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High School Musical Theatre History Lesson Plan 

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Next week, we are starting our unit on musical theatre in the 1950s. Here is the first 90 minute lesson plan to start an 8 day unit. (Yikes! Short!) If this is of use to another teacher, GREAT. I’m posting it for a more selfish reason… I’m on spring break and things start to get really busy for me this weekend so I need to plan out the entire week of 3/27-4/3. And I don’t feel like lesson planning… so I’m “blogging” right now… but really I’m lesson planning. These are really instructions to myself. Enjoy, I guess?

As students are walking in, instruct them to get a chromebook and a packet.

Project the following words on the board. As students are getting pencil and paper out, read the instructions verbally and allow students to write (7 minutes)

  • Today we begin our unit on the 1950s!
  • You will have the opportunity to preview 5 1950s scripts and choose the one you want to read.
  • To decide which script you want to read, you will research 10 images associated with each musical.
  • To start, please think of a favorite movie, novel, musical, or play. Write down 10 images or objects that you associate with it.

Call on 2-3 students to share out what they wrote (I use Popsicle sticks) and project the following instructions, reviewing them verbally (8 min — 15 total)

  • You will read one 1950s script in a small group (literature circle). Your choice of script is:
  • Guys and Dolls (1950)
  • The King and I (1951) 
  • My Fair Lady (1956)
  • West Side Story (1957)
  • Gypsy (1959) 
  • Today you will have 12 minutes to spend with a folder of 10 images from each script. For as many images as possible, you will research the connection between the image and the musical and write your findings down in your packet.
  • Then, at the end of class, you will rank your preference of script from 1-5 and decide what role you would prefer to have in your group.
  • Assign groups of four and a starting script for each group
  • You will know it is time to move to a different script/folder when the musical theatre show tunes stop.
  • Divide up the images between the four members of your group so as a group, you can cover them all.
  • Questions?

Students rotate through the different folders and images and complete their packet. (60 minutes — 75 minutes total)

Bring students to attention. Guide students through the packet and have them rank their script and lit circle role (12 minutes — 87 total)

Put chromebooks back and return folders with images (3 min — 90 total)

Packet Page 1:

Guys and Dolls (1950)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to Guys and Dolls? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Dice
  2. Sneeze
  3. Bible
  4. Boa
  5. New York
  6. Map of Cuba
  7. Engagement ring
  8. Frank Sinatra
  9. Mission Band
  10. Boat

Packet Page 2:

The King and I (1951)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to The King and I? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Whistle
  2. Chalkboard
  3. Buddha
  4. Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  5. Anna
  6. King of Siam
  7. King’s Wives
  8. March of the Siamese Children
  9. Rogers and Hammerstein
  10. Cupid

Packet Page 3:

My Fair Lady (1956)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to My Fair Lady? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Pygmalion
  2. Chocolates
  3. Gramophone
  4. Flask
  5. Flowers
  6. Ascot Gavotte
  7. Rain in Barcelona
  8. London early 1900s
  9. Embassy Ball Scene
  10. Freddy

Packet Page 4:

West Side Story (1957)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to West Side Story? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Puerto Rican flag
  2. New York City late 1950s
  3. Knife
  4. Gun
  5. Romeo and Juliet
  6. The Jets
  7. The Sharks
  8. Jerome Robbins
  9. Leonard Bernstein
  10. “There’s a Place for Us”

Packet Page 5:

Gypsy (1959)

On the back of this page, please write the meaning of each of the following objects/images. In other words, how does the object/image connect to Gypsy? You will need to research this on your chromebook. As stated previously, divide the images up between the members of your group.

  1. Ethel Merman
  2. a rose
  3. boa
  4. Stage Mom
  5. Rose and Herbie
  6. vaudeville
  7. Louise and June
  8. a star
  9. Bernadette Peters
  10. Stephen Sondheim

Packet Page 6:

Based on your brief research today, please rank the script that you are most interested in reading for the 1950s unit. To do this, write the names of the shows in order of “most want to read” to “least want to read” on the back of this page.

Once again, the shows are:

  • Guys and Dolls (1950)
  • The King and I (1951) 
  • My Fair Lady (1956)
  • West Side Story (1957)
  • Gypsy (1959) 

You will play a specific role in your reading group. You may be a:

  • Researcher (of production team, source material, production processes…)
  • Summarizer (of plot, themes, characters…)
  • Illustrator (of scenes, choreography, sets…)

Please write the names of the roles in order of “most want to do” to “least want to do” on the back of this page underneath your script ranking.

 

 

Building, Literally and Figuratively

My dad wrote this article the other day and it moved me. I want to share it with you:

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I usually write about leadership and business issues in the design and construction industry. Today, however, it’s hard to avoid commenting on public debates that challenge us in America and around the world. Some of them are about building, literally and figuratively.

Architects love walls. They’re fundamental in what we do: outside, inside, tall, short, transparent, opaque. They shelter us from heat, cold, and rain, separate things that need privacy within buildings, and provide all kinds of opportunities for interesting design statements. They hold things up. They’re constructive and valuable.

Walls in the political sense have a less useful, more insidious meaning. We’ve become obsessed with defining ourselves, and dividing ourselves, from people and ideas that seem threatening. Different. Foreign – even in our own communities.

For example, my home town has 91 municipalities in a single urban county. They have interesting historical roots, but today they often consume our energy as people compete with each other, locally, rather than addressing the real competition for talent and investment that’s half a world away. It’s no surprise that the region isn’t growing.

On a national level the divides between backgrounds, races, and ideologies have never been sharper in my lifetime. We see threats all around us and are quick to create walls between us and “them” – the “other.” We create some of those walls with language and behavior, and in some cases they’re physical – like the idea of a kind of medieval barrier against our neighboring countries. We’re all trying to be architects now.

The idea of protective walls is certainly not new. We all know about the Wall of Jericho, the Great Wall of China, the walls and moats fortifying human settlements from hostile forces through the ages. The walls repelled the attackers, at least for a period of time, when the assault was based on numbers and brute force. That notion is quaint but irrelevant in our age of instant communication and global travel. We have strong national values but multi-national populations in much of the world.

I was reminded of the photo above, which I took on a London street in 1978. The subject is an immigrant, perhaps from Pakistan or India, holding a bright red can of Coke and with a bright yellow paperback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in his jacket pocket. I think I was struck by those colors, which worked well with my Kodachrome slide film. Only later did I think about the meaning of the image, with its convergence of contrasts between nationalities in England, races in 20th-century America, and the commercial symbols that transcend them all. Who knows what real barriers this gentleman had overcome and has faced since?

