Saturday, July 23, 2005

linklater knows how to do it

When Catherine and I woke up this morning, the others were already up watching "School of Rock." I marveled again at this movie. Of all people, Richard Linklater turns out to have had the perfect touch. Who would have guessed that the guy who did "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker" and "Waking Life" and "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" would pull off a summer blockbuster and a kids' favorite?

On the other hand, one of the things that makes the movie work is the unvarnished authenticity of it: the musicians are actually musicians, and what they're playing is actually what they're playing, so you don't get that floaty fakeness that afflicts most movies about music. Over the closing credits, the kids take solos, and you realize that they're really doing it right then and there. Of course, one thing that makes that possible is that the closing credits are done with only one camera and in only one take, so there are no stupid synchronization problems. The result is pure joy. All of a sudden, one sees the connection: the guy who let Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy just fall in love in front of a camera is the same one who let Jack Black delight some really talented children.

I can't believe he got the thing produced in today's climate. But I salute him.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

speaking truth, causing offense

Someone said about Ann Coulter that there's one thing he'd never heard her say: "I'm offended." Maybe that's the one good thing you can say about Coulter. She never ever hides behind that singular, ubiquitous armor, so flimsy and so uncontestable in our age: the claim that something you have said in argumentation, whether valid or not, is "offensive."

This is the daughter of the logic so prevalent in the middle of last century:


Person A: Millions of innocent people are being slaughtered by that corrupt government.

Person B: Oh, don't say such a thing. How horrid!


The daughter, though, is savvier and far more effective. Hurt feelings have become a kind of trump card. But of course the problem is that the metaphor of a card game, friendly or unfriendly, is false. The better metaphor is that of strip-mining. You can get what you want, at the expense of everything else.

The grass and trees and open sky of logic call us. If you hurt my feelings by saying I eat too much, then maybe the fact that my feelings are hurt is less important than that you might be right. If I am unhealthy, the solution is for me to get healthy, not for me to reprove you for saying something hurtful.

Catherine and I sometimes go round on this issue, in talking about our children. As good couples should do, we've already started child-rearing, long before the children come. We discuss overall philosophies, tactics, and endless what-if exercises. What we've come up with is that the Biblical instruction to "speak the truth in love" is right on the mark. You should never withhold valuable information from a person you love in the fear that it might hurt their feelings (or in the knowledge that it definitely will); but you should also remove any vestige of hurtfulness that's not strictly necessary. It's OK for me to correct you, but it's never OK for me to be snotty about it.

What Catherine has helped me to refine is the concept of what's involved in speaking the truth. After all, truth is truth, and there's nothing you can do about it. It sits immutable in the cosmos. But speaking the truth is a different matter. It's a transaction. And you can speak truth in several ways.

I used to be, I'm afraid, one of those people who pride themselves on brutal honesty. And the truth is that I often enjoyed the brutality as much as the honesty. (This was brutally made clear to me in college, at what I now view as a turning point.) So, this life is a process of getting rid of the brutality, of speaking more and more truth with more and more love.

I've come up with a corollary to the maxim: The more love you have when you speak truth, the more true it is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

those baby name books

We're staying with some friends who have a newborn baby. In the guestroom/office, they have a whole shelf of books like "Pregnancy for Dummies" and "The Name Book." I picked up that last one, which is a list of names and their variants, meanings, origins, and, of course, the Bible verse associated with each name. Fine when it comes to Jesse or Nephtali, but what about, say, Daphne? How about Galatea? Its "Inherent Meaning" is Pure, while its "Spiritual Connotation" is Courageous. Not sure how that works out. But its Bible verse is Psalm 84:4, "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?"

I'd hoped for Psalm 139:14, "For I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

But that got me to thinking that names are in fact ingenious. Just the fact that there are names, that we have names for things. Have you ever thought about how weird it is that there is a word that is connected to you, that you respond to? What an extremely odd thing. Not that there's a viable alternative. It's just weird.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

the upshot of potter

We've been Pottering for the last couple of days, Catherine on the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, and I on the latest. Prince is turning out to be excellent. One of the features of a long series is that all the stuff that made the first installment a treasure chest of wonders is now old hat. You either need to focus on characterization (on which Rowling is weak) or plot (on which she's laugh-out-loud strong), or you need to keep coming up with new wonders. She'd done a good job so far of bringing out new things. There was the Quidditch World Cup in the fourth book, and the Triwizard. And then in the fifth we got to see the Ministry and St Mungo's, both mentioned liberally in previous books, for the first time.

