SotD: The Carpenters, “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”

Like just about every kid, I had bumps and bruises, scrapes and scabs growing up. I was pretty fast and loved to race, but otherwise wasn’t athletic or especially coordinated. There were a goodly number of children within a year or two of me in our neighborhood, our back yard was large, and my grandparents lived on a small farm about ten miles away—it feels like I was outdoors plenty, especially in my pre-high school years. With that, though, always comes the risk of getting hurt.

I can think of a couple of incidents where I completely lucked out in avoiding serious injury. Our house was close to the corner of Bedinger Ave. and Plum St.; Plum ran entirely downhill. One summer afternoon not too long after we moved to Walton—let’s say it was in 73, which would have made me 9 years old—I was riding my one-speed red bicycle down Plum. At the bottom was a dead end into a grassy field, with a sharp right onto Catalina Dr. Whether out of a sense of adventure or recklessness (or both), I found myself going too fast to take the turn or stop. As I left the street, my bike and I turned a somersault through the air. The bike and I separated, and I landed on my back. After a few seconds of verifying there were no major issues, I sprung up and slowly wheeled my bike up the hill. I hadn’t been wearing a helmet, of course.

A second close call happened a year or two later, at my grandparents’ farm in Union. They let a local farmer keep cows in one of their fields, and the loft in the barn was used for storing hay. My cousin Alan also lived close by, and there were several occasions when he would be out there at the same time as my sister and I. One time when the three of us found ourselves at loose ends, we climbed up into the loft, which had a trap door near the center of the floor. We discovered the door open and began horsing around, pretending to push one another toward the hole. Except that Amy and Alan took it a little too far with me. Down I went; I tried to grab onto the floor as I sailed through, but that just altered my momentum enough to land on my back hard on the packed dirt floor. Again, I was able to get up and walk away with nothing more than some soreness. That was the end of playing in the loft, though I don’t think we got in particular trouble over it.

My luck ran out 42 years ago today. I’ve mentioned a time or two before that I suffered a broken left wrist on 11/5/77, but to date I’ve elided exactly how it happened. Today you get the embarrassing details. 

My sister had turned 12 about a month earlier; it could be that one of her gifts that year was a skateboard (she was the family athlete)—regardless, Amy and at least one friend from down the street had one by this point. That Saturday was a warm and cloudy day, and a few of us wound up in my next-door neighbor’s driveway with the skateboards. One thing led to another and, in spite of my inexperience, I found myself standing on two skateboards, one for each foot. Boards started rolling, balance got lost, I fell backward and tried to brace my fall—you can tell how this story ends. 

Mom was soon apprised of my mischief, and off we took to Covington (the hospitals hadn’t migrated away from the river yet). It took quite a while, but eventually an x-ray confirmed what was obvious (waiting for the orthopedist, another doctor sauntered by, lifted my arm, and muttered, “Yes, it’s broken,” before wandering off). Fortunately, it was a clean break, so I was casted for the minimum time, about four weeks. I kept the cast, full of autographs from my classmates, for many more years than I should have.

Since it was Saturday, I had an AT40 to catch at 8pm; we made it home in time. I’d started a new chart design three weeks earlier (you’ll see one of those later in the week), but that got cast aside (no pun intended) that evening. Apparently there was time enough to sit in front of the typewriter in our basement before Casey came on:

As I noted when I first wrote about this experience, the song that always springs to mind was that show’s opener, the penultimate trip to the show by the Carpenters. We’ll mark the anniversary of my folly with the full seven-plus minute LP version. 

Dream How Wonderful Your Life Will Be

With apologies to William Martin Joel:

 

Dear Ben,

Good morning, son, time to open your eyes…

When you were very young, Mom and I would take turns trying to rock you to sleep. Usually we’d have a CD going in the background, one of which consisted of instrumental versions of lullabies. “Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel)” was among them, and believe it or not it’s how I began to appreciate that song so much.

That moment when you finally closed your eyes for the night occasionally brought tears to mine. I never fully understood why this was so, but maybe it was because I suddenly felt separated from you.

