Monday, December 15, 2014

For My Brother


An oncologist, a neurologist, and a cardiologist walk into a bar. The bartender says, ”What’ll it be?” 
They say in unison, “A miracle.” 
The bartender looks under the bar, on the back bar, says, “Sorry, we’re all out of miracles.” Then he adds, “How about a round of hope...on the house?” 
“Too late for that,” says one of the three and they leave.

Actually the three specialists meet in room 7104 at Barnes Jewish Hospital. They are there for a good reason: my brother, Barry, who lies silent on the bed.

The oncologist says, “I think he needs A.”
The neurologist says, “I’d like to pursue B.”
The cardiologist says, “I suggest C.”

The patient says nothing. It’s Barry’s life they’re discussing, but it’s all he can do to maintain his breathing, keep his heart pumping and his mind from floating into that nether world where the line between reality and illusion has been erased.

Eventually the scene plays out. The three caballeros agree on next steps, Barry is wheeled into three different rooms over the next five days, with brief stops in ICU and cardiology before the sensors are disconnected, the monitors switched off, the drip stops dripping, and he takes a chauffeured ride in his own personal ambulance 23 miles west to his villa in Chesterfield, to await the arrival of hospice, a special bed, raised toilet seat, little bottles of vanilla Ensure, pads and swaths and other appointments associated with “End of Life” care. 

You know as well as I that it’s really a “Death Watch” but everyone wants to avoid the dreaded “D” word. “End of Life” sounds like a play that is over, and everyone goes out to get a bite to eat.

For five days, we - the family and those closest to him - wait. None of us are really interested in the Blues or Tigers games but they dominate the large-screen TV in the living room. No one is really hungry but we eat whatever is set out on the table. This is the kind of scene that calls for a grandfather’s clock ticking loudly down the hall, chiming away the hours, a cold wind and swirling snow outside the windows, candles flickering in the drafty room. That’s one version, had it been described by Charlotte Bronte or Charles Dickens. 

Then there’s the Norman Rockwell version of “The Wait”: Gentle days and feathery clouds, a lowering sun, the family gathered as for a Thanksgiving dinner or birthday portrait, from the bed a faint smile, a few final meaningful words, the gentle send-off. That is the ending we had expected. 

That’s not how it happened. Eventually it became a silent ship, slipping away from the dock, headed through the dense fog to a rendezvous at an unknown destination. 

When Barry exhaled for the last time, about 12:20 on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 8, I expected the world to perhaps pause a little, a slight hesitation or flicker, just for a nanosecond in recognition of the passing of this most extraordinary man. But traffic continued to speed by on Olive Boulevard, venti lattes were brewed and served without cease, the gray clouds maintained their slow crawl across the heavens, and CNN didn’t break into its never-ending tales of protest and politics.

Where is it written that the older brother give a eulogy for the younger brother? If it is indeed written, it must be in the chapter titled “Planning Your Life and Other Misconceptions.” Because just when you think you have it figured out, along comes a surprise. His eulogy was difficult to write, even tougher to say aloud to the more than 200 witnesses at the temple on Wednesday. But, later on, I was lifted by the stories I heard about his acts of kindness and charity, his role as mentor, organizer of lunches and dinners with old friends, and his exemplary decisions throughout the highs and lows of his life.

Barry and I were different. 
His passion was sports. Mine, music. 
He was a short, chunky kid. I was tall, thin. 
He had fun at Washington U. I studied. (Got mediocre grades. I should have done it his way.)
He was a CPA. His career was numbers. Mine, words.
But in so many ways, important ways, we were alike. A product of loving parents Milt and Diana, a recognition of the importance of family, love and support for our kids. And we cared deeply about each other, stayed in touch over the decades through lunches and jazz concerts. 

How quickly the older generation is replaced by the younger generation, as they themselves soon become replaced by the next. With each passing, we lose part of ourselves. On that Monday, part of my foundation broke away. I now feel off balance, slightly askew. I know what’s missing but have trouble finding solid footing. For now.

