Category Archives: Articles

Charles Dickens: “Mankind Was My Business”

Christmas Carol Cover

“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

—A Christmas Carol

In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story.  Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.

When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.

This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.

In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.

Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published 176 years ago today.

The Decline of Kindness, and the Social Costs of Selfishness

This is the saddest thing I’ve read today: “If you survey American parents about what they want for their kids, more than 90 percent say one of their top priorities is that their children be caring. This makes sense: Kindness and concern for others are held as moral virtues in nearly every society and every major religion. But when you ask children what their parents want for them, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.” So write Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant write in “Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids,” an article in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic.

If your kids don’t know that kindness is the most important quality of a human being, then you’ve failed as a parent. Prizing the attainment of admiration from others and believing in the innate primacy of your own happiness above the well-being of others leads to a deadening of empathy for and lack of awareness of the situations and needs of others. Devaluing kindness and decency and elevating selfishness and disconnection from others has brought the United States and the United Kingdom to their current damaged and dangerous states.

The Grants continue, “Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that kindness appears to be in decline. A rigorous analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy and in imagining the perspectives of others. Over this period, students grew less likely to feel concern for people less fortunate than themselves—and less bothered by seeing others treated unfairly.”

Self-absorption and lack of ability to imagine the challenges that others face are what have led to a growing unwillingness to honor and support the social contract. Greed and a growing disdain for “outsiders” has led to the driving down of rates of taxation and an unwillingness to support the maintenance of national infrastructure. After decades of prosperity and expansion made possible by higher tax rates for corporations and for the wealthiest citizens of the U.S., we are now seeing enormous income disparities not experienced by previous generations. We face major infrastructure failures in U.S. cities, as well as increasing annual costs to save people from death and destruction from climate-change-fueled natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires. The increase in me-first (and me-only) thinking has put all of us at greater economic, emotional and physical risk.

A lack of desire to put oneself in others’ shoes leads to wariness and a willingness to justify not only lack of concern but outright cruelty toward those who find themselves in different circumstances. That’s why we now have public schools actively shaming poor children whose parents can’t afford to pay school lunch bills, immigration authorities kidnapping babies and confining them in cages with no record of who or where their parents are, and thousands of other well-publicized examples of people being marginalized, demonized, even left to die with widespread social approval.

Interestingly, in studies of the countries rated as the happiest in the world, researchers find that the countries that rate highest in such metrics also have the world’s happiest immigrants. The positive and welcoming treatment of outsiders who enter into a society is strongly correlated not only with the immigrants’ happiness, but with the satisfaction, health, safety and economic prosperity of the society as a whole. Such societies view others not as outsiders with values deserving of disdain, but as valued new compatriots from whom they can learn and with whom they can find common ground.

The point of strength and influence is to extend one’s power to do good for the benefit of others as well as ourselves. The noblest goal is the use of one’s power (whether individual, corporate or national) to help others and lift them up, to give them reason for hope, to help them see that they and their needs are reflected in our eyes. Happily, following through on that lofty goal actually brings greater happiness, prosperity, and longevity over all on both a personal and society level. Such socially oriented thinking has been proven to increase happiness and satisfaction, and to raise the safety and prosperity of others within society. And that’s what life is about. The rest is just glitter and dust.

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash


I Don’t Care Much

[Originally published in February 2015.]

Recently I’ve been listening to a song that’s been around for a half-century but which was made fresh and new to me when I heard Alan Cumming sing it last June in the latest Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. It’s a jaded, cynical song sung by a character who pretends to feel no pain and who appears to be inured to the ugliness of the world. But the power of the performance comes from the realization that, while the prostitute singing the song may no longer seem to care what he (or she) has to do to get by, that purported apathy comes after years of suffering and having experienced so much pain and loss that no longer caring almost seems like a blessing:

I don’t care much
Go or stay
I don’t care very much
Either way
Hearts grow hard
On a windy street
Lips grow cold
With the rent to meet
So if you kiss me
If we touch
Warning’s fair
I don’t care very much

“I Don’t Care Much,” like other songs in that brilliant musical, underscores the desperation and fear that led people living in Berlin under Nazi rule to try to blot out reality with a bit of naughty pleasure, and sometimes to lose their hearts (and maybe souls) to apathy or pretense in order to try to imagine away evils that they couldn’t bear to fight or even face.

