Saturday, March 22, 2008

Innocence, on a Mission

I’ve just finished most of the work on a new essay I am going to try to find a home for in print called ‘Hope on the Wing: Encounters with The Innocence Mission’. An excerpt from the essay appears below, which provides an idea of what I am trying to do - discuss The Innocence Mission’s music via a number of ‘encounters’ I’ve had with it in my life.

I queried some magazines about whether they would publish it, and have some received some level of interest from two journals. We’ll see what happens. I think the essay is among my best work in nonfiction so far, and I’ve certainly had a positive experience writing about this musical trio from Lancaster, PA. I’ve been working on the piece for about 5 weeks or so now. It is almost entirely done, but for one important missing ingredient, and that ingredient is a literary first for me.

I mentioned that the group is from Lancaster. If you know me, you know this is where my mother and father live, only about an hour and change away from my own home. Now, The Innocence Mission’s work has been important to me for many years, as my essay indicates – long before I knew they were local. But it happens that several years ago, the nucleus of the group, husband and wife Don and Karen Peris (guitarist and singer/writer, respectively), began to attend the same church my parents go to. Over time, since my mother and father are very involved in the parish, they got to know the Perises, who also have two young children.

I had mentioned off and on to my mother over the years that I truly admired their music. For those who don’t know them, they are one of the best-named bands in the world; their music is highly counter-cultural and, I think, very important. Anyway, I never had the idea of actually writing about them until the encounter described in the excerpt below. After this occurred, I spoke to my mom, who sent an email to Karen Peris, asking her if I could talk to them.

Since then I have been exchanging emails with Peris, who is in the process of answering my questions. I hope to use some of her words in the final essay. It is a big thrill for me, since it is the first time I have ever been able to actually engage in direct correspondence with an artist I wanted to write about. I will also mention here that Karen Peris has been extremely friendly and generous in this exchange. ‘I am really touched by what you say and by your interest in writing about the songs,’ she wrote to me. This has only made the experience even more gratifying.

My thanks go to Karen and Don Peris for their inspiring music and for their kindness and grace. My own ‘mission’ now is to write the best piece I possibly can and get it out there for readers to see.

And now, on to the excerpt.

It was a crisp but cold Saturday morning, following a difficult overnight in my household. By this time, I had become the father of two little girls, and my wife was again pregnant with our first son. Ours is a loving family, but on this occasion my wife and I were both under a great deal of stress for a variety of reasons. There had been frank discussion, a quantity of tears, and some spilling over of tension into dealings with our daughters. That morning, I headed off to the second of my two jobs hanging on the precipice of despair, even while I understood that it was imperative for me not to languish there, or fall over.

When I started the car, the CD player, which I had left on, kicked back in. In my distracted state, it took me a few minutes to realize what was playing. It was We Walked In Song, The Innocence Mission’s most recent release – specifically the opening track, “The Brotherhood of Man”. My mother, who had met Karen and Don Peris though St. Mary’s Parish, had purchased some copies of the CD from them, and gave two of them to my twin brother and I as Father’s Day presents months before. The CD turned out to be a most fortuitous gift; it would seem that some mothers never lose their ability to supply their own with what is needed.

While I struggled with the unhappy sensation of being overwhelmed by the trials of adult life, the first two verses of the song, which describe rather placid encounters between Karen Peris and genial strangers, filtered slowly into my brain. Without my realizing it, the simple beauty of Peris’ observations, married to her husband’s silken electric guitar performance, began to work on me.

Then came a breakthrough moment, perhaps arriving in an interval between black thoughts. I heard Peris sing the following words near the song’s conclusion, as though I had never heard them before:

I never can say what I mean
but you will understand,
coming through clouds on the way.

It finally occurred to me what was happening here, that in turning this song into a kind of dialogue with Jesus, Peris had evoked an image of what the early Greek Christians called the Parousia, the second coming. But more importantly, she had, in the space of just seventeen words, thrown all the challenges of this world and this life into relief. She had reminded me of just Who God is, as opposed to who I am with all of my problems.

