Friday, December 19, 2014

TRUE grit

The pain of it will ease a bit when you find a man with true grit...

This may be the last and most important and personal tale I'll be able to tell for awhile. But it's something I need to share. Please bear with me until the end.

In the fall of 1989, I met a man -- and eventually a family -- that would change my life forever.

I told a Facebook group this part of the story a few days ago.

When I first met "Coach P" -- James Elwood Pennington -- we were in middle school gym class. I weighed maybe 110-120 pounds soaking wet at the time, and here comes John Wayne. 

I'm thinking, "Oh, no, this guy's going to be another former jock jerk." NOTHING could be further from the truth. He was a gentle giant. 

I liked him immediately. Then I came to love him. So did every single human being who got to know him. 

Coach Pennington died Tuesday, way too young, at age 67. He'd had major heart attack in 2006 and has suffered from heart-related problems for some time. Don't forget that heart business. We'll get back to it in a few minutes. 

Forgive a couple of quick personal references, but our first instinct when someone dies is to internalize it, to remember the impact they had on our lives. 

I'll never forget one gym class. We were in the middle of a wrestling unit. He was picking students to wrestle each other using moves he'd taught us while others sat in a circle and watched. 

He pitted me against a kid I knew was going to beat me. "He's going to get killed," I heard somebody say. 

I had the kid pinned in less than 10 seconds. I don't say that to brag, but to give Coach the credit. I learned a valuable life lesson that day. Never doubt yourself if you've prepared. Do your homework. Listen to your teacher. Always give everything 100 percent, an old cliche that happens to be true. I'll never forget Coach P's smile afterwards. He had sensed something, and was correct.

I learned later that Coach P created that curriculum himself, and had to sell it to the powers that be downtown. 

In sixth grade, I watched Coach's son, Chad, play basketball. Little did I know where Chad's story would lead. We'll get to that in a minute, too.

One morning, in the summer between middle and high school, I got a call. 

"Jake?" 

"Yes?"

"Do you know who this is?"

"Well, the voice is familiar."

"Well, it isn't your dad."

I finally recognized the timbre and cadence in that voice.

"Coach Pennington!"  

He was calling to ask me to film his freshman football team's practices and some of the games that fall. There is no other man that the 14-year-old Jake would have gotten up at 6 a.m. to lug a camera (they were boxy 22 years ago) and go sit in 100-degree heat for than Coach P. I was just honored that he called. 

Watching him with kids, I learned more Xs and Os than I ever would again, save conversations with my stepfather, who played college ball at UT-Martin. Although the national pastime was my first love, football was a close bridesmaid to the baseball bride. I'd played a short while and gave it up, recognizing that my talent lied in telling the story. And I'd gotten into music, and thus became that curious species called a fan.

But I learned something way more important from Coach P than what to do on third and long. I watched how he dealt with the kids. Tough, when he needed to be. Encouraging, when that would work. But fair, always fair. 

And he had this truly unique sense of humor, one you'd miss until you got to know him or he got to know you. Finally, I learned that, sometimes, his grin would give him away. I don't know what to call it. Doug Bright, a former teacher of mine who is one of both my and Coach P's best friends, couldn't either. "It wasn't a dry wit," he said, his voice trailing off.

Coach was a Christian who believed in sharing his faith by example. He was that rare specimen, a human being who was exactly what you saw. He lent his car to people and didn't worry about getting home. He really did treat others the way he'd want to be treated. 

He shared Bible verses, or something he'd read in Oswald Chambers, talked the talk and walked the walk, as they say. He never hit you over the head with it. He wasn't the type of "Christian" to throw around any of that holier-than-thou, "let me guilt you into something" junk. It made him a great witness for what he believed. Nothing sells like sincerity. 

When I walked into the Halls High building for the very first day that summer -- to get something for Coach from his wife, Denise -- a girl saw me stumbling around and said, "Aren't you Jake Mabe?" 

"Uh, yes," I said. 

"I thought so. I'm Andrea, Coach and Mrs. P's daughter. I'm friends with your sister. Mom's classroom is over here." 

Helpers, those Penningtons.

Moving into high school, Denise took over where Coach left off. She asked me to film her drama rehearsals, taking me away from filming football. Coach didn't care. And by sophomore year, she recruited me for her drama class. Back then I was skinny and shy, incredibly introverted. But I agreed. I'd already learned to listen and act when a Pennington asked you to do something. Hearing the first bit of laughter from the audience at my performance, I was hooked. My shell had been broken. 

