Max Is Set, Now Let It Begin

Max (right) and Chaz at the entrance to Pontchartrain Hall North on move-in day.
Max (right) and Chaz at the entrance to Pontchartrain Hall North on move-in day. (And by the way, the image on Max’s shirt is from a video game he plays, “Overwatch,” which Tori painted on the T-shirt for him.)

Saturday was move-in day for new students at the University of New Orleans, and Tori and I have been pretty achy and tired ever since, getting Max setup and ready to go.

But at least there was plenty of help. When we pulled up in front of the hall with a pickup load of his stuff, a group of student volunteers, faculty and administrators immediately engulfed us, unloading our stuff before I could even get out of from behind the wheel, and dragging it up to his room. This included his new mini-fridge (60 pounds) and his guitar amp (65 pounds.)

It’s a UNO tradition. It not only makes the moving go more smoothly for everyone, but it gives the new students (and their parents) the feeling of belonging, a feeling that people there care about their students.

We got his stuff unpacked and organized, making the best use of the space possible. It helped that the bed could be raised high enough so that fridge and amp fit underneath. After we’d done most of the organizing, Tori and I walked over to the University Center – the student union – and grabbed lunch, then got something for Max, who was helping Chaz – his best friend from high school and now one of his college roommates – organize his own stuff. At the cafeteria’s “Creation Station,” the woman showed Tori how to pull together a bowl of vegetables, meat and pasta, which the woman then stir fried for him. As she cooked the woman – Michelle was her name – assured us that Max was in the right place and promised Tori, “I’ll look out for him.” Had to feel good about that. And the stir fry looked delicious.

Pontchartrain Hall is an awfully nice facility. They’re not typical dorm rooms, they’re suites, with four smallish bedrooms, each. Max’s room (A) shares a bathroom with room B, which is occupied by Chaz. That unit then shares a large living area with another unit of two bedrooms (C and D, natch) and a bathroom. A fairly comfortable arrangement.

Sunday was moving day for returning students, and that includes the two guys who are sharing the other half of Max’s suite. On Sunday we had a few more things to drop off for Max and we met one of the two, a studiously nerdy looking guy who was busy setting up his computer system. Then we ran him over to the nearby supermarket to pick up some things. Yes, he’s got a meal plan and won’t starve (Michelle will look out for him, right?) But you know how college is.

Then, with lumps in our throats, Tori and I headed home.

Now it’s up to Max. There are a couple of days of “welcome to campus” activities and then, on Wednesday, classes start. And that’s Max’s job for the next four years – working hard, getting A’s (please gods, please) and becoming the great adult we know he can be.

It’s the way it should be, but we miss him.

And one other thing UNO

The mascot for the University of New Orleans is fitting for Max, the son of a pirate who also made a bit of a splash in the buccaneer world. They are the UNO Privateers. A privateer, of course is basically a pirate who did all the paperwork. Max will fit right in.

Full Circle on Button Fly Levis

Things came full circle Friday night.

The story starts 44 years ago, the summer of 1973. We had just graduated from high school and a group of six or seven of us – a mixed group, no couples – had jammed into a station wagon and headed out to a drive-in movie.

I have no idea what we saw. It was just a group of friends enjoying that interlude between high school and the rest of our lives. But one thing made it memorable, at least to me.

One of the people there mentioned having gone shopping that day and had purchased a pair of button fly Levis. Not remarkable in itself, but we started playing with the phrase. Someone, it might have been me but who knows, said, “Button fly Levis took the zip outta my romance.” And I said – and yes, I’m sure it was me – “Sounds like the title of a country western song.”

And my friend John Sanders (who now uses the full family name John DeGrazia-Sanders) turned to me and said – “Write that song!”

So I did. Took two days, but I was determined. Partly because it was a dare, right? I couldn’t turn it down, and partly because it was a funny idea and I didn’t want someone else to take it. I ended up with a plaintive country western ballad that told the story of unrequited love – or at least unrelieved teenage lust.

