Are you ready?

Having written pop fantasies set in the fall of 1979 and the spring of 1975, we now go back to this time of year in 1970. I was too busy having a functional, pleasant visit with my family to get this written in time for Thanksgiving, but I like to imagine no one will really care.

# # # # #

The mood in the three-bedroom ranch house has already been festering for months. There have been harsh words back and forth, and insults, and silent rejection, and tears.

It’s 11:30 on Thanksgiving morning — November 26, 1970, to be specific — and the teenage boy of the family still hasn’t made an appearance. His father begins to pace around the living room, an increasingly familiar anger building inside him; the relatives will be here soon.

Then, from the farthest room down the hall, a muffled, distorted din erupts … a sound that combines rolling tanks and roaring voices and mass frenzy.

Dad runs down the hall at a sprint and throws the door open, bringing the sound into point-blank trebly sharpness.

He has not heard a cacophony quite like it since he shouldered a rifle for Uncle Sam … and out of reflexive habit, he summons a voice he has not used since the last time he had to make himself heard over enemy fire.


His son, slumped on the bed in a pool of long hair, doesn’t say anything. He just lets his dad get an abrasive faceful of the noise.

And it sounds …

(this is the point in the story where you turn the speakers on your computer up real, real high)

… like this.

# # # # #

Lester Bangs once described Metal Machine Music as “the all-time guaranteed lease breaker.” I believe Grand Funk’s altogether less heralded Live Album might have been — as described above — one of the all-time guaranteed Thanksgiving breakers.

Here are the ingredients that make up my theory:

The generation gap. It’s pretty well-established at this point that the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

That’s not to overstate things — not every household was a generational war zone — but there were plenty of homes where parents and kids saw life from vastly different, and difficult-to-reconcile, perspectives.

The voice of teenage America. Every Grand Funk review I’ve read from the group’s first period of success (1969 to 1971) comments on the band’s remarkable connection with a youthful audience, and its complete inability to connect with anyone older. It’s as if Mark, Don and Mel broadcast on a frequency that didn’t come through clearly unless you were somewhere between 13 and 21.

So great was the disconnect that Lenny Kaye, reviewing Live Album for Rolling Stone, devoted 95 percent of his review to verbatim quotes from Grand Funk fans explaining why they liked the band — closing with the logic, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Or, take the aforementioned Lester Bangs, reviewing the Survival album in Rolling Stone later that same year:

“Grand Funk are one of the very few groups rising recently that do reflect the aspirations and attitudes of their audience in that most basic way. And they’ve achieved that vast consensus not only through hype but because they are that audience, are the rallying point for any sense of mass identity and community in Teenage America circa 1971.”

So, in a nation divided along generational lines (among others), Grand Funk carried the banner for one side about as strongly and divisively as any other American band.

Timing. After releasing three successful studio albums in a year’s time, GFR decided to commit its live show to vinyl. Two shows in Florida were recorded in June 1970, and the resultant live double album was released on Nov. 16 of that year — with no overdubs or other fancy sonic processing, according to the liner notes.

According to the RIAA’s searchable database of gold and platinum records, Live Album was certified gold on Nov. 23.

This suggests that a decent number of those American teens who’d tuned in to Grand Funk’s frequency had the record in their hands by Thanksgiving, and were primed and ready to give it a good loud spin if they wanted to.

Pure din. None of the above would have been an issue had Grand Funk gone back and neatly recut all their parts in the studio, the way major artists were already doing on their live albums in 1970. (GFR appears to have given in to the overdub temptation on its second live album, 1975’s well-manicured Caught In The Act.)

Instead, Live Album is — with a few exceptions — pretty much sheer jet takeoff from start to finish.

Grand Funk was never blessed with lyrical or melodic excellence. But they had amps enough to reach the back row of any festival, enough to make Nigel Tufnel look like Bert Jansch, and they didn’t believe in letting anyone in the same area code go home without getting the full experience.

