The mystery that is Elton John

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The other day, like maybe three days ago, I switched on the radio in my car for just a few minutes and heard Elton John’s “Levon,” which I haven’t been able to get out of my head ever since. It’s a good idea not to think too hard about Elton John’s song lyrics in general (he was born a pauper to a pawn? I don’t really get this but that does not stop me from singing this over and over in my head), which, as Bernie Taupin wrote them, are just strung together because they sounded kind of cool at some point, I imagine.

But this leads me to wonder about the mystery that is Elton John (this, I have just decided, will be an every-so-often feature on this blog; see The mystery that is Neil Diamond if you need some context).

How is it that he has (in my opinion) made some truly terrible songs (I have always thought that “Bennie and the Jets” would be the perfect soundtrack to some awful scene in a movie—perhaps someone getting stabbed while “Bennie Bennie Bennie” in that insane falsetto repeats over and over and over?), but at the same time he made songs that, if you thought about it (and I have), are almost identical to the terrible songs and are, somehow, rather likable. This is the mystery for me. What is it about “Tiny Dancer” that delights me? For some reason, I love the line, “Turning back she just laughs.” Yet is this any better than music’s most ridiculous understatement, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise a kid”? There is really nothing separating “Tiny Dancer” from “Rocket Man,” yet why does one delight me and the other irritate me? I have no idea. Or “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” I should hate that song. My god, I don’t know why I don’t. I should have the same reaction as I do to “Candle in the Wind,” which is, oh please, no. And yet. But there is practically nothing different about those songs. Right? Fly away, high away, bye bye. Seriously, what is wrong with me?

I should also probably hate “Crocodile Rock,” and I do, I do, really, but at the same time I can’t help remembering the “Heavy Hands Workout” class my friend Rachel and I took in college and the steps our teacher choreographed to this song, and then I have to smile. Damn you, Elton John, it’s just that you have been around all my life. Another memory that just popped into my head: it’s the summer of 1979 and I’m on a school bus with a whole bunch of young strangers heading to a sleepaway camp that will turn out to be four weeks of hopeless misery and sports, but at this moment, I am still a little hopeful, and then “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” comes on the radio, which was already an oldie, if you will, but made me briefly smile. For a moment, on that bus, when I was down, he was my clown. Aw!

Did you know the song “Levon” isn’t really about Levon Helm of The Band, but the name does come from him for some reason? Actually, if you ever look up this song, you will find a whole bunch of people obsessing over the name Alvin Tostig, the name of Levon’s father in the song, whose name also has no meaning at all. Then again, he was born a pauper to a pawn. What the fuck?

As I found with Neil Diamond, I realize that I have no real answer to the mystery that is Elton John and why he has been so intolerable and yet also tolerable to me my entire life. I will probably keep pretending to hate him, but then also liking him sometimes, forever. I don’t see anything wrong with this and I don’t think Sir John would either.

E = mc2

me

Just about (give or take some hours) 47 years ago, I was born at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (was I born in a college? This puzzled me for years.) in the Bronx. It also happened to be Albert Einstein’s birthday, which was supposed to be considered a remarkable coincidence, though I never understood why exactly. What did I know? We had a biography of Einstein on the bookshelf that I could see from my bed if my door was open and the light was on in the hallway. The author’s name was Clark and the spine of the book read “Einstein Clark,” which I thought was written by someone named Clark Einstein. It took me a long time to make the connection.

This year my birthday coincides with a blizzard, and I can’t really feel too sorry for myself as I get to be inside and cozy all day and probably will make blondies later (which I confess here for the first time that I prefer to brownies). It’s true that I won’t go out to dinner tonight with my boyfriend and my kids at my favorite local restaurant and get their delicious creamy polenta (which is, to be fair, essentially a stick of butter with a few grains of polenta), but I will just make myself my own birthday dinner, which will involve Brussels sprouts, which when braised in cream are possibly more heavenly than creamy polenta (trust me on this) (I first learned about this delicacy in a fancy food store in Great Barrington, Mass, when someone next to me was reaching for a pile of Brussels sprouts and a  nearby enthusiast could not resist saying, Have you ever tried  Brussels sprouts braised in cream??).

