11.02.2014

Name That Tune

If you've had a discussion with me since, oh, March 2014, you know that we are in full blown college research and application mode. Frankly, it's a little disturbing to me. Why, back in my day (Sonny Boy!) you could get into college if your check didn't bounce. It's a bit different today. Colleges seem to be, on the one hand, more selective and, on the other, expecting everyone to graduate high school and shuffle off to university. In a lot of ways the higher education system is broken, but before I get too distracted with the politics and policy of it all, I want to tell a story.

Our son is applying to several universities. I will be tickled if he attends any of them; they are all good schools. But in the process of researching, visiting, evaluating and applying I've developed a new, to me, appreciation of my son, and the man he is becoming. Some of what I see is concerning, but mostly, I'm proud. I think he's a fine young man, which, I imagine, makes me no different than any other parent. How I came to this new appreciation is not terribly unique either. We spent spring break driving from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, just me and the boy, visiting various schools and having some long talks while driving, when he wasn't overly involved in video games or texting or sleeping. We took another school exploration trip in the summer, this time with his mother, which added another dimension to my observations. Since then we have had many discussions on the pros and cons of all the schools and our friends have quizzed him on his plans. It's interesting to learn what he thinks is important which, unsurprisingly, doesn't match up exactly with my thoughts. In any case, I can see the transition coming from following Mom & Dad's lead to following his own. A little scary, yes, but equally exciting. I suppose I should begin the story, now that you have the background.

He has applied to Rice University. It was one of my dream schools when I graduated, and I think it might be beyond his reach, but hey, as they say in golf, 'never up, never in,' and we encouraged him to go for it. He's done all the right things ... campus visits, retaking standardized tests, agonizing over essays. He even went to the optional interview and is applying early decision, which means if he's accepted he is obligated to attend. The college admission soothsayers say it demonstrates sincere interest and committment. I'm okay with it, since from my perspective it is the best fit. Unfortunately, the boy has never been fully invested in grades or GPA. In any case, we will find out at some point if the effort has been sufficient.

A traditional feature of the Rice University application is "the box." It asks the applicant some generic sort of question and they are asked to put something in "the box." The prompt this year was "what appeals to you?" and applicants were asked to upload an image or graphic that appeals to them. No explanation, no rules, no penalty (theoretically) if you choose not to; it's just another way for the admissions counselors to see something 'outside the box' of the admissions process. I would have posted a picture of a bell ... a-"peal"-ing ... get it? ... but he has a bit more invested in this process than me (at this point) and probably would not be receptive to my punny suggestion. Instead, out of the blue, on Sunday, he asked me if we had any pictures of the pipe organ at church. I could not imagine what he needed pipe organ pictures for, and then he explained.

"I have to upload a picture of something that appeals to me for the Rice application. I've thought about it a lot and I think the church organ is what I want to use. It's music and engineering, combined, the two things I'd like to study in college."

Hard to argue with that logic so, dutiful father that I am, I went in search of pipe organ photos. I was
shocked at how many we had ... everything from the elevation drawing to components before the organ was assembled (see above) to various worship and festival services to a group of African students dancing and singing in front of it. Our applicant wanted a photo that reflected both music and engineering, so we combined a couple and came up with this:



I've often described our son as having a math and science mind, with the eyes and ears of an artist, and I think his choice for "the box" reflects that pretty well. Now, as flattering as all this may seem for the boy, it's not really the takeaway I get from this story. Let me explain.

The pipe organ may have been a clever choice, but what struck me in all this is the constancy of the pipe organ as a backdrop in our life. Now you might take this to mean that we've spent a lot of time in the church sanctuary, and that would be true. Or, you might take it to mean that people take pictures when they get dressed up or attend special events, both of which happen frequently at a church, and that would be true, too. Or perhaps the pipe organ simply came to mind because last Sunday happened to be the 10th anniversary of its dedication, and the church was filled with glorious music that was impossible to ignore. That, unfortunately, is not completely true.

As I was walking in to church that Sunday morning, I took two steps from my truck and heard the
organ. Our organist was practicing, and rocking the house. I could hear it across the parking lot, with the doors to the church closed, and I thought, "Wow. Awesome.", wondering what was in store musically for worship. I didn't realize it was the anniversary yet. As I approached the church there were two separate people walking their dogs, cutting across our parking lot to get to the park across the street. Both were focused on their dogs, heads down, with a deliberate steady pace. They never seemed to acknowledge the music. They seemed oblivious.

When I shared the dog walker story with my Sunday School class one friend pointed out that the dog walkers were probably making sure their dogs weren't pooping. Our pastor commented that she would not be surprised if that was the case because 'we spend our lives surrounded by the glory of God, but are too busy looking for sh** to notice.'

And that's what I mean by constancy. I am no better than the dog walkers; I am not judging them. I heard the music because it has been a constant in my life for many years. They did not hear it, or chose to ignore it, because it did not belong to them, it was not part of their life. Don't misunderstand. I am not claiming that God only belongs to church-goers. What I'm trying to say is that in this miraculous world it is all too easy to focus on today's concerns, last week's disappointments, tomorrow's fears and completely miss the miracles.

To see or hear or participate in miracles you must seek them, become attuned to the song that is written by God on your heart and listen for that melody, however faint it might be, in your everyday life. The Sanctuary Pipe Organ at Bentwood Trail Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Texas has provided a soundtrack, embedding the wide range of God's song in my mind, in my hearing. It has lifted me up. It has consecrated vows. It has glorified saints. It has encouraged faith, inspired confidence and made God appealing in a unique way to a special young man. But to witness this miracle, to be a part of it, you have to be there, you have to make it part of your life or it is too easy to overlook.



