Sunday, December 27, 2009


The Summer of '69 story will continue next time. Christmas Break!

This is my favorite wrapping paper. I thought we used it up last year but we didn't. I was glad to see we still have some. Look. Click to enlarge. If you stare at it you'll see a three-D image.

OK, you won't. I lied. It's just printed horribly out of register. I can't even figure out how it is supposed to look. Maybe someday somebody will make paper like this deliberately.

Here are some photos I took around our house on Christmas Eve. It snowed last Saturday and Sunday, and it was below freezing almost the whole time since, so most of the snow was still here. Then the day after Christmas we got torrential rains that wiped out almost all the snow.

This evergreen bush contains a story. You can see the past in the dry autumn leaves and the twigs that fell unwanted from the paper birch tree overhead (trunk at upper right). You can see the blobs of snow of the present. But in a few months its branches will sprout new light green needles in the spring sunshine. For now, it waits.

We lost most of an aged rhododendron during a wind storm a couple of weeks ago. We knew the bush had a partly hollow trunk, and we knew it was only a question of time. The wind snapped it. One portion of the bush remains and we hope it will grow strong next season. It looks healthy. I cut up the broken parts with a wonderful tree saw I have, a crescent-shaped hand tool, and I piled the cut branches near the street. Here are they are, still green, in the snow.

Our garden is a collaboration between us and nature. If something we like starts to grow, we let it be. There are a lot of ferns on this slope that flourished this past year. We have a lot of asters too, and I cut the dead stems back in the fall, but my memory was that the ferns disintegrate on their own, so I left them as they were. They're still here. You can see the knobby spore cases on the sticks.

I left some asters uncut by this fence. You can see some green still on them. Asters die back but leave a living tuber just under the surface from which next year's plant will grow, so we cut them instead of pulling them up.

Let's go inside. Christmas tree! I took some non-flash photos with a tripod and long exposures, and this one came out all right. The origami peace dove is new this year (thank you David and Sarah). The artificial tree is the one I bought the first year Helen and I lived together, at the Woolworth's I described in Communists. We've put up real trees some years, but this one makes an appearance from time to time.

Helen got this angel, below, at a garage sale earlier this year. In real life, the electric candle she holds shoots out narrow rays of light in a fascinating way. I was hoping to show you this. Somehow the rays do not come out in a photograph.

I don't believe in angels. But I do believe in truth and beauty, and kindness and understanding. That is the spirit of the dark days of winter, the spirit of defying the cold and gathering together and believing that we can make our world better. I think we can do that. This angel holds the light of that hope and is ready to fly on its wings, to soar beyond the limitations we think we have.

In your light we will see the light.

Next time: Truth and Soul.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Cake and the Moon

[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]

My "weekend" from the Schoolmaster Books job was Monday and Tuesday. This suited me fine. I liked to go in to the city, and all the bus and subway lines had better service on weekdays. I'd go in one of those days at the end of the morning rush hour, and I'd try to get back before the evening rush.

And if you know me, you can guess one thing I did. I wanted to see what all of the subway lines in the city were like.

I never wanted to do that thing where you ride continuously over every part of the entire system on one fare. It takes 24 hours or so.

I wanted to get to all of the lines, but just eventually. No rush. I would pick a little area of the system to do on each trip. I had to start each time at the George Washington Bridge Bus Station way up at 181st St, and almost always the A train from there, because it got downtown fast, got that out of the way, and I could get onto the lines I wanted.

Thanks to my Huge Hall days I knew a few ways to the Bronx by bus, if I wanted to start on a Bronx subway and run down the East Side for example. I was very cheap though. I didn't like having to pay for a bus and a subway. It was 15 cents a ride, after all. That was real money. I didn't even want to leave the subway to eat. There used to be hot dog places in certain stations. There was one at Fulton Street that I liked. I don't remember what was so good about it.

