Dateline: Rio

We’ve all heard it. Now that the Olympics are being telecast on several outlets, we hear it often. When the network takes a break from the coverage, you will see the Rio logo on the screen accompanied by five beats of the tympani followed by the Olympic fanfare.

Bum-bumpa-bum-bump…before the blare of trumpets.

And every time you hear those drums, you are hearing the work of László Borbély, 78, a Laszlo 1Hungarian percussionist who has been living a quiet life outside of Mexico City since defecting from a communist controlled Hungary during an orchestra tour of North America in the late 1960’s. His quiet life is interrupted for two-and-a-half weeks every four years for the Summer Olympic Games.

Because of an arcane copyright error taking place in Mexico City in 1968, and a series of seemingly innocuous errors, László Borbély and only Borbély, is permitted to legally play the five note fanfare introduction on the tympani.

Many believe that the Olympic Fanfare was written by John Williams, and they are not completely wrong. In 1958, a composer named Leo Arnaud, composed a piece called “The Bugler’s Dream” as part of a larger piece called “The Charge Suite”. Williams wrote his Olympic piece for the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Since that time, the first 45 seconds of Arnaud’s piece was added to the beginning of the Williams piece.

Like Williams, Arnaud was a composer who worked in Hollywood for the film industry. He was born in France and came to the United States in 1931 at the age of 27. ABC television, who owned the rights to broadcast the 1968 games in Mexico City, chose “The Bugler’s Dream” as its new Olympic Fanfare to introduce the television production.

An orchestra was assembled from American studio musicians in a soundstage in Mexico City a week before the games. The tympanist for this orchestra was stricken with a sudden case of Montezuma’s Revenge, or what is referred to today as dysentery. A couple of the musicians recognized László Borbély from a previous concert tour. Borbély, who was working at the studio as a technician, was quickly called into service for the recording of the music. He played the fanfare as well as a few other pieces and immediately went home.

The problem arose when an auditor for the studio went through the signed releases for the orchestra members. The auditor was told that the tympanist who signed the document did not perform on the recording. This was not expected to be a big problem as the network quickly found out about Borbély and dispatched a clerk to his home to acquire the appropriate release. Because of a language gap, Borbély misunderstood the instructions and filed the document away unsigned.

It turns out that one of the performances by Borbély and the rest of the orchestra went over the air live, rather than having been recorded. Because of this and some rather convoluted Mexican copyright law, Borbély became the de facto owner the five note introduction. All of this turned up when Avery Blumenthal, a lawyer representing the musician’s union in Los Angeles, unraveled the issue shortly before the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. After a brief search, László Borbély was found and flown to Los Angeles. When offered the opportunity to sign his rights to the five notes over to ABC Television, Borbély politely declined. With only days remaining before the Opening Ceremonies, the network brought him along to Munich, where he played the intro each time it was needed.

Because of a different set of copyright laws in Japan, ABC was able to avoid a similar problem during any Winter Olympiad, but continued to use Borbély for every summer games since. There was some concern about Borbély being able to go to Moscow in 1980, Laszlo 2but with the U.S. boycott, it never became an issue. Borbély moved on to NBC when they obtained the broadcast rights to the games and has been in attendance for eleven Olympic Games prior to Rio.

Now, he sits in a small sound-proof room in a studio in the main television production venue. Any time there is a commercial break, a director will cue László Borbély. He will play the same five notes that he has played representing the Olympic spirit for 48 years.  He hopes to be around for the next one in Tokyo in 2020.

Gender Bender

Crying Men

I recently went to see the Pixar movie “Inside Out” with my wife, Lilly, her husband, my other daughter Abby, and her fiancé. Since turning fifty, I have developed the disturbing habit of crying much more frequently as I had in the past. I am not one to sob out loud, but in my effort to hide my emotions, I tend to quake, or vibrate uncontrollably during these times. This movie had me setting off Richter scales throughout the southeast, causing my kids to make sport of me. When I told my friend Marcus about it, he said, “You cried like a little bitch, didn’t you?” I couldn’t deny it. This was our view of the masculine world.

