Notes On A Life

On the occasion of what would have been our 30th anniversary (7/19/17), I’ve reconstructed (from some scrawled-out notes) the remarks I gave at Mariana’s memorial in March, 2017, held at Skrine Chops in Forest Park, IL.

 

MARIANA WHITAKER RENCE KAHN (2/9/55-2/25/17)

 

I can’t decide if this is a really great reason or a really crappy reason for a party. A little of each, I suppose.

Let me get the cliches out of the way first: Death is part of Life. This is something that slowly dawned on me over the course of 400 Lion King shows, staring at the back of Bob Sutter’s head. The Circle Of Life is not just a song; a few weeks before Mariana died, our great-nephew was born. Welcome, Leo Kahn Bortman; you will pick up where others leave off.

Mariana was very private, very proud, and, like a lioness, fiercely protective of her family. Very selfless, too; she wouldn’t even tell people her preferred pronunciation of her name! I heard Ma-ri-AN-na, Ma-ri-AHN-na, Mah-ri-AHN-na, you name it. She really and truly didn’t care. Not surprisingly, I took a kind of wimpy approach, with  a lazy third syllable: Ma-ri-EN-na. Her selflessness continued right up to the end: she wasn’t completely comfortable hearing all of the wonderful cards and letters that were sent during those final days, but I read them all to her.

We met in early 1986, right after the Bears won the Super Bowl. I hired her, actually: she was auditioning for a couple of shows for which I was the Music Director. One of the shows was “Baby”, and she was trying for the part of a gym teacher who’s trying to get pregnant. In her (not required) attempt to spin a basketball on her finger, it careened across the room, and she went chasing after it, giggling all the way. She pretty much had me there. She was great in the show, and sang like an angel. I remember that there was one particular song that had one particular note she sang, and it melted my heart each and every time she sang it.

Hanging out early in our courtship, she asked about my parents. I told her that my Dad had died in a plane crash when I was 16, thinking (in my 28 year-old male immaturity), “That’s going to floor her, and she’ll be putty in my hands.” Instead, she said, “That’s really interesting that we have that in common: my mom died in an accident, too. When I was 12, my parents and I drove to Las Vegas from LA, and my mom told me to sit in the front because I usually had to sit in the back. A drunk driver was being chased by the cops, and he rear-ended us. My mom was killed, and my dad and I walked away from the crash basically uninjured.” Now, you can read whatever you want into that amazing story; stuff about fate and whether Mariana was meant to be on this earth or not, but my immediate reaction (again, the 28 year-old male) was something like, “Okay, that blows my story out of the water. Mariana for the win.”  

We moved in together in Brooklyn after Mariana had stayed on to do more shows at the theater (it was in Cohoes; a weird little town outside of Albany). She had reclaimed her old job a Sarabeth’s Kitchen: an upscale breakfast/lunch place in the Upper East and Upper West Sides. Coming home after her shifts, Mariana would regale me with tales of celebrities and actors that she’d waited on: Yoko Ono, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Bill Murray, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, John McEnroe, etc. She thought some of them were really nice: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Norman Fell. Others, not so much: Peter Boyle, Peter Max.

Our relationship developed to the point where I thought it was time to introduce her to my family, most of whom were in Chicago. I took the occasion of my Grandma Goldie’s 90th birthday to come in. For weeks leading up to it, Mariana wanted to know who would be there and and what details I could provide about them. It was like she was using the same discipline she’d use to learn a role. When we got to my sister’s house ahead of most everyone else, she looked out the living room window at my approaching relatives, saying “That must be Uncle Stanley”, or “Is that Aunt Carol?” Her prep work payed off handsomely, as everyone took an instant and permanent liking to Mariana, even though she was a shiksah.

