Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Time is Here -- in Florida

Last year I posted my piano rendition of one of my favorite Christmas pieces, It’s Love –It’s Christmas, written by the great jazz pianist, Bill Evans.  You rarely hear it performed in the tsunami of holiday music that overwhelms airwaves at this time.  Another favorite is Vince Guaraldi’s Christmas Time Is Here, much more frequently performed.  No wonder, it was written for A Charlie Brown Christmas special in 1965.  Although Guaraldi’s music will always be associated with the Peanuts Christmas specials, he was a fabulous jazz pianist and composer in his own right, tragically and suddenly dying at the age of only 47 of a heart attack or aortic aneurysm.

So, in the spirit of a Florida Christmas, I offer my own piano rendition, nothing like the master Guaraldi’s, but just mine.  The lyrics are by Lee Mendelson, the producer of the Charlie Brown specials, who just happened to hear Guaraldi’s "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on the radio and sought him out to compose the music for the 1965 special, and the rest is history.

Christmas Time Is Here

Christmas time is here
Happiness and cheer
Fun for all that children call
Their favorite time of the year

Snowflakes in the air
Carols everywhere
Olden times and ancient rhymes
Of love and dreams to share

Sleigh bells in the air
Beauty everywhere
Yuletide by the fireside
And joyful memories there

Christmas time is here
Families drawing near
Oh, that we could always see
Such spirit through the year

And what would Christmas time be in Florida without the recent Boat Parade.  We had a view from the starting point at the North Palm Beach Marina, the parade preceded by fireworks.  Having had our most memorable Christmases in Connecticut, the contrast is, well, striking.

From Christmases past, this 1977 photo, Jonathan, Ann, me, our beloved Uncle Phil, and Chris…

A Happy and Healthy Holiday to All!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


I gave a belated 100th birthday piano concert in honor of Frank Sinatra – only a few days late, my regular Brookdale Senior Living home monthly performance, ironically on my own birthday.  I listened to Sinatra all day on Dec. 12, his 100th and I wondered how different my life would have been if there had not been a Frank Sinatra.  He permeated our culture.  

The Great American Songbook would not exist in its present form if there was no Sinatra.  I remember in high school I was just getting over my fascination with Elvis Presley, and abandoning my guitar lessons, when a new kid moved into my neighborhood. Ed was unlike any of my other friends. When we hung out in his room he had two albums he played over and over again, Frank Sinatra’s Come Fly With Me, and Ahmad Jamal’s At the Pershing: But Not for Me, both released in 1958 on the eve of my senior HS year.  My parents never listened to such music. Those albums brought me back to the piano. 

So, thanks to that accidental connection, and Frank and Ahmad, I’ve had a musical life of joy playing the songs of the Great American Songbook during my entire adult life.  And I’ve had all those decades of enjoying Sinatra but it wasn’t until he was in his mid-70’s, the age I’m now approaching myself, that I had an opportunity to see him in person.  It was June of 1991 and we had ventured to Las Vegas for a long weekend to see our dear friend, Peter and his wife Marge, who lived there. 

Peter had been diagnosed with cancer but he was still mobile and relatively pain free and our mutual wish was to see Sinatra who was then appearing at the Riviera Hotel.  We had practically front row seats, slightly off to the left, and he sang many of his signature pieces, some of the same ones I played at my concert such as The Lady Is a Tramp, I’ve Got you Under My Skin, New York, New York and the piece I concluded my own piano tribute to him, My Way. That June 1991 appearance turned out to be among his last concerts in Vegas.  His orchestra was enthusiastically conducted by his son, Frank Sinatra Jr. 

Although one could tell that age had taken its toll on Sinatra’s voice by then, his phrasing, which made him so distinctive, as well as his personality, came through.  He had the ability to convince the audience members that he was singing directly to and for you.

I had one tangential connection with The Chairman of the Board.  In 1998 my publishing company published Ol’ Blue Eyes; A Frank Sinatra Encyclopedia, chronicling every song he ever sang, every movie he ever appeared in.  I gave a copy to a transient boater who was docked next to me at our marina as he was Sinatra’s drummer for many of his concerts over a twenty year period (forgot his name).  So I was regaled about several personal incidents and it was enjoyable to hear from someone who worked closely with him.  Bottom line, Sinatra was a perfectionist when it came to music and how he sang a song.

