Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Update to earlier post: Brian Wilson and Me

Happened to be on the Facebook page today for Newbury Comics, the CD store I most frequently frequent, and the location of a Brian Wilson signing event last November, as detailed in this blog post. I noticed they had photo albums for their various in-store events, and sure enough they had 11 photos from the Wilson event. As I browsed the photos, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that ninth in the series was one of me getting my CDs signed by Brian! So I just added it to the post. You can read or reread the whole post here, or just enjoy the pic below.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Update on my new novel

This is a follow-up to my February 24, 2009, blog post, in which I discussed the fact that I had an idea for a new novel. Since beginning this blog last year, I've posted a number of new project ideas: a novel about Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; a business book about writers, designers, and clients; a book about my experience befriending a Turkish family, and others. In some cases, the post is all the work I had accomplished towards the project; in others, I actually had notes, research, an outline, or actual pages of composed prose. But for some reason I've had trouble sustaining progress on any of them.

Actually there are a number of plausible reasons: lack of time, family and work pressures that sap one's energy and inspiration, loss of interest, or intimidation at the scope or challenge of the work. I would say that any combination of those reasons are in play for all of the projects I've posted about on this blog. Except one: the latest one.

I am happy to report that I have already written more than 10,000 words (19 single-spaced pages) towards what I am continuing to call NEW NOVEL. I don't feel comfortable naming it yet because there are any number of directions it could take. I'm very much writing without a net this time. I have a plot - the first-person narrator has a recurring bad dream that he knows is caused by some issue or missed opportunity in his life that has been haunting his psyche for years but when he tries to suss out what it might be, he finds there are a number of possible suspects in the form of bad jobs, failed relationships, tragic loss, and other psychological traumas; he needs to figure out what is causing the recurring dream and try to fix it so he'll no longer be plagued by the dream - and I recently figured out what the climax will be, but I'm not sure how I'll fill the pages from where I'm at until the climax hits.

This new work is very different from my first novel, which was based on the 17th-century English folk song "Matty Groves." With that novel, which was told by an omniscient third-person narrator, the entire arc of the story already existed in lyrical form. While I created new characters, extended the tale with new scenes and situations, and added a bit of a fillip to the ending, I still was working with material that someone else had already figured out. This time out, the subject is talking directly to the reader, with almost no dialogue (so far, anyway), and the stuff he's saying comes so close to my real life that I had to ask myself if I was writing a novel or creative nonfiction.

I decided that my life is more interesting fictionalized, and it's also safer because some of what I'm writing represents very difficult, painful memories and ongoing stress, and I'm just not ready to peel all my skin off in the name of art. There's a lot of truth in what I'm writing, but it's not self-reportage and if I tried to claim it as a memoir on Oprah, I would soon enough be found out.

So while what's fictional represents a thin veneer over my first-person testimony, it's still enough to give me the freedom to make things either better than real life or worse, as the story requires.

The only drag is that when you get into a groove like this, it's almost addicting. Even tonight, it's killing me that I had to make a choice between writing the book or writing a blog post about my progress. Obviously, I chose the blog post and it's partly because I knew I could keep it short and get to bed at a reasonable hour. When I'm writing the book, I try to write at least 1,000 to 1,400 words at a sitting, and as a result, I've been up past midnight a lot lately. As it is, it's almost 11:30pm so I'm signing off for now. More updates later.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Visit to My Childhood Home

My Childhood Home I See Again
Canto 1
by Abraham Lincoln ca. 1846

My childhood's home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There's pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world
'Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that's earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle
All bathed in liquid light.

As dusky mountains please the eye
When twilight chases day;
As bugle-tones that, passing by,
In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,
We, lingering, list its roar--
So memory will hallow all
We've known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well.

Where many were, but few remain
Of old familiar things;
But seeing them, to mind again
The lost and absent brings.

The friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.

I grew up in a village of Newton, Massachusetts known as Oak Hill Park. It was conceived as a new, self-sufficient neighborhood of small, simple homes built on cleared forest and marshland for returning World War II veterans. A grid pattern of streets and cul de sacs surrounded a central field abutting an elementary school, and a row of stores - including a drugstore, supermarket, hair salon, dry cleaners, gas station, and a library - were situated nearby.

