Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another Referential Misfire: On Vishvington

As in the last posting, I would like to recount an example of a language flub that I experienced not so long ago.

Like I wrote last time, we pride ourselves as superior to the apes for our use of language, among other things. And we are so accustomed to assuming we understand each other that when we do not, it throws us well off our pace. At least that happens to me sometimes.

Ten years ago, around 2000, I was in the thick of another publishing project that to me was very illuminating but onerous in its workload and responsibility. So there were times when I felt an exhaustion that had some effect on my reception of certain communications.

It was sometime in January-February of that millennial year. My ‘86 Nissan pickup was parked in the front lot of the building where I worked, in a section of New Jersey not far from Manhattan. It had begun snowing and sleeting rather heavily about 5:30 PM that night. By 6:30 I thought it was time to get back home before the roads got worse. So I jumped in the truck, started it, put it in reverse and let the clutch go. Nothing happened. I increased the gas to the engine. The truck barely moved. Uh-oh. Well I belonged to an auto club that was supposed to cover me in these situations. So I went back inside and called them to have them tow my truck to the auto repair placed I used, about ten miles from where I was.

“Is your truck parked and out of the way of traffic?” the lady on the other end of the phone asked. “Because we are keeping our trucks off the streets as much as we can in this weather tonight.” Great! When I need them, they don’t want to go out because it’s snowing. Well, the hell with them, I thought. I’m going to get this truck to the repair place if it kills me.

So I went back to my truck, got in, put it in reverse, floored it and let the clutch out. The truck began moving backwards very slowly. I finally got it into position to go forward, and it did . . . barely. By flooring it I managed to get going about two miles an hour. I barely made it up the slight incline to a stop light at the corner of the street whose name I forgot, but the light was red and I had to stop. By the time it turned green, the incline made it impossible to turn left like I needed to. I had to turn right, where the incline tilted downwards. So I did. It was a two-lane highway and cars were speeding past me in the fast lane, honking their horns while I plodded along at two miles an hour, the engine straining at full throttle, smoke beginning to come out of the hood. The sleet and snow had begun coming down even harder and visibility was bad. The road was very slippery. I was going the opposite direction from where I wanted to be. It was bad. I swore to myself.

Finally after an agonizing amount of time I managed to cover a half mile. There was a gas station on the right! It was a concrete island with two pumps and a little shack-like building where the cash register was. That was it. As I slowly pulled into the area to the side of the pumps, engine straining to the max, smoke coming out of the hood in billows, crawling along at a snail’s pace, the gas station attendant, a fellow in a turban and a longish gray beard, looked at me with some kind of perplexity and hostility combined.

I stopped the truck and got out.

He motioned to the truck,
“No service!
Gas only!
No parking!”

I tried to explain to him that my truck was in trouble and I needed to at least use the phone.

“No phone!” he shot back at me.

Then he motioned to a phone booth about 100 yards away, at the corner of the wide empty paved expanse.

“Pay phone!” he shouted, a kind of crazy look in his eyes.

I wasn’t going to argue. The sleet was falling in buckets. Luckily I had a lot of quarters in my truck’s ash tray. I got them and schlepped over to the booth, called the automobile club again and explained to them that I had tried to get the truck to the repair place but that it was disabled now in a spot where I was not permitted to remain.

“Where are you located?” asked the lady.

I named the town, and then realized I had never really memorized the name of the road I was on, even though I travelled down it every weekday. I told her to hold on, and walked the hundred yards back to the pumps, where the guy in the turban eyed me suspiciously.

“What’s the name of this road?” I asked.

“Vishvington!” he shot back loudly and angrily.

I plodded back to the booth, explained to the lady on the phone “I’m on Vishvington.”

“How do you spell that?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Hold on again,” I answered and walked back the 100 yards to the guy. He was looking increasingly infuriated with me and I wasn’t sure why.

"How do you spell 'Vishvington?'” I asked.

