Tag Archives: memories

Monday Musings: Baseball, Opening Day, and Childhood Dreams

Baseball season opens this week. That might not seem like a big deal to you. And in truth, it’s far less of a big deal for me now than it used to be.

But once upon a time, Opening Day was Christmas morning and my birthday all rolled into one. It was the best day of the year that didn’t involve me getting presents. It was a day of possibility, of dreams deferred finally having their day in the sun. And, yes, quite often, it was also the day those dreams and possibilities were doused with icy water.

When I was a kid, baseball was everything to me. Sure, I had other interests, but I lived and died with the Yankees (mostly died, for the first twelve years of my life) and I dreamed of being a major league baseball player. I remember a first grade class assignment in which we were supposed to draw a picture of ourselves in whatever job we expected to do when we grew up, and then write a few sentences about that job. I drew myself playing center field for the Yankees.

I should pause here to say that I must have been truly delusional. I was a TERRIBLE baseball player as a kid. I was terrified of getting hit by the baseball. My little league at-bats were panic-inducing affairs that saw me swinging at any pitch within four or five feet of the plate so that I could strike out more quickly. The strikeout itself was a foregone conclusion, right? So why prolong the encounter and risk devastating physical injury? Every once in a while, I would screw up the courage NOT to swing and would manage a walk.

And as I trotted down to first base, marveling at the mere fact that I was still alive, my father would clap from the stands, calling “Nice going, Charlie [his nickname for me — he did, in fact, know my real name]! Walk’s as good as a hit!”

Kind, but untrue. Walks are great — on average, players who walk a lot help their teams far more than players who walk infrequently. Still, hits are better. There are stats to back this up. But I digress . . .

What about my fielding, you might ask. Well, I was already a birdwatcher by the time I was playing little league, and I spent a lot of time out in right field, watching for interesting fly-overs, and running after hit balls that were safely on the ground and decelerating, and therefore far less of a threat . . .

[I did get a little better as I grew older. I spent three summers at sleepaway camp when I was eleven, twelve, and thirteen, and during my last year there had a pretty good season. I batted over .300 — yes, I kept track; yes, I still remember — fielded well, and generally acquitted myself quite well. But I should also say that this was a camp for well-to-do Jewish kids. Not exactly the training ground for future Major Leaguers. The pitchers I faced were more likely to wind up as orthodontists than as professional athletes.]

And still, I insisted year after year that I would someday play for the Yankees. And not just at any position. I would play center field. The realm of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. As I said: delusional. My parents tried, gently, to steer me away from this dream, pointing out that baseball players — and most professional athletes — had certain skills and attributes that I lacked. Like hand-eye coordination. And height.

Joe Morgan, 1974 Topps“Aha!!” I was able to reply. “What about Joe Morgan? Two time Most Valuable Player, perennial All-Star, World Series champion. He’s five foot seven!” Besides, I assured them. I didn’t expect or need to be six feet tall. I would be perfectly happy with five foot ten, like my hero, Roy White.

Amazingly, it was this statement that my father couldn’t abide. God bless him, he was willing to put up with my elephantine blind spot when it came to my playing ability. But me growing to be five foot ten? No. This was the bridge too far. “Charlie, I’m sorry. But you are never, ever going to be five foot ten . . .”

Spoiler alert: He was right.

I did eventually get over my baseball-playing dreams. Mostly. But baseball’s Opening Day still elicits from me a different sort of dream. “This is the year!” I tell myself, literally every year. “This is the year the Yankees will dominate the American League. The Mets will dominate the National League. The two will meet in an epic seven game World Series! I won’t even care which team wins!”

So maybe I’m still delusional.

But did you know that in 1991, when the Minnesota Twins faced the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, both teams were just one year removed from last-place finishes in their respective divisions? True story. In 1969, the Miracle Mets won 100 games and the World Series, after spending their first seven years of existence at or near the basement of the National League.

And while we’re at it, did you know that Freddie Patek, shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals, three time All-Star, was only five foot five??

Anything can happen!

And that really is the point.

Look, baseball is no longer the game I worshiped as a child. Games have gotten too long and boring. Batters swing for the fences in every at-bat. Pitchers try to strike out every batter they face. The nuance and strategy that I loved — it all seems to be gone. And yet, with Opening Day approaching, I find myself dreaming of a season in which smart baseball returns, in which the obsession with power-hitting and power-pitching fades, and this amazing game returns to the subtle brilliance I remember so fondly.

Call me delusional.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: How I Started Writing — A Case Study of Dubious Worth, part IV

Continuing my series on how I came to be a professional writer . . . (Here are links to Part I, Part II, and Part III)

When we left off last week, I had just received 1) an offer to teach history and 2) a phone call from an editor at Tor Books in which said editor expressed interest in buying my first novel. These two conversations occurred within twenty-four hours of each other, and in both cases, I was given the weekend to make up my mind before informing them of my decisions on Monday.

It was a fraught weekend, though less so than one might think. The most difficult part of it was a conversation I had with my mother, who argued strongly against giving up my history career to write fiction. The more she pushed, the harder I pushed back, not because I was being contrary, but because her adamancy and my response to it convinced me that I knew already what I wanted to do. It actually wasn’t a hard decision at all. If anything, I was troubled by how easy it was for me to choose.

