hamilton-01-800On the train to New York, woods, towns, water are all a blur. I am listening to the Hamilton soundtrack – we are going to see it tonight. It’s very difficult not to rock out to the music, even though I’m in the quiet car. Every so often, I start a little rhythmic shoulder-rolling or head-bobbing because I can’t help myself. I remember once when I was a teenager, my mom danced up the aisle at a movie theater. “Omigod, mom, please stop before I die,” I inwardly cringed. But John, seated with me as I pop and sway, seems nonplussed.

Listening to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s soundtrack (it’s not the first time; the girls are OBSESSED), I am awed, entertained, educated, thrilled. I think of Horace’s Ars Poetica, which I read as a college English major: the aim of poetry is to instruct and delight. By that standard, “Hamilton” is clearly poetry. You get it all: revolutionary war history, monetary policy, political philosophy, lessons on love and fatherhood, obsession and loss. All packaged in stick-with-you melodies, kickass raps, and sick beats that I dare you not to groove to, even though you’re on the Amtrak and there’s a tired-looking executive across the aisle giving you funny looks.

And did I mention that this amazing concoction of music, poetry, and history is also a moving piece of social commentary about insiders and outsiders, performed by a rainbow cast of predominantly brown actors who represent the America we have become, a country of immigrants, a kaleidoscope of races and creeds that within forty years (and perhaps sooner) is projected to see whites outnumbered by people of color? “Immigrants,” proclaims Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton. “They get the job done.” It’s thrilling because it’s so true to our evolution.

Speaking of evolution, we live in a time of great scientific genius, with groundbreaking discoveries coming at a breakneck pace, whether in sequencing genomes or detecting gravitational waves. While I’m awed by the extravagance of our human intelligence in these advances, they do not move me as does “Hamilton,” a Billy Collins poem, a day at the museum, or even Lady Gaga singing “Til it Happens to You” at the Oscars. I feel cracked open by Art, as if I have a small flock of doves in my chest; their beating wings make me breathless, a pain rises in my throat and my eyes sting. I’m embarrassed when this happens to me, as if it’s a flaw in my character that I am so affected by the soaring vision of a creative imagination.

When we were visiting colleges with Mia this past year, it was all STEM, STEM, STEM. Every tour guide, every brochure and website seemed primarily devoted to sciences and tech. And why shouldn’t they be, since these fields offer the best job prospects for a generation of debt-laden graduates? Yet I am proud that Mia wants to embrace the “Arts” in “Liberal Arts,” as did Nate (an English major) and Lucy (a Drama major). These studies help us understand our humanity in ways that writing code or performing lab research do not. Through the arts, we plumb the depths of our hearts, our souls, our society.   Will engineering driverless cars deepen our sense of purpose and vitality?  They may move us around, they may even move us forward, but will they move us?



Super Tuesday

Election-Day1My friend Lisa arrived at the nine a.m. class this morning fresh from voting. “I did something I’ve never done before in my life,” she announced, one eyebrow cocked naughtily. “I voted in the Republican primary. My little stake in the ground for sanity,” she said.   She voted for John Kasich. More accurately, she voted against the Donald. In Massachusetts, “un-enrolled” independent voters like Lisa (and me) get to choose which party’s primary to vote in, on the spot. Some diehard Democrats even changed their party affiliation to un-enrolled just so they could cast a vote against Donald Trump.

Here in our nation’s birthplace, we are unapologetically progressive. But we are also sensible, pragmatic Yankees. We’ve elected any number of fine, moderate Republican governors: including our current governor, Charlie Baker, who has a statewide approval rating over 70% and is as practical and hard-working as his name suggests. So we’re not exclusively kneejerk liberal scum, is what I’m trying to say here. Yes, we gave you the Kennedys and Liz Warren (you’re welcome), but you may also thank us for Mitt Romney if you are  conservatively inclined. I’ll wager we are more capable of being fair and balanced than many states.

I was impressed that Lisa went for it and took the Republican ballot. Hamlet-like, I’ve been chewing on the question for a couple of weeks: Whether ‘tis nobler to suffer the cognitive dissonance of casting a vote for some Grumpy Old Patriarchy grouch, even if only as a protest vote against the Trumpeting tide; or to weigh in on the Democratic side, where I am reasonably confident my candidate of choice (I’m with her) will ultimately prevail.

