Whenever One Door Closes

The first photo of me with my mother, ca. March 1964.

Which drew my attention first: Glen Campbell or Anne Murray? “Country Boy” or “Shadows in the Moonlight?”

I’m standing in the hallway around the corner, twenty feet from her room, taking a short break—maybe I’m on the phone with my wife or my sister. There’s another doorway right in front of me. On the other side of the threshold, a radio belonging to a wheelchair-bound woman with dementia is playing country songs that were popular back when she could hold on to her memories. She must be quite hard of hearing as well, since the aides are keeping the music turned up LOUD for her about ten hours every day.

Mom’s been at Dover Manor for a few days, and she’s still thoroughly angry with me. Before long, she’ll move three doors down the hall, on the other side of the blaring radio, to a corner room in the front of the building, one of the only singles in the whole place. Its previous resident has just passed on.

I head back to her current room. Her roommate’s TV is tuned into the Hallmark Channel—it’s the second week of December, time for one feel-good Christmas movie after another—but Mom isn’t the slightest bit interested. 

Continue reading “Whenever One Door Closes”

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

By early May of 1992, I’d been actively seeking employment for several months.  I was less than two months from defending my dissertation, but prospects for employment in academia come fall were not promising. I’d sent out dozens of applications, and the results to date had been meager: in January, I’d had a few face-to-face chats at the national math meetings in Baltimore that ultimately led nowhere, while in February I’d bombed my only on-site interview, at a regional state university in Indiana. I was already contemplating remaining at Illinois—I thought I had a pretty good shot at getting assistantship support for one more year. Maybe I could make progress on extending results from my doctoral work, too.

At that relatively late moment in the hiring cycle, two glimmers of hope appeared. First, I snagged another interview, this time at a liberal arts college in the northern half of the Hoosier State. And I’d recently sent my materials off for an opening in Kentucky—a tenure-track position at Georgetown College, just a little north of my old stomping grounds in Lexington and only about an hour away from my parents. It was probably the last viable opening for 92-93 to hit the desk of my Director of Graduate Studies.

After final exams ended, I headed home to be with my folks for a few days, and as usual, I snuck in an overnight visit to Lexington to see James. On the way back to Florence, I made an impulsive decision to swing by Georgetown’s campus, just to remind myself of its layout (I’d been there at least a couple of times during college to see my sister’s basketball team face GC) and figure out where the math department was located.

The three-story George Matt Asher Jr. Science Center sits at the right base of the circle that leads up to Giddings Hall, the administration building. It didn’t take long to determine the Mathematics, Physics, and Computer Science (MPC) Department resided on the middle floor of Asher. Since graduation had already taken place, the floor was very quiet, except for one man doing some year-end clean-up in a physics lab. After introducing myself, I explained my reason for being there. He showed me around a little, not put out in the least by the interruption of his work. He then offered to take me to Giddings to meet the Academic Dean; I wasn’t sure how to say no. After a brief conversation with said Dean, I took my leave of campus, thanking Dr. Bart Dickinson, the quietly enthusiastic physicist, for his time, and wondering if I’d see him again.

Well, yeah. The interview in Indiana went sorta okay at best—the chair there told me they might offer me a one-year visiting position. Not very long after, though, Georgetown called, asking for an interview on the first of June. I still hadn’t figured out how to give a good interview, but the people in the department were uniformly nice, and somehow I soon found myself in possession of a tenure-track job offer. Bart became my first department chair. 

I lived in an apartment in Lexington for my first three semesters at GC, but in December of 1993, I took the plunge into home ownership, a small three-bedroom new build about three miles north of campus. I learned early on that Bart and I shared a denominational background, of which he reminded me occasionally with invitations to attend First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). I was slowly working myself back into church-going after several years away, and as 1994 progressed, I found myself in the pews of FCC on Sunday mornings more and more often. Bart sang tenor in the choir, and began checking to see if I would be interested in joining. I’d never been a member of a choral group, but over the years I had learned enough to do decently well with the bass part of many a hymn.

