Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Month of Love and Presidents

Poetry is one of the most romantic ways of expressing love, and many other sentiments as well. For being the shortest-month-of the year, February packs a lot into it's 28 days.
And it's all worth celebrating, pondering, and even debating. After all, not all chocolates in the Valentine box are palatable...

I found a wonderful poem by  Countee Cullen in Caroline Kennedy's The Best-Loved Poems of Jaqueline Kennedy-Onassis  that combines brotherly love and Black History.


photo credit
Locked arm in arm they cross the way,
    The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day,
    The sable pride of night.

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare,
   And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
   In unison to walk.

Oblivious to look and word
   They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
   Should blaze the path of thunder

And another by Lanston Hughs, born 1902 and a pioneer of Jazz Poetry:

Merry Go-Round

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round, 
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can't sit side by side.
Down South on the train
There's a Jim Crow car
On the bus we're put in the back--
But there ain't no back 
To a merry-go-round!
Where's the horse
For a kid that's black?

 Each of these two poets deserve more print the the above. Pick up their books and you'll be enriched.

 Yes, February is the month of love, presidents, and Black history.  May we spend each of the 28 days and beyond, honoring from the heart, all three.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Why These Christmas Songs Are Perfect For Florida

Ever feel a little awkward singing “The Christmas Song” while sitting in 80-degree weather? I know I have—or at least I’ve chuckled a bit when the line, “Jack Frost nipping at your nose,” comes around. It’s more like, “A/C nipping at your nose.”

Turns out, the song is completely appropriate for our toasty climate. Singer and composer, Mel Torme was in California on the hottest day on record in the mid-40s preparing for a songwriting session with lyricist, Robert Wells. Torme noticed a spiral pad of paper containing four hand-written lines: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost… Yuletide carols….Folks dressed up like Eskimos.  When Torme asked Wells about the verse, Wells replied that he was just jotting down winter memories of Boston to take his mind off the heat. 

Forty-five minutes later, the songwriting duo finished penning “The Christmas Song,” and it became Nat King Cole’s signature Holiday song and a popular sensation. 


A year later, another composer on the opposite side of the country named Leroy Anderson had a similar experience. Connecticut was undergoing a fierce drought and unseasonal heat wave. While digging for pipes that lead to a spring, Anderson started formulating music with the vision of a 19th century winter scene in his head. He finished composing “Sleigh Ride” a year and a half later after moving to Brooklyn, New York. It was first performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra in May, 1948. The instrumental piece became a huge holiday hit, enjoyed by folks in any clime. In 1950, Mitchell Parish added lyrics: Just hear those sleigh bells ring-a-ling, ting, ting, ting-a-ling, too…

Photo credit – The Leroy Anderson Foundation

And then there’s the obvious pining-for-snow song, “White Christmas.” Truly, few north-eastern transplants are wishing for the white stuff, due to harrowing memories of shoveling it, scraping it and slipping on it for too many years. They’re most likely ecstatic to be miles away from the slush, and probably moved to the Sunshine State to escape it.  But, hailing from snow-deprived Southern California, and being spared the cold’s down side, I still romanticize the sight of whipped cream scenery, and sing every word of Irving Berlin’s verse. The sun is shining, the grass is green. The orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, LA. But, it’s December the 24th, and I am longing to be up north. I’m dreaming of a White Christmas…

So, here are a few South Florida events that will help you forget the temperature and find that Holiday frame of mind:  See the Del Rey Tree Lighting or Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite Ballet” at the Kravis Center December 1st through the 3rd. Take in “A Christmas Carol” at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, playing through December 2nd.  “A Christmas Carol - the Musical” is also offered throughout the month.  And don’t miss the classic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at the Kravis Center on December 23rd.

If those productions don’t get you into the Holiday spirit, try singing this Florida-inspired parody of “The Christmas Song.”

Chuck steaks roasting on an open grill
A/C nipping at your nose
Yule tide carols being sung by the pool
That overflows with dangling toes

Everybody knows a turkey and some mojitos
Help to make the spirits bright
Shiny yachts with their decks all aglow
Will twinkle on Palm Beach tonight

We all know Santa’s on his way
He’s bringing high-powered generators on his sleigh
Every adult and child is going to spy
To see his reindeer touching down at PBI

And so I’m offering this simple phrase
To snowbirds 12 to 92
Although we might sweat, we will celebrate yet
Merry Christmas to you!
 (Lyrics © 2017 A. Shaw)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A Power Never Lost

When this article posts, Hurricane Irma may be a distant memory. But I have a hunch that for most Floridians, the ordeal will not be soon forgotten--especially the prolonged loss of power for 65% of us.

