Saturday, November 18, 2017

Sondheim's Religious Vision

The man who wrote "thieves get rich / saints get shot / God don't answer prayers a lot" can be trusted when he says that religious rites and beliefs have played no part in his life.  

But when a 2002 letter published in The New York Times claimed that musical theatre has been "robbed of joy" by Stephen Sondheim, and when even admiring bloggers call his work "amoral" and "cynical," my theological training kicks in to answer the charges.  Actually, Sondheim's work is consistently "religious" in the sense that religion shares with ligament: It's about what ties us to our world -- how "no one is alone."  A theological look at Sondheim's works might help future directors appeal to audiences put off by his reputed "dark vision."

Before we look for Sondheim’s version of sin or redemption, we can bury that canard about his killing joy.  His intention, at least, is to evoke it.  “Joy” was his own word when he met with teens (including me) at Broadway’s Music Box Theater in June 1977.

Asked about Pacific Overtures, which some critics called “arid” and “cold,” Sondheim said, “I would like to think [audiences] would feel a kind of joy” seeing the imagination and skill in the way the story was told, whether or not they warmed to the subject. His admirers are familiar with that kind of joy: “We revel in the glories that his works endlessly yield,” writes composer Jason Robert Brown. “This is the true gospel:  this thing we do, this art we propose to create, can aspire to a greater perfection, a truer and richer transcendence” (“Worshiping in the Church of Steve,” Kennedy Center, 2002).  (See my blogpost on the joy of Pacific Overtures).
But Sondheim has indeed robbed the musical of the happy ending, giving us instead something more affecting and real, a new start.  Theologians would call that redemption.  The most prominent example is Into the Woods, when the false promise of happiness in Act I, “Ever After,” is followed by life-and-death struggles in Act. II.  The end of the play is just the beginning for a reconstituted family, and Sondheim sends the audience out of the theatre with a caution and a hope: “Into the woods / You go again, / You have to every now and then,” but “everything you learn there / Will help when you return there.”

The Frogs shows faith that theatre can effect a change of heart and perhaps a change of life, when the company instructs the audience to save their community:  “Citizens of Athens / If you’re smart, / Don’t sit around while Athens / Falls apart,” concluding, “And now – We start.”

Merrily We Roll Along seems to lack redemption, retracing a life to the point where Franklin Shepherd’s friendships start their doomed trajectory.  But as we see young friends on a roof marveling at Sputnik and looking forward to “so much stuff to sing” in “Out Time,” the joyfulness in Sondheim’s music makes it possible to feel that there’s a chance to start over and get it right this time – if not For Franklin Shepard, then for us. (Read my blogpost on Merrily "Rhymes with Integrity").

Other Sondheim finales promise renewal instead of final reward.  Anyone Can Whistle ends “With So Little to Be Sure Of,” sung by a pair ready to begin new lives, apart.  Sunday in the Park with George builds to a song about taking risks (“Move On”) and finishes with the words, “A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities.”  The bachelor Robert of Company doesn’t show up for his birthday party in the final scene, leaving his friends to conclude that he has left the “warm” and “cozy” life of “Side by Side by Side” to seek a committed relationship, because he has learned that "alone is... not alive."  Follies ends with couples shaken, but shorn of illusions; A Little Night Music concludes with several relationships rearranged and renewed; and Bounce  [since revised to be Road Show] ends with the brothers ambling off into eternity, saying, “Sooner or later, we’re bound to get it right.”  (They’re in a hokey Heaven, but this and other posthumous appearances in Sondheim’s works are for framing the play, not an endorsement of the doctrine of life after death.)

Before redemption is possible, there must be what theologians call judgment, when people recognize they’re on the wrong path.  Follies is explicitly about “The Road You Didn’t Take.” Using ghosts of the past and pastiche songs of youthful optimism, Sondheim and his collaborators confront characters with the disparity between cherished illusions and reality.  Merrily takes a microscopic look into Franklin Shepard’s moment of judgement, a violent dissolution of his personal life at the pinnacle of his professional success. The show looks backward from that moment for an answer to the question, “How did you get so far off the track?” Along the way Charley and Mary “nudge” him back to the right path, and Mary tells Franklin after a deep crisis, “Now you know… It’s called letting go your illusions / And don’t confuse them with dreams.”  But he doesn’t get it.

