One year ends/another begins

Barely a week into December and already my thoughts are turning to the New Year. Can’t say I feel its approach with a sense of the promise I was counting on. But a certain resolve has crept in. Never one to rush time, I can’t help seeing the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year as packaged and pressure-sealed—even as I relish time spent with family and friends in the spirit of it all. Short of a humbug frame of mind, the waning days of 2016 have me wanting them gone. ASAP.

One of the many lasting impressions I took away from a Toni Morrison/Paris Review interview I first read many years ago was the discovery that she wakes before dawn to start her writing. A habit begun out of necessity when her children were young gave rise to a ritual: a cup of coffee made while it’s still dark and sipped as she watches the light come. “Light is the signal in the transition,” she says. “It’s not being in the light. It’s being there before it arrives.”

Until you do that—watch the light arrive—even once, night and day are entities unto themselves (i.e., you look up at the night sky, stars twinkling/ you wake up and they’re gone). All it takes is one all-nighter to grasp the subtlety, light gradually encroaching, for it to dawn on you—the stars never really disappear, they’re simply outshone by a far brighter one.

Metaphor aside, we are our own stars, the constellations we belong to a mix of circumstance and choice. I was a daughter when my parents were alive. I am a sister/sister-in-law/cousin/aunt/wife/mother/friend/writer. The unconscious, in all its wisdom and mystery, gives me no room to deliberate in rattling off these roles of mine. If the whole truly is greater than the sum of my parts, it’s that singular one (last in the list, with neither least nor best qualifiers) that allows me to step outside of my own story, stand back/observe/try to make sense of the world.

Again, the inimitable Toni Morrison to the rescue. The time is Christmas 2004, and in the very first paragraphs of an essay that appeared in the 150th anniversary of The Nation, she writes of an “extremely dark mood” precipitated by the reelection of George W. Bush. She has trouble writing, feels almost paralyzed, something she’s never before experienced. A friend insists no no no, times of dread are exactly when artists need to get to work, after which she writes:

“I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.”

The wisdom of the greats indeed feeds me.

It was the 7th of December, 1993, that Toni Morrison delivered her utterly eloquent lecture/speech on accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature. The heart of it is a parable of sorts that speaks to the complexities of language and the consequences of its manipulation when we don’t pay attention to what we’re really hearing/reading. Elections, alas, are won on the bastardization of language. On the 10th of December, 2016, a master of more than language will not be there to deliver his acceptance speech. We can speculate forever on Dylan’s silence and evasiveness, but truth be known, his words are needed more than ever. Can’t ask for much more than Patti Smith as a pinch hitter of sorts. Turns out she’ll be singing a song of his at the ceremony.

I’m writing as day gives way to night and a different light, deferential in a way, fills the sky. If I seem to be channeling my literary/music heroes, it’s out of need, not grandiosity.img_4876 The freshness of winter—trees stripped of leaves, a touch of snow on the lawn—is the starkest reminder I have that there’s no hiding from oneself and regeneration is a given. Climate change naysayers may never see the forest for the trees.img_4874

Bruce Springsteen, in his very telling memoir, writes, “In all psychological wars, it’s never over, there’s just this day, this time, and a hesitant belief in your own ability to change. It is not an arena where the unsure should go looking for absolutes and there are no permanent victories. It is about a living change, filled with the insecurities, the chaos, of our own personalities, and is always one step up, two steps back.”

“The year 2017 may be a time for some stepping back, doing things a little differently. For one thing, no more news—real, fake, Facebook, or otherwise—until I’ve had a (reasonably) productive work morning. For a time I tried clearing the fluff out first—check email, say hello on Facebook, read the headline news—and there’s something to be said for that strategy. Except when what passes through a newsfeed clouds my brain, messes with the synapses. (Just seeing the face of he who shall remain nameless makes me physically ill.)

img_4882A tree is uprooted, it falls against another that keeps it from completely tumbling. Hermits are a rare breed but they do exist. More of us, thankfully, fall into the “No man is an island” trope given to us by the great metaphysical poet John Donne. If there’s any hope these days, it’s in the broader view, more encompassing. For all the disappointment, I remind myself that it took a wise woman to remind us it takes a village.

