Monday, January 22, 2018

I Don't Like It, But Is It Good?

In the spring of 1968, when I was a freshman in college, I went to an Archie Shepp concert with my then-boyfriend, Peter. A bus picked us up in front of Converse Hall at Amherst College and took us to Springfield, Massachusetts for the performance.

Among the crowd waiting for the bus, I noticed E., whom I'd met earlier that year, when he was dating a girl in my dorm at Smith College. I remember saying hello to him before we got on the bus. I knew he was a musician, but not much else.

 Archie Shepp, Lecco, Italy, 1967
I didn't enjoy the concert. Shepp played in a style which combined avant-garde free jazz techniques with African rhythms. To me, the result sounded like a discordant mess. I could tell that Shepp was very skilled on his instrument, the saxophone, but I couldn't relate to what he was playing. Yet, I knew he was regarded as talented and innovative by jazz critics. I wondered what was wrong with me, that I didn't like him.

On the return bus trip, I got into an argument with Peter. He hadn't liked Shepp, either. But I insisted that just because we hadn't enjoyed the music, that didn't mean it wasn't good. Maybe it meant our taste wasn't developed enough to appreciate Shepp's talent.

I saw E. sitting a few rows ahead of me on the bus. Knowing he was a musician, I imagined that he had appreciated Shepp's skills at some higher level. I wished I had gone to the concert with him, so he could have explained the music to me.

By 1972, E. and I were living together. He had a large record collection and we wiled away many hours listening to all kinds of music. I hoped E. would help me develop good taste. I was still plagued by the worry that when I didn't enjoy music admired by critics, it was because I was too much of philistine to appreciate the finer things in life.

One afternoon, E. played a Miles Davis album from Davis' abstract period. Although I didn't know much about jazz at the time, I did know that Miles Davis was an icon of the genre. Yet, as with Archie Shepp, though I could tell Davis was a masterful musician, I didn't enjoy the music. Davis' cool improvisations kept veering away from anything melodic, which I yearned for. The album definitely put me in a groove, but it was a pretty depressed groove. And, once again, I blamed myself for failing to "get it."

"Is this good?" I asked E.

"Do you like it?" he replied.

"Not really," I acknowledged. "But that's probably because I'm too dense to understand what I'm hearing."

E. disagreed. He felt that what mattered was how I innately responded to the music.

"If you don't like it, why force yourself to listen to it?" he said.

Not long after this conversation, we moved to California, where E. got a job as a music critic for the Palo Alto Times. I accompanied him to many performances and heard everyone from Count Basie, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald to Cecil Taylor, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Vince Guaraldi. Between hours of listening and hours of talking about the performances with E., I finally got the musical education I'd longed for. I came to appreciate and even enjoy some types of jazz, particularly jazz-funk, with its strong rhythms and catchy riffs.

It took a while, but ultimately I stopped worrying about what other people might think of my musical taste and listened to the artists I enjoyed. Here are a few examples of jazz performances from the seventies that I loved the first time I heard them and still love today. You may not agree, but of course I'll understand — it's all about what sounds good to you.

Eumir Deodato's "Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)," from his album, Prelude:

Hampton Hawes' "Go Down Moses," from his album, Northern Windows, with the inimitable Carol Kaye on bass:

Keith Jarrett's "The Rich (And the Poor)," from his album, Treasure Island:

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Keeping the Memories Fond

On a late summer weekend in September, I was a no-show at the 50th reunion of my South Side High School class. I had a bad cold and an unsightly stye, so I certainly wouldn't have looked or felt my best, but in fact I had already decided not to attend.

I've long been conflicted about reunions. I'm never sure whether I'll feel uplifted, let down, or simply bored, so I usually take the path of least resistance and don't go. But my 50th seemed like a bigger deal than most, since it would almost certainly be the last time I'd have the chance to reunite with my classmates from long ago.