P.S. This is the one I really wanted him to use in "the box," but for some reason he wasn't too keen on it:

2.09.2014

Pencil Marks


The top of the desk is a collection of, well, stuff. Things that caught an eye, tools, mementos, reminders. Prominent among the stuff are the pencil sharpeners, not your usual twist-the-pencil-against-a-blade-mounted-in-a-toy-train sharpener, but honest, industrial, bolt-em-to-the-wall-and-turn-the-crank pencil sharpeners. My sister gave me the first one, the "Dexter No. 2", circa 1910. It sat on the top of the desk, periodically catching my eye, sending me in search of its siblings and future generations on eBay and the collection grew. I love those old pencil sharpeners. They have heft, a singular purpose, a utility appreciated by all and they achieve their point with marvelous efficiency. Such a rare thing, the simple, purpose-built machine, tireless in pursuit of its goal, engineered for endurance, so well designed and easily used that no direction is needed. It sits, mounted firmly on wall or desk, sticking out, though not ostentatiously, saying 'Here I am. Use me.'

At Lamar Elementary the first bold soul to rise and approach the pencil sharpener, new Ticonderoga or Oriole or Velvet held high to announce their intention, would often start a procession of students suddenly aware of the need for immediate maintenance on their primary tool. A dull pencil is functional, but a sharp pencil has a point, an edge, to write crisp answers and draw clean lines. The smell of wood and graphite shavings, chalk dust, layers of institutional floor wax all combine to form the incense of a fresh start and students returned to their seats, recharged from the brief respite, better equipped for the next challenge. And just like that, a common task becomes ritual, necessary maintenance becomes larger than its practical purpose. The sharpener says, 'Wake up and smell the pencil shavings. You are equipped for the task at hand.'

Time does what it does and the new becomes a nub, harder to hold, inconvenient, inefficient. The nub is worse than the dull and so, at times, we avoid the sharpener, conserving efficiency, preserving convenience, stretching the resource. In college there were no pencil sharpeners and no one would disrupt a class for the sake of a wooden pencil anyway. Stuck with a yellow number two, no sharpener in sight, I often resorted to angling it close to page, grinding the lead against the paper while rotating the barrel to produce a fine, though unevenly tapered and weak, point. Or the pen, there was always the pen and a wide variety of them, too. Felt, ball point, roller ball and the timeless, tempting fountain were all available and attractive alternatives. Who needs a sharpener? Why we haven't even mentioned mechanical pencils, with their built in storage for extra lead AND erasers. The sharpener, ignored and invisible, sits quietly and says, 'I'll be here when you need me.'

We graduate, from jumbo pencils and Big Chief tablets, to Bics and loose leaf pages, to whatever-pen-you-want and spiral notebooks and finally, ultimately(?), to bytes in memory and messages in the ether. There truly is no need for pencils or sharpeners. You can even draw with a Bamboo Pen that has neither bamboo or ink; its versatility limit is in the user. You can become an expert on the "Dexter No. 2" without lifting a pencil, its origins, successes, competitors and demise are surely documented somewhere, and likely just a thoughtful search phrase away. The handwritten note, the quick scratching of arithmetic with its take-aways and carries and guzintas, the completely-unrelated-to-any-scale map drawn on a scrap, the phone number on a matchbook ... all these are unnecessary, anachronistic, a certain indicator of the unsophisticated. The sharpener, now few and far between, patiently waits saying, 'Trust me, I still work.'

On my desk, among the clutter, sits the pencil sharpener I use. It's electric, from China and of unknown
brand or lineage. It does a fine job, though I suspect that, unlike the "Dexter No. 2", it will not be operational 100 years from now. I use wooden pencils, a Pink Pearl or Black Pearl eraser and entirely too many scraps of paper and scattered notebooks, not because they are efficient or to solidify my curmudgeon bonafides or as a tacit endorsement of hipsterism, I just like them. I like the renewal after sharpening, writing tactilely, managing my personal hieroglyphics. Pencil and paper allows an easy transition from note taking to doodling, unrestricted, with no dependence on installed fonts or keyboard knowledge. Pencils and sharpeners are comforting, dependable, timeless and too easily overlooked. I would encourage you to sharpen a pencil today, and appreciate the marvel.

Finally, please recognize that you, like the pencil, are a simple, purpose built machine. You may think that your purpose is biological or economical or political, and you may very well achieve those things. For something higher, you'll need a good sharpener.

1.05.2014

Waking Up


Sometimes, in the already-not-yet of waking up, I can smell my wife's hair. The already part knows it's because she has successfully pushed me to the final 1/8th slice of the queen mattress. The not-yet part just senses the closeness, estimating proximity via familiar scent. Though my eyes are mostly closed, I can sense from the brightness of the color slicing through the slats of the window blinds that it will be a sunny day. The hum of fans, sometimes moving cool air, sometimes warm, provides a comfort, not just of temperature, but that systems are running, that environmental provisions have been made. The already nags 'get up. get up. things to do today.' The not-yet begs 'stay. stay. soak up the comfort to carry through the day. this. this. you need more of this.'

Most days there is no dilly-dallying. There are things to do, obligations to meet, responsibilities to deliver, commitments to keep. On those days my senses are not quite as keen. The light beyond the blinds is hard to judge without consulting the morning weather man, the moving air is a reminder to change the air filters, that systems fail. There is no comfort in the mechanical. The white flag is waved; meager mattress territory is surrendered. The day begins with little comfort squirreled away to use along the day's path; it is already, unimpeded, inexorable.

