Friday, December 21, 2012

Just Beautiful Music

Wednesday night I attended a musical event featuring the Rondout Valley High School Concert Orchestra and Chorus. It was one of those evenings that left me with a feeling that in spite of everything, all is truly right with the world. I'm a sucker for young voices singing American classics, in harmony, and interludes of music by a serious, full-scale youth orchestra.

The peppy choral director is Dr. Barbara Wild, who had the 60-voice mixed choir singing folk songs, hymns, and Aaron Copland's evocative American music. She immediately won the audience over with her upbeat style and her request to "take a picture now, not after we start. This is a human, non-electronic program." The brass ensemble, under the direction of Randolph Loder, led with a rousing "Fanfare for the Common Man" and the orchestra played such heartwarming Americana as "Shenandoah"as well as a smattering of selections from early American composers.

I was sold on the content, but what really touched me was the verve of the singers and musicians. I could hardly take my eyes of a certain singer of the bass section, who happens to be my 15-year-old grandson. Andy cut a striking figure onstage with his glowing complexion and earnest approach to the work. Andy plays goalie on the school soccer team and the demonstrates the same charisma on the field. But to my mind it takes a lot more guts to sing in the concert chorus than to play a sport, any sport. I might be a little prejudiced. I'll admit it.

Living in this area, I'll be able to watch him and his brother develop in the next few years. Different as brothers can be, I've always had a special place in my heart for Andy, the little one who could sing "This Old Man, he played one..." before he could really say the words, and announced to us that when he grew up he would be a "ballet singer!" Over the years, the self-consciousness of the world eked its way into him and he said he couldn't sing, but he gravitated to the chorus. He won't take a solo assignment at this point, but says he loves singing harmony to classical music. He has a gift for languages, too, and something in me sees the opera in his future.

His brother is thriving in his first year of college, and we all can't wait to see what he will make of himself there. One of those smart boys who had no patience for high school, he had a few brushes with life-threatening situations and always bounced back as if nothing has happened. At this point he has nothing but good to say about college and his grades are mostly A's. This is after one semester, mind you. We don't know what to expect. This is me talking, and I say there is every reason to expect good things. A glimmer of the possibility of greatness in both grandsons. And a rising wave of support from all sides, including having Grandma near to consult with. If only they will.

It's the reason I moved up here, this beautiful music of family, possibilities, and hope. Wednesday night was a good beginning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

What Now, My Self?

I'm staying temporarily in an apartment without cable, internet or telephone service. Otherwise, it's quite comfortable, but it is not where I want to be.

I thought it would probably be good for me not to have access to the invidious intrusion of television, and in light of the recent wall-to-wall (I assume) coverage of the national tragedy in the Sandy Hook CT elementary school, it probably has. I would have time to think, to meditate, to shake off what I fear has become a form of geriatric ADD as a result of too much information, most of it wrong.

It's awfully quiet in my temporary digs. I start the day at a chain breakfast place that offers wi-fi access so I can check my email, write and review the traffic on my blog(s), and play with Facebook. Then I go home for lunch or grab a sandwich somewhere, and later on visit my daughter's and mooch her wi-fi until I go home for supper and four hours of reading and listening to NPR. The surprise is that I'm ready for bed at 8 P.M. and the hard part is making myself stay up for another hour and a half. I'm up at 5 anyway if not before, and usually wake up in the night for an hour or so. It's just so damn quiet!

This morning before I left for my morning coffee NPR had a segment about how easy and successful it is to create an eBook. I've heard this one before. Interviews with writers who have made a bundle on their eBooks, almost immediately snapped up by a major publisher and soon to be a major motion picture. All the author has to do is pay an editor, an artist to design the cover, a web designer to create a beautiful website, and wait for the money to roll in from sales of the book.

It didn't happen that way for me. I spent a couple of years hacking out my novel That Was Tomorrow, going over the product with two editors until I felt it was as good as I could make it. I envisioned it making a beautiful movie. After I'd paid all those who assisted me, paid for the formatting of the book into an eBook, and gotten the word out through my Facebook network, I sold about 75 eBooks and all sales ground to a halt. I approached all the groups and individuals I thought would be touched by the content and style of the book and one by one I've sold a few more. There were good reviews in the local press surrounding Fairhope, the locale of the book. But there seemed to be no interest there. Many people responded to my urging that they read That Was Tomorrow by saying they had no means to read an eBook and no intention of ever getting same. Others didn't even respond to personal emails. I was able to garner 13 reviews on amazon dot com and the response was universally good, except for one self-styled writer who took it upon himself after reading a few pages to critique the book as "far from your best writing." I never attempted the Great American Novel, but this is a guy who begged to read it in hopes that I was the next George Elliot. I'm not kidding, he did that.

Well, it will all be a tax write-off, as my other books have. Check out my writing and my website if you'd like to see for yourself why self-publishing is sometimes not profitable (your comments are welcome here), or if by some chance you actually want to read my eBook or buy my other books.

