14 January 2010


I don't remember who started it, but it was finals week in fifth grade, in Mrs. Stitzer's basement classroom in the oldest part of the school, and somehow, after an easy exam that many finished quickly, some boys joined the girls playing jacks on a space of floor cleared by pushing aside empty desks. Naturally we lost to girls our own age, but it was fun picking the small sharp metal stars — so alike in shape to the scrap-metal barricades littering the beaches our fathers had stormed in the last war — off the worn but shiny yellow linoleum.

And when I took my new skill home to try out on my younger sister, it didn't take long for me to beat her at that, too, as I did with checkers, Sorry!, and Fish. (She made me pay, of course, later, by teasing me until I slugged her, requiring our mother to whack me five times with the wooden spoon on my bare bottom, because there's no hitting in the house.)

I remember the girls kidding us, mercilessly, and some were really angry that we'd invaded their turf. And a couple tough guys sneered & called us sissies. But the girls we were playing were loving it, & put them down sharply, which got at least one of us beat up on the way home.

To me, though, the fun was in picking up something new, as shiny & sharp as a new jack, finding sudden joy in an unexpected place.


07 March 2009

Fifteen albums in 15 minutes (with bonuses!)

My friend John McDaid tagged me with this challenge, which really underestimates the amount of time needed for completing it. And when I finished, I realized I'd left a couple out!
Saturday 07 March 2009 2:40 PM
Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world. When you finish, tag 15 others, including me. Make sure you copy and paste this part so they know the drill. Get the idea now? Good. Tag, you're it!
(semi-chron order)
  1. George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, with the New York Philharmonic (I think) and Oscar Levant at the piano (I'm sure). On two 78-rpm disks that you stacked on record changer (remember those?) and flipped over when it was half-way done. When I was three I could identify it if I heard it anywhere: "That's George Gershin's Rapiddy in Boo!" Later, I got my own 33-rpm LP of the Los Angeles Symphony that I wore out learning how to conduct in the basement.
  2. I loved Henry Mancini in high school, when I first heard his music to the TV shows Peter Gunn and later Mr. Lucky. But the album that blew my mind was Quincy Jones Plays Henry Mancini. So cool and weird at the same time it made my teeth hurt (well, the orthodontia contributed).
  3. Well, duh, Meet the Beatles. I don't remember which Xmas my sister and I got this album (1 for both of us), but we wore it out and two copies after that. For me, it was the first time I actually paid attention to what each person was playing and singing, and I learned ALL the parts; it's also when I learned to play air guitar.
  4. Peter Paul & Mary: I can't remember which one I heard first — their eponymous debut, In the Wind, or Moving — but *that's* when I learned to play real guitar, so I could play in my first group: Bill, Phil, and Penny Ann. (We even had a secret name change, just like Noel Stookey: Phil's name was really Howie.)
  5. Simon & Garfunkel: Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme. S&G's first album after the triumph of the soundtrack for The Graduate, it contained lots of tasty finger-picking for me to learn, the better to lever my playing from OK to pretty good.
  6. Judy Collins: In My Life. This is Judy crossing over, after years as a luminary in the folk scene, and what's best about this anthology is the writers she brings into the same room: Dylan, Richard Fariña, Kurt Weill, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel, Randy Newman, Richard Peaslee, Donovan, John Lennon. Every song is a knockout, but the range is astonishing. And then there's the American George Martin, Joshua Rifkin, in charge of producing....
  7. Burt Jansch. His debut album, before he teamed up with John Renbourn. Paul Simon had erroneously (I think) attributed "Angie" to Burt, so when I saw the album in a leftover bin I snatched it up. His version of the definitive finger-picking solo is a lot more raw — lots of string snapping and no muffled bass line. Plus I learned how to pop in a harmonic every once in a while whilst picking like mad — I had arrived.
  8. Buffalo Springfield: Again, the second of their three albums. I'd bopped along with "For What It's Worth" and "Do I Have to Come Right Out & Say It" from their first album, and even worked a version of "Hot Dusty Roads" for my new group, Bill Bly, a Boy, & a Girl (don't ask), but when I heard Neil Young's "Expecting to Fly" and "Mr. Soul" they stoned me totally without need for chemical enhancement. And Steven Still's "Bluebird" is in my Top Ten Tewns of all time, and I'm um, still working on that acoustic riff in the middle.
  9. Beatles again: this time Abbey Road. It's hard to think of a thing to say that hasn't already been said better by others about this work, but, apart from the utter coolitude of "Come Together," I'd have to say my favorite part is the inverted fade-out of "I Want You/She's So Heavy" — keeps getting louder and louder until it breaks the sound barrier (or your eardrums) and you can't hear it anymore. I wonder if the Singularity of Ray Kurzweil's techno-rapture's gonna be like that...
  10. Laurie Anderson: Big Science. Hallelujah. After more than a decade of lyrics to make you gag, finally some to make you think. Very sexy.
  11. Don Henley: The End of the Innocence. I listen to this with utter delight at least once a year — an absolute masterpiece. For someone who doesn't have much of a voice, Don sure wails the crap out of these dark, dark songs of modern-day disillusionment, and the man's got a man's heart. "The Last Worthless Evening" and "The Heart of the Matter" still just kill me.Randy Newman: Man, this is hard, but I think I have to go with Land of Dreams. Everything before that's just (only) brilliant, but "Four Eyes," "Follow the Flag," and "I Want You to Hurt Like I Do" simply change the rules about what a song can be and do to a person.
  12. The Rutles: Archaeology. Yeah, I know it's a joke band, but have you ever listened to these so-called parodies? "Eine Kleine Middle Classe Musik" is pure genius, all the arrangements are tight as ticks, and the playing's clean but relaxed, just like you want a good band to be. And, well, they're funny.
  13. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Matapedia. As with Elvis Costello, I always found the McGarrigles' singing rather trying — though the songs were great, and I learned several to perform. But then I heard "Why Must We Die?" and I gave up being such a snob.
  14. Warren Zevon: Life'll Kill Ya. My buddy John McDaid had only introduced me to selected Zevon songs a short time before, so the first full album I got ahold of was a revelation. I immediately learned "Don't Let Us Get Sick" and "My Shit's Fucked Up" for breaking the ice at parties, and I'm working on "You're a Whole Different Person When You're Scared" for the next Midnight Ramble....
The two I can't believe I left out? My sister Lynn reminded me of these when she tagged me back —
  1. Soundtrack from the movie version of West Side Story. I loved the movie, of course, and have since tormented my Intro Theatre stoodies with it so I could watch it over and over, but the singing taught me how to sing. Whilst crooning along to "Maria" in the living room back home, I learned how to use vibrato, which didn't come naturally. Ditto singing with feeling. Shy boy learns to cope.
  2. Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, recorded by Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Janice Harshanyi and Harve Presnell, soprano & baritone respectively. I first heard this in the mid-60s, and a couple years later my college choir sang it, with yours truly doing the countertenor solo, "Olim lacus colueram," the Song of the Roasted Swan. Since then its opening chorus "O Fortuna" has become a total cliché of satanic rituals in the movies, but the whole piece is still amazing. Turn the headphones up!

