Monday, September 26, 2022

Buried in a Closet


When we moved from Oklahoma to Virginia, I encountered the first school that had a guitar class as an elective, and I jumped on it. I’ve talked about that class before in this blog, and once again today I’ll talk about it without ever giving the class its due. Sorry, Ms. Wagner. Someday.

As part of our lessons, we were provided with handwritten mimeographed sheets of lyrics and chords. When they were passed out everyone in the class would take a quick sniff of that unforgettable mimeograph smell before looking at what we were about to learn. Some of the music introduced new chords or picking styles, others were collections of music by a particular composer or band that we were learning for one of our school concerts. 

Early on, I’d stuff these sheets into a pocket folder. When the sheer volume of sheets became unwieldy, I got a four-subject spiral notebook and glued all the sheets into it. Of course, our teacher was never kind enough to hand the songs out alphabetically during the three years I was in her class, so the pages were in a very random order. Add to that, the Xerox copies of sheet music, lyrics for songs I was working on, and songs I figured out by ear -- the songbook grew quickly. By the end of high school, the book was thick and had become a priceless possession since it contained almost my entire repertoire.

Being a military brat, I know how to hang onto things through a move and I held onto that songbook while moving in and out of several dormitories during college, and apartments thereafter. Then the songbook went with me to Germany and on every temporary duty trip I went on as well. While I was in Germany, I noticed the mimeographed pages had begun to fade so I started to transfer everything from the book. When my shifts were quiet, I’d type out a few songs at a time. While I made a serious dent in the contents of the songbook, I didn't finish it.  

While in Guam, I began typing out the songs again – then I made a mistake -- I let a friend who I used to jam with borrow the songbook. Pat was a customs cop and someone I trusted. I trusted him until he returned to the US and took my book with him. The only solace I had was that between what I had typed out in Germany and the further work I did in Guam I lost very little.

Fast forward a dozen years. I was in the final year of my career with the Air Force and working as a reservist in headquarters at Scott Air Force Base. One day, I was heading down a crowded stairwell when felt a tap on the shoulder. I turned around, and there was Pat. After a few minutes of catching up, he brings mentioned that he still had my songbook and wanted to get it back to me. Being eager to get it back, I offered to go over to his house that afternoon and pick it up. Sure enough, I went to his house and was presented with the songbook along with a few beers and a couple of hours of reminiscing about our time in Guam. We even played a few songs together before I left.

Okay, so how is this relevant today? I was looking for something in a closet and came across my songbook. I pulled it out and thumbed through it for an hour or so, remembering all the songs, folks I had played them with, and of course, Ms. Wagner, my high school guitar teacher who was responsible for most of the songbook’s content. It was a great escape.



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Monday, September 19, 2022

Thirteen Years without Slumbering

 

On September 9th 2009 at 1342, I posted the first entry to this blog. It was a relatively short missive that included a quick story from my adolescence. No pictures or video, but it was a start and something I’d been meaning to do. I wanted to capture and share things I was thinking about and doing. The whole concept started when I came across an abandoned blog while surfing the net written by Old Guy

In the thirteen years since posting the first entry, I have posted 355 more. That’s a lot of words, it would’ve been even more if I religiously wrote in the blog every two weeks like I originally planned. But life got in the way, which is okay -- it gave me something to write about. Over the years, almost half a million people have dropped by to read what I’ve written. Thanks to improved counting utilities, I now know a couple of thousand people from all over the world read my new entries every week. I like the thought of being read; I think most people like to be heard.

As I move forward, I note positively that most of this year I’ve been publishing an entry every week. Some of them are poignant, others are just kinda silly, but that’s okay that is what a blog is all about. I’m not publishing a newspaper here (although I included something I wrote for the Rolling Stone). Either way, I hope you have found at least some of my words make you go Hmm.

 

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Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Submitted for Your Approval

 

Whenever I talk about my favorite authors, there is one person I invariably leave out who is without a doubt at the top of my favorite list: Rod Serling. I think it is because I have him pigeonholed off to the side as the narrator of TV show and it is only when I am giving the subject full attention that the fact he wrote most of the TV shows he narrated comes to mind. Long before M. Night Shyamalan created his first ending with a twist, Rod not only brought the style to the screen brilliantly—–many of the episodes he wrote are the Master Class of how it's done.
 
