Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

Harvey and the Lionel Trains

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I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth
I think I’m returning to those days
When I was young enough to know the truth
Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more electric trains, no more trees to climb
Thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win

–– Carol King

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Harvey, Arthur, and the 736 Berkshire

For Christmas in 1955, my father bought, set up and gave to my older brother an elaborate set of Lionel trains, tracks, and accessories.  

In our family photo albums, there is  just one photo of Harvey operating the trains, my brother Arthur looking on in gleeful fascination as the cast iron 736 Berkshire electric locomotive “steams” by; Just out of the frame,  circles of chemical-pellet induced smoke are puffing out of its little smokestack.

In the 1950s, Lionel trains were the quintessential under-the-tree expression of America’s post-war prosperity.   The Lionel Corporation had found a way to flourish during the war, by retooling their assembly lines to manufacture servo motors for military equipment instead of electric motors for toy trains. Once the war ended, the company repurposed those servo motors in the first post-war generation of its marquee product.

Our family was sufficiently prosperous (the family business produced ceramic household tile at a plant in Keyport, New Jersey) that our parents could afford to give their kids the very best: that Berkshire locomotive with its smoke puffing stack and whistling coal car was top-of-the-line, but that was just the start of the layout. Arrayed within the circle of tracks were equally high-end accessories:

– A cattle loader with a vibrating surface that propelled little rubber “cattle” into a plastic cattle car;

– A milk car with a solenoid-powered mechanism that ejected little metal milk cans onto a little metal platform.  The milk cans were cleverly made with a tiny magnet underneath so that they would stick to the metal platform when they came flying out of the milk car and not fall over;

– The log loader that carried wooden dowels up a conveyor belt and dumped them on to the waiting “log car” below;

– A light tower with a red-and-blue beacon that rotated just from the heat rising from the little lightbulb within;

There were several crossing gates and switch tracks to reroute the train from one circuit to another.  It was all very elegant – lavish, even – and no doubt very costly, but the Schatzkin family could easily afford it.

All of this mid-century amusement was mounted atop an 8×8 foot table that was actually two standard 4×8 plywood sheets to which my father – an amateur carpenter of sorts who kept an extensive wood shop in our basement – had added a strip of smooth molding around the edges and then clipped the two sheets together with brass hooks.  The whole assembly lay atop two folding aluminum tables which were also de-riguer household items in the 50s.

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Engineer Arthur at the throttle

For that Christmas, the trains were set up in a (more typical 50s) wood-paneled room behind the living room that was called “the playroom.”  There is only one other photo of the trains in our family albums;  In it you can see 7-year-old Arthur gingerly pushing the throttle forward on the state-of-the-art transformer.  You can also see some of the accessories that came with the trains.

After Christmas, the trains were taken down and reassembled in the basement.  I honestly don’t remember a whole lot about them after that.  What do you want from me, I was only five years old and this was all more than 60 years ago…

But I do remember that one morning in 1956 or ’57, the whole set up just disappeared.

*

In later years, our mother would occasionally tell the story of what happened to the electric trains.

One night, the story goes, my parents went to a dinner party at the home of the Connie and George Selby (their their actual name was Seligman but  at some point in the 50s they Anglicized it to “Selby” – my parents suspected they wanted a name that didn’t sound so… well… Jewish).

George Sr. went by the nickname of “Dink,” so – dumb as it sounds – we’ll just call him that.  Dink and Connie had a son, George Jr., who was Arthur’s age.  They also had an elaborate Lionel train set in their basement.  I have some vague memories of seeing the Seligman/Selby’s trains, and of being envious of how much more intricate their layout was compared to ours.  There were multiple trains navigating through realistic scenery, the tracks rising and falling through multiple levels on plastic trestles. Maybe this is how the Jews kept up with the Joneses in mid-50s surbubia – with dueling Lionel train sets; the gentile neighbors who lived on either side of our house all had Lionel trains, too.

The way my mother told the story, they were George Jr.’s trains but… Dink didn’t really let his son play with them.  Dink ran the show and George Jr. was pretty much relegated to watching the trains go by.

The spectacle of a 30-something-year-old man commandeering his nine year old son’s electric trains was enough to send my father into a fit of pique.

And so, the story goes, my father came home that night so incensed that he went straight into the basement and dismantled the entire Lionel layout that he had set up for Arthur, and stuffed everything – the locomotive, the coal car, the milk car, the cattle car, the transformer and all the accessories – into a cabinet. The next morning he announced that  “if you want to play with the trains, you’ll have to put them back together yourself…”

Which my brother never did.

