Monday, August 31, 2009

And then there was one

My older son is getting married on Saturday. He is eager to make this great change in his life. My younger son might not realize it but he too will face a change: after Saturday my younger son will be known as the unmarried one, the one lacking a wife.

It is discouraging to be defined by one's deficiencies and described by "un" words. For instance, if I look at the words beginning with "una", I see that my New World Dictionary lists twelve clearly negative words: unable, unaccomplished, unadventurous, unadvised, unambitious, unAmerican, unappealing, unappetizing, unappreciative, unapt, unattractive, and unaware. (To avoid clouding the issue, I do not include the possible disparaging use of the word "unau", the two-toed sloth of South America.) The dictionary only lists three clearly positive words: unaffected, unafraid, and unassuming.

I hope my younger son faces his new status unafraid. (Not to meddle, but if Heaven should some day present him with a nice girl, there's no point in being unappreciative.)

Father of the Groom

My older son is getting married on Saturday. This places me in the role of Father of the Groom, no audition required. Unlike the role of Father of the Bride, which provides much dramatic suspense (Will he give her away or will he keep her?) and even cinematic acclaim (cf. Spencer Tracy in 1950 and Steve Martin in 1991), my little role has no lines and few defined activities apart from looking cheerful and keeping out of the way. And so, my aspiration is to be the kindly old gent in the silent movies who smartly follows the director's orders to sit here, stand there, or smile for the camera.

The Father of the Groom serves a minor ceremonial function, much like a plain stone pedestal beneath a festive bouquet, and like the pedestal should not himself be an object of interest or attention. As all of my existing suits were likely to flout this dictum by provoking curiosity (Why would a man his age wear that?) or mirth (Didn't seersucker suits go out with the Eisenhower administration?), I sought expert help from my clothier Vince, who steered me toward a quietly dignified black suit and away from my favorite: a dashing suit the color of sapphire-tinged charcoal. As Vince so succinctly put it: "When they take the wedding pictures, do you really want to be the old guy in the blue suit?"

No, indeed I don't. Thanks to Vince, I'll instead be the smiling old guy in the nice black suit.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Economics of the entry-level musician

My younger son has been playing in several bands that perform in humble (sometimes seedy, sleazy, or squalid) local clubs. These unheralded bands -- the music equivalent of catfish at the bottom of the great river of commercial entertainment -- hustle to get gigs as the opening act on an evening's program. The total pay is typically 50 dollars. For a quintet, this amounts to each band member receiving 10 bucks, enough money to cover gas and a burger at McDonald's.

To put these skimpy earnings in perspective, consider that a new set of strings for my son's violin costs 50 dollars. It makes one appreciate the irony that the word "gig" can refer to either a musical engagement or the spearing of a hapless fish.

Because a club pays by the performance, not by the number of players, the economics destabilize fledgling bands. A large band will tend to fission into duets and trios, which strike a more practical compromise between overall musical heft and the profit accruing to each player.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Clothes make the man

Tonight I took four large Hefty trash bags of my sons' old clothes to the Thrift Store. When I pulled up at the back of the building, the man taking donations gave my old Volvo a long look and probably pegged me as more of a Thrift Store consumer than a donor. (Actually, later I did purchase a rare 3-liter CorningWare casserole for my collection.)

The last trash bag had 14 shirts and sweaters. They came to America from all over the world:

Bangladesh (three)
Viet Nam
Sri Lanka
Pakistan (three)
Italy -- this was a nice wool sweater, probably a gift from somebody

The shirt from India had been imported under the "American Outpost" label. Okay, with all of the outsourcing, I suppose India can be considered a kind of American outpost.

The donated shirts were in fine condition; some looked brand new, as if my sons had declared them unstylish during the drive home from the clothing store and immediately relegated them to the back of the closet. My own wardrobe should look so good.

