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 on Scripture assigned by the Book of Common Prayer for May in Forward Day by Day.  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

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ascension Day: Up to Us

[Image:  From St. Andrew Anglican Church in Toronto, ON]

The celebration of Jesus's vacating our planet happens to fall at the start of this middle school teacher's summer vacation, so I felt a strong need to join the few parishioners who took time last Thursday evening for an extraordinary church service.

Our rector Fr. Roger Allen began his sermon with the line from Acts, spoken by the strangers in white who ask the gaping apostles, "Why do you look up?"  Fr. Roger hardly had to add anything, because the angels' rhetorical question inspires us: Don't look up to Jesus; look around to our church community - for Jesus left us to fill the vacuum.  Sure, we remember at Pentecost that the Holy Spirit animates, comforts, and counsels us; but there is no other body of Christ on earth besides us.

On Sunday, Fr. Roger did add something when he observed that many Christians "stop" before Ascension in their experience of the Church's calendar, and of church itself.  For some, it's all Christmas, or all Easter - Jesus came, died for our sins, and his work is all over and done with.  Ascension reminds us not to look up to Jesus to heal, to feed, to stand for justice: It's up to us.          

(See "Jesus Ascended:  Then What?" my reflection on the Ascension Day service of a couple years ago, with the image of a stained glass window that depicts only the feet of Jesus above the apostles.)

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Very Model of the Modern Preppy Principal

My friend Kevin Tilley is returning to the science classroom after some years as assistant principal and principal of our middle school.  During the last half-hour of his tenure, his final "assembly" for the students, I sat at the piano to perform the following song.  Because he brought his family to the American South from England, I parodied "The Very Model of the Modern Major General," music by Sir Arthur Sullivan and lyrics by W. S. Gilbert. Lyrics were projected on the screen behind me so that the whole school could join in. 

He is the very model of
a modern preppy principal.
His posture is impeccable;
his placidness, invincible.
He’s good with leadership
by being firm but not tyrannical.
And he can drive a bus
or manage anything mechanical.
He knows the Constitution
and the bulk of U. S. history,
Although the War of Eighteen-twelve
to him remains a mystery.
At soccer games he calms the crowd
when refs have got them all annoyed…
And he can tell apart a solar panel
from a solenoid.
(repeat three times)
He set apart a week for field trips
that were sensational,
And introduced a lot of us
to odors sanitational.
His posture is impeccable;
his placidness, invincible.
He is the very model of
the modern preppy principal!

verse 2
When rafting in white water
he knows where to put his paddle in.
He knows that Beyoncé is not
a pastry from La Madeleine.
He’s good at cricket, rugby too,
tho’ padding he’s not one to wear.
He knows a boot is not a trunk,
he knows that pants aren’t underwear
He knows relationships with kids
are better than obedience.
He cooks a lot and knows to not
mix Marmite with ingredients.
He’s good at CPR; he can
resuscitate a mannequin …
And he can use a cell phone
just as well as any granny can.
(repeat three times)
    He knows the scientific names for
creatures large and minuscule.
He kept us moving forward in
his management of Middle School.
His posture is impeccable;
his placidness, invincible.
He is the very model of
the modern preppy principal!

verse 3
He handles middle schoolers,
both the sensitive and devious.
He knows geography;
he can find Acworth without GPS;
He supervised the planting of
our butterfly arboreum –
He likes to say he’s off to visit
in the “wiz-a-torium.”
He loves the winter cold;
the thermostat he won’t adjust a bit.
His tea cup is disgusting
with the tannic acid crusting it.
He likes to take refreshment from
a rather large Ball Mason jar…
He upgrades old Toyotas
to perform like any racin’ car
(repeat three times)
Although his work as principal
is very nearly done, we know
That Kevin Tilley works two times as hard
as anyone we know.
His posture is impeccable;
his placidness, invincible.
He is the very model of
the modern preppy principal!  (repeat)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Judgment Day Won't Be About Wedding Cakes

I take this from a posting directed at Franklin Graham, here.  I don't know if "Peter" is really a small-church pastor or not; the message here is clear:

Here’s the thing, Frank. At the last judgment, Jesus doesn’t ask anyone about who they voted for, how many times they have been divorced, what their sexual history or orientation is or for whom they did or did not bake wedding cakes. His sole concern is for how we treated the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, those deemed “least” among us. No, I didn’t get that from any private chat with God. We small church pastors have to rely on the Bible for our intel. I got this stuff from the Gospel of Matthew, 25th Chapter

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Pacific Overtures:
Sondheim's Joy

"Mr. Sondheim, when you wrote a musical about the industrialization of Japan, how did you expect your audience to react?" 

With book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Harold Prince, Pacific Overtures opened in January 1976 and closed after just 193 performances.  Less than a year later, probably still smarting from the show's commercial failure, Mr. Sondheim heard this presumptuous question from a seventeen-year-old boy who worshiped him, me.

He sat on the apron of the stage at the Music Box Theatre to speak to me and my friends, ages 15-18, following a performance of Side by Side by Sondheim.
[Photo collage: Sondheim at left, my teacher Frank Boggs, and the Westminster Ensemble. I'm second from right.]

"I'd like to think they would feel a kind of joy," Sondheim said.  His answer surprised me, and changed the way I looked at drama and all literature.

Decades later, in his memoir Finishing the Hat, Sondheim preached three principles he tries to follow:  "Less is more... Content dictates form ... God is in the details."  But that night in 1977, Sondheim taught me a fourth principle, "The joy is in the storytelling." 

Overview of Overtures
Pacific Overtures takes its title from an American euphemism for our navy's forced entry into Japanese ports in 1853. Act One concerns the crisis at all levels of Japanese society when Commodore Matthew Perry's four warships appeared off the coast; Act Two accelerates through decades of cultural upheaval to the Present, when a chorus  celebrates Japan's commercial incursions into the West, proclaiming, "there are eight Toyota dealerships in the city of Detroit, and one-third of the bicentennial souvenirs sold in Washington, D.C. were made in Japan!"

