Sunday, May 17, 2009

Any Day Now

Sometimes music gets very intertwined with our memories of a certain time and place. And the friends you had then.

I wanted a nice quiet, tuneful album to grade essays to. So I came up with Any Day Now, a Joan Baez double LP from 1968, made up exclusively of Bob Dylan songs.

I have always loved her singing voice and Dylan's lyrics. And on the album, she has a low key but interesting back up band of Nashville session players, who went further into rock than she usually did, picking up the pace from some of Dylan's early songs, but slowing down some, like Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. That song brings up another interesting twist, that of listening to someone interpret songs that were sometimes about her. There have been lots of interpretations of Dylan, but some of these, like the versions of "Any Day Now," "Love is Just a Four Letter Word" and "One Too Many Mornings," are the best around, IMHO.

What surprised me, listening to these songs, for a very current purpose, grading graduate student papers, was how much they brought up a now distant seeming, but still curiously fresh past. I can close my eyes and see the dorm room where I first heard this album.

This was one of my favorite albums in the spring of 1971. I had just come back from two quarters of study abroad in Vienna, Austria. My girlfriend there, Debbie Maranville, had stayed on for another quarter. Some friends from there and from my freshman year were around, but it seemed like a very new time. After six months of trying to understand Austria in German and a startling three weeks of traveling in the USSR, it seemed odd to be back in California, doing all the normal student stuff, picking up a radio show at KZSU again, getting involved in the anti-war movement again as new demonstrations were picking up again against the Vietnam War, in what was beginning to seem like a regular seasonal riot against Vietnam policy.

I was living in a classy old dorm called Toyon. My room-mate was the wretchedly spoiled son of some elite landowner in Central America. (I have repressed his name.) So I went looking for friends elsewhere. One of the best was a woman from Washington, D.C. named Robin Spring. She introduced me to Any Day Now, which rapidly became the soundtrack for the whole quarter. It got me back into my quasi-idolatry of Dylan in a more ear-pleasing way.

Joan Baez herself appeared on campus several times that spring to sing and speak at rallies, appealing to people to burn their draft cards and resist the draft. I think I remember the scene in this photo, but I may be mistaken. This is pretty much what I remember it looking like, however.

I remember thinking that I liked her music a lot. David's Album had just come out, lionizing her then husband of that name, a former Standford student president, who had gone to jail for resisting the draft. However, I both admired and resented them, since I wasn't sure resisting the draft was worth the price to be paid, even though I opposed the war very deeply.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Prague 1970 and 2007

In one of those really curious parallel universe events, Sandy and I both studied abroad in Austria and visited Prague in 1970 and 2007. She was with a BYU group in Salzburg, I was with a Stanford group in Vienna. To add to the small world syndrome, our son Chris did a shorter summer study abroad in Vienna in 2007 with BYU, taught by an old friend of ours, Alan Keele.

Sandy just put the following up on Facebook, which is a bit less permanent than a blog, which is easy to archive. So let's start with her observations and then I will add some of my own.
In 1970 Prague was a grimy and dismal place. A wall around the corner from our hotel was splattered with what looked like fresh blood. Stand-up bars served something that resembled whipped Pepto-Bismol. A postal worker informed us that we couldn't buy stamps to send letters to West Germany because no such place existed. Students identified us as East Germans and couldn't be convinced otherwise. The West really didn't exist for them. It was two years after the Prague Spring.
I asked my friend Steve to take a picture of me by a city well in the old town. I had assumed a thoughtful and properly depressed expression. He told a joke and then snapped the picture. I was highly irritated. Picture #1.

Joe: I was wearing longish frizzy hair and a second hand Russian greatcoat from a pawnshop in Vienna when I visited Prague. So nobody thought either I or my Stanford in Austria buddies were East German. They quickly accepted that we were American. (It is a compliment to Sandy's group that their German was good enough to be taken for German -- ours was definitely not.) But they were delighted to tell us how much they liked rock music and hated Russia, at least the USSR politicians who had ordered the Soviet Army to invade them..
The town was clearly socialist in a way I almost miss parts of. There were cheap cafeterias, priced for working class people that were also great for poor students, who had already spent way too much abroad. The students we met were intensely interested in politics. They thought the attraction some of us had for Marx was naive. When they heard that some of us were going on to visit the USSR, they were appalled -- why visit people who had just invaded them to put down the political opening or liberalization of Prague Spring in 1968 -- but they also grinned wisely and said things like, "Just wait until you see what 'really existing socialism' looks like." And they were dead right.

