Thursday, September 30, 2010

With Willie and Bogdan under the stars

I may not like working at night but I love my colleagues. For instance, I first got an inkling Bogdan, my Bulgarian counterpart down the hall, liked Willie Nelson when I heard his Level 1 English class singing Willie's version of "Crazy."  I went to investigate and saw him standing in front of a dozen or so bewildered Korean and Farsi students urging them to sing along with the words he'd written on the board. Later he explained Willie's lyrics are quintessential American expression: simple, yet understood around the world. I had to think about that for awhile. I love Willie too, but for his wild rebel ways. Tom and I saw him in concert a few years ago with a stage full of musicians celebrating his 75th birthday; he sang for hours, the younger band members, including his son, barely able to keep up with him.

But Bogdan was onto something, so when I saw Willie was slated to play the Greek Theatre last Friday I bought two tickets and invited him along. 

We met on Vermont and drove into the park, arriving as the first act was getting under way. Bogdan didn't care for it much, so we sat at one of the tables in front and ate sandwiches. I've never met anyone as easy going as Bogdan, a trait I attribute to life under Communism, which ruled Bulgaria for 45 years. During the first few years after the 1944 takeover, Bogdan told me, Communists controlled the country with a Stalinist iron fist, going into villages and imprisoning or killing anyone (teachers, intellectuals, writers) who opposed the regime. One learns to cope under such circumstances.

Bogdan's father, Boyan, learned the lessons of coping, first under the Nazis. He'd been stationed in Paris during the war, as part of the diplomatic core of the monarchy. Bogdan remembers as a child walking the streets of Paris, playing in the beautiful gardens, but soon was being bundled back to Bulgaria as the Nazis took control of the city. As the war intensified, his father received desperate pleas at midnight, knocks on the embassy door, from Jews and other Bulgarians fleeing the Nazis. Before long, hundreds of political refugees were gathered inside, and although Boyan didn't know how he'd keep them safe he hatched a plan. Calling around to every German contact he had, he secured a train car (or two) to transport the refugees back to Bulgaria— the only European country that refused to collaborate with the Germans in deporting or exterminating its Jews. 

Unfortunately the real suffering for Bulgarians came after the war. When Bogdan's father returned from serving in Portuguese and U.S. consulates, he was striped of his diplomatic duties; he found a job through a friend as a gravure, a glass cutter. (Bogdan chuckled at the memory because his father couldn't cut a straight line and was fired.) He then loaded scrap metal onto a truck. One learns to cope, a lesson Bogdan mastered as well, as an English professor in Sofia. Under Communism, Bogdan earned 40 dollars a month and was banned from furthering his studies.

When Willie appeared, Bogdan applauded loudly, whooping it up with the crowd. He was in heaven, especially impressed by the massive Texas flag draped across the back of the stage; Bogdan was amused by, and kept repeating, Willie's use of the vernacular (he seemed especially fond of "little shack in the woods.") Willie sang straight that night, with little gabbing or socializing, going from one classic song to another.  What a great night we both agreed, hearing Willie under the stars, the heat from the day still lingering, and for me, seeing Bogdan revelling in Willie—as free a spirit and as American as my friend from Bulgaria ever imagined.

 In front of the Greek Theatre

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Full Moon

 Full moon over Highland Park

I set my camera for 15 seconds, hand-held, which produced this blurry image shot by a drunk, but I wanted to capture the full moon while it was still relatively low in the sky, so here it is, overlooking Highland Park, and beyond.

I didn't work tonight, but instead of enjoying myself, I was walking a thin line of anxiety from being at home: should I rush downtown to see a program, call a friend for a drink, run to the bookstore? My heart was pounding and I was wishing I had something to drink, when I heard a strange sound coming from my neighbor Thea's yard. I looked out the window and saw five skunks—five!— walking up from the canyon below to grab some cat food and drink from the many bowls she leaves lying about. The skunks were everywhere, like circus clowns, dashing in and out of the garage, around the yard, challenging the one stray cat that found himself literally up against a wall, and I began to wonder if there were only five— maybe 20? 

After the skunks left, I decided to go for a walk but paused on the front porch, listening to a hoot owl on the other side of the house, in my neighbor Elliot's patch of tall Eucalyptus trees. What I hadn't heard before, but heard now, was another hoot owl, further up the hill, answering the first one: "hooo hoooo hooooot," and then the answer, "Hoooooooooooo," like that, back and forth. Walking, I continued to hear them; a million crickets were singing up from Heidelberg Canyon across the way, and dogs were barking at the traffic down in Highland Park, and a siren whizzed by, and somebody was talking sternly to their dog, and an old jalopy was putt-putting down the road as though it were on its last legs. It was only 7:10, and so much activity! What had I been missing these last two years, teaching at night? It was delicious: being home, hearing these sounds.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Real Jew

Sequoia Redwoods

During this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews reflect on their past year and ask forgiveness—if warranted— not from God, but from those they've wronged. Only then do repentant Jews get their name inscribed in the Book of Life. I confess I hate organized religion, but using this as an example, one can see how religion serves a purpose: who would apologize for their stupidity if they didn't have to?