Dispatches from the desert #2

In terms of memory banks (we’re not talking the tech variety here), I’m more than a millionaire. Make all the jokes you want about the aging process and slowing synapses, but when it comes to moments I know will demand recall with a smile, I’m the first to quip: “Put it in the memory bank.”

Case in point: Back in May I was lucky to get tickets to that monumental Coachella concert know as Desert Trip. Okay, luck is a relative concept (considering the price of tickets and the bots who take all the pleasure out of online ticket buying) but a line-up the likes of which is not likely to ever happen again got this rock ‘n’ roll heart very pumped up: Bob Dylan/The Rolling Stones, Neil Young/Paul McCartney, The Who/Roger Waters. Knowing I’d be sharing the experience with my daughter, her boyfriend (now fiancé), and a high school friend I hadn’t seen since we graduated heightened the anticipation.img_0004

In the wink of an eye, September rolls around and the buzz, turned down to a slow simmer during the intervening months, is back big-time: tickets arrive, this is really happening, will I need a fleece jacket for October nights in the desert?

So happens that on the very first night of Rosh Hashanah, just days before I would head out to California, my daughter and her boyfriend decide it’s time to commit to that next big relationship step. No rush re: planning a wedding, but the timing of their engagement makes my visit a gift on more levels than one.That vault in the memory bank I go to every September/October when those Days of Awe roll around now holds new treasures forever linked to a very particular pocket of time.

desert-trip-diningWe say it again and again—how quickly time moves!—and here I am, more than a week since my visit, organizing memories into a time piece, my head filled with desert dust still churning itself into a daily sound and light show: I’m tangled up in blue, or driving in my car/when a man comes on the radio, or asking, Tommy can you hear me? Don’t even get me started on that full moon rising or the eerie dark side of it. . . .

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Day #1: Bob Dylan comes onto the stage in darkness, and leaves in darkness, no communication (other than his brilliant music) with the audience. Who cares, really? It’s Dylan, and his singing voice will forever play second fiddle to that musical/literary thing we call Voice. Act #2, The Rolling Stones, rock it from the start, Mick Jagger promising no old age jokes, even as he says, “Welcome to the Palm Springs retirement home for aging English rockers.” Keith Richards makes a point of paying some homage to Dylan. And collectively they pay homage to the Beatles with a cover of “Come Together.” Not the first time I’ve seen The Stones, which makes me qualified to say that Mick still has the strut and the voice.

 

Day #2: Neil Young, with a fantastic band and voice suited to a moon in the desert, opens with “After the Gold Rush, “followed by “Heart of Gold.” neil-youngMaybe I do in fact die and go to heaven when he sings “Harvest Moon” but more to the point, he brings a subtle political tone to the show, with a teepee on stage and songs about Mother Earth and a not-so-subtle allusion to everything I’m here to forget: “Come back tomorrow night,” he says. “Roger is going to build a wall and make Mexico great again.” To admit that his set would be my favorite misses the point that the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts in this historical musical event. To see/hear Sir Paul cast a nostalgic net with unsurpassed charm is a rueful reminder that you’re only as old as you feel—which makes today feel like an exuberant yesterday when Neil Young joins him for very hot rendition of “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”

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Day #3: Back in my college days, The Who did a run of Tommy for several days at the Fillmore East, one of the few concerts in my lifetime of concert going that I could not snag a ticket to. All of which makes it all the exciting to hear snippets from that extraordinary album, and more. The decibel level is noticeably higher when they get rolling, and, even if it’s a reach for Roger Daltrey to hit some of the notes in the group’s greatest hits, there’s a synergy between him and Pete Townsend that transcends the public acrimony between them. They know why they’re here, they acknowledge the fans who still come out for them after all these years, they pay tribute to the band members no longer with them. And they play their hearts out.

