Among other presents, my brother and I got the Beatles’ White Album and Simon and Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme for Christmas, both on our list that our mom had solicited from us. The tag on the wrapped gifts under the tree in our living room indicated they were from “Santa”. Our mom continued to believe in Santa Claus, or at least that her kids should continue to honor the myth of this jolly old avatar who loved children and spent his entire undying existence bringing gifts and joy to young people throughout an often child-unfriendly world.
Now that I had quit my paper route and no longer had my own money from it, Christmas gifts were an important source of particularly the games and record albums that were so significant to me developmentally. When we were little our mom and dad had done their best to observe our play carefully and buy us toys that would present a compelling “curriculum” for our play. In more recent years, our mom had taken to asking my brother and me for a list of the things we wanted for Christmas, and then tried her best, even collaborating with our dad, to get us those things that they could within their limited budget. I would put careful thought into our lists, because the toys, games, records, tape recorders and other stuff we ended up getting over the years continued to play the role of important self-directed developmental curriculum.
Along with Motown artists and Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles continued to be an important part of my Greek Chorus and developmental “growing edge”. Each of their recent albums, Revolver, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and now the unnamed White Album were all very different conceptual compilations of the creative ideas of the four band members. This was bold imaginative grist for my brother and my creative minds, compared to the mostly thin broth of predigested conventional academic stuff we were getting in school.
Though the Beatles had stopped performing (before live audiences) they were becoming performance artists of sorts, with the back stories of their albums, the iconic and different personalities of the four band members – John, Paul, George and Ringo – and the travails of the band, some real and some just legendary, being as intriguing at times as their music. The whole “Paul is Dead” thing for one, which I never took literally, but saw more as the Beatles braintrust teasing us by lampooning the meta of the kind of pop culture obsessions we were getting into in this new information age of high concept publicity and spin.
Then there was the whole thing with all the backward tracks they were sampling into their songs, including ones that supposedly said stuff like “Turn me on dead man” if the song was played backwards. Also the whole soap opera of the band’s continuing collaboration or lack there of, and how for the White Album, the band members stopped much of their usual creative collaboration in favor of just being session musicians for each other’s songs. Plus the chutzpah and/or grandiosity to put out an untitled album with no cover art, just a blank white album sleeve embossed with “The Beatles”. Were they being provocative or just rubbing it in our noses that they were so big and famous now that they could do whatever the fuck they wanted, or both and more.
One way or another, they were playing with us, in perhaps the best sense of that word as a kid understands it, that “play” is the work of human development. Nothing was sacred; Everything was on the table; no stone was unturned. We played the four sides of the album over and over again in the background as we went about our various other creative endeavors, each of their songs on occasion sparking perhaps a discussion among the two of us or between one of us and a group of friends in the neighborhood or at school.
The songs on the album and the legends, back stories and meta behind them were total grist for us young imaginative high-concept big-picture abstract thinkers. The first of the double album’s four sides opened with a stunning old school rock and roll number, “Back in the USSR”, backed by honky tonk piano and lampooning the Beach Boys and toying with us semantically as to which country was better…
You don’t know how lucky you are boy
Back in the US, back in the US, back in the USSR
Plus somehow invoking and lampooning the “Global Village” while turning Ray Charles’ hit song upside down with a different “Georgia” in the Soviet Union on their minds…
Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the West behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia’s always on my my my my my my my my mind
The Beatles were nothing if not sophisticated satirists and erudite students and critics of contemporary culture and mores, urging us kids to keep up with them and strive to be the same.
“Glass Onion” teasing us about our obsession with all the Beatles “Paul is dead” lore…
I told you bout the walrus and me man
You know that we’re as close as can be man
Well here’s another clue for you all
The walrus was Paul
The “walrus” of course referring to their earlier psychadelic hit “I Am the Walrus”.
