Wednesday, April 29, 2015

It’s Come to This

I’ve passed through Baltimore more times than I care to count but never toured the city.  I know the Baltimore portrayed by Anne Tyler, a place of comfy familiarity. She must be appalled about what’s happening in Baltimore, although it is not surprising. Racial riots and tensions are not new in America.  It is reminiscent of the 1992 Rodney King riots in L.A. which followed the acquittal of police officers after a police brutality incident was caught on video tape.  But that was a “one off” capture of an incident.

What is new is the widespread use of cell phone, surveillance, and dash board cameras that reveal the everyday nature of the problem.  Twitter and YouTube deliver the message to a nation crazed for user-generated content.  The more we see, the more inured we become to the root of the problem, racial and economic division. 

Meanwhile media firms are pouring endless money into creating “shows” designed to be watched on ubiquitous mobile devices, the holy grail of streaming Internet firms such as Netflix.  We’ve become a nation of somnambulists, cynical about the political process (ironically revealed by Netflix’s House of Cards – does life imitate art or vice versa?). According to a study done two years ago, “by 2015 Americans are expected to consume media for more than 1.7 trillion hours, or an average15.5 hours per person per day, again not counting workplace time. 

2015 is now. My wife recently boarded an aircraft from Atlanta and most people were watching videos on their laptops or iPods or even cell phones and although anecdotal evidence at best, many were of interactive games or slam-bang explosive Hollywood films.   Imagine, most of your waking hours consuming media of this nature?

What happened to reading?  Same answer as to what has happened to education.  As long as we put a premium on consuming video content while minimizing education, there really is no answer to the racial and economic tensions that will play out in the future.  Along with rebuilding our infrastructure, and our inner cities, education must be this nation’s highest priority to provide opportunity where people feel there is none. Better police tactics are needed, and research and education is required there as well.   No wonder there is such despondency.

Easier said than done naturally, and having a dysfunctional government is not helping. As presidential electioneering gets underway the failings of the whole process will become even more apparent, thanks to Supreme Court sanctioned unlimited campaign contributions by corporations and individuals: its a few mega billionaires and corporations vs. the rest of us. 

And it’s come to this in Baltimore today: the Baltimore Orioles will play the Chicago White Sox in an empty stadium -- our National Pastime with no spectators allowed because of safety concerns. Eerie symbolism of things to come? Is that how we want to live our lives? 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

He Had That Certain Feeling

Apparently I’ve reached the point in this blog where I am beginning to circle back on myself.  Earlier this week I gave a Gershwin concert at the Brookdale Senior Living Center of Palm Beach Gardens.  I thought I would write about it and record one of the many pieces I played there.  

So I started to think about what I would say about this special experience--special as it was an all Gershwin program, probably the composer I most admire for his versatility and genius.  He wrote some of the greatest songs for the American Songbook, as well as concert and operatic works (we are seeing American in Paris this summer on Broadway; can’t wait!).  He singlehandedly removed the barrier between jazz and classical music.

Also, of all the composers I play on the piano, my so-called style is most suitable for his works.  I wanted to write about my joy of Gershwin, and as I began I had the nagging feeling that I’ve said all of this before.  Searching my blog I found pretty much what I wanted to say from six years ago! There are some links to some pieces I “home recorded.”  “Google Pages” use to host audios, but no longer does; however, old recordings are grandfathered such as this one of selections from Porgy and Bess.

I had written that entry after attending a live performance of Earl Wild’s arrangement, Fantasy on Porgy and Bess.  But as the former entry tells most of my Gershwin story, I’ll let it speak for itself.  Preparing for this recent concert, I recorded The Man I Love, with the limitations of the USB-size Sony Digital Voice Recorder I use at home, which I can share using Dropbox.  It is best listened to at low volume as the recording device renders it “tinny.”

Via Dropbox I can also share a couple of Gershwin pieces I recorded more than six years ago at a studio, the quality of the recordings better but I can now play these pieces a little more professionally, thanks to some lessons I took a few years ago, Someone To Watch Over Me, and Isn’t It a Pity. 

