Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Company You Keep

I got an email the other day from my friend, children's-author Peg Kehret, who had just come back from a weekend visit to Whitman College, where her granddaughter is a student. Peg's enthusiasm over her visit was palpable: "Being on campus is invigorating."

I knew exactly what she meant. There's something about being in the company of younger people.

For the past two-plus years, I've been going regularly to Club Zum, a facility in downtown Seattle, where they take care to explain they are not "a gym," but rather, a club, where people go as part of a program to live well and feel good, rather than to pursue a particular physical goal, such as losing weight or getting ripped. If I'm not the oldest person at this facility, I'm damn close, but it doesn't matter. The twenty- and thirty-somethings among the trainers and clients relate to me just as they do to each other. No condescension or fake jollies for the old guy.

The vivacity at Zum is infectious. The sight and sound of all those beautiful young people - men and women - smiling, greeting, and encouraging each other as they pour enthusiasm into their workouts, instantly resets any downbeat mood.

I schedule my sessions for mid-afternoon. After several hours at the computer, I'm usually feeling pretty logy as I go in. Then, for an hour or more, Derek, my trainer, challenges me, paying attention to what he sees as my particular needs and capabilities, all the while tweaking my interest by explaining the reasons for what he's having me do. Yep, some of my muscles may feel a little sore when I'm leaving the facility, but I actually do feel good! Invigorated. My head's clear - ready to take on that character who won't get off his duff and move his plot along.

Don't bother asking when I'm going to move into one of those 55-and-over communities. Keeping up a house can be a pain, but no point taking an analgesic with side effects worse than the disease.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Call Me Sweetie

The other day, I stopped to fill my car's gas tank at a convenience store station, went inside, and got on the line to pay. As the customer in front of me took the receipt for her carton of cigarettes, the gray-thatched woman behind the counter said, "Thanks, Sweetie. Have a wonderful day."

The customer slammed her cigarettes onto the counter, shot the clerk a look that could've corroded Big Ben's gears, then snarled, "I'm not your sweetie. Don't you call me Sweetie! Or Honey. Or Dearie." Then she snatched up her box of cancer sticks and goose-stepped away, slammed the door open, and disappeared in a cloud of dander.

The clerk blinked a few times, forced an anemic smile. "I was just trying to be nice," she murmured, then added, in a tone like the vox humana of an organ, "It's my first day on the job."

A passage from THE ASSISTANT, by Bernard Malamud, popped into my head: "Our life is hard enough. Why should we hurt somebody else? For everybody should be the best, not only for you or me. We ain't animals."

"You can't win 'em all, Sweetie," I said. "I wouldn't worry about it."

She started to giggle. "I'd like to give you a big hug."

I told her to be my guest.

I know a lot of people are put off by what they consider undue familiarities from strangers, but I figure that if having 6,587 friends, more than 99% of whom you've never set eyes upon, is something to brag about, and when the latest and greatest of anything is always referred to as the ultimate, why should I put someone down for addressing me with a mild form of endearment, and telling me they hope I have the best day ever?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

La Belle Josephine: The Spy

First thing tomorrow, be sure to go to the Poisoned Pen Press Blog ( and read Jeanne Matthews' informative and entertaining report on the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. Jeanne ended the piece with a particular hook for me, the mention of an exhibit having to do with Josephine Baker. "What?" you ask. "An entertainer from the Roaring Twenties, represented in a spy museum?"

You bet.

Josephine was born in St. Louis in 1906, went to Paris in 1925, and took the city by storm with her sensuous singing and dance routines. She continued as a show business superstar for the next fifty years. Racial prejudice prevented her from ever achieving success in her home country, but the French adored her throughout her life - for good reason. Not only was she a singular entertainer, she engaged in dangerous spy work for the French underground during World War II (for which she received the Medaille de las Resistance). Post-war, she adopted twelve orphans of different ethnic origins, to put into practice her belief that children brought up to respect and honor human differences would not engage in xenophobic behavior as adults. She referred to her children as her Rainbow Tribe. When she died in 1975, Paris gave her a military funeral, 21-gun salute and all. Twenty thousand Parisians came to stand outside the church.

