Last Friday, I skipped lunch and went back to my Boston hotel room to watch Congressman Elijah Cummings’s funeral on TV.
Thirty-five years ago, when he was still a lawyer, we had a case together. I was representing a modular building company and he was representing one of the prominent African American churches in Baltimore, which had contracted with my client to buy and construct a building for Baltimore city primary school students.
Elijah and I met on the top floor of the church overlooking North Avenue where the ministers’ offices were located. He came over, shook my hand, and said, “I do a lot of criminal law and you know a lot more about business law than I do. Can we agree to work to make this fair for both sides?” I shook his hand and agreed that would be our objective.
The contract negotiations and construction took some time. As the building went up, there were adjustments to the plans and “change orders,” as there always are in construction cases, but we were candid with each other and each time we got it right.
Years later, I was at the Democratic convention in Boston and he saw me and came over and with a big smile he said: “Yeah! We learned to work well together didn’t we?” We both laughed.
I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and one of my favorite places is an old rusted fountain dedicated to John F. Kennedy. It no longer works but still has his quotes chiseled on its sides.
My hotel was in Harvard Square, so after the funeral I walk down to the fountain and read the quotes again:
“Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us — and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state, and local, must be as a city upon a hill — constructed and inhabited by men aware of their grave trust and their great responsibilities.”
Next to the forgotten monument was a sign that said: “No Skateboarding.”
No one was there except a skateboarder, practicing and re-practicing his art, and me.
It occurred to me that there are always laws which will be broken but we all, somehow, are subject to a deeper code. This was what Elijah understood.
Thousands of people, whether in the church or on TV, watched Elijah’s funeral. They watched and listened and were there because Elijah was an example of something we seem to not be able to forget.
Although in our daily lives and in our politics and governance it is sometimes lost, it is there in that handshake, that eye contact, that second thought that reminds us that it is as constant as gravity.
I saw Elijah on and off after that, in airports or at campaign events. He had become my Congressman. We would smile or wave. We were not friends, but we had once come to an understanding because he had offered up his vulnerability so that I could offer mine. And we could trust each other just long enough to do something right.
So his fool tells King Lear: ”Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”
I am 72 years old today and one step further into my next life. No not the afterlife… the next step and the opportunity of freedom which that entails. As it’s my birthday, I hope you’ll allow me this time to reflect…
I decided to start this blog several years ago to chronicle what would happen to me in retirement. I loved the practice of law, but concluded that there is a time to retire before you get in people’s way and can’t find the bathroom. I wanted to stay a little bit ahead of that curve so I got out early.
I already knew that eccentricity and determination always trumps a loss of intelligence. So this was my chance to be free to try something entirely different, but I still was not free of trepidation. Delusions of grandeur are a wonderful thing until you start to think you might act on them.
Nonetheless, I first decided I would become a “political force” as a Democrat in an entirely gerrymandered Republican district because I was very concerned about how we, as a country, were being divided by political forces and I was going to change that. This was Trump country. I raised more money than all my Republican opponents combined and knocked on almost 7000 doors for more than a half a year. I was resoundingly defeated and Trump became our president.
Because I obviously had learned nothing about impossibility, next I decided I would become a professional playwright. I bought a Shakespeare coffee mug and applied to the Yale Drama school, fully believing that I would be the oldest applicant ever accepted to Yale’s drama school. I succeeded only in becoming the oldest applicant ever rejected by Yale’s drama school. Nonetheless, I had decided this is what I wanted to do.
Obviously I had to rethink this thing again, with just a little more of my failing intelligence. So I applied to the Commercial Theater Institute (CTI) of New York for a class in producing theater. I had a plan. When the first morning of class broke up the students got lunch and inevitability they talked about what plays they were considering producing. When it came to my turn to talk I informed them I wasn’t considering producing anything. I wanted them to produce me. It worked. The impossible happened. A young producer agreed to read my work, liked it and arranged for professional staged readings in San Francisco and later in New York.
Because I had excelled in something I didn’t want to do and I had completed an introductory class in it, I applied for an advanced class in producing at the prestigious O’Neill Conference in Waterford Connecticut. I got in and there I met Sue Conover Marinello, who produced my play Onaje with great success last year in New York, and Christian De Gré Cardenas of Mind the Art Entertainment who has an amazing history of producing and also writing the music for a number of amazing operettas in New York. Both became friends.
