WHO KNOWS WHERE THE TIME GOES?

Bergen PACMy wife Jan and I recently attended a concert at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, in Englewood, NJ. We frequently go to concerts there, and also Bethel Woods in Bethel, NY, to see individual artists and groups who defined our youth and who are thankfully still touring. As Jan says, “If there’s anybody you want to see, let’s go now, because they’re all leaving us.” (See Glenn Frey, Leonard Cohen and Tom Petty, to name but a few.) That particular night in Englewood, we saw Steven Stills (age 72) and Judy Collins (age 78). They have been touring this year to promote a collaborative CD, “Stills & Collins: Everybody Knows.”

Stills & CollinsAs everybody knows, Stephen Stills and Judy Collins had a relatively brief, but high-octane love affair circa 1968, when Collins was an established star in the folk music world and Stills was making a name for himself as a founding member of Buffalo Springfield, and would soon become one-third of Crosby, Stills and Nash. Their relationship was the catalyst for one of the great songs of the Boomer Generation: “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”

The concert was transcendent. Stills voice has weakened over the years, though his guitar playing remains first-rate. Collins, on the other hand, is still a national treasure. Her impossibly pure, quintessentially rich voice is as stunning as I remember it, and she still phrases a song with the best of them. Stills wisely highlighted Collins in the concert and on their joint CD, and she delivers in spades.

sandy dennyHer rendition of the late Sandy Denny gem, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” is perhaps the most beautiful recording I have ever heard. The sparse arrangement features a persistent, though unobtrusive piano, Stills’ almost imperceptible guitar, base, a solitary snare drum and muted cymbal, like raindrops falling softly in the distance. Above it all–effortlessly, up and down the scale–soars Collins’ singular voice, an entire orchestra all by itself. Amazing. And wonderful.

Dinner at Grandma's, circa 1953The concert and the CD got me thinking, and wondering, as I do (maybe more than I should), and as all Boomers must from time to time, just where that time has gone. When I was a kid in a very large extended Italian/American family, all the aunts and uncles and cousins used to gather every Sunday at my grandmother’s grand, old house in Hackensack, NJ. There, in the basement (where all the old Italians eventually migrated; my Mom called it her “sunken dining room”) we all gathered, nearly thirty-strong, for a peasant’s meal that was fit for a king. It was prepared entirely on a wood-burning stove. I remember thinking then, as most post-war kids probably did, that it was a pretty good life. And it never occurred to me, though it surely should have, that it would all end one day.

Al StewartIn his classic “Time Passages,” Al Stewart writes: “Well I’m not the kind to live in the past; The years run too short and the days too fast. The things you lean on are the things that don’t last. Well it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these time passages… Buy me a ticket on the last train home tonight.”

Better yet, buy yourself a ticket to a concert by one of your own favorite artists from way back when. Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” but he was wrong. You can. You just can’t stay.

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WOODSTOCK

The road into White Lake, NYPart One: “Going on down to Yasgur’s Farm”

It was August of 1969, arguably the most significant year in all of Baby Boomerdom. Among other events: two men had walked on the moon; Nixon was sworn in as President, and later initiated the bombing of Cambodia, essentially ending the draft; the Mets won the World series; the Jets defeated the Colts in the Super Bowl; the Stonewall riots gave rise to the gay rights movement; a Rolling Stones’ fan was tragically killed at that infamous concert in Altamont, CA. And a little shindig in the pastoral farmlands of Bethel, NY erupted into one of the seminal moments of the post-war baby boom fraternity. Named after the town where it was originally planned (until zoning regulations necessitated its relocation), the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, more than any other single event, defined our generation.

posterI attended the Woodstock festival with my cousins Joe and John. I recall that as we inched slowly into White Lake NY, a hamlet within the town of Bethel, on Friday afternoon, August 15th, there were townsfolk along the sides of the road announcing that the village was already bereft of food, water and gasoline. We drove for a bit and finally stopped to pitch our tent, as so many others had, in the expansive front yard of some benevolent farmer, who, along with his wife, dog, and several children, sat bemused on the front porch observing the spectacle.

Somebody nearby was talking about a pond deep in the woods across the road from where we were tenting, so we followed the crowd through the forest. After a while we came upon a pristine mini-lake filled with not-so-pristine contemporaries cavorting happily in the cooling water. Their clothes, strewn along the shore or hanging from random tree branches, added splashes of tie-dyed brightness to what had become a cloudy late afternoon. Of course we joined them.

peace, love & musicLater that day, as we make our way slowly toward the concert grounds, I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of mingling with the 40,000 or so hippies predicted to attend for three days of peace, love and music. Of course ten-times that number actually showed up, and in addition to all that peace, love and music, there were also rain, mud, and weed in abundance. We found a spot high on the hill and waited for a long time until Richie Havens appeared and played and sang, it seemed, forever. It was many years later that I learned the reason why I only remembered Havens on that first night: the other opening night acts couldn’t manage to get into White Lake on time. Havens transported all of us to Heaven for a few soulful hours.

 

Havens on stage at Woodstock

Richie Havens

At some point in the wee hours of Saturday morning the rain began. We were less than comfortable in our tent, since the four-man canvas structure had swelled considerably with several shelter-less concert-goers, including a very pretty and seriously well-endowed young girl who proudly claimed to be a Playboy bunny. We didn’t have the heart to send her out in the rain, which had already rendered her Grateful Dead t-shirt virtually non-existent. It was still raining heavily after dawn broke on Saturday, so the three of us reluctantly agreed to head back home rather than brave the deluge.

