Index: Below is a complete list, in order, of the items on this Odds Ends page. If you’d like to find a specific piece, simply copy the title from here and paste it into the “find” feature above.
June 1992 Goodbye, Mr. Bones – Remembering Percy Danforth
October 2001 What Else Can We Do?
2/15/02 The Court on the Hill
December 2002 Christmas Lights and Sounds
January 2003 What is War Like?
August 14, 2003 The Blackout
September 2003 Cos van de Ven
February 2004 The Beatles
September 2005 Finnish and Jewish: Finn Grand Fest
9/11 Five Years Later
October 1, 2006 The Hungarian Revolution: 50 Years Later
December 2007 The RFD Boys
May 2008 Return to Hungary: Part One
May 2008 Return to Hungary: Part Two
Ann Arbor, as Other See Us. Ann Arbor Observer, September 2008
11/15/2008 My Favorite Father-In-Law
May 2012 Dancing with the Stars
October 2013 Mallek’s Service
6/14/14 Steiner Graduation Address
12/29/15 Our Mother’s Voice
3/22/2016 Remembrance of Phyllis Weikart
3/26/2019 Remembrance of Jim Dapogny
2/10/2020 The Bones: A History
9/11/2021 Twenty Year Anniversary
11/12/21 Remembrance of John Mendler
12/10/21 John Mendler’s Memorial Gathering
4/8/2022 Casey at the Bat
June 1992 Ann Arbor Observer. The following short tribute was one of the first pieces of mine that the Ann Arbor Observer published. Both my wife Brenda and I have had the great good fortune of being able to work for and with John Hilton, the monthly magazine’s editor, Patricia Garcia, its publisher, and all the folks who put out this jewel of a paper. Brenda used to work in their layout department in the 1980s, and the Observer has featured her collages on its covers over twenty times since 1998. The Observer has published a great many of my previews, reviews and articles on a wide variety of subjects since this first little piece.
June 1992 Goodbye, Mr. Bones – Remembering Percy Danforth
I met Percy Danforth in 1976, after my brother Laz saw him play the bones in Donald Hall’s play, “Bread and Roses.” “You won’t believe how much music he can get out of four little pieces of wood!” Laz told me. I called Percy and asked him if he would show me how to play, and with his typical generosity, he said, “Of course.” I was not a quick study, but he was a patient teacher, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Finally, like thousands of others Percy taught, I started to get the hang of it.
We performed together dozens of times over the next sixteen years. I remember the way he’d kid around on stage: “Welcome to the rehearsal,” he’d tell the audience, then joke about “tuning” the bones—which he actually could do by adjusting them in his hands. But most of all, I remember the dreamy look on his face as he “danced” the bones, and his surprised, joyful expression when we hit the final note together. He’d laugh, shake our hands, and say, “That came out all right.” With Percy, countless times, from formal concert halls to folk festivals, coffeehouses, and schools, it came out all right—and much better than all right.
The last time we played a concert together was at a senior citizens’ Christmas party a couple of years ago. We invited him to play a few tunes with us, and Percy, at age ninety, was still in great form. The seniors, many of them years younger than he, were inspired.
On June 1, Laz and I played at Hillside Terrace, the retirement community where Percy and Frances, his wife of sixty-five years, lived. As usual, I introduced him as “the man who taught me everything I know about the bones.” I also told him what a thrill it still is for me when people come up and say, “You must have learned to play the bones from Percy Danforth—you look just like him when you play.”
He died nine days later. Goodbye, Percy. Thank you.
October 2001 What Else Can We Do?
Two weeks after September 11, I finally told Emily about what happened that day. My wife, Brenda and I had made a deliberate decision in the days following the tragedy to shield her from the news, especially the horror-filled TV pictures.
But now it was time. We knew if we did not tell her, she would hear about it from someone else. So, in the car, after school, on our way to an event where I knew it was likely to come up, I told Emily. Briefly, with a minimum of graphic details, but leaving nothing out.
It is a natural urge all parents have, to protect their children from terrifying images and frightening stories. To wait as long as possible to expose them to the sometimes cruel, unbearably sad realities of our world. My mother waited till I was sixteen before she told me about my father’s and her own Holocaust losses. The information she gave me that day was too vast, too incomprehensible. I asked few questions. She and I rarely talked about it again, and more than thirty years went by before I was finally able to talk about that subject with my father.
Now, in the car, my seven year old Emily also only asked a few questions. “How far is New York? When did this happen?”
We were driving on one of Ann Arbor’s main boulevards and I began pointing out the many American flags and the God Bless America signs and told Emily that these were some ways that people were trying to express their support of our country and for the people who lost friends and relatives. We stopped at a busy intersection, where members of the Ann Arbor Fire Department were collecting donations. I waved one of them over to our car and put all the cash I had into the tall boot he held out. After the light changed and I drove away, I told Emily about the firefighters in New York and how the money I gave would help their families. She said, “Dad, what can I do?”
I was touched and also relieved. There was no fear in her question, no hidden levels of despair or helplessness.
We brainstormed. She too would make a God Bless America sign, she’d empty her piggy bank.
Then she said, “Dad, what else can we do?” I suggested we could be kind to everyone we meet. She enthusiastically amplified; “We could help people. Like if someone falls, we could help them up? Or if someone is lost, we could show them where to go?”
“Yes,” I said, “Those would be very good things to do.” Over the course of the afternoon she kept bringing up the subject and continued asking, “Dad, what else can we do?”
She didn’t ask me about forgiving and I was glad. I was not sure I would have known how to answer. It was two days before Yom Kippur. In Judaism it is customary on Yom Kippur to ask for forgiveness for any harm we may have done, and to forgive those who have harmed us. But for me, it felt too soon to forgive.
I thought of my parents. What did they do on Yom Kippur after they discovered what the Nazis had done to their families? Did they forgive? That night, after Emily was asleep, I called and asked them, first about the hijackers. Did we need to forgive them on Yom Kippur?
“No”, my father said. ”If someone comes to kill you, it is your duty to try to kill them first.”
Which was the most poetic justification for violence I’d ever heard, but not really a reply to my question, so I pressed on. Had he ever forgiven the Nazis on any Yom Kippur in the last fifty years?
“No,” my father said again. “Forgiveness does not apply to situations like that.” My mother was silent.
Perhaps they are right. Maybe forgiveness does not apply to situations like that. Nor to the events of September 11th.
Emily asked me why firemen were the ones collecting donations. I told her of the New York City firemen, and of all the other people who performed brave, kind and loving actions on that day and since. People who tried to save lives, did save lives, sometimes at the cost of their own.
And I thought again of my parents. How they and others in their families survived, while so many others were destroyed. How they were saved through the grace of God, their own personal strength and courage, and also because of the kindness of strangers who helped them, often at the risk of their own lives.
I will not desecrate the memories of the victims of either the Holocaust or of September 11 by comparing them. Yet I choose to remember, about both events, the generosity and the selfless sacrifice of strangers. I think of the words of Anne Frank. ”It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
And I think often of Emily’s question, “What else can we do?” The question has several levels, though I think she intended only one. I try to remember that one, the one without despair or helplessness.
2/15/02 The Court on the Hill The Observer published this in the June 2002 issue. It’s a history of the street my wife, Brenda and I have lived on since spring of 1987. My brother, Laz moved here with his wife, Helen in the fall of 1977.
Recently, a candidate for local political office came knocking on the doors of the six houses on Penncraft Court on Ann Arbor’s Old West Side. She told one of the residents, “I didn’t know places like this still existed in Ann Arbor. I’ve lived in this area for 25 years and I never knew this was back here.”
Most people have a similar reaction the first time they happen on the small dirt cul-de-sac, surrounded on three sides by woods. Although inside the city limits, and within earshot of the traffic on I-94 and the cheering of the softball crowds at Vets Park, the Court has the feel of a quiet country lane. Huge overhanging black walnut trees grow in the ravine that forms its southern border, separating it from Dexter Road. To the north and west a thick stand of spruce, pine, wild cherry and more walnut trees ring the Court. The tall trees provide welcome shade in the summer; covered with snow in the winters, they give the Court the look of a Hallmark card. The woods are home to much wildlife. Residents frequently see rabbits, woodchucks, raccoons, opossums, skunks, six of the seven species of squirrel that inhabit lower Michigan and, occasionally, even deer in their yards. It used to be even more so. Bill and Sunny Morse, two of the founding members of the Court, recall that in the 1940’s a Court neighbor sometimes hunted rabbits, quail and pheasants from his bedroom window.
The Court, which sits on a small ridge, was cornfields and orchard until 1941 when the first five of the six houses on the Court were built. But the story of Penncraft Court actually begins in the Great Depression. The 1929 stock market crash meant, among other things, fewer orders for cars and heavy machinery. Steel mills began shutting down; then coal mines closed in Appalachia. When the mines closed the miners were put out of company homes and were living in tents. President Hoover, himself a Quaker, remembered the American Friends Service Committee’s feeding program in Germany after World War I and asked the Quakers to set up a food program for hungry children in Appalachia. After some study of the situation the group determined that simply feeding the miners’ families would not be a long-term solution. Instead, the Friends decided to underwrite a model community, named Penncraft, on a farm site in the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, near Uniontown. There miners would build their own homes cooperatively, everyone sharing the cost of materials and contributing labor.
Of course, coal miners weren’t the only people out of work in the 1930s—college students and recent graduates were also having a tough time finding jobs. So the Quakers advertised at universities for students to live with the miners in a summer work camp at Penncraft and get hands on experience building homes. Forty students volunteered from twenty-eight different colleges and universities around the United States, with a few coming from as far away as Germany and Italy. Guy Orcutt, a U of M Ph.D. candidate in economics, was among that first group to spend the summer of 1939 at Penncraft. He was so inspired by his experiences that upon returning to Ann Arbor he enthusiastically told a number of his fellow graduate students, “We have to build our own houses!”
Orcutt found some willing listeners in an informal circle of graduate students and upper-division undergraduates, named Group Z. The group met regularly to attend and discuss plays, concerts, movies and lectures. Several of the members of Group Z were also interested in intentional communities and one of them, Louis Gosho, had even helped work on inexpensive owner-built homes in such a community in Michigan. After Orcutt returned from Penncraft, some members of Group Z began studying and exploring the possibility of forming a community and building their own homes.
For almost two years, Guy Orcutt and his fiancé Geil Duffendack, along with four friends and Group Z members Bill and Sunny Morse and Don and Margaret Lauer, would cram into the Lauers’ old Model A Ford, complete with rumble seat, and drive around the outskirts of Ann Arbor, searching for suitable land. They finally found what they were looking for in the spring of 1941 and on June 30th, along with Boy Scout executive, Walter MacPeek, they put up $2200 they’d pooled for eight acres west of Doty Avenue and north of Dexter Road.
(The original deed, dating back to March 7, 1825, is for 401 acres in what was then the District of Detroit, in Michigan Territory. The property had been deeded as a land grant to one Isaac Markham of Tompkins County, New York, and bears the name of John Quincy Adams on behalf of the government of the United States.)
Because the three couples were all drawn to different parts of the property, they had no difficulty deciding who would get which lot. And they continued to operate as a team, jointly buying a used cement mixer for $35, and all their building materials in bulk. They also tore down an old barn that stood on the property and salvaged all the wood. By saving money this way, and by planning to do most of the labor, they estimated that their houses would cost under $1000 to build, less than a third the going rate for equivalent homes. (Guy Orcutt had originally proposed that the houses would cost only $500 to build — complete with outhouses! Sunny Morse immediately announced that the Morses would not go along with a plan that did not include indoor plumbing. Guy quickly revised the cost upward to $1000.)
But when they began building their homes together, using the same system for keeping track of labor contributions that the Quakers had set up in the original Penncraft Community, heated arguments erupted. In that traditional mining community only the men worked on the buildings. Here, however, the women also helped build and soon disputes arose about whether the women’s time was equal to the men’s. An article in The Ann Arbor News on October 9, 1941 indirectly reflected the conflict. Entitled “Low-Cost Homes Being Built Here By ‘U’ Students”, the article also noted in a somewhat bemused and surprised tone in the subtitle, “Wives Work Right Along With Husbands in Constructing Homes.” The article didn’t cite any of the women by their first names but referred to them only as Mrs. and their husbands’ last names.
Even after those arguments were resolved, and they agreed that women’s hours were equal to men’s, they ran into other difficulties.
“We started building with cement,” Bill Morse recalls now. “You fill a form with cement and when it starts to cure you move the form and do it all over again. It was like building with mud! After a day of that we’d had enough and decided to explore concrete block as another option. (We had a heck of a time getting rid of the truck full of cement bags we’d bought.) But everyone warned us we’d get pneumonia if we lived in a house like that.” So they went to visit Glen and Maxine Thompson, occupants of a concrete block home on Third Street, at the time one of the only cinder block houses in Ann Arbor. Not only did the Thompsons reassure them, but they themselves became so intrigued by the project, that they soon wound up buying one of the remaining lots on Penncraft Court and began building a home there.
All the couples drew up their own plans for their homes. Sunny Morse worked for the local architecture firm of Fry & Kasurin and was able to get some expert advice and the buildings began to go up. She remembers riding her bike to the site after work, paint cans or other materials and tools hanging from the handlebars, dinner in a hamper, and staying up half the night building. Bill Morse recalls being so sleepy one night, and it being so dark, that he inadvertently sawed himself off a roof board.
The article about them in the Ann Arbor News, and another one the following week in the Detroit News, brought car loads of curious visitors. “People drove in from Detroit on Sunday afternoons to see what these nuts from the University were doing. They were interested in what we were up to, but they also thought we were crazier than hell. We could hardly get any work done on weekends after that,” recalls Bill Morse.
There were other snags. Neighbors began worrying that property values would be driven down. “Some people on Doty street were not in favor of these houses which we were putting up for $1000,” says Sunny now. “These shacks! After all, what could you expect to build for $1000 dollars?”
When the neighbors finally saw the houses their fears about property values were laid to rest, but other rumors still flew around, of the young home builders being Communists, of them living in sin, though all but one of the couples were married and the Thompsons already had three children.
But soon after, events on the national scene assumed greater importance, and the neighbors found other things to talk about. The Morses recall listening to the radio reports of the bombing of Pearl Harbor as they were framing in the windows on their home.
And now different obstacles arose. The Court was outside Ann Arbor city limits. The city had promised the Court founders water. “People outside the city were supposed to get water if they paid double the water rates. But then the city changed its mind,” says Bill Morse. “After we got the houses up — we moved in on December 20th — we’d melt snow to flush the toilets and we filled milk jugs with water for cooking. For awhile, until it got too cold, we had a hose hooked up to one of the houses on Doty and got our water that way.” They contracted to have a 110-foot well dug, and divided the $1200 cost among the five families. It would be twenty years before they were finally hooked up to city water and sewer.
The houses were not totally finished when the young couples moved in. Guy and Geil Orcutt spent their honeymoon in their attic, the only completely enclosed part of their home.
Five houses went up on the Court that first year, all but one single story, and several sharing a similar flat roofed design. Three of the houses were almost entirely owner built, professionals only overseeing some of the plumbing and electrical work, the other two were built by contractors. The sixth went up in 1954, when Bob and Margaret Blood had a home built on the final available lot. By then some of the original founders had left and others had moved in, but there was still a strong sense of community on the Court. “The best part of living here was the lasting friendships we formed,” says Bill Morse. As children were born on the Court, the families drew even closer, and the Court community grew to include the families living on the “Court Annex,” the two houses on Doty at the entrance of Penncraft Court.
“We were like one big family,” says Bill Morse. “We got together for coffee klatches several times a week. We’d build huge bonfires and have corn roasts with corn fresh picked from our garden. Maxine Thompson planted strawberries and would invite us all to strawberry festivals.” Every year the Court neighbors exchanged Christmas gifts and they often celebrated New Year’s together.
John Ciardi, the well known poet, was a friend of the Thompsons from his student days at the University when he roomed in their pre-Penncraft Court house. Whenever he’d return to Ann Arbor he’d visit, and the Thompsons would invite their Court neighbors to meet the celebrity.
By the 1960s there were more than a dozen kids on the Court — enough for a baseball team and then some. Sunny Morse recalls, “There were lots of kids around and we shared the baby-sitting. Eventually, the older kids baby-sat the younger ones. Kids would sometimes wake up in somebody else’s house.” When Otto and Myriam Sellinger moved into the house on the corner of Doty and Penncraft Court in 1965 with their three boys and a fourth on the way, Chad Thompson, one of the Penncraft kids, welcomed them to the neighborhood by naming the occupants of each house, and then, getting to important matters, pointed to a couple of spots near the middle of the Court and said, “Here is first base and here is home.”
Over the years the Court has changed and evolved but the genetic blueprint of the founders’ sense of community seems to have shaped the character of the Court to this day. In recent years the Court community has expanded to embrace several other families on Doty and they come together regularly to celebrate each others’ birthdays and holidays. The families with young children go trick or treating together on Halloween, and some residents get together every year to serenade all the neighbors with Christmas Carols. And, as in many other neighborhoods, when anyone goes away for vacation the neighbors water plants, bring in the mail and feed the cats. When someone is ill or in the hospital, the neighbors pitch in with lawn mowing, bringing meals, and walking their dogs.
Although the Court was named after the Quaker project which inspired it, Penncraft has been an apt name in another way. Many Court dwellers, past and present, have been writers, artists and musicians. Today, in addition to three semiretired U of M professors with many published books and articles to their credit, there are four writers, two artists, three songwriters and a member of the Ann Arbor Symphony living on the Court.
From its founding, the Court has always had a Quaker connection. That connection was strengthened when Bob and Margaret Blood, prominent in Ann Arbor’s Quaker community, moved to the Court in 1954. The connection still holds today. The newest resident of the Court, Anne Ogren, who bought Bob and Margaret Blood’s home, is herself a Quaker and, bringing it full circle, turns out to be a good friend of Mike and Margaret Yarrow who ran the original Penncraft work camp that inspired Ann Arbor’s Penncraft Court founders more than six decades ago.
The Court is 61 years old now, approaching retirement age. The pine and spruce seedlings that were knee high when the original founders planted them in the early Forties, are now mature, tall trees that tower over the Court. “There were few trees or houses here when we built,” recalls Sunny Morse. “The rows of the potato fields were clearly visible. You could see all the way to Miller Avenue. We skied everywhere. One morning we woke up to find a herd of cows in our back yard.” Today, other than the patch of woods and temporary pond that encircles the Court like a horseshoe, the area is all built up with streets and subdivisions and the Court, sitting on the highest hill in the area, is like a fond grandparent looking down on younger generations. But, despite the fact that five of the eight houses (including the “Court Annex”) are home to retired people, the Court remains a very active, vibrant place, a liveliness perhaps aptly symbolized by the bright red color of five of the ten cars Court residents drive. And the Court’s youngest generation, the two children now living on the Court, along with a handful of others in the neighborhood, are forming the same kind of boisterous friendships that the founders recall from the Fifties and Sixties.
Current and former residents seem to maintain their affectionate bonds to the Court for life, and sometimes even beyond. Recently, when Maxine Thompson, one of the original Court founders, died, Susy Morse, daughter of Court founders, Bill and Sunny Morse, dug some myrtle from Maxine’s original yard and planted it on her grave. And seven years ago, when Margaret Blood moved to Philadelphia, after having lived on the Court for over forty years, she probably spoke for all Court residents when she said at her farewell party, “I cherish this place. I’ll always have it, and all of you, in my heart.”
I wrote this Penncraft Court history in 2002. There have been some changes on the Court since then.