Coach and Mrs. P had helped pummel the pieces of that shell as I navigated through nervous adolescence. Next thing you know, I was no longer afraid to speak before an audience, stealing scenes in school plays, more comfortable on stage in front of hundreds than I was at an intimate party.

And they'd shown the world what makes a marriage. They were, on the surface anyway, about as opposite as couple as Ronald Reagan and Karl Marx. But they valued the same things, taught the same things (albeit in different ways), and loved each other more than any two people I've ever met, together for 40-some years.

After graduation, I didn't see the Penningtons again in person for two or three years. Chad went to Webb School of Knoxville to attend high school, playing football and basketball, then became a noted quarterback at Marshall University. He threw big-time bombs to Randy Moss, finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting, went to play for the New York Jets. I just marveled. And wondered if Denise still called him Chadwick. (She does.)

One day, we were eating at a restaurant near the house. I heard that familiar timbre and cadence again. Coach, Denise, Chad and a man I didn't recognize were eating at the table beside us. Chad was trying to stay unnoticed, dressed in an old sweatshirt with the hood up. He had either just signed his contract with the Jets or finished his first season. 

He turned around, waved and grinned. I got a hug from Denise. But as they got up to leave, Coach came over to talk. It was so good to see that grin again. The others were ready to leave, but Coach lingered, talking, asking about my life, making me feel like the most important person in his world at the moment. He didn't brag about Chad, didn't mention New York or the Jets, no sir. That's how he was. He once was featured in The New York Times. I never heard about it. The only person Coach ever bragged about, if that's the right way to say it, was Jesus Christ.

I never saw him again.

Meanwhile, I watched Chad's NFL career unfold in the first decade of the 21st century. He battled back from injury, finished his career with the Miami Dolphins, started a charity. I saw Andrea when she came back to North Knoxville to work for awhile. I tried to call Coach once at his lake house, but didn't get him. I've always regretted that I didn't keep trying. 

I also watched Chad and Andrea blossom into adults with families of their own. Social media eventually made that easier. 

And it brought the news to me several months ago that Coach was at Emory University hospital, awaiting a heart transplant. We'd heard ominous news, then better news. He finally got a machine to help him. Things looked good at first, then his body began to shut down.

Forgive one rather personal note. I have been going through a trial of my own this year. I suffered nerve damage during a surgery and began to have headaches and other problems that became debilitating. By mid-April, I couldn't work. By early May, I couldn't get out of bed. By June, I was officially disabled. Two surgeries later, the doctors are still trying to help.

The only way I'm able to write this is by taking as much medicine as I safely can and taking my time. I just felt the need. Maybe somebody needs to hear about Coach P. I don't know.

I had to make a doctor's visit and take every medicine I could safely take, and Peggy Bright was kind enough to let me ride with her, but I made it to Coach's funeral last night. Something told me to go, if I could. It got interesting (I was a sleepy zombie by the end, starting to forget where I was, but I had made it.)

That celebration of life at Faith Promise Church was a sermon. That's what it was. Had the pastor given an alter call, I'd say all 700-plus people would have made their way up there for one reason or another.

I learned some things about Coach I didn't know. He displayed his sense of humor at a big seminar out of town a few years ago and got a standing ovation from his peers. He made sure his best friend, Tim George, and son Chad, stayed up to date on reading Oswald Chambers' daily devotional "My Utmost for His Highest." He tried to keep Webb football coach David Meske calm on Friday nights -- every head football coach I've ever met goes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde to one degree or another on game day. 

My favorite story was during Webb's 1996 state championship run. One team was trying to keep them off the field 30 minutes later than is allowed. Meske blew up, called the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, blew up some more. Finally, he got the OK. His players marching right behind him, Meske walked onto the field, probably a scene like something out of an old war movie. 

He looked up and saw Coach Pennington and another coach buying hot dogs at the concession stand.

Chad and Andrea spoke last night. They were poised, their prose poignant and perfect. I was moved beyond measure, have never seen such grace under pressure. Andrea shared a verse. Chad said that he, too, never lived up to the standards set by his father.

Coach passed along words of wisdom, great, golden goodies like these: 

"Respect is not earned; it's displayed." 

"The greatest gift you can give your children is yourself." 

"Treat others the way you'd want to be treated." 