In considering the possibility of being a Republican for a day, I’ve been paying closer attention to the GOP candidates’ visits here in Massachusetts.   I’m actually okay with this fellow John Kasich. I heard him interviewed yesterday by the local NPR station. He was thoughtful and unpretentious. The reporter asked if Mr. Kasich intends to go on the attack against Trump, playing the dependable labrador retriever to Rubio’s Jack Russell terrier-on-crack.   (In this analogy, Trump is a preening Afghan with flowing locks, and nose held high.)  Anyway, Governor Kasich responded to the question this way: “No. I am not interested in trading insults. At the end of the day, the ones I have to answer to, whether I win or lose, are the people who love and trust me, my friends and family. Will they say I conducted myself with integrity?”   I see why Lisa chose him for her protest vote.   If I have to be a Republican for a day, he’s my guy.

I love voting in the town where I live.  Lincoln, Massachusetts is wedged between her more famous neighbors, Lexington and Concord. Little known fact: Paul Revere was captured here. Half of Walden Pond (but not Thoreau’s cabin) is here, too. On the fourth of July, members of the local Minuteman militia don revolutionary garb and read the Declaration of Independence aloud, against a backdrop of stone walls and fields rolling away for acres. They fire their muskets in a volley of respect at the end of the reading. One year, the shots took an elderly lady by surprise, and she fainted and tipped off the stone wall she was sitting on, right into a lawn chair on the ground below.

We are a small town with a population of roughly six thousand. Since I’ve lived here for over twenty years, I know most of the people my age and older, and feel disconcerted not to recognize the young parents I see in the grocery market or post office. Our senior citizens’ community comprises folks who were social activists in the sixties and seventies. I’ve met people who marched on Selma, and some who picketed the Vietnam War. They may have protested against the government then, but now they are the backbone of the town, modeling engaged citizenship for the rest of us. They work the polls every election, Emily and Joanna, Barbara, Jeff, Sandy and Susie, to name a few.

The polls are set up in the elementary school. You walk past the kindergarten hallway and a first grade classroom to get to the polling place in the gym.  We have two precincts; I head straight for the welcome table for Precinct 1. Emily is working check-in today. She and her lovely husband Graham are members of our church, and in their retirement, they board dogs for a small circle of lucky friends and neighbors. I’ll be seeing her on Thursday when I drop Westley off at her house while John and I go to New York for a few nights. Emily is one-of-a-kind: vivacious, opinionated, sweet, and hilarious. I get to the front of the line and she checks the box next to my name with her red marker. The moment of decision has come for me. “Which ballot do we want, dearie,” she asks, her hand hovering meaningfully over the pile of ballots with red banners – ironically, these are the ballots for the Democratic ticket. “I’m thinking,” I tell her, as I consider the blue-labeled GOP ballot (who decided on this color coding, I wonder) with Kasich’s name on it. Emily raises a cautionary eyebrow, as if she knows that if I do this, if I vote as a Republican, even this once, even only in protest, some small part of me will wither and die.   I am aware that someone else is stepping up to the check-in desk, that we haven’t got all day.   “Democratic, I guess.” I am a little disappointed in myself. “Good girl!” says Emily briskly, like I’m one of her furry guests who’s just peed in the right part of the garden.

With my black Sharpie, I fill in the oval by Hillary Clinton’s name and I am unexpectedly filled with a rising sense of pride and hope, much as I felt when I voted for Barack Obama in the primary against Clinton, eight years ago. I just cast a vote for a woman for president, for the first time in my life. She has issues: she’s hawkish, she’s cozy with Wall Street, she’s status quo, she’s shady. But she’s also whip-smart, battle-tested and she works so damn hard. I identify with her path, the compromises she’s had to make, the scars in her psyche from bumping her head against the glass ceiling.  Like me, she’s probably sick-to-death of a parade of men who pass laws telling her what she can do with her body, while refusing to enact legislation that pays her equally for her work.

I cast my vote today in Lincoln, Massachusetts. I count myself lucky.