Gender role reversals in “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” which in its cutesy little way was preparing the soil for me to later embrace a feminist challenge to gender roles…
Happy ever after in the market place
Desmond lets the children lend a hand
Molly stays at home and does her pretty face
And in the evening she still sings it with the band
[and later in the song]
Happy ever after in the market place
Molly lets the children lend a hand
Desmond stays at home and does his pretty face
And in the evening she still sings it with the band
Then there was “Happiness is a Warm Gun” with lyrics so surreal and nonsensical that we all agreed that John and Paul must have thought them up taking LSD, the experience of which we had been introduced to a year earlier in their song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”…
She’s not a girl who misses much…
She’s well acquainted with the touch of the velvet hand
Like a lizard on a window pane
The man in the crowd with the multicoloured mirrors
On his hobnail boots
Lying with his eyes while his hands are busy working overtime
A soap impression of his wife which he ate
And donated to the National Trust
“I’m So Tired” which seemed to resonate so sensuously with the overwhelming ennui I was feeling around my life at the moment…
I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink
I’m so tired, my mind is on the blink
I was tired of my mom’s depression, I was so tired of junior high and my inability to be any semblance of who I wanted to be in that environment.
Then there was “Rocky Racoon”, the jaunty Dylanesque honkytonk pastiche where the balladeer tells the tale of the flawed protagonist’s love triangle and difficult road to a more thoughtful approach to life. I particularly loved the bit about the drunken doctor who is more incapacitated than his young patient…
Now the doctor came in stinking of gin
And proceeded to lie on the table
The inspiration I got from the song was the storyteller’s knowing and loving take on the flawed but striving human condition, and for decades that have followed whenever I have heard or sung the song I am reminded of that theme.
There was the nihilistically delicious “Piggies”, which appealed to that passive-aggressive part of me that wanted to “damn the Man” and lash out at an adult world that seemed to be holding me down and eating it’s own.
Have you seen the bigger piggies in their starched white shirts
You will find the bigger piggies stirring up the dirt
Always have clean shirts to play around in
In their sties with all their backing
They don’t care what goes on around
In their eyes there’s something lacking
What they need’s a damn good whacking
Everywhere there’s lots of piggies living piggy lives
You can see them out for dinner with their piggy wives
Clutching forks and knives to eat their bacon
That last stanza particularly, sung ostentatiously by all the Beatles voices in unison, was red meat (though pork is supposedly the “other white meat”) for a young teen who was realizing that at some level he was mad as hell and not wanting to take it any more. And one easy way to passively resist was to find every way to say “no” to going to school in the morning.
Then there were the two “Revolutions” on the fourth and final side of the album. The first, “Revolution 1”, was their critique of the violent revolutionary leftism that was in chic at the time, and seemed like a more thoughtful response of sorts to the assertion in “Piggies” on side two that “what they need’s a damn good whacking”…
You say you’ll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You’d better free your mind instead
Repeatedly pondering what it truly meant to “free your mind instead” was profound curriculum for a young teen caught up in what felt like the opposite of mind freedom at school.
I had heard the lore about its counterpart, “Revolution 9”, on the rock radio station before I actually heard it. Not a “song” or “music” even, but instead a weird nine and a half minute piece repeating the spoken phrase “Number nine” mixed in with an amalgam of spoken words, sound effects, bits of classical music with a bunch of the Beatles signature backward tracks woven in. Apparently it was a collaboration between Lennon and his new wife and avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, and my brother and I listened to it the first time with studious patience, with our due respect for creative endeavors. The gossip and lore around the thing was that the “Number nine” played backward sounded like “Turn me on deadman” and of course was part of the whole “Paul is dead” thing.