This last one, though, returns to the tone of the first couple of books, with new fresh stuff that has made me giddy with delight. She's returned to her old masterful trick of revisiting old incidents — including, of course, that fateful, central night — and investing them with new details that change how we see them.

She also charges forward with vocabulary that will possibly give the first Potter generation a spike in the verbal SAT. One word stuck out to me for some reason. It's not even particularly an uncommon one, but I decided to look it up anyway. Upshot. As in, "the upshot was,...." Of course we all know what it means, but I began to wonder where on earth it came from. Webster was no help at all. So I went to our modern Alexandria, and within one minute had found exactly what I wanted: it originally referred to the final, decisive shot in an archery match. So. There you have it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

sri lanka part 2

I went to the airport yesterday to see my brother off. Rich is on his way to Sri Lanka again. What a great thing. Do remember him in the next couple of weeks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

cheating, honorable people, and reality

Catherine and I were having lunch with Loretta Cormier the other day, talking about, among other things, faithfulness. Her late husband was a man of utter integrity. She mentioned that most of the people in their circle of friends were faithful spouses as well. Catherine and I were both reared by parents who were faithful. And most of our parents' friends are too.

At Catherine's office, though, she is the only person who knows such good men: every one of the four ladies she works with lives in a world filled with men who cheat. Brothers, uncles, husbands, fathers, sons, boyfriends. Every one of them. Ask about it, and they'll say that's just men for you. Later, we had dinner with Mom and Dad, who reminisced about his old workplace when they were first married, a place where he was the only man — the only one — who didn't cheat on his wife.

All this got me to thinking: the Huaorani could be forgiven for thinking all the world's a jungle, just as the Bedouin for thinking it's a desert.

Our American sense of individualism makes much of the contrarian on a craggy rock, the Randian hero standing alone among mediocre sell-outs. But that flies in the face of observable reality. Most of the time, we operate not as individuals but as communities. We tend to replicate the patterns we see around us. If your parents had a happy marriage and were utterly faithful, and if you had a wide circle of friends who were all the same way (and chances are you did), then you're much more likely to be that way yourself. If your parents had an unhappy marriage, or were unfaithful, and if you had a wide circle of friends who were all the same way (and chances are you did), then you're much more likely to be that way.

Granted, we're all grownups, responsible for how we act. After you're twenty-five or so you can no longer lay it all on your environment: you are the person you decide to be. Nonetheless, our communities have a way of handing us scripts, and we have a way of taking them whether we really want them or not. To override that script, or write your own, is a rare achievement. (In the same conversation with my parents, we had a good laugh about the ways in which they're tied to the gender roles of their generation. I now recall that Mom did the baking for that meal and Dad did the grilling.)

So it's not unusual that people from different demimondes would think of each other as naïve. Usually, though, it runs in only one direction: those who've been wronged by every man they've ever known would say that women like Catherine just don't know what the world is like. But Catherine could say the same thing, and it might even be truer, for after all Catherine is well aware of men who are dishonorable; but anyone who thinks all men are doesn't have the whole picture.

Why is suburbia always pictured as unreal, while city life is real? Why is a virgin depicted as someone who just doesn't know about the opposite sex? (I know far more than many men about what lengths a woman will go to for sex. I was reminded of this in the Comal River the other day, when I hadn't realized how strong the current was until I tried to stand still.) In what strange world do the Bedouin always think of the Huaorani as fools, but the Huaorani never think that of the Bedouin?

I shall consult Second Law of Thermodynamics, and Genesis 3.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

emergent thinking

I chatted for a while after church today with a couple of friends. The church is Christ Episcopal, where I play the late service every Sunday, after going to the early service at my own church and teaching Sunday school there. But these friends weren't people I knew from playing at Christ.

