Thursday, April 29, 2010

FICTION: "Lucia"--My entry in the NPR Contest

Although I listen to National Public Radio regularly, my schedule often causes me to miss some interesting programs. Thanks to the advice of a friend, I learned of a fiction-writing contest sponsored by NPR.  It was already the fourth in a series of "3-Minute Fiction" challenges, in which listeners were invted to submit short stories of no more than 600 words--or, those which could be read in three minutes.

The theme of this contest was "Little Words".  The stories had to contain the following four words: "plant"; "button", "trick", and "fly".  It was a terrific exercise and I submitted my story just under the deadline.

My story, "Lucia", was an amalgam of themes and recent images from my life: dogs, opera, old men, Italian, shelters;  all blended to produce a strange and humorous narrative, as in a dream.

It is a fun story, nothing profound or achingly beautiful, but it made me happy to write it, and to read it.

Entries are being read and sorted by students at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop, and the selected stories are then sent to the final judge, author Ann Patchett (whose "Bel Canto" was an outstanding award-winning novel).  Winners and runners-up are announced in June.  I waited before posting this in order not to disqualify my story as having been previously "published".  But now, as entries are being read, and "favorites" are being posted on the NPR site (see link above), I felt comfortable in sharing it with you.

And so, if you have three minutes to spare...Enjoy!!

___________  _______________  ___________________

Lucy, a small, melancholy Basset Hound, belonged to Luigi, the Old Italian who ran the produce stand. Soon after Luigi died quietly in his sleep, his neighbor brought Lucy to the animal shelter where I volunteered, and explained that the poor dog now needed our care. Luigi left no will, and had no heirs outside of Italy.

For several days I watched Lucy languish in her cage. She lay with her face on her large paws, and did not understand why she was there; she only wanted to go home. She missed Luigi, and barely responded to the volunteers who fed her, walked her, and tried to comfort her.

I was ready again for a canine companion. A week before my ex-partner left me, the Beagle we raised together passed away. Now, a year later, it was summer, I was on vacation from teaching school, and I had more free time. While I took some comfort in caring for the shelter dogs, my life felt empty.

After I signed the adoption agreement and paid the fees, I led Lucy out of the shelter, knelt down to plant a soft kiss on the top of her smooth round head, and said, “Come on girl, you’re going home”.

All Lucy would do, for the first few days in her new surroundings, was rest, sullenly, on a blanket in my kitchen. Although she ate well and resigned herself to daily walks, she would not play, follow a scent, or make any noise. She waited for Luigi.

“My sad little girl” I said, “what can I do to help you forget, to make you feel at home?” I had no article of Luigi’s clothing to give her, to make her believe the Old Man was still near. I talked to her, called her name, but she hardly responded.

Our lives changed that Saturday when, out of habit, I pressed the radio’s “on” button. The Metropolitan Opera was broadcasting “La Boehme”, one of my sentimental favorites. As the character Mimi began one of the famous, popular arias that I loved, it happened. Lucy stood up, wagged her tail, and walked toward the direction of the music. She sat, waved her tail happily, and pointed her nose to the ceiling as her long velvet ears fell back, and howled in her clearest baritone.

I grinned with happiness. Was Lucy performing a trick Luigi had taught her? Was she ready for her final goodbye to him, ready to declare her loyalty to me? Her mellow song was a sound of pure joy, and a welcome beginning. Here we were, a human and a dog, each who needed each other, and we were finally a pair.

I began to use phrases I studied from a newly-purchased Italian phrasebook. To my pleasant surprise, when I said “siediti”, she sat, when I said “venite” she came to me, and when I told her “che buon cane”, what a good dog, she wagged her tail proudly. It all made sense now; having heard it all of her life, my opera-loving Bassett Hound “spoke” Italian!

Now, at the dog park, Lucy bounces and romps and draws sympathetic smiles with her sad eyes. She is smitten with a handsome Schnauzer. (I have developed an interest in the Schnauzer’s owner, a solid, friendly young man who loves dogs, hates opera, and likes me.)

When I call venite! Lucia bounds toward me, her ears flapping. My heart soars, as this gentle, loving hound, sad no longer, looks like she is ready to fly.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Dogs, Living and Dead, and Cared For---Tuesday Journal

Many thanks to loyal readers who encouraged me with comments on my personal piece from yesterday. And welcome, new readers, or shy ones...I hope to hear from many of you soon.........

I continue with my pipeline of short posts on various topics....Tonight, being Tuesday, and my day at the Buddy Foundation, this post is dedicated to "i miei cani" dogs....
(I have sort of begun to think in Italian....)
An evening of heartbreak and humor at the shelter tonight:
--Howard is a puppy, supposedly a beagle.  I suspect, given the shape of his head, and the fact that his ears bend at the tips and don't flop straight down, that he is a mix with a boxer or a pit bull.  Four months old, found abandoned but in good shape, he enjoys chewing stuffed animals, rope toys, and the unprotected ears of yours truly, with equal enthusiasm and aplomb. He wiggled into my arms and sat there quietly while I carried him. 
--Gorgeous George, a beautiful 7-month old collie-shepherd, had baby-soft piles of fur on his head, firm and very large paws, and a sleek face that blended both breeds perfectly.  My first dog, Bonnie, when I was about five, was a collie-shepherd, a tiny puppy who went blind.  At that time, it was considered cruel to allow a dog to live blind, so we had to put her to sleep. George, however, is healthy as can be, and should find a home soon.
--WHY?  Duchess, a black pit bull, was brought in, with ligature marks on all 4 legs where she had been tied up, and the tip of her tail cut off, reportedly with a butter knife.  She looked like she might have had puppies recently. This dog was as gentle as could be. If she had shoulders, she might shrug them and say, "I don't KNOW what I did wrong...I just want you to be kind...."

