Monday, December 15, 2014

Know Your Home

Beth and I were lied to about the two homes we have owned, and I suspect that if you own an older house you were, too.

Oh, I'm not talking about dry rot, skeletons buried in the basement or a convoluted title showing that members of the Winter Hill Gang could swoop in here at any time and move into our basement. No, I'm talking about the dates of the homes.

I'm gonna work my way backwards. When we bought our current home, in Newton, Mass., in 2003 the sell sheet indicated the American Foursquare was built in 1915. We instantly fell in love with the original woodwork in much of the first floor, and other details including a plate rail in the dining room and built-in storage seats in the living room.

The house has a big porch and a finished attic, a great fireplace and a half-finished basement. Previous owners had completed renovations including closing off the door from the living room to the kitchen, adding a skylight in the attic and updating the kitchen. We've added a deck off the back, a mudroom off the kitchen and a master bathroom, and reconfigured the kids' bathroom.

For the most part, though, the house looks like it did when it was built. We take pride in knowing that our house is one of the older ones on the street. Most of the houses around us appear to date from the 1930's-1950's. Over the years we'd talked about throwing a party of some sort to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our home. With 2015 looming, I went to city hall and pulled the inspectional services file on our place. I wanted to find out who had built the house and the names of previous owners, and see if there were any useful bits of information that might help us personalize our celebration.

Maybe there will be pictures! I thought. Maybe we'll find out that there used to be a garage where the shed now stands. Or perhaps a map showing that the small lot next to ours used to be part of our land.

My big discovery? The house wasn't built in 1915. It was built in 1923. We need to wait eight more years to plan a 100th anniversary party. I'm not sure why the sell sheet said 1915. I don't believe there was anything here prior, but perhaps another party had applied for a permit to build in 1915 but never followed through.

The owner of the property, McKenzie MacLeod, filed for a building permit in January 1921, and then again in November 1922. I'm not sure why the house wasn't built after MacLeod filed for the permit initially. Perhaps he ran into financial troubles. The house was completed in the spring of '23, when the city issued a permit for plumbing.

When we added a master bathroom and tore apart the existing upstairs bathroom, the demo crew ripped out a LOT of cast iron pipes. The guys told me that a four-foot section weighed about 200 pounds, and they needed four guys to lift it up and out the second story window and into the dumpster below.

A few days later one of my neighbors asked me if we'd given permission for someone to remove the cast iron from the dumpster, because he'd seen somebody take it. I said no. So either thieves were eying the lode, or my builder allowed someone to come on the property and take it. Wonder how much they made off it.

The building was designed by Frederick Gowing, a Boston-based architect who wrote a book, Building Plans for Colonial Dwellings, Bungalows, Cottages, and Other Medium Cost Homes, in 1925. He also wrote a book called Building Plans for Modern Homes, copies of which are floating around on eBay. Maybe I'll buy one in the next eight years.

Our first home, in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood, has a bit of a more interesting story behind it.

Located on St. Theresa Avenue, the house is just a short distance from West Roxbury's commercial mainline, Centre Street. Situated directly across from the prestigious Roxbury Latin School, the house is a Dutch Colonial with a nice porch, a narrow lot with plenty of shade and cool curving staircase up to the second floor. Beth and I put a lot of sweat equity into the place, because we didn't have kids. We tore up wall-to-wall carpets and the tack strips from the living room, dining room, stairs, and bedrooms; stripped wallpaper in every room; patched, primed and painted the whole place; and ripped a giant spice cabinet off the kitchen wall.

Eventually, after we completed that work and had someone come in and sand the floors, we called in an electrician to upgrade some things. He told us that in addition to old gas lines (some of which he capped for us), we had knob-and-tube wiring, because when the house was built, people weren't sure whether gas or electricity would be the future.

"What year was this house built?" he asked.

"The sell sheet said 1930."

"No, this house is older than that," he replied. "Pre-World War I, for sure."

He told me I could go to the Boston Building Department to pull the file for the house. "1010 Mass. Ave.," he said.

A few weeks later I made the trip to Roxbury, got the file and started poring over it. I went right to the bottom of the stack of documents, invoices and permits, and learned that, as the electrician told me, the house dated to before The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.

The house was built in 1911. I was confused why the sell sheet indicated the house was built in 1930. How could there be such a disparity? Flipping through a few more documents, I found one that gave me the answer. In 1930, the city of Boston reconfigured what was then known as Cottage Avenue. The street was moved west a bit, curving away from our house, giving it a much longer front yard than houses that were built later. The street was renamed St. Theresa Avenue, after the Catholic parish at the foot of street.

With the answer to my question in hand, I continued to look through the file to see if there was anything else of interest.

That's when I noticed the name of the owner of the property when it was built: Earl Sloan. I don't recall all these years later whether the documents in the folder included information about Sloan, or whether I did an Internet search when I got home. What I found out is that Sloan was the "doctor" behind Sloan's Liniment, a pain relief product developed in the 19th century. The liniment is available online to this day.

In the early part of the 20th century, Sloan lived on an estate in West Roxbury known as Pine Lodge. Previous owners of the estate included bank presidents and Boston's fire commissioner. Our house was evidently one of several on the property; I assume a caretaker or some other employee of Sloan's lived in the house. There is a Pine Lodge road in the nearby vicinity, but alas no traces of the estate.

So if you own an older home, or are at least the second owner of your house, and you're at all curious about the place you live, it's worth asking your town or city clerk about accessing the building file. Every house has a story. I'd love to hear yours.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Lightnin' Strikes

Lightnin' Hopkins was the man. Gold teeth, slicked-back hair piled high (or corralled under a cowboy hat), ever-present black sunglasses, killer guitar skills, a quick wit and a singing voice that's tangy and sweet like a plate of ribs, but can bite you like a Texas rattlesnake. He became my favorite bluesman a few decades ago, in what seemed like an accident at the time, but turned out to be just great fortune.

My older brother, Steve, was into blues music when he was in college. For Christmas one year around that time I bought him Lightnin' Hopkins: At His Natural Best, an album with just seven songs that came out in 1981. I probably bought it at Caldor.

I don't believe Steve asked for this album; I just bought it because I loved the name Lightnin' Hopkins. Born Sam Hopkins in Centerville, Texas, in 1912, Lightnin' learned to play guitar by the age of 10, according to the album's liner notes. As a boy, he met the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson. Here's Jefferson:

Lightnin' became an accompanist for Jefferson's cousin, Texas Alexander, according to the liner notes. Hopkins acquired his nickname during an L.A. recording session in 1946 with pianist Thunder Smith, the notes indicate. He released dozens of albums during his career.

Details about the route Lightnin' Hopkins: At His Natural Best traveled from my hand to my brother's, and back to mine (it's in my attic as I write this) are fuzzy at best. My recollection is that my brother didn't particularly enjoy the album -- it's comprised of unedited tapes from an August 6, 1969, recording session, and includes dialogue and tune-ups. I believe he left it behind when he went back to college, along with other records from over the years. He has less recall than I do.

As a music lover, I figured at some point that it was my duty to take over ownership. I recall playing the albm when I went to college a few years later and entertaining my friends with it.

