Three Lovely Things to Think On: Rilke, Paul Gauguin & Music from Wong Kar-wai's 'In the Mood for Love'
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, I spoke with an educator who told me about an essay written by a 16-year-old student. Like the advice Nick Carraway received from his father on the opening page of The Great Gatsby, it's something I've been turning over in my mind ever since.
Donald Trump won the election, the high-schooler said, because he only thinks positive things about himself even if they're not true. But that's not all he did. He also managed to get everyone else to think negative thoughts. You can't win when you get negative. You just can't.
This was one of those insights about which I could only say, "Out of the mouths of babes." Surely there were many quantitative factors that led to the election's outcome. Systematic, carefully orchestrated help from Russia, for example. An electoral college system that permits a minority vote-getter to secure the Oval Office. James Comey's ill-timed statements about the Clinton email investigation. And many more. But the words of that 16-year-old essayist seemed to get to the heart of the matter. They also reminded me of her famous 20th-century precursor.
In 1903, James Allen wrote a significant little book which says, "As a man thinketh, so shall he be."
I've been reflecting on that line lately because I've taken a few days to absent myself from the news. Funny how a little adjustment like that can make a difference in the way you feel. Not that I've got my head in the sand. You can't do that entirely.
But backing away from the daily mayhem seems to have improved my overall sense of well-being.
I've heard it said that you can't solve a problem by focusing on it too much. That only makes the problem larger and more difficult in your mind. Solutions come when you step back far enough to see the big picture.
It also helps, I've found, to bear in mind what St. Paul said about thought. You know the line. "Whatever is true, honorable and right, whatever is pure, lovely, and of good repute--if there be anything excellent worthy of praise, let your mind think on those things."
To that end, dear friends, here are three things that seem to fit Paul's paradigm. They make me feel better. Maybe you'll get something from them too.
'You're a Woman, Ain't you? Well, this is a kitchen.' Why Tara Westover's 'Educated' Will Remain a Must-Read for a Very Long Time
Ellen DeGeneres read it because Michelle Obama told her to. Bill Gates said it’s even better than you’ve heard. Barack Obama put it on his best books list. So did Amazon. Time Magazine named its 32-year-old author to its Top 100 list. I read it for all these reasons and because a retired high school headmaster, one of my best friends, encouraged me to.
You might not think a book about going to school would read like a page-turning thriller. But Tara Westover’s Educated does just that. It is without question one of the most extraordinary books I’ve ever read.
Even if you have to wait twenty weeks to get it from your local public library (as I did)—here’s why you should read it. Westover’s story is not just about getting a highfalutin degree. It’s about her multi-leveled struggle to become herself against insufferable odds. This is what Jungians call individuation. It’s what Dr. Wayne Dyer referred to as “leaving the tribe.” You think that’s easy? Try it.
But Westover’s memoir is more than that. Raised by survivalist parents on an Idaho mountain, her obstacles include the people she loves—her family. They involve received ideas about God and religion—the Mormon fundamentalism she was brought up with. She must climb over a wall that includes unquestioned loyalty to male power figures. You’re a woman, ain’t you? Well, this is a kitchen.
Why We No Longer Hear Angels - and a Few Words about Tennis, Chess, Prison & the Healing Power of Classical Music
If you’ve ever visited the circus or a city like San Francisco, then you know a barker is someone who stands outside a theater or sideshow and calls out to passersby to get them interested in what's happening inside the tent. The word comes to mind just now because there seems to be a lot of barking in the public arena these days. And a lot of braying too. All of it a distraction from the things that probably matter most to you—if you haven’t been too distracted by all that noise to figure out what that is.
So, let me depart from my usual commentary in order to share a few things I found touching recently, which you may find interesting too.
WHY WE NO LONGER HEAR ANGELS
The following clip is from Faraway, So Close—a beautiful 1993 film by Wim Wenders, which I heard about this year from a writer friend on Twitter. At only two minutes and fifteen seconds, this bit of dialogue gets to the core of why all that barking can be harmful. It depicts a telepathic conversation between two angels, Raphaela (Nastassja Kinski) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), as they consider why it’s so difficult for their guidance to reach us the way it used to back in the day.
Why the 60th Anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry's 'A Raisin in the Sun' Resonates for Me in a Personal Way
Today marks the 60th anniversary of the Broadway premiere of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." A major American classic by any standard, it is also the first Broadway-produced play by an African-American woman. It's a milestone that remains as relevant on March 11, 2019 as it was in 1959.
Several years ago, a Seattle newspaper asked me to review a staging at Seattle Rep, one of the finest regional theaters in the country. A lifelong theater buff, I was thrilled when the editor promised free tickets and a stipend in exchange for my opinion.
