Category Archives: The Latest Installment

The Latest Installment

Ooo, shiny!

Chapter Eleven: The Sunshine State

Continued from Chapter 10: Alone No More

It is a curious fact that a graduate student can actually be at two different universities at the same time. Such was the case for me.

Although I had finished all my coursework in the spring semester of 1988 and passed the oral defense, I hadn’t yet completed the written thesis. This meant that I wouldn’t graduate until December, but wasn’t going to be drawing any stipend without registering for classes, so I had to get started on my next degree in the fall semester to keep paying the bills (and defer my student loans).

I mentioned in Chapter 10 that I’d opted to go to the University of Florida, but wasn’t immediately accepted. Graduate programs hedge their bets when selecting graduate students. In order to enter the PhD program, you have to pass a qualifying exam. If you don’t pass, the department can still give you a master’s degree…unless you already have one.

For the department, that means no degree, no positive metrics, no publishable research and a boatload of wasted resources.

I fell into the unfortunate category of already being ABD (All But Done) with my master’s degree, but never taking WVU’s qualifying exam (I had no intentions of pursuing a PhD there so couldn’t see the point of studying and taking an exam for nothing).

UF had no guarantee that I’d pass the qualifier and saw me as a risky prospect. Consequently, I had to wait until at least one of the graduating seniors who’d already been accepted…declined.

Another factoid about UF is that they had had so many prospective students ‘interview’ during spring break that they no longer paid travel expenses. That meant that my visit to the campus was on my own (very thin) dime. I flew down from Pittsburgh to Gainesville on the redeye from People’s Express (remember them) and slept on the living room floor of another graduate student’s apartment in a sleeping bag. I’d come to check out the “Center for Surface Science and Engineering”, but learned that it was a center in name only. There was no physical facility; just three labs on the fourth floor of the chemical engineering building.

The director of the program also happened to be the chairman of the department. He was an exceptionally enthusiastic and charismatic Indian named Dinesh Shah.

There was a period during that visit when I had a break between my meetings with the faculty and went back to the apartment to get something. I was running late and was walking as fast as I could. I remember having to stop at a corner to wait for the light to change and feeling light headed in the Florida heat. I had the conscious thought that I would either be late or not make it at all (faint). Forever after, there was always a particular moment in the spring when I would downshift from my northern, rushed pace into my adopted leisurely southern shuffle. This is how I learned to deal with the heat and humidity for my years in Florida.

There were no ‘red flags’ associated with the program and my host was more than accommodating (ever hear of “Gainesville Green”?) so when the offer finally came in the summer of 1988, I accepted.

Earlier that spring, I bought my first car. I had been driving my parents’ tired 1980 VW Rabbit in Morgantown and had made more bailing wire and adhesive tape repairs than I could count by then. Odd to think now that the car was only eight years old and had about 85,000 miles on it, but was, without a doubt, at the end of its useful life. It was impossible (for example) to change the turn signal or tail light bulbs because the only thing holding the lenses to the car was rust. Once disturbed, there was nothing to reattach them to. It looked a lot like this one:

White with blue vinyl interior
1980 VW Rabbit: white with blue vinyl interior

Donna and I talked about what I should get to replace the Rabbit. At the time, the VW Fox wagon was the obvious replacement for the Rabbit hatchback and was so similar to it that I almost forgot it was a demo while I was driving it. We decided, though, that it just didn’t carry enough and started looking at compact pickup trucks (I guess living in West Virginia had shaped my views of automotive utility).

Although I can’t recall the exact details, we liked the Jeep Comanche. It was the right combination of power train, features and price. Unfortunately, the blue, long bed, 4WD, fully-loaded one I tested at the Morgantown dealership was a wee bit out of my price range. We spoke with the dealer and he located one more consistent with our economic situation at another dealership and quoted me a price and offered to have the truck brought down to Morgantown for me.

In the meantime, my mother reminded me that I could use the Pace Warehouse Club program to identify a fleet vehicle and maybe I might get a better deal that way. I only had a day or two to check it out so I went to the designated dealer, spoke with the designated fleet manager, searched their regional inventory system and found a truck that had more options than the one from the WV dealer for a lot less money. The only problem was that it was at a dealership about forty miles away.

I was by myself on that rainy day when I went to that dealership to check it out. It was everything I’d been told it was and even had a few features I didn’t even know were available (and the program price was still the lowest I’d been shown).

Obviously, this was the truck I should buy so I struck the deal and waited for the truck to arrive at the local dealership and get prepped so I could pick it up.

In the meantime, I called the original WV dealer to tell him that I’d found a better truck for a lower price and that I appreciated his efforts and was sorry he had the more basic truck shipped up to Morgantown for nothing.

He was not only angry, but went off on an extended tirade about how he knew I wasn’t going to go through with the deal and that was why he never had the truck brought up and that I wasn’t an honest and trustworthy person (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist).

I was completely caught off-guard and could only say over-and-over again, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

Late in the summer of 1988, I packed all my worldly possessions in the bed of my shiny, new Jeep Comanche pickup truck and headed down the interstate to Florida.

I started to look for an apartment as soon as I arrived, but the rental market in Gainesville was completely different than Morgantown. I was accustomed to older single family homes near the campus being renovated to appeal to the students, but in Gainesville, there were no old homes to rent, there were only apartment buildings. Apartment buildings of every description all over the city. But, it was far more expensive to live in Gainesville than it was to live in Morgantown.

One thing was the same though, finding an apartment was a competitive endeavor. There were no vacancies near the campus and I had to go pretty far afield to find a suitable apartment.

I ended up in a one-bedroom apartment in the northeast section of Gainesville (UF is in the southwest portion), but I had a reliable car to commute to campus so that was no big deal (scroll left to see the apartment complex-my apartment was in the far right, rear corner not visible from the street).

My first semester (Fall of 1988) was spent either on core courses or finishing my WVU thesis in the Mac Lab on the UF campus. I had been given a list of edits to the draft thesis following my oral defense, so the process was pretty straightforward. Still, it took me most of the fall semester to get it together and I just bared got it to WVU before the deadline.

The last hurdle was getting my advisor’s signature. This had been a thorny issue for my roommate (who had the same advisor) because he refused to sign the dissertation until my roommate changed the acknowledgments because he didn’t think it was sufficiently complimentary.

Armed with the knowledge that my advisor was at least as concerned about how he would be characterized in the acknowledgements as he was about the technical merits, I worded my acknowledgment very carefully. Those who know me immediately recognize the reference to “a truly unique learning experience” as tongue-in-cheek, but my advisor was not among the in-crowd.

Since I was in Gainesville and Donna was still in Morgantown, I mailed the package containing my thesis and all requisite paperwork to her so she could hand-carry it to my advisor’s office for his signature and, subsequently to the dean’s office to be finalized and recorded.

Donna received the package at the end of the week and was to deliver it to my advisor’s office the following Monday (which was the deadline for that semester). By a simple twist of fate, Donna and my advisor happened to meet at the shopping mall on Sunday.

Donna mentioned to my advisor that she would be stopping by his office the next day so he could sign my thesis. He said that he had no intention of signing it until he’d read it in its entirety.

Donna explained that there were no changes except those that he and the committee had requested at the oral defense, but he resolutely refused to sign until he’d read the whole thing.

Donna was understandably exasperated and (without thinking) called him an asshole…. Moments later, she called me in tears from a phone booth at the mall to tell me that she had just called my advisor an asshole.

I maintained my composure (although it wasn’t easy) and told her not to worry about it, but to drop it off at his office first thing in the morning and make sure that the acknowledgment page was on top. There is nothing more we can do, but hope for the best.

Donna dropped the thesis off at his office before he arrived as I suggested and set off to her own office across campus.

By the time she arrived at her office, there was a message from my advisor’s administrative assistant that she could come pick up the signed thesis (roughly 15 minutes had elapsed).

I don’t know whether he’d had a change of heart or if he was really so shallow that all he wanted to see was the acknowledgment page, but the rest of the process was completed in short order and I received my MSChE on time in December of 1988.

My first year at UF was a little frustrating because I had to repeat all of the core courses I had already taken at WVU, but their perspective on the physics was fundamentally different. Whereas WVU emphasized the macroscopic world where Newtonian physics applies, UF taught the same courses using quantum mechanics and statistical ensembles. It was as though I’d never taken the classes before because nothing I’d learned up to that point was applicable. It was like having a wrench when you really needed a screwdriver.

I was academically challenged that first year at UF, but I sure couldn’t complain about the weather. In fact, it remains one of my favorite places because it has pine trees, oak trees and palm trees all in the same place. In addition, it has the four seasons I’m accustomed to, but not in the same proportion. By that I mean; there is an autumn (my least favorite season) during which the oak leaves change color, but they don’t fall to the ground all at once so there’s no leafy mess. Winter in Gainesville (by my standards) is nearly ideal. It lasts about a month with about 10 days where the temperature gets below freezing and one day of actual snowfall (which is over almost as soon as it begins). Spring comes early and the days are warm and dry. Summer, well…summer in Gainesville isn’t for everyone, but I rarely minded it. It is what you would expect, I suppose: hot and humid with afternoon thunderstorms that are as intense as they are regular (usually between 2:00 and 2:15 in the afternoon). One is well-advised not to be caught outside after lunch, but any shelter will do and there’s little risk of having to engage in a long, awkward conversation with a fellow meteorological refugee. Oh, did I mention that Gainesville is THE place to go if you want to get struck by lightning?

During my first year at UF, Donna finished up her coursework at WVU and moved down to Gainesville with me. But the one-bedroom apartment I had wasn’t really big enough for two people, so Donna started looking for a two-bedroom apartment (that we could afford).

That’s how we ended up in the fine little town of Melrose about twenty miles east of Gainesville.

Melrose, FL: The Blue Spot in the Red State
Melrose, FL: The Blue Spot in the Red State

Melrose is an anomaly for a couple reasons: It straddles four different counties, so the laws and municipal services are anything, but clear. Also, it was (and still is twenty-five years later) very liberal which might not seem so odd were it closer to a major city or in any northern state. It is for the latter reason that I still refer to Melrose as “the blue spot in the red state”.

Donna and I rented a two-bedroom condominium in Melrose from 1989 to 1992 and in many ways, it was our first, real home/neighborhood/community (scroll left to see the little condo buliding-our unit was the second one from the right).

A curious fact; this was the first period in my life (since the age of fifteen) when I stopped writing music. (That’s why there aren’t any references to songs written in this period yet.) I didn’t complete a song from 1987 (when we were still in Morgantown) until I wrote “Waiting Its Turn” in 1990. Three years seemed like an eternity and I was quite conscious of the lack of desire to write music, so “Waiting Its Turn” was an equally conscious (deliberate) composition about what was going through my mind at the time.

The back story is that Donna and I had decided to go see Paul McCartney at Tampa Stadium in April of 1990 (probably for my twenty-sixth birthday). The tickets were over $100 each (!!) and I dragged my feet for a while, but in the end, we figured it was worth it.