He was also an outspoken person all his life.  I found his 1963 Playboy interview fascinating.  Then, of course, the threat was communism and the cold war.  I’m pretty sure if he were around today, he’d have a thing or two to say about the present world tumult and the breakdown of our political process.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

All That Is

Having read James Salter’s Light Years I was eager to read his last work, one that was written and published only two years before his death at the age of 90.  Why does a person nearing the end of his life take one last plunge into writing a novel after such a long absence (the previous one was written more than 30 years earlier)?  

That is immediately answered in the epigraph preceding the half title page:  “There comes a time when you / realize that everything is a dream, / and only those things preserved in writing / have any possibility of being real.”  Salter has important things to say about that “dream,” and thus this novel.

Light Years is poetic whereas All That Is is more episodic, covering the events of the entire adult life of Philip Bowman, a naval officer in WW II, Harvard educated.  He takes a circuitous route to becoming one of the leading editors in a well-known New York City literary publishing house, one that could be a veiled version of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The novel contains a number of publishing references that are familiar to me, particularly the London and Frankfurt Bookfairs and ABA in Chicago.  So reminiscence was an added layer of meaning while reading this tale.  Alan Bennett’s quote from The History Boys resonates:  “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you.  Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead.  And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

The novel opens during WWII. Bowman is a navigator aboard a destroyer in the Pacific.  The man he most admires is his bunkmate, Kimmel, who is known for his sexual exploits.  Bowman is completely inexperienced with women.  During a ferocious kamikaze battle, Kimmel jumped into the water during the attack, abandoning ship as he was convinced the ship’s magazine would blow, only to be picked up by another destroyer that was then almost immediately sunk.  “Kimmel ended up in a naval hospital.  He became a kind of legend.  He’d jump off his ship by mistake and in one day had seen more action than the rest of them would see in the entire war.  Afterwards, Bowman lost track of him.”

I make a point of this as the life Bowman imagined of Kimmel, he eventually tries to create for himself, seeking sexual experience (first through a totally inappropriate marriage to a wealthy and inexperienced young women from a wealthy Virginia family, a marriage which rapidly ends in divorce) and then through what constitutes a slowly revolving door of sexual partners.  These women were all well educated, some married, attracted to Bowman no doubt as he matured into a New York City sophisticate, well connected to artists and writers in particular, the names of which are dropped freely throughout the novel.

Yet, there is the strong theme of Bowman leading essentially a solitary life populated by the activities of his profession and his dalliances.  A couple of these relationships become quite serious, even leading to the thought of a second marriage.  One in particular seems to be heading right there until it explodes into deception and even more startling in the context of this tale, revenge.  It is the only moment in the novel that truly takes the reader by surprise.

It reminds me in many ways of Stoner by John Williams, although that is a much darker tale. There is a sense of “aloneness” in each novel.  These men have their work, work they love, but relationships break down or are fleeting.  Each protagonist marries only once. 

Bowman and Stoner move in different circles, Bowman’s world being the well-traveled, the affluent and sophisticated.  Salter’s characters move in and out of the novel not unlike life itself where acquaintances reappear in the most unlikely places or at the most unlikely times. 

Two such characters (and there are scores of such minor players) in the novel are Neil Eddins, “the other editor,…a southerner, smooth faced and mannerly, who wore striped shirts and made friends easily,” and Charles Delovet a literary agent.  Salter describes a meeting between Eddins and Delovet, and the description is typical of Salter’s prose and the kind of people he writes about:  “In the city one day Eddins had lunch at the Century Club, in the distinguished surroundings of portraits and books, with a successful literary agent named Charles Delovet, who was well-dressed and walked with a slight limp said to be from a ski accident.  One of his shoes had a thick heel though it was not obvious.  Delovet was a man of style and attractive to women.  He had some major clients, Noel Coward, it was rumored, and also a yacht in Westport on which he gave parties in the summer.  In his office he had a ceramic ashtray from the Folies Bergere with a dancer's long legs in relief and, imprinted around the rim: Pour plaisir aux femmes, ca coute cher-women are expensive.  He'd been an editor at one time and he liked writers, loved them, in fact.  He rarely met a writer he didn't like or who didn't have some quality he liked. But there were a few.  He hated plagiarists.”