The Lionels stayed dismantled and stashed in the cabinet in the basement where my father put them for several years.

They still hadn’t come out of those cabinets when Harvey died in the fall of 1958.  He was 37.  Arthur was 10.  I was 7.  Our little sister was 4-1/2.

Fast forward with me now,  all the way to 1959:

ca. 1960, photo by Monroe Edelstein

ca. 1960, photo by Monroe Edelstein

I’m in the third grade and for some reason that I will never recall I went down to the basement and  got my father’s Lionel trains out of the cabinet where he had left them. Without any instruction or coaching I put the tracks together and connected all the wires and for the first time in years the Monmouth Avenue Railroad was running again.  Hey, look, there’ the old 736 Berkshire, and the milk car and the cattle car and the log loader, and the crossing gates, and the little blue plastic man popping out of his miniature green-and-red gate house, swinging his little plastic lantern…

After that, the trains became “my thing” until we moved from Rumson to Maplewood in the spring of 1962.  Before that move, my mother hired a noted photographer to come to our house to make portraits of the family. The photographer asked what I was interested in and I showed him the trains in the basement.  He posed me with that cast iron locomotive.

*

I told my therapist parts of this story last week.

We talk a lot about my father.

More than anything my father longed for a creative life.  Like me, he was a writer and a photographer, but he spent his (short) career making tile for kitchens and bathrooms.  He was never published – unless you count the time that a letter he wrote to Macy’s was used for an ad in the New York Herald Tribune – but I’ve got a trove of his comic short stories in my basement that are still funny.

Almost 60 years after he departed from this planet, I still wonder how my life might have been different if he’d stuck around – at least long enough to see that <I> was the one who was destined to play with his electric trains.

I think he would have approved.  And we would have had something to bond over, at least for a few years.

My mother often said of my father that “you were just getting to an age where he could do things with you…” when cancer dispatched his 37-year-old soul.  I have only a handful of actual memories of him.   One, in particular:

It’s October, 1955.  I’m four, not quite five years old. The Russians have just beaten the US into space with the launch of Sputnik, Earth’s first man-made moon.  One cold autumn night, my father took me – just me – out to the nearby high school football field to see if we could spot Sputnik wandering among the stars.  We  never did see the satellite, but the moment left an impression that remains vivid to this day.  Now every time I look up at the stars… I’m back on that football field with my father.

I wish he could have been around for the moon landing in 1969.  I think we might have watched it together. Oh, sure, there was a lot of other stuff going on at the time; I shudder to think what he, a World War II veteran, would have thought of his sons’ resistance to the draft and the war in Vietnam.  And then I think: Maybe it is fitting that only the good die young. That way we never have pictures of them as angry, bitter old men yelling at us from the other side of the “generation gap.”

And I remember when I showed my mother my first personal computer in 1979.  As I showed her how I could enter text and then wipe it off the screen with a single press of the “delete” key,  she said, “your father would have loved this…”   Really.  He was what we now call a gadget freak.  From Lionel trains to computers… we would have had that much in common.

*

I have been struggling of late with the whole idea of… approval.  Of claiming and manifesting my creative instincts.  And trying to not feel undeservedly pretentious about saying even that.

Creative types.  We’re wired differently.  And we go through life seeking validation and approval from – ironically – the more conventionally wired.  I have spent my entire life doubting my creative instincts, even when they are clearly manifest.  Like every writer (?) I finish one thing and wonder if there’s anything left.  It hasn’t helped that my greatest success as a writer was followed by my most disappointing failure.  Is it any wonder that infinite doubt ensues?

There was an odd little series on Netflix this year called “The OA”  that, among other things, addressed the theme of the “invisible self.” In an early episode, the principle character, a young woman named Prairie, cautions a companion to be gentle with his own inner forces:

“You don’t want to go there,” Prairie cautions, “until your invisible self is more developed anyway. You know, your longing, things you tell no one else about?”

All this business about my father and his electric trains came up when I was telling my therapist that lately I, too have been feeling… invisible.  It seems at times that I am just unwilling or unable to inhabit my own soul.   Like there is some creature inside me that I am the only one who can see – and not altogether clearly at that.  And that the people around me – even the people closest to me – want to reflect back on me… not my invisible self, but theirs.

giant_of_the_rails02And the soul recedes.

