As Easy as Falling off a Bike

It is often said that “you never forget how to ride a bike.” If you Google that phrase you will get links to at least two article purporting to explain the scientific principles that seem to confirm the veracity of the claim. That the two articles I read offered different explanations doesn’t really matter, because, in the long run, the last time I was on a bike, I fell off…or more literally, I fell over.

I should mention here that I am, or rather, was, an experienced bike rider. I started riding when I was 7 or 8, and cycling has been an important activity for me ever since, until a few years ago. I have ridden in the city and in the country; on the plains and in the mountains; in sunshine and pouring rain; with the wind and against it; for pleasure and for commuting. I rode over 50 miles a day one summer when I didn’t own a motor vehicle and had three jobs in widely separated parts of Denver.  In 1980, Katie and I rode several hundred Kilometers in the first bicycle tour of China.

I loved cycling. It was truly invigorating. In all those years, I only hit the ground once, when I hit a sandy spot during a turn. Fortunately, I was wearing gloves and a helmet, and suffered only minor abrasions.

A few years back, several factors conspired to keep me off my bike: heart surgery, spinal surgery, and moving to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It seemed like I wouldn’t be able to ride again, so I sold my bike to Liza’s boyfriend. But last year I thought I should give cycling another chance. It would be nice to ride with Katie, get some exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. So Katie and I found a bike shop in Charlottesville and decided to go for a test ride.

The first thing I discovered was that I couldn’t throw my leg over the back of the bike to mount it…mostly due to my inability to balance – a condition caused by peripheral neuropathy that limits proprioceptive feedback from my feet and legs. Two years ago I discovered that I can’t maintain a standing position unless I can see my feet.

[proprioception. (prō’prē-ō-sěp’shən) The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.]

Fortunately, bicycles come in many frame styles and a I found a step-through model that I could get on and off without incident. We took the bike into the parking lot in front of the store and I started my test ride. Boy, did that feel great! I was mobile again, after at least three years without a ride. I felt like I was enough in control to take the bike onto the adjoining street, but just as I was exiting the driveway, a car turned onto the street, coming in my direction.

I turned back toward the parking lot, full of confidence, and promptly found myself lying on the ground on my left side holding onto the bike as though I still had control. As near as I can recall, when I turned, my right foot slipped off of the pedal. While looking down to get it back in position, I twisted the handle bar too far to the left, and went over. Fortunately, neither the bike nor my body was damaged. Katie wheeled the bike back to the shop and I limped to the car, too embarrassed to face the bike salesman.

So I didn’t actually forget how to ride a bike, but clearly it would not be a good idea for me to think about getting back on two wheels again.

Hmmmm. Two wheels bad, but three wheels???? It would be a lot harder to fall off a tricycle.

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Bob Dylan – 1963

Sitting in a local winery tonight, listening to local musicians perform their own songs, I was reminded that you never know which of these really talented individuals will continue to entertain their neighbors and which will rise to greater prominence.

How many of the folks in Hibbing, Minnesota, back in the early ‘60s recognized that Bob Zimmerman would someday win a Nobel Prize? We often rub elbows with such folk, and never know it. I have, several times. In 1963, I heard Bob Dylan just as he was becoming Bob Dylan.

“In 1963, Bob Dylan played a club date in Chicago, at a place called The Bear (supposedly owned in part by his manager, Albert Grossman, a Chicago native.) A partial tape of seven songs from the show surfaced many years later, and it’s now been officially released on one of the “copyright extension” sets. During that same visit to the city, Dylan did an hour-long interview/performance with radio host Studs Terkel, which was also included on the copyright set, although it was edited to some degree.” (excerpt from http://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/bob-dylan-live-in-chicago-1963-1964.442899/)

As followers of this blog know, I was an engineer at WFMT from 1960 to 1962 and recorded a number of Studs Terkel’s interviews (but not the one with Bob Dylan). I was still an avid WFMT listener in 1963.