Weidman and Sondheim tell this international story through a personal tale of friendship.  We first meet a humble samurai named Kayama at home with his wife Tamate. When the crisis hits, his fearful superiors tap him for the impossible job of telling four warships to just go away.  He takes with him a translator, Manjiro Nakahama.  Also known as John Manjiro, he's an historical figure, son of a Japanese fisherman, lost in a storm, rescued and raised by Americans, arrested as a spy when he returned to the island  (See "From Castaway to Samurai").   In Act One, Kayama and Manjiro become allies and friends; in Act Two, their paths diverge.

Director Harold Prince had planned to direct Weidman's script as a straight play, until the notion struck him to turn the story inside out.  Prince reimagined the story told by a Japanese master of traditional kabuki theatre with an interest in Broadway musicals. Weidman revised his work, and Prince engaged Sondheim, set designer Boris Aronson, and choreographer Patricia Birch.  Together they created Broadway's one and only kabuki musical. [Photo: Boris Aronson's set for the meeting of Kayama and Manjiro with the American warship.]

Too young to afford a trip to see the show myself, I got as close as I could. I walked a mile from school to the local library to read the opening night review in the New York Times by Clive Barnes, who opined that the show was "very serious ... almost inordinately ambitious." Barnes focused on inconsistencies of perspective, as if he were critiquing an essay.
I collected every review I could (see below).  I haunted Jim Salle's Record Shop in Buckhead for the cast album until Mr. Salle sighed, "I only got one copy, but I saved it for you, because you've called so damn many times!"  I bought the full piano-vocal score to get the feel of the music into my fingers.

For all that I enjoyed of the recording and the photos, I accepted the line of the reviewers.  They agreed: opening early in our bicentennial year, in the shameful aftermath of our ruinous involvement in Vietnam, Pacific Overtures resonated with its time. The show was political, meaningful, serious. That, I thought, was what made it great.

A Kind of Joy
But the joys of Pacific Overtures are in the telling. 

Reflecting on Pacific Overtures in his memoir, Sondheim describes a three-fold Japanese screen that deepened his appreciation for how "less is more."  The screen's right-most panel bore the image of a tree, one branch "snaking its way shyly" into the middle panel, leaving a third panel blank.  Looking from the left to the right "was like a sudden explosion," Sondheim writes; "it seemed to grow as I looked at it" (Finishing the Hat, 394).

That's the effect of Sondheim's opening number for Pacific Overtures.  We hear a few notes plucked on the koto, a couple phrases of a plaintive tune by a solo voice that trails off to silence. The beating of a deep-voiced drum shocks us, then subsides. Pause. While the "Reciter" declaims, "Nippon!"  and extols the "island empire," a single flute sings and chirps. Then comes "the explosion," still my favorite moment in any Sondheim score: As the Reciter tells us, "Here in July, eighteen - hundred - and - fifty - three, there is  nothing to threaten the serene and timeless cycle of our days," the full orchestra chugs in with double-basses, timpani, and brass, hitting a single block chord like a machine, propelling us into Sondheim's panoramic view of Japan at that time, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea."  At the end of the show, Sondheim has a chorus of modern Japanese proclaim the advantages of relentless progress: "Next!"

Three Personal Songs
Sondheim shifts focus from the panoramic to the personal in exquisite, affecting songs for Kayama, Tamate, and Manjiro.  Of eleven songs in the score, these are second, fifth, and ninth, tracing the arc of a personal story within the larger political one.

"There is No Other Way" draws us into Tamate's despair.  While Kayama girds himself for his doomed mission, we get Tamate's feelings in three panels, as it were:  Tatame does a "mournful dance," an observer sings about her, and another observer sings her thoughts.  As her disquiet grows, her thoughts turn to images of an approaching storm and birds in flight, while her outward self sings reassuringly, "I will have supper waiting."  The texture of the music at first is just voices and percussion, then flute and harp; as tension rises, the voices overlap more and more; strings add an ominous chord progression over all.

For "Poems," Kayama and Manjiro, jubilant with the success of their mission, take turns improvising haiku-like verse from sensations along their way back to Kayama's home -- "rain on the silver birch," haze, moon, wind, and birdsong. For Kayama, every image reflects his love for Tamate; Manjiro's poems praise the restless energy of America.   After each verse, one friend prompts the other, "Your turn."  That sets up my favorite moment when Manjiro's impressive effort leaves Kayama speechless: 
   Dawn brightening
   As she opens up her eyes
   But it's I who come awake.

   Your turn.

    You go.

     Your turn.
In this joyful competition, the two men bond.  The musical accompaniment, mostly a plucked ostinato to this point in the song, swells as the men's exultant voices join in harmony.  Sondheim, ever mindful of how his songs can be staged, handed Aronson and lighting director Tharon Musser ample opportunities creating the landscape in sunrise.  This emotional high point sets up Kayama's discovery that Tamate, expecting the worst, has committed ritual suicide.

In the book Sondheim and Company, author Craig Zadan quotes heavy-hitting Sondheim experts about the last of these personal songs:
Interspersed with a series of letters, the song ["A Bowler Hat"] moves almost cinematically through ten years, illustrating [Kayama's] growing affluence and Westernization. ("In a few minutes, and with the use of only a few details," Frank Rich later wrote of the song in the New York Times, "Mr. Sondheim transforms a character's trivial autobiographical chronicle into a paradigm of an entire civilization's declining values.")  "It's my favorite number," Prince reveals.  "It's just everything I would love to have happen in a musical and occasionally does: that kind of moment where in one number you can accomplish something on so many levels theatrically and emotionally.  I asked for that and Steve delivered it and it was perfect" (Zadan 217).
Sondheim's music reinforces the dramatic action -- with effects reinforced by orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. A tick-tock bass and vamp emphasize the passing of time, strings play rich Western harmony akin to Ravel's valses nobles at their most wistful, and flute with koto remind us of Kayama's origins.  

