Memoir Mondays: The SI Experience

I am so jealous.
I wander into the computer lab at UMass and see all of these teachers connecting and chatting and laughing at inside jokes and it brings me back to my Invitational Summer Institute with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My role now is technology support, but I remember that summer as clearly as if it were, well, this summer.
I was incredibly nervous about the four week program, even though I had an inkling of sorts of what to expect, given that my wife had already done the Summer Institute a few years before me. But I was a brand new teacher and these would be veterans. My biggest hope is that I could pilfer some ideas from them and maybe offer a thought or two.
The writing time was wonderful, and I used every minute. I wrote a collection of poems. I wrote an essay. I wrote a short novella that I turned into a musical play (that was later put on stage when it won a contest) about a little musical note that gets lost in a masterpiece.
And I learned for the first time what a blog was, and used it every single day. We all shared writing, made comments on workshop presentations, shared our research and found ways to use the technology to connect with each other. It was an eye-opening experience that moves me into technology in ways that I did not think possible at the time.
But I saw “a moment” and I pushed into it.
This summer, I am helping the Summer Institute folks learn about social networking (using a Ning site), Google Docs, and other technology that I hope will give them a glimpse into the moment right now and think about the potential for their classrooms.
But I am jealous because although I am part of the experience, I am an outsider to the strong connections being built among them through their long days of writing, sharing, and talking. I know what that feels like and I am grateful that I still have five or six people from my Summer Institute still as part of my personal network.
I am jealous, but I am grateful, too.

Peace (in networks),

Memoir Mondays: Rain, Rain, Go Away

I used to be afraid of the rain. Terrified, really. I barely remember it, but I know it to be true. The fear is no longer there. I love the rain, although I get sick of too many days of it, just like anyone else. But I now know the rain cannot harm me or my things. I didn’t know that as during this phase of childhood.

I don’t remember what began this short-lived childhood paranoia of rain. Perhaps it was simply the strange and unexplained phenomenon of things falling from the sky. And then, these things falling from the sky are hitting my head (hmmm, see earlier Hammer and Tree Fort memory for more falling objects on my head). Or maybe it was the connection of rain to the thunder, which always seemed unsettling to my childhood ears.

Yesterday, I was watching a neighbor build a little plastic tricycle for his son and it somehow brought back memories of this childhood anxiety. The connection is the vehicle. I used to have a little metal push-pedal go-cart that I adored  and loved. I remember one day, as I was cruising around the parking lot of our apartment building, it started to rain and I just completely lost it. Freaking out is a better way of saying it. I screamed. I yelled. I couldn’t move. And what kept me in this state of panic was both a desire to get out of the way of these falling watery objects and to protect my go-cart. I could not do both at the same time and as a result, I didn’t do either. Thus, the vocal chords were in full bloom.

I finally made it home but I left my go-cart outside in my desire to get the heck out of the rain. This abandonment had me screaming even louder. I was sure my go-cart was doomed. My mom finally had enough (my voice was ringing through every corner of our apartment complex) and after unsuccessfully telling me that if I wanted my go-cart, then I should get it (no way), she sent my brother out to get it. He did so reluctantly, shaking his head at the folly of his foolish younger brother. But he did it.

Somehow, I eventually got over this fear. I even remember running barefoot in thunderstorms with a neighbor of ours and how joyful it felt and how free it felt, even as our moms were shouting to us to get our butts back inside before the lightning started in and we’d get ourselves zapped. There is some real irony here as to who was now doing the shouting at whom. Suffice it to say that my friend and I took our sweet time, mouths open, filling up with water from the heavens before shuffling back.

And my go cart, you’ll be happy to know, was tucked safely at home.

Peace (in rainy days),

Memoir Mondays: Remembering Tom

This is part of a project at Two Writing Teachers

Remembering Tom

It was in the first week of school last year, and I was right in the middle of a lesson, when (out of the blue) one my students yells out: “Hey, Mr. H. Your friend, Tom (last name), says to say hello.”

