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Liner Notes – My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll- Part II: Rhythm And Blues, And All That Jazz

My first musical foray off the path of respectability was my discovery of Rhythm and Blues. Indiscriminate in my pleasures as only a kid can be, I was bowled over by a musical form every bit as foreign to my own life as Scheherazade had been just few years earlier. On a summer evening in1953, standing in front of a jukebox at Chain Bridge, a low-rent swimming place on the Neshaminy Creek in then rural Bucks County near Philadelphia, I first heard the Big Momma Willie Mae Thorton version of Hound Dog. I heard it, and immediately, I loved it. I was as irrevocably changed as one of Mencken’s maidens exposured to Richard Strauss.

At a recent NYU/ New York Times forum on the 1950s, Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick noted that in the fifties, the big cultural changes were on their way, with or without a Mr. Presley. He said that as early as 1953, the music industry was aware that there were white teenagers starting to buy Black music. He was talking about me. I came home late on a Saturday night with my 45-rpm copy of Hound Dog and insisted that my parents sit with me and listen to this new voice of God, as I had come to understood God. They were incredulous.

The only local sources for rhythm and blues were a couple of AM radio stations targeted exclusively to the then Negro markets. WCAM, 1310 on the AM dial, broadcasting from across the river in Camden, New Jersey, put on a three hour rhythm and blues show every evening from seven to ten called “Swinging in the Groove.” The list of sponsors demonstrated that we were not on the station’s demographic target. Between Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters we were given pitches for Dixie Peach Pomade, Florsheim Shoes and a high style men’s store in downtown Philly. Each song was introduced with a number, the meaning of which I was never to know. A matter-of-fact announcer’s voice would say “Number 128, Joe Turner with “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” or “Number 322, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters with…” As the years went on and the crossovers multiplied, I responded with a purist’s sneer to the sanitized Bill Haleys, Pat Boone’s and reflexively even to Elvis himself. I had become too cool to be cool. My embrace of Black music gave me one more outsider’s flag to fly, one more way to distance myself from what I believed was a smothering cultural fate.

Bandstand, later American Bandstand, began in Philadelphia in 1952. Two of my “girl” cousins were among the first regulars on the show. I was envious and would have loved to go find out what it was like, but on the path I’d chosen, cool ruled. A kid from my high school class had broken ranks and was spotted on screen. For that for that single indiscretion he endured a merciless and seemingly endless hassling. It was a cautionary tale I heeded.

The mid-to-late nineteen fifties were a golden age for jazz and probably the final chapter for jazz as a broadly popular musical form. The aura of jazz attracted me and yet much of it eluded me. But the cachet of something as hip as jazz was too important to my self-image. I couldn’t allow myself to be left behind by the real hipsters, the people who did dig jazz. My plunging into jazz was not entirely an affectation, much of it, particularly the progressive and Latin-based stuff absolutely knocked me out. In 1954, Latin music seemed to jump across to the Black community, and “Swinging in the Groove” went beyond Fats Domino and Johnny Ace to begin playing Joe Loco’s percussive piano mambos, and then onto the entire pantheon of Afro-Cuban superstars. For a brief period in the mid to late 1950’s, Latin music did a wider series of cross-overs, surfacing not only in Black music, but in progressive jazz, and then on into mainstream pop in the form of cha-cha novelties.

What became known as Progressive Jazz appealed to me in ways that classic jazz, bebop and even Parker and Coltrane only hinted at. At the core of the progressive movement was the Stan Kenton band. I became almost fixated on what was essentially abstract, symphonic jazz. And no wonder, coming off an immersion over my head in classical music, the complexity of the lush, yet austere Kenton arrangements, and the virtuoso solo riffs against choruses of section work, spoke to me of a creative perfection, and orbiting the musical world according to Kenton were people like June Christie, the Four Freshman and a host of other artists in ascending order of obscurity. Even now, encountering anyone who can discuss Kenton, or the work of Cal Tjader or the George Shearing collaborations with Candido can establish bonds transcending the routines of daily life. So many rewarding conversations have begun with a “hey man, have you heard…’” That in itself has become one of the peripheral but significant rewards of an unconditional acceptance of what would become the primacy of music in my life.