Good Bye Mocha....
a 14-year-old Mutt that I used to care for when her family was away.  Arthritic, and having difficulty eating, she passed away.  She was a senile and exuberant old girl....she knew I was somewhere close but could not always tell exactly where, so she would run past me crookedly, wagging her tail and barking joyously, looking all over for me, until I approached her and let her know where I was.  I will miss her.  She is survived by her caregivers, a kind and generous Persian couple; and her canine sisters: Summer, a 10-year-old Golden Retriever who has her own couch; and Madison, a Cavalier King Charles who can't walk, and must be carried outside and fed by hand.  I will be back to care for these two in a few weeks.

I had the privilege of caring for two special dogs belonging to a high-profile member of our College while he attended a conference.

Sammy is all mutt, with a lot of Golden in him, and, I would guess, a good amount of Hound.  He's a quiet, patient dog, whose sole vice is to sleep with me in bed at night.  I gave in almost immediately.  Look at the kindness in his face....

Cissy is a Shepherd-Black Lab puppy of about four months, who is a shining example of perpetual motion.  She loves to terrorize Sammy by chewing his tail, running rings around him, and stealing his bone.  She shredded her dog bed,  too, but redeemed herself by fetching the paper every morning.

A handful were these two, but I loved them, and look forward to our next play-time together.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Dede Allen Was A Hero To Me--A Movie Tribute

I used to make short movies as a kid, with my old Kodak Super-8 camera, and whatever friends I could  round up, lighting them as best I could.  The most satisfying aspect, creatively, of the whole process was the editing afterward.  My "editing bench" was a small video screen flanked by two "arms", on which the plastic reels of film would be attached, and handles on each arm allowed the cranking of the film forward and back through the viewer.  In front of that was a small cutting tool with a scraper.  I would painstakingly assemble the film strips, looking for the exact frame lines at which to cut.  To cement two cut ends together, the emulsion, or exposed side of the film, was scraped, and a special dissolving glue was applied to each end that fused them together. 

I took great pains to cut at exactly the correct frame. I also experimented with lengths of shots, jump cuts, rhythm, and angle.

That was back when the people behind the scenes of moviemaking were my heroes.  I thrilled to names like Geoffrey Unsworth, Vittorio Storaro, Edith Head, Robert Knudson, Vilmos Szigmond, Jan Troell, and especially, the editors:  David Bretherton, Alan Heim, Thelma Schoonmaker, Verna Fields, and Dede Allen. 

I spent my youth imitating these groundbreakers, these giants in the eyes of a hopeful boy lost in a reverie of creativity.

Dede Allen died last week, and the news of her passing hit me like the loss of a family member.  Allen edited some of Hollywoods greatest films, several of which are in my treasure trove of favorites.  She came to prominence with 1961's "The Hustler" with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason. Later, through the late 60's, her work was recognized for its powerhouse innovation and integration of techniques from the French New Wave to create an exciting and groundbreaking aesthetic in American film. 

This was best seen in her work in the classic "Bonnie and Clyde".  Her unusual cutting and rhythm kept the viewer off-balance, and heightened the sense of impending violence.  This technique was brilliantly employed in the more free-form "Alice's Restauruant" in which the devil-may-care style appropriately matched the liberated characters on screen. "Dog Day Afternoon" was a juggernaut of suspense and humor.  Al Pacino's frenzied evocation of Attica in front of a curious crowd during a bank hostage crisis is bravura work from Allen.  For "Reds", Director Warren Beatty shot two and a half million feet of film, employing scores of cutters for dailies, until Allen assembled a 3-and-a-half-hour work that never flagged.

Sadly, she was ever a bridesmaid at the Oscars, true of many deserving artists who were so skilled and effective, that voters most certainly thought they could wait another year to recognize her.

Allen, like her contemporaries, used the rather primitive movieolas and other equipment available to her, and had no high-concept, computerized editing technology in those early days. She was like a writer and sculptor in the raw medium that was the film stock she molded into classic work.  While her effects may have been appropriately invisible to the casual viewer, it inspired boys like me who watched in awe and wonder, and could not wait to shoot a few rolls of film just to see how we could put it all together later.

As a budding artist, nothing was more satisfying.

Classic film editing is becoming a neglected art, and fades ever darker with the passing of great editors like Dede Allen.  With the help of humble folks like myself, I hope work like hers will be revisited, and appreciated, for many more years.

Here, from "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967) is perhaps the most famous sequence Allen ever edited, and one of the essential classics of American movies.

