Sunday, September 24, 2017

Homecoming with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Kicking off my 47th season with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra -- as audience member -- was like Homecoming.  Maestro Robert Spano bounded onstage to warm applause, and the orchestra started to play before he even reached his podium to conduct us in singing the anthem. When we cheered at the end, my friend Suzanne said, "Play ball!"

[Photo: Robert Spano]

We were all the home crowd, ready to appreciate everything.  Looking back from Row C and up into three balconies, I saw all rows packed, and lots of smiling faces of different ages and races. The chair of the board, without mentioning the cutbacks and cutthroat politics of some previous seasons, told us that we're back on track with hundreds of new subscribers (!), new music from our composer-in-residence Michael Kurth (who got appreciative tappings of the bow from fellow bassists), and young new hires to fill out our orchestra. In the program, we saw glam head shots of these young musicians and read about their music, guilty pleasures, and how they keep fit.

The program included Bernstein's Symphony #2, based on W. H. Auden's Age of Anxiety; Kurth's rocking arrangement of the national anthem and his new piece 1000 Words; and Gershwin's American in Paris.  All pieces are products of American males under the age of 40 -- or young for 46, in Kurth's case.  There was a lot of head-banging and aggressive drama in the pieces.

Our guest performer is a favorite of the Atlanta audience, French pianist Jean - Yves Thibaudet, playing the solo piano part in Age of Anxiety.  Bernstein's symphony requires a lot of pounding, and extreme virtuosic display in Bernstein's elaborations on a honky-tonk theme; but mostly, Thibaudet struck plummy dissonant chords in space, ruminations of the young man Bernstein.  It's a thankless job, as Bernstein wasn't going for the big hand when he wrote it; he was going for expression.  There's a break-through of warmth in the end, but for sheer beauty and feeling, the opening of the piece is best, a duet of woodwinds.

The movements of Kurth's piece all fascinated, with changes of texture and coloration, best when the percussion wasn't overwhelming the other instruments.

Gershwin's piece struck me as richer than I'd remembered, motifs layered intricately, surprises sprung regularly, melodies growing out of each other.  Hearing it live, you catch things you don't get when you don't see the bows sawing, the percussionist sweating, the conductor cajoling.

At the end, Spano ran about the orchestra, highlighting soloists.  Our tuba player got big applause for his rare moment in the spotlight.  Our composer Michael Kurth seemed shy of the acclaim, but grateful and affectionate when it came to hugging Spano and fellow musicians.

It all felt so good! 

(I wrote about the ASO, Kurth, and Bernstein, too, in an article about the ASO and audience as a "family."  See also my consideration of another fraught work by Bernstein,  "The Weight of Bernstein's Mass.")

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Hidden Brain: Under Current Events

Offered a choice of books to read for faculty development, choosing Shankar Vedantam's The Hidden Brain was for me a no-brainer.  I know Shankar's papery voice and affable manners from his reports on sociological research for NPR's Morning Edition.   So I was shocked to hear mostly negative reactions from colleagues who didn't share my personal connection.

Our group discussion didn't go too deep, so I can only guess that the response was defensive, because the book attacks a belief at the core of our whole political system.   Hamilton, Madison, and the other founders trusted that free debate, plus balance of regional economic interests, minus prejudice from religion or caste,  would equal reasonable decisions in legislatures and juries.  Free marketeers have the same faith in reasonable self-interest. Vedantam leads us gently to the conclusion that we humans choose first, reasoning second, only to justify our choices.

I first heard this critique of enlightened self-interest from Jerry Herbert, a political scientist at Duke University.  He represented an evangelical political organization now known as the Center for Public Justice.  In his seminar, he led us from Isaiah and Jesus to The Federalist Papers, to then-current events of the Carter - Reagan - Anderson election, to show how our system sidelines those outside the mainstream unless they become "reasonable" by denying their core  faiths and cultural identifications.   

The fiction writer Robert Olen Butler made the same observation from another angle.  A veteran of the Vietnam War, he denied that his writing was "political" in the sense of pushing policies and party. Our political beliefs, he said, are established very early in life and run much deeper than party.   (See my reflection Anticipation and Dread in Butler's fiction.)

Vedantam anticipated the blowback, announcing early that he would save the "hard" chapters for last. He front-loaded the book with anecdotes about unconscious bias on a more personal level.  Even black children attributed bad qualities to the black character in a story, though he rescues his white friends; and managers evaluating job applicants were much less likely to choose subjects who merely sat near an obese person in the waiting room.  Unconscious forces accounted for the fateful choices  at the doomed World Trade Center; people on one floor escaped together, their friends on the next floor stayed and died.

Vedantam saved for last the stickier kinds of unconscious bias that have partisan implications, drawing ire of my Republican colleagues because those unconscious, unreasonable biases seem to favor banner Republican policies.   The party of individualism naturally favors the "common-sense" belief that individuals are safer when they are in control of their own lives, despite facts and figures that show the opposite.  That bias explains my own dislike of ceding control to a pilot, though I'm much more likely to be hurt driving myself. And owning a gun makes us feel like we're in control, but Vedantam provides extensive numbers and dramatic anecdotes to show that a family's firearms are much more likely to be used on a member of the family than on any invader.

The story of a puppy illustrates our bias towards the particular.  At the very same time that tens of thousands of Rwandans were massacred by their neighbors, the world was focused on saving a puppy marooned on a derelict tanker in the Pacific.  The generalized, long-distance threats such as climate change don't get our attention, because of that same kind of bias.

For me, Vedantam's rare personal anecdote was the most memorable part of the book.  Long afraid of water, he learned to swim, and was proud to swim at the beach, feeling the power in his expert strokes.  Turning back, he recognized that he had been carried along by a current, and he could not make any headway against it.  It's his analogy for the way some Americans fight their whole lives against the current of unconscious bias, while the rest of us believe that we ourselves are responsible for our successes.  The phrase "white privilege" is a red flag around my community; Vedantam's anecdote, taken with the rest of his book, gives me a sense of how this white blogger's privileges, like politics, are deeper and broader than mere party and policy.  

(Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller Blink covers a lot of the same ground as The Hidden Brain. Read my reflection How Words Distort Vision.)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Missing Glen Campbell

"I know I need a small vacation," sings Glen Campbell on one of his early monster hits, composed by Jimmy Webb, "but it don't look like rain.  / And if it snows, that stretch down south / will never stand the strain."  It's a man on the job, worried about his work.  Without any transition, the lyric and music take us to another level: "And I need you more than want you/  And I want you for all time."  At seven years old, this didn't mean much to me; at 40, hearing jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson cover the song,  I had to pull over to the side of the road, weeping.  Where the heck did that  come from? "And the Wichita Lineman," sings our working man, "is still on the line."

Fifty years after Campbell recorded that number -- alongside hits "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and "Gentle on My Mind," I appreciate the mastery of this song by Jimmy Webb, but also the arrangement by its singer that includes violins in an appropriate lineman's Morse - code tattoo, the dissonance in the broad lines for strings that suggest both the spaciousness and the loneliness of that Kansas landscape.  Glen Campbell, that pop icon, that country boy in a California  / LA world, arranged the song and sold that lyric.  I get it now; I took the voice and the personality for granted.

Only now do I appreciate the odyssey of a country boy, one of twelve children, ingratiating himself to musicians as varied as Frank Sinatra and the Beach Boys, then becoming a star parodied in his own hit song "Rhinestone Cowboy."

Only a few months before his death, I heard how his dementia overtook him, and I bought my first Glen Campbell recordings:  "Adios," a set of covers from his last tour and his conscious good-bye; and "Ghost on a Canvas," a set of songs co-written with buddies who helped him to express his fears, regrets, and gratitude for career, family life, addiction, recovery, and faith.

