Month: September 2017

Late to the Party


I went to a concert last weekend and may have arrived a bit late, like 5 years or possibly even 45.

Maybe you’re already familiar with the musician, Rodriguez, but I was not.  It seems that I had several opportunities to become familiar with him.  I just missed, and for a while, so did he.  Now, I’m feeling some regret, but it doesn’t seem like he is.  My apologies if you already know this story.

Forty years ago, America ignored Rodriguez in droves.  His first album, which came out in 1970, was acclaimed by critics and adored by tens of fans.  No, not tons, tens.  He made about as much of a splash on the music scene as a waterstrider on a pond.   Yeah, as in barely a footprint on the surface.  I was one of the millions who never heard of him.   I regret that.  He doesn’t.

Five years ago I missed him again.  This times millions of others did not.   In a documentary that won an Academy Award, the Swedish film maker, Malik Bendjelloul introduced the non-South African world to Rodriguez, by detailing the efforts of two South Africans to locate a musician who had been “bigger than Elvis” in their country. Seeing this film, the world was astonished to find that a musician, living in relative anonymity in Detroit as a handyman who did demolition work, was a musical hero in South Africa, where his music had become the soundtrack for the anti-Apartheid movement in the 70s and 80s.  In 2012, the world discovered Rodriguez, and again, I missed the party.

Last weekend my wife and I were given tickets to a concert in Bridgeport.  Two friends of ours had purchased tickets but couldn’t attend.  Nancy asked me if I wanted to go.  “It’s some South African guy whose music was really popular in South Africa and Australia, and now he’s catching on here.”  That was all I knew until I sat in my seat at the Klein Auditorium.  I decided to Google Rodriguez.  That gave me 30 minutes to adjust to what I was about to see and hear.

He was not South African, as it turned out.  He was American.  He was born and raised in Detroit, the son of Mexican immigrants.  He had recorded two albums in the early 70s. They had not met commercial success.  His record label, Sussex, dropped him in 1973.  When asked how many albums Rodriguez had sold, his producer replied, “Six.  I think my wife bought one, my kids may have bought another.”  That was hyperbole (or hypobole – is that what negative exaggeration is called?).  He returned to his humble life, playing his guitar for himself, but making his modest living working first on an assembly line and later doing the dusty, back-straining demolition work that no one else would do. His co-workers admired his soft-spoken serenity. His neighbors knew him as a quiet advocate for justice in the inner city.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to him, his music began to gain popularity in South Africa.  That country, though, was so walled-off by the rest of the world, because of its racist policies, that no one in the U.S., including Rodriguez, had any inkling that he had become an iconic figure in the protest movement.  Adding to the mystery of his life was the rumor in South Africa that Rodriguez had killed himself on stage.  This wasn’t true, but it may have added to the mystique of his music, and it certainly curtailed any efforts to locate him.

When, in the late 1990s, through a series of accidents, coincidences, and the advent of the Internet,  two South Africans were able to connect first with one of Rodriguez’s daughters, and finally with him, the humble demo man’s life changed…sort of.  

He and his family flew to Cape Town and found themselves suddenly greeted as though they were superstars.  Rodriguez played sold-out concerts, backed by a South African band, even though he hadn’t performed in 25 years.  He did TV interviews in South Africa, where music fans who for years had thought him dead, viewed his appearance almost as a resurrection.   Still, he returned to Detroit, an ordinary construction worker.  Music fans in the U.S. had no awareness of his existence or of his music.

In 2012, the documentary Searching for Sugar Man changed that. For the first time, many Americans (not including me) heard his sounds and watched his unbelievable story unfold on the screen.  How was it possible, they all wondered, for someone to be so wildly popular thousands of miles from his home and so unknown in his own back yard?  How was it possible for someone with this amazing poetic and musical talent to be so ignored?   Suddenly his home country awoke and discovered Rodriguez.  

I knew all of this exactly 15 minutes before the concert began.  Thanks Wikipedia.  Everyone else in the auditorium seemed far ahead of me.  “Did you know he was born in 1942?” I said to my wife, astutely picking up on the least remarkable feature of the story.   “The guy’s 75 years old.” I continued.  Eventually I got around to part of the mind blowing quality of the story. “It’s kind of like a weird distortion of Rip van Winkle.  He woke up to find that he’d been famous for 40 years but never knew it.”  Would that be frustrating, to know that you could have been adored (and wealthy) for more of your life?  

When the stage darkened, a woman walked part of the way on stage, and a spotlight flipped on.  “I’d like to introduce the band,” she said.  She welcomed a drummer, a guitarist, and a bass player first.  The three of them walked on stage.  Finally she introduced her father, Rodriguez.  He shuffled on stage, certainly not at the tempo of his fellow septuagenarian, Mick Jaggar.  No.  This was a humble entrance by a stoop-shouldered man, who had labored hard.  Wearing all black, he perched on a stool. His daughter and the lead guitarist helped him strap on his acoustic.  He mumbled something about being happy to be in Bridgeport, did some tuning and a little more mumbling.  Then he began to strum…and sing.

