Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Riding contentedly up I-35 two weeks ago, my mind in neutral, I was startled to spot a sign on a small, "we’ve-all-seen-better-days" barber shop: "Easter Hair-A-Thon." That was a considerable bump in the road for my idling brain. What on earth could a "Hair-A-Thon" be? And the further possibilities of an Easter hair-a-thon flat-out stumped me. All the way home, visions flitted past the inward eye.

– Hair styled to replace the Easter bonnet: bouffant, expansive, perhaps with small pastel beads, suggesting eggs, hidden among the curls or dreadlocks?

–A 24-hour stylist’s special on Easter colorations? Lavender, pink, blue, green, and yellow featured, giving a rest to the much-used bottles of magenta, rust, and emergency-orange?

–A baby chick or bunny awarded to every child who submited to the shears? (Oh, please, let’s hope not. As a college sophomore, I once had (and carried out) the stunningly stupid idea of surprising each dorm-mate with a sweet little Easter chick, all fuzzy and new. It’s a miracle I lived to see Pentecost.)

–Easter-themed trims, the barber's version of topiary? A good full head of hair could be shaped by the barber’s wizardry to simulate a bunny, or at least an archetypal egg?

As we finished the drive, my companion (a recovering lawyer ), up till now silent through my fanciful musings, suggested dryly that perhaps Joe the Barber was simply offering to keep his little shop open later hours than usual through Holy Week so that all his hard-working customers could get properly spruced up for Easter Sunday.

Sigh. Fantacide, thy name is Reason.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


I have loved two opera divas in my life (plus a tenor, but that's for another day). Years ago, the soul-stirring voice of the mezzo-soprano Eileen Farrell enchanted me beyond the power of words to describe. I bought all her records, including two amazing blues albums, even wrote her a fan letter and received a kind response.
Have toted that letter and the heavy cartons of records across every known time zone and back again. Recently read her frank, wise-cracking autobiography and found her as down-to-earth as expected. (An unexpected bonus was the off-the-cuff admission that she was a dowser--had always been able to find water with a forked stick. How's that for down to earth?)

And last night, I had the good fortune of sitting in on a master class of my other operatic love, the General.

Mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, truly one of the grande dames of opera, has performed so many "trouser roles," in which a male part is traditionally sung
by a female, that she's been nicknamed "The General." When this little soldier learned that Horne was giving a master class down at OU in Norman, nothing could stop me from being among the troops--even though Mother Nature tried.

Maybe you've heard about Oklahoma storms? Then I won't bore you with details.

I actually drove to Norman through the howling, blinding downpour without incident, only to make every conceivable mistake trying to park VanGo in a multi-level garage. Went down the up ramp, then up the down ramp, tried to park in a slot that had obviously been downsized--I could have parked the car in the slot, actually; I just could not have then extracted myself from the van--and as a finale, I rode the elevator up and down several times, to the amusement of several giggling sophomores, only to find that it was not connected to the music center, only to the parking garage.

I was very early. The only other person in the hall was an odd-looking woman wearing a purple and green house dress, an orange bucket hat, and ten large
silver and onyx rings. (I counted them, having little else to do.) She occupied herself with a Bluetooth or a Blackberry or a Redbud--one of those. But from time to time, she glanced at me, and most likely made dubious conclusions about me, though I sported neither hat nor ring.

At 8 p.m., a man came out on the stage, studied his notes, and announced that Ms. Horne would be right with us, but had requested that everyone move to the front rows while we waited. Only then did he look up and realize that the hall was packed. "Oh! Never mind!" and he exited.

Then the General strode on, brisk as an Oklahoma wind, but full of sunshine and wisecracks. (She and Eileen Farrell had much in common besides their vocal range. ) She wore black slacks, a bright neon blouse, and sensible shoes. Smiling at us, she sat down at a folding table and waved on the first singer.

In a master class--at least in this one--each student gets to sing her aria through once, while the master teacher listens and jots notes on a pad. Then the master takes the aria apart, note by note and syllable by syllable. Two of the three women who sang last night were wrestling with German, and sometimes, German won. Frequently, the General would push her lips way out and insist, "EEWW! Eewww! Not "Oouu! " Then the student would sing the two bars over again. "Softer here, or you won't have enough breath!" "Louder--don't swallow that last word!" And the young soprano would try again. "Get the sound up in the mask!" Or "I want those notes in the chest!" "You're just singing words. Where's the emotion? You're dying to be this guy's hausfrau!"

Nor was the music all that received Ms. Horne's attention. To one statuesque blonde, she said, "Darling, you know I love you, but get your bangs off your face!
Try some hair spray. We need to see your eyes." And to another, demurely dressed in a snug black dress, but wearing very high heels with quarter-sized polka dots of yellow and red and green, she said, "My dear, without question we will award you the Shoe Prize, but don't those heels make your rear stick out?"

