Saturday, October 1, 2011

It does not end with Louis Armstrong's death on July 6, 1971

Here is Louis Armstrong, present through absence: the dressing room, a pitcher, a glass of juice, some pills, lip salve, the horn case with trumpet and handkerchiefs. Like his smile and his trumpet, this simple piece of cloth is an essential element in constructing his identity.

Dennis Stock’s 1958 copyrighted photo[1] belongs to a series, a study Stock made of Louis backstage. Each of the photos reveals Armstrong in a contemplative state, one rarely seen by the public. He is about to go on, lost in another world or, post performance, he relaxes. In some of the photographs Louis wears a handkerchief tied around his head, knotted in front or back. In one, he reclines on a lounger, barelegged, wearing only a large open necked white shirt and checkered jacket, handkerchief knotted in back. His eyes are closed, a satisfied smile, cigarette in hand. In another, a profile, he faces an unseen mirror, his handkerchief, knotted in front. He wears a white shirt, cuffs folded back as he tightens his tie at the unseen mirror. He’s not smiling; he looks to be miles away.

There are thousands of photographs of Louis Armstrong; the vast majority are snapshots.  Louis was a champ in front of the camera, snapshots, publicity photos, stills from his films. In hundreds Louis holds his horn and his handkerchief. He’s often with the Hot Five or the All Stars, in the dressing room or at the typewriter, at home tinkering with his home-recorded tapes, or with Lucille and friends. Louis smiling, almost always, Louis smiling. Stock’s series is dramatic, (think of Stock’s photo of James Dean in Times Square). Each photo, tonally rich, employs strong contrasts. And in each, Stock’s subject appears simultaneously spontaneous and absolutely frozen, one reason why these photographs are so compelling.

Photography is now center stage. I am spending many hours with Dorothea Lange dead at 70 (1895-1965). While I’ve long paid photographs close attention and taken my fair share, I know little about the history of photography. I’m learning how photographers pictured and influenced the nation’s history from 1920 through 1960, the decades Lange worked.

As well, I am finding similarities in the lives and attitudes of Armstrong and Lange. Both looked at life as a series of choices not the pursuit of a goal. In an interview conducted by Richard Doud for the Archives of American Art, Smithson Institution, Lange said: “I never had any sense in making a career out of it [photography]. It was more a sense of personal commitment; in fact I have never had a conscious career…I feel myself more like a cipher, a person that can be used for lots of things and I like that. But I don’t feel that I personally stand for anything so great, you know. That is the way in which I kind of slid into this. You asked me about deciding to be a photographer, but over everything, I think, all my decisions right along, even working in the field when I was doing documentary work, have been instinctive; and I trust my instincts…They haven’t led me astray.”[2]

Armstrong went about his life in like manner. Performing was simply what he did. He wanted the best recording studios, nightclubs, tour arrangements, but a career was not his goal, rather to work. He made choices, found excellent musicians to team with, found a manager who handled the nitty-gritty absolving Louis from making unpleasant decisions. 

At work each moved with ease. Louis’s enormous following came from his crowd-pleasing instincts. He loved to sing and, almost as much, he loved to talk. He was a magnet, his dressing room always full of friends and strangers. Dorothea was a more private person. Patient and persistent, she was forthright with those she wanted to photograph. She wanted to hear their stories and she valued them. But this is only part of the story. Their lives were complex (as one would expect)—in personal relationships, intimate ones and professional ones where others held the strings.

Each year, living in the Dead at world is an opportunity to learn from someone, not only a new story, but also to view history through a particular lens, science, entertainment, poetry, visual art. I can’t say I understand physics after a year with J. Robert Oppenheimer, but I have a clear picture of the communist movement in the U.S. in 1930s and the force of anti-communism in the 1950s, helpful a couple of years later when I embarked on Walt Disney.

