Who Are You, Former Self?

Marge and Pete: 40th Anniversary PartyOur actual anniversary was back in June, but we finally got around to having a party a month or so ago. The whole thing was planned, executed and mostly paid for (!) by Elizabeth and Marge’s sister Dodie. It was a relaxed evening (cf. Hawaiian shirt) and a good time. The last month, however, has been jammed up with news and events, good and bad. More about that another time. For now I just want to remember that gentle summer evening in August when our old friends gathered to marvel at the fact that we are still smiling after 40 years of marriage.

Some of the guests were people we hadn’t seen in some time, including our friend Kathy, the widow of my old friend Gary. The card Kathy had made for us brought me literally face to face with myself of nearly 35 years ago. Gary, you see, was a photographer, one of the few people I’ve ever known who bought a nice camera and then went to the trouble to learn how to use it. He left his photos in pretty good order, too, so that when Kathy looked through them before the party, she found this one.

Faux Dr. LinguiniGary took this picture in about 1974. I seem to be making meatballs. The bowl shown in the picture, gone long ago to fractured crockery heaven, was the one I always used for meatballs. The intent look on my face suggests that I was attempting to channel my grad school friend Had who always assumed the identity of “Dr. Linguini” when making meatballs. The whole Dr. Linguini bit might strike the more sensitive among us as ethnic slur now, but it was great fun then.

I vaguely remember the gawd-awful shirt, but I honestly do not remember ever having been so thin, or so young. By my best calculations, I am 27 or 28 in this picture. Who the hell was I? What did I feel? What did I believe? If I ever tried to imagine myself at 62, did I get even one detail right?

Writing this now reminds me of going through old photos with my mother. Again and again, she would shake her head and say, “I just don’t remember.” At the time I thought it was her dementia, but now I wonder if it wasn’t just time itself. The person I am today is molded from the person I was yesterday. I’ve reworked that clay so many times now that its earlier shapes are gone.

I look at this photo and say, “Yup, that’s me,” but I am no longer the person in the picture. I don’t even know that person anymore. I know where he lived, who his friends were, how he spent his time. But he himself is somehow just another ancestor.

The supreme oddity, however, is to look at this “ancestor” and find myself wanting to say, “Get your hair out of your eyes, boy. And pull up your pants before they fall down!”

But he never would listen to that kind of talk from anyone, not even from me.

Revisiting Flatland

This evening I picked up Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland, first published in 1884, a book I haven’t thought about in years. I bought the paperback edition I still own in the University of Connecticut bookstore in the spring of 1964 when I was visiting the campus.

I was drawn to the book initially by simple curiousity over the fact that the author’s middle and last names are the same. If I ever learned what that was about, however, I have long since forgotten, because everything about the book delighted me.

Abbott writes in the persona of A. Square, a sentient geometrical figure who by accident discovers our three-dimensional world. The story is an astute satire of Abbott’s own Victorian society, by turns funny, poignant, subversive and sly.

Through the years, I have occasionally met someone who has heard of the book. For the most part, however, Flatland sits on my shelf as a sort of private delight. I once tried to get Marge to read it, but it didn’t interest her. I’m not sure she got past the preface. I may have suggested it to Elizabeth when she was a high school student struggling with geometry. In fact, through the years I’ve recommended it to a lot of people, but I’m not sure anyone has ever taken me up on it.

But now, Flatland is available on line. That link at the top of this page will take you to the full text, with Abbott’s original illustrations. So go ahead, click on it. You know you want to…

A Widget from Newsweek

Now, what am I supposed to do with the thing? It comes with no instructions whatever. No indication of its size; no information about how it is likely to behave when embedded in a page. Absolutely nothing. Newsweek, you can do better than this!

Although the watch is pretty cool…

An Evening at the Beach

Old Orchard BeachOn Saturday, we drove down to Old Orchard Beach, a place we visit every five to ten years. Geographically, it isn’t far away, but it inhabits a different reality. The town is an old-time summer resort destination of the honky-tonk variety—complete with sleazy amusement park and vendors selling things like death metal band T-shirts and tattoos. Years ago, “the pier” was a destination in itself, with a performance venue that attracted all the stars of the Big Band era. A fire, however, took care of most of the pier. What remains of it is tacky, crowded and generally depressing. Most of the summer businesses are run by people who work at Old Orchard in the summer and in a warm climate in the winter. In the past, many of them were Lebanese and Syrian, but I have no idea of the ethnic groups involved these days.

