Friday, July 25, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner!

"The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christian and Muslim and Jew cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down."
SENATOR BARACK OBAMA, speaking in Berlin.

Presidents are great ones for making speeches in Berlin. You probably don't remember John F. Kennedy, do you? He had such a smart wife. She knew languages and people. But she was on the quiet side. Upper crust. Back then, if a woman used a family name as a middle name they were upper crust. Later on, they were feminists. But JFK made a great speech in Berlin one time. "Ich bin ein Berliner," he said.

Kennedy is remembered for this line. It was actually a gaff of sorts. "All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words "Ich bin ein Berliner!" Apparently after the show, Jacqueline corrected Jack's grammar, telling him that he had actually told the crowd, "I am a jelly donut." The crowd was forgiving and the speech went off famously.

Then there was the speech that Ronald Reagan made. That was significant.

When I was a little girl, the great communist horror was symbolized by a great wall in Berlin that symbolized oppression and lack of free speech, movement, and commerce.

"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," said Reagan in 1987. And within a short while really, gates were opened and the wall came down. People took pieces of that wall and gave them as souvenirs.

Even Bill Clinton made a speech in Berlin, where he tried his hand at simple German. "Berlin ist frei" ("Berlin is free"), he said, in July of 1994.

So you have added your voice to a great crowd of witnesses to the importance of . . . what? Our relationship to Germany? Maybe. Or maybe to just to the power of language and the fine way words can go together. I'm glad your voice resonates so well.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Simple Love Like That

Dear Son and Friend,

I was listening to a song by Alison Krauss yesterday. I do enjoy her music. Is it bluegrass, folk, some kind of country? Whatever it is, I like it. She sang a ballad entitled Simple Love. Click that link to see the full lyrics.

But here is the gist of it, she describes her grandfather and his love for his family and wishes:
I want a simple love like that,
Always giving never asking back.
When I'm in my final hour looking back
I hope I had a simple love like that.
That is a great lyric.

But, as I think about it, is that what I believe about love? Yes and no. I believe that lyric describes the beauty of a wonderful friendship. Friendship can and should be pretty openhanded, not asking too much. A nice friendship can operate uncommittedly, without demands. In a friendship, you can love, and give, and never ask back. In a friendship, if one person gives and the other does not, well, that's ok. The giving friend can either continue giving or stop. And that's ok. The definitions are loose. The love described in this song, is lovely. I envision a hand reaching out unclasped and another hand lying on top, supported but ungrasped. And if those two hands stay together for a long time. That is beautiful. And when I reach my final hour, I do hope that I can say, I've had some simple loves like that.

But let's talk about love in family and marriage. Does this lyric describe that kind of love in a healthy way? I have to say no. Marriage to me is a commitment to more than a simple love.

It is a promise of an extremely complicated and growing kind of love, not always asking, but sometimes asking, not always giving back, but as much as possible, giving back. The picture I have in my mind is of two hands grasping, clutching, holding on for dear life. Not a light touch, or a quick high five, but a desperate measure that withstands the wrenches and pulls of a mighty difficult tempest of a world.

When I was deciding to marry, one of the things that I considered was whether I could fight with that person, knock down, drag out, and come out the other side still holding on for dear life. Plus I wanted a person to whom I could go and say, "I need," with the confidence that he would say, "I care." And, I wanted to become a person to whom my spouse could come at the worst of times and say, "Help!" and I would be there to help. It isn't completely selfless, like Krauss would have us believe her grandfather was, but, I think it makes for a marriage that is a partnership.

My husband, (Dad to you) and I have endured some difficult times--illness, stress, financial crisis, junk--and at those times, a simple love did not get us through, but a complicated one did, one that was codependent and exhaustive, a love that asked and gave back, that gave and asked back.

I wish you that kind of love and a long life of giving, and taking.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Whose Eyes Were Watching God?

Dear Zora Neale Hurston,

I have discovered your work (imagine) after all these years. "Why," I thought, "had I never heard of you?" Then, I realized, that it was a matter of timing.

Alice Walker rediscovered you in 1975, the very year I left educational institutions behind and cloistered myself in a world of non-fiction and children's books, laundry and camping trips, churches and crock pots, Chinese culture (a blog topic for another day) and an occasional opera.

So Zora Hurston, author of Mules and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God and, Seraph of the Suwanee was for me unknown until the renowned scholar Brannon Costello, author of Plantation Airs, pointed you out to me. At first, your work seemed a curiosity, for I started with Mules and Men. Almost quaint. I think I was surprised. As I read about your research I was reminded of some work I had done once in a small library operated in the basement of the Smoky Mountains tourist center. There, I sat sifting through old documents looking for curiosities of the region to supplement a project I was doing for a technology company.

I found stories written by "oldtimers," as they were called; I met people who had lived in the park area before they were forced to move out by FDR; I joined in some shaped note sings and generally fell in love with a very distinct cultural experience.