The other day, I was thinking about my age, naturally, and about being an adult, and I decided that for the most part, adulthood was when my life got truly good. Childhood really wasn’t for me. I have a moment from childhood that for some reason I recall vividly, which was probably around third grade when my friend Robbie and I were pretending to be Mr. Magoo and his dog (did he even have a dog? I barely watched that show.). This involved Robbie walking around on his hands and knees, wearing a scarf as a leash, and me dragging him around. But I guess as Mr. Magoo I was blind also? Anyway, I think we were in some sort of closet that had lots of coats and hats and scarves (but why we were there is probably a good question that I don’t mind never finding out) and the fun part was just leading around this dog on a scarf leash and tripping into things. What I’m getting at here is that I was having a great time and was so completely in the moment, not at all aware of anything else but the joy of pretending to be Mr. Magoo, which is why the exact location of this action is so unclear to me. I was completely unselfconscious the way that children are when they play. That was, to me, the best part of being a child. The rest of it (the lack of control, the inability to do what you wanted, the confusion, the loneliness) totally sucked.

And now I find myself with a grown-up life, which is not really the life I expected, but is, often times, the life I am grateful for. If I can be allowed, for a moment, during a time of real crisis, just to be purely happy and content, which is probably the thing to do right now to keep things in perspective. Which does not mean to give up fighting, but just to be grateful for a moment. I am 47 years old. At this point, it’s safe to say that I have perspective and actual wisdom, both of which came from experiences, many of which were not good. It seems funny to me now that one of my most vivid childhood memories involves the pure joy of acting as a blind man, leading around a dog on a scarf. It took me a long time to make the connection.

 

I want something else

Lately, I have become slightly (more than slightly) obsessed with Manoush Zomorodi’s podcast “Note to Self” (“the tech show about being human”). I am catching up on everything I missed from late 2015 onward (I’m mid-2016 now, which becomes occasionally heartbreaking when Hillary Clinton and/or the upcoming election is mentioned). I highly recommend the episode entitled “What Happens to the Videos No One Watches,” which is exactly what it sounds like and features (as its total highlight) a video of a guy doing a karaoke version of “Semi-Charmed Life,” while his family in the background are having a party and completely ignoring him. Really, what’s best about this show is Manoush herself who is so down-to-earth and funny and never minds digging deeper into anything.

Which is why I was particularly struck by her four-part episode “Taking the Lead,” in which she follows two women as they try to create a start-up company that is a kind of Uber for working parents. Here’s the thing: the topic is fantastic and important (how technology might be able to help working mothers – and fathers – make their lives easier), but the part that struck me the most was that Manoush actually confronted the women about a mistake they had made. This was genuinely thrilling to me, very much like that scene in Annie Hall when Woody Allen brings out Marshall McLuhan to point out that the guy talking about Marshall McLuhan knows nothing about him, and I stopped whatever I was doing (driving?) to listen to the conclusion. This is the sort of thing I dream of doing, confronting someone for being wrong, and then having them say, My word! I was totally wrong! Thank you so much for pointing that out! Surely, this would happen to Manoush, right? I couldn’t wait.

Basically, here’s the gist of what happened: the two women had created this app and then joined a startup accelerator (yes, I had to look that up) to compete for a cash prize to help their app get, er, started. Manoush was all about the social implications of this app (finally a way to use technology to help working women with babysitters and deliveries and such!), so she was stunned to see that in their pitch all they talked about was the money they would make. One of the women (who’d been in advertising) kept saying that as women they had to prove their startup would make money, period. Manoush didn’t think so. So before the prizes were awarded she went to some of the judges and asked them what they thought of the two women. Most were vague. When Manoush pointed out that there were great social implications to this app, the judges said that the two women hadn’t made this point at all. Manoush asked the judges if they had made this point would it have made a difference. The judges said yes. Manoush was right!