The already consumes most days and rightly so I suppose. The necessary should take precedence over the nice-to-have. Necessary, by definition, means it is required, that these things must be taken care of, life depends on them. A logical, rational approach to the day would therefore be to 'take care of business' first and put off the nice-to-have things ... pleasure, art, distractions, philosophy, rest ... until survival is assured, at least for today and hopefully for tomorrow. We are not, however, purely rational beings. The not-yet prods and pulls, eroding efficiency, challenging necessity, shuffling priorities, slowly changing the shape and direction of our lives. We work at what we must, we dream of what we want, hoping that the work leads to the dream, that the already catches up to the not-yet.

Yes, we are logical animals, using skill, knowledge and experience to survive, plan and live, but we are also continuously becoming something different, something better, something more. The already takes care of necessity. The not-yet, in those rare waking moments when we are undistracted by survival, asks 'why am I here?' The already doesn't question eternity, it has no need to, it deals in the finite, tangible, bounded realm of our current life. The not-yet ... produced by dreams, focused on questions not answers, driven by wistful feeling not the certainty of science ... reinforces our sense of eternity and connects us to a purpose we can't quite define, we can't quite capture but we sometimes glimpse in our relationships, in our children, in our contentment and in our sacrifice. We recognize that life is more than survival, and we yearn to know the meaning of the 'more', the 'not-yet.'

Young couples have a tension, an energy, an excitement that we associate with romance and sex and love and we root for them to succeed, to take the plunge, to embrace the challenge. Cheering them on is not voyeurism or some twisted response of envy. We cry at weddings not because they are a beautiful couple, but because we recognize the potential, because they symbolize our hope in the future, because we know that despite the divorce statistics there is a chance that the relationship will become something much greater than romance and economics. They may become one and grow into some not-yet inspired thing, something more than their individual selves.

Is it love? Is the something more we seek simply love, relationship, an opportunity to nurture, to serve? Is the unknown not-yet thing we seem to be reaching for a more complete, better, ultimate love? I do not know. What I do know is that there are times, other than early mornings, when I have that same already-not-yet feeling. These are my clues, my signs and wonders, my evidence that there is indeed, more.

A mom watches her child on the playground. The child is having fun with other kids, screaming
delightfully, moving with limitless energy, glancing back at mom with wide eyes as if to say 'this is so much fun!' The mom smiles, happy to have provided the opportunity, but the eyes get misty as well because the not-yet is saying 'this. this is why you're here. all the mom's before you. all the mom's after you. they know. they will know.'

A father sees his child grow into a young adult and excel. He is relieved that the immediate challenge is overcome. He is proud of the child's effort. He is satisfied with his own effort in preparing the child. He is worried about the next challenge. Beyond the immediate success the not-yet is saying 'your child will be better than you. you may never find the not-yet in this life. your child is better than you. they might. this. this is why you're here.'

You see an old couple. Their interaction is a timeless, unrehearsed, effortless dance. He holds the door. She straightens his collar. He extends an elbow. She cups her hand in the crook. They move forward together, each supporting the other. It's a simple dance reflecting a lifetime of having and holding, richer or poorer, and sickness or health. The alchemy of the not-yet transforms a young couple's energy and excitement into wisdom, steadfastness, and unity, seemingly, right before your eyes. You, a witness to the transformation, are touched, perhaps moved to smile at the sweetness or sigh with gratitude at the gift you have been blessed to see, but the not-yet says 'there is more. it is not finished. they are still not-yet.'

Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes wrench your heart. Children hurt. Strangers want. People fail. And yet, despite daily tragedy people persevere, strangers offer aid, children heal. The already almost welcomes our woe, craving an opportunity to do something. Adversity, full of love, worry, sadness and hope, makes us reach, and often stretch too far, for the not-yet, saying things like 'it's part of God's plan' or 'what did I do to deserve this?' We try bringing the not-yet here, to make it part of the already, to make it a tool of logic and effort, to save ourselves, but the not-yet says 'nice try. not yet.'

Our pastor taught me about the already-not-yet. She uses it to describe the in-between that Christians live in. Christ has already come. He has not yet come again. We have already been redeemed through the grace of God. We are not yet dwelling in complete relationship with God. Christian or not, the already-not-yet rings true, doesn't it? A baby falls asleep on your chest and overwhelms you with contentment. Your love reaches for your hand and the connection is more than physical. A loved one dies, grief buckles your knees, and memories, love, hope and wonder fills your heart. These things have no relationship to survival, to the necessity of the already. Peace, wonder, love, gratitude ... these are not manufactured in this world, they are markers by which you can adjust your path to the not-yet, provided you are awake enough to sense them and aware enough to see where they point.

12.26.2013

The Gift of Family Influences

As a teenager I spent a lot of time in my bedroom. I doodled. I read books. I rarely studied. I always listened to music. Sometimes on a cassette player that my sister Jennifer had given me for Christmas. Sometimes it was on a radio built to look like an old Rolls Royce. Jennifer probably gave that to me as a gift, too. At night I could pick up WBAP in Ft. Worth and WOAI in San Antonio. Sometimes it was on a "portable" record player, the kind where you stacked LPs or 45s on a spindle that dropped and played them. I'm pretty sure I inherited the record player, it seems like it was JCPenney or 'Monkey Wards' brand, from my brother Billy.