Day Twenty-Six: Imperfect

Today was a tough day. Nothing particular happened. Just everyone I encountered, everywhere, struggling. I had plans to write an uplifting “last call” post about how energizing and rewarding it’s been for me, taking on this goal of one post a day for a month. For now, I will simply say that I am so grateful to those of you have been reading along (hi, Mom!), who clicked a thumbs-up icon or sent me a note.   Thank you so much. Your encouragement buoyed me.

I wish I had more to offer in the way of pithy retrospection. But I’m played out tonight. So instead of blathering on about my blah day, I want to tell you about a concert I went to last night.

Broadway actress and singer Kelli O’Hara was in Cambridge for a night of song at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, a gorgeous and stately wood-paneled performance hall, built in 1870 and used for Harvard’s commencements up until the 1920’s. Ms. O’Hara recently won her first Tony for her performance in the revival of “The King and I.” The word on the street, according to my two daughters in-the-know, is that she should have won on any number of other occasions, and this time around, her peers simply refused to deny her again.

Lucy joined us from Tufts, as did Mia and her high school advisor, who is a chorus teacher and  avowed Kelli devotee. Before Ms. O’Hara took the stage, the producer came out to make the usual announcements: Thanks for coming, cell phones are bad (he said exactly that), we’re grateful to our sponsors. And then he said this, “Ms. O’Hara has been battling with laryngitis all week, and in fact, bowed out of two prior performances. But she loves Boston and really did not want to disappoint you all, so she’s up for it if you are.” Well, yeah.

Then out toddled Kelli O’Hara on three inch stiletto heels, a high-cheekboned, thirty-something, slim blonde with sparkling eyes and an irresistibly down to earth demeanor. “I’m glad he mentioned something to you before the show,” she told the audience. “I love to sing, and I really wanted to be here to do this concert for you. If we cantumblr_n6vfhe0ANn1qbvc3po2_250 all just accept that there are going to be a few surprises, I think it’ll go okay.” She then opened up those glorious pipes and delivered every kind of amazing artistry you could imagine: country, yodeling, Broadway, lyric, opera, and standards. Her rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Always” was lump-in-your-throat simple and sincere. She raised the roof with the signature title ballad from “A Light in the Piazza.” An opera major in university who had her premiere at the Met last year, she flawlessly navigated a hilarious country-opera hybrid (“it’s like Oprey, with an ‘A’”, she twanged in one lyric),  soaring from hillbilly into an aria of incredible texture and precision.  As the evening wore on, she started to run aground more often, her voice refusing to show up in a certain range, or sometimes (and I think this was maybe more disconcerting to her) croaking out before she could steer it back onto solid ground. She would acknowledge these glitches with a wry tilt of her head, without missing a beat. Even though she was only able to perform at a fraction of her usual capacity, it was more than enough. As John said in summary, “60% of Kelli O’Hara is like 5,000% of anybody else.”

How true.

Most thrilling about the evening was the intimacy Ms. O’Hara created by acknowledging her vulnerability.   She came right out and said it: “This could be rough at times. I’m not sure when I’m going to hit some turbulence. But I’m going to give it my best, so if you can tolerate the suspense, I will, too.” And then this consummate artist, one the best vocalists of her generation, a master technician with a voice that has more colors and tones than Disneyland, shared an evening of exquisite imperfection with us.  She told us about her commitment to her craft and the toll it sometimes exacts, she sang Sondheim’s “Finishing a Hat,” she guzzled tea and soldiered on. It was so much better than flawless.

A fun aside: I realized in reading the program that I went to college with her drummer, Gene Lewin. He was in the pit band of a musical theatre group I performed with. I went up after the concert to say hi, and he was as warm and witty now as the last time I saw him, when he still had hair, and I was still a brunette.

Time passes. We are imperfect.  Our bodies sometimes stumble.  We do our best, and hopefully, our work touches someone. Those are a few of the themes that writing my post-a-day-for-a-month has enlivened for me. I’m three posts short of my goal, but like Ms. O’Hara, I’m not going to let a little thing like imperfection stop me from doing what I love.

So I’ll see you again, sometime soon.