break for a personal update: on teaching

Whew. I’ve finished my first week teaching writing composition classes to freshman (and a couple of sophomores) at a little liberal arts college in West Virginia. This is a big change for me. Aside from Hops’s ugly shock at being left home alone for hours every day!, I’ve been wrestling with lesson plans, reading and writing assignments, and managing a class full of variously bored, overanxious, and sleepy 18-year-olds. It is simultaneously maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, and potentially one of the most rewarding.

For our second class meeting, I had all my students write me a letter of introduction, sharing as much of themselves as felt comfortable. This allowed me to judge the writing skills and grammar they entered with (not perfect, but often not terrible either), and see them as individuals with their own interests and concerns. I was touched at how much some of them did choose to share. And I learned how many of them are genuinely nervous about passing my class (with a C or better, required to move on to the next one). I’ve been trying to communicate to each of them that I’m here to help them pass – every last one of them – as long as they’re putting in the work and asking me for the help they need.

It feels kind of overwhelming, the idea of having readings, writing exercises, grammar lessons, and class discussions (etc.) ready for every class meeting between now and early December. All their faces and needy brains out there in a sea of challenge. Just learning their names! (I have my smallest class down; the next one, pretty much there; the last, still kind of a mess.) I am trying to remind myself that even though I’d like to be perfect every day, professional and polished, that’s not a realistic goal. I’ve pointed out to them that I’m not perfect, either, but I don’t want to overstress that point, lest they worry that I’m nearly as much at sea as they are!

At this point, for better or worse, I’m committed to the syllabus, schedule, and textbook I’ve set. So we’ll just venture out together, me and these 47 kids. Wish us luck.

I have scaled my book review work way, way back. But I also have a backlog of work ready for this blog into the month of November as of now. I think we’ll make it into the new year easily enough with a three-day-a-week schedule; come January, we’ll see. This work remains important to me, as I think it always will. But I obviously have some day-to-day priorities right now that take precedence.

And January sounds a long way off still. Lots of essays to shepherd and grade between now and then; lots of individual conferences and who knows what little crises to face. I’ll be out here learning as I go.

Teacher friends, if you have words of wisdom for me, I’d be grateful to take them in the comments below. Or just send me your good wishes. I’m headed back into reading my students’ words and figuring out what’s next…

PNC Broadway at Kentucky Center for the Arts presents Hamilton (2019)

You already know I love the soundtrack and concept. I felt so lucky to get to see this production in Louisville, Kentucky, with a friend of mine.

Jefferson in Hamilton (photo credit)

A few thoughts of my own here, and then I’ll respond to some observations from Pops.

I found every moment of this performance thrilling. I came in so heavily invested in and in love with the show as I knew it, from the soundtrack and from videos I’d watched online of other productions – I know this made me both harder to impress (because each actor was being held up to another actor’s interpretation) and easier (because I had already bought in). I think I had a fixed grin for several numbers; then when people started getting heartbroken and dead, I felt those things deeply, too. We had impressive vocal performances as well as acting throughout; it’s a blockbuster. I agree with Pops’s comment that some familiarity with the lyrics is helpful in appreciating their richness, depth and cleverness; don’t miss any of these lines!! but with my thorough study beforehand, I got a lot out of this. My admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda and the whole production was confirmed, expectations satisfied. I still wish I could have seen the original cast. But this was amazing, outstanding, and something few people get to see (those ticket prices, whew $$$). I’m overjoyed.

My date (who is a novelist) and I talked some about the characters we appreciate most. Hamilton is a big one – the show is definitely built around the idea of his being a complicated, sympathetic, fascinating guy – and I find Burr a close second. He is the more tragic figure, I think, what with his final ambitious leap and disappointment, and his fatal mistake and instant regret. I enjoyed the comedy of Jefferson, and the gravitas of Washington. My date and I agreed that while Eliza was performed beautifully, Angelica is by far the more interesting and complex character, something of a tragic figure herself; that seems to be the nature of their true roles in history, though, and each actor beautifully performed her role as written.

One thing I hadn’t realized was how little script there was in addition to the soundtrack that I already knew so well – in other words, the whole story is sung; there is very little dialog. The notable exception is the news of John Laurens’s death: seeing that shared onstage, I finally understood why I’d been confused by the soundtrack on this point! No plus or minus here, just good news for fans of the soundtrack: you’re getting pretty much the whole thing. I guess I find it an interesting artistic choice on Miranda’s part. Everything in song!