Peris, who has elsewhere written about her concerns with being properly understood, couldn’t be clearer here. The confidence of these lines reminded me that the same God who has numbered the hairs on our head (Luke 12:7) holds us forever in His hands and knows our hearts. It didn’t bring me completely out of my mood, and it certainly did nothing to move me towards overcoming the stark realities I was facing. But on that cold day, this experience of the power of song offered me comfort, and helped to lift, at least to some degree, the dark veil that was covering my head.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Duke Altum's POTM #61

If anyone were to ask me why it is I read, and continually attempt to comprehend, poetry, I might well refer them to these passages from a longer poem by Galway Kinnell. Kinnell is one of America's greatest living poets by any standard, and is still writing strong in his 70's (his last collection was released just this past year, with its title lifted ingeniously from Whitman: Strong is Your Hold).

There are moments when I sitting at night, reading a few poems because shorter pieces seem about all my tired brain can handle, when all the crap and clutter of the day is sliced through cleanly by mere words arranged on a page.. . words, however, that seem to function almost sacramentally, that draw forth from the heart's hard and crusty ground a sprout of insight, a small flower of truth. It might take the form of a memory, or a recognition from my own experience... or it could be something totally new to me, a revelation with a small "r." But these brief lightning-flashes of transcendence the great poets are mysteriously able to offer is what keeps me coming back to the well, thirsting for more...

These three numbered stanzas from a longer poem called "Little Sleep's-Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight" are a perfect example of what I'm talking about. This long and beautiful meditation on parenthood and memory penetrated my still-maturing father's heart repeatedly with shafts of light. Do I know exactly what each line means? Of course not. But something within me, at a level deeper than mere knowledge, glows dully in faint recognition of an earned wisdom.



You scream, waking from a nightmare.

When I sleepwalk
into your room, and pick you up,
and hold you up in the moonlight, you cling to me
as if clinging could save us. I think
you think
I will never die, I think I exude
to you the permanence of smoke or stars,
even as
my broken arms heal themselves around you.


In the light the moon
sends back, I can see in your eyes
the hand that waved once
in my father's eyes, a tiny kite
wobbling far up in the twilight of his last look:
and the angel
of all mortal things lets go the string.


Back you go, into your crib.

The last blackbird lights up his gold wings: farewell.
Your eyes close inside your head,
in sleep. Already
in your dreams the hours begin to sing.

Little sleep's-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
when I come back
we will go out together,
we will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Tribute to #4

To commemorate the great Packer quarterback Brett Favre's retirement this week from pro football, I am posting below a recent essay I wrote, inspired by him. This essay was submitted to a magazine running a "Football Essay Contest", and while it's not likely it will win, it was fun to put this together and pay tribute to a player I've always been a huge fan of.

Sling It
Brett Favre as Literary Inspiration

I have tried – and failed - to write about Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre for years. Honesty forces me to disclose from the outset that I am a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, but I have a lifelong love of American football, and if I were forced to identify a single athlete as my all-time favorite from any professional sport, I would choose Favre. Something about his style of play, unchanged throughout a legendary career, has always inspired me, as it probably has others. And since I am a literary sort, and feel compelled to write about the things that interest me in order to understand them more fully, it seemed inevitable that I would eventually write about Favre. If I could never play football well, maybe I could write well about someone who does.

Yet I could never find an angle on the subject that satisfied me. Although I share some things with him – we’re roughly the same age; we both have two daughters – I don’t know Brett Favre. I’ve never met the man, let alone played with him or coached him; I’ve never even seen him play in person. So I cannot tell stories about him that you wouldn’t already know if you’ve ever turned on a TV on a Sunday for the last, say, seventeen years. I’m not a football expert, sports columnist, or even a journalist, so what does my opinion matter? I’m just another fan who happens to appreciate the way Favre plays.