When the prizes were finally awarded, the two women came in 9th out of 12 and got, comparatively, very little money. A product that worked as both a cellphone cover and something that would roll joints actually did better than their app. Manoush decided to, at a later date, play for them what the judges had said. (I was, at this point, totally riveted. This is the thing I dream of doing. She was going to pull out Marshall McLuhan!) It might seem like she was being smug, but she really just wanted to show them that they had possibly presented the wrong angle and that maybe they should make a note of this for the future (to her credit, Manoush never uses the phrase “note to self,” even though I am certain the temptation is strong).

Because they were so busy (working moms!), Manoush had to meet with them separately to play them what the judges had said. One of the women (who had decided to become more of a consultant because as a working mother she was unable to commit entirely to the project) (oh the irony!) said that yes, she always thought it was about the social cause. O..kay. Then, Manoush talked to the other woman, the now-CEO, the one who was more insistent on the fact that they needed to pitch the money-making angle. Manoush told this woman that the judges had said that actually investors would be more interested in the social cause angle. But the woman responded that she really didn’t agree. And went on to defend her position in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Should I have been surprised? Did I really expect her to say, My word! I was totally wrong! Thank you so much for pointing that out! I did. I honestly did. Or I hoped she would. She was smart, right? She could see the error of her ways. And yet, of course, what is obvious, what is so obvious that I hardly need to say it, but I do need to say it, is that if you have an opinion about something, you have come to that opinion for a reason. Perhaps you really did tons of research. Or perhaps you really cannot see another side because you have done no research at all. Both of these starting places seem to lead to the same conclusion: generally, people are not going to change their opinions even in the face of evidence. That isn’t to say that people don’t change their opinions, because there are many examples of just the opposite happening. But in the most basic of ways, we are committed to our opinions on things because they are what make us who we are.

Maybe this is because of evolution (I won’t eat that plant because I got sick the last time I did) or because humans need routine and security in their lives (I have never eaten that plant so I never will) and therefore not too many people are willing to take risks (if I just cut off those poisonous leaves could I eat this plant?). It’s rare in people, rarer still in politicians, but sometimes people and politicians do change their minds in the face of evidence. We often hear about it because (like child abductions and plane crashes) this is a rare instance. I wish it weren’t so rare. Note to self: do something about this. It’s rare, not impossible.

The gory details

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This is Part 8 (and the final part) in a series of letters written by my grandparents to each other in 1945.

The letters that I have end in October 1945. By the following October, their first child, my uncle, would be born in Paris. Sometime after that (this was never clear) they would get married, move to the Bronx, and have two more children.  This picture is of the three of us in their house in Bronx. It is 1970. So much has happened to them that has brought them to this place in time.

My grandparents were not people I knew very well, even though I saw them fairly regularly throughout my childhood. My grandmother and I baked together, she taught me the precise way to set a table and how to properly pronounce the word “croissant.” And yet she was very distant at the same time. Before I understood much about her, I knew that she was from somewhere else, which defined her in just about every way: her accent, the food she cooked, her delightful disdain for Americans. My grandfather was remote in his own way too: sitting at his desk, working on cataloging his vast collection of books. It was when they died just six weeks apart that I began to understand their connection to each other. And when I read these letters years later, their love finally made sense.

For now, I choose to end the story  of my grandparents somewhere near the beginning, with a letter from my grandmother’s English cousin Rita. Unlike Rita, who claims not to be a curious person, there is so much about their story that I want to know and will never know. Rita may be the only one who got the gory details.

April 1945

65 Southampton Row,
London

Dear Milton,

Many thanks for your letters of the 10th and 28th March, as well as for sending Freda’s. I’ve only just realized how long it is since I received your letter of the 10th, and really must apologize for not answering sooner. However, I have written to Freda in the meantime, and although this does not mitigate my lack of manners as far as you are concerned, I’m sure you’ll understand and forgive. Like most people who are very poor correspondents, I love receiving letters, hoarding them, and never doing anything more about them. But I warn you, the vocabulary I lack when it comes to letter-writing, is very much in evidence when I speak to anyone. So beware…

 You were right – I have often wondered how and where you had met Freda, and although I am not by nature a curious person (I find this is the line of least resistance – which I usually take) I enjoyed reading the “gory” details. It must have been an awful blow to her when you were moved elsewhere, but as I said to her, once a fortnight is definitely better than nothing. And maybe you’ll get a transfer back to Paris. Anyhow, I hope so! But in the meantime you must be having a nice quiet rest away from her. I know how crazy she can be at times, as well as very unreasonable, so take my tip, and enjoy your freedom while you can. I understand Freda’s latest “want” is a bicycle. I mentioned this to my father, and maybe it’s just as well that Freda was not here at the time. My father nearly exploded! She really does ask for the most stupid things at times.

