Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The God of Bargains

The poster for PVHS's production of Amadeus, permission granted to re-publish this image.

Greetings All:

First, a bit of housekeeping:  This is one of (ahem) a "number" of blog posts in draft form that I intended to publish a while ago.  I started writing this over a month ago.  Needless to say, it has languished.  

Part of the reason is that I've undertaken a new professional pursuit and that has consumed a fair amount of my time.  I'll write about that subject later.  The other reason is that I am writing less than I did last year.  It is not that I am losing interest in this hobby.  I assure you, that is not the case.  If anything, I am making a concerted effort to be a bit more focused in my writing.  I'll leave it to you to decide how I'm doing.

So back to this post's topic.  Last month, we experienced a bit of culture on a Saturday.  After dinner at a nice Italian Restaurant, a few of us headed up to Pleasant Valley High School (PVHS) to watch the drama department's production of Peter Shaffer's play, Amadeus.   

Amadeus is one of my favorite plays.  When I was in high school, I did a dramatic interpretation scene from the play.  I did a bit of research and learned that in the original Broadway version Ian McKellen and Tim Curry as the lead roles.  Holy cow, Batman, Gandalf and Frank-N-Furter (Rocky Horror Picture Show) on the same stage.  Oh, and throw into the mix Jane Semour as, Constanze, Mozart's wife, what a cast.

I even succumbed to the rare impulse buy urge and bought the playbill from the show.  I was going to post a few photos but thought better of it as trying to claim "fair usage" is kind of like walking on early March ice.  You can do it, but you might get wet.

Around 1985, the play made it to the big screen.  It won a bunch of awards (deservedly so.  I have a link from YouTube below if you want to get a flavor of the movie...and the central part of the story.


As far as the PVHS production was concerned, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  While my oldest daughter was not in the show, she helped out behind the scenes with hair and make-up.  I thought this group of high school actors took on an incredibly challenging play and made it there own.  This show is not a laugh out loud slapstick comedy.  It is dark.

How dark you might ask?  Well, how about these elements:  Death, possibly murder, betrayal, jealousy, deceit, lust, adultery, and I am sure other vices I am missing.  I've got a couple of links below to the play if you'd like more information.

For the purposes of this post, here's the salient fact:  It is a story of rage, rage against God.

The play is set in the twilight of the Eighteenth Century.  Antonio Salieri is a composer and a pretty good one at that.  He tells the audience in one of many monologues how he pledges his loyalty and strict obedience to God in exchange for fame.  The line Salieri says that stuck with me throughout the show is when he referred to, "...the God of bargains."

I did not know one could cut a deal with God.  

So without giving away too terribly much of the story, Mozart shows up in Vienna full of talent.  Unfortunately, he was the "fill in the blank" hedonistic rock star of his time.  He was brilliant.  Everyone knew that...especially him.  And that hubris wore thin on a lot of folks, especially Salieri.  He is at first disgusted at how Mozart's talent was given so freely by God to such an ungrateful, obscene actor.  Then the disgust turns to rage when he sees to the full extent God's gift was given.

So much so that Salieri actually declares war on God.  He vows to destroy Mozart to "punish" God.  I know, it sounds crazy, but it's not.  In Salieri's twisted mind, it all makes perfect sense.  After all, God broke a bargain.  Now it was time for retribution.

What I find fascinating about this story is how well crafted it is.  Shaffer did his homework about this era and about the importance religion played at this time.  Issues such as redemption and damnation were front and center...along with all those glorious hymns.  

The tragedy for me with this show, aside from SPOILER ALERT Mozart's death is that Salieri also dies.  He rots away from the inside.  He's drinking toxic water.  The more he drinks, the more poison he takes in, with the thirst remaining.

I might be reading way too much into this story.  And it is, a story.
I have a link to a story from The Guardian that casts doubt on the premise that makes this play so good. 

So let's set aside Saleri's complicity in Mozart's death.  Let's instead look at the emotional suicide he commits not by his rage at God but for his his lack of gratitude for his own gifts and talents.  It was this lack of gratitude that was his undoing, not Mozart's.

Gratitude.  It's one of those words that we hear a lot but describing it can be a challenge.  Here's a definition from the web that works pretty well for me:

  1. the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.
  2. synonyms: gratefulness, thankfulness, thanks, appreciation;
Elie Wissel, the Nobel Laurette and Holocaust survivor wrote this gem:   "When I person does not have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity."  

