She would have been 70 today. I met her almost exactly 50 years ago, in December of 1970.
The other day, reflecting on Helen’s upcoming birthday, I told our son, “You wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t been born 70 years ago.” I kept reflecting to myself how he also wouldn’t be the wonderful person he is if she hadn’t lavished boundless love and care on every aspect of his being for nearly 20 years. And, of course, I thought again what I’ve thought countless times before — how the boundless love and care she lavished on me was nothing less than my life’s support for 42 years, and has continued in subtle form these past 8.
And there are many, many others whose lives she touched in small or profound ways, who still treasure her expressions of kindness and her gifts of encouragement and wisdom.
On behalf of all of us, thank you again, dear Helen. And Happy Birthday!
On this day, eight years ago, my dear wife Helen left this world of the living.
The number 8, turned on its side, is the mathematical symbol for infinity.
A symbol — something that stands for something else — because infinity, eternity — in time or space — are concepts the mind can’t really conceive of. Like we can’t conceive of “gone forever” and yet have to accept it.
The number 8, like two circles stacked on one another — perhaps the world before we’re born and the world after we die — eternity, infinity — and that tiny point where they meet, where we live in this world.
There is also something of the 8 in a mobius strip, but my knowledge of science is too limited to do more than just point at that symbol.
Somewhere on the internet I found this (and lost it, and can’t find it again, so I can’t give you the source.) “In 108, the individual numbers 1, 0, and 8 represent one thing, nothing, and everything (infinity). Therefore, 108 represents the ultimate reality of the universe as being (seemingly paradoxically) simultaneously One, emptiness, and infinite.”
Once, when I was telling Helen about feeling I was just going around in circles in some aspects of my life, she told me about another way to look at what was happening. “What if you’re not going around in the same circle, but moving upwards in a spiral? What if each time you see this in yourself, you’re perceiving and understanding it from a higher perspective?” She helped me so many times with her wisdom and ever-positive outlook.
In music, the eighth note, the octave, is the note where the scale culminates, and simultaneously begins again.
And, of course, it’s purely coincidental that the eight letter of the alphabet is H — for Helen.
I can’t tell you why I find these symbols, these coincidences and synchronicities significant and moving but I do.
The mortgage got paid off last month. (Good timing, considering that I am essentially unemployed because of the pandemic.) You were the one who found the house, set it up as our household, enhanced it in so many ways, gave birth to our son in it, and left it for him and me as a place of creativity and shelter. When we bought the house 30 years ago, and I was 42 years old, I wondered if I’d be alive now to see it paid off. And here I am — and you are not.
The Earth is mostly a closed system — most of all the water that was here eons ago is still here. So is most of the air, and so is all the earth itself, except for the things we’ve sent into space. All the molecules of all the beings that have ever lived on earth are still here.
Some atoms of the air you breathed may still be in the house, some of your skin cells might still be in one or more of the rooms.
The trees you loved and tended in the yard are still here.
The herbs and perennials you planted and cared for have come back every spring.
People still remember you, especially your kindness.
The books you edited continue to sell, and people write back with thank yous.
And of course, you are with me through the intangibles, the feelings, the memories, the dreams…
I go for a walk on a street
I haven’t walked
in a long time
and I find myself
thinking of you.
Did you walk it
Or is it just
wherever I go?
And you are with our son, Daniel. He has his struggles like we all do, but he’s also an amazing person with incredible skills and impeccable integrity. He’s also been a tremendous help to me, especially with technological needs, in retooling my concert presentations from live to virtual shows and recordings.
One thing Daniel and I did today to mark the anniversary is to look at photo albums — and we came across two pictures we hadn’t seen in a while. You were so beautiful, whether joyful or pensive.
Today, on the anniversary of your death, Daniel and I also did something that was quintessentially in your style. The sage in your herb garden has been especially productive the last few years and Daniel has gotten into drying it and using it for cooking, but also to make smudge sticks — to give away because we really don’t use them — he just didn’t want to get rid of the excess sage.
But there was still much too much dried sage, so today we decided to make a little fire pit in the back yard and burn all the dried sage we had not found any other use for — it was just getting dusty being moved back and forth between the counter and the table.
We got everything ready, and as we started to burn the sage (which doesn’t catch fire easily, perhaps that’s why it smolders and smokes so slowly in a smudge stick) it started to rain! You loved being in nature and never seemed to mind (even reveled in!) things like getting wet or muddy. You also edited a book called “Friendship with the Elements” (about earth, air, fire, water) — and here we were, Daniel and I, having made a fire on a sandy patch of earth, a fire which was kept alive by the air, as it consumed this ritual offering of a product of the earth, while making a fragrant smoke — and then here came the rain! We stayed by the fire as it slowly died down from the combination of having consumed the sage and being rained on — and as we stood there getting wet in the rain, we laughed, saying this is exactly how you would have concluded this little ceremony, enjoying all the elements having come together — and laughing!
The long awaited, eagerly anticipated film of Hamilton will drop tomorrow. My family and I will watch it—and then will likely watch it many, many more times. We saw the musical on Broadway in May of 2016, and it made a huge impression on all of us. The power of that experience has not faded, in some ways it has actually intensified, because our recollections of the show also bring back memories of where we were as a people and as a nation, and who our president was four years ago. Today it’s hard for me to recognize the country in which we are living as being the same one we lived in four years ago.
Four years ago, we also managed to see the 2016 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof — in the same week we saw Hamilton. Fiddler made an enormous impression on me as well, partly because it enlivened my memories of seeing it on Broadway as a teenager fifty years ago, but also because the themes of the two shows echoed, reinforced and amplified each other.
I wrote a piece about my experience with the two musicals a few months after we saw them in 2016, and I ended it with a line from Hamilton; “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I felt that way about my life then, and even about the state of the world. No, I was not unaware of the enormous threat of climate change, I was not oblivious to the racism that suffuses nearly every aspect of our nation, (although I’ve lately been forced to see that it’s even more pervasive than I knew), and I was not unmindful of the myriad enormous challenges our country and world faced. Still, I felt we were headed in the right direction—albeit way too slowly—on many of those issues.
