Quarantine Counselors in Residence

Pretty much everyone could use a personal therapist right about now.  The news is unsettling, quarantine is stressful, and people are anxious.  Read on to see what our Quarantine Counselors in Residence are able to provide.  Contact your closest Humane Society if you believe having a counselor in residence might be a good choice for you.

Meet Our Team

sophieSophie practices the feline method of therapy, specializing in early morning meditation with purring and gentle movement.  She also has an interest in lucid dreaming and hypnosis. She is a somatic practitioner, using a steady bilateral form of massage that often results in a trance-like state enabling the client to access the sub-conscious. Her area of research is how to achieve flow in everyday life, and she especially enjoys working with moms and helping them juggle various responsibilities in a healthy way.sophie fence

In the past year or so, Sophie has taken on the role of mentor to the youngest counselor in the group, teaching the feline approach to life in everything she does, which she views as carrying on the work of her own mentor, the famous Zen master known as Topaz. In her work as well as her personal life, she encourages people to look for and appreciate beauty and she has participated in the exploration of the emerging field of neuro-aesthetics.  Her quote to live by is from Harvard professor Dr. Nancy L Etcoff: “We are elevated and enriched by what is beautiful.”     

tuxTux also uses the feline method, but with a significantly different focus.  His specialty is evening relaxation purring, and the depth and quality of his sound therapy is well known in the field of brainwave entrainment.  He uses his signature purr to encourage release of tension and worry and bring about feelings of well-being.  This is especially important for dads who may struggle with work-life balance. Tux believes in fully savoring moments of relaxation.  He encourages his clients to enjoy small physical pleasures such as a fire and soft blanket on a chilly night or the exquisite sensation of sipping fine bourbon (within healthy limits!).  He advocates for expressing wants and needs without holding back.

Another passion for Tux is body positivity, which he promotes as a personal interest.  He strongly maintains that an active lifestyle is more important than a number on a scale and he encourages his clients to embrace their body type and celebrate their style, no matter how fancy or flamboyant.  His quote to live by, commonly attributed to Oscar Wilde, is: “Looking good isn’t self-importance; it’s self-respect.”20190428_110933

Oliver is the newest member of the group and brings a fresh perspective to the practice as he enjoys exploring a cross-disciplinary approach.  20191210_172508While he is originally trained in the canine method, he has recently begun incorporating aspects of feline therapy in several ways.  In his personal practice, he is especially interested in achieving the well known feline ease in overcoming shame and mastering self-compassion, although he considers himself a novice.

Oliver enjoys working with teenagers and making sure they receive the affirmation they need to develop a healthy self-concept.  20190216_134932As one of his teenage clients remarked, he makes people feel safe, as if they are in the presence of a very wise person. A strong proponent of the positive psychology movement, Oliver is in high demand because of his natural ability to express and convey joy to those around him. His primary philosophy, which is firmly grounded in his core canine training, is that human connections form the basis for a fulfilling life. He also believes in acknowledging and listening to instinct while also pursuing self-restraint. His quote to live by is very simple: “All you need is love.”

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Last Chapter for The Button Collector

My book is five years old now—a literary kindergartner!–but I still remember the day I got the news that a small press in Ohio wanted to publish it. Even though I’ve been a writer most of my life, publishing a novel was different.  The whole process was fresh and new.

button_final_1Fast forward to today: PageSpring Publishing—the small press that served as such an awesome midwife for The Button Collector–is following the path of many small presses and closing up shop.  It’s not exactly a surprise considering how giant publishing houses are merging to become mega-giant publishing houses, squeezing out small, creative presses in the process.

It’s not a surprise, but it is a disappointment.

I feel very fortunate that my book was in the right place at the right time to find a home with PageSpring instead of one of the other houses I had close-but-no-cigar moments with.  Few publishers would have commissioned 21 sketches of buttons so that the visual element of my book could become reality. Few publishers would have gone to such effort to commission amazing cover art by an amazing artist.  Few would have been so insightful in their advice about the structure and the title.  Few would have believed in me the way they did.  I’ll always be grateful to them for that.  sketch2sketch1

What all this means is that The Button Collector is going out of print.  If you would like a copy, it is available via Amazon through the end of the year.  If you want a signed copy, please send me an email or contact me via The Button Collector Facebook page and I’ll send you one of my stash.  They make great Christmas gifts!