If you imagine the outer boundary streets of OHP as a square-cornered U, then my street, Wiswall Road, was one of the long sides. My parents were not original home buyers there; I think they bought in 1958 or ’59. I'll have to double-check that. I lived there from my birth in 1963 until I went to college in 1981, and I also lived there for about a year after college, from fall 1985 until spring or summer 1986. My father sold the property in the early 1990s, though he still lives in Oak Hill Park.

As a child, I explored the woods surrounding the neighborhood with my best friend, Larry. Fallen trees became our spaceships, and we claimed squatters' rights on any interesting area we happened to come across. During one adventure in the woods, we accidentally stumbled upon Brook Farm, a failed Utopian community founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley in 1841. Part of the Transcendentalist movement and influenced by the socialist philosophies of Charles Fourier, Brook Farm sold shares to investors for $500 apiece; an early investor was Nathaniel Hawthorne, though he resigned in 1842. Visitors and commentators included Thoreau, Emerson, and Poe, but the going was very difficult and after the main dwelling burned to the ground in 1846, its days were numbered.

All that remains is a print shop built by a Lutheran group in the 1870s. The only other thing to see there, which we found by happenstance during our expeditions in the woods, was Pulpit Rock, where Puritan missionary John Eliot preached to the Indians in the mid-to-late 17th century.

Anyway, my oldest daughter has to write a report on Brook Farm for school, so I decided to take her there today. We had a lovely walk in the woods, saw a garter snake darting through the dry brown leaves that were well-positioned to absorb some of the March moisture from the dirt path that took us along the Gethsemane Cemetery that now occupies the land that includes the Brook Farm site, and met with the cemetery owner who shared what he knew of the doomed community.

But that was only part of my venture back in time this day. Driving into Oak Hill Park, down Wiswall Road, and past the house I grew up in, I saw that my childhood's home was for sale. Not only that, but there was an open house going on. My daughter had never been in the house I grew up in. Together with my sister, who lives with my father, we decided to go in.

For some reason, or several reasons, I didn't want to go in and do the "I grew up in this house" routine, which I thought would be off-putting to the current owner, who is moving out in two weeks and is looking for a serious buyer willing to pay at least the asking price of $679,000. So we went in as a family of three exploring Newton and this neighborhood for the first time.

Walking in the front door, the first thing that struck me was how different it looked. The living room and dining room were completely done over, though the windows and views were all the same. Walking into the hallway, we turned left and went into the kitchen and I nearly gasped as it hadn't changed at all. Everything was the same, and I could see my mother at the stove and my father skewering meat at the kitchen table. Back down the hall, we passed the bathroom and went straight to the end, to where the mudroom led to the back/side door. This room was pretty much the same, but next to it, the faux-wood-paneled den where we watched so much television was now a bedroom.

The stairs were exactly the same, and the upstairs bedrooms were familiar though obviously looked different than when we occupied them. Interestingly enough, the two things that affected me the most were the two upstairs bathrooms. The one in the master bedroom, my parents' room, was eerily the same, including the bidet that my father had installed simply because he sold it in his plumbing and heating supply store. But that whole bedroom made me suddenly very sad and wistful about my mother. This was the room I ran to when a nightmare awoke me in the middle of the night, where I got to watch TV when I was sick. Their bathroom was where I first found my father's Playboys.

The kids' bathroom was a trip as well. Back in the day, it had very psychedelic peace-and-love wallpaper, a true period piece. Though the wallpaper was gone, the tile on the floor and walls was exactly the same and the distance from past to present seemed immeasurably minute. I looked up and saw the attic door and remembered the place where I drank my first beer (a warm Heineken Dark that a friend got from somewhere), looked at dirty magazines, and set up a clubhouse with Larry. On a small radio in that attic I first heard "We Will Rock You"/"We Are the Champions" by Queen.