When I read that same line today, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” it sounds like a cruel, sarcastic joke. Trump’s entire tenure, especially his and his cohort’s insults and assaults on the poor, on people of color, on the LGBTQ community, on immigrants and refugees, on the environment, on much of what is good and decent in our country, as well as his spectacularly feeble and feeble-minded response to the pandemic, render that quote a gut punch line. And I’d be lying if I claimed never to feel hopeless, thoroughly disheartened, as well as enraged, by much of what surrounds us now. Not infrequently these days I find myself thinking of the “blessing” from Fiddler. “May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!”
But, despite all of that, and more, and with full awareness that I might sound like a naïve Pollyanna, I am mostly still inclined to agree with the line from Hamilton. “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” There are many reasons I feel that way. Here are just a few.
Yes, the virus is terrifying, but we are so much better equipped to respond to this pandemic than human beings were to the one in 1918, when a third of the world’s human population was infected and 50 million people died, including about 675,000 Americans. Today’s numbers are horrific, but pale next to those. (I know, I know…so far.)
A hundred years ago we had almost none of the amazing technological devices we have today that allow us to connect with each other, to work, to solve enormous problems, and still have the possibility of sheltering from the virus. (I know, I know… not available to far too many of us.)
In 2016 I, like many of us, had been lulled into thinking that we had, and were continuing to make, progress toward racial equality. The murders of George Floyd and of countless other unarmed people of color, and the protests that have followed, have shown how wrong we were, and also how fast and how much things can change—and how far we still have to go.
Yes, Broadway is dark today, but Hamilton, Fiddler, and other great works of art have not died; they are, and will be available, at a cost that is manageable for many; they still live and continue to inspire, to uplift, to tell our stories.
I hope you all get to see and enjoy Hamilton.
Here is the piece I wrote in 2016.
Since 1964, when Fiddler on the Roof opened on Broadway, it has been nearly impossible to grow up Jewish—or anything else—in America—or anywhere else—and not know the story outline and at least some of the songs from the iconic musical. And, unless you just emigrated here from Mars, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the current Broadway-and-beyond sensation, Hamilton. Earlier this year, in May, I was lucky enough to see both musicals on Broadway in the same week.
First of all, credit where credit is due. The only reason I got to see the shows is because my daughter Emily is a fan of musicals. (Do you recall that “fan” is short for “fanatic”? Enough said.) She discovered Hamilton soon after it opened on Broadway last year and started listening—non-stop—to the original cast recording. Last September she showed my wife a ten-minute clip she’d found online. When the clip ended, Brenda looked at her and said, “We have to go, right?” They didn’t have to work hard to convince me. “Why don’t we get tickets for Emily’s 22nd birthday, and all go together to see it next May?” The next day they went online and bought three tickets to Hamilton. (I’ll tell you later what we paid for them.)
Then in February Emily went to NYC with her theater class at EMU to see a number of shows on Broadway, including the new revival of Fiddler. Before she left, I regaled her with stories about how Fiddler was my first Broadway musical. It was in 1966, about two years after it opened. Herschel Bernardi was Tevye, having taken over the role a few months earlier from Zero Mostel who originated it. I told her how my aunt, who lived in Queens, managed to get my brother and me two standing room only tickets, how I was completely oblivious to the fact that I was standing for nearly three hours, totally mesmerized by what I was seeing. How, to this day I have a brilliantly vivid picture in my mind of Bernardi roaring, “There is no other hand!”
Emily saw the new Fiddler. Loved it. Raved about it. Insisted we had to see it. So, Brenda got two tickets to a Sunday matinee, while Emily got a ticket to She Loves Me, another Sheldon Harnick musical that was also revived on Broadway this year. The Fiddler revival is magnificent. I relished the restoration of my fifty-year-old memories, and I fell in love with a whole new set of marvelous ones. When Brenda and I finally left the theater, among the last ones to leave, both of us still wiping our eyes, she turned to me and said, “I thought about you, and how this might bring up some hard memories and feelings for you.” She wasn’t talking about the last time I saw Fiddler in 1966. She was referring to events long before that. In early 1957, when I was eight, my family left our native Hungary in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It was less than a decade after my parents married, and only twelve years after they both survived Nazi concentration camps. So yes, Fiddler’s family leaving their homeland touched off many memories and feelings for me.
Three days later we saw Hamilton. (Because we bought our tickets so early, before most of the world discovered Hamilton, we got them for $89 each. These days the show is sold out at least six months in advance and some people are paying four and even five figure prices for tickets.) Our seats were in the very, very last row of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. You cannot sit any farther from the stage in that theatre. It mattered not one bit. Oh sure, we couldn’t clearly see the actors’ facial expressions, but in retrospect that may have been a good thing. The show, even from where we were sitting, was so powerful, so moving, so stunningly beautiful, so overwhelming, that I’m not sure how we would have handled the additional impact of seeing the actors’ faces emoting the show’s many striking and tragic moments. Hamilton completely lived up to its unprecedented hype. I have never attended an artistic event that was as affecting, heartrending, soul stirring… I’ll run out of superlatives before I’m done trying to convey its effect on us. Months later, we still talk about it frequently. It’s the yardstick by which I will measure all artistic moments from here on out.
But I am not writing here to review Hamilton or Fiddler, or to crow about our good fortune in getting tickets at reasonable prices. Instead, I’d like to share with you, dear reader, some of my reflections about these two musicals.
If you follow Broadway minutia the way Emily does, you’ve probably read about the somewhat controversial frame that director, Bartlett Sher put around the current revival of Fiddler. But just in case you haven’t heard about it… Sher has Danny Burstein, who portrays Tevye (magnificently) start and end the show wearing a modern red parka, a clear reference to the millions of Syrian and other refugees fleeing the Middle East, Africa and other war zones, dangerous places, or debilitating poverty and lack of opportunity. Burstein’s weary stance on the stage at the beginning and end of the musical was a moving gesture that brought the fifty-year old musical powerfully and painfully into the present. Fiddler has never been only a Jewish story, but rather a universal, everyman, everywoman, every human story. And Hamilton is not really only about our founding fathers and mothers—though it does go a long way to help replace some of the sentimental, inaccurate, and untruthful Hallmark histories that we were taught in school. Fiddler on the Roof’s lyrics, melodies and characters—and the actors who portray them—could not look and sound more different than those of Hamilton. But on deeper levels, the two musicals are more alike than different.
