Tuesday, December 29, 2020

2020, here's your hat. What's your hurry?

On New Year's day 1980, as I recall, someone observed, "Here's to the passing of a real kidney stone of a decade." The seventies had their ups and downs for me, but on balance more up than down. They began with my finishing law school and getting a job in New York. After a year I had to leave temporarily to do two years' Army Reserve active duty. When I returned, I settled into a Greenwich Village that was still an affordable neighborhood for artistic and journalistic sorts, and had bars like the Bells of Hell and the Lion's Head where I could enjoy their company. I had a brief marriage that didn't end traumatically; Joanna and I remained friends until her untimely death in 1993.

I found that the temptations of the Village demimonde didn't mix well with being an associate at what was becoming a high powered corporate law firm, so I left and took an in-house job with a corporate client. When I found even that more than I wanted to handle at the time, I decided to go back to school. My work in regulatory law had sparked an interest in economics, and New York University offered an MBA program with an econ major. With the GI Bill, indulgent parents, and the availability of part-time work, I was able to enjoy a slightly before mid life sabbatical from the demands of full time law practice. I ended the seventies as I had begun them, as a student. They also saw my brief moment of glory as a movie actor, thanks to my friend Charlie McCrann, who would later die in the World Trade Center. There's more about my late seventies adventures here.

Like the seventies, 2020 started for me on a comfortable note. I was still working; my profligacy in my younger days had assured that retirement would be a distant goal. Martha, my wife of over 28 years, was working on interesting projects for clients concerning their archives and genealogy. When COVID-19 hit, I was able to transition to working at home. Martha had already been doing most of her work on her computer here, with occasional visits to her clients to examine archival material. The COVID restrictions had no impact on our ability to continue our gainful employment. 

It did affect our social life, though not in a completely devastating way. About a month after the restrictions were imposed, our favorite place to sit at the bar, have a light supper with cocktails or wine, and socialize with friends or with strangers we met there, along with the bartenders and floor staff, and with Tim, the genial owner who would sometimes join us at the bar, Jack the Horse Tavern (Tim named it for a lake in his native Minnesota), closed permanently. Other places around us managed to keep going, and in good weather we could meet friends for drinks and snacks at outdoor tables, dine on take out, or dine indoors while it was allowed, with strict occupancy limits and spacing. Now that indoor restaurant dining is banned and winter weather is putting a severe crimp on outdoor dining, despite the gas heaters and overhead canopies many restaurants have provided, we fear for the survival of our other neighborhood haunts.

We live in a large building, and have several close friends in the building with whom we've been able to socialize in very small gatherings. We've had Zoom sessions with our more far flung friends and relatives. Our daughter, Liz, and her boyfriend came up from Philadelphia for two days during the week before Thanksgiving. We shared our Thanksgiving meal with one friend, and had Christmas dinner by ourselves.

As I noted here previously, the COVID restrictions imposed in March initially made us give up in person church services. These were replaced by Zoom and live streamed ones. When the infection numbers declined, unfortunately after Easter, we went back to in person services, but with attendance limited - reservations required - and strict social distancing. When infection rates went up, just before the Christmas season, we were required to go back to Zoom and live streaming.

The "New Normal" has, for Martha and me, so far been tolerable, though its long term effects may be less so. We support the requirements intended to limit the spread of the pandemic, such as mask wearing and social distancing. I know that COVID-19 has been disastrous for many other less fortunate people, often fatally. It has also intensified, or at least made more evident, a rift in our social and political fabric. I hope to do whatever I can, in my small way, to mend that rift. I know that those on my side of the rift - one of the few things I celebrate about 2020 is the outcome of the presidential election - have no monopoly on virtue. 

It's been my custom, sometime in January, to look back on the previous year and note those among my friends, relatives, and heroes who have died, along with those who have been helpful to my writing venture or inspirational in a broader sense. I will continue that custom this coming month. As for now, goodbye 2020. Don't let the door hit your backside on the way out. 

Monday, September 07, 2020

"I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill" - a song for Labor Day

 Joe Hill was a songwriter and labor organizer. He was born Joel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden in 1879. After a childhood made difficult by the death of his father from an occupational accident and later of his mother from complications following back surgery, he emigrated to the United States in 1902. He had almost no formal education, having been forced to work after his father's death, when Joel was nine. 

