ME AT WALL BW Wall04bbbw_largeMy Book / Our Story

Welcome. My blog invites everyone to contribute their stories about growing up a baby boomer. The 50s, 60s and 70’s – they were great times to be raised. Of course, some experiences weren’t so great but provide a million laughs now.

My story is a coming of age tale about a boy humbly crushed by the expectation to succeed in our fast-paced, modern generation – all chronicled in my memoir, Maybe Boomer. Many of my blogs address issues from the book, but now I want to hear your stories.

Cherished baby boom icons from the past also interest me, from TV commercials, toys to rituals that have long since disappeared.  They are highlighted in my regular Remember This?” blog. I also like to write about contemporary issues, particularly as they shed light on experiences that span decades. You can read them in my third blog, “The Daily Post.”

Avatar image: Roxane Hopper

The diner image above is a photograph I took in Bethesda, Maryland, in the 1980s – The American Diner with nostalgic billboard illuminated just behind. To view the full image, click “Diner.” 

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From Easter Cometh the Wise Man

DSCN0355This year’s Easter feels different, perhaps because 2016 is an election year. Less the customary Easter weekend of peace and spirituality, it’s caucuses, delegates and speeches that capture attention. Brightly lit stages spotlight well-dressed politicians addressing hysterical followings. (That the politicos resemble various dark horses and lame ducks strutting around a field of wildly chirping chicks is probably just coincidence.)

Perhaps not so ironic then, my annual spring viewing of Ben-Hur, the 1959 MGM masterpiece about the life of Judah Ben-Hur, just took on all new meaning, starting with the famous chariot race scene.

Roman citizens storm the bloodied sand on the huge coliseum racecourse. Flailing their wings in hysterical delight, hundreds dash toward Hur, their new charioteer hero. Despite a smashing victory over several chariot teams, Hur remains calm, caressing the four white stallions who led the way, horses who also crushed fallen foe Messala under their hooves.

Pontius Pilate, Rome’s leader, awaits arrival of the new champion. Ascending Pilate’s emperor box, Hur’s face glistens from sweat, accentuating expressions of humility, exhaustion and pride, contrasting stony Pilate, Rome’s grey-haired figurehead clothed in fine woven fabrics.

“A great victory. You are the people’s one true God,” Pilate tells Hur. “For the time being.”

Pilate rises from his throne and approaches Hur.

“I crown their God!” he proclaims, placing a leaf circlet on Hur’s bowed head.

The crowd noise is deafening. Having used strength of character, intelligence and humility to stay alive against so many odds thus far, and now utilizing his mighty courage in the arena, Hur has suddenly accumulated power and status beyond the imaginable. His headdress now accentuates a new countenance – fear.

~

Messala’s trampled body, what’s left of it, is strapped to a table below the coliseum’s ground level. Through wretches and groans echoed across the dark chamber’s cool air, Messala begs the surgeon, “Cut the legs off me, but not before I’ve seen him – in full body.” Amputating legs in an effort to save his life is less important than presenting a strong image to Hur, a boyhood friend disenchanted with Messala’s eventual entry into the Roman power politics game.

Hur slowly enters the room and approaches Messala’s bedside space, the scene of a broken man he once respected, the same soldier he’s crushed and beaten in the heat of competition.

Strained whispers utter, “Triumph complete, Judah. You have crushed the enemy.”

“I see no enemy here.”

“You think they’re dead, your mother and sister, and the race over. It isn’t over, Judah.”

He knows what he’s about to say will crush Hur, the admission that Rome secretly sent his mother and sister to leper colonies long ago to live out their lives in misery.

“It goes on, Judah, the race … is not over.” Exhaling his last sentence through withered, useless lips, Messala has gotten in the last word.

~

Egocentrism is the personality trait that all people with great political power share. It was necessary to get to the top before, and is today, particularly in America with the political system as currently structured. Gone here are the days of tyrannical leaders trampling bodies to get to the top. What we have instead are intelligent and educated people (savvy, sometimes ruthless and charismatic if nothing else) – Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Bush, Cheney, Reagan. ‘Winners’ all, but I don’t trust them.

Often, the wisest people are those who chose neither to follow nor lead. They follow their hearts. In that way, they do good for the world.

Ben Hur was too good for the political arena he had entered.

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It’s ironic the actor chosen to play Judah Ben Hur was Charlton Heston, figurehead for the politically powerful National Rifle Association.

Ego riding the wheels of charisma will take you anywhere you want to travel – or chirp.