While Fiddler portrays a moment in one of the more horrific chapters of European Jewry’s history, the era of the pogroms, it also foreshadows one of the more glorious chapters in Jewish history, the massive migration of European Jews to America, to the great benefit of both those Jews and our nation; and of Broadway, in particular. (It’s not inaccurate to say that Broadway as we know it would not be possible without the contributions of Jews.) Hamilton, meanwhile, is set in the pivotal moments surrounding the birth of our nation, but also takes place at that critical period when the institution of slavery was codified in our constitution and laws, legitimizing enormous human misery, and creating a system of gross injustice with which we are still struggling today. Alexander Hamilton did in fact argue strongly against slavery, and the musical’s lyrics touch on the issue a number of times. “We’ll never be free until we end slavery!” And, given its cast—primarily people of color—and its hip-hop language and music, it is impossible to see Hamilton and not be forcefully reminded of the subject.
Fiddler on the Roof is about the end, and near destruction, of a culture and its second chance at survival in America. Hamilton is about the creation of that America which—despite its history of brutal racism, numerous prejudices, xenophobia, and yes, even genocidal policies and actions—is also arguably our world’s primary embodiment of second chances for countless people, as it was for Alexander Hamilton.
This is why Fiddler and Hamilton struck particularly personal chords for me. Alexander Hamilton was able to emigrate from his impoverished birthplace in the Caribbean Islands, where the circumstances of his birth would have doomed him to a miserable and very limited life, while Tevye and his family were able to escape the murderous prejudices of their homeland. My family was incredibly fortunate to be able to come to America and make new lives that would never have been possible for us in Hungary.
The last lines of Hamilton are, “Who lives, who dies, / Who tells your story?” I will always be grateful to the creators of Fiddler and Hamilton, and all the people who have made it their life’s work to bring these shows to all of us, for telling these stories. As one of my favorite lines from Hamilton says, “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!”
Ever since the coronavirus crisis began I have been thinking a great deal about all the people who have continued working to keep basic services going for those of us fortunate enough to be able to shelter in place: truckers who transport food to grocery stores, postal carriers who deliver mail, people who keep the sewage and water plants running, who pick up the garbage and the recycling, who drive the buses, maintain the electrical grid and the internet... the list is very long. And of course, the health care workers who have been risking their lives to help people sickened by the coronavirus.
I recently came across a story I wrote in 2003 that had some resonance for today and might serve as a fitting tribute to these people. It also commemorates the 75th anniversary of a significant event in world history. Dear reader, the current relevance of this story, which in large part is about that event 75 years ago, may not be immediately apparent. Please bear with me.
On April 10, 2003 Bill Basch, the 13th recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg medal, gave his acceptance speech in Rackham Auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Wallenberg Medal is an annual award given by the U of M to Holocaust survivors who resisted the Nazis, as well as to others who have fought for justice in a variety of situations since that time. Bill Basch was sixteen, alone in Budapest in 1944, and served as a courier for Wallenberg, delivering messages and distributing Schutz-Passe to Jews in hiding. He was eventually discovered and wound up in Buchenwald, and later in Dachau.
The Wallenberg medal is named in honor of Raoul Wallenberg, who was an architecture student at the U of M, class of 1935, before returning to his native Sweden to become a successful architect and businessman. He went on to become a diplomat and was Sweden’s special envoy to Hungary during WWII. He is credited with saving tens of thousands of Jews in Budapest from the Nazis and the Hungarian Nyilas, by issuing them fraudulent Swedish passports and sheltering them in buildings he designated as Swedish property.
(A side note: My mother was born in Budapest and was living there in 1944. She told me she had been aware of Wallenberg and his activities but was unable to make contact with him. In December 1944, she was deported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.)
One of the most compelling statements Basch made in his acceptance speech, was this. “In order to survive we must accept the responsibility of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. Each one of us must do our share of improving our society one day at a time. We all have the ability to defeat evil in our own way.”
When Basch finished speaking, he invited questions from the audience. The first man to rise was Donald Brown, U-M professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology. Earlier in his talk, Basch had spoken of being liberated from the Dachau concentration camp on April 29th, 1945 by the American Army. Brown didn’t have a question. Instead, he said that he had been one of the troops in the unit that liberated the camp in 1945.
Brown arrived in Dachau as a medical aide with the 65th Armored Infantry Battalion of the Army’s 20th Armored Division. He’d volunteered two years earlier, when he was just a freshman at Harvard. “I was motivated to go in for ideological reasons. I was extremely anti-Nazi. Even as a little boy, I felt very strongly about the Spanish Civil War.” Brown had 20-800 vision, which would have disqualified him for service, but the eye exam at his induction was conducted by his family’s ophthalmologist. He said to Brown, “Donny, do you want to be in the Army?” Brown said yes, and the doctor continued, “Do you see that E over there? What is it?”
On April 29th, 1945 Brown was in a half-track bound for Munich, when orders came over the radio that his unit was to detach itself and “see what was going on at this village, Dachau.” They’d heard that it was a concentration camp. “But, at our level, all we knew was that these were unpleasant places, where political prisoners, Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals were,” he pauses, fingers quotation marks in the air, and adds, “Concentrated. We had no idea what it was really like.”
