Saturday, September 10, 2016

Under the Big Top # 36: “Eye Opening Experiences”

(Personal reflections inspired by Who songs)

Song: “Bargain”
Album: Who’s Next
Release Date: August, 1971

I’m not much of a drummer guy:  Most of the time I cannot distinguish average from very good (sorry, Stuart Copeland, Neil Peart, Jim Keltner, and good friends Pete and Jeff).   But Keith Moon was so unusually good that he broke through that mental barrier of mine.  I suppose his drumming equates to reading Shakespeare, or watching Bobby Orr or Charlie Chaplin:  Some individuals just stand out, no matter how ambivalent you may be in regards to their profession. Moon was one of them.

Keith Moon was so mesmerizingly unique, that the camera would inevitably be drawn to him, despite the fact that each of his band mates matched his amazing showmanship.  Cameras rarely get drawn to the drummer and for it to happen in a band like The Who made his drawing power even more implausible. As the title of this series infers, The Who were like a 4-ring circus, often competing with one another for center stage.  I’ve never seen this in any other band.  Nobody comes close, as with most bands it’s one, maybe two individuals that demand all the attention.  What Moon did more than anything though, was he took a very good band and made it an exceptional band. 

In appreciation of ‘Moon the Loon’ and his amazing abilities as a percussionist, I’ve decided with this entry to reflect on a number of the eye opening experiences I’ve had in my life and the people who initiated them, many of whom I’ve knows personally, but others like Moon, whom I have not.  I’d like to think these reflections contribute to the general overall focus of this blog site, which is to expound on what it was like to be a kid who grew up in the 70s and then went on to take that experience into his adulthood.  In other words, a number of experiences listed below are of the period-piece variety (my period piece). 

First however, I would be remiss to delve into these enlightening individuals without acknowledging the overarching reasons for why I am even able to connect with such a broad range of experiences; those reasons being Mom, Dad, Nancy, my family and friends, and of course the Lord above.  Their hands are in all of this!  With that said, here goes:

Faith:  My Aunt Ginger, aka Sister Virginia Smith.  Many of us are a bit confused with our Faith as young adults.  I believe Ginger was always aware of this.  When I worked a college-year summer as a landscaper at the Dominican Center in Plainville, Massachusetts where my Aunt planned adult retreats, we would sit together for lunch and have deep discussions about our lives.  During these conversations Ginger weaved in the importance of faith into most any topic.  What really lured me in though was my aunt’s fascination in my input, which came through in a very real and loving way.

Geography: My eyes were opened to my God-given ability to navigate the world when Dad saw this talent in me while we were on family road trips, and in turn would have me map out ways to get him from Point A to Point B (I particularly remember connecting the dots on rural roads between Toronto and Ottawa at the age of 17).  This seed eventually lead to my career as a GIS Specialist in the US Geological Survey, a job I feel blessed to have landed.  We all have natural abilities, so difficult to tease out in this day and age.  Native Americans would recognize these abilities (i.e. scout, hunter, tracker, animal interpreter, medicine man) in their children however, because they all grew up in the natural world.  Dad (and very likely Mom too) overcame my less-than-complete natural environment (and theirs) to somehow recognize the geographer in me.

History: Dad again, who nurtured my interest in American History with books and magazine subscriptions (Smithsonian for example).  Also friend John Roche, who was as avid of a World War II buff as I was.  Dr. Dan Connerton was my favorite history teacher in North Adams (History was my major).  He brought out the best in my ability to think independently and in turn write a good essay when called upon (if I must say so myself). 

Rock and Roll:  Believe it or not, it started with Mom and Dad and their purchase of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper and compilation Red and Blue albums. Later, great friend Mac opened my eyes to the deeper-cut Beatles records and then helped me to see Rock and Roll talent beyond them (which was just as important).  Mac is also my concert-attendance soul mate.  Good friend and former colleague Jeff Strause broadened my horizons in music as well, most significantly in the folk scene.