We got married. She got pregnant. During her first pregnancy, Mariana’s old college buddy David Greenspan contacted her to see if she wanted to do some scene work. It seemed that Joe Papp was interested in possibly having David do some directing at the Public Theater and wanted to see some of his work presented. David chose to stage a scene from Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, and, thinking a bit outside the box, cast  Mariana as Richard. Papp loved it, and loved her, saying, “I just had a marvelous idea: Denzel Washington is playing Richard in the park this summer. How would you like to be his understudy?” Mariana thanked him, but pointed out that she was four months pregnant, and that the timing would be a bit dicey. But, talk about your non-traditional casting: How would you like to see a blonde, pregnant Richard III?

As this pregnancy came to its wonderful conclusion, the Fetus Who Would Be Called Charlie was taking his sweet time in making his appearance (a characteristic that has remained unchanged). Mariana was in  labor for a couple of days, and then pushed for four and a half hours in trying to get that damned Charlie to come out. The midwife knew a little something about birthing babies (she’d been at it for about 25 years) and said that she’d never had anyone push for that long. Growing concerned, she called in a doctor. He was apprised of the situation and asked Mariana if she was able to go on, to which she of course said yes. The doctor said “Four and a half hours? What are you, a Marine or something?”  She was allowed to go on for a bit longer, and the midwife warned us that Charlie (or Molly….we didn’t know the gender) might not look so good after being squished in the birth canal for so long. The midwife and I were yelling into Mariana’s crotch: “Come on out of there, Charlie or Molly!” Charlie emerged shortly thereafter, looking nonchalant, un-squished and beautiful enough to have his picture slapped onto a jar of Gerber’s.

In 1993, now with TWO baby boys (hello, Luke), I had the bright idea to move back home (MY home, anyway) to Chicago. Mariana had spent most of her life very close to either the Pacific or Atlantic oceans, and I tried to sell Chicago by showing her  Lake Michigan. “Look! You can’t even see across it.” She wasn’t impressed. “It doesn’t smell the same.” Nevertheless, she was agreeable to the relocation, and we arrived in Oak Park on 10/5/93. I could tell that she had fully adopted her new home when she gave up her Fangirl crush on Yankee hunk Dave Winfield and transferred it to Cub hunk Andre Dawson.

Oak Park was a great place to raise our family, and we made a lot of incredible friends. At Percy Julian Middle School, we discovered an after school theater program called CAST that Charlie and Luke enjoyed. Mariana started as a volunteer there, but soon ended up as their year-round Costume Designer. It rekindled her passion for theater, and her skills as a seamstress and great eye for fabric and color (along with a fierce work ethic) made her the perfect person for the job. She loved how CAST attracted kids who didn’t really fit in elsewhere, and how their confidence and maturity would blossom while there. Although greatly discerning and appreciative of the talented kids (of whom there were many), Mariana really liked the fact that any kid who wanted to be in a CAST show was assured of being put into one; everyone made the cut. She would also occasionally wear her own costumes, taking on roles that called for a Token Adult. As the Costumer, she literally touched hundreds of kids (but not in a creepy Dennis Hastert way), and we were overwhelmed by all of the loving notes that we got from ex-CAST members. 

In May of 2016, her CAST boss Bill McGlynn decided to put on a show that would feature many of the adults from the program (with no middle schoolers involved). He chose “A Trip To Bountiful” and talked Mariana into taking on the daunting lead role. She threw herself into the project, and, as anyone who saw her can attest, did a phenomenal job. It’s really amazing, because she hadn’t done anything this substantial on stage for about 30 years, and it was also the onset of her health issues from which she wouldn’t recover. She would come home and tell me about what was going on inside her body while onstage doing a role that would kick the ass of a healthy person. It made me think of the OB Dr. from 1990: “What are you? A Marine?”

As she got sicker, Mariana slept more and more. We were lying in bed one night, and she hadn’t said a word for several hours. I was channel-surfing, and landed on the James Corden show; he was interviewing Anna Kendrick, who was talking through her nose at 100 miles per hour. I thought that Mariana was asleep, but apparently not: she said (in full voice), “She’s gonna need to shut her mouth.”