After arriving in America, he worked various jobs and adopted the name Joe Hill. He was fired from a job in Chicago for trying to organize a union. Afterwards, he hit the road, getting involved in labor organizing in California, where he joined the International Workers of the World (the "IWW" or the "Wobblies"). This led to his spending some jail time in San Pedro where, he said, "I was a little too active to suit the chief of the burg." In 1911 he was also involved in an abortive attempt to start a revolution against the government of the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. During his time on the West Coast he wrote a number of songs that were later collected in the IWW's songbook.

In January of 1914 Joe Hill was in Salt Lake City, and asked a physician to treat a gunshot wound to his chest. That same night a grocer and his son had been killed, but the son got off a shot that hit one of their assailants. Hill was arrested and charged with the murders. He said he had been shot in a fight over a woman, but declined to identify her or the shooter. He was tried, convicted of murder, and executed by firing squad. This was despite pleas by President Wilson, the Swedish ambassador to the U.S., Helen Keller, and others for his sentence to be commuted. In recent years William M. Adler, in his biography of Hill, The Man Who Never Died, revealed an old letter from Hill's girlfriend, Hilda Erickson, in which she said Hill had been shot by the man she jilted to take up with Hill.

Ten years after Hill's execution, Alfred Hayes wrote a poem, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night." Ten years after that, Earl Robinson set it to music, and it became an anthem of the labor movement. It's performed masterfully in the video below by the great Paul Robeson.

The photo of Joe Hill is in the public domain. Its source is identified by Wikimedia as the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Happy 75th, Van Morrison

Yes, you've been saying some crazy stuff lately. Indeed, you've always been something of a loose cannon outside of your musical persona. Still, I love your music, and have made it a tradition to salute you on your birthday here for the last ten years. Admittedly, this is in part because you share the exact birth date - August 31, 1945 - as someone who profoundly, though unwittingly, affected my life. 

I've always posted a video of a song of yours with these birthday wishes. Because there have been so many, I had to look back at posts from previous years to make sure I don't repeat. This year I've picked "And It Stoned Me" from the Moondance album. I'm surprised I hadn't used it before, as it's long been a favorite of mine; but then, there are so many ....


Saturday, August 01, 2020

Mets flounder, but the Gray Lady has interesting ideas for MLB.

A week ago Friday I posted here, noting, with tongue firmly in cheek, that the Mets were in first place in the National League East -- a distinction I failed to note they shared at the time with the Miami Marlins -- by virtue of their 1-0 opening day victory over the Atlanta Braves. The following day the braves won 5-3 in ten innings, thanks to a lately all too common blown save by Edwin Diaz and some help from the new extra innings rule, which gave the Braves a runner on second to start the tenth. In the rubber game Atlanta provided an ice water bath as the Braves prevailed 14-1. 

Starting a four game series with the Red Sox, the Mets got themselves back into winning territory with two victories. In game three the Mets did what seems to me so characteristic of them. They started the bottom of the ninth down by two, and loaded the bases with no outs, but from there were only able to bring in one more run, and the Sox won  6-5.  They lost the final game to the Sox 4-2. Yesterday, again facing the Braves, this time in Atlanta, they squandered another late inning opportunity and lost 11-10, bringing their record to date to 3-5 and fourth place in their division.

Yesterday's game gave some credence to my curse of the ex-Met theory, as the much traveled Travis d'Arnaud, shown in the photo during his Mets days, drove in five of the Braves' runs. 

Update: the Mets are now 3-6, having lost to the Braves 7-2 yesterday and, as if things couldn't get worse, Yoenis Cespedes has gone missing

My wife is a Red Sox fan, and has a theory that the worse they do early in the season, the better they are likely to finish. I don't think this applies to the Mets, although the 2008 Mets showed that a hot start was no favorable omen, and led me to write this diatribe. As a postscript to that screed, I'm now rooting for A-Rod and J-Lo to succeed in their bid to buy the Mets. Mr. Rodriguez knows a thing or two about baseball; enough to make me forgive his background as one of the shock troops for the Evil Empire.

Turning to less gloomy things, last Monday the New York Times published a piece, unfortunately without a web link, titled "How to Make Sports Better: 60 Modest Proposals." This was a joint effort by the Times' sports staff. Suggestions for the M.L.B. were, I'm sure, made by Tyler Kepner, the senior baseball writer. He began with "Speed up the game, but for real."  This would involve nixing mound visits, limiting warm-up pitches, and enforcing two minute gaps between innings. To my surprise and delight, though, he broke with what seems to be a consensus on one way to shorten game time. "Eliminate the designated hitter," he proposes. I'm with him on that. His arguments are much the same as mine, noting that many pitchers are also good hitters. He notes that "many were stellar hitters in their youth" and adds, rhetorically, "[R]eally, there's not enough time for batting practice in those four days between starts?" If "[y]our best hitter can't play the field," then "prop him up somewhere and work around it."