The problem was, I don’t read or write music, don’t play an instrument. I can sing bit. So I wrote the song but it was really just a bunch of words that fit a pattern. I sang it a few times, but it was probably different every time I sang it.

It was eight years later, when I was working at the La Grande Observer in the far back corner of Oregon, that I met my reporting colleague Jim Angell. Jim is also a great guitar player and performer. He listened to me sing it through a couple of times, tweaked a couple of lines and figured out the chords for it. It became a real song. We actually performed it at the Eastern Oregon State College Oktoberfest that year. Afterwards the college president told us we were nuts. I appreciated that.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, Father’s Day. We are now in the New Orleans area, and Max – as I’ve mentioned a time or two – plays guitar. Plays pretty well, as a matter of fact, and will be studying music in college this fall. He’s been taking lessons at the Guitar Center, and every fifth Friday of the month (for those months that have five Fridays, of course) they have a jam session. The students and the teachers get together and play. Sometimes a student will play something particular he or dshe has been working on. Usually one or two eight year olds will plunk out something on the piano, but there’s usually three or four people up on the stage playing drums, guitar, keyboard, bass. There’s an old guy who teaches wind instruments, and he’s usually on stage throwing in sax solos and keeping them together. Tori’s gotten on stage a couple of times to sing with different combinations of players. It’s fun.

Well, we’ve been going to these for four years, and Friday’s was Max’s last as a student, since he starts classes in August and the next five-Friday month is September. So earlier this year I tracked down Angell – he’s in Wyoming no happily married and just back from a vacation in Iceland – and he sent me the chords, and this Father’s Day Max sat down and played “Button Fly Levis.” We practiced it a few times this Friday at the jam session we performed it together.

It was a blast. If you listen to the video, you’ll recognize that my voice doesn’t go quite as high as easily, as it did 43 years ago. It’s a little strained. But I’d forgotten how fun it could be to perform, and Max followed me wherever I was going so it was OK. I told the story, and people laughed in all the right places, and applauded at the end.

It was especially sweet to perform the song with Max. He is the age now I was when I wrote it. It was fun to share that moment from my past as he’s getting set to start his future.

Fun with a Phone Scammer

Sometimes you make your fun where you find it.

Max has been receiving calls from the “U.S. Government Grants Department,” offering him a $9,000 grant. Now, we’re certainly interested in any help in paying for his college education, but this was pretty obviously not legit.

The next time the guy called, I motioned for Max to give me the phone.

“Hello?” I said.

He identified himself as Randy Miller. He had a flat accent, maybe Eastern European, hard to place. He said he was from the U.S. Government Grants Department, and was offering the Maxwell Powers at this phone number a $9,000 “loyalty grant” for being a good citizen. Only 1,700 people in the country were to receive such a grant. Max was going to have to call the Treasury Department at a number he gave me (which turns out to be a VOIP phone, voice over internet protocol. Pretty sure Treasury uses regular landlines.)

I observed that it was a sorry state of affairs if only 1,700 people were deemed to be good citizens. He ignored that. I then asked to whom my son would have to pledge loyalty to receive this money. He seemed puzzled. I decided to play a role.

“We don’t pledge loyalty to just anybody in this household,” I said. “We’re very religious and only pledge loyalty to our lord and savior Yahweh.”

He went back to page one of his script.

I asked again what department he was from.

“The Government Grants Department.”

“What government?” I asked. “This isn’t some foreign country trying to subvert my son, is it?”

He went back to page one of his script.

“Well $9,000 is a lot of money,” I said. “I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want $9,000. I know nine or 10 people and none of them would turn down $9,000.”

That one was kind of out there, and I wasn’t surprised he didn’t bite at it, although I was a little disappointed. Back to page one of the script.

This went on a little longer, but frankly I was getting bored. He was not, I have to say, a foeman worthy of my steel. So I finally told him that Max wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college.

“That’s a lot of work, four years. He’s thinking he might do better getting a job like you have, trying to rip people off with a phone scam. You don’t have a college degree do you, and you’re doing okay at this con game, right?”

