Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Fast Few Weeks....



Ann was away for 18 days, taking a trip to India, one she has always dreamt about, a non-sanitized version, traveling from Delhi to Varanasi, visiting small villages and all the important destinations like the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort.  It was vigorous and demanding, more than I wanted to do, and with a small group.  Group travel has never been my "thing" so we agreed: she should go and I should stay home.  We've done that before, and being by myself is no big deal. 

She has now returned home, but the day before she left, she helped with one of the piano concerts I do from time to time at senior homes in Florida, the most recent one at the Waterford in Juno Beach, a very nice facility with continuous levels of care.

I've performed there before, but only in the assisted living wing, which was somewhat difficult as the piano had seen its better days, my having little ability to modulate loud / soft,  and even the keys sometime sticking, making it almost torture to perform.  This time I "graduated" to their auditorium which had a lovely grand piano, a pleasure to play. 

I usually write a brief narrative when I compile a program, basically to introduce the various sections and put the selections in an overall structure, but always found it off putting to have to get up from the piano to talk and then sit down again.   So Ann helped me present the narrative and even made a cell phone recording of one of the pieces I played (Moon River, even though I play other pieces better, but it just happened to be the one where she was able to unobtrusively record).

As a cell phone recording, the sound is merely passable, as is the photographic composition, but one thing it did capture was the bizarre lighting of the stage, which was put on just as I was beginning to play.  (I found it disconcerting, but the show must go on!).  So I include that video below, along with the narrative of the entire program. 

I had already performed Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Andrew Lloyd Webber programs at this facility before, so I decided to make this one an eclectic compilation of songs from the Great American Songbook, under the rubric, "Music Makes Us:"

BOB:
David Byrne in his recently published How Music Works, made a profound observation: "We don't make music; it makes us." How true. And we are sort of defined by the music we listen to. For my wife Ann and myself, it is the Great American Songbook, music we sometimes we refer to as "The Standards," many coming from our theatre and films or just pieces written for or by some of our recording artists. For this program I’ve chosen some diverse pieces from "The Songbook."  It is music our generation will always remember. I'm going to turn over the narration of the program to Ann, so I can settle here at the piano.
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ANN:
In keeping with the theme, Bob's first piece is by Joe Raposo, who wrote much of the music for Sesame Street but is perhaps best known for the work he did with Frank Sinatra and, in particular, this piece, You Will Be My Music.
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How about flying down to Rio as the next medley of pieces are by two of the best known Brazilian composes, Luiz Bonfa and Antonio Jobim? Bonfa wrote A Day in the Life of a Fool for the film "Black Orpheus." This will be followed by two pieces by the legendary Jobim, whose work has become a permanent part of the Great American Songbook, How Insensitive, and concluding with Dindi.
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From songwriters we turn to a lyricist, Johnny Mercer, who worked with a number of great Broadway and film composers. Bob is going to play a few of his best known, Once Upon a Summertime, Moon River and finally, one of our favorites, I'm Old Fashioned.
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One of the greatest jazz pianists ever, who was a composer as well, is Bill Evans. The first piece was written by him, Waltz for Debby which is followed by another in 3/4 time, How My Heart Sings (composed by Earl Zindars), and then one by a composer Evans frequently recorded, Denny Zeitlin's Quiet Now.
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Here is a thematic group of melodies, ones that are telling related stories of Youth and Love, of course favorite faire for songwriters, such as Young and Foolish, then Young Love (by the famous pianist, Errol Gardner), Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine (by the great Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern, written for Showboat), concluding with Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers' My Funny Valentine.
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From Youth and Love we evolve to songs concerning Time and Remembrance. As Time Goes By was immortalized in the 1942 movie Casablanca. Time after Time is a classic written by the great team of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne. Then we will always think of Bob Hope when we hear Thanks For the Memory. This section will conclude with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Memory from Cats.
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We now turn to three songs, the only relationship between them is they involve body parts -- the face and the arms! But seriously, they are all beautiful melodic masterpieces. The first is the better known of the three, I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face from Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Then two songs -- ones not frequently heard -- I See Your Face Before Me by Arthur Schwartz (the father of Jonathan Schwartz who has long hosted a Sinatra radio program) and I Got Lost in His Arms from Annie Got Her Gun, by the legendary Irving Berlin..
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And to conclude the program, it's Time to Say Goodbye or Con te partirĂ² which Sarah Brightman made famous with Andrea Bocelli. It's been wonderful to share this great music with you....

