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Friday, May 15, 2015

All Good Men

Near the edge of the porch a ragged man stood.  He swung his head toward Pa.  "You folks must have a nice little pot a money."
"No, we ain't got no money," Pa said.  "But they's plenty of us to work, an' we're all good men.”

--John Steinbeck The Grapes of Wrath

On Saturday night, ten of us gathered around a table in Emeril’s restaurant in New Orleans. The reservation was made under the name “Goodman.” Trying to determine our group leader, the waitress asked which one of us was “Mr. Goodman.” Five hands went up. She could have asked, “Which one is Ms. Goodman?” and every female’s hand at the table would have been raised. There were plenty of us there, and we were all Goodmans.
There is no hiding the fact that
these Goodman men are all related.
Nearly 80 years ago, my father left his home in a small town in Arkansas to move in with his older brother David in a town only slightly larger in Louisiana. The two brothers were far apart in years but close in other ways. And they stayed close in spirit over the years, even when my father left Louisiana and settled in Georgia way back in 1940.

Seventy-five years later—last weekend—my brother and I, our wives, and my children decided to return to Louisiana with two purposes in mind: to reconnect two branches of our family tree, and to sample every way that oysters can be served in New Orleans. I am here to report that we carried out both missions successfully.

The Louisiana/Texas Goodmans and the Georgia/New Jersey Goodmans have gotten together a few times in the past, but this trip was special. This wasn’t a big reunion or a family event attended by lots of outside friends and family members. It was just two nuclear families—all adults ranging from early 30s to early 70s. We laughed; shared some old photos; laughed; filled in gaps in our lives; told stories about the past, present, and future; took a side trip to a gallery displaying my cousin Jonathan’s prints and paintings;

                  

handed out Mother’s Day presents; and ate. Then we ate some more. Raw oysters, roasted oysters, fried oysters, barbecued shrimp (New Orleans style), and some strange concoction that was supposed to be oven-roasted seafood but seemed more like just the breading. (The last item was the only low point in our culinary marathon.) We also did some serious drinking. And we topped things off late Saturday night listening to a remarkable jazz group performing at a fairly empty New Orleans jazz club tucked away on a busy street. (Not to be outdone, we topped off Sunday night with coffee and beignets at the CafĂ© du Monde.)
 
The next generation-- cousins getting closer and eating together.

We spent two-and-a-half days in New Orleans filling in years and building bonds. We plan to do it again soon, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” as my father would say in his Arkansas folksy accent. Our two fathers came from a family of 12 children whose descendants have spread far and wide. It was great fun for a group of us to be back together.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Dylan New and Old

The other day, I borrowed a Bob Dylan “Basement Tapes” CD from the local library. Bootleg Series Vol. 8, issued in 2006, contained “rare and unreleased” Dylan songs from the 1980s and 1990s. I was a little amazed to discover a song I had never heard before entitled “Red River Shore.” The song was such a perfect Dylan love song. It was moody and hypnotic, quickly pulling me into its web of reminiscence of past joy and lost love for more than seven minutes. I played it over and over, and then found a You Tube video to listen to it some more:


There is no video of Dylan singing the song on You Tube, just a photo of the CD cover with an audio track.
 
A scowling Bob Dylan in the 1980s, looking so different
from the 1960s protester  I "met" in 1965.
Without video, the words sink in deeper; the song takes hold stronger. Here is my favorite verse. It’s a little nostalgic and a little self-deprecating—just how I would write a love song if I could. This is a love more of the mind than of the body:
Well, I been to the east and I been to the west
And I been out where the black winds roar
Somehow though I never did get that far
With the girl from the Red River shore.

Finding a new Dylan song made me think of when I had first “discovered” Dylan. It happened (shudder) almost 50 years ago. I was part of an accelerated academic summer program for high school students in Georgia, known as the Governor’s Honors Program. I spent six weeks with about 150 really smart kids. There were scholars and musicians and artists and free thinkers. I felt like both a participant and an observer at the same time. I was meeting new people and thinking new thoughts. Which is where Dylan comes in.