A good friend of mine sent these beautiful words:
“Every loss is just that, something not to be recovered, but remembered well in the swirl of memories that make up our lives.”

Memories.

When Barry was three years old and I was eight, we lived on Midvale, across from Flynn Park. He used to follow me everywhere. I would leave with a couple of buddies to go across the street to play in the park, and he would tag behind, his knickers down to his ankles, his nose running, his shirt out. My little brother. On this particular day, I didn’t want him following us. So I got a long piece of rope from our garage and tied him firmly to a tree in our front yard. We left. Barry yelled and cried, but couldn’t get loose.

Now I realize that whenever I look back, my little brother will not be there. Not a footstep, not an echo, not a shadow. But I know his spirit - a warm, shining presence - will always be with me. And with his family and many friends. Perhaps that is a form of eternal life. I hope so.



Sunday, November 23, 2014

Eulogy for a Feathered Friend


We’ve come to that time of year when we pause to say “Thanks for the blessings we have received.” Unfortunately there’s a large segment of the animal kingdom that offers no thanks, only trembling fear and mindless flight.

Yes, Thanksgiving is upon us. As an integral part of the celebration, millions of turkeys will lay their necks on the block for us, hoping for a painless departure and eventual placement on a large platter surrounded by bowls of dressing, yams, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie, with a circle of hungry humans seated at the ready, teeth bared, knives and forks in hand. 


I know of no other nation that decimates such a large segment of its animal population to feed their citizenry. How this hapless bird became the centerpiece for this well-intentioned celebration baffles me. Ben Franklin believed the turkey should be the national bird instead of the eagle because there were so many turkeys in America. Somehow the gobbler ended up in the oven and the eagle ascended to the top of flagpoles.
It’s as though the eagle lobby was better organized than that of the poor turkeys. Given the recent state of affairs in Washington, the turkey would have been more appropriate. Be that as it may, the holiday gathered momentum under President Lincoln, who declared it a National Holiday in 1863. You’d think, with all he had to attend to, like the Civil War and Secession and Slavery, he would’ve had more important things to do. FDR got into the act in 1939 when he moved the holiday up a week. Of course it met with Republican opposition, headed up by Alf Landon. (I can’t believe our nation would’ve ever elected a man named Alf to be president). Europe was being overrun by the Germans, Britain was in deadly peril, but Americans now had more time for Christmas shopping. 

Here comes the really ugly part of this history lesson. 
“Parental guidance advised. Some scenes may be too graphic for young minds, or bird lovers.” According to the National Turkey Federation (I’m not kidding; Google it), 200,000,000 turkeys were eaten in the U.S. last year. Two hundred million! That’s bigger than the combined populations of Paraguay, Serbia, Thailand, Argentina and, yes, Turkey. Those poor birds waddled to their death much as soldiers did in the Civil War and The Great War. Only this onslaught occurs every year, regular as clockwork and the tides. More from the NTF: 46 million are eaten at Thanksgiving, 22 million at Christmas, 19 million at Easter. Good thing the Jews, Muslims, and atheists don’t have a bird-centered holiday.

The Turducken
I’m not suggesting you have a New York Strip on Thanksgiving, or even that amalgam of birds known as a turducken, a twisted invention that combines the boneless bodies of a turkey, a duck and a chicken. You can get one for $60 on the internet. I’ve heard they’ve added a fourth bird this year. A parakeet, buried deep in the center, with feathers, as kind of a colorful surprise for eating your way through the outer layers. If you stick with turkey, you obviously can roast it in the oven (the traditional way) but now I hear deep-fried turkey is a treat to behold. Also smoked turkey is a favorite in some areas. Whatever pleases your palette, go for it.

But remember the following day. Black Friday. It’s really not about WalMart and Best Buy and Amazon, and up to 70% off if you show up before sunrise. No, Black Friday is a day of mourning for the forty-six million who gave so we could receive. A grateful nation bows its head and gives thanks to the noble turkey. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Sounds of Music in St. Louis


Listen. Can you hear it? It’s out there. A violin. A trumpet. A bass. A Steinway and a Selmer. These are the sounds of autumn. As nature’s world goes through her changes, leaving summer behind. the Sounds of Music flourish in St. Louis.
     I learned Beethoven's “Fur Elise” on the piano when I was ten, thanks to my mom’s love of classical piano. Her favorite was Chopin. At a statewide competition I won a tiny gold piano pin for that number. And so it began with classical music.