In 1967, Glen Campbell was my ideal of the handsome man, the friendly guy, the great singer.  Now I appreciate what I've been missing for 50 years.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Disarming Confederate Memorials without Disowning the Past

The ongoing debate about removing Confederate memorials has its personal parallel in a mother I know who kept photos of her ex on display.  Friends were dismayed, but she told us of the night, late in the marriage, when her son overheard his father say, "Nothing good ever came from our marriage!"  The boy asked, "Dad, what about me?"  After a pause, the man growled at his wife, "Nothing!"  The boy was devastated.  The mom concluded, "If I disowned our past together, I'd be disowning a part of my son." 

As psychologists from Jung onward would say, to deny our shadow side is, by definition, to disintegrate, both futile and unhealthy, for communities as well as for individuals.  To accept the whole past, unpleasant and undeniable, is both honest and healthy. Our language connects health, and integrity.  Integrity  derives from Latin, integra, "whole"; and health, from Old English "wholeness."

As another friend pointed out to me this past week, it's no accident that statues of Confederate heroes stand near courthouses, institutions of higher learning, and legislative bodies, all saying to people of color, "Stay away:  We here honor a past when you were considered little more than an animal, and we put up this memorial to the 1860s in defiance of federal interference in the 1950s."

Let these memorials be where they no longer serve their purposes to intimidate, but where they can teach.  Set in a park where they tell a story, set in a museum where there's a guide, they serve a higher, necessary purpose.   Own the past, and disarm it.

[Photo:  During warm seasons, I ride around Stone Mountain, GA, hardly taking notice of the carving dedicated to Lee, Jackson, and Davis.  The mountain had nothing to do with the lives of those guys, but it was the re-birthplace of the KKK following federal actions to recognize civil rights of African Americans, and the carving coincided with the civil rights era's most dramatic years in the 1960s.]

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Give Me That Organized Religion

Fr. Roger Allen told us Sunday about a tour he made some years ago, following in the footsteps of Paul.  Two guides schooled in history and theology arranged the trip, looked ahead to accommodations, pointed out features, answered questions, told stories. He could have arranged the trip himself, and could have had a good experience, but he was grateful for the guides, their expertise, their planning, and the company of the others on the tour.

Fr. Allen spoke at the celebration of our patron saint James, who is often depicted on pilgrimage.  Our own youth group just returned this month from their own pilgrimage across Spain on "The Way of St. James" (Camino de Santiago). 

"Pilgrimage" also applies to the individual's walk through life.  So many say, "I'm spiritual" or even, "I'm a believer," and then add, "but I don't go in for organized religion."  By his personal anecdote, Fr. Roger gives us reason to value the support, institutional memory, expertise, liturgy, and procedures afforded us by the Church, with a capital "C," and companionship within our own church.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Frank Loesser's Musical Martinis

Frank Loesser would mix his martini at sunrise, having worked on songs through the night while friends and family slept.

As a fan of both Loesser and the martini, I was gratified to hear that tidbit from an interview with his widow Jo Sullivan, because it fits.  Loesser explains why, in the only song of his I know to mention the cocktail:  
To see the cool clear
Eyes of a seeker of wisdom and truth,
Yet with the slam, bang, tang
Reminiscent of gin and vermouth --
Oh, I believe in you,
I believe in you!
      - Frank Loesser, music and lyrics, from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
Loesser's work, like his favorite cocktail, is always fresh.  Many Loesser songs have that "slam, bang, tang" every time we hear them.  Here's an example of a lyric I know by heart that still takes me by surprise.  It's "Adelaide's Lament" from the musical Guys and Dolls:
You can spray her all day with the Vitamin A and the Bromo fizz,
But the medicine never gets anywhere near where the (sniff) trouble is.
If the girl has been getting a name for herself, and the name ain't his --
A person can develop a cough.  
Loesser wrote lyrics, or lyrics and music, for hundreds of popular stand-alone songs, and songs for forgettable movies.  Four unforgettable Broadway musicals are graced by his music and lyrics, Where's Charley?, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.  

Stephen Sondheim writes early and often about Loesser in his memoir - cum - lyricist's manual Finishing the Hat.  Loesser had been first choice to write music and lyrics for a show called Saturday Night, but young Sondheim got the job. He admits to imitating Loesser unconsciously in his first professional score (Sondheim p. 6).   Loesser, he writes, was a master of writing "conversational lyrics" that he "tailored" to characters, "able to perform the rare trick of sounding modestly conversational and brilliantly dextrous at the same time, a skill only [Dorothy] Fields and occasionally [Irving] Berlin possessed before him."  Sondheim calls Loesser "The Idea Man," because his notions for songs were, and still are, funny, growing naturally from character and situation. Later in his book, Sondheim brings Loesser into thumbnail assessments of other Broadway lyricists, citing Loesser as equal to some, superior to others. (see my Sondheim page)

From American Songbook specialist Michael Feinstein, I learned that Loesser originally had a reputation for writing off-color specialty songs, such that Hollywood producers were leery of hiring him.  Erotic currents flow just under the surface of Loesser's "Slow Boat to China," especially at the slow tempo that Cleo Laine purrs, "I'd love to get you / on a slow boat to China / all to myself, alone,"  though she hits at a plaintive note when she sings of "melting your heart of stone." (Cleo Laine and Laurie Hollowell, Loesser Genius).

Other songs play with fire.  A friend of mine hears date rape in the charming duet, "Baby It's Cold Outside," a conversational song of lines for Her and Him (left and right, below) that overlap and rhyme prodigiously:
My mother will start to worry - Beautiful, what's your hurry?
Father will be pacing the floor - Listen to the fireplace roar
So really I'd better scurry - Beautiful, please don't hurry
Maybe just a half a drink more - Put some records on while I pour

The neighbors might think - Baby, it's bad out there
Say, what's in this drink?      (from Frank Loesser, "Baby It's Cold Outside")
Loesser probably got whoops from the troops when he wrote a lyric for a Hollywood entertainment aimed at boosting morale during the Second World War. For "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," Bette Davis speak-sings constantly surprising variations on the title.  With young men overseas, the lyric says, her soldier boyfriend needn't be jealous:  
What's good is in the army.
What's left will never harm me...

I'm either their first breath of spring
Or else, I'm their last little fling
I either get a fossil or an adolescent pup
I either have to hold him off
Or have to hold him up.
  - (lyric by Frank Loesser, music by Arthur Shwartz)
But Loesser wanted to be remembered, not for sexy and funny songs, but for love and passion.  Sondheim suggests that Loesser failed when he tried too hard to be meaningful or touching.  Sondheim introduced me to the word "twee," which applies to every cut on the cast album of Loesser's forgotten show Greenwillow, which starts with the very "twee" lyric, "'Twill be a day / borrowed from heaven."

I've heard somewhere that he thought "I Believe in You" was going to be a great love song, until the director gave it to the young leading man to sing to his own reflection in the mirror of the men's restroom for How to Succeed.... 

Feinstein tells Terri Gross that Loesser's older brother Arthur had some classical music cred and that he disdained his brother's work.  Challenged, Loesser wrote a near-operatic score for The Most Happy Fella, for which he created songs in counterpoint, a modern madrigal ("Song of a Summer Night"), full-throated arias for an operatic baritone in the leading role, and this delicious comedy song for the Broadway singer who portrays a waitress in the opening number:

Oh, my feet, my poor, poor feet,
Betcha your life a waitress earns her pay.
I've been on my feet, my poor, poor feet
All day long today.....
(four "piggies" in)  This little piggy feels the weight of the plate
Though the freight's just an order of Melba toast.
And this little piggy is the littlest little piggy,
But the big son of a bitch hurts the most!
    (- lyrics and music by Frank Loesser, "Oh My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella)

But Loesser didn't have to try so hard to be touching.  Look no further than poor Adelaide, years into her relationship with Nathan Detroit, who sings to him,
When I think of the times gone by...
And I think of the ways I cry...
I could honestly die.

