Reflecting on a July 4th Favorite: Yankee Doodle Dandy

Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942 (Through 2:46)

Anyone who knows movies knows that the brass section of the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra was like no other. Whether scoring a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Bogart film or Errol Flynn swashbuckler, their trumpets are instantly recognizable, and warming to the soul.

Like in Yankee Doodle Dandy, the 1942 James Cagney film that won him an Oscar for Best Actor portraying the song and dance man and Broadway actor/composer/producer, George M. Cohan — who crafted the famous songs Grand Old Flag, Over There, Give My Regards to Broadway, and of course the title song. The above scene is one of the greatest musical dance numbers ever put on film.

Here on this July 4th weekend, hearing those heralding trumpets again, and through all my years, I was reminded how special this film has been to our family in so many ways.

My mother always says that when I was just a toddler, I’d get up on the piano bench during the famous scene above, and I would start dancing with glee on my face.

As a bigger kid, I’d practice and practice this dance routine in the living room or garage and imitate it best I could — as well as the final scene when the elder George dances down the stairs of the White House after receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor from FDR:

Then as a pre-teen, I was struck by what a bratty stage kid young George was, and how his arrogance hurt his family’s opportunities on the vaudeville circuit. And yet I loved how wonderfully kind and humble he became later in life, with the right discipline, guidance and wisdom from his family and friends. Strong yet gentle. It made me think of my own parents raising us while juggling so many demands — their example, and Cohan’s, made me want to be a better writer for the stage myself, and a better person.

Later, the film shaped my view of our country, of how art can touch people in times of crisis, and how our personal integrity and loyalty to family are far more important than our success.

And finally, now more than ever, watching it with our daughters, this film reminds me that I’m so grateful for the freedom to live each day that comes our way, to worship God, to celebrate together as family and friends on weekends like this, and to share the truths that matter most with our precious children.

My mother thanks you…

My father thanks you…

My sister thanks you…

And I thank you…

Onward!

What’s in a Name…

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The kids and I made ornaments this weekend that I have a feeling will be favorites for a long time.

I saw a lovely and creative Christmas tree recently which, in addition to regular ornaments, had the various names for Jesus/God written on colorful, shaped paper. Simple and powerful words. So we did our own version on our tree this year.

Apparently, there are 100 such names in the Bible, all capturing a different quality or essence of God. Some, especially at this time of year, are very familiar: Immanuel, God with Us, King of Kings.

You can almost hear Handel’s Messiah, where the names soar forth in unison: “Wonderful! Counselor! The Mighty God! The Everlasting Father! The Prince of Peace…”

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The words are powerful. Christ’s 100 names, given by God, announced by angels and men alike, are a remarkable and comforting reminder of who he is — each one worth reflecting upon; and yet in his case even 100 names cannot capture all of who he is.

The 100 names also make me think of how we, as writers, often agonize over creating a name for the characters in our stories — something that gets their personality just right and subtly reflects their purpose in the story. Or coming up with the title of a work, which captures its spirit and core. So many possibilities…and we don’t want to mess it up. Do-overs are not really an option.

Similarly, I think of parents, carefully reading through name books or making lists to select their baby’s name — something which will be part of their identity for life. We want it to be empowering but not too limiting, right? Does that one sound too heavy? Is this too easy to mispronounce? Too long?

Or when a scientist discovers a cell or a star, a protein or a process; or when an inventor creates a new gadget or patent. What to name the thing that’s going to be one’s legacy? In textbooks and registries for decades to come?!

It’s not easy to name something. Scripture and literature, from Adam to Romeo and beyond, are full of references to the power and burden of names and naming. Maybe if we could have 100 names it would be easier too!

But one thing that all of these situations have in common is that it is a privilege to be the one who gets to name something. Or to title something. It is a heralding, a cementing-in of meaning.

The next time we name or title something, we can remember what a special opportunity it is. The words we choose are not only a reflection of what we are naming — they are a reflection of us as well.

Like the Virginia Woolf quote I saw mentioned on Twitter recently:
“If your life was a book title, what would it be?”

Onward!

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The Proudest Day of My Life

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This past week, on the eve of Election Day, I learned without a doubt that nothing I accomplish in my life will ever be as satisfying or fill me with the same depth of joy and pride as when my children accomplish something special. There is no comparison.