While I, no doubt, chose Elizabeth Bishop because I wanted to spend a year with her poems and learn her life, her life complemented this time frame. Louis Armstrong and Dorothea Lange expand my understanding of this historical province, adding the imperative of social issues. Geography also matters. Dorothea Lange’s life work in photography is the crux, but her California location adds a new angle.

In the past three years I have traveled from poetry to jazz to photography—words, music, pictures.  Elizabeth Bishop, Louis Armstrong, Dorothea Lange lived in different worlds. Their lives did not touch, but I like to think they did. As the population of my Dead at community grows, I often circle back to someone I’ve previously followed. It’s a game I play, a bit like playing dollhouse. What if I move Joan Mitchell from her attic studio to the library? Will she run into Elizabeth Bishop revising poems? Will they find anything to say to each to other? Or I could move Louis from the study where he’s organizing his home recorded tapes to the kitchen. There’s Dorothea making Christmas dinner. Will they talk jazz or the Farm Security Administration?

In the 1920s Armstrong and Lange were young and exuberant. They were finding out how to go about what they wanted to do. Armstrong moved to Chicago with a brief stint in New York. He recorded prodigiously, played in and formed several bands. Lange left New York at twenty-three, moved to San Francisco opening her own portrait photography studio, a fly by the seat of the pants endeavor.

Louis Armstrong left New Orleans in 1922, swiftly became a big city man, but his early life, Storyville and Perdido, brothels and hard times, remained close to his skin. He would always embrace New Orleans’s traditions; he relished being chosen King of the Zulus in 1947. But living in the south was out of the question.

After Lange photographed migrant families, the Dust Bowl and its aftermath in California, the FSA sent her to the rural south in 1936. She photographed tenant families, black and white. The photographs show individuals and families who did not look destitute or woebegone (a word Lange used to describe the migrants in California). Her photographs of the rural south have been characterized as “frankly idealized” in their difference from the ones she took in the west. In the south she found a stable population grounded in generations of working the land. While she recorded familial warmth, she also underscored the nuances of wary races in constant contact. In Mississippi Delta, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1936, one can read into the alignment and expressions of the people in the photograph. In the foreground the white boss, a large man, drapes one leg over the license plate of his auto, placing his foot on the back bumper, while his black workers sit behind him on the steps.

The segregated south in the 1930s is demonstrated in Lange’s photographs and in Armstrong’s encounters, where he always walked a tightrope between black and white worlds. Traveling with the band, overnight accommodations had to be arranged when tour bus arrived in a city or town. A band member’s wife would go into the black community to find families able to put them up. At a certain point Armstrong said no, he would not tour in the south.

Armstrong spent most of the early 1930s in Europe where he enchanted thousands and established a fan base still strong today. Back in Chicago he adapted to popular music’s shift to swing. He branched out, went to Hollywood, made movies. He continued to play the clown, a role he loved but one embedded with racial stigmas that angered many.

Once Armstrong hit his stride, he continued in the same path with minor alterations whereas Lange made a wide swoop. As she recognized the changes the Depression was bringing she made the street her studio:

“I had made some an area of San Francisco which revealed how deep the depression was. It was at that time beginning to cut very deep…Life, for people, begins to crumble on the edges; they don’t realize it. But this particular section was not far from the place where my studio was and I observed some things that were happening. My powers of observation are fairly good…Sometimes I’m aware of what’s going on behind me. My angle of vision is 360°. That’s training. But I have done some photographs of this. One of them is my most famed photograph [White Angel Bread Line]. I made that on the first day I ever went out in an area where people said, “Oh, don’t go there.” It was the first day I ever made a photograph on the street.[3]

The Depression had little financial effect on Armstrong. By mid-decade Joe Glaser managed his career, doling out whatever amounts Armstrong requested. Lange was employed by the government and made good money in hard times. Her FSA pay was less than the male photographers she worked with, but she was employed and relatively handsomely. Neither was ever rich or wanted to be, but they had the means to live comfortably.