That was the last straw. He flipped his veritable lid and screamed “VISHVINGTON!!! VISHVINGTON!!! DEEE PRESIDENT!!!!!”

Oh, shit. I was on Washington Avenue! I went back to the phone booth and told the lady. And you know what? We both started laughing uproariously. It was funny!! I had sooo misunderstood the guy. And it all just seemed so ridiculous, in the middle of this God-forsaken blizzard.

So I waited an hour over to the side in my truck and the tow truck finally came. It turned out the driver still wasn’t allowed to take me the ten miles to the repair place. So he ended up towing me back the ½ mile to my original spot, in the parking lot where I worked!!! After all that.

I had to call a cab and the next day the tow truck came back after work and took me to the repair service place. Turns out the clutch had failed all at once. That was what was wrong. They fixed it in a few days and I was back in action.

But to this day I still laugh when I think of that guy and the look on his face when he screamed at me “VISHVINGTON!! VISHVINGTON!!! DEE PRESIDENT!!!”

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Referential Misfire

Language is what makes us better than apes. One of the things, anyway. And when language goes wrong, when we say the wrong thing or we mishear what is said, it can teach us something about who we are. And it can make us laugh. I have two referential misfires that occurred in my recent past that can still get me chuckling to myself. Here is one of them. The other next time.

It was a Monday morning in February, I believe. The year was 1991, I think. I was working for the book publishing division of a prominent science publishing company. They were located on Madison Avenue in New York and at the time I was living at a suburban apartment complex in New Jersey. I had been working for this company for around two years and the commute was a killer. If I drove to and from the Park and Ride lot in North Bergen during regular rush hours, my combined trip lasted as much as three to five hours, a huge chunk of daily life. I had recently been promoted and needed to put in long hours to keep things hopping.

I decided that, in order to beat traffic and to give myself the office time I really needed to get everything in order, I would arrive at the Park and Ride depot for the first bus into the city, which was 6:00 AM. Then I’d leave the office around 8:00 PM and catch the 8:30 bus back to North Bergen.

So it was a Monday morning in the middle of winter. I got up around 4:30, shaved and showered in a foul mood and left the apartment building on my way to my truck, which was parked in the lot outside. It turned out it had been sleeting all night and there were huge patches of black ice lurking on all the paved surfaces. The building superintendent was still sleeping and had not put down any sand or salt. The moment I left the sidewalk and stepped into the lot, I slipped and bashed my left knee painfully onto the asphalt. Man, it hurt! I was seeing stars! Nothing seemed seriously amiss, except for the throbbing pain, so I got into my truck and hot-foot-it down Route 23 and eventually to North Bergen.

I had worked in the city in 1975-76, then went to New York University, and now had made the commute for several years to Madison Avenue. I had used the Park and Ride lot off and on during all these times. At the entrance to the lot was a booth where you paid your $6 and received the round-trip bus ticket from the guy that was manning the post. Now over the years there was a fellow who had worked there since ancient times and I had gotten on a familiar basis with him.

Because I always tried to be creative in my life, and thought spontaneity was a good thing, I made a point of trying never to say the same thing to the ticket booth guy when we met every day. Because of the icy conditions that morning I arrived right at 6:00. I wanted to explain to him what had happened to me that morning, but I guess I was tired and it came out all wrong.

I greeted him with:

“Hey, I just took a dump in the parking lot!”

Of course, it should have been:

“Hey, I just took a spill in the parking lot back home. I hurt my knee!”

Anyway, the bus was there and was just about to leave. He gave me my ticket and gave me a look that said:

“Well, don’t expect me to clean it up!”

There was no time to explain. I took the ticket in silence, raced the truck to a parking slot and got on the bus just in time. After that, he always looked at me like I was nuts, and I limited my greetings to “good morning,” robotically, predictably and safely.

I got into Manhattan about 6:10. Walking the empty streets to 27th and Madison, the steam emitting from the Con Edison conduits, the pavements shiny with wet and ice and multi-yellow with the reflection of streetlights, it occurred to me in a kind of revelation just how much I hated my life. All my life’s energy was being sapped by the commute, the daily grind. There was nothing left. I didn’t have a life at all. And my spontaneity with the poor guy at the booth was about the only thing creative I had left in me.