“As we approached the village, we began to encounter men in striped suits who had escaped. The German guards were fleeing, because they knew we were coming. These were inmates who were still able to walk. They flagged us down. We took as many as we could into our half-track and they began to tell us what we were going to see. This was all within a kilometer or two of the village. So, we’re there before we could take it all in. And suddenly, we were there. And there it was.” He stops. Even sixty years later he seems to have no words to describe what he saw. He simply opens his copy of the 20th Armored Division’s “yearbook” to the pages with the horror-filled photos. “We didn’t stay long. Overnight. Didn’t sleep. Tried to help. We did what we could. Couldn’t do much. I had my two little medical bags, but they weren’t for that sort of thing. I could take care of a bleeding wound, set an arm, give a shot of morphine, but those weren’t the problems there. We radioed back saying what’s needed here is a company of engineers, a field hospital, that sort of thing. And then we got orders to catch up with our unit to take Munich.”
“When you see something like that, it’s so big, you can’t encompass it, really. I never spoke much about it.”
Other events demanded his attention. A few months later, as his Division traveled by train through France, on their way to be shipped home, “They took the very cars we’d liberated at Dachau and loaded us into them.” One night, there was a terrible crash. “We’d run head on into another locomotive. Everybody but me in my unit was killed.” He points to a picture of railroad cars crushed like accordions, and says, “That car was the one I was in.”
“I landed in NY the day the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.” He was married less than two weeks later, the day the war ended in Japan.
Fifty years went by. Brown went on to have a distinguished and varied career at Berkeley, Bryn Mawr and, since 1964, at the UofM. With his wife, June, he raised a family. His wartime experiences were forgotten. “You’re just too busy getting on with your life. My children never really knew. They had all my Army junk that they played with when they were little kids, playing soldiers.”
And then it was the 50th anniversary of D-Day. “They had all this stuff on television and they would interview these old men who were my colleagues. And these guys would start to cry. And I would sit there, watching TV, and I would start to cry. My wife said, ‘What’s the matter?’ And I said, ‘Nothing.’ And I stopped right away. Well, what was it? There were no specific memories, no traumatic memories. It was just some kind of emotion welled up. It just brought back somehow the awareness of that whole episode of one’s life. I know an awful lot of guys said the same thing. From that time, people began to realize that, look, we are getting old. In only a few years, none of us will be around. So, people began to talk. Their children were all grown up and were beginning to ask questions.”
Today, a plaque hangs on a wall in Dachau, remembering and honoring the men of the 20th Armored Division, for their role in liberating the camp. And Brown began talking regularly about his wartime experiences. Beginning in 1999, and continuing for a number of years, he taught a course at the UofM entitled, “Why Grandpa Went to War.”
Donald Brown’s statement on the night of Bill Basch’s Wallenberg lecture in Rackham Auditorium—that he’d been one of the troops who’d liberated Dachau—was electrifying. In an evening filled with emotional, at times wrenching moments, as Basch recounted his wartime experiences in Budapest, Buchenwald, and finally in Dachau, Brown’s statement, and Basch’s response, were perhaps the most moving.
In what was the most emotional, animated voice he used all night, Basch replied to Brown, “God bless you! You have no idea what we felt when we saw you coming through the fences with your machine guns. It was giving us life again. Thank you for being there.”
We have of late been living in our own variant of concentration camps. No, of course I am not equating the coronavirus crisis with the Holocaust. As I’ve written previously, the Holocaust is unique and not equivalent to any other event in human history, before or since. (Though there surely were comparable episodes decades before the Holocaust—the Armenian Genocide, for example—and numerous echoes after; Stalin and Mao’s murderous regimes, and Rwanda and Kosovo among others come to mind immediately.) The present- day calamity has not been precipitated by a murderous madman and his all too willing henchmen, though examples of serious mismanagement by a number of world leaders spring easily to mind. Nor has the virus deliberately targeted a single ethnic or racial group, though again, the pandemic has highlighted long existing and shocking racial and ethnic disparities in our economy and health care system.
Nevertheless, there are some valid comparisons between the two situations. Our lives have been utterly disrupted, we are isolated from each other, terrifying danger is omnipresent, we have no way of knowing when the threat will abate, and some of our leaders, both here and throughout the world, are pathetic incompetents, malevolently self- aggrandizing, or both.
But, when this pandemic is finally behind us, we too, like Holocaust concentration camp inmates, will have the opportunity to thank those who have saved us; the responsible journalists, truck drivers, grocery store clerks, and countless others—above all, the medical professionals—who continued to serve and preserve us. We will say to them, as Bill Basch said to Professor Brown, “God bless you! You have no idea what we felt when we saw you, heard or read about you, when we knew you were risking everything on our behalf. It was giving us life again and again. Thank you for being there.”
Lately, it’s been impossible not to think of death occasionally. The other day, I remembered another time in my life when an event forced me to acknowledge my mortality.
Laz and I were in the middle of a four-day residency at Purdy Elementary School in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin on January 25, 2006 when our mom called to tell us that our dad had died. Everyone in that school community was extremely kind and generous, a number of people going quite a bit out of their way to help us get down to Florida for our dad’s funeral.
When we eventually returned home to Ann Arbor, we found we’d received a large package, stuffed with letters and drawings from the kids and staff at Purdy. (They had also sent a beautiful bouquet of flowers to our mom.) The letters were comforting; sweet, heartwarming, touching, full of profound empathy and understanding, and—at times—hilarious.
In times of great sadness, sometimes tears of laughter heal as much as tears of pain.
Many of the children wrote expressions of sorrow and offered condolences.
I’m very sorry for your loss. I hope you feel better. I don’t have anything else to say except I’m sad.
I would be really sad if my dad died.
Some were very observant and thoughtful.
When you were talking to us, I noticed you talked about your dad a lot.
My teacher told us your dad was ninety-six. I hope he lived a nice long life, even though he was sick.
I’m sure your father thought you were awesome singers. I think you are.
Remember, even if your father is not there, you still have each other.
Some were heartbreaking, and...
My dad died too. I feel sad for you.
I know how it feels because my grandpa died. It hurts very bad.
Too bad your dad died, and he was your dad and not someone else’s.
I’m sorry your dad died. I had a baby bunny and he died too.
They offered encouragement.
A good suggestion for you is to look on the bright side. I hope you aren’t too sad, because if you’re sad, we’ll be sad too.
It might seem like the end of the world, but luckily, it’s not. My grandpa passed away just last year and I’m still standing. Don’t lose hope.