In the 1950s, Armstrong was in his fifties, Lange in her late fifties and early sixties. They continued working full time and hard. Now it was Armstrong’s turn for a government assignment. Sponsored by the State Department, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars went all over the globe playing to huge crowds, in Ghana over 100,000 people. He turned in some amazing performances, yet routine was set and the path straight ahead. Lange also went global. She traveled to Ireland, the Middle East and Vietnam with her husband, Paul Taylor, an economist working as a consultant on agrarian reform. In this way she nurtured her creativity.

In the 1950s both faced serious illness bringing physical vulnerability. Armstrong suffered his first heart attack in Rome in 1959. Though he chose not to accept this diagnosis, his life was circumscribed from that moment. Lange’s digestive problems began in 1936. By 1954 she suffered from bleeding ulcers and esophageal constriction resulting in extreme weight loss and severe pain. Both conditions gradually worsened and plagued her the rest of her life.

It’s early autumn now, a sudden cold snap and then warm, humid days again. But it’s coming, the end of the growing season bringing short days, long nights of winter. My birthday is in early October, and so I see autumn offering beginning as well as ending. My Dead at project thrives on continuum, one year rolls over into the next until it does not, as in the beginning of W.S. Merwin’s “For the Anniversary of My Death”:
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out

Realization will no longer exist. What matters is how one arrives there and my hope, like everyone’s, is to retain the physical strength and mental alacrity to die in the middle of things.

[1] Listed as a Magnum photo but not retrievable or available for sale on website. I found it in “Still Life (Louis Armstrong’s Horn Case)” in Seeing Jazz, Chronicle Books catalogue for an exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, 78.
[2] Dorothea Lange The Crucial Years 1930-1948, La Fabrica Editoral, 129-130.
[3] ibid, 30.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

-1-Tears—Lil Hardin

Every year as September approaches, the person I am closest to announces, “You never go swimming after Labor Day.” Labor Day – the great divide between fun and responsibility.

Fun and letting be, not so much the balance between but the constant swaying, the back and forth—this has something to do with Lil Hardin. Lil liked to think of herself as a good time girl, the Hot Miss Lil. Like most of us, the fun part largely happened in her youth. With her mother in tow she moved to Chicago in 1917 from her hometown, Memphis. Her first job was playing piano selling sheet music. Then she hooked up with Joe Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band. When the band stopped playing at 1 am, Miss Lil’s mother was there to pick up Hot Miss Lil. When Oliver’s band toured for the six months, San Francisco, Miss Lil made certain there was no fooling around. She touted the idea of Hot but Miss was who she was. All these adventures all before she was twenty, before she even met Louis Armstrong. In 1922 he joined King Oliver’s band. In next two years Lil fell in love with Louis, took charge of his personal appearance and career, married him, and together they wrote a slew of songs they recorded sometimes within days of composing them. To name a few: “Fireworks,” “I’m Not Rough,” “Skit Dat De Dat,” “Two Deuces,” “Tears,” and especially “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque” (no doubt the most famous one, also the one Lil singled out in her copyright lawsuit against Louis filed in 1934 when he was on an extended tour in Europe).

I was fascinated by the Hot Miss Lil’s audacity and success, but initially  found her brash. Perhaps knowing the story of Louis and Lucille’s more compatible union and Lucille’s mellow acceptance of Louis and his ways framed by initial reaction to Lil. Lil was bossy and outspoken, but she helped him make important decisions that advanced his career. She convinced him to leave Joe Oliver, to go to New York, return to Chicago and form his own band. Though Louis, like Lil, was responsible, his idea of responsibility was to find someone else to take charge of this. Louis was always big on fun.

Lil possessed musical talent and she was good at composition. She played the piano moderately well but not imaginatively—at least that’s how Louis’s chroniclers describe her. A solid accompanist, she was frequently criticized for her thumping piano line capable of carrying the rhythm but not much else. Yet Lil was essential in the seminal early recordings of the Hot Five.

