THE JOY OF LIBRARY ROULETTE

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I’ve fallen into a black hole not once, but many times. Those who care for me are happy I always return.   I emerge dazed and transformed, my whole self exploded and reconstructed and somehow shifted. I like to think I return indefinably better.

It happened again the other day. I was playing library roulette — arguably the best game ever. There are two ways to play: the original, comfortably wandering through the library shelves peering at spines in a completely unplanned and random way. If you play, make sure to look low at the bottom shelves and scurry up the ladders to the top when no one is looking until some odd and wonderful and unexpected little book almost literally jumps out at you. Or there’s the more modern version: finding a hint in something you’re reading and tracking it down via cyberspace. If you’ve played, and I’m betting almost all of you have, you know that both versions can swirl you instantly into the most delicious black hole. This time I was playing the cyber version of the game. My reward was a tiny, and virtually forgotten little volume called The Spring of Joy by an author I’d never heard of named Mary Webb.

The book has been out of print for a long time. But The Spring of Joy, all hundred odd pages of it, was a cherished bestseller in its day, and upon her death in 1927 Mary Webb was lauded by no less than the Prime Minister of Britain as a “neglected genius“. An exquisitely evocative meditation on the beauty and rhythms of nature and the healing powers of observation, The Spring of Joy is truly one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read.

But wait. A book such as this out of print? A once lionized author marginalized and virtually forgotten? Both facts should be deeply sobering, terribly sad. Except that I think that’s not quite so. Nor is it the whole story.

There are as many reasons for creating art as there are artists: A deep-seated need for observation and expression. A hope to touch other lives. Self-validation by way of fame. A quest for immortality. A wish to become rich (this is not to be sneered at. Writers do need to eat).  Sometimes a mix of all of these things and more. The most public forms of expression are done for the most personal of reasons.

But while writers can control what they write, the cannot, no matter how hard they try, control the response to their work. Anything can happen. Anything usually does.

And so…

*You might be the most widely read, most celebrated author of your time—then forgotten, even vilified, thereafter.

*You might labor in near total obscurity in your lifetime and be posthumously crowned as the “voice of a generation” sometime in the future.

*You might be discovered, quite unexpectedly, on a library shelf or in a wildly spiraling Internet search.

*You might labor for decades to reach a tiny but dedicated readership.

*You might have no readers at all, save for yourself.

It doesn’t matter.

Writing, and the thought and feeling that motivate writing, are always worthwhile. You might reach millions or you might change the world for a single person, even if that person is you.

Whatever it is, write. Be brave. Be honest. Be true to yourself.  And always play library roulette. I guarantee you will uncover shining jewels and buried treasures. Mary Webb’s The Spring of Joy such a book for me. You knew that. If you’re quite lucky, the treasure someone will uncover someday will be one of your own creations. You might change the world or the world for just one person.  Keep going. You’ll make a difference for sure.

PS, if you’re interested in reading The Spring of Joy  it’s available on line as many out-of-print titles are via the Digital Library at The University of Pennsylvania. Click below or simply Google it.    http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/webb/spring/spring.html

A TINY DOT OF HONEY

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This past April Fools’ Day Google infused the mundane with sheer joy by turning Google Maps into a gigantic game of Pac- Man. This was especially fun for someone like me who once upon a time spent way too many rolls of quarters racking up points in the arcades of yore. Think of it! You could play anywhere in the world but I loved playing Pac-Man by eating up Manhattan dot by dot: up Fifth Avenue, across 59th skimming the Park, zoom around Columbus Circle and finally cut down Broadway, avoiding the ghosts with a few celebratory stops for bunches of cherries.

It was hugely fun. Besides. I was still good.

But I was thinking about it. With all the masses of people who jam Times Square and Central Park, Greenwich Village and the Upper East Side, South Street Seaport and SoHo, each of us is really on our own self-appointed little Pac-Man journey from the coffee place to the office to drinks to home to bed. We travel alone but together make up the vast, milling and slightly terrifying hive.  Each of us looks out and there is always that throng, pulsing and faceless and sometimes judgmental of anyone or anything that seems a bit out of the norm.  Most of us just put our heads down nervously and continue gobbling the dots lest we be singled out next. Will we be judged? Will anyone out there be kind to us if we need it? Will we always be alone?

In some ways, that fear of being judged or abused because one is a little different has always been the case. I’ve been reading A Traveller in Little Things by W.H. Hudson published in 1923. The book, —all Hudson’s observational writing, in fact—is soft and lyrical, his insights sharp. Hudson, who traveled the English countryside, was a keen observer of everything from birds to human nature, one of the lucky ones possessed of the ability to see and appreciate what often eludes most of us. He was an unusual man, one who chose a very different path.