 

A relative lifetime intervened before I would get myself back to the garden…

 

Part Two: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy wife Jan and I (and Sam the Wonderdog) are frequent visitors to Woodstock, NY, and to Bethel, NY, the actual location of the Woodstock Festival. There, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts exists as a brilliant beacon that is the eternal flame of Woodstock Nation. I had originally thought it was somewhat ironic that the town of Woodstock became the epicenter of the state-of-mind that was, and remains, “Woodstock.” After all, the music-and-art-fair which was created in the town’s name actually took place nearly sixty miles southwest. But the town of Woodstock, NY, had its own rich history as a cultural and counter-cultural community long before the Music and Art Fair had ever been conceived.

 

big-pink

Big Pink

Bob Dylan lived there and wrote many of his greatest songs in the house everyone called “Big Pink,” on Parnassus Lane near the Woodstock/Saugerties border. (It’s actually a vacation rental home now!) And his bandmate Levon Helm (he of The Band fame) lived there as well, in a converted barn which became famous for hosting the Midnight Ramble concerts which continued until shortly before his death in 2012. This transplanted southerner loved his adopted town and the people there returned the favor. Music promoter Albert Grossman started his record company in the neighboring town of Bearsville, which attracted many of the top musical performers of the day.

 

Bethel WoodsThe main reason why Michael Lang wanted to host his music-and-art fair in Woodstock was the fact that the town was the epicenter of folk/rock music on the east coast, in addition to being a haven for artists from every discipline. He moved it to Bethel either because of unfavorable zoning laws or because he couldn’t find the right location, depending upon which version you believe. And Bethel, of course, is the home of the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts and the Woodstock Museum. If you’re a Boomer, I urge you to visit both of these remarkable places; I promise that you won’t be disappointed.

 

Levon Helm & Bob Dylan

Levon Helm (left) and Bob Dylan.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair of 1969 was, at its core, a celebration of peace and love, as expressed through the camaraderie experienced by young people of all races and creeds, enriched by the music that nurtured us. Even though the Vietnam war was still raging then, I remember it as a period of hope. It was a moment in time when peace and love for all seemed not only attainable but within the ability of our generation to achieve. I don’t know what happened to us and our dream, but these days we seem as far away from the promise of “Woodstock” as ever before.

 

We go to Woodstock, NY and Bethel Woods because somehow the dream is still alive in these places, if only faintly. And in going, it fills a cranny in our souls that we may have forgotten even existed. We get this feeling each and every time we visit; it only lasts for a little while, but somehow that’s enough.

(If you’re interested in the fascinating history of Woodstock, NY, I urge you to read “Small Town Talk,” by Barney Hoskyns.)

 

 

 

 

FOREVER YOUNG

Paradox posterSaw a curious but fascinating little flick on Netflix the other night. “Paradox” is a collaboration between the actress Daryl Hannah and her current main squeeze, one of the heroes of my misspent youth, the rocking-chair rocker, Neil Young. Paradox might best be described as a “sci-fi musical western.” Taking place in some future time, but looking very much like a traditional Western, the characters uncover technological artifacts from present day. The film features Young, and several members of his band-of-the-moment, Promise of the Real, which includes Lukas and Micah Nelson, sons of Willie Nelson. Willie himself makes an appearance in the film as Young’s compadre-in-crime. The two desperados conspire in the central heist of the flick by brazenly knocking off a bank together. A “seed bank,” that is.

Young on the radiator chairParadox is filmed almost entirely on Hannah’s iPhone, with supplemental footage supplied (perhaps to solidify the future/past theme) by an old Super-8 movie camera. That being said, many of the images are hauntingly beautiful, if frequently incoherent and disjointed. Young is often seen strumming his guitar in the background while sitting on a chair fashioned entirely of old radiators. He doesn’t do much acting in this film, but neither does anyone else. To call the acting performances pedestrian would perpetuate a gross injustice upon law-abiding pedestrians everywhere. To be fair, though, I don’t think acting is the point of Paradox.

Daryl HannahDaryl Hannah herself says of her Netflix directorial debut that it “isn’t a real movie,” instead it is subtitled “a loud poem.” It certainly is poetic at times. And loud; in the way that much of our favorite music from back in the day was. Though both Young and Hannah have dabbled in filmmaking, music is clearly the point of this glorified home movie. There is much music to celebrate here, including a nearly ten-minute rendition of the instrumental interlude to the Young classic “Cowgirl in the Sand,” (one of my “50 Best Songs of Boomer Generation”), and a heart-wrenching rendition of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground,” by Lukas Nelson, sounding eerily like his dad.

My love affair with the music of Neil Young began rather inauspiciously. It commenced on the occasion of a road trip taken by myself and two of my Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers, JJ and Scandal, in JJ’s ‘67 Plymouth Satellite during the summer between our junior and senior years at Rutgers University. We headed north to Canada for a camping excursion on Mont Tremblant, followed by several days in the magical city of Montreal. The trip was a life-altering experience for each of us (me, probably most); but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say that the only 8-track JJ had for our trip was, fittingly, Canadian Young’s second studio album, “Everybody Knows this is Nowhere.”  We listened to it over and over again on the trip up and back, marveling at the wizardry of this captivating new singer/songwriter.album jacket

The paradox of Paradox points to the lives of young Baby Boomers being steeped in the peace promotion and radical revolution of a time which the Moody Blues aptly christened “Days of Future Passed.” As Neil Young himself says, “The ’60s was one of the first times the power of music was used by a generation to bind them together.” And bound together we remain.

