Friday, November 18, 2016

 Good Charity in Name Only!

Sometimes you have to vent. So that’s what I’m doing today.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a soft touch. For years, I have succumbed to those dinner-time calls from a wide range of charities for small donations. I would make one demand of the caller—that I not be called again for a full year. The caller, of course, would readily agree to the condition and promise to write it on my “card” at the charity office, though I am sure that he or she didn’t make an actual notation. Instead, I would get another call 4 to 6 months later, and, as the caller suspected, I would have long forgotten just when the previous call and donation had been made, and we would go through the same scenario again. And a few weeks later, Audrey, looking over the credit card account, would ask, “Did you give to the Cancer Fund again. That’s the third time this year.”
Charity solicitors know all of the right words.
[It will also come as no surprise that Audrey is a harder touch than I am about these charity calls. And she is probably more in the right than I am. After she called me on several contributions to something called “Good Charity” over the past few months (and not to the Heart Fund, Cancer Fund, or Childhood Leukemia Fund to which I thought I was giving), I decided to look up Good Charity, Inc. as a fundraising umbrella. I learned that only a small percentage of my donation would actually go where I thought it was going.  I even decided to confront my next caller on this matter. I asked what percentage of my contribution the fund would receive and was given an honest answer—about 15%. I should not have been surprised but I was, both by the answer and by the fact that the caller would baldly tell me the truth. Then I thought about the issue from the charity’s point of view—15% of whatever the fundraising callers were pledged was lots better than 100% of no pledges. And the money was raised without any organization staffers or volunteers having to be involved. But I still felt that I was being taken for a bit of a ride here.]

So I decided to change my ways—sort of. I began asking paid solicitors who they worked for, and if I didn’t like the answer I received, I would say no and hang up. My resolve lasted through a few solicitations. Then, last week I succumbed again. I got a call from the Children’s Leukemia of America Fund. Having survived lymphoma more than a decade ago, I am an even softer touch for cancer-related charities. And who is so hard-hearted as to refuse to support a group that promises better cancer treatment for kids?
When the solicitor noted that I had given a certain contribution last year and that they had, as promised, not contacted me for a full year (possibly true), I agreed to match last year’s amount without asking my qualifying questions. I even agreed to give my credit card information to complete the transaction. I know that’s a little too trusting, but if I am willing to pay for my New Yorker subscription and pants from a clothing catalog that way, why not a charity for kids? Of course, two weeks later, I did note that the money I had given was listed on our Visa account as being paid to (you guessed it) Good Charity, Inc.

But that’s not really why I am venting today. Here is the reason.

A few days ago, I got a letter from the Children’s Leukemia of America Fund. I expected a thank-you note, but what I received was an acknowledgment of my pledge and an envelope to use to send in a check or credit card information to pay off the pledge—the pledge that had already been noted on my credit card statement. Good Charity, Inc. was attempting to “double dip,” which is really over the line, even for them.

So that’s my story, sad but true. But am I any wiser for it?

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Our Marathon Man!

Sunday night, everyone in our family was exhausted. Brett had the most legitimate reason for being tired—and the most impressive one. He had just run more than 26 miles as one of more than 50,000 “overachievers” in the New York Marathon. For five hours, he was on the move— running, walking occasionally, singing along to music playing through earbuds, and greeting the occasional friend or family member who yelled his name along the route from the Verrazano Bridge to Central Park. Running a marathon is an amazing accomplishment.

Brett is still going strong after 23 miles!
And from personal experience, I can say that watching a marathon is pretty amazing and tiring! Audrey and I walked nearly nine miles across Manhattan twice, while carrying two helium-filled balloons bearing the message “Yeah Brett!” to see him on First Avenue at mile 18, where he looked pretty upbeat, and then on Fifth Avenue at mile 23, where he looked eager to reach the finish line. 
Cheering, with balloons in hand, for our favorite runner

In both of our watching spots, we were surrounded by people shouting encouragement, waving signs, hugging loved ones who broke stride for a hug, shaking cowbells, high-fiving runners who welcomed the attention, and feeling not jealous at all that they were watchers instead of runners. Whew! I’m exhausted just writing about the marathon.
Making a brief stop for hugs and cheers
This is the third marathon that Brett has run, and each time I have felt a mixture of pride and surprise. The pride because of the training, endurance, and perseverance that running a marathon takes; the surprise because Brett was not much of an athlete growing up. I can remember one memorable occasion during a little league baseball game when, playing outfield, he blissfully admired a cloud sailing overhead as a ball rolled by near his feet. The mechanics of baseball, basketball, and even tennis seemed to elude him in his early years. The one sport he seemed to handle adeptly was skiing, either cross-country or downhill. Audrey and I would watch him head recklessly down a slope making few turns and leaving us far in his wake.

