Thursday, May 24, 2018

"The Ghost Writer" Rest in Peace

.I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night to do some work that was bothering me that I could not get to during the day, or to explore a piece or pieces of music (old or new), or to read an article or a book that I could not get to earlier, or some combination of the above. This past night, I thought of the passing of novelist Philip Roth and a discussion earlier this week at an Office of the General Counsel lunch time Book Club, and wrote about it and wanted to share it. I hope you do not mind because it is a bit long. You can stop here and I will not be offended.
But, in any event, whether you read on or not, I hope you and your families have a pleasant and peaceful holiday weekend and that you have a chance to relax and maybe read a good book. Have a great holiday.
Philip Roth passed away the other day after “retiring” from writing a few years ago. I thought about it in light of our most recent discussions at the OGC Book Club about what we are reading. No one mentioned that they were reading Philip Roth at this time, yet I suspect many of us have read him along the way. I certainly did.
After reading a number of his novels and short stories, I had reached out to him when he was a visiting professor at the college I was attending at the time, and asked if he would be interested to talk at the literary society that our students had just started. I met him at the door to his office, and he seemed a little rushed, cold, and remote. He was somewhat dismissive in his response—he simply “was not interested.”
It did not really bother me, but I carried this moment with me for many years, and thought of him as a cold, somewhat impolite man of letters who was not like his books or its characters, or what I would have expected of the author of his books. That did not stop me from reading more of his books and enjoying them on different levels. But there was that gap caused by that disappointing moment.
A few years ago, I learned that the period in which I talked with him, was a low point in his life, filled with working out a troubled first marriage that was about to dissolve, and other low self-doubting moments. I was then sorry that I bothered him at the time and my feelings and complaints about him quickly dissipated, and he continued as one of my favorite authors.
I recently learned more about his attitudes on writing and on life. Zadie Smith wrote a recent piece about him in the New Yorker and said about him:
‘At an unusually tender age, he learned not to write to make people think well of him, nor to display to others, through fiction, the right sort of ideas, so they could think him the right sort of person. “Literature isn’t a moral beauty contest,” he once said. For Roth, literature was not a tool of any description. It was the venerated thing in itself. He loved fiction and (unlike so many half or three-quarter writers) was never ashamed of it. He loved it in its irresponsibility, in its comedy, in its vulgarity, and its divine independence. He never confused it with other things made of words, like statements of social justice or personal rectitude, journalism or political speeches, all of which are vital and necessary for lives we live outside of fiction, but none of which are fiction, which is a medium that must always allow itself, as those other forms often can’t, the possibility of expressing intimate and inconvenient truths.
Roth always told the truth—his own, subjective truth—through language and through lies, the twin engines at the embarrassing heart of literature. Embarrassing to others, never to Roth. Second selves, fake selves, fantasy selves, replacement selves, horrifying selves, hilarious, mortifying selves—he welcomed them all. Like all writers, there were things and ideas that lay beyond his ken or conception; he had blind spots, prejudices, selves he could imagine only partially, or selves he mistook or mislaid. But, unlike many writers, he did not aspire to perfect vision. He knew that to be an impossibility. Subjectivity is limited by the vision of the subject, and the task of writing is to do the best with what you have. Roth used every little scrap of what he had. Nothing was held back or protected from writing, nothing saved for a rainy day. He wrote every single book he intended to write and said every last thing he meant to say. For a writer, there is no greater aspiration than that.”
I imagine he told me the truth of how he felt that day and I appreciate that—he did not hold back. We all have our bad days and bad eras and he was honest about it. We should not hold it against anyone. I did not.
Which brings me back to the book club and what we learn from each other through what we are choosing to read and our shared impressions. We read for many reasons, and what we choose to read may provide insight into our true selves, our fake selves, our fantasy selves, but whatever it is, it is a welcome time to share stories.
I shared my first name with Philip Roth and little more than that, other than I read so many of his words that I felt that I knew him, but I probably did not. And that is fine as well. His second wife, Claire Bloom described him as self-centered and much worse, and he denied that, but he soon became even more of a recluse, a man with far from perfect vision. Philip Roth was not for everyone--a friend said that he "did not have enough angst about himself to enjoy Philip Roth's writing." I am not sure what to make of him in his life, but he was a good writer and I am saddened that he will not share with us any of his new ideas made of words.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

