16 March 2009

Sixes and Sevens

Since I’m a Boston area blogger, I’ll accept Gus Van Horn’s tag to come up with Seven (Possibly) Interesting Things about Me, especially since at least two of the items on his list ring true with me.

However, after coming up with six, I was getting tired and couldn’t really think of another one, so I left off there. Having written an entire essay for each one, I figured the reader would be pretty worn out after six anyway.

1. In an episode similar to Gus’ story about the monkey rings, a few years ago (when I about to turn forty, I think), I was watching the kids play on the swing set in the back yard. For some reason - not the least of which may have been that my father in law, who can still do chin-ups like a high school athlete, was looking on - I got it in my head that it would be fun to start horsing around on the monkey rings. Now, I’m a short, skinny guy, so it was easy to do a few flips, traverse the length of rings a few times, and do a couple of “iron crosses,” without a problem... until the next day. I woke up with a sharp pain in my shoulder blade that didn’t go away for a week. Then a month. Then two months.

Having grown up playing street hockey, overcoming aches and pains was kind of a way of life with me. But when I was younger, it took just about a week for the sore parts to heal - which was perfect because we generally played pick-up games every Sunday. This was different; the shoulder pain was not going away.

Sometime later, I happened to have a routine physical with my doctor and I told him about the injury. He considered all the evidence and presented this advice: “You’re forty and have a basically sedentary lifestyle. Don’t do the ‘iron cross’ on monkey rings any more.” Brilliant.

I’m happy to say that the shoulder pain eventually went away. And no, I haven’t played on the monkey rings since then.

2. Like Gus, I am negatively buoyant. Actually, I am indebted to him for providing the link to negative buoyancy because I had never heard that term before. I did not learn to swim properly as a child - I mean, I can flail about in the water, but that is not swimming. My wife and even my kids have tried to teach me, but I haven’t made much progress beyond being able to move some distance under water. The fundamental problem is that I settle way too low in the water; I am significantly more submerged than the average person. If I relax and lean my head back in a pool, my nose is about five inches below the water line.

My twin brother (who is a little taller, stronger, and faster, but built basically like me) and I took an adult swimming class together some years ago. Now, I assure you that we are both pretty coordinated and approach things with a high level of determination and discipline. The instructor was quite good and he offered a lot of clear advice about mechanics. But nothing he could teach can alter our buoyancy. After a time, he sighed and said about the two of us, “Yeah, I’ve seen this before. I’m sorry, but there’s not much I can do with you guys.”

3. I love music, though have never become accomplished at any instrument except for percussion, which I started playing in the seventh grade. My practice time dwindled down to nearly zero when I got to college, and I scarcely play at all anymore - though LB makes me play for her on her birthday every year!

I’ve dabbled a little with guitar, bass, and piano, but in no sense can I claim to know how to play these instruments. I used my guitar lessons more as a means of learning music theory than in learning to play the guitar. In the last few years, I’ve sort of taught myself violin so that I can keep up with my daughter who has been playing since she was four.

4. Speaking of music, I have some pretty widespread and eclectic tastes, the results of at least five distinct periods of my music-listening life, which could be summarized as follows: my concert/orchestral stage, my jazz/fusion stage, my art rock stage, my post-punk/industrial/hardcore stage, and finally, my renaissance of concert/orchestral music, this last of which is by far the most enduring.

My early musical influences came out of the bands and orchestras that I was playing in when I was in elementary and high school. At that time, I had favorites like Gustav Holst and Modest Mussorgsky, and because I was playing in the jazz band, I fell in love with the music of Chuck Mangione, Pat Metheny, and Weather Report. From there, it was natural for me to turn to the so-called “art rock” of the 1970’s and 1980’s - the dense, well-written, and virtuosic music of Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, and above all, Rush (see item 6). I still listen to this music from time to time today.

In my mid-twenties, I developed a somewhat surprising interest in music that is much more raw and unrefined - and in terms of specific content (such as lyrics), often revolting and utterly contrary to my philosophy. Yet within this post-punk genre, I found several groups whose music I really liked - Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Wire, Joy Division, The Legendary Pink Dots. Anyway, that phase didn’t last too long, and in the end I saw first-hand the emptiness behind most (though not all) of that music.

For the last fifteen years or so, my tastes have run back to the chamber and orchestral music of the last four centuries. Without a doubt, my favorite composer is J.S. Bach, and I also love the music of Vivaldi, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius, and Shostakovich.

5. The best car I ever owned was a 1972 Camaro SS, which I pampered and drove around for a few years when I was in my twenties. (It was identical to the one in the photo below, except it did not have the white racing stripes or the spoiler in the back.) Looking back, I have to admit that the car was running in perfect shape only about ten percent of the time; the remaining ninety percent was characterized by a succession of minor glitches that were entirely of my own doing, all pointing to my repeated violations of that universal hot rodder’s axiom: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

I ended up building a motor for the car, one of those kits that one used to be able to get from Performance Auto Wholesale. It was a great experience, though I was a little bit out of my element, having no friends or family who were particularly knowledgeable about such things. Plus, for a long while the Camaro was my only car, so the mistakes that I inevitably made had to get fixed... or else I’d have to ride my bike to work.

To this day, my drives through neighboring towns are peppered with the nostalgic landmarks of those days: here, the McDonald’s parking lot where I had to take off my carburetor to reseat the gasket; there, the overpass that I stopped under to remove the muffler that had dropped off the tailpipe, etc.

photo from Cincinnati Enquirer

Eventually my enthusiasm for spending every Saturday under my car waned. I got a much more reasonable commuter car (a VW Jetta), and (I am ashamed to admit) the Camaro ended up sitting at the end of my driveway for a number of years. The last time I opened it, there was about an inch of water on the floor in the back and some wasps had built a nest in the hinge of a door. I put a “best offer” ad in the paper and some sixteen-year old kid came to buy it. He asked me how much I wanted for it. I said, “How about fifty bucks?” He said, “How much? Sixty?” I said, “Yup.”

6. I have Rush to thank for my first introduction to Ayn Rand. I was probably about fifteen or sixteen when I bought their legendary concept album 2112. Of course, I was one of those guys that spent hours immersed in the lyrics and artwork on album gatefolds, so I wondered about this intriguing note at the top: “With acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand.” I had no idea who Ayn Rand was, but this one note piqued my curiosity enough to read Anthem, which in turn was enough to get me to read The Fountainhead. And that changed everything.

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