Wednesday, September 13, 2017

grading syrup

Grade A maple syrup is not better than Grade B. Grade B syrup has a darker color and deeper flavor than grade A. The grades are indicators of color and flavor, not quality.

So the US Department of Agriculture decided to clear that up. How? By changing the labeling system, you ask? Yep:

    • Grade A Light Amber is now
Grade A Golden Color/Delicate Taste

    • Grade A Medium Amber is now
Grade A Amber Color/Rich Taste

    • Grade A Dark Amber is now
Grade A Dark Color/Robust Taste

    • Grade B is now
Grade A Very Dark Color/Strong Taste

So instead of just getting rid of the letter grade, they just call it *all* grade A.

That is as concise a summary of America, in science, commerce, character, and logic, as I could ever hope for.

Monday, September 11, 2017

september eleventh in history

If you think modern attacks from Muslims on September 11th are referring to 9-11-2001, you may not be looking back far enough.

1565 — The Ottoman Empire had been trying to invade the island of Malta, then held by the Knights Hospitaller. The Knights, with approximately 2,000 footsoldiers and 400 Maltese men, women and children, withstood the siege and repelled the invaders. Voltaire said, "Nothing is better known than the siege of Malta." It undoubtedly contributed to the eventual erosion of the European perception of Ottoman invincibility.
Their forces retreated on September 11, 1565.

[1609 – Henry Hudson discovers Manhattan Island]

1683 — The Battle of Vienna took place at Kahlenberg Mountain near Vienna after the city had been besieged by the Ottoman Empire for two months. The battle was fought by the Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire, under the command of King John III Sobieski against the Ottomans and their vassal and tributary states. This is the first time the Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire had cooperated militarily against the Ottomans. It began the Great Turkish War and it is often seen as a turning point; after this war the Ottoman Turks ceased to be a menace to the Christian world.
The battle took place on September 11, 1683.

1697 — The Battle of Zenta (or Senta, today in Serbia) was a major engagement in the Great Turkish War (1683–1699) and one of the most decisive defeats in Ottoman history. In a surprise attack, Habsburg Imperial forces routed the Ottoman army which was crossing the river. At the cost of a few hundred losses, the Habsburg forces inflicted thousands of casualties on the Ottomans, dispersed the remainder and captured the Ottoman treasure. As an immediate consequence, the Ottoman Empire lost control over Banat, while in the long run, the Habsburg victory at Zenta was the last decisive step to force the Ottoman Empire into the Treaty of Karlowitz (1699), ending the Ottoman control of large parts of Central Europe.
The battle took place on September 11, 1697.

info from Wikipedia

Saturday, August 26, 2017

nature's own

A day before Hurricane Harvey hits Texas. Maybe this company is johnny-on-the-spot with its restocking. The friend who took this pic suggested instead that people would rather perish than eat Nature's Own brand bread.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

could it be magic

I've been listening to Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic."

Give this a listen from beginning to end. A gorgeous composition. The chorus pays homage to a Chopin prelude (C-minor, op 28 #20). The verses and other material are equal to Chopin's bewitching progression, with intelligent lyrics by Adrienne Anderson that perfectly speak Manilow's sumptuous pop melodies and harmonies.

Goodness! To think that anyone was complaining in the early 70s that the American pop song had died, or entered a dumb period! Surely Manilow was an exception (just as Porter and Gershwin were), but he was spurred on by a moment that could allow a 7-minute-long pop song.

There's so much here. First, the out-of-tune studio piano bangs out something like Chopin's original prelude, cadencing into the song itself. The verse layers one richly extended chord after another. 7ths and 9ths abound, even in the melody. The piano is set off by some nicely-recorded guitar fingerpicking. We really hear the gut of the strings, so fleshly! When the Chopinesque chorus arrives, it sounds like a deep exhale.

The arrangement itself, as performed here, doesn't stand the test of time. The drums and bass sound so constricted and not-right to us. But the vocal and string arrangement, and the overall shape of the song, is a testament to Manilow's pop genius.

