Archive for September, 2009

Mercury SLP 107

Mercury Records and Beck-John Productions put out a series of children’s records in the ’60s called Storyteller which were “Dramatically enacted, accompanied by a 40 piece orchestra”. Each record had “2 Complete Stories”. The pairings were “Robinson Crusoe” and “Davy Crockett”; “Cinderella” and “Jack and the Beanstalk”; “Robin Hood” and “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves”; “Hansel and Gretel” and “Sleeping Beauty”; “David and Goliath” and “Noah’s Ark”; “Rip Van Winkle and “Three Musketeers”; “St George and the Dragon” and “William Tell”; and “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Tortoise and the Hare”.

We had the last one, whose catalog number was SLP 107. I listened to it so many times as a kid that certain lines of the narratives, and certain passages of the scores, and certain images that were painted in my little brain at each repeated hearing have remained with me all my life. The word “columbines” held a magic for me long before I knew what columbines were or what the flower looked like. The phrase “I’m scot nared — I mean…I’m not scared” gave rise to that knock-kneed spoonerism’s use in our family throughout my life. Somewhere among my parents’ photo albums is a black and white photo of me sitting on the floor — with legs bent back on either side in that impossible way four-year-olds sit — in front of the huge cabinet phonograph that we had in the living room under the copper-colored clock. I think I am listening to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” or “Tortoise and the Hare”.

The stuff dreams are made of. Detail from the back of SLP 107's jacket.

The stuff dreams are made of. Detail from the back of SLP 107's jacket.

The narrator in these recordings talked a lot and said funny-sounding things I didn’t understand before each story and at various points in the tale. He said, “But I’ll just tell you the story and let you draw your own conclusion. Have you ever drawn a conclusion? Or would you rather draw a house with a chimney? Oh, now that’s a silly question isn’t it…now where were we?” At that age, I did not yet register puns.  

As such things tend to do, this vinyl recording and its sleeve and tattered jacket fell into disuse after a time and languished in a box of other recordings — Johnny Appleseed, Pinnochio, The Chipmunks. Considering the untold numbers of things that I once owned, or my sister or brother once owned, that we in any case collectively cherished, that “went away” over the course of our first three decades, it is a miracle that this recording managed to remain in the house in south Bellevue where I grew up until sometime in my late thirties or early forties, when I found it and brought it with me to join the collection of albums, already a museum, that I had chosen as a self-differentiating youth — Al Stewart, Alan Parsons, Supertramp, Genesis, Renaissance, Triumvirat — and those that represented my later, expanding musical taste — John Williams (the guitarist), the Pretenders, the Boys o’ the Loch, Joni Mitchell, Rod Patterson and the Easy Club, the Stranglers.

I’m looking at SLP 107 now. The jacket is now two separate pieces of cardboard, though matching pairs of yellowed strips of celophane tape on both halves still show where some effort was made to keep it together. The back has ink drawings around the edge of various scenes from the stories. I dug it out this morning after the three of us got up. Saturdays Mara gets up and comes into our bed, and the cats join us, and we all loll around and tickle each other and sometimes Mara asks one of us to tell a story. It’s a weekend treat, since I don’t have to get up in a rush. Today I told the story of Goldilocks as I recalled it from this recording from my childhood.

It went over big, so I went down into the garage and brought up a turntable that belonged (still technically belongs) to an old roommate of mine and hooked it up to our stereo. It was a moment of strange beauty for me when I lowered the needle on this venerable vinyl platter and the old familiar music started. It was a moment of even stranger beauty when I stood looking down at Mara, who, after a few minutes of rapt attention to the spinning label and the odd machinery of the needle arm, curled up on the floor and entered for the first time a world that I remember but can no longer reach.

I can see her going but I'm not allowed to follow.

I can see her going but I'm not allowed to follow.

Men, fire and steak

“I’m gonna lay down my burden
down by the riverside, down by the riverside…”

–Traditional folksong

Once a year at the end of summer, the men of my church turn their backs on the trappings of modern civilization — the technology, the comforts, the noise, the polite manners — and get themselves into the woods for several nights up north along the South Fork of the Stillaguamish River. Actually, they drive computerized SUVs, sleep on REI inflatable pads within twelve steps of restrooms with showers, and keep the game on the radio in at least one of the vehicles. But the spirit of the thing is getting away from the city and from their various other roles (husband, pastor, father, employee, as the case may be) to bond and get know each other.