I did leave the subway once each trip so I could check for new records. I remember going to Sam Goody's in the Chrysler Building (or was it just next to the Chrysler Building?) for new LP releases and a full top 100 of singles. And I had a little route I'd worked out in the Village that took me into a series of shops that had used records, imports, and (dare I say) bootlegs. That's where I picked up my English Beatles LPs, and some Kinks stuff you couldn't get in the States. I continued that through college. I think LPs cost about three dollars then.

And I liked to take the Village Voice each week. It was a real counterculture paper then, tougher than it was later, lots of radical opinions in ink that came off in your hands.

One of my favorites in it was Jill Johnston's "Dance Journal". I guess she was originally supposed to be reviewing dance performances, but almost all the time what she really did was just ramble on and on about politics and feminism and friends and anything else that was on her mind, with page jumps leading farther and farther back in the thick paper until I couldn't read any more.

I don't think I knew what Dada was yet, but I liked it. Imagine, just writing whatever damn thing comes into your head and churning out long rambling articles every week that almost defy anyone to read all the way through to the end. Was Jill Johnston the first blogger?

I always felt like I was smuggling in the Voice at Huge Hall, or home for that matter. I happened to mention something in it to Terri pretty soon after I started working, and she wanted to see it, so I started bringing it in to Schoolmaster Books each Wednesday for her to have.

That summer something crazy happened. Some people took a rocket to the moon, and got out and walked around there in space suits, and then came back.

I wrote earlier about how the past seems a little unreal to me. But things I remember myself are real. It's that older stuff that bothers me. Are you having trouble with this moon thing? The last-ever moon landing was in December 1972. If you are not at least 38 years old, there has not been a moon landing in your entire lifetime.

My friend Michael has observed that of all the visions of the future in the old science fiction magazines, the thing no one ever predicted was that people would go to the moon a few times and then stop going. Forty years later, we should be going to amusement parks on Mars by now, right?

But we didn't know that would happen the first time they went. The newspapers pulled out the Second Coming fonts they had last used on VJ Day. I think the Daily News filled the front page with just the words MEN ON / MOON. The Times retained its dignity but still had a slightly larger head than they had used before. Maybe you had to be there to realize how spot-on The Onion is with the feel of that day (NSFW).

They were nice enough to land in the afternoon, New York time, and on a Monday, so I could be home to watch it on TV. I didn't have a chance to share with Terri how mind-blowing it was for almost two days.

You know me. I met Terri at the door when we opened up on Wednesday. "So, they walked on the moon," I observed casually. I was going to gauge her degree of excitement first.

"Yeah, they did." Oh we were so cool. And then she perked up. "Ooh, the Voice. Gimme." Yup, that was about it. If you wanted to impress us you needed to do better.

Bringing Terri the Voice might have been what got me a nice present. What else could it have been?

I think it happened the next week. Terri arrived carrying a plate covered with aluminum foil. She gestured at me to come into the office, and pulled off the foil.

"Look, I made you a cake."

Well. I never had a friend bake a cake for me before. It was a nice little layer cake with vanilla icing and some sprinkles on top. It took me a moment to say something brilliant along the lines of "Wow, this is great." My head was going to explode.

"You better let me have some." Thank you, Terri. Down to earth.

So I did. Around lunchtime we went out on the porch in the front of the shop, and I cut the cake in half and half again, and Terri and I each ate a quarter cake. It was good. And later in the afternoon we polished off the rest of it.

We had offered some to Sue when she got in but she smiled and said "not for me". Terri and I were pretty thin, so we didn't care how much cake we ate. Now that I've passed Sue's age then, I can see why she'd skip it. Come to think of it, that's not true. I would accept a small piece. You only live once.

My mom wasn't impressed with the moon landing. I can't remember when someone first proposed that the moon walk had been staged in a government movie studio. My ever-hazy memory is that she said so as soon as it happened. But maybe it wasn't till later.

Whenever the subject was mentioned, she'd say the landing was faked. The trouble is that my mom had a great sense of humor. She might have been playing the same joke every time a different person mentioned it, to see what they would say.

Anyway, we all got over it. Moon landing, shmoon landing, big deal.