I’d had my doubts about the history path for several years; the idea of accepting Colorado State’s job offer filled me with dread. Writing fantasy, on the other hand, had been my dream for half my life, and now, improbably, that dream was within reach. How could I turn my back on it?

My mom didn’t understand. She felt I was being irresponsible, immature, foolish. She said as much several times during that terribly difficult phone conversation, and the hard truth is, we hadn’t fully reconciled when she slipped into dementia less than a year later — a result of her cancer treatments. She died the following year.

I had several other conversations that weekend, but only one of them mattered.

I’ve said before that I have the World’s Best Spouse, and I mean it each time I say it. I know, though, that nearly every artist who has a life partner feels the same. A supportive, generous, patient, loving partner is, in my view, essential to creative success. I have been fortunate beyond words in this regard.

That weekend, after I hung up from my call with my mother, Nancy came into my office and essentially said, “Well, that sounded awful, but it also sounds like you’ve made up your mind.” When I asked if she thought I was making a mistake, she gave me an emphatic no. “I knew you before you started writing, and I know you now,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “I like you better now.”

Joking aside, to her mind, the decision was as clear cut as I thought it was. I was happy writing. I wouldn’t have been teaching history. We were in a good situation — she had a job she liked, our rent was low, we were saving money every month, we didn’t yet have kids. If ever there was a time for me to pursue a writing career, this was it. We agreed that if in five years it seemed things weren’t going well, we could rethink our plans. But for right then, this was a chance we could afford to take.

On that Monday, I made two phone calls, one to Fort Collins, Colorado, and one to New York City. For better or worse, I was now a professional writer.

In subsequent months, as we shared with friends and family what had happened, and what we had decided, the overwhelming response I got was “Wow, you are so courageous! You’re following your dream!”

I didn’t feel courageous. I felt like I had taken the easy path, like I had done something irresponsible, that I had cheated in some way. Maybe it was the residue of the conversation with my mom. Maybe it was some outdated sense of what adults — particularly adult men — are supposed to do. Dreams are for kids. Playing make-believe, writing stories about magic — these are frivolous, immature pursuits.

I feel silly typing this. I know better now. Writing is hard work. Like any creative venture, it can be a soul-tearing struggle, and as a business it demands near-constant promotion, strategic thinking, discipline, resilience, a thick skin, and an openness to criticism. I had some sense of this even then. And yet the doubts remained.

A few months later, in mid-summer, while Nancy and I were in Idaho visiting her parents, I had a conversation with her father. He was, and continues to be, in his ninetieth year, a man of wisdom and compassion. He sensed that I was still struggling to find peace with the choice I’d made. And he told me about when he first left the navy and decided he was going to move West and become a farmer. All of his navy buddies thought he was nuts, but he was determined.

“So I bought a cow,” he told me. He wanted to run a dairy, and he knew if he owned a cow, he would feel one step closer to that aspiration. More, he’d feel like he was a real farmer. “That’s kind of what you have to do,” he said. “You need to start thinking of yourself as a writer, instead of as a guy who gave up history and is trying to write.”

That simple distinction made all the difference in the world.

My first novel came out in May 1997. Neither of my parents lived to see the book in print. But my father was alive as the book went to production. He saw how proud and excited I was, and I think he shared in those emotions, despite having been as skeptical as my mom early on. Children of Amarid did well. The hardcover garnered some nice reviews despite a small print run. The paperback went through six or seven printings.

The Outlanders, by David B. Coe (jacket art by Romas Kukalis)The Outlanders, my second book, may well be the most significant of all the books I’ve published. I knew I had it in me to write one book. But when I finished The Outlanders, and realized it was even better than CofA, I knew I was more than a guy who could write a novel. I was an author. And when Children of Amarid and The Outlanders together were given the Crawford Fantasy Award by the IAFA (International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts), for best fantasy by a new writer, I knew I would have a professional career beyond that first series.

As I’ve said before in this series of posts, I was incredibly fortunate to find my way to a writing career. I benefited from privilege, from luck, from the unstinting support of a loving partner. I don’t quite know what the lesson is this week. Not all of us face as stark a choice as I did. I know myself well enough to understand that I could not have taken the history job and also written fiction (my mother’s solution). It was a tenure-track job. I would have had a full teaching load and also would have been under immediate pressure to revise and publish my dissertation, do academic committee work, and get started on my next scholarly book. Add to that the time commitments of marriage and starting a family, and at the very least I would have been postponing my writing career for another decade or more. I didn’t want that.

But I’m not so naïve as to say, “So everyone should just follow their dreams, consequences be damned.” I will say, though, that if you love to write — or paint, or play music, or dance, or sculpt, or take photos — following your dream ought to be the goal. Maybe you’ll have to balance your artistic ambitions with the pragmatism of a day job. Maybe you’ll need to be patient for a year or two. Whatever path you find, I assure you the sacrifices are worth it. Few things in life match the joy of waking each morning to a workday that consists of doing what you love.

Next Monday, my final thoughts on my path to a writing career.

In the meantime, have a great week.