At the same time my referential misfire was funny as hell to me and so at the same time I laughed uproariously while walking down Madison Avenue around 6:30 that morning, the madman of Manhattan!

That morning and in days following, I resolved to do something about the life I was living.

It took many years to get back to where I should have been in 1991. And I still remember that morning when I have doubts of what I’ve made for myself since then. I compare now with that “dump” and feel much better. The pain in my knee comes back to me every so often. I can’t play softball anymore. But I have my life back.

Friday, January 8, 2010

The World Takes on Color at 13

The summer of 1965 to me was huge with anticipation. And it was the last summer of adolescence in some ways, for me at least. There I was, some dufus kid graduated from Stonybrook and I had the summer to more or less fluff off or whatever kids were suppose to do.

So I went fishing—by myself. I’d take out our rowboat and bring along my prized farmer’s alarm clock to mark time and make sure I docked in time to catch the ride back home from my father. I think the clock scared the fish. I never caught anything but that pre-dusk stillness. I caught that every time. A few plops of fish coming to the surface, the echo of a few kids left on the beach, the arc of the sun and the oddly bright shadows it left on the rocks on the then uninhabited side of the lake. Then home and down in the cool damp basement feeling a little creaky from the day, playing solitaire, watching TV, eating potato chips. The teen castle of HIGH SCHOOL was going to be there in September and we 7th Graders had better be ready!! How? Who new?

So I hung out with a kid named John that summer—he lived across the street from me. Man could that family eat! His father was always accusing him of taking “those stupid pills” whenever they were doing yardwork.

He and I went camping in August, actually only a few hundred yards into the woods behind his house and he brought pancake batter. Somehow we managed to get leaves in it and it was a hell of a wait before it was light enough to have an excuse to fix breakfast, but no matter. They were some funky pancakes.

I had a crush on someone that summer—big time. I finally sent her a letter in August. And she wrote back!! Now I knew September was going to be BIG!

Well, I had to have some cool clothes if I was going to make the scene on that first day. I found a red turtleneck sweater, the height of coolness, at Levine’s, and black chinos. I was ready! I was terrified!

The summer flew by. Some kind of innocence, early geekhood, that was all about to end.

Then, there it was, that first day of school. Donning my red turtleneck and my chinos I reported to Homeroom 322. The upperclassmen were so BIG. So we, the 322 group of little weasels, sat there that first morning, wondering what life would be like. In came in T. Hoyt Walker. Wow. He got our attention by speaking in as quiet a tone of voice as he could. “My name is Mr. Walker. . .” He wasn’t like the Stonybrook teachers. He was weird. So, bells would ring and we would fly all over the place to get to the next class and those big high school folks would be walking the same halls, looking down at us from their incredible six or more feet. If you ran into Big Fred in the hall, you ran into something! Man!

A few weeks into the year an eighth grader approached me, Bob, saying he was forming a band that would play the 7th-8th grade dance in October and he heard I played drums. Well, sure I was interested. He played rhythm guitar, Bill was on lead, then a bunch of other neighbors were trying to play but eventually got embarrassed and never showed up. So I looked in the dictionary for a name. Found one that everybody liked—we were the Aztecs. Our song list then had stuff by the Ventures, the Beatles, Stones and the Beau Brummels, and we practiced hard. My drum set was half-Slingerland, half-Ludwig and came from around 1955, or earlier, I guess. I bought it at Robbie’s Music Hall in sixth grade and I remember looking at the Beatles album cover Something New to figure out how to set it up—like Ringo did! It was my favorite thing from then, no doubt. We were slated to play the dance in the cafeteria—a place of much importance for all of us from 7th to 12th grade. There was that little stage and that’s where we set up to play. Whew what a rush it was playing that first October dance. Cal, the upper-classman old guy who had a column in the Trends newspaper on local bands was the DJ during intermission. One of the first records he played was “Turn Turn Turn” by the Byrds and it flabbergasted me! I had never heard anything like it before. Or after.