     Jazz came next, in the shape of two LP’s from Columbia - “The 1938 Benny Goodman Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.” I had never heard songs and players like this before. Their names are still magic for me: Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton, Jess Stacy, Babe Russin. And of course the great Benny on clarinet. I still have those albums, framed on my office wall.
     Which brings me to the point of these musings: I love this time of year in St. Louis. Sure, the trees are colorful and yard work is about over (except for raking), the "back to school" ads have been recycled. Even as the autumn leaves pass by my window, I can hear the downbeats, the count-offs, the tuning-ups, the reverent silence and enthusiastic applause just around the corner.
     The music season has returned to St. Louis, much of it centered on Grand Avenue. I don't mean to imply that there isn't music scattered throughout the city and county throughout the year. It's just that Grand is where the lights shine brightest.
     St. Louis is home to one of the premier jazz clubs in America, The Bistro, aka Jazz at the Bistro.
It sits near Grand and Washington, about a hundred yards east of the magnificent Fox Theater. The Bistro underwent an extensive face-lift during the summer, which promises to make it even more audience friendly and "cooler" than before. Gene Dobbs Bradford has done a terrific job over the years keeping jazz on track in our town. 
     One word of caution: this place is “respectable.” Which is good, but I also remember, quite fondly, the jazz clubs here in the '50's and 60's.
Peacock Alley, the Dark Side, Jazz Central, the Glass Bar, Gino's, Georgie’s, and - on the East Side - the Blue Note, the Terrace Lounge, the Palladium. Those clubs had "atmosphere." Which means they were crowded, had uncomfortable chairs, watered down drinks, lots of chatter, and almost everyone smoked or so it seems. Even today there are times when I’d like a Newport and a bourbon while listening to jazz. I quit smoking 30 years ago. Still.....

     Okay. Enough about jazz. Let's modulate over to classical. From The Bistro, stroll three blocks north and you're at Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. 


     While we're on Grand, one final word about music. Namely, The Broadway Musical. Thanks to Mary and Leon Strauss, the Fox is still a showplace over eighty years after it first opened. Back then it was movies, one of the great palaces on Grand. Today the road companies from Broadway, as well as popular music acts of all genres, keep the Fox and the neighborhood vital. 

One block west of the Fox is the Sheldon Concert Hall,
built in 1912 and another superlative music venue with perfect acoustics. I went there Sunday night with my brother to see Spokfrevo Orquestra, a 17-piece band from Brazil that blew the roof off. One of the most exciting musical events I've ever seen. St. Louis was one of only 7 cities in the U.S. to book this band, and The Sheldon did it. According to the program, frevo music is a combination of "vivid, frenetic and vigorous rhythm" with an amalgam of several Brazilians music genres. In other words, you've gotta hear it to believe it.  In Concert: Spokfrevo
     So let the leaves fall, the chill winds blow, and summer become a memory. As long as there’s a soundtrack for autumn, I’m happy. And what better way to close off this show than with the Stan Getz definitive recording of "Early Autumn." Sit back, relax, and listen.



Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Note of Appreciation to William Goldman While He's Still Alive

A movie made in 1969 and a recent round of emails and Facebook comments are responsible for this posting. It's rather traditional to wait until someone dies before saying all those good things you meant to say before, but then you find out you're too late.

That's why I'm writing about William Goldman now. Not his bio or a tribute, but just what he has meant to me with his ideas and stories and characters, both on the printed page and on the screen (movie, not TV or iPad). 

I watched "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" recently, screenplay by Goldman, and posted a short comment on FB about a particular scene (the card game near the beginning). One of my favorite all-time scenes, a model of perfection.

Card Player #2:  Well, looks like you just about cleaned everybody out, fella. You haven't lost a hand since you got to deal. What's the secret of your success?
 Sundance Kid:  Prayer.

