Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Magical Life

Jane Kettering died quietly last week. Which is pretty ironic, because she didn’t live quietly. A pioneering movement therapist, Jane danced and clapped and shouted and talked and touched people’s outer and inner selves for most of her 97 years. She is quiet now, but the sound of her reverberates inside so many people.
More than 15 years ago, some of the people who circled in Jane’s orbit discussed writing a book about her life and her work. As far as I know, that book has never been written. But it should be. So I’m making a small start here.

I was not part of Jane’s “inner circle”; I knew her mostly from seeing her reflection in my wife and son. For them, she was a mixture of friend, earth mother, and life coach, someone who never made judgments but made it easier to feel good about yourself. That’s a pretty rare skill.
Members of the inner circle from New Jersey would often
travel to Colorado for a "Jane fix."
A few anecdotes:

The first time I met Jane was in her home in Plainfield, New Jersey, about a year before she returned to her birthplace in Buena Vista, Colorado, to touch a whole new set of lives. It was a Christmas party, and everyone was dancing together, with and around Jane in her big colorful house. They all looked so free in their movements—especially Audrey—which was not a way I was used to seeing her on a dance floor. Jane gave me a big hug and brought me into the circle. I didn’t come all the way inside, but I was right on the edge.
The next time I saw her was in Colorado, where we had come so Audrey could get a “Jane fix.” We met her in Delaney’s Depot, a small-town diner/restaurant where Jane appeared every morning. She didn’t come because she needed breakfast—Jane ate only toast and honey with her coffee most mornings—but because people could be certain to find her there if she was needed. She would fill the rest of her day in private or group therapy sessions and later on teaching dance to children or adults.

As we sat at the table, she gave me an intense look and said, “So what do you want to do with your life?” I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just said, “Well, I’m hoping to get through this breakfast first.” She laughed, then we made an appointment for her to give me a neck massage later that day. A Jane neck massage was not something you would ever forget. She had me sit on the floor with my back to her between her knees as she set to work. She rested my forehead in one big powerful hand as she began digging into my neck with the other hand or with an elbow. At one point she put both hands around my face, tightened her grip and gave a quick twist. It was a bit of a shock, and I figured she had just removed my head from my neck and was going to toss it in the corner. But, luckily the head was still in place, and my neck did feel a little better. The tension I had been feeling was replaced with a mixture of surprise and relief. My first real Jane moment.
A Jane massage was often filled with surprise twists.
When our kids were about nine and six, we brought them out to Colorado to meet Jane and her husband Kett, who were actually building a huge log home near Buena Vista with their own hands. I can still see our kids helping carry heavy stones to be part of the house’s foundation. Later, we would all join in on one of Jane’s famous, or infamous, cookouts, depending on how much you were concerned with sanitary food preparation. You just couldn’t worry about such mundane things as germs when you were in Jane-land. You closed your eyes, chomped on the burgers or hotdogs, and joined in the lively sing-along that always accompanied the food.
Kett and Jane share hugs with Amanda, Brett, Audrey,
and our friend Lorri.
A few years later, we sent Brett out to stay with Jane for a month. At the time, he was pretty shy and insecure about himself. Jane cut through that right away, letting him find himself by being himself. There were not a lot of rules at Jane’s house, just the expectation that you would care about others and do your share of the work. The work that summer involved digging a new septic line for the log house, and Brett threw himself fully into the dirty labor. At the end of the month, Audrey flew out to take him home. She couldn’t find the boy beneath the dirt. It turned out that Jane had not required him to take baths, just let him decide on his own, and he didn’t decide to bathe or change his clothes too often. It took three baths to clean up his outside, but his inside was stronger and more complete for having spent the month with Jane. And he made a lot of friends with the unique characters who moved around Jane in Buena Vista. He also insisted on bringing home a medical supply bag containing several preserved cow hearts that he was given by Jane’s son Greg, the local veterinarian. Needless to say, the hearts didn’t stay long in our house in New Jersey.  

Audrey and Brett, and sometimes our whole family, made other visits to Colorado to be with Jane. I can remember a Pioneers Day parade and a day at a rodeo watching cowboys on bucking broncos and little kids riding on bucking lambs. I can also remember looking for 86-year-old Jane one day at her office/house in Buena Vista, only to discover her inside a crawlspace trying to repair a leaking pipe. She was strong and unflappable.

