The College Essay I Wanted My Son to Write

Our son John has finally decided on a college – University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was a decision that he agonized over but we are all glad that it has been made.

His college essay – finished before last summer thanks to his amazing AP English teacher Mr. Franchock, who coached them after the exams were over – was about his love for puns. It was drily funny, original and I could hear his unique voice coursing through every word and sentence. It was the essay he wanted to write. It was him.

I had wanted him to write about something else and was not shy about suggesting it to him. While this is water over the dam now, I wanted to share my thoughts, in part because it tells you a little bit about John and in part because I’ll probably never write a college essay again and I’m looking for a flimsy excuse to do one and feel young once more.

If I were John I would have written about his relationship with the trombone, which he has played since the fifth grade. He picked this unwieldy instrument up at a “petting zoo” for instruments at his school, which required all of its students to choose an instrument to play. While his friends gravitated to trumpets and cool saxophones, John – always the divergent thinker – pictured himself bopping his friends on the head with his trombone slide, a vision that was more Moe Howard than Keith Lockhart. I was thrilled because my own dad had played; one of my favorite old photos of him showed him at around age 18, shirtless, in khakis, brown curls tumbling and playing his trombone with a blissful look on his face.

John soon found out that the trombone was not as much fun as the Three Stooges. It was an unforgiving instrument, physically demanding to hold the right way and to generate the right notes, requiring plenty of strength from the arms and lungs. The honeymoon phase quickly ended, and practicing became a chore. Reading notes and learning phrasing and timing were very difficult.

Eventually we thought that the trombone might be a failed experiment; that John might have more fun and fulfillment playing guitar like his siblings did. Many of his classmates who tried certain instruments in grade school found other things they wanted to do as they got older. But we learned that our son, once he makes a decision, sticks by it even when it gets boring and difficult. My dad, who passed away 19 years ago, was the same way.

At times John complained that practicing wasn’t fun, and I found myself using a phrase that I learned from Amy Chua, the infamous “Tiger Mom,” just before she threw her preschoolers out into the snow for not practicing piano:

“Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

I was stunned to hear myself say those words because I’ve never been the type to drive my kids hard. But John was so determined to keep at it and I didn’t know what else to say to motivate him. I didn’t want him to be a quitter, but sometimes there is a thin line between giving up too soon and realizing you gave something your best shot but need to move on to something else. I still struggle with this.

So we encouraged him to practice without bludgeoning him; we attended all of his school performances and festivals; we replaced the fifth-grade starter trombone with a better model; we added the jazz station to the favorites on our car radio; we took the family out to listen to trombone god Troy Andrews, AKA “Trombone Shorty,” at the House of Blues in Boston.

A few weeks ago I heard John and his fellow high school jazz band musicians play music at their last Jazz Night concert, and I was blown away (pun intended). Nearly all of his bandmates had stuck with music throughout their middle and high school years and it showed in their effortless joy onstage…joy and confidence that came only after years of hard work. It was the same joy I saw on my dad’s face in that photo from long ago.

I thought long and hard about John’s journey as a musician, as a student and as a young man on the cusp of adulthood and doing more things for himself. And I realized that sometimes great things begin for all the wrong reasons. I chose my college, Penn State, because an old boyfriend kept talking about it. It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. John’s college decision was more thought-out. He chose UMass because it has the best dorm food (only kidding, but this was a factor.)

John’s trombone career began with a slapstick vision of a funny-looking instrument that could be used for comic intentions, and ended up being a lesson in how commitment can lead to greater confidence and joy. What better lesson can a young person take with him into adulthood?

John, Paul, George and Ringo in My Life

beatlesI can’t call the Beatles my all-time one-and-only favorite band. Not sure I am capable of musical monogamy, since I am so easily lured away by an irresistible hook, driving bass guitar, dangerous drumbeat or moody lyrics. I’ve been known to disappear with other bands for days, weeks or even months at a time. I dallied with the Stones and David Bowie in the early 70s; Cheap Trick, Dire Straits and the Cars in the late 70s; the Police and the Human League in the 80s; Radiohead and REM in the 90s; and the Shins and the Clientele more recently. I’ve had one-night stands with the likes of Chumbawumba, Men Without Hats, Fastball and Ok Go and haven’t regretted a thing.

