Young at Heart

July 1985. I’m behind the counter of Farmhouse, Inc., an East Hampton design shop my husband opened with the man who would have been his partner had he not died. It’s Saturday night. We play Frank Sinatra music, always a draw.

It had all the markings of a good plan. Keith, my husband’s assistant in his NYC interior design business, wanted to open a design shop in East Hampton. He spent half his week in the city and the other half in Sag Harbor where he lived with his life partner, Peter, who had a thriving hair salon. The Hamptons had plenty of antiques shops but nothing focused on contemporary design. Lew liked the idea.

They found a space for rent, gave it a name: Farmhouse, Inc., a gallery of craft/tech. That was February 1985. Another person might rethink signing a lease with someone just diagnosed with HIV. But that other person would not have the spirit of the man I married. By springtime Keith had full-blown AIDS but was holding steady. We had a Memorial Day opening bash filled with friends (including local luminaries), and all the promise of a creative new venture.

 

If pictures truly are worth a thousand words, how’s this one for silliness and feeling young at heart? Please ignore the socks I’m wearing. It was a time. It was a look. Do not ignore the smile on the face of my dear friend, Regina, and me.

By early July Keith was gone.

Can’t say I would ever really fill Keith’s shoes, with all that he would have brought to the partnership but we gave it our best shot. The following July would find me very pregnant and overjoyed by my mother’s visit. Sara would be born a month later.

Why is this on my mind now?

Well first there’s the Frank Sinatra connection. Almost any song on the cassette we regularly played as customers browsed takes me back, but “Young at Heart” puts me there in a flash, the wistfulness of it, hand in hand with a melancholy undertone.

Then there’s the novel I would write, sparked by the need to make sense of a very troubling time. These were the early days of AIDS. Nobody knew what was really happening. Days felt shadowed with clouds.

More and more a sense of innocence lost took hold. All those years of sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll free love and now we have sex equated with death. What would the impact of that be on anyone coming of age in the ‘80s? I pictured a girl, a beloved uncle, the mysteries surrounding him. I pictured her born in the summer of ’69, coming of age in the ‘80s, a time when the mysteries give way to tragedy. How does a young person, in all her innocence, make sense of it all? How does she confront the ugliness of that thing we call homophobia?

How does she handle grief?

And, what if her own sexual awakening occurs while her uncle is dying?

There you have it, the seeds of Just like February, which will at last be published next April by Spark Press.

In the words of the young narrator’s quirky grandmother: “If you live long enough, you see everything.”

Speaking of which, here I am, another July years later, the kitchen renovation I recently wrote about brought to completion but forever holding all that’s contained in those moments defined by before and after.

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Torch Songs

A few weeks ago I had dream in which I was onstage, getting ready to sing. Maybe a little nervous, maybe not, I launched into a song. I surprised myself at how good I sounded.

This is not my ego speaking. It’s my unconscious playing with me. Yes, I love to sing (who doesn’t?). But being able to carry a tune is not going to turn me into Mariah Carey, never mind Adele. I love to dance, too. And in my dream, I could feel the bodily sensation of belting out a song. Good for the heart. Good for the soul.

Then I wake up and see the metaphor for what it is. For a writer there’s skill and competence, but nothing matters as much as voice.

“If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I could ever have achieved much on the page,” notes Christopher Hitchens in a Vanity Fair piece he wrote during his “year of living dyingly.” Moving, and filled with Hitchens-style intelligence and wit, “Unspoken Truths” gives voice to a newfound awareness re: the connection between what is said and what is written. Among other things and people he touches on is Leonard Cohen singing “If It Be Your Will,” a song he acknowledges should not be listened to late at night and one he cannot imagine anyone else bringing what LC brings to it.

Leonard Cohen would be among the last singers I’d listen to for a good torch song, all of which makes his cover of Always something to smile about.

Speaking of torch songs, I’m in my car (otherwise known as my mobile sound machine), an easy listening moment, a voice as inimitable as it gets, with or without the distinctive quaver.

Even before the song comes to an end, Billie Holiday pops into my head. Sirius Radio is reading my mind. The ache in her voice brings tears to my eyes.

From there the playlist is less torch song, more soulful. Joe Simon has me Drowning in the Sea of Love though Peaches & Herb bring me right back, slow dancing/make-out music at its best. The sound is tinny, a reminder of transistor radio days on the beach, or better yet, those 45s stacked on my record player, one by one dropping to the turntable, with a click, as I cry myself to sleep with longing or heartbreak, sometimes both.

Leonard Cohen says there ain’t no cure for love.  Eddie Cochran says there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues. Bob Dylan tells me summer days, summer nights are gone.