   (-"Sue Me", music and lyrics by Frank Loesser, Guys and Dolls)
It's a funny song, but there's no doubt, she's wronged, he's a jerk, and something has to change -- and it does.  Funny as it is, I feel that line more each time she sings it.  It just stops being funny -- until Nathan sings his last rhyme for "sue me" - "Shoot bullets through me!  I love you!"

With so much to his credit that's clever, showy, funny, and sly, it's a little throwaway number that makes me think of Loesser as one of Broadway's greatest artists.  Here's the cocky gambler Sky Masterson singing about New York in the early morning:

My time of day is the dark-time
A couple of deals before dawn
When the street belongs to the cop
And the janitor with the mop
And the grocery clerks are all gone
When the smell of the rain-washed pavement
Comes up clean and fresh and cold
And the street lamp light fills the gutter with gold
That's my time of day
My time of day,
And you're the only doll I've ever wanted to share it with me.
 - "My Time of Day," music and lyrics by Frank Loesser
That's the entire song, music meandering and short on pattern, designed to sound like natural speech. It's almost recitative; it's almost a song; it's straight from the heart of the character, down to the reference to gambling ("just a couple deals before dawn"), and it's as touching as any song I know.

I've heard that Loesser fought unsuccessfully to get Sinatra to sing his music as written for the film of Guys and Dolls, that he called his first wife "the evil of two Loessers," and that he was so unsure of his own composition skills that he would call his wife in to hear any new composition, to tell him if she recognized the tune from some other songwriter.

But, at his best, he was the best.  Here's a toast to you, Frank Loesser, with my third martini of the night.

Fresh Air interview with Terry Grose / Michael Feinstein  Loesser's 100th birthday, June 29, 2010.

From memory, I'm citing anecdotes from singer Jo Sullivan, Loesser's second wife, who spoke with Gross another time.  That show isn't archived on the web site. 

See a website devoted to Loesser with involvement from his children at

[Photograph: Young Loesser's face on a recording of his own renditions of songs, including "Heart and Soul" with music by Hoagy Carmichael; Loesser's image on a stamp in a series honoring the classic American songbook writers; and Loesser during the War with a young Frank Sinatra.]

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"Let the Poetry do the Work":
Kwame Alexander with Rachel Martin on NPR

Waking every morning from a nightmare of disappointing the students who will fill my classroom in a couple weeks, I was inspired by something I heard on NPR's Morning Edition.  Host Rachel Martin swapped lines of poetry with poet-educator Kwame Alexander.

[Photo: Pictured with fans with one of his novels - in - verse The Crossover on his website.]

Martin called their session "Poetry play" and, later, "our poetry party."  She wanted to know how we can get kids not to be scared of poetry.

Alexander observed that parents learned in high school to be scared of "Auden, Frost, Shakespeare." They learned to forget the fun, "whimsy, joy, passion" of poetry that his mother instilled in him when she'd come into a room and quote Nikki Giovanni or Lucille Clifton to him. For instance, he threw out "Advice" by Langston Hughes:  

Folks, I'm telling you,
birthing is hard
and dying is mean-
so get yourself
a little loving
in between.
Martin and Alexander shared a laugh and made his point.  Martin requested a reading from Shel Silverstein's "My Rules," and then she shared a wonderful bit of "The Summer Day" by Mary Oliver:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes....

Martin skipped to the last lines:  "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"  Listening to this while I cleaned up the breakfast dishes, I felt amused, involved, convicted, all at the same time.  And I saw the grasshopper!

Alexander tells students to "distill it into a few digestible words to get [at the same] feeling."  I can imagine asking kids to think of a time they had a strong or mixed feeling, and to list all the ingredients that went into making that moment.For teaching poetry, Alexander says "Let the poetry do the work."  He read a poem, no attribution given, that drew us in with Seuss-like rhymes, "I love to ride on a plane, I like to take the train," and so on, but "if I had my 'drothers," he concluded, "I'd get my exercise in your arms."

For the pièce de résistance, Alexander challenged Martin to improvise a poem on-air.  He prompted her with questions. "What's an age you remember?  What did you see?  What was that like?"  When she said that summer evenings on the porch at age eight were "green," and "like grass," she wasn't satisfied.  He kept pushing her until memories bubbled up that got her excited - sweet tea, lemons, "sweet like my mother's smile."  Suddenly, Rachel Martin, Kwame Alexander, and I were satisfied.

I'm more convinced than ever that reading poetry aloud and writing poetry are the most important things an English teacher can do at any age.  At least do it before the kids learn that poetry is a problem to solve for credit. 

"What about essays?" ask some educators.  "Stories?  Novels?   Don't kids have to learn to walk before they can run?"

That last analogy is a bad one, not least because kids do run before they learn to walk, stumbling all along.  Kids also speak gobbledygook with the inflections of whole sentences before they learn words, crayon full pictures before they learn techniques, compose songs before they read music.   Kids play games of basketball before they've "mastered" the "fundamentals."  The teacher who says, "No, don't try to learn that thing you want to learn" should be suspended for malpractice.

Besides, any halfway decent poem gets its effect by doing all the things that a good essay would do, mixed with the things that a good story would do.  The poet will necessarily make choices about how to focus the reader's attention, how to draw the reader on to something that builds to a conclusion.  That's called structure.

The halfway effective poem will also use clues in diction and details to conjure a sense of character, and some kind of story. 

For grammar, there are the tricks poets use to link ideas and minimize verbiage.  Mostly, they reduce clauses to phrases and cut out the dull verbs of being.  I've seen grammar books that don't get that far into practical grammar.

And if any given poem doesn't do all these things, well, poems are short.  What one lacks, another will provide.

I'm refreshed, thinking how I can make poetry a part of our regular routine, not just a now-and-then thing.

Read my earlier reflections on what students learn from responding to poetry without teacher's active involvement, Plentiful Payoffs from Poetry Playoffs.  One of my biggest "hits" on this blog is my reflection on Mary Oliver's book Thirst.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Teach US History with the Pledge of Allegiance

Through years of teaching US History to 8th graders, I found that kids would forget in spring what they'd studied in fall - or, worse, they reverted to what they'd understood in second grade, involving happy Pilgrims, a cherry tree, and Abe Lincoln freeing all the slaves. 

My solution was to tie American history the Pledge of Allegiance.  Though we'd repeat the whole history four times, each time we would pick up a different strand suggested by the Pledge's last words: (1) One nation, (2) under God, (3) indivisible, (4) with liberty and justice for all.  The strand for each successive quarter emphasised an event later in the time line.  That students would have already memorized the phrases from the Pledge in order, that these phrases suggest the themes, and that these are tied to key events, should make remembering it all easy. I would be sure to convey the material through engagement with art, primary sources, and personal stories.

I started each quarter with an examination of current events and opinions about them, hoping to excite the students' curiosity.  We then reached back centuries to see how the USA got to be this way.  Here's how it worked:

First Quarter:  One Nation?
500 years, emphasis on early 1600s
In what way(s) are we truly one nation?  Related to native and nationality, the word nation suggests that we are in some way one people.   But a quick survey of current census data shows how many peoples, languages, religions, ancestries, and independent tribal nations rub shoulders within our borders.  Is this diversity something new?  We look at current attitudes towards immigration and nativism.

We jump backwards to pre-Columbian times simply to see what other nations occupied this same continent before there was a USA:  native American tribes, empires, leagues; Renaissance European colonizers from Spain, Portugal, France, and Holland; the forced importation of Africans.  We examine maps, discuss what artifacts tell us, view Renaissance art, read primary source accounts of international encounters.

We pause to look in-depth when we reach the English at Jamestown in 1607 and their countrymen who followed them to this continent, because their language and peculiar national traditions shape the eventual USA.

Then we proceed through waves of immigration and reaction back to the present day.   At the end of the quarter, we try again to reach a consensus on the way(s) in which we are "one nation," and ways we are not.

