THE IMPORTANCE OF SMALL TOUCHES OVER TIME

From our perch today, it’s hard to believe that a Broadway musical like “South Pacific” could have been a bold statement on behalf of racial tolerance a half century ago.

I’m encouraged, of course, to see a Quaker connection.

First, even though the novelist James A. Michener, whose book was the basis of the show, had served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he was raised by a Quaker adoptive mother and attended Quaker-affiliated Swarthmore College. In other words, he had been exposed to both pacifist and racial equality values.

Second, as Vanity Fair writer Todd S. Purdom notes in “The Road to Bali-hai,” is that librettist Oscar Hammerstein’s wife’s niece Jennifer attended the George School, another Quaker institution, one where Michener also taught briefly. The Hammersteins’ own son Jimmy also went there, as did a young family friend named and future Broadway great Stephen Sondheim. (And to think how vigorously earlier Quakers denounced theater as vain entertainment!)

Purdom’s article contains another telling point. The hit song “I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” was originally a flop. In the preview performances before the Broadway opening, director and co-author Josh Logan was perplexed to see it wasn’t connecting until he realized that star Mary Martin had the women in the audience so abuzz about whether she was actually washing her hair onstage that nobody ever heard the lyrics themselves. He fixed that by having her belt out the first stanza before working her hair.

I wonder about how many other small changes in any art form spell the difference between boffo hit and mundane shelving.

A similar tweak in “Wonderful Guy” changed the song to a soliloquy with the word “you” substituted for “they.” As Logan recalled, “That night they tore the house apart.”

As I was saying about small changes or a simple touch? Never underestimate the importance of revisions in art. Or maybe life itself.

~*~

Michener, by the way, wrote of his experience on the Electoral College elections with the telling title on his political science volume, Presidential Lottery: The Reckless Gamble on Our Electoral System.

He was so prescient there.

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MAKING MUSIC TO WELCOME THE EQUINOX

Once again, I’ll be in the choir along the Charles River as part of a free concert to welcome the autumn equinox and to praise the extraordinary cleanup of the once noxious waterway on its way to Boston Harbor.

For its 15th annual RiverSing, Boston Revels is moving the family-friendly event upstream from Cambridge and into the Allston section of Boston on the other bank.

We’ll be performing on a Saturday night, rather than Sunday, and it is part of an ongoing series of performances the park hosts, so we’ll have more publicity support than usual for a one-off event in what’s otherwise simply a good place to sunbathe in season.

But the change also means we won’t have our usual gaudy parade down a congested street from Harvard Square to the makeshift stage beside the John W. Weeks Footbridge. That procession has always been glorious and joyfully chaotic, but greatly annoying to any number of drivers waiting to continue on the busy thoroughfare we were blocking. Not all of them are amused, believe me.

On the other hand, free parking won’t be scarce, either, and we’ll be on a permanent stage at the Herter Park amphitheater, which also includes seats for the audience rather than bring-your-own-chairs or blankets on the ground.

For me, it’s always been memorable. Imagine looking down from the back row and watching a pianist in the guest group with us and thinking, “He’s an incredible keyboardist” – and then hearing he plays in the Boston Pops Orchestra. Or singing behind Noel Paul Stuckey of Peter, Paul, and Mary. That’s even before the sunsets, which we get to see from the stage but are behind the audience. This year, it will be off to the side of everyone. Get the picture?

Join us tonight, if you can. For details, go to the Boston Revels website.

COMING OUT OF SEMI-SECLUSION AFTER BEING IMMERSED IN REVISIONS

Writers work in many different ways.

Some sit down and write two hours a day. When I read that in interviews, I used to think, “What slackers!” Only later, when I realized how much other work needs to be done to sustain that, did I revise my opinion. Research, reading, and correspondence are also crucial parts of the job. For many professional writers, you can add teaching to the list – it can be what really pays the bills.

