Order of the Good Write

That Magic Feeling When the Words Flow. A Blog by Debi Rotmil


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Looking for Mr. Weiss

Mystery piano under the Brooklyn Bridge, June 2014. Photo by Richard Corman: http://www.richardcorman.com/

Mystery piano under the Brooklyn Bridge, June 2014. Photo by Richard Corman: http://www.richardcorman.com/

When I was a child, we had a neighbor who was a flutist for the New York Philharmonic. His name was Mr. Morris. His home was behind ours.  It’s possible my father called him Sam, but my memory is fuzzy. I was so incredibly young at the time. His backyard was large and unruly. An old collapsed greenhouse was buried beneath overgrown brush and small trees that had given up years before I was born.

Although Mr. Morris and the state of his backyard is a faint, early memory,I remember in summertime, when his windows were open, I could hear him practicing his flute. His instrument was part of the atmosphere. The sound of his practice floated through the air, mixing with the hiss of passing cars, birds chirping and children playing. Years later, when I moved into Manhattan, where you could throw a penny and it could land on a creative’s doorstep, the sound of vibrato voices practicing scales in the building next door, or the rehearsal of a lone french horn through a window would bring me back to Mr. Morris. Today, when I listen to the gorgeous recording of Aaron Copeland’s, “Appalachian Spring” performed by the New York Philharmonic with Leonard Bernstein conducting, I think of him lending his flute to the cacophony of beauty in a grand recording studio somewhere with Lenny himself.

When I was eight years old, my father (a music lover much like my mother and myself) wanted me to learn piano. When he started looking for a teacher, he consulted Mr. Morris, whose work within the Lincoln Center community could offer some names. It just so happened, that an acquaintance of his – a Mr. Allen Weiss – was a prominent piano instructor who happened to live in our small little town. He was a graduate of Julliard, had a very progressive way of instructing young people in piano, and was a mentor to gifted students who were on the path to being accepted into the very institution from which he graduated. He also hosted a show on WQXR called The Midnight Showcase, where those gifted, classically trained proteges would be presented.  Let it be known that I wasn’t one of them, nor ever was. He also took on regular kids who just wanted to learn piano – like me.

When I attended my first lesson in his home, I entered a separate door to a side room in his house, so small, it barely fit the two giant pianos that lived there: one baby Baldwin piano, and one Steinway grand piano. They slipped side by side,  their Lima bean shaped bodies on opposite ends, fitting like puzzle pieces, with the keyboards opposite so two pianists playing at the same time could face each other.  The walls were lined with brown cork, and gave off a sweet smell that lingered with the wood of the piano and mixed with the fluid aroma of cherry tobacco drifting from Mr. Weiss’ pipe.

Mr. Weiss appeared to be in his early to mid-thirties,  and was married with two little children.  This was 1972, and he was a young man of the time – raffish, hippy-like, curly longish red hair. His limbs were long and lanky. There was an ease and elegance to him as he sat cross legged with worn out corduroys, well worn suede Earth shoes, a pipe between his teeth, listening to me play scales and fumbling over fingering. It was ever thus, as the years went by, and my books like “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” morphed into sonatinas, sonatas, Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn and the various classical pantheon of old music I hardly cared about, but enjoyed playing – once I got it right.  Remember, I wasn’t one of those gifted students Mr. Weiss mentored.  I also remember I was so painfully shy that I’d just sit in silence for months of lessons. Then, one day, I just opened up and responded to a question he raised, delighting him, as if he just found gold in a ditch.  I don’t remember why I shed that wall of shyness. It’s likely the more confident I became with the piano, the more comfortable I was with him.

He was a teacher with a dream, creating cutting edge ways to teach kids about piano and music. Within the first two years of lessons, the small little room that barely fit two pianos, was bulldozed to make way for a giant solarium type studio. Floor to ceiling windows let in natural light. The space was modern and open. He graced his layers of shelves with instruments for students to explore, opening our vision on music that went beyond the acoustic keyboard. Synthesizers, electronic pianos, drums, dulcimers, and percussion accessories were everything, a virtual wonderland of music exploration for kids and teens.

The two pianos could now spread out comfortably with enough space to accommodate audience chairs for our quarterly class lessons and recitals where individual students gathered for one interactive meet up. These classes were split up and held on various weekends according to level (beginners, intermediate, advanced, uber-advanced-Julliard-bound) and touched upon various topics of music theory. Each session focused on new concepts, such as early renaissance music, or choir, African beat or sound vibrations.  He’d use his instrument collection to demonstrate degrees of sound. One time, he wove nails and metallic objects inside his Steinway piano strings, making the key hammers pound against an altered wire, producing a foreign sound as he began to play a tonal, avant garde piece. The one constant was that each class would end with the dreaded recital, where each member got up to perform a piece they slaved over since the last group class.