Second Quarter:  Under God?
emphasis on late 1600s to 1700s
In what way(s) are we truly under God?  The phrase was added late to the Pledge of Allegiance to draw contrast to "godless Communism" during the Cold War, and was borrowed from a phrase that Abe Lincoln added to his neat handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address on the day after he had delivered it.  The phrase might suggest that we are "under" God the way we're "under" the sky; it might suggest that we all follow the same faith.  Again, we make a survey of current attitudes and issues regarding faith in the USA today before we recycle through the centuries.

This time, we look more closely at how the European colonizers came from a world divided by the Protestant Reformation.  We look at the close connection between Church and State in all European cultures involved on this continent up to that point: most thinkers could not conceive a government not authorized by religious authority.

We focus more this time on the consequences of the Mayflower's accidental landing in Massachusetts instead of their target Virginia.  The Puritans who came with John Winthrop intentionally set themselves apart to create what Winthrop called "a city on a hill" to show the world a Protestant Christian government.  Instantly, their unity splintered, each offshoot becoming a new colony; through conflict and the witch debacle, official clergy lost credibility.   By the time we get to Thomas Jefferson's line about "Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence,  the Enlightenment had reduced God's role in political life, if not in family life.  The Constitution enshrines the idea that reason and mutual agreement are the source of authority in the USA, not the church.

We look at revivals and the role of faith in the Abolition movement, and note periods of revival that swept the nation, and the development of a quasi-civic religion -- in "Manifest Destiny" and the Pledge itself.   At the end, we try to reach a consensus on what it means to be Under God.

Third Quarter:  Indivisible?
emphasis on the 1800s
In what way(s) are we truly Indivisible?  The obvious area of focus must be the division of states during the Civil War, but we begin, as before, with a survey of current events, looking for signs of division, and of unity in spite of division.  

A survey back to colonial times reveals regional animosities, civil conflict, and threats of secession going back to the 1780s.  The fear of a nation within the nation (Native Americans, African Americans held in bondage) would be part of this.

Of course, the Civil War and Reconstruction will take up a lot of the quarter's time.  After we review the cultural divisions exposed by the Depression, the Vietnam War, and perhaps "the war on terror," we might be in a better position to evaluate whether we've still got what it takes to keep us indivisible.

Fourth Quarter:  Liberty and Justice for All?
emphasis on the 1900s

What different ways do Americans today define liberty and justice?  Then, who is meant by all - "all men [who] are created equal?" All people living in America?  Only American citizens? 

By this time in the year, the kids should be able to survey the centuries pretty rapidly.   They'll see a gradual widening of the definition of "all."  In the 20th and 21st centuries, they'll see expansion and contraction, as we reach out to spread liberty and justice to other lands, and then retreat.

Looking Back: How Did it Work?
I didn't notice any particular difference in the way the kids perceived history.   From my point of view, we were seeing the Big Picture four ways, combing through history four times with deeper and broader perspectives.  

From their point of view, it was just the next reading, the next essay, the next discussion, the next map.  I was the only one connecting the dots.  

I tried this one time before I moved on to another position in another school.   If you want to try it yourself, I'd be glad to help.  I still think the idea is a good one.

See my blogpost of related interest: Does God Bless America?

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Sympathizer: Page-Turner Hard NOT to Put Down

"But amnesia was as American as apple pie," muses the double-agent who narrates Viet Thanh Nguyen's first novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015, p. 195).

That's the kind of off-hand observation that makes this page-turner so hard not to put down -- because on every page the reader wants to make a note of a witty observation, provocative statement, or apt simile.  For instance, Hollywood, by "softening up the world," functions as "the launcher of the intercontinental ballistic missile of Americanization" (172); Vietnamese refugees are exiled in time as in space, keeping their clocks set to Saigon time and always thinking "When can I return?" (199); men at the end of a long banquet "nuzzle [their] cocktails with the affection one reserved for puppies" (261). 

The story is simple enough.  Our unnamed narrator serves a General of the deposed Saigon regime, first helping him to exile in the USA,  assassinating two of the General's enemies, and finally spearheading an armed incursion against the unified Vietnam's communist regime. 

What complicates the story, and what allows Nguyen so much room for trenchant wit, is that the narrator is a double agent. Son of a single Vietnamese mother and an odious French priest, he has the "destiny" or "talent" of a "bastard" for "seeing from two sides"(314).   He was educated in the US; he knows how his homeland appears in Western novels and pop culture -- Graham Greene's The Quiet American earning particular scorn for treating Vietnamese women as metaphors (114).  But he's not blind to the weaknesses and corruption in Vietnam, or in himself. After committing the first assassination, he goes on a drinking binge, writing,  "Besides my conscience, my liver was the most abused part of my body" (114).  The ghosts of his two victims literally haunt him.

A long satiric interlude in the story concerns our narrator's serving as consultant to the Auteur of an Apocalypse-Now kind of movie.   Until our narrator gets involved, the epic movie has no Vietnamese characters.   Besides being viciously funny, this portion of the novel takes time out from comedy for a touching moment when the narrator mourns at the grave of his mother -- in a phony cemetery on the set of the movie.  

One of the novel's most concentrated passages for political banter is our narrator's confrontation with Richard Hedd (I got the joke, Professor Nguyen, but I don't think it seemly to mention it). Hedd is revered by American hawks as more expert on Vietnam than the natives, if only because of his British accent (259).  Quoting from pages of Hedd's book that describe "categories" of Vietnamese people, our narrator develops those literal pages as a metaphor:
These categories existed as pages in a book exist, but most of us were composed of many pages, not just one.    Still, I suspected, as Dr. Hedd scrutinized me, that what he saw was not that I was a book but that I was a sheet, easily read and easily mastered.  I was going to prove him wrong.  (252)
Hedd, as a non-American, comments freely on the pursuit of happiness. For Americans, he says, that's a "zero - sum game," measuring one's own happiness against someone else's unhappiness (255). Our narrator and his boss the General turn the discussion around when someone avers that Afghanistan, "the new Vietnam," supersedes Asia as America's concern.  "As a nonwhite person, the General, like myself, knew he must be patient with white people, who were easily scared by the nonwhite."  The narrator continues...
We ate their food, we watched their movies, we observed their lives and psyche via television and in everyday contact, we learned their language, we absorbed their subtle cues, we laughed at their jokes, even when made at our expense, we humbly accepted their condescension, we eavesdropped on their conversations in supermarkets and the dentist's office, and we protected them by not speaking our own language in their presence, which unnerved them. ...[W]e probably did know white people better than they knew themselves.... (258)

...though mysteries remained, such as how to make cranberry sauce or throw a football.

Nguyen chose for his epigraph a statement by Nietzsche that there's "something to laugh at" in torture.   Our narrator's book is a confession addressed to the official in charge of his reeducation, and torture is involved.  I can't say I agree with Nietzsche on this one, and I had to fight myself not to put the book down, this time for good.

But I do agree with wonderful writer Robert Olen Butler, author of stories of Vietnamese exiles collected in A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.  He writes of Nguyen's book that it "transcends history and politics and nationality and speaks to the enduring theme of literature: the universal quest for self, for identity."

And, it's funny.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Me and Mia

We walk mornings around the perimeter of the Publix shopping center nearby.  She's unpredictable around other dogs, so the neighborhood is out.  Besides, there are orts and puddles of spilled stuff to sniff, and trucks to bark at.  We took a moment to send a selfie in response to an early birthday wish from Susan.  I want to preserve the picture.  Mia's happy, but eager to get moving again.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Summer, Knoxville, 1915 & Wyoming, in a car, 1967

It's a very 1960s-America memory, a mere sensory impression:  In the front seat of the Pontiac Bonneville that we borrowed from Grandmother because it had air-conditioning, Dad drives us on a two-lane highway somewhere between our home in Chicago and our destination at Yellowstone Park in Wyoming, and Mom sits beside him.  Behind them and below, actually in the wells where backseat passengers' feet go, my brother and I are each curled up on pillows brought from our beds back home.  Older sister is stretched out above and behind us, reading.   