The only high school reunion I ever attended was my 20th. I brought E. along with me to Rockville Centre, on Long Island. I wanted him to meet the people I'd talked about for years. And, to be honest, I wanted him there for support and a reality check. I was afraid that without him to ground me I might quickly revert to my insecure teenage state.

When E. and I arrived at the hotel where my 20th was held, the first people I saw were Ronnie, Ellie,  and Andi — the popular girls of my youth. I had worked hard to make them my friends. They screamed. I screamed. We embraced, we giggled, we all talked at once. They looked me up and down, no doubt to see how I had turned out. I did the same to them.

Ronnie still had an adorable dimple in her cheek, but what was with all the makeup? I reminded myself that she lived in Texas now. Ellie seemed much as I remembered her, my favorite among them, still cute with her curly hair, still bubbly and affectionate. Andi, still single and still a redhead, had become a personal shopper and had beautifully curated her outfit for the occasion. My dress suddenly seemed dowdy. But, I told myself, she doesn't have a husband and I do.

Oh my God, had I really thought that? I had reacted like an insecure, snarky, mean girl. Even with E. standing stoically by my side, I'd fallen right back into that angst-ridden state that had marked and marred my teenage years.

Turning around, I saw Warren, sporting a deep tan. I'd had a crush on him in junior high school and we even dated for a little while. The high point of our relationship came when he took me to our 9th grade prom. The gardenia wrist corsage he gave me smelled heavenly, but the flower faded fast. Just like our relationship. I had nothing to say to him in junior high, which at the time I thought was my fault. When he greeted me at our 20th the same way he had in the 9th grade — Hey, Barbara baby — I realized that I still had nothing to say to him.

He did look handsome, though, despite having less hair. But I almost felt sad for him when a classmate told me he had taken the day before the reunion off from work so he could go to the beach and perfect his suntan. Who does that? I wondered. But, secretly, I knew — I did. Like Warren, I wanted to look perfect for the reunion, or at least as good as I had in high school. And I wanted to convince everyone that I had turned out well.

That's when having E. with me really helped. It reminded me that I actually had turned out okay and, furthermore, that I'd found someone I could talk to, someone who was smart, kind, and loving. He even had all his hair!

Despite my alarming regression into teenage angst, I was glad I'd attended my 20th. I had genuinely wanted to see Ronnie, Ellie, and Andi again. I'd been curious how they'd turned out. And I had enjoyed introducing E. to them and to many other classmates he'd heard about.

Vintage jacket at sported
at the South Side 50th.
Nevertheless, I skipped my next high school reunion, the 40th. I felt I'd satisfied my curiosity at my 20th and didn't feel the need to rekindle old relationships. But when the invite to my 50th arrived, I agonized about whether or not to go. If I did, it would be without E. We both agreed that he wouldn't enjoy it, so I'd be on my own.

It had been thirty years since I'd seen most of my classmates. It seemed like another life. Yet, I found myself wondering about them, just a little. How had they aged? What were they up to? Would they still seem like the people I once knew? I wasn't sure I wanted to find out.

One of my classmates emailed me and tried to convince me to attend. He even procured the list of those who had registered for the event — fewer than 60 people from a class of 300. Where were the others? They couldn't all have died, could they? Maybe they, like me, felt disconnected from that long-ago time. I decided that I preferred to remember my classmates, fondly, as they'd been back then, and elected not to go.

Just yesterday, the classmate who tried to persuade me to attend the reunion emailed me again. He sent photographs of the event and even included a "cheat sheet," so I could figure out who all those old people were. I didn't need it to recognize Ronnie, with her dimple still intact, Ellie, looking sweet as always, and Andi, in a glamorous black dress. It was great fun seeing the pictures and it almost made me wish I'd been there. But not with a runny nose and an ugly stye.

Monday, November 20, 2017

The (Very) Dark Side of Technology

Just when I thought I'd captured the market on worrying, E. sent me a video that makes my anxieties seem trivial. The video was created by Stuart Russell, a professor at UC Berkeley, in collaboration with the Future of Life Institute. It was shown earlier this month in Geneva, Switzerland at a United Nations meeting of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons. The video presents a grim fantasy about the unintended consequences of developing weaponized drones that use artificial intelligence. It's meant to scare the sh*t out of us and, for me at least, it worked.

Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, even nuclear war pale in comparison to the dystopian future pictured in the video. Okay, nuclear war can't really pale in comparison to anything, but this scenario is about as close as it gets.

The first drone I saw up close, during the innocent 
days when small drones were only used for things 
like real estate photography.
While technology has increased our ability to do good, some people inevitably seek to exploit it for evil ends. E. and I often speculate about the coming rise of machines and we wonder whether artificial intelligence will take over the world. Sometimes I even imagine that, given the destructive history of our species, machines would do a better job.

The video, though, pictures a world where humans are still in charge, one in which terrorists appropriate technology originally intended for fighting criminals and use it to further their malevolent goals. Professor Russell hopes the video will galvanize the world into action to prevent the scenario it depicts. But he cautions that time is running out.

Watch the video if you dare. And on Thanksgiving day, be thankful that the murderous drones depicted in it haven't been unleashed, yet.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Long before I ever imagined living in a place called Coconut Grove, I heard an unfortunate story about a coconut. It was told to me by Herb, a family friend, and it came to mind recently, as I gazed at the coconut palms still standing on my hurricane-ravaged island.

I was visiting my parents, who lived in Boca Raton. I had arrived a few days earlier from mid-winter Boston after a nasty bout with the flu. Herb, who lived nearby, had come over to say hello. I told him how wonderful Florida's warm, humid air felt and mentioned that I had been especially enjoying evening strolls under the palm trees in my parents' neighborhood.

"Be careful about the coconut palms," said Herb. "A friend of mine was taking a walk and a coconut fell on his head and killed him."

Not a reassuring story for a worrier like me. It had never occurred to me to fret about walking under palm trees. But Herb's cautionary tale stayed with me. His friend's death seemed like a particularly embarrassing way to go — one minute you're living in an earthly paradise, the next you're done in by a coconut.

*   *   *

The island where I live has many coconut palms. As I detailed in my last post, virtually all of them survived Hurricane Irma. So did the bunches of coconuts hanging from each tree, and they have continued to grow and ripen during the weeks since the hurricane. Normally, the landscape crew that takes care of the island removes the ripening fruit before it can reach the stage where a gust of wind or its own weight could bring it down, but with so much cleanup needed after the storm, coconut removal apparently hasn't been a priority. Individual coconuts have begun falling to the ground, causing me to worry that even a gentle breeze might send one flying in my direction.

At first, during my daily walks, when I approached a stand of coconut palms overhanging the path, I would lean my head back to see if anything was about to fall on me. Not a brilliant approach, since anything that did fall would then smash me in the face, an even worse fate than being beaned on the top of my head. So, for the past few days, when in the vicinity of hanging coconuts, I've taken to walking with both hands on my head. This detracts from the impression I'd like to give my fellow residents — that I'm a laidback sophisticate from up north — but I'm hoping it will diminish the impact of a fallen fruit on my skull.

A few days ago, attempting nonchalance, I mentioned the coconut situation to a neighbor and was relieved to learn that I wasn't the only one who had noticed the coconuts and worried about them. According to my neighbor, the condo's landscape committee had asked the landscape crew to remove them as soon as possible.

This morning, the crew arrived with two bucket trucks and began working on the palm trees. Inexplicably, they've chosen to start by removing dead fronds from the palm trees that line the road through the community even though those are not coconut palms and pose no threat to walkers. Still, I'm not complaining — only a few more days of walking with my hands on my head and I should be able to relax.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Lonely Palms

Since I last posted on this blog, our country has been through a lot — winds, floods, fires, political tempests. Although I’ve agonized from afar, nothing directly affected me until Hurricane Irma made landfall on my beloved island just off the coast of Miami.