 

Good morning, son, now it’s time to wake…

As you got older, your bedtime ritual changed. When you became too big to want to be held, Mom began singing to you as you lay in bed. As you know, three songs quickly became your favorites. Two of them were choruses of early 20th century tunes her mother had sung to her, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “Shine On, Harvest Moon.” The third used the melody of “Kum Ba Yah,” with personalized lyrics.  Mom and I continued alternating nights getting you settled in, so I learned to sing them as well.

There was a period around the time you were six when, after I was done singing, you would ask me to tell you something about my childhood. I talked about friends I had, trips my family took, and probably brief versions of some stories that have wound up in this space. Perhaps to some extent, your inquiries of years ago led to me getting many other things down in writing for you.

 

Good morning, son, now it’s time to dream…

Eventually you became too old for the nightly songfest—lately, you’ve even been staying up later than we have. And now that process we undertook for all those years unspools. Today, this morning, you’re opening your eyes, awaking, and heading out to pursue your dreams in another place, the college you’ve chosen to help you grow in knowledge, in wisdom, and in taking on responsibility. Those ambitions have morphed over the past dozen years–sort of–from inventor to engineer to lab scientist; it will be fascinating to discover what you’re thinking your life will be about four years from now.

The music of this world is often in a minor key–and has too much lately veered into dissonance and cacophony–but I am so excited to see what you can do to make it all sound a little sweeter.

Godspeed, Ben, but don’t forget:

I will never be far away…you’ll always be a part of me…that’s how you and I will be.

Love forever,
Dad

P.S. Thanks for asking us to sing to you last night.

SotD: The Bird and the Bee, “My Love”

Just learned that The Bird and the Bee have released a new album featuring, of all things, covers of first-generation Van Halen tunes (when I heard the new take on “Jamie’s Cryin'” last night, I thought that voice sounded an awful lot like Inara George’s).  This isn’t the first tribute album they’ve done; just maybe I need to go back and check out what they did with Hall & Oates material nine years ago.

In the spring of 2009 I had some release time to attend a class on mathematical modeling in the biological sciences at the University of Kentucky (honestly, it was a super fun experience). At the time I was on a kick of listening to the UK public radio station, which features “rock and roots” music (think World Cafe with extra blues thrown in), on my drives back and forth to Lexington.  “My Love,” from the then-current Ray Guns Are Not Just the Future, caught my ear a few times that semester, enough to look for it on YouTube. I don’t know now if I found the quite charming Official Video then, but I did discover the marvel shared below, apparently created for a film school assignment. Glad to see that it’s still available for viewing. I’ll go on record as giving the clip a thumbs-up, but fair warning: the highs are high and the lows are low.

 

SotD: Donna Summer, “This Time I Know It’s for Real”

In the spring of 89 I caught wind of a summer employment opportunity: three professors in the math department ran summer camps for high school students, and they were in need of a grad student to watch over their charges in the dorm. Maria, a good friend of Kate and the incumbent in the position, wasn’t able to do it again and tipped me off.  I’d had three years of similar experience for computer camps at Transy, so I figured I had at least a decent shot of snagging the job. I applied, interviewed, and was fortunate to be hired by Professors Jerrard, Paley, and Dornhoff.

Like the science/math camps I’ve done at the college where I work, the students arrived on a Sunday afternoon and left twelve days later (according to the records I’ve kept, the dates were July 9-21). My duties were important, but limited: I had no interaction with the campers during the academic part of their day—I was there simply to maintain control on the floor when the students were in the dorm. I don’t know why, but the camp didn’t use university housing; instead, we were staying in Hendrick House, a privately-owned facility on the east edge of campus (there were a few such enterprises around campus during my time in C-U, including one right next to Sherman Hall, but many more exist now).

All told, there were about thirty high schoolers taking one of two courses of study. I still have the official pictures of the groups—more were enrolled in Computers and Math than in Convex Sets and Combinatorics (that second topic sounds pretty cool to me, though). From what I remember of my interactions with them, they were bright and well-behaved (if you’re actively choosing to go to a summer math camp, the probability of being a troublemaker is pretty low). They did contrive to have a toga party of sorts on the final evening, but even that didn’t remotely get out of hand. At least two wound up enrolling at Illinois, as I saw them on campus sometime in the fall of 90.