Meanwhile, here are some random nuggets of wisdom from my adventures in publishing:

  • I’ve found that online data is addicting. Did you know that on Amazon, The Button Collector has 77 reviews, with an average of 4.1 stars?
  • On Goodreads, The Button Collector has 224 ratings with an average of 3.94 out of 5 and 48 text reviews and is on the to-read shelf of 1258 people! That’s pretty cool.
  • I’ve also found that some people are remarkably qualm-free about sharing their negative opinions online!! There was one review that called my pretty normal book “just weird.” They seem to have taken it down, but you can still read these choice nuggets!!!!  “This is easily one of the most boring books I have ever read.” “I haven’t finished the last chapters as it became tedious.” “My book club chose this book. … Written in too many voices and written by someone I am guessing is quite religious. Disappointing.”  (NB—I’m not that religious.)
  • On the other hand, the good reviews are the best ego boosts ever!!! I love their beautiful phrases: “…the overarching metaphor of the button jar is deftly used to illuminate the relationships between the women.” “My mom has been gone almost twenty-nine years and my wolves are not calm.” “I download dozens of books each week, skim the first pages, and set aside most of the books until I get to one that I can’t put down. The Button Collector is one of those that hooked me and kept me.”
  • In person feedback? Words can’t describe it. I feel so fortunate to have had the chance to connect with all these people who’ve read my book!
  • Because of my book, I’ve come to know other writers  and vicariously share their success. Amy Willoughby-Burle, who wrote a blurb for my book, has now been to New York and all sorts of big city places with her new novel The Lemonade Year. Brenda Sutton Rose—for whom I wrote a blurb—was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Ann Ross, my amazing in-town mentor, keeps adding to the canon of Miss Julia books.  And Katie Winkler—my comrade in arms since forever—keeps having her work published and performed all over the place and has launched a literary journal.
  • I realize that I’m not sad my book is going out of print. It makes it more distinct, like a limited edition.  I like to think it’s in the company of early Hogarth Press editions, in a modern, techie kind of way. I could use the e-files to self-publish, but I won’t. Maybe The Button Collector will itself become a collector’s item one day… that would be amazing.blurbs

So thanks for reading, thanks for the encouragement, thanks for going on this journey with me!  I am very superstitious and don’t talk about work in progress, but I am always writing in some way, even if it’s just corporate newsletters and blogs.  This space will evolve, but I’ll still be here with my random thoughts, so pop by once in a while.

Until then, support your local authors.  Keep reading.

(And in case you missed it, here is the link to Amazon again. Remember: Mom’s Christmas present….)

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Travel by Book (and Film!) 2018

Summer is here and once again my daughter and husband are on a big travel adventure.  And once again, I’m traveling too – by book. 

Last summer I visited Nigeria, England and Australia as I read books by Chimanmanda Ngozi Adichie, Rachel Kadish and Liane Moriarty. 

This summer I went to Hawaii for my book vacation. I learned about all sorts of foods and history and how the locals view the tourists, thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings’ richly crafted novel, The Descendants,. 



The Book



The Movie









But before I read the book, I watched the 2011 movie. I’m always intrigued to compare a book to its film version.  I’m not one of those people who simply say, “The book is better.” Often this is true, but I appreciate both written and filmed stories.  There are generally nuances and explorations and possibilities unique to each form. Last year, for example, I was fascinated to compare Moriarty’s Big Little Lies to the HBO version, which I had recently watched.  The contrast became a nice device to compare the way two cultures treat the same story–in this case Australian culture vs. US culture. 

The Descendants was different.  Several people had highly recommended the movie, which featured George Clooney and Shailene Woodley and which had won an Academy Award as well as two Golden Globes. It had been on my watchlist for years.  It is the story of Matt King, a Honolulu attorney who faces two pivotal and ultimately connected events in his life: a boating accident that has left his wife comatose and a legal decision about how to handle his extended family’s vast land legacy. 