I was glad to hear that she had received one of the parcels I’d sent, even though the shoes did not fit her. I’m sending out another pair in a day or so, which will be a bigger size. There are still two parcels on the way, each containing food of some sort, and I hope by the time this letter reaches you, she will have received them.

Yes, I met Major Jacobs – and a very nice person he was too. I didn’t realize he had as many valuable contacts as you seem to imply, but maybe he didn’t want to jeopardize his position for something which seems to be proving an impossibility – for the moment anyway. After all, Freda is nothing to him, and it does seem pretty hopeless to try and get transportation for a civilian at the moment. In any case, I always find that one’s friends stop being friends when one starts asking favours – but maybe I’m being unduly cynical!

 At the moment it’s just as hard for me to go to Paris as it is for Freda to come here. I have been trying for months, but I didn’t say anything, because it seemed pretty hopeless from the beginning. Yes, I have been to Paris! As a matter of fact I spent nearly a year there in 1922, but I was only a few months old, and therefore not old enough to appreciate (?) my stay. It must be very interesting to visit the Continent at the moment, but as I have never had any hankering in that direction, I really don’t think I’m missing anything. I was supposed to visit Freda in 1939, just after she left here, but as I said, I was never very anxious to go to Paris and in the circumstances maybe it was just as well.

Well, as it is impossible to see Freda (and I doubt very much whether you’ll be able to bring her over in May), the next best thing is to see you. I sincerely hope you manage to get your leave very shortly, and we are all looking forward with the greatest anticipation to meeting you. I have informed the family that they are to assemble “en masse” if and when you are ready to deliver your lectures. I have the soap box all ready, just waiting to put to use. But kidding aside, I really am looking forward to meeting you and the family will be lucky if they get a look-in at all when I’m around. But we’ll see about that later…

Well, I think that covers just about everything at the moment. I’d like to go on writing, writing, writing, but duty calls, and I have to get back to work. I know I can depend on you to do all that is possible for Freda, and I hope at some future date, to be able to repay you in some small measure at least, for all that you are doing for her.

So, cheerio for now, and lots of luck.

Sincerely,

Rita

It’s against our education

This is Part 7 in a series of letters written by my grandparents to each other in 1945.

This letter from my grandmother refers to letters my grandfather wrote that I don’t have, but don’t worry, because she lays it all out (and she can’t wait to tell him that she is very angry with him). In fact, this may be my favorite letter of all written by my grandmother. Her imperfect English really shines in this one. It also really gets at the person I knew, especially this line: “there is in every American a childish side that we, European, cannot understand.” Even after many years in America, she never stopped being a European.

29 August 1945

Wednesday 12H

Mani my darling –

I received your three letters dated 20th 21st 22nd August – as well as the 2000 fr. Frankly I don’t understand why you sent me that money.

I think of you very much too and wish to be with you for ever as things are going it will take a little time but we are young and full of hope.

I cannot wait to tell you that I am very angry with you. You tell me that you spoke to that German woman who is in love with an American officer and you told her our story. I have not enough words to tell you how I mad I went when I read that. How can you speak to such person? She is a Nazi as well as all the others. People like that are responsible of the suffering and the death of our relatives, my parents and your family. And you talk to her about us even if she would not be a German. I don’t see why you should tell it to everybody. You could as well broadcast it on the radio – I am angry – terribly angry – I know you are alone and need to talk to somebody. In future don’t do that again even if I cannot know it. I speak very rarely about us – it is deep in me and I leave there and am happy.

Excuse me darling I might be hard sometimes but there is in every American a childish side that we, European, cannot understand – it’s against our education.