Odds and Ends..Catching Up On Numerous Topics

The Italian class is going extremely well so far; My Tuesdays at the shelter are filled with activity and emotion; new dogs have entered my life as others say goodbye; my writing has entered a new phase, including a great short-story contest for NPR; and I may have a buyer for my condo.

This last is particularly bittersweet.  After waiting eleven years to fulfill an antiquated set of terms in Mark's divorce agreement, I was legally able to reside in Mark's house.  Then the housing bubble burst.  So another three years have gone by.  But, if all goes well, I can "officially" move in to his house by the first of June.

This will form the subject of a series of short stories I am revisiting about two gay men living in a generic suburban area away from the cultural stimulation and diversity of the big city---we're about 25 miles outside of Chicago.

With all of that, I have accumulated quite a pipeline of stories I have been meaning to add to my posts.  So, sit back, relax, and for the next day or two enjoy some short takes on a few topics of interest to me, and I hope my readers as well.

A Question About the Census--A Short Take for Monday

U.S. 309,148,017
World 6,817,346,883

Something funny has been on my mind:

If the census Bureau knows how many households have or have not returned their census forms, then why do we even need to do the census?

I also wondered what happens to the census forms that are sent to foreclosed or abandoned homes.  Are the forms automatically forwarded? 

And can the census cross-check data with the IRS and Social Security?

My rhetorical questions aside, I did find a few articles that addressed the issue, especially one on a site about Bank Foreclosures:

According to census officials, they expect that many of their mailed census forms would not be returned by households who have abandoned their foreclosed homes and by immigrants who have concerns about their immigration status. Officials also added that sending personnel to make personal follow-ups on unreturned mailed census forms is expensive.
The constitution mandates the counting of citizens in order to assure electoral votes are distributed fairly, communities that qualify can get the government funding they need, and districts can be drawn properly.  The information is supposed to be strictly confidential; many who refuse to respond are afraid that sensitive information will be used against them.

It should be particularly challenging this year. And yet, I ask myself, too, even with 100% participation in the census, in this economy would the money that communities need be available?  And wouldn't we still have districts drawn in outrageous fashion for political reasons?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"El Secreto de sus Ojos" a Haunting Love Story--A Short Review for a Saturday

Benjamin, a retired investigator is haunted by the unsolved 25-year-old murder of a young woman, and turns his experience on the case into a novel.  He recalls his relationship with his friends and colleages, especially the beautiful District Attorney, Irene, for whom he has a platonic love. As the novel is completed, he revisits Irene, and as old feelings are rekindled between them, the crime is solved, and the hero learns lessons about living in the past and the questionable value of old memories, and finds the courage  move forward with life.

This Oscar-winning Foreign language film from Argentina starts out slowly, even dryly, but soon finds its promise and becomes a multi-leveled meditation on friendship, revenge, resignation, and the satisfactions of writing, as well as a suspenseful procedural and a moving, hopeful story of love's missed opportunities and second chances.  It is beautifully done, and one hopes its achievements are not so subtle as to be lost on the casual viewer.

These characters are well-drawn and believable, and the performers are all first-rate.  The various plots and subplots are so compelling that viewers may forget they are watching a fiction film; it has the maturity and unblinking honesty of "Z", and the low-key suspense of "The Lives of Others".  It's also filled with human foible and humor, surprising twists and stunning action sequences.  The chase through the soccer stadium is masterfully directed and photographed; the interrogation scene is sly and revealing in more ways than you can imagine; and the climactic revelation which solves the mystery is creepy without resorting to gratuitous violence.

This is a worthy albeit surprising addition to the Academy's slate of Foreign Film winners. It is an effective character study and mystery for adults, and although it succeeds on that level, it lacks a certain aesthetic excitement that characterized the classic winners in this category.  It's definitely not for the action and mindless-comedy crowd, and so it will need a long exposure, good word-of-mouth, and perhaps its Oscar seal of approval to reach its intended audience. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

"Billy Elliot" Is Like A Friend's Embrace

Broadway's "Billy Elliot" arrived in Chicago amid the most enthusiastic fanfare. 

I was drawn to the show immediately during last Spring's Tony Awards, where this musical adaptation of the 2000 Film cleaned up with 10 wins.  I enjoyed the movie;  although I had not seen it for a while, the goodwill I had for this story, of a boy in an English mining town who must fight to realize his dream of learning  ballet,  remained with me and continued to inspire.  Friends who had seen this musical in New York or London raved.  My expectations were high, but I felt an anxiety that the show might not live up to them.

Happily, "Billy Elliot" is a smashing example of classic musical theater, its topical edge nicely balanced by its brilliant music and clever staging.  It challenges, or champions, our attitudes (depending what you bring to it) while never forgetting to entertain us. It is exciting, and pleasantly comfortable. It dazzles us with fresh music, heartbreaking beauty, surprising humor, and wry political statement, in a conventionally well-paced story about a spirited and talented young underdog.  No wonder "Billy Elliot" is so well-loved; you root for it like the friendly, non-threatening kid you once knew in school.

Those who have ever had an all-consuming artistic passion, or at least a dream to create or perform, can't help but identify with Billy and his struggle to convince his family members, who are challenged just to  survive during a 1980's miner's strike, to let him pursue his talents. 

