Sunday, December 22, 2019

Amahl and the Fifth King

I listened to the recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors many, many times as a child. So many I can now sing most of the libretto by heart. It is a profound story of faith and liberation. There are quirks we can pick on, such as the cheery gypsy ragamuffin view of beggary, the middle class morals of the poor widow, and especially the emphasis on Balthazar’s blackness, but ultimately it is a story of a Messiah who will turn the world on its head, making the first last and the last first.
There are two main themes in this story: the love of mother and child, and the nature of kingship. There are more than three kings in this tale.
The first three, the Three Kings, are curious figures. They look more like British gentlemen than kings. Rich, idle, kindly, and philosophical. They don't seem to have any particular kingdoms. They act more like old friends than fellow heads of state. Melchior even denies there is any importance to royal blood. Caspar is somewhat senile.
Amahl's mother does not see them this way. Her view of kings brings about the first conflict between the themes of mother-love and kings. She sees them as awesome and fearful. Beings so powerful they are capable of destroying her and her family, without even the bother of malevolence. Consider when she first gazes on them, at the door to her hut. She has just discovered that she has unjustly called her son, whom she loves more than life, a liar, but she dares not apologize to him. The kings she sees are vain as well as powerful, and if they did not feel that they had her full attention they might be offended. To protect her son from the awesome might of these kings, she must let him continue to view her as unjust and unreasonable.
Amahl has his own view of kings, as seen in the person of the fourth king, the king of Amahl's begging fantasy. This king is exotic and strange. Unlike the kings at his doorstep, this king rules a country. But he is benevolent, his response to unrest in his streets is not soldiers but a gift of gold. Faced with kings in the flesh, Amahl is not frightened, but curious. He asks each in turn if they are real kings. Each answers “yes.” He even asks them to please bleed a little for him, so he can see regal blood. It is fortunate for him that the kings are genial gentlemen, and not the fearsome nobles his mother sees.
The shepherds see the kings as Mother does. As a child, it always bothered me that the shepherds come bringing gifts to the kings. The kings were rich! Why are the poor giving them presents, it should be the other way around! Now, of course, I know, this is the truth of kings. Where does their wealth come from? Conquest or taxes, it comes from the people. The poor have always given to the kings. In this, finally, the kings act like the kings we expect, accepting as their due the generosity of the poor.
But there is a fifth king in this story, a king stranger, more unexpected, more wonderful than all the others. This is the child the first three kings are going to worship. Who is he? One of the most beautiful passages in the libretto is the efforts of the kings and the mother to describe him. The images the kings can bring are full of majesty and mystery. He is the “color of earth, the color of thorn,” he holds the wind and the seas in his palm, at his feet rest the moon and the stars. He brings peace even to the lion and eagle. 
To Amahl’s mother, however, all these images only remind her of her own son, who holds, more than the wind and seas, her very heart in his palm. Indeed, he is so dear to her, she gives up what little she has left, her honor and pride, to steal a little gold to feed him some days more. “For my child… For my child…”
Melchior is inspired after the theft, and sees clearly the image of this strange king, a king who doesn't need our gold. He holds no scepter, he wears no crown, and the most honored nobles of his realm are the poor. Talk about standing the world on its head! Why, you could almost call him an ”anti-king.”
The true selfless moment of Amahl is when his mother returns the kings’ gold. Most see the innocence of the child, giving up the very thing that lets him walk, in the ridiculous consideration that maybe the Son of God might need a crutch. This, too, is a beautiful image. Its absurdity reminds us of many of Jesus’s parables. We know the stories so well we forget how ridiculous they are. A son asks his father to give him his inheritance “in advance,” and the father agrees? This is absurd even before the father forgives the boy for wasting the money. Or the image of a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle. Usually this is told as a profound lesson. But it could as well have been a joke. As the rich young man fell behind in disappointment, Jesus shook his head and said, “I swear. Trying to get a rich man into heaven is like trying to get a camel through the eye of a needle.” And the disciples all laughed until their sides were sore. 
Such a God would have loved the idea that someone was prepared to offer His son a crutch, in case he should need it.
But think a moment on the faith of Amahl's mother! Not in innocence, but in full knowledge of the privation and suffering of her future, does she give up the gold. Melchior’s aria has finally reached her. This king, coming into the world, is bigger than her fear. For her son, and for all the poor, she gives up the last hope she had meant to claim for herself.
Is this, then, the moment of the miracle? Is Amahl healed when he gives his crutch? Or, like a human magician, did God work his miracle when no one was looking? If, instead of offering his crutch to the kings, had Amahl gone to use the outhouse, would he have found that he could walk? The generosity of Amahl is the compassion he has learned from his mother.
After the miracle, Melchior remembers the fearful king he himself was mistaken for. “We must praise Him,” the kings sing, knowing that all attention must be turned to the jealous God. But Amahl and his mother give God what he truly wants: to see the joy His gift has brought. Amahl's running and fighting and play are more thanks and praise than the kings’ devotionals. The Fifth King finally brings together the themes of Amahl. For he appears like nothing so much as the love of a mother for her child.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Some things are better if you know history

