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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013, remixed

Every year (for the past 10 years) I have been making mixes of songs that reflect my state of mind and emotions from the past year.  Think of it like a montage of songs that explain what I've been through, what our times reflect without actually saying the words.  Think of this yearly mix as a letter to you telling you about how I feel about society and how I fit within it.  I take a lot of time and effort putting together the songs you hear.  At one point, I only wanted new songs on each year's mix and did not dare repeat an artist from year to year.  Those rules have since gone by the wayside.  Now, I try to feature some new, unheard of artists along with some old favorites, songs you're more likely to be familiar with.  I'm also a big sucker for alternates, or covers.  Since, I release this annual mix at wintertime, I also choose many songs which reflect the snow and grey sky outside.

One thing, however, is for certain; each song has a purpose.  They paint a rich tapestry.  I put together songs that artistically paint a picture of what the past year has meant for me.  I then give this mix to individuals as I see them throughout the coming year.  My hope is that people make connections to the songs and as they listen, they unintentionally connect to me and other individuals listening.  I don't expect everyone to have the same connection, but what I expect is a visceral connection.  Music is often all I have to hang onto, and my hope is that through it, we can connect as human beings.

Without further ado, here is my music mix for 2013 (this mix literally sits in my Itunes library, as I've legally downloaded/purchased every single song):

1) 'Prologue'- The Antlers


2)  'Loading Phase'- Bobby

3) 'Seven One Eight'- Fannypack

4) 'Snakes Crawl' (feat. Bush Tetras) (East Village Mix)- Phil Kieran

5)  'Waterflaws'- Wild International

6) 'Love Natural'- Crystal Fighters

7) 'Shout!'- Lindsay Katt        

(this is a live version from Joe's Pub in NYC)

8) 'Relax Your Mind'- New Look

9) 'Interlude'- Thievery Corporation

10) 'Floating in Space'- Apples in Stereo


11) 'Take the Kids Off Broadway'- Foxygen


12) 'Telephone'- The Black Angels

13) 'Attic Doctor'- Youth Lagoon

14) 'Hey There Fancypants'- Ween


15) 'I'll Fly Away'- Goosecreek Symphony

16) 'The Red Balloon'- Ginger and the Ghost

17) 'Eight Days Before the War'- Trappers Cabim

18) 'Oh Louise'-Korey Dane

 19) 'The First Freeze'- The Loom

20) 'You're Golden'- The Polyphonic Spree

21) 'White Winter Hymnal'- Birdy

22)  'New Light'- The Great Lake Swimmers

23) 'Fly Me to the Moon'- Radiation City

24) 'My Tears Are Becoming a Sea'- M83

25) 'The Ends'- The Naked and Famous

26) 'Sound of Silence'- Kina Grannis

27) 'Medicine'- Daughter

28) 'The Bells Play the Band'- Bell Orchestre

29) 'Mother to Son'- (recited by) Langston Hughes
(There is a stunningly beautiful choral version of this poem (which didn't fit on my mix); I performed it with my college chamber choir.  Itunes has that arrangement sung by The Fisk Jubilee Singers.  I recommend dowlonading it.)

I hope you enjoyed these 29 tracks.  Feel free to download them on Itunes or just upload this page and have a listen.  Or, if you really want, I can make a mix for you and give it to you when I next see you.  I felt that by putting my playlist here, that people can listen and have access to my annual mix more easily.  However, I can still make a few hard copies to give out. 

As reflected in the music, you can tell that 2013 was quite a roller coaster.  This past year has not been easy.  I have faced a lot of personal life challenges.  So my hope for 2014 is that things will be brighter and better not only for me, but for everyone reading this.  My blessings to you in the new year.

Love and light,


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Jew on Xmas


It's Christmas, but to me, a Jew, it's just another Wednesday.  To Jews, Christmas means Chinese food and a midnight/matinee showing of a movie not having to do with Christmas and/or featuring a Jewish actor/director (Woody Allen, anyone?)  I've always been fascinated with the whole concept of Christmas.  The whole hustle and bustle to get presents, clean the house, bake cookies, make a meal, get everything done by the December 25 deadline.  To me, it always seemed impossible for people to get it all done just in time for Christmas.  I always said to myself, thank goodness I'm a Jew and don't have to worry about it.  Having been on a very tight budget these past few years, I'm very thankful that I don't need to worry about any of the things that others, who celebrate Christmas, must worry about each year.  How do people ration out enough cash to budget everything?  I really don't know how people do it.

But then I think about the pang I feel at not celebrating Christmas.  I'm glad and proud to be Jewish, don't get me wrong.  But there's always this left out feeling, like you're looking in from the outside.  As a little kid, I felt this way.  Going to school Christmas parties and chorus recitals, I just didn't feel like I fit in.  As the token Jew, I always either brought cookies shaped like stars of David or insisted that we sing a Hanukkah song.  But those efforts made me stick out more.  It was either assimilate like them and go through the motions of Christmas or do nothing at all.  I choose the latter.

I know what you're thinking; I could do what many Jews do and celebrate the 'holiday spirit' of the day.  Some Jews put up Christmas trees, aptly disguised as Hanukkah bushes.  Some Jews even exchange gifts or have family over on the big day.  For me and my family, we sit it out.  The whole holiday season is free of hustle and bustle.  For us, there is no Christmas ham or Christmas tree.

I get it though.  There's this whole notion and expectation that Christmas brings a day of comfort and peace to the hearts of everyone who celebrates.  Even for me, as a non-participant, I feel that on this day, all my cares and worries are put to rest.  There's a general sense of calmness and serenity surrounding Christmas, no matter where the day falls.  I think it's that Hallmark/Norman Rockwell picturesque family around the tree or eating goose and fig pudding that I felt I was missing out on.  And I would argue that it's this feeling of missing out that makes many Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists take part in Christmas despite not believing in baby Jesus and the whole idea of a nice Jewish boy being the son of G-d, chosen messiah figure.