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Beauty Brought On the Backs of Southern Brothers

DSCN0286 (2)I used to work in landscaping. Somewhere within my Scandinavian DNA I knew a skill to artfully construct with rock existed, but I chose to stay far away from hoisting heavy rocks – that was hard work. Deadheading flowers was more my forte. I owned up to that, while understanding the real artists in the dry rock trade were hardworking crews comprised mostly of Mexicans.

That was my perspective as a landscape worker in Santa Fe. As I helped beautify countless homes and businesses, I acknowledged the foundation many of these structures had been built upon was rock, and that the identity they all shared was the beautiful and deliberate integration of rockwork into them.

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The workers who labored on those projects have left, their work done, paychecks cashed – many mailed back to Mexico where their families reside – but not before these craftsmen turned thousands of scrambled rocks, many uplifted from the site grounds, into beautiful creations. Rock structures can represent the unique quality of the local area, breaths of fresh air within the imitation and compressed building material world we live in.

DSCN0296A rock worker sees within each stone and boulder its potential to fit within the larger picture of a pathway, wall, patio, step system, etc. Houses and buildings may one day crumble, but the carefully arranged rock constructions remain. I take a moment to salute our southern brothers, the quiet, steadfast artists – many long gone – whose sweat it took to make such enduring assemblies.

Spring is on its way, and rock crews are already out. As I drive around our beautiful city today, I marvel at what’s been painstakingly created in rock through the gifted hands and strong backs of our stone worker brethren.

Not many could handle this kind of labor, working in the elements ten months a year. It’s one thing to do it; another to do it so well. Thanks. Gracias. Bien hecho.

 

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I Met Jackson Browne Today

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There he stands.
Looking strikingly like the man,
the musician, I’ve always known.

Strange meeting him here,
in a toy shop,
if, in fact, this is
Jackson Browne,
the folk troubadour wandering through my living room record collection back home.

He’s disarming,
with calm eyes and posture.
It can’t be him.

It doesn’t matter now.
It’s so special to meet this man, whoever he is.

He says nothing.
He looks at me like he knows me.
Like he cares.
People – customers – don’t do that. How strange.

But I do know him,
from lyrics sung about heartbreak,
truth, and celebration.
Maybe,
if it is Jackson Browne,
he knows how gratefully I embraced each of those.

Impossible.
The real Jackson Browne
has too many fans to know such things.

This man –
short in height
with beard rubble protruding from a compassionate face –
wears cool, casual clothes,
conveying warmth
(freezing images of his stormy life on the rock and roll road, the megastar I expected to see).

There’s no less appropriate moment
to meet a soulful artist
than on a market showplace sales floor.
I almost want to apologize, but then,
because we understand each other,
I know he is with me.

But so quickly,
he is gone,
whoever he was,
lost in a customer crowd,
and out the door.

Yes, I did meet Jackson Browne today.
I know this man.
He looked at me like he knew me.
Like he cared.
Just like he cares about his songs
and his connection to the domain of people.

From spoken lyric
to microphone
to vinyl
to radio station
to wavelengths through space
across to me – on Earth, in my town, my world, this shop – and my little transistor of senses.

So light a journey, so weighty his peaceful, universal words.

That’s a super star.

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Why the Washington Capitals Will Win the 2016 Stanley Cup

Stanley Cup 002 (2)I’ve been a Washington Capitals fan for all forty-one years of their existence. During that time, I’ve watched other NHL teams possess what it takes to win at the highest level while the Capitals for one reason or another have not. Now, for the first time, I’m watching the Capitals do to other teams what they’ve been doing to us in a million little ways for what seems a million long years, and I can’t believe my eyes. Here’s how Washington attacks opponents, 2015-16 style.

Throwing Braden Holtby at them near every night, arguably the best goalie in the game; playing mistake-free hockey like they’ve never displayed before; having great team depth from top to bottom; grabbing a lead and holding it – toying with the opposition when a lead’s actually lost, then winning convincingly in the end; having player trades pay off – finally; hurling a combination of youth, prime-age players and experienced Stanley Cup-winning journeymen in the lineup. Oh, and throwing Alex Ovechkin at them, the best player in hockey right now.

Things are looking up. So what’s brought all this about?

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Bernie Wolfe  1975-79

Two years ago this summer, the Caps ousted nineteen-year general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates for Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz respectively. MacLellan outed some old guard players and replaced them with solid talent through wise player trades and pick-ups. Trotz has combined just the right blend of no-nonsense coaching, consistency and effective talent assessment to produce at least three great lines nearly every game.