Competitive Spirit: I have always been competitive, but great-friend Dave raised that bar a few notches.  For several years in my early 20s it was all about challenge, be it in a game of Risk, Stratego, ping pong, pool, darts, or any number of card games.  Dave was a formidable adversary, routinely standing strong between me and victory in all these battles. 

The Natural World: Again Dad, pointing out Praying Mantises, Lady Slippers, and any other number of natural wonders while on hikes down the train tracks and other locales in Franklin when I was young.  Today I’d have to include my fellow water-quality volunteer, Suzanna Black, an avid plant identifier and bird-call specialist.  In terms of the professional naturalist: Natural History Magazine was a great read for many years and I believe it was due to the contributions of Stephen Jay Gould, who wrote 300 essays in its pages.  Gould’s musings were deep enough to challenge me, but not so deep as to lose me.  I’d also like to recognize here the writings of E.O. Wilson and the naturalist documentaries of David Attenborough. 

Taxonomy:  Mr. Wilk, my seventh-grade science teacher opened my mind up to the amazing diversity of animal life on the planet.  The Phylum level was what intrigued me the most, particularly the notion that most of the animals we are familiar with, vertebrates like us (fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians) are classified in but one of over 30 animal phylums and that the vast diversity of this life is in the ocean.  Mr. Wilk was the first teacher I ever had who came across as truly fascinated in what he was telling his students.  He’s the only teacher I ever stayed after school for to learn more.  Taxonomic classification continues to intrigue me, most recently through a hobby of photographing animals, plants and fungi in their natural habitat, identifying them, and recording it all in a homemade database. 

Programming: Former USGS colleague (and friend) Saiping, who showed me how writing code can enhance computer analysis and applications.  Later I would get pretty adept at cursors and ‘do loops’ and map algebra code and any number of other functions and directives, which sent my career in directions not possible otherwise. 

Batting in Baseball:  Friend Bruce Nicholson was an incredible athlete and our pick-up games of baseball were a great way for him to showcase his talent.  Bruce routinely hit balls over the fence at Dean Junior College (in this case the fence was a tennis court) and he could do this both as a lefty and righty.  In terms of professional baseball, Manny Ramirez certainly was eye opening.  Yes, I had observed many-a-great batters before Ramirez, including Carleton Fisk, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, and Fred Lynn (particularly his astounding productivity in his rookie year).   But Manny Ramirez connected me with Dad’s musings of watching Ted Williams at the plate:  I finally got a chance to see what he was talking about.

Bass Guitar: Well, this is what makes the Who so special.  Not only did they open my eyes to the drums, but they did this as well with the bass.  If you become a Who fan, it’s just a matter of time before you recognize the incredible virtuosity of John Entwistle. Unlike the drums where I have not gained much insight beyond Keith Moon, I did go on from Entwistle to then be able to connect with great bass sounds produced by others including Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman, and Mike Mills.  But John Entwistle remains in a class by himself and he alone has inspired me to pick up the instrument.

Coaching:  In all the sports I played I unfortunately never had a great coach.  It wasn’t until Bill Belichick coached the Patriots that I got to see just how important this role could be (though I must say, Don Cherry intrigued me, but it was more related to his colorful personality than his actual coaching prowess).  When Belichick called for an intentional safety near the end of a 2003 game against the Denver Broncos (I recall getting why he was doing this before anyone else at the bar) I knew from then on he was playing chess when all other coaches were playing checkers.  Belichick is the main reason why it’s been so much fun being a Patriots fan for the past 15 years, despite his stoic nature (which I actually get a kick out of).

Football Player: Troy Brown was a tremendously versatile football player who should be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Like Manny Ramirez in hitting, Brown gave me insight into the extraordinary potential of a wide receiver.   Troy Brown was also a great punt returner and played cornerback.  Most important however, Brown was a smart heads up player (I recall him immediately trying to signal safety to the referees after the famous Ben Watson rundown and strip of Champ Baily in 2006 playoffs) and like Tom Brady, he played his best at the most crucial of times. 