In the Details
When Pacific Overtures was new, my teen-aged preference was for the comedy numbers with wall-to-wall rhymes.  A favorite example in "Chrysanthemum Tea" was the hope of the Shogun's mother that "the tea the Shogun drank will / serve to keep the Shogun tranquil."  In "Please Hello,"  I especially enjoyed seeing how Sondheim kept feeding heavily rhymed and very funny content to five Western admirals, despite the fact that these were only caricatures of their nations singing pastiches of their national musics (Sousa march, Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, Offenbach can-can...), and despite the unlikelihood that listeners would pick out the words from the dense counterpoint. The words gave each actor detail to keep his character busy. 

Other songs for Pacific Overtures illustrate historical themes through little self-contained stories.  In "Welcome to Kanagawa," a world-weary madam makes the best of circumstances when white men descend on her turf:  "With my flowers disappearing in alarm / I've been reduced to commandeering from the farm. / But with appropriate veneering, / Even green wood has its charm."  In "Four Black Dragons," a fisherman and a thief remember the terror of first seeing those alien warships.   With "Someone in a Tree," we get three personal views of international history in the making, from a guard secreted under the treaty house, from the boy who watched in a nearby tree, and from the old man who remembers being that boy. I've written elsewhere of this song:
We hear a single vamp repeated with little variation ....  Sondheim adds elements to fill in gaps of the vamp as it repeats, while each singer adds a different perspective on a slice of Japanese history.  The description may sound dry; the song feels joyful.  This, Sondheim tells us, was composed under the influence of his first exposure to Steve Reich's music.  (See Stephen and Steve: Sondheim Appreciates Reich.)
Even in his condescending review, Clive Barnes found aspects of this song "charming" and "amusing," writing how the music "sweetly embraces the ardor of youth and the surrender of age."

The penultimate song of the score is a special joy.  A reviewer at the time, writing in High Fidelity, called "Pretty Lady" a "flagrant" example of "incongruous" accompaniment for a violent action.  For me, the song illustrates all of Sondheim's principles in one.

First, content dictates form:  For a trio of British sailors who encounter a "Pretty Lady" in a garden, Sondheim composed a gentle barcarole, or "sea song."  Strings sigh down the scale while the sailors sing a lilting melody.

Then, there are the details by which Sondheim sketches the lives of these three unnamed sailors: one sings, "Pretty lady, could I hear you laugh?  / I ain't heard a lady laugh for I don't know how long," and another sings, "Pretty lady, I'm a million miles from Stepney Green...."  The lines interlace, and culminate in a lovely chord for the phrase, "Pretty please."

Then, "less is more," and what's fantastic about the song is what's missing: the young woman, who makes no sound.  She is not a "geisha girl," as the sailors suppose, and each sailor's gentle insistence becomes overwhelming in triplicate: "Pretty lady, 'ow about it? / Doncher know how long I've been without it?" Her samurai father discovers the sailors, and his violent reaction precipitates regime change and the show's headlong rush into the finale.

What's more (what's less?), this musical scene of sailors' importuning the "Pretty Lady," a heartbreaking drama, also serves as metaphor. With its counterpart "Welcome to Kanagawa," the two  songs use sexual exploitation to encompass Japan's experience of the Western empires' forced entry to Japan -- what was learned, and lost, by our "pacific overtures."

There's joy in perceiving all that Weidman, Sondheim, Prince, et. al., put into their work.  Looking back among even the most negative reviews in my scrapbook, I find the words "joy" and "delight."  Sondheim got it right.


[Photo:  Scraps I saved from 1975-6, the run of Pacific Overtures.  Top center, there's a playbill from the show's Boston tryout in November 1975, brought to me by my mentor Frank Boggs, who sat in on the cast's attempt to learn the new song "Next."  The ad from the Times makes strategic use of Clive Barnes' review; the top price for the show, incredible as this may seem today, was $13.50.]

Sondheim, Stephen. Finishing the Hat.  New York: Knopf, 2010.

Zadan, Craig. Sondheim and Company, 2nd Edition.  New York: Harper and Row, 1986.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

Scripture Flipped:
Forward Day by Day, March 2017

Daily readings for March 2017 in Forward Day by Day were notable for how the author flipped  scripture to find new angles on familiar passages.  The author is Mike Marsh, rector of Saint Philip's Episcopal Church in Uvalde, Texas.  Here's a digest of the most striking examples, which I mean to preserve for examples of good faith and good writing.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Mt. 6.21).  In the a season of giving up things we treasure, Marsh flips that idea: "Let us approach Lent as treasure hunters, discovering what we truly value, where we actually spend our time and energy, and what occupies our thoughts and worries.  Let us name our treasures, and find our hearts."

The Lord has chosen you... to be his people, his treasured possession (Dt. 7.6). Marsh flips the previous day's message to look at God's treasure: us. "If God's heart is set on you, I too must give you my heart.  If God has chosen you, how could I ever justify or defend rejecting you?"

When Jesus turned and saw them following he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi..., where are you staying?" (Jn 1.38)  Marsh writes, "I have probably answered this question from Jesus a thousand different ways.... I know that if I don't let the question live within me, I tend to become stuck, settled in place and asleep to the beauty and mystery of life." He adds that his answers in youth were "more concrete and definable," but now, the question keeps him, and us, "awake and open."

The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."  (Mt 4.3) Marsh suggests that temptation serves a good purpose.  Whatever tempts us also tells us about "what's going on inside of us."  He asks, "What if temptation can be our teacher or a diagnosis?"

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. (Ps 23.1)  "Wants often have the power to narrow our vision and limit our freedom."  It's not that God gives us what we want, but that what we want keeps us from seeing what God gives us!

Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house? (Luke 2.49). It seems to be a story of precocious tween-age Jesus, but Marsh observes, "Ultimately, growing up is about running away to our Father's house."  Marsh challenges his reader: "Are you different today than you were a year ago, three years, ago, thirty years ago? No doubt you've aged, but have you grown?"

Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"  (Lk 1.34) Marsh takes off from a non-Biblical tradition that Mary was among the maids who sewed the veil that separated the people from the Holy of Holies in the temple.  "Often, our veils are the lives we have created for ourselves -- what we see is what we get." But, "Nothing is impossible with God."