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No small irony that the closer here tonight is a key player in another band I rue never having seen. The sensurround/Roger Waters experience begins even before he takes to the stage. There’s a rumbling, unidentifiable sound that has this East Coast girl thinking earthquake?—until the sound and light Pink Floyd experience takes hold and I’m transported to another planet.bob-dylan

Not an easy task, returning to earth, but the exciting news that Bob the troubadour is now Bob the Nobel Laureate goes a very long way toward helping me bring it all back home. Come on, Bob, your fans are all-forgiving, even amused, at your take-me-as-I-am onstage persona, but is it really possible that receiving the most prominent literature prize in the world leaves you speechless?paul-mccartneyroger-daltrey

Dispatches (soon to come) from the desert

Good things come in the most unexpected packages—

Two weeks ago my UPS delivery man hands me a package, no recognizable return address on the shipping label. I’m baffled, not that I don’t love a surprise.   But when that big brown truck barrels up my driveway, more often than not I can pretty much guess what’s in it for me. UPS tracking is a beautiful thing and I’d been alerted, via email, that something special was on its way.

Humor me, please. I’m a sucker for a great rock show, and when tickets went on sale in May for that mega Coachella festival in California known as Desert Trip, I managed to get ahead of the bots and scalpers. Anticipation tells me it’s a long, long time from May to September; yet somehow as the moment of arrival gets close it feels as if time has moved with the speed of a bullet train. Today those tickets would finally be in my hands and I can be forgiven for expecting a simple flat envelope with the passes inside. Clearly I was wrong.

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A three-day festival featuring the Rolling Stones/Bob Dylan, Neil Young/Paul McCartney, Roger Waters/The Who is a big deal and I don’t care if they call it Boomer-Chella or Oldchella or just good old rock ‘n’ roll. But it’s clear, from even the delivery of the passes, that a lot of thought (possibly over-the-top) has gone into this.

I open the box, the passes and wristbands jump out. There’s more, though, and I lift the insert. Voilà—my very own ViewMaster, the pièce de resistance in a boxful of memorabilia before the event has even taken place.
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Yes, it’s a carefully orchestrated/marketed event. But the spirit behind it counts for a lot. I was in Europe the summer of Woodstock, and even if the Desert Trip stars are in the twilight of their performing career or maybe because of it, you can count on some good old-fashioned dispatches from me.

In the meantime, there’s been the distraction of a presidential election that has gone from sublime to ridiculous to surreal and raised anxiety levels to new heights. Even at the worst moments I have managed to keep the faith that Hillary will prevail. That’s the realist, not the optimist in me, speaking. As we move into the final stretch, my own anxiety drops just a bit as I see a woman in a red suit handle herself with such aplomb before an audience of millions. There really is no contest here, and any sensible person sees it. But this country, alas, is clearly divided between the camps of sense and senselessness.

Awesome may be a word suited to rock concerts, but awe is world into itself, and to be in awe of the woman most likely to succeed as Madam President puts me in a good frame of mind for my upcoming trip—which just happens to come smack in the middle of the ten-day period known as Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar. There’s every reason to get a sense of grounding this time of year. For one thing, there’s that back-to-school mindset, so ingrained and so in tune with seasonal change. The air gets cool, leaves start to fall, a sense of hunkering down can’t help but take hold. Those of us brought up in reasonably traditional households have the added fact of the Jewish New Year. There’s this big, big book, we’re told, and in those ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, God is watching very closely, giving us every chance to reflect, repent, do good deeds before deciding what the next year will bring.

I do my best.

I honor my parents’ spirit by attending services, notably Tashlich (when we cast off sins) and Yizkor (when we honor the memory of loved ones no longer with us).

I take time to reflect on my life, a very blessed one indeed.

I channel my mother by cooking brisket, and more, for the friends and family who will come for dinner. Chopping onions is not the only thing that brings tears to my eyes.

And this year, I go to the desert, if not with ancestors, at least with kindred spirits—my daughter, her boyfriend, and to bring it full circle, a dear high school friend who happens to live in Palm Desert. We lost touch over the years, and since reconnecting via Facebook, we’ve made up for some lost time via texts, emails, phone conversations. And just the other day I get a surprise package from her via USPS, the goodies she’s been gathering, just a glimpse into all the things to do/places to see in that valley where I picture a sublime sunset setting the stage for pure satisfaction.