I own just one other Lightnin' album, I'm embarrassed to say. The Very Best of Lightnin' Hopkins features 16 songs and is a great listen. I need to buy more.

I've checked out several of Hopkins's videos on YouTube over the years and I just love the way he sings, plays, dresses and banters with the crowd in his live videos. So I was excited to learn recently about "The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins," a 30-minute documentary directed by Les Blank.

Shot in 1968, the film features Hopkins playing lots of music, some of it by himself, some with a woman who bickers with him and some with friends and family, including a great harp player who sings with deep emotion in his voice. The film is also a great time capsule of small-town Southern life in the late '60s, with scenes of kids playing, sharp-dressed dudes and hot ladies dancing, older folks hanging out, and cool cars driving by.

Here's the film in its entirety.

If you watch only part of this documentary, tune in at the 23:12 mark. That's all I'm gonna say.

If you want to pay money for the movie, you should do that. If you want to check out more of Blank's films (none of which I've seen), you can buy the newly released "Les Blank: Always for Pleasure" DVD collection of 14 of his films, which range from the Hopkins piece to one about hippies in 1967 to a film about Mardi Gras festivities to a short feature on blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb, who appears with Hopkins in his documentary.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

I Don't Hail the King

He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame and the R&B Music Hall of Fame. In 2011, he was voted No. 6 on the list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time in Rolling Stone magazine. He has won countless Grammies and myriad other awards in his 89 years. He has opened blues clubs in several cities around the U.S.

He is a legend. He is B.B. King. And I've never cared for him.

So I found it odd that last night I dreamt that I was given a chance to play one of his old guitars. I was in a museum of some sort, and the guy giving me a tour took a guitar off the wall and handed it to me. He never spoke, but somehow I knew this beat-up Gibson with just the top three strings once belonged to the man born Riley B. King in a cabin on a cotton plantation in Berclair, Mississippi.

My father-in-law, who is a huge blues fan and certainly a man who likes B.B. King, was in the dream. He stood next to me as I tried to emulate King's style of string bending solo work. I sounded pretty awful; let's blame it on the old, hardened strings and warped fretboard.

Don't get me wrong: I acknowledge that King is a giant of the blues. I don't dislike him. I like this video with U2:

He seems like a gentle, humble man. I'm sure if I were given the chance to sit down with him, I'd be entertained for hours by his stories. I bet he pours a nice shot of whiskey.

My disregard for him dates back to the 1980's.

As a guy who'd always liked music, and who played guitar starting in 8th grade, I was aware of King. My older brother, Steve, was into blues music a bit, so maybe he played some of King's music for me.

One summer day when I was either a senior in high school or a freshman or sophomore in college, I saw King at a free concert in Hartford's Bushnell Park. I went with my best friend, Andy, and my brother and his buddy, Jimmy.

Growing up in a rural suburb 10 miles north of Hartford, I didn't get into the city much, except to see bands including Rush and The Police at the civic center, and Whalers games once in a while. So the idea of going to a free outdoor concert appealed to me.

Andy is also a guitarist. He and I spent a lot of time during high school and college jamming and listening to records. I don't believe he was into the blues much, but he certainly was up for going to see a blues legend.

We stood fairly close to the stage as King and his band played. After a few songs, Andy and I realized that while King certainly had his own style and flair for soloing, his backup guitarist was a better technical player. I have no idea who the guy was, and conducting a Google search for "B.B. King band members 1980s" didn't get me any closer to knowing.

We watched a bit more but found it boring. Andy and I kept joking that all King did was bend a few strings, while the guy behind him was the real star. "That guy should be up front!" we told each other as we walked away from the stage.

Now, if our experience at blues legend B.B. King's concert had ended there, I might've found it easier as the years went by to come around on his music. Perhaps I would've realized that King wasn't famous because he was a fretboard virtuoso, but because he wrote great songs, was a wonderful singer and a charismatic bandleader.

But as Andy and I walked away from the stage, eager to just walk around and enjoy the day, we were accosted by three or four teenagers. They were smart and efficient, somehow separating us from each other before we knew what was going on. Two of them cornered Andy, one of them grabbing his wallet while the other bullied him. A third kid (there might have been a fourth) pounced in front of me, slapped my right front pocket and barked, "What's in there?"

"Huh?" I said.

"Don't play stupid with me!" he yelled. "Gimme your money!"

Before I could react one way or the other, he took off with the rest of them. I walked up to Andy, both of us shaken.

"They stole my money!" he said. "Two bucks!"

I probably didn't have much more than that in my wallet. I imagine our assailants figured a couple of suburban kids would have been flush with cash, maybe be wearing expensive watches. They picked the wrong two guys to assault in that regard. Sure, neither of us did much to defend ourselves, but there wasn't much point with hardly enough money for a couple of cheeseburgers between us.

Do my feelings about B.B. King get mixed in with that memory? I suppose they do. But really it just came down to his guitar playing, and with experiencing a legend at a time in my life when I didn't appreciate music as much as I thought I did. Well, not enough kinds of music. I was into New Wave, punk rock, Southern rock -- rock of just about all kinds. I thought I was cooler than King.

In the ensuing years I've gotten into blues much more than I was back then. Lightnin' Hopkins is my favorite. I also like Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside and Howlin' Wolf.

And I'm putting B.B. King on "Music to buy" alongside the likes of Mary Lou Lord, Azaelia Banks and the Crystal Method. Landing on this list doesn't mean that I'm gonna buy your music, but it means I've found a reason to listen to some stuff and evaluate whether it has a place in my digital library.

After all, how can I ignore a man with such a distinguished history, a cavalcade of accolades and the ability to find his way into my dreams?

Here are a few videos:

This is from a documentary, "B.B. King and Joan Baez in Concert at Sing Sing Prison." Introduced by Jimmy "JJ" Walker.

Here's a more upbeat performance from 40 years ago:

That's the most B.B. King I've watched in my life, right there. I have to say, he's a better guitar player than I recalled. Gonna have to do more than evaluate. Gonna have to buy.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ex-ska-use Me While I Type This Up

Been skankin' 'round da kitchen while listening' to lotsa songs from '60s Ska Explosion, and one a' dem been buggin' me, cos I know da tune but can't place it.

OK, enough of me trying to be all Jamaican. The compilation is pretty great -- dozens of tight, danceable, fun Jamaican tunes from the '60s. One of the songs, "Miss-Ska-Culculation," sounded familiar right away, but it took me a little while to realize why. Listen to it:

Recognize it? I knew it was an old surf tune, but I had to look it up to discover that "Miss-Ska-Culation" is a cover of The Chantays' "Pipeline."


Originally titled "Liberty's Whip," according to Wikipedia, the song was renamed "Pipeline" after the members of The Chantays saw a surf movie featuring the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. Other artists who've covered the song include Dick Dale, The Ventures, The Eagles and Anthrax.

Here's a cool version by Agent Orange:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Don't Tell My Wife

Don't tell my wife, but I have a boyfriend.