For the first time since their inaugural 1974-75 season, all things are coming together: GM, coach, players – not to mention important intangibles like player chemistry, luck and perhaps even fate. They’ve never had all these ingredients at one time before. Why? Just look at their history.

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Early Capitals squads played hard, only to be left downtrodden for their efforts.

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Gord Smith 1974-79

The Woeful Era, 1974-75 through 1981-82
The NHL awarded Washington an expansion team, one named after the Washington Capitol, the nation’s symbol for enduring stability and strength. Just a kid starting college then and anxious to see NHL hockey in the newly constructed Capital Centre sports arena, I volunteered to be a statistician for the Capitals game night staff. I wound up seeing close to 400 NHL games from the press box as statistician during Washington’s first eight seasons. Only a hopeful, exuberant boy of a man could endure what he was about to witness during the forthcoming era.

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Bill Riley 1974-79

Hard-working, hungry, and interesting to say the least, the Capitals’ players were cast offs from other teams. The eight Caps squads during this era failed to post one playoff game. Often, rosters were so depleted, above average players rose to savior status quickly. As for all others, frustrations ran deep. (I’ll never forget a large color photo that hung in Capital Centre’s lobby. It was of Ace Bailey – wow, you mean the Ace Bailey who once played for the Boston Bruins!? – crouched on his knees, head bowed in anguish, holding half a smashed stick in his glove. It went without saying he shattered it out of frustration). Equally frustrated was owner Abe Pollin who announced not only that the organization had lost 21 million dollars so far but that changes had to be made immediately.

The David Poile Era, 1982-83 through 1995-96

Young David Poile became general manager and turned the franchise around. During his tenure, the Capitals made the playoffs fourteen years in a row, sending out great players like Rod Langway, Scott Stevens, Mike Gartner, Peter Bondra and Olie Kolzig. With the addition of Rod Langway in particular in 1982, the Capitals were suddenly feared. Just the look in Langway’s eyes scared opponents from entering the corners. Scott Stevens could hip check you two zones back to dreamland. Mike Gartner would skate past you and score all in one breath. Bondra could beat anybody with his offensive skills around the net. And Kolzig could stop near anybody from scoring. Even so, during this era, somebody else always halted the Capitals from getting beyond a first or second round of playoffs, reaching a third only once.

The George McPhee Era, 1997-98 through 2013-2014
New owner Ted Leonsis backed his general DSCN0278 (3)manager, George McPhee, for fourteen seasons. Their player acquisition style of trading players and draft picks for big name stars failed to work and swung the Capital pendulum backward from the Poile years. Under McPhee, the Capitals failed to make the playoffs five seasons. During the eight they did – spread out over several campaigns with a mishmash of coaches – Washington reached the second round of playoffs only three times. The Capitals seemed predictable, a franchise regularly constructed of choking teams. Trying Hall of Famer Adam Oates as coach in 2012 was a prayer to change things. But midway through his second year in 2014, his system fell apart. Players failed to respond. Fans grumbled. Even the Capitol Dome just down the road from Verizon Center was crumbling, necessitating the government to begin a huge repair project still in force today. But could the Capitals be repaired?

The New Hope Era, 2014-15 to present
Leonsis fired McPhee and replaced him with MacLellan who selected Barry Trotz as coach. Trotz immediately instilled a different attitude in the locker room, his first season marked by stability, a balanced system and ability to communicate and teach (especially Alex Ovechkin about how to play a 200 foot game), not to mention having solid defensemen – Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik – to work with, acquired in savvy MacLellan trades. During this current year’s campaign, MacLellan has added outstanding players, including T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams (even giving Mike Richards a comeback try. Why not?).

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Capitals spirit still lives on, now with new management, coach and players.

My biggest concern, despite the vastly improved cast of defensemen, enforcers and elite passers skating alongside Alex Ovechkin, is how the Capitals rely on the Great Eight. He is key to their offense and power play. Without him, they don’t have the big threat great teams often possess to win championships. Very durable throughout his eleven-year career, Ovechkin’s missed only two games this season, but both were losses without him (combined 10-2 scores), and both to the Florida Panthers, my second biggest concern. The Panthers seem to have the Caps number (not to mention the Dallas Stars since ’08). However, other than a forthcoming trade deadline move for another solid defenseman, I’ll take my chances with this team as it is.