His years melted away.  He no longer seemed 75.  His voice summoned smooth, clear notes.  Imagine Bob Dylan suddenly able to carry a tune.  On other songs he sounded more like James Taylor.  Sometimes he covered songs from other artists of his era:  Elton John’s “Your Song,” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”  But mostly he featured the songs from his two long-forgotten albums.  And those songs, written in the early 70s rang true, still.

The mayor hides the crime rate
council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date
Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining
Everyone’s protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting
you’re not like all of the rest.

Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people they’re abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it’s at.

Woke up this morning with an ache in my head
Splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed
Opened the window to listen to the news
But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues.

I sat (or stood) mesmerized.  I felt sorry for myself that I’d missed this for all of those years, but grateful that I’d finally found this sound.   I was late to the party, but at least I’d arrived.

I felt sorry for Rodriguez too, having missed all those years of success, all those years when he might have been creating, agitating, and inspiring in his own country. He had lived humbly in the same house in Detroit for 40 years, but he did not seem sad.  Wistful, maybe.   Amused even.  What he exuded most was serenity.  Here was a man who seemed content to have lived most of his life like the lines in one of my favorite poems, “Famous,” by Naomi Nye:  

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

Most of his life, at least as far as he was aware.  He was famous, too, in the more traditional way.  He just didn’t know it.  Now, toward the end of his set, he could celebrate the contradictions in his most unusual life.  “I don’t want much,” he deadpanned.  “I just want to be treated like an ordinary…legend.”   

The guest of honor had arrived late to his own party, but in time for his just desserts.

Rodriguez sings “Sugar Man”

Rodriguez covers Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (masterfully)

I know, right?

Last night I went to bed at 10:30.  I had taken 9960 steps.  When I discovered this this morning, I was, of course disappointed.  How could I have been so careless?  Had I checked my Fitbit app, I certainly would have found a way to make a few extra trips to the basement or the refrigerator.  You know, to get those extra 40 steps, right?  So that the party would happen on my wrist, and I would feel that I had actually gotten some exercise yesterday.  Instead, 9960.  Almost as disappointing as the Orioles losing in the 11th inning for the second consecutive night.


People are strange.  I include myself in that designation of course, being a people.


What I was thinking this morning as I hummed “People are strange” over and over to myself while walking McGee in the gloom of the early morning was this:  we’re all strange, and we sometimes revel in our strangeness…as long as there’s someone in the world who’ll go, “I know, right?”


I experienced an example of that last night on Facebook, as I sat on the couch, depressed about the Orioles, and not taking 40 measly steps.  One of my friends from college posted an odd confession:  “Does anyone else feel bummed out when they accomplish some task but then realize they forgot to put it on their to-do list, so they can’t check it off?”  Many affirming responses poured in.  The gist:  I totally share your irrational strangeness.


“Yes!” one strange friend chimed in.  I hate that.  Sometimes I write it on my to do list AFTER I’ve finished, just so I can check it off.”   I know, right?


“It has to do with endorphins,” one scientifically-inclined strange person added.  “We get a rush from checking off things.”  Personally, I needed both the rush of “Facebook likes” and the rush of checking things off, so I opened my “UYH” app on my Ipad, wrote in, “Type reply to Howard’s post,” and then clicked to Facebook and typed, “Just added, ‘Type reply to Howard’s Facebook post’ so that I could type this post and then check it off.”   Strange, right?


Silence.  Crickets.  Zero “likes.”


Hold on, that was funny, why are there no likes?  If it were just me posting, that would be easy to explain.  I have very few friends.  But this is different.  Howard has many friends.  I could tell that from the many “I know, right?”-type comments.  Where were mine?  This was disconcerting.  


What I decided this morning as I struggled to come up with more of the lyrics to “People are Strange”  (all I got was “something, something, when you’re alone” and some other partial line that contained the phrase “women seem wicked.”).  Anyway, what I decided was this:  We’d all like to be strange in a small way.  Conversations would be so dull if they started out, “You know, I really love oxygen.”  It would be hard to get a really heartfelt, “I know, right?” if you said, “Gosh I realized today how much I enjoy walking upright.”


The problem is, we want a connection with our weirdness, too.  Some kind of affirmation that we’re not the only person who has some sort of letdown feeling when we realize we’ve looked at the clock at 12:35, just missing our favorite time of day, 12:34. You know, when the digits are all in counting order?   Can I get an “I know, right?” on that one?  Or could you chime in with something weirder that you do?  That would help, too.  I just want to find that there’s someone else who takes screenshots of his completed weekend to-do lists (just in case I ever want to prove to someone that I DO actually do things).  