After Sue Conover Marinello’s production of Onaje in New York, Mind the Art commissioned me to write the libretto for an operetta, Vox Populi, a comedy about the seventh deadly sin of pride, for Christian’s music. Last month, Christian and I completed the operetta in San Miguel Mexico.
Because Onaje had done so well, Sue convinced Kevin R. Free, the wonderful NYC director, to read the script. Kevin had fresh and original insights which lead to my reworking the script and his commitment to direct its next production.
The blog has become a happy travelogue. It is a history of mistakes and opportunities. It has taught me that even though I may not succeed in any of this, I’ve lost the fear of failure and each day is more fun than the last. The next step into a new thing is the hardest thing I ever do but it is getting easier with age.
I’m trying to teach an old dog a new trick: “patience.” But “impatience” has been one of that old dog’s primary character traits. I am that old dog.
After my play Onaje received its wonderful reviews in New York last October, I was impatient to immediately take it “off-Broadway,” but I was advised because New York is so expensive (The New York Times reported last Sunday that the brilliant and very controversial new Slave Play has spent $3.4 million to get to previews on Broadway) to be patient and watch “good things happen” before the next step.
I was patient and great things happened. Kevin R. Free, the gifted New York director, read the script and was interested but he told me, ”You missed an opportunity.” Dan, Onaje’s father, is African American, and his counterpart, Richard Middleman, Jr.’s father, is white. Both were fellow crabbers and friends down at the docks. Both have been missing their sons because of what happened “that night” so many years ago. What did that do to their friendship? Isn’t that question at the heart of this play?
It was as if Kevin had X-rayed the play and found the missing piece that lifted the play from specific to universal, and I had found a friend and hopefully the dream director who knew the script at least as well as I did and perhaps better. It was the same play but, looked at from a different angle, it was no longer just about Onaje— it had become about “American Terrorists,” the Klan as a destroyer of families.
I immediately started to rewrite so that I could send the new draft to Kevin. He like the rewrite and agreed to direct it in the future, but he wanted to have a table reading of the new script. I, of course, became impatient but I am learning ever so slowly that collaboration offers a kind of maturation and focus.
The play is getting stronger. Kevin’s agent, John Essay, and our producer, Sue Conover Marinello are working together and looking at budgets, venues, and theater opportunities.
The table reading has been set for October. We are off to the birth of a new and much more powerful play that will hit the stage soon but, of course, never soon enough for me. The actors will assemble at the Opera Center on Seventh Avenue in the next few weeks and we will hear a deeper and richer story come to life and I will grow wiser and benefit from learning to become more mature and, patient… Maybe.
Over the last month I have been traveling. As I would go into a hotel room there was this game I played. I found I couldn’t imagine who had lived there before me. I have played this game before. I have always wondered who were those people who have looked out the same window at the same view?
Yesterday, I stayed in Mexico City for one day with Christian de Gré Cardenas, my friend and collaborator, before flying home. We were celebrating a magnificent week during which we finished the libretto and musical outline for our new comic operetta, Vox Populi (the voice of the people).
Mexico City has more than 180 museums — more than any other city in the world. (Paris, where I was earlier this summer, is second with roughly 140.) Christian and I started our day with an early breakfast, went to different museums all day, finished at 5:45 that evening, and had dinner.
The museums have their own themes but one in particular returned me to my question about imagining the people who have lived in the same hotel rooms as I: Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, The Memory and Tolerance Museum.
Half of it is dedicated to the nightmares of humankind, but the second half is dedicated to tolerance. The first half shows, in painful detail, pictures, films, and the actual objects of genocide during and after WWII: German concentration camps, Rwanda, Sarajevo — it still goes on all around the world every day, forever.
This museum was very focused and shocked me out of my complacency on a subject that I felt I knew relatively well. How is it I only understood these numbers as the amount of times they would have filled a football stadium as a milling crowd or the number of times the population of Baltimore City?
These statistics were always there in The New York Times, The Sun, and The Post as I turn to the entertainment section or the sports page. Yet here, I walked into a small box car that carried people to the camps. I saw footage of the guns going off, the smoke, and the sacrificed falling headlong onto others in a mass grave. There in front of me was the gun that had been fired in the footage.
