation Needs from A. S. Byatt's Possession

In Possession, mismatched pairs meet in opposition to each other and end up in love.  We're in the world of romantic comedy, fresh and fun as it was for Shakespeare's ardent lovers in Arden forest.

Yet Byatt's real subject is the world of scholarship, where passion for documented and precise truth is a driving force as potent as erotic attraction.  I write from experience.

Byatt's novel is a layered delight. At base is the love affair between two fictional Victorian poets. One, R. Henry Ashe, highly celebrated in his lifetime, was married to Ellen; the other, Christabel LaMotte, modestly successful, lived in seclusion with artist Blanche Glover.

The next layer is made up of what they made up. Ashe wrote verse monologues and epics, a la Browning. LaMotte published dark tales of mermaids and witches, verse replete with Dickinsonian dashes, and her foray into the masculine realm of epic poetry. They and those close to them also wrote letters, numerous, allusive, and lengthy.  Of course, these are all A. S. Byatt's labors of love, appropriate to the 19th century, fitting to the personalities, and inter-textually woven with threads of her story.

At surface is the outwardly civil community of literary scholars, ca. 1986. Roland Michell, a graduate specialist in Ashe studies, comes across a letter drafted in Ashe's handwriting that seems to make  overtures to a woman who was a fellow house guest at a country home. Naturally, appropriately, professionally, Roland investigates.

But he conceals his find from his boss, Professor Blackadder, and he is soon deep in ever-closer contact with the up-and-coming world expert on LaMotte.  Now we see what's under the surface of "scholarship," the ambition, resentments, back-stabbing, and bribery.  By the novel's end, rival scholars representing different nations, generations, and sexual orientations have converged for a finale as packed with action as a bunch of pasty-skinned paunchy professors can muster.

Scholarly pursuits are so intense for the characters that romance is a relief.  Planning a getaway with Roland, the LaMotte expert Maud confesses she wants just to get away: "I just want to look at something, with interest, and without layers of meaning" (291).

I know what that's like.  My advisor at Duke set me up with Professor Irving Holley, promising, "He'll make a scholar of you."  Did he!  (Read my memories of him, "The Essence of Education".)  So deeply was I immersed in uncovering the origins of the drama program at Duke that I recall the thrill of finding a box of playbills from the 1940s more vividly than most classes or relationships in four years there.  Even more than my essay, I remember the excitement of writing "content" footnotes to explain arcane details from Duke's drama club performances in the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

A year later, I worked obsessively on a Senior thesis about Henry James.  For months, I read every novel, many novellas, many stories, and the Master's prefaces to late editions.  Studying at Oxford for the summer, I felt a rush of affection when I recognized him from across a vast hall at the National Portrait Gallery.  When my friend Bess gave me a book about Ibsen's influence on Henry James, I devoured the book, and digested its contents in my final draft.

Yet I felt a bit sheepish.  I'd spent two years tracing James's use of the  word "no" in his novel The Ambassador.  Offered a chance for a PhD, I demurred.  Enough of scholarship, I thought: let's try real life.

The other way to look at my work, though, is to see how very much there is to know about even a very small topic.  Professor Holley used to say that we were digging deeply into territory the size of a postage stamp.

Now I wonder if the nation is suffering for lack of understanding what scholarship entails.  Sure, it's easy to make fun of the nit-picking and esoterica that comprise scholarship, but the whole machinery of the academic world is designed to build our store of truth.  Scholars document sources, check provenance, avoid jumping to conclusions.  How arrogant people are who presume to know enough about big things, such as immigration policy, climate change, or Islam, while they dismiss the work of the scholars possessed with a passion for precise, hard-won truth.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Cycling on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur caps ten days of atonement with a prayer ("Ne'ilah") for God's "closing of the gates" to the central part of His temple.  One online commentary counters that traditional view with a more comforting thought: He shuts his people in, as keeper, protector.

Maybe it's the Yom Kippur prayer that my Education for Ministry class (EfM) recited Tuesday night, or just the change of season, but I had gate-closing thoughts all Wednesday.

With the holy day off from school, I spent the early afternoon on my bike, enjoying blue sky and temps in the mid-70s. But, though I finished at 3:00, it was already too chilly to enjoy the ride.  In November, I'll ride in Mississippi with my original biking buddy Jason, but this must be one of my last rides of the year.  I took a couple photos to mark the event.

Earlier, in no rush to shower and dress, I sang along with a recording of Streisand from 1971 that I hadn't played in 20 years.  I was struck by how some songs and arrangements had not aged well.  Then I was struck by another thought:  I'm 57 now; Dad and his dad died at 77; If I wait another 20 years, I may already have heard that CD for the last time. Gate closed.

Should I feel a pang of regret? Naw. I'm a gate-closed-in kind of guy.  Besides the cheesy stuff,  some of the pieces are still strong.  The album, when I first heard it in middle school, taught me to appreciate sparse accompaniment, ostinato, and the difference intentional phrasing can make.  I loved it, I learned from it, and I don't need to hear it again.

Here's how I see it: the contents of my life are piled high, safe behind God's gate. Now I'm outside,  moving forward.  Those contents are an immense store of experiences and people I've loved but see no more.  How can I regret that?  It's no coincidence that "contents" and "contentment" grow from the same stem.

I go forward, as on my bike, stripped down to my tee shirt and Spandex, content to have so much behind me, watching the meter to see how much I may have ahead.  If I've covered that much more distance, I'm that much closer to the end of my ride. That's good.

PS - Moments after I finished drafting this, I was seated in a circle with 7th graders who encountered "The Road Not Taken" for the first time.  Resonances abounded, including their appreciation of the lines, "Knowing how way leads on to way... [I may never] come back."

The boy who said, after first reading, "I don't get any of this," had the last word in class: "I never took a poem seriously before.  I really liked this."

Monday, October 03, 2016

Dinner with Mom

(Photo at Shillings by M. S. Rouse, earlier this year)
Mom doesn't like to be surprised by things that she's supposed to remember, so she posts notes to herself, "Dinner with Scott every Sunday at 5:30."  Today, I called at four just to be sure.  She was annoyed: "I'll go, but this is the last time."  I assured that she didn't have to go; she said, "Fine. I'd rather not.  Good-bye."