Salter’s prose – as was the case of Light Years – can be lyrical, evocative, and nostalgic, such as this description of Bowman going to see his ailing mother, leaving New York City by train:  “Bowman came by train, looking out at the haze of the Jersey meadows, marshes really.  He had a deep memory of these meadows, they seemed a part of his blood like the lone gray silhouette of the Empire State Building on the horizon, floating as in a dream.  He knew the route, beginning with the desolate rivers and inlets dark with the years.  Like some ancient industrial skeleton, the Pulaski Skyway rose in the distance and looped across the waters.  Nearer, in a rush, blank factories of brick with broken windows went past.  Then there was Newark, the grim, lost city of Philip Roth, and churches with trees growing from the base of neglected spires.  Endless quiet streets of houses, asylums, schools, all of an emptiness it seemed, intermixed with bland suburban happiness and wholesome names, Maplewood, Brick Church.  The great, smooth golf courses with immaculate greens.  He was of it, from it, and as he rode, unconnected to it.”  I know those sites too, but it takes a special writer to connect the reader to the feelings (“as if a hand has come out and taken yours”).

Salter takes the opportunity to opine on literature’s place in contemporary culture (or lack of place to be more precise) and the decline of publishing (something I felt very acutely at the end my own career):  “The power of the novel in the nation’s culture had weakened.  It had happened gradually.  It was something everyone recognized and ignored.  All went on exactly as before, that was the beauty of it.  The glory had faded but fresh faces kept appearing, wanting to be part of it, to be in publishing which had retained a suggestion of elegance like a pair of beautiful, bone-shined shoes owned by a bankrupt man.  Those who had been in it for some years….were like nails driven long ago into a tree that then grew around them.  They were part of it by now, embedded.” 

The novel’s dialogue is as first-rate as the narrative (he has a good eye and ear for detail), so natural, and sometimes going on for pages.  I will not quote it here, but, as I suspected, Kimmel comes back into the novel, almost like a coda and that dialogue between he and Bowman is as good as it gets.  Real people.  And at times the novel reaches the level of eroticism, unusual for a man of his age, but remembering the “beauty of fire from the beauty of embers.” [John Masefield] 

At the conclusion all things come together, the sea, a woman, a future, even an amusing expression of vanity, shocked by his own aging appearance:  “He had been weeding in the garden that afternoon and looked down to see, beneath his tennis shorts, a pair of legs that seemed to belong to an older man.  He mustn’t he realized, be going around the house in shorts like that….he had to be careful about such things.”

And finally thoughts about death, not too far removed from those anyone his age (or mine) might have:  “He had always seen it as the dark river and the long lines of those waiting for the boatman, waiting in resignation and the patience that eternity required, stripped of all but a single, last possession, a ring, a photograph, or letter that represented everything dearest and forever left behind that they somehow hoped, it being so small, they would be able to take with them.  What if there should be no river but only the endless lines of unknown people, people absolutely without hope, as there had been in the war?  He would be made to join them, to wait forever.  He wondered then, as he often did, how much of life remained for him.  He was certain of only one thing, whatever was to come was the same for everyone who had ever lived.  He would be going where they all had gone and-it was difficult to believe-all he had known would go with him, the war, the butler pouring coffee…names, houses, the sea, all he had known and things he had never known but were there nevertheless, things of his time, all the years, the great liners with their invincible glamour readying to sail, the band playing as they were backed away, the green water widening… and the small boats streaming, following behind.  The first voice he ever knew, his mother's, was beyond memory, but he could recall the bliss of being close to her as a child.  He could remember his first schoolmates, the names of everyone, the classrooms, the teachers, the details of his own room at home-the life beyond reckoning, the life that had been opened to him and that he had owned.”

Essentially this is a work of closure, a statement that life passes quickly and before one knows it there is little to the future and the past cannot be undone.  Yet in his inherent aloneness, Bowman’s life is one of content.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

It Can’t Happen Here?

Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America tell tales that seem impossible, demagogues being elected President of the United States and the violent consequences, minorities being persecuted, hunted, fanaticism and mass hatreds abounding.   It’s an old formula – stir fear among the populace and then promise to protect them.  Donald Trump showed his cards last night and got his South Carolina audience worked up into almost an evangelistic state.  His message is simple: Muslims in America are dangerous and he’ll protect us, classic demagoguery – “a person who appeals to the emotions and prejudices of people in order to advance his own political ends.”

Trump has stirred a dangerous pot, just what ISIS wants.  If one was a conspiracist, perhaps it could be said that he is merely a Trojan horse for Ted Cruz, who independently stated:  “We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”  If Trump drops out, Cruz will inherit the far right fringe of the Republican Party.  Was that the “plan” all along? Does Cruz know that carpet bombing usually implies leveling an area, civilians and all?  It sounds more like revenge than a strategy, something to make his followers “feel good.”

