Saturday, August 30, 2008

Future Projects III: Biblical Fiction

So it was that in 1996 I was listening to the latest Cassandra Wilson album, New Moon Daughter, and the third song, being of the name "Solomon Sang," didst appeal to me greatly. And I carefully and with a little difficulty removed the booklet from the fragile plastic jewel box and didst look within that I might check out the lyrics to the song. And lo, I read them and was struck, like a palm against the forehead of a fool, which is to say as Moe thus did to Curly, they being brothers and children of Israel to boot, by verse the second, to wit:

Wisdom was his calling
Pride sent him falling
Love was blissful misery
And when the days grew dim
Life began again
From the questions of a queen
Did she understand his sorrow
Did she see his pain
Vanity and precious stones
Weigh you down the same
But when he lay down with Makeda
Solomon Sang.

That Ms. Wilson, she of the sublime talent and smoky vocals, was referring to King Solomon's meeting with the Queen of Sheba was well understood by me. Yet two things were previously unknown to me: her name being Makeda, and the fact that they knew each other...well...biblically. I decided to perform some research, and so I Yahoo'd (this being in the days before I knew from Googling) the term "Makeda," and found I much interesting stuff I never learned in Sunday School.

The account of Solomon and Makeda in the Hebrew Bible is told in all of 13 verses in I Kings, chapter 10:
I Kings 10 (King James Version)

1 And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the LORD, she came to prove him with hard questions.

2 And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.

3 And Solomon told her all her questions: there was not any thing hid from the king, which he told her not.

4 And when the queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon's wisdom, and the house that he had built,

5 And the meat of his table, and the sitting of his servants, and the attendance of his ministers, and their apparel, and his cupbearers, and his ascent by which he went up unto the house of the LORD; there was no more spirit in her.

6 And she said to the king, It was a true report that I heard in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom.

7 Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came, and mine eyes had seen it: and, behold, the half was not told me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard.

8 Happy are thy men, happy are these thy servants, which stand continually before thee, and that hear thy wisdom.

9 Blessed be the LORD thy God, which delighted in thee, to set thee on the throne of Israel: because the LORD loved Israel for ever, therefore made he thee king, to do judgment and justice.

10 And she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of Sheba gave to king Solomon.

11 And the navy also of Hiram, that brought gold from Ophir, brought in from Ophir great plenty of almug trees, and precious stones.

12 And the king made of the almug trees pillars for the house of the LORD, and for the king's house, harps also and psalteries for singers: there came no such almug trees, nor were seen unto this day.

13 And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country, she and her servants.

Sounds pretty platonic to me. And though I can't personally vouch for it, Wikipedia informs me that the account of this story in the Qur'an is similar. There is, however, a different version that appears in an ancient compilation of Ethiopian legends called the Kebra Negast (the Glory of Kings). In this account, the Queen of Sheba, named Makeda, is seduced by Solomon. Furthermore, she is impregnated and gives birth to a son named Menelik, who grew up to become the first emperor of Ethiopia.

[As a quick aside, I was working at public TV station WGBH at the time, and was selected to be a judge in a youth writing contest. We each read submissions from a particular age group. I think I got 8- to 10-year-olds. One story was head and shoulders above the rest, and it was written by a young boy named Menelik Washington. Thus, when I read about the Kebra Negast account, I was further struck by this (cf. Moe and Curly). I recommended that Menelik be a finalist and he ended up winning the award for his age group.]

Quoting from Wikipedia: "The narrative given in the Kebra Negast - which has no parallel in the Hebrew Biblical story - is that King Solomon invited the Queen of Sheba to a banquet, serving spicy food to induce her thirst, and inviting her to stay in his palace overnight. The Queen asked him to swear that he would not take her by force. He accepted upon the condition that she, in turn, would not take anything from his house by force. The Queen assured that she would not, slightly offended by this intimation that she, a rich and powerful monarch, would engage in stealing. However, as she woke up in the middle of the night, she was very thirsty. Just as she reached for a jar of water placed close to her bed, King Solomon appeared, warning her that she was breaking her oath, water being the most valuable of all material possessions. Thus, while quenching her thirst, she set the king free from his promise and they spent the night together."

Interestingly, for the next 2,900 years, all Ethiopian emperors traced their lineage back to Menelik I, and therefore, to Solomon. The last emperor in this line was Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), who, as every reggae fan knows, is believed to be God incarnate by Rastafarians.

