Wednesday, November 27, 2013

So make a parade!


Seventy-five years ago today, it was a cold and snowy Sunday morning in Cincinnati, Ohio when Mary Martha Griley first appeared on the world’s stage. My grandmother, Martha Griley, an inveterate Sunday School teacher, never made it to church that morning.  Since it was so snowy, my mother was born at home—confirming for all time that the Griley family must claim that baby as the right baby!

We don’t think of our parents as children and adolescents all that often—we see them as taskmasters, heroes, guides or models. But in the case of my mother, I know a great deal about her childhood. I know of the children’s play where she played a Queen and uttered the line, “The festival will not begin until I arrive.” As she grew up and her winning personality emerged, that line set a tone for much of her life!

I know that Mary Martha loved school—in my childhood she made sure I met many of her teachers, always thanking them for stoking the fires of her curiosity. I know that my father, once he came into the picture when she was a senior in high school, never failed to be moved and awed by her intelligence and work ethic in terms of her intellectual pursuits.

Along about the same time as she began dating my father in February, 1957 (her senior year, and by the way, the picture up above is from her Senior graduation in 1957. Here the couple stand and smile 1600 days before they would wed.) Mary Martha also began planning to become an education missionary to Burma. I guess she chose Burma as her mission field because the very first American Baptist (her family’s church affiliation) missionaries had been Americans Adoniram and Ann Judson, who had spent forty years in Burma in the 19th century. The Judsons’ work inspired many Americans to become or support missionaries; they translated the Bible into Burmese, and established a number of churches in Burma. Mary Martha wanted to use her love of drama and her public speaking skills and take the gospel to Burma where she could spread her love of Jesus Christ.

But God had other plans. Mary Martha became a “missionary” of sorts, just not in the way that she expected. Mary Martha developed some neurological problems and soon her mother received the news that MM was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a disease that had afflicted both her father and an uncle. She was not told at that time because her doctor was fearful that it would speed up the progression of her disease. He did inform my father of MM’s condition so that he could anticipate what a future with her might hold. My mother attended Denison University in Granville, OH, a family alma mater going back to the late 19th century. She majored in Political Science and pledged the Chi Omega sorority. Due to her increasing health problems, however, she was advised to come closer to home. So she finished her BA at the University of Cincinnati where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1961. She was asked to be included in “Who’s Who in American Women” for the work she had done over the last five years.

In my childhood I heard the stories of her hopes and dreams to serve her Lord in Burma. And while that youthful aspiration to live and work in Burma vaporized as her physical limitations persisted, her passion and commitment to missionary work never wavered.  She adored the scriptural mandate of Matthew, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel.”  I don’t remember her quoting this verse in Proverbs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if she had memorized the directive, “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” As I said, God had other plans. Mary Martha put her considerable interest and energy into “home missions.” If Burma was not to be her mission field, the counter at Frisch’s (our nearby ‘Big Boy’ diner) would make do. She parked herself there six mornings a week for years, eager to soothe and console and brighten a day for someone. Over the years she attended weddings and funerals of the patrons and wait staff from Frisch’s. She took that mission field seriously.  Mary Martha felt that one of her callings was to make sure that no one felt alone or unloved. She would visit the sick and elderly and telephoned shut-ins. That was always a part of her weekly routine.

During her tenure at our family’s church as the Chair of the Board of Missions (and by the way, the position didn’t exist until she arrived—she insisted the church needed an entire Board to promote awareness of Missions) she planned many mission festivals. Her most memorable, albeit controversial, was the one she entitled “Hunger Hurts.”  She advertised that there would be a free catered meal at church following a program. There would also be a world-premiere of a play (that she wrote, natch).  Mary Martha convinced the “Rustler Steakhouse” to donate 15 steak dinners with all of the trimmings to help support the play she wrote. She then approached various members of the church to participate in her play that illuminated the excesses of American life. However, as the church family watched the actors enjoy their steak dinners in the play, the rest of us dined only on watery bouillon. Mary Martha wanted to demonstrate what it must be like for those starving in other countries while we appear oblivious to their situation. Although it certainly angered some, the message resonated.

Inevitably, when one thinks about my mother for awhile (and by the way, I have discussed her as “Mary Martha” throughout this blog entry, in the third person, simply because I love hearing her name. I don’t hear ‘Mary Martha’ nearly as much as I would like to hear her unusual name!) her association with MS creeps into one’s consciousness. She endured this disease for nearly a half-century, but it doesn’t define her or confine her in my memory. It shaped how we dealt with the physical side of life, but it never will become her most identifying feature.