In recent years, year-round residents finally wearied of the town’s seamy reputation and have managed to corral the vice industries. Gone from the midway, for example, are the topless joints, the biker bars and the women willing, for a modest consideration, to make a boy into a man.

In the past, the hotels, motels and rental cabins of the town were filled all summer long with visitors from Quebec and New Brunswick, and you still hear a lot of French on the street. We ate beach pizza served to us by a Russian waitress, took a walk on the beach (seven miles of perfect sand!) and strolled through the amusement park.

Against her better judgment, Marge rode with Elizabeth and me on the roller coaster. Marge is a woman who does not enjoy carnival rides. She regretted her decision and began screaming almost from the moment our car began to climb. I used to like carnival rides in small doses and had expected to enjoy the ride a lot more than I did. As a matter of pride, I do want to stress that I didn’t scream or lose my pizza, but I was dizzy by the end of the ride. It just wasn’t much fun, and the damn tickets cost more than $4.00 each! It will probably prove to have been the last carnival ride of my life.

Elizabeth, who has always had the stomach of an astronaut when it comes to such things, was pretty disgusted with both of us. And only partly because she had bought the tickets.

In the past my association with the town was that I worked there as a bank teller during the summer of 1966, between my sophomore and junior years of college. The pace at the bank was frenetic. The days were long and the pay was low, but the job was the first “white collar” experience of my life.

I tried to be serious and professional at all times and had some modest success at it. Inside my conservately tailored suit and carefully knotted tie, however, I was a 20-year-old guy. Thus it was that on the day a young woman in a convertible wearing only the top of a bikini, presented a check at the drive-through window, I smiled (suavely, no doubt) and cashed that check.

When the check was returned to the bank as worthless a few days later, I learned that there were three things about it to which I had been temporarily blinded by the view from the high vantage of the drive-through window:

  • The “check” was a photocopy
  • The amount was payable in New Zealand dollars
  • The words “Not Negotiable” appeared prominently on the front

For the rest of the summer a teller named Linda covered the drive-through, and the office manager made a lame remark about New Zealand every time he saw me.

Tornado Watch

airborne tornadoTornadoes are extremely, make that extraordinarily, rare here in Maine, so when the NWS announced a watch yesterday I didn’t think the storm would really hit us. It turns out I was right, although we got some torrential rains. Parts of New Hampshire weren’t so lucky.

In retrospect, I’m surprised to have regained my former cavalier attitude toward severe weather events, particularly tornadoes. I’m surprised because I have lived in Oklahoma, in that part of the country that calls itself “Tornado Alley.”

When we moved there I didn’t know what tornado watches and warnings were. I had never seen a tornado and never thought about what being caught in a tornado would be like. We had only been in Tulsa a few months when all that changed. In a nutshell, I learned the following in about half an hour:

Tornadoes are to weather more or less what Machiavellianism is to politics or the fictitious Borg (“Resistance is futile”) to the equally fictitious Federation of Planets. As for Machiavelli, on the subject of permanently defeating recalcitrant rivals he wrote, “If an injury has to be done to a man it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.” Similarly, if a tornado hits you or even comes close, you will not want to tangle with one again.

Luckily for us, the tornado that taught me all that was airborne, like the one shown in the picture, and so it passed over our house without doing any damage to us. When the funnel first became visible in the sky, our neighbors went out into the street to watch it and, presumably, to plan their strategies. I went out, too, and learned from them that there are basically two choices: you can hide, or you can run. There are rules that apply to each.