Court founders, Bill and Sunny Morse moved from their home on the Court to the Chelsea Retirement Community in the summer of 2006 and sold their house to Tim Jeris and Robyn Mierendorf. (Tim and Robyn, and their children, Nathaniel and Olivia, literally moved up in the world, having lived a block away, down the hill on Doty, for a number of years.) Bill Morse died in 2008 and Sunny, now 100, continues to live at the Chelsea Retirement Community.
Longtime Court resident, Bob Storer also died in 2008. His son, Dave, who was born and raised on the Court, and who’d moved back from the West Coast to live with Bob a few years earlier, sold the house and moved with his wife, Leanne, to Iowa in 2009. That summer, Jennifer Barber moved in with her two young children, Elena and Noah. In late 2015, Jennifer and her children moved and a young couple, Chris and Amber moved in.
Two other longtime Court residents, Larry and Ming Berry moved to Florida in the summer of 2010 and Norma Miller, my wife Brenda’s mother, moved into their house in July. In March of 2016, Norma moved to Lurie Terrace and Suzi Peterson and Matt Steward bought the house and are in the process of renovating it.
Finally, in a modest return to the agricultural roots of the Court, there are now, since the passing of the Ann Arbor city poultry ordinance, a handful of chickens living in our and in Tim and Robyn’s back yard.
Sunny Morse, the last of the Court founders, died this morning at the age of 103.
December 2002 Christmas Lights and Sounds
It is a few nights before Christmas. Well fortified with hot cider and popcorn, six of us, two moms, two dads and two kids, have piled into our minivan for our third annual pilgrimage to visit Christmas light displays around town. We begin this private holiday season tradition, which seems to expand every year, with the streets near our home on the Old West Side. A fresh snowfall has blanketed the town and many of the side streets have not yet been plowed. Our van trails a tall, white plume and we begin singing “Jingle Bells.” Exuberant shouts of “Wow!” and “Look over there!” and soft, almost reverent “oohs” and “aahs” punctuate the rowdy, raucous, choruses as we pass brightly trimmed houses, trees and shrubs, the glimmering lights reflected and amplified by the sparkling snow.
After several repetitions of the traditional lyrics, we begin to improvise.
Dashing through the snow
In a red Ford mini van
Down the streets we go
of Ann Arbor, Michigan
Exclaiming Oooh and Aaah
At decorations bright
What fun it is to ride and sing
A touring song tonight.
Next, in response to our girls’ insistent and plaintive choruses of “Are we almost at the Austin House?” we head to the highlight of every year’s outing, the house at 1908 Austin. There are several cars already pulled over to the curb when we arrive, occupants admiring the Disneyesque light show. We park and savor the eloquent, shimmering beauty of the rooftop snowflakes, chimney stars, doorway candy cane, and the reindeer and snowman on the front lawn. We speculate on the time involved in creating the display and try to recall what is familiar and what is new and different this year.
When we reluctantly, slowly, pull away — like the pilgrims of old, who followed the stars, we too are drawn by still further lights — the kids, perhaps inspired by the crimson bulbed creature in the tableau, begin repeated, rambunctious rounds of “Rudolf, the Red Nosed Reindeer.” They, of course, remember all the words, while we grownups mumble the forgotten beginnings of lines, but come in strong on the rhyming ends.
We head over to Jewett and the two houses a block apart, festooned in zany, playful, whimsical ornaments. Is there a testosterone-inspired competitive instinct at work here? Are these seasonal male plumage displays?
Then, to the tune—and mostly just the tune—of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” we head back to the elegant simplicity of the twinkling trees of Main Street. Finally, way past the girls’ bedtime, and now serenaded by plaintive choruses of, “Are we done yet?” we head up Miller, turn on Linda Vista and then Linwood. And come upon a small group of people gathered under the bright streetlamp at the corner of Wesley and Linwood. It’s a brass sextet. Three trumpets, two trombones and one french horn. Four men and two women. They are all wearing ski hats and gloves, though one of the trombone players has his coat open and a bright red Hawaiian shirt peeks out.
They are on break, chatting with their small audience. A few kids are playing in the meager snowbanks. We stop and roll down our window. The band launches into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” The bright instruments sparkle and gleam, reflecting the glow of the streetlamp, providing their own light show to accompany the rich harmonies resounding in the otherwise silent streets. Tidings of joy, indeed. We cheer and applaud enthusiastically. Encouraged, they continue with “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.” One of the trumpet players steps in place occasionally, perhaps simply in an effort to keep warm, possibly out of force of habit from old marching band training.
We ask if they play in the neighborhood every year. Yes, it turns out, and also on Main Street during Midnight Madness. The Hawaiian shirted trombonist adds, “It’s still legal.”
We had planned to stay for only one song, but our kids’ plaintive refrains of “Can we go home now?” have been replaced by, “Can we stay for one more?” We listen to spirited versions of “Joy to the World,” “O Tannenbaum” and a gorgeous “Silent Night,” and then the band, (who informally refer to themselves as The Wildwood Park Brass Ensemble, after the original name of their subdivision) is ready to move to another corner
“Would you come to our street sometime?” we ask. There is a resounding “Sure!” and the Hawaiian shirted trombonist adds, “If someone will invite us in for eats and drinks, we’ll play until we’re served with a restraining order.”
We get a name and number. And this year we’ll add a new element to our holiday season tradition.
January 2003 What is War Like? Two months before the Iraqi War began on 3/20/2003
On the way home from school, my daughter asks from the back seat of our car, “Dad, what is warlike?” She loves language and words, and frequently asks for definitions.
“It’s when someone, or a group of people, behave in a hostile, threatening way,“ I reply.
“No dad. I said, what is war. . . like?”
She’s eight years old, and when not under the amusing delusion that she knows everything, often still operates under the even more charming one, that her parents do. I resist the temptation to rely on the “war is hell” cliché, and instead say, “You know how sometimes kids get into a fight at school? War is when whole countries get into a fight.”
“What do countries fight about?”
“Some of the same kinds of things kids do. One country may have something another one wants, like land, or…”
“You mean like when Simon and Jake both want the tire swing at the same time?”
“Exactly.” I know it’s not that simple, though it often seems just as childish, but I don’t tell her either of those things.
“Why do you ask, honey?” My wife and I, trying to protect her childhood as long as possible, have deliberately shielded her from media news stories about the buildup to war, and have not discussed the events with her.
“One of the kids at school was talking about Iraq and this guy Saddam Hussein. So what is war like?”
Of course, she was bound to hear. And undoubtedly some of the boys, who seem to know as much as the Pentagon about the military machines used in combat, have regaled her with tales of precision guided bombs, F-16s and Tomahawk Cruise Missiles.
But I know that’s not what she is asking about.
So, I tell her that I’ve never fought in a war. That I don’t know anything about war first hand. Horrifying images from “Saving Private Ryan” and Kenneth Brannaugh’s “Henry the Fifth” rise in my mind. I push them aside, refusing to be frighteningly graphic.
I don’t tell her of my paternal grandfather, her great grandfather Shaya, a decorated veteran of WWI, who served as an advance scout for the Hungarian Army. His assignment was to climb mountains and lookout towers, occasionally behind enemy lines, and report on troop movements. My father recalled that at one point in the war, the fighting was close to their town of Balassagyarmat and Shaya, who was known to be an exceptionally strong swimmer, was ordered to ferry wounded soldiers across the Ipoly River on his back. After doing this one night, he was allowed to visit his family. My father was seven then and, telling the story to me fifty years later, still shivered as he recalled his terror at seeing his father covered in blood, and how long it took him to be reassured that it was not Shaya’s blood, but that of the wounded soldiers he’d carried across the river.
I also decide to say nothing about what her grandparents endured in W.W.II concentration camps. Of my mother who, after escaping a death march from Ravensbrück, survived for weeks on potatoes she dug from abandoned gardens in burned out Dresden. Or of my father’s frostbitten toes, the only physical, visible reminder of several bitter Poland winters in a forced labor camp. Of other horrific memories and invisible scars that I know they bear, and ones I’m certain they never told. I push these images aside too. As my parents did with me, I will wait until she is older. And perhaps even then I won’t tell her all I’ve heard.
What I do say, carefully picking my way through the minefield of these images, sounds hollow and unconvincing.
She doesn’t buy it.
“Dad, I still don’t get it. Can you explain more clearly? Why are we going to war?”
I resist the urge to give voice to my feelings of cynicism, anger, and helplessness. Instead, I tell her, in carefully sanitized language, what President Hussein has done. She seizes on the word president and makes a childlike connection.
“Why on earth would the people of Iraq elect someone like that?”
Which leads us onto safer ground, an explanation of various systems of government. I begin by explaining that not all countries elect their presidents and leaders the way we do. And again resist the urge to say something bitter about how we elected our current president. Or about regime change, at home and abroad.
My dry, intellectual narration holds little interest for her. She brings the discussion back on track.
“Dad, what countries have gone to war?”
I tell her the sad truth. And then she comes to the heart of the matter.
“Dad, will you have to go fight in this war?”
“No, honey. Only young people fight in wars.” As soon as the words leave my mouth, I desperately wish I could take them back. Both because of their tragic truth and because I instantly know what’s coming next.
“Will I have to go to war?” It sounds like she means now. She is not quite four feet tall and weighs less than fifty pounds.
“No, honey, you’re too young.” Like a careless piece on a chess board, I have gotten myself snared in a trap of my own making.
“Will I have to later?” She speaks simply and matter of factly of what I find unspeakable, almost unthinkable.
I reassure her as best I can. I am not satisfied with any of my answers. And I fear I’ll have plenty more chances to practice giving better ones. If there are—or ever will be—any better ones.
September 2003 Cos van de Ven
Dr. Cosmas J.M. van de Ven makes a grimace and shudders as he recalls how, years ago, his then seven year old daughter, Natalie, came to him and, wiggling her loose tooth, asked him to pull it out. “Ugh, I hate that.” he says. A surprising squeamishness in a man who has been a physician and surgeon for sixteen years, and who still sees more blood and gore in an average day than most of us do in a lifetime.
But his reaction is also consistent with his ability, on the one hand, to empathize with his patients’ feelings while, on the other, to perform his professional duties, which sometimes necessitate that he make difficult, life and death decisions without allowing his own, or his patients’ emotions to affect his judgment or technique. It is also congruent with his ability to˘ keep separate his roles as doctor and family man. (He did not pull his daughter’s tooth.) He is an Associate Professor in the U of M Medical School’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Medical Director of Labor and Delivery, and specializes in difficult pregnancies. But at his son Raynor’s birth, a complicated breech delivery, he was, “Just a husband and dad, not medically involved at all.”
His wife, Sally, also talks about his ability to keep his work and family life separate. “His work does not follow him home, and I think that’s because he’s so honest, with himself and with everyone. He feels he’s done the best he could and so is able to leave it behind. His stressful job has not soured him. He is a very happy person. Sleeps like a baby.”
He has always known he wanted to be a doctor, but the decision to choose his area of specialization came relatively late. “Obstetrics was my last rotation prior to graduating from medical school and I just fell in love with it. I still love it. If I had it to do over again, I’d do the exact same thing.”
His choice of Ann Arbor also had to do with love. He was born in the Netherlands and but visited the US several times in his twenties, interrupting his medical school studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands to be close to his then wife-to-be, Livonia native, Sally Lang, at the time a U of M student in Economics. They had met three years earlier when Sally lived in Holland for a year as a high school exchange student. He still remembers the exact date when they met. While Sally completed her degree, Cosmas studied and did research at the U of M Medical School. Then the young couple moved back to the Netherlands so he could finish medical school. In 1986 they returned to Ann Arbor where he continued to do research for another year. Then came a four year residency at Detroit’s Henry Ford Hospital, followed by a two year fellowship at Duke before settling in Ann Arbor in 1993.
He now splits his time between clinical work, teaching and research, with the bulk of it going to the first two. “I spend several hours a day teaching, talking with Residents about patients. I love teaching. It’s a part of my work that has always felt very important.” he says with a slight Dutch accent. He was recognized as an excellent teacher early in his career, receiving teaching awards when he was still a Fellow at Duke. “I’ve always enjoyed being taught. It’s only right for me to carry that on now and teach younger people.”
One of those people, Dr. Deb Berman, now a fourth year Resident at the U of M, remembers him vividly from when she was a second year medical student here. “He taught part of the reproductive course and was the one who perked my interest in obstetrics. He was just so excited about what he does. He’s an incredible teacher, mentor, and the person you would aspire to be as a physician.”
As a maternal fetal specialist, he is called in to consult on pregnancies that are not progressing properly, or to deliver babies when normal labor has gone awry. He estimates that he has been present at over six thousand births and delivers more than four hundred babies a year.
On a typical day recently, he sees a couple in their early forties, expecting their first child. They’ve been referred to Dr. van de Ven because, although only three months along, the mother-to-be has started to show some troubling symptoms. pAfter taking a case history and examining her, he tells the couple, “I’m worried.” The symptoms, combined with the patient’s age and other risk factors, indicate that she has a higher than normal chance of developing pre-eclampsia, a serious pregnancy induced condition that can lead to seizures and liver and kidney failure. She may not be able to carry the baby to term. He is reassuring, telling them that he’ll do what he can to prolong the pregnancy as long as possible, but he doesn’t minimize the dangers.
Throughout the visit he is cheerful, upbeat, even joking, yet not flip. A good match for his patients who, because they often face frightening scenarios, are even more apprehensive than typical expecting mothers.
Later, he admits he has sometimes cried with his patients, but has also learned to control his emotions so he can perform his work effectively. He modestly acknowledges his people skills, but says he values medical skill, training and experience more. “If I needed heart surgery, I’d prefer a surgeon with lousy bedside manner and great skill, rather than the other way around.” And yet it’s his warm personality and his thoughtfulness and caring that most people notice.
Dr. Timothy Johnson, Chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. van de Ven’s boss, and the man who recruited him to the U of M in 1993, says, “He’s a wonderful physician, very up to date and our go-to guy on a lot of complicated problems, but the best part about him is his deep commitment to his patients. Our motto is, patients and family first, but Cos really walks the walk.”
In what may be the ultimate compliment to his skill and caring, “He takes care of virtually all the Residents,” says Dr. Johnson. “He manages their pregnancies, and has usually been there for the delivery. When the Residents pick someone to be their doctor. . . that tells you something.”
Two months after he first sees the patient whom he told he was worried, Dr. van de Ven’s predictions prove accurate. The mother’s condition has deteriorated to the point that he needs to check her into the hospital. He tells her, “We may need to stop the pregnancy soon.” It is much too early for the baby. He promises to try to buy as much time as he can for the five month old fetus, but makes clear that his primary responsibility is to his patient, the mother.
Now begins a precarious balancing act — constantly monitoring the mother and baby’s condition, consulting with other specialists, ordering medications to control the mother’s blood pressure and prescribing others to speed the development of the baby’s lungs and improve its chances in the event of a pre-term delivery. Finally, after a month of constant self questioning, “Am I pushing this too far? Am I compromising the mother’s health to try to save her baby?” Dr. van de Ven comes to his patient’s room with a somber face and tells the couple, “We need to operate tomorrow.” The baby now has a fighting chance and he dares wait no longer.
The following morning, in the operating room, he’s all business, no joking now, but frequently checks in with his patient who, though behind a surgical shroud, will be awake for the C-section. When he lifts the tiny baby out he shows her to the father, who has been standing next to the operating table, and says, “There is your baby, dad.” And then, as planned, he immediately hands the infant to one of the specialists from the Holden Neonatal Intensive Care Unit who has been standing by. The baby is now out of his hands, literally. Her fate is in the care of the doctors and nurses of the Holden NICU. And Dr. van de Ven’s focus is now solely back on his patient as he finishes the operation. But, later in the day he checks in on the progress of the baby and jokes with the father. “She looks like you. She’s bald too.”
In the next few weeks, while the baby is still in Holden recovering from her very premature birth, he continues to visit her regularly. When the couple comes back to the clinic, a month after the birth, for the mother’s final checkup with Dr. van de Ven, they gratefully regale him with details of their infant’s progress. And this veteran of thousands of births shakes his head from side to side and, eyes brimming, whispers, “That’s great. That’s just great.”
February 2004 The Beatles
Fifty thousand people tried to get tickets for the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS on February 9, 1964. Only 703 of them managed to see the live show that night. But 73 million more watched on TV—forty percent of the country, and the largest TV audience in history to that date.
In our living room that night, my father began grumbling about the screaming, hysterical girls in the live audience soon after the Beatles launched into “All My Loving.” Mom was the Beatles fan in our house. For weeks she’d been regaling us with, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” Dad managed to last through the somewhat more sedate, “Till There Was You,” but finally stalked out of the room at the beginning of “She Loves You.”
“This is not music,” he muttered. Of course, he was partly right, though none of us knew it till much later. It was not just music. It was also style, attitude, as the Beatles became the soundtrack of the Sixties and came to symbolize freedom, inspiration, even hope.
But, that night, about the music, my brother and I were inclined to agree with him. He’d raised us on Jewish liturgical music and Italian opera. We were musical snobs, thought ourselves above Beatlemania. The next day a girl in my ninth-grade class breathlessly asked me if I’d seen the Beatles.
I replied, “There was a show about bugs last night?”
My feelings about the Beatles eventually changed. A few years later, by which time my brother and I had decided we’d try playing folk music for a living, our father, not incorrectly, blamed the Beatles for what seemed to him our very regrettable choice of career.
Many other Ann Arbor music people still vividly recall that night, and the Beatles.
Mary Steffek Blaske, now Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Symphony, was in fourth grade then. “They were the hottest thing at Haisley.” Her dad always made popcorn on Sunday nights—she can still see the aluminum pot on the stove—and the family would gather to watch the Ed Sullivan Show.
“That night I was too excited to eat.” Her brother bought “Meet The Beatles” for her. It was her first album. She still has it.
Jim King, co-owner of King’s Keyboard, was ten. “It changed my life. From the first bar, I knew I was seeing something different.” He’d already started learning guitar, listening to Roy Orbison and Motown, but that was the night he decided to become a musician. The first record he ever bought—for ninety-five cents—was the single, “Please Please Me.”
Betsy Beckerman, who now plays folk music in schools and libraries, also bought, “Please Please Me.” “Those were the first, and only, 45s I ever bought. They just knocked me out. So many of their songs were about love. And not the tragic love, but pure love, sweet, innocent love.” She was twelve. “When I started singing traditional songs a few years later, those were the kind of songs I was drawn to.”
Blues and R&B musician, Al Hill, was almost nine years old. For him it was, “The ultimate in exciting.” He had older brothers and sisters and was an avid radio listener, everything from the Beach Boys to Ray Charles. After that night, “I stopped listening to the Beach Boys. The Beatles changed everything for me. They somehow made playing music possible. I don’t sing them in my shows now, but I still know all the songs, all the words.”
Percussionist, Aron Kaufman grew up in Manhattan and was in first grade. He’d seen Ed Sullivan on an aircraft carrier in New York harbor a few months earlier. “My younger sister walked up to him and said ‘Hi Mr. Ed Sullivan’ and he said ‘Hiya, honey.’” He remembers Ringo’s Ludwig bass drum with “The Beatles” printed on it. “It made an impression on me.” He also saw “A Hard Day’s Night” in a movie theater later that year. “The entire time there was screaming and pandemonium, from the beginning of the movie to the end. I was so annoyed. I wanted to hear the music and they were just screaming, and I went ‘like what is this?’”
Everett Armstrong, a musician, stage manager and audio engineer, didn’t see the Ed Sullivan show. He was thirteen and living in Frankfurt, Germany, where his dad was stationed as an Army Divisional Chaplain. (Among his duties had been to pastor Elvis Presley during his stint in the Army in 1958-59.) Everett saw the Beatles at the Star Club in Hamburg two years before they came to the US. “The military would organize activities for teens. You had to be twelve, I was only eleven, but…” He’d already seen Fabian and Frankie Avalon, and his mom took him to see opera in downtown Frankfurt. None of that grabbed him. “The Beatles were like, yes!” He had a guitar six weeks after he saw them.