jazz affirming

Yesterday, on a beautiful spring Friday, the U.S. Department of Education hosted its sixth annual Jazz Informance (part performance, and part jazz lesson) in collaboration with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. It was, as always, an awe inspiring event, bringing joy, pride and unbridled hope for the future to the packed audience of area school students and educators.
It is rare to witness the product of learning played out so gloriously in real time with a proven jazz master teacher, but this was that rare event. A septet of students from DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Newark (NJ)'s Arts High School played flawlessly the compositions of Rollins, Monk, and Ellington alongside Grammy-winning, saxophonist/teacher Wayne Escoffery.
Dr. Dyas of the Institute creatively taught how jazz really works, and I had the honor of introducing this great event. I related what I had learned in my six transformative years of attending the Informances, seeing other forms of music through the values of jazz. I also discussed why Professor Gerald Earley of Washington University in St. Louis concluded that what people would remember about America 2000 years from now, will be the Constitution, baseball and jazz—all capture the spirit of America through freedom, equity, improvisation, communication, and teamwork. But it was the students who brought that spirit to life.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

They Call Him the Fat Man, Cause He Weighed 200 Pounds, All the Girls They Love Him, Cause He Knows His Way Around

I really appreciate the love for Fats and his music--the information and the tributes keep pouring in Fats, including the quotes from Elvis on page one of the NY Times, calling Fats “the real king of rock n roll.” Fats redid Louis Armstrong's “Blueberry Hill” and created the rocking and rollicking “Ain’t That a Shame” that Pat Boone covered. Pat wanted to correct the English and take the Soul out of the song by changing its title and lyrics to “Isn’t That a Shame,” but was dissuaded from doing so. At a performance years later, Fats showed his good nature, calling Pat up to the stage and thanking him for his cover version and for helping Fats buy his latest ring. 

Fats did a great job of bringing Jazz, crooning, Creole influences, and rhythm and blues together to help create a new music that would endure. His rolling rhythm and piano style put the “roll” into rock n roll, and his soft voice gave the blues a sweet, charming and optimistic side on “Blue Monday.”  I am glad to enjoy and memorialize Fats in a small but fitting way.

Instant Classic

After the second game of the World Series opened on October 25, with the golden-throated Vin Scully and the iconic left-hander Fernando Valenzuela combining to throw out the first ball, we should have known that this would be a classic game, a game for the ages. A few hours later and in the next day, in the eleventh inning, it continued with the swings of fortune and the batters redefining the term "hitting in the clutch." Five homers were hit in extra innings--a record for a game, let alone a world series game. Baseball has a timeless and endless quality, but this historic 7 to 6 game finally mercifully ended--a well-fought, high-spirited battle to the end, and an instant classic.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

We Found Our Thrill

“I’m ready, willing, and able to rock ‘n’ roll, all night “with Fats Domino. But I won’t be able to do that anymore because the diminutive rock royalty figure has passed away at 89. He had an easy-going singing voice and a barrel house boogie-woogie, Orleans piano style that mixed beautifully using doublets and triplets that invigorated rock piano from its early stages. His songs had an innocent joyfulness that sprung so easily from the words. His shuffling beats were catchy and unmistakable and you couldn’t just be “walkin”; you had to get up and dance. From the late 40’s through rock era 50s and all through to today, he inspired many other rock artists from Elvis to the Beatles and all that came in between and after. The shy unassuming iconic figure jolted the energy level of the rock world, and his songs, his rhythm, and the unbridled fun that was his natural accompaniment will live on. Thank you Fats; I am sorry that the whippoorwills called and you had to hurry to your “blue heaven.”

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Baseball Is Truly a Metaphor for Life (especially some nights).

On Thursday night, I had roller-coaster pleasure of attending the nine to eight Cubs/Nats playoff finale. In the course of nine innings, that seemed like an eternity, just about every variety of play and every emotion in life was paraded before our very hearts, eyes, and minds. In one half inning on one play alone, there was a strike out, along with a passed ball, along with alleged batter interference, along with a throwing error, along with runners circling the bases, and an empty feeling that a whole season was being washed down a drain. Later in that half inning there was catcher’s interference call and a hit batsman. This was a half inning with a combination of events that likely never happened before in baseball’s long history. The pitcher during that catastrophic inning was one of the best in baseball, Max Scherzer, and the catcher, one of the best fielding catchers, Matt Wieter. 