The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6.52) Marsh says there's a short answer - love. The longer answers have divided churches.  "When I think of the short answer, however, I begin to list people who have fed and nourished my life with their flesh and blood -- through real, incarnate lives of presence, generosity, forgiveness, strength, courage, guidance, and love. Sometimes these people challenged me.. and at other times they encouraged me by showing me more than what I could see for myself."  These people "have enlarged my life."  Forward recommends that we make a list of those who have fed and nourished us with their flesh and blood.  In the margins of this, Marsh's last meditation, I wrote, "This is the best!"

Iris: Piece of Mind

Shortly after reading Iris Murdoch's novel Jackson's Dilemma, I heard her husband John Bayley interviewed on NPR about his memoir.  Iris welcomed the reporter to their home with courteous detachment.  As we heard her shuffle off, Bayley told the reporter that he would continue to love the woman he lived with, and professed not to worry about the brilliant woman he'd married: "Wherever she's going, she has already arrived" is what I remember him saying.  I'd experienced my grandmother's dementia; her daughter's symptoms wouldn't show for another twelve years; but I was struck by Bayley's conception of dementia as a "place."

Making the movie Iris of his memoir just a year later, writer-director Richard Eyre made use of that idea to meld the love story of young Iris with the love of Bayley for Iris at her end.

Eyre's dilemma was that both stories he wanted to tell had foregone conclusions.  The moment that modest young Bayley (Hugh Bonneville) stops at a party to stare in awe at charismatic young Iris (Kate Winslett) , we know that somehow they're going to marry.  The moment regal elderly Iris (Judi Dench) fails to recall the Prime Minister's name, her young doctor tells us that dementia is going to win.

The key to bringing both stories to a satisfying close lay in the image from a brain scan. Elderly Bayley (Jim Broadbent) asks about a dark area that the doctor can't explain.  Bayley clings to the idea that there's a room in Iris's brain where her mind could still be alive, though "different."  To illustrate, Eyre takes us to the rocky shore where he pictures Iris sitting among hefty smooth stones, looking out at the waves, clutching a notebook.  Her friends hope she'll write, and, in a way, she does:  she rips out page after page, placing a stone on each one.  In flashbacks, we've heard the erudite Murdoch speaking of freedom and love for living beings, nature, even stones.  So this is a demonstration of another kind of expression.

In the parallel story, young Bayley, tortured by jealousy, needs to learn from Iris whether he has a place among the many "worlds" she inhabits and creates in her promiscuous, prolific life.

Thirty years before the events at the end of the movie, Murdoch wrote Bruno's Dream, concerning this very idea, that the world is in the invalid's mind even while he is in the world.  Read more in my appreciation of Iris Murdoch's novels, The Mind Plays Tricks.

[Portrait, 1986, by Tom Phillips.    The portrait is of real-life Iris with images from her fiction.]

Friday, April 07, 2017

Chris Thile: A Daring Home Companion

When mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile made his first appearances on public radio's long-running variety show Prairie Home Companion, he was still a teenager, the extroverted lead vocalist of the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek with Sara Watkins on fiddle and her brother Sean on guitar.  Thile told host Garrison Keillor how they would dare each other to make songs from random road signs.  For that, more than for any interest in bluegrass or Thile's virtuosity on mandolin, I started my collection of Chris Thile recordings.   

[PHOTO: Chris Thile at Zankel Hall, by Tina Fineberg for the New York Times. ]

Nearly twenty years later, when my collection has expanded beyond Nickel Creek to include solo albums, duets with classical and jazz artists, and genre-bending material with his band Punch Brothers, Chris Thile is still daring himself to try new things.

Taking on the role of host for Prairie Home Companion has been his biggest leap of faith. As I saw at Atlanta's Fox Theatre during Garrison Keillor's last weeks with the show, the audience was faithful in more ways than one (see my review).  For us, the show was as much ritual as entertainment, with familiar features and jokes that never failed (e.g. "Powder Milk Biscuits are pure-- mostly").  Keillor's blend of folksiness, Protestant in-jokes, and urbane irony was unique.  Besides, the appreciative audience had been tuning in to Keillor's live broadcasts since Thile was a toddler; teens among us didn't get it.  Could Thile bring in a younger listeners without alienating his base of boomers?

I'd say Thile was a brilliant choice.

First, he's a versatile musician. Chris Thile says that he homed in on the mandolin at age nine when his family went to a live music pizza parlor, because the mandolinist was the showiest guy on the stand.  By age twelve, the chubby little blonde mandolin virtuoso from California had a commercial recording (still available on CD).  Now he strikes boisterous dissonant chords, picks rapid-fire licks, plucks sweet melodies that fall like rain, and sometimes ruminates with sparse, dry staccato notes. Even when the mood is dark, there's a brightness and hope in the sound.  His wide-ranging voice matches the moods, whether crooning, hooting, moaning, or spitting out lyrics.

On the shows I've heard, Thile's effusive, good with upbeat patter, and natural-sounding in scripted sketches.  His musical guests trend younger and edgier, but Paul Simon and poet Billy Collins have also performed. Young comics get the slot that was always reserved for Keillor's tales from Lake Woebegone, and they work just fine.

But the most fun is listening to Thile taking musical chances.  He challenges himself to compose words and music for a Song of the Week that fits the time.  The ones I've heard have been, as Ellington loved to say, "beyond category."  For the show November 12, Thile walked as fine a line as Keillor ever did, addressing a song to his wife and little son that resonated with an audience worked up over the recent election:
But I don't wanna fight fire with fire
And I don't wanna preach to the choir

So whether you're laughing or crying
If you're doing your best to be kind
This land is as much yours as mine
As God is my witness

I made this for you
                       - "I Made This For You" by Chris Thile
He plays mandolin as easily as he speaks, quoting melodies of any composer he mentions, from Strauss (Johann and Ricard) to Dylan to Barber's Violin Concerto.  He and his band perform an audience request, unrehearsed, with the rules that no one on stage can have written or performed the song before.  So far as I've heard, taking a wide variety of requests, he and his cohort haven't crashed and burned yet. An improvised arrangement of "Blackbird" was memorable.

