Friday, June 24, 2005

Music Zaps You Right Back to a Moment in Time

My former high school classmates are reconnecting, gearing up for our reunion next year. They've been rummaging in the attics to find pictures from grade school, junior high and high school. They've started a discussion group on Yahoo for the Class of '66. One former classmate, Mike, posts a blog each day, stirring up memories with photos, personal anecdotes and song lyrics from those days.

This week, he posted the lyrics to "I Get Around" by the Beach Boys, Well, Brian Wilson still gets around. Rick and I went to see him at the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank last summer. It was the Smile tour, an album he created many years ago, but didn't release. Here in London, he had all kinds of backup singers and musicians to make the original Beach Boys sound. You know how, when you hear a song, suddenly you're back at that moment in time? You can remember where you were, what you were doing, even what the weather was like. It's hardwired into your brain. The audience was filled with young and old fans who were on their feet rocking to the music, reliving the past. It was very moving.

Brian has survived a rough journey: physical and emotional abuse from his father, years of drug addiction, obesity, depression, attempted suicide, the deaths of his brothers (Denis and Carl), a stroke, the break up of his family as well as the band and legal battles with his cousin over the band. But he's still a genius. My husband, also a musician, said it was the equivalent of going to see Mozart perform in his day.

The former Beach Boy had to be helped on to the stage; shuffling, a bit unsteady on his feet. He wore the usual big Hawaiian print shirt. When he speaks, his words are slurred and he clearly struggles to get the words out. It must take a lot of courage for him to step onto the stage after all he's been through. He's not the man he was, but he's still composing beautiful music. Remember these?

Wouldn't It Be Nice
God Only Knows
I Get Around
Don't Worry Baby
In My Room
Good Vibrations
Sloop John B
Heroes and Villains
Surf City
Help Me Rhonda
Sail On Sailor
Fun, Fun, Fun
California Girls
Be My Baby
Little Deuce Coup
Surfin' Safari

If your memory doesn't stretch back that far, check out the iTunes music store. You just can't be in any kind of bad mood after listening to his music.

Sunday, June 12, 2005


It’s been a real year of flashbacks to the 1960’s. The “Class of ‘66” web site has stirred up a lot of memories (especially the music), and my 8th graders have been studying the Cold War. I’ve been the resident expert because my colleague, the history teacher, wasn’t alive at the time. Boy, does that make me feel old!

When I first came to England in the 1980’s we had a teacher in the high school whom I remember very well. She was a short, blonde dynamo with a New York/New Jersey accent. (Sorry, I can’t tell the difference.) Her subject was Spanish, but had a PhD in Russian and she worked part time for the BBC as a translator. She used to take small groups of high school students to Moscow on field trips. This was just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. She retired to become a consultant several years ago, but she comes back regularly to speak to our 8th graders about her personal experiences. I’ll call her Dr. J.

This past week, the students had just finished viewing Rocky IV as an example of propaganda. In case you’ve forgotten, it’s an hour and a half’s worth of pure pro-American entertainment, well worth looking at again from a fresh perspective. Some of it is obvious, but some of the images are more subtle - the colors the characters are wearing, the music, the symbolic collapse of the USSR when the Russian crowd begins to cheer Rocky.

Just like in the movie, Dr. J. was watched by KGB. She knew they had a file on her. When she took students to Moscow, three of them had followed her around for several days. On her last day, she went to a street vendor and bought an ice cream, along with one for each of her three “guardians”. She went up to them and thanked them for their company and for taking such good care of her during her visit to Moscow (in fluent Russian).

Dr. J. also gave us some food for thought on the Cuban Missile Crisis. This was the one incident when the Cold War nearly erupted into a hot one. It was October of our sophomore year, 1962. She told us that Kruschev sent the missiles to Cuba without consulting Castro. This was in retaliation to the US having missiles in Turkey. The public agreement was that the USSR eventually agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba if the US promised not to attack Cuba. We learned from Dr. J. that, in a private agreement, the US had agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey.

At the height of the Cold War, there was great fear of an atomic attack. We practiced hiding under our desks or going out into the hallways and crouching against the walls with arms covering our heads. Not that this would have done any good, but we were seen to be doing something. Remember when everyone was talking about building air raid shelters under their homes?

We may not think of it as so, but the Vietnam and Korean Wars were a continuation of the Cold War. The US was attempting to “contain” the spread of Communism. China had fallen, then North Korea and, finally, Vietnam. (This was a war in which 80% of the people of Vietnam wanted a Communist government rather than the non-communist dictator whom the US supported. No wonder we were confused about why we were fighting there. For them, Communism meant an end to poverty and oppression. To the US, Communism was an un-democtatic disease to be contained at any cost.)

Dr. J. told us that when Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he brought in a new policy called “glasnost” which means “openness”. The real test of this was the Chernobyl accident which took place in 1986. When the nuclear reactor blew, he had a choice, denial or exposure. The silence lasted for 48 hours. He chose to let the world know. This triggered the gradual dissolution of the USSR which culminated in early 1990’s. The Cold War was over.

We grew up under the cloud of Nuclear War and MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Our classmates and friends may have fought and survived or died in Vietnam or Korea. Those who came back from Vietnam were irrevocably changed. These songs are only two of many which came to represent the turmoil of those times.