It was on a warmer-than-average Wednesday evening in January 1995, not long after the start of the spring semester, that I decided to give choir practice a try. Bart might have been the only person there I knew, but everyone was super welcoming (several of the folks I met that night are still around and will be singing alongside me tomorrow morning). I was placed in between two of the other three basses on the back row. As rehearsal progressed, I couldn’t help but notice a woman in the row in front of me occasionally stealing glances my way. Of course, I noticed her, too: an attractive redhead, one of a very few people in the room around my age (At 30, I was definitely on the younger side).

I did know her name, and who she was. I’d recently become newsletter editor of our state math organization. One of my duties the previous fall had been to gather news from campuses across Kentucky. Martha Lutz was my contact on the math faculty at nearby Midway College, and she’d written back with an item or two for me to include in the fall issue. Around the same time, she served as Worship Leader one Sunday and had her name in the bulletin; I put two and two together, so to speak. 

Twenty-five years ago tonight, when rehearsal ended, Martha and I said our first hellos to one another. (Okay, possibly not quite the first.) We wandered out to the parking lot and talked for a decent while beside our cars. The interaction felt comfortable, natural; it was immediately clear how kind, how smart she was, and that she was someone I’d be happy to get to know better. I didn’t sing with the choir on Sunday, but returned for practice the next Wednesday and began joining in on Sundays thereafter. On the third Saturday after meeting, we had our first date. In less than eighteen months, Martha and I were married in that church.

Bart’s plan had worked brilliantly.

It took me a good while to realize we’d been set up. Martha had been a member of the FCC choir for a few years by the time of our meeting. She did eventually mention that Bart had been telling her about “this nice young, new mathematician” in his department, but of course he hadn’t let on to either of us his ulterior motives in trying to lure me to practice. While Martha and I would have eventually crossed paths without the nudge from Bart, you never know if the outcome would have been the same. Over the last few years, Bart’s children have told us it was his only effort at matchmaking, and also among his proudest achievements.

Over the years Bart and I had various points of connection. For a while in the latter part of the 90s, he and I co-taught a Sunday School class for college students at FCC. It rarely attracted more than three or so people, but it allowed me to see up close Bart’s humble yet deep faith.  When there was an office crunch on our floor of the science building in my second year on the job, Bart volunteered to move into a storage room adjacent to the main physics lab, letting me have the office he’d used since the late 60s. With the exception of the year I spent on sabbatical in New York, he and I are still the only ones to have occupied 120 Asher Science Center.

A few weeks into the Fall 2003 semester, it became apparent that Bart was suffering significant short-term memory problems, significant enough to warrant an immediate retirement. As it happened, Bart’s son Jonathan (who had been a freshman at GC my first year there) was wrapping up a PhD in chemical physics in Virginia; he wound up being the search committee’s choice to fill the hole beginning the following fall.

For the next few years, I generally saw Bart only at church. In our conversations, he was as friendly as ever, but I can’t say with certainty that he regularly knew who I was. After a while, it became too difficult for him to continue with the choir. Unfortunately, his condition kept worsening, to the point that he eventually became homebound.

It was only after Bart’s memory issues arose that it dawned on me that I’d never offered him any kind of thanks for the pivotal role he played in my good fortune. I subsequently compounded my error by deciding it was too late to try to make amends—I’ve come to see that even if he wouldn’t have remembered my words, there was no reason not to tell him, either verbally or in writing. It’s in the top tier of my life’s regrets.

In the fall of 2013 I taught an 8am on Tuesdays and Thursdays. One Thursday in early November, I was gathering my thoughts before class when Jonathan came in the room with the news that his father had passed away early that morning. I understood this was a mercy for Bart, a thoroughly fine and decent person who’d been dealt a cruel fate over his final decade. Nonetheless, I broke down immediately. I hurt for Jonathan, his mother, and his siblings, but I imagine I was also selfishly grieving for myself, over the letter never sent, the words never spoken.

The funeral was the following Sunday afternoon, in the church sanctuary. The family asked the choir to sing one of Bart’s favorite anthems, “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name” (truth be told, it’s a favorite of mine, too). It wasn’t necessarily easy, but we did it, and I believe fairly well.