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28 January 2009

Voices in the Line

When the telephone first came to our upcountry farm in Kula,
there was only one wire. The numbers were a digit different,

but it was the same line. When anybody's rang, ours rang
in the kitchen, and so rang the receivers in every other house.
No matter what somebody said, anybody could be listening,

and everybody knew it, so nobody ever said anything important
or personal on the phone. Phones were public, like a restroom

or a library is public. If the words were private, they were taken
outside or penned. Nobody ever called anybody for no reason,

and conversations were short. Before the telephone, we lived
alone where we couldn't even see the neighbors' lights at night,
but the wires shrunk the world. No longer was there anywhere

you knew anybody you couldn't call anymore. So we called.
Whenever we picked up the phone, there were voices in the line.

-- Eric Paul Shaffer, in Rattle 30, Winter 2008.
I know this guy's story. I was a kid when this happened to me, living in one of the first of a five-house plan in what used to be somebody's front forty, our yard still an open wound in the earth, the view still clear down to the creek and the two-lane up the opposite bank.

Mrs. Wilson had the switchboard on a table in her dining room -- I saw it once when I went to play with her son Tad. She was in the kitchen, I think, and Tad showed me how it worked: pull this plug, stick it in this hole, crank the dial for numbers in the county seat 10 miles away, then you asked another operator for a hookup to Pittsburgh, where my grandparents lived.

The phone hung on the wall opposite our back door, in the short passageway between the dining room and kitchen -- a shiny black box with a hook but no dial, no white disk with number in its center. I'd sit there in a chair dragged from the kitchen table, holding the hook down with my free hand, talking into the heavy handset to pretend friends.