Anyone who thinks of Manilow as too smooth and slick needs only to listen to the when's-it-gonna-end coda starting around the 5-minute mark. It's some of the rawest vocal work he ever did. It plays perfectly against the stately brass and strings, before being engulfed by the rest of the mix. The impression is of a man drowning in his need for his beloved. It's exactly the kind of extended coda that rock musicians hope will be overwhelming, but rarely is. (I'm looking at you, Michael W. Smith. Fade out already.) Here, it is. I'd do away with the tag ending that returns to the Chopin piano — it's unneeded and feels arty — but it works decently. By that point, we're ready for a landing, I guess.

Man, what a piece of music. Sit down and let it operate on you.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

two approaches to gratitude

Giving gratitude: 
the saint's discipline

Demanding gratitude: 
the devil's playground

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

an 1814 banner ... sort of

Some time ago, I searched around for a modern, fair copy of the original arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner," as it was first published with music. It's different in several ways from the way we sing it now. I didn't find one.

So I started doing my own, copying the arrangement as it was, but with the awareness that it's now our national anthem, which means it's for group singing.

The original is for a soloist, then repeats the last line for group singing, so I took out that repeat. The original also has a piano interlude that seems to symbolize the faint bugle-calls and cannon-fire of the battle at Fort McHenry; I took that out too. The original has just a single-note right hand and left hand piano part, with the lyrics between; I followed standard sheet-music practice by writing a vocal staff and a piano part that's nice and full, while keeping to the harmonies of the original. I also kept the original notes and rhythms.

The result is, then, true to the original, but far from it. If you could go back to Mr. Key, tell him this is now our national anthem, and play him what the Air Force Band played today, followed by what I wrote, he might be puzzled at the band version but less puzzled by mine, which has the tune closer to how he sung it.

If he looked at the sheet music, though, he'd marvel at the inhumanly superb engraving, remark on the strange notation ("Stems on the left side of a half-note?! Jupiter!"), and wonder why on earth I couldn't count on pianists to realize (to use the old word) their own part, filling out what's implied from the melody and bass.

So. Here you go: click on the page to get a brand-spankin'-new edition of the national anthem as it would have been sung in 1814, notated for modern patriots. Play it and sing it, con spirito.

keeping promises

"All men are created equal."

The more I think about it, the more I think the 241-year story of these words and their effect doesn't sound as new as it does old. Thousands of years old, maybe. Just about every culture has a story like it, taking place in storybook land.

A king, or person of great power, makes a promise. The promise seems generous and reasonable. Then a crafty peasant comes along to hold him to the literal terms of the promise's wording. It's something far broader, that the king didn't foresee and wouldn't have agreed to. No one else would have foreseen it either, but his being forced to keep it winds up in great good being done, or a great evil being defeated, or a seemingly unsolvable problem solved.

Except with us, it took place in a real land. Let yourself be amazed by it: Hancock and Jefferson and company were trying to accomplish something. They did accomplish it. But in the process they generated words that later generations held them to, in ways they would have considered unacceptably broad. If you could go back and say, "All men are created equal? OK, then: all means all," they would have said, "Well yes, but." They did say that, with later words and actions.

America stands as a beacon to the nations, partially because we made the fairy tale come to life. It's crucial to recognize something, though. We're a beacon not just because we had that king in our history, but also because we had that crafty peasant. We had a series of them, each extracting, with much trouble, greater and greater implications from that phrase. Our greatest heroes are often people who brought about new actions from a new understanding of it. Even some of us as individuals, during our lifetimes, have had our own sense of that phrase expanded. In the process, great good has been done, great evils defeated, seemingly unsolvable problems solved.

What's in our future? More.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

a rit and a flourish

At a church I used to lead music for, we always divided the Sequence hymn, that hymn in the part of the service where they're doing Bible readings. We sang two verses before the Gospel reading, then one or two after.

To keep people from absentmindedly continuing, I often ended the second verse with a slight ritard and slow arpeggio. It's like using your legs to slow down on a swing. Keyboardists have done it since the days of Mozart, Bach before him, Buxtehude before him.

Every once in a while, I thought, "With this simple gesture (rarely even notated), I connect myself to a centuries-long tradition."

Friday, June 23, 2017


Taking a shower in a friend's house, I looked at the world map shower curtain in reverse, and something struck me. I looked at Europe and Africa right next to each other, and the shapes and sizes of the countries in each. I had a thought, which a glance at North America, east and west of the Mississippi, confirmed.