The sixties arrived and I continued on, appearing to be and even believing myself, a connoisseur of all that was cool in music. Meanwhile all around me, a new and revolutionary music was coming into its own. But by then I was a grownup, an adult, and all that kind of stuff, the Beatles and such, was for kids. Wasn’t it?
(to be continued)

Liner Notes – My Life Was Saved By Rock And Roll – Part I: The Classics

My father loved music, particularly classical music. One of his younger brothers, my Uncle Frank, was an operatic tenor. As a kid, my personal definition of hell was a rainy Saturday afternoon, trapped in our tiny row house while my father listened to the Texaco radio presentations of the Metropolitan Opera from New York. The insufferable tedium of opera itself was topped by the monotone voice of Milton Cross droning on about the role of Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, or by Boris Goldovsky’s heavily accented answers to the intermission questions sent in by listeners on “Your Opera Quiz of the Air.”

My father’s tastes were wide ranging within the acceptable classics, but beyond enjoying the pop standards and the autumn arrival of that year’s show tunes, he didn’t stray far from the bounded safety of the classics. In later years, my brother and my father would spend hours at the dinner table debating the finer points and weakness of various tenors, sopranos, orchestras and conductors. By the time I reached my teenaged years, I too had become attracted to much of the same music, but I responded on a more visceral level. I did hear the music behind the delivery systems, but if the musicians got the essence across, it was enough for me. I know that my father and brother were hearing things I wasn’t hearing or couldn’t hear.

The ongoing, almost continual presence of music in our house began at Christmas in1951 when my father brought home a Webcor tabletop phonograph. Before that, the small table radio in the living room was used for family entertainments like the Lone Ranger, Captain Midnight serials and the network shows; sitcoms, variety shows and dramas. But every Monday evening at 8:30, it was The Voice of Firestone with the Firestone Orchestra under the baton of Howard Barlow. The program usually included a selection of semi-classical and light classical orchestral pieces and a featured operatic vocalist. Over the holidays, one of the networks carried hour-long, special broadcasts by the Longines Symphonette, which was the Firestone show writ longer and larger.

My brother and I picked up on whatever the popular music happened to be. A few years ago, the Scottish Comedian Billy Connolly described pre-Beatles pop music as a “fookin nightmare.” A bit harsh, but aside from the genuine jewels like Nat Cole, Peggy Lee or Les Paul and Mary Ford, much of the mainstream pop, then as now, was pretty dreadful. But we were kids and went with whatever we found; “How Much is That Doggy in the Window,” or Guy Mitchell’s, “There’s a Pawnshop on the Corner in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania…”

The arrival in our house of the Webcor phonograph coincided with the first mass marketing of thirty-three-and-a-third rpm long-playing records. With almost twenty minutes of music to a side, vast catalogs of music suddenly became available in an accessible format. The old 78s’ had been a pain in the ass for serious music lovers. A single Brahms symphony meant interruptions every three minutes as the brittle, eight-inch discs dropped into place. The new LPs were convenient, durable and even we could afford them.

The first LP that my father brought home was Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. As the only record in the house, it was played incessantly, and at the age of twelve, I was hooked, and fell seriously in love with music. H. L. Mencken wrote in the nineteen-twenties that the moralizing critics of jazz had it all wrong. He believed that no respectable maiden, so-called, could sit through a performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome and emerge untarnished. In my case, the maiden was a befuddled teen-aged boy. On winter nights, instead of doing my homework, I would drift away from reality on a triple-header of romantic overload; the piano concertos of Grieg, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.

Leaving school to go to work at thirteen, my father had been required to attend “continuation” school one day a week, and part of that included “music appreciation.” Music became one of his antidotes to what I came to realize was a difficult, stressful and unrewarding job in a carpet factory. Over the years, he developed an after-dinner routine that involved going upstairs to the small back room, putting a stack of LPs on, lying on the floor with a pillow under his head, and floating off for an hour or two on the piano music of Chopin, Mozart or Debussy.

