Thursday, September 17, 2009

Mary Travers, RIP

I remember the person who taught me the song, "John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt."

Her name was Joanne Coombs, and she was my 2nd- and 3rd-grade teacher. I recall her being a tall, thin, cheerful woman with very short blond hair. The only other thing I recall clearly about my two years in her classroom is that she frequently sang or played records to us. She was not the music teacher, but she obviously believed that music was an effective way to engage young students, and in my case, anyway, it certainly was true.

One record she played a lot was the eponymous debut album from Peter, Paul and Mary, which was released in 1962 and so at that time must have been about eight years old. But it was new to me and its effect on me was powerful. Anyone from late boomer to current toddler has had the experience of listening to PPM's sweet and highly accessible versions of classic folk tunes and having those words and melodies indelibly embedded in one's consciousness. It may have have happened in school or at camp, in the living room, the back seat of your parents' car, on TV or in concert. But that music, which has been timeless and ubiquitous for nigh on half a century, has reached us and whether we be fans of it, indifferent to it, or antipathetic towards it, that music likely will still be introduced and embraced by many generations to come.

But today, one-third of the source of that music has been stilled forever. Mary Travers, 72, succumbed to complications from treatment for leukemia, a disease she had been fighting successfully for much of the last five years. She was hired as much for her looks as for her voice (the liner notes of that first album describes the group as "Two bearded prophets of the folk idiom in league with a bright, young blonde-and-a-half"), yet it was that deep, powerful voice that could be delicate, vulnerable, and feminine on one song, and strong, accusing, and impassioned on the next, that was a key ingredient in their uniquely effective vocal blend.

Her two signature songs, "500 Miles" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane," would not have been nearly as effective if sung by crystalline female folk voices like those of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, or Judy Collins. These songs denote a sadness and weariness that demand an unprimped voice, one that is both soulful and authentic. When one sings from the heart, the voice should not come out from that perilous journey unscathed.

It's easy to minimize PPM's contribution to folk music. There is some truth, after all, to reviewer Richie Unterberger's statement on that they were "folk popularizers rather than musical innovators," although Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey have made their own notable contributions to the canon. Still, there is no shame in bringing the works of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Laura Nyro, and Fred Neil to larger audiences.

For me, personally, what I most love to do with music that moves me is to share it. And as I am too much a music snob to have allowed a Raffi album in my house when my first daughter was young, I eagerly introduced her to PPM's music and we had great fun singing along with these songs together. Now that she is nearly 13 and listening to the kind of crap that they give Video Music Awards for, she doesn't care to be reminded of the many times we played that first album in the car or watched their 25th anniversary PBS special that I have on VHS. But, as I told her today when I mentioned how sad I was that Mary Travers had died, someday, God willing, she will have a child and she will look around for music she can share with him or her, and it won't be Brittney Spears that she thinks of. It likely will be PPM.

My younger daughter just turned three, and she has already taken to the music to such an extent that she can't go to bed at night without me singing "Puff, the Magic Dragon." Because of this, it is clear that while Mary is gone, Mary's heart and soul and, most of all, her voice, will live on forever in our hearts and our souls, and yes, in our voices as well because music is indeed meant to be shared. And I guess that ultimately was what Mrs. Coombs was teaching me nearly 40 years ago. So thank you, Mrs. Coombs, and thank you, Mary Travers.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11: Eight Years Later

I remember where I was when I found out about 9/11. Right where I am now, at work. A colleague reported that she'd read on that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. A more bizarre occurrence was hard at that time to fathom. My initial thought was that it was a Greenpeace protest stunt gone awry. There was not a great deal of reliable information to be found on the Web, and we didn't have a television in the office. It just seemed like another strange thing going on in New York City, something that needn't interfere with my work day or my life.

Then the second plane hit.

Obviously, this was no stunt. Something was going on. I didn't articulate it at the time, but it seemed clear that we were under attack. And then my phone rang. It was my wife.

