Storytelling

October 28, 2013

I was listening to Aaron Tveit’s live album, The Radio in My Head, which includes lots of standards and musical theatre songs. Tveit recorded this album live during a concert, a concert at which (by all accounts, I wasn’t there) simply stood and sang songs – no pyrotechnics and no back-up dancers. Truly, I’m sure it was riveting. 

So I started thinking about the difference between radio songs versus songs you sing and interpret in a concert: the difference is storytelling.

The great songwriters of yesteryear and the great ones of today told/tell stories in their songs. When you see them performed live, you don’t need bells and whistles. You just need a full orchestra and a great singer. Radio sings are not necessarily meant to be listened to with such focus and attention and they don’t tell stories. So when you see those songs performed in concert, you need a spectacle – you need lights and lasers and back-up dancers and smoke and mirrors and razzle dazzle. The Rodgers and Hart song “My Romance,” for example, is so simple – you don’t need anything to make you understand and feel it. Today’s disposable pop songs can’t say the same. 

And that’s a reason some people can’t relate to musical theatre these days – they’re not used to having stories told to them through song, and they don’t know how to focus on the music and lyrics, since they typically listen to music while doing other things. The music is just background noise. 

What a shame.

Advertisements

A guy sent me a message on OK Cupid and misused “your.” (He should have written “you’re.”) When I read through his profile, I noticed he didn’t bother to capitalize anything or use apostrophes (or any other punctuation, for that matter) where appropriate. Then I got to this prompt and his answer: 

Prompt: The first things people usually notice about me

His answer: that im smart [sic]

This is what’s out there, ladies and gentlemen.

Maybe I was always liberal and socially progressive; maybe I was too young to comprehend that being gay would be seen by some as wrong; maybe I hadn’t been taught to hate.

I remember watching The Real World: San Francisco. (I still watch each season, and all the Challenges. They’re all awful; San Francisco was maybe the last good season, but I can’t look away.) What I don’t remember is thinking that Pedro being gay was a big deal. I don’t remember his marriage to Sean being a big deal. I just remember seeing two people in love committing to one another.

That season aired 19 years ago. Thinking about that time span—nearly a generation—makes it seem like we’ve made little progress. But when you think about 19 years in the context of our country’s age, it seems like we’ve made mountains of progress in no time at all.

The San Francisco season also aired nine years after Larry Kramer wrote his masterpiece, The Normal Heart, which chronicled the early years of the AIDS epidemic. Rent, another theatre piece that dealt with AIDS and all the people—gay, straight, addicts—who had it, would explode on the scene two years after the seminal season of The Real World. Do you think any or all of these cultural offerings helped move the discussion forward?

Since the early 80s until now, society has made respectable progress but we have a long way to go. We have a long way to go until everyone watching a Pedro and a Sean marrying is thoroughly unfazed and when people living with AIDS (as Pedro always said of himself) are no more infirmed than people with a common cold.

My condolences to Sean Sasser’s family and friends.

Read more on BuzzFeed.

Odds and Ends

September 21, 2009

  • Eli’s coming, hide your heart ‘boys: G-men, way to show Big D what’s what. Eli loves a two minute drill (I think he loves giving me heart palpitations even more…) and the win we pulled out on Sunday was incredible. Go Giants! (Now if only the Yankees could clinch the AL East, I could rest easy.) 
  •  Health Care for Foo:  Chris Shiflett, the talented and affable guitarist for Foo Fighters, reacts to POTUS’s recent health care speech and attempts to Rally the Troops.
  • Are you watching “Glee?” It is the best new show on T.V.  A high school Spanish teacher, played by dream boat Matthew Morrison, takes on the thankless task of teaching/coaching glee club, complete with divas, footballers and other misfits. The show is ultimately about finding your voice (pun intended) in the high school caste system.  The bonus (as if Matthew Morrison wasn’t enough) is that fantastic musical numbers abound.  Many of them employ the old show-within-a-show device, as we watch the glee kids rehearse or perform (a rousing rendition of “Push It” was a highlight of the episode Showmance.) Others reveal the students’ inner feelings, including Lea Michele (brilliant as Wendla in Spring Awakening on B’way) tearing up “Take a Bow” (…not the Madonna song, as I thought when I read that song would be sung on the show.  It’s a Rhianna song and Lea kills it!) Some of the best numbers, though, are fronted by Mr. Morrison.  While I particularly liked his cover of Kanye’s Gold Digger (Morrison is a white boy so him rapping was fun and funny for a whole slew of reasons) I liked his version of 90s hits by Montell Jordan, Bel Biv Devoe and Color Me Badd quite a bit, (though I really like “I Wanna Sex You Up” for reasons it would be unlady-like of me to explain.)

