Is It All Inside My Head?

Our day-to-day functioning has been reasonably disrupted by some remodeling chez Harris for the past month, one result of which has been eating out a little more often than the norm. A couple of weeks ago we found ourselves at one of the local chicken-oriented fast-food places on our way to choir practice. Like pretty much every other restaurant, they were piping music in as background noise for patrons. Well…it’s background noise for most patrons. For some—trust me on this—it can be an opportunity to play mental hopscotch through time and space all while putting fork to mouth over, say, a ten-minute span. Here’s what Martha had to endure for dinner conversation that evening: vignettes about three songs that were played back-to-back-to-back, spanning sixteen years and three states. Just for kicks, you get a bonus track from each scene.

1. July 1995: The Rembrandts, “I’ll Be There for You”
The scene: a two-lane highway in southern Ohio

Martha and I had met six months prior, and it’s fair to say we’d already begun contemplating a future together. She’s nowhere to be found here, though—she was in the middle of a vacation to Germany with her sister Ruth. A black-and-white stray cat had started hanging outside my house in May; I made the mistake of offering her food, and a few weeks later she rewarded my largesse by shepherding her five kittens into the back yard. Ultimately I kept the mother, whom I named Tori—after Tori Amos, of course—and two of her babies (Ruth took in one of the others). One of those kittens was with us until Spring 2013. I had new wheels, having just traded in my light blue 86 Camry for a teal Geo Prizm. And I was in my first summer of working PAEMS, the science/math camp for high schoolers my school runs.

Those early years of PAEMS included an overnight trip. On this occasion, we drove Friday afternoon to a nature park/campsite an hour or so up the Ohio River from Cincinnati. It was beastly hot, and our accommodations were unventilated yurts—not a restful night. My student assistant was Alex, the son of a faculty colleague. Alex was majoring in math with an eye on med school, and was a few years older than the typical college senior—this was his second degree.  It was easy to trust him to drive one of our twelve-passenger vans on the way home while I rode shotgun, commanding the radio. (The next week, Alex and I would take one night off to see Wilco and the Jayhawks play in Lexington—one of my all-time favorite concerts.)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an episode of Friends; wasn’t even aware until I was writing this up that there’s a 25th anniversary celebration going on. I did come to know most of the characters’ names back in the day, was well aware of Lisa Kudrow’s “Smelly Cat,” and couldn’t escape its theme song on the radio through much of 1995. It was #1 on Billboard’s Airplay Chart at this moment, but wouldn’t get released as a single until well past peak interest (it made #17 on the Hot 100 in October).

Bonus Track: Collective Soul, “December”

2. October 2002: Sixpence None the Richer, “Breathe Your Name”
The scene: Cleaning out the garage

We’re the parents of a soon-to-be two-year-old. He’s fully mobile now but we’re grateful to learn that he’s not inclined toward climbing or other potentially dangerous levels of curiosity. We’ve recently exchanged the Prizm for a minivan—the day we purchase it, Ben strings two words together for the first time: “New car!” We more than occasionally play a cassette by the Wiggles while driving around. The van came with a CD player, and before long I’ll be burning mix CDs for listening on longer trips.

Martha’s father is dying of pancreatic cancer. We will celebrate his 85th birthday on the last Friday of the month at the nursing home where he’s now residing. I learn about the airplane crash that killed Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and his wife watching CNN while we’re there.

Having a child means that we’re accumulating toys and kiddie modes of transportation at an increasing rate, leading to some Saturday re-organization. The season’s definitely changing; it’s cool and cloudy, and a decent wind is coming from some combination of north and west, directly into the garage. Since I’m starting to knock on the door of forty, my boombox is tuned less often to alternative music and more to Adult Top 40. The chock-full-of-accidentals “Breathe Your Name” is one of my favorites (I’d been charmed by “Kiss Me” three years earlier, too). 