As the Beatles offered provocative curriculum in their sophisticated exploration, lampoon and critique of human culture in the broader sense, Paul Simon explored the more personal realms of his own soul acknowledging the human failings that he shared with many others of us. It was my monthly weekends with my brother and dad at his little apartment 200 miles south in Xenia Ohio that became particularly poignant times for self reflection, and Simon’s musical poetry really galvanized that reflection. Having been turned on by my best friend Stan to the music of Simon and Garfunkel the previous summer through their Bookends album, my brother and I had acquired several other of the duos records. Particularly their previously recorded Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme album. The wistful songs on the record captured my confusion, sadness and longings, as I sat on my dad’s mattress in his little bedroom while my brother drew his drawings at the big table at the foot of the bed, both of us listening to the record on my dad’s record player. None more poignant than ”Flowers Never Bend in the Rainfall”, where almost every “I statement” in the piece was just right there with what I was feeling…
Through the corridors of sleep
Past the shadows dark and deep
My mind dances and leaps in confusion
I don’t know what is real
I can’t touch what I feel
And I hide behind the shield of my illusion
The mirror on my wall
Casts an image dark and small
But I’m not sure at all it’s my reflection
I am blinded by the light
Of God and truth and right
And I wander in the night without direction
So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end
And flowers never bend
With the rainfall
I was about to turn fourteen and did not know who the hell I was, what I or my life was all about, or what the hell it meant to be happy. I was looking for guidance in that regard, guidance that I did not feel my parents or the rest of their generation of teachers and friends parents’ could provide me. They all seemed to be so far removed from their own childhoods, so full of stock and hubristic answers, to the point that they seemed to me like they somehow were a different species that had always been adults. Perhaps their various experience of the apocalyptic world war that defined their “GI Generation” had robbed them of the birthright of their youth.
Unlike that older cadre, Paul Simon, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland (the latter three writing many of the Supremes and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ hit songs), like my mom’s younger sister and favorite Aunt Pat, were a younger generation and all actually within two years of each other in age. Though a decade and a half older than me, they still seemed to have that bona fide connection with their own youthful passions, struggles and longings. They somehow had the credentials to speak to me like the older generation did not. Their thoughtful words helped me in an important way externalize and maybe better process some of the frustration and ennui I was feeling toward my present situation in school and the rest of my life. Their music also suggested a point of view of sophistication and thoughtful witness that I envisioned someday taking on as my own.
Meanwhile, with the end of the winter holidays, school had started again as it always inexorably did, but I really did not want to go back, and vastly preferred hanging out at home, reading books, playing my various board games and doing what homework was sent home for me to do. I’m sure all the stress I was under, plus staying up late worrying about things or reading to medicate or distract me from the worry, kept my immune system fairly compromised and I seemed to get every cold or flu bug that was going around, plus I would not recover quickly. My mom continued to be depressed and was routinely getting sick herself. I would still overhear her angry calls to my dad at night, where she used such phrases as, “I just can’t go on like this!” that made me wonder if she were suicidal. As long as I was home she was the main stressor, and my own activities could distract me from that heavy cloud. But reporting back to school with all its peer pressures and academic rigmarole made it anything but a sanctuary from the issues at home.
My mom was finally able to rise above her preoccupation with her own problems and got my situation on her radar. In one of our sessions in her bedroom with me on her rocking chair and her on the bed she quizzed me about my school situation. Like my dad, it was hard for me to talk honestly about my feelings, and particularly because some of those feelings were around her anger and depression. Unable to share those deep issues, I at least shared with her at some level that I really was unhappy with school, which I guess was pretty obvious to her at this point.
To my mom’s credit, when she saw that something needed to be done, she did not just discuss it or worry about it, she took action. She arranged a meeting with my school counselor to discuss my situation and what could be done to get me back to going to school. I remember my mom, my counselor and I sitting at a table in the empty lunch room one school day morning discussing having me come back. As the two adults gently quizzed me on what was troubling me, I again was not comfortable sharing the array of stresses that I had with my mom’s situation and with the peer pressure at school.
When it came to my issues with school, what they were able to get out of me was that I was really unhappy with my English teacher, Mrs. Peterson. I could not articulate it to these two adults trying to fathom me, but I was very uncomfortable with her no nonsense, old school, drill and kill approach to class. But I said enough that the two of them fixed on what to them might be a simple solution, get me a new English teacher. We all agreed, me still reluctantly, that I would return to school and my schedule would be switched to the new English teacher. The counselor suggested that I start that day, but I balked and my mom suggested that I start back the next day.
