Wednesday, October 12, 2011


It has happened to almost all of us: you are driving to some routine destination, and when you arrive there, you realize that you have no clear memory of having made the drive or of anything you might have seen along the way.

procedural or non-declarative memory:'s_Storage_System.aspx

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sweet Magnolia

My aunt Ida Mae was a remarkable woman.  Twelve years older than my mother, her baby sister, she divorced her first husband and outlived two others, all the while maintaining a relatively comfortable life in the town of Trenton, Tennessee.  Trenton is a small city of about 4,300 located in the northwestern part of the state, not far from Humboldt, home of the West Tennessee Strawberry Festival.  It's one of those places where everyone knows at least a little about everyone else, and that's just fine with the locals, many of whom have spent most of, if not all, their lives in Trenton.

When I was a kid, we used to drive up from the metropolis of Memphis to spend weekends with my Aunt Ida and my cousin Marion.  We had a regular routine: Marion and I would break out a game of Monopoly (for which we'd bent the rules to suit us) and listen to the latest albums he had received from the Columbia Record Club.  It was in this way that I was first exposed to the music of Andy Williams, Herb Alpert, and Johnny Horton, among others.  As the night progressed, we'd find an episode of "Twilight Zone" to give us the chills, then after staying up way too late, we would turn in for a good night's sleep.  Marion was about eight years older than I was, but it didn't seem to matter, and he was a very patient surrogate big brother.

I guess the thing that most impressed me about the whole Trenton clan was Aunt Ida's resilience.  When she divorced her first husband, a prominent town mortician, she was suddenly forced to look for some kind of work to sustain herself.  Looking back, I'm sure that breaking ties with a wealthy family and choosing to remain in the same small community was not the easiest route to take, but Ida was determined to make it on her own, and after all, Trenton was her home, too -- she'd lived there her entire married life.  She chose to go to "beauty school" in the neighboring town of Milan (pronounced MY'-LUN, for all you out of towners).  I remember that on some nights, we'd go meet Ida at the school and accompany her home just after dark, and then we'd feast on barbecue and maybe, if it wasn't too late, we'd head over to the Tastee Freeze for a little late night snack.

When Ida graduated from beauty school, it was time to come up with a snappy name for her business, and she chose "Coiffures by Ida".  Ida said that "coiffures" was a French word, and she thought it would give the name some pizzazz.  After we all learned to pronounce it, the name sort of grew on us.  She opened her first shop on Lexington Street and stayed there for a while, then bought a small house on High Street and did it up right.  The High Street house had a million steps up a steep hill, and the front door opened right into the salon.  Within a few months, it became the destination beauty shop in town, and all the people whom she'd known during her years with her ex-husband's family became her customers -- it was as if they'd never missed a beat.

I learned very early on that most information of any consequence pertaining to Trenton and its residents could be found out by listening in on the Saturday morning appointments.  It wasn't that we would be doing this intentionally, but Marion and I would be playing a game of Rook in the next room, and it was impossible to ignore the accounts of how so-and-so's husband was an absolute no-count or how someone else's niece was wearing something totally inappropriate to school.  We started out watching television game shows, but pretty soon, we discovered that the town news being exchanged in the adjacent salon far exceeded anything we could have witnessed on TV in terms of sheer entertainment value.

Ida was a strong woman -- indeed, several years ago, when she passed away, my cousins and I were sitting around the night before her funeral, drinking wine and reminiscing about the way she had carried herself, how she had pulled herself up by the bootstraps and made a good living, all this in a small town where news and gossip are sometimes too readily exchanged, at least for us city folk.  Her eldest son Joe was wondering if there would be a good turnout for the funeral the next day, and I said that I really didn't think there would be anything to worry about.  And indeed, on the following January morning, with a temperature in the teens but illuminated by a brilliant white-gold sunshine, it seemed that half the town appeared to pay their respects.  And on everyone's lips was the notion that Ida Mae was the definition of a "steel magnolia".  Just hearing that made me so proud of her.

Ida was quite successful as a beautician and married two more times, outliving each of her husbands, and through it all, she remained a strong, beautiful woman, full of self-assurance and love for everyone.  She was more than my aunt -- she was someone who for so many of us demonstrated that regardless of the circumstances, it was never too late to pick up the pieces and make something wonderful out of them.

