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?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Straight and Narrow

My first day ever as a teacher in September 1972, I encountered s student named Larry Davis. Larry arrived to my class at Central High School in Providence a little late. Then he noted my name where I had written it on the blackboard.

“Mr. Good Guy, eh?” he said. “Do you take drugs?” (I said no.) “Smoke a little weed?” (Again, no.) “Drink booze?” (I admitted to a little.) “Fool around with the girls?” (Not really.) Then he gave me a slight shove and said, “What kind of good guy are you? You don’t do nothing!

"Mr. Good Guy"

I was reminded of this exchange last night while Audrey and I attended a workshop at the Manhattan Theater Club, where we have been subscribers for many years. The workshop was designed to help us understand beforehand some of the themes and drama techniques that would be evident in a new play called Airline Highway, which opens in a few weeks at MTC.

In a brief introduction, the workshop leader told us that many of the characters in the play are unconventional; they live “on the edge.” To help us better understand the emotions of the play’s characters, the leader had those of us attending the session split up from the partner we came with and work with someone we did not already know. The assignment: Discuss with your partner a time in your life when you pushed the envelope or did something risky or unexpected.

A time when I pushed the envelope and was unconventional? Larry Davis could tell you how easy that assignment would be for me. I’m “Mr. Good Guy,” remember (or not that good a guy).

My partner in the activity, a woman approximately my age, had no problem coming up with a tale. She immediately confided that she had been “a child of the sixties.” “I tried some drugs, took a trip or two, and lived in a group house, which my mother thought was a commune. I didn’t exactly practice free love, but I did make love in some unusual places, including a snowbank.”

A snowbank? Did I just shiver?

I replied that I, too, was a child of the sixties, but my experiences were pretty much drug- and free love-free. I was so un-sixties-like that one of my college classmates once dubbed me “Straight Louie.” I just didn’t break the rules. Yes, I smoked at dorm parties, but what I smoked was a pipe filled with Cherry Blend tobacco, or the like. Now I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. And now I was being asked to remember a time that I acted outside the lines, and, dammit, I couldn’t come up with anything that would even mildly shock my partner.
A Goodman family pot party?

I thought about the time in high school that I had taken a date out riding after a dance or movie. We drove out Abercorn Street in Savannah when that thoroughfare was just being opened up. We turned onto Tibet Road, which was pretty dark and empty. We stopped. Yes, we were parking, but we were talking and not kissing. I promise. Nevertheless, a police car pulled up alongside, and the officer got out and shined his flashlight in the window. He told us to move along. The girl and I told friends about the incident, and somehow they began spreading a rumor that we had been busted by cops while making out. To my shame, I did not really try to squelch this rumor, nor did my date. And when high school classmates gave me a small standing ovation in the halls on the following Monday morning, I just smiled.

Somehow, I could not share this story with my workshop partner, who had just described braving frostbite to make love out of doors. Instead, I described the time that I almost became part of the radical SDS on my college campus. The operative word here is almost. Of course, I didn’t join the SDS, but I did have to answer questions posed by an FBI agent once and I did get tear-gassed twice one evening during a major protest on campus—but that’s another story.
I wasn't a yippie, but I did get tear-gassed at a yippie rally.
So how did Audrey do with this activity? She also had to admit her conventionality, even to a stranger who could not have contradicted even the wildest story.

“I told her that the biggest risk I ever took was taking my first modern dance class at age 39,” Audrey recalled with a bemused smile.

Maybe we should be known forevermore as “Straight Louie and Straight Lucille.”


Thursday, March 26, 2015


If it is true that most of us use only 10% of our brain power, then I have a special handicap. About 50% of my 10% is occupied with song melodies and lyrics. I take pride in my wide-ranging song knowledge, but I realize that remembering songs is keeping my brain from focusing on other information that might be even more valuable.

Nothing is more fun than listening to the Sirius/XM station “Sixties on 6.” I grew up on those songs. I can’t claim to have “made out” to most of those songs (my making out skills were sadly lacking in the sixties), but I did dance to them and sang along while I danced. And I can still sing along today. Which is pretty amazing since I often can’t remember details about what happened in my life yesterday – or the reason I have just entered a room with great determination, only to stop dead in my tracks.

Over the past few weeks, Audrey and I have been driving to Vermont on Saturday afternoons when Lou Simon has been hosting his weekly “Sirius Sixties Survey” show. He does more than “spin the records” of that calendar week during one of the years during the sixties; he also tells great stories behind the songs. For example, just this week I learned that the real names of the singers performing “Hey, Paula” were not Paul or Paula. Their real names were Ray and Jill. But the record producer decided it made little sense to use their real names on the label. The record sold more than 2 million copies, and I’ll bet that most of us believed that it was really Paul and Paula who wanted to marry each other. (By the way, the duo had a second hit on the charts in March 1963, “Young Lovers,” but I didn’t remember that one.)
Ray and Jill pledge their love
Simon also revealed that the bass voice on “Mr. Bass Man" (song #28 last week) was also the deep voice on “Who Put the Bomp” a few years before. No, none of us need to know this stuff, but our lives are fuller with the knowledge. At least, mine is. And I’m storing the information in my 10%.

And there were more surprises. For example, the #16 song that week was “All I Have to Do Is Dream” sung by (are you ready for this?) Richard Chamberlain. He did more than break hearts and cure disease as Dr. Kildare. He also had three hits on the charts in 1963. Can anyone name the other two? Lou Simon, of course.

As Simon counted down to number one for the week of March 21, 1963, Audrey and I sang along and I reminisced. That’s what I do a lot when I listen to 60s music. And what was number one? “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. It was written by a man named Ronnie Mack, whose name impressed Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier enough to write a song called “Jimmy Mack” a little later on.
doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang
And "He's So Fine" was a key part in a plagiarism suit against George Harrison, who was part of another rock group that achieved its own fame in the sixties.
More than religion may have inspired George Harrison

Lou Simon is providing me with so much great stuff. But I wonder what my brain is giving up to make room for it all.