Time and tide


There were two more this week – former First Lady Nancy Reagan and legendary Beatles producer George Martin. Mrs. Reagan, I didn’t like, but I was still impressed by the array of people who showed up for her funeral, including President and Mrs. Bush, Rosalyn Carter, Michele Obama, and even Tom Brokaw and Diane Sawyer. As for George Martin, I’d long thought of him as a genius – the man who lifted to greatness such songs as “Yesterday,” “A Day in the Life” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” but I all of think of this week was 1) OK, I was just starting high school when The Beatles split up, but still 2) George Martin was 90 years old? 90?!

Friends and I have talked about which celebrity deaths would be front-page news and probably the lead story in The New York Times. I’m talking about folks who die of old age, not your John Lennon and Princess Diana-types who die suddenly and way before their times. I’d say the Pope and Queen Elizabeth and Fidel Castro and the Dalai Lama, for sure, and all of the former presidents — Carter, Bush, Bush and Clinton.

After that, it’s a mish-mosh of names, possibly consigned to the bottom of the front page, some of them possibly “above the fold:” Muhammad Ali, Little Richard, Warren Buffett, Chuck Berry, Willie Mays, David Rockefeller, Kirk Douglas, I.M. Pei., Billy Graham, Dick van Dyke, Dan Rather, Hank Aaron, Doris Day, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Betty White, Barbara Bush, Ralph Branca, Gloria Vanderbilt, Hugh Hefner, the other Pope who’s still alive, Tony Bennett, Sidney Poitier, Jerry Lewis, Harry Belafonte, Neil Simon…You get the idea….There are dozens and dozens more.

But I’m at the age when the deaths of ordinary, run-of-the-mill celebrities – sometimes even “celebrities” in quotes – have made me very aware of the passage of time. George Martin was one of those. But I was also just a little disturbed to learn of the deaths of Pat Harrington, the handyman from “One Day at a Time;” David Bowie, of course, but also Keith Emerson from Emerson, Lake and Palmer; Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson, both of the Airplane; Frank Gifford; E.L. Doctorow; Leonard Nimoy; Leslie Gore; and, oh my God, Abe Vigoda, and Donna Douglas, who played Ellie Mae on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and even – how could it be? – Yvonne Craig, the original Batgirl on TV.

Part of this, I suppose, is that I’m afflicted with baby boomer syndrome. When Roger Daltrey sang “Hope I die before I get old,” I guarantee you that he didn’t think he’d ever really get old. The youth culture really started with my generation, and now my generation is getting old. We used to read the birth announcements, the graduation announcements, the help-wanted ads, the wedding announcements. Now, just like our mothers and fathers before us, we read the obituaries, and shudder just a little when we realize the people our age – and younger – can and will die. Which is a real bummer.




Songs of Ourselves

I’m pleased to report that Blue Heron Book Works has just published a new anthology, “Songs of Ourselves,” which features a variety of personal writings works by 24 different contributors  — including a collection of essays by me on death, mortality and bygone lives remembered.

My contribution is gleaned from a larger book project, still in the works, titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death,” a title inspired by a 1920s-vintage newspaper headline describing the death of one my ancestors, 23-year-old Thomas Crooks — my great-uncle on my mother’s side.

Young Thomas had met his fiancée for a picnic lunch, and was returning to his job at the old Alexander Smith carpet mill in Yonkers, New York, my old hometown.  According the newspaper account, “As he was returning to work, he turned to her and said, ‘I am going in. But I shall be carried out.’ ” Within a half-hour, my ancestor had “fallen” into a vat of acid used to cure the fibers used in the carpets. He died soon after at a local hospital in the arm’s of his devastated mother — my maternal great-grandmother.

Two of the essays I contributed to “Songs of Ourselves” contemplate the awful fate of poor Thomas Crooks.

Sounds kind of gloomy for holiday reading? Not really. My contributions to the anthology aren’t grim. They’re sometimes melancholy, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes nostalgic, and mostly a celebration of life — and the fact that I wish it didn’t have to end.  I think it’s a perfect reading material for sitting in a comfortable chair — by a crackling fire, perhaps, or sitting near a window as snowflakes swirl and the winter winds whirl — and thinking long, long thoughts of a long, cold winter night…

And that’s just my contribution! “Songs of Ourselves” features an impressive array of works by 23 other very talented writers representing a variety of voices and experiences that would impress even the good gray “Songs of Myself” bard himself!

Here’s how to order the book from Amazon:




Hard times

It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.

As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.

Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.

I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.

Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” —

Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” —

And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” —

Huckleberry friend

News of the death of Andy Williams made me think immediately of my father, who loved the song “Moon River,” which was written by Henry Mancini for the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and was a hit record in at least two versions that I know of: an instrumental by Mantovani and His Orchestra and the vocal rendition by Williams.

My father and his friends, all children of Italian immigrants, all striving to make their way up the ladder of success to join the middle class, attached great value to certain things they perceived as emblems of American aflluence.

My father, for instance, bought golf clubs and went through a phase of playing on Saturdays at the local public golf course, but then gave it up — I believe because he was too tired from working two and sometimes three jobs.