It was one of those jolting moments that comes right out of the blue. All I could say was, “Oh. Tell him I said hello, too” and then I moved on with the lesson while a picture of Tom floated in my head. Later, I pulled my student aside and she said Tom was her counselor and he had told her that we had both been in a rock and roll band together.

We sure had.

In our band, Big Daddy Kiljoy, Tom was one of the lead singers, a fanatic bass player and my fellow songwriter, and when the band broke up, Tom and I spent many hours together, writing songs and thinking about this world of music and what it means. It’s not quite right to say that Tom and I were kindred spirits — we were pretty different people — but I found his inquisitiveness about the world and his love for writing and playing songs such a wonderful thing.

When it come to listening to songs, Tom didn’t pull too many punches. If he liked it, he told you. If he didn’t, he’d let you know, but then he would encourage you to consider this chord change, or this instrument, or maybe even revamp the entire thing into something completely new. You could see the wheels spinning as he talked.

He played bass like he thought: full speed ahead, thumping like a madman and drawing up energy from that fretboard. His bass lines were like a railroad car, just on the verge of crashing and yet always right on track. I loved that sense of abandon in his playing.

Later, Tom built a recording studio in hopes of creating some sort of collective of musicians that could come in, record songs and demos and even commercials, and that would be his gateway into the music industry. I worked for a while with him on that project, but it never really went anywhere. He also had plenty of tales to tell of his younger days in rock bands and some brushes with fame that never quite went anywhere but still infused him with a love of the scene.

Then, as things in life do, Tom and I moved in some different directions and I only saw him now and then. I’d see his daughters around town every now and then, and I run into his ex-wife periodically, too.

This weekend, after a long illness, Tom passed away and I feel a bit as if some music died, too.

I’ll have to pull out the Big Daddy Kiljoy CD that we made as band in the days before everything imploded and fell apart on us, and maybe I can find a few of the other demo tapes, too, and give it a listen and remember Tom in all of his glory.

Somewhere, Tom has an electric guitar plugged into an amp and he is writing himself one doozy of a song. I just know it.

Peace (in bass riffs and rock and roll),

Memoir Mondays: Fairtale(s) of New York

This is part of a project at Two Writing Teachers

When I was a kid, I would spend a week or two most summers with my grandmother who lived in New York City, just near the Hudson River. She was a little eccentric, as most kids think their grandparents are (right?), but I loved the sense of adventure that I would have with her in the Big City during my visits.

New York was so completely different from my little suburban town in Connecticut and I used to be thrilled to stand out on the balcony of her 17th floor apartment and feel as if I were standing on a cloud, just floating across the skyline. The highest I could get in my neighborhood was a big tree in the woods and the view was nothing like my grandmother’s balcony.

In 1976, during the huge Independence Day celebrations, her hi-rise apartment complex had some great events down at the in-ground community pool, where we would go just about every day during my stay. I can still smell that chlorine of the water and the wonderful freedom that I had there as my grandmother would gossip and doze on the lounge chairs while I swam, played video games and wandered around.

On that July 4, we watched from her balcony as fireworks for the Bicentennial Celebration lit up the skyline with an incredible array of lights and dazzling displays of pyrotechnics that rattled my bones and shook my teeth. It was a wonderful night.

During the days, we would wander around the city, sometimes going in cabs but more often, traveling around by bus. Sometimes, she and I would go to the Radio City Music Hall to catch a movie (I saw Pete’s Dragon there and a movie called Bite the Bullet, I remember) and we would often be late, coming in halfway through a movie and then sitting through the second showing to catch the beginning of the movie. It was stran I triedge and disorientating asarrative to piece together the n. (I am still not sure what Bite the Bullet was all about except that someone in pain had to chomp down on a bullet as they performed some kind of surgery).

I was in awe of the skyscrapers above me and wary of the dog poop that seemed to be everywhere on the sidewalks in her neighborhood (or at least, that was my perception and her constant warning: Look out for the pile). I was fearful of the grated subway vents that shook if you walked over them and in tune to the sounds of the city — the blasts of car horns and street musicians.

I had never seen so many people, of such different colors and languages, in my life.