Monday Musings: My Father

Mom and Dad, by the authorI have conversations with my father all the time. Literally every day. Which is kind of remarkable given that we lost him to leukemia twenty-five years ago.

There are, for me at least, people in my life whose voices I have internalized, made part of my subconscious. None of those voices is more prominent, more welcome, more beloved than Dad’s.

Sometimes, I hear advice that he offered me years ago that remains pertinent to this day. Other times, I can imagine the wisdom he would offer on matters we didn’t have occasion to discuss while he was alive. And still other times I can simply hear him teasing me for some foolish thing I’ve done, or laughing with me about something we’d both find hilarious.

As I’ve mentioned often in this space, I am the youngest of four children — by fifteen, twelve, and six years. Same mom and dad for all of us. They just spaced things out, as it were. With my two oldest siblings, my father was a bit of an authoritarian. By the time my brother Jim and I came along, he had mellowed, found professional contentment and personal peace. He was, with the two of us, playful, relaxed, indulgent without being lax. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he was the perfect parent, but the balance he found with us worked. And I would add that our success as fathers has much to do with the example Dad set for us.

And yet, despite Dad’s different approach to parenting with the older two and with us, he was devoted to, and was loving and affectionate with, all four of us. He never played favorites. He made every effort to be evenhanded in all ways. And yet he also managed to have a special bond with each of us.

He doted on our mother, with whom he was hopelessly and completely in love. They were a wonderful pair. They bickered at times, and had a few memorable arguments — a couple of them lasted days. But they did everything together. They loved to travel. They went to museums and to classical concerts, to the theater and to movies. They had a core group of friends with whom they socialized on a regular basis, but they were most often content to enjoy quiet evenings together, watching TV or reading companionably.

Just as Dad modeled good parenting for Jim and me, he also modeled how to be a caring, attentive, supportive spouse. Yes, the division of labor in my parents’ household was far more traditional than that in either of our homes, but when Mom decided late in life to shape a career for herself as a special education teacher, Dad did everything he could to accommodate her dream. And he was so, so proud of all she accomplished.

We almost lost Dad before we had him. Which is to say, all of us were almost never here. When Dad was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, he contracted spinal meningitis. Even today, meningitis proves fatal in ten to fifteen percent of cases. Untreated it is nearly always fatal. In 1939, the diagnosis itself was essentially a death sentence. Dad grew very sick very quickly, and fell into a coma. Doctors did all they could for him, including removing a piece of skull from his forehead to relieve some of the pressure on his brain. And still, they were ready to give up on him. But a doctor recommended the use of a revolutionary new drug — penicillin — that he thought might work. Needless to say, the drug saved Dad’s life.

For the rest of his days, my father marked the date of his emergence from the coma as a sort of second birthday. And certainly in his later years, when I best knew him, he lived his life as a man who had been given a second chance. He was warm and compassionate with friends, friendly and jovial with strangers. He especially loved children and was wonderful with all his grandkids. As I indicated earlier, he loved all the arts. He was also a sports fanatic — any sport really. The truth was, he loved to watch anyone do anything at which they truly excelled. He was an admirer of human achievement.

He was captivated by gadgets of all sorts, and I think that, after initial resistance, he would have been utterly fascinated by smart phones. God knows he would have benefitted from mapping apps. He had a decent sense of direction, but it was never anywhere near as good as he thought it was. He used to get lost all the time — more than a few of those arguments with my mother likely started with the phrase, “I don’t need to ask — I know where I’m going . . .”

I could go on and on. I adored my father. I miss him tons. And, as I mentioned up front, I “speak” with him every day.

Dad was born on this day, December 20, in 1919.

Happy birthday, Pop. I love you.

Monday Musings: Thoughts on GET BACK, the Beatles Documentary

Before watching it over the last week, I’d heard and read a good deal about Peter Jackson’s Get Back, the three part, eight hour documentary (sort of) on the Beatles and the lead up to their famous rooftop concert. Some people LOVED it — people close to me, whose taste in such things I trust. Others felt it was fatuous, over-hyped, overly long, and even boring.

Having now watched the entire thing, I wanted to weigh in with my thoughts and observations.

I am the youngest (by a lot) of four kids, and so my musical tastes were formed largely by the preferences of my older siblings. By the time I was seven years old, I was already starting to listen to rock and build my record collection (kids, ask your parents). But still, that was after the Beatles had split up, and already they were, to me, the stuff of legend, a band my brothers and sister spoke of with utter reverence.

So I have long been subject to the mystique of the band, and for me, seeing them unrehearsed, unvarnished, and in the act of creating, is thrilling. The Beatles stopped touring in the mid-Sixties, and though they put out plenty of albums, they rarely appeared in public, which only served to enhance that mystique. Seeing them so intimately in this film is a gift. It rounds out their image. And there are a couple of moments in the first episode, when Paul is working out the lyrics and chords to “Get Back” and Let It Be,” that literally gave me chills.

Beyond that, I believe Jackson’s approach to making this film — basically showing us as much as possible with minimal, almost non-existent outside commentary — proved incredibly powerful and effective. The Beatles and those around them speak for themselves, leaving it to us to evaluate, even to judge. As such, the film, in my opinion, serves as a much needed historical document and corrective.

