Saturday, August 10, 2013

“A part of something special”


The summer is winding down…officially I have about 48 hours left of summer. I get on the plane on Monday late afternoon bound for Paris and Amman, and when I make that step onto the Delta jet, summer comes to an end.

But as summer comes to its wistful conclusion, and "Year #26 of Teaching" for me gears up, I will look back on last Saturday, August 3, 2013. A week ago right now I attended an anniversary of a group that once meant a great deal to me. Over a year ago a group of intrepid alumni of the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir decided to work and create a reunion for those in this choir under the direction of Glenville Thomas. Thomas, an educator born in Wales and from Zanesville, Ohio, convinced then-Governor James Rhodes in 1963 that the mighty Ohio State Fair needed a choir based on the fairgrounds who would perform daily around the goings-on of the Fair. By the time I joined this choir in 1980, so many traditions had been put in place. The choir, back in those days, was 300 high school choristers strong, at least two from every one of Ohio’s 88 counties. You wore red-white-and blue, suffered in the hot dorms on the fairgrounds, and sang at least 5 concerts a day. After the State Fair ended each year, there were chances to sing at festivals around the state, perform the Messiah in December in Zanesville, and then work toward a European tour (benefitting cancer research) the summer after one sang at the Fair. From time-to-time Thomas took alumni to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade.
Music teachers across the state submitted candidates for the Fair Choir and then Mr. Thomas and his wife, Mari, chose the members of the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. When I received acceptance in 1980, I had never even been to the Ohio State Fair. I was not really the State Fair type—these fairs cater to the rural folk, and I am decidedly urban. But being in the choir was a magical experience. We lived on the fairgrounds for 23 days—imagine at age 16 how exciting it is to be away from home for three weeks! We performed 110 concerts during the Fair, marching across the fairgrounds under the summer sun dozens and dozens of times. Thomas organized his choir not by voice section, but by SATB quartet, so that the sound was balanced (Soprano Alto Tenor Bass) no matter where one might stand. So 75 quartets strong made up this choir of teen-agers. You made friends from all over the state. I remember friends like Sally and Joan and John and Debbie among many others, and as I have driven across the state the last 30 years every time I enter a new county I can remember names from that choir in 1980.
I bought into the whole thing—I did the Europe tour, I made my father drive me to rehearsals across the state for Messiah and anytime the group got together. The following year my good friend from West High, Peggy, sang in the choir, and I drove up to hear her concerts. I came back for Alumni Days and loved every iteration of this group. In 1983 my sister made the choir and so I very excitedly accompanied the family the day we took her up to the Rhodes Center to move into the dorms. As it turned out, one male staff member had not shown up, and Peggy, who was on staff that year, told me to speak to Mr. Thomas volunteering to come join the staff.

When the errant staff member still hadn’t shown up, I got the call to come up and join the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir staff! Those three weeks were heaven! I got to meet a whole new 300-member choir group, cemented my friends with some of my 1980 choir members then on staff, and shared this experience with my sister.

Even though I was only 19, that summer had a significant impact on my thoughts about my career paths and leadership qualities. At that time I knew I wanted to teach history, and teach in a college, but I had not thought much about how one leads people. I was only a year older than some of the older members of the choir, so I had to figure out how to manage the boys in my dorm. The leadership of the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir considered fear tactics as the best to get the kids to mind you. I tried that, and while I could do it, I realized what a less-than-perfect model upon which to build the morale of an organization or to inspire trust. I came to see that if you cultivated respect, the members in the organization would really do whatever you wanted. I tried that, and found that to be an infinitely more rewarding way to work with people. I kind of liked working with high school students as well! A few years down the line, this experience helped me decide to teach in a secondary school. However, my decision to go against the protocol of the staff did not endear me to the leadership and I was not asked back to be on the staff.

In the early 1990s Glenville Thomas died unexpectedly, and thus ended 29 years of his running the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir. Since his death over 20 years ago, I have returned only three times to the Ohio State Fair for Alumni Days. Besides my friendship with Tony Buscemi (a biannual visit to Indian restaurants!) those days receded more and more into the dusty annals of time.

So last summer when the announcement came heralding a major reunion to commemorate the 50 years since Glenville Thomas began the All Ohio State Fair Youth Choir, I looked forward to returning to the State Fair. The organizers of the reunion hoped to have a 1000-voice choir perform in the Coliseum once again (the current choir hadn’t performed in this vast space since 2001 and the alumni had not performed there in over 20 years). Facebook pages kept up reminders and many of us signed up to attend. First of all, I was just happy the event coincided with the summer vacation in the United States!

