Archive for the 'Music' Category

Mumble, mumble

I braced for impact.

Norm and I were driving the 150, on our way to the Dylan concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. It was just after 5 and the sun played peekaboo as 71-year-old Norm steered his five-year-old Lexus around the curves of the two-lane highway that I mostly avoided. It was otherwise idyllic but for the speeding on-coming traffic carrying impatient people home at the end of a long day.

We rounded a curve. The oncoming leather clad biker, head down, went out of his lane and passed the car in front of him like it was standing still. I thought, He’s never going to make it back to his lane. We’re gonna hit him.

A month ago, Norm called me. “You a Dylan fan? He’ll be at the Santa Barbara Bowl on June 22.”

He had invited Jackie earlier in the day, probably because she’s a lot prettier than me. Her work schedule stopped her from taking Norm up on his offer, but she told him that I might like to go.

I thought for a few seconds, about Dylan, about Mister Tambourine Man, and Blowin’ in the Wind. And then I remembered Don’t Think Twice-It’s All Right.  Sure, “I’ll go if you drive. My eyesight is for shit when the sun goes down.”

The tickets were $130 each. A reasonable price I thought to see a legend. I didn’t even ask where the seats were. In the Bowl, I hoped.

I had only seen Dylan once, twenty-five years ago at the Hollywood Bowl, on stage with Paul Simon. We sat about half-way up the Bowl and got a pretty good view of what was happening. Paul Simon was classical, with his easy music, and lyrics that made sense the first time you heard them. I heard everything clearly.

I don’t remember what Dylan sang back then. I heard the music, but I didn’t understand anything he said. He might as well have been singing in Hungarian. He mumbled. He held his guitar and stomped around the stage, in that ragdoll fashion that made him clearly recognizable even if you were looking at the show from the moon. He was one of those unique people who could be a star just by showing up.

On that night 25 years ago, Leonard Nimoy, the big eared Mister Spock of Star Trek fame, was sitting near us. At intermission I wandered over to him. “Excuse me, Mister Nimoy, my son Steven is a big fan of yours. I wonder if you could give him your autograph. He’ll go crazy.”

Nimoy looked at me like Mr. Spock would and said nothing. I’m sure he thought I wanted it for me. He held out his hand and I gave him the program. He signed. Steven kept it for years. When Steven died, it too disappeared.

We survived our Highway 150 encounter with the delinquent biker and got to Santa Barbara two hours before showtime. Parking was a couple of blocks away at the high school. I hoped that Norm would remember the car’s location since it escaped my brain as soon as I closed my door.

I’d never been to the bowl in Santa Barbara, so everything was new to me. It’s nestled in the hills along with homes worth millions.

I looked at the people waiting in line at the entrance. I was no longer the oldest person at the party. Gray hair, no hair, and walking sticks were the costumes of choice. And why not? Dylan was 81. It reminded me of people walking to Lourdes for the cure.

The Bowl holds over 4,500 people, nearly five times the size of the bowl in Ojai. There’s an uphill trek required from the entrance to the base of the bowl. A shuttle is available for those whose trekking days are limited to one that goes from the couch to the refrigerator.

We made it up the hill under our own power and, given the absence of pot, got a couple of glasses of wine to numb our senses. I promptly spilled several dollars’ worth as we climbed the remaining steps to the seating area.

Our seats were seven rows from the stage and an army of frightening loudspeakers were arranged in vertical rows before us. Hearing aids would be unnecessary. The stage was littered with instruments. Norm pointed to the stand-up keyboard, “That’s where Dylan will be. We’re lucky, we’ve got a straight-line view of him.”

We sat and exchanged pleasantries with our neighbors. Two women and a man in their early seventies. Norm is in the music business and has a Wikipedia mind full of musical trivia. Our neighbors next to us exhibited similar knowledge, and soon were talking about concerts from the Dark Ages and beyond. I, with little more than memories of a few Dylan songs, was left in the dirt. I sat back, tried to meditate away their conversation, and waited for Dylan to make an entrance.

It was getting dark, and I wondered how I’d make it down the steps in total darkness at the end of the show, while avoiding 4,000 people who didn’t know that I was vision challenged. I also shuddered to think about needing to pee while the show was in progress; I did not want to become part of the concert by performing cartwheels down the ramp while singing Simple Twist of Fate.

The show began. Dylan came out and made his way to the keyboard. I could only make out the top of his head with his signature flyaway hair, still curly after 25 years. He would leave the keyboard only three times during the concert, each time seeming uncertain of his balance and in need of a mic stand to steady himself. He was doing what 81-year-olds do.

I closed my eyes, thought about 25 years ago, and listened to the first song. I didn’t recognize it; it was from his latest album Rough and Rowdy Days, but it didn’t matter. I just listened. His voice was less sweet and a little scratchier, like a reformed smoker. The song ended and everyone stood up and clapped, yelled, and whistled, including me.

I listened to the second song. Same reaction.

And then I realized that I hadn’t understood anything he said. He was mumbling, just like the last time.

I was quiet during the rest of the two-hour performance. He didn’t sing anything I recognized. No Like a Rolling Stone, no Lay Lady Lay, no Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. I felt betrayed.

The show ended. Norm loved it, and the guy next to me said, “Wasn’t that great?”

I wanted to say no. But I just mumbled.

He played with his elbows

We moved to Ojai in July 2000 and began the process of inserting ourselves in the community. Our nearest neighbors were gentle with us and made us feel welcome. Some became fast friends.

The Sunday movies at the Ojai Playhouse found other friends who enjoyed foreign films, and the challenge of the closed captioning that was partially blocked by those in front of us. Because the old seats were in a straight line rather than staggered, I could only read the left or right side of the captions; the center, usually obliterated by tall, wide men with hats, was a mystery. Ila and I often turned to each other and asked with some annoyance, “What did he say?” But it was a minor price to pay to be part of the community.