I realize it’s mostly pointless at this point in my life, but still I can’t help but wonder: If my father had been around to see me set up and run those electric trains…. would he have approved? Would he have seen a reflection of himself, and in that reflection beamed back a glimpse of the invisible me?  Maybe that glimpse, however brief and fleeting, might have provided enough recognition and approval that I wouldn’t still be longing for it 60 years later.  His validation in that moment could have left a lasting impression, much like that cold night when a young father and his little boy scanned the heavens for a dot of light drifting among the stars.

*

When my family moved in the spring of 1962, the trains were dismantled again and packed into a box. Never mind that I didn’t get to pack the box; I was at summer camp when the family moved – but hat’s whole other story.

Once I arrived at the new house, I don’t think I ever took the trains out of the box.  By then my interests had shifted: I wanted slot cars,  and my parents – that would be my mother and her new husband, aka my stepfather – told me I couldn’t have both.  We sold the Lionels to a family from Newark for all of $75.

I’m sorry, Daddy.  I don’t have your Lionels any more.  But I still wish you had been around when I started playing with them.

*

What I Am Not Going To Say
At My AA Meeting Today

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I’m going to go to my AA “Home Group” this morning. This is what I probably will not “share” with the meeting:

Hi, I’m Paul and I’m an alcoholic.

I feel compelled to  say something today that’s going to sound like AA heresy. But I feel like I have to speak my truth here even if it means becoming the first person to ever be excommunicated from AA…

I don’t really know but one or two of you here, so most of you have know way of knowing what a tough time I’ve been having over the past year. My wife decided last – well, it’s been almost a year now – that she needs to live in Portland Oregon, where her two adult sons and her now  one-and-a-half year old granddaughter live.  And as you can see, I am not in Portland, Oregon. I have been to Portland at least a dozen times since ‘the kids’ moved there in the early ‘aughts, but I’ve never felt like I’ve wanted to live there. After more than two decades, I’m rooted here.

Welcome to Portland!

Welcome to Portland!

And as a recovering alcoholic myself, it’s hard to fathom how I am going to live in a city that greets you getting off the plane with a huge sign that says “Give In To Beer.”

Thursday night, I learned that a dear friend had died this week, most likely from complications of alcoholism. He was only a year older than I am. I think that news kinda put me over the edge…

Which brings me to yesterday. Yesterday was a day off from a new job that I got last summer which has absolutely been my salvation over the past 6 months. I like the work, it truly takes me out of myself and makes me a better person than I am when when I’m by myself. But sometimes the days off are challenging because, well, there’s nobody to talk to.

Yesterday, I felt knots in my stomach, that spinning wheel of loneliness and sadness, fear and despair. As I said later to my sponsor, I was having a tough day…

In the middle of the day, I made some calls and sent out some texts, to see if there was somebody in my orbit who could meet me for lunch or coffee. All those overtures came up empty. People are busy.

At one point, I was driving around town and started thinking, “maybe what I need is a meeting…” I had no idea where there was one in the middle of the day on a Friday. I was in town, driving around, and thought about going over to ‘202,’ but… I just couldn’t quite convince myself to do that, either. It wasn’t until later in the day that I fully realized why.

I didn’t go to 202 for the same reason that I don’t go to more AA meetings like this one: because I really dislike the whole format and structure of these gatherings.

A couple of years ago I ran across a TED talk by a Scandinavian counselor named Johann Hari that talked about the antidote to addiction being not just abstinence but connection.

Connection. That is what I was longing for  yesterday. And sadly it is not what I get at these meetings. I don’t really get a meaningful level of connection and engagement from sitting through an hour of extemporaneous  3 minute monologues. And I really don’t like the unstated pressure to be witty and profound if and when I take my own turn to ‘“share.”

So mostly I come to these meetings, sit in silence, and hope I get to hold a girl’s hand when when we all stand up to recite the Lord’s Prayer (which I usually don’t actually recite.  It’s a Jesus prayer and I’m a Jew.).

I know that the whole “no cross talk” structure of these meetings is essential to their decorum. But jeezus, sometimes what you really need is to actually talk to somebody.  The absence of dialog defeats my whole purpose of being here.  It actually makes me feel more isolated when what I need is something… not superficial. When I need the give and take of an actual conversation.