 

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A Valentine’s Day Playlist . . .

. . . for aging rock ‘n’ roll hearts.

Dylan singing Sinatra standards? Clapton swinging to ‘All of Me’?  A witty, sexy ‘Always’, à la Leonard Cohen?

Put away the weed. Pull out the single malt.  It’s going to be a mellow, once-in-a-blue-moon night.

 

Lost on the River

Tucked on a shelf in the back of a closet we use mostly for ‘overflow’ is a white cardboard box filled with old 45s. This is not my complete collection, mind you, just what has survived the decades since I last played them. In my adolescent years I had a classic storage box, with a lift-up lid and clasp, and it doesn’t even matter whether it disintegrated or was discarded. What matters are those 45 rpm vinyl discs that survived one move after another. And all that they conjure.45s

Just the sight of them brings it all back in a heartbeat: late night in a bedroom as adolescent as it gets, early 1960s, the 45s stacked, the click of one after another dropping onto the turntable. The Chiffons, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las. The Four Seasons, the Five Satins, the Duprees, the Teddy Bears. The Beatles. Recalling the sound of that click can still elicit a pang—the memories of heartbreak flooding back.

See the Pyramids along the Nile . . .

To know know know him is to love love love him . . . 

Call me maudlin. Call me just a teenager in love, and calling on all the musical comfort I could muster. Many of the labels are marked by my scribbled initials, a reminder that they were MINE if I brought them to a party, not to be mistaken for anyone else’s. Who wouldn’t be a little possessive?

 Singles would give way to LPs, stored in plastic crates. Some of the album covers are (almost) pristine. Others are frayed at the edges, the telling marks of a cat who saw those neatly lined up albums as nothing more than a scratching post. At least she never got to the vinyl.

CDs would render it all so compact—in the car, in the new multi-disc sound system at home—and I admit it, I’m a sucker for sound at my fingertips.   Let the LP collect dust (or frame it and hang it on a wall). Buy the CD, remastered. Or, if it’s immediate gratification you need, download the album. There’s no arguing a slight degradation in sound quality, but pump it up and it’s good enough.

Until good enough isn’t really good. One birthday a few years back would bring me the surprise I’d been wanting, a new turntable. Oh, heaven! The crackle of it all when I put on any old LP. Who knows/who cares what has collectors’ item value. It all comes to down to moments and the memories they conjure. You learn a lot about yourself looking at what you’ve collected. Eclectic as my tastes are—rock, folk, jazz, classical—numbers are very telling: I have more Dylan albums than any other.basement tapes

Music, framed in measures, is nothing if not a measure of time.

Brilliance is nothing if not a measure of something beyond our everyday grasp.

The brilliance that is Bob Dylan—the scope of his music, the changes in direction over the years, the way lyrics seem to trip off his tongue, make it all the more exciting when unpublished lyrics of his become the catalyst for a collaboration that has the effect of spanning decades. T. Bone Burnett is a genius himself, pulling together a coterie of musicians who may, or may never have, met Dylan but have done magic with what he scribbled and never produced. As he himself says in the documentary about The New Basement Tapes: “Can’t publish everything.”

I can’t recall the last time I listened to a new CD as many times, and with as much attention, as I’ve listened to The New Basement Tapes: Lost on the River. Think about it—one of the most creative producers in the industry, T. Bone Burnett, invites five very talented singer/songwriters to spend two weeks mining nuggets of gold and shaping them into songs. They go through several takes; they decide which song ‘belongs’ to which musician in the sense that he or she has dominated its direction. That’s how I see it. That’s how I hear it. The end product becomes greater than the sum its parts, a collaboration that becomes intergenerational, the music seeming to span decades.

Inspiration may be the spark, but it’s commerce that brings it all back home. If you couldn’t get your hands on the original bootleg Basement Tapes—that mash-up of Dylan and a bunch of boys in the band recording over 100 songs in 1967, you’d eventually get a select 24, courtesy of Columbia Records (today you can have it all).  It is, in old hippie terminology, an absolute trip to listen, go back in time, hear what was so fresh, feel the excitement. Connect the echoes of the New Basement Tapes with the original.