He started to go back to page one, then he sounded offended and challenged me. “I haven’t asked you for any money, have I?”

“Not yet, but I’m online reading a report about your scam. You’re following the script, and I know that before this is over you’ll tell him to buy an iTunes gift card to pay the processing fee. I can read it right here. I may sound stupid, but I’m not as stupid as you.”

And I hung up.

It was 15 minutes. I would have liked to play him longer, but frankly he was boring me. At least that was 15 minutes he wasn’t scamming somebody else, so I guess that’s something.

By the way, anyone who wants to send Max a few bucks for his college tuition is welcome to chip in. But he’s not paying a processing fee via iTunes cards, and he’s not pledging loyalty to anyone.

 

Blues on a Sunday Afternoon

Max at Preservation Hall 061117About this time five years ago we were planning our move from St. Croix back to the mainland, and we had picked New Orleans as our landing spot.

It wasn’t the “safe” choice – we could have headed back to the Northwest where we have friends, know the lay of the land, could have blended right back in. But we wanted the adventure to continue. So we picked a city we’d visited once and found interesting and started getting ready.

We also wanted to give Max a chance to explore. He was 14 years old and really getting into music. What better place to scratch that itch than New Orleans?

And Sunday that all paid off! On Sunday, Max got a chance to perform in the legendary space of Preservation Hall, one of the cradles of traditional jazz and the blues. Pretty much anyone who is anyone in the New Orleans jazz world has played in that very modest space. And now Max has too.

Max has been taking lessons at the Guitar Center almost since we got here. Back on St. Croix he took lessons from a teacher at Good Hope School. This fall he’ll continue his study as a music major at the University of New Orleans.

Preservation Hall is not a grand concert space on the order of Carnegie Hall or anything like that. It’s actually one of the shabbier buildings in the French Quarter, and that’s a place that has some shabby buildings. The hall’s exterior is a muddy brownish color with streaks of other hues – it’s almost impossible to describe the color except for “old and weather beaten.” Inside, the paint is peeling, the plaster is cracked and falling. It’s maybe 25 feet square, with a couple of rows of benches in front of the performance space. I leaned against the wall in the back – but only after checking to make sure it wouldn’t collapse under my weight.

But it’s not about the state of the walls. It’s what has happened inside those walls, in the air, the enclosed space, that matters a great deal. It was started in the 1950s as a place for the city’s traditional jazz musicians to gather and jam. It became the place to hear traditional New Orleans jazz, and grew into a band that traveled the world, turning people on to the joy of their music.

That joyful music was starting to fall by the wayside in the ’50s, along with the musicians who had lived it all their lives. Preservation Hall became the place where it was collected and treasured and performed and revived. And now Max has a part of it.

The Guitar Center holds a regular performance time – I guess you could call it a recital – and the woman who organizes it happens to be married to the guy who does tech for Preservation Hall, and one thing led to another and there we all were Sunday at 11 a.m. Instead of cramming into the performance space at the center, we were cramming into one of the hallowed venues in the city.

Instead of the Guitar Center’s electronic keyboards, the piano students played the hall’s old upright piano – battle scarred but still with a bright sound. Several of the drummers, playing on the Preservation Hall kit, did very well. And there was a woman, I’m guessing in her late 30s/early 40s, who a year ago decided she wanted to play sax. She got up there and did fine. Got a ways to go, but I marveled at the guts she showed.

And then there was Max. He was playing “Graveyard Playboy,” a blues song he wrote that displayed both very good musicianship and his weird sense of humor. Over the years all our kids have all displayed humor that the more rigid, stodgy types might sniff at and call “inappropriate.” It comes from being raised in a largish theater family where the influences included a lot of hanging around with adults. And Max, being the youngest by a good many years, has it in spades.

Max is very comfortable in his skin, he knows who he is, isn’t afraid to show that to the world, and isn’t interested in judging or being judged about it. He just got up and performed – he’s a good musician, can play the hell out of that guitar he got as a high school graduation present, and perhaps more importantly, he’s becoming a very good entertainer. (You can see his performance here.)

