Please note that none of the audio on my website is currently available due to an unannounced change in my music host's policy (thanks a lot, Divshare). Stay tuned while I try to rectify this problem. For my upcoming gigs, check out the right hand margin.
I've submitted a new short story for publication, and an idea for a CD or new original music is percolating. Stay tuned... You can also catch me most Sundays at 10:30AM at Elmhurst Presbyterian Church, 367 Spring Road in Elmhurst.
During Rufus Wainwright’s show last week at City Winery in Chicago (a great show as always, though far too short), he played the song “Grey Gardens” from his second studio album, Poses. The performance inspired me to revisit the song, and I’d forgotten that it begins with the following line of movie dialogue:
“It's very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present, you know what I mean?”
I probably first heard this line around thirteen years ago, but apparently lacked the curiosity to actually look up its origins until last week. Many of you may already know the details, but for me it was news; turns out the dialogue comes from a film called – surprise – “Grey Gardens,” a voyeuristic 1975 documentary about Edith and Edie Beale, the respective aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who in the 60s and 70s lived a reclusive life in the decaying mansion of Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York. A few years prior to the film, the Beales were very close to being evicted due to health code violations until Mrs. Onassis came to the rescue by investing $32K to get the home back up to code. It could be argued that it wasn’t money well spent; the film shows the mother and daughter living among cats who relieve themselves anywhere they please, papers and food scraps scattered everywhere, and open holes in the plaster through which raccoons and other animals enter (mostly because the younger Beale proactively feeds them). It’s certainly an interesting film and one that achieved a cult following over the decades, though it’s not for all tastes, and the movie sheds little light on what made these two women decide to live largely cut off from the outside to begin with.
Luckily, while searching for the documentary (which can be rented on Amazon for $2.99), I found another movie with the same title, a fictionalized version of the Edith and Edie Beale story starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore that first appeared on HBO in 2009 (and can also be rented on Amazon). This film is outstanding, with pitch-perfect performances by the two leads. In addition to giving the viewer a (fictionalized) glimpse of what the lives of the Beales may have been like prior to their fall from grace, it meticulously reproduces many of the more poignant scenes of the documentary. It won three of seventeen Emmy nominations and two of three Golden Globe nominations.
The allure of watching previously wealthy eccentrics living in the shadow of missed opportunities must be somewhat universal, for the Beales's story was even captured in a successful musical, first off-Broadway and then on Broadway itself in 2006, winning three of its ten Tony nominations in 2007 and running for 307 performances.
So in a nutshell: I learned a great deal and watched two interesting movies all due to a song - yet another example of how music can enlighten our lives. Thanks Rufus.
If you’re interested in learning a thing or two about Little Edie and Big Edie Beale, a good place to start might be the Grey Gardens website.
Several years ago a friend of mine said to me: “I don’t believe in heaven, but if there is one, I think I’m going.” I loved how self-assured he was despite his obvious flaws, and wish I could go through life with as much confidence, not because I’m worried about an after-life, but because I want to believe that I’m doing “enough” for my fellow man (and environment) while still being able to enjoy my indulgences.
For me, I’m constantly wrestling with the question: how good do I have to be? I don’t mean “how good” of the self-help variety, a la Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmations on SNL as depicted by Al Franken. I really mean, “Okay, so how good do I have to be so that I can spend time doing things I really want to do, and do them with a clear conscience?” If this question seems rather seedy, I’ll conceded that point, but ask that you hear me out (and bear with me as I lean on religious teachings).
The very fact that I’m asking this question probably deflates some of the good I do. In Judaism, there are eight levels of charitable giving according to Maimonides, and the worst is giving grudgingly. So now, on the days when I dread going to a nearby homeless shelter because I’d rather stay at home and watch football, not only do I walk away feeling like I haven’t done enough, I feel like what I’ve done isn’t even worthy. Say it with me: oy!
Monetarily, Judaism offers straightforward guidelines, as there’s both a minimum (10 percent of one’s net income) and a maximum:
One who wishes to donate (generously) should not give more than a fifth of his income, lest he himself come to be in need of charity. (-Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 50a)
Of course, there’s really nothing easy about donating 10 percent of one’s income, so the maximum is probably irrelevant for most people, but one could just as easily apply this “upper limit” logic to volunteering and perhaps give credence to the idea that there’s a point at which someone’s done enough to help others.
