Friday, November 29, 2013

The 60s, Part I (1960 to 1966)

I left this autobiographical and probably self-indulgent contemplation of my previous incarnations sometime in the late 1950s, when I was noticeably still a toddler and prone to drawing things like this with my crayons:

But all things, even the 1950s, the Eisenhower Administration, and my toddler years, had to eventually come to an end.  Soon, John F. Kennedy was elected to be President of the United States of America, the world entered the 1960s, and I had to start kindergarten.  Little did I know that I would be expected to attend school for the next 12 years of my life.

My parents enrolled their little boy in a private, parochial school (Epiphany Lutheran School in Hempstead, New York), which, other than having a nun (the difficult-to-pronounce Sister Esther) for a Kindergarten teacher, seemed otherwise normal. Hurricane Donna blew across Long Island in September 1960 while I was in the First Grade, and was far more interesting to me than schoolwork; I remember being outside with my father at the height of the hurricane to help secure a newly planted tree, and the eerie calm as the eye of the storm passed overhead.   

After the novelty of the first year or so of school wore off, my interest in schoolwork abated.  By the Third Grade, I was enrolled in public school.  "He understands arithmetic, I'm sure," my Third Grade teacher offered optimistically in my report card, "He just doesn't seem as interested - he's much more interested in reading."  To my right-brained intellect, mathematics seemed to just be all rote memorization and no fun at all, and no teacher or any amount of parental pressure was able to cajole me into feigning interest in what I found to be clearly dull.  Reading my old report cards and my parents' responses to my teachers brings back painful memories of attempts to impose academic discipline, dreadful flash cards, home tutoring, and long harangues at the dinner table. 

Let's move away from all that.  Below, I'm far happier playing in my grandparents' garden.  That speckled rock, I was told, was called "conglomerate," and it always intrigued me in ways that arithmetic never could.

But the challenges of secondary education weren't all that was new.  In 1960, a new baby sister had also entered the world and after a six-year run, my reign as an only child was over.  As I recall, though, I was pretty much alright with the addition to our family - I was secure enough in my own sense of irreplaceability in my little cosmos that I even welcomed a sibling into our home, although I had no idea then that two more (another sister and a brother) would also be manifested over the next four years.  

Here I am in 1961 apparently crossing some post-apocalyptic landscape with a gunny sack around my neck, because why not?  The better, I suppose, to prepare for the aftermath of what seemed then like the inevitable thermo-nuclear war - this picture was taken about a month before the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.

There was plenty of things to be frightened of back then, what with the "Soviet menace," the "Cuban menace," reds in the State Department, Sputnik, and nuclear proliferation, but personally I was obsessed with dinosaurs and monster movies, especially monster movies about dinosaurs.  I couldn't get enough of them.  Dinosaurs, I think we can all agree, were the best.    

Every weekend, I would watch monster movies on television - Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, Godzilla, King Kong, anything really, I wasn't very discriminating - they all terrified and fascinated me in equal measure. I would watch each and every space opera that WPIX, New York's Channel 11, aired on its Saturday night Chiller Theater, and would get myself so frightened that I wouldn't want to go to bed at night, but would still watch the next monster movie that would air the following week.

My favorite magazine back then, of course, was Famous Monsters of Filmland, which also scared me silly. Some issues were so scary I didn't even want to turn the pages for fear of what I might find next.

  Famous Monsters of Filmland 21

But dinosaurs were the best of all.  My obliging parents would read to me every book on dinosaurs they could find, and after they had exhausted everything in the Levittown Public Library, my poor mother had to write her own dinosaur book just to satisfy my craving.

So as you could imagine, about the most exciting thing to my eight-year-old self was when I saw in the newspaper that there were going to be life-sized model dinosaurs at the 1964 New York World's Fair.