Basketball Player:  Larry Bird was a man among boys.  And my goodness was he ever confident.  Does anyone recall his asking the other All Star 3-Point Competition players (ahead of time) which one of them was going to come in second?  Does anyone recall him telling Kevin McHale, after the latter scored a then Celtic record 56 points that he should have gotten 60 (Bird then went on to score 60 three nights later!)? Bird made you laugh out loud with some of the things he pulled off while on the court, especially with the game on the line.  Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan will always get more of the glory for their particular brand of artistry.  But make no mistake that despite being contemporaries; they learned from Bird what it took to be a winner. Lately I’ve been most inspired watching my son Peter play basketball at the high-school level. 

Running: Nancy is my inspiration here.  When we first dated I got to cheer her on at several road races and soon got the bug myself.  I ran off and on for years before finally committing to a 4 mile run every other day, which I have religiously stuck with for seven years now.  I got many of my original “Gem Video” blog ideas while running back in 2007, and continue to get light-bulb moments on my runs today (particularly during the toughest hill stretches).

Hiking:  Yup, Dad again.  Dad in turn credits Uncle Jim (Mom’s brother) who opened his eyes to the wonders of hiking Mount Washington and the other White Mountain High Peaks.  I’ve conquered many-a-mountain since those early years of hiking as a teen with Dad.  The enjoyment of it is a rare all-family bond activity with Peter, Charlotte, Nancy and I.

Painting:  Daughter Charlotte brings canvas to life!  I recall a colleague at work chuckling at one of her 3rd grade works on my office wall:  A proud Dad and nothing more he surmised.  He could not have been more wrong.  I saw something early on, which is quite unlike me when it comes to the arts.  Like Pete Townshend, Charlotte is her own worst critic (a fellow tortured artist), despite the accolades she receives, including from those in the profession (she has never shown interest in making it a career herself however).  My favorite painting of Charlotte’s is of the tree house I built here in Pepperell (see below).  

Canada: This one I credit Mom for.  Mom’s lunch-time reflections of her Dad’s upbringing in Prince Edward Island were fascinating to me.  Canada was a dreamscape for me as a child and our forays to Ontario and Quebec later in my teen years were always rewarding, eventually leading to a Junior-year (exchange program) life-changing experience in Ottawa and innumerable excursions North of the border ever since. 

Camping: Nancy again.  One great thing about camping is the versatility it gives you on the road:  Usually there is no need to plan a destination ahead and so you can travel at your leisure, or deviate from the original intended path (which we did often on our Great Lakes, Newfoundland, and Cross Country trips).  The best thing about camping however has been seeing how it has made Peter and Charlotte such naturals in the woods. 

Back Packing:  Great friend Bob asked me to join him on backpack trip across Europe in the summer of ’86.  Europe was the continent of Bob’s upbringing and so I got the insiders view (which I would later fill Nancy in on during our follow-up trip in ’89).  Often at the end of long adventurous days, when I took that back pack off, I felt as if I could walk on air.

Wine:  I was strictly a beer consumer until Bob took me to the Bordeaux region of France.  We explored the wine cellars, purchased several bottles of the local red (along with bread and cheese) and climbed into a tower on the edge of a vineyard.  Somehow, the first sip was instant karma.

Hockey Player: Well, it goes without saying that Bobby Orr was the best I ever saw, but when I was at my best at understanding the game of hockey in the late 70s, the player who impressed me the most was Don Marcotte.  Today you could equate the play of Patrice Bergeron to Marcotte’s style, which is classic two-way hockey.  The Bruins did not have nearly the talent of the Montreal Canadians in those days, but it was that two-way team style, epitomized by Marcotte, that almost put the B’s over the top. 