However, the big news: now that Ann has returned I've implored her to write about her trip for this blog, along with a selection of the very interesting photographs she took.  She's agreed! I'm very eager for her to finish her work (she is getting an idea of what I go through writing up our trips and assembling photos), as I know from her preliminary notes (mostly emails she sent me during the trip) it is going to be an exceptional piece of writing.  And here are just a couple of her photos that I edited and am posting as a teaser:







Friday, November 16, 2012

Whither Go Republicans...or Will They Just Wither?

A Guest Editorial by Roger Brickner



My high school teacher from years and years ago, a Republican all his life, expressed his dismay at what has happened to his party in an email to friends, and I have his permission to share it. Roger has studied the American political scene for more than sixty years now, more than 25% of the lifetime of the Union itself.  His observations are truly first hand and astute....

The party wasn't always like that. From 1861-1913 they lost to only one Democrat.  Their major successful policies during that period included, the winning of the Civil War, the ending of slavery, the supremacy of the union, meaning the central federal government, the opening up of western lands to pioneers, both domestic and immigrant (Homestead Act), the opening up of the west by encouraging entrepreneurs to build the infrastructure of the transcontinental railway, the land grants to states to establish free state colleges (Morrill Act), the control of greedy capitalists who sought to take at others expense (Trust Busting), they laid the ground and finally passed the Suffrage Act of 1919 giving women the right to vote, they encouraged Prohibition  as a way to lessen the effects of wife beating.  (not all their efforts succeeded).  Almost all of these measures, including the last two, were opposed  by the Democrats. This was a formula of beliefs which worked for Republicans.  Why has the party of today strayed from these successful principles which spawned their own party?

These are questions about their own party which they must answer. It was a party which combined what was good for America with care and compassion with the people they ruled. Why is it so different today?  Part of it is that their vision is blurred as they do not fully understand the origins of  their own party. Part of it is because policies initiated in the late 1960's moved them away from their roots.  Pres. Nixon's "Southern strategy" worked all too well. For 108 years the SOLID SOUTH  held for the Democratic party.  Since then the South has voted overwhelmingly Republican. What an incredible reversal! It has transformed the Republican party on racial and states' rights policies. It's earlier openness to the needs of a diverse nation has become crabbed and resentful.

Given the ever evolving aspect of America it will become more and more diverse ethnically. We are a nation based on the concept that we are united as a democratic society, not as a nation based on one ethnicity.  We are therefore not a carbon copy of how Europe views itself.  Europe sees itself as countries of a single cultural identity, in spite of their rather unsuccessful attempts to integrate other cultures into their societies.  To illustrate, I ask: "when will England have a Pakistani ethnic become PM, when will the French have an Algerian ethnic become their leader, and when will Germany have a Turkish ethnic become their Chancellor?   Don't hold your breath.

Unless and until the Republican party...the party of my own proud heritage...realize who they are and embraces in its heart ALL Americans, I foresee them becoming like the old Whig party which shunned the issues of the day and allowed the great Republican party to succeed it.

When Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt can be found again in Republican circles, they may once again become relevant today. Until that happens those great Republican presidents are better reflected in the Democratic party.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Schmidtie




Albert Schmidt, that is, but he prefers to be called "Schmidtie" and Louis Begley's trilogy captures the essence of a complex modern man.  It bothered me that a movie had been made of the first novel, About Schmidt (1996), with Jack Nicholson playing the title role, and it took a while to get the image of good ole' Jack out of my mind.  I also don't like seeing a film first and then reading the book, but years had intervened by the time I read the book last summer. Thus I had a hard time associating it with the film (other than Jack).  But as it turns out the book is entirely different (it would be best to say the film was "suggested" by the novel) and in fact when I now think of what Schmidtie might look like, I see Louis Begley, a remarkable writer and with a remarkable personal history.