Landscaped path and our favorite
bench before the storm.
I was in New England as the storm approached. When meteorologists predicted that a category four storm might decimate Miami, I reacted philosophically. E. and I had been lucky to have a winter getaway in such a lovely spot. If our apartment were destroyed, I would be sad, but I would move on. I did worry, though, about friends who were in the path of the storm. The island was under mandatory evacuation, but many of those who left elected to stay with friends a short distance away. They were vulnerable.

Then Irma’s track veered and Miami suffered only a glancing blow from the hurricane’s outer bands. I breathed a sigh of relief. Not that those outer bands were completely insignificant. They still brought category one winds and a storm surge that covered the island as well as downtown Miami and Coconut Grove. But this year, everything seems relative. Compared to the havoc Irma had caused in the Caribbean and Maria later brought to Puerto Rico, Miami’s mess seemed small and reparable.

To be sure, there was damage on the island, according to friends’ reports — trees and foliage destroyed, the seawall partially collapsed, some apartments flooded. But the buildings did fine overall and our apartment was untouched. Power was restored after only one day and the AC worked fine. I breathed a sigh of relief. E. and I could return to Miami for another winter.

Trees gone as well as
our favorite bench.
We arrived a few days ago on a gorgeous afternoon. The summer humidity had eased and soft breezes blew across Biscayne Bay. At first glance, everything looked as lovely as ever. Then we took a walk around the island. Even though we knew what to expect, we were still shocked. The palm trees had survived but the beautiful old sea grape trees were gone. Flowers and shrubs — gone. Our favorite bench — gone. Most of the beach — gone, along with the wooden stairs leading leading down to it. Only the adjacent tiki (chickee) hut survived unscathed — the Seminoles and Miccosukees knew how to build to withstand hurricanes.

Seawall collapse.
On our little isle you’ll find three high-rise condominium buildings and, at one end, a small four-story hotel. The hotel is owned separately from the condominium property and the current owner has allowed it to become run-down in recent years. The part of the seawall maintained by the hotel owner had deteriorated, so when Irma hit it simply gave way. The collapsed area is now barricaded off and completely impassable, so E. and I couldn’t make our customary full circuit of the island. Instead, we had to turn around and retrace our steps.

A minor inconvenience, to put it mildly. But one whose very insignificance made me reflect on how fine the line is between normal life and total catastrophe. In an instant, the clear path of one’s life can disappear, swallowed up by illness, terrorism, natural disaster, or random accident. For today, at least, I’m grateful for what I still have — family, friends, and a spectacular view.

Note: Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The High Points of the Republican Convention

People will no doubt be discussing the high points of the Convention and arguing about them for days — after all, one person's high point is surely another's low. Take Ted Cruz's non-endorsement of Donald Trump during his Convention speech. To a Trump supporter, Cruz's snub brought the political discord to an all-time low, yet to a die-hard Never-Trumper it may have been the Convention's finest moment.

Melania. Photo from the L.A. Times.
I'll let the pundits ponder all that. I'd rather focus on the Trump women and the impact of their convention speeches. I don't mean the bruhaha over Melania's plagiarism or the daughterly love displayed by Tiffany and Ivanka. While all that was mildly interesting, let's get real — the most fascinating aspect of their appearances, the absolute high points, were their ridiculously high stiletto heels.

I'm amazed that they managed to walk to the podium in those heels and stand tall during their speeches with nary a whimper of discomfort, let alone a grimace of pain. You may find my focus on women's shoes highly superficial, but I beg to differ. What could be a more important subject than women's continued subjugation to their footwear?

Tiffany. Photo from Hollywood Life.
Admittedly, I'm one of those unfortunate women whose feet have never felt good in high heels. Were I to walk a few steps in Melania's Christian Louboutin's, let alone a mile in her shoes, I would be crippled for life.

I didn't expect things to turn out that way. My mother loved wearing heels, the higher the better, so much so that her Achilles tendon shortened and made it uncomfortable for her to wear flats. As a girl, this seemed to me the height of sophistication and I always assumed I would follow in her footsteps.

