Putting our Heads Together

Putting our Heads Together
I don't think he sees me

Sunday, July 21, 2013

I’ve Got the Music in Me

My body swayed to the music only slightly more stiffly than the arm of a metronome. My feet and fingertips tapped so badly out-of-time that even my broken wrist watch could make no sense of it. Rhythm is not something I was born with, nor is it something that visits me any closer than two shuffles and slide step away. My lack of rhythm and even my difficulty in carrying a tune does not change the fact that I love music.

Saturday my wife and I (thanks to an invitation from our neighbors, Lenny and Deanna) spent the afternoon at Blues Under the Bridge in Colorado Spring. Overhead the thunder of cars traveling down Colorado Avenue went unheard. Behind the bandstand rumbling BNSF trains would elicit only cheers from the crowd. On the bandstand blues band after blues band plied their trade to our delight. There were slide steel guitars, acoustic guitars, drums, basses, and one talented band lead alternated among an acoustic guitar, an accordion, and a banjo. I loved it all.

The sound was like catching a familiar scent or feeling a familiar texture. It brought to mind that everyone has a journey with music in life. For some the path is straight with few variations (no pun intended), for some it winds wide afield straying to ever more new and interesting ground. For me the journey is winding and self-referential.

My first recollection of music is of my father singing songs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to his children. Then it was listening to him play a variety of music centered on but not limited to classical. My father gave me Simon and Garfunkel, and as I type that I can hear in my head Scarborough Fair, Bridge Over Troubled Water, Sounds of Silence, and Mrs. Robinson. He played the Carpenters frequently, and I did not realize how much I loved that music until years later when I heard that anorexia had claimed Karen Carpenter and I cried. There was even an album recorded by my father’s Central American cousin entitled With Love from Lydia. Whatever happened to that?

My brother Chris contributed greatly to broadening my musical taste by his purchases of albums by Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy, Barry Manilow, and the obtuse and satirical Steely Dan. He gave me courage to buy Rush’s 2112 which paid homage to Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and to stray over to Kiss not in spite of Beth but because of it.

College further deepened and broadened the channel music which was dredging through my life. I banded together with some local runners at Clemson to form the Outta Control Track Club and when we weren’t running we listening to Springsteen it seems. If we had an anthem at all, it would have been Rosalita, which we would often celebrate after a night of beer at the Study Hall Bar by singing it loudly, off key, and playing lead guitar on outstretched legs in the street. Clemson also made me aware of Southern Rock. No one played anything other than Lynard Skynard for the first week in the dorms (double points every time you played Freebird). After that, the music was wide open but during that first week, it was church, it was sacred. My love of Southern rock found me listening to 48 Special, The Almond Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Molly Hatchet, and more (I actually don’t think I missed a live performance of Molly Hatchet in South Carolina during the four and a half years I spent working on a four year degree).

The end of my freshman year witnessed the birth of MTV. I was mesmerized, MTV’s whole first decade was much more about the music than the schtick. Visual was added to the music and words that helped extend rather than limit the imagination. The vision of the artist could be seen and not just interpreted. I can still see the images from Peter Gabriel’s Sledge Hammer in their claymation glory.

Time has a way of fast forwarding through all things and fads. Technology which began its landslide in the early twentieth century with the car, the plane, the radio, and television didn’t and hasn’t slowed down, in fact its speed has increased to the point that we not only take it for granted, we feel each new advance is late in coming. The internet has forced MTV to become a gimmicky caricature of itself. My albums and eight tracks were swallowed by cassette tape then CD’s. In turn my CD’s have been swallowed by Itunes, cell phones, Ipods, and mp3 players (but when I peak around the corner I am more than a little self-satisfied to see vinyl making a fringe comeback).

This onslaught that has claimed and given rise to new and different media, new and alternative forms of music, became a clamber so vast I could not take it all in. I collapsed upon myself musically. I stopped listening to the radio save NPR, I retreated to my father and delved into classical. I marveled at the symphonic depths of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bach, Litz, Bartok, Vivaldi, Verdi, and so many more. I reconnected with Gilbert and Sullivan, and I have explored my new found love of Choral music (for why simply listen to Carmina Burana, Missa Papae, or O’Regan’s Threshold of the Night).