Here’s what I say: Take a walk, let the chorus of birds or that single one trilling a song surprise you with their reminder that nothing keeps them from coming back. Yesterday brought the added joy of watching a Duck Tolling Retriever climb up the steps of a playground slide, then run down the slide itself. All to retrieve a ball. It’s summertime, after all, and the living may (or may not be) easy but it’s easier than winter. Barbecues. Long days. Outdoor concerts. Emmylou Harris will be in my neck of the woods this summer. And Rhiannon Giddens. Last year it was Cecile McLorin Salvant. If you’ve been lucky enough to hear/see her even once (twice for me), you’d be hard put not to agree with Wynton Marsalis: “You get a singer like this once in a generation or two.” To learn that becoming a singer wasn’t even what she set out to do is beside the point. This is an artist who does more than interpret songs. Trust me when I say you’ll never hear a cover of Wives and Lovers like hers.

 

It’s easy to remember . . .

Sometimes even I surprise myself.

Last year, in a post focused on the spirit of place, I wrote these words:

Walls hold secrets. Memories are something we make.

Oh, to be a fly on a wall when something we’re not privy to is taking place!  The walls I’m mostly thinking about are the ones that give definition to the places I’ve lived.  They may be repainted and redecorated, but, barring any demolition, they remain standing.  Stepping into a room you once inhabited is bound to be riddled with emotion. Nostalgia for what’s gone may kick in, unless a nagging sense of what was really never there gets the best of you.

Memories are of a more fluid nature.  It’s one thing to understand the neurological processes that give shape to them in the first place, another thing altogether to laugh or cry at the spontaneous recall of some past moment triggered by a smell/a sound/a conversation or scratch your head in frustration at something that never gets past the tip of your tongue.

The gorgeous, bittersweet saxophone of John Coltrane tells me it’s easy to remember but so hard to forget.

I’m not so sure it isn’t the other way around.

Ask me the date of my mother’s death, and I still say 17 Nissan, the third day of Passover. That’s what the Jewish (lunar) calendar tells me, and that would be today.  The secular (solar) calendar marks her death on April 8, 1993. Don’t ask me if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but the disconnect between the two different ways of marking time had me unable to recall the April 8th date for at least a few years after she died.

Passover, like Easter, is nothing if not a spring ritual, each holiday underscored by stories of renewal, not to mention death and resurrection. Photographs help me recall a time when there was no Passover without a Seder.

Young as I was, there was always that moment of mystery and magic—opening the door for Elijah the prophet, checking the level of wine in the cup left on the table for him to see if he really did take a sip. That would be my sign that all was okay.

Sentimentality, coupled with a sense of keeping some semblance of tradition, would have my family continuing to gather for Passover after my grandfather died. But the Seder would fall apart like crumbled matzoh without his guiding presence. Memory may (or may not) fail me but the last Seder I recall ended in a fight between my uncles. So the ritual of gathering to tell a story of enslavement and freedom would give way to the ritual of gathering simply to eat. It was my mother and aunt who held it together, with their cooking.

Food as ritual? You tell me. With each passing generation something is lost. These days I do some semblance of a modernized Seder to bring together friends and family.

And I do my best to remember.

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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Fiction Facebook Friendship

Tap your heels together three times, Dorothy.

You always had the power.

To go home.

These days find me longing for some kind of yesterday. Can’t say I loved high school (who really does?) but I can say I remember being enthralled by a book I was supposed to hate if for no other reason than it wasn’t cool to like.

Boring? Maybe to some (most?) of my friends, engrossing to me:

Silas Marner.

Who, as a young teen, could even contemplate a condition known as catalepsy?george eiiot

Then there was Eppie. Innocent if not truly orphaned, when she finds her way to the doorstep of the gentle recluse himself. The bonds of love sometimes have a way of surprising us, even if, in our hearts, we know it couldn’t be any other way.

And the author, a woman with a man’s name.

Middlemarch (not to be confused with Middlesex or Middle Earth) has me in its grip now. The pull of the narrative is immediate, sinewy sentences that require the kind of deep attention that always rewards. No small irony in this time traveling from a world in hyperdrive, more and more on edge by the day, to one that doesn’t seem as old hat as it should in its exploration of marriage, and social mores, and politics in 19th century England. Times change, narrative syntax evolves; but there’s a reason great works of literature, with their timeless perspective on the big themes of life, beg to be read again, and again.

These are horrible, troubling, anxiety-ridden times. Paris . . .Brussels . . . no sane person sees any good there. Cuba? How you feel about it is intrinsically linked to whom you’re rooting for in the Reality TV show known as a presidential election. A wise friend on Facebook puts out a call to hide posts re: the Republication frontrunner (I can’t even say his name without becoming nauseous). A cousin spouts his negative thoughts re: our current president (one of the best ever, to my thinking).