Kepner's other suggestions include reducing game day rosters, as is done in the N.F.L. and the N.H.L., in order to "[l]imit the incentive to substitute"; making the bases bigger because "just a few inches will decrease the distance between bases and help bring speed back into the game"; making a gap between the outfield fences and the stands to allow outfielders to make over-the-fence catches without fan interference; and having umpires "[e]nforce the strike zone that is in the rule book." Some of Kepner's ideas are whimsical, like tying concession prices to a team's record. I like this one: "Last place? Your beer is a buck."

Travis d'Arnaud photo: Keith Allison on Flickr (Original version)  UCinternational (Crop) / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Mets First in NL East!

A squeaker to start a shortened season with silent stands. We'll see how this goes.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Robert Ward's The Stone Carrier; 1970s New York, Uptown and Downtown

Robert Ward's The Stone Carrier is a book that will grab you and not let you go. I read it because the author and I hung out at the same Greenwich Village bars during the late 1970s, and reviews promised that the novel captured the zeitgeist of New York City at that time. I can vouch for its accuracy about the downtown scene, which was my milieu. (One small quibble: I never knew the Bells of Hell to smell of "moldy bread and dog piss." I took my parents there once. If it had, my mother would have taken one step in, wrinkled her nose, and demanded that we leave.) Two beloved Lion's Head staffers, bartender Tommy and waitress Sha, get fond remembrances; Sha even plays a small part in the action, and there is plenty of that.

Much of that action, including a climactic scene that unfolds over the novel's last few chapters, happens at Elaine's, a bar and restaurant on Second Avenue near 88th Street, that was the favored hangout of New York's glitterati. I never entered Elaine's, though when I arrived late for a party given by my former roommate and his wife, who lived near there, I said I had been walking past Elaine's, looked in, saw Oscar de la Renta and Francoise de Langlade (then New York's top power couple) beckoning to me, and had to join them for a drink. My friends believed me, or more likely pretended to.

Terry Brennan, the central character in The Stone Carrier, is known at Elaine's, and at Studio 54, the disco that drew many of the Elaine's crowd and where more of the novel's action happens. His admission ticket to these places was an article he wrote for Rolling Stone about Thaddeus Bryant, whose first novel, The Debt, was a great success and is being made into a movie. In evident gratitude, Thaddeus introduces Terry to Elaine's and to some of the celebrities he's met there, including Norman Mailer. Terry tells Mailer it was reading his work that inspired him to become a writer. Mailer says, "if that's the truth, then you better be good. 'Cause I don't want to inspire any hacks."

The Stone Carrier (the cryptic title is explained in chapter 32) begins, not at Elaine's, but with a double murder in Central Park at two a.m. The victims are Joey Gardello and his brother Ray. Joey is a boyhood friend of Thaddeus and struggling to make it as a filmmaker. Like he has for Terry, Thaddeus brings Joey into the charmed circle of Elaine's. The murder sets in motion a series of events that lead to Terry's being pursued by both the NYPD and by henchmen of Nicky Baines, a thinly disguised version of Nicky Barnes, the drug kingpin of Harlem. While the plot elicits many surprises, it never strains the reader's - or at least this reader's - willingness to believe. My reaction to plot developments was often "Wow!" but never "WTF?"

Like many, if not most, stories set in New York City, the central theme of The Stone Carrier is ambition; of how small missteps, like allowing a friend to deal coke from your apartment, can threaten it; but mostly about how it can keep you from questioning things that seem to be too good to be true, because they may be.

It's a terrific read.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, "My Heart's Tonight in Ireland"

Here's a wistful song for this subdued St. Patrick's day. Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!

Monday, March 16, 2020

Giving up church for Lent

I don't usually "give up" anything for Lent. I've had some clerical support for this. Lent isn't about renunciation, I've heard in homilies, but about reflection. I try to do that. Four years ago I posted about my reflections looking back on Lent from Easter Sunday.

Still, as well as being a time of reflection, Lent should be a time of liturgical devotion; of faithful attendance at services, participating in communal worship and prayers, and taking of the Eucharist. That's why I was saddened, although I recognize its necessity, by the announcement that the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island is suspending, effective yesterday (Saturday, March 14) "all public worship" until Thursday, March 26, at which time it will be decided whether to continue the suspension. Any continuation would certainly extend through Holy Week; a sad prospect indeed. No Passion Narrative on Palm Sunday, in which, four years ago, I had the "honor" of reading the part of Pontius Pilate. No Stations of the Cross - a new, High Church addition to our liturgy this year. Worst of all, no Rev. Allen Robinson, our Rector, proclaiming on Easter Sunday, "Alleluia, Christ is risen!" and our responding, "He is risen indeed, Alleluia!"