One’s roots are often where someone goes to ground, either to feel safe, or find themselves, or simply seeking something to share, to start a conversation with. This last was the case when I started singing Gilbert and Sullivan to our youngest daughter, Louise. When I came into Jean-Marie’s life, Haley and Michael were already too old to sit still for my singing, but at nearly nine Louise was still young enough that I could tell her of my childhood. I did this through singing songs from the Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, and the Mikado, and explaining their humor and brilliance to her. I let her know the high comedy of bellowing out the lines “NO SOUND AT ALL, WE NEVER SPEAK A WORD, A FLY’S FOOT FALL WOULD BE DISTINCTLY HEARD!” In doing so, I could tell her my father would sing this to me, my father gave this to me, now I give it to you. It is a joy to pass on the smiles of my past that are the basis for all the smiles since, and I took this opportunity when I had it with not only Louise, but with my grandson Russell as well. It is a gift to them that ends up being as much of a gift to me.

Fleeing from the wild expanse of contemporary music was not the safe haven I thought I was fleeing to, it turned out to be a broad and fertile landscape that even now I have only tasted portions of. My retreat taught me that there is no retreat in music, there is only exploration, discovery, and self-discovery. I can once again listen to the radio, and I find I like today’s pop music, some of its hip-hop/rap, for sure its new R&B. I am again adding to my catalog, which is to say I continue to add to my history and myself.

For more info:  Winking smile

2Cellos – Benedictus

Jeff Buckley – Hallelujah

Buckwheat Zydeco - Hey Good Lookin'