I look for quotes by Rumi to share. Art, poetry, good books that move me. Links to music videos that do what only music can do to the spirit.

Along comes Marlene, a high school friend who connects with me on Facebook. Whatever divergent paths our lives since 1966 have taken us on, we’re here now, real friends in a virtual world. Synchronicity reveals its pretty head: like me, she’s a long-time fan of Leonard Cohen. Bruce Springsteen? Don’t even get us started. Turns out she lives in southern California, and when I tell her that my daughter has an extra pair of tickets to a Springsteen show (that will turn out to be historic as the four-hour finale at the L.A. Sports Arena), it’s a done deal.

In the best of all possible worlds, I’d hop on a plane, take a ticket for myself. It wouldn’t be the first time I flew out to go to a concert with my daughter.

In the real world, I smile at the photo an old high school friend has shared with my daughter, who has shared it with me. I may look back with mixed feelings at my high school self, but there’s only delight at the serendipity that has played its hand in reconnecting us, a connection magnified by the power of music. My physical body was (alas) not at that stupendous show, but trust me, I was there.

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How we hear music

Today I listened, for the first time in too many years to count, to an album that can only be associated with my mother. She was in that nether world between living and dying. At the wheel of my little red (station) wagon, I’d pop that thing called a cassette into the tape player. The year was 1993, and this particular cassette (which I still have even if I have no device on which to listen to it) got me through the drive to and from the hospital.

Enter Apple Music. In a flash, an easy search, and the album was mine for the streaming. Billy Eckstine Sings with Benny Carter. Special Guess Helen Merrill.

The beauty of an album is its cohesiveness—the segue from song to song. In the days before CD technology took over, fast forwarding to the song you most wanted to hear took a certain finesse, not always worth the effort. Call it comfort. Call it an excuse to let the tears flow after time spent touching, smiling (even making jokes), then planting a kiss on the cheek or forehead of my mother to remind her I had visited. But that trio of songs on Side A—You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to/My Funny Valentine/Here’s That Rainy Day—was all I needed.

Today it’s snowing, even if the mildness of our Northeast winter this year had us thinking/hoping we’d go right into spring after so much snow from just one blizzard disappeared unusually quickly. (Then again, it is February, the shortest month, the leap-year month, the one most riddled with metaphor, on the cusp of spring as it is.) snow feb 2016The gift of looking outside through a picture window as my thoughts lure me inside is not something I take for granted. The snowfall is winding down, more like dust particles or what meteorologists call snow showers. One of things I always relish is the enveloping silence snow holds. And the way it clings to the bark of a tree.   Until it’s gone.

She was a big fan of Billy Eckstine, which always suggested something to me re: her appreciation for voice. Sure, she had a thing for Sinatra, too, but Ol’ Blue Eyes encompasses something even bigger than his voice. An inscription at the beginning of David Lehman’s love song of sorts, Sinatra’s Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World, says it all:

May you live to be a hundred,
And may the last voice you hear be mine. – FS

 I listen to his voice a lot, with an appreciation that has only grown over the years. If that Come_Dance_With_MeLP with a winking Sinatra (Come Dance With Me!) or the one with a harlequin Sinatrapainting on the cover, one tear dropping from Sinatra’s eye (Only the Lonely) didn’t captivate me as a young girl, there was always a movie (A Hole in the Head) giving me “High Hopes.”  Years later would come late nights in the East Hampton design shop that had me pinch-hitting for the friend/ partner my husband lost to AIDS, the open door and Sinatra on a summer night an invitation as good as it would get to get past window shopping.

But this isn’t about Sinatra per se, even if listening to him can still bring on the tears and the memories. It’s about chords that reach deep, simply by virtue of the music they make.

To my surprise, I did not get weepy at that trio of Billy Eckstine songs. It’s easy enough to chalk it up to time passed, and with it, the smoothing down of those jagged edges of memory. But maybe there’s something else at play as well. Yip Harburg, legendary lyricist who gave us “April in Paris” (not to mention all the songs in The Wizard of Oz) is credited with this quote in Lehman’s book:

Words make you think thoughts. Music makes you feel a feeling. But a song can make you feel a thought.

So here’s a thought: maybe music is my madeleine. And even if a song can fill me with a longing for something long gone, listening to it years later is as much a reflection on all that’s changed in my life as it is a reminder that, whatever visitations I get, there’s no real going home to a home no longer there.

Coda: Lo and behold, it turns out that music occupies a room of its own in our brains.  My neurological music room is a full one, for sure, and a mixed bag that surprises even me with the moments of serendipity it conjures.

 

 

 

Summer of Love

I’m now at that age where it seems like everyone is starting to get married. My fridge is full of invitations and save the dates. My desktop is full of links to registries. And it’s just beginning . . .