At the beginning of the summer I targeted about a dozen people I hoped to see the most at the reunion. I wrote impassioned letters to them, reminding them of what the choir had meant to us in our youth. I didn’t hear from some of them, a couple said they would think about it, and finally, in the end only two of them decided to come to the reunion.

Reunions are tricky things—I have spoken about them before in the blog. If you were my friend John Johnson, the bass in my marching quartet, my dorm buddy, and my best friend at the 1980 Fair, he didn’t go to Europe, stopped coming to Alumni Days in the mid-80s and subsequently fell out of touch, it was just three weeks of his now half-century life. Should we even go back to those days of marching in the heat (by the way, no sunscreen protection whatsoever!) and singing??? I never heard from John. How do we look now? What did I do in life?

There is never a reunion where everyone comes back to something. Are the ones who return the wise ones? The foolish ones? If you never see 100% participation at a reunion, can one ever escape disappointment? As I drove up to the reunion last Friday I worried about the disappointment. In the end my sister decided not to go. My one constant Fair friend Tony decided not to go. It was such an interesting reflection about the glass half-empty/half-full. The half-empty part was obvious: few of the recipients of my plea wrote back; I was going alone; maybe it was a waste of two good days toward the end of summer.

But turning the glass the other way, here are some good things. I had found Sally Adams! Sally had been my best friend on our 1981 Europe tour but we had last seen each other in 1983. Not longer after that the letters and Christmas cards came to an end. Like many friendships, it kind of just vaporized. But I had found Sally on Facebook and while she didn’t want to come to the reunion, she invited me to stop by her house before the rehearsal. She lived a few miles from the fairgrounds and so after 30 years we had our own reunion. It was wonderful to catch up, hear about her life, and yes, I would have known her radiant smile anywhere. Time melted as we saw each other and talked about our 1981 adventures getting lost in Paris, buying Royal wedding loot in London, and throwing snowballs on a Swiss alp that longago July. Thirty years. A lovely moment to rekindle a once-powerful bond.

When the decades of the choir members gathered on Saturday morning to rehearse what we would sing in the Coliseum, I realized this was certainly an aging bunch! The very youngest of Thomas’ choristers were now approaching 40, so we had 40-somethings, 50-somethings, and 60-somethings gathering to remember and perform pieces they had sung 30 or 40 or 50 years ago as teens. There were about 5 pieces in common over the years that every choir had learned, so one of Glenville’s assistants, Girrard, took the helm to conduct us. He knew there was trepidation in the room. Some hadn’t sung for years. The numbers didn’t quite reach 1000. There is always a little melancholy tang in the air with a reunion. Would it be worth the effort and time to have come back???

Girrard wisely gave a pep talk about the experience of being in the choir, the legacy of patriotism, musicianship, friendship, wanderlust, enthusiasm, vigor, that Thomas had bequeathed to each of us. Girrard said, “No matter if you know 2 or 200 people here right now, you were a member of an exciting organization, you were a part of something special.” That morning, that afternoon, and that evening at the gala reception toasting 50 years since Thomas first plucked his Ohio choristers, it was a beautiful reminder of that something special.

No one from the 1983 choir, the year I was on staff, came that I knew well. So I focused on the 6 from my 1980 choir and had a grand time. We had a real quartet for the marching and the singing, and the table of us that evening laughed and smiled greatly as we looked back 33 years. Two people had come just because I asked them. I focused on the fun table there that night and what this group has meant to me over the 33 years since a 16-year old boy from Hamilton County with perfectly feathered and parted-down-the-middle hair spent 23 days in a hot dorm in Columbus.

While the concert in the Coliseum was a thrill (I think we had 800 people raising their voices in song) and the impromptu concert in front of the Butter Choir and Butter Glenville Thomas in the Dairy Barn certainly gave me chills, my two favorite moments, perhaps, came in rehearsal last Saturday morning. One song that Glenville loved was the jaunty tune, “In a Shanty in Old Shanty-Town,” a song I performed dozens of time but without too much affection. There was one moment in the song, to the lyric of “rocking chair,” when Glenville instructed the choir to lean forward in unison (like the rocking chair…). He thought it was a cool move. Anyway, last Saturday when we rehearsed for the first time “Shanty,” we came to that moment in the song. Instinctively, the hundreds of us there at the rehearsal all leaned forward and then chuckled. Would you believe this little tiny moment made me tear up???!!! I have no idea why, but it brought back all those memories of the choir and what it has meant to me. This dumb little gesture! Memories and tear ducts are funny things…

Then a little while later, when we rehearsed my favorite piece of the choir, the men sang “I Believe” and the women sang “Ave Maria” in counterpoint. We practiced in our separate vocal parts, the hundreds of us perhaps intimidated by the high notes required at the end of the piece. The familiar-in-my-memory introduction in D flat major began. The piece was, indeed, as beautiful as I remembered. When the hundreds of us finished the song, there was an eerie silence following the climactic soaring chords. No one said anything. But, I noticed something so sweet. All around me I noticed those 40-something, 50-something, and 60-something men who had journeyed back to the fairgrounds, and very innocently, and not so unashamedly, had taken off their glasses to wipe their eyes. As we did this Girrard broke the silence and said, “That’s all right. Remember we were a part of something special.”