Bill Martin, one of the kids from another high school in Savannah attending GHP, had brought along some Dylan albums. We gathered in his room, behind a closed door, to do some illicit listening. I heard “The Times They Are a-Changin’” for the first time. I heard “Bob Dylan’s Dream” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The voice was so raw. Who would hire a guy with that voice to make records, we wondered at first. Then we listened more, and the rawness took hold. I had been brought up with liberal values, but listening to Dylan singing Dylan (rather than Peter, Paul, and Mary), made me feel more radical than I had ever felt before.

Eight clean-cut kids from Savannah High School who attended
the Governor's Honors program in 1965. We were proud nerds.
American involvement in the Vietnam War was a-buildin’ during the summer of 1965. I was just entering my junior year in high school, so the idea of being drafted or fighting in a war on the other side of the world was not yet in my mind. But here was Bob Dylan talking about war, any war, maybe that war. It was exhilarating but also a little overwhelming. I went home from the GHP feeling a little worldlier. But that was pretty much an illusion. After all, I was still a sheltered kid from Savannah, Georgia, no matter whose music I was listening to. But Bob Dylan had opened up my mind a little. I’m grateful for that.

And I’m thrilled that Dylan and record producers and other performers are turning back time to let us hear some of Dylan’s songs that have been long hidden. Every new Dylan song, even old ones never heard before, has the ability to grab my psyche and my soul.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Saying Goodbyes

This week’s New Yorker features an article entitled “Moving to Mars.” In focusing on the much-anticipated future one-way journey of a group of astronauts to the unknown on Mars, the writer opens with a story of the explorers who first traveled to Antarctica in 1898.  It was a harrowing and mostly tragic venture. The writer seems to be speculating on whether the trip to a distant planet will be more or less worrisome than the adventure to the bottom of our own planet.  
 
The story made me think about loneliness as well. And about goodbyes. Last week, Audrey and I went to see the movie Woman in Gold. The movie focuses on the Nazi occupation of Vienna in 1938 and its impact on members of a wealthy Viennese Jewish family. While it’s mostly about evil and art theft, it’s also about fear, sadness, and injustice. Spoiler alert: There will be justice served by the movie’s end, which we will cheer. But our cheering is tempered by what is known but not shown in the film about this period in history.
 
In one emotional scene shown in flashback near the middle of the film, the young Maria Altmann (who will be played as an older adult by Helen Mirren) tearfully tells her parents goodbye before she makes a daring escape from Vienna with her new husband. It is clear that she will never see her parents again, and they all realize this. She plans to go to America, but she might as well be going to Antarctica or Mars, for that matter. She is leaving everything and almost everyone she has known. She is sailing without an anchor into uncharted waters, at least for her.
 



Maria Altmann and her husband make their escape
from Nazi-occupied Vienna.
 And knowing the way my mind likes to wander, Maria Altmann’s tearful farewell to family in Woman in Gold came to mind again yesterday when I lit a memorial candle for Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.
 



Lighting a Yom Ha-Shoah candle helps us remember.
 
The Holocaust is mostly an abstract concept for many of us, especially American Jews born after World War II whose relatives came to the U.S. long before the rise of Nazi Germany. [Not so for Audrey’s family. Her father and grandfather spent some time in a concentration camp in Germany in the late 1930s, and her father’s parents died in the Theresienstadt camp near Prague in the early 1940s.] But lonely farewells and journeys into the unknown are something all of our Jewish ancestors understood very well. They were always ready to pack and be on the move. For example, my mother’s mother, a tiny but determined woman, came to America from Poland all by herself at the age of 18. And when the relatives she expected to shelter her in Brooklyn stifled her freedom, she simply left their home and found an apartment and job in a notorious sweatshop in Manhattan.
 
It’s a long trip in time and space from Poland in 1908 to Vienna in 1938 to Mars in 2018, but that’s how my mind works. And now I’m wondering just how the space travelers to Mars will say goodbye when they are ready to leave. Will they and their relatives here on Earth be filled more with sadness or pride?