When performed in the 1993, 1998 and 2014-15 Sam Mendes-directed Broadway productions of Cabaret, the song is sung with great bravado by an actor in drag. When I sit down to sing it at the piano, I like to do it more  quietly, with restraint and softness, to underscore the fact that the singer may no longer feel so much, but she or he recognizes the tragedy in the loss of caring. The person telling the story may not feel whole and complete anymore, but he does remember that once there was a heart beating within him that could care. There is still a soul within that registers the loss. I can never be a person who does not care much, so when I sing the song, I must be a person who pretends not to care.

After singing the song so much this week, I got to thinking about some of the classic popular songs I love that are sung by or about prostitutes. It seems an odd theme for a pop song, I know, but really, aren’t a vast number of popular songs about lost love and the pain that comes from longing? Think about how many songs are about people’s desperate search for an escape from loneliness, or about the bliss that comes from feeling a deep and true connection to another person after a tormented period of hopelessness. People often think of prostitutes as dirty, dangerous and jaded, but their profession exists to offer the promise of pleasure and escape from the pain of the world. Their job is to sell a bit of themselves for a little while to people who are desperate to connect, to feel something deep and real, to feel cared for and soothed and satisfied for a sliver of time before they go back out into the freezing night, rushing to their homes, hoping to avoid being seen by those who would crush and destroy them for having the audacity to believe in whatever pleasure and happiness they can find (or pretend to find) in a dark and dirty world.

Guilt, shame and social ostracism are braided into the fiber of their lives; they exist to provide comfort and to satisfy elemental longings, but they are despised and punished for providing services that are both desperately sought after and deeply reviled. Theirs is a jaded, bitter corner of the world of longing and desire, and that is what makes their songs and stories so dramatic and powerful a counterpoint to the light and airy songs we usually associate with love. Drama comes from contrasts. In order for the spotlight to shimmer brightly, it must be surrounded by dark shadows to set it off.

I first saw the film version of the musical Cabaret when I was just nine. My outgoing mother liked to take me along with her as often as possible when she socialized, so despite the adult nature of the film, she and a friend brought me along to see Cabaret. I dutifully covered my ears and closed my eyes on command whenever Mom turned to me and whispered “PG! PG!” or “Parental guidance time!” The whole film was infused with a bawdy, mysterious sexuality far beyond my understanding, but it was compelling and fascinating enough that I enjoyed every lurid, intoxicating moment of it. It cleverly incorporated stories within stories, and it was full of great Bob Fosse dance numbers and catchy, seemingly lighthearted nightclub songs that were invested with deeper, uglier meanings. The songs reflected and expanded on the stories of the main characters and had scary parallels to the Nazi-inflicted horrors going on in the streets of Berlin just outside the doors of the cabaret.

The story is essentially about the unwillingness of many Germans (and many foreigners then living in Berlin) to acknowledge the growing danger of Hitler’s leadership in the early 1930s, and about the political apathy and, ultimately, the fear that fueled German society’s acceptance of inhumanity and depravity. The musical play, which is based on John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book of stories called Goodbye to Berlin, is about the sickness that grows in a culture and in the hearts of its citizens when they refuse to see what is going on around them and refuse to look after each other out of fear for their own welfare. The musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb are perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1930s Berlin, and are gems in and of themselves. They also expand on, deepen and enrich the power of the story in ways that few composers for musical theater ever achieve.

The team of Kander and Ebb had a wonderful knack for drinking in the style and feel of the music of the past and then creating their own versions of those songs so that they felt completely authentic but were also entirely original. John Kander has said that when he was preparing to compose the music for plays like Chicago (which takes place in the 1920s) or Cabaret (which is set in the 1930s), he liked to immerse himself in the music of the time and listen to it so fully, deeply and constantly that it filled his brain. He then put it aside completely for a while and let it marinate and stew, and then when he began to write, the influences and motifs of that time period would wend their ways into his songs naturally, so he could compose comfortably in a fashion that had gone out of style forty years before. He was so masterful at it that a number of his songs, which seem so appropriate in the context of their original plays, went on to be popular standards that can stand on their own—songs like “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” Wilkommen,” “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz.”