My musical tastes are eclectic and will never be stuck in one era. But if my memories could be bound into a photo album, the Beatles would be the friends who showed up in every picture, looking different each time, sometimes a little dated, but somehow belonging there. In my life, no other band can awaken specific moments and the sights, smells and even tastes that accompanied those moments. So when WordPress asked its millions of bloggers to write about their favorite band or song, for their weekly writing challenge the choice was clear. While other bands have captured my passions and my listening hours, the Beatles have been my only long-term relationship – sometimes wildly exciting and other times unlistened-to and taken for granted, but always part of my soundtrack, long after they stopped making music.

So let’s take a look at some of my pictures through the prism of the Beatles’ catalog:

I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Picture the bus stop for my Catholic school, a Monday morning in February, 1964. My childhood friend Mike Graziola is thunderstruck by the Beatles’ performance on the Ed Sullivan show the night before, when they sang this song and 73 million people listened. We can’t stop talking about it as we clutch our Jetson’s lunch kits and exhale vapor into the chilly morning air, shivering and eager for the bus to come but not for the conversation to end. Soon afterwards Mike would start dressing more like a Brit and learning guitar. At 59, he’s still playing.

Hello Goodbye – December, 1967. The song was at the top of the charts and my sister Julie and I have just unwrapped our Christmas gifts from Uncle Nicky: new transistor radios with fragrant leather covers. My dad rounds up a nine-volt battery and I plug it in and click and turn the volume button, then the tuning button, until the static disappears. This is the first song I hear. I hear it again under my pillow, where I’ve placed my radio on low volume before I drift off to sleep. The song always makes me think of the smell of leather.

Happiness is a Warm Gun – Senior year of high school, 1972. The cool and dangerous kids in our school, the ones with no curfew, are very much into the White Album. In the hallways I hear some classmates chanting: “When I hold you…in my arms…and I feel my finger on your trigger…”

Got to Get You Into My Life – Freshman year in 1973, a Theta Chi frat party with live music at Penn State. The band had brass along with guitars and they played this song and everybody danced drunkenly to it. This song makes me think of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer on tap and its faint taste of parmesan cheese, and a floor that is sticky underfoot.

Twist and Shout – I’ve given up frat parties and joined the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper at Penn State, where I meet my future husband Bob and friends that I have kept to this day. Our frequent parties usually climax in a drunken clotted mess of friends hanging onto one another and singing loudly to Beatles songs, including this one. Sometimes we girls would dance on tabletops, like disco dancers. Later, as party-goers begin to stagger home and the rest of us lay around in a stupor, we’d switch to more soulful songs like “Julia.”

She’s So Heavy – In 1995, newly separated and fragile, I drove from my home in Pennsylvania to New England to visit with Bob, who was my steadfast college friend but nothing more at the time. We visit with other college friends, go out to dinner and share many laughs. At his home we listen to Abbey Road and slow dance to this song, with its heavy and hypnotic guitar that goes on and on, then ends abruptly when you are not expecting it. I’m in his arms when that happens and not sure what to do, so I break away and feel like an awkward middle schooler.

That Means A Lot – The Beatles never released this song, originally intended for the Help! Album, but it showed up in Beatles Anthology, Volume One, which Bob presented to me soon after we became a couple. It was not the Beatles’ best effort, but it reminds me of a very sweet time when our love was fresh and new.

Mother Nature’s Son 1996, a reunion at Penn State of former Collegian staffers and their families. We are at the picnic pavilion in Stone Valley, a park owned by the school. Our old friend Jeff is playing his guitar and singing this song. My daughter Rachel and I sing along to the “do-do-do-do-do-do-dooooo” part during the chorus. It is a sublime moment.

Helter Skelter – 2011. Our son John is discovering rock music and his own voice, which is strong and clear and on pitch. He is singing along to this song in the car and I realize how good he is. Through his eyes I start to appreciate the Beatles all over again.

In My Life – Perhaps no other song sums up Bob and me so well. We danced to it at our wedding. “Though I know I’ll never lose affection, for people and things that went before, I know I’ll always stop and think about them, in my life, I love you more.” I guess that sums up how I feel about the Beatles as well.

Goodbye, Wild Thing

The Troggs, in their prime.

The Troggs, in their prime.

BBC radio woke us at 5:30 a.m. today, and the first thing I heard was that Reg Henry, lead singer of the Troggs, passed away yesterday. He was 71 and had battled lung cancer.

