Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Straight and Narrow

My first day ever as a teacher in September 1972, I encountered s student named Larry Davis. Larry arrived to my class at Central High School in Providence a little late. Then he noted my name where I had written it on the blackboard.

“Mr. Good Guy, eh?” he said. “Do you take drugs?” (I said no.) “Smoke a little weed?” (Again, no.) “Drink booze?” (I admitted to a little.) “Fool around with the girls?” (Not really.) Then he gave me a slight shove and said, “What kind of good guy are you? You don’t do nothing!

"Mr. Good Guy"

I was reminded of this exchange last night while Audrey and I attended a workshop at the Manhattan Theater Club, where we have been subscribers for many years. The workshop was designed to help us understand beforehand some of the themes and drama techniques that would be evident in a new play called Airline Highway, which opens in a few weeks at MTC.

In a brief introduction, the workshop leader told us that many of the characters in the play are unconventional; they live “on the edge.” To help us better understand the emotions of the play’s characters, the leader had those of us attending the session split up from the partner we came with and work with someone we did not already know. The assignment: Discuss with your partner a time in your life when you pushed the envelope or did something risky or unexpected.

A time when I pushed the envelope and was unconventional? Larry Davis could tell you how easy that assignment would be for me. I’m “Mr. Good Guy,” remember (or not that good a guy).

My partner in the activity, a woman approximately my age, had no problem coming up with a tale. She immediately confided that she had been “a child of the sixties.” “I tried some drugs, took a trip or two, and lived in a group house, which my mother thought was a commune. I didn’t exactly practice free love, but I did make love in some unusual places, including a snowbank.”

A snowbank? Did I just shiver?

I replied that I, too, was a child of the sixties, but my experiences were pretty much drug- and free love-free. I was so un-sixties-like that one of my college classmates once dubbed me “Straight Louie.” I just didn’t break the rules. Yes, I smoked at dorm parties, but what I smoked was a pipe filled with Cherry Blend tobacco, or the like. Now I’m not proud of this, but it’s true. And now I was being asked to remember a time that I acted outside the lines, and, dammit, I couldn’t come up with anything that would even mildly shock my partner.
A Goodman family pot party?

I thought about the time in high school that I had taken a date out riding after a dance or movie. We drove out Abercorn Street in Savannah when that thoroughfare was just being opened up. We turned onto Tibet Road, which was pretty dark and empty. We stopped. Yes, we were parking, but we were talking and not kissing. I promise. Nevertheless, a police car pulled up alongside, and the officer got out and shined his flashlight in the window. He told us to move along. The girl and I told friends about the incident, and somehow they began spreading a rumor that we had been busted by cops while making out. To my shame, I did not really try to squelch this rumor, nor did my date. And when high school classmates gave me a small standing ovation in the halls on the following Monday morning, I just smiled.

Somehow, I could not share this story with my workshop partner, who had just described braving frostbite to make love out of doors. Instead, I described the time that I almost became part of the radical SDS on my college campus. The operative word here is almost. Of course, I didn’t join the SDS, but I did have to answer questions posed by an FBI agent once and I did get tear-gassed twice one evening during a major protest on campus—but that’s another story.
I wasn't a yippie, but I did get tear-gassed at a yippie rally.
So how did Audrey do with this activity? She also had to admit her conventionality, even to a stranger who could not have contradicted even the wildest story.

“I told her that the biggest risk I ever took was taking my first modern dance class at age 39,” Audrey recalled with a bemused smile.

Maybe we should be known forevermore as “Straight Louie and Straight Lucille.”


Thursday, March 26, 2015


If it is true that most of us use only 10% of our brain power, then I have a special handicap. About 50% of my 10% is occupied with song melodies and lyrics. I take pride in my wide-ranging song knowledge, but I realize that remembering songs is keeping my brain from focusing on other information that might be even more valuable.