I didn’t go back there to pretend to be 16 again. I went back to see what I remembered, what emotions might stir up, what we all looked like. And by singing those 5 ancient songs, we had a little taste of immortality last Saturday. Immortality of what? Who knows, but I felt a little sense of immortality.

So as the summer ends I look back on the bookends of the Summer of 2013 of choir reunions. The beginning and end of this summer with sweet memories and a touch of whimsy and wistfulness.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

So what does $35 get you for food in New York City?

July has come and gone now and so the tremors are felt heralding the end of summer. That is not a tragic thing—summer is meant to be that restorative time before we go back and attack/embrace a new school year. And there comes that moment in summer when The Sigh happens. The Sigh is when I wonder what joys and challenges the new school year will bring, the possibility of transcendence, the optimism of every possibility, the rush of wonder about what my classes will be like, and anticipation and giddiness over if the art works will have the same magic in Art History class again. The Sigh is not the end of summer—well, for me it always comes in July, so I guess it could be the end of summer, but it is the realization of the end of summer, the letting go of the restorative need of summer. The Sigh is a good thing, because it is always followed by The Smile at the wonder of school and teaching. But naturally, one doesn’t really want to let go of summer…summer for me is time in the United States, driving a better car, understanding all the signs in English around me, outings with friend Sylvia, breakfasts with my dad at the diner, insane amounts of outstanding Cincinnati ice cream, and of course, the pilgrimage to New York.

I arrived home from New York yesterday and so the pixie dust hasn’t quite fallen out of the greying hair just yet. Visits to New York are actually more and more like visits to the perfect small-town. I guess I say small-town because I enjoy most the comforts of “the familiar” in New York—time in Central Park, my favorite this, my traditional that. Spending an afternoon with an old friend or former student is higher on the priority list than a boat ride on the Hudson; spending an afternoon discovering a dive pizza place in Brooklyn outranks a splashy tourist-y site.

This year I took in 7 theatrical presentations during my summer visit—varying from the Broadway plays to experimental musicals in a festival of new works, to a misguided work with a male drag queen as Bette Davis, to the one-woman-descent­-into-drugs-and-then-redemption show to the free, outdoor Shakespeare, all captivating in part because I love live entertainment. Shakespeare is not a constant for me on visits to New York, but this trip afforded the opportunity to see two excellent productions, Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Tempest. Both productions, while free, were more than just no cost—they were creative, provocative opportunities to think about issues and stories and laugh as well. Both companies that produced these shows understand that Shakespeare is more than anything else an entertainer, an exquisite, story-telling, fun-loving, crowd-pleasing entertainer. Both companies’ approaches to these plays were more passionate than academic. Neither play was about The Bard as “historical relic”—each play was about pleasing a crowd, offering an insight or two about humans, and making us revel in theatrical magic. The enthusiasm bubbled over in every moment of the two plays. Furthermore, each of these plays delighted a number of children and not just “grad students.” Both companies (The Public Theater and New York Classical Theater) know instinctively that if presented well and with love, children will devour hungrily the stories of the plays. Well, both audiences simply enjoyed the fun provided.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is a play I have never read, but the company re-imagined this comedy of the war between the sexes as set in a spa in the Alps for the twentysomething set. There are vows of chastity involved, breaking of vows, horny young people, and slapstick comedy. In many ways the production reminded me of a sweet cousin of the American Pie movies. It was exciting and fast-paced.

Two nights later I attended a performance of The Tempest by a group known for its gimmick of moving the audience during frequent breaks in the performance. For example, this play began inside Castle Clinton in Battery Park and during the next two hours we, the audience, moved seven times! There is a suspense as to when in the action of the play we will be asked to pick up and move again. You sit on the ground, stand, maneuver to the front of the crowd, and take in a new setting as to how and when it enhance the play. The shipwreck in the opening of the play was theater magic, cost them nothing, and set the tone for an exciting and eye-opening way of doing theater. The multi-generational audience moved along, happily moving 100 yards here, moving back there, sitting with the setting sun over the Statue of Liberty as the comely young couple of this play is reunited. Children laughed at the hoary jokes of the drunkards and maybe even enjoyed the poetry of The Bard. Nah, they but they really enjoyed the three-actor Ariel and the snarky things she/they said about the characters!

