Brian Kelly and Notre Dame's Moral Muddle in the Huddle

Note the lack of a Notre Dame logo on Jesus's jersey!
Some people, universities, and religions are (apparently) shameless. University of Cincinnati football coach Brian Kelly announced that he is leaving his post to accept a position at Notre Dame University. His announcement comes just three weeks before his undefeated team is scheduled to appear in the Sugar Bowl—the biggest event in the history of U of C football.

I find football a colossal bore and the only Sugar Bowl I care about is the one in my kitchen closet. As an educator, I do, however, care about young people and I know that for the young men on Kelly’s team the Sugar Bowl is a very big deal indeed. What manner of heartless egocentrism must lurk in Kelly’s soul? Call him the Grinch who stole New Year’s Day. What--this announcement couldn’t wait until the day after the big game? It is, simply, reprehensible for Kelly to betray those young men on the eve of what should be their greatest moment of glory.

I am not so naïve as to accuse Kelly of violating the spirit of college athletics. It’s been decades since college football embodied amateurism and good sportsmanship. College football is soaked in cash and under the current logic Kelly is entitled to gobble down a big slice of Money Pie. U of C wide receiver Mardy Gilyard pulled no punches when he summed up Kelly’s decision: “He went for the money.” I hope everyone remembers that the next time a star player leaves school early to pursue a professional career. Like role model, like player. But, again, what’s the rush? Why didn’t Kelly just shake hands behind closed doors and hold the press conference later? To unravel the root of our sordid tale we turn our attention to a more vile cast: the athletics department and administration at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame used to claim it was a “special place” where character, integrity, and morality mattered. I guess those things all presupposed winning football seasons, because none of those high-toned principles were in play in the Kelly hiring. Desperate to revitalize faith in its true god, football, Notre Dame put out feelers to raid a high-profile coach from another program. Brian Kelly fit the bill for being sufficiently morally compromised. Notre Dame pushed for an early announcement so that it could get maximum press coverage. (It wouldn’t get it any other way as Notre Dame isn’t going to a bowl game and reporters will be busy with those schools that are competing.) If Notre Dame officials had any qualms about breaking the hearts of young men at the University of Cincinnati, they sure haven’t voiced them. The decision must have taken place in the same hierarchical Roman Catholic circles that decide that bishops should damn women demanding abortion rights while sweeping a pedophile priest scandal under the rug.

God probably cares about football even less than I, but maybe God should. May God bless the University of Cincinnati with a Sugar Bowl victory under its interim head coach, and may God smite Brian Kelly-led Notre Dame teams with miserable seasons for each of the five years of his contract.



Phoebe in Wonderland (2008)
Directed and written by Daniel Barnz
96 minutes
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Nine-year-old Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) desperately wants to be good. So much so that when she blurts out hurtful remarks or spits at her classmates, she devises cantrips and rituals she hopes will keep her on an even keel. When these fail—as of course they will—she resorts to sterner measures: self-punishment, bouts of sarcasm, escapes into fantasy…. The latter route makes a lot of sense given that she’s been cast as the lead in the school play, “Alice in Wonderland.” The adults around her—parents, principal, and a child psychologist—mean well, but they haven’t done much to help Phoebe, and the one person who “gets her,” drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson) is deemed a dangerous influence. We watch as Phoebe’s control erodes incident by incident, and we soon realize what the adults do not: their prescriptions won’t fix what’s wrong with Phoebe.

This small gem of a film debuted at Sundance in 2008 and went into (very) limited theatrical release in 2009. It’s not hard to fathom why this wasn’t mall fare—there are no chase sequences, Phoebe is the only thing that blows up, it was director Daniel Barnz’s first feature film, the biggest star in the cast is Felicity Huffman, and the theme of a small child in distress is challenging for today’s nostrum-fed theater-goers. Allow us to be emphatic: Rent this film on DVD. Now! Phoebe in Wonderland is not a perfect film, but it is nonetheless a transcendent one and Elle Fanning is a revelation unto herself.

There are holes in the film. Believability gets stretched on occasion, starting with the film’s mise en scène. Phoebe’s family is pretentiously haute bourgeois, the kind of no-real-dialogue ensemble that might populate a Woody Allen film. It is also the sort that dons fancy clothes to dine at home with friends, sips expensive wines, and engages in philosophical (but contrived) discussions of what defines a “good mother.” Phoebe and younger sister, Olivia (Bailee Madison), have all manner of expensive playthings and reside in a lovely house. We wonder how this is bankrolled, given that paterfamilias Peter (Bill Pullman) is a writer and his wife Hillary (Huffman) is avoiding her dissertation. And we certainly wonder how they pay the tuition at what is obviously a private school for gifted children (and normal ones whose Yuppie parents insist are special).

