Friday, April 20, 2018

I met Lionel Hampton!

I want to tell you a little story, but before I can tell it, I need to set the stage.

When I was getting to know a chatty and precocious kid in 1998, she asked me to tell her my most embarrassing moment. I thought a bit and replied that it would be hard for me to answer because I don’t embarrass easily. That’s generally true, though it’s not because I don’t do stupid things. It’s just that I don’t notice my stupidity until much later. I have a few memories that make me cringe and whistle whenever I think of them. I’m about to tell you one of them.

I’m acutely aware of my embarrassing failure because I’ve been listening to a lot of Lionel Hampton music lately. Just about every day I listen to a few of his recordings, as I am right now. He’s become my favorite musician, or at least one of two. (I love Duke Ellington too.) After some years of listening to Hampton, I got curious to read a little about him, and came to suspect that he was the subject of my story. Now that I am reading his autobiography, there is no doubt. I met Lionel Hampton around 1980.

I had recently moved to Massachusetts and started volunteering as an usher at church. I am a Christian Scientist, and the Mother Church of our denomination is here in Boston. Lionel Hampton was a Christian Scientist too, but I didn’t know that. I had no idea even who he was: Jazz music had not come up on my radar at all. One cold Sunday morning, a big car pulled up to my door. Our church has an underground parking garage, and nobody ever parked on the plaza. In my mind, somebody was taking a major liberty.

The driver let out a tired-looking African-American man in a camel-hair coat with fur collar. The man didn’t say much. He seemed out of place to me, and I imagine today that he felt my discomfort as he scuttled past. This is all so painful for me to recount: I had never been around a prosperous person of color, and couldn’t connect with him at all. I imagined that he was an old-time blues musician, wasted after a life of dissipation. More likely, he was just tired after working late and then getting up early for church. According to Ahmad Jamal, getting any jazz musician to do anything before noon is a very big deal.

I invited the driver to park in the garage and come inside, but he preferred to stay out in the car on the plaza. He waited by my door, the engine running.

As soon as the service was over, my guest was the first person down the stairs, apparently eager to go. Knowing that I had done a bad job of connecting with this man, I tried to engage him in conversation, learning only that he lived in New York. He hustled out to his car.

Unaware that I'd ever met Hampton, I heard him live in 2000 or 2001. He was one of the headliners in Bending Towards the Light, a Jazz Nativity. Supposedly one of the Three Kings, he had not performed in any of the previous shows due to poor health, and the usher warned us that he may not play tonight either. When it came time for the Three Kings, however, a vibraphone appeared on stage and an assistant accompanied the great man out. He leaned heavily on his escort, and tottered a bit before catching his balance in front of his instrument. He picked up a pair of mallets and began to play. Not quickly, not a lot of notes, but oh my, did he play! He didn’t just play the notes: the spaces between them said just as much as the notes themselves. I cried. It was pure soul. This must have been one of his last public performances, but his music lives on brilliantly. Here's a clue for you, what it felt like.

I’m sorry I can’t meet him today. I’d tell him that I love his music, but also that I admire his life, respect the way he thinks, and could hardly put down his autobiography.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A few warm days

I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area much later than I’d planned, but still on the intended day. By the time I got to John and Meredith’s house, they’d put the kids to bed and retired to a back room to do some work. I let myself in and crept past the bedroom where James was theoretically asleep. He called to me through the door, and I stepped in to say “hi.” Though we chatted for a little while, my eyes never adjusted to the dark enough to know where he was, a small boy in a big bed. We agreed to play together first thing in the morning and I crept out.

Saturday, then, we played a lot. John builds brilliant vehicles and buildings from James’ toys, and James has learned from his dad. We built some excellent stuff before going out to visit the Heller Aviation Museum. We expected to see just aircraft but got a special treat because several model train clubs had brought in their gear and filled the usually-open floor with intricate model railroads. We did see a lot of things that fly, but spent our first hour with the trains. Here are a couple of photos from a Boeing 747.

On Sunday, we went up to San Francisco to meet Johnny’s dad at an aquarium. As a special favor to James, we rode the last mile on one of the classic trollies the City of San Francisco runs along the waterfront. Continuing our "transportation" theme, we also rode a carousel after we finished in the aquarium.