Over the last few months our local Armenian community has been trying to get approval for a new church facility to better accommodate its needs after 35 years in a sweet but outdated and undersized facility. My family’s connection to the church is deep, complex and multifaceted. But suffice it to say that despite various community dramas over the years, it is where we grew up, where we are still involved and where our children participate, and we’d always like to see the church — its people and its place — progress spiritually and physically in the years to come.

A month or so ago, we decided to take our girls to our local planning board meeting to see local government in action. For four hours (yes, we brought the ipad), our nine-year old and five-year old daughters listened to this board debate our church project. The girls wanted to get up and speak but couldn’t. But when the vote finally came in favor 6-4, they were so proud and excited that they were there. I told them: “In years to come, when the church is built and you are walking on its blessed grounds, you’re going to remember that you were there the day our local community first approved it.” And they nodded vigorously before falling asleep on the car ride home.

Then, this past week, the project had to pass through another hurdle — the city planning commission, before going to the state coastal commission. Many in the community wrote letters, so we felt it important that our girls write letters too, to share their feelings about why we need a new church.

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They were very intent on doing a good job, and they did.

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At the commission meeting, I sat in the same chamber where I, as a junior high student years before, twice pleaded with our city council to save our school music education funding for orchestra and band. Those were experiences I never forgot, and I believe they fortified me early on to be more involved in my community and to speak up for what’s important to me.

And here we were in the same room, years later, hearing about another heart and soul issue — not the arts, but the faith community and its gathering place — now being debated before a new set of officials.

The architects, consultants, and some of us leaders in the community all spoke, gave it our best and did well.

But when the commissioners gave their various comments, concerns, and preferences, one commissioner said that he was very touched, and quite impacted, toward the yes vote, because of two letters that came in — from two young girls…

I looked at my husband.

“From…Mari…?” the commissioner said. “And her sister…Ani?…”

Our daughters. He was talking about them! There, in front of everyone. On local TV. And when he cutely mispronounced the latter’s name, our entire community entourage in the audience corrected him in unison. (“AH-nee, not Annie!”)

The commissioner went on to say how the letters were the most compelling thing he came across in more than two hours of discussion, and that our girls’ words were what convinced him to vote yes — reminding him what civic engagement is all about, what community is all about, what the life of a young person is all about, and….

And I don’t know what else — because I was crying. Crying that our girls had tangibly made a difference. Our little ones, who were probably running wild at school recess, had no idea their names were being spoken and placed in the city public record, having a forever impact on the vote, and thus on our community.

I became a bumbling mess. When the commissioner finished thanking the girls, he immediately made the motion to approve the project.

When the vote came out unanimous, I looked again at my husband, and all I could say was “Our girls, lovie. Our girls…!” He and I were both overcome.

I hope that on the crazy days when the girls try my patience, I’ll remember that on this day they filled me with more humbling pride and joy than I’ve ever experienced. No Academy Award, Pulitzer Prize, Drama Critics Circle award, or anything could even compare.

When we got home and told the girls, they were so excited that their letters made a difference. Our youngest asked, “Did you talk to Mr. Golba?” even remembering the name of the commission chairman she addressed her letter to. And I said that yes, I did speak with him (which was true, afterwards.) We told the girls the rest of the details and even showed them the webcast where the commissioner acknowledged them, and they simply beamed.

One day, our girls will be able to vote, like I hope we all will this week. One day, they will take leadership positions and impact their world. And one day, when they’re grown, I hope to show the girls their letters again, to remind them that at any time, at any age:

Yes, your voice matters.

Yes, you can make a difference.

And yes, your writing has power.

Always.

Onward! And don’t forget to vote!

Making a Story Our Own

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When you write a story or script that is your own idea, your feeling of ownership is clear and strong. After all, the idea came from you, inside you, deep inside, right?

 

What about when you get an assignment? When an editor, theater or film company commissions you to write about a story they want to develop?

 

How can you get that same sense of ownership, that same primal urge to tell the story, when it was someone else’s idea?

 

Getting paid? Will that do it? No. Being motivated to get paid is not what I mean, even though getting paid for assignments is certainly something that keeps us on our toes.

 

What I mean is: how do we make a story our own?

 

We have to find a core connection and write from that core. We have to find a hook into it from our own life or heart.

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