Without delving into specifics, I volunteer and donate here and there, and sometimes I feel pathetically proud: “Well, wasn’t that nice of me?” It feels good to mentally check the box “volunteer one’s time” so that I can enjoy the rest of my day (week? month?) without the nagging feeling that I’m not contributing enough to the care of others. But of course, the reality is that I could always do more. Much more.
So how much is enough?
Well, if the story of the Good Samaritan from the New Testament is any indication, probably a lot more than what I’m currently doing. (I get a double dose of religion many weekends by attending synagogue on Friday and then hearing a Sunday morning sermon at the Presbyterian Church where I play piano. This allows me to feel doubly inadequate.) In this story, a lawyer asks Jesus what he needs to do to receive eternal life, and when Jesus asks the man what the law says, he answers in part, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus tells him, “You are right. Do this and you will live.” But then the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?”
Ah ha! Well, this gets more complicated. I suggest you read Luke 10:25-37 for the whole story, but the short answer to the question is: everyone is your neighbor!
Oh goodness. This is where the anxiety starts creeping in. In this day and age of unlimited information about every ailment and calamity facing people all around the world, one could hardly blame a well-intentioned person from becoming so overwhelmed with charitable possibilities that he’s not even able to buy a coffee or a beer without sinking into a hole of self-hatred, like Steven Spielberg’s Oscar Schindler on steroids: “This coffee! Instead of buying this coffee, I could have fed a family an entire meal! Instead of watching this baseball game, I could have volunteered at a homeless shelter!”
So how good do we have to be? Harold Kushner wrote a book with this exact question as its title, but he doesn’t really talk about what’s required of each of us when it comes to helping others. He discusses familial relationships and acceptance for one’s failings. That’s all well and good. But the reality is that as I write this blog that maybe fifty people will read, I could be delivering food or mentoring a child. I might already be doing those things, but shouldn’t I do more? If yes, how much more? Can I spend a day writing without thinking that I could have done something nobler with my time? If yes, can I spend two days? Three days? Four? Can and buy myself a $400 bass amp (as I did last week) without thinking that my money could have (should have?) gone to a nobler purpose? How about a $1000 guitar? A $2000 keyboard? I already own two keyboards, you say? So why would I need another? Wow, have you got a lot to learn about musicians.
Look, for me, these are not easy questions, and there are no easy answers. I suspect I’ll never be as content as my friend who believes he’s a shoo-in for the ultimate reward, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe by questioning what I’m doing I make better choices here and there that lead to the betterment of others.
I sometimes play piano at funerals for people who – by the accounts of their loved ones – have done remarkable things: formed foundations, served on every society known to man, volunteered for every cause, and I leave these funerals feeling partly depressed and partly inspired: depressed because I haven’t done enough and inspired because I see what people are capable of.
So maybe that’s the answer. How good do we have to be? Better than we are, but less than perfect.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the band Journey made its mark in the late 70s and early 80s with rousing rock anthems and weepy pop ballads, and though the band may have been hated by critics, audiences grew with each successive release. Not only did multiple personnel changes not hurt Journey, it seemed as if the changes were destined to be, as each new member added an element that bolstered and heightened the band’s success. For a while, they could do no wrong.
And then in 1986 something happened: gone was the rhythm section of Steve Smith and Ross Valory, gone were the one-word album titles and interesting artwork, and gone was – to my ears – the band’s edge. Rumor had it that lead singer Steve Perry had taken control of the band, except specifics were hard to come by. Try searching “Journey fire Steve Smith and Ross Valory” on Google, and most of what you’ll find are brief sentences summarizing the event and little of substance even from former band members. VH1’s “Journey Behind the Music” adds nothing critical to the story, and watching the “rockumentary,” one gets the feeling that Perry controlled its content, as he’s featured far more prominently than other band members.
But a few months ago my friend Aaron forwarded a 2001 interview of long-time Journey manager Herbie Herbert by long-time Journey fan Matthew Carty. A more intriguing, entertaining read you’ll be hard-pressed to find, unless it’s a 2008 interview of Herbie Herbert by Andrew McNeice. Herbert is an interviewer’s goldmine: outspoken, knowledgeable, funny, and an old-school, hard-nosed character whose musical instincts and marketing savvy were spot-on.
Next time you have half an hour, read the 2001 Carty interview, and you may walk away with an entirely different understanding of the band, of the music industry and – possibly – human nature. I’ve read it twice, and I’ll read it again. It’s that good.