I put James A. Reeves's Road to Somewhere: An American Memoir on my Amazon wish list a while back, alongside works including Bradley Garrett's Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes and T.C. Boyle's Wild Child: And Other Stories. I don't recall where I heard about Reeves's book, but I suspect I read a review in the Boston Globe or perhaps Entertainment Weekly. A combination photography book and introspective look at time spent road-tripping across the good ol' US of A seemed right up my alley.

Published in August 2011, Road to Somewhere is just the latest book I've read that I wish I'd written. Others on this list include Joel Sternfeld's On This Site (see November 3, 2014, J. Crew: Inspiring Readers While Clothing the Moderately Well-Heeled), Bill See's 33 Days: Touring in a Van, Sleeping on Floors, Chasing a Dream and Greg Olear's Fathermucker.

I'm not done with Road to Somewhere, but it's a relatively quick read so I'll be looking for something new before too long. I just added Reeves's second book, The Manufactured History of Indianapolis, to my wish list.

I wouldn't cheat on Beth simply because I love Reeves's book, although I won't deny my attraction to his photos -- he knows of and exploits my weakness for old motels, junked cars by the side of the road, desert vistas and dive bars. And I love his writing -- crisp and evocative, and full of self-doubt and deep concern for the state of American affairs. He questions many times what it means to be a man (he's the first in four generations not to enlist in the military) and senses that he's wasting his time behind his computer (he teaches and does design work in addition to writing).

And, sure, Reeves is a decent looking guy in his mid 30s, who, in the few photos I've seen of him, has just the right amount of scruff, and loosens his skinny black tie in a rakish fashion. He's presented his work around the globe -- New York, Helsinki, New Orleans, Grenoble.

But what really sealed my man crush on James A. Reeves is his web site, and all that he does with that beautiful online abode.

The Notebook section of his entirely black-and-white site presents a "collection of sketches, essays, and broadsides from the past decade." Some he plans to use in future books, others stand on their own as fantastical exercises. Some pieces he uses in his teaching, and yet others present "evidence of struggling to understand our strange world."

Here's a short one that comes from Road to Somewhere:

Somewhere along the Utah and Nevada border, a fat man wearing no shirt and hospital pants grills some steaks on the back of his dinged-up Airstream Classic trailer. A few old missile casings and rusted fuselages sit in his backyard which is an endless desert thundering out towards the Sierra Nevada range.

I pull over and take another picture of the sinking sun. He calls out howdy and I shout hey, our voices bouncing off the hills. The air is dead silent except for the sizzle of the grill fifty yards into the weeds. A screen door bangs and he disappears and returns with more steaks. I scan the horizon, thinking I can almost see New York and then down to New Orleans and across to LA. This country is too damned big. A small panic rushes up. Who installed these power-lines way the hell out here? Or are they telephone cables? I don’t understand how anything works.

406 miles to go. My rental car sprays dust and the fat man waves as I push south towards Vegas.

There are more than 150 of these, all dolled-up with photos or drawings. I struggle to write a blog post once or twice a week, either here or at The Backside of America. I can do better.

Then, of course, there is the Photographs section. Reeves presents dozens of black-and-white photos, each with a funny, clever, insightful or depressing sentence or two. There are small sections of pictures devoted to Reeves's vinyl and book collections. I hope he adds to these.

The photos of motels, street scenes, gas stations, and oil refineries lit up at night are gorgeous. Again, I hope he adds to this section.

What sets Reeves's web site apart from other author sites I've perused over the years is the Broadcasts section, a "collection of reverberated songs, AM radio chatter, and looping vinyl crackle from the Big American Studio."

Reeves designs these playlists for specific experiences, i.e., "long drives, cheap motels, and late nights," or "killing time in airports, motel lobbies, and train stations." I love the concept, because I'm a playlist guy (and before that, a mix tape and mix CD guy). I make playlists on my iPod with names like "Music for Hayseeds," "Goin' Places" and "One From the Ladies."

Seven years ago I started writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). I go back to it once in a while, with the idea in mind that someday I'll finish it, along with a companion concept album (the book actually grew out of the concept album, which is about UFO's, which won't surprise anybody.)

Alright, alright, that's enough. Go check out Reeves's web site, or buy his book.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

My Little Pinkie Pie

Amelia had a great night of trick or treating, dressed as Pinkie Pie from the "My Little Pony" TV show/toy franchise/world dominance mission. She and her friend Bridget, who was dressed as a cheerleader, merrily skipped around the neighborhood for about 75 minutes, filling their bags with all manner of chocolate, chewy fruit things and the odd bag of potato chips. Amelia even managed to collect a few coins for UNICEF.

Owen didn't go out, but had a good time handing out candy at our house, along with his grandparents. As for Beth and me, we went to a costume party down the street the following night, dressed as Wayne and Garth. I don't have pictures of those costumes, but here's a "best-of" clip from the "Wayne's World" movie to satisfy you.

Monday, November 3, 2014

J. Crew: Inspiring Readers While Clothing the Moderately Well-Heeled

Like many book lovers, I heart the idea of small stores where I can browse new releases, pick up a signed copy of something by a local author and perhaps eat a locally sourced brownie or two. I used to spend a fair amount of time in Newtonville Books before this great store moved from my neighborhood, Newtonville, a mile or two up the road (and the tax bracket ladder) to Newton Centre. I still shop there once in a while, but I will forever scoff at the fact that the owners maintain the name "Newtonville Books" despite their zip code shift.

I also buy books on Amazon, of course, but I try to keep my interactions with Jeff Bezos's minions strictly on the Search and Ignore tip. If I hear or read about a book that sounds interesting, I search for it on Amazon, add it to my wish list, and then buy it somewhere else, or send the list to family members around my birthday.

Barnes & Noble, too, has reeled me in plenty of times. I even joined the store's brainwashing, er, rewards program recently.

Never in my life, before yesterday, had I leafed through a book at a J. Crew store.

Beth and I were at Legacy Place, the quaint little outdoor megamall in Dedham, Mass., where Sumner Redstone -- business titan behind National Amusements, corporate parent of TV network CBS, Paramount Pictures and scores of movie theaters across the country, among other things -- hopes suburban Bostonites will honor his father by dropping loads of cash on everything from ice cream to sweaters, Carhartt jackets to a night out of bowling. I bought a sweater at Uniqlo, despite the fact that I don't know how to pronounce the name of this hip Japanese store.

Beth picked up a few things at Athleta (which I also have trouble saying the right way) and then popped into J. Crew. Honestly, I don't recall whether she bought anything there, because after making my way quickly around the men's section and stopping in front of the "Sale" table, I found myself enraptured. Not by the autumn-colored sweater-with-elbow-patches or the brown shoes or brown belts. But rather, by a book titled, On This Site. It wasn't for sale.

An irresistible shade of light green, heavy and about the the measurement of a legal pad, On This Site grabbed me from the first image I saw within. This was the image:

As blog regulars know, I have kind of a thing for abandoned places and landscapes on the fringe (see my other blog if you're new here: The Backside of America). So when I saw this image, and quickly flipped through the book and saw similar places, as well as places that weren't abandoned or on the edges of society, but which still somehow seemed damaged, I knew I had to find out more about this book, and its author, Joel Sternfeld.