I had never been to a concert that big before. We were in the upper tier of one end zone and the band was in the opposite end zone. We were in the venue, but about a quarter-mile from the band. Thank God Donna made me bring binoculars.

I will never forget the set up with the video screens and Paul’s piano on some sort of fork lift to lift him above and rotate him over the band. Oh, and the PA speakers at mid-field to help minimize the delay between what we could see and what we could hear. As much as I admire and respect Paul McCartney, that was a truly awful concert. But, as I was sitting there thinking ‘what an incredible rip-off’, the idea occurred to me that I hadn’t lost the ability to write music, I was only postponing it.

Anyone who knows me could be forgiven for assuming the reference to “Paul” singing his poem would be about Paul Simon, but it’s not; it’s about Paul McCartney.

With the ice broken (so to speak), I then wrote the instrumental “Twins” in honor of my mother and her identical twin. I don’t remember what the working title was, but the eventual name stuck because each movement in the song is exactly repeated.

The last song I wrote in 1990 was “Jesus Rides a Harley”. I don’t often reference spiritualism and when I do, it’s usually with tongue-in-cheek. So, the song is irreverent (sic) towards those with narrow concepts of faith in general and pretentious fundamental Christians in particular.

Much of the imagery in the song was real. I WAS at a motorcyclist’s funeral in Melrose that year just to show support for a local rider who had been killed. But I didn’t know him personally.

As I mentioned earlier in this chapter, I felt a sense of community in this town and Donna and I rode down to the cemetery to join about fifty or sixty other riders (suitably attired) for the internment.

The weather was also as ominous as the song suggests and I remember thinking ‘I wonder if we’re going to get home before this storm hits’.

That’s where the reality ends though. They were not close friends of mine and I wasn’t leaning on the ‘funeral tent pole’. I was at the back of the crowd and only knew one other person there. I do remember thinking though, ‘does everybody else know each other and, if so, are they wondering who the hell I am?’

That’s when I had my epiphany (sic) and the song pretty much wrote itself-with the following caveat: Donna is responsible for honing the final lyric when I was preparing to record it eight or nine years later. My original version was vague and suffered from ‘pronoun trouble’ that made the story too difficult to follow.

After this burst of three songs in 1990, I again went into a creator torpor that lasted long after I graduated and left Florida.

More about that in Chapter 12: Continental Ping Pong

Chapter Ten: Alone No More

Continued from Chapter 9: Caves, Crashes and Cocktails

It would be more than fair to say I had embarked on a new phase of my life. After many years of studying and being alone, I was again dating (although I hadn’t gotten any better at it).

Donna and I found we were very different in some ways, but very similar in others.

She was a preppie, politically conservative, catholic, liberal arts and sciences major from New England and I was a freaky, geeky, liberal, atheist, biker, punk engineer from Pittsburgh.

Our first pet names for each other were “Spike” and “Muffy”.

My wardrobe consisted entirely of turf shoes/steel-toed boots, Wrangler jeans (full-length or cut off), tube socks and a Fruit Of The Loom pocket T (with or without a second-hand flannel shirt). Donna added wool sweaters, cotton turtlenecks, khakis (full-length or hemmed shorts), polo shirts and boat shoes.

For my part, I tried to steer her away from neon colors, plaid, alligator appliqués, owl glasses and high-waisted pants.

It took a few years, but we met somewhere in the middle (no doubt aided by the welcome demise of the fashion-challenged eighties). For example, I still wear the occasional turtleneck sweater and she has adopted a more muted color pallet.

On our first true date together, we had a cookout at Cooper’s Rock State Forest outside Morgantown. Donna made honey mustard chicken and brought something for dessert, but that’s not really what I remember about that day.

My memories are mostly associated with the awkward dance two strangers perform while trying to do something together for the first time.

  • We stumbled through the process of loading a grill with charcoal briquettes and igniting them without singeing our hair and eyebrows after each of several doses of starter fluid.
  • The choice of cutlery (does one eat coleslaw with a fork and baked beans with a spoon or is it the other way around?).
  • When is it OK to start eating?
  • Do we sit side-by-side at the picnic table or across from one another?

The other memory I have of that date is being harassed by yellow jackets. I’ve never bothered much about bees and wasps and I don’t fear them. I had survived perfectly well up until that point using the strategy ‘if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you’, but this day was different. We had shooed them away from our sweet bbq concoction once or twice, but then they decided they liked the smell of my hair better. I’m a little uncertain of the details, but I think I’d used a fresh bottle of shampoo and conditioner that day (men still used conditioner back then). For reasons I can no longer explain, I used “Herbal Essences” products and these must have been particularly appealing to this colony of yellow jackets.

Mind you, I was trying to be cool, but this was made more difficult than usual by the swarm of yellow jackets that seemed to be intoxicated by the smell of my hair. It got so bad that we nearly left before the chicken was cooked, but as the sunlight faded, so did the yellow jackets’ interest in my choice of personal grooming products. Somehow, we’d both managed to avoid getting stung.

Another early date I recall was October 25th, 1987. On this Sunday, we were driving aimlessly through the mountains of West Virginia. These were areas that Donna knew better than I did. She took me to a place called Coolsprings Park on Rt. 50 in Rowlesburg that had a collection of livestock, antique machinery, railroad cars, and a general store.

I was entranced by the seemingly endless collection of antique derelict farm machinery and rail cars. I spent what seemed like hours poring over every lever, rod and pulley to work out what each one did.

Eventually, we decided we’d better go check out the general store before they closed and rushed over to find a sign indicating they would close in ten minutes. We split up and started browsing figuring they’d ask us to leave or turn off the lights or whatever, but they never did.

When we finally got to the cash register and mentioned that we thought the store would have closed by now, the clerk said ‘we don’t close until 6:00’. Donna and I looked at each other quizzically because that was nearly an hour ago. Then we both realized that we’d forgotten to change our watches that day (back to Standard Time) and had been so . We had been so enchanted with each other’s company all day that we didn’t realize we had been given the gift of an extra hour together.

Cool Springs Park

Without going into unnecessary detail, the first night that Donna failed to make me go home was the last time I did. In other words, “I came for the night and I never went  home”.

All of this was wonderful and romantic, but it wasn’t very sound economically. My roommate Tom had graduated and moved out. Our three bedroom house now had only two occupants and that made me responsible for half of the rent, but I no longer lived there. I lived with Donna in a mobile home built during the Nixon Administration. Now, I could have found someone else to assume my portion of the rent and move in with Ox, but if this love affair with Donna porpoised into the Sun, I wanted to have someplace to run to. In truth, I did run there once or twice, but somehow we kept going through the rest of 1987 and into 1988.

By the middle of the spring semester of 1988, it was apparent that I would be graduating either that summer or at the end of the fall term, but I had no intention of staying at WVU for my PhD. I came to do research in surface science and colloid chemistry, but ended up working in fluidization engineering because there were no funded projects in my chosen area. After 2 years, the situation was the same, so it was time for me to look for a another place to continue my education.

Donna and I looked at the various programs where on-going surface science and colloid research programs existed and eventually narrowed it down to two universities: Oklahoma and Florida.


I didn’t really know anything about either place, so we did some research and spoke to some faculty members at each university and still couldn’t really pick a clear favorite until…. Donna put it succinctly: Oklahoma University is in Oklahoma and the University of Florida is in Florida.

oklahoma-tornado vs.

Hmm. Good point. UF it is.

Read the next exciting installment Chapter 11: The Sunshine State

Chapter Nine: Caves, Crashes, and Cocktails

Continued from Chapter 8: Spring Break and the Big Ride

One of the new friends I made in West Virginia introduced me to a new hobby: caving (spelunking). The university actually had (maybe they still do) a caving ‘club’. My friend (Jody) would get maps, lamps, helmets and carbide from the club and take us out to explore the area’s caves. We bought coveralls, kneepads and boots to complete the basic safety ensemble.

We explored a few of the more accessible caves along the Laurel Ridge throughout the spring and summer. Jody, my roommate Ox, our friend Phil and I decided to take a more extensive trip over a long weekend in late July to explore a collection of particularly interesting caves down in the middle of West Virginia. We headed out Friday afternoon to set up camp and plan for the first 2 caves on Saturday.

In a word, it was awesome. We had a wonderful time exploring four or five caves capped off by a swim in the spring to wash off the mud and enjoy a cold beer on Sunday afternoon before striking camp and heading back to Morgantown.

But things didn’t go quite as planned.

On our way out of the wilderness on a dirt road, we collided with a pickup truck at high speed. I was lucky to walk away with only a sprained ankle and fractured vertebra. My roommate suffered a broken arm and fractured sternum. Our friend Phil suffered the greatest injuries.

In the time before airbags, Phil had hit his head on the steering wheel and suffered severe head trauma and a fractured orbit. Meanwhile, the force of the impact drove his lower body up under the dashboard giving him a compound fracture of the left femur.

We were all wearing seatbelts.

Everyone was transported to the Hospital in Marlinton, WV (Pocahontas County). I was treated and released. My roommate was treated for his broken bones and kept until he stabilized. Phil was immediately airlifted to the trauma unit in Morgantown and spent the next month in a coma before beginning the painstaking process of learning how to walk again.

Perhaps, one day in the future, I’ll write a more detailed account of what happened that weekend, but there are some hints in the lyric of “Whose Earth?” and in the webpage notes.

Some of the facts are so incredible they defy description, but I want to turn the page, so to speak and move on to the next thing that happened in my life: I met Donna four days after that accident.

I mentioned that I left my one-bedroom apartment and moved into a three bedroom house with two friends. Ox was with us on the caving trip, but Tom was not. Tom defended his dissertation that week and couldn’t take the time off.

One of the professors on Tom’s committee (Nigel Clark) was having a barbeque and invited Tom, but after hearing of our accident, Nigel invited us (me and Ox) out of sympathy and compassion even though he didn’t know us. So, the three of us drove to the party in Tom’s car. Ox in a body cast and me, more or less ambulatory, but hobbling about and very, very sore.

Here’s the backstory: Donna had a habit of exploring the dirt roads around Morgantown in her new Honda Accord and this is where she met Nigel and his POSLQ (Cheryl). They were off-road enthusiasts and pointed out that Donna wasn’t really equipped for the sport.

Anyone who’s met Donna knows she makes friends easily and this encounter was no exception. Nigel and Cheryl ended up inviting Donna out in a proper off-road vehicle on their next outing. Donna accepted, but wasn’t really prepared for what this wild man had in mind. When she met Nigel and Cheryl, she learned that she would seated among a crowd of Nigel’s graduate students on the troop benches in the back of a four-wheel drive military transport vehicle. Despite the absurdity of the situation, Nigel showed everyone a pretty good time.

Donna had a friend who lived in Washington, DC and she spent weekends there often. She became familiar with the District and learned (among other things) that its political atmosphere tended to foster the 24/7 availability of cheap liquor (or maybe it’s the other way around, no one can be sure).