Unfortunately, the horror in San Bernardino has fed into all of this, “legitimizing” such dangerous rhetoric and escalating it to personal attacks on President Obama (who now has low polling numbers about keeping America “safe,” the exact inverse of what those numbers were after bin Laden was nailed) - and subsequent accusations that any call for stronger gun control laws is merely politicizing the San Bernardino tragedy.

But such calls have gone on for years with fierce Republican and NRA opposition.  I do not naively believe that better gun control laws and enforcement would magically eliminate such tragedies, especially in the short term.  But I do believe that the Second Amendment, which was written in the days of musket rifles and flintlock pistols, needs serious updating.

At that time, we needed an armed militia and also the founding fathers believed that an armed citizenry would be deterrent to the rise of a despotic government.  The world has changed since then, weapons of war unimaginable to our forefathers, and, now, mostly in the hands of the military and law enforcement.  To make some of the same weapons legitimately available to the citizenry no longer serves the purpose of protecting us from a despotic government as the military will always have superior weaponry (is an AK-15 adequate protection against a tank?). The proliferation of automatic weapons just further endangers us all, giving us a false sense of security by just having one in our closet. 

No, this is a country of laws and checks and balances and we have to depend on our tried-and-true institutions as well as the much maligned (by Trump in particular) fourth estate to keep our government transparent and trustworthy. If some fringe element threatens us in our homes and public places, we need better intelligence to prevent it and rapid response law enforcement to protect us.

Fully automatic weapons (ones that operate as a machine gun) need to be banned, and guns should be registered just like a car, an equally dangerous thing.  That means getting a license, passing a rigorous background check and license renewals (a gun owner having to report if it is sold, just like a car).  Guns for self defense, hunting and target practicing are understandable but how can one argue that an automatic weapon is needed?  Certainly not for hunting (where is the sport in that?).  Do we really want our neighbors to be totting an automatic weapon citing Florida’s ambiguous “stand your ground” law as a justification? 

Will that keep guns out of the hands of the “bad guys” as the Republicans like to call them?  No, but it’s a start and of course the devil is in the details of how such gun control is administered.  Senseless to get further into it here – I’m merely expounding an opinion.

Getting back to the demagoguery of Trump’s speech reminded me of a piece I wrote during the last Presidential primaries.  I concluded it with a description of the movie A Face in the Crowd and it seems to be even more apropos to this Republican primary, so I’ll repeat what I said then….

A bit of serendipity led me to watch the 1957 classic A Face in the Crowd on Turner Classic Movies. Directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg, it depicts Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter who is found in a jail by Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), who she enlists to sing and talk on a local Arkansas radio station, he ultimately rising to the pinnacle of media demagoguery.  He is nicknamed "Lonesome" Rhodes by Marcia, and she goes on the journey with him from obscurity to fame to fall. 

The relevancy of this film, made more than fifty years ago, to today is striking.  Lonesome is drawn into the political arena, and is brought in to help transform the film's Senator Worthington Fuller into a Presidential candidate.  Lonesome instinctively and sardonically understands the manipulative power of language and media. 

When he first meets the Senator, he advises him to abandon his stiff personality and give himself over to Lonesome's control:  "...Your problem is getting the voters to listen to you. Getting them to like you enough to listen to you. We've got to face it, politics have entered a new stage, television. Instead of long-winded debates, the people want slogans. 'Time for a change' 'The mess in Washington' 'More bang for a buck'. Punch-lines and glamour....We've got to find  a  million buyers for the product 'Worthington Fuller'....Respect? Did you ever hear of anyone buying any product beer, hair rinse, tissue, because they respect it? You've got to be loved, man. Loved....Senator, I'm a professional. I look at the image on that screen same as at a performer on my show. And I have to'll never get over to my audience not to the millions of people who welcome me into their living rooms each week. And if I wouldn't buy him, do you realize what that means? If I wouldn't buy him, the people of this country aren't ready to buy him for that big job on Pennsylvania Avenue....I'm an influence, a wielder of opinion...a force. A force."

To Marcia he says :"This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!....Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers - everybody that's got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be 'Fighters for Fuller'. They're mine! I own 'em! They think like I do. Only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I'm gonna be the power behind the president - and you'll be the power behind me."

An actor on Rhodes' show asks him about Senator Fuller: "You really sell that stiff as a man among men?" Lonesome Rhodes replies: "Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. Sure, I got 'em like this... You know what the public's like? A cage of Guinea Pigs. Good Night you stupid idiots. Good Night, you miserable slobs. They're a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they'll flap their flippers."