River Systems: Long-standing colleague and friend Kernell is the inspiration here.  Early in my career at USGS, Kernell gave me a new way of looking at the landscape, not as one being broken up by roads, cities and political boundaries (states, towns, etc.), but one broken up by watersheds.  From there it was a progression of thought to the river systems within those watersheds; a headwaters-to-outlet view of the world (think a dendritic pattern like the silhouette of a tree).   Rivers soon became my favorite natural feature (see Big Top # 13).

The World Cup:  Friend Bob again.  We back-packed Europe together in ’86 and I got to see passion for sport in a way I had never experienced before or since.  We were always in the right place at the right time, including Denmark and Belgium for dramatic victories by the home teams.  The streets were filled with revelers that summer and televisions were often set up outside of pubs and cafes for anyone to stop and catch a moment of action.  Since then I’ve been hooked every four years.

Tide Pools: Cousin Peter Mello would always bring his buckets, nets and goggles on our treks to the beach when we were boys.  A quick swim would soon enough be followed by a short walk over to the tide pools, where we would spend the rest of our day exploring.  I marveled at the varieties of creatures, including shrimp, hermit crabs, jellies, sea stars, sand dollars, chitons, green crabs, mole crabs, lady crabs, rock crabs, spider crabs, eels, and varieties of fish.

Tree Houses: hmmm, this is a hard one.  Swiss Family Robinson?  Nahh…. not so much as childhood fascination in general.  I think I’ll take credit for this one. Eleven years ago I designed and built a tree house in the back yard that remains intact to this day (despite a neighbor’s prediction it would come tumbling down with the first wind storm).  It is one of my all-time favorite personal creations, as it took some ingenuity pull it off (with only branchless pine trees to work with, I had to come up with a design of moving parts on moving parts).  Again, Charlotte’s painting of the structure is below.

Logical Thinking: This goes back to a very young age, watching my brother Fred take care of his red tractor, along with witnessing his ability to build small toy car models from a variety of moving parts at our grandparents home in Falmouth (quicker and more inventive than the rest of us).  Fred's abilities have played out to the present day, be they manifested in carpentry or other types of construction, or by comprehending complex instructions to build most anything.  In turn I've been inspired to take on my own projects:  Rock walls, a wood shed, a large shed, a bench, along with assisting my Father-in-Law (who was another later inspiration in regards to logical thinking) to add an addition to my old home.

Homemade Fish Ponds:  Friend Bob’s ex-in-laws.  The wedding-rehearsal gathering in their back yard in Breda, Amsterdam was illuminating.  I could see that a focus on a natural wooded setting for your yard was a valid alternative from the standard, manicured lawn-encompassing setting.

Bridging Presumably-Disparate Worlds After we went off to college, childhood friend Mac bonded with my friends from North Adams and Canada, proving that you do not have to leave your youth behind when you move on in life.  Mac eventually proved to be the gage in determining if a new friend was a true friend (that is, if they could connect with Mac they had what it took).  Where Mac represents this bullet from a quantitative standpoint, cousin Becca and long-time friend Dave represent the ultimate bridge, meeting on a road trip to Canada that I pulled together and later getting married (see Big Top # 31).

** Everyone I am close to has brought something special and unique into my life, and so I consider this entry an open file, which I plan to add to after this Big Top series is over:  Maybe one per week thru 2017.

I was going to hold out with the majestic Who’s Next tune “Bargain” for a more spiritually-centered entry.  After all, this song is about Pete Townshend’s relationship with God.  But then I thought, ‘well hey, doesn’t the music speak for itself?’  The entire band seems touched by an angel.  Townshend’s guitar sound near the end is transcendent. John Entwistle’s midriff bass lines are complex and fluid.  Roger Daltrey’s vocals sound newly born.  And this may be Keith Moon’s best studio effort.  Was it all spurred by the beauty of the meaning?  I for one believe this to be the case (

The lyrics to “Bargain” include the classic line “In life, one and one don’t make two; one and one make one”.  These words are the bond of this entry.  After all, do not our inspirations tie us with those who inspire?


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