The song “I Don’t Care Much” was written for the original Broadway production of Cabaret, but it was cut from the film version. I saw a stage production of the show featuring Joel Grey (the Tony- and Oscar-winning original Emcee) over 25 years ago, but the song never stuck with me until I saw Alan Cumming sing it last June in full drag in the astounding revival of Cabaret that is currently finishing up its run at Studio 54. When he stood at the microphone in his shimmering dress and heavy makeup, he was mesmerizing. Previous Sam Mendes-directed revivals of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming were staged in London in 1993 and in New York in 1998;  the video above was excerpted from the 1993 production. Mendes’s dark, lurid style of staging the show works splendidly to underscore the tatty, raw, dangerous quality of life lived by those who spent their time in Berlin’s dark underbelly during the 1930s. The costumes are ripped, the makeup is smeared, the voices are gritty and the desperate quality of the characters is more evident and affecting than in the prettier, cleaner film version and earlier stage productions.

Alan Cumming said in his excellent interview with Terry Gross on her NPR radio show “Fresh Air” that he came up with a back story for his Emcee character in which he started off as a young male prostitute and worked his way into the cabaret life, so as a former rent-boy he has no fancy graces, and no desire to hide his voracious sexual appetites or comfort with the seedier side of life. In earlier productions of the show, Joel Grey held every eye and commanded attention with his strange, sexless, voyeuristic portrayal of the Emcee: he was an outsider laughing and smirking at the performers and the audience in a detached, amoral way. Alan Cumming’s version is immersed in the world of the cabaret, reveling in it, tainted by it, and ravaged by sex and drugs and decadence. The outsider Emcee of Joel Grey acted like a Greek chorus, pointing us at the depths of degradation others went to to shield their eyes from the ugliness of the outside world. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is drenched in underworld decadence and is ultimately pulled down and destroyed by it, as are all the others who could not escape from the decadent, dangerous world they were trapped in.

Cumming stands at the microphone in the dark and sings the song of a weary, degraded prostitute stripped of feeling by a sick and dangerous world, no longer caring what he must do to make enough money to eat or pay the rent or buy a coat thick enough to keep out winter’s chill. At first, as he stands in a dress and full makeup, the audience sometimes laughs at his outlandishness, thinking this is just another lark, a humorous way to remind us of the fluid and open sexuality of decadent pre-World-War-II Berliners. But in short order, his rough voice tells us that his kisses mean nothing. His comforts can be bought as a way to keep shoes on his feet and food in his stomach, but they mean little more to him:

Words sound false
When your coat’s too thin
Feet don’t waltz
When the roof caves in
So if you kiss me
If we touch
Warning’s fair
I don’t care very much

Another beautiful song about streetwalkers is Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” which was considered bordering on scandalous when it was introduced in the musical The New Yorkers, which opened on Broadway in 1930. There are many fine versions of this song; the Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday versions are classics. My own favorite is the simple version recorded by Elvis Costello with nothing more than an acoustic guitar early in his career. The song is sung to passersby as a come-on, much as flower sellers or strawberry sellers used to hawk their wares:

Love for sale,
Appetizing young love for sale.
Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled,
Love that’s only slightly soiled,
Love for sale.
Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who’s prepared to pay the price,
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale.

The song was banned from the radio in the 1930s, but it became a hit for multiple artists in the following two years nonetheless, and it has been recorded by scores of major singers in the decades since. Even k.d. lang and Fine Young Cannibals put their stamp on the song. The faded, jaded quality deepens as the song progresses:

Let the poets pipe of love
in their childish way,
I know every type of love
Better far than they.
If you want the thrill of love,
I’ve been through the mill of love;
Old love, new love
Every love but true love.