There were many umpires’ calls that were questioned, starting in the first inning, and there some calls overturned, including one late in the game when a Nats runner’s foot came off the base for a split second, while he was being tagged, and one of four cameras caught it all. It ended a Nats comeback that could have turned the game and the year around. 

There were the routine singles, and doubles, and homeruns, walks--the usual ways people get on base, but then there seemed like every other conceivable less ordinary play in the four and three-quarter hour, nine inning marathon game. There were 14 pitchers used, along with many pinch hitters and substitutes. There was every type of successes and every type of failure--it was a true parade of the good, the bad, the ugly in life in one long game. It was draining to a great degree whether you were a Cub or Nat fan, but one was celebrating and one was not at end of this stress ridden affair. 

After the dramatic game, that ended the season of one team, I walked the mile and a half back to my car at 1:00 a.m. and at 1:30 a.m., when I reached my car, I realized that my car battery was dead. It seemed like a dream and yet the perfect ending to a night of drained emotions. I had experienced the emotions of a season in one game, and it seemed like every human emotion was felt, and then to top it off all of the energy had drained out of my car. 

But the night could not end that way. As fortune would have it, just then a friend/co-worker who is a Cubs fan walked by,and asked if something was wrong (other than the outcome of the game). It turned out that he had jumper cables in his car, and my night was to take another turn, while he recharged my battery so I could get home. Rooting enemies during the game, and now the brotherhood of Cub mankind came to my rescue--and once again "the world will live as one." 

On Friday, still drained from the prior night’s experience, I could not watch that night’s Astros-Yanks playoff game on Friday. But on Saturday morning, I had my battery replaced and my energy level rose immediately. I quickly watched the game that I had missed on Friday, and saw the dramatic Saturday Astros/Yankee battle with my love for baseball restored and fully charged. The rejuvenation and resilience that comes with life and baseball was back in its proper place—I was ready to move forward again.

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Something In The Air"

I admit it, I usually do not want to answer, Facebook's question, "[w]hat's on your mind Phil?" But on a rainy Monday, I went ahead and did it. I hope you do not mind; it might get a little long. But here goes...
I was reminded of the words of Thunderclap Newman from his 1969 undervalued classic, there’s “Something in the Air.” There were many signs of resilience in the air this holiday weekend.
It started on Friday night with wounded but recovering House Majority WhipSteve Scalise, throwing out the first pitch at the Nationals/Cubs first game of the National League playoffs series. From a shortened but challenging distance, he threw a perfect strike. But it did not help the Nationals that night, wasting a crafty Steven Strasburg performance to lose 3 to 1. The next evening, the Nationals awakened under a bright fall, Sukkot-seasoned, harvest moon and rallied from behind (down by 3 to 1 deficit) to take a 6 to 3 victory home (sparked by a classic, upper deck Bryce Harper homer) before a loudly adoring sellout crowd.
A little later that evening, Saturday Night Live opened by foregoing its usual political opening for a uplifting and unifying statement by country rocker Jason Aldean about the recent and tragic Las Vegas shooting (Aldean was performing at the time of the shots). Aldean then paid tribute to Tom Petty, (who recently passed away) and sang his defiantly resilient “I Won’t Back Down.” in a version that unified rock and country and more. Petty, challenged by his father at an early age for not being more athletic, wrote a lot of songs of resilience, freedom, individuality, and to follow your dreams, even if you had to wait.
Sunday, was capped by two wins by the Bed Sox and Yankees in their American Leagues playoff series—both had been down two games to none earlier, and on the cusp of elimination. And late last night, to maybe frame the weekend, was the Beatle-fied and uplifting movie, “I Am Sam.”
Yes, good will not always knock out evil, right will not always overcome wrong, and clearly we are not always perfect, but we can aspire to be better, we are resilient, and I "got to admit we're getting better, better all the time." There is something in the air.