This week I had two Uber drivers on a trip to Dallas. The first was from Iran, a member of the Baha’i faith, who talked freely about his new political and religious freedom. The second was from Iraq; he apologized for his poor English but expressed pride that his three young children spoke perfect English and were teaching him. Both drivers expressed great appreciation for their opportunities in America. They love our country. Are they “us,” or “them”?

In The Language of Postmodern Architecture, Charles Jencks declared that modern architecture died with demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis. In the same vein, perhaps we should hope that Ronald Reagan set the stage for a new generation with one of the best-known challenges of the last century: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!” It worked. We should do as well.

Hook, The Crucible

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This lesson is for the beginning of the second week of my school year. It’s the “hook” to get students interested in the play, The Crucible. (The first week of school will be spent building rapport, practicing policies and procedures, including this lesson on Growth vs. Fixed Mindset).  I introduced the book this way last year, and for the most part it was successful… except for one student whose phone I took away in the first couple days of school and who proceeded to write that I was her personal crucible. Yup, except for that 🙂 I’ve made a few tweaks to the order of things. If you’re interested in a copy of the PowerPoint I use, comment or contact me at gingerodonnell.com.  This lesson runs about 90 minutes.

 

  1. Students google the definition of the word, crucible. There are multiple definitions. They should write all of the definitions. (5 min)
  2. As a class, analyze the different definitions. How are they connected? How can we take these different, connected definitions and create a new definition in our own words? (5 min)
  3. Tell students that they will write a paragraph (or more) about a personal crucible they have experienced, or someone they are close to has experienced, based on the definition of crucible we have created. Model this first by reading your own (this activity continues to build rapport in the beginning of the year) — I am planning to write about my sister-in-law’s first few months on a remote Pacific island in the Peace Corps (also a convenient way to plant the Peace Corps seed in my students’ minds). (15 min)
  4. Students pair up with the person sitting next to them (all my classes have seating charts, alphabetical order in the beginning of the year) and share what they wrote. (7 min)
  5. Call on four partners to share out with the class what their partner wrote. In the beginning of the year, popsicle sticks come in handy to randomly select sharers, or you can take volunteers if students are eager to share. (10 min)
  6. Explain to students that there are really two crucibles taking place in the play, The Crucible: one that forms the action of the plot, and one that is subtext. Project the definition of subtext on the board and have students write it down: an underlying meaning in a literary or dramatic work, sub meaning under, text meaning text, in other words, the meaning you find when you read between the lines. 
  7. Define Crucible #1 in The Crucible: a bunch of teenage girls and older women are falsely accused of witchcraft and the justice system doesn’t protect them. 
  8. Explain to students that a mnemonic device helps you remember something. In this case, we’re using the song “Witchy Woman” by the Eagles to remember Crucible #1 that we just defined. Play the song and provide students with a copy of the lyrics, either on the projector or on a handout.

“Witchy Woman”
The Eagles 1970s

Raven hair and ruby lips
sparks fly from her finger tips
Echoed voices in the night
she’s a restless spirit on an endless flight
wooo hooo witchy woman, see how
high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman she got
the moon in her eye
She held me spellbound in the night
dancing shadows and firelight
crazy laughter in another
room and she drove herself to madness
with a silver spoon
woo hoo witchy woman see how high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman she got the moon in her eye
Well I know you want a lover,
let me tell your brother, she’s been sleeping
in the Devil’s bed.
And there’s some rumors going round
someone’s underground
she can rock you in the nighttime
’til your skin turns red
woo hoo witchy woman
see how high she flies
woo hoo witchy woman
she got the moon in her eye

9. Define Crucible #2 (Subtext): in the 1950s, there was a witch hunt led by Senator Joseph McCarthy to hunt down communists. Professors and leaders in higher education, Hollywood, theatre, radio, and television were especially targeted. In this situation, too, the justice system didn’t protect them. 

10. Play “Get That Communist Joe” to remember Crucible #2. (20 min)

“Get That Communist, Joe”
The Kavaliers 1954

Joe, come here a minute
I get a red hot tip for you, Joe

See that guy with the red suspenders
Driving that car with the bright red fenders
I know he’s one of those heavy spenders
Get that Communist Joe

He’s fillin’ my gal with propaganda
And I’m scared she will meander
Don’t want to take a chance that he’ll land her
Get that Communist Joe

He’s a most revolting character
And the fellas hate him so
But with the girls this character
Is a Comrade Romeo

Since my love he’s sabotaging
And the law he has been dodging
Give him what he deserves, jailhouse lodging
Get that Communist Joe (Get that Shmo, Joe)

11. Students take notes on 12 PowerPoint slides, expounding on four key points (30 min)

  • Puritanism
  • Witchcraft
  • McCarthyism
  • Arthur Miller

12. HW: Read “The Great Fear” by J. Ronald Oakley (about 20 pages), a “related reading” from The Crucible and Related Readings; provide students with a bookmark defining target vocabulary words as they read and inform them that there will be a brief 5 question reading quiz next class

A Brief History of Willpower

Sarah Robinson An Affair with Chocolate CC BY 2.0I find myself invoking the old D.A.R.E. mantra, “Just say no!” when face-to-face with a bag of Peanut M&Ms or a gooey brownie or say, an entire jar of Nutella. I have a serious weakness for chocolate, and “just say[ing] no” ain’t that easy. I was at my wit’s end a few weeks ago, bemoaning my lack of self-control, when I happened upon The New York Times bestseller Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney. I can’t say I bought it entirely devoid of the hope that it would help me unlock my potential for resisting temptation, but it’s also just an interesting read that unpacks a rather elusive concept. Here’s a summary of what I learned in the introduction:

According to psychologists, two qualities determine success and well-being in life: intelligence and self-control. The latter is a malleable quality — like a muscle, it “can…be strengthened over the long term through exercise,” according to Baumeister. When Baumeister and his colleagues conducted a study of over 200 Germans wearing beepers that randomly sounded, requiring the participants to report on the status of their desires, they concluded that “people spend at least a fifth of their waking hours resisting desires,” that “desire [is] the norm, not the exception.” (The desire to eat topped the list, a temptation the participants claimed to be only mediocre at resisting, as compared to the desire to sleep, have sex, or spend money, which made me feel a little better about the moments when I’ve been caught licking spoonfuls of Nutella out of the jar…) Point being, exercising willpower is tough. The authors suggest that it’s gotten tougher throughout history, citing a rigid social hierarchy, a reduced set of temptations, and the enforcing powers of the Catholic church and the threat of public disgrace as reasons why the notion of willpower didn’t exist during the Middle Ages.

The term came about during the Victorian Age, when the decline of religion and the societal changes associated with the Industrial Revolution, such as urbanization, led people to fret about the upholding of moral standards. “They began using the term willpower,” according to Baumeister and Tierney, “because of the folk notion that some kind of force was involved — some inner equivalent to the steam powering the Industrial Revolution.” The popularity of the willpower concept declined in the twentieth century, not least because the mindset of duty and self-sacrifice led to mass deaths during World War I, as well as the Nazi party’s exploitation of such values as obedience and self-denial, even titling propaganda films “The Triumph of the Will.”