The thought is this: the boundaries of Europe were drawn, with exceptions, on the ground. The boundaries of Africa were drawn on paper (in Europe). The boundaries of the eastern US states were drawn on the ground — that is, by living there; the ones of the western states were drawn on paper — that is, using maps rather than real living experiences.

Look at the difference through that lens: the sizes and shapes, on the scale of human communities on one hand and monumental on the other.

Monday, May 29, 2017

memorial day

Today I want to honor *all* who lost their lives in battle. Not just the brave: some weren't. Not just the ones who bought our freedoms: some lives were wasted. Not just the willing: some went against their will. May they rest in peace, and may we work for peace.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

fragrance tour, part 6

Continuing the tour of my colognes and eau de toilettes.

Calvin Klein

What a strange scent. Rummy and woody nightclubbing scent, but it has that bit of oud in the base, like so many men's colognes from the early teens, all colored by the cool, smoky, barky taste of cardamom. It's sweet and medicinal, and very much of its time, although not all that popular as far as I can tell. Warms up to a nice sweet presence. Works well in cooler weather, but good all around too. It's so strange!

Luna Rossa

A compliment-getter for sure. It caters just enough to popular tastes while standing solidly on its own. The smell starts as a battle of lavender, citrus, and mint, but fades quickly to an orange-and-cedar combination that people just love, myself (and Catherine) included. In this way it reminds me of Azzaro Chrome, a superb scent I can't wear because it's so owned by my immaculately turned-out colleague Ken Slavin. I can't pick out the smell of ambergris, but they say it's here in synthetic version, and maybe that's what makes Luna Rossa just different enough that it smells like me and not my friend constantly lurking around the corner. It's a great big smile of a fragrance, a snazzy outfit, unfailingly clear. I got a couple of tiny free sample sprayers of it recently. Gotta get a bottle!


This after-shave was always at my grandmother's house on childhood visits, generously applied after a bath. I clicked around and found a vintage bottle. Even as I opened the shipping box, the smell overwhelmed me with memories. It's an old-fashioned smell, mentholy and witch-hazely, with a distinct lavender top note and a lingering mid-century smoothness. I put it together that the first times we used it at our grandmother's house were really only a couple of years after our grandfather had died. What did it mean to her to splash this on the young Brake boys? What fragrances will Greta and Clara, or their children, associate with bright or dim memories of me?

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Thursday, April 13, 2017

fragrance tour, part 5

Continuing the tour of my colognes and eau de toilettes.

L.12.12 Blanc

When it first goes on it smells very typically guy-ish, that sporty citrusy smell that dominates dorms across the land (though it's on the grapefruity side, so that helps it be more distinctive). But after a few hours it mellows into a sweet woody smell with just a tinge of something distantly flowery. I wasn't sure whether it would pass the distinctiveness test, so I got a small trial size. Nearing its last spray, I'm resolved to get more. It has turned out to be a favorite. If L.12.12 Blanc went to high school with you it would be that guy on the tennis team who's athletic and "popular" but also actually popular — nice to everyone and pretty smart and fun and great to hang around with. It has the glowing presence that good fragrances have, that give you pleasure as you get whiffs throughout the day. Terrific in spring and summer.

Maison Francis Kurkdjian

Ohhhh, man. I have a whole ode to Oud here. Go ahead, read it! It goes into rhapsodic detail. The ancient intellectual-sensual smell of oud may be to fragrance in the twenty-teens what New Wave is to music in the nineteen-eighties: an era-definer that seeps into seemingly everything. Add to it a burst of saffron-flower, amid a peerlessly-blended swirl of complex tones, and Kurkdjian's masterwork is divinely hard to pin down in the mind: celestial, dark, smooth as hand-rubbed mahogany, masculine, satiny, powdery, sensual. This is the first fragrance I've been really excited about in a long time. Catherine is too. Every time I wear it, she can't stop sniffing and nuzzling. Near-perfect.

Banana Republic

And we go from the hautest of haute to the mall chain store. Vive la différence! This is a pleasant, cool, fresh scent. Someone described it as the smell left in a bathroom after a well-groomed guy has gotten ready. Soapy and cologny, not overbearing. Just a hint of wood gives it the note that a vintage skinny tie gives to an up-to-the-minute suit. Great to pack in your travel bag.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Monday, April 10, 2017

fragrance tour, part 4

Continuing the tour of my colognes and eau de toilettes.