As a culture, we have romanticized Christmas to the point of having expectations and hopes that my or may not come true.  As an outside observer, it seems to me that Christmas is very existential.  For almost two months, from after Halloween until the very eve of Christmas, we are up to our ears in  lights, tinsel, pine trees, flash sales, and 24-hour Christmas song stations.  There is constant planning and prepping from the minute we enter the month of November.  And then Thanksgiving, probably what should be deemed secular Christmas, or prep for the marathon that Christmas has become, everyone becomes obsessed with finding the best discounts and bargains so that Christmas can be perfect.  Right after Thanksgiving, the race is on to make the best Christmas ever and recreate a Martha Stewart living fold-out.


Now, I don't mean to take a dump all over the holiday.  I know that for many of my friends the holiday has significant meaning and importance.  And the majority of people who I know choose not to be overly commercial and materialistic.  I know many folks who make their gifts and ornaments.  Some people have been collecting vintage decorations for years or recycle Christmas traditions handed down from childhood.  Some families sing carols around the piano sipping spiked Eggnog while others take turns reading Dickens's 'A Christmas Carol' around the fireplace in flannel pajamas (wait, do they?)  Wait, I think I have my notions of the holiday mixed up with movies and television shows.  See, that's the problem.  Where do we separate the actual holiday from the myth and hype surrounding it?  There is so much pomp and circumstance to Christmas.  It's like, everyone holds their breath until the 25th, and then, on the 26th, what's left?  A de-boned bird carcass, lots of dishes to clean, and perhaps a few gift returns.  Then, hit all of the post-holiday sales at the mall.  I ask, as an outside observer, why all the hype and zapping of energy for one day?  It's one day out of the calendar year.

And I get the thing about being with family; peace and good will, all that jazz.  But shouldn't people be incorporating all of those warm fuzzy Christmas-time things during the rest of the year?  Everyone rushes around like chickens without heads to make their Christmas special, but then what's the point?  Isn't the holiday more or less built up on false definitions of what makes the holiday so great?  Again, I'm not trying to poop all over the holiday.  I get its importance for those people who celebrate it.  However, I feel that as a result of sappy movies and TV shows, that we have a very high expectation for what the day should look like.  Think of all of those postcard-like images we get from even the Christmas songs.  One 'dreams of a white Christmas' where one 'decks the halls with boughs of holly' and 'come a-wassailing among the leaves so green' and has visions of sugarplums 'dancing in their heads' and has 'bells on bobtails ring' and sees 'glories stream from heaven afar' where everything is perfectly in place including 'a partridge in a pear tree'.  I admit that even I love listening to those Christmas carols, as they evoke a feeling of euphoric peace and nostalgia.  I especially like the 50's and 60's crooner tunes.  By the way, many of those Christmas carols are written by Jews.  It's not only the music, though.

Film has romanticized Christmas too.  There are movies like: 'It's a Wonderful Life'(1946), 'Meet Me in St. Louis' (1944), 'Bundle of Joy' (1956), 'Holiday Affair' (1949), 'Christmas in Connecticut'(1945), 'The Man Who Came to Dinner' (1942), 'White Christmas' (1954), 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947), and 'A Christmas Carol' (1938/1951).  From these films, we get a packaged idea of what Christmas should be.  Despite problems, the characters are still able to work things out and have not only a memorable but an epic Christmas that tops any past memories of the holiday.  Again, it's like this existential phenomenon.  There is a build-up toward Christmas and when the holiday actually comes, magic and wonder fill the hearts of everyone gathered around the hearth which is ironically right next to the Christmas tree.  Hot cocoa, gingerbread cookies, roasted chestnuts ('on an open fire'), building snowmen, going for sleigh rides, opening mountains of presents, wassailing (whatever the hell that is), decorating a nine foot Christmas tree by threading popcorn and cranberries are the images of Christmas we get from the movies and songs.  Anything less is not acceptable.

However, there are movies like: 'A Christmas Story' (1983), 'Christmas Vacation' (1989), 'Elf' (2003), 'Bad Santa' (2003), and of course 'Home Alone' (1990).  In these movies, things are not 'perfect' and everything goes haywire on the big day.  You end up in a pink bunny suit, which was a present from Aunt Clara and that Christmas turkey you were dreaming of got eaten by the Bumpus' smelly hounds.  Not to mention that your father tried to display a tacky lamp, in the shape of a woman's leg, in your window for all the neighborhood to see.  And did I mention that you actually almost succeeded in shooting your eye out after using your Red Ryder BB again?  Or you could end up having a Christmas where your bonus never comes because your boss decided to do away with them.  So you cannot build your family that swimming pool they were dreaming of.  Then your crazy shit-for-brains cousin Randy decides to kidnap your boss in order to make things right.  In the process, you killed Aunt Bethany's cat and burned down the Christmas tree.  And Christmas dinner consists of jello mold filled with cat shit and a very bone dry turkey.  Or, you forget your kid at home while your family is en route to New York and do it again the next year en route to Paris.  Think of those moments, and you have the anti-thesis to a Bing Crosby Christmas, where everything goes wrong despite your best intentions and ambitious plans to make it a perfect holiday.

So know that if you don't have the Christmas promised to you by the iconic movies and songs, that you're still doing fine.  Take this from a Jew who watches it all through a plate glass window smiling because he doesn't have to get involved.  He just smacks his head in exclamation, 'Oy vey!  Goyem!'