My personal short take:  The movie was good but not quite great.  Its glimpses of what it is like to live in Hawaii were worth the viewing time on their own. The basic plot was intriguing.  It also captured that universal experience of family-ness–the familiarity, tenderness, irritation, comfort, etc, that is both unique to a particular family and completely common to all families.  There were moments of pure humor, sadness, and insight that I carried with me after it was over. 

On the flip side, there were a few moments where the acting of secondary characters was remarkably bad.  It also felt a little TOO true to life at times as everything was played completely straight and hands off. 

Most significantly, as with Big Little Lies, the film made me crave more of the story. When this happens, it’s such a happy feeling to be able to dive right into the book. And when I did, I had an interesting experience.  

“When you get right down to it, what fun is it to have a narrator if that narrator is completely reliable?”

On the surface, the movie and book version of The Descendants are quite similar.  There are no huge plot deviations.  Most of the characters are essentially the same. 

The surprise was that as the book progressed, I found the voice of Matt—the narrator–to be fundamentally and radically different from the movie’s narrator.  In both versions, Matt starts out rather complacent and unaware.  He then goes through a painful process of realizing the true nature of his wife and their family.  The difference is that the movie’s Matt is a steadfastly reliable narrator throughout.  The book’s narrator is not.  

I now believe that this is the reason the movie feels a little lackluster at times.  Because when you get right down to it, what fun is it to have a narrator if that narrator is completely reliable?   

SPOILER ALERT!!!!   The book version of Matt was especially intriguing to me because an unreliable narrator usually tells the story so that he or she appears better somehow—more courageous, more talented, more intelligent, less to blame.  The book version of Matt does the opposite.  He starts out desperately trying to take more responsibility than he should.  He spins the memories of his wife to her advantage: She wasn’t narcissistic; she was magnetic. She loved him even though she betrayed him cruelly.  She was a good mom.  Gradually, however, it becomes clear that Matt knows none of this is true. He is living a lie, but it happens in such a beautifully crafted way that the reader forgives him. Some of his realizations–such as the impact his wife has had on his daughters–is almost too much for the reader to bear, let alone Matt.     

The Matt of the movie makes peace with his wife’s death by realizing that he and his children will be okay despite everything that has happened.  The Matt of the book has a more difficult task.  It’s hard to admit that someone you love has used you and probably never valued you as a person at all.  It’s hard to admit that someone your children adore didn’t value them either.  It’s even harder when that person is injured and vulnerable when you realize the whole truth…and when despite it all, you still love him or her. 

It takes a book’s worth of sorting out, but in the end Matt recognizes that not only will his family be okay, they will be much better–much healthier and grounded and connected–because of everything that has happened.


With Big Little Lies, the differences between book and film were many and easy to spot.  With The Descendants, the differences were more subtle, but in some ways I found them more significant.  It made me wonder about the reason the film chose a different path. Was it too difficult to create the nuances of the book? Would there have been less commercial appeal?  Was the director’s personal interpretation of the story entirely different from mine?  

Questions such as these are why I love to compare books and movies.  I believe they enhance the story by offering two different lenses to look at the same thing.  This is why I am always looking for a good comparison.  If you have a favorite, please share!


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First Edition of Teach. Write. Receives Notice

Awesome news! I have three items in this great journal!

Hey, Mrs. Winkler!


The first edition of Teach. Write. is being featured on the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s Hat’s Off page. The North Carolina Writers’ Network is a wonderful support organization for North Carolina writers. If you live and write in North Carolina, please consider joining and supporting this fine organization. There are even some writers from other states who are members of NCWN. The conferences, residencies, workshops, communications and other services are invaluable ways for writers to meet and support one another.

If you would like to purchase a print copy of Teach. Write., then visit the journal’s page on Lulu.com. 

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“She’s the one that has told me NO!”

WARNING: I consider this a philosophical post, but many may view it as political.



I wonder how much crap Florence had to put up with …

I don’t know why, but the recent video of a Utah nurse being roughed up for not allowing a police officer to draw blood on an unconscious patient really captured my attention. I felt compelled to look at it in more depth and watched several long versions of the video as well as versions with closed captioning. As I did, I realized there is more going on here than a quick viewing can reveal.

A whole lot more.

Here’s a rundown of 7 things that I didn’t notice at first:

1. The police officer involved—Jeff Payne–is remarkably honest.

Right before he physically grabs the head nurse of the burn unit, he is asked:

“Why are you blaming the messenger, Sir?”