Here is another recent example. My wife came with me to the shoulder doctor. I needed surgery for an impingement of my rotator cuff due to a bone spur on my shoulder blade. The doctor asked me to stand up and places his hands at his sides. He lifts his arms forward in a 180 degree arc until he is signaling for a touchdown. He asks me to do the same which I do, without blinking. He then lifts his hands from the same starting position, this time with the arc out to his sides. Again, I repeat the test. The doctor looks at my wife with a kind of, “What is he doing here? I thought he was in pain” look. I get what is going on and tell the doctor, “Oh that hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. By the time I got a quarter of the way up. It felt like a knife in my shoulder.”

On the way out, my wife asked me why I didn’t tell the doctor when I was in pain. After all, that’s why we had come in the first place. I explained to her that I couldn’t show that I wasn’t at least as tough as he was. She looked at me with a momentary expression of horror, then shook her head and moved toward the car. This is an offshoot of the male need to assess other males, even if a hundred miles from a basketball court, with the internal thought, “This chump can’t guard me.”

I admit to being a sexist pig at times. The “Who would you sleep with” game that I occasionally play with Tyrone would be an example. An example might be “Jennifer Lopez or Beyonce?” When we were younger, we would debate about such nonsense, considering all of the possible reasons that we might choose one over the other in the unlikely event that such an opportunity might arise. In our minimal defense, this game is merely a thought exercise in the form of a sophomoric challenge. My male friends and I also continue to see the gender world through eighteen-year-old eyes, which I assume, is some sort of genetic trick played more on men at the expense of women. In any case, at our current advanced age, the game is pretty much used only for comedy these days, such as “Janet Reno or Madeline Albright?” or “Lena Dunham or Malala?”

The tough part was when my daughters began dating. They appeared to be pretty naïve about the lengths that boys would go to get into the pants of girls. I warned them of some of these depravities, but they just didn’t buy it. Now it was time for me to be a man. I had to tell them I wasn’t just speculating about these things. I had to tell them that I had done them.

Now, Lilly has a PhD in Sociology. I respect her credentials even though I still do not always agree with her regarding gender issues. The main point of contention is that she feels I am being unfair to women when I downplay the masculinity of certain men. Here is an example: I’ll be watching a soccer game on a distant television in a restaurant. A player has an opponent run past him and take the ball away. The first player dives to the ground and writhes around as though he had been stabbed by the opponent. If I say “Get up, you pussy!” she might consider that offensive to women.

Ironically, I actually prefer Women’s soccer because women tend not do such an offensive thing. They just keep playing, even after getting legitimately knocked down. This type of behavior has become so rampant in sports that Hockey and Basketball have begun legislating it out with “embellishment” penalties and “flopping” fines respectively. I agree that it is offensive, but not to women. I don’t think that “less manly” necessarily means “more womanly”.

I am not insensitive. Lilly and I frequently share examples and discussions over sexist messages in the media. Since I know that she uses them occasionally in her lectures, I send examples to her. She shares some with me, but we don’t always agree on where the line of offense is. I also will let humorous examples go, while she can find them even more offensive. I come from a different time as well. Just like the NHL and NBA have had to change their rules, things are changing for us coming possibly faster than I can handle. Not only are their new gender issues, but LGBT issues as well. A friend recently took a sensitivity training class that included pansexuality. Based on their explanation to me, I feel that they may need to repeat the course.

In any case, my goal is to try to continue to evolve and hope that the changing world we live in will be patient with me.


You Can’t Go Home Again

Freshman 2TBT Golf

At the risk of receiving death threats like George Webber in Thomas Wolfe’s novel after which I’ve entitled this essay, I would like to write about my recent 40th high school reunion. I had never considered going to a previous reunion, but after 40 years, I thought it might be an adventure.

Although the reunion was on Saturday at the New Jersey Shore, and I was coming in from my current home in South Florida, I flew from Fort Lauderdale to Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC on Thursday evening. My son lives a few miles to the west in Fairfax, VA. He and his girlfriend picked me up and the three of us went to dinner and then to his apartment for the evening. We hung out for half of the next day before he took me to Lorton, VA, so I could meet up with Jerry, a High School classmate for the ride up to New Jersey.