In the realm of recovery, I know that I’m one of the very lucky ones. The compulsion to drink or smoke or sniff (my primary drug of choice for nearly 20 years was pot; thank god I never got in to heroin or crack…) completely left me after, I dunno, somewhere between 30 and 60 days. That was back in 1987 – 29+ years ago – so I don’t really remember. I just know that there are a lot of recovering alcoholic types who struggle with the compulsion every day. That’s why the program insists that recovery is “One Day At A Time.” So I know that I am among the most fortunate of recovering ‘polyholics.’

What I’m trying to say here is: when I’m feeling isolated and alone – the very conditions that might spark a round of drinking if my sobriety was not as strong as it is – the last thing I need in the world is to sit in a hard chair feeling like a lame loser because I’m not to going to be as entertaining as the guy who “shared” before me or the woman who will share after me.  But that’s the structure. And I sometimes I just fucking hate it.

I come to these meetings because they give me the opportunity to at least experience and be grateful for – if not actually “share” – my sobriety, and the fact that I because I quit sipping, sniffing and puffing nearly 30 years ago, I am still living – even it that presently means struggling with some of the most difficult choices I have ever had to face.

I have an “altar” of sorts in my home on which rest photographs of my ancestors, and also the photographs of several friends whose lives were cut short by their addictions. I have another photo to add to that collection now.

But jeezus, sometimes you just want to talk to somebody. Sometimes you just need a hug.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know damn well that I would not be alive today had I not started going to AA meetings back in 1987.   And I come to meetings so that I don’t take that gift of sobriety for granted.

But yesterday, I needed something else.

OK, I guess my three minutes are up.

Thanks for listening.

RobinWilliams

Where’d Paul Go??

Jesus is Coming!

I can’t really know if anybody besides me has been asking that question, but if you’re one of the regulars around here (the numbers may not be legion, but the affection is sincere…) you may have been wondering why the frequency of posts to this site dropped off dramatically in the second half of last year (2016).

At least, I hope somebody noticed, and even if nobody did notice, I’m going to attempt to explain the absence.

So, where did Paul go?

He sorta went into hiding for awhile. His innate tendency to be reclusive and withdrawn when things “go all pear-shaped” got the better of him for several months.

Or, rather, maybe, he just had the wind kicked out of him, and he’s been trying to catch his breath.

Or maybe he’s been thrown into the middle of a lake and is treading water, trying to figure which shore to swim to.

Yeah, that’s it. Treading water.

Chalk it all up to disruption on a personally cosmic scale.

– – – – – – –

I remember exactly when the fabric of my universe started to tear: April 29, 2016.

Ann and I were in Portland, Oregon. She got back in the car and said,

“They want me to start August 1st.”

At that moment, the Big Bang Theory went into full reverse and my Universe started to implode….

Read More

Playing The Hand We’ve Been Dealt

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Friday October 28, 2016

I’ll finish my second cup of coffee
then toast a bagel
so that I’m not hungry
when I fire up
the old red truck
(which rolled off the assembly line
while Harry Truman was President)
and head down
to Pegram City Hall
to vote.

Yes,
I’m going to vote
for Hillary.

Surprised?

Despite all my reservations
despite my concerns
that the a vote for Her
is a vote for Corporate Oligarchy
is a vote for a status quo
that is clearly not serving
some significant portion of the populace
– white, rural (my peeps!)
– urban under-educated (we love the under-educated!)
those “salt of the earth” types
for whom Donald-fucking-Trump
seems like a viable alternative
when what he really represents
is …
(was it Michael Moore who said this?)
… a Molotov Cocktail
that the proles can throw
into the Palace of the Establishment.

As in:
Here, take THIS
you game-rigging
East Coast
Ivy Leaguers.
Suck on this
flaming bottle of rage.
#Her2016?
#Guillotines2020.

But when it comes down to
actually pulling a lever
as much as I would like to
#CrushTheDuopoly
it ain’t gonna happen.
At least, not this year.

This year, we have to
hold our nose
swallow our idealistic pride
just do what we can
to keep (what’s left of?)
a once bold experiment
together.

Or do what Bernie says we should do.
Or as Andrew Sullivan said
just grow-the-fuck-up
and do what has to be done.

It’s unfortunate for Hillary, I guess
that the climate around her ascension
is so toxic.

It’s unfortunate, too,
that her life and career
have unfolded as they have
although had it been any different,

had she not entered the public arena
at the side of her charismatic husband
[compelling human interest story in the NYTimes this morning]
and then she had to pretty much stand by
while he self destructed
and then saddle herself
with all of that wreckage.

So you wonder
what it might have been like
if she’d emerged through some corridor
other than as Bill’s spouse
but that’s pointless speculation.