She always told me that her favorite song was “Stella By Starlight”. Interesting choice: it’s somewhat obscure (to non-jazzers), harmonically dense and melodically meandering. Interesting choice. Our favorite version was recorded by Miles Davis a few hours before I was born in 1958. Listen to it and think of Mariana.

Luke, thanks for being part of this journey every single day. You’re going to have a lot of great jobs ahead of you, but none more important than the one you did in tending to Mom. Charlie, I know first-hand how hard it is when your Mom is dying and you live 1,000 miles away. Thanks for all the back and forth you did. She was so proud of you guys and loved being your Mom more than anything else in the world.

One the last last things that she said about her situation was, “You know, my whole body is breaking down, but my heart didn’t get the memo. I feel it thumping away like nothing is wrong. It’s like I have the heart of an elephant.” That heart is what gave Mariana ten years after her first diagnosis. We’re glad for the extra gift that her heart provided us.

If I told you that Mariana was fairly pain-free towards the end, then I may have fibbed a little. But she stubbornly resisted painkillers (marijuana was her very good friend, however) and didn’t want people making a fuss.

On Friday, 2/24/17, she was still breathing (slowly, but with regularity) when I drifted off to sleep in the other bed. When I woke up early Saturday morning, she was not. But her face showed peace and calm, and, I’ve got to say: a sense of wonder that was contained in an angelic Mona Lisa smile.

Thanks to all of you, especially those who traveled a distance to be here. I will miss Mariana.

Let’s all hoist a bourbon. It was her favorite. Make mine a double, please. 

 

 

Here is a link to a slide show of some great Mariana photos:

 

 

I Speak Ticklish

I’ve always been aware of how certain words or phrases start showing up, and then they become hip and fashionable. They eventually become so mainstream that you hear them said on sitcoms, or by six year-olds, or by eighty-six year-olds, and then you realize that it’s no longer hip and fashionable to say them.

A few years ago, I started noticing this cute little exchange more and more frequently:

Person One: (Says something intended for humorous effect)

Person Two: “Ah, I see what you did there.”

I couldn’t figure out why this started to annoy me each time I heard it. It was more than mere over-usage. Maybe it was the smug subtext in which Person Two seems to be implying , “I acknowledge and understand your attempt at humor, but it’s not worthy of my responding with an actual laugh.”

Then I started thinking, “Hey, Person Two….what’s your damned problem? Is your face going to crack if you allow yourself to laugh?” If you’ve been guilty of this maneuver, I forgive you.

So now I’m going to take the plunge by attempting to say a few not-funny things about humor and laughter, despite E. B. White’s warning that “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

What I’m saying is this: Allow yourself to laugh. Try to make others laugh. Granted, the world is fraught with a huge stack of serious things, but the only chance we have of navigating it while retaining any trace of sanity is to be open to the humor in any situation. In a group, a shared laugh is an incredible bonding experience. And, in terms of self-preservation, I’m convinced that a good laugh can provide restorative and curative properties. As a matter of fact, Norman Cousins of The Saturday Review wrote an entire book about how he was rescued from Death’s Door mainly by watching things like Marx Brothers movies, convinced that the idea of a “Laughing Cure” has true merit.

There a lot of things that are important to me: family, career, etc. But, equally important is my mission to induce at least a few guffaws, chuckles or snorts out of the people that I encounter each day. That, to me, is a small but vital victory. It’s gratifying to have brought a ray of happiness into someone’s day. no matter how fleeting.

I find the sound of other people laughing to be therapeutic, too, even if I’m not directly involved in their exchange. For that reason, from time to time I listen to this recording of Mike Nichols and Elaine May cracking each other up in the recording studio:

You see, I find the sound of their laughter a wonderful thing to encounter, even if I wasn’t to think that its cause is all that funny (which I do).

So, for the good of our species, don’t pass up a chance to make someone laugh. You’ll both feel better. And, just as important, never resist rewarding yourself with a chortle when someone has made the effort to provoke it. Trust me, this is a good thing.