What did I hear in the voice?  Resentment that, so far as she recalls, her son's care for her is just dinner on Sundays?  Resentment of the assumption that she's grateful for such a little thing?  I don't know; it was not nice to hear.

But at 6:00, she phoned to find out why I hadn't picked her up.  She'd had so much fun with people on the front porch that she hadn't called earlier to find out why I was late.  I told her that she'd canceled, and "it kinda hurt my feelings."

She was apologetic, had no idea why she would say such things, and we had a great time as the sun set on Marietta Square.  Our waiter knew our orders at Shillings, we loved our wine and martini, enjoyed our dinner, remarked on people passing by, and had a good talk about former students who express gratitude years later.

When we got back to her apartment, her boyfriend Bill was there waiting, and I left her laughing.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Middle School Drama Teacher: Memo to Self

Going into our performance of A Wrinkle in Time, adapted by Morgan Gould from Madeleine L'Engle's classic novel, I was feeling pretty much like a failure.  With missed cues and hesitant lines, our dress rehearsal ran an hour and twenty minutes, more than twice the show's expected running time.  I looked back over weeks of rehearsal for ways I could have exerted tighter control, pushed kids harder, drilled more.

Then, after a dinner break, kids performed the show under 40 minutes; the large ensemble stayed in character, eerily disengaged or openly passionate as needed; the principal characters looked into each others' eyes, touched each other with tenderness or urgency, spoke lines with total conviction and clarity; a simple shift of lights cued the audience when we were moving from one locale to another.  Not a failure after all, I was a genius.

Let's remember a few things.

Those stupid improvisation games make a difference.  
Before I'd assigned parts, we sat in a circle to read portions of the script and spent precious rehearsal time on those time-killing drama games that kids love.  We played "group shape" ("form a giant shoe in ten seconds, using everyone's body as a part"); we warmed up as "blank pages" who stared straight ahead while someone tried to make actors laugh; we played the mirror game; in a circle, successive actors exaggerated a gesture that the first one presented.  In the end, these games were basic to the Ensemble's best moments - as creepy automaton cheerleaders on planet Camazotz, as a giant swan for flight over the planet Uriel, as an entourage of mimics when young "Charles Wallace" is possessed by "It."

When you stop rehearsal to get at the feeling of a moment, don't worry about lost time.  
I beat myself up for all the afternoons we didn't get through our schedule because we worked on a certain confrontation or a quiet response.  In the end, it was the actors' conviction during those moments that made the audience willing to overlook a delayed exit or the tangling of the long white cloth.

Cue-to-Cue does help.  
In my panic, I created a "cheat sheet" for the Ensemble and me, and spent thirty minutes the afternoon of the show simply calling one cue after another, by nick name:  "Giant Swan!  Soccer game from Hell!  Make a Wall!  March!  Take a Wall!  Prison! Bowling Pins!"   With no principals to flub a cue, movements became fluid, and the principals, watching, suddenly saw their place in the scheme of things.

Even more time with the principals alone could have been a help.  
The father, mother, children, and "witches" met with me 90 minutes in the second week, just to improvise as family, to discuss backstories, to get familiar with each other in character.  In the last week, I called off a run-through of the show to let the principals work just the final two scenes.  It was risky not to rehearse with lights and cues, but we all felt surer of where we were headed after that. We could have benefitted from reserving half an hour every week for that kind of work.

It doesn't take much to make a splash. 
We had a black stage, black curtains, and black clothes.   Still, we had spectacle: stormy lights on a girl's attic bedroom stage right; the dancing of a long swath of white tulle in figure eights around the principals to transport them; and the "galaxy" light.  People talked later about the sudden emergence of "The Red Eyed Man," a satanic figure twenty feet wide and ten feet tall.  He was a puppet, voiced by three boys in unison, his face a blank red mask suspended from a fishing pole,  swooping down into the faces of his interlocutors, his gesturing arms ten-foot poles topped with work gloves, his shimmering black robe nothing but plastic from Party City.     Everyone was creeped out! Our final effect was achieved with a wide wall of black cloth that encircled "Meg" while the Ensemble chanted "Hate! Hate!" isolating little "Charles Wallace" stage left to say, in silence, "No one.  No one loves me."  It was our finale: Meg broke through the black enclosure to embrace her little brother, and the ensemble, backing up against the black back wall, simply raised the black cloth over themselves to disappear instantly! (We'll forget the time that the cloth got twisted, exposing one frustrated sixth grader who did his best to look invisible.)

All's Well that Ends Well.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Images and Idols: Forward Day by Day
Highlights Feb-Apr 2016

Every three months for many years, Forward Day by Day has published short reflections on the scripture assigned each day in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  Once again, I'm noting those reflections that particularly struck me.  This time, selections come from Feb-Mar-Apr 2016.

The image on its cover is a detail of the Deesis mosaic in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia [see photo].  The editor comments, "Each piece of glass, stone, and tile was individually placed -- each an important part of the whole.  In this way, mosaics offer an important metaphor for our life in Christ."

Reflections on scripture for February 2016 were by Elizabeth Brignac, "cradle Episcopalian" and editor for a church-based education company.

Genesis 22.2  Offer him there as a burnt offering.  Brignac's awe of Abraham's response to this test of his faith vies with her horror at what he was ready to do.  She concludes, "Overreliance on reason can hold us back; rejecting reason can lead us into ignorance and sin.  It's an awfully narrow line to walk."

John 6.64 But among you there are some who do not believe.  For Brignac, the report that brothers (perhaps, cousins) of Jesus couldn't accept his preaching humanizes him: "He was one of us, God incarnate... with brothers who messed with him, whose parents were proud when he took his first steps."

Luke 9.35 This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.  On the mountain top, Peter chatters about building booths, when this voice tells him to shut up and listen.  "We should listen to holy words... and to holy silence," Brignac writes.  "Words are great tools, but they keep us limited to concepts that words can express."  I like that one.  I've also found that words can edit reality; what I've left unsaid or ill-expressed is lost, not just to my friend, but to me.

Genesis 37.9 Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.  Brignac points out what a twerp Joseph was, yet, he had this gift of true dreams.  "God does not require perfect servants."

1 Corinthians 6.20 Therefore glorify God in your body.  Brignac takes comfort from a priest's reassurance that God could resurrect her father's body to be as it was in his prime, when he could "bicycle and run and climb trees."  But then she thinks, why wait?  Why wait for resurrection to be "strong and free, experiencing eating as a healthy uncomplicated celebration, dancing and running and singing to the Lord."