The biggest risk to the show's fans is that such a restless, creative guy won't be tied down to this regular gig for long.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Paterson, Movie and Poem

Director Jim Jarmusch, writing the screenplay for his film Paterson, surely was inspired by these lines from William Carlos Williams's book-length poem of the same name, the doctor-poet's effort to "reflect" his own mind through aspects of his hometown of Paterson, NJ.  Williams writes:
"Rigor of beauty is the quest.  But how will you find beauty when it is locked in the mind past all remonstrance?"

To make a start,
out of particulars
and make them general, rolling 
up the sum, by defective means --
Sniffing the trees, 
just another dog...    (Preface, Book I)
The story is the daily routine of a bus driver also named Paterson (Adam Driver) "rolling" through the streets,  gathering "particulars" of his town and home life, "[making] them general" in lines of poetry.   Every night, he walks to a bar with a sniffing, snorting English bulldog adored by his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani).

Where Williams begins his poem picturing the town Paterson as if it were a man lying asleep on his side, Jarmusch begins each of seven days with a shot of Paterson in bed on his side, just as his internal clock awakes him. 

Williams writes the gist of the movie early in Book I:
Say it! No ideas but in things.  Mr.
Paterson has gone away
to rest and write.  Inside the bus one sees
his thoughts sitting and standing. His
thoughts alight and scatter--  (Book I, p. 6)
The first "things" that Paterson transmutes into poetry are matches fingered idly while he crunches his cereal.  In voice-over, he drafts a poem, words also appearing on the screen.  The poem isn't much, at first, just a prosaic statement about "our" preferred brand of matches; but, as he walks to the bus station, makes his rounds, and takes a break for lunch, he revises the poem, until we can relate the matches, packed tightly in their little box, heads ready to burst into flame, with the poet himself, staid and gentle in his boxy little home, head preoccupied with love for his wife Laura.

Driving the bus, Paterson tunes in to conversations behind him.  Reflections in the bus window superimpose the sunny streets on the driver's face, his eyes focused ahead, with glances at passengers whose words enter his thoughts.  It's reminiscent of Williams's next stanza:
Who are these people (how complex
the mathematic) among whom I see myself
in the regularly ordered plateglass of
his thoughts, glimmering before shoes and bicycles?
Williams is writing here of shop windows, but I doubt it's coincidence that Jarmusch always gives us the shoes of these incidental characters, whether they're pre-teen boys, working men, or a couple of self-styled anarchists. The shoes, scuffed, or flirtatiously close, tell tales.  None of these people is as tough, virile, or smart as they encourage each other to think they are, and Adam Driver's Paterson smiles a lot.  So do we: Driver is the straight man, and everyone else is a character, making just about every scene funny.

Jarmusch and Driver present the poet as considerate, not just in the sense of attentive and kind: Before Paterson responds to dialogue, Driver shows a moment of uncertainty when his character seems to be considering what the other needs to hear from him.  "I dreamed that we had twins," Laura whispers upon waking. "Would you like that?"  After a moment, he says, yes, "one for you and one for me."  It's just the right thing.

Our bus driver meets three poets during the course of the movie, all of them referring to Williams.  A rapper who works on his lines in a laundromat to the beat of the washer also says, "No idea but in things."  A girl with a "secret notebook" like the bus driver's own shares with him her poem "Water Falls," (a poem by the director that begins "Water falls through the air / like hair of a young girl..."), recalling the waterfalls of the town described so vividly in Williams's poem.  A devotee of William Carlos Williams leaves Paterson with a gift that serves as a kind of benediction for the work of a poet.

Naturally, Paterson recites for his wife William Carlos Williams's greatest hit, "This is just to say," touching and funny.

Poet Ron Padgett, personal friend to Jarmusch, composed four original poems for the movie.  He told the Poetry Foundation that he found his images from reading the script.  His work for this movie had to be substantial but also accessible at first hearing.  Between Jarmusch's visuals and Driver's interpretation, he scores.

Finding patterns is a part of the pleasure in poetry, music, and jokes.  In narrative art, we have the pleasure of getting to know people, too.  In this film, patterns abound: the daily routine, a proliferation of twins, Laura's mania for black-and-white, and big laughs set up through repetition.

That's the "mathematic": persons + patterns = Paterson.

Padgett, Ron. How to Be Perfect. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2007.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. Ed. Christopher MacGowan. New York: New Directions Paperback, 1995.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Mountaintop Experience:
Mentor Formation Retreat

Susan and I returned yesterday from three days at the University of the South, Sewanee, near Chattanooga, TN, headquarters for Education for Ministry (EfM). We joined Bob from Florida, Steve from Asheville (moving soon to KY), and Ethel Ware from All Saints in Atlanta.  Our mentor Sissie Wile modeled ways to formulate an understanding of spirituality through experiences that engaged our imaginations with all four of EfM's sources: action, position, culture, and tradition.

[PHOTOS:  Top - Sissie's home, where we visited with her dog and cat on Saturday, before dinner.

Middle - A branch finding a way through a manufactured space was, for me, an image of Incarnation - the Creator's sharing in our struggles and pain.

 Below - A "mandala" collage of images that help me to define holy]

Our sessions together began and ended with worship from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.  Hearing familiar texts phrased differently, we're aware of new angles to old sayings.  For instance, "The Lord be with you / And also with you" is re-stated as an affirmation for all:" The divine Spirit dwells in us. / Thanks be to God."

Before we'd even decided what we meant by spirituality or by related terms mystery, holiness, and the divine, Sissie had each of us choose a photograph from an array published by the Kaleidoscope Institute. I chose a view of an apartment building, ten rows and twelve columns of balconies defined by concrete slabs, iron rails, and glass doors. For me, there's a mystery in that each resident is an individual universe of experiences, pursuits, and hopes; yet even near neighbors may be unaware of each other. So much life is visible at a glance; how can anyone conceive of the fact that all the individuals on our planet are equally self-contained universes?

We also each selected one psalm among those identified by author Walter Brueggemann as psalms for seasons of orientation (8, 14,33, 37, 145, 131, 133), of disorientation (13, 25, 50, 74, 79, 81, 86, 137), or new orientation (30,34, 50, 74, 79, 81 86, 137), all connecting to EfM's  theme this year of new orientations in our "journeys in faith." 

