Posts Tagged 'Music'

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.

Plays, Cemeteries and Dinner

Sunday was our day at the Ahmanson.

Daughter Nancy and I have been series subscribers since Ila died. Ila loved musicals and we often found ourselves several rows back from the stages at LA’s downtown Music Center, the Ojai Art Center and the Rubicon in Ventura. Before we moved to Ojai and the schlep became a bridge too far, we had great seats at the Hollywood Bowl including coveted reserved parking.

As her illness progressed, Ila found the noise, regardless of the decibel level, and the milling crowds too much to handle and we stopped attending live plays and movies. Even a simple visit to the band shell in Libbey Park was, for her, like living through the height of the Luftwaffe’s 1940 London blitz.

Our final venture into entertainment was a trip to Hollywood’s rococo Pantages Theater to see Beautiful, the musical about Carol King. Ila lasted less than five minutes into the performance. Signaling her discomfort, she covered her ears. We rose from our center section seats and excused ourselves to each of the fifteen people we trod on as we slogged past them. We then spent quality time seated on a lobby bench while daughter Nancy remained through the first act. Mercifully, we left the confines of the theater before the second act and drove home.

My day for the Ahmanson routinely begins with a trip to Conejo Mountain Memorial Park to visit Ila in the cemetery section reserved for Jews. Authors of bereavement guides are quick to remind me that Ila really isn’t there under a blanket of Saint Augustine grass; rather, she lives in our memories. To which I respond…how do you know?

With ten dollars, I buy cut flowers at the Park office, picking a bunch that I think Ila will like. I arrive at the grave site and arrange the flowers in the container embedded at the foot of the grave. I clear some dead leaves from the site onto a currently unoccupied neighboring plot. I stand and look at the inscription on the grave marker…We love you up to the sky and beyond.  I speak to her and ask how she’s doing, knowing there will be no audible response. I remind her of my upcoming marriage to Jackie and I feel guilty. I remember the bereavement group facilitator saying that Ila would want me to be happy…and I wonder.

I place a small stone on the corner of the grave marker. I had carefully selected it from the array in front of the house. It was smooth, a pleasing brown color and about two inches in diameter. There are several Jewish theories why a stone is left behind. Flowers are rarely put on Jewish graves; I’m an exception. Flowers are impermanent while stones, like memories, are lasting. My personal belief is a bit selfish; it’s a tradition that tells others I was here.

I took a photo of the grave and the flowers. I take one during each visit. I occasionally send one to the kids with a note that tells them that Nana says that she loves you. Some I just keep in my iPhone memory, helping to keep track of my visits. I say good-bye and tell her that I love her.

On the way to my car I pass Naida’s grave. Naida and Ila shared illnesses, became an odd couple of fast friends, and now lie together twenty feet apart. I bid Naida good-bye but am out of stones.

It took thirty minutes to arrive at Nancy’s Calabasas home where coffee and deli stuff waited. Finished downing a combination sandwich of Gelson’s corned beef and hard salami, we left for the Ahmanson, got there with time to spare and, despite murmurs about the Corona virus, found a packed theater waiting to see The Book of Mormon. We had seen it years ago, and although laden with some embarrassment at its rapid-fire jokes about a little understood religion, had thoroughly enjoyed it the first time.

As usual, our seats were centered, ten rows back from the stage where the scenery was highlighted by a horn blowing statue of the angel Moroni calling people to the gospel of Jesus. Early in the performance, it became apparent that I needed more than a golden horn to hear the lyrics of the show’s now familiar tunes.

Although fitted with hearing aids, more than half of the spoken words were a great mystery to me. Laughter rose throughout the theater while I too often sat idly by wondering what was so funny. Nancy tried to lessen the impact of my affliction on my psyche by assuring me that she too could not understand everything. Yet whenever I leaned toward her and said, “What did he say?” she was able to tell me, albeit too late to enjoy that joke while the audience had moved on to another unintelligible phrase. Resigned to the inevitable, I sat back, clasped my hands in my lap and settled for half a loaf.