Reflections for March 2016 were by Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of the Forward movement.

John 12.10  So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well.  Why?  "Every time Lazarus spoke, no matter what he said, he was testifying to a different reality of hope, life, and love." So some could not stand to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., and so  some today commit hate crimes because of race or sexual orientation, to silence those whose thriving is threatening to the hater's assumed superior position.

Reflections for April 2016 were by the Rev. J. James Derkits, artist and priest.

John 16.16 A little while, and you will no longer see me.  Derkits credits St. John of the Cross and Carl Jung for helping him to find renewal in the darkest times of his life, when he couldn't "see" Jesus in his own life.  "When I become overly familiar with the God image I carry around, I am becoming idolatrous.  In those times, God may seem to vanish..." only to reappear in a "fuller experience of God's presence."

Exodus 20:3 You shall have no other gods before me. Seems like an easy one, these days, Derkits tells us.  But he has a god in his pocket, the smart phone.  Others are "Career, Wealth, or Industry -- and that sneaky god called 'I'm right.'"

1 Thessalonians 2.20 Yes, you are our glory and joy.  Derkits tells of his young son whose pretend game at the pool with a friend had grown too complicated: "Let's just joy out!" They jumped in.  Good lesson for other times when things are getting just too complicated.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A New Parable at St. James' Marietta: The Farmer's Third Wish

Our readings for Sunday included the fearful Hebrews' reverting to idol-worship and God's change of mind when Moses begs Him to be patient; Paul's confessing how vicious he'd been against Christians until God, in His patience, converted him; and the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Father Roger Allen focused in all three on fear and loathing of "the other," asking if we all think of ourselves as the precious lost lamb?  He got a laugh when he spoke for the other ninety-nine.  "Why is the shepherd putting so much care into that one lamb?  The lamb was out of place, never followed the herd, and deserves to be lost."

But in his conclusion, Fr. Roger repeated a story worth repeating.  God visits a faithful farmer and promises him three wishes, adding, "Whatever I give to you, I'll double for your neighbor."  At first, the farmer is delighted to have his wishes for 100 cattle and 100 acres more land granted; but he is consumed with jealousy when the neighbor across the fence, who wasn't even involved with God, received 200 cattle and 200 more acres.  So, for his third wish, the farmer says, "Strike me blind in one eye." 

Fr. Roger concluded, "And God wept."

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Laws Manifest Love: More from
Forward Day by Day

Jonathan Erdman wrote daily reflections on scripture assigned in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for the month of June 2016, published in the periodical Forward Day by Day.  He's described as a graduate of seminary who divides his time between Alaska and California.  I noticed that he also contributes to a web site called Cinema Faith (link to his page) where he writes about love over lust in Carol, tradition behind George Lucas's invented "Force" mythology in Star Wars, and empathy awakened by Brokeback Mountain that carries over into his life and relationships with gay friends and family, causing him to rethink traditional taboos.

[Photo: Haines, Alaska]

So, he's is a young man with commitment both to Christian tradition and to keeping an open mind.  While I found good things in writings by other authors for May and July, I'm going to focus first on Erdman's work for June.

Erdman combines a particular interest in Ecclesiastes with his love of Alaska.

June 1st's reading, Eccl. 3.1 For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven, calls to Erdman's mind Alaska's extreme seasons, as in June, when the sun is as high at 10pm as it was at 5pm.  Naturally, activities that suit June don't fit the other seasons. Instead of asking "What is best for us to do?" ask what's suitable to the time.  He concludes,  "What appears to us as opposites in truth are intimately connected, like siblings who quarrel." That's a great analogy.

When the author of Ecclesiastes asks, "Who can make straight what He has made crooked?" Erdman tells how a road between two Alaska towns that appear close on a map may be a journey of many miles around the base of a mountain.  In our lives, and the lives of characters in Scripture, there's rarely a straight and easy path: "we meander in crooked ways," something we should accept as God's way.

Ecclesiastes 8.17 Then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun.  Erdman observes that our "sense of self-worth and identity" depend on things beyond our control, yet

...we keep getting drawn back, trying to master our little place in the world.  If only we could solve these last few problems.  But here's the secret: Our problems are never the problem. ...The only truth we have is our life in God in this present moment.

Readings from Galatians get Erdman to thinking about America. In Gal. 5.13-14, Paul cautions, Do not use freedom ... for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  Erdman observes that so much freedom comes with pressure to figure out "what we really want to do in life," a pressure that he implies is undue.  Eight verses later in Galatians, we read about the fruits of the spirit, calling to Erdman's mind a "buffet of choices" we have in our "lives of the flesh."  The buffet metaphor implies a caution not to weigh down our plates with "many layers of fear, anger, and pride."
Responding to Gal. 2.20 (the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith...) he gives us the image of the a monkey trapped when he puts his hand through a hole to grab a banana that's too wide for the hole: "Letting go is the work of a lifetime... the joy of the journey, the secret of the saints, and essence of spiritual experience."

Erdman reaches a similar place from the starting point of forgiveness in Mt 18.21-22.  Erdman writes how it would be tough work for him to forgive someone who'd borrow his bike and wreck it, and reaches the realization, "Forgive someone seven times, and you are a saint among fellow humans.  Do it seventy-seven times, and it isn't about work at all.  At that point, you are operating on a whole other level, where you have let go of everything."  He adds, "When Jesus resorts to the impossible and the absurd, everything changes."

For Matthew 17:20, Erdman tells of seeing how mountainous glaciers move, "massive energy hidden in plain view," "patient," moving inches a year, leaving behind the "stunning" mountains and valleys of Alaska.  Then he turns the familiar phrase around.  "Sometimes," he writes, "it takes mountain-sized faith to move a mustard seed."  He leaves it to us to think of examples.  I can think of times in my own life when I felt a mountain-sized burden lift when I dialed the phone number, or put the bottle down, or said the word "yes."

Psalm 78.2,  I will open my mouth in a parable reminds Erdman of many badly behaved figures in the Bible, and the modern readers who have "attempted a  neat and systematic understanding" of all these bits, "tied in a neat bow."  Erdman sees the attempt as a square-peg-round-hole proposition.  What makes it all relevant, he concludes, "is not that [scriptures] provide all the answer but that they raise authentic and genuine questions."