A number were very practical and looked ahead to our returning and finishing the residency—and even past that.
When you come back, I’ll be ready to sing. We’re practicing.
It just crushes my heart to hear about what happened to your father. I don’t know how you will be able to come back to our school some day and just sing your heart out.
I hope you don’t stop singing.
I hope this doesn’t mess with your music career.
A few were a little off topic—but sweetly.
Both of you guys are kind and clean.
What was your dad’s favorite band?
Some offered wise and wonderful advice:
You should play a song at your dad’s funeral.
Stay strong for your kids and your mom.
To make your mom happy, you could sing to her and give her a hug and a kiss.
A few showed children’s lack of comprehension of the reality of death; or perhaps showed a higher understanding than our adult one.
I hope your dad feels better.
And there were some that warmed our hearts—and exercised our belly-laugh muscles.
I am sorry your dad died. He must have been a nice guy to have around.
It’s nice you went home for your dad’s funeral. I’m sure he would have done the same for you.
There were deer in my back yard this morning. There often are, but today they sparked a memory.
Some years ago, I was driving home to Ann Arbor from New York. On I-80 through the hills and mountains of Pennsylvania, going fast on a long downhill, I suddenly spotted some deer far ahead of me on the road. I began slowing and checked my rearview mirror. I could only see one car behind me but coming on fast. I turned on my hazard lights and continued to slow down. The driver of the other car picked up on my message, or also noticed the deer, and slowed too. As we got closer, the deer scattered, leaping over the low guard rails and into the shrubs on the side of the road. All but one. A good-sized doe stayed on the road, in my lane. I kept approaching and she took off, bounding ahead of me, still staying in my lane. I kept well behind her, but matched her speed, not daring to slow more because now I could see several other cars coming fast over the rise behind us. The car behind me pulled into the lane on my right, hazard lights also flashing, and matched my speed. The two of us continued side by side for maybe a quarter mile, blocking traffic from passing us, until the doe suddenly swerved, gracefully leaped the low guardrail, and was gone.
The man in the other car and I looked over at each other, grinned, and gave the thumbs up sign. The memory warms me still.
We’d been paying attention, we’d kept a safe distance from each other, and things had turned out well. We’d managed to save the doe, ourselves, each other, and who knows how many others.
This morning the deer in my yard reminded me of those long-ago moments on that highway. I thought of what so many people have been doing lately for their own safety and for the common good—staying home whenever possible, social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks—and also of the, thankfully, relatively few who have rebuffed repeated pleas to cooperate. Despite the reckless, at times even repugnant behavior of that latter group, I don’t wish them ill. I hope they’ll change their stance, but I don’t hope they come to harm.
I don’t feel this way because I’m a saint, nor because I’m not furious at their conduct, but because I’m pretty certain that the only way we’ll get through this—without a lot more people getting hurt or dying unnecessarily—is if we look out for each other, for all of us.
I’ll begin on a lighter note. As many of you know, I play an instrument called the bones. The ones I play are shaped like four pieces of curved bone, but are made of wood, in my case either cherry or pine. The bones have a very ancient history. Some speculate they may be among the earliest musical instruments human beings have played on the planet. In the middle ages, they had a unique role. Lepers played them as a way of warning people of their approach. Social distancing 12th century style.
A few hundred years later, continuing to express the high opinion people had of the bones, Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream said, “I have a reasonable good ear in music. Let’s have the tongs and the bones.”
Perhaps we need a world-wide bones revival now. If enough people learned to play, I’m certain we’d have no difficulty convincing everyone to practice social distancing. I’m also sure we’d all soon develop “heard” immunity.
I still vividly recall the first time I learned that singing for an audience could alter the way I heard the words and meaning of songs I was singing. Early in our career, about forty years ago, my brother and I were invited to sing for some kids at Mott Children’s Hospital, here in Ann Arbor. There were maybe a couple dozen children in the room, some bandaged, some without hair, some in wheelchairs, some with IV poles, some with oxygen tubes. This was years before Laz had written our signature opening Hello song, so we started our show with what was, at the time, our go-to opener, Tom Paxton’s Marvelous Toy. I sang, “When I was just a wee little lad, and full of health and joy…” and almost choked on the words. I struggled through the rest of the song with tight throat and stinging eyes. I’d never really heard those words before, and I’ve never again sung those lyrics without being hyper-aware of their meaning.
I’ve thought of that memory frequently since the coronavirus hit the fan. Emily and I, and my brother Laz separately, (because of Michigan’s Stay Home/Stay Safe directive) have been live-streaming short concerts several times a week. As of this writing, we’ve played twenty-five shows and sung about 140 songs since March 16th. I’ve been struck by how many of the songs have lyrics that in some way speak to the times. Occasionally we’ve deliberately chosen songs with lyrics that obviously relate to current events, at other times, I’ve only caught the multiple meanings of some words and phrases as we were singing them.
A couple of weeks ago I played guitar while Emily sang Summertime; “One of these mornings, you’re gonna rise up singing, and you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky. But until that morning, there ain’t nothin’ can harm you, with your Mammy and Pappy standin’ by.” Oh, if only it were so…
We sang Eili, Eili; “Oh Lord, my God, I pray that these things never end, the sand and the sea, the rush of the water, the crash of the heavens, the prayer of the heart.”
I sang the Russian children’s song, May There Always Be Sunshine; “May there always be sunshine, may there always be blue skies, may there always be Momma, may there always be me.” Amen.
One night we sang a set of Dylan songs. The titles say it all; You Ain’t Goin Nowhere, Blowing in the Wind, I Shall Be Released, and Forever Young.
On the first night of Passover I sang the old African American spiritual, Go Down Moses. The repeating line, “Let my people go” has obvious relevance for all of us these days, but I couldn’t help also think of the disproportional toll the virus is taking on African American people here in Michigan and throughout the country.