One evening I heard an announcement that a new music venue had hoped to open on this night (I don’t remember the night) but their liquor license had been delayed so they were inviting folks to come down to their opening with complimentary soft drinks and free entertainment. The venue (I have forgotten the name, but it must have been The Bear) had several levels, each devoted to a different music style: jazz, gospel, and folk.

As it turns out, the folk opener was Bob Dylan. I jumped in my car and beat it to the place, but there wasn’t much of a crowd. I found myself sitting about 6 feet away from the stage and thoroughly enjoyed Dylan’s early songs, sung by the original early Dylan: Blowin’ in the wind, Don’t think twice, Masters of war, Hard times, and many others, including Boots of Spanish Leather (before it was released on record). I’ve often wondered where the heck that place was, and now, thanks to Hoffman’s site, I know.

I must confess that when Dylan outgrew his folk-music roots, I pretty much stopped listening to him. My loss. Katie and I did go to a concert he performed with Paul Simon in the DC area a few years back, but what I remember most about it was how ear-splittingly and painfully loud it was, and that it took two hours to get out of the parking lot after the concert.

Fortunately, other people continued to listen and to appreciate Dylan’s artistry. Congratulations to America’s new Nobel Laureate in Literature.

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The Great Oscar Brand Concert Tape Recording Caper

Legendary folk musician, Oscar Brand, died last night (9/30/2016). He was 96 years old and had been performing since his teens. Beginning in the 1940’s, he recorded nearly a 100 albums. And, unknowingly, he lured me into a “prank” that surely was a criminal act.

When I was an engineer at WFMT, Chicago’s Fine Arts Station, back in the early ’60s, I recorded a concert Brand performed at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. As I was coiling microphone cables after the concert, Brand strolled into the backstage area and, with a smile on his face, asked, “Did you get anything that you could use?” At the time I thought he was inquiring about the quality of the recording, which I assured him was just fine, but when I got back to the studio, I realized that he had included a generous sampling of his “bawdy songs” that would not be suitable for broadcast. I don’t think any of that concert was put on the air.

But that isn’t the concert that this post is about.

A few years earlier, in 1958 or ’59, Oscar Brand, along with his colleague Dave Sear, put on a concert at Northwestern University, where I was a student in electrical engineering. I didn’t go to that concert, even though it was nearby in the Tech Auditorium, less than a block from my dorm, mostly because I couldn’t afford a ticket on my budget. It was a great concert! Everyone who went raved about it. I felt terrible that I missed it.

But wait!

The university radio station, WNUR, a low power FM station meant to serve the campus, had recorded the concert. I could listen to it when it aired. I asked my friend Charlie, who was in the theater school, which also housed WNUR, to find out the schedule. Alas, there were no plans to broadcast the concert.

Fortunately, Charlie knew the chief engineer at WNUR and asked him if, perhaps, we could borrow the tape and listen to it, or even listen to it in the studio. Nope! Neither! Not an option. Begging did nothing to change his answer.

By this time, my engineering school friends had also gotten interested, and finding a way to listen to the concert became a challenge. My roommate, John, the twins, Pat and Paul, Charlie, and I created a plot to “borrow” the tape and make a copy.

Charlie’s reconnaissance revealed that the concert had been recorded on ¼” tape on a 10” reel at 7½ inches per second. In “half-track” mode, it would hold two full hours. It was kept in its box in a tape library in an unlocked part of the WNUR studio, located in the lower level of the Speech Building. The old Speech Building was built on a hillside, so the main entrance was on the first level, but the studio had its own entrance through a back door to the building on the lower level. After hours, the back door was locked and a student monitored the upper level entrance.

