The chairman of the Board, and the melodies that linger

This week, we got to attend our wonderful San Francisco Symphony again for the first time in more than two years – it was an unforgettable evening of joy.  And our second concert is coming up Wednesday – a holiday musical tribute to the artistry of two giants – Frank Sinatra, and Ella Fitzgerald.  I’ve been reflecting on the power of music, universal in its ability to provide a sort of magical ticket away from the daily stresses and rebirth joy – perhaps through remembered moments, perhaps by unearthing some lesser explored part of our hearts, setting energies free to sing and dance, even if only to ourselves.  I listen to music constantly – rediscovering songs I had forgotten through streaming services, along with new artists, new voices. It lifts us, it can inspire, infuriate, renew and reveal – artists vocal and instrumental, composers and lyricists whose names deserve more recognition than the performers.  Some – a few – are timeless; we can form bonds with music that last a lifetime, that become the soundtrack to our history. 

My Mom loved music too – and as we look forward to hearing the Sinatra tribute this week, I realize how much his music meant to her throughout her lifetime. My memories of her are many, but they all have a common thread –  she suffered from debilitating pain throughout her time on earth.  Born in 1926, having me as her second child in 1958, she was already developing problems from rheumatoid arthritis after my brother’s birth 3 years prior.   She had health problems from childhood, multiple surgeries and hospitalizations, and by the time I was five, separated from my Dad, disabled and raising two boys on minimal child support and alimony.   As the years and the deterioration of her muscle strength progressed, she had to have special shoes made for her feet and became dependent on pain treatments that today’s patients happily can avoid. I remember the many nights when she would try to take care of things around the house, pushing through the pain, and the sounds of her distress and discomfort were not easily ignored – nor easily forgotten, decades later. 

This is not the “Mom” I knew – but in her day, she was quite the “pin up” girl from So Cal!

But music could somehow transform, or at least diminish, her distress into joy, in moments.  She had a pretty large collection of 78’s – big, bulky, scratched, in these sort of cardboard folio albums – along with later LP’s.  She also had held onto an upright piano, gifted from her mother who passed before my entry on the scene – and encouraged me to take piano lessons, which I did for years.  She also would occasionally peck at the keys a bit, but more often just turn on the radio.  As a teen, I remember digging through the record cabinet, wondering at the names – some I knew, many were unknown.  She didn’t listen to 70’s artists; I think her most contemporary albums were by Jack Jones and Rod McKuen (no Beatles, and certainly no rock!) – but there were many scratched 78’s and several 50’s/60’s albums by Frank Sinatra – the “Chairman of the Board”, “The Voice”, the emblem of a generation.  

It wasn’t until my 40’s, when she entered a long term care facility and I took on the years long task of cleaning and repairing her home, and the many boxes of her life that remained unopened for decades, that I began to see how much Sinatra had been part of her life.  By this time, I had become more familiar with the music of that era – certainly loving many of the songs he made popular, especially later when I started enjoying karaoke at the bars in Palm Springs.   Frank himself had passed by then – I’d seen some movies and knew a little of his history from the tributes and television coverage.  So, when I came across the boxes of photos, and the magazines, and programs – it was like a time capsule of my Mom’s love affair with his songs.  

The 1943 Hollywood Bowl program – the first “popular” artist to perform there.

It was during those years, the final few of her life, that she began to share some of her memories of the 40’s in LA – before meeting my Dad, before the ravages of health gnarled her hands and distorted her feet, keeping her in a physical prison and to a degree an emotional one as well.  Seeing pictures of her as a glamour teen, in a bathing suit, were kind of astonishing – this was not the woman who had raised me, to my eyes at least.  Growing up in Long Beach and working in that area, she had made friends with ties to Hollywood, somehow – after all, as a teenager at the outset of World War II, with so many young men leaving to fight for freedom, young women were exploring new ways of living that their parents never imagined.  She had gone on a bowling double date with Mickey Rooney, had lunch at the Paramount studios commissary with Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth one table over, and visited the home of Errol Flynn – a young woman bursting with life, and dreams and hopes of romance.  All influenced by the crooner that ruled the radio, and in time movies as well – Frank. 

A signed drawing by my Mom, clearly copied (with love) from a publicity photo.