Perhaps the quintessential Mary Martha story is when she wanted to introduce me to actress Carol Channing. Sometime around 1977 the family went downtown to Music Hall to see a touring production of Hello, Dolly!  The production dazzled me, and Carol Channing seemed like a musical comedy goddess. My mother asked me if I wanted to meet the actress. I said, “Sure!” My father sighed, and said, “I’ll go and get the car.” My mother and I made our way to the stage door, she with her cane elegantly supporting her walking, and she just nodded as we sailed past the security. He nodded back, smiling at the confident woman. In her bold and cheery way, we joined a private backstage party for the family of one of the cast members. She smiled and took me straight up to La Channing, introduced me as a young chap who loved drama and one who had adored the show. Ms. Channing graciously made small talk, smiling all the while as she autographed my program, and then she turned to my mother and asked who she was.  My mother replied, “Oh, I’m Aunt Mary Martha!” When we left the glamorous backstage party to find my father, my sister, and the car, I scolded her about that lie. She said simply, and truthfully: “No, I’m somebody’s Aunt Mary Martha”!

Eleven years later, Hello, Dolly! marked my directorial debut at my first teaching job in North Carolina. Somehow, my mother figured out how to call Carol Channing and asked her to call me and wish me luck with the show. That’s my mother.

One of the ways Mary Martha served God was as a patient. No matter how sick she was, the light of the Lord radiated from her. On more than one occasion a doctor cautioned my father that the end was certainly near. My father would smile and confidently disagree—we expect miracles in our family. During her last hospital stay, my father saw that the staff had put a picture of Mary Martha in her chart that was taken while she was heavily sedated and hooked up to machines. It saddened him that that was the way that she would be viewed by all who opened her chart. Ever the pragmatist and romantic, my father hung his favorite photograph of Mary Martha on the wall of her hospital room, the photo you see at the start of this blog entry. Look at her—vibrant, cheerful, radiant, healthy. He said to me, “I want them to know who they’re dealing with here,” for that is certainly who he saw each time he looked at her and he wanted others to see that person as well.

At her funeral the pastor compared her to two biblical people—of course, there had to be two—one just wouldn’t suffice! He talked of Job in the Old Testament, the sufferings and endurance of the patient and faithful Job, but also the work and energy and vision of New Testament Paul, the writer and urger of how to spread the gospel. Just like her birth names, there was always a duality and depth to this Mary Martha.

Yes, God had other plans for Mary Martha’s journey, but one of the lessons I have gleaned so powerfully from her life is that no matter where we are we can serve others. No matter the current situation, no matter the pain or despair, even if it’s not where we hoped we would be, we can bloom where we are planted. She wanted her life to be a statement and not an apology.

In Hello, Dolly! that spunky character Dolly Levi has an introspective moment when she sings “Before the Parade Passes By.” As much as that show is embedded deep in my consciousness (and even more than you think—my mother in my childhood used to clean the house as she played Broadway original cast recordings on the hi-fi! I have visions of her dancing and dusting to Jerry Herman’s bouncy Hello, Dolly! score!) that song does not best illustrate my mother’s legacy. No festival ever really began until she arrived. But there is a song, in another Broadway show, one that she never saw, that may indeed embody her essence. A decade ago composer William Finn wrote, Elegies: A Song Cycle,  a gentle musical about love, life, and loss—a parade of songs and stories that stream by, stirring our own bittersweet memories about the deaths of various people, including some of Finn’s closest friends and family members. And although the show is all about death and dying, it’s no sad trip down memory lane. Never morbid, Elegies is touching, funny, and ultimately buoyant, floating on the spirits of those who inhabit its songs. One song is about a son losing his mother; but it was not about that loss, it was about how to live life fully. He sings:

The world is good, she said.
Enjoy its highs; the summer flies, she said.
So make a parade of every moment.
Now throw away your hate, and focus on what’s great…instead.  
Cuz this is it, she said.
So make a parade of every moment.

Yes, that mandate, that directive, make a parade of every moment—that is the Mary Martha that I know and love and call my mother.  You know, if I can steal from author Reynolds Price, about what he wrote about his grandmother: “She was God’s best work on God’s best day.”
Seventy-five years ago today…that was surely one of His best.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My bit on ‘the grassy knoll’


I guess every self-respecting historian must weigh in a little bit today on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. I am not a Kennedy scholar and while I was alive 50 years ago (just barely! I was only a few weeks old!) I do not have particular expertise about Kennedy’s legacy…however…that hasn’t stopped every other reporter, witness, editorialist, somewhat historian and/or hack from having his or her say about the event and JFK’s legacy…so why should I not weigh in about the anniversary today???

“Fifty years from now, they’ll still be arguing about the grassy knoll, the Mafia, some Cuban crouched behind a stockade fence.”

Those words are ‘lines’ that come from a surreal scene in the Broadway musical, Assassins. Twenty-something John Wilkes Booth, ninety-eight years dead, is encouraging twenty-something Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot President John F. Kennedy.

Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim’s collaborator, John Weidman, wrote those words some time in 1990, around twenty-seven years after that fateful day in Dallas. They’d first be heard publicly when Assassins, one of the most unlikely Broadway musicals ever, had its world premiere production in January, in New York.

And yet, as we today mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first Kennedy assassination, we see that these words, more than twenty-two years later, are still painfully accurate.