To date, the Capitals hold an astounding 40-9-4 record – the next best team is eight points behind with twice as many losses. Since the league expanded from the original six teams in 1967-68, only the 79-80 Flyers have more points in a fifty-three game span. As a result, the Caps may very well wind up the NHL’s regular season top points leader, earning the league’s Presidents’ Trophy for the honor. But the Caps have won the NHL Presidents’ Trophy before, during the 2009-2010 season when, overconfident, they were embarrassed by Montreal in the first round of playoffs. The Presidents’ Trophy may be an honor, but this year’s team talks about the truest honor there is, hoisting the Stanley Cup.

After all, isn’t that sport’s greatest payoff where, for one moment, a grown man acts like a boy again, embraces the world, hugs his teammates, jumps up and down, and hoists the biggest crown ever above his exhausted body, adorned in uniform that bears the logo he’s so proud of?

If the Washington Capitals win the Cup this June, a boy’s dream will have come true. A franchise’s mission will have been fulfilled. Although foundations were tested, what we all shared – the franchise, it’s long-frustrated fans, and this boy dressed in mere writer’s garb – was a daily, never-ending foundation built on hope. And a few unanswered prayers.

 

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Pat Ribble and Caps celebrate a 1982 goal at Capital Centre’s east end.

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This writer and friend Paul Kane at Capital Center construction site nine years earlier.

Capitals artwork and photography by Mike Andberg. Capital Centre construction photo by Paul Kane.

Mike Andberg was born and raised in the Washington DC area and, although moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1996, has continued to follow all Washington teams closely, particularly the Capitals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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From Super Bowl to Hyperbole

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There’s Curt Gowdy, NBC’s main play-by-play man. Dressed in bright green sport coat, he’s superimposed over a live image of a packed Orange Bowl Stadium pre-kickoff crowd. All that, scrunched within the square aspect ratio TV screen. On the field, helmets look a little square, too; same for the huge shoulder pads. Even the head coaches are square – or dapper – both dressed in ties.

Forty-man rosters stand compactly within a twenty-five yard space along their respective sidelines. Just beside both, photographers and spindly, tie-clad policeman linger only a yard behind the out-of-bounds line; beyond them, the lonely cloth goal line flag flapping in the Miami breeze. It’s January 12, 1969. The upstart NY Jets are playing the mighty Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

Jets’ Bake Turner, a straight-on kicker, boots the ball and Super Bowl III is off and running. And running. So many running plays. After just a couple of series, millions of viewers already know play is tough, players are gritty but the completion is clean. Bodies are tackled, not heads, nor footballs to strip them free.

In their high tech production, NBC is using the miracle of instant replay, reserved mostly for pass play reviews. There’s close-up camera work, too, although used far too amply for the face and bodies of referees. NBC’s picture quality is state of the art, but is still rather fuzzy. For example, it’s difficult to count the number of face bars on player’s helmets. Is it true the punters and safeties have only one face bar? But the on-screen graphics are fairly tight, with streamlined, typewriter-like all cap white letters superimposed over images.

Colts’ Tom Mitchell dives for an errant throw. Laid out in prone position, he’s saved injury by Jets safety Johnny Sample who holds back from landing on him. Such grace under pressure.

Sublime is Joe Namath’s flick of the arm that tosses a perfect spiral fifty-five yards downfield. An incomplete pass, all players hustle back to the line of scrimmage. There are no player substitutions. There are practically no shifts at the line of scrimmage. If anyone is subbed, it’s done during time outs or commercial breaks, of which there are very few.

Super Bowl III has evolved into a defensive clash with the Jets leading 10-0 in the third quarter. Namath looks conspicuous on the sideline, the only player with his helmet off. How strange no one else utilizes this opportunity for valued face time. He’s so talented and so cool. Joe Willy has become my idol. But he trots off the field a series later, favoring an injured throwing hand. No one, even a trainer, comes over to look at it. Heroically, Joe Namath comes back in, pain and all.

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Colts’ Jerry Hill scores a touchdown with three minutes to go. With the score 16-7, Baltimore goes for an on-side kick. They get it, but safety Rick Volk is dazed, unable to get off the field. Thirty million viewers watch four Colts drag him to the sideline. Even the great Johnny Unitas, replacing ineffective Earl Morrall, can’t perform magic and the Colts, eighteen point favorites, lose, 16-7. In a landmark sports event, the AFL (now the AFC conference) has caught up with the once far superior NFL teams in talent.

~

January 24, 2016. It’s the AFC Championship game between the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, with today’s AFC winner going to Super Bowl 50. Invesco Field, seen with gigantic Jumbotron on one end, military units the other, is being presented by CBS in HD Cinemascope-like scale, including scintillating graphics to expand the viewer experience (all this just for coverage of the national anthem).