I don't know if it's because of the holidays, or because autumn's in the air, but I've been doing a lot of reflecting lately: about my mom, about life and death. I was heartened to see in the current New Yorker that Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist (not a Jew), also reflected upon these things, especially on the loss of his mother. Here is a letter from Proust that Barthes sent to a friend whose mother had just died: "When you still had your mother you often thought of the days when you would have her no longer. Now you will often think of days past when you had her. When you are used to this horrible thing that they will forever be cast into the past, then you will gently feel her revive, returning to take her place, her entire, place, beside you..... Tell yourself this, too, for it is a kind of pleasure to know that you will never love less, that you will never be consoled, that you will constantly remember more and more..."

Thinking about my mom and how she died leads me to believe that, if you're lucky, death finds you when you're not looking. The older I get the more convinced I am that really old age is something I'd rather not do. The other kind, a quick death, seems preferable. For instance, Robert Schimmel, the stand-up comedian who died last week at the age of sixty. 

Here's a guy who had the roughest of lives but found humor wherever he could mine it: his long battle with Hodgkins lymphoma, liver failure, smoking pot during Chemo, with his doctors' and parents' full consent ("Man," he said on Tavis Smiley, "where were they in high school?"), married three times to the same woman—the guy made fun of it all. And then last week his daughter was driving and Schimmel was in the passenger seat and BOOM—they get in an accident. A week later he dies from complications. Seems anti-climatic after everything he'd been through, but still, death came quick.

When I was in high school, I went out every weekend with a boy named David Nathan. I wasn't allowed to date outside my religion, but since David was half Jewish (actually the wrong half, his father was Jewish, although my parents didn't know that) he was granted dispensation. The truth was he wasn't my real date, but a fake date, picking me up every Saturday night and delivering me to my real boyfriend (a Gentile) waiting for me in the park a few blocks away. 

David covered as my front man for nearly a year, during which time we hardly rose beyond the cordiality of our awkward setup. But after many rides with him I found out he was terrified of cemeteries. Every time we'd drive down Baxter Ave., he'd twist his neck and look away, sinking lower in his seat, to avoid the cemetery. He hated the thought of the dead, their very existence pressed in on him, as surely as the cold, hard ground pressed in on the dead. After he dropped me off, he'd go back to his real life, drinking with his buddies down by the river, or going out with girls, and I wouldn't see him until the next weekend, when he'd knock on the front door again and say hello to my parents.

While I was still in high school, my boyfriend and David dropped out of college, and enlisted in the army. They were shipped out to Vietnam, saw combat, but survived unscathed, and returned to Louisville in the early seventies. My boyfriend married, had a kid, divorced and moved away, but David remained in Louisville, bumming around, trying to find himself, as was the story of so many men who'd returned from Vietnam. Somewhere along the way, he bought a tavern, the Cabin Inn, in Bardstown, Kentucky. Bardstown, the home of Stephen Foster of "My Old Kentucky Home" fame, was a genteel southern town and the tavern turned out to be a success, popular with locals and friends from Louisville. David was on his way.

One night, after closing, he opened his cash register box to count the day's take, a nightly routine. But on this night, when he punched the register, the cash drawer opened quickly and hit him in his side pocket, where he kept his gun. The gun discharged and sent a bullet on an inside journey, of which I have imagined many times before, taking off through his heart, around his organs and out the other side. David reached for the top of the bar, but sunk down, down, down, to the floor. He tried to hold on, twisting his neck and sinking lower in his seat, but death found him when he wasn't looking. He was 29.

A few years ago when I was in Louisville, I went looking for his grave which I'd heard was in the Jewish cemetery. When I came upon his gravestone I was surprised at how small it was, but what surprised me even more was that the whole family was there: the father, David in the middle, and his mother. What was shocking really was that I'd had it wrong all those years before: his mother had probably converted to Judaism (why else would she be lying there?), which meant, with a Jewish mother, David had his bonifieds: he'd been a real Jew after all. If I'd known, would my life have been different? Would his? What if I'd fallen in love with David instead of my boyfriend? I wouldn't have had to lie and connive to get around my father. David and I might have married and he wouldn't have gone off to Vietnam; he'd have finished college and not been a barkeep; he wouldn't have bought that tavern in Bardstown or opened the cash register drawer that night and died.... But, then, that kind of futile thinking will get me nowhere.

 David Nathan died in 1977, at the age of 29.