Is it worth it?

“Today’s solutions become tomorrow’s problems” said Sam Greengard last week at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference. He was talking about how cool technological gadgets and ‘apps’ have left us drowning in gigabytes of data. Tagging is one of today’s solutions and applying tags to email messages and files not only allows you to categorize them without having to move them into various folders, but it also allows you to assign more than one tag to each item. Wondering if I really have time to re-read and tag tens of thousands of emails and files led me to more basic questions: Do I need to do it? What do I have to gain? Trying to harness, arrange and tame our data troves seems an illusive goal and takes way too much effort. And that, in turn, led me to an even more interesting consideration: What might I lose by doing it, besides the most obvious time suck?

Coincidentally, while thinking about this I was embroiled in the parallel endeavor of straightening up an office, arranging and taming the piles of envelopes, papers, bills, receipts, cards and letters, articles, books, stick-it notes, photos….

Whether the labeling and filing is physical or electronic, once done one can quickly and efficiently find what one is looking for and that is the ultimate pay-off, right? Time is money; waste not, want not. Hmmmm…..maybe not. By arriving so immediately at the destination, what is lost is the journey itself. It may take longer, possibly even create a detour, but if one has to sift through piles, or open multiple electronic documents to see what is inside, serendipity might strike, yielding an answer or solution not previously considered, or uncovering something about which you had forgotten. Even if what you find is not relevant to the impetus of the search, accidental rediscoveries might open up a whole new avenue of thought…or just make you smile.

Gray is more than a hair color

I remember the clarity of my youth when I was certain about everything. Things were clearly right or wrong, good or bad. Love was supreme and war was reviled. Democracy was good, communism was bad. My friends and I were child activists, picketing the sale of war toys at a nearby “five and ten cent store” — GI Joe Must Go — and savvy enough to call the local TV station and end up on the evening news.

It was the 1960s. Our ideology was nonviolence. “Flower Power!” We were in favor of passive resistance and free speech. We marched WITH Dr. King and we marched ON Washington. We sang the songs of Bob Dylan (“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’“) and Phil Ochs (“There but for Fortune“).

In our teenage and college years our concepts grew a little deeper but still we held to a simple clarity of right and wrong. Quality was of higher value than quantity. We knew journalists to be reporters and fact-checkers who would not dream of ‘making news’ or becoming celebrities unto themselves. Without question, substance was supremely more important than style. I knew what I believed in, believed that I was right, and that fueled my confidence.

I don’t know when it changed, but the light began to fade and our vision required corrective lenses. When I was 42, a friend referred to me as “a woman of a certain age,” meaning, of course, that I was no longer a kid. I thought of myself as principled, but perhaps I was just naive? Answers to questions large and small no longer seemed so simple. I noticed style was rewarded even when substance was absent. Was it time to pay more attention to style, at least as it pertained to self and one’s future. I had improbably survived a stage four cancer and the graying temple hairs were now very noticeable — perhaps it was time for a little hair color and a brand new attitude. Time to grow up and ‘get ahead,’ whatever that means.

Get ahead? I invested in myself, looked good, worked hard and made a little money too. But the work was just for money, devoid of passion and not all that enjoyable. I watched my husband and others around me – the happiest and the healthiest of them were passionate about their work. “Don’t worry, be happy” sounds good, but how to pay one’s bills? Can one seek both money and happiness? Somewhere I took a wrong turn, another of life’s detours.

Fifteen more years have gone by and I no longer color my hair. I am once again clear about my likes and dislikes, ideology is back, BUT I have come to accept that nothing is simple, there is no clear black and white, right and wrong, just lot of pros and cons. There are many applicable quotations:

    “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson
    “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present.”
    William Keane
    You’ve got to get to the stage in life where going for it is more important than winning or losing.
― Arthur Ashe

Some phrases seem almost cliche, but their points are well-taken. I evaluate life’s compromises on a case-by-case basis. Embracing the gray is my new mantra for navigating life’s path. For this Libra, life is now a game of balance, and the prizes to be sought on every given day are the little bits of color one finds while unraveling the tangled layers of gray.

Kampai, my darling

Yesterday I had visit from prolific record producer Kiyoshi Itoh and his associate Takeo Suzuki. Because of their longtime business association with John, I have known both of these gentlemen for decades. During the 1980s-90s, when Kiyoshi produced many of Nancy Wilson’s recordings, we saw them often here in Los Angeles, in New York, and also in Tokyo. 

Even though we had not seen Kiyoshi in many years, he kept in occasional touch and he spoke to John by phone this past December. Kiyoshi’s travel plans had him coming to Los Angeles in April and he made a date with John to come and visit him then, right around his 100th birthday. I put it on our calendar, even though John didn’t expect to be here and said so, but John was very happy just to have spoken with Kiyoshi and to have felt his heart’s intent. That meant more to him than the possible visit. 