Jeb Schary, who has movies in his veins, commented about Goldman's writing, may just be his favorite writer.
Bill Wine commented with 3 words: "Is it safe?" An unforgettable phrase, frequently repeated in Goldman's movie and novel, "Marathon Man."
Chris Snyder came up with, "Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?"

Over the past few days, I've thought about how many books by Goldman I've enjoyed and how many of his movies have kept me glued to the screen, all with characters and stories that remain alive in my mind long after the book is closed and the film has ended. 

Here, in no particular order, are my favorites. 
It starts off with the first book I read by him, in 1973. (egads, that was 40 years ago!). "The Princess Bride" is still one of my all-time favorite novels. It's ingeniously structured and a delight to read... and re-read. Others are "Marathon Man," (I gave a copy to my dentist to read the part about drilling the tooth). Other novels are "Tinsel," Magic," and "The Color of Light." 

My non-fiction favorites (Hollywood and Theater observations, with sharp-edged humor and criticism) are "Adventures in the Screen Trade," ""Which Lie Did I Tell?", and "The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway." The last one was written in 1969 and examines why some shows are hits and some flop. Of course Broadway has gone through upheavals since then. Still, it reflects Goldman's love of theater.


As a screenwriter, Goldman is responsible for some of my lasting favorites: "The Princess Bride," the aforementioned "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "Marathon Man," "Misery," "All the President's Men," "A Bridge Too Far," "No Way to Treat a Lady," and "Harper." I urge you see them all, twice. The first time to enjoy the movie. The second time to listen to the words, the silences, the storyline, the relationships between characters


If you'd like to see and hear Goldman talk about screenwriting, about his books and movies, and what he thinks about Hollywood, I urge you to check out this 90 minute video from The Writers Guild. It's all fascinating, especially the last half hour, when he talks about things more personal for him. It took place in 2010. Actually, it's all relaxed and personal and totally void of ego. 
William Goldman talks about writing

To close out this note of appreciation, here is what Goldman said about his own writing in 2000. 

"Someone pointed out to me that the most sympathetic characters in my books always died miserably. I didn't consciously know I was doing that. I didn't. I mean, I didn't wake up each morning and think, today I think I'll make a really terrific guy so I can kill him. It just worked out that way. I haven't written a novel in over a decade... and someone very wise suggested that I might have stopped writing novels because my rage was gone. It's possible. All this doesn't mean a helluva lot, except probably there is a reason I was the guy who gave Babe over to Szell in the "Is it safe?" scene and that I was the guy who put Westley into The Machine. I think I have a way with pain. When I come to that kind of sequence I have a certain confidence that I can make it play. Because I come from such a dark corner."
Goldman has also said of his work: "I [don’t] like my writing. I wrote a movie called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and I wrote a novel called The Princess Bride and those are the only two things I’ve ever written, not that I’m proud of, but that I can look at without humiliation."


I'm still hoping for one more novel or screenplay from him. In the meantime, Thanks, Mr. Goldman. You've enriched my life with your words.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Most Popular Sport


 It seems the three big subjects of interest in our country today are politics, sports, and weather. Since I no longer understand politics, and have no intention of spending another minute wondering what tomorrow’s forecast is, let me talk about sports. It’s a huge subject.

   Just consider all the options you have throughout the year in St. Louis. The big three, of course, are The Cards, The Rams, The Blues. But those are the pro's, probably not your line of work and certainly not mine. We’re spectators. So let's consider all those other sports that you can participate in. Chances are at least one of them is on your weekly "to do" schedule. Golf, tennis, handball, racquet ball, bike riding (as in Trek), bike riding (as in Harley), Bocce ball (if you live on The Hill), darts, rugby, swimming, soccer.... well, you get the idea.

   However there is one sport I didn't mention, and it possibly boasts more participants than any other in America. It's softball. Believe it or not, over forty million (that’s 40,000,000) men, women and children play softball, in one form or another. It really is the All-American sport. There are thousands of leagues, tens of thousands of teams, in every state in the Union. You can play no matter your age, from grade school into your 80's or as long as you can stand and hold a bat. Seriously. 




