Saturday, August 31, 2013

You'll Be Older, Too!

To respond to the Beatles—

“They say it’s your birthday. . .”

(What’s it to you!)

It is indeed my birthday, made significant by another Beatles’ song which asks whether I will still be needed and fed at a certain age. Yep! I am actually that old today—which is a little scary.

But being that certain age also drives one (me) to be philosophical about the long distance that lies between then and now. A few months ago, I was seated at a family wedding next to a pair of childhood friends. So, of course, we talked about childhood and friends. Suddenly, I was me now (at this advanced age) and me then at age 10 and 15 and 18 and 20. I was climbing with Harvey on the roof of his house on 57th Street. Did we really do such a reckless thing? And then Harvey and I were going to Saturday night dance classes at the Rosalie Cotler School of Dance and doing the shag to the 45 rpm record that Rosalie’s husband Allan played every week, “Hit the Road, Jack” by Ray Charles.

After six months, we took Ray’s advice and decided “not to come back no more, no more.” We had sound reasoning for our decision—we were certain that we had both learned all that Rosalie could teach us and were ready for any occasions that might call for dance in our futures. ((By the way, Harvey’s wife Susie, who was the other childhood friend sitting with us, assures me that Harvey could have used some more lessons. I have no doubt the same applies to me.)

And while we were speaking about dancing, Susie and I began sharing tales about AZA dances and Charleston-Savannah connections. Suddenly, I was with Carla Needle, who was visiting from Charleston, and, while trying to sneak a goodnight kiss, accidentally ringing Jodie Center’s doorbell at 3 a.m. to the annoyance of her mother. The incident proved it is possible to be embarrassed and thrilled at the same time. Good times. . .

Then in a bittersweet moment of reminiscence, Harvey and I shared stories of our 1969 excursion to Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where we joined with about 20 former high school classmates to go through a farcical but worrisome early morning army physical in the midst of the Vietnam War. Fort Jackson in mid-July is the embodiment of hot and humid. Add a group of zealous army sergeants, and you have the makings for “torture” or for an Arlo Guthrie video.  
What made the remembering bittersweet for Harvey and me was recalling a funny Mark Garfunkel story from that day and then also sharing our sadness that Mark had died (way too young) just weeks before the wedding we were attending. Army physicals in 1969 were a pretty haphazard thing. You expected to pass, and the army guys expected to pass you, no matter what. One of the “tests” involved checking your urine for diabetes or some other possible disqualifying illnesses. Mark had trouble peeing that morning, so three or four of us helped fill his beaker. It really didn’t matter; the “doctor” checking the litmus strip placed in the urine never looked to see if it changed color. The only thing crazier than that army physical was the thought of improving our country’s military might by adding Harvey or Mark or me to the troops. How we all avoided serving in Vietnam is another story. And though I haven’t seen Mark in close to 40 years, I still miss him.

As Harvey, Susie, and I talked and shared at the wedding, we also slowly began crossing back across the gap between past and present, morphing between our childhood and adult selves. Suddenly, we were old friends in our early 60s, telling stories about children and (in Harvey and Susie’s case) grandchildren. We shared stories about sicknesses past and present, too. That seems to be a necessary part of growing older.

And now it’s my birthday, and I have reached the Beatles’ magical mystery age. But I can still recall what it felt like to stand on Harvey’s roof and listen to his mother yell at us or to sweat and laugh in that room at Fort Jackson as we shared piss and stories. And I know a hundred reasons that I’m happy to be loved and needed, especially at 64.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Joyful Morning in the Berkshires

There is no setting more perfect for listening to classical music than on the grounds at Tanglewood in the Massachusetts Berkshire Mountains. The grass is always green, soft, and perfectly mown, and there is never a weed in sight—or so it seems. It’s possible that Alan Jay Lerner had recently visited the grounds at Tanglewood when he wrote about Camelot, the land where imperfection would never be allowed to exist.

Now, that may be overdoing things a bit, but not based on our visit to Tanglewood last Saturday morning. We were making our annual summer visit to the Berkshires to be immersed in the classics—from Shakespeare to modern dance to symphonies. Saturday morning found us camped on the lawn at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony rehearse for its performance the next day of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. We came with folding chairs, a tarp (in case the ground was wet), some snack items, suntan lotion and bug spray, and even reading matter to enjoy along with the music. (If this had been an evening performance, we would have also been shlepping a cooler filled with perishable items and wine, a picnic basket filled with utensils and more foods, a blanket, a citronella candle, and possibly a folding table. Others around us would probably have added candlesticks, silverware, crystal goblets, and the occasional duck or lobster feast. Tanglewood brings out the classy and pretentious in all of us.)

The entire program this day was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the one that ends with the oh-so-familiar “Ode to Joy” chorus. You know the one. It goes, “BAH, bah, bah, bah/ BAH, bah, bah, bah / BAH, bah, bah, bah, BAH-be-bah.”  I recently read that the “Ode to Joy” was adopted by the European Union as its inter(national) anthem. The powerful opening chords are also pretty familiar, but I won’t try to imitate them. Take my word for it, you’ve heard the opening fanfare played on newsreels or cartoons. Or you can hear it here:

As the music started flowing Saturday morning, most of us reclined comfortably and let our minds wander. That was until about three minutes into the fourth movement of the symphony. That’s when the “Ode to Joy” melody made a first sneak appearance, played by one or two cellos and then picked up by a few violins and French horns. Now, I’m no music critic, and neither were most of the people on the lawn, but we knew what was happening. We started to sit up and pay attention.

What happened next went like this: After the orchestra played around with the melody for perhaps four minutes, a single deep baritone voice began booming out lyrics to go with the music. Then a few higher voices joined in. The German lyrics talk about magic and sparks and brotherhood, and, of course, joy.
But who could be certain just what the singers were telling us? We just knew that we were being moved into “joy mode.”

The single voice and chorus was replaced by two voices, one deep and one high. Then the chorus jumped in again, and three voices followed, then four, then a whole bunch.

By now, not only was almost everyone on the lawn sitting up at attention, but perhaps thirty people were standing and serving as pseudo-conductors. Right arms were counting out time with imaginary batons, a veritable pride of Leonard Bernsteins. I saw one couple throw their arms around each other as the music crescendoed.  Ah, joy!

In my mind, I could hear my mother-in-law humming the melody in her slightly off-key but exuberant way. The annual trip to Tanglewood was always one of her great joys. She would sit perched princess-like in her folding chair, wrapped in a familiar red jacket and covered by a blanket to keep out the cold. No matter what the orchestra played was wonderful to her, especially if she could hum along.

Finally, after a 20-minute ride, the chorus completed its joyful journey, and the audience exchanged its imaginary batons for real applause. It was quite an experience.

And, for those few minutes, I had also been transported back in my imagination to my days in the Savannah High School band, playing part of a Beethoven overture on the tenor saxophone or even (gasp!) on the bassoon. Only this time, all the notes I played were the right ones, which made the experience joyful (and a little surprising) for my parents and the other mothers and fathers in the audience. Talk about a beautiful spark and magic!