It being school vacation week, I stayed an extra day and Monday included a picnic in a park and other outdoor activities. I enjoyed the warm weather, but I especially enjoyed the warmth of the family I had come to visit. I'll miss them until I'm able to return in summer.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Visiting Auntie Bea

For some reason, it’s hard to visit my aunt in Oregon. Last time I tried, I got snowed out. This time, I got there but now I’m a bit stuck in Oregon.

I flew out yesterday, leaving home at 4:00 a.m. so I could arrive in time to eat lunch with Auntie Bea. We did have lunch together, but later than we expected because the highway got closed and I had to cross two narrow bridges with lots of traffic in order to follow the Columbia River on the Washington side instead of my usual route on the Oregon side. I would like to say that I got great views, but it was raining so hard I couldn’t really see much or even look around much.

Fortunately, it wasn’t raining in The Dalles, and I managed to take a little walk after we ate. The Dalles calls itself the end of the Oregon Trail because there was no good way to take a covered wagon farther west from here and travelers had to choose between a difficult and dangerous trip over mountains or a very scary and dangerous raft trip down the rapids of the Columbia River. I didn’t walk far, but enjoyed seeing spring blossoms in this small but cozy town. Spring hasn’t made much of a show yet in Boston.

Today we went to the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, toured the museum and stayed for lunch. It’s situated on the Columbia River at a beautiful place with an attractive walkway. Though my aunt wasn’t up for the walk, we had an excellent time at the museum. I was surprised to see a couple of historic wagons rotting in the parking lot, one of them filled with rotting wooden trunks. It seemed too valuable to leave out in the rain.

My flight to San Francisco got canceled for reasons I never learned. The next flight wasn’t a lot later, and they promoted me to first class so I figured it would be OK. But then the later flight got delayed because of some air traffic control problems. The San Francisco airport is running on a very reduced schedule, and my flight won’t even go there. They will fly me into Oakland and then take me in a bus to San Francisco airport. As I said, visiting Auntie Bea hasn’t been easy. I hope it goes better next time.

While I'm thinking of it, here's a picture of my aunt's staircase. I can't believe that we slid down that banister as kids. Or that the adults let us:

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Real life

As I prepared to pull the plug today on Facebook, I spent some time thinking about how I’d replace its better features. I made a list, for example, of the people I tend to “see” only on Facebook. It’s woefully incomplete, but it’s a reminder that I need to take steps to stay in touch with people important to me. I’ll try to write at least one personal email every week. I won’t hit everybody. I don’t even know everybody’s email address. But I hope that improving the quality of key relationships will polish some of the pain from losing touch with, for example, some of my dance friends. Ideally, I’ll see the dance friends at social events anyway, so it won’t be a total loss. We’ll see how it goes.

Facebook demonstrated its adroit understanding of my soft spots when I began to deactivate my account. On the first of their “are you sure?” pages, they strung a garland of pictures. On each picture, it said “<Person’s name> will miss you if you leave Facebook.” The people they chose to feature weren’t necessarily the people with whom I interact most often. Some of them don’t appear to use Facebook much at all. But Facebook accurately chose some of the ones dearest to me. I’m not sure how they did that. I suspect, based on things I’ve read recently, that they look for words of emotional connection in our communications. I don’t know what else. But since I am leaving largely over concerns about privacy, they effectively illustrated what I’m worried about (while suggesting that the benefits may outweigh the costs.)

Meanwhile, life goes on quite nicely. As the weekend approached, I got an Easter card in the (postal!) mail from a friend in Belarus. Then on Friday I had a great time at the regular weekly dance near Boston. On Saturday morning, I went to the Institute of Contemporary Art with a group of alumni from my university. We enjoyed the exhibit we came to see, and then I especially enjoyed another exhibit there, called “Art in the age of the Internet.” They had some amazing stuff, all of which would have been impossible to create without computer assistance. After the show, we went out to lunch, where we enjoyed spirited conversation and a delightful waitress.

The whole weekend is going that way. I’ve always liked real life, and today I am savoring it with new commitment since I have nothing else.