At least, that is what is printed in the church bulletin when the Men’s Retreat is announced every year. But ask any of them — ask Pastor Mick, even — and he will tell you that there is really one overarching reason why they make this trip. It’s because awaiting every participant in this annual migration to the riverside is a barbecued steak so tasty, so tender, so mouth-wateringly delicious that the partakers thereof feel as though they have been elevated to some sublime gustatory plane. They go for the New York or tri-tip cut that Joe and Jim prepare with a secret rub of spices on Joe’s smoker-barbecue grill, which they take up with them. One member of the church told me that he’d been a little depressed last year, and the only time he came out of his funk that whole season was the fifteen minutes he was eating that steak.

Jim gets the pit ready while Joe preps the steaks. The men of the tribe have been waiting a year for this.

Jim gets the pit ready while Joe preps the steaks. The men of the tribe have been waiting a year for this.

I am not a big red-meat eater. I am also ignorant with regard to sports, and I am historically not a joiner. The last is a trait I’ve been trying to address, but this work takes time. Every year for the twelve or so years I have worshipped with this small and close-knit congregation I have been cheerfully and hopefully asked whether I was going on the Men’s Retreat, and every year I have sleezed out of it. They would tell me that I could come up Saturday just for the steak dinner — many did just that. But I always declined, or said I’d think about it and then didn’t get back to them. It’s an odd thing: my craving for community compels me to fantasize about it in anachronistic and romanticized ways (several friends stop by with their banjo and fiddle while I happen to be sipping julep and playing my concertina on my broad wooden porch, and we get to layin’ down a spontaneous hootenanny that in turn causes an ad hoc pot-luck and driveway dance, where the whole town is turned out at my place, people show up with pies, and the kids get to stay up late) and yet I shy away from community in its real forms.

This year no one even bothered to forward me the email, but I heard about it from my wife, who has always encouraged me to go and run with the wolfpack, make some friends. I decided I’d ask if it was too late to go , at least for the Saturday evening steak-fest. It was not too late. Ted, Ken and Curtis were all going up for the afternoon and I could join them. My church does not proselytize, not even about the Men’s Retreat. No one showed surprised or made a big deal of the fact that I was finally coming along. They just said, “You won’t believe the steak.”

Waiting for the hiking party to return. Ken, Mick, Curtis and Eric.

Waiting for the hiking party to return. A fuzzy picture of Ken, Mick, Curtis and Eric.

Ted, an elder of the church in several senses of the word, doesn’t drive anymore — his eyes have been playing tricks on him — but he has a nice roomy rig (a Kia), so I drove him and his friend Curtis, who is about 70 and can and will talk a blue streak about how he views things, and we picked up Ken on the way north. I’ve known Ted and Ken for years. My daughter plays with Ted’s grandson, and Ken, a contractor, helped us fix up our first house before we moved into it. Curtis is recreating Ted and Carolyn’s kitchen, and has been coming to the church for at least a year now. 

We listened to the game on the way up — the Huskies were on their way to beating USC, their second win after a losing streak of 15 games spanning three seasons. Where we could get no reception we talked about how messed up current society is and how it got that way, one of my favorite topics. We all agreed that buying local and supporting independent businesses was the least we could do to forestall living in a world where our choices are decided by the board of directors of Walgreens and Home Depot and Starbucks. Accordingly, we stopped for lunch at Ike’s Cafe in Granite Falls. Ted had the egg-salad sandwich, Ken and Curtis both had the club, I think, and I had eggs and bacon and french toast.

It probably would have impressed the boys more if there had been a dinosaur bone stuck to it.

It probably would have impressed the boys more if there had been a dinosaur bone stuck to it.

We found Joe and Mick huddled up in warm coats under a portable rain cover, the kind you erect over a picnic table. It was not then raining, but it was cold and the trees were dripping. The others who had overnighted Friday — Jim, Scott, Eric, Jeff, Dale, Paul and his son Jared, Brett and his sons Micah and Toby —  had all gone on a damp hike for the afternoon. Bob arrived by motorcycle and set up his tent near some of the others. The game was on everyone’s minds, and Ted kept going and sitting in the car to listen. The campers had not brought enough wood to keep a campfire going during the day, which I thought was a situation that needed a remedy, so I went out to the river to see about some wood. It had been raining for a few days, but otherwise we’d had a drought for six months. Still there wasn’t a speck of lignous matter within a mile, other than old snags piled up on each other, and no one had brought a bow saw. I could see the list starting in my head of what to bring next year. 1) Bow saw.