Lil herself never claimed she was a great musician. For a long time the subject women in jazz did not exist. Only the greats, Billie Holliday, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith made the big mention. But today there is plenty of material and continuing research on seminal (and not so seminal) women in jazz. Lil’s life and contribution are well covered. One source is James L. Dickerson’s biography Just for a Thrill: Lil Hardin Armstrong, First Lady of Jazz (2002). Dickerson details her 1920s musical life but, importantly, covers her whole life, all of her accomplishments and struggles.

Chris Albertson’s blog,, is perhaps the best source; it is surely the most personal. Albertson and Lil Armstrong’s friendship began in 1961. He recorded his interview with her shortly after they agreed to collaborate on Lil’s autobiography, a project from which she later withdrew. At the time she said she wasn’t ready to publish her account. However, their friendship continued and they visited several times in the last decade of her life. She frequently made shirts for him and shared many photographs that are found only at this site. Albertson admired and respected Lil. When I found this blog, I began to see Lil in a new light, a softer view grounded in his respect and admiration. Lil did tell her own story not only to Albertson but also on an oral history interview she made in 1956.[1]

Since Albertson has published captivating anecdotes recalled by Lil herself and the whole story can be found in Dickerson, I wanted to find a personal slant to integrate her story into my blog. The Idlewild entry (August 2) speculates on Lil’s marriage to Louis, her pleasure in their summer escape hatch. Reading about her, I realized that despite all she dreamed of and accomplished, she still felt bound, held back by her own self-estimation and the thinking of the time that circumscribed women’s possibilities.

Maybe Lil’s life and example will be what I most remember from my Louis Armstrong Dead At year. Each year has its own cycle. After much research, I find an entry point, a way to respond, to make in a way that testifies to the individual’s unique contribution. Each beginning I ask myself how will inspection into the life of another provide introspection into my life.

It’s autumn outside and in, the end of the line for Louis Armstrong as the center of my attention. My energy for the bigger than life Louis Armstrong and his world is waning. But the delight in seeing someone new on the horizon pulls me. Next year will be my eighth year. As I step across a self-imposed line into the next segment, I know more about the pattern and lack of pattern that this unruly but structured continuum provides. Not only the limits of the year and how to fit a whole magnificent person into that small frame, but the continuum itself, where is this accumulation going?

Lil draws me in, but I’m also straying, not nearly as active as I was a few months ago. I sometimes make excuses. I say it’s already written. Others’ stories are good enough. On the other hand, the fall equinox is still almost two weeks away. There’s another week or so after that to my change date. I don’t want to fall off the blogosphere until the year has ended on October 4. Contemplating Lil is an opportunity.

Aside aside, let’s go back to Lil, how our lives cross. As I recounted in the last entry, my parents married before either had turned twenty. They moved to Chicago’s South Side to begin their dream of the big city life. They used to tell me about the good times, but I never asked whether that included the scene at any of the famed South Side jazz spots, listening and dancing to swing music. I once saw a photo album filled with snapshots from the 1930s. There they were on Lake Shore Drive, Lake Michigan’s waves moving crisply in the distance. They were lined up with their Sunday bicycling club, a dozen or so young couples nattily dressed in black and white gripping their handlebars.

As for Lil, her life in the 1930s was light years different than the 1920s. Louis was gone emotionally if not on paper from Lil’s life long before the Big Crash and onset of the Depression, but the real turning point for Lil was the declaration she made in 1931:

“And, I don’t know, in a way he had changed his way of thinking on a lot of things and I hadn’t changed. So he told me I was a little bit too old-fashioned. So I said, “Well, I think it’s best you go your way and I’ll go my way and we’ll remain friends that way.” But, of course, he though I was joking. But I wasn’t joking, I wasn’t joking at all. So we separated in August 1931 and he kept on on the road. And I came back to Chicago and immediately made my plans to get back into the music business.”[2] 

Lil—not who she was, the findable, but who she thought she was, because, like most of us, that’s not findable. It’s hinted in the sliding scale between fun and letting be, but the indicator is tough to read. She recorded her “truth,” but that is only the truth spoken one day. If you have to say it, then the explanation can only obscure it. In Haruki Murakami’s story, “Town of Cats” in the September 6, 2011 New Yorker, the withdrawn father says to his son, “If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with an explanation.” This is pretty close to the reputed but never documented Louis Armstrong definition of jazz “If you have to ask, then you’ll never know.”