Bonus Track: U2, “Electrical Storm”

3. November 1986: Peter Cetera and Amy Grant, “The Next Time I Fall”
The scene: 457 Sherman Hall

This is ground I’ve already trod (see, for instance, here and here), but in brief: not having office space with the other new math grads, I spent evenings that first semester in Champaign-Urbana in my cramped dorm room, doing homework, writing letters to college friends back in Kentucky, and learning my way around the radio dial. I could barely pick up a Top 40 station from Bloomington-Normal that utilized an automated service similar to what I’d heard a few years earlier in Lexington. Nostalgia (yes, I’ve suffered from it almost my whole life) kept me tuned in for quite a few weeks; it’s one of the primary ways I staved off falling out of the loop vis-à-vis what the cool kids were digging that autumn.

I was definitely not a fan of “The Glory of Love” back in the summer. But this follow-up, which also hit #1, well, it hits a soft spot, maybe in part because of how, and where, it transports me.

Bonus Track: Wang Chung, “Everybody Have Fun Tonight”

Beaten To The Punch

We got a satellite dish in 2005, not long after returning to KY from our year in upstate NY. Our package included a number of pre-merger Sirius radio channels, and it didn’t me take long to discover the 70s station. On Sunday nights, after Ben was down for the night, I’d listen to Dave Hoeffel’s Satellite Survey, in which he played the top 30 songs on Billboard‘s pop chart from the corresponding week of some year in the 70s. After close to two years of moderately faithful listening, I came to realize that Hoeffel recycled the same fifty countdowns (five from each year of the decade), which took a little of the fun away; additionally, the station apparently didn’t have copies of all the songs–there’d be occasions when, say, #27 wasn’t available, so the first four played would actually be #31-#28. Sometime after the 2007 merger between Sirius and XM, Hoeffel moved to the 60s channel and genuine AT40 70s shows began being rebroadcast.

The Satellite Survey lives on in 60s form, however, still hosted by Hoeffel.  Martha and I have been listening to Channel 6 in the car a little more recently, and caught most of this past weekend’s Survey after leaving Ben at college. Hoeffel kept saying he was playing tunes from August of 1962, but I found after getting back home that the rankings came from Billboard‘s 9/15/62 Hot 100. It doesn’t exactly feel fair for me to critique music that’s older than I am, but I was definitely struck by any number of things while the hits were rolling, so here we go.

–There were long stretches of songs with which I was unfamiliar, and that’s a very good thing; while decade-based stations by definition have a finite number of options, they sure seem to have playlists that are far too short. That’s not to say there weren’t some welcome classics to be heard. Outside the Top 10 we got “If I Had a Hammer,” (#35), “Surfin’ Safari” (#30), and “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (#11), and the Top 5 all were in the very-good-to-outstanding range: “Green Onions,” “The Loco-Motion,” “Ramblin’ Rose,” “Sheila,” and “Sherry.”

–On the other hand, after a while there was a certain sameness to the songs. Very little of it rocked, and treacly ballads abounded. Even if I hadn’t been told the year, it was easy to tell we were listening to music pre-dating the British Invasion. As it happens, it was less than eighteen months prior to the Beatles and their compatriots sweeping much of this style away.

–Some lowlights:
#23: Bobby Bare, “Shame on Me”
#17: Johnny Tillotson, “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On”
#16: Marty Robbins, “Devil Woman”
#9: Dickey Lee, “Patches”

I’m coming out fighting here, as all four of these fellows had lengthy and successful careers (in most cases more so on the Country charts); I just didn’t find any of these songs engaging. “Shame on Me” is told by a guy regretting a brief bout of cheatin’, with a couple of loooong mournful spoken word segments. Tillotson has a wonderful, pure voice, and “Pillow” is considered a country classic according to Wikipedia, but the sentiments expressed didn’t impress me even slightly. The protagonist in “Devil Woman” denies all agency and puts everything on his “temptress”–I can’t begin to imagine why Mary even wants to take him back. Pass, even though Robbins also has a magnificent voice. And “Patches” could be the worst of the bunch, a soppy tale of star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the tracks who kill themselves after the boy’s parents forbid him from seeing/marrying shanty-town-dwelling Patches. I know tragedy has always sold, but still…

–On the brighter side:
#27: Brook Benton, “Lie To Me”
#22: The Springfields, “Silver Threads and Golden Needles”
#14: Claudine Clark, “Party Lights”
#12: Mary Wells, “You Beat Me To the Punch”
#8: Ray Charles, “You Don’t Know Me”

What little I knew of Benton’s work–“Rainy Night in Georgia” and a couple of duets with Dinah Washington–indicated I need to dig into his catalog. “Lie To Me” does nothing to change that.