It's after lunch.  The AM radio may be playing the news, or some sunny drawling country-western tunes from the day (Roger Miller, Patsy Cline), but it's far away now.  I'm much closer to the low metallic hum of the tires.   It's lulling me to sleep, but then, like the sudden tapping of a cymbal, Mom's voice sounds, Dad replies, and Mom laughs.  They're speaking about the next stop, or about the countryside.

I'd like to listen, but I'm being drawn down into sleep. I love my pillow for receiving my weight, for being warm and sweet-smelling with my own drool.  And I'm feeling safe and contented and suspended in time.  I don't want ever to lose that moment.

Fifty years later, I'm still there, when I want to be.  And now I recognize the universality of this.  It's in James Agee's prologue to A Death in the Family, his memory of his own childhood 100 years ago, later set to wonderful music by Samuel Barber in the concert piece Knoxville, Summer 1915:

They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. . . . All my people are larger bodies than mine,...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds.... One is my mother who is good to me.  One is my father who is good to me.  By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of the night.  May God bless my people. . . oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble, and in the hour of their taking away.

After a little I am taken in and put to bed.  Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her. . . .
Agee's long prologue appears to be prose, but it has the impact of good poetry.   I've run into many others who, like me, heard or read the words once and remembered them for years after.

[Note: I discovered this piece in my archive, written during a workshop led by a colleague involved with the National Writers Project at Kennesaw State University in 2007.  Another offshoot of the workshop made one of my earliest blogposts, Shrink Age.]

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Almost 9 O'Clock: Being Mom to my Mom

My first day with a driver's license, I was an hour late getting home.  Mom was sitting up in the den.  She turned so that I could see her tears, and then she climbed the stairs to bed.

I got the point.  She'd been waiting for the phone to ring, the hospital or policeman on the other end.

42 years later:  Mother fell last Wednesday and bruised her arms, and fell the next night so that I had to rush away from dinner in Atlanta to stand beside her in the Emergency Room. She phoned around 6:45 Monday night, her voice strained, telling me to "come up here and solve all my problems for me." By 7, I was with her, and we were laughing because she had no idea what she'd had in mind when she called.

Part of the problem is that little bottle of wine that she likes to ease her into the evening.  She finishes it off, throws away the bottle, rinses the glass, wanders into the living room, and thinks, "Ah, it's time for my nightly glass of wine."  That can go on to three or four bottles. 

Tonight, I've worked two hours on this blog with single-minded concentration, forgetting even to drink water.  I'm thirsty, my head hurts, and my neck is stiff. But I'm happy: My phone hasn't vibrated even once, and it's 8:58 pm.  Every time I check the clock and haven't heard bad news about Mom, I think, we've made it for another night.

Waiting at the doctor's office for removal of staples from the bad fall she took last week [see photo], she wanted to know, "Why are we here?"  I ran through the list of our recent adventures. She laughed, "Having me is just like having a teenage boy, isn't it?  Serves you right!"

Earlier reflections on life with dementia:
Moving Mom: Worrying, You Suffer Twice  .
Does "Unfiltered" Mean True?
Photo with Mom: Safety Deposit for Emotions.

Marie Howe's Poems: You Must Remember "This"

"The Gate," read aloud on Krista Tippett's radio program On Being, was the gateway for me to Marie Howe's poetry.  Howe first explained that the poem was one of many in her collection What the Living Do about her much younger brother John, who died of AIDs in 1987. She began, "I had no idea that the gate I would step through / to finally enter this world / would be the space my brother's body made."  Around thirty seconds later, I felt I knew the young man, and the wisdom that his sister captured succinctly in a word: not "the" world, but "this" one, the only one we've got, the one we usually pass by with our minds on our objectives or screens.

This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This --           ("The Gate," WTLD 58)

Then she read something newly minted, "Magdalene - The Seven Devils," a naming of the seven devils that Jesus cast out of Mary Magdalene (Mk 16.9) as if it had happened today:  "The first was that I was very busy."  Other demons include,  "I was worried," and, "envy, disguised as compassion."  But, she goes on tangents and has to start over: "Ok the first was that I was so busy."  The more Howe's Mary Magdalene coiled back, the more tightly wound up in the poem I was, nodding and laughing at feelings I owned. I went online and bought three collections: What the Living Do, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time, and Magdalene.

Though Howe uses characters and terms from her Catholic upbringing, orthodoxy is not her concern. It's that attentiveness learned from the brother John, or from an unnamed Jesus figure in the Magdalene poems or poems about Mary in The Kingdom of Ordinary Time. The phrase "ordinary time," as she explained to Krista Tippett, is the church's name for the numbered or "ordinal" Sundays between Pentecost and Advent, the time in the church year devoted not to the miraculous incarnation of Jesus, but to what we, the living, do with it.  She develops the theme in Magdalene, as the title character learns how to look at someone else as a separate person (24; 26; 43).  By the end of that collection, she's learning the same lesson from appreciating her adopted daughter.

On another NPR show, Fresh Air, host Terry Gross had Howe read "What the Living Do." First, Howe explained that she gave up on a poem and just wrote a letter to late brother - and it's a poem. The poem affected me much more after I'd heard that explanation.  What the living do is the daily rituals of "ordinary" days, paying attention, being grateful:  "This is it. / Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold.  What you called that yearning" (WTLD, 89).

Howe discussed the idea of "ritual" with Krista Tippett.  "The Gate" mentions that her brother, dying on his bed, had already rinsed every glass. Howe agreed when Tippett said, "It strikes me that these rituals of ordinary time themselves are a little bit like poetry, these condensed, kind of economical little packets of beauty and grace that carry so much more forward than, than is obvious."  Howe told how she assigns her poetry students two - line observations without comment, without metaphor.  They complain how hard it is to do; but after weeks doing it, when she assigns metaphor, they want to stick with observation.

Howe tells of having difficulty writing certain poems until it struck her that they were praise poems. "Practicing" is a loving memory of her seventh grade girl friends practicing kisses (WTLD 23); "My Mother's Body" folds the body's healthy child-bearing past with its end, with thankfulness (Kingdom of Ordinary Time 45).  

Many of her poems portray boys or men in ways I've not seen in other works. What the Living Do sets the theme with "The Boy," about a brother's heroic stand against the father's bullying.  The males in "Sixth Grade" enact a proto-gang-rape.  As her brothers join neighborhood boys to build "The Fort" in a vacant lot, she watches at a distance,

                           ...a village of boys
who had a house to clean, women
in magazines, cigarettes and soda and
the strange self-contained voices they used
to speak to each other with...    (18)
fascinated by "what they had made without us."  Her father appears in all three books, swaying from drink, lumbering up the stairs to her attic bedroom, promising, "I'll break you" (Magdalene 30, 58); she writes gratefully of a brother who comforted her.  Later collections include poems of frank and funny carnal desire, including a synecdochic catalogue of men she has known by the peculiarities of their anatomy ("On Men, Their Bodies"Magdalene 22). There's the "he" identified with Jesus; and John, and John's beloved.  Whether enthralled or repelled, Howe gives this reader a sense I've not had before of how strange masculinity is to someone from the other side.

I expect to return to these collections again, for wisdom and a fondness for the people they describe, as I return to those by Richard Blanco, Linda Pastan, Todd Boss, and to Donald Hall's"The Night of the Day."  [See my page Poetry and Secular Psalms]

Interview with Krista Tippett On Being

Interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Biking July 4th: Does God Bless America?

The local bike shop displays a poster that reads, "GOD WILL BLESS AMERICA WHEN AMERICA RETURNS TO GOD." Pedaling through Atlanta on Independence Day, I wondered in what way this nation is unblessed?