During her 2011 tour, Broadway star Idina Menzel sang the song as a bored-sounding, lite-jazz mashup with another prostitution-related song, “Roxanne,” by The Police. Most of us know the driving, original version of the plaintive call by a lover to his streetwalker sweetheart to give up her career to be with him and him alone. However, my favorite version is a gorgeous, stripped down solo version sung by Sting in the filmed version of the 1981 Amnesty International benefit concert called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. In it, Sting, accompanied only but his own spare, loose guitar playing, wails with so much more hopeless yearning than in the original song. His pain is greater, and his angst is so thick it hangs in the air and echoes along with his desperate voice. The performance is a tour de force that still gives me chills.

Elvis Costello is not the only musician in his family who can sing despairingly of the shattered dreams and desperate acts of those who walk the streets for money. His wife, jazz pianist and chanteuse Diana Krall, does a stunning version of the 1933 hit song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” No, not the song by  Green Day—I mean the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic that starts like this:

I walk along the street of sorrow
The boulevard of broken dreams
Where gigolo and gigolette
Can take a kiss without regret
So they forget their broken dreams
You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow
When you behold your shattered schemes
Gigolo and gigolette
Wake up to find their eyes are wet
With tears that tell of broken dreams

Gigolos and gigolettes were considered just one step, if that, from prostitution. A gigolo is, by definition, a man who seeks the company and monetary support of wealthy people (usually women) who pay him for his charms. The term came about in the 1920s as a back-formation from the term “gigolette,” which then referred to a woman hired to be a dancing partner (and sometimes something more). This song is often sung with swelling passion and force, such as in the 1952 version by Tony Bennett, but I think the slow, melting version sung by crackle-voiced alto Diana Krall is the most haunting version of them all. Its restraint is more inviting and much sexier than the bolder, brighter Tony Bennett version. As famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee said, always leave your audience wanting more.

Many of the richest, deepest songs about love are the ones based on loss and longing. If you find yourself feeling scarred or let down by life and love, know this: you are not alone, and the pain of lost love will heal. Acts of loving kindness set in motion by good-hearted people reverberate through time; they are carried in the hearts of the people whom we touch with our love and our music long after we ourselves are gone.

Hatred of “The Other”—Our New Plague

Ireland’s Great Potato Famine

[Originally published in July 2018]
During Ireland’s Great Potato Famine of 1845-52, one out of every eight people in Ireland died of starvation or disease. The famine resulted in more than a million deaths. Because potatoes were the nation’s staple food, untold numbers were reduced to eating grass or nothing at all when every year’s potato crops failed. Those who ate the rotted potatoes pulled from the ground became ill. And yet, British landlords made peasant farmers gather their wheat crops and send them to Britain while the Irish became walking skeletons, or ceased to walk at all.

Many who could gather together enough money to leave came to America, resulting in nearly a million poor Irish immigrants arriving on American shores during the famine years alone. These huge masses of desperate, often uneducated Irish made up the first large migration of poverty-stricken people to the U.S. This caused an upswelling of nativist hatred, bigotry and violence toward the Irish that took decades to abate.

Back in Ireland, British landlords evicted the starving Irish farmers and sharecroppers from their modest huts and houses when they couldn’t supply the promised number of bushels of produce from blighted land. Landlords kicked starving children, disabled elderly people and everyone in between out of their homes. They took every grain away from dying Irish babies and threw families out into the harsh elements, where hundreds of thousands of children died.
 
Why? Because rich landowners convinced themselves that vulnerable people were worthless people, that affluence is next to godliness, that some people are just born dirty and disgusting and disposable.
 
We have recently seen men kidnap tiny victims of war, call their parents murderers and rapists, and send them back to the countries that killed their family members and threatened their lives. Powerful Americans prey on victims of war, legal asylum seekers. Poor, battered, sick and exhausted people offer themselves up to our mercy, thinking the great and powerful United States will keep them from dying. They think we will shelter them from the gangs that torture and murder their loved ones in their home countries. They hope to get jobs and work hard and have a chance to be safe and stop their nightmares. Because they thought we meant it when we said that our nation reveres liberty and justice for all.
 