Since Charlie had several classes in the Speech Building, he would be the “inside guy.” Around 8 pm on the appointed day, Charlie talked his way into the Speech Building to retrieve a textbook that he had “accidentally” left in one of the downstairs classroom. He quickly grabbed the book and slipped into the studio and took the tape from the library. As planned, he opened the back door and propped the tape between the screen and the door, closed the door, went back upstairs and out the door, waving his book and thanking the monitor for his cooperation.

Meanwhile, the gang and I milled around at some distance from the building, so as not to appear suspicious. When Charlie returned and reported success, we drifted toward the back of the building, where I would retrieve the tape from its hiding place.

Even the best of plans go astray. Just as we approached the building, a man and a woman walked up to the back door, inserted a key, and started to enter the building. As you might expect, they almost tripped over the tape box. The couple stopped and discussed their options briefly. Then the man picked up the tape and they proceeded into the building, locking the door behind them. Through the door’s window, we watched with frustration as they leaned the tape against the very studio door from which Charlie had liberated it a few minutes before.

We agreed that Charlie couldn’t use the “forgotten book” ploy again and were about to go back to our rooms to come up with a new plan. Just as we turned away, we spotted an elderly gentleman with an impressive collection of keys on a large key ring approach the back door of the Speech Building. Charlie recognized him as George, the “night watchman,” whose job was to wander around campus and look into buildings to make sure that nothing was in flames. George appeared to me to be our last chance to grab the tape.

I left the group and strode purposefully to the back door, searching the shadows and looking confused. George was standing by the door, and asked me what I was doing. I replied, “One of the WNUR staff was supposed to leave a tape for me leaning against the door, but I don’t see it anywhere.” Then I “just happened” to look through the window on the back door and saw the target of our foray just inside. “Oh,” I exclaimed, “There it is. He must have misunderstood which door he was supposed to leave it by. Could you let me in to get it?” Slowly, George searched through his keys, found the right one, and opened the door, allowing me to retrieve the tape of the Oscar Brand Concert.

Thanking George profusely, I clutched the tape to my chest and rejoined the group and we retired to the dorm to celebrate.

Long story short (and it was a long story), we managed to make a copy of the concert and started to scheme how to return the tape to the studio library. Charlie had an inspiration: why not just drop it into the chief engineer’s car and let him return it. He must have known that the tape was missing and he might even have suspected who was responsible. Two days later, Charlie spotted the engineer’s car parked near the Speech Building with the windows open. He dropped the tape onto the front seat and walked away, undetected. Ironically, the tape never made it back to the library. We assumed that the chief engineer used the tape for his own personal recording and most likely destroyed the master copy of the concert in the process.

What a concert it was. It was the first time I had heard a 12-string guitar (which became my instrument of choice). I added quite a few of those songs to my own repertoire. Here is one of my all-time favorites: Old King Cole, with Oscar Brand on 12-string guitar and vocal and Dave Sear on 5-string banjo. (It’s 6 mb, so it could take a while to load.)

My tape deck stopped functioning a few years ago when, mirabile dictu, Charlie emailed me out of the blue saying he had digitized the concert and had attached the resulting mp3 files. I still listen to Oscar Brand’s Northwestern University concert. I never added any of his recordings to my collection, nor was I ever able to listen to his New York radio shows. But I will miss him, his reedy tenor voice, and his enthusiastic pursuit of American music. RIP, Oscar Brand, folk singer extraordinaire.

And now that I have confessed my crime, I fully expect to hear the police pounding on my door.

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What’s in a Name? – part 2

Shakespeare reminded us that roses smell the same, no matter what you call them. According to Wikipedia, “The reference is often used to imply that the names of things do not affect what they really are.” But names do affect how people perceive things, especially the names of people.

I never liked the name I was born with. My mother wanted to name me after her younger brother, who had died two months shy of his fifth birthday. His name was “Raymon.” Being a good Christian woman, and not at all superstitious, she decided to alter the spelling, to make certain that I survived beyond age five. But instead of adding a “d” to the end of the name, bringing the spelling into congruence with how normal people would spell it, she dropped the “y” and I became “Ramon” (pronounced RAY-mun).