Yet somewhere along the line, in the midst of all those false starts, I realized that that’s not all I am. I’m a fan, it’s true, but I’m also a writer. And that’s where I finally saw the connection. It’s not that I want to play football the way Brett Favre plays football. I gave up on that a long time ago. It’s that I want to write the way Brett Favre plays football.

This idea didn’t occur to me yesterday. It wasn’t even recently. In fact, I can pinpoint the exact date – January 26, 1997. The only problem was that I didn’t realize it. I couldn’t see the connection eleven years ago. I didn’t discover the link until this year, because I simply wasn’t a good enough writer in 1997. I needed a lot more practice in seeing where things connect. While athleticism may have a lot to do with natural gifts, writing well requires a slow maturation; one must develop an aptitude for certain mental processes through the crucible of experience, which can take many years of time and effort.

Nonetheless, I still remember the moment: it was the second play from scrimmage in Super Bowl XXXI in the Louisiana Superdome. Favre took the snap, dropped back, and fired a 54-yard cannonblast to Andre Rison for the first score of the game. It was a phenomenal pass, but it was Favre’s reaction to the end result of the play that, for me, elevated it into something else. He tore off his helmet, lifted it high over his head, and charged off the field, howling with triumph. Hundreds of millions of people were watching, and Favre didn’t care one bit. At that moment, the game was already over. Favre was victorious, and he knew it. Everything he had been through to that point seemed as though it had been worth the cost.

That one moment from Favre’s career – even though there have been other triumphant moments since then; the man has thrown for more touchdowns than any other quarterback in the history of the National Football League – stayed firmly rooted in my brain for more than a decade. And while I always wondered why it carried so much weight for me, I never was able to successfully connect it to my own world – what I was, and what I wanted to be. Meanwhile, all along the way, I worked tirelessly at my craft, literally whenever I could, sending my writings out into the open (like passes), and watching most of them come back the other way (like interceptions). It wasn’t until last season, in the midst of Favre’s resurgence at the age of 38, that I realized what there is in common between what he does on the football field and what I have been doing in my own corner of the world for years (with less success).

It’s not about who Favre is off the field, though he seems like a good man that has overcome numerous difficult challenges that have nothing to do with football. It’s not about the boyish enthusiasm on display during the games, though I can relate to it. It’s about how he plays – the way he executes his game. In the end, it’s about slinging it.

Into every pass he throws, you can see in his body language and on his face, even on TV, he puts everything he has to give. He throws the football hard and he throws it with confidence. When he releases the ball downfield, no matter what happens on the other end, you can sense that, in his own mind, it is going to be caught. He is sure that every throw he makes is going to connect.

This is exactly what a young writer needs to do. Sling it. If he wants to be heard, he has to chuck his writing out there, and chuck it hard. If he’s not sure that it’s going to hit the mark, then he shouldn’t fire the pass (maybe he shouldn’t even be on the field). When it does hit, he should revel in that moment, for he alone is responsible for bringing it into existence.

It’s not possible for a true champion to fake their performance. They must pour their heart and soul into their work – and then pay the price. When Favre plays football, even a casual observer can see that he exposes himself, in every way possible. He will stay in the pocket and take the hit before he will fail to make the throw. He takes the field for game after game after game, even when fighting against painful injuries. But he also reveals himself emotionally, in a way that many ‘tough’ men will not.

I recall Favre talking to reporters after a regular season football game in 2001, a game the Packers had pulled out by a nose. There he sat, answering questions, when he suddenly became choked with emotion, stopping the press conference. He apologized to the reporters, declined to even attempt an explanation, and left the room. Of course there may have been any number of unrelated events happening in his life that may have accounted for this behavior. Nonetheless, I cannot believe that none of the emotions he was dealing with that Sunday had to do with what had just occurred on the field.