Over here in Jordan I get a number of the ABC and NBC news shows, about a day behind airing in the United States, and there have been tributes galore, interviews, and stories about every facet of the fabled Kennedy clan, that long ago November, and of course, that toothy family continues to still provide public servants and grist for the gossip mill.

But very few have commented on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy shooting and what connection there may be with Broadway musicals. Don’t laugh. If you google JFK right now (I just did about 10 minutes ago, and there are umpteen articles, natch, and many say what this one headline observed:  “Fifty Years After Camelot, JFK Still Lives In The World’s Imagination.” We are so accustomed to the Kennedy era designated as “Camelot,” that some have forgotten how that designation came to be. It came from one of history’s most astute and savvy history-watchers: Jackie Kennedy.

In case you never knew this story, today is a good day to recount the genesis of the ‘Camelot’ label. A week after her husband’s murder, on November 29, 1963, Jackie called journalist Theodore White and requested he come meet her at Hyannis Port where she had spent a somber Thanksgiving with the Kennedy clan. White had published The Making of the President, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the 1960 presidential campaign, and Jackie apparently trusted him. She wanted to speak to the American public, she wanted to do so in the pages of Life magazine, and she wanted White to write the article. White recounts that Jackie explained how much President Kennedy loved the then-current Broadway musical hit, Camelot, and she recalled,  “At night before we'd go to sleep … Jack liked to play some records. And the song he loved most came at the very end of this record, the last side of Camelot: ‘Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.’ There'll never be another Camelot again.” Sigh. Jackie very carefully created the line that would become the hagiography of her husband’s legacy. From a Broadway musical…

White and Jackie spoke alone for several hours that night, White later commenting that Jackie didn’t want to leave her husband’s legacy in the hands of historians or journalists. Jackie told White that when Jack was a young boy he fantasized about being a great Knight, like those of King Arthur’s Round Table, and performing great deeds. That’s one of the reasons he so loved Lerner and Loewe’s musical, Camelot.

In the same way that Jack used the media to promote himself and win over voters in the 1960 presidential race, Jackie used the press to help spin the mythology she thought fitting for her husband’s life of public service. She used a Broadway musical.

And of course no one minds believing that they, too, lived in a Camelot in that earlier time of America. That is why this date, this assassination, resonates so much with many Americans. Listen to the reports—how often will we hear of the ‘loss of innocence’ that Americans suffered 50 years ago today?

Indeed, one of my favorite acquaintances in New York is a writer named Peter, and he told me once when he saw the musical Assassins in 1991, he couldn’t even bear to watch that scene of Lee Harvey Oswald. He said to me that he may have been oversensitive, “because JFK was a god to me while he was president. He was elected the year I began high school, and while Lord knows his family was far richer than mine, I nevertheless identified with him because I too was raised Roman Catholic and hailed from Massachusetts.”

The scene in this Broadway musical, John Wilkes Booth emerging out of the darkness with nine others—both assassins who succeeded in their missions and would-be assassins who did not—show up at the Texas Book Depository in Dallas to convince Oswald to shoot the President.

I have watched this musical four times, and played the cast recording dozens of times—who writes a musical about the people who fantasized and succeeded in killing American presidents?????

Yet if art is meant to provoke, well, then my friends, that scene set 50 years ago today in a Broadway musical succeeds. Each time I have watched the show (I have seen it on Broadway, in a high school production, and in community theater renderings) how well I remember the potent silence in the audience as the scene unfolded.  On Broadway, when Oswald actually took the shot, I can still see, in the row in front of me and a bit to left, a theatergoer’s hands involuntarily leap up and cover his face in horror. And he wasn’t the only one.

Besides the obvious, what is Assassins about? Does it mock shooting our Presidents? Not in the slightest, but it is not an easy tale. It begins at a carnival, much like any county fair, at a shooting gallery. The show then moves from the carnival barker’s introduction to a chronological survey of the men and women who have attempted and succeeded at killing American presidents. Composer Sondheim shows a real genius in that each assassin’s song is composed in a musical style popular at the time of the shooting.

But it is the scene in the Texas Book Depository that is the most riveting. We hear Gerald Ford’s would-be assassin Sara Jane Moore tell Lee Harvey Oswald, “We’re your family,” followed by Ronald Reagan’s would-be assassin John Hinckley adding, “I respect you,” then James Garfield’s assassin Charles Guiteau remarking, “I envy you,” and the iconic John Wilkes Booth demanding, “Make us proud of you.” Whoa. They encourage Oswald by noting that tomorrow  “around the world, everyone will know your name.” Celebrity.  A celebrity-driven culture. Fame. This scene stands as one of the best-written scenes in the history of musicals.

If, as I said earlier, art is meant to provoke, the conclusion of the show certainly gives us pause. The number is called, “Another National Anthem,” in which the assassins express their intense dissatisfaction with American life. Stephen Sondheim purposely wrote an ugly, dissonant melody to reflect the anger that these people felt at not having the American dream delivered to them while it had wended its way into other homes. What is it about America that creates this need, spanning a century-and-a-half, to shoot our commanders-in-chief?