In a house built on a concrete slab, like the one we were renting, the place to hide is the bathtub. Barring a direct hit on the tub, you are likely to survive even a tornado’s total demolition of the house. The downside of the idea is that a one-bathroom house provides safe hiding only for one. You choose hiding, by the way, only if the storm is unlikely to hit you, or if you have no time to run. As a first-timer, I briefly considered hunkering down in the tub with a bottle of bourbon, resigned to my fate. By the time I’d formulated this plan, however, the funnel had moved on. Tornadoes are fast.

That’s why if you run (drive, actually) from a tornado the idea is to travel beside the storm, rather than trying to head directly away from it. You just don’t want to race a tornado. The idea is get out of its path because in a normal car on a normal road, you will not be able to outrun the funnel.

Hmmmmm, this turned out a lot longer than I expected. I haven’t thought about these things for years, but now that I’ve been reminded I think I’ll pay more attention to the next tornado watch that comes my way.

Two Kinds of Musical Minds

I’ll confess it up front. This post will bore most people to the point of unconsciousness, because it’s about music at a pretty technical level. Those who are not bored will, I think, have one of two immediate responses—either “What a cool idea!” or “What a load of BS!”

Ever since I wrote the “Lenny” post, I’ve been thinking about how it is that classical musicians and jazz musicians, even when they play the same instruments, have trouble talking to each other about music and for the most part just don’t “get” each other. My own orientation is toward jazz, even though I haven’t thought of myself as a jazz player for decades.

When I was in high school, three of my friends and I put together a jazz quartet. I played alto sax. We all had connections with working jazz musicians in the area and were happily absorbing their view of and orientation to music. Jazz (except for so-called “free jazz” which I don’t don’t enjoy and spend no time thinking about) is organized around chord progressions. There are lots of conventions about how this organization happens, and even a few more or less set-in-stone rules. Except for big bands which work from carefully written arrangements, most jazz bands use what are called “lead sheets.” Here’s a picture of part of a typical lead sheet that might be given to the keyboard player.

sample of a lead sheet

It’s a simple thing and looks pretty much like the music folk guitarists work from, except that it’s likely to contain chords that folk musicians don’t play. It contains the melody and symbols that represent the chords that are supposed to accompany the melody, and it’s a pretty good conceptual representation of a jazz tune. Of course, there’s a huge store of shared knowledge that underlies the use of lead sheets.

Lead sheets are almost always written in the treble clef. In the example here, the single flat in the key signature suggests that the tune is written in the key of either F major or D minor. The first chord (G minor) might be used in either key, but the song move to the the C7 chord and then to F major. There’s the key, “one down,” i.e., one flat—F major.

How the keyboard player actually plays the chords is left to that player’s discretion, so long as the rules and conventions are obeyed. The G minor chord is G-B♭-D. As the chord is used in the example lead sheet, jazz conventions would permit (almost insist) that the the so-called seventh of the chord (F) be added. Its also possible that the ninth of the chord (A) would be added as a “color tone.”

In a jazz piano style more or less created by Bud Powell something like 60 years ago, for example, the chord would be played as F-A-B♭-D, with no G in it at all! The bass player would probably pick up the G, and whatever instrument is playing the melody has the G covered anyway.

Anyway, a lead sheet is a pretty good conceptual representation of a jazz tune because, like a jazz tune, it “hangs” from the melody. The actual bass line doesn’t appear. Lead sheets were my musical orientation when I arrived at the University of Connecticut to major in music as a bassoonist and was first introduced to what is called “figured bass.”

Figured bass notation is very old, and it looks like the sample shown below. There is also a huge store of shared knowledge involved here, but it’s almost completely different from the the knowledge underlying a lead sheet.

sample of figured bass notation

Conceptually, figured bass is pretty much the opposite of a lead sheet. For one thing, it’s written in bass clef. It specifies the exact notes to be played in the the bass line, and it describes the chords, without naming them, through the numbers written below the notes. In the sample here, the key signature is two flats, and the first note is G. The numbers 5-3 below the note specify that the chord is in so-called “root” position, so that the notation describes a G chord.

The bottom note is G, the second note is a third higher (but flatted because of the key signature). The third note of the chord is a fifth higher than the first. This yields G-B♭-D, the same notes as in the Gm chord at the beginning of the sample lead sheet.

