Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Puff, the Magic Dragon

I cannot hear the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” or play it on the guitar without tears.

I learned “Puff the Magic Dragon” around 1970.  My father hated it thinking it was a clandestine code song among “those hippy pinko commie freaks to smoke more dope.”  In fact, it is a beautiful song of lost innocence.  Peter Yarrow, the man who wrote the song, will tell you its meaning, and does in the link below.

Around 1980, just after my father’s death, I began learning real finger-style guitar, incorporating the Travis pick, forward and backward rolls, banjo rolls then creating my own rhythmic patterns based off those.

“Learn ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon,’ my mother said.  “Just like Peter, Paul, and Mary play it.”

Took me a couple of days, listening to the album (yes, vinyl), over and over again.  I even worked on a little melody solo between verses to give it movement and variety.  Within the context of what Peter Yarrow wrote, I made it my own.

“When am I going to hear you play ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon?” she would ask.

While living under her roof, I would say, “Now, if you like.”

“I can’t right now,” she would reply, always with a wonderful reason having to do with having other things on her plate.

When I lived in Orlando, Florida, and later, LA and would visit, I offered to borrow my sister’s guitar and play it.

“Before you fly back,” she would say.  “Definitely before you fly back.”

And then when I had to leave, “Next time you come.”

The part of the song that sends me right over the edge begins, “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys…”

Or mothers, for that matter.

She died in 2000, and never heard me play what had always been one of her favorite songs.

I wish she had, or that I had at least “practiced” in front of her.  So when I play it now, whether folks are listening or, most especially when I’m playing it alone, I cannot stop the wistful beauty of the song itself or put a stopper in my eyes.

And I think of her.

“One gray night it happened.  Jackie Paper came no more.”

These days, I don’t play it as I learned it, with the little frills and dressing.  I play it straight, as close to the way they played it as my feeble skills can manage.

And, it’s for you, Mom!

Below is a link to a wonderful version by the original artists, Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Peter explains the meaning of the song.  Watch how the make the audience part of the show.

And the picture is my autographed photo of the trio

Friday, July 12, 2013

Lessons Learned Forever

I learned many lessons from my father, some he didn't intend to teach.

Here's an example of the latter.

He's been gone now for over thirty-four years, he died June 16, 1979, but I still occasionally refer to him as His Majesty.

Here's why.

At dinner one evening, my father, after a disagreement with my mother regarding the relative roles of men and women in a marriage, stood and declared, "A man's home is his castle, and here, I am KING!"

The fact that he extended his arms out like Christ on the Cross gave the image an amazing sense of ridiculousness.

My mother raised her arms, salaamed, and cried to the heavens, "Yes, Your Majesty!"

He may have been king of the castle, but my mother wielded the crown and scepter.

She held a job, and made more money than he did.  Rare for the 1960s.

He never knew that or his male ego would have sustained a fatal blow.  At the time I thought that he might divorce her if he found out, but after decades of contemplation finally understood that he would have lowered his head in shame and been unable to look his buddies in the eye.

My mother understood this better than I did.  She had her company make out two checks.  One to present to him.  One for her to keep in a bank account only she (and I) knew about.

He then ceremoniously presented her an allowance for the week.  Fifty dollars cash money, to feed and clothe a family of five.

Her own account supplemented that with regard to clothing me, my sister and brother.

When tax time came, she drafted a 1040 form (the tax form in the US) in pencil the way my father thought it should be, then had him sign a blank one she said she would type up at the office.  There, she figured the real taxes … complete with his signature.

She would deposit the refund into her account, and present my father with the cash for the refund he expected.

As an observant child, I saw the dynamics.

Peacocks are beautiful (and my father was a good-looking, charismatic man), but being macho meant being regarded as a fool.

My mother once asked my father for $50.00 to buy a new swing set for my baby brother.  Both my sister and I had a brand new one of our own growing up, so Mark should have a new one as well.

My father refused arguing that Deborah’s still had life left in it.

The fact that my sister's swing set was pink with frills, made no impression on my father.  Even my little sister went to bat for Mark.

No sale.

My mother used her money to buy Mark one anyway, and my father hit the ceiling when he saw it.

“I’m docking you two weeks allowance for that stunt.  Not just one.  Two!  You’ll just have to make do until it’s paid for WITH INTEREST.”

One hundred percent interest?  Really?

Mom enlisted my assistance and, while my father napped, we hid every scrap of food in the place in my closet, giving away the perishables to our neighbors who were then unemployed and close to being evicted.

The next day my father came home from work.  “What’s for supper?”

My mother, having just come home from work herself, said.  “Nothing, Roy.  There’s nothing for me to fix.”


“I don’t have an allowance to buy anything with.”

“That’s a bunch of damn hogwash,” he said.

He opened the pantry.  Nothing.  He opened the refrigerator.  Nothing.  He stormed the rest of the kitchen.  Nothing.

Mom smiled and shrugged.  “See?”

Her grin was quite wicked.