A difference from the soundtrack and videos: our version of Burr (Alexander Ferguson) was a much slighter and less burly, macho man. The rest confirmed previous impressions. Mulligan and Jefferson each had their own swagger, and Jefferson onstage gets an infusion of pure silliness which was delightful to watch, and I think an important element toward the story – he was the comedic influence, and a foil in other ways as well for Hamilton. Hannah Cruz as Eliza was powerfully voiced, and I dug her haircut which was decidedly modern. And don’t let me pass up mentioning Peter Matthew Smith as a hilarious and beautifully sung King George.

The set was apparently simple, although it had a number of moving parts (not stationary as Pops reports the SF one); set changes (including furnishings coming on and going off) were part of the choreography, which was very smooth. The ensemble of backup singer-dancers made a definite contribution. Each actor filled their role nicely, although Burr was the biggest change. Funny Pops mentioned Van Jones – that man at least physically matches the original Broadway’s Burr much better than ours did.

In rereading Pops’s comments: I did not watch our audience very closely, I’m afraid. But my impression was that it was pretty white, and older than you noted yours. Also not rowdy or terribly involved; at Jefferson’s big entrance he had to ask for more applause (which he got, in moderation). SF has more pep than Louisville?

As far as Pops’s note about politics being mostly in casting rather than lyrics: this is true for the most part, and I appreciate that, sort of understated and unavoidable at the same time. (Funny story: after immersing myself in this play beforehand, I at one point found myself double-checking the appearances of some of these historical figures, wondering, were they brown? Silly question, of course – the powerful figures of American history are absolutely white – but that’s how involved I got in this play, that it let me imagine an alternative.) But! one notable exception would be repeated reference to the power and talent of immigrants. I love these lines.

Funny that Pops mentioned having seen the #2 Hamilton actor – I don’t see how I’d know such a thing, except that when I went looking for photos to accompany this review, I couldn’t find any of our Hamilton (Edred Utomi) in his role. I also can’t find any other Louisville Hamilton (which is why there is a picture of our very funny Jefferson [Bryson Bruce] at the top of this post instead). Hmm. No complaints about Utomi at all, though – I think he embodied the character perfectly. As I’ve mentioned above, Burr was the only one who didn’t feel quite right in his role; but I think that’s just because I had an impression in my head going in, and not the actor’s fault for having a different interpretation. The double-edged sword of my familiarity, is all.

Clearly I had a wonderful time. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If I were made of money, I’d go see multiple productions of this genius play. If you can get in, do go see Hamilton wherever you have the chance.


Rating: 10 coattails.

guest review: the Orpheum Theatre presents Hamilton (2019), from Pops

Some months ago now, my parents went to see Hamilton in San Francisco (lucky them!), and I am now sharing with you Pops’s remarks – because the next post you see here will be my own response to another Hamilton production, 2300 miles away. Briefly, then, here’s Pops.

The audience was surprisingly white; guess I shouldn’t be surprised given the price and the world-class tourist destination of San Francisco.

I was impressed there were so many teens with families, young people, and couples; there is a cross-generational attraction.

It was like a rock concert: excitement building just waiting; with the first chord of music, they cheered and hooted like these were rock idols; the conductor was obviously pacing the opening song to allow for applause and cheering, so we didn’t miss too many opening lyrics.

The stage set was huge, simple, stationary and visually rich to my eye, smacking of heavy-timbered construction, shades of dark brown; it was open, no curtains, enticing the awaiting crowd; the show began with Aaron Burr simply striding out on stage and letting loose!

The talent on stage was overpowering; wonderful, top to bottom; the audio system was good, and the powerful music will move you; but the rapid fire lyrics were still sometimes lost to individual diction or presentation; good to be familiar!

It strikes me that the ‘politics’ of this production are largely in the ‘meta’ of presentation, not so much the content of lyrics: i.e. diversity of skin color, musical style, physical character portrayal, etc.

The cast presented a broad palette of skin color; very few racial or ethnic stereotypes appropriate here; it was wonderful how that quickly faded to background as each character established their identity with other features.