However, know, that as a Jew, it is not an easy time of year.  Even though I am an outside observer, it is still very strange watching the majority of the nation partake in something that has become for all intensive purposes, American, and by not doing anything I feel very un-patriotic.  I don't feel bad, at least, not anymore, for not celebrating Christmas.  Believe me, I don't have any desire to partake in the 'joy' of the holiday.  Not at all.  But it's strange that the religious meaning has been totally stripped from a day that should be completely religious.  Again, I'm not speaking for everyone.  There are many friends and individuals I know who find a lot of religious significance to Christmas.  As they should.  It revolves around the birth of a religion's personal 'lord and savior', Jesus Christ Superstar.  But for some strange reason, Christmas is now just as American as the Fourth of July or Thanksgiving.  It is a religious holiday that because of it's universal nature, is shared by many who aren't even Christian.

And it's hard to stay out of the whole Christmas show pony.  Every television channel has some kind of Christmas themed special.  Every talk show gives away gifts and money.  Every office and business has a holiday party.  My father's family business always had a holiday party and guess who dressed like Santa?  Well, my dad does have the build for it.  How can you not participate?  I've done Secret Santa and have gone to parties to pig out on sugar cookies shaped like reindeer and stockings.  So now I ask, as a non-Christian, how are you supposed to participate?

I had a lively debate lately with a friend about the commercialization and gaudy display of Christmas.  I brought up the fact that my son, who loves PBS, has been watching the Curious George Christmas special over and over again.  He became obsessed with presents and a Christmas tree because he thought this was 'normal'.  I mean, doesn't everyone, in the end, decide to celebrate Christmas because they don't want to be left out?  Everyone does this, right?  Wrong.  Aside from not actually being Christian, my fear is that I do not want my son to have a stigma like I did when I was little.  Why should Jewish children be ashamed of their heritage because they don't celebrate was has become so Americanized?  I don't want my son feeling like he has to participate so that he doesn't feel left out.   So, I explained to my son hat we, as Jews, do not celebrate Christmas.  We have a string of lights in our apartment, but that's it.  And they are lights, which have no affiliation with Christmas at all.  We put them up to bring more light and color into the apartment since in winter, it is dark and depressing by 3:30 every afternoon.   Lights are completely a-religious.  Everything else on the other hand is debatable.

I don't know what the answer is in terms of remaining completely true to your beliefs but polite to your friends and neighbors.  We've become hyper PC about the whole thing and wish each other 'happy holidays' or are sure to include Kwanzaa and Winter Solstice.  However, when you think about it, Christmas is not the end all be all of the holiday season.  Just about every culture and religion has some kind of festival or holiday about light.

Christmas certainly involves a lot of ideas surrounding light, both literally and figuratively.  The whole story of the three wise men (magi) following the star of Bethlehem in order to give gifts to baby Jesus.  But Jews have Hannukkah, which is about the miracle of oil burning for eight nights and the revolt of the Maccabees against the Greeks.  Hindus have Diwali, a festival celebrating the new moon and triumph of light/good over dark/evil where diryas (lights) are illuminated and mithai (sweets) are eaten and gifts are exchanged.  Kwanzaa, a celebration dating to 1966, and the name comes from the Swahili phrase matunda ya kwanza ('first fruits of the harvest').  It has seven principles, like unity and faith, that are represented through the lighting of seven candles.  There's also the Tazaungdaing festival within Buddhism, which celebrates the full moon and end to the rainy season in places like Burma.  In some locales, there are robe weaving competitions, while in others lights are lit in hot air balloons and released.

Then, of course, there is winter solstice itself.  The Zuni and Hopi tribes have the festival of Soyal, which celebrates the return of the sun and is seen as a time for both purification and renewal.  Prayer sticks, pahos, are made to bless the community along with their homes and possessions.  Yalda is the Iranian winter solstice festival, where Mithra, the sun god, who, like Jesus, was born to a virgin mother, and represents goodness, truth, and friendship is celebrated.  The Chinese have the Dongzhi festival, which is celebrated by families eating with one another.  One item eaten, mostly in Southern China, is tangyuan, a ball of rice which symbolizes reunion.  And in Northern China, dumplings are eaten.  This custom dates to the Han dynasty where poor people suffered chilblains (blisters and inflammation from the cold) on their ears; the dumplings were given to the poor to warm them up and because they resembled ears.  Solstice itself marks the darkest day of the year, where we go from long nights and short days to the opposite.  After solstice, the light literally begins to return again and everyone plunged in winter begins dreaming of spring.  And of course solstice has links to Stonehenge and Druids, but just about every culture has some form of solstice/light festival.

I get it, though.  Christmas is a major holiday for the dominant religion of this country.  However,  as an outsider, I see through the artifice of the holiday.  For many, Christmas offers a day filled with warmth, light, and joy amidst the darkness and somberness of winter.  For one day immortalized and suspended in time, individuals can be surrounded by loved ones with good food and cheer.  What I don't get, however, is the marathon up until Christmas Eve.  It's almost like there is more hype in the preparation than the actual day.  Or maybe it's just because to me, it is just another day.  Everything up until Christmas has such a glorified importance and careful amount of planning.  I can only imagine how people feel the day after.  It must be like what Jews feel right after the string of Jewish holidays in the fall.  There is probably a feeling like you're coming down from a cloud, arriving back to the harsh realities of life.  I guess that's why Christmas is so special to those who celebrate it.  But the point is that many people do not and should not be forced or shamed into celebrating even the joy of the day.
                                Tacky Christmas Decorations

In fact, the point is that there is more than just Christmas.  So making everything about a Christian centered holiday is just not fair.  In NYC, I never feel that the city overwhelms you with Christmas.  I feel that there is a conscious effort to remember that there are people coming from all parts of the world who celebrate many different things.  In fact, I enjoy Christmas in New York.  Looking at shop windows like Macy's and Bloomingdale's or going to the Union Square Holiday Market have become iconic.  You can go ice skating at Rockefeller Center or go to Dyker Heights (in Brooklyn) to see holiday lights.  I just feel that even the Christmas centered events are a-religious and it's not all about Jesus and Santa Clause.  However, there is still an over-commercialization, even in NYC.  Stores are open until the last minute and bargain shopping is not only encouraged; here, it's a sport.  I've worked retail around the holidays and it only brings out the worst in people.  They dicker over the language in the store's latest ad bulletin and try to convince you that because it's Christmas, you should give them the sale price even though the sale ended two weeks ago.