This show sparks visceral reactions. In each performance I have witnessed (except the high school production!) theatergoers get up and walk out in a huff. (I often thought, “Don’t you know what this production is about at all???”) In one production the actors saw the four women walk out and I swear, the actors increased their volume, intensified their craziness, played directly to them, stared them down and matched the ladies step for step until the poor souls stumbled onto the aisle, grateful for this ribbon of escape.

“You want to shoot a president?” is among the first lyrics in the show. “How the union can never recover” and “No, the country is not what it was” comes in the second song. And then, in that final number, Booth predicts that the Kennedy assassination will bring “grief beyond imagining.”

So the historicizing will be strong today. Everyone will assess Kennedy’s strengths as a leader, and the “what if’s” will be especially strong today. What if Kennedy had lived???? Would the Civil Rights Movement have gone differently? Would the United States have pulled out of Vietnam sooner?

No matter what your political stripes, Kennedy is fascinating and inspiring. Kennedy knew how to create “moments.” One of the interesting ones from 50 years ago today involve Kennedy travelling from Fort Worth just a few miles away to Dallas. (The photo above is from a breakfast 50 years ago this morning in Fort Worth.) President Kennedy insisted on flying to Dallas (it probably took 90 seconds!) because JFK said that presidential plane landings always look great!

So today I may play both of the Broadway musicals I associate with President Kennedy. I will also look at Kennedy’s political savvy as a possible guide for U.S. policy in the post-9/11 Middle East. I will look at how Kennedy sought to re-balance hard and soft power and use the superpower contest as a battle for ideas as well as of strength of force. And I will remember how brilliant Jackie created the wistful memory for a nation: ‘Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.’

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Is The Week Chasing Me, or Am I Chasing The Week??


A month ago today, while in New York, I visited the much- ballyhooed Magritte exhibition this fall at the Museum of Modern Art. Magritte is a witty artist, sometimes seen as a “lightweight” in the art world, but like most of his fans, I enjoy his assault on the complacencies of common sense. As I read the entrance text to the exhibit, I hastily wrote down on my MoMA map some of the commentary written about Magritte: “He sought to de-familiarize the familiar and make everyday objects shriek aloud.” (Question to self: Now is it okay to throw away the familiar map since I finally wrote down the words???)  As I walked through the exhibit, seeing many of his iconic images, discovering some new (to me) works, I was struck by how Magritte spent so much of his artistic time warning us against trusting the images and words we think we see and know. Hmmm…is Magritte offering us a cautionary note for the Internet age? Anyway, I came upon his 1928 painting, The Titanic Days (seen above, right there!) and of course I loved the cryptic title, and I thought this is more than just a clever painting about what’s real and what’s not real. The painting is a depiction of a nude woman being groped by manly arms in suit sleeves, yet the man isn’t a separate figure: he appears almost to be clothing that the woman is taking off or putting on. This isn’t a joke-y painting like his Ceci n’est pas une pipe painting—there is some anguish in her face. The painting, and whatever is happening, has consequences.

In many ways, this past week felt like I was caught in a Magritte painting! There is the one where a steam locomotive is blithely coming out of a nice ordinary fireplace. No, that’s not it. But I felt sort of chasing things, chasing the week actually. Advisor reports were due at the beginning of the week (the third of the big writing assignments of the last six weeks, the first being the comments for every student, then the annual parade of college recommendations that must be submitted) and I had been asked to teach class for the headmaster (he thought it would be nice if I did an overview of 5,000 years of propaganda; that is a nice idea, it just takes a little time…) and then there are classes to teach and the professional development seminars to run…it just felt a little more chase-y than usual. Then the try-outs for the Harvard Model Congress came up, and I needed to judge the candidates. Then I needed to write my final exam.  Then the first glances at the piles of resumes for next year’s teachers. Not too much, just a chase-y, chase-y, week—and everything has consequences!

So on Thursday,  just before I was going to sit and wait for some students to take some practice essays,  I pilfered from our library a copy of my favorite magazine, The Week (don’t worry, I returned the magazine after the little invigilating session!). I love The Week; however, it never arrives in Jordan anywhere near the week it chronicled. The sub-heading of this weekly magazine, kind of an intelligent Reader’s Digest, reads: “the best of the U.S. and international media.” The best part of the magazine is when it takes a subject and provides 6-10 perspectives on the same topic. If it covers the default crisis, let’s say, it provides perhaps a dozen perspectives on it. [As a tangent, I learned that Justice Antonin Scalia doesn’t like to get ‘get upset’ in the morning, so he only reads news from sources with which he agrees…what I love about The Week is that it offers exposure to a wide variety of views.]

Anyway, it is Thursday afternoon (our ‘Friday afternoon’ for the Sun-Th work week world), and I want to relax, watch a few students write an essay, and then relax after chasing my week. So I page through the ‘U.S. at a glance…’ section of The Week and am struck at the ridiculous stories going on (remember, this is a month-old issue in the U.S. but hot off the slow-boat-to-China-presses here).