Rod Serling popped into the front of my consciousness recently after I caught a rerun of one of his brilliant Twilight Zone episodes while flipping through channels. Some situations in the episode did not age well because the science in the episode was obviously dated. However, the nature of human behavior remained constant and therefore the episode still had relevance. I'd seen that episode a few times before, so the ending did not catch me by surprise, but even though I knew the ending I tried to find hints he might've inserted leading to the very non Hollywood ending. For me, it was a lesson in good storytelling.
 
I will often wander through the Internet after being reminded of something from my past, for new information that wasn't available earlier in my life. In doing so, I came across an interview that Mike Wallace did with him prior to the premier of the Twilight Zone. Previously, I'd never seen Rod Serling outside of the shows he produced, so this was also the first time I had ever seen him speak about something other than an introduction to his show or a preview of the next episode.
 
What makes this interview extremely worthwhile were the comments he made about censorship and creative control of content on television. Even back then, shows were being manipulated by sponsors and a select group of people who decided it was their business what would be available. This interview gave me a deeper admiration for the man, beyond the words he put on a piece of paper.


"It has forever been thus: So long as we write what we think, then all the other freedoms - all of them - may remain intact. And it is then that writing becomes a weapon of truth, an article of faith, an act of courage." Rod Serling
 
I freely admit several of the stories in Pimping Out My Sister-In-Law were written using techniques I picked up from Rod Serling. Just like every other writer, I blend the styles I observe and enjoy while reading into the things I compose.
 
I am waiting now for a copy of his biography to arrive. Since this was written by his daughter, it probably gives a better insight than anything written by someone outside of his family. It'll be interesting to learn more about this brilliant writer and the convictions that made him create a TV show that is still entertaining and meaningful over fifty years later.



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Tuesday, August 30, 2022

It Becomes Part of You, Even Though You Weren't Even There

Sometimes, you see an ad for an old movie or you come across one playing on TV, and even though you've never seen that movie you know what it is. For me, the most notable of those is The Last Picture Show

When my dad was assigned to Fort Sill, I hung out with a group of friends whose major source of entertainment was the base theater which was within walking distance of where we all lived. Actually, it was within biking distance but we were at the age when biking was no longer cool but walking as a group was. I wrote about this before, and pointed out that the real reason for going to the theater had nothing at all to do with the movie - it just served as a space for socializing.

We were always at the base theater for the late show on Friday, which was shown at 11 PM, and the really late show on Saturday night, which started at 1 AM Sunday morning. The admission was only a buck, popcorn another buck. We, as a group, would share a single soda since refills were free. I can't imagine any teenager now sharing a single soda between five or six people-- somehow we survived.

The base theater mostly showed films that were either B movies, like Chrome and Hot Leather, or anything by Bruce Lee.  But occasionally we would get a movie several years after release, like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because all of us were seeing the movies together, it was a big part of our shared experience with lines from the movies making it into our conversations. It gave us a common history -- until I got strep throat. 

After spending Wednesday and Thursday at home sick, I wasn't allowed to go to the movies that weekend even though I had begun to feel better. I missed Billy Jack, which I caught on TV a couple of years later – – the other movie I missed was The Last Picture Show.

The Last Picture Show had won two Academy Awards after being nominated for eight to include Best Picture. Critics loved the artistry of a movie being released in the 70s that was filmed in black-and-white with a mono soundtrack. It's a story of people coming-of-age in a dying small town in North Texas. Lots of introspection and the angst at realizing that the blossom of youth was fading into the background and the need to be concerned about what is in front of you. A heavy movie for a group of eighth graders.

Among my male friends, the biggest takeaways from the movie was seeing Cybill Shepherd nude and the scenes where she loses her virginity to a guy she doesn't really care about because the guy she does care about doesn't date virgins. . Yes, it was rated R and junior high schoolers shouldn't have been allowed to buy tickets to begin with but that's the way it works sometimes.

As I said, I didn't get to go to the movie. TV standards being what they were for years after, I never had a chance to see it later either. Life went on, years passed -- then, thanks to things like HBO I was provided the opportunity to see The Last Picture Show in all his glory, unedited and uncensored. I just didn't. I was beyond it. My life had gone on and I put my adolescence in a box up on the shelf like most people. 