As my father brought home more and more LPs – he had discovered a carpet and flooring store in Germantown, owned by a music fan who sold discounted classical records on the side – my brother and I became relatively knowledgeable about music. My approach was entirely instinctive. I liked what I liked, but I did discover that things you thought you didn’t like could grow on you with repeated hearings. My tastes were basically the romantics, but not in any systemic way. I knew two of my three Bs, not really hearing Bach until much later in life. Chamber music eluded me, but by the time I finished high school, I was sniffing around some of the more esoteric stuff like Bartok, Hindemith and the later Russians. I was still a sucker for schmatlz, and at one point had gotten all moony over a series of Andre Kostelanetz orchestral versions of operas, particularly the Puccinis.

FM radio was still a novelty, and the opportunities to hear serious music on the radio were limited. At odd spots on the AM band, I discovered eccentric programs broadcasting classical music. On a station targeting a black audience, the station owner, a George Jessel-voiced guy named Max Leon exercised his prerogative by blocking out an hour each weekday morning to play the music he loved. Max’s commentaries on the works were almost as good as the music. Another station played a half-hour of classics each afternoon, hosted by a Philadelphia stalwart named Frank Ford who remained on the air well into the 90’s, the decade and his own age. The dearth of opportunities to hear a greater range of serious music continued until WFLN, an FM station with an all-classical format and a stable of anal-retentive voiced announcers began simulcasting on the AM band.

As a kid, the idea of attending a real concert never entered my mind. But as I entered my teens, my father began clipping the newspaper coupons for the free, city-sponsored series of outdoor orchestral programs at the Robin Hood Dell in Fairmount Park, essentially The Philadelphia Orchestra on summer break. In the summer of 1955, after my father had gotten a car, and after I had gotten out of high school, we attended a half dozen of those concerts. What a sight we must have presented. My brother and I in our best juvenile delinquent drag; pegged pants, suede shoes and duck-tail hairdos sitting among the culturatti for an evening of Mozart, Haydn and Brahms, a bit like bikers at the ballet.

While it never occurred to me to attempt to make music, I soon realized that despite my inability to distinguish myself in any acceptable way, my growing knowledge of something as unlikely as classical music was a wild card that caught people, particularly grownups, off guard. I wasn’t above cultivating and enhancing that knowledge to surprise people who believed they had me pigeon-holed. Whistling Stravinsky as I stocked shelves at the A & P prompted some unlikely conversations. My explorations of classical music continued and expanded because the music itself provoked a genuine response. And in the absence of just about any alternatives, I realized that the challenges presented by serious music were actually rewarding. When I was about fifteen, other forms of music began to catch my attention. (to be continued)

Just Running In The Rain

The forecast of extreme heat and high humidity led my long-time jogging partner to beg off on our planned four-miler. External conditions like the weather have rarely been the determinant of my going out to jog. In my thirty-three years of self-imposed aerobic torture, the heat has stopped me just twice, and once when morning temperatures dipped below zero, I did demur.

What has always given me pause with jogging is how difficult I find it to be. From the beginning back in 1977, it has been more often that not, an excruciating discipline for me to maintain. I have kept hoping it would get easier. It never has. Yesterday morning things were particularly bad.

To beat the forecasted ninety-plus temperatures, I did get out early. At the path around an office park lake where I go when I run without a partner, a few people, mostly geezers like me, were walking their three-quarter-mile laps. After some perfunctory stretching; I’ll do anything to delay the onset of the anticipated discomforts to come, I willed myself to begin running. It was awful. My body went into immediate rebellion. My joints, my leg muscles, my very being began signaling that I should not be doing this. How can persisting in anything that feels this bad possibly be good for me?