It could be that by the time Terri made me the cake, she was already thinking of asking me something else. Remember, I was pretty clueless.  So how would I know that soon we were going to do something that, as far as I was concerned, was even more crazy than going to the moon. But that's enough for this week.

The Moon Landing photo was shot on location (I think) by Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin.

[ The next Summer of '69 story is Truth and Soul. ]

Next time: Christmas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

In the Year 2525

[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]

In the year 2525
if man is still alive,
if woman can survive,
they may find.

"This song is so stupid."

I would put an exclamation point there, but Terri said it with a sigh, not excitement, so I don't think it deserves an exclamation point.

We both groaned whenever it came on. Anguished soft cries of "They may find what ??".

We were allowed to have a radio on in the shop. Not too loud. Terri liked 77 WABC. Remember Top 40 AM radio? These people do.

I'll get right back to that. But first let's clear up what's going on.

I was not Terri's replacement. Like antique stores, Schoolmaster Books had more traffic in the summer, and Sue the owner was out more often to buy. So she needed two helpers. When she was out, Terri was able to run the shop with me assisting.

People coming in were only part of it. There was a catalog that Sue typed up and duplicated and sent out a few times a year. Because of this we had to visit the post office almost every day, and track everything we sold in the shop or by mail that was in the catalog. You might be interested to know how we did all this without computers. I started to write it out but it's crazy long. I'm just going to say that it involved a lot of paper and handwriting.

The first day I worked, a beautiful Saturday in late June, Terri took me for a walk to the post office. It was great. Don't ask me why. It just was. I felt good.

The post office was only a few blocks from the shop. On the way we made pointless complaints about the size and weight of two book packages we were taking to send out. When we got there Terri showed me how to pay the postage and get receipts, and where our box was and how to open it with the key. We made more pointless remarks about how old the set of post office box windows seemed to be. Maybe fifty years then, I think now.

It was fun going to work. Learning how they did things gave me enough excuses to talk to Terri without my brain going numb, and I got used to it. I had a nice new life going on. Change was good.

And we could spend some time in the big front room commenting on songs on the radio.

From the last week of June, I was working full time, Wednesday to Sunday. The WABC Top 20 included some songs I liked listening to.

Three Dog Night, "One"
Blood, Sweat and Tears, "Spinning Wheel"
Elvis Presley, "In the Ghetto"
The Beatles, "Get Back"
Creedence Clearwater Revival, "Bad Moon Rising"
Desmond Dekker and the Aces, "Israelites"
Checkmates Ltd, "Black Pearl"

I know it's just a list, and if you weren't there a list of artists and titles doesn't do much for you. But they're all on Youtube. Go ahead. You won't be sorry.

And the one that bar bands perform the most today is "Bad Moon Rising", isn't it? Ah, Creedence. "There's a bathroom on the right."

But you know what got the most airplay that summer.

If you're lucky, it's been years since you've heard the Zager and Evans opus "In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)". Sweet puppies of Babylon, that is the full title.

If you're young, you're even more lucky : maybe you've escaped hearing it entirely.

Here, don't miss the fun. Turn up the volume.


The Wikipedia page for the song is a thing to behold. It's got scholarly comment like this:

... the pattern as well as the music changes, going up a half step in the key of the song, after two stanzas, first from A Flat Minor, to A Minor, and, then, finally, to B Flat Minor, and verses for the years 7510, 8510 and 9595 follow. The song has no chorus.

Well, duh. The truckdriver's gear shift. You know. You've heard a big truck shift gears as it goes up the hill, vrooooooom, vraaaaaaam.

They go up a half step because things are getting so boring that we'll lose our minds if they don't do something! I'm not talking about changing key to enter a new part of the song : I'm talking about changing key and then just repeating the same melody in the new key.

If there was an Official Scorer for pop music, this would get an error. You might not lose the game, but you're going to have to do something good to make up for it. I heard Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" playing the other day as I was thinking about this, and he shifts real good going into the third verse, but I think he redeems himself.