So it was that all these things brought to my mind the idea, "Hey, this would make a swell book." For lo, even as I am a faithful Jew, the Kebra Negast version kicks ass and the Hebrew Bible version is boring, and wouldn't it be fun to write a Biblical sex scene? I'm thinking something along the lines of Anita Diamant's The Red Tent, where the scriptural origins are taken as a springboard for imagined and invented dialogue and context. Although if I wanted to have some fun with it, throw in some scatological scat, I could use as my touchstone Joseph Heller's God Knows, where King David recounts his life while on his deathbed, replete with debauchery and anachronistic details.

In the interim, I recommend the Cassandra Wilson song most highly.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Past Projects I: Music newsletter

In February 1989, I published the premiere issue of On Reflection, a monthly newsletter on progressive rock, the musical phenomenon of the late 60s and 70s that dared suggest that Mussorgsky and Bartok could be as valid an influence for rock and roll as Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley. Key bands include Yes, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer (ELP), Genesis, Gentle Giant, Renaissance, and Gong, among many others. I wrote and published the newsletter until March 1992.

There were two reasons why I started the newsletter, and two reasons why I terminated it. The first reason for starting it was that my friends and I loved to talk about the music we loved, and progressive rock was particularly rich for both conversation and argument because it was dense, impressionistic, complex, and bombastic. The second reason for starting it was that I was working for a digital type company called Bitstream that was helping to launch the desktop publishing revolution of the late 80s, and I was eager to experiment with the new tools I had access to. The reasons for ceasing publication were that I was broke (I've never been cut out to be a businessman and I guess I either never got a critical mass of subscribers or else never charged enough to build a financial cushion), and that I was eager to broaden my musical horizons and spend more time learning about and listening to jazz, folk, and ethnic music.

The title, On Reflection, is the name of a song by Gentle Giant, which is an all-time, hall of fame favorite band of mine, right up there with Brian Wilson. This English sextet-turned-quintet was, as its name suggested, both minimalistic and maximalistic. Eschewing long jams, songs, and solos, the group has been called chamber rock, constructing a musical jigsaw puzzle by stacking short, repeated, polyphonous phrases on top of each other. In addition to the standard arsenal of acoustic and electric guitars, multiple electronic and acoustic keyboards, bass, and drums, the members played such instruments as violin, cello, vibraphone, recorder, saxophone, and trumpet. They also were expert at astonishingly complex four- and five-part vocal harmonies. Given my love for the band, and the fact that the heyday of progrock was long over (though it continues to endure below the radar), I thought the title appropriate.

Here's Gentle Giant performing that song:

During my tenure, I had the opportunity to interview a few prog musicians, including the lovely Annie Haslam from Renaissance (she began the phone interview by saying she had just stepped out of the shower, and I nearly fainted), the weird Daevid Allen from Gong, and the ambitious Derek Shulman from Gentle Giant, who at the time was president of Atco Records and now is the founder of DRT Records, which has reissued a few Giant titles.

Check out Haslam's astounding vocal gymnastics:

After I called it a day, a subscriber named John Collinge, who had been a reporter for the Lowell Sun newspaper, asked if he could resurrect it. I helped him with his first two issues and he has grown it into a much more professional-looking publication called Progression Magazine.

Letting my mother die

Sorry for two bummer posts in a row, but today would have been my mother's 75th birthday. She died in 1999, two days shy of her 66th, after suffering for about 10 years with an insidious neurological disease called Dementia with Lewy Bodies, or Lewy Body Disease. You can read more about it here. Suffice to say, take the worst parts of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's, combine them in the body of someone you love, and you'll get a sense for how devastating it is.

Frankly, Mom could be somewhat ditzy and forgetful, and was no graceful creature, so we really have no idea when her symptoms started. And for years, we had no name for what was happening to her. It really wasn't until the end that it was labeled and then we had no idea what it was or what it meant. But in her last couple of years, she was completely helpless and dependent. She didn't know her family, though she did smile at familiar faces. She was unable to communicate in any way. She couldn't move. Ultimately, she couldn't make the muscular contractions required for swallowing. At that point, we had a decision to make: keep her alive through forced nutrition via a feeding tube, or suspend nutrition and hydration until she died.

This woman gave me my life. Now I had to help make the decision to terminate hers. It was only mildly ironic. Though she was as defenseless as a newborn, she had no future. There is no cure for this mind-wasting disease. What little of her physiology still functioned was not capable of providing her with a meaningful existence. With sadness and regret, my sisters and father and I agreed she had suffered enough. An IV remained in her vein to give her morphine so that she would not feel distressed as her body's batteries slowly ran out from lack of sustenance. We were told that without food or water, she would die in 1-2 weeks. If I recall correctly, she lasted 15 or 16 days.