One evening Hudson found himself in the presence of a wealthy and powerful businessman. This self-centered and condescending boor spent the evening pompously holding court, belittling Hudson’s opinions, completely incurious about his accomplishments. Finally, without provocation, the businessman cut Hudson to the quick by referring to him as a mere “Traveller in Little Things”, in other words, a man not worth much consideration at all. Hudson didn’t respond then although he felt the rebuff intensely. Instead he harnessed the slight as the title for his newest book and wrote the story in the first chapter. Not a vicious revenge, for someone who was attacked for merely being different perhaps, but a sweet one.

As usual, I bounce from one thing to another. Stay with me though. Let’s bring the story home.

We spotted a bee in the house the other day. Most people are alarmed when they see bees but not us. We’ve learned to react but not overreact. We are proud of this. So I was able to scoop the little thing up in a tissue and bring it outside. Really you can’t go through life always being afraid of stingers.

We laid the tiny creature down gently on the porch. She still had golden beads of pollen attached to her flank and legs. The bee trembled slightly but then didn’t move at all. I thought she was gone. My son, who knows about these kinds of things, asked if we had any honey inside. Of course we did.

He spread a tiny dot of honey near the bee then told us to watch closely and wait. At first nothing happened. And then it did. The bee’s tiny proboscis, what looked like its tongue, flitted in and out of the honey, giving it strength. Minutes passed. Then bee quivered for a moment, took a few wobbly steps forward, and spun up in the air, flying directly to the Dogwood tree. “Back to business for her now, “ said my son. “Directly back to work gathering pollen. She’ll head back to her hive after this.”

All it took was a little patience, a little sweetness to save her.

That’s really all it takes to help any of us industrious little Pac-Men and Women, isn’t it?

THE MANY MADELEINES OF BROOKLYN

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The astounding thing, now that I think about it, is that I actually found myself someplace cool. At least I’m pretty sure it was cool. On a sunny Spring afternoon on Pier 5 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, I descended into one of the Smorgasburgs, about a hundred popup booths selling incredibly wild and creative foods: booze and bakery mashups, beet ketchups, macarons, salt water taffy, schnitzel and chilis. “Ice cream” that’s made without either ice or cream and called “a potion”. Wings and doughnuts. Duck burgers, chickpea burgers, ramen burgers. Fries, fries, fries. And that’s just for appetizers. There wasn’t even a trace of my old Brooklyn, a sleepy and at the same time slightly dangerous place filled with Ioaves of Cammareri’s Italian bread and plastic takeout containers of chicken and broccoli from Me and My Egg Roll.

It was so crowded you could have picked both feet off the ground and still be swept along. Even the air had an especially delicious taste when you breathed in. Thousands of bow-tied and elegantly scarved people, some pushing strollers but all expertly coiffed, knew all the right lines to stand in. The drone of a thousand conversations provided a buzzy background to an exultant melody of sips and chews. All in all, there was the throbbing and happy sound of everyone eating everything. The best and most amazing food ever. Everyone there was sure of it.

Eating is, and always has been, one of the things I do best. But wrapped securely in my trench coat and looking a little like an old movie spy, I felt small and nervous and scared. This was new Brooklyn and although this was a place where I’d felt deeply comfortable and at home, I’d been gone for a long time. I flitted from booth to booth feeling standoffish and uncomfortable. Worst of all, I didn’t feel hungry.

“Tell me what you eat,” said Brillat-Savarin, “and I’ll tell you what you are.” If that quote reflected everyone at Smorgasburg all I could think of were unholy messes of food and thought: towering Dagwood sandwiches and this weird “all you can eat” cafeteria at Cedar Point where you were given a tiny plate the size of a saucer and allowed to go through the line only once. Desserts were conveniently the first offering and then squished in at the bottom beneath layers of lasagna and cole slaw and meatballs and fruited jello. Truly an archeological dig of a dinner.

But really, the reflection isn’t fair.

No one writes like Proust but Proust but of course we all have our own personal madeleines. For some of us it’s a hot sesame seed bagel or a Toasted Almond Good Humor, for others it’s a squashed Milky Way or a bakery sprinkle cookie. Sometimes it’s a crisp Macintosh apple or a mystery drowning in brown sauce, a white carton of Egg Foo Yung.

