Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wordless Music concerts

Last week there were two concerts in New York City, in which Son Number Two and The Girlfriend played, that were kind of big deals if you're hip and young or the parent of someone hip and young. The concerts were by the Wordless Music Orchestra, a 50-person modern music ensemble. The New York Times previewed the concerts in this article and then reviewed the first one here afterwards.

They reportedly packed out The Church of St. Paul the Apostle on two nights. The big draw was the American premier of Popcorn Superhet Receiver by Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist for Radiohead, the English alternative rock band. This piece happens to be part of the soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated movie, There Will Be Blood. They also played a John Adams piece, Christian Zeal and Activity and The Sinking of the Titanic by Gavin Bryars.

For those of you who have heard SNT's string quartet, JACK, this was pretty tame stuff. The whole purpose of the "Wordless Music" series is to cross the bridge between modern classical and alternative rock music to appeal to listeners who would not ordinarily listen to classical. I really liked all three pieces, but I might be considered prejudiced. You can listen to the complete concert here.

There are some great photographs by Christopher Owyoung, a New York concert photographer who took the picture at the top of this post, with an excellent one of TG here (but if you don't know her, you won't know which one is her and I won't embarrass her by pointing her out.)

There is a very positive review here by Darcy James Aruge. A good one by a New Jersey reviewer can be found here. A review with some criticisms (of the compositions, not the players) can be found here. Not everyone was that impressed by the concert.

Monday, January 21, 2008

I Have A Dream

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, here is the famous "I Have A Dream" speech in its entirety. I had not realized, until I listened last night, that this, the most famous speech of our time, is so short. The whole video is only 17 minutes and it includes several minutes of singing, so the speech must be around 15 minutes long. If Dr. King could get it all said in 15 minutes, I see no reason why ordinary sermons have to drag on for half an hour or more. As has been said so often, "less is more."

Saturday, January 19, 2008


My reference to Langston Hughes in the blog entry below about Julie Larson, the cartoonist, prompted an email from a friend of mine, another ex-Amish boy whom I have known for 40+ years. He commented that he studied Hughes's autobiographical essay, Salvation in a class at Flint Junior College (where I also took my first college courses)and that it helped him work his way out of the Amish structures we both knew.

I found the Hughes essay online here and remembered having read it before, maybe 40 years ago at Flint Junior College. It is a wonderful essay. Go read it now, but remember to come back because I'm not done yet.

The Flint Junior College reading that helped me deal with my Amish past was Eric Hoffer's The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature of Mass Movements, which is a concise and clear explanation of the appeal of mass movements, such as Christianity and communism, and posits that the movements are mostly interchangeable because the factors that motivate people to join them are the same.

But my "salvation" was already in danger long before I read Hoffer. Like Hughes, I grew up in a church that subscribed to the idea that "accepting Christ" and joining the church was a voluntary act that should be performed only by one old enough to understand what they are doing. In theory, the Holy Spirit convicted one of one's sins, and this conviction led one to accept the saving grace of Jesus who would forgive one's sins. One expressed this acceptance of salvation by going forward at a revival meeting, like Hughes did, or alternatively, telling the ministers that one had accepted Christ and was ready to join the church and then making a public confession at a Sunday morning service.

In practice, if a young man or woman did not "voluntarily" get his/her salvation taken care of by the right age, the pressure mounted, to the point that it became almost unbearable. I was not a particularly sinful young man at age 16, lying only when absolutely necessary; practicing "self-abuse" no more than once a day, and not doing anything illegal -- well drag racing my father's pickup truck didn't really count. Most of the adults in our church probably considered me an exemplary young man since I was well spoken and could offer up a passable public prayer when called upon, as I frequently was.

But, like Hughes, I could not make myself raise my hand or go forward at the semi-annual revival meetings. Although the Mennonite churches of my youth were considerably more restrained than the revival service Hughes describes, we would get preachers who would thunder and cry and plead for just one more person to raise his/her hand or to come forward to accept Christ. Revival meetings generally lasted one week, with the preacher starting out gently, preaching about the love of God on the first night and gradually escalating to either yelling or crying about the tortures of hell on Saturday night. More than one preacher used the apocryphal story of the young man who left the revival meeting with a stubborn heart, only to never get a second chance because of a fatal automobile accident on the way home. The eternal tortures that would be suffered by those who did not voluntarily accept the offer of salvation were described with great relish.