 

“Silver Threads and Golden Needles” was easily my favorite discovery on Saturday. I knew the song to a smallish extent, but hadn’t heard the version by the trio of Dusty Springfield, her brother Tom, and Mike Hurst. I’m reading that this was the first song by a British group ever to break into the U.S. Top 20. The Springfields didn’t have the original version, but were the first to have a hit with it. It’s been subsequently covered many times, including by my father’s high school classmate Skeeter Davis, the Everly Brothers, Linda Ronstadt, and the trio of Dolly, Tammy, and Loretta.

 

Claudine Clark was a true one-hit wonder, but “Party Lights,” about a teenage girl’s wish to join in on the action across the street, is pretty sweet.

 

“You Beat Me To the Punch” sounds just like a Smokey Robinson joint, so it’s no surprise that he co-wrote and produced this one for Wells. Her understated approach serves the song extremely well.

 

And Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music is another one to add to my pile of albums to seek out. The arrangement on “You Don’t Know Me” sounds of its time, but Charles’s vocals are impeccable.

 

–Finally, a quick word about three instrumentals on the show:
#26: Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra, “A Swingin’ Safari”
#18: Bent Fabric and His Piano, “Alley Cat”
#10: Dave ‘Baby’ Cortez, “Rinky Dink”

Jim Bartlett wrote about Vaughn back in June, and you should definitely go there to read about “A Swingin’ Safari” and other Vaughn hits. You likely know the Grammy Award-winning “Alley Cat,” even if not by name; Fabric, from Denmark, is apparently still around, now in his mid 90s. This was the second and last Top 40 hit for Cortez–his other, “The Happy Organ,” was a #1 hit three years earlier. “Rinky Dink” sounds like it was written with the roller rink in mind.

–Why write about all this? Throughout my life, songs have regularly gotten tied down to a specific time and place. Sheerly by accident, these have become the tunes I’ll always associate with the cool, cloudy Saturday ride home through Indiana after handing Ben over to his future.

As I noted above, it doesn’t feel quite right to cast aspersions on songs I didn’t experience in real time. Looking through comments this weekend on the YouTube videos to which I’ve linked, I saw so many folks, perhaps now around 70 years old, noting the memories that come rushing back when they hear them again, even “Shame on Me” and “Patches.” If I were 12-15 years older, that could well be what I would say. As it is, I might not really want folks born a dozen or so years after I was to go browsing through my 45 collection from the late 70s…

Restoration Blues

From 1995-2010, I taught a mathematics unit as part of a summer science/math camp for high schoolers offered by my college. It ran twelve days—most years the students arrived on Father’s Day (the camp still runs—it’s going on right now). On the first Friday of the camp, we traditionally took a day-long trip to the Cincinnati Zoo, a landfill, and a guided nature program.

The timing of the camp meant that I was invariably involved with duties of some sort on my dad’s birthday (today would have been his 88th—this morning, I’ll be at the cemetery delivering flowers). My parents lived just off the interstate on the way from the zoo to the location of the nature program, and many times I arranged to break away for a brief birthday-related visit.

The music Twitter-verse went all abuzz two weeks ago when Jody Rosen published “The Day the Music Burned” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a completely deflating account of the June 2008 blaze that destroyed countless master recordings by hundreds of artists whose work was controlled by Universal Music Group, as well as UMG’s subsequent cynical efforts both to disguise the severity of the loss and recoup damages via lawsuit. The next day my attention was directed to an article, written five years earlier, by music historian Andy Zax. Zax had not only understood then the magnitude of UMG’s losses but went on to outline, in depressing fashion, four issues surrounding the preservation of old masters: 1) existence of the tapes; 2) ability to access the tapes—storage is a big deal; 3) ability to use the tapes; 4) dealing with the corporate overlords, the big three companies that own the masters of almost all major-label recordings. Even though there’s overlap between the two articles, both are worth your time if you haven’t already read them.