Harmonica wizard, Peter Madcat Ruth was a freshman in high school. He does not recall the show, though his family watched it often. “I remember much more distinctly when Elvis was on Ed Sullivan in 1956. I was very young, but my brother was really into him. People were being so crazy about the Beatles and I thought, ‘what’s the big deal?’” He was, by then, playing guitar and listening to the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez. “The Beatles had no effect on my decision to play music.”
The same is true of Dave Siglin, long time manager of the Ark Coffeehouse. “I was already a starving folk musician in California. It took me several years to like them.” (He also remembers Elvis on Ed Sullivan, “Till my parents turned it off!”)
Singer, songwriter, Ann Doyle was also not swept off her feet. “I remember on TV, watching the police pulling the mobs off them and thinking to myself, “I just don’t get it.” A few years later, when the Beatles were still at their zenith, she discovered Joni Mitchell. “Joni was writing songs like “Michael From Mountains” and “Morning Morgantown.” Suffice it to say, I was a Joni fan.”
Jay Stielstra, who years later would write the very popular “North Country Opera,” was not yet playing music, “Other than singing nursery rhymes to my children.” He was thirty years old, teaching American History and coaching football at Ann Arbor High. “I remember the huge controversy over their haircuts. A few years later it seemed ridiculous, all that hullabaloo about hair.”
Singer, songwriter Dick Siegel, also remembers the hair. He was fifteen and, “I couldn’t believe that guys with hair like that were going to go anywhere. Hair was important in my neighborhood. Everybody wore big pompadours.” But he loved the music. ”It was so inviting.” A year later he formed a band and, “Some of the first music we played was the Beatles.”
Rob Martens, musician and owner of Solid Sound recording studio, was in eighth grade and studying classical viola. A year later he was playing bass in a band, trying to play Beatles songs. “We did them as soon as we could work up to them—they were just a little difficult to get right.”
Brian Brill, pianist, arranger and studio musician, was not quite five. He doesn’t remember the show but does recall his mother, a choir director, telling him many times that the Beatles didn’t sing very well. “That, especially Paul, wasn’t singing in tune.” But three years later, when “Sgt. Pepper” came out, “A friend and I would borrow it from the library. I would take it out one week, then my friend would for a week. We would trade it back and forth, so we always had it.”
Rockabilly musician, George Bedard, was eleven and didn’t see the show. He was playing trombone in his school band and didn’t get hooked on the Beatles till two years later, when he became friends with a big Beatle fan. “I was much more into Dylan, but the Beatles were certainly an influence.”
Walter Everett was nine years old and did see the show. “It was a life changing event.” He’d never heard of the Beatles until a few days before, when a ten year old neighbor of his, pointing to his eighth inch long crewcut, jokingly asked him, “So what’s with the Beatle haircut?” “I didn’t know what he was talking about. My mother had to explain it to me.” He’d already had two years of classical piano lessons by then, but, “This was the first thing musical that really got to me.” He stuck with the piano lessons, but never forgot the Beatles either. Today he is an Associate Professor of Music at the U-M. In 1982, while studying for his Doctorate, here at U-M he proposed writing his thesis on the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” “I was almost thrown out of the program.” Eventually, attitudes changed. In 1986, when he published his first scholarly article, it was on “Strawberry Fields.” A few years later, his tenure project was a two volume analytical study of the Beatles music, published by Oxford University Press. “It’s sold over 8000 copies. It can’t be only musicologists who are buying it. I often get e-mail from high school students and other non-academics, asking how they could learn more about counterpoint.” For the past fifteen years he’s been teaching music theory courses at the U-M — alongside courses on popular music.
Drummer, Muruga Booker was twenty-two and already an established musician when the Beatles arrived. With his band, “The Low Rocks” he’d had a #1 hit in 1957 with a song called “Blueberry Jam”. He would go on to play with, among others, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, Mitch Ryder, Tim Hardin at Woodstock, Weather Report, The Paul Winter Consort, Dave Brubeck, Jerry Garcia and Peggy Lee. But, in early 1964, he was in a jazz band with a balding bass player. “He grew his hair long and combed it forward. I thought it was hip and did the same thing.” Muruga’s girlfriend hated it. “That’s weird.” She finally pestered him into cutting his hair short. He watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan with her. She turned to him and said, “Why don’t you get a haircut like that?” A few years later he was in a band that played Beatles covers. And he grew his hair long.
Which is what my brother and I did, along with almost everybody else. We too, listened to “Sgt. Pepper” obsessively, and the Beatles somehow became one of our role models.
My father was horrified. “They drove your whole generation crazy!” Surely an overstatement, but not totally inaccurate. Whitley Setrakian, who along with her husband, Al Hill, plays music in the band, Whit Hill and the Postcards, says, “Of course they influenced me. They influenced everybody.” Muruga Booker says, “They helped change the world.” It’s hard to disagree with that.
August 14, 2003 The Blackout
Once the first fears faded—it’s not 9/11, part two— a delicious giddiness surfaced. Like waking up to two feet of snow, knowing there won’t be school today.
My ten-year-old nephew immediately got into the spirit. “Let’s eat all the ice cream in the freezer,” he told his mom, “so it won’t spoil.”
My wife, daughter and I ate dinner by candlelight, sadly an all too rare event in our lives. And we, too, ate the ice cream in our freezer. For my daughter’s bedtime story, I read “The Princess and the Goblin” by the light of our Coleman lantern. Then I went for a walk. It was not quite dark, so there were few stars out and no moon, but the fireflies were already blinking on and off in the dusk.
In the first block I passed three houses with people sitting on their front porches. I often walk at this time of night, and rarely see anyone sitting outside. Windows normally lit by flickering TV images now showed glimmering candles instead.
I headed downtown on Washington. Someone was setting off fireworks on Seventh a few blocks south. A man was reading in his car, engine running, windows rolled up, presumably comfortably cooled. Darkness was falling. With no streetlights, my sight was limited, but I noticed a sharpening of my other senses. Crickets, katydids and cicadas seemed louder than usual; I could smell charcoal lighter fluid and barbecue cooking.
The streets were almost deserted until I got to Café Zola where a handful of people were sitting at the outdoor tables. There were more people on Main Street, some teasing passerby who carried flashlights: “That’s cheating.” The two gas lamps at La Dolce Vita and the Chop House, usually barely noticeable among all the electric lights, cast their warm glow. Everyone who walked by commented or stopped to admire them.
The Amoco station at Main and William was doing a brisk business in soft drinks and candy bars by the light of a Coleman lantern next to the cash register. The shelves were illuminated by the headlights of a red Toyota pickup aimed at the front door. A couple of men were disappointed to learn the station didn’t sell beer.
Ashley Mews next door was brightly lit, like a lighthouse on a dark shore, but with loudly whining central air-conditioning in place of a foghorn. Across the street, the Edison Center—DTE’s offices—was dark.
An ambulance, with siren and flashing lights headed north on Main. Police cars cruised by silently, briefly illuminating the streets with flashers and searchlights.
I headed toward campus. The Maynard Parking Structure was brightly lit, but no cars were going in or out. The Diag street lamps were on, as were the lights in several of the buildings. The huge flag between the Natural Science and Chemistry buildings was brightly lit by a spotlight from each roof. Here, things seemed normal. Like moths drawn to light, people were strolling, biking, walking dogs, talking on cell phones, posing for pictures. Three people were sailing a Frisbee. Lights were on at the Graduate Library, but a computer-generated sign on the front door read, “Closed due to power emergency.” Several people were studying on the brightly lit front steps. One of them looked up and asked, “Is the power back on yet?”
I turned toward home. Near Liberty Plaza I could hear loud music. At the lowest level of the park, a quartet—drums, electric bass, guitar and vocals—was surrounded by a couple dozen dancers, hopping and jumping chaotically, like a cauldron at rolling boil. A larger group of spectators watched from the higher levels. Someone told me that three local bands were alternating sets. “They’re old school punk,” she said.
At quarter to 11, people were still coming out of Kilwin’s with ice cream. Inside, aided by flashlights, employees were scooping from the bottoms of the tubs. I bought a dish of strawberry for a dollar—usual price, $2.75, and not as large a scoop at that. They were about to close.
On West Washington, the man I’d seen earlier was still reading in his car, windows still up, engine still running. Two people were smoking on a porch, the tips of their cigarettes glowing and flaring, like fireflies.
I scanned the sky. Still no moon and the sky didn’t seem any darker, the stars any brighter than usual. Detroit Metro had been closed earlier but now I saw several planes high overhead.
At 11, I finally spotted the moon; low in the east, nearly full, and glowing a gorgeous, golden russet.
September 2005 Finnish and Jewish: Finn Grand Fest This piece was originally published in the Washtenaw Jewish News in September 2005.
Recently, I was up in the U.P. (the upper peninsula of Michigan) in Marquette, teaching the bones at Finn Grand Fest.
I can see you glancing at the masthead, looking to see if you’re still reading the Washtenaw Jewish News. Rest assured, dear reader. You are. Keep reading.
Nu, so what is Finn Grand Fest?
Finn Grand Fest is an annual celebration of Finnish music, dance, crafts and culture. It is held in various cities in the US, in areas where Finnish immigrants settled in the 19th and early 20th century. This year’s week long Finn Fest attracted 20,000 people, including many from Finland.
OK. So what are the bones?
The bones are an ancient percussion instrument. Some claim they may be the first musical instruments human beings ever played. They’re a pair of curved pieces of wood, (originally animal bones, usually ribs) that are held between the fingers and rattled to produce sounds and rhythm patterns similar to castanets. They’ve been played all over the world, in many countries and cultures for a very long time. In this country the bones attained the apogee of their popularity in the late 1800’s during the era of the vaudeville and minstrel shows. One of the main characters in those shows was Mr. Bones, who served as master of ceremonies and accompanied bands of fiddlers and banjo players with a pair of ebony bones in each hand.
Dear reader, are you checking the masthead again? Are you wondering if you inadvertently picked up a Finnish-English paper? About unusual percussion instruments? Hang in there. Keep reading.
So, fine already. You know—more than you ever wanted to probably, about Finn Fest and the bones. So what do the bones have to do with Finnish music?
You asked. So, I’ll tell you.
So why was I up in Michigan’s U.P.? Teaching the bones? At Finn Fest?
One of the organizers of the festival heard me play the bones in concert a few years ago. He is an enthusiastic budding bones player and invited me to teach the bones at Finn Fest because… well, just because.
And why are you reading this in your favorite Jewish newspaper? Is it because both the Finnish and Israeli flags are blue and white, and feature their respective religious symbols?
No. Savlanut. Patience. I’ll explain.
In preparation for Finn Fest, I brushed up on my Finnish. It didn’t take long. I knew exactly one word—sauna. But, since I speak Hungarian, I figured I might be able to understand some Finnish as the two languages, along with Estonian, belong to the same small, Finno-Ugric family of languages.
I figured wrong. Linguists may hear much in common between the two languages. I didn’t understand a word.
But, I did learn a few. Paivaa is hello, tervetuloa is welcome, kiitos is thank you, and, if you ever go to Finland it might be useful to know, haluatko menna saunaan? Would you like to take a sauna?
But, my favorite new word is sisu, which means many things; determination, perseverance, guts, whatever will get you through a tough Scandinavian winter—or any other mishugas (craziness).
Speaking of mishugas, and sisu, I didn’t get to participate in one of the highlights of the festival—the World’s Largest Sauna. Nine years ago, the last time Finn Fest was in Marquette, they managed to get 659 people into a sauna, though not into the Guinness Book of World Records. Even though they broke the previous world record of 220 people, they were disqualified because they used a tent, rather than a fixed structure. This year, still in a tent, they were trying for 700 people and 160 degrees—and another shot at the Guinness.
I didn’t sauna because one of my concerts was scheduled for the same time. I made do with 85 degrees outside, and managed to contain my disappointment. Sisu. No sweat.
But nu, you ask—again—and, dear reader, you’ve been very patient—what does all this have to do with Jewish music?
So, all right already. I’ll tell you.
I heard much music. I heard Sibelius’ “Finlandia,” I heard patriotic songs about the beauties of Finland, and I heard many traditional Finnish songs about saunas. I also heard “You Are My Sunshine,” “Edelweiss,” “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” and “The Charlie Brown Song”—all sung in Finnish. I heard a fourteen year old boy, a virtuoso on the kantele, the traditional Finnish harp, playing “Black Magic Woman” on an electric model. I heard an abundance of accordions, playing plentiful Polskas, sundry Sotiisis and manifold Mazurkkas.
And, one afternoon I heard the strains of a lovely Valssi (waltz) wafting from one of the stages. A solo accordionist was playing traditional Finnish dances—so the sign said. But, I recognized this melody. And, far as I knew, I’d never before heard traditional Finnish dance tunes. When he was done, I asked him for the name of the piece. He looked at me uncomprehendingly. He was Finnish and spoke no English. I found someone to translate for us and the musician told me it was something he’d learned from his father, and no, he didn’t know its name.
I told him I did.
And sang it for him.
Hineh ma tov u’mana’yim shevet achim gam yachad. (How good it is and how lovely for people to live as one.)
Did he know that it’s a very familiar Jewish song, I asked?
“Ei,” he said. “No.” And looked dubious.
Later, I met another Finnish musician, one who spoke fluent English. I asked her if she was familiar with this song. “Jo,” she said. “I learned it in school as a child, and I teach it to my students now.” And yes, she did know it was a Jewish song. She sang it in Finnish. Ysytavat oleme kaikki, which translates to, friends we are all.
9/11 Five Years Later This appeared in the September 2006 issue of the Ann Arbor Observer
On Friday, November 22, 1963 I was 14 years old and a freshman in high school. Like most of us, I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard of President Kennedy’s assassination. (In French class with Mr. Beckwith.) On September 11, 2001, I was 52 years old and the events of that day were similarly seared into my memories. But, much else was different. In 1963, my adult view of the world was just beginning to form; it was the first time I’d experienced a death in the family—for that’s what it felt like—and the first time I began paying attention to the news. In 1963 I had no adult responsibilities, but in 2001 I was a husband and a father. On September 11 I was out of town, in Florida visiting my parents. My mom had kidney surgery the day before. I saw the news on a TV in the hospital lounge. It was a week before I returned to Ann Arbor, driving because planes still were not flying. The whole time I worried about both my parents and about my wife and daughter back home.
This year, the fifth anniversary of 9/11, I decided to talk with people who had been about the same age in 2001 as I’d been in 1963. Since I couldn’t picture stopping people at random in the street, I asked eleven young people I knew, albeit only slightly, about their memories and reflections. All of them, of course, have vivid recollections.
Nick Taylor was three days past his 15th birthday and a sophomore in Community High. “There were a few minutes left in algebra class and the principal walked in, whispered something to my teacher who announced that the World Trade Center had been struck and was smoking.”
Lydia McMullen was 13 and in 8th grade at the Rudolf Steiner School. Steiner is a K-8 school and the teachers decided not to tell the older students because they were concerned it would trickle down to the younger ones. “I heard about it from a kid from another school on the bus on the way home. He asked me, ‘Did you hear about the two Towers?’ When I said, ‘No’, he looked at me like I’d fallen from Mars. So, to end the conversation, I said, ‘Oh yeah, the two Towers, sure.’ When I finally got home, my mom told me.”
Like the rest of us, all of the young people found it hard to absorb the news. Will Darwall was 12 and a 7th grader at Greenhills. “I remember not really knowing quite how to feel, or what to feel. I felt hollow.” Shannon Roberts was 14 and a freshman at Pioneer. “It didn’t seem real, because you see images like that in movies all the time.” Emma Raynor was 14 and a freshman at Community High. “I didn’t really know what the World Trade Center was. So, at first, it didn’t sound like a very big deal.”
None of them recall feeling concerned about their own safety, although IIsak Lussenden, who was 13 and in eighth grade at Ann Arbor Open, remembers that, “There were people in school who were really worried. ‘What if they fly a plane into our school?’ But I kept saying, ‘Nobody cares about us. We’re just a middle school in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
Many people date the television coverage of the Kennedy assassination as the watershed moment for the omnipresence of TV in our lives, and TV again featured prominently in memories of 9/11.
Natalie Vandeven was 12 and home schooled. “My dad called from work. We rushed downstairs and turned on the TV. We watched for the rest of the day.”
Nick, like a number of the others, watched CNN at school; saw the second plane hit and both towers collapse, then continued viewing at home, “Until my parents made me turn it off. They felt it was damaging to watch the same horrific events over and over.”
Even families that didn’t normally watch TV, did on that day. “My parents dragged up an old TV set from the basement and somehow made it work,” Lydia recalls. “How amazing it was that my parents were watching TV. That made it more serious. Mom watched more TV that first week than she had in ten years put together.”
Today, five years later, the teens of 2001 are finishing their schooling, beginning their adult lives, and still trying to sort out 9/11. Will. “I guess I still don’t really know what to think.”
Shannon. “My roommate at college has a poster of the skyline of NYC and you can clearly see the two towers in it. Every time I see that poster, I feel a jolt.”
They all talk of loss of innocence and disillusionment but, unlike after the Kennedy assassination, this time their vision is not only national, but global. Dustin Hennigar was 13 and in eighth grade at Ann Arbor Open. “My view of the world now is a polar opposite of what my childhood impression was.”
Tim Smith was 13 and in 8th grade at Slauson. “9/11 let us know that the US was not this unshakeable force.”
Will. “It happened at a time in my life before I’d started to think about the world. 9/11 helped me make the transition to thinking about the entire world, and not just the little microcosm that I live in.”
Jacob Wilson was 14 and in eighth grade at Rudolf Steiner School. “Thinking on it now I’m not really that surprised that it happened. The balance of wealth is so skewed in the world.”
Emma. “People say that it united our country, and in some ways that’s true, but I also think it divided us. There are people now who disagree with how we reacted, going to war and all the precautions, and other people who think we haven’t done enough, that the war on terror is very important and appropriate.”
Natalie. “My personal life hasn’t really changed, but the world feels a lot less secure now.”
Most of them, even the young women, are concerned about the draft, although all feel it’s unlikely. Jacob. “I don’t think this administration would go that far.” One young man, however, did change his career plan from pilot to pre-med.
And though their faith in government has been shaken, it’s not been lost. All who are eligible plan to vote this fall. Katharina. “I love my country and it’s a great place, with amazing ideals that are really admirable. It makes me really sad to see that our government has such a hard time living up to those ideals. It makes me kind of impatient to realize we haven’t learned from our mistakes.”
Lydia, who is entering UM this fall to study environmental protection, says that 9/11 has, “Given me motivation to go into government and try to do something, specifically about the environment. It made me want to influence the government even more.”
Katharina, who graduated in June from the Rudolf Steiner High School, will spend this year at a Camphills intentional community in Scotland, working with mentally and physically handicapped people. She hesitates to attribute her decision solely to 9/11, but clearly feels it’s a factor. “In the year or two after 9/11, as I became more involved in student led service clubs, and watching the news, reading the papers and listening to the radio, I started to develop this sense that it was important to be aware of global issues and it’s really important to help people.”
October 1, 2006 The Hungarian Revolution: 50 Years Later
Hungary has been in the news lately. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to protest their corrupt and ineffective government. I was born in Budapest and have some memories of the last time there was this kind of turmoil there.