For years I had to correct people’s spelling of my name, when I gave it orally: “No ‘y’ and no ‘d’” I would repeat, usually twice or three times. I started being “Ray” in college, but people who knew my name often wrote it as “Ra.” I finally decided to pronounce my name in the Spanish style – rah-MONE – but that added the need to explain that, no, I didn’t have any Latin blood, and it was just the odd way my mother had decided to spell my name. That ultimately took longer than the “no ‘y’ no ‘d’” alternative. So I lived with the confusion and frustration for 31 years.

When I lived in Twin Oaks Community in 1970, it was fashionable for residents to take on new names. This had never occurred to me as a possibility! Margaret gave up being “Peggy” and chose to become “Shannon,” in order to honor her Irish roots. Susan became “Josie” because she liked the sound better, although she later chose to be known as “Sally-Susan.” Alan became “Blue”; Eric chose “Skye.” It seemed like everyone was trying on different names; names they thought were a better fit to their personalities. I needed a new name, too.

After some thought, I decided that I liked the sound of a soft “j” or “g” and started trying out new names.   “George” wasn’t quite right, nor was “Jeremy.” We already had a “Gerry” in the Community, and “Jerry” was the guy my first wife left me for. I wasn’t having much luck until one evening, socializing around the fire-pit, one of the women sitting on the other side of the fire looked me in the eye and said, softly, “Jesse.” That’s all she said, and all she needed to say. “Jesse” has been my name ever since.

Almost everyone who knew me “before” was able to make the switch to my new name. My mother, of course, continued to call me “Ramon.” I recall one Thanksgiving holiday at my aunt’s house when my mother and aunt called me “Ramon,” my sister called me “Jesse,” my uncle called me “Ray,” and my cousin called me “Jess.” I responded to all of them. I always thought that I would do an official name change once my mother died, but I haven’t, and probably won’t. My bank knows me by both names, and it is legal to use an alias as long as it is not in the service of breaking the law.

Personality wise, I am happier being “Jesse” than I ever was being “Ramon” or “Ray.” But Shakespeare was right: No matter which name I use, I still smell the same.

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9/11

I am writing this on the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the United States. Fifteen years later, I am wondering what we have learned from 9/11; how we have changed; and what we have done to lessen the chances of future attacks. I am neither a 9/11 scholar nor a foreign policy expert, but I care deeply about finding a way out of the muddle in which we currently find ourselves.

The plan to hijack four airplanes and crashing them into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Capitol Building was clearly an act of terrorism of the highest degree. Nearly 3000 souls perished in those attacks. According to letters and radio broadcasts, Osama bin Laden, the person officially believed to be the mastermind behind the attacks, gave the following reasons for attacking the US:

Western support for attacking Muslims in Somalia,

Supporting Russian atrocities against Muslims in Chechnya,

Supporting the Indian oppression against Muslims in Kashmir,

The Jewish aggression against Muslims in Lebanon,

The presence of US troops in Saudi Arabia,

US support of Israel, and

Sanctions against Iraq.

On the surface, bin Laden clearly cast his motivation in terms of offenses against his religion. Although not as obvious, US troops in Saudi Arabia appeared to him to interfere with access to Islam’s holy cities, Mecca and Medina. And he believed that the sanctions against Iraq after Kuwait were responsible for the deaths of millions of Muslims, especially children.

Note that most of bin Laden’s ire was not focused on direct actions that the US had taken against Muslims, but on US support for regimes that did take action against Muslims. Did the 9/11 attacks cause the US to re-evaluate its support for these regimes? Not one whit. The US actually jumped into the pool and went to war to “avenge the deaths of the 9/11 victims.” The US became actively involved in the death and destruction of Muslims and Muslim lands, adding yet another reason for bin Laden’s followers to seek to do damage to the US.