Then there is this one from the Icon herself:

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.”
– Oprah Winfrey

So had Salieri been, as Shaffer muses, Mozart's murderer, he could have also been his savior.  He could have said to God, "I thought you had punished me.  I was wrong.  Mozart's music is a gift to the world and he is a gift to me.  I will not destroy him, shoving him in front of the speeding carriage of poverty.  I will pay for fire and food and light and hope.  I will not curse his talent, I will cherish it.  His success does not diminish mine.  If anything, he will inspire me to create even better music."
Had he done this, what other music would we have today?  Both that of Mozart's and Salieri's.  

If you're a person of faith, then you likely accept the premise God has given us all free will.  With free will comes both the right and obligation to yes, accept our circumstances as they are.  However, we also have the ability to be grateful for what we have.  In that gratitude, God has given us a truly rare and wonderful gift.

That might be the greatest bargain one could strike.  
Be well my friends,






Monday, March 23, 2015

Reflections on March Madness

A Basketball, photo courtesy of Peter Griffin, public domain, full online cite below in sources.

Greetings All:

For the past few days, the American sports world's center of gravity has been the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament.   This tournament has been dubbed, "March Madness."  The title comes from the flurry of games played, the last-second heroics, the upsets, the favorites who beat back a challenge from some upstart team and the length of it.  (It covers three weeks.)  It also is a source of profound interest for many.   There are those who love basketball and follow this tournament the way a commodities trader follows the fluctuations in wheat prices.  Even those who might only have a fleeting interest in the tournament get involved.

Largely driving this interest is the process of the tournament.  The seeding, or selecting of who plays who when and where, separates this sporting event from others.  This process is laid out in a bracket.  Everyone knows who is in the tourney, who's favored and by how much.  Everyone starts out at the same spot, a clean bracket and the chance to predict who will win it all. 

Millions of people will fill out brackets, trying to predict who will win.  One such prediction is listed below:

President Obama's picks for the 2015 NCAA Tournament.  Public domain claimed, full cite below.

Yup, that is POTUS' bracket.  His bracket is pretty much shot, as is mine.  I had our intrastate rival Iowa State making it all the way to the championship game.  I still have Wisconsin winning the whole thing, so I suppose there is some potential redemption for me.  Oh well, I cannot be too upset with myself as I took all of five minutes to make my picks.  I suspect there are other folks who (ahem) have a lot more time and emotion invested in this endeavor.

And this endeavor is not left at home or the sports bar.  Oh no, it finds its way into work.  I have a link to an article below that discusses the cost of March Madness to the workplace:  

"It is an annual tradition that has become woven into the fabric the American workplace and society at large. However, there is a cost in terms of lost wages paid to distracted and unproductive workers, and, this year, the cost could reach as high as $1.9 billion, according to calculations by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc."

Interestingly, this same source does not encourage employers to ban such activity, despite the cost.  John Challenger (of the company who is cited in this article, full internet citation below) argues:

“This tournament and the betting and bracket-building that come with it are ingrained in the national fabric. Trying to stop it would be like trying to stop a freight train. When even the president finds time to fill out a bracket, an employer would be hard pressed to come up with a legitimate reason to clamp down on March Madness activities,...”  

It is an annual tradition that has become woven into the fabric the American workplace and society at large. However, there is a cost in terms of lost wages paid to distracted and unproductive workers, and, this year, the cost could reach as high as $1.9 billion, according to calculations by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. - See more at: http://www.challengergray.com/press/press-releases/its-march-madness-years-madness-could-cost-19b#sthash.H9oMmbRC.dpuf
Then there is the pure "fandom" emotion that comes with this tournament.  I suspect there are alums from The University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) who are catching up after years of lost contact just to talk about their epic victory over Iowa State on Thursday.  On the other side of the emotional coin are the fans whose teams lost.  I saw a video clip of a member of the Villanova pep band crying as she played for the last time that year.  She surely thought there was at least one more road trip in her team's future.  Not this year.

It stinks when your team loses.  As I watched Iowa lose to a Gonzaga team last evening, I ended up cleaning our bedroom, just so I was not fully focused on the all-but-certain outcome.  I do not begrudge the 'Zaga fans or team for their celebration.  They are a great team and it is expected that they will win, perhaps even a trip to the promised land that is "The Final Four."  Still, it stung to watch my team be eliminated.  If you win, you go on.  If you lose, you go home.  Iowa's going home.  Still, I'm proud of the effort these young men and their coaching staff displayed this season.

And there's next season, there is always next season.  Well, for most of us at least.
the cost could reach as high as $1.9 billion, according to calculations by global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc. - See more at: http://www.challengergray.com/press/press-releases/its-march-madness-years-madness-could-cost-19b#sthash.H9oMmbRC.dpuf

On Friday, I found myself in the small Iowa town of Indianola.  It was a brief stop, so it was completely by chance I saw the sign below.  I happened to be pumping gas across from the park where this sign is located.