Even when the lyrics contained no timely undercurrent, the stories behind the songs did. Everybody Loves Saturday Night is a song from Africa. (Those are the entire lyrics.) Some years ago, after the government of Nigeria imposed a very unpopular curfew, it finally bowed to public pressure and lifted the curfew on Saturday nights. People poured into the streets to celebrate and spontaneously created this song. I’m looking forward to the day we learn that it’s safe to celebrate close together. I’m certain we too will pour into the streets to sing and dance!
And then there is Gracias a la Vida, Thank you to Life. Emily and I have ended many concerts—our distant, long-ago live ones—with this song. I eagerly look forward to when we get to sing it before live audiences again.
Those of you who have been watching our shows very carefully, might have—I repeat, just possibly might have—every once in a (great) while, detected a teensy weensy, teeny, tiny error or two (dozen); Usually—nearly always actually—committed by me, very rarely by Emily. When I’ve made mistakes, I’ve tried to remember a quote attributed to Beethoven, “To play a wrong note is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable!” Or, I refer to the guitar-god, Chet Atkins to explain, and forgive, my missteps, the way he did his own. Mr. Atkins used to say, "Guitar players, when they come to my concerts, are always looking for mistakes, so I always throw in a few just for them!"
I also recall a conversation I once had with the doctor who delivered our daughter. We got to know each other a bit over the course of my wife’s pregnancy and one day, after Emily was born, I told him how grateful I was for the amazing work he had done for our family. He replied with a comment about how much he admired my work. I thanked him, said that was very high praise coming from him, and then added that there was a huge difference between his work and mine. “Your work is often life and death. In my case, nobody dies when I hit a Bb instead of a G.” (Which is not quite true. I do die a little bit each time I hit a clam.)
A few years ago, I talked with an arborist who trimmed a dead limb off a huge black walnut tree in our back yard. It was during a particularly hot July and I asked her how she was doing in the unusual heat. She said that she and her crew had been working shorter hours to ensure their safety. I said I wasn’t surprised; that Laz and I had played a number of outdoor concerts during the heat wave, that it had been hard to keep our instruments in tune, that we drank copiously to try to keep hydrated, and that, after each concert, we’d wrung sweat out of our t-shirts. “But,” I added, “Obviously, our work is nowhere near as hard as what you do.” She disagreed. This woman who routinely climbs tall trees, carrying a chainsaw that weighs considerably more than my guitar, said, “If I had to stand up in front of a bunch of people and sing, I’d be sweating bullets for a week before!”
Brought to mind a wonderful Sesame Street skit. A little girl skips up a few stairs and sits in a chair on a small stage. Next, the famed violinist, Itzhak Perlman, who had polio as a child, struggles up the same stairs with his crutches and leg braces, sits down next to the little girl and says, “You know, some things that are real easy for you are real hard for me.” Then he picks up his violin and plays a few spectacular phrases. The little girl says, “Yeah, but some things are easy for you that are hard for me,” and proceeds to play the beginning of Bach’s Gavotte in G Minor—sounding like the beginning violinist that she is.
Which brings me back to today. One of my neighbors works as a physical therapist at UM Hospital. I see him frequently and always ask how he’s doing. We’ve exchanged similar greetings for years, but clearly these days there is more weight behind my simple, “How you doin’?” When I ask about his work, or how things are at the hospital, he says very simply, “It’s what I do.”
The daughter of another neighbor of mine is a nurse at UM Hospital. When I thanked her recently for doing what she does, she replied, “Thank you for wearing a mask and for following social distance rules.”
Yes, we each do what we do—and what we can—and some of us have the grace to return compliments and gratitude with even more heartfelt compliments and gratitude. I also understand that what we’ve trained for, and the skills and experience we’ve built, does make it easier for each of us to do work that would be much more difficult, even impossible, for people without similar attributes. I am grateful beyond words that there are people among us who have trained and built skills and experience—and have the courage, compassion and selflessness—to do life and death work on our behalf. I forgive them with all my heart for any mistakes they may make.
Passover starts tomorrow night. It is in some ways a perfect holiday for the present moment, because it looks back on very hard times and celebrates that today is better. And while we’re nowhere near being able to see the coronavirus crisis as ancient history, the story of Passover can remind us that we’ve come through some very tough times before and survived.
There is a famous question asked during the seder, Passover’s celebratory meal: “How is this night different from all other nights?” It is customarily asked by the youngest child present, and the adults answer with the stories of the horrendous trials our ancestors endured, and of their—and thereby our—eventual salvation. This year, for children and adults, there are many more questions—and uncertain answers—than perhaps ever before in most of our lifetimes.
The seder ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The meaning of that phrase is, for many of us, not literal, but instead expresses a powerful longing, and a call to action, to work for a more just and peaceful earth for all people and for all living beings. This year it can also serve as a fervent wish and hope that next year at this time, we will be able to celebrate the seder, and all manner of other joyous occasions, in the company of our friends and families.
My wish for all of you is that this plague pass over your home—over all our homes—and that soon we will be able to again celebrate together.
Of course, it was bound to happen, and sadly, sooner rather than later. And now it has. Someone I know has succumbed to the coronavirus. A good friend’s father died on April first. I met him once a couple of years ago when he came here to visit my friend. We shared a meal and some conversation. He was in his late eighties, very fit, very active, very full of life right up to his final illness. My friend will miss him enormously, and I will remember him for more than merely being my “index case” (the term scientists use, instead of the catchier, but faintly blame-placing expression, “patient zero”). I fear my personal list of coronavirus victims will grow.
For many years now, I have regularly played music in senior communities. I know the faces, if not the names, of many, many very elderly people in those places. I wonder and worry about how many of them will still be alive when this is all over, how many might have lived longer if not for this virus. And, of course, as I am all-too-frequently reminded by my own brain’s press releases to myself, “Ain’t no guarantees you won’t make somebody else’s list, buddy.”
One of the saddest aspects of all these deaths is that people are dying alone, away from their loved ones. I’m certain doctors and nurses have, and will continue to do their best to comfort the dying, but to die without people you love near you, to not be able to say mutual goodbyes… I know it happens all the time, but I fear it is, and will be happening far more often now.