Begley came to writing late in life and like Joseph Conrad and Jerzy Kosinski, English is a second language, Polish being the language of their birth.  The similarities to Kosinski are striking, Begley having to exorcise his demons about the Nazi occupation of Poland by writing Wartime Lies.  It is a thinly autobiographical account of the protagonist's attempt to avoid persecution as a Jew . I remember reading Kosinski's Painted Bird when it was first published, a profoundly disturbing holocaust novel.  I haven't read Wartime Lies, but it is now on my list.

After that novel, Begley felt he could move on as a writer, even though he remained a full-time attorney with the firm of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, specializing in international corporate transactions. He has since retired and now devotes his full energies to writing at the tender age of 79!

I've dealt with enough attorneys in my career, mostly corporate ones and those specializing in intellectual property, to know that their work depends on the careful execution of language.  Most of the attorneys I worked with thought that crafting a legal document was like building a fine piece of furniture or even creating a work of art.  No, that did not make them automatically eligible to start a second career as a creative writer as one needs something to say as well.  In fact Begley, by his own admission, did not pursue a career as a writer at first for that very reason, although he enjoyed a creative writing class at Harvard where he earned his AB in 1954.  It took him decades to find his voice, and now that he has, he is, thankfully, writing full time.

Interestingly, his class of 1954 included none other than the late John Updike, my favorite writer.  They both graduated summa cum laude and they must have known each other.  Whether they kept in touch over the years we will find out when Begley's son, Adam Begley, is finished with the biography he is writing of John Updike.  I will be lining up for the first copy!

After finishing All About Schmidt, I promptly turned to the second novel of the trilogy, Schmidt Delivered (2000) and now have finally finished the third novel, Schmidt Steps Back (2012) and have been profoundly affected by it.  Although these were written years apart, I had the good fortune to read all within a few months and, therefore, I almost think of them as one work.

For me, Begley sort of picks up where Updike left off, following one character and setting that character against the backdrop of the times in which he lives.  Updike updated us every ten years in the Rabbit tetrology while Begley's trilogy is a more compressed time frame.  Nonetheless, there are many similarities, particularly the novel as memoir, a kind of history of our times, and the intellectual level at which both Updike and Begley operate, their erudite prose befitting of their excellent educations.

Rabbit is more of an "everyman" whereas Schmidtie is moving in the upper echelon of society, certainly the upper 1% to borrow from the recent election.  And that should not be surprising as Begley's legal work put him front and center in that stratum of society. 

In terms of style, Begley writes like an attorney in many respects; his sentences sometimes complex but finely crafted and I like his dispensing with quotation marks for dialog.  It takes a little getting used to, but it seems so natural.  I felt neutral to the protagonist in the first novel, moved a little closer to him in the second, and by the third felt simpatico.   

Rabbit and I shared many commonalities, and now I find myself in Schmidtie's shoes, thinking similar thoughts and of course witnessing the same events.  It makes these novels living breathing documents to me.

Begley covers so many topics and themes in these novels, the ambiguity of memory, Jewishness, moneyed privilege (consider this beautiful crafted passage on that topic: "Tim had it all, every quality required to make him, as the younger partners put it, the complete package.  Handsome, imperially slim, arrayed in discreet made-to-order suits and shirts that did not shout their Savile Row and Jermyn Street provenance, he trailed an aura of old New York money."), mental illness, homosexuality, the publishing industry and the legal establishment, the death of a spouse (his wife, Mary dies early on in the first novel), spring-winter romance, divorce and infidelity, the tragic relationship with his only child, Charlotte ("His short-lived happiness had been added to the monstrous inventory of Charlotte's resentments.  There was no doubt: the ever-deeper -- he was beginning to fear permanent -- estrangement from his daughter was his life's principal liability.") and, finally, sex scenes worthy of Updike's Couples.