REAR WINDOW

My wife Jan and I were lying in bed the other night when she drew my attention towards the small, half-round window which lies near the peak of the roof in the main upstairs bedroom. On the south side of the house, this perfect semi-circle peers out upon a well-defined patch of treetop and sky, an occasional plane, creasing the fabric of the heavens on its way to who-knows-where, and not much else. What I saw, when I looked there, were pitch-black tree branches, still clinging to the last-gasp modicum of leaves which thusfar had outlasted the cold, blustery fall, and a late November nor’easter. The tree branches appeared in bas-relief against the moderately softer charcoal gray night sky.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJan, who has always slept on her right side, had been relegated to doing so on her left for nearly the past year, owing to a broken right humerus bone suffered in a fall last winter. As she has been wont to say throughout all these long, painful and debilitating months of mending, therapy and recovery (bless her), even such clouds can boast silver linings. One of these shining swatches of interior cloud-cloth, has been the fact that, while lying on her left side on the bed in the upstairs bedroom featuring the small half-round, south-facing window, she has had the opportunity, for those moments seeking sleep (which sometimes lengthen into minutes; often many of them), to view life inching ever forward en route to eternity.

“I’ve watched the seasons unfold from here,” she said profoundly. “And each one is more beautiful than the last.”

“That’s a pretty amazing window,” I replied.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I mean, to be able to do all that for you, and for you to appreciate it the way you did… That’s a job well done for a lowly pane of glass. Don’t you think?”

“Yes,” she said, after a moment of reflection. “It really is.”

11177805_800This episode reminded me of the 1954 Hitchcock film classic Rear Window, starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Stewart plays professional photographer “Jeff” Jefferies, who is confined to a wheelchair in his Greenwich Village, NY apartment, owing to a broken leg sustained while photographing a racing accident. Jefferies passes his mending time peering out the rear window of his room into several apartments across from his and onto the courtyard below, observing the flotsam and jetsam of human life drifting past. Stewart’s character witnesses what he believes to be a murder, allegedly committed by a consummately creepy, pre-Perry Mason and pre-Ironsides, Raymond Burr. So it is as this point, of course, where the similarity between Hitchcock’s Rear Window and our rear window ends.

But that brief conversation got me thinking about this thing called “Life” and the intricacies, ironies and subtleties therein, which conjoin and conspire to craft the all-too-brief measure between birth and death, and which can, at the very least, help to establish the defining line between a life well lived and one that may be otherwise. There are two things in particular that I would like to address in this post: the first concerns the seemingly irrelevant and innocuous choices we make, often without giving them a second thought, which can irrevocably change the course of one’s life; and the second has to do with the multitude of small, simple pleasures which can occur almost daily and which have the power, if acknowledged, to enrich one’s life immeasurably.

A case in point regarding the former… I met my wife, Jan at a party which I attended during a long Thanksgiving weekend nearly forty years ago. I was recently separated from my first wife, and living in a small apartment in Cliffside Park, NJ with no car and very little desire, on this particular Saturday evening, to do anything other than curl up with a bad book or watch an equally mediocre movie on TV. There was a knock at my door. It was my neighbor across the hall: the male half of a young couple I barely knew, asking if I might be interested in attending a party with them that night. I declined, but he insisted; he was aware of my 50-UNITED-NATIONS-PLAZA-SAKS-FIFTH-AVENUE-FULL_2carless, mateless plight, and probably wanted to cheer me up. Against my better judgment, I eventually, reluctantly, agreed. My wife-to-be, on the other hand, was, at virtually that very moment, being prodded and cajoled by a friend of hers into attending this same party, very much against her will. Jan had toiled that same day, amid the collateral damage perpetrated by Black Friday, selling cosmetics at Saks Fifth Avenue, in New York City. After eight hours of dealing and dueling with privileged humanity at its most vile, she wanted nothing more than an evening of soothing solitude.

Nevertheless, we both arrived at that particular affair—one which I had no earthly right being anywhere near, and one which she had virtually zero interest in attending. And “the rest,” as the metaphorical “they” utter far too frequently, if you ask me, “is history.” Had I been steadfast in my refusal, or had she, both our lives would have traversed vastly different trajectories, arriving, as does that occasional airplane creasing the patch of sky articulated by our half-round, rear window: who-knows-where. Is it not astonishing, at the very least, to contemplate where one’s life might have matriculated, had one chosen that alternate path on life’s journey, instead of that which was travelled? It is a constant source of amazement to me, each and every time I contemplate the many crossroads arrived at in my life thus far, as to where I might be today, had I turned left, not right at a particular juncture, or vice versa. As the days tick down toward yet another New Year, take a few moments to consider the choices you’ve made and your ultimate destinations arrived at. Then try to imagine a path not taken and where it might have led.

“Simple pleasures.” That phrase has become a virtual oxymoron over the years, like “jumbo shrimp” and “common courtesy.” In our technology-ridden, social-media-dominated world, the concept of simple pleasures has all but disappeared, not only from the lexicon but also from modern society itself. Perhaps seeking joy in simple pleasures has diminished steadily over the years for the plain fact that life itself continues to become ever more complicated2657036188_1c796f0ece and involved. Back when life itself was far less mentally and emotionally congested than it is today it was easy to find joy in the elegant minutia of daily life. Before coffee became an international fetish, for example, that first cup of percolated Maxwell House was, indeed, good to the last drop. I still look forward to beginning each day with my home-brewed java and the daily newspaper. Who the hell does that anymore!?

Somehow I can’t get the same simple pleasure by perusing the internet while sipping a seven-dollar mega-moca-choco-latte-ya-ya from one of the Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks that dominate every neighborhood. Why? Because I think that such an exercise is complicated as opposed to simple and is, for several reasons, virtually bereft of pleasure (including having to go to Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks, and having to pay seven-dollars for a mega-moca-choco-latte-ya-ya, which, by the time it takes me to say that, has been rendered lukewarm, at best, and will be room temperature, or worse, by the time I get it home).

