March 17, 2019

"Running away -- we'll do it.
Why sit around resigned?
Trouble is, son,
The farther you run
The more you feel undefined
For what you have left undone
And, more, what you've left behind."
   -- Stephen Sondheim, No More

For as long as I can recall, I've been obsessed with the concept of leaving something behind. I don't know why, at six years old, I became aware of my own mortality and decided I had to leave some sort of legacy through art. And I was never too particular about which of the arts I chose. I wrote, drew, painted, sculpted, composed, recorded, filmed, performed. My scattershot method of creation early on was mostly a test of my abilities. I was struggling to find the medium in which I was most comfortable. While I enjoyed dabbling in all of them, music is the one to which I returned the most. And now looking back, my biggest regret is that I didn't make music the focus of my education. It was always present through my college years; I was always composing or performing music while I studied theater.

In my first year at Holyoke Community College, I auditioned for a musical for the first time. I had to sing a song, and I had never sung in public before. Inexplicably, I chose O Holy Night for my audition piece. I butchered it. After the audition, the show's music director (and also at the time Chair of the Music Department) took me aside and said, "Let me give you a piece of advice: you have no talent and you'll never get cast in a musical. Don't bother auditioning again." If he had said, "You really need music lessons," I probably would have switched majors at that point. But I believed his advice and assumed that music was not for me -- even though I continued to compose. That first year at HCC, I was involved in seven theatrical productions and composed music for two of them.

After HCC, I was in the theater department at the University of Massachusetts and spent much of my time composing dozens of piano works. I came very close to switching majors, meeting with one of the composition professors there who reviewed some of my works and suggested I try writing for flute or other melodic instruments rather than the more percussive piano. Ironically, I spent most of my second semester there working on an adaptation of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana.

When I transferred to Columbia University for playwriting, I hardly wrote any plays. But I did manage to write incidental music for two productions there and also write music and lyrics for a musical that was produced in downtown Manhattan. I could have capitalized on my proximity to Broadway; one of my teachers at Columbia was Lee Adams, the lyricist of Bye Bye Birdie and other shows. He had written the lyrics to one of my favorite songs, Once Upon a Time. And he liked what I was doing. But I never felt like imposing on him, even though he asked me to keep in touch. I didn't realize at that point that the theater business was all about networking. The only break I took from music was after I left Columbia. I no longer had access to a piano. So instead I took up drawing and painting again. And I got pretty good at it.

It wasn't until I went for my Master's degree (again in theater) in Mississippi that I began refocusing on music gradually, but this time with a cheap plywood guitar I got at Walmart. That eventually led to over a decade of complete absorbtion into composing and performing. I taught myself by relentlessly practicing. I learned why I sucked when I auditioned at HCC. But I also learned that I could improve. Eventually, I was practicing up to eight hours a day.

What was driving me to do that? Most other people I knew were consumers of media. They watched television or went to the movies in those days before the Internet. That held very little interest for me. I had spent a lot of my grade school years consuming media. But I had outgrown that (except for listening to music) and I was determined to create it instead. My eldest sister played piano. My mother often sang while doing dishes. But outside of that, my family hadn't influenced me by example. In fact, one of my father's chess friends offered to teach me piano and violin and my father threw him out of the house. Maybe I had a rebellious reaction to that.

In any case, I left the world of theater behind, outside of a brief diversion that led to meeting Karen. My world was music from then on. Well, sort of.... I did end up back in theater when I went to work at HCC as technical director of the theater. It was a job I knew how to do, but it wasn't a job I enjoyed. Then I became a professor of Electronic Media, and that was a job I enjoyed. And that job provided me with an excuse to delve more deeply into music production. To keep composing, I started writing soundtrack pieces for my animation class, giving the students themes and timings for their projects.

Then Karen became music director at Second Congregational Church -- under the condition that I sang in the choir. So I began to study hymns and sacred music, analyzing how they were put together. Shortly after, Karen became the accompanist for the Greater Westfield Choral Association and pulled me into that chorus as well. And I began writing music for them.

But for me, writing is a time-consuming and solitary activity. I need countless uninterrupted hours in order to compose. And given our busy lives, I rarely get that. So I'm eagerly awaiting my retirement next year, which will give me (in theory) endless days of solitude. There will be an increasing urgency to my work. As Tom Lehrer once quipped, "It is sobering to realize that when Mozart was my age, he had already been dead for two years." My current creative output is negligible compared with most classical composers. I have a lot of catching up to do and a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity.

But that still doesn't answer the question of why I feel so compelled to create anything at all. It may simply be that I view my written works as my children, my legacy, the only part of me that has any worth. When I was young I was obsessed with pushing boundaries and creating new types of art. Now I can see how derivative much of what I've written has been. And I also realize that's not unusual; every artist is influenced by what has come before. I can't worry about being new or influential at this point. All I need to do is keep creating. All I need to do is leave something behind.