The usual answer to "why do we need to learn history?" typically involves doom and repetition. An alternative answer is that it lets you into a special club in which all manner of things mean a whole lot more. For instance:

I was listening to a favorite song of mine, "Brand New '64 Dodge" by Greg Brown. Mostly, it's just the musings of a boy who thinks it's odd to be riding in a '64 Dodge in 1963.

Money comes out of Dad's billfold,
Hankies come out of Mom's purse.
The engine hardly makes a sound
Even when you put it in reverse.

But then later he muses about the girl he likes.

Her little brother is retarded,
But Jesus loves him, too.
And Jesus loves our president,
Even though he's a Catholic.

Then if you know history, you know he's singing about John Kennedy, because he was the first Catholic president, and some people were worried that a Catholic president would have to obey the pope. Turned out not to matter so much, but that's what people worried about back then.

The world is big and full of autumn,
And I'm as hungry as can be!
We're in our new '64 Dodge
November of '63. November.

He repeats that month, to make sure you don't miss it, as if it's important that it is November. Because it is. If you know a little history, you know that in November of 1963, John Kennedy was shot and killed. And suddenly you know what this song is about. It isn't about a car at all. It's about the Kennedy Assassination. It's about a great tragedy that's going to come crashing down on this innocent little boy, a big smack of reality into the face of a kid who's been told all his life that the world is a good and safe and wonderful place, and all these questions he's been pondering are suddenly going to seem like they don't mean anything at all. It's about innocence destroyed.

But if you don't know history? ...Then it's just about a car.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Chickens

Isabelle has decided she wants to raise chickens in our back yard. (For those who don't know, our house stands on 0.14 acres. A back yard not quite big enough to play kickball with a six year-old.) Carrie and I both said, "I don't think so."

But Isabelle has quite a bit more chutzpah than I ever did. She solicited from us all our "concerns" about raising chickens, and announced she was going to launch a campaign to change our minds. She's spent the past two days researching chicken care, and looking up the Barre City regulations on the keeping of poultry, and measuring the yard to find a place a chicken coop could be the required thirty feet away from anyone else's house.

We shall see. If she can really address all the issues, I might have to agree, if for nothing else out of admiration for her spirit. Hopefully it will resolve agreeably, however it goes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Home," or How Bad Can Hollywood Get?

Isabelle wanted to see Home, the Hollywood adaptation of Adam Rex's fantastic book The True Meaning of Smekday, so, being a good dad, I gritted my teeth and brought her. All I can say is, what inspires us, that we find it necessary to take a thing of brilliance and beauty, and rip it to shreds? Are we humans no better than Gorg? Not the cute little starfish in the movie, the Gorg, as in "If you took all the Gorg in the world and stacked them one on top of the other, the Gorg would kill you." Are we truly as pathetic as the Boov think we are?

Adam Rex produced a thinly veiled indictment of Euroamerican colonialism, in a hysterical book that simultaneously was also able to convey the devastation of an eleven year-old girl whose single mother has been violently taken away from her. Yes, he really did get all three of those into a single children's adventure tale. If Hollywood made it into a silly romp, that would have been predictably bad. But to paste on a moral that only humans truly understand love and faith and courage, and the human capacity for friendship triumphs over all, is self-righteous horseshit. (Pardon my language.)



No, I was not expecting that Hollywood could adapt this book into a movie. Not even the folks who did a fine job with The Fault in Our Stars. But I am not able to fathom the depth of our banality. These people must be the sort who would paint a mustache on the Mona Lisa.