I'm excited to be starting a new life in New Paltz in a couple of weeks. Will I write more? Will I take some university-extension classes that expand my horizons and inspire me to move in another direction? I'm almost sure of it. Will I get cable TV? Almost certainly. And I'll unpack, hang my pictures, and meet some new people. Will I get a new website and self-publish more books? Not bloody likely.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Kingston, but on my way

There's something empowering about having the morning to yourself in a strange city. This morning I awoke to below freezing temperatures, a car covered with frost, and a few errands to run. I needed to find an Internet hot spot, of course, and I got to Starbuck's at 8:50, which was before it opened. Just down the mall a bit was a Panera Bread that opened at 6, so I found my way there, glancing into the windows of Pier 1 and Coldwater Creek on my way. When I got through with my morning check of the New York Times online, looked over Facebook and posted a pithy note or two, downed a coffee, and was ready to move on.

By now my car had thawed out. I found the nearest supermarket and bought supplies I needed for lunch and a few more meals. Weaving about in traffic I felt empowered. No big deal. I have a lot to get done and everything seems to be falling into place.

I'm getting organized here. I expect the closing on my Hoboken apartment Friday or early next week at the latest. Soon I'll be flush and in three weeks I'll be moved into my new apartment in New Paltz. 
I can't wait until I have Internet service and cable tv in my own place, and have my stuff there, unpacked, sign myself into a gym and get into a comfortable routine again. In the meantime I have Christmas and New Year's Eve to deal with. I can handle anything.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Movie That Belongs to the Ages

Abraham Lincoln looms large over the whole country, and always will. There is a certain ambivalence about the man still in the South, where he came to represent the tragedy of the war in which so many were lost and the terrible years after in which, without his leadership, the country was left to mend itself through chaos and dissent, a certain amount of which still blankets the hearts and minds of its people. Writers of the nation’s history tell us he was a great man, truly a hero, but he looks strange and almost surreal. Photographs reveal a serious man, rawboned and perhaps brokenhearted by the tasks put before him in his lifetime. We read his stories and his quips, we know of his personal burdens and challenges, and we know of the conflicts he faced, internal and external.

Earlier plays, books and films have portrayed him as stentorian and wise, perhaps also depressive and inaccessible, always larger than life, and bearing up under unimaginable pressure. Stephen Spielberg dispels some of that awe in Lincoln, his masterly new film which, it is assumed, will sweep the Academy Awards for the year 2012. Written by Tony Kushner, one of the country’s great playwrights, and based on several newer histories including Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, the screenplay covers the period in which Lincoln’s primary goal and focus is to pass an amendment to the Constitution which will outlaw slavery in the country for good, once the war is over. It’s a brilliant stroke, forcing us to consider what might have happened if this project had been in the hands of someone less forceful and sure.

His casting of Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln was inspired. Seeing this performance one realizes if there were no more reason than to allow Day-Lewis the opportunity to play this role it would be enough to mount a major motion picture. Day-Lewis studied all he could about Lincoln, and the most impressive choice he made was to use a very human, non-godlike voice in speaking Lincoln’s words. One sees the pictures, reads the prose, and just naturally assumes Abraham Lincoln’s voice to be deep and booming, but those who heard him wrote otherwise. Important actors of previous generations, like Raymond Massey, played Lincoln’s words in rich, Shakespearean tones, but Day-Lewis’ Lincoln almost seems to wish he had such a voice. He has so very much to say, but he seems so human in struggling to say it in folksy, all-American terms, telling a joke or an offhand comment, as a bit of comedy relief for the great sorrows of his life and times.

Sally Field adds a very real, almost modern aspect to the character of Mary Todd Lincoln. Surely this woman is one of the most complex in American history. Male writers never quite seemed to know what to do with her, as the men of her time didn’t. She is usually seen as shrewish and perhaps psychotic, a shopaholic before the term or condition was known, and surely a drag on Abraham himself, who had enough to worry about without her drama-queen persona at his side. Field, however, does not seem all that neurotic; she tells us she has endured the unendurable loss of a child, and that she adores her husband far more than he does her—which may have been true, and probably was the way she looked at her life.

The main achievement of Lincoln, in my mind, is its portrayal of the raffish, rough world of American politics of the day. The sessions of the House of Representatives looked more like the English House of Parliament today—slanging matches of insults and impolite back-and-forth by men who might well be friends in other venues. We meet a crew of motley near-ruffians known as “operatives” or even lobbyists in the 21st century, who add a note of comedy to the proceedings of serious democracy. They know whom to pay and how to do it, even if their lives are threatened and an occasional gun may be waved in the face. James Spader, once a pretty-boy actor in sexy roles, has graduated to the status of a character actor, and his work here is outstanding in creating a genuine American original.