It was a party line, shared by six families, and the phone rang maybe once or twice a day; you listened to the pattern of rings to see if it was for you. Ours was long, short-short, long; the Clearys' up the hill was long, short, long-long. Mrs. Wilson did the rings by hand, pushing a spring switch on the panel next to the dial. I once asked her -- she was my Sunday School teacher that year -- who worked the switchboard when she was asleep. "Why, if somebody calls, I just get up and answer it. What do you think?" But what happens when you go on vacation? She just looked at me.

Our parents were our now-kids' age then, maybe younger; those of us watching our contemporaries roll off the table in ones and twos these days are beginning to realize there's a whole world evaporating atom by atom that will only be retrievable in little vignettes like Eric Paul Shaffer's poem -- and if I don't print out the blog for my descendants to find moldering in the bottom of a linen trunk (remember those?), it's likely this wispy commentary will vanish into the digital dark age like the rest of the artifacts we're impetuously entrusting to the cloud.

It's not just the world of quaint devices and their picturesque usage that's disappearing, but a world of relations to each other, as Shaffer's poem conjures with such lovely simplicity. Indirectly, he also evokes the world of silence and distance that his grandparents watched disappear, perhaps with the same nostalgia that he himself seems to be feeling now, and which may have supplied some motivation for writing the poem in the first place.

That silence and distance was not a gap in our relations -- as it appeared to technologists bent on improving "communication" -- it was a room, and each of us had one: in which to rest, to which to retreat, from which to sally forth when it was necessary to communicate with one another. There was peace in that room -- or maybe it just seems so to those of us too young to remember such a condition of things -- where tranquility was attainable in a way all but impossible in the noisy world today.

The heedlessness of technological progress is a dusty old trope -- think of the story of O say the Tower of Babel, or Icarus -- that doesn't much edify. The alarums about dwindling privacy among our young, who don't seem to know what the alarumists are even talking about, is probably in the same class of prudish or plain cranky ranting against change for ranting's (not change's) sake.

That doesn't make the prudes and ranters wrong. Here's what Kafka thought about "improving" communication:

Written kisses don't reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the aeroplane. But it's no longer any help, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the wireless. The spirits won't starve, but we will perish.
-- Franz Kafka to Milena Jesenká, epigraph to John Durham Peters's Speaking into the Air.

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23 January 2009


My first and favorite experience in samizdat was The Pick-Pocket's Packet, published by the W.P.A.O.P.P. (Western Pennsylvania Association of Organized Pick-Pockets), Rich Kenny, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief.

It was eighth grade, that liminal year which in other municipalities would have been the last year of grammar school, but in those days, in our proto-burb just outside the orbit of metro Pittsburgh, the only school was Peters Twp. Jr.-Sr. High, still attached to McMurray Elementary ("grade school") where I first embarked on my journey towards Upper Education. [See photo.]

Over the summer, more than half of our male colleagues had vaulted into puberty, and now towered over us, deep-voiced and hairy, suddenly dazed by the presence of lumpy girls whom only months before they hadn't even been able to see.

It was a point of pride with shrimps like us (Rich & I were always in the front row in group shots) that we could travel faster in the halls between class periods than any upperclassperson, whose pockets sat at just about shoulder height on us as we zoomed in and out of clumps of flirtiing hulks, and boosting a wallet was pathetically easy.

But the idea was far more intoxicating than the actual experience, which inevitably involved having to give the dang thing back, with the social awkwardness and occasional contusion that resulted. So Rich, a boy of ingenuity and grit that I could only envy (in chorus once he socked a notorious bully in the jaw when the jerk blocked his way), started writing up our adventures, with the usual dilations, on pages of his yellow pencil tablet, which he ruled off into columns, drawing "wire photos" and ads around which he poured breathless accounts of our exploits, announcements of upcoming events, minutes of executive board meetings, and subtle satire of the school administration.

I wrote the gossip column, which I didn't do very well, and so didn't do very often, but I helped copy and distribute issues to the dwindling number of dweebs like us amongst our classmates. Eventually, I think, we were shut down by humorless teachers, who I now believe took the confiscated copies home and had a good yock with their families.

The next year we both crossed the Rubicon into adolescence, and somehow drifted apart. I saw Rich again over a decade ago at some anniversary of our graduating class, and though I recall that he hadn't changed much (except for the mustache), I don't remember anything we said, not even if The Pick-Pocket's Packet came up or not.