I promised myself that if I could complete this one lap, eight or so long minutes of red zone discomfort, I would reward myself by stopping and walking the second lap. As I approached that longed-for point, I found myself wondering if there was any way I could actually continue jogging. Things had not improved much, if at all, but something told me I might be able to keep running just a little further. I struck the usual bargain with myself, I would carry on until I could not.

Toward the end of my second lap, it began to rain. I was saved. I had an honorable out. Even dumb animals know enough to get in out of the rain. As I jogged toward my car, the rain got heavier and I realized that it felt wonderful on my overheated body. What the hell! I threw my iPod and my wet T-shirt into the car, and went back out on the path to try and continue my laps. It never did get any easier but running bare-chested in a drenching summer rain put a magical gloss on the sense of being alive, of being outside, alone on a July morning and of letting the cool rain pour on down upon me. It took another two full laps of hard going to complete my allotted forty minutes. It was finally over. I had done it, and I knew contrary to common sense, it had been an experience I would not have wanted to have missed.

A Lapsed Anti-Anti-Catholic

Despite my growing up utterly immersed in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (twelve years of Catholic education and degree from a nominally Catholic college) I never really got the idea of my place in a cosmology that included anything remotely like a personal God.

All the peripheral stuff of a religious life, the rituals, the rules, the concepts of sin, limbo and pagan babies, all of it simply eluded me. And unlike many of my fallen-away contemporaries, I never looked back in anger. While religion never became in any way an essential part of my life, I bore it no ill will. In fact, my view of the Church was a fundamentally benign one, and when the subject of religion did come up, I almost always gave Catholicism the benefit of the doubt. I was for want of a better phrase, “an anti-anti-Catholic.

In the public donnybrook that is the current “God Debate,” the British literary theorist, Terry Eagleton, himself a one-time Catholic, came out swinging, landing, if you agreed with him, solid blows to the facile atheism of such public intellectuals as Richard Dawkins and Chistopher Hitchens. Eagleton dismissed today’s fashionable atheism as having been gotten “on the cheap,” of it proponents having failed to do the intellectual heavy-lifting required to sustain such a position in the face of the ineluctable mysteries of human existence. Eagleton slyly evades stating his own point-of-view on the larger issue of the existence of a God.

In my own reactions to the glib proclamations of secular humanism, particularly those directed at the Roman Catholic persuasion, I have found of late that the ground beneath my long held positions has gotten rather shaky. The Vatican’s unconscionable behavior in the matter of clergy sexual predations followed by the recent astounding comparisons of the ordination of women with the sexual abuse of children was my last straw. I have begun to sense that we may be entering the first stages of a Second Reformation. And in this coming sea change, the Vicar of Rome and his cohort will no longer be able to bank upon my qualified support. Thanks be to God, or to whomever.

Hockey! I Know Nothing, Nothing At All.

Thirty-five years of some degree of obsession with ice hockey, and I have reached a conclusion that I know nothing of the game, and I am beginning to suspect that nobody else does either.

Montreal’s last-place entrance into the Eastern Conference playoffs was followed by their eliminating the league’s first-place Washington Capitals, and then doing the same to the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Improbable? Inexplicable?

Then the hometown team, the Philadelphia Flyers caps a season of under-achieving by sneaking into the playoffs, defeating their old nemesis, the New Jersey Devils in the first series, and then… they come back to win another series, this one against the Boston Bruins in a Game Seven, after being three games down in the series and three goals down in the first period of the seventh game. It’s fun. It’s exciting, but it is also confounding. These things do not seem to happen in most other major league sports, or at least not as frequently as they do in hockey.

Now to add mystification to my confusion, the Eastern Conference Finals between the Flyers and Montreal open with the supposedly spent Flyers, playing on one day’s rest, zapping the supposedly rested and ascendant Canadians six-to-zero, and then three-to-zero in the second game. And then, they get to walloped five to one in the third game. And then… Fortunately, I’ve never been tempted to bet on an NHL game. At this writing the Flyers won Game Four beating the Habs three-zip, to take a series lead of three games to one.