Treating the Irish like nonentities was made easier by the prevalence of stereotypes of the Irish people as stupid, lazy, filthy, obscene, drunken, vulgar and subhuman. They were said not to care about their children the way good Christian English people did, not to mind eating rot, to be too drunk to be aware of their misery, to be innately drawn to sin. Many English (and Americans) were taught that the Irish had earned their state because they were depraved and unloved by God. Their Catholicism was considered vulgar, and was held up as one more reason to despise them. This anti-Irish sentiment followed the Irish to America, so even though many found opportunity here, acceptance was hard-won.
 
Now we hear so many of those same epithets and slanderous words flung at Mexicans and Central Americans and South Americans who are struggling just to stay alive. The Irish immigrants who flocked to American in the 1840s and 1850s would certainly recognize the degrading and dehumanizing words that spill out of our president’s mouth, and the rough and degrading treatment given to those who drag themselves here asking only to be given a chance to stay alive. 
 
This is how evil spreads—by determining that those who suffer must deserve their suffering, and that those in hard circumstances don’t feel or care or love as much as the affluent do. By turning away from our responsibility to help the most vulnerable among us, we stomp out compassion. By labeling the destitute and distraught as vermin, as innately criminal, as dirty, dangerous and bad for society, we propagate the rot.
 
We are spreading a new plague. We are setting our own destruction in motion.
 
Many currently in power preach that the poor are bad and undeserving, and that the foreign-born poor are even more depraved—dangerous, too. This is one of the roots of evil—this determination of the worth of human beings based on homelands or ethnicity.
 
For a few decades, we seemed to have gotten better about this. Most in the U.S. who still held filthy, bigoted thoughts (and there were many) knew to hide them in public. But the demons of prejudice and hate walk more openly among us now. They continue to spread the lies that some people are innately unworthy of concern, of help, even of life.
 
Why don’t we learn?

We Are Already at War

Russia is developing smart rockets that could send nuclear warheads to the U.S. and kill 250,000 people at a go. Recent reports say that Putin already has the ability to shut down parts of our power grid. We now have evidence that Russia infiltrated U.S. voting machines in 2016.  The U.S. just withdrew from a major nuclear treaty with Russia, and Putin has used extensive social media posts and ads to groom the U.S. to be as unprepared as possible for further Russian attack and infiltration. He’s trying to foment a civil war here by backing white supremacists and the NRA and polarizing Americans

Russia is already at war with us. And our Republican leadership is actively aiding the enemy

We are woefully unprepared for what is coming. Fear has led too many to support a sociopathic authoritarian president who purposely confuses and stokes mass hatred. Our system was not built for a mass breakdown in faith or for takeover by a party that actively subverts the rule of law. I often fear that we may not rally enough to recover, short of civil war and invasion by foreign oppressors that might inspire us to fight back. But the invasion is underway, and all we have to show in response is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi biding her time and Democratic candidates saying nice words while the president and his cronies dismantle our nation. 

Those who run this country in our names make sure that children are left abandoned in the streets or tortured in cages, ripped away from parents, forced to live in filth, then made to disappear. National agricultural research labs were slated to be dismantled this week as a large swath of the country’s top agricultural scientists were forced from their U.S.D.A. jobs; their experiments and studies will be left to rot. All of Alaska’s sea ice disappeared this week, yet Trump continues to press for more fracking and coal mining. Trump writes love letters to murdering dictators and alienates all of our major allies. He fires heads of major government agencies and never replaces them in a dictatorial move to centralize all power under himself. 

What will it take for us to see what the world sees: We have a reckless madman at the helm who is actively destroying our nation’s morals and infrastructure. He is spitting on the Constitution, on the values of equality and respect for diversity that we hold dear, and on everyone who has sacrificed to build this nation, safeguard it, and uphold its laws and ideals. 

Our country is convulsing, and we wring our hands but deny it the care it needs to survive. We are in an undeclared state of emergency. We must remove Trump from power as fast as is constitutionally possible. We will still have divisiveness and hatred and homegrown terrorism to deal with—we will not be out of the woods. But stopping this madman is a necessary first step.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler says an impeachment investigation is underway. Please let your senators and House representatives know that you support this effort. Please speak out against the evil done in your name. Please vote against the terrorist-in-chief and his enablers.