In my youth I began fashioning a list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures, as my not-yet-fully-formed mind’s eye viewed them. For some reason, as I recall, I had only three items on the list, but they were, in descending order of pleasure-inducing: 1. (Here I refused to actually name the item, saying only that it was so obvious that mentioning it seemed redundant; I’m pretty sure though that my randy teenaged mind’s eye was visualizing s-e-x.); 2. Running with a football. (I was still playing football at the time and the act of lugging a pigskin through-and-around other testosterone-fortified teenagers who were attempting to separate me from the ball, if not my head, was truly a great joy to me.); and, 3. Writing a perfect sentence. (Later in life, when I was no longer playing football, but was writing and editing professionally, this became Pleasure #2 on my list. Though the unmitigated joy of running with a football remains on the list to this day; it was that intoxicating). What is a perfect sentence? It is simply one that could not have been improved upon by any other person, living or dead. Not Shakespeare. Not Hemmingway. Not even Steven King or J.K. Rowling. Muhammad Ali is actually the author of what may very well be the greatest sentence (actually, poem) ever written, especially considering his epic life and unparalleled level of fame, worldwide. The sentence/poem, it its entirety, is: “Me; we.” Think about it…

I’ve added to my list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures over the years. The list now includes items like: Hearing your child laugh for the first time; Lying next to someone you love (there’s that s-e-x thing again); Elmer T. Lee bourbon on ice, occasionally accompanied by a Cohiba cigar; Pizza (almost any kind); James Taylor, live at Bethel Woods; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Grilled lobster; A New York Strip Steak, medium-rare; Driving a fast car, fast; Porsche 911s; A great book, movie or play; Reconnecting with many of my Beta Theta Pi Fraternity brothers after way too many years; Football; Baseball; Basketball; An old, wooden lacrosse stick with catgut webbing; A very cold Blue Moon with an orange wedge; A very hot Folger’s Black Silk with cream, sipped slowly while reading The Bergen Record; Saturday mornings 9001.inddat the kitchen table with my wife, Jan; Christmas; Alistair Sim in A Christmas Carol; Saturday nights with my wife, Jan; My dog Sam curling up in my lap; My daughter Carolyn’s smile; The ocean; Woodstock, NY; A sweet, crisp seedless white grape; Watermelon on a perfect summer day; Fireflies on a perfect summer night; Watching Derek Jeter play baseball; Having watched Jim Brown play football; Lu Zabriskie’s eggs over-easy, crisp bacon and rye toast, still warm and firm, though expertly spread with unsalted butter; Mom’s homemade manicotti; Cargo shorts; Grandma’s meatballs; The gym, most days, anyway; The smell of fresh-cut grass; Retirement.

I could go on and on, but you get the picture. One of the things that advancing age has taught me is that one must take the time, especially as one gets older, to do as many of the things that gives one pleasure, as often as one can possibly do them. If you really think about it, and make a list, I can practically guarantee that the vast majority of things on your own, personal list of Life’s Greatest Pleasures, will be of the simple variety; easily and cheaply done. I can’t eat Grandma’s meatballs any more, or watch Derek Jeter or Jim Brown play their respective sports, or eat Lu Zabriskie’s eggs over-easy, crisp bacon and perfectly-buttered rye toast. But many of the other simple pleasures on my not-so-simple list are still, thankfully, up for grabs. I, for one, plan on grabbing them as often as I can.

Don’t take my word for it. Instead, listen to the Founding Fathers of these United States who, in their infinite wisdom, guaranteed each and every one of us the right to “the pursuit of united-states-declaration-of-independencehappiness” in none other than the Declaration of Independence itself. They didn’t guarantee us happiness itself, you understand, but the right to seek it is guaranteed, by law. In other words, we are obliged to seek happiness whenever and wherever we can find it, as long as our own happiness does not cause some other person unhappiness. So, there it is. Go get it; and in doing so, bring some back for the people you love most. Happiness is a choice; if you fail to choose it, you can blame no one but yourself.

Oftentimes pleasure can come through the simple act of looking out a window, rear or otherwise, and relishing in the miracle and abundance of life which bustles all around us…

“I’ve watched the seasons unfold from here,” she said. “And each one is more beautiful than the last.”

“That’s a pretty amazing window.”

“Yes. It really is.

CAN A SONG SAVE YOUR LIFE?

My wife Jan and I treated ourselves to a movie date last week at one of the way-too-many megaplex movie theater complexes in the Megatropolis where we live, collectively known as the Tri-State Area, the Mega Complexity Capitol of the World. Going to a movie theater is something that we rarely do anymore, for several of what we consider to be very good reasons. The first of these concerns an ancient concept known as “value for the dollar.” Since we are both Seniors, we are as adamant as a people can be about value for our dollar; one of the requirements for being accepted into the Senior Fraternity is a willingness to utter the phrase “Do you give a senior discount?” as often as humanly possible during the course of a typical day. My wife is better at this than I am; but I am learning. We managed to score the Senior Discount at the theater, which, for an early afternoon showing on a Friday came to only ten dollars each, instead of the non-Senior rate of $14. Add on another $20 for an unusually small popcorn and a significantly small soda (no Senior discount at the snack stand), though, and it makes $40 movie dates rather a luxury for the likes of us. (Jesus! What do they charge for medium-rare steak and a medium-sized glass of pinot noir at these places?)

megaplexThen there is the issue of people talking during movies; this was one of the main reasons why we stopped going to the movies ten or so years ago. Gratefully, there were only eight people total at this particular showing, so unwanted talking turned out to be a non-issue. Another rather annoying concept in megaplex movie theaters these days is one of which I had been unaware. The film was scheduled to begin at 2:10, and we were in our seats by about 1:55. For the next fifteen minutes we were deluged with commercials for a variety of products and services in which, at my age, I have little or no interest; the kind of commercials one would expect to be subject to if one was watching so-called free TV. One certainly did not expect to have to pay $20 (not counting the high-priced, low-volume snacks) for the privilege of watching TV-type commercials in a megaplex which I could have viewed at home, for free, had I the inclination. But there you are. When 2:10 finally rolled around, it seemed like hours later, the previews of coming attractions portion of the show commenced; fully another 15 or 20 minutes of these ensued before the actual movie began at around 2:30. I know that, as an ornery, cranky Senior, refined folk have learned not to pay me much mind, but is anyone besides me annoyed at this alarming trend? I hope so.

