the new tv season

I’ve always been an avid TV fan.  I have lots of friends who swear to me that they don’t watch TV, and I’m sure that’s true – at least for the most part.  But I’m not ashamed to admit that I love TV.  Since I’m not taking any classes this semester, I have lots of TV-watching time, and with a DVR I can watch what I want, when I want – unless there are 3 good shows happening simultaneously.  Damn you, 2-channel DVR!!!!  🙂

So I thought I would jot down some comments about the news shows I’ve been watching.  See if you agree or disagree.

Modern Family:  When I saw the previews for this show, I was not interested in it at all.  It appeared to be just another lame family sitcom.  But my daughter Erin wanted to watch it, so we recorded the first episode just to try it out.  I was so glad we did!  This comedy takes a fresh new approach to the family sitcom genre.  Actually, the approach is not all that new – it’s the same format as The Office and Parks and Recreation – in other words, the pseudo-documentary format where cameras seem to be following people around, catching their off-guard moments as well as their comments addressed directly to the supposed filmmakers.  There’s no laugh track and the comedy relies more upon quirky character development than on traditional jokes.  The main characters are definitely a quirky bunch.  The patriarch of the family is Jay, a cranky older guy who somehow managed to marry a Colombian hot tamale named Gloria, who has a pre-teen son named Manny.  Jay has two children from his first marriage, Mitchell and Claire.  Mitchell is in a committed gay relationship with Cameron, and they have just adopted a little girl from China named Lily.  Claire is married to a goofball named Phil, and they have three children – high-school hottie Haley, middle-school smart-girl/nerd Alex, and pre-teen mischief-maker Luke.  Jay doesn’t approve of Mitchell’s gay relationship, and he doesn’t like Claire’s goofy husband Phil.  But there’s much more to the story than simple parental disapproval.  All the characters struggle to cope with the stresses of modern life – living up to the expectations of others while trying to be true to themselves.  There’s obviously a lot of “history” here between them all, and we get little glimpses of it each week.  There are funny sight gags:  Jay “accidentally” bloodies Phil’s nose with his remote-controlled airplane; Cameron introduces the new baby by emulating the opening scene from The Lion King; Jay’s first wife (played by Shelly Long) gets plastered and has to be carried out, kicking and swearing, at her ex-husband’s wedding reception (they all refer to this as “the incident”).  But there are moments of subtle humor as well, especially when the characters unconsciously reveal their own foibles and weaknesses while explaining themselves to the ever-present but unseen camera crew. 

Perhaps the most telling measure of this show’s comedic power is this: in every episode there has been at least one time where we had to stop and rewind because we were laughing so hard we couldn’t hear what was happening next.  We’ve had to pause and wait while we continued to laugh hysterically at some of the things that were said or done on the show, and then we rewound so that we could see them again.  The only other show that elicits that kind of a response from me is The Office.  ‘Nuff said.

More TV reviews coming soon!

changes

I know there are no guarantees in life.  I know that plans are subject to change.  I know these things, but that doesn’t make it any easier when unexpected changes come my way.  For the last couple of years, my daughter Erin has been going to school in Oklahoma and my son Ryan has been living on the road and in Nashville while working with a Christian rock band.  That left me happily at home alone, except for the occasional visit.  I was looking forward to continuing my solitary life, but unexpected changes have blown my plans out of the water.

I like living alone.  I like the fact that when I wake up in the morning, things are where I left them the night before.  I like knowing what’s in the pantry and the fridge, and not having to wonder whether I’ve run out of something.  I like choosing what shows to watch, what music to listen to, what movies to view, and when.   My car is always available.  It’s quiet when I want it to be quiet, and noisy when I want noise.  When I get lonely, I have friends to visit or call, but when I want to be alone, I can be.

That changed last spring when son Ryan decided to leave the band, move home, and get a job.  It was harder for him to find employment than he thought it would be, but eventually he got a job as a delivery man for Lowe’s.  We settled into a fairly agreeable pattern of living, but I had to give up my precious independence.  Now I had to watch things like Car & Driver, How It’s Made, Pimp My RideAmerican Chopper, Mythbusters (which I truly love), and lots of other how-to and reality shows.  I had to adjust to the fact that groceries purchased Monday would be gone by Wednesday (if not before).  But we managed to get along fairly well.

A few weeks later, daughter Erin came home from school for the summer break.  For five weeks, the house was crowded with the three of us bumping into each other and encroaching on each other’s territories.  I could handle it, though, because I knew it would be short-lived.  In mid-June, Erin left for a 5-week stint at MasterWords, a summer music festival program for Christian students who plan on becoming professional musicians, dancers, actors, etc.   Then a few weeks later, Ryan succumbed to pressure from his former boss and decided to re-join the band on their next tour.  He left home the day before Erin returned, so I had one precious day alone.  Soon after returning from MasterWorks, Erin agreed to be the chaperone for our church’s pre-teen girls going to camp, so she was gone for another week.  When she returned from camp, she had 4 more weeks before the start of school.

I was looking forward to Erin returning to school.  Not because I don’t enjoy being with her, because I really do.  We have a terrific relationship and we understand each other very well.  But I knew that she was bored with being at home and missing her school friends, and I was also anticipating the return of my solitary life – the quiet, controlled, predictable life I had enjoyed for the last couple of years. 

Things have a way of changing however, and our expectations are not always met.  When Erin got back to Oklahoma, she discovered that her financial aid had run out, and her scholarship was revoked due to lack of funding.  (This is happening at my school, DBU, as well – economic hard times impact private colleges in a big way.)  She stayed for a week while her advisors tried to work something out, but in the end, there simply was no money available.  On the same weekend that Erin discovered her reversal of fortunes, Ryan had a falling-out with the leader of the band, and called to tell me he was coming home for good.  I picked him up last Sunday in Bowie, Texas, and Erin returned from OKC this past Wednesday. 

Now my house is full again, of unemployed 20-somethings who are disappointed and dissatisfied with the challenges facing them.  They’re both trying to keep their spirits up, but it’s going to be rough times until jobs can be found.  We only have two cars between the three of us, and I have to use mine daily.  So the challenge of finding jobs is complicated by transportation issues.  I can’t afford to feed and supply all three of us, adding another layer of stress to the already pressurized situation. 

We’re going to have to make adjustments, and we’re going to have to learn to live together in harmony, respecting each other’s individuality and personal traits and tastes.  I know we can do it, but it won’t be easy, and it won’t happen quickly.  So if you’re reading this post, please say a quick prayer on our behalf.  Only the grace of God will see us through.

twilight vs. harry

Harry

 

 

twilightI just finished reading the four books in the Twilight series by Stephenie Meyer.  My daughter had been telling me for weeks that I would enjoy these books as much as she had, but I didn’t have any time for recreational reading until mid-May.  (see previous post for the reasons why!)  So I started reading them about four weeks ago, and I just finished the fourth book this morning.  I must admit that I enjoyed them more than I thought I would.  I’m in my mid-50’s, so I didn’t think I would be able to appreciate a teen-angst gothic romance, but the stories drew me in, and for the most part, I enjoyed the reading experience. 