Following World War II, the advertising industry in the newly booming economy encouraged Americans to strive for popularity and prosperity, with books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and The Power of Positive Thinking replacing Self-Help and The Power of the Will. Self-help authors espoused the “feel-good philosophy” of achieving success through self-confidence, the “believe it, achieve it” mentality. It seems that with this greater emphasis on positivity, the country’s collective willpower declined somewhat. For example, in The Quest for Identity, psychoanalyst Allen Wheelis wrote that as a result of declining self-discipline, his clients had an easier time getting in touch with their neurotic tendencies (less “character armor” to break down) but they encountered more difficulty in making changes to their lives. Another reason for “the decline of the will” has to do with the prevailing belief among psychologists and social scientists that the conscious mind is ever subservient to the subconscious, that free will is essentially a fallacy. Even author Roy Baumeister was more focused on fostering self-esteem than self-control when he started his career in the 1970s, riding the wave of personal empowerment philosophy, with books like I’m OK — You’re OK and Awaken the Giant Within. 

The resurgence of self-control as an influential force in human life didn’t come from new theories or hypothesizes, but rather materialized as scientists were testing for other phenomenon. A man named Walter Mischel led a study in the 1960s testing how children resisted immediate gratification, in which children were given a marshmallow that they could eat at any time. If they waited to eat it until the experimenter returned, they would also be allowed to eat a second marshmallow. Most of the children who held out succeeded in delaying gratification by distracting themselves, an interesting finding in itself. Years later, Mischel tracked down the children from the experiment, discovering that the four-year-olds who resisted eating the first marshmallow possessed a host of positive traits connected to willpower as adults, from higher SAT scores to higher salaries to a lower body-mass index.

In Losing Control, Baumeister and his wife, Dianna Tice took stock of the benefits of self-control, and prompted a new wave of experiments on the topic. Self-control was found to be the best predictor of a student’s grade-point average, over IQ and SAT scores. It was also associated with higher levels of empathy, lower rates of mental illness, healthier relationships at home and at work, and better finances, among other things. Meanwhile, anthropologists and neuroscientists studied the evolutionary causes of willpower, concluding that humans developed larger brains along with the capability of self-control because of our social nature. The authors write, “Primates are social beings who have to control themselves in order to get along with the rest of the group… For animals to survive in such a group without getting beaten up, they must restrain their urge to eat immediately.”

The introduction ends by defining the elusive concept of “the will” as making conscious choices with a broader awareness of time, “treating the current situation as part of a general pattern.” I think that’s what I’m after re the spoonfuls of Nutella — “just saying no” enough so that giving in is the exception, not the rule, even if desire is a constant. In “Why Will Yourself to Read This?” the authors do promise some practical wisdom on that front, bolstered by social scientists’ understanding of what willpower is, how it works, and how it informs our understanding of the self. For anyone out there seeking greater productivity, better health, or just a sense of self-mastery, this book is worth a read. I’ll continue to post with more insights gleaned, but for now, more power to you.

Farewell Chicago

brunurb P1090489 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I have seven more nights to sleep in my Chicago bed. Seven more 5:30 am snoozes filled in by the sound of dump trucks reversing, ambulances speeding, cabbies honking, and heels clicking on pavement outside my bedroom window. Am I feeling nostalgic? Not so much, as a matter of fact. I’ve reached a point where the allure of the city, in all its gritty, gray, urban glory, has faded for me. I’m ready for a shorter commute. I’m ready for bigger patches of green grass, for big, old trees that aren’t plopped in the middle of a concrete sidewalk with a copper plate covering for protection. I’m ready for pizza that isn’t Chicago style pizza — and yes, that especially includes Imo’s, even if it does resemble “Velveeta on a cracker.” I’m ready for snow that melts, rather than transforming into a coal-black packed powder for weeks on end. I’m ready for longer springs, longer autumns, shorter, warmer winters.

Did I mention that I’m ready? At the same time, I’m already anticipating that moment when the absence of all that Chicago has to offer suddenly tugs at me, when suddenly I’m aware that I’ve given up a great deal and I can’t go back to it. I know it’s coming. So here’s a little list of Chi town places I’ll especially miss, hopefully with some appeal for both readers well-acquainted and completely unfamiliar with the windy city:

The Old Town School of Folk Music is one of my favorite places to see live music in Chicago. In addition to offering a wide range of classes in a wide range of instruments for both kids and adults, Old Town hosts so many great concerts. This March I saw Los San Patricios, a concert about Irish immigrants’ contributions to the Mexican-American war, jointly produced by the Sones de Mexico and the Irish Music School of Chicago and featuring a fusion of Mexican and Irish music and dance. Another favorite was a performance a few years ago by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, performing songs from their joint album, Kin.

Joseph Kranak Signature Room CC BY 2.0LSD, as in Lakeshore Drive, is such a gem. The glint of sun on the corner of skyscrapers. Wide swaths of lake, stretching toward the horizon. Belmont Harbor, with its promise of leisurely summer days spent out on the water. An open view of Buckingham Fountain, whose spray hits the sky just so, making a rainbow. Joggers and bikers cutting their path, making the city feel lived in, alive. Warm days when the beaches are loaded with people. Cool days when the sand is iced over, windswept into craggy piles. Gray, dry  days when the city is a blend of blue, silver, and white.

Andrew Seaman Davis Theater CC BY-ND 2.0The Davis Theater, located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, is almost 100 years old, with a definite old-timey feel, established by antique posters, retro vending equipment, and four theaters displaying high, smallish screens and dingy, threadbare seats that you can’t help but love. It’s a refreshing respite from the brightly lit, commercial complexes where movies are more frequently shown today. Perhaps it’s most admirable feature, though, is the name — speaking as one, it’s hard not to love a “Davis” 🙂