Nope, these are friends from my church, Trinity Baptist, and from the extended family associated with it. But they've found themselves going to Christ Episcopal on Sundays, without necessarily being Christ Episcopal. Ah. That's the distinction. I go to Trinity, and I am Trinity. There's something about being really plugged in to a church family that makes you that church. In the children's sermon this morning at Christ, the rector (who is much better with adults than children) was trying to express this distinction, along with the truth that a church isn't merely a building or programs. I kept wishing he'd do the old hand motions we all know: Here's the church, here's the steeple. Open the doors, and see all the people. Your hands tell the truth. The church is made up of its people.

I was thinking about how these friends fit into another large family that sort of overlaps with the first. There's a whole bunch of us who are interested in what's called the Emergent Church, so called because it's felt to be emerging from the constricting cocoon of traditionalist modernism to become a dazzling butterfly in the multifarious meadow of postmodernism.

You'll not find them in a church building at all. You'll rarely find them together even on a Sunday. Instead, you'll find them at a coffeehouse on a Saturday, or at someone's home on a weeknight. They'll share not only their spiritual journeys, but their common frustration with the traditional church as it's practiced, a sense of futility about the himham of the average Sunday service, with its announcements for the Wednesday bake sale and the greeting of guests and the sermon with three points all beginning with the same letter. (And when has a children's sermon ever been satisfying, even for the children?) It's not just a matter of starchy traditionalism, either: there's just as much frustration with the churches of slick pop and Power Point as with the wheezing hymns and boilerplate bulletins, because they're all trapped in the cage. The emergent church folk say that the church needs to get out of the cage and go roaming free in the world where it belongs.

This means no to buildings (and building funds, and building campaigns), yes to coffeehouses; no to Vacation Bible School and yes to family vacations; no to covered-dish suppers and yes to supper at the McMains's house; no to Sunday school lessons delivered as lectures from a stage and yes to conversation, exhortation, and dialogue; no to organ preludes and choral features and instrumental offertories and yes to singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs in a way the disciples would instantly recognize.

Do you see the flaw yet? Maybe it will fall into place better when you begin to notice who these people are: the vast majority are what the advertising world calls "creatives." They're musicians, artisans, architects, graphic designers, actors, poets, writers. The cream of the floating world.

This all falls into place once I start asking what my spiritual involvement would look like if I actually got involved with an emergent community as my primary thing. (Most emergent communities I'm aware of spend lots of time talking about emergent communities. But that's no different from the equivalent time at my church spent in committee meetings, except the coffee is better.)

For example, I'm a gifted speaker. Every Sunday I prepare a pretty darn good Sunday school lesson, delivered as a lecture from a stage. It's a major source of spiritual growth for me, and, I hope, a source of insight and challenge to the folks who hear me.

Also, I'm a gifted musician. Right during the time of flux in which I was begging to serve at Trinity, Christ Episcopal approached me, and so now I do there what I'd wanted to do at my own church: play music with some really great musicians every week. I perform a meditative prelude, often an inventive take on an old Sacred Harp tune or ancient chant; I play keyboard for the worship team that leads in Gaelic hymnody, revival-tent oldies, Milhaud, Elgar, contemporary pop, authentic gospel, groovy 60s and 70s stuff (last week I did the Rhodes part for "Day by Day" from Godspell), and, just this morning, a floridly melismatic R&B number sung by a beautifully competent Alicia Keys sound-alike.

Now. I'm also involved, to some degree, with Catherine's spiritual family, a loose, let-it-be congregation that comes the closest I've ever seen to fulfilling every single ideal of emergent thinking. They're wonderful. Though not self-consciously postmodern — their feet are planted in the sandals of the 70s — they are as dispersed theologically as they are geographically, with a collage of Christian thinking and disciplines enlivening each other in a way that would make St Paul, author of Romans chapter 14, smile.

What if a community like that were my exclusive home, my place for spiritual growth and involvement? No doubt, it would be satisfying to some extent. But what of the great teaching, the scholarly Biblical examination that I love so much, and that I try to replicate and honor week by week in my own teaching? What of those preludes, postludes, offertories? What of the Bach and the Milhaud and the Copland? There can be no doubt that the traditional church is second only to the medieval church in providing people like me a venue.