The memorial to the late Chris Street, Indianola, Iowa, photo by J. Berta

For those of you who do not know who Chris Street was, here is a brief background.  He was an incredibly talented basketball player who died tragically in a car accident 1993.  I have a couple of links to the story in the sources.  

His coach, Dr. Tom Davis, summed up Chris' passing and his legacy this way:  "Chris represented all that is good about the Midwest and the state of Iowa. He was open, caring, honest, loving and lived life to the fullest every day.”

It is photos like this that remind me that this tournament is, at the end of the day, a series of games.  While some teams are "one and done," the players will get to engage in other pursuits.  As much as I am saddened my beloved Iowa Hawkeyes are done this year, I know they will play again.  I just wish I could have seen Chris Street play again.  Sadly, that is not going to happen.

It kind of puts this subject into perspective, at least for me.
Be well my friends (and go Wisconsin!) 



Photo posted above, Peter Griffin, http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=63587&picture=basketball-cover








Sunday, March 15, 2015

Steps Taken

Greetings All:

I have been a bit AWOL from my blog over the last two weeks.  I have been taking classes at night for the last three weeks and have not had the motivation to publish any posts.  (I have several in the works, but nothing completed, until now.)

Yesterday was "The Grand Parade" in Davenport.  Like many cities, we have a St. Patrick's Day parade.  However, we are the only place that has a bi-state parade.  Thanks to our proximity to the Mississippi River and a robust group of Irish (and Irish for a day) residents of the cities that hug the river, we have a two-city, two-state parade.  (Although I live in Bettendorf now, Davenport is my hometown and for parade purposes, this parade belongs to all of us.)  I am particularly proud that our area came in third for American cities that celebrate St. Patrick's Day.  I think (bias acknowledged) we've earned this recognition.

St. Patrick's Day is a celebration of all things Irish.  The fact that it coincides with the arrival of spring makes it even better.  This is a fun event.  Lots of folks participate and from what I saw from my vantage point was a group of well-behaved folks.  (And yes, I did happen to see a one or maybe two people enjoying what might have been an adult beverage.)

It might be hard to believe that there was a time in this nation when being Irish was not something non-Irish would celebrate.  There was plenty of discrimination.  Some did not like the Irish for religious reasons.  Others viewed them as lazy or habitual drinkers.  Still others viewed their large families and larger clans as something to be feared.  The sign below is one that was sadly all too common at one time in our nation.  

A sign from the past, date late 19th/early 20th century, public domain

So as my youngest daughter and I watched the parade, I felt a surge of pride go through me when I saw so many people enjoying the day.  My daughter was more concerned with candy and beads.  Fair enough.  After all, she's only eight.  In time she will learn about her heritage inherited from me through my Mom, Catherine Bridget O'Neill Berta.  When she does, I hope she will think, at least briefly, of the statute in the picture opening this blog.

I was coming back from court the other day and I stopped to take a picture of it.  I have a link to the St. Patrick's Society's website that gives some history of it.  Here's what I see when I look it.

I see a family of Irish immigrants arriving in a new land.  A place of hope and promise, yet also one of struggle.  One where not everyone would be welcoming, more likely hostile.  I see a woman grieving for what was left behind.  I see a man determined to break free from the poverty, hunger, and near-slavery that was his life and that of his fathers.  I see a child, full of wonder at this new place.  If she only knew what hardships awaited.  

They, this family, are walking, moving forward, taking steps.  It was their courage to take these steps.  Steps that began with boarding a steerage ship (called coffin ships by some for those who died on a rough passage).  Steps that continued through Ellis Island or other points of entry.  Steps that brought them through their first winter and the snow that came with it.  Steps that caused them to climb high into the tenements where they lived, if you could call it that.  

They took other steps.  They stepped on ladders as flames singed their face as fire-fighters.  They stepped together first on a parade field and then on a battlefield as members of their adopted country's army.  They stepped across a platform to receive degrees as college graduates.  They stepped across the foyer of small homes bought with savings and paid for by countless hours worked in the factories and mills.  For about two centuries, they Irish came, and they kept stepping forward.

For many Irish the biggest step was when a man stepped forward to a microphone on a bitterly cold day, January 20, 1961, to be precise.  He was there to give a speech.  It was hailed as one of the greatest speeches in American history, remembered largely for these immortal words, "Ask not what your country can do for you.  Ask what you can do for your country."  That man was John F. Kennedy, American's first President of Irish decent.    How far had a people come.  How far indeed.

As the parade concluded on Saturday, I thought of all the people walking that day.  I cannot help but conclude that none of this would have been possible had simple, poor, brave, dignified, scared, hopeful, loving, angry, generous, brawling, artistic people had not taken their steps those many years ago.

A bheith go maith le mo chairde,