Gay people, especially those who have had to struggle to live genuine lives of honest self-expression, will recognize Billy's attempts to dance the ballet, while trying to convince the naysayers in his midst (as well as, maybe, himself) that he is not a "poof".  It is a story of discovering who you are, and having the courage as well as the support to realize your true calling.  The way Billy and his family overcome their preconceived notions and prejudices and rally together against a backdrop of violence and ignorance, form the heart of this dazzling production.

It is an intricate and successful combination of earthy backdrop,  graced with an appreciation of the higher arts.  With a light touch and carefully worked-out characterizations and music, it all succeeds beautifully. 

Credit must go to Elton John and Lee Hall, for their Music, Book, and Lyrics, for their understanding of the milieu, as well as their deep identification with the story's personal elements; to Stephen Daldry, who has adapted his film and made it buoyant for the stage, expertly controlling the shadings, creating a welcome and lighthearted first act, darkening a bit in the second before the expected warmth and triumph of the conclusion; and to a lively and uninhibited cast, especially young J. P. Viernes as Billy, and Armand Schultz as his rich-voiced, working-class dad.  The designs of the sets and the lighting turn a dreary industrial setting reminiscent of  a modern-day "Oliver" into something familiar, more colorful and fantastic, its set pieces delighting audiences of all ages and making this reviewer often shout with child-like laughter. 

Although Margaret Thatcher is spared no scorn, the show is not heavy or political, but personal, one of great joy and hope.  I left feeling like everything in life for me is still possible. I wondered how the play would provide the exposition necessary to help American viewers understand the context of the story; and so, emblematic of the show's simple yet brilliant creativity, documentary film clips are used effectively as a backdrop to a rousing opening number ("The Stars Look Down"). 

In fact, the tunes are terrific and many of them deserve to become standards (in a world where it is still possible to enjoy a variety of music and where great songs stay relevant through the ages).  "Dear Billy" runs through the show as a motif, a moving dialog of love between boy and mother; "We'd Go Dancing" is a Grandmother's bawdy reminiscence of her late "bastard" husband, typical of the show's method of taking us to the point of pathos and sidestepping it in surprising ways. "Angry Dance" introduces metal elements and folds in themes from"Swan Lake" for a pulse-pounding climax to Act One, all fire and frustration and dashed hopes, leaving us hungry for the second act.

Billy's discovery of his talent under the awed eye of the comic Mrs. Wilkinson (Emily Skinner) takes the show into a new phase.  Initially, the all-girl ballet class, with its zany intructor,and slovenly (yet surprisingly nimble) piano player Mr. Braithwaite (Blake Hammond), is a cheery, bright, slapstick setting of perpetual movement where Billy gets lost, but quickly finds his way, and himself.  The developing relationship between Mrs. Wilkinson and Billy, as she becomes a teacher, mentor, friend, and surrogate mother, is one of the loveliest story arcs in the musical.

Of all of the numbers, two stood out as especially significant to this writer, touching chords of my own efforts at re-invention.  First is "Express Yourself".  This is a loopy duet between Billy and his best friend, Michael (Gabriel Rush).  In Boxing Class, Billy and Michael are reluctant sparring partners.  Soon, we learn that Michael prefers to wear colorful, hilarious dresses,  grand gowns and boas, and to dance to show tunes.  Billy, who has almost accidentally discovered his natural affinity for ballet, is happy to join his friend.  The number becomes a kid's-eye view of a lavish Broadway show, complete with gigantic dancing dresses and a silver lame curtain. When Michael finally kisses Billy, we know Michael's longing, and although Billy doesn't quite understand, something keeps him drawn to his admiring friend.  These are not violent fighters, but budding artists.

(Personal digression: in school I was made to wrestle a boy in gym class, and during the match I hit him in the eye with my elbow.  I was mortified as he cried in pain, while the Instructor screamed at me to finish the match and pin him.  The boxing sequence here recreated that distaste for violent sport with amazing honesty.)

The second and most awe-inspiring number is a duet between Billy and an older "self", a mature version of Billy years hence, physically developed, graceful,  forgiving of the youngster's eager exuberance, and tenderly supportive of the kid's development.  With a single spinning chair for each as a prop, and "Swan Lake" swelling from the orchestra, it builds to an emotional climax of uncommon excitement and power. It was so warming, so imaginative, that when the bigger, stronger dancer lifts Billy, who literally soars above an empty, fog-swept stage, the profoundly personal way this number touched me was almost too intimate to describe in words. 

The backstory involvong the mineworkers' strike and the heartbreaking result of their resistance offers a backdrop that wisely does not intrude on the essentially comic and inspiring story of Billy and his dreams.  We have come to know these people, faults and all, and we have been invited to join them in "solidarity" with each other as they forget their differences to help this boy follow his heart to the Royal Ballet.  During Billy's school interview, when he's asked what dancing feels like, he responds "it's being hungry and full at the same time".  Exactly.

"Billy Elliot", like the  title character's friend Michael, enthusiastically and generously reaches out to plant a kiss on its audience; and like young Billy, you might be tempted to run back on stage and return that embrace.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

GLAAD for A Single Man--Tuesday Short-Take

The major GLAAD Media Awards were presented last Saturday in Los Angeles, so Award Season continues....