Jerry and I were friends for most of middle school and high school as we were both musicians in the woodwind section and spent a lot of time together in that pursuit. We also spent a couple of summers at a music camp and played dozens of performances together. My grandfather and Jerry’s mother were both talented string players and knew each other for years from the local classical music scene.

Over the course of our five-and-a-half hour ride to New Jersey (apparently there was a lot less traffic in the Northeast 40 years ago), we went through our yearbook and discussed our memories of the approximately 300 kids in our graduating class. This was the first inkling that the reunion would provide more than just touching base with old friends.

As we went alphabetically down memory lane, we both noticed that the percentage of classmates that were in our social circle was disturbingly small. I know that we spent a ridiculous amount of time in the Band Room, but there were a large number of people that neither of us had ever talked to. There were also quite a few that we didn’t even remember ever seeing.

The next revelation was even more disturbing, but I’d like to preface this with some demographic information. We went to Lakewood High School in Northern Ocean County along the Jersey Shore. Our class was approximately 29.5% Black, 4.5% Hispanic, 21.5% Jewish, and the remaining 44.5% Caucasian. I’ve separated the Jews from the other Caucasians for a reason that deals with the following brief history of Lakewood.

During the early part of last century, Lakewood was a resort town for upscale Jewish people from New York. There were many hotels and entertainers such as Jerry Lewis and Hal Linden did some of their earliest work there. The Jewish hotel owners tended to hire Blacks as porters and chambermaids. There are those who debate the rationale behind this approach and it is not something I care to delve into herein.

In the 1950’s air travel became popular and South Florida supplanted Lakewood, as well as Asbury Park and Atlantic City as the new Mecca for Jews on vacation. The resort business in these towns quickly died and what was left was a town in transition. There was a large Jewish population left behind that were the descendants of immigrants, farmers, and businesspeople who had escaped from Europe over the past decades. Many of these people became the doctors, teachers, musicians, and leading citizens of Lakewood. They were also the parents and grandparents of my generation as well as Jerry’s. Lakewood also had a relatively large black population, many who were descendants of the aforementioned hotel workers. They tended to be poorer, but certainly a significant part of the culture of Lakewood.

The surrounding towns of Brick, Jackson, Howell, and Toms River had significantly less diversity. In elementary school, we all played together. As a matter of fact, my teachers in my first three grades were Black and in the next two were Jewish. I lived in a Puerto Rican enclave within a Black section of town and never thought much about race. My mother had grown up in the same environment.

In the mid-sixties, things began to change. Riots in Newark spread to Lakewood and crime and gang activity increased. My Grandmother assured me that this was an economic issue rather than a racial one, but talk among the old-timers began to take on a negative tone. “The Blacks are ruining Lakewood” was not an uncommon thing to hear. Oddly, “The Puerto Ricans are ruining Lakewood” would sometimes be heard by some of the Black old-timers. This led to some interesting dynamics in the schools.

First of all, some middle school and most high school classes were tracked, separating “college prep” kids for more “vocational” types. This worked well for me, but I was too naïve at the time to realize that this doomed many Black and Hispanic students to sub-standard curricula with possibly sub-standard teachers. Also, in order to have some sort of “quasi-equality”, our schools system took a “separate and equal” approach. We had a Black and White of pretty much everything. We had a Black and a White Assistant Principal, a Black and White Homecoming Queen, both a Black and a White band at the prom…well, you get the idea.

Jerry and I were both kind of embarrassed to find that we had virtually no meaningful relationships or even interaction with any of the Black or Hispanic kids from our high school class, a place that we spend a full four of our formative years! This was over a third of our class. Sure, we knew the few Black kids that were in the band, but only in the most cursory way. I figured the reunion would be about finding out what happened to some of the people I knew during those years. This was the first inkling that I might actually be finding out more about myself.

The 21.5% Jewish population in my class was not indicative of the Jewish population of Lakewood in 1976. There was a significant population of Hasidic Jews in the town as well. None of these kids went to the public school, so they are completely unrepresented in the class demographics. All of those kids attended private schools. At the time of my graduation, the population of Lakewood was about 30,000 people. Shortly after my classmates and I moved on to college something new began to happen. The Hasidim came a-knocking.

