Friday, February 23, 2018

Wrath Lacks Grit

It was serendipity that placed us at the Rogue Theatre in Tucson to see the Frank Galati adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath last month.  The serendipitous part was that it was also my father’s birthday. He would have been 112 years old on January 27th 2018.  As we watched the retelling of this iconic novel I kept thinking back to Dad’s own life. He was not an “Okie” and he had made it through the 1930’s without the kind of disruption that plagued the Joad family, but his early life in rural Wisconsin prior to and during the First World War did have a parallel that is hard to ignore. He came from a large family that had a peripatetic downward spiraling existence. Dad's grandfather owned a farm but his father had been reduced to a tenant by just  before WWI.  Then dad's father disappeared during WWI and left my grandmother with five children.  Total poverty was the controlling factor until after the war and it forced my dad and his older sister to withdraw from high school to help support the family.  Dad's dad and my grandfather did re-appear after the war, but the family never recovered economically.  I apologize for this too long preamble on the Rogue Theatre production, yet what I was thinking about as the production began does have a bearing on my reaction. 

The production just plain started out for me on the wrong foot. In the early moments  several characters appeared bare footed and as they displayed their clean, smooth,  lily white, unblemished extremities all I was conscious of was that these our actors were miles away from struggling hard scrabble farmers in the midst of walking to California.  I am sorry for the bad pun but thank heaven most were shod fairly quickly and remained so for the duration.  Yet the lack of grit and sweat of that early image continued to nag.  

The chosen minimalist semi-Brechtian production style was understandable given the reasonably small wing space and the demands made by a large cast and multiples scenes. The stage was bare and backed by a full width cyclorama. A manual turntable dominated stage right.   Benches tables, poles, and some cloth were piled up to be used to construct the truck and all other scene locations.

Musically the show continued the Rogue’s use of live instrumental accompaniment. A violin and guitar/banjo player provided pre-show music and this couple continued into the play to underscore and provide scene bridges.  

Prominent for acting accolades was Matt Bowden’s appropriately smoldering Tom Joad-- all dark browed and bearded.  I also liked the contrast of Cole Potwardowski’s Al Joad.  There was youthful confidence along with the devilish sexuality of his uncontrollable glands.  Cynthia Meier’s Ma, I am sorry to say, just never connected with me. Not always was I sure that she effectively played her own suffering aspect before she declared that keeping on keeping on is the only possible human choice. She told the story, but the challenge of the role is to also live it and at that point the Brechtian narration seemed to win out over the emotion of the character.

The company, even at 20 strong, was faced with constant doubling making it hard to accept the minor players as anything other than narrators and scene shifters.  All but the most essential props were mimed and this choice also exposed us to differences in pantomime competency.  The ensemble did attack their challenging role changes with vigor and it made no matter if they were in a character or manning the spokes to rotate the turntable.  I did, however, feel for the girl who had to hold up a  blanket in Act II. It seemed like an eternity and my seatmate commented on it as well.  

Lighting and sound moved us effectively from scene to scene with scrim silhouettes and campfire flicker effects deserving of notice.  The best technical kudo was saved for last and the combination of sound and lighting and actor sound and movement during the climatic storm proved to be a fitting highlight of the performance.

The costumes were clearly dust bowl and kept to a palette of umbers and blues, but many looked too clean and unstressed for folks who are making a long, hot, sweaty, physically debilitating journey.  This may have been part of director Joe McGrath’s commitment to commenting on rather than submerging us in the grunge of the journey, but it also accounted for my feeling that some grit was missing in the production.  Luckily, as noted just above, the ending met the challenge. The culminating image of Rose of Sharon striking a pieta pose combined with nourishing the starving man was worth the price of admission alone. Perhaps it was just the jarring start that kept me from involvement early on, but I can’t help feeling that in the early going the pace just seemed too relaxed and lacking focus. Act II provided redeeming action and dramatic tension, but it was not enough to turn a very good production into a great one.  



Friday, February 16, 2018

Rain Rain Don't Go Away

We've had over an inch of rain in Tucson over the last few days and our morning walk in Sabino Canyon had a whole different look about it.

For the past month and a half we have had daily sunshine and not a drop of moisture. Our views were pretty much like this.

Now all of a sudden there were puddles on the main trail toward the dam and Bear Canyon.

The clouds were hanging low and often the saguaros seemed to be isolated in the mist.

The valleys still retained the clouds.

We made our way up to the Picnic Overlook for a full look at the canyon valley and the high country.   

The lake is full and the creek pours over the dam.

As exciting as the long views are, the real harbinger of coming spring comes in the close-up's that reveal droplets of water clinging to the waiting branches.




Even the roadrunners approve.





Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book review of Chicago by Brian Doyle

Chicago by Brian Doyle

Just stumbled over this little book. The jacket noted it was a novel about a young man moving to Chicago to take his first job. It is his story of the five years he spent there before moving on with his life. He finds an apartment house and it is full of fascinating characters—each one a mystery waiting to be explored. He runs on the lake front bouncing his beloved basketball and explores the niches and alleys and rooftops of the city.

Why did this seem so appealing? I had spent a semester in Chicago some years ago as the faculty fellow for the ACM’s Chicago Arts program and it looked like the book would traverse a similar time and location. And sure enough it did make references to plenty of places I had visited from the Hancock Center to the Green Door.  There are lots of food stories, some grit, but a minimum on the nastiness, danger, or racism of the town.  That’s ok as this is a positive look at the city and his experiences like mine were positive overall.