There’s so much in our lives, both good and bad, that comes completely undeserved. The love of one’s life. Dementia. Close friendships. Cancer. On those occasions when it’s something on the positive side of the ledger, perhaps we should celebrate, appreciate, and maybe even find a way to reciprocate. I’m very fortunate to have been on the receiving end of kindnesses so frequently. I could stand to act like I recognize this more often.

I guess there’s no time like the present to begin, so today I’ll celebrate a quarter-century with Martha in my life, and acknowledge my debt to Bart Dickinson, for thinking to look out for me.

Thank you for helping make my life so much richer, Bart.

Addendum: Speaking of kindnesses, I’m grateful to Jim Bartlett, who has a post today describing what was happening in the world on January 18, 1995, at his blog The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.

Another View on the Summer of 82

Thanks very much to HERC for his guest post earlier this week; it was a lot of fun for me to learn about his summer in Texas as well as some of the tunes he particularly associates with that point in his life. Today I’m going through a similar exercise.

My high school graduation was on Tuesday, June 1, and I left for college on Saturday, September 4; quite a few things happened in between. I’ll try to touch on what I can recall as I list twenty of the pop singles I enjoyed. You can generally, but not always, assume at least a modest connection between the song(s) listed and the event(s) described below them. Stuff is in something akin to chronological order. Let’s fire it up!


Motels, “Only the Lonely”

Patrice Rushen, “Forget Me Nots”

On one of the first couple of Saturday mornings in June, I competed in a 10K in Florence, one of only two I ever ran (the other came about a year later—all my other races were 5Ks). I think I was pleased enough with my time, and I’m fairly sure I ran for pleasure occasionally the rest of the summer.


.38 Special, “Caught Up in You”

Haircut One Hundred, “Love Plus One”

I talked a little earlier this month about having my wisdom teeth extracted that summer; that happened on June 23. Feel like I heard the .38 Special song in the car either going to or returning from the hospital.


J. Geils Band, “Angel in Blue”

There was an ice cream & hamburger place, the Dairy Delight, not too far from my house in Walton; the owner lived down the street from me. I think it was strictly walk-up when we moved to Walton but at some point they enclosed a few feet of space in front of the counters where you ordered. In the 80s they started keeping a video game or two in that area; I remember playing Centipede a fair amount there—would they still have had that one in summer of 82? Looks like it was closed for some period of time but re-opened under new ownership a few years ago and has expanded its menu greatly.


Genesis, “Paperlate”

Gary U.S. Bonds, “Out of Work”

In mid-July I went to Transy to sign up for my fall classes. An exchange of letters with Susan, my Student Orientation Leader, helped me decide among a couple of options (her advice on who to take for Calculus I was literally life-changing). I met with Dr. Miller, my advisor, for one of the first times, and chatted with a few of my soon-to-be classmates.


Kim Wilde, “Kids in America”

Men at Work, “Who Can It Be Now?”

That summer I rediscovered Cincinnati AM radio for just a bit.  WCLU, 1320 on the dial, played a much wider range of Top 40 music that I was used to–I think they were aggressively trying to break hits and perhaps focused on some of the more new-wavy stuff.  I have a few survey sheets of theirs from the summer of 83; I thought I had some from 82 as well, but if I ever did they appear to be lost to the dustbin of history.

Footnote: Looking at the link above, I was reminded that for a while in the late 80s, that station had an all-Elvis format.


Crosby, Stills and Nash, “Wasted on the Way”

In the last half of July, Frank and I took an overnight roadtrip to Stanford, to see some of the folks I knew from the early 70s (I’d re-established connections with a few of them toward the end of 81). Among other things, I got in a round of golf with the guy who had lived next door to me, on the course I first played with Dad when I was six.

Frank and I had been good friends since his family had moved to Walton at the beginning of our sophomore years, but that summer we were best friends in a way I haven’t experienced often. We both ran in that 10K. He dropped by a couple of times while I was recovering from my oral surgery. We shared lots of confidences. This trip was a bonding experience, too—several hours in the car together over a couple of days to talk about all kinds of stuff. Good times.