Here's part of the write-up for the book at Amazon's web site:

"Between 1993 and 1996, Joel Sternfeld photographed 50 infamous crime sites around the US. On This Site contains images of these unsettlingly normal places, ordinary landscapes left behind after tragedies, their hidden stories disturbingly invisible. Each photograph is accompanied by a text describing the crime that took place at the location."

I love the concept, but given the price of the book (almost $60 hardcover only) I doubt I'll buy it. And I love the ideas behind Sternfeld's other books, ranging from American Prospects, which is a photographic record of 1980's America, to Walking the High Line, in which Sternfeld walks New York City's High Line before it became a chic downtown park and attraction, when it was just an abandoned railway that nobody but rats and bums cared about.

I'm not a photography geek, so I'd never heard the name "Joel Sternfeld" before. But I absolutely love what he does, and am taking new inspiration to get out into the world with my camera. I've posted a ton of pictures at Flickr over the last several years, but just last month for the first time, I began offering for sale some of my pictures. Check it out here: Dave Brigham Photography.

For a look at some of Sternfeld's work, check out this link. I'd never heard of this photographer before yesterday, but I recognize some of the images at the site. You probably will to.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Time Goes Backwards Sometimes

After sleeping for about an hour last night, I woke up at about 11:40, which was really 10:40 except that it wasn't. If you follow me. I went downstairs and flipped channels for a while until I stumbled across the beginning of one of my favorite late '70s movies, "Breaking Away."

I like Daniel Stern (one of my faves of the era, alongside Judge Reinhold), Dennis Quaid and Jackie Earle Haley much more than the star of the movie, Dennis Christopher. Stern plays lovably goofy better than just about anyone; Quaid is a bitter former high school QB; and Haley, as usual, plays a kid who most people underestimate and rag on because of his size. They're all townies in Indiana trying to figure out what to do with themselves.

I only watched about 20 minutes, because I knew that if I let myself get too into the movie, I'd watch the whole thing. So I snapped the TV off at 1:55 and waited for something I've never seen before: the clock turning from 1:59 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.

I chuckled to myself as I sat on the couch, warming myself with Amelia's favorite purple-pink blanket and wondering why the hell I was awake at 1:00 in the morning, which really felt like 2:00 and if I'm being honest it also felt like 4:17 and 3:56 and perhaps even like zero hour.

I've been feeling the need for my own "Breaking Away" moment lately. Trying to figure out what comes next in my life, hoping to get some sort of inspiration for what "my thing" is going to be. Maybe it's because I've turned the corner towards 50.

I was heartened to read this morning in, of all places, Parade magazine the share of U.S. entrepreneurs ages 55 to 64 grew from 14 to 23 percent between 1996 and 2012, the largest gain of any group. I'm not in that bracket yet, but I'm encouraged to see that the idea of starting my own business (whatever it might be, that's part of what woke me up last night, trying to figure out my future) isn't so far-fetched. I don't see myself getting hired anywhere given that I've been out of the workforce for so many years, but I like my chances of doing things on my own terms.

Maybe I should take my inspiration from Daniel Stern, who in addition to acting steadily since his debut in "Breaking Away," is also a sculptor, writer and director."

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Give It to Me, Ke$ha

Beth was listening to Spotify today, using her fancy Bluetooth cylinder speaker to crank it in our bedroom. I think she had on the Pop channel, doesn't matter, not the point of the story. Focus here, people. Anyway, I was in the bathroom, brushing my teeth and such, when I heard some fawning female voice wafting through the air, and I immediately thought of this old Offspring song:

I asked Beth what song was on, and she said, "Ke$ha." Not sure when she learned to speak "dollar sign," but whatever.

Friday, October 31, 2014

He/She is #1!

It's been a long, long time since I've posted. I intended to write some book reviews for, among others, Greg Olear's novel about a day in the crazy life of a stay-at-home dad, Fathermucker; Bill See's rock and roll memoir, 33 Days: Touring in a Van, Sleeping on Floors, Chasing a Dream; and David Roberts's Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy, a riveting non-fiction book that puts into a very harsh light the man who engineered the Latter Day Saints' emigration to the Utah Territory.

I gave up on them because as much as I love reading, I don't really enjoy writing book reviews, although I've posted several here over the years.

I've put a lot of my writing energy lately into my road trip memoir, which I'll post about here in the near future. I also put some energy into launching a for-profit photography site recently (check out Dave Brigham Photography).

Other things have gotten in the way of my posting here, as well, but I don't feel the need to get into that. Finally, though, I've been inspired to revisit the old blog, breathe some life into it, with just a little nugget of interest.

This week I was driving through Needham, the next town over. Owen, as he often is these days, was riding shotgun. He was plinking around on his phone as we pulled up to a stop sign. I looked at the white pickup truck in front of us and took special notice of the license plate. I asked Owen to snap a quick pic with his phone, and he did his best. Not sure if you can see what it reads:

The plate reads:



"That's amazing!" I said to Owen. "Whose plate is that? Shouldn't the governor have that plate? Or one of our senators?"

Within 20 seconds, he'd looked up the owner of the license plate. We were like a finely tuned investigative team: wheelman and photographer/researcher.

"It belongs to a relative of Frederick Tudor," he told me, as though I was supposed to know who he was talking about, as though Frederick Tudor's name would ring as familiar a bell as "Edward Kennedy" or "David Ortiz."

I asked him who Frederick Tudor was, but Owen was back into checking flight radar on his phone, or doing Minecraft or whatever.

So today I looked up Frederick Tudor and his special license plate. Here's what I found out.

From the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles web site:

"Massachusetts first began issuing licenses and registration plates in June of 1903 as a result of Chapter 473 of the Acts of 1903. The public had until September of that year to comply with the law. The first plate, featuring the number '1' printed on it, was issued to Frederick Tudor in 1903 and is still held as an active registration by a member of his family."

How cool is that? The family has held onto the plate for 111 years! I love that the plate isn't on the governor's black Escalade, or whatever he's driven around in, or zipping around the Cape on an environmentally friendly car driven by a member of the Kennedy clan.

It's on an ordinary pickup truck. The Tudor family probably could have sold the plate and the truck to Scott Brown when he was tooling around Massachusetts in his barn coat and pickup when he ran for Senate a few years ago.

I hope the family passes that plate down for the next hundred years. Now, to find out who owns plate #2....

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Planes, Trains and 18 Wheelers

I loved "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," the 1987 comedy starring Steve Martin and John Candy. My son, Owen, has loved trains for many years, and recently has become enamored of plane spotting. But I think at 12 he's a little young to watch this R-rated film.

I thought of the movie after watching Owen over the last several days bounce out of the house with his camera every time he hears a plane overhead. He snaps pictures, and then zooms in on the screen to see what type of plane, and what carrier. If he can't tell, he can always check the radar app on his phone. It's pretty amazing how technology has made easy what surely used to be an exercise in futility, as plane spotters would have to buy trade magazines, visit the public library to check through Encyclopedia Brittanicas, hack into air traffic control or spend loads of money on telephoto lenses for their cameras.

