Friday, April 30, 2010

Music in the Wind

At 3 pm on Thursday afternoon, I chased several pieces of sheet music across Amsterdam Avenue, pursued the papers as they flapped and flew in remarkable aerial acrobatic swirls designed to aggravate me and amuse everyone within viewing distance.

Of course I was on my BlackBerry with a client at the time, bounding up the avenue in the sunny – if windy -- afternoon, arms pumping happily in the abundant sunshine...which is likely the reason it happened.

"#$%&*@##$%$&*@%@#&$!" I exclaimed, dashing into the gutter to step on the first page of "Waltz #2," that wafted down on top of a sewer grate. Retrieving it, I saw the entire paper-clipped bunch of "Landslide" fluttering its way across Amsterdam. Bounding into the street, narrowly missing on-coming traffic, I spied "You May be Right" -- flattened against the side of a houseware shop back on the sidewalk.

Hollering and huffing, I grabbed my papers, stuffing them back into the folder.

"#$%&*&$#*&!!" I exclaimed, overcome by a sense of irony for it was this very folder of music that I had lost yesterday evening while shopping at Fairway...and reclaimed just half an hour earlier. What did it all mean -- first to leave the songs of one's heart in a supermarket basket, then to have them scatter to the wind when retrieved?

Were my songs attempting to escape???

Was this a sign to me...that I needed to break free?

Such are the machinations of my mind.

Back on the sidewalk, the spectators saluted me for my adept -- if foolhardy -- rescue of the imperiled papers. I accepted their kudos, thanking them and laughing ruefully.

It was then I remembered that the BlackBerry was still pressed to my ear and my quiet client had overhead the entire escapade.

The backstory on the lost folder of music is that I arrived late to my voice lesson the day before -- breathless, penitent, sheepish -- bursting into Mary's peaceful 9th floor studio like a clamorous, invading army, loudly declaring that, though I was egregiously late, this would be a power lesson.

What I missed in time I would make up in passion.

Ever patient and forgiving, Mary neither reprimanded me nor contradicted me. Brandishing the worn manila file filled with the sheet music I have collected over the past six months, I swept into the piano room. While I stared at my image in the mirror over the piano, Mary went to fetch me a glass of water.

I'm late, but it's okay, I reassured myself anxiously. Examining my reflection, I was visited by a familiar childhood musing: is this really the way I look? Is this the face that others see as well or is it my perception alone?? And just who am I?

The music holds part of the answer: I am the girl/woman who comes once a week to Mary's 72nd Street studio to sing sad and beautiful songs, who nurtures a love for energetic rock. Who dreamed of being David Byrne's girlfriend, who felt her life changed by Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and The White Album and wishes she could be as tough and cool as Joan Jett. Who sings My Sharona loudly at home, who introduced Little Babe to Duran Duran, who plays Name that Beatles Lyric -- a made-up game -- with him on long car rides and Shabbat afternoons.

Who cried through Leonard Cohen's last Madison Square Garden concert, sitting next to Big Babe, feverish and forsaken on a Friday night.

This self co-exists with my other selves, the ones who carry out the serious and adult stuff, of course.

In Mary's studio, I am a student singer, dutifully executing my voice exercises, pushed by my teacher to move out of my comfort zone in the bass notes, receiving praise for my lung capacity.

There, the other me -- mother, professional, wife -- retreats for thirty glorious minutes, and I am awash in timeless, universal emotion of the sort that inspires songwriting. Great loss pervades most of my favorite songs. So does the eternal yearning for true love.

“I rarely lose things,” I had told Mary as I prepared to leave, just 20 minutes later, while reflecting on my love of sad songs. “Loss is traumatic for me.”

And then, several hours and appointments later, I lost my sheet music at Fairway as I shopped… while taking a phone call from Middle Babe.

It is now Friday morning, the eve of Shabbat. The manila folder of sheet music rests on the dining room table, smudged with dirt. The papers within are still in disarray. I have not gone through them to check if all are there. The idea of having lost any pages is distressing to me. I don’t yet have the inner fortitude to find out.

Last night I spoke late into the night with an old school acquaintance who reconnected with me on the matter of adoption. We hadn’t spoken in decades – in fact, we barely knew each other -- but she called me to talk about her pervasive sense of loss, her issues with emotional abandonment.

“My life would be so much better if I didn’t have this emotional disposition,” she stated.

But you do, I told her. And I do. And it often blindsides us, making us sad and even dysfunctional for a time. But it also gives us emotional depth and maybe unusual empathy.

Over the past two days my music has been lost, found and nearly lost again.

The curse of multi-tasking, blabbing on my BlackBerry while completing other tasks, takes the metaphysical sting out of the situation, providing a perfectly pragmatic reason for why I first left my folder in the grocery store and loosened my grip on the folder while navigating my way northward on the streets of Manhattan.