(What's really interesting to me now, though, is that truncated verbiage at the top of the page.  After "A 50-megaton bomb has the explosive . . . tons of TNT,"  the Strangelove-ian, Cold War-era story continues, "It is no longer possible, the report said, to destroy all means of counterattack of a country even in the event of surprise attack and with reliable knowledge of its targets. 'There is no doubt that a sufficient number of nuclear warheads carried by rockets will always be available for a devastating counterblow,' it said."  That's the kind of reporting that got carried on Page 7 of the daily newspaper in 1962, and news like that should have terrified me far more than Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.)

An 8-year-old is not psychologically equipped to wait the two years from the 1962 announcement that there's going to be dinosaurs until the opening of the '64 World's Fair, so my parents had to drive me upstate to the town of Hudson, New York, just to see the dinosaur even while they were still under construction. The head modeler, Louis Paul Jonas, was so taken by my enthusiasm that he autographed an educational brochure for me.

By July 1963, I still had another year to wait, but soon after this picture was taken, possibly on my birthday, we moved from the house in Levittown pictured below out to still-suburban but somewhat-more-rural St James, on the North Shore of Long Island's Suffolk County.

The 1963-4 school year had barely begun, of course, when we learned of the assassination of President Kennedy.  I was nine years old at the time and in the Fourth Grade.

Barely three months after the Kennedy assassination, The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, a broadcast reportedly watched by 73 million viewers, or some 34 percent of the American population. It was all any of the kids could talk about the next day at school ("Did you see that?" "Their hair was so long, they looked like girls!" "All they did was scream!" "That was so cool!"). It was everything the teachers could do to keep us in our seats, much less not blabbering on about the show, and lessons were clearly out of the question for the day.  I wasn't sure what to make of it all at the time, but in retrospect it changed everything.

File:Paul, George & John.png

Things indeed did start to change pretty fast after that.  I finally got the chance to go to the World's Fair and see the dinosaurs and all of the Disney-inspired, Future-World pavilions.  My interest in dinosaurs led to an enthusiasm for aquariums and terrariums, and the keeping of small animals of any kind.  We had cats and dogs and raised our own chickens, and there were raccoons and opossums and fireflies, and still, every weekend, we headed for the beach.  There was a nearby beach on a small harbor within walking distance which was a delight to swim in at high tide and an absolute hell-hole of mud and snails and razor- and horseshoe-crabs at low tide, forcing me to learn to read tide tables and Farmers' Almanacs at an early age. But I'm pretty sure that my parents and most of my siblings would agree that these were the best years for our growing family, the time of our happiest childhood memories.

As an aside, I still have that three-volume dictionary (Webster's New International, Second Edition) on the right-hand side of the book shelf.

But most of all, I was changing, transmorgifying into my next incarnation, the pre-adolescent.  By 1965, I was in the senior-most class of my K-through-6 school and pretty much knew my way around the system there.  By this time, I had figured out how to get free bottles of Coca-Cola out of the "honor system" cooler in the Teacher's Lounge and get away with it, I was a regular custodian of the "Science Museum" in the basement, and I would forsake the school bus and walk home every day, stopping by the music store in town to buy my weekly Top-40 single for 50 cents each.  

In many ways, I was at the top of my game. Here's my Sixth Grade class photo; that's me on the far right in the middle row, physically small for my age, but big in confidence.  We're now in the period where I have actual memories of these photos, and can still recognize at least half of the faces in the photograph.

See that one girl in the top row whose face is scratched out?  That's no accident.  That's Allison A., my first love.  I thought she was so beautiful and so perfect and so cool, and to see her smile at something I said or did would make my heart skip a beat.  She and I and our mutual best friends, for me Robert, in the striped sweater three guys to the left of me, and for her Cathy, in the green-trimmed dress and ankle socks on the bottom row, would play together on weekends exploring deserted stretches of beach, listening to Beatles records (Rubber Soul had just come out and rock music was becoming more artistic and interesting), and hanging out at her parents' house. I wanted her to be my girlfriend so bad it would make me ache, but I didn't have a clue at that time on how to go about making that happen or what it would mean or look like if it were actually to have happened.