JUNE 10, 2019

This is an article I wrote for Craig Kurtz's amazing (though short-lived) Northampton magazine X-Ray Vision back in 1994. I thought it was lost to history, but I chanced upon it during a search of old floppy disks (really!). It's based on a true story.

Mondo Bondo:
Mightier Than The Sword

copyright 1994 by Jay Ducharme

There's a well-known stop along Northampton's Main Street, a place where college students gather at all hours of the day to drink assorted caffeinated confections and to indulge in any of various ultra-sweet treats. But before the large, heavy glass doors sported a brass ice cream doorknob, a different sort of gathering place occupied the same space: Bonducci's.

Perhaps a transformation occurred. Popular gathering spots never die; they merely shift landlords. The Haymarket opened its doors shortly after Bonducci's closed. It was as if some disembodied spirit needed a home and haunted the Haymarket's owners until they relented and created a haven for the town's intellectuals and eccentrics.

Bonducci's didn't have the ambiance of the Haymarket: it was a small restaurant, not a cozy bookstore. There were the obligatory copies of The (insert-your-region-here) Advocate and a few dailies scattered about. But mostly it was a rest stop for pedestrians. There was no need to order a full-course meal. Most people came for a cup of their favorite coffee and, if they felt extravagant, a slice of some sinfully rich dessert. But mostly the whole point of stopping in was to sit and watch the world pass by for a few moments, to retreat into silence with your own thoughts or to meet up with friends and hash out topics of limited importance. Bonducci's atmosphere was less of a cafe, and more of a town square.

In the late 1980s, Kevin Keady hosted Bonducci's open mike night. Each Monday, aspiring performers of any type could test out their material in front of a crowd whose attitude ranged from "show us something good" to "leave us alone" to "we love you." There's was nothing special about open mike nights themselves; Sheehan's and the Iron Horse had theirs for years. What was unique about Bonducci's evening was Keady's anything-goes approach to the talent. A performer didn't have to be "electric" or "acoustic" or even musical; if you were brave enough to get up at the mike in front of dozens of people, it was assumed you had something to say. And the audience would, for the most part, allow you a few minutes of indulgence before passing judgement.

This brand of open mike precipitated evenings of wildly uneven quality: from the polish of local faces such as Jill Turner and Amy Fairchild to inebriated strangers who needed counseling and apparently were deluded into thinking each member of the audience was a licensed psychoanalyst. That was part of the twisted charm of those evenings. Keady was a very effective host: he was compassionate enough to indulge the eccentrics and tough enough to end a set that went out of control. He provided many graceful exits to uncounted awkward situations.

One of the frequent performers was Woody who, cane in hand and dressed in black, would be led up to the mike where he would proceed, in his unsettling gravelly voice, to cleanse from his system every negative thought that entered his mind. For the next ten minutes, or however long it took until Keady was able to calm him down, audience members would look uncomfortably at each other as Woody spat and shook and exorcized his inner demons.

Eventually, Keady would approach him and in a sincere, soothing voice say, "Thanks Woody. There's a lot of pain and anger in what you're saying. That really comes across." Then Kevin would start applauding which, in a Pavlovian sort of way, automatically produced applause from the rest of the audience. Hearing the applause, Woody would let himself be led off of the make-shift soapbox and he would quietly return to his role as listener. His thoughts were heard. It didn't matter who heard them. They were so many words cast out on the air like dandelion seeds, perhaps landing somewhere and taking root.

The applause probably was a coveted award for the eccentrics. They were never in short supply and were rarely discouraged. Monday evenings provided a unique divertissement, a sort of Burroughs-Weavers-Clash soiree inside a brick-walled living room. It was a place where casual conversation was raised to the esteemed level of art, a place where anything spoken could be met with at least a modicum of appreciation.

One of the local poets who gravitated to that spot is Richard O'Brien. A familiar figure to many, Richard could often be found sitting on the bluff at the back of Pulaski Park, reading poetry to the empty parking lot far below. Richard is a man who relishes language, who has a deep love of poetry in its many forms. Hearing him read a poem is a remarkable experience. He dwells on vowels, collides with consonants, wraps his voice around syllables and wrings every possible meaning from each line. Richard O'Brien is a poet's poet. If you're a poet, you would want your verse to be read by him, to be read with such passion and enthusiasm that would make even the hearing-impaired sit up and take note.

Richard has a keen sense of the true power of language, power that was more potent years ago before mass communication's daily bombardment diluted the specialness of words. The publication of a book or periodical was once a truly momentous thing. It was a message to the world, a code that could be understood by all who could read. The printed word was once the chief method of idea exchange on a large scale, and language was continually being explored and refined. Whereas now speed of communication is of foremost importance, once upon a time the importance was placed on the quality of the communication. Richard O'Brien is not concerned with speed; he is obsessed with quality. He brought that obsession regularly to Bonducci's. For him, that small room was a great chamber of communication.