He throws down the gauntlet in the opening pages of Schmidt Steps Back (the best of the three novels), Schmidtie speculating as to how many years he has left (he guesses ten) and how death might come calling. Dr. Tang is his physician and Gil his best friend from college. I was fascinated by this long paragraph, as if Begley was listening in on my own private thoughts as they pertain to the inevitable.  He also sets up some of the basic themes in the novel, the prospect of happiness (and his ability to have sex) with a woman he had romanced thirteen years before the opening of the novel, Alice, and the consequence and obligations of money:

"Silly business, Schmidt thought, Dr. Tang's attention to his diet.... He had asked Dr. Tang whether she could foresee the form in which death would come for him. You won't  scare me, he had said, everyone has an appointment in Samarra, and I own a cemetery plot with a view of Peconic Bay I rather like. She laughed gaily in reply and told him that with a patient in such good health it was impossible to predict. Schmidt's simultaneous translation was Don't ask stupid questions, leave it to team death, they'll figure it out. Ever polite, he had merely laughed back. In truth, he had his own hunches: stroke or cancer, demonic diseases that don't always go for the quick kill. But whatever it might turn out to be, no one, absolutely no one, would get him to move into a nursing home. If he was compos mentis, and not yet paralyzed, he would find his own way to the exit. Otherwise, the instructions left with Gil, naming him the sole arbiter of Schmidt's life and death, should do the job, with a little friendly nudge from Gil if need be. It was no more than he would do for Gil, who had made his own arrangements giving Schmidt the power of decision. Dementia, the illness most likely to cut off the means of escape, held more terror than any other. But he had not heard of a single ancestor, going back three generations, who had been so afflicted. The other side of the coin, the agreeable side, was his overall good health. Once he got going in the morning, he was still quite limber. In truth, he doubted there was much difference between his condition thirteen years earlier, when he first called on Alice in Paris, to take an example that preoccupied him, and the way he was now. Not unless you wanted to fixate on the deep lines, running to the corners of his mouth, that had only gotten deeper or the hollow cheeks or the fold of skin sagging from his neck. Taken together, they gave him an expression so lugubrious that efforts to smile made him look like a gargoyle. The situation was less brilliant when it came to his libido and sexual performance. The grade he had given himself when last put to the test had been no higher than a pass, but as he had told Alice, he had not yet tried any of the miracle pills that old geezer-in-chief Bob Dole swore by on television. Besides, the test in question had been unfair: the lady whom he may have disappointed could not hold a candle to the incomparable Alice. Did his age and the ravages of time make it reprehensible to keep over- paying the Hampton mafia of gardeners, handymen, carpenters, and plumbers for the pleasure of having everything at his house just so? Or to pay the outrageous real estate taxes that financed town services, neatly itemized on the tax bill as though to taunt him by proving that he derived no personal benefit from them? Hell, there were lots of men unable to get a hard-on and lots of women who had faked orgasms until blessed moment when they could finally declare that at their age they'd given the whole thing up, living comfortably in houses much grander than his. Spending more money than he!"

Then there is the notion of the novel as history.  Begley gives witness to the manners and mores, the foibles, and the likes and dislikes of his times. Updike's characters are similarly entwined with their periods in American history. I would rather read a novel in this vein than any history book to get a sense of what people not only witnessed, but what they felt.  This is why I prefer fiction to nonfiction (although some of nonfiction could probably pass as fiction!).  We all remember where we were on certain momentous days.  My older relatives remember Pearl Harbor, while I remember where I was when Kennedy was assassinated that moment in time only to be surpassed by the events of September 11, 2001.