 

 

 

Dynamic Duos

A few years ago, it was my pleasure to cross paths with Jonathon Horowich. He was the Recording Engineer on a project for which I played the piano. Since then, I’ve learned that Jon has quite a collection of exotic microphones, and he likes to use them to record onto reel-to-reel tape. As such, he asked me to put together some duos for to document, and here are the results. We recorded three sessions that featured some of my very favorite Chicago-based performers: vocalist Dee Alexander, sax player Eric Schneider and harmonica player Howard Levy. It was my honor to share the studio with each of these inspiring people, and I hope that you enjoy the results. Thanks, Jonathon.

Dee Alexander/JK

Eric Schneider/JK

Howard Levy/JK

Twas The Season

The phenomenon of Snapchat was recently explained to me, and it got me to thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if you could make yourself disappear from a situation after ten seconds if seemed like something wasn’t quite right? Don’t get me wrong; I’m in the Music business and I love everyone, but I recently played for a party that eventually started to mess with my emotional equilibrium. It will be therapeutic for me to explain:

I got an email from a woman saying that her boss was having a Christmas party at his house, and would I be able to play the piano for it? I was indeed available, so I booked the gig; it was on the Saturday before Christmas, from 10 am to 1 pm. I’ve had long stints in both New York and Chicago, and have had the chance to play in some astoundingly opulent homes and neighborhoods, but this kind of took me by surprise because I thought I knew most of Chicagoland’s moneyed areas. This was in a suburb (but not on the North Shore) that featured several blocks of truly gorgeous old mansions.

Pulling into the client’s driveway at around 9:40, I was met at the front door by a Rich Guy straight out of Central Casting. He identified himself as the host, and pleasantly explained that the party was for his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, who would soon be travelling to be with the daughter-in-law’s family back East, so this was to be their family’s Early Christmas celebration. There would be seven people gathered for this event. It was pleasant enough, I guess. He showed me the piano, which was shoved into the corner of his huge Living Room so that I could barely squeeze in, and had to play the gig with crocodile arms. He also pointed back towards the kitchen, telling me “That’s where you’ll go if you need a glass of water or to go to the loo.” Nice to have something to look forward to.

At around 9:50, I heard a woman coming down the stairs, saying “Is that my boy?” in a cheery and hopeful voice. Seeing that I was definitely NOT her boy, her smile vanished, and she said, “I don’t know what I could have been thinking. He’s never showed up on time to anything in his whole life.”

At around 9:55, a man showed up with an armload of gifts. He was by himself. And, judging by his impeccable presentation and a few of his mannerisms, my guess was that he was gay. This would perhaps be a reason why the host had not seen fit to include him in his description of the guest list. Just a guess.

I launched into my mega-medley of Holiday Favorites at precisely 10:00, crammed into my little corner of this unfolding saga of Rich Folks and Their Habitat. The favored son showed up and around 10:20 with his wife and children in tow, and there was much celebration. Well, correction: I assumed there was much celebration, because the family quickly went into another room. They would, in fact, go into several rooms during the time that I played for them. But, at no time did they ever sit in the room where I was playing. I could never even see them. Oh, I take that back: I was able to see half of the Grande Dame for a few minutes, but only if I leaned waaay over on my seat. And I saw one of the children wander through my lonely living room later on.

After I had dutifully provided a solid ninety minutes of vacuum-sealed Yuletide Cheer, I decided that it was time to indulge myself in the promised glass of water and trip to the loo. It was then that I encountered a servant who very graciously offered me a cookie. While nibbling on my treat in the kitchen, the Lady of the House walked in: I was afraid that I was going to get chastised for overstepping my “loo/glass of water” parameters, but instead she asked if I had eaten anything besides the cookie. Upon learning that I hadn’t, she instructed the servant to “Prepare this gentleman a hamburger.” Whoa! Jackpot!