On one late autumn evening, about half-way through an otherwise unremarkable open mike, Richard's name was called. Walking up to the scarred wood platform and clearing his throat, he launched into a selection of Walt Whitman:

"As I ebb'd with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk'd where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother
endlessly cries for her castaways,
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Held by this electric self
out of the pride of which I utter poems,
Was seiz'd by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water
and all the land of the globe."

From the back of the cafe, a piercing and hysterical voice broke the calm of Richard's reading: "Shut up! SHUT UP!" Heads turned this way and that, struggling to locate from where the intrusion came. Richard, oblivious, continued:

"As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck'd,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious
rolls toward me closer and closer,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd-up drift--"

Again the voice cried out, louder and more unfriendly: "Goddamn it! SHUT UP! Who the hell do you thing you are?"

Finally the audience's shifting gaze focused on a man who had risen from his table far at the back of the room. He didn't look the sort who would be prone to fits of rage -- middle-aged, slight of build, balding, oversized glasses...he appeared more of a mild-mannered teacher than a lunatic. But his face was glowing a dangerous red color and his manner was decidedly hostile.

"You call this shit POETRY?" He spat out the word. "What are you doing here? You think you're so great -- you don't know SHIT about poetry! You're a fake!"

Richard fell silent. The audience shifted in their seats. Richard stared at the man a moment, his book of verse clutched firmly in his hands. Then, still looking directly at the intruder, he continued with words that he used as weapons:

"I throw myself upon your breast my father,
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,
I hold you so firm till you answer me something."

The man bolted, careening off tables blocking his way, and he headed -- arms outstretched, fingers cramped up like claws -- directly for Richard. "SHUT UP! I told you to SHUT UP!"

Two large men from the audience stood and blocked his advance like linebackers, grabbing his arms.

"Let go of me! Shut up, you asshole!"

With the offender safely restrained, Richard now advanced toward him, pointing with a bony, shaking finger:

"Kiss me my father,
Touch me with your lips as I touch those I love,
Breathe to me while I hold you close
the secret of the murmuring I envy."

"Goddamn it! LET GO! You're an ASSHOLE! You phony! You don't know SHIT!" The hoarse, deafening obscenities played on like a broken record as he was forcibly dragged to the other side of the restaurant and out the door. Richard followed about halfway, then halted as he continued reading:

"Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much whence we come
that blare of the cloud-trumpets,
We, capricious, brought hither we know not whence,
spread out before you,
You up there walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet."

He ended the poem triumphantly, with a vocal flourish. The crowd burst into applause, less a signal of true appreciation than of a pressure valve releasing.

Richard was now visibly ecstatic; his whole posture was straightened and dignified. He marched back up to the stage and turned the page of his collection. Kevin approached the stage.

"That was Richard O'Brien." Kevin led the audience in more applause as Richard began to speak over the din, Walt Whitman again:

"TEARS! tears! tears!
In the night, in solitude, tears,
On the white shore dripping, dripping,
suck'd in by the sand,
Tears, not a star shining, all dark and desolate,
Moist tears from the eyes of a muffled head."

Kevin had waited patiently, hoping the poem would be short. But the poet had captivated an audience and had no intention of leaving. Kevin quietly interrupted: "Sorry, Richard, that's all we've got time for tonight."

Richard continued at his measured pace:

"O who is that ghost? that form in the dark, with tears?"

A few audience members called out feebly, "Enough already," and "Come on -- you've had your turn!" But Richard was determined to finish his poem:

"What shapeless lump is that, bent,
crouch'd there on the sand?"

Kevin spoke up again. "Okay Richard. That's it."

"Streaming tears, sobbing tears, throes,
choked with wild cries..."

Kevin gently took hold of Richard's arm. The poet hastily backed away. The two linebackers had just returned and saw what was transpiring. Like a couple of ominous bouncers, they swaggered their way toward the stage. Richard saw them coming, and had nowhere to turn. He was backed into a corner. So his voice grew louder:

"O storm, embodied, rising, careering with swift steps
along the beach!
O wild and dismal night storm, with wind--
O belching and desperate!"

Kevin sighed and motioned to the bouncers-by-default. They casually walked to either side of the trapped, frail poet and took his arms. When the group reached the edge of the stage, he began resisting. He faced the audience with a look of pathetic helplessness on his face. A moment ago, he was the hero of a battle; now he was a deposed king. He wouldn't go down without a fight. His voice rose to a frenetic pitch:

"O shade so sedate and decorous by day,
with calm countenance and regulated pace,
But away at night as you fly, none looking--"

The men managed to work him off of the stage. But when he stepped onto the tile floor, he let his body go limp and dropped like a sack. Kevin briefly turned away, wearily covering his face with his hands. The men attempted to pick Richard back up, but he abandoned his reading and began squirming about. Finally the two men looked at each other, shrugged, grabbed Richard's legs and began dragging him toward the back of the room.

Richard instantly clutched onto the heavy metal leg of a table and resumed reading from the floor:

"O then the unloosen'd ocean,
Of tears! tears! tears!"

