When You Look Through The Years…

Easter and Christmas dinners were always at my grandparents’ farmhouse. Those events comprise many of the fondest memories of my youth, even if Amy, Alan, and I, the three youngest of our generation, were forever consigned to the kids’ table come mealtime. The location and attendees for Thanksgiving gatherings, though, were much more variable. I’m guessing this was a function of obligations various relatives occasionally had to spend the day with the ‘other’ side of their families (the daughters of my mother’s older sister are eight to sixteen years older than I, and by that time were married and beginning to have children). 

For a while, trips to my great-aunt’s house in Warsaw were part of our Turkey Day rotation. She was my father’s only family after his mother died in early 75. Eventually, though, playing host to a meal like that became too much of a burden; in later years she traveled with us, going wherever we did. A few times we took Aunt Birdie and my mother’s parents north to the outskirts of Dayton, OH, to spend the day with Mom’s younger sister and her family—after stuffing ourselves while catching up, we’d watch the end of the Lions game and the start of the Cowboys game before packing up to head home.  

And once—my perhaps-faulty memory is telling me it was 79, when I was 15 and a high-school sophomore—we gathered at the home of my cousin Becky. If I’m right about the year, there would have been a five-month-old in the house, the third member of the next generation on Mom’s side of the family. (That infant is now, of course, 40 years old and a father of four; he works in Cincinnati for a well-known non-profit.)

I believe the next time I was at Becky’s house on Thanksgiving was in 2013. The various branches of Mom’s family spent fewer holidays together following the passing of my grandmother in 2001, so it had been awhile since I’d been with my cousins on Thanksgiving. But that year my father was under hospice care, a little over a week away from dying. Becky lived a very few miles away from the hospice facility, and she kindly invited Mom and my family to join their gathering, six years ago today. It was a moment of grace and welcoming fellowship in an otherwise somber and not-very-fun time. I remain quite grateful for that.

Regardless of where I was for Thanksgiving of 79, I can say with certainty that Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home” has always been linked with the day—I had to have heard it that morning. The third single from Breakfast in America was very much a favorite in the moment (I’ve steadfastly liked it somewhat less than “The Logical Song” but a fair amount more than “Goodbye Stranger” across the decades).  The sound of piano and mournful harmonica on both intro and ending still evokes the chill of a cloudy, late fall day.

That association was so strong that I thought about “Take the Long Way Home” through much of Thanksgiving Day in 80. I hoped, maybe even expected, to hear it, that it would become one more annual tradition. For at least one year, it was—the song came on over the portable radio I kept in my bedroom just before I called it a night.

Wishing all of you a joyous Thanksgiving; may your ways home be as short as you want them to be.

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.