By the time we got into Junior High School the next school year, her Scandinavian good looks and developing figure were immediately noticed by a lot of older boys who did know what to do, or at least knew more than I, and she broke my heart when I learned that she was going steady with another, an upper class man.  It was around that time that I scratched her face out of the picture, and almost instantly regretted doing so in my first, but by no means last, instance of romantic regret.

So I think we've covered a lot of ground here, from a barely toilet-trained toddler who drew pictures of bugs to a heart-sore pre-teen with an enthusiasm for Beatles' records.  I barely touched on rock 'n' roll, and I didn't even get around to talking about race and the first time I met a black kid, Jolly Roger's amusement park, the 1964 Johnson vs. Goldwater presidential campaign, Playboy Magazine, I Spy and The Man From UNCLE, Star Trek and Lost In Space, my lack of recognition of the income disparity between my home and that of some of my classmates, or the myriad other adolescent interests and aspects of growing up as a white, suburban, middle-class male in the 1960s.

I might have to fill in some of those gaps, but if not, I'll pick this story up again in 1967, the Summer of Love, sometime soon.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

My Thanksgiving Tradition

In keeping with WDW's tradition, here's William S. Burrough's A Thanksgiving Prayer.

But enough cheap cynicism.  Here's a true story that reminds me of the true meaning of Thanksgiving.  This month, Joel Hartman, a 36-year-old homeless man here in Atlanta, had reached that low point in his life where he was going through hotels' trash cans looking for food.  While doing so, he came across a once-in-a-lifetime find - a French tourist's wallet, complete with identification and credit cards.

Instead of selling the wallet to identity thieves or otherwise using his find for ill gains, he instead went to several hotels looking to return the wallet for no reward, finally finding that she was still checked in at downtown's Omni Hotel.  She had been robbed earlier in the day, but had not yet left Atlanta.  He returned the wallet without asking for any reward, but Omni management wanted to thank him anyway, and managed to track him down based on this surveillance camera picture of him looking to return the wallet.

Omni wallett

So tonight, Thanksgiving Day, Joel Hartman will be staying for free at the Omni Hotel with turkey dinner and room service provided by the hotel, and will be leaving with $500 in his pocket.

Happy Thanksgiving, Mr. Hartman.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Joshu's "Go Wash Your Bowl"

The Main Case
A monk said to Joshu, “I have entered this monastery. I beg you to teach me” 
Joshu asked. “Have you eaten your rice-gruel?” 
“I have,” replied the monk. 
“Then,” said Joshu, “go and wash your bowl.” 
The monk was enlightened.

Mumon's Commentary
Joshu opened his mouth and showed his gallbladder, his heart, and his liver. If the monk didn’t really grasp the truth, he mistook the bell for a pot.

Closing Verse
He made it all so clear,
It takes a long time to catch the point.
If you realize that it’s foolish to look for fire with a fire
The meal won’t take long to cook.

(translation by RH Blyth; illustration by Mark T Morse)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The 1950s, A Survivor's Tale

I was born in 1954, in the middle of the American century and the largest generation, the baby boomers, in American history, coincidentally on the same day as the late Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears. The American gangster Machine Gun Kelly had died a mere week before I was born.  The momentous Brown vs. Board of Education had overturned the so-called "separate-but-equal" segregation policies earlier in the year and President Eisenhower was invoking the "domino theory" to justify military aid for France's efforts in Indochina and financial aid to the South Vietnamese government.  

