“I promise, I swear, I won’t ever turn 10.”

THIS INTERVIEW has been on my mind since I heard it a week-and-a-half ago, driving home through thick, sludgy, rush hour traffic. Writer and illustrator, Maurice Sendak talks to “Fresh Air’s” Terry Gross about his latest, Bumble-ardy, about an orphaned pig who has reached nine-years old and had never had a birthday party.

I fell deep into Sendak’s serrated personal narrative — about his own childhood, identity, loss, grief and the beauty of big trees and love. Reporters often despise phone interviews, they can create uncomfortable or unresolvable remove, but Terry Gross was able dissolve the distance between them. It reminded of why I love radio so much.

A pullquote from his interview:

On his life

“I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. … What I dread is the isolation. … There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

The full interview is here:

(image of Maurice Sendak via NPR.org)

“Homecoming”

AT FIRST, I watched this commercial out of the corner of my eye, thinking — I already know what it’s supposed to be representing. I’ve seen ‘it’ too many times, so I don’t need to look again.

But only in the last week or so have I really paused to sit down and study it closely. It isn’t quite the same old story.

Cars are so much about status, particularly in a place like Los Angeles where we don’t often brush up against one another directly. People here then aren’t just judging a book by its cover, but by the shrink wrap covering the cover. In this sense telegraphing who you are is tricky.

Ultimately, what pulled me in was that the on-the-face of it imagery plays with our pre-conceived notions. Where is this young man “on his way to” with that intense, steely expression? You’ve got that deep-bass blooming around the edges, a foreboding soundtrack coupled with his difficult-to-read side-glance to the “little homies” on the sidewalk? What’s he up to?

Sure enough, where this young man is “going” is back home. To his mother’s arms. (Those “little homies”? He was one of those little boys, not so long ago.) And the car — Chrysler wants us to believe — telegraphs that he hasn’t forgotten what “home” means: dependable, familiar, practical — but with a little bit of down-to-earth American style. His face melts when he sees her — his Mom, and then moves toward her open arms — their smiles connecting them before their embrace.

It’s subtle and layered and surprising. A far-cry from the pop candy J-Lo commercial for the new Fiat 500 that often seems to be running in the same rotation, but sends exactly the opposite message: this flashy car says, “Yeah, I’m all that. Loud, bright and then some…” I’ve grown weary of it already. Make it stop.

Chrysler’s quiet message is built for times like this. Keeping it together is keeping it real.

Jazz Sides Travel Guide

A COUPLE of weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me if I would put together a list of jazz albums.

“Jazz Albums.” I paused. “Any particular style? Era? Instrument of choice?”

“No. Just some things that someone should know about.

My friend’s friend felt as if there was hole in her listening repertoire. For awhile now, she had wanted to correct it, but didn’t quite know where to start.

She told him that she just wanted a list of titles that might be something that “one might have in their library.” She didn’t use the word “definitive,” thankfully, but the request still gave me pause.

Music is so personal: The discovery of new music — how music becomes absorbed into your life, how it becomes entwined with particular rituals and entire life-chapters — all feels so private and evolutionary. I’m often asked to make playlists for people. For long drives. For dinner parties. For contemplative moments. Sometimes the mix is just to introduce someone to a particular artist or a very particular period of an artist’s career. I’ve done those countless number of times — mix-tapes, ripped-CDs and now playlists — with some thought, but never flummoxed by it. But there was something very duanting about going back to my jazz origin story.

I grew up in a house full of music. My mother played piano and sang. My brother and I cycled through instruments and music lessons. (He found one that stuck, seriously, and therefore is a musician today. I, however, continue to wander.) There were piles of records in all styles leaning in stacks near the console stereo. Some were stowed next to bookshelves, others, in closets. We all built and cultivated our record collections, often sharing sounds. Jazz flew through the house often — bebop, post-bop, a smattering of experimental, “out there” stuff, fusions and soul jazz and “drummer-less” trios — so I know that my first taste came from listening in the house and in the car as we tooled around. For some reason Sunday afternoons come back the strongest — whenever I hear David “Fathead” Newman’s “Hard Times”, I feel like I can still see one of the curves of Angelus Vista Drive, in copper-y late-afternoon sunlight, through the windshield, making the last turns toward home.