I was interested to see that the review clips printed on the book jackets compared the Twilight series with the Harry Potter series.  One of the reviewers said “Move over, Harry Potter!”  I suppose I can understand the comment in a certain light – this is a new series of books that has sold very well and caused a bit of media frenzy, has generated a movie franchise, and deals with magic or the supernatural.  From that standpoint, I can accept the comparison.  But when it comes to the actual text of the two series, they are very different – and in my opinion, the Harry Potter series stands head-and-shoulders above the Twilight books. 

One important criteria for judging science fiction and fantasy is whether or not the author has created a believable and consistent world.  The world of the story does not have to obey the laws of the “real” world, but the internal logic must be sound, convincing, consistent, and fully described.  J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, created a marvelous and believable universe of magic that exists in parallel harmony with the real world.  She occasionally references aspects of the real world – the “Muggle” world as she calls it – as it collides with her fictional world of magic, and the interactions are played for humor as well as authenticity.  The magic works according to understandable physical laws, with limitations that are clearly explained without resorting to lecturing or other pedantic devices. 

Meyer’s Twilight world similarly engages the “human” world, but less satisfactorily, in my opinion.  Her vampires don’t eat, don’t sleep, don’t breathe, and don’t really look human – their eyes change color according to their “thirst,” they are fantastically beautiful in spite of their paleness, and their skin sparkles brilliantly in the sunlight.  They never age and they possess superhuman strength.  Yet no one seems to notice this, except of course, for our heroine, who is immediately fascinated, rather than repelled, when she first encounters the vampire clan.  Much is made of the ways they “pass” in human society, especially in the fourth book, where our protagonist, Bella, becomes “immortal” herself.  Their hearts don’t beat, they can’t cry, and they can’t bear children, yet they obviously have some bodily fluids, because the handsome Edward manages to impregnate Bella in the fourth book.  Since she’s still human at that point, she is somehow able to conceive a child – a half-vampire, half-human child.  So apparently female vampires are barren, but male vampires can still be virile.  This is never explained.  There are other inconsistencies  and unexplained phenomena as well.

The Harry Potter books contain many examples of characters who struggle with moral choices.  Harry is sometimes tempted and often frustrated by the moral dilemmas he must face.  In fact, those moments are what make the books so compelling, in my opinion.  Good doesn’t just automatically win out over evil – Harry must choose to do good when it is often the harder or more dangerous path.  In the Twilight books, the “good” vampires have chosen to kill animals and drink their blood, rather than endangering human life.  As a result, they are never completely satisfied – they always feel thirsty, but they learn to live with it.  Because of their restraint, they are more compassionate and more able to feel love than their less-constrained counterparts.  But their respect for human life does not compell them to convert the other vampires they know.  In the fourth book, they host a large number of vampire guests who go out to hunt human beings – but we are supposed to feel okay about that because they all promise to stay away from the little town of Forks, where Bella’s family and friends live.  So how moral is their choice? 

Those are just a couple of the things that bothered me about the Twilight books.  But what intrigues me the most is that I haven’t seen the same level of impassioned outrage from parents and the religious right regarding Meyer’s books.  When the Harry Potter books were first being published, I was a school librarian.  Parents at my school were in a constant uproar over Rowling’s books.  They believed that reading the books would make their children want to become witches or wizards, or at the very least would lead to a fascination with the occult.  Where is the outrage over Meyer’s books?  Not only does the protagonist, Bella, choose to become a vampire in order to be with her beloved, but she doesn’t suffer any of the consequences that she feared she would encounter – her pain during conversion is pretty bad, but she never gives in to her thirst to kill a human, and she’s even able to maintain contact with her father and friends.  In other words, the conversion to vampire is made to appear easy and attractive.  So why aren’t parents worried that their children will want to become vampires?  Are they unaware of the serious vampire cults that exist in California and other parts of the country?  Parents who were concerned that their children might want to learn magic so they can control people or the physical world should be equally concerned that their children might want to become vampires so they can be beautiful, fast, strong, and able to live forever.  Of course, there are no such things as real vampires, but there are no such things as real witches either – despite what those poor deluded Wiccans believe.  My only conclusion can be that these conservative parents must secretly believe in witchcraft more than they believe in vampirism – otherwise, where’s the threat?

Having said all this, I still enjoyed the books very much.  They were certainly entertaining, and kept me engaged.  When I finished the last book this morning, I felt a sense of satisfaction that all had ended as I had hoped.  Still, the reading experience wasn’t nearly as intense as it was for the Harry Potter books.  Harry’s world is so complete, so full of nuance and delight, and the characters are so completely realized, that I literally devoured the books as each one was published.  When the final book in Rowling’s series was published (two years ago), I took it with me to New Mexico on vacation.  On the fourth night of our trip, I stayed up reading until 4:00 a.m. because I absolutely couldn’t put the book down until I had finished it.  Then I spent another 30 minutes or so crying over the characters, the lives lost, the battles won, and the lessons I had learned from these fictional characters who felt more real to me than many of the people I know.  To me, there’s no comparison.

So what do you think?  Are the Twilight books better than the Harry Potter books?  Or does Harry trump Bella?  Let me know!

rough semester

It’s been a long, long time since I posted anything to this blog, and the reason for the long delay was the load I took on this semester.  I have complained to people about how difficult this semester was, so I thought I would outline the situation, for posterity’s sake.  The other reason for doing this is that I want to celebrate the fact that I made it through, even though there were many times when I didn’t think that would even be possible. 

What made it so hard?  So challenging?  First you should know that I have a full-time job as Director of Distance Learning Library Services at Dallas Baptist University.  What that means is that I am in charge of reaching out to the online and distance ed community at our institution, and providing them with library services equivalent to those granted to on-campus students.  Part of that job involves maintaining a presence in the Blackboard course delivery system and maintaining the library’s web pages.  We have about 75 pages in our site.  I also travel to the various satellite campuses (we have 3 now) to present information sessions to our off-campus students, and I handle reference services for the off-campus and distance ed students.  It’s a full-time job.

In addition, I teach ART 1306, Introduction to Fine Arts, at DBU.  I LOVE teaching this class!  My passion is for the arts of all kinds, and I cherish the opportunity to introduce students to the arts and perhaps even start them on a lifelong love for the arts.  In past years, I taught one class per semester, and this was considered an overload, which means I got a little extra pay for doing it.  Last fall, they asked me to take on a second class – one on-campus and one online class.  I had taught online in the past, but only during the summer.  I like the extra money, so I wanted to keep both classes in the spring, which I did.

The toughest part involved my ongoing education.  Last fall, when I taught two sections of ART 1306, I was not taking any classes.  Usually I have tried to take one class per semester, but I didn’t last fall because I knew there would be extra stuff to do when teaching two classes.  But this spring I felt like I was falling behind – I could hear the count-down clock on my degree ticking away in my head.  So I decided to take TWO doctoral seminars this semester in addition to the teaching and the full-time job.  That’s what had me going crazy.