Everybody remembers the Troggs’ oft-played garage anthem, “Wild Thing,” which shot up to number one and still never fails to stir, even 45 years after it first came out. But I thought immediately of their other song, one that captured the angst and longing of my middle school years: “Love is All Around.” The melodic bass of the initial bars, as soft and careful as a tiptoe, imprinted itself on me from the very first time I heard it. The words sum up the uncomplicated adoration of idealized love:

“You know I love you. I always will
My mind’s made up by the way that I feel
There’s no beginning, there’ll be no end
‘Cause on my love you can depend.”

What better words to capture the longing of a middle-school crush? “Love Is All Around” will always remind me of one of mine: Wayne, a handsome, blue-eyed loner who found his way into our tight group of friends in our blue-collar neighborhood. Every pre-teen girl in the neighborhood pined for him, and nobody landed him for years, until he eventually dated my friend Mary Lou in high school. I’d scribble his initials and the words “Love Is All Around” all over the brown paper cover on my science textbook, on the inside flap to hide it from the Catholic school nuns.

My sister Julie, who also secretly loved Wayne, and I would watch him out our back window as he played basketball on a neighbor’s driveway. We’d tune into the old Philadelphia AM radio stations, WFIL and WIBG “Wibbage,” to listen for the Troggs song that had become unsuspecting Wayne’s theme song. We’d be so bummed if we turned on the radio and heard its waning bars and knew we had missed it. This was 40 years before iTunes and we’d spin the radio dial like a roulette wheel, hoping each time we’d hit.

And then it would happen. Those first bass tiptoes would sneak up on us, then we’d hear the twangly lead guitar and Reg Henry’s voice, sounding vaguely southern:

“Ah feel it in my fingers; ah feel it in my toes
Love is all around me, and so the feelin’ grows.”

Eventually somebody in the neighborhood bought the 45 of “Love Is All Around” and we’d listen to it over and over again on a portable record player. Our little group would have “record hops” in a neighbor’s unfinished basement, where we’d fast-dance to Martha and the Vandellas, experiment with kissing and swoon over the Troggs.

Today I learned that Reg Presley retired only last year because of his lung cancer, but that the remaining Troggs members, Chris Britton (guitar), Pete Lucas (bass) and Dave Maggs (drums) planned to keep touring. That’s good. But can the group survive without that signature voice, the one that snarled for his wild thing and balanced coolness and plaintiveness in “Love Is All Around” when he asked his beloved if she loved him back?

“It’s written on the wind. It’s everywhere I go
So if you really love me, c’mon and let it show.”

A few months ago I visited Julie and we were heading out for some shopping, when she smiled and said she had a surprise for me. She pushed the button of her iPod Nano and I heard the first bars of that song we both loved 45 years ago and continue to love still. It brought us back to shared confidences in our twin beds before we dozed off to sleep; to longing glances out our back window at a blue-eyed boy playing basketball; to listening to 45s and dancing in our neighbor’s basement; to the sweetness of that first, unrequited love. Thank you, Reg.

Turning on With Don (Draper)

Last night’s episode of “Mad Men” ended with Don Draper listening to The Beatles’ psychedelic stunner “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and feeling his soigné sixties self slip away.

Anyone remember when that song first came out, when Revolver was released? Were you an adult, a teen, a tween? Regardless of your age, didn’t listening to that song – which allegedly cost the Mad Men producers $250,000 to use – make you realize the world was changing?

If you were an adult whose life soundtrack was Connie Francis or The Vogues, you probably could sympathize in part with Don, listening mutely and realizing that he no longer had the cultural zeitgeist figured out. If you were a teenager or pre-teen accustomed to the adorable Beatles singing poppy, danceable songs, “Tomorrow Never Knows” might have made you a little uncomfortable, as much great art does. It was a huge departure for the Fab Four. Consider that “Rubber Soul,” the Beatles’ previous album, included accessible melodies like “Michelle” and “Drive My Car.” Revolver – and its haunting last track — made us realize that the mop-tops who sang “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” were so Yesterday.

Accompanied by John Lennon’s fuzzy, far-away vocals, sitar music, haunting drums and tracks played backwards, “Tomorrow Never Knows” came from the book “The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner. The song signaled that the era’s most influential musical group was moving forward, dragging pop culture with them, and we had no choice but to follow or become irrelevant.