I agonized through the whole class. How could those young things stand up there before friends and family and strangers and have their performance dissected?
What if I had had an English major read an essay before the class and had then publicly picked apart rhetoric, coherence, and tone? Ah, but English majors don't generally perform in public, and these gifted musicians hope to do so for a living!

And clearly, having spent the previous two weeks working one-on-one with Ms. Horne, each soprano had fallen under the sway of her love for their common art and her affection for the student herself. Because both loves were obvious. The "General" was jolly, caring, congratulatory, and very, very demanding. And each singer ended her 3o minutes of fame with a warm embrace from a most gracious grande dame.

I drove home, not a drop of rain to be seen, surely the happiest monotone on I-35.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

So What Are You Reading These Days?

When people ask what I'm reading these days, I do a little sash-twisting, dig my toe into the carpet, stall a while with "Um-uh, umm, well. . . ." No, no, I'm not reading bodice-busters, nor confessionals such as, "Help, Dr. Phil: I'm In Love with My Alien Abductor!" But the last time I answered that question, the response was unfeigned repugnance; the attitude matched the way I felt when my father would offer me his favorite nosh, pickled pigs' feet.

Some background: in 1992, I spent a sabbatical year in Hungary, teaching literature at a college of unpronounceable name. I was something of a newspaper junkie then, and had assumed there would be at least one good English-language newspaper on the newsstands in Szombathely. Wrong. Result--I had serious newsprint withdrawal for some weeks. Finally, a faculty colleague took pity and began putting in my office mailbox her copy of the London Daily Telegraph. Ravenous, I devoured every page. And discovered a new delight. In a word, obituaries.

The obituary as a literary genre was born in England in the mid-1980's, but even now, twenty years later, many American newspapers are still woefully behind the times and simply don't run samples of what I'll call The New Obit. Some U. S. papers, yes, but most, no. That's why I'm blogging on the subject today.

What is the standard U.S. obituary like? "So-and-So died [met his maker, returned to Jesus, was reunited with both ex-wives and three girlsfriends, etc.] He was born here, went to school there, served in the military yonder, worked at these jobs, and is survived by the following."
The standard obit bears a strong resemblance to a book report by a kid who didn't read the book, just the Cliff Notes.

The New Obit celebrates the life of the subject. There may be two sentences dealing directly with death per se: "So-and-So, who has died age 96, was a wrestler whose profession was grappling but whose passion was collecting the Mottled Yellow Sumerian Butterfly in every corner of the globe. . . . He is survived by his wife Angela and three daughters. " The writer of a good obit expends effort and intelligence in finding out what the life in question was truly about, and puts that information together with humor, detail, honesty and respect.

Most news headlines in today's papers, on TV and on the Internet are depressing if not downright gruesome.Here are three I took this past week from AOL--these are word for word.

* "9-11 Remains Used to Pave Roads"
*"I Snorted My Father, Rocker Admits"
* "Housewife Convicted of Frying Husband"

By contrast, New Obits celebrate courageous, or outrageous, lives of the famous, the infamous, and the so-called ordinary. Try on some of these opening lines:

*"Canon Edwyn Young, who has died aged 74, was one of the Church of England's most colourful priests and claimed to be the first-ever chaplain to a strip-tease club, officiating at the Raymond Revuebar in Soho."

*"Nesta Cox, known as 'the Nanny of Nanteuil,' who died in Blois in France aged 92, was brought up to believe in the indestructibility of the British Empire, although in the event she herself proved the more indestructible."

*"Abe Coleman, a Polish-born professional wrestler promoted as the Hebrew Hercules and Jewish Tarzan and credited in the 1930s with popularizing the drop-kick move, likened to a flying kick to the jaw, died March 28 at Meadow Park nursing home in Queens, N.Y. He was 101."

* "Cockie Hoogterp, who has died aged 96, certainly added to the gaiety of nations and enriched the public stock of harmless pleasure. She was invariably witty in conversation, sometimes wickedly so, and given to impromptu practical jokes. . . ."

These days, I start off my mornings by browsing the New Obits in newspapers such as the Guardian, The Boston Globe, The New York Sun, and the San Francisco Chronicle. There are always a few good laughs to be found, often some tears at heroism and courage, and almost always an upbeat sense of astonishment and pride in the human spirit. I've not found a better corrective for the depressing, distressing stuff that the media serves up. In my own college days, I majored in journalism, and had as mentors two Pulitzer Prize winning newspapermen turned professors. I've always been glad that Madame Fate shepherded me down a different path, for journalism today is not so inspiring a career as it once was. But if I were to have a second go at it, I'd want to write the New Obits.

Far from being repugnant, New Obits are uplifting and celebratory. Not pigs' feet at all. If you want to read more about the New Obits, there's a great book by Marilyn Johnson, published by HarperCollins and titled--what else--The Dead Beat. And for a marvelous collection from Britain, try The Daily Telegraph Book of Obituaries: A Celebration of Eccentric Lives, edited by Hugh Massingberd and published by Macmillan.