Tag Archives: memoir

Reading Books as a Last Resort

book in front of tv 003

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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Memorial Day, Mom and Maid Marion

Maid Marion; arroyo dew drops grass 002For me these days, Memorial Day is about recalling memories of my mother, gone ten years now this November. Even as a boy, one who often sized his mom up as the Wicked Witch of the West and Cruella de Vil all in one, I realized Mom was everything, my queen, buried beneath an unfortunate plight.

On one drizzly Saturday afternoon, I stayed inside to watch TV in the basement. Curled up on the couch, basking in the warmth and eternal sunshine of Sherwood Forest, I viewed the entire two hours of The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn as Robin and Olivia deHavilland as Marion. The swashbuckling action and colorful pageantry of the uplifting tale thrilled me. But there was more to the story than that.

I most loved watching the scenes of Robin’s comradeship with the poor townsfolk, and particularly his quest for Maid Marion’s elusive love and attention. Zoned in on this sub-story, only one thing interrupted my focus.

The gentle whir from the sewing machine seemed much louder today than usual. I glanced across the basement at Mom, hunched over in her hard chair, struggling to darn clothes on our antiquated Singer sewing machine.

When I reconnected with Marion on screen, I saw a woman who – under the lavish headbands and finely darned dresses she wore – reminded me of Mom, her pretty face and petite body trying to reveal their selves.

If only Mom smiled more, I thought. When I looked at her, sometimes I wondered if she’d have been happier born in Marion’s times. I wished she could hold herself higher knowing she, too, was pretty and often kind. Like Marion, she stitched her own clothes and made home a court for her king. Had Dad ever noticed her face, her work, her beauty? Why did she take the disrespect, just to be Official Andberg Family Martyr for all her pain and suffering? I hoped one day she’d let loose of the rules, the ties that bound her, to be more joyful like Marion. Mom and Marion were inseparable to me and would be forever, while Robin became my hero instantly, and role model for life.

In his book, “The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood,” Howard Pyle wrote, “So passed the seasons then, so they pass now, and so they will pass in time to come, while we come and go like leaves of the tree that fall and are soon forgotten.”

Not forgotten, dear memories of Maid Marion – Mom.

The above excerpt is from my memoir, “Maybe Boomer.

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March Badness

meftbllfrside 48bit 800 color  dust122It was March, 1963. I missed my old school from last year. I longed to have friends like the ones I had there. My new school experience at Oakview Elementary in Silver Spring, Maryland, was one big bore. Tedium. Rote drills. So many things, over and over again. Even air raid drills.

Curled up in a ball under my tiny wooden desk, I wrapped my arms tightly around my knees and bowed head. All I could think was – hadn’t World War II ended twenty years ago? Was sitting under this desk going to save me from our school roof falling down, let alone an H-bomb that landed on the cafeteria? Scarier still was coming face-to-face with sharp, petrified boogers down here, ones that dated back to World War I students.  If that wasn’t scary enough, what about the words, “Hitler was here,” and “Burn this school,” scratched on the underside of my desk?

Suddenly, my teacher said, “All right, children. Get up, now. The drill is over.”

Oh, no. Reading hour was next. Remember the exciting day back in early October when reading period was cancelled? Just to watch TV? That day had such potential.

It was a cloudy morning when a hundred students assembled on Mrs. Clark’s classroom floor, all eyes locked on the RCA Victor TV set showing Mercury Atlas 8 standing straight up against a clear Cape Canaveral sky. I sat cross-legged on the hard linoleum tile, my body forced between other kids’ legs and torsos. The position grew increasingly uncomfortable because the launch went through several delays. Even teachers began to whisper. “What’s taking so long?” “Do you think the rocket’s having technical difficulties?” 

Then the TV screen began to flutter. The picture turned snowy. The horizontal hold went wild.

An assistant librarian rushed to the scene to fix the ever up-scrolling picture. It looked like Mercury Atlas 8 had already blasted off six hundred times. Frustrated teachers fidgeted with foil-wrapped rabbit ears and various loose wires behind the set, all to no avail. If world-famous RCA Victor couldn’t keep its own horizontal hold under control, how was America to keep China from dropping the big one on our cafeteria, let alone Washington DC, worse yet Disneyland?

Out of nowhere, the TV announcer proclaimed the mammoth rocket had taken to the air. Everyone in the class rose to their feet and cheered the incredible news, even though no one actually saw the rocket go anywhere.

Eh. I wasn’t as impressed. Just not the same without seeing it. What a letdown. Even October had been boring. 

I missed my old school. I missed their horizontal hold, their TV sets, and my friends, the few that I had. I could think of nothing else. It was as though I was frozen here, locked in time forever, never to escape the worst month of all – March.

This was an excerpt from my memoir, Maybe Boomer. Read more there about my nostalgic look back at the 60s and the Baby Boom generation.

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What It’s Like to Read Your Work on Open Mic Night For Two (and a half) People

Thought of the Day:  The only certainty is that nothing is certain.  —  Pliny the Elder

005I enter the bookstore early, prepared and excited about reading a passage from my memoir. Thirty folding chairs are set up around a raised stage complete with microphone and overhead spotlights. The store conducts only one open mic night a month, so I immediately sign my name to be the first one to read to the masses at precisely three o’clock.

Trying to kill the thirty minutes left before my opening oration, I wander through the store, perusing the new memoirs that couldn’t be nearly as good as mine – that is, if my memoir were published.