There are also times in which the adult acting is (mildly) stilted and the children way too precocious. Campbell Scott plays Principal Davis as if he prepared for the role by reading Nerds for Dummies, and Pullman is, as usual, milquetoast mediocre. (Pullman is the previous generation’s Matthew McConaughey, a bland non-entity endlessly pushed into roles for which he lacks the range, depth, and ability to make memorable.) For her part, Felicity Huffman plays the clenched-teeth mom well, but too often. Barnz shows her excessive momism as a mirror to Phoebe’s own compulsive behavior, but after a while it’s hard to see Huffman as an aspirant doctoral candidate.

All of this would sink most films. So why four stars? There is, first of all, Patricia Clarkson’s superbly nuanced turn as Miss Dodger. She is, at once, the calm center of Phoebe’s storms and a simmering volcano in her own right. She does not suffer fools gladly, be they peers or children. Clarkson communicates all her emotions with icy control—a sideways glance or raised eyebrow expressing annoyance of frightening proportions, or a Mona Lisa-like smile bestowing unconditional acceptance. And lord help the child who is on the receiving end of one of her curt “thank you” this-encounter-is-over remarks.

The children are wonderful in this film, starting with Jamie (Ian Colletti), a gender-confused child who wants to play the Red Queen in “Alice.” Bailee Madison deftly plays the role of the younger sister whose own attention cravings are hijacked by Phoebe. All of the kids speak above their years, but they are so good at it that after a while we suspend skepticism, just as we forget the fact that a movie-within-a-movie paralleling “Alice in Wonderland” is a fairly shopworn idea. All flaws are more than covered by the astonishing Elle Fanning. Her older sister Dakota (Secret Life of Bees, Sweet Home Alabama) gets more press, but Elle is even more talented. She is a luminous presence each time she is on the screen, and the raw and honest emotions she exudes overcome script problems. Watching her is akin to looking at a small child and seeing a bodhisattva. We can but hope that she, unlike Phoebe, stays on path. If she does, Elle Fanning has the chops to be the next Meryl Streep. Yep! She’s that good.



Richard Shindell, November 20, 2009

The lights came up at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA and we made our way to the exit. As we were about to enter the unseasonably warm November night air, a disgruntled customer exclaimed, “I’m Shindelled out. Just slit my wrists. What a depressing evening!”

Is there a farm where clueless people are bred and then released into the wild? Do they fatten morons on Obvious Pills? Who goes to a Richard Shindell concert to relive Happy Hour? Of course the songs were depressing; Shindell’s stock and trade is his ability to make us feel the pain of Everyman and Everywoman. Which “upbeat” song was the complainer hoping to hear? The Civil War widow pining for her lost husband (“Reunion Hill”)? The apocalypse as New Jersey Turnpike traffic jam (“Transit”)? The campesino with a tragic secret (“Fishing”)? The lovestruck, homesick anti hero of “Balloon Man?” The post-war, resource-depleted landscape of “You Stay Here?” Even Shindell’s sunny songs such as “Are You Happy Now?” have bitter edges to them. This is, after all, a singer who does a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads Blues” as an upbeat segue.These are among the selections Shindell sang, as well as several from his glorious new release Not Far Now.

Mr. Grumpy was correct, however, in that the November 20 show did not rank among Shindell’s best. Maybe we’re simply so used to having Shindell astonish us that when he’s merely good, we feel slightly cheated. He performed with three-quarters of his band and generally favored smoother (and often slower) mixes that allowed Lincoln Schlieffer (double bass), John Putnam (electric guitar), and Sara Milonovich (fiddle, viola) to texture arrangements. The effect was more akin to being in the studio and it lacked the intimacy of Shindell’s solo performances. Synergy is sometimes the enemy of energy and on this evening Shindell appeared more of an orchestra leader than as a catalyst. It was left to the fiery Milonovich to pick up the pace and infuse liveliness into the concert. She was a revelation as she painted lyric lines with sparse but perfectly chosen notes one moment, and ripped off animated runs and added tasteful vocal harmonies the next.