Payne replies without hesitation: “She’s the one that has told me NO.”

If it weren’t for the closed captioning, the importance of those words might have slipped by me.  It was seeing them spelled out that gave me a sick feeling in my stomach. Everything that happened on this video came down to one thing:  a woman telling a man NO.  A woman was telling Payne he couldn’t “do anything” he wanted.  He had to follow the rules.

2. Being told NO makes power-addicted people angry.

In the video, the nurse, Alex Wubbels repeatedly asks, “Why is he so angry?”  It’s kind of heart-breaking to hear her say this because it’s so obvious that she is sincere.  She cannot understand why a person would be angry with her for following the law.

The answer is easy, however.  Just SEE ABOVE: “She’s the one that has told me NO.”

How many women have sparked some primal anger because they told a powerful man NO?  How many minorities have risked abuse for the same?

3. There’s a fine line between Mansplaining and Gaslighting

It was bad enough watching Payne manhandle and handcuff Wubbels, but in a way it was even more disturbing to listen as another police officer performed a textbook demonstration of mansplaining that morphed into pure gaslighting.  I don’t know the name of this guy, but I sincerely hope he is the other officer in trouble.  He makes Kaa in the Jungle Book look like a straight shooter. gaslight_1944_trailer28429

He kneels down beside Wubbels as she sits handcuffed in a police car and uses an obnoxiously oily calm and measured voice to say that while he understands what she thinks she’s doing, in actuality she is obstructing “the law.” When that doesn’t work, he says that if what the police are requesting doesn’t turn out to be legal, it will still be okie dokie so she doesn’t need to worry her pretty little head.  (paraphrasing here)

Riiiggghhhtttt.  I’m guessing this guy didn’t know about the recording in progress.

Meanwhile, I am so impressed that Wubbels never wavered.

(Question:  Will someone please give me brownie points for not using the phrase Good Cop, Bad Cop?)

4. Body cams have their place.

Wubbels is a former Olympic athlete and she is T.O.U.G.H.  I never thought for one second that she would give in, but I suspect that if there were no witnesses or camera in the room, she might think about it.

For her own safety, I hope she would.

The scariest thing about the video is imagining what would have happened if there weren’t a recording or people to witness?

This blatant abuse happened in an open area with lots of people watching and a camera rolling.  Payne knew the camera was on because the officer wearing it oh-so-helpfully told him so early on: “Just so you know, I’m recording.”

If someone feels empowered to act this horrifically in those circumstances, what are they capable of in a dark alley with nobody around?

5. The good ole boy network is alive and well.

The short video barely touches on the reaction of the other security officers and police in the room.  The longer version tells a more complete story.  While a few of them have the decency to at least distance themselves, there are also conspiratorial whispers, smiles, knowing glances and other signals of a good ole boy network in action.  A few of the men make weak attempts to stop Payne, but none come close to stepping up to the plate.  It would seem that it’s easier to watch the head nurse of the burn unit at a major hospital get roughed up than it is to speak out with a strong voice.  I mean, God forbid that one of them got put in handcuffs or shoved in a police car like a nurse. Sure, that might make a statement, but how embarrassing!  

I keep wondering what would have to happen before these people finally worked up enough courage to step in?

6. Somebody needs to invent a training course on how NOT to say the words, “Calm Down.”

Maybe it’s just me, but it could be a good thing Wubbels had on hand cuffs when the man from hospital administration said, “Calm down, Alex.”

His advice itself was probably good since people have been shot dead for less, but he didn’t seem to grasp the unfairness of advising restraint. He seemed more irritated with her, in fact, than Payne. In my opinion, he was really quite TOO CALM (Yes, that’s a thing.  The British were wrong.).

I’d like to ask him what he would have done if he had been the person who had to hold the line.

7. There’s a big picture here.

Remember Wubbels’ bewildered question?

Why is he so angry?