Eventually, we looked around the back yard, with the woods just beyond. Had I a shovel, I knew I could have unearthed toy soldiers who perished in a long-ago battle. I recalled endless wiffle ball games, cookouts, parties. On one hand, I would like to have stayed longer, on the other I knew I had to leave. The memories were too powerful and even the happy ones are lined in black because it was in this house that my mother's illness began to consume her, and it was because of her declining mobility that my parents' sold the house. I have never been visited by my mother's ghost; until today, I didn't know that the reason is because she remains on Wiswall Road.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Night and Day with a Soprano: Tales of Ben and Lewy

The soprano Ilana Davidson performed at Boston's Symphony Hall last night with Benjamin Zander conducting the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra in Mahler's Symphony No. 2. Sharing the overwhelmed stage with another soloist, the mezzo-soprano Susan Platts; two choirs; and either 115 or 150 musicians (I couldn't hear clearly which), Ilana had to wait for at least 75 or 80 minutes of the 90-minute work before she rose and expertly sung her part in the sprawling final movement. Yet I waited far longer, because it had been months since I found out that this talented singer and I had something rather important in common: both our mothers died from Lewy Body Dementia (LBD), and we shared that awful sense that somehow our mothers suffered more than they had to. If only we, our families, and our doctors known more about the disease...the end result would have been the same, but the journey to that end might have been somewhat happier, more bearable, more dignified.

To recap, as I've done before, an early blog post of mine about my mother was posted in a forum at the Lewy Body Dementia Association (LBDA) website by someone out there in the blogosphere who came upon my blog and felt it had some value. Shortly thereafter, I joined the Lewy Body Society page on Facebook and posted the same item there. That's where Ilana found the piece. Then she wrote to me, we shared our stories, and became Facebook friends. She also had contacted the UK-based Lewy Body Society and the idea of holding a benefit recital came about.

At this point, Ilana brought me into the conversation and we met in New York last December to do some brainstorming. Then the Lewy Body Society dropped out of the picture, and the LBDA entered. I'm in Boston, Ilana's in New York, and the LBDA, headed by Kim Mitchell, is in Atlanta. We decided that the three of us should get together to see how we could help to make a difference in raising awareness and money for this terrible affliction. Ilana's performance schedule provided the time and place; she would perform in Boston on March 11, and we would meet at her hotel on March 12. And so we did.

Still reeling from the sheer power and beauty of the gargantuan performance the night before, I walked 20 minutes from my office to the hotel this morning. I arrived before Kim, which gave me and Ilana an opportunity to share our varied perspectives on the evening. The concert had been but one part of a gala evening celebrating the orchestra's 30th birthday and Zander's 70th. Just prior to the performance, there was a brief ceremony on stage during which New England Conservatory bestowed upon Zander an honorary doctorate. The commencement address would be delivered through the maestro's baton, and it was a lesson I will never forget.

Ilana was pleased with the performance, it seemed to me, and also happy to see me and meet Kim. Though we have only met twice, we have maintained a lively correspondence on email and through Facebook, we have shared difficult stories and memories of our mothers' illnesses, she has sent me copies of her CDs and I sent her some old recordings of my grandfather, which are highly valued within my family but little heard outside it, and it was nice to hear her enthusiasm for his talent. In short, while there is a fairly low barrier to entry to be someone's Facebook friend, we are also scaling the real-world wall where two people so interested may find themselves at the top and together push the barrier into the ground in an act and state of true friendship.

It helps that I like her dog and she thinks my toddler is cute. We are, however, choosing to leave the Red Sox/Yankees thing alone for the time being.

When Kim arrived at the hotel we went up to Ilana's room and while her dog alternately happily ignored us and insistently demanded attention, Kim gave us an eye-opening overview of the LBD world and the LBDA's place in it. The challenges are staggering. The FDA doesn't even recognize it as a discrete disease and therefore no drugs can legally be approved as being indicated for it. Doctors don't know how to diagnosis it and so it frequently goes under-reported or misdiagnosed. It shares a common pathological profile with Parkinson's disease, yet has a far lower public profile, so attracting funds is difficult.

The late Estelle Getty of TV's The Golden Girls is one of the very few "names" known to have LBD, and no offense to her fans but she's no Michael J. Fox. She's also not alive anymore, so she can't testify before Congress or call her well-connected friends to make big donations. Occasionally, it's revealed that some bigwig has dementia, but there are a lot of forms of dementia. It's easier to report about Alzheimer's because it's a known entity. The owner of the San Diego Chargers reported last December that he has "dementia" but it's never been identified which kind he has.