I chose Psalm 124 ("If it had not been the Lord who was on our side...), feeling that my life has reoriented towards care for Mom, following my fifty-seven years of responsibility mostly to myself, my job, my own projects.  The Psalmist seems to be clutching to the knowledge that, "We held on through tough times before; God will be with us at the end of this time, too." 

Again, after sharing, we reflected on aspects of spirituality revealed by this effort.  What we saw was deep connections across time and culture between us and the psalmist; the experience of relating concrete reality to metaphors; the awareness that interior conclusions may not easily be identified as true or false. We agreed that psalms have different meanings for us at different times in our lives.

The most intense thirty minutes of the weekend, for me, were spent searching through magazines for images that spoke to my sense of what's holy, then fitting them into a circle -- to form a personal "mandala," an image of the universe, or the universal.  During that time, we all milled around the room, and I, for one, was nearly oblivious to others while I cut, rearranged, and pasted.  My own images include preparation of food - a holy activity when done lovingly to bring people together; a lovely tree at the edge of a lake, reminding me of days spent in such places reading, or, even more, riding my bike, occupied solely with the cycling and breathing, enjoying God's gifts; a bed, which I've come to see as a raft for a nightly journey through dreams, in which we find rest and meaning-making; the dog - for many of us, a veritable angel in life, example to us of unconditional love and life in the moment (see my article Dogs are Poetry); and the crossword puzzle, signifying for me horizontal existence in time intersecting with the vertical existence of mind, memory, and imagination (see my article Theology of Crosswords).

We also had assignments to design experiences in spirituality for each other.  Bob and Steve presented a combination of lectio divina with the movements of EfM's process of "theological reflection."  Ethel Ware sent us away to sketch or describe something that illustrates what we mean by "the divine." (I brought back a sketch of an open hand, palm up: able to reach out, able to hold, to let go, and vulnerable to rejection).  Susan and I sent everyone out at dusk to bring back images (perhaps on phone cameras) of intersections between what we call "nature" and the human-manufactured world.  In these, we looked for the Trinity:  images of the Creator's joy in creation; of the Incarnate Lord's sharing the pain of creation; and, of the Spirit that flows through all life like the wind.  We were inspired by the analogy in our RRG of a night hike by flashlight:  what we see by "light" of our manufactured world is limited, and we'll appreciate much more of the night life in a forest, once our senses become fully engaged for a walk in the dark.

For a short time before dinner, we accepted Sissie's invitation to her lovely home overlooking a bluff, with a view west across the valley.  Such a short time was still a powerful highlight, reminding us all of another holy quality of hospitality, by which patriarchs welcomed angels. 

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Agatha Christie's "Five Little Pigs":
Worst Title for Best Novel

[Photo collage of images from the BBC series Poirot, Y2K, Five Little Pigs. Screenplay Kevin Elyot; Director, Paul Unwin.]
"Texture" is the quality that I missed when I picked up some Agatha Christie after a couple years' work with Henry James.  It was like drinking Kool-Aid after Cognac.

But in Five Little Pigs, Christie layers her crime story.  The story concerns a grown daughter hiring Poirot to clear the reputation of her mother Caroline, executed seventeen years earlier for the murder of her artist husband Amyas.  Caroline supposedly poisoned Amyas in the act of painting a portrait of his young mistress, and offered little defense of herself at the trial.  Time itself adds layers to the story. Then the five suspects'  "written" accounts expand and color our view of the fatal event; observations on art and class clash; and we see the dynamics of family and old friends.

I've read recently that Christie was a faithful Anglican, something I never would have suspected; but I do see in her novel that sin is its own punishment, where Poirot observes that the guilty party died with the victim. (Cf. my article What Mr. Suchet Saw: Christ in Agatha Christie. )

The title has nothing to do with the story beyond the number of suspects.  Yes, Poirot thinks, "This one had roast beef," but damned if I can figure out what that and other references to the nursery rhyme have to do with any character.

The memoir Poirot and Me by actor David Suchet put me onto this novel. He calls it one of Christie's best, and tells how the intensity of the actors in supporting parts "upped" his "game" in the role he had played several seasons by then.

The video production misses the themes of art, obsession, and modernist morality so prevalent in the novel, but it uses montages to make more clear than the novel does how tight-knit are the friendships and family ties.

Having read the novel and now seen the dramatization, I'm a fan.  But any title -- even the abstraction "Murder in Retrospect" used for the first American printing -- would be preferable.

Considering the art theme and the solution, it might be called, "Framed."

[Photo:  A moment of truth for the characters, and also for actors Rachael Stirling ("Caroline Crale") and Aidan Gillen ("Amyas Crale"):  Knowing the end of the story, we can read back into their faces exactly what was happening at the site of the murder.]

Short Comedies for Middle School

With just eight one-hour rehearsals and some scrambling to polish lines backstage, a cast of self-directed middle schoolers just pulled off fine performances of short plays that kept us laughing, adults even more than the kids.

Eighth graders chose, cast, and directed the plays. They earned the privilege by accumulating over 100 hours of quality involvement in my after-school "W.arts (Walker Arts)" Drama Team.  I paid at most $80 for scripts and royalties to any of these plays.

First up tonight was John Wooten's "The Role of Della" available from The woman sitting at the desk in the audition room puts a hopeful young actress through an ordeal involving insults, Spanish accent, Spanish accent mixed with Southern. and mime.  We have a happy resolution, and then a surprise ending.  The biggest laugh came when the audience "got it."  Eighth grader Sarah Culling chose the play and directed 8th Grader Evie Blauvelt as the actress and 6th grader Sabine Surkan in the other role.  Sarah played the role of the woman who enters near the end.

Katrin Surkan directed "Inside the Department of the Exterior" by Philip Hall, also from  A guy (played by director Katrin Surkan) needs a new mailbox; the woman at the government office (Gillian Stoltz) requires official forms to be letter-perfect.  As botched form after botched form gets ripped in pieces and thrown in the garbage, each grows frustrated with the other.  It was a tour de force for the bureaucrat, who spoke absurd bureaucratese with unrelenting clarity and earnestness.