And yet.

When I completed my twenty-minute power lesson on Wednesday, Mary praised me for my passionate renditions, the power in my lungs, the vitality in my singing.

My secret is an amped-up state of agitation, I told her, also known as shpilkes --an existential condition.

Not uncommon for people of the Jewish persuasion or creative types.

In fact, as I told HOBB, when I poured out my soul late Wednesday night in a torrent of tears whose catalyst was the pervasive, unyielding sense of loss, such emotional dislocation is the ideal state for creative expression.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Wayward Wife Comes Home

This is a portrait of obsession.

At the end of a frenetic NYC weekend, it all came down to me 'n Moravia.

And my cool Ricky's reading glasses, which trick me into thinking that they are just a fun fashion accessory and not a visual aid. Then again, their attractiveness is clearly only a matter of opinion. Earlier today, Little Babe told me that they make me look like a demented librarian.

In truth, I rather like that assessment.

Having read through the supply of Alberto Moravia novels and short story collections that is available on bookshelves and through special order at Barnes and Nobles, Book Culture and the Strand, I finally turned to, scooping up five hard-to-find titles in the equivalent number of seconds.

Over this past week, compact Jiffy envelopes arrived for me, bearing my printed paperback treasures. I could not believe the speed with which my desire had been fulfilled; tracking down Moravia's elusive works had become a stalker's pastime for me over the past few months and I had finally caught my prey. Avidly, I tore open the envelopes. The books tumbled out onto my waiting bed, possessed of lurid covers, aged to the point of crumbling.

I smiled at the volumes, welcoming them into the family of rag-tag Moravia editions -- some European, others American – I already possess, noting that my little library looked like a family of multi-racial adopted children who nevertheless all bear the same last name.

Earlier today, coming uptown on the #1 train, I finished the first edition 1950 hardcover copy of Two Adolescents that Big Babe found for me at a second-hand bookshop in Jerusalem over the Passover break. Breathless from Luca's dramatic denouement, I paused briefly for decency's sake, then greedily dove into The Wayward Wife.

The copy I have -- a slim paperback Ace Star Book published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 1960 -- is adorned with a gorgeous, erotic photograph of a nude young woman by the side of the road. The picture is lyrical and candid; because of it, I feel scandalous reading this work in public. And then, there is the suggestive title.

Tonight, when the action moved to my bedroom, I thumbed through the book's credits and was astonished to discover that Philippe Halsman was the photographer.

This discovery brought me a sense of bashert -- the preordained -- for I had recently been obsessed with the Latvian-born Halsman, having seen the dreadful film, Jump, which was written around the true, astonishing and little-known story of his pre-celebrity life in Europe, when, as a young man, he was tried and convicted in Austria by an anti-Semitic court of murdering his father.

Having always admired Halsman’s stylish work, the horrific story of his earlier life consumed me, refusing to let me go. Learning that the Moravia cover was shot by him, my mind turned associative; the teen Halsman, languishing in an Austrian jail, became confused with Moravia’s adolescents Agostino and Luca, bound together by their common doom. Staring at the black and white cover photo on my book, I considered Halsman's ability to reinvent himself from wrongfully convicted killer to American A-lister, Life magazine cover photog, friend to the famous, creator of "jumpology" and the remarkable Jump portraits, one of the Ten Greatest Photographers in the World, according to a 1958 Popular Photography article. But Halman's dramatic denouement was not only the result of his talent and will. His pardon and passage out of Europe came as the result of a campaign by several high-profile individuals including Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Life magazine extended a cross-Atlantic invitation to him. As I pondered the personal and outside factors leading to Philippe Halsman's redemption, I felt a sense of keen regret that I had never met him, nor my beloved latest-favorite author. Yet instantly, that feeling morphed into one of supreme joy for wasn't I sitting in a midnight cafe with him and Alberto Moravia at that very moment?

It is now no longer Sunday night. The act of writing has, once again, burned off my extreme adrenaline-fueled agitation. I am horrified at the hour, noting that in a very short while, I need to jumpstart my professional week.

This Monday will be different from previous Mondays because of one remarkable detail of this past weekend: the two-day Open House I attended at the Columbia School of Journalism, where I am scheduled to begin my Masters program in Art and Culture Writing this fall.

And while I've known for the past month of my acceptance, it was not until this weekend that I actually embraced the fact of my impending studenthood, which brings with it the restructuring of my current professional life. And my personal life, in some ways. Absent for our Shabbat dinner on Friday night, I became a wayward wife, choosing to socialize with my classmates at Havana Central, coming home only after Little Babe had gone to bed and HOBB greeted me with baleful eyes and the rebuke that I might, at least, have come home to light candles and sing Shalom Aleichem.