First of all there was the gun massacre at a Navy facility in Washington—what a strange Magritte-like moment. But far weirder was the cannibal plot in Worcester, MA of a man who was sentenced to jail for plotting to kidnap, kill and eat a child. His basement was outfitted with all such equipment, but his lawyer argued that his basement was merely a “theater for fantasies.” Next I read about the boardwalk fire in New Jersey wiping out all or parts of 68 businesses, starting in a store that sells candles. Then I read about the Miss America pageant and the racist insults hurled on Twitter about the new Miss America. She is Indian-American and many on-line called her “Miss 9/11” and “Miss Terrorist.” Historic floods battered Colorado. In Florida a robber stole a cash drawer from a church gift shop, but was caught when his baggy pants slipped down around his ankles.  Then there is a shooting tragedy in Charlotte, shooting an unarmed car accident victim…I paged over to the section on the “Best Columns: U.S.” and read about various rural counties in Maryland, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, and Michigan that want to secede from the United States. This was the U.S. at a glance, but whoa, when people are worried about ME in the Middle East, I suggest they just take a look at the U.S. at a glance.

By Thursday, either the week had caught me or I had caught the week: I had finished every assignment on time, and enjoyed that satisfying glow of a week of items crossed off the all-mighty, guilt-producing To Do List. We had a speaker on Thursday, Mitch Kapor, an entrepreneur whose name I did not know previously. Julianne interviewed Mr. Kapor on our stage, and Julianne could now join the ranks of Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters as a crack interviewer.

Kapor rose through the ranks of Silicon Valley, but what resonated the most with me was his explanations of why you don’t give up, and how you try and think of “the next big thing.” (Kapor invented Lotus 1-2-3, and when he was bought out, he had invented the Excel spread sheet.) He spoke about the genius of Facebook, but when a student lamented that he wished he (the boy) could have invented it (because of the money) Kapor suggested that he look for a problem that hasn’t been solved instead. “The way to strike it rich is not to think about the money, but scratch an itch that you have, a problem that you have that hasn’t been solved.” What a concise and great formula, almost Magritte-style in its simplicity and elegance. And it can have consequences.

He answered questions for nearly an hour, this man worth almost a billion dollars, who has failed in life, dusted himself off, risen again, risked, and then as he said, “I used my son’s time in high school to vicariously do it all over better this time.” Kapor had wonderful words about his high school math teacher. He said he (Mitch) was as socially inept as someone might be, but the most important thing that teacher did was “pay some attention to me.  I knew I mattered to him. Nothing else was as important or profound as that.”

The familiar—what we know—shrieking aloud with simple truths. While the week was chasing me, or, did you see this pun coming??? The Week was chasing me, it ended with the utterly simple and profound reminder to make sure we let people know they matter. As the down-to-earth, totally un-smug Kapor reminded us, nothing else is as important…

And it has consequences…


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Saturday mornings at CCM


It is Saturday morning here at KA and I just got back from the gym (isn’t it always more pleasurable to say that in the past tense?!). After I post this I may venture over to the Dining Hall and see what’s for brunch. Today I must finish writing the advisory reports for my advisees and then in the afternoon I will proctor my monthly AP Art History test.

All of that is pretty mundane stuff. But on this Saturday morning, I am thinking back decades ago to other Saturday mornings, when I would go up to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati and take drama classes. I hadn’t thought about those drama classes or those halcyon Saturday mornings for a while, but through the miracle of Facebook (yes, my sister hates it when I designate Facebook as such!) I have thought about it again this week.

Last weekend I had a ‘friend request’ on Facebook, and the name of Catherine Cajkjdjfjjdjksjksjkaa (some Italian name) didn’t mean anything to me;  I noticed that we had no mutual friends, so I was just about to hit the “ignore” button when I decided for a moment I would go to this person’s page. As I clicked her name, a photo came up that I instantly recognized (the photo above, so I don’t keep you in suspense or make you wonder what salacious thing might have been recognized!) and I also noted that she was from Cincinnati, my hometown.

So I looked at the photo, looked back at the name, and saw that before the long Italian name, was the name ‘Frank.’ Wait…as my mind reeled back the decades, I looked at the photo of the Showboat Majestic, moored proudly at the port of Cincinnati, and for decades and decades the home of home-grown theater. I looked at the name and thought, “Hmmm…this must be Cathy Frank of the Showboat days!” I didn’t hit the ‘ignore’ button and instead sent a quick message to this person and asked if she was indeed that Cathy Frank with whom I had gone to drama class and performed with in shows on that Showboat…was she the Cathy Frank who had portrayed  Mrs. Gloop so mightily in 1978 in our production of  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ?????  A day later I had a response, and I could practically hear the laughter from thousands of miles away, that she was indeed the same person, and “how on earth did anyone remember that role???”