Again, I don't want to sound like Scrooge, but Christmas has been so stripped of its meaning that it's hard not to be negative.  What should be about kindness, joy, and heart is more about greed, consumerism, and selfishness.  I guess my hope for humanity is that we realize that the romanticized principles on Christmas should be applied to every single day of the year.  And perhaps that's what people strive to accomplish by listening to the hype; it's the idea that on Christmas, we can forget our woes and relax with family and friends.  We can return to a moment in time that exists outside of time, where time is linear and we each create a Norman Rockwell snapshot that will be remembered for years to come. The mall fights and stampedes are forgotten; the high rate of suicide and identity theft is discarded by the side of the highway.  What we, as a society, try to create is rustic, simplistic joy based off of nostalgia and fiction.  But is that so bad, really?  Christmas is a day where time stands still.  You know that you went over the budget for presents and might not be able to pay your bills, but let's worry about that tomorrow.  For now, you can get cozy by the fireplace and sip hot cocoa while you sing along to the record player crooning Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra.

Have a Merry Christmas, for those of you that celebrate.  And for the rest of us, it's just another day where we must figure out how we belong without assimilated to the point of stripping ourselves of our own culture/religion.

Happy Holidays,



Sunday, December 15, 2013

When the light fades

"'Begin at the beginning.' the King said, very gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'" -Lewis Carroll

"Nature's first green is gold;
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to stay.
Nothing gold can stay."
-Robert Frost

'...But I'm not too sure
How I'm supposed to feel
Or what I'm supposed to say.
But I'm not, not sure
Not too sure how it feels
to handle every day
And I miss you love' 
-'Miss You Love' Silverchair, 2000

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste, 
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity. 
 -'Because I Could Not Stop for Death', Emily Dickinson, 1890
I apologize for neglecting this blog for so long.  I went home, to the Midwest, for Thanksgiving and was gone from NYC for about a week.  That's the tactically tangible reason.  The subconsciously intellectual reason is that despite desire, I've been procrastinating my writing a post about a topic that many people are uncomfortable discussing: death.  There countless songs, poems, artwork on the topic. Above I transcribed a poem by Emily Dickinson and put in a link to a Silverchair song that to me, express very poignantly my feelings toward the topic.  Death doesn't care whose life is taken.  Once your time is here, it's here.  You cannot delay it or stop it; it's inevitable for us all.  Death is what we all have in common within the human experience.  

Moreover, it is because many of us are frightened of mortality that we approach death with fear and uncertainty, and duly so.  When we cry at a funeral, we are crying at Eve's bite of the apple that, Biblically speaking, led to our very mortality.  As we watch our friends, lovers, and relatives die, we are confronted with our own death.  As a result, we never know what to do or say when a person dies aside from 'I express my deepest and heartfelt condolence at the passing of your ____'.  We know deep down in our hearts that we are thankful that death did not outstretch its finger for us.  

No matter what, our words and actions seem robotic and rehearsed.  As a society, we don't know how to properly process death.  Different societies and religions have varied responses.  As Jews, we eat our emotions.  Others drink their emotions.  Some wear black, some white.  Some people cry, some celebrate.  We have open casket wakes while some spread ashes over an ocean.  And we have completely different ways to process death.  I process it by writing.  So here we are.  

My e-mail inbox has been filled lately with sad news about people within my circles of community.  Some have died from disease, some from unexpected accident.  Some of them are older, some young.  What they all have in common is that they're all upstanding, good hearted individuals.  I have been processing this question a lot in the past few weeks: Why is it that the golden hearted people who spread light have their lives cut short and the wicked, evil hearted individuals are often blessed with long life?

Don't get me wrong, I don't ever wish death for anyone, not even my worst enemy.  But I think a lot about how there are people walking these streets who are greedy, crooked, nasty, and give very little thought to being altruistic and kind.  Now, it may seem an unfair judgement especially since I don't know exactly what people are thinking on any given moment of any given day.  But I bet money on the fact that there are more people, than you'd think, who don't give a damn about you or making the world a better place.  This is especially true since both American and global society has become so focused on greed, power, and ego.  

At times it is very difficult to turn on the news or even watch a television show that mirrors our society and not be hopeless and discouraged about the future.  The world we live in is vastly different than even the one I grew up with.  At times, I feel like the nineties world I grew up in was similar to the fifties in its innocence and conception of being safe.  After the hunky dory 50's, the sixties crashed in with: the Vietnam war; the assassinations of JFK, RFK, MLK, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers; rampant racism and violent bigotry in response to the Civil Rights Movement, hidden political corruption, a dawn of serial killer 'Helter Skelter, Manson mania', rotting and rioting in urban centers, violence, death, death, and death.  Similarly, after the jaded, bitchin' 90's, 2000 hit us with radical right wing born again Bush politics, a war on terrorism, the devastation of 9/11, school shootings giving way to out of control gun violence, political divisiveness and divide, an unprecedented recession and economy crash, violence, death, death, and more death.  There is a strong parallel.  
It is very easy today to give up hope.  Now more than ever, I look to the people around me for comfort and inspiration.  Lately, however, as the darkness in the world grows, I have noticed that many sources of light are flickering out, literally.  Over the past few weeks, I have had many people, who are within my community circles, pass away.  