Laughing with Dr. King

MLK laughs
MLK laughing with Malcolm X, Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis, Jr., Coretta Scott King and others.

We often see photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looking serious, dignified, even dour. But he was a man who loved to laugh and who had great joy in his heart. His short, determined life involved constantly facing down injustice and living with fear and struggle, sure—but he loved laughter and fun, good food and good music as much as anyone. He was a real, flesh and blood human being, not a stoic saint immune to the pain and difficulty around him. And I think that makes his devotion, determination and persistence all the more extraordinary, don’t you?

Happy MLK Day, everyone.

Hamilton: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Miracle

It’s true: Hamilton totally earns the hype. My sweetheart treated me to a touring company performance of the musical here in Boston last night, and it was the first time either of us had seen it. What a tour de force!

It’s a constantly moving, singing, dancing, quite literally spinning masterpiece of intricate physical, vocal and emotional involvement among cast, crew, musicians, choreographers, set designers and visionaries. Everything is held aloft by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s brilliant rhythm, rhyme, and lyrical passion and inspired by Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow’s erudition.

It starts with a pow and never slows down, and turntables within turntables spin against each other to allow for even more movement and multiple simultaneous stories to play out before your eyes.

There is very little spoken dialog separating the musical numbers—it’s a constantly flowing, beautifully paced river of rhythm, full of emotion yet always supported by a framework of fact, a propulsive political urgency and this historical imperative: Make this moment count. Make your vision real. Fight for what matters. Keep on trying. You can rest another day—acknowledge your power to make a difference right now and turn that potential power into positive action. It’s honest, with no holds barred: thrilling, merciful, inspiring.

Families Belong Together—Help Them to Reunite

Yesterday Boston was 90 degrees and the air was thick with humidity. This crowd-hating introvert was deeply sleep-deprived and had a long list of chores to accomplish. I dreaded the idea of  rallying and marching in that heat with a bunch of strangers for hours. But none of that mattered as much as the fact that my federal government is kidnapping children and torturing families, and I had a chance to register outrage and encourage others to notice and react to the evil being done in our names.

Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions are waging war on vulnerable families who have lost everything. These families have dragged themselves to our doors begging for asylum, the most urgent and elemental assistance that a noncitizen can ask for. The U.S. is using terrorist tactics against children to destroy families who have marched through Hell, and is doing it as a political ploy. This is so shocking, so evil, so much like the Hitlerian tactics of World War II that I am left dumbstruck and sick to know that monsters are terrorizing babies in my name.

The people who come to our borders asking for asylum have lost friends and family members to gangs or war at home. They’ve given up their whole lives and made their dangerous, difficult ways across hundreds, even thousands of miles to pull themselves to our border crossings. All they ask is to keep themselves and their children from being murdered in their home countries. They seek refuge from violence and terror, and a chance to live and work and contribute to a society that doesn’t treat them like insects to be maligned, crushed and destroyed. Their children have already seen and experienced terrors I cannot even imagine; they are fragile, vulnerable, sick and exhausted.

And now Trump and Sessions are quite literally ripping nursing babies from mothers’ breasts, telling parents their babies are being taken away to be bathed (which is just what Nazis told Jews as they were about to be lethally gassed in concentration camps) and then sending the most vulnerable people in the world far away to live with strangers—all while failing to keep track of the locations of the parents or their children.

My government is caging children like animals, giving some of them sheets of Mylar instead of soft blankets and instructing them to lie on floors instead of beds, the cries of other children ringing in their ears as they try to sleep in their cages surrounded by strangers.

Those guarding the children are told not to hug them. At least one recording was made and played on MSNBC of a woman warning children in Spanish not to talk to those who visit the camps (including reporters) about what happened to them, implying that they  might not be reunited if the children speak the truth to reporters or doctors.

Children have been seen changing babies’ diapers at detention centers. Reports say that some children are being drugged.  Central and South American refugees and migrants are raped at very high rates, so chances are great that some of these children were assaulted or knew of (or witnessed) their mothers’ assaults during their escape from their home countries. Stories circulate of children being abused and assaulted at detention centers. Imagine the horror of being stripped naked, washed and examined by strangers after being taken from your family. Think of the terror of knowing that your parents cannot protect you after you’ve seen what happens to vulnerable people. And think of how many kids are being denied necessary medical care because their medical histories are unknown.