The men gave Richard's legs another tug, but he wouldn't let go of the table and sent it colliding into another. Kevin, whose patience had finally been depleted, walked over and pried Richard's reddened fingers from the table. The two men gave a yank and hurriedly dragged the screaming poet across the floor, around the corner and out the same door as his recent nemesis. Richard's wailing voice disappeared into the autumn night.

After a tense pause, Kevin righted the tables, walked up to the mike with an outward calm and and broke the uncomfortable silence by announcing, "I think that'll just about do it for the open mike tonight. Thanks for coming."

Richard was banned from Bonducci's after that incident. One less voice graced the open mike. Not too long after, Bonducci's itself was pulled from Northampton. It went more quietly. But it will be missed just the same.

More about the Western Massachusetts music scene during that period can be found here.

JUNE 11, 2019

Another from the archives, this is the eulogy I wrote for my father in November of 1997.

John J. Ducharme
1/3/12 - 11/8/97

Fathers are supposed to be role models for their children. Mine is certainly a challenge to emulate. His willpower alone was pretty impressive: he quit smoking cold turkey two decades ago. The only crutch he used was a small bag of hard candy that he kept in his car. I had enormous admiration for his ability to do that.

He rarely had to lecture me; he simply lead by example. He could be strict, but more often he seemed curiously tolerant such as when I, at eight years old, would wriggle around on the kitchen floor making odd noises pretending I was the dolphin Flipper. It was as if that were the most natural thing in the world for a boy to be doing. He allowed me to exercise my imagination, without condoning or disapproving. He gave me space to grow and learn.

I remember his seemingly inexhaustable strength and energy, even though at times he held up to five jobs. I remember him bringing me to the Moore Drop Forge, where he worked in his little tin shack with the grinding wheels and the deafening, rhythmical steel presses surrounding him. I remember waving to him each morning as he stood in front of Bolduc's Drug Store in his school crossing guard uniform directing traffic. I remember him taking me to Archie's Cafe down the street for a sweet ginger ale fresh off the tap. I would sit there fascinated by the swirling lights from the beer advertisements.

I remember nights of playing cribbage with him, and regularly losing. I remember Dad's love of pool, and how I learned the game at the Knights of Columbus hall, where he, my brother and I would play each week. I remember going fishing at Littleville Dam with him and my mother, how he always waited for the elusive trout and usually reeled in pumpkinseeds. I remember him running at my side as I learned to ride my first two-wheeled bike. He held on to the bike seat with me screaming for him not to let me go. I turned around and he wasn't there anymore. He had stopped running and was watching me ride off on my own. I was alone, riding my bicycle all by myself. And I fell. And I picked myself up. And from then on, he didn't need to guide me.

I love music; Dad claimed to be tone-deaf (though he liked the song "Honey"). I love art; Dad saw little use for it. I had games like Twister and Rock'em Sock'em Robots; Dad had chess. I always felt excited when Saturday nights came -- that was chess night at our house. As a child, what that meant to me is that Mr. Martel brought ice cream, Mr. Borden would show me how to play piano, and Mom would make beans and franks. About a dozen of the area's best chess players would gather in our living room, strategizing and analyzing until dawn. My brother was already on his way to becoming an Expert. Dad always tried to get me interested. He would ask to play a match with me, and I occasionally took up the challenge, though reluctantly. I found it difficult to sit in one place for hours staring at sixty-four squares. I was more concerned with moving the pieces around in interesting and unusual ways. That creativity was usually my undoing, and he would have me checkmated in no time flat. Dad went on to be champion of five tournaments and finished second in uncounted more. My brother John also won many. I played in a few tournaments, and usually finished near the bottom of the heap. The pressure of tournament play usually turned me into a nervous wreck. Dad on the other hand could keep playing long into the night. His stamina and enthusiasm bested players half his age. I always felt that I should have been more interested in the game, but my interests were elsewhere and Dad understood that.

He kept on playing as long as he could, even finishing second in a tournament when he was eighty-three. And he always looked forward to Tuesday and Friday nights when my brother would call long distance from Florida to play chess by phone for hours. Even during his brief stay at a nursing home, he found another chess lover and gave the stranger one of his own chess books. If he had more books with him, you can be sure that that poor stranger would have been swamped with more chess material than he could possibly ever read in his lifetime. Last week, each of my children asked to play chess with me, so maybe I'll get a grasp on that game yet.

There are two common sights at the Ducharme house: flags and crosses. It was as if patriotism and religious devotion for Dad were one in the same. There always hangs a large American flag on the porch, holiday or not. There are small flags perched all over the inside of the house -- tucked behind pictures, inside planters and of course the two tiny ones that were perched atop his favorite cap. Above the front door hangs a large crucifix. Inside, like the flags, at every turn you can see crosses, rosary beads and pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary. The question he most often asked me was, "Did you go to church? How about the kids?" And God help us if we hadn't gone: that's when he'd begin preaching with words that Billy Graham would envy. He didn't need to preach, though; the way he lived spoke volumes about his devotion.