Like senses competing for attention, my eyesight in dimly lit settings is no better than my aging ears. As though encouraging pratfalls, the Ahmanson puts a half height step at the end of the darkened aisle and another one at the foot of the exit ramp. My recourse is to slowly shuffle my feet while seeking those challenging steps. I sometimes lose the contest and half hurtle forward into the waiting arms of a stranger.

My adventure with senescence continued after the play with a dinner trip to the Wood Ranch restaurant in Agoura. Once again, my reading skills were tested by a dimly lit environment intended to create a relaxing atmosphere for everyone other than Mr. Magoo. Although a light beamed from the ceiling, it focused like a laser beam on the tiny center of the table. It required that I lean forward with my elbows in the complimentary bread bowl to stand a chance of capturing some lumens.

Dinner conversation was highlighted by the possible whereabouts of my misplaced hat and concluded with the realization that I had lost my Visa card. Capping my Emmy winning performance, I gracefully rose from the table and unknowingly dropped two napkins from my lap onto the floor. Perhaps a bibb next time.

Nancy and Kevin were unwilling to allow me to go solo to locate my car for fear that I might be found at dawn, frozen in the parking lot. Better safe than sorry has become the law of the land. I drove home without causing a pile-up on the 101 and, displaying an as yet intact smidgen of independence, refused to call the kids to let them know I had arrived safely.

I suppose I enjoyed the play.

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.

 

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.

Ojai Music Festival…the aftermath

My sweet neighbor June is busily washing towels and sheets. They were used by her friends who I graciously allowed in my guesthouse this past weekend. Friends who came from as far away as the East Coast to revel in the glories of the Ojai Music Festival.

June is not only in the laundry business, she cooks for her friends, edits the Festival program and attends nearly every minute of the five days of the Festival. During all that time I never heard a complaint emanate from her lips. Nor did she ever appear tired. A major accomplishment when compared to my napping during much of the Festival’s sturm und drang.

Thursday night started innocently enough when Patricia Kopatchinskaja, this year’s music director, made her way through the throng of concert goers gathered near the entrance to the Bowl. Much like a stalking lion, she moved stealthily from station to station, stopping only long enough to call forth indecipherable shrieks from her violin. Like lemmings, her ardent followers tracked her, were mesmerized by her, and undoubtedly felt that this was something to write home about. I, on the other hand, worried about things that were yet to come.

I entered the Bowl and found my seat about halfway down the aisle. I have learned the importance of sight lines. Without going into nauseating detail, a “theater with good sight lines” means that most, if not all of the viewers, can actually see what’s going on in front of them. Unfortunately, my sight line was partially blocked by a tall, middle-aged gentleman who also had the unfortunate habit of moving laterally left to right causing me to continually re-adjust my fanny and head position. He was like a camera shutter, opening for one hundredth of a second while staying closed most of the time.

Mindful of others, I found my seat movements constrained by the good neighbor policy. I visualized those behind me, those behind them, etc. moving like a wave in unison to my shifts. I therefore sheepishly limited my movements to very teensy ones. This permitted periodic glimpses, like treats, of the on-stage action. Most of the time I might as well have been listening to the radio.

Toward the end of the Friday concert, I weighed the pros and cons of asking the gentleman to be more mindful of the minions behind him (I thought it might help if I told him it wasn’t just me who might as well have been blindfolded.)  I tapped him on the shoulder, explained my plight and asked for special dispensation. He grudgingly obliged, but not before he launched into a scathing evaluation of the construction of the bowl, the placement of the seats, and the Bowl management’s reluctance to make major structural changes proposed by him. I later discovered that this gentleman was Mark Swed, classical music critic for the Los Angeles Times. He is what he is.

Friday night brought us the world premiere of Michael Hersch’s elegy, I Hope We Get to Visit Soon. As Mark Swed described it in his LA Times review, a relentlessly grim musical immersion in a cancer ward, was the weekend’s major world premiere. After enduring the 77-minute performance for two solo singers and instrumental ensemble, without a trace of grace one woman stood on the lawn repeatedly shouting, “I hated that so much I want to fight with someone”, as we funereally filed out of the Libbey Bowl.

