One family

Inspired by the movie, “The Hours,” based on the Michael Cunningham novel.

Yalda was the painter in the family. She was the youngest of six sisters. The other five were dancers. Her mother encouraged her to dance. When her father saw her watching him paint, he thought she might be an artist. Gabriel wasn’t opposed to dancing. It was just that it would be nice if one of the girls took up his passion.

He showed her the ropes. How to hold a brush. How to make it fly across the canvas. How to mix colors to get the results she wanted.

Her sisters were not unhappy about Yalda. Five dancers in the family was enough they thought. It was different for their mother. She wanted all her daughters to follow in her footsteps. She would choreograph the dancers. The daughters would dance them. This disappointment festered with the mother.

“C’mon, Mom,” her oldest begged. “You’ve got us. Let Yalda do her own thing.” She was beginning to realize that her mother might not be the encourager she always thought.

“I’m trying,” her mother said and hugged her daughter. “But I can’t help it.”

“You’ve got us,” her second daughter said. She was always the quiet one. But it was important that she speak up now.

Her mother hated the way she felt. It was even causing a wedge in her marriage. Her husband had never objected to her encouraging the daughters to dance. But he had realized that her obsession was not healthy. He kept his mouth shut and let his daughters do the talking.

Then one day, Yeta, his fifth daughter, came to him. She was crying. “Mom is going crazy.”

Her father laid down his brush. He followed his daughter to Yalda’s room. Yalda was no where to be seen. But his wife was crashing her daughter’s canvases. She was splattering paint every where. The father stepped back into the hall, closed the door and said to Yeta, “Your mother has to work this out of her system.” But he knew this was not about working this out of her system. This was much more than that.

When she was finished, his wife left the room. She had paint splotched on her face, on her dress, even on her bare feet. Her hair was a mess. She did not speak to her husband. She did not speak to her daughter. She walked into her bedroom, put on a pair of shoes, gathered up a few things, including her purse. She left the house and got into her car and drove away.

When her sisters came home from the movies, Yeta told them what had happened. Their father was in the studio painting. The oldest, Ana, came to the studio and brought her father his favorite tea. There were tears in his eyes. He took the cup and drank it, then said, “It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.”

The other sisters came into the studio and gathered around their father. Then they cried. All of them cried. It was Ana who finally said, “Let’s go clean Yalda’s room.”

That night the man and his daughters discussed what they were to do. “We’re not going to the police and report her missing. We will just tell everyone that your mother went on a long trip and we don’t know when she will be back.”

A week later a policeman knocked on the door. “We understand your wife is missing.”

He invited the officer inside. “She is missing.”

The officer sat down with the man and his girls. They explained what happened. Not the part about Yalda’s room. But the disappointment she had felt about Yalda not becoming a dancer.

“She left of her own free will,” Ana said. There was a bit of anger in her voice. But mostly sadness. She missed her mother.

“I see,” the officer said. Then he perused the neighborhood. Two of the neighbors had seen her leave. She didn’t look like someone harmed or in harm’s way. She looked the way she always looked, except for the paint splotches. They definitely mentioned the paint splotches.

A detective came to see the family. He asked about the splotches.

The father told him what happened.

“Why didn’t you have her hospitalized?”

“How would you feel if your wife went crazy one day and attacked your daughter’s room?”

“I see what you mean,” the detective said.

“We were all in such shock. We figured she was doing what she needed to do.”

The detective had his answers. He left the family in peace. But the family didn’t feel any peace. The girls and their father worried about the missing woman. And they missed her. They missed her laugh. They missed her cutting up. They missed the Sunday water fights and picnics. They missed her voice as they went about their work.

The five daughters continued to dance. They formed a dance troupe called The Sisters and went on tour. For a few moments before each performance they stood in a circle in silence, thinking of their mother, then they dedicated the performance to her.

Yalda went on painting. In the early mornings, she slipped out of the house. She went to the meadows nearby and worked at her canvas. After a few years, she began to win prizes for her work. When asked, she shared that her paintings were for her mother. When she went and sat in the meadow, she thought of her mother as she moved her brush. That was why her landscapes reminded the viewer of a dancer.

After five years, Gabriel, her husband, finished a large canvas of his wife. It was his best work. Unlike his other paintings which were expensive, he gave this one away to a museum. In his mind, it reminded him that he had to let go of his wife. But it was hard.