As for what kind of music, well, it depended. Albums and 45s cost money so if we had one around the house, it was most likely someone's property and you had to be careful about borrowing it. I was too cheap to splurge for albums so those were mostly my older siblings or occasionally Mom's, though I could only take so much of Floyd Cramer, Ferrante and Teicher, or Jim Nabors. I did spend money on singles, which cost about a dollar if I remember correctly. My musical tastes weren't very sophisticated ... I recall owning 'Snoopy vs. The Red Baron' by the Royal Guardsmen, 'Sugar, Sugar' by the Archies, 'The Night Chicago Died' by Paper Lace and 'Cherry Hill Park' by Billy Joe Royal. I'm guessing my Mother didn't pay much attention to Billy Joe Royal's lyrics or the record would have been tossed. Top 40 or Country was the only music available on the radio in the Panhandle, which probably accounts for the lack of taste in my 45 purchases.

I would like to claim some musical taste credit for The Beatles 'Hey Jude' that I bought off the 45RPM rack at Woolworth's (the B side was 'Revolution'), but the truth is I never heard the song before buying it. It was a Beatles single, so I assumed it was pretty cool, plus, the big, green apple on the label really grabbed my attention.

I was the only one in the house with the technology to play cassette tapes, and they were more expensive than albums. Blank cassette tapes were pretty cheap though, so I would buy them, record songs I liked from the radio and play them back later. The quality was terrible, though I didn't have much concept of audio quality at the time.

For Christmas this year the boy, who is 17, received a Tivoli Audio Music System. It's a high-quality, compact radio/CD/bluetooth music system and, as a bonus, it serves as an alarm clock. The purchase decision began with an initial question to myself, 'When I was 17, what would I have wished for at Christmas?' My son is much more musical than I ever was; he can play the saxophone and read music. My best (and only) musical instrument is the stereo. I thought it would be a good gift, but after I got it I began to worry that something was missing.

Growing up I remember fighting for control of the radio in the car with my sisters, who preferred pop songs, and my Mother, who preferred it off. I was the one who would not stick to a station. I'd punch out on the first notes of a song I disliked, bouncing around the dial to find something likable and familiar. I've confessed my early poor musical taste already, but even if it was bad, they were my choices and I spent a lot of time and energy listening to music and building opinions ... The Doors were too trippy, The Rolling Stones were too scary, The Monkees, though a secret pleasure, were much too popular to be publicly embraced. The boy doesn't seem to do that, though it's likely I'm just another clueless parent when it come to my son's habits. It's not that he doesn't know what's going on in the popular music scene, he just doesn't embrace it like I did, so after I bought the music system I wondered if he would really appreciate it.

Over the years I've often forced the boy to watch movies like 'Airplane' and 'The Outlaw Josey Wales' and 'The Godfather,' always claiming that he needed to see them for his cultural edification. I've spent a fair amount of time forcing him to listen to classic rock stations and asking 'who sings this?' He has three default answers ... ZZ Top if it's bluesy with a strong guitar, Tom Petty if it's lyrical and balanced, The Beatles if it sounds remotely like the singer could be British ... but I can tell his heart isn't in it. I've just about decided you can't force feed culture and frankly, I'm tired of classic rock; it makes me feel old. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon me as a parent to provide some sort of cultural reference points and so, along with the Tivoli Audio Music System, I have compiled a set of two dozen or so CD's with the help of his aunts and uncles.

Below are the 'liner notes' I put together for him. It may have been a wasted effort, you can lead a horse to water and all that, but it was fun putting it together and they are all in my digital library now ... no more sneaking LPs from Nelda and Billy, yeah! The set consists of 5 CDs of songs from various artists that I remember hearing as a kid. I've divided them up by which one of my family members was responsible for introducing me to the music. The next 20+ CDs were recommendations from aunts and uncles who responded to the question 'What artist or album do you remember listening to when you were 18ish years old?' Some aunts and uncles ( Nelda, Neil ) could not follow instructions and gave me several suggestions, which is why there are 20+ CDs instead of 10 or so, but no matter, it's all good, and the exercise of compiling it all, making those family + music connections, was spiritually uplifting, convincing me, for the moment, that families are a gift (one that is sometimes difficult to accept, I admit!) and more than a happy (or unhappy) accident.

Grandpa Turner's CD:

Although Dad had quite a repertoire of songs for singing while driving, for me, anything and everything Bob Wills pretty much sums it up. I remember hearing a Bob Wills recording when I was in high school and thinking, "He wasn't just making up those songs!"  There are two copies of Milk Cow Blues, my favorite Bob Wills song. I prefer the one with lyrics to the instrumental but they are both true Panhandle white-boy soul.

I've also included a song by Lynn Anderson, (I Never Promised You a) Rose Garden. Dad had one 8-track tape. I think it was stuck in the tape player in one of the old Chevy's we had. When I hear that song I swear I can smell Panhandle dust and if I close my eyes I can see the landscape between Pampa and McLean. Rose Garden has memorable violins. Bob Wills played the fiddle.

track listing:

Milk Cow Blues Bob Wills
Bubbles In My Beer Bob Wills
Faded Love Bob Wills
Cadillac And A Model "A" Bob Wills
New San Antonio Rose Bob Wills
Bob's Breakdown Bob Wills
Time Changes Everything Bob Wills
Cherokee Maiden Bob Wills
Rose Garden Lynn Anderson
I Ain't Got Nobody Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
Corrine Corrina Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
Liebestraum Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
Take Me Back to Tulsa Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
Roly Poly Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
Stay a Little Longer Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys
Milk Cow Blues Bob Wills

Grandma Turner's CD:

First and foremost, I learned to appreciate gospel music from Mom. Specifically, a capella gospel music. The two here were some of the most memorable, Love Lifted Me and Holy, Holy, Holy. I still remember Mr. Lusby, our preacher, walking along the outside aisles of the church auditorium and putting his finger to his lips in a polite 'shush' for certain church members who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, as they say.