Still, he walked up to her and stuck his finger in her face.  “Oh, no.  You’re not getting away with this.  You’re not getting your allowance, and that’s final.”

She held out her hands.  “The kids have to eat.”

“Get them ready.  We’re going out.”

For seven straight nights Daddy took us out to eat.  Nice restaurants, too.  Burgers, Tex-Mex, steak, seafood.

We all had a wonderful time, and I began a lifelong love affair with scallops; fried, grilled, baked, any ol' way they come.


That seventh night Mr. Miller, the man who lived across the street, walked over.  “Going out to eat again?  Did y’all win a contest?”

“No,” my father said, full of self-righteousness with a puffed out chest.  He then explained the circumstances.  “I’m teaching Janell a lesson.”

Mr. Miller laughed himself silly.  “You damn fool,” he said.  “For a whole week she hasn’t had to cook, or wash dishes, and how much has it cost you to eat out rather than just giving her the allowance and be done with it.”

My father never could look Mr. Miller in the eye again.

Nor could I accept the macho ego as a part of my life.

I'm not going to say that my male ego hasn't risen like the white whale to sink my ship from time to time.  But I've learned to laugh with the crowd when it does.

And yes, the picture is yours truly, my mother and father.

I miss them both more than I can say.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Retrospect

File:Copperfield cover serial.jpgThis morning I just finished another reading of David Copperfield.

Those new to my blog may not know that I've read DC at least once a year since 1977.  I read it three times in 1981, twice while in England.  The surprising highlight of that trip was becoming one of the throng standing outside Buckingham Palace when Charles and Diana married.

I do have pictures, such as they are, but since I'm in Cleveland I'll have to post them another time ... I haven't even scanned them into my computer yet.

I'm straying from my intended topic.

I read DC while in London.

I also read DC in Canterbury and Dover.

Places where the events in the novel took place.

DC helps me gauge my progress through life.  I was twenty years old the first time I read it, full of wonder and awe at the genius of Charles Dickens, wondering how in the hell he could pull off such an undertaking as a serial.

Even now, when I think about how he had not written the next installment before one was published, I sit in a state of awe.  He would have had no opportunity of correcting errors that later installments might have revealed, and those do exist.  I have found a fare few.  More than that, I marvel at how he wove together such an intricate, moving plot publishing it in such a way.

So how else have I stayed the same?

"I have loved you all my life." is still my favorite line in all of literature.

I am still a hopeful romantic.

Maybe it would be best to see how I've changed, even since last year's reading.

I'm thinking more critically of what I read.

I've always jumped into Victorian England with both feet when I open DC.  I live in that world for eighteen hours or so and return to my own with a touch of melancholy.

This read my mind insisted on abridging Dickens.  For this read, I lost the "jumping in" process.  I remained in the twenty-first century unable to handle all of the excess descriptions that those in the nineteenth century craved because they didn't have as much as radio for entertainment much less videogames.

I've been a prisoner of the past, and I have just stepped through the threshold into the present.

Abridge Dickens?  How arrogant!

Yet my eyes raced to the scenes that mattered.

True, I know the book well.  Almost without question I've read DC more than Dickens did.

But, living in the present day, I didn't need the extensive descriptions of London or Canterbury, or Dover.  Or even Yarmouth.  Or Gravesend.  I can Google search to get a representation more than the few sentences offered today.

I certainly didn't need pages in any case.

So I abridged Dickens.

The next time I read it, I'll either abridge it again, or see if my mind can time travel back to Victorian England and read every word.

Whether I will read it as a writer, or as a reader.

I'm interested to see which it will be.

What I know now is that, even after I abridged it, my favorite novel is still Dickens' "favourite child."

Monday, July 1, 2013

Reflections on a Bird

Walking back from the dumpster the other day, I happened to look down and saw a bird standing on the ground not two feet from me.

I didn’t know the species, but all wild birds usually fly away when a human approaches.

This one looked at me, glanced behind it, then back to me, but didn’t move.

Could birds carry rabies, I wondered?  Not sure, I eased my nervous way toward the steps away from it.  On the first landing I turned back.

It hopped a couple of times, bent over and took flight; for all of two feet.

That explained why it didn’t flee from me.  It couldn’t, at least not far.  I saw immediately that it didn’t have the strength to hop up, but had to fly up one step at a time, resting for as much as a minute before tackling the next one.

Was it sick?  Old?

I didn’t know, but its journey took it away from me.  The poor thing struggled so much; tried so hard; fought for every foot gained.

I wanted to help, but had no idea how.

If I took it into my apartment, my cat would have finished what something else started.

My thought, then was to see if I could take it to the vet just down the road.

I retrieved an old shoe box from inside my apartment, and hurried back outside.


I searched for nearly ten minutes, but couldn’t find it.

And I wanted to find it.

In the end, I could do nothing but leave the poor bird to its fate.

I’ve thought about it every day since, wondering what lesson I can take away from the experience other than the obvious.  Nature can be as cruel as it can be kind. 

That, I already knew.