New England’s opening series is three and out. The two pass plays are reviewed by five replays; there are none for the boring run. After the punt, four commercials follow, their combined real-time exceeding the game clock time for the entirety of New England’s initial possession (1:58).

Denver’s first drive includes fancy on-screen team statistical comparisons, a close-up revealing one eyelash missing from Peyton Manning’s right eye, shots of both coaching staffs dressed in casual sweat suits, and – oh, yes – a passing touchdown culminated by the receiver celebrating near the stands. The subsequent extra point is overshadowed by four more commercials.

After Denver’s kickoff, the game is stopped again for four more commercials, including one with Peyton Manning singing and selling insurance. New England suffers another three and out, their possession highlighted by player’s constant bickering over pass interference. After their punt, four commercials follow, including one touting player character and what NFL warriors are doing for underprivileged kids in their communities.

Just before the first quarter ends, New England scores, making the score 7-6. Add also nine more commercials, a three-minute and ten second coach’s challenge, an on-field interview, two ugly personal foul calls, another TD celebration (a demonstrative Rocky-like pose for fans), a missed extra point, 76 total player substitutions (just a guess), and an awesome plastic pylon cam shot of the touchdown.

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What the next three quarters reveal is one very great game. Competitive, exciting, and well-played, one in which Denver prevails, 20-18, demonstrating yet again – much like Super Bowl III – that hard nose defenses win championships.

But these last three quarters also provide great insight on modern NFL football.

There are many sideline reports interspersing – or interrupting – the game with in-the-moment media information: a player “has just passed the league’s concussion protocol,” “…tablets on the New England sideline are okay to use now,” a reporter’s views on the kicker’s specific thought process and physical protocol preparing for the upcoming kick, and even a shot of Rob Gronkowski lying flat on his back, oxygen mask over mouth, receiving massive leg massages on the sideline.

Perhaps the game no longer needs referees. All game long, Patriot and Bronco players are most adept at gesturing what should be called, among their specialties fumble recoveries, out-of-bounds calls, touchdowns, first downs, and incomplete passes (their favorite). Regular gesticulations to the crowd about just how great they are is another forte players possess. Seizing camera time, but in this far more grandiose manner, is where we’ve come from Namath’s seemingly harmless quest for attention removing his helmet on the sidelines many years ago.

Since referees fail to impede player’s constant pushing and shoving of opposing team members (even the kickers!), do we really need the zebras? Then again, if players are so smart, why were the majority of penalties for brainless false starts, unnecessary misconducts, and pass interference calls? It’s interesting to note the championship game had 14 combined penalties for 104 yards while Super Bowl III saw a total of three yellow flags.

Gang tackling by speedy, yet heavy-muscled players reveals a game far more brutal than pioneer Super Bowl contests. Today, offensive tackles average a height of 6’6” while nose tackles average 322 pounds. The median player weight of the Super Bowl III teams was 229, whereas the 2015 Indianapolis Colts squad averaged 256, a 27 pound increase in muscle, strength and power. This, combined with speed, make collisions frightening, yet hard hits are what make fans and defensive backs salivate.

Perhaps the heaviest weight put upon the modern game is commercials. One hundred and five thirty-second commercials were broadcast during the Patriots-Broncos game (not including halftime). That’s 52:30 in real-time of a game that’s 60:00 long. No wonder it took three hours and thirty minutes to complete this contest, keeping in mind most commercials interrupt play: players wait while television viewers are sold cars.

Maybe it was Curt Gowdy’s soothing voice that made Super Bowl III such a great game for me to watch. Or is it my inner voice, one continually tapping my shoulder from some distant, foggy time, that constantly reminds me of the once simple, swift and comparatively innocent NFL game I remember from 43 Super Bowls ago.

 

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Reading Books as a Last Resort

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The clock ticks on. And on. And on. And sometimes, our lives go on unhappily, unless we do something to change the things we don’t like.

I hear the ticks clicking toward next Monday when I’m voluntarily going through a series of neuropsychological evaluations. No, I don’t have ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder (that I know of!). No, I don’t have headaches or Traumatic Brain Disorder, thank goodness. What I do have is a strong determination to better understand my lifelong headache of poor reading and comprehension skills. I’m sick of them, and sick of not knowing why I have either. If testing at this late stage seems desperate, it’s less desperate than the years spent floundering in school – and at work, still – dealing with my secret problem.

Cases in point:

Mrs. Johnson’s first grade reading period.

“All right, everyone. Read the first five pages silently at your desk and when you are done, we will talk about the story.”