Others charge up and then lock themselves away for an orgy of keyboarding. Say, two weeks to two months of doing nothing else. There are tales of some writers in the old days who would rent a hotel room for a week or so to do that – they must have had a very nice advance and known exactly what they were setting out to do, it seems too short a time for me these days.

When I was working full-time, my method was rather piecemeal. I’d plunge into writing heavily one day a week – it helped when my four-day workweek allowed me three days off in a row, though I paid for it with that double-shift each Saturday. The rest of the week I put in a couple of hours each day for keyboarding and the supporting labor.

That schedule, in fact, led me to concentrate on poetry much more than fiction, though the budding novels typically got their attention on my vacations and holidays. Looking back, it was a rather schizoid existence.

Since retiring, a major shift has happened, and I’m just now seeing its impact. I’ve been able to immerse myself in drafting and deeply revising a work, to live with it more thoroughly.

I’m going to blame Cassia, the voice of What’s Left. Working with her was unlike anything I’d attempted before. The focus shifted from her curiosity about her father’s past to a close examination of his photos and the family he discovered to, finally, Cassia herself and her siblings and close cousins – the Squad. The spotlight went from being on what happened to the individuals themselves. It was no longer action-driven but character-driven.

That, in turn, led to a similar reworking of my other novels, often with Cassia in effect sitting beside me. Again, unlike anything else I’d done before.

Doing this, though, has involved a lot of semi-seclusion. I’m definitely ready for a change.

NORMAL? YOU MEAN LIKE FITTING IN?

Though she’s grown up in an extended bohemian family, Cassia’s able to cope with being different from many of her classmates – up to the point her father vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe. The other kids have fathers – that’s normal, or so she thinks. And then, in a flash, she and her home aren’t normal.

To see just how atypical they are, check out my new novel, What’s Left.

~*~

I just couldn’t pour this down the drain. It needed to simmer much more:

Her father was also a dreamer – or at least an idealist – a dimension that often inhibited him from asking hard questions or anticipating a full range of obstacles in a course of action. And he had an innate aversion to conflict.

What Thea Nita has confirmed is that Baba carried a sense of not quite belonging in the consumer culture of America. He had rightly concluded the ultimate flatness of his birthplace had nothing to do with its landscape and everything to do with a wider loss of stimulation, imagination, and inventive discovery – all further inhibited by social conformity rather than any acceptance of eccentricity. He recognized the potential for more, much more – something he encountered first in science and the fine arts and later in direct spiritual experience.

~*~

And then there’s her mother’s side, where they live – where he, too, has chosen to place his life.

Reflecting on the emotional cost of an upbringing like that in my own life has me realizing just how debilitating it has been. Like him, I found ways to escape and still somehow “fit in.”

Let’s get back to the basics. Would you say you’re “normal”? What would you like to change about yourself or your situation?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)

TEN MINUSES FROM A SHORT SUMMER

Anyone else felt pretty AWOL all summer?