I can’t imagine where Gershwin would have taken American music if his life wasn’t extinguished by a brain tumor at the age of 38.  But his output during his short life was remarkable, from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway to classical and operatic, to Hollywood.  He could write in all venues and he was a consummate pianist himself.  An excellent, succinct summary of his life and musical accomplishments can be found here.

George Gershwin once said that true music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today.  Indeed, he had that “certain feeling” as this piano roll recording of the master himself playing his song That Certain Feeling attests.

My audience at Brookdale was more than appreciative.  This is the longest of my prepared concerts, lasting a little more than an hour without a break, a medley of 24 songs, including some from Porgy and Bess, and concluding with the theme from Rhapsody in Blue.  The sheet music for all pieces is from The New York Times Gershwin Years in Song (published by Quadrangle Press which was then owned by the NYT). It was presented to me in my publishing days by one of our printers in 1973 and it is a prized possession as the songs include all the introduction sections which, in a George and Ira Gershwin song, can be as interesting as the song itself. I’m grateful to still be playing from this treasure some 42 years later -- and so the circle closes.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Silver Slugger Opening Day

It’s that special time of year as baseball rises with the spring Crocuses, throwing off the winter and March madness.  For us in Florida, it’s the end of Spring Training games but the beginning of the minor league season.  In Palm Beach Country we have the A plus league playing in Jupiter’s Roger Dean Stadium, fielding teams from Florida’s west and east coast.  Although the official opening day at the stadium was the week before, for us “Silver Sluggers” Wednesday night was our opening day.  It was a lovely spring/summer early evening, in the low 80’s with a light breeze, the Jupiter Hammerheads (the Marlins’ farm club) playing the Clearwater Threshers (Philadelphia’s farm club).

Less important than the outcome of these games (either the Hammerheads or the Palm Beach Cardinals play; both share the stadium, one being the home team while the other is on the road), is the game itself, how it’s played, major league in every respect, the pristine field, the beauty of the game.  “Silver Sluggers” – 55 and over – get to enjoy all those Wednesday games, $25 for the entire season, including a hot dog and soda!  How can you beat that?  And there we share the experience with similar minded friends, all of us sitting practically on the field behind third base.  Unlike the big leagues, it’s an opportunity to really feel part of the game.

The flag was at half mast, in honor of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s death, history and baseball inextricably intertwined.

I’m particularly interested in some of the left handed pitchers, as my high school fantasy was to pitch in the big leagues.  So, I was thrilled to see a lefty pitch, Jarlin Garcia of the Hammerheads who started Wednesday’s game, working 6 innings, giving up no runs with 4 strike outs and 2 walks.  Not a flame thrower, but he was bringing his fast ball in the low 90’s balancing those pitches with off speed stuff.  The 22 year old kid from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic has potential.

Some excitement at the game was the presence of  Domonic Brown, the big Philadelphia Phillies regular right fielder who was playing on rehab assignment.  He went 1 for 4.

The game itself was decided in the ninth inning when Clearwater scored all 7 of its runs, beating the Hammerheads 7-4.  But, as I said, that was less important than just being there.  Let the games begin!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Spot of Bother

Mary, my “virtual friend,” comes through again.   Who knew that some of the more interesting book recommendations would come from someone I haven’t seen in 45 years, an ex-employee who contacted me out of the blue.  She knows my taste in reading better than most, having before recommended The Ha Ha by Dave King and a couple of real classics, Stoner, by John Williams and Wallace Stegner’s The Angle of Repose. 

Maybe she suggested A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon because like the protagonist, George, I’m retired.  Dying is on his mind, not that death itself scares me. Perhaps the way we die might, but if I get lucky, one day I’ll just not wake up.  The real problem is an existential crisis as the world goes on while I return to nothingness from which I came.