This afternoon, the Blackhawks won the Western Conference Series and now await a Cup round against either the Flyers, or will it be the Canadians? I would not venture a dime on any predictions.

An Imperfect Perfection

Five years ago, I attended the Metropolitan’s “Vincent Van Gogh, The Drawings.” The continuing pleasure I’ve gotten from the show’s soft cover catalogue has vastly out-weighed the money spent.

On my most recent go-through of the almost four-hundred-page volume (116 plates and 268 figures) I find myself stopped, as I was at the show itself, at Plate 32, “Standing Female Nude Seen from the Side.” There is something obviously wrong with the drawing. The most casual glance will fall immediately upon the oversized left foot and the protruding anatomically incorrect right leg. The distended abdomen and its connection to the angled buttocks just might be a physical impossibility.

The catalogue’s curator, Sjaar van Heugyen writes that the drawing, “…makes no concessions to the expectations of the academy,” and that “realistic expression prevails over anatomical correctness.” It could be that it is that same dominance of “realistic expression,” and even what the same curator describes as “the somewhat ‘unfortunate’ right leg,” that are integral in separating this remarkable and stunning little work from so many lesser, but academically and anatomically correct drawings.

Having spent more time than I wish to admit, relative to the results achieved, in sketching, drawing and rendering, I would offer that this simple graphite study, despite its flaws, is one of the most arresting and beautifully executed drawings I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem that there is a single change or correction that could in any way improve this work as it stands.

More Snowboard Diaries

On the second Tuesday of March, my 2009-2010 season of snowboarding went into its finale. In the company of my ever resilient and innovative snow sports buddy, an aging Bode Miller wannabe, I set out for glory in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Up early after over-nighting in Littleton, New Hampshire, and barely fortified by the hotel’s skimpy continental breakfast, we headed east through the splendor of the White Mountains National Forest to the Bretton Woods Ski Area. Just across the road lay the dowager Mount Washington Hotel, site of 1944 Bretton Woods Economic Conference. One of the old guys working in the ski area parking lot engaged us in conversation. When we expressed our preferences, cruising the easier runs, he recognized fellow geezers and said with a grin, “you’ve come to the right place, welcome to Mount Medicare.”

A perfect day with perfect weather, perfect conditions and no crowd. We chose a three-mile Blue intermediate trail from the top to start our day, a beautiful woodsy trail with pines, white birches and awesome views of snow-covered Mount Washington. I rode like a god. For over four hours, I charged the long, rolling novice and intermediate runs, putting on what I felt was a spectacle of performance art, of balletic grace and of adrenaline-fueled speed. There were several incursions onto the more challenging Black Diamond or “expert” runs where I now found myself handling this type of formerly anxiety-producing terrain with a new-found aplomb. I was atop my game and I kept going back out until I could hardly stand on my board. My partner and I, he’s a hot skier, got separated early, but periodically he would come rocketing past me at his signature mach-plus speeds. Not bad for a guy closer to sixty than fifty. When we finally quit for the day, both of us confessed to having nothing left in the tank. It had been one for the memory banks.

I still am having trouble processing the reality of just what it is I am actually doing on a snowboard. I am in my early seventies and sad to say, I have never truly felt accomplished in any of the things I’ve set myself to do. Where I had some measure of success, professionally and academically, I’d always felt myself the imposter. Worse yet in my attempts at art and music, areas in which I earnestly sought self-definition, I had been forced after years of disciplined application to admit defeat. Only with writing have I come to feel a sense of a journeyman’s level of competence, but even there I remain plagued with doubts.

I began skiing forty-six years ago, and despite showing no discernible facility for it, I found enough pleasure in it to persist at it for decades, finally reaching a skill level that might be generously rated “intermediate.” In my mind however, I knew perfectly well the tenuousness of that designation. I never skied with the confidence and certainty that is the hallmark of competence. My switch to snowboarding was marked by an even worse learning curve than the painful process I’d encountered in learning to ski, and I remain to a some degree genuinely clueless as to what accounted for my doggedness, despite the painful evidence of my unsuitability for riding a snowboard.