I think Mom liked Floyd Cramer and Boots Randolph simply for their playing style and musicianship, though I wouldn't be surprised if she liked them simply because they drove us crazy.

As for Patsy Cline, I think Mom secretly liked her music; I would catch her humming along. But for the record she tended to categorize her as troubled and probably not a good Christian woman. The songs I've included here are quite melancholy and it's the mood more than the lyrics that remind me of Mom.

Just as important as the music she listened to was the music she disapproved. If she didn't like it, I was intrigued. That's part of why I suspect she insisted on acts like Chet Atkins and Ray Coniff to annoy me, because I played music to annoy her. Like the radio, it was just a question of knowing which button to push.

I distinctly remember Mom discussing how The Beach Boys and 'Good Vibrations' was a signal for the beginning of the end for American culture. How we were headed for a society that would be consumed by their own pleasures, instead of by their obligations and responsibilities. I think she nailed that one.

I also remember her not knowing what to make of Norman Greenbaum and 'Spirit in the Sky.' He was a jewish guy with a gospel song, and it was not nearly respectful (traditional?) enough for her tastes, and definitely not a capella. When it came on the radio (KPUR, 1440 AM, Amarillo, TX) I would sing along, and she would quickly turn it off.

Jim Stafford's "Wildwood Weed" was one of those songs where Mom's reaction confused me. It was obviously about marijuana, yet she found it funny and didn't switch the station when it came on. Of course, later, when I was in high school, she asked me if I could ask one of my "druggie friends" for some marijuana seeds to feed her canaries ... she had heard it was good for their libido. Somehow I managed to come up with a tic-tac box full of seeds for her, but I don't think it helped her roosters much.

track listing:

Love Lifted Me Randy Travis
Holy, Holy, Holy No Other Name
Last Date Floyd Cramer
Help Me Make It Through the Night Floyd Cramer
Yakety Sax Boots Randolph
Charlie Brown Boots Randolph
Crazy Patsy Cline
I Fall To Pieces Patsy Cline
Good Vibrations The Beach Boys
Wildwood Weed Jim Stafford
Spirit in the Sky Norman Greenbaum


Aunt Jennifer's CD:

When I was in the 5th grade, Jennifer bought me a cassette tape player/recorder for Christmas. It came with some blank tapes and at some point during her time home at Christmas we went to Gibson's (the 1960's version of Walmart) and she bought me a pre-recorded cassette tape of The Beatles, Magical Mystery Tour. It was, perhaps. the first music of my very own and I wore it out. I loved it.

There are a few other songs I associate with Jennifer. 'Summer in the City' by the Lovin' Spoonful, because I remember hearing it when driving around Ft. Worth in what I thought was the hottest summer ever when visiting her. 'The Candy Man' by Sammy Davis, Jr., because one summer while visiting we could not get in the car without hearing that song. And 'We're Not Gonna Take It' from The Who ... because she used 'Tommy' in one of the high school English classes she taught and I remember thinking how cool it would be to have teachers like her. And 'A Boy Named Sue' by Johnny Cash ... though to be honest, I actually associate it more with Dan, though I'm not sure why.

track listing:

Magical Mystery Tour The Beatles
The Fool On the Hill The Beatles
Flying The Beatles
Blue Jay Way The Beatles
Your Mother Should Know The Beatles
I Am the Walrus The Beatles
Hello, Goodbye The Beatles
Strawberry Fields Forever The Beatles
Penny Lane The Beatles
Baby, You're a Rich Man The Beatles
All You Need Is Love The Beatles
Summer In The City The Lovin' Spoonful
A Boy Named Sue Johnny Cash
The Candy Man Sammy Davis, Jr.
We're Not Gonna Take It The Who


Uncle Billy's CD:

Billy and I shared a room for a while. I slept on the top bunk. He had a record player where you could stack albums on a spindle and they would play one after the other. These are some of the artists and songs I remember:

Johnny Horton (The Battle of New Orleans, Sink the Bismarck) was, I guess, country, but I just liked the stories the songs told.

Shelley Berman and Bill Cosby were my first exposure to traditional 'stand-up' comedy. I listened to these so often I could repeat the gags with perfect timing, which truly helped me appreciate the difficulty of that talent.

Bobby Vinton's 'Blue Velvet' and 'Mr. Lonely' were such sad songs. I often wondered why someone would bother writing a sad song and, of course later, when I got to be a teenager and had some heartbreaks, I understood perfectly.

Lesley Gore (Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows) helped me to appreciate the power of a good hook and singable pop ... even though the lyrics were silly. Billy had a white Ford Falcon with an 8-track tape player and this was one of the tapes he had.

The Beach Boys were iconic. Cool dudes. Back then, California was exotic and the ultimate cool place. It was only later that I began to appreciate the musicianship and marketing power of these songs and this group.

The Four Seasons were everywhere. I loved singing along with their Greatest Hits album ... I was probably all of 8 years old and had an awesome falsetto.

I used to sing every song on the Roger Miller's Greatest Hits album. I loved them all. Twangy, funny, catchy.
I distinctly remember Carly Simon singing You're So Vain on the radio as Billy was driving us back from Perryton , from a basketball or football game most likely. It was snowing and Billy made some comment about being careful not to make songwriter girlfriends angry. I wonder if Taylor Swift takes her vengeful song formula from Carly Simon.

The Herb Alpert songs were much later. I remember playing them on his stereo when baby sitting Tami and Cheri.

