“. . . does its beauteous ray aught of joy or hope foretell . . .”

"pop" goes the drag show!

“pop” goes the drag show!

Imagine this (bet you can’t). Approaching midnight, December 31, 1958 (or -7 or -9). A half dozen middle-aged Baptist Republican men in Western Nebraska wearing “work casual” clothes (dress slacks, long sleeve shirts—it’s cold in Nebraska on New Year’s Eve), dress shoes (the only kind they had), a couple of them with neckties. Sitting in a circle, some crossing their legs in that “womanly” way (as if wearing a tight skirt), a couple of them wearing fashionable ladies’ hats, all of them wearing “pop beads” and earrings, one of them in high heels.

The YMCA community all-purpose room (down on the last street before the river—where it still is). Probably sixty people in the audience, and the men reading from a script pretending to be their wives.

How do I remember this so clearly? My first drag show, of course.

Except these men were not bending genders. They were definitely having a good joke at the expense of their wives.

The Baptist celebration of Christmas in Western Nebraska in the ‘50s was a fairly low-key proposition—at least for the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff. We apparently had no Christmas Eve or Christmas Day services (unless those days fell on Sunday) because our family was free to run off to Kansas City to spend Christmas with grandparents (both maternal and paternal) and aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m grateful for that. My siblings and I have a store of memories (both happy and unhappy) we otherwise would have missed. We knew our extended family largely because of Christmas. My Texas cousins and I have a history going back to our grandparents’ home in Kansas City more than sixty years ago. Their parents and mine, besides the fact that their mother and our father were siblings, had more in common than my parents had with perhaps anyone else. Both our fathers were Baptist pastors, for starters. I have written many times of the influence my Aunt Doris hadon my musical life.

Drag, anyone?

Drag, anyone?

It seems to me the celebration of New Year’s Eve was in some ways more important to the community of the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff than Christmas was. I remember a couple of “Christmas Cantatas” the choir sang—but on the Sunday before Christmas. I also remember the year my father was roundly criticized for his Sunday-before-Christmas sermon on the Magnificat because it was too close to Catholic Mariolatry (never mind that it was a straight-forward exegesis of Luke 1:46-55).

By New Year’s Eve everyone in the Baptist church was home from the holidays with their families, and shopping was over, and we kids were about to go back to school. I remember the New Year’s celebrations, probably because it was the only night of the year we were allowed to stay up until midnight (which became less of a struggle as the years went on).

Besides the seminal event (as in “having possibilities of future development” –not a bad pun) of the drag show, I have a more significant memory of those New Year’s celebrations. They were called “Watch Night” parties and usually ended with a communion service at midnight. We always sang the Lowell Mason hymn tune “Watchman,” with John Bowring’s words, “Watchman, Tell Us of the Night.” Always on New Year’s Eve.

Lowell Mason (1792 – 1872) was the “father of American public school music,” appointed music superintendent of the Boston Public Schools in 1838, the first such appointment in the country. He was a composer of great repute until the sophistication of American music in the 20th century pushed aside music in his style. The premier setting of this Mason tune is the first movement of the Charles Ives Fourth Symphony. (Mason was, not coincidentally, a great friend and professional partner with Henry Kemble Oliver, who also taught public school music, and is the subject of my PhD dissertation.)

How a real man sits

How a real man sits

As might be expected, I came to associate Bowring’s words with Advent as I grew into the tradition of the “liturgical” churches. But, as with much of the music I [we] know, I [we] have important associations with the time and place we first heard it.

Indeed. Watchman. Tell us. Tell us the signs of promise. Strange to think how much of my life was prefigured in that one New Year’s Eve celebration. Or was it Advent and I didn’t know? Even though the specific beliefs expressed in the hymn have become foreign to me, I understand the hope that morning seems to dawn and that doubt and terror will be withdrawn.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
What its signs of promise are.
Traveler, o’er yon mountain’s height,
See that glory beaming star.
Watchman, does its beauteous ray
Aught of joy or hope foretell?
Traveler, yes—it brings the day,
Promised day of Israel.

Watchman, tell us of the night;
Higher yet that star ascends.
Traveler, blessedness and light,
Peace and truth its course portends.
Watchman, will its beams alone
Gild the spot that gave them birth?
Traveler, ages are its own;
See, it bursts o’er all the earth.

Watchman, tell us of the night,
For the morning seems to dawn.
Traveler, darkness takes its flight,
Doubt and terror are withdrawn.
Watchman, let thy wanderings cease;
Hie thee to thy quiet home.
Traveler, lo! the Prince of Peace,
Lo! the Son of God is come!