The acting adds so much to the songs! Characters were sometimes surprising as fleshed out by actors, with body language and expression adding so much; good seats up front paid off; so many of these ‘familiar’ historical ‘founding fathers’ were so different as portrayed, Jefferson especially (as a buffoon!); George Washington retained the most tradition I thought, with great gravitas; I thought our Aaron Burr was by far the powerful character, as portrayed by a handsome man who I thought to be a doppelganger for Van Jones, if you know him.

There is great dancing too! Again, totally missed listening to only audio; it’s fun how the ensemble women also play male or ambiguous gender roles in other scenes.

We saw the relatively inexperienced #2 Hamilton actor, and he was great; I suppose the #1 is saved for weekends – he has a much longer and showier background including a Broadway tour. One wonders about different interpretations…

Act 1 is all upbeat, high energy, uplifting; the shorter Act 2 brings the steady decline to denouement, like a Shakespearean tragedy; it’s a sad ending – no attempt to sugar-coat history.

I’ll be responding to these thoughts in my own review. It was so fun to get this email and whet my own considerable appetite for the same show…

movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

in memoriam: Toni Morrison

If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.

You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the the one to write it.

Something that is loved is never lost.

(I am still working on this one.)

We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.

movies: When They See Us (2019) and The Central Park Five (2012)

I was keyed up for the release of When They See Us as a Netflix original miniseries at the beginning of June. (I’m treating it here as a movie, especially because “limited series” seems like such a downplay for a serious work of art and social commentary.) I viewed the four episodes in three evenings, rushing through, feeling both addicted and horrified, unable to look away. I thought I was prepared for the subject matter, but I was shocked beyond expectations.

The show handles events from 1989, when five boys (four Black, one Puerto Rican and Black) were arrested for the brutal rape and beating of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Their names are Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Although there was no evidence linking them to the crime, and although their confessions were full of holes and inconsistencies and signs of police coercion, they were found guilty. The four younger boys, ages fourteen to fifteen, were sentenced to between five and ten years. Korey Wise was sixteen, and received ten to fifteen, entering adult prison directly. In 2002, another man in prison for a series of rapes, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and Korey (still incarcerated) was released, and all five men’s convictions were vacated.

It’s a terribly painful story to see unfold. On the April night in 1989, we see a large group of boys running through Central Park and acting out. They push at and harass bicyclists. They beat up a man. It’s easy to see how things escalate: boys roughhousing, and then some of them take it a step too far; imagine yourself one of those boys. You’re not responsible for the actions of those you’re with; you don’t even know all of them. It turns out that the jogger was raped in the same park on the same night, beaten within an inch of her life. Three of the boys who would become known as the Central Park Five were arrested that night. The next day, police came looking for Yusef Salaam. His friend Korey was with him when they take him in, and agreed to come along, just for moral support. In an ugly-ironic twist, Korey would serve the longest sentence for this crime in which none of the Five had any involvement.

It’s unsurprising that When They See Us knocks it out of the park with Ava DuVernay as creator, co-writer and director. Under her guidance, we see the boys running through Central Park. We see them picked up by police, and interrogated without parents present for hours and hours, without bathroom breaks or food; we see them pushed around, threatened, and coached through their false confessions. We see them in court and then in prison; we see them get out and hug their families and try to put their lives back together. We see Reyes confess to the rape. I am deeply impressed by the acting performances given by both the young actors (portraying the teenaged boys) and adults. I am horrified, over and over again.

I’m glad (well, that’s a weird word) to see the story of Korey Wise’s sister given air time, too: Marci was a trans woman murdered while he was incarcerated, who we meet only through flashbacks, as he weathers solitary confinement by living in a dream world largely starring this much-loved older sister. The story of a murdered Black trans woman is unfortunately common still today, and Marci deserved this coverage. She is beautifully played by Isis King.

I was also intrigued to meet the very sympathetic (in both senses) character of Roberts, a white prison guard who goes out of his way to be kind and generous to Korey, even holding him in an embrace when he finds out about Marci’s death. Roberts does not appear to come from real life (go figure). He was a sweet departure, but his totally fiction existence feels like a final driving-home of the horror of this true story.

I find the title interesting, too. I can think of several ways to follow this phrase, from ‘when they see us, they only see one thing/they think they know us,’ to ‘when they see us, then, finally, we’ll get justice,’ in the sense that we mean when we say it feels good to be seen. The story is so clearly about racism, about the way in which these boys, these children, were handled as proxy for everything that the world feared about Black men in 1980s New York. A white woman was raped, and they came for the Central Park Five just like they came for Emmett Till. And they were just babies: that’s one of the advantages of seeing and not just reading about this story, seeing the faces of these boys and realizing how very young they were.