Suddenly it made sense.  A ramen burger would be someday be someone else’s madeleine just as surely as Cammareri Bakery Italian loaves are one of mine. More importantly, I know I can try a ramen burger anytime should I ever be in the mood. It’s never too late to make new madeleine memories.

Although it’s the previous quote from Brillat-Savarin that’s better known, what follows is the one I love best:

“However, I have lived long enough to know that each generation says the same thing and is inevitably laughed at by the men who live in the next one.”

The Smorgasburg people, the new Brooklynites, weren’t actually laughing at me or at anyone else. They were eating. And while the foods and tastes were different from my time to theirs, the savoring and the excitement are just the same. So is the appreciation for what’s different and delightful and truly memorable. We are more alike than it seems.

Brillat-Savarin was not actually talking about food in the last quote. But then, of course, neither am I.

LEAPFROGGING

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Without even realizing it, most of us are consummate leapfroggers, so skilled we’ve become at moving from moment to moment that the humdrum just fades away, as does the pain of absence. It can happen at any time, of course. But for all of us who are brave enough to send people we love away: to camp, to school, to far away places, it’s how we cope. We transform ourselves into Time Lords in a sense, leaping from moment of happiness to moment of happiness when we’re together again. And here we are. Together again. And happy.

It makes good sense that school graduations should happen in the spring, a time when everyone feels the thrill of newness and possibility. Because, of course, graduation is not an end at all, but a joyous and celebratory marker in time. We have leapfrogged here and we try so hard to linger, to balance, to stay for as long as possible before we reluctantly tack this moment into the scrapbook of memory.

It’s a thrill to look out over the sea of mortarboards, to consider the mysterious cowls, velvet tams, colored tassels and cords, to wonder solemnly at the decorous, yet brilliantly colored, doctoral gowns.

These ceremonies, rife with pomp and circumstance, studded with brass quintets,  soaring soloists, and nervous keynotes, shake with the right, diploma with the left again and again and again. The applause goes on for hours but even so it doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s not.

Here’s a secret: greedy little thing that I am I always stay through every credit at the movies. This is partly to show my respect to all the behind the scenes people who work so hard to make it all happen. But I also stay because there is always the chance that the actual ending of the picture might not happen until after the credits roll.  Special treat when I’m right but even when there’s no little winking twist at the end of the end of the movie in my mind it’s not really over. There are still so many possibilities to every story.  So is with graduates and graduations: the story continues, rife with possibility and promise. Congratulations then to all of them and to all who support and love them. Leap on everyone to your next moments of happiness!

LEAPFROGGING

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Without even realizing it, most of us are consummate leapfroggers, so skilled we’ve become at moving from moment to moment that the humdrum just fades away, as does the pain of absence. It can happen at any time, of course. But for all of us who are brave enough to send people we love away: to camp, to school, to far away places, it’s how we cope. We transform ourselves into Time Lords in a sense, leaping from moment of happiness to moment of happiness when we’re together again. And here we are. Together again. And happy.

It makes good sense that school graduations should happen in the spring, a time when everyone feels the thrill of newness and possibility. Because, of course, graduation is not an end at all, but a joyous and celebratory marker in time. We have leapfrogged here and we try so hard to linger, to balance, to stay for as long as possible before we reluctantly tack this moment into the scrapbook of memory.

It’s a thrill to look out over the sea of mortarboards, to consider the mysterious cowls, velvet tams, colored tassels and cords, to wonder solemnly at the decorous, yet brilliantly colored, doctoral gowns.

These ceremonies, rife with pomp and circumstance, studded with brass quintets,  soaring soloists, and nervous keynotes, shake with the right, diploma with the left again and again and again. The applause goes on for hours but even so it doesn’t seem to be enough. It’s not.

Here’s a secret: greedy little thing that I am I always stay through every credit at the movies. This is partly to show my respect to all the behind the scenes people who work so hard to make it all happen. But I also stay because there is always the chance that the actual ending of the picture might not happen until after the credits roll.  Special treat when I’m right but even when there’s no little winking twist at the end of the end of the movie in my mind it’s not really over. There are still so many possibilities to every story.  So is with graduates and graduations: the story continues, rife with possibility and promise. Congratulations then to all of them and to all who support and love them. Leap on everyone to your next moments of happiness!

A Tiny Mystery

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By nature I’m a rusher though I wish this wasn’t so.   But lately I’ve found myself slowing down just a bit, maybe just enough. And that’s when I saw it. A tiny little door placed right in façade of a building. If I’d been rushing I would have missed it completely. But I didn’t.