So I’ll never know who Lil was and, frankly, the more I read the more uncertain I am what she thought she thought about herself.

But take today, a perfect sunny blue sky, September 10 with all the ominous collusion that such weather and the next day’s date portends and will for years to come. In this visit to Lil’s 1922-1924 Chicago years, “Tears” appears. “Tears” one of the many songs she wrote with Louis. Most of the time they wrote their songs sitting on their back porch in the house that Lil, most likely, paid for the first year of their marriage. She lived in this house on 44th Street till the day she died in August 1971.

While Louis recorded “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque” thirty-five times, he recorded “Tears” only once, in 1923 with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, cornet, plus trombone, clarinet, bass. drums and Lil Hardin on the piano. Lyrics were important in many of their songs, but there are no lyrics for “Tears.” There was something special about this song for Louis, as I found in listening to my recording from Louis’ Home-Recorded Tapes, purchased when I visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum thirteen months ago.

There are over five hundred tapes, more than two thousand hours of Louis speaking to his home recorder so selecting the sixty-six minutes for this CD was certainly a tough call and a labor of love. Dan Morgenstern wrote the liner notes and his words do more than sum up the greatness of Louis’s trumpet as he plays along with this recording:

“Tears” has a sequence of Louis solo breaks that is the first true glimpse of his prowess, which may be why he picked it to play along with…What ensues is something that, when I first heard it, transported me to the spheres, as it will you, dear listener. The tone of Louis’ horn alone suffices to blow you away, and the beauty of his phrasing as well. In a perfect touch, he lays out when his ancient breaks come up, which adds to the magic of these golden moments.”[3]

Louis introduces the song, tells us he’s going to noodle along with it. After he finishes playing with the recording, he says a few more words about King Oliver’s Jazz Band and Lil, “who probably, no, not probably, eventually became my wife.” He intends to play the record again without accompanying it but he can’t get it to play. He doesn’t mention that they wrote the song together.

Should I mention I swam to the island and back yesterday, four days after Labor Day? I had no such intention but the sky was spotless, no wind, no boats, and the air and water were a match at 72°.

[1] “Satchmo and Me,” an oral history recording made in 1956, released as an LP by Riverside. A portion of this document is published in Joshua Berrett’s The Louis Armstrong Companion: Eight Decades of Commentary. The complete typescript was published in American Music (Spring 2007). Sound excerpts from the recording can be heard on Chris Albertson’s blog,
[2] ibid, 117.
[3] Louis Armstrong: Fleischmann’s Yeast Show & Louis’ Home-Recorded Tapes, 2 CDs, Louis Armstrong House Museum, liner notes: Dan Morgenstern, 14.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

-3-Lil Hardin Armstrong: Idlewild Summer

August 2, 2011 is the beginning of the end of my year with Louis Armstrong. Maybe I chose this date to begin the end because it is my anniversary, accompanied by rumblings of a small hope that sometime, likely on a lake, there’d be a conversation. Death intervened; a long relationship ended, now closed.

A sultry day in early August—I’m tuned to Lil Hardin Armstrong, second of Louis Armstrong’s four wives. Lil is at the center of this inquiry—her music, her tailoring, and, most of all, her marriage to Louis that ended in divorce sixteen years later. But it’s more the realization that the constant variables—the seasons, weather, and place—are crucial in triggering memories as well as governing life choices.