...and there was a comfort in knowing that "A Single Man", my favorite film of 2009 (covered in these pages, links below) was recognized for Outstanding Film in Wide release.

See winners in all categories here.

Although I maintain that awards in themselves neither add nor detract from any creative work, and as hard as I have struggled to regard arts (film, literature, music, all of them) on their own merits and NOT in terms of awards, I admit I felt a vindication of sorts, not necessarily for any prestige carried by the award, but to have a work I loved finally though it is still alive in the public consciousness, and that in some wierd way, by extension, so am I. 

I identified so much with the story of  the writing and filming of "A Single Man", with the story of Christopher Isherwood and the circumstances surrounding the conception of this work; and Isherwood's influence on my budding passion for film, because he created the work that would become one of my powerhouse favorites and a film I still hold dear, "Cabaret".

Some may assert that GLAAD is singing to the choir, and that the Media Award will have little influence on mainstream audiences to give the film a chance.  Maybe so.  I, myself, have not always agreed with GLAAD's choices (and I'll stick my neck out now to say that I hated "Little Miss Sunshine", a recent recipient).  And, thinking back on Movie Year 2009, there were not too many wide releases that would merit award attention, so even a mediocre film could have been honored.

Fortunately, "Single Man" remains in my estimation a terrific piece of cinema by any measure.  And so I am happy to have a new, and relevant, reason to showcase it once again on these pages.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Animal Testing--An Unexpected Sunday Journal

I intended to launch my defense of "Citizen Kane" today, but found something that begged for my prior attention:

This morning I read a HuffPost blog by Lee Schneider about Animals, Medical Testing, and CompassionThis topic usually rouses my passions and  philosphical musings.   It's a complex topic;  and yet I land firmly on the side of alternative methods of drug and medical testing that do not involve the potential suffering or death of animals.

Schneider is an executive producer, writer and director, who founded DocuCinema, a company that produces non-fiction films on social issues.  Two recent productions include SHELTER, "about architects and designers bringing solutions to issues of homelessness and disaster relief. He is also directing a movie called The Incredible Power of Chance Events, which is about the science and mystery of destiny, chance and karma."

Comments on this post were quite passionate on either side of the issue, so  I had to lend my voice to this.  You can find my comment below, or read all of the comments (including that of yours truly) by clicking on the above link.  Just look for Bassetthound:

Animals provide us with opportunities to answer elusive questions about our better nature as humans. We are in a slow process of breaking through ancient attitudes about man's dominance over earth's creatures, and with any change of this magnitude, there are those who cling to established methods, ideas, and attitudes against sensible progress..

Technology is allowing us to study many areas, including health, without the need to torment or kill those innocent beings who are the subject of testing. We tend to hear more about the technologies that are used for our entertainment, but little about really important life-sustaining developments.

I just read a link on this page about Dr, Geffen's development of Bio-Engineered tissue as an alternative to performing drug and other testing on animals.

I am not a scientist, but this motivated and inspired me to do some research on the viability of human stem cell tissue as material for testing that would provide more appropriate results for human users.

As a dog-lover and animal shelter volunteer, I am witness to all manner of abuse that animals suffer at the hands of human beings. Why should our educated professionals continue what is essentially the same practice?

I hope the professional community will set a precedent by establishing legal and ethical guidelines against potentially hurtful or fatal use of animals, creatures that can give us so much if we see them as our companions in this life, instead of unfeeling objects for our disposal.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reading, Twitter, and The Relevance of Great Writing--Saturday Journal #1

A while ago, our College initiated a campaign to encourage students, staff---everybody, really--to read more.  Volunteers were asked to pose for a photograph in the library, holding their favorite book.  I read a lot of many different types of books, and to that point, my all-time favorite was "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy Toole.  In a later post, I will share my thoughts on this remarkable comic epic, and the story of its author, and the bittersweet way it was published, received, and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. 

(The photo, I think, leaves something to be desired...I looked as tired as I most likely was that day....and I have since re-invented myself into a somewhat more compact frame!)

When I heard that  The Library of Congress entered into an agreement withTwitter to archive every public "tweet" ever written, it was well-received by some historians as a boon to studying modern culture.  Even though I lamented the dearth of letters as a first-hand source for historical research, I was more skeptical about Twitter's usefulness for in-depth study.

From a story in Reuters:

The Library of Congress’s blogger Matt Raymond says there’s research gold to be found in the archive:
“I’m no Ph.D. but it boggles my mind to think what we might be able to learn about ourselves and the world around us from this wealth of data. And I’m certain we’ll learn things that none of us now can even possibly conceive.”
Hmm.....I think we'll be surprised how little depth we, as a culture, do have. I suppose everything that will be worth knowing about ourselves, by future generations, will have been well-covered by people of intelligence and foresight.
Twitter, as a tool for historical research is, I think, a fad, a joke, though many want to convince us it's important.
While millions are "tweeting", people and animals are neglected, published works of remarkable power are not being read, the world spins past us, and those who know better are taking full advantage of our distraction.....

A friend remarked to me that "published works of remarkable power" may no longer be relevant to current culture, and are not worthy of our collective contemplation.

