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Anyone can whistle,
That’s what they say-
Easy.
Anyone can whistle
Any old day-
Easy.
It’s all so simple:
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me why
Can’t I?
I can dance a tango,
I can read Greek-
Easy.
I can slay a dragon
Any old week-
Easy.
What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me
How to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me.
………………..
Words and music by Stephen Sondheim (born 1930)

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Somebody, Somewhere

Frank Loesser (1910-1969)

Frank Loesser is one of my favorite American song writers. I once did a Frank Loesser Review with a tenor/piano player friend at several retirement centers in the community for a generation familiar with his music.

One of my favorite musical notations is in the inside cover of the sheet music Baby, It’s Cold Outside, a song Loesser wrote and performed with his wife. In the published version of the music, the tempo is written Loesserando, in reference to his name.

Another favorite is Slow Boat to China, performed by Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. Below is Somebody, Somewhere from the musical The Most Happy Fella, first performed on Broadway in 1956.

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Stars of Texas Robin Williams, Mari Holden, Lance Armstrong …
celebrities and athletes alike were in Austin to inspire.

The Cranberries are singing on the radio: Understand, what I’ve become, it wasn’t my design. And people everywhere think something better than I am.

As I listen to the words of that music on a road trip to Austin, Texas, to the Ride for the Roses, I’m wondering if Lance Armstrong can relate to the lyrics. Heroes become something in our minds better than they are. This is confirmed when Erika, one of my traveling companions squeals, “We’re entering Armstrong County! We must be heading in the right direction.”

To the people I’m riding with, the name Armstrong means courage, self-will against all odds, even a kind of unshakable positive attitude.

Erika’s partner, Sharon, seems to be gripping the steering wheel against all odds. The 90 mph winds we hit in Amarillo whip the RV constantly. John, her brother, comments quietly, “Maybe a high-profile vehicle wasn’t the best idea for this trip.”

Final page proof of article I wrote for VeloNews in 2001.

But Sharon doesn’t hear him. John’s understated comments and quiet words often get lost in the wind-ratted RV. On the side of the highway, we see half of a modular home that has been flipped over during transport and left stranded in the high grass.

John sits at a fold-down table and works on his laptop. A civil engineer, he is scribbling math notations into a spiral notebook, then working out the problems on a computer. As he stares out the window, he makes thinking some like an elegant process, as lean and efficient as he is. His shoulders are stooped, like those of an old man who has leaned over a computer for too many years.

The disease must have done that, I think to myself.

Multiple myeloma, the type of blood cancer John is recovering from, has caused four compression fractures in his spine, leaving him three inches shorter than he was a year ago. A young man in his 30s, he looks much older — his skin a little too dry, his hair too brittle. The chemotherapy and tandem bone-marrow transplants have taken their toll. But John is only a bent man, not broken. He is still fighting to regain something of the young man he was. His freckled face and reddish-blond hair are just waiting for him to return.

During this past year, when John was 20 pounds lighter and his other sister Ann had to help him stand — even help him lift his laptop — the Ride for the Roses seemed like a dream, a dream of Sharon’s that John could only smile and be polite about. But Sharon kept hope alive and believed in taking this trip even when he couldn’t possible imagine it.

Counting Crows sings out over the radio: “Believe in me because I don’t believe in anything and I want to be someone who believes.” Who believes, who believes — the words repeat over and over again.

As we get closer to Austin, the roadsides are covered with blue flowers, mixed in with the orange paintbrush. I can’t help but wonder why Lance’s ride isn’t called The Ride for the Bluebonnets.

“Lance inspired me,” John says shyly. He has read Lance’s book, he informs me, and has several of Lance’s posters on his bedroom wall. He quotes one for me: “I no longer take anything for granted. There are only good days and great days.” And another: “My cancer is just like me — it’s mean, it’s aggressive, it’s tough.” Sharon relates proudly how she and Erika managed to get Lance’s autograph for John when they did the Ride for the Roses the year before.

When we stop to gas up, Erika tells me how John’s third sister, Sandy, made everyone in this “non-emotive” family sit down at Thanksgiving and write on a piece of paper what they gave thanks for in each other. “They wrote simple things,” Erika says, “All three sisters and John’s parents gave thanks to him for fighting. That was huge then, because at that point he was pretty tired of fighting.”

