Redbone’s interpretation is slightly off-kilter: the intonation struggles in places, and there are extra beats sprinkled throughout. But I love it. Its off-balance rhythmic irregularities, the nasal grit in Redbone’s voice, the imperfect instrumental tones and pitches feel fresh and authentic. They transform a great song into a greater one.
My mother was a perfectionist. Today we would likely say her attention to detail was compulsive. But that compulsiveness got her far, made her successful at everything she did. Although I’ve spent most of life as an unapologetic underachiever, I have no doubt that some of her “perfectionism” rubbed off on me. You can’t spend hours practicing scales and arpeggios, isolated musical passages over and over without being at least a little compulsive. It’s the only way to train the brain, develop fine motor skills, make the muscles remember.
But it’s not always enough.
Along with compulsive tendencies, creation demands an oblique and often fractured perspective, a willingness to look at subject matter, construction, sideways and through a prism.
When I think of the thousands of books I’ve read, pieces of music I’ve played, I realize most of them contained errors and/or irregularities, some degree of strangeness in small or large ways that established the works as fresh and unique, that transformed and elevated them.
So I keep my error in place, because in important ways, it acts as a type of cipher. And to reinforce its importance, I put a prism in plain view.
I returned to New York in August of ‘91 with five hundred dollars to my name (all that was left from the royalties on my surrealism film, money I’d saved while teaching, and a surprisingly large option on a Jungle Thriller I’d written as a joke), direct from my breakup with Ricky Mahoney, looking for God-knows-what from the city and my family. I’d say I was thinking that a change from L.A.’s brand of insanity might do me good, or that my mother’s homemade chicken soup, Max’s good-natured pep-talks, and Lisa’s insistence that having my hair colored and styled would make me feel better, but that would be a lie. The sad fact is, when I left the West Coast for the East, I wasn’t thinking at all. All I had going for me was brain-stem activity, and even that was minimal. The only reason I managed to get on the right plane was because the same friend who had convinced me to fly out to L.A. put me on it. I vaguely remember an arm around my waist and the feeling of falling into a seat and seeing someone’s hands fussing with a clasp in the vicinity of my crotch. I also remember telling the person who was fussing not to bother with the chastity belt because I knew how to pick the locks. The next thing I recall is coming to in a hospital room. Max was standing at my bedside and Lisa was pacing madly beside him.
“You should have left her on the plane.”
“I couldn’t. They would have taken her to a state hospital. You don’t want her in a place like that.”
“No, Max. I’m sick to death of the way she keeps dragging us into her messes, and the way you get Crusher to leap into action to save her. For once, she could have at least had the courtesy to get strung out on the other side of the country.”
“Keep your voice down.”
“Who’s listening? The nurses? The doctors? They have better things to do.”
“What about Ida Mae? She might hear you.”
I quickly shut my eyes.
“Or your mother. She could show up any minute.”
Lisa said, “What?”
“I said, your mother might hear you.”
“You told our mother?” she said. “My mother that Ida Mae was here? In the hospital? That she was….”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t tell Edna why Ida Mae was here. I just said she collapsed at the airport, probably from exhaustion. I thought your folks would want…”
“Of course. I mean, Ida Mae is their darling, isn’t she? Why wouldn’t they want to know why she didn’t come to see them the second she landed? Exhaustion. I protect Ida Mae and myself and end up being a schlemiel. They’ll carry on about how sensitive she is and I’ll get shoveled away like a pile of soaked kitty litter.”
“That’s not true.”
“Oh, no? You wait and see what happens when they get here. You wait.”
And then I caught a whiff of Chanel and stuffed cabbage, and heard my mother’s voice slice through the room. “How is she?”
I opened my eyes. My mother was bending over me, laying her palm on my forehead, and grasping my wrist to check for signs of life.
“She’s slee…” Lisa moved next to her and got a look at me. “I guess she’s awake.”