A more famous example of Favre’s dedication to his work is the monumental performance he turned in on December 22, 2003, one day after his father, Irvin Favre, was found dead in his car. It is well known that against the Oakland Raiders on that Monday night, before a national audience, Favre passed for 399 yards and four touchdowns, leading the Packers to victory, 41-7. Favre channeled his emotions – his grief – into the execution of his game on the field. Every time he passed the ball on that night, he was slinging it. He threw his passes as if he was hurling his own will – the hard fist of his heart – into the teeth of a heartless world’s brutal sneer.

Over decades of watching pro football, I have of course been roundly impressed with other players, especially other quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers clearly wants to win more than most, and uses his impressive physicality and aggressiveness to find ways to do so – but he can also be foolhardy and brash, for he is still a young man. The Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning, a great quarterback, is a true student of the game with flawless mechanics, but he often strikes me as jumpy and over-cerebral on the field – and how often does Manning look like he is actually enjoying himself? Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, for all of his unbelievable success, often looks more like a machine than a human being, although a spiffy one. All the more impressive in some respects, but this quality sometimes seems to spill off the field, as if he’s unable to switch the machine off. One wonders how much success is enough for a man like that.

For me Brett Favre stands out from the others, for one simple reason: he’s the only champion athlete that inspires me to be a champion.

Over seventeen years of writing, I have noticed something about myself, and it is simply this: those rare occasions when I am writing well, and feel as though I am turning my words into something meaningful and relevant, are the only times in my day-to-day existence when I feel absolutely fearless. No external concern can cast a shadow over my mind, or my heart, when I am doing what I do to the best of my ability. At any other time – which means most of my existence on earth – I can never fully free myself from some form of fear or anxiety. This doesn’t mean I am not happy; it just means I normally have concerns. But not when I am writing, at my desk, in pre-dawn darkness, when everyone else is asleep. No one can touch me then. I know it because I can feel it I my soul, and the soul always recognizes the truth.

This, I believe, is what happens to Brett Favre on the football field. I know it because I can see it on his face, even through a television. I know it in spite of the other chasm that exists between Favre and me – that distance between the uniquely gifted celebrity and the average Joe who works in a cube and whose toughness is never on display. I know it because he slings it. He slings it fearlessly, regardless of what is happening to him off the field. It doesn’t always lead to success, of course, as the conclusion of the 2007 season made painfully clear. But it requires a singular kind of courage to harness one’s varying emotions into their life’s work, and Favre lives by this quality – sometimes he dies by it.

Here’s something else I know. I am writing these words in response to a literary contest. I have never won a contest before, but I expect to win this one, because I’ve learned the lesson. When I do, I am going to push back from this desk, grab the nearest pencil, move through my house and out the back door, where I will thrust the pencil in the air and run across my yard howling. I will not take note of the hour. I will not care how many people are (or are not) watching. For it will have been a very long time coming, and worth every part of what it cost.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

NEWSFLASH: 'Citizen Kane' is a Pretty Good Movie

For someone who has enjoyed movies for a long time and claims to be something of a movie buff (though nowhere near an expert, as this post will make abundantly clear!), it is embarrassing for me to note that I recently watched Orson Welles’ 1941 classic Citizen Kane for the first time a few weeks ago. Of course I had heard all of the hype about it, and was aware that it is always listed at the very top of most lists of the greatest films of all time – including, most notably perhaps, the American Film Institute’s Top 100 list. That list was completely revised recently, but Welles’ film did not lose its secure hold on the top slot. I had a pretty good idea that whenever I got around to it I would find something to enjoy and be interested in… but truth be told, I did not expect it to engage me and stir up my fascination nearly as much as it did. By any standard, Citizen Kane is a truly exceptional work of art that is a profound commentary not only on American culture, but also on our common human condition.