Owen and I have traveled to South Boston's Castle Island a few times in recent weeks to watch planes take off and land at Logan Airport. The planes are so low, you can almost hear people complaining about having to turn off their electronic devices.

And of course the two of us have traveled countless miles on Boston's subway system over the last several years, and driven far and wide so he can take pictures and videos of commuter, Amtrak and freight trains.

Sometimes I wonder, "How can he enjoy looking at the same planes and trains over and over?" Then I harken back to when I was his age, and obsessed with semi trucks and boogie vans.

Here's how I described my fascination with 18-wheelers in the road trip memoir I've been working on for the past two years:

I knew Peterbilts from Kenworths, Macks from Internationals. I liked conventionals better than cabovers. During my bus ride to junior high school every day my heart skipped a beat when I saw the gleaming red-white-and-blue tractor with the double sleeper sitting in the parking lot of a factory in the center of my town.

I would ride my bike, sometimes alone, other times with my buddy Pat and his younger brother Bryan, about half a mile to the main drag through my hometown and anxiously wait for big rigs to drive by. When I spotted one, I'd give the signal for the driver to blow his air horn, and whoop it up whenever they complied.

Spotting trucks was my favorite game while on family road trips.

One time, I had my mother drive me about 10 miles into Granby, so I could take a picture of a Peterbilt that I'd noticed on a previous drive. Here's the picture:

I still keep an eye out for big trucks when I'm on the highway.

Around this time, ages 11-13, I discovered custom vans. I bought magazines and ogled the tricked-out rides (and bikini babes), and looked for boogie vans wherever I went. Connecticut's Farmington Valley wasn't exactly a hotbed of vintage vans with waterbeds, wet bars, fur-covered steering wheels and murals straight off the cover of Heavy Metal magazine, but I saw a few here and there.

On a family trip out West in 1977, when I was 12, I snapped the picture below in Salt Lake City.

I guess it's no surprise that in 1988, when I was almost 23 and nearly a year out of college, I bought a van with my buddy Andy. We got it into running shape, but didn't have the money to remodel the inside to look a celebrity's living room, or hire somebody to paint a scantily clad Amazon riding a war steed on the side.

We slapped a Grateful Dead sticker on the front before picking up my friends Pete and John and going on a four-month road trip.

I got rid of the van a long time ago. The Greater Boston area, where I've lived for the past 20+ years, is thin on old custom vans, unlike Southern California. But I still love seeing an old boogie van, or watching Fu Manchu fans' homemade videos once in a while to rekindle my passion.

Yesterday, one of my neighbors asked Owen if he wanted to be a pilot or train engineer when he grows up. He said he wasn't sure. Chances are he won't be either of those things, but I'd put odds on the fact that he'll have a passion for planes and trains for the rest of his life.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I'm excited for HBO's new series, "The Leftovers":

When I first heard of Tom Perrotta's book, which the series is based on, I thought it odd that the author of spot-on high-school popularity contest spoof "Election" and suburban parenting-and-affairs story "Little Children" was taking on Christianity's Rapture fantasy.

Those who believe in the Rapture are certain that Jesus Christ will return to Earth, and deliver Christian believers to Heaven. Those left behind, as it were, will face the end of times, the story goes.

The concept has gotten a huge marketing boost in recent years with the "Left Behind" book series. Nicolas Cage stars in the movie created from that series, which hits theaters in October:

My wife read Perrotta's book last year and highly recommended it, although she didn't tell me much about the story. I finally got around to it last month, and was expecting it to have more of a relationship to Christianity than it does. The book has about as much to do with the Rapture as Justin Bieber does with maturity.

Just as "The Sopranos" was less about the Mafia than it was about screwed-up mobsters, "The Leftovers" isn't really about the disappearance of millions of people around the world, but rather about how the remaining 98% of humanity deal with this shocking event.

I'll be done with this excellent book by the end of this week. Then I'll start reading as much press as I can and watching trailers to get myself psyched up for the HBO series.

Perrotta is co-writing the 10 episodes with Damon Lindelof of "Lost" fame. The series stars Justin Theroux, Liv Tyler and a bunch of people I don't know.

I loved the movie adaptation of "Election"; I never read the book. I liked the movie of "Little Children," but enjoyed the book more. "The Leftovers" is so rich and detailed and has so many wonderful characters, I've got high hopes for HBO's treatment. I hope I'm not let down.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Message In a Concertina

(My dad, Richard Brigham -- 1929-2014)

I'm neither religious nor spiritual, but when my father passed away a month ago today, I came to understand why people believe in heaven. Honestly, I don't know what I believe, but I experienced a moment a few days after my dad's death that stopped me short and made me give hard thought to the afterlife.

My father was unconscious for the last three days of his life. During that time, my mother, sister, brother and I talked to him (giving him updates on the Red Sox and UConn basketball, telling we loved him, recounting old stories) and also sang to him. We sang an old song that we'd grown up on, called "Skinamarinky Dinky Dink," many times.

But it was my mother's beautiful rendition of "True Love," a song written by Cole Porter in 1956 and made popular by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in "High Society," that I found the most touching. The song was popular during the time that my parents were dating, and it was the closest thing they had to a wedding song.

My mother sang it several times to my father while he was in the hospital. She didn't remember all the words, but did recall the most important ones:

While I give to you and you give to me

True love, true love

So on and on it will always be

True love, true love

In the days following my dad's death, my mother, sister, brother and I began planning a memorial service. Four days after his passing, my sister emailed a YouTube clip of the song "True Love," featuring Crosby and Kelly from "High Society." We knew we had to include the song in the service in some fashion.

Here's the clip:

You'll notice that Crosby is playing a small accordion, called a concertina. About an hour after I watched the video that Thursday, I went for a walk. I needed to clear my head a bit after what had been several long, stressful, painful and sad days.

I walked, as usual, along the path that runs next to the Charles River through Newton, Watertown, Waltham and other area towns. I came to a road crossing, and decided that, rather than proceed on the path as I always do, that I could walk along the road, crossing the river on a bridge.

Just a few seconds after diverting onto this new route, I passed a young guy wearing a backpack and playing...a concertina.

Never in my life had I seen anybody playing a concertina while walking down the street. And I'd certainly never seen this guy before on my walks. Why did I change course from my usual walk? I can't say. After I passed the guy, I turned and looked to make sure I wasn't seeing things. Sure enough, he was continuing on his way, unaware that he'd played a part in not only making my day, but also in sending me off into cosmic wonderings.

I took this experience the only way I could: as a sign from my dad that he was OK, wherever he was (and, as I told my kids, wherever he was, he was surely enjoying plenty of desserts). My brother, sister and mother have all experienced their own signs from my father. Mine involved music, which is such a huge and important part of my life.