For the second chord, we find the note B♭ with the number 6 beneath it. This is shorthand that a “continuo” player would be expected to decipher. It means that the top note in the chord is a sixth higher than the bass note, a G. So, the second chord in the piece is also a Gm chord, but it is to be played in the note order B♭-D-G.

For the third chord, the note is D. The numbers below describe what is called a 7th chord in root position. The ♯ symbol is another bit of shorthand and indicates that the second note of the chord is to be raised a half-step. In its entirety, the chord is realized as D-F♯-A-C. The lead sheet would describe this as D7, and Bud Powell might have played F♯-B-C-E, a D7 with no D in it anywhere!

In a nutshell, figured bass notation sits on the bassline, and the melody doesn’t appear at all. This reflects a mindset so alien to the jazz sensibility that it should be no surprise that classical musicians and jazz players really, really don’t speak the same language.


And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed.
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

—Langston Hughes

Lenny BreauI was about 20 years late in “discovering” Lenny Breau. Lenny was born in 1941, just five years before me, in Auburn, a small city about 30 miles from Portland where I was born. He lived in Maine until 1957, when his family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. Lenny was murdered in 1984, when he was living in Los Angeles. Somewhere along the way he became the finest jazz guitarist I’ve ever heard.

I first learned about Lenny in the late 1970’s, but for some reason my ears just weren’t open to him. A few years ago, I was searching online for an mp3 of the The Jamies’ 1950’s hit Summertime, Summertime. One of the “hits” my search turned up was Lenny playing the Gershwin Summertime. I played it over and over and finally tracked down and purchased the CD that it came from.

Summertime is a song I learned to play nearly 50 years ago, and I thought I knew it. I stopped playing it years ago because it had become such a cliché. Listening to Lenny, however, I felt as if I had never heard the song before. If Lenny were alive now, he’d be 67—still playing way out ahead of everybody else, still taking old standards and finding things in them that no one ever heard before, and doing it every single night.

I wish I’d gotten to know you, Lenny. You probably couldn’t have turned me into a genius like you, but I’d have made a hell of a fan.

What Did You Learn in School Today?

NOTE: I ask all of you who work or have worked in the field of education to read this post all the way to the end if you start to read it at all. You won’t know where I’m headed with this until the last paragraph. The story I’m about to tell is about me and my own experience in trying to do a job for which I had astonishingly little aptitude. It’s not about education or America’s public schools in general.

The worst year of my life was the school year 1974-75, the year I spent as a high school English teacher. I’m not sure anyone has ever lived who was less suited to high school teaching than I. I wonder about a few things to this day:

  • How I ever thought teaching high school was a good idea for me;
  • How anyone, having talked to me about high school, could have hired me as a teacher;
  • How I ever made it through that long, long year; and
  • How, 20 years later, I could have thought I might try to go back for more—although that’s a story for another day.

The fundamental problem, which should have been obvious to me from the beginning, was that I had hated high school as a student. Hated it, and not just a little. I hated it with stomach-churning resentment so strong that just entering the building would sometimes make me physically ill.

Nonetheless I somehow thought that on the other side of the desk, my outlook and attitude would change. I was an intern (what used to be called a “student teacher”) during my last semester of college in the spring of 1968. Student teaching was a lot of work, but it was pretty much a given that, having completed it, you would end up with an A for 12 college credits. I ended up with a C for those 12 credits. So much for the old GPA. In truth, the C was probably a gift.

If I hadn’t figured out any other way that I was barking up the wrong tree that whole semester, I might have known on the day I stood at the window with the school’s principal as we looked out on the student smoking area. My generation had gone wild during the years I was in college. The generation of our parents wasn’t prepared to accept or even acknowledge the extent of the change that had occurred. So, when I saw one kid pass a wad of bills to another kid who passed back a brown paper package, I knew I was witnessing a drug deal. I turned to the principal and asked him what the school was doing about its obvious drug problem.