One might argue whether it's chorus or verse that's missing in "2525", but whatever you call it, the brief four-line melody repeats a mind-numbing eight times as they go from 2525 to 9595. Not only is the music the same, but the lyrics also follow a lockstep pattern. Shift, please. In fact, let's shift twice, we need it!

The song annoyed me in so many ways, I am not sure where to start.

Terri and I got some laughs out of it. We'd cry "oh no" when it came on, and try to find something new to complain about each time. It was like what they later did for movies in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Let's start with this. It bothered me just simply that they jumped ahead by thousands. It was so far. I didn't see how we could imagine one thousand years into the future and say anything sensible. A hundred years is hard.

Looking back now, see what trouble you get into with that:

In the year 6565
ain't gonna need no husband, won't need no wife.
You'll pick your son, pick your daughter too,
from the bottom of a long glass tube, whoa-oh.

6565? We can pretty much do that in 2009, for pity's sake! By the way that "whoa-oh" is where he shifts the truck into second gear.

The other predictions made no sense at all. Try this one:

In the year 4545
ain't gonna need your teeth, won't need your eyes.
You won't find a thing to chew.
Nobody's gonna look at you.

What? Mind you, I don't want to give up eating and seeing, but am I supposed to get worried about this?

I can't even imagine everyone having a test tube baby, because the traditional method of conception is fun if it works for you. But even less can I imagine people deciding they're tired of eating, or tired of seeing. Why would that ever happen?

Oh, I feel like an idiot for even telling you why that verse is stupid.

But that's nothing. We're not done here.

Suddenly after 6565 we get Christian eschatology! Yes! After all, what's a more logical progression than this: we think about artificial sexual reproduction, and then we think about judgement day. There are people who always think of those together.

In the year 7510
If God's a-comin' He oughta make it by then.
Maybe He'll look around Himself and say,
Guess it's time for the judgment day.

In the year 8510
God is gonna shake His mighty head.
He'll either say I'm pleased where man has been
or tear it down and start again, whoa-oh.

What's this 7510? Why not 7575? Oh, I'm sure it's because "seventy" has an extra syllable and Zager and Evans didn't want to stumble through saying it twice in one line. In other words mechanical considerations trump meaning. There was no other reason to shorten the gap to 945 years, was there?

God must be an Ent. He looks around, and then a thousand years later, he shakes his head. Let's not be hasty.

"Whoa-oh", slam it into third, we're rollin' now.

Shouldn't it be "Exordium et Terminus" if we're going to get all Latin about it? Terri liked that one. She'd had Latin too.

I think it was Terri who jumped first on the problem with the pretentious summing-up section, namely the starting line:

Now it's been ten thousand years.

Ten thousand years since what? Does he think the human race started in the year zero?

Oh, wait just a minute. Is he saying that the decline of humanity started with the birth of Jesus? We laughed evil laughs at that one. It's Satanic! And you don't even have to play it backwards! Why did no one else see it?

To be comprehensive we tried to think what happened In the Year 1515 and In the Year 505 that got the pattern started. We couldn't come up with anything. We had the 1911 Encyclopædia Brittanica handy (and I mean the real one on paper, not Project Gutenberg!), and the two of us betrayed what school rats we were by looking through it intensely to find something significantly decadent that happened in those years. As if.

I think we were looking up the history of different countries that we thought existed at those dates. We read aloud little-known facts that had nothing to do with anything. It was nice being silly together. We got a little off topic, but who cared. OK, back to that stanza:

Man has cried a billion tears
for what he never knew.
Now man's reign is through.

To be consistent with verse 1, "man" refers only to male humans. So implicitly "woman" will finally be in charge after the year 9595. Probably a network of witch covens. Hee hee. That might be all right, if we can get back to eating and looking at each other. Maybe not till the year 105105, which is a 95,510 year gap, but who's counting?

We're getting to the real meaning now. This song with its hypnotic repetition is intended to addle our brains and speed the apocalypse, turning the centuries into days, even hours. Yes. Let us greet the end of days. O Zager. O Evans.