John says later that if it weren’t for the prayers and support of his family and friends, he wouldn’t be here today.

The next day is sunny, but windy, in Austin. John, Erika and Sharon complete their 66-mile ride. “I almost dreaded it when we got a tail wind,” Erika laughs. “John would put it in the big ring and just take off.”

Sharon adds, “Last year at this time I thought I’d be remembering my brother … not trying to keep up with him as he hammered along. “The words on John’s T-shirt, I’m a survivor, were only a blur to the many people he passed that day. “What kind of drugs is he on?” they conclude together triumphantly, “Chemo fuel.”

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One of my favorite versions of A Christmas Carol is the 1951 film with Alastair Sim, but this year I watched the new Disney 3D digital animation with Jim Carrey. It’s worth watching to hear the commentary at the end and see the characters acting out their parts with dots on their faces and motion-capture outfits.

The novel was published by Charles Dickens in 1843 as A Christmas Carol, a Ghost Story of Christmas. Each year I hear the story, I think Scrooge gets a bad rap. His character undergoes major transformation, but a person is considered a Scrooge if they hate Christmas and regard the holiday as a humbug or fraud. We would never say, “Look at John, he’s such a Scrooge. His life has gone through such transformation, and he’s so much happier now.”

Scrooge’s profession isn’t stated in the story, but it’s believed he’s a banker or money lender. He becomes the tight-fisted character we know because his father abandons him at boarding school, his sister Fran dies, his fiancée leaves him and his employer goes bankrupt. Money becomes the single focus of his life, and he never wants to depend on anyone again. The sequence of events that leads up to his survival-of-the-fittest attitude seems an about-face move because it happens in a matter of scenes, but years of sitting at boarding school while classmates go home for Christmas lead Scrooge to hate the season.

As a teenager, I played Scrooge’s fiancée Belle in a high school production. Today, I looked at the script to see how much it follows Dickens’ novel. It matches the story exactly. As I look at the script again, I see how inflexible and proud both characters are in their attitudes toward each other:

Narrator Again Scrooge saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of care and avarice. There was an eager, greedy, restless motion in the eye, which showed the passion that had taken root, and where the shadow of the growing tree would fall.
He was not alone, but sat by the side of a fair young girl in a mourning-dress: in whose eyes there were tears, which sparkled in the light that shone out of the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Belle It matters little, to you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.
Scrooge What Idol has displaced you?
Belle A golden one.
Scrooge This is the even-handed dealing of the world. There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth.
Belle You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, gain, engrosses you. Have I not?
Scrooge What then? Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you.
(She shook her head.)
Scrooge Am I?
Belle Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man.
Scrooge I was a boy.
Belle Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are. I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you.
Scrooge Have I ever sought release?
Belle In words. No. Never.
Scrooge In what, then?
Belle (looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him) In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us, tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no.
Scrooge (Scrooge seems to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he says with a struggle…) You think not?
Belle I would gladly think otherwise if I could. Heaven knows. When I have learned a truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free today, tomorrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl — you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow. I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were. You may — the memory of what is past half makes me hope you will — have pain in this. A very, very brief time, and you will dismiss the recollection of it, gladly, as an unprofitable dream, from which it happened well that you awoke. May you be happy in the life you have chosen.
(She leaves him, and they parted.)

Here’s a clip from the 1951 film with Alastair Sim, which incidentally has the finest version of the Ballad of Barbara Allen I’ve ever heard:

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I read a definition of hospitality today I like, Making room inside ourselves for another person. Hospitality is often referred to in Benedictine monasticism. It’s the main objective for monks and nuns but has nothing to do with crystal wineglasses and lace napkins. It means a deep openness and graciousness toward others.

Yesterday at work, I was anything but open and gracious. This is the busiest time of year for me at the newspaper. We have two special pubs to finish before the end of the year, and I’ve been working nights and weekends trying to keep up with that and the seventy 3,000-word essays I must grade before the end of November. When I was asked at work to do one more thing, I kept my temper but left work early, too angry to accomplish anything else.

On my way home, I ran errands. The first stop was Macy’s to pick up pants being hemmed, then the grocery then Target. In each parking lot, I sat venting my anger and frustration at God. It was a cold, November day, and we’d just had our first snow in Colorado. Target was my last stop. I went inside and found myself wandering through aisles looking at things I normally don’t look at. I shop at Target only to buy bulk items.