Why was it there? Who crafted it so perfectly? Were there more, are there more? Who else knows the secret?  What deeper meaning was there that somehow I couldn’t fathom at all? “Oh,” said one of my sons matter-of- factly, “that’s a Fairy Door.”

It was in the middle of a hard jumble of a week. Tight schedules and packing bags, unexpected sickness and brave struggles towards renewed vigor, bittersweet endings and thrilling glimmers of new beginnings, hundreds and hundreds of miles logged on Route 80 dodging truck traffic. Burger King, Burger Fi, Blimpy Burger.

I caught up to everyone else and we continued on. Endless mugs of coffee and platters of Hippie Hash. (If you’ve never tried this you should. Look it up.)

On the way back I found the tiny door again.   I loved how perfectly it was made. I loved that it was there. I was about to do what I always do—do the research, search for answers, learn the history: the whys the wherefores the hows. I always want to put everything together safely in a box, seal it up and feel that I am done.  But I couldn’t do it. Not this time. Instead I found myself reaching into my pocket.

There is always something there. Acorn tops, lucky coins, fortune cookie fortunes, little drawings, bottle caps and the occasional pink ring of power. It’s more likely that I’d leave my wallet at home than any of these admittedly odd talismans. Each holds a special meaning and memory. I fingered a small plastic beehive and a lucky dime I’d found on the sidewalk and placed them at the foot of the tiny door. One last look and I walked away.

There’s a key scene in the movie Harold and Maude. Sitting before a lake late in the evening Harold gives his beloved Maude something very unexpected and very precious. Giving her this small token was intensely hard for him to do. Maude is deeply moved and says she loves it…then she flings the gift into the center of the lake. Harold is appalled until Maude turns to him sweetly and says, “and now I’ll always know exactly where it is.”

Maybe sometimes we need a little mystery instead of answers.  Maybe sometimes it’s just enough to wonder, to dream, to hope. But it’s good  to know that hiding around any corner there might be something precious, or something thought lost is really quite safe in the middle of the lake.

MARTHA, CONNIE AND VET; BESS, ANN AND ROSE

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It was the craziest thing. I found them on YouTube. Of all places.

Listening to the Mills Brothers on YouTube that day was for me, truly little blip of joy. The music was delightful, but what I clicked next was really divine.

The Boswell Sisters singing Crazy People. I had never heard of the singers or the song. But I haven’t been the same since that moment. Here they are (left to right) Connie, Vet and Martha, The Boswell Sisters of New Orleans:

http://youtu.be/ynwtYRDP124

That was two and half minutes of sheer joy that was both buoyant and almost symphonic in it’s precision and complexity.

How do you define something extraordinary? Should you even try? When something is right and good and true, the real thing, be it a painting, a novel or the love of your life you just know. You just feel it.

Lover of harmonic singing…or not. Lover of jazz innovation…or not. Lover of musical stylings of the 20s and 30s…or not. There are simply some artists—Judy Garland, Eric Clapton, Django Reinhart, you’ve got your own favorites I’m certain- who demand your attention, whose immense talent and sheer artistry can’t be denied. They just ARE. The Boswell Sisters.

A quick round up: The Boswells were musical innovators, arrangers extraordinaire, and the finest close harmony singers of all time. The three Boswells-Martha, Connie and Vet, created an almost otherworldly sound I’d waited a lifetime to hear. I’d love for you to think I am the only one with such exquisite taste but far from it. The Boswells were the most popular singers in the country and attained worldwide fame for five frenetic years until 1936 when all three sisters married and the group abruptly disbanded. They were feted and beloved by everyone from Prince Albert of England (later George VI who insisted on slipping into every single one of their 1933 performances at London’s famed Palladium) to a young vaudevillian named Bob Hope who said to have intoned, “they were the best act I ever followed”. Ella Fitzgerald said the only singer who ever influenced her was Connie Boswell. The Andrew Sisters, who ascended only after the Boswells stopped performing, began as unabashed Boswell imitators, so much so the Minnesota natives originally sang with a southern drawl, according to Maxene Andrews.

And that was it.

They were there, top act in the country and just as suddenly not. All three sisters married, Martha and Vet immediately retired. Connie went on to a respectable solo career.   Save for a single unplanned on stage reunion about 20 years later, they never performed together again. At least in public. There’s a mystery here, of course, a real one worth savoring, but I’ll save that for later.

But for all that, it was an actually a throw away line that knocked me to my knees.

“You know,” my mother said, “I listen to the Boswells and I can just see your grandmother dancing to the radio. “ My lithe and beautiful Little Gram, the dancer in the middle between her different, but equally talented sisters Bess and Rose. My own family’s mercurial and linked threesome.