Law is "an attempt to manifest love." I wonder what would happen if partisans in this year's hateful, childish presidential race were asked to respond to this claim of Erdman's?  He's riffing off Psalm 119.142, Your justice is an everlasting justice and your law is truth, and Jesus's saying that all the laws are summed up in the commandments to love God and neighbor.   The Center for Public Justice, a Christian think tank in Washington, builds on the same idea, that "justice" is to society what "love" is to the individual. 

Erdman singled out a line from Mt. 21:31 from which my old favorite Flannery O'Connor spun a memorable story, The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  Erdman tells us, "Only those with the mind and heart of a beginner can learn something new [about the spiritual life].  Experts need not apply."

In his last two reflections, Erdman leaves us with a couple of challenges.  Hearing God's promises to shepherd us, seek the lost, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak, Erdman thinks of healing in other contexts:  friends, but also societies and economic systems.  "You are a healer in every context of your existence," he writes.  "See yourself in this way , and let that truth change you and transform our world."

At the end of June, Erdman gives us Psalm 131-2-3, I will still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother's breast; my soul is quieted within me.  To "access our silent inner spaces" is "the great work of our lives."

And in May ...
Episcopal rector and author Laurie Brock derives comfort from the least comfortable words in the Bible, Psalm 22:1, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   "It is the psalm of rock bottom," she says, when we realize that "one more tweak" won't help us to regain control. "Rock bottom is a messy, holy place.  When we arrive there, we lie down, weep, and lament.  We doubt, we rage, and we rest.  We are on holy ground, and God is here."   I spent sleepless nights last year trying to figure out the tweaks I could make to myself in my work to deal with some frustrations in one class, and felt all that Laurie Brock says.  That was rock bottom: Nowhere to go but up!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins:
The Joy of Singing Badly

"She felt such joy in music," Meryl Streep said about the title character in her latest movie Florence Foster Jenkins. "And she was so determined to get -- it -- right" -- Streep's voice slipping into character -- "and she's so thrilled when she does, she goes completely off the rails."

Writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears make sure we see the aging heiress's whole-hearted enthusiasm for music and her generosity to others before we hear her sing a note.   Jenkins performs, misty-eyed, in pantomime tableaux for adoring members of the "Verdi Society."  Weeping at a recital, she is moved to renew her voice lessons, hoping to emulate the soprano's pure expressive voice.

Only after all that, and after mild-mannered pianist Cozme McMoon (played by Simon Helberg) vanquishes a roomful of aggressive musicians for the job of accompanying her lessons, do Martin and Frears let Jenkins sing.  When it happens, we and McMoon are hearing her for the first time: something like the howling of a cat, turning sometimes into a screech, a bark, or a moan sliding up just shy of the right note.  On Helberg's face, we see his polite, confident smile vie with shock, shading into dismay as he hears the vocal coach praise the sound, and sees Jenkins' husband-agent St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) nod and smile encouragement to his adored wife.  Bayfield's eyes catch McMoon's with a look that says, "Isn't she marvelous? And if you don't think so, you wouldn't dare say otherwise, right?"  For her part, Streep as Jenkins sings, wide-eyed with terror and excitement, as she hurls herself at challenges of the song.  She looks like an old girl exhilarated in her first time riding a horse at gallop.  

It's a great scene that gets us laughing, cringing, and crying all at the same time. 

The rest of the movie enriches that situation with back story, and carries us forward to a crisis when Jenkins is moved by gratitude to perform for 1000 young servicemen in a free concert at Carnegie Hall.  Bayfield's efforts to bribe and threaten critics won't be enough to protect the vulnerable diva, and McMoon fears that his reputation will never recover from the debacle-to-come. 

As a middle school teacher in the arts, I know what it's like to sit with a hundred parents who overlook the mistakes to encourage children who are living a dream. I've been that child on stage, singing flat but loud -- in tights!  Besides, as Streep observed to interviewer Terry Gross on Fresh Air, we all sound good to ourselves in the shower. It's a unique movie about a special woman in a time long-gone, but we can all find ourselves in this story.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Theology with Martini and Ice Cream

Our rector at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, told us of his days as a young lawyer in New Orleans, when the revered senior partner took him to lunch.  The elder man explained how his doctor forbade his usual lunch of martini, favorite salad, favorite entree, and ice cream with chocolate sauce. The old man told the waiter, "Just bring me a martini and ice cream with chocolate sauce."

The rector, Fr. Roger Allen, told us not to read Scripture that way.  We can't have just the parts that make us feel good and skip all the protein and vegetables. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Peace > Tranquillity: Wisdom
from Forward Day by Day

The tri-monthly publication Forward Day by Day provides readers with responses to quotations from the Episcopal Church's daily schedule of assigned readings from Scripture.  These are helpful for me every morning, but some I mark for future reference. Here are some of those from the issue that started with a reading for November 1, 2015.

[Photo: from]

The reflections for November are by Kathleen Clark, who has worked in missions and ministries as far away as Hong Kong.  She is a graduate of the Education for Ministry program (EfM), as am I, and her work there shows in the ways she gets "into the world" of the scriptures.

Mt 13:40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  Clark is reminded of her time weeding a community garden and burning the refuse. Where others see this passage as a frightful image of punishment, she sees God weeding out the causes of sin, as we can do ourselves, "weeding" our spiritual lives.

Mt 13:44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Clark asks the EfM question, who am I in this story?  "Am I like the previous owner of the field, oblivious to what I already own, ignorant of my neglect?"

Mt. 16:15. [Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Clark imagines someone asking us to explain Jesus, "Who do YOU say Jesus is?"  This called to mind a time when that did happen to me, at a T.G.I.F. with a grown Hindu man, formerly a middle school student in my class.  My own answer centered on "the Word," the best  or fullest expression yet of a God who also expresses Himself daily in our lives, and historically in other religious traditions and wisdom.

Mt. 16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  Clark refers to Samuel Coleridge's poem "The Good, Great Man," a dialogue in which one friend observes that "good, great men" seldom get the reward heaped on less honorable ones.  But the second friend responds, in Clark's words, "that goodness and greatness are not means, but ends."  The good, great man does have three treasures: love, light, and calm thoughts.  Clark asks, "That sounds like something Jesus might agree with, don't you think?"