One day when I took some leisurely time in a book store (now I know it is summer since they are so, so, so few book stores in Jordan) I looked at a book about helping children appreciate Shakespeare and the writer said: “Say this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I bet you can memorize some Shakespeare. Come on now, go into a room and say the lines, “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” Nine syllables! You can do it!” The writer had such fun urging you to say these lines over and over and imagine sitting near this bank where the wild thyme is blowing in the breeze and bursting into flower. This reminded me of the path I take through the park every day on my way from breakfast to my morning tete-a-tete with great art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Somehow saying this line from Shakespeare, just like the walk in the park, the theater,  the moments in the Met, and the visits with old friends, are good for the soul. Ahhh…summer…

Almost everything about the summer has been wonderful and satisfying. How can it not be so? I set up the summer to visit family and then friends and then family and then friends and then family and friends…for 8 solid weeks. But once in a while a disappointing meal creeps in and wreaks havoc in the summer serenity and serendipity. Last week, argh, that disappointment meal was at Artie’s Delicatessen. Okay, so Artie’s is near the entrance to the park where you go for the Shakespeare. Artie’s is a place I have been to before, although not for some time, and I always liked the old-fashioned deli food, the bright, retro setting, and the mom-and-pop feeling. It felt 1950s and 1990s at the same time. Anyway, Christy and I went, decided to split an entrée and get a bowl of soup each. From the moment we entered the restaurant and met the indifferent staff, looked at the exorbitant prices in the menu, to the denouement of the boring and tasteless meal, it was a disappointment. Since my trip is so carefully crafted, I thought, oh what an error in coming to Artie’s! Blah, blah, blah…this meal, this meal that tasted like boiled shoe leather, was $35! We had two bowls of soup and one entrée…I know, “New York prices” and all that, but around 2001 Artie’s was still a pleaser. Somehow I started looking around at the other $35 meals I had and measuring them and comparing them on some cosmic scale. The day after the Artie’s fiasco I treated five of us for lunch at Sookk, a Thai place that I like (umm, I ate lunch there four times on this visit!!). Five of us had a four-course lunch—let me take you through the meal, from the vegetable soup, appetizer, entrée and rice and coconut ice cream…for…no way…seven dollars each! And it’s great. And the restaurant is clean and creatively set up. And the wait staff is friendly. And five of us ate a super meal for the same price as the drudgery meal at Artie’s (don’t get me started on the Artie’s waitress! Okay, I’m started. As we slurped our soup, she arrived with the brisket entrée and asked us, “Yeah, so what do you want me to do with this plate??” I moved our soup bowls to a nearby empty table so she could plop the plate of boiled boot on the table.) So five of us ate for that same price.

A day or so later I met a friend at a fancy Viennese-style café on the Upper East Side. We had coffee and sacher torte mit schlag. I chuckled when the bill came and it was also $35. But, not a disappointment! While a steep price, here we were being swanky in an art museum with a Viennese vibe, and a tasty time-travelling feel to the days of Gustav Klimt.

I guess here’s the thing about the trip to New York—in so many moments were there insights. In one moment I discussed Thurber with a friend, with another friend we celebrated Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday, his longevity, his example of stamina, mercy and courage. On one day a Met guide pointed out a thrilling new piece of Japanese art, at the Cloisters a guide wondered how a medieval woman would approach this Madonna and Child statue. I ventured to Brooklyn for a $5 slice of pizza (Christy’s response, even after our 70-minute wait for the pizza: “This slice of pizza may have ruined me for all other pizza.”) So many transcendent moments!

I go to the Met like I join my father at the diner for breakfast—a serious hour where one gets fed, learns something new, and catches up with old friends. There are lessons to impart and lessons to learn. Both trips are about communication and structured days and enjoying a positive message. Each visit with an old friend or former student is excellent. Oh, wait, that’s not true. Hmmm… one visit was disappointing. I saw someone who talked non-stop and never asked me a question about my life. It wasn’t like my feelings were hurt, it just got a little dull simply hearing the person talk and drone on. Like the plays, there was one play that was a clunker. There was a meal that was a clunker. There was a visit that was a clunker.

I guess the difference is the feeling of transcendence. Going out to Brooklyn for the transcendent pizza. Enjoying Sookk and the $7 Green Curry lunch with a new colleague and old friends, opportunities to kindle and re-kindle. The new piece of Japanese art offers a new vocabulary and vision for the world.

And then there was the boring $35 meal at Artie’s. Oh well, not every meal can be the salute to Nelson Mandela or the new enthusiasm for Shakespeare comedies.

Oh, but maybe they can! That is part of the afterglow of The Sigh that creeps in every July!