Nothing is more fun than listening to the Sirius/XM station “Sixties on 6.” I grew up on those songs. I can’t claim to have “made out” to most of those songs (my making out skills were sadly lacking in the sixties), but I did dance to them and sang along while I danced. And I can still sing along today. Which is pretty amazing since I often can’t remember details about what happened in my life yesterday – or the reason I have just entered a room with great determination, only to stop dead in my tracks.

Over the past few weeks, Audrey and I have been driving to Vermont on Saturday afternoons when Lou Simon has been hosting his weekly “Sirius Sixties Survey” show. He does more than “spin the records” of that calendar week during one of the years during the sixties; he also tells great stories behind the songs. For example, just this week I learned that the real names of the singers performing “Hey, Paula” were not Paul or Paula. Their real names were Ray and Jill. But the record producer decided it made little sense to use their real names on the label. The record sold more than 2 million copies, and I’ll bet that most of us believed that it was really Paul and Paula who wanted to marry each other. (By the way, the duo had a second hit on the charts in March 1963, “Young Lovers,” but I didn’t remember that one.)
Ray and Jill pledge their love
Simon also revealed that the bass voice on “Mr. Bass Man" (song #28 last week) was also the deep voice on “Who Put the Bomp” a few years before. No, none of us need to know this stuff, but our lives are fuller with the knowledge. At least, mine is. And I’m storing the information in my 10%.

And there were more surprises. For example, the #16 song that week was “All I Have to Do Is Dream” sung by (are you ready for this?) Richard Chamberlain. He did more than break hearts and cure disease as Dr. Kildare. He also had three hits on the charts in 1963. Can anyone name the other two? Lou Simon, of course.

As Simon counted down to number one for the week of March 21, 1963, Audrey and I sang along and I reminisced. That’s what I do a lot when I listen to 60s music. And what was number one? “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. It was written by a man named Ronnie Mack, whose name impressed Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier enough to write a song called “Jimmy Mack” a little later on.
doo-lang doo-lang doo-lang
And "He's So Fine" was a key part in a plagiarism suit against George Harrison, who was part of another rock group that achieved its own fame in the sixties.
More than religion may have inspired George Harrison

Lou Simon is providing me with so much great stuff. But I wonder what my brain is giving up to make room for it all.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Back to the Future

During my academic career, my dorm rooms were burglarized twice—once during my senior year in college and once during the first three weeks of graduate school. Luckily, these were not grand larcenies because I didn’t own very much in those days. The thieves got away with a nice overcoat, a small stereo system, a clarinet that was of much better quality than the person playing it, a book of prepaid tickets for athletic events, and some assorted other items. In both cases, one thing was conspicuously left behind—my collection of opera records. Frankly, I was a little hurt. I decided that the thieves lacked class.

I have carried those opera albums with me for more than 40 years over a number of moves. They have gone from prominent places on bookshelves to storage boxes in the attic of our current home. They have been neglected but not forgotten as I moved on to cassette and then CD players.

Then, for my Hanukkah present this year, my kids gave me a new toy, a USB turntable. It’s a gizmo that looks a lot like an old-style turntable for playing LPs but includes a cable that can plug right into your computer. With that cable, it is possible to take music locked in the grooves of an old, dusty, neglected record album and turn it into digital files that can be stored on a computer and then transferred to a modern digital device such as my iPod. (Or so I read online. Frankly, it all sounds like magic to me, but I’m still amazed by modern miracles from telephones to fax machines. And don’t get me started on scanners!

 I decided I wanted the toy after reading reviews on the Amazon website. These reviews extolled the simplicity of digitizing favorite records, though they all hinted at some “minor complications.” Now, I worry about minor complications ever since the time Audrey bought some furniture items from Crate and Barrel that required “some minor assembly.” The assembly instructions were written by a Vietnamese furniture maker intent on getting back at Americans who fought a war in his homeland a few years back. I, luckily, avoided fighting in that war, but I did suffer through assembling the furniture.