Thrill: From the Vault, RS 690, September 8th, 1994

Top 10 Singles

  1. Boyz II Men, I’ll Make Love to You
  2. Lisa Loeb and Nine Stories, Say (I Missed You)
  3. John Mellencamp and Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Wild Night
  4. Babyface, When Can I See You
  5. Changing Faces, Stroke You Up
  6. Coolio, Fantastic Voyage
  7. Elton John, Can You Feel the Love Tonight
  8. All-4-One, I Swear
  9. Warren G, This DJ
  10. Ace of Base, Don’t Turn Around

Granted, some of those songs are awful (I’m looking at you, Ace of Base,) but they bring up delicious feelings of nostalgia, particularly of my youth-in-revolt-against pop phase.

Chill: Top 40 Albums [current – for the week of August 26th, 2009]

Number 3 – Third Eye Blind.

 Ugh. Gross.  First of all, they have a new album? Why? Second, and really the more important question, people are buying it? Why?? They’re so awful, I’d rather listen to Ace of Base. Stephen Jenkins – what a douche cougar. Meanwhile, Green Day dropped eight spots and Neil Diamond went from number two to six.  Music buying public, you’ve got some splainin’ to do!

President Barack Obama gave a rousing education speech today.  Addressing students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA, President Obama spoke about students’ responsibility to themselves.  He spoke about finding your voice, working hard and following through. He urged students to ask questions, for it is a sign of strength; to try hard and then try harder if success doesn’t come the first time.  President Obama’s speech to students is inspiring and one that should be trotted out at the beginning of every school year. Gold star, Mr. President.

Choose Your Own… Book?

September 8, 2009

Last week, the NY Times  ran an article about several teachers who are using a new approach to reading in their classrooms:  Letting the students choose their own books.  I think this has its pros and cons:

Pro:  Theoretically, if the student chose the book, he’s more likely to be interested in it (although, sometimes we’re not good at choosing books.  I wonder if there is a restart button on this – if Sally starts reading The Chronic(What?!)cles of Narnia and just can’t get into it, can she stop mid-book and start reading L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?) If we grant that by choosing the book the student is thereby more engaged in said book, then we’re offering students the opportunity to develop a love of reading and to see reading as something they can choose to do for fun, rather than seeing it as a chore that they have to do for school   

Con:  Left completely to their own devices, students may not always choose a book that is intellectually challenging.  In the Times article, Elizabeth Birr Moje, literacy professor at Michigan says “choices should be limited and that teachers should guide students toward high-quality literature.”  I realize students may not see a lack of intellectual stimulation as a con in the moment, but overtime, this can lead to students missing out on (established) good writing and literary craft which can then lead to stunted vocabulary and writing skills.  Perhaps students should, as Professor Birr Moje suggests, be able to choose from a select group of books whose literary merit is proven.

Pro:  To go back to the first pro, if the student is engaged in the book and likes it, she might actually read the book, rather than just skimming it or using Cliff’s Notes – particularly because Cliff’s Notes aren’t available for a lot of these more pop-lit choices. I didn’t read all the books I was assigned in school.  I never read Jane Eyre.  I never read Madame Bovary.  I didn’t read all of Heart of Darkness. (I did, however, watch all of Apocalypse Now.) I read, in their entirety, the books or plays that interested me: Every Shakespearean play assigned to us; Catch-22; The Great Gatsby; A Separate Peace; 1984.  Some of these I wouldn’t have picked up had the choice been left up to me. I freely admit that.  But, as suggested in the above con, if students were to choose from a pre-approved selection of books, they could stumble upon a classic that speaks to them.

Con:  Without a standardized reading list there is the threat of the loss of common literary knowledge.  For example, in the movie The Good Girl, Jennifer Aniston’s character sees Jake Gyllenhaal’s character reading The Catcher in the Rye.  He says “I’m named after him.” She responds, “What’s your name – Catcher?” I think this is meant to be a funny and sweet moment between the two characters; I found it rather disheartening.  Not only had she never read The Catcher in the Rye, she clearly has never even heard of it or discussed it in any way.  And she’s an adult.  This doesn’t have so much to do with book reading as it does with intellectual stimulation (and a failed school system) but the example is one to consider when thinking about abandoning the typical school reading list.