Graduate classes at this level require tons of reading.  My two courses at UTD were “Reading Shakespeare Historically” and “The American Film Comedy.”  Both classes required loads of reading each week.  The standard load for the Shakespeare class was a complete book plus two or three long scholarly articles to read each week.  The weekly load for the film class was slightly less – two or three chapters or long essays – but we also had to watch a film each week, which was time consuming.  Not only did it take time to watch and analyze the film, but it was also difficult sometimes to locate a copy of the film for that week, and so I spent time calling around and checking libraries and driving to various stores all over the metroplex.  I ended up buying almost all the films on the list, just for the sake of convenience. 

In addition to the reading, both classes required that I prepare an in-class presentation with accompanying handout or essay, and I was also required to write a long research paper for each class at the end of the semester.  What’s long?  For the film class, 10-15 pages; for the Shakespeare class, 20-25.  I think I wrote 12 pages for film and 23 for Shakespeare.  Plus bibliographies, of course. 

Another difficulty that occurred this semester was that I injured my achilles tendon.  I had no idea how very very painful this kind of injury could be.  I had to wear a boot and walk with a cane, and for the first several weeks, the pain was a constant presence.  It did get better over time, although it’s not completely healed even now.  But it caused me to miss a week’s worth of classes – the ones I taught and the ones I took – which made it more difficult to keep up with everything that was due to be completed.

In order to survive the semester, I cut out a few things from my life.  I quit being the leader for a small group Bible study at church, and I cut down on my social life significantly.  But I didn’t quit everything – I still went to church choir practice every Wednesday, played the organ in church on Sunday, and played keyboard with the praise band.  My mom wanted me to drop these activities too, but I couldn’t.  It’s not that I felt responsible as much as I realized how much I get out of making music, and I just didn’t want to give that up.  It feeds my soul, and it was a really nice counterbalance to the stress of the rest of my life.

The end of the semester was the worst.  I had both papers due for my UTD courses, and my ART 1306 students (20 online students and 9 on campus) turned in 3-5 page essays during the last week of school.  So I had 29 essays to grade, 29 tests to grade, and 29 grade totals to calculate and post online, plus answering all their questions and complaints, while simultaneously researching and writing two very different scholarly papers.  And there was Mother’s Day, my daughter’s birthday, and my sister’s birthday to plan for.  I thought sometimes that my head was going to explode. 

I can’t believe it, but I did survive.  I got all the grading done and posted, and got both papers written.  What did I write about?  The Shakespeare paper was about the differences in the character of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello and in Verdi’s opera Otello, which is based on the play.  For the film class, I wrote about the ways that filmmakers have used sing-along or dance-along sequences as a way to move the plot along or allow for specific character developments to occur.  My Shakespeare professor returned my paper with a lot of great compliments.  I don’t know what my film professor thought of that paper, but I got an A in both courses, so I guess it all turned out OK!!

By the way, these were my last two classes that I needed to take.  From this point on I will be working on reading lists and preparing my “fields” of study for my comprehensive exams.  I have to put together a committee to oversee my exams and my dissertation, and I’ve already got two out of the three professors I need.  There’s one other thing standing in my way – I have to pass a foreign language translation test, which I’m not yet prepared for.  I thought about taking a German class this summer – I could’ve gotten two semesters’ worth of German in 8 weeks, but I would have had to attend class 5 nights a week for 8 weeks.  After the semester I just finished, I couldn’t begin to contemplate something like that.  I need some time off!  I’m going to try buying and using a Rosetta Stone program, and I hope that will help me move along to where I can pass the test.  We’ll see – I’m not very disciplined when it comes to studying like that.

So – that was my spring 2009 semester.  If you’re a friend of mine, and you thought I was rude or distracted or uncaring in any way, maybe now you’ll understand why!  I hope I can be a better person and a better friend now that life is back to normal.

riding the rails

Yesterday I undertook an unusual (at least for me) excursion: I travelled from Richardson to Oklahoma City via train.  My friends Wes and Melanie had shared their experiences of riding Amtrak from DFW to OKC, and I wanted to see for myself what it was like.  My daughter goes to school in OKC, so I venture north two or three times a year to visit her.  Usually, my visits include attendance at one of her many performances, and this trip is no different.  She’ll be singing in a concerto competition tonight.  Since her spring break starts tomorrow, I’ll be riding home with her, rather than reprising my train journey.  But the purpose of this post is to describe the journey and share some of my thoughts on train travel in general.

The circumstances of the start of my journey were determined by a doctor’s appointment.  I saw my cardiologist at 1:00 yesterday, and left her office at about 2:00.  Since I didn’t think I would have time to go all the way home, leave my car, and then return to the train station, I had pre-arranged with the folks at church to leave my car in the church parking lot and hitch a ride with one of them to the Galatyn DART rail station.  This was done, and Deanna drove me to the Galatyn station, near the Eisemann Performing Arts Center in Richardson.  The problem was this: I had never actually BEEN to the Galatyn station.  I knew where it was – I had seen it from Central Expressway, of course, but I had never actually boarded a train there.  Deanna and I drove around the Galatyn Park area, frantically trying to find the road that would lead us to the platform.  I finally decided to get out and hoof it over to the station from the fountain in front of the theater.  It’s not a long walk, but it was bitterly cold, blustery, and rainy – so it certainly wasn’t a pleasant walk.  I arrived on the platform just as the train pulled away, so I had to wait in the partially-sheltered seating area for the next train to arrive – about 10 minutes, so not too bad.

I have ridden the DART trains many times before as a commuter, but never with a large, rolling suitcase in tow.  Pulling the suitcase up the three steep steps into the rail car, then navigating it down the aisle, was an exercise in determination at the expense of grace!  Fortunately, I was the only passenger in the entire section of the train at 2:57 in the afternoon.  Although I had a book with me, I decided to forego reading for the pleasure of watching the familiar terrain pass me by. 

In case you’re reading this from some location other than Dallas, you should know that the weather, which had been warm and sunny for several weeks, took a sharp turn toward the worse yesterday.  I’ve already described the cold and wet, but I need to add one more word: gray.  Yesterday was an exceedingly gray day.  Low, leaden clouds, sodden streets, and swollen waterways gave the landscape an almost claustrophobic feel, as though one had been rolled up in a soggy, heavy blanket.  It may seem odd, but I really savor days like this, as long as I can observe them from some place warm and dry.  (By the way, the weather has not changed today.  I’m watching a soft snow falling on the pavement, cars, and shrubbery outside my motel room.  It’s not going to stick, of course.  Two days ago, the temperature reached 80 degrees.) 