Before going any further here, however, I want to publicly acknowledge and thank a good friend of mine, who is the one who pushed hard for me to watch it when I sheepishly admitted to him that I never had… to protect his identity I will use a pseudonym, but he certainly knows who he is. So to Mr. Braxton, I can only say: you were right to insist upon it, pal. You have more than earned your standing as a “go to” critic of movies (not to mention movies/books!) in my opinion…

Anyway, I came to Citizen Kane almost completely cold. All I knew about it was that it was widely considered one of the best, if not THE best, movies ever made, and that it made Orson Welles a Hollywood legend at the ripe old age of 26. Beyond that, I didn’t know a darn thing. Literally the only other thing I could have conjured up if asked about it was an image: a HUGE placard bearing the likeness of a moustachioed Orson Welles behind a podium, and the real Orson Welles (with moustache) thundering from said podium in the foreground. From this image I assumed the movie had something to do with politics. And that is the sum total of everything I ever knew about the film up until a few weeks ago.

The story, for the three people left on earth besides me who didn’t or don’t know, presents to us the life of the titular character, who is based on the real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst built up an empire based on his ownership of scores of newspapers across the United States, and amassed a personal fortune that rivaled those of Morgan and Rockefeller. But more intriguing to the public (and richer fodder for a Hollywood film!) were the details of Hearst’s personal life: he weathered several broken marriages and seamy scandals, and died alone in a spectacular mansion he had built for himself, which he filled with archeological treasures he had plundered from all over the world. These were not treasures he went out and found himself, mind you: they were priceless items that, well, turned out not to be.

On the surface, then, Kane is essentially a rags-to-riches story about a lonely child abandoned by his parents who rises to the upper echelons of both business and social circles, but can’t ever seem to find the true happiness and peace that eludes him all along. What’s the big deal, then? Isn’t that the plot for countless stories and films that have been made? Well, yes, it is… but in this case it’s all about execution. The true genius of Citizen Kane, in my opinion, is not so much in the story itself, but in the way it is told: the technique of Welles’ filmmaking, the unusual narrative structure, and perhaps most of all, the use of images and visual cues to “pull back the curtain” and reveal the profound moral layers and depths hidden within a seemingly conventional narrative. I’ll briefly touch on the three of these.

1. The Technique – Now I know next to nothing about actual filmmaking technique, so maybe I better clarify here. When I say “technique” I am just talking about the way it is shot, the thought and craft that went into presenting each scene to the viewer. Admittedly, I listened to much of the commentary track (in this case it happened to be from Roger Ebert) on the DVD, so I did actually learn something about the technical aspects… such as Welles’ experimenting with a shooting technique called “deep focus” in order to make sure that items in the background of a shot remained as clear and distinct to the viewer as items/actors in the foreground. But I can’t get into the technical side of the film too much here simply because I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. No, what I mean is the visual and emotional impact the film has upon you from the moment you start watching it. The opening of the film is a perfect example. First, you get these ominous and brooding shots of a haunted-looking castle high upon a hill behind a “No Trespassing” sign, and you witness the dying gasps of an unknown man secluded in a high bedroom, desperately clinging to a child’s toy and whispering a final, enigmatic word: “Rosebud.” (The mystery of what the word really means to the dying man runs throughout the film, and I gather, is still widely debated and discussed to this very day!) It’s an unforgettable opening that remains as puzzling and haunting in 2008 as it must have been to its first viewers in the theater. Next, you get a spot-on parody of an old-time newsreel which announces the death of one Charles Foster Kane, and reviews his life in true sensational, gossip-tinged American media style. You don’t realize it at the time of course, but what you’re getting is a preview of the whole story that’s about to unfold in front of you in the next hour and a half. These two contrasting and equally fascinating opening sequences set you up for a film experience that, at the time, utterly re-defined what American cinema could be… Welles blew the doors off creatively, pulling out all the stops in a virtuoso visual storytelling clinic. Throughout the film, striking images and powerful scenes abound. Citizen Kane is justly famous for its low camera angles, making characters appear larger than life and giving us an extraordinarily full view of the interior sets. It’s as if Welles said to himself, “Let me go through every established technique in Hollywood so that I can defy them all.” Stunning close-ups of objects and faces contrast with wide-angle panoramas of newsrooms and warehouses. The film is quite obviously the work of an ambitious young artist who’s not afraid to experiment and aim high.