I like to think I am a better person because of those visits to my yes weregrandmother — that my e opened to possibilities that my little town would never have presented to me. I was thinking of this the other day as the local newspaper had a series of articles about some high school students who come to my neck of the woods from New York City to get away from their troubled neighborhoods for an education that is, we are told, out of their reach where they live.

I wonder if there are reverse programs — sending rural kids into the city for a school year program — or if that just goes against the stereotypes of inner city kids lacking for something that a suburban town can provide.

Peace (in changes of scenery),

(PS — Anyone get the reference to The Pogues in the title of my post?)

Memoir Mondays: Down at the Bog

This is part of a project at Two Writing Teachers

We used to have epic sports games in my neighborhood. We were lucky, I suppose, in that we had a critical mass of kids. It was not difficult at all to gather up a good eight to ten kids ready to hit the baseball, or grab a football, or toss a Frisbee at a moment’s notice, and the day would then be consumed with activity. A good game of Kick the Can could last two hours on a given evening after dinner.

The apartment complex was somewhat hidden off the main road and for a few years when I was little, we even had an in-ground swimming pool. I suppose the upkeep and maintenance was too much for the owners and the pool went to seed quickly, over a short period of time. Then it became just an odd place for us to hang out as a teenagers. We’d crouch down beneath the cracked walls just a few feet from the odd-smelling green slime of the water that collected at the bottom of the pool. I think we were all surprised that no one ever drowned in there or got some exotic disease from the murky liquid that would require us to go into medical quarantine.

When the weather turned cold, we would often head out to the bog, which was a swampy area a short hike away from our apartments, through some fallow farm fields and into a wooded area. Much of it was a true bog — with thick, rich black peat moss soil that would steal a sneaker or your entire foot, if you weren’t quick or smart enough when stepping through it. The mosquitoes were vicious in the summer, as it was always wet, and the bog was full of hollowed out tree stumps that were home to a wide variety of owls. Sometimes, we would see the owls sitting in the holes, looking out at us with bewildered eyes.

In the winter, the bog was particularly beautiful. The ice and snow would create little paths through the black-soiled area, and we would jump from vegetation clump to vegetation clump in a wild game of tag. If you fell, you were in trouble from the sticky organic muck.

When it got cold enough, the water would freeze solid and there was one spot that formed a little pond, surrounded by circle of little stumps of grass. This place would become our ice hockey rink for the season. The games were played with full of abandon designed with one thing in mind: score a goal. Checking was allowed, and fights often broke out, although never anything too serious, and everything was later resolved and friendships restored as we built huge bonfires on a little island just beyond the rink from the deadwood that lay all around the bog. (As an aside: this was a neighborhood of mostly boys but some girls did stray into the games)

It sounds worse than it was.

This is the time and place where I learned how to get along with others, whether I liked them or not. It was also a time when I realized that adults don’t necessarily make the rules of the world. There is a pecking order that develops when you gather a group of kids together with no adults around and it doesn’t always come out fair or end nicely, but there are still lessons to be learned: You need to be crafty. You need to be caring. You need to be resilient. You need to find yourself.

Years later, I learned that bulldozers came into the bogs and cleaned them out to make way for some new houses. I could not believe it and drove by there once on a visit back, just to see it for myself. Sure enough, there were houses right there where our hockey rink had once been. I learned from a friend that the homes that had been built in our old bog were full of problems, including sinking foundations and flooded basements.

Hmmmm. I wonder why?

And I wonder, too, what became of those owls.

Peace (in childhood memories),

Memoir Mondays: Golden Notes

This is part of a project at Two Writing Teachers

Golden Notes
(listen to the memoir)

In fourth grade, when she entered our classroom to tell us about the music program at the elementary school, the music teacher, Mrs. P, picked me out special. She knew me anyway. Her husband was my brother’s private trumpet teacher.

“I have a saxophone for you,” she told me that day.

She had remembered our conversation so many years ago when I had been sitting in their living room, listening to my brother’s lesson. She had asked me then what instrument I wanted to play (she never had a doubt that I would not play something) and I had told her the saxophone.