I would respond this way:
Powerful works come from great poets...Shakespeare...all the old masters... Even contemporary thinkers, and dreamers. Those that have the ability to read these works, but will not, are no better than those who cannot read at all.

Great writings are as worthy of our contemplation as great paintings, or opera, or any art form that, amazingly, still speaks to us after centuries, or decades... They deserve to be preserved, and enjoyed again and mined for relevance. It's there.

Yet, we can no longer be bothered to make the effort to participate in this most exciting yet demanding form of communication, preferring instead to have our eye dazzled, our ear pounded, our adrenaline boosted, and then off to another sensual experience.

Reading, like anything else, can be taken to unfortunate extremes. Good readers know how to pick the right material for themselves, and how to use the ideas therein.

Like anything else, time can increase the appreciation of the work, and not just in the marketplace, LOL. Some are too hasty to dismiss great work, or herald bad work, with no underpinnings of learning, or thinking.
So much for my rant....Soon I will post an item about the "death" of professional critics, the rise of "amateur" criticism, and the dismaying opinion among a new generation of filmgoers that "Citizen Kane is overrated....

"La Traviata" and Family Recollections--Saturday Journal #2

Chicago's Classical Music Station, WFMT, carries live opera broadcasts every Saturday at noon.  Today we got a treat from New York's Metropolitan Opera, Verdi's "La Traviata".

This lush and popular opera, one of Verdi's greatest, tells of the tragic romance between Violetta, the "traviata" (wayward woman) of the title, and the young Alfredo, who loves her.

"La Traviata"s combination of typically romantic and melodramatic elements, familiar arias and tunes, and a lavish score that is beautifully sung and plausibly emotional, has pleased generations of operagoers, even those not familiar or not predisposed to enjoy opera. 

Even those who don't know opera are surely familiar with the Drinking Song "Libiamo" ("we drink"), which as been used countless times in popular media.   Here's a clip from Franco Zeffirelli's gorgeous 1983 film version of the opera (the English translation of the lyrics appear at the end of this post):

My maternal grandparents, Sam and Lucy, were not grand aficionados of opera.  However, Sam's father, Joseph, was a consummate fan of opera.  He listened to the Met every Saturday on his little radio.  When my mother and her sister, as girls, made too much noise (my mother lived with her parents and grandparents) he would grumble and take his radio to the attic bedroom to listen in peace.  He memorized the greatest operas, and knew them so well, that if one word was missed, or one note was played incorrectly, he would exclaim, in his most idiomatic Sicilian, "They ruined it!" and would stomp off after turning off his radio in disgust.

When my mother was 18 years old, Joseph took my mother, his granddaughter, to the Lyric Opera in Chicago as her high school graduation present. He saved money for months to afford the tickets.  They saw "La Traviata".  She always describes the experience, and how romantic and sad it made her feel.

Today I called her to remind her to listen to the Met broadcast.  She still loves the music, even though she has forgotten most of the tragic story.  My father, tall, taciturn, and cultured, listened to Classical music all during my childhood.  I believe that my mother's love for this opera was one of the things that drew this unlikely pair together in their youth.  I wonder if they listened to it  again, together, today?  I wonder if the lively and haunting music sparked memories of emotions long ago spent, and reminded them of their youthful passion, and what bonded them 50-plus years ago? 

Lyrics to "Libiamo", from "La Traviata"

Let's drink from the joyous chalice
Where beauty flowers ...
Let the fleeting hour
To pleasure's intoxication yield.
Let's drink
To love's sweet tremors -
To those eyes
That pierce the heart.
Let's drink to love - to wine
That warms our kisses.

Ah! Let's drink to love ‑ to wine
That warms our kisses.

With you I would share
My days of happiness;
Everything is folly in this world
That does not give us pleasure.
Let us enjoy life,
For the pleasures of love are swift and fleeting
As a flower that lives and dies
And can be enjoyed no more.
Let's take our pleasure!
While its ardent,
Brilliant summons lures us on.

Let's take our pleasure
Of wine and
Singing and mirth
Till the new day
Dawns on us in paradise.

(to Alfredo)
Life is just pleasure.

(to Violetta)
But if one still waits for love ...

(to Alfredo)
I know nothing of that ‑ don't tell me ...

(to Violetta)
But there lies my fate.

Let's take our pleasure
Of wine and
Singing and mirth,
Till the new day
Dawns on this paradise of ours.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Matisse...And Re-Working One's Art

(On Friday, A Re-Working, Errors Corrected)

The Chicago Art Institute is showcasing a very special exhibit on Henri Matisse titled
"Radical Invention 1913-1917".   I had the good fortune to sample the exhibit yestarday, on a brilliant, rare warm and mild Chicago afternoon.

Matisse is known for his use of color and simple lines, leaving a viewer with an emotional response to the deceptively simple images, rather than filling in details for us.

The exhibit uses a series of sculptures, drawings, paintings and prints to demonstrate how the artist's work evolved, so that an etherial composition like The Dance finally becomes, after years of reworking and experimentation and simplifying, the masterpiece Bathers by a River, both variations on the female nude in a pastoral setting.