My blissful solitude leaked away as passengers trickled on board at each subsequent stop.  The train never filled, however, and there was plenty of room to accommodate me and my oversize suitcase.  I watched the progression of buildings and streets gradually thickening as we neared downtown, and then, when the train entered the underground tunnel portion of the journey, I switched my attention to my fellow passengers.  A woman across from me applied postage stamps to an imposing stack of bill payments; a student wearing the ubiquitous ear buds napped atop her backpack; a businessman sat engrossed in a paperback thriller.  Passengers came and went as we crept through the downtown corridor.  I disembarked at the Union station, stepping into a messy downpour.

The next step was to board the TRE – the Trinity Railway Express. This larger, faster train connects Dallas to Fort Worth, with a few stops in the mid-cities along the way.  The train cars are more like those belonging to Amtrak – bi-level, with wider aisles and roomier seats.  Pairs of seats face each other, and some pairs have small tables set up in between.  However, because I had the large suitcase, I positioned myself near the entrance on the lower level, in a single row of seats backed by the stairwell to the upper level.  This meant that I did not have a window near me, although I could see across the way through the window in the door.  However, at the next stop, the medical center stop, the train filled with a boisterous crowd of hospital personnel, who obviously ride together every day.  Instead of dispersing to the available seats, this group stood bunched together in the doorway space in front of me, blocking my view.  I pulled out my book, but it was impossible to read while surrounded by their raucous laughter and loud voices.  At the next stop, more people boarded and crowded me into the corner of my seat.  I gave up any notion of sightseeing, reading, or even comfort, and simply endured this portion of my journey, which lasted for about an hour.

I should mention here that I could have boarded an Amtrak train in Dallas, rather than taking the TRE to Fort Worth.  But that would have added about twenty dollars and about five more hours to my journey, as I would have been required to board the train in Dallas at 12:20 – before my doctor’s appointment even began.  So even though the TRE experience was not optimal, I think one hour and about two dollars is a much better deal! 

Upon arriving in Fort Worth, I was required to visit the Amtrak station to obtain my ticket before I could board the waiting train.  Fortunately, a solicitous Amtrak employee saw me struggling to drag my suitcase along the walkway, so he loaded my bag in the luggage compartment then took me to the station on a golf cart.  He even waited there so he could take me back to the train!  I was very impressed with how helpful and courteous the Amtrak staff members were throughout my journey.

I rode on the “Heartland Express.”  The train had an engine and three cars, but as far as I could tell, only one car was in use.  The lower level contained restrooms, the baggage area, and a snack bar.  Passenger seating was on the upper level.  Although I had a ticket with a reserved seat, I was told I could sit anywhere I pleased.  There were very few passengers on the train, so it was possible for everyone to have an entire row to him/herself.  I chose the very last row.  Behind me was an empty space, and then the passageway to the next car.  I think the heater/AC was behind me too, because there was a nice, loud white noise coming from the back wall that served to obstruct the sounds of individual conversations as well as dampening the persistent wail of the train’s whistle. 

The seats are very comfortable.  The center aisle is much wider than that on an airplane, and there are only two seats on either side.  The pairs of seats are farther apart than the typical bus or airplane arrangement, so you have much more leg room.  Like an airplane, there are tray tables on the backs of the seats and footrests that can be positioned for your personal comfort.  It’s easy to get up and walk around when you get tired of sitting, and you don’t have to wear a seat belt, so you can sit sideways and stretch across two seats if you want.  There are overhead bins for your personal belongings, and little spotlights that you can position to illuminate your reading material.   I enjoyed gazing out the window at the passing countryside, but there are curtains you can pull across the window if you want to take a nap.  The seats are adjustable for that purpose, as well. 

The four hours went by quickly.  I read, studied the scenery, and watched two episodes of Dr. Who on my iPod.  I also took a break and went downstairs to the snack shop.  It contained facing rows of six seats each, a center aisle, and a counter at one end.  They offer packaged sandwiches, chips, candy bars, yogurt, popcorn, and assorted drinks.  To my surprise, they offer beer, wine, and liquor too, but I didn’t see anyone purchase any – at least while I was there, although several people remarked upon it.  I chatted with the snack room attendant and one of the engineers while enjoying chips and a soda.  (Unfortunately (in my opinion), they only serve Pepsi-cola products.)

We arrived in Oklahoma City about 20 minutes early, which seems to be fairly unusual.  I talked to an older gentlemen who takes this trip several times a year, and he seemed surprised that we had arrived so quickly.  The ever-courteous attendants unloaded my suitcase and directed me to an elevator which lead to a ground-floor waiting area, where I stayed until my daughter arrived to pick me up.  All in all, it was a very pleasant and interesting way to travel, and relatively inexpensive as well.  I may get hooked on train travel!  I definitely hope to plan another, and hopefully longer, train trip in the near future.

the monitor

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve posted anything in this blog.  I’ve had a lot to say, but not much time to say it!  However, for the sake of record-keeping, and to answer some questions my friends and family may have, I felt the need to post some thoughts and facts about my current cardiac situation.

Some brief background is in order: I was born with a defective heart valve.  The valves of the heart regulate and control the flow of blood from one chamber of the heart to another, and from the arteries and veins connected to it.  I had a bi-cuspid valve, which means it had two little flaps instead of three.  The flaps couldn’t close completely, which meant that some blood would leak through when the valve was supposed to be closed.  By the way, when you hear your heart thumping, that sound is the closing of the valves, basically.  When people listening to my heart, they could hear a slight sighing sound following the thump – that was the leaking blood.  This condition is known as a heart murmur, and there are several kinds.  Mine was aortic.  Since the valve couldn’t close completely, my heart had to work harder to pump my blood, and that strain took a toll.

Ten years ago, my symptoms were such that the doctors decided to replace my bad valve with a metal, mechanical valve.  You may have heard of some people getting pig’s heart valves, but they don’t last a long time, and I was only 45.  So the mechanical valve was a better, longer lasting option, but there are some consequences – for example, I have to take blood thinners now, and I will for the rest of my life. 

In May of 1999 I had open-heart surgery.  It was a very traumatic experience in some ways.  For one thing, there was a terrible storm that night after the surgery, and several times during the night, while I was still on life support, the power at the hospital went out.  I remember waking to see hospital personnel surrounding me, shouting orders, holding flashlights, waiting for the emergency generators to kick in.  This happened at least twice – maybe three times.  It’s hard to remember for sure.

In any case, after the valve was replaced, my heart would not resume beating on its own.  The doctors were not really sure why this happened.  In fact, for all they know about the workings of our bodies, there are still many mysteries to be solved, and the source of the heart beat is still unknown.  When they realized that my heart wasn’t going to start beating, they put me on a temporary, external pacemaker.  This was a device that was connected to my heart through wires coming out of my stomach.  The pacemaker was about the size of a TV remote or small camera, and I wore it suspended on a string around my neck.  The idea was that maybe my heart would regain its normal beating on its own in due time, but after several days it became clear that I would have to get a permanent pacemaker.

After recovery, everything went really well.  I attended cardiac rehab classes for 6 weeks, and eventually resumed my normal life, in time for the beginning of the next school year in August.  Many of my co-workers at the elementary school never even knew that I had undergone surgery at all, although I did have a pretty wicked-looking scar, which remains to this day.