Fortunately, though, the movie was very nearly worth the ordeal. Written and directed by Irish filmmaker John Carney, and starring Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, this film debuted in 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival under the awkward and unwieldy title Can a Song Save your Life? but was released theatrically this July as Begin Again. Ruffalo plays a down-and-out (and recently out of work) music producer who, while sitting on a subway platform in a drunken stupor contemplating suicide, decides instead to have one more drink before making up his mind. He walks into a nearby bar at the same moment that Knightley’s character, a young British songwriter-to-be, who was recently dumped by her obnoxious American rockstar boyfriend (adeptly played by American rocker Adam Levine), has very reluctantly stepped upon a small stage to perform an original composition. Though there are several instruments behind her, the band has taken a break, so she eases timidly into her song, while accompanying herself on an acoustic guitar. Her voice, though pleasant, is unremarkable and reed-thin, and she loses the crowd almost before the song has begun. Except for Ruffalo who, hearing her tiny voice amid the bar clatter, looks up to see this pretty but sad, intimidated girl singing what-is-left-of-her-heart out.

begin_again_xxlgAs he watches and listens, more and more intently, something strange, unexpected and wonderful starts to happen. The other instruments on the bandstand begin coming to life, one by one. First the hi-hat from the drum kit starts setting the beat; it is followed quickly by the piano; then the drumsticks come alive; soon the soulful cello emerges; and shortly thereafter, a sweet violin. Finally the entire bandfull of instruments is playing, sans musicians, behind her. Of course the only people who are of aware of this phantom orchestra are the Ruffalo character, and the eight of us in the theater that afternoon for the 2:10 showing. His music-producer instincts have kicked in, thereby giving a nearly perfect, though spontaneous, arrangement to Keira’s sad song of lost love, regret, and the virtually unbearable drudgery of moving on with one’s life, alone. The song, “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” is a revelation, as Mark’s character envisions it—to him, to us, and, before very long, to Knightley’s character as well. Up to this point, a good fifteen or so minutes into the film, I wasn’t at all sure I liked Begin Again. But the unadulterated magic and emotional crescendo generated by this remarkable scene grabbed me by the heart and refused to let go.

This is the kind of scene that remains somewhere in a corner of one’s mind long after much of the rest of the film has vacated. The reason for this is, I think, because it reveals something vitally important about the characters involved, thereby pulling us far deeper into their lives than the mere process of filmmaking alone can accomplish. The scene, and the film itself, is at its core about two disparate people who meet by chance for one exquisite moment in time. And that moment is the very one during which each person gets from the other exactly what he/she desperately needs to make them whole again, if only until the next life crisis descends. This is the stuff of art: that quality of a film, or painting, or book, or piece of music which transcends craft, vaulting the work onto a higher plane.

Ruffalo-KnightleyAnd it certainly helps, in film, if you have actors like Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo at your disposal. While I think that they are both very good actors, I would stop short of calling them great, at least for now. But they each possess qualities of likeability and sincerity, which elevate the occupation of acting and which, I believe, are quite rare in the profession as a whole. Of course I know neither Keira Knightley nor Mark Ruffalo, but I have come to know them a little bit, I think, through their work. They both seem to be genuinely good people, whose talents enable them to take on a variety of roles and make each one their own. Mark has a quiet passion (not so quiet in this role, though) which shines through always. This is also true of Knightly. And I get the distinct impression with Keira, that she does not consider herself particularly beautiful (though she may be loath to say as much to the numerous filmmakers and beauty product manufacturers who line up tirelessly in an effort to acquire her professional services). I somehow think that she may identify more with the characters she portrayed in films like Bend it Like Beckham and the Pirates of the Caribbean series, than she does with the many beauties she has portrayed in all those romantic costume dramas.

once-movie-poster-1It also helps if you have a writer/director like John Carney at the helm. While I don’t know a lot about Carney, I know for sure that one of his other films had a very similar effect on me. A few years ago, my wife Jan told me about a TV interview she had seen with Russell Crowe, in which the actor was asked what his favorite movie was. Rather than mentioning one of his own, which was probably the interviewer’s intent, he quickly answered, “Once.” Now, neither Jan nor I had ever heard of this film, so, of course we Googled it. Turned out that Once was an obscure, very low-budget, little film, written and directed by John Carney, which chronicled the professional and personal relationship between musicians Glen Hansard and his sometime collaborator, Marketa Irglova, who both play versions of themselves in the movie. Here, again, a song (rather a collection of them) almost literally saves the lives of the two protagonists. (Though Once remains a largely unseen film, as a play it is enjoying a hugely successful run on Broadway, having won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, in 2012.) In Once, as in Begin Again, the two main characters share a kind of love which, though ultimately unfulfilled, makes each of them a better person for their connection than either could possibly have been had their paths never crossed. Is this not the unmitigated essence of love, at the quantum level? I think it is.

once-musicalSo can a song, in fact, save your life? Well, it literally did for Mark Ruffalo’s character in Begin Again, and did, as well, for Knightley’s character, if in a more metaphorical way. Such is also the case with the two main characters in that other Carney film and play, Once. Hansard plays a thirtyish busker (street musician) in Dublin, whose life is going nowhere. Irglova is a young Czech flower girl, who is attracted to his music and strikes up a conversation with him, saying that she, too, is a musician. They go to a music store where she sometimes plays piano and he performs one of his songs, “Falling Slowly,” for her. She is so enamored with the song (which, incidentally, won Best Original Song at the 2007 Academy Awards) and encourages him to seriously pursue his music. They begin writing songs together and eventually form a band with other buskers to record their music; Hansard’s character has reestablished his resolve to make his mark in the music industry. The two eventually part ways—he to go back to a former girlfriend in London, where his music career awaits; and she, with her young daughter, to reunite with her estranged husband, who has agreed to move to Dublin. Lives preserved, if not literally saved.