We marched in the July 4th parade, attended concerts and plays at the Art Center, and volunteered our services to organizations in need. We were willing to try almost anything to complete our metamorphosis from L.A. to Ojai.

And then we heard about the Ojai Music Festival.

In 2001 we leaped at the opportunity of this new adventure. We didn’t investigate Festival history or even the current offerings. We bought tickets to what we assumed was a typical classical music extravaganza, complete with an orchestra, singers, and lots of I know that one music. I was sure that Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach would be well represented.  Lots of people regularly attended the June event, so what could be bad.

We prepared ourselves with seat cushions that took some pain out of the Bowl’s wood benches designed by Torquemada in the 15th century. Seat numbers had been pretty much eroded by the last glacier that came down Ojai Avenue, and the seats were sized for people on perpetual diets. With cramped quarters, we quickly became close friends with those on either side of us.

A bell chimed and silenced the crowd. A piano was center stage. A performer entered stage right to polite applause, sat at the piano, remained motionless for an eternity, lifted his hands, and began to play.

At first, I thought the piano was out of tune. And then I noticed that he occasionally removed his hands from the keyboard and substituted his elbows. His hands returned to the keyboard, and then gave way to elbows. Hands and elbows trading places over and over. A cacophony of sounds attacked my ears. I was stunned and fearful. And so it continued; a baptism under fire. Like Dorothy, I realized I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

The performer with the talented elbows ended his performance. A rumbling spread through the audience. At first, I assumed they were as mystified as I was by what they had just heard. The rumble grew louder and more strident. People rose from their seats. I wondered if, like in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein movie, the villagers were going to lynch the pianist.

And then, the 60ish woman seated next to me rose to her full 5-foot-two height. But rather than encouraging the idea of a lynching, she began shouting Bravo, bravo, bravo. Over and over, infused with an ardor that would not be satisfied until her vocal cords ceased to function.

Ila and I stared at each other and sent silent messages that included rolling our eyes, shrugging our shoulders, and displaying our up-turned palms. Who were these people who surrounded us? Were they victims of mass hypnosis? Did they need medical attention?

It ended. We began the trek to our car and bumped into some friends who had been at the performance. Normally a levelheaded, calm person, Sally asked “Wasn’t that a marvelous concert? Wasn’t it amazing? Didn’t you just love it?”

Still feeling raw-edged due to my overexposure to the elbow man, I threw political correctness to the winds and said No. With that bit of honesty, I had firmly labeled myself a non-believer, an agnostic, antiquated, a has-been. Maybe even a Tony Bennett fan.

In the years that followed, and despite our better judgment, we continued to attend the Festival like it was some kind of virus. Like the flu season, it returned each June and evaded our best attempts at eradication. I’d either relax on the lawn or, after the Bowl’s reincarnation, sit on a nice green, waterproof, stiff plastic chair. I’d watch and listen, using the Elbow Man’s performance as a baseline measurement for weird, annoying music.

Anna, the Festival’s happy-faced fund raiser, has become my personal concierge in picking a performance that would least offend me. Because of Jackie’s work schedule, our choices this year were limited. Anna suggested the Sunday morning program featuring a pianist. Always one to foolishly let history repeat itself, I sent them a boatload of cash and got two tickets in row E.

We arrived, located our seats, and were surprised to find no one in rows A to D. After a thorough astronomical evaluation, we realized that those rows were exposed to full sunlight while Row E only allowed a solar invasion of my ankles. The movement of the Earth around the Sun, and the possibility of cremation, became something else to worry about besides the music.

The chimes sounded. The audience quieted and our attention was drawn to the lonely Steinway grand piano in the middle of the stage. The pianist entered stage right, sat at the piano, flexed, and then fell silent. He waited. Memories of the Elbow Man flooded through me.

Close enough to see his hands and elbows, I watched. I held my breath. He played.

I loved it.

Something Rotten

Last Sunday Jackie and I saw Something Rotten, a high energy musical that would be well beyond my acting capabilities even if my role was that of a black plague victim.

Performed by two dozen Nordhoff High School students at Ojai’s Matilija Middle School auditorium, the play was presented in a single weekend of three performances. A testament to the tenacity of the students, it mattered little to them that they went through months of preparation for just a handful of performances.

The play is set in 1595 and chronicles the difficulties encountered by an out-of-ideas playwright searching for a hit. He enlists the aid of an oracle and runs up against the idea-stealing Will Shakespeare, a tight-fisted royal financier, and skeptical friends.

The choreography was worthy of an Emmy, and the costumes took no back seat to Edith Head or Bob Mackie. The sets were professional, and changes to them were carried off with little intrusion or fumbling.

The most impressive component of the show was the cast that included sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Children a lot more mature than their years danced and sang with skills that for many were the result of years of private lessons. Some youngsters had been in multiple plays, a fete that could only have been achieved by passion and dedication.

But I wish I could have heard what they said.

We had seats in row J on the aisle, more than halfway from the stage. Funny, when I booked the tickets, I could have sworn they were closer to the stage; not that it would have made any difference.

Walking in from the bright early afternoon sunshine I found myself in near darkness, an affliction that comes with age. I groped my way down the main aisle, holding Jackie’s hand and listening to her countdown the rows. W, V, U, T….J

Our seats were on the aisle, blessedly accessible to an emergency potty break that might call me before the intermission. We sat, got comfortable in the cushy seats, and relaxed. My vision gradually improved, and I found people seated throughout the auditorium that can hold about 300 playgoers.

The theater filled rapidly, and we began the “I hope that guy doesn’t sit in front of me” silent mantra. Very tall people with bushy hair seemed to be in the majority and we took deep breaths as they passed us by on their way to afflict others.

And then two people stood in the aisle next to us, emulating the Himalayas. I thought, good thing they are in our row and not in front of us. I held my breath as the man looked at his ticket, bent toward the row medallion fastened near the arm of my seat and said, “Nope, not ours. We’re in row I, not J.”

