Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Old Barn ... New Barn

One night in the summer before 7th grade, my mother sent me to pick up my two sisters at the barn that was about a half mile from our house. You had to walk through an old vacant estate to get there, and she didn't want them walking back through that area alone. My sisters rode horses at this barn, and hung out with their friends there. I complained about the task but then set at it, and showed up at the barn. And there, to my amazement, were a bevy of cute 13 and 14 year old girls - not one guy in sight, except ancient Mr. T, who managed the place. All the girls were in jeans, and all smelled slightly of horse manure, but they were all cuties. Like puppies or kittens ... all cute in their own way. I walked home with my sisters, but then had to tell my buddies in the neighborhood of this discovery of mine.

"How many are there?" "There must be 15 or 20 of them. Really. All cute."

The next day, we all trooped down to the barn to pick up the girls. And pick them up we did. Within weeks we had paired off, my guy friends and my sisters' girl friends, and some were going steady, and the more forward of the group were having make-out sessions up in the hayloft. There were barn parties that fall and winter, including one at a cabin in the woods, and many of us smoked our first cigarettes there. Not a good thing in hindsight, but we were starting to experience the grown up activities.

A year or so after that first encounter, the girls all moved their horses to the New Barn - at the Strawbridge Estate on Mill Road in Radnor. The boys were still hanging out there during that summer. We watched the girls ride more than ride ourselves, but sometimes we would go on trail rides with them, or they would chase us around in the fields on horseback, or we would rile up the cows in the adjoining field, or hang out in other places on the estate while the girls rode. Sometimes we'd hang out in the tack room and shoot the breeze. Occasionally they would get us to muck stalls with them, or move hay bales, or do some of the other work required at the barn. The Strawbridge mansion was vacant then, but we found an open window on the first floor, and so we would go inside, play hide and seek, explore each room, and on at least one occasion we ordered pizza for delivery, and then pretended we were Main Line Blue Bloods when the pizza man came: "Daddy, the pizza man is here" in what passed for a Main Line accent.

After that summer, I think the "boys going to the barn" phase finally ended. The girls continued to ride; some still do. However, while none of the "steadies" lasted that long (and I still have the ID bracelet that I gave to my steady then), those friendships endure. My sisters still stay in touch with the "Barn Girls", and at our annual Turkey Bowl gathering, many of the original group from 7th grade still gather.

Today, I went out out for a run at lunch, in the neighborhood across the street from my office. It's a residential development, and I usually don't go there, but I wanted to change it up today. House after house, a long rolling hill, curved around, I saw a creek running through an open space area behind the homes, and then came to an intersection ... and stopped in my tracks. There on the far hillside, through the trees, was the Strawbridge Mansion. Not a surprise to me - I knew it was still there ... but now I was getting the view from what used to be the fields where we used to hang out. I remembered that when you left the paddock, you crossed over a bridge and a little creek, and the path to the field hugged the hillside along the creek, which flowed down into a larger creek in the meadow. I could see the small creek now, and could imagine the path along it, with the Mansion and the barn in the foreground. It was the only location in the whole run where I could actually see what I used to see here. The little guest house that sat below the mansion, where the boys would hang out and smoke, was gone. The rusty iron fencing - gone. The creek disappeared into a culvert under the road and re-emerged in the backyard of the local MacMansion. It still flowed down and into what was the meadow where the ring was (see photo)... but the ring was gone. The meadow gone. Horses gone. Girls gone. The world of 1968 gone. Except in my head, where all of these memories were suddenly unleashed by the proximity to place. It was a nice visit back to 1968, brought about by the winter view of the mansion visible through the trees. When summer comes, that view disappears. I really hadn't seen that view since 1968.

As I ran back to the office, this rhyme popped into my head:

Curiosity killed the cat.
Some day it may kill me.
But till it does I'll look around
And see what I can see.

It sounds like something by Ogden Nash. Not sure if it's his or mine. But it perfectly described what I was feeling on my run and the spontaneous visit to 1968.

So what's good with the world: sisters ... who have friends who are Babes. Memories that can be stored up for so long, and suddenly unleashed by a sight, or a smell or a song. Breaking up the routine and being rewarded with the unexpected.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Leaving your comfort zone ...