Their followup single on RCA-Victor, "Mr. Turnkey" (a song about a rapist who nails his own wrist to the wall as punishment for his crime), failed to chart.

Go figure.

His wrist, huh?

Robin Gibb once said something significant about all this, and considering I co-wrote a biography of him and his brothers, I should be able to quote it, but I can't find it. Anyway the gist of it was that hearing a pop record can bring back vivid memories of a time in your life when you first heard it. He's right.

Look what "In the Year 2525" does to me. I'm back there, with a little radio on, "days I'll remember all my life" as Ray Davies said a year earlier. I hate the song, but I liked the times. The world was simple and the future bright.

The image of Zager (left) and Evans is from the video.  Detail of Das Jüngste Gericht by Hans Memling, painted 1467-1471.

[The next Summer of '69 story is Cake and the Moon.]

Next time: Cake and the Moon.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]

"How much are they paying you?"

My dad always comes up with the practical question. Right. How much are they paying me, for this summer job I have lined up at Schoolmaster Books? How would I know?

He always has the good question and I always don't have the good answer.

I worked more or less for free at the school bookstore. They were knocking some undisclosed amount off my tuition for it. That is, it was undisclosed to me by my dad, who was paying. So I earned something, but I wasn't paid as in getting a check or cash.

You want to know how much Schoolhouse Books paid me? Whatever the New York state minimum wage was at that time, that's how much. I don't know what that was, now.

I went back to the shop two weeks after I was hired. Sue was at the counter, so we discussed the first weekend I would be there, in June. She said she and Terri would show me how to do things. I casually mentioned the topic of how many hours it would be, and said that would be times, oh, I forget, what was the pay again? That was subtle, right?

Sue said Terri would show me how to do things! And where was she? No, I didn't ask Sue that. It was in my mind as soon as I came in, and stayed there, but I was going to see if it happened to come into the conversation. It didn't.

I found her upstairs. Terri was emptying a box of new old books onto various shelves. Her jeans had some of that orange dust on them that you get from contact with old leather bindings.

"Hey, so you're going to work here." See that? I knew she was going to mention it.

"Yeah I guess so." Something like that, as if I didn't want to commit to it.

"That's great, I'm glad." This was welcoming. It was more than that in fact. I responded to this nice greeting with a dumb remark. This still sticks in my mind.

"Why?" What, I asked her why? Oh come on... "why". Why was she glad? What kind of question is that? Maybe it was just polite conversation, Joe. Maybe she was looking forward to having another person around. Whatever. Did it really call for an explanation?

Terri just looked at me for a second. But I was about to save. My mind raced. What I was going to do was provide her an answer, and all she'd have to do was agree. Like maybe "because you know I like books too, right?". That's still pretty lame. Luckily she got there first, and dismissed the weirdness with a word: "Funny."

"I'm Terri. I'm really Therése but only my parents call me that." She pronounced it te-RAZE. She held out her hand. The hand was a little dusty from the books but that wasn't what bothered me. I was being invited to TOUCH HER.

Let's pause a moment. This is very dramatic stuff. We could develop a miniseries for a network with a story like this. If it gets any more intense, for cable. We've got a high school boy and girl, together in an upstairs room, nobody's watching, and they are talking to each other. Yes. It's not a hell of a conversation yet, but they are about to make contact. OK?

I did it. I shook her hand. It was small, and warm. Huh. "I'm Joe. I'm really Joseph but my parents don't call me that." I was riffing off her line, for lack of any other brain activity. Wait, I have a followup. "My teachers used to call me Joseph."

"Oh, yeah, mine do too. Well, they call me Therése, not Joseph." Weak laughter from both us.

She had more. "Wait, teachers used to call you Joseph? What do they call you now?" I explained the peculiar "Mister" usage that was standard at the Prep. That in turn led us to what schools we went to.

Terri was a senior at Rosary. Another Catholic school, a few miles up the road. An all girls school.

We almost had something in common. I was getting fascinated by this. Now I wanted to talk to her more.