I have to adhere to the corporate "business casual" standard of apparel at work, but I dress down at home. And when I go for one of my long walks, I typically don clothes straight from Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath -- faded jeans, a red and white plaid shirt, and a straw hat that looks like I tried to bend it back into shape after sitting on it. When I walk downtown, this outfit serves as camouflage. None of the panhandlers recognize me as a middle-class sucker to be hit up for spare change. Instead, they see me as one of their own, they smile and say howdy, they ask me if I have a cigarette to spare. I have often thought about carrying a pack of cigarettes with me, just to be neighborly.

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley:

"When I was very young and the urge to be someplace was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.... In other words, I don’t improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum."

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Roller Coaster and the Lemonade

Saturday my younger son and I attended my company's picnic, held at a local amusement park. I indulged myself in a double portion of barbecue and many cups of lemonade. My next activity should have been to retire to a quiet, shady bench and enjoy a short nap. Instead, my son suggested that we ride the roller coaster. I agreed, putting aside misgivings about my stomach's ability to tolerate the swerving, swaying, and plunging.

We waited twenty minutes in line for the roller coaster. I was in no hurry. Every minute of waiting was an extra minute of digestion to help all the lemonade settle.

When my son and I arrived at the platform, I positioned us to board at the middle of the roller coaster. From high school physics long ago I vaguely remembered that the most severe g forces were experienced at either the front seats or the back seats, I couldn't remember which. The middle seemed the safest compromise.

The chain of cars arrived at the platform with whoops and hollers. The riders, mostly boisterous teenagers, hopped off. My son and I slid into our seats, buckled our seat belts, and pulled the restraining bars snug. I leaned to the side of the car, looked down at the tracks, and tried to determine my potential spray trajectory if things went bad. The back of my tightening throat was already burning with the sweet acid taste of lemonade.

The attendant did his safety check and gave the all clear. The cars jerked forward.


The cars plummeted and snapped into a tight turn. My stomach instantly clenched. I lunged for the side of the car and ejected a lemony spray. The cheers and shouts behind me changed to cries of dismay and howls of outrage.


The cars plummeted and snapped into a tight turn. I found myself laughing out loud, giddy as a schoolgirl. (A giddy schoolgirl had been placed in the car in front of me for purposes of comparison.) This is thrilling, I thought, as the roller coaster swooped down and around, racheted up, and then zoomed through a pitch-dark tunnel.

The roller coaster finished its run and eased back to the platform. The ride was a success: my son was in bright spirits and I myself was proud to be a successful lemonade container. Not one drop of my contents had been lost.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fancy Bricks

On a walk downtown I passed by a mural of ceramic animals. The mural was framed by the sculpted brickwork shown above. The facets and scallops cut into the bricks reminded me of wooden trim on an antique headboard.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Joseph Addison

When I meet people of discernment and literary taste, I often ask them the favor of recommending books suitable for my amusement or improvement. The English historian Thomas Macaulay anticipated my request by 166 years and recorded a recommendation for me in his book review on The Life of Addison (1843).

Macaulay urged me to seek out Joseph Addison's short essays in the Spectator, a forerunner of the modern literary periodical. The Spectator was delivered daily to London coffee houses during 1711 and 1712.

Macaulay considered Addison the greatest of the English essayists: "His best essays approach near to absolute perfection; nor is their excellence more wonderful than their variety. His invention never seems to flag; nor is he ever under the necessity of repeating himself, or of wearing out a subject. There are no dregs in his wine. He regales us after the fashion of that prodigal nabob who held that there was only one good glass in a bottle. As soon as we have tasted the first sparkling foam of a jest, it is withdrawn, and a fresh draught of nectar is at our lips."