Check out the version of “Paranoid” from Live Album — in particular, the point starting at about 3:40, when Mel Schacher’s overloaded-truck bass and Mark Farner’s thousand-pound-violin guitar get moments in the spotlight:

Out of concern that computer speakers do not do Live Album justice, I step in with a first-person testimonial, as someone who owns the record on original vinyl:

This is as grungy and simplistic as a major American rock band has ever gotten on record. And when played through a half-decent stereo system — or, even better, a deficient one — this is music to make the Sinatra generation feel like they’re passing through a garbage disposal, headfirst and slo-mo.

# # # # #

Which brings us back to our aggrieved father and his passive-aggressive son, in their ranch house in Agawam or Omaha or Fresno or wherever.

What they do in the short term — at very least a pulled power cord, at most a fistfight — doesn’t really matter that much.

Nor does what they do in the long run. (I like to imagine the kid grows up and gets a job on the line at the local brewery, and years later, before lung cancer kills the old man, they share six-packs and shake their heads at the emotions that used to feel so strong.)

Instead, we’ll leave the moment unresolved on the knife’s edge, with rage surging on both sides, family ties forgotten, and the clamor of festival-level tube-driven white noise claiming sensory primacy over the scent of roasting turkey.

Mundane moments: North of the grass.

Part of an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

As best I can determine, there is no Tumblr site devoted to Pictures Of People At Their Own Graves.

When there is, maybe I’ll have to tip somebody off to this one:


They look amused enough, don’t they?

We’ll start with the guy on the right. That’s my Great-Uncle Jimmy, or James W. Cahill to the taxman and the stonecarver. If you’re a long-timer here, you’ve read about him before.

The woman in the middle is my maternal grandma, and also Jimmy Cahill’s sister. Her husband, my grandpa, is presumably behind the camera.

(It might be their big blue Oldsmobile parked in the background, as well.)

And the woman on the left is my Great-Aunt Jean, a.k.a. Eugenia N. Cahill, Great-Uncle Jimmy’s wife. Her maiden name was Okonenko, and Marie, the other future tenant of this grave-space, was her sister.

I can only wonder what brought about this visit. Clearly they were not there for someone else’s funeral; they weren’t dressed for such an occasion.

Perhaps they were passing the cemetery en route somewhere else, and Great-Aunt Jean and Great-Uncle Jimmy had just bought their stone, and they decided to show it to my grandparents since it was something new.

Or maybe their graveside stopover was driven by the desire to laugh at death — or celebrate life, the other side of the same coin.

One of the Cahill siblings was killed in World War II. Another brother died, roughly 15 years before this photo was taken, from the long-term effects of alcoholism. A sister, who was mentally disabled, spent many years in the care of the state of Connecticut.

So maybe my grandma and her brother took enjoyment in the thought that they were on the right side of the grass, and still reasonably healthy, and free to go order a big steak and a cold beer if they felt like doing so.

These are things we often take for granted, but could stand to acknowledge a little more often than we do. Death will get us all in the end … but it hasn’t yet, and until it does, we might as well strut our stuff here.

I don’t suggest we start turning our cemeteries into party destinations or anything, but laughing at the future site of one’s grave seems as whole-hearted an embrace of life as any other I can think of.

(Great-Aunt Jean doesn’t seem to buy it like the others do. Maybe it’s an Irish thing.)


Part of an ongoing effort to dredge my grandfathers’ photos out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

Top 10 Things My Brother Might Have Seen In December 1973
That Would Have Had Him Spellbound
But Were Apparently Invisible To The Rest Of The Family

xmas731. Santa Claus removing his suit to reveal … Ronald McDonald.

2. Secretariat cantering across the front lawn.

3. The Tardis.

4. The inexplicable but fast-approaching popularity of “Seasons In The Sun.”

5. The endless psychedelic wonderland of lights caused by the silver-foil Christmas tree reflecting in the big front window.

6. Danny Glick, asking to be let in.

7. Up With People.

8. A time traveler with an iPhone, blithely looking up the address of the nearest Thai takeaway.

9. The Black Winterqueen.

10. The sum of all human toil.


Awash in tradition and bourbon tonight.