I can't say my writing career began there -- I had at least ten more years of goofing off to get out of my system -- but it was a great wonder to me to watch a "piece" take shape under Rich's hand, in #2 pencil on cheap yellow paper, and I think it was then I realized dimly that somehow everything I read had been written by someone in a manner not unlike this, whatever happened to it afterward in its journey towards print that landed it, however briefly, before my eyes.

And somewhere, sometime, I said to myself: I want to do that.

[Originally appeared in Ye Antient Blogge, 14March 2002.]

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19 April 2007

Chess Club

In 8th grade, I was a founding member of the Chess Club, which met on Tuesdays during Activity period. I'd originally tried to join the Science Club, but found out that there were two Science Clubs: the one that looked through telescopes and studied the stars was full by the time I got there, and I had to take the other one, the one that did Nature hikes on Saturdays and studied pond scum. Didn't last long there.

The default Activity if you weren't in a Club was Study Hall, and I already had a couple of those, like the other nerdy boys who found homework pretty easy and hadn't joined (or couldn't get into) a Club. After a few weeks, to stave off boredom for the endless 53 minutes of the period, a couple of us brought in portable chess sets and started playing. And naturally the rest of us wanted to watch and kibbitz.

My playing was decidedly second-tier; the real killers were Rich Kenny, Ivan Mann, David Snyder, and Charlie Obler — all of them not coincidentally great at math. Well, Rich was more like a normal person at math (though still better than me), but his native intelligence was keen, and his spirit indomitable, which made him a dangerous opponent, unlike the others, who were usually satisfied with outsmarting each other. Rich had the killer instinct, and liked to destroy his adversary; more than once he got caught in a sneaky checkmate because he was too busy mounting Sherman's March through his opponent's backfield.

At first Mr. Nyswaner, a shy Norwegian in his first year as a teacher (which got him stuck with study hall — no club for him either), was inclined to let this go on, perhaps believing that it did no harm, and certainly out of pity for us, since the rest of our social lives were so obviously inept. But one day, after we'd already set up our chess boards and were well into Round 1 of our weekly tournament, Mr. Nyswaner suddenly materialized behind Rich, who was just bringing out his Queen for a vicious assault on Charlie's front line of pawns, and told us to put the games away. We looked at him stupidly.

(In those days, you didn't talk back to your teachers — i.e., didn't ask why when they told you to do something you didn't want to do. You looked at them stupidly, as if they'd spoken to you in a foreign language. Sometimes this would flummox the teacher in question, resulting in a cascade of explanations and justifications, and once in a while she (or more rarely he) would retire from the field in embarrassment, and you could go on doing whatever it was they didn't want you to do. The older teachers would simply repeat the command sharply, and the implied threat of physical consequences, should you fail to obey at once, was not an idle one: laws against corporal punishment in schools were years away — the chances were good that if your parents found out a teacher had slapped you in school you'd get slapped when you got home. Ah, the dear dead days.)

In this instance, the pole-axed look we gave Mr. Nyswaner was real — what was he talking about? We weren't playing games, this was *chess*. But our hesitation broke his confidence, and he started to backpedal, saying it was distracting the other students who were trying to work; besides, this was a study hall, not a game room. He went back to his desk, very red in the face, and resumed whatever it is that teachers do when they're not teaching.

This presented an awkward situation. He hadn't stayed to make sure we put our chess sets away, so maybe he wasn't really serious. On the other hand, if we went back to playing, it would constitute a direct flouting of his authority, and because he was new, we didn't know where the line was with him. Still, what was he saying? That playing chess was somehow illegal? Then why'd he let us do it for so long?

Having been a teacher myself for over three decades, I can now plausibly reconstruct what had happened. Mr. Nyswaner was a newbie, and wanted everybody to like him. In the teachers' lounge one day, during a round of Listen To What Those Idiot Kids Did Today, he'd tried to impress his elders with the funny story of the geeky boys playing chess in his Tuesday study hall. No doubt they'd looked at him stupidly, unable to comprehend how he'd permitted such a Bohemian situation to develop. He'd faltered, stammered, maybe even asked for advice, having realized his only hope of survival in this rural high school was to cringe back into his colleagues' good graces.