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.32.31 AMSpeaking of Davis’s, I will sorely miss Davis Street Fish Market, purporting on their website to be “Chicago’s #1 Seafood Destination.” I have a long history with this place. I recall eating there with my parents on a college visit to Northwestern, and celebrating my graduation there a few years later. These days my husband and I like to journey over to Evanston on a Friday night for some “Crescent City Cioppino,” replete with scallops, crawfish, clams, shrimp, mussels, tomato, and fennel, or maybe some Jambalaya. Well, we used to. I suppose I’ll need a new seafood spot in the Lou.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 11.58.32 AMI’m not a big shopper, but I have some great memories of sorting through Knee Deep Vintage‘s collection of dresses, t-shirts, bags, and shoes. Open since 2008, the shop is located on 18th Street, in Pilsen, on Chicago’s south side. I bought an army green dress with a gold print, 1950s-style, with a cinched waist, stiff collar and 3-quarter cuffed sleeves, and pleated flare skirt that I was intent on sporting for Halloween, Mad Men style, but it’s just been hanging in my closet for the last five years. I finally donated it the other day. Still, it was a rare find, and I’m glad I went knee deep for it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 12.12.52 PMDak is a Korean barbecue joint near my house whose praises I also sung on the site Food Riot. A clean, spare, small space with blonde wooden tables, gray floors, and plentiful spools of paper towels, Dak is good for two versions of wings: one with a soy/garlic/ginger sauce, and a spicy red pepper version. Rice bowls are also on the menu, containing veggies, a fried egg, and a sweet/spicy red pepper sauce, but my favorite is their Bulgogi — thinly sliced steak lightly dredged in Korean barbecue sauce served alongside a sticky mound of white rice. They also make a mean eggroll and a tasty batch of sweet potato waffle fries that are hard to resist.

Screen Shot 2015-03-31 at 3.06.01 PMSpeaking of neighborhood haunts, it’ll be hard to part with Devon Market. The Edgewater grocery store has fresh bread baked in store, a large produce section, a wide assortment of Mexican style meats, international pantry items, and is such a bargain compared to the bigger chains.

Patrick Emerson Follow Harold Washington Library Patrick Emerson CC BY-ND 2.0How I’ll miss the Harold Washington Library, and the entire Chicago Public Library system. The sheer size and vibrancy of Chicago’s libraries, housed in so many beautiful and historic locations, is something to be savored. (I think Sulzer Regional Library in Lincoln Square is a close second for me.) And for a bit of trivia, did you know that the city’s public library system was set into motion after the Great Chicago Fire, when 8,000 books were donated from England? Now you do 🙂

Rachel 365/28 Lao Sze Chuan CC BY-NC 2.0

Lao Sze Chuan is, hands down, my favorite place to eat Chinese food in the city. They have a delectable eggplant pork dish that’s soft and buttery and decadent, a mayonnaise shrimp item that sounds disgusting but is strangely addictive, delicious crispy beef dishes, irresistible steamed dumplings, and warm pots of fresh tea. That said, their menu is extensive, and in all my times eating there, I’ve only scraped the tip of the iceberg. Don’t take my word for it — this place has received numerous awards from the city’s culinary community. It’s a fairly widespread favorite.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 2.11.39 PMAnd… last, but certainly not least, I will miss Links Hall, a performance space for independent artists — a place to take risks, generate new work, and expose Chicago audiences to new horizons. With all its artistic offerings, I doubt Saint Louis has a place quite like it. Aw shucks.

So there you go. As I prepare to journey southward, I remember that Chicago is a loaded, special place, full of places and people and meals to be missed. What’s your favorite Chicago gem??

 

 

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” Part Two

“An artist seizes the passing moments that many of us forget, worries them through a whirl of sensitivity and sensibility, and elevates them into lasting artistic statements.” — Michelle Mercer

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)A few weeks ago I shared my obsession with Joni Mitchell after discovering music critic Michelle Mercer’s “Will You Take Me As I Am, Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period,” a brief analysis of the many aesthetic and philosophical approaches that make Joni’s music strike such an original chord with her devoted fans. Part history, part criticism, part biographical portrait, the book is a somewhat rambling and sprawling portrait of Mitchell around the making of Blue and subsequent albums For the Roses, Court and Spark, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, and Hejira. The organization of Mercer’s chapters often seems loose, even cobbled together, pulling together asides from her interviews with the singer-songwriter and bouncing back and forth from an array of tangential topics, but the bottom-line is that any bonafide Joni fan will delight in the specificity of Mercer’s praise for Joni’s music, finding a voice for an avid listener’s many unarticulated impressions. The last three chapters explore Joni’s stylistic evolution following Blue, the ways in which this defining work led her in new directions. Here’s a brief summary:

As mentioned in my previous post, Joni was very conflicted about her reputation as a “confessional” songwriter — she wanted her songs to be universal, to embody the experience of the listener, rendering references to specific events and people in her own life irrelevant. At the same time, the deep mining of self, the intense self-exposure that made Blue so aching and intimate, is one of Joni’s signature strengths as an artist. In “Beyond Personal Songwriting,” Mercer explores this defining feature of Mitchell’s sensibility and the forces that led her to move beyond it.

According to Mercer, one factor was that the up-and-coming songwriters of the 1970s, unlike Dylan, Mitchell, and Young in the 1960s, did not have the lyrical sophistication to transform autobiography into complex, universal truths. She writes that “the difference between earlier autobiographical songs and later ones is something like the difference between a piece of writing that evokes a ‘small sob in the spine of the reader,’ which is how Nabokov once described his writing aims, and a journal entry that vents feelings.” Another factor was the fading away of the 1960s counterculture — the previous crop of singer-songwriters implicated society in their exploration of personal struggles, and as this wave of disillusionment fell away, so did the muscle of their confessions.

So Joni responded in a couple of ways: she invented characters, rendering new songs more like dramatic monologues, and she recast her music in the rich sounds of world music. In the mid 1970s Joni recruited the band the L.A. Express for her promotional tour of Court and Spark, lending the album a new feeling of theatricality and artifice, in contrast to the idea of an exposed, vulnerable solo artist alongside her instrument, mining nothing more than her personal experience. The presence of a band also satisfied her new leanings toward more expansive, complex arrangements.

Court and Spark marked a radical departure from Blue — it was Joni’s first foray into full jazz arrangements, in addition to being chock full of characters, from music  mogul in “Free Man in Paris” to schizophrenic in “Twisted.” Her new jazz sound was casual, conversational, with a less angst-ridden orientation to romance. Mercer points out that the autobiographical still played a major role, though, such as with the title track, “Court and Spark,” based on Mitchell’s encounter with a crazy fan. Joni claims not to be influenced by the 1950s Beat poets, but according to Mercer, writers like Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg paved the way for this autobiographical approach, in which soul-searching produced the substance of art and writers sought to transcribe their consciousness onto the page as purely and transparently as possible.

“It never has been easy whether you do or do not resign, whether you travel the breadth of extremities or stick to some straighter line” — “Hejira,” Joni Mitchell

In “Breadth of Extremities,” Mercer charts the making of the album Hejira, among other pursuits, as well as Mitchell’s continued exploration of a familiar theme: the contrast between love and freedom, coming to terms with her own uprootedness. This is reflected in the album title, the word “hejira” coming from the arabic Hijra, referring to Muhammed’s migration to Medina. In other words, it’s a running away to find wisdom and enlightenment, versus a cowardly running away, or an attempt to escape. For example, in the song “Amelia” Joni conflates her desire for the open road, the inevitability with which she eventually leaves her lovers, to Amelia Earhart’s skyward journey, repeating “Amelia, it was just a false alarm” to mean, in Mercer’s reading, that just as Earhart “was swallowed by the sky,” Joni “spent [her] whole life in clouds at icy altitude” and it’s a false alarm to think that either will return home, literally or figuratively. Once again, a failed romance served as Joni’s muse — this time, her love affair with jazz drummer John Guerin.

