Saturday, September 25, 2010

Snips From A Necklace

It was 6:30 in the evening on the Fourth of July when I threw a few items in my knapsack, swallowed a 2 mg tab of Dilaudid and headed down to the Esplanade to watch the fireworks. In my 30 years in Boston I’d never seen them, a glaring omission which some might consider on par with never having seen a Red Sox game at Fenway Park. My work place parking garage is only a 15-minute walk from the Hatch Shell, the epicenter of the ritual extravaganza, so I skipped the T and drove into town. The familiar route of my commute, usually traveled during morning rush hour, was unimpeded to the point of being unrecognizable. The illusion of a deserted Boston lasted until just short of the garage, at which point I spotted the first of many Uncle Sams, each with their brood of Cousin Sammys. There were all tramping en masse, all in the thrall of the Great New England compass. I parked, took the elevator to the street and joined the hajj.

As I walked down Arlington St I decided to phone my mom knowing that as a native New Englander she’d appreciate this auspicious moment. Mom’s been feeling low for the past few months, ever since pulling up roots in Riverside, her home for 50 years, and moving to Northern California. For me, just knowing that she was no longer there has been disorienting. My childhood home is finally left without a Jolliffe to bear witness. Now as I walked I intoned for her the name of each sacred, sentimental landmark I passed: Beacon Street, the Golden Dome of the State House, the Public Garden, and other set-pieces from Make Way for Ducklings. Mom’s spirits lifted a bit and she vowed to watch the fireworks with me on TV. We hung up with a promise that I’d call her during the 1812 Overture.

I snapped shut my phone and naively attempted to outsmart the mob, heading upstream toward the bridge over Storrow Drive. I was immediately beaten back like a salmon. The maneuver proved unnecessary however, as Storrow Drive had fallen at the feet of an army of patriots marching inexorably towards the banks of the River Charles. After fifteen minutes or so of threading through the narrowing capillaries along the riverbank I once again tried to think strategically and stepped gingerly off the path into a seemingly impenetrable patchwork of picnic blankets and folding chairs. I located a tiny but sweet triangle of real estate and claimed it with a sprawl. The spot had a higher percentage of grass than dirt and commanded a view of the western sky unobstructed except by trees on the low horizon, irrelevant once the high altitude show began.

I should mention that for a week I’d been plagued by a good old fashioned tooth ache brought on by the jack hammering of a molar and the subsequent inept insertion of a temporary crown. My dentist told me (5 days ago) that the ache would go away after a couple of days, so I had upped the Ibuprofen and hunkered down. Daytimes had been bearable but in the evening a throbbing pain tended to set in. Last night I had finally relented and taken a Dilaudid from the dwindling supply left over from my ordeal with a broken arm. It did the trick, but, mindful of its addictive tendencies, I had vowed not to take another and to call my dentist after the holiday weekend. However as I headed out the door this evening my jaw was throbbing like Tom Hanks’ and it was a no-brainer that rather than jamming a ladies ice skate into my mouth I’d allow myself just one more pill.

And so as it happened, at about the same time that I stretched out on my patch of grass to await the festivities, I had arrived at a humming peace with the abiding crowd and setting sun. My tooth, though still mildly aching, no longer seemed to matter. The evening was pleasant; tropical, but not oppressive in its heat. Many of those around me, obviously seasoned veterans of the wait for darkness, were wiling away the time with all manner of diversion: cell phones, books, playing cards and conversation. I set about the task of doing some solitary wiling of my own. My lack of a smart phone in a literal sea of these devices brought on a momentary twinge of inadequacy, but undaunted I pulled out my primitive little Sanyo flip job, the one which my daughter says I should feel embarrassed to be seen using in public, and pondered its potential. I’d already spoken to my mom, and had left 4th of July messages for my brother and my dad. I scrolled shamelessly thru my list of numbers, one by one ruling out a long list of people who, as pleased as I might have been to speak to, all seemed to put me at risk for being yanked from my reverie, prone and alone in the crowd. Just beyond ‘G’ I came upon Bob Holmes. We hadn’t spoken in months, not since he’d moved back to Ohio where he and Becky had purchased a ranch and a few head of cattle. I realized that of many on my list, he was perhaps the best bet for engagement in a conversation that would seamlessly marble with the evening. I dialed his number and he picked up. Greetings, present circumstances and news were exchanged and I was cast into a reverie of the fading old days when Bob was just a tunnel’s ride away in East Boston. To Bob, just last night up to his elbows in assisting a calving Guernsey, those days must have seemed even further. We bantered for a while and could have continued, but a nearby tower of loud speakers began to boom with a fulsome baritone voice reciting a high fructose patriotic narrative. Bob and I took it as our cue to end the conversation.

Whether the voice abated or like my toothache simply faded into insignificance I’m not sure. All I remember is that up the Charles River the sky was shrugging the sun closer to the crayoned Cambridge horizon, and though the 1812 Overture was hours away, I decided once again to call my mom.

“More bad news”, she said upon picking up the phone “My TV’s broken!”

Somehow she’d changed a channel setting and now her screen was all “snow”. All those who she might have called upon for help were away for the holiday weekend and it was apparent that she and I must face the dire situation on our own. I let her initial despair wash over me the way, as a kid, I used to duck the raging turmoil of foaming Pacific Ocean waves, coming up on the other side in the momentary peace of a million sizzling bubbles. As I spoke to her, lying on my back, head propped on my knapsack, the evolving horizon seemed to speed up. The clouds, a study in purples and reds lit on their underbellies, shredded and banked in the west. An internal voice pried at the moment, telling me to get off the phone and properly take in the exquisite panorama. For a moment I actually did get up on an elbow and divide my attention. But better instincts prevailed and I lay back, unfocused my eyes up-river, and leaned into the Sisyphean task of explaining a fifty-button remote control to my mother three thousand miles away in the sundown quarter.

“Do you see a button that says T.V.?”