It is fifty years ago. My brother and I are seven years old. We are playing in the enclosed courtyard of our apartment building in Budapest. Our playmates and we have constructed makeshift barricades from bicycles, garbage cans, pieces of firewood and even some chairs we’ve cajoled our parents into letting us drag down three flights of stairs. We stage mock battles with toy guns and make-believe Molotov cocktails. Our fiercest fights though, take place even before the battles begin, when we choose sides. Who will play the Soviet Army and who the Hungarian students, and other freedom fighters? No one wants to be the Ruszkiez. It is November 1956. The Hungarian Revolution is raging on the streets of Budapest. Schools and stores are closed. We haven’t been able to go outside in more than a week. (Our family, like many in Budapest, has no refrigerator or ice box. Our mother is used to buying fresh eggs, milk, and meat daily in the open-air farmers markets in the nearby plazas.) Our uncle Ervin has sneaked his way around Soviet checkpoints on his motorcycle, violating the martial law curfew, and brings our family bread and potatoes he found on the black market. Always daring, chutzpah personified, he has for years managed to own that motorcycle, a car and even an electronic repair shop, despite the Communist government’s rules forbidding private ownership.
When my brother and I aren’t playing in the courtyard, we stand on the windowsills of our apartment, trying to see some of the street fighting. Although our apartment building is only a block from the headquarters of the hated AVO, the Hungarian Secret Police, and the gunfire sometimes is close enough to rattle our windows and shake us off the ledge, we never see any of the fighting.
Possibly in response to our whining about not being allowed to play outside, our mother tells us a frightening story. A few days before, a little boy, in childish imitation of freedom fighters slinging Molotov cocktails, threw an empty bottle at the back of a Russian tank. The turret turned, machine guns blazed, the boy was killed and the tank then leveled the building where he had lived. The story, though possibly apocryphal, is easy to believe, especially the day we finally go outside after the Revolution is over and see what the Red Army tanks did to the streets and buildings of Budapest. Some people claim the destruction is worse than what the city suffered in W.W.II.
We walk with our parents down streets deserted by vehicular traffic, gaping at bombed buildings, excitedly searching for spent bullets and shells. We notice people being drawn to a still barricaded intersection. All my brother and I can see through the crowd is a booted foot lying on the cobblestones. Our mom pulls us away.
Our father is a Cantor. He leads the services at a number of synagogues in Budapest. When he goes to work the next day at the Bethlen tér synagogue, he discovers that the Soviet soldiers have shot the lock off the donation box in the lobby and emptied its contents. More disturbing, they have ripped the plush red velvet curtain from the Ark containing the scrolls of the Torah. Some members of his congregation report seeing the soldiers using the fabric to line their winter hats.
A few weeks later, a Communist official visits our second grade classroom. Making no attempt to lower his voice, he asks our teacher, “Who are the two little monkeys with beanies back there?” When my twin brother and I began attending school the previous year our father arranged that we be allowed to wear our yarmulkes in class and that we be permitted to not attend school on the Sabbath. (In Hungary at the time, schools were in session six days a week.) Every Sunday afternoon we visit one or another of our classmates and catch up on what we missed the day before. Now, one of those kids, with courage well beyond her eight years speaks up. “They’re not monkeys. They’re our friends.” Emboldened, a small chorus echoes her. The rest of the conversation between the inspector and our teacher is conducted in the hallway. No one orders us to remove our yarmulkes.
Our parents are aware that many thousands, Jews and non-Jews alike, have fled Hungary in the aftermath of the Revolution. Our father’s sister Ami and her husband Ervin, the same one who braved the Russian curfew on his motorcycle, have taken the sled my brother and I rode down snowy Buda hills, crammed whatever of their belongings would fit on it and, risking being shot by patrolling soldiers, have dragged it across the snowy border between Hungary and Austria and on to a displaced persons’ camp in Vienna. They eventually make their way to New York.
Our mother and father dare not risk making the same trip across the border with two young children. Nevertheless, the handwriting is on the wall and the message is not good. Our parents are Holocaust survivors who suffered unspeakable losses only a little more than a decade before and bitterly remember Hungarian, and Russian, anti-Semitism. They know that the Communist party has discouraged religious practice of any faith since it came into power in the Forties. They know our father’s job as Cantor will not be secure much longer. They also know that we, their children, will have limited opportunities for higher education in the informal, but very real anti-Semitic quota system. And, they know that the Red Army is still occupying Hungary.
Our parents have many memories of the Red Army during W.W.II and they are not happy ones. My father returned home in late 1944 from a forced labor camp in Poland only to find that the Red Army, which occupied his town of Kunhegyes, about an hour from Budapest, was using his house as a stable for their horses. Our mother encountered the Red Army in April of 1945. She had escaped a forced march from the Ravensbruck concentration camp on Friday, April 13, and a few days later found herself in Dresden with her sister and four other women. She vividly remembers the stench of phosphorous and burned flesh from the Allies firebombing of the city. She also remembers hiding in a deserted house as Russian soldiers roamed the streets, raping every woman they could find.
While our parents are trying to decide what to do, the border between Hungary and Austria is sealed. Enormous fences are constructed. Escaping across the border becomes even less of an option. But now another opportunity presents itself. A minor Communist bureaucrat, brought into Budapest in the wake of the Revolution and needing housing for his family, approaches our father and asks, “Do you want to go to Palestine?” (Palestine being the name Hungarians used then for Israel.) He makes our father an offer – an exit visa in exchange for our fully furnished apartment. Apartments are a very hard-to-come-by commodity in Hungary’s post W.W.II housing shortage, now made even more acute by the destruction of many buildings in the Revolution. He gives our father two days to decide.
Our parents are forced to make a wrenching but ultimately inevitable decision. We begin preparing to leave our homeland. Our mother, in an effort to ensure that we remember her native city, takes us every day to a different part of her beloved Budapest; the Fisherman’s Bastion, the Chain Bridge, Kossuth Square. By way of contrast, she even shows us what is left of the statue of Stalin, toppled by an angry mob on the first day of the Revolution – only the pedestal and the enormous boots remain.
Just days before we’re scheduled to leave, we are confronted with last minute regulations forbidding us to take new items of clothing out of the country. Our mother takes us to the park across the street from our apartment building and encourages us to thoroughly muddy our new boots in the puddles.
On the last Friday night before we are scheduled to leave Hungary, our father leads the services in the Dohány Templom, the largest synagogue in Europe. A few days later, in April of 1957 we board a train and leave our homeland to begin our new life in Israel and eventually in the US.
It’s Saturday night, about 10:30. I’m walking home from a poetry reading at the Modern Languages Building. Robert Bly and Coleman Barks, two of the grandmasters of American poetry, read their translations of Rumi, the 13thcentury Sufi mystic, with accompanying music by Marcus Wise, a fabulous tabla player, and cellist, David Darling, formerly of the Paul Winter Consort. As I stroll, I keep turning over in my mind the magnificent sounds and words I’ve just heard.
I’m on Washington Street, my favorite route to my house. It has much less traffic and is quieter than Huron, especially past downtown. I’ve lived in Ann Arbor for nearly thirty-five years and regularly walk at night, to and from my West Side home, to campus or downtown events. My wife has frequently expressed her concerns, and I’ve always reassured her that this is perfectly safe.
It’s dark. The moon was full a couple of nights ago, but I am not aware of it tonight. The streetlights are on. I count six in the block between Division and Fifth and notice that one of them is burned out. Downtown is still lively and crowded. I pass the three tents of the Arbor Brewing Company’s Oktoberfest Block Party between Fourth Avenue and Main. The Rheinlanders band, dressed in lederhosen, is oom-pahing enthusiastically and a large crowd is appreciatively dancing, singing, and drinking to the Beer Barrel Polka.
Rumi often refers to taverns, wine and intoxication in his poetry. I remember a few lines that Bly read tonight.
So just be quiet and sit down.
The reason is: you are drunk,
And this is the edge of the roof.
As happens frequently in Rumi’s poems, the words are simultaneously chilling and comic. Along with many in the audience, I laughed out loud when Bly read them earlier. Of course, Rumi uses the tavern images metaphorically to write about spiritual highs. Here too, celebrating Oktoberfest, everyone looks happy. I slow my pace and amble past.
I like to have my hands free when I walk, so I’m wearing a belly pack containing my keys, wallet, glasses, tape recorder, and a small digital camera that I’d brought to take pictures after the reading. My cell phone is clipped to my belt. I picked up a program at the poetry reading and, not wanting to crumple it into my belly pack, have tucked it into the waistband in the back of my pants. At the corner of First, I stop for the light to change. A couple comes up behind me, laughing. The young woman, slightly tipsy, asks me if I know that I have a piece of paper on my back.
I continue on Washington, under the railroad bridge, and past the Y. Creature of habit that I am, I always walk on the north side of the street. All the way up the long hill I listen to the Rheinlanders, marveling that I can still hear them, now playing Edelweiss, all the way up to Seventh Street.
I am also becoming aware of another sound. Somebody is walking behind me. The footsteps are accompanied by some mechanical noise. I don’t turn around. I am not concerned. I idly figure it is someone walking a bicycle in need of oiling or repair. Maybe that’s why he or she is walking, rather than riding. Or maybe it’s because of the long, steep hill. No alarm bells go off. I’m too engrossed in the music of the Rheinlanders.
I cross Seventh. In the first block, on my right, there is a large open lot between two houses, bordered by a high hedge. The noise is closer now. I figure the person has speeded up to pass me. Suddenly, unbelievably suddenly, there’s an arm around my neck in a chokehold. I am thrown to the ground, or maybe my legs go out from under me. For the life of me, I can’t recall later. In any case, I wind up in a sitting position and start yelling, making wordless sounds of distress, the word “help” interspersed among them. The sounds are nothing I could duplicate now, even if I tried. I am a singer and am used to projecting my voice. But now, it seems to me, I am not very loud. The chokehold tightens, but I notice that it’s not overwhelmingly strong. I manage to continue to cry out.
I am fifty-eight years old, five foot nine and 135 pounds, soaking wet. When I was a boy and it ever came to fight or flight, I usually chose flight. I’ve not had to choose in a very long time.
A wild notion crosses my mind. This is a playful friend who has recognized me from the back and is playing a joke on me. And now, seeing that the joke has gotten way out of hand, will apologize profusely. But, it’s no joke and there’s no apology. Instead, I hear a low-pitched voice growling harshly behind my head, “Shut the fuck up!” I respond, in retrospect idiotically, “What do you want?” He says, “Your wallet.” I don’t hesitate. I unzip my belly pack and take out my wallet. He reaches over my shoulder and grabs the digital camera from the belly pack and the wallet from my hand. Then he’s gone. I turn to see him scrambling onto a small bike, it looks like a kid’s bike, and pedal down the hill, back toward town.
I look after him, but he’s wearing dark clothes and quickly disappears in the night. I start walking toward home. I am not out of breath, my heart is not racing, my legs are not wobbly. My mind is what seems to be the most affected. I’m at Crest, two blocks further on, before I realize I still have my cell phone. I turned it off before the poetry reading. I power it up and dial 911. The phone makes an unusual ring tone. The connection is bad. I hear what sounds like a party. I say hello a couple of times, hang up and redial. This time I get the dispatcher. I say in a hoarse voice, “I’ve been mugged.” He asks my location. Was there a weapon? Was there a weapon implied? What was taken? Can I describe my assailant? I tell him I never saw his face, or even his build, but that from his voice I think he was black. I add that I am not even certain of that. The dispatcher asks me several times if I need an ambulance. Am I sure I don’t?
I am still talking with him when a police cruiser slowly drives up. I introduce myself to the officers. They are listening to a report coming in on their radio. The officer in the passenger seat asks me to get in the back, tells me that other officers may have spotted the man. We head down Huron toward town, fast, no sirens. Far ahead, I see flashers blinking. Just past Fifth Avenue two patrol cars are pulled over next to the AT&T building. A black man is on the ground, on his side, facing the building, hands cuffed behind him, a small bicycle on the ground near him. There are several officers standing near. We drive by slowly. I say, “That certainly could be him, but I don’t know.” The officer has been getting information on his radio and now says, no, he’s not it.
We turn around and head back up Huron, turn left on Seventh and right on Washington. The officer in the passenger seat asks me to point out exactly where the attack happened. For a second, I am confused, and he asks me, “Are you sure you crossed Seventh?” I say yes, and now I am certain and point out the spot. The officer who is driving stops the cruiser. He has not said a word since I got in the car. Now he gets out and walks around the area, shining his flashlight on the sidewalk and into the hedge. While he does, the other officer interviews me in great detail, writing my answers in a small notebook. Name, date of birth, address, phone number. He asks me to describe exactly what happened. I must be talking fast because at one point he asks me to repeat. “So, he told you, “Shut up, motherfucker?” I correct him, “No, he said, ‘Shut the fuck up.’”
“Would you recognize him?” he asks. “No. I’d recognize his voice.” He repeats, “You’d recognize his voice,” and writes it down.
He asks me to list exactly what was in my wallet; three credit cards, about eighty dollars in cash, a brand new $250 gas card, three grocery cards, (I’d just put $100 on one of them that afternoon), a few checks. The total value of what was taken, including the camera, is about $750. What is the make of my camera? I can’t remember. I just bought it a month ago. The owner’s manual is still on my desk.
The other officer gets back in the car and we drive to my house. They want to know the make of the camera.
I start to shiver a bit. Is it that I am dressed a little too lightly for the cool night air? Or is it something else? I was fine earlier when I was walking.
I ask them, “Did I do something stupid by walking alone here?” No, says the officer in the passenger seat. There is no pattern of this type of crime in this neighborhood. The officer who is driving speaks for the first time and says that I would have been safer walking on Huron. More traffic. Also, he adds, you should always be aware of what’s going on around you. I tell him I feel foolish for not turning around when I heard footsteps behind me. Things might have gone differently.
The officer in the passenger seat says, “I recognize you from somewhere. Where do I know you from?” I almost laugh out loud. I can imagine that for some people, perhaps for the man who attacked me, these would not be comfortable questions to answer. For me they are easy. I smile and tell him my brother and I play music for kids and families. He says, “Gemini, right? I’ve taken my daughter to your concerts.”
When we get to my house I ask them to park a little ways away so we don’t wake my wife and daughter. They offer to wait outside, but I invite them in and they wait downstairs while I go up to my study and get the camera manual. They write down the make and model, then remind me to cancel my credit cards and put a stop payment on the checks that were in my wallet. They add that the mugger will probably just take the cash and pitch the wallet, and that I am lucky he wasn’t driving a car. He’d have gone to Best Buy and bought a large screen TV by now, they say. I thank them, we shake hands and they leave.
It’s midnight. I call the credit card companies and cancel my cards. No one has tried to use them. Each associate who helps me ends the call by saying, “Have a good evening.”
It takes me a long time to fall asleep. I keep reviewing the details of the attack. I must have seen the man’s hand when he took my wallet, but, amazingly, I have no memory of it. I don’t know if his hand was black or white. What was I doing with my hands and arms? I must have instinctively grabbed his arm when he was choking me, but I don’t remember doing that. Nor do I remember the feel of his arm in my hands, though I do recall the sensation of it against my neck. It occurs to me that while I never saw his face, he never saw mine either. I suddenly remember that the program I’d picked up at the poetry reading is gone. It must have fallen out of my pants when I hit the ground.
The next morning, I wake a little before six, as I usually do. Doesn’t seem to matter what time I go to sleep. It takes me a minute to remember what happened the night before. I go to my study and start writing about the mugging.
I pick up my tattered Funk & Wagnalls desk dictionary. It defines “mugged” and “mugging” as “to assault, viciously and rob.” I start dissembling, denying. Was I “assaulted viciously?” I was not hurt. This was a mugging lite.
My mind may be good at parsing the distinctions between my experience and the dictionary definition, but my body knows better. I shiver the whole time I write.
When my wife wakes, we go downstairs, and I tell her. She’s wide-eyed, upset, sympathetic, and comforting. Only one very brief, “I told you I had a feeling this would happen.” I tell her that what pisses me off the most is that from now on I’ll have to think twice about walking at night. She says, “Welcome to the world of women.”
That evening we go to see a movie, The Dark Side of the Moon, at the Michigan Theater. Our usual plan is to drive down together and afterwards my wife and daughter drive home while I walk. Tonight my wife insists, and I don’t protest. We all drive home together. I’ll climb back on this horse, but not just yet.
Monday morning, I wake with a stiff neck. As I massage it I become aware of a bruise on the underside of my jaw, under my beard. I take my car in for repairs. On a low coffee table in the lobby of the car dealership a Forbes magazine draws my attention. One of the articles featured on the cover, about Bank of America CEO, Ken Lewis, is titled, “He Wants Your Wallet.”
I spend much of the rest of the morning calling my bank and putting a stop payment on the checks in my wallet and going to the Secretary of State office to get a new driver’s license.
Monday’s Ann Arbor News has a brief piece on the assault. I was not the only one mugged that night. A half-hour after I was attacked, a man barely more than half my age was assaulted by two men who not only took his wallet and cell phone, but also beat him. Mine was a mugging lite. The paper reports that the police think there may be a connection between the two attacks.
Tuesday afternoon I get a call from the main branch of the Ann Arbor District Library on Fifth Avenue. A security guard and a maintenance man have found my wallet in the fenced-in area on the side of the building, where the air conditioning units are. I walk downtown on Washington, on the north side of the street of course, past the spot where I was mugged, to pick up my wallet at the library. They also found my empty camera case. Both the camera case and the wallet are wet from the rain the past couple of days. Only about twenty-five dollars in cash, and the checks, are missing from the wallet. My driver’s license, credit cards, gas and grocery cards are all there, including the three twenty dollar bills I’d folded and secreted behind my credit cards.
I walk home. It’s still broad daylight. Halfway up the hill on Washington, a jogger overtakes me suddenly, his feet loud in the dry leaves on the sidewalk. I am startled and jump out of the way.
December 2007 The RFD Boys
The RFD Boys have been friends of mine since the late 1970s. Paul played bass with us on Good Mischief, our first recording for children in 1982, and Willard played banjo on that same recording, and a number of others, and was the engineer on nearly all of our recordings, from our first one, Songs From the Heartland in 1979, through a series of fourteen recordings of international folk dance music for the High/Scope Foundation and all the others that followed. I joined the band on stage, playing the bones, a number of times over the years and in 2007 I finally got to write about them for the Observer.
In October, 1969, when the RFD Boys played their first concert together, they were still students at the U-M, and bluegrass was as unknown here as cable TV in the Ozarks. Today it’s as common as e mail in the Appalachias, and the RFD Boys are still going strong. Though they’ve turned their degrees into full time, off-stage careers, the RFD Boys’ music has taken them all over Michigan and the Midwest, and even as far away as Germany, Austria, France, Monaco and Malta. The musicians they’ve shared stages with in the last three decades reads like a Who’s Who of bluegrass and country music; Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, The Newgrass Revival, Allison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, The Seldom Scene, Louise Mandrell and Randy Travis.
At a recent concert at the Ark, where they’ve been the house bluegrass band for the last twenty years, the audience ranged from three year olds to grandparents — people who might have gone to college with the Boys, and who are now bringing second and third generation fans. The atmosphere is party festive, the crowd clapping and stomping to the first tune and hollering out requests between songs. The more reticent write their favorites on napkins and stuff them in the red mailbox standing beside the stage. The Boys check their “mail” regularly, and, with a repertoire of nearly 750 pieces, this band is tough to stump.
They have originals, like guitarist and lead singer Charlie Roehrig’s “Sit By The River,” a lovely ode to the Charles River, and to his grandfather, who had Charlie convinced it was named after him. It’s been recorded by the Country Gentlemen and even wound up on their “Best Of” album. Charlie’s heartfelt, sincere tenor is perfectly suited to bluegrass, and decades of singing together has blended the Boys’ three, and sometimes four-part harmonies to the smoothness of Kentucky bourbon. Those harmonies sound equally fine on warhorses like “Rocky Top” and “Fox on the Run,” or on songs by Bob Dylan, John Prine and Lyle Lovett.
