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.