Matisse's "rough drafts",
the sculptures and paintings
that were his "studies",
have been
studied and collected as
fine works of art in themselves.
He referred to these as his
"Methods of Modern Construction." 
Re-framing of  images, scraping of pigment, diluting paint or laying it heavily, re-considering color, and a disciplined simplifying of the subject, came together and has remained influential.

It made me wonder what insights we might have gathered if publishing-houses also published the early notes, notebooks, and rough drafts of famous novels. Oh, how I wish I could have some of these for study!  Sometimes a novel or short story is printed along with its film screenplay, which allows one to analyze the choices a screenwriter has made to craft a novel or story cinematically.  (Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain", for example, translates wonderfully into Diana Ossana's and Larry Mc Murty's screenplay, and stands as a how-to of successful adaptation.)

I felt calm in the presence of Matisse and his work.  He said at one point that painting for him was like an armchair.   (This was before he became discouraged from the medium and turned to sculpture, and printing).  Another great quote: "Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking".

I was also comforted by the fact that Matisse gained great fame with his struggle, and experimentation, and that even what he considered his imperfect works were appreciated even after he reconsidered them, and created greater ones....

Perhaps when my dream of achieving world renown as a novelist is realized, I can also share my doodles and rough writing, as a way to enlighten, and encourage, others.

Click on this link for a video clip with some terific information on Matisse and his works.

I leave you with my personal favorite,  Interior With Goldfish, also in the Art Institute Exhibit.  The way light is reflected from an unknown source, and rendered in shades of color, holds me in thrall...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Pulitzer Prizes Announced...The Award Season Continues!

The announcement of the Pulitzer Prize Winners is one of my favorite days of the year. Both winners and finalists are announced together, so there are no "nominees", no prognosticating, no false suspense. This year, the winner and two finalists in the Fiction category are unfamiliar to me yet. 

The big prize today went  to " 'Tinkers,' by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press), a powerful celebration of life in which a New England father and son, through suffering and joy, transcend their imprisoning lives and offer new ways of perceiving the world and mortality."  Harding earned $10,000 prize money.

For the second year, the prize has gone to a story about characters in rural New England.  Last year, "Olive Kitteridge" intoduced us to a feisty yet vulnerable character who faced aging and death. Her story was told in one of my  favorite forms, a "novel in short stories".  "Tinkers", a short yet supposedly powerful debut novel, would seem to have a lot in common with Marilynne Robinson's 2005 Pulitzer winner "Gilead" with its stark narrative from an austere environment told from the point of view of a dying man.

One of the finalists actually is a novel told in connected stories, and involves the relationship of animals to humans.  "Love in Infant Monkeys," by Lydia Millet (Soft Skull Press), is "an imaginative collection of linked stories, often describing a memorable encounter between a famous person and an animal, underscoring the human folly of longing for significance while chasing trifles".  Along with "Tinkers", I am highly anticipating this read.

The third and last finalist, "In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,” by Daniyal Mueenuddin (W.W. Norton & Company), is "a collection of beautifully crafted stories that exposes the Western reader to the hopes, dreams and dramas of an array of characters in feudal Pakistan, resulting in both an aesthetic and cultural achievement."  In form and theme, it reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri's "Interpreter of Maladies" or Robert Olin Butler's "A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain", both previous Pulitzer winners. I am interested by the inclusion of this work, because the Pulitzer generally seeks works that observe aspects of American life.  Lahiri's characters and Butler's, too, were ethnic groups transplanted into American culture.

In an upcoming post I will talk more about some of my favorite novels that came from the ranks of the Pulitzer winners. A special nod to my friend at The Oscar Completist, who takes these literary Awards as seriously as the Academy Awards.  Kudos!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A Writer's Quiet Fears, Just After Midnight, in The Wee Hours of Sunday Morning

I don't talk much here about my fiction.  It is a fragile topic....ideas for fiction are as delicate as unfinished silk webs, and any early disruptions are likely to destroy them.

My motivation often comes from creating expectations for myself.  In the case of writing fiction, I am anxious about what i expect will be the final opinion of my readers: I want them to like the story, but also to be moved, transformed...changed for good.  But, like an actor on the stage, I feed off applause, an artist's ultimate creative climax at the end of the work.  By sharing bits and pieces early, I risk changing my original vision, and losing the incentive, the promise of acclaimed recognition of my effort, before giving myself a chance to complete something I know is original and exciting. Worse, a lukewarm reception to the unfinished masterpiece leads to discouragement, again no incentive to finish the work.

Sometimes by dwelling too much on readers' reactions, I paralyze myself against moving in a new direction, trusting my instincts.  I tend to want to get it just so, and perfection is like an asymptote---you can get infinitely closer to it without ever touching it.

Tomorrow I have decided to take the plunge and write for a contest offered by National Public Radio: a "three-minute short-story contest", of only 600 words, and 4 specific given words must fit somewhere in the story.

600 words.  Not a word can be wasted.  I have to meet a tight deadline.  And I have to be brief as well as expressive.
As if in a dream, the ideas stirred in the cauldron of my imagination, the ingredients of which came in pinches and shakes from my own experience.....  And so I will craft a story of a dog, a shelter, Opera, a concerned owner, the Italian language.....and hope to move people in a concentrated way.  Lady, shown to the left, was an inspiration...