I have my favorites, from the old and the new, and it’s easy enough to just pick and choose which to download, put into a playlist for car rides or when I need a dose of Dylan during a cardio workout at the gym. But here’s the simple truth: a single is a tease, as satisfying as possible. It’s the LP you need when you want to hear the full story.

A rainy day playlist

My relationship with weather is irrational, and I know it. It’s a rainy Tuesday—a very rainy Tuesday and all I want is for the rain to go away, or at least let up by the time I head into the city. More crucial, the relentless precipitation is exposing weak spots in a roof that needs repair. Am I annoyed, maybe even angry? Yes I am—the point being that my mood is a product of the weather, completely out of my control.

Variable as the weather is on any given day, or week, we can count on some seasonal consistency, which makes for reasonably accurate forecasting. Never mind the silliness of rendering it with fluctuations akin to a woman’s moods. Weather has no moods. It just is. Wet. Dry. Sunny. Cloudy. Cold. Hot. Humid. There’s a science to meteorology, and then there’s metaphor.

Dylan tributeThe rain is very heavy right now, pounding away. The sound of it scares me. I soothe myself with thoughts of a story I  wrote years ago, “My Father’s Voice,” in which the father says to the narrator: Walk between the raindrops and you won’t get wet.

Oh that I could.

I soothe myself, too, with songs for a rainy day. Better yet, blast the music to drown out the sound of the rain. I start with Tom Petty doing his cover of Rainy Day Woman #12&35 at the 30th Anniversary Bob Dylan Concert Celebration.

 

And while we’re on Dylan, I’d go right to the moody Bill Frisell instrumental version of A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall. Only place to go from there is Here Comes the Sun. Call me hopeful.

I love making playlists for myself, and for friends. Like stories passed down orally before the written word, a playlist becomes a narrative of sorts. There’s an art to the segue. The unconscious does its job linking one song to the next. How else to explain Waitin’ on a Sunny Day popping into my head, followed by Against the Wind, Bob Seger on the heels of Bru-u-u-c-e.

The rain has lightened up for a few minutes, almost a Rain Waltz. Almost as quickly, Etta James tugs at my heart. I know what it is to Cry Like a Rainy Day.

Etta JamesWould I like the weather to be more accommodating to my personal needs? Yes . . . but that doesn’t keep me from seeing the absurdity of wanting something much bigger than me to bend to my will.  We ask for good weather when we’re going anyplace—a night out, a day in the city. We do our best not to complain (much) if a vacation in the Caribbean is less than sunny. Tell the truth, how many times have you heard or said these words yourself—It’s not supposed to rain. Expectation is a bitch. Meteorologists are not always right.

There’s only so much we can know before we go.

So when a friend tells me how the sound of rain at night makes for good sleeping, I say, sure, sure, as long as we’re talking about gentle rain, pitter patter. And when another friend tells me it’s raining in California, I say, hip hip hooray!

And I go back to my playlist. Music is the great connector, as tribal as it gets. You’re a better person than I am if you can refrain from singing along (never mind whether you can carry a tune). Music moves the spirit as much as the body.  And what better song to end a rainy day playlist than Dancing in the Street?

 

 

Summertime Blues

Twice in my life—one morning up at Machu Picchu and one afternoon at a Zen rock garden in Kyoto years ago—I had that exquisite present-moment sensation that these days I work (too hard I fear) at experiencing. More often it’s the past/present/future all tied in one that has me in its grip: the past tugs, the future taunts. Spirit is no match for the weight of all things sense-related. Not necessarily a bad thing.

Something in the air today—a summery breeze, a whiff of wild roses, the Portuguese Water Dog whose bark is pure squeak toy—takes me back to a day not unlike this, summer 1997, and with it the memory of feeling like the worst mother in the world. There—I said it!