For What It's Worth
Stephen Stills, 1966

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

There's battle lines being drawn
Nobody's right if everybody's wrong
Young people speaking their minds
Getting so much resistance from behind

I think it's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

What a field-day for the heat
A thousand people in the street
Singing songs and carrying signs
Mostly say, hooray for our side

It's time we stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, now, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down
Stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down

Kenny Rogers

You’ve painted up your lips
And rolled and curled your tinted hair
Ruby are you contemplating
Going out somewhere
The shadow on the wall
Tells me the sun is going down
Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town

It wasn’t me
That started that old crazy Asian war
But I was proud to go
And do my patriotic chore
And yes, it’s true that
I’m not the man I used to be
Oh, Ruby I still need some company

Its hard to love a man
Whose legs are bent and paralysed
And the wants and the needs of a woman your age
Ruby I realize,
But it won’t be long I’ve heard them say until I not around
Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town

She’s leaving now cause
I just heard the slamming of the door
The way I know I’ve heard it
Some 100 times before
And if I could move I’d get my gun
And put her in the ground
Oh Ruby
Don’t take your love to town

Oh Ruby for god’s sake turn around

An English Village

Godstone Green
Originally uploaded by HocusOpusUK.
I had to get out for a walk today. Too many days shut up inside school, inside the house or in the a car. The sky was overcast, but there was a breeze and the temperature hovered around 70 degrees (21 Celsius). It was Sunday afternoon and even the roar of traffic from the M-25 had diminished.

I had Rick’s iPod Shuffle since my mini had a dead battery. Down the street, turn right through a neighborhood of manicured lawns, then left again onto one of the many footpaths which form a network across England. There is public access to land here, even private land, so long as you follow the signs. Groups called Ramblers meet up to hike the countryside, usually ending up at a pub for refreshments.

Our village is the home of a natural wildlife sanctuary. There’s a huge pond, surrounded by fields and bordered by paths. I followed one of them up the wooded hill to the Godstone church and then back down the other side of the pond, ending in the centre of the village near the green.

They were playing cricket today. Yes, cricket. The teams wore whites and small groups sat around the edges of the green on benches, watching the game. I have never figured out the game. It can go on for days and the scores reach the hundreds. It’s not just a sport, but a way of life, part of the British Empire. I even found a news story on the internet about tsunami survivors playing cricket in the Nicobar Islands.

On the way home, I passed through the heart of the village. It has nearly all of the necessary amenities. There are three pubs, a posh restaurant/hotel, a pharmacy, a newsagent/post office, a local grocery shop, a petrol station, a car garage (for repairs, car sales and MOT), a cafe, an antique shop, a ladies’ dress shop, a haberdashery, a Mormon bookshop (!), a village church, a town hall and a building supplies store. We have to go to the next town to find a bakery, a butcher, or a green grocer (fruit and veg store). Down the road in two directions, there are garden centres. Not bad for a population of 2,700!

We’ll miss the serenity of village life when we move. Unfortunately, our commute to work is nearly fifty miles each way. That’s far too much time wasted when we could be enjoying time at home.

From the Other Side

One of the interesting aspects of being a teacher is that I am constantly surrounded by incidents that trigger memories. I look around our middle school and see kids sitting and talking with their friends in the locker bays before homeroom, forcing each other to climb over their legs and bags to get to the lockers. I see them getting off the busses in the morning, doing (or copying) homework at the last minute in the cafeteria, hanging out together at recess, gossiping about who likes whom and, occasionally talking about their teachers. I see pairs, joined together by the earphones of a single iPod sharing music. The insides of their lockers are covered with photos of celebrities whom they lust after - Johnny Dep, Pamela Anderson, Orlando Bloom, Ronaldo, J-Lo and numerous pop stars whom I couldn’t begin to know, including bands from all over the world.

The odd thing is that suddenly, I am aware of seeing them through the eyes of all our teachers. Did we really think that all of those adults didn’t notice our conversations? That they were deaf and blind, merely patrolling the halls to make sure we went to class on time? That they didn’t become functioning until they stepped into class to impart the wisdom of their chosen subject? That they didn’t notice us dancing too close or flooded in tears after the dances in the cafeteria? We couldn’t have known the hours that were spent in faculty meetings, discussing their concerns about our social, emotional, and academic well-being.

The high school yearbooks have arrived. (We actually produce separate yearbooks for the high, middle and lower schools.) My husband, who teaches in the high school, brought his home. It’s interesting to see how much the traditional books have changed since we were in school. There are pages and pages of colored pictures, lots of candid shots, kids posing and making faces at the camera. And the seniors have much more space.

Each senior has a half-page spread, including a posed picture, but the students aren’t dressed as formally as we were. Sometimes they’re in a tee shirt, a football jersey, a sweatshirt and/or jeans. They could choose from a traditional head-and-shoulders pose, standing with arms crossed, or standing with thumbs hooked on jeans pockets. Remember our dress code?

Their page also includes a baby picture and a half page of comments from the student. They write about their friends in school, their families, memories of specific events (very dangerous). Sometimes they have included a poem, a dedication, and specific reminders to friends.

The best pages are called “Senior Stats”. Here they got to freely express themselves for one last time. A series of comments were posted next to each photo of a senior. The mug shot could be whatever they wanted, sometimes a too-close shot, distorting the image. Sometimes a silly face, or an extreme pose with sunglasses or a hat. Or just the eye, cheek and hairline, very arty. Each senior was asked to respond to the following categories:

N Name (Could be a nickname or wannabe, how you see yourself.)
D Dream
R Reality
N Nightmare
BQ Best Quote
BKS Best Kept Secret
PIC Partner(s) in Crime
UF Usually found...
MLT Most likely to...
LLT Least likely to...

Now’s your chance. Cast your mind back. Leave your now old self behind. What would you have written?

My yearbook disappeared long ago in one of my many moves; I never even missed it. Now, I wish I could browse those dream-like black and white pages and stir up the buried past. I hope a few of my classmates will bring theirs along to the 40th reunion.