Today somebody offered me to take a Parfumerie – not to buy it, but make it run – you get regular wages – a percentage of the sales – I am going to see the owner of the shop and take a decision. I am afraid because it is a new shop – not opened yet on the Avenue de l’ojera. I know that it won’t be hard to have customers but it is very hard to find merchandise – and the house is not yet introduced to the factories. It would be a good thing if I would be able to receive American products. Tell me if you could ask friends to send you some. This is very serious and I am going to think that over.

Last week I received a letter from my cousin who is in Italy – I told you that before but what I did not say is that, when you’ll be in London, I don’t want you to ask them anything for me. If they give you something you can take it. They are probably going to ask you if I need clothes or food tell them that they should not worry I’ll do with what I have – Lew said that after all what my family did for me I don’t even write them – he reminds me that they kept me 6 months and sent me to college. It is clear so I don’t want them to help me anymore and I hope to be able to pay them back what they spent for me. This is between us I don’t want them to know that – be nice with them but don’t forget not to ask. Of course you can bring me things you buy in shops and don’t tell them for whom it is – here is a list of what you should look – shoes, slippers, shirts (my size (a little bigger) and nice colours) to make blouse cloth for a tailor – and food in tins. I can’t remember right now what I would like but I leave it on you. I hope you’ll have a nice time there they are nice people but there are always troubles in a family. I had photos made and they are very nice. In my next photo I’ll send them to you.

I am very sorry but, as I told you before, I could not have the little apartment but I have a good hope to have another one soon. But you must let me know when you are coming.

Let me tell you that I am very disappointed with you – your letters are really short.

This week I am starting to take courses with a teacher – I read your little grammar it is really funny.

Darling I love you I don’t know why, because you are bad. Don’t talk to the Nazis – there are people who are going to reeducate them they know their job and let them do it alone. I cannot forget the lovely time we had last week and I am waiting to kiss you…

Like a wild beast in a cage

This is Part 6 in a series of letters written by my grandparents to each other in 1945.

In a letter written a day before this one, my grandfather refers to some time that he showed up unexpectedly at my grandmother’s house (and I assume her husband was there) and how upset he was. But then he goes on to say, “My dearest one, I love you so much it hurts. And what you have done to me hurts but I am trying to forget. But as long as I know you are in his arms, I can’t. But let me take you in my arms again, let me hold you close once more, let me know that you will be mine alone and I’ll forget it. It won’t be necessary to forgive you for I shall forget that it happened after I met you but think of it as something that happened before.”

And then he writes this letter, as though nothing like that happened at all:

26 July 1945

My dearest darling Frida,

Tonight it is quite hot and I am sitting in my room in my pyjamas writing this letter to you.

Darling, I heard some news today that might mean a great deal to us. I heard from a man who studied law in New York that it might take a year and maybe three for us to get married if my wife secures her divorce in New York. So, I am going to wait for word from the lawyers I wrote to and if that is so, I shall have to make arrangements for my wife to go to Reno. Then, if she goes by November 1st and you get your divorce in December, we could probably be married in January. It would take a little time for me to get permission but that’s only two months. On the other hand, if it takes only six months in New York, I’ll wait for that since then I could make arrangements to marry you in March, right after the divorce is final.

I heard today also, from the captain, not to make plans yet for my visit on the 17th. He wants to think it over. However, the chances are very good that he will let me go. So, you can still count on it. If I can’t make it, I’ll let you know in time.

Darling, I love you. More than you could ever realize one person loves another, I love you. I used to think that a love like mine could only be found in the authors of romantic novels. But now I know that it can be true.

If I can’t see you on the 17th, I know I shall go crazy – I’ll be like a wild beast in a cage – snarling and biting at everybody. However, I’ll be happy knowing you are alone.

You know I’ve prayed to God for you. And he has answered. You will be mine. But God is showing me that you do not come lightly. There must be some suffering. The month of July is a month of suffering and the uncertainty of where and when I’ll see you next time is suffering too though of a minor nature.

Darling, couldn’t some way be arranged so that if I should drop in unexpectedly I can find you easily? I know that if you had your own apartment, you’d arrange for me to have a key so that whenever I got in, I could go straight there. But until then, what?