The fact is, I'm a gilder. That's what most of us are, we creators, we inhabitants of the floating world. And, much as we love to see the church break out into the open field, the plain fact is that a you can't gild a lily. Gilded lilies, even if they were possible, would be ridiculous. Perhaps our postmodern society still has a place for the gilded cage.

Friday, July 8, 2005

elegant variation

Writers use the word "elegant" in two ways. You can say that someone's writing is elegant, and, candlelight and soft jazz notwithstanding, what you're saying is that the writing is lean and economical, but not in a severe way. Computer programmers refer to good code as elegant for the same reason. Every gesture seems perfect, nothing is wasted, and it all appears perfectly natural, though we all know that much work went into it.

The other use is precisely the opposite. It's used sarcastically, especially in the phrase "elegant variation," which refers to a habit bad writers have of avoiding repetition by using a thesaurus. So, the phrase "a bird that uses the nest of another bird" becomes "a bird that utilizes the habitation of another feathered songster." Repetition isn't bad. Good preachers and politicians know how to use epistrophy and anaphora, because they're the last remaining people who study the art of rhetoric, which in a better America would be a subject in school.

In journalism, elegant variation becomes choppy and opaque. Actually, it was a sentence by filmmaker Kevin Smith that got me started on all this. In an article for GQ, he says, "Man, why can't I make a movie that'll garner half the regard that flick will no doubt reap?"

That's why, Kevin. That's why.

Wednesday, July 6, 2005

darth vader's motif

Of the many leitmotifs John Williams gave us in Star Wars, the most dastardly is the famous Darth Vader theme. You know, the low brass figure that everyone can sing: bomm bomm bomm, bomm ba-bomm, bomm ba-bomm.

You remember in the first movie, now called Episode Four, when Darth first appears, and the trombones and tubas and tympani pound away at that music? Hoo-hoo-hoo-ha-haaaaa, sends a shiver up your spine. Right? Except that theme doesn't play there.

Ah yes, it doesn't come in till the scene when he strangles that guy. Right? Nope. Well, it's one of the dominant themes in the movie, right? Nope.

Well it is in the movie at some point. Right? Um, nope.

Nope, not in there.

Is this true? Am I going crazy? Does the evil empire music not show up till the second movie? Interesting. Maybe Lucas should have had Williams go back and put it in the first one when he was revamping the effects. That low brass line is one of the four best special effects in the whole series.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

puritan onomastics

There's a great book out called God's Secretaries, by Adam Nicolson, about the making of the King James Bible. He persuasively argues that it's not only one of the greatest achievements in the English language, but it's also one of England's greatest achievements period. It's the grand gothic cathedral they never built, he says. (Ahem, Salisbury?)

He talks quite a bit about other Bibles and their contributions to the culture. The article I linked to yesterday, about American Zionism, which mentions the incredible importance of the Geneva Bible to the Puritans, put me in mind of this book. Here's a quote:


Some Puritans maintained that the names of the great figures in the scriptures, all of which signify something — Adam meant 'Red Earth', Timothy 'Fear-God' — should be translated. The Geneva Bible, which was an encyclopaedia of Calvinist thought, ... had a list of those meanings at the back and, in imitation of those signifying names, Puritans ... had taken to naming their children after moral qualities. Ben Jonson included characters called Tribulation Wholesome, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy and Win-the-fight Littlewit [in his works], and Bancroft himself had written about the absurdity of calling your children 'The Lord-is-near, More-trial, Reformation, More-fruit, Dust, and many other such-like'.

These were not invented. Puritan children at Warbleton in Sussex, the heartland of the practice, laboured under the names of Eschew-evil, Lament, No-merit, Sorry-for-sin, Learn-wisdom, Faint-not, Give-thanks, and, the most popular, Sin-deny, which was landed on ten children baptised in the parish between 1586 and 1596. One family, the children of the curate Thomas Hely, would have been introduced by their proud father as Much-mercy Hely, Increased Hely, Sin-deny Hely, Fear-not Hely, and sweet little Constance Hely.