She told me how her father took her to the Hollywood Bowl in 1943 to see Frank break with long held tradition there – somewhat controversially – performing “popular song” instead of the usual classical fare.  Years later, visiting the Bowl Museum, I heard a recording of his comments that night – it was the beginning of many ups and downs in his career, but a pinnacle for the scrawny kid from Hoboken.  My uncle, a few years her senior, was in England building glider planes for the Allies – he told me later how much all the enlisted men hated Sinatra for staying home, getting all the attention from the screaming fans.  It surprised me to see on display at the museum the same program I had found in her belongings, carefully preserved.  

A recording of Frank Sinatra’s 1943 Hollywood Bowl appearance … almost 80 years ago. You can even hear the screaming, swooning fans …. including my Mom (but probably not my Grandpa!)

She even shared how, as the president of a chapter of the Sinatra Fan Club, she had attended some of the earlier west coast radio feeds earlier in his career, from LA for the Major Bowes Amateur hour – a few of which I share here – with notations for the timing of the breaks, and songs, on the I imagine now rare scripts.  Thinking of her in Los Angeles, occasionally getting to ask for his autograph, long before the realities of life brought her elsewhere with two sons and no husband or job or car – I began to understand her life from a different perspective. 

As I enjoy the recordings of Frank today – and have retained the photos and magazines and other items, despite my brothers encouragement to sell them since at the time of his passing they had more value – I also remember the joy that those songs brought my Mom, a kind of healing, at least for a moment, a respite of sorts for her spirit.  Perhaps, when she sang along with those records, or played the radio for a special song while struggling to keep up with the responsibilities that lay on her alone, she was carried back to those moments – those hopes and dreams.  But my Mom never expressed regret that things did not work out as she had imagined – she focused on the challenges of the day, caring for us, and trying to sort through the choices we all have to make, in whatever circumstances we face.  

Unlike Mom, I never saw Sinatra perform live – at least, not that Sinatra.  After my Mom’s passing, a friend and I drove to see his son, Frank Jr., perform in Orange County – sitting a few seats away, his daughter Nancy (without her boots), knowing and reliving their own memories of their father through song.  The upcoming symphony performance is nearly sold out – a remarkable testimony to the legacy of Sinatra and Ella, the composers and artists, and the power of music to give us life.  Over two years ago, we enjoyed a similar tribute to my own favorite vocalist, Nat King Cole, and Aretha Franklin there – voices that remind us that our humanity is shared, our desires are not so different, and our yearnings unchanged from generations prior.   I am glad we can again be gathered together, celebrating not only the season, but the timelessness of music – and of the hopes that it nourishes.  My heart will sing along; I will smile, thinking, just maybe, Mom will be listening, too.  

The smallest of Mom’s signed pics – and yet, somehow, my favorite.

Wherever your week takes you – I hope you find some joy. It’s there, for the discovery – and the sharing. Until next time – thanks for stopping by to visit. You are always welcome!

It’s the season of giving – at least, it is when I post this! But, whenever you may read this, subscriptions to new posts is still a bargain – at nothing! Worth every cent and more … hopefully!

The Island of Misfit Holiday Newsletters

Do kids watch old TV shows still?  “When I was a kid” (yes, I will go there – it’s the privilege of having survived so far), Christmas shows were few and therefore a major event on one of the 3 networks – and if you had a color tv, even more exciting.  The biggest of all was “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” – created by the unique artistry and vision of Rankin Bass stop motion animation.  Although it was not my favorite – (more on that later) – it was something to look forward to.   The song, of course, is fairly short – so the story was expanded with additional characters, and adventures – including the island of misfit toys, where the playthings no one wanted were abandoned and forgotten.  Very, very sad …. Like Disney, the storytellers behind those specials knew that tales that touched our heart were not filled solely with happy thoughts. 

What was wrong with the dolly? One theory – she had no nose? The debate rages on.

