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Now several weeks into “sheltering in place” and other measures of uncommon isolation, I feel the kind of natural readjustment that comes with such a huge and sudden shift of what I had previously considered “normal life.” What normal will become at the end of this long, imposed “time-out” is anybody’s guess. In the best case, though, it gives us the opportunity to reset so much that collectively we humans have been doing to our own and the earth’s detriment. That is what I try to focus on and imagine in the long view.

In the short view, as my husband and I continue on our daily rounds in a newly adapted slow motion, instead of focusing on what and whom we are missing, I have found widening opportunities to appreciate what is directly in view. This includes, of course, the suddenly absent fumes, diminished traffic and ambient noise that is replaced now by clear skies, empty roads and birdsong. In the extra time I have to fill because I’m not going anywhere, I can spend longer contemplating the changing contours and colors of a newly clean San Francisco Bay from our back deck, and inhale the fragrance of the flowers all around me, many now laden with bees and bombarded by hummingbirds. Down the hill is a cherry tree in full dress, reminding me of others I have seen in Washington, D.C., or Provence.

And in those now occasional moments when I encounter other people, strangers, I make eye contact above my face mask to acknowledge the strangeness of our shared moment. Even more, I’ve given serious thought to the concept of heroism, and feel a gratitude I don’t know how to express to those people who are working to make surviving this time possible for the rest of us.

Yes, a salute to the health care workers who step into the line of fire every day and then return again, even after recovering from illness themselves. But also a salute to those who risk danger daily by coming to work to fill shelves and man checkouts in grocery stores and pharmacies; who work in restaurants to make carry-out available; who drive delivery vans or buses, trains or trash trucks; who still rush to emergencies, who still put out fires, who keep the lights on.

Thank you.

The first time I stepped foot in New Orleans’ iconic jazz club and restaurant, Snug Harbor, it was at the invitation of jazz master and legend Ellis Marsalis, who, at the end of a remarkable interview, said, “Why don’t you come on over to the club tonight and hear some music.” So I did, and so I have done on every visit since, including one a year ago. And every time I have been lucky enough to catch the master himself at the key board, always sharing the limelight with others, often his students.

Now I am grieved to learn that he has succumbed to the Covid-19 Coronavirus.

In 1993, when I met him, I had been on a reporting trip, crossing the country by train and writing stories along the way. In New Orleans, I hit the jackpot, with Ellis Marsalis agreeing to speak to me in the jazz department of the University of New Orleans. Even before we talked, as he sat in a casual T-shirt, expansive and welcoming in his windowless office, I sensed that the windows didn’t matter to him but the sounds of students practicing their drums did. I sensed that he was as masterful a teacher as he was a musician, composer and performer.

At the end of a couple of hours, I knew that to be true. I had been taught, not lectured to, and the insights he imparted are still with me. He said, for example, that “jazz is like democracy. Jazz was from its inception to make order out of chaos, which is what democracy does.” Then he added he wasn’t sure if either experiment has worked.

He talked to me of the history of jazz, evolving from its roots in plantation entertainment to minstrel shows to vaudeville “Music was an Africanized version of what the master was familiar with—like Irish jigs…When the slaves were playing for themselves, it was a different rhythmic component.”  And he explained that as we closed out the 20th century, it was important to follow carefully the changes that occurred from Scott Joplin through Ellington, Monk, Gillespie and Miles Davis, “in order to get a real sense of who we are as a people.”

He went on to say that 1964 was a pivotal year for two reasons: the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Beatles arriving in America. “Passage of Civil Rights opened up a Pandora’s box not only for black people but for women.” And the Beatles, he said, ended an era of “white males passing down (refined) jazz—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie—to their children. For the first time white kids could get ‘black music’ through the Beatles, who acknowledged their debt to black music … by 1964 the lid was off.”

We talked of other things, too, including his amazing musical family, and the four of his six sons who became musicians: Wynton, the trumpet player; Branford, the saxophonist; Delfaeyo, the trombonist, composer and producer; and Jason, the drummer. Ellis shrugged off the suggestion that his family was anything special. “There are plenty of musical families in New Orleans,” he said. And if his family benefitted from any extraordinary genes, he said they surely came from his wife Dolores, who came from a stellar background of church music.

That first night I visited Shrug Harbor, Ellis did tell me that one of his sons, Jason, would be performing with him that evening, and he allowed as how Jason did seem to show a lot of promise. When I heard Jason at that performance, he was just sixteen, and he blew my socks off.

I left the club, and New Orleans, with my head exploding not only from what Ellis Marsalis had taught me, but from the several CDs I had in my bag with music from the remarkable Marsalis family.

