Sunday, May 1, 2016

Under the Big Top # 18: “Parallel, Interconnected Worlds”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Mike Post Theme”
Album: Endless Wire
Release Date: October, 2006

“Vicarious Dad”: This is how I sign off my emails and chats to daughter Charlotte these days.  It wasn’t difficult to dream that one up.  After all, Charlotte has spent the last 3-plus months on a semester-abroad tropical-ecology program in Panama; a trip that has included excursions throughout the country, from rain forests to cloud forests, volcanoes to coral reefs, mangrove swamps to tropical islands.  Charlotte has stayed with Panamanian families in small villages and lush agricultural regions, as well as an indigenous culture (the Naso people) where the only way to get to their remote locale was upriver by boat.  She’s seen sloths, howler monkeys, vipers, armadillos, anteaters, geckos, agouti, peccary, coati, tree frogs, fruit bats, tarantulas, bizarre insects, tropical fish, tropical birds, sharks, Portuguese man o’ war, sea turtles, and got up-close and friendly with a barracuda.  Charlotte has also made great friends with the other 25 ecology students she has traveled with, and has made wonderful connections with the extremely gracious families she has stayed with.  And so I can vouch for the fact, that when your daughter is having such experiences, you do live vicariously.

The past few weeks have been a bit trickier to enjoy from afar, however.  For the required ‘independent study’ part of the curriculum, Charlotte chose to head four hours west of Panama City, to the highland hamlet of Santa Fe, gateway to a large National Park of the same name.  This would be her home base to conduct a water quality and macro-invertebrate sampling project at selected points along the Santa Maria River.  Preparation was a bit of a scramble for equipment, data, research, and general logistics, considering that there was little time to prepare after the previous adventure.  All seemed to be coming together a week or so in, until Charlotte’s laptop failed.  After a hapless attempt at self-repair, we surfed the web and found a computer store in Santiago; a fairly large town several hours down the valley.  Charlotte immediately set off.  Their diagnosis:  A colony of tiny white ants had taken over the innards and wreaked havoc on the motherboard (this story I passed on to a long-term professor friend at URI who jokingly stated he had thought he’d heard it all for student excuses).  After a week trying to repair it (and, thank goodness recovering her data), the techies at the store concluded the laptop was ready.  Initially this appeared the case, but later that day after Charlotte returned to Santa Fe, it fried up again, this time for good.  Back to Santiago and, one used computer purchase later, Charlotte was finally back on track, albeit understandably frazzled and a week behind on her on-line research.  ** Side Note: During that chaotic week, Charlotte stated to me that looking back over the months prior she wondered why every time she opened her laptop there would be a few tiny white ants scurrying about.

The reason I bring all this up is not so much to gush over how proud Nancy and I have been while witnessing our daughter’s grace-under-pressure (though that doesn’t hurt).  It’s to give some backdrop to Charlotte’s plans the morning after that half day spent going back and forth to the computer store in Santiago. For it was then that she went through with an earlier commitment to reconnect with several of her new found friends, who were doing their independent studies on a Caribbean island, Bocas del Toro, which happened to be on the other side of the continental divide, with few mountain-pass roads to get there.  Charlotte did not have to add this leg.  After all, she had been through quite the ordeal.  But she still insisted on going.  She figured out the complex bus schedule, a 12 hour journey - ultimately way out of her way for the tail-end of her semester these next few weeks - and made it work.

One day, Charlotte will do a much better job describing all of this on her own.  I’m simply trying to encapsulate enough here to hopefully reveal what I see to be a personal pilgrimage of hers on multiple fronts.  I can say this for certain, because as Charlotte’s adventure unfolded these past weeks, particularly that last part, it all felt so familiar.  In other words, it was exactly as I would have done. My daughter’s ‘road less traveled’ has been my journey too.  I told Charlotte that those friends she was visiting in Bocas del Toro, if they are true friends, will forever be affected by her commitment to making these last weeks in Panama work on an interpersonal level. 

I know this only because it’s what true friend Bob told me many years after one particular journey I made to Ottawa from North Adams to connect with him and my other Canadian friends a year after going to school there.  Due to a last minute conflict, brother Fred was unable to make the drive from Franklin to pick me up.  Without a car, and rain pelting the windows to my apartment, I chewed on this predicament some, but soon became undeterred.  I begged a short ride from a friend to Rte. 7 on the southern end of the Vermont border where I stepped out of her car and stuck out my thumb.  A handful of eventful rides later (including the back of a hay truck) I was in Burlington Vermont with Mac, who was going to school at Saint Michaels and who now joined me on my quest.  Several even-more-eventful rides later (a story in and of itself), the two of us arrived in Montreal where Bob drove to from Ottawa to pick us up.  All in all it was a 15-hour day-and-night affair, but in the end well worth it.

Is it the journey that makes the person or the person that makes the journey? I’ve pondered this all week, and it started, not with Charlotte’s adventures, but with my immersion into the Who’s 2006 conceptual Endless Wire album.  This in turn opened up a self-reflection, particularly in relation to this blog series, which has been a journey in its own unique way.  My thought process unfolded in somewhat convoluted fashion, but I’m going to take a stab at a recap.