Paul Shapiro on bass and high harmonies, takes the deadpan lead through the twisted genealogy of “I Am My Own Grandpa”, always a favorite of RFD audiences, and fiddler Dick Dieterle sings bass and leads on hymns and sacred songs, while Will Spencer fills in on baritone and adds his sparkling banjo and dobro.
And when their voices are quiet, the Boys pump out a rousing and eclectic batch of tunes. “The Irish Washerwoman” starts out sedately enough, at a pace most Irish bands play it, but speeds up with each repeat, Dick egging the Boys on to a new land speed record in every concert. Will’s virtuoso solo banjo version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy morphs into the old timey fiddle tune, “Soldier’s Joy.” They play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” at typical breakneck pace, and also add a visual twist — literally. Picture a triple pretzel, fretting or strumming one instrument with one hand — and another with the other! Only Dick stands apart from the fray, looking bemused. A role he frequently plays, serving as MC and also straight man to Will’s irrepressible buffoon.
Though off stage the Boys all live typical modern lives, Dick and Paul are physicians, Charlie works in healthcare economics, and Will is a recording engineer, their music and jokes evoke a slower paced, simpler time. “The Orange Blossom Special”, the granddaddy of all train songs, has been their closer for more than thirty years. And while railroads have almost disappeared from the American countryside, this band shows no sign of going away. They’re staying on track and continuing to be special.
Postscript: Dick Dieterle died on February 28, 2012, but as of this writing, in February of 2020, the band has continued to perform with multi-instrumentalist David Mosher replacing Dick, and with the addition of Dan Roehrig, Charlie’s son, on guitar and vocals.
May 2008 Return to Hungary: Part One (This was published in the Washtenaw Jewish News)
My brother and I returned to Budapest for the first time since our family emigrated from Hungary in 1957, when we were eight years old. Throughout our ten-day trip, I found myself far more often reminded of being Jewish than I usually am in my daily life here in America. Nearly everything I saw and heard, it seemed, forced me to be extra conscious of my Jewishness.
For starters, we flew from Detroit to Amsterdam before we continued on to Budapest. What Jew, post-Holocaust, can be in Amsterdam and not think of Anne Frank?
We only stayed in Amsterdam a few hours to change planes and so never even left Schipol airport, but even in the terminal it was impossible to forget our Jewishness. While we waited at our gate, a half dozen chosids, looking exactly as they would in Brooklyn, arrived at our boarding area. They chattered cheerfully amongst each other in Yiddish for a few minutes and then three of them began davening. It was morning and so they put on tallis and t’fillin. The others left and returned a few minutes later carrying Styrofoam hot cups filled with tea or coffee. They too put on tallis and t’fillin and began davening. They all swayed ecstatically, occasionally glancing toward the gate to check if their flight was being called.
A few people gave them curious looks, but most barely seemed to notice them. I couldn’t help thinking that sixty, seventy years ago their actions would have been suicidal.
The in-flight magazine on board the Malev Airlines flight to Budapest had a brief interview with Aliza Bin-Noun, the Israeli ambassador to Hungary. The article, in Hungarian and English, quoted her saying that one of her major aims was “to increase the number of Hungarians visiting Israel. Every year more than 100,000 Israelis come to Hungary but only about 10,000 Hungarians go to Israel.” The magazine also had an article about tourist attractions in Israel, and a brief piece about the Klezmatics upcoming concert in Budapest.
Our hotel had been advertised as being in the “old Jewish district.” True enough. As recently as the 1960s the area boasted three huge synagogues, several kosher restaurants and the offices of various Jewish organizations. Before, and to a lesser extent after World War II, it was also the part of Budapest where many Jews lived and worked. But, in 1944, the “old Jewish district” became the Jewish Ghetto where nearly all the Jews of Budapest were sequestered. Our hotel was only a few blocks from the “csillagos ház,” or starred house, (houses designated with a large Star of David) in which our mother was forced to live beginning on October 15th, 1944, when the Ghetto was crudely walled off from the rest of the city with makeshift barricades. She lived there for almost three months with her mother and one of her sisters, along with dozens of Jews she didn’t know, crammed into a building that previously housed far fewer people, until she was deported to Ravensbrück that December.
Her mother, Karolina, became gravely ill soon after they were forced into the “csillagos ház” and my mother somehow managed to get her to a hospital outside the ghetto. She and her sister could only visit her by sneaking out of the Ghetto and pretending to be nurses who worked at the hospital. Karolina died shortly after and was buried in the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of the city. By then it was almost impossible to sneak out of the Ghetto and so my mother was not able to attend her funeral. She didn’t see her mother’s grave until she returned to Budapest in June of 1945.
Our hotel was also only a few blocks from the famed Dohány utca Templom, the largest synagogue in Europe, and the second largest in the world. The enormous, ornate building—it seats over three thousand, though nearly twice that number managed to crowd in for Rosh Hasonoh and Yom Kippur—was built over 150 years ago in Moorish architectural style, complete with “onion” domes. It has recently been completely and beautifully renovated to its pre-war glory and is now a major tourist destination. Pictures of it appear in all the tourist brochures. The morning we visited it there were many visitors, each group with their own tour guide explaining the features and history of the building in more than half a dozen languages, English, German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Japanese and even Hebrew.
We, however, did not visit the Dohány as tourists. We remembered it from our childhood. Our father served as Cantor there on a number of occasions in the 1950s and, though we don’t recall this, he told us that we used to play in the organ loft while he rehearsed with the organist and choir for Shabbes services.
(A word of explanation: the Dohány is a neolog synagogue. Neolog is, as far as I know, a uniquely Hungarian variety of Jewish practice. In observance it is approximately midway between American Conservative and Orthodox; kosher and shomer Shabbes but, allows female voices in the choir and the use of an organ to accompany services.)
There are tall iron fences surrounding the Dohány now, and metal detectors and a security guard checking everyone’s handbags and backpacks at the gate.
We toured the gorgeous building, which has been beautifully restored in the past few years, after being neglected and gradually allowed to fall into severe disrepair since the 1960s. We visited the cemetery in its courtyard where most of the Jews who died in the Ghetto during the war were, by necessity, buried. Then we went next door, to the Jewish museum, built on the site of the house in which Theodore (Tivador) Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was born.
There is a room in the museum devoted just to items and photos relating to the Jewish Ghetto of 1944-45. Displayed behind glass was a map of the Ghetto. Where our hotel now stood on Akácfa utca (Acacia street) was just inside the northeast corner of the Ghetto. The barricades that walled off the Ghetto ran right down the middle of that street. The other side of the street, the side we saw from our hotel window, was not in the Ghetto.
I talked with one of the museum docents. He was nearing retirement age and said he will probably move away, perhaps to Israel, because of rising anti-Semitism and the failing economy in Hungary.
We ate at a Hummus Bar nearby. Though not advertising itself as kosher, the restaurant’s ceiling was papered with Jewish newspapers and Israeli music played in the background.
Our second day in Hungary was Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. That night we walked to the Dohány again. While we stood in the square in front of the building, by the locked gate in the fence, an elderly lady approached us and asked if we knew if there would be a Yom Ha’atzmout celebration there. We told her we didn’t know, but the building seemed closed. She said she was born in Budapest, moved to Israel right after the war, and was visiting for a few days. She added that perhaps because of recent anti-Semitic incidents, Hungarian Jews were too worried to draw attention to themselves with a public celebration.
The next day we looked up the nearby Rumbach Templom, another enormous, ornate building, similar in style to the Dohány, which is now owned by the government and permanently closed, though there is some talk of renovating that too as a tourist attraction.
Then we visited the smaller orthodox Kazincy utca synagogue, also in the same neighborhood. Two men, wearing yarmulkes, were standing in the gate leading to the building’s courtyard. As we approached, I heard one of them sneer to the other in Hungarian, “Here come two more tourists.” When we got closer, I said—also in Hungarian—”Not everyone is a tourist here. You should be careful.” They had nothing else to say, and neither did I.
Later I recalled how my father used to talk about how people at the Kazincy looked down on all Jews who were not orthodox. The more things change…
We ate lunch in the glatt kosher Carmel Restaurant right next door to the Kazincy; palacsinta, (crepes) with mashed potato filling and mushroom sauce. Delicious. We ate every crumb. The waiter complimented us on how well we cleaned our plates.
When we went back to the Dohány on Friday night for Shabbes services, the guard at the gate informed us that the building was closed to tourists. In our rusty Hungarian we told him we used to come here as children, that our father used to sing here, and eventually managed to convince him that we had come to worship and were not carrying cameras, and he reluctantly let us pass. Inside, there were fewer than two hundred people, considerably less than the number of tourists who’d been there during the day, and a small fraction of the capacity crowds that used to pack it before the war and even into the 1950s.
I got goose bumps when the enormous pipe organ sounded its first notes and the Rabbi, Cantor and synagogue officials walked out to the music, exactly the way my father described doing when he led services there.
And then the choir began singing, about a dozen female voices, the singers hidden from our view. At first they sounded angelic. I was repeatedly moved to tears, overwhelmed by memories both real and imagined. As the first verse of the Lecha Dodi says, “Observe and remember in a single command…”
But soon I began to notice that one of the voices in the choir, naturally the loudest, was often out of tune and had a harsh, unpleasant tone. And the Cantor, who did have a beautiful and powerful voice, got considerably out of synch with the organist—in both pitch and rhythm—so much so that the organist had to stop in midstream several times throughout the service. It intruded on my experience, to put it mildly, but I was also happy to have something to smile about, to balance my tears. As another line in the Lecha Dodi says, “Long enough have you dwelt in the vale of tears.”
Shabbes morning we went to the Bethlen Tér Synagogue, about a twenty minute walk from our hotel, to daven where our father had led services on most Saturdays in the 1940s and 50s. We had a little trouble locating the shul at first and found ourselves reluctant to ask for directions; perhaps a residual fear growing out of a handful of childhood memories of mild anti-Semitism or, more likely, from the numerous stories of the lethal brand our parents experienced before we were born.
The Bethlen tér Synagogue is far less ornate and a fraction the size of the Dohány, seating five hundred on the main floor and another two hundred and fifty in the balcony, but it was in good condition and freshly painted inside. Outside, a tall fence surrounded it too, with signs announcing No Trespassing and warning of surveillance cameras.
We introduced ourselves to the Rabbi, Deutch, Robert, and told him our father used to worship there in the 1950s. He asked, “Do you know where your Papa’s seat was?” When we told him he’d been the Cantor there, the Rabbi then pointed to a chair just to the left of the Aron Hakodesh and said, “In that case, that was where he sat.” Rabbi Deutch was born in 1956 but told us he’d always been interested in the history of the shul and recognized our father’s name. Like my brother and I, Rabbi Deutch is also a child of survivors, and so we had plenty of horror stories to share as we reminisced with him and several elderly members of the congregation.
Rabbi Deutch asked us if we’d inherited our Papa’s voice. We said, “egy kicsit.” a little. He said, “Your father singing at the Dohány, that was a very big deal in those days.” Later he said, “For you to come back here, where your father sang, is no small thing.”
There were less than 30 people for the services, most of them in their thirties and forties. Half a dozen women and a few young children sat in the back, curtained off with a makeshift mechica. The service used a number of nusachim, melodies, different from the ones we learned as children from our father. Still, they all had that Eastern European, Ashkenazi feel, and we had no trouble joining in.
I was called up to the Torah and it felt very strange standing where my father had stood so many times, more than fifty years ago; so surreal that I made a mistake I’ve never made before. After my Torah portion was read, I accidentally began reciting the incorrect blessing, the one I’d chanted before the reading. I was still in the past. I righted myself almost immediately, and the Gabbai, perhaps sensing my embarrassment, shook my hand warmly when I finished and said, “I’m very glad you’re here. It’s very good you came.”
A memory surfaced. I recalled my father telling me once that the first time he sang at the Dohány on a Friday night, when he turned to face the congregation to sing Boi Kala, he was so nonplussed by the sight of the enormous shul, filled to capacity with worshippers, that for a few seconds he blanked on the words he’d sung countless times before.
After Shabbes morning services, the Rabbi, Gabbai and others insisted, and I do mean insisted, that we stay for Kiddush, and then plied us with pálinka (brandy) and poppy seed pastries, just like the ones our mom used to make.
May 2008 Return to Hungary: Part Two (First Published in the Washtenaw Jewish News)
Last month I wrote about the trip my brother and I took to Hungary earlier this year. We were born in Budapest and left with our parents, in the wake of the 1956 Revolution, when we were eight years old. Our visit this past spring was the first time we’d been back since we emigrated more than fifty years ago.
The final week we lived in Budapest, five decades ago, our mother took us on a tour of her beloved native city. She showed us a number of famous and less well-known landmarks, especially on the Buda side where she had grown up, and told us repeatedly, “Remember this.” But I don’t recall her taking us to visit the graves of her parents, both of whom died before we were born. It was years later, when we began asking about our family’s history, that she told us where they were buried. I made it a point then to write down the exact location of their graves.
(Our father’s parents are not buried in Hungary. They have no graves. They were killed in Auschwitz.)
In Budapest this spring we looked up many of the places our mother showed us before we left in 1957, and we also visited our grandparents’ graves. Our grandfather, Samuel, died in 1931, and is buried in the Farkasréti cemetery on the Buda side of the Danube. We asked for directions and took a long trolley ride to the outskirts of the city, and got off at the stop marked, “Main Cemetery Entrance.” (It’s an enormous cemetery, going on for blocks and blocks.) In the office near the entrance, I gave the woman behind the counter my location numbers and asked for directions to the grave. She looked at the numbers and replied, “We don’t have a numbering system like that here.” I told her my grandfather died more than seventy years ago. Might they have had a different system for the older parts of the cemetery? “No. There is only one system.” We went back and forth a few more times until finally my brother thought to ask, “Is there a separate Jewish cemetery?” “Yes there is,” she said, not very warmly, it seemed to me. “It’s at the far end of this cemetery, five trolley stops away.”
We got back on the trolley, took it to the final stop on the line and got off a block from the entrance of the Jewish cemetery. A sign on the gate said, “You must wear a yarmulke or hat while in the cemetery.” No one was in the small, dilapidated building near the entrance. The grounds were overgrown and looked unkempt. Finally, after we called “Hello” a number of times, the caretaker arrived. A beefy, jovial guy, wearing a white yarmulke at a rakish angle, he looked at my notes and said, “This way.” We followed him down the main lane of the small graveyard and I, perhaps still smarting from my perceived chilly reception at the Catholic cemetery, asked him, “Is there much anti-Semitism in Hungary these days?” He said, “Yes. Someone broke down a part of the cemetery wall last month. But,” he added cheerfully, “We caught him and beat him pretty good. He won’t be bothering us again.”
The farther we walked from the cemetery gate, the more neglected the grounds became. Still, when a few minutes later the caretaker pointed out the grave to us, we were shocked at what we saw. Buckthorn bushes and maple seedlings three to ten feet high sprouted everywhere, some even from graves. Our grandfather’s headstone, and many of the others near it, was partially or completely covered with ivy. We had difficulty getting to his grave, and the stone was so weathered we could barely read his name.
We pulled away some of the ivy, brushed the dirt off the stone, took a few pictures, and then said a tearful Kaddish. (We knew, of course, that the Kaddish is only to be recited with a minyan, but it still seemed like the only appropriate prayer. A few weeks later, after we returned home, I asked Rabbi Dobrusin what is the proper prayer when visiting a grave and he said the El Molei Rachamim. I hadn’t known that. I’ve not had much experience in graveyards.)
When we returned to the caretaker’s building he offered to make a path to the grave, clear the vegetation from around it, repaint the name and dates on the stone to make them easier to read — for 150,000 forints, about a $1000. Feeling somewhat numb and overwhelmed, we said we’d think about it and left. We were silent on the long trolley ride back.
We’d read that there was a statue of Raoul Wallenberg in Buda. In a small park along a busy street, we found a tall bronze statue of Wallenberg, framed by two huge stone slabs. There were fresh flowers and a number of candles at the base of the statue. My brother recalled that our mom had told us once that she was aware of Wallenberg when she was in the ghetto and, had she able to avoid deportation a few more days, she might have been able to get one of his coveted fake temporary passports.
A few days later, appropriately on Mother’s Day, we looked up our maternal grandmother’s grave in the Jewish cemetery on the Pest side of the city. This much larger graveyard was also at the end of a tramline. Here the grounds and most of the graves near the entrance were well kept. But the older section where our grandmother was buried was, if possible, in an even more decrepit state than our grandfather’s cemetery. We cleaned her grave as best we could, repeated the same sad ritual here too, and then went to look for the graves of two of our aunts and uncles. We found them in the newer, tidier section of the cemetery. At one of them, amazingly, there were fresh flowers in a small vase. We have no living relatives in Budapest. It was comforting to see that someone still remembered and cared.
Before the war, our father lived in Kunhegyes, a village of about 10,000 people, about 150 kilometers east of Budapest. He served as cantor and Rabbi for the 224 Jews who lived there. He was married, with three young children. His wife and children all perished in Auschwitz.
When we were children and still lived in Hungary, our father never mentioned Kunhegyes or his first family. We learned his story from our mother when we were about sixteen years old and rarely spoke about it with our father even after that. Eventually though, he did tell us that there was a memorial stone in the Jewish cemetery in Kunhegyes, bearing the names of the 128 Jews, including his family, who died in Auschwitz. He and our mother had attended its dedication the year before we were born. When we planned our trip to Hungary, we knew we’d visit that cemetery.
By train, it takes three hours from Budapest to Kunhegyes. Riding in the reasonably comfortable, un-crowded passenger cars, I found it impossible not to think of our mother, crammed into a cattle car more than sixty years ago, on her way to the Ravesnbrück concentration camp.
Before we left for Hungary, a friend, a former resident of Kunhegyes who had known our father, drew us a map of the village from memory and put on it the names of many of the Jewish families who had lived there before the war. On the train, as we approached Kunhegyes, I struck up a conversation with three elderly ladies in our car. One of them had grown up there and, when I showed her the map, recognized many of those names and remembered ice skating and roller skating with several of the children of those families.
The same friend who drew the map also put us in touch with a couple of women now living in Kunhegyes who have taken it upon themselves to preserve the memory of its pre-war Jewish community. (There are no Jews living in Kunhegyes now. More than half of the Jews of Kunhegyes were killed in Auschwitz, the rest moved away soon after the war.) Vig Márta and Pozsgai Eva, with help from Eva’s husband, Géza, interviewed Jews and non-Jews alike, collected stories and pictures of Jewish life in the village, and published a book of those memories. They raised funds and hired a permanent caretaker to live in a small house next to the Jewish cemetery. Vig, Márta even traveled to Israel and studied how to do this preservation of history work at Yad Vashem. (Our friend told us that Vig, Márta’s father was employed by a Jew before the war, when times were hard, and that’s why she’s doing this work now.)
We walked into the village from the small train station, and met Márta, Eva, and Géza at the Betyár Csárda restaurant. Only a few years older than us, they greeted us as though we were long lost family, returning home. Which, in a sense we were.
They took us first to the cemetery. It’s a tiny graveyard, adjacent to the also small Catholic cemetery. (Hungary is predominantly Catholic, but this area of the country is primarily Protestant, called Református in Hungarian.) The much larger Református cemetery was located in another part of Kunhegyes. The village boasts the second largest Református church in Hungary. It holds 5000 people and its two tall spires can be seen for miles.