Then, after college at Hampshire College, a pretty nonathletic institution— He once sent me a tee-shirt that proclaimed in big letters “Hampshire Football undefeated since 1965” (because the sometimes wacky school has no football team, silly)—athletics and fitness took on importance for Brett. He trimmed down and tightened his body. Then he began playing tennis with great fervor and eventually with good skill. That was just the start.

Next, to our surprise, came running, and not just the occasional jog. He was going for the whole enchilada, the marathon. Brett ran his first marathon 12 years ago in Philadelphia. He didn’t love the experience and didn’t repeat it for ten years. (Along with other comments, I recall a graphic description of painful rubbing of his sweaty shirt on pointy parts of his chest during the race (TMI, I hear someone screaming at me). And I’m not sure he felt the exhilaration he hoped to experience that time.

Then, two years ago, he won a spot in the NY Marathon lottery and decided to go for it. He knocked nearly 30 minutes off his Philly time, and though he finished the race thoroughly exhausted, he also proved something important to himself (and to his surprised parents) about the value of training physically and mentally to reach a goal. Could a proud parent ever hope for more than that!

Surprising Adam with a long distance "high ten"
He decided to try again. So, last Sunday, Audrey and I—along with sister Amanda and her friends Phil, Hannah, and Cliff and our friends Ken and Helaine and their granddaughter Alexa—who had come to cheer on Brett, his close friend Adam, and their amazing daughter Lauren (Alexa’s mom), who was running her eighth marathon—did our own marathon walk across Manhattan. We clapped and shouted, waved our balloons, and welcomed sweaty hugs as we witnessed what for us were gold medal performances worthy of the Greek gods.
A family selfie at mile 23
Then we joined in a celebratory dinner, gave our children goodbye hugs, came home, and fell into bed, thoroughly exhausted. Marathon watching can really wear you out!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Life and Death Mysteries

For many years, I have printed out or clipped and saved real-life stories that come under the heading of “strange but true.” I would sometimes repurpose these stories in educational materials that I created for kids. One of the first reading skills workbooks I worked on at Scholastic was entitled Strangely True. It featured, among other things, the story of a man named Joseph Figlock, who was walking in front of an apartment building in Detroit in the 1930s when a baby fell out of a high window and landed on Mr. Figlock, breaking the baby’s fall and saving his life. The next year, the same man was walking in front of the same building when the same baby fell out of the same window and once again landed on him. Another miraculous save! I ended my recounting of the story this way: “So far, it hasn’t happened s third time. Not yet, anyway.”

Now, some people might doubt that this story is factual, but I found the details in a book, and you can find it retold in several Internet websites, so it must be true!

I thought I would blog today about two other stories that I have recently added to my clipping collection. They involve unusual happenings involving the remains of two of the world’s most famous writers—Thomas Hardy and Dante Alighieri. This seems like an appropriate time to retell the stories because today marks the 695th anniversary of Dante’s death.

Dante did not live a peaceful life—which anyone reading the harrowing descriptions in the Inferno might guess. He became embroiled in political shenanigans and was exiled from his hometown of Florence around 1300. He passed some important years of his exile in Verona, which is where Audrey and I encountered an impressive statue erected in his honor. He finally died in Ravenna in northern Italy on September 13, 1321.
Dante stands proudly in Verona
with a bird perched on his head.

For nearly 600 years, even Dante's ashes were not welcome back in Florence, despite the poet’s fame. Then, in 1865, on the 600th anniversary of his birth, an admirer in Ravenna reached into Dante’s tomb, gathered up a few handfuls of his ashes, placed them inside several small cloth sacks, and sent them anonymously to Florence to be part of the big birthday celebration. Fittingly, all but one of the bags were soon stolen or mislaid. Then, in 1929, even that last bag went missing. It would remain lost for 70 years, until workmen repairing bookshelves in the rare manuscripts area of the national central library in Florence found something even rarer—a small rectangular sack filled with Dante’s remains. Presumably, those ashes were then stored in a secure place, and Dante is finally resting in peace.