I think about my dad all the time, and sometimes talk to him. I don't know if I'll have another experience like I did with the concertina, but I know that, as my nearly 12-year-old son, Owen told me, "You can always talk to Big Gramps."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Adding Up New Music

The mini-bio on Emily Jane Powers' Bandcamp page used to say something along the lines of, "Emily Jane Powers is a Chicago indie pop artist who plays guitar, violin, keys, drums, and sings. She also teaches math." I loved that. Nowadays, the second sentence reads, "While she incorporates aspects of 60s pop, folk, and punk into her music, she has never looked to any influence but herself for a sense of direction."

The first recording of hers I heard was a cover of The Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker." I forget where I downloaded it from, but wherever it was, they credited the song to "Yellow Mica Recordings." Whereas the original bops along with Wall of Sound cheeriness, Powers' version has a melancholy edge honed sharply with acoustic guitar, piano and strings.

I have listened to The Ramones' "Sheena Is a Punk Rocker" countless times, so I loved the fact that someone had taken a song I knew so well, a song that's a major part of the punk rock canon, and turned it on its head. Powers'version popped up on my iPod enough times, I finally decided I needed to find out who this woman was.

A quick Google search gave me, as always, what I needed. Since then, I've downloaded two of Powers' many albums, and plan to listen to the others and grab at least two more. She's prolific, that's for sure. She has 10 albums available on her Bandcamp page, recorded over the past dozen years.

Her music is sometimes sweet and simple like the Mamas and Papas (those are the ones I like), sometimes a bit too freak-folkish for me, like, I don't know, whoever is annoying in that scene. Overall, though, I like her aesthetic and DIY attitude.

Here are a few samples:

Dani from EJP on Vimeo.

"What Makes You" by Emily Jane Powers from Look Sessions on Vimeo.

Powers shares a sensibility with other women whose music I've found myself drawn to in recent years: She & Him (a duo featuring actress Zooey Deschanel), Arthur & Yu (a male/female duo that no longer exists) and First Aid Kit (a sister act from Sweden).

I'm not sure where this new musical leaning comes from. Don't get me wrong, I still rock out, still thrive on playing air guitar to The Descendents' Milo Goes to College album:

And I spend a lot of time listening to neo-twangy stuff like Lydia Loveless:

There's something about the harmonies, the longing in their voices, the deceptive simplicity of the music that gets me with artists like Powers, She & Him and First Aid Kit. It all goes back to Nancy Sinatra, I guess. I listened to her quite a bit during my 1988 road trip, and while I don't listen to her much any more, I always like hearing "These Boots Were Made for Walkin'" or "Sugar Town" when they pop up on my iPod.

The math just adds up for me.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Uncle Bill

This past Saturday I went to my Uncle Bill's memorial service. There were times in recent years when, unless I was talking about my dad's family, I forgot about my uncle.

Growing up, I saw my dad's older brother, George, and his family regularly. And today, although we're all grown and have gone our various ways, some with kids, others without, a big group of us cousins gathers at least once a year.

Bill never had kids, and lived in Rochester, New Hampshire, about three hours from where most of the rest of us lived. He visited us in Connecticut on rare occasions, and kept his distance in other ways, too.

I knew very little about him. Random images float in my head, but they are like Viewmaster slides. I load a picture of Bill in my head, mention it to someone in my family, and then someone flips the switch and the picture changes.

"No," they say, "he had the Winnebago in Simsbury, not at Grandma Jo's house."

He was a crew-cutted mystery, a pot-bellied ghost. I remember a picture of him with a flat-top haircut, big sideburns, an orange blazer and thick, black glasses (similar to the ones I wear). I thought he looked cool. But I haven't seen that photo in years, and sometimes I wonder if I made it up in my head.

I saw him at my grandmother's funeral in 1989, and he looked much as I'd remembered him, but very different in so many ways than his brothers. Sure, he was tall and dark-haired, but where my dad and George wore jackets and ties, George donned jeans, a checked shirt and a big belt buckle. He looked like a trucker, which he was. Or at least I thought he was, until I learned otherwise at his service.

I know he was a firefighter in Rochester, as well as a bus driver.

Last summer I drove my parents to Rochester to see Bill. He'd been sick with Alzheimer's for quite some time, and his wife, Mary Lou, had to put him in a nursing home. She told my dad that Bill was deteriorating both physically and mentally, and might not have much more time.

Our visit went as well as could be expected. None of us had seen Bill in 24 years. He spoke only in a low whisper, and only to Mary Lou. She knew what he wanted and could understand what little he said, or interpret his gestures. We watched the Red Sox on TV and made small talk with each other and with Mary Lou.

One of Mary Lou's granddaughters accompanied her to the nursing home. After our visit, the five of us went to lunch. I really liked Mary Lou. She was tough, smart and easy to talk to.

Since that visit, I have thought about Bill a bit more than usual.

I thought that back in 1989 I could've made an effort to see him in Rochester. At the time, I was living a short distance away, in Dover, NH. I worked for a few months at a local factory, and discovered that my boss knew my uncle from the fire department.

"You uncle is Frig'em Brigham?" he asked when I told him Bill worked as a firefighter in Rochester.

I shied away from asking him about that nickname, and what my uncle was like. I felt weird because I didn't know my own flesh and blood. I have a feeling that if I'd reached out to my uncle, given him a call or driven up to the fire station, we would've had a few laughs over cans of beer.

I suspect he told more than a few dirty jokes in his life. He could've told me how to fix stuff, because none of the Simsbury Brigham are particularly adept mechanically.

I didn't know what to expect at the memorial service. My parents rode up with one of my cousins, and my sister and two other cousins arrived separately. Only my parents and I had met Mary Lou before.

I suspected the Rochester Fire Department would be represented at the service, but I couldn't have imagined how big a presence they were. Before my arrival, apparently, a long line of firefighters paid their respects. Outside the chapel the department parked the truck that my uncle had driven when he was on the job (he retired in the late '80s). They put black and purple bunting on the truck, and boots, a helmet and coat that I believe belonged to my uncle.

The department put a display at the front of the chapel featuring my uncle's uniform, two silver-bladed axes, his honorable discharges from the Navy and Army Reserve, and his urn. Firefighters took turns standing at attention at the front of the chapel until the service started.

During the service the department's chaplain offered words of comfort to the gathering, and read a letter that Mary Lou wrote. It was all very moving.

Near the end of the service came the part that really got me, though. Two young Navy men in uniform approached the front of the chapel, saluted Bill's urn while "Taps" played, and then unfurled the triangular American flag that lay on the table. Once the flag was unrolled, they showed it to the congregation, and then methodically folded it back into its three-corner shape.

They then presented it to Mary Lou, and offered these words:

"On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service."

The minister spoke of Bill's service to his country and to the people of Rochester, including the children he took to and from school during his many years driving a bus. Others spoke of his good humor and great ways with his stepchildren and grandchildren.

It felt strange to hear these words about somebody who I barely knew, but I felt it connected us just a little bit.

My immediate family and I stuck out like sore thumbs at the service. My dad and my cousin John wore suits; I had a nice pair of pants and a button-down shirt. My mother, sister and two cousins were dressed nicely as well.

Everyone else in attendance was in jeans, sweatshirts, fleece jackets, leather jackets, etc. I knew this was how it would be, because I knew that Rochester was a blue collar town, and my uncle was a blue collar guy. But once we broke the ice a bit with a few folks, things felt OK. Nobody seemed to hold a grudge that Mary Lou put my family in the reserved pews at the front of the chapel.