The Jewish cemetery here was in good condition, the grass mowed and the graves ivy free. Márta, Eva, and Géza pointed out a number of the gravestones and told brief anecdotes and stories about the people and families buried beneath them. Dominating the cemetery are two large monuments. One is comprised of two weathered, pink marble tablets bearing the Ten Commandments and affixed to a piece of white marble on which is inscribed a large Star of David and a brief sentence explaining that these tablets used to decorate the front of the Kunhegyesi synagogue which was demolished in 2003.
Eva, the daughter of the Protestant minister in Kunhegyes, asked if we could read the Hebrew inscriptions aloud. We did, and all of us chimed in with the translations—until we reached the ninth and tenth commandments. None of us could remember which was which. Was the ninth the one that commands not bearing false witness against your neighbor, and the tenth about not coveting your neighbor’s wife, etc. Or was it the other way around? There we stood, three religiously raised Protestants, and two sons of a Jewish cantor, and we couldn’t decide. If it hadn’t been for the solemnity of the place and the occasion, I think we’d have all burst out laughing.
The other large monument in the cemetery is inscribed with the names of each of the Jews who perished in Auschwitz. At the top of the third column were the four Slomovits names. We stood before it, silent, numb.
Next we visited the empty, weedy lot where the synagogue had stood since 1892. (The village of Kunhegyes itself was founded in 1724.) On the adjacent lot, still standing, though with boarded up windows and graffiti covered walls, (generic, not anti-Semitic graffiti) was the Jewish school and, connected to it, the house where our father had lived. I don’t have any words to describe my feelings as I walked around the decrepit buildings and thought of my father and his family there. Márta told us that one of the villagers she interviewed recalled that before the war, on Friday nights, some of the villagers and local gypsies would stand by the fence of the synagogue and listen to our father’s singing.
We went back to the Betyár Csárda restaurant for lunch. Márta ordered sertés. Though my Hungarian is serviceable, I didn’t recognize that word. Márta looked embarrassed, explained it meant ham, and began ordering chicken instead. I told her not to be silly. She asked if I kept kosher. I said no, but that I didn’t eat pork. “Even if I did, though,” I added, “I couldn’t bring myself to eat that here.”
After lunch, we went back to Eva and Géza’s apartment where he plied us with his homemade wine and regaled us with, by turns, hilarious and sad stories of his student days and his involvement in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I noticed that his breathing was often labored and he seemed to tire easily. When he was out of the room for a minute, Eva told us tearfully that he has cancer and is not expected to live more than a few months. Our goodbyes were poignant. If we ever return to Kunhegyes, I know there will be another grave to visit.
Márta pressed a big bag of pogáchas (her mother’s homemade biscuits) into our hands as we boarded the train back to Budapest. We sat silently on the three-hour return trip, the rhythmic clattering of the train the only accompaniment to our thoughts.
Days later, my brother later told me that when we had been in the cemetery a song started up for him, in Hungarian.
Szíved él a szívemben
Lelked él a lelkemben
Amig élek emléked emlékemben él.
Szavad él a szavamban
Dalod él a dalomban
Amig élek emléked életemben él.
Your heart lives in my heart.
Your soul lives in my soul.
As long as I live your memory lives in mine.
Your word lives in my word.
Your song lives in my song.
As long as I live your memory lives in my life.
8/18/08 Ann Arbor, As Others See Us. Ann Arbor Observer, September 2008
It was my wife’s idea. A few hours into our two-week driving vacation to Colorado, she suggested we ask people we meet along the way what they know about Ann Arbor. It would serve as an ice breaker with other travelers and would make for educational conversations with our daughter about our adopted hometown.
Based on our admittedly small, unscientific sample, it would seem that the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has its work cut out for it. Despite Ann Arbor’s frequent high ranking in media polls such as “Best Places to Raise a Family,” “Best College Town,” “Most Woman-Friendly City,” many people we talked with knew nothing about our town. “All I know about it is that it’s in Michigan,” a middle aged truck driver from Kansas City said. “Is it on the Great Lakes?” a young waitress at a restaurant in Ft. Collins, Colorado asked. “It’s a port city, isn’t it?”
People knew more about the U-M, at least about its football team. “Oh yeah, the Wolverines,” several people responded. A Texas man, traveling on business in Nebraska asked, “Isn’t that where Brian Griese played? And Anthony Carter? And Elvis Grbac?” A man from Peppin responded with a wry expression and the exact score of last year’s Wisconsin, U-M game. An eastern Colorado gas station owner, named Preacher, at first said he knew nothing about Ann Arbor. But, after my wife reminded him, did recall-with a very happy smile-the Hail Mary pass that won the game for the University of Colorado in ’94.
We camped most of the way, but one night, with thunderstorms and 60-80 MPH winds predicted, we checked into the Comfort Inn in Fremont, Nebraska. The twenty-something clerk at the front desk had never heard of Ann Arbor. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she offered by way of explanation. But the next morning, another desk clerk did know of the Wolverines. “They’re my brother’s favorite team.” No one mentioned the basketball team, or the Fab Five-just as well, considering their recent trials and tribulations.
One man, now living in Texas, but originally from Battle Creek, gratefully remembered the U-M hospital, where his young daughter’s growth problem, long misdiagnosed, was finally recognized and treated.
One day, I decided to ask people instead if they’d heard of famous Ann Arborites. My first-and only-foray was with the elderly hostess at a Visitor’s Center in the middle of Nebraska. Did she know that Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in Ann Arbor? Of course, she remembered the doctor and his vaccine, but not the Ann Arbor connection. Then, civic pride apparently pricked, she promptly parried with, “Did you know that Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska?”
She had a few more points to score. “Did you also know that Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda and Fred Astaire were all born in Nebraska?” I was considering thrusting back with Raoul Wallenberg, Arthur Miller, or even Gerald Ford, but thought better of it. What if that prompted her to recall Madonna? Or Ted Kaczynski?
The Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce will be happy to learn that perhaps the most common association many people had with Ann Arbor in the Sixties and Seventies has vanished like smoke from a stubbed out… umm, cigarette. Not one person we asked, responded with, “Oh yeah. Dope Capitol of the Midwest.” But related notions do persist. A Denver mother of four young children said, after my wife suggested that Ann Arbor might be similar to Boulder, “Oh, I’d never raise my children in a place like that-where anything goes!”
That lone jab aside, the visitors bureau might be reassured to know that the most common response to our question was, “I don’t know a thing about it. But, I’ve heard it’s nice.”
11/15/2008 My Favorite Father-In-Law
My father-in-law, Bill Miller, died the evening of November 10, 2008. His wife, Norma, and his daughter, my wife Brenda, were at his bedside. My daughter Emily and I, along with one of Emily’s closest friends, were at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, listening to Joan Baez in concert. We’d bought the tickets several weeks before, as a special birthday gift for Emily’s friend, and of course had no way of knowing that Bill would die during the concert. But my wife must have had a premonition, because when we bought the tickets she decided not to buy one for herself. And the universe also sent us a comforting signal. Partway through the concert, as it later turned out, at almost exactly the time Bill died, Joan Baez spoke at length about her sister, Mimi Farina, who died recently. One of only two a cappella songs she sang that night was a striking version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” (“Comin’ for to carry me home…”)
Longtime fans of ours probably remember Bill as the tall, smiling man who sold our recordings after many of our concerts. This was a labor of love he took very seriously, always making sure he had plenty of cash with which to make change, and memorizing the list of songs on all our recordings so he could answer our fans’ questions about which recordings contained which songs. Bill was one of those people who could strike up a conversation with a stranger and make a friend in minutes. I watched him do that countless times with people at our shows. He was inordinately proud of his son-in-law and of his son-in-law’s brother and bragged about us frequently to whoever would listen. He was even prouder of his daughter, Brenda, pointing out to everyone that she designed all the covers of our recordings.
Of course, we were all supplanted from the top spots in the bragging order when his only grandchild, Brenda and my daughter, Emily, was born. No grandpa could be prouder or more loving. Bill logged nearly as many hours as my wife and I did holding Emily while she slept on his chest. And if Emily’s love of books and reading is due in part to how much she was read to as a child, then Bill certainly deserves a big share of the credit. He probably holds the world record for the number of repetitions of “Pat the Bunny,” not to mention the hours of peek-a-boo and hide-and-go-seek. When Emily began playing the violin, and started joining Laz and me on stage, Norma probably frequently needed to replace shirt buttons Bill popped from pride and joy.
Bill worked at the General Motors Fisher Body Plant in Lansing for much of his adult life. (I find it a sad coincidence that since Bill died GM seems to be in its own struggle for life.) He received a number of awards for production line improvements he suggested there. He was a conscientious and reliable worker, but when his thirty years were up he was ready to retire and Norma and he enjoyed a number of years of traveling to Florida during the winters, and made a whole new circle of friends down there.
Bill loved music, especially gospel music. His favorite song was Amazing Grace. Laz and I sang it frequently when he was in our audience and Emily and I almost always sang it for him when we visited. Joan Baez’s last encore the night Bill died was an a cappella “Amazing Grace.” I’ll never hear her voice again without thinking of Bill.
In those last few weeks, when Bill was failing, Emily and I visited often and sang and played for him. In his last few days, when he was in a coma in Hospice of Lansing, we continued to play for him, and when we were not there, Brenda and Norma continued to play music for him — home recordings that Emily and I made.
Bill and I had a long running joke between us. I often called him “my favorite-father-in-law” and he returned the favor by calling me his “favorite son-in-law.” The fact that I was his only son-in-law, and he—obviously—my only father-in-law, never lessened the affection with which we used these terms of endearment. I drove up to Lansing the afternoon of November 10th to visit Bill. I sensed that he was close to dying and was pretty sure I would not see him again. When I left, I said, “Goodbye, favorite father-in-law.” I hope he heard me. I’m sure he knew.
It was my wife’s idea. A few hours into our two week driving/camping vacation to Colorado, she suggested we ask people e meet along the way what they know about Ann Arbor. It would serve as an ideal ice breaker with other travelers and would make for educational conversations with our daughter about our adopted hometown.
Based on our admittedly small, unscientific sample, it would seem that the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau has its work cut out. Despite Ann Arbor’s frequent high ranking in media polls such as “Best Places to Raise a Family,” “Best College Town,” “Most Woman-Friendly City,” “Best Place to Retire,” many people we talked with knew nothing about our town. A middle aged truck driver from Kansas City said, “All I know about it is that it’s in Michigan.” A young waitress at a restaurant in Ft. Collins, Colorado knew less. “Is it on the Great Lakes? It’s a port city, isn’t it?”
Not surprisingly, most people who have heard of Ann Arbor, only associate us with the University. And, in particular, with the football team. Several responded with, “Oh yeah, the Wolverines.” A Texas man, traveling on business in Nebraska said, “Isn’t that where Brian Griese played? And Anthony Carter? And Elvis Grbac?” A man from Peppin responded with a wry expression and the exact score of last year’s Wisconsin, U-M game.
Not everyone was as accurate. Several confused the Wolverines with the Spartans. A retired man from Iowa asked, “Didn’t they play to that tie with Notre Dame?” And just shrugged when I told him that was the “other” Michigan team.
An eastern Colorado gas station owner, named Preacher, at first said he knew nothing about Ann Arbor. But, after my wife reminded him, did recall—with a very happy smile—the Hail Mary pass that ended the University of Colorado game in ‘94.
We camped most of the way, but one night, with thunderstorms and 60-80 MPH winds predicted, we checked into the Comfort Inn in Fremont, Nebraska. The twenty-something clerk at the front desk had never heard of Ann Arbor. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she offered by way of explanation. But the next morning, another desk clerk did know of the Wolverines. “They’re my brother’s favorite team.” No one mentioned the basketball team, or the Fab Five-just as well, considering their recent trials and tribulations. Next morning, another desk clerk did know of the Wolverines. “They’re my brother’s favorite team.” No one mentioned the basketball team, or the Fab Five, despite Chris Webber’s recent trials and tribulations.
People did have associations beyond the football team. One man, now living in Texas, but originally from Battle Creek, gratefully remembered the U-M hospital, where his young daughter’s growth problem, long misdiagnosed elsewhere, was finally properly treated.
One day I tried a different tack. I decided I’d ask people if they’d heard of famous Ann Arborites. My first—and only—foray was with the elderly hostess at a Visitor’s Center in the middle of Nebraska. Did she know that Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine in Ann Arbor? Of course, she remembered the doctor and his vaccine, but not the Ann Arbor connection. Then, civic pride apparently pricked, she promptly parried with, “Did you know that Kool-Aid was invented in Nebraska?”
She had a few more points to score. “Did you also know that Johnny Carson, Henry Fonda and Fred Astaire were all born in Nebraska?” I was considering thrusting back with Raoul Wallenberg, Arthur Miller, or even Gerald Ford, but thought better of it. What if that prompted her to recall Madonna, or Ted Kaczynski?
The Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce will be happy to learn that perhaps the most common association many people had with Ann Arbor in the Sixties and Seventies has vanished like smoke from a stubbed out… umm, cigarette. Not one person we asked, responded with, “Oh yeah. Dope Capitol of the Midwest.”
But, related notions do persist. A Denver mother of four young children said, after my wife suggested that Ann Arbor might be similar to Boulder, “Oh, I’d never raise my children in a place like that—where anything goes!”
That lone jab aside, the city fathers might be reassured to know that the most common response to our question was, “I don’t know a thing about it. But, I’ve heard it’s nice.”
May 2012 Dancing with the Stars This originally appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer’s online magazine.
When I was invited to be one of the “stars” in a Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars benefit, I felt like someone invited to sing a duet with Renee Fleming at the Met after only ever singing in public in karaoke bars. If I’d been asked to jump from an airplane with a parachute of questionable quality I’d likely have been more willing to agree. The idea terrified me.
So my immediate and emphatic response was “No!” But this Dancing with the Stars was a benefit for two organizations very dear to me; the Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor, where my daughter, Emily has gone since kindergarten, and Wild Swan Theatre, longtime friends, and simply the best children’s theater around. So I finally said “yes.” It was the best thing I’ve done in a long time.
My three minutes and eight seconds of fame in the Dancing with the Ann Arbor Stars was such a delight that ever since that night I have been contemplating a career change. No, not hardly, but I did have a blast. And even more than the performance itself, I enjoyed the preparation leading up to it. After all, practicing for a dance performance is not unlike rehearsing for a concert; endless repetition of an enjoyable activity—always with the goal of an unattainable perfection worth striving for.
My coach was Jackie Steinbacher, a superb dancer and, if possible, an even better choreographer and teacher. We chose Tish Hinojosa’s beautiful song, Esperate, and Jackie created a routine that combined moves and steps from cha cha, paso doble, samba, and even a hint of swing. She tailored our dance perfectly to the different moods and rhythmic subtleties in the music and the lyrics, creating a challenging and very satisfying piece that somehow also managed to minimize my many, many limitations as a dancer.
I was as nervous—and then some—for our performance than for any musical appearance I can ever recall. Before we danced, my mouth felt like I’d been eating dry peanut butter mixed with sand, and my hands were so cold it seemed as though I’d been soaking them in a bucket of ice water for a week. I felt sorry for Jackie in her sleeveless top. I hoped she wouldn’t cringe when I touched her shoulder.
And then the music started; music, which has been my friend, my go-to safe haven, for most of my life. This would be the secure boat I would sail for the next three stormy minutes. Jackie gave me a reassuring look and we were off. By the time the intro was over and Hinojosa began singing, I was no longer dancing, or sailing, I was flying—anyway, it felt like that to me. It was over much too soon.
Linda Yohn, the renowned long-time host of jazz programs on WEMU, was the MC for the evening. After our dance, she asked me how performing a dance was different from playing music. In all the most important ways, I told her, it’s the same; you look to connect with your partner and with your audience. Of course, I needed to learn a whole new vocabulary, but the feeling was the same.
I came away from the experience with a whole new appreciation for the artistry of dancers and with a great deal of gratitude for the opportunity to learn something brand-new in my sixth decade. I also feel a little braver for when another new, exciting, and scary adventure might present itself. I’ll for sure say yes again.
October 2013 Mallek’s Service
I’ve mostly lived on the Old West Side neighborhood of Ann Arbor since we moved here in 1973. I have been buying gas, and having my cars serviced at Mallek’s Service throughout that entire time. John Mendler is one of those people that’s easy to respect. His honesty and his desire to do things right is palpable. He’s the kind of guy that when he says, “You don’t need to fix that just yet” you know you’re safe, and if he says, “It needs brakes,” or any other repair, you know he will not cheat you. He’s also the kind of guy who if you walk to his gas station at 6:30 in the morning and say you can’t start your car, will come over to your house and start it, and then say you owe him nothing. It’s always a pleasure to shoot the breeze with him for a few minutes when I pick up gas. I finally got around to writing a piece about him and his gas station for the Observer.
A young woman pulls her car up to one of the four pumps at the Mallek’s service station that sits in the V formed by Dexter and Jackson Avenues on the Old West Side. Holding her credit card, she looks searchingly at the pumps, then asks a fellow customer, “Do they only accept cash here?”
“No,” he replies, “You can pay with a credit card inside.”
“Thanks,” she says, “I’ve never been to a station like this before.”
Not surprising. There areno other stations like Mallek’s left in Ann Arbor. It is the only one in town without credit card operated pumps.
“I’m a little déjà vu,” says John Mendler, who’s owned the station since 1976, when most gas stations were still full serve. “I wish that we were still 100% full serve.” Mendler and his employees still pump gas for some of their customers. “We get an awful lot of elderly people, and handicapped, that we help out. I think that people still deserve that kind of treatment. But that’s not the mindset now. It’s come in, get your gas as quick as you can, and go.”
The station has been open since 1941, and Mendler is only the third owner. The original owner was Kasimir Mallek and when Mendler bought it, he kept the name. “What good does it do to have my name up there? People in the neighborhood are familiar with Mallek’s Service. That never entered my mind, to change it. It’s almost embarrassing the number of people who think my name is Mallek,” says Mendler. “It really is comical, even my wife most of the time calls me Mr. Mallek, when she calls me on the phone.”
Mendler is frequently asked why he has not upgraded to the pay-at-the-pump system. “It’s strictly economics. We do maybe forty thousand, in the summer fifty thousand, gallons a month. And that’s nothing by today’s standards. Some of these places, the truck stops, the big Speedways, if they’re not in the hundreds of thousands, or half a million gallons, they’re nothing. And then you can justify spending eight, nine thousand a pump. But it takes a long time to pay off that doing forty thousand gallons.”
Part of the problem is access. With the configuration of the single island, the station cannot accommodate more than four cars at a time, less if anyone parks carelessly. “People want to come in, pump their gas, they don’t want to wait in line, wait for two or three other people. Could it be reconfigured? Probably. Maybe somehow put in two islands on the diagonal? That’s not my desire right now.”
Another contributing factor is that Mallek’s, unlike almost all of the mini-serve stations, does not sell coffee, snack foods and other items. “In hindsight, I should have done something years ago and put in some sort of a mini convenience store, where I’ve got something other than just gas and oil and conversation. That’s where they make the money. They don’t make it on gas. That’s kind of a loss leader, just to get people in.”
Mallek’s is one of only two gas stations in town that also still does repairs. (The other one is on the corner of Stadium and Packard.) That aspect of the industry has changed too. “Cars are incredibly different now, you need much more equipment, and we are not state of the art on some things. We’re able to get by doing a lot the basic stuff, but if it gets into needing to do a lot of troubleshooting for a problem, we encourage people to go to the dealer. It may be a few dollars more, but they’ve got the experience and the equipment to nail it down the first time. But I think there’s still a need for the basics, the suspension, the exhaust, the steering, the brakes, all of that stuff. That’s frankly what keeps us going.”