While I was among the fortunate 35% who never lost electricity, I'm quick to remember Hurricanes Jeanne, Francis and Wilma which brought lengthy outages (over 10 days). Our house became a sauna, and 'camping' routines immediately commenced.  We cooked on the grill, hung laundry outside, and took cold tubs to cool down.

There's no question that electricity is a necessity in this hothouse of a state. Not only do our bodies melt, but the interiors of our dwellings are damaged by constant moisture--and this is a fact for eight months out of the year.

Irma reminded us how important power is. How distressing the loss of it can be.

As a musician and art lover, I've noticed another power that is equally essential to our well being--and if lost, would deprive us of a wide spectrum of comfort and relief. The week after the hurricane, I was working at home teaching piano, when I noticed otherwise crabby family members emerge from their rooms with faces appearing transformed. There was a brightness--a look of peace. I observed then and there how the mere sound of melody can soothe jagged nerves and calm agitated tempers. Hence, the power of music.

This is no surprise to most, but bears repeating. An entire field of study is dedicated to this phenomenon. Medical institutions harness Music Therapy regularly in their emotional and psychological recovery regimens. says: “ out the good in everybody. Favorite songs have the power to uplift the spirit, tap into lost memories and foster meaningful relationships.

President and CEO of Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn, New York, Tony Lewis points out that music is much more effective than expensive mood altering medications.   In addition, there's no need for pages of side effect disclaimers.

We've experienced firsthand what life is like without electricity. But what would it be like without music? It would be a beige, treeless desert, a one dimensional existence. There would be no earbuds pumping favorite vibes, nothing to work or dance to. No songs, bands or orchestras. Self-expression would lose its aural creative vehicle.That would be a true disaster and real sustained loss.

Hollywood Bowl - Jams Plus

Besides losing a major mood enhancer, without music our minds would suffer too.

Studies show that musicians have more symmetrical brains than non-musicians. The areas that are responsible for motor control, auditory processing and spatial coordination function better. Musicians also have a more developed corpus callosum, which is the band of nerve fibers that enables the two hemispheres to communicate with each other.

With all those smarts waiting to be had, everyone should go out and take up an instrument. And why not? Now that we have power, a hot shower and cool air, why not get down to the business of living and improving our quality of life; of taking advantage of the opportunity to make music. 

The benefits are as close as a strum on a guitar, a stroke on the piano or a puff into a recorder. The power of music  is--literally--at our fingertips.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Post Irma Disorder

I wake up the day after the hurricane and tell my husband, "Better cancel your gym visit and I'll reschedule my nail appointment. He laughs. After what Irma left behind, today is a day for rakes and chainsaws, not treadmills and pedicures.

Morning light pierces the dark shuttered house as I open the door to survey the outside world. I wade through an obstacle course of poinciana branches and palm fronds. The trees took a whipping from this Category 1 storm. Irma actually landed as a Category 3 on the other side of the state. Here, 200 miles away from the eye, it was more like a  Cat 1. Still, it raked our neighborhood with a fury.

Neighbor's front yard

The shredded trees look like yesterday's nerves when we rode the Irma roller coaster. Cooped up inside, between whistling wind, distant eerie rumbling,  tornado warning buzzes that grated every fifteen minutes, and cranky family members (myself included), the nerves were snapped and dangling just like our ficus branches.

Morning moon the day after.


With every tornado warning, the emergency recording commands to find shelter away from windows. I try to rally the family into the windowless bathroom, but they pay no attention. The 88 year-old mother-in-law can't hear. At one point, she finally understands the TV tornado alerts, so we both go into the bathroom with small chairs, cushions, tea, a Bible and a deck of cards.

"Tim, come give us a Bible study in the bathroom," Grandma hollers.
My husband ignores her. She leaves to go get something. I call out, "Are you coming?"
Annoyed, Tim answers, "No, I'm not coming!"
"I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to your mother. I know you're not coming."
(This is the kind of mis-communication madness that we sank to during the peak of the storm.) Perhaps devastation would have been better, I think more than once.

Mother-in-law comes back to the bathroom. I light a candle, so that in case the power goes out, we aren't in complete darkness.
"Why is that wick lit," she asks, eyebrows furrowed.  There's no explaining to her. She will either argue or not hear. I give up and I blow out the flame.

"Have a seat, " I say pointing to the chair.
"No, I want to sit on the floor," she insists, plopping down on a couch cushion. "We'll see if I can get up, later." My thoughts exactly, of course, kept to myself. She keeps calling for Tim to give us a Bible lesson.

I grab the cards and not the Bible.

"Do you remember how to play poker?" I ask her.
"I don't know," she says. "Let's just play and see."
I deal. We play two rounds. She beats the snot out of me. Her two Jacks beat my two Fours; she creams my flush with a Royal Flush, proving she remembers poker just fine.