So I did go back the next day, taking that nearly mile walk back to school on a very cold February morning, sniffling from the remains of my latest cold, carrying all my books under one arm and lugging my big fifteen pound baritone saxaphone with my other hand, that I was now playing, when I was not staying home, in my concert band class. A few of my classmates in my various classes asked where I had been, and I was mostly uncomfortable answering the question because I found my whole situation embarrassing and I did not want anyone to think to tease me about it. I was committed to a strategy at Tappan of staying off all my fellow students’ radar as much as possible. If I could have come to school invisible that would have been a plus. But after that first particularly awkward day things got back to just the normal daily discomfort. Thirty some kids jammed in each of six academic classes a day, sitting at desks (or tables in science class). Though I was behind in my classes from all my absences several of my teachers found a private moment to do a sidebar with me and offered to do what they could to help me catch up. I nodded and gave them the obligatory thank you. Within a week or two I was pretty much caught up, and some missed tests and papers were forgiven.
After an embarrassing and awkward first day of being announced as a new class member, my new English class quickly turned out to be much better. My new teacher Mr. Rusten basically had us read a series of provocative books throughout the semester, discuss them in class and write our thoughts occasionally on those books. Though he still followed the standard school protocol of having us address him by his last name, in most other ways he had a much more egalitarian approach to his class. Though he basically filled the role of the “sage on the stage” he was always informal, engaging us one on one in friendly chit chat before, after, and even during the class. When we provided our thoughts on the rhetorical questions he posed on the books we were reading, he refrained from evaluating our answers with the conventional teacher comments such as “that’s right” or “good”. It was such a relief from Mrs. Peterson who had been so formal, standoffish and always correcting or praising everything we said, and as John Holt would say, the good students were the ones who forgot the material after, rather than before, the test.
But now we were reading memorable books. The ones that stuck with me were John Griffin’s Black Like Me, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. Griffin’s journalistic “undercover” chronicle of a white man posing as an African-American in the South was provocative and suspenseful, but far far away from my own life’s experience. Potok’s novel, though set in the context of a Jewish culture unfamiliar to me, was about older youth and closer to the realm of experiences that I might have had in my own world.
It was Bradbury’s story of a young boy’s summer experiences, real world but with imagination always bordering on the magical, that I resonated with the most and was closest to my own life experiences, planting a developmental seed that would come to fruition in me later. Unlike many of the sci-fi and fantasy books I was reading in my own time, Dandelion Wine had no aliens coming from the sky or zombies from the ground, but real life events that were framed in a young boy’s magical fantasy context. I appreciated the reframing, which Mr. Rusten did his best to point out to me and all my classmates.
As a child (and I no longer defined myself or should be defined as such at this point) I had lived in a world of constant magic, creativity and imagination. The fact that such a book had been written by an adult witnessing their experience as a former kid, and had the bonafides of being taught in school, somehow evoked and added validity to my own experience.
Of course then I looked around me and saw nothing magical about my junior high experience, and was too busy just trying to keep some thread of my self-esteem intact, so I filed Bradbury’s summer odyssey away in my mind. Now in my ninth year of conventional schooling, it was these educational institutions that were for the most part predigesting and “mugglizing” (turning that great word from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books into a transitive verb) the world for me. Dandelion Wine reminded me that viewing and presenting the world as static, rational, routine and explainable was a choice that society was for the most part making, as reflected by the bulk of what I was learning in school, but not the only choice that could be made.
My still best friend Stan was in my new English class, which was a big plus and gave us more material to discuss when we got together. We spent more time at his house than mine, because unlike school, his residence was a real oasis from my world at home, where my mom’s ongoing dramas were constantly flaring up and doing their fair share of freaking me out. Though I was growing in appreciation of what my mom was going through, and tried to help her where I could, I was embarrassed at this point to have my friends over with her there, given all the negative stuff she was going through and how, as a single “divorcee”, she represented what was conventionally seen as a “broken” family.