Anyway, as a gesture of gratitude, Donna picked up some liquor in Washington, DC for Nigel, Cheryl and Nigel’s parents who were visiting that summer. They, in turn, invited her to their end of summer barbeque.

Now the stage was set: I arrived at the barbeque and (although I was about as limber as Quasimodo) began the requisite mingling since I didn’t know anyone at the party except Tom and Ox. Nigel, Cheryl, mom, dad, dozens of students and some preppy girl from the psych department with big glasses.

There was something about that preppy girl from the psych department. For one thing, she was dressed better than any graduate student I knew: Alligator polo shirt, pressed white shorts and (this may be a false memory) a sweater draped over her shoulders. Bear in mind, my wardrobe consisted of denim, flannel and Fruit-Of-The-Loom pocket T-shirts.

She was sitting on the porch… literally, she was actually sitting on the porch. Not in a chair, on the porch, legs crossed in front of the kitchen door. I remember this because I had to maneuver around her to go inside and that’s when she introduced herself and shook my hand (but didn’t get up).

I don’t know whether Donna was the only girl at the party, but she’s the only one I remember. After a couple beers, we started talking and just never stopped. I sat down to eat at the end of an old picnic table next to the dying bonfire and Donna sat next to me. In the time it takes to draw a breath, but not yet speak, the picnic table broke in half and I rolled into the bonfire. In my injured state, I was not able to right myself and lay at the edge of the fire pit like a helpless tortoise until Donna and a few others helped me up. I had survived my trial by fire without sustaining additional injury.

After dinner, things began to wind down. Ox was in pain and Tom said we needed to go, but Donna said she’d give me a ride home if I didn’t want to leave right away. I accepted.

I don’t remember how long we stayed at the party, but we talked continuously and it was very late when she dropped me off. I invited her to a party at our house the following weekend, but she wasn’t sure she could make it. I gave her my phone number and asked her to let me know. Then, there was an awkward pause.

I didn’t want to mess this up and try to kiss her if that wasn’t what she wanted, but also didn’t want to be so casual as to give the impression I wasn’t interested. All I could think to do was squeeze her hand between mine and then, feeling like I’d done something stupid, quickly said good night without making further eye contact and ran away.

Three days later, I was standing in the kitchen when the phone rang. The voice on the other end sounded familiar, but she said “Is Kevin there?”. I said “There’s no one here by that name, but my name is Ken. Is that who you’re looking for?”. There was a pause, then the voice said “Yes. This is Donna.”. (Hey, at least she called me.)

She said that she could come to the party and I blurted out that “my roommates and I were just about to go out for a sandwich and would she like to join us?” and she said yes to that too.

That evening she spilled my drink for the first time… and the second time. She spilled it at the party that weekend too, but I stopped counting after that. I did, however, make a mental note that she was very expressive at roughly table height.

Read on: Chapter 10: Alone No More

Chapter Eight: Spring Break and the Big Ride (“Fear and Loathing” meets “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”)

Did you read Chapter 7: Mo’Town and My First Crush?

After graduation, my best friend from CMU bought a 1978 Triumph Bonneville. He subsequently moved to California to attend graduate school at Stanford University and left the bike behind at his parents’  house.

In my eagerness to help my friend and a somewhat misguided sense of adventure, I offered to ride the bike out to him in California over Spring Break in exchange for a one-way plane ticket back to Pittsburgh. He agreed and we set about working through the logistics of picking up the bike and title, temporarily registering and affixing a paper tag, and a cursory mechanical shakedown to assess its roadworthiness.

I didn’t tell anyone except my sister that I was going to do this. In addition to being blissfully ignorant, my parents were conveniently out of town so we could ‘borrow’ the Chevy van, bring the bike to their house for some maintenance and then take it down to Morgantown where it lived in my living room for a little while.

Some part of my brain recognized that this was probably not the smartest or safest thing I’d ever attempted and in the living room I was sharing with the motorcycle, I wrote and recorded “Odyssey”.

When I was done, I cued up the cassette tape and left written instructions to play it as a partial explanation for why a young graduate student who recently met his tragic end while riding a friend’s motorcycle felt compelled to do something so stupid.

As for the trip, it went pretty much as one would expect considering British motorcycles are not considered as reliable as their German and Japanese contemporaries. Moreover, this one was now almost ten-years old and had not been well cared for by its previous owner.

Things started out great. I left Morgantown on a sunny and warm Friday afternoon, but it was only March so I planned to go south before going west on I-40. Thirty miles down the Interstate from Morgantown, the speedometer quit working. Thirty miles later, the tachometer drive fell out of the crankcase. I had covered less than 3% of the trip and had no way to monitor my speed except my ear and the relative speed of the traffic around me. Worse, oil continued to dribble out of the hole and into the wind from where the tach drive used to be. The fine mist it formed when it mixed with the wind coated my left leg and was my faithful companion for the rest of the trip. On the bright side, my oily leg made it nearly impossible to forget to add the requisite quart of oil at each gas stop.

Speaking of gas; a Triumph Bonneville doesn’t hold much. The two-and-a-half gallon tank gives a range of approximately 150 miles. There is no gas gauge and little reserve once the engine sputters and you open the other petcock to access about a half inch of fuel on the other side of the tank. I say ‘little reserve’: it’s less than twenty miles. I am now keenly aware that there are many places in the US where the distance between gas stations well exceeds twenty miles.

The first time I ran out of gas, it was because I was a little too cavalier. The bike sputtered, I opened the reserve petcock and took the next exit which indicated there was fuel available. Unfortunately, the sign was a bit outdated and the station at that exit appeared to have last serviced a vehicle during the Eisenhower administration.

No matter, back on the highway to the next exit, then the next, then…empty. As I sat parked on the shoulder wondering what to do next (this was before cell phones), a WV State Trooper happened by. He had a siphon hose in the trunk and offered to give me a gallon or two of fuel from  his cruiser if I had something to put it in. I didn’t. Necessity being the mother of invention, we laid the bike on its side and siphoned gasoline directly from the cruiser’s tank into the bike’s tank. I didn’t realize it until later, but the rear brake master cylinder leaked while the bike was in repose and damaged the paint on the right side cover. Oops. Anyway, we got enough fuel into the tank to get me to the next bone fide gas station.

Back on my way and with a slightly more conservative attitude, I worked my way further south in West Virginia (roughly another 150 miles). The end of my second tankful of gasoline was eerily like my first except that once off the second exit ramp that indicated a gas station (and coincided with a town making me more confident the ‘services available’ sign was not lying), I realized that I had about one mile’s worth of fuel, but was three miles from the town. Stranded again; but this time not on a busy Interstate, but on a lonely county highway halfway between the Interstate and a small town.

There are precious few times in my life when I’ve been compelled to hitchhike and all of them involve disabled British motorcycles. But, there I was, thumb out and desperate. It wasn’t long before a friendly fellow in a beat-up, trash-laden pickup truck (I’m in West Virginia…what are the odds?) picked me up and took me to the gas station. The station loaned me a gas can and I put a couple gallons of fuel in it.

The same fellow that picked me up earlier actually drove me back to the bike, waited until I had gassed-up, suited up and started the engine. Then he put the gas can in his truck and followed me back to the station to return it. I topped off the tank and offered the good Samaritan $20, but he wouldn’t take it.

OK, so now I’d run out of gas twice without crossing a state line which was not only embarrassing, but slowed me down a lot. Even so, I now began to look for and take on fuel as soon as I had traveled one hundred miles. One of these fuel stops was at a Love’s Truck Stop which I remember because, in addition to fuel and oil, I bought a bottle of shampoo because I’d forgotten to pack any.

As I was getting ready to leave, a young couple in a car pulled up and the man in the driver’s seat started talking. The bike was running, I was wearing a helmet and had been exposed to road noise for hours so I couldn’t hear them. I killed the engine, took off the helmet, apologized and asked them to repeat themselves. This time, the woman leaned toward the driver’s window and said: “Are you looking for a place to stay tonight?”

This seemed odd to me since it wasn’t even dark yet and then I began to wonder what else they might want besides an opportunity to express their altruism. I figured they either wanted to do a little role playing in the “rec room” or introduce me to Jesus. Either way, I had a more pressing agenda so I politely declined and pressed on to Knoxville, TN where I spent the night.

Saturday morning I had a hearty breakfast and went out to start the bike and get on my way. Now, I’d been taught to clear the clutch before starting a British bike because it won’t go into gear otherwise. Late model bikes don’t require this, but it doesn’t do any harm unless…there’s not much clutch left. As you might have guessed, that was the situation with this bike.

So long as I didn’t clear the clutch before trying to start it, everything went fine. If I fell into my old habit (as it did on this particular morning), there wasn’t enough grip left in the clutch to turn the engine when you stomp on the kickstarter.

Clutches aren’t complicated and I’d fixed lots of them over the years, but the job does require a few tools I hadn’t thought to bring with me. Fortunately, the motel was adjacent to a trucking garage so I went over and gave the mechanic a $20 bill as a security deposit for the socket I borrowed to pull the bike’s side cover. What I hadn’t counted on was being unable to find a tool to remove the footpeg which would have allowed me to remove the cover. In the end, all I’d accomplished was letting all the oil out of the chaincase and soiling an ice bucket and a few motel towels. I made what little adjustment I could and bolted everything back together which was just enough to get the engine started and me back on the road.

Sometime after lunch and west of Nashville, the bike began to misfire. I decided to stop early and find a motel in West Memphis, AR where I could work on the bike before the sun went down. There was nothing obviously wrong and it took a long time to figure out that the problem was a failing condenser.

I’ve mentioned the less-than-stellar reputation of British motorcycles with respect to mechanical reliability. In particular, the Lucas electronics utilized by the British motorcycle industry are legendary for failing at a most inopportune time.

In fact, there are many Lucas jokes among British car and motorcycle aficionados. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Q: How can you identify an authentic three-position Lucas headlight switch?
    A: It’s labeled ‘OFF, DIM & FLICKER’.
  • Q: Why do the British drink warm beer?
    A: Lucas refrigerators.
  • Q: What’s the best substitute for a Lucas headlight?
    A: Three lightning bugs in a jar.
  • Q: What was Mr. Lucas better known as?
    A: The Prince of Darkness.

Knowing that the auto parts stores would be closed on Sunday, I rode the coughing, sputtering Bonneville to the neighborhood auto parts store in the early evening. The following is my best recollection of the ensuing conversation:

Me: “Good evening, I need a condenser.”
Him: “What’s it for?”
Me: “I’m sure you don’t have the stock one.”
Him: (slightly annoyed) “I might, what’s the make and model?”
Me: “1978 Triumph Bonneville…motorcycle.”
Him: (crestfallen) “I don’t have one of those.”
Me: “I know.”
(awkward pause)
Me: “It’s about this big” (holding thumb and forefinger aloft)
Him: “I have a universal one about this big” (holding thumb and forefinger aloft; slightly wider)
Me: “I’ll take it.”