I started the day's bike trip with a visit to Mom at assisted living.  Dad invested in markets and insurance, but she'd be pinched without federal safety net programs that are in place for all of us.

The two-wheeled part of my journey began, as usual, at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial site, where the man's silhouette is outlined with sky.  He was spokesman for a movement that helped the USA to grow into its own stated ideals.

Midway, I circled Stone Mountain, where the Ku Klux Klan resurfaced in 1954.   Carved to honor Confederate Army officers during the late 1960s,  Stone Mountain this Fourth was a place of celebration for families black, white, and Hispanic, running, walking dogs, sharing picnic areas.

In between, I passed lots - literal lots - where communities' regeneration shows.  For every closed store and crumbling house, there is construction of new town homes and businesses.

I passed through Clarkston, known for welcoming refugees.  Every time I ride, there's a polite encounter with people sharing the bike path who don't look, dress, or speak like me. On the 4th, I thought of the words I'd read from the prayer book before sunrise, taken from the book of Isaiah, addressed to Jerusalem, the original "City on a Hill":

Arise, shine, for your light has come
And the glory of the Lord will dawn upon you.
... Nations will stream to your light,
And kings to the light of your dawning.
Your gates will always be open.
Day or night, they will never be shut.

Maybe because I listen to NPR, which has no commercial interest in hyping anxieties, I know that no people on earth have less statistical likelihood of being attacked by invaders or terrorists, by corrupt government officials or criminal gangs.   We have jobs, abundant resources, more consumer goods than we need, and a safety net of food banks, shelters, and state-paid E.R. service.  Even the homeless guy I passed at the entrance ramp to I-75 checked his smart phone.

That morning, NPR did also air an interview with historian Jon Meacham, for his take on these days when pols and polls say we're more fractious than ever. Meacham agreed, but his concluding thought was a fair diagnosis of where we Americans are, now, and a hint at a prescription that kept me feeling positive through the day:

My favorite definition of a nation comes from St. Augustine who said, a
nation is a multitude of rational beings united by the common objects of
their love. So what we have to ask ourselves at every critical point is,
what do we love in common? Right now, we don't love enough in common.

And at our best, we, I think, loved the idea of liberty under law, of an
American dream in which that dream became a reality because there was an
equality of opportunity, a capacity to move forward and that we were
all, more or less, in a large, national undertaking together. (Jon Meacham, on Morning Edition, July 4, 2017)
The "idea of liberty under law" might not be exactly what the bike shop poster had in mind as "turning back to God."  I suspect the poster designer has something in common with the pastor in 2005 who said Hurricane Katrina was God's punishment of New Orleans for tolerating gays and abortions.  But "liberty under law," "for all," is the best idea any nation in the world has proposed for living together.

See my blogpost of related interest:  Teach US History with the Pledge of Allegiance.

Monday, July 03, 2017

Baby Driver: 0 to Wonder under 60 seconds

Under sixty seconds, we know just about everything we need to love Baby Driver

The first seconds of Baby Driver could be the climax of a traditional "caper" movie: Jittery characters in black grip their weapons, tumble out of a red sports car, and scurry across the street through the glass doors of a bank.

But the camera stays behind with the young driver, mute and expressionless between ear buds and dark glasses.  Alone now, he jacks up the music, lip-syncs, dances behind the wheel.  He's having a blast, and so are we, except when he glances through windows at terror in the bank. 

In moments the gang returns, the driver "Baby" hits the road, and we're off with a new song, all of Atlanta's police in hot pursuit. It's a dance for vehicles, even the gun shots synchronizing with the music.  

So we already know "Baby" (Ansel Elgort) sets himself apart from the bad guys; he's an artist behind the wheel, and we're on his side.  We also guess that the movie's style has as much to do with Singing in the Rain as with Ocean's Eleven; and our guess is confirmed after the heist, when "Baby" dances to a different song balancing a tray of coffees around lampposts, pedestrians, cars and workmen.  Even a street musician's saxophone plays in the same key as the song.

Director Edgar Wright and his young star have generated so much goodwill before the titles have finished rolling that we're hooked.  The goodwill extends to two people Baby cares for.  First, there's foster father "Joe" (CJ Jones), wheelchair-bound, who expresses concern for Baby via American Sign Language while Baby waltzes a sandwich to him.  Then there's the singing waitress "Deborah" (Lily James) who just wants to drive west on I-20 without a plan.  I'd have been satisfied if he'd picked her up and driven away right then.

Of course, complications ensue and ensnare: Baby is going to have to fight for his freedom.  The tone darkens considerably when we meet "Bats" (Jamie Foxx),  whose malevolence comes with sympathy - not ours for him, but his for himself, roiling with deep-seated grievances.  While the movie veers sharply towards The Terminator, the music keeps going, and the director plays with the chase theme as a composer varies a tune, e.g., changing instruments, or playing the tune backwards, etc. (I don't want to spoil surprises.)

[Photo:  Director Edgar Wright, left; Wright and Elgort]

Searching the internet for some back up information, I ran across one blogger's analysis of Edgar Wright's first draft of the movie.  Movie scripts are usually one minute per page, but the printed script for Baby Driver was much longer, not because of dialogue, but because of meticulous descriptions to fit action to the soundtrack of Baby's iPod selections.  Check it out:

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Moth Catcher

The grownup mystery novelists I liked best in sixth grade contrived murders with a nursery rhyme theme, or killings in locked rooms, the stagier, the better. Later I learned to appreciate nuanced characterizations and textured social commentary in the investigations of more mundane crime, but I missed the kind of macabre puzzle that used to give me a shiver of delight. Ann Cleeves hits both sweet spots with The Moth Catcher.

Detective Vera Stanhope is investigating the murder of a young man found outside the grand estate where he was house-sitting, when she finds in the victim's attic room another corpse, a middle-aged man in a grey suit.  What connects them?  Did the same killer do them both in?  In what order?  In order to do what?

Another turn of the screw: both victims shared a passion for moths.  The young man set traps to draw moths to the garden; what drew these men to their deaths?

Ripples from this set of bizarre circumstances widen to encompass social and personal implications for Vera and the young detectives on her team, Joe Ashworth and Holly Clarke.  In the valley surrounding the garden, three retired couples in newly-developed homes form an enclave of self-styled "hedonists," among whom Vera senses "desperation" to feel satisfied with the lives they've led (108). The circle widens to London where the man in the gray suit did IT for a social-work agency; to a prison, where the incarcerated daughter of one "hedonist" couple is preparing to return home; and farther out still to the home of the young victim's mother, a stately woman of substance and means.

As Cleeves put Joe Ashworth's own daughter in jeopardy to bring him out more in a previous novel, she stretches Holly in this one.   Holly suddenly thinks, "I don't have to live in a northern city with people who despise me, helping strange middle-aged men undress the dead.  I'm smart and young enough to make a change....  I don't want to end up old and single and married to the job, like Vera Stanhope." (87)   In this early mid-life crisis, Holly shocks herself by her own revulsion at an elderly woman with dementia. "A thought flashed unbidden through Holly's mind. Why do they allow old people like that out in the community? Wouldn't she be more comfortable in a home somewhere?  Knowing that it wasn't the woman's comfort that she was thinking of, but her own." (120)  

While the two young detectives confront some of their own demons, Vera Stanhope seems to be having a great time.  Vera pauses in a moment of panic to realize what she's feeling:
An excitement.  Because this was a new case that was different from anything she'd ever worked before.  Two bodies, connected, but not lying together.  And nothing made her feel as alive as murder. (22)

But for Vera, as for any good mystery novelist, murder is only a pretext for the joy of constructing a narrative from the characters and the given "facts" of the case.  Much later, Joe watches Vera with admiration, as she does what any good writer does:

This was a masterclass in witness interrogation.  The individuals who'd seemed little more than puppets previously - the dutiful wife, the jolly husband, the dying artist, the grumpy academic - seemed to become real in front of his eyes.  Her words blew life into them. (354)
Holly thinks her boss has no life, but that may change, as she experiences her own Vera moment:

Then, her fingers resting on the keyboard and without any conscious effort, suddenly she was inside Lizzie's head, seeing the world through her eyes.  She knew precisely what the young woman was planning.  This flash of intuition was dizzying and was so unexpected that Holly sat for a moment without moving. (362)
I have no doubt that author Anne Cleeves, at some point of writing this story, rested her fingers on a keyboard and found herself suddenly inside a character's head, "blowing life" into "the dutiful wife, the jolly husband," etc. It's that imaginative insight into character that makes Vera such a good detective for fiction, and her author such a good read. 