Philosophically he opines that when you are a kid you think the big moments in your life would be full of fireworks and announced with mega fanfares. But the truth is it is not that way at all.  They just sort of sneak up on you and you amble through them much as you amble through all the rest of your days. Only  hindsight sees them for what they were—defining moments in your life.  You missed the significance then, but you see it now.

Doyle’s prose is full of humanity, gentle humor, and fantasy.  For instance there is a dog named Edward who talks to everyone and controls the world.  Yes,  Chicago is another coming of age story, but it resonates better for me than the recent Oscar nominated  film “Lady Bird.”  The narrator in this book seems much more in touch with his world. He sees hears and feels everything and everybody.  

Try it and you may feel in tune with this old Scottish song fragment that parallels the famous Irish blessing.

“May the hills lie low, may the sloughs fill up, may all evil sleep, (and) may the good awake in you (each day.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Our 2017 Christmas Letter

   Volume  XLIV                                                                                                                     December 25, 2017
                                                                               Christmas 2017
Did you hear about the new book on anti-gravity?  Nobody can put it down?  Me either. I guess. I’ll   have to come up with something else to write about in year number forty-four. How about a serious recommendation for a book I really couldn’t put down.  Find and read a copy of Dan Rather’s What Unites Us.  No matter your political bent it offers a hopeful look at the future while not shirking the current divisiveness cursing our body politic.  I was most impressed by his declaration that the rise of the social media have killed the corrective nature of “curated knowledge” in our society. He also talks about the false belief that democracy means “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”  All I can say is that education has never been more important than it is right now.    
Taken on balance 2017 has been for us rather better than we probably deserve. We’ve  noticed that the best way to find something lost around the house is to buy a replacement. Also on the good side we spent the first part of last year in Tucson and are anticipating doing the same this coming year.  The desert is therapeutic for our aches and pains and the escape from snow, below zero cold, and ice seems worth the rent investment.  We kept pretty close to home during the spring and summer of 2017 while making plans for a river cruise on the Rhine and a trip to Helsinki in late September.  The cruise took us from Basel, Switzerland through France and Germany, to Amsterdam.  You can track the whole trip at my blog   Pull it up.  I think you will enjoy it.
From  Amsterdam we flew on to David and Lotta’s in Helsinki--timing  it to coincide with the birthdays of both granddaughters. The photo below hows us and Lotta’s parents at dinner in their new house in a Helsinki suburb called Espoo. 

 It is big enough to have a spare room so we were able to bunk with them for the first time in our five visits.  Here are two year old Selma and her five year old sister Frida.  To say that we had a grand time visiting and spoiling the two girls is a true understatement. 

Our son David continues to be employed by Kone (the Finnish elevator and escalator company) and his wife has now gone back to work at YLE (Finnish Public Radio.)

 Meanwhile back in this country the Senate has just passed a new tax law.  Pardon my cynicism but did you ever notice that if you put “The” and “IRS” together It spells THEIRS?
In Iowa our daughter Amy and her family continue to fight the good fight. They are all still coming to grips with the passing of Todd’s dad.  He is clearly missed.  Todd continues to work long hours and Amy is doing her best to serve the needs of her small charges. Elementary teaching has never been easy, but now with continued emphasis on testing and the rise of self defeating and conflicting administrative rules it may be lurching toward impossibility.  To add insult to injury the new tax bill will eliminate deductions for a teacher’s out of pocket purchases to supplement instruction. Hooray! Punish the giver. Wouldn’t it be nice if the middle class were given a chance to prove that money can’t make us happy? 

Grandson TJ  has shifted his base from Des Moines  to Cedar Rapids to continue work on his Paramedic degree. Here he is reading to some of Amy’s students in her classroom.  Second grandson Mikel completed the main teen age rite of passage and joined the ranks of licensed drivers. He played a lot of baseball this summer and just last week got his first deer while hunting with his dad and TJ.  His career plans are still uncertain. We like the fact that his grades are staying good and he is continuing his study of Spanish.  
I wish it was all sunshine and roses, but the paths are not always smooth for old folks. I have recently been diagnosed with a form of arthritis called Gout. The fact that I share the affliction with the noted English King Henry VIII does not make it more pleasant.  I have literally lost my grip and that is not a good thing if you love golf as much as I do. Luckily modern medicine can treat it.  I don’t mind the pills, but having  beer put off limits is tough for this long time Guinness lover.  This affliction will not keep me from passing on some irony about taxes and the recent spate of high profile alpha males sent into harassment limbo.  “Can you tell the difference between a man and a tax free bond?”  Sure! The bond matures!  
My good wife of now fifty eight years, Jan, continues to be the rock of the family.  Her latest health  screenings show her to be cancer free.  This leaves her more energy to devote to forwarding the cause of women in AAUW.  We both work with the Friends of the Warren County Library and at the Warren County Historical Museum (Jim remains on the Board).   We are now looking forward to a quiet holiday. Thanks to Amy and our grandsons, we have our Christmas lights shining and a tree (yes still a real one) decorated. Some of our packages to Finland have been mailed. We wish to you and yours the warmth of family presence and the good health to enjoy all the benefits of the season.  Remember we will be in Tucson for January, February,  and most of March before returning back in Monmouth.  Give us a buzz if you will be visiting the area. We’d love to see you. 

Contact us always at      Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.