Drove up to Coca-Cola Park to buy IronPigs tickets yesterday morning with the Grateful Dead playing on the car stereo (this show, to be anal-retentively specific.)

Every year I buy tickets to see the hometown Rochester Red Wings here in Allentown at least once, and the semi-adopted-hometown Pawtucket Red Sox at least once.

It made me think of the old days when Grateful Dead fans would throw their ticket applications into the sea of demand each year, hoping to get tickets to catch their old favorites at some locally convenient point.

It’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, of course. The Dead’s lineup was reasonably stable, whereas you never know who will make up the Pawtucket Red Sox from season to season.

Still, it struck me as a sort of compatible tradition … a willingness to buy into the brand name from year to year, and an interest in seeing how this year’s version compares to last year’s.

At some point the ticket booths get thrown open, and the faithful — driven by the pleasures of the past — queue up with visions of happiness and transport to come.

Meanwhile, the kids’ bedtime tonight got put off by 20 minutes for a discussion of their heritage. (The youngest is disappointed that he’s only something like 1/416th Native American.)

Driven by that discussion, I went to — where the genealogical research of my grandma and my mom is preserved in great detail — and began looking through the list of people to whom I am related.

There’s a noteworthy overlap, particularly in eastern Massachusetts, where I lived for seven or eight years. There were relatives of mine living and dying there in the 17th and 18th centuries, long before I staked out a small piece of the same turf to get married and start having kids.

I see, for instance, an ancestor who died in Framingham, Mass., in 1715, not quite two centuries before my first son was born in the same town. Was I meant to be there, in some cosmic fashion, or is it just coincidence that I found my way there?

And then there’s the branch of the family that made its way to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., but that we never knew existed until a few years ago. One of them, a distant cousin of mine, died in Rochester on the same day I was born there. (Not in the same hospital, but within a couple minutes’ drive, I believe.)

I look at the list of names and I wonder about their stories. What did they do all day? What did they want out of life, and what did they get? What were their achievements and their disappointments?

And will some descendant of mine in 2o0 years — presuming mankind makes it that far — look at my birth and death information on a single line and wonder the same about me?

All of which is far too heavy a subject for a school night, I suppose.

So maybe some other night, we’ll line up some more of Kentucky’s finest, and open ourselves up to the mystic, and think about it some more.

I won’t get any closer to the eternal then, either; but it’s always worth a shot.

Mundane Moments: The Porch of Secrets and the Pumpkin of Fire.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

# # # # #

All day the little boy had felt something strange coming, a sense in his bones that unusual things were about to happen.

But he hadn’t expected the ragged-looking yet somehow friendly giant to step out from behind the bushes and corner him just as he went outside to play.

“You didn’t know I was coming for you,” the giant said, reading the lad’s confused expression in an instant. “Your parents haven’t been giving you your mail, have they?”

“I… I … mail?”

“Never you mind,” the giant said, emitting a vast, vaguely peaty sigh.

Then he hunched down to the boy’s level and began to explain.

“You have secret powers,” he burred, in an exotic accent quite dissimilar to the nasal tones of the lad’s hometown. “You are a wizard, boy. A special wizard. An agricultural wizard. The soil is your dominion. The worm and the cowflop are your allies … corn rot and drought, your implacable foes.

“People very close to you gave their lives for you to inherit this power. Enemies of the soil do not want you to thrive. Your life is in danger, laddie. Make no mistake. That scar beneath your puddin-bowl haircut? You didn’t really get that falling off a teeter-totter.

I’ll be back in the morning to take you to the academy. Pack your things. There is wizarding to be learned and no time to be lost.

“For now, keep this gourd. Hold it close. It is your destiny.

“I’ll be back.”

And then a puff of smoke … dissipating in the early autumn wind, leaving only a slack-jawed little boy, slowly awakening to his special, life-changing gift and its heavy responsibilities.



Penfield, New York, 1974.

Mundane Moments: They say she dresses all in white…

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

# # # # #

“Sit still for your grandpa, Kurty. He wants to take a picture.”

“Nooooo! Ghost!”