My heart sank as they prepared to take the two seats directly in front of us. Maybe, I thought in desperation, that they were seriously short-waisted with leg lengths approximating those of a giraffe. Maybe they would be gobbled up by the cushy seats and re-appear the size of Wizard of Oz munchkins.

The man took his seat. Much like Mount Everest, he seemed to tower above me with most of his height hidden in the clouds.

I thought to myself, I’ve been through this before. At the Music Festival, the Ojai Playhouse and the Art Center, I have suffered with people who should be permanently assigned back row seats as punishment for their abnormal height. But I can take it, I thought, I’ll just forget about seeing the play, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the dialogue and the lyrics. After all, I had only paid $20 for the ticket. What did I expect anyway, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?

I should have known better.

The first performer either had no vocal cords or selfishly refused to use them for fear that the strain might limit the length of her blossoming Broadway career.

The first song, Welcome to the Renaissance, was unintelligible. It could have been about a French automobile. I was certain that some of it was written in Hebrew, a language with which I have some familiarity.

And then I realized that the kids were not the problem. It was the acoustics that were robbing me of a chance to enjoy the sounds of the play.

It was hopeless. Even the audience conspired against us. From the racquet that went on, I was sure that Jackie and I were the only two guests who were unrelated to the performers. The rest of the audience were either parents, grandparents, or intimate friends of the kids. Anxious to show their undying love and admiration, these supporters reacted vigorously and without concern for the hearing of those seated around them. At times it seemed that a cheering contest between audience members was underway rivaling the action on the stage.

Mount Everest participated with abandon. Like the performers on the stage, he had surely practiced diligently for this once in a lifetime event. Elongated whoops amplified by a rolled-up program rang out whenever his Susie or Jimmy was on stage. Ear splitting whistles seemed choreographed to match the tempo of the songs. Anxious to see how he was doing, he occasionally glanced to either side to determine the level of damage inflicted on the rest of us.

Not to be outdone by him, the woman directly behind me took up the challenge. Her weapon was laughter. Now I like laughter as much as the other guy, but this Phyllis Diller wannabe took first place for the quantity and rapidity of her laughs. Much like nature that deplores a vacuum, she filled every soundless space with annoying laughter. It mattered not what was happening onstage. It only mattered that she match the zeal of the man in front of me.

I slunk down in my seat and began pouting and quietly humming trying to moderate the din in front of and behind me. Sensing my discomfort, the man next to me, undoubtedly a professional audiophile, turned and said that he couldn’t hear much of play either. He said we were in an acoustic dead zone, one that muted much of the performance. He also said he would confront the mountain man after the performance and remind him of audience etiquette.

The play ended. We acknowledged the actors, walked up the aisle, exited the building and entered a world of soft light and muted sounds.

I felt like cheering.

Ukulele Lady

Jackie’s daughter Sammy and I played our ukuleles last night.

I had picked up the uke only twice since moving from the big house on the hill eight months ago to the less grand tract house in mid-town. Prior to the move I had been more diligent, playing weekly with a pickup group at the library, and even marching in last year’s July 4th parade down Ojai Avenue.

Perhaps “playing with” is too strong a term. Most of the library group of six had more experience, more talent and just plain more everything than I did. Some members were kind and waited for me to catch up as their fingers danced slowly up and down the frets. Others were into themselves and left me in the dust wishing that the two-hour session would end before I collapsed from the pressure.

My favorite pieces, like the Banana Boat song made famous by Harry Belafonte, had no more than three chords, were slow apace and easy to sing. Fixated on learning the chords, I never realized that the uke had different strum patterns. I blissfully chose to ignore the prescribed ones and simply moved my right hand up and down as I wished, without regard to the proper strums selected by my more erudite companions.

Playing in the July 4th parade seemed like a good idea after I had carefully reviewed the two pieces that were to be repeated over and over as we marched a mile down the avenue. One of the tunes, George M. Cohan’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, made famous in the film with Jimmy Cagney, seemed like something I could handle. Only four chords and a melody, it was surely hard to screw up. Yet I did.

After three parade minutes of twisting my fingers into positions better suited to a Houdini escape act, I gave up. I spent the rest of the parade pretending I was strumming and, just to vary my act, occasionally waved the uke over my head as though it were a cheerleader’s pompom. None of the parade watchers knew the difference nor seemed to care. The crowd noise and horn blaring emitted by the fume belching antique car directly behind our merry group masked everything, especially the sounds emanating from our tiny ukes.

Ukulele is Hawaiian and means jumping flea. It is pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay, not you-ka-lay-lee. Its origin is largely attributed to the efforts of three Portuguese guys who landed in Hawaii around 1880. With nothing better to do, they fashioned this lightweight four stringer and, as evidenced by the number of young people schlepping it through airports and clogging up overhead baggage compartments, it has become a staple of hoedowns, block parties and late evening campfires where it can be played even while under the influence of various socially acceptable drugs.

Although shunned by the likes of concert violinists Jascha Heifetz and Pinchas Zukerman, the uke was embraced by Elvis Presley in his biggest movie, Blue Hawaii. The movie soundtrack that featured the uke was Number 1 on the Billboard Charts for twenty weeks in 1961. My personal uke favorite is Over the Rainbow, sweetly performed by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who, in physical appearance, might better have been a sumo wrestler.

Doing mother-daughter things in Santa Barbara, I was left alone at home to make dinner. Pasta ala Norma is one of Jackie’s favorites. Though uncomplicated, the recipe takes time. The star of the minimal list of ingredients is eggplant. It is finicky and must be treated with the same care given to a diva, to be sure it is neither over nor underdone.  I have made the dish several times and consider myself qualified to prepare it for important guests, like Sammy. Two packages of Southwestern Style chopped salad from Westridge topped with a tasty vinaigrette, matched with a loaf of bread from Lazy Acres, and a bottle of chardonnay gifted to us by friends, completed the menu.