The story of Dante’s wandering ashes seems pretty tame when compared to the tale of Thomas Hardy’s heart. Hardy has long been one of my favorite writers, and we named our beloved Scottish terrier Tess after one of his main characters. When Hardy died in January 1928, his will called for burying him next to his deceased first wife Emma in a cemetery in rural England. But the literary establishment wanted him buried in the poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey in London instead. Well, they actually didn’t want his entire body buried there—that would take up too much space— just his ashes. A gruesome compromise was reached. Hardy’s doctor would remove his heart before cremating the rest of him. Then the heart would be buried in a small casket in the country and the ashes in another casket in the city.

This might all seem a little weird, but the really strange part was still to come. According to legend, the doctor removed the heart and left it wrapped in a towel inside Hardy’s house. Then he went to find a small tin in which to place the heart for burial. While the doctor was away, Hardy’s pet cat found the heart and ate all or part of it. What happened next is still up for debate. Either the actual heart was replaced by a pig’s heart, which was buried in the Dorchester grave. Or the cat, with part of Hardy inside him, was also killed and buried with what remained of Hardy’s heart. I leave it up to anyone reading this to decide which ending is true.
Does this large tomb house two hearts
or just one?
Upon finding the story of Hardy’s heart in a literature newsletter, I sent some of the details to my friend Louis Phillips, a much published and most talented writer, who always seems welcome to strangely true tales. Louis had not only heard the story but had even written a story of his own entitled “The Cat that Swallowed Thomas Hardy’s Heart.” In his story, Louis describes how the family cat, named Max, became a great celebrity after eating Hardy’s heart but literally couldn’t live with his newfound fame. The overwrought cat died and was given a memorial service that was even better attended than Hardy’s own funeral. Before the funeral, the cat’s owners decided to remove its heart to store in a special place. But the heart was stolen by an unknown thief. Where the organ is now remains at the heart of a new mystery.

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.  

Friday, July 8, 2016

A Dylan-esque Evening

"Good and bad, I define these terms
Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
But I was so much older then
I’m younger than that now."
            --Bob Dylan, My Back Pages

Back in my freshman year in college—when I was so much younger then—I decided not to take the time or spend the money to attend two concerts in downtown New Haven. One featured a young singer with an ethereal high-pitched voice named Joni Mitchell performing with an old veteran with a gravelly voice named Tom Rush. I’ll bet they were great that night. I can’t be sure because I wasn’t there. The second concert gained a certain amount of fame or infamy when singer Jim Morrison of The Doors went on a cursing binge and threatened to throw a microphone from the stage into the audience, leading to his becoming the first rock star to be arrested onstage. I missed that one too, and I still have regrets. Many years later, I did visit Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, but that didn’t do much to ease my regrets about missing the concert.
Jim Morrison made history, and I missed it.
Flash forward a lot of years to last weekend when Audrey and I and our friends Helaine and Ken went to see our first Bob Dylan concert, even though Dylan has been around a lot of years. This time, my regret is that I WAS there.

Now, some people love Bob Dylan, and some people hate him, or at least his singing voice. I am in the former group. I have really liked Dylan the songwriter AND the singer over the years and have appreciated most of his many incarnations, with the possible exception of his “born again Christian” period (think” “You Gotta Serve Somebody”). Until now. The aging, rather than ageless, Dylan has decided to record parts of what music historians call, “the Great American Songbook.” On his latest album, he does Dylan-esque versions of some terrific standards such as “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Young at Heart.” But he also throws in a real zinger in “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” Yep, Bob Dylan, the rebellious folk-rock pioneer is singing about polka dots and moonbeams! It’s not as charming as it sounds.

Which brings me to last week’s concert at Tanglewood in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Before Dylan came on stage, we were entertained by Mavis Staples, who is around the same age as Dylan but a lot less cranky. Mavis charmed the audience and even got us all singing along in a 10-minuite version of “I’ll Take You There.” We sang only the same four words over and over, but we did it enthusiastically, and she seemed to really enjoy singing with us.