In my twelfth season of snowboarding, the season before this one, I’d reached a skill level comparable to the peak levels of my years of skiing, but my riding continued to leave me far from satisfied. There were still too many white-knuckled descents of slopes I should have been able to competently and comfortably negotiate. But on a sunny morning in January a year ago, early enough that the lifts had just begun to run, at a smallish ski area in Pennsylvania’s Pocono region, I sensed that something different was happening, that I had begun to break through the invisible barrier separating me from my snowboarding dreams and ambitions.

The snow that morning was crisp and groomed, a perfect corduroy-like surface, one as yet untracked by anyone’s skis or board. As I cut my third or fourth turn on the sunlit surface of the fresh snow, I experienced for what seemed the first time in my life, a sense of unflawed mastery in what it was I was doing, a feeling of seamlessness motion, a continuity of form, the perfect ecstasy that had eluded me in my over four decades of skiing and riding. The morning passed in dream of giddy self-awareness. I couldn’t believe that it was finally happening. And, I was alone with nobody to tell. Even when I began to tire, the level of my riding continued to peak, each run marking a new personal best. I didn’t stop for water, coffee or to take a leak. I continued to push out my own edge with every run until my body rebelled and I knew I had to stop or risk serious injury. Two days later I was back, a two-hundred-and-seventy-five-mile round trip drive, just to authenticate the near-miraculous experience of the previous outing. The first set of turns on my first run told me the transcendent joys of two days before had been no pipe dream.

The rest of that season and all of this season have been an orgasmic continuum of new peak experiences. I kept pushing out my envelope, if only by the smallest of increments, I keep going faster, I keep staying closer into the fall line and I feel like my mind and body, my entire being, is instantaneously computing the dynamics of my descents in real-time at what seem to me to be astonishing rates of speeds. And I know that I am doing it with an elegance and grace I’ve never before known in anything I’ve ever done in my more than seventy-two years of being alive. There is a constant accompanying whisper in my head, rooted in an awareness of the utter improbability of what I am doing. It’s a voice of long, sad experience, one that keeps warning me that at any instant this could all come to a very bad end. I acknowledge the validity of the warning. I make note of it. But in the end I pay it no heed. How could I?

Crashing for the night at a friend’s house just over the border between New Hampshire and Maine, we were up at first light to be back in New Hampshire, this time at Wildcat Mountain. In its New England purity, Wildcat Mountain can be a bit intimidating. I feel most comfortable on the Blue trails, the intermediate runs, which on many mountains can be less than advertised. Too many Blues can be ego runs, challenging in spots but largely made up of terrain more appropriate to advanced beginners than for truly intermediate skiing or riding. At Wildcat the intermediate runs are true New England Blues, not exactly the pulse-raising difficulty found on the Black Diamond or “expert” slopes, but challenging enough in their demands and intensity that you relax or take them lightly at your own peril. If you are not a reliably intermediate skier or rider, these babies will put some manners on you.

Feeling somewhat debilitated from my over-exertions of the previous day at Bretton Woods, I planned my Wildcat outing with energy conservation in mind. It would not do to go flat-out on my first few runs and have nothing left in the tank for the rest of what was probably to be my last riding day of the season. I thought, take it easy, Greens and Blues with frequent rest stops on each descent, moderation, a program of good sense befitting my advanced years.

During our ascent on a quick quad chair, a twenty-one-hundred-foot vertical rise to the summit, my enthusiasm began to overcome my pledges of self-control. What a day, dead calm, bright, warm sunlight and what looked to be absolutely perfect snow conditions. Oh boy! Oh boy! With my rising euphoria rapidly undermining all good intentions of restraint, I followed my wildman skiing pal onto a long, twisty utterly gorgeous intermediate run, forested, exciting and unbroken from top-to-bottom. The instant rush of exhilaration that came with the first toe-side turn of my board, gripping the crunchy, sparkling surface of pristine, freshly-groomed snow, sealed the agenda for the day. For as long as I could sustain it, it was going to be flat-out, balls-to-the-wall, screaming, non-stop, adrenaline-pumping fun from summit to base.