I remember a story my mother told me of her mother, the grandmother I never met. In October 1944 my mother, Blanka, her older sister, Anci and their mother, Karolina, were forced to move into one of the crowded csillagos hazak, houses with six-sided stars on them in the Jewish ghetto of Budapest. Karolina became ill soon after and was hospitalized. My mother never learned a diagnosis. New laws created by the Hungarian Nazi party, the Nyilas, mandated that all Jews wear yellow stars on their clothing, and made it illegal and highly dangerous to venture outside the ghetto. Still, my mother and her sister repeatedly sneaked to their mother’s bedside during her final illness, removing their yellow stars and pretending to be nurses going to work. Since my mother’s blood type matched her mother’s, she was able to give blood for transfusions. But the transfusions could not save Karolina. She died alone on November 8th. Her daughters dared not go to her funeral. Attending the burial in the Jewish cemetery outside the ghetto, would have meant immediate arrest and deportation. My mother was not able to visit her mother’s gravesite until seven months later, after she had endured deportation and several months in the Ravensbruck concentration camp. When she finally got back to Budapest on July 7, 1945, she went to the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, and with their help found her mother’s grave. Karolina had been buried in a remote corner of the Jewish cemetery because no one from the family had been there to pay for the funeral costs.
A couple of weeks ago I remembered a scene from the movie, The African Queen, and ever since, I have not been able to get it out of my mind. I only saw the movie once, about forty years ago, and I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it. That one scene is my only vivid recollection, and I think it resurfaced now because it’s saying something that feels relevant to me now.
I won’t review the plot, but those of you who have seen it know that partway through the movie, Charlie, Humphrey Bogart’s character, is pulling his boat through mud and thick vegetation that’s choking the shallow river they’re navigating. At one point he climbs back aboard and discovers to his horror that he’s covered in leeches, a universally dreadful, but for him an apparently particularly personal nightmare. After he and Rose, Katharine Hepburn’s character, frantically pull all the leeches off him, it becomes obvious—without them saying a word—that he must get back in the river and keep towing the boat if they are to survive. Rose is simply not strong enough. It’s the look on Bogart’s face when that realization dawns that’s been haunting me.
I’ve seen that expression a number of times recently, or think I have; on the face of the man who brought out and loaded into my car the groceries I’d ordered and paid for online—while I stood six feet away. I’ve imagined seeing the same expression on the face of the woman who has continued to deliver our mail, and on the face of the pharmacist who filled my prescription and slid it out to me through the drive-up window. These people, and countless others, are doing their jobs and more, to keep our world functioning, and even to further reduce the risk for some of us.
I don’t remember the expression on Katharine Hepburn’s face when Bogart decides to get back in the river, or even if the film recorded it, but I know that I have felt uneasy during each of my interactions with the people who helped me. And that leaving them a little bit of money, as I have, (tip seems a completely inaccurate and inappropriate word) does little to ease my mind. I understood that my being a septuagenarian puts me in a higher risk group than the younger people who have helped me. Still, it was only lukewarm comfort knowing that the virus is likely to be less dangerous to them than to me.
I tried to understand what I was feeling. Of course, guilt immediately came to mind. (I am Jewish, after all.) And that’s as far as I got till I talked about it with my therapist, who pointed out that the word guilt implies blame. Is it my fault that some people’s jobs are essential and hazardous while mine is neither? No. Did I feel I deserved better treatment than they? Definitely not.
We agreed that another word was required. But what?
Perhaps, I later thought, what’s needed is one of those long German words, like schadenfreude, for which there is no one-word equivalent in English. Come to think of it, what I have felt is in some ways the opposite of schadenfreude. So, what is the antonym of schadenfreude? Google says, “fremdscham, or the ‘vicarious embarrassment syndrome’. People who have this syndrome tend to feel embarrassment for someone else's misfortune.”
OK. That was getting closer… but then Google also adds, “It’s particularly difficult for them to witness embarrassing moments, which may explain why some people hate cringe comedies such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office.”
No. That misses the mark.
Some permutation of survivor’s guilt is involved too – though the jury is still way out on that one.
I found a post by a man named Shubham Thakur, who wrote, “Compassion can be considered as an opposite of schadenfreude. It means deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it. Empathy and kindness can also be counted as opposite to schadenfreude.”
Those are all better, but still seem to miss an active component. What does one do to show compassion, empathy and kindness?
I remind myself that staying at home as much as possible, and following social distance guidelines and wearing a mask when I’m out in the world, are meaningful contributions to the general welfare; that my donating to organizations that support medical personnel, that provide food for the less fortunate among us, to my favorite causes... There is no shortage of need. Epictetus’ two-thousand-year-old words still speak to me. “You are not some disinterested bystander. Exert yourself.”
And always, always, I offer sincere, heartfelt thanks. As Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night, “I can no other answer make but thanks and thanks, and ever thanks.”
Lately I’ve had more time to think than usual—especially when I wake in the middle of nights and can’t fall back asleep. In those long dark hours, among the fears and worries, memories have surfaced that I’ve not had reason to recall for many years—memories that seem surprisingly relevant, and even comforting, today.
This one is possibly my very first memory. I can’t think of one that is older. When I was about two or three years old I contracted scarlet fever. This was in 1951-52 and the standard practice in those days, at least in my native Budapest, was either to quarantine whole families or, as happened in my case, if complications developed, individuals were quarantined in hospitals.
The memory is of something that happened sometime after I was quarantined in a hospital room. I was not allowed out and my parents and brother were not allowed in. I remember standing by the room’s window and the three of them waving to me from the other side. They had brought me a toy fire truck to ease the pain of separation, and a nurse brought it in to me. I raised the firetruck above my head and shouted, “Are you coming in?” When they sadly shook their heads from side to side, I slammed the truck to the floor as hard as I could, breaking it.
Fortunately, these days I’m finding it much easier to understand and accept the need for the current shelter-in-place orders. I wish the same for all of us. I also like to think I’ve mastered my temper a little bit better since that time. I wish that too for all of us.