Begley  flawlessly describes the horror and the incredulity of that infamous day in the third novel:
"Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Perfect blue sky, perfect late-summer temperature. If it hadn't been for the foundation's board meeting, Schmidt would have stayed in Bridgehampton. As it was, he had driven in the evening before, got to the office early to prepare for the meeting, which was to start at ten. His secretary, Shirley, walked into his room shortly after nine to say good morning and ask whether he wanted coffee.
By the way, she added, one of those pesky little private planes has plowed into one of the World Trade Center towers. There's smoke coming out the building where it hit. If you come to reception you'll have a good view.
Schmidt glanced at his papers. For all practical purposes he was ready. He walked down the corridor to where a large number of Mansour Industries employees already assembled in the forty-eighth-floor reception area were looking toward the southern tip of Manhattan, staring at the smoking tower, when the second plane hit. No one thought any longer that some neophyte aboard his Piper or Cessna was to blame. The traders who occupied two-thirds of the floor and had been glued to Madrid's El Mundo on their computers, unable to reach other sites, dashed in with the news; someone brought in a television set and connected to a German station. On the screen tiny-seeming figures, some of them holding hands, could be seen jumping from the vast height of the wounded buildings. Someone shouted, Look! Look! Schmidt turned away from the screen to look south, and before his eyes one tower crumbled and, not a half hour later, the second. Then came news of another plane that had hit the Pentagon and another still that had crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. And the passengers in those planes, men, women, children-their seat belts buckled-waiting for the moment of impact, knowing that they were to die in flames of burning jet fuel. Schmidt found that he could not detach his thoughts from them, as though it were his own nightmare from which he was unable to awake. Were they praying? Strangers embracing strangers next to whom they sat across armrests? Recollecting quickly all that had been good and beloved in their lives? Some of the children must have understood, but the others? The infants? Did the sound of their wailing fill the planes' cabins? Did it soften the murderers' hearts or was it their foretaste of paradise?"

Begley has already written several other novels, ones now on my reading list.  Perhaps he is working on his fourth Schmidt novel (one would hope!).  He is a worthy writer to be added to my personal pantheon of "favorites." 

Although now ten years old, here is an excellent interview with Begley from the Paris Review
http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/392/the-art-of-fiction-no-172-louis-begley


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Thoughts on Veterans Day





Veterans Day brings thoughts of my Dad, who died of cancer almost thirty years ago.  He was a veteran of WW II, but never liked to talk about it.  I learned more about his service experiences from letters he left behind, and a WWII scrap book he kept. 

He was the "accidental soldier" like so many other GIs, ones who were drafted away from their families and friends.  He was a most unlikely candidate for warrior.  Perhaps that is why he brought his profession, photographer, with him, becoming a member of the Signal Corps.  But that doesn't mean he didn't risk his life at times.  He expressed not only his fears in his letters, but his hope he was fighting a war to end all wars as well.  At the war's conclusion he was delayed in Germany as part of the occupying force.  I vaguely remember his return.

I have a deep respect for what he did, and for all veterans who answered the call. The war that lives in my mind was the senseless one in Vietnam.  From a killing field then, to a top tourist attraction now.  My draft status at the time was 3-A as I was married and had a child. By the time the draft lottery was instituted in 1969, I was exempt as I was born before the 1944 birth-date cut off.  But good friends of mine were called, Bruce, Ray, and Ron, friends to this day.  I salute their service.

Soon after my Dad's death I wrote a tribute to him, a recollection which tried to capture his essence and our relationship.  I had called it "An Ordinary Man" as his story is not exceptional, but one of a man who lived his life as best he could, trying to do the right thing.  Of course to me he was anything but "ordinary." 

Recently I felt that essay, written so many years before, needed work, and I revised it, not only to be more accurate (the passage of time helped recall details) but with the intention of submitting it to the New York Times Magazine section as a suitable piece for their "Lives" section. But I knew it was unlikely they would publish it as the paper tends to be partial to professional writers or journalists.  And as they have not, I include it here.  It is really the story of how, or why, I did not go into business with him, but I think it is a good depiction of him as well.  So, in loving memory of my Dad, a veteran:

An Unspoken Obligation

Up Park Avenue we speed to beat the lights from lower Manhattan in the small Ford station wagon with Hagelstein Bros., Commercial Photographers since 1866, 100 Fifth Avenue, NY, NY imprinted on its panels. The Queens Midtown Tunnel awaits us.

