70

dad1Today is Charles Ross Smith, Jr.’s 70th birthday. He’s my father. But, unfortunately, he’s no longer treading this mortal coil with us, so my family and I get to remember him and honor the day reflectively, rather than celebrating it with him in the flesh. I wish it weren’t so.

dad2How would I describe him? Well . . . my dad was a highly-decorated warrior, a leader-of-men (and survivor) of Vietnam and Beirut, who retired from the Marine Corps as a bird colonel, ending his military career as the Chief of Staff at Parris Island, the place where Marines are made. (He’s buried nearby at Beaufort National Cemetery, alongside countless African-American soldiers who fought for their freedom in the Civil War). My dad was well educated with a pair of masters degrees, and spent much of his life as an educator, either directly (as a schoolteacher, late in his life) or indirectly (as a mentor, storyteller, sage, elder). He was a man of great, deep faith, who touched countless lives in his ministries in the Low Country of South Carolina, in his Church and as the manager and primary on-air personality of a Christian radio station. He was a foodie without pretense, who could just as easily appreciate a good chili dog as he could a fine meal at one of the world’s great restaurants. He was a loving husband to my mom, a great dad to my sister and I, and a doting grandfather to my daughter, niece and nephew.

dad41But I think what I miss the most, when all’s said and done, is the fact that he was really quite the goofball much of the time, and was a lot of fun to spend time with. He had an infectious laugh, and loved to tell tall tales and stories; the truth was malleable for him, and did not necessarily have to correspond to reality. (The excellent Tim Burton movie, Big Fish, could have been his biography). He also found humor in all sorts of places where most folks didn’t look for it. I remember one time when my sister and I were young and our Mom was away for some reason, so Dad was left with the responsibility of making dinner for us. He spent a long time in the kitchen that night making a very special dinner for us: A Spam Lamb (for my sister) and a Spam Ram (for me). Both of them were anatomically correct, ahem. We laughed and laughed and laughed through our dinner, and meat from a can never tasted as good as it did that night. Later, I watched him make his grandchildren laugh just as hard as he did his children, which was lovely, and powerful, and memorable. I miss that, a lot. I know I’m not alone in that regard.

dad3I should note, as I generally do on the occasion of his birthday and the anniversary of his flying away, that his death was avoidable: he was killed by an elderly driver with health issues who shouldn’t have been behind the wheel of a car. I repeat that point regularly not to be morbid, but to encourage you to intervene if you have a family member in similar circumstances, and help them make a transition to a non-driving state if you can. Yes, loss of mobility for the elderly or infirm is difficult, but letting them kill another person is worse. I’ve experienced that first-hand, watching the innocent victim of such needless highway carnage leave his earthly body, in the same hospital in which I was born, no less. I hope that none of you ever have to experience anything like that, on either side of the transaction. So intervene if you need to. It’s the right thing to do.

But all that aside, that dark moment doesn’t negate the countless magical moments that came before it, some mundane, some life-altering, all part of the skein of my life, all important in their own ways,big and small. I wrote a poem a year or so after my dad died about one of my fondest childhood memories, which took place in the Uwharrie Mountains of North Carolina, near the town of Albemarle, where he grew up. It’s called “Climb.” I close by sharing it with you. Happy birthday, Dad. I miss you.

Climb

The serpent switchbacks cut the mountain’s side,
each hairpin turn just higher than the last.
Straight up, between the curves, a gravel slide,
where trees were felled by avalanches past.
Both slide and road went to the mountain’s peak,
one paved and winding, one more steep, but straight.
We stood there at the bottom, by the creek,
and chose the rockslide without much debate.
We scrambled up the loose slate, crossed the road,
and climbed the next pile, careful of sharp shale,
bypassing slippery spots where moisture showed,
ignoring manmade paths for nature’s trail.
Exhausted when we finally reached the top,
amazed, on looking back, how steep the drop.

[Notes on the photos, from top to bottom: (1) My grandfather, father and I (2) My parents, my sister, and I (3) My Mom and I admire my Dad’s new Bronze Star (4) My father, my daughter, and I. Click the images for larger versions.]

I Guess We Need to Find a New Place to Keep the Onions

Ladyjane the Big Busy Bumblebee Cat Who Mugs People has found a new favorite place to intermittently snooze and monitor the household. Unfortunately for us, it’s the place where we used to store onions, potatoes and other fresh goods that went on top of the refrigerator, rather than inside it. I don’t think I want to put those things here anymore.

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lj1

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You don’t argue with a cat with opposable thumbs. We’ve learned this rule pretty quickly. It’s her basket now.