Your work carries that same beautiful colloquial feel, but it is different too. It liberally brandishes dialects and expressions, stories and myths, but I say the work is almost quaint because of my own quaint ignorance. It is not quaint, I think. It is instead, not written for me, not contingent upon me as a reader at all. It is not trying to charm me with its vernacular approach, but is simply exposing me to it. Me, an outsider, me, the stranger, me, odd man out.

Is that the power of your books resurrected in 1975 to a new life beyond the grave of the 50's and 60's? Is the immensity of your influence as a writer to been seen not in the remarkable anthropological assiduity of your work, but in the acceptance of the full human dialogue represented in the architecture of this language form. And you, Zora, refused to allow that dialogue to go unrecorded.

You said in your autobiography, "Research is formalized curiousity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein."

Need I say that I'm impressed.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Simon and Garfunkel 101: Ooh!

Woman 1: "Ooh! Let me show you. Let me show you our picture. This was me and my husband when we were first married."
Woman 2: "I always slept on one side, left room for my husband."
Woman 1: "And that's me when we were sixteen"
Woman 2: "But this, this, this, this is not the case. I still do it. I still lay on the half of the bed. (pause) We used to sneak in. . . "

Dear Barack Obama,

I've laid on my side of the bed almost longer than you have lived, so I want to tell you a little about loving and about growing up and what is important. And what it takes to get beyond 16. Too many people keep going back to 16, back to when we didn't know up from down or yes from no. But we do so need more real adults around here.

Back a ways, when I was 16, life and sex and marriage had a little different taste. Not that the sex drive has changed all that much. (Did you know that even old women can still pant long after their children think that our sexual pleasures should be relegated to long term memory?) But the flavor of sex back then was tinged with a certain reality. The reality was that sex often led to procreation. That procreation was good and anticipated by married couples. When my husband moved over into my side of the bed, we had fun and we had children.

But there was a dark side. Most of culture, religious and non-religious, painted that darkness upon couples, and, particularly, women who tasted sex and then pregnancy before they tasted a wedding cake. One of my first jobs was at a home for girls, "predelinquent girls" they were called. They carried with them a tang of the outcast, each wearing some style of scarlet letter affixed to their lives. People helped them, but not without attaching to these beautiful, young Eves a stigma, a curse.

The best thing that resulted from the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, was that some people finally were forced to reassess their view of women who carried children to birth, married or not. These women, we came to see, were neither delinquent nor cursed, but were indeed responsibly mature and blessed. That has been the shining beauty of Roe v. Wade. People think of Roe v. Wade as the decision that opened the doors to abortion. It did that. But I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about a cultural shift that has changed life for those women and girls who are not married but are pregnant and choose to give their babies birth.

I've raised three girls to womanhood. Any mother thinks, at some point, what words would I say, were my daughter (or son) to come to me and say, "I'm not married, but I'm going to have a child"? I decided what my response would be, were I ever to need one. My answer is, "A child is always good. Let us rejoice in this life. How wonderful!"

Last March, in answer to a question about this subject, you said, "Look, I got two daughters — 9 years old and 6 years old, I am going to teach them first about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby." Of course I don't agree with everything you say politically. But this isn't politics, so I'm going to give you some grandma type advice. If your daughters ever come to you and talk about a baby that is their own, DON'T call it a mistake. Don't curse that child. A life, young and new, whether mother or baby, is not delinquent because of a pregnancy. Call it beautiful. Call it blessed. Call it theirs. Call it yours. Call it love.

And punished? I think that there is a lie being told to a whole generation of potential parents. They are being told by everyone from Jerry Seinfeld to you, Barack Obama, that children are a punishment. This is a lie. I have never experienced any joy in life that even remotely compares to the joy of holding my babies. You know that I'm speaking the truth, because you have Malia and Sasha. Ooh, I'm not trying to be slobbery. I'm just reminding you, and a whole generation, that life and meaning is not found in self-indulgence and purposeless pleasuring. It is, however, found in the kind of responsible decisions and sacrifice that result in strong families and healthy children, like mine and like yours. It's no mistake and it is not punishment.

Sure, not everyone will become a parent, but the truth of the matter is, no one is ready to do it until they do it, and it is in this type of mature embracing of responsible living that brings an individual to adulthood. Fully responsible adults arise from the ranks of those who embrace their lives, their own and their children, not because they are picture perfect but because they are theirs, and because they savor the goodness that comes with it all.

And this, this, this, really is the case.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Why Opera! An Apology.

Dear Conversely,

I have been thinking about our conversation regarding opera. I understand that on the first listen an opera can be disconcerting and sometimes less than viscerally enjoyable. However, I wanted to explain why I love it so, and even if you don't become a fan, I know you will understand the basics of the attraction.

Opera, for me is more than a music genre. It doesn't exist, in my mind, as a contrast to Rock, Blues, Jazz, or Country (some of which I like). It exists, instead, as a higher form of art, and one that stands on a special plane because it combines so many things. Opera incorporates poetry and literature in the libretto, the highest form of vocal music, orchestral music, drama, as well as all the artistic accoutrements of extensive stage production with lighting, costuming, sets, even special effects.