The delicate new bond between us was solidified a little more when the guy who looked most menacing -- leather jacket, black boots, neck tattoos, ear tattoos, scruffy beard -- told my dad he liked his cane, which is black with a silver snake head for a handle.

"My grandfather had one like that," the guy said. "His had a cobra for a handle, and you could pull it out and it was a sword." We laughed at that, and it felt pretty good.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Imprinting Press

When our cat, Cosmo, died in March 2011, we talked about getting another not long after. More recently, as Amelia has continue to ask about fish, a dog or a cat, we considered getting two kittens.

Well, nearly three years later, we finally adopted a new pet.

Her name is Lily, and she's very cute and sweet and seems to be fitting right in. If the shelter had another girl cat around the same age, we might have adopted her as well.

The kids love her, of course, and Beth and I are happy to have a new furry friend. We had Cosmo for more than 15 years, and he was a great pet. I don't even mind resuming litter box and feeding duties.

We brought Lily home Monday afternoon, after picking her out at the MSPCA the previous Saturday. As instructed, we closed her into a small room with her litter box, food, toys and some blankets so she would have some time to get used to her new home. Once during the evening she escaped our basement bathroom, so once we captured her, we blocked the door so she could just chill out overnight.

I got up early the next morning and sprung her so she could roam around the house for an hour or so before the kids woke up. For much of the rest of Tuesday I didn't see her. Mid-afternoon, I found her in the unfinished half of our basement, behind an old table stacked up with stuff.

Over the next few days she began to come out of her shell -- sleeping under and atop beds, cuddling on laps during evening TV time, playing with her toys a little bit.

As of last night, she's in full-out imprinting mode -- trying to make her mark on us and the house in many ways.

She tried numerous times to get under the covers with Beth and me once we were in bed. We kept picking her up and either putting her on the floor, or on to of the covers. She got under once when we were both asleep, and I promptly evicted her. I wouldn't mind her sleeping under there -- Cosmo used to do it -- but she was kicking around like she thought it was her litter box. We don't want to have to buy Kitty Depends for her.

Other times during the night she snuggled up to my neck, something Cosmo never did. I was awake for a while because of her extracurricular activities, but that's OK.

This morning she took her imprinting tactics to a different place: the breakfast table.

Thinking me distracted by the newspaper, Lily kept approaching my cereal bowl and attempting to dip her head into my granola. When I shooed her away, she promptly stuck her cute little head toward my OJ glass. After several vollies back and forth, I scooped her up and put her on the floor. She hopped back up, I put her back down. Ad infinitum.

I know this is standard cat business, but we never dealt with it with Cosmo. He wasn't a food grubber.

Upon arriving home from volunteering at the National Archives Friday afternoon, I was greeted practically at the door by Lily, which is nice but I would have liked it if she'd brought my slippers and a tumbler of Scotch.

As I type this she's sitting in my lap after, once again, several attempts on my part to get her to stop stalking me. She's very cute, so I can't get mad at her. I assume as she gets used to all of us and our house, she'll stop being quite so needy.

In the meantime, I'll just have to keep using the lint brush to get her white and black hairs off my dark sweaters.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Devil Didn't Make Me Do It

Earlier this week I made a list of writing projects that I want to complete in the next few years. Top of the list is my first children's picture book, which is moving along well with an illustrator and the backing of the MBTA, the folks who run Boston's subway system (see January 29, 2014, "Kidding Around").

At the bottom of the list I wrote this:



I've never written a screenplay. I have, however, written a few plays. Last March I read an article in the Boston Globe about a Boston gangster known as White Devil John, and immediately I thought, "Talk about a movie-ready name!"

Here's the part of the Globe story I threw into a Word document with an eye toward developing a story based on this case:

They called him Bac Guai John or “White Devil John,” and he was their enforcer.

John Willis was a white man from Dorchester, yet, according to court records, he quietly emerged as a leader among Chinatown’s Asian gangs, historically known for insulating themselves from outsiders.

He had been introduced to the neighborhood’s underworld when he was about 12 years old, learned to speak Cantonese and was essentially adopted by a Chinese family, according to federal prosecutors. From there, they say, he followed the leaders of the violent and once-powerful Ping On Gang, launching a career that spanned more than two decades.

[In federal court he pleaded guilty] to an indictment that painted him as the nexus among low-level Asian gangs that ran rackets in Chinatown, including drug dealing, gambling and prostitution.

After reacquainting myself with this story today, I searched online to see if there were any updates on White Devil John. Turns out, I can erase this idea from my project list.

A book is already in the works, and has been sold to a publisher. Rights for TV, film and a graphic novel have also been sold.

So who's behind the project?

Boston sports reporter turned news anchor Bob Halloran, that's who.

Halloran is a very likable guy who, it turns out, is much more than a good news reader and clever wordsmith when reporting on Boston's teams. He's written at least five books, covering topics ranging from Whitey Bulger and Steve "The Rifleman" Flemmi, to "Irish" Mickey Ward (Halloran served as a consultant on "The Fighter") and the Red Sox.

Working with White Devil John himself -- John Willis -- Halloran has written a non-fiction, true crime tale tailor-made for the big screen (James Gray has been hired to write and direct; Gray's credits include "The Immigrants," "We Own the Night" and "The Lost City of Z," which is in pre-production and is based on a great book I read a few years ago).

Here's part of the blurb from Publisher's Marketplace:

"Still a teenager, John took a job as a bouncer at a club near Fenway Park. After coming to the aid of a young Chinese man named Woping (John Jo in English), John had a friend he would forever call his brother. He was taken in by John Jo's family. He learned to speak Cantonese, grew fond of the Chinese culture of honor, family and Buddhism, and went to work for the Chinese Mob in Boston's Chinatown."

The book will be published by BenBella Books in the spring of 2015.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Kidding Around

Here are some thoughts that might come to mind when someone says, "Boston's Green Line":

  • Squeaky
  • Smelly
  • Cold
  • Hot
  • Crowded
  • Late
  • Did I mention squeaky?

For others, including my 11-year-old son, Owen, the Green Line conjures images of adventure and intrigue. The oldest subway stations in America are on the the line -- Park and Boylston stations. You travel through the heart of Boston when you're on the Green Line. You go past Fenway Park, TD Garden (home of the Celtics and Bruins), the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science and historic Boston Common.

My son also loves to keep track of which trains are running on which lines (the Green Line has B, C, D and E branches), and which ones are in or out of service.

As some readers know, I've been working on a children's picture book about riding the Green Line. A few years back, inspired by countless subway rides with Owen, I started writing a book about a generic subway ride. I had a hard time with it, and gave up. But then my sister-in-law's husband, Todd, asked if I wanted to write one specifically about the Green Line, for eventual inclusion in the line of products that his company, Sidetrack Products, sells.

The process is taking longer than I'd expected, but things are heading in the right direction.