I would sit there, as the congregation sang, "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling," and the preacher begged and pleaded for just one more soul, and I wouldn't raise my hand. I was not yet sufficiently well-read to discount entirely the threats of what would happen to me if I did not respond, but neither was I guilible enough to entirely believe what I was being told. All of my contemporaries had long ago been baptized. My cousin, Milt, and my friend, Willis, I particularly considered traitors because they had succumbed to the pressure and gone forward at a tent revival, and I knew they were no more saved than I was.

Finally, when I was about to turn 18, my parents got desperate enough that my father took things in hand. He took me with him in the truck to the rock quarry, a trip that took about an hour each way. He spent the two hours twisting my arm, pointing out that I was the only person left of my generation who had not joined the church and telling me that it was high time I did so. He volunteered to take care of things with the ministers so I would not have to make a public spectacle of myself walking up the aisle at a revival meeting. Like Hughes, the pressure finally got to be too much and I agreed. Unlike Hughes, I did not cry in shame afterwards. But it was a crucial step, along with others, like reading Hoffer, that got me to where I am today, an aging ex-Amish skeptic.

I don't want to discount the salvation experience for those who have found it meaningful for their spiritual development. I think there are people who have a sense of their sinfulness, and who, for one reason or another have felt "saved" by their faith in Jesus, or some other power. My problem is that I just never did sin enough to feel motivated to turn to a higher power for my salvation. I don't have any exalted view of my own powers, but I think if I'm going to be saved, I'm probably going to have to rely on myself to do it.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cartoonist Report: Julie Larson and The Dinette Set

My favorite cartoon in our local newspaper is relegated to the classified advertising section, but it is funnier than anything on the comics page. It is called The Dinette Set and is drawn by Julie Larson, who lives in the small town of Lincoln, Illinois, about an hour west of here.

Ms. Larson came over to our town this afternoon to speak at the local library and to sell and sign her books. I missed her the last time she was here, so I made sure to get over there today. She is as delightful as her cartoons, with a very dry, understated humor. She said there is a "Midwestern humor" that plays well everywhere, because Midwesterners move all over the country, except in the Northeast. They don't get it she said.

The Dinette Set is about the banality of small town life. Ms. Larson's characters, the Penny's and their family and friends, are good hearted people, but totally self-absorbed. She said her characters have a "sheep mentality" and are incurious. She gets her material at Wal Mart -- the Wal Mart shoppers, that is, not its shelves.

I asked Ms. Larson if she gets any flack from her neighbors who see themselves, or think they have been picked on in her cartoons. "All the time," she laughed. She said sometimes people will out themselves, accusing her of using them as fodder for an episode in her drawing when she was thinking of someone else. "I don't want to see myself in your cartoons," is what people tell her, she said.

Lincoln, Illinois, besides having the distinction of being named for Abraham Lincoln before he became president, has a rich literary tradition. It is the hometown of William Maxwell, the novelist and revered editor of The New Yorker magazine, and the writer, Langston Hughes, spent several of his growing up years there. (Not that the people of Lincoln care, according to Larson. "All they care about is basketball," and they're more excited that Brian Cook, a minor NBA basketball player is from Lincoln.) Julie Larson is in 75 newspaper markets across the country, and people in Hollywood have been talking to her about using her strip as the basis for a television cartoon series. Some day soon, Larson will be in that Lincoln literary pantheon, and, I predict, she will be remembered for her work, long after the shots have stopped falling for Brian Cook.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Movie Report: The Bucket List

Everything that made me rave about Juno in the movie report below is missing in The Bucket List. It has big stars all right. They don't come any bigger than Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. It has an A-list director and producer in Rob "Meathead" Reiner, scion of Carl Reiner. But it is a formulaic Hollywood movie that has been done hundreds of times, not an original thought or line in it.