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Vinit, Vidit, Vicit


Words come haltingly, searching for their proper order. A friend of mine separated by years and the distance across the globe passed in May. I don’t know how he died, if it was from age, disease, accident, or violence. He was Kenyan, so it could easily have been any of those. His name was Julius Ogaro and we went to college together at Clemson University back in the early 1980’s.
You might be inclined to rule out age as a cause of death, but when I knew Julius, he did not even know his own age. I remember seeing a blurb about him in Runner’s World magazine about his track and field accomplishments at a junior college in New Mexico he attended prior to his matriculation to Clemson. That article said that he was thirty-five years old at the time, but who knew, he could have been seventy by now. I just know that I miss him and he is dead.
Memory is a funny thing; it is like a glass of ice water. Older memories, the more ephemeral ones comprise the water in the glass. More recent memories, more firm in detail are like the cubes floating and intermingled in the glass. No order, simply whole in their individuality. As remembrances fade, they run in rivulets of condensation on smooth glass that cannot retain, cannot keep. The ice eventually melts, memories soften and merge. My memories of Julius are melted ice,
When did I meet Julius? I don’t know exactly. He seems someone I knew all along. He was a major character in my collegiate life so full of personalities and characters. However we met, we met through running. Running was the transfiguring activity in my life that seemed destined to be one of shyness.
I was an overweight youth (now I am an overweight adult). Because my father led me to running through his love for running, I was able to use that as the fulcrum to lever the weight that kept me in self-imposed docility. Through running, instead of stepping out of my shell, I stepped into a self-surety and into a community that dragged me along in a riptide of shared endorphins. Running showed me that there was something I could call my own, and in showing me that I found other things that had been there all along that I could claim and be proud of.
Julius was a scholarship athlete on the cross country and track and field teams at Clemson, so when we met it was because we were both runners. Julius in appearance seemed all legs that moved in fluid strides, and those strides carried a smile that he gave easily and whole heartedly.
His presence was felt in cross country where in 1981 he was the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Cross Country champion. In 1980 he was the ACC Most Valuable Track Performer in large part for his winning of the 5000 meter run, 10000 meter run, and 3000 meter steeple chase at the ACC Track Championship Meet that year. During his two year career with Clemson, he set the school’s steeple chase record and held the school’s second fastest 10000 meter time.
Statistics are impersonal and define the denuded skeleton of accomplishments, but they don’t tell the story. There are stories here in his stats and in his time at Clemson that make me smile, but more importantly add dimension to the man.
When he won his ACC cross country title, there was a Dutchman on the team by the name of Hans Koeleman. Hans was an intense competitor and athlete. If memory serves (and there is some doubt in that as a generalization), Hans was the Dutch national champion in the steeple chase. On that day of the cross country championships in 1980, Hans and Julius shared the lead. Hans turned to Julius as they glided effortlessly and without challenge over grass that was a pristine green asking Julius if he wanted to tie, if he wanted to be co-champions. Julius kept pace but said nothing, Hans took this as assent. I don’t know if Julius heard Hans or not, but with a hundred meters to go he put on the afterburners and beat Hans to the tape. I also don’t know how Hans felt then, but I do know that Hans has been the staunchest supporter of Julius being inducted into Clemson’s Hall of Fame (which he was just recently named to) over the long years since college ended for the both of them.
My favorite story of Julius as a track athlete involved a spring break trip for the track team to Florida. Julius was out of shape and didn’t care. He had his own joi de vivre that nothing could penetrate. He spent the first part of his time in Florida playing in pick up games of soccer, a sport hat he loved. He once told me of a talented Nigerian friend of his who played for Clemson soccer that “he could kill you with his feet.” This was said in an awe toned high praise.
When the meet got close, he trained like a man possessed. Still being Julius, he did go AWOL in the team van the night before the meet in search of “Kentucky Chicken.” Come the meet, the out-of-shape, last-minute-trained Kenyan nearly won the 10000 meter race had he not miscounted laps and stopped one lap early. If he hadn’t stopped and had to pick up the pace again, he would have accomplished the impossible instead of just the improbable.
Julius and I talked a great deal about running. I was eager for the opinions and knowledge of such an immensely talented friend. On the subject of stretching (a holy topic to many runners), Julius told me he did not like to stretch, particularly after an event. He told me, “Teever, when I am done, I am done. I do not want to stretch after the race.” This man with so many national accomplishments to my eyewitness could not come close to touching his toes.
On one of my many training runs with Julius when it was summer and he was my roommate for summer sessions, we were running old logging trails through the woods. He was light and effortless in his tapping steps along the trail, and I was pushing to keep up. I was much more an engine of effort compared to his light steps. He said in the woods to me as we ran, “Teever, you are running so fast, I can barely keep up.”
When we finally got back to campus with barely a mile left to our run and moving side by side, fat raindrops began a sporadic decent from the clouds. Julius who hated rain took off. This man who claimed to have been struggling to keep up with me practically left a trail of molten asphalt for me to follow back to the dorm.
One weekend, I went to Toccoa, Georgia, to run a race that went from the base of a local mountain to the top. Julius did not want to compete but he did come to cheer me on. He did this by driving ahead of me to different points along the hill climb to offer encouragement to me such as, “Teever, run faster! You can beat him! Aieeeee why are you running so slow, Teever!” I was not able to beat that runner I followed so long up the course, but I finished in the top five. Still I wondered in frustration how I could have met Julius’s expectations of me.
To my amazement, this lanky man on stork legs was a “chick magnet” of sorts and enjoyed the company of women. Yet he had an innocence about him that was hard to define and led to some very interesting conversations and experiences in our friendship. Understand, that for much of the time I knew Julius in school I had never been on a date in my life much less kissed a girl. I was certainly no expert for him to turn to.
There was the time I went to Julius’s dorm to meet up with him and go to lunch. He was at his door wide eyed and told me he had been to a friend’s room and they were watching a movie (a porn flick) called “Doctor Feel Good.” He asked me in dazed earnestness “Teever, how could he put his mouth there? He does not even know where she has been!” How do you answer that?
Once this man who I knew had known women intimately had asked a co-ed out on a date. He was panicked. He fretted to me. In the end he begged off the date in his extreme anxiety. He had known the private company of women, yet he had never been on a date.
I can still picture the dorms where Julius and I were roommates but no longer know what they were called, their name lost to the sweating glass and melting ice of time. What I do remember was the end of one of the two summer sessions. It was exam time, and I was stressed with the classes I was taking (I believe they were Calculus III and Physics II). It was a large chunk to bite off for the condensed heated summer session of work. I had an exam the next day, and Julius received a call in the dorm room from a family member or friend, I can’t recall. What I do remember is that it was long distance, and he was speaking loudly in Swahili to be heard over whatever vastness was between his phone and his caller’s.
I could not take it. I was tense, unnerved, and now deprived of sleep by a phone conversation in tongues. I picked up my blanket and my pillow and made for the closet. I didn’t know what else to do, I was tired and anxious.
Shutting the door I laid down, bundling myself on the cool industrial tile and laying my head to rest on the pillow. I lay there angry in a disoriented search for sleep when I heard Julius finally hang up the phone. I wouldn’t get up though, I was committed to my exam induced insanity. This is what ensued:
Julius knocks on the closet door and says, “Teever, what are you doing in there?”
“Leave me alone, Julius! I’m trying to sleep!”
“Teever, get out of there.”
“No, Julius! Leave me alone!”
Silence for a few moments, then, knocking. “Teever, get out of there.”
“Julius, leave me alone. I have to sleep!”
“But Teever….”
This went on for some time, but I can no longer remember the resolution. It is, however, something hilarious to me in its remembrance.
There are more stories of my friend, Julius, but those I will save and remember as I mourn. I don’t know if I will share them ever or simply absorb them and lose them in the slack of age. For now they are what I have of him, all I have left of my friend.
Julius, I will miss you. Not just because we have shared time together, but because you were unique, caring, and childlike in many ways. Goodbye, Julius. Even in the eddy filled current of my fluid and diluted memories, I will never forget your smile, the way you said my name, and the image of you trying to touch your out-of-reach toes.