All of which has me thinking about all the time, money, and effort that go into planning a wedding. Aside from the weddings I don’t remember going to as a kid, one of my first real experiences in the factory of wedding making was as a PA on what I prefer to refer to as an unnamed wedding show. I think we filmed at four or five weddings in a span of five or six weeks (it’s been awhile) — one of which I missed out on to attend a wedding as an actual guest. It was nice to be able to enjoy the wedding for what it was and get dressed up and feel pretty and eat and drink my face off — as opposed to standing on my feet for countless hours, tired, making little money and being totally turned off by the consumerist aspect of a wedding going on around me. I won’t deny that it made me a hater for a while; it also definitely put things into perspective with regard to my own priorities when I think about getting married one day (a day far in the future, if my father has anything to say about it, and since he’ll probably be paying for, maybe he gets a tiny bit of input). I’ll wedding shoeswear the blue Carrie Bradshaw Manolos and eat a cake made by my talented friend. And this will all take place in Bora Bora, so please send money if you can’t make it!

At just about every wedding I’ve been to, one parent in a toast, makes a joke about the money spent on the wedding. And at every wedding, you can tell where the money went — what the couple’s main focus was, be it food, or venue, or band vs. DJ. You marvel a bit at the spectacle. You let your bride or groom friends complain about different planning aspects — do we include a tissue paper separating the inserts in the invitation? Is it tacky to include a meal choice with the RSVP? How many bites do we have at cocktail hour? You listen and try to give an opinion but whether you’re informed or not, it’s not your day and you can’t read your friends’ minds about what they actually want.

As a guest you worry about what to wear, what to give as a present and in some cases, how to get to the wedding and whether or not it’s something you can afford to do. You make all these big travel plans months in advance and then the weekend arrives. You worry about over-packing, but what if you can’t decide what shoes to bring? You obviously need two choices “just in case.” What about what to wear? If you decide last minute that what you packed isn’t right, you justify a need to go shopping for something new (as long as your wedding destination is in an area where you can do that).

Then you attend the event. An event that your friend or family member has spent months and months planning as close to perfection as possible (no one ever wants rain, but you roll with the punches knowing that it’s going to be an amazing occasion no matter what). They do whatever it is they do before the ceremony, primping, taking pictures, probably freaking out a little. In this day and age, the ceremony is the shortest part of the wedding, but in actuality the most important. It’s why you’re there. For a half hour to an hour or so (depending on the religion or non-religion of the ceremony), you’re reminded of what you’re actually celebrating — a lifetime of love and companionship. Your friend or family member has deemed you important enough to be celebrating arguably one of the most important days of their lives with them. For that short amount of time, you’re reminded why you’re there. It’s not about the lamb chops at cocktail hour or the open bar or busting your moves on the dance floor. It’s about love. And in a blink of an eye the ceremony is over. In another blink, the party is over. All the planning that went into the wedding on both sides of it is finished. You take as many photos and videos as you can to remember it, maybe even a flower centerpiece or two, no one’s looking!

As this year goes by, with the weddings I attend as a guest and as a bridesmaid, I’m embracing the celebration of love. I’m truly honored that my friends have chosen to include me in their special days as a guest or a member of the wedding party. I know the stresses they feel when they get caught up in the planning and the money aspects of their weddings, and I have my moments, too, in my own travel planning and all the money that goes into it on the guest side. But I look back on the weddings that I missed out on for those exact reasons — the planning around jobs, the money I would have spent — and it’s something that I truly regret, missing out and not being there. I remind myself that it’s all worth it in the name of love. That one day or night that I witness my friends commit to a life with the man or woman that he or she loves and then subsequently celebrate, really, truly is priceless and a reason to party on.

 

 

Only the Lonely

Saturday night, 6 p.m. on the nose. Emma turns on the radio, her favorite show, her favorite station, always a Frank Sinatra number at the top of the playlist. She relishes the element of surprise, the musical finesse it takes to segue from torch songs to golden oldies that render her a teenager sunning on the beach. Nobody used sunblock back then. Sunburn let you know summer had arrived. Noxzema got you through the pain.

She sings along as she preps her dinner. Salmon (Wild Alaskan) to be broiled, broccoli (organic) simply steamed. Sips a little red wine to warm her heart. . . .

If the opening paragraphs are enough to entice you, here’s a link to the rest of this tongue-in-cheek story, featured on Akashic Books’ website.

Roy OrbisonRead it, enjoy (I hope), then come back and listen to the playlist it inspired  (or maybe, in that unconscious way a writer’s mind works, the playlist inspired the story), along with a video treat from a favorite CD, The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1.

 

 

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