Louis loved to swim. There’s a famous photo of him with four friends in Lake Michigan, a Chicago beach. They are all laughing, five heads bobbing close to one another. He wrote: “Of course I am not so bad myself at ″Swimming — in-fact it’s one of my’ famous’ Hobbies, outside of ″Typing”—I loves that also.”[1]

Then there’s another summer play day. This one:

The caption reads: Louis, Lil and Earl Hines boating with friends, Idlewild, Michigan, 1928.

Most city dwellers long for, dream about, and, some ultimately find a place outside the city to enjoy steamy summer days on the water. Lil found Idlewild within a few years of moving to Chicago. She came to the big city when she was seventeen. She wanted to escape her restricted Memphis life, longed to belong to Chicago jazz scene. She was academically trained in music (Fisk University), unusual for a jazz musician. Here is the boiled down bare bones Lil’s bio: she started out playing piano in the Dreamland Café. She eyed Louis, decided he was worth the time and trouble of a makeover. She convinced him to leave King Oliver. She pointed out career acceleration moves. In 1924 they married. She bossed him around; they both screwed around; he took solace in Alpha’s arms. They divorced in 1938, long after the soul mate era had ended. Lil stayed in the house on 44th Street she bought early on. Louis and Lil remained on friendly terms, though the depth of that friendship varies markedly depending on who said what in what year. She sued him over the copyright to “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque” and won. The royalties were crucial support in her later years. Louis died July 6, 1971. Seven weeks later Lil sang in a memorial concert for him. She had a stroke, collapsed on stage and died.

I see much of Lil in me, some of this is geography. Reading her life story invites me to sift through my own past, especially summers spent escaping the city. From childhood, getting out of town was the summertime highlight. My parents moved to Chicago in 1930 right after they married. They rented one apartment after another on the South Side for fifteen years. I was born in Hyde Park Hospital in 1941 and spent most of my childhood in Skokie.

In the 1980s I returned to Hyde Park. My husband and I and our sons moved there for his opportunity to teach and practice surgery at the University of Chicago. Given he’d grown up in Grand Haven, Michigan, he wanted to own property close to the lake in a small community. Chicago offers miles of public lakefront, a bounty for all, but this doesn’t fulfill the American dream of a plot of land. We bought a split-level in Stevensville, Michigan, a small town on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan right off the Red Arrow Highway. Renting a small third floor condo in Hyde Park was fine. Every weekend the 90-minute drive took us far from the city, a block from Lake Michigan. The drive was almost as memorable as the lake house. First, Stony Island Avenue, then the Skyway, then the stretch through the declining industrial shoreline strip, steel mills, the falling down Falstaff Brewery, the glow of the Amoco refinery and then the barreling north on I 94.

Another Chicago getaway possibility is a small lake in one of the states that border Lake Michigan. Lake James in northeast Indiana is my earliest lake memory. Though it is a long drive from Chicago, my parents, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, did not mind. The lake was familiar terrain, the past. When I was older, my parents and several other families rented a cottage on Powell Lake on the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The kids spent more time chasing each other through the cottages, slamming screen doors with mothers shouting “stop slamming the door!” than swimming in the lake. Little lakes, all about watching the moms paint their toenails and smoke cigarettes while we picked ditch lilies and looked for turtles. I grew up with the pleasures of little lakes, a very different experience from the big water, thundering storms and the shifting shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Getting back to Lil and that boating picture. Idlewild sounded familiar. In those driving-to-Stevenville years, I’d learned there was an African American lakeside community near Michigan City, Indiana. Finding the name Idlewild so many years later, I reckoned Idlewild must be the name of that community. Just to make sure Idlewild was nestled along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, I plugged it into Google Earth. Yikes—spin the globe and I’m zooming into the flatlands of Michigan, east of Ludington, far north of the Indiana border.

