Thursday, October 15, 2020

You're Only As Young As You Feel

I was thinking about Bucky Pizzarelli the other day. In fact, I gave him a shout-out when I was a guest on WEEU radio's "Talk It Out" with Dan and Tyler on October 8th. We were paying tribute to some celebrity musicians we lost in 2020, beginning with the legendary and deeply-missed Neil Peart of Rush, and proceeding through the year to Eddie Van Halen. (You can listen to it here:  

But as I went through the list of other musicians who left us in 2020, in among the bigger names like Charlie Daniels and Helen Reddy and Kenny Rogers, there was Bucky Pizzarelli, a widely-respected jazz guitarist, whose music I used to play when I worked at a jazz radio station in New York in the mid-1970s. He died of COVID-19 on April 1, at age 94. He was still performing well into his late 80s, and was someone who never let his advancing age (or arthritis, or anything else) stop him, as you can see in this music video from 2012, when he was about 86.

As some of you know, I have a friend named Judy Valentine. She is a former radio singer and children's show co-host on TV. She's 96, and sharp as can be. She still loves to entertain, but since the pandemic, she can't go to the activities she used to attend. She misses that. She has told me she sometimes wishes she could find some part-time work, something where she could still make people happy. But let's be honest-- in our culture, we don't quite seem to know what to do with older people, especially those in their 80s or 90s. Agreed, some are frail and suffer from various illnesses. But others are not, and all they want is to still feel useful, in a society that continues to worship youth.  

Stereotypes about "the elderly" (or the euphemistic "senior citizens") still permeate popular culture. While Alzheimer's is a tragic, and thus far incurable, disease (and many of us know people who suffered from it), not every older person has it. When someone forgets something, as all of us have done at one time or other, that doesn't mean the person is on the way to cognitive decline.  Yet, it still seems a common belief that older people are no longer capable, because they've "lost a step." Agreed, someone in their 80s probably can't perform brain surgery; but I've run into some older folks who are even more intelligent (and have a lot more common sense) than people who are much younger.         

The other day, Pres. Trump sent around a doctored photo of Joe Biden, photoshopped to make it seem like he was sitting in a nursing home, in a wheelchair.  Mr. Trump's supporters probably thought it was hilarious; I mean, it's a common discourse on the right that Mr. Biden is elderly and senile (he is neither). I not only didn't think it was funny-- I thought it was sad, because it confirmed all the stereotypes about older people.  Whether you're a fan of Mr. Biden or not, he's still out there doing what he loves, and doing it effectively. Is he the same politician that he was 30 years ago? Probably not, but why is that the standard? He has continued to keep up with changing times, and he has continued to keep himself relevant. I think that's commendable.

And that's why I admire people like Bucky Pizzarelli, who did what he loved for as long as he could do it-- he played music and he made people happy. Instead of marginalizing people who are aging, we should give them the chance to perform at their best, whether in entertainment or business or politics or whatever. I've long believed we sell people short when we stereotype them based on their age.  There's a quote attributed to baseball legend Dizzy Dean, and while it may be apocryphal, it has some truth to it: he supposedly said, "I ain't what I used to be, but who the hell is?"  My point exactly. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Something to Believe In

A few random thoughts about the past few days, which, to say the least, have been strange.  For the first time in my adult life, I couldn't spend the Day of Atonement in synagogue, since the pandemic made going to temple impossible. So, my husband and I found a live-stream of a synagogue in Miami, and another in New York, and we vicariously joined those congregations to observe the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar.  But even though the services were beautifully done, and very moving, I still felt like a spectator, rather than a participant. 

We humans are creatures of habit, and there are some rituals we become accustomed to. I am grateful that services were online, but I miss being able to actually attend. (I admit to feeling the same way about teaching my classes:  I'm grateful I can engage with my students, but while it's nice to be able to see them on Zoom, I still miss bringing them cookies and I wish I could still walk around the room to say hi and see how they are doing.)

On the other hand, there are some rituals and customs that remain, even during a pandemic.  As I do every year on Yom Kippur, I go on a media fast.  In addition to the 24 hours of refraining from food, I refrain from email and social media. It's nice to spend a period of time not worrying about which messages need to be answered or which partisans are arguing with each other. So, I spent the time reading some scripture, reading some philosophy, and thinking about the importance of forgiveness-- forgiving others who have wronged us, and forgiving ourselves when we fall short of the goals we've set for ourselves. (I could probably do better at both, to be honest.)

Last night, I watched the presidential debate, and it made my head hurt. I've watched many such debates, but I can't remember one where the sitting president relentlessly interrupted, mocked the moderator, mocked his opponent, used numerous insults, and persisted in making assertions that were demonstrably false. And yes, his opponent fell into name-calling too, and that didn't make me happy either. I'm just not accustomed to so much rudeness from our leaders, in a time when serious problems demand our attention.  And I thought back at other debates I saw over the years, but I couldn't recall any president who talked that way to his opponent (or to the moderator). As I said, I'm not accustomed to it, but evidently this too is part of the new normal. I encounter a lot of folks who are okay with the president (and other politicians) talking this way. I still think that's a shame.