Fast forward.  Last May (2008) they replaced my pacemaker with a newer model.  The procedure was a simple day surgery, and my incision healed quickly.  Pacemakers are expected to last approximately 10 years, but they didn’t want to take any chances, since I’m completely dependent upon the pacemaker for my heartbeat.  In cardio-lingo, that’s known as being “fully paced.”   My friend Wes once remarked that he thought it would creep him out to know that his life was totally dependent upon a little electro-mechanical device, but to tell the truth, I hardly ever think about it. 

I started having some weird experiences however.  On Labor Day weekend, 2008, my daughter Erin came home from college for a weekend visit.  That Friday night we decided to order pizza and watch a DVD.   As I sat at the computer, placing the pizza order online, I started to feel very strange.  It seemed to me that my heart was racing, as though I had just climbed a long flight of stairs.  I had trouble breathing, and trouble concentrating.  It seemed as though my vision was graying out.  I wasn’t blacking out, but I was finding it difficult to concentrate and focus.  An inadequate but potentially helpful analogy is what it’s like when I’m using my laptop (like I’m doing now) and the power cord slips loose.  I don’t loose the screen, but it dims perceptibly, and the responsed time is slower.  That’s kind of how it felt. 

But the main sensation was of a heaviness on my chest and a pounding, pounding heart that I could feel on my breastbone, in my ribs and collar bones, and up into my neck.  I didn’t say anything, but Erin noticed that I had stopped typing or even looking at the computer screen, and when she asked me what was wrong, I couldn’t give her a clear response. 

So Erin called 911, and soon an ambulance and paramedics were at my front door.  The sensation had eased by then.  Erin had helped me to the living room, and I was trying to relax in the recliner when the emergency crew arrived.  They did a quick check, ran an EKG, and everything looked normal.  As one of the EMTs pointed out, the fact that I was fully paced meant that they would not be able to see any stress or significant problem with my heart.  However, they took me to the hospital for observation.

I have already recorded those experiences in a previous blog.  See “Thoughts from the hospital.”  After my hospital visit, I was required to undergo a nuclear stress test, which I have also described in a previous post – see “They Tried to Kill Me.”  Which is what it felt like.  The tests were inconclusive.

In the ensuing months, I had a few more incidences of racing, pounding heartbeats that came out of nowhere and left as suddenly as they had come.  Because the doctors told me that it was impossible to have such a thing happen, I didn’t tell anyone.  What would be the point?  When I had my regularly-scheduled pacemaker check in December, I tried to talk to my cardiologist about it, but got nowhere.  His attitude was dismissive and patronizing, which greatly irritated me. 

I know that my doctor, like many other medical specialists, have certainly had experiences that would cause them to be jaded.  I’m sure that he looked at me and saw a middle-aged woman with non-specific, mysterious, and to his mind, impossible symptoms, and I’m sure he assumed that I was lonely and looking for attention.  Perhaps I was hoping to get my children to pay more attention to me.  Or perhaps I was just looking for some drama in my life.  He has probably seen his share of patients like that.

But I’m not one of those.  I don’t need drama in my life – I have quite enough going on as it is, thank you very much.  I’m delighted that my children have found their own lives and that they’re pursuing their dreams.  I’m pursuing mine, as well.  I have an interesting career, lots of good friends, a fun social life of sorts, and challenging and worthwhile pursuits of many kinds.  I tried to explain some of this to my cardiologist, but he wouldn’t really give me the chance.

In early January, I was sitting at my desk in my office, typing an email, when I began to have another episode of heart pounding.  I thought, as much as I could put logical thoughts together, that it would be a good opportunity to get some corroborating evidence.  So I emailed my assistant and the library secretary and asked if either of them could take a pulse.  As you can see, I was able to think somewhat clearly, in spite of the fact that I felt like I might pass out at any moment.  They both came in and tried, but I have a very hard pulse to find.  Even seasoned nurses sometimes can’t find my pulse. 

So they called the campus nurse, who is also a nurse-practitioner.  She came to my office right away and was alarmed by what she was able to perceive.  She took my blood pressure, which was slightly elevated, but while listening to my pulse with the stethoscope at my inner arm, she heard my heart beat stop, start, race, pause, etc.  It was, in her words, extremely erratic.  Then she used the fingertip monitor to check the oxygenation of my blood, which was fine, but the fingertip monitor also showed my pulse rate at 138 beats per minute.  It’s normally around 64 to 72 at the most.  After talking to me for a few more minutes, she used the stethoscope to listen to my heart, and by then, it was a nice, steady 62 beats per minute.  She was deeply concernd by this contradictory evidence, and urged me to call my cardiologist and set up another appointment.

The following week, I went to see my regular family doctor.  While I was there, I told him about my recent experience.  He suggested that perhaps I needed to see a different doctor and get a second opinion, and he recommended a female cardiologist who would be much less likely to dismiss my symptoms as nothing but a mere panic attack (which is what my original cardiologist called it). 

So I set up an appointment with the femme-doc.  I really liked her, especially because she listened to me carefully and was willing to consider that these episodes were really happening, even though they were “theoretically” impossible.  As a first step, she had me wear a cardio monitor for a month.  It has been three weeks now, and I’m ready for this to be over!

The monitor is a little black plastic box, about the size of a small tape recorder.  A plug on the top connects to two wires, which run to two contact points.  The wires look kind of like a funky set of ear buds, one black and one white.  They attach to sticky pads, which stick to my skin.  I wear one on my right shoulder, and the other at the bottom of my rib cage on the left.  The adhesive on the sticky pads irritates my skin, and the left-over adhesive is hard to remove.  I can only take it off when I’m in the shower – as soon as I get dry, I replace the sticky pads and hook everything up again. 

The monitor itself is not big or heavy, but it’s awkward and cumbersome.  The nurse said that most men just pass the wires through the front of their shirts and wear the monitor in their breast pocket.  Or they snap the carrier onto their belt. But I don’t wear shirts with pockets, and I don’t wear belts, so it’s been hard for me to figure out what to do with it.  I finally settled on clipping it to the center of my bra, but it’s not very comfortable, and it makes a weird lump under my clothes.

My greatest fear was that I would wear the monitor all month and nothing would happen – it would all be useless.  But I have had three episodes.  On Feb 12, I had a fairly severe episode just after I had settled in bed.  On Feb 20, I had a very severe episode at work, while I was sitting at my desk typing an email.  On Feb 23, I had a mild episode, again happening right after I had settled in to go to sleep.  I pressed the button to record my pulse, or whatever it is that the monitor is actually monitoring, when the incidents occurred. 

After making a recording, you have to call the company that supplies the monitors.  You give them some information, then you hold the monitor next to the mouthpiece of the phone and press a button to transmit the recording.  It sounds the same as a fax machine – squeals and static. 

I hope that they were able to get good readings, and that the recordings will shed some light on what’s going on.  My biggest fear now is that I’ll go back to the doctor and she’ll say that the monitor did not detect anything amiss.  Then she’ll think it’s all in my head, too, and I’ll be back to square one. 