Things I thought about while I watched, in no particular order:

For a long time, I disliked Paul McCartney. Most of the narratives surrounding the band’s break-up have placed the lion’s share of the blame on Paul. He was the one who initiated legal proceedings against his bandmates. He was the one whose burgeoning solo career killed any chance of reconciliation. There may or may not be truth to this. The legal battles are matters of public record. But my God, the man is a musical genius. During the time documented by the film, he was exploding with creative energy. Every day, it seemed, he had a new tune to share — already he had in mind several of the songs that would populate their final studio album, Abbey Road.

Whatever tension was said to exist between John and Paul — and certainly there is some evidence of that tension in the footage Jackson has shown us — when they were playing music together, they were completely in sync. They are clowning, riffing on each other’s playing and singing, feeding each other’s enormous creativity. I am fortunate to have been in a band with two dear friends (this was long, long ago — the band is no more; the friendships endure) and I can speak to the power of that musical connection. There is nothing like it. Watching them together was joyful.

Whatever blame Yoko Ono has borne for the demise of the Beatles seems unjustified. Yes, she was in the studio with them all the time. Clearly, she and John were very much in love. But Linda Eastman (later McCartney) was there a lot, too. So was Ringo’s wife, and George’s. I saw no evidence of hostility or resentment directed at Yoko by any members of the band. She and Linda appeared to have a good relationship. It seems to me she has been subjected to vilification that has little to do with reality and much more to do with misogyny and racial stereotypes.

To my mind, the most destructive dynamic in the studio, as captured by the filmmakers, was the conflict between George on the one hand, and John and Paul on the other. John and Paul, who have been lauded for their songwriting since the earliest days of the band, appeared dismissive, at times contemptuous, of the original tunes George brought to them. This despite the fact that George wrote some of the band’s best music: “If I Needed Someone,” “Taxman,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun.” George’s walkout in the middle of the film was, in my mind, completely understandable.

During their rooftop concert, the police arrive, responding to noise complaints from neighbors. When Paul sees that the bobbies have come, his expression is utterly joyful. Classic moment.

I have often thought of the Beatles as a band of okay musicians who came together and created something magical — the musical version of alchemy, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. But watching these sessions, seeing each of them play instruments other than their own, and noting as well the ease with which they picked up on new material, I realized that I have given them too little credit over they years. Yes, the four of them together were magical. But each was very, very good at what they did.

I understand that their earliest music sounds very, very dated now. Not so the material from the second half of their incredible run. I challenge anyone to find in rock history twenty minutes of recorded music that is better than the “B” side of Abbey Road. With the singular exception of the Rolling Stones, who are also deserving of “Legends” status, I would put the Beatles’ 10 best songs from 1967-70 up against anyone’s 10 best from a similar period. The hardest part would be picking which 10 Beatles songs to use.

While watching the documentary, I remembered a conversation I had with my brother Bill. He was fifteen years older than me, and like any teen in the 1960s was fully caught up in Beatlemania. Several years before died, we were talking about the Beatles and he told me about the first time he listened to the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“You have to realize,” he said, “we’d never heard anything like it. Ever. It wasn’t just that the songs were great. They were doing stuff in the studio that no one had ever done before. It was mind-blowing.”

Their later music may not sound dated the way the early stuff does, but neither does it sound trend-setting. Because everyone started doing what the Beatles had done. Fifty years later, it’s too easy to forget the degree to which John, Paul, George, and Ringo changed the world. They weren’t just the most popular, the best selling. They had more than just talent and mystique. They were experimenting with . . . everything. Hair, clothes, drugs, music, lyrics, recording technology. They shaped the future. They were larger than life, larger than fashion, larger than music.

Which is why this close up look at them, this revealing and humanizing documentary, is so welcome. I will never listen to their music the same way.

Monday Musings: Christmas Trees Don’t Belong In November. Just Sayin’

When I was a kid, growing up culturally Jewish in the suburbs of New York City, we used to celebrate Christmas. Many of the Jewish families in our town did, and so too did some of our Jewish relatives in nearby communities. I’ll admit that it struck me as odd sometimes — we identified as Jewish. We didn’t try to hide our heritage in any way. But we celebrated the Christian holidays — Easter as well as Christmas. We also celebrated Passover. We didn’t do much with Hanukkah, though every couple of years one of us might pull out our old, tinny Menorah and light candles.

We had a wonderful old collection of glass ornaments for our trees — ornaments I still have to this day. (Well, I have most of them. Each year one of us would drop one or two — a slow, steady attrition, like ornaments being voted off the Island of Misfit Culturally Inappropriate Holiday Paraphernalia.) My mother always insisted on Scotch Pines for our trees, because she loved their scent. More than any other tree, she believed, Scotch Pines smelled like Christmas. Or like Christmas was supposed to smell in Jewish households.

I was the youngest of four children by many, many years. My oldest sibling, Bill, was nearly 15 years older than me; the other two, my sister Liz, and my brother, Jim, have me by 12 and 6 years respectively. And so by the time I was old enough to be aware of such things, my parents had passed off the task of buying our tree to my siblings and me. Sometimes all four of us went to pick one out, sometimes it was just us “boys.” After a while, certainly by the time I was in middle school, Jim and I were the only ones who cared enough to go.