"Have you seen the news?"
"Yeah, sort of. Pretty bizarre."
"Lisa was on that plane."
"Lisa who? Which plane?"

Lisa was the sister of a friend of ours. She was on American Airlines flight 11, the first plane to hit the tower. My response, irrationally, was one of anger.

"What the hell was she doing on that plane?"

Lisa was a buyer for TJX. She and a few of her colleagues were going to Los Angeles on business. She left her husband and two daughters that morning as she often did on business trips, probably thinking of when the first time would be that she would be free to call and say she was fine and missed them.

My wife brought me back to rational action.

"I need you to come home now. I want us to pick up Hannah from day care and I want us together today."

Hannah was a month shy of five years old then. Later, I would reflect that this was the day I realized I could not protect my daughter. That despite any precaution I might take, I could not control the world or the other people in it, and so to some extent she and all of us are always vulnerable to some unthinkable catastrophe. That realization, to me, is among the more lasting tragedies of 9/11. The end of innocence. The end of thinking that America is invincible, that our boundaries are impenetrable to attack. We were exposed, and I was afraid.

I gathered my stuff and walked from my office to the subway station. Along the way, I passed a popular lunch place with televisions on the wall and large windows that allowed pedestrians on the sidewalk to see inside. A crowd had gathered to watch live news footage of the tragedy. It was there I first saw the burning buildings in real time.

As I continued to the subway station, I kept the images of the smoke and lapping flames in my mind. It reminded me that I have always been terrified of fires. When I was very young, five or six years old, I witnessed a house fire in my neighborhood. I saw the homeowners crying as the firefighters put out the blaze. I walked home and my house was empty. I became very afraid. Eventually, my mother came home and I began to cry. I was in luck, though, because she happened to have brought me a surprise: a small, plastic treasure chest bank filled with candy.

The next day, I walked back to the house that had had the fire. Windows were broken and the stench of smoke was still strong. I remember looking in the kitchen and seeing the white refrigerator painted with black streaks of soot. The fear returned. In school, the incident prompted our teacher to discuss fire safety and how to look for fire hazards in our own homes. I obsessively scoured our house and garage, becoming nearly hysterical to find paint cans in the garage. It was some time before I stopped having nightmares about fires.

Now I was in the subway station, which was eerily quiet. Every trash can looked suspicious. I looked around to see how best I could escape this underground station in the event of an emergency. It would not be easy. I looked at the other people in the station and on the train. What exactly does a terrorist look like? Some teenagers were laughing with false bravado, saying they'd kick any Arab's ass. I prayed just to make it home to see Hannah again.

The next days and weeks were filled with funerals and shivas, condolence calls, making and delivering food, and obsessively reading as much as possible about what had happened and why. Alas, the latter question may never adequately be answered.

The world changed forever that day, not just because America had been attacked, but because depravity took on a new definition. Humans not only were the targets but also the missile. Can it be the sickest minds are also the most creative? How do rational people protect themselves from irrational people? How can laws control ideologies? And why the hell did we focus on Iraq? It was all wrong, all inconceivable, all inexplicable.

And we were called upon to explain it, by Hannah. We tried to guard her from the news but she found out that the reason Lisa was gone was because someone flew a plane into a building. How did that happen? Can it happen again? We tried to explain that it was done on purpose by a very angry person who made a bad decision. And we don't understand it either. And we can only hope it doesn't happen again. And all we could do was hug and kiss our daughter and tell her that we love her, because we can only control how we feel and how we act, and though it may not be enough to ward off danger, it's all we can do, and it's all I want to do today.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Turks

Here is a short piece of creative nonfiction I began last year. It's still not complete, there is much more to say about my family's relationship with a Turkish family who lived in our neighborhood for two years, but I've worked it into an essay of bloggable length. Hope you like it.

I can tell she’s Turkish. I’ve learned the skin tone. Not that they’re all quite the same shade, but there’s a quality, almost a shininess, to their skin. Of course, Turkey spans from the Mediterranean to the Middle East, so there are millennia of miscegenations that resulted in this clean, bright complexion that is flawless as eggshell with subtle hues of olive and turmeric.