One such individual (MH) was a woman who was a pillar within the Jewish community.  Of the many things she did, she ran a food pantry program, out of her own home, that gave poor Jewish families food for Shabbat and other Jewish holidays.  I remember when I went to her house and she showed me her basement, which was filled with food, and how inspired I was by  her.  Then there was the passing of a former student's mother (JG).  My memory of her is when she praised my teaching methods in a conference and constantly made sure that I saw her support as a parent.  At a public event, she stood up for all of the teachers while a small group of parents made unnecessary noise;  she even called these parents 'ridiculous' to their face.  

And though the situations and circumstances have all differed, what ties these deaths together is the fact that these individuals all contained so much light and inspiration that the world will grow darker with their loss.  

ML (I'll call her M) was the first of these that I learned about right before coming home for Thanksgiving.  She was a former student of mine, so full of promise and talent.  I taught her literature in seventh grade, and even then, I realized that it was because of people like her that I was glad to be a teacher.  I felt that she would take on the world by storm and would one day make it into the White House as a real-life CJ Cregg (Allison Janney's character on West Wing).  I believed that like Janney, M would become White House Press Secretary or White House Chief of Staff.  Or, maybe she would be like Hilary Clinton become a US Senator, US Secretary of State, and/or even run for President of the United States.  Maybe she would become a lawyer fighting for civil rights and social justice.  You have to understand that M was one of those students, who when they come along, you know that the sky is the limit.  

I last saw her in May, at high school graduation, where she hugged me, being elated that I was there.  She had been diagnosed with AML the past fall.  With resilience, she was able to conquer her leukemia.  Then, it returned over the summer and she lost her amazing battle after a bone marrow transplant.  Ordinarily, this would be sad news but the fact that I taught her, added a layer of depth.

See, I was and still am very connected to her graduating class.  I basically received a personal invitation from many of the students to return so I could see them graduate.  I HAD to attend.   The intrinsic connection I have had with this class is rare and though I'm close with many former students and families, none match the connection I had to this class of 2013.  Many of the parents in this class have become my friends and many of the students will one day also become friends of mine, as they grow into adulthood.  Though this class was special, also know that hearing any bad news of a former student (or their family) is like hearing bad news of my own child/family.  And though I have dealt with death before, it was never in this situation.  

I never had to mourn for such a young person who brought so much light into the universe.  What made M's death more tragic than normal was the fact that she inspired everyone around her to be better people and attracted individuals to her like moths to a flame.  People tried harder at being better individuals because her heart instructed them to do so.  So when a life that young and illuminating burns out, the intensity and heartache at adjusting to the resulting darkness is immense.  

And just as I was adjusting, I learned more sad news.  While living in my hometown, I became very close with a particular synagogue there.  The individuals I met there became my second family, as they invited me into their homes and hearts.  I am also still very connected to this community despite time and distance.  So learning of two individual's passing was just more than I could bare.  First, a friend's wife, N (NB) was hit by a car while crossing the street.  It was sudden and shocking.  Again, an individual who lit up the world with kindness and who had a heart of gold.  I last spoke to N in September, and after kvelling over pictures, I assured her that on my next visit, she'd get to meet my son.  I thoroughly enjoyed every conversation with N because you felt how much she genuinely cared about you.  She wore her heart outwardly and talking to her was like receiving a giant hug.  There are not many people like her who light up the world with only a smile and a laugh.  

Unlike my student M, however, I was not able to make the funeral for N.  But because they both possessed a similar light, their funerals were both packed with people wall to wall.  So I wasn't alone in feeling shaken and lost as a result of these two ladies' passing.  The world felt the impending darkness, just as they did as a result of Nelson Mandela's death.  The effect that an individual can have on one's own community is just as intense as that of a world leader.  

And literally on the tails of N's death was the death of a family friend, R (RH).  Like M,  he had been battling leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant that was ultimately rejected.  I imagine that the pain and grief for my parents, especially my dad, is immense.  My dad and R were very good friends and have known one another for eons.  It wasn't until going to the synagogue mentioned before, that I got to know R better.  He started going to the same synagogue and we would often have conversations.  He would ask me about my parents and my sister.  Once, he tried to set me up with a young lady he knew because his m.o. was just wanting 'everyone to be happy'.  However, I was already in a long distance relationship with my, now, wife.  I will never forget the note that R sent after my marriage and birth of my son.  He gushed from the heart about how proud my parents must be of the young man I had become.  It was so personal and so touching, something that I did not expect from someone who I felt barely knew me.  But because he was good friends of my parents, he had watched me grow up.  I don't think, however, I've ever received such a heartfelt and viscerally emotionally honest note from anyone. And at the time of writing it, he was sick.  For a person to be so sick, yet not only happy but also always thinking of others, is beyond my comprehension of the world's goodness.  
In the past year, there are other friends/mentors who I lost that were also sources of light for me an countless others.  I feel almost as if I'm having my own personal montage of memories for people in my world that have passed on, you know like they do at the Academy Awards or end of the year news specials.  To me, though, my precise memory makes my moments with these people feel like they were yesterday.  That's the thing about memory.  It's all we have left of our loved ones once they pass to what I see as another stage of life.  Death is not an end but a beginning; it is only an end for us because we will no longer see those who have moved on in a physical sense.  So with that being said, cue up the projector and music.  As the year closes, I think of those individuals who have inspired me in life and who will continue to do so in death.