I relished my hamburger (get it? Relished?) and then went back to assume my Position of Merry Music-Making. At about 12:45, the Master of the House came up to me and said “Thank you very much.” I thanked him for the hamburger and said that I hoped that he had enjoyed my Sonic Offerings. “Yes”, he said, “Thank you very much.” I suddenly realized that “Thank you very much” means “Please stop what you are doing immediately and get out of my house” in Rich-People-ese. So that’s what I did.

A few days later, I followed up with an email to the woman who’d hired me, saying that I hoped that her boss had been pleased with my humble Musicale. “Yes”, she replied, “They were satisfied.”

Thinking about this gig made me a little sad, and I figured it out after doing some thinking: Despite the opulence of the setting, the Human-ness on display that morning was about the size of a rabbit turd. It doesn’t have to be that way.

My Mom Was A Marcher

MOMPICThis is a recently-discovered letter that my Mom wrote, describing her decision to march (along with my aunt) alongside Dr. King in Montogomery, Alabama. I was around six years old when this all went down, and really have no memory of it. Reading this gives me a clear snapshot of a whole other era, and makes me very proud of these women.

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

Dear Rose,

You asked me to write about our impressions in Montgomery so I will jot them down, not in any journalese, but just as they pop into my mind. We both feel that this was a very small thing, quite personal and a matter of our consciences and ourselves. Since neither of us is a professional anything and unused to sharing feelings with a subscription list, we prefer that whatever parts of this you wish to use, you use without our names. I don’t think that it will diminish its usefulness to you.

The decision to to go on such a march is easy for some. I envy those for whom such a decision is simple and clear. For us it was difficult and painful. We wrestled with our separate angels and spent a few sleepless nights doing it. I wonder, now that we’ve marched and returned–and it seems so simple now–why all the problems. Was it really fear of possible injury or even death–a plane crash, a bomb tossed, a sniper’s shot (we found ourselves scanning the buildings along the Montgomery main street for a possible Lee Oswald)? Or was it a feeling of inadequacy or even, of all things, intrusion? Perhaps, even a reluctance to stand up and be counted, and to put all of our cards on the table for all to see. Or, was it that this was a little removed from our daily lives–it wasn’t a League of Women Voters meeting to which “all the girls are going.”

Here were two, almost-forty suburban housewives whose daily occupation focused on whether it will be chicken or hamburgers for dinner. We play tennis, go to dancing classes, dabble in a few civic activities. We do not belong to CORE, SNCC, NAACP and we don’t even know the words to the freedom songs. We aren’t leaders, or even followers of the movement in our own backyard; and yet we spent a sleepless night when the UAHC bus left for Selma and we weren’t on it. Maybe it was giant chutzpah or, we prefer to believe, social consciousness pecking through our own conformity, or fear. Whatever it was, when the bus left for Selma we both knew that we’d be on the plane going to Montgomery that same week.

From then on it was easy. A few inquiries, and plane seats were reserved. A few phone calls, some of which we wish we hadn’t made (the friend who said, “They don’t want you, they don’t need you and you might get killed”) and some phone calls we glad we made–the Catholic friend who told us that we have nothing to fear because God will be with us on this mission, and she will pray for us. And we took comfort knowing that her prayers were with us.

We arrived at the airport by 7:00 in the morning. People were talking about whether or not we’d have mud in Montgomery. We did not see any beatnik types. We saw a couple of Highland Park housewives, one of whom said, “I didn’t think I’d see YOU here…” We must remember to return the compliment next time we bump into her at a PTA meeting or Saks Fifth Avenue.