Cleeves, Anne. The Moth Catcher. Kindle edition.

More About Anne Cleeves in this Blog

Friday, June 09, 2017

Apocryphal "Wisdom of Solomon" Speaks to Us

The Book of Common Prayer this spring assigned several passages from "The Wisdom of Solomon" for daily readings.  The Episcopal church sees the Apocrypha as good for teaching, just not so authoritative as the other canonical books. I'd not read in the Apocryphal books before, except for "Let us now praise famous men" from Ecclesiasticus.  Parts of "Wisdom" speak to me.

Though the author writes in the guise as Solomon, scholars conclude from internal evidence that our author is a Hellenistic Jew late in the first century B.C.  

For chapter 2, the author takes on the role of sophisticates looking down their noses at "him" who takes his religion too seriously.  "He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord.... His ways are strange.  We are considered by him as something base...."  I've responded the same way to certain fundamentalists who attack the Episcopal church, and recognize the impulse to silence them: "Let us test him with insult and torture, that we may find out how gentle he is."  No doubt, our author anticipates the animus that took Jesus to Calvary.  "Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected." 

Chapter 3 is familiar from songs that our choir performs annually around All Souls' Day:
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
    and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
    and their departure was thought to be an affliction...
But they are at peace...

Chapter 5 compiles image after wonderful image for the transience of human life, as spoken by those of no faith in God:  "What good has our boasted wealth brought us? All those things have vanished like a shadow... a rumor that passes by... a ship that sails through the billowy water, and when it has passed no trace can be found...."   Our lives are like the bird in flight, "The light air, lashed by the beat of its pinions and pierced by the force of its rushing flight, is traversed by the movement of its wings, and afterward no sign of its coming is found there."  I love that image of all that energy expended, leaving no trace.  Again, our lives' achievements pass "as when an arrow is shot at a target, the air, thus divided, comes together at once."     [Photo: from]

Chapter 13 considers those unbelievers who arrive at a sense of the Divine through perception of beauty -- 1800 years before Wordsworth, 2000 years before I felt the same things:
If through delight in the beauty of these things men assumed them to be gods,
    let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them.
...Yet these men are little to be blamed, for perhaps they go astray
    while seeking God and desiring to find him.
For as they live among his works they keep searching,
    and they trust in what they see, because the things that are seen are beautiful.
Yet again, not even they are to be excused,
    for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world,
 How did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things? 

The preface to the book in the Oxford Study Bible notes both "high lyrical quality" in the author's poetry and "plodding" prose passages that repeat old wisdom that good people get blessed and bad ones suffer - discredited in Job, Ecclesiastes, and, face it, the news. But that poetry --! I'm no judge of the Greek, but I know dramatic poetry when I see it, and this author gets into his roles as an ancient Shakespeare.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

7 Wonders of Wonder Woman

The wonders of this Wonder Woman have nothing to do with feats of strength or beating off machine-gun fire with bracelets.  These days, animated snack foods do effects like that before the show even starts.

First wonder on my list is Gal Gadot as "Diana," a Woman full of Wonder.  Playing a warrior princess raised in a literal bubble on an island paradise, she has read everything about the world but experienced nothing of it. In Gadot's carriage, we see her character's self-confidence; in her face, intense engagement with a brave new world (a phrase Shakespeare wrote for "Miranda," similarly home-schooled on a magical island).  Her surprise can be funny and touching. "You're a man," she says, delighted to have fished one out of the sinking wreckage of his plane.  She wants to know, is Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) about the same as other men?  When he explains that a pocket watch tells him when to eat, sleep, and wake, she wonders that he'd let something so small rule his life.    Then, her shock is touching: pleas for help from maimed and hungry victims of war send her instantly into battle.

Wonder #2:  Steve Trevor, the gallant American man, admires Diana's power and determination, but still is protective of her.  At first, he's shielding her from physical harm; later, he's trying to protect her from the bitterness that disillusionment can bring.  The original character in the old comics was a square jawed, blonde, broad-shouldered plot device, routinely stumbling into traps that required Wonder Woman to save him.  Chris Pine gets to be a full-fledged action hero himself, gathering buddies for his mission to destroy a doomsday weapon (created by creepy Dr. Maru, played as a passionate introvert by Elena Anaya).

Wonder #3:  It's that rare thing, a World War I movie!  It's also a surprise, since the original comic book character appeared early in World War II.  But there's another reason to applaud this choice:  In any given set of previews before any movie these days, we're going to see at least one "end of the world as we know it"; the war that began in 1914 was the real thing.   Trevor refers to the Germans and Turks as "the bad guys," but gives a more expansive view to Diana later: the as-yet-nameless war isn't really about anything, tens of millions military and civilians are dying, leaders on both sides are paralyzed, battle lines have remained static for four years, and horrible death is delivered long-distance by shells and poison gas.  At a loss for words, Trevor says, "Maybe war isn't caused by [the god Ares].  It's just -- us."  Trevor calls it "the War to End All Wars" with appropriate irony. When we get to see German soldiers close up, without their helmets, they're not the "bad guys," just teen-age boys, fresh-faced and bewildered. 

Wonder #4: Diana, like American soldiers, believes that one decisive victory for justice can end all wars, and her disillusionment is a bitter blow, so the arc of her story is congruent with the real history.

Wonder #5:  Quiet!  A celebration by townspeople that ends with snow falling on Diana's dance with Steve made a beautiful respite from the tedious noise that afflicts so many "action" "hero" movies.  Then, when Trevor says his most important lines to Diana, she's momentarily unable to hear him.   We hear just the low ringing in her ears, but we get the message.

Wonder #6:  Huge credit to Allan Heinberg (screenplay), Patty Jenkins (direction), and their collaborators for rising above the original material.  I've seen the original material, and it makes one cringe.  In The Great Comic Book Heroes, cartoonist Jules Feiffer opined that Wonder Woman was transparently the calculated and misguided creation of men who wanted to attract girl readers.   I've heard historian Jill Lepore ascribe higher ideals to Wonder Woman's creator William Moulton Marston, a bigamist-feminist who adopted the trope of chain-breaking from Suffragette tracts of his childhood (hear the story on NPR's Fresh Air).  Well, maybe.  But Lepore also quotes a letter to DC Comics from a soldier requesting more chains, and, please, a more prominent view of the heroine's red boots.  From those early comics, the creators of the movie took the Greek myth of Amazons, Diana's immaculate conception as a clay model animated by Athena, the lost pilot Steve Trevor, and the ebullient "Etta Candy," transmuting these into something with dignity and verve.  And what they side-stepped -- that's epitomized in...

...Wonder #7:  Diana's fingernails.  I got this one from my friend Susan, who noticed that Diana, even in her guise as a 21st century professional woman of fashion, keeps close-cropped fingernails. The small detail fits the character.  Another friend on Facebook proclaimed how great it was to see a movie in which the lovely heroine is objectified as a glam-sex object not even once.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

"Be the Kingdom"

Jesus tells his contemporaries to stop looking for signs of God's Kingdom to come: "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you" (Luke 17.21).   Today's meditation on this gospel, printed in Forward Day by Day, suggests that we "meet a simple need for someone today," to "Be the kingdom."