But I was oblivious to all this.  The writer Bill Bryson, a contemporary to me, elegantly describes his childhood with words that very well also describe my own: 
My kid days were pretty good ones, on the whole. My parents were patient and kind and approximately normal.  They didn't chain me in the cellar.  They didn't call me "It."  I was born a boy and allowed to stay that way. . . Growing up was easy.  It required no thought or effort on my part.  It was going to happen anyway. So what follows isn't terribly eventful, I'm afraid. And yet it was by a very large margin the most fearful, thrilling, interesting, instructive, eye-opening, lustful, eager, troubled, untroubled, confused, serene, and unnerving time of my life. Coincidentally, it was all those things for America, too (from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid).
In the time between my birth and my first Christmas, Russia had tested its first thermonuclear bomb and the U.S. Senate had voted 67–22 to condemn Joe McCarthy for "conduct that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute."  Here's my first Christmas tree, with me strapped into some sort of baby chair by the family sofa:

Here's another picture of me in the baby chair, in front of a modernistic shelving unit beneath the stairs of our Levittown home:

Levittown had been built as a planned community between 1947 and 1951, and was the first truly mass-produced suburb.  It was widely regarded as the archetype for postwar suburbs throughout the country, and William Levitt, who assumed control of developer Levitt & Sons in 1954, is considered the father of modern suburbia.  I don't know if it's possible to be born much more into the white American middle-class suburbs than that. 

With the support of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), Levitt & Sons offered the chance for home ownership with a 30-year mortgage and no down payment.  The development became the symbol of the “American Dream” and allowed thousands of families, including mine, to become first-time home owners. 

Maureen Tucker, later to become the drummer for the band Velvet Underground, was born in Levittown, and Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison had also lived in Levittown. 

However, Levittown was also a symbol of racial segregation. All home-sale contracts in Levittown stated that the property could not be used or rented by any individuals other than those of the Caucasian race.  As a result, American veterans who wished to purchase a home in Levittown were unable to do so if they were black. William Levitt attempted to justify the decision to sell only to white families, claiming their actions were not discriminatory but intended to maintain the value of their properties. He believed that potential white buyers would not want to buy a house in Levittown if they were aware that they might have black neighbors, stating,
“As a Jew, I have no room in my heart for racial prejudice. But the plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and someday it may change. I hope it will.” 
Although the Supreme Court declared in 1948 that property deeds stipulating racial segregation were unenforceable by law, Levitt took no actions to counteract the racial homogeneity of the suburb and thus the racial composition of Levittown remained the same. By 1960, Levittown was still a completely white suburb, and I can recall being shocked the first time I even so much as saw a black person, which occurred during a school field trip to the Bronx Zoo. 

To be clear, though, and to avoid any misunderstanding, my parents, dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, were not at all racist and did not buy into Levittown because of the racial segregation.  For many of the same reasons that white families fled the cities in the '60s and the '70s for gated communities in the suburbs, I believe they bought into Levittown for the perceived safety and affordability, and because there was no stigma associated with buying into a segregated community at that time.  It was the "American Dream," and my parents soon found themselves owning a home they were later able to flip for substantial profit, and then flip that home, and another, and another, climbing the social and economic ladder into ever larger and more luxurious housing well beyond our humble beginnings.  

But before all of that, their growing child first required a bigger chair, and the shelving unit beneath the staircase had to be cleared of the Christmas boughs. 

Growing up in the 1950s, people weren't as judgemental about child safety laws as they are today.  Here's me and my Dad, who probably still called himself by his childhood name "Sonny" back then (he later called himself "Bill"), perching me on top of a rail in front of what looks like some deathly cliff.  I have no idea where in the world this picture was taken, but my guess is Niagara Gorge.

Mom wasn't going to take any chances.  Here she's wheeling me in some sort of little play cart through some parking lot.

But we were primarily beach people.  For most of my childhood, nearly every weekend between Memorial and Labor Days was spent at the beach, first at Jones Beach and then after 1964 when the Robert Moses Causeway was completed, on Fire Island, where the poet Frank O'Hara was killed in a dune-buggy accident, coincidentally on my 12th birthday.  I basically grew up on the beach, playing in the ocean waves as far back as I can remember.  It's probably for that reason that to this day I'm fearless in water, although from the picture below it looks like I might have had some issues with heights back then.

This was more to my liking - back down on the sand and out of my little cage, a far happier baby.