This must have been Mr. Weiss’ glory days. His radio show continued to attract respect from the Lincoln Center crowd, and he even performed in concert at Alice Tully Hall, headlining an evening of complicated classical pieces that blew my mind. (Yes, my family attended). Back at Chez Weiss, he had a school of teachers who worked for him. As I grew into a teenager, I wanted to play more contemporary music;  plus, I wasn’t growing into an elite student, a special unit of gifted teens who became his main priority. So, he assigned a new teacher who worked under him to come to my house for instruction. His last name was Dunn, and he wore a toupee, which I could see him pat in place from time to time in the mirror above our piano. I still attended Mr. Weiss’ quarterly classes. I may have given up Chopin for Elton John, and wasn’t playing Liszt’s ‘Leibestram’ from memory, but I was still rehearsing classical music, and I was still part of his school.

Then came the day I graduated high school and moved on to college. I bid adieu to my piano school days and moved into a dorm, embarking on adulthood, sadly leaving the keyboard behind.

I wasn’t the only one growing up and moving on. As the years went by, I figured Mr. Weiss he still lived in that beautifully renovated house on Beacon Hill Road in Ardsley with more young students showing up at his door. That wasn’t the case.

One day, years after my last lesson,my father ran into him at an gas station auto repair shop*. He was pumping gas.  Apparently, he sold off his instruments to enter into a partnership to co-own the repair station** It’s possible he may have been divorced, and his young family was torn apart in some way.  (Or is that just a sad romantic notion? Or my own father’s view of the situation?) Yet, the stark contrast in circumstance was troubling. Indeed, owning a gas station is a noble profession, but it’s a long way from a career as a respected piano teacher, mentor and concert pianist within the world of Lincoln Center (which my father sensed, via mutual friends, harbored an internal cut throat atmosphere that possibly lead to Mr. W’s decline). (Update: I’m sad to say it was a “decline”. Just a very sharp turn on his path in life.)

Today, I hopelessly search the internet, looking for Mr. Alan Weiss (or is it spelled ‘Allen?), only to find another Alan Weiss, a pianist who trained through Julliard and is teaching students to become professional concert pianists. Very odd. Very coincidental. However, one look at his photo and I can attest – that’s not my Allen Weiss.

This past weekend, the memory of Mr. Weiss invaded my mind along with all the remembrances above. I searched and searched the internet, trying to see if I could find him – his whereabouts. Not much was found, except an excerpt from an old newspaper article reading more into his mind than I – the young student – ever realized.

Strangely enough – an article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal, “In New York, Thousands Play Waiting Game”, dated December 24th, 1978 (when I was his student) where he is quoted discussing the high expectations a Julliard student carries with him/her:

“You walk out the door of Julliard and say ‘Here I am!’ and nobody is listening. So you teach. But it isn’t what you though of when you were in there. A lot of people do it with bitterness. But I had no choice. I practically retired as a performer the day I walked out of school. I don’t, you see, have a family with millions of dollars behind me. I was a good pianist. Respected, generally. I mean, nobody thought I was crazy to want to be a pianist or anything. But you are faced with such competition that it is very difficult to sit back and look at yourself and ask ‘who am I, how do I play and how do I wish to play?’.  There simply isn’t time to question anything. Your whole pursuit is giving the perfect performance, playing your octaves faster than anybody else, and getting management, getting the right people to hear you. And winning competitions.”

I hadn’t realized the struggle Mr. Weiss was going through until my father ran into him all those years ago at that autobody shop. As a young child, he loomed over me as a piano god, a young, enthusiastic educator who taught kids to appreciate the profound meaning of music rather than just merely learning to play it. His inner turmoil never showed. To me, he arrived at a perfect destination,  but he was really lost in the midst of grasping hold of a dream that was slipping away.

There was another item I found online. It was from Julliard’s alumni newsletter dated September 2009.

“Allen Weiss, Piano, graduate 1962. Deceased.”

I’m hoping it’s the wrong Allen Weiss.

I’m still looking.

*Revisions thanks to Debra Weiss Barrett.