I think that Don must have been thinking this while he listened to the lyrics, sitar, drums and distortion. While he listens, the scene cuts from the 40-ish Don, to his 20-something second wife Megan lying on a stage (after quitting her comfortable advertising job earlier in the day to pursue the bohemian life of an actress), to Don’s coworker Peggy getting high in the office with hunky colleague Stan (When will those two get together???? My guess is when Stan grows his hair and gets rid of the striped shirts.)

Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream, Don! Or grab another hit from those bottles beckoning from your credenza.

While it’s been 46 years since the debut of Tomorrow Never Knows, its lyrics have a strange resonance for those of us struggling to tune out from the constant electronic disruptions of our plugged-in lives. Those lyrics are the perfect meditation for the rest of your day:

Turn off your mind relax and float down stream
It is not dying, it is not dying

Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void,
It is shining, it is shining.

Yet you may see the meaning of within
It is being, it is being

Love is all and love is everyone
It is knowing, it is knowing

And ignorance and hate mourn the dead
It is believing, it is believing

But listen to the colour of your dreams
It is not leaving, it is not leaving

So play the game “Existence” to the end
Of the beginning, of the beginning

We’ll Miss You, Davy

The girls in my Catholic school class daydreamed about Davy Jones (second from right) when we were not learning our Beatitudes.

For millions of baby boomers, part of their tween years died yesterday with Davy Jones.

Davy and The Monkees helped set the stage for many acts that would follow over the next four decades.  As a manufactured rock band – hatched not in a garage or basement, but in a television studio seeking to capitalize on “A Hard Days Night” – The Monkees were pioneers, clearing the way for “Glee,” “Smash,” and other television shows where the music rather than the plot is the real star.  Davy and his mates were thrown together by television, rather than hanging out in real life, but somehow they coalesced as a band.  Their best songs came from other people – Carol King, Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart – but the Monkees made the songs catchy and shiny.

Unlike many other pop stars of the late 60s era, Davy occupied a unique place in our ‘tween girl psyches.  Elvis and Frankie Avalon were too old; Sir Paul was cute but already an icon rather than a flesh-and-blood guy; Mick was just too dangerous.  Davy could sing and he was famous, but somehow he seemed accessible and nice — like the older brother of the cutest boy in class, before he got shipped off to Vietnam.  He was The Beebs of the 1960s.  His cuteness quotient was off the charts.

The girls in my seventh-grade Catholic school class adored Davy.  We listened breathlessly for his voice in the Monkees’ songs – the “ba ba ba ba…ba ba ba ba” chorus of “Pleasant Valley Sunday;” his sweet English tenor on “Daydream Believer,” “Look Out, Here Comes Tomorrow,” and “When Love Comes Knocking at Your Door.”  Mary Joan Fricker, whose desk was across the aisle in Sister Mary Boniface’s class, had the lyrics from Davy’s songs scrawled on the brown paper cover of her Baltimore Catechism.  We shared Davy stories from the latest “Monkees” episodes and swooned over him.

Davy was our crush during that fleeting period when we had one foot in childhood and one in brooding adolescence. We still colored within the lines, memorized the Beatitudes and worked on our penmanship, but we’d hike up the hem of our school  uniforms when the nuns were not looking.  A few of us wore fishnets and lace-up granny shoes with our uniforms; sometimes we got away with it.  We listened to the Temptations, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and of course, The Monkees.

“More of the Monkees” was the first record album that I ever bought.  It cost $3.59 at the Bazaar of All Nations in my hometown, a down-at-the-heels department store that is no longer there.  Davy’s smiling face greeted me from the display rack set on the ragged linoleum at the record store doorway.  I rushed home to put it on the turntable and let Mickey and Davy sing to me.  Two doors down, the O’Toole family would host record hops in their basement for us neighborhood kids and Monkees songs would be in the same mix as The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and The McCoys.  My sister Julie and I listened the 45 of “Daydream Believer” thousands of times.

A few years later we were too cool for The Monkees — who were on their way out anyway —  and we began listening to Led Zeppelin and Iron Butterfly.   We switched from AM radio to the FM “underground” station.  The Monkees were packed away with the repressed memories of our awkward preteen years.  But new generations would discover them years later, and appreciate their tuneful ballads from a simpler time.   And we jaded music lovers would rediscover them as well.   RIP, Davy.