The race begins. I blast through five pages, snap the book shut, cross my arms, and lean back in my chair.

A few minutes later, old Mrs. Johnson says, “Class, raise your hands if you’re done.”

My hand takes flight far over my head; all other hands appear grounded in comparison.

“All right, Michael. So. What color shoes was Jane wearing?”

Jane wore shoes?

“Speak up, Michael. Weren’t they the same color as the lamb?”

What lamb?

I look around. Every hand in class is waving hysterically, as if trying to peel the cracking paint chips off the ceiling.

“Michael, please sit down. Ellen, do you know?” This Ellen girl, with right arm nearly pulled out of its shoulder socket from spastic hand swaying, jumps to give her answer.

Her response is muted by a menacing white noise, like the sound I hear inside a conch shell. Such is the deep echo I encounter whenever I’ve done something wrong.

Finally, reading period is over. On to the all-purpose room for Friday art class.

Creating popsicle stick houses with glue, I am free. I’m an artist, not a reader. Right? Who needs library cards and late book fees? Who needs reading when TV’s around. Thank God for the weekend.

I start Saturday morning by viewing Captain Kangaroo and cartoon shows. During the afternoon, it’s movies – the simpler the better. After dinner, Mom and Dad switch the mood to serious evening news. Most interesting is the set decor, what the anchorman looks like, the pictures that magically pop up behind him. And commercials are the ultimate bonanza, always surefire entertainment!

Mrs. Marcotte’s eighth grade English class.

“So, Michael,” she says, catching me off guard. “What do you like to read at home?”

I’m astonished how many thoughts can flash through my mind in a split second of time to answer this question: The Flintstones / easy to follow TV show / no complicated character development / no deep universal themes you keep hitting me over the head with in class / love TV / hate your class …

“What?” I ask.

“Michael, I said, ‘do you watch television?’”

“Oh, yes.”

“Well, I think you need to watch less TV and start reading more. After all, what’s going to happen when you have to read things like Faust, Oedipus the King, and Pippi Longstocking?”

What? Who? Pippi Longstocking was a movie, but what movie were those other people in?

My guidance counselor’s office and my first plea for help.

“I don’t like to read.”

“Why?” Mr. Sexton asks.

“I just don’t. Mrs. Marcotte says we’re reading timeless landmarks of literature, but they’re really the most boring stories ever told …”

“Oh, no they’re not …”

“Oh, yes they are – of all time. And why does everyone and everything have to be so symbolic to something, and then symbolic to something else? If authors knew we had to go through all this in reading their books, they’d never have written them in the first place. Everyone else in my family is smart. Mom said we all came from good Scandinavian stock, so what happened to me?”

“Ha!”

“What?”

“If you want to see some really stupid people ….”

Mr. Sexton spins around in his chair and leans toward the floor between the wall and a cabinet. He returns with a big cardboard box that he dumps on his desk.

“Now t-h-e-s-e kids ….”

The box is filled with a carnival of confiscated classroom items: fuzzy dice, chains, novelty false teeth, yo-yos, cap guns, rubber knives, real knives, spray paint cans, “Car Mechanic” magazines, and a copy of Iliad with a giant “X” knife-gouged into the cover.

“Michael, you’re not dumb, unless you don’t use what you have. Learn to use what it is you do have – and always use it to its fullest. Perhaps you have a learning disability. Do you think so?”

“I dunno. What’s that? Other teachers just say I have the inability to learn, period if that’s what you mean. Guess there’s nothing symbolic about that, is there?” I say quite emphatically.

Sure, I’m smart enough to scrape by, but what about getting into college?

The mailman delivers a cream colored letter, postmarked “Princeton, New Jersey.” It couldn’t be the Princeton University New Jersey people, could it? Could it?

I rip open the envelope. It’s the SAT Princeton New Jersey people, and they have my score. 742. Out of 1200. It has to be a misprint. I look again. 742. It can’t be. My life is doomed – the SAT proves it. After all, isn’t that what tests are designed for, to find out if you’re stupid?

Good Scandinavian stock Mom had said. Good Scandinavian livestock maybe.

Why would college be any different than high school?

I’m having trouble absorbing any textbook with less than forty percent charts and graphs. Ones without two-page photo spreads every three pages put me to sleep. Even my art history book is ninety-five percent text, a huge disappointment. I’m bamboozled reading long paragraphs, especially those containing clauses with double negatives. And reading the pamphlet, “Gaining Better Concentration and Command of Written Material,” at the college learning center is of no use. Deciphering all its outlines, checkpoints and checklists seem more complicated than reading itself.    