The principal was incensed and huffily told me that there were no drugs in his high school, thank you very much. Right, I thought. I later learned that by 1971 that school (with the same principal) was videotaping these transactions so that parents could be called in to watch. There was really no other way to get parents’ attention, because in those days parental instinct went along these lines: “You’re accusing my kid of using drugs? I’ll have your damn job for this!”

I daresay that if the principal remembered me at all by that time he was settling down parents by showing them videotapes (“So, Mr. Smith, why do you think that lunch bag is worth $40?”) it was only to recall that I had been insolent and insubordinate. Hell, I probably had been.

What always wound me up about high schools is their nearly obsessive devotion to conventional thought, expression and behavior. Such devotion, I think, is the reason why school administrators so often get it wrong when dealing with students who behave unconventionally. Hardly a year goes by, for example, without media picking up a story about students who have been expelled for what they’ve written in a student newspaper (e.g., support for gay student rights) or said in class (e.g., opposition to a war) or worn to school (e.g., armbands for whatever cause). Sometimes the same brand of idiocy gets a teacher fired for teaching. Anna Quindlen tells such a story in the current issue of Newsweek.

By the time I ended up teaching high school in the fall of 1974, I had done four years in the military and completed an M.A. The job was there, and I really had nothing else to do with myself. I figured it couldn’t be any more unpleasant than the military, but I hadn’t figured on the squirmy relentlessness of the kids. I also hadn’t figured on the cynical sloth of the English department chairman, the bullying stupidity of one assistant principal, the exhausted resignation of the other, and the flat-footed authoritarianism of the principal (a career changer who, when under pressure, seemed to think he was still a cop).

Certain moments of irony weren’t lost on me, however, despite my unhappiness. I was, for example, required to teach The Catcher in the Rye, a book of which the mere possession 10 or 12 years before had netted me a finger-pointing lecture on morality.

The short version of the story of my year as a teacher is that five minutes into home room on the first day, I knew I had made a horrific mistake. I white-knuckled it through the remaining 179 days of the school year, and left without regret when it was over. By way of specifics, I got through the year by drinking too much, taking too many “sick and tired” days, doing the minimum possible amount of work, and whining like a two-year-old.

What has stayed with me from that year, however, is a small collection of good stories and a bottomless admiration for those who teach well.

Staring Down Ten Years’ Worth of Mistake Purchases

If you have a mistake purchase or two tucked away somewhere in the back of a closet or a box in the attic, you’ll understand what I’m about to tell you. We’ve just spent a couple of days looking at every single mistake purchase we own. Most were pretty easy to deal with, once we got started. Most have already gone to Goodwill, and a few are headed for a consignment shop. But I have one item I still don’t know what to do with.

It’s my L.L. Bean Flying Tiger leather jacket. I was supposed to look cool as hell in the thing. I tried my best to convince myself I looked cool, but in the end there was no way around the hard truth. What I looked like was somebody trying to be Indiana Jones for Halloween who’d lost his damn hat. I wore the Flying Tiger about four times, and I will never wear it again.

As a jacket it is neither warm nor comfortable. I wasn’t happy when I wore it, but on those occasions I didn’t want to take it off either because I was afraid someone would steal it. Here’s the dilemma: if you followed that link above, you know what the Flying Tiger cost. Yikes. It is theoretically valuable but, in reality, may be worth next to nothing. Such jackets are all over eBay, $39.99 and up.

For now, unworn and unloved, the jacket ties up closet space while I, dog-like, chase the same old philosophical tail: Do I own the jacket, or does the jacket own me?

The Turkey and the Toe

You might feel a little discomfort here…
—Thor Miller, M.D.

Donna’s comment yesterday about breaking a toe reminded me of my own broken toe story from 40 years ago.

As a newlywed in 1968, I worked for about six months at the A&P warehouse that was located on Kennebec Street here in Portland. Here I was, a new college graduate, joining the Teamster’s Union for an entry-level job lifting and lugging. But the whole idea of the job was for me earn a few dollars while I waited for the day when I would leave home for Air Force basic training.

Most people don’t know about the A&P anymore. The full name of the company was (and I guess still is) The Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company. The company’s days of continent-spanning dominance of the grocery business are over, I think, but the A&P basically invented the supermarket.