   I play senior slow pitch softball in Kirkwood. We play three mornings a week. Also there are leagues 3 nights a week. And that's just for us old guys. Several of them are in their 80's, a few fought in Korea, lots of them have brand new knees or hips... and they still run around the bases. Slowly.

    If you drive through Forest Park, or past school yards or walk in one of the many parks in this area, chances are you've seen a softball game in progress. Boys, girls, men, women, middle aged, seniors. There are softball tournaments across the country for just about every age group, for both men and women. 
   This is interesting. The International Senior Softball Association (ISSA) has just announced it will be holding the 2014 ISSA Midwest Championships this year at Independence, MO on July 25-27. This marks the first time in the twenty years they’ve been sponsoring tournaments that it will be held west of the Mississippi. Here’s a link the ISSA website. http://www.seniorsoftball.org/home.html

   Softball is such a big sport these days that ESPN carries college games, the tournaments, men and women's games.

You won't believe how fast these lady pitchers fire the ball at the plate. An article in Sports Illustrated earlier this year described an experiment the magazine ran. They had professional baseball players try to hit a woman fast-pitch pitcher. Results: the guys seldom hit the ball. One of those pro's was Albert Pujols.
He said there was no way to anticipate where the pitch was going, no "tell" signs, no reaction time to adjust his swing. He couldn't touch 'em.


   One thing to remember about playing softball: there are plenty of games where you don’t have to be good. You just want to have a good time, get together with interesting people, get a kick out of the sound of your bat connecting with the ball and the slap of the ball in your glove, the high five or bumped fists when you get a hit. Or maybe even win. Even if you don’t play, you can watch. Maybe get inspired to find that old glove somewhere in the basement.

(This article originally appeared in County Living Magazine, Summer, 2014.
The magazine contains valuable information on products, services and destinations. Check it out. County Living Magazine)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Goodbye John/Hello Noah, Hip Robins on the Way, and Other Brief Musings

Here, in no particular order, are a few things that have come to my attention recently.

1. Name that baby correctly. For 14 consecutive years, Jacob was the most popular name picked for baby boys. Noah is now at the top of the list. Next is Liam. I don't know anybody named Noah or Liam but I may someday. Those two are followed by Jacob, Mason and William. At least they haven't killed Bill yet, but he's sinking quickly. You'll never guess what the most popular name for baby girls is. Sophia. Followed by Emma, Olivia, Isabella and Ava. Those sounds like old ladies' names, probably because they make me think of movie stars from the 1940's. 

The Social Security Admin. also ranked the names that are the fastest-rising in popularity. No way you can guess these. Boys: Jayceon. Girls: Daleyza. I'll never know anyone with those names. Seems as though the media creates the trend: reality shows, talent shows, dj's, rappers and other celebrities. 

So, to all you Joe's, John's and Jim's out there, face it. Your day has come and gone.

2. Missouri: On the Move
The Show-Me's in Jeff City have once again gained the national spotlight. First, we aren't going to allow the Tesla to be sold here. Reason: No dealers. It's wrong, they say. "When you buy a car, it must be from a dealer. We've always done it this way." A key proponent of this backward-thinking legislation is State Senator Mike Kehoe, who was once a car dealer. But Tesla is taking it to court. Knowing how Missouri works, the judge will probably be a Ford dealer.

Second Missouri Move: We may rank low in education and health care, but we rank way up there when it comes to early departures. Missouri is third in the nation in executions. Only Texas (of course) and Florida killed more killers. Assuming they were all guilty. But the state is on a hot streak: May will be the 8th consecutive month we've slipped the needles in and opened the valves. It's a humane form of death, if you can possibly put those two thoughts together.

3. That Lady and the Beer Guys
A former executive at Anheuser-Busch has taken on "the boys." She claims she was a victim of sexual discrimination.
Maybe she was. I don't really know. Could be. All I know is she made $320,000 a year. That's $6,000 a week. In 2004 she made $1,500,000. She alleges in her law suit that, because she is a woman, she missed out on over nine million dollars of income. Like I say, maybe she did. The beer game is pretty much a guys' game. But isn't that what they said about the car business until GM changed the game?