The reflections for the month of December were written by Lelanda Lee, a speaker and community organizer on behalf of human rights.

Mt. 21:22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.  Lee reminds us that prayer is a conversation, that "God expects us to listen, too."  So it's not a magical incantation.  "When we pray with faith, we are asking that God's will be done, not ours."  I guess she would agree that we don't pray to get what we want from God; we pray for God to get what He wants from us.

Mt. 25:36 I was in prison and you visited me.  This struck me because I visited Parchman Prison in Mississippi with 8th graders back in the 1980s and came away feeling that both the inmates and the staff were imprisoned there.  I thought then that I might one day be able to bring something else to the table, there.  Lee urges us to do just that, but points out that "prison" doesn't necessarily refer to a "correctional facility."  It's a metaphor as well for "physical limitations, despair, depression, or mental illness."

Jeremy Sierra, author of January's reflections, edits publications for Trinity Church, Wall Street, famous for its role as a haven for first responders in the weeks after 9/11/2001.

Ephesians 6:15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  Sierra conjures the "quiet, still lake" that comes to his mind when he thinks of "peace," before he recalls that nature is not always tranquil, and neither is peace. We mustn't confuse peace with stillness.  "Peace does indeed encompass (and actually requires) movement and change."  Segregation in our communities by race, income, or party may be "stillness" but not "peace," which requires breaking barriers and movement.  "We better put some shoes on our feet because we have a gospel of peace to proclaim."

Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.  After observing how un-glamorous sheepdom is, Sierra has to acknowledge that, even at his most active moments when he appears to be a leader, he can't take credit. "Other people -- my parents, friends, or the men and women throughout history who have learned, studied, served, and loved -- make my life possible."  So even when he's a tiger, he's "one sheep in the flock of humanity," defined by connections to others.

Mt 10:19 Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say....  Sierra takes this passage as a reminder of what he has learned from experience:  "when we speak out of love, saying something is better than remaining silent."   Just this morning, as I got red-faced thinking what I might say, not out of love, but out of exasperation, I reminded myself that it's better to stay silent.  But Sierra's observation applies when we "speak to power" or when others need comfort.  There may not be right or effective words to say, "but the fact that we have the courage to speak (and that we do so out of love) is often enough to make a difference."

John 5:17  My Father is still working, and I also am working.  Sierra admits that he used to be disturbed by the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, confirmed by the Jesus in John.  Now, it's the other way around.  His point is that faith is a work in progress, and understanding will change.  When I was a college-aged fundamentalist, Professor John DiCorcia shook me up by saying just that, in secular terms:  "If you still believe in five years what you believe now, your brain is dead."  I could see the truth in that; but I'd been taught that deviation or error in any part of my belief system meant a fall from grace.  What a perversion of the Gospel that is!

While I'm at it, this is also a good verse to remember when a church tries to just hold on to what it's always done.  Pope Benedict has just announced a panel to look into accepting women as deacons, but, as for ordination to priesthood, he says, "That door is closed."  Well, as the Pope once said of gays, "Who am I to judge?"

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Glenn Beck Speaks My Mind

Turning NPR on my radio during Weekend Edition Saturday yesterday, I heard a calm voice expressing things that I've been yelling at my dashboard for months.  Only at the end, I learned that it was Glenn Beck, a conservative media performer who rubbed me the wrong way so long ago that I forget why. 

[Link to a transcript and podcast here.  Photo: Glenn Beck at Salon.Com]

About Donald Trump, Beck says he knows little except that he's "self-absorbed" and "driven by himself," and not a "constitutionalist."  Check, check, and check.  Trump has "deep socialist leanings" while being a nationalist and populist, a combination that "never ends well" in history.   

Asked if it's time for a new party, Beck said what I've been feeling for fifteen years or so: "I don't even know who the Republican party is anymore."

On another hot-button issue of today, Beck posited a situation where everyone at the table gets a slice of pie but you.  When you object, "My pie matters," the others who answer "all pie matters" just haven't listened.  While Beck disagrees with an anti-capitalist agenda among some who speak under the name "Black Lives Matter," he supports the basic idea.

I'm reminded of when I heard conservative commentator Neil Boortz shut down a fan who pressed him to run for public office.  Boortz said with astounding frankness that he was an entertainer, paid for saying provocative things; he was in no way interested in public office.  So Glenn Beck may be speaking his true mind on NPR, and playing a part in his other public venues.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Dogless Days of August

Two weeks is longer than I've lived away from any dog since 1987. Six dogless days in, I'm ready to quit.

Mia is at Tenasity summer camp, learning to play well with other dogs, and I'm sure the trainers are exhausting her with down-staying, running the obstacle course, and tussling with other dogs.  This is good for her.  In June and July, I've been too busy biking, reading, blogging, to play tug of war with her nearly so much as she'd like.  She's probably sleeping better than ever, certainly better than I.

I, meanwhile, am a teacher on the last day before we report for duty, "ricocheting around the room," as Billy Collins once wrote.  Lesson plans to update, scripts to preview, pine straw to finish laying down in the yard, weeds to pull already poking up through the pine straw that I did lay down last month: and as I wander listlessly from one work station to another, I miss Mia's eyes.   Even if she stayed curled up in her bed, she kept track, and I kept checking up on her.  Is it just me, or do we all need an audience?

I get ice for a drink; she doesn't come running for a piece.  I come home, and she's not at the top of the stairs to celebrate. I finish making a meal, and soak the skillet, unlicked.  Now I believe the 70s love song by Bacharach and David:  "A house is not a home / when there's no one there...."

Her absence has emboldened the neighborhood squirrels.  One has learned to scale my kitchen window, leap at the bird feeder, and spill its contents for his two buddies to sample. I shouldn't complain: I put the feeder up to attract little friends to keep Mia entertained when I was away.  She loves to watch the squirrels from behind the doggie door, to pounce just when she feels like it.  Now I'm the one running out there every ten minutes.  

My colleagues and I shake our heads over "helicopter parents."  But now I sympathize.  If I could get 24-hour monitoring, I'd use it.   Is she learning?  Has she made friends?  Will she even remember me when I come to pick her up?  Will I fail to sustain her new discipline -- or her interest? 