Some of the most powerful numbers in Sondheim’s scores dramatize this moment of recognition in a character’s life.  In “Rose’s Turn” (Gypsy), “Live, Laugh, Love” (Follies), and “Send in the Clowns” (Night Music), characters passing middle age realize that while they’ve been filling “scrapbooks,” laying out their lives “like lines on a graph,” or “tearing around … opening doors,” they have missed their chances to love and be loved.  In two powerful Sondheim songs, “Too Many Mornings”  (Follies) and “Lesson #8” (Sunday) the singers imagine their lives “wasted,” “Leaving no mark,” “merely” (or “just”) passing through.  Sondheim’s Assassins sing how they “have a right to expect” that they’re going to “connect, connect, connect,” and lash out because they learn “it’s never gonna happen.”

Sin, a Failure of Vision
How do characters get into such a fix?  Theologians’ answer to that is sin, which in Sondheim’s work seems to be a failure of vision.  Focused on an illusory and selfish goal, the character fails to see the individual worth of any other person.  Near the end of Into the Woods, the Baker concludes that our moral responsibility is to enter into others’ perspectives, to “honor” (by understanding) the “terrible mistakes” of others – fathers, mothers, giants, witches – remembering always that “holding to their own, thinking they’re alone” is going to do great damage.

Sondheim depicts characters so focused on attaining “class” (Gene in Saturday Night), “success” (Ben in Follies), or “the glamorous life” (Desiree in Night Music), and becoming “rich and happy” (Franklin in Merrily) that they fail to see how they neglect and hurt the people who would love them.  The Witch thinks she can preserve what she calls “Our Little World” (Into the Woods) by locking Rapunzel in a tower.  Similarly, Rose (Gypsy) tries to keep her “babies” from growing up for the sake of her own “dream.”  Focused on revenge, Sweeney Todd blurs everyone together as either “wicked” or deserving euthanasia (“Epiphany”), and he doesn’t recognize his own family.

Creation: Life is Good
Contrast Sondheim’s monsters Sweeney and Rose with a pair of saints who “belong together,”George and Dot (Sunday in the Park).  Each is concerned with making a mark, not “passing through / Just like the people out strolling on Sunday.”  Dot makes her connection to posterity through relationships.  George, far from having “No Life,” enters vicariously into the lives of the individuals he sketches, singing their songs with them to make art that lives “forever.”  The song “Children and Art” underscores how their approaches to life are complementary: As their story naturally deals with vision, connection, and mortality, this collaboration between Sondheim and James Lapine is the most complete statement of Sondheim’s overview of what theologians call creation, the nature of life itself.

In a word, creation is beautiful.  “Pretty is what changes,” George explains to his mother, who laments the disappearance of pretty views.  “What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful.”  Not only “all trees, all towers” are worthy of close attention for George, but also the individuals – from high-society women down to the cranky garbage man and his dog.  George’s mother, suddenly aware that her own life is slipping away moment by moment, urges him, “Quick!  Draw it all!” (See my reflection "Sunday, Art, and Forever")

After this song about mortality and eternity comes the anthem “Sunday.”  George “revises the world,” posing the characters.  When he tenderly takes Dot’s hand to put finishing touches on her portrait, he softly hums, confirming how this painting is his expression of love for her.  From that quiet passage, the chorus builds to the word “forever.”  Sondheim’s anthem, interweaving all the strands of the play – its story, themes (vision, eternity, connection), design, musical motifs – is made more poignant in a live performance by the knowledge that this perfect consummation is passing even as we watch.  No wonder audiences often weep for “Sunday”!

Sondheim Practices What He Preaches
As George does, as the backer advises, Sondheim takes extraordinary care to honor the individual perspectives of characters, even minor ones, with the kind of richly layered polyphony that is his specialty (“Company,” “Four Black Dragons,” “Pretty Lady,” “Something Just Broke”).  His favorite song, “Someone in a Tree,” celebrates diversity of perspective.  He finds interest even in assassins, con men, a stalker (Fosca in Passion), a rapacious judge and a demon barber.  We don’t have to forgive them, but through imagination and eloquence, we understand them

Sondheim’s own career exemplifies another moral imperative that even some of his bad guys get right: Don’t settle for “living life in the living room” (Gypsy).  “Fall if you have to, but … make a noise” (Whistle).  “A person should celebrate everything passing by” (Night Music). “Burn your bridges, start again / Or you’ll never grow” (Merrily). “Stop worrying where you’re going, move on” (Sunday in the Park).  “Without  a risk, the world seems pretty tame” (Bounce / Road Show).