My husband and I had intended to visit Snug Harbor again three weeks ago. We hoped, of course, to hear again the legend, by now a man of 83 who walked with a cane, hit the piano keys once more. This time we intended to take two young friends, college students with whom we wanted to share the genius of New Orleans, of jazz, of the Marsalis legend.

But then, the trip was canceled due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, and in the silence of this peculiar isolation, I learned the hard news of Ellis Marsalis’ death. The only consolation I can think of is music—his music. I hope to hunt down those old CDs.

 

Ten days ago my last public “event” was to be in conversation in a local bookstore with fellow author and friend, Antoinette Constable, about her new Y.A. novel, Natalie: In the Shadow of the Swastika. It is based on true experiences—her own—as a young Jewish girl living in Paris during the Nazi occupation. It is a beautiful rendering of a young child’s personal transformation,from ages eight to thirteen, and the parallel story of her growing understanding of what horrors are occurring around her.

But in addition to being a gripping personal story and a grim history lesson, it is also a story about persistent and grueling deprivation. That aspect of it really struck me as the lights in the bookstore—and everywhere–went dark, and we all turned our attention to self-isolating and new ways of survival in the age of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

It occurred to me that much of the book and a lot of the thoughts of young Natalie concern food: the lack of it; memories of it; dreams of it; and for a brief period during a visit to her critically ill father in Switzerland, the delicious reality of it. Fresh baked bread, butter, jams and hams, cakes, and thick cream and cheeses from Normandy. These are the things that occupy the fantasies of a hungry girl, who later in real life will become a caterer and marvelous chef.

But there are other things that preoccupy her too: the lack of heat, and having to survive for season after season in a cold house; the Germans who terrify her in the streets, sometimes knock on the door in search of her Jewish mother, and bomb the house next door to bits; the constant fear that her mother will simply not return home one day, and she and her sisters will be on their own.

Of course, millions of children across the world have experienced such terrors, and continue to. Millions in our own country live with inexcusable deprivation all the time in our land of abundance, even before an event like the Covid-19 coronavirus swept through our land and the entire world. But many millions of others of us are lucky, blessed, and have warm and safe houses to shelter in and access to food, services and medical care.

For us, this represents an upheaval of our daily lives and expectations, but to date not real deprivation in the sense that others have known and know it. Realistically, we do not and will not likely face starvation, cold, and constant terror. That is what I remind myself when I cannot find an item I’m accustomed to on a strangely empty shelf, or when my professional and personal calendar is suddenly bare.

That is what I want my grandchildren to know when they read this book that I am sending them. And what I want them to take away from it is not only how lucky they are, but how they as well as we adults need to be thinking of ways to alleviate the pain of those around us who are not.

 

by Nick Farriella

Dearest Rosemary,

It was a limpid dreary day, hung as in a basket from a single dull star. I thank you for your letter. Outside, I perceive what may be a collection of fallen leaves tussling against a trash can. It rings like jazz to my ears. The streets are that empty. It seems as though the bulk of the city has retreated to their quarters, rightfully so. At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that, he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious as to his sources.

The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.

You should see the square, oh, it is terrible. I weep for the damned eventualities this future brings. The long afternoons rolling forward slowly on the ever-slick bottomless highball. Z. says it’s no excuse to drink, but I just can’t seem to steady my hand. In the distance, from my brooding perch, the shoreline is cloaked in a dull haze where I can discern an unremitting penance that has been heading this way for a long, long while. And yet, amongst the cracked cloudline of an evening’s cast, I focus on a single strain of light, calling me forth to believe in a better morrow.

Faithfully yours,
F. Scott Fitzgerald

From: McSweeney’s Internet Tendencies

American Royalty

 

Latifah, Queen of American Royals

Amidst a seemingly endless barrage of bad news, one perennial with its own version of bad news keeps coming: coverage of the British Royals. From the sex scandals of Prince Andrew, to the infighting of the newly self-exiled couple Harry and Meghan (the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) and his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth II, their dirty laundry never ceases to be hung out in public. And if there ever is a pause, the marvelous caricature of the mush-mouthed fop, King George III from Hamilton is always there to remind us colonists he’s ever-ready to kill us kindly to show his love.

But with Black History Month winding down, I thought it the perfect moment to pay homage to our own Royalty, with thumbnail sketches and one selection from of some of its greats—those self-selected for the job, who have talent, abiding legacies and enduring gifts. Call them Rock Stars.