We’re all here to play
the hand that we’ve been dealt.

Sure, she’s got a lot of baggage
Who has lived on this planet
for nearly seven decades
and not accumulated
their share of shit?

(Certainly not
Donald-fucking-Trump
who has taken every day
of his 70 years to evolve
into a steaming sack
of human excrement)

But underneath it all
one occasionally gets a glimpse
of a genuinely exceptional
if equally flawed
flesh blood and bone
woman.

It’s hard to separate
the actual person
from all the mediated data points.
Who really knows
what she is really like?
I mean, who,
outside of her tight inner circle
if even them?

We’re certainly not going to get
any sense of that
from television, or – especially – the Internet
– that digital echo chamber
that does such a great job
of re-telling us what we already know.

We just have to play
the hand we’ve been dealt
and take some solace
in knowing that voices we respect
like Bernie
like Andrew
like Elizabeth Warren
are all in the same boat.

So I will dip my oar
in the swirling ocean of crazy
pull my solitary stroke
in Her direction,
hope she can steer us
to some shore of (relative) sanity,
and then pray that the polls
are reasonably accurate.

Otherwise….
Kool-Aide, anyone?

 

What Did He Just Say???

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So here’s what all the fuss is about...

This is 17 month old Juniper Rae, Ann’s first and quite possibly her only-ever grandchild.  She is the primary reason why Ann decided to pull up stakes and move to Portland back in July.

Sunday night, we all – Ann and I, eldest son James, younger son Robert, Rob’s wife Melissa and Juniper – all tuned into the professional verbal wrestling match aka “The Presidential Debate” btw Hillary and Drumpf.

Her parents don’t let Juniper have a lot of screen time, and she doesn’t see much TeeVee, so this was an exception.  But as you can tell from her expression, even a 1-year-old can look at Trump and wonder whatthefuck just came out of his incoherent noise hole.

Oh, and I have to put a dollar in the “swear jar” for saying “fuck.”  Actually, I put in two dollars.  Figured I may as well pay in advance for the next one…

The Beatles: Eight Days A Week

The Beatles at Shea Stadium - August 15, 1966

This past Thursday night I attended the sold-out opening screening of “Eight Days A Week” – director Ron Howard’s ode to The Beatles that focuses primarily on their touring years, from 1962-1966.

It is hard now not to think of The Beatles as anything other than a phenomenon – Beatlemania! – and an iconic force of musical nature.  They were all of those things, but what this movie so effectively reminds us – as John Lennon famously said somewhere in the “Beatles Anthology” – is that they were “just a band.”

But oh my, what a band…

With vintage photos and film clips from the late 1950s and early 60s, “Eight Days A Week” shows us  four guys who grew up together (OK, maybe not so much Ringo, who joined The Beatles just as they started their recording career, but he shared their scrappy Liverpool origins).  It was essentially John’s band from the beginning, but part of his gift was his ability to recognize in Paul and George talent and ambition equal to his own.

The mission of the documentary is to trace the full arc of their years as a touring band:  from the clubs of Hamburg were their sound was forged, to the Cavern Club in Liverpool where they found their audience, and eventually around the world, where their concerts were drowned out by screaming fans.  Throughout the arc we are watch as the role “pop music” in the cultural firmament is transformed in front of our eyes and ears.

But the full power and sheer artistry of The Beatles is more fully conveyed in the 30 minutes of concert footage that follows the documentary.

Here are The Beatles in a truly epic setting: Shea Stadium in New York – the first performance of their final tour in 1966.  They dash out on the field and climb atop a stage that looks like a boxing ring erected over second base, in the middle of the vast expanse of a baseball field, 50 yards away from the nearest fan, some 56,000 of whom are screaming their heads off through the entire show.

Still,  you can’t help but be impressed with the quality of the performance.  The set includes both covers and originals, opening with “Twist and Shout” and ending with “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help.” Showing the complete concert after the documentary is its own tour-de-force; it reminds us what the phenomenon was really about: the sheer power of skilled musicianship, the intensity of accomplished artistry.

The documentary is a 90 minute setup; the concert footage is a 30 minutes payoff – the undeniable proof of everything postulated in the film.

Ron Howard’s film also reminds us just how much “Beatlemania” was a reflection of the times.  In America especially, The Beatles arrival in February 1964 was the medicine a grieving nation needed after the shock of the Kennedy assassination.  Their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show carved the opening cracks in what would eventually become the “Generation Gap.”  We are reminded of the tumultuous history that The Beatles were part of, from the conflagration in Vietnam to the Civil Rights movement.