The elegy is based on Michael Hersch’s experience with a friend who endured what could be described as a plague of attempted cancer cures. The onstage dialog of false hope and failures was artfully accompanied by some twenty musicians who produced intermittent, painful screeching. The performance took me from a state of disbelief (why would someone put this to music) to sadness, then to despair and finally numbness of all my limbs. When it ended, what seemed like an eon of silence gave way to a mild smattering of quiet hand clapping. Fearful that the composer might do away with himself, I joined in the merriment and was comforted by the bravos and bravas that finally issued forth from those who had regained the use of some of their bodily functions.

Jackie’s turn arrived on Saturday. A first-time Festival goer, she was treated to, as she put it, a unique, one-time experience. Not wishing to burden herself with the mid-day emanations from the Bowl stage, she immersed herself in her own world through clever use of her iPhone X. Getting with the program, I too searched for other ways of occupying my own time.

The Bowl is partially covered with shade cloth that tends to mercifully diminish the sun’s onslaught. The shade consists of three long pieces of fabric that are hooked together. When we took our seats at 1pm, we were covered and protected by this marvel of man. However, as any schoolboy knows, the earth rotates. Continuing my alternative exploration, I noted a six-inch gap between each of the long shade strips. I also noted the sun’s relentless approach to the gap. My sextant and compass predicted that the sun’s rays would be on me before the end of the afternoon concert. And they were. First my big toe, then my foot, then my ankle. I felt like a vampire who, when fully exposed to the sun, would explode and shower Mark Swed with my innards. Fortunately, the concert ended at my thigh.

Saturday afternoon began with Kafka Fragments. A series of forty-one snippets artfully performed by a high-pitched soprano and a manic violinist. Have you ever done the Countdown Experience? This requires the musical knowledge to know when a movement, or in this case a snippet, ends. Then you maintain your sanity by counting the number of snippets yet to be played before the whole thing ends and you can go home…or the nearest bar. Forty, thirty-nine, thirty-eight…

The Saturday evening finale applied a heavy-handed touch to exploring the chaos and misfortune of the world. Incorporating the best of drought, famine, state collapse and mass migration, we were treated to a cleverly staged presentation of all the worst of life. The highlight performer was a woman who reminded me of a character from Rocky Horror Picture Show. Though slight of arm, she wielded massive hammers on a coffin, while pictures of death and desolation populated the surrounding Bowl walls. The crowd went wild with appreciation. The sounds of applause, whooping and bravos echoed through my ears all the way to the parking lot. I placed Jackie’s limp body in the passenger seat and we went home.

I can’t wait to buy tickets for next year.

Bravo!

Saturday I went to the Art Center. On Montgomery just south of Ojai Avenue, the Center has been around many years. The “Art” in Art Center is all-encompassing. Paintings decorate the walls whenever there is a special exhibit. Photographs have their place in the sun once or twice a year. Music fills the vacant space when featured artists ply their wares to those of us who can manage the folding chairs that so often cause my fanny to wish the show was over.

The Art Center also hosts legitimate theater. Musicals, comedies and dramas are staged by volunteers who take their roles seriously, without pay, both behind the scenes and as performers.

It was with some trepidation that I pondered Sheila’s invitation to accompany her and Sid to Bakersfield Mist, the current offering at the Center. While the cast works hard for all plays, some performances are occasionally shaky and leave me with memories that make it harder to give the next offering a fair shake. I go anyway, hoping to find my concerns unwarranted.

Evening performances are challenging…for me, not the performers. A glass of wine with dinner tests my ability to remain upright in my seat. I begin to lose my focus, my lids feel like they weigh five pounds each, and my head slowly begins a downward spiral that culminates in the loss of all my senses. Except for occasional sensory interruptions, I could remain comatose through an entire first act. I dread repeating the event that occurred some years ago when I sat in the front row, fell asleep and then awoke to find the leading man staring directly at me with laser-like precision. I remained rigidly awake and unblinking for the balance of the performance.

So, bursting with low expectations, I went to the Center. And I was rewarded with a delightful, sorrowful play that was one-act, ninety minutes long, without intermission. Periodically testing my bladder content did not ruin the performance. The cast had only two actors, both perfectly suited to their roles.