We played the Christmas dance and by then we had added Blaine and Jeff on vocals (sort of like a Righteous Brothers deal) and Scott on third guitar (nobody knew how to play bass then!). Well that one was in the cafeteria too. We started wearing velour shirts with the zip down collar and we thought that was cool.

And right around then I was amazed to find that I had a girlfriend! Not the one I had a crush on five months before—instead someone I didn’t even know until high school.

Well we added Bill II and Lee to the group, started sounding pretty good, and played a couple of dances in the gym. By the end of the year, it was all over. To me, everything after was anti-climax. I was in several really good bands afterwards and yeah, we played the cafeteria dances—one with Rick and Steve, one with Bob and Jeff, one with Lee and Jeff. Oh yeah, then there was that last one, Orchard—Chris, are you reading this???—but we played the gym three times that last year, no cafeteria.

And our semi-final act as the class of ’71 was the Senior Breakfast in the cafe. I remember looking around at all of us, astonished that this was the end. We had traveled so far as a class since that first day in 7th grade, taken our stupid pills (or not), had our romantic intrigues, learned something (not a lot for me—I think I learned more outside of high school in my spare time than I did in school, in retrospect), grown several inches taller, eaten copious quantities of cafeteria food, changed into scores of different outfits over the years, and the Beatles had already made their final album. It was all over.

Still, that first year, 1965-66 was the year I won’t forget quickly. They say the first time is the best. That was the first time for me. The first time for just about everything.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Bicycle Safety Assembly, or My Brush with the Future

It was around 1962-1965 that the future as concept really started hitting home to me. I was in 4th or 5th grade at a suburban New Jersey elementary school. The usual sort of place, red bricks, playground/fields in back. There was a day back then that remains in my memory.

It was a spring morning, if I recall correctly. It was a school day and the bus picked us up at the usual time. Years later they built a house where the bus shelter was, but the brown shelter back then was our little haven and a literary sounding board, so to speak. It had various kinds of kid graffiti inscribed inside it, on the walls.

We were all on our way to Stonybrook School. Our usual bus driver was on the job, a guy with thinning red hair, slicked back. He usually wore some kind of cap. The bus itself was one of the earlier GM ones with a triangular window for the speedometer, a defroster that consisted of a round fan on the driver side with a heating element within. These earlier buses did not let off a flatulent blast when shifting from first to second, like the later ones did. The seats were flat and uncomfortable, brown with some kind of simulated leather.

We arrived as always to the long, narrow paved disembarkation point with its overhanging part-roof-on-poles at the front of the school. The school flag was raised, indicating that today was an “out day,” a day when the weather was OK and so we could run around a little in the playground after lunch. The trip from my house in the local hill region and the school, on the eastern edge of the lake area, was a long one, and because of the Jetsons spaceport look of where the buses let us off, I used to pretend that the bus was a spaceship and that the school was another planet. Hey, it felt like it sometimes, anyway, even after we got there.

Once we had pledged allegiance to the flag and what-not there was an air of excitement as our teacher let us know that there was going to be an assembly that morning. I don’t remember which grade I was in. Either Mrs. Aldrich, Mrs. Kitchell, or Mr. Kramer announced it. So eventually we all dragged our little chairs with the orange plastic butt-buckets and aluminum legs out into the hall (where some kid had probably puked earlier), as we rounded the hall towards the gymnasium/auditorium we could experience the olfactory sensation of the overripe, overcooked concoction that was to be our hot lunch. Don’t get me wrong, I loved that stuff! We were big kids once they let us eat hot food like that! And it was all thanks to Lawrence Schwimmer, Cafeteria Manager, who deigned to sign the lunch tickets!