Again now, without the funds from my paper route and depending on gifts for much of my explorations, I got my parents to buy me a game for my birthday in April that would turn out to provide many hundreds of hours of curriculum for the rest of that year and beyond. It was the Big League Manager Baseball game simulation that I had played the summer before with my best friend Stan. The game included the player cards from the 1968 baseball season, in which our local Detroit Tigers had gone on to win the World Series. My brother and I, both baseball and Tiger fans, had such a rush of anticipation as we opened the game up and surveyed its contents.
The game used statistical information about all the Major League Baseball players to let you simulate a baseball game and make the real sorts of decisions to manage a team. Each player had a card with their abilities boiled down to a set of numbers and ranges, based on their statistics from the previous season. A spinner generated a random number between 1 and 100, which you cross-referenced with the particular number and ranges from the player’s card to determine whether they walked, got a hit, or got out. Based on additional numbers on the pitcher’s card, the batter’s chance of getting a walk or a hit would be reduced by a good pitcher or increased by a bad one.
I was particularly curious what the numbers would look like on the cards of the star players from the previous season. What would Denny McLain and Bob Gibson’s pitching numbers (the percentage they lowered the batter’s average) look like? What would star base stealer Bert Campaneris’ speed number be? How big would Tiger sluggers Willie Horton and Norm Cash’s home run ranges be?
The hockey season had climaxed with the Stanley Cup, a disappointing series as the favored Montreal Canadiens crushed the expansion franchise St. Louis Blues in four straight games. Contemporaneously, my brother and I completed our own fantasy hockey season on our tabletop hockey set with a playoff series between his Petersburgh Panthers and my Cooperstown Cats for the coveted “Silver Domino” trophy, which I had made by gluing a domino I had painted silver to an upside down Dixie cup I had painted blue.
The first hints of spring anticipated the coming baseball season, and we stashed our tabletop hockey set away and shifted our seasonal focus to baseball and our new Big League Manager Baseball game. I decided that I was going to play the entire American League 1968 schedule for April – all 10 teams, some 25 games each for a total of some 125 games, a very ambitious undertaking. Though I would end up playing some of the games solo, my brother was very enthusiastic to help me, and manage one of the two teams in a particular game. At the time it would not occur to me consciously, but it would become a pattern in my life that at times of great stress I would retreat into the world of board games, into a created imaginary world, based on the real world, where I was a key decision maker.
I did not at that point have access to the actual 1968 schedule, but I did have the current 1969 baseball schedule published in the Sporting News. Though two new expansion teams had been added to the American League, I used it as a guide to build my own April schedule for last year’s ten team league. Studying that real schedule, I tried to mimic how it mixed in three and four-game series including a day off here and there and some double headers (which complicate a coaches roster in terms of pitchers and having the backup catcher catch one of the games). I drew a seven by five calendar grid on a piece of paper representing the month of April and filled in games for each day.
All the prep work to launch my month-long “season” was almost the best part. We focused on each of the ten teams in turn, using an indication on each of the player’s cards of how many games they played in to identify the regulars on each team including the regular starting pitchers. For each team we built a four or five starting pitcher rotation, since by game rules representing real world constraints, starting pitchers could only pitch every fourth day without some reduction in the number of batters they could face in a game without their abilities beginning to degrade.
Then for each team there was the important task of building the nine player batting order, which involved understanding all the “rules” that went into the most effective such order, that we both knew well from watching or listening to any number of games on TV and radio. Batting first or “leading off” should generally be the person on your team with the greatest onbase percentage, adding together both their ability to get hits and walks, and/or your best base stealer, but not one of your “power” hitters (that hit a lot of doubles, triples and home runs). Batting second should be someone who got a lot of hits while having a low strikeout percentage, to facilitate hit and run plays and other ways of advancing your leadoff hitter if they got on base. Batting third and fourth should be your best power hitters, to get those extra base hits to drive home the baserunners in front of them. Fifth through eighth could be done in several ways, though you generally wanted to bat better hitters higher up in the lineup so they were likely to get more at bats that way. Ninth was almost always the pitcher, who with some notable exceptions was likely to be the weakest hitter in your lineup.