It was now too dark to work on the motorcycle, so I had a late dinner, went back to my room, rolled a joint and turned on the TV.

Sunday morning dawned cold and clear. I waited a bit (smoked another joint) and went out to install the new condenser. The emergency repair wasn’t pretty and didn’t completely fix the problem, but the bike certainly ran better than it had the day before so I checked out, packed up and hit the road again.

I remember thinking as I rode through Arkansas that all I wanted to do was get back out. I could never have imagined that I would one day live there.

I made good progress that day despite fighting a cold rain and hypothermia. I’m not exaggerating. I would ride until I stopped shivering because I knew that meant I was in danger. Then I would stop at a diner or truck stop  and linger over coffee until the pins and needles stopped. Next came the uncontrollable shivering and when that stopped, I’d get back on the bike and do it all over again. In this way, I went the rest of the way across Arkansas all the way through Oklahoma and just into the northern panhandle of Texas.

I stopped for the night in Shamrock at a little motel next to a steakhouse. I was exhausted, but felt entitled to a big steak dinner but, there was no alcohol at this establishment so instead of beer or wine, I had to be content drinking iced tea.

After dinner, I bought a six-pack at the convenience store and took it back to my room where I, of course, rolled another joint. As I opened a beer and sparked the joint, I turned on the TV. “The Wizard of Oz” was just beginning; it had been a good day.

Monday morning in Shamrock, TX wasn’t any warmer than West Memphis had been the day before. I was eager to get going in the morning and was hoping to get past the rain so off I went. I rode about twenty miles to the next exit where I stopped for a quick breakfast and my first tank of gas in a little town called McLean.

After breakfast, I went back out into the rain, fired up the Bonnie and headed for the entrance ramp. As I upshifted to second gear and opened the throttle, the rear wheel spun on a patch of ice.

Now, hypothermia is one thing and I had accepted that, but riding a motorcycle on the Interstate in the freezing rain was more than even I was willing to risk. I carefully made a U-turn and pulled into the little motel next to the diner at about nine o’clock in the morning.

The motel was a sad, squat, L-shaped, cinderblock building and my room in it was a perfectly rectangular and equally sad unit. There was a bed, a chair, a TV, a bathroom, a window air conditioner and a little wall-mounted space heater. With the temperature outside dropping and the motel empty, the room was uninhabitably cold. I cranked up the heater as high as it would go and went back to the diner where I watched the rain turn the parking lot into an ice rink.

After a couple hours, the waitress was taking longer and longer to return and refill my coffee cup. It was obvious I’d worn out my welcome at the diner. I went back to my room which didn’t seem any warmer than it was when I checked in, crawled under the covers and channel-surfed between naps for the next eighteen hours.

By first light on Tuesday morning, I was as eager to leave Texas as I’d been to leave Arkansas. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different plan.

I mentioned that the rain had turned the parking lot into an ice rink. The good news is that the rain stopped overnight and the roads were now clear and dry. The bad news is that, in my haste, I’d parked the bike in a puddle and it was now solidly anchored to the parking lot.

Standing on the ice, I couldn’t get enough traction to move it. After scratching my head and smoking a few cigarettes, I decided to pack up, start the bike where it was and try to break it free without dropping it. It took a couple tries, but I finally managed to get it out of the ice puddle and I was back on the road.

For the second day, I fought hypothermia while riding through the rest of the Texas panhandle and into New Mexico. It was the first time I’d seen the Rocky Mountains other than from an airplane and I wasn’t particularly impressed until I realized that they didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

Around mid-morning, I reached Santa Rosa, NM and was desperate for a cup of coffee and a place to warm up. I got off the highway onto an access road that was just a few hundred yards north of I-40. The access road actually turned out to be the original Route 66, but there was little or nothing along this part of the road anymore.

After riding along for a mile or two, the only open establishment I came across was a bar. Hey, any port in a storm, right? I parked the bike out front and went in.

Inside, the proprietor was building a fire in what seemed to be the largest oil drum wood burning stove I’d ever seen. He invited me to lay my wet gloves on the stove and asked me if they were the only pair I had. I told him they were and he disappeared behind the enormous wood stove and returned with a pair of mittens that looked like something Admiral Peary would have used on a polar expedition. He told me they’d been left by someone recently and I appeared to need them.

Since this appeared to be a place where people tended to leave things behind, I asked if he had any sunglasses lying around since I’d foolishly lost mine two days earlier when they flew out of my pocket and disappeared under the rolling semi behind me. He didn’t.

I thanked the bartender for the mittens and mentally snapped back to the point at hand: did he have any coffee? He said not yet and that it would take some time to heat the water, but the beer was cold….

It was between nine and ten o’clock Tuesday morning, I was suffering from hypothermia, and I was in an empty bar. I didn’t really want a beer…or did I? OK, what the fuck. Set me up.

I couldn’t make the next part of this story up if I tried: It was about 35°F, I was sitting in a bar/at the bar drinking a beer at ten o’clock Tuesday morning when a second motorcyclist rode up. He came in, sat down at the bar with me, nodded in my direction and ordered a beer.

Now, the population density in this part of the world is pretty low so it’s highly improbable that two equally misguided motorcyclists should not only happen upon the same bar on the same Tuesday morning, but both be willing to drink beer before lunch.

Having so much in common so far, we naturally struck up a conversation and found we were both headed west. He was a stone mason named Tom Mayer who was relocating from somewhere in the Southeast to Phoenix. He had his possessions strapped to his Suzuki including a portfolio of his work and a four-foot mason’s ruler. The only reason he stopped was because he saw my bike in the parking lot.

We decided to ride together the rest of the day and share a motel room that night. So we finished our beers and headed west. By the way, Tom did have an extra pair of sunglasses and gave them to me along with a business card. I still have both the sunglasses and his card.

We rode until we were too cold to continue and pulled into a deserted rest stop on the Interstate. It was one of those minimalist rest stops that consists only of a restroom with just enough roof to discourage, but not entirely keep out the elements. We stood near the urinals where it was warmest and smoked a joint.

I think we stopped in Holbrook, AZ that night, but I’m not sure. I do remember that the room cost us $26 ($13 each). Tom noticed that the Bonneville was overdue for a chain adjustment so I took care of that and noticed that the rear tire was just about worn out. That was something I hadn’t counted on since it looked fine when I left Morgantown. But I was in the home stretch and there was nothing I could do now but cross my fingers and hope I was due for some good luck.

Tom and I checked out on Wednesday morning and we knew we would be parting once we reached Flagstaff, so we said our goodbyes before we left the parking lot and when we got to the junction, all we did was wave to each other. I never saw him again.

I limped the bike across the Rockies by fiddling with the carburetors and cleaning the sparkplugs every hundred miles or so. Amal carburetors are almost as legendary (infamous) as Lucas electronics. The pair affixed to this particular motorcycle were more sensitive to atmospheric pressure than a NOAA barometer and were much happier back at (or below) sea level when I stopped for gas in Needles, CA.

It was getting late, but I wasn’t ready to call it a day yet. As I looked at the map, someone came up to admire the bike (it’s a pretty regular occurrence) and asked if I had extra fuel for the long ride to the next gas station in Barstow. That was 144 miles away and too close to my maximum range to risk being stranded in the Mojave Desert at night.

This helpful fellow suggested I go to the service area and ask a mechanic if they had something I could put gasoline in, but when I did, the best they could come up with was a used antifreeze bottle. It sealed tightly and looked reasonably clean so I took it, put two gallons of gas in it and tied it to the seat behind me before starting out across the desert in the fading light.

It turns out that there IS a little town between Needles and Barstow called Ludlow so I stopped there for the night, poured the gasoline from my reserve container into the fuel tank and tossed the empty container in the trash.

I had traveled through West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, but it was in California that I first got “Hon”-ed by a waitress (as in, “Hi Hon, what can it getcha?”). I said, “You’re not from around here, are you?”, but I was wrong.

After a meal and a good night’s rest, I was back on the road Thursday morning and riding through the central valley of California on schedule to finish the trip by sundown. Interstate 40 ends (or begins depending on your perspective) in Barstow, CA. After six days of traveling on the Interstate Highway System, I was now on California Highway 58 (The Barstow-Bakersfield Highway) and the scenery was considerably better than it had been. In fact, I was enjoying this ride so much I opted to stay on California Hwy 99 to Fresno instead of jumping over to I-5 just north of Bakersfield.

The ride west on Hwy 152 was even better, but then the fun was pretty much all over when I hit Hwy 101 in Gilroy. In fact, it was in stop-and-go traffic along Rte. 101 that the clutch started heating up and I couldn’t keep the bike running anymore. I had to pull over and undo the clutch adjustment I made back in Tennessee just to coax the bike the last fifteen or twenty miles.

My flight was on Saturday so I still had about a day-and-a-half to enjoy California before flying back to Pittsburgh and removing the cassette from my tape deck and destroying the note instructing my next-of-kin to play “Odyssey”.

On to Chapter 9:Caves, Crashes and Cocktails

Chapter Seven: Mo’Town and My First Crush.

Continued from Chapter 6: What Do I Do Now?

I opted not to work the summer after graduating from Carnegie Mellon. I knew it would be my last summer off and I intended to take the greatest advantage of that.

I set up all the musical and recording equipment I could borrow in my parents’ living room and feverishly set about recording the backlog of songs I’d written in the last two years. These were the most ambitious multi-track recordings so far with drums, keys, bass, guitar and multiple vocal parts.

The common four-track cassette recorder of the day allowed recording (as the name implies) four independent tracks, but if one wanted to overcome that limitation, one could combine tracks. For example: I could record bass, guitar and piano on tracks 1, 2 and 3 and then combine (aka ‘bounce’ or ‘ping pong’) those tracks onto track #4. Now, I could reuse tracks 1, 2 and 3 for three more instruments or voices. Unfortunately, this means the song will not be in true stereo.

If you want true stereo, you need two tracks (one for the left and one for the right). So, for example, you can record two tracks, mix them together in stereo and ‘bounce’ them to tracks 3 and 4. Now, you can record new instruments AND the stereo mix back to tracks 1 and 2 (preserving the stereo separation). Theoretically, one can continue in this way and add an infinite number of tracks. But this was the analog eighties and the fidelity of the recording deteriorated rapidly when you did this.

There is a third option to keep the recordings as clean as possible and add more tracks: Use the same track for different things at different times. One example is using one track for both a vocal part and an instrument solo (during a portion of the song where there’s no singing). This is tricky because ‘punching in’ and ‘punching out’ without wrecking the original track is difficult and there was no ‘undo’ command back then (“Hoopieland” was done this way).

Back to the story: I came down to Morgantown to look for an apartment on a particularly hot summer day in August of 1986. I had never been there before and didn’t know anyone who’d gone to WVU so I was pretty much clueless.