Prior to Hejira, Joni experienced some marked extremes, beginning with a 1975 tour with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, featuring Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, T-Bone Burnett, and Ronee Blakely. This drug and alcohol filled “circus” is contrasted with Joni’s encounter with Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa in Boulder, Colorado. After their meeting in which he advised her to “just quit analyzing,” Mitchell claims to have “‘had no sense of ‘I’ or me, no self-consciousness for three days.'” As Mercer frames it, the writing of the album Hejira represents a sort of detox from the Rolling Thunder tour, Joni’s attempt to write herself back into the state of meditative contentment that Trungpa led her to.

Then Mercer embarks on a brief analysis of Hejira. She writes that Mitchell’s analysis of romantic love on the album reflects a “new distance…from her desires,” with songs like “A Strange Boy” as compared to ones like “All I Want” on Blue, speculating that this newfound distance is a “pervasive if subtle sign of Trungpa’s influence.” The instrumentation on Hejira is much thinner than Mitchell’s foray into lush jazz with Court and Spark, and the songs invoked a sense of wandering by mixing different keys and featuring the “unruly” (Joni’s word) bass lines of jazz musician Jaco Pastorius. The song “Refuge of the Roads” directly references Joni’s encounter with Trungpa — in the first line, “I met a friend of spirit” — and her plunge back into the evaluative, analytical, self-critical melancholy of an artist, leaving Trungpa for “the refuge of the roads.” Mercer writes that Hejira is “no less honest and hyper-expressive” than Blue, but “Mitchell suffered no crisis of self-exposure” because there is an overriding sense of self-acceptance, of making peace with the unresolved nature of love and romance. Mercer argues that this greater self-acceptance in her mid-thirties allowed Joni to focus outward on future albums like Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, outward toward social commentary and musical experimentation.

Mercer’s last chapter, entitled “Stuff Joni Likes or Even Loves,” seeks to dispel the myth of the bitter, disparaging crank that is often perpetuated by media interviews. Instead, Mercer explores Mitchell’s “lust for life” by compiling a simple list of her praise as a refreshing, interesting window into the artist’s mind, gathered from their interviews together and a few outside sources. To close out this rambling entry, here are some of my favorite “likes”:

  • “‘[Cigarettes are] a focusing drug. Everybody should just be forced to smoke.'”
  • “‘I used to look to Dylan or Neil [Young] for songwriting inspiration but now, there’s no one really cutting it, so you gotta turn to the short story tellers.”
  • “‘[Former Black Panthers] are my best audience. The ‘Joni Mitchell, she don’t lie’ school.'”

Pushing the Bard in House of Cards

Brian Rinker House of Cards CC BY 2.0I resurface today after too long of break from this site! My excuse is that I’ve been busy with all the details of moving. But I admit, I also have a little fessing up to do, because there’s a far less upstanding reason for my hiatus. It’s called Season 3 of House of Cards.

I was initially reminded to watch when I came across an article in this month’s issue of The Atlantic by Christopher Orr, called “Why the British Are Better at Satire.” Orr contrasts the American show with its BBC predecessor from 1990, in addition to critiquing Veep and its British counterpart, The Thick of It, as well as lamenting the general lack of satire on American TV, despite quite a few shows wheeling and dealing in Washington intrigue. From Orr’s vantage point, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are the closest we have to British satire, with their quick-witted, unrelenting, barbed sensibility.

In opposition to Jon Stewart’s fast-paced repartée, the American House of Cards is notably “declawed,” according to Orr. It amounts to melodrama, the stuff of soap operas, a “sleek, intriguing portrait in menace” versus the “jaunty” British version. Wile both American and British versions share the same, basic narrative arc — a politically mired “Francis” who is denied a much anticipated promotion, then sets out on a vengeful, transparent quest for power — Orr outlines vast differences in tone and style. For starters, the cast of the main character: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood is an ambitious conservative Democrat whose Machiavellian scheming reads as ridiculous and absurd when compared to Ian Richard’s Francis Urquhart, a “winking, bred-in-the-bone conservative.” According to Orr, the Lady Macbeth vibes of Francis’s wife are also toned down and muddled in the American version, and his chief of staff Doug Stamper is caught up in the stuff of soap operas (alcoholism, unrequited love…) Lastly, Orr points out that Frank Underwood is one corrupt Washington official among many, whereas Francis Urquhart is a “genuine villain,” the “one dishonest man” who upsets the hapless political framework surrounding him.

Diving into one episode and then the next, I can’t shake Orr’s critique. The American series’ melodramatic tone is addictive and alluring (hence, my recent binge) but it does ring hollow at times, striking me as a little bit off, incomplete. And then I wonder — does the melodramatic style necessarily cheapen the show, or does the American version simply strive to create a more stylized, self-contained, Shakespearean world set in modern-day Washington? In a 2013 interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Kevin Spacey talks about playing Richard III as preparation for Frank Underwood. Orr characterizes Spacey’s asides to the camera as “ridiculous,” but so are the antics of Shakespeare’s ruthless king — you could argue that Spacey is playing Frank with a similar sort of gravity and bravado that he brought to the stage as Richard. These overt references to Shakespeare, and the straightforward styling of Frank as an old-fashioned, ruthless evildoer, seem to be part of the American show’s allure. There’s even a scene in season three where Underwood is addressing the camera through his own blurry, distorted reflection in a White House window, a nod to Richard III’s hunched, deformed physicality. There are plenty of moments where Underwood drives home the despicable, tyrannical nature of his character with a straight edge — the opposite of a “winking” demeanor — not least of which when he visits his father’s grave and pees on it just outside the sight lines of the press. While Kevin Spacey’s theatrical flair for his character’s malice is somewhat fascinating to watch, I have to agree with Orr that viewers of Francis Urquhart probably enjoy his character more, because there’s so much more to mine with the weird mix of light and dark that defines satire. By the end of season three, Frank Underwood and his much emphasized, increasingly frequent asides become something of a deadbeat, all too familiar.