I understand how she felt.  The past few months, I – along with most of the people I consider my peers –have felt equally stunned and perplexed. Watching the freaking KKK and neo-nazis climb out of the woodwork in an eruption of fury has been baffling.  We are saying some of the same things I heard Wubbels say:




Here’s my best guess:

For most of our recent history, overt bigots have been told NO when they tried to use privilege and power as a permission slip to trample the rights of others. That made them angry, but they had to hide the feeling. Now, they believe they have permission to revert to a past when they could “do anything.”  This is temporary and deep down they know it.  When someone pulls the curtain away to show the truth, they get really, really mad.

But no matter how angry they get, the world IS changing.  The arc of history will indeed bend toward justice.  It will require continued turmoil and diligence, but if we can physically survive, equality and inclusiveness will prevail.  The Klan rallies and violent misogyny we’re seeing now are the last gasp of a pathetic, fatally wounded behemoth lashing out at everything around it rather than accept that the old days when they had a monopoly on power are gone.

What happened in that hospital unit is not a Utah issue.  It’s not a hospital issue either.  It’s not even a police issue.

It’s a power issue.

As common sense dictates and multiple academic studies have shown, too much power degrades people’s behavior.  This is human nature.

Power is much like sun exposure.  Everyone needs enough.  Too much is harmful.  And some people are more susceptible than others to its bad effects.

Guidelines, rules and laws – these things are sunscreen.

Good leaders don’t hesitate to use them to protect others and themselves.

The ones who don’t will eventually get burned.

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A first for me–Poetry!

Here’s a run-down of my publishing creds:

  • Non-fiction: 99 percent
  • Fiction: 1 percent
  • Poetry: 0 percent

Until yesterday, that is.

Teach. Write. Fall 2017

Yesterday, I had my first poem published in the inaugural issue of Teach. Write.  This is a literary journal for teachers of writing, and, as you’ve probably already surmised since I am included, it is amazing.

It gets even better because I actually had two poems published.  The first is The Rule of Apostrophes, which resulted from my rather awkward attempts to explain what I thought was an easy grammar rule.  Somehow I was struck by the two contrasting functions of the Apostrophe and I wondered what this might mean in the cosmic scheme of things.  It’s an exploration!

My other poem is part of the journal’s ongoing Write Your Own series in which teachers write a piece based on a writing prompt they use with their students.  I wrote Sensing Blue, a poem cycle based on the prompt:

Describe a color without using the sense of sight.

I love that prompt, but I can’t claim it as my own.  I completely stole it from my writing friend, Melody Lindsey, who died unexpectedly a few years ago.

I have to say that as special as it is to have my first poetry published in the journal, it is even more special to have the privilege of writing a tribute to Melody as an introduction to the poem.

Teach. Write. is worth your time, especially if you are a teacher of writing.  You can read it online for free or buy your own print copy.



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Summer Reading

This summer, my husband took our daughter on a three-week adventure to Europe.  Before they left, I gave my daughter a bon voyage card that said:

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. 

Okay.  I didn’t come up with that, but I did add my own line:

Well, that and books. 

I believe this is true.  Travel allows a person to experience another culture up close and personal, but a book allows a person to experience another culture from the intimate perspective of the author. Both enable people to gain a fresh take on their own culture and their own life.


I read four books while my family was gone.  In a row.  Without taking a break between them. While my peeps were trying new cuisines, I was eating supper and reading at the same time.  If you’re a bookworm, you know this is Michelin Star territory.

And so, not to keep the joy to myself, I thought I would share my reviews while the books are fresh in my mind.

First up:  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:  4 out of 5 stars

I had seen a clip of Adichie speaking and moved her straight to the top of the list of authors I want to read.  (Check out her TED talk!) She is from Nigeria, so part of the attraction could be her amazing accent, but I also liked her nuanced description of her childhood and I wanted to get her perspective on the journey from Nigeria to the West and back again.



It was a good choice. I was spell bound by the characters most of the time and I felt they were sitting right beside me talking as I read. I was transported to their experiences in that magical way a good book can do. I identified with many of their experiences and felt what they were feeling acutely. I didn’t want the book to end. All these things are marks of a great book, a keeper if I’d bought it in paper form . … or maybe even a book that would make me go out and buy my own hard copy.

Still …. there were things that kept the book from quite reaching that level for me personally. Continue reading

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Give It Up for Community Colleges

Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week.