And there were certain immutable traditions we had to follow. One, as I have already said, was that we get a Scotch Pine. The problem with this rule was that Scotch Pines are actually quite ugly as Christmas trees go. They are short, squat, dumpy even — the Dwarves of Christmas-Treedom. They are also are notorious for having bent trunks, making them hard to set up in a tree stand. Almost every year, Jim and I would reach the tree lot — there was one in particular we went to most years — and spend a bit of time staring wistfully at the Blue Spruces and Douglas Firs, noting their sleek, triangular perfection, their symmetry, their straight trunks. And then, remembering our mother’s preference, we would trudge over to the “Scotch Pine Forest” and pick out our lumpy tree.

The other two immutable traditions — which actually bring me to my purpose in writing this post — were that we get our tree on the day of Christmas Eve, and that we spend no more than the $20 Dad would peel off his billfold that very morning before he headed off to work.

Having the tree in the house meant disrupting the strict order of our furniture and furnishings. My parents loved their home and had designed it with care, so that it looked just so. The tree was like a relative who comes every year and parks himself on your couch in the middle of the living room. They knew he was coming, they knew he would be gone just after New Year’s. Best, then, to limit the damage and its duration. We bought the tree on December 24th, we decorated that night, usually after a dinner of Chinese food at a local restaurant, and we broke that sucker down on New Year’s Day, a week later.

And the $20 . . . That was just Dad’s price limit. He loved to tell the story of the time he spent $2.00 on a tree, back when he and my mother were first married. He bought a tree for $5.00 and then had the vendor cut off a branch or something that made it look lopsided. (No doubt this was a Scotch Pine, too.) And as the vendor cut the piece off, a guy happened by, spotted the scrap, and said to my father, “That’s just what I need. I’ll give you three bucks for it.”

He was in finance, and so understood inflation. He never expected us to replicate his feat. But $20 was his limit. The tree was only going to be in the house for a week, after all. Why should we spend more? This had the effect of further locking us into Scotch Pines, since the trees for which Jim and I pined (sorry, couldn’t resist . . .) were way more expensive. At the same time, I have to admit that the timing of our purchase helped with the $20 strategy. By mid-afternoon on the 24th of December, the guys selling trees were looking at taking a loss on their remaining stock. Every tree we bought at the last moment meant one fewer tree in the wood-chipper. We usually got pretty good deals.

Fast forward several decades, and I find myself, on this post-Thanksgiving weekend, wondering if I need to be buying our tree today. Our girls LOVE having a tree at the holiday, and the truth is Nancy and I love it, too. So we have to get one. In this part of Tennessee, though, as in so many parts of the country, trees went on sale LAST weekend, two thirds of the way through November. A week or two from now, they’ll be gone. Buying a tree on December 24? Impossible.

And buying a tree for $20?

Sorry. I’m done laughing now.

We don’t buy Scotch Pines. Usually it’s Frasier Firs. But they can cost upwards of $80. Or more. By my father’s calculus, in order to make that expense worthwhile, we’d have to keep the tree up until Valentine’s Day. Trees have gotten so expensive, and I feel so much pressure to buy one before the lots empty out, that this year Nancy and I have considered the unthinkable. That’s right. We have discussed getting an artificial tree.

There are real reasons for doing this, or at least thinking about it. Artificial trees, if reused for several years, are marginally better for the environment (although, since they’re made of plastic and shipped here from overseas, it’s a very close call). In terms of relative cost, they pay for themselves in a few years — again, this assumes we would reuse the tree year after year. They can be put up and taken down whenever we want. They don’t have to be watered. They are far less likely to catch fire. They don’t shed to the extent that real trees do.

But they don’t have that Christmas tree smell. Scotch Pine, Balsam, Firs, Spruces. They ALL smell great. The artificial ones, not so much. Which means we’ll probably break down and buy a real tree, likely sometime in the next few days.

Then again, those pine-scented air fresheners for cars are fairly cheap. And they look a little like Christmas ornaments . . .

Have a good week.

Monday Musings: A Paean to the “Shuffle” Command

Let’s begin with the obvious: Everything that’s old is great, and new stuff sucks. It’s important to get that out of the way before we move on. I mean who are we kidding? The way things were when we were young — well, not so much “we” as “I” — the way things were when I was young? That’s how it should all be now. Progress is bad. Innovation is bad. Technology ruins everything and the world was a better place before people invented all that stuff. By which I mean, anything that hadn’t yet been invented when I turned 21.

Sticky Fingers, by The Rolling StonesMusic isn’t meant to be sold song by song. We’re supposed to buy albums. We’re supposed to put up with the bad songs in order to enjoy the good ones. That makes the listening experience better. For every “Eleanor Rigby” and “For No One” we should have to endure a “Doctor Robert.” For every “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” we should have to suffer through a “You Gotta Move.” It’s only fair. No one is entitled to a perfect listening experience, and songwriters deserve the chance to have their crappy songs heard alongside the good ones. This is America, damnit!

