26 August 2009

Here Comes Bob!

I received an email this morning announcing the Fall release of Bob Dylan’s new album, Christmas in the Heart. I haven’t seen a full listing as of yet, but the announcement from Columbia noted that Bob included at least “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Must be Santa” on the album. I’ll wait to check out the full listing.

A friend once asked me if I had a version of “Shenandoah” by Bob Dylan. I didn’t have that in my collection, and so I purchased it on iTunes so that I could send it to her. While I was at it I sent her versions of the song by a number of other artists: Harry Belafonte, Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Garcia, Paul Robeson, Arlo Guthrie, Chanticleer, and several artists of note. Of all the different versions, Dylan’s was remarkably singular—he had produced what was for me a uncommon song, and had transformed the cultural artifact and changed it in a remarkably original and cogent way. He had reinvented a clichéd tradition.

And so I think I look forward to this new venture of Christmas songs. Jews have always had a strange relationship to Christmas, a holiday which seemed to take over the cultural currents for upwards of several months a year but from which they were basically excluded. Jews became spectators to a mass frenzy, but could never join honestly into it. Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book The Battle for Christmas, describes Christmas itself as “that magical season which was always beckoning, at school and in the streets, only to be withheld [from Jews] each year by the forces of religion and family.” Nissenbaum, having grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family, holds that Christmas means more to American Jewish children than to America’s Christian ones. Perhaps this accounts for the fact that one of the most popular and famous Christmas song, “White Christmas,” was written by a Jewish man, Irving Berlin. And why many Jewish artists have celebrated the holiday in song—Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and now Bob Dylan. Many years ago Bob celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, and despite his conversion to Christianity in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he has publicly returned to some form of Jewish identification. He has been seen at Yom Kippur services in Minneapolis!! He has appeared on telethons for Chabad.

I’ve been wondering who thought up this project? Was Bob on the bus for the Never Ending Tour and suddenly had the idea that he would do an album of Christmas (!) songs? From where did this idea derive? What was he thinking? Or did someone approach him with the idea? What were they thinking?

What could this album possibly add to his corpus of work so obviously autobiographical?

I have grown up during the past sixty some years listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing “Little Drummer Boy.” I loved their version of this song. I can almost hear Bob’s arrangement on this song, can almost hear his voice. But for the life of me, I cannot imagine what “Here Comes Santa Claus” will sound like, or why?

In any case, the release date is October 13. I anticipate shopping in Macy’s and hearing Dylan’s voice wafting through the store as I shop (not for Christmas, of course) singing “Must Be Santa.”

It’s got to be more than serious. Or much less.

17 August 2009

Ten Reasons to Live Another Year

1. My children are finally finding me interesting rather than boring, embarrassing or absurd (though I don’t mind the last description as much as the previous two). They sometimes ask me for advice which they usually don’t follow.
2. I’m working on a new essay with which I am fascinated and can’t yet see its direction.
3. We’re paving the driveway and I’ll be able to enjoy rain storms again without worrying about the driveway returning to Nature during the deluge.
4. I’m getting a new 17” Macbook from the University as my laptop.
5. I’m teaching my new book to my undergraduates and I can’t wait to read my book this year and see if I like it as well as when I wrote it. Besides, the royalty check allows me to buy a cup of coffee at the local café.
6. I purchased season tickets for both the Minnesota Orchestra and the Guthrie theater. I want to hear and see both full seasons.
7. After all these years of baking bread, I think I’ve finally achieved some expertise; the breads are beautiful and delicious.
8. I’m learning a new trope for the Festival Megillot. I look forward to reading portions on the pilgrimage festivals this year.
9. I’m hoping to see some of my plummeting assets recover.
10. I love anticipating the sun rising in the East through my cabin’s windows, and look forward to completing my 63rd year.

Extra: Repeatedly listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and especially the heartbreakingly beautiful third movement. But I also adore the percussion in the second movement!!

11 August 2009

“Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!”

“Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity!” says Henry David Thoreau, in Walden. “I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.” Lately, I’ve been thinking a great deal about this simple dictum.

I remember years ago a renowned ice cream company (I’ve forgotten exactly which one it might have been) advertised that they were issuing a line of simple flavors: plain, uncomplicated confections with no confusing or complexing additions, like chips or cookie dough or . . . well, or anything. And the explanation offered appealed to the notion of a desire for simplicity. The company’s spokesperson claimed that the new line addressed that person who arrived home from a difficult day out in the world just wanted a plain dish of uncluttered simple ice cream, without the complication of add-ins. Chocolate. Vanilla. Coffee. Plain. Tidy. Uncomplicated. No surprises: every bite the same.

I’ve been moving almost steadily toward this ideal of simplicity. Lately, when I dress to go out or to stay in, I don trousers of simple hue—khaki, black or blue, and I choose shirts of a single hue—white, blue, yellow, and pink. I look through the catalogs at these beautiful patterned shirts and cannot bear the thought of draping that complexity upon my body. As if it would wear me down as I attempted to move through the world. It might be a reflection of the alarming complexities of internal strife, but I feel like this simple presentment suits me well right now.

04 August 2009

Summer time's come and gone, my, oh my!

So tomorrow the girls return from summer camp. They have been away from home for the last six weeks.

It is a bitter sweet return, I think. Camp is an enchanted place, and I am sad that they must leave it and return to the real world with its tensions, and responsibilities, and unpleasantries. Not that camp is devoid of conflict, but for the most part--for my children, I think--even these conflicts partake of magic, and are rather simply resolved and soon forgotten. Head lice and athlete’s foot, leaking roofs and mud-caked shoes are no obstacle to joy. So much which wears us down as adults in this world does not enter into the consciousness of campers at summer camp. Not that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not accepted as present. From the site of extreme joy, why see its other?

And I am saddened that they must leave this idyll. Glad that they do so, but sad that they must.

And I am saddened, too, that we have out here discovered no such island of perfect-enough peace, and that their return will find me unchanged. Or is it me that regrets the failure to have altered. It’s not a lack of growth that I note: I have done my share of reading and writing these summer months. And even discovered a passion or two to carry into the school year. No, it is the lack of change in the very essence of the situation that I regret. Though I am changed and so of course everything is different, too much remains the same. It is not the cliche that the more things change, the more they remain the same: it is that whereas the detail changes, the whole stagnates.

And so I am sad that the fresh air breathed at summer camp becomes the dust-filled atmosphere of daily existence. And the magic of relationships transforms into the difficulties of negotiating life. What a glorious idea to live for at least a summer in Eden.