And, of course, not all 60’s homes – maybe none, in fact – were like the tv sitcoms filled with laughs year-round or shimmering with Christmas lights and goodies as the kiddos awaited Santa.  I am grateful for the efforts both my parents made to give us a holiday, in the midst of great challenges; I remember the delight of opening gifts to find unexpected (and hoped for from the Sears wishbook) treasures.  The only picture I think I have with my father’s parents is with a toddler aged NormL holding a styrofoam Santa figure, with my brother alongside.  And I think the earliest color picture of me is at the foot of a Christmas tree, in our then Vacaville California home, alongside my older brother and our new treasures.  I do not remember those moments – but I remember the feeling, the yearning, the hope that “Christmas is coming” brought to my heart, and the carols we sang in the church youth choir, until the big day. 

A very faded photo of my older brother, me in diapers, and our treasures – Christmas 1958

Christmas cards were a mainstay of life then – so many would come, and my Mom would keep seemingly all of them.  Some from friends and family I never knew – some with letters describing what was happening with their own families, kids in school – before technology of mass production enabled the use of the sometimes detested, mass produced holiday newsletter.  I am glad my Mom kept so many of those handwritten notes – I have been able to share them with the children of the authors, bringing memories alive again, like quiet lights from the fireplace of a long-forgotten winter.  I am also grateful to have some of the cards from my Mom to me – remnants not only of her beautiful handwriting, but her heartfelt love.  For a few years, our church youth group tried to raise funds by sending us door to door with gigantic volumes of elegant Christmas cards, that you could order with your name imprinted – I found it difficult to walk up to my neighbors doors, often strangers, knock and show the books, asking for an order – probably the earliest realization that I was not destined for a life in sales or public relations! 

With the broad availability of pcs, home printing and more, Hallmark and other card manufacturers started to lose business to new ways of sharing sentiments. Recently my husband and I enjoyed a classic holiday episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” – from December 2001! “Season’s greetings” finds exquisite, bitter humor in the family receiving a relative’s holiday newsletter and responding with a boastful one of their own.  We laughed a lot – and I thought about it as I feel the clock ticking on our own communications for Christmas and the holidays.  I am happy to say that we still send cards – receiving fewer each year, but that’s ok – and that we have friends who walk all kinds of paths, so some are about Christmas, some about the holidays, and some are just year-end wishes.  Time constraints seem to get tighter every year – even in retirement – so I suggested that this year we get the cards out right after Thanksgiving, without a newsletter, then follow up with an email which awaits my attention this week, with a little over 3 weeks until Christmas day.  I reached out to my friends who observe, to varying degrees, Chanukah (which came early this year) directly; now my thoughts turn to what to include in a communication to our broad circle of family and friends, that many may only glance at briefly.   And time is running out ….. 

There have been years where I tried to be more creative, taking the rhythm and structure of a familiar holiday carol or song and changing the lyrics to reflect the events of the year behind; one year, I wrote a story that was essentially a follow up to “It’s a Wonderful Life” (my favorite movie), where the older angel and his protégé watched the shoppers in a snowy small town scurrying about their tasks on Christmas eve.  I cannot say what year I initially started the habit of writing – maybe 20 years ago, maybe more – and some years, like now, I resorted to email rather than print.  I imagine both are mostly passé now – we no longer receive many, and even the “family photo card” seems to be less common – many probably depend on Instagram, Facebook and other media for ease of use, immediacy or other reasons.   Yet – there have been years, whether printed or electronic, some who got my newsletter wrote back, saying they were touched, encourage, or somehow warmed by my sentiments – that feedback led me in a way to this blog, and writing to a world of strangers who might enjoy my words – including you. 

I try to avoid this kind of result – I really do!!!

The past few years, since our wedding in 2018, the newsletter became more of a cooperative effort – so I tend to not be as freeform in my approach.  My husband and I have talked about the events of the year that we want to include – nothing surprising there – and I will touch on the fact that he has a major birthday in a month that we look forward to celebrating.  There is much to be grateful for; but my heart wants to put something into that email that I find difficult to define.  Add to that the need to be respectful – rightly so – that not everyone in our lives thinks the same way about the holidays, or may even be in a place where they feel like celebrating – we have several friends that are facing immediate and severe health crises, others who have experienced loss and depression.  And it is somewhat egocentric to think that people we don’t see regularly, who were once a part of our circle of life but who are now less present in every sense, want to know about our lives and the events we enjoyed – or endured – the past year. 