This process is personal tikkun; long overdue. If there is one affliction I've suffered from over the past sixteen years, it is imbalance. The work I've undertaken has been ubiquitous, overwhelming, consuming. The writing -- my writing -- when it has happened, has felt like a miracle of sorts, the triumph of will over crushing responsibility, fatigue, the demands of family life. It has felt both heroic and woefully inadequate, not in essence but in volume.

My unwritten projects have bonded and formed a fellowship of their own, rag-tag, like my Moravia books. They patiently sit on my pending project bookshelf, feeling the fierce love of my gaze, my stewardship, my determination.

Like Moravia's books, they know they will not be neglected for they are my family. I have waited for them a long time; I am incomplete without them. I find my identity through nurturing these projects. They are mine. They are me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Swing Dance. Yom HaShoah: Diaspora 2010

Eight years ago, I angered a British friend by referring to New York City as the Diaspora.

I was in London, researching the desecration of a synagogue in Finsbury Park. A hurricane of Jew- hatred had swept through the sanctuary, attended by mostly elderly Jews. Among the insults: a swastika scrawled on the rabbi's shtender, siddurim torn and tossed on the floor, glass broken, kippot and tallitot stewn about.

In the course of my reportage, I made two mistakes. First, I asked about the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in England; secondly, I referred to myself as a Diaspora Jew.

My friend, a native Londoner, firmly set me in my place, telling me that European anti-Semitism has not returned for it never went away, merely hid beneath the surface in that wounded period after World War II.

And then he assured me that, as a resident of that Jerusalem-on-the-Hudson known as the Upper West Side, I had no right to consider myself a resident of the Diaspora.

Though shocked, I instantly knew that he was right.

And yet every now and again, as I navigate my Gotham existence, I find myself firmly implanted in the Diaspora.

For instance, this past Sunday.

Freshly returned from a Passover trip to Israel, sun-kissed and toned from hiking in Eilat, looking more Sabra than city slicker, I found myself possessed of a rare gift -- a free Sunday, due to the last-minute cancellation of a day trip upstate to retrieve our dogs from the friends who watched them in our absence (they decided to drive into the city and drop the doggies off for us), Little Babe's self-imposed study plans and HOBB's announcement that he would be spending the day in his office, catching up on work.

While I had an evening engagement in place -- a Yom HaShoah commemoration on the Upper West Side featuring Frank Blaichman, a partisan fighter and author of the new memoir, Rather Die Fighting, a project for which I am serving as public relations consultant -- several hours opened up to me, filling me with giddy delight and a small measure of panic.

What on earth should I do with my free Sunday??

After perusing the Weekend section of the Times and several NYC events blogs, checking my email, Facebook and MeetUp for invitations and events I had previously ignored and emailing a friend whom I've been trying to see for months, a glorious schedule fell into place: an early morning hike down to the JCC and gym workout, a planning meeting at a friend's place for an upcoming fundraiser, some brief local errands, a three-hour Lindy Hop and Charleston workshop at Dance Manhattan in Chelsea, a kamikaze assault on the H&M on Sixth Avenue, dinner with my friend at the Hummus Place back on the UWS...and the Yom Hashoah program at Ohab Zedek on West 95th Street.

While my day began and ended at Jewish venues -- a community center and synagogue -- it is the substance in between that lends it a distinct Diaspora quality.

Specifically, the swing dance workshop. Three hours of boisterous bopping around, learning ecstatic eight-count dance moves in a relentlessly social atmosphere.

In Israel, on Yom HaShoah, there are no dance classes, no music classes, no lite recreation or frivolous entertainment.

In Israel, on Yom HaShoah, the television stations broadcast programming dealing only with the Holocaust.

In New York, on the Sunday of Yom HaShoah, the city hosted hundreds of commemorations for Holocaust Remembrance Day. Synagogues, museums, schools, institutions and community centers offered lectures, films, exhibitions, book talks, the Reading of the Names and other programs in the spirit of the day.

In tribute to its Jewish populace, the soul of the city observed a palpable moment of solemn silence and then the heart of Manhattan beat on, demanding streets streaming with citizens basking in the post-winter new sunshine, maintaining its staggering array of cultural offerings, adventures, opportunities and experiences, indoor and outdoor, high and low brow; artistic, athletic, educational, ethnic, retail, pricey and free-of-charge, multi-cultural, weird, wild, wonderful.

And when Monday arrived and I opened my reluctant eyes, my body felt the full imprint of the Diaspora -- muscles sore from my swing dance intensive, memories of the extraordinarily moving Yom HaShoah event etched upon my mind: a synagogue filled to capacity with children and adults alike, yahrzeit candles lit in memory of the Six Million, songs mournful and triumphant, the testimony of Frank Blaichman, Holocaust survivor, partisan hero, Jewish grandfather, resident of Manhattan.