Dad was generous, almost carelessly so. If you needed something, all you had to do was ask and it was freely given. It didn't matter that he may need it down the road. Not only would he give away his chess books, but his chess clocks, his tools.... You name it. He played the state lottery every week, as well as the church's 700 Club. He had a few instances of luck that hardly offset the amount he spent on tickets. A windfall never materialized. He claimed that when he hit it big, he was going to split up the winnings between his children. About the only thing he clung to was his beloved weedwacker, which he kept primed and ready for his seasonal assault on the yard. It was a Christmas gift from my sister Linda. Well, sort of.... Dad wasn't one for hiding his opinions. Linda gave him a snowblower so that he wouldn't have to shovel anymore. In his inimitable fashion, he opened her gift and declared, "What did you get me that for? I want a weedwhacker! I'm taking this back and getting a weedwhacker!" And true to his word, he did. It turned out that winter produced one of the heaviest snowfalls on record. From then on, whenever I came over to help shovel his car out, I couldn't resist asking, "Hey Dad, can I borrow your weedwhacker?"

He helped get me my first job, as a ride operator at Mountain Park. That job was to change my life and occupy it for the next sixteen years. He worked there every season and loved it. He decked himself up in over-alls, kerchief and hat as the engineer of the park's miniature train. The kids loved him, and often asked to have their picture taken with him. He took pride in the train, restoring the windsheilds, mirror and guages. One thing he couldn't correct was the fumes from the motor which would constantly blow in his face and make him drowsy. He would sit atop the engine and cruise around the mini-golf course with his water jug by his side. One day Dad pulled into the train station where another load of passengers awaited. He continued on by them without stopping or letting off the other passengers, his head hung low. People began crying out for help as the train continued around on another leisurely circuit. The supervisor arrived shortly and chased after the train, which had begun yet another lap. Catching up to it, the supervisor jumped into the conductor's seat. Dad awoke, startled, feeling a bit embarrassed, and asked if he run the fun houses instead. That was a job he enjoyed until the park closed several years later.

Dad loved hearing good jokes. During the family's weekly card nights, his sister Rose and my brother always livened up the evening with their humor. Even more amusing was listening to Dad telling those jokes a few days later, when he couldn't quite remember the set-up and punch line. He knew the basic idea of the joke, yet the way he told it more often produced a puzzled look from the listener instead of a loud laugh. That itself was pretty funny.

My parents stood by each other through tough times and arguments over fifty-nine years. Dad's main concern was always that Mom would be okay. He was always looking out for her. Mom liked Friendly's, so when I was a kid Dad would drive us there nightly. When all of the children had moved on, Dad still drove Mom out each day, this time to Dunkin' Donuts. Their love and commitment to each other was always clear. That set quite an example for me, and it took me a long time before I dared to enter into marriage. When I did, I made sure that it would be one that would last just as long.

In his last few weeks, I went to see him nearly every day. It was sad to see someone with such strength and pride be so quickly defeated, yet he seemed to take it all in stride. He somehow maintained his sense of humor through it all. By the way he lived his life and took care of his family, I knew how much he loved me. Still, it was so moving and gratifying for me to hear the words "I love you" come from his lips for the first time. I will always remember his stamina and concentration, his generosity, his courage, his commitment to his family and the depth of his quiet love. He lived a good life and with his wife produced four successful children. He's been a wonderful role model, and I'm proud to be his son.

September 24, 2019

Yesterday, Karen and I went to see a screening of my favorite film, Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi, with a live orchestra featuring the score's composer, Philip Glass, at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center Concert Hall. The film spent about six years in development starting in the mid-1970s and was finally screened in 1983. My first exposure to it was when I was living in my dorm room at the University of Mississippi in the mid-'80s. I was watching PBS on a little black-and-white TV and the movie came on. I was transfixed, even on that small screen. And the images I saw that night vividly haunted me: the giant plane incongruously taxiing across a highway; the conveyor belt of hot dogs juxtaposed with subway passengers flying off escalators; a giant aircraft carrier with E=MC2 scrawled across the deck. And there were the faces of people, just average people. But their expressions of both emptiness and sadness were so moving, and really were the whole point of the film.

Shawn Shimpach, a film teacher at UMass, gave a talk before the screening. He positioned the film as an ahead-of-its-time champion of ecology, how we have to save the planet. And it certainly can be viewed that way. To me, Koyaanisqatsi is a beautifully constructed visual thesis positing what happens to humans when we lose respect for the earth. The film opens with scenes of the earth the way that it was before humans, then adds various activities of humans that are causing the problems, then in the end (with the human part) shows what the ultimate result is. I've rarely been so transfixed, especially with no conventional narrative or dialogue to guide me. It's a powerful piece of purely visual storytelling.