With a map from the welcome center and a copy of the Dominion Post in hand, I started making calls and seeing what was available for rent that Fall.

Oh my God! I had never seen such a collection of arguably uninhabitable structures. After three of four of these, I re-adjusted my standards and pressed on until I found one that I thought I could tolerate.

The apartment was in a house in Sunnyside and the rent seemed reasonable so I had the landlord send me a blank lease to sign, but it was so one-sided I complained. The landlord refused to modify the lease and I was back to square one.

Eventually I came across a basement apartment on Protzman Street. It was…OK. It had a little living room, one bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. The only problem was the party animals who rented the house above me. My tolerance for the noise and late nights was greater than it is now, but even I couldn’t overlook the “get-together” that ended with someone spilling a considerable quantity of beer on the kitchen floor. That’s because the kitchen floor was above my bedroom.

Now, I like beer as much as the next guy, but it loses much of its appeal after passing through linoleum, plywood, fiberglass insulation and acoustic tile. I was able to break the lease due to a typo and moved into the third bedroom of a house occupied by three friends as one of them graduated.

Academically, things continued to look up for me. My inherent shyness was overcome by the fact that there were only three students in the Masters program. I literally had entire classes with the three of us in the front row and a professor lecturing. There simply was nowhere to hide and I received the one-on-one instruction I needed whether I was willing to admit it or not.

I made some good friends at WVU but, romantically, nothing had changed. I was still very lonely and aside from the letters I exchanged with two girls I dated in high school (one casually and one…well, NOT so casually) lacked any female companionship.

There was one particular student I had a crush on though. She was from South Africa, petite, dark hair and incredible blue eyes. She was also extremely bright and focused on getting out of WVU with her MS in Mechanical Engineering and getting into the PhD program at MIT.

One other detail: she played the clarinet (or, rather claimed to; I never heard her play). But that was enough to move me to write an instrumental piece for her in the ‘clarinet-friendly’ key of Bb. I originally titled it “Jazz Tune in Bb”, but later retitled it “Song For Larry” when I recorded it in 2000. I can’t remember if I ever played it for her.

Anyway, during the spring semester of 1987, I went to a party thrown by a fellow student ostensibly because I expected her to be there. She was and we started talking about various things including (and I don’t know how we got on this topic) how much we enjoyed having our backs scratched. So, standing in the kitchen, we scratched each other’s backs. Not a big deal until one considers that it had been a very long time since I’d felt the touch of another human being. What made the experience even more tragic to me was that she had just announced that she was leaving for MIT at the end of the semester. That was the inspiration for the song “Before I Turn Around”.

On to Chapter 8: Spring Break and the Big Ride

Senior Year: Post Script

There was one thing I forgot to include in the last blog covering my senior year at CMU. I wrote an untitled classical piece for guitar and almost immediately recorded it in the fall (“Etude in E“).

At the end of my junior year, while registering for my senior year, I realized I needed two more credits to graduate (it didn’t matter what course I took). I could have taken something technical or a foreign language or even an art class, but I selected Harmony I as my free elective (3 credits). It is my one and only college music class and is usually taken by music majors in their freshman or sophomore year.

My thinking was that it shouldn’t take up too much of my bandwidth, was likely to be fun, and I was sure to learn SOMETHING. I was correct on all three expectations. (The TA was hot too. I’ll tell that story another time.)

As you’d image, I was the only upperclassman and the only engineering student in the class and I had a free hour immediately after the class to do the homework, so it never came home with me.

You may or may not know this, but I never write with a pencil (it stains my left hand), but the instructor and the TA wanted the homework to be done with pencil. Since I did the homework on campus between classes and it was pretty straightforward, I just did it in pen.

After being asked to use a pencil three times, the instructor threatened not to grade the next one if I did it in pen…so I did it in crayon.

It was very hard to read and she didn’t think it was funny.

I had to resubmit the assignment in pencil, admit to being a jerk and agree to do future homework assignments in pencil (although I may have written them with my right hand). It was a worthwhile concession, I LIKED this class.


Chapter Six: What Do I Do Now? (Senior Year)

Did you read Chapter 5: I See the Light?

So, at this point, I’d made some alliances that did not guarantee, but made it far more likely I would emerge successfully from the academic process. My grades improved, but more importantly, my comprehension and confidence grew and I rose to the median which doesn’t seem like a lofty goal in retrospect, but was a major accomplishment at the time.

As is typical for college students, the instant before the start of my senior year is the first time I had the conscious thought that I needed to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I didn’t realize that I’d still be trying to figure it out thirty years later.

To set the scene, the job market for chemical engineers in the middle eighties wasn’t exactly booming. For those of us graduating with bachelor’s degrees, there were basically two choices; technical services or process engineering.

Technical services required a bubbly, gregarious personality, some sense of professional style, and a conservative demeanor appealing to the chemical industry clientele. I possess none of these qualities.

Process engineering did not require highly developed social skills, but instead, required the ability to endure long periods of unimaginable monotony overseeing an established industrial facility with the ability to spring into action when the inevitable, but unpredictable crisis occurred. During said crisis, seconds of lost production would be equivalent to hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue with the expectation that there should be no justifiable reprieve until the situation returned to ‘normal’ (meh, tough for me to get excited about).

Nevertheless, I accepted my lot and set about signing up for interviews with the various chemical and petroleum company representatives that visited the campus. I must have been interviewed thirty or forty times, but always with the same outcome; thanks, but no thanks. As I think back on it now, I surely wasn’t as enthusiastic about the prospect of working for these companies as their representatives would have liked. I was as naïve about selling myself as I had been about how to be a successful university student.

Four of the songs I wrote during the 1985-1986 academic term were about the lackluster reception I received from the hiring community and the uncertainty of what I was going to do at the end of the term.

Carousel” expresses my feelings of being awash in a world I didn’t really understand and being overwhelmed by the enormity of life and seemingly endless cycles around me. The lyric uses the concepts of infinity and the struggle to lock step with my environment without being able to identify any reference points.

It’s probably no coincidence that I was in the middle of my third semester of differential calculus at the time. (Warning: Math Ahead) There’s a story about the opening and ending ‘bouncing guitar’ bit: The timing and amplitude of the bounces is a natural expression of an exponential decay. It is exactly the same as the hang-time and height you’d see from a bouncing ball (lower and faster until it finally stops bouncing). To end of the song, I reversed the sound.

Steel Wheel” is about being a misfit and a failure. For every job interview, I received a rejection letter. There were so many letters, I papered the living room wall of our house on Semple Street. It became a joke (a sick joke, but a joke nonetheless). I couldn’t even get a second interview from my father’s workplace even after I’d interned there three consecutive summers. To add insult to injury, this particular rejection letter was (I shit you not) signed by someone I’d never met.

As best I remember, I wrote “Souvenirs” late one night in the spring of 1986 while worrying about an upcoming exam. I was unable to sleep and unable to study any longer, but had something I needed to get off my chest. As I was writing, I had a fleeting thought that someone could read the lyric and conclude that I was dangerously unstable, but (as the closing line explains) the need to express myself outweighed any potential embarrassment or concerns about my current mental state.

Something I Can’t Find” is the darkest of these songs. It’s an expression of the absolute despair I felt as I approached the end of my senior year without a plan and feeling as though I’d never be able to achieve anything worthwhile.

As for the other songs written that term, they are divided between the recurring theme of loneliness (“Anthem”), a co-written instrumental (“Youngstown Jam”) and an untitled classical piece for guitar.

Anthem” is a tidy little ballad with a vaguely sarcastic lyric. The opening line declares the song is “an anthem for those who remain alone”.

I can only take a small portion of the credit for composing “Youngstown Jam”. In fact, it’s more Jack Chamberlin’s song than mine and he has a different name for it. I just took the liberty of submitting the recording to the copyright office back in the nineties and registering it under our names. It is (I think) an accurate reflection of the two of us with me playing the 12-string guitar and Jack playing the electric. Jack and I recently talked about re-recording this song and I think we should.

I wrote a classical piece for guitar in the winter, but couldn’t think of an appropriate title for the song, never put it on an album and never registered it with the copyright office so it’s just “Etude in E” for now. I’ve misplaced the original recording, but still play it from time to time and plan to re-record a better version than the one from the eighties anyway (Look for it to get posted soon.)

As the spring semester wound to a close and my chances of finding a job went from ‘slim’ to ‘none’, I realized my only chance of getting into R&D was to continue on and get a graduate degree. Carnegie Mellon does not allow its chemical engineering undergraduates to stay for graduate degrees (at least that’s what they told me) so I had to go somewhere else.

In something of a panic, I hastily applied to the chemical engineering departments of Michigan Tech and WVU. I’d like to say I’d carefully screened and chosen these universities, but that would be untrue.

I applied to MTU because my father had a friend and colleague in the Material Science department and he encouraged me to apply (I applied to Chemical Engineering so we kind of got our signals crossed). I did get accepted, but it was months later.

I applied to WVU because my advisor at CMU had a friend (former CMU graduate student) on the faculty so he thought that might help me get in. I did get accepted (in fact, I was accepted to both universities), but it was pretty late and the program didn’t have the best reputation. On the other hand, I had a place to go, was guaranteed a livable stipend, and could run home in about ninety minutes if necessary.

My friend Janice and her older sister June both graduated from Bethany College in West Virginia. It was Janice who taught me the term “Hoopies” as a euphemism for West Virginians. Once I knew I was going to become a Mountaineer myself, I wrote a goofy (and unflattering) song about what I expected to encounter in Morgantown called “Hoopieland“. I imagine I will one day regret publishing this song, but it is a fact that, despite being less than fifty miles from where I grew up, Morgantown is a very different place.

Next time: A hovel in Hoopieland, broken bones in Pocahontas County, and the start of something wonderful.


I actually forgot one song. It’s an originally untitled jazz piece for 12-string guitar that I still play as a warm-up. When I registered it with the copyright office, I had to give it a name so I called it “What’s…the Name of This Tune?” 🙂

Don’t miss Chapter 7: Mo’Town and My First Crush

Chapter Five: I See Light (Junior Year)

What about Chapter 4: Deep in the Valley?

The academic struggle had now lasted four semesters and I’d had the opportunity at this point to commiserate with my classmates. This led to the realization that they weren’t picking up the concepts on the first try either. The difference was, they understood that this wasn’t abnormal.

I worked my way out of the hole I was in by starting with some informal tutoring. In other words, I started hanging around with the guys who were getting good grades. They helped me with the homework. If they went to see the professor, I tagged along. When I had a question, it was easier for me to ask them first. If they didn’t know, we’d go to the Prof en masse.

The relationship wasn’t entirely parasitic; I could write, they couldn’t. If there was a project that required a report, I was more in my element than they were so I had no trouble getting on technically strong project teams. My GPA began to rise and almost as a side-effect, I began to understand.