Presently I became distracted by the overwhelming variety of rock types on the river shore. It seemed impossible that so many different rocks of so many different textures and colors could all be lying around next to each other. Granite, gabbro, diorite, I tried to recall from my geology classes. What were the rose-colored ones, and the crystally white ones? The tumbling force of the river in higher-water times was evident, as were the great distances downriver that these rounded fragments had travelled from their original rockbeds. I found some slate that would make a good arrowhead — obsidian would have been optimal — which I took back to the camp and chipped away at the way I’ve seen in documentaries about aboriginal Americans. My thought was, when the three young boys were back from their hike, I’d show them the arrowhead and say “what do you boys make of this? I found it on the beach,” and watch their eyes bug out.

The delicious agony of anticipation...

The delicious agony of anticipation...

Later, when the campfire had been made and the hikers were back and Jim was heating up the barbecue, I casually showed Micah, Jared and Toby the slate piece I had been working on. I had found it remarkably easy to shape, even made notches for bindings next to the haft, without which it wouldn’t be much use. “What do you boys make of this?” They said it looked like an arrowhead, but none of them flipped out. Toby was too young to understand the significance of an archaeological find like that, and Jared was too busy with a biscuit that he and his dad were trying to make over the fire to take much notice. Micah, the oldest of the three, wasn’t initially impressed either, but when it was revealed that I had fashioned it that very afternoon he was keen to make one himself and put in a good shift whittling away at some other pieces of slate I had brought up. I brought my arrowhead home for Mara, then realized that it was too sharp for a four-year-old to play with, so I’ve stashed it away to give her later.

Joe didn’t let me take photos of him rubbing the steaks, and I didn’t dare get too close to Jim at the barby, either. When the steaks were done, we lined up like grateful hajis or unbelievably lucky orphans and held out our plates. Jim put a slab of New York steak on my plate that I couldn’t believe I was about to eat all of, and an ear of corn in the husk. Allow me to testify: I am ruined for any other steak. There is no point in my ordering a steak in any restaurant anywhere. Nothing could even come close to this. I won’t eat steak again until next year, riverside. It was better than even the twelve years of superlatives had led me to anticipate. Even the rain dripping down off of the firs and cedars didn’t diminish the experience and couldn’t ruin the flavor. It was simply the best steak I’d ever eaten.

The Huskies won 16-13, the meal was legendary (there was even pumpkin pie dessert for those who eat pumpkin pie — I don’t) and the drive back down the valley was lit by a sunset on shreds of sherbet sky. It was a trip I thoroughly enjoyed, and I suddenly couldn’t remember why I hadn’t made it sooner.

 

The end of a good day, any way you slice it.

The end of a good day, any way you slice it.

Not wailing, chomping

Once upon a time, somebody heading into the Market Theatre on Post Alley took their chewing gum out of their mouth and stuck it on one of the exterior bricks of the entryway. I bet that person goes around now saying “I started the Gum Wall. It was me. I started the Gum Wall.”

That’s what I would do if that had been I, because the idea caught on. There are now thousands of gum wads on the wall. There is gum high and low, gum on top of gum, gum of all colors, gum in the shape of people’s names. Yes, I agree. Disgusting. And yet…

If each of these was a prayer...

If each of these was a prayer...

I pass the wall, which has achieved some notoriety among bloggers and travellers, every other day or so when I walk up Post Alley from my building in the 1000 block to the market to chat with Abbie, Alexander, Annette, Ashleigh, Anna, (can you believe that?) Kayla or Evan while whichever one of them is at the steam valve makes my small decaf latte. During summer, there are invariably several parties of visitors to Seattle standing in the alley taking pictures of the famed gum wall, pictures of each other in front of the famed gum wall or of each other adding new wads to the famed gum wall. Even in winter, though, there is almost always somebody there marveling. 

The first time I walked up the alley and noticed this I jumped sideways like a cat, but soon I became as accustomed to the phenomenon as to the smell of hops wafting out from the brewery nextdoor, and after a while I found it irritating that I had to fold up my elbows in the narrow lane and wend my way through the invariable cluster of celebrants with their eyes pressed against their cameras while trying not to end up in their photographs.

This is the part they young ones will remember for the rest of their lives.

Starbucks schmarbucks. This is the part the young ones will remember for the rest of their lives.

But I’ve been watching people, and I’ve started to soften up a little. After all, the vision is undeniably arresting, and the very idea of so much DNA clinging to the bricks here is staggering. Some people who have since perished might conceivably be physically reassembled through cloning if you could locate their wad (I’m not advocating cloning humans – in fact I think it’s a bad idea. I’m just sayin’, the genetic repository is here. And on the other hand, the opportunity for mix-ups is, as you can see, enormous). You can’t really blame people for wanting to be part of something as singular as this.