Mavis takes us there.
Then Mavis walked offstage to a rousing ovation, and Dylan came on just a few minutes later to an even louder welcome. He said nothing to the audience. Literally, nothing. Not “hello”, not “hi there,” not “hello Tanglewood,” He immediately broke into song. Now, we were on the lawn at Tanglewood a long way from the stage, but Dylan didn’t seem to be making eye contact even with those in the front rows. The only non-song words he spoke to the audience the whole evening came just before intermission, when he said, “We’ll be back in a few minutes.” Audrey turned to me and said, “The man is 75, he probably has to pee and figures he has to say something.”

Dylan performing in his own world
The second half of the program featured mostly Great American Songbook numbers sung in a strained voice, though Dylan did deliver almost unrecognizable versions of “Tangled Up in Blue” and “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Those songs upset me most of all. They were sung with little emotion and didn’t echo any of the bite or the irony of the originals. Even the amazing Dylan rhymes seemed to get lost. I felt that Dylan was saying, “These are my songs, not yours, and I’ll deliver them however I want.” Of course, he has the right to think that way, but we in the audience deserve a little more recognition. The concert ended soon afterward, without any comment from the performer. The lights simply came on, and we got up to leave. I’m not sure just what I expected from my evening with Bob Dylan, but it was more than I got.

The Dylan concert was our third live performance this year with an American icon in his or her 70s. A few months ago, we helped celebrate Joan Baez’s 75th birthday at the Beacon Theater in New York and attended one of the final performances of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” at City Center in New York. Joan and Garrison developed a warm rapport with the audience and seemed to really enjoy what they were doing. And we loved being there with them. No true Dylan fan would expect him to be as upbeat as Joan Baez or as amusing as Garrison Keillor. But we have walked down a lot of roads with him since the mid-1960s and lived through a lot of changing times and styles with him. I wish he had just acknowledged that we were there then and now.
Garrison Keillor weaving a story
Joan and Judy together on Joan's birthday

Monday, July 4, 2016

 Before and After the Pogrom

After we arrived in Bad Konigshofen and checked into the charming but unpretentious Hotel Ebner, Audrey, Amanda, and I walked the three blocks to the town’s central market square. Amanda, who had actually visited the town 12 years before, served as our guide. “I think Grandma’s family’s apartment was on that side of the square,” she said—pointing toward a corner with a restaurant on one side and a bakery on the other— “and the family’s business was down the block over there.”

Then she pointed us in another direction and said, “I think the synagogue used to be down that way.” We followed her lead and walked three blocks to where we spotted a historic signpost. The marker showed an image of a two-story building with an inscription that we could sort-of translate. It roughly said, “Near here. . .the Jewish synagogue and culture center of Bad Konigshofen im Grabfeld was destroyed on the inside during a pogrom on the morning of November 10, 1938.” Near the marker there is just a blank asphalt rectangle in front of a modern garage. That rectangle is even more descriptive than the marker. It says, “There used to be a Jewish community in this quaint, historic southern German town, but not anymore.”

Above is the signpost describing the synagogue's destruction;
below is the empty paved rectangle where it once stood.
Audrey’s mother and grandparents, great-grandparents, and other relatives had been part of that community from the 1880s until soon after that 1938 pogrom. But none of her relatives lived there anymore, though several were buried, unpeacefully (as I will explain), in the local Jewish cemetery. There were never very many members of Bad Konigshofen’s Jewish community—perhaps 125-150 at most in a town with a population of between 2,000 and 3,000—but today there are none.

Over the next two days, we would learn more about that Jewish community from our two special guides, Elisabeth Böhrer and Rainer Seelmann, and gain a better understanding of Audrey’s family’s place in the town. Everywhere we walked with Elisabeth and Rainer, we found echoes of Audrey’s mother and her family. The apartment and business that I wrote about in my last blogpost. The old synagogue where Audrey’s mother had been taught lessons by a teacher/cantor whom she often spoke about with great reverence, even years later when she was living in upper Manhattan and he in the Bronx. The newer synagogue (the one that was partially destroyed on Kristallnacht) that her grandfather and granduncle had been forced to desecrate soon after the pogrom. Her mother’s kindergarten. The building that had housed her granduncle’s shoe store. The cemetery where members of two older generations were buried.

While growing up in New York, Audrey had heard a little bit about this town from her mother and grandmother, but not much. Were the memories too difficult, or had they just decided to move on? But we were here now, and we decided to explore and learn.