This is kidnapping. This is torture. And Trump and Sessions are engaging in this terrorism in our name.

Those who don’t care about the lives of these children and their families should turn their selfish, contemptuous, compassion-free hearts to this thought: Trump and Sessions are breeding hatred against the U.S. in the hearts of millions around the world. They are stoking a desire for vengeance against the U.S. in the minds of many who have been ripped apart from their families, and millions more who are watching this debacle from other countries.

This state-sponsored terrorism will have dangerous reverberations against America for decades to come. It will leave permanent wounds in the hearts and minds of thousands of family members personally affected by these actions, and will turn millions more witnesses to these atrocities against us. Our leaders are sowing the seeds of future terrorist acts against the U.S. by these actions. Terrorism breeds terrorism.

So yes, I managed to get up off the sofa and take half a day away from my privileged life to send lawmakers a message of support for basic human decency when children’s lives are at stake. I left my comfortable apartment to walk with friendly strangers who believe in what America officially stood for not long ago: appreciation for the strength, work ethic and inventiveness of immigrants; a better life for the descendants of enslaved and oppressed people; appreciation and sorrow for the losses Native North and South American people suffered at the hands of white conquerors; revulsion at the thought of racism, terrorism and xenophobia; and compassion for children of all colors and origins.

This last point is so basic to people of all cultures that I can’t believe it even has to be expressed. A just, good nation does not rip children away from loving, caring parents in order to torture families into giving up their only hope of staying alive after fleeing danger at home. Compassionate lovers of liberty do not defy their own established asylum laws to suddenly turn on the people we have for so many years encouraged to come to us for help.

Good people do not choose to harm children. 

If you can attend a Families Belong Together march, rally or other event and be counted among those who oppose the use of federal forces to kidnap and torture children and their parents, I encourage you to do so. If that’s too difficult, phone calls or emails to your members of Congress are very important and can be accomplished in under three minutes. Donations to organizations like RAICES, the ACLU and MoveOn who are working to reunite kidnapped children with their parents are wonderful, too—even $5 helps.

Speak to your family members and friends. Let your voice be heard. You have more power than you realize to do good and make a change—so please use it to help vulnerable children avoid a lifetime of pain, fear and resentment toward an America that let this happen and has not done enough to try to limit the damage.

Friends, please stand with me against U.S. government-sponsored terrorism of children and refugee families.

Bless you. May your family be safe, intact, well and free.

Bless the Beasts and the Children

One of the loveliest of The Carpenters‘ songs, “Bless the Beasts and the Children” was the theme to a 1971 film directed by Stanley Kramer based on a coming-of-age novel by Glendon Swarthout. The book, the film and the song warned of the dangers of failing to look out for the most vulnerable among us—youths and animals. “Bless the Beasts” reminded us that neglecting or harming the most fragile members of society weakens and degrades all of us. Sadly, we are seeing our failure to heed these warnings play out again in deadly, tragic ways in our own world today.

In 2018, the film and song seem a bit obvious and cloying, but during the Vietnam War years, when they were written, young Americans were being killed by the tens of thousands in a war they didn’t believe in. They had to fight hard to be heard and respected by a world that had long believed children’s first duty was to shut up and obey their elders. Hundreds of thousands of U.S. teenagers were shipped off to kill and die in Southeast Asia, and young people at home who protested were often gassed, assaulted, even killed on campuses or in public streets for speaking out against the war.

In that context and in contrast to other messages presented to teens by the establishment, this story and song had a powerful message—as sung by the especially wholesome-seeming, middle-of-the-road Carpenter siblings, “Bless the beasts and the children, for in this world they have no voice—they have no choice” made a strong statement. On what would have been Karen’s Carpenter’s 68th birthday, please enjoy her beautiful voice and this thoughtful song. In the current climate, teenagers are again forced to act as America’s conscience. As they urge us to think before we allow troubled people to rush out into the world to try to solve problems with guns, their messages are as important as ever.