The huge Concert Hall was sold out. Our seats were at the very back left, about the only tickets available when we got them. From there, the stage was a tiny box. There was an array of digital keyboards facing each other with one at the front center facing the back of the stage, and behind them a row of chairs. Above it all was a silver screen that seemed ludicrously small for the giant hall. Karen and I had seen Philip Glass conducting the film in a similar manner nearly 20 years earlier, at the Academy of Music in Northampton. This time, Glass (who had just turned 80) would be seated to the right of the music director, who took the center position. The director appeared to have a small screen (like an iPad) on his keyboard. The original soundtrack used a mix of a large orchestra and synthesizers, plus a chorus and soloists. I had no idea how they were going to be able to reproduce that sound with the equipment they had.

The lights dimmed at about 3:10 and the orchestra members walked out. There was thunderous applause for Glass, though we were so far away I couldn't make out which one he was. There was laughter as the MGM lion appeared, completely mute as it growled. Then the blood-red letters gradually appeared on the screen as a deep subsonic rumbling filled the hall. The haunting bass voice chanted the title of the movie, but there didn't appear to be anyone on the stage actually singing. I assume it was a sampled voice triggered by one of the keyboards.

The screen image itself was surprisingly bright, and its small size wasn't as big an issue as I feared. But the film itself had an intermittent but pronounced stutter, as if it was being streamed over a slow network. The orchestra itself was pretty good. Their timing wasn't exact, but they tackled the complex score admirably. I did have an issue with some of the synth sounds, though. For example, in one sequence there's supposed to be a clear piccolo trumpet carrying the main theme. For this performance, though, it was substituted by a shrill and almost painfully high-pitched synth waveform. Other than that, the screening was a very satisfying experience. The film still held up well for me. (I've lost count of how many times I've seen it.) And it moved a lot quicker than I expected. Whereas at the screening two decades ago, Karen pleaded with me, "When is this going to stop," this time she really enjoyed it. And it appeared the rest of the audience did as well: the orchestra received a prolonged standing ovation.

Koyaanisqatsi has another significance for me: it was the reason I gave up filmmaking. Ever since high school, I had dabbled in cinema, making short films with my little Kodak Super 8 camera. I taught myself how to splice those microscopic strips of celluloid and created some surprisingly intricate productions with no budget and just friends helping me out. I continued that interest into college. I got myself a better camera and began experimenting with special effects and stop-motion animation. While I was in New York in 1980, I got the idea for a series of what I called "symphonic films". I had seen Disney's Fantasia and thought it missed the mark. Disney was imposing incongruous visuals onto the music. I wanted to create stories that matched the musical compositions, sort of like a ballet without the dance. Some treatments I typed up were for Hector Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique, Igor Stravinsky's The Firebird and Rite of Spring, and Claude Debussy's La Mer. I really wanted to do the latter, which would involve no performers. I even sketched out an idea for a 360-degree theater that I wanted to create. But I didn't have any means to create that advanced technology. So I settled on Rite of Spring. I wrote up a screenplay and began shopping the idea around to people in the area. No one quite understood what I was going for, and I eventually dropped the idea.

A few years later I was back in the Pioneer Valley and I ran into Bob Aller, a photographer with whom I had gone to school. I told him about the idea and he was really excited about it. So in between the hours I was working at Mountain Park, I gathered a cast and some technical assistants. I didn't pay any of the help, but I bought all the equipment we needed, the costume pieces, the props. I scouted for and secured locations in the area. Bob wanted to shoot in black-and-white, so I bought cases of film (each reel lasting just 3 minutes). Bob had a friend who consented to be the lead actress. A friend of mine from UMass, Joe Alberti, offered to be the lead male. Some of my other friends offered to play minor characters. I had calculated how long each shot needed to be in relation to the musical tracks. And so off we went on location to shoot the scenes. One of the opening scenes featured a long tracking shot past an eerie forest, which we accomplished by having Bob stand in his car, poking out of the sun roof, as we pushed the vehicle down the road.

I quickly discovered the bane of the location photographer: weather. Some shoots were washed out by rain. Some shoots were short on performers. In the end, we shot about three times as much footage as we needed -- but only a few minutes of it was actually useable. After three weeks of shooting, I got the reels developed (which was nearly twice as expensive as the actual film purchase). Then I began the long editing process. Some of the footage look spectacular. But most of it was either over-exposed or under-exposed or was simply of subjects that we didn't need for the film.

It took me about a year of editing to finish, and I was deeply unsatisfied with it. I managed to pad out enough footage to fit the length of the music, but the footage was generally terrible. The story made no sense. It was just a series of images, mostly just the two lead actors wandering around locations in the Pioneer Valley. I screened the finished film for Bob, using a vinyl record playing in the background as the soundtrack. He loved it and thought it was an amazing film. It would be several more years before I could get him a copy, when videotape decks became affordable. I took my two master film canisters and shoved them in the attic. All totaled, the film cost me about $3000 and countless hours to make. It was a great education in how NOT to make a movie.