Endless Wire was the Who’s return to form after a 24 year hiatus from the studio.  At last, Pete Townshend had decided to do another collaborative effort with his old band, which involved coming to terms with what the band meant to him as a creative force.  By this time the Who were being dubbed “The Two”, with the passing of John Entwistle just four years prior.  Townshend and Roger Daltrey did have a great supporting cast, but the original ensemble had now been halved.  Could they pull it off? 

I have to admit to a touch of ambivalence upon my first go-around with Endless Wire when the album was first released.  I could rattle off the reasons, but now there’s really no need, seeing as I gained a new appreciation for Endless Wire this week.  Sometimes it comes down to making a mental breakthrough (see 17th in a series of Stepping Stones “Tapping into my Inner Grasshopper” 4/27/12), which was the case here.  This enlightenment may simply be in my mind only, but sometimes that’s what Rock and Roll is all about, and so the insight had quite the stimulating effect, which pretty much comes down to the following:  The Who released a 6-song concept EP, Wire and Glass, immediately prior to the final product, Endless Wire; a 21 song effort which included the entirety of the EP.  Wire and Glass is a futuristic concept centered on three neighborhood friends of humble origins and from different ethnic and religious backgrounds that become rock stars and then lose it all (much of this is not easy to discern).  Serious Who fans could not help but make the correlation to Townshend, Daltrey and Entwistle, growing up in the same neighborhood and forming a band together (Keith Moon would come on board a few years later).   The breakthrough for me was making a theme connection between this concept-part of Endless Wire, and the rest of the album, which comes across as very autobiographical to the then much older (and wiser) Who.  The concept conceals this connection, but the more I listened, the more it made sense.  And so, it appears that what Pete Townshend has done here is to write a concept inside a concept. When I came to that conclusion I checked my head to make sure it had not exploded.

When I say autobiographical to the Who, and not Pete Townshend in particular, I’m not making an error.  Core themes in Townshend’s writing for the Who have always been centered on spirituality, music, and the Who themselves.  Townshend has had quite the solo career, and there is overlap of the spirituality theme in both his Who and solo songs.  But the other two themes are almost entirely a Who-centered component of his writing.  One song on the album that is revealing in this way is the closing number “Tea & Theatre”, which seems to overlap the concept and that loose Who autobiography that plays out in the rest of the album. “One of us – gone; One of us – mad; One of us – me; All of us sad”, Roger Daltrey sings, reflecting his band’s story and the futuristic concept.  Whenever the Who have played this live, usually at the end of their set, Roger Daltrey gets melancholy (and Mac rolls his eyes), which is unlike his typical stage presence

Another number, “You Stand By Me”, is an apparent Pete Townshend thank you to Roger Daltrey for being there for him in tough times (particularly the then fresh wound of being cautioned by British police on an on-line sex-offenders charge – later disproven and dropped).  Of the interrelationships in the Who, that between Townshend and Daltrey has always seemed to be the most distant and dicey.  It took the death of their two bandmates and many years of being on the road together to close that circle.   “God Speaks of Marty Robbins” is a wonderfully melodic acoustic number which attempts to take God’s perspective as He was creating the universe: “Wake up and hear the music play”, Townshend sings in his most angelic tenor. Even at the time of Creation, it was about the music for Pete Townshend.

The EP title track, “Endless Wire”, is moving in its own way.  After all these years, Pete Townshend was still yearning to tap into his youthful imagination (the aborted Lifehouse concept in this case:  See Big Top # 7 “A Change of Plans”) and in turn open himself back up to that intense thought process.  He actually addresses that thought process in this week’s Big Top entry, “Mike Post Theme” ( ), a song about trying to remain emotionally connected in the modern digital age.  This is fascinating to me, and gets back to my earlier comment about this blog site.  “Mike Post Theme” laments to some degree how sound bites, digital ‘thumbs up’, and hashtags are replacing true heartfelt exchanges via conversation and letter writing.  It does acknowledge that those emotions can be unleashed when we connect with our favorite TV shows for example (hence the title, which refers to the man who has penned some of TVs best theme songs), but this cannot substitute for true communication. 

The paradox of all this is that the digital age gives us an unprecedented platform to network with others in profound ways.  Pete Townshend attempted to do this in the build up to Endless Wire, writing his thoughts on his then very creative and active blog site, which welcomed feedback from readers.  These musings very likely inspired me to start up my own blog site, which in a funny sort of twist, is now building upon thoughts I dream up by listening to Townshend’s music. 

This entry has been all about parallels and interconnectivity: Charlotte ‘road less’ travelled to mine; Pete Townshend’s futuristic concept to the Who’s story; my attempt in this blog series to hurdle the laments expressed in “Mike Post Theme”.  I’d like to close with one more interconnection.  Aside from the direct correlation I made between us after seeing Charlotte’s determination and commitment to friendship this past week, I was also enlightened by it in another way.  I truly believe the traits Charlotte showed us this past week also reflect free will open-mindedness.  As such, I predict Charlotte will forever be able to hurdle those “Mike Post Theme” limitations too. 

With that, I believe all interconnections in this entry have been tied.


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