Much of Addison's writing displays a gentle merriment. Here is a taste of his writing in a more serious vein, treading on hallowed ground with a graceful step, as he reflects on his visit to the tombs and monuments of Westminster Abbey. The first paragraph:

" When I am in a serious Humour, I very often walk by my self in Westminster Abbey; where the Gloominess of the Place, and the Use to which it is applied, with the Solemnity of the Building, and the Condition of the People who lye in it, are apt to fill the Mind with a kind of Melancholy, or rather Thoughtfulness, that is not disagreeable. I Yesterday pass'd a whole Afternoon in the Church-yard, the Cloysters, and the Church, amusing myself with the Tomb-stones and Inscriptions that I met with in those several Regions of the Dead. Most of them recorded nothing else of the buried Person, but that he was born upon one Day and died upon another: The whole History of his Life, being comprehended in those two Circumstances, that are common to all Mankind. I could not but look upon these Registers of Existence, whether of Brass or Marble, as a kind of Satyr upon the departed Persons; who had left no other Memorial of them, but that they were born and that they died. They put me in mind of several Persons mentioned in the Battles of Heroic Poems, who have sounding Names given them, for no other Reason but that they may be killed, and are celebrated for nothing but being knocked on the Head."

The last paragraph:

"I have left the Repository of our English Kings for the Contemplation of another Day, when I shall find my Mind disposed for so serious an Amusement. I know that Entertainments of this Nature, are apt to raise dark and dismal Thoughts in timorous Minds and gloomy Imaginations; but for my own Part, though I am always serious, I do not know what it is to be melancholy; and can, therefore, take a View of Nature in her deep and solemn Scenes, with the same Pleasure as in her most gay and delightful ones. By this Means I can improve my self with those Objects, which others consider with Terror. When I look upon the Tombs of the Great, every Emotion of Envy dies in me; when I read the Epitaphs of the Beautiful, every inordinate Desire goes out; when I meet with the Grief of Parents upon a Tombstone, my Heart melts with Compassion; when I see the Tomb of the Parents themselves, I consider the Vanity of grieving for those whom we must quickly follow: When I see Kings lying by those who deposed them, when I consider rival Wits placed Side by Side, or the holy Men that divided the World with their Contests and Disputes, I reflect with Sorrow and Astonishment on the little Competitions, Factions and Debates of Mankind. When I read the several Dates of the Tombs, of some that dy'd Yesterday, and some six hundred Years ago, I consider that great Day when we shall all of us be Contemporaries, and make our Appearance together."

The challenge of solo performance

I have been thinking lately about the ways that a solo music performer can sustain interest by continually shifting the audience's focus of attention. Yesterday I was able to refine my ideas by observing two solo acts at a local concert hall.

The opening act was a young singer/songwriter who accompanied himself on an acoustic guitar (that is to say, a guitar instead of an electric guitar). He was a capable singer and an excellent rock guitarist. He kept the audience interested by alternating between two states: 1) expressive vocals plus generic guitar accompaniment or 2) impressive guitar licks. This simple binary approach worked well except for times when he repeated lyrics or guitar licks too often. The audience must be given something new with each shift of focus from voice to guitar and back, or attention wanders.

During Bob Dylan's early career as a solo performer, he often maintained audience interest by alternating vocals with harmonica. He also managed to perform the more difficult feat of shifting the audience's attention from the lyrics being sung to the ideas provoked by the lyrics. This mental shift, which is the mark of true poetry, occurs for me in the first stanza of his song Blowin in the Wind:

"How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, an' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?"

At the mention of the white dove, my mind is instantly diverted to the memory of Noah's release of the dove in the Genesis account and associated ideas about the Flood and judgment. A less lofty mental shift is provided by the last two lines of the first stanza of Dylan's Desolation Row:

"They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row."

In this case, the shift is from being entertained by cryptic descriptions of a troubled society to having my mind captured by the perspective of the last two lines: in my imagination I picture a woman and myself watching the turmoil from a squalid outpost at the edge of town. The shift is between listening to clever words and entering into a story.

The second solo performer of the evening was a very polished entertainer whose specialty was playing the guitar by tapping directly on the fingerboard. He employed five approaches for maintaining audience interest.