“Don’t be silly, Kurty. Sit still. And smile, would you?”

“Ghost! Coming out of the post!”

“Kurty! Sit still and behave! Smile for the camera!”



Ghost from the post.

Penfield, New York, 1974.

Christmas Eve.

In case anyone missed me, I went home to the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y., for a couple days with the family. I neglected to cue anything up for my absence, and was having too much fun to take time to write.

I got up this morning to another horrifying news story, this one close to home: A gunman in the next town over killed two volunteer firefighters and wounded two others after intentionally starting a fire that destroyed several houses. The gunman apparently killed himself, as well.

I could probably have gotten to Lake Road in Webster, where the shootings happened, in 20 minutes from my parents’ house. I know this because this past January, gripped by a random desire to go see the lake, I did just that. In my younger days, I used to go to that neighborhood for high-school cross-country meets at Webster Park, too.

I stared at Twitter for a couple of minutes, trying to think of how to share this vitally important personal connection with the world — including my Lehigh Valley Twitter pals who had heard about the story and were already talking about it.

But I kept my mouth shut, for the following reasons:

1. No one cares whether I have any kind of tenuous personal connection to current events.

2. I have no context to add that would help anyone understand why some asshole (sorry, Ma) would take potshots at volunteer firefighters on Christmas Eve morning.

3. First-person stories are overrated. In the past two weeks I’ve read the “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” column (from the mother of a teenager prone to psychotic spells) …
… another column about how autism does not correlate to violence, from a mom using her gentle autistic son as first-person evidence …
… and a blog post from a local journalist I respect, who used to buy records  years ago at a store in Newtown, Conn., and asked readers to spare some prayers for a place that “used to be my backyard.”

I know that sometimes personal tales beg to be told; and the ones I list above all came with good intentions and useful messages.

But the presence of Mother No. 2’s gentle autistic son is a single anecdotal story; it is not in itself an argument against linking autism and violence. (I couldn’t agree more with the conclusion. I just think that any specific example deserves one sentence, tops.)

And the local journo’s time spent in Newtown 20 years ago does not add anything to the appalling nature of the shootings there. My feelings about the event are unaffected by anyone’s peripheral personal experiences. (I would suggest that Newtown is everyone’s back yard now, regardless of whether you’ve ever actually driven through it.)

Similarly, I do not expect that anyone who knows me will feel any differently about the Webster shootings, or have any deeper understanding of what went on, because of my limited connection to the town.

It’s just another event that reminds us that senseless violence and stupidity can happen anywhere, anytime … even to volunteer public servants doing their jobs in a nice neighborhood the day before Christmas.

Where next, I wonder?

# # # # #

I was going to try to end this on a more uplifting note … oh, yeah, I remember now.

We got a nice storm the night I arrived in Rochester. Not a life-disrupting lake-effect snow bomb; just maybe three or four inches overnight to cover everything in white. I went running in the first cold flakes, and shoveled the driveway the next day with my dad and older brother, and felt rootsy and connected and at home.

We also took my kids to our family’s longtime sledding hill of choice. The day was windy and the snow cover a little shallow, but fun was still had by all.

I brought my point-and-shoot (Kodak, natch) … and while I was taking a couple runs down the hill, I shot video.

Perhaps the sight of a grown man kicking up his heels and taking to the bunny slope will add a little cheer to somebody’s Christmas.

Mundane Moments: Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

Thanksgiving is probably the most unchanging and constant holiday this country has to offer.

At Halloween, the costumes differ from year to year.

At Easter, the kids outgrow their fancy clothes from year to year, and maybe the Easter basket holds some new or different treat.

And of course Christmas is defined, at least in part, by that year’s gifts. If you have a snapshot with gifts in it, you can extrapolate how old any given member of your family needed to be to receive that particular present.

Thanksgiving, on the other hand, can only be judged based on how many members of the family consort are there to take part in the festivities, and how gray they look compared to other years.

Thanksgiving snapshots fall into the realm of  The Eternal. All across America, there is One Turkey, and One Boat of Gravy, and One Tureen of Mashed Potatoes, forever and ever, world without end, amen.