"Have character, don't be a character."  

The last one was meant for me to hear: "Don't start having yourself a pity party. Next thing you know, you'll be an emotional wreck. Reach down and pull up your boot straps and GO!" 

I've tried not to complain too much during my trial. As painful as it's been, day after day after day, alone in the dark, I keep telling myself to be grateful and thankful that this isn't terminal. I see so many on Facebook and in my own life who have it so much worse than I. I cherish the days I can watch an hour of TV or listen to Bing Crosby or Elvis Presley for a few minutes or scan my Facebook feed.

Sometimes I've leaned on friends, marveled at their kindness. Sometimes I've shed more than a few tears. I've missed a special, longtime friend's wedding, another good friend's retirement party, gotten so sick I just wanted to die, lost the ability to do what I love, lost nearly every cent I have.  

After hearing Coach's last quote, I vowed that I might have to take baby steps at first, even if it gets darker before it gets lighter, but I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other, resting in the valley when I need to, but aiming for the mountaintop, maybe getting by with a little help from my friends (and family), but holding no pity parties. Even in death, Coach taught me one last lesson.

Driving me home, Doug Bright got philosophical. "There's no way -- no way -- we can ever live up to the way he lived his life." I agreed. Said the best we could do was try.

When we got to my driveway, Senor (as I'll forever call him; he taught Spanish) said, "We've learned tonight that life is short. Even if I have to pick you up, let's get together. Let's just put it on the calendar and get together over the holidays. I'll come over here if you're having a bad day or I'll come pick you up." I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. That's something else we as human beings should do every day. 

And we both vowed we were going to use Coach Pennington's life as an example by which to try to live. If I get one-third of the way up the yardstick that Coach set, I'll be a much better person than I am now.

Remember I told you earlier not to forget about that heart business? Here's why. 

My thought was that Coach's figurative heart could never be replaced. You can't replace a one of one. 

“If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.”

Guess who? Yep, that's from Oswald Chambers. I don't know for sure, but I suspect that if he read that, Coach Pennington would have eventually thought in literal terms and thanked God for breaking his heart.  

My favorite movie is the 1969 original "True Grit." At its essence, the story is about determination, about righting wrong, about getting a job done no matter the difficulty, about making sure somebody takes responsibility for their own actions. 

John Wayne has always been larger than life to me. Often, when I needed to relax or escape, I'd throw in "True Grit" or "The Shootist" or a hundred other of his films. 

But Elwood Pennington had true grit, the real kind, the kind that gets tough on you because he loves you, the kind that gives you his last dollar and doesn't worry about getting it back, the kind that sends you into the stratosphere when you need a lift, the kind that doesn't boast, isn't proud, and rejoices with the truth. 

I started to write that I hope you have a Coach P cross paths with you at some point in your life, but unless you knew him, that's not going to happen. There will never be another human being like him. 

John Shephard, the son of former Halls High coach Gary, put it perfectly on his Facebook page, much better than anything I've said here today: 

"Doctors say (Coach Pennington's) heart needed to be replaced, but I don't see it that way. He had gave each of us a piece of his heart to carry with us for the rest of our lives. He was a man of God, and this is what God had instructed him to do."

And that, my friends, is James Elwood Pennington, a man with true grit.

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Thursday, December 04, 2014

Here's to joy...

Forgive me for the length of this note, but several friends have asked me to provide an update on my health. This is the only way I can keep in touch with most of my dear friends, co-workers, and loved ones now.

My doctor has put me on a strong dose of medicine (it's in the same "family" as Lyrica for those familiar with that med) in an attempt to calm the damaged nerve that doctors believe is causing these debilitating headaches. The early returns are that the med knocks me out and makes me slightly nauseated and hurting in my wrists. Constant nausea -- either from the headaches or side effects from medicine -- means that I usually only feel like eating one small meal a day. I want to emphasize for those who missed my very first posts on Facebook, in the Shopper-News, and on my blog back in April that my condition is NOT terminal -- thank the Lord. There is only a slight chance that continuous severe migraines can cause a "migraine stroke."

If this approach doesn't work, my doctor advises what I've already been thinking -- seeking help at a research facility (Cleveland Clinic, Mayo, Vanderbilt, Duke). 