No particular music I associate with this event, so I’ll just lay Donna Summer’s last Top 40 hit on you today. It’d been Fall 84 since she’d gotten much notice, when “There Goes My Baby” had reached #21. It’s no “Hot Stuff,” but to be honest, “This Time I Know It’s for Real” is one of my favorites of hers; I hear convincing excitement about being in love (of course, she’d been happily married to Bruce Sudano for almost a decade) . Summer was around 40 when she recorded this, so perhaps in a different place from her Queen of Disco days—the Stock Aitken Waterman sound seemed to suit, at least for one song. The director of the video definitely put together something to match—everyone is acting pretty happy to share in Donna’s joy. I assume those are her two young daughters we see toward the end? The clip was on VH-1 plenty during the song’s run on the charts (it was coming off a #7 peak by mid-July).

Sorry there aren’t any wacky escapades to relate about my experience watching over the math campers—maybe the main thing about those two weeks was that I earned some $$, most of which went to pay for August’s travel. I would have loved to do it again, but the next summer a bridge tournament conflicted with the dates…hmmm, looks like I’m getting a little ahead of myself on a couple of fronts.  We’ll come back to bridge next week.

Not Bitter Any More

Several years ago, my wife customized the ring tones on her phone for the folks who by far call her most often: our son, her sister, and me. Martha conducted a deliberate and thorough search for music that reflected something about the caller. For Ben, she chose the opening measures of Beethoven’s “Für Elise;” it was the piece he was working on at the time. When Ruth calls, it’s the “Javanaise” movement of Claude Bolling’s Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano, which they first encountered in a music appreciation class they took their first year of college. Since the two of them talk a couple of times a day, I hear it a lot!

Coming up with something for me turned out to be a little more difficult, since my tastes are decidedly less classical. Martha wanted something without vocals, and because she would be editing an .mp3 file, it’d be easier if it came from the beginning of the song. I thought about what was in my collection that I really liked and also had at least 30 seconds of intro. After considering two or three pieces, we agreed that “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” from the UK band The Verve, would work nicely.

I’ve been aware for some time about the kerfuffle between Verve leader Richard Ashcroft and the Rolling Stones, but hadn’t dug deep in trying to understand the details. I knew that The Verve had sampled something from a Stones piece but for the life of me couldn’t determine anything in “Bitter Sweet Symphony” that sounded like it was out of the Jagger/Richards playbook. And I’d read that songwriting credit and royalty issues were involved in the resolution of the dispute.

I probably didn’t know, however, that Ashcroft and his former bandmates had received essentially nothing for their biggest smash. Until now. I’m not a lawyer, but this has to be a much more equitable solution than what was in place. Well done, all.

 

 

 

SotD: The Connells, “Something to Say”

I’d met Greg, along with some other good friends, in late 89 at the bridge club in Champaign (more on bridge a little later in the year). I’ve mentioned him occasionally before: working on a PhD in Electrical Engineering, had spent some of his early grad school days deejaying at the quasi-university-affiliated AOR station in town, WPGU, extremely well-versed in power pop and college rock from the late 70s on. He knew so much more than I about a wide variety of artists, and I owe him a lot when it comes to the musical explorations I undertook through most of the 90s.

When I started hanging out at Greg and Katie’s apartment in early 90, I quickly discovered that he was an avid (maybe even bordering on obsessive) CD collector. One thing he told me pretty early on was that it was his goal to acquire everything released in 89 (it was a joke, of course—we even laughed about it this past summer when we got together—but like with all jokes, there was an undercurrent of truth to it). He and I spent a lot of time over the next couple of years conducting raids on the cutout bins of CDs in the music stores around Campustown.