Odd and elegant. It smells very mid-90s, which it is, for better and worse — mostly better. Supersuper sweet from beginning to end, with a mint/orange zip that offsets a glowing floral center. Its sweet warmth is wonderful for the sweaters and velvets of deep winter. Extra points for the distinctive bottle.

Perry Ellis

Stylish, a little sporty, clean. A firmly 21st-century fragrance. Maybe the most and best so far. It's already 13 years old, but today seems utterly new. It's a corrective to the aquatics of the 90s and the pungent powerhouses of the 80s and the sandalwood/musks of the 70s. For the entire time you wear it, it smells intriguing, which is a hard thing to pull off. It's said to smell of "star anise," but since the only place I've ever smelled that is in this cologne it's hard for me to get a handle on. It's not almondy, the way you'd think anise would be. But that appealing just-out-of-reach scent dominates from beginning to end, as the fresh spray of bergamot (a bitter, oily orange) fades into cinnamon and vanilla and coffee and a little wood, all matchlessly balanced. I've noticed with pleasure that, after several hours, it smells like book: that wonderful (vanilla-ish?) smell that hits you in an old bookshop.

Scuderia Ferrari

Yes, it's a Ferrari brand. I usually don't go for that sort of thing, but then again if it smells good what does it matter? If you really don't care about this kind of marketing, well OK then, just let your nose be your guide. In this case, your nose wins. Launched in 2010, but more of a classic scent, with a lemony-lavender opening and a cheerful floral-tea smell to it. It even has that cedar-musk of yore lurking around. It's spicy and barbershoppy and very well blended, with a clean-boy soapiness that's never out of style.


Another celebrity tie-in, I'm afraid: this time, with Jay-Z's fashion brand, which did a licensing deal with Elizabeth Arden in 2011. Again, the proof is in the smelling. This one's appropriately club-noir, a little boozy, but with enough spicy coffee and incense to sober it up. You can tell it's trying to be "sexy," though it ends up being fairly sexy anyway. It's not for every day, but it's young and fun and a little serious.

Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3 - Part 4 - Part 5 - Part 6

Thursday, April 6, 2017

HI-FIne print

Click on the above for a collection of those notices that give information and "information" about the recording process on old albums. (And cool new ones.)

Saturday, March 25, 2017

the sonicon and the zone

I spent something like 47 hours a while back working on a piece of music that's 2.11 seconds long.

It's a corporate sonicon, or sound trademark, like the NBC major chord tones, or the "Law & Order" chung-chung, or the Intel "bum-beem-bum-BEEM." It's a very small but incredibly important little sound that they'll use in all their radio and TV and web ads and other things — eventually you'll begin to just hear the sound and know what it means. (No, you may not hear it yet.)

Like those other sounds, it has about 15 layers of samples, instruments, musical things, percussive things, atmospheric recording, and other stuff all blended together into a unique thing. So, with each hour I spend on it, it really does get better and better — it's been a total blast.

The initial idea — a basic sound effect and a simple cadence — took me literally 2 minutes. Then the whole rest of the time it's been tweaking and polishing, sanding away with finer and finer grains. Allllllllllmost done now. I'll come out of a long tweak, covering the final quarter-second, and realize it's 5am, and I've been going at it non-stop for hours. This kind of zone, where skill and interest and absorption-cum-obsession meet, is one of my favorite ways to live. And yet it's kind of the opposite of the usual sentimental myth of creativity. (My friend says, "so I guess one 2.11 second note on a tuba wouldn't have done the trick.")

Friday, March 17, 2017

a saint patrick's day thought

How technology shapes and limits us, in so many invisible ways. Think, for instance, about the fact that you very rarely see green on news and talk shows — ties and shirts and dresses and desk elements and even background decor always avoid that part of the spectrum — simply because they all use green screens.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


After an unhurried search that lasted a decade, I have finally found the ideal chambray shirt. As is usual for me, it's actually not quite chambray, but has a very slight little herringbone pattern to it.