I have to wear the monitor until next Tuesday, Mar 3.  Then I will pack it up and send it back to the company.  They will prepare a report for my doctor.  I’ll see her on Mar 11.  Maybe she’ll be able to figure out what’s going on.

the “sorry day” tradition

My facebook status for today says that I’m having a “sorry day.”  People keep asking me, “Sorry for what?”  And when I mentioned it to my sister, I got a similar uncomprehending reply.  So I’ve decided to use this post to explain the concept of the Sorry Day and to provide a little history as well.

As far as I know, it was my mother-in-law who coined the term “Sorry Day,” although it’s quite possible she got it from somebody else.  The term is only meaningful if you understand that the word “sorry” has multiple definitions.  I took a minute to look it up on answers.com and found three definitions:

  1. Feeling or expressing sympathy, pity, or regret: I’m sorry I’m late
  2. Worthless or inferior; paltry: a sorry excuse
  3. Causing sorrow, grief, or misfortune; grievous: a sorry development

It’s the second definition that’s pertinent here.  I’m having a worthless day, an inferior day, a day of paltry results.  I’m not doing anything important, I’m not working or cleaning or shopping or making any sort of worthwhile contribution to anything.  I’m just hanging out, chillin’, goofing off, wasting time. 

The day after Christmas is the perfect time to have a Sorry Day with no excuses or compunctions.  The weeks leading up to Christmas have been extremely busy, sometimes stressful, sometimes frantic.  I went to five Christmas parties this year, and for each one I had to bring food and sometimes a gift.  I bought presents for fifteen people (I know – many of you have to buy for twice that number), wrapped them, signed and addressed about 100 Christmas cards, decorated my house, cooked for Christmas dinner, sang in three Christmas programs, carolled, attended church on Christmas Eve (and every Sunday of course), picked up two relatives from the airport, and did all this while working full time.  I DESERVE a day off!  🙂 

And that’s what a Sorry Day is – it’s a day off.  Not just from work, but from the work of life.  I have done a little straightening-up and I unloaded and reloaded the dishwasher.  But other than that, I’m avoiding work.  I’m going to watch movies, play on the computer, play with my Christmas presents, and maybe even take a nap.  I’m definitely NOT hitting the stores for the after-Christmas sales.

When my children were young and my in-laws were still alive, we would plan week-long visits with the in-laws in Houston.  My mother-in-law, Marguerite, would anticipate these visits and plan out fun activities for her grandchildren.  One day it might be going to the zoo, another day we could visit NASA or Galveston, another might be spent shopping.  But every trip would include a Sorry Day – a day to just sit around and do nothing, enjoy each other’s company, and relax.  Sometimes the Sorry Day would be the day the kids enjoyed the most.  There was less pressure, more face time with the grandparents, more chance for serendipity. 

I started the practice of having a Sorry Day after Christmas many years ago.  The kids wanted to stay home and play with their new toys, or visit their neighborhood friends to see what they got for Christmas.  I just wanted to rest and recover.  In those days (the pre-divorce, young children days), we always had Christmas dinner at our house, so the pressure of hosting Christmas dinner and gift exchange was pretty intense (we usually had about 12-14 people).  The next day, when everyone had gone home or gone back to work, I just needed time to recuperate from the fun but exhausting celebration.  Here are some after-Christmas Sorry Day memories that stand out to me:

The year the children got bikes for Christmas, I spent most of the next day sitting in the front yard, watching Ryan ride up and down the street.  He had taught himself to ride on his friend’s bike, so he didn’t need any lessons.  Erin, on the other hand, had never tried before, so I took turns with her dad trying to get her started on her cute pink bicycle. That year, the day after Christmas was warm and sunny, and we spent the day outside in T-shirts and shorts. 

 One year Ryan got a Lego set that could be used to build a Space Shuttle model.  We put up a card table in the living room, and he and I sat together and built the shuttle following the directions that came with the kit.  It took most of the afternoon, but I loved the chance to spend some quality one-on-one time with my son.  There were other years where we got jigsaw puzzles for Christmas, and the kids and I would spend the day around the table working on the puzzle and just being together – with no agenda, no pressure, no homework, no time constraints.

In the last couple of years, I’ve gotten accustomed to living alone.  When the kids come home for Christmas, I’m delighted.  I love having them around.  But on the day after Christmas, they celebrate the holiday with their dad, who lives nearby.  I think my mother and sister worry about me – they think I’ll be lonely and sad without my children around.  But I look forward to it.  I can slob around the house and do whatever I want – watch TV or movies, read, listen to music, play Solitaire or Ricochet – whatever.

Now here’s the ironic twist.  While I was writing the last paragraph, the paragraph about not doing anything today, my cell phone rang.  It was my friend Diana, who lives in Houston and lost her husband last summer to cancer.  She’s visiting her future in-laws in Granbury, and wants to know if it’s OK for her to come visit me here and spend the night.  Of course it is – I love her and would do anything for her.  So she’s on her way, and my Sorry Day just turned into a busy day.  I’ve got to put up the presents, finish cleaning the kitchen, change the sheets on Erin’s bed (which has now become the guest bed) and get the house ready for company.  I’ll plan something for dinner, and get information on fun things to do – movie? live music? Christmas lights?  In other words, goodbye Sorry Day!  I won’t miss you at all.

audience etiquette

This weekend I attended a performance of the musical Hello Dolly! in which my daughter played the lead role of Dolly Levi.  Of course, I was very excited to see my “little girl” performing a leading role.  But my experience was marred, nearly ruined, by the people who sat in front of me.  This was just one of many recent situations I’ve encountered where audience members exhibit rude and inconsiderate behaviors that interfere with my enjoyment, as well as the enjoyment of others around them. 

First let me tell the story.  My family and friends arrived early so we could obtain good seats (there were no reserved seats, just general admission).  We sat front and center so we could see and hear everything.  Just before the show began, however, a family of very tall people filed in and sat in the row in front of us.  I know people can’t control their height, but I think that if you know you are really tall, you should at least slouch down in your seat a bit so the people behind you can see.  There were 6 or 7 people in this group.  In front of me were two sons and the mother, who was sitting next to another (very tall) woman that may have been an aunt. 

The boy directly in front of me was young and very restless.  He twisted and turned and twitched and complained through most of the show – his favorite habit was placing his hands on the arm rests and lifting himself off the seat, which made him even taller and more difficult to see around.  After intermission, he wasn’t there, and I was hoping that he had decided to wait in the car or sit somewhere else.  But no – he returned after the lights were out and Act II had begun, making everyone in his row stand to allow him to return to his seat.  There were empty seats nearby – in my opinion, he should have just taken another seat on the aisle, rather than disturbing the entire center section with his late return.