Both my brother and I spent a significant amount of time just studying the individual player cards for each team and debating for each what should be the starting rotation, long and short relief pitchers, and what was the team’s best starting lineup given all the standard logic above. Each team had their own personality. Some teams featured big power hitting versus others that were focused on great pitching. A couple teams were more about getting base hits and walks, stealing bases, bunting and otherwise advancing runners to score.
Once we had that all worked out we played the “opening day” games and we worked our way through the schedule. Since each at bat was resolved by one spin of the spinner, rather than having to go pitch by pitch, a typical nine-inning game took only an hour to play rather than the average three hours for a real game. I would usually play most games with my brother, or at least play in his room while he did his artwork and pretend to be the sportscaster announcing the results of each at bat. Through this odyssey we experienced the joy of simulated dramatic come from behind victories and unlikely heroes stepping forward. I recall it was the Boston Red Sox who emerged as the first place team after the final April 30 games.
I kept meticulous box scores for each game, plus summing each batter and pitcher statistics at the end of the game. I would regularly create the league “standings” listing the teams in order of wins versus losses. After two months of intensive play, averaging maybe two games a day, more on weekends but even some on afternoons after school, we completed the month’s schedule, some 125 games. I then put in the additional hours to sum up all the statistics for each player for the month and created batting and pitching summaries for each team, plus lists of the top performers in each area – batting average, home runs, stolen bases, slugging percentage, plus ERA and win/loss for pitchers.
At the end of it we both were completely familiar with all the players in the American league, and thoroughly versed in all the coaching decisions in terms of line up and in-game decisions. As we continued to watch or listen to real games, we would second guess the coaches on their decisions and compare notes with each other. We felt like thoroughly accomplished “students of the game”, well versed in at least last year’s version of every team in the American League, their strengths and weaknesses.
After having completed the American League April by mid June, now very comfortable with the game system, we were beginning to apply our ever percolating imaginations to our Big League Manager baseball game. Just as we had invented an entire hockey league of our own including our two teams, why not do the same for baseball? So when we were at our dad’s in Xenia for a weekend we decided to build BLM player cards for our own imaginary Cooperstown and Petersburg baseball teams. We used three-by-five index cards our dad had and typed in all the numbers using his manual typewriter. We saw a realization of our imaginations of sorts by playing a World Series between our two teams. Our fantasy baseball teams also spilled over to our outdoor play. We would pitch to each other, calling out the fastballs and breaking pitches thrown by our star hurlers and the hits, strikeouts etcetera by each team’s lineups. Or one of us would pitch and the other bat, as each team member in our lineup, trying to mimic each fictional player’s unique style at the plate. Like the short chopped swing of my imaginary team’s .370 hitting shortstop, Leonard Lessing.
With the music of my Greek chorus in the background and statistics of baseball dancing in my head my last year at Tappan Junior High somehow mercifully ended. That final bell, of that final class, of that final year finally rang and I could leave that place, never to return. At least from my Greek chorus and some of the books I had read since last fall I now had a sense that others were struggling with life and all its issues too.
I had entered the institution three years earlier thinking myself somehow special – smart, an advanced student, shy but capable, and a leader able to navigate the social milieu of my classmates and other peers. But for me at least it had not turned out to be so much about exploring my potential as just somehow surviving going through puberty jammed in with so many other kids that same awkward age. A child of divorce lacking self-esteem, each day felt like an unrelenting pressure cooker of comparing myself (mostly unfavorably) to my peers and not having a thick enough skin to suffer their own negative feelings projected on me. Witnessing the teasing and bullying daily around me, I developed a great fear of being singled out in any way and thus subject to teasing and ridicule, so I had learned to play it safe by being as unremarkable and average as below the radar as possible. In retrospect I would be decades recovering that capable confident self that entered the halls of Tappan Junior High.