N.C. Wyeth and I cry at TV commercials (and Youtubes of cats or marriage proposals)

wyeth_1886_1936_cokeIt’s amazing to me that, in an age when critics and intellectuals who pontificate about art** seem to say that our post-post-modern society can’t comprise sentimentality much less empathy, we are bombarded with images on our electronic devices that are designed to elicit sentiment, or sympathy, if not empathy.  [**See truncated list below of articles I’ve read recently.] 

Say you see a lost dog who needs some TLC. Take a picture with your iPhone and put it on Facebook with a caption about loving animals. Want to make a spectacle of your proposal of marriage to your partner? Get your friends to learn a dance and show up at Home Depot and pop the question as the finale of a musical production. Then put it on Youtube.

And then there are the TV commercials that go right for the ventricles. Some of them are so emotional (sympathetic, empathetic) that I can’t figure out what their message is. You know, ads like these:

http://unrealitymag.com/index.php/2010/02/11/eight-surprisingly-touching-commercials/

I’m mystified that when everything is frenetic and images on screens move as fast as possible, with overwhelming color and fantastical shapes, and with background music so pulsating and loud as to be basically noise pollution, some companies still use commercials that attempt to draw people in, to invite emotional reactions, to induce (or seduce) one to pay attention.

I’ve always cried at commercials, that is, at those designed to pull at our heartstrings and arouse so much empathy that we don’t even notice we’ve succumbed to an ad for Pantene (see the link above).

Remember the phone company commercials several years ago with dad and mom or granddad and grandmom talking to the family scion off at college somewhere and everyone misty-eyed with the pleasure of hearing each other’s voices? Well, they were clumsy experiments at inducing sentiment alongside the tear-jerker Extra Gum has recently produced!

I have become more susceptible to such emotionalism as I have aged. I think, however, it is not simply emotions that get to me. I think—I hope—I have become more empathetic as the years wear on. My capacity for empathy grows as I become more and more aware of the reality of the end of my life. And this awareness allows me to be aware of the realities of others’ lives. (That, of course, may be self-delusion because I may simply be a sentimental old fool.)

OK. I’m not trying to be scholarly here (I don’t know how). I just think this is interesting.

Do you "feel with" Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

Do you “feel with” Anthony McQueen at Neiman Marcus?

“Empathy” is an English 1909 translation of the German word Einfühlung by the psychologist , Edward Titchener. It’s interesting because he translated the German syllable for “one” [ein] as if it were the Greek “em” that means “with.” In other words, “empathy” is “feeling with.”  Carolyn Burdett details this history as well as the use of the word by the British writer Vernon Lee (1856-1935) who

explains this awareness [of feeling “with” someone] as “the essential nature of all sympathetic movement because it grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. That liveliness is founded on the fact that the states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing “are our own states” (1).

We are able to feel “with” someone only as we are aware of our own feelings.

I repeat Lee’s assertion that empathy

grasps the fundamental fact that our pleasure in an object or another person is animated and lively. . . [because]  states we perceive as qualities of another person or thing ‘are our own states. . . that is to say, the attribution of our [feelings to another] is accompanied by satisfaction or dissatisfaction because it takes place in ourselves.

We are pleased or displeased by feeling “with” someone else because we intuit that the feelings are the same as are our own. And we respond to art (TV commercials?) because it somehow embodies our feelings “with.”

That may seem obvious. But it isn’t.

Art critics and historians are (at any rate they used to be) disdainful of paintings by such people as N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945) because, it was said, they were mere illustrations of sentimentality. Illustrations made for profit. So Wyeth paints a picture of an old man with his granddaughter sharing a Coke. We respond to it because we have the “feeling” ourselves of the warmth, security, love—whatever it is—of that kind of sharing. Does the fact that Wyeth painted it for money, to advertise Coke, diminish our empathy?

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those "feel with" artists.

Maxfield Parrish. Another one of those “feel with” artists.

Nope.

Everything else in our society is for sale, so why not our feelings.

Oh, harsh. No it’s not. Let’s be real.

If Johann Sebastian Bach had not been employed to make music that advertised Lutheran theology every Sunday, the history of Western music would be far different than it is. If Franz Josef Haydn had not needed to make a living, our symphony orchestras would have 106 fewer works to play. It seems to me it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a work of art was at its inception (of course I know there are exceptions). What matters is that it captures something of our “feeling with” someone else.

The “feeling with” is what’s important. Empathy may be the most important of human experiences. When you get as old as I am, perhaps you’ll understand. And cry at even more commercials.
______________
(1) Burdett, Carolyn. “Is Empathy the End of Sentimentality?” Journal of Victorian Culture 16.2 (August 2011), 259-24.

THE TRUNCATED LIST OF ARTICLES I’VE READ RECENTLY. (You don’t have to have empathy with me about them.)