Steve Miller Band, “Abracadabra”
Chicago, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry”

My relatives from Massachusetts came to KY for a two-week vacation at the beginning of August. Amy and I hung out a lot with my cousins Sandi and Jack the first week. This visit was the springboard for keeping in closer touch with that branch of my family.


Go-Go’s, “Vacation”

Missing Persons, “Words”
Melissa Manchester, “You Should Hear How She Talks About You”

My family’s vacation that summer, the third week of August, was Myrtle Beach. There I discovered a radio station that played what I think is called “beach” and/or “shag” music. Very interesting—and fun—stuff, not exactly oldies, that I don’t feel like I’ve heard anywhere else before or since.


Marshall Crenshaw, “Someday, Someway”

We stopped by Knoxville on the way home, to check out the World’s Fair. I recall enjoying our time there.  I’ve had the occasion to attend a couple of workshops/conferences at the University of Tennessee in the last decade or so; the Sunsphere, which we ascended back in the day, is still there, but it’s hard for me to believe now that they crammed all those pavilions in the surrounding space.


Elton John, “Blue Eyes”

The next day, Sunday, August 22, we went through Lexington to visit one of my mom’s best friends, who was dying of lung cancer. It was also move-in day for Frank at the University of Kentucky (he and I were the only two from our high school class going to college in Lexington). We drove by UK and found him; I introduced him to a friend I had met via FBLA who was living on his floor. After he was all settled in, I rode back to Walton with Frank’s father and sister Maria. I know my dad was a bit miffed at me for not completing the trip with the family.


Asia, “Only Time Will Tell”

Billy Idol, “Hot in the City”
Randy Meisner, “Never Been in Love”

From there it was less than two weeks before my own college voyage began. That remaining time was full of goodbyes to friends, shopping for stuff for my dorm room, etc. An eventful three months quickly came to a close.

HERC mentioned the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack toward the end of his post on Tuesday.  One of its songs that he referenced was definitely in my head right at the end of that August. I’d often whistle along to it, particularly that keyboard line right after the first line of each verse; I remember Mom taking note of how much she thought my efforts at that one part sounded pretty much just like the song.

The Maniacs and Me

It’s not unreasonable to say the story starts with Michael Stipe.

Maybe, though, it’s more accurate to say it begins with Stacey’s admiration of REM. It was probably sometime in the spring of 85 that Stacey began playing them for James and me in our dorm room, almost certainly Reckoning. Fables of the Reconstruction came out that summer, and “Can’t Get There From Here” actually got some radio play. I don’t remember exactly why I didn’t go along with James, Stacey, and the others (who else went?) to see them play Memorial Coliseum that November. Perhaps I was caught up in the fog of my own world around that time–I had been going through a short arc of dating. What I do recall is my friends’ description of the lead singer for the opening act.

“You should have seen her up there on the stage, dancing and flailing around!” “She looked just like Maura!” (Not the real name–it was a reference was to one of our classmates, the daughter of a faculty member.)

Such was my introduction to Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs.

Not long after I began atoning for the sin I’d committed of ignoring Stipe and Co. to that point. I bought Fables as part of a Columbia House membership in the summer of 86; a copy of Lifes Rich Pageant came my way that fall by being the right caller to a radio station soon after I moved to Illinois; a friend put their first two albums on a tape for me in spring 87; I saw them in concert at the Assembly Hall in Champaign in fall 87 as part of the Document tour.

And right around the time Document was released, they showed back up. I’d pretty much forgotten the whole Maura look-alike thing, but all it took to bring it back was seeing the name of the band. It was my first fall of teaching, a couple of recitation sections of Calculus I on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Afterwards I’d often stroll over to Record Service, THE place on campus to buy new music. They loved to promote recent releases over their in-house system. I have to believe that was how I first heard pieces of In My Tribe (released 30 years ago today). Yes, VH-1 was also playing their now-shunned cover of “Peace Train” around this time, but it would have been at “the Service” that I wound up captivated and practically willed to purchase the LP.

It was impossible for me not to try to mimic Merchant’s vocal inflections as those twelve songs became embedded in my consciousness (I still do it–I’ve had the chance to sing along to “What’s the Matter Here?” and “Hey Jack Kerouac” on the radio in the last few months). I was also struck by the presentation of the lyrics to Tribe, written in prose form (maybe pretentious, but I found it darn effective, as well as true to their spirit).