So it was that I had a bit of a lie-in yesterday morning, knowing I was relieved of my duties of ushering and of being intercessor; that is. leading the Prayers of the People. But I missed the opportunity to join with my friends in worship, to greet our clergy - Allen, Erika, and Catherine - afterward, and to socialize at Coffee Hour (sometimes jokingly called the Eighth Sacrament of the Episcopal Church).  Update: Grace Church clergy are doing Morning Prayer services that are live-streamed on the church's website. 

Another thing I'll miss is the weekly in-person meeting of the Education for Ministry class, in which I'm in my second year. This is a class given by extension from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, that is not for preparation to become clergy, but rather to educate lay Christians about scripture, church history and theology. Its intention is to prepare lay people for their ministry in daily life. We're looking for a way to continue meeting on line. Today I began reading one of our assigned texts: Life Together (1939) by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For those unfamiliar with him, he was a Lutheran pastor and theologian, born in Breslau, Germany in 1906. His opposition to the Nazi regime led to his arrest in 1943 and execution by hanging in the Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945, just two weeks before the camp was liberated by U.S. soldiers and a month before Germany's surrender. This gives a particular poignancy to the title of his best known work, The Cost of Discipleship (1937).

Life Together is a much shorter work than The Cost of Discipleship. Here is Bonhoeffer's preface:
The subject matter I am presenting here is such that any further development can only take place through a common effort. We are not dealing with a concern of some private circles but with a mission entrusted to the church. Because of this, we are not searching for more or less haphazard individual solutions to a problem. This is, rather, a responsibility to be undertaken by the church as a whole. There is a hesitation evident in the way this task has been handled. Only recently has it been understood at all. But this hesitation must give way to the willingness of the church to assist in the work. The variety of new ecclesial forms of community makes it necessary to enlist the vigilant cooperation of every responsible party. The following remarks are intended to provide only one individual contribution toward answering the extensive questions that have been raised thereby. As much as possible, may these comments help to clarify this experience and put it into practice.
Bonhoeffer's words convey a sense of urgency. They were written at the time when the Nazi regime was preparing Germany for war with its neighboring countries, and solidifying its racist doctrine that would lead to the Holocaust. He stressed the need for collective action.

The COVID-19 crisis may seem to be an impediment to our ability to act collectively, as it prevents us from physically gathering together. Technology that Bonhoeffer couldn't imagine lets us communicate in ways well beyond the printed word, radio, and telephone of his time. This technology has its well known downsides - it facilitates the propagation of falsehoods, enables on-line bullying, and lets us tune out all who disagree with us. Still, it does allow us to work together for the good, even if we must be physically separated. Let us do so, until this crisis has passed, as I fervently hope and pray it will soon.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Remembrances and appreciations, 2018 and '19

For some years I posted a remembrance of the past year, including a summary of the remembrances of those, either friends or those I admired, who have died, and an appreciation of those who have been helpful to my blogging. I last did these together in 2016. In 2017, the look back and the remembrances got separated. In 2018 I posted remembrances, promising "happier reminiscences soon," but never got around to that. Last year I began this post in February, and have left it in very incomplete draft form until now.

I posted individually during 2018 in memory of Aretha FranklinRusty Staub, Roger Bannister, and the congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue murdered in the Pittsburgh massacre. These would have been included in my 2019 remembrances, had I gotten around to posting them. In 2019 I posted for Doris Day, Bill Buckner, Sandy Denny (although she had died 41 years before), John Phillips (not the one from the Mamas and the Papas), and Nick Tosches.

In recent years I've lamented the increasing number of people either that I had known in person or admired as artists, musicians, sports figures, or otherwise, who were dying. I put this down as a natural result of my growing old, and it mostly is. Of those who died last year and were noted on my blog, three - Bill Buckner, John Phillips, and Nick Tosches - were younger than me. I had known John for his entire life. Indeed, my first contact with him was when he was in utero. I was fourteen at the time, and his mother, Mary, during her eighth month of pregnancy, invited me to put a hand on her distended belly, where I could feel one of his feet moving.