I made my singing debut last night, on a raised stage in front of an audience of about 80 retirees at the Granite Farms Estates community near Media. I was not the star attraction - that honor belonged to my wife, Barb, who has given concerts in this community in the past, and she was accompanied by John Grecia, an amazingly gifted pianist and musician. She did a program of love songs and standards - Gershwin, Kern, Rogers and Hammerstein, and John did an out-of-control "Kitten on the Keys", among other songs. Towards the end, she called me up to do a duet with her. But let me backtrack for a moment about the journey to that point.

Barb and John have worked together many times in the past, the first time being 19 years ago when they were in a production of Music Man together. They are both graduates of music programs at West Chester University. They fill in for each other when they each need backup support - she for her school programs and he for his church choir activities. They are both very musical and very professional. They had a one hour rehearsal last weekend and ran through her list of about 18 songs. I stopped by to rehearse my one song. It has originally been just the first verse of the song, but John said "You can't stop there - the crowd will love this ..." and so we agreed to add in the second verse. I went home and printed it out - Barb said I didn't have to memorize it - just have it up on the music stand.

Last night we rode down together to the venue - set up the gear on the stage, and went into a back room to practice. Watching them rehearse was a marvel. John would improvise the intro, and Barb would come in, sing a few bars, tell him the tempo she wanted, he would make a few notes on his music, and then they would be on to the next song. More of the same thing - just running quickly through the transitions - beginnings, endings, changes in key. I was looking forward to practicing my one song end to end - but we just ran through it the same way - quickly, with a reminder that the turnaround at the end of the first verse is short, and the one at the end of the song is long. And then the MC came in to say "time". I went off to sit with the audience, while they went backstage to be introduced.

Sitting in the crowd, I marveled at how smoothly the two of them worked together, and how the songs came out effortlessly. They are both great musicians, Barb's material was the soundtrack to the lives of the people who she was singing to, she was in great voice, and she nailed her high notes. It reminded me of watching the figure skating pairs at the Olympics - you know the big throws are coming up, here they come, can they do it, here it is .... NAILED IT! Now we can breath again. Till the next one.

And then, it was my turn. I joined them on stage, and brought along my music stand and lyrics that I had left off stage. I told the crowd that I've been told I sing like a lawyer ... and I got a nice laugh. In the first verse, my microphone squawked at me - we didn't do a sound check here - and so I backed off the mike. I survived the experience. I actually enjoyed the experience ... it's a song I have always wanted to sing - and here I was doing so on stage with two gifted musicians. I told them afterwards it was like going out for a test ride in a Ferarri.

So, I left my comfort zone last night. I've performed as part of a group before, but never quite so alone on stage in front of a crowd, and singing. But it was enjoyable to try this out, to fulfill a dream to be the person up there doing it, rather than sitting there and watching it. Barb's daughter recorded the second verse of the song ... and you can view it on YouTube here: Doug's debut.

I am a bit wooden, a bit nervous. I am going to hold on to my day job for now. But last night, I left my comfort zone, and briefly flew to a place that I had never been before. And I enjoyed the view.

What's right with the world: people with talent who make it look effortless; the music of Gershwin and friends still being performed; having a spouse who opens doors for you; and leaving your comfort zone ... in a Ferrarri!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Ground Hog's Day ...

Ground Hog's Day is definitely something that's right with the world. Not the movie by that name (although it is a classic), but the actual event held in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. I had always wanted to go to Punxsutawney (derived from Indian word for "town of the sand flies") on that day ... and several years ago the day fell on a Saturday, so Barb and I went off to check it out. Every hotel in the area was booked, so we had to stay at a rest stop motel along Route 80 outside of DuBois. We arrived there late Friday, and went right to bed, because we had read that you need to get to Punxsutawney quite early to get tickets to ride one of the buses that takes you out to Gobbler's Knob, where the festivities are held.

We were up at 3:00 a.m. and on the road shortly afterwards, and picked up company along the way. We arrived in the town in the dark, and had to search for parking. Got our bearings ... found the place selling the bus tickets ... they also stamp you with a groundhog paw stamp. Then off to the lines of school buses - must be every bus in Jefferson County called in for service. The ride to the Knob is not that long - it's a park on a hillside about a mile outside of the town. We arrived at about 4:15 a.m. And were not the first ones there. There were already thousands of people present, bonfires burning, porta potties set up, a snack bar doing a brisk business, and music blaring from a lighted stage at the bottom of a natural amphitheater. Women in colored t-shirts were dancing on the stage - the Groundhog Dancers - they were in motion up until the climax of the morning - the ceremony with Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary. That's his full name. I imagine his friends just call him Phil.