But she choked it off. "I want to get these shelved so I can get down to the counter. Sue needs to do some catalog. Ummm, OK?"

And the way she asked that sounded familiar. I said sure.

I went to the next room, and I recall looking at the shelves for a few minutes, and not seeing the books, lost in thought.

This story is about change. When I was a kid I had trouble believing that things in the world changed.

As I moved around in the world almost all I saw was buildings and roads and trees that had been there my whole life. The world seemed like a static place. Now that I am older, the world seems almost totally dynamic. Things, and people, follow an arc of existence. They start at a point in time, move forward and change as they go, and then they make an exit.

In my child world view, I was skeptical about the passage of time. I mentioned in Huge Hall that I couldn't accept the date cast into the radiators.

When I was a kid, there was a place I passed sometimes when I rode my bike, where over the course of a couple of weeks, they tore down a very old house, a house that I now think was probably a farmhouse about a hundred fifty years old. I knew somehow that it was a farmhouse, but that idea was so unreal I could not fully accept it, because there was no farm there, only suburban houses and roads. We had done school reports for the Tercentennial of New Jersey in 1964, and I knew that much of our town had been farmland, but I didn't feel it. It was long ago. It was like fiction. It was not connected to real life.

Maybe that's what was wrong with the radiator. It was intruding into real life.

Since then I've liked playing with the idea that the historical world and real world are the same.

I think that's why I like examining old structures, and especially the remains of old structures and roads. Seeing these things convinces me of the reality of what I would read about in histories. I try to see them as they once were and connect their present state with what they were in the past. I'm one of those people who will say, look, this is the actual place where it happened (whatever it was), and it means something to me.

For quite a while I was totally in favor of historic preservation of practically anything. I liked seeing the old things and I wanted them all to remain for other people to see. But now I've moved on from that. I appreciate change.

A building may be put up because it is needed, and it may be well designed, both useful and beautiful. But years later maybe it is not so needed, and the location is ideal for some other purpose. This is not to say that the old building was bad. It respects the building as a functional thing to remove it when it no longer serves its purpose. It says that the building mattered.

I think I was caught up in the idea that you destroy things only when they are useless and ugly.

Did you ever see a sand mandala? Also known as a sand painting. From Wikipedia:

The Sand Mandala is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition involving the creation and destruction of mandalas made from colored sand. A sand mandala is ritualistically destroyed once it has been completed and its accompanying ceremonies and viewing are finished to symbolize the Buddhist doctrinal belief in the transitory nature of material life.

I heard about sand mandalas in college. I had trouble making sense of it, taking so much trouble to create something and then deliberately destroying it as soon as it is done.

But now I get it. Let things go. Appreciate how good something is. Go ahead and create something without taking on the obligation of owning it and keeping it. Remember it.

And know that eventually no one will even have a memory of it. It's the material world. All things must pass.

It's almost wrong to keep photographs of a sand mandala.

But I found that this set ( helped me understand how it feels to work on one. It must be satisfying to dismantle it, like a trouble lifted. I would know that I had made the mandala and that it was beautiful. Doing it is the payoff, not the dead inert thing you end up with when you've stopped changing it.

I wonder how many artists feel like this about their work but can't explain why. I've heard of musical artists who can't bear to listen to their completed recordings and only want to think ahead to the next one they will do.

You'd laugh at me saying all this if you could see the room full of old books and papers I have accumulated. I don't want to let them go.

I even put up an essay about old photos while I was writing drafts of this story. I didn't see the connection when I did it.

I changed when I spoke to Terri. It was the summer of change.

The gull illustrations are by an anonymous artist, possibly Marie Honore Myers, from the small book Each in His Own Tongue by William Herbert Carruth, published by Wise-Parslow, New York, 1925.

The marbled endpaper was found in a copy of Kosmos by Alexander von Humboldt printed 1847. Each sheet of marbled paper is unique. See

[The next Summer of '69 story is In the Year 2525.]

Next time: In the Year 2525.