(I remember hearing that a review should always find something good to say, so here it is: the producers did not chicken out of showing Tip's family as biracial. Kudos.)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Best Opening Lines

So, my survey of the best opening lines by independent authors has concluded. Participation was limited, results are not scientific, but here they are. The top vote-getter was a professional, Candas Jane Dorsey topped the votes with the opening sentence from Black Wine: "There is a scarred, twisted old madwoman in a cage in the courtyard."

But as promised the official winners are only the independent writers.

I apologize for throwing my own work into the mix. Submissions were few enough that it wouldn't have made a very exciting contest without a couple extras.


First Place At the end of this story a baby will be born, and touch off an insurrection.Shock and AweEugene Fairfield
Second Place (tie) Mesmerized by its beauty, I found myself staring at the sky with its only sun.The Legacy: FateGG Atcheson
Second Place (tie)The ravenous hunger that had formed a knot in my stomach pulled me out of my rest. The Legacy: Destiny  GG Atcheson
Third Place It all started with the bowling ball.The Prophecy of ShieldIsabelle Wightman 

Congratulations to the winners.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Rhubarb Soda

Follow this link for my rhubarb syrup recipe.

For Kids and Adults:

Add 2-3 Tbspn Rhubarb Syrup to 1 can seltzer. If the syrup is frozen, it helps to mash it up first, and use a room-temperature seltzer, if available.

Note that this drink has significantly less sugar than a regular soft drink. I can't say how much, since a lot of the sugar used to make the syrup went with the compote, but I'm guessing probably about half.

For Adults:

Add 2-3 Tbspn Rhubarb Syrup to 2 oz Vodka. Mix thoroughly. Then add 1 can seltzer. Don't forget this drink is alcoholic, as it will go down very easily.

Rhubarb Compote & Syrup

This is a double purpose recipe. The same procedure creates two fabulous things. Rhubarb Compote is a fabulous topping for pancakes, or filling for tarts. Rhubarb syrup can be used to make fabulous drinks, both for kids and adults.

Makes about 1 cup each of compote and syrup.
  • Mix 2 cups chopped rhubarb stalks with 1 to 1½  cups sugar.
  • Add a little water. (maybe 1 Tbspn)
  • place in saucepan and simmer over low to moderate heat, stirring occasionally, particularly early on as the juice is releasing.
  • Cook until the rhubarb softens and the liquid is just a little syrupy. I stop before the rhubarb is mush.
  • place a sieve over a bowl and pour the mixture in. You will get more syrup if you press with the back of a spoon, but it will be clearer if you don't.
The compote is what is left in the sieve. The syrup is in the bowl. Both will keep refrigerated for a couple days. The syrup may be frozen.

To peel or not to peel. It's a personal taste thing. The red color is mostly in the skin, so if you peel, the syrup will be yellowy green. If you don't, it will be pinker. I don't believe the skin detracts from this recipe.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger -- a big empty place inside me

To paraphrase myself
I cannot remember a time without Pete Seeger, and I cannot remember a time without the music.
 I could be three, or four years old, skipping around a living room in a house that I cannot remember, singing "Put your finger in the air, in the air." Or what was then the funniest line I'd ever heard in song: [regarding the color of flowers for the imminently dying Henry] "Green and yeller. GREEEEN and yeller."

I could be six years old, at vacation bible school, singing, "If I had a hammer," which I then thought was a silly song, because if he really wanted a hammer, why didn't he just go get one.

Nine years old, at summer camp.

Fourteen years old, watching him on TV, calling out, "Split wood, not atoms." He looked like an older man to me, then. It was 1979. He was 59.

Eighteen years old, at vacation bible school, leading the kids in singing, "If I had a hammer," which I then thought was a marvelous song. I sang other songs with them to. And sometimes, I sang as I had learned from him, though I did not remember where I had learned it, "join in on the chorus when it comes round."

Twenty years old, at Oberlin College. He came to play. But I was twenty, and full of twenty, and though I wanted to go, something else called me away (I don't even think it was a girl).

I remember thinking later, that Muddy Waters had come to Oberlin, and died that same year. Then Count Bassie came to Oberlin, and died that same year, and I was sure that the curse would hit Pete Seeger next, and I had missed my one chance to see him. It was 1985, he was 65. Most people retire at 65. I was wrong about the curse, but I was right that that had been my last chance.

He came to Oberlin in 1956, too. In 1985 he filled Finney Chapel, the largest venue we had. In 1956 he filled the living room of Johnson House, which was just a living room. He was on McCarthy's black list and in contempt of Congress for not answering their questions. My mother was there. She could have reached out and touched him.