I read books and listened to cds, tried on pajama bottoms and looked at kitchen appliances. At one point, I came across these Nick and Nora slipper socks. They remind me of sock monkeys my grandmother used to make. She was a seamstress and sold sock monkeys and Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls at department stores in Memphis.

My mother was also a seamstress, and I’m sure they both turned over in their graves when I had my pants hemmed at Macy’s. This must have been on my mind when I looked up and saw the slipper socks.

Nick and Nora Charles are characters in the Dashiell Hammett novel, The Thin Man. The novel was turned into a series of five movies with Myrna Loy and Dick Powell between 1936 and 1947. I love the movies and own the collection.

When I turned the slippers over and saw Nick and Nora, I placed them into my basket — which now included a red blender, two sets of pajama bottoms, some cds, a new book by Fannie Flagg, a Justin Bieber calendar for my nephew and a few other assorted odds and ends.

William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles,
with dog Asta.

I went to the cashier, added the items up in my mind and thought, What am I doing. There must be $100 worth of stuff in this basket. I turned the cart around and weeded my way back through the store aisles to replace everything. The first thing that had to go were the Nick & Nora slipper socks. I could justify everything in the basket except those.

When I arrived at the sock section, I couldn’t hang them up and stood wondering what to do. By this time, it was 8:30. I’d been in the store for more than an hour and a half. I wheeled my cart back around and went to the cashier again.

Someone ahead of me was having trouble with a gift card, and this gave me another chance to decide whether I was going to buy the items in the basket. As I put them on the conveyor belt, I realized for the first time they were all things my mother would have bought me for Christmas (including the hemmed pants hanging in my car). I looked up and saw the words Merry Christmas.

The cashier rang up the items, and I looked back and saw an older, Asian woman standing in the back of the line. She startled for a moment when I noticed her then smiled. A look came into her eyes I can only describe as soft and understanding and accepting. She looked at me as if she knew me and had a presence full of light and of pain — as if she had come from a place of light but found it painful to be standing there looking at me.

I paid the cashier and as she bagged the items, I turned back to look at the Asian woman and saw she was gone. The line was still there, but the Asian woman had disappeared. Perhaps it was only a trick of my mind caused by the strong emotions of the day mixed with the realization about the items in my basket, but I believe my mother was standing in the back of the line in disguise.

Parking lots are strange places. We sit in between two lines outside buildings in transit between the other places in our lives. As I sat in the Target parking lot afterward, all the anger and frustration came flooding out of me. I realized I wasn’t alone and that something out there watched over and cared for me. I felt more gracious and open to my own life again.

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Someone asked me to perform this with them recently, and we had our first rehearsal today. It is one of my favorite pieces. In the movie The Hunger, the duet is used as background music for the love scene between Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon.

Flower Duet
Under the thick dome where the white jasmine
With the roses entwined together
On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning
Let us descend together!
Gently floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.
Under the thick dome where the white jasmine
Ah! calling us
Together!
Under the thick dome where white jasmine
With the roses entwined together
On the river bank covered with flowers laughing in the morning
Let us descend together!
Gently floating on its charming risings,
On the river’s current
On the shining waves,
One hand reaches,
Reaches for the bank,
Where the spring sleeps,
And the bird, the bird sings.
Under the thick dome where the white jasmine
Ah! calling us
Together!

Sous le dôme épais
Où le blanc jasmin
À la rose s’assemble
Sur la rive en fleurs,
Riant au matin
Viens, descendons ensemble.
Doucement glissons de son flot charmant
Suivons le courant fuyant
Dans l’onde frémissante
D’une main nonchalante
Viens, gagnons le bord,
Où la source dort et
L’oiseau, l’oiseau chante.
Sous le dôme épais
Où le blanc jasmin,
Ah! descendons
Ensemble!
Sous le dôme épais
Où le blanc jasmin
À la rose s’assemble
Sur la rive en fleurs,
Riant au matin
Viens, descendons ensemble.
Doucement glissons de son flot charmant
Suivons le courant fuyant
Dans l’onde frémissante
D’une main nonchalante
Viens, gagnons le bord,
Où la source dort et
L’oiseau, l’oiseau chante.
Sous le dôme épais
Où le blanc jasmin,
Ah! descendons
Ensemble!
………………
Léo Delibes (1836-1891)

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