It was Zax’s third point—dealing with the potential for obsolescence of the recording medium, in the sense that functioning machines needed for playback may not be sufficiently prevalent—that reminded me a segment I heard twenty years ago today on NPR’s All Things Considered. It was part of a series called Lost and Found Sound, a feature they were running on Fridays throughout 99 as everyone prepared to bid adieu to the CE years that started with a 1. (It looks like the series actually continued with some regularity through the end of 2005.)

That year we stayed at the zoo later than usual. I’d driven separately so I could swing through Florence to help Dad celebrate #68 but quickly got caught in a bad Friday afternoon traffic jam on the Ohio side of the river. Something—an accident? construction?—kept me crawling at a snail’s pace for a long time. When 4:00 rolled around, I switched the radio over to ATC; I’d guess Lost and Found Sound came on toward the end of the first half-hour. The title of the segment was “Restoration,” and I quickly learned that over the previous few months a number of listeners had sent in decades-old media they no longer could play, in the hopes that the L&FS team might help. L&FS in turn reached out to Steve Smolian, who was well-versed in extracting sounds from such objects (and who apparently is still in business today). Before the piece ended, two folks who had mailed in material were rewarded: one heard a beloved grandparent speak, and another got to listen to the voice of a sibling who’d died at a very young age. I’m not saying I got choked up at that point but I’m not saying I didn’t, either. All I’ll note is that it was a good thing I was going less than five miles an hour.

Out of all the things I’ve ever heard on NPR, that story is the one that made the deepest impression. Maybe eight years later, I did some digging around on their website, found an archived copy, and listened to it again. Yep, still a moving piece.

About ten days ago, after digesting the Rosen and Zax pieces, I went searching for it again. I easily located a summary (that’s how I re-discovered the story had originally run on Dad’s birthday). Then the irony began to set in. In the upper left corner of the page was a play button one can ordinarily click for listening. But it was grayed out; below I saw, “Only Available in Archive Formats” and a clickable “REAL MEDIA.” I clicked and I got a .ram file. When I tried to open it, there was a note from QuickTime letting me know it doesn’t play files with that extension.

And now, a brief summary of the past week:

“Well, it’s been a while, but I’ve used Real Player before, so I’ll just download it to my work laptop and…oh, there hasn’t been a Mac version supported since 2012? I’ll ask Ben to put it on his PC so I can play it…what? It says that it’s not backwards-compatible with the format of the audio file? Hmmm…maybe I’ve got an older copy of Real Player on my ten-year-old personal laptop? Or the almost as old desktop sitting in the basement? Nope, and nope.”

It could be I’m overlooking something obvious (I don’t think I’m especially savvy in this sphere), but it also could be that I and/or NPR could use a bit of Steve Smolian’s assistance. It appears that all of the Lost and Found Sound stories are in this archived format; I presume that’s true for every NPR story up to some date in the not entirely distant past.

The problem Zax identified might not be limited to recorded music.

Closing out with a song that seems vaguely appropriate for the matter at hand, released a few months after I first heard “Restoration.” “Millennium Blues” is the leadoff track of Matthew Sweet’s In Reverse. “You’ll never get the chance to recover/They say it’s not you anymore.”

Voice from the Past

Dinner at home for the three of us hasn’t been a completely regular thing these last few months. Most of that has been related to school activities of one sort or another, but with my year at an end and Ben down to just his last few days, we’ve actually sat down at the usual time these last three nights. Conversation this evening wound up starting on the topic of music: I told Ben and Martha what I’d learned about Gloria Jones and Marc Bolan after hearing one of Jones’s songs on the radio last evening (I had had no clue). Noting that she was also the first one to record “Tainted Love” turned talk to describing to Ben what ‘new wave’ music was. And so on. If you’d been there, it would make sense how I ultimately arrived at discussing some of my father’s foibles, but I ended by saying, “…even so, I’d love to be able to sit down and have a conversation with him right now.”