And, in the words of the only full-fledged god to speak in Sondheim’s work (Pluto in The Frogs): “When you’re not afraid to die,  / Then you’re not afraid to live.”

(For many, many more articles of related interest, see my Sondheim page.) 

(This essay was printed as "So Many Possibilities: A Look at Sondheim's Religious Vision" in the Sondheim Review, Winter 2006, pp. 21-22.  Since I wrote it, and the journal is defunct, I suppose that I don’t break any copyright laws by posting it here -- or, if I do, that no one will care.)

Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Year into Assisted Living: Holding Steady

When I think back a year, I'm struck by a lot that's changed. We've reached a plateau in a good place. Here's a rundown:

  • Mom's okay with her small apartment, and doesn't remember that it was ever bigger.
  • Mom takes a mood stabilizer that works, until late afternoon, when well-documented "sundown syndrome" results in anxiety, depression, boredom, anger after dinner.  
  • Home care professionals Laura and Dee now visit her two-to-four hours every afternoon and come back after dinner every night. 
  • The facility's staff administer medicines every day, though Mom doesn't recall anything about it.  They tell her that these are "vitamins" to keep her beautiful.  I used to re-stock the pill dispenser Saturdays, only to discover that she had skipped days, or had taken pills directly from the bottles, or (one time, for sure) had taken the dog's medicine, too.
  • Mom is drinking 1/2 the wine she used to drink, or less;  the 6 oz. bottles are 50% water, now, thanks to sneaky refilling of the bottles by me and the home care ladies.  There's no more drinking a bottle, throwing it away, and saying, "Ok, it's time for a glass of wine;"  no more of her getting in the car after a couple bottles to re-stock; no more late-evening walks across a five-lane intersection to the corner drug store for more. 
  • Mom usually forgets that she ever had a car.  When she thinks to ask about it, I remind her that she gave up her keys voluntarily after locking Sassy in a hot car, and remind her of times she got upset or distracted while driving. (We donated proceeds from the car sale to the Humane Society where Mom first met her dog Sassy.)
  • Sassy the dog remains healthy and happy, entertaining Mom all day.  
  • Mom's Long Term Care Insurance is now reimbursing her living trust  for both the assisted living and the home care visits, amounting to $10K a month. 
  • I have Mom's credit card, because she loses it a lot;  I give her a limited number of checks, which she uses for hair and nail appointments, for yogurt, chopped chicken, and fruit for snacks. 
  • Those urgent notes on the mirror, piles in each room of "urgent" and "official" requests for money from political charlatans, and the obscure notations over notations on each of three calendars are things of the past;  Mom has forgotten that she has a mailbox, so I throw out all the junk mail, pay the bills, and give her just the catalogues. 
  • She doesn't remember what she reads in her morning newspaper or anything from TV news (on incessantly), so she's flabbergasted every time she learns who's President.
That's where we are.  I obsessively check my voice mail for Mom's angry / anxious messages, and rarely find one any more.  I never knew when I knocked on her door whether she'd be happy to see me, or bitter about my leaving her "in a prison."  Since at least June, it's been Happy Mom every time.
[Photo:  I dropped in early one week morning in the summer, and she was up, made up, and ready for another day.]

I'd say things are holding steady.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Highlights from "Forward Day by Day" Oct. 2017

October's issue of the daily devotion booklet Forward Day by Day offered meditations on the October lectionary by Eileen O'Brien of the Houston Canterbury ministry associated with the University of Houston.  She highlights bits of scripture that I'd not noticed before.

Tuesday, Oct. 10:  Assigned to write on 1 Corinthians 11.2, 17-22, O'Brien plays on the familiar London warning to "mind the gap," asking what we miss when the lectionary leaves out verses 3-16, which have been used "to silence female voices," and used in turn by others "to silence the voice of scripture itself."  She concludes, "Sometimes taking scripture seriously means not agreeing to everything Paul says but rather taking up his invitation to 'discern for yourselves' (1 Cor 11.13)."