So raising awareness among the medical community and the general public is an important goal. Another is to provide a means for siloed researchers in this area to share information with each other. An immediate need is to support the caregiver community, as LBD patients require extensive care, which often falls on the family, which soon becomes burdened with the exhaustion, uncertainly, and financial burden that chronic illness imposes.

Where do we go from here? More brainstorming, fact-finding, and searching for the right person who has interest, money, and friends with both. At the outset, we are taking a long-term approach, building our capabilities slowly, hopefully growing in scale and sophistication each year, until we are able to make a significant impact in the ongoing fight to learn more about LBD and eventually find either a cure or a treatment that can effectively keep it under control.

Job One, though, is to spread the word about LBD. To learn more, check out the LBDA.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Past Projects IV: Purim Spiels

Happy Purim, everyone! If you don't already know, Purim is another one of those Jewish "someone tried to kill us, they failed, let's eat" holidays. In this case, it's an apocryphal story about a meanie named Haman whose nefarious plan is thwarted by the brave, lovely Jewess Esther, and her honest and pious cousin Mordecai. You can read all about it in The Book of Esther.

Anyway, Purim is kind of like Mardi Gras and Halloween all in one. You give food (the delectable triangle-shaped hamantaschen pastry), dress up in costumes, and engage in merry-making, notably through the staging of a spiel, or play. For a number of years, I wrote and directed a number of spiels and while I haven't done one in a couple of years, people still tell me that they enjoyed my productions.

It started many years ago when I joined to a temple in Sudbury, Massachusetts, that had a long tradition of meticulously produced spiels. A husband and wife team for whom theater was an avocation led up the effort. Seeking to get involved in the temple, and thinking it would be a fun outlet for my writing skills, I volunteered. So did several others. Our first meeting was a bit difficult. A number of people there really had not a creative bone in their body and didn't really get how to do a musical comedy. Truth to tell, neither did I but it was apparent pretty quickly that I got the hang of it right away, as most of my ideas were accepted and I was given some key scenes to write. It was based on Star Trek, and we called it Star of David Trek. In subsequent years, we also did a takeoff on the Wizard of Oz, and a Beatles-themed play called Beatle Jews.

I'd like to add just for my own sense of self-gratification that the playwright David Mamet was also a member of this temple and I heard from a friend who sat near him during one of these spiels that he laughed at one of my jokes.

There are three things a good Purim spiel should be able to accomplish: parody an existing theatrical work, tell the Purim story in words and music transposed on top of the work being parodied, and poke fun at people and issues within the temple community. It should be funny and entertaining, and thought it's a purely amateur production, attention to sets, costumes, and learning one's lines does pay off in the end.

Eventually, I left that temple and joined another one in Malden, Massachusetts, that had no such tradition of large-scale Purim spiels. Once I felt acclimated in the community, I went to the rabbi and said I'd like to put on a real show. With his blessing (and when a rabbi gives a blessing, it's a freakin' Blessing, thank you very much), I set to work writing a script, developing lyrics, and putting together a band. Though I didn't intend to be the drummer, there was no one else to do it, so I was writer, director, bit performer, and drummer. And if you think I loved doing it all myself, you're right.

The first spiel I did was named after the temple school's education director, whose first name was Aviva. The spiel was called Aviva Las Vegas and featured all Elvis tunes. We had some talented people come up with sets made from refrigerator boxes, I did the programs, we had a cast of kids and adults, the band kicked ass, and everyone had a blast. A new tradition was born.

In all, I think I did four or five of them before I left the temple a couple of years ago. My favorites were the last two: Schmaltz, based on Grease; and Godspiel, based on Godspell. The music was great, the jokes were (mostly) funny, and best of all, the community looked forward to them and everyone enjoyed themselves.

As for me, it was a ton of work, but I drank up all the praise and attention I got, and I always wrote a plum part for my older daughter, Hannah, who is a natural performer. The last two Purims, I haven't felt like seeing any spiels; I'm not sure I can enjoy one where I'm not directing from a drum throne and receiving a bouquet of flowers at the end. I'm at a new temple now, in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and I haven't raised my hand for it...yet. It may be that my Purim spiel days are behind me, but when I was doing it, I have to say I made some of the best Purim spiels the north shore of Boston has ever seen.