Last week I caught an ad for the film showing on a streaming service. Uncut, unedited, and uncensored. I passed. At this point, not seeing the movie has become part of my personal history left unexplored and I've decided to keep it that way. Sometimes, a movie left unseen is a better memory than one that was.

Besides Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? is on.


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Monday, August 22, 2022

Who's There? A Memory

Memories are curious things. Scientists have been trying to figure out for years how and why people experience sudden bursts of memory. Some are traceable to triggers like smells, sounds, particular music, or even touch. Then there are those memories that burst in with no connection to the present and you relive something from years past with no reference to how you got there. I found myself there this morning when I suddenly remembered the joke envelopes.

I went to my first sleep-away camp when I was about ten. It was a YMCA camp held at Lake Arrowhead in California. It seemed like there must've been a thousand kids there, but it was probably more like two or three hundred. Ten kids were in my cabin, with our adult leadership being provided by a middle-aged man who was normally a police detective. It was an interesting mix of kids, and after the first few hours, we were ready for the week ahead.

The days were filled with canoeing, archery, making lanyards, hiking, and everything you'd expect of a summer camp–including a campfire every night that introduced me to the world of storytelling. Daily after a communal lunch, we'd head back to our cabin where purchases from the canteen were distributed ––you had to complete a request and give it to your counselor by breakfast to get anything that day. Then, mail was passed out. 

My dad was in Vietnam, so the only parent I had in the United States was my mom. I got a letter from her daily and she used envelopes preprinted with colorful cartoons and jokes for that correspondence. I'm not talking about a single joke or cartoon, but dozens of them covering the envelope. Most were visual puns and knock-knock jokes. After reading the envelope, and before I read the letter, I'd pass the envelope around my cabinmates so they could see the jokes as well.

Looking back, since the camp only lasted about a week, getting a letter every day meant she sent them before I left for camp. It was a planned daily treat.

There are lots of significant events that parents give their children over the course of their lifetime. Just getting to go to camp was a big one. But then there are those little things parents do that almost pass by unnoticed until years later. They are the things that round out the bigger things and make them so much sweeter. 

Now that I'm a grandfather, I make sure those little things surround the bigger things. After all, since we don't understand memory anyway, I want to make sure those little spaces are filled with something happy when they pop up later.




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Thursday, August 11, 2022

A Trip to the Sacred Store

 

Long long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile

The first time I heard those lyrics was in the late spring of 1972. At thirteen years old, I was just becoming aware of music in a big way and my radio was constantly on, or I was playing the few 45s or LPs I had on a fold up record player. Then one day, along came this song. I would find out later that the genesis of the song of the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. Those three people meant little or nothing to me at that point in my life. I don't mean to make it sound cruel, but the plane crash in Clear Lake and songs of those three musicians occurred before I was born. So what did I find in American Pie? A Story.

Even though I didn't know the background and the symbolism in the lyrics, I knew I was listening to a story. Besides that, the music was great. It started off slow––sped up––rocked for a while in the middle — then, with some somber words it faded out. Those types of shifts within the song are called hooks, and they did exactly what they were supposed to do: they hooked me. Even though it was a solitary voice for most of the song, it was a wonderful voice and one that demanded that you listen to it. Every time it played from the first time I heard it, I sat and allowed it to captivate me for the entire eight minutes and thirty-seven seconds. That is a long time for a thirteen-year-old.

After the first few times I heard it, I did what all teenagers do when they like a song––I memorized the lyrics. No small task back then. You'd have to wait until the radio station played the song again and because of the song's length, they'd only play it every few hours. There was a lot of luck involved to hear it more than once a day. But I did, and eventually I memorized the lyrics. All eight-hundred and sixty-eight of them. 

At about the same time, I read Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? If you're not familiar with it, the book is a hypothesis that the technologies and religions of many ancient civilizations came form by ancient alien astronauts who were welcomed as gods. Regardless of your feelings about the book's ideas, it was among the first that made me think. The author took various bits of history and wove them together to support his theories. It was like finding the holy Grail that explained everything. I'd recall that feeling of accepting a constructed truth when I wrote term papers about cults in high school and college.