I didn't gave up on my love of filmmaking though. As I wrote about in an earlier blog post, I had moved to San Francisco shortly after that and had shopped a new screenplay to Francis Ford Coppola, who expressed interest in it. He wanted me to shoot a test reel. So I called up Joe to see if he wanted to act in it (even though he was on the other side of the country) and he told me he couldn't because he was getting paid to go to school in Mississippi -- and they were looking for more students to pay. So I followed the money to Mississippi, hoping to eventually become a screenwriter. That's where I saw Koyaanisqatsi, which did everything I had been trying to do with my symphonic films concept and did it brilliantly. After seeing that, I felt I had nothing more to say as a filmmaker. That ended my budding career in cinema.

Although I don't think I'd ever be able to sit through another screening of Rite of Spring, I'm glad that Koyaanisqatsi is now getting the accolades it deserved nearly forty years ago. I can live my dreams vicariously through talents greater than myself. Thank you Godfrey Reggio, Ron Fricke and Philip Glass for showing me how to do it well.

September 30, 2019

On September 25, my brother passed away after years of illness. I was asked to give his eulogy.

I was a mistake. My brother wasn't. People were always amazed when I told them I had a brother nearly twenty years older. Linda, my next oldest sibling, was five years younger than Johnny. Then Lois came along seven years after Linda. Seven years later, I appeared. I don't think my parents really had planned for that. There was a strong probability of confusion in the house: our dad was John, my brother was John and my mother's nickname was Jay. To straighten out the confusion, my brother was addressed as Johnny and my mother always referred to me as Jay Robert (usually when she was scolding me).

That enormous time gap between births meant I didn't have a brother in the traditional sense, a sort of partner in crime with whom I could play and also wreak havoc upon our sisters. I didn't need to help out in that area; from what I heard, Johnny was able to wreak plenty of havoc on his own. And losing the use of one lung to pneumonia when he was a kid didn't slow him down.

That age gap resulted in my brother also becoming my godfather since he was already a young man by the time I was born. And that baptism was the closest I got to Johnny for many years. As I grew up it seemed that my only siblings were my two sisters, because after that baptism Johnny was spirited away to the Korean War.

I remember my mother showing me pictures of that time, many years later. She treasured the oriental musical jewelry box he had sent her, with its tiny light-up dancing ballerina in the center. In the pictures, Johnny was usually sitting with other soldiers, his leg in a large cast. It seemed he was always smiling or laughing. I could never understand what he found so funny about an injured leg. It would be a long time before he confided in me the horrors he experienced during wartime. And even then, he laughed about it. That was his multi-purpose defense: humor. There was nothing else he could do in those tragic situations to avoid depression or insanity. So he developed a wry sense of humor. And that's what I remember most fondly about him. Behind the seriousness, there was a lightness of being.

When he returned from the war, he got married and settled down in Easthampton to raise a family. His military training as an M.P. came in handy for what would become his career: a local cop on the beat. During that time, our dad and his friend Eli Bourdon had taken a strong interest in chess. So every Saturday night the local chess players, including Dave Lees and Irving Pierce, would gather at our house and play into the wee hours. And Johnny joined them. Dad taught him how to play by letting Johnny win a few games to get him interested. Johnny learned quickly, and was soon beating all of them. Our dad was extremely proud of that.

Many people think of chess as a quiet and serious game, but at our house filled with chain smokers (Johnny preferred Lucky Strikes) it often was more like a comedy club. Johnny and dad developed a perpetual and nonsensical banter as they played. My mother always sang as she worked around the house, usually popular songs from the '30s and '40s and usually Bing Crosby hits. Johnny picked up on that and with a surprisingly gifted voice would sing little snippets as he played, often imitating Bing -- except he would make up his own lyrics by having fun with phonics. So for instance, "Is It True What They Say About Dixie" became "Is It True What They Say About Dick's key?" They would also mumble back and forth to each other, with dad, when he was stuck for a move, often repeating, "What to do? What to do?" and Johnny echoing him, gradually trailing off his voice. And every once in a while, he'd throw in a credible impression of one movie star or another, particularly Bela Lugosi.

Chess partners also became golf partners, which kindled one of Johnny's life-long passions, a passion he passed along to his son Marc. Our dad never played, but Johnny would get together with Eli Bourdon and Dave Lees. As with chess, he eventually beat his mentors at their own game. He would also travel around to courses locally and across the country and he developed a decent handicap. Just as I never had his talent for chess, the sport of golf eluded me and I envied him for his athletic prowess. Johnny gave me an old set of his clubs. I attempted playing a round with a friend, and it took me sixty-four shots to reach the first pin. That was the only hole we played that day. A few years after that, Marc offered to take me to Pine Grove with much the same result. He was very kind and patient with me and he also played really well. I would watch him hit a perfect drive down the fairway while I mowed the grass with my clubs. We never completed the front nine. After that, I left the sport to the pros.