At least, I think it was last week.  I’m a little fuzzy on the details, which is why we may or may not have sent in our tokens a week early.  But at least they got there!

And it’s all good because those reminders about Teacher Appreciation Week did work on the most basic level:  they got me thinking about teachers.  I have many friends and family members who are teachers and I can say that without exception, they are caring, dedicated, talented, smart, organized and PATIENT people.  And while my kids may have had a less than perfect teacher here and there over the years, I’m generally in awe of what the vast majority of teachers do all day every day.

This year, Teacher Appreciation Week got me thinking specifically about the people who teach at community college.  I’ve had a chance to see what these guys do up close and personal because I sometimes teach an online class when there’s a need for an extra English instructor. This semester was one of those times.  I enjoy the class I teach and I think I do a decent job as a coach and mentor, but I know enough to realize that I’m a writer first and educator second.  I have the luxury of coming to the class fresh because it’s part-time and occasional for me.  They are there all day every day.


Can you feel the energy? Students and teachers check out ways to use technology in the classroom at Blue Ridge Community College.

I firmly believe that community college instructors embody the definition of the unsung hero.  They don’t get the Ivory Tower perks that four-year university professors enjoy.  They don’t get many  of those warm fuzzies that K-12 teachers get either.  Meanwhile, they work hard, sometimes teaching six college classes a semester.  They have students with vastly different abilities and backgrounds and somehow find a way to mentor them all.  They are nurturing to students who may be the first in their family to attend college and they are challenging to students who are preparing to enter a high-pressure career such as nursing.  They do it all.

I grew up in a traditional college town where the local community college didn’t enjoy a lot of esteem.  Since then, I’ve lived several places and I’ve found the attitude is pretty widespread.  The lack of appreciation is kind of shocking.

So I’d like to pose a question to all the people who aren’t in the community college fan club:  What would your town be like WITHOUT its community college?

I don’t like to think about it.  After all:

  • When my kids were in Youth Symphony, where did they practice every single week and perform several times a semester?
  • Where did they go on a field trip to see a full symphonic orchestra perform?
  • Where did my son spend multiple evenings a week learning physics and upper level math as part of the county robotics team?
  • Where have my husband and I gone to see live theatre classics and original avant-guard plays?
  • Where did my daughter perform with her non-profit ballet dance company?
  • Where did she and hundreds of other public school students showcase what they’re learning at a technology exposition?
  • As a first-time author, where was I able to participate in a book festival?
  • Where do people from all walks of life come together to celebrate unity on Martin Luther King Jr. Day?

This list could go on and on.  The waves of influence from Blue Ridge–our local community college– have touched thousands of people in a positive way.  A huge proportion of the artistic expression, open discourse and critical thinking that occurs in our community is facilitated and nurtured on its campus.  We are all richer because of it and we would be so much less without it.


It’s true that Blue Ridge is not Harvard.  It’s true that it offers open enrollment, that anyone with basic credentials can start the journey toward a college degree or certification or diploma.  Blue Ridge has no cut throat competition to get in.  The tuition is reasonable.  SATs aren’t required.

Here’s something else that’s true:  These things are the very same things that make it so awesome.

Community colleges offer a chance.  That doesn’t mean everyone will take the opportunity and score.  That doesn’t mean it’s the perfect fit for everyone.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t multiple uniquely difficult challenges on a community college campus.  But still … it offers a chance. 

In my mind, offering a chance is one of the best things any organization can do.

Over the last few months as I got to know my students I was struck once again by the depth of diversity at Blue Ridge.  I enjoyed the interactions in class.  I contributed by mentoring their academic progress, but they contributed by sharing perspectives I may never have experienced otherwise.


A few years ago I taught a very different type of class at Blue Ridge.  It was a continuing education class on blogging and one of my students was a former judge.  Talk about intimidating….

The former judge wrote a great post about the vast differences in privilege among institutions of higher education.  While some schools have mind-boggling endowments, others struggle with the bare minimum, if that.  Happily, a few people are starting to change the playing field.

I think the judge expressed it best, so I’d like to conclude with a link to her story about LaGuardia Community College and the Pushy Moms Club.

Food for thought.