  1. My daily schedule’s been way out of whack: I’ve been awaking around 3 a.m. most days, doing a half-hour of Spanish study online, and launching into some compulsive writing and revision. That’s led to a deep afternoon nap, which makes sense on very hot days, but even so, my evenings are rarely in alignments with others’. It’s like I’ve become a hermit.
  2. I missed a whole week of July: Yes, when I sat down to write some checks and realized the next day I was a whole week behind, I was shocked. How’d that happen?
  3. I skipped a whole month in my journaling: That was the real shocker. Opening my journal in early August to catch up, I had to look twice to confirm that my last previous entry had been in mid-June. It’s not like nothing was happening in my life, either.
  4. Didn’t get to the marketing drive: From a practical point of view, the thing I should have been doing for the past nine months is pushing my new novel into readers’ awareness. Instead, I was compulsively revising and drafting new material while the inspiration was still percolating madly. (What would you do?)
  5. Block party nearly didn’t happen for the first time in 18 years: The neighbors behind us always have a boffo block party, and we’re included. This year, however, it almost never happened. First, the event got postponed from the usual time in late June or early July. Good reasons, I’d say – one family was off in Mexico, the grandparents’ of another family weren’t coming as usual, all but one of the kids who had grown up with the party were now off in college and the exception had a full slate of alternatives – that sort of thing. And then August got just as crazy. Somehow, on short notice, it happened on the penultimate Saturday of the month. Was there even a collector’s poster by the resident graphic designer? I was beginning to wonder if we’d be trying to catch up with it with their annual Soupa in November.
  6. No hiking in the mountains or swimming in the ocean: I mean, we’re so close, but now that I have the yearlong pass to the Dover indoor pool, I have less motivation to drive an hour or so away to hit the water or trails. Not if I’m engaged in other stuff, especially.
  7. We didn’t do much grilling: Summer typically means dining in what I’ve called our Smoking Garden, but I didn’t even get the strings of lights up overhead till early July rather than the beginning of May. When we have grilled, the food’s come indoors for the meal more often than stayed on the table outside. We’re not blaming all of it on the bugs, either.
  8. So much for getting together: Had hoped to spend some time with three guys, especially. It just didn’t happen. Mea culpa. They’re all fascinating. Part of it was that out-of-whack schedule.
  9. Too many weeds proliferated: Anyone else garden? Were they worse than usual this year?
  10. Lost some of my favorite lifeguards: Look, there’s no escaping the reality that America’s graying. Some days it seems like there’s no one under 40 about in the nation. One of my principal connections with living, breathing youth has been at the indoor pool, where I’m trusting my life to their abilities. Keeping them from getting bored on the job’s been a pleasant challenge, but now the majority of them have graduated from high school and are off to college. Premed or the like for most. Did I mention they’re smart, even when they try to pretend otherwise? Seems like we should have had a party, but I don’t think they even had one for themselves. Best wishes, all the same.

SUGGESTING A CREATIVE TENSION BETWEEN INSPIRATION AND TECHNIQUE

In another of the grandiose outbursts I surgically excised from the final version of my new novel, What’s Left, her uncle Dimitri and her father-to-be are engaged in a heated late-night debate.

While their dialogue springs out of a consideration of photography as a fine art, it could extended much broader – perhaps even onto the plates served in the family restaurant.

Here’s how it stood:
Any fine art of the future cannot be an end in itself. It must reflect a much more comprehensive spiritual current. It must instill an awareness of a community. You, of all people must have noticed the only thing the university can teach is technique. The profs can’t instill the leap of psychic thunder. They may encourage a few people to take up vital self-discipline and daily practice.

~*~

Surgically excised? Looks like I actually used one of Barney’s super-sharp chef knives!

The dynamic of formal teaching and learning ultimately fell outside the parameters of my new novel anyway. The important thing is that Cassia’s Baba finds a true home.

I’d say her uncle Barney, the chef, practices a fine art, in his own way, and he’s never attended college. He just has an active curiosity and a place to engage it. Maybe that’s why he and her Baba get along so easily.

Do you practice an art or a craft? Have you ever tried to define your “mission”? How do you explain your motivation or activity? Who gives you the most positive feedback?

~*~

This Victorian house, with its witch-hat tower and roof, was erected in Allentown, Pa., around 1891. It is shown here in 1926 during construction of the New Pergola Theater next door. The house was torn down in 1960, replaced by Van’s Diner, a glass and aluminum structure. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

In my novel, the family home could have looked like this.

BE AMONG THE FIRST TO GET MY NEWEST NOVEL

Join with me in celebrating the publication today of my newest novel, Daffodil Uprising, at Smashwords.com.

A thorough reworking of my 2013 release, Daffodil Sunrise, it’s a tale of radical awakening in the 1960s now told from his daughter Cassia’s perspective a generation later. Her voice is snarkier than his, for starters, and she’s more willing to view the events with more grit than he had in the previous version. Oh, yes, the characters are definitely more colorful, vivid, and varied. Besides, there are now strands of Goth and the paranormal. What else?

You’ll have to see for yourself.

Daffodil Uprising

The ebook is available in the digital format of your choice at Smashwords and other independent digital retailers.