On our second morning in Bad Konigshofen, we returned to the no-longer-synagogue location where we met our guides. Rainer had stories to tell and a binder filled with copies of old photos. He turned to a page in the binder with photos of the synagogue before and after Kristallnacht. Particularly sad were photos of the synagogue’s ark (Torah cabinet) in its pre-pogrom majesty and afterwards. Rainer explained: The synagogue had not been completely destroyed by fires set inside the building during Kristallnacht. Later that night or the next morning, elders of the Jewish community, including Audrey’s relatives, had been forced to wield saws and hammers to dismantle the shul’s pews and ark to be used for firewood. For whose fires? We weren’t told. The shell of the building was left as a gruesome reminder for several more years before the lot was cleared in 1951.
Bad Konigshofen's synagogue in the 1920s.
The desecrated ark on November 10, 1938
The synagogue was not the only “victim” on that November night. Gravestones in the Jewish cemetery located perhaps a mile away were toppled and smashed. Some would later be used as paving stones; others were smashed into gravel. Eight Jewish men were arrested and transported to the Dachau concentration camp, where they were held for a few weeks.

Kristallnacht marked a life-changing event for most of Bad Konigshofen’s Jews.  Nearly 50 emigrated soon afterwards, including Audrey’s grandparents and uncle, who would join her mother in London and then head to New York. I have written about how my mother-in-law rescued her family previously (see: http://goodmanwrites.blogspot.com/2013/11/bravery-in-faceof-hatred-it-is-no.html). Others left in the following year. Most of the emigres went to America and a new life. Some fled to other parts of Germany, and their stories didn’t end well. Soon, only six Jews remained in Bad Konigshofen—being either too old or too infirm or too alone to escape. These last members of the community were deported to concentration camps and killed in 1942. One of those was Audrey’s then senile great aunt Bertha, who had been unwilling to leave earlier.

Having sufficiently depressed us, Rainer and Elisabeth led us on a happier journey. As we walked through the town’s central area, they pointed out the town’s earlier synagogue and school, where Jewish children such as Audrey’s mother and uncle were taught prayers and Jewish culture. We walked past Audrey’s mother’s kindergarten building too. It’s still there, but serves a different function now. They pointed out family members’ former homes and business locations. We continued walking into a different part of the town where there were more modern homes and an elementary school and high school. Rainer and his wife both worked in the high school, he teaching history (including a special course on the history of the town’s Jews) and she teaching math. Both were on holiday that week, and they invited us to lunch in their home with their four young children. After a morning filled with depressing history, it was great to spend time with a modern vibrant family. We really appreciated their kindness—and the great lunch!

After lunch, Rainer’s oldest child, 11-year-old Josef, joined us on a short walk to the last remnant of Bad Konigshofen’s Jewish community, the cemetery. As I mentioned above, most of the gravestones in the cemetery had been destroyed in November 1938. But the cemetery was revived in 1974. Amazingly, stones of three of Audrey’s direct relatives—her great-grandfather, great granduncle, and great grandaunt—survived. Those stones have been restored and replaced upright inside the revived cemetery. The bones of Audrey's ancestors may or may not be located anywhere near the stones that mark their graves, but the stones declare that all three once lived and later died in Bad Konigshofen and were among leaders of its Jewish community.

Brett stands beside the gravestone of his great-great grandfather, Phillipp Malzer. The Malzer brothers were Kohens, descendants of priests, who were given special honors in the synagogue.

This monument inside the Jewish cemetery contains segments
of broken gravestones discovered near the cemetery
While in Bad Konigshofen, we were also welcomed at the Rathaus (town hall) by the Deputy Mayor, who told us about the town’s long history and its growth in modern times. We were invited to sign a registry and were interviewed by a reporter for the local newspaper. Audrey was a media darling in yet another place in Germany. The deputy mayor told us a very different story from the ones we learned at the empty site of the synagogue or in the cemetery. He described a vibrant place whose citizens have in recent months readily agreed to take in more than 200 Syrian refugees and find them homes and jobs. Bad Konigshofen today is a welcoming place. For a brief period 80 years ago, that was not how things were.
Brett, Amanda, Audrey, and I signing the town register
 as we rediscover Audrey's mother's history.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Marktplatz 110/111

On our fourth day in Germany, we arrived at Bad Konigshofen, where Audrey’s ancestors lived until 1939. It’s a quaint town nestled in an agricultural region in southern Germany. Audrey’s grandparents had owned a grain business there, storing and selling corn and other crops raised by local farmers. They must have been successful because they were able to afford one of the choicest apartments in the town, one that looked over Bad Konigshofen’s market square. We had arrived with a plan to walk through the town and to see the buildings from our own outside perspective. What we experienced instead was seeing Bad Konigshofen through Audrey’s mother’s eyes—an inside perspective. It turned out to be an emotional view.  