There was the passing of a former teacher who had Parkinsons, Mr. N (RN) who made me, an English kid fall in love with science.  He would light himself on fire or throw things against the ceiling to display scientific concepts.  On every quiz, students would bet on malts because at the end of each school year, he would make chocolate malts in a kiddie pool by standing in it with galoshes.  My friend Heather hold the records for having the most malts.  This same friend and I got to witness his last day of teaching, as we stepped into his very last eighth grade class ever and made s'mores on bunsen burners.  This special moment will forever be seared in my brain.  I told his students how lucky they were to have had the honor to be taught by him, as this man was both my teacher and advisor.  He made us do push-ups when we were late to class or missed our homework.  He turned me from a boy into a man by instilling in me what it meant to be an scholarly gentleman.  What's more is that he sent notes to every student after an accomplishment, be it in sports or theater.  And he continued sending notes to students in high school and even into college.  When you received a note from Mr. N,  you were left wondering how the heck he kept track of your accomplishments.  He made every student feel special and extraordinary.  If I ever write a book about teaching, I will write a whole chapter to this man and probably dedicate the book to him.  It is because of teachers like him that I became a teacher in the first place.

Then there was my friend, Sandy, who I once told sounded just like Joan Baez when she sang.  She was a true remnant of the sixties.  Whenever we talked about politics and the current state of things, she would get so angry.  But it was her anger that led to activism and action.  She was involved in so much that it was hard to imagine her sleeping.  She raised chickens and had a regular Noah's ark in her home.  My only remiss was that I only saw her during choir rehearsals for our synagogue, as on Saturdays she would often swim instead of going to services.  Her mentality was that she could just as easily be close to G-d in a swimming pool as much as a synagogue.  Her life fore was so strong that when she died as  a complication from pneumonia, everyone in our Brooklyn synagogue was shocked.  Her death was also at the tail end of multiple deaths at our synagogue, one being the death of her own husband.  My wife and I had just literally mailed her a condolence card for her husband only to be followed by another one to her children after her own death.  Our entire synagogue mourned in an ocean of tears.

The mourning didn't end there, however.  I also mourned the death of one Richie Havens, someone I didn't know well but who I met after giving a concert in Northampton, MA in 2006.  He greeted me warmly and had a very in-depth conversation with me about inspiring the next generation.  When I shook his hands, they smelled like marijuana.  But the highlight, that I will never forget, is the memory of him jumping up and down on stage in a fit of glee saying how each day he wakes up saying 'thank you for another day'.  His music inspired generations and he broke multiple barriers.  When he died, I felt like a personal friend of mine had passed.  Even the one moment I spent with him eight years ago made me feel like I had known him for a lifetime.  He signed my CD 'old friend' and I truly felt like I knew him in another lifetime and was destined to find him again in this one.  After I met him, in every song, I felt like he was talking to me: 'To tell the truth is what they fear.  All of us here can change tomorrow.' (from my favorite song 'Pulling Up the Stone')  Another light that I was sad to lose.

drum circle from Richie Haven's memorial in Bethel, NY from August 2013
I wanted to go but because I have no car, it would have been difficult.  Though, I'm glad we have modern technology like You Tube so I could vicariously pretend I was actually there.

After dealing with these deaths leaves me baffled at how the universe works.  It is hard, quite frankly to remain so optimistic and upbeat about the future of humanity.  It is also very poetic and metaphoric that I am processing all of this during the darkest time of the year.  We are literally being thrown into darkness this week, as the days are the shortest out of the whole entire year.  We all feel the pull and pang of nature's cycle.  But like nature, in spring, everything is reborn again.  The light returns to our side of the hemisphere and we are one again bathed in light.  One CANNOT give up hope because to do that would allow the darkness to eat away at our hearts.  And I am certain that darkness will never completely take over and engulf us all in its grip.  I truly believe that the light will triumph.  And as the communities I am and have been apart of have lost the light of many individuals in the past year, their light is not lost.  I believe that a person's light becomes part of G-d's light which is contributed/recycled into an eternal flame that illuminates our entire universe.  I also believe in angels and know that those who touched us in life are still looking out for us in death.

The lessons I have learned and continue to ruminate on are on the matter that 1) each day is a gift to us.  We each have a personal journey, a story to tell and whether we know it or not, we are touching someone and lifting them up.  We might never know the ways in which we elevate another person's soul and spirit but it doesn't mean we should each, as individuals, stop being the best human possible.    2) The destination is not fame and fortune.  We must follow our passions of the heart.  I enjoy art and writing so I will continue to focus on these hobbies knowing fully that they won't necessarily make me rich monetarily but will certainly do so in other priceless ways.  3) We must be honest with each other.  Tell a friend/family member what he/she means to you and how he/she has inspired you to become better.  If you have only people who take from you and fill your world with negativity, then it might be time for a purge.  I only believe in surrounding myself with people who will inject positivity into my universe because I'm only as illuminating as the people I surround myself with.  Basically, LIFE IS SHORT!  The world is fearful and stressful but in the end, all we have is our kindred relationships and precious memories to rely on.  Make every moment of every day count for something.

Light and love,


*This post is dedicated to all of those amazing folks who I was blessed to have crossed paths with, especially to those that have died in the past year.  Even in death, your light will not burn out.

"If it be your will to speak

Of memories we often shared
Talk to me of days gone by
Think of love and not despair

And when I’m gone
We’ll meet again
As often do the closest friends
So dry your eyes
And lay me down
I tell you this is not the end."

-'This is Not the End', Clare Maguire, 2011

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Dreams are Made of THIS!