I didn’t start working on my personal jazz collection until college,  which, I think, infused my early selections with a sort of self-conscious, “I better pick the right ones to send the right message” — vibe. Later, of course, it didn’t matter as much. I had been “listening across the dial” as early as I can remember. Back then, L.A. radio had lots of choices and DJs to help usher you in and spell out the finer points. And even though it was around the house, jazz was still something that felt like I still needed a guide to — my mother was one, and an essential one, and so was one of the voices I associated with my “jazz scholarship” — DJ Chuck Niles. Niles’ way-down-low voice rumbled the floor. I would stretch out on the carpet in front of the speakers just so that I could feel the tremor.<img class="alignleft"

I don’t remember what “jazz” album was my first. Back then, the 80s, a lot of straight-ahead musicians were doing mainstream, at-the-moment pop songs as part of their album’s song cycle. Pushing back into the past was an excursion that took place through guides, like the aforementioned DJs, or the musicians themselves or fans with a deep sense of history. But I’d say the lion share of it for me was moving through history via antecedents, personnel/players, moods, instruments. I started with my mother’s records: Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz. Reading from those session lists, I moved to other artists, Theolnious Monk, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Charles Mingus. I saw music, in colors and shapes. I heard the humor and wit in Monk. I felt the Trickster-figure in Mingus, I felt the palette of many, many colors with Miles. Erroll Garner was like bright jewels. Then, a whole phalanx of drummers (Dannie Richmond, Kenny Clarke, et. al) called up different feelings: footsteps and codes and heartbeats. It was all so very personal.
Jazz can be abstract and impressionistic, bent and “swervy” (to use one of my editors’ favorite terms) or technically precise, eloquent and clean. Jazz, of course, is many moods — sometimes even within the space of one composition.

Tasked with this list, I realized, a couple of days later, that in a way this exercise was like revealing your essence to someone. The musicians do it, sure. But we listeners, by passing the pieces on, reveal something about ourselves: Our playfulness, our love of puzzles or conundrums, our lush-life sides, our blue moods. Pop music, I began to realize, is more like journal musings, but jazz (like classical music)  goes right to your core, to the place your thoughts originate, before they have shape or words to describe them.

I’m still putting the finishing touches on my list, deciding how much to reveal or not reveal, the itinerary I’ll make for her, the pins in the map, the places I think she should travel. And the most wonderful, unexpected extra of this is going back and locating the very thing embedded in a piece that suddenly pulls me closer to the person I was, while at the same time connecting me to how I came to be right here, right now.

“I Won’t Forget”

WHEN I heard the news the other day about Cliff Robertson’s passing, I was in the car — edging slowly forward in heavy traffic. Preoccupied, I half-listened to the details of the radio lede but when the engineer cued the clip from the film, “Charly,” before I knew it, just hearing Robertson’s struggling stammer, “I won’t forget…” I found myself in tears.

I hadn’t thought about the movie, nor the book it was based on, Flowers for Algernon, in decades. But immediately what pierced through is where I was when I read it and the effect that it had on me. I was in junior high school, sitting in the chaos of the cafeteria — flying food and squirting ketchup packets – trying to absorb the last few pages, which I was reading through heavy tears. I remember thinking in that moment, that it was very difficult to read and cry at the same time — not the same as a movie. I kept going, wiping them away. Not afraid that anyone might see. It was that sort of walled-off moment.

It was the first time a book had affected me quite that way. The film version of the book, “Charly” had been making the TV-movie rounds for years, but I had never watched it — and after the book, I was even more reluctant.

I’m not sure what finally edged me toward the film, but Cliff Robertson’s performance touched those old corners of feeling — the slipping away of what Charly, who would have been described in present-day terms as developmentally-disabled, had gained — in this grand experiment.

Hearing Robertson’s voice brought back those final pages in the book as language breaks down for Charly and he’s thrown back to his former self. I can’t help but to think the timing — junior high with its dramatic emotional spikes and valleys — had its own messy effect, I”m sure, but this story of glimpsing a life you *could* have and then having it slip away had such resonance. So few things can sit and occupy a space in your soul like a book found in a vulnerable moment.

Robertson won an Academy Award for his performance — I’m posting a link to the film here , the NYT obit here, too.

(image via Wikipedia)