Personal Bests

Sometimes I run across striking ideas on this blog in old posts that I don't recall writing.   Here, for my benefit, if for no one else's, I'll keep a list of my essays that distill in some special way the themes that are always important to me.  (I reflect on those themes as "perennials" in a "garden" that I've tended in a good overview of blogging and aging called Ten Years of this Blog: Progress?)

First of all has to be something about composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim.  I draw a direct line between his work and everything else that has interested me since I heard the cast album of his A Little Night Music.  I get specific in my tribute to Stephen Sondheim, Teacher by Example.      While I write many reflections on individual shows and songs, all collected on my Stephen Sondheim Page, my most popular one is also an apologia for musicals in general: Sondheim, Fantasticks, and Chamber Musicals.  

My Favorite Fiction: Comedy, Fairy Tale, Tragedy details how Frederick Buechner's four-novel omnibus The Book of Bebb is a watershed for storytelling and insight that I've read four times through.  I guess its opposite would be the novel I've failed four times to finish, Ulysses.  But its first pages elicit a short, ecstatic essay about lit and life: Happy Bloom's Day.

Ah, Paris: The Greater Journey starts as an overview of David McCullough's history of Americans traveling in Paris during the 19th century, and turns into a personal reflection on a month in France that challenged my provincial American understanding of life. About my own adopted home town, my reflection takes off from Atlanta-based arts premieres to include what I experience on a bike ride through town: Phoenix meets "Firebird."

Macro God, Micro God finds themes in common between a physicist ordained in the Anglican communion and an agnostic park ranger, both of them guests on Krista Tippett's radio program On Being.  From way, way out and from painfully close, we get two complementary understandings of how God is real in all lives, regardless of what any religion teaches. The scientific term "emergence" is key.  As a bonus, the doctrine of the Trinity emerges from the discussion without reference to doctrine!   

Also faith-related: A response to a preacher who sniffs that his church treats the resurrection as real, not "some metaphor":  Easter Metaphor, Fact, Faith, and Myth.  A follow-up to that, Bees, Butterflies, Worldview and Metaphor reflects on an essay on "serious v. unserious" poets by D. H. Tracy and quotes from a rhyming Essay on Psychiatry by Robert Pinsky.  Another poet, Christian Wiman, writes a slender theological reflection with authority borne of learning, experience, and acuity; he brings out my best in my attempt to pull his strands together in Beyond Belief in My Bright Abyss.   A mentor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in 1944 a slender book with elegant outline that shook and clarified things I've believed for decades, and I responded with a good precis and reflection on current applications:  Howard Thurman's Jesus and the Disinherited.

Nothing concentrates one's theology like the question of whether to pledge one's money to the church.  I studied a couple of books that touch on that question, one 21st century, one 16th.  Guess which one gets closer to the truth?    Church Stewardship Campaign, ca. 1600.

Billy Collins:  Ten Poems Too Many?  got more comments than anything else posted in this blog's first eight years, mostly to knock Mr. Collins.  (Snarkiness of poets about others' poetry is what kept me from renewing my subscription to the journal Poetry after many years).  While I love to re-read all my essays about poems to recapture the feelings and insights that the poems themselves gave me -- see especially "Linda Pastan's Poetry of Giving Thanks" occasioned by one of my last Thanksgiving dinners with Mom and Dad together --  the essay defending Mr. Collins turns into a manifesto about poetry itself. In another essay, Early Frost, my appreciation of Robert Frost's development broadens to a more general appreciation, with  comments by poet and NEH chair Dana Gioia.

Weary of work, winter, cares, Self -- I often think of Ecclesiastes.  I return to my postings about that book, for solace.  The basics are covered, with additional reference to poet/author Christian Wyman, in Ecclesiastes at 3 a.m.

Poetry, religion, and personal life converge in Dogs are Poetry, a response to Dean Koontz's memoir of life with his dog Trixie.

Later, Koontz's "Odd Thomas" series of thrillers brought a lot of writing out of me, but my favorite piece is a compilation of insights from just one of the novels, Brother Odd.

The History Boys: Why Teach? analyzes Allan Bennett's wonderful play and film adaptation.   Reviewers, distracted by Bennett's dramatic opposition of the young teacher to the old one, missed Bennett's unconventional answer to the questions "Why teach?" and "Why learn about history or poetry anyway?"  This one has attracted a few hundred views.

When I graduated from college, my pantheon of writers contained, aside from Stephen Sondheim and Shakespeare, four dramatists who staked out unique territory for their works.  Their talents seemed to be beyond the reach of mere mortals.  Writing about them thirty years later, I've layered my critical re-appraisals with nostalgia and affection: The Invention of Stoppard, A Moment of Silence for Harold Pinter, Just a Closer Walk with T. S. Eliot, and Treasuring Playwright Athol Fugard.  

I suppose that everyone feels that his or her life coincided with tumultuous times.  My first decade got its motto from the dreary Bob Dylan's faux-folky prophecy, "The times, they are a-changin'."  The punchline, provided by the end of the Seventies was, "No, the times, they did not."  I reflect on a couple of books about culture of the Sixties: Carole, Joni, and Carly in Context and 1959: Our Culture of the MomentI take on the idea that America was more "grown up" before liberal boomers pervaded our culture in Rat Pack Redux: Grown Ups, ca. 1960. This boomer's experience of the 1960s was defined and enriched by two TV shows, as I explain in appreciations of Batman and Bewitched.

When Safety Net Becomes a Crib, my response a few years ago to Greece's collective tantrum at the time, helps me define my position a bit right of center on the continuum between political Left and political Right. Another article defines "conservatism" in another way.  Occasioned by a meeting of "traditional" Episcopalians who set themselves up against the Episcopal Church, the article sides with tradition while it shows that "tradition" has always been an evolving thing.  See Tradition isn't What it Used to Be.

Musicians challenge a writer to capture in words what they achieve in sound.  Singer Carmen McRae and musical partners Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington also inspire affection!  See Singer Carmen McRae: Beyond PerfectionBilly Strayhorn: In the Mantle of Duke Ellington; Duke Ellington Tells What Makes Creative People Happy; and Duke Ellington Can't Sleep, which starts by imagining what might have kept the maestro awake in the early hours of a morning late in his career, and ends with a reflection on the book of Ecclesiastes. In a wholly different vein, I find comic drama in a live performance of Steve Reich's avant-garde piece DrummingI ask "Who Else Likes the Music of Sir Michael Tippett?"  in an article that identifies the composer's glorious virtues among his laughable foibles. 

No philosopher, I still opine about the meaning of life with help from fiction.  E.L.Doctorow's remarkable Civil War novel The March drew three strong reflections from me, the middle one getting at the heart of the book, of the war, and of my life: Insight that Changes OutsightTwo crime series inspired the essay, Meaning of Life: Detectives' Perspectives, which asks, is a life catching killers more meaningful than one spent answering emails and preparing for committee meetings?  Comparing the daily routines of fictional detectives Kurt Wallander and Mma Ramatswe, I find solace in Mma's comment, "Our concern should be what is happening right now. There is plenty of work for love to do, you know". 


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