Suspension of disbelief? Not for a second. This movie exists solely to sell popcorn, and it did well tonight at our local multiplex, the 4:30 p.m. showing being packed with geezers and geezettes, munching popcorn, cackling at familiar lines (come on, I have heard Nicholson's line, "Three things you got to remember at our age, 'Never pass a bathroom, never waste a hard on and never trust a fart,'" for nearly 50 years, even if he did deliver them well.) On the other hand, I doubt that the showings after 8:00 were nearly as profitable as the target audience will have taken out its false teeth, taken off its support hose, and be snoring in their beds after sundown.

Nicholson and Freeman, who in real life will both be 71 in the next several months, play a couple of guys diagnosed with terminal cancer and are given several months to live. Edward Cole, Nicholson's character, is a multi-millionaire who owns a chain of private hospitals. Carter Chambers, Freeman's character, is an automobile mechanic who dropped out of college after one year and got married because his wife got pregnant. No doubt because of Freeman's experience as God in Bruce Almighty, he knows everything.

Improbably, Cole, the multi-millionaire, is made to share a hospital room with Chambers, the mechanic. Cole is misanthropic, doesn't get along with anyone until he meets his new best friend, Chambers. Even in his youth, Chambers was wise (well, God doesn't need education or experience to figure things out) and he had started compiling a "bucket list," things he wanted to do before he "kicked the bucket." In the hospital, he works on and then discards the list, which is found and improved by Cole. When they're discharged from the hospital, they embark on a round-the-world adventure to get as many things crossed off their list as they can before they die. The list is amazingly ordinary. One would think that with all the high priced writers in Hollywood, they could find more unusual things for the bucket list than to jump out of an airplane, drive a Shelby Ford around a race track, go on an African safari, look at Mt. Everest and kiss the most beautiful woman in the world, but that was it.

If you've seen the trailers, then you've seen the most interesting parts of the film. It turns out that both men have relationship troubles with family members, and, guess what, after working on the bucket list, they decide that the family relationships are worth working on. And, SPOILER ALERT, guess who is the most beautiful woman in the world. But, Reiner is a professional schlockmeister, and he was able to make me wipe my eye (but only once) despite my cynicism and disbelief.

So, in summary, not a very good movie and not very good performances by the stars. If you want to see Nicholson playing the aging codger, his 2002 movie, About Schmidt is much better. I came home prepared to give it two out of five stars, but The Wife lobbied for four because it is better than a lot of the dreck in the theaters these days, so I finally compromised at three stars.

Let's see, I better work an Amish connection in here somewhere. Ah, yes, I would have been much less rootchi about this movie, if they had given the script to Diablo Cody for an injection of quirk.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Movie Report: Juno

If you haven't heard yet of the quirky little movie, Juno, you soon will. I predict it will be the sleeper hit of the year. The plot sounds sappy. Juno is the name of a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant by a befuddled nerd ("It was my idea," she says. "It was?" he replies looking puzzled.) She decides to have an abortion but is dissuaded by a single picketer, a young Asian girl who yells at her, "It has fingernails." She finds a yuppie couple to adopt the baby. In the end she finds love and happiness with the nerd.

Although the plot sounds like a recipe for sap, the movie takes unexpected turns and has such a unique outlook, that the poignancy is disguised by the originality and authenticity. I have never met a 16-year-old girl like Juno, but she is absolutely believable. As regular readers of this blog know, the "suspension of disbelief" is important to me in watching a movie, and I was absolutely engaged in this one.

Juno reminds me a lot of another favorite of mine, Napoleon Dynamite in its ordinary strangeness. I have seen the movie described as a "dark comedy," but I fail to see the dark side. It is better described as a "serious comedy," in my view. It does not have the feel of Hollywood, like for instance another recent unplanned pregnancy movie, Knocked Up, which was not a bad movie, but felt contrived, the way mainstream movies do. Juno feels real.

Despite the PG-13 rating, this is not a movie that a fundamentalist church will send its youth group to see for its anti-abortion message. Juno is very hip, very smart and very earthy. I'm not sure that even I, with my liberal values, would want Juno for a daughter, but I surely would love to sit down and listen to her talk.