“Ok, push it”

Mom, heartbroken but strong, sensed my resolve and brought her own to our endeavor.

“I pushed it.”

“Did anything change on the screen?”

The sun came in sideways, like aoxomoxoa under a crimsoning palette of clouds toasted to a perfect glow, just the right distance from embers. We talked methodically, lingering as long as necessary on each word, burros heading west, clopping down the years to a place further than my memory could take me. Out Route 66, when that was the première highway to California; gas was 25 cents a gallon and they cleaned your windshield and checked your oil. Under the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, crossing the Colorado River at Needles. Up Highway 1 to Redwood City where during Word War II, Mom cared for the children of working mothers whose husbands had gone to war. To San Francisco and celebratory nights on Market Street out on dates with New England boys, young sailors on a last hurrah before shipping out. Word upon word, back to Berkeley when the United Nations was there, and gazing across the street, mesmerized by a sea of humanity in every costume and color.

“Is there a button with a number on it?”

Mom suddenly exclaimed “The screen says 4!”


The cool patios of The Mission Inn with its dark heavy beams and its Spanish arches. Its goldfish filled fountains fused with the sky’s hemoglobin drip as our attention joined and time passed out of mind. Family camping trips next to high mountain streams, a tent pitched in a low oxygen world for a week, divining trout from icy brooks and cooking on a Coleman stove. The beach at Oceanside, an umbrella posted first thing each morning, bamboo mats spread and folding chairs positioned, an invitation to the day. I gazed over my chest down the Charles River looking in the direction of the Sierra Nevada, skirted in 16 million year old lava flows where black and white woodpeckers traversed gigantic gorges with one a flap of the wings in the dimming light.

“Mom, can you walk over to the T.V.?”

“Yes, just a minute”

I took in the entire dome of the sky as the air burst with humidity and the river swaddled the archetypal New England diorama. I attended to Mom’s voice in my left ear and, with surprising ease the diffuse sounds of the turning earth in my right. Laughter, “pass the bug spray”, the conversations and sweet nothings of strangers. The Boston Pops tuned and the crowd milled patiently. I waited for her to walk to the television set with perfect faith that she could bring the screen back to life. For a moment I was free of the feeling that I might miss something, that feeling, itself the cause of missing everything.

“Ok I’m there”

“Ok, now push the ‘up’ arrow”.

We talked it through without hyperbole and without resort to the usual rhetorical flourishes of exasperation.

A red and white robed choirboy, bearing flame at the tip of a brass candle lighter, enters the sanctuary from the side, ascends the stairs and steps nervously toward the altar. Enveloped by the massive hymnal tones of a pipe organ he lights two candles. Frenzied ducks flap across the green waters of a pond, racing toward fists full of breadcrumbs. Palm trees in straight rows point Seussically toward the sky. In the new neighborhoods garish streetlights violate the sanctity of night. Out Victoria Avenue a solitary street lamp, a hobo’s fire, marks the street that leads out to the hills where everything is possible.

The president of the League of Women Voters, glances out the kitchen window looking down onto a boy on a rope-hung, back yard swing. A call from Massachusetts taken on the kitchen phone, me watching from the black and white TV-lit den. A hundred visits back home, peering out the window of a descending airplane at the swimming pool encrusted sprawl of Southern California.

Images tilt, tremble and finally succumb to a fiery demise at the end of this summer day. The choirboy returns at service-end. He extinguishes both candles, a wraith of smoke coursing around the edges of the brass snuffer and hovering over pools of hot wax. The distant sound of bells is audible, ringing from a Churrigueresque steeple and out over the rooftops of Riverside. Soon it will be dark enough for the show

“What does it say on the screen?”

“Now it’s gone back to 4!!”

In the end of course, we failed to fix the television. I would be alone in my sunset and Mom, three hours later, in hers.

When they finally went off, the fireworks were all they had been billed for a lifetime to be; all the familiar ooooos and aaaahhhs, plus a few I’d never seen before. There was one display in particular which I still think about. It consisted of seven or eight short vertical strings of what looked like red beads, Christmas tree bulb crimson. Like snips from a Mardi Gras necklace, they formed a bottom border for the exploding choreography. For all the world they appeared to be solid objects in the sky. For what seemed like several minutes they held the line and did not fall or fade. And then they were gone.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Music's Over

Trauma Bay #4 is in high gear. At least fifteen hospital staff, from blue scrubbed techs and nurses to white coated residents and medical students, cluster in close quarters around a patient who appears to be unconscious. From my vantage point at the patient’s feet all I can see is a spray of tubes sprouting from beyond a neck brace which conceals her face. I have nonetheless a stellar view her bare feet one of which sports a nasty little bandage wrapped around a blackened middle toe.

Until recently this hospital wasn’t an officially designated trauma destination for city’s ceaseless round of wailing ambulances, but that changed a few months ago and now my pager goes off at all hours signaling the imminent arrival of another victim. The designated recorder is seated at a stainless steel table and taking note of each unfolding event. When I approach him he nods towards the attendance book and I sign on the social work line. My presence, although nominally required, is irrelevant. Emergency medical care is being delivered primarily by a tall athletic looking nurse in his late twenties who is deftly inserting tubes, hooking up electrical feeds and calling out readings, blood pressure, O2 sats, heart rates. Standing at the patient’s head is another nurse who’s job is to operate a suction tube which vacuums the patient’s mouth. “There’s blood in her mouth” she calls out. The recording nurse duly notes this fact, which I verify with a glance at the reddening coiled clear tubing running off the back of the vacuum. Now amidst the turmoil the recorder is interviewing the ambulance driver and I edge closer to eavesdrop. This patient, I learn, is a 73 year old woman who had fallen backwards and hit her head on concrete. Apparently there was a witness to the fall, but no one’s exactly sure who that was. Standing beside me is a bald, 60 something man, one of the few people besides myself who is not dressed in hospital attire. He is swabbing the top of his head with a white towel. I realize, looking past him out the ambulance bay doors, that it's raining cats and dogs; an early summer storm has blown up out of nowhere.