Gathering my wits I realized that I had to tone this thing down if I were not going to burn myself out in the early hours of the day. On my buddy’s advice, he’s an old Wildcat veteran, I chose “Polecat”, a full twenty-one-hundred-foot vertical, top-to-bottom Green run, a run in three distinct segments, Upper, Middle and lower Polecat. My friend briefed me that while Polecat was rated “novice,” I should not be too complacent in running it. Polecat he asserted, had an “intensity” to it, and I would be wise to spend a few runs just trying to get a good read on it. Sound advice.

What I discovered was that Polecat was filled with little surprises, all of them fun. Each of the three segments contained interesting variations of drop, of terrain and of difficulty. Nothing extreme, but always enough to keep me alert and focused. After three runs, I was ready to show Polecat some of my newfound performance art, some figures, arcs, rhythms all executed within a context of reconciling the antithetical concepts of speed and control into a harmonious synthesis of form and grace, a creative act, a work of art if you will, all kinesthetic connectivity at brain-melting speed. Each turn became a small jewel of excitement and pleasure. With my heel edge engaged to control my downhill slide, I look to my left and pivot my upper body, turning the board across the fall line while transitioning to my toe-side and engaging that edge to better control my speed as I traverse across the face of the downward slope. The physical movements are an unbroken stream, sinuously fluid and effortless. Accelerating rapidly, I turn back across the hill, the time between turns shortens to eye-blinks as I go faster and faster. I am still in control of my descent, but just barely. I’ve entered a zone of personal transformation and transcendence. My grown son, no mean snowboarder himself, noted that when I start going on like this, getting all cosmic about snowboarding, I sound like one of those glassy-eyed old surfer dudes. The day ends too quickly and with it, my season.

I feel much like an old golfer, a duffer, who after a lifetime of dragging his clubs around the course, suddenly finds that he’s consistently hitting that sweet spot on the ball. That old golfer knows he’s never going to make the tour, and I know that I’ll never ride an X-Games half-pipe. But that’s of no matter at all. While my snowboarding, like all such things worth doing, will continue to be a work in progress, I do have difficulty believing it can get any better than it is now. Again, no matter. If I just keep can snowboarding, if I can get in just one more season, or even a part of one more season of riding, I go out a champion, smiling and without a complaint.

Who Knew?

Driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike with Wilco in the CD player, I became aware that visually, Winter has begun to dominate the landscape. The remains of Autumn have become more and more vestigial. Like most such observations, this one led on to another.

There in the heart of some of the worst of the country’s post-industrial mess, the NJ Turnpike driving south between Exits Twelve and Four, I discovered that the late-November weeds, shrubs and trees flanking the highway were simply gorgeous. The season’s first really hard freeze has yet to occur and the muted colors of the foliage, now fading to near monochromatic browns, are still infinitely varied. The seemingly random arrangements of different species of grasses, plants and trees combine in a natural architecture, offering surprising and beautiful configurations of shapes and values.

All of the above emerged at seventy-miles-an-hour, amid the eighteen-wheelers, clots and breaks of traffic and hidden within an overall surrounding environment of sprawl and clutter. Hmmm.


Time to take a break from twenty-months of blogging. Time to finish up a long-delayed project, that of seeing a book, completed over five years ago, into print. Hope to be back to the Compost Heap before the end of 2009, maybe dropping something into the pile occasionally between now and then.

Oh No! Not Another Playlist?

images1. Like a Hurricane – Neil Young Unplugged
2. How to Live Alone – The Pernice Brothers
3. Desperate Man Blues – John Fahey
4. Whether or Not It Matters – The Kingsbury Manx
5. All You Hide – Lenola
6. Wonder Struck – George Shearing
7. Red Dust – Calexico/Iron and Wine
8. Medication – – Son Volt
9. Down Colorful Hill – Mark Kozelek
10.Live Wire – The Meters