It was 7:30 before we began our meal on the patio. It had cooled from the heat of the day and the setting was perfect. I thought the rigatoni pasta was a little large for the recipe, but the more appropriate ziti had been MIA from the Westridge shelves due undoubtedly to the limitations imposed by Covid-19. The ladies were effusive as they downed everything set before them. Satisfied with the accolades, I sat back as they cleared the table.

I was alone for some time while the noise in the kitchen abated. It finally grew quiet and I wondered where they were. Then I heard the quiet voice of Sammy’s ukulele as she cradled it and came onto the patio. Jackie followed unexpectedly with my uke and my lately abandoned song binder. “Oh, I’m not up to this. Another time. Soon. I promise.”

Jackie stayed on target. “Aw, come on. It’ll be fun. Do it for me. Please.”

Weakened by her charms, I opened the case and tuned the four strings. I flipped opened the binder.  All I Have to Do is Dream stared at me. I had practiced the poignant Everly Brothers tune a hundred times, especially when Jackie was away. I have never conquered the chorus that is maddeningly populated with too many E minor chords.

Samantha said, “Let’s try it.”

An hour later we had gone through a dozen songs. Samantha was kind, patient and made me feel welcome. She smiled real smiles, spoke heartfelt words, and had a good time.

Jackie proudly watched her daughter enjoy herself. It was reward enough and a respite from the struggle.

If I hadn’t worried about the neighbors calling the cops, we might still be there.

Now that’s what I call music

Susan and I were in the library bookstore waiting for the Servpro man. We’ve been trying to locate a mysterious odor that’s bedeviled us for over a year, and had high hopes that our search would end with the Servpro man’s arrival.

Chatting while waiting led to my description of the Sunday Music Festival closing concert that included Stravinsky and Gershwin. “Gershwin? Now that’s what I call music”, Susan said with her voice and her infectious smile.

I know what she means. Call it avant garde, cutting edge, new age or atonal, the Ojai Music Festival is either fabulous or unfathomable, depending on your willingness to absorb all it can throw at you. A festival that points with pride to a symphony composed for kitchen plates, and pianists who play with their elbows, it minimally deserves kudos for the bravery it shows in the face of potential brickbats.

Last year we bought tickets to all the events, spanning four days and nights. I laughingly remember the locker room conversation I had at the athletic club with a fellow member immediately following last year’s festival. He, like most Ojai citizens, hadn’t gone to the festival but had been close enough to hear the performers practicing at Libbey Bowl. I asked, “How did you know it was practice?”

Having learned our lesson, Jackie and I cravenly decided to limit our exposure. We only bought tickets to a single two-hour performance, the Sunday late afternoon closing event. Anna, who works for the festival, had touted me on this one, saying “Try it, you’ll only be moderately disappointed.” She wasn’t being funny since she knows my limits and is wary of over-promising.

With some trepidation and armed with our $150 tickets, we coasted into the bowl and located our seats. On the left, five rows from the stage, on the aisle. A note was stuck to my seat that said “Fred, thank you for your generous support of the festival this year. You help make it possible.” Oh, so now it’s my fault, I thought.

We waved at those we knew, traded hugs with those closer by. We sat on blow-up seat cushions that I had long ago learned were the make or break feature of any event at the bowl. We were early and, as punishment for our ignorance of protocol, periodically shifted in our aisle seats in order to allow others who were fashionably late, to pass down the row to their seats.

I picked up the 126-page program book. A feat by itself. Readily admitting to my need for recognition, I flipped to the donor pages and found my name. Two years ago, Ila’s name was also there. It now was sadly conspicuous by its absence. I also thought back to the loss of our son, Steven, eight years ago and the beginning of our annual donation in his memory. A stubborn musician with unfulfilled aspirations, I think he would have appreciated our support of the dozen festival interns, a fledgling group of budding musicians.

Though the bowl was nearly full, no one sat in front of us. Somehow making us feel special, we waited. It was very warm. People were dressed casually. Some had removed their shoes. It was comfortable and without tension. The occasional bird made welcoming sounds. Just enough breeze blowing to take the edge off the heat.

The musicians, members of the Dutch ensemble, Ludwig, entered the stage casually, without caring about the attendant noise of adjusting their chairs and music stands. Fifty men and women in relaxed clothing, they mirrored the attire of the audience before them. Young and energetic, they had survived nearly four days of demonstrating their prowess and were ready for the finale.

Barbara Hannigan, the conductor and an accomplished soprano, entered stage right to an obviously enamored audience. Clapping hands and some early over-anxious risers greeted her.

The performance began with Stravinsky’s Pulcinella.  Described as a comedic ballet interspersed with songs, it has twenty-one movements, from overture to finale. I normally dread anything more than three movements since I am forced to count them down, 21, 20, 19…while lusting for the blessed finale. It can make for a very long afternoon.

Yet I was surprised by my reaction. Rather than being atonal or unfathomable, I found it boring. I wanted something more cutting edge. Something more challenging. Something to hold my attention. Was I becoming one of them? Them that I had criticized for admiring the emperor’s new clothes. Them that had bedeviled me for years as lovers of the unlovable. Then there was a break. Time for me to recover from what surely must have been caused by the heat.

Back in our seats, we quickly dispatched Haydn’s Symphony Number 49 and awaited the closing piece, Gershwin’s Girl Crazy Suite. Based on a 1930 musical with music by George and lyrics by Ira, I craved hearing what Barbara Hannigan had done with it. I was not disappointed.

Beginning with But Not For Me, we were in for a treat…

They’re writing songs of love, but not for me
A lucky star’s above, but not for me

And then Hannigan drove the musicians through Strike Up the Band.

I fell madly in love with her when she conducted the musicians while facing the audience, and sang Embraceable You. The musicians became an accompanying chorus and I was enthralled.

Embrace me, my sweet embraceable you
Embrace me, you irreplaceable you

I’ve Got Rhythm brought a toe tapping frenzy to the audience, and a fantasy of leaping onto the stage to dance with Barbara like I was Fred Astaire, instead of Fred Rothenberg.

