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Pomp and Circumstance May 9, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Family, Music.
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In a closet in our house hangs a funny square hat with a funny polyester gown, a strangely still pair in the midst of so much activity surrounding their imminent utility. Outside, the magnolias are finally blooming and the relative humidity inches ever higher, portending another steamy summer in the south. Springtime has yet to take her leave, but we know she will, just in time for a certain weekend at the end of May. Cue the pomp and circumstance. It’s graduation time.

Sarah Kate is 18 years old, our eldest daughter, the object of the impending festivities. As she struggles through her last papers and exams, she does so with a satisfying promise of finality, knowing these will be her last last papers and exams in high school. Nonetheless, she needs the grades as she’s leading a tight race for valedictorian. No rest for the weary, at least not yet.

Twenty three years ago, I was a senior in high school myself, pondering graduation and its manifold meanings. I had a soundtrack: a cassette tape of “Songs in the Attic” by Billy Joel. I got it by mail-order from the BMG Music Service in one of those “10 Cassettes for the Price of One” deals. I played it over and over again that Spring of 1989, thinking about the lyrics and their relevance to my evolving place in the world with a profundity that only a high school senior can muster.

My cassette tapes are long gone, most of them worn beyond usefulness, but just the other day I saw “Songs in the Attic” on CD in a bargain bin at a store. One listen, and oh, I’m that wide-eyed senior again! Here are a few words, then and now.

They say that these are not the best of times,

But they’re the only times I’ve ever known

And I believe there is a time for meditation

In cathedrals of our own

I discovered Charles Dickens in high school, my imagination lit with the opening words of “A Tale of Two Cities”: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Isn’t that true of the teenage years? Life is the see-saw that will never balance in the middle, forever swinging radically from one extreme to another. Like me, Sarah would testify that the best of times have outweighed the worst; we have been blessed. I still believe, though, that it’s that “time for meditation” that is so important. One cannot comprehend the 18 year old’s perspective on the world unless one is 18. I don’t think I can fully remember it; there was too much depth in that present reality. I think it must be captured, and that cannot happen without some time to pause in one’s own cathedral. I kept a journal in high school, to do just that. I typed it on an IBM PC, and stored it on a 5 ¼ inch floppy disk, since that computer didn’t even have a hard drive. Finally, my senior year, I printed the whole thing on a noisy dot matrix printer. It’s all gone now. The floppy failed, so the paper was all I had, and I don’t know what became of it. It would be an amusing read now, full of pretentious vocabulary and overblown sentiment. I would enjoy it, I think, and be embarrassed by it, I know, but it’s no great tragedy that it’s gone. It was catharsis at the time, so it served its purpose, and I think it was all very good writing practice for me. Granted, I’m still pretentious and overly sentimental, but I’d like to think I’m not quite as effusive as I was back then.

And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives

With our respective similarities,

It’s either sadness or euphoria

A ledge, indeed! We never moved when I was a kid. In fact, my folks still live in the same house in which I grew up. I had the room at the end of the hall upstairs. It had red shag carpet and a metal desk we obtained from an IBM surplus sale, where I did hours and hours of homework, even that senior year. It also held my prized possession, a Pioneer rack stereo system with a pair of 110-Watt speakers and a 5-disk CD changer that finally enabled me to cast those accursed cassette tapes aside. Since we never moved, the end of high school was probably the first major transition in my life. Now, here in Georgia, we’ve lived in the same house for over a dozen years, so Sarah has known similar stability. She, like me, stands upon a ledge. As I thought about the fates of my classmates, I liked Billy Joel’s polysyllabic wisdom about our “respective similarities”, the tenuous threads that ran through all of our stories. Sure, we had our cliques, our groups that grew into whatever label or stereotype they chose to define them. I knew it should be the other way around, but I had a cynical notion that there were few among us who really acted as individuals. We were not as different from one another as we though, I realized. Some peered over that ledge and felt the sadness associated with departure, with the closing of so rich a season. The same felt the euphoria of new opportunities, their first real independence, and a coming adventure. Others, I’m sure, flipped the emotions. High school had been euphoric, at times, but the future looked bleak. Regardless, I realize now how difficult it is to have any comprehension, as an 18-year-old, of what really lies ahead. And that’s great! What a joy to make your own way in the world, to test the faith that you hope will guide you, without the weight of preconceived notions.