Mallek’s is also unique in that a private individual owns it. Most other stations are owned by the major oil companies and are only leased by the people who manage them. “That’s my big problem right now and the reason why I feel that you don’t see any small independents any more. For an independent like ourselves it’s almost impossible, with all of the fees, (and this is all gas I’m talking about, not mechanical, although there is some of that) the licensing, the tank inspections, the testing, the insurance, it’s unbelievable. Every year it seems like, the State especially, throws another fee of some sort. And it’s not just a couple thousand dollars. It’s tens of thousands of dollars. If you’re leasing then it’s the oil company’s responsibility to pay those fees.”
Mendler, who is nearly seventy, still comes in five days a week at 4:30AM and opens the station by 6. He says he’d like to find somebody that would be willing to buy Mallek’s and continue to run it as it is. “But, I just don’t think that’s going to happen unless it was somebody that had enough wherewithal financially so that they could see, ‘Well, maybe if we do reconfigure the island so we can generate more gas income, and maybe we’ll put in a little party store…’ I’m afraid no one is going to say, ‘Yeah, I want to just continue on the way it is.’”
So, for now Mallek’s will go on as it has, relatively unchanged, for over seventy years. “The people of Ann Arbor, and particularly the West Side are incredibly loyal,” says Mendler. We may not necessarily always have the best price on gas, although I try to stay fairly competitive, but there have been times when we haven’t been and they could very easily go somewhere else, but they don’t. And I recognize that, and I appreciate that. And it’s fun, it’s just plain fun to be able to talk with them, call them by their first name, I like that.”
6/14/14 Steiner Graduation Address
Good morning, everyone. Thank you. A year ago I sat where you are all sitting now, and watched my daughter, who was a member of last year’s graduating class, sit on this stage, where you are all sitting now. It was a very special day for our family, as I know today is for all of you, and I feel particularly honored to be able to share it with you.
I’ve been playing concerts for many years – which means that I regularly stand in front of groups of people, strum my guitar, sing some 3, 4 minute songs and—usually—people applaud after each one. It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it. I love it. But my task today is different. Today, I’ve been asked to talk for twenty minutes. I’m not sure I know how to do anything for that long without stopping and waiting for applause every few minutes. I’m also used to playing concerts that are at least one or two hours long, so I’m not sure I know how to keep my talk brief.
So, I want to start with a little story that, hopefully, will at least remind me not to go on too long.
This is a Nasrudin story. Nasrudin is the wise fool of the Sufi tradition. There are, as I’m sure you know, similar wise fools in many cultures and traditions around the world. There are the fools in Shakespeare’s plays; there are the Chelm stories of Eastern Europe, and many others. Yogi Berra’s bewildering pronouncements might qualify him as a modern-day counterpart of these characters. These wise fools, their antics and the things they say, are zany, even silly, but often they’re also thought provoking, profound and cause us to reflect. Nasrudin lived in the 13th century and this is a modern variation on one of his stories.
Nasrudin is flying from NY to LA and about an hour into the flight the pilot comes on the intercom and announces, “Ladies and gentlemen, one of our four engines has failed. There is nothing to worry about, we are perfectly safe, but we will be a half hour late to our destination.” There is uproar among the passengers, everyone is very anxious, and Nasrudin speaks up. “Everyone calm down, what’s the problem? We’re safe, so what if we’re a little late?” The passengers are reassured, and the flight continues.
A bit later, the pilot comes on the intercom again. “Ladies and gentlemen, another one of our four engines has failed. There is nothing to worry about, we are perfectly safe, with two engines, but we will be an hour late to our destination.” Again, the passengers get very upset, everyone is very anxious, and again Nasrudin speaks up. “Calm down. He said we’re safe, so what if we’re a little late? It’s better than riding a donkey!” Once again, the passengers are reassured, and the flight continues.
A while later, the pilot again comes on the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, the third of our four engines has failed. There is still nothing to worry about, we are still completely safe with one engine, but now we will be two hours late to our destination.” Nasrudin says, “I hope we don’t lose the fourth engine. We’ll be up here all night!”
I will try not to keep you here all morning, and all night.
When I was invited to give this talk, my first, second, and numerous other self-preservatory instincts urged me to immediately say no. However, being the cool, calm, collected, ever-unflappable person I always try to pretend to be, I instead said, “Well, let me think about it.”
And I did think about it. I started by thinking back to my own high school graduation and my memories of the talk that I heard that day – and realized I remembered absolutely nothing of it. That made me feel better. It put things into perspective. It was comforting to know that my failure to be eloquent or wise today probably will not be remembered.
So, then I thought of my daughter; how she started in the Steiner school here as a kindergartner, went through all the lower grades and then the high school. I thought about what all that has meant to her, and to my wife and me. I had flashbacks to her first day of kindergarten, as Emily’s class disappeared over the hill and all of us parents stood on the blacktop, amid a big pile of Kleenex. I remembered her first rose ceremony, and her last; I recalled her first grade play and her senior play. I recalled her first awkward alphabet letters trying to mimic Mrs. Browne’s elegant handwriting, and years later her insightful papers in Mrs. Amrine’s history classes; her early watercolor washes and later, under Mrs. Efimova’s tutelage, her breathtaking art pieces. I recalled many other stories and images from our years with the school, stories that are undoubtedly at once uniquely our family’s, and also have much in common with yours.
And, as I recalled these stories, a couple of much older ones kept coming to my mind. A couple more Nasrudin stories.
Nasrudin is walking alone on a deserted road when he sees far off in the distance a group of men approaching. His mind instantly goes into high gear. He is certain they are thieves and robbers who will mug him, maybe kill him. He looks around wildly and sees that there is a cemetery next to the road, and there happens to be a freshly dug, open, empty grave. He runs to it and jumps in to hide.
Meanwhile the travelers are in fact good, honest people and when they see Nasrudin behaving so bizarrely, they run over to see if he needs help. They surround the gravesite and one of them says to Nasrudin, “Are you alright, brother? Why are you here?”
Seeing their friendly faces and hearing the kindly questions, Nasrudin realizes that he’s let his mind get away from him and he slowly replies, “Well, let’s just say that I am here because of you, and you are here because of me.”
This story is—I hope—apropos for today, on a number of levels. I am clearly here today because of you, and like Nasrudin, as I already mentioned, when I saw this day coming I wanted to run and hide. But let me expand the story so it’s not just about me. We—all of us sitting in this part of the room—are here because of you. And you, the graduating seniors, sitting here on the stage, you are all clearly here because of us. The Steiner community—we—are here because of you, and you are here because of the Steiner community. We, all of us, are here to witness and celebrate a milestone in your life journey, the end of your Steiner schooling.
Each of you is here because, whether for a few years or twelve or thirteen, you have been immersed in a system of education, really a way of life, a way of living, that has celebrated your strengths while supporting you in facing and overcoming your hurdles, that has simultaneously promoted your unique gifts, while also fostering your common humanity. It has helped you develop an ease in, and a reverence for nature and instilled a deep curiosity about an enormous range of subjects. It has given you a sense of the whole spectrum of the human community, has shown you a glimpse of the broad sweep of human history, and an inkling of your own place in it.
And now you’ve reached this milestone, come to this juncture in your life’s journey. What’s next? Here’s one final Nasrudin story.
Nasrudin is out in front of his house at night, searching for something on the ground under a streetlight. A friend comes along and says, “Nasrudin, what are you looking for?” Nasrudin says, “My key.” The friend says, “I’ll help you.” They search together for a few minutes and finally the friend says, “Nasrudin, where did you lose the key?”
“In my house,” says Nasrudin.
“Nasrudin,” the friend says indignantly, “If you lost your key in your house, what are we doing looking for it out here?”
Nasrudin replies, “It’s dark in my house.”
Aren’t we like that sometimes? Don’t we sometimes look for simple solutions to complex problems? When we’re confronted with hard decisions, tough choices, aren’t we tempted to try for quick fixes, even if they won’t really solve the problems, just so we can stop grappling, struggling, with them. Don’t we sometimes do everything we can to avoid contemplating deeply, choosing instead to go for the shallow, surface solutions. Or as the song says, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.”
You’re moving on now, taking the next steps on the paths of your lives. There will be times when you will see fellow travelers or unfamiliar landscapes that may seem frightening; times when you will face some difficult decisions, tough questions, and will try looking for your keys, your answers, in easy, well-lit places. You might feel like Nasrudin—and me—that you want to run and hide. And of course, there will be times when backing away from some people, and some situations, will be exactly the right thing to do. I think you’ll know what those times are. But you may also find, many times, that your hesitations were misplaced.
You may find—as I have—that some of the best things in life, the sweetest friendships, the most valuable work opportunities, even our family’s decision to enroll our daughter in the Steiner school, came from saying ‘yes’ when it looked hard, when I was tempted to say no and run away, when it seemed much more appealing to look for an answer someplace easier than inside that dark, marvelous, mysterious place that is in each of our hearts.
Your fellow travelers, all of us in this room, and most of the others you’ll meet, are kind and will want to help you on your journey, will want to help light your way.
And I know that you too will want to help. I know that you too will want to say “yes.” We are all rooting for you.
12/29/15 Our Mother’s Voice
My mother was tone deaf. Profoundly. If she hummed a song without its lyrics, you’d have to ask her to identify the melody. No exaggeration. She married a man—my father—who was a professional singer with an exceptional voice. Then she bore him two children—my brother Laz and me—who also showed musical promise at an early age. It couldn’t have been easy for her to be on the outside of that brotherhood. To make matters worse, my father was often not kind in his teasing.
It also wasn’t the first time she found herself living in a family of musicians. Her father and older brother were both excellent pianists, her father even moonlighting evenings as a musician in pre-WWII Budapest’s bars, brothels and casinos, after enduring his day job as an accountant.
I don’t recall her listening to much music when we were young children, unlike our father, who had a deep love of Italian opera and both listened to it and frequently sang arias at home. (When we left Budapest after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and emigrated to Israel, among the very few non-essential possessions he packed to take with us were his copies of the complete scores for three of his favorite operas, La Boheme, Rigoletto and Tosca.) But when, after a couple of years in Israel, we moved to the United States, our mom began listening to music—daily. She worked in a garment factory alongside a couple of dozen women who listened to the radio, tuned loudly, to a top forty station. So, she was the first in our family to discover the Beatles. She came home raving about their music, and singing She Loves You, and I Want to Hold Your Hand. Of course the melodies she sang were—due to her unfortunate tin ear—pretty different from what we heard the Beatles sing when we finally deigned to listen to them on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Like our dad, in those days we were musical snobs. After a minute of listening to the Beatles crooning All My Loving, he got up from our living room couch and grumbled, “This is not music!” and left. I stayed, but I don’t recall feeling wowed.)
But her enthusiasm for the Beatles’ music, and for many other folk, rock and pop songs and performers, was infectious. Long story short, she helped infect my brother and me. While it would be some years before I finally gave up my dreams of singing at the Met, more and more I found myself listening to the Beatles, Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, rather than to Puccini and Verdi.
Laz and I have played folk music professionally for over four decades. We came of age in the Sixties and, like many of our folk heroes, especially Pete Seeger, we often invite our audiences to sing along with us. Almost every time we do, I see some people not singing. I wonder if they too may have been teased about their voices. Some have shared stories with me about music teachers who told them to just mouth the words—stories that never fail to infuriate me.
Laz and I sometimes give workshops for pre-school teachers on how to use music in their classrooms. We always tell them that they don’t need to be able to play an instrument, and then demonstrate by singing a capella. We also tell them they don’t need to sound like professional singers for their children to enjoy singing with them. Yes, we tell them about our father’s voice, but we also tell them about our mother and how, with her joyous enthusiasm, she too fostered our love of music, despite her own limited abilities. How, despite the fact that she had no great love of opera, she made it a point to take us to the Met at least once a year because she knew how much that meant to us. And we always tell them how when my brother and I were babies, and would cry at night, our father tried to sing us to sleep with his glorious voice. Nothing doing. We cried harder. But our mother could always lull us to sleep with her tuneless crooning. Our father would mutter, “They will never be musicians.”
Gemini @ the Ark circa 1975
3/22/2016 Remembrance of Phyllis Weikart
I met Phyllis Weikart in the mid 1970s when, on a whim, I decided to take a folk dance class at the UofM. My only previous experience with dance lessons was about six or seven years earlier, when as a senior in high school, I asked a friend of mine if she would teach me a few basic steps so I’d be able to dance with my date at the senior prom. She kindly, patiently—and oh so slooowly—taught me the box step. Which proved utterly useless at the prom, in the somewhat inebriated bunny hop/conga line—the only dance it turned out that my date and I danced that evening. It was a night I’ve tried to erase from my mind, but have not yet managed to forget.
Point being that I didn’t have any good associations with dancing when I met Phyllis. But, at that time, I was only a few years out of college, had just recently moved to Ann Arbor, my brother Laz and I were at the start of our career playing music, I felt freer than I ever had in my life, I was relishing pushing at boundaries real and perceived. I don’t recall now how I found Phyllis, but I could not have made a better choice. Phyllis’ teaching philosophy was fully formed by then, and remained constant for the rest of her life. The way she saw it, her work as a teacher was to make sure that her students succeeded in learning what she taught. Vastly oversimplified, this meant that she was willing to break down complex dance steps and patterns into units small and simple enough that anyone, and everyone, could learn them. Then she gradually built up to the complete dance, never losing anyone in the process. It worked with me, and it worked with everyone I ever saw Phyllis teach. Of course, there was more to it than that. There was also Phyllis’ exuberance and irrepressible enthusiasm. She loved to dance and loved to teach. It was always evident on her face and in her voice. The combination was irresistible. In just a few months of classes I developed a love of dancing that is with me to this day.
Laz and I crossed paths with Phyllis’ a few years later when, in November of 1982, we released Good Mischief, our first recording for children. On the second side of that album, (remember this was in the pre-historic age of vinyl, the large black Frisbees…they had music on both sides), we recorded a number of traditional and international folk dance tunes. Phyllis and her husband, David (founder of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation), had been coming to our concerts for years and this new recording gave Phyllis an idea. She’d long been teaching international folk dances and using original recordings by musicians from those cultures in her dance classes and workshops. But many of those recordings were no longer available (so she couldn’t tell people where to find them for their own use) or they were recorded on poor quality equipment, or they were not quite the right tempo or length for her teaching purposes. After she heard our folk dances on Good Mischief, Phyllis asked if we’d be willing to re-record some of the pieces she’d been using so she could make them available to her students. That conversation led to one of the most exciting and engrossing projects of our career. Beginning in January of 1983 and continuing through 1988 we recorded twelve full-length albums, 172 tunes, of international folk dance music for Phyllis and HighScope. Because of Phyllis’ extensive work in training movement and dance teachers, those recordings and her accompanying books have since been used in countless school settings all over the US and even internationally.
When we first sat down to discuss the project, we only envisioned making one record. We also agreed that we’d discuss the tunes beforehand, but that it would not be necessary for Phyllis to actually be in the studio with us while we laid down the tracks. Still, it seemed like a good idea for her to be there on the first day of recording. We met at Ann Arbor’s Solid Sound, where Laz and I have done many of our albums over the years, and began working on the initial tracks. A couple of hours later several things were evident. One, this was going to be a lot of fun. Two, the three of us really enjoyed working together. Three, Phyllis’ input was essential and invaluable. After Laz and I recorded a basic track, Phyllis would move out of the control room and into the recording studio and begin dancing to the music to make certain that the tempo was exactly right. Her thorough knowledge of the dances, and her brilliant musical instincts helped shape many of the details of the arrangements we created for the dance tunes. Each album took over a month to create, which meant we spent countless hours together in the studio. (The opportunity to spend that much time in the studio was invaluable and something else for which we will always be grateful to both Phyllis and HighScope—in particular, to Chuck Wallgren who oversaw the entire project. Laz and I learned so much about recording and working in the studio, knowledge we were able to put to good use in later years as we continued making our own albums.) Phyllis’ enthusiasm, energy, kindness and supportive attitude never flagged. I am as proud of those records as of anything we’ve done in our career. In the years that followed, Laz and I got to collaborate with Phyllis regularly, playing at workshops and conferences all over the US, sometimes even forming bands to replicate the overdubbed sound of our recordings, so she and her students could dance to live music.
Phyllis died recently, on March 11, 2016, about a month shy of her 85th birthday. By happenstance, two days before, Laz and I sang at Brecon Village, the senior community in Saline where Phyllis had lived for a number of years, and where, at her invitation, Laz and I sang two or three times a year ever since she moved there. Phyllis wasn’t in the audience this time. She was already in the hospital and her prognosis was not good. That night we sang a song we’d sung every time we’d played there, and indeed every time over the years when Phyllis was on stage with us or in our audience.
Erev Shel Shoshanim is a gorgeous Israeli love song. Written in 1957, it has since replaced Here Comes the Bride at many Jewish weddings in Israel and elsewhere. It was special for Phyllis because it was the first piece of music to which she’d ever choreographed a dance. It was a circle dance so simple that she often taught it as the music was already playing. She almost always used it as the final dance of her programs and it was simply mesmerizing to dance or watch it.
If there’s a good place where good people go after they’re gone, then surely Phyllis is there now. And if there’s dancing there—and how good could that place be without dancing?—then surely Phyllis is dancing now. And if there are good people there who can’t dance, (Yes, you can be good and not know how to dance, but you’d be happier if you knew how), then surely Phyllis is teaching them to dance now. I’ll always be grateful I got to dance with her here.
3/26/2109 Remembrance of Jim Dapogny
I didn’t know Jim Dapogny well. I wish I had. I think I met him sometime in the late 1970s, probably at some UofM event that featured musicians and entertainers from a number of different styles and disciplines. I was at the beginning of my career, he was already solidly established in his. I’m sure I felt intimidated and shy; his talent as a player and arranger was prodigious and obvious, and his reputation as a scholar outsized. Over the years, our paths crossed every once in a while. He was always cordial, I was always timid.
About ten years ago the Ann Arbor Observer asked me to write a brief review of the first recording made by his Phil Ogilvie’s Rhythm King’s jazz band. I went to hear the band several Sunday afternoons at the old Firefly Club, talked with Jim, and listened to the test pressing. After the article came out he called to thank me, said some kind words about the piece and asked about my writing and my music. His words have stayed with me, partly because he seemed so sincerely interested, but mostly because of how precise, intelligent and insightful his comments were.
Three years ago, my trio with Emily and Jacob played in the River Raisin Ragtime Revue’s Extravaganza at the Michigan Theatre. Jim also played in the program and, after the show we all went over to the Zal Gaz Grotto for the afterglow. I managed to overcome my diffidence and sat down next to Jim at his table. He asked about my daughter, how old she was, what’s been her training, and then said, “She’s got an extremely mature singing style for someone her age.” Fathers remember when someone compliments their daughter. Especially when that someone is a world class authority on the subject.
The last time I saw Jim was in October. Laz and I were packing up our instruments after a concert, having just played in the lobby of the UofM Hospital, as part of their Gifts of Art series, when I thought I saw Jim rolling by in a wheelchair. I caught up to him and called out, “Jim Dapogny?“ He turned and said wryly, “What’s left of him.” I hadn’t known he was sick. We chatted for a minute, I wished him well and we said goodbye.
A couple of weeks after Jim died on March 6th there was a four-hour memorial event for him at the Zal Gaz Grotto, where he had played so many times before. By the time I got there, about an hour after it started, there were a dozen people chatting in the parking lot, and the hallway by the front door was full too. It made me smile to see how many people had come to honor Jim. Inside it was so packed that they were only letting people in as others left. So, we stood in the entryway, listened to the music wafting out, made jokes about the fire marshal, and shared stories of the times we heard Jim play.