Maybe the caricature aspect of Frank Underwood is why Season 3 keeps turning to his wife, Claire. Orr is right that Claire is too complex to be a Lady Macbeth type, though she nods in that direction at times. Take her sleek, angular wardrobe, omnipresent stilettos, and icy blonde highlights — an image that projects the severity and singularity of her ambitions, especially when coupled with that squinty, loaded gaze, the object of many a close up. There’s the moment when a dejected Francis calls Claire for solace and she tells him she “can’t indulge him” if he’s doubting himself, and plenty of other moments in between when Claire’s relentless pragmatism reads as ruthless, as if she never shifts her gaze from their marathon climb to the top. It becomes increasingly clear, however, that Claire is not at the helm of her husband’s quest for power. Instead, she clings to their political partnership increasingly out of desperation, not because she doesn’t long for power and status, which she does, but more fundamentally because she doesn’t love her husband. Her commitment to Frank’s scheming is more about a dogged persistence to preserve their union in some form, and of course, because she’s already in so deep, implicated in her husband’s trail of evildoings. In my opinion, watching Claire evolve into an increasingly self-honest, vulnerable character is one of the most satisfying parts of season three, but it does reinforce the feeling that the American House of Cards is softer around the edges, and ultimately apolitical.

I think the most salient effect of side-stepping satire for a more menacing, melodramatic political portrait is that House of Cards completely dodges any meaningful relationship to the real-life theatre of American politics. Instead we get a stylized, operatic, self-contained and unmistakably fictional world to peer into for some good old-fashioned intrigue. The lack of a political critique is why everything feels so stylized — the Shakespearean overtures don’t push us to think critically about our own political climate, they just plunge us further into a strange, dark world with a little extra flourish. It’s simply a difference of approach, but with the recent outcry over John Stewart’s leaving The Daily Show, it seems that Americans audiences are hungry for a more pointed social critique instead of these heavy, angst-ridden worlds that ultimately function as an escape from our own.

“Will You Take Me As I Am,” and Other Joni Musings

Thomas Hawk Indoor Fireworks, Plate 2 (CC BY-NC 2.0)“No, but are you really listening?” This is the line I repeatedly confront my husband with when listening to Joni Mitchell. I have yet to convert him, and until that fateful day, I’ll be a broken record. I knew that I had found a kindred spirit in Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period upon reading that the author used Mitchell as a litmus test for would-be boyfriends, confessing, “When a guy seemed like a decent prospect, there was one good way to find out.” She adds, “You didn’t play Join Mitchell for girlfriends… I already knew that they got it,” but “a soulmate would ear the ingenuity of Joni’s chords, the novelty of her song structure…” Judging by this standard, my otherwise wonderful husband is not soulmate material — Joni doesn’t inspire reverence in him so much as chuckles and gentle mockery (can you believe the gall! To chuckle…) For example, in the admittedly playful but equally brilliant “All I Want,” he gets such a kick out out of the line “I want to shampoo you” that he likes to convert the following one, “I want to renew you…” into “I want to run through you…” He also occasionally chicken balks when I’m putting on an impromptu concert from the revered Joni canon, but that’s another story…

For the longest time, I thought my singing voice was the problem. I kept saying, “You’d like Joni better if if you listened to her sing her own songs, rather than my flawed imitations,” but he’s yet to have the aha moment, you know, when he comes to his senses and properly worships the ground she walks on. I do give him credit for nabbing me a copy of Will You Take Me As I Am from our local library, and we shared a laugh over the fact that the “you’re not really listening!” sentiment seems to be something of a phenomenon. Then there’s Mercer’s observation that women “just get” Joni, consistent with my experience — I’m thinking of my friend Allison, and my mom, whose Ladies of the Canyon and Court and Spark CDs first prompted my obsession — and men? Well, the noncommittal ones just need to listen, in case I haven’t made that clear.

I discovered Joni Mitchell relatively late, I guess — in college. I’m embarrassed to say that as an adolescent I never had a love affair with any particular band, or “singer-songwriter,” excluding some modest enthusiasm for The Cranberries 🙂 I’ve always tended towards female singers — at the time I was probably fond of Lauryn Hill, Dido, Sara Mclachlan, you get the picture — and then of course I was also immersed in the campy, self-referential, albeit musically rich world of musical theatre, which probably crowded out space in my soul for more earnest, angsty plungings into sophisticated artists. Nothing in my middle or high school years compared to the technically agile, lyrically pointed and precise, vocally pure music of Joni Mitchell, which only became more rewarding as I discovered more albums, her style always evolving, becoming more and more expansive. For all intents and purposes, though, I think college still counts as adolescence, at least for my innocent, rather late-blooming development, and so I was probably bowled over by her lyrics in the singular, intense way of a pimply teenager. In her book Mercer states that according to scientific studies, the music we are exposed to in our adolescence hits us the deepest. I find this fact at once utterly fascinating and entirely sensible — it makes sense like the notion that the first love is the deepest, but it’s fascinating to imagine that the half-formed synapses and emotional/hormonal turmoil of adolescence is also the perfect storm for receptivity to music.

Mercer is a music critic for such media outlets as NPRThe New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and DownBeat. She originally interviewed Joni for her biography of Wayne Shorter, and many of their conversations are included in Will You Take Me As I Am. Mercer writes as a fan, but “without a scintilla of fanzine gush,” as described by reviewer Phillip Lopate. In the book she writes that what inspired her to take on the project was her immense gratitude for Mitchell’s songs, and a feeling — shared by Joni herself — that despite the awards and critical acclaim, there is a lack of critical analysis breaking down what Mercer calls “the hybrid force of her words and music.” The book is a huge pleasure for fellow Joni fans, allowing us to revisit our own gratitude for her work and investigate the source of our immense pleasure in it, and — no small thing — providing us with extra ammo the next time we need to persuade a certain special someone of the genius that he’s missing out on 🙂 I’m only halfway through, but here are some points I’ve found noteworthy so far:

The Personal Is Universal

  • Much is made out of Mitchell’s dislike for the term “confessional” as it is often ascribed to her deeply personal and heartfelt songwriting style. Despite the fact that Mitchell is gifted with a profound receptivity to her environment and to the people around her, falling in love multiple times and drawing artistic inspiration from her many loves, she chafes at the word “confess,” as if the songs were more about her and the specificity of her experience than artificial renderings of characters, speaking to what is universal about the human experience. Blue is known to be one of her most heart wrenchingly personal albums, as well as one of her most artistically coherent, elevated ones. According to Mitchell, when she played “All I Want” for some songwriter friends, Kris Kristofferson’s famous response was, “Jesus, Joni, save something for yourself.” Mercer argues that Joni’s willingness to put so much of herself in her music, to write so purely from the heart while putting out music that is so formidable from a technical and artistic standpoint, is exactly what makes her music so universally beloved, almost a “religious experience” for listeners. As Mercer writes, her music tends to feels like a unique experience to each listener. As Mitchell puts it, “The people who get the most out of my music see themselves in it.”