Yesterday, I heard that Helen Reddy passed away, at age 78.  I still remember the impact her big hit "I Am Woman" made in the early 70s. (A few stations didn't want to play it, because they thought its message was too strongly feminist, but lots of folks loved the record, and it eventually became a #1 song.) In fact, I still remember the key role radio used to play in introducing and then helping to create hit songs. The fact that radio is now an afterthought for many young people is something I've written about before, but every time someone dies who was a hit-maker in the 60s or 70s or 80s, it just brings me back to my deejay days, and I remember how lucky I felt to finally be on the air. 

As I said, it has been a strange few days and as the year 5781 of the Jewish calendar begins, all I can do is hope the struggles many of us endured in 5780 are behind us. Right now, it doesn't seem that these problems are going away, but by nature, I try to be optimistic.  Still, I admit to being worried about the direction our country is going, and I'll be glad when the election is over. For now, I'm glad for the opportunity to blog, and I'm glad for those of you who read what I write. These are difficult times for many of us, but the one thing I truly believe in is the power of friendship. And until we can once again feel "normal" (whatever that means these days), I appreciate having friends to share the journey with. There's not much else I can say beyond that.  

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Trying to Live My Life Without You

If you're anything like me, you can still remember where you were when you heard the news that Neil Peart had died. And perhaps, like me, you were surprised that he had lost his battle with cancer-- since you didn't know he had cancer in the first place. (I knew he had been ill, but Neil was a very private person, and I did not want to pry. I figured that whatever he wanted the public to know, that's what he would share. And I was fine about that.)   

But it goes without saying that his death was a shock for every Rush fan. Many of us cried when we heard the news, including rock critics who knew him, and people who never met him but felt like they knew him--thanks to the lyrics he wrote.  And today especially, on what would have been his 68th birthday, many of us are still in shock.  I did not speak to Neil much after he retired, but I often spoke to his best friend Craig, and I kept up with how he was doing. I was glad he was enjoying his retirement, and I was especially happy to hear news about his latest adventures, like taking his daughter on nature walks. And I had no idea that when I saw him after the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was the last time I would see him.    

I think for some fans, losing Neil was the final proof that Rush would not be reuniting, ever. Okay fine, most fans understood that fact intellectually.  The band had retired, and Neil had decided he needed to stop performing (that he had been suffering with tendonitis had been widely reported, plus he wanted to be there as his little daughter was growing up). Geddy and Alex had famously said in the 2010 documentary "Beyond the Lighted Stage" that Neil was irreplaceable. And if he ever left the band, they would not try to find another drummer. "if there's no Neil, there's no Rush," Geddy said. 

But fans being fans, there was still the hope, even after he retired, that somehow he might join Alex and Geddy one final time-- perhaps for charity. Or maybe he could go into the studio and record something with his former band-mates. After all, they were still friends, and they still kept in touch, so why not get together and make some music? Online rumors popped up periodically (I had to dispel quite a few of them); but no matter how many times it was pointed out that Neil was content, happy to be a "retired drummer," the fans kept hoping. Until the day when it became impossible to hope any longer.       

Since he died, I've tried to find ways to honor the man I thought of as a friend, the man whose music changed so many lives.  I make donations in his memory to my favorite charity, Donors Choose, which supports teachers and students in need of school supplies: I seek out classrooms (and individual students) who need musical instruments, for example. I've been keeping in touch with everyone at Overtime Angels, the group planning a night to honor him (it was supposed to be in October, but the COVID-19 pandemic put so many events on hold).  And I've been on a number of radio shows and webcasts, sharing my recollections of watching Neil play or spending some time talking with him about literature (how many rock musicians can quote lines from Shakespeare's "King Lear"?). I'm doing my part to keep his memory alive. But I'd be lying if I said I don't still miss him.

I only have one photo of me and Neil, the one from the summer of 1974. Neil was famous for avoiding meet-and-greet events, and whenever photos of the band were taken, it was always Alex and Geddy who stuck around for those occasions.  But others, including his friend Craig, have taken wonderful photos of Neil playing the drums, and sometimes I look at those photos. Seeing how happy he was still makes me smile. 


Back in 1989, someone at his record company asked him to explain how he and the band went about making a new record. He said that the songs are reflections on life, and not just reflections-- but also responses.  He said, as we travel on our metaphorical journey, each of us sees that life with different mirrors; and we see it filtered through our own lenses. But the lyrics Neil wrote were often unique in their ability to make the listeners feel as if he was talking about their life, their experience. His songs truly were the soundtrack for so many of our lives. In that regard, it's like he is still here. He lives on through the music he left for us, and the joy with which he played that music. It was an honor to share this planet with him. Happy birthday, Neil.