Over the next few years, The Sisters travelled around the world. Yalda stayed at home close to her father. She got married and had a daughter. And each of the other sisters did as well. When the family gathered on occasions, they were a large family. They laughed and enjoyed each other’s company.

Just before everyone left, things went quiet. Gabriel and his daughters stepped away from the large group. They walked in silence to the meadow where Yalda painted her canvases. There they each remembered the woman who had left. They remembered one special moment each had with her. Then they returned to the house.

As they left their father, each sister said him, “Soon.” Each had never given up on the belief that their mother would one day return to them.

Uncle Bardie’s Movie of the Week: Separating the Men from the Boys. Musically.

Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. Uncle Bardie might even throw in a reflection on the movie. If so, it will make an appearance below the video. So pop some popcorn and give yourself a treat. This week’s movie is “Young Man with a Horn” (1950):

The trumpet. The kid picks it up and blows. A sound comes out. Not a good sound but a sound. The boy doesn’t play trumpet. Yet. But he has the longing. This is the instrument for him. Oh sure, he’s picked up piano. But piano is not the instrument he’s meant for. That’s the trumpet.

And what he wants is to play that trumpet and give it a sweet sound. A sound so sweet it makes him float. But it doesn’t come out without work. Without practice. Without a teacher.
Outside a bar across from the bowling alley where he sets pins he hears the kind of music he just has to play. Inside that bar, the men are playing jazz. This isn’t a smooth jazz either. This is a jazz that separates the men from the boys. A jazz that’s got some swing.

“Young Man with a Horn” is that story. It’s also a story of how the Muse can be a real bitch when she wants too. Adapted by veteran screenwriters Carl Foreman and Edmund H. North from the novel by Dorothy Baker, it’s loosely based on the life of the early jazz great, cornetist, pianist and composer Bix Beiderbecke.

The movie is directed by Michael Curtiz.  His resume’ of 173 directorial credits includes “Virginia City” (with Errol Flynn), “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (with James Cagney), “Casablanca” (with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman), “Mildred Pierce” (with Joan Crawford), and “Life with Father” (with William Powell as Father). After “Young Man”, he would go on to direct (John Wayne in) “The Comancheros”, (Elvis Presley in) “King Creole”, “We’re No Angels” (Bogart again with Peter Ustinov, Aldo Ray and Basil Rathbone), (Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal in) “Bright Leaf, and “White Christmas” (with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Rosemary Clooney). By the time  he directs “Young Man”, this is a director who knows how to direct and get the best out of a story and a cast and crew.

And what a cast. Three young actors who are about to emerge as major stars in the fifties: Kirk Douglas is Rick Martin, the boy who shoots for the stars. Lauren Bacall is his first wife and Doris Day is the woman who won’t settle. In addition, the great Puerto Rican actor, Juano Hernandez, brings authority to the role of Art Hazard, Rick’s mentor. Giving the piece a strong music cred is the great Hollywood composer Hoagy Carmichael who knew the real Bix Beiderbecke. He is Rick Martin’s Horatio, his sidekick and the narrator of the story. Harry James plays the trumpet for the soundtrack. His horn adds authenticity to the music of the swing era and a foretaste of what jazz is about to become with the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and  Charlie “Bird” Parker.

The film’s opening scene is one of my favorites. Hoagy is doing what Hoagy did best. He’s at the piano, then he turns to the camera and begins his spiel: “My name is Willie Willoughby, but you can call me Smoke.” Smoke, what a great name for a sidekick. “I play piano in a run of the mill dance band. Kind of monotonous, but there were times when I got my kicks. Not so long ago either. Like when I palled around with Rick Martin. The famous trumpet. What a guy. We were in the thankless business of piecing together little notes and phrases of music into a mumbo jumbo that somehow turned into jazz.” That’s the authority of a musician speaking respectfully of another musician.

He continues, “Strictly off the cuff but a lot of fun. ‘Course Rick is practically a legend. People ask me about him and those times. Ordinarily I don’t talk about him. But I think a lot about him.” Perhaps with those words, Hoagy was remembering his friend, Bix, who died tragically early.

Rick Martin has a bit of Pip from “Great Expectations” in him. Like that Pip, he is an orphan, raised by his sister. Only his sister ain’t married. She dates around a lot, which leaves the kid on his own to roam through the city, trying this and that and the other. Mostly he’s attracted to music like a bear is to honey. A piano in a church. A trumpet in a  pawn shop window. Then, from that bowling alley where he sets up the pins, he hears a trumpet player. Rick knows the player is the real deal. He has the ear for all things musical. Was born with it.

