Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Music Man

I always said that if I invented a time machine, I’d use it to do something useful, like go back 30 years and invest in Apple Computer, or try and prevent something awful, like the invention of the cell phone or the leaf blower. I did go back in time recently, but instead of wealth or satisfaction, I got irony.
You see, my grandson is a musician.
A drummer, in fact.
In a heavy metal band.
Now, I’m an ardent supporter of any kind of live music, even though metal probably isn’t what I’d choose for an afternoon tea or the soundtrack for my own funeral. But it’s pretty loud stuff, even radiating all the way from the garage, through the walls and up the stairs into the second floor living room of my son and daughter-in-law’s home, where we were supervising grandchildren and wondering if we might need either a hearing check or head examination soon. But as a musician myself, I’m determined to support any attempt to make music, no matter how earth and ear shattering it might be.
She: That’s kinda loud, isn’t it?
Me: What’d you say?
I have a lengthy background in quite a few kinds of popular music. It’s a part-time “career” that began back when I was a young teenager. I graduated from a soft, mellow classical guitar and folk music, to a cheap but loud Japanese electric guitar and amp, then embarked on a determined campaign to learn every good song on the WLS Silver Dollar Survey.
I set about accomplishing this by playing--over and over and over and over--the same basic group of three-chord rock -and-roll hits in my parents’ dining room, just feet from where they sat, vainly trying to read, watch television and think straight.
My mom” “It’s kinda loud, isn’t it?”
My dad: “What’d you say?”
I couldn’t help but think of them. I couldn’t help thinking of how truly loving and supportive they always were.
“If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change.”
We’ve all heard this hackneyed old phrase that virtually every region of the country claims for its own.
Our return trip from son Colin’s place in Northwest Minnesota provided a study in contrast. We woke up on departure day (Monday) to the sight of 8 inches of fresh snow, with more piling up at an alarming rate. Increasing my pleasure at these wintery conditions was a temperature that threatened to cause my unprotected ears to freeze and fall clattering to the driveway as I shoveled us out. Yes, it was all of ten degrees, with a brisk breeze to boot. The weather guys reported it as a “narrow band” of dreadful weather, so we set out for home. Whiteouts and crazy truck traffic drove us off the expressway quickly, so we zig-zagged our way on secondary roads, taking our time and eventually easing out of the snow belt. It was midafternoon when we started getting calls from home.
Seventy degrees.
Scary-looking skies.
Another tornado in Galva!
If we could have gotten an earlier start and hustled a little more, we could have enjoyed a full sixty-degree temperature swing, plus just about every brand of severe weather in the book.
Maybe next time.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What I found in Fargo

What are we doing in Fargo?
November in Fargo is not exactly April in Paris.
Other than the denizens of even chillier outposts like Thief River Falls and Grand Forks, who probably drive down to warm up a bit, I can’t imagine anyone would come this way on purpose anytime after the first snow.
Actually, my son and his family live across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota, but Fargo is more fun to say, especially for those who fondly remember a certain quirky movie that featured multiple murders, thick upper midwest accents and an allegorical wood chipper.
So, what are we doing in Fargo?
The stated purpose was a quick visit and some grandkid-watching while our son and daughter-in-law made their escape via a quick work-and-fun trip to the west coast.
But, the first order of business was getting there, which is not always a small task when the winds turn cold and winter weather sweeps across the plains. Forecasts, in fact, were for up to ten inches of new, cold, white stuff right along our usual travel path through northern Iowa and central Minnesota. We countered with a headlong dash straight west in an effort to curl under the storm and head north behind it.
Amazingly, it worked. We made it, though it took a couple hours longer than usual. But after seeing the big, bad blizzard that hit our regular route, we realized the long way was the best way this time.
But what are we doing in Fargo?
One of us was planning a trip to the local Fargo Mall.
“Do you want to come?” she asked.
I was thinking about sharp blows to the kidneys, sinus infections, root canal work and all the other things I’d choose over a mall visit when someone added,
“They’ve got that baseball thing.”
Baseball thing? Did someone say baseball thing?
The thing in question is none other than a museum dedicated to local boy, home run king and hero of my youth Roger Maris, who stunned the baseball world--and himself, I think--by hitting 61 home runs in 1961, breaking a record set by Babe Ruth over 30 years before. The museum is located in a shopping mall because that’s how Roger Maris wanted it.
“Put it where people will see it, and where they won’t have to pay for it,” he said.
Yes, it’s free, though I would have happily paid a couple of bucks to see the uniforms, pictures and other memorabilia, and watch the short documentary that ran continuously.
I remember that 1961 season well. I was a Yankee fan myself, partially because, with just a couple of televised games per week, they were pretty apt to be in the regular rotation simply because they were so darn good. That’s the other reason I liked them, as I had not yet developed the sad, silly persona of a Cubs fan and still thought winning was the point of playing the games.
They call Maris a “reluctant hero,” not because of any lack of drive or determination, but because he would have been happier almost anywhere but in the spotlight. He was an uncommon kind of superstar even then, though the differences would be almost incomprehensible among the inflated egos of today’s ballplayers.
“Nowadays, guys take curtain calls for sacrifice flies in July,” said writer Bob Costas of Maris’ hesitant, almost blushing wave to the cheering New York faithful after he blasted number 61.
He was quiet and shy; a family man with six kids. He never really felt accepted by the New York fans and members of the media. That 1961 season was marred by incredible pressure fueled by hate mail and death threats from misguided nutjobs who either didn’t want the Babe’s record broken or wanted someone else to do it.
But Maris did break the record, with grace and class, and with the full support of his teammates, including Mickey Mantle, who battled him for the home run lead up until the last few weeks of the season.
But he never received the credit he deserved. And he still hasn’t. Despite a pair of Most Valuable Player Awards, all-star and golden glove seasons and that incredible 61-home run year, Maris has never been named to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"He had a stellar career," said Maris’ son Kevin. "He did things in the game that no one has ever done. It would be nice to see baseball right a wrong that has been going on now almost 50 years. I think a lot of fans assume he's already in there, and when we tell him he's not, they're in awe, in shock. It would be nice to see baseball right an injustice."
Roger Maris died of cancer in December of 1985. He was just 51 years old.
“He was as good a man and as good a ballplayer as there was,” said Mantle.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Technology Marches On