And then, before I knew it, it was all over. Two hours had passed in a blink and I had never once thought, like in past years, when will this thing end?

Dear Anna was wrong…I wasn’t moderately disappointed.

It was Susan, waiting for the Servpro man, who was right…now that’s what I call music.

 

Crazy For You

Jackie and I made a spur of the moment decision Sunday morning. The Nordhoff High School kids were performing in Crazy for You and we had two hours to kill before our dinner date with friends in Oxnard.

Buying tickets was easy. You can do just about anything in bed so long as you have a smart phone. Jackie’s near obsession with the phone came in handy as her fingers whizzed across the key pad, every so often stopping at the enter key. Slam-bam, two tickets purchased and printed, including reserved seats.

The show was at the Matilija Middle School auditorium. Once filled with over two hundred seats designed for ten-year-olds who gleefully watched their parents suffer in cramped quarters, the auditorium now has seats big enough to get me through a two-hour sitting without tush fatigue.  A sell-out, our last-minute ticket purchase landed us in the rear of the auditorium, next to a chilled, rock hard wall.

We parked Jackie’s car and walked to the theater where we found John Hoj, the man saddled with the responsibility of casting the show. Normally somewhat muted, John comes alive when confronted with this kind of challenge. We wished him luck, but we all knew it was too late for that. People were already seated and waiting for the adventure to begin.

The room was nearly full. Recognizable faces dotted the throng and we waved and touched people we knew. We found our seats and began to settle down. The two seats directly in front of us were empty, affording an unobstructed view. But, based on my long history of sitting behind big hair and tall bodies, I knew it was only a teaser. As ordained, a normal sized woman and a Charles Atlas of a man, wearing a baseball hat of course, arrived and ruined my reverie. Mr. Atlas shoe-horned his way into the seat, squirmed a bit, and thankfully removed his hat.

He proved to be a shape-shifter. Someone who moves sideways, up and down and even diagonally in his seat. Sitting behind him caused me to match his movements in order to maintain some semblance of a semi-obstructed view. Those behind me were obliged to emulate my movements. Seen from above, it must have appeared as though we were performing the wave. During the show I was afforded a reasonable view of the left and center stage. Goings-on at stage-right were an unsolvable mystery.

What I saw of the show was wonderful. Some of the kids are obviously the beneficiaries of much talent and a goodly sum spent on private instruction. The other kids were showbiz stalwarts who knew that the show must go on, even as extras. The presence of a dozen or more musicians backing all of them up lent a Broadway like feeling to the performance. Reminding myself that these actors were not professionals helped keep things in perspective.

The behind the scenes stars of the show are George and Ira Gershwin. Based on the song writing team’s 1930 musical Girl Crazy, this show incorporates other Gershwin tunes and was first performed in 1992 when it won Broadway’s Tony Award.

Every musical piece begged for another. I could not get enough. My foot tapping escalated to singing along with the cast. Jackie’s soft left hand applied gentle caresses to my right knee as a benevolent caution to keep it down. I was euphoric. My smile must have been visible to astronauts on the moon.

As each tune was sung, I pointedly compared the lyrics to my own feelings. Much of them centered on Jackie. Biding My Time, Shall We Dance and Someone To Watch Over Me were surely intended to yank my heartstrings and dig deep down into my cerebral cortex as I reveled in their familiarity.

Although Embraceable You is sung by the show’s female lead, Polly, I can put my male heart into the lyrics as I silently sing the words to Jackie…

Embrace me,
My sweet embraceable you,
Embrace me,
My irreplaceable you
Just one look at you — my heart grew tipsy in me.
You and you alone bring out the gypsy in me.
I love all
The many charms about you;
Above all I want my arms about you!
Don’t be a naughty baby
Come to Polly — come to Polly — do!
My sweet embraceable you.

Or, listening to the poignant words of They Can’t Take That Away From Me, I was reminded of the many times I’ve thought about losing her…

The way you wear your hat,
The way you sip your tea,
The mem’ry of all that —
No, no! They can’t take that away from me!

The way your smile just beams,
The way you sing off-key,
The way you haunt my dreams —
No, no! They can’t take that away from me!

We can never, never meet again
On the bumpy road to love,
Still I’ll always, always keep
The mem’ry of —

The way you hold your knife,
The way we danced ’til three.
The way you changed my life —
No, no! They can’t take that away from me!
No! They can’t take that away from me!

I used to go to the opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in LA where I’d listen to Tosca’s lament and feel every note of Madame Butterfly’s aria. Tears would fill my eyes and I’d wonder why.  The same thing happened to me last Sunday in Ojai.  And I knew why.

My instrument of choice

I played the trumpet in high school.

A couple of music classes led to mastering an instrument and playing in the high school band and orchestra. This avocation fit in nicely with my teenage persona which can best be described as mildly nerdy. I’m not sure how I got that way, but it probably had something to do with the friends I kept and the scarcity of girls, of any flavor, in my life. It was also abetted by my pudginess that didn’t start to evaporate until my senior year. By then it was too late to change my school mates’ perception of me.

The choice of the trumpet was made with little thought given to its complexities. After all, how difficult can it be to play the thing? It only has three valves and, given its size, is easily schlepped from home to school and back again. All I would have to worry about was the proper operation of the spit valve.

Alan, the best musician in our group, played the piano. Definitely un-schleppable, he would be dependent on the kindness of others. Realizing that playing the piano in a school parade was not in the cards, Alan also chose a backup. He latched onto the saxophone and seemed to master it over one week-end.

My other friends picked their instruments of choice before I had a chance to weigh in with my preference. Larry, a friend who always irritated me with his “My father’s car is better than your father’s car.” At the age of twelve, he was also better than me in identifying the make of any car cruising past us. Larry became an orthodox Jew aligned with the Chasidic sect; I also tend to bristle at them. Their ability to be prominently displayed in the local newspaper, while my more populous sect goes unnoticed, ticks me off. Larry chose the clarinet. Even lighter than the trumpet, his schlepping would be easier than mine. I can still see him sucking on his reed.