(From the beginning of the US retributional wars, there has been some effort to distinguish between “good” Muslims and “bad” Muslims. To my knowledge, there has not been a corresponding effort to identify “good” Christians and “bad” Christians,” nor “good” Jews and “bad” Jews.)

In order to avenge the deaths of the 3000 9/11 victims, nearly 6000 American service men and women have lost their lives in combat, and nearly 51,000 have suffered serious injuries. Depending on which source you check, anywhere between 1.3 million and 4 million civilian Muslims have died.

In answer to my original questions:

What have we learned from 9/11? It would seem that the US and its allies have treated the Muslim world much, much worse than bin Laden claimed. Is there really any question as to why so many young Muslims are eager to join groups that wish to cause harm to the US?

How have we changed? The US has created the huge and costly Homeland Security Administration. We have instituted increasingly intrusive search procedures at airports. Our metropolitan police forces have become highly militarized organizations, wielding powerful weapons of warfare against unarmed citizens. Islamophobia has become institutionalized in the Republican party

What have we done to lessen the chances of future attacks? Nothing. It would appear that the actions of Western nations have actually increased the level of threat, both at home and abroad.

I mourn the loss of lives of our military troops. I lament for the men and women who came back with grievously wounded bodies and minds. Many of these young people believed that it was their duty to follow orders to go into battle. But patriotism is NOT “serving your country, right or wrong.” Patriotism is demanding that your government do the right things.

Of course, asking our current government to do anything, much less the right thing, is unrealistic. I remain hopeful, however, that a large number of idealistic young men and women will get involved with politics at the local level, move into their state legislatures, and then to the federal level, building a political infrastructure to replace the barnacle encrusted system that we enjoy today.

Now, that would be a legacy of 9/11 that we could be proud of.

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Requiescat In Pace

One of the biggest problems with getting older is that many of the folks you care about don’t. The Rector of one of the churches I attended many years ago reminded us that “Life is a terminal disease: everyone who gets it dies.” We are taught from an early age that life is fragile, and that “the hour of our death” is unknown.

I was reminded of this recently as a consequence of my ongoing search for people from my past. Ever since I learned I had colon cancer way back in 2004 (surgery and chemo were apparently successful – I’m still here!) I have been on a mission to find and thank all the good souls that have had a significant influence on my life…sort of a reverse of steps 8 and 9 from AA ([8] Make a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. [9] Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.)

Several years ago I discovered that Thaddeus Koza, a close friend during my year at the University of Chicago, had died in 2010, just short of his 70th birthday. Thad was then a doctoral student in English at Northwestern University, but he lived in married student housing at the University of Chicago with his wife Barbara, who was a grad student at UoC. Then-wife Carol and I became friends with Barb and Thad, socializing, entertaining, dining, and generally sharing our lives during that frustrating year. Barb and Thad were instrumental in our choosing the University of Michigan to continue our graduate studies (see my earlier posts on “Zig-Zagging Towards a PhD). According to his obituary Thad had not pursued English as a career but had established a well-regarded reputation documenting and photographing the world’s existing tall ships. Strangely, none of the tributes to his life mentioned that he was once married to Barb.

My attempts to locate Barb were hampered by not knowing what last name she might be using. I found nothing on “Barbara Koza” but using her maiden name “Barbara Babcock,” I found a professor at the University of Arizona, but an email to her went unanswered. Over time I found that the UA Barbara Babcock had obtained her PhD degree at the University of Chicago at about the time that Barb Koza would have finished, and that her field was the same. Again, there was no answer to an email. Yesterday I found this: “In Memoriam: Barbara Babcock.” The picture confirmed that this Barbara was the one for whom I had been searching. What a life she led!

I knew Barb and Thad as young marrieds, before any of us discovered our lives’ passions. We played endless games of Racing Demons (Thad was unbeatable, even when we forced him to use miniature cards). . We shared meals. We talked about life. We rummaged for antique furniture in old barns around Bellefonte, PA, Barb’s hometown, where we discovered many treasures. Ultimately, they convinced us that we would be happier at the University of Michigan. What a difference that choice made in our lives!