I haven’t asked yet, but I am curious how and why she found me, but what a wonderful opportunity to traipse back down memory lane and think of the days at CCM and the summer days at the Showboat. So I was speaking to my father on the phone, telling him about Cathy (I suppose she is Catherine in her professional life as a dramturg and Drama professor) and said, “You know I should look up Kay King [the drama director and teacher at CCM and Showboat] and see what happened to her.” (We both knew Mrs. King had moved from Cincinnati when she retired from teaching and moved to sunny California to be near her son. Over the years I had half-heartedly thought I must contact her and thank her for her deep significance in my life.) As I am talking to my father, I google Kay King and find in a couple of seconds that only six months ago she passed away at the age of 89.

So I was too late to find her and write her a whole-hearted thank you for her efforts and work on behalf of drama and adolescents. She was brilliant. And just six months ago! But it has been lovely thinking back on Kay King and how she shaped generations of young people and their interest in drama.

I met Kay King when I was 13. She was the daughter of a lovely dowager in my family’s church, and my mother had known of her work with Cincinnati teens and drama.  Since I was now a teen, and loved drama through and through, my mother thought it was time I meet Mrs. King and join her troupe. 13! Much time has passed, certainly, but what a profound moment for me to meet this woman and enjoy the influence on my life. I was probably a little unlike most of the wealthy, east-side kids who populated her drama classes (not really because of the geography in Cincinnati or socioeconomic level, actually) since I was complicated, at least in one way. I loved drama, couldn’t get enough of thinking about it, wondering about it, doing it in school—however, I also had a stutter that plagued me. When I met Mrs. King at her home, I shared how excited I would be to join her drama classes at CCM and then do a play on the Showboat Majestic. But I confessed that as much as I loved drama, the stutter made me nervous—what if  I couldn’t control it in a play??? She put me at ease immediately, and said, “We don’t do plays in drama class. We do what are called, ‘theater games’ and you won’t have to follow any set lines in these exercises. You will learn improvisation and you will be totally in control.”  How she knew exactly what worried me, I have no idea, but from the get-go, this woman put me at ease, watched out for me, and listened to my ideas. She sensed that I had no stage fright, but I feared what the stutter would do in terms of my control. In that moment she had quelled that fear.

Soon I was involved in her annual children’s show on the Showboat, Really Rosie, in that summer of 1977. Again, I was perhaps the oddest child in that company because of my summer schedule. In the mornings I rode down with Mrs. King to rehearse on the Showboat (a haven of super-duper air conditioning during the scorching Cincinnati summer!!!) and then in the afternoons I took the bus up to the University of Cincinnati for an intensive seminar/workshop on how to manage stuttering. Talk about a little strange—in the morning I worked with the most extroverted kids imaginable, and then in the afternoon I spent time with some of the most introverted kids imaginable…a strange combination! By the end of the summer the stuttering hadn’t been cured, but the sessions had helped me manage the stress of it much better, and by the end of the summer, watching Mrs. King, I knew I would love to direct plays!

So since Cathy’s out-of-the-blue friend request, I have loved thinking about those Saturdays at CCM. I spent Saturdays throughout the school year at CCM in drama classes for about five years, junior high and high school. The theater games that Mrs. King had described were exciting, thrilling, funny, dramatic, always energy-charged and original. Mrs. King had been part of a wave of new drama teachers in the late 1950s and early 1960s that pioneered these games as a means to tap into, and release a child’s creativity and imagination. Some were mere games, some spawned scenes, but they all dealt with theatrical invention and authenticity. Nothing else I have ever done has come close to what we did in that classroom.

Not to drop names, but one of the other participants in these drama classes was a goofy girl my age named Sarah Jessica Parker, whose father worked at the local ABC affiliate. Pretty soon, this same Sarah Jessica would be whisked to New York to perform in the Broadway show, Annie. For years after stardom touched her, SJ would credit Kay King in interviews for her strong preparation in drama. However, sometime in the 1990s, SJ then amended her biography and began to describe her childhood as poverty-stricken. Oh, please! Your dad worked at a TV station, and your mom was a kooky, bohemian, stay-at-home mom! Oh well, I am grateful because when SJ hit it big, she did help pay scholarships for some of us in the drama classes, so I am thankful for that. I also kept doing things with her siblings, a boy choir with her brother, and more drama with her sister. Anyway, I digress…

But Mrs. King was always more than a leader of theater games. There were some important moments being in her orbit that have shaped me profoundly. First of all, as we drove downtown to the riverfront home of the Showboat, she often asked me about the play, and I offered some “tips” in how we might sharpen the production. She didn’t bristle and remind me of her decades of experience, or the many awards she had won as a drama educator, she listened, she often shared my “notes,” and she certainly made me supremely interested in the craft of directing. I wish I could thank her in person for the excellent model she provided and let her know I went on to direct 67 shows!

In junior high I also enjoyed writing radio shows for competitions. Mrs. King was often called upon to judge those competitions. After I had placed second in one such competition, Mrs. King spoke to me after drama class one day, and said something wise. She said, “You did a fine job on that radio show, but the material wasn’t really original. Do something that is about you, your story—be more daring to be original and tell your own story.” I took her advice to heart, and next year I wrote and performed  a radio show about a kid who yearned to be an actor, but a speech impediment proved a scary obstacle. I won first place that year, and the judge’s glowing comments have always meant even more than the first place finish. I had dared to tell my story, and the writing and producing of the show remains an exciting moment from my youth.