The first time I heard the Allman Brother's "Ramblin' Man" was on a 45 RPM single that Billy bought. It always seemed so wistful.

I was probably 15 when I heard Steve Miller's "The Joker" for the first time. I loved the song, and was absolutely shocked that my "old" brother had the album. I loved the album cover, too.

track listing:

The Battle Of New Orleans Johnny Horton
Sink The Bismarck Johnny Horton
Cleans And Dirtys Shelley Berman
Shop Bill Cosby
Blue Velvet Bobby Vinton
Mr. Lonely Bobby Vinton
Sunshine, Lollipops And Rainbows Lesley Gore
Little Deuce Coupe The Beach Boys
Help Me, Rhonda The Beach Boys
Walk Like A Man Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
Sherry Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
King Of The Road Roger Miller
You're So Vain   Carly Simon
Tijuana Taxi Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Spanish Flea Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
A Taste Of Honey Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass
Ramblin' Man The Allman Brothers Band
The Joker Steve Miller Band


Aunt Nelda's CD:

At some point Mom bought us a record player/radio that was built into a coffee table. We had a few albums and adding to the collection was always something special. We had some TERRIBLE albums like Bloodrock and Zager & Evans (that's what they get for letting the little kid pick the music), but we had some great ones, too. I associate most of these with Nelda, because she was always hogging the stereo, but a couple of these remind me more of Loretta. I don't really have a good reason for it, other than we argued a lot over what to play and a lot of our time growing up consisted of arguing over who got what, from the last soda pop in the fridge to what TV show to watch to whose record got played.

In any case, I associate The Grass Roots, Neil Diamond and Simon & Garfunkel with Nelda. The James Gang and Jefferson Airplane seem more like Loretta songs. It's probably not fair to call these the Aunt Nelda tracks, but I didn't want to break them up separately.

The Stylistics were definitely Nelda songs. I remember her singing along with them, a LOT.

Some of the other songs on this set are from a later era, when Nelda was in high school or off to college. The Rod Stewart songs were definitely high school. she used to borrow Billy's green Pontiac Lemans to drive her friends to basketball games and what-not. I remember riding with her and her friends and listening to Maggie May on the 8-track. I also remember having a huge crush on Annette Keeton (?), one of her friends, but that is a topic for another day. The Eagles songs were definitely from her early college days, as were the Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Emmylou Harris songs ... 'outlaw country' was very cool at that time.

track listing:

Midnight Confessions The Grass Roots
Temptation Eyes The Grass Roots
Funk #49 The James Gang
Done Too Soon Neil Diamond
I Am The Lion Neil Diamond
Betcha By Golly, Wow The Stylistics
You Are Everything The Stylistics
Somebody To Love Jefferson Airplane
White Rabbit Jefferson Airplane
Cecilia Simon & Garfunkel
The Boxer Simon & Garfunkel
Maggie May Rod Stewart
(I Know) I'm Losing You Rod Stewart
You Wear It Well Rod Stewart
Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain Willie Nelson
C'est La Vie Emmylou Harris
Two More Bottles Of Wine Emmylou Harris
L.A. Freeway Jerry Jeff Walker
London Homesick Blues Jerry Jeff Walker


The artists and album listing from aunts and uncles were:

The Everly Brothers - 1964 - Aunt Jennifer

I don't recall ever sitting and listening to The Everly Brothers, however, I'm familiar with all of their songs so they must have been part of the cultural sound track. Tight harmonies and manic (acoustic) guitar playing continues to be a formula that works.

Creedence Clearwater Revival - Chronicle 1968-1972 - Uncle Billy

I remember seeing them on variety TV shows. I specifically remember them being Eddie Brown's favorite band in the 7th grade at Pampa Junior High.

Jim Croce - Photographs & Memories - 1975 - Aunt Loretta

One of the first singer/songwriters that I latched on to. I liked the stories, the simple melodies, the hooks, the comedy of the lyrics. One of the more notable early musician deaths while I was growing up.

Steely Dan - Can't Buy a Thrill - 1972 - Aunt Nelda (and me)

Sometime in high school Nelda went on a date with some guy (probably named David - they were all named David). The poor girl had to share a bedroom with her little brother and many times she would come home from a date and tell me the good things, the bad things, what she thought he did that was cool or nice and what he did that was not. On this particular occasion she came home raving about some music he played that she had not heard. It was Steely Dan - Can't Buy A Thrill and she promptly went out and bought the album. I listened to it endlessly and became a Steely Dan fan.

Seals & Crofts - Diamond Girl - 1973 - Aunt Nelda (and me)

I loved this album cover. I thought the songs were too sentimental and I didn't really "get" them, but they were catchy and they had a certain hazy, feel good mood about them. I remember reading the lyrics in the liner notes trying to figure out what the story was behind the songs and finally giving up and just enjoying the light, care-free sort of vibe they put off. I also stole a few of the lyrics and structure for some poetry assignments at school.

Elton John - Greatest Hits - 1974 - Aunt Nelda and Uncle Steve (yes,really.)

I remember thinking it was pretty cocky of Elton John to release a greatest hits album so early in his career ... and then I realized that his music had consistently been played for 5 years straight, with major hit albums each year. I was much more a fan of 'Rocket Man' and 'Daniel' than I was the peppy 'Bennie and the Jets' or 'Saturday Night's Alright for Fighting'. They seemed to be trying too hard ... but it worked.

ZZ Top - Rio Grande Mud - 1972 - me

This album was a major player in my group of friends ( Walter Tyler, Don White, Paul Stewart, James Miller come to mind) in my high school days even though the album
came out well before we were in high school. It was gritty and funky and obscure enough to have missed top 40 air play. The biggest hit on the album, 'Francine', topped out at #69 on the pop charts. Aside from being a major sound track for all our social activities, it also taught me about blues and grit and that there was Texas music beyond country. 