The boy to his left was extremely tall and had a shaven head.  I don’t fault his height (after all, my own son is 6’6″), but again I think he could have slouched a bit.  However, my issue with him was that he had drinks in the auditorium with him, even though signs were posted everywhere prohibiting food and beverage.  And of course, when he wanted a drink, he had to shift around, find the container on the floor, pop it open, and then slug it down with his elbow in the air, in front of me.

But by far the worst offenders were the mom and the (presumed) aunt.  The program began with an announcer asking everyone to turn off their cell phones, as usual, but he also specifically asked people to turn off their cameras and not take pictures during the performance.  This prohibition is common for performances of this type, and it is generally known that it’s inappropriate to use your camera during a theatrical performance.  At least, it should be.  Performers can be distracted by flashes going off during the show.  Even if the flashes are turned off, the cameras emit red or orange flashing light when a photo is taken.  There are also copyright issues involved with photographing a show in progress.  But I don’t think people realize how distracting it can be for other audience members.  When you’re sitting in a dark auditorium, with your attention focused on the stage, it is extremely irritating to have a digital camera’s glowing LED screen emitting light near you.  And the two women in front of me didn’t just take one or two photos during the show – they were constantly snapping pictures of everyone, including my daughter.  Will my daughter have access to these photos?  Will I?  No.  But I had to watch this woman hold her camera up above her head to take the pictures – right in my line of sight – and then check the pictures in her display screen and show them to her other family members.  The other, taller woman was doing the same thing. 

This is just the ultimate in rudeness, in my opinion.  To (mis)quote Brendan Fraser’s character in Blast From the Past, having good manners simply boils down to placing other people’s needs ahead of your own.  In a performance situation like opera, musical comedy, symphony, etc., the audience is meant to pay close, sustained attention to the action on the stage.  Anything that interferes with or disrupts that interaction between performer and viewer is counter-productive to the artistic endeavor.  Cameras, cell phones, refreshments, talking – all of those things distract the viewer from the artistic experience.  The rudeness comes in because the person who is taking pictures, talking on the phone, drinking a soda, or talking to a neighbor is only thinking about their own need rather than the needs of the corporate audience.  They think, “My daughter is in the chorus and I want pictures of her, so I don’t care if I break the rules, interfere with other people’s enjoyment, or distract the other performers while they’re trying to entertain me.  My needs are more important than anyone else’s.” 

This happens at the movies so frequently that I’ve almost decided to avoid seeing movies in-house altogether.  Last summer I went to see Iron Man, a movie I had really been excited about seeing.  But right down the row from where I sat was a family with an infant and a two-year-old.  The infant cried and the two-year-old whined and fussed during the entire movie.  A few weeks later I went to see the latest Indiana Jones movie, which, again, I eagerly anticipated.  But a woman sitting in the row behind me and to my left kept asking her two boys if they understood the plot, or she would ask them what someone in the movie said, or she would predict what was going to happen next.  All of this was done in a normal voice – not whispering or even talking softly – the kind of voice you would use when talking on the phone in your office, for example.  I finally turned around and asked her to please talk softly, but what I really wanted to do was to tell her to shut up!  These are just two examples – there are always teenagers running up and down the aisles, people talking on their phones or texting, etc.  And by the way, just because texting isn’t talking doesn’t mean it’s not distracting.  The glowing screen of your phone lights up the dark theater and takes me out of the movie and back into reality, which is the opposite of how a film-viewing experience should be.

So, let’s get to the bottom line, people.  Not every audience experience is the same.  There are different standards for behavior, based on the type of performance and venue.  In a rock concert, or at a football game, it is OK to have snacks and drinks with you, it is OK to talk to your friends, and it is OK to cheer or sing along.  It’s OK to take photos during a rock concert or football game, and it’s OK to leave and return whenever you feel like it.  NONE of these are OK during a theatrical performance!  It doesn’t have as much to do with the type of music as it does the venue.  For example, if I’m listening to jazz in a nightclub, or if I’m listening to a string quartet playing in the lobby of the art museum, it’s OK to get up and leave when I need to, and it’s OK to talk quietly to my friends.  It may even be OK to take some pictures, but surely not very many, as it could be distracting to the performers.  But in a theater, whether it’s a college auditorium or the Metropolitan Opera House, it is emphatically NOT OK to bring in food and drink, talk, or take pictures. 

Finally, it is NOT OK to bring babies or small children to theatrical performances, not even movies – unless the movie is made specifically for young children.  Children should be taught, at an early age, what is and is not appropriate.  They CAN be taught.  The last time I went to a symphony concert in the Meyerson, there was a man with his son sitting in front of me.  The little boy appeared to be about 8 or 9 years old.  He sat quietly during the entire concert.  When he had an occasional comment or question, he whispered in his dad’s ear and was quietly satisfied with a whispered reply.  When the concert was over, I made a special effort to compliment the boy and his father for the little boy’s stellar behavior.  Parents who want their children to accompany them to theatrical performances, or even to movies, should first expend the effort to teach their children appropriate audience etiquette.  And they should also be prepared to model the appropriate behaviors themselves.  Not only did the mother who sat in front of me this weekend interrupt my enjoyment of my daughter’s most important performance to date, she also modeled rudeness and low-class behaviors to her own children.  That’s not a legacy worth passing on.

the iPod game

My daughter posted the results of a q&a game on facebook last week.  It looked like a lot of fun, but I decided to post my results via email and invite other people to play.  Today it occurred to me that it would make a fun post for this blog.

The rules of the game are as follows:  You have a list of random, generic questions.  You set your iPod to shuffle.  For each question, you hit the next button on your iPod, then record the title of the song as the answer to the question.  I decided to put the artists’ names in the results, too.  Then you can add comments, if you wish. 

For my results, I set my iPod on my rock and pop smartlist.  I have a lot of classical music, and I was afraid some of the answers would come out like this:  “Q: What is the first thing you say when you wake up?  A: Symphony No. 7 in C minor, 3rd movement: Adagio” or something similarly nonsensical.  So I limited the results to songs.  Other than that, I didn’t tamper with the results in any way.  I was surprised at how pertinent most of the results were!  See for yourself:

If someone asks “Is this okay?” you say?
~Take on me/A-Ha

What would best describe your personality?
~Fire and Rain/James Taylor (cool…I’ll take that)

What do you like in a person of the opposite gender?
~Hit Me With Your Best Shot/Pat Benatar (I’m going to read this in a positive light and believe that means that I only want the best from the other person…) (otherwise, it’s kinda creepy…)

How do you feel today?
~Born to be Wild/Steppenwolf (that’s me alright…)

What is your life’s purpose?
~Too Hot/Kool & the Gang (I don’t know what this means…)
What is your motto?
~Bungle in the Jungle/Jethro Tull (who, me???!!!!)
What do your friends think of you?
~Every Little Thing She Does is Magic/Sting (I kid you not! This is what came up, but I doubt that it’s true.)
What do you think of your parents?
~Our House/Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (this is appropriate in a way)
What do you think about very often?
~Mr. Blue Sky/ELO (oh, Mr. Blue Sky, speak to me!)
What do you think of your best friend?
~Baby Hold On/Eddie Money (this is also appropriate, since my best friend just lost her husband)
What do you think of the person you like?
~Last Dance/Donna Summer (and that was probably a loooooong time ago!)