When I asked Son Number One whether he and his wife would like to go see the movie with us (I liked it so much I was ready to go see it again the next day,) he asked who is in it, and I told him that it was no one he has ever heard of. (Actually that statement stands a good chance of being wrong as SNO is a walking encyclopedia of arcane movie knowledge, but most people have never heard of any of the people connected with the movie.) The director is Jason Reitman, who is semi-well known for the movie Thank You For Smoking from 2005. Other than directing some of The Office television episodes,that's about it for Reitman's previous directing work.

But the writer, oh the writer! The heart and soul of the movie is clearly the work of the writer, who calls herself Diablo Cody. She grew up in the Village of Lemont, Illinois, a small town between Aurora and Chicago. She was working as a writer in an advertising agency in Minneapolis and hating it when she had an epiphany one day. She told herself she would rather be naked than do that job, so she quit and got a job as a striper. She wrote the movie while she was working as a striper. She also wrote a book around the same time, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Striper which had modest success but got her on the David Letterman show for this hilarious interview.

And, get this: There's an Amish connection! (Everything has to have an Amish connection on this blog.) Cody writes, or until recently did, a blog called. . . well, never mind what it's called, but you can visit it here. In the blog (scroll way down) she says she used to date a guy from Pennsylvania "a million years ago" (a little bit of an exaggeration since she's only 29) who taught her "weird Amish expressions" like "rootchi," meaning squirmy, a word which she still uses. So, who in Pennsylvania is going to teach Cody Amish expressions except an Amishman? Easy, are you reading? Find out for me who the Amishman is that used to date Cody.

This movie gets my highest rating, five stars. Go see it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Some Further Thoughts About Politics: What Now?

I don't intend to turn this into a political blog, but I should follow up after my Obama-Gushing last post, now that New Hampshire has knocked the props out of my high hopes. I still don't understand what happened. When all of the polls, by the media, independent agencies and the candidates showed Obama winning by a minimum of four points to a high of more than 10 points, and when the exit polls, where people who have already voted are asked how they voted, and they report Obama winning, how is it possible that Obama lost?

Granted, Hillary did a good job in the debate, and the show of emotion at the diner when someone asked her how she kept herself looking so good helped her, but an overnight swing that huge? And why wouldn't the exit polls show Hillary winning?

The only explanation that makes sense to me is the Bradley Effect. That is a phenomena first observed 25 years ago, when Tom Bradley, black mayor of California, ran for govenor against a white candidate. Bradley had consistent leads in the polls, and the exit polls taken after people had voted on election day showed Bradley winning, but he lost. The same phenomena has been observed with other black candidates, such as Douglas Wilder, the black governor of Virginia, and others.

The theory is that white people are reluctant to admit prejudice or to appear prejudiced and will tell pollsters that they will vote for the black candidate, but once in the polling booth, when no one knows how they voted, they vote for the white candidate. The Bradley Effect would not have come into play in the Iowa caucuses that Obama won so handily because there are no secret ballots; everyone can see who everyone else is supporting.

The Bradley Effect does not mean a black candidate can never win a secret ballot; Obama won the Illinois Senate race handily and other black candidates have won elections. It does mean that in a very close election, the black candidate would be at a disadvantage.

My initial reaction last night to the Obama defeat is that if it was the Bradley Effect that beat him, he's done as a candidate. Democrats do not have the luxury of nominating a candidate who might lose a close election, like the last two elections have been, because of the candidate's race. In looking around the blogosphere, I see there are bloggers, like the Daily Kos, making the argument that there could not have been a Bradley Effect in New Hampshire because Obama pulled about the same percentage of actual votes as had been predicted, Clinton won because she exceeded the percentage of votes that had been predicted for her. I don't understand that argument but I'm hoping it is correct.

At this point, I'm not abandoning my support for Obama. I still think he would make the best candidate and the best president. We'll just have to see how this plays out.

Now, I will not bore you with any more political ramblings. I need to tell you about the great movie I saw last weekend, Juno, my first five-star movie of the year. But that will have to wait until later.