With so much catching up to do, I take a seat in McKelden Library one early Saturday morning and spread all my books out on the table.

By lunchtime, I’ve completed only one reading assignment. By two o’clock, I’m asleep in my chair. By four o’clock, all books are opened to pictures, graphs and colorful pie charts. By five, I’m asleep. By dinner time, I feel achy. I plan to skip eating and study some more before realizing I’m too tired to concentrate on anything, let alone read.

Preparing to leave, I strap on my knapsack. Stuffed with so many books, the weight hurts my back. Unable to carry the load, I retake my seat. Freed from assigned readings, my mind engages the real world. Questions abound. Why does my reading malady remain such a mystery? When did it begin? What explains it?

I exhale hard. Many characters, settings and dramas have led me here. But feeling so incomplete, there has to be more to the story than this.

Perhaps the neuropsychological tests are the rest of the story, or at least a beginning. Beginnings are hard, but I must unravel the conundrum that is my reading problem, not to mention anything associated with my slow learning, poor short term memory and difficulty understanding instructions.

I don’t expect anything to appreciably change just because I’ve been tested. It’s more about wanting to know what makes me tick.

 

Italicized sections are excerpts from Chapter Two, “Reading,” in my memoir, Maybe Boomer.

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Lightfoot!

blog Lightfoot photos 012Three houses. Fifty years apart. Two people. One great musician. Come inside.

Gordon Lightfoot, songwriter of such hits as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Sundown,” writes songs in total isolation and composes in big batches. Solitude is a must, part of his music methodology.

Owning two houses these days, he writes, practices the guitar and plays songs in one house while his wife and family live in the other. Isolation, Lightfoot’s key to creativity, must also be a killer. “Gee, honey, if only you could read my mind. Be back at sundown.” But it’s who Canadian-born Gordon Lightfoot seems to be, and has been from the start of his career. Liner notes from his second album, The Way I Feel, reveal him working alone for a week in a room of producer John Court’s house, perfecting the album’s material. The persistence produced a great collection of songs. But his very first album, Lightfoot!, released in January of 1966 – fifty years ago this month – is what interests me most.

The house I grew up in in Silver Spring, Maryland, was nowhere near Canada, no den of folk music, but – from time to time – entertained greatness. I’d already been educated by Bob Dylan and the Beatles from songs I heard over my family’s various transistor radios. Listening to Lightfoot!, a vinyl treasure brought into the house by my older sister and brothers, I’d never heard such personal ache set to music and lyrics, at least as our old living room Motorola stereo set could produce.

A moody kid, I related to the yearning voice in Lightfoot’s songs, as if he called out from a place of wilderness, the same place I felt somehow akin to despite living in suburban Maryland all my life. There was something that connected the two of us.

Where the long river flows
It flows by my window
Where the tall timber grows
It grows ’round my door
Where the mountains meet the sky
And the white clouds fly
Where the long river flows by my window 
*[From “Long River”]

Listen to that song! Listen to all of them. I really want to play music like this. I love Lightfoot’s voice, precise guitar picking and great songwriting. Mom paid big money last year in hopes I’d learn guitar and piano, but I flopped both times, opportunities lost. I still play guitar in my room, dreaming I’ll be good some day. I ache – is playing music pleasure or pain?

Now here I am with my hat in my hand
Standing on the broad highway will you give a ride
To a lonesome boy who missed the train last night
I went in town for one last round and I gambled my ticket away
And the big steel rail won’t carry me home to the one I love
*[From “Steel Rail Blues”]

In a Orilla, Ontario, grocery store one day, Lightfoot’s mother heard him singing to himself. So moved by his melodic spontaneity, she encouraged him with music in school and church. By twelve, he excelled in voice, choir and piano, even going on to a regular gig in a barbershop quartet.

I’m gonna buy me two wings of silver
Yes ‘n Lord to fly me home
I’m gonna buy me two wings of silver
Yes ‘n Lord to fly me home
And when I get my silvery wings
Then an angel choir will sing
I’m gonna get me two wings of silver to get me home
*[From “Rich Man’s Spiritual”]

I’m no good. Maybe I should quit. It’s frustrating having to figure out keys and chords, not to mention what key Lightfoot is singing in. Winter is bleak and grey. Alone in my room, light has abandoned me.

blog Lightfoot photos 001

Oh gal don’t you say goodbye
Now that I need you by my side
Love me now or be on your way
If you go be gone to stay
*[From “Oh Linda”]

Bob Dylan, frontrunner of the early sixties Folk Revival, inspired Lightfoot. As a result, his songwriting became more personal. In a Toronto club one night, he played the mournful ballad, “Early Morning Rain.” Folk group Ian & Sylvia heard him play it and became the first big group to record a Lightfoot song.