don-mclean-american-pie%20sep17In his rock epic “American Pie,” about the deaths of rock-and-roll pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper in a plane crash, Don McLean writes, “Now do you believe in rock and roll; Can music save your mortal soul?” While I’m not sure about music’s effect on mortal souls, I do know of at least one song that apparently has literally saved numerous lives. The Bee Gees’ classic disco anthem called, appropriately, “Stayin’ Alive,” is used in many CPR courses to teach the proper cadence for administering chest compressions to unconscious persons. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive…”

GLOBAL WARNING: THE CLIMATE CHANGE CALAMITY

We used to have a stately, elderly oak tree growing in the center of our backyard. The base of this tree was nearly six-feet in diameter, and the grand girl stood at least 75-feet high. Our backyard is every bit of 300-feet deep, and the person, two owners before us, who lived in the expanded Cape Cod dwelling we now call home, had the property cleared of just enough trees to create an open park-like area which still provided ample shade for the hot summer months. This one particular tree was left standing, I think, because it was the most majestic of all and provided shade and shelter to the patio oasis which it so nobly guarded. It was the kind of tree that one could easily imagine might have been the inspiration for Joyce Kilmer’s iconic poem, Trees, the last two lines of which are: “Poems are made by fools like me; But only God can make a tree.” While I don’t think that Trees is a particularly good poem (and certainly not among Kilmer’s best) it is still a fitting tribute to one of nature’s most magnificent, diverse and abundant creations.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbout four years ago, owing to an especially violent thunder storm, a massive branch from this majestic tree, with all the length and heft of a medium-sized tree itself, came crashing earthward with a frightful sound not unlike the Hammer of Thor, the Norse deity also known as the Thunderer. While it badly damaged a favorite Adirondack chair and demolished some cherished shrubs and plants, the branch thankfully fell about eight feet short of the deck at the rear of our house. The next day, I called Rob, our reliable and amiable, but quasi-burned-out Hippie tree-guy who came in with his crew and cleared out the Godzilla branch in a couple of hours. Maybe six months later, on an unusually windy mid-October evening, a second monster branch from that very same tree, fully as ponderous and intimidating as the first, gave way to gravity, crushing the roof of our utility shed but otherwise landing mostly in our neighbor’s yard. Fortunately no one was injured, but “The Branch from Hell, II” did take out a couple of plastic garbage cans and badly crippled a virtually indestructible old Sears Craftsman lawnmower.

I called Rob again, and he showed up later that day in a faded Grateful Dead t-shirt, un-fashionably distressed jeans, and cowboy boots, with a red bandanna knotted purposefully around his thick, wavy-gravy head of salt-and-pepper hair. I noticed Rob’s arrival and soon joined him in the backyard to survey the damage. “What the hell is going on here, Rob?” I asked, exasperated. “Is it me, or are we having an unusual number of very windy days this year?”

gaia_earth_alc“Not you, man,” he said gravely, while perusing the best angle from which to attack this latest tree-beast. “She’s really pissed…”

“Who’s pissed?” I inquired.

Gaia, man… Mother Earth” She’s really bummed out about the way we’ve been treating Her. And She’s letting us know about it. Don’t ya remember that commercial back in the day: ‘It’s not nice to mess with Mother Nature’? It’s comin’ true, man, and we’re payin’ the price. Big time.”

Rob went on to say that, owing to an apparent increase in the number of severe storms and extremely windy days we have been experiencing here in the Northeast recently, his business is booming. I had been saying to my wife Jan, and anyone else who would listen to me (a number which I can easily calculate on one hand, with fingers left over), that we never used to have so many brutally windy days, years ago. The amount and relative severity of storms, both summer hurricanes and winter nor’easters, had probably increased over that same period, as well, but not so much that I took any definitive notice. Because the tree’s structural integrity had now been seriously compromised by losing two of its main limbs, Rob took the old girl down and carted her away, massive log by log.

bread-riot-egyptThe year that this occurred, 2010 (the year that caused me to question what I perceived as having an unusually high incidence of very windy days), was coincidently (or not) one of the worst years on record for natural disasters, worldwide. The globe was ravaged that year by severe droughts in some areas and equally devastating floods in others. One of the worst droughts in U.S. history descended upon Kansas, wheat supplier to the world, gravely affecting the harvest that year. The political climate in Egypt in 2010 was especially volatile, and some historians, looking back at that tumultuous period in the hub of the Middle East, point to the scarcity of flour for bread, as a possible cause. Huh? It’s true. People took to rioting in the streets because there was no bread and the Government, such as it was, fought back. Interestingly, the Arabic word for “bread,” aish, is also their word for “life.” Their very life was being denied them and they reacted the only way they knew how. Most of Egypt’s wheat flower for bread-making comes from–you guessed it–Kansas.

As I write this today, during the first week of July, 2014. The phenomena that I witnessed four years ago (and, to be sure, much more learned and prescient people than I took notice of long before that) are much more commonplace today and should be viewed with near certainty as evidence of the downward spiral of climactic conditions which has gripped our planet. This is not just my opinion. And, dare I say it, it is not really opinion at all, but the clear consensus of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who have spent the better part of the last decade or two studying what was once the “global warming theory.” Twenty years ago, there was ample room for debate; if the world’s climate was changing, it could possibly be attributed to natural cyclical patterns. Even if this thing called global warming was, in fact, occurring, there was very little quantifiable evidence indicating that it was created, or even exacerbated, as a result of human intervention. Today, however, it would appear that there is almost total agreement among the world’s scientists: climate change is happening; it is being caused, in large measure, by us human beings releasing more and more massive amounts of deadly greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere each year. And this climate calamity is occurring much more rapidly than was originally predicted.