Ninety minutes shot by. The audience erupted and stood up as one, without the customary survey of the crowd to determine whether a standing ovation was warranted. I admit that I normally feel pushed into the obligatory standing mode without really meaning it. On this occasion, I did not need any prodding. Bravo.

Acting and reacting is not limited to the legitimate theater. The Gables is a retirement facility on the other end of Montgomery in mid-town Ojai. A complex of buildings from the 1950’s, it is walking distance to the Art Center, but miles away in the people it serves and the activities offered to them.

On Friday, the Music Festival brought the Bravo Program to the Gables. Bravo caters to school aged children. In large part, the program fosters an appreciation for music to kids as young as five or six. I have regularly been asked to take photos of these educational activities, which usually occur in Ojai Valley public school classrooms.

On this occasion, the Gables had invited third grade children from two local schools to entertain the seniors in residence. I and my camera arrived in the Gables community meeting room just as the senior participants were taking their chairs. Most were in their 70’s and 80’s, and all were women. Some were in wheelchairs. Others had personal assistants.

About twenty kids were accompanied by two young, inordinately lovely teachers. Bounding into the room with all the energy of eight-year-olds, they took up positions in the space made by the admiring seniors. Laura, the Bravo leader, engaged the children in a few warm-up musical exercises that included songs and a bit of dancing.

Prompted by Laura, the kids then made their way to the seated seniors. Selecting a senior of their choice, each child offered a hand, introduced themselves and engaged the seniors in conversation. A bit cautious at first, the children and the seniors warmed to the occasion. An explosion of smiles filled the room and the sound of both young and old voices merged into a playful crescendo.

Seniors who were able, rose from their seats and assumed what could best be described as a conga line. Along with the children, they began a twisty-turny parade that brought delight to the faces of the marchers as well as to the less able sitters.

I found myself taking photos with abandon. Happiness shone from elderly faces that perhaps have had too few similar opportunities. I hardly knew where to point my camera as the choices were unlimited. Children of that age are unbridled and have sweet faces that demand to be captured in a photo. On this day, these lucky seniors shared those characteristics and the beauty of the moment.

Frowns and any reluctance to participate were not in attendance. Seniors became enthusiastic children willing to learn, while children became aware of their ability to brighten lives that perhaps needed it.

Toward the end of the morning, Laura asked the children if anyone wanted to say something about their trip to the Gables. Half of the eight-year-olds met expectations by freely speaking their mind with uncensored abandon. I liked meeting old people. I think they’re just like us. It was really nice performing for real people. I’m really happy they’re still alive.

The next day I began the usually tedious job of selecting and editing the most promising photos. However, on this occasion I was disappointed when my work ended. Through the marvel of Photoshop I had relived those precious moments when young and old had come together to brighten the other.

Lives had been enriched…mine included.  Bravo.

Her Face

Just returned from Albany, New York where Jackie and I took part in two Passover Seders. Her gracious cousins, Roberta and Don, opened their Schenectady house to me. A stranger in their land, I thought I should conduct myself in a way that would be both understated yet reasonably intelligent. I knew the understated part would be easy. Intelligence is tougher to display, but can usually be easily achieved by keeping one’s mouth under control.

The trip to Albany required catching a 6am flight at LAX, a change of planes in Chicago and a strong constitution that could withstand waking at 2:30 am, driving for ninety minutes to the airport, removing various articles of clothing at TSA security, squeezing into a seat that was meant for a three-year old, and surviving more than six hours of flight time. But I’m not complaining because all that while I could look at Jackie’s face, stroke her knee, and sneak a kiss whenever I needed one…which was often.

Her face is amazing. It’s one of those “touch me, kiss me” faces that seems to reach out and beckon your attention. I find it painful not to put my hands on either side of her face, caress her cheeks and draw her close. Her lips form a perfect heart shape that cries out for a kiss. And I oblige, often.

It was generally cold and rainy in Albany, punctuated by the occasional appearance of blue sky and golden sun. Between Seders, we rode to Saratoga with cousins Rodney and Jane where we visited shops where I was thankfully able to remove my warm hat in the heated confines of the stores. We had lunch in a kitschy, sparkly restaurant where our pizza left much to be desired, limp, devoid of cheese and moderately cool to the touch. Through it all, Jackie smiled, made sure I had what I needed and made all the world seem bright with expectation.