I’m not in the market for a new ride right now, unless it’s the cool convertible I’m always dreaming about. But I was reading up on some of the new cars, anyway, and I was pretty impressed with all the stuff that’s now available--like hybrid gas/electric drive trains, voice-guided navigation systems, backup and blind spot cameras and thermal sensors, and--wait for it--a car that actually parallel parks itself. It’s all pretty heady stuff to a guy who considers a new, sproingier bungee cord to keep my driver’s side door shut as a pretty significant advance in automotive technology.
But it got me thinking.
"This is, perhaps, the most technologically advanced age ever," I thought.
Well, I don't really think about things in those kinds of terms, but you've got to admit there's a lot going on nowadays, between transportation and communications. But is this really the time when the most has happened?
Maybe not.
Take my paternal grandfather. The men on my dad's side of the family got married late in life as a rule, so the generations span an amazing amount of time. He, for example, was born in 1866, just a year after the end of the American Civil War.
That's right, my grandfather.
That's right, 1866.
The first civil rights act, the beginning of post-war reconstruction and Jesse James' first bank robbery were all in the news that year. And as proud as you might be of your Blackberry or iPod, imagine a lifetime (he died in 1917) that started in the days of mules and horses, wagons, the telegraph and steamboats, but saw an incredible array of ideas and inventions, including (but not limited to) the typewriter, barbed wire, bicycles, traffic lights, the telephone, transcontinental rail travel, the first practical gas and diesel engines, the automobile, motorcycle, airplane and helicopter, toilet paper, Coca-Cola, the dishwasher, the zipper, motion pictures, the vacuum cleaner, crayons, plastic, instant coffee and the Theory of Relativity.
My dad, who was born in 1904, was around for tea bags, corn flakes, sliced bread and the toaster, television and 3-D movies (3-D specs included), along with Scotch tape, the jet engine (and jet planes), antibiotics and polio vaccines, the atom bomb, the computer, the drive-in movie theatre, man-made satellites, the frisbee, the first parking meter, silly putty, the microchip, astroturf, the artificial heart, transworld air travel, the first video game, manned space flight and the first walk on the moon by men from earth.
It's hard to imagine what my grandfather thought the first time he saw a primitive airplane chugging across the sky. And I know my dad, who once took a more-than-thrilling ride in a biplane piloted by a barnstorming World War One air corps veteran, was glued to the tube when men first stepped foot on the moon. I suspect their sense of excitement was somewhat greater than what I feel when I googlesearch a few baseball stats. And I do know they managed to take many of the new inventions in stride, with my grandfather developing his own brand of bicycles in the 1890's and my dad owning his own Model-T Ford at the age of 12.
I did a little research on the past couple of decades or so, and saw a different picture. For one thing, there seemed to be fewer really meaningful inventions listed in the period. And most of them had to do with forms of communications, with items like personal computers, cell phones and an ever-growing bunch of smaller and smaller devices intended to turn keep us firmly connected to the rest of the world wherever we go. The aforementioned automotive ideas rated no more than a mention as clever ways to sell a few more cars.
While many historians say that 15th century printer Johann Gutenberg's invention of the movable type presses that made the inexpensive mass-printing of books possible as, perhaps, the most important invention ever, it was the creation of the internet, along with the tools that relate to it, that seems to define where the world and its inventors are heading today.
Don't get me wrong; I love the internet and many of the other communications choices we now have at our fingertips. I love the ability to say, "I wonder" and find an answer quickly and easily. I liked being able to find out many of the facts cited in this column without digging through a pile of history books. I like writing a quick, instant message to my kids, and I truly adore seeing what my grandchildren are doing right when they're doing it.
But I don't like what new age technology has done to some kinds of communications. The handheld "social networking" devices that are an essential part of so many personal wardrobes keep us in ever-constant touch, but also can have an adverse effect what we say and how we say it, as we post, tweet, show and share a barrage of things--ranging from the banal to the downright obscene--that we'd never dream of saying and showing in person. "Interactive" and "virtual" are buzzwords of the new technology, but fall way, way short when they replace real face-to-face communications and actual reality.
Old fashioned as it might seem, I sill like going places, seeing things in person and, sometimes, even figuring things out for myself. And I guess I think we all could survive a little less technology...and a little more human contact.
I would, however, like someone to teach my car how to park itself.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

But now, it's November...