You may ask, if the situation is as dire as I am portraying it, why is there nothing of substance being done about it? I can give you a one-word answer: politics. While, at the latest estimate, 97% of the world’s scientific community agrees that the current climate “climate” is serious business; is occurring much more rapidly than previously thought; and is being greatly fueled by overreliance on fossil fuels… there is still the issue of that other 3%, who say, “Well, maybe not.” Why should the educated opinions of the 3% override, or at least stalemate, the equally educated opinions of the 97%? Again, politics. There should be no political influence at play where pure science is concerned; the information yielded through scientific research is, after all, empirical. There is no political right nor left in science. The “politics” of science is “truth,” and truth is arrived at only after generally exhaustive and impartial research yielding data that is then analyzed stringently, after which conclusions are drawn.

The Christian right, which has become a powerful political force in our country, sees life through the prism of the Bible. Many Christians remain skeptical on the subject of climate change, and, while I believe they attempt to approach this important topic with an open mind, I also believe that they look to the Bible as the ultimate arbiter. While the Bible says virtually nothing on the subject of climate change or global warming (call it what you will), what the Bible does say is: “God will one day erase this current universe (2 Peter 3:7-12) and replace it with the New Heavens and New Earth (Revelation 21-22). ” So, in effect, the Christian position on this matter is: “So what? If God is going to replace this whole universe (including, of course, the Earth) with one that is so amazing and so wonderful that the current one pales by comparison, why should we give a corpulent rodent’s posterior who’s right about climate change?”

While I greatly respect their right to believe what they choose, I cannot justify taking science out of the equation. What I believe is this: I am also a Christian. (Okay, a lapsed-Catholic. But aren’t we Christians, too?) And I believe that God wants us to take care of this planet; whatever that involves. What I don’t believe is this: I don’t believe that God will necessarily save the world; the world is, after all, populated with probably as many unsavory characters as the savory variety. So why should He save the world? Plus, as virtually all Christians admit, “God works in mysterious ways,” meaning, the Big Guy has his own plan for the universe, and it is not for us to necessarily understand nor agree with his plan; only to fall in line. So, I don’t believe that God will necessarily save the planet; and I certainly don’t trust that our political leaders are capable of agreeing on anything, not even saving the planet. What I am therefore left with is believing in scientists to do what is required to ensure our planet’s livability, for our grandchildren, their children’s children, and beyond. If only anyone in power will display enough courage to let them do it.

God, Gaia and Science together should be able to ensure a future for the human race, right here on our home planet. All the rest of us really have to do is get out of the way.

YEARS(Some of the research for this post was gleaned from the Showtime documentary series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” which should be required viewing for anyone interested in learning more about this topic. –AJP)

 

 

 

 

ON DEATH AND OTHER FUNNY STUFF

ImageOne of the heroes of my youth, after Jim Brown and Bob Hayes, was Woody Allen. Woody couldn’t carry a football worth a damn, and I’m pretty sure he would finish near the bottom, if he finished at all, in the 100-yard dash event at the Stand-Up Comedians’ Olympics. (Bill Cosby, his current crises notwithstanding, would win the gold, pulling away.) But boy, could Woody make me laugh. (I am very much like my Dad was, in that it takes a lot to induce me into obnoxious, tear-streaming, snot-squirting, out-of-control-ugly guffawing. Woody was one of a very few people who could do that to me; for Dad, it was Sid Caesar.) Now understand that I’m talking about the Woody of “Take the Money and Run,” “Bananas,” and “Sleeper,” not necessarily the Woody of “Annie Hall,” “Manhattan,” and “Zelig.” Though I liked many of his later films, they always seemed to be less about his brilliant, off-beat, zany comedic genius and more about his brilliant, off-beat, zany neuroses. It began to bother me after a while, when I paid good money (what, exactly, would constitute bad money?) to sit in a movie theater for the privilege of observing Woody’s emotional deficiencies playing out on screen; especially when they weren’t making me laugh that much anymore. And, truth be told, his well-known, if alleged, affinity for very young girls, bothered me a bit, too. But the dude was funny.

“I am not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

Among Woody Allen’s many emotional issues which were graphically portrayed in his films over the years, was his apparent preoccupation with—and fear of—death. I’ve never been particularly frightened by the thought of my own death (though I am terrified by the thought of the death of people whom I love), but I do think about it occasionally, and when I think about it, it is not really in a morose or morbid way. Instead, I simply wonder, sometimes at length, and in great detail, just what this thing called death might be. (That would be a great song title: “This Thing Called Death.” I could hear The Doors doing that one; or in a totally different vein, crooned by the likes of Frank Sinatra or Michael Buble. Bonnie Raitt would sing the hell out of that one… Which would be a good thing.) My inquisitive, scientific, logical side says that death is what death is: the absence of life. But then there is my long-lapsed-Catholic side, which necessarily sees it another way. While I don’t consider myself an overly religious person, I am a relatively spiritual one and, admittedly, the teachings of Mother Church die hard in many people of the Woodstock generation, if they die at all. Instead, like the essence of matter itself, our spiritual beliefs, can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed in form. While there is still much I believe, or at least accept, about my religious upbringing, some other concepts are more difficult to cling to.

“Death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down.”