Just a few years ago, I would have been none the wiser as to the woman’s ethnicity; I might even have thought she was jaundiced or had a fading tan. Her silence I would have taken for shyness. Yet now, after spending considerable time with a few Turkish families, and becoming close friends with one, I know just from her skin tone that she is Turkish, and that her silence is part pride and part fear. She knows very little English, if any at all, yet she knows that Americans – even eight years after 9/11 – can be suspicious of people who are not clearly one thing or another, neither white nor black nor Asian nor Latino. She tries not to speak so her accent does not give her away. Nor does she want to appear unintelligent.

Yet she clearly needs help. We are in the grocery store and she is eyeing a container of bulgur wheat on the top shelf that her small frame prevents her from reaching. She doesn’t look at me, doesn’t ask me even with her eyes if I would use my six-foot height to hand her the box. But I figure if I do it quickly and matter of factly, with no great fuss, I can help her without her feeling any shame. And so I reach up, grab the box, and hold it out to her. She smiles slightly and gives a small nod as she takes it from me. In my limited vocabulary and poor pronunciation, I say you’re welcome as my friends taught me: “Bershay deyil.” Her eyes grow round in surprise and it’s my turn to smile. But I know I can’t deliver on the promise of bilingualism, so I continue down the aisle.

No doubt you know the phrase “he knows just enough to be dangerous.” That describes my knowledge of the Turkish language, which is beautiful to hear yet intimidating to read. Like a typical American geocentrist, I have learned a pitifully small number of phrases, whereas my friends during our two years together became quite competent in English. Nonetheless, I enjoy surprising Turkish people, especially children, when I see them around. Say “merhaba” to a Turkish child in America who wants so much to assimilate into the culture that he craves a Big Mac over his mother’s scrumptious börek, and he’ll likely fall off the playground structure he’s sitting upon.

This woman must be part of a third or fourth wave of Turkish nationals who have moved to the greater Boston area in the last few years. They have come for two-year stints, sent by the Turkish government to study international finance at Boston University. Why they chose to settle in the small, sleepy northern suburbs I’ll never understand. One would think they would become better acclimated in a more dynamic, diverse college-age community.

Yet I’ve learned that community is where you make it, and here in Melrose there is now a small apartment building that is nearly 100% Turkish-occupied. When our friends were there, we knew several other families in the building as well, but now, sadly, we’re somewhat out of the Turkish loop. Each succeeding generation of Turkish national has required less help from a local American to get acclimated. The earlier visitors had established the unwritten manual for how to get by here, including the key English phrases you must master (no doubt more street-savvy than the antiseptic classroom English they began to learn in Turkey, and which is part of an ongoing requirement at B.U.), how to get to the Armenian markets in Watertown where the ingredients are more familiar, and where to find the parks and schools and libraries and movie theaters.

Observing the evolution of this neighborhood has provided me a glimpse of what my own immigrant ancestors had to endure and had to build when they settled in America. In a microcosm of the immigrant experience, the later Turkish arrivals have benefited from the difficulties and sacrifices of the earlier ones. The later ones perhaps don’t need to establish a friendship like our friends did with us. We helped them immeasurably and I’m sure the small kitchen table we gave them continues to be passed around to newer families.

In a way, then, the newer families are like the children and grandchildren of our friends, yet they also are ours, too. But now they have stronger wings and don’t need us, and they can go about their lives with less intervention from locals like ourselves. Except for the fact that this one Turkish woman was short and I was tall, I would have no knowledge of – nor be any use to – her or her family, or the compatriots in her displaced community.

Let me tell you about our friends and how we met them. Their names are Kerem and Olgun. They arrived with their daughter, Ilayda, who coincidentally was the same age as our own daughter (eight), and both at the time were only children. My wife met them because she had helped to organize a mentor family system at our daughter’s school, located a short diagonal walk across the street from our house. The school at the time had a principal who was more concerned about his tan and his suspected drinking problem than with making it easy for new families to get acclimated into the school community. My wife felt that by pairing experienced school families with newbies, it would benefit the latter and help build a stronger community overall.