One thing I did excel at, though, was eating. And family gatherings, whether for summer picnics or holiday parties, would always include Johnny and his family. He also joined in every Tuesday night for Up and Down the River, a mindless card game that was really nothing more than an excuse for hanging out with the family. His drink of choice was always whole milk, none of that inferior one- or two-percent poison. He probably would have taken it straight from the cow if he could. When we were growing up, that's pretty much how it came -- in bottles delivered to our front door with rich cream that had to be skimmed off the top.

Another way he relaxed was by watching movies, particularly horror films. He and I developed our own little in-joke out of that. He thought that the movie rating system introduced in the 1970s was ridiculous, so we began slapping ratings on everything. For instance, when I sent him a birthday card, it would read the typical, "I hope you have a wonderful day" and I'd add "Rated PG-13". He even worked that banter into his chess games with dad.

His life took a dramatic turn when he walked into Cooley Dickinson Hospital one day complaining of a headache and was told he had a brain aneurysm. That began a chess game of a different kind that he would continue to win for decades: defeating death. The surgeons saved his life, but the operation changed his personality. He became less serious and more giddy. And after years of complaining about New England winters, he packed up and moved down to Ocala, Florida to live.

The move saddened our dad. It was as if he had lost his closest friend. But before leaving, Johnny gave dad his hi-tech computer chess board. And dad played it for hours on end every day. Johnny would call home faithfully every Friday evening. He'd talk with our mom for a little bit and then she'd hand the phone over to dad. And that developed into a Friday night chess match. That was the one night of the week dad looked forward to. Over the phone, they would call out moves to each other. Dad, with his poor hearing, would often mix things up and their pieces would be in completely different positions. Dad would later remark to me, "I think Johnny's game is slipping. He lost again." But it was a reverse of how it all began: Johnny was letting dad win the games.

Johnny contracted diabetes late in life, and staying down in Florida became untenable. So he was brought back up north by his family, sons and daughters so loving and dedicated that they would make any father proud. Even though he hated the cold and his chess partner had long since passed away, it was good to see him again. Singing wasn't Johnny's only musical talent; he also loved playing the organ. He acquired a little apartment in Easthampton and it was a bit bare, so I procured a Hammond organ and brought it to his house. Music took the place of chess and golf.

Around 2011, I was approached by Frank Kolasinski, the President of the Western Massachusetts Chess Association, which was created by Eli Bourdon and to which dad and Johnny had long been members. Frank wanted to write an article about the early years of chess in the area, and asked me if he thought Johnny would be willing to sit for an interview. Johnny wasn't much interested until I told him that the interview would take place at Nick's Nest in Holyoke, his favorite eating spot. So I drove him there. We met with Frank as Johnny downed a couple of hot dogs and some whole milk, reminiscing about the early days. I was really glad that a permanent record was finally made of how special his life really was.

Over the last few years, his health occasionally became a nail-biting thriller. He would slip into a coma and everyone would think the end was near. Then he would miraculously recover and be back to his old self. I was convinced he was going to surprise us all yet again, but his body had simply worn out. It was the final checkmate. Even so, right up to the end Johnny never lost his sense of humor. I saw a bravery in him that I don't think he even knew he had, a knight marching into battle against impossible odds. He taught me that even when things seem darkest, there's no need to dwell on it. If you look beyond that, you'll be able to see the light. Happy journeys, brother.

December 16, 2019

My Christmas wish for this year is for all of the political candidates to stop flooding my inbox. I'm sure that one year from now things will quiet down a bit. But I've grown weary. I'm weary from the "look-at-me" gaggle of candidates more interested in having me send them money than actually fixing this country. I'm weary from the oppressively unending and inconsequential banter that leads to equally inconsequential media fighting. I'm weary from watching a country I love rapidly lose its soul and feeling completely powerless to change that.

I've grown weary from the constant focus on the presidency, of who will win and who will lose, because the presidency is not (or at least not supposed to be) the power in this country. That power resides in the House and Senate. If anyone wants to change the direction of this country, Congress is where their energies should be directed. But not the presidency.

And maybe most of all, I'm weary from all the drama. Every day now has to be a headline. Every day has to bring an outrage or disaster bigger than the last one. The biggest sin in the media is to bore an audience. And so each day spirals from one extreme to the next, news reporting that is more concerned with delivering entertainment and garnering high ratings than delivering facts.

I remember sitting in a movie theater in 1976 and watching Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant Network. And I remember laughing at the absurdity of it all. At that time it played as over-the-top satire. Surely no media organizations would have ever stooped to such criminally low behavior! But then a string of protests came from the real networks, assuring viewers that they would never have anyone killed for poor ratings. Why did they feel the need to defend themselves? It was almost as if the movie was becoming a blueprint for reality.

And here we are nearly a half-century later, and the satirical situations from the movie gradually have become accepted reality, a way of life to which we've become accustomed. They say if you place a frog in a pot of water on a stove and gradually increase the heat until the water is boiling, the frog remains there and dies whereas if it were dropped into a boiling pan of water it would immediately hop out. The entire world is in that pot right now. I just pray that someone has the sense to turn down the heat.