Here's what I know for sure. If someone wants to give me $6,000 a week, they can dress me in a pinafore or miniskirt, call me any kind of name they want, refer to me in meetings as "the old fart," and even pat me on the butt while I'm making coffee for "the boys," and I'll be happy. No lawyers involved.

4. Swinging Robins "In Vitro"
A robin built her nest on top of one of our deck speakers.
We listen to jazz out there a lot. She seems to dig it. I wonder about her chicks. Will they be cool? Will they dig the bass solos? Will they identify with Bird, aka Charlie Parker? I think they will. I heard mama robin whistling "Round Midnight" yesterday, key of E flat. 

5. My Ties
I have 26 ties. I wear only 3 or 4 of them.
The only time I wear a tie is to a memorial service (3 last month),  a dinner with important people (0 in the past ten years), or opening night on Broadway (once in the past twenty years). So why don't I throw or give away the twenty that collect dust? Because some day I may get that call, something important, and the tie I want will be gone. Better cluttered than sorry.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Music and Life at 33 1/3


From across the street, it looks like an ordinary store on a busy little street in suburban St. Louis. I could read the sign. Euclid. The name was familiar, but I hadn't been here before. This required a closer look. I crossed.







Euclid Records. Might as well. I had time to kill before an appointment. I grew up with records. 78’s. 45’s. And especially LP’s. 


I walked in. Big place. Lots of bins, shelves. Signs that said Rock and Soul and Rap and Latin. Didn't seem very promising, at least not for me. 







I noticed a landing on the right, stairs leading up, sign beckoning to me, insisting I go on up. Birdland. Jazz Corner of the World. I had spent many a night there, decades ago, time in New York hunting down jazz players and clubs. Especially the Sacred Temple of them all: Birdland. I looked at my watch. Okay, so I might be a little late for that meeting. Up I went.                                  







My first thought on looking out at the second floor was “Field of Dreams”  - an endless field of vinyl.Build it and they will come. And I was there. Not on this Thursday. Not on this day in March of 2014. But on a day when I still lived at home, dad at the shoe store, mom shopping or at the beauty parlor, my brother playing baseball. And I had my record collection. Dozens of LP’s at first, then hundreds, finally three thousand.






The great names lived here in Euclid, side by side from Armstrong through Zavinul. Albums I had once owned, wished I still had, except not enough space.

Names like Gerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman, Mose Allison, Jazz at the Phil, Oscar, Brubeck, Duke, Monk, Stan, Miles, MJQ. My field of dreams with all the legends waiting there to be picked up, their jackets read, the black vinyl slipped out, carefully laid on the turntable, needle lowered, then sit back, dig the sounds, and read the liner notes. Until they were memorized. The recording dates, the musicians at each and every position, the tunes and composers and length of the cut, bits of history or back story, photos in black and white.


I wanted to meet the person in charge of these treasures. Probably the same guy that bought my 3000 albums a dozen years ago. A door near the top of the steps said “Office.” I knocked. “C’mon in,” he said. I did. Just as I hoped: his office was a mini-museum. 

Joe Schwab, the owner, looked up from his computer while I told him I had an idea about writing something for my blog. We talked, about jazz and the record business and Euclid Records. The wall behind him was covered with jazz photos, many of them, he told me, taken at Peacock Alley, the fabled jazz club in midtown St. Louis during the 50’s, before The City tore down all the historic old buildings for some civic progress concept.

A short conversation with Joe, then I walked back, meandered down the aisles, picked up an occasional album, its weight and shape so familiar to my hands. Old friends waiting to be heard once again. They say you can't go home again. Sure, you can. At Euclid Records. At least for me. And other record stores that know the value of jazz lp's. 

Yes, there are time machines. They travel at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. They can take you back fifty years and more, as clean as a whistle, as clear as a dear friend’s face. As pure as a tenor sax solo.