“Mom, Lisa, Max.” I smiled weakly. “Hi.”
My mother leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, nearly smothering me with her chest in the process. Then she sat on the bed. “Look at all these tubes. Gevalt. So why didn’t you come home before you got sick?”
“I’m sorry.” I looked past her to Max. He had this sad, lopsided smile on his face. Lisa’s back was to me. “Where’s Dad?”
“Looking for a spot.” Lisa swiveled around. “Why didn’t he just go into the lot?”
My mother turned so she could see Lisa. “I told him that, but you know your father. ‘What? I’m going to pay twenty dollars to a hospital to visit my daughter there? Don’t they charge enough already for the room?’ Who can argue with him?” She shifted her focus back to me. “So, are they feeding you enough? You look so tired. What did you have for lunch?”
“I don’t know. What does it say on the bag I’m hooked to?”
Max laughed and Lisa shot him a glare. “That’s not funny.”
“Sure it is, Leese. C’mon.”
I took Mom’s hand just to annoy her. “So, Max, did you guys get a cat? I thought I heard Lisa say something about kitty litter.”
“What’s this?” Mom pulled away from me and zoomed in on Lisa. “A cat with the baby? Are you meshugah? It could smother her.”
“Ma, the baby is five years old.” I swear, if Lisa had had a gun at that moment, she would have used it on me.
Max cut in. “Edna, Lisa told me you went to see the Van Gogh exhibit at the Met yesterday. How did you like it?”
“It was wonderful.” My mother, who could be distracted no matter who was in the hospital, said, “We loved it…and we would have seen the whole thing, but we were parked at a half-hour meter.”
It was about then that my father showed up, having found a great spot two blocks away at another half-hour meter. As a result of the parking situation, I didn’t see much of them while I was in the hospital, which is just as well. It made it easier to sustain the lie.
Considering the critical role mothers play in Shadows and Ghosts—Edna, Judith, one Jewish, the other Gentile, it’s odd that I haven’t done it before. But these are my thoughts, random, strung a bit haphazardly….
In many ways she was like both Edna and Judith; in others, she was like neither.
A tiny woman, fragile, loose-limbed, and notoriously accident-prone, she could find the single dip in a sidewalk over which a thousand people had stepped without falling. By the end of her life, I’d lost count of all the bones she’d broken, the number of emergency rooms we’d visited.
She had a sharp mind and wicked wit, a striking contradiction to the soft delicacy of her beauty—pink skin, high cheekbones, finely sculpted nose, copper-hued hair, and wide, intense, dark eyes. Despite her constitution, she was steel-willed, determined, tenacious, and thoroughly unconventional, a sylph with the heart of a daredevil: she wanted to try everything.
Her greatest dream was to do biological research, find cures for diseases. Her teachers and guidance counselors encouraged her to go to college. But this was during the 1930’s. There was a Depression. My mother was supposed to find a job, and then a husband.
I can only imagine the discoveries she would have made had she been encouraged to pursue her dream, given the support to pursue it. She truly believed she could do anything, and even when life was throwing obstacles in her way, tripping her up, she found ways to prove it.
When she wasn’t working as a corporate financial officer (a position she ascended to at a time when the glass ceiling was oppressively low for women), or taking care of her children, or managing the house, she was in the kitchen experimenting, concocting, feeding her spirit. The kitchen became her laboratory…
…which is how I wound up roasting peppers, because she decided, as she always did, that the peppers one roasted on their own were better than those that were made by someone else. I tried to buy a jar once when she was visiting, and she laughed at me, then headed to the produce aisle to find the perfect peppers before taking me home and showing me how to roast them.
Her insistence on my learning this skill amused me, but I realize now the value of it, the importance, in everything I do. How lucky we all were—my father, brother, and I, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, then grandchildren—to be the recipients of her teaching, her gifts, her need to create, solve problems. How blessed we all were to be in the presence of such a woman….