As I listen to opera, I experience the same kind of heart-pounding awefilled response that one gets when reading a climactic line in a poem. The thing is, you get that, over and over, first through the libretto, then through a musical motif, then through fine acting, then through the profundity of the set design. And as with all good art, the more you see a particular opera, the better it gets. You begin to anticipate moments, saying in your mind, "How will this soprano treat the mad aria in I Puritani," or "Will they use the full dramatic effect of the orchestral interlude in the scene where Tosca murders Scarpia?"

Opera does take work to be able to enjoy it fully. Before I listen to an opera for the first time, I study a synopsis of the plot line. If I can, I find one with the musical motifs so I can play them on my piano and begin to familiarize myself with the sounds. After I have heard an opera several times, sometimes I get hold of a libretto to read the lyrics.

I have to say, our culture and educational system has done too little to train the ears of the general public for the appreciation of the higher forms of music in general and opera in particular. When I attend the opera here in Knoxville, I am always stunned that it is an event for the white hairs. I look around the still-crowded audience and see that it is composed of people my age or older, with a scattering of students. "My," I say to myself, "what they are missing." The Metropolitan Opera from NYC, in the last couple of years has been doing a great thing broadcasting a limited (and very fine) venue to high definition theaters. I think, actually, it may be rescuing opera for the next generation.

I was just a little younger than you when I first began listening to, and then, enjoying opera. What did I see first? Hm.m.m, I can't recall. I suppose I don't remember the early ones so much because it was work, and not so enjoyable. I do remember a Tosca (by Giaccomo Puccini) at the Met after I was first married, probably in 1976. The soprano wasn't vocally at the top of her career. But I remember the drama as she placed candles, first at Scarpia's left shoulder, then at his right shoulder, rose, turned to face the audience with a confessional stare, and then fled the stage. The enormous audience was silent, speechless, and then erupted with applause, and bravos, hoots, and flowers. A strange man a few seats from us, waved his beret and shouted, "She's the only Tosca, she's the only Tosca." Those moments become unforgettable.

And I remember my first Peter Grimes. That's an opera by Benjamin Britten. The set was stark. The thing I remember most was a fishing boat in the the center of the stage.

That set was designed to communicate the existential loneliness of Grimes. More recently I saw a Grimes setting that was designed to emphasize a totally different aspect of the opera. The main feature of the set was a wall of buildings symbolizing the town and the barriers it had built in relation to Grimes, who could never gain access to the heart of the community.

My family used to watch Met Broadcasts on television. We would listen for the credits at the end to hear the regular reference to the man who handled the lighting for years, Gil Wechsler. I don't know what made us diehard Gil Wechsler fans, but we were. Excellence in the details of such things as lighting, is the kind of thing that takes a fine opera performance and turns it into a work of art.

So, that is a little bit of "Why Opera?" I could go on and on. But I will leave it at that for now, hoping, a little bit, that you will give it another try. (I think I'd recommend Puccini---Tosca, La Boheme, or Turandot.)

In the comments section I will add some links to good examples of some of the other things I like about opera.


Thursday, July 03, 2008

Simon and Garfunkel III: Anytime I Walk

Dear Barack Obama,

"So anytime I walk with Lou and... that's all."

When I was young, gasoline cost $.27. We got into motor cars and toured. We thought that a super highway was four lanes wide (Wow!) and really was "Super!" The turnpike was made of concrete and when you drove along it, the lullabye of the tires went ka-thunk, ka-thunk.
Now, it seems that gasoline prices are so high, that anytime I want to go somewhere, with Lou or with anyone, I think, I should walk, that's all. But I don't need to go anywhere, because I have the internet. And, it takes me everywhere, with not so much as a ka-thunk. . . just the gentle click of the keys. See?

The click of the keys to go somewhere is my point, not the price of gas. For the internet is our super highway. And it is faster, wider, longer, and more critical than the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. When I was younger, and this sweet young girl was helping me learn how to use a computer, she said, "Look, Mrs. D., it's like a system of highways, and the url is the address you are headed for." She was a nice young girl with red hair. She told me she didn't want to have children. But finally she did. And isn't she happy now! I told her, but she didn't believe me. But she told me about computers, and I am so happy.

Today, the internet is as important as highways, do you see? So that is why you are going to have to make the way the country handles the internet one of the things to add to the list of things you have to change. Even Vint Cerf says so, and he helped Al Gore make the internet, they say.

I don't know so much about it, and even Vint seems to be a little unsure of what this change should be.TechCrunch first reported that Vint Cerf, Google's internet evangelist made the radical suggestion that the internet should be nationalized. Then it seems he backed off from that a little, saying that the government should be involved in encouraging internet competition, more like blocking certain monopolistic actions.

Anyhow, you need to look into this, because highways are important, and keeping them running right has always been something the government does. There isn't any doubt, in my mind that our newest system of transportation needs to run smoothly, and without too many ka-thunk ka-thunks.