Later note: Here's an Op-Ed piece in Thursday's New York Times by the head of the Pew Research Center offering support for the idea that the Bradley Effect was the determining factor in the New Hampshire voting.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Some Thoughts About Politics

As veterans of this blog know, I have long been a Barack Obama fan. Not always, though. When Obama first ran for the U.S. Senate, in 2004, he was in a Democratic primary crowded with better known and better funded candidates. Son Number Two called my attention to him as someone worthy of support, but I didn't want to waste my vote on someone who had no chance. He seemed to come out of nowhere to win the Democratic primary that year, and then, when he gave the electrifying speech at the Democratic convention that year, I was convinced that this is a man destined for great things.

The knock on Obama has been that a black man cannot get enough votes from the white majority to win a presidential election. I didn't buy that argument even before the Iowa caucuses last night. Obama won white votes in the Democratic senatorial primary in Illinois, enough to defeat better funded and better known white candidates, and elections of people like Wilder, the black governor of Virginia, the capital of the old Confederacy, show that things like race are not as important as they once were. Sure there are overt racists who will not vote for Obama because of his race, but they weren't going to vote for the Democratic candidate in any event, certainly not for Hillary Clinton.

I have also long disliked Hillary Clinton. I went to hear her speak on the campus of the Big U in our town in 1992 when her husband was running for president, and came away impressed only with what a bad impression she made. Although she has my sympathy for how badly she has been treated by her husband, the media and professional Hilary Haters, like Rush Limbaugh, I do not think she has the capacity to lead. Not to say she isn't smart, but there is a difference between brain power and leadership.

As I have observed politics over all these many years, I have come to believe that a candidate's ability to reach people trumps almost everything else. The candidate has to come across as understanding the concerns of ordinary people and to be likeable, someone you'd want to have a beer with (if you were a beer drinker.) Hillary has a tin ear for how she comes across, in contrast to her husband who is almost magical in his abilities.

Hillary's campaign seems to have been built primarily on her inevitability as the Democratic candidate, the one with the money, the organization and the toughness to beat the Republicans. Lately, she has embraced "change" as a mantra, but she has a fundamental problem having to argue both that she is the most experienced candidate and she is the candidate of change. Although it is not impossible for an experienced person to also be an agent of change (think Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964,) those two concepts are not usually associated. Bill Clinton could probably make the sale on that idea; Hillary cannot (or more precisely has not up to this point.)

Obama has that undefinable ability to reach people. As does Mike Huckabee. I noticed the banner behind the stage on which Huckabee gave his victory speech last night in Iowa read, "I Like Mike." Dwight D. Eisenhower won the presidency twice with the almost identical slogan (minus one letter) "I Like Ike." Another thing I noticed, having watched both the Obama and the Huckabee victory speeches last night is that their messages were almost identical. Huckabee could have been reading from an Obama script as he proclaimed that people were tired of the bickering in Washington; that Americans were one people, that we should not be tearing each other down, etc.

I don't think Obama has the nomination wrapped up. Clinton still has a substantial lead in the opinion polls in New Hampshire. She has her husband stumping for her full time. She has money and organization. But she has lost the argument on electability and inevitability, and without those what are her assets? I do not believe she will get many votes because of her likeability. With five days to turn things around in New Hampshire, what is she going to do that she hasn't already tried?

If Obama does win New Hampshire and wins South Carolina, then I think the battle is all over and Obama will be the Democratic nominee.

Which leads me to my next subject: "Heartbreak." Time after time, I have gotten excited about a president, only to have become disillusioned. I thought Jimmy Carter really was going to make a difference. After four years of his bungling, I voted for Ronald Reagan, as a protest. I really did think Bill Clinton was going to make a difference. Actually, he did accomplish many things, including getting rid of a deficit that had been predicted to balloon indefinitely for years; getting an economy to boom nonstop for eight years; passing legislation that helped people like the Family Medical Leave Act and other things. But his inability to keep his pants zipped, eventually distracted from his many accomplishments.

Nevertheless, I haven't learned my lesson. I still have hope. Go Obama, go.