Idlewild is an African American resort community located on a small lake. Still popular today, its heyday was in the 1920s. In Swing That Music, Louis’s first autobiography published in 1936, he recounted time spent at Idlewild. Note that he described it as “out from Chicago”—an understatement at best. In 1926 Idlewild would be at least a seven-hour drive from Chicago.

“Lil and I were making real good money between us and we began to do what we wanted. We bought a house and a little car and then we bought some lots on the lake-front at Idlewild, which was a summer resort on Idlewild Lake, out from Chicago. I used to like to go to Idlewild with Lil. I like to swim and hadn’t had much of a chance to since I was on the Mississippi. The lake was about a mile across and I could make that easy. But Lil wouldn’t go swimming with me. I had ducked her in the water just for fun when we had spend a day once on Lake Michigan, and I guess I must have scared her too bad, without meaning to…When the crowd would go canoeing in the evenings, and sing together, she wouldn’t go either…Another thing I liked to do was to ride horseback there. I would rent myself a good old nag for an hour or two and climb on without any saddle and in my suit and ride around the country. The weekends  I could get off we went to Idlewild and this was the most exercise, and the best, I remember—although you might say blowing a trumpet is exercise all of the time.”[2]

According to some of his biographers, when this Idlewild respite took place Louis was spending more time with Alpha than Lil. Bergreen’s account mentions that Lil engineered a three-week vacation at Idlewild in an attempt to win him back.[3] Maybe so, but the attraction of the lake, the laid-back summer life, the distance from Chicago is what Louis captures in his narrative. It amazing how wrongs can be righted lakeside, even if it’s only for the short run. On the other hand, the distance from civilization offers another possibility, an excellent tryst site. Louis called the Idlewild property joint, but others credit the investment solely to Lil. Mention of such details might seem picky, but when it comes to divorce property matters.

Leaving the books and internet behind, I go to the lake to chew all this over, add my bit to our ongoing deck-staining project, and, best, paddle. Last year I bought a 19-pound boat that I can manage BY MYSELF down to the water and up again to the deck.

Today the day begins as I wish all summer days to begin. It’s Monday. Fishermen in small boats with small motors put in at the Public Boat Launch. No rocketing phalluses of the Jet Ski boys; they’re at rest after a weekend of high-pitched whining. The lake is glass, as the phrase asserts it is (nod to William Bronk’s “The Real Surrounding”). A bit of a breeze out of the south, refreshing but not resisting, assures me that I will stop occasionally to float on the way back. I head straight down the middle of the half-mile wide lake until I get to the tip of The Oaks, a summer community where water and other utilities are shared, a community buttoned up tight all winter.

I head across to the eastern shore where our cottage lies about a mile north. I want to check out the long, tall concrete retaining wall poured a few days ago. An old man lives in a big white, well-kept house above it. He’s hired a crew to build, or perhaps, overbuild, this structure. This lake has its problems as all little lakes do these days—weeds grow thicker and faster every year making for big blooms of floating gunk. As well, they provide good habitat for bass and turtles. The boat launch is an easy opportunity for anyone’s propeller to introduce a new species. Zebra mussels abound. Inland lakes are a far cry from what they were in the 1920s. Okay, I won’t go there. The point is erosion is not a major concern.

Eight years now we’ve settled into this quasi-community. This we is a different one from the we that had two sons and drove to Stevensville  for sunsets, blueberries and little league baseball. All of that life grown up or away, the boys as old as we were when we bought the split-level, my grandchildren only a couple of years younger than my sons were then. Much is different in this life on the water of a small lake from life near Lake Michigan. Everything in this life is mulled over and over, some things completed, more in process for years to come.  It’s all open water.

I walk or bike the road around the lake or paddle the lake every day that weather permits. Fantasizing about the neighbors’ lives goes hand in hand with the exercise. The old man in the white house always waves and nods; I don’t think he gets around much any more. Lots of family-type people come and go to the house.