Linking Emotions and Artistry

  • One of the most impressive aspects of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which emotion and heartfelt expression underpins every musical choice, and — here’s the key — makes the music better. As Mercer puts it, Mitchell has a reputation for being untutored, for “instinctively laying out feelings on a record…” For a great many of us, this approach may lead to amateur, self-indulgent ramblings, but in her case, even though raw emotion is driving the music, because emotion is driving the music, the “aesthetic rigor” of her music is strengthened. (Mercer devotes an entire section to Mitchell’s use of open tunings on the guitar, freeing her up to experiment with unusual intervals… I have a book of her music for piano, and the sharps and flats are through the roof; the open tunings thing explains that.) “How many artists would kill to say,” Mercer writes, “that they created new chord progressions and structures from a place of emotional inspiration, but writing from the heart made Joni’s music more technically and aesthetically intricate, complex surprising…” On a side note, in a college course I took with director Mary Zimmerman, I remember her once saying that to her, the creative process always feels like a process of anthropology, of uncovering, digging, getting to the heart of things, rather than building from the ground up. If this is how art-making should be, then Joni consistently lives up to the ideal, something to marvel at.

Lyrics, Not Poetry

  • Another impressive, and signature aspect of Mitchell’s songwriting is the degree to which the lyrics and music are connected. A testament to this is that reading Mitchell’s lyrics on the page, they fall short of poetry. But listening to her lyrics sung, they sound poetic. Mercer gives an example in the song “A Case of You,” in which the lyric reads, “I am frightened of the devil and I’m drawn to those ones who ain’t…afraid…” The asymmetry of the word “afraid” that follows the rhyming word, “ain’t” (rhymes with “I am lonely painter/I live in a box of paints”)   hints at the boldness and daring possessed by those who “ain’t afraid.” A criteria, perhaps, for all good lyrics, Mitchell’s lyrics are meant to be sung, and in setting them to music, she achieves something worthy of a poet.

Confessions that Run Deep

  • In the chapter, “In The Manner of the Ancients,” Mercer charts some of Mitchell’s influences, finding historical continuity in Mitchell’s impulses as a songwriter. She starts with a literal link: leading up to Blue, Mitchell spent time on the hippie expat island of Matala, Crete, in no uncertain terms “on a lonely road…traveling/traveling/traveling,” undeniably “looking for something…” Mitchell characterizes this point in her career as suffocatingly “self-referential”; she was seeking new experiences beyond the music industry and looking to shake off her image as an “angelic folk maiden.” So she headed to what at the time was a very trendy hippie hot spot, a place that also happens to be ancient and steeped in history, for example, a stopping point for Ulysses admits his “traveling/traveling/traveling.” Leading up to Blue, Mitchell’s physical location and “place” in her career aligned itself with the odysseys of the ancients; she was traveling, adventuring, seeking, looking to know herself through the process of making art. As Mercer notes, the mandate to “know thyself” is “essential to the ancient Greek worldview.” More specifically, Mercer connects Mitchell’s quest to know herself through songwriting to St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which Augustine “comes to know himself” by “merging Augustine the protagonist and Augustine the narrator.” In a society where written works were customarily recited aloud, Augustine envisioned the lone reader as the audience for his Confessions, catering to this figure with the “profound intimacy” of “revealing a mind thinking.” I see a parallel in the scores of lone listeners who feel that their experience of Mitchell’s songs is somehow unique, existential.

Traces of Dylan

  • Mercer gives a short, appreciable summary of the relationship between Mitchell and Dylan. Allow me to share a condensed version: Both members of music royalty share a folk music heritage, rooted in Woodie Guthrie’s songs. Both singer-songwriters depart from Guthrie’s populist, social commentary oriented lyrics to scale more personal, more universal subject matter. However, Mercer points out an interesting contrast between Dylan and Mitchell’s approach to the personal/universal: Dylan’s “confessional” songs contain an air of bitterness, almost lessening the blow, whereas Joni confronts the personal with her defenses down, sheerly, from a place of vulnerability. (I think this has something to do with the difference between male/female appreciation of Joni — perhaps women identify with and find catharsis in her vulnerability, whereas this quality falls flat for some male listeners? Women find gravitas and genius in her vulnerability, whereas men (some, that is, I know there are plenty of male Joni fans) don’t know what to do with it?)

Soundscape as Landscape

  • One more piece of Mercer’s analysis to mull over is the way in which Mitchell’s music sounds like what her native Canadian prairie land looks like, and more generally, the way in which the sound of music parallels a visual landscape. Mitchell hails from Saskatchewan, Canada, a landlocked province characterized by “flatland,” “big sky,” and “wide open spaces.” Mercer quotes Mitchell on how her flatlander upbringing permeates her songs: “I’ve always thought Neil [Young] and I have carried a loping prairie walk in our music, a loping pulse… As opposed to reggae, which for me has a tree frog sound.” The “loping prairie walk” image makes me think especially of the song, “Night in the City” from Song to a Seagull. Mercer notes that the frequency of the terms “soundscape” and “landscape” in music criticism have prompted editors to ban both words entirely, and draws a more explicit connection between the two in citing landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead’s observation that both “scapes” “are nonverbal forms of communication that affect us subconsciously and profoundly.” Mercer adds that “the act of listening can feel like sculpting shapes out of the air,” that the presence of the prairie in Mitchell’s songs is both “subtle and manifest.”

So there you go — an attempt to dig my chops into some music criticism, sharing it out of gratitude for Joni. She gets better with every listen. What’s your favorite song/album? Drop me a line; we Joni fans must band together 🙂

Mark Twain, Mark 8:35

United Nations Photo Operation Lifeline Helps Displaced People in Southern Sudan CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

My friend Heidi, who worked as a nurse in South Sudan and kept a blog about her time there, once wrote about how the Sudanese are a refreshing people to be around — they take it as a matter of fact that life is full of hardships, rather than reacting with a sense of personal insult, as is the norm in America. In a culture seemingly obsessed with cultivating the most convenient, hassle free lifestyle, we Americans seem to only wake up to the natural order of things when the real s#%* hits the fan.

This past weekend I saw The Good Lie, a true story featuring actors from South Sudan, Reese Witherspoon, and Corey Stoll. The contrast between American privilege and the Sudanese values of gratitude and compassion, as well as the struggle to make meaning from suffering, are two themes that resonate throughout. Despite a few convenient, even pat plot twists, the story of the lost boys is truly profound, and profoundly Christian. To the extent that their stories are resolved, each member of the group must come to terms with what they have suffered, what their suffering has cost them, and what they can take forward. Here is a brief summary of the boys’ story, as it is captured in the film:

Ethnic/religious conflict suddenly orphans five young boys and one girl, forcing them to walk hundreds of miles across the desert. Four of the original seven find refuge in Kenya only after being turned away in Ethiopia. The violence they are running from casts a long shadow — there is a harrowing scene in which, after joining up with a long line of fellow refugees, the group’s “chief” finds a bullet near a river. He makes the split decision to cross the river rather than follow its path, even though the children are parched and can’t swim. As one boy panics, running toward the sound of gunfire, the rest tread bravely along a makeshift rope, past floating corpses. The chief finally allows the group to take a rest, but of course the soldiers are close behind. This is when the chief tells “the good lie,” a pivotal point at the center of the unfolding drama.