She brought me down to the music room that day. She took me behind the stage, where cases of instruments were stacked precariously, as if one blow from a tuba would send everything flying. I watched breathlessly as she opened up the hard case.

Inside, gleaming in the overhead lights from the stage, was an alto saxophone, a golden Bundy saxophone. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever witnessed. It was golden, with white ivory keys, resting in its black padded case. I touched a key and it clicked. It felt as if Christmas had come early and I had been the best boy in the world for the past year.

My smile went from ear to ear.

“This is yours to use,” Mrs. P said.

I didn’t want to even touch it, as if I might tarnish it or ruin it forever with my clumsy, dirty fingers. It was too perfect. Mrs. P showed me how to put the pieces together: how to use the neck strap so that the saxophone dangled out in front of you, perfectly weighted; where to put your fingers; how to wet the wooden reed and attach it to the mouthpiece.

“Try it,” she said, after putting the sax together for me, so I did.

It was an awful first sound, and I opened my eyes wide in surprise. If I wasn’t so excited, I might have given up right there on that first goose honk.

“The saxophone is challenging,” she assured me. “You’ll have to practice. It’s a lot of work. Don’t give up. Go on, try it again.”

Those were the first steps I took to learning something that was so completely and utterly new to me. Yet, as the saxophone was cradled in my hands, I knew I had found something that belonged to me, and only me. It felt completely natural, even as I screeched out another squeak from the golden bell.

I wanted to shout it out through the hallways of my school that day: I am a saxophone player and I wouldn’t give up.

Peace (in music),

Memoir Mondays: Songs as Political Protest

This is part of a project at Two Writing Teachers
We used to take the stage late at night, armed with a few guitars — an acoustic (me), an electric (JD) and a bass (Bert). A drummer would come in the future. Hooligans, a hangout for two different universities, was one of those dark-lit establishments that has the rank smell of beer all over. Tables were shoved so close to each other that patrons were just as likely to be engaged in a conversation at their own table as the ones next to them.

One night a week, the place opened up the stage for Open Mic Night and our ragtag trio (we named ourselves Behind Bars first and then later, Rough Draft) would join the assortment of other pseudo-musicians in playing to an audience that would waver between interested and disinterested, and you had to really engage them or you’d lose them. We hardly knew what we were doing, except we knew we had original songs that we wanted to play. If there was an open stage, we wanted to use it. We were as rough as our name suggested, but confident that music was important to us.

This was during the heart of the Reagan years and all of us were feeling very disenfranchised by the political scene and the willingness of our administration to support covert wars in order to advance its aim of ending Communism once and for all. Central America was often a battleground for these proxy wars between the US and Russia, but there were many other hot spots around the world and Iran-Contra wasn’t far off. We spent one of our summer fixed to the TV screen, watching Oliver North testify about the inner workings of Casey’s CIA operations that pushed legalities aside in order to further political aims. Things were happening in the world that made us angry, yet we had no way to express that anger or vent our frustration.

As a result, I was writing very political songs at the time for the band, trying to reach some heart of understanding of this world we were soon set to move into. I alternated between disguising the venom of my thoughts with rhythm and melody and being forthright with my aims. Music, I was sure, could change people’s hearts and if not, then at least it was a legitimate way for me to protest the unfolding world in a language that I could understand: music. My bandmates were right with me on this.

On this particular night, we launched into a song called “It’s Another War,” which is about sending kids off to fight a war while the leaders stay home behind desks. I was writing from the perspective of the lessons of Vietnam being ignored while covert operations were taking place in Central and South America.

The song begins: “So we’re off in another, though we didn’t start it, we’ve seen it before,” and builds into a condemnation of Reagan and his staff, although never named. (Later, Bert made a video of the song that I have on VHS somewhere — need to dig it up).