I credit one particular classmate as a critical mentor. Pete from Rhode Island. Pete and I had almost nothing in common except our academic major. To me, he was sort of the Cal Ripkin Jr. of chemical engineering. Highly competent, but not someone I’d’ve chosen to hang with on a Saturday night.

My feelings toward Pete are warmer now than they were then. I wish I knew where he was, but haven’t been able to locate him. Our last conversation was at the commencement ceremony. He said “It’s been a pleasure” and shook my hand vigorously. I smiled, but could think of nothing to say in reply.

Anyway, music took a back seat for a while. Or, put more precisely, I rebalanced my priorities. I still saw my high school friends on the weekends or during break. I had an off-campus studio apartment where we could hang out, play guitar, drink a little beer, smoke lots of pot and occasionally write and record music (“Tap Haven” was recorded that winter).

Most of the songs created during this time were instrumentals co-written with Jack Chamberlin or Joe Adams. One that Joe and I wrote and recorded, I simply titled “Hampshire House Jam” which was the name of my off-campus apartment building. It’s the only period recording that’s good enough to include here. I may be able to re-record others, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Once the term ended and things slowed down though, I found myself writing more traditional songs again that summer. I was in possession of Wayne Ackman’s four-track recorder and bass guitar while he was overseas with the Navy. I also borrowed a synthesizer from JD Taylor so, for the first time, I actually had a variety of sounds available and the means to record them.

The first song I wrote was about two of my friends (Joe Adams and Jim Frazier) who had gotten a real job playing more than one show. They were booked to play a series of Holiday Inn motels. They were excited about going out on tour and I was happy for them, but (as I’d already written about this before in “Anywhere, But Here”) could see the down side too. “Helping Hand” is about the struggle to gain acceptance and the necessary assistance it would take to survive and advance in the music industry.

I’d also now had more than two years to think about how I’d dumped my interim girlfriend and the guilt and remorse found its way out in “Get It Right”. Not only had I thrown away someone who really cared about me and hurt her deeply, but I’d had a long, lonely time to think about how karma works.

Continued in Chapter 6: What Do I Do Now?

Chapter Four: Deep in the Valley (Sophomore Year)

Get the whole story. Read Chapter 3: Leaving the Nest

The remainder of my time as an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon is probably my most prolific period (as a songwriter) so far. Between the summer of 1983 and the summer of 1986, I completed and recorded fifteen songs either alone or with friends. It was also the loneliest time of my life.

I ended the last chapter with the conclusion of my freshman year, noting that I had survived. I did pass all my classes, but struggled like I’d never struggled before.
I was shy, never asked questions in class and always worked alone. The professors intimidated me and I avoided talking with them one-on-one for fear they’d recognize that I wasn’t smart enough to be in their class.

I made some lifelong friends that year unlike anyone I’d ever met before and enjoyed a series of experiences I wouldn’t trade for the world (I wasn’t planning on using those brain cells anyway).

But over the summer, I forgot all that. I moved back into my old room, slept late, stayed out late, and more-or-less practiced my own form of anarchy.

Let me backtrack and tell you about the dorm lottery. It was the practice (and may still be) that returning students enter a housing lottery. First, the juniors pick numbers, then the sophomores, then the freshmen. As a freshman, I think I selected the number sixteen (out of something like two thousand) and was able to reserve the last single room on campus.

It turned out that the ‘prime single’ was actually a regular dorm room with only one bed. That’s it. Bathroom down the hall, double occupancy on either side. But…I now had a place of my own.

As I entered the fall semester of my sophomore year, my thinking was that I should take advantage of the AP classes I’d taken in high school so I could lighten my class load and give myself the opportunity to catch up. I still didn’t understand that what I lacked was not aptitude, but initiative.

The academic advisor assigned to me by the department (the only professor I HAD to talk to directly) was initially pleased that I was off to such a good start, but soon began to express his disappointment; actually saying to me at one point, “You had such a great head start. Too bad you wasted it.”

I was still hung up on my high school girlfriend and we talked regularly so after I moved in, I convinced her to come visit me during the Columbus Day weekend. Neither of us had a car, so she caught a city bus near her parents’ home and took it downtown. I took a bus from campus and met her there and we rode together back up to Oakland.

To say the encounter was awkward really wouldn’t do it justice. I still don’t know why she agreed to come. We just sat in my room making small talk and repeating our respective arguments as to why we did/didn’t want a monogamous relationship (me on the pro side, of course).

She had only been in college a few weeks, but was already telling me stories about her roommates’ bisexual experimentation and, although she was not specific, her own.
I was repulsed and felt the pain of rejection all over again, but at least I understood that there was no going back now. That encounter was the impetus for the song “Embers” that acknowledges the relationship would never again be anything, but casual.

To me, it felt like time ran out. I walked her back to the bus stop and as her bus pulled away, I already had the bones of the piece in my head.

Now armed with the knowledge that I would have to find someone new to relate to, I took stock of my assets and liabilities: I knew I was a geek. I knew that I spent almost all of my time reading textbooks while listening to music. That didn’t leave much time for meeting women and even then, I had very little idea how to make the most of the time available. So, I fantasized about the coeds around me; rehearsed conversations in my head, but never had the courage to go any further.

This untenable situation was the inspiration behind “Education”. Painfully shy, bookishly inclined, devoid of self-confidence, unrealistically romantic, frustrated and sarcastic.

Late that semester (Fall 1983) or early the next, my sadness and frustration had evolved into anger and resentment. “Free of Lee” is the cathartic attempt to release (or at least express) these negative emotions. I remember the weather being seasonal (wet and cold) and the accompanying discomforts of dry skin and damp clothing. I would have to say the exercise was successful because, although I did still write about loneliness, I was able to stop writing about her.

In fact, I didn’t write anything more that year (at least that I can recall). The fall semester was the academic equivalent of treading water, but the spring semester was different and I had bigger issues on my mind.

I remember mid-terms in the spring of 1984. I remember walking across campus to retrieve my grades. I was hoping I’d done well enough on the mid-term math exam to stay in the fat part of the bell curve. I didn’t. It was the first D I ever had. My uncertainty regarding my academic abilities peaked as my grades bottomed-out. As I walked back to my solitary room to wallow in self-pity, the sky looked ominous. I stopped halfway across the football field, looked up at the sky and said “Go ahead, rain on me.”
It did.

On to Chapter 5: I See the Light

Chapter Three: Leaving The Nest-A Year of Firsts

Did you read Chapter 2: Growing Up yet?

I graduated from high school in June of 1982. I have no idea what my class rank is/was except that I was given a gold cord to wear over my gown. I don’t know whether that put me in the top 10, top 10% or if there were Olympic judges involved.

The summer following graduation was my third and last working at a drive-in theatre. The summers of 1980 and 1981 were spent at the Colonial Drive-In (it’s been a vacant lot for decades).  I got that job through a friend (Chris Leech). It was a great job because it had a lot of perks; I got to see a lot of my friends when I was working and could go for free on the nights I wasn’t.

There was a dark side to this job though: I learned how to skim tickets at the box office. That’s when the attendant (me) takes your money and before I can hand you a ticket stub, you drive away…so I resell the ticket stub to the next car and pocket the money. I didn’t start this, but I did do it and taught others how. This would come back to haunt me later.

The third summer, Chris reminded me to apply early, but I dragged my feet until it was too late. There were no more openings at the Colonial Drive-In, but there was an opening at the South Park Drive-In (it’s now a housing development). So, I worked there instead. I knew my job, but I didn’t know that theatre or anyone who worked there. They were all South Park students and they hated me on principle. From day one, it was abundantly obvious that I had no friends and no one was going to help me or give me any slack (I’m foreshadowing).

The manager of the drive-in was a former regional assistant manager and I’d met him the summer before. I also knew that he had started dating a cashier I had worked with that same summer who knew about us skimming tickets (and participated). What I didn’t know is that she’d told her boyfriend who was now my boss.

Now, the protocol for working the box office is that there are two employees selling tickets. Presumably, I was there for the protection of the cashier and she was responsible for the money. Once things slow down, she leaves to add up the receipts and make the nightly deposit at the bank. I stay in case there are any stragglers who want to see the second feature. The problem was, they didn’t leave me any money to make change.

Now the price of admission at the time was $3.00 per person. A van pulled in with a couple in it. He didn’t have any ones and I had no cash box to make change. In this situation, I’m supposed to use the intercom and have someone bring whatever change I needed. Since I knew I had no friends back in the office, I decided to just let them in for free. (He did give me a beer, though.)

About five minutes later, the manager called on the intercom and asked if there were any late sales. I said, ‘no’.

About 2 minutes later, he called again and said; “are you sure?” So I told him the truth. (I left out the part about the beer.)

Ten minutes later, he showed up at the box office and said he talked to the couple in the van and knew I was lying. They (as I understand it) told him they’d paid me, but that I never gave them a ticket stub.

Then, he told me to open my wallet. In my wallet were two bank notes: a five and a one. He fired me on the spot, but took the time to tell me that he knew what I was doing and what a bad person I was and that I’d never work for them again.

What HE didn’t know was that I was friendly with the manager of a third drive-in (Echo which is now the site of an assisted living facility). She offered me a job after I’d committed to the South Park Drive-In and she was my next stop that night.

I told her the story (again, I think I’d left out the part about the beer). She had enough clout to tell this guy and anyone who’d listen to him to do things that are undeniably anatomically impossible, but even she had to agree not to let me handle money. Ironically, two of my co-workers conspired to rob the box office later that summer.

And, that was the end of my career in the movie business.

My relationship with my high school girlfriend was never particularly stable and at this point, I was more interested in continuing it than she was. Anyway, I’d taken to pouring my heart out to a fellow drive-in employee who comforted me. Well, one thing led to another and we started dating that fall. But this relationship wasn’t what I wanted at the time and I took the opportunity to do something I’d never done before or since; reject someone. (More about that later.)

I was accepted into the engineering program at Carnegie Mellon University. It was approximately 20 miles from home; far enough to justify living on campus. I was on my own.

I got a dorm room on campus with a high school friend and eagerly embarked on this new adventure.

Man, was I in for a rude awakening.

First of all, I had no study skills. Secondly, I had no self-control. Lastly, I had never really had to work at or for anything before.

After my parents left, I went to the campus store for a few essentials. Toothpaste, soap, deodorant and a carton of cigarettes.

My dorm room was more-or-less party central and often hosted open jams, smoke outs and late night psychotropic experiments with my high school friends (who weren’t in college) and a few new friends (who were). Often, these impromptu adventures of excess spilled into the surrounding neighborhood and even into Schenley Park.

I still went to class, but I wasn’t really taking the process seriously. I rarely looked at my books or class notes and quickly fell behind. The combination of all the partying I was doing and having no clue how to actually study was taking its toll.

My roommate, who exercised far more self-control than I did, was also struggling academically. He determined before the end of the spring semester that his future lay elsewhere. I, on the other hand, soldiered on because that’s all I knew how to do.