Out on runway number nine, big seven-o-seven set to go
But I’m stuck here in the grass where the cold wind blows
Now the liquor tasted good and the women all were fast
Well now there she goes my friend, well she’s rolling down at last
*[From “Early Mornin’ Rain”]

Our house has come alive! No one ever agrees on anything, but all the sudden all four of us kids think Gordon Lightfoot is cool. Time to celebrate. I can even hear rejoice in Lightfoot’s voice.

blog Lightfoot photos 003

Gonna buy me a long white robe
Yes ‘n Lord to help me home
I’m gonna buy me a long white robe
Yes ‘n Lord to get me home
And when I get my heavenly gown
And I lay my burden down
I’m gonna get me a long white robe to get me home
*[From “Rich Man’s Spiritual”]

Putting the Lightfoot! album together wasn’t all merriment. The New York City recording studio was sterile and unwelcoming – lonely – despite human companionship of an unmoved assistant engineer who assisted in recording the album by misspelling names of Lightfoot’s songs.

Here in this cold room lyin’
Don’t want to see no one but you
Lord I wish I could be dyin’
To forget you  
*[From “Ribbon of Darkness”]

I can’t read a lick of music, but what feels so good is how I can play any song on guitar by ear. And my finger pickings sound just like what I hear Lightfoot doing. I’m actually pretty good. But I also spend a lot of time getting to be pretty good. Over and over. Day after day. Kinda alone.

The way I feel is like a robin
Whose babes have flown to come no more
Like a tall oak tree alone and cryin’
When the birds have flown and the nest is bare
*[From “The Way I Feel”]

Two albums later, with a folk following of his own, Lightfoot has a band family to support in addition to his own back home. Responsibility is high. Pressure mounts. And the Folk Revival is dying. Rock and roll is taking over. Lightfoot must reinvent himself without going that way. There’s still room for ballads and romanticism without sentimentality, isn’t there? Boom, his fourth album, Sit Down Young Stranger, goes gold in 1970.

Oh may the light of freedom shine
For all the world to see
And peace and joy to all mankind
Through all the years to be
For soon the leaves will die
And the long hard wind will blow
May this world find a resting place
Where peaceful waters flow
*[From “Peaceful Waters”]

A song comes to my mind. I like writing songs. Each breathes its own air. It’s the boss. It leads me, I do not lead it. I must listen, listen carefully in the cold silence, for which direction I must go. Song – is king.

I can’t say I’ll always do
The things you want me to
I’m not saying I’ll be true but I’ll try
*[From “I’m Not Sayin’”]

Suddenly, there’s regular Lightfoot gigs on weekly TV shows, Midnight Special and Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert. But then a diagnosis of Bells Palsy, drugs and alcohol abuse in the 70’s and 80’s, a 2002 abdominal hemorrhage that left him in a coma for five weeks, and a small stroke in 2004.

This old airport’s got me down, it’s no earthly good to me
‘Cause I’m stuck here on the ground, as cold and drunk as I can be
You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train
So I’d best be on my way in the early mornin’ rain
*[From “Early Mornin’ Rain”]

In an 2008 interview with Matt Fink of American Songwriter magazine, Lightfoot said all his marriages were doomed to fail due to his need for isolation to write. Yet, as of today, he’s compiled 20 albums, 16 Juno awards (Canadian Grammys), Canadian Music Hall of Fame membership, and has had many of his songs sung by an impressive list of great musicians. Was all the work, the grind – the isolation – worth it?

~

I have to get out of the house. It’s time to go fishing.

As I drive through the beautiful forests in Bandelier National Monument on my way to fish near Jemez Springs, New Mexico, I slide the Lightfoot! song collection into my CD player.

Sixteen miles to seven lakes way up among the pines
In some hidden valley where the twirlin’ river twines
Where the fish swim up and down and the sparklin’ waters falls
Where the thunder rolls and the lonely puma calls 
*[From “Sixteen Miles (To Seven Lakes)”]

A tear comes to my eye.

Isolation isn’t so bad, at least when shared with Gordon Lightfoot.

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Many thanks to the following sites for providing additional information:  American Songwriter and connectsavannah.com. Check them out for more on Gordon Lightfoot.

*All lyrics from original Gordon Lightfoot compositions in Lightfoot!

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