The only thing better that being on the sand was being in the water itself.

Here's Dad either trying to each me how to box or showing off his moves for Mom's benefit.  It looks like that little girl walking towards us either intends to defend my honor or finish me off herself.

Water.  There was always water.  Here's Dad and I posing for Mom in front of some lake somewhere.

This looks like my first attempt to run away and strike off for myself (note to self: next time be sure to wear pants, first).

Yes, we were a water people.  I probably should have been born a Gemini or an Aquarius instead of a fire-sign Leo, but there really wasn't much I could do about it.  You're born when you're born.  

Meanwhile, back on terra firma, here's a birthday celebration at my grandparent's house.

I remember that drop off of the back patio as a terrifying precipice (I guess I did have a thing about heights after all). Even though it was barely hip-high to Mom, it was higher than I was tall, and I was just fine sitting back a foot or two from the edge.   

The family station wagon in the background, and the grandparents' dachshund, Bitsey, in the foreground. The possibly over-stimulated birthday boy is in between by his little inflatable swimming pool (there was always water).

Three candles on the birthday cake would place these pictures at 1957.  The world of the mid-1950s was already changing by 1957.  Eisenhower had been elected to a second term, and Israel had seized and then returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt.  The Brooklyn Dodgers moved to L.A. and Elvis had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.  We owned a 45-rpm copy of Elvis' "(You Ain't Nothing But A) Hound Dog," but I was not encouraged to enjoy it.    

The year 1957 continued. Senator Strom Thurmond sets the record for the longest filibuster with a 24-hour, 18-minute speech railing against a civil rights bill.  As the school year begins, Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus calls out the National Guard to prevent black students from enrolling in Central High School, and Eisenhower has to send federal troops to Little Rock to ensure the safety of black students entering the school.  The Soviet Union launches Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 into orbit, causing waves of anxiety and paranoia across America.  

But I was not aware at the time of any of this. In bucolic Levittown, the rituals of suburbia continued.  By Christmastime, even if I wasn't abreast of current events, as I sat on Santa's lap I was looking a lot more cognizant of what was going on around me than I was during my first Christmas.

The same ritual was repeated at Easter.  Here are my Easter pictures for, and I'm guessing now, 1958 and '59, and I look a lot happier with the far less creepy-looking Easter Bunny in the second picture than I do with the first.

These were happy years.  As I said at the top of this long exercise in nostalgia, born in the middle of the baby boom, in a community that symbolized the American Dream, I couldn't have started from a more archetypal white middle class beginning.  I didn't begin school until kindergarten in September 1960, and a whole new chapter of my life began.

Thank you for indulging me in my little exercise in nostalgia. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Earliest Known Evidence That I Might In Fact Actually Exist

Perhaps all of the news coverage of the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's assassination, with all of it's "where were you when you first heard?" reporting, has made me nostalgic, but I got to wondering what was the earliest evidence of my own existence.  The short answer is my birth certificate, which I won't be posting on-line for all the identity thieves out there, but I did manage to run across these baby pictures.

The barely post-adolescent young woman in the picture below is my mom, circa 1954, in what I imagine is one of her first days back from the hospital after having delivered her first child.  I have absolutely no recognition of the furnishings in the room around us, but given her casual attire, I imagine it must have been my first home.

Here's Mom a little bit more dolled up, along with the youngest picture of my late Dad I've ever seen, and in my father's face I can clearly see the features that I've inherited.  The whereabouts of this picture is a mystery to me, but the checkerboard sofa we're sitting on is different from the sofa above, which I assume was in our own home.  So given that we're all dressed up, Mom wearing a string of pearls and Dad in his argyle socks, I would guess that this was shot at my grandparent's house, my Mom's parents.  But who knows?, I could be wrong.  Given the bewildered expression on my face, I clearly had no idea even then of where I was.