Anyone?  Anyone?  


I’d love to find someone who also believes that remembering to floss is good luck.  Or someone else who would prefer to walk through the living room (the long way) and then into the kitchen, because taking a right turn at the bottom of the stairs and going directly into the kitchen is bad luck… only if you do it first thing in the morning, of course.  


Yeah, I’m pretty sure that last one is not going to get a whole lot of affirmations.  If anyone actually reads this, they’re probably getting very concerned right about now.  So, I’ll go back to the one I started with, because I’m pretty sure that one is only slightly strange.  I have this odd feeling now, that when my fitbit is recharging, I probably shouldn’t do any exercising, because, really, if a step is taken in a forest, but no fitbit registers it, did it really happen?  And if you’re 40 measly steps from 10,000, but you unwittingly go to sleep, did you really have a day? That’s the life I’m living these days.  You know, right?


P.S. My goal when I started this blog was to write 500 words a day.  I have…sort of…if you average them…and count the ones that I didn’t publish.  Does that count?

Sea Shell City by the Seashore


Driving down to Delaware, I had worried that my long lost high school friends might find me a bit tame (read: boring) compared to my high school self. Not that I was a candidate for Animal House back then, but let’s just say I was less reserved.

I needn’t have worried. Exhibit A: our visit to Sea Shell City.

Around ten a.m. on Friday morning, we sat on the deck of the rental house, scarfing down omelettes and discussing our plans for the day. My friend Dan, who had rented the house,  suggested a visit to Sea Shell City. His high school-age daughter seconded the idea, as did Dan’s wife (well, I guess she thirded it). When our friend Peter pulled up with his wife and their 18-year-old daughter, all three of them declared themselves “in” for the excursion. They all looked at me. “Well, sure, I’m up for some sea shells.” I had no idea what this meant, but how bad could it be if it appealed to so many?

“I think you’ll like it,” Dan said. “It’s crazy.” Back in the day, crazy often meant danger or risk of humiliation. At one point in high school, we played a game called “Red for Go,” which I now consider evidence that I was a very stupid teenager. It literally dared the driver to turn the traffic signal system upside down, going when you should stop, etc. I wondered what crazy meant now.

Half an hour later we pulled into a strip mall parking lot in front of Sea Shell City. Unimpressive was the first word that came to my mind, but I tried to withhold judgment. Everyone else seemed so pumped. We walked into a scene that did nothing to offset the exterior “charm.” It reminded me of a Christmas Tree Shop with a nautical theme. Upon closer inspection, that’s exactly what it was. You could buy seashell bottle openers (we did!), a seashell trivet, a seashell wind chime, or a seashell chess set. Most impressive, though, were the seashell animals. I was partial to the seashell hedgehog, but it was also hard to resist those hatching seashell chicks. And really, if it hadn’t had a $29 price tag, I might have sprung for the seashell scene of smiling seashells in stylish seashell chairs playing poker with real cards held by seashell hands.

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I had entered the world of extravagant undersea kitsch, but I gradually succumbed to the quirky charm. Swept up in the wave, I spent my time ogling the most outrageous creations while collecting handfuls of shiny shells with holes in them. I bought a lavender sea urchin for Nancy (about as tasteful as I could find), and I planned to create a bracelet for Sarah with my holy shell collection. Pete’s daughter bought knickknacks for her dorm room. Dan’s wife looked for items to leave for the owners of our rental house.  As I had zoomed in to examine a sand dollar, a three-year-old girl suddenly burst into the room, her grandmother in tow.  Dragging her over to the shelf with millions of sorted shells, she shouted,  “Grandma, look!  It’s a whole wall of cowries!”  I froze, staring at the little girl.

Suddenly I was back in 1995, when my own three-year-old daughter dragged her grandfather to a tank at the aquarium, stunning a grown- up bystander by yelling, “Look, look Farfar it’s an anemone!”

The man’s jaw dropped.  He’d been struggling to sound out the word for his son. He stared at me.  I shrugged somewhat apologetically. “She’s got a thing for anemones, I guess.”  One wonder followed another for Emma and for us that day.  All the creatures she’d seen in her books sprang to life.  She dragged us from room to room exclaiming with each new discovery.  We returned to that aquarium for years afterward, nearly every time we visited my parents.  For me, it was always to relive the look on Emma’s face that day.