Brett, Audrey, and Amanda with Café Heinz in the background.
The four windows with open curtains on the left look into
Audrey's mother's childhood apartment.
First, a little background. We had two very special guides as we walked through Bad Konigshofen—Elisabeth Bohrer and Rainer Seelmann. Both possess special knowledge about the Jews of the region, though neither is Jewish nor lived through the Nazi era. But each has a special interest in how Jews lived in this part of Germany before and during the Nazi period, and Elisabeth has a detailed knowledge of Audrey’s family tree that she has generously shared with several of Audrey’s family members for more than 20 years. She literally knows where to find the buried bones of the Malzer and Walter clans and how to track their history through several towns in southern Germany to New York, California, Brazil, and other places. The insights our two guides provided and the stories they shared with us were beyond value. Their kindness and caring touched all of us.

Rainer (with backpack) and Elisabeth (mostly blocked from view)
describe Bad Konigshofen's history to us.
Elisabeth walks us through Sulzdorf while explaining
the family's earliest roots there in the early 1800s.
Audrey, Amanda, and I arrived together in Bad Konigshofen after our Autobahn adventure, and Brett joined us there after an adventure of his own. Never one to follow the easy path, Brett used a plane, train, and a bus on a 14-hour journey to meet us. He was bleary-eyed and exhausted but more than ready to delve into family history. We figured we would just walk around a little on our own and then meet Elisabeth for a detailed tour the next morning, but she would have none of that. She and her friend Karl met us at our hotel and began our history lessons right away. She had pages filled with names and dates that tracked the family’s movements, starting in nearby tiny Sulzdorf around 1812 and arriving in Bad Konigshofen in the 1880s. The last names on the chart included Audrey’s grandparents, Max and Bianca (Walter) Malzer, her uncle Hans (Harold), and her mother Frenzi (Frances). Frenzi was born in Bad Konigshofen on January 14, 1915 and lived at the house at Marktplatz 110/111 until she left for London on March 2, 1937. She left to escape the Nazis, who were expanding their hold on lower Franconia and making life increasingly dangerous for the Jews in the region.

I will write more about the history of Bad Konigshofen’s Jewish community and its sad conclusion in my next blogpost, but this one is dedicated to our visit to Marktplatz 110/111.

Elisabeth had made a connection to the owner of that building, which still housed a konditorei (pastry and sweet shop) on the ground floor that had been there since the 1890s and apartments above. He agreed to show us through the building the next day. As it turned out, the owner was a descendant of the same family that had rented the spacious second-floor apartment to Audrey’s grandparents more than 100 years before. (Amanda had met two of the man’s elderly aunts when she visited Bad Konigshofen 12 years earlier, and they remembered her grandmother and great-grandparents. The aunts were no longer around, but the man was happy to show us pictures and tell us about the apartment.)

We were all quiet and thoughtful as we walked through the halls, sat in the living room/parlor, and looked out the windows over the market square, taking in nearly the same view that Audrey’s mother had enjoyed and then feared 70 and 80 years ago. The experience slowly overwhelmed Audrey, and for the second time on our trip she held back tears. What was she thinking? Was she seeing places and events through her mother’s eyes?

Two views from Audrey's mother's perspective

The man shared one piece of shocking history about the apartment. Audrey’s grandparents had been forced to sell their business in 1938 at the demand of the Nazi government and to move in with their sister-in-law into a smaller apartment across the plaza. But the larger apartment was quickly occupied by the Nazi commandant of the town, who loved the view it provided of the market square and especially appreciated its small balcony that looked onto the square in those days. The Nazi leader would walk onto the balcony several times a day and expect everyone passing by to salute him and shout, “Heil Hitler!” The scene is not hard to imagine, but it is a little difficult to take in.

We spent more than an hour at the apartment and then walked with Elisabeth and Rainer through other parts of the town, seeing the place where Audrey’s grandparents’ business (a grain warehouse) had been located, the kindergarten her mother had attended, and the building that had once housed the town’s synagogue. A larger, newer synagogue had been built a few blocks away in the early 1900s and then destroyed from the inside on Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. All that remains of that building is a plaque and some old photos.
We took lots of new photos ourselves of the town that had barely changed in hundreds of years, except that it no longer housed any Jews, just memories of their existence.  