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Another Surprise

After writing a novel based on the stories from discarded buttons, I’ve kind of developed a super power about finding buttons in surprising places.  Right now we’re in the midst of a house remodel and I’ve been looking at benches for flexible seating. I stumbled upon Iron Thread Designs, a furniture maker that uses buttons a lot and just developed a special Buttons with Benefits system .  It’s pretty cool–when you buy their starburst bench you get a set of interchangeable buttons to use as it suits your mood.  I think I must have this!


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Music Claims its Role in Manchester by the Sea

Most Critics Are Right about the Movie, but Wrong about the Music

I rarely watch a movie more than once, but Manchester by the Sea was an exception.

I saw it the Monday after Christmas with my husband and then went back on Wednesday to see it with a friend.  I don’t think I’ve had a cinematic experience that compares to it since Pan’s Labyrinth came out ten years ago.  And before that, the closest thing I remember was a documentary about the space shuttle that I saw at Marshall Space Flight Center just after the Challenger disaster.  These three films are nothing alike.  One is a dark, grown-up fairy tale, one an occasionally cheesy documentary and the third, a gut-wrenching drama.  But they all somehow sounded the depths for me in a spiritual sense.  For whatever reason, they struck a deep chord.  15203405_1399372940087331_180884748390306779_n

Manchester by the Sea debuted at Sundance and has enjoyed its share of accolades since then, so I’d listened to several interviews about it before I saw it.  I’ve also read a dozen or so reviews.

I noticed a definite theme: people tend to react strongly to the music. While Terry Gross of Fresh Air was intrigued by it and spent a lot of her interview with director Kenneth Lonergan talking about the music, many reviewers argued that it was a flaw in an otherwise masterful work of art.  They used different words, but the sentiment boiled down to something like this: “The music was too much.  I was distracted.  It didn’t fit.”

These reviewers irritated me.

A lot.

But it was all good because it made me think.  I personally found the music integral to the greatness of the movie.  How could I have such a different impression?  I had to sit with that conundrum for a while.

I came up with two ideas.

The Extra Beat

The first idea came from a moment when I was in college. I was an English major with a concentration in journalism, but I was definitely a literature nerd at heart.  So when a cocky, street-wise journalism professor somehow got on the subject of Shakespeare and announced that he’d found a “mistake” in Macbeth, I was suspicious.

“It shouldn’t be sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” he told us in his impromptu explication of the line.  “That messes up the rhythm. He shouldn’t have used “up.” Ha!  I found a mistake!”

That’s pretty much the only thing I remember about that guy because it took such a huge effort for me to keep from shouting at him—

Breaking. Meter. Is. The. Point.

Shakespeare broke meter—usually iambic pentameter–frequently and in different ways.  Why exactly did he use the offending “up” for this particular line?  To insert a note of dissonance? To emphasize the gravity of Macbeth’s deed?  To show things coming apart?

I’m sure there are myriad possibilities, but Shakespeare’s making a mistake isn’t one of them.

In Manchester By the Sea, the music is prominent from the very start. It is a little distracting.  It does call attention to itself.  It doesn’t always fit.

That’s not a mistake.  That’s the point.

Music as Subtext

Which brings me to the second, more complex idea.  This one comes from when my kids were little and had a lot of picture books.  (And by a lot, I mean at least 53,000).  I loved reading those books to my kids. There was one book I remember in particular called The Bear Under the Stairs.  887561It was about a little boy who is terrified of grizzly bears and becomes convinced there is one living under the stairs.  Of course, when he confronts his fear he learns the bear is actually an old rug draped over a broken chair and his mom gets him a teddy bear and he no longer fears bears.

Sweet, tidy story, huh?

Meanwhile the awesome pictures in the book create a subtext of their own and tell a quite different story.  Looking closely, the reader can see a bear hiding in the margins of the story, having his way around the house, drawing cartoon pictures of the protagonist, making breakfast.  It’s difficult to name the exact theme of the visual story, but often the pictures directly contradict the words, usually in a funny way.  At the end of the book, the pictures show the bear hiding just out of sight as William and his mom invade the place under the stairs.  Then he packs his bag and leaves, heading for another child’s house, in bittersweet Mary Poppins fashion.