In high school I went to CCM on Saturdays with my dear friend Doris. We had a hilarious time attending class, creating scenes and characters and moments of dramatic fun. Once in awhile, shhhhhh, Doris and I actually skipped drama class and walked around Clifton and the UC campus pretending to be college kids. Doris picked up the love of the CCM classes and the performances on the ‘boat.

Oh the Showboat…the ancient, creaking floors, the tiniest of dressing rooms on the planet, the days when some barge went by and all of a sudden your balance became an issue on the stage! The Showboat was a chrysalis for many a young performer, and from time to time I have gone back to see shows there, most recently this summer to see Big River. A childhood friend of mine and her husband have run the Showboat for 23 years, but just this fall, they have announced that their time has come to an end with the Showboat…I hope someone picks up the lease on the historic space and continues making dramatic magic on that postage-stamp size stage.

But one last lesson from Mrs. King…in our senior year, Doris and I had become estranged. As President of Studio Choir, it fell to me that when our leader, the beloved Mrs. Schneider, needed surgery, I had to teach the Christmas music to our ensemble. As can happen in such situations, a couple of my best friends kind of resented my “elevation” and the friendship fractured. It was obvious on those Saturday mornings at CCM that something had come between us. Mrs. King decided that we should act it out, figure it out, and solve the rift right there. We complied and in the end, tears and hugs. But Mrs. King also reminded each one of us in the class the importance of finding ways to mend broken relationships.

Oh, just a couple more quick stories about the CCM days!  In high school Mrs. King cast me in the one romantic lead of my life! She was doing a show of “Fractured Fairy Tales” and she cast me as the Prince. It wasn’t comic, I swear! I had a big ballad, “You’re the One,” and this has been the one big ballad-y, serious, romantic part of my life! In that play I also met a new drama student, Jill, one those fairy-tale teen-age romances that everyone should get to have. The luminous Jill, she of the ballet stage and ingĂ©nue parts, was my prom date my junior year.

Hey, I haven’t heard from Jill in 30 years! Maybe, I could be as intrepid as Cathy and look her up! I would be quite happy to continue remembering those wonderful Saturdays at CCM!


Monday, November 4, 2013

Their Capacity to Love

Once a year or so I post a re-run of a previous blog entry. I thought I would do a re-run today, taking a blog entry I wrote on November 4, 2011--on the day of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary. I continue to marvel in the love that my parents shared across decades and am happy to take you back two years as I think about them over the course of their half-century love affair:

Since my last blog entry, an important milestone in the history of the world has passed. No, it wasn’t a Golden Girls marathon, or a chili festival, or a musical about my life. (Nothing about me actually!) In the last few days the world witnessed the birth of the 7 billionth person on our planet. I went and looked up and learned that since I was born, the world has literally doubled in population.

Of all the 7 billion people who are alive now, and the billions before us who have passed into the life beyond our profanus, there are two who really stand out to me: my parents, Kenneth and Mary Martha.

And in the next 24 hours a slightly less momentous event will pass in the history of the world—Kenneth and Mary Martha’s 50th wedding anniversary.

Over the years of blog writing you have picked up bits and pieces about how influential on me my parents have been. Right now is a perfect time to re-visit some of those thoughts and think about what they were doing 50 years ago right now.

Frankly, Kenny and Mare couldn’t have picked a better date for their wedding. Maybe they knew that their first-born would be a history-obsessed being, because they chose such a perfect, November 4th, for their wedding day…wait for it..wait, you don’t know? You can’t see how perfect it was that they chose November 4th? Ahh, maybe you weren’t invited on another November 4th, back in 1842 when resolute Abraham Lincoln married saucy Mary Todd. In my childhood I was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, and I remember one year thanking my parents for having picked the Lincoln’s wedding day for their own wedding day.

Talk of this glorious November 4th wedding in 1961 was never far from us in my childhood. My mother loved her wedding photo albums and we looked at them frequently. There was a beautiful one, bound in red leather, of the black-and-white shots of the wedding. Then there was a more-expensive-looking album full of the color shots. And from time-to-time, my mother was known to take out the reel-to-reel tape recorder and play the recording of the actual wedding. My sister and I would sit right by my mother, and we heard the recording often enough that not only could we recite the vows, but we knew the exact intonation of that wonderful bride and groom. The bride sounded dreamy and the groom sounded no-nonsense—what a pair, what a combination!!

When I was in 5th grade I inaugurated a new way to celebrate my parent’s anniversary: I would cook them a multi-course meal. This was toward the beginning of my obsession with cooking, and I would get out my mother’s cookbooks and pore over the possibilities of courses. In the 4th grade I made a meal, like, you know a standard, bourgeois meal. But the following year, I planned far ahead, chose stuffed pork chops with an orange glaze as my main dish, and then looked for appetizers and courses and courses to make. I decided to invite my friend Kecia Yee home from school, and paid her $5 to be the waitress for all the courses.