I won't lie. The days are difficult. It's a daily toss-up whether the migraine-like headaches are going to be moderate (say a 5 on the 1-10 scale) or severe (7 or above). I spend each day in a cool, dark room and cannot tolerate light or noise. I spend my days thinking, sleeping, dreaming -- mostly about moving to the Mississippi Gulf, Hawaii or southern California.

I can no longer read, write (this note has taken all my strength), listen to music, or even read the newspaper. I can, on a good day, scan Facebook or Twitter to see what's in the news and what's going on in the lives of you, my friends. I feel so lucky, though -- even though I am disabled, I see so many with cancer, heart-related problems, etc., and feel like I'm fortunate. My heart goes out to all of you who are hurting in any way.

My illness -- which dates back to complications from a surgery I had last year -- and recent events, especially the tragic school bus accident in East Knox County that killed three, including two young children, has reminded me that one can't take anything for granted. Each day is a gift, and nothing here is guaranteed. I have lost my ability to work, to function daily, to enjoy all the simple things I love and took for granted -- writing, working, reading, crossword puzzles, listening to music, old radio shows, or news on radio/TV. So many others have lost so much more, including loved ones, and could be staring terminal illnesses right in the face. It puts things in perspective.

There's much more I want to say, but I've worked on this note on and off for some time and have gotten sick. I do want you to know that I love each and every one of you. Those who have brought me food, sent me notes of encouragement, made phone calls on my behalf, sat with me while I slept, took me to doctors' appointments or surgeries, done favors both large and small -- I can never thank you enough. To all of you who ask my family, friends, and co-workers about me, I thank you, too. All of this, you see, keeps me going.

To my family, what can I say? Even though we have more than our share of illnesses right now, we've somehow made it this far. I love you and thank you for what you've done for me. My best Christmas present would be that we're all happy and healthy. 

I have read so much hatred of late, and I think life is way too short, WAY too short, to let hatred rule your heart. I used to get fired up about politics or this or that myself, but when you suddenly find yourself immobile and living with constant pain, or see loved ones struggle daily, or watch friends fight illnesses, or read about the death of someone as young as 5 or 6, your priorities change.

Just -- please -- pause, take a deep breath, recognize, as Carl Sagan once said, “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let them live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

You don't know how badly, how much I would give to be back out there, seeking stories of humanity, trying to share them with you through words or rhyme.

You don't know how much I'd love to hear Robinella, Sarah Clapp, Paul Brewster, The Black Lillies, and Phil Leadbetter sing or pick live again, or enjoy a beverage and a ball game with Mike Finn. Or hang out with Brad, Bill, Robert, Jim, and "the gang," or go on Friday night dinners with Robert and Diana. Or simply to be able to listen to Bing Crosby on the turntable.

You don't know how much I'd enjoy laughing or joking about our "Twilight Zone"-like ESP connection with Ross Southerland, or talking with Tom Mayer or Brandon Hollingsworth -- who have to be brothers from different mothers, because our interests are so similar and esoteric -- or enjoy the company of the Halls Women's League, the Fountain City Lions Club or the Northside Kiwanis.

Bethany and Danny -- I owe you a lot. Your kindness and graciousness has been nothing short of amazing.

The weekly or by-monthly notes from friends on Facebook -- you have no idea how much they've meant. 

I miss Ruth White's laughter and sarcastic wit, singing with Emily, doing my Ted Baxter voice for Shannon ("Hey, Mare!), trying to make the gals in compo (Sara, Kathryn, Patrice) laugh with my impressions, and, yes, I even miss trying to live up to Sandra's expectations. She made me a better writer, and for that, I'll always be grateful. Libby, Judy, Carol, Wendy, Cindy, Anne, all of you are dearly missed.

You don't know how much I miss Saturday nights at Shelton's, phone calls with Dean, planning a drive to see Dewayne and Bridget, or the love of a good woman. You don't know how much I miss dinners with the Rat and John D., or the annual trip to see Marvin and Sarah West. You don't know how much I hope to still keep those lunch appointments with Lola Alapo, Carly Harrington, Thomas Deakins and Mike Cohen. You don't know how much I hope I can go vinyl hunting with Spencer or Janna again. (Jack and Maria, I hope to see you again soon!) And dear Rheta -- I'm gonna make it to Fishtrap Hollow one of these days, come hell or high water. Give my best to Hines.

