I spent the weekend at an old and close friend’s in the Berkshires, with great food, great conversation, and great surprises.
Two new friends of hers were there as well, and Saturday afternoon an old friend of my friend, who she hadn’t seen in eighteen years, dropped by with her husband on their way to Maine.
The old friend is a well-known singer/songwriter, whose work I know a little and like. And I liked her as well. Something about her reminded me of my first wife in good ways, her presence mostly, in ways that I can’t articulate.
My friend had an old cassette tape that her friend had made eighteen years ago in my friend’s hotel room when she was in DC doing a play. She wanted to play the tape for her old friend, but the singer wouldn’t hear of it.
So after the singer and her husband—a very tall, very deep voiced, very country kind of man with the accent and humor of a Southern story teller—left, my friend played the tape for me and another Michael, one of her new friends who was staying for the weekend like me.
This Michael had surprised me that morning over breakfast by revealing that his father was the original disc jockey (and also informed me that Walter Winchell had invented that phrase to describe what his father did).
My sisters used to listen to his father spin records over a New York station when I was a kid and I was deeply influenced by the show, especially the theme song, which as a little boy I took literally: “It’s Make Believe Ballroom time, the hour of sweet romance…”
Especially the end of the theme: “So come on children, let’s dance, let’s dance, let’s dance.” My sisters taught me how to jitter bug to that music on that show and I fantasized being grown up and going dancing with a beautiful girl at “The Make Believe Ballroom”—not even getting the idea that it was make believe, just that it was somewhere in radio land, like the live broadcasts from hotels or “radio city” or championship boxing matches.
What a surprise to be reminded of all that by the revelation that this man’s father was behind this early fantasy of mine about the romance of ballrooms, whatever they might have been in my imagination then.
The fact that the theme song came into my mind with the words and melody intact from my childhood after all these decades shows what an impact it had on me.
Now here I was, being touched in a way by my past and this new friend’s, and deeply. Then later the same day, yesterday, Saturday, there I was listening with this same man and my old friend to her old friend singing two songs, one the songwriter had written for her and one an old show tune.
Both were performed by this then young woman with nothing but her extraordinary voice and acoustic guitar picking. The personal song was terrific, and in line with other things I’ve heard this singer do over the years.
But the show tune. The show tune got to me so strongly, I couldn’t help crying. Not because of the lyrics, which are romantic and well done but not tragic or poignant in ways that would move people to cry.
But because of the execution. This big showy usually belted out full blast Broadway tune was sung and played on this little old cassette tape with such restraint, so controlled and so softly and slowly, with perfectly pitched notes hanging in the air for several seconds longer than expected, and notes repeated where the actual melody would have varied more, and sustained in the most understated way you can imagine.
It was incredible to hear, like an unexpected and amazing revelation, which it was. It made me see and listen to and think of this songwriter in an entirely new way, separate from whatever I’d heard over the years of her rise and success and impact.
It’s like any achievement of a fellow human that transcends what seems like the limits of human capacity, whether athletic, artistic, etc. (although any categories I can think of are too limited, because great musical performances can be seen as athletic and great athletic performances as art)—it just moves me to tears when I see the possibilities of human achievement extended beyond anything I could imagine.
Then last night, my old friend and her new friends and I went to Tanglewood, the outdoor mostly classic music venue near where I spend time with my grown kids and grandkids many weekends but had yet to check out because I don’t like crowds or laying around outside on summer nights getting eaten by bugs.
But, there were no bugs, maybe too late in the season or too chilly, and the crowd seemed not as big as it actually was since the layout of the grounds seemed more modest than other venues like that I’ve been forced to experience in earlier years.
Spreading out a couple of blankets on the lawn halfway to the back of the place, sharing a delightful picnic dinner and continuing the great conversations of the weekend with my old friend and the new ones, then lying back on the blankets and looking up at the stars as the Boston Symphony Orchestra serenaded us with Mozart.
It’s like I should insert a big sigh right here to signify the surrender—and the relief that always follows—to the inevitable reality of the moment, any moment, but in this case, a highly romantic and completely satisfying experience of beautiful music and engaging friends and a bug free briskly refreshing evening in one of the loveliest landscapes I know.
How grateful I am to be able to have these experiences still and always, and to recognize them for how great they are. As they all are, when I let myself know that. The surprises of each day, when I allow myself to experience them, no matter how small (like the song “Kilkelly” playing today on the Irish radio show I sometimes tune into on my way home from The Berkshires on Sundays bringing a tear to my eye for other reasons, or just the sound of my little guy’s voice on the phone happy to be where he is).
May you all have delightful surprises in your days as well, and be open to experiencing them.