Sandy: The Prague I visited in 2007 was a decadent party town full of revelers from everywhere in the world. The Karluv Most bridge was full of musicians and bright lights at night. The old buildings downtown were the same, only with clean windows and charming little ice-cream and tea shops in every block. The well was still there, in the old town. We took a picture. It was okay to smile, this time. Picture # 2.
Praha 2007

Joe: I was a little ambivalent about the change in Prague. People were no longer worried by being jailed over toxic politics. The city was much less drab and clearly very prosperous. But also much more globalized and westernized. They probably making a lot of money off the European and American partiers who had crowded to Prague for cheap, world famous beer. But the quaint little bookstores where we both (separately, obviously) bought classic books in German were long gone.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mothers' Day

My wife Sandy, my partner of almost 32 years and the mother of three quite wonderful adult children is very ambivalent about Mothers' Day. She thinks it is too commercialized and also tends too much to put women and mothers on a sort of revered, but ghettoized pedestal. She is probably quite right about all of that.

But it is a day when it is hard not to reflect at least a little bit about our own mothers and the dear but complicated roles they usually have in our lives. Let me start with a list of words prompted by my own mother's memory (she died at 91 in 1996 after a several year long bout of dementia that resembled Alzheimers). And add a few photos.

So I think of my mother as:

loving - I always knew that my parents were pretty fond of each other, it seems like that became more the case as they got older -- here is a picture of them in their 20s in the 1920s, farmer and flapper

And I don't think I ever doubted that both she and my father loved me, that is quite a gift, the kind you can never fully repay

encouraging (this is her with me at a Boy Scout court of honor in about 1963, mothers always got pins representing the ranks we earned, reflecting this encouragement)

smart (she started Teachers College but quit to marry my Dad)
quiet but strong
quiet but probably a little depressed (after they moved off the farm into town, she had lost a lot of the role and critical economic importance she had had as a farm wife and mother)
a good reader and someone who encouraged me to read a lot

loyal to her family
patient with children, grandchildren, husband, and all
(here is another picture of my mother and father, after a long life together, after they had retired from farming, by their car on the street where they lived in Nampa, Idaho

very good cook
unbelievably good and prolific gardener (these are the flowers that lined the lane leading to our house alongside an enormous vegetable garden, which was mostly her job to take care of)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Wildflowers and development

This is now the late prime time for wildflowers in my part of Texas. Which is a pretty big deal around here. Just think of the memory of Lady Bird Johnson, who became quite beloved for promoting them. Here is one of my personal favorites, Mexican Hats, shot on the road in front of our neighborhood.

Here is another personal favorite of the late season, Indian Blankets. (These are both names given by the Anglo settlers of Texas, as I understand, not very subtle or kindly toward the earlier inhabitants.)

This second photo is also part of the Travis Country Wildflower Preserve. This is a fairly new addition to the neighborhood, built over a tract which had roads in it, ready for further development, either residential or commercial.

You can see the old roadbed it straddles here.

Apparently the developer had a deal with the city to either develop this tract, which he owned, or another one, but not both. Since this whole area sits right over the Edwards Acquifer Recharge Zone, our neighborhood itself should probably not be here, let alone most of the subsequent growth.

I remember seeing a sign in front of the area offering the tract now devoted to wildflowers up for development. The developer ended up wanting to develop the other site into the current local headquarters for AMD computers, just up Southwest Parkway half a mile or so.

I guess we dodged a bullet. My neighborhood might have been right next to the latest big box retail extravaganza. But we seem to have been spared. And I hope that wildflowers will indeed fill in all the roadbeds originally laid out to bring cars in to shop.

If you want to see more about the Wildflower Preserve, check out

One page shows 18 types of flowers, but not ironically, the two Texas favorites above that are most visible. Of course they are visible all over the place, on roadsides, in vacant lots, everywhere, so maybe the site is just trying to show what is most rare.

The Strength (and Weakness) of Weak Ties

I was looking on the website of Travis Country (the neighborhood where I live) for some info about our relatively new wildflower preserve, when I ran across a special webpage for a walking buddy in the neighborhood who died a couple of years ago. She walked an enormous, over-sized Doberman around the neighborhood. As I walked my own dogs, I would often see her both on the several miles of sidewalk that circle the core of the neighborhood and in the woods. You can see her picture here.
One of the forms of very low key sociality in the the neighborhood is stopping to let dogs socialize and talk about them. Although my dog walking acquaintance was very friendly, it took months to get to know that her name was Bonny, and more months to know her last name, Grobar. We liked to talk dogs, politics, neighborhood info, etc. and seing her always brightened my day. But I did not know her well enough to know her family, where she lived, or how to get in touch.