What is your life story?
~The Boys Are Back/Thin Lizzy (I wish!)

What do you want to be when you grow up?
~The Last Stop/Dave Matthews Band (I don’t know if I like the sound of that…)

What do you say when you see the person you like?
~You Love the Thunder/Jackson Browne
What do your parents think of you?
~Short People/Randy Newman (hardly – I tower over my mom!)

What will you dance to at your wedding?
~Cocaine/Eric Clapton (it may take cocaine to get me married again…)

What will they play at your funeral?
~Still Crazy After All These Years/Paul Simon (I PROMISE that’s what came up, and I think it would be quite apropos)

What is your hobby/interest?
~Half a Mile Away/Billy Joel (it said “what,” not “where”…)

What is your biggest fear?
~ Hollywood Nights/Bob Seger (that’s true, actually…)

What is your biggest secret?
~Everybody’s Talkin’/Nilsson (if they are, then it’s not a secret)

What do you think of your friends?
~Slouching Towards Bethlehem/Joni Mitchell (maybe there’s some sort of theological message behind that one)
This was really fun, and I plan to do it again some day soon – maybe next time I’ll use a different smartlist – jazz and standards would probably yield some fun results!

on musicals and such

Last night I attended a performance of Yeston and Kopit’s Phantom, presented by the DBU music department.  I don’t really want to get into a critique of the performance, or a comparison between this musical version of the story and the Andrew Lloyd Webber Phantom of the Opera.  Instead, I want to share some thoughts that were stirred up by the event – thoughts concerning musical performance in general.

As a musician and mother of other musicians, I have a more personal perspective on this type of production than perhaps your typical concert-goer.  I’ve probably attended more performances of musicals and operas than the average person would ever want to see.  I’ve enjoyed a life-long passion for musical theater, and as an undergraduate music student I learned to love opera as well.  I’ve been privileged to attend many performances of the Dallas Summer Musicals series, but alas, I’ve never been to New York, so I’ve never been able to have a true “Broadway” experience.  As an elementary music teacher, I enjoyed the opportunity to accompany my 6th-grade students to the opera each year, so I got to see a wide variety of Dallas Opera productions.  Since entering college as a vocal performance major, my daughter has participated in many opera endeavors – full productions as well as scene compilations – and two years ago she sang in the Dallas Opera Chorus, so I attended all the productions of that particular season.  I’ve also attended opera performances in Houston, Waco, and Fort Worth – but again, no New York means no real Met performances for me (at least not yet).  I list all of these facts to establish my scope of reference – I’ve attended lots of amateur, semi-pro, and professional performances of operas and musicals, but only in Texas. 

Whether the performers are high school students or seasoned professionals, productions like this have some interesting commonalities that I think make them attractive and important aspects of our cultural heritage.  Even if the performance is flawed or not particularly successful, there are aspects of dramatic musical performance that I find compelling, and even inspirational.  The people who appear on stage, whether in lead roles, support roles, or even as extras (supernumeraries, in opera jargon), have studied, practiced, worked, sweated, laughed, maybe even cried, and devoted huge amounts of their time and energy to the project of bringing a story to life through music.  They do it for many different reasons: some are eager for attention and prestige through public performance, sure, but many of the performers that I have known over the years have gladly given of their time, talent, and energy out of love.  Love for the music, love for the excitement of performing, love for the cameraderie and fellowship of their fellow performers,  love of dressing up and inhabiting a personality other than your own.  There is something so genuinely generous about the act of performing in a musical.  The singers and dancers spend hours and hours in rehearsal, learning their lines, music, and blocking; waiting for their scenes, for their turns; standing in place while the lighting, set pieces, costumes, or props are rearranged, re-apportioned, or re-set; sometimes even waiting while people gain control of their emotions.  They go through all of this willingly, usually for very little or no money.  Sometimes they’re required to supply their own costume pieces, or to work on props or sets when not rehearsing.  Backstage, they help each other out with costumes, hair, make-up.  They run lines with each other.  They encourage each other.  Yes, there are those classic back-stabbing moments that take place occasionally, but overall, the players work together to make the play work.  The price of a ticket doesn’t begin to compare with the personal toll of time and effort on the members of the cast and crew – the audience definitely gets the better end of that deal!

When I watch a musical performance, I realize that I am witnessing the result of many decisions, small and large, individual and corporate.  In group scenes, the cast members have all agreed together to move this way, occupy these positions, sing these notes and words, compose their faces in these expressions.  Whatever dramatic effect is achieved through these actions is oftentimes nowhere near as powerful as the drama that went on backstage in order to arrive at these results.  The main characters carry the weight of responsibility for the success or failure of the show, because those are the people that the audience will focus upon and remember.  It’s a very heavy burden.  All those people, from the director to the stagehands to the chorus members, depend upon the success of the principals.  Will they remember their lines?  Will their voices be healthy and strong?  Will they hit their marks and execute their assigned choreography?  If one of the principals is off, or hasn’t adequately prepared, it won’t really matter how well the rest of the company performs.  The audience will remember the gaffs and missed notes, and judge the whole show accordingly.  So the principals not only bear the weight of avoiding personal embarassment – they also must shoulder the burden of everyone else’s expectations. 

Outsiders look at the performers and assume that they’re in it for the glory.  That may sometimes be true, but I have found that, more often than not, the performers work so hard because they truly wish to share something transcendant with their audiences.  Their combined efforts culminate in a gift of profound beauty.  The audience sits in darkness, breathless with expectation.  The lights come up, the curtains part, and something almost mystical occurs.  The audience suspends their sense of disbelief, in other words, they willingly and gladly determine to believe that the set pieces and props constitute a real house or park or dressing room; they tell themselves that the door in the set leads to the outdoors (instead of backstage); they decide to accept the obviously young man who has gray hair and walks with a stoop as an old man.  That is their gift to the actors.  They also refrain from attempting to interact with the people on stage.  What I mean by that is that, when they see the bad guy creeping through the forest, they don’t shout out a warning to the helpless young maiden, even though they know that her life is in danger.  Instead, they hold their breath and wait for the awful moment when he pounces upon her and drags her away.  So they believe, and yet they don’t fully believe – a concept that is sometimes called the maintenance of aesthetic distance.  That is also a gift.  In exchange for their quiet acquiescence, the actors on stage give their best effort – they speak their lines, move in accordance with the reality of the narrative, and do their best to imbue their actions with emotional integrity and honesty, so that the audience’s belief is sustained. 

And that’s what brings me back to the theater, again and again.  It’s the wonderful mutual generosity of audience and performer, giving attention and performance and belief and authenticity, back and forth across the emotionally charged edge of the stage.  I always leave the theater enriched, having learned something about myself and others while at the same time being blessed with beautiful music, laughter, and diversion.  It’s a bargain I will most happily encounter again and again.