A few minutes before three, I rush to the stage area, but stop when I see all the folding chairs still empty. Worse yet, the sign-up sheet has one name on it – mine. Two chair backs have coats on them, but no one’s around.

Maybe if I rotate through the entire store again, I’ll return to find people anxiously waiting to hear performers from a long open mic list. I make my circle, but no such luck. The only good news is that the owners of the coats have sat down, apparently the only two people in Santa Fe who’ve heard about this “event.”

The host arrives to tell me if I prefer not to use the microphone, it’s okay. What’s the point of a mic? After all, there’s two people here. They could hear me whisper my reading, even from the back row. In fact, I’m too embarrassed to use the stage and stand directly in front of the two women. Since they were kind enough to show up, and have basically saved my day, I’m happy to give them a customized reading.

I read an excerpt from Chapter 13, “Health,” of my memoir, Maybe Boomer, about the day my doctor of oriental medicine told me I had Lyme disease. I recite a few pages that act as build-up to that big moment in my life.

Reading along, approaching the part where I talk with my DOM, I glimpse the silhouette of another person entering the store’s doors. Maybe it’s a third person to hear me read! The silhouette stops, lingers, and listens to my big oratory finish: “Mike, I’m sure now. You have Lyme disease.” I pause, then read on. So, just to be sure, I get tested for Lyme. And what do you know? The results come back positive. My DOM was right.

The two women are almost on the edge of their seat in anticipation about what comes next. What else could I ask for (except to not have Lyme disease)? What could possibly top this?

I look beyond them to see the silhouette in full – my DOM.

“Oh my ….” I exclaim. “It’s my DOM.”

Coincidence. Smiles. Thrills. Laughs. The two women even ask my DOM for her business card. Happy endings all around.

It’s probably the best reading I’ll ever have.

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Art Education, Cubed

Quote of the day:  A little learning is a dangerous thing. — Pope

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“Fins” Pastel on paper.

I was raised in the Maryland suburbs right outside Washington DC and was privy to see some of the world’s greatest works of art exhibited in galleries at the Corcoran, Hirshhorn, National Gallery, and Phillips Collection (my favorite). The fact that all these galleries had their own Picassos didn’t necessarily impress me. I wasn’t that fond of Picasso, especially his Cubist works that looked like someone slashed the canvas a couple hundred times over. In fact, it not only took me forty years to appreciate art in general, but one of Picasso’s own piers, Georges Braque, to help me understand Picasso.

Braque would do little collages of still life set ups, but split the wine bottles and bowls and apples into sections, then distribute them around the canvas, freeing himself – and the viewer – from experiencing art in the usual way. Although Braque and Picasso are synonymous with the invention of Cubism, I’ve been less partial, or perhaps comfortable, with Picasso, who often split women’s faces and breasts up and placed them in the darndest places by the time the painting was finished. But I credit both artists for inspiring me to look deeper at the possibilities for art, including my own.

The image above, “Fins,” is my pastel drawing of the strange and angular rock formations I saw traveling in Utah’s Arches National Park. This range of rocks not only roused my interest, but lent itself well to a Cubist-style breakdown. The completed composition reveals the way I wanted to see the rocks, ones that resembled fish fins in my mind, or so I thought.

I worked in this style for a number of years but stopped when I felt I was relying too much on a kind of visual formula. I’d seen many Cubist paintings, especially after teaching about the Cubism movement as a high school art teacher, and questioned if my art pieces weren’t becoming patterned around Cubism so much I was losing my own statement in the process.

One day twenty years ago, when I inferred to my impressionable students that an artist should be free to express himself, a few fifteen-year-olds came right back at me with, “We agree, Mr. Andberg. Art should be about freedom, total freedom, man,” which left me far too many “totally free” pieces of dung slung on poster board to grade. (Read the introduction to Chapter Eight, “Education,” from my memoir, Maybe Boomer, for more on my stint  in teaching.)

A few years later when I lectured on the Surrealists’ method of staying up many nights in a row without sleep to get altered views of subject matter for their paintings, one of my students tried it at home. After just one night, and looking like hell come morning, his parents called me to complain how I’d put bad ideas into their son’s head.

Teaching art is hard. H-a-r-d. There are so many fine lines. Those lines are easy to cross over, for working artists as well as students.

But a student being over-educated about art? Is such a thing possible?

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Remember This? Ivory Snow (mother’s favorite)

          SPECIAL  MOTHER’S  DAY  “REMEMBER  THIS”  EDITION

Ivory Snow laundry detergent – what my mother spent most of her Mother’s Days with.

 

(Read more on my mother’s family travails in the introduction of Chapter 3, “Revenge,” from my memoir, Maybe Boomer, and the passage from Chapter 3 in Excerpts.)

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Remember This? Army Men

001_ATT222 (1)Army men were the bomb – my most explosive nostalgia memory. I had all kinds – Civil War army men, Revolutionary War army men and WWII army men. For years, I enjoyed placing my toy miniature plastic soldiers in fresh war scenes concocted in the dirt battlefields of my backyard.

But, as I got older, there came a time when my revered toy troops needed to be reinvented, recycled. My middle school friend, Paul, showed me how – by burning them. Oh, the seductive, searing sound that drops of molten plastic make when they drip to the ground!

But playing with fire proved far too tempting for my comrade and I one afternoon. Dousing the heads of the army men in gas, then the grass below, the gas can accidentally caught on fire. The rest of the story is chronicled in my memoir, Maybe Boomer (although you can read more about kindling friendships in the introduction to Chapter Five, Friendship”).

Did anyone else out there nearly burn their house down by accident?

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