I finally opened my gift this week and picked out an old favorite of arias from Madama Butterfly to serve as my guinea pig. Or was I the guinea pig? 
Butterfly finds new life in my computer
I discovered that this miraculous turntable functions in large part because of the presence of a small rubber band that fits over a spindle. I was warned to make sure that the rubber band was intact. If not, I should contact the manufacturer. It took me a while to figure out just where the band was, but luckily it was there. So much for minor assembly this time. Then I was instructed to input a software program in my computer to oversee the digitizing. I read the instructions once, twice, three times. I looked at the sample screens which didn’t quite match mine. That was because the instructions were older than my new computer. I had to go online to find newer instructions.

I won’t go into all of the boring details of my first digital transfer, but after only about 4 hours, I had brought new life to my old Madama Butterfly recording. Take that, you old thieves! But I wasn’t through. I still had to find a way to convert these files into a newer format to play on my iPod. That meant going online again, downloading a program, watching a You Tube video to make sure I was doing things right, asking my anti-virus protective software to stop flashing red warnings at me and let me download s potential virus source this one time. Of course this took more time, but what is a little time when you’re recapturing a piece of your history!
What digital music looks like on my computer screen.
Where is the magic?
In the end, I had a new recording of an old recording. And I can listen to it now as I type this overlong diatribe.

The good news is that it took only about an hour to make the next opera album transfer, though I still don’t know how to label and store individual tracks. That comes in Volume 2 of the instructions and is explained further in another You Tube video. But when I learn all of this, my family says I can play my old opera records whenever I want to—as long as I keep my headphones plugged in.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Are Boomers Bust?

At the end of The Heidi Chronicles, Scoop Rosenbaum, Heidi’s main love interest (who is, ironically, married to someone else), tells her that he has sold his influential magazine Boomer and is planning a run for Congress. The scene takes place in the late 1980s. Scoop seems poised to play a new and even more vital role in American society.

When Audrey and I first saw the play in the early ’90s, the sale of the magazine didn’t have any sinister meaning to us. It seemed like a natural progression and fit with playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s cynical view of Scoop and of American society coming out of the Reagan years.  Last night, we saw the play in its revival on Broadway, and Scoop’s decision to get rid of Boomer took on a whole new meaning. Maybe Boomers (yes, people like Audrey and me) are on our way out. Shudder!

Now I don’t think the playwright Wendy Wasserstein or even the director necessarily had this dire connotation in mind. But as an audience member in 2015, I felt it. I’d love to poll the audience that watched the play with us last night to get their opinion. They would have been a good sampling, since at least 75% of them were aging boomers like us. Most applauded loudly at play’s end, and many gave the actors a standing ovation. So maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe I’m too sensitive.

Elizabeth Moss as Heidi and women friends in the late '70s
When we first saw the play more than 20 years ago, Audrey was entranced, and I was happy to come along. Here was a play about well-educated professional women coming of age in American society, looking for their place, refusing to apologize for making that search, and establishing a strong voice. It was a fun ride from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, complete with music of each period and lots of humor and cynicism. How could it not speak to upwardly mobile Boomer women in the 1990s or even today? Not all goes well for Heidi, as she achieves professional success but laments her difficulty in finding happiness. How many Boomers does that describe! She looks for happiness in many different ways, as do the other characters. For several who do seem happy, the playwright adopts a mocking tone, showing their shallowness and implying that they don’t see the sand on which they are building foundations.

The play’s time span ended in 1989 because that is when it made its first appearance on stage. A lot has happened in America since then, and many changes have occurred in the lives of American women and gay men, the groups chiefly under focus in the play. One of the saddest changes during that time was Wasserstein’s untimely death in 2006 at age 55, leaving behind a young daughter and lots of unwritten plays. If Wasserstein were still alive, maybe she would have brought Heidi further up-to-date. Maybe she would have helped it speak to today’s Boomers more directly. Or maybe she would have written a new play about Boomers’ hopes and adventures in a new century. But the play we saw last night, while entertaining and well performed, was stuck in time, like something unearthed from a time capsule.