So, before we end

And then begin

We’ll drink a toast to how it’s been

A few more hours to be complete

A few more nights in satin sheets

A few more times that I can say,

I’ve loved these days

I was a good kid in high school, and I did not drink any toasts or spend bon vivant nights on satin sheets. But I often thought myself older and more worldly than I was, so I pretended to identify with these lyrics. I would hear the lilting piano on my massive Pioneer speakers and nod, knowingly, picturing myself indulging in “things refined”. What a punk. I could, however, look back on my halcyon high school days and say with confidence that I loved them. I had the sorts of friends who would sit with me in the dark and listen to a Dire Straits album and ponder the meaning of life. I had a family who loved and supported me. I had summers at the beach, and a car with a sunroof. (Maybe I did indulge in things refined after all. I was still a punk, though.) And I had a girlfriend who would become my wife.

As a father who has fond memories of childhood, I want to engineer the same fond memories into my children’s lives. But I can’t. I can love and support, but I cannot get inside their heads and affect their sadnesses and euphorias. Thank goodness. What a responsibility that would be! All I can do, and all I hope I’ve done, is to be there, praying and encouraging and providing. Sarah’s off to college in August. It’s so soon! But, it’s time. It’s time for her to transition, to step into a great unknown and trust that her faith will guide her. I have every confidence that her future will be a success. However, that’s not what I’m thinking about right now. I’m thinking about what my life was like at her age, and what she must be thinking and feeling. And most of all I’m thinking about how I’m pretty sure she will find time in the next couple of weeks, before the funny square hat leaves the closet, to pause, and reflect, and declare, “I’ve loved these days.”


Back in the USSR November 3, 2009

Posted by markgeil in Family, Music, People, Philosophical musings.
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I don’t like to think of myself as an old man. I’m not quite in my 40’s yet, and by some measures of life expectancy I’m not even halfway through my time on this Earth. Still, I feel like an old man when I start marveling at how the world has changed all around me in such a short time.

The latest occasion for my “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” sentiment is a bargain-bin CD purchase. I nabbed Billy Joel’s KOHUEPT for just a couple of bucks from… actually, I don’t remember which store. The memory fades when you’re old, see. It’s the live album Joel recorded during a rare concert tour of the Soviet Union. It is by no means his best work, but for me it’s more of a souvenir of another time. I remember seeing the double-album with its sparse Communist-red cover back in 1987, when album covers were glorious 12”x12” works of art. I remember wondering how the Dylan cover sounded and how “Allentown” would play before an audience of similarly disenfranchised Soviets.

I played the CD this morning and heard Angry Young Man. I remembered seeing Joel perform this song live a couple of times here in the USA, marveling at his piano rampage. Then I thought about playing the song for Hannah and Rebekah, our two pianists. And then I thought about discussing the concert’s significance with Sarah, who’s taking European History in school right now. Then I felt old.

What’s in Sarah’s history books was my life. I imagined my side of the conversation with my daughters about the CD.

“This was a huge deal back then. It was very rare for a US performer to be able to go to Leningrad and play a concert.”

“No, Leningrad doesn’t exist anymore. Now it’s Saint Petersburg.”

“Well, people couldn’t go there because the USSR was isolated from the USA. We were terrible enemies. I used to be worried that we would have a nuclear war.”

 “What was the USSR? Well, …”

They’re all such foreign concepts now, concepts relegated to history books. That’s a striking distinction. Everything that I have lived is contemporary for me, and everything in the history books is old. It could be 1942 or 1542 – it’s all history. Now, my contemporary is my children’s history. I know it happens to every adult, but the inevitability makes it no less jarring.

The opening track on the CD is called Odoya. It’s a traditional Georgian song recorded at the Jvari Monastery on a hill overlooking Tbilisi.


During a business trip I had occasion to climb that hill and walk through that very monastery. I simply got a visa and a plane ticket and I went. I took pictures (with a digital camera, even!). Once I was there, I was free to roam the country, the Republic of Georgia. A short time ago, in my lifetime, it was not the Republic of Georgia. It was just the USSR. I could not have visited, and I would not have been free to see the sites. The changes are astonishing.

They say that history and culture and events are cyclic, but today I disagree. The world I live in today is radically different from the world I lived in as a child, and it doesn’t feel like a cycle; it feels like a torrid rush. And even as I sound like an old geezer trying to explain to my children how the Cold War affected everything from the Miracle on Ice to Billy Joel to the nationality of the bad guys in professional wrestling, I take solace in this one thing. The world I inhabit today may be radically different than yesterday, but it is not fundamentally different, because it is still inhabited by people. People are fundamentally the same, and I think they always will be. We are beautiful but flawed beings, every one of us in need of salvation. That is constant. Today, I’m grateful for constants.