Aerosmith - Toys in The Attic - 1975 - me

I was an early adopter of this album, I'm sure it was one of the '10 tapes for 1 cent!' offer from Columbia Record Club, and I went through two copies of the cassette tape between high school and college. I thought the album flowed well, that the songs led into each other properly and rarely skipped tracks to get to a better song. I thought the album title was genius, too - almost no one knew it was a reference to being crazy. I saw Aerosmith in concert once, and after that, I was no longer a fan. I must have been past the point where showmanship was more important than the music.

Fleetwood Mac - Rumours - 1977 - Your Mom

This album had something for everyone, too. And it seemed to be on the charts forever. It was so popular that I never actually purchased it. I think many people were drawn to the band and the music by the personalities as much as the music. My favorite song on this album was 'The Chain.'

Eagles - Hotel California - 1977 - Uncle Rodney

NOTE: It's 'Eagles' not 'The Eagles.' ;-) This was probably the consensus soundtrack for my senior year in high school. Everyone had it. Everyone loved it. It was compelling, not just because you could depend on the Eagles for great singing and tight musicianship, but because everyone thought the songs were speaking to them and that there must have been some deeper mystical meaning. Not a bad track on the album. My favorite was Victim of Love ("V.O.L. Is Five Piece Live" - google it).

Tom Petty - Damn the Torpedos - 1979 - me

There was a big record store near Preston and LBJ called Sound Warehouse. There was also a Sound Warehouse in Denton but to buy concert tickets we would get up early, drive to Dallas and stand in line at the big store because they had better seats and more tickets. We went to get tickets, I think for the Dan Fogelberg concert (not included here but if you want to check him out his album 'Netherlands' made me a fan). The line for tickets went up and down a few aisles. I saw a poster for the Damn the Torpedos album. A very attractive young lady pointed at the poster and said "this may be the best album of my lifetime." I was sold. She quite possibly could have been right. Loved it. Tom Petty fan for life.


Dire Straits - Dire Straits - 1978 - me

The first hit off this album, Sultans of Swing, really made an impression. I was going to school at UNT (NTSU), surrounded by music majors and had just become exposed to jazz/swing for the first time. This seemed like such a musically serious group and the album fit right in with where I was living. Definitely album rock, not Top 40.

Steely Dan - Aja - 1977 - me

I was already a committed Steely Dan fan long before Aja came out. I bought the cassette tape and loved every track on the first listen. My biggest memory regarding this album was when I was in college at UNT. In the Student Union building there was a 'quiet lounge' called the Avesta Lounge. You could go in there, hand the student at the desk you student ID and 'check out' an album. They would put it on the turntable and hand you a headset and say 'tune to channel 12' or somesuch. They had big cushy chairs, professional playback equipment and an enormous selection. You plugged the headset into a jack near your seat and turned a knob to the appropriate channel. I remember reading and studying in there with Aja playing quite often. Instead of requesting a new album when it ended I would tell the DJ "just let it play."


Kenny Rogers - Number Ones - 1977-1983 - Aunt Melissa

This was an Aunt Melissa suggestion and I have to say that I was never a Kenny Rogers fan. I take that back. I liked him when he was with The First Edition. That's not to say I don't appreciate his success. You don't have that many hits without a whole lot of people liking you. I hesitated on including it because Kenny Rogers was pretty much the opposite of the whole 'outlaw country' stuff that I liked. In a way he's not unlike Eagles or Fleetwood Mac. They were all very mainstream and popular.


Genesis - Genesis - 1983 - Aunt Christina

The first Genesis album I listened to and liked was Abacab; I really liked the title track and 'No Reply At All' which had a nice pop/soul feel. This was Aunt Christina's recommendation so we are creeping out of my era. I liked this album and was a big fan of Phil Collins and earlier Genesis, which included Peter Gabriel, another favorite worth checking out. The songs on this album have a lot of staying power and it had signature 1980's musical production values.


Journey - Frontier - 1983 - Aunt Christina

It would have been simple enough to include a greatest hits album for Journey. They have a ton. Steve Perry might have been the best rock 'n roll lead singer in a couple of generations. What I liked most about his singing was that he didn't sing around the notes, he just hit them. Usually hard. Made for radio hit singles are not easy to do consistently, and these guys did. I never owned this album, but I think it was their best. 


WHAM! - Make It Big - 1984 - Aunt Carol

This was suggested by Aunt Carol, and though it would be easy to give her a hard time about this choice given all the weirdness of George Michael, I don't think there is any question that these guys (?) were influential. There's a place in this world for danceable pop.

David + David - Boomtown - 1986 - Uncle Neil

This was suggested by Uncle Neil and strangely enough, I actually owned this one, too though I wasn't a big music consumer at the time. The title track sold me and I have to admit that I never listened too closely to the rest of the album. I assume Neil did.


World Party - Private Revolution - 1986 - Uncle Neil

You will have to consult Uncle Neil on this one. I remember one song on this album, Ship of Fools, but didn't own it and I'm not familiar.


Dwight Yoakum - Hillbilly Deluxe - 1987 - Uncle Neil

I knew Neil was a big fan. I was, too. I thought this album was perfectly conceived, from the title to the
cover art to the music. I always got the impression that Dwight Yoakum was acting a part and today he is as well known for his acting as his music. Not an easy feat to be successful in two artistic arenas.