Pro:  If a student is excited about the book he’s chosen, this otherwise shy student may be moved to speak up in class.  This is a good thing! Speaking in class, whether offering commentary or asking a question, can boost a student’s confidence.  It challenges students to develop and use critical thinking skills.  It enhances their vocabulary. It can also help socially.  Think about the kids you went to school with who never spoke up – maybe you sat next to her all year in English class and never heard her speak; she was probably ostracized, a la Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. She doesn’t speak – she must be weird or a loser.  Well what if she is moved to speak by some great novel?  What if she has a Kim Kelly moment when discussing On the Road? She’s honest about her feelings and when the teacher mocks her as a delinquent, she is then backed up by Lindsay, an agreed upon “smart kid.”  This bolsters Kim’s confidence and makes her feel like she has something to contribute.  (I miss Freaks and Geeks!)

Pro/Con:  The article mentions “that giving children limited choices from a classroom collection of books on a topic helped improve performance on standardized reading comprehension tests.”  The corollary is that without the shared knowledge of the classics, students may be at a disadvantage when taking standardized test.  This can be seen as a con against student-chosen literature but I believe it actually identifies a problem with standardized tests; a student’s success on the tests shouldn’t depend upon his having read a particular novel – it should depend upon his having read a novel and being able to extrapolate from it and pick up on the various literary devices.  Moreover, (and less relevant but indicative of my beef with standardized tests) most tests, including standardized ones and particularly multiple choice tests – don’t actually test your knowledge, only your ability to regurgitate information and take a test.

What do you think? What are some of your favorite books – classics, pop-lit and otherwise?

Let Obama Be Obama

August 26, 2009

If ever there was a how about leadership it was The West Wing.  There is an episode at the end of season one called Let Bartlet Be Bartletin which Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ spend the day dangling their feet “in the water of whatever the hell it is [they] dangle [their] feet in when [they] want to make it look like [they’re] trying without pissing too many people off!” (Two waters they’re dangling their feet in throughout this episode are FEC appointees and repealing the appalling don’t ask don’t tell policy.) It’s a rather slow moving episode, though it makes strong arguments for all the waters, but the last act is really where it’s at.

President Bartlet and Leo get into an argument over some polling numbers and fear they’re losing what little political capital they have – and, more importantly, losing hold of their ideals.  Leo tells the president: “Everything you do says, ‘For God’s sake, Leo.  I don’t want to be a one-term president.’” The argument continues:

Bartlet: You brought me in on teacher.  You brought me in on capital gains.  You brought me in on China.  And you brought me in on guns.

Leo: Brought you in from where? You’ve never been out there on guns.  You’ve never been out there on teachers.  You dangle your feet, and I’m the hall monitor around here.  It’s my job to make sure nobody runs too fast or goes off too far. …

Bartlet: Leo, if I ever told you to get aggressive about campaign finance or gays in the military, you would tell me, “Don’t run too fast or go too far.”

Leo: If you ever told me to get aggressive about anything, I’d say “I serve at the pleasure of the President.’ …You want to see me orchestrate this right now? You want to see me mobilize these people? These people who would walk into fire if you told them to.  These people who showed up to lead.  …

Bartlet: This is more important than reelection.  I want to speak now.

Leo: Now we’re in business. 

Leo then scribbles something on a pad of paper; Bartlet asks him if there’s a strategy and Leo says he has the beginning of one, showing him the pad of paper.  Written on it in bold letters is “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.” Leo then goes back into his office where Josh, Toby, Sam and CJ are waiting for him.  He says to his young and eager staff: 

If we want to walk into walls, I’d want us running into them full speed.  …And we’re gonna lose some of these battles, and we might even lose the White House, but we’re not gonna be threatened by issues.  We’re gonna put them front and center.  We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.

Leo’s sentiment is simple:  Let Bartlet Be Bartlet; let the president be the leader he is, eschewing political pressure and instead leading from a place of honesty, integrity and sincerity.  The plan was to champion the sides of issues Bartlet truly believed in, rather than what he and his staff concluded would score him political points.  Fast forward two episodes and, with this strategy in place, their approval rating shot up nine points (an astounding feat for anyone who knows numbers!)

Right now I wish Rahm would Let Obama Be Obama.

Bill Maher wishes that too.  The final New Rule of his August 14th show pleaded with the president to “Be who you are… a basketball-playing, Jay-Z-listening, arugula-eating hipster.” Excellent rule.  One that should not be broken.