Friday, June 24, 2016

Autobahn Anxiety

After the book restitution ceremony in Rostock, we planned to rent a car and drive 5-6 hours southward to the area where Audrey’s mother’s family had lived for more than 125 years. The town was known as Konigshofen in Audrey’s mother‘s time, and is now known as Bad Konigshofen to highlight the thermal baths located nearby.

Audrey didn’t sleep much the night before we were to set out on our journey to her family’s past. Was she keyed up following the Rostock event and her “15 minutes of fame” on Rostock television and radio? Was she sleepless because she was excited about finally visiting her mother’s birthplace? No, what was keeping her awake was worry about driving on the Autobahn. Some of her fears were rational and concerned how far we planned to drive in a foreign country and how fast we might be going. After all, the Autobahn has a reputation for being a speedway.

Other worries were less rational, such as would there be gas stations along the route, would we be pumping the gas ourselves, and would we be able to use our American credit cards to pay for German gas? And what about bathrooms? People of our “advanced years” are rightly concerned about going anywhere for 5-6 hours without taking a bathroom break.

To allay her fears, Audrey had taken our host in Rostock, Dr. Strahl, aside during the reception following our book restitution ceremony to get advice for driving on the Autobahn. She passed that advice on to me, the main point of which was that I was to STAY OUT OF THE LEFT LANE. (Yes, Audrey delivered that advice in all caps.) Dr. Strahl had stressed that the left lane was the true speedway portion of the road. And I was to watch out for trucks, which would be in abundance along our route. Dr. Strahl also assured Audrey that there would be gas stations clearly marked on the road (we wouldn’t have to venture off the highway and into nearby towns), and that they would feature clean bathrooms and would readily accept our credit cards. You would think we were venturing into a foreign land! And, of course, we were.  
This person is driving in the left lane, so you know it isn't me
I just hoped that the rental car we had ordered would indeed have automatic transmission—we are Americans after all—and that the GPS we had requested would indeed feature an English-speaking guide who would be both accurate and patient as she directed us southward through the German countryside. Luckily, we knew that Amanda would be with us on the trip to serve both as backup navigator using her smart phone and as referee between her parents, who are known to get into spats while driving and riding together in a car.

We picked up our Volkswagen at the Europcar dealership located in a working class area of Rostock and luckily found the employee who spoke the best English to get us set up for the trip. We took on one extra expense, signing Audrey on as a second driver for 10 euros per day. As it turned out, we could have saved our money because I handled all of the driving on the way to Bad Konigshofen. When we arrived, however, Audrey said she was exhausted from serving as driving monitor for six hours. She couldn’t rest at all as cars whizzed by us (in the left lane) at far above the posted 130 kilometers per hour (78 mph) limit and as I stubbornly insisted on slipping into the left lane to pass all of those trucks. Did we get into a spat? Not really. Did we argue a little bit about my driving? Of course.
BTW, in case anyone is wondering, we had no trouble finding a gas station, which was surprisingly connected to a Burger King, though this one featured pastries, fresh fruit, a salad bar, and a wide variety of chips in addition to hamburgers and fries. It also had clean bathrooms that we had to pay to enter. The price was 70 cents (who can figure out the small coins that go along with paper euros?), but you got a 50-cent coupon back to use in the restaurant. We spent far more than that to get that most difficult of beverages to afford in Europe, the Coke Light.

Paying and passing through a turnstile
to get to the bathroom
Perhaps the most amusing part of the drive was our GPS. It worked great, and our guide spoke perfect English, though she did have a bit of a tone as she urged us to “prepare to turn right” and then “turn right now!”

The six hours went by quickly on a smooth, well maintained roadway that skirted most cities and towns and took us by wooded areas and fields filled with grain and flowers. What was surprising was the terrain that we encountered in the last few miles before we arrived in Bad Konigshofen. We traveled along narrow, winding roads and passed through several small rural towns. Having spent our first days in Germany in Berlin and Rostock, we were a little surprised to be “in the country.” We could have been traveling through parts of Vermont. Audrey commented that while she knew her grandparents had owned a grain distribution business, she hadn’t fully understood that they lived in a farming area.
Big type on this map but a small town
We made a final turn and entered Bad Konigshofen, the big city of the area with its population of nearly 6,000. We drove to the market square, which probably looked the same as it had 400 years before. Amanda had been there 12 years earlier and pointed out a few landmarks she remembered, including where the family business had been near the square.