Imagine a world without the Internet, where rumors and urban legend traveled by word-of-mouth. You'd be amazed at how quickly it occurred. That's what happened with American Pie, lacking a full explanation from Don McLean, people put together various events that seemed to match the lyrics. The Jester in the song must've been Bob Dylan, the reference to moss growing fat?––it was about the Rolling Stones, and the sergeant's playing the marching tune? Of course, it was a reference to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Over time, I picked up explanations for every single lyric in the song. All of them seem to match the words to people and events in history.

Last week, I caught the documentary The Day the Music Died/American Pie and in addition to people talking about the significance of the song in their life, Don McLean finally shared how the song was written, the construction of the music on the record, and the meaning of those mysterious lyrics. I don't want to give out any spoilers, but I will tell you everything I heard about the song growing up was wrong, except the reference to the plane crash on 3 February 1959. 

Maybe it's because I'm older now, but rather than feeling lied to, I appreciated his words on the subject. As I've often said, when an author writes "the curtains were blue", sometimes it has nothing to do with the fact he was depressed when he wrote the words, it usually means he looked around and noticed––the damn curtains were blue.

After watching the documentary, American Pie made it back into rotation for my daily music breaks. One afternoon, while out running some errands, I was stopped at a stoplight with the windows of my car down and the song playing at near full blast. I was daydreaming, but then something caught my attention and I looked at the cars on either side of me. They too had their windows down and the driver of one car, and all the occupants of the other were singing along with the song. Amazing how universal this piece of music still is.

Note: Don McLean figures into another entry in this blog, he's the inspiration for the song Killing Me Softly  As for plane crashes, the crash that took the lives of Buddy, Ritchie, and the Bopper was just the beginning of tragedy for rock, these two entries are about other musicians who met similar fates: Lynyrd Skynyrd  and Jim Croce 


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Monday, August 1, 2022

An Escape Into My Tiny Writer's Garret



When I think about writing, I see it as a purely creative process. Because of that, it is something that can neither be rushed nor done on a specific schedule. I don't mean that the deadlines for editing and such, but the basic writing has to come when it comes. Usually, there comes a point in writing a story when my mind is filled with the characters and the action of my story. I refer to this as being in the zone, and once I'm there, I have a tendency to close out the outside world is much as possible and let those words flow as freely as their coming to me. Until then, I feel that I'm wandering about like a bumblebee, bumping into everything that might be in my way as I try to fly towards the flowers I am seeking.

Thanks to Katrin, a wonderful lady that I've never met who lives in Hamburg, Germany I no longer bumble my way onto the path I need to be on, her creations allow me to concentrate on only a small part of the physical world in front of me. The first time I did this, back in January, the result was a small library that seemed turned the corner and go on forever when you peered into it.  It was the perfect project at the perfect time; allowing me to be creative and but also having guard rails to keep me from running off the path. As I built that library, I ventured into its hallway and explored the shelves, the ladder, and even the lights. It took me from here to there.

Recently, Katrin moved into a space beyond Etsy that gives her more freedom and control over what she markets. When I first looked through her new offerings, I was immediately drawn to one she called the Antique Office, which featured a large window at the end rather than an infinite hallway. At the end of the nook, sit a desk and chair where its occupant could peer through a large window at a large full moon. 

After a few days of looking at the kit, I ordered it. It seemed to arrive much faster than the last package I had come from Germany, but it may have just been my imagination. Unlike my last kit, this one seemed to have less finished and more decisions to be made by me. I pieced it together several times, trying to observe it from different angles to come up with a painting scheme for an office that I might like to occupy myself. As I did this, the name shifted to Tiny Writer's Garret.

This time, rather than lining the books up on the shelves in neat rows, I made it more like my office and allowed the books to be in piles and even stacked on top of the bookcase. Katrin had suggested a few add-ons, so on the desk sits not only a quill and inkwell but also a bust. Another minor prop included of miniature mailed envelopes, which are appropriately scattered across the floor near the chair.

The moon is back-lit through the window, and its shine fills the office with fantasy beams of lunar magic. Unfortunately, the photo does not really do it justice as the camera does not adjust lighting as well as the human eye. 

As with my last project, it is now ensconced in a bookshelf with lights that turn on automatically when someone enters the room, allowing them a brief glimpse before it goes dark and disappears into the stack of books.

My Tiny Writer's Garret served his purpose and cleared my mind of a lot of extraneous things so I could get to work on my latest work in progress. Now and then, I go down where that new project sits and allow myself to transport into it so I consider that desk and put words on a piece paper.


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