.400

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the magic of the .600 threshold in American sports, above which only generally great teams reside. I noted this occurrence because my Beloved Royals were, amazingly, remarkably, one of only five teams in Major League Baseball above that level.

I asked you not to pinch me, but obviously you didn’t listen, because today I get to note that where playing at a .600 level connotes great teams, playing at a .400 generally denotes dismal ones: 100-game losers in baseball, 6-10 teams in the NFL, a 50-loss season in the NBA. Why do I get to note this? Because the Beloved Royals have lost eight in a row to drop to 37-56, a .398 winning rate. There are only three other teams at or below .400.

At their current rate of play, the Beloved Royals can expect to finish the season with a 64-98 record. I was hoping to be able to root for something better this year than “Yay! Fewer than 100 losses!”, but it appears that such is not to be the case.

Of course, it could be worse: my favorite National League team, the Ex-Montreal Expos, are flirting with an absolutely astonishing and historic rate of futility, currently playing even below the .300 level.

So, uh . . . yay, Royals! Less futile than the Nationals!

Won’t You Sign In, Stranger?

I haven’t been able to sign in much lately, as my trusty old home office computer collapsed after about six years into a pile of confused, trojanized bits of metal and plastic. Which was really stunning, as I am quite diligent and good about computer hygiene, monitoring where I surf, and running AdAware, McAfee and Registry Mechanic to keep things in good functioning order. I’m still puzzled as to how the Trojan got onto my computer (my best guess is that I picked it up while downloading some indie/underground hip-hop music a couple of weeks ago), although after a fair amount of research, I’ve concluded that it was able to deploy by masquerading as a McAfee application, so that I authorized it to make registry changes, and the rest was ka-blooey.

I spent about three days working to recover the system, but it got to a point where it would have required outside assistance, and the cost of that assistance was, in round terms, probably not much less than the cost of a new computer. So I bought my fourth home computer last week since 1993, a Dell PC tower that’s running just fine with my old monitor, printer, and other peripherals. Fortunately, I was also always good about backing up documents to an external hard drive, so I was able to save all of my stuff, including the 6,000 or so songs that had accumulated on the old machine. I’m not real thrilled about having to work with Vista or Office 2007, but I’ve been using both of them at work for the past eight months, so it’s less painful a transition than it would have been otherwise.

With summer finally officially being upon us, I’ve also been spending less time in front of the computer and more time outdoors, more often than not golfing with Marcia. We joined a club this year, so it’s been nice to be able to consistently and predictably play the same course over and over again, really learning the distances and strategies and pitfalls in more detail than we have in the past as we’ve migrated between public courses over the past two summers. This is only my third season of swinging a golf club, and while I’m neither a natural (like Marcia) nor am I particularly anatomically prepared to excel at the game with a completely broke and rebuilt left shoulder, I am feeling some sense of progress with various elements of my game this year. I’m still pleased when I par a hole, and a birdie is a memorable experience, but at least this year I have a sense that both are actually possible when I step up to the tee, and it’s that hope that keeps me moving from hole to hole. Plus, when you get right down to it, here’s what the game entails to me: I get to ride around a beautiful park in an electric scooter with my main girl, while hitting things with a stick. What’s there ever to be unhappy about in such a scenario?

I’ve also been having a nice summer of space nerdery, especially this week as we mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, at the very same time that we have more humans in space right now on the combined Shuttle-International Space Station (13 of them!) than we ever have had at one time in the past. And you know what’s even cooler? You can see them! There’s a great website called Heavens Above that allows you to monitor and track all sorts of stuff whizzing by in the sky above you. If you know when and where to look, the ISS-Shuttle combo is generally the brightest object in the sky after the Sun, the Moon and (sometimes) Venus. At Heavens Above, you can input your own location, but since most readers of this blog are presumably in the New York Capital Region, here’s a list of some choice evening viewings hereabouts over the next few nights:

Date Mag Starts Max. altitude Ends
Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az.
19 Jul -1.2 21:42:59 10 NW 21:45:24 22 NNE 21:47:48 10 ENE
19 Jul -1.3 23:17:55 10 WNW 23:19:24 26 WNW 23:19:24 26 WNW
20 Jul -2.5 22:07:05 10 NW 22:09:55 44 NNE 22:11:00 29 E
21 Jul -1.3 20:56:24 10 NW 20:58:50 23 NNE 21:01:14 10 ENE
21 Jul -3.1 22:31:20 10 WNW 22:34:04 60 WSW 22:34:04 60 WSW
22 Jul -2.6 21:20:28 10 NW 21:23:18 45 NNE 21:25:43 13 E
22 Jul -0.8 22:56:07 10 W 22:57:10 16 WSW 22:57:10 16 WSW
23 Jul -3.1 21:44:41 10 WNW 21:47:34 59 SW 21:48:51 28 SSE
24 Jul -2.6 20:33:45 10 NW 20:36:37 47 NNE 20:39:27 10 ESE
24 Jul -1.3 22:09:27 10 W 22:11:36 19 SW 22:12:01 18 SSW
25 Jul -2.9 20:57:57 10 WNW 21:00:50 57 SW 21:03:42 10 SE
26 Jul -1.1 21:22:43 10 W 21:24:49 18 SW 21:26:55 10 S
28 Jul -0.9 20:35:55 10 W 20:37:58 17 SW 20:40:01 10 S

The first column provides the date, obviously. The second is the magnitude, the more negative the number, the brighter the object, so the two brightest passes in the little while are the -3.1 ones on July 21 and July 23. The next three sets of three columns allow you to draw (mentally or literally) a line across the sky describing the visible arc of the ISS-Shuttle. The azimuth columns tell you compass direction, the altitude columns tell you how high above the horizon in that direction the object is (the highest number possible is 90 degree,or directly overhead), and the time columns tell you when it will be there, in military time, so you subtract 12 to go to standard AM/PM notation. You obviously need to be outside at the scheduled times with a sense of your cardinal points to be able to figure out where to look. These days, you can use Google Earth or Mapquest or any other mapping application with overhead photography of your property to help you orient yourself to North, South, East and West, and the gradual increments between them. If you click on the links on the dates, you should get a little chart showing you the line across the sky. Note that in these charts, east and west are reversed from normal maps, because if you lie on your back looking up with your head facing north, west is to your right, and east to your left, opposite road maps, where you are assumed to be looking down on the planet, not up off of it.

So what will you see, if you look in the right place at the right time on a reasonably clear night? An extremely bright, fast-moving “star” that does not have any blinking lights on it. With a pair or decent high-powered binoculars and a steady hand and good eye combo, you can actually discern the relatively square shape of the station, or at least of the solar panels that reflect back most of the sunlight that causes it to glow so brightly. And as you watch it race across the sky, reflect on the fact that there are 13 human beings inside, the only 13 currently living “off world” in the inhospitable environment beyond our planet’s atmosphere. I always find that powerful to ponder, especially knowing that they will orbit the entire Earth in about 90 minutes. If that doesn’t help you appreciate the fact that we live on a tiny planet, where everything is connected to and dependent upon everything else, then nothing else will.

So, if you get out and give it a look-see, let me know what you think. And in closing: hats off to folks who know where I cribbed the title of this post from. You, sirs and madams, have fine taste in music, and have, no doubt, indeed heard about the boom on Mizar Five.

Wanted: Bass Clarinet

When I dream about performing music, it’s rarely a pleasant experience. Generally, my music dreams are of the variety where I’m suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably onstage somewhere, with a huge audience in front of me, holding an instrument that I can’t play, with my solo coming up in three . . . two . . . one . . . . go! If I’m lucky, I wake up at that point. If I’m unlucky, I actually get to experience what it feels like to self-immolate in public, and it isn’t ever a nice feeling.

This precedent made the pleasant musical dream I had a couple of night ago all the more memorable. As in most of my musical dreams, I found myself suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably onstage somewhere, this time holding a bass clarinet in my hands. Which is odd, because in the real world, I don’t believe I have ever actually touched a bass clarinet, although I quite like their sound. In the dream, the curtain went up and this big shambolic band in which I found myself started to blow . . . and we ripped the roof of the place, playing some spectacular free jazz where everything just clicked and the whole experience felt just boom bang great.

In the midst of the dream, I wondered how I was able to pull off this stunt, and my dream logic explanation was that my bass clarinet skills came from listening to Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica so many times over the years, whereon the untrained Captain and his even less-trained cousin Victor Hayden, a.k.a. The Mascara Snake (that’s right), tootled some rightous bass clarinet tones on some titanically scary, complex and atonal numbers. Then (in the dream), I also remembered that John Coltrane’s band featured bass clarinet on some of the improvised numbers on his epic Live in Seattle albums, and noted that this knowledge, too, clearly gave me the magical bass clarinet powers that I had acquired and deployed over the course of a ripping dream set.

When I woke up the next morning, the dream lingered. And then when I got up, I walked to my home office, got online, and started to look for a used bass clarinet on Ebay. I’m watching a couple of them to see where they price out, and also put a call in to a local music store to get information about rent-to-own programs. I should have one in my non-dreaming hands, one way or the other, in a week or two.