The Killers Slay

The Killers have been around for 17 years in multiple forms, always headed by singer Brandon Flowers, but their sound has morphed many times along the way from the bouncy, 1980’s New Wave-revival sound of “Mr. Brightside” to their latest driving hit, “The Man.”

“Mr. Brightside” was all about the angst and agony of a jealous guy imagining his ex with her new lover, lightly papered over with assurances that he’s doing “just fine” followed by admissions that “it’s killing me.” It’s all set to a poppy beat overlaid with shimmering guitar. The song’s video featured the then-young, fresh, innocent-looking Flowers contrasted with a louche, dissipated character played by sleazily handsome actor Eric Roberts (Julia’s elder brother). As the Boston Globe’s Franklin Soults puts it, “Mr. Brightside” is “a song about destructive jealousy so uplifting it [makes] the pursuit of contradiction feel like a life calling.”

All these years later, “The Man” features a taut, lean-faced Flowers playing a strutting, macho Las Vegas performer in Rhinestone Cowboy garb assuring us lyrically that he’s “first in command.” He tells us, “I got skin in the game / I got a household name / I got news for you baby, you’re looking at the man.” With a dark bass line and insistent drum driving his message forward, and supported by disco-era synth and backup singers, the sound of “The Man” is pure cockiness. When set to the brilliant video, however, the story of The Man in question follows another path altogether. It’s a very satisfying display of hubris with all the trappings of success on view, then falling away in under five minutes, a miniature movie that even ends with a film credit screen.

Flowers says “The Man” was inspired by an honest look back at The Killers’ arrogance during their “Mr. Brightside” years. Last summer he said that he regrets the negativity and arrogance he displayed to the public when the band first started out. “Around about the time that The Killers started I guess—that’s where ‘The Man’ harkens back to, and years after as well,” Flowers told NME. “I can live with it, you know. It was nice to sort of go in and inhabit that character, and that figure, and that version of myself for much longer. … I don’t think that was really a great representation, an honest representation of who I am. It came from a place of insecurity and I would just puff my chest out and say things and put a lot of negativity out there. I basically came to regret that and I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that.” The mild, articulate affability of the man in this CBC interview is a pleasant contrast to the entitled, arrogant picture of a youthful Flowers that he paints of himself.

The version of Flowers on offer at The Killers’ concert at Boston’s TD Garden this week was that of a consummate showman, joyfully, confidently swaggering at the helm of a tight band moving smoothly through a perfectly timed set. The arena rock show had the busy laser displays, giant video screens, smoke and bright visual extravagance one expects. But Flowers, slight, a little stiff but poised and dramatic in his spangly western-cut suits, exuded command, control and pleasure. His talent is such that he could have held the crowd comfortably in his hand with much less visual drama, but who am I to turn down an over-the-top feast for the eyes? And though early Killers hits like “Mr. Brightside,” “Somebody Told Me” and “When You Were Young” have a Brit-pop feel far from Flowers’ Vegas roots, somehow seeing Flowers perform those songs in his crystal-covered, western-cut suits bopping purposefully around the stage still feels right.

Flowers was born in Las Vegas and has spent most of his life there, and the influence is evident in his Vegas showmanship, his dress and the tour’s set design. Interestingly, the other band members didn’t share in his aesthetic but wore the usual indie-band attire and haircuts, setting Flowers into more dramatic relief. While Flowers and drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. are touring the world in support of their latest album, two of the band’s longtime members, guitarist Dave Keuning and bassist Mark Stoermer, are sitting out this tour. The recent addition of Ted Sablay on guitar and Jake Blanton for this road show made for a strong, cohesive sound, but the band’s emotional dynamics didn’t feel integrated. While the band played well and sounded tight, the event felt very much like The Brandon Flowers Show with little attention shown to other members of the band, as so often happens in bands with especially charismatic singers. The resulting event was highly entertaining but not very emotionally accessible, even though Flowers clearly reveled in the attention and gave his utmost. The Vegas-bright shine made for a fun spectacle appropriate for the giant venue, but a touch of intimacy wouldn’t have gone amiss.