"Family Meeting" by Dan Zolidis was directed by Brooke Baughan.  Her younger actors (6th graders all:  Isabela White as the daughter, Sophie Dietz the mom, Ronan Ezell the father) turned in wonderful performances in a play set in some absurd universe where parents can trade their daughter in for Sven the Foreign Exchange Student.  "We love you, dear," Mom says, "but, after a certain amount of time, we expect results."  Brooke got her cast to exaggerate their movements to great comic effect; it didn't seem too much. The play, from, was least expensive, most convenient.

Tanya Dadlani directed a play of her own, a play within a play within a  play:  She portrayed the student director of a script about a Mom who sets straight her daughter who wants to marry rich like Cinderella:  All wasn't happily ever after, after all.  Then, the cast rebelled, "because no punishment can be worse than being in this play."  Tanya called it "Breaking the Glass Slipper," and it got laughs in all the places she expected.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Slaying Goliath

A slender theology book called Slaying Your Goliaths by John Ohmer came in the mail from the Forward Day by Day movement as a thank-you for my donations.  First on Ohmer's list of "modern-day Goliaths" is "caregiver burden," and I felt this was probably a book for me.  Ohmer explores the story of David as we do in the Education for Ministry program (EfM), using it for a conversation between the story and contemporary experiences.  Below, I'll list a few highlights from what emerges.

But First: A Comprehensive Theology, Wholeness with God?
But first, I'll highlight some ideas from an essay about "comprehensive theology" provided by the folks who design curriculum for EfM at University of the South, Sewanee.  Titled "Living into Wholeness," it's a piece of a curriculum focused all year on the "journey" into "theosis" (participation in God), no author listed.  While I'd picture a "comprehensive theology" as an enclosure made by laying "bricks" of doctrine that must stay in place for the wall to hold, this author says, no, it's just a provisional construct, made with an open mind (120).

The essay's premise, drawing on recent developments in biology and physics, is that there's a "wholeness" to things that pre-exists the things. This is at once an appealing idea, and I think undemonstrable.  Instead, I'd restate it in the terms used by dramatist Dr. John Clum when he taught me at Duke about characters in drama and life: "Our characters don't change; our characters are revealed."
The essay seems to imagine a moment when union with God achieves wholeness.  Poet Christian Wiman in My Bright Abyss seems to me closer to the truth when he writes that there is never going to be a point of arrival.  Ours is not a faith in achievement of some static, whole, perfect sameness, he writes; it's a faith in change itself.
Where the essay does apply to my life today is in description of "conversation."  "Argument," the essay says, is a tool of analysis, but "does not necessarily lead to wisdom."  In contrast, "conversation" involves the "willingness to restrain oneself" and acceptance that conversation "moves in directions we cannot fully anticipate."  Those convinced of their rightness and brilliance "pronounce rather than converse" (EfM Reading and Reflection Guide, Year, D, 119)
Heresy always has its grain of truth, it's "just not true enough."  Rather than condemning positions that are alien to us, the author recommends asking, "What question does this heresy answer for those who believe it?"  I can imagine using this when I deal with those of political affections different from mine. 
A good example of looking for the questions behind a position is the author's list of questions that arose from the Episcopal Church's ordination of women.  The statement "only males can be priests" raises questions about "the nature of priesthood; the meanings of gender and sexuality; how the past is remembered; what the authority of scripture is; what makes a sacrament valid; and how truth is discerned" (121).
The author observes that "consistency" in our positions is not just an intellectual quality; as any EfM alumnus knows, any life story of coming to one faith from another involves the heart as much as the mind, and we must acknowledge this to move forward.

 Our mission, according to the catechism in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, is "to restore all people to unity with God and with each other in Christ"

Now, the Goliath book draws many lessons from analogies between David's story and our lives. The author was rector of a prosperous parish before he was called to a once-huge congregation that split over the gay bishop, fought in court to retain its property, and now has a growing congregation that struggles to pay for maintain it.  Each chapter forward in the story of David also gives us, in text set apart by a shaded background, an illustrative chapter in the story of the author's experience in that church.

Ohmer's analysis of the story breaks down into lessons that need only be listed to suggest applications to life.   Goliath was more than a threat; his taunts demoralized the Jews.  Young David put aside the armor borrowed from King Saul (58).  Enemy-based leadership is a quick fix, but vision-based leadership lasts (60-61).  David chose his own "five smooth stones."  David had confidence in the true God (78).

Ohmer digresses on the subject of false gods Work, Money, and Religion, telling a fun parable about how we idolize work.  It's an American who encounters a humble fisherman.  The business maven proposes that the fisherman go beyond his daily routine of fishing a bit in the morning, napping with his wife at mid-day, and playing music at night with friends.  He lays out a plan to build a fishing empire that would take years of 60 hour work-weeks and net the fisherman a tidy sum.  "Then what?" asks the fisherman.  Then, the American concludes, the fisherman could relax, fishing a bit in the morning, napping with his wife at mid-day, and playing music at night with friends (80).

About idolatry of religion, Ohmer cites Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah.  He tells of a buddy who lit a candle to help himself get centered during his private morning prayer, then grew choosy about what kind of candle, and whether to use a lighter or match -- until he saw that he had begun to worship the candle (86).  

Jesus, according to Ohmer, was hardly the peaceful teacher we imagine.  Read any gospel straight through, he says, and a different Jesus emerges:

Time after time, Jesus deliberately provokes the scribes and pharisees, and when he has a chance to back down, instead of retreating, he deliberately increases the stakes (85).

I had to pause reading this, because it sounded so much like our current President.  I suppose the wise and the foolish alike may benefit from the same tactics.

Read in one sitting, the hallmark of the gospels is not ... about healing the sick, feeding the crowds, or teaching the disciples.  It is rather the proclamation that the kingdom of God is at hand, a topsy-turvy, radical reorienting of the world and the world's priorities [around Love, the] central priority of God.