“Squeeze my hand” says the resident. To my surprise the patient squeezes. I edge closer and am able to get a better look at the patient’s facial features. She doesn’t look as old as I had expected. The team now rolls the patient over onto her stomach, "on my count",the whole scene reminiscent of ER. The examining doctor scrutinizes her backside and calls for lube. “No tone”. The recorder enters it into the record. An x-ray is pending and the team repairs to the greater ED to gather around a computer monitor and review the MRI. The bald man, his head now dry, takes a cursory look at the film. His shirt is soaked through and I overhear his remark to one of the residents that the storm "came up at exactly the wrong time.” I ask him what his role is and he tells me he’s the attending surgeon. Moments later he says, to the ED Attending, “you’re all set?” I didn’t hear her answer but I must have missed a nod because now he’s heading out the ambulance bay doors. The rain appears to have stopped.

Hours later in my Thursday night rite of passage I escape from my 13 hour day out the back exit onto Tremont St. and step wide eyed into the Dionysian extrusion of the boozy Boston theatre/club district. Everywhere scantily clad twenty something girls with legs up to here strut, even in the freezing perils of the season, though tonight it’s balmy and they're all buoyant. Halfway across the busy street I hear the sound of live rock and roll, Light My Fire, emanating from the Wilbur Theatre. I dodge a car, retrace my steps and approach the entrance to the theatre from which bashing of cymbals and whining organ beckon. Still wearing my hospital photo ID around my neck I walk thru the wide open doors. An usher stationed at the front desk glances up but seems uninterested. I avoid eye contact, sprint furtively up the stairs, pull aside heavy red velvet curtains and step into the humid darkness of the balcony.

Below me on a brightly lit stage stand The Doors, or at least half the Doors: Ray Manzarek and Robbie Krieger. The band consists of Manzarek, Krieger, as well as a bass player (Ray’s left hand’s been relieved of its metronomic task), drums and some poor singer saddled with the job of standing in for Jim Morrison. I’ve arrived just as “Jim” is finishing the chorus leading up to the epic organ/guitar solo, the one they used to cut short whenever the song got played on Top 40 radio stations. The crowd is on it’s feet. I deduce that this must be the last song of the evening. I’d seen this concert advertised on billboards for weeks as I walked past the Wilbur on my way to and from work. I had halfway thought of attending, but then thought better. I have indelible memories of seeing The Doors play in 1968 and had recently engaged in an argument with my band mates, all a good 10 years younger than me, who couldn’t understand what the fuss was about. I’d tried half heartedly to convince them of the Doors greatness, then went home afterwards and listened to some of their music. Much of it sounded lifeless and dated and for a moment I doubted myself, but only for a moment. If the record was all you had to go on it requires a willingness to let go to stand a chance in hell of being touched by the essence of the Doors. Jim Morrison walked on a high wire from which he soon fell, but for a couple of years their music lived in a place that all poets and musicians reach for.

Ray Manzarek’s iconic organ solo is underway. My eyes are adjusting to the light now and I look down onto the tops of the heads of what I’m assuming are a happy crowd of baby boomers. Since it’s Thursday night I’m guessing most have to get home right after the show, but for the moment its “Rock and Roll!” Ray’s playing his solo note for note from the record, but it lacks the attack and urgency of the original. He sounds like a guy in a cover band. Now he's banging on the keyboard with his booted foot, then pointing zealously at the audience, who go wild, and then over to Robbie. Krieger does pretty much the same, evolving his original solo into some Van Halen-like pyrotechnics before passing it back to the sad “Jim” to bring it home. As Dylan said, "there’s nothing in here moving." I turn, part the velvet curtain, descend the stairs and walk back outside into the alcohol fueled, hyper-sexualized, theatre district night.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Ted Kennedy

I ducked out of work at the hospital on the late summer afternoon that they brought Ted Kennedy up from the Cape. As I walked toward Park Street, the closest possible vantage point for a glimpse of the motorcade, I could just make out faint applause carried on the breeze; a smattering, like fat rain drops. Leaves skidded on the walkways and there was a blurring din of helicopters overhead. The Boston Common was packed with tourists celebrating this last gasp of summer, the end of a summer that never really arrived. I was peripherally aware of kids squealing in the wading pool and itinerant bench sitters nodding sleepily or pointing at the sky. The possibility that I might miss the motorcade, in spite of how close I now was, suddenly became a very real and I quickened my pace and began to applaud too, hoping to summon speed. Rolling hub cabs reflected low sun through a black Federal style wrought iron fence as I broke into a run and covered the last few yards to the curb. The ripples of clapping hands gained in strength and crested, but were never more than a distant cousin of the kind heard at games or concerts. Scattered “thank yous” could be heard, not shouted, but offered up like prayers toward the procession. I pressed against the fence, sweating and out of breath, and flashed a peace sign at one of the Kennedy kids who waved from buses and limos, seemingly as dazed by all this as me.

I once got Ted Kennedy’s autograph. It was in California in the mid 60’s. He’d spoken to a crowd that day on the football field at the University of California at Riverside and afterwards I’d rushed the stage with a crowd of autograph seekers and thrust my pen and paper towards him. He was better looking in person, I remember thinking, than in photographs. I had asked for two autographs. He signed the first and handed me back the pen, uncertain of my request. I don’t remember whether he signed a second one.

My other memory of Teddy is second hand. At a Nantucket restaurant where I had once played in the house band, a story circulated, promulgated by bartenders and waitresses who’d waited on a drunken Kennedy and his party one night. The Senator was carousing in the candle lit restaurant and at one point was said to have bellowed to the room at large, “Who’s going to buy the Senator a drink?” The story had seemed, at the time, to be an exaggeration, but I've always wanted to believe it.