You don't know how much I hope to be back in the D with David and Jen. You don't know how much I hope I can make a minor league game with Kurt or even drive over to Charlotte and relax on Sonia's deck again. You don't know how much I want to fly out to California and finally make it to Coronado with Chuck. And, even though WATE was stupid enough to let Gene Patterson go, I hope that he, Cortney Piper, George Korda, Craig Griffith and I can be on a panel or something again.

You don't know how much it hurt to be unable to attend Drew Weaver's wedding, Scott Bacon's retirement party and 100 other things. Trust me when I say I was there in spirit. 

I miss all of you, my friends, you dear people who have made this journey so sweet. And it is a sweet, sweet dream.

"Sometimes I fly like an eagle; sometimes I'm deep in despair."

I'll leave the last word to the late Carl Sagan and update you later as I can. I've made an extra effort to write this update, mainly to thank you, and to be honest, I've made myself sick. But it was worth it to tell you I love you.

Here's Carl:

"In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty," Sagan said. "And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.” 

Here's to joy, my friends. Here's to joy.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Goodnight Saigon

They call it Ho Chi Minh City now, but to thousands upon thousands it will forever be Saigon, a place where they lost their innocence, their wallets, their optimism, their brothers, their families, their lovers, their lives.

At left, the last Marine helicopter leaves the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, April 29, 1975 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Sitting here in limbo

Hi, gang.

I'll be in limbo until further notice. I have taken a medical leave of absence from the newspaper to deal with a debilitating, but thankfully non-terminal, illness.

The long and short of it is that I can't read or write for any length of time and, on bad days, can't even listen to the radio or watch television. Being robbed of my hobbies is heartbreaking, but I'm still here to tell the tale.

So, as Jimmy Cliff sang, "I'm sitting here in limbo, but I know (hope) it won't be for long."

You're looking above at the famous Hotel del Coronado on Coronado Island near San Diego. It was rumored that Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson met here, which isn't true. They did spend time there, though, and you're seeing it because I wish I was there. I think the timbre of the tides and the salubrious scenery would do wonders for my weaknesses.

As it is, I watch reruns of "Harry O" (filmed on Coronado and in San Diego early on) when I can, and
try to catch Padres games when they're playing on the West Coast and I can't get Vin Scully. I like and have admired the Padres' announcer, Dick Enberg, for years. And I have a huge crush on Fox Sports San Diego reporter Kate Osborne.

Baseball, as it has for decades, has rescued me yet again. It's there, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, often breaking my heart but a daily presence six months out of the year, beginning in the sweetness of spring when the colors are in sharp focus and the possibilities are as endless as pi.

So, let me say au revoir, because I certainly plan to see you again. I wish you nothing but peace, joy, happiness, fastballs thrown right down the middle of the plate, and the sweet surrender of sunshine on your shoulders.

See you soon, my friends.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Recalled to life

Charlotte, N.C. -- It has returned, this game, this pastime, this soothing balm for the stricken soul.

Baseball.

Four months of illness, pain, winter, and disappointment have given way to springtime, to sunshine, to the melody of sweet, sweet song.

The music is medicine -- ball hitting bat, barkers boasting beer, peanuts, Cracker Jack, chatter.

Last night, on a super Saturday in Charlotte, the Knights came from behind late to beat the Norfolk Tides 4-2. The Budweiser Clydesdales were on hand to christen the new BB&T Ballpark. 10,199 others joined me, and I didn't want to go home.

But, then again, I never want to go home.

Kurt Pickering has made it to minor-league ballpark No. 127. He'll have visited every affiliated park by the end of the year. How about that!

I have a more meager goal -- to get to more than a game or two this year. Migraines keep me home these days. It's OK. I shut my eyes, listen to the Tigers game, or to Vin Scully if he's on, or to Dick Enberg. I like good broadcasters. Few remain.

You can pack up your troubles and leave them elsewhere when you're watching a ball game. Nothing else matters. Not one damn thing.

Like the old man in Dickens, you are recalled to life, connected to that part of you that is still eight years old, when the difference between joy and heartache is measured by mere inches.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Far out!"

A funny thing happened on Facebook yesterday.

I've been listening to a lot of John Denver lately. I recently purchased a box set of all of his RCA albums, and he's usually not far from the CD or record player anyway. (He's among my top 6 favorites, which also include Elvis, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Karen Carpenter and Robinella.)

Anyway, I thought I'd take a poll and ask my Facebook friends to name their favorite JD album and/or song.