The Episcopal Church faces the "Goliath" in a public perception that we do not honor the authority of Scripture.  Ohmer lays out some "smooth" stones to counter that perception, such as the observation that the Bible is a potpourri of literature, not to be read as a book, and the conclusion that "our faith is not in the Bible but in God ... to whom the Bible points (69)."

So, facing my current Goliath of "caregiver burden," I can think of ways to apply the metaphor.  Don't let the words get under my skin; remember, every time I face the anger, that she has been brought back to peace and affection many times before; and keep eyes not on the enemy dementia, but on a vision of gratitude for what Mom has meant my whole life, and of moving gradually towards the point that Iris Murdoch's husband described her as having "arrived" at the "place she was going."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Frank Boggs at 90: Gospel Singer, Choral Director, Teacher

In 1977, for a concert at the Atlanta Civic Center, Frank sang “You Make Me Feel So Young” to his Westminster Ensemble -- me included, seventeen years old. Forty years later, I’m grateful for the occasion of his birthday celebration to return the compliment.

You seem to be so young,
So deep in voice and strong in lung,
And when you’re waving your baton,
You spur your chorus on – “like gangbusters!”

You still can have a blast
With anecdotes from ages past.
Sometimes you’re known to drop some names
Of stars, and queens, and dames.

Years go by
You still have a lot to give
Teaching and learning always,
That’s how you live:

You seem to be so young
With all these friends you live among,
with flings to be flung,
and many more songs to be sung!

And Frank, you’re like Methuselah:
It doesn’t matter how old you are,
‘cause your spirit stays so young!

composed by Josef Myrow, with lyrics written by Mack Gordon
parody by Scott Smoot to celebrate the 90th birthday of Frank Boggs, teacher and friend, January 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

Good News about the Gospel of Biff:
Lamb by Christopher Moore

Here's the pitch: "The Gospel according to Biff, Christ's childhood pal."  We instantly can see the whole thing, and we can also think: Life of Brian - been there, done that. Besides, everyone already knows the ending.

That's the risk Christopher Moore takes when he makes that pitch the subtitle of his 2002 novel Lamb. The good news is that Moore has spun a comic adventure better than what we imagine.

Because the Gospels skip from the manger to the wedding at Cana, there's a thirty-year gap in Jesus's life story to fill with boyhood pranks, teenage adventures, and gags regarding angels and miracles.  So teenage Levi known as "Biff" and Jesus called "Joshua," the more Jewish version of his name, go out one night with stone cutter's tools to circumcise a tremendous statue of Apollo.  Later, Biff does some serious research into "knowing a woman" giving a play-by-play report to his celibate buddy in the next room.  Some bad puns have page-long set ups, like the Hindu joke ("holy cow") and the one about a non-violent form of martial arts developed by Joshua (Jew-do).  Reading a list of descriptive names for six delectable concubines, you may overlook the one that comes from a Chinese take-out menu.  My favorite scene depicts teenage Joshua in a crowded bazaar, jostling everyone he meets, leaving in his wake people cured of cancer, mental illness, and stinky feet.

The set up for the whole novel is a gag, when a hunky dumb-blond angel resurrects Biff to write this new gospel.  They hole up in a Manhattan hotel.  Biff tries to escape while the angel gets hooked on pizza and pro wrestling.

But in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, Moore sends his youthful adventurers to some dark places.  Moore imagines hitherto unimaginable poverty and describes violence with such blood-smeared and bone-crunching detail that the comedy comes to an end, at least for awhile.  Worst is the massacre inflicted by fanatical devotees of Kali on families so far down in India's social structure that they accept the sacrifice of their children as their due.

The tone can shift, but the bond of love between the narrator, Joshua, and their girl Maggie (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) never wavers.  She is a memorable character, way more mature at twelve than either of the guys, believable and vital whether the story bends towards comedy or tragedy.

Moore doesn't sidestep the serious question that Biff poses to his pal the Messiah: "How can you drive out the Romans without killing?"  Seeking answers from the three Wise Men of the East, Joshua picks up his answer a bit at a time.  Violence in self-defense causes Joshua to scream "Stop this!" (139).  Joshua earns the insight that freedom isn't something bestowed; it's internal (228).  (I recognize an insight developed by Martin Luther King's mentor Howard Thurman, described in my blogpost Jesus and the Disinherited).  Joshua learns from a Buddhist priest, but learns more from his encounter with the Yeti, who "loved constantly, instantly, spontaneously, without thought or words ....Love is not something you think about" (253).  Joshua takes back to Israel a message of the Holy Spirit in all of us, and the religious authorities are threatened.  Biff observes, "These legalists had worked hard to find their place in power; they weren't interested in change" (355).

Since I read Lamb last week, I have to admit that Moore's images and tone come to mind during my daily readings of Scripture.  I now appreciate the social subtext of doctrinal differences between the working-class Pharisees and Sadducees born to their exalted priesthood.  Moore's imagining of an ancient city brings Jesus's world to life better than any movie has done.

After a rollicking adventure along the Silk Road, Moore has to bring us to Holy Week.  Moore tries to keep the story fresh, and he throws in some more jokes.  But there's not much he can do, as each chapter is a day closer to a painful ending.

What about the Resurrection, you ask?  Frederick Buechner once called the Gospel a "comedy" because of its unlikely, joyous conclusion.  Moore follows a different logic to an ending that satisfies.

Page references from the Harper Perennial reissue, 2004.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Photo with Mom: A Safety Deposit for Emotions

Twenty minutes before I took this photo, Mom called from the front office of her new assisted living residence very unhappy.  She needed me to get over there right away. 

When I arrived, she was sitting with her buddy Bill, watching TV, tossing the ball with her beloved Sassy, and surprised to see me.  "I love it here," she said, "but let me look around at the notes I've written.  Maybe I'll find what I was upset about."  We laughed about that, and talked seriously about how you can't feel connected to people in the residence if you forget all your time with them.  She said seriously, "There's nothing you or I can do about that."  Some rolling around with the dog followed, and she said, "He's a good boy." 

Let me deposit that moment here in my bank of feelings, to save for the next rain storm.