Several years ago, I managed to find a copy of the movie version of The Heidi Chronicles with Jamie Leigh Curtis that I gave Audrey for a Hanukkah present. We watched it and had a great time reliving our first Broadway experience. We didn’t feel any emptiness at the end. After all, you expect a movie or even a Shakespeare play to be of its time and can accept that idea. But a play about boomers who stop growing older and wiser before their time? Whose magazine is sold when then their “best years” are still to come? That can feel a little painful.
Heidi in movie form
In the final scene, Heidi and Scoop discuss their hopes that the world will be a more enlightened place for their children. They are passing the torch to a new generation (as a famous Boomer once said). But I still want to be part of the generation with a past, present, AND future. I am happy to be living in an age when being 65 is just another step toward a future. Especially when that step includes Medicare and senior discounts.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Aging Skier

I have admiration for “plug-and-play” skiers. The kind who can get out of bed, throw on their winter clothes, grab their skis and boots, head onto the slopes, take run after run with speed and grace, leave the slopes, and then move on to apr├Ęs ski fun.

That is not my process. As an “aging” skier, I have a few extra steps to undertake before I even get to the slopes. Here is how I prepared for a day of skiing when we were in Vermont recently.
Audrey heads down a trail at Mount Snow, Vermont

I got up and began an inventory of muscle and ligament pains. This can be a lengthy inventory some mornings. Then I began a stretching regimen—lift and pump the knees, do some squats, work on the lower back from both standing and lying positions, move to the knees and quads. . . well, you get the point.

Then it was time to begin putting on layers to help deal with temperatures in the single digits and winds in the double digits. Oh my! Base underwear, long wool socks, long underwear, then a turtleneck, ski pants, and a top sweater. Of course, it was at this time that I realized I had forgotten something—a new item often needed by the aging skier, a knee brace. I had added the brace after I began feeling a slight twinge on the outside of my left knee while making right turns on the mountain. Luckily, my brace is a pretty simple one, bought at the local CVS. Audrey, who strained a knee ligament two years ago, wears a much more intricate one that combines fabric, elastic, metal, and Velcro. As you can see, we are the aging ski couple.

So, I began stripping down to my base layer, pulled on the knee brace, and strapped myself in. Then I re-donned the rest of my clothes. Of course, that’s not all us skiers wear. We have boots, different types of warmers for our heads and necks, mittens, a helmet, and some goggles. Wow, no wonder I’m feeling exhausted even before I reach the mountain.

I just laughed as I reread the previous paragraph in which I referred to “us skiers.” Growing up, I never envisioned referring to myself as a skier. I can remember watching Buddy Hackett being interviewed by Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show when I was a kid. Hackett was describing skiing in Colorado, and I remember thinking “he’s old and overweight, can he really ski?” And now, sadly, c’est moi.

It is not surprising that I came to skiing late in life. After all, I had never even experienced snow until I went to college in Connecticut at age 18. And I had never even contemplated skiing before Audrey and I spent a weekend at Kutsher’s in the “Borscht Belt” at the ripe old age of 24. Kutsher’s is much better known for its overabundance of food and aging Jewish comedians than for skiing, but that’s where I began.  I tried to make my way down this tiny, snow-covered hill and fell time after time. A young boy, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, followed behind me and kept saying, “Mister, do you need some help.” I growled and tried to trip him with one of my poles, but he easily dodged around me and kicked snow in my face. I guess I deserved that.

Luckily, my skiing has improved over the years. I now consider myself an advanced beginner or a not-so-advanced intermediate skier. I try to stay away from any trail that is labeled with a black diamond or carries a name that includes any of the words death, plummet, daredevil, ripcord, holy shit, or uh-oh. As a result, I am still alive and relatively stable, though I do have this twinge on the outside of my left knee.

It is much easier to be a young skier than an aging one, but I don’t have a choice anymore. And I should be okay for many more years, as long as I remember to stretch and to put on my knee brace, and to watch out for 8-year-olds intent on kicking snow in my face.