A few weeks ago Suzuki told me that Kiyoshi still had me on his calendar and wanted to come to the house, or perhaps the cemetery.  I had to explain that John gave his body to science and that there is no cemetery plot to visit. A drive to our house in Altadena from the west side of town near the airport would take at least an hour, and probably much more. Definitely would be worth any hassle to see John, but with him gone…. 

“Are you sure?”, I asked Suzuki. “It’s a long round-trip and I know Kiyoshi has just this one afternoon in town. Please make sure he knows that I would not be offended if he needs to change his plans.”

“We will be there at 3 PM.”

Knowing what the traffic would be like, I actually felt bad for them and considered refusing so they would not have to make the trip, but some part of me understood that for them this was an action of deep cultural import. Most cultures speak of paying respects, but here in America (maybe even more so in Hollywood) it can be more a matter of lip-service. This is why John was adamant about not having a funeral or memorial concert mounted in his name. He hated to see people show up at such events and speak of their love and admiration for the departed when they had not been there for the person while still alive. “If you are going to pay tribute or give thanks, do it while they can hear you,” John would say. But John also had great respect for other cultures, and I think he would have felt, as I do, that the Japanese desire to show their respect is deeply rooted and more honest, particularly regarding elders. 

To be sure, I consulted with my friend Chie Imaizumi and she confirmed that for me to refuse would have been rude. I was still a bit nervous so I invited her to be here as well. I wanted everything to be just right.  I was also thinking that she is a fabulous composer/arranger and I could hear John saying ‘it will be good for them to meet.’  With “I’ll Be A Song” ( Nancy Wilson produced by Kiyoshi, seated, and arranged by Masahiko Satoh, standing) playing softly in the background,  I prepared some green tea with green tea cookies, and awaited their arrival.

Through the window I watched Kiyoshi and Suzuki park and pull from the back seat a huge floral arrangement. I had just the spot for it on John’s desk next to his portrait. They entered and put the vase on the desk, then clasped their hands prayerfully and bowed to John. Then we exchanged hugs and sat down to chat for a bit. I told them about John’s last months and how peacefully he made his transition. 

In years past, following meetings on our offices or hours in the studio, we often went out with Kiyoshi to eat shabu-shabu in restaurants on one coast or the other. John was especially fond of this meal where you cook your own thinly sliced beef and vegetables in a pot of hot broth then dip in goma-dare (sesame) or ponzu sauces. When John and I found an authentic Japanese restaurant here in Pasadena specializing in it, we became regulars, going once a week for many years. With only one day in town, Kiyoshi and Suzuki were not free for dinner, but after they left, Chie and I went there and toasted John. 

Kampai, my darling.

Happy birthday my darling!

I love you yesterday, today, forever… just like it said on our wedding cake.

I know that some little part of you wished to make it to the 100th birthday milestone, not because you reveled in rituals or awards – everyone who knew you knows better than that – but I know you wanted that centennial happy birthday letter from Obama! Again, all who knew you are keenly aware that the value of that letter lies not in it’s Presidential nature, you have letters of thanks and commendations from prior Presidents, but because Obama is America’s first African-American President.

I will never forget inauguration day – a day you thought would never come. We hosted a small breakfast party in our living room. You, your son Michael, and friends Washington Rucker and John Mitchell – representing three generations of Black men – partaking of scrambled eggs with grits, bacon, and biscuits while talking about history and watching it unfold.

When the swearing in ceremony was to begin, plates were left behind and you four moved to straight-backed chairs much closer to the television. You could have heard the proverbial pin-drop and if someone had been able to gather up the tears of joy that were shed around the world when Obama was sworn in, mankind would never fear another drought.

During the hours we were glued to the television I saw other emotions as well — concern for Obama’s well-being, fear for his life, and fury when he and Michele got out of their car and walked down The Avenue…and oh yes, a great deal of pride. I am so glad you lived to see that day.

I am glad, too, that you lived to see some more personal milestones, growing closer to your children and grandchildren, and holding in your arms your one and only Levy great-grandson who will carry the Levy name forward.

Before you left, you got to read the many 100th birthday messages that people sent, and I saw how touched you were by their words. The only message I really wish you could have seen was a condolence letter I received from a total stranger — Sally, now an older woman and a jazz fan for decades, wrote “Mr. Levy was a great man (not only as an artist himself) but for his recognition of all these great jazz artists!”

You see, my darling, your legacy lives on in oh so many ways….

[here’s a link to the memorial card and letter to friends posted on]