On her last day, I said my goodbyes to her, thanked her for being such a wonderful, selfless mother, apologized for what I had to do to her, and kissed her. I sort of wanted to be there at the end, but she went when she was ready. I know that her skin was drawn tightly against the bones of her skull, but thankfully I can't produce the image in my mind. When I think of her today, she is healthy and laughing. Even on the day she died, it occurred to me that it had been a very long time since she had been that way, her real self. Lewy Body Disease is like those pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For a long time, she still looked like my mother, but if you knew her, you could tell that behind her eyes lay a soulless impostor.

A few weeks ago, my wife and daughters and I were in the Berkshires and we visited the Norman Rockwell Museum. Mom loved Rockwell, and the museum has become almost a shrine to us. As I gazed at his works, the silly minutiae of everyday life that can only be called Americana, the deeply felt images in his Four Freedoms and Civil Rights Era paintings, everything that my mother was, was there enframed. Simple, funny, unpretentious, decent, laid-back. When a staff person there, a woman in her late 60s-early 70s, saw my 2-year-old with her hair of copper wire, she said, "If Norman Rockwell were alive today, he would want to paint her. He loved red-haired children." I like to think Mom heard that and was proud.

Of course, Stella never knew her grandmother. Her older sister (by 10 years) was almost three when my mother died. Though my mother was far from her worst, the effects of the disease at that point made her stone-faced; she could walk, but had to be prodded. Mostly, her days were consumed sitting in one place, with a blank expression on her face. My older daughter Hannah was a little afraid of her, yet also had a child's wonderful sense of frank acceptance and compassion. To distinguish between her maternal grandmother, a fit one-time dancer who loved to get down on the floor and play with her first grandchild, and my mother, she called the former Grammy and the latter The Grammy Who Doesn't Smile.

The truly ironic thing is that my mother would have found that very funny.

Well, happy birthday, Mom. Sorry I didn't get you anything this year. But someday when I get published, I'll leave a copy of my book open on a table somewhere so you can drop in and read it.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

I just found out that someone I know committed suicide.

I hadn't seen her for, I don't know, a dozen years or so. We met her through a mutual friend, and when things got funky between her and our mutual friend, we sort of drifted away as well. Boston's not a big place, but somehow we never bumped into her. Since March, she had even been working for one of my clients, but none of this I knew. I also didn't know she'd had a long history of depression, and had twice before attempted suicide.

She was 43. She was 43 and very attractive. She was 43 and single, though apparently dating. She was 43 and childless, and a failed attempt at in-vitro fertilization closely preceded her suicide. She was 43, and apparently had nothing to live for. She was 43, and I guess she'll be 43 forever.

She was a guest at our wedding, 15 years ago this October. We have photos of her celebrating with us. She was happy, an enormous smile in every picture. My wife and I have a morbid kind of game we play, marking our years together by counting our wedding guests who've died. Most of them have been great aunts and uncles; only one other, my friend Marc whom I wrote about in an earlier post, was of my own generation. Marc was the youngest, but her death is somehow more shocking.

Of course, that may be illustrative of the fact that I didn't know her as well as I thought, and not at all in at least the last decade. Had I known her well, seen her often, I'd've known her struggles, sensed her pain. Maybe I would feel today as though there was something I could have done to save her; or maybe I would feel OK, knowing she finally was at peace.

How I feel now is sad. I wish I had the opportunity to say goodbye, to tell her that through the years of silence I still remembered her, thought of her. She may have felt alone, but she wasn't really. She had to know people loved her. Maybe that wasn't enough. Maybe no amount of love or caring for her could have made a difference. Maybe there was a black hole inside her, a cavity or a cancer, that sucked in or destroyed her desire to live. Maybe she knew her soul was already dead, and it merely was time to take her body with it.

I found out tonight from our mutual friend, but she took her life last Monday. Her funeral was in Ann Arbor, where she was from. There is no ceremony for me to attend, no mourning ritual that is suitable for me to perform. I can only think of her, remember her smile, regret the years that passed, and wish that her soul is at rest.