Tornado warning is over, and after a great effort to lift herself off the floor, she trots happily off to the TV news. Yet another warning demands we take cover for 15 minutes more. I disregard it and grandma doesn't hear. This goes on for three miserable hours.

Irma over Cuba, the day before her Florida visit.

I vacillate from extreme mental irritation to impromptu dancing in the kitchen. One moment grandma is asking why I fixed the same dinner two nights in a row? Why didn't she get Tim's kale? Why did I serve her so much spaghetti? The next moment, Tim and she are arm wrestling and goofing off. Cabin Fever defined.

Throughout the day, I distract myself by sorting old photos, but am jolted by the reality that a fierce hurricane whirls outside. I better cook lunch before the lights goes out. We should eat dinner before the power fails. Wash each dish after you use it. Check the backyard trees. Did they fall on the neighbor's car? Oh God, not Keith's car! He's so careful about hurricane preparations. He boarded up a week ago--at night--and even removed his mail box off its stand so it wouldn't blow away. I would be mortified if so much as a twig landed on his property. Most of the time it's too windy to dare open a door, much less slosh into the yard to investigate tree conditions.

Florida landfall

Thankfully we never lose power. All that relational chaos in the a candle-lit cave would have been unbearable.

Later, when the howling wind softens, husband and I pour wine. A drink on the patio might end a tumultuous day quite nicely. I set out chairs and stemware, but the wind still whips. So I pull it all into the house. Instead, Tim and I sneak the White Zinfandel into the bedroom (mother-in-law would not approve), and relax. We do a little more than relax. I wonder if couples all over the county are "relaxing" the same way we are after the week's ordeal.

Today, we face several day's worth of clean up.Tim had trimmed trees in advance, but it was little  help. Time to reset our surroundings

and our psyches.

But, better the trees and not the roof. Better our nerves and not our lives. Better on so many levels. Seven days of harrowing preparation and tormenting thoughts of loss, have turned into a welcomed day of peace. Now when I think of my faithful God, his protection and severe mercies, gratitude comes from a deeper place inside, a place that wasn't there before the hurricane.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Hamilton and Hurricane Irma

It's September 2017, and Africa spits them out with the regularity of a pinball machine. Foamy pinwheels ping off her gold coast into the steamy Atlantic, leering like swirling balls of destruction.

Each satellite trail of orange and pink pools strikes terror in every Floridian's heart. Will it go out to sea? Will it gain strength? Will it make it's dreaded northwest voyage and unwelcome visit to the fearful eastern sea board?

We prepare. We despair. We wait. Mostly, we pray.

We pray that this strongest-ever category 5 monster named Irma will go more east or more west or for God's sake settle down to a normal cat 2 strength--one that we're somewhat accustomed to. 

But praying is a tricky thing. If God loves everyone equally and if we are all truly deserving of justice for our sins, why should He pass one over and not the other? We groan. The earth groans.

Mexico 8.3 earthquake. Hurricane Harvey flooding in Texas. Fires in LA. Refugees in Syria.

Why are we any more special than anyone else when we pray? A little suffering might do us lazy, complacent, hedonistic Americans some good. Our souls could use a good sifting.

Here's how Alexander Hamilton put it in his September 6, 1772 letter to his father about the hurricane in St Croix:

Where now, oh! vile worm, is all thy boasted fortitude and resolution? What is become of thine arrogance and self sufficiency? Why dost thou tremble and stand aghast? How humble, how helpless, how contemptible you now appear. And for why? The jarring of elements—the discord of clouds? Oh! impotent presumptuous fool! how durst thou offend that Omnipotence, whose nod alone were sufficient to quell the destruction that hovers over thee, or crush thee into atoms? See thy wretched helpless state, and learn to know thyself. Learn to know thy best support. Despise thyself, and adore thy God. 

It's no wonder that Hamilton's published letter in the Royal Danish American Gazette won him a college grant.  The work of this island adolescent makes my above descriptions look like a second grader's.

It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ’till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction. Its impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about it in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered; several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined; whole families running about the streets, unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keeness of water and air without a bed to lie upon, or a dry covering to their bodies; and our harbours entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its most hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country. 

Irma is a bully lunging westward, swinging her 185 mph fists ready to pummel anyone in her path.
We are mortal wimps powerless before this 400-mile wide thug.

Some flee the state. But who knows if cavalier Irma will flippantly change her mind? Today's northward traveler could end up in tomorrow's center of the cone. Despite our hurricane hunters and holographic newscasts,  her ways are never certain. She has a mind of her own.

And then there's Hurricane Katia and Jose not far behind...

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