2. The unusual narrative structure – Much of the genius of Welles’ film lies in the decision to wrap the story of Kane’s life around the mysterious utterance of that one word on his deathbed, “Rosebud.” Rather than tell the story in conventional, linear “biopic” style, we are presented with his death scene first (as described above) and the announcement of his demise in the media. From there, we are introduced to an investigative reporter who is given the task to uncover why Kane may have uttered this final word, and what it meant to him. In order to do so, the reporter needs to go and find those people who were closest to Kane – former colleagues, benefactors, ex-spouses – and interview them to try and piece the puzzle together. So the story of Kane’s life is told in a series of memories and flashbacks, delivered from multiple perspectives and points of view. I thought this was a fascinating device and a particularly ingenious way to tell the story of a man surrounded by mystery and speculation, a man who appears larger than life itself and yet died alone in “quiet desperation,” surrounded by his riches that ultimately meant very little to him. Another advantage of the story-telling method is that you can see first-hand the effect Kane’s egotism and ambition had on those closest to him, how he alienated and let down those few people who he allowed to get past his persona. The story of Kane’s life has so many layers of meaning, but one of the most powerful I think is the way that his sense of abandonment as a young child left a hole in him he could never fill, and permanently crippled his ability to be vulnerable to anyone around him. Like so many others, his desire for power and control thinly masked a strong sense of inadequacy and personal insecurity – and this combination makes it nearly impossible for a man to maintain a close and intimate relationship with anyone, be they a friend, confidant or spouse. Finally, the “investigative” approach enables Welles to jump around chronologically in the narrative, which meant that actors had to play their characters at multiple ages – Welles starts the film as a lean, handsome businessman full of charisma and vigor, and ends it as a fat, balding man with a moustache and a permanent scowl. These days it is commonplace to see actors take on different ages and don make-up to appear older than they are, but at the time I think it was very rare to see an actor take on so many different looks for one role. Welles is utterly different from one scene to the next in this film, and it is a performance of astounding range and depth.

3. The use of images and visuals – To me, this is the best part of Citizen Kane, where the genius and artistic vision really pay off. What stays with you after all is said and done are certain haunting key scenes and images that linger long in the mind and seem to capture the essence of the storyline more than any single line of dialog. Take, for example, the famous swirling "snow" inside the child's snow globe that Kane is holding as he breathes his last breath, and the slow fall of the same globe from his hand to the floor at the moment of death. Or the scene where Kane, in a rage after his second wife leaves him, trashes a room in his house and then slowly walks down a hallway in his lonely castle, mirrors on either side of the hallway reflecting him infinitely to the left and right, as if to say his sadness is without end. Or the scene described earlier when Kane is campaigning for public office, standing at a podium dwarfed by an enormous image of himself, emphasizing his hubris and his larger-than-life persona. Or, perhaps most strikingly, the final scenes of the film, which pan widely over a vast warehouse of his "stuff," his archeological treasures and furniture - the shots not only ingeniously include props from most of the other scenes in the movie as sort of a visual re-cap of all that has come before in the film, but also poignantly reveal the ultimate emptiness of Kane's life, as he has built up this museum-like fantasy land around himself but has no one left to share it with. I won't say what the final image of the film is, but like everything before it is an ingenious shot, and neatly wraps up the mystery running through the entire length of the film with a profundity no words could capture. There are so many indelible images in this film it would be impossible to recount them all.

All of this is only to scratch the surface of this complex morality tale which has so much to say about American culture and human nature. I don't pretend for a moment to have encapsulated all that is good and notable about Citizen Kane here, but I do hope I have provided enough of a taste of it to intrigue those who haven't yet seen it, and maybe even inspire them to give it a watch. On every level imaginable, it is a film that inspires and fascinates. Anyone with even the slightest interest in film will come away rewarded from Welles' ingenious and innovative character study.