Perhaps, in a way, 2021 has been for many of us like being stranded on the island of misfit toys – feeling alone, forgotten, unwanted.  Perhaps the news, the never-ending voices of panic and dissension, the latest shocking school attack or string of store break-ins, and the seemingly deepening sense that better days are too far off to see has just worn us down.  Thinking back to my church days, even into my adulthood, and the sermons and promises, the certainty and assurances that now seem even more phantom like than Dicken’s 3 Spirits of “A Christmas Carol” or Clarence of “It’s a Wonderful life” – I am not qualified, or even assured within myself, of what to turn to for answers.  Yet – it is a kind of faith to still look up, out, and believe that there is a greater hope – a more real, eternal and powerful source of love – that remains in spite of all the turmoil of this era, and this moment in my little spirit.  

I have set my goal, for this year’s email to family and friends, to not be one that belongs on the island of misfit newsletters – but to say something that reaches from my own heart, and outside of it, to our readers, in all their different paths of life.  But what do I have to offer? Sometimes I get a glimpse of what seems to be a truth, around the corner, just moving out of sight but still calling to me – keep looking, I am here.  Was that truth present in a manger?  Was it more, or less present, in any of the millions of lives and thousands of gatherings of dissimilar faiths, yearning, reaching, crying out for hope – for peace and reassurance?  Do we ignore our desire to somehow, if not grasp with finality, to approach to that sense of a sacred place that some long unused chamber of our being senses but cannot inhabit?  Those childhood wishes for Santa came from a deeper place that I think we all share. Whether the readers of whatever I end up writing have some faith, in something, or not – there is something we have in common, and that together we can celebrate as winter begins to deepen. 

Aaron, the “Little Drummer Boy” from the 1968 TV special, and his dancing animals

As I mentioned at the start, my own favorite childhood Christmas show was not Rudolph. I remember the first Charlie Brown Christmas clearly; I detested Frosty, although I cannot say why; and I loved the Andy Williams holiday shows with “Dancing bear” and the ultra large Williams family (along with the Lennon sisters!) in harmony, sweaters, and all smiles by the fireplace.  But the one that touched my heart was one that wasn’t entirely jolly, built on a foundation of less than happy family – also from Rankin Bass, the “Little Drummer Boy” as narrated by Greer Garson.  Even now, it makes my cry –a lonely orphan, his parents murdered and home burned, bitter at how the world treated him, abused by those who took advantage of him – seeking help, and finding a gathering of wanderers, shepherds, and animals in the night.  In 20 minutes or so, he finds a group of very dissimilar people kneeling in awe before a newborn, not understanding why – and he feels his own gift is not fit for a king, not good enough.  But he gives from his heart – and like all good childhood stories, reaches a happy ending.  The Vienna Boys Choir had a hit recording of the title song, still a standard – but the one I loved is less well remembered.  “One Star in the Night”.  It is quiet, reverent – and hopeful.  If there is nothing else that we can take from whatever holiday observance matters to each of us, surely hope is more precious than ever.  

But I feel a kinship to the little drummer boy, uncertain that I have a gift worth offering.  It took me a lot longer than that half hour show, but after a lifetime of beating myself (and others) up for not being perfect, good enough – I begin to see how much sometimes I am afraid to give my own offering of mere words, lacking in poetry or unique charm,  just to say that I love someone.  Because I have not been the model of love that I was taught I should be, I could be – no angel, no wise man, no holy being – and far from what was modeled as ideal within my little world in a time that now seems so long ago – I fear my heart’s attempt to just share my imperfect love, even though I don’t always call, or haven’t seen them in years, will seem like a lie. I have not lived out the love I feel; perhaps few among of has. I am a poor ambassador indeed. Yet I feel that greater love, outside of me, waiting for me to drink it in, and then let it flow on to others somehow still – and I am aware of it as being bigger than myself, or all of us.  The love that I feel is like a glow that exists outside the range of our vision but surrounds us, unseen but alive, and enduring beyond the moment, beyond the fears and frustrations, and well beyond the limits of seasons and holidays, rituals and the ancient rooted traditions that seem to take up so much energy and attention without our stopping to strip away the veneer to find the life underneath awaiting our discovery, perhaps, even where we are not looking.