So when he sang about meeting a woman in the cemetery who was there to bury her second husband (who had died when she fired a bullet “and he got in the way,”) he paused and said, “I like ’em crazy,” it was pretty funny. The woman sitting next to me paused, cocked her head then said, “OK” and laughed.

Max had a couple of things the other kids didn’t. It wasn’t just the musicianship. There was a pretty wide range of that. But most of the kids, you could see them thinking, could almost hear them counting, worrying more about getting the exact right note than keeping the flow, the rhythm. Max was just up there playing, relaxed and confident. He had stage presence. He missed a couple of lines, jumped a couple of places, but if you’d never heard him practice the song you’d never have known it. He just smiled and kept playing. He had fun with it, and the audience did, too.

And now, no matter where he goes in life, no matter what he decides on for a career, he’s always got that on his resume. “Oh yeah, I played Preservation Hall.”

 

Why Does My Brain Do This?

Most mornings I wake up with an earworm, some fragment of a song, usually absurd or obscure but always annoying, rattling around my brain on an urgent repeat loop for several hours. But even for me, today’s takes the cake. It’s the title song from a movie made in 1965, which I saw once, sometime in the late ’70s or early ’80s. I’d be surprised if 10 people on my friends list has ever heard of it. It’s as stupid a movie and song as you’re going to see/hear, a Cold War spy and sports spoof set in a fictional Arab country, and – if memory serves – pretty offensive on many, many fronts. “John Goldfarb Please Come Home.”

Pretty good cast, Shirley MacLaine, Peter Ustinov, Richard Crenna, the Notre Dame football team, a host of familiar faces including an uncredited Terri Garr as “Harem Girl. Script by William Peter Blatty, who would later hit it big with “The Exorcist.” But just dumb and probably offensive by today’s standards.

I found the song on YouTube and played it through this morning – sometimes doing that helps shake a song out of my skull. (Trust me, don’t click on the link. It’s awful.) And I found something interesting – at least to me. The movie’s score and title song were credited to “Johnny Williams.” I thought the name perhaps more than coincidental so I checked, and yes, “Johnny Williams” grew up to be multiple Oscar winner John Williams – “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “Jurassic Park” … you name it, he probably scored it. And if you look back in his filmography, in the 1950s and ’60s he wrote a lot of schlock, including “John Goldfarb Please Come Home.”

Still have no idea how this came popping out of the darkest depths of my memory hole to get priority access to my frontal lobes, but there you go. That’s how my brain works. By mid morning it had completely gone away, as usual, and it may be another 30 or 40 years before I think of it again.

But damn. “John Goldfarb Pleased Come Home?” What the hell.

A Day 18 Years in the Making

In 1997, Tori and I – much to our surprise – learned we were going to have another child. Our youngest then was Millie, and when Max was born in 1998, she was six. So yeah, we were surprised.

At some point during the pregnancy I did the math and said “Holy smokes! (I didn’t say smokes) When this one (we didn’t know the sex) graduates from high school, I’ll be 62 years old!” It seemed just impossibly old to have a graduating senior.

Then I thought about it and sighed. “Well, I was planning to be 62 anyway, so I might as well be doing something useful.”

And now I’m 62 years old, and today Maxwell Mark Charles Douglas Oscar Baur is graduating from high school. Couldn’t be prouder of the young man he’s turned into. Yes, he’s smart – graduating fifth in his class and I never see him working that hard – yes, he’s talented and fun. But what we’re really proud of is how thoughtful he is of other people, how sensitive he is. how much he cares about other people. I imagine it’s mostly his mother’s influence.

In a couple of months he’ll be off to the University of New Orleans to study computers and jazz guitar (where else would you study jazz guitar than New Orleans?) It’s a very exciting time, and we’re proud of him and eager to see him make his mark.

Congratulations Max. You done good! We can’t wait for what comes next.