Twenty-one, still at Oberlin, having a protest in support of the campus minister who had just been let go. We sang "We Shall Overcome", until a group of black students pointed out that the song was precious to them, for the Civil Rights struggle, and could we not co-opt it, please.

Jump ahead. 2005, I'm 40 and a dad. I just got a USB turntable to convert my old vinyl to digital format. I pounce on my parents' scratchy old record collection and pull out four albums to borrow and convert. Half of them are Pete Seeger.

He was "wholesome," in a way nobody is anymore. The only one I think of as a peer to him was Woody Guthrie, but I wouldn't use that adjective for Guthrie. Seeger also could sing. I mean he could SING. Whether it was his songs for children ("Here's to cheshire, here's to cheese,") or Carnegie Hall ("If you see me at the back of the bus"), his voice soared.

It is 2014. I am 48, as old as he was when I was dancing around the living room. I heard the news while driving to work, and I very nearly had to pull over at the side of the interstate because I was crying. It's been 30 years since I worried he would imminently die. He was 94 years old. And still my heart cries, "No!" No, he can't have died. There has always been Pete Seeger. He is too precious to die like any ordinary man. Or couldn't he hang on, just another ten years, so Isabelle can see him in concert when she's at school?

Back in those days there weren't any televisions or radios, and if you wanted to hear any music you just had to make it yourself. It was only the kings and queens that could afford to have somebody else make music for them. And you might not think it would be very good music, everybody making their own. But you'd be surprised.
Pete Seeger, The Children's Concert

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The Boyfriend

Isabelle has a boyfriend. He's nine years old. He's told her he loves her. She concurs. They haven't kissed, but they do hug.

Today was the first day I met him, although I've seen him from a distance before. It was only afterwards that I realized I had behaved in a very atypical manner for meeting one of my daughter's friends. I approached him directly, introduced myself, shook his hand, and said it was nice to meet him. It seemed normal until I imagined doing that with any of her other friends.

I don't think this is presaging anything good for my behavior around future boyfriends. When she's thirteen, am I going to be asking, "So. What are your intentions toward my daughter, young man?" Will I go so far, when she's fifteen, as, "Gentlemen who wish to keep their testicles will have her home by ten"? Oh well. At least Gabriel got a very first taste of "meeting the father of the bride."

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Isabelle Sez

If it's a gaggle of geese, and a drive of dragons, and a pride of lions, what do you call a large group of grown-ups?

One night when the parents and grandparents were yacking unstoppably, Isabelle told us, "You should call it a 'talk' of grown-ups."

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Partial Zero Emission Vehicles

I just saw that Honda is advertising a "Partial Zero Emission Vehicle," which sounds really cool. No one else is marketing a Zero Emission Vehicle right now. This is "Partial Zero," but as every 3rd grader knows, a part of zero is still zero. Try it: 1/10 * 0 = ??

I suppose it's possible that they intended to hyphenate, indicating that their car is partially a Zero-Emission-Vehicle. This makes me wonder, which part? No emissions on the left side? Or from the front? Of course, nearly all cars in good repair could be called zero emission from the front, all the emissions come out the back. So maybe the zero-emission part is just the passenger cabin. Of course, this would depend on operator skill. For instance, too much chili could compromise the zero-emission nature of the car.

Well, I'll just be mystified for the moment. In the meantime, I can't wait until some car maker remembers the actual zero emission vehicle they made in the 1990s, and decides to market it again.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Recipes

The other day I was thinking about how good it is, the taste of melted ice cream in soda, and it hit me: you don't need to make an ice cream soda to do it. Here is a low-fat, low-calorie alternative to soda that is aspartame and saccharin free:

Serves 2:
to each glass:
  • Add 2 Tbsp. half-&-half
  • Add 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Add ice
  • add 1/2 a can of unflavored seltzer.
It helps if you pour the seltzer down the size of the glass, like a beer, because it will foam.

For those of you who wince at the very words "half-&-half," I provide my Nutrition Facts, with comparison to a 12oz Coke:

Cream FrizzCoke
Calories40140
Fat3g 9%0g
Sat. Fat2g 10%0g
Trans Fat0g0g
Cholestrol15mg 4%0mg
Sodium25mg 1%45mg 2%
Carbs1g 1%39g 13%
Sugar1g39g
Protein1g0g
Calcium4%0%


Apart from the fat, I win. I wouldn't drink ten of these a day, but on the whole I call them healthy enough.