Sunday, Oct. 22: The story of "giving unto Caesar" reminds O'Brien of theologian Stanley Hauerwas's calling "security" and "personal freedom" the "great idols of middle-class America."  They sound good, surely, but, she writes,

Security cannot be the most desired good of a people who proclaim a crucified God, who came vulnerably into an unsafe world to live as we live and to die as we die.  Unfettered personal freedom cannot be the most desired good of a people who follow the one who 'came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many' (Mark 10:45).  How then shall the Christian relate to a government that claims to prioritize and provide these things?

Thursday, Oct. 26, responding to Ezra 1:2-3, O'Brien observes that some of the Hebrew exiles chose to stay in Babylon.  She asks us about "powers" that hold us "captive."

The next day, the story in Ezra3:12-13 concerns elders among the exiles returned to Jerusalem,  the sound of their weeping mixed with the celebration of the construction of the new temple's foundations.  "Sometimes it is not until we see the new foundation that we fully realize that is is not the old. There is something irretrievable about the past that must be grieved."  She tells us to "[honor] grief alongside joyful shouts as expressions of thankfulness for what had been and amidst gratitude for this new beginning."

She calls Revelation "the crazy uncle of the New Testament family," but sees that "the text defiantly calls out" to the powers of the world, "You are big and bad and scary, but we see through you!"

Monday, October 30, 2017

Happy Halloween

At age six, I ordered a life-sized image of Dracula from the back page of a Superman comic book, and taped him to the rear of my bedroom door. My weekly routine back then included watching The Munsters and Bewitched on Thursdays, The Addams Family on Fridays, and waking up before everyone else on Saturday, turning on the bedside lamp, and staying under covers to to study each page of Homebodies, a collection of cheerfully macabre cartoons by Charles Addams.  Little kids must have a need to face scary monsters in safe, packaged forms, enough to earn profit for the makers of Casper the friendly ghost and Wendy the Good Witch.
Fifty-two years later, I'm still drawn to monsters of the more genteel sort, civil vampires in evening dress and ghosts who haunt Victorian mansions.  I admit that I like gusts of wind that twist branches of bare trees under roiling black clouds -- so long as I'm heading from my car to the warmth of my home.

But why?  Looking inward, I have a few theories.  For one, it's nostalgia.  For another, an English major appreciates monsters as personifications of amorphous fears, and ghosts as metaphors for memory.  Then again, I'm Episcopalian, amused at the logic that I shouldn't believe in a Holy Ghost if I can't accept the other kind.  
The church celebrates "All Saints" (i.e., all the Hallowed, or Holy) on November 1, and we pray for  "All Souls" on November 2.  Our All Hallow's Evening, or "Hallowe'en," is a last gasp for the dark spirits to make mischief before the Saints take over the next morning; but that's a pretty lame idea, as we believe those saints and Jesus himself are always with us.  

But this time of year, when our first cold days hammer shut the coffin of summer, before we experience sunlight sparkling on the frost of winter, it's natural to sense what the ancient Celts called a "thinning" between our world and the world of our fears, embodied by those scary monsters.  

Bring on the bats, the howling wind, the branches scraping the window, and the ghosts of decades past. 
[Photos, from top: That 6-ft. Dracula; "Grandpa Munster," who slept upside down and turned into a bat in a puff of smoke, played by Al Lewis, whom I saw sitting as a living advertisement at the entrance to "Grandpa's Pizza" in Greenwich Village, ca. 1987; and a mash-up of a favorite frame from Chas Addams, "the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive!" coupled with a stock photo of the sky on that kind of day.  Below:  From the internet, the cover of the Dec. 1967 issue of Wendy the Good Witch that I owned and wore thin with reading and copying.]

See my reflections on tangents to the same subjects:

P.S.  With adult friends in Education for Ministry (see my EfM blog), we reflected on the theology of Halloween, and identified a trend towards communities' bonding over making the holiday fun and safe for everyone.  We collected our thoughts in a group-composed prayer:

Collect for Halloween
Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, You sent Your Holy Spirit to enlighten and protect us: help us find community with our neighbors and the souls of ages past, that we may overcome fear and differences to extend ourselves to the strangers among us.  Amen.

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.]

P.S.  Months later, November 12, I heard artist Titus Kaphar on NPR's "TED Radio Hour" speak of "amending" monuments.  He doesn't want to let us forget that we've placed statues of KKK men in black neighborhoods; but he wants to "amend" such displays with some poignant image that will force passers-by to confront what our society has honored before, and what that means for humans among us.  Here's a link to the story: 

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.