Hurry, August.  Let's get this over with.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jason Bourne:
Tech, Texting, and Sub-text

Jason Bourne, a thrill-a-minute for sure, may be the first action film I've seen where the ratio of smart-phone use to firepower is something like 15:1.  A third of the movie is about opening a file.  The overall scheme concerns the CIA's plan to use a popular social media company to monitor every American all the time, which may require assassination of the company's scrupulous CEO.  Bourne uses phones to hack into fire alarms and to listen in to the car ahead of his.   The film turns on the axis of Bourne's relationship with the CIA tech director who tries to "bring him in," developed through reading files, studying screen shots, and sending text messages. They don't say more than ten lines to each other face-to-face in the whole movie. 

Tech provides more than plot points.  Throughout the movie, our hero's every move is monitored by the CIA on screens that serve the double purpose of giving the audience aerial views and animated street maps to comprehend chaotic action during car chase scenes through a riot in Athens and on the wrong side of the Las Vegas strip. An earlier generation of writers might have used a narrator, a Greek chorus, or flashing text cards, e.g., "Meanwhile, back in Berlin...."

Tech is part of what makes Jason Bourne a thrill for the mind as much as for the gut.  Because we get four or five different layers of views of every event -- live action, video screen, graphic diagrams, human conversation, text messages -- our minds are moving along several different tracks at once.

The few laughs in the grim world of Bourne come when Tommy Lee Jones exploits the subtext of a situation.  He can play friendly, charming, forgiving, warm -- but we know what he knows from screens and digital voices, and we know what the sly dog is covering up. 

Before seeing Bourne, I already had some experience with stories shaped by technology.  My drama students collaborate on original plays, and they love their cell phones. For a comedy we called Txt, written when "texting" was new, we projected text messages on a screen above the stage, finding humor in cute text-speak interpretations of the action. In our murder mystery Under the Surface, we had to explain why the missing character did not text her friends.  This year, tech was central to our four-character comedy Crash, which concerned a hacker's plot to turn a game designer's apocalyptic scenario real.

We also learned what Bourne's creators know, how easy it is to turn tech into magic. In our play, we needed a laptop at a Krispy Kreme to shut down America's power grid.  We needed only to say that we hacked the system and implanted a "worm," and our magic was plausible.  In Jason Bourne, when the CIA chief says that they must delete the files on a laptop in Berlin, the tech director says, "We can do it -- because they have a phone."  My friend Suzanne and I both said, "Huh???"  But the story rolled over our doubts at break-neck speed.

Smart phones are going to be the best thing for drama since Euripides discovered the deus ex machina.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Aurora Theatre Hits "the Heights"

[Photo collage (clockwise from top left): Felicia Hernandez as "Abuela Claudia," Diana Rodriguez as "Nina," Diego Klock-Perez as "Usnavi," Julissa Sabino as "Vanessa," Rodriguez, and Garrett Turner, who plays "Benny."]

On opening night for In the Heights at the Aurora Theatre in Lawrenceville, Georgia, it took until the second-act song "Carnaval de Barrio" for the older white man in the red-striped short sleeved shirt in the front row to get into it.  But by then he was on board, laughing and clapping along with the beat, notwithstanding that the beat was calypso and that characters waved flags from Caribbean and Latin American countries of origin.

Earlier, he'd sat cross-armed and stony-faced.  Though I'm younger, even I remember Lawrenceville as a little place way the heck out from Atlanta.  Now it's just another exit for Atlanta commuters. So this guy looked like he'd awakened in a foreign land.  Sensitive to that feeling, the Aurora Theatre's producer had almost apologized to her opening night crowd of white, older season subscribers for doing a show about the hip-hop generation in Washington Heights.  But she said that there was no betrayal of the theatre's mission to "reflect the community," because an invited audience of local high school groups earlier that week had been thrilled to see themselves reflected on stage: This is the way we are, now.

She needn't have worried.  The show builds bridges from its first moments, to people like Mr. Red Shirt, to people who don't like musicals, to people who think they don't like new musicals, and to people like me, for whom hip-hop is as foreign as Spanish.

So it may suggest a metaphor that Washington Bridge takes center stage on a backdrop between two authentic-looking facades of apartment/shop buildings.  Designer Shannon Robert somehow packed the tall, narrow stage with four stories of workable windows, doors, fire escapes, and rolling window grate for the lead character's bodega, "just another dime-a-dozen mom-and-pop stop-and-shop."

Hip-hop aside, the opener is traditional as "Tradition" from Fiddler on the Roof.   Our guide to the neighborhood is bodega-owner "Usnavi," a young man whose "syntax is highly complicated / cuz [he] emigrated" from the Dominican Republic, land of his late parents, where he someday wants to return.  He tells us in rapid-fire, intricately rhymed lyrics about his neighbors as he interacts with their early-morning routines.  By the end of the first number, we know some twelve characters of consequence to the story.

We also know that we like these people.  A variety of characters younger, older, and older still wear fedora, or tight skirts, or pants sagging, or dress shirt buttoned and neck-tied.  But they all are friendly; they all more or less take care of each other;  they all banter with good humor.  Aurora Theatre has also found a cast of actors to embody them who can all dance, some with balletic strength and grace; one (Joseph Pendergrast) with acrobatic break-dancing skill; all with energy and precision.  The voices are all strong, enunciating the spoken verses, reaching the highs and lows, louds and softs of the sung ballads and anthems.  They made it look easy.  By the end, Mr. Red Shirt and I were in awe of these young actors (and a few older ones) for their skill, and, Lord knows, their stamina.

Composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (now world-famous for Hamilton) signals that he knows the Tradition early on.  At mention of the "A" train, Miranda's supple accompaniment accommodates a couple measures of Billy Strayhorn's tune for the Ellington band; moments later, telling us it's "too darn hot," Usnavi salutes "his man" -- or is it Miranda's man? -- Cole Porter.  Many of the characters sing full-throated Broadway songs.  Miranda gives a prominent role to the wandering "Piragua" man who sings his sales pitch for flavored ice cones like the street vendors in Porgy and Bess whose songs evoked daily life of the community.  Many of the songs in act one are of the "I want" type -- "Breathe" for "Nina," "Inutil (Useless)" for her father, "It Won't Be Long Now" for Vanessa, and everyone's verses in the song about winning the lottery, "96,000."  Other songs are little one-act plays with musically-heightened sung dialogue, in the manner of Stephen Sondheim, such as "Benny's Dispatch" (a love song wrapped inside instructions to taxi drivers), a Spanish lesson that turns erotic in "Sunrise," and the comic scene between Usnavi and his would-be lover Vanessa, "Champagne."   Even when Miranda repeats a phrase in the manner of a pop song with a hook, he never just repeats it, finding new applications for the phrase "Everything I Know," or for bilingual synonyms "inutil," "useless," and "powerless," even before the power goes out -- turning a plot incident into a thematic metaphor.