It's not surprising that there exists a wonderful Josephine Baker musical automaton, probably manufactured at the time of Josephine's heyday. It's 21-1/2 inches tall, and bears a remarkable resemblance to the real Josephine in facial appearance, hair style, and costume, as seen in the cover photo of the book, Josephine, by Josephine Baker and her then-husband, Jo Bouillon.

Want to know more about Josephine Baker? Aside from the Baker-Bouillon reference, you can read Naked at the Feast, by Lynn Haney; Jazz Cleopatra, by Phyllis Rose; The Josephine Baker Story, by Ean Wood; and Josephine, The Hungry Heart, by Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase. Jean-Claude, the proprietor of New York City's Chez Josephine Restaurant, was a young teenager, working as a bellboy at a French hotel, when Josephine took him into her home and heart many years ago. Any time you're in New York, consider stopping at Chez Josephine for dinner. Jean-Claude is a marvelous host, the food is outstanding, the live music just right, and the walls are covered with Josephine Baker photos and other memorabilia.

Oh...and why not make a habit of tuning in daily to the Poisoned Pen Blog? Start your days with short wake-up pieces on all manner of topics, by one or another of the Poisoned Pen Posse of authors. You'll see why the Press' slogan is "Publishing Excellence In Mystery."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Power of Music

Music can unlock some strange and marvelous doors.

The other night, my wife and I went to see the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company's all-Wheeldon program. The first number was Carousel, a gorgeous adaptation of music from the Rodgers and Hammerstein play. The piece began with the "Carousel Waltz," as dancers, portraying merry-go-round horses, kept the young lovers, Billy and Julie, off-balance and apart. But then, the musicians swung into "If I Loved You," and another stage sprang up in my mind, no less HD and 3D than the one before my eyes. Asbury Park, NJ, summer, 1945.

Sixty and more years ago, my family went to Asbury Park for vacations. Loudspeakers at the beach blared non-stop music at the sunbathers. Carousel had opened on Broadway earlier that spring and was the hit of the season, so for two weeks that August, I must have heard John Raitt sing "If I Loved You" upward of a hundred times. And in the opera house a few nights ago, as the dancers moved across the stage, a cascade of sensory memories paraded through my mind. I saw the sandy beach filled with people under colorful striped beach umbrellas. Pieces of paper and discarded soft drink bottles littered the scene; I had to be careful not to cut my foot on broken glass. Gray-green, white-flecked breakers crashed against the slope of the shore. Bathers - the women all wearing white rubber bathing caps - walked gingerly into the water, holding the safety ropes that ran from the shore out to buoys. Gulls squawked, screaked, swooped down to snatch discarded pieces of hot dog roll. Ice-cream vendors toted little freezer compartments on their backs, their names painted on the freezers. One was named Vic, another Son of the Beach, which I thought was curious. Behind us, crowds shuffled along the boardwalk, past game arcades and frozen custard shops; some people rode in wicker pedal carriages. Grannies in cotton print dresses and grandpas in suits, white shirts, and ties sat on benches whose backs could be shifted to permit them to look out onto the beach or back across the boardwalk. Little kids laughed and hollered as they chased each other around in circles. I smelled the tar on the boardwalk, and felt my mother's fingers rubbing suntan oil into my back and shoulders so I'd "get a good healthy tan." Pink cotton candy from the little open-front shop just across the boards melted in my mouth. And as the ballet artists - remember them? - danced to the line, "Off you would go in the mist of day," I watched the big gray cargo ships offshore, slowly vanishing into the far-off haze of the horizon.

These music-generated images come unbidden, but vivid as they are, and representing the viewpoint of a particular person of a particular age, wouldn't it be something if writers could learn to call them up on demand to help set scenes? That would be a skill worth developing.