1. Playing two musical lines on the guitar

For his first piece, he tapped out an intricate treble line with his right hand and added a syncopated bass line with his left. This virtuosity was impressive but became wearying to the audience if prolonged. He returned to this approach several times during his act.

2. Bringing in a second player

For about a third of the songs the guitarist abandoned his solo act and had a lady violinist accompany him.

3. Playing with looping software

On several songs the guitarist taped a line of music using looping software and then played a synthetic duet with himself. This was an interesting novelty at first but quickly palled.

4. Performing covers of well-known songs and having the audience sing along

This approach worked well. The audience's attention alternated between listening to the guitar and belting out the lyrics themselves.

5. Playing the guitar and singing

The guitarist evidently had little confidence in his vocal abilities and sang nothing during his act but one halfhearted attempt at a rap song. This fell flat.

* * *

It is a daunting challenge to keep an audience interested for a half hour or more. I admire any solo performer who takes up the challenge.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Be it ever so humble

I am now the patron, in every sense, of the young composer pictured above. In exchange for supplying him modest living accommodations, I receive the benefit of his insights on music, popular culture, and the intricacies of studio technology.

My living room formerly resembled a cross between a used book store and a garage sale. Now it resembles equal parts used book store, garage sale, music equipment warehouse, and sound studio.

The music of the 21st century is taking shape here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Dog-day Cicadas

The first photograph shows a cicada that visited my parents' porch. I placed the cicada on a newspaper and transported it to the sidewalk, where the light was more favorable for photography. The cicada bore this fuss with all the stolid passivity of a senior government bureaucrat. (The fuzziness of the image is due to my camera focusing incompetence rather than any high jinks on the part of the cicada.)

The second photograph is a cicada glamor shot from Wikipedia. The cicada, sensitive about its wide-set eyes, prefers to be photographed in profile.

My cicada is a member of the annual or "dog-days" cicadas. They appear in July and August every year. The annual cicada is considered commonplace and lacks the show-biz magic of the 17-year locust (dubbed Magicicada by star-struck biologists).

The cicada resembles a scaled-up mutant housefly. (This unnerves people who worry about the possibility of mutant bumble bees as big as sparrows or mutant grasshoppers as big as cowboy boots.) But we note, often by disparaging remarks, that the cicada lacks the housefly's acrobatic flying skills. "The cicada is slow and awkward," we sniff. Geometry makes all the difference. For a cicada that is ten times longer than a housefly, the cicada's wing area, increasing as the square of the length, is a hundred times that of the housefly. The body volume of the cicada, increasing as the cube of the length, is one thousand times that of the housefly. Therefore, the cicada should be expected to have ten times the difficulty in keeping its body airborne.

The cicada does the best it can. Any man of late middle age who attempts the somersaults of his childhood will soon understand the disadvantages that come with increased length and girth.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Vacation Wrapup

I will be driving back home tomorrow, so it's a good time to stop and take stock of my Davenport vacation.

I seem to have gained no profound insights this trip (at least not yet -- insights are sometimes slow to percolate up to the conscious mind), but I have the following humble observations to offer.

1. Social connections are valuable.

The value of relationships with friends and family was made clear to me at my high school reunion and again at my family reunion last Saturday. I noted that a fellow often spends the first part of his life emphasizing the distinctiveness of his abilities and attainments, while during the last part of his life his priorities shift toward his relationships with family and friends. (Women understand these things earlier and deeper than men.)

A great deal of fascinating history is preserved in family relationships. I visited my aunt in her nursing home before driving down to the family reunion. She used my grandmother's speech pattern of substituting "Them's" for "They are", as in "Them's good folks at the market." My mother remarked today that my grandmother's father was an Irishman who came out with the railroad construction in Iowa and Missouri during the late 1800s. A linguistic sociologist could probably trace the use of "Them's" back to the time of Irish immigration.