As an entering freshman, I’d heard an off-color joke about Carnegie Mellon being like a sorority sister: Hard to get in and nine months later you wish you hadn’t come. By the middle of the spring semester, it wasn’t funny anymore.

It was during this period that I wrote “Brighter Day“. I was tired and feeling older than my years and wallowing in self-pity. I don’t mean to trivialize it; I was having a genuine crisis of faith and longed for the simpler days only a few months ago when I was secure in the company of my friends back in high school. If I washed out of college, I didn’t know what I’d do.

Part of the struggle was academic, of course, but there were other stressors too. My sister and I were both in college at the same time and the financial strain was taking its toll on my parents. In the spring of 1983, my father confided in me that he was considering leaving my mother, but assured me that he would continue to fund my education.

I don’t know whether I was so self-absorbed that their pain didn’t register, pre-occupied with figuring out how to tell him I wasn’t sure college was for me or if I instinctively knew the most important thing for me to do at that point was listen.

I didn’t write about my parents, but the revelation of domestic distress in my family was the inspiration of “Why Worlds Fall Apart“. The song is told from the perspective of a husband sitting alone in the marital home knowing his partner is not coming back. I was trying to evoke the feelings of emptiness and longing of a man who really didn’t have a clue how he ended up alone.

It was also that spring that I ended my relationship with my former drive-in co-worker. I was a cad, heel, jerk, etc. and, though I have few regrets in life, my behavior toward her is near the top of my list. I wrote about that experience, but not until the summer of 1986 after I’d had the benefit of experiencing three years of unintentional celibacy. 

Later that spring, my high school girlfriend graduated and was kind enough to invite me to her graduation party. At this point, I was the reluctant ex-boyfriend and probably should have begged off…but I didn’t. I went to the house, exchanged pleasantries with her family and otherwise busied myself brooding in the back yard.

She seemed to be having a great time and I was angry and hurt that she was so over me (‘we can still be friends’) and that’s when I wrote “Like You“.

The song takes place during her graduation party. She looked great. I felt like crap and didn’t want to be her friend, but wasn’t able to let her go either. So I shared her company in the only way I could.

Without putting too fine a point on things, I made it through the first term by passing all my classes, but it wasn’t pretty. I’d never had a grade below a “B” before and not many of them (except for gym which doesn’t count) so I had a lot to think about that summer.

Continued in Chapter 4: Deep in the Valley

Chapter Two: Growing Up

Don’t start here! Read Chapter 1 first.

In the spring of 1980, I turned 16 and wasted no time getting my driver’s license. In fact, I took the written test as early as I could (a month before my sixteenth birthday).

There are only two things I remember about the skills test.

First, the physical size of the cop who administered the test and how uncomfortable he looked riding shotgun in a 1974 VW Beetle. He was at least six-and-a-half feet tall, 250 pounds and filled the available space from the firewall to the dashboard to the roof. The other thing I remember was his attitude and general lack of instruction.

I was doing fine and pulled into the parking space without hitting the curb and was close enough to meet the requirements. The cop opened the door to see the curb, closed it and said ‘now do a three-point turn’. I was deep into the stall and would obviously have to start out by backing up.

Because it is my nature to be precise and follow instructions to the letter, I asked if he wanted me to back straight up first and then turn around or start the turn by backing up. He said nothing. I started to explain why I was confused and he stopped me by tapping his rather large index finger against his clipboard and saying ‘It says here you have to do a three-point turn. If you can’t do a three-point turn, you don’t pass the test’. Well, that pissed me off so I threw the bug into reverse and pulled off an angry, abrupt, but perfect three-point turn. That was the end of the test except for two right turns to exit the course. At the end of the course he just said, ‘OK, right here’. So I pulled into a parking space on my left. He was angry and threatened to fail me because I crossed the yellow line that defined entry and exit into the course. I don’t remember whether I said this or just thought it, but one ought not stop in the middle of the street either (asshole).

Not knowing whether I passed or failed, I had to wait for the results from a different officer (I never saw the big cop again). I guess he relented because he passed me.

My father, who witnessed all this from his vantage point behind the barracks and above the course later said, ‘You did well and really looked like you knew what you were doing on that three-point turn. You didn’t hesitate at all’.

So there I was. Sixteen, driving my parents’ 1974 VW Sun Bug unsupervised in my summer of love (1980). I remember it as a magical time of late mornings, endless summer days at the swim club and nights working at the drive-in. I had everything; a car, a job, hair, a waist, and good friends.

Working at the drive-in had its perks too: For one, I worked nights so even though I was only 16, I carried a note from my boss that allowed me to drive after midnight although I never had to use it. I had a variety of jobs at the drive-in like selling tickets at the box office (I was the one in coveralls running back and forth between the cars and the ticket window), changing the marquis or working in the snack bar. But there were other, less glamorous jobs too. If it rained, I had to keep the restrooms and hallways from filling up with the water cascading down the sloped field and of course there was a lot of painting to do. (I still remember the official colors were ‘turquoise’ and ‘shrimp’.) But the worst job was recycling the old pole-mounted speakers in the field. This was the era when drive-ins were starting to transmit the movie soundtrack directly to the cars’ FM radios. Removing and boxing the speakers wasn’t the bad part. The bad part was learning that the caps on the tops of the poles that protected the wires were highly desirable wasp nesting sites. Opening one of those puppies was always a game of Russian roulette.

On movie nights, we’d close the snack bar about halfway through the second movie and clean up. Sometimes we’d have enough time to sit and watch some of the second movie which ended around midnight. After that, we’d restart the first film and run one or two reels depending on how many cars were still there. Generally, we’d be off the clock by 1:00 am and free to go home…we almost never went straight home after work. No, usually we’d hit an all-night diner or go to someone’s house. I’d usually get back to my parents’ house between 3:00 am and 4:00 am.

Like many teenagers in America, this is when I had my first ‘adult’ relationship. Also like many American teenagers, I was ill-equipped to handle it. I lacked the social and emotional maturity necessary for a stable relationship, but on the up-side, I wrote a lot of songs about that relationship. (More about that later. I wonder whatever happened to her….)

There were other things going on that occupied my time too. I touched on my academic program in high school and my Saturday morning guitar lessons, but there were other weekend and evening activities too. Theatre Arts ate up a lot of weekend and evening time and there was the science honors program sponsored by Westinghouse that a group of us attended very early on Saturday morning. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine I found the time to smoke so much pot!

Anyway, in addition to the first two songs I referenced in Chapter One (“Anywhere, But Here” and “Terri’s Lullaby“), I wrote three others in high school that wound up on tape.

The first was “Tap Haven” which started out as a sequence of barre chords that I used to play to warm up. I remember playing it at my girlfriend’s house as early as 1981 so it’s at least that old. The reason I remember it is because the chords in the opening are the same as the song “Queen of Hearts” by Juice Newton which was popular at the time, but I didn’t get around to recording it until the Winter of 1984/1985.

Lilliput” is a personal favorite of mine. It’s a song about the importance of friendship and the support that friends provide in times of difficulty. Even though I wrote the song, I find that I need to play it regularly so I don’t forget the message.

Along the same lines as “Anywhere, But Here“, “You Know It” deals with my anxiety about the future. It seems odd to me as I write this, but it rather accurately foreshadowed my life for the next thirty years. There are references to life plans stalling and the disappointment of not reaching one’s goals. It’s as though I was preparing to be a frustrated old man at the age of eighteen. (For the record, I’m not a frustrated old man.)

Read on! Chapter 3: Leaving the Nest

Chapter One: What planet are you from?

I grew up in a small middle-class town perched on a hillside above the flood plain on the western side of the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. The town (as I knew it) was four blocks north to south and four blocks east to west. Ethnically mixed, but racially segregated which was typical for the time. I couldn’t say for certain, but would guess that most of the families in my neighborhood had fathers who worked blue-collar jobs and stay-at-home moms or mothers who worked part time in retail or service jobs.

My father had some college, but no degree. He worked in a government research laboratory where he rose from technician to scientist over the course of my childhood. Before I started school and when money was especially tight, my mother worked at the jewelry counter in the local Kmart. Later, she worked as a home nurse for the elderly and bed-ridden providing long-term or end-of-life care when their family members couldn’t.

We only ever had one car until I was fourteen, so my father would commute to work on his motorcycle every day. He endured rain, snow and brutal cold so that my mother (and his children) would have the car. And when something broke, he fixed it. Heat, electrical, plumbing, roofing, carpentry, cabinetry, flooring, windows, whatever. Five of us shared one bathroom until my father converted the pantry off the kitchen into a powder room. We had one TV channel that came in clearly and 2 or 3 others that depended on the weather. I think we got our first color TV in the late seventies and cable shortly thereafter. My mother packed our lunches into our slightly outdated cartoon-themed lunchboxes every day (a sandwich made from last night’s leftovers, carrot sticks, milk and a piece of fruit).

We didn’t have a lot of money, but I never suffered. There was enough food and always a home. My little town had a lot of undeveloped land around it and was, all in all, a pretty good place to grow up. I had a bicycle to ride around the neighborhood and when I was nine, our parents even got us a second-hand dirt bike to share. It wasn’t in perfect working order…the clutch stuck when it was cold so you had to trot alongside it and pop it into first gear and then hop aboard. Once it warmed up though, you could ride it normally. My point is that we weren’t ‘privileged’. We were a middle-class family in a middle-class town.

I don’t know where the music comes from. I have friends who truly come from musical families. Their parents are talented, sometimes gifted, sometimes professional musicians and they have siblings who are musicians and aunts and uncles…. Me? Not so much.

There are musicians in my family, but not many. At least not many that I am aware of.

  • My grandfather and his brother were sufficiently accomplished to play guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica semi-professionally in and around Lock Haven, PA in the early twentieth century.
  • My father plays harmonica, but never expressed any desire to perform although he is a gifted writer of prose and verse (usually satire).
  • My mother and her sister were singers, but neither pursued it professionally although my mother continued to write poetry and I may yet write music for her verse.
  • My oldest sister tried her hand at guitar, but couldn’t manage to put in the hours necessary to keep at it. She also wrote poetry (lots of it). After her death, I appointed myself the custodian of her notebook. One day I hope to use her poems as lyrics too.
  • My other sister displayed a passing interest in music, but was far better at visual arts. As I recall, she was a bit put out that my parents were willing to give me a second shot at music after I washed out on trumpet.

By the time I was thirteen, I was arguably the most learned musician in my family.

Our public school system had a surprisingly rich music program. I remember being taught the basics of how to read music and singing different harmonies in elementary school. We studied all kinds of music; not just kiddie recordings we had to imitate like Mary Had a Little Lamb or Old McDonald Had a Farm (eieio). We even got to play real musical instruments (drums, claves, wood blocks, tambourines, bells, chimes, and even an autoharp). I am so grateful for that. It gave us all the opportunity to develop an unbiased acceptance of styles and sounds.