Midway through, at the chorus, suddenly I hear a voice that is swearing at me to get off the stage and leave America if I don’t like it so much. I kept playing and singing, eyeing this person and wondering what might happen in this bar tonight. That’s when I noticed one of my roommates — the one with completely different political views than me, the conservative man all the way through — jump to his feet, and move towards the table where the heckler is sitting. Even as we play, I can hear my roommate shout: “Keep quiet. They have a right to their song,” with slightly more profanity than that. The heckler glared back and then backed down. I was saved by the token Conservative in our Liberal midst, as about ironic as you can get, I suppose, and a reminder not to judge someone by their political leaning.

This all came back this week as I pulled out my acoustic guitar (the same one I used to play at Hooligans, it turns out, although now it has about 25 years of travel on it) and I wrote a new song about Bush and his presidency. I realized how strangely similar things had become and how I was still trying to sort out my political feelings through music.

So, here is the (ahem) rough draft of the new song.

Farewell to King George

Listen to the song

We’ve been held up forever
as you take what you want
Not knowing what we need

We might be in this together
But only if the world
is crumbling at its knees

You look so tired
And we’ve been brought down low
Your time’s expired
With the clock ticking slow
And when the history books
Give you a second look
I know you’re gone

You find forgiveness for your sins
When death is but a battle cry
waiting in the wings

This world may never be the same
You threw the match that drew the spark
and stoked it into flames


Now that the day has come and gone
I’ll meet you out on the roof
to celebrate the dawn

We’re held captive to our fears
But this chance to end the bitterness
may wash away the tears


The song’s title will have to go — it’s too overt and makes me a bit uncomfortable. And the song may never move to another stage. Many don’t. But for now, it works for me as I await a change in our leadership that may make a positive difference in the world, although how to reverse the damage done by this administration is beyond me.

Peace (in all respects),

Memoir Mondays: The Iceberg

This is part of a project at Two Writing Teachers


My brother saved my life.
This remembrance bubbled up to the surface the other day as I dipped my toes into a neighborhood pool and experienced the incredible cold chill of the water. That tactile experience really brought me back to the neighborhood where I grew up and the river, if you can call it that, which formed the center of so many of our activities.
The stream crept along through the woods not far from the apartments where my family lived and although most of us knew enough not to swim in there (and if you did, not to drink any of it) after my mother did some science experiments on the water and found it filled with bacteria, it still was an irresistible part of our childhood. We found giant turtles in there. We watched the tiny fish darting about in the pools. We dug dams and appreciated the power of the water overcome our efforts.
One section of the stream ran under a bridge near a factory and this area was close to a shaded area where us kids would hang out after getting snacks from the convenience store. In summer, we would sit beneath the pine trees and find reprieve from the hot sun.
But winter — deep in winter — is the setting for this particular story.
It was a frigid day and the river was mostly a sheet of ice. Beneath the ice flow, you could just make out the water still moving to make its way through the piped tunnels that channeled under the roadway bridge. It was at this spot that a group of us stood, breaking up the ice with rocks and sticks and our heavily-booted feet. All of us were wrapped up in layers to keep the cold at bay. The ice came apart in huge sections and it occurred to us that we had inadvertently created “icebergs” on the river.
And didn’t those icebergs look just like rafts?
My older brother and his friends jumped from the edge of the bank and took off on icebergs just like Huck Finn. A few of them even had sticks in hands to guide them. They pretended to do battles against each other. The icebergs were remarkably thick and held the weight of bodies nicely. My brother nimbly danced from iceberg to bank, back and forth with grace.
Three years younger than him but determined to join in, I moved closer to the edge of the bank, trying to pick out the best iceberg for me.
One floated nearby and I moved closer to get on board. Somehow, though, I lost my footing and slipped. Panic set in. One of my feet hit an icy patch and it was taking me down into the water, down below the iceberg. This was one of those moments of slow-motion that people talk about. There was nothing I could do. I truly felt as if a monster’s hand was reaching up from the bottom of the river and was taking hold of first one foot, and then the other. Water rushed into my boots. The stinging cold crept up my leg. My gloved fingers tried to grip the land but failed. The monster’s icy grip slowly, slowly, slowly began yanking me down to the bottom of the icy river where death surely awaits.
(Aside: Years later, as a reporter, I was sent to the scene of a disappearance of a man who had been ice fishing at night. Out on the middle of the lake, there was an eerie scene of a chair, a thermos, some fishing gear, and the iced-over outline of a crack in the surface. I was forced to wait until the body had been pulled out of the ice by police divers. I was saddened and terrified for this person, and reminded of the event I write about here.)
Meanwhile, the iceberg — as if an instrument of destruction of this river monster — was moving in some strange trajectory, methodically coming towards me instead of away from me. My body was now being pulled under the thick ice sheet. My hands tried to grip the edge of the ice but nothing would hold. The cold stung my body. My grip was weak. It was so cold, so very cold. I remember both the ferocious beating of my heart in panic and the numb acceptance that this might be the end of the world. What was happening to me felt inevitable.
It was at that moment of letting go and accepting fate that I felt a hand grab the collar of my jacket.
I was being yanked up right out of the water by something more powerful than me and I was thrown to the ground. I looked up and saw my brother standing there, over me, with a look of concern and anger on his face. He swore at me for being an idiot. I could not even respond because the shivering started in immediately. My lips chattered a million miles a minute. My eyes started to close. He reached down and pulled me up, took off his jacket and put it on me. He put his arm around me to keep me warm. I moved into his embrace with appreciation.
And then, with only a few words between us about what had happened back there on the river, my brother walked me back home.