Likewise, he had a bar in his living room where he made highballs and whiskey sours for his friends and aspired to have a finished basement with a really nice hi-fi system where he could listen to Mantovani and Streisand and Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole and Perry Como/…and Andy Williams.

Andy with his cool and mellow way of speaking and singing…Andy with his mohair sweaters and his winning smile…Andy singing “The Christmas Song” as chestnuts roasted on the open fire of some cozy ski lodge in Colorado as the Williams clan and friends gathered ’round every Yule for Andy’s Christmas TV special.

I don’t mean to belittle my father. No, far from it.

The song “Moon River,” with its romance and its nostalgia and its beautiful air of melancholy and longing, moves me whenever I hear it, for I can hear my father — dead ten years this October, gone too soon at age 69 — singing along to the instrumental version by Mantovani about “two dreamers” and his “huckleberry friend…”

“Moon River” reminds me of cool autumn nights with their whisper of winter to come. But the song also makes me think of a young man in the late springtime of his life — my father would have been in his early 30s during those years when I remember him singing “Moon River” — who still believed his dreams could and would come true, “just around the bend,” “my huckleberry friend.”

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled…

William Butler Yeats

Happy birthday to one of  our world’s greatest poets, William Butler Yeats, who was born on this day in 1865 and died in 1939. So many of his works have stuck in my mind and moved my spirit: “The Second Coming,” “Easter 1916,” “Sailing to Byzantium,” “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “Leda and the Swan,” and others.

But this poem, most of all, resides deep in my heart…it resonates and aches and echoes and whispers…

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

On the lighter side…

Here’s the great satirist Tom Lehrer (apparently still alive and kicking, at age 84) with his less-serious take on Yeats:

When you’re young at heart…

No rice was tossed. No music played. That’s because they weren’t in a church or a wedding chapel. They were in the library of a small town in northeastern Massachusetts. I looked up from my writing and research — and lo and behold, there they were, an older couple, I’d guess late 60s, maybe early 70s, both dressed in their Sunday best, the bride carrying a bouquet of spring flowers. They stood together in front of a fireplace and the town clerk began to read the wedding vows.

The soon-to-be-husband was serious and steady and composed as he repeated the words being read by the clerk. The about-to-be-bride looked so sweet, so happy, so nervous — and, when she had to repeat that she would take this man to be her friend and lover forever, she began to cry, love in her voice, tears of joy.

At the clerk’s behest, they both said “I do.” And when the clerk told the new husband that he could kiss his bride, he did — and then handed the clerk his small camera, so she could snap their first picture as husband and wife. And then they walked out of the library together, amid congratulations and applause from the two pleasantly surprised people working at tables in the reading room.

I wish them happiness and peace. I hope they will find contentment and comfort in the warmth of their companionship. I hope the bride always cries tears of joy when she thinks of their love.

Some love seems sure to last forever. But love can die, sometimes by accident, sometimes from natural causes, sometimes from neglect or lack of  care.

Love can  be like alchemy,  a magical alloy, a miracle for the ages, which all seek but few find. But  gold’s glitter can turn suddenly  leaden, dull and gray, too heavy to lift, precious jewel turned into sad and precious dreams.

And love can be steady and clear-eyed and hopeful, an unexpected blessing, a sweet surprise, yin and yang, passionate but also calm, past but also present, heart but also spirit and mind and soul.

I hope the library newlyweds find the true alchemy, the real secret to eternal love. I pray that they may know the comfort and strength of two hearts beating as one.

May God bless and keep you always/May your wishes all come true….May you build a ladder to the stars/And climb on every rung/May you stay forever young. Bob Dylan

And remember:

Fairy tales can come true/They can happen to you/If you’re young at heart. Riley B. King



Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go…

Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide…

The title of this post — of course! — is from the song “Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead.

Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to…
I’ve been staying recently in my old hometown of Yonkers, N.Y.

A time to mourn…
One morning a few weeks ago I acted on an impulse and visited my father’s grave — more specifically his pullout drawer high up in the marble wall of a creepy mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y.

To everything there is a season…

The depraved piped-in organ music and the sickly funeral-home smell of flowers got me thinking about my own funeral plans.

Little trip to heaven…
Basically I have no plans. I do know I’d like to be cremated. I do know I don’t want a funeral.

Imagine all the people….
I think I’d like my friends and family to gather for an informal nondenominational memorial celebration.

May you stay…forever young…
I’d like my younger daughter to read one of her poems. I’d like my son to play something on his guitar. I’d like my older daughter to choose and read some samples of my own writing.

No need for greed…no hunger….
I’d like donations to me made in my memory of anti-hunger groups, peace groups or literacy groups.

And…most important of all perhaps…

May your song always be sung…

I’d like there to be a really good sound system set up
to play these songs (in no particular order):
“Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead
“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles
“Little Trip to Heaven” by Tom Waits
A Bach cantata
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“Turn Turn Turn” by Pete Seeger
“Amazing Grace” (no bagpipes, please!)
and, of course, “Imagine” by John Lennon

Someone who’s more than dear to me wants her final farewell to include Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World…”

My poor father requested “Ave Maria.”

So many other songs would be appropriate and meaningful and sprung from the heart. So maybe I’ll add a few more songs and someone can burn a CD…it would make a nice departing gift for everyone in the studio audience to take home — and take to heart.