Russell was the smartest guy in the bunch. While others might spend their summer vacations chasing girls or playing softball. Russell read the dictionary from beginning to end. He also selected one of the most difficult instruments, the French horn. An awkward, medieval instrument, it reminds me of Marty Feldman playing the part of Igor in Young Frankenstein. Hunched over best describes both Marty and Russell. The horn is equipped with a very small mouthpiece that requires the development of a tough, untiring embouchure.

The embouchure is the way a musician applies his mouth to the mouthpiece of a brass or wind instrument. The smaller the mouthpiece, the greater the difficulty in developing a strong embouchure. While playing the king-sized tuba may seem like corralling a difficult partner, the large mouthpiece offers far less resistance and therefore is less tiring than the small mouthpiece of the comparatively smaller French horn.

Developing a strong embouchure requires practice, a lot of it. Practice requires diligence. Those who devote substantial time to practice generally develop greater skill at playing a musical instrument. And that universal truth was my Achilles heel. My practice sessions were intermittent and short. The clock moved ever so slowly. While my technique was acceptable, my lips tired easily and I struggled to complete a gig with my band mates. My trumpeting became spotty when I entered college. I’d pick up the instrument every so often, but my embouchure was shot and, like the once a month golfer, I soon became a trumpet has-been.

My musical whimsy resurged ten years ago when I was bitten by the guitar bug. My son Steven, an excellent guitarist, offered to teach me this ubiquitous instrument. Watching other amateurs master it gave me the confidence to forge ahead. Most importantly, the guitar seemed less likely to tax my aging body in the way that the trumpet did. The fingers of my left hand soon taught me the error of my ways. Five minutes of playing produced searing pain in the tips of my fingers. Steven promised that the pain would subside with the development of calluses; all I needed was enough practice. My previous experience with the trumpet came streaming back.  Sadly, I gave up a promising six string career and pledged that I would someday find my sweet spot in the musical world.

Jackie’s daughter, Sammy, is devoted to the ukulele. I have watched her maneuver through a sea of humanity at the airport with a Shaquille O’neal sized backpack and the ukulele lovingly slung over her arm. She takes it everywhere and plays it well. The instrument is small, without a lip crunching mouthpiece, and only four strings, two less than the guitar. Could this be my nirvana?

Debbie, a fellow temple member, teaches a ukulele class on Wednesday afternoon at the Ojai Library. Hearing of my interest in the instrument and playing on my easily influenced brain, she lovingly invited me to attend the class. With her cute little smile, she promised, “We just do it for fun. You don’t need to know how to play. You’ll love it.”

I went to the class and borrowed a spare ukulele. Flanked by two women who proved to be the Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin of the ukulele world, I got right into the swing of things with the “C” chord. Requiring but one finger on the fret, I marveled at the simplicity of the instrument. I became emboldened and sought out the C7 chord. Using the same finger that was already in my repertoire, I placed it on a different fret and produced another glorious sound. Was I ready for the big time?

Then, just as I was congratulating myself, Debbie handed me a xeroxed copy of Basic Ukulele Chords. There were thirty-five of them. “More to come, Freddy, after you’ve mastered the basic ones”, Debby intoned with a wry smile on her lips.

Calling up my last ounce of stick-to-it-ness, I have been practicing sort of regularly. I refuse to repeat my abortive experiences with the lip challenging trumpet and the finger searing pain inflicted by the guitar. Surely, I can master this instrument.

I can already play Happy Birthday. I hesitatingly make my way through My Darling Clementine, and I am picking through Amazing Grace. I shy away from anything that requires more than three chords. I hate the G chord and my strumming is atrocious. Simply holding the instrument without it twisting away from me like a dog that hates its master, is tougher than it looks.

So far I’m on track to star status…without sore fingers.

Yoga Music

A month ago, I took a series of four yoga classes at Ojai Yoga Shala on Matilija Street just across of Java and Joe.

Before leaping into it, I read the material on the Shala website where I became cautious when I saw the names of the various classes. Earth Chakra Workshop, Soulful Sunday, Vinyasa and, my favorite, Sweet Vinyasa. Most seemed too challenging. And then I found Gentle Flow and was hooked. It was designed for guys like me. Old, a little creaky and with a C-minus in flexibility.

I threw caution to the wind and, despite a won’t-go-away shoulder problem, I put myself into the hands of the Shala’s Alana Mitnick. She deftly guided me through the basics and left me feeling like I had almost mastered the first one percent of the mysteries of Yoga. The most difficult part of the evening involved exiting Shala’s dimly lit building without embarrassing myself by falling down those pesky steps that are designed to further shorten a senior’s active career.

My aging eyes are no match for moonless nights. They can be a recipe for disaster when coupled with Ojai’s insistence on the obliteration of outside lighting that might ruin the delights of viewing the evening skies. Enhancing one’s viewing pleasure also runs counter to Ojai’s other predilections of sharing the road with bicycle riders, and the leap-before-you-look mindset adopted by the I-challenge-you pedestrians who death defyingly enter the street within or without a crosswalk. Dueling with a two-ton mass of metal is a favorite hobby for many locals.

Last week, furthering my yoga career and taking full advantage of my house which hasn’t seen a prospective home buyer since the Armistice, Jackie planned and delivered a two-hour yoga retreat that attracted twenty-three yogis. The attendees included a number of what appeared to be pre-teens, as well as buffed out young men and lithe, charming young women. I had the over-fifty category all to myself.

The yoga part of the evening was led by Tiffany, a young lass with a soft voice and a matching demeanor. Since it was my home that Jackie had donated to the event, I was invited to participate in the session. I asked Tiffany, “Is this going to be a gentle flow session or do I need to ask my mother if I’m allowed to join in?” She smiled and said, “Not to worry, I will be kind and you won’t suffer.” She should have appended the word “much.”