Manly, distinctive, casually sophisticated. How nice, to now and then find what one is looking for.

Friday, February 3, 2017

that's all, folks

Tonight we reached a milestone. Tonight was the night the Alberich Stories ended. (Greta has referred to the stories of the Ring Cycle as "Alberich Stories.")

I've been telling the entire thing, from the first moments, with the magic gold shining in the riverbed of the Rhine, guarded by Rheinmaidens, and stolen by the evil dwarf, right to the end, with Brünnhilde immolating herself on Siegfried's funeral pyre and returning the gold to its rightful place, for nearly a year now at bedtime.

Giants, dragons, birds, blood, greed, love, triumph, disaster, the whole thing. Both girls have been absolutely absorbed. Greta's requested it more than Clara, but whenever Clara joins in to listen, she's more attentive to me than she ever is in any other context.

Greta has often stopped and asked questions and gotten clarification, as well as offered insights of her own. When she first heard about the terms under which Alberich could forge a ring of power from magic gold — namely, that he had to forswear love — she had the same reaction as her cousins Hannah and Trey had had back in the 90s: Complete power and untold riches? "I would give up love for that!" But when it was explained that they could no longer love anyone, whether a mother or father or grandparents or siblings or friends, and could no longer be loved, ever, for the rest of their lives, they (and now Greta) thought long and hard about it.

When we got to the spine-chilling confrontation in which Siegfried and Brünnhilde and Gunther swear to be telling the truth and that the others are lying, all taking a death-oath on Hagen's spear, Greta stopped the story to point out that none of them was lying, going through each character and telling it from his or her point of view. She then circled back around and, since there was a mitigating fact in each case, pointed out that they were all speaking an untruth. When she realized what that meant (the death-oath!) I could see it dawning on her with a shudder.

What fun!! What depth! I love to think past the Wagner version and even past the Elder Edda and other mythological sources, to people gathered around fires and children in beds listening to these stories over and over, thrilling to the tales of love and betrayal and redemption, expressed through magic helmets and speaking birds and rings of power and potions — fire, water, earth, and sky all peopled, playing host to a story for the ages.

Friday, January 6, 2017

boys and better boys

Joe Biden's continually-repeated anecdote: "My dad used to say, 'you have one job: keep the boys away from your sister.' "

Michelle Wolf's response: "Boys wouldn't have to protect their sisters if they would stop being so crappy to girls who aren't their sister. How about instead of teaching boys to protect women we just teach boys to be better boys?"

Sunday, November 20, 2016

the healthy effect of advertising on content

(click for larger view)

Friday, November 11, 2016

the incompetent adult in kids' stories

An author friend says that, on occasion, an adult will write to him, expressing annoyance about how incompetent many of the adult spies are in his books. They feel this isn't very realistic.

This kind of reaction, which most children's authors will tell you they get in a steady stream, mainly comes from people who believe that children's literature exists to instruct children in some way.

Interestingly, it's that very concern that leads to the problem: throughout history, human cultures have seen need for stories with children protagonists who must display resourcefulness and bravery (or whatever other virtues we're trying to instill). They must, then, be in situations where an adult would ordinarily intervene — but without the adult. A great number of stories solve the problem by dispatching the parents on the first page. But that still leaves stories where a kid must encounter an adult world that somehow leaves an authority-and-safety vacuum that a kid protagonist can fill.

So, today's parents often complain about the "stupid dad" meme or the "incompetent adult" meme, because of their concern for the teaching duty of stories — a concern that created the very memes they complain about.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

putting on the pantsuit

Ah, the pantsuit. It's been an object of derision for as long as it's been around. Of course, it's little different from the suit — leaving aside the essential difference, namely who's wearing it.

There's a tidy iconographical rhyme in the phenomenon of Pantsuit Nation. It's yet another way in which a group of Davids reclaims a symbol or term ("bitch"; "queer") to wield against Goliath.

Anne Hollander was talking about this in the 90s. She pointed out that the Western woman's silhouette was denied legs, the symbol of action and agency. Every time women got a bit of power — say, in the 20s, when women, newly enfranchised to vote, entered the urban workforce in a new way, or in the 60s, when they began to clamor against other forms of disenfranchisement — the female silhouette gained legs. It happened either through the raising of hemlines to reveal the leg, or through pants.