One detail in the documentary that surprised me addressed the matter of race as it is uniquely experienced in America: The Beatles had a clause in their contracts that declared that they would not play for segregated audiences.  A voice over from Paul McCartney explains how foreign the whole idea of segregation and Jim Crow was to their experience in England.

Howard deftly gives all four Beatles nearly equal screen time for retrospective commentaries.   The surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo, appear on screen several times in their current incarnations; There are equal amounts of archival footage of John and George looking back on their years as Beatles.  Their commentaries lend a “Rashomon” like perspective to the whole experience.

The Beatles 1966 tour ushered in the era of the stadium concert – despite technology woefully suited for the purpose; George explains how Vox built amplifiers especially for this tour: “I think they were a hundred watts…” – and much of the audio was piped through the crackly stadium PA system: “Now playing at second base… The Beatles!”

I think it was Ringo who described the aftermath of what would history would record as The Beatles final live performance, the last concert of the 1966 tour at Candlestick Park in San Francisco:  After the show the band was raced out of the stadium grounds in what Ringo describes as “a meat wagon” – a bare metal armored police wagon, the kind that ferries convicts to prisons.  It was pretty much within those lurching steel confines that all four Beatles decided “we’re not going to do this any more…”

Freed from the demands of a touring schedule, The Beatles dedicate themselves to the studio.  There is footage from the EMI studio at Abbey Road of audio tape loops strung between tape machines… and then there is “Sergeant Pepper.”

From there the documentary quickly traces the remainder of The Beatles recording career: 5 albums in three years, from “Magical Mystery Tour” to the “White Album,” “Abbey Road” and the “posthumously” released “Let It Be” (which was released after the band announced its demise early in 1970).

The movie ends with  the most footage I have ever seen from The Beatles last-ever ‘concert’ – that day in January 1969 when they set up on the roof of the Apple Corps headquarters in London and played to the people on the street below.  It’s more than three years since the last time they performed “live” together, and the footage proves, once and for all that The Beatles were still, and always were, a great fucking band.

*

“Eight Days A Week Is” playing at The Belcourt.  Info and tickets here.  It will also be released to streaming video via Hulu next week. A subscription will be required. So go see it in a theater with good surround sound.

What Ever Happened to
The Age of Aquarius?

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The Oracle of Facebookistan has reminded me that this week is Woodstock Anniversary Week.  It’s some odd anniversary, like 47.

I have already composed and posted my recollections and reflections on the subject.

This is an excerpt from a book (or maybe it’s a one-man show?) that I was working on earlier this year.  I kinda hit a wall with it, and then life happened. I’ll get back to it one of these days…

Whatever Happened To The Age of Aquarius? 

That’s the first of three installments, just follow the links at the bottom of each to get to the next.

How To Shooting Star

perseids

As I mentioned yesterday on Facebook, I’ve been chasing the Perseid Meteor Shower since 1973.

That was the summer I drove across the country, after getting a diploma (I would use the term ‘graduated,’ but only loosely…) from Antioch College (I’d  attended made-up classes at a branch campus in Columbia, MD. Remember, 1973 was still the 60s…).

I’d thrown a few things into the back of my 1966 VW Squareback (affectionately named “Duck” and sporting a Daffy Duck decal on the front fenders) and headed off to seek my fortune in Hollywood.  I’d done some “guerrilla video” in college and figured it was time to see how real TeeVee was made, so off I went, taking three weeks to get from the east coast to the west.

Along the way I stopped at the Vagabond Ranch outside of Granby, Colorado, at the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park.  I’d spent two summers there when I was 14 and 15 years old.  Those might have been the best summers of my life.  Vagabond wasn’t a “dude” ranch, but it was run as a Western-themed summer camp by a couple from Connecticut,  Charlie and Ronnie Pavek.

Not very many people nowadays remember “Spin & Marty” – a short movie series that Walt Disney ran as part of “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 50s;  It was about a city kid (Marty) who got sent to a western ranch where he got to ride horses and friend up with a cowboy kid named “Spin.”  That’s about as much as I remember about the series, but it was always my frame of reference; I still tell people that I spent two summers in the mountains of Colorado, “acting out my ‘Spin & Marty’ fantasies.