The person who said “you never step into the same river twice” never took part in an American family Thanksgiving. It is the same river of lumpy gravy every year, as long as the background setting (your grandparents’ house) does not significantly change, and as long as cirrhosis or cardiac arrest or diabetes do not carry off any of the principal players.

(Someone once quipped that Thanksgiving is the one holiday at which all thoughts of sex disappear. And so it is — a rejection of the outside world, and an embrace of the family structure you have already built for yourself. Dressing in brown sweater vests and overeating on turkey and pumpkin roll doesn’t make anyone feel sexxay, either.)

Here, then, is an underexposed picture of a family gathering. It is probably Thanksgiving, though the labeling is not crystal clear.

If you are missing a year of Thanksgiving from your family photo scrapbook, feel free to borrow this one. It will do as well as the real photo — the long-lost one with your actual family members in it.

The turkey and gravy tasted the same to our family as your turkey and gravy did to your family. It was doubtless an hour or two late and maybe a little on the dry side, as yours was. There was football on a bulky TV beforehand, and pie and wiped-out conversation afterward, just like at your house in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin or Idaho.

There is no chandelier in America powerful enough to cast real light on the withdrawn, somnambulent suburban parade that is Thanksgiving.

Pass the cranberry sauce, won’t you?

Stamford, Connecticut, 1979.

Mundane Moments: Dead leaves crackle.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then:

It happens in Charlie Brown’s universe, and only there.

In the cloudless sunshine of fall, young children rake up piles of leaves — and then disrupt them — while wearing T-shirts and knee shorts. Come to think of it, they wear the same outfits outdoors in late November to eat Thanksgiving dinner as well.

There is no biting wind in a “Peanuts” autumn, nor any of the cold rain that makes raking and bagging leaves such a clammy experience a day later.

(While we’re on the subject, Charlie Brown probably lived in one of those pampered communities where they only had to rake their leaves to the edge of the road and wait for some sort of municipal super-sucker to come inhale them. I bet he never filled two dozen black yard-bags in a single day and then dragged them all to the curb.)

The boys in this picture probably don’t see it as such, but they have been granted a 24-hour pass into Charlie Brown’s world.

The front yard where this snapshot was taken is maybe eight miles away, as the crow flies, from the shore of a Great Lake.

Judging from the leaves, which are turning color but only just starting to fall, it is probably the end of September or even early October. This is apple season. Sweatshirt season. Jacket season. Jack Frost season.

The kids seem perfectly comfortable in their short shirt-sleeves, though.

And — while the picture suffers from Seventies cheap-camera craplitude — if you blow it up to maximum size, you see something that looks a whole lot like a bare foot sticking out of the bigger boy’s right pants leg.

What we have here is a last unseasonal burst of summer — a final day or two to laugh in the face of the wind, and frolic as if it were June.

It is a rare and limited treat in this front yard to walk barefoot through autumn leaves.

These children, one imagines, have stopped savoring the opportunity for thirty quick seconds so some adult can capture their glorious moment for the ages. Then they will burst forth again to laugh and gambol.

And yet, if you blow the picture up again, the older boy appears to wear only the dimmest of smiles, if that. (The younger boy has a prankish Ulysses Macaulay kind of look about him.)

The older boy leans gently to one side, as though the tree is holding him up. To me he looks pensive or wistful, or even worried, or perhaps like he is thinking hard about something off in the distance.

The same sorts of emotions, in short, that one might associate with Charlie Brown.

Perhaps the older boy, like ol’ Chuck, has discovered that there is a psychic price to pay in exchange for living in the magic autumnland where dead leaves crackle between the toes. Maybe he is learning that it only looks like fun.

He is lucky: In a day or two, he will be back in the soothing, familiar chill of an upstate fall, and standard emotional service will be restored.

Charlie Brown and his friends, meanwhile, are fated to do time until the snow falls and the pond freezes, stuck in their monotonous non-autumn.

It is an OK place to visit but a better place to leave … if you can.

Penfield, New York, September/October 1975.