I personally don't accept the idea of reincarnation in the sense of transmigrating souls, that a person was once somebody else during a former life and will be yet another person in some future life.  In fact, I have strong doubts about the existence of "a person" as an entity separate from the rest of the universe.  Looking at these nearly 60-year-old pictures, I don't see that little infant as "me." I have no sense of self-recognition; in fact, I feel a stronger affinity and sense of identification with my Dad in the picture above.  

I propose that we all reincarnate several times during the course of this one existence. In this present lifetime, we have the chance to be several different people, should we be so lucky as to survive long enough.  That little infant in the pictures above was one of my former selves, who later reincarnated into my childhood self, who reincarnated into my adolescent self, and so on down the chain of existence to the old man posting this blog now.  There's really no point in wondering who or what we'll be in the afterlife, or if there's even such a thing - what matters is what we become right here, right now, during this very life.    

But anyway, where was I when I heard that Kennedy had been shot?  As I recall, I was told by the bus driver taking me home from school in Levittown, Long Island.  As long as I'm being nostalgic and borderline self-indulgent, here's a photograph of where reincarnation had brought me to by 1963.  

I feel sorry for the person who had to break it to this little boy that his president had just died.

Post-Script:  My Mom, who naturally found this post to be very entertaining, informs me that the first picture was actually at my grandparents house, and if a gal can't wear a bathrobe at her own mother's house after giving birth, then what's the point?  She doesn't know where the second picture was taken, but recalls we were all dressed up because it was Easter Sunday, which would have made me about 9 months old in that pic (Easter Sunday fell on April 10th in 1955).  In any event, none of the pictures were at my home, which is a relief knowing that I never had to live with that hideous sofa in the first picture.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

Strange Feline Behavior

I work from home, and my cats follow me around all day, sleeping in the office while I'm on the computer, watching me in the kitchen when I'm cooking, and sitting on my lap if I'm watching television.  At night, they curl up at the foot of my bed.  It's gratifying in a way to have two little sentient beings always interested in my every move.

But recently, Izzy may have taken this intimacy a little too far.  He's taken up the habit of curling up inside my boxers every time I sit on the toilet.  He purrs while he does this and it seems to be the high point of his day. Apparently, if I'm not regular, he's not happy.

Even Eliot, my other cat, doesn't understand this behavior.  Here is is trying to figure out what Izzy's up to. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Little Things

I bought a new combination printer/scanner/fax machine/copier over the weekend.  

I bought it on-line from J&R Electronics.  It cost me $59, plus shipping.

It arrived today.  I set it up and it had everything I needed except a USB cable to connect it to my computer.

I went to Office Depot and bought the cable.  It cost me almost half the price of the printer.

While there, I saw the exact same combination printer/scanner/fax machine/copier.  It was on sale for $99.

I left feeling pretty good.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Braves Leave Atlanta

As you may have heard, the Atlanta Braves have announced that they're leaving Atlanta and moving out to suburban Cobb County.  Their stadium, virtually the only recognizable legacy of the 1996 Olympics, will be torn down and replaced with some project yet to be identified.  

This move not only bucks the national trend of moving major sports venues closer to City Centers, but it also reverses a recent trend away from Atlanta's endemic sprawl and towards more in-town, pedestrian-friendly development.

The area the team is moving towards doesn't even have a name and is usually described simply in reference to the cloverleaf intersection of I-75 and I-285 (The Perimeter).  Traffic is already gridlocked at that intersection during rush hour - adding a major league baseball game to the area mix won't exactly relieve the burden on the traffic.  Oh, and the area has traditionally resisted any and all proposals for public transit, and isn't likely to embrace it anytime soon - the area is notoriously one of the most conservative counties in the metro area and home to the Atlanta Tea Party faction.

So good luck with the move, Atlanta Braves.  Frankly, I haven't cared about your team since at least 1999 and won't miss the traffic and noise your presence has generated in the past.  And best wishes with your new tenant, Cobb County.  I'll check back with you in a few years to see how your "no new taxes" and "private sector enterprise" philosophies are faring in the face of the burdens you've just assumed.