And don’t get me started on CDs versus LPs. What ever happened to the art of piecing together a two-sided album, of figuring out the proper song order so as to make those horrible, vinyl-wasting tunes that we hated as hard to avoid as possible? I mean sure LPs warped and skipped, and got scratched, making them all but unbearable after a year or two of solid use, but that’s a small price to pay for the inconvenience of having to interrupt a pot-induced haze to get up, walk to the stereo, and turn the record over.

Songs are meant to occur in a certain order. That’s how God intended it. And by God, I mean Mick Jagger. Or John Lennon. Or Joni Mitchell. Or David Crosby. Or Aretha Franklin. Or James Taylor. You know. God. As day follows night and spring follows winter, “You Can Call Me Al” is meant to come after “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes.” Except not really, because that album came out after my twenty-first birthday. But never mind that.

The point is, albums set the order of songs and never shall they exist in any other configuration.

Except for mix tapes.

Okay, I confess. Back when I still listened to LPs (Kids, ask your parents. And get the hell off my lawn…) I made mix tapes all the time. I loved the idea of cutting out those songs I didn’t enjoy. I loved the idea of putting my favorite songs from any number of artists and any number of albums in one collection and being able to listen to all of them together. I loved listening to a new mix tape, of savoring the lingering surprise of the next tune from a completely different source.

Sadly, even in my pot-smoking days that surprise lasted for all of two or three listens. After that, the mix tapes became too familiar, taking on the wearisome predictability of the albums from which I’d culled the songs in the first place. As Rob Gordon (the John Cusack character in High Fidelity) says, “the making of a good compilation tape is a very subtle art.” But even the best made mix can’t save us from the fact that we remember and anticipate.

Enter the “shuffle” command on our phones and computers.

That stuff I said before, about everything new sucking? I didn’t mean this. And that part about all technology after the mid 1980s ruining the world? I might not have meant that, either. And the stuff I said about how great LPs were — that was total bullshit. Not that a case can’t be made. I mean, cell phones and computers and the constant presence of social media and “connectivity” in our daily lives — there’s a lot there to dislike.

But the shuffle command makes all of it worthwhile. Hitting “shuffle” is like putting in the ultimate mix tape. Every song is one we want to hear. Every transition is a surprise. Every listening experience is destined to be different.

Nirvana.

The state of being. Not the band. They definitely came on the scene after my twenty-first birthday…

The other night, Nancy and I were cooking dinner, and we had my iPhone on shuffle. (iPhones are okay. They were invented way before I turned 21. Really. I promise. Same with Bluetooth speakers like the one we were using. I swear.) And, quite seriously, I was struck that evening, after the fourth or fifth excellent song in a row, by the absurd amount of pleasure I derive from the shuffle feature. Ridiculous, I know. The world is in the midst of a pandemic. The planet is melting. American democracy is on life-support. But I can listen to a collection of Eagles tunes without fear of hearing “Chug All Night.”

It doesn’t get better than that.

Creative Friday: My Brother the Artist

For this week’s Creative Friday post, I would like to tell you about my brother, Jim. [JamesCoe.com] It happens to be his birthday, so please feel free to wish him many happy returns of the day.

Jim is a painter. He started painting when he was all of fifteen years old. At that time, he was drawn to painting birds. Birdwatching had become a sort of obsession for Jim, Bill, and me, and Jim had a preternatural ability to capture not only correct plumage and structure, but also attitude and mannerism. His early works were stunning, the work of a prodigy.

My brother, Jim, painting on Martha's Vineyard, October 2017
My brother, Jim, painting on Martha’s Vineyard, October 2017

For a time, he worked as a bird illustrator, and you can still find field guides and even an ornithology textbook with his work in it. Eventually, though, he wanted to get away from the limiting world of illustration, and he turned to plein air painting. For more than twenty years now, he has been painting landscapes, some with birds in them, some without. His work is known throughout the world. It hangs in galleries and museums. He has been honored again and again by fellow artists and art aficionados.

And never once has this praise gone to his head. Because that’s the other thing about my older brother: not only is he the creative person I admire most in this world, he is the kindest, gentlest soul I know.

His art has been a presence in my life for almost as long as I can remember. When I was young, I tried to emulate him, hoping that I might be an artist someday as well. How did I do? Well, I write fantasy now, so that should tell you…

We have Jim’s work all over our house, and I am always eager for another of his pieces. They’re just that good.

But more important still is the fact that, outside of Nancy and our girls, he is the best friend I have in the world.

Happy birthday, Bro. Love you.

"Pond Light; Sun Dance" by James Coe
“Pond Light; Sun Dance” by James Coe

Creative Friday: SITTIN’ IN Fifty (!) Years Later

Sittin In, Loggins and MessinaFor this week’s Creative Friday post, I’m doing something a little different, and writing about someone else’s creativity.

Lately, I have been on a kick of going back to old music that I once loved but lost touch with along the way. Some of it I have tried to rediscover only to find that it’s really not all that good and ought to have stayed lost. But a few of the albums I have gone back to have surprised me with their quality. One of them is an old classic: Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina’s Sittin’ In.

Actually, the album is officially credited “Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina.” When they started together in 1971, Loggins was a young singer/songwriter at the start of a promising career, and Messina was already a rock veteran, having enjoyed success in Buffalo Springfield and Poco. Messina was brought in to produce a Loggins solo album, but wound up contributing songs and arrangements, not to mention guitar work and lots of vocals. In the end, they released the album as a duet. Over the next five years, before their somewhat messy break-up in 1976, they went on to release six studio albums and a live album. After the break-up they fulfilled some contractual obligations with another live album and a couple of greatest hits releases.