Perhaps, giving what we have, simple as it may be, is the greatest gift to offer, in love

I will have to do some digging of my own to put into words something of what I feel to those who receive, and take the time to read, our short email with holiday wishes.  There are many ways of celebrating – and many who just need to know they are not alone, and to be there for them as best we can.  Sometimes, I think that for me, writing – this blog, the newsletter, a short note to a friend – is a form of prayer, of connecting with a larger hope.  Perhaps in our words, and actions,  we get beyond thinking we have “no gift to bring” the act of reaching out and saying we care, we miss you, we love you and we hope all good things for you matters in ways we cannot predict.  I will of course listen to my own favorite carols, and reflect on the teachings of my childhood, and the questions of my current years, and the mysteries in the gaps between that seem immeasurable, but there will be moments when what is now, is enough.  Whatever your own heart speaks, I hope you can listen and hear the sounds of hope, the quiet of peace, and the comfort of joy along your walk.  Thanks for sitting a while with me – I wish you, and those you love, a season of promises realized and dreams reborn – until next time. 

One Star in the night … singing silently …

You can hear the music if you listen with your heart.

One Star In The Night, Shown o’er Bethlehem,

Magic in the moment when that lonely star began its lovely song.

Angel’s lullabyOn that holy night, Sung unto a Savior who was born beneath its glow.

One Star In The Night, Rainbow in the dark,

One night to remember; that peaceful night the King of Kings was born.

“One Star in the Night”, music by Maury Laws, Lyrics by Jules Bass – from the 1968 Rankin Bass stop motion animated TV Special, “The little drummer boy”

My gift to you …. freely offered, and worth at least every penny! And – wishing you, and yours, blessings and joy in whatever celebrations you share, now and tomorrow.

A leather bar in Liberty’s shadow

This past August, we mustered our resolve and our masks to board a plane and cross the country from San Francisco to Philadelphia.  My husband was born in nearby Wilmington Delaware, and I was looking forward to finally meeting his brother and sister in law, and other family and friends. I was also very excited to be visiting the historic location of one of my favorite musicals, in which a number of men in wigs and stockings argued and danced vigorously and sometimes wittingly, railing against the injustice of those in power.   Nope, not “Hamilton”, but “1776”.   As a teen, it was the first “professional” touring musical my Dad and stepmother had taken me to see all the way in Los Angeles from Corona – and I had enjoyed the soundtrack many times. 

The trailer is awful, but the movie and music are wonderful!

But of course, it’s been 50 years since I first heard Adams, Jefferson and Franklin sing about liberty and courage, and much in our world has changed – as have I.  We were somewhat concerned initially about whether it was “safe” to go – interestingly, some of the greatest numbers of unmasked faces in public were to be seen in Wilmington, where the Biden’s are just “folk” like everyone else (well, to some).  Happily, we remained unaffected and enjoyed a wonderful trip, and as we stood in Independence Hall, and then in line to view the Liberty Bell, it had many memorable moments. 

Philadelphia too has changed much over the years, like all big cities – we took a bus tour, visited some museums, and since I had never been to the area, being a gay history buff as well as a history buff, we wandered into the area just a short stroll from where the Declaration of Independence was signed, known affectionately as the “gayborhood”.    We found a wonderful variety of eclectic shops, restaurants, homes along narrow cobbled streets – and I was delighted to pick up a few books at the nation’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore, where a few new volumes are dwarfed by several floors of older books on all kinds of subjects.   

But of all the gayborhood businesses we visited, the one that seemed the most filled with history – even though not my own – was a bar called the “Bike Stop”.   When I had taken up riding a motorcycle in my own early coming out years, I enjoyed going on rides with a gay biker club in Los Angeles, called the Satyrs (read about them here) – like many, they had formed in the years when the emerging communities formed in major metropolitan centers, offering those men who found their way to a new kind of life, and less of a sense of isolation, the opportunity for friendship, belonging, and support – and, in time, the basis of political influence, and impact beyond those areas that few predicted would ever come to pass.  

Yep, that’s me on my Indian Chief, Labor day weekend 2012 …. and yes it was loud!