I had my camera with me the other day and took it with me up the alley on my coffee run. Several groups were there paying respects to the wall. One was a family, which stood around in a close circle, almost as if at a christening or some other religious ritual, as their junior member appended her contribution in just the perfect spot.

I almost felt like I shouldn't be watching. But it's like a train wreck...how can you look away?

I almost felt like I shouldn't be watching, but it was such a beautiful moment I couldn't look away.

Another was a young couple. They unwrapped a stick of gum each and chewed for a few minutes, then chose a place above the ticket window while their friend prepared to take a photograph. The way they leaned into the moment together made this low-brow activity seem like some kind of transcendant act. What promise, what request was made silently in that instant? “I’ll stick to you. Will you stick to me?”

Watching these various participants, I was put in mind of the Western Wall (a.k.a. the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem, where Orthodox local Jews as well as travelers from across the globe bring “wads” of another kind — small pieces of paper with prayers written on them wadded up — to stick in the between the stones of the only part of the ancient Jewish temple that is still accessible to the faithful, and cry their hearts out to God. This reminded me of that a little, only this is more like a larking wall… a laughing wall. I know the Market Theater wasn’t crazy about the gum thing; twice over the years the establishment has hired out to have it all cleaned off, only to resign themselves eventually to their wall’s dubious fame as the wads have returned each time. But I bet what God sees, if heaven regards such things, is the implicit wish in the hearts of these gum-stickers to be joined with a thing larger than themselves, something that will outlast them even if their particular wad falls off or erodes away. That wish is a wish not to be forgotten, a wish for the immortality that we know we cannot give to ourselves. 

In this moment, I was just another tourist with a camera.

In this moment, I was just another tourist with a camera.

I’m not saying that people consciously pray here the way they do in Zion, where serious and timeless soul anguish is brought forth. I just think there is something inherently upward-wishing in the act of adding one’s Big Red or Trident to this grand adhesive enterprise.

Of course, from a property value point of view, what this is is a lot of gooey gum stuck on a wall. And it’s disgusting. Sometimes, when I’m in a particularly snarky mood, and especially if I happen to be well dressed, I’ll stroll past the gawkers, smile mayorally, and say “Welcome to our fair city.”

Lighthouses, art history, and a long walk to town

Our recent encounter with the North Head Light at Long Beach got me thinking about how much I have always loved lighthouses, and remembering my fascination for lighthouses put me in mind of a postage stamp. 

I collected stamps when I was a kid. Someone gave me a Scott World Stamp Album for Christmas one year. It was organized by country and had places on its pages for common stamps, with a black and white photograph of each and a little description of it. Though I don’t exactly recall, a bag of “assorted commemorative stamps” was probably also included in the gift, maybe even as part of the album. I was instantly enthralled with the process of matching stamps to their place in the album, and I was a philatelist for years. Etymologically speaking, the word philately means “love of tax exemption”, but by convention it refers to the collection and study of stamps. To this day, I don’t think I have ever said this word aloud, not only because it sounds like an offense punishable by prison time, but also because I have always been unsure of which syllable gets emphasized.

Edward Hopper's " The Lighthouse at Two Lights" painting used on 1970 commemorative stamp. This image used without permission of the USPS.

Edward Hopper

What you were supposed to do was affix each stamp to its place on the page using a tiny folded “glassine” paper that you licked, and which was called a stamp hinge. It was a tricky operation, because once you licked it it wanted to stick to your fingers, and you had to get it placed on the back of the stamp and then place the stamp in the book just so, all before your lick expired. It was a maddening experience, but these little hinges were designed to adhere to the back of an unused stamp without compromising it. Before I knew this, I glued most of my first bag of stamps to their pictures with Elmer’s glue. Glueing stamps is a quick way to decrease their resale value to zero, which is antagonistic to the purpose of collecting them, or at least to one purpose. (My purpose as a kid was, now that I think about it, more direct and more purely about the stamps. I wanted them right here in my book, forever. There’s something kind of raw and good about children’s disregard for market value appreciation.) The few stamps that survived this philatelic holocaust were transferred carefully (with hinges) to my second book, the Minkus All American Stamp Album, a more thorough catalog of U.S. commemoratives in a hot-red vinyl notebook emblazoned with the American eagle carrying arrows and olive branches.