Anyway around and into the auditorium, to the rhythm of a John Philip Sousa march played on the PA system, the hardwood floor showing the various boundary lines for basketball even though most of us were a little too physically retarded as yet to play that game. There was a wooden door on the corner of the gymnasium with a tiny rectangular window and written in bold black letters, “Physical Education.” At least in fourth grade, I had no idea what that meant. So it scared me a little. It still doesn’t make complete sense to me. Physical Education? Sort of like Music for the Nose. Or Head Shoes. The two things don’t really go together.

On the stage there stood a shiny new bicycle, complete with mud flap, twin side mirrors and raccoon tail, I think. Those in the know (5th or 6th graders) had already experienced this annual bicycle safety assembly. This was what we all were about to witness. That room had a stage and curtains. The curtains were open; the bike perched in the center, American flag on the left. There were many events held in that room that I can remember. The class plays (I was a pilgrim in one; a Chinese drummer in another), the music concerts, puppet shows on Saturdays (Pinocchio, anyway), the Pinewood Derby, sometimes movies on Saturday afternoons, starting with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. During the regular school week we saw the educational movies done by Bell Telephone on the human body (“rub-dub” was what the heart would say). This day it was about our bikes.

With an introduction by Principal Greed (our personal representative for the Seven Deadly Sins, and one of the more appropriate ones for this time and place?) out of the way, a local policeman proceeded to run down, point by point, what we needed to consider when riding a bike—have red reflector, don’t wear black, drive against traffic, etc. The harangue finished—every year it was virtually identical—we all clapped. But it was the clapping itself and what followed that I can’t seem to forget. We didn’t clap in the regular, anarchic way, like on, say, the Ed Sullivan show. We clapped in unison, rhythmically, and I’m not sure why. Clap-clap-clap-clap. It wasn’t that we especially enjoyed the presentation. It was pretty perfunctory. Were we being sarcastic? Was it just a spontaneous experiment in kid-crowd-behavior? Well Mr. Greed did not like it one bit. He froze us, waving both arms, shouting “Children! Children! Stop it! That’s the way they clap in Russia, not America!!!”

I was puzzled. Who were these people, really, and why did they clap this way? Why couldn’t we? What were these people like? From the absolute terror on Mr.Greed’s face, they must have been frightening people indeed. That clapping was just the beginning—and we had fallen prey to their influence somehow. God knew what other horrors were to come. It was Mad Magazine and Rocky and Bullwinkle that had poisoned our minds. Of course Greed never explained further and all it did was make you think of some very, very bad people in that place that clapped funny and we were all in for it!!!! From that day at least, I knew our future involved some inevitable direct clash with evil, these people clapping funny and aiming their rockets at us, preparing for the big invasion, etc. By that time, I think, Martian cards were out and the graphic war between the formidably armed USA and the horrific aliens with their exposed brains and ray guns was elaborated scene-by-gruesome-scene. And that’s what I thought of when I imagined the coming war. I used to go down in the family basement and see in the little alcove in the work area the couple of cans of tomato soup that were there for us when we were to go into hiding during the nuclear finale. I didn’t feel reassured. I felt sick to my stomach.

At the same time the space age was in full flower. I watched every launch like all of us did, mesmerized. Some future world where we all drank Tang, ate food out of toothpaste tubes, wore aluminum foil suits and lived in empty minimalist white rooms with not much furniture and one big-ass TV, that was one future I thought was surely coming. The cold war as we grew up gave us another possible future. The drills where we crouched and faced the hall cinder blocks, head down, thinking about it and what it meant. The future was either going to send us to Mars or drop a big H-Bomb on our heads. There seemed little doubt that it was one or the other.

As we grew up there of course was Vietnam, all sorts of crises and indirect conflicts, but the really big war and the big bombs never came, thank God. I must admit that I was absolutely shocked when, seemingly without warning, the USSR just crumbled with a whimper in the ‘80s. So that was one of the first important ways that the future wasn’t what I though it would be. It did not involve our perennial adversity with Russia. And with the progressive diminishing, the blunting of space-race competition with Russia, the space age more or less died along with the Cold War.