The bars these men frequented, were the “infamous” leather bars, and not everyone visiting rode bikes – many just wanted sex.  Movies like “Cruising” and magazines reported a distorted view of that time and way of life – I was not part of those days but being closeted and far removed from anyone gay in my own circle, I was fascinated by the portrayals and pleasures it seemingly offered.  Now, having met men whose lives were intertwined with those events, I realize the gift that such bars and clubs offered to so many who had been rejected and left out, were deeper than the brief encounters portrayed then (and now) in more salacious publications and films.  They offered family to those that had none – to those who felt they did not belong anywhere else.  Although that history was not a part of my own – the feelings certainly were. 

Walking through this darkened bar, opened in 1982 (but with a history stretching much further back in time as shown in this excellent article), I was deeply moved.  I had known that loneliness for much of my life, and not found any sense of real community until I let myself accept those regions of my heart that others had encouraged me to crush.  Seeing the pictures of these men, relaxed, having fun, standing unashamed were more than moving to me, they were in a way, sacred.  I knew that many of these men probably, within a few years of the pictures on the wall, died of AIDS – and that others lived, and with friends and growing acceptance in other communities, worked hard to raise money for the care of those ailing, and the search for a cure. 

Various cases around the bar are barely visible – especially in the darkened corners – but the photos are still striking, fully of life and energy and joy.  The pins from various clubs and bike runs are framed;  the artwork that 30-40 years ago was cheap bar promotional material now sells for thousands of dollars in galleries, and the banners and awards that were bestowed upon those deigned representative of the aspirations and values of this niche community may no longer even be noticed by the current denizens.  Yes, bars have changed, and technology changes how like-minded people connect (or isolate); but they are also adapting to the changing populations of the city, and the mindsets and priorities of those who, different perhaps in what they seek on the outside, still long for belonging inside (click to read)

Another photo of the bar denizens in the dusty display cases – where are they now, I wonder?

I realize as a “maturing” white gay male, of my era – even though I did not take the same steps in life as the men in those photos, or many who are in my circle today – for some, serve as a bridge from that era to the future.  What I find fascinating is that no matter what the issue is, there are always going to be people who are “outsiders”, and always going to be others who label and exclude; it is to be expected, if not accepted.  And yet, within a short stroll from this building, where the numbers of men and women who congregate here, and neighboring businesses, are less dense than in the era of the cabinets filled with mementos – a very different group of men gathered and argued and debated and ultimately created a model for a society that could be more inclusive, and offer greater freedoms, in time.  It is far from a perfect union still, but it moves toward being more perfect – just as we do in our own growth. 

The August evening is settling in as we leave the Bike Shop, and return to our family’s home, soon to board a flight back to California.  The voices of the American Revolution, and the voices of the gay liberation front, and the voices of today, clamoring for change, inclusion, respect and justice, rise from the streets of Philadelphia, and our world.  I will remember the men in these photos, whose faces I never saw, but whose courage and resolve, and need, gave me a chance at a better life – and I realize I too have a responsibility to continue that pursuit of happiness for others. 

The National Aids Grove in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Although I had thought the prior paragraph was going to be the close for this post, about 4 months after my visit to Philadelphia, I find the forces of life and time that are impossible to predict remind me that December 1 was Worlds AIDS day 2021. Started in 1988, this annual commemoration of the ongoing efforts to prevent and treat AIDS, and to bring attention to the needs of those impacted by it in now 4 decades of international loss. It was the first world health day, and now, in a pandemic that again sweeps our globe, people are coming together against seemingly insurmountable hurdles, lifting one another up, just as the patrons of the Bike Stop, other bars in other cities, and an emerging community nationally and around the world built bridges. The National Aids Grove is a memorial, like so many others, to the losses and sacrifices and courage of uncounted thousands. Can we take inspiration from those who reached across their differences to offer hope? Can we set aside our expectations and our limits, our walls and our blinders – shedding the scales from our eyes – to offer love and encouragement even when we do not have answers or “fixes”? Perhaps the greater question should be – how can we not?

William Daniels – as John Adams – in 1776 – a dream for a better tomorrow – for all; we go on.

So, folks, we have reached the end of today’s journey … but more to come. See you around the corner – and remember ….

Hey, here’s a late Cyber Monday offer – heck, its good year round – if you want to stay apace with my wanderings. I love to hear from strangers who, for whatever reason, find their way here and find something that resonates. Hope you find joy today!