The Portland warehouse supplied stores over a wide area, and my job was in the meat department. In October, with the approach of Thanksgiving, we started dealing with frozen turkeys, lots and lots of frozen turkeys. The turkeys arrived by truck and by train. The big warehouse freezer was filled with them, and still they kept coming.

One day I was assigned to work in a freight car filled with frozen turkeys packed two to the carton. The cartons were stacked seven feet high in the freight car, and unloading them involved handling each carton individually. The work was hard and repetitive. After a while, I fell into a mindless rhythm: reach up and grip a carton; turn and place the carton on a handcart; repeat until the handcart is fully loaded; wheel the handcart out of the freight car and stack the cartons on a wooden pallet; wheel the handcart back into the freight car; begin again.

At some point in the middle of the day, I pulled a defective carton from the top of the stack in the freight car. One of the bottom flaps came loose, and a 22-pound frozen bird slipped out. The turkey fell like a cannonball, and the frozen stump of its neck landed directly on the toe of my shoe.

Now, this is the reason people who work in places like warehouses are supposed to wear steel-toed boots, but I couldn’t afford to buy such boots.

When the turkey hit my foot, it hurt like hell. I immediately began to wonder if something was wrong, but I kept working. I could feel some swelling inside my shoe, but I didn’t take the shoe off to have a look because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to put it back on.

That fear proved to be well-placed. By mid-afternoon, I could no longer walk on the foot. I left work early, limped to my car, and drove home. At home, I took my shoe off. There was clearly no putting it on again.

Through the rest of the afternoon, my strategy for dealing with the toe was basically to sit and hope for the best. By early evening, I had to admit the strategy was ineffective. Marge called Dr. Miller, the family doctor I had always gone to, and he agreed to see me if I could get to his office.

Dr. Miller looked at my foot and quickly determined that the bones of my big toe were broken in three places. He explained that the pain I was experiencing came from pressure building up beneath the toenail. He said the pressure had to be relieved or else the pain would be worse and worse.

By this point I felt I was ready to agree to just about anything, particularly since I thought I had a good idea of what was going to happen. My assumption was that I’d get a shot of some sort of local anesthetic and that the doctor would drill through the nail (or perhaps melt through it with a heated needle).

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Dr. Miller, nearing retirement in those days, spent most of his career practicing medicine in an era that calibrated pain from broken bones differently. The ragged end of a snapped femur protruding through the skin; that was pain. A woman having twins who suffered sacral fractures 48 hours into unmedicated labor; that was pain. A broken toe? Not so much.

So, for me there was no local anesthetic. There was also no drill or needle. Instead, Dr. Miller stood the point of a scalpel on my toenail. Slowly, slowly he turned the scalpel so that the blade would eventually scrape its way through the toenail. “You might feel a little discomfort here,” he said.

When this sort of thing happens in a cowboy movie, the victim gets a shot or two of whiskey and then something to bite down on. Once again, I got neither. I sat on Dr. Miller’s examination table, gripping the edge of it so hard I was practically tearing off the upholstery.

The twisting scalpel went on and on and on. After a minute or two of it, I began fantasizing that my hands were around the good doctor’s neck. In my dream state, I choked the life out of him until he confessed himself to be a quack and a sadist.

After three or four minutes, I could no longer sustain fantasy. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth. My goal became simply to remain conscious and to resist the urge to shriek at the top of my lungs. I no longer cared what happened and was perfectly at home with the notion that death might overtake me at any moment. What a relief it would be…

Finally, the scalpel made its way through the toenail. I felt a moment of truly amazing pain and saw a tiny spurt of watery-looking blood. Then the doctor bound up the wound he had inflicted.

I missed a few days of work, but the toe slowly and steadily healed. At Thanksgiving, Marge’s mom served a 22-pound turkey she had bought frozen at the A&P. I ate with relish, convinced that I was wreaking vengeance on THE ONE.

For a long time afterward the toe I broke was flatter than its counterpart, and for about 25 years its occasional twinge predicted changes in the weather.

Now, astonishingly, I can’t tell or even remember which foot was involved.