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Friday “Hitting Water” Milestone

hittingwaterprintedIt’s the end of the week, and another opportunity to look back on some accomplishments regarding my forthcoming book of stories, “Hitting Water”. Above this blog post, you will find a print out of the mock cover, all bent in the shape of what will be an actual 3-D book (in addition to the Kindle version). The computer-to-print conversion is not exactly what it should be here – but it’s quite close – and will look much better when officially printed.

I love it!   It’s my hope that many people read it and find some beauty wrapped within the words. The memory of the late, great Jane Dornacker was the driving force behind these stories, weaving the concept of life’s brevity and how various spirits who enter our world lend out lessons about life and death.   Jane’s story is the only autobiographical one in the collection. The rest are fiction, yet inspired by people I’ve known and re-imagined in fantasy pieces about life, the chaos of mental illness, death and a little of the afterlife. It’s a short read, and I hope it inspires people to think about life a little differently.

As someone who has lived a conventional path in the name of security – writing this book is a big step for me. It’s the first in many I plan to write, as I fulfill my love for writing and getting it out for all to see. In that regard – I hope I inspire those who are stuck in a rut and feel they are destined for something else – whether it’s writing, painting, singing or building a house.

The book is currently in that limbo phase – where the edits, re-writes and proofs are done and the manuscript is being formatted for book and digital. So, I wait it out until the final version is done for uploading.  Although there is no publication date yet, the book should drop on Amazon by mid December, followed by Kindle sometime thereafter.  Once I know the date – it will be announced.

So, while I wait – it’s on to the next book!  I’m currently outlining a book about my life as an Administrative Assistant and brainstorming a SciFi book along the lines of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”. Fingers are cross that creative flow will happen and thy work will be done!

Happy Weekend Everybody!

 

 

 

 


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The Upright Citizen Brigade: Goodbye Roo Roo

 

UCB Improv Team: Death By Roo Roo - Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, Curtis Gwinn, Jackie Clarke, Anthony Atamanuik, Neal Casey

UCB Improv Team: Death By Roo Roo – Brett Gelman, John Gemberling, Curtis Gwinn, Jackie Clarke, Anthony Atamanuik, Neil Casey

Once upon a time, in a city known as New York, I used to spend many many hours in a little theater in the basement of a Gristedes super market.  For this was the place where wonderful things happened. Monologues were spoken and scenes were created out of thin air. This was the fortress of black painted walls and scuffed stage. This is where sweat and theater chairs all came together in the name of long form improv devised by the god Del Close.  Can I get a “Yes, And” and a “Don’t Think?” How about a suggestion?

The Upright Citizen Brigade Theater in New York (Chelsea to be exact) was my home for a few years.  The founders are Matt Besser, Ian Roberts, Matt Walsh and Amy Poehler, who in 1996 broke off from Second City in Chicago to build their own improv company in New York. Over time, it became the spawning station for writers and performers of SNL, 30 Rock, The Daily Show, Conan, Fallon – etc. You could mingle with people doing kicking comedy and then tune in NBC and watch them alongside Tina Fey or Lorne Michaels. I needed comedy back then. Badly. I was juggling the health and welfare of two ill and aging parents. I needed to dive into the happiness of the UCB. I went down to the basement to get over the darkness. The UCB saved my life. (A commentary I’m saving for another blog).

Walking down the long set of stairs to the lobby and box office was a little like heaven. The musty air smelled like my childhood home basement. The photos on the wall showed many comedians who were once part of the nightly fun, playing a game of improv in teams created in training classes or over massive amounts of beers at McManus.  I performed on the UCB stage as a student, having joined my class for graduation performances where we’d use the techniques taught over several weeks to make our friends and family laugh. It was the most terrifying and fun thing I’ve ever done. I miss it from time to time – having moved to Los Angeles where I didn’t get involved with the west coast theater (other than going to plenty of shows) as a student or volunteer. But the only thing I love remembering is the graffiti around the UCB NYC stage entrance, especially one very interesting reminder right near the entrance curtains: “Leave Your Farts Here.”  I only hope that comment was there when Robin Williams joined the Harold Team “Bang” back in 2008 for a show. It would be one thing we would share in the comedy universe.

One of the shows I used to see was “Death by Roo Roo: Your Fucked Up Family”. It’s been a staple Saturday night show at the UCB in New York for years and years – surviving the transfer of their original performers (as seen above) to the west coast where they are all guest starring in prime time comedies and/or writing on cutting edge  shows like “The Walking Dead”.  “Roo Roo’s premise: An audience member with a really screwed up family story comes up on stage to talk about their, well – fucked up family. The team of improvisors glean their improv from the stories told and hilarity ensues.  It’s a great show that would also be performed on the UCBLA stage.