There was, and maybe still is, a man named John Kardos, who ran a little shop on Main Street in Bellevue called The Stamp Gallery. I went to The Stamp Gallery often with my Scott’s Stamp Prices book in hand. Mr. Kardos frightened me a little, but he treated each customer with great respect, including the gawky and bespectacled ten-year-old who came in to buy three stamps. He stood behind a glass-topped counter that had two or three tall stools in front of it. Under the glass were various colorful plates of stamps from around the world. I gathered they were rare. Sometimes I would have to wait a very long time because the customer ahead of me would be involved in a significant transaction that took half an hour or more. Sometimes Mr. Kardos was appraising someone’s collection and was explaining why this or that stamp or group of stamps would be worth this or that much. Sometimes a customer was simply loading up on plate blocks and it took a while.

It was a quick bike ride or a pleasurable walk to The Stamp Gallery from our house about a mile south of Main Street. Click for higher res.

Much of the streetscape has changed since I was ten, but you can still see that it was a quick bike ride or a long walk to The Stamp Gallery from our house about a mile south of Main Street. Image lifted from Bing Maps.

Mr. Kardos gave his full attention to the present customer and did not rush anyone, while acknowledging other customers as they arrived under the tinkle of the little bell above the door. He gave stamp collecting the air of the most noble enterprise. He never laughed. He had a thick Eastern European accent. I think he was Hungarian. Hungary had the coolest stamps, I thought, because their own name for themselves was not Hungarians but Magyars, and their stamps said “Magyar Posta”. When I moved to North Carolina at age 11, I wrote to Mr. Kardos and he sent me stock sheets. He used stock sheets in his many ring-bound notebooks, not touristy little pages with photographs, which I began to understand were for lightweights. Stock sheets were blank slotted pages that you could put your stamps in in any arrangement you chose, so they demanded and assumed a measure of creativity and responsibility and knowledge. People who used stock sheets were organizing their collections, cataloguing their particular pathway through stampdom. Because you couldn’t collect everything. There was too much. You specialized in a country or two, or a theme (aviation, maybe), or maybe you collected coils, or numbered plate blocks or whole plates. Mr. Kardos also used tweezers called stamp tongs to take stamps out of the stock sheets and put them in. I began using tongs, too, but not faithfully. Two things Mr. Kardos never did: he never touched a stamp with his fingers (the oils in our hands, as you might guess, are hostile to the integrity of the paper) and, at least to my recollection, he never said “philately”, which makes me wonder if the word is pronounceable at all. Maybe no one says it. Maybe no one has ever said it.

There was a six-cent stamp that had an image of a New England lighthouse on it, and it turned out that the artist who painted that image later became a favorite of mine, Edward Hopper. We went and saw some of his paintings at the Seattle Art Museum last winter, though the exhibit was mostly assembled from his urban scenes depicting women at work or having coffee or looking out windows, and did not include any of his lighthouse paintings. When I first encountered Edward Hopper as an artist I felt an instant recognition of and love for the kind of light that inhabited the air in his paintings (see “Early Sunday Morning”). It was only recently that I realized that the lighthouse on that old Maine Statehood stamp was a Hopper lighthouse. I don’t know if I liked Hopper because I had this stamp when I was young, or whether I remembered this stamp simply because Hopper’s painting style so resonated with me.

I still have my stamp collection in an old crate. Since the Maine Statehood commemorative didn’t come out until 1970, and I think I was collecting as early as the late ’60s, there’s a good chance that my copy of this issue was safely placed in the second album with a stamp hinge. It’s probably worth two bits by now. 

Since beginning this post I’ve discovered that The Stamp Gallery is still right where it was in one of the last little two-story, post-war, slap-dash buildings in Bellevue, and is still under the austere administration of Mr. John Kardos (here’s the website). I’d like to go back and visit him and ask him how the self-adhesive stamp has affected stamp collecting.

Anyway, as my own commemoration to an enduring fascination, I couldn’t resist posting just one more picture of the North Head Lighthouse. Click for big.

What would the scientific term be for a lover of lighthouses? Photodomophile?

What would the scientific term be for a lover of lighthouses? Photodomophile?

This goes out to the one I love

Ten years ago today my sweetheart and I walked back up the aisle, out the church door and into a life that neither one of us could have foreseen. Of unexpected delights and of trials we hadn’t counted on there have been a few, maybe the average share of both. But I wouldn’t trade my breathing buddy in this deep-sea world of wedded wonder for any inducement. So this is just a shout out to m’lady. It just keeps getting better.

"You have chosen... wisely!"

"You have chosen... wisely!"

 


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