They’re probably best known for an old-time rock tune called “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” a song I never cared for all that much. And several of their later albums sold better than the first. But to my mind, Sittin’ In was the best album they put out.

It includes a couple of beautiful and popular ballads. Loggins wrote “Danny’s Song” to celebrate the birth of his brother’s son. This is one of those songs that no one knows by title, but everyone recognizes. The chorus has been sung by crowds in college coffee houses for nearly fifty years. “Even though we ain’t got money/I’m so in love with you, honey/And everything will bring a chain of love…”

“House at a Pooh Corner” is a lovely-if-saccharine-sweet homage to childhood, and another coffee house favorite.

But where the album really shines is in its up-tempo numbers, which combine the exuberance of straight-ahead 70s rock, with the instrumentation of country. “Nobody But You,” which opens the album, is one of my favorite songs of all time. By anyone. From the opening guitar lick, to the tidy, tasteful finish, the song simply soars.

“Back To Georgia” begins what was once the B side of the album with similar energy and power. The centerpiece of that second side is the smoky “Same Old Wine,” which could well have been written today:

Well we give them the election,
That keeps filling our heads full of lies;
Can we trust in new directions,
When their promises are in disguise?
Well someday the truth will catch up
I just hope it don’t catch us all by surprise.

The album also includes “Vahevala,” a calypso-influenced song that was the biggest hit on the album. It remains catchy and affecting, though fifty years on, some of the lyrics are, let’s say, problematic. A tight three-song medley on the old A side ends with the soulful “Peace of Mind,” and Loggins’ piano ballad, “Rock and Roll Mood,” completes the collection. There really isn’t a bad track here. I can’t say that about too many albums.

Without a doubt, part of Sittin’ In’s appeal for me lies in nostalgia. This is an album I listened to throughout my adolescence and well into my college years. It carries some wonderful memories, as well as some more poignant ones. But as I said before, I have been listening to lots of albums from that part of my life, and some of them don’t hold up well at all.

This one does.

If you don’t know it, you should check it out. If, like me, you had it once, but lost touch with the music, give it another listen. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Have a great weekend. Stay safe. Be kind to one another.

Creative Friday: A Photo, and Thoughts About My Mom

I took this photo back around Christmas, while on a photo walk with my wonderful friend, John Willis. Like me, he is an avid amateur photographer, and he gets out on photo walks almost daily. Before our walk, he had told me that for a period of a few weeks around the Winter Solstice, in late afternoon, the trees and angled sunlight and reflections at Lake Cheston, in our little town, created a striking pattern of striated light and shadow.

As you can see, the man is true to his word.

Today is my mother’s birthday. She would be 99, if she was still with us. She would have loved this photo and would have been fascinated by the light at the lake that day. She was a photographer, too. Mostly, she liked to take pictures while traveling with my father. And travel they did. To Rome and Paris, to Egypt and Israel, to Peru and the Canadian Rockies and all over the Western U.S.

She was curious and lettered, a voracious reader, a lover of all the arts. But there was nothing she loved more than family, than spoiling her grandchildren and catching up with her own kids. She would have had all kinds of questions about this photo — about the place and the light and my friend. And from there she would have had questions about the town, the university, and Nancy’s place in it. And the girls and what they were doing, and my latest book and my next project.

In my mind, I often carry on long conversations with both her and my Dad. And so, with your permission, I will end this short piece, and spend some time conversing with my the memory of my mother.

Wishing you all a wonderful, safe weekend.

Cheston Solstice, by David B. Coe

Monday Musings: The Legacy of Hank Aaron

Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron died last week. He was, of course, a baseball legend, the former home run king. He was also a civic leader, a philanthropist, and a Civil Rights activist. And he’s been an idol of mine since I was a kid.

As a baseball player, Aaron was so good as to make superlatives redundant, and so ridiculously consistent that he managed to fly under the radar, at least in a relative sense, while rewriting baseball’s record books. He entered the Major Leagues in the game’s golden age, as part of the first generation of Black superstars. It is almost impossible to understate the revolutionary impact he and the other ballplayers of his cohort had on the game.

For those of us who love baseball, there are two statistical milestones that define supreme career achievement for batters: 500 career home runs, and 3,000 career hits. At the time I graduated from high school, only twelve players in the history of baseball had hit 500 home runs. Of those twelve, eight of them hit their first home run during the 1950s, and of those eight, five were black. At the same historical moment, only fifteen players had more than 3,000 hits. And only two players, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays, both part of that class of Black superstars, were on both the 500 home run and 3,000 hit lists.

Even after the steroid era, which saw so many players — many of them undeserving — join that exclusive home run club, Hank Aaron still holds the record for most seasons with at least 20 home runs (20 such years). He holds the record for the most seasons with at least 30 home runs (tied, at 15), and is second only to Babe Ruth in the number of seasons with 40 home runs (tied with others at 8). When Aaron completed his career in 1976, he was second on the all-time hit list, and first on the all-time home run list. If all of his home runs had magically disappeared, he still would have had over 3,000 hits. To this day, he remains the Major League’s career leader in runs batted in and total bases.