For the four summers before Vagabond, my parents sent me for two months at a time to a ‘sleep over’ camp in Maine called Kennebec – a sports driven, competitive environment inhabited mostly by affluent Jewish kids from the Northeast.  That’s where I spent the summer of 1962 being tormented by an 11-year-old monster named Jeffrey Katzenberg (the name might be familiar?).  But that’s a story for another time.

I never exactly excelled at sports; I could hold my own at tennis and I was an OK sailor, but the first time another kid threw a hardball at my head (he wasn’t aiming at me, he was just 11 years old and it’s not like he had any control…) I knew I was never gonna be a baseball player.

Basically, sports suck when you suck at sports.

Vagabond was the exact opposite of Kennebec.  There were almost NO sports.  Instead, I spent the summers mostly riding horses in the mountains.  Unlike Camp Kennebec, I have nothing but fond memories of Vagabond Ranch.  I even recall with some distant fondness the night I spent shivering under a tarp in the rain at 11,000 feet; and my favorite horse, a red mare named “Strawberry.”  She could be tough to catch in the coral, but once saddled Strawberry was a soft and responsive ride.

So that summer of 1973, I made my way across the country, alone in my little VW – Niagara Falls, the The Great Northern Plains, The Badlands, The Black Hills, The Crazy Horse Monument – I stopped at the Vagabond Ranch and said hello to the Pavek’s.

I must have gotten there the night of August 11  –because that night all the campers were taken out to a meadow to lie on their sleeping bags and watch the Perseid Meteor Shower.  I’d never heard of the Perseids before that.  But once I saw them – probably 2 or 3 shooting stars every minute – I was hooked.  I’ve tried to see the Perseids almost every year since.

The flier my then-future-ex-wife Georja Skinner made for the Perseids cruise we ran in August of 1982.

The flyer my then-future-ex-wife Georja Skinner made for the Perseids cruise we ran in August of 1982.

Probably the best I ever saw the Perseids was from a few miles off shore from Lahaina, Maui, in the summers of between 1981 and 1992.

From Lahaina, you start out 70-some nautical miles from Honolulu, the nearest big city; once you get a few miles offshore there’s little impact from the lights of Maui.  The sky is ink black and there are stars by the bazillions.   The years we went out on the boat, we probably did see 60-100 shooting stars every hour (but not every minute!)

In the summer of 1999, I went back to Vagabond Ranch with my then-future-and-still-second-wife Ann.  The Ranch was no longer owned by the Pavek’s (who were no longer living) but was owned the family of Richard Kelly,  the owners of – how’s this for irony?–  a large hotel chain in Hawaii. Since the Kellys only  visited the Ranch occasionally, the caretakers of the property, Mark and Jane Bujanovich, welcomed us to stay a few nights and we watched the Perseids with them.  I’d forgotten how cold even a mid-August night can get at 8,000 feet…

It has been harder to see the Perseids since I’ve been living in Nashville, but almost every year when there’s been a waning or new moon, we’ve tried.  Last year we went out to Bell’s Bend.  This year I went out to the Natchez Trace and set up my camera with my photo-buddy Ken Gray.

*

So this is how you shoot a shooting star: you drive as far away from the city as possible. The Natchez Trace Parkway outside of Franklin, TN is only one order of magnitude-of-light-polution less than Nashville and its environs, but it’s a decent night sky.

You start at about 11 PM.  You set your camera on a tripod with a remote control shutter release.  You aim the camera at a dark corner of the sky with the widest-angle lens in your bag (in my case a 14mm equivalent) to cover as much of the sky as possible,  and set the shutter to open for  15-30 seconds with the aperture wide open at a fairly high ISO, like 1600.  The 15-30 seconds is long enough to get an exposure from the star field, and you hope that the high-ISO is enough to capture the fleeting light of a hot grain of cosmic dust as it streaks across the frame.

After that, it’s entirely random.  So you open a folding camp chair, sit down, and just start releasing the shutter, over and over again, until something streaks across the sky while the shutter is open,

And then you apply the one tool that you will not find in any camera bag: abundant patience.   A little luck helps, too.

In this case, I shot about 100 frames, between roughly 11PM and 2 AM.

This was yet another year when the coming of the Perseids was touted as going to be the most dazzling display in memory.  That’s what they say every year.  But every year… enh. Not so much.

I exposed frame after frame after frame, but for more than two hours, nothing happened in the frame.  Once exposed, the camera takes as long to save the file as the shutter was open – 15 or 30 seconds.  Several times, that’s when something blazed across the frame. But for as long as I was out there, it was less like 2 or 3 every minute and more like 1 every two or three minutes.