I think of Barb frequently. She confided two kitchen secrets to me that I value to this day. The first was to make tuna salad with mayo, lemon juice, dill pickles, and onions (both chopped small), without mustard, celery, or parsley (and definitely no sweet pickle relish!). The second was to make a paste of brown sugar and Dijon mustard, slather it over the top and sides of a corned beef brisket fresh from the pot, and bake the glazed brisket in a 375° oven for 20 minutes. Man, that is superb!

Thank you, Barb and Thad, for enriching my life. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell you in person how important your friendship is to me. May you rest in peace.

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When I Was a Child

St. Paul wrote: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

When I was a child I wore a Confederate Gray battle cap and hung a Confederate Battle Flag on my bedroom wall. I was fond of saying to anyone who would listen that “the South shall rise again!” I remember seeing a movie in which the Southern Cause was glorified and Confederate Soldiers were portrayed as heroes. I believed that the South was David against the North’s Goliath, only the outcome was different. I was eleven years old.

I used to ride a city bus every Saturday morning from home to an art class on the other side of town. After a few weeks I recognized I had the same driver and we chatted. He said his name was “Rosy Flowers” and I believed him.   It was several weeks later that I made the connection between his name and the placard above the windshield saying our driver’s name was “Rosen Flores.” One day I wore my Confederate cap and Rosy asked me what it stood for and did I really believe what I told him. He smiled, turned back to his driving, and said, almost too quietly to hear, “I’ll bet you’ll change your mind.”

I lived in Kansas (known as “Bloody Kansas” during the Civil War), but I was born in Oklahoma and spent many holidays and hot summer vacations with my maternal grandparents in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma was still segregated when I was growing up. The bus station had two waiting rooms. There were separate water fountains for “whites” and “colored.” When my sister and I rode the Trailways bus from Wichita to Oklahoma City we always sat in the back seat, because it was the bounciest and, therefore, most fun for kids. The driver always stopped the bus at the Oklahoma State Line and insisted that we move to the front, so that any Blacks (that’s not what he called them) on board could move to the back of the bus.

When I was a child, my grandfather operated a small grocery store and gas station situated on US 66, which cut through the Northwest corner of Oklahoma City. He had four public restrooms: two for “white” and two for “colored.” He and my grandmother cleaned the “white” restrooms, but not the “colored” ones. To his mind, the conditions of those bathrooms just confirmed his belief that “the coloreds” were dirty and wouldn’t notice or care if the restrooms were clean. But, finally and reluctantly, the old segregation dissolved. My grandfather closed the gas station but kept the store. The public restrooms disappeared in the remodel.

When I was a child, I was ignorant of other people’s feelings. I had very little contact with people of other races or cultures. Wichita schools were segregated (this was well before 1954), but my father (a country preacher of the Baptist persuasion) occasionally took us to Sunday night services at a black church and once I was the only White boy at a Black Church picnic. We went to a Mexican church a couple of times, and once to a Chinese church. While the words sounded different, the melodies were familiar, and, since my father was asked to deliver the sermons, we had heard them before, too.

But it wasn’t until my grandfather hired a young Cherokee woman to work in his store that I got a real sense of how prejudice worked. Beverly was all of 18 and I was 13. I spent a lot of time in the store, stocking shelves, sweeping floors, and watching my grandfather butcher sides of beef. Beverly and I became friends. While I had heard my grandparents say things about people of other races that I didn’t really agree with, I had no experience with which to refute them — until they started in on “the Indians” and how dishonest they were. But I actually knew an “Indian.” And I liked her. And I never heard her lie about anything or saw here steal anything, not even a cold soda on a hot day. And I knew I had begun to put away childish things.

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