The last years of her life were not very Jane-like. Her strength began to ebb, and her mind began to lose some of its sharpness. Her daughter Jeri brought Jane from Buena Vista to her home more than an hour away, where Jane could finally slow down. Audrey and I visited her there a few years ago. We shared stories and she gave me another neck massage that was gentler and not nearly as exciting (or frightening) as the one I had been given many years before.

I can recall that last visit, but it’s not what I think about when I think about Jane Kettering. I think about watching her wrestling with Brett on her living room floor, where you could slap a couch cushion and see dust sail into the air and just laugh about the mess.
Jane and Brett in mid-tussle
And I remember dancing the two-step with Jane to a country band at a Buena Vista restaurant and then line dancing with her whole crew that night. And I remember her wearing hole-filled tights and teaching a group of young ballerinas at her cinder block studio that friends had helped her build but never chose to paint. Maybe they wanted it to be as natural as Jane. She seemed as young and energetic as the little girls that day, a mixture of mentor and friend.

When we bought our second Scottish terrier many years ago, we had to come up with a name. I suggested that we name him Buena Vista Guru in honor of Jane. But Audrey and Brett didn’t like that name or that characterization of Jane. Instead, he became Buena Vista Magic, or Buni for short. There was always some magic in the air when you were around Jane.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Our Birthday Adventure

Saturday night, our family and some close friends had dinner at a restaurant on City Island in the Bronx that is steeped in family history, though I don’t believe my children had ever been there before. Everyone enjoyed their meals, but we weren’t really there for the food. We were there for the history. We were celebrating a new moment in family history—my son’s 35th birthday—while recalling wonderful stories about Audrey’s mother (my children’s grandmother), who had died eight years ago but seemed very much alive on City Island this night.   

The Lobster Box is located near the tip of City Island, an incongruous seaside locale in the middle of New York, jutting out into Long Island Sound. Getting there can be an adventure by car, by train, or by bus. It is not on the beaten track. But the getting there is all part of the restaurant’s history and appeal for our family. My mother-in-law loved the Lobster Box and especially the adventure of getting there. She would come at least once each summer, accompanied by her cousin Lisa, and the cousins kept coming well into their 90s.
City Island isn't on the beaten track.
They were hardy and stubborn women who didn’t let advancing years persuade them to make the trip in an easier, less adventurous way. Neither woman believed in taxis or subways. Taxis were a waste of money, and subways required negotiating steps down and up. They insisted on public transportation that traveled at ground level, which meant buses. And there was no single bus that could take either woman from her home in upper Manhattan or in Riverdale in the Bronx. No, they would have to transfer once or twice to reach City Island. The trip could take almost three hours each way, but that was all part of the plan. They would each start out around noon in order to meet up and arrive at the Lobster Box before three in the afternoon. The timing was very important. The restaurant served from its lunch menu until three, and charged lunch prices for its large servings. After three, the dinner menu prices would take effect. The same seafood dinner could cost almost twice as much, which seemed both outrageous and extravagant to the two women.
Some people drive and park at the Lobster Box;
others are more adventurous.
After they finished their meals, they would walk to the nearby parking area that looked over the Sound and enjoy the view. Then they would start the return trip. It might take three hours again, but they weren’t in any hurry. They had set aside the entire afternoon for dining, visiting, and traveling to the seaside.

As you can imagine, stories of these time-consuming and economizing adventures took on a life of their own and especially amused my children, though I cannot, for the life of me, remember why we had never gone as a family with my mother-in-law to the Lobster Box. I know that Audrey and I went at least once with the two cousins, driving them and arriving at the dinner hour. (We were willing to bear the extravagance.) And I remember going once with my mother-in-law when Audrey and the children were away during a summer weekend. That time, she insisted on treating, and also insisted on our arriving before three. But why had we never taken the children there while my mother-in-law and her cousin were still alive? I wasn’t even sure that my kids remembered the stories about the place until Brett insisted that the Lobster Box was where he wanted to celebrate his birthday this year. Brett has always felt a special closeness to his grandmother, and I’m sure that impacted his choice.
Audrey, Amanda, Brett, and Janiya are all smiles---
and all bibs.
We had a great evening, traveling and eating. Brett and his friend Adam arrived by Uber from Queens. Brett’s friends Helene and Jon came with their children Janiya and baby Peter by car from Queens. We came over the GW Bridge from New Jersey, braving a rainstorm, and met Amanda in upper Manhattan for the ride to the Bronx. We drank, we ate, we told stories about family members there and absent. We shared Adam’s sumptuous and “over-the-top” German chocolate birthday cake. Then we separated and went home. It didn’t take any of us three hours to get home. But, then, we had made the trip to the Lobster Box mostly for the food and the celebration. We all admired my mother-in-law’s adventurousness. We just didn’t have the strength to emulate it.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Musical Timing, Slightly Out of Sync