I'm pretty sure his mentor in this would have been Mr. Douglas, the avuncular ruddy Scot who taught math and liked to punch you jovially on the upper arm (right where it hurts the most), by way of saying, "You're not gonna act up in MY math class, now ARE you, Laddie?" Grasping Mr. Nyswaner's upper arm (right where it hurts the most), Mr. Douglas likely told him in a firm but friendly voice that if he didn't nip this little insurrection right in the bud, he'd have chaos on his hands in that study hall. Mr. Douglas knew boys like that: he'd been one of them.

Chaos in the Classroom: the worst catastrophe you can incur your first year out — you don't come back from a C in the C.

Now Mr. Nyswaner was in a bind. His fledgling reputation as a nice guy had already earned him the condescension, if not yet the scorn, of the oldest and nastiest of his colleagues, I'm pretty sure of that, but Douglas was a man whose respect he could not afford to lose; he'd have to do something about our "little insurrection," whether he wanted to or not. So he gave it his best shot.

But Rich, as I said, had the killer instinct, and he smelled irresolution in Nyswaner's order for us to stop — Nyswaner would never get physical with us, twerpy as we were: he didn't have the nerve.

I was standing behind Charlie watching the game; Rich was facing the front, where Mr. Nyswaner had just sat down and was fussing with a pile of exam books. When I turned back from looking stupidly at Nyswaner, Rich had that hard gleam in his eye I'd seen so many times before when he was about to do something crazy, just to discombobulate his opponent (worked every time with me). He picked up his Queen and plowed into Charlie's secondary, taking the pawn right in front of the King. "Check," Rich said, loudly enough to be heard out in the hall.

Now Charlie was likely the only real genius among us (the senior math teachers used to ask him for help with their equations), which also made him the weakest chess player in the top tier, because he couldn't comprehend the illogical moves the rest of us would make when we didn't know what else to do. This was about the stupidest move he'd ever seen — the Queen was completely unprotected — and he looked at Rich for a moment, utterly baffled.

But Rich wasn't looking at Charlie, and it was soon apparent why: the defiant expression on Rich's face drained away, and a shadow loomed over the board: Nyswaner had returned. He said not a word, just stood there, a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier, and stared Rich down. The rest of us silently slithered from the field.

In response to his humiliation, Rich turned activist. I'm not sure of the sequence here, but I believe it's no coincidence that about this time he launched the samizdat journal The Pickpocket's Packet (described elsewhere), in which he editorialized in favor of official recognition of the Chess Club. He circulated petitions and lobbied his classmates to sign, and even enlisted faculty support — his advocate in this crusade was, perhaps not surprisingly, Mr. Douglas, who must have admired the boy's spunk, because he had, after all, been just such a bairn himself, once upon a time.

So the Chess Club became an official Activity, with Mr. Douglas as its Advisor (he even joined in once in a while, when an odd number of players showed up); Mr. Nyswaner survived a challenge to his authority, and his rookie year as a teacher; Rich Kenny learned the limits of aggression, the effectiveness of diplomacy, and the rudiments of publishing; and I got this story to tell.

This story is one of my favorites, the kind that I tell eventually to every new friend, once we get past the acquaintance stage. It's a tale of daring, of resolution in the face of bureaucratic oppression, of perseverence and resourcefulness — and it has a happy ending. Best, it's about geeks, who've become fashionable characters in American lore ever since technology took over our lives.

But back in the day, we were ridiculed and picked on, because we were puny and talked funny and read all the time. In Science class, when Charlie and David made a computer, housed in a cigar box and wired with Xmas lights, that could add and subtract, they got no awards from their classmates, who were vying with each other for prizes we didn't have a prayer of even competing for — popularity, esteem, good looks.

It was a heady experience to actually succeed in making a place in the world, however circumscribed, for our otherwise incompetent selves. It made us feel like men, however short of stature and shrill of voice, to marshall our forces, make our case, and win official recognition of something that was important enough to fight for.

A short-lived victory, as it turned out. The following summer half of us went through puberty and moved on to more grown-up things; the rest of us, left behind by that rapture, lost heart and fell back on reading science fiction in study hall, the cheap pocket paperbacks tucked inside our math text, to be sure — no one but Douglas would check, and he was an sf fan himself. We served out our sentence of humiliation with fatalism, and consoled ourselves with the dream of someday saving our benighted planet with brilliant schemes our former colleagues were too doped up on hormones to be able to imagine.

Of course, some of us did better than others at class reunions some years later...

Geeks' Nite Out