Cue music: "Bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum bum buh.  Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream....Sweet dreams are made of this.  Who am I to disagree?  Travel the world and the seven seas...Will I sleep tonight?  The day has been so long.  But it don't feel right.  Something here seems so wrong...Oh, my life is changing everyday.  In every possible way.  And oh, my dreams, it's never quite as it seems..."
Passion Pit cover of The Cranberries' 'Dreams' (from 1992)

Salvador Dali, The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory, (1954)

 MC Escher, Convex and Concave, (1955)

Dreams: We all have them but do we heed what we're supposed to get out of them?  Some dreams are so real that it seems as if they're the reality and waking up is nothing more than a return to slumber.  I've had vivid dreams since I was a child.  Nightmares too.  And I feel that as I've gotten older, my dreams have gotten even more lucid and bizarre.  

I often have dreams of traveling to other lands where I speak the native tongue and indulge in the country's culture.  I sometimes feel like I travel to other realities where I have lucid conversations with seers and sages.  I have distinct and poignant conversations that I remember upon waking.  Often, I dream that I'm famous and walk the red carpet, rubbing elbows with all of my music, literary, and acting idols.  They are my best friends in these dreams.  Though sometimes I am living in the past, stuck in the 50's or 60's comparing those times to modernity.  One thing is certain; I rarely have boring, mundane dreams.  Perhaps this is why I'm an artist.  My dreams could become a book or inspiration for a play or symphony (and have in the past).  And I'd like to think that I share this with other artists; we love to create from our dreams.  Our dreams flow from an endless tap of inspiration and creativity.  

This topic du jour comes from the fact that very soon, we will turn our clocks back an hour thus ending Daylight Savings time (originally used to give farmers more/less time in the fields during summer/winter respectively).  Its original purpose has been lost and many areas (Arizona, Indiana) do not observe Daylight Savings.  However, most of us do and tonight, we will gain an extra hour of sleep.  Tomorrow night we also have a new moon which symbolizes rebirth, recharge, and renewal.  It is seen as a time to set intentions and attain deep desires.  It is almost the direct opposite of what we associate with this time of year.  November and the dying of light represents a return to darkness and hibernation.  However, there is no reason that renewal and a reset of energies cannot happen even when everything in nature is dying and sleeping.  Perhaps the first place to search for how we can attain our hopes and desires is to look within our own dreams.  

I should, but do not, keep a dream diary.  I've been told, however, that if I turned my dreams into a book, that it would 'sell like hotcakes'.  So perhaps I should invest more time in writing down and keeping track of my dreams.  I also should have held onto the three or four different dream dictionaries I had.  I used to look up imagery and symbolism from my dreams on nearly a daily basis.  I'd always take note of significant changes and themes.  For instance, when I dream about vampires, I know it means that I am literally having the life force sucked out of me and that it's time for a break or vacation.  One time I dreamt of wolves, which signify that someone close to you is in the midst of a betrayal.  Turns out, the dream dictionary was right.  I also used to pour over the dream interpretations and symbolism to point out the meaning of other people's dreams.  Usually, it entailed some form of a mini-therapy session.  Fact is that I believe in dreams holding power over our waking lives.  They aren't only our subconscious thoughts playing out from the day. They hold a mystical and abstract definition of our lives.  I truly believe that answers to many of our burning questions and doubt about the future can be sought out in dreams.  

My interest in dreams can also be directly seen in my taste in both music and movies.  My fascination with dreams and reality permeates aspects of much of the art I appreciate.  For instance, the other day I visited The Dakota on the Upper West Side, where the late John Lennon lived and was shot  in 1980.  However, it was also where the film, Rosemary's Baby was filmed.  Unfortunately, I could not get in through the double wrought iron gates to see the courtyard exterior where the film was shot.  I did get nice photos of the building's creepy exterior, though.  I know that the reason I love this film is because it deals with dreams, but their sinister side.  I won't give away what happens in the film, but basically a woman, Rosemary, has lucid dreams about a witches' coven conjuring the devil to impregnate her.  Rosemary cannot tell the difference between what's real and imaginary.  And, the audience is left wondering up until the end what is real and what isn't.  

The Dakota (aka Bramford) on W 72nd and Central Park West on the Upper West Side of Manhattan

My fascination with dreams can also explain my love of other movies like Donnie Darko, which I mentioned in my last post.  It also deals with themes of reality versus illusion and leaves the audience confused on knowing what is reality.  My appreciation of all forms of art deal with this theme, as much of the music, art, literature, and film I enjoy deals with theme of dreams and illusions.  Salvidor Dali and MC Escher deal with those themes as do the genres of DaDa and Surrealism.  The music I listen to often has a dreamlike, surrealist esoteric feel.  Bands like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, M83, The Polyphonic Spree, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, and Queen.  I also enjoy a lot of late sixties psychedelic music from bands such as The Electric Prunes, Sagittarius, JK and Co, The United States of America.  Much of what I appreciate and am fascinated by involved the idea of dreams in it somehow.  Enter: The Scissor Sisters.  

Scissor Sisters video for 'Invisible Light' (censored version)

Okay, it's no secret.  I love the band, Scissor Sisters, and I love their video for the song 'Invisible Light' even more. The song is off their 2012 album, 'Night Work'. I love them because they are definitely an outlandish, eccentric band who produce music that is deliriously otherworldly. Their music takes you to another dimension and has a Dali-like quality to the visions they create.  What's more is that each album is exclusively different and strange in its own way.  And in case you didn't know, each member has an alias: Jake Shears, Ana Matronic, Babydaddy, Del Marquis, and Randy Real. They are full of theatrics and eccentric antics.  The third album, 'Night Work', certainly has an retro 80's theme to it, yet every song sounds fresh and relevant. I can't help picturing some of their songs being sung by women with keytars (keyboards that strap on like guitars) or light up sidewalks with a flair of mall hair and Members Only jackets.  But the album 'Ta-Dah' has a creepy 20's vibe where you picture flappers and dapper gentlemen with suspenders and handlebar 'staches.  But I am not going to blab on about the Scissor Sisters for an entire post, though I easily could.  Lord knows I've already written other posts to one of my favorite bands.  No, this time I want to focus on a more universal topic.  Dreams.  