December 13th will mean curtains for Death By Roo Roo. It was ground zero for some very talented people whose stars are on the rise. Time to make way for another generation of improv shows that will have people lining up down 26th street toward 9th avenue.


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The Winning is in the Losing

 

Lauren Hill and her team after a big win.

Lauren Hill and her team after a big win.

There was a tear jerking segment on yesterday’s CBS Sunday Morning reported by human-interest journalist Steve Hartman. It was part of an ongoing update on the latest news of  Mt. St. Joseph University freshman Lauren Hill. Lauren is a star basketball player who has terminal brain cancer.  She has not missed a practice or game, despite her worsening condition – determined to play until it’s absolutely impossible. Last week, when she placed the winning shot against The Hiram Tigers, something amazing happened: The losing team cheered. It’s quite a beautiful story about a wonderful young lady, and how those who lose gracefully can be the biggest winners of all.

It got me thinking about my days in school, when I competed in high school track and cross country.

I wasn’t a great runner, but I was addicted to my daily runs around town and on our school track –  an addiction that would last decades, until age and injury slowed it down.  The terror of the starting line made my adrenaline crackle. The run itself was a thrill. Crossing the line was euphoric. The only thing was – when I crossed the finish line – I always…despite showing up each day for practice and running miles on weekends…always came in last. Sometimes so last, people would have to wait until I finished. I was in great shape. I had a decent pace and gait. I was trim. But I did not have a light runner’s body, and sprite muscles.

Despite all that work…. last. Did it bother me? Yes. Sometimes I’d finish with tears in my eyes. Did it deter me? Never. Just finishing made me feel great in some profound way. But, it’s difficult to put so much work into something you love, only to have nothing to show for your team.

Me! Finishing the Avon 1/2 Marathon, Central Park, NYC - August 1981.

Me! Finishing the Avon 1/2 Marathon, Central Park, NYC – August 1981.

I used to run the 880 yard dash and the 2 Mile relay in spring track.  Despite earning  “Most Improved” on winter track a few months before, I still lumbered in last during meets in spring. But there were some interesting lessons on winning and losing in between the frustration.

Our girls spring track team was undefeated for the first month of meets. We embarked on a meet with our rivals, Eastchester High School, who were also undefeated. So, you can imagine – someone would lose that mantel by the end of the day.

Well, it was us. We lost out to some really fast runners and a few strong field event girls whose size and girth could place a shot-put through your head.

We boarded our team bus nonplussed. A little disappointed, perhaps, but we were laughing at our team mate Becky, who went on about how one of the Eastchester girls reminded her of her dad. (Okay, it’s not nice, I know. But this particular opponent wasn’t very nice.)

Our laughter made our Coach- Mr. Galanka – stand and address us. Uh oh. What did we do?

Actually – we did good. He told us how proud he was of us. The fact that we were laughing and enjoying each other after a disappointing loss exemplified our strong character. He said that we should always remember this in life. And that as strong young woman, we should never define ourselves with superficial things like hair do’s and nails and clothes. That our character in the face of losing is what matters.

What a guy. It was the most meaningful moment of my life – even today.

Yet, Coach Galanka wasn’t done teaching lessons. A few weeks later, we were at home, running against an all girls parochial school – St. Ursula Academy –  a team that was beating us on our own track.

Galanka came to me to prep me for the 2 Mile Relay (which is an 880 yard dash for each of the 4 members of the relay team).  Apparently, he wanted me to be 4th in the heat. If you know relays – usually the fastest person is 4th, because that’s the last runner who brings it all home in the final stretch. I though he was mad. Insane.

“But Coach – I’m the slowest runner. Why?”

“Because I know you can do it,” he assured me.

“But, we’ll lose the whole meet!”

“Yes we will – if you don’t finish this race for us. But I have faith that you can do this,” he said.

I though he was crazy. This must be a joke. My heart was beating in my throat. I thought I was gonna hurl my pre-game Snicker’s bar, eaten ritually before a track meet.

The race began.  My fellow relay runners were KICKING IT!  They worked up a very wide lead, and by the time it was my turn to grab the baton, Ursula was more than half a lap behind us.  It didn’t quell my nerves, but I was ready for my leg as the baton was handed to me – literally.

As I ran the first 440 yards, I gained on the Ursula Academy girl who was in the 3rd leg of their relay team – until I ended up passing her. (Remember, I’m in the 4th of mine). Oh my God… I lapped her! We were now one full lap ahead. I finished the relay – and we won as the Ursula team continued to run out their last lap minutes later.