I knew now how Sea Shell City had come to be THE place for this group to revisit. They’d first visited when their kids were the age of that little girl…maybe just old enough to know not to grab the spiky puffer fish lamp or knock over the display of seashell cityscapes. At that time, overcome by the creations, their oohs and ahhs must have been so satisfying for their parents. Ever since, like revisiting your favorite diner, the returns had conjured a new mix of wonder, amusement, and nostalgia.  Sure, to others it might lack charm, but to the families of my friends who’d been coming to this same beach for 20 years, Sea Shell City meant summer, silliness, and innocence. Everything that the rest of the year wasn’t.

So, who wouldn’t seek a sequel of the Sea Shell City scene?


More Marshmallows

It’s a clear August evening.  We’re out on the lawn hunched over the fire pit struggling to get a reluctant fire burning.  Most of the wood is wet from yesterday’s rain.  We’ve had a great day of hiking and we’ve finished dinner.  I could easily kick back in the rocking chair and stare at the mountains.  From the front porch we look out at the trails, slides, and rocky peak of Whiteface Mountain.  The sky is clear tonight, as the sun gradually descends behind the mountain. It’s a peaceful scene.  But I’m with a couple of little kids, and they have zero interest in the view.  They’ve set their minds on something more important:  dessert.  

We’ve assembled the ingredients:  graham crackers, Hershey bars, and marshmallows.  We have the pointy sticks ready, and even some odd-looking barbecue utensils that resemble pitchforks.  Colby, the older of the two boys, has asked 47 times if the fire is ready.  Soon, Colby, soon.

The other young dessert fan, Riley, has decided that making fires is almost as much fun as making dessert.  He gathers scraps of bark and twigs and drops them on the struggling flames.  Mostly, he succeeds in creating a prodigious amount of smoke.  He’s getting very close to the fire to be sure he drops the kindling in just the right spot.  It’s making all of us nervous.    Colby, Riley’s older brother, has maintained his focus on the dessert.  He has the bag of marshmallows open in his hands. He grabs a handful.  A few of them actually make it onto his stick.  More end up in his mouth.  He tastes to make sure they’re high quality marshmallows.  Apparently they measure up. He stuffs four more in his mouth.

I’ve gone through different stages in my marshmallow toasting career.  At one point in my life, I had patience issues.  I would place the marshmallow on the stick, poke it directly into the flame until it ignited, turning into a flaming ball of sugar. Then I’d blow it out.  I’d peel off the burnt layer, shove that in my mouth, and put the rest of the marshmallow right back in the flame to repeat the process.  Now,  as an older person, I tend to go for the perfect golden brown marshmallow.  It takes patience, a steady hand, and a slow rotation.  Colby and Riley’s take?  Boring!

This is not the way of these boys.  Colby places four marshmallows on his stick.  Why had I never thought of that?  He positions the marshmallows in the flame.  They begin to char.  He removes them from the fire.  He eats them.  We suggest that he incorporate the other ingredients, the graham cracker and the chocolate.  He shrugs.  Apparently this is not so important to him.  He burns four more, pulls the marshmallows off the stick, shoves them in his mouth, and begins the process again, with four more marshmallows. It’s impressive.  I glance at his parents.  They don’t seem to notice, or they just don’t care.  It’s vacation, after all.  I decide to enjoy the show, wondering just how many marshmallows the boy can stuff into that little body.

Younger brother, Riley has a different approach.  He goes with the one-marshmallow technique, but he’s not so good with the angle of the stick.  He tends to have the stick pointed down into the fire.  The marshmallow heats up and begins to get mushy.  I notice it’s sort of bulging on the lower side, sagging over the flame.  Riley neither notices  nor cares.  Slowly, ever so slowly, the melting marshmallow  slides off the stick and plops into the fire.  I’m  worried that Riley might start to cry, so I quickly arm him with another marshmallow.  Same angle problem. Same result.  When he finally gets a marshmallow cooked to his liking, he steps back from the fire and reaches for the marshmallow at the end of the stick.  At that point, it’s hard to describe exactly what happens.  In the small distance between the end of the stick and Riley’s mouth, some mysterious things occur.  His shirt somehow reaches out and grabs the marshmallow from his hands. Apparently the shirt is hungry.  So is Riley’s hair.  So is the backside of our dog, McGee.  I think one morsel of marshmallow approximately the size of a grain of rice actually reaches Riley’s mouth.  

Riley is not discouraged.  He tries again.  This time his pants, shirt, and face all manage to intercept more marshmallow before his mouth can secure a taste.  It’s impressive.  He’s wearing almost as much marshmallow as his brother has eaten.

When their parents finally decide the boys have had enough, two records have been set.  Colby has consumed more marshmallows than any 6-year-old in history, and Riley, the generous one, has donated more marshmallows to the fire and to his clothing than any five-year-old known to man.  Their parents glow with pride.  Oh wait, that’s just a flaming marshmallow that’s stuck to their clothes.