Dispatches from Brookline: Home Schooling and Social Distancing VIII

I have described elsewhere how my wife Nell, our two daughters—one in 4th grade and one in 6th grade—and I were already coping with social distancing and the closure of the public schools in Brookline, Massachusetts until at least April 7, 2020. Besides staying inside as much as possible, we converted our dining room into a functioning classroom complete with workbooks, flip charts and a very popular white board.

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When I came downstairs on the afternoon of April 1, 2020, the flip chart had not changed from the previous day because Wednesday has become the morning to chill and watch episodes of The Blue Planet.

In that same vein, our daughters and I began to discuss the history of those two profoundly American art forms: jazz and rock. From 3 pm to 4 pm, we watched the first hour of the first episode of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. I had first watched it six years earlier, so I knew how broadly entertaining and informative it could be.

After a 36-minute-break, we reconvened to watch the end of the 87-minute episode. We then moved ahead in time a few decades to watch a short video about “The Godmother of Rock-and-Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Once that ended, our older daughter vanished into her pre-teen bedroom. Our younger daughter, however, having burrowed deeply under her dark blue quilt on the blue sofa, wanted to watch something else. And by “something else,” she meant an episode by “the boys,” our nickname for BuzzFeed Unsolved’s Ryan Bergara and Shane Madej. This being a lazy day—as many days are these days—I pulled up the most recent episode, one Nell and I had watched a few nights earlier: the mysterious death of Thelma Todd.

About an hour later, I knocked on her bedroom door to get her attention. When she removed her headphone, I told her in my best deadpan voice her mother and I had just decided we would watch five more hours of Jazz that evening. Before she could complete the indignant protest forming in her throat, I yelled “April Fool’s” in my most absurd voice. I repeated the process with her older sister, who barely deigned to roll her eyes at me.

In reality, what Nell was doing was cooking some exceptionally delicious chicken parmigiana.  I consumed a hearty portion as we watched All In With Chris Hayes. Offered seconds, I hungrily accepted essentially what remained in the casserole dish, leading our younger daughter to observe I do “not know what no means” when it comes to second.

Thanks, kid. Thanks a lot.

For all that, I had to stop eating about 2/3 of the way into my seconds so as not to get sick, though I did finish it over the course of the evening.

By 10:45 pm, I had finished cleaning the kitchen, and I decided to tackle aspects of the living room. First, as I watched the most upbeat segment I have seen on television in weeks, I thoroughly scrubbed our glass coffee table with Windex. Even before our actual dining room table became a centerpiece of our “classroom,” the coffee table had become the predominant dinner-eating surface. Once the coffee table was clean, I turned to the pile of clean laundry on the blue sofa crying out to be folded.

In general, Nell is the laundry maven—she finds great satisfaction in working her chemical magic on piles of dirty clothes using Mrs. Meyer’s detergent and OxyClean. Folding, however, is another matter entirely. I am perfectly happy to fold all shared linen and towels, as well as my own clothes.  Theoretically, she and the girls fold their own clean laundry. In reality, however, their clothes take longer to fold, leading me to step in on occasion.

Turning lemons into lemonade, I pulled out my old VHS copy of the Yello Video Show; we still have a dual VCR/DVD player. The upshot: I may also have done something akin to dancing during the 30 minutes it took me to fold those clothes. I freely admit to singing, but the rest is between me and the living room windows.

Later that night—early that morning—I returned to my computer. For reasons that escape me now, I located the “Sun City” video for on YouTube and watched it a few times. And as it has for more than 30 years, it made me weep silently.

But then it was down to business: deciding which film noir I would screen in class Thursday afternoon. The first question was whether I wanted to zero in on a key author—Cornell Woolrich—or a key cinematographer—John Alton. If the former, would we watch Phantom Lady, Black Angel or Deadline at Dawn. If the latter, would we watch Border Incident or He Walked By Night—or perhaps even Raw Deal?

I eventually made a decision, as you will see.

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Perhaps it was all the folding and dancing the evening before. Or perhaps it is my current—some may call it absurd, though as a lifelong night owl who relishes the peace and quiet of the dark night, I refute that description—sleeping schedule:

  • clean the kitchen/take out our golden retriever/take out garbage and recycling
  • work until 3 am or so,
  • soak in a long hot bath or revel in a quick hot shower,
  • take my 5 mg melatonin and over-the-counter sinus medication—I am particularly fond of half doses of CVS brand Severe Allergy and Sinus Headache, though I also like half does of DayQuil combined with a dose of CVS brand chlorpheniramine maleate
  • sack out on the white sofa to watch YouTube videos
  • drowsily turn off television to fall asleep on white sofa
  • wake one or two hours later to wander upstairs to brush my teeth and get in our actual bed

Whatever the reason, I had a more difficult time than usual rousing myself on afternoon of Thursday, April 2, 2020. And when I went downstairs and hour or so later, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 2

Technically, what I first saw was both of our daughters sitting in their usual classroom seats, attentively waiting for “school” to begin—or perhaps it had already begun? Almost before I could ask Nell why our daughters, who usually require some nominal cajoling to begin their afternoon classes, were already there, she said, “Maybe you should go look for yourself.”