2. Home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, and green beans are wonderful.

My mother asked me if I was growing tired of eating tomatoes from the garden. I said no but admitted that it was hypothetically possible for me to tire of eating sweet, fresh tomatoes if I ate them every day until February. Therefore, if science ever develops a tomato that can grow under Iowa snowdrifts, I might have to face the danger of tomato boredom. (The odds of tomato boredom are similar to the odds of getting bored with dating Raquel Welch.)

3. Quietly watching the Mississippi river helps restore a healthy perspective of one's place in the universe.

4. Mustard supplies must not be neglected.

Today I went to the local Fairway grocery store and purchased five jars of Boetje's Stone Ground Dutch Mustard. It is an unwritten law that every expatriate Iowan must bring back a year's supply of this excellent brown mustard from Rock Island, Illinois.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Hitting the bricks

In my youth many of the Davenport streets were paved with Purington Pavers, which were reddish-brown bricks from the Purington Brick Co. of East Galesburg, Illinois. Davenport began paving its business streets with these "fire bricks" about 1890. Within twenty years there were 50 miles of Davenport streets paved with brick and asphalt according to the library's reference copy of Harry E. Downer's History of Davenport and Scott County, Iowa (1910).

I had a hard time finding a street paved with brick today. During the past forty years most of Davenport's brick streets have been blacktopped over. I had to go cruising around the poorer sections of Davenport adjacent to the old downtown area (and gathering some quizzical looks from the residents in the process) before I found two blocks of 5th Street that had the original brick paving. This part of 5th Street had been sacrificed to two sets of railroad tracks running down the middle of the street, leaving a narrow lane on each side. Evidently these narrow lanes presented such a tight squeeze for vehicles that they had not been worth the trouble to cover with concrete or blacktop. I went rumbling down the lane in my rental car, feeling the nostalgic vibration of tires on bricks.

I had a lot of fun with one particular brick street back when I worked in a Buick dealership as a summer job during my college years. Occasionally I was asked to take one of the Buick Skylarks down to a car wash that was located on a brick street. After the wash job, when the tires were still wet and soapy, I would get in the Skylark, look both ways, and then roar out onto the bricks. The car would fishtail like a frightened dolphin.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Memories of Frank Gruber

I took a walk yesterday to the former site of the gladiolus farm where I worked for two summers at the start of high school. The work had been strenuous, the pay minimal. Frank Gruber, the retired farmer who managed the day to day operations, maintained a pay scale for farm labor that had been frozen at 60 cents per hour since the 1950s.

My schoolmates the Wagner brothers and I would weed the acres of gladiolus plants by hand. Frank forbad us from wearing gloves for fear that we would yank up the sword-shaped gladiolus leaves along with the weeds. It took a week of blisters until our hands toughened up. Sometimes we would also be allowed to harvest the flowers. Frank would give us a water bucket to serve as a vase, knives, and a special knife sanitizing solution to avoid the spread of "white break", which was some kind of flower leprosy.

Frank's son Albert was the actual boss of the operation. Albert, a husky tool-and-die man with a statuesque knockout of a wife, might have seemed an unlikely flower grower. The story was that a schoolteacher had berated Albert in class for being ignorant of the gladiolus flower. This public humiliation spurred Albert to learn all that mankind has ever discovered about gladioli, to start his own gladiolus business supplying local florists, and to ultimately show championship glads at the State Fair. His floral career was an inspiring example of constructive overcompensation.

The Gruber family had diverse personalities. Albert was a serious man but would patiently answer any question you might have about the gladiolus flower. Frank was a talkative old German, always ready to tell stories about the working man's life in the Depression. "You young punks have it easy," he would often declare. Frank's wife was a quiet, busy woman. She was nice enough but didn't believe in socializing with the hired hands.

In general, the old Germans of this era were not great encouragers. I probably received five "young punk" reprimands from Frank for every word of encouragement. Frank's highest praise, reserved for exemplary performance, was the shout of "Now you're steamboating!" One of the Wagner brothers and I received it once.