I found a cloistered spot next to Jackie and unrolled my yoga mat. I have always wondered if there is a correct side to the mat. However, given my beginner status, it probably doesn’t matter. My tush firmly grounded, the games began. It was no surprise to discover that I could barely hear the posing instructions emanating from sweet Tiffany’s mouth. My declining ability to hear the high-end of the sound spectrum matches my inability to see well in dark surroundings.

If I had been an accomplished yogi, I probably could have figured out Tiffany’s commands. It was not to be and I resorted to watching those around me for clues. This only succeeded in over stretching my neck and produced an annoying ache that fit in nicely with my aging eyes and diminished hearing.

Being a nanosecond behind the young, lithe bodies surrounding me only added to my discomfort. By the time I figured out what Tiffany was saying, the group had already moved to the next yoga pose. I’m quite sure my poses bore little resemblance to the real thing but I probably shouldn’t have worried since I was unable to perform most of the poses anyway. I merely grunted and moped while others twisted their bodies in ways that surely must delight chiropractors.

The Down Dog pose is pretty much just a push-up. Something that I gave up in my first year of college. However, looking for some degree of accomplishment, I did what seemed to be several dozen Down Dogs. And I further injured my left shoulder in doing so. After what seemed like a fortnight of yoga, blessed relief arrived in the form of laying flat on my mat, not stretching anything, and just being inert as I mentally inventoried my body parts.

And then it began. Cello music. Tiffany had invited a friend to end the two-hour session with his cello. An accomplished musician, Jeremy had spent many years in the pit at New York’s Metropolitan. He moved to Ojai a week before last year’s Thomas Fire and was now a composer. His choice of music for our yoga retreat was perfect. Robust but calming, it enriched us all.

Lying on my back, staring at the dim ceiling lights, with only the cello making itself known, added a bit of mystery to the night. Confirmed by Jeremy, the acoustics were wonderful. I had never heard them before in this great room. It was as though a new chapter had been added to my life with this house. The music ended, people arose and smiled. Not just a dutiful smile, it was spontaneous and heartfelt.

I asked Jeremy if we could do this again, maybe without the Down Dogs.

The Temptations

It was Sunday and I was on my way to Nancy’s house. My daughter and I bought tickets to a series of plays at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. Enjoying each other’s company as much or more than the plays, we had just ponied up for a second season of six performances. It’s become a father-daughter thing, where conversation often outshines the entertainment at the theater.

The Sunday matinees start at one and are generally populated with a sea of gray-haired attendees.  The early start time lets us get back to Nancy’s Calabasas home, where we can have dinner at a nearby restaurant before I get back on the road for the seventy-five-minute drive to Ojai. Kevin, my faux son-in-law, partners up with us for dinner, sometimes at my favorite Jewish deli, Brent’s in Westlake.

I left home around nine that morning and, as has become my custom, stopped to visit Ila’s grave at Conejo Mountain Memorial Park. It was going to be a beautiful day. The early morning fog had cleared to a bright low hanging sun that challenged my eyes with its high beams. I bought a pretty bouquet of multi-colored flowers at the park office and brought them to the grave site. After placing them in the holder, I stood over her memorial tablet and read what was etched into its simple surface…I love you up to the sky…and beyond. Words that Ila and I had spoken to each other hundreds of times, often part of our bedtime ritual. Sometimes I’d begin the phrase and she would end it. Other times, Ila would start and I’d finish. Simple and loving.

I told Ila about the events of the past month, how much I missed her, and about those life altering events that were slowly changing me. Sometimes uncomfortable for me to say, and maybe for her to hear. I finished and placed a stone on the memorial tablet, a custom used by Jews to announce that someone had visited and remembered her.

Back on the 101, it took about thirty minutes to get to Nancy’s. She and Kevin live in a hillside home that has great views. Grandson Morey, out on his own now, grew up there. Until a few months ago, his voice was on the answering machine with a message that included the home phone number. When he was about six, we went on a family outing where we helped him memorize that phone number. It also became forever etched in my brain. Almost twenty years later, whenever I’d leave a message, Morey’s voice reminded me of that trip.

After an omelet fashioned by Nancy, we got in her car and she drove to the Ahmanson. The theater is in a complex that includes the Ahmanson, the Disney Concert Hall, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Mark Taper Forum. A formidable group of venues that attracts thousands of visitors to downtown Los Angeles. It also creates mind numbing traffic jams, frayed nerves, much honking and the occasional son of a bitch.

It took forty-five minutes to get to the theater and another forty minutes to get into the parking structure. You’d think that the great minds who built the complex would have made access to it more than just a contest between frustrated drivers; all looking for a way that improves their chances relative to their competition. Parking the car without damage to it or our sanity, we had about five minutes to escalate up six levels in the garage, present our tickets, pee, and get to our seats.

The main seating area seems designed to take full advantage of the mass hysteria that would be caused by a fire or natural disaster. Each row has about fifty seats and there is no center aisle. Getting to our centrally located seats 24 and 25 meant carefully side-stepping down the aisle to avoid crushing the toes, purses and other paraphernalia of those already seated. Excuse me, ooops, sorry, my bad. Thoughts of potentially repeating the process at intermission made my blood run cold.

The play began. I was mightily impressed by the set and, more importantly, the performers. It was as though dancing and singing came as naturally to them as breathing does to me…but with less effort. My god, I thought, there must be thousands of men and women as talented as the ones set before us. Just not as lucky.

At 76, Otis Williams, who formed the Temptations, is the only living member of the original quintet. There have been twenty-three reincarnations of the group since its 1960 origin in Detroit. Its blues music set the gold standard for this genre. The Ahamnson performance featured short clips of songs that included Baby Love, Gloria, My Girl, You Can’t Hurry Love, You’re My Everything, and twenty more.