Dearest one, I need you so. My mind is so ill at ease (especially now) that if only I could have you near me I’d be happy. Oh, God, why must true love always suffer like this?

After we get married, I fully intend for you to live with me wherever I am. And, as soon as possible, for us to go to the States. After a short while there, if you don’t want to stay, we’ll go where you want to go. But I want you to see America – I want you to believe there can be a country that one can appreciate fully when one is away from it. I know you’ll agree.

If there were a thousand ways to say I love you, I’d say them. If there were a million things to do to prove it, I’d do them.

You are everything to me – my whole life and until death, I’ll always be.

Your

Mani

Time works for us

This is Part 5 in a series of letters written by my grandparents to each other in 1945.

Here’s where things start to get complicated. It seems like my grandmother (who was 23 at the time) had had a husband who at this point had been gone for a while (in a concentration camp? This seems quite likely, though it is never explained.). My grandfather also had a wife back home in the States. But somehow, in Paris, they had fallen in love. And then, my grandmother’s husband (presumed dead?) returned.

May 1945

Saturday – 19 H

Mani, my darling –

Since the letter I wrote you Sunday lots of things happened and I could not find the opportunity to write you again.

As I told you I went to Paris Monday and found my brother-in-law back from Germany as well as a letter from my husband telling me that he is coming back before the end of May. Wednesday morning he arrived too. Darling what can I tell you. I don’t know how to start – Everything is so confused in my head.

They are both quite healthy but very tired – and so happy to come back from that hell. I have already talked to my husband and told him that I have got used to be free and that it is going to be very hard for me to start everything again. I did not tell him everything about us there is no use for it – It was terrible for him but he told me that I can do exactly as if I was not married to him. He said that since he left me, he only thought of me and had enough will to stand what he had to because he loved me and wanted to see me again. When I see him I must believe him – I cannot look at his eyes – he suffers so much – and I cannot stop thinking of you – I am going crazy. Darling – May I leave him? I am afraid this will kill him.

Monday I am going back to Ecouis – like that I’ll have time to think it over – I pity him too much and he loves me really too. I did not want this to happen – I have destroyed four people’s happiness – I wish I was dead – everything would then become so simple. I hope you are alright. Darling, I must have lots of mail waiting for me in in Ecouis since Monday that I left.

Don’t do any silly thing – and don’t come on the 15th as you decided. I’ll write you later to tell you when you can come down. He is going in Dordogue for a month. This will give me the time to take breath again. Nothing is settled now so don’t worry and let time and circumstances work.

I don’t forget you but I am too unhappy – and sad when I see what I did. I must leave you now. This is too much for me and I love you tenderly.

Frida

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22 June 1945 Ecouis

Mani Darling – It is two weeks I did not see you and write you and I could not stop myself to think of you. I have received your two letters – they are just as you are very miserable and it breaks my heart to see how much you suffer for me. Oh if I could only die and stop all the worries I am making you and him.

I feel so dirty and I can’t wash up myself. One thing is certain I am not staying with him – but I can’t tell you when I am going away. I am allowed to leave him but not to break his life and as things are actually I cannot do it – he is not very well physically and would become sick. Don’t be upset, Darling, if this does not count for you it does for me, I want to be clean when this story will end.

My husband knows everything about us and he understands that I am not going to stay with him but as long as he is not sure, he can’t believe it.

Darling here is my answer – wait for me if you still want me now after all that.

Remember everything, dear, all our souvenirs, this will help you as it helps me. We were happy together and if you want when we’ll be together forever, I’ll promise you to make you forget all your actual fears.

You wrote me that you are probably coming down the 23rd. I hope not. Today I am going in Paris. Don’t come on the 29th neither because I won’t be able to meet you neither in Paris nor in Ecouis where I am working and where I might not be alone. Please, Darling, be patient, time works for us, you can be sure of that.

I am writing and writing and realize how empty the words are to express myself.

I have lots of work and I still cannot stop thinking of us. Keep on writing me often.

Darling, will you wait for me?  I love you

Frida