In Praise of Food…and Lillian Rozin!

I am well aware that all sorts of challenging — and often heart-breaking — situations continue to unfold here on planet earth.

However, I have decided in recent blog posts to accentuate the positive.

Part of the fun of re-vamping my website earlier this year was re-visiting my musical past.

When I first started working at the Cambridge Center For Adult Education in Harvard Square, we co-produced a lot of events — open mics, workshops, seminars, performances — with the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA).

BACA is a humble and surprisingly resilient non-profit group which a bunch of us helped to start over 25 years ago.

And it is still going strong — an ongoing labor of love — due to the efforts of a generous and ever-evolving group of singers, musicians, songwriters and music fans who serve on its board, bless them.

I do not remember exactly how I met singer/actor Lillian Rozin, who is now a psychotherapist, yoga instructor and author, too.

Maybe at a BACA open mic?

In any case, we hit it off and Lillian started creating lavish spreads of appetizers and desserts for our open mic nights.

I am not someone who follows recipes or considers himself to be much of a cook.

But Lillian is an inspired and inspiring goddess in the kitchen.

She learned to love food and cooking from — among other people — her mother, the much-published food writer, Elizabeth Rozin.

Eventually we started performing together as “The Will & Lil Show” — co-creating two different shows of music and ideas before she moved from the Boston area back to her homeland of Philadelphia.

Our first show focused on the subject of water — in rivers, clouds, oceans, harbors, showers, wading pools, and even our own metabolisms.

We followed that with a show called We Are What We Eat — A Potluck Cabaret which featured songs about eating, serving and preparing food such as Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster,” Bernstein, Comden and Green’s “I Can Cook, Too,” Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the Sherman Brothers’ “Feed The Birds,” and Stephen Schwartz’s “It’s An Art.”

The show began with Lillian and me on stage chopping and slicing and preparing various finger-foods while audience members were finding their seats.

Once everyone had arrived, we began singing a song (in the player at the start of the blog post) from William Finn’s musical “March Of The Falsettos” while serving the audience what we had been preparing onstage.

It was a lot of fun.

The original lyrics for “Making A Home” included some references to food — to which we added a few more.

Recently I was happy to find a computer disk which contained some of our original PR photos as well as a script for our food show.

Here’s a list of food-related items that we used during the show:

Image by Bernadette Wurzinger from Pixabay

Microwave pre-set with popcorn.

Baguette. 

Hardboiled eggs.

Little pots of strawberry jam.

Toast.

English muffin.

Little jar of mustard.

Watercress or heavy duty parsley.

Hamsteak.

Bones/chew toys.

Root vegetables.

Image by Jordan Stimpson from Pixabay 

Brie, cheddar, harvarti dill, goat, and cream cheeses.

Grapes.

Olives.

Cornichon.

Pop tarts.

Pringles potato chips.

Spam.

Count Chocula/Cocoa Puffs/Lucky Charms cereal boxes.

Jello.

Bacon bits.

Strawberry Newtons.

One pound of smoked fish.

Horseradish.

Lots of crackers.

Cider.

Bag of salad.

Packets of Sweet & Lo.

Vinegar cruet.

Celery.

Peanut butter and peanuts.

Bologna.

Non-dairy whipped topping.

Bananas.

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 

Melon.

Bosco.

Two pie plates.

Marischino cherries.

Cutting boards.

And knives.

As you can probably extrapolate from this list of props, we covered a lot of ground in this show — from the processed food industry (for which Lillian’s mother had once consulted) to food norms in different cultures (Lillian has traveled a lot) to my past as a child actor doing commercials for various food products (such as Ring Ding Juniors, Lifesavers, Imperial margarine, and Oreo cookies).

Here’s an excerpt from what we said after we sang “Making A Home” while serving appetizers to the audience.

Lil: “Will and I love to cook.”

Will: “And we love to feed other people what we have cooked.”

Lil: “And we love to eat; so this show was a no-brainer.

Will: “Eating is something that is easy to take for granted. 

Lillian Rozin and Will McMillan standing back to back and smiling...
Photo by Stephen C. Fischer

Lil: “We do it several times a day, often out of habit or while we are focused on something else.”

Will: “But eating is really a magical process.  Think about it… radiation from a nearby star is captured by plants who transform it into something that we can absorb into our bodies, which becomes… us.”

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Over twenty years later I am still amazed by how life works here on planet earth!

Near the end of the show Lillian tied me to a chair while singing “Have An Eggroll Mr. Goldstein” from Gypsy and stuffing all sorts of delicious, cut-up fruit into my mouth.

Then we sang “You’re The Cream In My Coffee” while throwing pie plates full of non-dairy whipped topping in each other’s faces.

Our encore was “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries.”

This delightful anthem was written by Lew Brown (lyrics) and Ray Henderson (music) for Ethel Merman to sing in George White’s Scandals of 1931 after she had rejected another song they had wanted her to perform.