Frank and his wife passed away long ago. The farm was sold to the Eagle supermarket chain, who built a store that failed to prosper. Nothing is left now but a half empty strip mall. The gladiolus fields have been replaced by a small park and a housing subdivision. I walked around the area yesterday and felt a bit blue.

I can still picture the gladiolus farm in my mind. I know how far I walked from the street to get to the farmhouse door. I can picture Frank's pop machine on the porch, about ten feet to the right of the front door. He sold Nesbitt's sodas: orange, grape, and fruit punch. I know how far to walk around the farmhouse to reach the sheltered garden where Albert raised his show-quality glads with their long spikes of gorgeous water-color blossoms. And beyond lay the long hillside of the gladiolus field.

I have vivid memories of the physical layout of a farm that no longer exists. This is a bit like having the phantom pain of a missing limb.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

High School Reunion

Before I went to my 40-year high school reunion on Saturday I reviewed my old yearbook as if cramming for an exam. I needed to refresh my memory of the names and faces of my classmates.

The yearbook was a handy chronicle of the high school social structure back in 1969. Photographs of the most talented and popular students -- those blessed by looks, personality, and athleticism -- showed them excelling at school government (both the student council and also the tribal roles of Queen and King with accompanying attendants), at sports, and at entertainment (into which one might lump debate and journalism). As I skimmed the yearbook, I once again experienced the feeling of being part of the undistinguished middle of the school hierarchy. Prowess in trigonometry and qualitative chemical analysis did nothing for my social standing (not to mention dating opportunities) back then. We in the undistinguished middle looked with awe and envy at the class leaders, who seemed to be wrapped in a golden aura of social acceptance.

When I arrived for the reunion festivities at the Elks Lodge, I immediately realized that I could discard the notion of a golden aura. Former beauty queens were now cheerful matrons -- quite pleasant to look at but hardly the stuff of nerdish daydreams. I was initially surprised that the former football stars appeared to have shrunken to stocky businessmen of middling height. But then it dawned on me that my vantage point had changed as a result of my adding several inches of growth during my college years.

The class leaders were as confident and outgoing as they were four decades before. They were a jolly bunch to talk with and I enjoyed getting reacquainted with them as people instead of high school celebrities. (I suspect that they would laugh at my silliness about golden auras.)

The best part of the reunion was talking with classmates who had truly deepened in character over the 40 years. I am thinking now of the gracious, caring lady who taught violin; of the bighearted attorney; and especially of the man whose own hard times gave him the wisdom and patience to mentor struggling young adults.

I have a mighty fine high school class. Next reunion in 2014!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Monstrous Giants Rise Up

As I came upon a ridge near mile marker 45 on Interstate 80, I saw a hundred modern windmills generating electrical power. The sight filled me with dread. A single windmill might be admired for the mathematical precision of its triple vanes; several windmills might remind one of the austere dignity of guards at Buckingham Palace; but these one hundred windmills resembled an army company in battle array. It was a nightmare worthy of the far-seeing imagination of H.G. Wells. The windmills seemed to be idly spinning, marking time until they received their marching orders from some vast and cold intelligence.

I am not the first to have such feelings. Miguel de Cervantes understood a middle-aged man's instinctive antipathy to huge rotating equipment:

At this point they came in sight of thirty or forty windmills that are on that plain.

"Fortune," said Don Quixote to his squire, as soon as he had seen them, "is arranging matters for us better than we could have hoped. Look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants rise up, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes. For this is righteous warfare, and it is God's good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth."

"What giants?" said Sancho Panza.

"Those you see there," answered his master, "with the long arms, and some have them nearly two leagues long."

"Look, your worship," said Sancho. "What we see there are not giants but windmills, and what seem to be their arms are the vanes that turned by the wind make the millstone go."

"It is easy to see," replied Don Quixote, "that you are not used to this business of adventures. Those are giants, and if you are afraid, away with you out of here and betake yourself to prayer, while I engage them in fierce and unequal combat."

A windmill is the emblem of a future dominated by technology -- a future overwhelming, complex, and inhuman.