No doubt in many minds Tommy Lee Jones walks away with the picture. Thaddeus Stevens was a name I recognized, but Jones makes him real and endows him with a personality and character I will never forget. Jones’ mud-fence-homely face looks even worse now in close-up, and his Stevens is hardly likable although the audience is induced to wish him to prevail. We enjoy his heated scenes on the floor of the House. His last scene is a filmic treasure. I will carp, however, at the choice of such a contemporary, Dynel-looking toupee for him. I know it’s in the script that he is wearing a wig, but no self-respecting man (and I’m sure Stevens was that) would have put on one that looked like that in those days. Also, at the moment he takes it off he looks as if he has Alopecia or has shaved his head, not like a balding man. It makes him comic, which neither Tommy Lee Jones nor Thaddeus Stevens, would want to be in this context.

There are probably some missteps in the historical accuracy of the movie. I never heard that William Seward was such a supportive lieutenant in Lincoln’s goals, nor that he was so effective; however, that may simply be a gap in my historical knowledge. But over all, the movie Lincoln presents such an accurate picture of the man and his times that it is transformative. I’ve seen it twice so far and probably will see it again.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thanksgiving on Facebook

This is the day most of us are busy with preparations for a traditional feast--turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans in casseroles, sweet potatoes laced with maple syrup or topped with chopped nuts and marshmallows, and an assortment of pies. It's a holiday all about food, and traditional food at that. Everybody has a favorite memory of a food served on this day, and a lot of memories about the holiday itself, some, truth be told, not all that happy. But surely there is one theme to be cherished on this day every year: a mood of gratitude and family feelings as good as we can muster.

This year I'm in a transition on the holiday. I'm beginning to pack for a move to New Paltz in little more than a week. I've been invited to share the meal with one of the most special friends I've ever had, Cristina, whom I met here in Hoboken. Cristina is the kind of person who leaps to help anybody in her circle who needs her. In my case, she read a blog post I wrote on my other blog "Finding Myself in Hoboken" in which she could tell I was more than a bit lost and in need of somebody to help me find myself. Since that day four years ago, she has come to my rescue dozens of times, driving me to building supply stores, inviting me to a New Year's Eve with friends at her house, helping me shop, and always being there whenever I needed something. A couple of years ago she and her husband found an apartment for the winter in Miami and I knew there was one fewer reason to stay in Hoboken.

Since enrolling in Facebook I've created a virtual life among friends, most of whom I've never met in person. The few I have arranged to meet have become very valuable to me. All provide a sense of community in cyberspace (they don't call it a social network for nothing), a way to feel a bit connected to like-minded souls wherever they may live. I've sold most of my books via publicity on Facebook, and created a circle of about 250 folks I feel I know and from whom I feel a wave of support whenever I go on to type some kind of complaint or even something nice. Most of my blog readers come from this pool of friends, and that means a lot.

This Thanksgiving I want to tip my hat to Facebook. There are times when the system clogs up or the management of the site makes me want to choke somebody, but I keep coming back because of one thing: There is love there.

As for Cristina, I will try to convey to her, without making her uncomfortable, how much I've counted on her in my days in Hoboken, and how much I hope I'll find someone remotely like her in New Paltz. I'll do this cautiously, not to make her uncomfortable, while eating turkey at her get-together and savoring the meaning of the holiday.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Transition To A New Life

I like a move. Oh, I don't exactly relish the tedium of purging, sorting, tossing, or even addressing the stacks of stuff in closets, corners and basements, packing and then the unending unpacking at the other end of the journey. I admit that.

But the part about getting to a new place and facing a fresh new slate of possibilities, starting over clean,  reveling in hope--all that happens in a relocation--I find stimulating. There are those who hate moving and can't imagine how I do it, or why. I can't fully explain. I suppose it's a personality type. I enjoy challenge and change, and new places offer so much to learn--the geography, the history, the culture, and the inevitable eccentricities and characters looming and lurking, as ifwaiting to be discovered anew by the newcomer.

My last move was just exactly five years ago. I relocated from my hometown of Fairhope, Alabama,
to which I'd moved after traveling about the world, to Hoboken. That's right, Frank Sinatra's hometown, Hoboken, New Jersey. I wanted to be near New York City, and Hoboken fit the bill. It was a short bus ride (about 15 minutes, to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, great for Broadway matinees), and just about 10 minutes by subway to Christopher Street in the West Village. Hoboken itself, a 19th century immigrant town, had lovely architecture and interesting history, and gave the feeling of being a neighborhood in Manhattan, even though its waterfront had views of the city skyline.

It isn't easy to leave Hoboken. I'd made friends, found favorite haunts and restaurants, and savored the old-world ease of the picturesque little town, along with its tough American attitude. It's truly a unique place, and one that means a lot to me.

I'm confident that New Paltz will hold treasures for me too. As I write this blog I'll add the missing pieces of the puzzle that brought me here. Tomorrow I find a place to live, and in two weeks I'll move there.