Hasidic Jews began knocking on doors, offering to buy houses for high prices for cash. This began a sequence of events that has changed Lakewood drastically over the intervening 40 years. In no particular order, here are some of the changes: The population has more than tripled and is expected to continue its growth leaving my small hometown the third largest city in New Jersey by my 50th reunion. A large population of undocumented Mexicans has moved into town. Hasidic Jews have been elected as Mayor and Town Councilors. Hasidic Jews have been elected to the School Board. White people have moved out in droves. Black people have moved out in droves. Courtesy bussing has removed about fifteen percent of the school budget to provide free transportation to primarily Hasidic private school students. Racial incidents and hate crimes have increased. The public schools are a mess. Our wonderful music program now has a High School Band of a dozen kids. The infrastructure in the town is a mess. Traffic is a mess. Housing is a mess. Neighboring towns are desperately attempting to exclude Jews. The main street in town is a potholed mess with nearly all of the storefront signs in either Hebrew or Spanish.

As such, our reunion was held in Brick Township, a neighboring town. Only about 10-15% of our class attended, about the same number of classmates that are no longer with us. That was depressing. About a third of those, I had been friends with at some level. It was both weird and interesting. Jerry and I both found out a bit more about the mysteries gleaned on our trip. We both seemed most interested of seeing who turned out most like our expectations and who had taken the most twists and turns. Some stories were positive and some were sad. Drugs were becoming popular in the 70’s and did ruin some lives. I was pleased to find that I was not interested in who was rich or successful or had aged well. I was most interested in who was happy and healthy.

There were also a few awkward moments. I ran into a guy that I was friends with in elementary school and hadn’t heard from or about in the intervening time. I shook hands with him and said “Hello”. There wasn’t much left to say, so I mentioned how much Lakewood had changed with the massive influx of the Hasidim. The guy leaned into me a said, with a wink and a knowing nod…

“Yeah, they’re like the new niggers.”

What? Did I just hear that? I quickly moved on. I hadn’t traveled 1700 miles to get into a fistfight with an ignoramus, but as I moved on, I tried to figure out how someone with so similar a background as I could be so clueless.

First of all, even ignoring the offensive racial nature of the comment, was this his attempt at cleverness? I certainly hope not. Also, this guy hasn’t seen or spoken to me in over 40 years. If you have read my books or blog, you will quickly see that I would in no way support such a position (side note: if you haven’t, what the hell are you waiting for?). He said this to me as though he’d seen me at the local Klan meeting every week since 1976. When I told my friend Tyrone (News flash—Tyrone id Black) about this, he said the guy must have figured that I was “down”. I reminded Tyrone that I was “down” with him and that even if he was correct, I didn’t think that the slang version of “down” could possibly be used mean “in with the other racists”. My racist classmate may be correct about one thing. I have a cousin who lives near Gilroy, California which is known as “The Garlic Capital of the World”. When the old-timer Jews said that the Blacks or anyone, for that matter ruined Lakewood, few today would disagree that it was Jews who indeed ruined Lakewood. Could Lakewood possibly become “The Irony Capital of the World”?

I also was reminded at the reunion just how immature and offensive teen-aged boys can be. We all used horrible terms like “faggot” and “retard” to describe people. Somehow my kids have evolved never to use such terminology. Maybe I did learn a few things. I spoke to Kim and Jenny, two flute players that sat in front of me for hundreds, if not thousands of rehearsals and concerts. I realized that at least three-quarters of anything I said to them would be considered sexual harassment today. At least I was able to apologize in person.

It wasn’t all grim. I was able to share a few stories I had about some of my classmate’s parents or siblings that they were unaware of. Some of these folks had passed and it felt good to give them an unexpected memory. I was on the receiving end as well. One classmate told me that his mother frequently reminded him that he would never have been able to attend college if my mother hadn’t helped her navigate through the financial aid process. I heard some nice stories about my grandparents as well.

The next day, Jerry and I headed back to Northern Virginia to get back to our families and lives. We shared all the inside tidbits we learned about some of our classmates. Mostly, it gave us a chance to reflect upon our early influences and our growth into adults. We were pleased that we navigated the past 40 years relatively successfully and that our kids are probably much better people than we were. We wondered if our kids had the basis for them to learn from that we had and if our stories of our past will help them. For all intents and purposes, the Lakewood we knew is long gone. We may be all that is left.