The attendant applause was already beginning to fade, running erratically up the hill towards the gold domed State House. The procession was rolling too fast to chase down. God, what’s the hurry? The helicopters shifted east and I stood on tiptoe, just glimpsing the tailgate of the hearse trailing a flutter of sentiment and then disappearing over Beacon Hill. Tourists bustled up and down the crisscrossing sidewalk spokes of the Common intent on the all mighty business of navigating to the next historic monument. Shirtless boys sang and played guitar and college girls laughed rapt in text. All signs that he had passed were already gone. I could smell fresh ground coffee. The sun was low and subliminal hints of autumn hurried me along like a tailwind. The Sox were in town and the weather report had it that a hurricane might nick Boston tomorrow before spending itself in the high Atlantic waters. I turned and headed back to work.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hank and Bob and Chris and Anna

It was pouring and the forecast was for rain all evening, but Anna and I were committed.   I’d sold her on the idea of going to see Bob Dylan, in spite of her avowed lack of desire to do so (perhaps my grandest understatement ever), arguing that some day she’d be glad to have seen such a musical giant.  So we drove into the wind and the rain to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, home of the Boston Red Sox farm team, to see the show.

Pawtucket is a working class town, a low sprawl of light industry and residential neighborhoods.  McCoy Stadium, hearkening back to the 1940s, is an old school Triple A ball yard like God intended it.  Even in the rainy mist it was redolent of hot summer evenings and the sound of hardballs on wooden bats and leather gloves.  As we approached the stadium on foot, $20 lighter after a disturbingly informal wallet-to-wallet gathering of a parking fee in what appeared to be someone’s backyard, the clanging of electric guitars was clearly audible.  Willie Nelson’s unvarnished voice rang out, bouncing off the bleachers.  He was doing a straight up medley of Hank William’s songs.  The rain was lifting and as we walked it took only the slightest suspension of disbelief to imagine that the year was 1947, and that voice, singing Move It Over, Hank himself; on that day’s sports page Ted Williams working on his consecutive on-base streak.

We threaded the residential blocks toward the music, passing parked tour buses with their high tires and tantalizing opaque windows.  Two days from now Dylan would be picked up by the police in a New Jersey neighbor not unlike this one after neighbors phoned in reports of a shady character lurking in a hooded sweat shirt.  Dylan wasn’t carrying ID and when asked his name, might as well have identified himself as Zimmie for all it mattered to the 24 year old officer who had posed the question.   Dylan led the police back to his tour bus and made, I imagine, a compelling case that he was “somebody”, although I’m not sure how that exonerated him from lurking in a hooded sweatshirt.

By the time we passed through the entrance gates Willie’s set was over.  We stepped into view of the playing field, and even in this modest stadium, I was predictably transported back 45 years to my first professional baseball game at Dodger Stadium.   That first grassy glimpse of the stretching outfield and crisp white foul lines have permanently set the bar for me on wide open inspiration.  We found a couple of seats half way up the bleachers just beyond third base.  The stage was in center field.  Had this been Fenway Park these would have been seats to die for.  As far as seats for a Dylan concert, not so much.  We could have moved down to the field closer to the music, but I was willing to concede recognition of facial features in exchange for a modicum of physical comfort.

John Mellencamp, played a serviceable set; his all American songs could have been written expressly for this archetypal setting.  I enjoyed it but the knowledge that I was incurring low level permanent ear drum damage took a slight toll on my appreciation.   Anna had already given up on finding some musical common ground and at the end of Mellencamp’s set was chafing at the bit for deliverance from her Dad’s music.

Dylan was brought on with his customary tongue in cheek bombastic introduction and launched into his set with one of his lesser-known songs, Cat’s In The Well.  Although Anna may have been one up on that New Jersey cop in her ability to recognize the name Bob Dylan, there was, nonetheless, not a single song he played that night which she recognized, or frankly, could have recognized.  These days even fans sometimes have to wait a verse or two into some of his songs before they can identify them.  It’s a common complaint that he’s messing with his holy classics.  The whole argument, in my view, is nonsense.   Dylan’s fidelity to his own truth of how his songs should be played is, and always has been, his greatest gift to the world.

Floating on a heart rending version of This Wheels On Fire, I took a phone picture of the stage and punched out a text message to my brother, knowing that a few weeks from now he was going to be taking his son,  even younger than Anna, to see Dylan on this baseball stadium tour.  

During a break between songs I eavesdropped on a fan directly behind me who was pontificating with gusto, apparently feeling the need to show off his Dylan chops to the guy next to him. 

“Blonde On Blonde, 1965, Nashville musicians.”

“Blood On The Tracks was recorded on Rosh Hashanah. “ 

It was a bit annoying, but at least he seemed to have his facts straight. 

“Robbie Robertson was his greatest foil.” 

“He didn’t sell out at Newport in 1965”. 

I felt compelled to sneak glimpse over my shoulder at the person issuing this blitzkrieg of disjointed minutia and realized that there was nobody next to him.  He wasn’t talking to anybody, just talking.  A few minutes later somebody came down the aisle, took him by the elbow and led him away. 

Dylan stood fast in the spot light.   It was dark now and it had started to drizzle.  If you looked up into the stadium lights you could get the idea that it was pouring, but the lights always make the rain look worse than it actually is.  Still, if this had been a baseball game, a rain delay might be in the wings.

We left early, not that I wasn’t enjoying the show, but I had promised Anna I wouldn’t make this into an ordeal for her.  We got lost in the darkened neighborhoods trying to find the car and had to retrace our steps back to the stadium to reorient.  We traced the right field fence, trying to find the same exit we’d come in at 3 hours earlier, and all at once we found ourselves right down by the stage with the rabble on the high volume flats.  Dylan was playing Po’ Boy, a song which for me represents a stroke of his melodic lyricism, a vanishing commodity which I cherish, perhaps more than any of his other qualities.  Even this amped up version of the song had that sweet lilt.  Such moments inexplicably lift my spirits.   Feeling pressured by Anna to get us out of here I tried to redirect my attention to the outfield fence in search of the exit, but my focus was scrambled by the song’s beauty and I missed it again.