Bancroft, and this royal translation of the Bible, could give no credit to that half-mad denial of tradition. It was one that travelled to America with the Pilgrim Fathers. Among William Brewster's own children, landing at Plymouth Rock, were Fear, Love, Patience, and Wrestling.

Monday, July 4, 2005

hebrew american

America the beautiful, the religious, the destined. I remembered a fascinating article that appeared in Commentary magazine a while back, on the origins of our peculiarly faithful country.

Those who say our democratic republic was based on Enlightenment principles aren't entirely right; neither are those who say that it was based on Christianity. Nope, David Gelernter convincingly argues it goes back to the classic strains of Judaism.

Read all about it. And, wherever you are on this globe, raise a toast to those remarkable people who daringly called some things self-evident that are not self-evident at all. We all owe them.

Sunday, July 3, 2005

the problem with singers

Musicians tell a joke about a jazz player who goes to heaven (wait; that's not the joke) and is delighted to find a wonderful heavenly band made up of the greats. But, seeing they're all bitter and depressed, he goes up to Miles and asks what the problem is. "Well, man. God has this girlfriend, and she's a singer...."

Why do singers get such a bad rap among musicians? It's this way in jazz, pop, classical, you name it. One reason, I think, is that, since singing is such a natural thing — it's the original, universal instrument — vocalists tend not to know as much about the craft of music as other instrumentalists, who not only work at their own instrument but also learn about and can talk about the principles of music.

Another is all the bad habits. It's alarmingly common for a jazz vocalist not to know what key they sing a song in. That's like having to look up your best friend's phone number every time. It's also common for a singer not to be able to read the band for when to come in. This is a basic skill in an improvisational style of music: each player must know when the last player is through, or else you'll have an embarrassing blank space or one person stepping all over another. Good musicians, therefore, can put it on a silver platter for you, bringing a solo to a logical conclusion so you know it's over and it's your turn. Singers, for whatever reason, are famous for just plowing right on in whenever they feel like it, even ignoring the form of the song. Everyone else just has to adjust.

Maybe the most irritating habit of jazz singers is the propensity to shout your name in the middle of your solo. Why do they do this? You'll be playing along, getting into a really interesting line of thought in a solo, doing something that requires a bit m"BARRY BRAKE, ladies and gentlemen! Barry Brake! How bout it?" You wouldn't believe how many times that has happened to me.

I think I've figured out a reason for that last one. Maybe it's because a singer just can't imagine that anything is as interesting as singing. So when someone's playing, they want the audience to appreciate the instrumentalists by applauding — and it doesn't matter (to the singer) that it's in the middle of a musical sentence. No words are going on, so what's the interruption?

In fact, most of these sins stem from the perception of centrality that singers have. (It's why they can't keep still during solos, for instance, often leading to ridiculous chicken-necking and hip-swaying.) They really think they're on in a way that others aren't — which may, in the eyes of the average audience member, be truer than one wants to admit — and that therefore nothing else is as on.

Not surprisingly, the singers I enjoy playing with the most are the ones freest from those sins: Joan Carroll, who's essentially a player who plays voice; Loretta Cormier, who delivers songs straight no chaser and who brings her own set of charts — which she's hand-drawn herself — for the whole band; Ron Wilkins, primarily a trombonist, who also can sing better than most singers. Those are the ones I find myself working with these days, and gladder for it. All have at least this in common: they realize that what's central is not them, or even us, but the music.

Friday, July 1, 2005

a san antonio so what

A few weeks ago, the Protagonists played a concert for a series called "Jazz at the Witte." The Witte Museum, that is: a cultural institute with beautiful shady grounds.

We had with us trombonist Ron Wilkins and saxophonist Rob Hart, two of the best blowers around. The result was a 3-hour jazz party that left everyone hot and happy.

At one point, I figured it was time for a groovy Latin number, so I started grooving, then realized I was in D-minor, so I mouthed "So What" to the guys, and 8 bars later we were playing a distinctly San Antonian take on Miles Davis's most famous tune.

Take a listen. I set up 2 good microphones in front of the crew, and linked them straight to a stereo DAT. The band sounds great. You can hear the birds chirping in the trees, and you can hear the laughter when Ron begins his solo with a note-for-note quote of Miles's original trumpet solo.