I knew she was struggling with her health, with cancer, and I probably should have found out how to check up on her, but our casual dog-walking chats seemed to have their own logic of being light, supportive but casual. It was a classic example of what scholars call a weak tie. All the people we know like old classmates, casual acquaintances, and people who met a few times at meetings, who can actually be quite important to how we live our lives.

Months after I had last seen her, I finally ran into another local dog-walker I had seen with her, and I found that she had finally died. I felt like I had let a suprisingly important tie be a little too weak. I wished I had known more and somehow helped more. I know that running into her always seemed to cheer her up. This made me realize that what people call the strength of weak ties is not always enough, that maybe I need to push a little harder to get to know some of them quite a bit better.

I was really pleased to see that people put up a memorial to her in the neighborhood Blue Valley Park, right beside a duck, fish and turtle pond where I had often seen her. There is a memorial stone and a bench, along with some extra new plants. You can see the bench at the left of this picture of the pond. Her small memorial is right behind that. One could only hope that you touched enough lives in your time to make people want to do this for you.

And here are some interesting details from the memorial page for. It seems that she helped brighten the day of many people who knew. A very important weak and strong tie for many.

Bonnie's family and her many friends in Travis Country held a community "Celebration of Life" on May 19, 2007. To commemorate the many hours and and care that Bonnie gave to the community the family and neighborhood established a lasting tribute site near Bonnie's beloved Blue Valley Pond. A natural area surrounded by native plants, the site is along the creek side bank of the pond. Natural boulders and a bench provide a place where visitors can sit, view the pond that Bonnie worked so hard to save, enjoy the wildlife, and visit with the occasional neighbor walking their animals or hiking along the trail where Bonnie so enjoyed walking her Prince Caliph. Looking across the pond one can envision Bonnie driving along the street in her silver convertible with the Prince by her side.

At the 2007 homeowner's meeting the annually awarded "Volunteer of the Year Award" was renamed the "Bonnie Grobar Volunteer of the Year Award".

Words never seem to be enough, no matter how hard we try, but Bonnie's family, friends, and neighbors have attempted to record their sense of loss, love, and respect for Bonnie in these comments.


My mom loved Travis Country and her morning walks around the neighborhood. The Blue Valley area was special to her and she worked hard to ensure that the pond was attractive and healthy to benefit the community and wildlife. I can't think of a better way to honor her than to designate a special place in her name. I also know that Jim would appreciate knowing that so many people cared for her and that there will be a place in the neighborhood for her always.

Gary [Bonnie's son]

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Memories of the 1950s

Some of you might have read another version of this on Facebook. But that is deliberately transitory and I decided I wanted to hang on to this, so I decided to make a blogpost, which I can (and will) archive, since this is turning into a journal of sorts that I want to hang on to.

Here is a little exercise in memory, media and nostalgia. Take a decade that intrigues you, whether you were already born or not. If you were born already, name some of the things you remember firsthand. Then, whether you were born already in that decade or not, name some of the things you "remember" about it from media about it.

For me, starting with the 1950s, which by my definition run until 1964, when a huge amount of cultural change starts becoming apparent, even to rural white people in Idaho:

Things I sort of remember firsthand, which was on a rural farm in a rural state, Idaho, that was at least five years behind California in most trends:

1) Fear of being nuked from a classroom exercise where we really were told to bend over in our desks and cover our heads in case of nuclear blast.

2) Getting lost in a sea of identical looking adult kneecaps.

3) Hanging out with my Dad in farm fields, beginning to realize that farming was really hard work

4) Doing a lot of farm work, including with work horses at first, before we got a tractor (I am the short one in this photo with horses at haying in 1958)

5) Feeling really patriotic reading a comic book about WW II

6) Being afraid of water but finally getting over it via swimming classes

7) That TV was black and white and had two channels since there was no ABC station

8) Feeling a bit envious that people who did not live on farms got to travel more

9) Really enjoying my immediate and extended family, including a lot of nephews near my age

Nephews and me in 1959

The mediated things I remember are:

1) Being fascinated by historical novels that took place in exotic places

2) Thinking Disneyland looked pretty cool and wondering if I might ever get to someplace that far away

3) Thinking that Leave it to Beaver families looked a lot richer than we were

4) Getting intrigued with exotic items mentioned in Mad Magazine, like bagels

5) Wondering who Howard Johnson was and why Mad Magazine like to make such fun of him

6) Wondering what ad men did and why Mad Magazine like to make such fun of them

7) Being really shocked at the news over the radio, piped over the junior high loudspeaker system, that Kennedy had been shot, and being even more shocked that some kids cheered

7a) As a result beginning to realize that my Dad was maybe the only Democrat in town and thinking harder about what that meant

8) Tuning into Wolf Man Jack on a huge old tube AM radio because I was beginning to get very intrigued by pop music