Jim’s music touched countless people, but from my few interactions with him, I am certain his kindness did too. I imagine he must have been an outstanding teacher; he seemed to be naturally perceptive, curious and supportive. Jim’s death is our loss, but what he left behind is a great gift, and will always be our gain.
2/10/2020 The Bones: A History
This article appeared in the January 2020 issue of the Rhythm Bones Society’s newsletter
In 1975, when I met Percy Danforth, the father of modern-day bones, I’d been playing folk music professionally with my twin brother, Laz, as the duo Gemini, for about two years. Like most good folkies of the day, we played guitars and sang. But around that time Laz also picked up violin, after having abandoned it in high school some years before, and we also both got interested in Irish music. Laz started learning the pennywhistle and I made a crude bodhran and we began playing jigs and reels in our shows. We were living in Ann Arbor and one night Laz saw Percy play the bones in Donald Hall’s play Bread and Roses. (Donald Hall was a renowned poet, playwright, essayist and critic, and from 2006 to 2007 was the fourteenth US Poet Laureate.) Laz told me about Percy very excitedly. “You won’t believe what he can do with just four little pieces of wood!” I was intrigued and called Percy and asked if he would teach me how to play. He generously said he would, but then added that he’d been getting a lot of individual requests lately. Would I organize a bones class for him at the Ark, Ann Arbor’s famed coffeehouse? I called Dave Siglin who, along with his wife Linda, had co-founded the Ark, and a couple of weeks later about twenty of us gathered in the Ark’s living room and Percy showed us the tap and roll, the basic rudiments of bones playing.
I was not a quick study—to put it generously. Now, forty-five years later, when I introduce the bones at our concerts or bones workshops, I show people what I looked and sounded like for the first few days I played the bones. I close my eyes, contort my face into a painful grimace and try to rattle the bones—silently—Marcel Marceau style. It’s not much of an exaggeration. I was so discouraged with my lack of progress following Percy’s bones workshop, that I put the bones away and forgot about them. But, in 1976 Laz and I were invited to play at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in upstate New York. Percy was also invited to the Festival, to teach the bones. Laz and I drove from Ann Arbor in our ancient Ford Falcon, while Percy flew out. We met up at the Festival and I hung out with Percy while he taught the bones for much of each day of the weekend Festival, and Laz and I gave him rides to and from our accommodations to the Festival site. By the end of that weekend I was a semi-competent bones player.
I was also very lucky, in two important ways. I was able to practice and play the bones with live music very frequently. My brother, who has a rock steady sense of rhythm, was willing to let me learn on the job—at our rehearsals and on stage with him at our concerts. “Laz even wrote two songs especially for me to play bones to, I Can Feel it in my Bones and Percy’s Song (which is largely comprised of Percy’s own description of how he learned to play the bones as a child) both of which we still often play in our concerts.” Laz and I also formed a friendship and a musical collaboration with Percy. We often invited him to join us on stage for our Ann Arbor area shows, and so I got many additional opportunities to study and play with him. I picked up so much of Percy’s playing style and mannerisms that, many years later, when I met Jonathan Danforth – Percy’s grandson and RBS’s longtime web guru—Jonathan paid me the ultimate compliment when he said I looked just like Percy when I played.
(My brother also tried learning the bones at the same time that I started, and also didn’t get far at first. When I picked them back up at the Fox Hollow Folk Festival, Laz also tried again—with little success. Percy was very wise and kind. Noting my brother’s frustration, he told him, “Laz, no duo needs two bones players.” Laz took Percy’s counsel to heart and focused his attention on the more than half dozen other instruments he plays.)
In 1980, for Percy’s 80th birthday, I organized a concert/birthday party at the Ark. The musicians lineup, all people who Percy had played with, included my brother and I; harmonica wizard Peter Madcat Ruth; composer, organist and prominent ragtime pianist, William Albright: famed jazz scholar, pianist, and band leader Jim Dapogny; the renowned Grammy Award-winning composer William Bolcom; and Bolcom’s wife, mezzo soprano Joan Morris. (Bolcom and Morris had invited Percy to join them at a number of concerts, including ones they gave at Alice Tully Hall in NYC and at the Royal Albert Hall in London.) The birthday party concert was a huge success, with performances by all of the musicians and Percy joining each of them.
Percy lived to the age of 92 and was still playing in concerts a half year before he died. A couple of weeks before Percy passed away, Laz and I played a concert at the senior citizens’ home where he and his wife, Fran lived. I had a chance to thank him publicly one last time for the huge gift he had given me when he taught me to play the bones.
One of the other gifts that came into my life as a result of my meeting Percy, was my friendship with Ray Schairer. Ray was a lifelong dairy farmer and woodworker who made all the bones that Percy sold to his thousands of students. Percy introduced Ray and his wife Jane to me sometime in the late 1970s and I stayed in touch with them over the years, buying bones from him and commissioning him to make several limberjacks and instrument cases. In 2002, I asked him to help me with another woodworking project. My eight-year-old daughter, Emily had been playing violin for about a year and I wanted to build a wooden music stand for her. Knowing I had neither the tools, nor the skill to do that, I asked Ray if he’d be willing to build one with me. He agreed, and that’s how began another of the most significant friendships of my life. Ray and I worked on the music stand together, and on my visits to his woodshop, he asked me to help him make bones. I happily did, and he in turn taught me his process for making the bones. Ray and I stayed friends for the remaining nine years of his life, making hundreds of bones together, and I also helped him publish his memoir, Barefoot Boy; A Year in the Life of a 1930s Farm Boy. Before he passed away in 2011, Ray gave me all his bones-making tools and I have continued to make bones to this day. (Although, in 2009, along with my good friend Lon vanGeloven, an engineer and manager at Ford, who has extensive machining and computer skills, we brought bones-making into the 21st century. We bought a small desktop CNC machine and have been using it ever since to cut bones from a variety of woods. But I still sand the bones with the same custom-built machine that Ray devised and used for thirty years before he gave it to me.)
I turned 71 in January of 2020 and I still play the bones in every one of my more-than-one-hundred yearly concerts. The bones have brought me enormous pleasure and satisfaction over the years. It is the instrument I play and improvise on most freely. It is the instrument with which our audiences, ranging from preschoolers to senior citizens, are the least familiar. I love introducing them to this ancient art. It is also the instrument that my brother and I use to tame our toughest audiences—middle school and high school age students. We’ve learned to always begin our shows for these audiences with the bones. They capture their attention in a way nothing else we know.
Besides my experiences playing with Percy, I’ve had many other wonderful bones-related highlights. Here are two of my favorites. In 2005, Laz and I played a family concert with the Grand Rapids Symphony. The Symphony’s principal percussionist is Bill Vits, longtime Rhythm Bones Society member and another of Percy Danforth’s protégés. Bill learned to play the bones from Percy when he, Bill, was a student at the University of Michigan. Laz and I always include Laz’s song I Can Feel it in My Bones in our concerts with orchestras and I always take a bones solo on it. But for this concert, in addition to that song, I asked Bill if he’d be willing to do a bones duet with me. He agreed, and our impromptu, freewheeling bones jam was the highlight of the show. It may still be the only bones duet ever played in an orchestra concert.
In 2010, at the Wheatland Festival, (Michigan’s biggest folk festival) where I’ve often taught bones workshops, I was delighted to encounter a former bones student of mine. I’d met Gail Brayden, a cardiologist from Marquette, Michigan, when I played concerts and gave bones workshops in 2005, at Marquette’s annual FinnFest, at the invitation of RBS member, Randy Seppala. Gail learned the bones from me over the course of that weekend festival, and a year later, in May 2006, she won the all-Ireland bones championship; one of the things that I am most proud of in my long history with the bones.
My daughter, Emily, is now twenty-five and a fabulous singer and violinist. (Totally objective evaluation from an enormously proud dad.) She’s been playing concerts with me, with my brother and me, and with many others, since she was eight years old. And she’s on her way to becoming a terrific bones player. The beat goes on!
Percy Danforth circa 1985
Ray Schairer circa 2004
9/11/21 Twenty Year Anniversary
A couple of months after the events of 9/11 I wrote lyrics for a song about one small, hopeful, uplifting aspect of that tragedy. Every fact in the lyric is true. The melody that I first came up with did not please me and, besides, I could never manage to get through the song without getting choked up, so I didn’t ever try singing it in public. Recently I found another melody for the lyrics. I think it’s better. My friend and fabulous musician, Brian Brill, added this wonderful arrangement, and Brenda and Emily made this Youtube video. You can see it by clicking here: https://youtu.be/mWuXd9fe9ro
On September the 11th, we will not forget the year
At ten in the morning, there were planes still in the air
All of them were commanded to land straight away
Here is what happened to one of those airplanes that day.
Delta Flight Fifteen, from Frankfurt, Atlanta bound
Searched for an airport, the closest one they found
Gander, up in Newfoundland, four hundred miles away
Granted them permission to land their plane that day
The captain told the passengers the little that he knew
Gasps of shock and disbelief greeted his sad news
Then there was just silence, what was there to say?
Many tears, folded hands and prayers said that day.
This kind of love, this kind of caring
Is like the blood that’s in our veins
That warms us with its course
An endless flowing circle, serving without fail
It always comes straight from the heart and goes back to its source.
The people at Gander airport made sure everyone was fed
No small achievement, when they hadn’t known ahead
That more than fifty planes, bound for the USA
Would be stranded unexpectedly in Gander that day
Gander and the nearby towns, were all put to the test
They didn’t have hotels for seven thousand guests
They opened churches, schools and homes for all of them to stay
Welcomed everyone who dropped in from the sky that day
This kind of love, this kind of caring
Is like the blood that’s in our veins
That warms us with its course
An endless flowing circle, serving without fail
It always comes straight from the heart and goes back to its source.
The people on Delta Flight Fifteen were housed in Lewisporte
They all were treated warmly, they were offered much support
Their hosts took them fishing, showed them Notre Dame Bay,
Some even took them moose hunting in the next few days.
People who live in Lewisporte, may not have much to spare
But they gave all that was theirs to give, and willingly did share
Home is where the heart is, we’ve all heard the cliché
The people of Gander and Lewisporte, proved its truth those days.
This kind of love, this kind of caring
Is like the blood that’s in our veins
That warms us with its course
An endless flowing circle, serving without fail
It always comes straight from the heart and goes back to its source.
When Delta Flight Fifteen, took off Friday afternoon
A passenger stood up and said, “I know we’ll be home soon.
But before we go back to our lives, I’d like to find a way
To thank the folks in Lewisporte for what they did these days.”
“I’ll set up a trust fund, send some of their kids to school
If you’d all like to contribute, our money we could pool.”
Fourteen thousand dollars, with more on the way
The people on Delta Flight Fifteen pledged to give that day.
This kind of love, this kind of caring
Is like the blood that’s in our veins
That warms us with its course
An endless flowing circle, serving without fail
It always comes straight from the heart and goes back to its source.
11/12/21 Remembrance of John Mendler
John Mendler, the long-time owner of the Marathon station in the vee of Jackson and Dexter roads, died on October 16, 2021. I was a customer of his ever since he bought the station in 1976. In 2013 I interviewed John and wrote a brief piece for the Ann Arbor Observer about some of the unique qualities of the station. https://annarborobserver.com/articles/mallek_s_service.html#.YXILuy2ZPOR
I didn’t have room to put in much about John himself, but I was pretty sure that that was how he wanted it anyway. To say that John was not one to toot his own horn would be a vast understatement. Over the years, in the hundreds of times I bought gas or had my car repaired at the station we often chatted briefly. We’d shoot the breeze about the weather, he’d ask where I was headed, or what was happening in my work, but rarely volunteered much information about himself. Perhaps because of that, the few times that he did, have remained vivid in my mind.
I remember picking up gas early one morning and John greeting me with,” Did you see that beautiful moon this morning?” The awe in his voice served to amplify a sense I’d long had of him being someone who deeply appreciated the wonders of nature. Every summer his station overflowed with colorful flower baskets and plantings and he always decorated it with cheerful evergreen wreaths and boughs in the winters.
I never complained about the price of gas to John, nor did I ever compare his price with other stations. I always bought my gas there, no matter what. But I do recall at one point in mid 2008, when the price of gas pole vaulted above four dollars a gallon, I asked John what he thought was the cause. “Greed. Pure greed,” he growled.
The last time I saw John was just a week before he died. I had stopped by the station twice in one day to fill up both our cars. John noticed. “Gassing up the fleet?” he asked, with the barest hint of a grin. Until I cracked up. At which point he did too.
I can’t count the number of times over the years that I came to the station with a burned out brake light, or worn windshield wipers, and John, or one of his employees, would make the necessary replacement and then charge only for the cost of the part. Same with minor repairs; loose antenna, wonky door hinge, no charge. Whenever I was about to buy a car I’d first bring it to John to check it over. He never charged for that either.
When my brother and I bought our first new business car in the 80s I started taking it to the dealer for maintenance and repairs. I thought that’s what you were supposed to do. Until, after a routine maintenance, I was handed a lengthy list of other repairs they proposed. I took the list to John, he checked out the car, told me which items were necessary, which ones were not—a significant number—and fixed the rest at a fraction of the cost the dealer had quoted.
Years ago, one early winter morning our car wouldn’t start. I knew if I waited for a tow truck my brother and I would be late to the gig we had scheduled that day. I live two minutes from the station. I took a chance and called John at 5:30 AM, hoping he was already there for his usual 6 o’clock opening. He was, and said he’d be right over. He diagnosed and fixed a small problem, got our car started, and refused to accept payment. I’ve heard many similar stories from a number of friends and neighbors.
Much more than doing excellent work, at reasonable prices, John exemplified stability, personified reliability in a world that all-too-rarely provides those things. For forty-five years, day in day out, you could count on him to be at the station. He often seemed to me to be a throwback to an earlier time, embodying the old fashioned virtues of honesty, humility, frugality, and service. He was a gentle giant—one woman I know referred to him as “this Norse God”—who exuded competence and reassurance. Whenever I was forced to limp into his station, my car coughing or stuttering with one mysterious vehicular malady or another, I always had the bolstering feeling that John would know what to do, would do it well, and would not charge me an arm and a leg. It was like having a very good doctor you could really trust.
Last year, when I heard from one of my neighbors that John’s wife, Janet had been diagnosed with lung cancer, I asked after her. John said she was undergoing chemo, and that it was hard. Then he thanked me for asking. When Janet died about six months ago I offered John my condolences and asked how he was doing. Characteristically, he said simply, albeit heavily, “It’s an adjustment,” and then again added, “Thank you for asking.”
“Thank you,” was perhaps the most frequent phrase I heard in John’s vocabulary. Usually, a man of very few words, he nevertheless always said, “Thanks very much,” when I paid for gas or repairs. Of course, I thanked him every time too. Here’s one final, “Thank you, John.”
12/10/21 John Mendler’s Memorial Gathering
Mallek’s gas station looked quite a bit different from usual on the first Saturday in December this year. For the memorial gathering that day for John Mendler, the station’s owner for 45 years, who passed away on October 19th, some decorations looked familiar. As in every December, evergreen wreaths and boughs hung from the building’s roofline, twined around the light poles by the pumps, and bedecked the planters by the front door. And, as in previous years, colorful, charming, painted winter scenes adorned its front windows. But, for John’s memorial a large, white party tent stood in front of the garage bay doors, the driveways leading into the station were blocked by orange traffic cones and red ribbons, and some draped cocktail tables stood near the gas pumps.
The station was closed for business, you couldn’t buy gas, but at a few tables inside the tent, you could fill up on pizza, cookies, fruit and vegetable cups and hot chocolate and cider. Other tables displayed framed pictures and newspaper articles about John, and sported fitting holiday decorations—wrenches, hammers and other tools, wrapped with red ribbons and bows.
And there were a lot of people, many more than I’ve ever seen at one time at the station; John’s relatives, nephews and nieces from all over Michigan and from as far away as Atlanta, all the men who had worked for John at the station, Alan, Bren, Dan, Danny, David, Ross, Ted, and Talan, longtime customers, many from nearby neighborhoods, close enough to have walked there, and former customers, now living far away. I talked with one who came from Pittsburgh. People offered condolences to John’s employees and family (including for John’s wife, Janet who preceded him in death by about six months) and shared memories of their interactions with John over the years. There were numerous stories about driving home from out of town with the gas gauge pointing all the way to empty, holding out to buy gas at Mallek’s, or about the times that John changed a tire, or made a myriad of other minor repairs and refused payment.
A few people gathered inside the garage bays swapping—what else—car repair tales. Others discussed the whimsical window paintings, how fitting it was that one of them featured a ghostlike snowman working with a large wrench under the open hood of a car, while the wreath painted on the station’s door enclosed a detailed rendering of a scarlet cardinal and an artfully calligraphed “Thank you John.”
A couple of days after the memorial I talked with Mary Thiefels who, along with her husband, Danijel Matanic, painted the windows. (Mary and Danijel are members of the Brush Monkeys group that creates many seasonal paintings in local storefront windows, and also the founders of Treetown Murals.) Mary told me that earlier in the year, after John’s wife Janet passed away, she’d offered her condolences and said, “Let’s remember her when we do the winter windows.” She asked if Janet had a favorite bird and John said, “Actually the cardinal was really special to her.” That’s how Mary decided to remember John and Janet together with the wreath.
About an hour after the memorial started at noon, Andy Graves, who is helping to settle John and Janet’s estate, and who is married to Kristin, one of their nieces, climbed up into the bed of the station’s tow truck and welcomed everyone. Choking back tears, he told how he had known John and Janet since he was ten years old because he grew up in northern Michigan in a house very near their summer cottage, and how that’s where he met his wife-to-be when they were both teens. Andy went on to say that John was a very private man, to which we all nodded agreement, and joked that because John was so private he would have been mad about our gathering to honor him. He thanked John’s employees, “His extended family, all of you who take care of the people in this community, you were very special to John.” He also thanked all of us, “for coming out, paying your respects to John,” and concluded with, “This was his family too, all of you, this station, this community.”
The Mendler memorial allowed John and Janet’s family to see how many of us cared about John, and how much the station has meant, does mean, to our community. It also served to create, what lately has been all too rare, an occasion to gather together. After twenty long months of mostly not being able to go to parties, holiday meals, graduations, weddings, baby showers, funerals—all the social events that bring us together with our friends, families, neighborhoods, and communities, this one, held outside, in mercifully mild December weather, gave us that chance. For far too long we’ve rarely been together for any occasion, joyous or sad. This was both of those and more.
It also created an opportunity for us to reflect on our mortality—in likely a different way than we’ve been accustomed to during these pandemic days. Instead of offering alarming reminders of the dangers that fill the air around us, this gathering allowed us to remember and celebrate a good man who’d served his community, who’d made life a little easier for those he encountered, and also may have inspired us to think about how we want to live our lives and what we want to leave behind.
At the very least it may have made us think about what we want at our memorial. I overheard one woman say, “I just hope I have a truck at my memorial.”
4/8/2022 Casey at the Bat
Finally! It’s time to “Play Ball!”
I know, I know… the official first day of the 2022 baseball season was yesterday, Thursday, April 7, but the Detroit Tigers will play their first game today, (weather permitting!) so for me the season begins only now.
In honor of the occasion, here’s my musical setting of one of the most famous and best-loved baseball poems of all time, Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.”
Last week while visiting our friends the King family, they of Frog Holler Farm and HollerFest renown, Emily, Billy King and I recorded this in Billy’s home studio. Emily accompanied on rhythm guitar, Billy added terrific electric country-style lead, and I sang the poem. Billy added a heartfelt, “Yer Out!” for the end and also engineered and mixed the recording. At home, Emily made a YouTube video of the music and lyrics.
Thank you Billy and Emily!
I hope you enjoy. Go Tigers!