As dishes are being rinsed and leftovers put away, I play bad role model and check email on my phone. I notice that Warren has just posted something on his blog. Warren’s an entertaining storyteller and the first couple of lines look interesting, so I begin reading it aloud. The post concerns his history of playing in various musical groups in his younger days, his interest in being a drummer, and how he brought a certain panache to playing timpani in the Wind Ensemble at Transy. It feels like the article is meant to be spoken, with plenty of guideposts for inflection and emphasis. Various turns of phrase lead to smiles all around, and I continue on without pausing to look ahead at where things are going.

Suddenly, I’m brought into the story. Yes, I was also a performer at the concert at the center of the post, but still I wasn’t expecting to receive mention. And as I keep reading to Martha and Ben, after the show my father appears, offering Warren one of his tried-and-true witticisms in praise of my friend’s style. Even if it’s not the back-and-forth for which I had wished not ten minutes earlier, I do hear Dad’s voice, and I become a puddle.

It’s only one small piece of an article that’s well worth your while for myriad other reasons, but I’m still grateful to have Dad remembered, to hear others’ stories of their interactions with him, no matter how minor. Thanks, Warren—I needed that, even if I didn’t know it.

Last Photo Together

It’s early August 2014, and Erlanger Christian Church has scheduled the folks at Lifetouch to come in and take pictures for a new edition of the church directory. By this point, Mom isn’t much of a morning person, so she called in and signed up for an early-to-mid afternoon time. There’s about a week left before my work schedule starts filling up again for the upcoming academic year, so it’s easy for me to drive up and take her to the church.

While we sit waiting in the hallway of the education wing, I see some folks I know from my years of attendance (I visit less often than annually these days). We chat a little, mostly catching them up on my life and family. Then it’s Mom’s turn.  We go into the gathering area where the camera and lights are set up, Mom slips off the tubing attached to her portable oxygen machine, and allows the photographer to arrange her arms and adjust the angle of her chin. He takes several photos and then we move across the hall to review them.

They aren’t very good. Mom has always complained that the camera shows no love for her. She’s not right about this in general, but maybe she is this time.  While we dither over what to do, a moment of grace arrives–the photographer offers to have her sit for another round. This creates delays for the people who’ve since arrived and are waiting in line, but no one complains (for this I’m grateful).

Perhaps in an effort to get Mom to relax, the photographer invites me to join her for a couple of shots. He even takes a couple of me by myself. Whatever his intent, it works. She has a couple of nice options now, and there’s a good one of the two of us.

Yes, he’s sensed a sales opportunity, but I don’t care. We purchase some of the pictures and then head off to Frisch’s for a late lunch. Mom won’t return to the church she grew up in and loved until the day of her funeral, seven months later.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I love the picture.

New Year’s Resolutions, 2019

Time for another potentially worthless exercise in goal-setting! But, hey, I’m not getting any younger, and I have the feeling that time’s a-wasting. I’ve actually given this a little thought the last few days, and maybe, just maybe, putting it out for others to see will make me a tiny bit more accountable to it. Guess we’ll find out.

Read physical books daily.  I read a lot of the internet but I have a pile of books just waiting for some attention, including some I got just last week. Time to take some time for that.

Write, at least a little, daily. It doesn’t all have to be aimed toward public consumption, but I could see there being benefits to making it a more disciplined thing.

Get better at programming in R. R is a statistics-oriented programming language. Knowing more about its capabilities could be of use in the classroom.

Be more disciplined about screen time. These last two will entail being on the computer plenty, but I actually want to fritter away less time staring at it and my phone this year.

Declutter a little daily. I’m terrible about letting things pile up around me; I need to let go of a lot of stuff. Maybe if I just do a little at a time I can make some headway here at the house, the office, and the storage unit.

Lose a pound a month. It would be better if I took off more than that, but, like with the clutter, perhaps targeting a little at a time will result in some progress.

Break a real sweat three times a week. Kinda goes hand in hand with the weight, but I am dreadfully out of shape.

Find an ongoing volunteer opportunity. I spend far too much time keeping to myself.  Plus, the nest will empty at some point in the second half of the year—I may need something to keep my mind off that a little?

Be more present with others. Related to the previous entry. This includes family, folks around me here in KY, and even those I’ve met online.  You are who you are—and I’m all too introverted, I know—but I also recognize there’s much to be gained from interacting more with the fine folks in my life.