Eventually we found the car and drove home, tired and only a bit damp.  I still believe that someday Anna will be glad that she went.    

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Running Of The Tarps

Watching the Running of the Tarps on YouTube before actually experiencing it only confused me. It was one of many rituals embedded in this festival which challenged me, a first timer to breathe deeply and step into a high altitude state of mind.  The entire week at Telluride was tinged with a wash of low oxygen. Just as high altitude lakes are clearer and colder than their more organically endowed lowland kin, synapses tempered at alpine elevations snap from thought to thought, stand as is, no need to look back or rework. Soulful bass give way to lightening reflective trout.  As tea brown soupy ponds contrast with crisp reflections of rock and sky, so the mind perches on the cusp of each idea, surrounded and informed by the vastness of thin air and the rocky mountains that charge through it.  Eight thousand feet below is another world, a memory hardly worth the energy expended in recalling it. For some there is an adjustment period marked by light headedness or nausea. For me it was a headache the first morning. I remember climbing out of my tent that day and being shocked by the light air at my tent flap and the intensity of the snow melt river racing down the canyon past our camp. The moment evoked memories of back packing trips in the Sierras or hostel mornings in the Canadian Rockies.  I came through it by donning dark glasses, staying hydrated, and intentionally drinking a cup of coffee while seated in a folding chair on a gravely bank in the face of the riotous San Miguel River.

But yes, The Running of the Tarps. Once the starting numbers have been obtained (see prior blog entry) the strategizing for the actual run begins.  The person chosen by each camp to run must possess both speed and strength of character; what lies ahead will require both.  Such a baseball player he would need to be able to hit for average and slugging percentage, to possess the ability to advance from first to third on a short single, and the strength to knock down the catcher blocking home plate.  Breakfast is eaten; granola and hearty burritos.  Late risers hurriedly wash up and dress.  Now the runners are led by festival officials to the gate.  They trudge past us one by one like gladiators going to their fate. All members of Camp Little Del gather at a strategic corner and cheer on our chosen.  The sun is strong even at this hour and the day is charged.  Once the numbered runners have passed by we fall in behind as a group with folding chairs and knapsacks, all heading towards the Main Stage area.  

Now the sound of bagpipes is heard.  A crowd has gathered on the main stage looking back.  All eyes are trained on the entrance at the back of the field. On adjoining hillsides clusters of onlookers peer through binoculars and children are boosted onto parent's shoulders.  The William Tell Overture bursts from the stage in a shrill of mandolin and banjos and out on the great expanse of lawn runners bearing blue and green plastic tarps emerge.  The runner's are let in one at a time according to their number, but once they're past the starting gate this becomes nothing but a foot race.  Savvy veteran campers have been said to hire ringers, young and athletic, to take on this task.  You can see them streaking across the field, overturning order and bypassing fleets of determined early risers on the strength of sheer speed.  Once the spot where a runner chooses to throw down his or her tarp is reached, the contest shifts to a more ethically complex one.  Border disputes may flair up as hastily thrown down tarps overlap and winded runners panic at the prospect of losing the hard earn fruits of their race.  All discussion or argument wastes precious seconds as more runners relentlessly fill in from behind, tossing tarps at the heels of the disputants.  On the second day's tarp run one of our runners came close to actual physical conflict over a territorial conflict and hard feelings  were only allayed hours later after a judiciously gifted spliff.  

Our turf is staked with a blue plastic square.  Now non-numbered campers bearing folding chairs arrive to guard the perimeter of each claim.  The whole lawn is buzzing as we stand in jubilation and look out on the spoils of the day, surrounded by dozens of others celebrating the same.  The music, crisp from the speaker towers on either side of the stage, has changed from Rossini to a light hearted sound check romp written to the tune of Mr. Sandman.  Beyond the arena, and relentlessly for 360 degrees a thin air crystaline view of the San Juan mountains lifts every spirit.  High fives are exchanged as we acknowledge that our goal has been met and it's still only 9:30 in the morning, with the day's music still to come.  Time to grab a beer, study the schedule of performers and swap tales of today's adventure.  Even now, on the domino outskirts of the main stage area tarps are being thrown down, but for us, stage right, at 8600 feet, the die has been cast.  

Monday, July 20, 2009

Miles Up The Road


    Three days before Apollo 11 landed on the moon, me and three friends were riding an east bound freight train along the northern shore of Lake Superior.  It was the summer before our senior year in high school and we were on the great adventure of our lives: a hitch-hiking journey across Canada. We were intent on watching the moon landing and had boarded this train with some trepidation, knowing that there was no assurance that we would be anywhere near a TV when that moment arrived.

    The train traversed total wilderness, and without roads and cities as a reference our maps were useless.  There was no way to deduce how far we’d come or when we’d arrive somewhere…anywhere.  Our berth was a box car, sticky with a residue of creosote.  The train’s relentless bouncing and racket was punctuated at unpredictable intervals with stops beginning for no apparent reason, sometimes for lasting for hours, and then, just as inexplicably, ending.  Sleep was impossible and the days blurred.

    The day before the moon landing we were bone sore and down to our last can of beans.  No disembarkment point was in sight and we despaired of being able to watch the moon landing.  Then our luck changed. The unchanging terrain which we had gazed upon for days shifted radically from coniferous forest, to desolation; barren and rocky hills.  Stranger than fiction, the landscape seemed to become moon-like.   We pulled into a railroad yard in the mining town of Sudbury, Ontario, the nickel capital of the world.

    We climbed off the train and hiked out of the railroad yard, dazed with exhaustion but exhilarated by the certainty that soon we would be in a motel and in front of a television.  The motel owners of Sudbury however, had other plans.  The owners of the first two motels we came to took one look at our blackened, bedraggled faces and turned us away.  The possibility loomed that we had come this far and might still miss the landing.  There was no time to rely on the fickle gods of hitch-hiking so we ran down the road, desperately scanning the horizon for the next blinking MOTEL sign.  Finally, just as the sun was setting, we found a room. 