I am very thankful that Ms. Merman knew — when she was still in the early years of her extraordinary career the entertainment industry — what kind of song she could and couldn’t deliver to an audience.

Otherwise Ray and Lew might not have written this musical gem.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Thank you for reading and listening to this somewhat light-hearted blog post.

I will undoubtedly return to more serious topics in the future.

Today I have been inspired by a statement currently circulating (I hope accurately) on FaceBook from a Hopi Indian Chief named White Eagle.

“This moment humanity is experiencing can be seen as a door or a hole. The decision to fall in the hole or walk through the door is up to you.

“If you consume the news 24 hours a day, with negative energy, constantly nervous, with pessimism, you will fall into this hole. But if you take the opportunity to look at yourself, to rethink life and death, to take care of yourself and others, then you will walk through the portal…

“Don’t feel guilty for feeling blessed in these troubled times. Being sad or angry doesn’t help at all…

Lillian with her beloved dog Albee!

“Show resistance through art, joy, trust and love.”

Another deep breath in.

And deep breath out.

Thank you to Lillian Rozin for being one of my favorite collaborators… and one of my favorite chefs, too!

Thank you to Doug Hammer for playing piano AND recording the rehearsal from which we recently selected and mixed these songs.

Thank you to Ray Brown and Lew Henderson for writing “LIfe Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” — and to Ethel Merman for inspiring them to do so.

Thank you to William Finn for writing “Making A Home.”

You are always welcome to visit my website — where you can find more songs from The Will & Lil Show celebrating food.

Or you can find me singing — with Doug Hammer playing his Schimmel grand piano — on SpotifyPandoraApple Music and other digital music platforms.

And if you are hungry for more music, you are welcome to listen to my latest release, “The Carter Family” by Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman on a bunch of different digital music platforms.

A Love Letter to the Postal Service…

As some of you may know, postal rates are going up at the end of the month — August 29th.

A regular stamp will cost 58 cents, and postcard stamps will go up to 40 cents.

If you are a fan of sending and receiving cards and letters (or you still pay some of your bills by mail…) now is the time to stock up on stamps!

I am a huge fan of stamps AND of the US postal service.

You can click here to see all the stamps currently for sale by the US Post Office online.

I am using some of my recent favorites to illustrate this blog post.

I feel the postal service is one of the things that still connects all of us — and that we all continue to use on a regular basis — regardless of political ideology, religious affiliation, racial ancestry, and socio-economic status (although the rates going up and up and up certainly make it more expensive to use…)

I also like our postal carrier, Rob.

He has been assigned to our neighborhood for the past decade (at least), and his familiar face — and warm personality — weave all of us in this section of East Arlington together on a daily basis.

Mostly what I receive in the mail are bills, credit card statements, requests for money from organizations to which I may have given a tiny amount of money in the past (or from new organizations to whom someone has given or sold my name and address) and advertisements.

On very rare occasions, I get a handwritten — and sometimes even a handcrafted! — card.

And I savor it…

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

I am not sure exactly what makes a hand-written card/note/letter different from an email/text message.

There is the pleasure of seeing a person’s individual, idiosyncratic, and — in a few cases — beautiful handwriting.

I also like knowing that the person who wrote it has touched the same paper and the envelope and the stamp that I am now touching as I rip it open and read it.

And I like seeing what stamp they have selected.

But there is also — for me at least — an element of respect that is somehow implied by the fact that they found the time to find a card (or piece of paper), write something on it, put it into an envelope, address it, stamp it, and get it into the mail.

And then, somewhat magically, it finds its way to me!

I have had jobs which included dropping off mail at both a local office and at a huge regional mail sorting center.

I have seen the people and conveyor belts and sorting machines and wheeled carts and trucks that are responsible for a card or letter or package getting from point A to point B.

It is quite a feat of logistics which most of us take for granted.

And I have never had a card or letter or bill payment (that I know of…) get lost.

On rare occasions I have received something which got a little chewed up en route.

But it was still legible.

In particular I love to send “thank you” cards.

It became a habit when I was given a promotion from part-time events coordinator to full-time PR director (who still coordinated a lot of events) at the Cambridge Center For Adult Education over twenty years ago.

Email was just becoming a regular thing — and hand-written cards were becoming more of a rarity.

Any time a media person included one of our classes or events in a calendar listing, or mentioned us in an article, or interviewed one of our teachers, or mentioned us on the radio, or covered us in any way — I sent them a hand-written “thank you” card.

I wanted to thank them, AND I also wanted to jumpstart (and then nurture) a relationship with them so that when they were next on a deadline and needed some expert to interview for a story, they might be more inclined to think of us as a potential resource.

Or when they had to choose an event to feature in their weekly calendar, they might be a little more likely to select one of our offerings.

Or they might even come and take one of our classes — or attend one of our poetry readings or concerts or workshops.

I was happily surprised (and a little bit embarrassed) to learn, when I attended an annual conference of local black journalists one year, that I had even become slightly infamous when an editor from The Boston Globe referred to me as “the guy who sends all of those ‘thank you’ notes.”