I thought instantly of my buddies Kitty and her mate Terry. Before she retired to Florida to be a full-time grandmother, she was my colleague at school for some fifteen years; together, they hosted me for countless get-togethers at their home, meals out, and concerts.  But Kitty also set an example of meeting a simple need for someone every day.   When she knew that my play rehearsals were going late, she provided me with ready-made meals to take home with me.  She provided treats for my dogs.  Sometimes, she just gave me a note of support.   All around me, others received similar gifts.  "Make someone's day every day" is her motto.  Or, as FDxD suggests, "Be the kingdom."

Forward Day by Day lately has added a daily feature, "Moving Forward," suggesting action to go with each day's meditation. Some are actions for others, some for our own edification. Here are a few from the current and preceding issues that strike me as good ideas:

  • Inspired by Psalm 108, "Write your own poem today and share" via social media.
  • Inspired by three one-word prayers that comprise Anne Lamott's latest book Help! Thanks! Wow!, "keep a list of your 'Help! Thanks! Wow' moments to use during evening prayer time.
  • Inspired by Mary's seeking support from her cousin Elizabeth, we're advised to send a note or give a call to the Elizabeths in our lives. (Kitty, are you reading this?)
  • Inspired by Psalm 78, we're told simply to plan a dinner party for our favorite people.
  • Inspired by the lines about fig trees, we're told, "Take a walk around your home today.  What needs to be pruned, cleaned up, or tidied to ensure a fruitful season ahead?"
  • Offer concentrated time to someone you love, "no agenda or strings attached."
  • Inspired by Deut. 7.6 ("God has chosen be ...His treasured possession"), "set apart a treasure -- a material item, a story, or simply your time -- to share with someone you love today."
  • Answer Jesus's question to his followers: "What are you looking for?"
  • Inspired by what happened at Cana when they ran out of wine, think, "Do you feel like you are running out? Out of time? Money? Patience? faith? How does this passage speak to these moments of running out?"
  • Inspired by John's saying, "He must increase, but I must decrease," contemplate if it's time "to take up less space in someone's life."
  • Inspired by Abram's packing up and leaving home, we get the suggestion to "plan a trip today [to] visit a neighbor or old friend."
  • As the cripple took up his mat to walk, "Think of one thing you can do today to take up your mat and walk, to begin to become unstuck."
  • After Psalm 92.1, "Write at least five thank you notes today, or write a longer one to God.  Share" on social media.
  • After Psalm 23, recall when you walked in the shadow of the valley of death.
  • Responding to the institution of the Eucharist in John 6, we're told, "make a list of those who have fed and nourished you with their flesh and blood."

Friday, June 02, 2017

Does "Unfiltered" Mean "True?"

Mom went ballistic, ca. 1966, when my younger brother leaned out the window at a gas station to yell at an obese customer, "Hey, Fatso!"  Years later, she faulted me for "overdoing it" when I called my teacher's face  "nauseating,"  post- mustachectomy. Later still, when I was a young teacher, she stopped me from telling off a bull-headed parent:  "Life's too short. You're the professional, you're the grown up; keep all that to yourself."

So, when Mom now forgets to filter her comments, am I seeing the "real Mom?"  Sometimes, under attack, I've terminated a conversation; the morning after, even minutes after, it's been balm to my wounded feelings to hear her say, "I can't imagine why I'd say those things. I'm so sorry you had to hear them."

The truth is, disparaging comments come to all our minds every day, maybe every moment.  Even the best of us will let fly some of those thoughts among friends. Nothing new, here: the Biblical epistle of James calls the tongue "a restless evil, full of venom" (James 3.8).

We define our character in part by what we choose not to say.  That my dog Mia restrains her wild animal impulses when I say "Leave it!" is precisely what makes her a "good dog."

When Mom's filter drops because of dementia, and she speaks from the feeling that she has lost control of her own life, that's not the "real" Mom; that's Mom "forgetting herself."

I've got to be the grown up, still: time with her is too short to waste it in ephemeral battles.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Forward Abounding, Day by Day

[Photo by Michael Kendrick of a sculpture by Glenna Goodacre on the campus of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Montgomery, AL]

For a month I've been getting to know the author of meditations for May in Forward Day by Day, a periodical that presents short essays to go with the daily readings from Scripture assigned by the Book of Common Prayer.  Only this morning, as the series ends, have I read her profile, though I could pick up themes in her life between the lines of her meditations.

Of the Farm
She lives on a small farm where much of the work depends on her own back and brain.  Pruning branches so that trees can bear fruit (Luke 6.43-44) is more than a metaphor for her: "I ponder what vines, diseases, and behaviors I have neglected to root out, cut back, weed out," and she challenges us moving forward to take a walk around home today to look for spots that need literal tending.

"Hard can be good, and easy can be bad," she writes in response to Paul's wonderful observation that, in Jesus, "all things hold together" (Col. 1.17)  She applies this to opposites in her life: "I both adored and struggled with motherhood, loved and resented my husband.  I respected and questioned the leadership in my church.  I was a believer, and I also doubted."

She highlights another admonition from Paul: "Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters" (Col 3.23).  She adds that "life works so much better when I act from a place of love and gratefulness rather than competition and comparison."  Amen.  My own teaching chores become much easier to bear when I take the long view:  I'm lucky to spend my days sharing my favorite things - literature, the arts, history - with kids who make me laugh.

"Baffled" in her youth by Jesus's impatience with the would-be follower who first must bury his father (Luke 9.59-60), this author hears the same tone in her own terse responses when her son gives excuses for not doing his chores.  She challenges us, "Do one thing today that you've been putting off.  No excuses.  No more delays. No whining."

She  learns from watching children.  Paul's blessing that we may "abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 15.13) makes her think of a "happy, energetic, enthusiastic 12-year-old leaping from place to place, with a spirit of joyful expectation, a full-bodied question of, 'What wonderful adventure is next?'"  Of course, that makes me think of dogs, too; either way, the image itself lifts my spirits.

She discovered this gem from the apocrypha: "The stars shone in their watches, and were glad; he called them, and they said, 'Here we are!' They shone with gladness for him who made them" (Baruch 3.34).  She admits,
Sometimes I consider God merely tolerant of me -- like a grumpy, long-suffering adult who tolerates the presence of children in Sunday morning services, out of a sense of obligation rather than love and delight."  She asks, "What if I saw God as a delighted creator?... What if I shone with gladness for the One who made me, allowing myself to shine brilliantly, answering God's call with, "Here I am!"

Remembering her little sister in infancy, this author elevates from her family's lore two phrases that I'll remember.  "I hold my own hand!" the girl would say, pulling away from a grown-up's gentle grasp.  Other times, she'd cry, "Mybyself!"   The writer tells of these in response to Wisdom 6.17, "The beginning of wisdom is the most sincere desire for instruction."  She asks us, "Are you holding your own hand? How might you ask for help?"

Writing about Jesus as "anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain," (Heb 6.19), she gives a list of her worries:
I have a restless soul sometimes.  I feel restless about where my life is headed - the well-being of my children, the bottom line in my checking account, and my overall health.  Don't even ask about what sort of chicken coop we should build this summer, or whether to reach out to an old friend or let sleeping dogs lie.
I can identify with all that, if I substitute siding repair for the chicken coop.  She challenges us going forward to keep nearby a rock inscribed with one word for what "anchors" us.

On May 31st, "the Visitation," she points out how Mary, burdened by the loneliness of her experience, visited her cousin Elizabeth.   "So often...we isolate ourselves.  We fear that the worst is true - we are all alone and have been abandoned."  She challenges us to think bout the Elizabeths in our lives.

Thanks, Jerusalem Jackson Greer
The author is described as a "writer, speaker, and the parish life and family minister at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas."  Her web site is