     In the hours preceding the landing, we took showers, drank strawberry milkshakes and took naps in shifts. Crowded onto two beds in front of the television we exulted. At that moment, even though we were still miles from the Atlantic, our trip across Canada, planned for months and dreamed of for even longer, seemed to come to fruition.  Our personal celebration mingled easily and naturally with our celebration of mankind’s giant leap.

    The next morning we hitch-hiked out of Sudbury and a few weeks later arrived in NYC where we attended the ticker tape parade for the astronauts.  There was a distinct feeling of familiarity seeing them in that parade; like encountering somebody we’d met before, miles up the road.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Line At Dawn

5:00 am
Telluride, Town Park

I'm half asleep, disorganized and rummaging blind at the outer margins of the tent, trying not to wake Sharon. Everything I touch seems to be some variation on a pile of clothing, some piles damper than others. I finally manage to find pants and a sweat shirt and lumber out of the broken zippered tent flap, ragged and shivering. All last night I'd faded in and out of sleep, subliminally aware of the steady miniature thumping of a string band mingled with the gurglings of the San Miguel River. It was a muted sound, battened by the starry night and grounded by the alpine forest floor.   At intervals an eerie "whooooo" had risen from the faithful in tireless reverie.  I had surmised that the music I was hearing was coming from somewhere in Town Park. Now, walking by the community shower house with sleeping bag and folding chair in hand, I see where the jam had taken place. The musicians are gone, but you can still feel the heat of their shredding emanating from the spot where they'd stood, like campfire coals still not entirely extinguished. I tip my hat to youth and sleepily trudge on.

Each morning of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival a line forms, beginning on the corner of the family camping area and coiling around a sandy volleyball court.  It would be easy to walk past it in its somnolence; none of the hubbub usually associated with a line of eager concert goers applies at this hour. It consists exclusively of Town Park campers like myself, waiting for a numbered ticket which will grant us priority access to the ritual stage rush which happens  several hours later in the main stage area.  At its head are a phalanx of the hard core, equipped with cots and lying motionless under piles of down; they've been here since last night. Further down the queue are the slightly less fanatic sitters, in folding chairs, legs stretched, semi-conscious, covered with coats and blankets. Five thirty in the morning would seem to constitute early arrival, but in fact, its late. I'm guessing our draw will be in the 100's and they only go up as far as 200. I'm groggily aware that my brother Brad is already in line a few spots ahead of me. I attempt to start a conversation with him, but my voice is husky with sleep and it makes unspoken sense to just sit quietly for a while.

I unfold my beach chair and settle in, pulling my sleeping bag up under my chin. These first quiet moments of waiting would seem to be an ideal opportunity for the mind to wander, but in fact all thought is stilled.  You can't make time slow down, but at this hour you don't need to. My eyes close for a few seconds, a glancing doze, but when I open them I can track those seconds on a continuum of gaining light. Our motley line is pulling gradually into focus and is ennobled as it gains the context of the San Juan Mountain canyon that cradles Telluride. The sunlight, though still too weak to tease the lighter green aspen from the darker pine, is just now able to articulate the border between reddish rock cliffs and brightening sky off to the east. Bridal Veil Falls fades in, tracing a white line down the eastern end of the canyon. Fingers of warmth begin to knead the thin air. A whoosh of color settles from above. Blood begins to circulate.

Someone next to Brad has committed the cardinal sin of setting up an empty chair, under cover of darkness, as a place holder for it's occupant who hasn't yet arrived. We're not the only ones who have noticed this breach in etiquette and there is a general affective rumble of disapproval, although no one says a word. Yesterday morning at about this time a guy who looked like he might be in charge of something had showed up at the head of the line and loudly offered up swigs from his one third empty gallon of Jack Daniels and 30 bagels cut in half and loaded up with cream cheese. I had approached him and tried to strike up a conversation about line etiquette, but quickly realized that he may have been personally responsible for the missing third of Jack. Recognizing my need for a more substantial foothold in coherence, I steered the conversation to more general topics and then rappelled back to my place in line, taking a bagel with me.  A few minutes later the empty chair has been cast into the out-of-bounds area of the volley ball court and the line mends itself at the gap as if it had never broken.

Now without announcement, a man appears at the head of the line with a sheaf of laminated numbers.  He hands them to those standing and sprinkles them down onto the sleeping bags of the not-yet-risen. On contact with each coveted ticket, the line dissolves into the now indisputable morning.  Its too late to go back to bed so Brad and I decide to walk into town to get coffee.  It will be three hours until the next phase of this ritual of claiming turf:The Running Of The Tarps.  

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Closely Held Currents

They're taking my ex-father-in-law from Florida to New York today to place him in hospice care. I have missed him and will miss him. He treated me with respect and seemed to like me, but after the split there was a percipitous end of contact, and no good bye. I sent him a card on the following Pesach and thanked him for his generosity through out our marriage, intuitively staying away from any explicit reference to the divorce. I was told that he had read the card and later handed it back to my ex wife without comment. I guess I've fallen off the edge of the earth.

I'll remember him for the fact that he taught me something about a piece of Jewish life. As I had developed my own perspectives on Judaism, I was occasionally surprised and even disappointed at how lacking in "understanding" his religious practice seemed. The imperatives of the faith framed his life, and beyond that, there seemed to be nothing more to say. I know that in some homes great theological and ethical debates may have carried the day, but in his family, the practices were as straight forward and uncommented on as a fork and a knife. I was typical of the enthusiastic novice, striving for intellectual understanding and stopped cold when confronted with an unvarnished immutable fact. The bottom line was that he always showed up; without fanfare, without comment. He never failed to light a yartzheit candle, he always fasted on Yom Kippur, and at Passover seders he always sat at the head of the table and always passed the horse radish.