It seems to me that between the health care tailspin, weak-ass and industry favorable environmental laws and gross inaction on equality (with particular regard to gay issues), Obama is whussing out on many of his campaign promises.

For example, during the campaign he was a big proponent of a single-payer health care system, really the only system that makes sense.  Now, there’s nary a public-option in the watered down bills being bandied about, one of the most egregious of which is from the unfortunately name Group of Six. (For a terrific analysis of the genesis of these ill-formed health care bills, read Matt Taibbi’s latest treasure in the current issue of Rolling Stone – the one with the boys from Liverpool on the cover. And check out the online video in which Taibbi breaks down his argument.  Here’s a brilliant excerpt from the article to whet your palate: “Last spring, when [Obama] met with Rep. Lynn Woolsey, the co-chair of the Congressional progressive Caucus, Obama openly said [he wanted a single payer system]. ‘He said if he were starting from scratch, he would have a single-payer system,’ says Woolsey.  ‘But he thought it wasn’t possible, because it would disrupt the health care industry.’ Huh? This isn’t a small point:  The president and the Democrats decided not to press for the only plan that makes sense for everyone, in order to preserve an industry that is not only cruel and stupid and dysfunctional, but through its rank inefficiency has necessitated the very reforms now being debated.” Seriously – go read the article!)

Obama has embarrassingly back-peddled on gay rights.  (Stop pandering to religious fanatics; you’re not one and the people who worked so hard to elect you aren’t them either; furthermore, just as Aristotle claimed the law is reason free from passion, our founding fathers ensured that the law is also reason free from religious doctrine.) Fortunately, supporters of logic, I mean equality, won’t let POTUS or Congress off the hook so easily.  Spearheaded by Cleve Jones, October 11, 2009 will see passionate people marching on Washington to demand equality. The Broadway community is rallying the troops, with the producers of Hair going so far as to cancel that day’s matinee performance so the beautiful hippies can be a part of the march.  Visit Broadway Impact for more details.

And the compromises made in the attempt to curb the climate crisis have fallen short of what many experts say is needed.  In issue 1085 of Rolling Stone, NASA’s director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and leading environmentalist James Hansen offered criticism of the administration’s lackluster efforts.  The interviewer says of Obama, “He seems to be saying, ’The current climate bill is the best we can get, given the political realities’.” Hansen sharply replies, “That wouldn’t be true if he took a stronger position.” Amen.

Obama is a leader.  He certainly acted like one in the campaign.  That was what was so inspiring about him as a candidate.  He seemed like he was going to change the ballgame.  And now, when he’s actually in a position to make the changes we want to see, he’s appearing spineless. 

In the same issue of Rolling Stone, Michael Moore was part of a three person panel assembled to discuss the administration along with Paul Krugman and David Gergen.  The biggest surprise of all was that Moore came off as the optimist of the group.  Seriously.  Michael Moore sounded like Pollyanna. It was bizarre.  But, he made a point which could quiet my aspersions, cast above.  Moore seems to think that this is Obama’s plan; he’s lulling the “defense’ into a false sense of security and then just when the moment is right, he’ll unleash his arsenal of leadership and executive power and put all the dunces in time-out. And put us on a better track. I hope he’s right.

This isn’t to say that Obama isn’t a good president.  Surely, it’s much too early to tell.  He has made strides and leaps; he’s helped to restore (most) of the world’s goodwill toward us; he has showed grace under fire; and he speaks to us like we’re intelligent people.  Thank you, POTUS.  As an intelligent person, I appreciate that.  It’s a shame that the bar was left so low by W that a man who can put together a cogent sentence is seen as such a vast improvement – we really must demand more and better of the people we choose to represent us.  I’m glad we have an executive who values intelligence and thought and care and analysis and science.

But President Obama is lagging on his campaign promises.  In Wicked, the wonderfully schmaltzy and touching musical juggernaut that teaches us to love who we are, green gal Elphaba warns us, “Don’t lose sight of who you are.”  Mr. President, take it from a colored girl – don’t lose sight of who you are.  Let Obama Be Obama.

In today’s NYT, op-ed columnist Paul Krugman writes eloquently on the mob mentality.  First, I really like Mr. Krugman’s use of “Astroturf.” Moreover though, a secondary and implicit argument in this piece is that Democrats need to grow a pair.  Much like Bill Maher spoke about in last week’s New Rules, (or maybe it was during the panel portion – I can’t find a link to it) the Republicans are experts at hyping up ridiculous claims and pummeling spineless Democrats, who don’t think the illogical arguments being made by Rs will stick so they don’t do anything.  Well folks, those arguments do stick.  So Dems, be men.  Fight back.  Just do it.