It is a summer in the late 1950s and, once again, I’m working for my father after another high school year. In the back of the wagon I share a small space with props, flood lamps, and background curtains. The hot, midtown air, washed by exhaust fumes and the smoke from my father’s perpetual burning cigarette, surround me.

My father’s brother and partner, my Uncle Phil, occupies the passenger’s seat. They have made this round trip, day-in and day-out since my father returned from WWII. They speak of the city, its problems, the Russians, and politics disagreeing on most matters. Meanwhile I sleepily daydream about where my friends and I will cruise that evening in one of their cars, a 57’ Merc, probably Queens Blvd., winding up at Jahn’s next to the RKO on Lefferts Boulevard.

The family photography business was established right after the Civil War, soon after my great-great grandfather, Carl, emigrated from Cologne, Germany with his brother, settling in New York City.  Their portrait photography business at 142 Bowery flourished in the 19th century.  The 20th century brought a new focus: commercial photography which necessitated moving to a larger studio, better located, at 100 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 15th Street.  There the business remained until the 1980’s, occupying the top floor. 

My father took it for granted that I was being groomed for the business, the next generation to carry it on. Uncle Phil was a bachelor and since I was the only one with the name to preserve the tradition, it would naturally fall to me.

This was such an understood, implicit obligation, that nothing of a formal nature such as a college education was needed to foster this direction. Simply, it was my job to learn the business from the bottom up, working first as a messenger on the NY City streets, delivering glossies to clients for salesmen’s samples, or for catalog display at the annual Furniture Show. As a youngster, I roamed NYC by subway and taxi with my deliveries without incident – after all, this was the innocent, placid 50’s.  Eventually, I graduated to photographer’s assistant, adjusting lamp shades under the hot flood lamps so the seams would not show, and, later, as an assistant in the color lab, making prints, dodging negatives of a clients’ tables, lamps, and sofas to minimize any overexposures.

I see my father through the lens of his working life, revealing a personality normally invisible to me. At home he was a more contemplative, private person, crushed by a troubled marriage. My mother expected more, often reminding him of his failures. But strolling down the halls of his photography business he is a transformed person, smiling, extending his hand to a customer, kidding in his usual way. “How’s Geschaft?” he would say.

His office overlooks the reception area and there he, my Uncle, and his two cousins preside over a sandwich and soda delivered from a luncheonette downstairs. I sit, listen, and devour my big greasy burger. They discuss the business among themselves. Osmosis was my mentor.

In spite of the filial duty that prompted me to continue learning the photography business, I inveigled his support to go to college – with the understanding I would major in business. By then I think I knew going to school would be the first step away from the family business, a step, once taken, would not be taken back. The question was how to reveal this to him.

However, as silently was the expectation that I would take over one day, my retreat was equally furtive. We both avoided the topic as I went to college and yet continued to work there during the summers. Once I switched majors from business to the humanities, we both knew the outcome of the change, but still, no discussion. This was territory neither he nor I wanted to visit at the time.

My reasons were instinctively clear to me, in spite of the guilt I often felt. In the studio he was larger than life, the consummate photographer, but he was also provincial in his business thinking. He had bet the future on producing those prints for salesmen, discounting the impact of the developing mass media.  My opinion on the matter would mean little. After all, he was my Dad and I was his kid. So I kept my silence and progressively moved away.

Why he never brought up the subject I will, now, never know, although I suspect he understood I wanted to find my own way in life. Ultimately, I married and found a job in publishing with an office, ironically, only three blocks from his studio. I still occasionally joined him for that greasy burger at his office during those first few years of my publishing career, his greeting me with a smile when I arrived, “so, how’s Geschaft?