We were delayed in taking off by a bomb scare which I had expected, and to which nobody paid any particular notice. We boarded the plane, and Alderman Chew, who had chartered the flight, asked if someone would volunteer to relinquish his place on the plane for a member of the press. Someone did. “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Off the plane at the Montgomery airport and onto waiting buses to take us to what we thought would be the assembling ground. Our bomb scare had cost us an hour, however, and we drove past St. Jude’s, and down the Montgomery highway where I caught a glimpse of a sign saying, “Get the United States out of the United Nations.” Sitting on the bus near us was a minister with a wonderful, serene expression on his face, an expression we noticed on most of the clergy; a woman in a handsome black suit wearing white gloves which she wore during the march. (She told me later that her grandmother in Tuscaloosa used to tell her that a lady isn’t really “dressed” if she’s not wearing white gloves); some college-age people; some men looking as if they were being driven to the 8:08.

We got off the buses in the Negro neighborhood and caught up with the rest of the marchers, assembled in rows of eight abreast, and were told that men must be on the outside of the line. All along the streets we saw the National Guardsmen, and above, the helicopters.

And so the march began. There was little singing. Each one of us seemed to be sifting many thoughts and feelings at the moment and were too preoccupied, really, for singing. Through the Negro section we went, and when the people on the sidewalks waved, we waved back, a little self-consciously, since neither of us had ever even marched in the Highland Park Fourth of July parade as Den Mothers.

The Negro community sent non-verbal messages to us all along the way. I think at that moment I was finally comfortable in the march. I had two nuns from Barat College on my right; a lay leader from St. Louis on my left; our lady with the white gloves behind me; and “friends” lining the sidewalks waving. It wasn’t me or you or we or they anymore. It was us. and I felt it.

Then through the white neighborhoods. No waving. No smiles. Here were people whose world is crumbling and they are scared to death. My minister on the outside of the line said that in that group there were many people who would be willing to “cross over” but they needed every bit of moral support they could get. And, he added, that’s why we’re here. One white American Gothic type did wave and smile and we were sure she’d be stoned that night.

Out of the poor white neighborhood and onto the broad, heavily patrolled main street of the downtown section. The parade’s marshals, still stationed at intervals along the line had small signs in their hands, which read “keep smiling”, and we did. Along the street were faces I had seen before in newspapers or on television, hostile faces, ignorant faces. There was a group of business school students jammed into a second floor room overlooking the street. Seventeen and eighteen year old kids filled with hate. A knot of fat, bleached-blond women standing on the street corner laughing hysterically as they pointed to the clergy and screamed, “there’s one…and there’s one…and there’s a black one…and there’s a white one.”

We reached a crest of a hill along the route, and finally saw the mass of marchers. Finally we stopped and there was the state capitol, with its flags flying (Confederate and Alabama). We heard the speeches, sang the songs–The Star Spangled Banner and the words, “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave” sent a tingle up the back of my neck which I had never felt before…and “We Shall Overcome”, which I’d never sung before.

We were thirsty, but were afraid of going into a gas station with a tantalizing Coke machine. We were told by a group nearby that “they were looking for trouble.” We thought of taking a cab back to the airport, but were afraid and decided to go with the group on the buses which were two hours late in coming, thanks to the “splendid” cooperation of the City of Montgomery.

Finally back to the airport. Lots of people waiting line for the phones, the bathroom, the restaurant. Dr. King came in with a group around him and I was surprised to see that he is small in stature. A Negro took a drink of water at the fountain and said to those of us in a nearby telephone line that “these integrated drinking fountains aren’t what they’re cracked up to be-the water is grey.” I remembered only then that the last time I had been in a Southern airport I saw for the first time and the last time the “colored” and “white” signs.

Let me sum up. I see I’ve rambled longer than I thought I would. We were gone for 24 hours. We left Highland Park at 5:45 on Thursday morning and pulled into Highland Park on 5:45 on Friday morning. We had been witnesses to a moment in history. We acted according to our consciences, whose still, small voices finally got through to us. We had made a decision to do something which some of our friends and families thought either odd-ball, foolish or brave.

When we pulled into Highland Park we didn’t feel odd-ball, foolish or brave at all. We gave up one 24-hour period, $80 and one night’s sleep. This was in the “out” basket. Into the “in” basket flowed more love and brotherhood and devotion than we had ever in our lives witnessed. We gave very little and received much.