Wish me luck! Perhaps I’ll report back in 365 days (but if the results are terrible, maybe not).

Later this week, I’ll introduce the theme for a decent chunk of my 2019 blogging.

IRH ’53

In the fall of 49 a fresh-faced, rail-thin 18-year-old from Warsaw, KY, showed up on the doorstep of Transylvania University, ready to show his stuff. He majored in both history and political science, earned the opportunity to spend a term at American University in DC, and was the crafty leadoff hitter for the Pi Kappa Alpha softball team, always a threat to bunt his way on.  Dad loved his Transy days thoroughly and made sure his children knew that as they grew up. He kept in touch with many classmates over the years, served on a reunion committee at least once, and was a faithful donor.

My grandfather Harris had attended TU for two years, 1916-18, but family finances kept him from finishing his education there. No doubt his fond memories played a role when it came time for his only child to go to college; I imagine that’s one reason it felt natural to my father to want the same for Amy and me. Just before my senior year of HS started, Dad and I drove down to Transy to talk with the folks in admissions and take a tour. One thing led to another and before too many months passed, I was ready to commit to being a member of their class of 86. My sister, less pliant than I, chose to carve her own path a year later, accepting a basketball scholarship at Union College in southeastern KY.

At the end of my senior year in college, the soon-to-be-graduates voted on a number of gag awards to distribute amongst themselves.  I copped two of them: “Most Likely to be Studying on a Friday Night” (false) and “Most Likely to Become a Transy Professor” (perhaps).

There was no open position in the math program at TU when I was on the job market six years later, but one did arise in the spring of 94. I had just moved to a house in Georgetown from an apartment in Lexington in December; nonetheless, I elected to apply, and I was invited for on-campus interview.

It didn’t go very well. I don’t think I went in overconfident, but I was underprepared.  I gave superficial answers to questions about why I wanted to join the faculty there; my presentation, on a topic from first-semester calculus, provided plenty of evidence that I still very much a work-in-progress in the classroom. By the end of the day, I knew that I hadn’t earned serious consideration for an offer.

I got over it quickly. That summer I attended a great workshop at Purdue on an innovative approach to an upper-level course I would be teaching in the fall. Its reasonably successful implementation, then and in subsequent years, probably boosted my case for tenure at Georgetown. The following January, I met Martha—perhaps that wouldn’t have happened had I gotten the Transy job.

Dad, on the other hand, took things much harder, holding Transy responsible for the outcome. I attribute much of that to my father’s protective feelings for one of his offspring. But he was also plenty stubborn and a grudge-holder when he wanted to be—over the following year I tried, to little avail, to explain how I just hadn’t merited the offer. He let the matter affect his feelings toward his alma mater. He still went to reunions, but he became much less enthused about staying involved and contributing.

I recognize Dad was an adult possessing full agency for his actions and emotions, but I couldn’t help but feel responsible for his cooled ardor for TU—after all, had I not applied… My father was already plenty bitter about much of the world around him; it seemed like my actions had taken away one of his remaining loves.

Just about exactly twenty years later, Mom and I sat down in her family room to discuss what kind of charitable donation she might make in honor of Dad’s recent passing. I suggested something to benefit Transy students majoring in the same areas he had studied, and Mom agreed.  Around the same time, an opportunity arose to buy bricks for the renovation of a plaza on the academic side of campus. I purchased one in honor of Dad, one that reads simply “Ira Richard Harris ’53.” It sits just to the right of the base of a big “T” on the north end of the plaza (there’s a “T” and a “U” at both ends).

IRHBrickCloseUp

I suppose these actions were driven in part by my desire to atone for still-lingering guilt, but: a) in the end, Dad’s Transy years were a special period in his life, and b) I have my own dear memories of the place only because of his encouragement that I go there. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back—I just wanted to have all of that honored in some small way.

Recently I learned of the need to formalize the intentions of the gift made four years ago, and yesterday I went over to Transy to sign the paperwork. Afterward I got a tour of one of their new dorms and also saw the recently-renovated interior of the classroom building adjacent to the plaza. It was an altogether pleasant visit in spite of the cold.

I kept to myself that the next day just happened to be the fifth anniversary of Dad’s death.