Antje Duvekot was the surprise opening act, back on the stage just weeks after headlining her own show. Hers was the opposite of Shindell’s set in that performing with the backup band greatly enhanced her stage presence. Elsewhere we have noted that she is a wonderful songwriter and singer, but that she’s pretty ordinary as a guitar player. Having Putnam and Shindell standing beside her hides those flaws and we can concentrate on her lyrics. And her voice meshed beautifully with Shindell’s and Milonovich’s.

All in all, a solid evening of music. That will do; they can’t all be transcendent.


Ruah: Spirit of the Wind; Simply Amazing
Self-Produced (Available from http://www.jeffsnow,net/)
**** (Ruah); *** (Simply Amazing)

In Celtic music, it’s usually the fiddlers, pipers, flautists, and accordion players who get the glory. Guitar players? Aficionados will cite names such as Dennis Cahill, Dáthi Sproule, John Doyle, Tony McManus, Davy Graham, Martin Simpson, and John Renbourn. For the most part, though, guitarists are relegated to the rhythm section, where they lay down solid foundations and thrash out chord progressions that provide the scaffolding off which the lead instrumentalists leap into the spotlight.

That said, go to any session, take away the fretted instruments, and the loss is immediately felt. All of this brings me to Jeff Snow, a western Massachusetts artist who isn’t a household name but can hold his own in any ensemble, session, or solo concert stage. His precise fingering, ringing tones, and subdued modes remind me a bit of Grammy Award winner (and Maggie’s Music recording artist) Al Petteway and not just because Snow covers Petteway’s “Sligo Creek” on Ruah.

Snow’s two solo recordings showcase his abilities on six- and twelve-string guitars, bouzouki, autoharp, and hammered dulcimer. Ruah is the more authentically Celtic of the two records, a mix of traditional material such as “Greensleeves” and “Moran’s Return,” originals (the title track), and covers such as “Waltz of the Waves” (Harvey Reid) and “Sligo Creek” (Petteway). He also deftly mixes livelier material with moody, sleepy tunes such as “All Through the Night.”

The selections on Simply Amazing are, simultaneously, more diverse in style but less adventurous. There is no faulting the execution; each selection is expertly crafted and precisely played. It’s great fun to hear “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Lord of the Dance” on autoharp, but even that’s not quite enough to make us forget that both tunes are shopworn. This one gets an A for talent, but with well-traveled material such as “Amazing Grace,” “Harvest Home,” “Loch Tay Boat Song,” “Loch Lomond,” and “Silent Night” it’s hard to go beyond a gentleman’s C for originality.

But, then again, novice listeners may appreciate Simply Amazing simply because it is familiar and allows them to assess Snow’s talents. You can’t go wrong with either recording, so why not pick up both?


A perfect gift for whatever holiday you celebrate--including Festivus!

Compass 7-4520-2

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If envy is a mortal sin, reserve a seat for me in Inferno because I’m consumed by jealousy for those lucky Norwegians who saw the debut of String Sisters (Liz Carroll, Emma Häredlin, Liz Knowles, Annbjørg Lien, Catriona Macdonald, and Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh). A journey of any length is justified when any one of these talented ladies is on stage, but all of at once is my idea of Paradise. Backed by David Milligan (piano), Conrad Ivitsky (bass), Tore Bruvoll (guitar), and James Mackintosh (percussion), this superstar fiddle sextet wends its way through a collection of tunes that originated in Ireland, Sweden, the United States, Norway, Scotland, and Shetland, but which are transformed into music that transcends borders and defies simple classification. It’s a delicious treat to listen to the wild abandonment of Carroll, the smooth Donegal style of Ni Mhonaigh (Altan), the folk-meets-industrial rock sounds of Härdelin (Garmarna), the haunting Hardanger resonances of Lien, the Scottish-Scandinavian mix of Macdonald, and the Celtic-American mash-ups of Knowles. But it’s a sumptuous banquet when more than one is on stage at a time. Just about anything can and does happen. We get Shetland/Irish blends in which the linking Liz Knowles tunes were composed in Japan; an Irish/Estonian goulash; a stew of Swedish, Scottish, and Irish tunes, and just about every other permutation you can imagine. This is an album that’s so good that mere words cannot do it justice. Give it a listen and I’ll have plenty of company in the hot seats.
Check out how they move from smoke to fire on this live video. Hardelin not on stage in the video, but hear her gorgeous voice and trilling "r"s here. Then check out the wild Gothic rock stuff she does with her band Garmarna. It's like nothing else you'll hear.