I think this was everything it needed to be. As a crime drama, it’s gripping and moving. As social commentary, it’s thorough in its criticisms: the cops and prosecutors demonize themselves through their actions. I wept more than once. It’s also a visually impressive piece of art – this is where I’d normally call it visually pleasing, but of course that’s the wrong adjective – it’s full of expressive images, from the wide-angle view of boys in the park to the interrogation rooms and prison cells, and expansiveness of the outdoors to a man freed. I am still recovering emotionally from this story. Well done, DuVernay and full cast.

After feeling so affected by this show, I went looking for more, which led me to the documentary covering the same events from seven years earlier. The Central Park Five did much of the same job as the Netflix series, but with original footage and the perspectives of the men looking back from years later. Necessarily, it offered a less complete view of past events, because it stuck to the footage available; we don’t see police hit or threaten or coach the boys’ confessions, obviously, but we see the taped confessions, and we see the faces of the five boys and, later, men themselves. (Antron McCray allowed the use of his voice and not his image, as an adult.)

There was not much more of the story to be gained here, then, but an advantage in seeing it come from the people actually involved. I appreciated seeing what each character looked like, in comparison to the actor(s) who played them. I enjoyed seeing period footage of New York in general, too. I think it’s probably a good documentary, but it suffers some by comparison to When They See Us, which has the obvious advantage of being able to show more – whatever DuVernay wants to depict – and more dramatically. Having the two together feels like the right final call, of course, for the viewer wanting to explore this subject matter. I’m very impressed with both.

As a final remark, I want to say that I have a friend who has come into personal contact with Linda Fairstein, the evil, racist prosecutor in this story. This friend had her own horrible experience, which upholds what we learn about Fairstein here. Friend, I am sorry again for what happened to you. We’re decades late, but I’m glad everybody’s now talking about her and holding her responsible for some of her actions. Fairstein has enjoyed a career as a crime novelist until just recently: following a social media campaign, her publisher, Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint, has ended the relationship. Small progress.


Rating: an average 8.5 years for these two fine films.

movie: Paris, Texas (1984)

Wim Wenders directs this visually stunning, stately-paced film set in West Texas and Los Angeles. I’m really here for those visuals, including old shots of my hometown of Houston (shot around the time of my birth) and the Big Bend area that means so much to me. The plot is as stark as that West Texas scenery. We open with a man (Harry Dean Stanton) in a filthy sports coat and red baseball cap (which didn’t mean then what it often means now), stumbling through the desert. He turns out to be Travis Henderson, who disappeared four years earlier. After he collapses in a little shop in the desert, his brother Walt comes to rescue him, taking him back to L.A. and the household where Walt lives with his wife Anne and the eight-year-old boy who is Travis’s son but calls Walt & Anne Mom & Dad.

Slowly and sparely, Travis and the boy, Hunter, build a relationship of sorts. When Travis gets ready to go find Hunter’s mother Jane, Hunter wants to come along (of course). The two take off on a road trip back to Texas, where the reunion is somewhat dissatisfying for everyone, I think, including me the viewer.

I found the ending (which I won’t spoil too much) a little disappointing. It reminded me of an Abbey novel, when he handles gender relations most poorly. But a dear friend of mine, who is a huge Wenders fan, points out that it’s only honest to Travis’s character; and I guess that’s not wrong. I claim that I wanted something, not sappy, but more open-ended, perhaps… but then I realize I’m thinking of A Perfect World, which was sappy, so maybe I’m not being honest with myself. I can’t say the ending wasn’t realistic. Maybe I wanted something unrealistic.

At any rate, I was pleased with the movie overall. I said I came for the visuals, and these did not disappoint; I could watch several hours more of the same.

Travis & Walt, truck, desert & sky

freshly shaven Travis seeks recognition in mirror

The plot is just a frame to hold these images. Or, the West Texas desert is the central character, more than any of the human ones. Or, the plot is merely performative of the desert. Or, the point of the movie and its plot is simply to communicate that the desert dwarfs humanity and our petty hopes and goals.

I’d watch this again, maybe again and again, and keep seeing new images and metaphors. That big sky.


Rating: 7 car doors.
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