As 2:AM approached… I finally got one.  After that, it’s like fishing.  You get one… you want another.  It did seem like the activity was picking up a little, an so I kept releasing the shutter.  Slightly after 2AM, I got one more, a little better than the first.  That’s the one at the top of the post.

And then I drove home.

So that’s how you shoot a shooting star.  You go out in the wee hours of the morning. And you wait.  And then you wait some more.  And when you’re finally ready to give up… you get one.

Forty-plus years I’ve been chasing the Perseids.  That’s the first I ever got a picture of one.

But regardless of the actual number, every Perseid Meteor or see is filled with the memories of a lifetime of shooting stars.

Don’t Try This At Home

FullSizeRender 42

This is a story about how being a jerk can actually pay off.

I went to the Container Store in the Green Hills Mall yesterday because it is Nashville’s only retail source for Moleskine notebooks. While I generally avoid having/doing anything quite so trendy, I had decided Moleskines are as good a bound journal as any, so I  went to get one.

I walked into the Container Store and my first impulse was to find an employee and ask “where are the Molekines?”

Good luck with that…

There was not an employee anywhere to be found  in the vicinity of the entrance, or on the whole upper floor.  I could tell just by looking around  the first floor (which is relatively small area compared to the rest of the store which is the floor below) that the Moleskine display was not going to be on that floor, so I took the escalator down to the main floor.

The escalator opens to a large open area in the center of the main floor.  There are cashier counters in the center of area.  But, again, there was not a sole to be found – except for some other customers who seemed equally baffled at their inability to find any personnel to help them.

I felt like I’d stepped into some television show where only the employees had been swept up in the Rapture.  I figured the next scene would be customers helping themselves and just walking out of the store…

Just in case I was wrong about that, and being the incorrigibly obnoxious person that I often default to, I just shouted, quite loudly and to nobody in particular,

“DOES ANYBODY WORK HERE?!?!”

And of course, at just that instant  a young man appeared from amid the the aisles and stacks in a regulation black t-shirt – rather shocked that anybody would actually conduct themselves that way, and equally embarrassed that a customer had found it so difficult to get help that he seemingly had no recourse but to ask for it at the top of his lungs.

Quickly and efficiently, the young man asked what I needed and directed to the Moleskine display. After a few minutes of deliberation I decided which notebook I was going to buy. The task was made slightly more difficult than it needed to be because all of the products on display were hermetically sealed in plastic wrap, making it impossible to see what the pages inside actually looked like.  But I managed to figure it out.

Ah, retail… This is why I buy almost everything except groceries from Amazon.

I made my selection and rode the escalator back to the upper floor to the only cashier that was open and waited my turn in line (another one of my least favorite features of bricks-and-mortar shopping).  The couple I’d seen downstairs that was as perplexed for help as I was in front of me.  They paid for their stuff – a variety of big plastic containers – and then it was my turn.

I put the Moleskine down on the counter and reached for my wallet.  I had my credit  card out and was all set to pay my $20 for the notebook…

…when the young man who had magically appeared downstairs when I started yelling like a crazy person magically appeared again, behind the counter.  He waved off the cashier, then picked the Moleskine off the counter and handed it to me and said “we’re good…” – in other words, giving me the notebook and not charging me for it.

I certainly didn’t see that coming.

I was sufficiently surprised that I did not fully register what else he said. He might have said “I hope you have a better experience the next time you’re in the store.”

Or he might have said “Please don’t ever come back…”

In some kind of bemused shock,  I ambled out of the Container Store with a free Moleskine notebook, wondering how exactly being such a jerk had produced such a seemingly worthwhile result.

And figuring that I would tell the story and end it with the hashtag

#Don’tEncourageMe 

Photo Challenge #4: John Jarvis

Somewhere in there... John Jarvis at the keyboard

So much for seven photos in seven days…

I’m really not sure how much to say about this one.

I said when I started posting this series last week that I was going to dig around for some files that had not previously seen the light of day.  This is one of those.

About two years ago I got a call to photograph a recording session for one of Nashville’s A-list players, who was making an album with some of the world’s also top, A-List players – most of whom I was not entirely familiar with though I probably should have been.

This is probably my favorite shot from the session… somewhere in there, the renown keyboard player John Jarvis is adding a melody to a track.

I got a lot of great photos of the sessions, but something went haywire.  I turned in the photos… and never heard from the client again.

Probably the less said about that… the better.