The sound has a lot of Gabriel in it and a lot of swing to. Man, that music takes our Pip away from all his troubles. That horn man is Art Hazard and Art takes on Rick as a student. He has found a true soul brother. Before you know it, Rick’s all grown-up and ready to join the big boys. He goes off to New York to play big band. “No blues and no lowdown jazz,” he’s commanded.

That’s not for him. He’s got a stubborn streak in him as long as a June day. He tries to play other people’s way.  Those others play for a job. He plays because it’s his calling. Soon we’re seeing he’s going to play the way he’s going to play. Which means he’s going to aim for the stars. The Muse expects no less.

Like so many of these stories, he gets sidetracked. He marries the wrong woman. The marriage fails because he’s a little boy lost when he’s not playing music or not surrounded by music and musicians. As he tells her, “That trumpet is a part of me. The best part.”
He continues to wrestle with the angel till he’s flat on his back and can’t get up. Talent can do that to an artist if they follow their passion singleheartedly.  “You’ve got one love. That little tin baby of yours,” Doris Day tells our Pip. With Rick, he has an itch. To scratch, he has to play the way the angels play.

For much of the 20th century, jazz was the American music. Artists like Rick Martin sought to play notes that weren’t supposed to be played. Those artists were our Mozarts, our Beethovens, our Bachs. Pip doesn’t reach that note but he does push the music. Trying for that note can just about kill an artist. Sometimes the artist has to fall to pieces before he can tame that desire and make it work for their art. Life may knock Rick down but that trumpet never does. “We can’t say what we mean,” he says. “You just got to feel it.”

So why do I love this movie enough to see it a dozen or more times and want to see it again? Maybe it’s because it’s about the music and those who care about the music. I would say that is a pretty darn good reason. Wouldn’t you?

The Addiction

It takes a certain kind of courage to speak to the world the way writers do. Yes, it takes a lot of guts to put yourself down on a blank page, then send that page out into the world. To do it well is a Big Something Else.

Yet everyday hundreds, thousands, millions of human beings do the brave act. And do it unselfishly. Because there is never enough return to pay for the hours a writer needs to create, even the well-paid ones. It may be in their job description to write. But no one, other than a fellow writer, understands the amount of time required to come up with an idea, develop it into something unique, then fill out that skeleton of an idea with meat and blood.

That bestselling novel that just hit number one on the New York Times list may very well have taken twenty years to get right and to make it sing. The author is declared a genius, then asked to do it again. And again. And again. If they don’t produce by a deadline somebody else set, that bestseller is declared a fluke by the high and mighty. Her readers go on to other things.

Writing stories, writing novels, writing itself can be an addictive thing. Most of us who pick up this addiction don’t make it big time. Sure we get a story or an essay or a blog post published every now and then. They are often featured in publications that don’t pay much or not at all. When it happens, we go around strutting our stuff like some rooster in a chicken coop of hens.

Mostly we are battered around by family and friends and community who harp at us to get a life. Go do something productive. The only answer we can give is that we would if we could. Then we’re back to that very thing they call useless. We sit ourselves down day-in and day-out and do the one thing we know that gives us value and brings us pure pleasure.

Along the way we are given a bagful of don’ts. Show, don’t tell. Don’t use passive voice. Don’t begin with the weather. Don’t use run-on sentences. Don’t use -ly adverbs. Never use clichés. Get rid of all the dialogue tags except for “said” and “asked”. Kill your darlings. Write what you know. After a while, we begin to understand that all those don’ts are a line of hooey. After we’ve read a few bestselling, and well-reviewed, writers who break every don’t in the book, we come to understand that the rules can be broken. The important thing is to know the rules, then to have a good reason to kick them in the shins.

By the time we come to realize this, we have developed a bit of a style of our own. That is when we throw the bag away and do what we please as well as we can.

We are a drunken lot, we writers. Drunk on words. When we finish a good day’s writing, it’s like we’re at a bacchanalia. We want to dance and sing and tell someone, anyone, what we have done. To have that feeling once is a wonderful thing. To have it again and again and again, that is a life. And there is no way I am going to give it up. Like my motto says, “A day without writing is still a day without writing.”

Yes, I am an addict. Unapologetically so. I’m addicted to laying down words on an empty page, and I am proud of it. Do I hear an amen?