This is the reason why I love bands like the Scissors Sisters so much.  Their music and the story that their songs tell, seem to arise straight from dreams (nightmares included).  Their music embraces the strange and dark side of our subconscious that is so often expressed in our dreams.  Many of their songs involve a transcendence from reality, and this is why their music is so interesting. Because the band celebrate oddity, they rise out of reality itself, making their music part of fantasy and outlandish art. For instance, in the video 'Invisible Light' (seen above), one is not sure if this woman is imagining everything that happens to her, if she's dead, or if she's dreaming. I'd like to vote for the third. There is something about the video that calls one to think about dreams and what they represent.  This video and others of theirs are like a moving Salvador Dali painting.  Really!

Concerning the 'Invisible Light' video, you can ask yourself many questions after watching it: Who are the hooded figures that kidnap the woman? Is this woman taking drugs or is she insane? What is the 'invisible light'? Why aren't any of the band members present in this video (especially Ana Matronic who adds quite a hotness factor)? Why is there a wolf randomly running loose in this estate? Are the horses, coffin, and Sphinx woman all symbolic? If so, what do they symbolize? For that matter, is everything symbolic? Is the whole video one great big metaphor?

I like to think about the thin line between dreams and reality. Have you ever woken up to discover that 'Damn, that dream was so real, I swore that was reality!' I often wake up confused, thinking 'where am I?' or 'was what I dreamt about really happening'? How do we know that our day to day life isn't some fabrication? Perhaps we're all hooked up to machines like 'The Matrix'.

There is a lot of theory about dreams. Some think dreams represent a part of our minds that, though sleeping, is still active. We are hashing out problems that we had during the day, and we are actually problem solving. Well, what about nightmares then? Some of my dreams are so vivid and real that I swear I'm really in the places that I see. I have entire conversations with people who tell me their names (people I've never met before). I often have dreams of traveling to far off places, some to which I have never actually been to, some which I have. Or, I can travel from one place to another, with no conception of distance. For instance, once in a dream, I traveled from Texas to New York in the matter of hours. Sometimes I learn in dreams that the world map is entirely different. I am seeing a wholly separate reality.

Dreams can be both exciting and scary. I have had dreams so intense that I wake up sweating and have to go watch some TV to get back to sleep. I've had dreams where I'm running from someone trying to kill me or where I see dead relatives suddenly alive but possessed to stab me. I often have reoccurring dreams where someone is breaking into my childhood home or I am hiding out from terrorists. I also have dreams where I am consciously aware that I'm sleeping and tell the other people in the dream about being able to disappear at will.

The most intense dream of all time was when I had a week long succession of dreams that were out of order and had to be put together like a puzzle. At the end of the week, I realized that this was the case. It sounds really strange, but here goes my explanation. In one dream, I was wearing a military uniform and getting angry taunts from people in a supermarket. It was snowing outside, and for some reason I had to find an old pool table in my grandfather's house. In another dream (still winter), I had to get my friends together and go to my grandfather's house to hide out. Another dream had me rounded up by military police and thrown in a prison where there were only 20-somethings and teenagers. The weirdest one of all was when I was holiday shopping with family. The older salesman helped me and my sister carry packages to the car. Then, all of a sudden he told us to get in the car, and we realized it WAS our grandfather. He started singing in his native language, and told me that I had to be the one to save myself and my sister. From what though? I never found out. Intense?

As I mentioned, I've been a vivid dreamer since childhood. I used to dream that witches lived in my basement or that there was a family of skeletons and vampires that lived in my closet. Did I mention that I wasn't allowed to watch scary movies as a kid (not until I was 12 anyway). I used to think it was possible to enter mythical worlds like Narnia.  It explains my obsession with fantastical worlds like the one depicted in C.S. Lewis's books (and Tolkien).  I was the kid who would always think that at night there was a secret portal in my closet. Why not?

One thing is for certain, I have had dreams that come true and also dreams that remind me of a memory long forgotten. Sometimes, I relive the past or see people I haven't seen in a long time. Often, I meet celebrities or I'm on a stage performing in front of thousands of people. Yes, there are dream interpretation books out there. There are also books about astral travel; this theory that there are different realms of reality that you can apparently travel between. I have been to whole villages and cities that don't exist in this world, though I've revisited malls, shops, streets that exist in my dream world. I can also visualize them while I'm awake.  But what does it all mean?  I don't think we'll ever know for sure.  

There has been a lot of debate about what dreams mean. I just like to think of them as nightly adventures. At least, the ones that are pleasant. I don't really have that many nightmares anymore; that was more when I was small (when I would wake up and be so terrified that I had to crawl into my parents' bed). I wonder if we'll ever get to the bottom of dreams. If they are a different level of reality, perhaps this is what dying is like, one long dream. Or, as postulated by a friend of mine, we're all dead and what we live is just our imagination. Whatever dreams are, they are extremely powerful and exotic.

I will leave you with scenes from Disney's 'Alice in Wonderland'. That is the ultimate dream fantasy, based on the book by Lewis Carroll. So, sweet dreams, and when you fall down the 'rabbit hole', remember that there's always a way out!

Dreaming lucidly,


                                                         Some of my original artwork