** SPOILER ALERT *** If you haven’t seen these two movies, consider reading this essay after you do.
Watching Bill Murray’s film St. Vincent last week, I was reminded of another movie: The Fisher King, starring Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams. Both the 1991 and 2014 releases are similar, not just because they’re manipulative and contrived, but because they could potentially lead one to view the more downtrodden among us differently. How? Well, that depends on how you look at things. For some, the movies might invoke a spirited response similar to that of Christopher Tookey, who wrote of the Fisher King:
"The sagacity of the saga is diminished by screenwriter Richard LaGravenese's naively sentimental approach to homelessness and insanity. Madness in this film can be cured just by knowing that someone cares about you, and homelessness is not a social problem, but a picturesque way that individuals have of coping with personal tragedy.”
Whereas Tookey feared people could stop viewing homelessness as a real problem, I remember walking away from The Fisher King with a more positive thought: that its tale of a personal tragedy might lead people to view homeless in a more humane way, concluding that perhaps it wasn’t drug use, crime, or other poor choices that led their downfall, but rather a terrible event over which they had no control.
Never mind that generalizing a film’s depiction of a fictional character as a universal truth is unfair to a medium that’s primary purpose is to entertain. After all, just because Robin Williams’s character suffered a horrendous tragedy doesn’t mean all homeless people have. But it might be a positive step when we’re confronted with, say, a panhandler, to help use the movie as an example, and consider that this person asking for money may once have been living a full and rich life only to have a tragedy propel them downward (of course, you could argue that it shouldn’t matter one way or the other. A person in need is a person in need, no matter what led to their circumstances).
St. Vincent walks a similar line to that of The Fisher King. Its egregiously manipulative screenplay has the main character – who’s been a complete ass for most of the film – conveniently throw out the remnants of his nobler past just as a neighborhood kid watches through a window, thus casting the curmudgeon in a new light. Like The Fisher King, this film seems to shout out, “Don’t judge a person too harshly – you don’t know what he’s been through.”
And as contrived as this message may be, this is exactly the default setting we should be employing in our lives. When someone cuts us off on the highway, treats us inconsiderately at the cash register or demeans us at the doctor’s office, it’s easy for us to conclude that the person we’re dealing with is simply a low-life asshole who thinks of nothing but himself. And you know what? The easy conclusion may actually be right on the mark.
But aren’t we much better served by assuming that the person who’s cut us off on the highway is in a terrible hurry because he just found out his spouse has cancer, or the inconsiderate cashier just discovered she can’t pay this month’s rent, or the demeaning physician just had to tell a patient that he’s dying. Unlikely scenarios, perhaps, but possible, just like it’s possible the homeless person you encountered lost his wife in an unspeakably horrific way, and it’s possible that the cranky neighbor who everyone dislikes is a war veteran who’s been taking care of his wife with dementia for years.
It doesn’t hurt to assume the best in people, and it could even do a lot of good. As Atticus Finch said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” It’s a difficult ideal to live up to, but it’s certainly one to aspire to, and movies like St. Vincent and The Fisher King are helpful – if a bit melodramatic – reminders if that ideal.
A few months ago I documented an infuriating experience I had with Comcast for what should have been a simple fix (i.e., replacing a broken router). Despite the fact that a friend of mine who I hadn’t heard from in over half a year proactively reached out to me to mock my essay, I stand by it, and now Joel Stein of TIME Magazine does too, at least tacitly.
In this week’s TIME, Stein discusses his attempt to transfer his cable service to a new address, but apparently Time Warner shares Comcast’s penchant for ineptness and stupidity. After several phone calls with no resolution, Stein decided to cut the cord and discontinue cable altogether. My blog may not have much of an impact on the cable industry, but Time Warner can’t exactly be thrilled with Stein declaring,“…I really, really, really hate Time Warner Cable.” He certainly isn’t alone.
When Blockbuster went belly-up a few years back, I said to a friend of mine, “Well, I guess that’s what happens when your business model is built on treating customers like three year-old felons.” Cable companies could learn a thing or two from the likes of Blockbuster. My family hasn’t had cable TV in over 14 years, and it’s becoming less of a sacrifice with each passing year of added streaming content through Amazon, Netlfix, and the like. And now, poor customer service is jeopardizing our decision to use Comcast for Internet and phone service.
It may only be a matter of time before cable compaies take the dive, and when it does, it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch fo guys. Except possibly the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.