Back in late October I gave draft copies of the book to the licensing agents for the MBTA (aka the T), which operates the subway. Two weeks ago I heard back from the point man, who likes the concept of the book. He had some questions/comments about the look of the book, and stressed that I need to make sure I get any necessary clearances to use the names of Fenway Park, TD Garden, the Red Sox, etc.

The bottom line, though, is that he's excited to sell the book because there are no other T-themed children's books available. So yesterday I met with Martina, the illustrator, to address some design issues in order to make headway on a next draft to give to the licensing guys.

In the meantime, I'm waiting to hear back from the two publishers I mailed the manuscript to three months ago. Several years ago one of the companies published a children's book about riding a T bus; the other is based in Massachusetts and is looking to publish its first books.

As I told Martina yesterday, I hope that by the end of this year to have an agreement in place to publish the book. I've already got a draft for a Red Line book, in hopes that if the Green Line book does well, there could be a series including all of Boston's subway lines.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

More memoir inspiration

When my stack of books-to-be-read shrank to dangerously low levels, I took to the attic stacks to see what I'd overlooked. I found Modern American Memoirs, a collection of 35 excerpts from writers ranging from Malcolm X, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin, to Harry Crews, Wallace Stegner and Margaret Mead.

While reading it, I've alternated between being inspired and getting depressed.

As regular readers (reader?) know, I've been working on a memoir about a road trip I took in 1988 (see November 13, 2013, "Drafting"). I started writing it in earnest in April 2012. Last year I had a handful of friends and family read it, while I took a nice long break from the process. I got back several useful comments about the manuscript, and in the early fall started in on another draft.

My buddy Jim, who curated the Movable Feasts short story collection that I contributed to, told me that I needed to "punch up" my prose. I took his comment to heart, and have been trying to do that, while simultaneously editing my copy down to tight sentences.

Those may seem to be opposite goals, but they're not. I'm trying to make the story come to life, to make it less "newsy," which is a common problem of mine in writing anything from songs to emails to short stories. I blame my journalism degree. Using more vivid language, however, doesn't mean wasting words and extending sentences. I want everything I write to be bright and useful.

I find it too easy sometimes to edit my manuscript without making the complementary changes in tone. I've looked over the chapters so many times that the whole process becomes rote. There is a big challenge in this process, but I'm equal to it.

Making the challenge even greater is reading some of the fantastic stories in Modern American Memoirs.

Take, for instance, this passage from Stegner's Wolf Willow, which mixes memoir, history and, evidently, fiction:

What we did on the homestead was written in wind. It began as it ended -- empty space, grass and sky. I remember it as it originally was, for my brother and I, aged eight and six, accompanied my father when he went out to make the first "improvements." Except for the four-foot iron post jutting from the prairie just where our wagon track met the trail to Hydro, Montana, and for the three shallow holes with the survey stake at their apex that marked the near corner of our land, there was nothing to distinguish or divide our land from all other, to show which 320 acres of that wind and grass were ours.

I'm trying my best to make my book purely nonfiction. I've done a good job putting the narrative arc together, and filling in details culled from audio tapes, journal notes, newspaper articles I wrote and conversations with my fellow road trippers. And I've got a primary theme: my struggle to break out of my comfort zone and just have a good time during our adventure.

But I worry that the story is too boring at times. My buddy Jim suggested that if I opted not to punch up the story as is, I should fictionalize the tale in order to make it go in all sorts of crazy directions.

I fictionalized some of the stories from the road in my collection, (C)rock Stories: Million-Dollar Tales of Music, Mayhem and Immaturity (BUY IT!!), so I'm not interested in taking that road (pun intended).

So I'm hoping to get some ideas from Modern American Memoirs about how to make my story pop without sacrificing the truth. Stay tuned....

(For more writing that's inspired me, see May 25, 2012, "Inspiration.")

Friday, January 3, 2014

Something about jarmusch or lurie or edson or all three

The title of this blog meant something when I wrote it down several weeks ago. Now, I have no idea what I wanted to say about filmmaker Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise," "Down By Law," "Mystery Train") or John Lurie and Richard Edson, who starred in "Stranger Than Paradise." But I'll come up with something, so stick around.

I saw "Stranger Than Paradise" during college, in 1984, on the big screen at the Colonial Theatre in Keene, NH. I loved the absurd dialogue, the aimless road trip, the cool clothes and my introduction to the wild music of Screamin' Jay Hawkins.

I developed a crush on the female lead, Eszter Balint. She was Euro-cool with her accent, cigarettes and defensive attitude. Here's the trailer:

Balint has since appeared in other films (Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog," Steve Buscemi's "Tree's Lounge") and recorded music on her own and with many others, including Lurie.

Lurie was snide and funny, and dressed like nobody I knew. He had done a few small films before "Stranger." Since then he's appeared in several more, including "Paris, Texas" and "Wild at Heart," two movies I enjoyed, although I remember nothing about them. In 1991, he hosted "Fishing With John," a show that featured him angling along with underground heroes including Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper.

I saw Lurie and his band, Lounge Lizards, years ago in Cambridge, Mass. They were terrific, and Lurie was just the same in person as he was on screen: droll, stylish, sarcastic.

Here's my favorite Lounge Lizards song:

Edson was sweet and a bit slow. "Stranger Than Paradise" was his first film. He's worked consistently ever since, appearing in films ranging from "Desperately Seeking Susan" with Madonna to "Good Morning Vietnam" with Robin Williams, and TV series including "Vegas" and "Perception."

Years after seeing "Stranger Than Paradise," I learned he once drummed for Sonic Youth, which in my mind made him forever cool.

As for Jarmusch, I've seen a bunch of his movies since "Stranger Than Paradise": "Down By Law," "Mystery Train," "Night on Earth," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," "Coffee and Cigarettes" and "Broken Flowers."

Other than "Stranger Than Paradise," I haven't seen any of these other films more than once, so little from them sticks with me. So what's my point?

Just nostalgia, I guess. I rarely go to see movies any more, never mind films. I miss the days of small, independent, quirky works of art in which little ever happens. I don't know much about the mumblecore school of movie-making, but I'm guessing it's like Jarmusch's films -- small, stupid, goofy, uncomfortable, clever, cute, raw.

I can relate to this kind of art. As I've gotten older, I've become more comfortable with the notion that I'm not the deepest well in Artesia. I write fiction that doesn't include enough physical description. I don't develop full-blown characters. In my non-fiction, I have difficulty expressing what I was feeling at certain junctures, and my ability to flesh out other characters leaves something to be desired.

In my short story collection, (C)rock Stories: Million-Dollar Tales of Music, Mayhem and Immaturity, I focused on telling a story and not so much on character development. I'm OK with that, because I knew my limitations. I wanted the stories to feel like something one friend would tell another about "that time we saw Foghat in a small bar" or "when we played that lady's funeral in New Mexico" or "getting ripped off on our way to an Echo & the Bunnymen concert."

Slice of life, I guess you call it.

I'm always working on this, trying to push myself to show, rather than tell, to use a full paint palette instead of employing No. 2 pencils. But as "Seinfeld" showed the world, sometimes it's OK to build something from small, seemingly unimportant moments.