Alas, I inherited the dysfunctional feet of my aunt and grandmother. By the time I was a teenager, I had to give up my dream of spike-heeled glamour in favor of sensible, low-heeled, round-toed shoes. Luckily, I came of age in the late sixties, when the women's lib movement made sensible footwear all the rage, so I was able to camouflage my disability within then-stylish comfortable designs.

During the mid-seventies, I became an early-adopter of orthotics. They saved my feet, although of course they could only be worn in the most utilitarian of shoes. By the time women's heels began to climb back into the stratosphere, I wasn't tempted. I'd come to appreciate comfort over beauty. Yet, I'd never quite gotten over my regret at not being able to wear stilettos. In the late-nineties, Sex and the City fueled my fantasies of the life I might have lived if only I'd been born with different feet.

Ivanka. Photo from the New York Post.
These days, images of fabulous footwear are everywhere — from the film stars on the Academy Awards runway to Robin Wright as the House of Cards' ice queen in heels. So, I wasn't really surprised when the Trump women strode onto the stage wearing dangerous-looking, sexy five-inch heels. Still, was this appropriate for a Republican gathering? Shouldn't they have worn something a little more staid?

Maybe, but truth be told, I was jealous. All three women had the air of females who had never had a foot pain in their lives. If they couldn't empathize with aching feet, I wondered, how could they possibly relate to the average voter? I was caught in a paradox — I simultaneously disapproved of the Trump trio and envied them. Never mind that along with eschewing high heels, I don't like wearing makeup, nail polish, or even Spanx. It's not as if there but for high heels go I.

Perhaps I should forget footwear and focus on the upcoming election. I'm looking forward to the Democratic Convention. But while I wait for it to begin, I can't help but wonder — how high will Chelsea's heels go?

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Older, But Still Walking

I took a walk yesterday morning. It was a beautiful day, but cold, the temperature barely above forty degrees. So, I bundled up in a parka warm enough for a blizzard, a thick scarf, gloves, and of course my special sunglasses with wind shields. Do I look a little odd in those glasses? Yes, but if it's cold and windy, or even a bit breezy, without them my left eye will start tearing in a nanosecond and soon I'll be crying a river. They aren't prescription lenses, however, so while I may not have tears streaming down my face, I can barely see where I'm going.

I realize that, like me, some young people suffer from dry eyes, which paradoxically can cause excess tearing. They may also resort to special glasses like mine. But since I developed dry eyes later in life, I regard the glasses as a sign of approaching decrepitude. Next thing you know, I'll barely be able to walk.

Come to think of it, only a few weeks ago I was barely able to walk. I sprained my big toe while standing on my tiptoes to give my son, Aaron, a hug. He's not even that much taller than me, but all it took was a slight hyperextension of my toe to produce a piercing pain. Luckily, Aaron was just leaving for the airport after a lovely visit, so I didn't have to face the indignity of hobbling around in front of him for days, all because I hugged him too enthusiastically.

Was this toe mishap yet another sign of encroaching old age? A quick google of my symptoms indicated that I most likely had a mild case of turf toe, an injury common to young athletes, especially those who, like football players, constantly push off with their toes, especially on astroturf. So, okay, this could happen to anyone. But, it happened to me when I wasn't doing anything remotely athletic, except over-bending my slightly arthritic toe. Even if it didn't occur because I'm older, it certainly made me feel old.

I'm able to walk normally now, but every once in a while I get a twinge, a reminder that I could re-injure my toe all over again. Maybe that's a good definition of life over 65 — a time when the most trivial of injuries seems destined to lead to total disability and inevitable demise. Stating the obvious, my demise is inevitable, but while I once assumed that I'd bounce back from even serious illness, now the most minor ailments convince me that it's all downhill from here.

Yesterday, though, I felt hale and hearty enough to brave the elements and walk for several miles. My toe didn't throb even once and my glasses did their job admirably. I passed several wild turkeys during my perambulation and none of them attacked me. All in all, it was a delightful outing. I may be older, but I'm still walking.