Why is he spending a ton of money to build this wall? From the water I have a better view of small front shovel construction machine. Three guys in their 20s or early 30s are standing by the big walls, forms recently removed, jawing. A young woman comes out of the house, walks down the stairs, and crosses the road. She looks down at the men, combs her thick brown hair with her fingers. She makes no move to go down there. They pay her no attention. One of the men detaches himself from the others and climbs up to the road. He doesn’t pause or acknowledge her. She steps aside. He passes by. She turns and follows him, crosses the road in his shadow, follows him up the stairs. He takes a seat on the porch. She walks up to him and then turns crosses the porch and leans over a chair.

One of the workers climbs in the cab and begins lifting shovels of sandy, grassy shoreline dumping each a few feet from its rightful place.

The lake is glue for us, just as it was for my other us. The drive to Cossayuna is a snap, all back roads. We know most every road from here to there. We choose according to season, time of day and how much time we want to spend driving. Arriving in darkness, I open the car door and the silence smacks me. The arrival sensation is the same for each lake house, the rigors of the drive are not. In the Chicago years, when leaving for Stevensville, I did not mind three lanes each way crammed with cars; I was on my way to the lake. Coming home started hours before packing and leaving. I felt it in the pit of my stomach. Summer, hot Sunday nights heading back, crossing the Skyway, then onto Stony Island, Package Goods stores on every corner. So, yes, it’s never the destination, always the journey. The first time I heard “the past is foreign country,” it stuck. It sounded so wise and right but it’s not so.


[1] Louis Armstrong in His Own Words, Thomas Brothers, ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, sixth page of photos inserted between 132-133.
[2] Swing That Music, Louis Armstrong, New York: Da Capo Press, (1936) 1993 edition, 84-85.
[3] Louis Amstrong: an extravagant life, Laurence Bergreen, New York: Broadway Books, 1997, 288.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Stormy Stoptime Photos

Saratoga Springs, 
Stoptime Louis Armstrong Festival July 6, 2011
Photo Round Up
(unless otherwise indicated, all photos Copyright: Andrzej "Andre" Pilarczyk. Contact:

Zankel Music Center, Ladd Hall, Skidmore College
Stoptime first event— Hal Miller talks about Louis Armstrong's music with clips from his live performances and films

Spring Street Gallery, 110 Spring Street

Improvisations - Art Exhibition

Francelise Dawkins's "Musique Maestral"

Visitors chat and view Stephen Tyson's colorful wall works while another contemplates the possibilities of one of Margo Mensing's handkerchiefs (Everyday Rags) picked from the pole outside the gallery.

Shape Shifting Shepherds - Performance
 Shape Shifting Shepherds Elky and Clarke in the midst of "Scatterimpop," their improvisational homage to Louis Armstrong composed for Stoptime

Saratoga Arts Center, Broadway at Spring Streets

Patrick Stacey sheltered from the storm the Gallery in the midst of his mash-up "Armstrong Electric"

Rain Change! Emergency landing at 
Presbyterian New England Congregational Church

Horns on the Hudson
 left to right: Horns of the Hudson band members Omar Williams, bass;
Ryan Cioffi, Erin Upson, Scott Vorwald, sax

Rhythm! Color! Collage! Workshop

Leah Moore works with kids to make collages inspired by Romare Bearden
photo: Ed Burke, Saratogian

Making quick cuts and paste-ups 

 Enjoy Joying Workshop - Armstrong Song Fest
Abe Lerman and Sayward Schoonmaker bringing Joy to Stoptime

 Hoofin' With Louis at Nolan House

Tina Baird and Jenna Bryfonski high stepping and then some

Hoofin' With Louis: Tina Baird and Jenna Bryfonski tapping on Nolan House porch

Hoofin' With Louis—well worth the one hour wait for the rain to stop

Congress Park & the Carousel - where's Stoptime? 

Visitors arrive at Congress Park around 6 after the deluge
There's the signboard but where is everyone?