As a kid, I had unrealistically high expectations for myself which led to some behavioral issues in elementary school. I can’t say much about it because I was only seven or eight years old, but as best I can determine, my ‘terrible twos’ lasted considerably longer than a year. I do remember a series of tests with a psychologist and learned much later that I was evaluated for ADHD, but apparently  didn’t exhibit the classic signs and was never diagnosed. Anyway, I was placed in a special class in a different school during the third grade until the end of fourth grade. The new school was much further from my house and required riding one bus with developmentally disabled kids to their school and then catching another bus to my new elementary school. (In case you were wondering, they were both short buses.)

This was my first exposure to kids who had far greater everyday struggles than I did. Some of them I remember better than others. Some of them were friendly and communicative. Some were not (or not able). I remember it as being both scary and sad.

On the other hand, the time I spent in that special class gave me not only the emotional support and counseling to grow out of this phase, but the ability to study at an accelerated pace and alleviate some of the boredom that contributed to my behavioral issues. (A geek is born.)

My special class had kids with a variety of mild cognitive, behavioral and emotional challenges across several grades. With a single teacher to look after about a half dozen of us, some of us were tasked with helping others and I, in addition, started spending more time in the ‘normal’ class upstairs for science and math. I remember that one of the activities that took place immediately after math class was a spelling test. The teacher (who knew I was a couple years ahead of the class) would ask if I cared to stay for the test even though I had attended none of the lessons. I was more than happy to play this game. I would either ace the test and make the other kids look bad or I’d have a build-in excuse since I was taking the test cold. Most times, I knew all ten words the teacher recited and spelled them correctly. She would grade my test immediately and announce the result (at least if it was perfect) so I could leave and go back downstairs. I can’t remember whether that made the other kids envy or hate me (probably both).

As I mentioned earlier, I started playing my first musical instrument (the trumpet) in third grade. I actually selected the trumpet for two reasons (yep, I actually weighed the pros and cons at the age of seven): it was the coolest instrument offered by the public school system and was small enough that I could readily lug it back and forth to school. I had only barely picked up my leased horn when I moved to the new school. The interruption in lessons during the transition put me behind the other students and my anxiety about being judged inferior by peers I didn’t  know fed my general lack of enthusiasm and made this first foray into music a short and fruitless one. I still remember the music teacher asking if I had ‘lost interest’. I had.

At the end of my fourth school year, there was a discussion about what to do with me since I was spending most of my day with the regular class and wasn’t much of a behavioral problem anymore. Ultimately, the decision was made to leave me at the same school for continuity, but move me into the fifth grade full time.

This experience created an odd social compartmentalization of my childhood that is still a factor of my personality. The friends I had in school were different than the ones I had outside school. At the age of nine, I was already learning to divide my time between multiple circles. The kids I played and learned with in school saw each other evenings, weekends and through the summer too. I was just a visitor in their lives from 9:00am to 3:00pm five days a week for nine months. Conversely, the kids I played with in my neighborhood spent more time with each other (at home and at school) than they could with me.

This made the time I spent with either group precious because I knew it was limited and I felt that I would never have the chance to know them as well as they knew each other.  So, on the one hand, I became comfortable moving between disparate social circles and on the other hand, I felt like I had to be my own best friend. The result (I believe) is an adult who desperately wants to be part of whatever is going on, but equally afraid of crashing a party where he’s not welcome.

So, moving forward to middle school; this bifurcation of my life became an advantage since I was acquainted with twice as many sixth graders as anyone else. That didn’t make me popular though, just more of a known quantity. What is memorable to me about sixth grade though, is my introduction to the guitar. In sixth grade, we had a music teacher who played guitar. Somehow, guitar was integrated into our regular music class and we had 10 or 15 guitars to use for a couple weeks during the school year to learn some basics. I remember we were told that no one will play the guitar left-handed (because we didn’t have any left-handed guitars, I suppose). I was initially put off by this since I am left-handed, but it was a mandatory part of our sixth grade music class, so I had no choice.

I suppose it’s no surprise, but playing the guitar in the common orientation didn’t turn out to be much of an obstacle for me (turns out I’m pretty thoroughly cross-wired). All too soon, the guitar portion of our music class was over. But then came the turning point for me; there would be a continuing ‘guitar club’ that met after school where we could use the school’s guitars and learn some (gasp) contemporary songs! I was hooked.

You see, I had an older half-sister that started taking guitar lessons and had about as much continuing interest in that as I had for trumpet. The only difference was that we actually still had the guitar she had been playing. When my parents saw that I was willing to stay after school to get group instruction on guitar, they asked me if I wanted to start taking regular, private lessons. YES, PLEASE! (If you saw the Beatles or the Stones as a kid, you knew that no instrument could be cooler than guitar.)

So, from 1976 until 1981, I studied guitar the same way I studied math and science. Every Saturday morning I got a 30-minute lesson at the music store for about $12 and then I went home. I practiced for about an hour each evening until I knew the week’s piece (homework), played it for my teacher (weekly quiz) and got the next assignment (more homework). That’s about as much thought as I put into it. Plodding along academically week after week, year after year. I didn’t hang out at the store. I didn’t really associate with other musicians. I didn’t play the guitars they had for sale or try any of the equipment.

Now, I did play other stuff on the guitar, but it was almost completely unrelated to what I was being taught and almost always alone. My guitar teachers were (Latin) classical or jazz guitarists, but I wanted to play the soft sounds of the seventies (I’m sure my friends would agree that my Native American name would be ‘Fancies the maj7’).

I was kind of embarrassed that I didn’t know who Jimmy Page was or how to play Stairway to Heaven (I still refuse to learn that song simply on principle) when every other guitarist I encountered played pop or rock-and-roll. So again, I found myself at the margin between different musical worlds.

It was during this period (thirteen to sixteen) that I started hanging out with my peers’ bands. This taught me three important things: 1) How to run a mixer. 2) That one person can learn to play more than one instrument. 3) Alcohol does not improve your performance in any category and only temporarily shields you from the embarrassment of that realization.

Regarding point #1: If you’re going to hang out with a band without actually being in it (and you’re a guy), you have to be a technician or a roadie. I’m smart enough to avoid menial labor so I became the sound man. In the beginning, I’d let the band set up the initial mix and just make the necessary adjustments for crowd-induced acoustical drift. Basically that meant if I can’t hear you, I turn you up and if your mic feeds back, I turn you down. I did get better and developed a workable knowledge of acoustics, gain, compression and equalization that allowed me to at least study these topics on my own and use that knowledge for my own recordings.

Regarding point #2: I distinctly remember being at a ‘pre-teen’ dance at the Presbyterian church in my neighborhood with my best friend Bill and seeing someone only a few years older than me sing while playing the keyboard and then pick up and play a solo on the saxophone (it was Bob Grimes and the song was Takin’ It To the Streets). WOW! I thought playing guitar was cool, but playing two different instruments and singing. I was in awe! I don’t even remember who the guitarist in the band was, but I remember Bob. So, I got interested in other instruments and was determined to learn enough to capture ideas without having to rely on other people. I couldn’t afford multiple instruments, but (see point #1 above) I was hanging out with other bands so I could play theirs! A little rhythm on the drums, a couple measures on bass, a few chords on the piano, congas, bongos, Vibra-Slap, tubular bells, vibraphone, whatever.

Regarding point #3: Young musicians might seek to manage their performance anxiety through the consumption of a readily available liquid depressant. Young musicians generally have limited experience with said readily available liquid depressant. Rarely will the entire band and all spectators be so plowed that the rhythmic, cognitive, and/or tonal shortcomings of at least one member is not noticed by his (or her) peers. If you are the first band member to succumb to this temptation, you are likely to be the first ex-band member (unless you own the PA system).

At the age of about seventeen, I decided I wanted to take a break and interrupt my weekly lessons. (I was on book #7 of the 8-book Mel Bay series.) I was shocked and flattered to be propositioned on the spot to start teaching the store’s students. I guess I’d been too busy to notice that I was the only student who had gotten that far. But if I was too busy to take lessons, I was too busy to give them and I never took another guitar lesson either.

Of course while all this was happening, I also went through something of a (ahem) maturation process. Now, there was never a time in my life that I wasn’t interested in girls. There was no latency period in my development; I always wanted a girlfriend and always thought of that desire as distinctly different than wanting a ‘guy’ friend. But now that I was in high school, I had friends who were beginning to feel what I’d felt all along.

Now, different things mature at different rates and although I ‘liked’ girls from the get-go, I didn’t know what to do about it until I had the opportunity to discuss the topic with others who’d begun to discover these feelings too. Misinformation in adolescence is of course a rich and amusing subject (in retrospect), but it is also true that commiseration does lead to consensus.

It goes something like this:

‘Gee, I wish I knew how to make a girl like me.’
‘Hey, aren’t there a lot of songs about falling in love?’
‘Yeah, there are.’
‘I heard (a girl) say she thought (a singer) was cute and has a poster of him in her locker.’
‘I wish I could be like him.’

And that’s how teenage boys start writing poetry and, if they’re even remotely musically inclined; how they start writing songs.

Some of us grow out of it…some of us don’t.

Anyway, like a lot of boys; I started writing romantic poetry about girls I liked even though I couldn’t even summon the courage to make eye-contact. There were many girls like this. They were magical and perfect. A stark contrast to the clumsy rhyming couplets of a chubby, acne-prone, introverted nerd. Still, it was an outlet for (and a means of dealing with) feelings I couldn’t control.

I wish I could remember in some kind of detail when I first put a poem to music, but I have no idea what or when it was. The first two songs I know I completed were written in 1979 or 1980. One started out as a 2-chord instrumental (Dmaj7 & Amaj7) that I ended up calling Terri’s Lullaby. It did have a lyric, but I think I expunged all known copies for the good of humanity. I do have a surviving (but very poor quality) recording of it I made with my friend John Parish back in 1980 or 1981 on a cassette deck in his parents’ basement. Terri’s Lullaby wasn’t my first true song though.

My first true song was a much deeper piece that dealt with my struggle for identity. I was a geek, a nerd, a lonely kid with few friends and too many interests. I loved music, but didn’t want to play in a band or for an audience. I was academically gifted, but wasn’t enthusiastic about my classes or any particular vocation. I loved acting, but didn’t want to be a star.

At exactly that point in my life, Paul Simon released the album and movie One-Trick Pony about the decline and struggle of a once-famous musician and I thought: THAT’S IT! That’s the feeling I have.

I already know that the odds of becoming a famous singer-songwriter are astronomical. What’s going to happen to me in ten or twenty years if I strive for that? I’ll be like Paul Simon’s character (Jonah Levin). Alone, miserable, trying to make ends meet by playing little shows in town after town with a band that is a poor substitute for the intimate relationships and stability everybody wants/needs.

So that was the basis for “Anywhere But Here”. It’s a song that has been with me for over thirty years and it hasn’t changed. But I’ve changed. I’ve grown to realize that just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.

Read the next exciting installment. Chapter 2: Growing Up