At this fun moment, our culture seems ready to embrace all it considered dorky a moment ago. Men are embracing the previously unsexy mantle of soccer-dadhood. (Witness the ads for the newly revamped Chrysler Pacifica, which aim to make the minivan an object of neighborly admiration. Minivan: The New Grill!)

And, this Election Day, women are putting on pantsuits, the fluorescent-lit symbol of all that is dreary about the workplace. For five minutes, the pantsuit has become a badge of honor and a tribute to the strength of those who paved the way.

Hope that idea has legs.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

costume and custom

I was delighted to see that this week's poem for memorization in Greta's class was by Gelett Burgess. (It's his most-known work, the nonsense poem "The Purple Cow.")

Early in my adult life I came across a first edition of his 1901 book The Romance of the Commonplace, and I've gotten it out and enjoyed its prose (purpler than his cow, I'm afraid) every couple of years since. I guess he's my second-favorite essayist, the first being the incomparable Robert Benchley, whose collections I discovered in my parents' library and read and loved from 8th grade on.

Only a short while back, before the poem came along, I'd pulled it off the shelf again. I especially love one piece, "Costume and Custom," which puts forth so much of what I've always thought a man should be: whimsy, standards, a mind opened and closed to the right things.

Click on the book cover to read.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

every weapon wounds its wielder

Monday, September 26, 2016

the princess and the pilgrim 2

A friend told me that he feels weird about it, but can't help but watch The Princess Diaries when it's on. The 2001 film about an American teen who discovers she's the princess of the Ruritanian kingdom of Genovia is another in the passel of recent princess movies that amount to pilgrim narratives. (See also my discussion of Sofia The First)

I like it, too, and invariably dissolve into tears throughout the show. Perhaps the reason we can't help it is that we love to hear the old old story.

It is, after all, a recounting of our human experience of the Gospel. It's a symbolic Pilgrim's Progress.

Mia (thoroughly inhabited by the fearless teen Anne Hathaway) leads an ordinary under-the-sun life, laden with sorrow and discomfort, till it's revealed to her that she has a royal destiny. She's a beloved daughter of the king.

Soon enough, she's besieged with rules and regulations about how to behave, which she is hopelessly inadequate to follow. She must learn that her identity as the king's daughter isn't dependent on her behavior and condition, though better behavior and condition should flow from her identity.

She runs away from her obligations. But then she connects directly with her Father, and reads his words to her. It completely changes her.

She shows up at the palace, dirty and wet and unworthy, but is accepted because she's ordained to be there. Finally, at the palace, she is *made* worthy — literally cleansed and clothed, to abide in the kingdom ever after.

This is why the movie taps so deeply into the human psyche: it's true in the deepest sense. It's the only true thing in all the world.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

the princess and the pilgrim 1

Fairy tales have been about princesses and castles and witches and peasants and kings and queens and shepherds and forests all along. And when I say all along, for once, that's not a hyperbole: Little Red Riding Hood is thought to be 2600 years old or older.

Many of our Northern European fairy tales, the ones English speakers know best, are Christological: the hero defeats the evil one (at some cost to himself), and redeems the endangered bride to live in happy eternity. The despised pauper discovers she's the bride of the prince.

Recently we've had a series of princess tales that strikingly echo pilgrim narratives. The pilgrim, discovering he or she is a child of God, goes through a series of challenges and tests, symbolizing the trials of the Christian life, before reaching the final goal, symbolizing the soul's passage into heaven. Pilgrim's Progress is the ur-example in the Christian world, a redemption of older journey tales like the Odyssey. For two centuries it was second only to the Bible in popularity. Generations of authors were weaned on its structure and language, which worked their way into our general culture and are still with us.

My daughters have, with every girl their age in the civilized world, been devouring Sofia The First, Disney's newest princess franchise. Alone amid kid entertainment's avalanche of numbers and colors and lessons, Sofia taps into deep mythos in the best Disney tradition. Thankfully, nearly alone amid the avalanche of cheapo production values, Sofia also feels luxurious, with depthy animation and a full (though mostly synthetic) orchestral score, supervised by music wizard Richard Sherman, and featuring Broadway-style (and -quality) songs.