Families old and new took to the idea enthusiastically, and my wife had little difficulty making matches for most of the new families. She even was able to hook up two Latino families, though there are very few in the entire city of Melrose, which historically has been largely Irish and Italian, though its first mayor was a Jew named Levi Gould. Then she came to the Turks. A Muslim family from Turkey who spoke very little English (the girl none at all), three years after 9/11 in a small city whose citizens weren’t among the more cosmopolitan and sophisticated, which until recently had had a young gay Republican mayor about whom most people would only admit publicly that he was unmarried.

My wife decided that we should be this family’s mentors. On one hand, it made sense because she is a social worker and is used to working with families from different cultures – not to mention that she’s also by definition a people person who would go to great lengths to be helpful and friendly to anyone. The fact that each family had a daughter the same age and who would therefore be in the same grade (though, as it turns out, not the same class as there were two third grades) was also a plus. My daughter, though, is much like me, which is the opposite of being a people person. It’s not that I’m a misanthrope, although I probably meet some of the criteria, but I’m just not about conversation, especially with strangers. It’s not that I’m an asshole, I’m just economical with words (when I’m speaking anyway). Joni Mitchell in her song “Talk to Me” is pleading for communication from someone very much like me: “You spend every sentence as if it was marked currency!”

My wife helped the Turks get settled in the school, though there were issues from the start. Neither the principal not Ilayda’s teacher would allow one of the parents or an independent interpreter to attend classes with her to translate for her. This was a pretty big sticking point for a while, which caused my wife, not one to criticize people too strongly, to tell me she felt the two educators were racists. They spoke about the philosophy of immersive learning, but she felt the only philosophy to which they were hewing was one of narrow-mindedness and penny-pinching.

Kerem would frequently call us that first year to recount some experience Ilayda had in school that day that seemed unfair or confusing to her. We would listen to their side of the story, try to make a judgment as to whether there was just some innocent cross-cultural mix-up going on or something potentially more intentional and sinister. If the latter, my wife would go to the school the next day and take it up with the principal and/or the teacher. I can’t say that she endeared herself to the school administration that year, but she did impress upon them that showing a little courtesy and patience with Ilayda and her family would not amount to favoritism.

Within a month or so of school starting that year, my wife invited them to our house to meet me (since I was working and my wife’s contact with the Turks was generally limited at that time to school hours, I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet them). I can’t say I was looking forward to it, but after hearing about them on an almost nightly basis, I was curious to see what a desperate Turkish family looked like.

To put it in one word, gorgeous. This family came from Central Casting. Though our daughters were the same age, Kerem and Olgun were clearly younger than we were. They were fit, trim, and totally attractive. Kerem had an athletic build, a wide, kind face, and an engaging smile. Olgun simply could stop traffic. Though a district attorney in Turkey, she could have been a model in the US. Ilayda, with her long hair and pretty face, looked like a Turkish version of our Hannah. If we could get past the anticipated communication barrier, I could easily enjoy their company.

Hannah and Ilayda went downstairs to play in our basement playroom. We learned from Hannah later that they didn’t speak to each other; Ilayda would point to certain things and Hannah would tell her what it was called, but beyond that they didn’t try to make meaning verbally. Still, they played well together, apparently, which was a not insignificant triumph for them.

We sat in the living room. My wife had prepared some snacks, cheese and crackers, nuts, lemonade, etc. They didn’t eat anything though when we encouraged them to dig in they would only say thank you. It wasn’t until later that they told us they didn’t eat because it was Ramadan, the month-long Muslim observance of daytime fasting. Strike one against the stupid Americans.