I was seven years old when the Hungarian Revolution began on October 23, 1956 and lasted for a little over two weeks. It was dangerous to be outside as guerilla fighting erupted in the streets of Budapest when Russian soldiers attempted to put down the Revolution. Our family lived in the heart of the city, in a typical European style three-story apartment building that surrounded a courtyard. My brother and I, along with all the kids in the building, replicated the real conflicts that raged outside with mock battles of our own in the courtyard and along the interior balconies of the building. When we chose sides for our skirmishes, no one wanted to be the Russian soldiers, or the hated Hungarian secret police. Then, a citywide curfew was imposed. No one was allowed outside. In those pre-refrigerator days, my mother was used to shopping nearly every day for fresh food at nearby markets. After a few days of the curfew, our small ice box was running low on meat, fresh fruits and vegetables.
One of my father’s sisters also lived in Budapest. Her husband, our uncle Ervin, was a born and bred rebel, an outlaw, a maverick. He always carried himself with a nonconformist bravado; rules and restrictions were for others, not for him. In post WWII Communist Hungary, where entrepreneurs were nearly non-existent, he owned an electronics repair shop. In a country where private automobiles and even motorcycles were rare and mostly owned by wealthy government officials, he had both and, using his thorough familiarity with all the ins and outs of the flourishing black-market economy, managed to always find petrol for each. (Both my brother and I still remember thrilling rides in the sidecar of his motorcycle, especially when he took sharp turns at exhilarating speeds that made us glad our parents weren’t along.) Through his black-market contacts, he also found ways to acquire everything from chocolate to ladies’ nylons, all extremely rare commodities in 1950s Hungary. No curfew or Revolution was going to change his modus operandi. He somehow got hold of a Russian Army uniform, likely stolen off the body of a dead soldier, and rode his motorcycle through the city at night, avoiding checkpoints by learning their locations through his shortwave radio contacts, and brought food to us and other members of his family. He only knew a handful of Russian words and surely would have been immediately shot, had he been caught.
If he were alive today, Ervin would undoubtedly be one of the people selflessly delivering food and medicine to family, neighbors and friends, and would also know how to find hand sanitizer, masks, and yes, even toilet paper!
Early this morning I went to Arbor Farms Market to shop for groceries. I wore glasses, a red bandana, outlaw style, underneath a dust mask like the kind I use in my shop when I sand wood. I wore gloves and sanitized my cart with alcohol cleaner the store provided. I carefully avoided coming closer than six feet to anyone in the store till I got to the checkout line. The young woman who rang up my purchases wore gloves and helped me bag my groceries. I got choked up as I thanked her and walked out of the store. Ever since this crisis began, I’ve frequently thought with enormous gratitude of the many, many people today who are taking far greater risks than I need to in order to serve and help others.
A couple of months ago I happened to see a headline that widened my eyes. “71 Year Old Folk Singer Dies On Stage.” That’s a line that will get your attention, especially if—like me—you’re also a 71 year old folk singer who still spends about a hundred and twenty days on stage every year.
I read on.
On Saturday night, January 18, 2020, David Olney was in the middle of a song at the 30A Songwriters Festival in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida when he said, “I’m sorry,” closed his eyes and fell silent. Olney, who recorded twenty albums over his career and had some of his songs covered by, among others, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt, didn’t drop his guitar, didn’t fall out of his chair, he just peacefully, gracefully, shuffled off this mortal coil.
It was a very close-call intimation of mortality. I thought about it a lot. For about three days. And then forgot.
Life went on. Until life—as we know it, anyway—stopped being normal, ceased seeming to be a nearly guaranteed inalienable right. Somewhere around late February, with the news about the coronavirus being especially dangerous to people over 70, I started thinking about mortality again—a lot. Three days later I was still thinking about it. I’m thinking about it still.
And I remembered my parents. My mother and father passed through a very dark period when life as they knew it very nearly completely stopped, when they were forced into isolation, quarantined from most of the people around them, when mortal danger was an all-enveloping, constant reality for them.
I’m talking of course, of the period of the Holocaust.
In October 1944 my mother Blanka, her older sister Anci, and their mother, my grandmother Karolina, were forced to move from the apartment they shared on the Buda side of Budapest, into the sealed off Jewish ghetto on the Pest side of the Danube river. On November 8, Karolina died of an unknown illness that culminated in internal bleeding, and on December 4, on my mother’s 26th birthday, she and Anci were shoved into cattle cars bound for German concentration camps. They spent most of the next five months in the infamous Ravensbruck camp for women. There, despite the brutal conditions, my mother clung fiercely to her routines. She washed daily with a rag and icy water, laundered one set of underwear and wore her only other set while the first ones dried. She brushed her hair and Anci’s frequently in a futile attempt to get rid of lice. She refused to allow herself to feel depressed or hopeless. When Anci would cry, “We’re going to die here. We’re never going back home.” my mother would stubbornly insist, “We’ll be all right. We’ll show them. We’re going to go home.”
I think also of my father.
In 1942, my father was conscripted into the munkaszolgálat, the work detail of the Hungarian Army attached to the German and Austrian armies fighting in Poland. Because he was, at the time, a rabbi, he at first served as chaplain to his fellow prisoners, but soon was forced to load and unload munitions, and help build roads and bridges along with all the men. But he clung to the traditions of his faith. He led daily prayer services and, miraculously, even managed to hang on to his tefillin, the ritual phylacteries that religious Jews wind on their left arm and wear on their head during morning prayers. When he was liberated by the Russians in late 1944, he walked and hitched rides for two weeks to get back to his home in Kunhegyes, Hungary.
What is happening in our world now is not comparable to the Holocaust. Nothing really is. But there are similarities and there may be some lessons we can learn from the survivors.
My physical reality today is far, far easier than what my parents had to endure, and the faith that my father clung to is not one that I now practice, though I do also have beliefs that nourish and support me daily.
But I’m certain that the actions and attitudes that enabled my parents to survive, and later thrive, might also help us now; taking care of ourselves by maintaining as many of our healthy daily routines as possible, helping to take care of each other, and keeping close whatever faith it is that sustains us.
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 said he’d been getting a lot of 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, were the co-founders of 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; 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 RBS 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!