He was equally steadfast in the practice of his day to day rituals: catching the same train into work each morning; going to the Y on Sunday to play racket ball and schvitz with old friends; driving to the corner store to pick up the Sunday Times; working on tax returns in his home office with just pencil, typewriter and an antiquated adding machine; watching British comedy shows on public television. He loved to attend cultural events and was commited to keeping an eye open for something new and different to do. I remember going with him to a concert featuring the songs of Yip Harburg. In the last years of his life he traveled alone to Israel, over family objections, to spend a month doing laundry as part of a volunteer adjunct of the Israeli army.

He would frequently take me aside to tell me a story. It was never a story from his distant past, but rather a recalling of a conversation he'd had recently with a friend or business associate or "the young lady in my office who manages the billing". It always began with that person being initially taken aback by a confusing remark he'd made; a non-sequiter spoken at a cash register or a counter intuitive directive in the accounting office.  Then he'd let the texture of their perplexity simmer, lingering on their uncertainity as to whether he was playing with them or was losing his faculties. Taking his time, he'd then tell how he had guided them through their bewilderment, wringing every last drop out of the journey.  And finally, with just a few words, he'd offer a subtle but critical shift in perspective and thereby deliver them to clarity and an understanding of what he's meant. But that epiphany never seemed to be the ultimate point of the story, rather it was his listener's laugh. The final cadence was always, "and he laaaughed!" I can still hear him, leaning on that word, cracking himself up with delight at the memory. I'd like to think that in sharing this with me, he'd brought me, in some small way, into a circle which stretched back to Eastern Europe and beyond, swirling through Jewish life, from Talmudic studies, to Catskills stand-up, to nuclear physics. But I'm sure he would have none of that.

They're taking him from Florida today, where you can go blind in the condo parking lots from the reflected sun light glare off late model Honda's and Volvo's. Away from early bird specials, and bingo, and concerts in Palm Beach. Away from his condominium with it's glass table tops and untouchable living room furniture; its screened porch looking down two stories onto the lagoon where I once tantalized Anna with the possibility that we'd see an alligator sunning on the tuberous Florida grass.

I've fallen off the edge of the earth, but in some sense have always stood outside the place in his family where the most closely held currents churned. But still, I have missed him and will miss him.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tribulus Terrestris

Correct me if I'm wrong Southern California readers, but bull thorns seem to have all but vanished from the motherland.  About ten years ago I was telling Anna about them and in doing so rekindled my own fascination with this, the most vicious and elegant of thorns.  Besides being a great image for a song, they are emblematic of my youth, way out yonder on the frontier of suburbia.   Because these thorns, born of low growing weeds with deceptively pretty yellow flowers, mostly thrive in the dry ground characteristic of yet-to-be-landscaped yards or vacant lots, I suspect that many of my home town peers who lived in more established parts of town where there were fewer such spaces might not share my visceral association with them. 

     If your bicycle rode over one, you had a flat tire my friend.  If you stepped on one, you were screwed.  They caused a pain which was uniquely intense.  Their puncture was always clean and deep, a pinpoint of blood often all that marked the thorn's ground zero.  There was none of this namby pamby "ouch, I stepped on a thorn".  No no no.  The victim of a bullthorn hit went down like a crack whore.  Sometimes there were tears.  All barefoot walkers (with the exception of leather footed Gary Jordan) were vulnerable, because although these thorn may have originated in an uninhabited lot, they had a way of migrating far and wide, and then waiting with the patience of a predator.  They were multi pronged and virtually indestructible.  The weed could only be safely disposed of by sliding a shovel under it's sole center root, decapitating it, then delicately grasping the middle of the plant and carefully lifting its circular thorny lace, beaded with the still green toritos, as a magician lifts a silk scarf, and placing it in a trash barrel.   

     But they were so cool looking, like long horned steer.  Their aura was redolent with the sound of my father's voice, hounding my brother and I go outside on a perfectly good Saturday morning and "knock down some weeds".  Calling to mind table tennis games in the back yard the players seemingly safe from harm, until a back hand lunge rendered one vulnerable and suddenly stricken.  They evoked memories of sandals packed so solid with embedded thorns that you could tap dance in them.  Now, decades later, they stand as a totem of life in a hometown which hadn't yet been completely stripped of wildness.  

     I resolved that on my next trip to California I would find a bull thorn and bring it back to New England to show Anna.  But to my disappointment, the next time I was out west I was unable to find one.  I drove out to what had been the edge of the new housing developments in search of some vacant bull thorn space.  The first red flag that things had changed was that I had a hard time finding an edge. "The outskirts of town" had become "the old part of town", thoroughly landscaped and emptied of bull thorn potential.  I returned to Massachusetts without a thorn. 

     I Wiki-ed the subject and came up with the following: Bull Thorns, formally known a Tribulus Terrestris, came to California in the early 20th century from Eurasia or Africa, probably attached to the wool of sheep.  The fruit of the "puncture vine" also known Torito, (little bull), when ground into a powder and ingested, is known to act as a preventative for high cholesterol.  They are also thought to stimulate testosterone production and were used by the 1988 Bulgarian Olympic wrestling team to increase muscle mass.  In Indian the powder is known as an aphrodisiac.  

     This was all interesting, but the fact that I found most intriguing stemmed from another moniker for the thorn: the caltrop.  A caltrop is essentially a landmine, an ancient anti-personnel weapon made of two or more sharp nails or spikes arranged in such a manner that one of them  is always facing up, usually in the shape of a tetrahedron (tribulus).  Elegant and brutal in their simplicity they have been used for millenia as an impediment to advancing armies, be they elephants, horses or soldiers.  