The YouTube program Musical Theatre Mash points out how In the Heights honors a tradition even older than classic American musicals, namely, Aristotle's three unities.  There's unity of place: Except when a shift in lights turns the street to the interior of a dance club, all the action takes place on one corner of one street.  Book writer Quiara Alegria Hudes also respects the classical unity of time, as the story unfolds over one 4th of July weekend. There's also a unity of action, as the characters who want so much in act one break through in act two, with the catalyst of a cataclysmic power outage.

Thanks to friend Susan for noticing an homage to Dorothy's "silver slippers" in the original book of The Wizard of Oz:  the character who realizes that what he sought elsewhere is right there at home is also wearing silver high-tops.

So, Mr. Red Shirt, the small town of Lawrenceville, and I, have heard the unfamiliar sounds of hip-hop in Lin-Manuel Miranda's distant neighborhood of Washington Heights, and it feels to us like home.

See my earlier reflection on Lin-Manuel Miranda's work, As If Hamilton Needed More Raves.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Every Minor Detail's a Major Decision:
Two Books on Sondheim and Company

At age 15, a boy has incredible capacity for absorbing trivial knowledge in his field of interest.  For some, it's sports statistics; for me, it was Broadway musicals, particularly those of Stephen Sondheim.  I got Craig Zadan's Sondheim & Co. in its first edition (1974), which told how Sondheim and his collaborators created shows from West Side Story to A Little Night Music.  I curled up in my stuffed chair to read it straight through.  But before Mom called for dinner, I'd absorbed more than backstage backstories; I'd learned a whole ethos of artistic collaboration that has motivated me ever since.

Zadan then was very young, but he'd co-produced the first of many star-studded tributes to Sondheim.  He interviewed Sondheim, librettists and directors of his shows,  as we'd expect.  He interviewed performers, as we'd hope.  But he also interviewed set designers, music publishers, orchestra conductors, poster designers, casting directors, and costumers.  Through all their perspectives, which sometimes contradict each other, we understand how, in Sondheim's own line from Sunday in the Park with George, "Every minor detail is a major decision. / Have to keep things in scale, / Have to hold to your vision."

Even forty-plus years later, every page is familiar to me.  If I open the book at random, I'm going to find a tidbit about the kind of imagination and sweating of details that went into making every moment of the show "hold to [their] vision."  Here are a few examples I selected from leafing through the second edition of the book, just now:

James Goldman, librettist for Follies, on the song "Who's That Woman?" in which a young chorus first mirrors then joins in with the chorus of older women at the reunion of Follies girls:  "The physical impression you got from that was anguishing. To see the decay of the flesh -- all those bright, young beautiful girls and their lovely bodies with all the sense of youth and the promise of what's to come contrasted against what actually became of it. That's devastating... and very movielike" (Zadan 141).

Patricia Birch, dance director for Pacific Overtures, on staging "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," Sondheim's opener that explains 19th century Japanese society: "In the middle of it, there was a little puddle of people moving straight at us.   And I had always had the image from the minute I started that these were the people on the island of Japan.  Of course, the thing with Steve's numbers is that he gives you so many images to work from, so you're not just building something for the sake of building something" (216).

Michael Bennett, dance director for Company, on requesting Sondheim to write about how much all the married couples like their single friend Bobby in a song that would repeat so much that it becomes "grating": "[Steve] then wrote 'What Would We Do Without You?'  And [in the number] I'm not saying that all these married couples aren't sincere about caring for Bobby in the show, but you need more than friendships or it becomes the old song and dance routine.  The only thing that Steve and I had any disagreement on ... was the tug-of-war in that number [as couples vie for Bobby's attention]. ...I felt that's where Bobby was. I thought it worked" (123).

Jonathan Tunick, orchestrator of Follies, is praised by Sondheim for his work on the song "In Buddy's Eyes":  The actress Dorothy Collins says in the song "that everything is just wonderful and she's ... so happily married. Nothing in the lyric, not a word tells you that maybe it isn't true. [But] there is something in the orchestration.  ... Jonathan has orchestrated it so that every phrase in the song which refers to her husband is dry, all woodwinds.  Whenever she refers to herself, it's all strings again" (157).  Tunick explains how he closed that song with "a penetrating cold sound... a combination of muted trumpets and sometimes bells."

Another book, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, is by Ted Chapin, who worked as director Hal Prince's personal assistant in 1971, beginning as Prince's team was preparing for its first rehearsals.  (For what I learned in a book about Hal Prince, link here.) Based on his journal from the time, he chronicles the anxieties of the performers and creators, the many revisions and experiments, and the mistakes.  Again, we see how much thought goes into every detail, and also how much grinding work:

Michael Bennett, dance director, explains to the cast why their entrances during the "Prologue" must be precisely choreographed and timed to the beat, even though it's not a "dance":  "The show is really about time and what it does to people, so we must establish that we are going to stop it at will, turn it back and twist it around whenever we desire. I realize that crossing on a count of eight can be tricky, but I want everyone to become so well drilled that it never looks like anyone is counting" (Chapin 58).  Weeks and nearly 200 pages later, Bennett is still re-staging the Prologue.