With sparkling stars like Cary Elwes, Mandy Moore, Hugh Bonneville (of Downton Abbey), Sean Astin, Megan Mullally, Isla Fisher, Kiernan Shipka (of Mad Men), Robert Morse, Lea Salonga, Catherine O'Hara, Vivica Fox, Chris Parnell, Shari Belafonte, Alyson Hannigan, Phylicia Rashad, Tracey Ullman showing up as guest stars, and the superb Tim Gunn serving as Sofia's fussy-but-tender butler and mentor Baileywick, it's more like a big Disney feature than a TV show. (Of course, they figured out that it's essentially a 30-minute commercial, so they poured resources into it. Every once in a while in American TV, that calculation turns into first-rate entertainment.)

But the main thing is the main thing: Sofia, a peasant girl whose widowed mother marries the widower king, is now a princess. She must now be caught up to speed on all things royal. Sincere and true, Sofia (voiced by the perfect Ariel Winter, Modern Family's biggest, though modest, star) is both pilgrim and Pippa, learning the ways of the castle and the expectations of a princess, while injecting light and life into her sometimes corrupt surroundings, particularly her spoiled stepsiblings.

One of my favorite episodes, "The Princess Test," tells a familiar story. Sofia is in a kind of Hogwarts-for-royalty course, along with her fellow kid princesses from various lands. (The stories all take place in the Ruritanian kingdom of Enchancia. The other kingdoms cleverly cue to real-life world regions.)

Today is the day of the Princess Test. All will show what they've learned. At the library, Sofia is flummoxed by all the rules and regulations. The other princesses, born to it, have absorbed much. Each tells Sofia that it all boils down to something, different in each girl's account: just flutter your fan properly; just keep your dress immaculate; just curtsy; know the dance steps.

On their way to the ballroom, the librarian, Mrs. Higgins, asks for help. Her book-cart has broken down. The other princesses proceed to the test, but Sofia stays by to help. It turns out, though, that Mrs. Higgins's house is further than she thought. Then the bridge is out, so they have to go the long way. Time stretches on; the test is surely half over. We see the other princesses worry about Sofia, while also choking at even the tests that should be showing their strengths. Meanwhile Sofia loses or ruins everything she needs for the test: her fan, her books, her clean dress which finally gets spectacularly muddy.

At last, they reach Mrs. Higgins's house. But ah! it magically fades to show that they are in the castle ballroom. The others had ignored the old woman in need in their zeal to get to the test; but the old woman in need *was* the test. Sofia wins a golden prize, for a true princess helps people, even if it means giving up something important.

It's not just a powerful retelling of Jesus of Nazareth's forecast of Judgment Day: the episode pulls in well-digested and sound references to the Good Samaritan, the letters of Paul, the book of Micah, and more. This can't be accidental. Not in Disney.

The soul, like our heroine, is beset by Pharisaical rules and regulations in the great library of Religion; finds tidy, trivial definitions of success among differing sects; and is above all tempted to put rules before the treatment of people. The other princesses, in their side-story, show the futility of Law — and the redemption that Grace brings, with Sofia's often-mean-girl sister playing the encouraging Good Pharisee of Acts. Then the finale, Matthew chapter 25: a little-girl gathering of nations. The author surprises both the worthy and the unworthy by revealing that when you ignored or aided the down-and-out you ignored or aided the test-giver in disguise.

Sofia doesn't pass all such tests, of course. Nor does every episode bring this level of moral and spiritual depth. But each episode knocks itself out trying, and more often than not surpasses much children's entertainment in the process. More than once, Greta has paused the show just to revel in the sheer beauty and visual imagination displayed on the screen; more than once, she's rewound to hear a particularly beautiful melody or orchestration again.

All the while, lessons are being taught, with Bunyanesque eye, around the pitfalls and challenges of life in our journey to adulthood — boys and girls.

Disney goes in and out of periods of firing on all cylinders. Right now they're in a season of pop perfection. Ride the wave while it lasts.

Friday, September 16, 2016


The idea that each human being is a unique and beloved creation, as individual as each snowflake, is a worthy one.

But the metaphor itself has been mocked so much that I now can't remember the last time someone used it sincerely.

The word "snowflake" has been kumbayahed.