So I have to agree with Haddon who writes somewhat amusingly, most men of George’s age thought they were going to live forever….Obviously it would be nice to go quietly in one’s sleep.  But going quietly in one’s sleep was an idea cooked up by parents to make the deaths of grandparents and hamsters less traumatic.  And doubtless some people did go quietly in their sleep but most did so only after many wounding rounds with the Grim Reaper.  His own preferred exits were rapid and decisive.  Others might want the time to bury the hatchet with estranged children and tell their wives where the stopcock was.  Personally, he wanted the lights to go out with no warning and the minimum attendant mess.  Dying was bad enough without having to make it easier for everyone else.

Haddon is an English writer and one better be prepared for some very understated Brit humor to get the most out of this novel, not to mention place and cultural references that might not be altogether familiar to an American reader.  As I read the book I had the vague idea of asking the author whether I could attempt to “translate” the novel into a screenplay, with an American setting and references – it seems to be so ideal for that treatment like the works of similar fellow novelists, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Tropper -- but alas the French beat me to it having already filmed it as Une petite zone de turbulences.

In many ways the novel reminds me of the much underrated Alan Lightman novel The Diagnosis which one could call a “pre-retirement” man’s nightmare of devolving into insanity, a Kafkaesque plight caused by the modern working world.  Unfortunately, I read that novel before I started this blog so to reconstruct it here for comparison purposes I’d have to read it again.  But I was aware of the main character’s dilemma as I read this book.

It is the post retirement world of George, who was a manufacturer of children’s playground equipment, which is the setting for a surreal illness of existential angst in A Spot of Bother.  George is convinced that he has a cancerous lesion, one that has been diagnosed as eczema, so nothing to worry about, right?  Wrong.  A spot of bother, indeed.

His mind was malfunctioning. He had to bring it under control….He needed a strategy. He…drew up a list of rules:

1.       Keep busy.
2.       Take Long walks
3.       Sleep well.
4.       Shower and change in the dark
5.       Drink red wine.
6.       Think of something else.
7.       Talk.

George is a disconnected introvert, and suddenly as I write this I’m thinking of some of Anne Tyler’s men, particularly Liam Pennywell from her novel Noah's Compass. There are definite similarities.

Back to George’s story which is but one of four in this novel, revolving about each other as a diagram of an Atom and its components, a dysfunctional nuclear family and its offshoots.  First, there is the story of George and his wife of many years, Jean.  But Jean has a lover, David, with whom George worked, and thus a second story.  Then there are George and Jean’s two adult children, each with their own tales of love.   Katie is intent on entering into a second marriage to Ray, a blue collar kind of guy, generous and loving to Katie and her son by her previous marriage, Jacob, but not having the “approval” of her family (and she wonders, of herself).  And there is Jamie, who has finally come out of the closet, bewildering his parents, madly in love with Tony, who has rejected him.  Angst to the fourth power.  But George is little touched by this as he slowly descends into a kind of madness, especially after secretly seeing his wife and David engaged in sexual intercourse on his own bed (it’s not a pretty sight and Haddon hilariously captures the moment and George’s reaction).

Yet at the heart of the story is George’s obsession with death which arises even when he is having fun with his grandson, Jacob.  He’s amazed by the child’s skill with technology.  Which was how young people took over the world.  All that fiddling with new technology.  You wake up one day and realize your own skills were laughable.  Woodwork.  Mental arithmetic….Maybe George was fooling himself.  Maybe old people always fooled themselves, pretending that the world was going to hell in a handcart because it was easier than admitting they were being left behind, that the future was pulling away from the beach, and they were standing on their little island bidding it good riddance, knowing in their hearts that there was nothing left for them to do but sit around on the shingle waiting for the big diseases to come out of the undergrowth. Hilarious, but true!

The author writes with in compelling unpretentious style, cramming these stories into one hundred and forty four interconnected chapters (yes, 144 or about 3 pages each).  Yet it’s a very readable, engaging work, full of droll humor and some pathos.  It seems to gather momentum, exhorting you to read on.  All these stories converge in the end, a little too neatly in my opinion. Although the book is not in the same league as the three novels I mentioned at the onset of this entry, Haddon is a talented young novelist, so perhaps his best is yet to come.
A Recent Sunset