Unplugged

July 22, 2009

The New York Times recently published an article, Driven to Distraction, which took an in-depth look at driving while under the influence – of cell phones, that is.  In this article, journalist Matt Richtel chronicles several anecdotal examples of the perils of driving while distracted by talking or texting on a cell phone, both hand held and hands-free styles.  A couple of days later, Richtel reported on a report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which had been withheld until that day under direction from some in Congress.  On Wednesday, Maureen Dowd devoted her column to the subject, astutely pointing out: “The tech industry is our drug dealer, feeding the intense social and economic pressure to stay constantly in touch with employers, colleagues, friends and family.” Indeed, Ms. Dowd.  Indeed.

I tend to agree with Maureen on any given day and today was no exception.  People driving while carrying on a conversation on a cell phone is a pet peeve of mine; now that I live in New York I am hardly ever the driver.  But I am a pedestrian and that means I still have to contend with cars manned by distracted drivers.  More over, and certainly less lethal, when walking on the sidewalks I have to contend with the distracted walkers.  You know the one:  He’s got his headphones on so he can’t hear what’s going on around him – like the ambulance with blaring sirens; he’s typing a text message so he can’t see what’s going on around him – like the fact that he’s drifted into another “lane” of traffic and is about to bump into a woman walking in the opposite direction; he’s concentrating so hard on this text message – a message that apparently can’t wait a minute to compose and send – that he is oblivious to his surroundings – namely me walking beside him and nearly being trampled on when he takes a step in my direction, completely unaware of the fact that I’m there.  I can’t stand contending with this people and as the articles mention the ramifications of such distraction are even greater when you are using one of the most deadly weapons – an automobile.

I think we can all agree that distraction is bad and its results are even worse.  But the problem really lies in why we feel the need to multitask when already engaged in such a detailed and nuanced act – driving.  This is where Maureen is hitting the bullseye:  We Americans (and I’m sure plenty others around the globe) feel a completely unreasonable pressure to be available all the time. Why do we do this to ourselves?

For my part, I make a point to unplug.  I turn off my cell phone when I go to sleep.  I don’t check work email when I’m not working (and I rarely work from home or outside of normal 9-5 office hours.) Sometimes when I receive an email I let it sit in my inbox for a day or, gasp, two before responding.  I do read these emails with spotty regularity so nothing truly urgent goes unnoticed – but that’s just it! Within our culture of get-what-I-want-the-moment-I-want-it, we’ve forgotten what is truly urgent or what must be answered and attended to now and what can wait. 

 Here’s a quick way to tell if you have to respond right now: Are you dying? Is the person emailing you or calling you dying or in extreme physical harm? No? Well, then it can wait.  If no one’s life directly depends on you carrying on this conversation, don’t have the conversation while driving.  The consequence, as demonstrated in Richtel’s article, could be fatal. 

Yes, that’s dramatic but it’s also true. 

When I lived in DC, my laid-back hippie sensibility didn’t quite jibe with the DC culture of ‘needing everything to be finished yesterday’ and ‘my work is the most important thing – ever.’  If you give me a deadline, I’ll meet it.  Otherwise, don’t bug me for something.  And unless you’re a heart or brain surgeon nothing you’re doing is so terribly important that it can’t wait a day or an hour or even five minutes to allow me to go to the bathroom before you begin your diatribe regarding your latest proposal. (Yep, I’ve had some unpleasant work experience in DC.  Oddly enough, the pace slowed down when I moved to New York, a city known for its frenetic energy.)

I would venture to say that part of the reason we want to be available 24/7 is because we want to feel we are needed 24/7.  But the truth is, is anyone needed by anyone else 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Maybe a baby needs its parent(s) 24/7.  Maybe a senior citizen battling dementia needs an orderly all the time.  Everyone else, though, can take a breather.  I happen to have worked for a man who, while dining with his wife while on vacation in Jerusalem, answered a work email.  I assure you this was non-essential, even to our work, much less to the greater good of society.  True, he was sitting safely in a restaurant and not driving a car, but he was on vacation. With his wife. In Jerusalem.  Put the crack-berry down. 

Just because we can be in constant contact with everyone doesn’t mean we need to be.