The far and away favorite song was "Thank God I'm A Country Boy." And it's no wonder. It's infectious. If you can listen to that song without a smile on your face, you have a heart of stone. A close second was "Back Home Again."

And, interestingly, the favorite album was John Denver and The Muppets, "A Christmas Together." Heh, heh. The Muppets have staying power, methinks, and certainly hold a special place in the hearts of those of us who grew up in the '70s and '80s.

For the record, no pun intended, my favorite John Denver album is "Windsong" and my favorite single is "Looking For Space," which I consider my theme song.

Sometimes I fly like an eagle; sometimes I'm deep in despair...

John Denver's music does what all good music should -- it makes me happy, sad, introspective, fun-loving, running the gamut of human emotions.

This music has provided the soundtrack of my life. He was omnipresent on the radio in childhood. We even sang his songs in elementary school music class.

"Looking For Space" plays a prominent role in my favorite "Magnum, p.i." episode, "Limbo."

And I'll never forget getting ready for work that awful October day in 1997 when Mom busted into the bathroom.

"Jake, I just heard on the radio that John Denver is dead!"

Stunned silence.

I miss John Denver. I miss his spirit. I miss his soul. I even miss that goofy grin.

Found a few clips you might like.

Here is John Denver guest hosting "The Tonight Show" for Johnny Carson, interviewing Carl Sagan.

Here is the song he wrote for the Challenger 7, "Flying For Me."

And here is JD with Bill and Taffy Danoff singing the song they co-wrote together, his 1971 mega-hit, "Take Me Home Country Roads."

Far out!

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Isn't it rich?

Ah, yes. Detox day.

We all need them from time to time, don'tcha think? Just a day to relax, unwind, do whatever makes you happy, forget your troubles awhile.

Planned on getting outside on Saturday -- gotta work on that Dino tan -- but my back had other ideas. Yep. Having some pain down there. Just hoping it's not a kidney stone. Those are bad words in my house after giving birth to 13 of them.

But, all wasn't lost. I caught a complete "Dean Martin Show" and was able to listen to Jonathan Schwartz's birthday tribute to one of my favorite composers, Stephen Sondheim. (I cannot believe that man is 84.)

I'm not a huge fan of Broadway musicals, but I do like a few. Rodgers and Hart and Rodgers and Hammerstein are favorites, but Sondheim's songs touch my soul.

My favorite -- it's hard to pick just one -- is "A Little Night Music," an adaptation of Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night." Love that play.

And, although it's a cliche, my favorite Sondheim song is, you guessed it, "Send In The Clowns."

Everybody has their interpretation of the tune. Mine is that it's about a man and a woman looking back at a relationship that didn't make it. She -- in this case Desiree -- runs into the man -- in this case, the lawyer Fredrik -- who has wed but not consummated a marriage with a much younger woman. During the course of the play, Desiree looks back on the disappointments and missed opportunities of her life. It's a universal human theme.

In a 1973 interview at the Lincoln Center, Sondheim said:

"I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she's an actress, but it's not supposed to be a circus [...] 

"It's a theater reference meaning 'if the show isn't going well, let's send in the clowns'; in other words, 'let's do the jokes.' I always want to know, when I'm writing a song, what the end is going to be, so 'Send in the Clowns' didn't settle in until I got the notion, 'Don't bother, they're here,' which means that 'We are the fools.'"


I've been in that situation once. Right romance. Wrong time. It happens. How you deal with it is what's important.

The song was written for Glynis Johns. I like the covers by Judy Collins, Mandy Patinkin and Barbra Streisand, but -- to me -- the definitive cover is by Francis Albert Sinatra.

Frank recorded it twice. The first attempt in 1973 is fine but flawed. It's a Gordon Jenkins arrangement, and as Schwartz said on his show, it's filled with too many fiddles.

Schwartz sent Sinatra a letter suggesting he record the song again just like he performed it in concert -- quietly, with only Bill Miller's piano as an accompaniment.

So, in May 1976, that's what Sinatra did. It's magic. Listen. See what I mean?

Useless trivia: This is also the only Sinatra song recorded in a studio that features a spoken word introduction.

Anyway. It was good to hear Jon Schwartz tonight. Due to my busy schedule (and frequent migraines), I haven't had a chance to listen to him of late. His was a fitting tribute to a true pioneer. Sondheim's music is magic, his lyrics are lovely, and his plays are (almost always) perfect.

Isn't it rich, indeed!

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