I continue to send “thank you” cards after every one of my gigs to the person who booked us — and sometimes also to the person who welcomed us and made sure we were all set up, too.

And I send “thank you” notes for gifts I receive, to family or friends who feed me dinner or host me on trips, and to local media folks who write about me and my musical life here on planet earth.

I love the cards at Trader Joe’s (only a buck each) and have learned that if I see something I like, I need to buy a bunch of them because I may never see them again for sale.

And every six months or so I go to a local discount department store, TJ Maxx, in a strip mall located a 12-minute bike ride from home.

If I am lucky, they have a bunch of simple, elegant “thank you” cards (in boxes of 12 or 15 or even 20!) at a half or a third of their regular price.

This translates to anywhere from 25 to 50 cents per card.

Then I buy 5-10 boxes of whatever is nicest (because I’ll probably never see any of THEM for sale either) and ride home feeling very rich in ‘thank you” cards.

Same thing for stamps.

If I see some I like, I buy many sheets (or rolls) of that particular design because there is no telling when they will sell out at my local post office — located a four-minute walk from my home.

I guess I could order them online, but I love going to an actual post office and talking with an actual postal employee.

I don’t love putting on two face masks — a medical one and a fabric one — before I go inside, but the more infectious Delta mutation is on the rise even here in relatively well-vaccinated Massachusetts.

So I am using face masks again when I am inside a public space like a post office or grocery store.

Last week when I bought a bunch of stamps, I was the only customer in the post office — which made my visit short and sweet.

I purchased $800 worth of postcard stamps — with a selection of beautiful barns on them — to go along with the 10,000 postcards I ordered earlier this year.

Actually I only ordered 5,000 postcards, but the printer did not understand the four-card template I sent to them and misprinted the first 5,000 (with four small messages rather than one big message on each card).

Then they very generously reprinted them correctly at no extra cost; so I ended up with 10,000 cards total — half of which say “The future belongs to those who vote,” and half of which say the same thing but four times and in much small type.

I mail them — along with a recommended hand-written message — to potential voters all over the USA who have a local election coming up (which they may or may not be aware of…)

It is one of the ways I attempt to ward off my profound disappointment — verging at times on terror — with how political events have been unfolding recently in these not-very-United States.

But this blog post is not intended to be a downer.

The recording I’ve included is a fun take of “Please Mr. Postman” written by Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, Brian Holland, and Robert Bateman. 

Wikipedia reminded me that it was the debut single by a Motown/Tamla group called The Marvelettes — originally released sixty years ago in August 1961.

Apparently the songwriter credits have varied over time — but the current copyright, I am happy to see, includes Georgia Dobbins, who was the original lead singer for The Marvelettes.

She helped create the first version of the song (which she and her bandmates sang when they auditioned for Motown/Tamla) by adapting a blues written by her friend William Garrett.

Her version was then re-worked by several Motown/Tamla songwriter/producers, including Freddie Gorman — who was also an actual Detroit postman.

I am particularly glad that she is included as a co-songwriter, because Wikipedia reports that Ms. Dobbins left the group soon after they were signed by Berry Gordy and before they recorded “Please Mr. Postman.”

There must be more to THAT story…

The song she helped to write became a hit — crossing the Atlantic to the UK where The Beatles quickly added it into their repertoire and eventually recorded it two years later in 1963.

Another thing I learned is that Marvin Gaye played drums on The Marvelettes’ version!

The Carpenters made it a hit yet again in 1975, and their version was sampled and used in another song called “Oh Yes” by the rapper Juelz Santana in 2006.

It is fascinating to see how songs, like viruses, move from one human host to another and creatively mutate over time…

The version at the beginning of this blog post is from a rehearsal I did a few years ago with the wonderful pianist Doug Hammer and a great female who shall remain nameless (until she decides if she’d like to be publicly credited).

I emailed her a copy of this recording after Doug and I spent a few hours tidying it up sonically, and I haven’t heard anything back yet.

I love the playful and somewhat spontaneous spirit of this recording, which I think was take number three during our rehearsal for the opening of an art exhibit called ART/Word which my sweetheart produces each year with a different theme.

The artistic theme that year was “Letters.”

I will end by thanking this mystery singer for joining me in our fun rendition of this song.

And thanking Doug Hammer for his gifts as a pianist AND engineer/producer.

And thanking the US postal service for continuing to exist and function!

And thanking the artists who create such an extraordinary variety of artwork for our stamps.

And thanking YOU for reading and listening to yet another one of my blog posts.

Do you still send hand-written cards and letters to anyone?

If you are hungry for more music, you are welcome to listen to my latest release, “The Carter Family” by Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman on a bunch of different digital music platforms.

And you are always welcome to visit my website — or you can find me singing (with Doug Hammer playing his Schimmel grand piano) on SpotifyPandoraApple Music and other digital music platforms.

Let’s continue to find new ways to reduce our carbon footprint on this precious planet each and every day!

There are far too many forest fires and floods and mudslides happening these days…

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out!