The original Temptations suffered the usual indignities of too much fame, too little family time, and too much temptation. Blues is an understatement of their sad, lonely and loving music. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the performance came when super talented Ephraim Sykes, playing the role of the bespectacled, ego-driven David Ruffin, sang I Wish It Would Rain. A song that chronicles the emotions of a man who has lost his woman…

Sunshine, blue skies, please go away
A girl has found another and gone away
With her went my future, my life is filled with gloom
So day after day I stay locked up in my room
I know to you it might sound strange
But I wish it would rain, oh yeah…

The first act was long, prompting an intermission trip to the men’s room. Men are lucky, at least when it comes to peeing in public places. Pee, zip, flush. Wrestle with the decision to wash or not to wash, and we’re done. Women either biologically or due to the fashion of the day, or both, require more time and more space; neither of which is in abundance at the Ahmanson. However, in contrast to the farce at the parking lot, the coming and going of women through the restroom is wonderfully choreographed. Attendants are stationed along the line, monitoring the availability of toilets and preventing overzealous she-devils from crashing the line…no exceptions. Bob Fosse would be impressed.

Fearful that we might do an encore of our earlier feet stomping performance, we returned to our seats quickly. More songs poured forth from the stage adding to our delight. When the show ended, no one needed prompting to stand and applaud.

Exiting the parking lot proved uneventful as did the ride home. We talked about the show and its ability to chronicle life’s happiness and sorrows. With music that makes you smile, relate to and cry. Music that makes you remember what was. And what can be when you’re lucky enough to say You’re My Everything.

When my way was dark, and troubles were near
Your love provided the light so I could see, girl
Just knowing your love was near when times were bad
Kept the world from closing in on me…

What year is this?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, was yesterday. Literally translated, it is the head of the year.

Jewish holidays, the anniversary of a death, and other events are based on the lunar, rather than the solar, or secular, calendar. For someone observing the event based on the lunar calendar, Rosh Hashanah, like all Jewish holidays, falls on a different secular date every year. This date may vary by several weeks at summer’s end. Hence, we Jews say things like “the holiday is early this year” or “goodness, Rosh Hashanah is late this year.”

But, according to Rabbi Mike, it really depends on your point of view. When I tell him that Rosh Hashanah is early this year, he says “No it’s not, it’s on the same day and month that it was last year, the first of Tishrei.” For good measure, he also notes that the year is 5779, not 2018.

There are twelve months including the month of Tishrei in the Jewish year. Each is thirty days long, except for one month. The determination of Jewish years began somewhere in the middle ages. The Torah wasn’t particularly helpful in solving the question of when did the world begin. So the sages used some fancy footwork. Their Ingredients included the Torah-stipulated ages of the patriarchs, the rise and fall of kingdoms, seasonal occurrences, and gut feelings. So here we are in 5779.

The Jewish lunar calendar has been used for hundreds of years, and if it were not occasionally adjusted to match up with the secular or solar calendar, our seasonal events would soon be totally out of whack. The fourth of July would be in December and Hannukah would be in the summer. To address the issue, Jews occasionally add a day or subtract a day from some months. Jewish leap years can have as many as 385 days, or an extra month.

The secular, or Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582, has its own, though less complicated, eccentricities.  Gregory’s invention largely replaced the Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC. The Gregorian calendar has 365 days with an extra day every four years (leap year) except in years divisible by 100 but not divisible by 400. Keep that in mind at your New Year’s Eve party in 2100.

Not everyone has adopted either the Jewish or Gregorian calendar. For example, based on the ancient Coptic calendar, the Ethiopian Calendar is seven to eight years behind the Gregorian calendar, due to alternate calculations in determining the date of the birth of Jesus. For those who yearn to be younger, take a trip to Addis Ababa.

In spite of the calendar’s quirks, Jackie and I managed to get to the Temple on the right day and at the right time. This was a special day in many ways. For me, it centers on the friends who gather with us. Friends who may only visit the Temple on Rosh Hashanah and those who are regulars. The day is warmed by the presence of all.

Conversation with the Kaplan grandchildren who are in Temple for the first time since the death of their grandfather. Alan, the Temple president, sweeping the crumbs from the floor during the blessing of bread and wine. Welcoming our new Rabbi who, in an earlier life, was not Jewish. John, who graciously offered me his kipah, or skullcap, that I had admired a few weeks ago. Listening to Phil simply and eloquently read poetry from the prayer-book. Thanking the choir members for their dedication to making the day richer.

And Jackie, who repeatedly practiced the blessings said when you are called to the Torah for an Aliyah, an honor reserved for one who has shown special devotion to serving the Temple and its congregants. In recognition of our special relationship, and especially sweet, was that Jackie and I were asked to offer these blessings together.

As proof of her penchant for leaving nothing to chance, Jackie had printed the blessings and downloaded an audio recording. I was also drafted in the preparations and practiced the blessings with her at home, in the car and while we walked the streets of Ojai.

On the morning of Rosh Hashanah, Jackie donned a black, sleeveless dress. Tempting but appropriate, she shone. Topping it off with daughter Sammy’s bat mitzvah tallit, or prayer shawl, she was immaculate, lovely and ready.

At Temple, Jackie sat anxiously next to me and awaited our Aliyah. Forsaking the laminated blessing  sheet available to us in front of the ark, she tightly clutched her now wrinkled, printed blessings, as though someone was going to snatch them from her. I could hear her heart beat.

Third in a line of those with an Aliyah, we were at last called to the pulpit. The congregation quieted. Jackie touched the corner of her tallit to the Torah portion being read. And then took the same corner to her lips. We chanted the first blessing. The Torah portion was read by Rabbi Mike. We chanted the final blessing…We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the universe, who has given us a Torah of truth, implanting within us eternal life. We praise You, O God, Giver of the Torah.

We went back to our seats. I smiled. She smiled. It didn’t matter whether Rosh Hashanah was early this year.


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