And if the dead can read blogs, maybe she'll learn that I liked her, and that I'll miss her, and that I wish it all were different, that we could go back to that day where we raised champagne glasses and smiled for a photographer trying unsuccessfully to be unobtrusive, and if I'd known it would come to this, I would have tried to be there for her, but I thought there was time, and I thought fate or chance would give us the opportunity to catch up, acknowledge that we're here together on a difficult journey, embrace and know that bonds may fray but never really break, and wish each other well until our orbits collided again.

But that never happened, and it will never happen, not on this sphere. And maybe that's the biggest regret. Because after all, this was her third attempt to kill herself. It's clearly what she wanted. So I don't regret her decision or her action as much as I regret that I was, or may have been, part of her universe of loss and disappointment, a friendship that didn't last, a relationship that had no legs, a name like so many without a presence.

And so, there's really nothing I can do, and nothing I can say, except:
I'm sorry, Susan.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Saw this last night and can't get the music out of my head

At Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires. Music is by Balkan Beatbox. Dance troupe is called Gallim Dance, piece is called "I Can See Myself In Your Pupil", choreographer: Andrea Miller.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Future Projects II: Business Book

There's almost nothing worse than a business book. The book you "have" to read because your boss tells you to. The only one I've ever enjoyed and found particularly useful is Selling The Invisible, by Harry Beckwith, and that is a book I unreservedly recommend to anyone in any way involved in marketing, whether it's in a corporate, non-profit, or self-promotional environment. The man is a true sage, even though I got pissed off at him when in his next book he ragged on Laura Nyro. I'm sorry, but you just don't do that.

Anyway, a second book I hope to recommend to you one day is tentatively called, "Writers, Designers & Clients: Navigating the Devil's Triangle of Marketing Communications," by moi (normally I'd say "me" but I just got back from a few days in Montreal). This book is borne of a frustration I've had as being one member of said triumvirate, not only with designers and clients, but also with other writers, including, at times, moi.

Many are the things I've muttered under my breath or shared via internal emails that I dared not say directly to a designer with whom I'm collaborating or a client for whom I'm writing, for fear of getting fired. But the more I've stewed over these things, the more these complaints and observations have molded themselves into what I consider to be sound ideas that all three groups of people involved in the average marketing communications project would do well to heed. And so I've decided to write a book in which these pearls of wisdom are are offered in a way that is enlightening as well as entertaining, and therefore will allow to me to keep my day job in the event the book doesn't sell (because after all, if I piss off a few people but the book makes me rich, who cares?).

The book will begin with the premise that writers, designers, and clients are inherently a mismatch made in hell. Though writers and designers ought to be good communicators, and ought to understand each other, in fact they aren't and they don't. Though both exercise the creative arts, one is necessarily verbal and the other necessarily visual. And there the twain just don't meet. The biggest compliment I've ever received from a designer was that I was a writer who thinks visually. And the biggest compliment I could ever give a designer is that he or she has enhanced my message, rather than obscured it, and did so because he or she took the time to understand it first.

If writers and designers are like dogs and cats, or Hatfields and McCoys, then clients are from some different universe altogether. They may be many things but creative ain't one of them. After all, they were business majors. As a result, they lack a basic knowledge of how to communicate with, give direction to, and most important, get the hell out of the way of the creative team. The problem with clients is that they know what they need but they don't always know what they want. As a result, they're often unclear as to what messages and images will help them achieve their objectives (even though they may try to counter that by making a plethora of suggestions about colors and headlines). And because it's their money to spend, and their heads on the chopping block if the objectives aren't realized, they are inherently distrustful of the creative team and unsure of what decisions need to be made and when.

Part of the book that I'm developing now is three sets of 10 Commandments, one for writers, one for designers, and one for clients. Given that I take my own types to task, it is to be hoped that the overall work will be seen as credible and not merely one frustrated writer's personal pissing match. In fact, #1 for writers is, "Thou shalt not be clever." This is because being clever is all about a writer showing off his wit and technique without regard for the needs of the client or the integrity of the message. Writing well, I argue (convincingly, I might add), is not the same as communicating well. There's a reason Faulkner didn't write brochures (aside from the fact he was too drunk to honor a deadline). And speaking of deadlines, Commandment #1 for clients is, "Thou shalt not pluck a deadline out of thine ass."

Fortunately, I recently was named Communications Director and Board Member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. In this role, I'll be rubbing shoulders with designers by the dozen in both professional and social settings. When sufficiently lubricated, I intend to get them talking so that I can get more insight into what makes them tick (and ticked off) to further lend balance to my book.

Of course, as a writer, and the author, I fully intend to have the last word.