At the end of this extravagant meal I wished them well, and wished them good luck in cleaning up, and went to watch an episode of Rhoda. I announced that none of the great cooks in the world cleaned up. Can you imagine what Kenny and Mare talked about as they cleaned up every pot and pan they owned from their multi-course anniversary meal? Oh, my. Eventually, I did learn to clean up after myself.

These days I like to watch the TV show Mad Men just to get an idea of what those days were like in the early 60s when my parents courted, got married, and started a family. My father even looks like Jon Hamm as Don Draper. But while the fashions and the mores might be similar to 1961 Cincinnati, that is where the comparisons end. In terms of personalities, smoking, and drinking, Kenny and Mare are nothing (thank Heavens!) like the Drapers.

I enjoy thinking what my parents were like in terms of personality. I know them well. But of course much of our family story could be overshadowed by the MS that took hold in my mother. The MS limited us in some ways, and some people would think it would ravage the dreamy-ness of that 1961 Mary Martha. But no, the MS did not deter the resolute Ken, nor rob the dramatic, dreamy Mary Martha of their love and efforts at wedded bliss.

A couple years ago, in a blog entry, I wrote this about my father: Last summer I read an account of Abraham Lincoln’s rise to national prominence. A New York newspaper characterized the newly minted Republican Party Presidential Nominee: “As for Lincoln, he has all the marks of a mind that scans closely, canvasses thoroughly, concludes deliberately, and holds to such conclusions unflinchingly.” I read that, and thought—that’s my father! Those are the same traits as Ken Leistler. Grappling with my mother’s MS for decades imbued him with strength and human understanding rarely found in people. He has taught us that life-affirming humor and profound resilience will lighten despair and fortify one’s will.

And as for that dreamy-voiced, effervescent bride 50 years ago? Well, they didn’t make it to the 50-year mark here on earth. But they triumphed in nearly 45 years of marriage plus the courtship. Four years ago I wrote of the evening when my father called to relay the news that she had slipped away to Heaven: On that May evening when my father called to relay the news that my mother had passed away, I was on the way to one of my plays I had directed. There were scenes in this play from the myths that Ovid wrote in ancient Rome. My favorite was the last scene, wherein a man and wife begged the gods not to outlive their own capacity to love. In the weeks preceding the performance I had enjoyed this scene anyway, for it reminded me of the love between my parents. In the play, this man and wife stood hand in hand begging the gods not to allow them to outlive their own capacity to love. As I drove to school that night, it was such a natural thing to honor her life by watching this play of mine. She was the one who infused my life to enjoy adventure and excitement, instilled in me a love of imagination and wonder, and taught me that love was the mightiest bulwark. As I watched those two beg the gods, “let me not outlive my own capacity to love,” I knew that I had witnessed the best example I will ever know of a man and wife who never outgrew their own capacity to love.

For many years I would call my parents on November 4th, and ask my mother to remember what she was doing on that day. While her short-term memory became more like vapor, she had a vibrant memory of that day in 1961 when she married her “Special K.” I would ask what she had been doing that November day, who she was talking about, how the plans were going, what she worried about, who she was excited to see at the wedding. I could feel her smile and joy as she re-lived that day for me on the phone.

In a couple minutes I will call my father and ask him some of the same questions, marveling that half a century has passed since he wore that white dinner jacket, dark trousers, and brilliant smile at the end of the aisle. In a couple hours I will be jetting to London for a quick vacation, and who knows if I will get to call tomorrow. I have to relay my congratulations for this momentous event in world history.

In my Christmas letter of 2006, I reflected on the power of my mother in our family’s life and times: My mother’s life and death have been powerful teaching tools for our family. She showed us what deep, abiding faith in God looks like. And yet, she never exhibited a stony stoicism, nor did she cultivate an anger at God for what had happened to her. While some say anger might be appropriate, and certainly understandable, she showed us that we have to imagine other responses. Anger, vengeance, regret, remorse, these only foster a destructive cycle—like Indiana Jones, we may have to make it up as we go along, so in my mother’s opinion, we might as well choose joy. Mary Martha Griley Leistler always looked for something to give thanks for in the midst of what might be troubling and fearsome. She would remind us that we don’t always have a choice about what happens to us, but we always have a choice in our attitude. Refuse to complain. Insist on hope. Expect miracles. Seek peace.

They may not be as famous as the Lincolns; it may not be as earth shattering as the 7 billionth earthling, but what a pair that I have been blessed to know. There is a bulletin from a church service in Tarrytown back in 2004 that I keep in my Bible. The title of the sermon is “The Grip of a Loving God.” I keep it because of the title of that sermon. I look at my parents, the wondrous Mary Martha, the resolute Kenneth, and I think that my whole life has been shaped by that loving grip of my parents’ capacity to love.