He wasn’t as flashy as Mays, and, in fairness, he also wasn’t as good in the outfield or as fast on the base paths. He won “only” one Most Valuable Player award (in 1957) and only one World Series championship. (He played in two World Series and batted a combined .364 in fourteen games.) He never won the Triple Crown, as his contemporaries Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle did. But he led the league in batting average twice, in home runs four times, in runs batted four times, in runs scored three times, in hits twice, in doubles four times, in total bases eight times, and in slugging average four times. He won three gold gloves for outstanding fielding. He stole 30 bases in a season once, and at least 20 six times. He was voted into the All-Star game twenty-one consecutive years — another record. He wasn’t particularly big or brawny, but he had as quick a bat as anyone in the game. Said one of his teammates, “Trying to sneak a fastball past Hank Aaron is like trying to sneak the sunrise past a rooster.”

Aaron grew up in Mobile, Alabama, deep, deep, deep in the heart of the segregated South. He loved baseball as a child, but for years wondered if he would ever have the chance to play in the Major Leagues. He was thirteen when Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s race barrier. Aaron played briefly in the Negro Leagues and then played in Jacksonville, Florida for a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Braves. He put up with racial taunts from fans, abuse from opposing players, and indifference, even hostility, from too many of his own teammates. Much of this continued when he reached the majors.

Still, in 1960, as a popular star on the Braves, he campaigned for Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, and was said to have played a role in JFK’s crucial victory in the Wisconsin Democratic primary.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, Aaron’s pursuit of the Major League home run record in the early 1970s, after the Braves had moved to Atlanta, forced him into the national spotlight as never before, to his detriment. He and his family received death threats and cruel, horrible letters filled with racist invective. He himself said years later that his chase of the record should have been a time of joy and excitement, but was instead the darkest period of his life.

And yet, his performance on the field never suffered. In the three seasons leading up to his record-setting home run, when he was in his late thirties and should have been fading as a ballplayer, he hit 47, 34, and 40 home runs. He entered the 1974 season with 713 career homers, one behind Babe Ruth’s hallowed record. He hit the tying home run on Opening Day. He hit the record-breaking shot in his first home game of the season three nights later.

Sports Illustrated, Hank Aaron, 715I was watching that night, along with pretty much every other eleven year-old, baseball-loving boy in America. I remember everything about it — the call from announcer Vin Scully, the twist and high stare of Dodgers pitcher Al Downing as he watched the ball sail out over left field, Aaron’s joyful trot around the bases, the two white guys in civilian clothes who appeared out of nowhere as he rounded second base and patted his back and shoulder, the way his jubilant teammates mobbed him at home plate and put him on their shoulders. I still have the issue of Sports Illustrated from the next week, with Aaron on the cover holding up the baseball next to a golden, bolded “715.” And I also still have the special edition baseball card Topps issued that same year proclaiming Aaron baseball’s home run king.

The movie 42 tells the story of Jackie Robinson’s inaugural season in the Major Leagues. It stars the late Chadwick Boseman as Jackie, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the President, General Manager, and part owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who brought Robinson into Major League baseball. There is a moment in the movie, which may or may not be apocryphal, when Rickey tells Robinson of seeing white kids in the streets of Brooklyn, playing baseball and copying Robinson’s batting stance, pretending to be him.

That was my friends and me when I was growing up and playing baseball on my little dead end street outside of New York City. Except by then, thanks to the black superstars of the 1950s and 60s — Mays and Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, Bob Gibson and Billy Williams and Willie McCovey and so many others — we took for granted that all of us, white and privileged though we were, wanted to emulate the Black players we idolized. We copied their batting stances and pitching wind-ups. We tried batting cross-handed, the way Aaron did when he was a young minor leaguer. We made our baseball caps fly off when we ran, like Willie Mays, and tried to make basket catches the way he did.

For many of us, baseball and other sports opened our eyes to the importance of racial equality and opportunity. That may sound ludicrous, like I’m trivializing race by couching it in the context of sports. But it’s the truth. I grew up in a politicized household. I was only five when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but my parents talked about him all the time, in glowing terms. In 1972, when I was all of nine years old, I knew about and followed Shirley Chisholm’s ground-breaking run for the Presidency.

Mine was also a baseball household. We watched other sports, but baseball was king. I heard about Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella from my Dad, who loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. I learned to love Willie Mays, because he was my brother Bill’s favorite player in the world. I understood that Black players had been excluded from baseball for too long and that this was a terrible injustice. How could the world be considered a fair place if Black players couldn’t even get in the game? And because I used to pore over statistics and records, I knew as well that whatever the game was like before Black players were allowed in the Major leagues, it could not have been complete. How could baseball, even in the age of Ruth and Gehrig, be the game that I knew and loved if players like Aaron and Mays were excluded?

Hank Aaron’s baseball legacy is clear. His social and historical legacy should be equally apparent. He was a man of grace, intellect, eloquence, and class who carried himself with dignity through an ordeal that should have been a celebration. By his example, his words and actions, his generosity and courage, he made this a better country. He will be missed.