A Couple of Stories About Mom

Sunday was Mother’s Day, of course, and we (me and Max and Kate) spent it celebrating Tori. A movie. Max made a special dinner (stuffed mushrooms and pasta,) a gift and – best of all – when Tori and I woke up Sunday morning the house was, maybe not spotless, but really, really clean.

It was a good day.

Right now, however, I want to talk about my own mother. To a great degree, I am who I am because of Mary Ellen Baur. She’s been gone 14 years. Instead of something sappy and sentimental I’ll tell you a couple of true stories.

Mom was smart – I mean, genius smart. She hated when anyone brought it up, but her IQ had been tested at 150. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s plus or minus 15 points,” she’d protest. “Oh, so it could be as high as 165?” Might have been the only time she regretted her kids learning math. She was always interested in science. She could spend more time combing through tidepools than anyone I’ve ever known. She was a Girl Scout leader, sometimes three troops at a time as well as serving on the district council (seven of her eight kids were daughters, so …), ran “Great Books” programs in school, carpooled us to school (driving in three carpools every week) and so much more. And after she got us all in school, she went back to school, got her teaching credential and taught fifth grade at the local Catholic school for more than 20 years. (And, unbeknownst to me, she had a thing for Harlequin romances. In cleaning out their house, we found literally hundreds of them tucked away.)

When I was 7 or 8, I don’t quite recall now, I had the mumps. No one gets the mumps anymore because all kids are vaccinated, or should be, but in the ’60s they were still a problem and potentially serious. My glands were swollen and I had a temperature, and I couldn’t move around because the thinking was – I don’t know if it was real or not – that would spread them in my body and cause dire consequences. For a week I lay on the couch, all day and evening, waiting for the swelling to go down.

After the first day I was bored out of my mind and told mom so. She left the room and came back with a big book – the first volume of the encyclopedia. Now that might sound absurd, but she knew me.

“Look at this,” she said, pointing to articles on airplanes, astronomy and astronauts and the army and automobiles, animals and armor. I was hooked. I spent the rest of the week poring through the volume, and then, on through the alphabet. This was a kid’s encyclopedia, but a few years later when we acquired the World Book, I worked my way through that.

Yeah, as a kid I read the encyclopedia – for pleasure. Not every word, not every article. But a good chunk of every volume. Even into high school when I was at loose ends I would pick out a volume and thumb through it until something caught my eye, and settle down to read. Because of mom.

Once in high school I was going on about some – to me – interesting, trivial factoid I’d run across, and mom looked at me, shook her head, and said, “You are a font of useless information.”

Which turned out to be at least a little ironic. When Trivial Pursuits was sweeping the nation, I was good at it. Very good. I never lost. Never. Except one time. My mom beat me. Didn’t just beat me, she kicked my ass. So who had the greatest store of useless knowledge, hmm?

We lost mom to Alzheimer’s before we lost her for good in 2003. In fact, it was on Mother’s Day 1999 that I learned she had the condition. What a phone call that was. I had called home to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Dad answered and said she was taking a nap, but while I was on the line he had some news. Not only did he tell me that she had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but for good measure he added that the same week he’d been diagnosed with ALS. Yeah, that was a memorable Mother’s Day.

The last few times I saw her, she was already gone. The thing that made her her wasn’t there any more. But there was one more story.

Mom and dad were always a perfect match. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s still true, I never saw them argue, don’t recall a single instance when they weren’t one. If you’ve ever read Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” you’ll know what I mean when I call them a duprass. (And if you don’t, read the book.)

As their separate conditions deepened, they actually became even closer. As dad lost his physical ability, she became his hands. As she lost her memories, he became her contact with the world.

After dad died, mom was in a residential home in Denver, a short distance from my sister’s home. And she seemed oblivious of what had happened. Once she was talking about dad and some of his accomplishments and the cartetaker said, “Your husband sounds like a remarkable man.” “Oh he is,” mom agreed. As another of my sister’s commented, “She’s in denial – and it’s working for her.”

Anyway, that was mom. Happy Mother’s Day.