ImageOne of the great songs about death (if there can be such a thing) is “And When I Die,” by, quite appropriately, the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. This is a truly epic composition—conceptually, musically and lyrically (in fact, as I think about it now, it should probably be on my “50 Best Songs of My Generation” list). Among many terrific lines in the song is this one: “I can swear there ain’t no Heaven; But I pray there ain’t no hell.” Lots of thought-provoking things in those lines, including swearing against Heaven (capitalized) and praying against hell (lower case). Interestingly, the composer of this song, Laura Nyro, was “goth” before “goth” became cool. She frequently dressed in black and wore purple lipstick, and darkness/death were familiar threads throughout much of her music. She was, however, a great artist, whom I think was underappreciated in her time. Nyro was reportedly devastated by the death of her mother, Gilda, to ovarian cancer in 1975, at the age of 49, and, ironically, Laura succumbed to ovarian cancer herself in 1996. Also at the age of 49. She was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.

“The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.”

I find the concepts of Heaven and hell equally fascinating, but for very different reasons. For one thing, if you can just get past the fire, the snarling demons poking you with pitchforks, and the pain-and-suffering-for-all-eternity thing, hell might be an otherwise friendly place: filled with lots of interesting, unusual, and party-hearty people. Plus, most of your friends, and at least some of your family will undoubtedly be there. Where Heaven is concerned, I just don’t see how they could possibly have enough clean towels… But I kid. I find it curious that many of the atheists and agnostics I have had personal contact with over the years, while they swear there ain’t no God, Heaven, nor hell, swear with equal fervor, in favor of every other cockamamie concept that comes down the pike! Ghosts, aliens, witches, vampires, zombies, fortune-tellers, mediums; you name it, they’re on board with it.

“There are worse things in life than death. Have you ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman?”

ImageI personally don’t accept the notion that anybody has the ability speak with the dead; if you believe that there are, in fact, individuals who possess the power to converse with the deceased, that’s your prerogative. I will not use this forum to ridicule your belief system. The only people I do have a problem with on this matter, and whom I will gladly ridicule in this forum, are those confirmed atheists who positively swear by people who claim to communicate with the incommunicado beyond the grave. Why? Let me put it this way: If there’s no Heaven and no hell, where exactly are all these chatty dead folk? Schenectady!? And, in case you hadn’t noticed, these people who believe that aliens are real, but God is fiction, generally embrace both Christmas and Easter. I guess that means they worship Santa Claus, a large, decorated-egg-laying bunny, and ET. If the dead could communicate with the living, why would they need a third-party signal-carrier to do it? Do they really require these conveniently, pre-wired people, with internal cell-phone antennae, which enable them to pull in signals from all those die-Phones operating in the Verizon Dead Zone? As with ET, do these mediums enable the dearly departed to phone home? Makes more sense than God, I guess. (Not for nothin’, but the Long Island Medium is clearly a Large.)

“It’s impossible to experience one’s death objectively and still carry a tune.”

What happens when we die? I wish I knew, as I’m sure everyone else riding this big blue marble-of-a-planet does. Religion gives us the confidence to imagine a dignified, comfortable, beatific, and fulfilling life-after-death. While I am not intimately familiar with the beliefs of every religion, I think that most religions, outside of Judaism and perhaps a few others, point to an afterlife as the ultimate reward for a life properly lived, according to each particular Faith’s specific operating system. If, for example, you are a devout male Muslim who believes in the infallibility of the Qur’an, and your death comes via martyrdom for your religious convictions, your ultimate heavenly reward will be 72 virgins. Why 72? I’m not exactly sure, but I think a significant rebate kicks in at around six-dozen. (Why virgins? Don’t go there.) If you are a female Muslim who gives up your life as a martyr to the cause, however, you are apparently not guaranteed 72 of anything, virgin or otherwise; though perhaps something even better. As I interpret the Qur’an, your ultimate reward is a dearth of men for all eternity; or just one, who will eagerly share his most intimate feelings with you, and who actually likes to vacuum. It’s your choice.

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying”

SonnyMy cousin Frank (we always called him “Sonny”) died this past week; he had been quite a bit older than the rest of us cousins—so much so, that we almost thought of him as an uncle, rather than a peer. The thing I remember most vividly about Sonny was that he had a raucous laugh that could fill a room like no one else I have ever known. And that laugh probably could, as I recall its rich and throaty timbre, even wake the dead. Not in a gruesome way, but because what Sonny had said, or had heard, was so damned funny, that every person within earshot—dead or alive—wanted to share in the joke. He had that effect on people; you loved being in his company because he possessed this unusually abundant gift of laughter, which he willingly—even eagerly—shared with anyone and everyone who had the good fortune to come his way. My jovial cousin Sonny had inherited this gift of laughter from his father, my lovable Uncle Frank (who died way too soon, of a heart attack, while walking back from the grocery store one day); and both men earned their livings as movie theater projectionists.

I can almost see Sonny now (as I hope I always will), half-hanging out of the projection booth window at the opulent, old Oritani Theater on Main Street in Hackensack. His white t-shirt is a beacon in the dimly lit auditorium, and he is laughing heartily (though as quietly as he could manage), at something funny that is flickering into life on the giant screen far below. He’d viewed that same scene probably a dozen times or more, but he needed to see it once again, leaning as close as he dared toward the screen, to enjoy a laugh one more time along with the rest of his audience. Death isn’t funny; especially when it hits close to home. I get that. But, the thing is, I’ve always figured that if you could learn to laugh at anything (real laughter, not just the “whistling in the dark” variety), that person, place or thing you were laughing at couldn’t possibly frighten you ever again. They say laughter is the best medicine, and the longer I live, the more firmly am I convinced of the irrefutable truth of that statement. And if, during the process of learning how to laugh at our fears, we can also manage to laugh at ourselves from time to time, the healing that laughter brings will be much more complete.

I guess Woody Allen taught me that.