After general niceties, introductions, and stumbling small talk, my wife and Olgun went into the kitchen to make some tea. It was then that Kerem challenged me. In his faltering English, he peppered me with questions about Jews, Israel, George W. Bush, 9/11, and the war in Iraq. I was totally unprepared for the onslaught. Though he asked his questions with respect and genuine curiosity, they were hard questions to answer in a way that would not appear defensive, and in some cases I had to fight through rumor, assumption, and misinformation that he had apparently received in Turkey. It is to his credit that he wanted to fact-check it all with me rather than simply accept it and use it to prejudice himself against me as a Jew and an American.

I learned that this was very much his style. They held strong opinions about things, especially about their own country and customs, but they were critical thinkers, intellectuals who were really not at all religious. Unlike most Muslims, they drank alcohol (the marvelous raki, known as Lion’s Milk because it turns white when mixed with water and has a bite that will quickly take down an unsuspecting drinker; I gained many points by going drink for drink with him on a number of drunken nights), and I don’t know if they had any kind of prayer regimen but it certainly was not as stringent as more traditional Muslims would follow. We ourselves are Reform Jews and if there were such a thing, the Turks would certainly identify themselves as Reform Muslims. Cultural and political identity was more important to them than religious dogma.

Among his questions:
• What is the connection between Judaism and freemasonry?
• Is it true that Jews control the US government? (His assumption was that Jews comprised 20% of the US population; it’s actually less than 2%.)
• Was it true that on 9/11, Jews who worked in the World Trade Center stayed home?
• Was it true that George W. Bush was complicit in 9/11?

You can see the challenge I faced. Just to understand the questions in fractured English was difficult enough; to provide reasonable answers was daunting. From anyone else, I would have had a knee-jerk reaction of anger and accused him of anti-Semitism. But for me it was important simply to know that this is what a friendly and intelligent young man from Turkey had heard in his country (and mind you, Turkey has historically been very friendly to Jews and to Israel).

Perhaps the most difficult response I had to formulate was to the last question. Nobody thinks less of George W. Bush than I do, but I could not and would not ever accuse him of complicity in this horrific crime against humanity. Any yet, there may be historical precedent. After all, it is believed that Franklin D. Roosevelt had prior knowledge of Pearl Harbor. The motive would be the same in each case: to justify an offensive operation by allowing oneself to be the victim of an attack. Which is not to say that either Roosevelt or Bush, especially Bush, even if complicit, could have foreseen the scope of the terror and destruction that ensued. The question is, how badly did these men want to fight? I think it’s clear Roosevelt was under significant pressure from the Allies to enter the fray. Unquestionably, Bush the Younger had his eyes on Iraq since the day of his inauguration.

One thing Kerem and I could often agree on was our disappointment with the US government. My fellow Melrosians, however, didn’t care much for his criticisms of American foreign policy. As for me, I couldn’t and didn’t support anything the Bush administration did, and it was hard not to apologize on an almost daily basis for some terrible action or untruth that was coming out of Washington.

One thing we had to agree to disagree about, however, was the Armenian genocide. Along with most Turks, Kerem would not consider arguments that supported the idea that a genocide had been committed. One night, he even showed me a PowerPoint presentation that detailed the atrocities committed by Armenians against Turks. When, near the end of their tenure in America, we traveled with them to Washington, DC, they refused to join us in touring the Holocaust Museum. Indeed, evidence of the Armenian genocide is present there, in exhibits and in the bookstore.

But as I say, we agreed to disagree, and when they left Melrose to return home to Turkey, our friendship was still strong. And after all, he still knew a lot more about my country than I did about his. When we said goodbye, I reminded him of the conversation we had that first time we met and asked that he counter misinformation about Jews and Americans (as any foreigner who meets my family will soon learn, not all Americans are wealthy) when he hears it.

By the time they left, both our families had given birth to a second child, just a few months apart. These two young children represent a part of each other’s lives we know little about, and serve to magnify the distance that separates us, and how much we miss them. Someday, we hope to visit them. Then we will truly understand what their experience was like and how much courage it took for them not only to come here to live and work and go to school, but to trust us, confide in us, and love us. I like to think that they were lucky to have found people like us, but I know that we were just as lucky to have found them.