I believe in the power of dream, and (to a lesser extent) in my own musical abilities. I can generally produce something of worth from most of the instruments I’ve owned or handled over the years (typically in the string, keyboard, electronic or percussion families), so figure that this was just a way for my subconscious to tell me that it’s time for me to branch out into the woodwind family.

Old dog. New trick. In B flat.

From the Archives: Go Titans!

(Originally published on my blog at jericsmith.com on January 2, 2004, re-printed on hearing that Steve McNair was shot to death today. What a senseless, tragic end to the life and career of one of my favorite professional athletes.)

I think I’m a reasonably typical sports fan in that my team preferences were set when I was a kid, I generally root now for the same teams I did 30 years ago, and my father’s tastes played a key role in me liking who I liked. And like. Growing up in North Carolina in the ’40s, my dad always pulled for sports teams from Washington, DC, since at the time that was the closest city with major league baseball and football teams. So I grew up as a Washington sports fan, too, both because of my father’s influence and because I spent a good chunk of my early childhood in Northern Virginia while my dad was stationed at either Quantico or Headquarters Marine Corps.

One of the first significant sporting events I can remember actively watching was the Redskins-Dolphins Superbowl that capped Miami’s perfect season. (My Dad let me stay up late to watch. He was good about that, having me come watch sporting events that, years later, I’d be glad I saw, whether I appreciated them at the time or not. So I saw Hank Aaron break Babe Ruth’s record, watched the last three Triple Crown winning Belmont races, saw the Dolphins cap their perfect season, etc.) (Although, just for the record, the Dolphins, to this day, are probably my least favorite team in the NFL, with the possible exception of the Dallas Cowboys). I pulled for the NBA Washington Wizards back when they were the Capital Bullets. I’ve been pulling for the Washington Capitals since they joined the NHL. Since Washington lost its second Senators franchise around the time that I was getting interested in sports, I instead adopted the Kansas City Royals as my favorite baseball team when we moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, when I was in sixth grade.

I still follow and pull for the Royals, the Wizards and the Caps, despite years and years of futility for all three franchises, but somewhere over the past few years, I’ve lost any visceral connection to or feelings for the Redskins. In fact, if I pay attention to them at all these days, it’s probably to subliminally root against them, since I just really dislike just about everything about the franchise these days, from the owner to the coach to their featured players. I think it all went down hill for me when Dan Snyder, Marty Shottenheimer and Jeff George (my least favorite owner, coach and player respectively) all hit the team around the same time, inflicting major bad juju and wicked karma upon them that will probably take generations to erase. Nevermind the offensiveness of their name, which gets harder and harder to swallow as years go on and other franchises recognize that tradition is no excuse for offensiveness.

So I figure it’s time for a formal declaration of renunciation: I, J. Eric Smith, do hereby declare that I am no longer a fan of the Washington Redskins, and will not hop back on their bandwagon should they become good again sometime during my lifetime (however unlikely that may be). I preserve my fond memories of Redskin Superbowls, coaches and players past, but henceforth and forevermore will treat those memories and the emotions associated with them as nostalgia, having no bearing on the current or future fortunes of the franchise. I completely divest my emotional attachment to the franchise, and will mark their progress with only the same passing interest that I apply to the fortunes of other such inconsequential teams as the Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans or San Diego Chargers.

But now: who do I pull for? Who do I adopt? It’s gotta be a team from the Southeast, just to stay true to my roots. I live up north, but am never gonna get excited about the Patriots or Bills or Giants or Jets. It can’t be Atlanta, because that’s my least favorite city in the south. Miami? Puh-leeze. Jacksonville? Well . . . that’s actually the NFL city closest to my homeland in the coastal Southern tip of South Carolina, but it’s also in Florida, and Florida’s is part of the south, I guess . . . but not really, if you know what I mean. (A state with “South of the Border” in it is the South. A state with Disney World and EPCOT Center and all those other theme parks is some sort of international human nature preserve). So that rules out Tampa Bay too. I could pull for Carolina, of course, but they’re based in Charlotte, my second least favorite city in the South. So ix-nay to them.

So the answer becomes obvious, both by process of elimination and process of choosing the team that features my favorite active professional football player: Steve McNair. So henceforth and yea verily and quid pro quo and forsooth let it be known that I, J. Eric Smith, hereby adopt the Tennessee Titans as my favorite football team, and will stick with them in sickness and in health, and will not jump off their bandwagon when things go sour for them.

Unless, of course, Dan Snyder buys them. Or George Steinbrenner. Then all bets are off. But barring that, go Titans! My team!