Sunday we awoke at 6 to catch an Amtrak train for a two and a half hour trip to Manhattan where we had tickets to see Jersey Boys. Jackie had picked the musical after confirming that I had not seen the live performance.

I like trains in small doses. Especially when headed toward an exciting destination, rather than coming back. The train was clean and reasonably comfortable. We passed by depot signs with names that seemed to come from movies or detective stories. Poughkeepsie, Croton-on-Hudson, and Yonkers made me realize I was in a different world, one populated with New Yorkers and their strange but captivating accents.

I watched the light from the rising sun fall on Jackie as we paralleled the Hudson River. Her face glowing with delight as we whisked our way to Penn Station. I managed a few touches and kisses along the way but the excitement of entering foreign territory seemed to preoccupy both of us. We ate the last of our crumbly trail mix and waited for the announcement. “Manhattan…last stop…watch your step as you exit the train.”

And we emerged on Broadway. You know, the one that George M. Cohan gave his regards to in 1904. A Broadway that’s aged reasonably well in spite of its tacky gift shops, twelve-dollar suitcases and enough scammers to fill Yankee Stadium. “Let’s walk to Junior’s” Jackie said through smiling lips and eyes. “It can’t be far.” I didn’t care how far so long as I could catch a glimpse of her face and her hair as we zig-zagged through the myriad of faces that walked towards us as we counted down the blocks from Penn Station to the place where we would find the world’s best and costliest pastrami sandwich.

32nd, 33rd, 34th. The streets came and went as we waited like tourists for the lights to change. And they did, but not before I could squeeze her hand and send a silent message that she would understand and smile to in response. A smile that was worth the walk. I didn’t need the pastrami to make my day.

We finished our pastrami. It was noon and the theater would open an hour and a half later. So we did what all Manhattanites do with time on their hands. We went to a bar. Sitting at the end of the long, highly polished wood bar, I was able to watch people walking up the aisle. Jackie took that walk and, on her return, flashed that cute smile that made me realize how much I had missed her. She had combed her hair with that big, black comb that she carries everywhere, making her glow even more as she stood out from the crowd.

Jackie ordered an unusual mimosa, sipped it a few times, crinkled up her cute nose, and decided it wasn’t so good. Flashing her smile and dark brown eyes at the bartender, she asked him for something else. Who could refuse that face?

Show time. The theater was a block away. We found our seats in the front row of the mezzanine, settled in and discovered that the lead role was to be filled by an understudy. Disappointed, the woman next to me filled the time by revealing most of the details of her life. Funny how complete strangers will tell you things they won’t reveal to their friends. Jackie absorbed the conversation and made small talk while I devoted my attention to the smile on her face.

The show was terrific. I would later discover that I had seen the live play accompanied by my daughter Nancy and sweet Ila more than five years ago. No matter. The songs made my feet dance and my heart sing. I even sang along quietly expecting that the wrath of our seatmates would get me tossed outside in the cold. The actors worked hard at fulfilling our expectations. And Jackie loved every minute of it.

At the end, the actors announced that they would be raising funds to combat various maladies and would be pleased to have their pictures taken with theater goers in the lobby, in return for a fairly generous contribution. We exited and grabbed onto Corey Jeacoma, the young man who played the role of Bob Gaudio, composer of the Four Seasons’ songs. Jackie lined up her majestic sixty-one pixie inches next to Corey’s towering seventy-four inch body. She looked up at Corey and I swear he nearly melted. I snapped the picture and became just little bit jealous. Silly, I know, but love will do that.

We had a delightful Italian dinner in a little, very crowded but typical Manhattan restaurant complete with narrow aisles, argumentative patrons and drafty corners. We both decided it was the best meal of our trip…even if it really wasn’t.

We taxied to Penn Station, boarded our Amtrak train and began the trip back to Albany. Jackie took the seat next to the window, closed her eyes, and slowed her breathing. The sky was darkening but there was just enough light to illuminate the edges of her forehead, her eyes, her nose and her chin. Just enough light so I could pretend that I was sitting next to a marble statue created by a long-ago genius. Just enough light to ease the trip back. Just enough light to see the face that brightens my heart.