The rather sophisticated interaction between the verbal story and the visual story is what makes me remember this particular picture book years after my children have outgrown my lap.  The opposing stories could be used to highlight all sorts of philosophical thoughts about reality and imagination, but the main thing I’m left with after all these years is a sense of tenderness.  That time of one’s life when it is completely possible for a grizzly bear to share one’s home passes quickly.  The infinite potential disappears.  The bear moves on.

The music in Manchester by the Sea created a subtext as well.  Like the subtext of The Bear Under the Stairs, the musical theme’s narrative wasn’t always clear, but it added to the overall complexity and meaning of the movie. manchester_poster

The movie opens with ethereal choral music accompanying scenes of a fishing boat passing the islands of Massachusetts Bay.  The acapella music demands attention, recalling Gregorian chant as well as creating a sense of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag and Salem and everything else the Massachusetts coast evokes in our American mythology.  In Manchester by the Sea, the raw beauty of New England is almost a character in its own right, and the choral music plays a major role in creating it.

At another point in the movie, Ella Fitzgerald’s I’m Beginning to See the Light is also unusually prominent, this time with a decidedly Disney-like feeling of hopefulness.  It’s a great song and the characters’ happy moment has been hard-won.  At the same time, surely every viewer is aware that this is no Disney movie, so there’s a slight sense of dread undercutting the happiness.  The masterfulness of the scene is that it truly is hopeful and yet we can’t forget the darker foundation below it.

In the end, though, the most incredible aspect of the music is how it distills the message that this is a decidedly spiritual film. It may seem ironic to use the word “spiritual” about a movie created by an atheist, but that’s the descriptor that I wholeheartedly choose. And, in the end, it’s probably not that ironic after all.  Perhaps it is only someone who is not bound by a certain tradition of what the word “spiritual” means who can get the closest to its essence.

Lonergan creates a spiritual tone by allowing sacred music—especially beloved pieces from The Messiah—to completely take over key moments in the movie.

Similarly, during the most climactic scene of all, an iconic string and organ piece is used to relentlessly emphasize the enormity of what is happening.  I recognized this piece immediately although I didn’t know its name at the time.  It is Adagio in G minor by Albinoni, a neo-baroque composition with a story of its own.  What I find interesting about the Adagio is that it’s been used in all sorts of ways—in parody, melodrama, rock, and somewhat famously in a popular video game.  It’s pervaded our culture, high and low, serious and comedic. The Messiah has also been adapted quite creatively over the years—just ask a seventh grader for their rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus.

Does pervasiveness lessen music or enhance it?  What does baroque music mean today?  What does sacred music mean?  What does sacred mean at all?  Can the sacred co-exist with humor or parody … can the sacred briefly align with a picture book or even a video game?

Echoes of the Familiar

I suspect that some of the qualms reviewers had with the music in Manchester by the Sea was that it was so extremely familiar, so deeply embedded in our collective memory.  I’m sure the director was acutely aware of how thoroughly our culture has been permeated by these pieces and yet he chose them anyway. I believe the people who said the music didn’t work for them were really saying that they noticed the music.  It wasn’t a subtle background piece.  It added something. It became something in itself, and that was a little uncomfortable.   A little disturbing.  It caused a flood of conflicting feelings and thoughts.

When I think of the two films I mentioned earlier — Pan’s Labyrinth and the space shuttle documentary whose name is lost to me — I see a core commonality despite their overwhelming superficial differences: both films created a vision of what it means to attempt the heroic.  And a hero’s journey is ultimately not a physical journey but a spiritual one. In Pan’s Labyrinth, the  journey takes an archetypal form. In the space shuttle film, it was natural to make the hero connection because I saw it shortly after the Challenger explosion.



Photo: NASA

What is singular about Manchester by the Sea is that it is a film about ordinary people in sometimes prosaic and even comedic situations.  And at the same time, it is obvious that what these people are attempting  is just as heroic as descending into the underworld or exploring the high untrespassed.

In certain situations, not giving up is heroic.  It’s more heroic, perhaps, than anything.

The music in Manchester by the Sea highlights this point.  Even when everything falls apart and life is tedious and people are dropping f-bombs left and right and a person’s heart is broken … even then, people can be heroes because they just keep trying and doing their best.

And somewhere on a plane of existence we aren’t usually aware of, music is playing.


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