The youngest of those I knew who died last year was Jack Hatton, 24. Jack was a year behind my daughter, Liz, in elementary school on September 11, 2001. Their school was close to the World Trade Center, and the principal decided to evacuate the students, either to a school farther north or, at parents' discretion, to home. Jack's mother, Marie Hatton, and I both decided to take our children home to Brooklyn Heights. Since transit wasn't working and the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges were closed, Marie, Jack, Jack's brother Harrison Hatton, Liz, and I had to take a long, circuitous walk through the Lower East Side, where the Tenement Museum provided a respite, giving water and access to restrooms, then across the Williamsburg Bridge. On the Brooklyn side we were greeted by Hasidim offering us cups of water. Once off the bridge we found rest on the steps of the Peter Luger Steak House, where the staff gave the kids fries. I was able to reach Jack's father, Mark Hatton, by phone. He came and gave us all a ride back to Brooklyn Heights. Jack was the youngest in our group, but he never complained.

There are others whose passing I didn't note on the blog, not because I thought them less significant, but because their deaths came late in the year, when I was preoccupied with holiday preparations and events. Amy Talcott was a friend of many years, an administrator at Plymouth Church, a skilled seamstress who made dresses for several of our friends, and a loving wife to Ahsan Farooqi and mother to Amos Farooqi. Another loss was Elisabeth Brewer, mother of my friend Geoff Brewer and wife of my friend Wally Brewer. She was a stalwart of our own Grace Church and always a lively and engaging conversationalist. Annabella Gonzalez was a superb dancer and choreographer who led her own dance company. Her dances drew on various influences, including the traditions of her native Mexico as well as more contemporary themes. I got to know her many years ago when she married my previous colleague and long time friend Richard Grimm and later became the mother of Henry Grimm.

Other sad news came with the announcement that Congressman John Lewis had been diagnosed with cancer. I had a brief encounter with him in 1966, long before his election to Congress, when he was head of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and we were both attending an Ecumenical Conference on Urbanization and Technology at Emory University in Atlanta. I don't recall the specifics of our short conversation, except that it stiffened my resolve to continue in the fight for racial equality and justice.

Another cancer diagnosis that hit me hard was that of Judy Dyble. I fell in love with her, or at least with her voice and artistry, in 1970 when I acquired the first Fairport Convention album (yes, the band still exists after more than forty years, with some personnel changes), and heard her cover of Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand." In 2008, I posted an iPod Log that included a video clip of "Time Will Show the Wiser," a song from the first Fairport album, on which Judy sings harmony. This led to my getting in contact with Judy via email. Later that year I posted a video clip of Judy with some present Fairporters and others doing an obscure Bob Dylan song in French. This has, as they say, gone viral, though many of the hits have come from Russia and Ukraine. Is there something about Dylan in French that has peculiar appeal to the Slavic soul? More recently, Judy and I became friends on Facebook, which is how I learned of her diagnosis. She has begun a course of chemotherapy, keeps the proverbial English "stiff upper lip" about hair loss and such, and treats me with news of the British music scene and with photos of her rescued greyhound Jessie.

Despite all this sadness, there was much to celebrate in 2019. I've taken considerable inspiration from two courageous women. Jennifer Garam is the daughter of Peter Garam, with whom I shared an office when I first came to New York in 1970. I met Jennifer some years ago at a gathering of Brooklyn bloggers, and we became Facebook, as well as occasional encounters on the street, friends. Two years ago she was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. She underwent surgery and chemotherapy, is now cancer free, and still writing compellingly.

The other is Lauren Jonik, whom I first got to know through her comments about my posts on the Brooklyn Heights Blog. I learned she was a skilled photographer, and met her face to face at an exhibition of her works. You can see her photos at Shoot Like a Girl Photography. She told me she had suffered a severe case of Lyme disease that struck her in her teens and kept her from completing her education on schedule. Nevertheless, she had since managed to study both photography and writing, and is now finishing her studies for a Masters in Media at The New School. She is the co-founder and editor of The Refresh, for which she wrote an essay about Mary Oliver, a poet whose works I love. Stephen Muncie, please take note.

It's de rigueur in pieces like this to express gratitude to one's immediate family, but it's not a sense of duty that makes me credit my wife, Martha Foley, and my daughter, Elizabeth Cordelia Scales. Yes, Martha has been patient about my hours of absorption with writing, but she and Liz have also been helpful as a critical audience for my ideas, often helping to sharpen my thinking.

There are many other friends, on Facebook and otherwise, who have been very helpful. They are too numerous to try to list. Among them are some with whom I disagree profoundly on some issues, but whose opinions I am always keen to understand. Please know you have my sincerest appreciation.