My father once told a story about going to a synagogue in liberated France near the end of World War II. Growing up in rural Arkansas, my dad had encountered few Jews outside of his own family and didn’t really know much about Jewish prayer ritual. But on this day, he seemed to be an expert. His secret? He had sat next to an observant man and followed his lead throughout. When the man stood, my father stood. When he prayed silently, my father did the same. When the man said, “Amen,” my father echoed his word.
After the service, some of the other congregants seemed very impressed with my dad’s knowledge of Jewish ritual—for an American GI. My father just nodded and smiled. The moral of the story, my father explained to me, was “Follow the lead of those who know more than you.”

I applied my father’s lesson last weekend when Audrey and I went to a concert at Tanglewood in western Massachusetts. We were on the lawn outside the Seiji Ozawa Hall listening to the Emerson String Quartet play an all-Haydn concert. (When we are in the Berkshires, we like to feel very high-brow.) According to the notes in our program, the Emerson Quartet was celebrating its 40th anniversary, though probably not with the same players all those years. They had a unique style. The two violinists and the violist stood while playing, and the cellist sat in a chair on a riser, so that his head was even with the other three players’. They bowed, plucked, and trilled through the first Haydn piece and then ended with a flourish, raising their bows from their instruments and standing proudly in what I could only assume was an exciting finish. I was ready to clap enthusiastically, but luckily I hesitated. It seemed that the others around me—those who knew more than I—weren’t clapping. They knew there were more movements to go before we could applaud. The Emerson Quartet had faked me out, but they had not tricked me into doing something as foolish as clapping prematurely. And, people do feel foolish when they applaud out of turn at a concert, and those in the audience who don’t applaud turn up their noses with superiority and think how gauche the clappers are.

The Emerson Strong Quartet demonstrates an exciting flourish.
But don't applaud just yet.
Clapping out of turn occasionally is not the worst faux pas I have made when it comes to musical timing. That occurred during my checkered band career at Savannah High School. I sat first chair in the tenor saxophone section, which really wasn’t that impressive because I was the only tenor player that year. The band director handed out a new piece of music called “Riffin’ the Blues” for us to sight read, or play for the first time without any rehearsal or instruction. Unbeknownst to anyone in the band—and especially to me— the piece had sections for three players to go into solo “riffs.” First the trumpet, then the tenor sax, then the trombone.

Key to this story is knowing that our band featured two of the top players in the state, at trumpet and trombone. So two of the solo sections would be well covered. The third called for a talented tenor player, which our band sadly lacked. As the sight read progressed, the trumpet player moved smoothly into his solo. Then there was a silence in the room. There wasn’t supposed to be a silence; I was supposed to be playing. But what I saw on my music sheets were far too many notes racing all over the page.
“Goodman, where are you?” the band director shouted. I just stared back, like a deer caught in the headlights. And then, right on time, the trombone player came in with his solo. I was off the hook temporarily, but I knew we would be playing this piece many more times during the concert season, and I would be expected to fill the silence productively.

And I tried. I tried hard. I learned the notes and even added a little improvising to my riff that was going well. My one problem was that I sometimes began my solo a little late. There would be a slight pause after the trumpet finished until I began. And I would still be playing when the trombone came in right on his cue. Unfortunately for me, the trombone player was a perfectionist, and he was pissed that I sometimes played over his first notes.
Bill Clinton riffin' more skillfully than I ever did on a tenor sax.
Both Bill and my dad came from Arkansas. 
I worked on my timing, and occasionally got it right. But not all the time. Then I found a solution to the problem, based on my father’s lesson in the French synagogue. I decided to follow the lead of someone in the know. As I played my solo, I would look over at the trombone player, and as soon as he rose to start playing his solo, I would stop mine. I might not have hit all of the notes in my solo, but I didn’t throw his or anyone else’s timing off. We were all happy, with the possible exception of the band director, but he was long suffering—which is all part of the job description of any high school instructor, as I would learn a few years later when I embarked on a brief high school teaching career of my own.