Kaufmann, David. “Archie Rand’s ‘The Eighteen and Postmodern (Mis)Recognition’.” Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 21.2 (2003): 120.
Mason, Julia. “Light for Light’s Sake: Thomas Kinkade and the Meaning of Style.” Journal of Popular Culture 45.4 (2012): 807-827.
Roberts, John. “Art and Its Negations.” Third Text 24.3 (2010): 289-303.
Robinson, Emily. “Touching the Void: Affective History and the Impossible.” Rethinking History 14.4 (2010): 503-520.
Townsend, Christopher. “The Future of Futurism.” Art Monthly 329 (2009): 5-8

You want your Jim Beam with Mahler or Mozart?

jimbeam RIf you ask me the name of the movie I saw most recently, I probably can’t tell you. I had to look up the title of Silver Linings Playbook just now even though it was my favorite movie last year.

I remember exactly four movies from high school days:

The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke
The Longest Day with cast of thousands
Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and (who else?) Richard Burton

and a fourth which I remember nothing about except the circumstances of seeing it. My friend David had a car and a brother who was 21. The car got us to the drive-in movie theater (remember those?), and the older brother provided the pint of Jim Beam.

David told me I wouldn’t like the taste, to drink it slowly and get used to it. He had one small circumspect paper cup full that lasted him through most of the movie (whatever it was), and I drank the rest of the bottle during the opening credits and was drunk through the movie (whatever it was). I decided on the first gulp that, however awful the taste, the warmth going down and the almost immediate mellowing of my mind were worth the unpleasantness.

Perhaps the reason I still find it wearying to watch a movie by myself is that I very early on learned that movies are social as well as aesthetic events.  The culmination of that reality was in 1972 when I was the volunteer manager for the McGovern presidential campaign in Ontario, California, with direction from a pro from Massachusetts. We had an evening off to see Harold and Maude at a theater in Yorba Linda. We had some brownies with “oregano” on the drive over and during the movie. We were feeling no stress of the campaign, and when the movie finished we played Frisbee on the wide front lawn of a house close to the theater, and I stumbled over the sign announcing it was the birthplace of Richard Nixon.

I suppose my feeling 40 years later that the real purpose of seeing a movie is to eat brownies and throw a Frisbee with good friends afterwards is some kind of arrested development, or—more likely—a sign that my decades of sobriety really are more fragile than I like to think.

This writing did not begin as a contemplation on drunkenness versus sobriety or on the potential foolishness of continuing to act when you are 68 the way you did when you were 28. I intended to think and write about the sort of stuff one remembers.

For example, cute young doctor Stephen Thornton who fixed my hip last week will be forever in my mind Anne Bancroft, The Miracle Worker. However, I was seeing her face in my mind’s eye and thinking about that stunning scene from that movie at the water pump with Patty Duke, and calling her Patricia Neal. No one, of course, was getting my joke.

This is not (at least entirely) a function of incipient old age. I’d remember Bambi Meets Godzilla even if I hadn’t run into my high school

Mahler in Omaha.

Mahler in Omaha.

friend Harold Schneider in lobby of the Westwood Theater, but I don’t have a clue what the movie was I’d driven all that way to see (the Bambi film was a cartoon before feature as was the custom when I was a kid). I remember vaguely seeing a Julie Andrews movie on a New Year’s Eve because I remember driving home on the deserted San Bernardino Freeway at midnight with Bob and Nancy Walker (midnight on New Year’s Eve may be one of the safest times of the year to be on the highway—you’ll have the road to yourself). And so on for my entire movie-going life.

I would be surprised if I could quote one line of one movie. I have friends who can quote movies they saw 30 years ago–as well as 30 days ago.

It can’t be either lack of intelligence (well it might be) or getting old. I think it’s more a matter of paying attention. What I remember must be a function of what I pay attention to. Want to know a great experience of a symphony? Blanche Thebom singing the Mahler Kindertotenlieder with the Omaha Symphony in 1962 at the Concert Hall of the Joslyn Art Museum (where I also saw my first El Greco painting, “St. Francis in Prayer”). Another ? The Kansas City Symphony playing the Beethoven Fifth at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in 1965.  Another? The Boston Symphony playing Olivier Messiaen’s Trois petites liturgies de la présence divine in 1972 with Messiaen himself conducting. The most recent? The Dallas Symphony Playing the Brahms First this past season.

I can sing themes from each of those (not to brag, but themes other  than the famous ones)—perhaps not the Messiaen.  I not only remember that concert vividly, but I was ecstatic that I had a conversation about playing the Ondes Martenot  with Jeanne Loriod, Messiaen’s sister-in-law and the premier virtuoso on that instrument, who played that night.

OK? I can remember some things. Not a single line from Victor Victoria or Mame, but themes from quite a few symphonies. A bird, a plane, a Mozart, anyone?

Miracles happen every day.

Miracles happen every day.