Whenever anyone remounts a beloved classic of film or stage, you hope they won't ruin it. So it was with a mixture of anticipation and dread that I made my way to Seattle Center for the opening. But I needn't have worried. As you might expect from a Tony-winning outfit like Seattle Rep, the production was excellent. Although I hadn't seen the play for quite a while, its impact remained undeniable. The play resonates for anyone with a human heart, but it's especially meaningful to African Americans because it takes a hard look at a family divided by conflicting dreams and the internal and external pressures that challenge and shape the black experience to this very day.
But Hansberry's play also has a special place in my personal memory because my brother, Kurt Hill, performed the role of Walter Lee Younger (the Sidney Poitier character) when my alma mater, Drexel Catholic High School, produced the play during the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, about a year before the Voting Rights Act became law.
Prop Goes the Weasel: Did the Racial Sideshow at the Cohen Hearings Demonstrate that America's Deepest Wound Will Never Heal?
The vehement exchange between two members of Congress during Michael Cohen’s testimony on February 27 was more than a failure to communicate. The argument itself was not only a distraction from the main event, it struck at the core of America's oldest wound.
In case you missed it, a white congressman (Mark Meadows) trotted out a black female employee of the Trump administration (Lynne Patton) as proof that the president is not racist. A freshman congresswoman (Rashida Tlaib), who is Muslim, responded by referring to Ms. Patton as a prop, claiming that Meadows' tactic was itself racist. This led to a spirited digression, which achieved what sideshows always do--divert attention from the main purpose of the hearings.
Although the president's former attorney and "fixer" called Donald Trump a racist during his opening statement, the main reason for the hearing was not to debate the president’s racism. It was to determine if he had broken the law.
The last time blackface rode into town, the showdown ended with Megyn Kelly losing her job at NBC Today and disappearing from television. But not without lawyering up and collecting a reported $30 million due on the remaining two years of her $69 million contract. That’s how much the network wanted to put an end to the controversy.
Now Blackface is back and ready for another showdown. Will Governor Northam of Virginia lose his job over blackface and Ku Klux Klan images in his medical school yearbook? Will Justin Fairfax, the African-American Lt. Governor, next in line for the top job, be impeached over sexual assault allegations? Can Virginia's attorney general come out of this mess unscathed after revealing that he too has worn blackface? What about Katy Perry's shoes and Gucci's blackface sweater? Or Cindy Sherman's controversial "Bus Rider" series, which became known in the art world as "Cindygate"?
And what about Jimmy Kimmel, Sarah Silverman, and Jimmy Fallon, who have also resorted to blackface in order to keep the masses entertained? Or the dozens of other American entertainers listed on this Wikipedia entry?
Is there no one who can rid us of this egregious insult once and for all?
With Albert Finney’s departure from the world stage on February 7, there’s plenty to say about his exceptional career. Two favorite scenes from The Dresser (1983) are included here. The film is about a small ragtag acting troupe that brings Shakespeare to the provinces. It’s a sendup of bombastic old-school acting and a poignant study of the lead actor’s personal assistant or “dresser.” The film opens with Finney's character in the role of Othello. As you can see from the above photograph, his entire body has been darkened. Tom Courtenay, his dresser, is shown assisting him with a post-performance bath.
Taken on its own and out of context, the image is both compelling and off-putting. It seems especially relevant to the current social moment when blackface is trending yet again. What does it mean when a white actor darkens his skin to play Othello? Is that the same as the kind of blackface historically used to denigrate African Americans? Or something different?
Why I Will Not Miss Paul Holdengräber When He Bids Farewell to the New York Public Library - And You Shouldn't Either
Paul Holdengräber is not the Lone Ranger. He cannot take all the credit for the exhilarating cultural exchange knowns as Live from the NYPL, though he is its creator and director. It takes more than a few Tontos to keep a series of public conversations and performances like that running strong in the Big Apple for 14 years. It also takes the willing cooperation of the leading cultural lights of the day, most of whom Holdengräber has engaged in lively, stimulating conversations that take the art of the interview to a whole new level.
But in case you haven’t heard, Paul Holdengräber is leaving his beloved lair between the roaring lions of the Fifth Avenue public library. At the end of December, he will ride into the sunset toward a new home and a new job in Los Angeles. Do not look for a silver bullet. There won’t be one.
I like big books, and I cannot lie. My background includes talk radio, newspapers and TV news. I've hosted a morning-drive classical music program on the California coast and published nationally in Reader's Digest, the Christian Science Monitor, and Playboy. I've won awards for my journalism and my fiction. One of my essays even made it into an anthology for college English courses. For real? Yes, for real.
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