The first of November dawned bright and crisp. I enjoyed the flat, soft light and brisk breezes of the morning as I paced my front porch with the first coffee of the day. My stomach was, perhaps, a little grumbly from the taste-testing I had done the night before to make sure the treats we handed out to some 211 tricksters the night before were safe and edible and worthy of the holiday, but it was nothing compared to the satisfied glow of a self-sacrificing task well done. I can provide that number with some confidence, because I semi-carefully kept track as my wife oohed and aaahed over costumes and cheerily gave each little visitor their choice. Not because I cared, but because I was curious.
As we waited for the on-and-off stream of princesses and werewolves and dinosaurs and devils that appeared at our doorstep, it occurred to me that Halloween trick or treating is one of the few things that hasn’t changed much since I did it a long time ago. Kids still dress up and run from house to house, dragging along parents or older siblings and dreaming of the wonderful year they are deemed old enough to do it by themselves. They shout “trick or treat,” without much real idea of what a trick should or could be, for which I am thankful. Some say “thank you” and some don’t, but it really doesn’t matter as they revel over the sugar-based buffet of goodies provided by my clever companion. She is, after all, an imaginative purchaser and provider of new and unusual treats, and while it’s not exactly foie gras and smoked salmon on the menu, it always receives rave reviews from those lucky hundreds who partake in it.
But now it’s November.
I can tell, because the chill in the air is in earnest. I have finally agreed to welcome cold weather with my annual, grudging, upward spin of our thermostat, so the boiler in our basement chugs and rumbles as warming steam bangs its way through the cold pipes and radiators in our hard-to-heat house. I can tell because the leaves have changed and fallen, and even the majestic pin oak in the park across the street has begun to display the dusty gold glow that is often the final step towards a barren winterscape.
The crops are mostly out of the fields now, with the backroads crowded with trucks and tractors pulling the tools and fertilizers that will finally prepare the ground for its winter sleep.
We wonder about upcoming trips, with a journey planned for Minnesota later this month, no firm plans for Thanksgiving yet, and with hopes that winter weather and busy schedules will cooperate enough to see children and grandchildren in our home for Christmas.
But you never know. It’s November, now, and the weatherman is even talking about snow this week. My older son Colin, the erstwhile southern Illinoisan turned Minnesotan, sent me a picture the other day that showed a jolly jack o’lantern layered with their first white stuff of the season.
“Happy Hallowinter,” I laughingly replied. But now it’s November, and the real winter weather can’t be far behind.
A shiny box of apples sits on the table, along with the last crumbs of the cider donuts I couldn’t resist, while hot soups and crusty bread have re-entered our diet. Salty, my self-tamed, hand-fed squirrel has almost entirely deserted me now as his interests turn from the fast-food crackers I hand out to hardier stuff, like the nuts he’s buried for the what’s to come.
Even his arch-nemesis, my surly cat, Max has noted the change of seasons.
He was waiting for me the other night when I got home after covering a late game. It was almost 11, and the moon and stars shown bright on the frosty landscape. He came inside with me to try and con me out of some extra grub, then asked to go outside again. Max enjoys the nighttime, where I know he stalks and hunts and otherwise acts like the feral little beast he really is.
I opened the door for him and he started to slip over the threshold. Suddenly, from the park across the street, came the low, throaty hoot of a great horned owl, looking for his own cold-weather repast. We hear those owls all year long, but now the cry sounded hungrier, somehow, as all wild creatures wait to hunt and to be hunted in readiness for a new season.
Max looked up at me, his eyes big as saucers.
Slowly, he backed away from the door and crept back into the house. Then he streaked upstairs, where he crawled underneath the covers with his sleeping mistress.
“Welcome to the food chain,” I called to him. “The wrong end, that is.”
It’s November.
It will frost and frost again. The trees will shed every last leaf soon, and those leaves will dance and blow and burn and disappear. Many of the birds have headed to their winter nests, with squawking, chirping backyard-summer days replaced by the quieter, windblown sounds of autumn.
But it’s not just falling leaves and busy squirrels and hungry owls that mark this time of year.
We recently overheard a waitress in a New England cafe, who was talking to some customers who were inquiring into her background. She was, apparently, a local girl, who had lived in sunny Florida for several years before returning to her native Vermont.
“It’s just not natural for things to stay green all year long,” she exclaimed. “The seasons need to change. Things need to rest for awhile.”
People, too, I guess.
Soon enough, it will be yet another time of year. We will fight the cold, the snow and all the other weather-related challenges that face us. Wintertime and the holidays will plunge us into a desperate orgy of decorating and gatherings and celebrations and shopping. We will be busy beyond belief, because that’s how we are supposed to be.
But not yet.
Because right now, it’s November.