Greg was generous about letting me borrow CDs and was always anxious to introduce me to stuff he was hoping I’d like—this is how I learned all about the Go-Betweens and Darling Buds.  Another song he played for me early on was “Something to Say,” the lead track and first single from Fun & Games, the third album by Raleigh, NC band The Connells. It took a few listens for me to gain a decent appreciation of it, but a couple years later I made sure to commit it to a mix tape I created just a few weeks before moving back to KY.  In 93, The Connells released their outstanding album Ring; that’s worth a closer examination here someday in the future.

“Something to Say” seems to be about looking back, seeing missed/failed opportunities, and feeling regret. Can’t seem to avoid the first of these; hope I can minimize the other two.

It was #8 on the Billboard’s 5/6/89 Modern Rock chart, down one from its peak the previous week.

SotD: Melissa Etheridge, “Similar Features”

My mother turned 59 on Wednesday, April 12, 1989. I gave her a call that evening, but not from my apartment: I suppose I had been doing some work in my office on campus, so I hoofed it next door to the Illini Union, where I used a pay phone in its basement (I guess I wasn’t able to use my calling card from the phone in the office). We didn’t talk all that long that night, but Mom told me she’d had a good day—both she and Dad were doing fine.

The weekly Math Colloquium at Illinois was always on Thursday afternoons. Usually folks gathered a little before the talk in the commons area on the second floor of Altgeld Hall for cookies and coffee; we’d then migrate to the big lecture room across the hall to hear our guest lecturer. The details are long lost to me now, but the speaker on 4/13/89 must have been at least a moderately big name in the math world. That evening there was a reception for the speaker at the hosting professor’s house. Even though I didn’t often go to such events often, I made an exception this time. Mostly I stood on the periphery of things (as is my wont), but I do remember engaging in a couple of conversations.

One was with a grad student from the institution of the Colloquium speaker (perhaps it was her advisor who’d given the talk?). The other was with Bruce Reznick, a ten-year member of the math faculty who was just about to receive his promotion to Professor. He’d taught the abstract algebra course I’d taken my first semester there, almost three years earlier. I’d really enjoyed the class, in part due to the growth in mathematical maturity I experienced, but also because Bruce was friendly and kind and liable to crack a joke at virtually any moment (he came by that honestly—his father had been a comedy writer for Hope, Paar, Carson, among others). I hadn’t taken a class from him since, yet there he was, making time to chat for a bit with an aimless third-year grad student.

And aimless I was. It hadn’t become any clearer to me since passing most of my exams in January how I was going to proceed on to the dissertation phase. I was continuing to read papers with a faculty member in algebraic number theory, but wasn’t getting close to determining a problem I might want to tackle. A suspicion was growing stronger inside that I wouldn’t be following my current path much longer. Where to turn, though?

Suddenly, right there at the reception, something clicked: what about Bruce? His areas of study were wide-ranging enough so as to defy easy classification, but I thought there was sufficient overlap with subjects that interested me. He had just one grad student at that time, and she was just about to finish up, so he should have room to take me on if we both thought it would work. Plus, it was clear he would be supportive. I headed home that evening resolved to talk with him soon about his work in more detail and to ask for papers I could read that might give me the beginnings of an idea for a dissertation problem. I didn’t know how things would turn out, but for the first time in a while I felt hopeful.

Baseball season was just ten days old, so it’s a solid guess that John and I watched highlights on SportsCenter after I got back to the apartment. I was worried, though—my throat felt a little scratchy, a sign that I might be coming down with something. As a precaution, I took some cold medicine just before going to bed, something that would make me drowsy. I had to teach in the morning, but I expected its effects would wear off in plenty of time.

I’m certain that pill was why I didn’t hear our phone ring at around 2am.

My first thought when I arrived at his hospital room, thirty years ago this morning, was that I’d never seen anyone quite with that color before—an ashen gray.

It was about six hours later, and I was at the ICU in St. Luke West, about two miles from my parents’ house. I walked from the door of the room to his bedside and sat down. His left hand was resting by his side, over the covers. I picked it up—it was colder than any hand I’d held. His eyes opened and slowly turned toward me; there may have been a weak smile.

“I came anyway, Dad.”