The boys and their sister grow into young adults in the refugee camp, waiting over ten years to get out. You get the sense of what a miserable, stagnant, and depressing place a refugee camp is, despite being a safe haven. At last, the group finds their names on the list of the American-bound, greeted by Reese Witherspoon’s blunt, brash character, Carrie at the Kansas City Missouri airport. As she works her local connections to find the men jobs and a chirpy Midwestern mom helps them set up house, they prove to be comically mismatched to America’s tech-heavy, commerce-driven society. The men are charming with their formal, chivalrous, meticulous ways — reminding their American counterparts that the rest of the world is large and far less insular.

For example, Jeremiah’s own experience of hunger has trained him to live by his convictions, and the Bible — he quits his job at a grocery store when caught giving old food away rather than throwing it in the dumpster. Mamere works two jobs while studying to be a doctor, exuding earnestness and thankfulness — it’s during his literature class on Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that he demonstrates his intimate understanding of “good lies,” in which a lie is produced to provide protection for others, and is therefore justified. The youngest brother, Paul, is the only one who openly grapples with being a guest of the United States, admitting to feeling belittled by a people unacquainted with the suffering he narrowly escaped. He gets depressed and smokes pot, until a confrontation with his brothers provides a catharsis of sorts, and things presumably get better. The film ends with one more “good lie,” connected to the first.

I felt very privileged watching The Good Lie. It’s a credit to the filmmakers and the casting directors — USA Today states that the Sudanese were played by actors “with ties to Sudan, a couple having been child soldiers” — that the refugees were not sentimentalized or aggrandized because of the suffering they endured. Viewing their work is a humbling and moving experience that can’t help but leave you wondering…would I tell “a good lie”? And then, close behind, the Gospel of Mark, affirming that the “lost boys of Sudan” are indeed, found:

“For who whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.”

 

A Few Takeaways from “Hard Choices”

Asher Isbrucker obligatory airplane wing. YYZ > YVR CC BY-NC-SA 2.0This past summer I had a week-long vacation to dive deep into Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices. It paints a broad picture of foreign policy and covers a lot of ground — literally, the whole world — which sometimes diluted the subject matter, I think. But I read on anyway. In light of all that’s written about her, I was just curious to hear Hillary Clinton tell her own story. I know that some people must be rolling their eyes at what seems a strategic start to the Democratic nomination for president, but Hillary Clinton is a politician — this is what she does — and I admire both her passion and skill. Here are a few of my general impressions:

  • Clinton’s writing exudes a sincere respect for Obama. It seems that the two were genuine collaborators. When she’s not openly expressing admiration for the president, Clinton points out their differences diplomatically — it doesn’t come across as a thinly veiled, aggressive attempt to separate herself in lieu of coming elections. It’s a decidedly non-cynical window into the way American politics works, the matter-of-factness with which Clinton transitioned into a collaborative relationship with her former rival.
  • There are instances where Clinton points out traveling to a country, or meeting a leader, or having an encounter in a particular White House Room as first lady, senator, and then secretary of state. You get a sense of the incredible layers to her life in politics, and what it must feel like to suddenly recall a moment, ten years prior, of making history, only to be making new history.
  • Clinton writes about how much she enjoyed the non-partisan nature of being secretary of state. You can feel her enthusiasm for the art of international relations as she repeatedly invokes terms like “creative diplomacy,” and tracks the huge number of miles she logged. You get the sense that she enjoyed the adventure of her position, her prerogative to meet leaders face-to-face, fronting her team abroad.
  • In general, the book exuded a positive, hopeful attitude. It’s noticeable and significant that Clinton, who is among the most informed people in the world about international affairs and global politics, takes such a practical, affirming point of view on so many topics that are widely impugned by the general public. Obviously Clinton has a vested interested in representing her own accomplishments, but then again, public servants can speak to progress that those of us on the outside wouldn’t even think to appreciate. It reminds of me something I recently read in another non-fiction work, this one about American educational policy, The Teacher Wars. Author Dana Goldstein writes that the status quo in American education, while much maligned, is in reality “concerning,” but not in dire straits. As for Clinton, some folks might criticize her optimism on some fronts — for example, she put a positive spin on the climate change conference in Copenhagen that some poorer, island nations considered a dismal failure.
  • Clinton’s humanness also shines through — in this book, she comes across as more the hardworking civil servant versus ambitious first lady or opportunistic senator. She writes about making myriad wedding planning decisions as mother of the bride to Chelsea alongside legitimately “hard choices” in the political arena, of being deeply humbled by her interactions with Burma’s female opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and of the sense of personal obligation she felt to the thousands of employees at the state department. Most importantly, she writes about the outsize effect of building and sustaining personal rapport with world leaders, citing Hamid Karzai as an example of a strong personality who could be appealed to on the basis of personal gestures. The extent of her travels and her push to Obama for face-to-face diplomacy indicates that she took a very personalized approach to the job, placing a high value on conversations between world leaders.
  • Hillary Clinton’s decisiveness, the surety and clarity of her opinions, is definitely something that comes across in her book, and it’s a noticeable contrast to Obama’s hedging since becoming president (say I as an Obama supporter). This is demonstrated in her sharp criticisms of Vladimir Putin — she’s not a fan, and there’s no sugar coating, her directness almost makes me laugh. It reminds me of those “who you gonna call” ads from the 2008 race — or at least, that’s how I vaguely remember them. As much as I love me some Barack Obama, Hillary has a swift way of sizing up a situation and articulating a precise course of action, even as she talks about “smart power” or “smart diplomacy,” aka working countries from multiple angles, for example engaging in talks on some issues while placing sanctions or playing tough on others.
  • I’m afraid this post is starting to sound like a go Hillary! ad. If you’re not keen on Hilary for President, or you find yourself more dubious than curious about her account of hard choices, I have to say, there is one other reason to shell out the bucks for the discounted hardback and get reading: each chapter is laid out according to the state of world affairs in a different region, and so it provides a sweeping overview of the balance of global powers. It’s certainly not a biography — the “hard choices” paradigm really is a refrain throughout the book, and you really get a sense of how Clinton, among others, engineers the wielding of “smart power” in a global realm of shifting alliances and competing challenges.

 

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