After the contest ends, I'll submit my story for your review.....Wish me luck!

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dogs: Love, Humor and Outrage--Short Takes for Thursday

This photo illustrates a little anecdote from the shelter Tuesday last.  This is not a photo of the exact dog I fell in love with.  Yet, it conjures the same emotions.  How will I be able to walk away from a sweet-eyed Beagle in a cage?

There was a new arrival in the isolation room, a 2-year-old Beagle named Lady. The isolation room is in the back of the main shelter, in a quiet area of the building away from the raucous activity of the main cages. Instead of cages, they are small well-lit rooms with tile floors and real walls and doors instead of bars and gates.

I quietly opened the door and stuck my head into the room, and I had to look all the way to the side where the bed was against the left wall.  On the bed was the limp body of the little dog sleeping off her anesthesia.  Or at least I thought she was sleeping. Two bleary eyes opend half-way, met my gaze.  Without moving a muscle in her body, her tail thumped up and down, up and down with surprising energy.  I crossed over to her and as gently as possible I put my head on the little point on top of her head, and cradled her face in my hands.  Lady struggled, and soon sat up, sniffing my nose, and licking my face with a dry tongue.

I whispered to her what a good girl she was, and her tail continued its greeting.  To get her to lay down and rest again, I got down on the floor next to her bed, and sure enough, she followed my lead and lay down.  I saw her smooth pink belly with a severe scarlet scar about four inches down its length. A few minutes later, her half-opened eyes closed again, and so I left the room as quietly as I came in. 

I felt a hollowneess in my gut, and a strange familiarity about the scene.  I was missing a creature from my recent past....If Lady doesn't get adopted soon (although I think she will), I don't think I could stand to leave her in a cage.  It was the same impulse that would not allow me to put Maggie in a boarding kennel, ever.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *   
Roxy, the German short-haired Pointer with the Dalmatian spots, entertained me as I walked her, and she lived up to her breed name.  The second she was outside, she stopped, her stubby tail pointing straight behind her, and she crept forward toward something I could not see yet.  As she crept, what held her attention soon came into view: a couple of ducks, monogomous, sitting in the grass next to the building.  But they quickly moved away, out of sight, and Roxy continued to stare, and point.  Perhaps her deafness, which makes her a difficult dog to adopt, allowed her to focus more intently. 

All at once, it was  the bird-feeder, full of sparrows and doves, which appeared.  The rapid movements of the birds caught Roxy's attention right away, and gave me enough time to capture her in a couple of photographs.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *    *
I just watched a re-broadcast on our Public TV station of a BBC Documentary called Pedigree Dogs Exposed.  I had been aware of health problems associated with generations of inbreeding, but I was never confronted with the extreme cases of deformity and disease associated with this practice. Rather than propagating a species to preserve a particular breed's function, many breeds have been created for sport, and "perfected" to a breed standard that is often uncomfortable, painful, and rife with ailments. 

Depending on the breed standard, characteristics like flatter muzzles, larger heads, longer backs, shorter legs, and deeper skin folds are favored.  The "sleekness" of a German Shepherd's hindquarters is a perversion of the original prototype, and leads to lameness for the sake of breed-standard "perfection".  Inbreeding of Boxers leads to epilepsy occurring ten times more frequently than in humans.  Mother-son, Daughter-father and father-granddaughter breeding is commonplace, and in some cases 90 per cent of the breed's gene pools have been completely bred out of them.  In any other species where this  may occurr, those species would be placed on an endangered list.  In some areas, pugs have been so tightly inbred that the loss of genetic variation means that in essence there are only 50 pugs that can be deemed "uniquely" individual.

A shocking and heartbreaking genetic ailment caused by inbreeding in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels is called syringomyelia, a condition which occurs when a dog’s skull is too small for its brain.  One vet interviewed for the program stated that if one were to beat a dog with a stick to cause the amount of pain that is suffered with this illness, one would be prosecuted.

The outrage, in Britian at least, and perhaps less-known elsewhere, is that many of these dogs with visible or not-so-visible ailments routinely win Best in Show Prizes at events like Krufts.  (After the BBC aired this show in 1998, the Krufts show was not televised for the first time in 40 years.)  Although breeding practices cause serious problems, allergies, skin ailments, and more disturbing maladies, all in the name of sport, show dogs are passing on these genetic defects to scores of litters.

Even healthy puppies who are born without the preferred characteristics have been known to be "culled", or put to sleep.  The "ridge" of backward-growing fur on the Rhodesian Ridgeback has been linked to horrible spinal disease.  However, healthy puppies born without this ridge have been euthanized.

I am beside myself, ashamed even, for continuing to hold romantic and naive notions about dog breeds and the kindness and humaneness of those who breed and seemingly love these animals.  Dogs bred for sport, to win competitions, while the dogs themselves suffer stoically; dogs abandoned and abused and needing the care of a shelter....It motivates me to learn more....become an educated advocate....writing  meaningfully on behalf of these creatures who need us to speak for them.....

That is what I must take away from all of this....  That is a direction, a path, toward a vision of my better self....