 

More than Yoga

Jackie organized a yoga retreat last Saturday. It was held at my house which, biased though I may be, is an excellent setting for anyone who wants a calming atmosphere, great views of the Topa-Topa mountains and a silence that makes one feel that they are no longer in Kansas.

A multi-year yoga fanatic and sometime teacher of the mysterious art, Jackie would rather organize retreats than eat pastrami sandwiches. Although based upon our recent visit to Nate and Al’s in Beverly Hills, pastrami is a close second. And if you add crispy French fries, a dill pickle and soda from a real Coca Cola bottle, the contest most definitely becomes a toss-up.

The retreat had the benefit of Jackie’s organizing skills and unlimited ability to focus on something until  every bit of it surrendered to her unalterable vision. No half-measures here, only the best will satisfy this petite wonder-woman. A slick website announcing the retreat, complete with the ability to sign up and pay, was merely the beginning. Heaps of gluten-free food from Rainbow Bridge, dozens of personalized ball point pens, fragile eco-friendly glass water bottles, a notable professional yoga instructor, a personable hiking guide from the Ojai Athletic Club. and a flavor-filled flask of my organically grown olive oil would assure the participants that they would receive more than their money’s worth.

Up before dawn on the day of the event, I inflated four bright red balloons. I put them in strategic positions along the road that would lead the participants to the place where all their dreams would be fulfilled. No matter that it was thirty-six degrees outside. I would nevertheless cope with the challenge of tying a very small knot in the neck of each balloon to assure that the inflated markers would last for the next hour or two. After that, the miserable little bastards could shrivel up like my penis in a below zero Chicago winter.

I had not intended to participate in the two yoga classes scheduled for the day. My lack of skill and grace as I waddled and stumbled through two prior failed attempts at discovering the mystery of yoga caused me to studiously avoid a third encounter. I thought this resolution was inviolate until Jackie, in that sweet, yet overpowering whisper said “Oh, please join us. It’ll be such fun.” My lack of resolve quickly melted like a Hagen-Daz chocolate ice cream bar on a hot summer’s day.

The first of many challenges to succeeding at a semblance of yoga involved the proper selection and placement of the various toys that are part of the ritual. The floor mat that every hard-core yogi carries to yoga classes and perhaps, it seemed, to weddings and funerals, was obvious as to its purpose. Hard book-shaped support blocks that reminded me of the nail beds that yogis are known to lie upon for hours riveted my attention; had no one ever heard of rounded corners?

These accoutrements were followed by a relatively stiff but yielding bolster that would, I hoped, only be used for naps. Next, a long-buckled strap that might otherwise be useful in a particularly active sexual encounter left me with no clue as to its real purpose. Several blankets, neatly folded in a manner I was not destined to emulate, offered some hope that they were intended to create a welcoming sleepy time environment like my kindergarten days at Hibbard elementary school. The final toy was a weighted eyeshade that was. I thought, only to be used when the group leader felt that I should be relieved by a firing squad of my self-inflicted agony.

I joined in the fun. Abundantly aware that I was surrounded by nine women, I tried to emulate the poses, twists, bends and other contortions that are representative of the yoga experience. I struggled to convince myself that my inability to reasonably replicate even one of the poses could be generally attributed to my extraordinarily long legs. My failure to maintain what would otherwise be called a push-up was inexcusable. Unable to accurately ascertain my left side from my right side usually brought me face to face with another more knowledgeable participant. I gradually found myself separated from the rest of the crowd who were obviously not enamored by my occasional poking them in their up till now private parts.

“Restorative” was the adjective appended to “yoga” in the final hour of an excruciatingly long day. I was ready to pack it in but the smile on Jackie’s face and the occasional “good boy” that emanated from her sweet lips gave me the will to carry on in the face of what otherwise might be called “Fred’s Folly.”

The hour consisted of a series of comparatively restful poses. Lying on my back with the bolster tucked under my legs, blankets covering my body and the eyeshade shutting me off from the rest of the world proved to be my favorite. I could have spent the entire day like that and become a lifetime advocate of yoga.