     During my teen age years the landscape of my neighborhood teemed with these hazards, booby traps thrown down by mother nature in doomed defiance of a tsunami of suburban sprawl on whose foamy edge my adolescence unfolded.  At the same time that American soldiers were being maimed by poison tipped caltrops planted by the Viet Cong, another war was being waged in my own backyard.  The zeitgeist of that era had all eyes focused on Southeast Asia.  Few seemed to notice that in Southern California, developers were going quietly about the business of squeezing the life out of what was, at least in its downtown quadrant, a history minded town.  The incongruous carpet of vibrant green which bloomed in the hills after winter's first rains was just fresh blood to the sharks of subdivision.  The places where as kids we could go and see that even in the man handled sterility of suburbia there was a natural world, were systematically gutted, buried under instant communities, and irrigated with pirated water.  Voices calling for preservation, which had at another point in history compelled developers to respect a line in the sand short of desiccating other wild places like the Sierra Nevada mountains or the Anza Borrego desert, did not seem to exist in my home town.  

     Now, whenever I visit Riverside I make a point of taking a ride out the avenue to the nooks and crannies of the town which only insiders know still exist, places where knots of palm and eucalyptus hold sway and a few rows of orange trees still stand.  I'm nourished by the natural beauty which has somehow survived there, and every once in a while I'll catch a glimpse of a yellow flower in an open lot and remember Tribulus Terrestris.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Age Of Obama

My impulse to write often seems to arise in connection with the cold.  Looking back, I've realized that a disproportionate number of these blog entries are ruminations on ice and snow.  This is puzzling to me, not that frigid winter and its corollaries aren’t a worthwhile subject, but that sometimes I feel chained to their inspirational tug. 

In thinking on this I was drawn to memories of a trip I took during the summer before my senior year in high school.  Me and three friends hitch hiked and hopped freight trains across Canada; Vancouver to Montreal.  It was an odyssey rich in subplots and adventures.  So when I serendipitiously unearthed my journal from that trip many years later, I rushed through the scrawled text breathless with expectations of an epic telling.  To my disappointment the entire journal seemed to amount to little more  than a litany of the meals we had eaten during our travels.  We had subsisted, my eighteen year old self reminded me, largely on a diet of canned foods: beans, sardines, two colors of pudding (white and brown), cans of stew and cans of soup.  From a nutritional standpoint it’s a miracle we survived.  One of my fellow travelers, in an attempt to offer support in the face of my embarrassment at having produced such an inane corpus, made the trenchant observation that my perseverance on food was entirely appropriate.  He pointed out that throughout most of that summer, food had been a constant preoccupation.  We could never be sure where we’d be the next time our stomachs called, and much of the trip was spent standing by the Trans-Canadian Highway, miles from grocery stores or restaurants.  We couldn’t afford restaurants, and besides, all of us would rather have been digging into a can of beans on a grassy on-ramp or in the open door of a rolling box car than sitting in a safe and predictable restaurant.  When I wrote in my journal at the end of a day on the road, my thoughts had apparently crystallized around each can of sardines, my yearning to be a great writer and thinker notwithstanding.  Nowadays, it seems, inspiration dawns in the face of navigating an icy sidewalk or bracing against a bitter wind as I walk to work in the morning. 

Last week I made an appointment with my car guy to heed a bothersome warning light and to get a long overdue tune up.  I had procrastinated for many more days than I should have due to the fact that, in scheduling this, I was consigning myself to being car-less.  My erratic and often late night schedule made this a less than enticing prospect, especially in light of the fact that my mechanic has relocated to East Shit Creek, three progressively more remote bus connections from where I work and live.   Add to this the fact that it’s winter and curb time takes on a special bone chilling appeal.  I know I’m a wimp to bemoan this fact, but what can I say, I’m the guy who wrote about baked beans instead of Banff.

Of course on the morning of my appointment there was a snow storm.  Undaunted I arose, looked out the window at the gathering snow, and made the decision to fully accept my plight. This was, and always is, a smart move in that it allowed me to abandon ambivalence about what needed to be done, and therefore, to be prepared.  I dressed for the coldest case scenario with my heaviest gloves and scarf.  I brought an umbrella.  

Upon arriving at the garage I had a perfunctory conversation with Rob the mechanic, who would soon have six hundred of my dollars, handed him the key, and headed out into the storm.  Stepping away from my placental Honda I felt a tug of anxiety, but also the energetic lift which comes from stepping, even slightly, off the grid of routine.  Rob had somewhat guiltily mentioned that buses didn’t run too often on this line and after about 20 minutes of stamping down snow and peering down the road looking for the #33, my enthusiasm began to fade. 

While we were crossing Canada, taking a bus anywhere smacked of giving up.  It was a last ditch option of which we never availed ourselves.  If we’d wanted to take public transportation across the continent we’d have purchased a ticket.  Adventure was the point.  Contact.  Hitch hiking put you at the mercy of which ever lunatic decided to pull over and let you into their car (and often into their thoughts as well) but it was empowering too.  Vast resources of fortune were on tap with a simple flash of one's thumb.  Of course nowadays it’s "too dangerous" to hitch hike.  Back in 1969 it was still considered safe.  Being adolescents we were not exactly reliable  judges of what was or wasn’t safe, but the fact that all of our parents had given this trip, and that mode of transportation, their blessing seemed to make it so. 

Now, as frigidity set in, the fact that I'd narrowed my options to one indeterminate bus began to feel onerous.  Certainly there were other possibilities to get from point A to point B.  People were driving cautiously because of the storm, affording me the opportunity to get a better look at them as they passed, and they at me.  I must have seemed a sympathetic character, standing there with my blue canvas bag over my shoulder and my umbrella over my head, a middle aged Mary Poppins just waiting for a gust of human kindness.  And each of them seemed to have a little Bert in them as well.  Aw hell!  I stuck out my thumb.   Its gotta be OK to hitch hike again; it’s the age of Obama.  Possibilities buried for decades under the ice and snow of stupidity and greed are peeking out from underneath snow banks everywhere.  Decorate the sidewalk and I'm all over it baby!

Call me naive, but I got a ride.