All have had sensational careers, uncountable awards and recognition, and have hugely influenced generations of fans and musicians who have followed them. Two of these Royals have deep roots in jazz and herald from the era of Swing.

Edward Kennedy Duke Ellington, was born in Washington, D.C., in 1899 and died in 1974. Hi mother, Daisy, also a pianist, taught him manners and dignity as well as giving him piano lessons (although at the time, he preferred baseball). His off-hand manner and dapper dress earned him the title of Duke from his young friends. Pianist, composer, legendary band leader, his career began in the 1920’s—when he was a popular figure at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club—and spanned many decades. He toured abroad as well as in the States, and a very successful appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1956 introduced him to a new generation of fans. His multiple prizes culminated in a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1999.  Check out this classic on You Tube, “Take the A Train” from the film Reveille with Beverly, 1943.

James Count Basie was born in New Jersey in 1904 and died in 1984. Both parents were musicians, and his mother took in laundry to get him piano lessons. He quickly moved toward vaudeville, and before age 20 worked as a pianist accompanist and music director for blues performers. By then he was on the move: first to Harlem where he mingled with the greats, including Louis Armstrong; then to Kansas City for many years where his royal identity emerged his band, “Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm; and eventually Chicago where he developed his signature “jumping beat”  and showcased stars such as Billie Holiday; and finally to New York where he dominated in the era of swing. In the post-war period he recorded and toured widely, added pop and rock to his repertoire, performed at an inaugural ball for JFK in 1961, and later that year made a record with his contemporary icon, Duke Ellington with “First Time! The Count Meets the Duke.” Check out his classic “Pennies from Heaven” in the 1944 D-Day Remembrance Album on YouTube.

 

Nathaniel Adams, a.k.a. Nat King Cole was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1919, and died too young in 1965.

Vocalist, pianist, and the first African-American man to host a T.V. series, he is remembered for his beautiful ballads and fabulous pop tunes, over 100 of which rose to the top of the charts. In L.A., in the ‘30s, giving a nod to another old English king of nursery rhyme legend, he formed a band called the “King Cole Swingsters,” and the name stuck. Though the Nat King Cole Show on NBC lasted only one season, he was able to host gold-star guests such as Harry Belafonte, Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. When the network pulled the plug, Cole commented on the racism of the day saying, “Madison Ave. is afraid of the dark.” He then went on to Havana and made several wildly popular recordings in Spanish. Years after his untimely death, his daughter, singer Natalie Cole, using new technology, was able to re-record some of his songs in duet with herself. Listen to the 1991 smash hit version of “Unforgettable,” found on YouTube and made forty years after the original version.

 

Prince Rogers Nelson was to the royal manner born in Minneapolis in 1958, and died in 2016. He came into the world with high rank accorded by his father, who gave him the name Prince because he hoped his son “would do everything I wanted to do.” Given his incredible musicianship, his wide-ranging voice, his flamboyant persona, outrageous success and worldwide fan club, dad must have been pleased. Prince perfected his own musical style, blending punk rock, synthesizer, pop and new wave. He made a title-track in 1999 against nuclear proliferation, appeared constantly on MTV, played the Superbowl, and in 2004, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In death, he loomed as large as in life, as the world stopped in mourning and in praise. At home, even the highest realms of power bowed down, including President Barack Obama, who paid him tribute, and the U.S. Senate, which passed a resolution honoring his achievements. And what could be more Prince than “Purple Rain.” Check out “Prince—Purple Rain,” the official video from April 2016 on YouTube.

 

Dana Elaine Owens—Queen Latifah—was born in New Jersey in 1970. Rapper, singer, song writer, actress, producer, she made her debut album in 1989, Hail to the Queen. The name stuck. And what list of American royalty would be complete without our own version of Elizabeth II? She went on to make Nature of a Sistah in 1991—and just took off from there, non-stop. A Fox Sitcom, followed by a Grammy for the single “U.N.I.T.Y.”  in 1993, which had a huge influence on women; then on to hosting her own daytime T.V. talk show; making more acclaimed records and films, including an Academy Award nomination for her role in the smash hit musical, Chicago, in 2004, and critical acclaim for starring as Bessie Smith in the HBO film Bessie, in 2015. And the awards keep coming. But she has perhaps no higher accolade than the sales of over 2 million records. To choose among them, I’ll pick a personal favorite to recommend: “Queen Latifah—When You’re Good to Mama,” on YouTube.

It contains a message old King George III would have been well-advised to listen to before his unruly colonists told him in very American terms to “bugger off.”