My First Mets Game – Sept. 21st, 1973

Mets 1973

This was an odd season for the Mets and an equally odd experience for me. Several teachers from my grandmother’s school in Howell, New Jersey, had organized a trip to see the Mets on a Friday evening. School had to already have been in session. My grandmother had purchased tickets for my brother and me as well as for herself and my grandfather. Looking back, it now seems inconceivable that my grandparents at 57 and 62 years of age, respectively, would have even considered a two-hour ride to Flushing, Queens on a bus each way along with a long walk to the upper deck of a dirty stadium. It’s another pleasant reminder of the sacrifices they made for us.

I remember a little about the bus ride. Most of the participants were younger male teachers who brought several cases of Rolling Rock beer for the ride. Several of the teachers were asking each other trivia questions. I recall realizing that one of them was wrong about one of their answers. He was clearly not happy with my attempt to correct him. It was a long time before I corrected an elder again. Somehow, I was able to shake off the experience, as I have no qualms about doing it now.

Fortunately, this group of teachers had picked the right game. The Mets entered the evening under .500, but were only half a game out. As a matter of fact, the fifth-place Cubs were only three games out at the time. The Mets had split a two game series with the first-place Pirates earlier in the week. Both teams then came to Shea where the Mets took the first two of a three game series. The Pirates were a paltry 75-75, but were still the team to beat.

This was near the end of the season where reliever Tug McGraw had coined the phrase “You gotta believe!” The phrase caught on and was everywhere and the Mets were on a roll. I watched the previous night’s game and it had a typically crazy Mets finish. The Mets were down 2-1 going into the bottom of the eighth. They tied the score on a timely hit, but immediately allowed the Pirates to retake a one run lead in the top of the ninth. Manager Yogi Berra sent up Duffy Dyer to pinch hit with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and the tying run on second. Dyer was in a terrible slump, but somehow doubled in the tying run.

Neither team scored over the next three innings, but things took a bad turn for the Mets in the top of the thirteenth. Richie Zisk singled with one out. After Willie Stargell was retired, Dave Augustine hit a long ball to left field. Zisk had been running on the pitch and seemed certain to score. The ball hit the top of the fence in front of Cleon Jones, who now had his back to home plate. The ball seemed likely to bounce over for a two run homer and at the very least, stay in the park for a tie-breaking double.

Miraculously, the ball caromed back toward the infield directly into Jones’ glove. He turned and fired to Wayne Garrett at short, who in turn threw to Ron Hodges at the plate to cut down Zisk and end the inning. The Mets scored in the bottom half on a single by Ron Hodges. To this day, I’ve never seen a play like it and certainly not in such a tight situation.

Arriving at the stadium, I was in awe of the immense building with blue and orange rectangles on the outside along the ramped concourses. I must have seen it nearly a decade earlier when my grandparents took me to the World’s Fair. Our seats were in the upper deck, in fair territory behind left field. These seats had a rather steep pitch, something that my grandparents must have been concerned about.  There were very few upper deck seats in fair territory, and they were at the edge of the open end of the stadium. During the entire life of Shea Stadium, only one ball was ever hit into the upper deck in fair territory (It was by Tommie Agee in 1969). This is significant because the stadium was full and it was the biggest game of the season to date. The stands were actually shaking during the entire game. It was both frightening and invigorating.

I wish that I remembered more specific information about the game. For example, I have no recollection of Tom Seaver pitching and going the distance for his eighteenth win. I do have specific memories of each of the three home runs by John Milner, Wayne Garrett, and Rusty Staub. All three were line drives into the right field bullpen. Each was followed by the most thunderous roar that I had ever experienced.

I cannot imagine that this evening was very pleasant for my grandparents. I cannot appreciate enough what they did for me. I do know that the Mets took over first place from the Pirates on this night, and that eleven days later they would be the Eastern Division champs of the National League. They would have been in fourth place in the West, just a half-game ahead of the Houston Astros and sixteen-and-a-half behind the champion Cincinnati Reds. No matter. They would defeat the Reds in five games before going on to lose the World Series to the Oakland A’s in seven games. And I got to be a part of it.