Bad Konigshofen's Market Square
While in Rostock, we had made a little history. In Bad Konigshofen, we found ourselves transported back in time.  

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sharing Family Secrets

When Audrey accepted the invitation from Dr. Antje Strahl at the University of Rostock to come to Germany, she agreed to cross a divide more than 75 years old that separated her family from its German origins. She knew she was going to receive a group of books that had been lost to her family when they escaped the Nazi regime in 1939. In return, she was going to tell an audience of contemporary Germans about her family’s history both in Germany and in the U.S. It wasn’t easy deciding what to share and how to make a connection with a room full of strangers across the Atlantic Ocean.
Audrey wrote out a first draft of her remarks a few weeks before we traveled to Germany and asked me to look them over. This is a dangerous request since editors are known to—well—edit. So I made some suggestions, most of which she accepted, and she sent the draft along to our kids. Brett’s response was more enthusiastic than we are used to receiving from him:

“This is really fantastic! Wow, great work. Who knew that you were such an impactful writer?! :-) XOXO”
Amanda was also enthusiastic, but we are more used to that from her.

You can watch and listen to Audrey’s remarks here:

But first a little commentary. Audrey begins by explaining her connection to several small towns in the southern German region known as Lower Franconia. (We thought the region was Bavaria but were given a quick geography lesson by Dr. Strahl to set us straight.) Then she tells about her childhood in Washington Heights, where so many German Jewish Holocaust survivors settled during and after World War II. You cannot hear the audience’s response when Audrey speaks about the German foods she ate as a child, but I can tell you that they smiled and nodded appreciatively. You can’t underestimate the power of food to touch memories and link people together!
Audrey shares family history and secrets in Rostock
Then Audrey lets this room of strangers in on one of our great family secrets, which we might call the “Mürbeteig Mystery.” Mürbeteig is a type of shortcrust pastry dough that is common in German and Austrian homes, Jewish or non-Jewish. Audrey’s mother often made desserts featuring mürbeteig with fruit layered on top.
Our favorite cake of all had rhubarb piled on the dough with a layer of chocolate melted and hardened on top. Invariably, she would ask Audrey why she never made mürbeteig herself, all the while explaining how easy it was to make. She might even get in a little zing by noting how much our children liked the dough. After a few years, Brett and Amanda got into the act during family dinners in which a mürbeteig was part of the dessert. To get her goat, they would ask Audrey when she was finally going to follow in the family baking tradition. “It’s really easy,” they would add. Their wheedling always got a laugh, especially when it would prompt my mother-in-law to question her daughter’s reluctance in a serious tone. In her remarks, Audrey tells about how at age 12 Brett gave up on his mom and decided to make a mürbeteig himself. (By the way, in reviewing Audrey’s speech, Amanda noted that while Brett may have been the first to make the dough on his own, she wanted it on the record that she had been the first child to bake one with her grandmother. To be honest, neither Audrey nor I can recall which child was first. We do agree, however, that both children created a mürbeteig before their mother.)  
There was one more family secret that Audrey chose not to reveal to the audience in Rostock: When I looked up recipes for mürbeteig online, none of them indicated the value of adding a little white vinegar in the dough mixture. “That’s what gives it the mürb,” my mother-in-law would say. I think that meant flakiness.

After sharing the mürbeteig story, Audrey gets back to her family’s history, discussing why and how they left Germany to escape Nazi persecution and how they established new lives in New York.  She notes with satisfaction that “they started a new life with limited resources but the hope and dreams of living a normal, peaceful, and full family life” and accomplished their goals.

It was at about this point in her speaking that emotions began to surface, and Audrey had to take a deep breath to fight back tears. My wife knows how to make a dramatic exit!

After the book ceremony, Audrey was asked to retell parts of her story on TV and radio for Rostock audiences. Here she is on camera. The woman standing near her is her personal interpreter. It is nice to be a celebrity, if only for one day.
Audrey would have another tearful moment two days later when we visited her mother’s childhood home and looked out the same windows that a young Franzi Malzer had looked out 75 or even 85 years before. But that’s a story for another posting.