Peace (in defying the odds),

Memoir Mondays: Looking Down from Above

This is part of a project at Two Writing Teachers

(note from Kevin: I am not sure what had me thinking back to this experience. I was just a kid but the memory pops back up from time to time)

Once I got to the top, I could not drop, and instead, I froze.

I remember the rocky ledge steps and how they curved around and then up, straight up, and I stood at the bottom, thinking: here goes. I made my way carefully, slipping a bit here and there, but mostly remaining steady on my toes. I didn’t look down. That’s what they tell you: don’t look down and so I didn’t.

So it was quite a shock when I finally got the top and did look down.

The waterfall was gushing past me with such a roar that I could barely hear my breath. Somehow, though, the thumping of my heart was pounding with a steady, yet frantic, beat, like the rhythm of some tribal drums before a human sacrifice.

Water moved above me, to the side of me and down past me. We were deep in the woods of Maine and nature was everywhere and everything. There are those moments when you realize just how small we are in comparison to the world around you. For me, this was one of those moments.

I felt my breath go in as my friend waved goodbye to me in a offhand way and jumped. Vertigo hit me as I tried to follow his leap down, down, down into the cold water pool below. The drop seemed endless. Then I heard his “whoop.” Another friend went off, too, and then it was just me.

And I could not move.

There I stood, for the longest time, as my friends first encouraged, and then tried to shame me, and then felt pity on me as I stood like a statue at the top of the waterfall. My mind went blank. Despite the suggestions that I come back down the rocky stairs if I was too scared to jump, I could not even do that. I was caught in some internal force that would not allow me to move forward or backwards. I was static.
Friends came up, talked to me, put a hand on my shoulder, joked that they might push me, and then they jumped again and again. I remained still and scared.

I am not sure if I was afraid of the fall, of possible death, or the fact that the water was frigid cold. Something about this place unnerved me to no end.

Finally, after what seemed a lifetime, I willed my young body to the edge, placed my toes over the abyss, and launched myself into a free fall off the waterfall cliff that was about 60 feet above the pool below.

It was an endless drop. I was both in the moment and outside of the experience.

My feet hit first with a crash that was followed fast by such a blast of bone-chilling cold that it took whatever breath I had left away from me and then I was scrambling to come up for air. I willed myself to keep my mouth shut — to survive — and to look up for the sky as my guidepost to life. My head burst up through the surface and I gasped with everything I had.

There was a rousing cheer from my friends but I could barely hear it. My ears were ringing with the experience and I declined the invitations to try it again. Once was enough.

Peace (in safe havens),

PS — Not long after this event, the writer of the comic strip, Funky Winkerbean, did a stretch of days in which the main character climbs to the top of a high diving board and freezes. I could laugh then, and live vicariously through the comic, and even laugh at both him and me.