People were so giddy when the Berlin Wall came down and it all ended, some people actually started talking about the “end of history,” like that was all there was ever going to be. Not quite. As we have seen, a more sinister future is before us, something we could scarce imagine, war with a group of terrorist criminals—not a national government with its flags, uniforms and such—just a bunch of incredible thugs, worse than Lex Luther, Goldfinger, Boris Badinoff or any Cold War villains we might have grown up with. Far worse.

But the look and feel of this future we are in, funny to say, in some ways isn’t much different than it was in 1965. OK, most of us have personal computers. Laptops. Cell phones are all over the place, like in Star Trek, only they are used in the supermarket for stuff like “Hello dear, should I buy Fritos or Pringles?” And we haven’t knocked down all the old buildings, the slums look the same, cars are just recycling their looks, we don’t all live in space modules or towering aluminum thingies, our clothes aren’t much different—except of course we all wear jeans at least part of the time. The whole idea of a modern world, a world of progress, a world where everything is spanking new, shiny, beyond race, beyond class, where unpleasant work was done by machines, where the poverty and hatred in the world was eradicated, where intelligence ruled, where all energy had become solar or atomic or something other than that stinking oil-based, smelly, life- and peace-threatening stuff, where did it go? And that whole world of “love,” the hippie stuff, the version of Christianity I was taught—the Sermon on the Mount, remember? I sure don’t see much of that, especially in certain religious-political circles (ahem).

What’s more, I never thought I would ever wish that Richard Nixon was president again! At least he had some sense. A crook sure, but he knew history and diplomacy. Well, I got to feel that way in the past decade, before the last election anyway.

One more part of the future I never expected—that is the degeneration and potential death of music. At one time for better or worse every town had numerous places where live music was performed—bars, clubs, the bandstand in the park, etc., etc. The beginning of the end was Disco, which quite quickly closed perhaps half of the opportunities musicians once had. Then MTV came along and created non-music-music: music that was primarily a vehicle to sell the product of the cute plastic singers as product. Then came home entertainment centers, and now everyone stays home, buys movies and watches them 3,000 times, and it seems music is rarely listened to compared to before. Then, sorry, there’s rap and hip hop—often not really much music as far as I am concerned. OK, I try to listen. If you take a look on the Billboard Hot 100, you’ll find almost no Rock, no kidding.

And how about the news? I mean the news that used to be on TV. Why is the government-controlled BBC doing a more balanced job covering the news than we are?

OK, so I sound grouchy. But one more thing. . . when’s the last time you tried to find a Jersey Tomato—not one of those garbagy, thick-skinned-tasteless-pieces-of-junk you find in the supermarket? And what about these packages that are so hard to open up, you need the Army Core of Engineers to help???? And outsourcing jobs to the rest of the world?? We are the United States of America! We are supposed to be a free, prosperous democratic beacon that shines on the rest of the world and gives hope. (And, I must insist, where a man can open a bag of potato chips with his own two hands!!)

After all is said my mind still goes back to that school assembly. Maybe Greed was right. We shouldn’t have clapped like that. The future happened the way it did anyway, clapping or not. It’s a future that is still worth changing for the better. What grade have we as Boomers deserved for what we have contributed to the world so far? I hope not one of those D’s, of which I received a few later on in high school.

But I shouldn’t feel too badly. They started taking to calling my parents’ group “The Great Generation” a few years back. Maybe. Great for what? Look what they handed us? Sure they won a war in a big way. Then they made lots of money in the ‘50s, some of them. There’s more to life than that though. I don’t resent their legacy. I just don’t overvalue it either.

This future continues. We can help change it.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Opener: Sonic Boomer Yaks

This blog will be about "nothing." (That is, "nothing" fixed.) It will have essays and short stories and other stuff about life and the world, art, music and what I've learned or experienced as a boomer. It's pure yak, most of the time. I hope it will entertain, amuse and illuminate.