Reviews of Tribe regularly noted the discipline imposed on the Maniacs by producer Peter Asher. I found out what they meant when I bought The Wishing Chair, the release they’d been supporting in 85. It’s a solid disk, assuming they’re your cup of tea, but truth be told the playing isn’t all that tight, and Natalie sometimes wails away (at times you can practically visualize the writhing my friends witnessed). There are some fine moments, though: “Lilydale” is a charming tale of two friends strolling around a cemetery (it came to mind when I was recently searching for the mathematician David Hilbert’s grave in Göttingen, Germany), and “Scorpio Rising” hints at Merchant’s developing eye/ear for capturing tense relationships.

(Aside: Joe Boyd of Fairport Convention produced both Fables and Chair in London in early 85–makes me think this is how the two groups came to tour together that fall.)

Blind Man’s Zoo came out in 89 and they re-released their pre-Elektra recordings as Hope Chest in 90. Zoo, also produced by Asher, wasn’t as good as Tribe, but that was no real surprise–it might have been more of one if it had been better. Zoo is most notable on a personal level for having been one of the CDs I played on Halloween night, 2000, the day before my son was born–the last time Martha was “eating for two.” (Insert smiling emoji.)

In Fall 90 I was faced with a big dilemma. Toby and Karl were after me to see ZZ Top in Peoria with a few other friends. That same night, the Maniacs were scheduled to appear in Bloomington/Normal; Greg offered to go with me. What to do?

The Top show was pretty good (Greg still gives me grief about my choice). The most memorable thing about the evening, however, was the introduction of the phrase “administer the bird” to our group’s lexicon after I saw Jay flipping off the driver of a car that cut us off as we were trying to get out of the parking lot (“Jay, did you just…?”). “Administering” got a lot of mileage in our bridge conversations after that (it became a synonym for doubling a contract). But of course I’d blown my second chance to see the Maniacs perform.

By the time Our Time in Eden was released in fall 92, I had started my job at Georgetown. While I don’t love it quite the way I do Tribe, Eden is every bit as good, maybe better. Merchant’s lyrics and vocals are fully mature now, and the band feels both focused and confident.

Jay and his sweetheart Michelle got married in New Mexico in June 93. I rode out and back from St. Louis with Greg, Katie, and Karl, and it just so happened that the day after we returned, you-know-who was appearing in an outdoor venue just outside Nashville. My college friend Jim lived in Murfreesboro and we made arrangements to meet up. We didn’t sit particularly close, but at last I was there!

Just in time, too. After the tour ended, Natalie announced she was going solo. Somewhat anti-climactically, the “posthumous” Unplugged album produced their first Top 40 hit. Merchant enjoyed pretty strong success with her solo debut Tigerlily in 95. The group, meanwhile, brought back John Lombardo, who’d left before Chair and recruited Mary Ramsey as vocalist; they had a #25 hit with a cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This” in 97. To me, however, it was never the same post-Eden (hmm…that feels like a sentence that could be applied elsewhere).

But.

As Jim and I were waiting for that Nashville show to begin, we caught a buzz from folks nearby that the vocalist for one of the biggest groups around would be making an appearance that night. Right, I thought–why should he show up? It’s true that he did a guest turn on one of the songs on Tribe, but still…

The show was great; they played many of their songs I really wanted to hear. For the first encore, someone–I never figured out who it was–came on stage and joined Natalie for a fine duet of “Dallas.” Could it have been Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who wrote it? I wouldn’t be aware of him and his music until a little while later, so I wouldn’t have recognized him if it were he. Natalie did pair up with David Byrne for a version of it as part of their Unplugged show, but I’m pretty certain I would have sussed him out.

It was the second encore that proved the whisperers correct. The rumored one came out and he and Natalie sang two songs together. I don’t remember now what they did first, but the second was unforgettable: “Because the Night.” Months before Unplugged came out and the version on it became the single that hit #11. Honestly one of the most magical concert moments of my life.

Yeah, I guess it’s not unreasonable to say that the story ends with Michael Stipe, too.