It was my daughter’s first summer at sleep-away camp, also the summer she convinced us we really really really needed to get a dog, which became the bargaining chip for her not signing on for the full seven-week program. Visiting weekend rolls around quickly, we do all the parents’ weekend activities, she doesn’t want to leave.  Mama Bear has a quick consult with Papa Bear. Fine, we tell her, you can stay. But no dog. Let’s face it—no family ever really gets a dog just for the kid(s). And if she really wanted a dog, all I wanted was a few weeks of her devoted attention to the new family pet.

Suffice it to say that it was a long drive home made longer by the thick silence. Next morning rolls around, I go out for a walk, burst into tears when I run into a friend whose daughter is at the same camp. I thought I’d done something terrible, taking my daughter home just when she was getting comfortable being away. My friend laughs, with empathy.

maggie on her perch 2Gotta admire a girl who knows her priorities. I get back to the house and find my daughter already checking Penny Saver ads for adoptable dogs at nearby shelters (the Internet was not yet the go-to place for everything). The rest is history. Visits to a few different shelters and the Shepherd mix who would become known as Maggie insinuates herself into our lives. Never mind that my first choice was the very well behaved border collie-mix with two different-color eyes. Maggie was ‘The One,’ instant love the moment Sara laid eyes on her. As for me? No regrets. Ever.

I love summer—throw on a simple skirt or dress, slip into sandals, sit outdoors at a favorite French bistro sipping a martini. I don’t get to the beach much anymore, but all it takes is a touch of humidity to bring it all back in a flash: the bus to Sheepshead Bay/Manhattan Beach with friends, the blankets spread on the sand, the tinny radio playing top 40s à la Dan Ingram or Scott Muni. The cooling feel and smell of Noxzema. Excursions all the more memorable in wallet-size B&W prints.  Statue of Liberty, 1963.

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Nostalgia, by definition, is a yearning for something gone. Many lifetimes seem to have passed between my own teen years and now, but all my daughter has to do is write about her camp years and I’m there, the ritualistic parents’ visiting weekend that punctuated each summer for five years. First things first: make sure to book the dog with the dog sitter; book a room at a B&B near camp; remind friends in the Boston area that we’d be stopping by on the way home. Pray for no rain, so that most of visiting weekend isn’t spent indoors. I relished every minute of it.

Wasn’t it yesterday?

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Today I run into a neighbor at the supermarket. She can’t help it when the tears start up, the husband who just stopped loving her. The house is sold, the divorce nearly complete. I give her a hug of comfort. She asks me to send regards, some of the neighbors we’d regularly run into on our walks—with the dogs (duh), great connectors that they are. One of those neighbors has Alzheimer’s and may (or may not) remember the neighbor who sends regards.

I love summer, really I do, fleeting as it is. Freewheelin’ days and natural tans. Fireworks and fireflies, burgers on a charcoal grill.

Music through the open doors, me in a chair on my deck. Listening.

I’m driving in the flats in a Cadillac car
The girls all say ‘you’re a worn-out star’
My pockets are loaded and spending every dime. .
. .

A recent study re: How music makes baby team players makes me laugh. It seems that when you hold a toddler, moving rhythmically to a song—Twist and Shout, in the study—they learn something about coexistence and compassion. Another duh. It’s not rocket science to recognize the power of music.  We may not sing camp songs on Facebook, but we share music, a connector as primal as it gets. We shares photos, thoughts, see me/hear me right now. Facebook may stretch the definition of ‘friend,’ but if you’re one of mine, those status updates are reassuring:  I know what you’re doing this day/this night/this summer.

Not so much those first years at camp for my daughter. I had to wait for hand-written letters, and so did she. Phone calls would come, but so would busy signals trying to get through. I think she was lucky to go to camp at a time when cell phones were not even part of the equation.

Time moves quickly/too quickly/even more so during summertime. Physicists have an explanation for this. Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman’s exquisitely poetic rendering of how a genius like no other might have dreamed alternative scenarios of time, is a book I go back to again and again. I had the pleasure of sharing those visiting weekends with him, his wife, our daughters.

Yes, I love summertime, with its long days. Midsummer nights of dreaming and partying, nothing wasted about youth even if it (eventually) slips away.