At dinner, as we talked, Christian read European news article on his phone, which I had missed. It said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, had condemned the “undignified and damaging” conditions in which migrants and refugees are being held at the US border. She called for children never to be put in immigration detention or separated from their families. She said she was appalled by the camps, and that several UN human rights bodies had found the detention of migrant children may constitute cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, which is banned under international law.
In response, the United States threatened to stop payment of its dues unless it was exempted from the relevant UN provisions.
From the walls of that museum, the eyes looked back at me. It always starts with demonizing a selected group of people. There before my eyes the Propaganda was framed: that paper that had been circulated to the crowds and now was framed on the wall.
It always started with containment “for the public good”. Who are these people that look back at me from a museum exhibit? They must have looked out the windows at the same world I rent now.
Is this how you make an operetta? I swear Christian De Gré Cárdenas and I are only following the charter of our employer, Mind the Art Entertainment, which requires, ”Make Art and Have Fun.”
We are five hours north of Mexico City, holed up in San Miguel de Allende, diligently working over breakfast from 9:30 to 1:30, having a little lunch, perhaps a swim, back to work from 3:30 to 6:30, and then off to the rooftop bars, dinner, local beer, mezcal, and tequila.
This is a beautiful place with deep Mexican history rooted in its independence and, in the last 70 years, the arts. In the winter, American tourists and expats flood in, along with vacationing Europeans. In the summer, far fewer visitors come and generally only for the weekends. They come here to experience the battling mariachi bands around the church plaza, the three-star restaurants at a third of New York and European prices, the stunningly beautiful textiles, art work, and wall art. Here, you walk on cobbled streets older than any in the United States and are surrounded by color.
Christian has had numerous operettas performed in NYC, most recently based on the “seven deadly sins.“ I am honored to have been chosen to write the libretto for the final operetta based on the overarching sin of “pride.”
The first day together, we went over the script I wrote over the last several months, and we just talked about it. The second day, we went to work and went line by line, page by page through the first act. The third day, we worked through the second act and celebrated the harmony of our efforts with a big lunch on a rooftop overlooking the city.
This carrying out of our corporate responsibilities is serious business. Our assignment is to write a bawdy, irreverent “meta” piece (the actors can break character and speak to the audience). It is written in rhyme and hip hop and has a singing dog.
Our first few days have been so productive, we are ahead of schedule. Tomorrow, Christian continues to outline and compose the music while I adjust and continue to shape lines and rhythms. The next several days before we leave, we will shape the two efforts into one operetta and be prepared to have it ready in the fall to be sent out to investors and performance venues.
In the meantime, over the next week, we will continue to carry out our corporate duty.
As I turned away from Degas’ statuette of a dancer at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris last week, I almost missed the imitators. The imitators were lining up, looking at the statuette and striking a pose. The reaction was not mocking and somehow not disrespectful. The imitators were reacting to a man-made object created out of his imagination. The interaction is what mattered.
When I was in high school, I read a line from W. H. Auden that said “poetry makes nothing happen.” It stopped me in my tracks. It was the late ’60s. I wanted to do things that made things happen. I became a lawyer. I made things happen.
Now I know I misread the line. Auden was making fun of all those things that appear to make things happen but really don’t. Art makes things happen in that it offers the chance to interact with a created object from another person’s imagination.
But why does that matter? It seems that at the center of our existence we travel a number of years in the mundane pursuit of what we need to survive, but art offers a conversation with another who is, or has been, on that same journey. It offers, but does not demand, this conversation.
In the same gallery, hordes of people were moving from picture to picture, cell phones out, photographing the exhibit as they hurried by. They had not accepted the offer. They were just capturing the object.
The imitators had accepted the offer. They were interacting with the Degas’ statuette.
The conversation can happen in many forums but it is always between the artist and the self. It can come through some or all the senses. It can be theoretical. It can come with an artist’s demand for your attention, as with Andy Warhol asking you to notice common objects, but for me it is always a very personal person-to-person communication.
It can also be environmental. On my way home, I noticed the statues in the park and the park in the city as I walk through. The art of the statue inside the art of the park surrounded by the mundane existence of the traffic and commerce of the city.
I found Auden’s quote:
“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”
In Memory of W.B.Yeats
(d. Jan. 1939)
He says all this better than I but I had to learn it for myself.