When I thought that the blessed lying on my back might be unhappily stripped from my grasp, the sound of a flute filled the otherwise silent space. It had a calming influence that could be compared to a mother’s love for her child. As my eyes were covered, sound was the only sense that I experienced. It seemed familiar. And then, as if a revelation, I knew it was Charles.

At Ila’s funeral nearly seven months ago, Charles had appeared unbidden at the side of her plain oak casket. Dressed in immaculate white linen, his hair neatly groomed and holding an American Indian flute, he proceeded to turn what was until then an unsurprising farewell to my love of fifty-seven years into an event that many would long remember. The notes emanating from the instrument were slow, sweet and in perfect tempo. I was sure that Ila must be hearing what was intended as both a fond adieu and a loving thank you for many years of a meaningful relationship.

And here we were again, this time at the end of a day that I thought might conclude with no particular memory. Lying there, thoughts of what had been flowed out of my memory like the playing of a video of our life together. A life that is fading a bit. A life that is yielding to new relationships and history yet to be written.

But as long as the sound of the flute is heard, I will remember.

Happy Birthday, Steven

Jon and Linda invited us to their home to hear their friend, David Roth, play the guitar.

I have great admiration for people who open their homes to large numbers of people, risking red wine carpet stains, backed-up toilets and conflicting requests about the thermostatically controlled temperature. The purveyors of such hospitality are usually adventurous, gregarious and welcoming. The Lamberts fit the mold perfectly.

Sweetie and I arrived unfashionably early, said hello to those we knew and a few we didn’t. Most were in the vicinity of our age group but with a smattering of the very young who, as the evening progressed, may have thought longingly of their idle smart-phones.

A couch at the absolute rear of the bridge-chair festooned room beckoned to us and we plopped ourselves into its welcoming softness, fully expecting to have our vision blocked by anyone who might choose to occupy the two taller chairs in front of us. No one did.

David Roth, a personable man with a name that abbreviated our own, and who you would be pleased to have to dinner, introduced himself and made us laugh. A folk singer and composer of some renown, he seemed quite at home in the cozy surroundings. My first inkling of what was to be a memorable evening came when David told us about his Chicago roots. Hmmm. A fellow landsman, I thought. Not a bad start.

David’s mother sat, appropriately, in the front row. He took genuine pride in talking about her, including her accomplishments as a theatrical performer. I’m sure Mrs. Roth must have thought, more than once, what a good boy.

David’s father also figured prominently in the Chicago scene having toiled at the long defunct Chez Paree, a restaurant cum nightclub that featured the likes of Jack Teagarden, Morey Amsterdam, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, Frances Langford and a cast of now almost forgotten names. I spent Von Steuben High School prom night there in 1956 with Brenda Dobbs. Another connection.

My mind wandered a bit and, maybe as a result of the connections, I realized that tomorrow, June 12, was Steven’s birthday. Our son who left us much too early in life. He too, like David, was a singer, guitarist and composer. I tried to remember the words to some of Steven’s songs and failed miserably.

It seemed to get softly warmer in the room, more relaxed, more at home.

David reminisced about his bar mitzvah and the mischief he got into as a very young boy who reveled in running about the Chez Paree, no doubt pursued relentlessly by his father. Displaying a photo of Jimmy Durante, he pointed out his own angelic face alongside that of his sister, both sitting on Durante’s lap.

He shared that time when, not so long ago, he was confronted with thyroid cancer and saw his singing career flash before his eyes. Another connection.

Sloan Wainwright spelled David and shared her own brand of music. And the loss of her husband to leukemia four years ago. Her house that he had built for her and that now provided only warm memories. Another connection.

I began to wonder if this evening had been carefully choreographed to remind us of Steven’s birthday. Whether some wizard had conjured up David Roth and instilled memories in him that were just close enough to raise our own. You’ve been there, I’m sure you have.

David finished and a few people wandered to the front of the room, telling him how much they enjoyed his concert. I shared my Steven story with him. At first he seemed just polite, nodding and listening to me. And then his eyes told me that it meant something more to him.

Happy birthday, Steven. Wish you were here.

DuranteDavid


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