 

 

 

Visiting a foreign place for the first time offers the traveler the chance for fresh wonder and the jolt of surprise—like new love. But revisiting that place, perhaps multiple times, offers the traveler another opportunity:  to add connections through time and season rendering what was already known to layers of what is still to be revealed and the chance to find something new altogether.

Or so it is for me, as my colleague Linda Watanabe McFerrin and I work on editing a new anthology gathered from our Wanderland Writers’ latest journey to Greece in June 2019. The stories themselves bring novel takes on shared experiences, and reading them in winter light while remembering the heat of the summer that produced them gives a different hue as well.

What strikes me in particular is how many of these are women’s stories. Some featuring individual women encountered by the writers, whether an old woman on the island of Ikaria sharing secrets about longevity, or a young woman seeking roots in the ancient religion on a hillside in Athens; others featuring the ancient myths and goddesses themselves. From Athena and Aphrodite, to Pasiphae, wife of King Minos and mother of the Minotaur,

to the Oracle of Delphi, it seems many of the writers were seeking contemporary understandings from the lives of these ancient powerful women. They were looking at old stories through the layers of time and experience to discover new possibilities.

I have done this myself in reimagining Penelope, the vaunted, patient wife of Odysseus who waited for twenty years while beating back her suitors and faithfully weaving her stories until he returned. Or did she?  In the shadow the 2020 Women’s March, with women again on the forefront of viable candidates for president, with young women rising visibly on multiple fronts, I revisit a poem I wrote a time ago, in middle age. I see how easily those old stories link to our modern sensibilities–and longings–and wonder what new discoveries await me as I continue to plumb the treasures of Greece, visited, and revisited again in the richness of old age.

Penelope and the Suitors

                                   She had heard the whisper:

fish-tailed maidens

with nets of golden hair,

those sirens, their bitch-calls piercing

his ears, painted hands strumming

his legs

and Circe. Ah Circe,

wild young body dancing to calypso eyes,

that one, she’d heard, had lasted a year.

But Helen’s face,

oval goddess beauty

that he had looked upon,

haunted her

 

and her heart, slow constricted fist

                               beyond the leap of yearning, stopped

its beating.

 

Now, they said, he was dead.

 

For the first time in twenty years

she laughed, twenty years of rock

island, stone, sea, swells

of waiting.

Now he was near and those

who could not follow his wake

said he was dead, those who

could not tell dying

from coming.

 

At last near coming home,

the waves pulled back from the beach

like parted lips, like

hands running over hips,

rounded still, and she laughed

again knowing how the gods and suitors

wet their tongues.

Hair to waist, laced with silver

precious metal, like gold

on the looking-glass

where her face, smooth and finely laced,

finely colored from

twenty summers’ sun was,

she knew, lovely.

 

So what had he heard?

 

If he knew her at all, he would know

she did not remain untouched,

not by the sinewy black poet

who loved her like the night,

or the fisherman with the wise beard

casting his net of stories

about her, rubbing her back,

or the philosopher who thought best

with his slender fingers,

or that young artist with the Vulcan eyes–

all like the seasons, her weave of patches

a coverlet to cover

the marriage bed.

That is what they came to.

Still she dreamed Odysseus,

closed her eyes to see him

wearing those twenty years.

But she saw only his likeness,

Telemachus, the son,

beauty in his fierce and tender

restlessness,

the boy left behind, the guard

charged by men

to do what no man can:

Separate a woman from her desire.

 

Still she waited, had waited

waited and wanted

husband, blood-mate,

twin of the inner mirror

whose likeness only knew

the holier longings of love.

Then he came. Strong-chested,

broad-armed, steeled in

beard and bone.

 

Did he know at last what this journey

had been for?

                    

He saw her first, her eyes

the lissome blue his glance once

skated over,

mirrors on a pristine lagoon.

Now, around them, little creases,

terrain,

a holding place

before plunging

into the deep sea.

                          You are the most beautiful, he thought.

                          Yes, she smiled.

                  

                          Come in.

 

 

 

                                  

                                 

Remembering Toni Morrison

Remembering Toni Morrison, (1931-2019), who said:

“I am staring out the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of, “Oh fine—and you?” I blurt out the truth. “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write:  it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election…” I am about to explain further but he interrupts shouting, No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”

I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds:  who did their work hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.

The list—which covers centuries, not just the last one—is long. A short sample will include Paul Robeson, Primo Levi, Ai Weiwei, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Dashiell Hammett, Wole Soyinka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lillian Hellman, Salman Rushdie, Herta Muller, Walter Benjamin. An exhaustive list would run into the hundreds.

Still, I remember the shout of my friend that day after Christmas: No! This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilization is held.