Hal Prince, director, decides after a dozen preview performances for audiences (and weeks of rehearsals and revisions) that the song "Can That Boy Fox Trot" isn't working and must be replaced, but Sondheim needs something to write about.  The character "Carlotta Campion," was played by the show's biggest "star" Yvonne De Carlo, whose career peaked in the 1950s when she played sultry beauties in Hollywood films.  More recently, she'd starred as  "Lily" in the campy TV series The Munsters, which had been cancelled.  The only reason she needed a song was that the audience would expect the biggest star to sing one.  Sondheim gets the assignment to write one on page 181; Sondheim shows up on page 234 with the finished manuscript of a new song "I'm Still Here," which Chapin has the task of typing.  He recreates for us what he was thinking as he typed:

I was astounded.  The song just kept delivering brilliant images of events and people from the 1930s and forties, all woven into a passionate and dramatic statement of survival.  Wow, I thought, and this from a fairly simple-minded character who had previously sung a clever song with one big double-entendre joke and some tossed-off quips about being a has been.  Now we're learning who she was, and it was really good.  ... In some ways the song seemed to be as much about Yvonne De Carlo herself as it was about Carlotta Campion ... which would add a layer of pathos to the performance....
Here, I'm sure that Chapin is thinking of these lines from Sondheim's lyric:

First, you're another sloe-eyed vamp,
Then someone's mother,
Then you're camp.
Then you career from career to career.
I'm almost through my memoir,
And I'm here.  (Sondheim, "I'm Still Here")

Chapin continues:
He had been observing her, I thought, and he must have taken in a lot of who Yvonne was to create a piece of material that would give such depth to her character in so emotional a way. (Steve later claimed that Joan Crawford, not Yvonne, was his inspiration.)  ... Little did I or any of us know then that it would become one of Sondheim's most performed songs, and one whose sentiments, first typed that day by a twenty-year-old gofer, would continue to have resonance for years to come.  (237)

According to Chapin, who got it from Yvonne, Hal Prince was so pleased to hear her sing it the first time that he cried (241).  To tell you the truth, I get choked up reading about this, too, just from the satisfaction of seeing how music, lyrics, character, actress, rehearsal process, pacing of the script, audience reactions, all come together for marvelous, memorable, lasting effect.

Chapin tells us how the cast gathered at a restaurant in Boston to hear Hal Prince read their first review, by Samuel Hirsch of the Boston Herald Traveler. 

There's a magic feeling [that] comes over you when a new musical opens and lets you know all's well within the first few minutes.  You sense it's going to be a special evening because the talents of the men and women who conceived it and who put it all together and are playing it with sure skill and good taste let you know immediately that you're watching something extraordinary take place.  (189)

Amen.  I'm grateful to Chapin for his in-depth look at the creation of Follies, and to Zadan for teaching me all those years ago that enjoying the show is only icing on the cake; perceiving the thought and work that went into making the show is what makes it "something extraordinary."

Monday, July 18, 2016

Film Noir Makes Me Happy:
Chinatown and LA Confidential

I watched Chinatown and LA Confidential again under ideal circumstances, i.e., in my friend Susan's darkened den on a summer night, cold martini in hand.  It's strange, though: both films concern sad people who dislike themselves for the disgusting or violent things they do.  So when we see a still photo from the films, or hear a lonely trumpet over brooding orchestra that reminds us of Jerry Goldsmith's music (he scored both titles), why do we go "ahhh," as if it were a snapshot of last summer at the beach?  Why do we look forward to revisiting their retro-noir landscapes?

First, there's the story for both movies, simple and uplifting. Sure, the plots concern misdeeds and betrayals so twisted that I still can't tell you for sure which woman had coffee at the fatal diner in LA Confidential, nor why that matters; nor can I say of Chinatown whether the victim's wife witnessed his murder.  But the story, as opposed to plot, is simple: when a cynical man arrives at a place where the truth is worse than he thought, he finds there a wise woman who needs his help.  For her sake, he takes action with newfound passion for justice.  What could be more uplifting?  LA Confidential gives us three such men, though only two live to the finale.

It occurs to me just now that the story of descent through stages of darkness to bring a woman up to the light shares a lot with Ovid and Dante.  So this basic story may also stir us from deep down in our collective unconscious. 

Reasons two and three for taking pleasure from such on-screen misery comprise a matched set.  We're caught up in artifice as dazzling as a Busby Berkeley musical number, while being flattered that we're in the know, seeing the world as it really is. 

The artifice begins with the baroque intertwining of plot lines, but also involves a lusciousness of style that we respond to on several different levels.  A thoughtful essay by Jake Hinkson at considering "retro-" v. "neo-" noir, places both films in a broader context:

Retro-noirs can certainly be done well—Chinatown and LA Confidential are about as good as movies have a right to be—but they come with certain pitfalls. Like all period pieces, they erect an additional layer of unreality between their story and the audience, a fabricated distance of time. There’s something distracting when a modern star slips on a fedora and fires up a Lucky Strike. This ties into another problem with Retro-noirs: they have to negotiate the pull between being a reenactment of another time period and a reenactment of the movies of another time period.  (Hinkson)

Hinkson feels uneasy about the unreality, but not I:  The unreality of it is part of the fun, no less than seeing chorines tapping on the tiers of a wedding cake.

The style of noir dialogue is easy to parody because it encompasses both Shakespearean eloquence and Pinter's theatre of menace.  In LA Confidential, when "Exley" asks "Lynne" what she sees in detective "Bud White," she answers in six or seven lines in a row that begin the same way and build to a devastating punchline: it's a soliloquy in verse.  Police Captain Dudley Smith delivers a memorable address on police ethics, comprised all of rhetorical questions. Then, because the world of film noir is so layered with lies and menace, even mundane lines have ironic implications, such as the simple statement, "He used to be a cop. Ha!"

While all this style washes over us, we're buying the noir line that this is Truth, the way our world really works.  In both Chinatown and LA Confidential, the trail of the killers leads upward to the highest echelon of LA society and government.  That gives us a feeling that this game matters.

The noir view is oddly comforting, too, in the way that conspiracy theories help some people to cope with randomness in the world.  So Secretary of State Clinton said she didn't exchange any classified emails on her private server, but investigators found the notation "C" for "confidential" beside portions of emails: Do we want to know that a figure on the world stage skims her emails the way regular people do?  Yet, having studied histories of Presidents Johnson and Nixon a few years ago, I found,  "Sensitive to criticism, paralyzed by the fear of failure, prone to miscommunication, careless of facts that don't go with our preconceptions: that's all of us, even Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Cabinet officials" (from my blog post Half Way with LBJ).

The world is messy.  But film noir is neat and stylish.  At the end of a week of news that's hard to take, the world of Chinatown and LA Confidential is dark but beautiful.

Of related interest:
See Black, White, and Noir, my reflection on crime novels by Walter Mosley and Ross McDonald, and a reflection on the complete Philip Marlowe series by Raymond Chandler, It's About the Driver, not the Drive.

For more on international leaders who were just as lost as anybody else, see How Little We Knew How Little They Knew: Nixon and Kissinger, and Partners Across Party Lines: The Presidents' Club.