John, of course, had answered the phone and roused me. Mom was reasonably calm as she delivered the headlines: Amy had taken Dad to the ER; it was likely to have been a heart attack; he had given her instructions to tell me not to drive back to KY right then. We talked for just a few minutes. Maybe my head wasn’t clear from the medicine, but as the call ended I was planning on going back to bed so that I could teach reasonably coherently in the morning before heading out for home. John set me straight with an “Are you crazy?” look and assured me my class would be covered. I rang Mom back and told her I’d be on my way soon.

I didn’t stay at the hospital all that long—after all, he was in the ICU. The initial reports were encouraging enough. Dad was very weak but stable, there didn’t seem to serious damage to heart muscle, and the worst appeared to be over for the time being. I got a little breakfast at home and took a short nap before heading off to Warsaw, about thirty miles away, with Amy to break the news to our 87-year-old Aunt Birdie. On the way there, Sis filled me in on some details.

It was unusual for Amy to be spending the night in Florence—by this time she was working and taking classes in Richmond, ninety minutes south on I-75. Yet by sheer fortune there she was, sleeping on the couch in the living room (likely she’d been reading after turning the TV off) when Dad came stumbling down the hall, sweating beyond profusely. He’d reported not feeling right pretty much all day Thursday, but things were now an order of magnitude or two worse. Amy didn’t take the time to put in her contacts before driving Dad to St. Luke; it’s fortunate that she didn’t have far to go (I can imagine Dad would have resisted calling an ambulance—might be a coin toss as to whether he got the care he so needed as quickly as possible this way).

It took me a few minutes to get fully awake and throw some clothes, etc. in a bag. I’ll bet I had to get gas and grab some caffeine before I hit the road, too. It was a clear night and I pretty much had I-74 all to myself. There was no trouble in staying alert, though—it was as if I hadn’t taken anything for the feared cold, which never came.

Despite being a preacher’s kid for the first eleven years of my life, I’ve never really been one to pray. At this point in time, I was about four years in to an extended hiatus from going to church, as well. Even though I was in a pre-cellphone-era information vacuum and plenty worried, I didn’t offer up any words of supplication as I sped down the road.

The sun started coming up as I rolled across the bridge over the Ohio River into KY. As I pulled off the interstate, I allowed myself to wonder how different life would be going forward.

Aunt Birdie had taken the news as well as could be expected, and after a while, Amy and I headed back. The rest of the weekend is mostly a blur now, but we soon learned very good news. Dad’s problem had arisen due to a small blockage, but another vein had fully taken over the role of the defective one.  No stent, no bypass surgery, no anything required—he just needed to take better care of himself. I felt comfortable enough with the state of things to go back to IL on Sunday evening, though I returned home regularly for a few weeks.

Dad had been a bit overweight for his frame prior to the attack—not anymore after he got released. Almost as soon as he arrived home, he tried to get out and walk. Toward the beginning it was hard to go more than a couple hundred yards, but over time, he built up to a few miles each day. After he returned to work, he’d do laps inside the vault of the bank between customers. I joined him when I was home, and sometimes on our jaunts around the neighborhood he’d tell me a little about his personal history, before marriage and kids.

Dad faithfully walked for years and never had another problem with his heart. He fell just months shy of living an additional quarter-century.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that I’m now only about 30 months away from being the age Dad was at the time of the attack. I’m quite possibly in worse shape than he was then. Discipline and exercise are needed.

It’s funny the things you remember at stressful times. I must not have grabbed any cassettes to take with me before I hurtled through IN in the middle of the night, so I wound up flipping stations on the radio for four-plus hours. As I got close to home, I realized there was just one song I’d heard twice on the trip.

I’d bought Melissa Etheridge on vinyl sometime in the fall of 88 but had listened to it just a few times. The fine opening track, “Similar Features,” was easily the song that I enjoyed the most. I noticed when it was released as a single with accompanying video in the spring of 89; it had crawled onto the Hot 100 at #94 (as high as it would get) just a week earlier.

I never think of this song without being taken back to that star-filled night ride when I truly didn’t know what the future held, and vice versa.

 

(And yes, Bruce became my dissertation advisor.)