The buses continued to arrive and depart for the next several hours, bringing thousands more to the Knob. On the stage, there was as variety of entertainment - game shows with audience participation, rock anthems and dancing, shooting of t shirts high up into the air to land in the crowd, several wedding proposals (both accepted), the introduction of dignitaries and guests, and fireworks simulcast to music. People were roaming around dressed up in a variety of costumes and headgear that reflect their take on what the well dressed groundhog fan should wear on this occasion. Lots of weird fur and funny hats. Mirth was in the air. The snack bar was serving hot dogs, coffee, hot chocolate. Somewhat bizarre to be standing on a hillside in the middle of Pennsylvania in 29 degrees at 6:00 a.m. in February, eating hot dogs with sauerkraut and watching fireworks (bursting above the clouds - and so more of a colorful glow than the summer version), while listening to Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. And that's the charm of the whole event.

At about 7:00 a.m., the Inner Circle arrives - about twenty men in top hats and black suits. They are the Inner Circle of the Punxsutawney Groundhog's Club, the group that takes care of and nurtures both Phil and the annual event. They go through a lot of hocus pocus and finally at 7:25 a.m., they pull Phil out of a tree stump on stage, talk to him in Groundhogese, listen to what he says, and then announce whether he has seen his shadow or not. If there is no shadow, then spring is near. If he sees his shadow, then it is 6 more weeks of winter. Then they broadcast Bill Murray's heartwarming speech from the end of the movie, and then everyone goes in peace.

The buses are still running - but you are in a crowd of 35,000 people - and so most of us simply walked back into town. It's about a mile, down hill, and it gets your feet moving, and by the time you get to town, you can feel your toes again. The town is quintessential Pennsylvania small town, but with a local twist. There are statues of groundhogs everywhere, that theme is everywhere. There is a large central square, and they have ice carvings, wood carvings, benches - and of course what are they carving? Groundhogs. There is a gift shop that sells the largest variety of groundhog themed chotchka in the world. But we found that most of the energy of the day was left up on the Knob. We thought the town might fill up with events and such, but it was pretty quiet. We went back to our motel and took a nap.

We returned to Punx for the night's activities - but there weren't any to speak of. I think the action was the night before. There were some rowdy drunks in the bar of the local hotel, but we walked the streets for a few hours and did not see too many other people in our travels. We did see Phil's home - he has a place built for him in the town library, and a window allows him to see out to the town square, and also allows visitors to see him. He wasn't there when we were - he had done his duty for the day and so perhaps they gave him the rest of the day off. We went back up to the Knob, by car this time, and it was hard to believe that this township park was the scene of all of that madness just hours before. The stage was still there, with the artificial tree stump where Phil was displayed. And you could see the small "waiting room" below it where they kept Phil until it was time for his prediction. And I thought "what must Phil have been thinking, hearing all of that noise outside, four hours of rock anthems, and then being pulled out into the cold, and held up in the air before thousands of screaming humans?" I imagine it was "This ain't gonna end well".

They rolled up the sidewalk at about 6:00 p.m. and we took that as our cue to leave. Had dinner at a diner in DuBois. The next day, we took the long way home, via Indiana, Pennsylvania, and visited the Jimmy Stewart Museum. It was actually enjoyable - he had quite an interesting life, and his home town remembers him lovingly in this museum. Then the long ride home. We filmed a lot of our trip - and now, three years later, I finally strung it all together and hope to get it posted up to YouTube. If you like sitting through someone else's home movies (and who doesn't?) then you will love this version. But actually, it gives a nice tour of the events of that day. I'll post a link when I overcome the last of my tech obstacles and get it posted.

But back to Punxsutawney for a moment, to close with the speech that Bill Murray gave at the end of the movie Groundhog Day:

“When Chekhov saw the long winter ... he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope.

Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life.

But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney...

and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts...

I couldn't imagine a better fate ... than a long and lustrous winter.”

From Punxsutawney,
it's Doug Humes.