We won. WE WON! My team was amazing. They created that amazing lead, and I was there… to bring it home. (A big cosmic ‘thank you’ to them.)

Coach Galanka came over to me and said, “I knew you could do it. See? Don’t ever doubt yourself. I did that on purpose. I wanted you to see how you can test yourself.”

I’ll never forget him or that moment. Today, he’s an award winning assistant football coach and woman’s track coach at Fordham University in the Bronx, NY, where he leads young athletes to titles and championships. Lucky bastards.

Yes, he’s one of those coaches – one of those teachers whom you never forget. They teach you lessons in life – like how to be a good loser – how to allow someone to see for themselves that hey can do anything, given the determination and love of the sport.

Much like Lauren Hill and the ladies from the Hiram Tigers – it’s not the winning that’s important – it’s how you lose.


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A Little Bit of the Full Goose Bozo

With the latest results of the toxicology reports in, we now know that Robin Williams was sober when he took his life on August 11th. All this info provides some kind of closure, but it doesn’t help the sadness of losing this great talent.

I found the above clip from his 1978 HBO special “Robin Williams at The Roxy”. He performs a version of himself forty years in the future. It’s so sad. Although he went on to have an illustrious film career, he didn’t quite make it to 40 years hence. However, his brilliance shines through, revealing one of his famous quotes on holding onto that spark of madness to keep you alive. So sorry he let go.


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California Dreamers

jdapartment

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a Kickstarter fundraising page for a documentary on the iconic writer Joan Didion, titled “We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live”. Griffin Dunne, the nephew of Joan’s late husband and therefore her nephew as well, is working with a team to bring this film to light.  The day it started, they had an $80,000 goal within a 29 day period. By the end of day one, the collected funds reached over $100,000. Today, with fourteen days to go, they’ve exceeded their magic number in spades, as the total is now over $204,000. It’s obvious to Dunne, I’m sure, and to admirers of Didion –  this film will undoubtedly get made. This is good news. Didion is one of the most thought provoking writers of the 20th and 21st centuries. Her writing has inspired many. Most writers, owe her a deep degree of gratitude.

The magic of Joan Didion’s work came to me later in life.  Many readings and random selections from “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” had been on my brain, but never resonated with me as it did for others. Perhaps it’s because I’m not of the same generation, nor am I from California. Nevertheless, her prose and intelligent overview of social mores within the turn of a cultural revolution was fascinating to me. Despite not being “in love” with Didion’s work – I thought of her as special – heady – hip, in a retro way.

It wasn’t until a reading of Didion’s staggeringly emotional “The Year of Magical Thinking” when my mind set changed instantly. Although my own personal crisis wasn’t to come for a few years yet, I empathized with the sudden death of her husband, and shuttered over the horrendous illness that befell her daughter Quintana – who sadly passed away after the book was published. The indelible message of how life changes in an instant was stark: Not too long after reading this remarkable work, my father had a stroke. Suddenly, Didion’s words had meaning beyond measure. It’s true. One moment, and life as you know it – is never the same. I’ve read the book again after both my parents passed away. Instead of the simple empathy from my first reading, this time I lived each sentence and moment with her – this time I was standing in her shoes, as someone in mourning, someone who had been through the ringer with the medical world, someone – unlike Ms. Didion – was NOT a “cool cucumber” when the avalanche came down,  and an ER doctor took me aside to say both parents would not be coming home. It’s hard going back to your house – alone – with this news, with things to do, lawyers to retain, and memories to disperse.

When I decided to move to California a few years ago, I began reading Joan on a weekly basis, hoping to slip into her shoes to understand the geography and social outlook on this new state I was to call home for a while. In fact, her famous essay, “Goodbye to All That”, a story about her leaving New York, was a comforting piece, allowing the guilt I felt over leaving my home town for the warmth of the west coast to abate. One story here and there, including the work in “Slouching” fulfilled my Didion-esque view of my surroundings. A new landscape of valleys and mountain, earthquakes and dry spells laid before me as I mined the social aspect of this town. It isn’t all Kardashian and plastic actor wanna-be’s. There’s history and a tired chic to Los Angeles’ underground world of artists, comedians, musicians, neighbors, shop owners, and various historical landmarks.  Reading Didion’s written work is like holding onto a bible of California’s cultural revolution that still resonates today.  It’s lovely to turn to her while navigating this land. Through the bright sun that glares every day in Southern California, I read Joan’s essays through her famous sunglasses, seeking out the soul of this state – not only of its past and present – but of its future.