So, Aunt Ida, I hope you know that if you were here tonight, we'd be heading over to Milan for some barbecue.  And if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to ride in the back seat of the Fairlane and look up at the stars on the way back home.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I would like to personally thank Waldo Semon.  Born September 10, 1898, in Demopolis, Alabama, Mr. Semon is credited with being the inventor of vinyl, the key component of the "phonograph record".  Those of us who grew up in the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's probably owe Waldo a debt of gratitude, for without his invention, many a day or night would have been rendered lifeless owing to the absence of recorded music.  Maybe I'm exaggerating, but think about it: how many hours of your life did you spend listening to music prior to the advent of compact discs and downloadable music files?  If you're like me, the hours probably number in the thousands.

"Vinyl" is nowadays considered the domain of the audiophile.  Many claim that the analog nature of vinyl recordings gives them a leg up on digital recordings, in that the entire unbroken frequency spectrum can be reproduced.  There is something innately satisfying about playing a record -- you open this oversized cover, graced with original artwork, and pull out the paper sleeve containing the record, handling it by its edges (the thumb) and center (third and fourth fingers) in order to avoid scratching the surface.  You gently place the record on the turntable, then lift the tone arm and lower it carefully onto the blank leading edge, where a wily groove takes hold of the stylus and leads it steadfastly into the opening track.

Back in the day, I acquired LP's at a healthy rate, but I stopped buying them sometime around 1983, moving on to the world of cassette tape until CD's appeared a few years later.  When I was in college, I was continually moving "the records", which by that time filled two large boxes, each of which must have weighed around forty to fifty pounds.  Since my home was in Memphis but I was attending college in Chicago, the records were often shipped on the plane (funny thing is, I don't remember incurring any extra charges).  In a sense, they were a nuisance, but I couldn't live without them: whenever I would move to school, back home, or later, to any of several apartments, the first thing I would do upon arrival was to unpack at least one of the boxes and make a selection that fit the occasion.  I remember one night we had moved from one apartment to another in Chicago, and the temperature had been two degrees -- it was brutal, and when we arrived at the new place, we opened a bottle of wine and played Dan Fogelberg.  We painted a friend's Rogers Park apartment listening to Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley.  School started with some Joni Mitchell.  And when I was homesick for Memphis, it was Isaac Hayes.  There always seemed to be a record to fit any occasion.

These days, given my eclectic CD collection and bushel baskets of downloaded music, my wife often encourages me to get rid of "those old records", but I just can't do it.  Whenever I look through them, the memories come flooding back.  There's the LP from a musician named Joe Probst that I acquired one evening as a gift while staying at the artist's apartment in Brampton, Ontario, during a choir tour that was itself memorable in so many ways.  There are two albums that were given me by Perry Allen, who was Isaac Hayes' business manager and a friend of my dad.  There's one from a band named Three Man Army that we saw as an opening act one night in Chicago and that I had to get, simply because it contained a truly hideous but strangely addictive rock song called "Polecat Woman".  The Beatles, Yes and Steely Dan phases are very well represented.  Bernstein to Bowie, it's all there in the collection.

But undoubtedly the most important record to me is one that I acquired when I lived in Charlotte.  My father was a huge music fan, and he listened to everything from Hank Williams to Nat King Cole.  One of his favorites, and in fact, the first song that I ever listened to in earnest, was Jackie Wilson's "That's Why", recorded in 1959.  When I was a little kid, I used to play this 45 RPM record over and over on a little RCA Victor turntable that plugged into a portable radio.  I never seemed to tire of hearing this song, and my dad always used to get a kick out of my peculiar fascination with it.  He would tell me stories of visiting the Grand Ole Opry in his youth, hearing people who would later become world renowned, but at that time were still "home folks".  From what he told me about this or that artist, I began to branch out and listen to all kinds of music.  

Fast forward to 1994, when I was working in Charlotte and talking one morning to my friend Lee, who owned an enormous collection of LP's and 45's.  Lee and I started talking about memorable records from our past, and I told him my story of becoming addicted to "That's Why" at the ripe old age of six.  He thought for a moment and then said, "Yeah...that would have been on the Brunswick label."  I was impressed that Lee knew this much detail about a particular record but didn't think much else of it until the next day, when he showed up at work with a vintage press of "That's Why", packaged in its original paper sleeve.  Lee handed me the record, and I said, "I'll pay you whatever you want for this...", to which he replied, "No, you don't owe me anything...I know what this record means to you."  

And so, that record, pictured above, became the star of my collection.  I've only played it one time, but that has been enough, because in that record, I have memories -- the memory of the first time I was ever hooked on a song, the memory of the music that always filled my home, and the memory of my dad, who gave me that special gift of music appreciation.

I guess you could say that I've still got a thing for vinyl.