That was it then.

It was said once of the Boswells “They together clicked like a Geiger counter in a mine.” Such was the power of the unspoken rhythms and pulse of the three sisters. My grandmother and my great aunts didn’t sing but their lives together were complex and woven together as the Boswells.

They all lived all together in one house: my aunts. my great grandmother, and two sons upstairs, My grandmother and grandfather and three children below. My Aunt Bess was a seamstress of such self-taught skill that it was said that she could glimpse the latest styles through shop windows, then return home and recreate each intricate style stitch by stitch. Her marriage to a handsome but itinerate man was somehow broken—he was absent always, it was never spoken of. She remained behind, raising two sons, cooking and cleaning and helping to care for them and for her aged mother. Brilliant and bookish Rose gave up dreams of school and marriage to work in an office to help support them. My tiny and quietly vivacious grandmother married her childhood sweetheart—they had three children. My dashing grandfather dreamed of starting anew and apart, bringing my grandmother and their children everywhere from gritty Pittsburgh to sunny California in attempts at a new beginnings. But try as he might to escape they were always pulled back to the crowded house in Detroit. The sisters needed to be together. The sisters needed to be apart.

In thinking back, I don’t know who was happy and who was not. I don’t know what was fair and what was not. I don’t know, if things had been different, what might have been.

But at the core, my grandmother and my great Aunts were three sisters who cared for each other truly and deeply. They too were a trio.

And so to the mystery. What happened to the Boswells after they all married in a flurry ending effectively bringing to an end the Boswell Sisters in 1936?

Here’s the short answer,

Cynthia C. Lucas, as passionate and knowledgeable about the Boswells and their music as anyone in the world, once, told me to listen to Connie Boswell singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me. “  http://youtu.be/9fLuoUBdKnw

And there it was. Connie Boswell, now a soloist, a woman who lived to perform, begins this slow, reflective and almost mournfully lovely rendition by humming the opening bars of “Shout, Sister, Shout” the Boswell theme song for their radio show.   The shout in this case is a whisper, but there it was, a message of heartfelt longing to her sisters.

***

But sometimes the end is the beginning. The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler, has anchored her latest album, “IT’S THE GIRLS!” with a spot on cover of the 1931 Boswell hit of the same name A super cool rock guy Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen begins his new book “EMINENT HIPSTERS” with an in depth chapter on one of his earliest musical loves and influences: The Boswell Sisters. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have the world jamming to jazz standards of the 20s and 30s, including the Boswells, through their performances on HBOs Boardwalk Empire and packs ‘em into NYCs Iguana twice weekly. Will Friedwald, one of the most highly regarded and knowledgeable Jazz writers in the country writes in The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 2014) of the Boswells: “They did for group harmony what Bing Crosby did for popular singing and Louis Armstrong did for Jazz improvisation.”  Dan Garrison of Joshua Tree Productions, and one of the finest writer/historians around, readies a PBS documentary on the Boswells, CLOSE HARMONY.

And last by no means least, Vet’s own granddaughter the amazing Kyla Titus, pens the just published THE BOSWELL LEGACY the definitive biography of the sisters revealing the roots of early jazz lore while exploring hidden history of her illustrious family. The true exploration of the mystery is here. A compelling, tour de force, the book swirls the reader into the inner world of the sisters and resonates. The book simply rocks. And rolls. And we all know what it means when finally; at last, bow ties are cool.

All this and long overdue applause to the chorus who’ve been studying and championing the Boswells for eons: James Von Schilling, professor and author of an early essay on the Boswells Hearing the Boswell Sisters (Popular Music and Society), the lovely and talented Jan Shapiro, chair of the voice department at Berklee College of Music, early champion of the Boswell sound revival, the brilliant Cynthia C. Lucas, the brains and heart behind http://www.Bozzies.com a immense source of information on the Sisters, Jazz historian and researcher David McCain, close friend of Vet Boswell’s and one of the sweetest men on the planet.

We can’t relive the lives of the Boswells nor can we relive the lives of my grandmother and great aunts. But we can look back lovingly, with a bit of an ache, and try to understand. And always, to listen.

This is dedicated with love then, to Martha, Connie and Vet, To Bess, Ann and Rose. With a hug of course, to my own two sisters, my own trio, Lisa and Shari.

Yowza.

For more information on the Boswells, or to purchase copies of Kyla Titus’ excellent THE BOSWELL LEGACY, please go to www.theboswellsisters.com

Or

Check for further information at www.bozzies.com