INXS - Kick - 1987 - Uncle Neil

I liked this band and this album. I thought they had a unique sound and I liked their energy. Another one of Uncle Neil's recommendations that we agree on.


R.E.M. - Green - 1988 - Uncle Neil

One of the first things I heard about R.E.M. was that they were from Athens, GA, home of of the University of Georgia. After living in Atlanta I was under the impression that Athens only had rednecks and jocks. A very influential band. This album set the stage for a string of top selling albums.


Living Colour - Vivid - 1988 - Uncle Neil

I actually bought this one as well. The band made an impression on me on MTV ... I have to admit I was shocked to see that this band, which sounded much more metal than Motown, consisted of a bunch of black musicians. I was also in awe of their musicianship.

3.03.2013

Family Style


You can order your meal "family-style" at Dyer's BBQ in Pampa which simply means they bring out big portions for sharing. That might be a comfort or treat for some, but I've never cared for that type of meal service. For me, the comfort of a restaurant meal was having your own personally selected plate of food. The treat was simply eating out. The Cleaver's and Brady's made "family style" look good on TV, but our family dinner table always had its share of landmines and bear traps. Transporting all that to a restaurant for public display never seemed like a good idea. I've always been curious about what kind of people would see the "Family Style" on a restaurant sign and say, "That's the place for us!" Ward and June or Mike and Carol, I assume.

That's probably a little harsh. Big family meals are special occasions, one of my favorite things these days, and though the "Family Style" banner still won't make me flip the turn signal and hit the brakes, I do get it. Family is important. It's foundational. It shapes us in ways we never fully appreciate and in ways that would frighten us if we did. It's probably the "style" part that bothers me more than the "family" part. I have two brothers and four sisters. Though none of us have been to prison and we're all functioning, productive members of society, I think it's safe to say that each of us would have a unique opinion on our particular family's "style."

Part of that has to do with when we grew up and who we did it with. Though it was one big family, it always seemed like three separate sets of kids and parents. Jennifer and Billy had the youngest parents. Loretta and Nelda and I had the middle aged parents. Christina and Neil had the old parents. I don't remember much about growing up with Jennifer and Billy. They were grown and gone by the time I could understand much beyond myself. I'm sure that Christina and Neil felt the same about me, especially Neil. I was 13 when he was born and out of the house before he started school. I've always suspected that I left some damaged and worn out parents in my wake for my younger siblings to deal with, and I'm sure the family style changed as a consequence. I'm also sure all seven of us have a different set of take-aways from our formative years.

Neil, Billy, Jennifer, Loretta, Dexter
Christina, Dad, Mom, Nelda
Once upon a time I wrote a letter and mailed it to my parents and each of my siblings. Whether it was leaving college or Texas for a life of my own, or attempting to make peace over some stressful family situation, I do not recall why I wrote it, but it seemed important at the time. In it I tried to describe what I had learned from each of them, explaining in practical terms what they had done for me, how they had unknowingly shaped my growth, honed my skills, smoothed my path. The point was meant to be that they were all valuable to me and that I appreciated them. Looking back I suspect they all read it and thought "Thanks for including me in your therapy session."

The only specific feedback I recall from that letter was Mom's, and she was not pleased. In the letter I attributed my independence and perseverance to Mom and her comment was something along the lines of "That's it? That's all you learned from me? All my sacrifices, all that I gave you and that's all you got out of it?" At that exact moment my relationship with my mother changed. I knew that the effort and sacrifices she felt she had made for me had worked because I didn't get angry. I wasn't hurt. I knew that the things she taught me were the core of what inner strength I had. She couldn't see it, she didn't recognize it. I knew I had learned her lessons well ... hiding your strengths, deflecting instead of engaging, knowing where you stand before speaking, assessing the environment and choosing the best path before acting. The student had surpassed the teacher. I stopped trying to please my mother and started honoring her for what she had given me instead of lamenting about what she had not.

That too probably sounds harsh. I learned much more from Mom ... an artist's eye, the power of history, the necessity in sacrifice, the existence of God and the community of Christ's church ... but in that specific, memorable moment those skills on how to navigate and survive life were my take-away. Over time, with thanks to family and friends, I began using those seemingly harsh skills in a less defensive and more caring way. My life changed from being just a son, to becoming a spouse, a mate, a father, a friend, a follower. Throughout this constant "becoming" process we choose our path and tactics from the lessons and experiences of our past, but that does not mean we are bound by them. As our family grows beyond mom and dad and brothers and sisters we have the opportunity to see new family styles, new ways of becoming, new ways to use our strengths and shore up our weaknesses.

I love my mother. She made me who I am, a bunch of the good and her share of the bad. She smoothed my path, but that doesn't mean she didn't toss a few boulders along the way. It took me a while but I learned not to pick those up and carry them with me; that it was better to push them out of the way or find another path. Often the alternative paths had already been blazed by my siblings, or my expanding family would show me a different perspective that I had not considered before.

My mother loved me, too. I forgave her long ago for whatever obstacles she may have put in my way when I chose to see them as mistakes instead of malice. I have to see it that way because now I have a son and it's the only way to forgive myself for the many mistakes I've made.

Fundamentally my real problem with the concept of "Family Style" is that it is just too rigid. To me it says, "this is how families eat," and frankly, I don't want to get stuck with eating the plain pinto beans because they are the least objectionable to everyone else when there are jalapeno beans on the menu. I realize there is some comfort and security in sticking with "this is how we do it" and "this is what we always eat," but as much as I enjoy home cooking, I don't go to a restaurant to replicate home. I go to restaurants to see how someone else prepares the meal, to see their menu options, to try something new. I learned that from Mom, too.