So, I did.

Oh.

Dr Dobby

Our younger daughter was now in stitches; she had been plotting this since my “April Fool’s” prank the night before. The piece of paper in front of “Dr. Dobby,” meanwhile, was written by our older daughter to attest to the pedagogical excellence of my temporary replacement.

Once Dr. Dobby and I had agreed I would teach this particular class, I opened some of the PowerPoint slides I had used to teach an adult and community education film noir course in the fall of 2018. First, I wanted to make the point—using my LISTS and POINTS system—that while film noir certainly peaked between 1944 and 1953 in the United States, it was and is an international film type that continues to this day.

Woolrich April 2

Second, and more important, I presented the tragic life of Cornell George-Hopley Woolrich, who sometimes wrote as William Irish. As you can see from the slide, more films noir have been adapted from Woolrich stories than from any other author; this slide only lists the 15 films released between 1942 and 1954 which have at least 10.5 POINTS.

This quote from a 1988 biography perfectly distills Woolrich’s noir fatalism:

“…perhaps the most important moment of his life, literally his dark night of the soul, when he suddenly understood, not just intellectually but in his heart and blood, that someday like Cio-Cio-San [of Madame Butterfly], he too would have to die, and after death there is nothing. It happened…’one night when I was eleven, and huddling over my own knees, looked up at the low-hanging stars of the Valley of Anahuac, and I knew I would surely die finally, or something worse.’ This…was the beginning of ‘the sense of personal, private doom.’ […] I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of a poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t’”[1]

One thing I forgot to tell the girls was how I opened the eulogy I delivered for my mother—their grandmother—on March 2, 2004. Observing that Woolrich was a renowned writer who had essentially invented the psychological suspense story, I noted only four people attended his funeral in September 1968. By contrast, I continued, there were twice that many people in attendance that morning who had never even met my mother, primarily my coworker “family.”

And with that, we settled down in the living room—note the blue sofa devoid of clean unfolded laundry—to watch Phantom Lady. I chose this film because it…

  1. has the most POINTS (42.5) of any Woolrich adaptation, tying it for #27 with The Naked City,
  2. features a strong heroic female lead in 23-year-old Ella Raines,
  3. was directed by the man I most strongly associate with classic film noir, Robert Siodmak and
  4. includes some of the most famous scenes in classic film noir

Just before we started to watch Phantom Lady, there was a brief conversation over whether the girls could use their Nintendo switches at the same time. I started to say no, but then gambled the movie would be compelling enough to draw then in. I knew I was correct when, about 15 minutes in, our older daughter showed me some green animal on Animal Crossing, adding “It’s a good movie, though.”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, that same daughter had had something of a meltdown that morning over the fact she could not see her ribs; we seem to deep in that phase of pre-adolescence. But that makes the exchange we had over Ms. Raines—who I confess I find very attractive (those clear blue eyes…), but who also strikes me as too thin—that much more cringeworthy.

While agreeing Ms. Raines was attractive, she took exception to my fancying her, crying “She’s 20 years older than you!” Learning Phantom Lady was released in 1944, she amended her outrage to note she was 22 years older than me—not counting that she was in her 20s when she starred in it. To this, I unhelpfully added that she was also dead.

Strangely enough, these conversations never took place with my six “What is Film Noir” students. Nonetheless, as a teacher I did pause the film a number of times to point out something about Woody Bredell’s lighting scheme or to comment upon Woolrichian coincidence.

Meanwhile, when Elisha Cook, Jr. first appeared on screen, our younger daughter immediately said, “He was in that other movie,” recalling his key role in Stranger on the Third Floor, which she and I had watched the previous Sunday. This is the same daughter who sliced open an avocado for a snack, somewhat raggedly using her child-safe white plastic knife, while her father instead had a toasted whole wheat bagel with cream cheese.

In the end, both girls enjoyed the film, although the intensity of the penultimate “damsel in distress” scene could be why our younger daughter had her own teary meltdown around dinner time. Being her, however, she recovered within five minutes.

A short time earlier, I had taken the dog out into the backyard. Ten or 15 minutes of frolicking in the mud later, I trotted her upstairs and into our walk-in shower for a long-overdue bathing. Wrestling a wet 50-pound dog in such a confined space is a serious aerobic workout—never mind toweling her off afterward—but on this occasion I punctuated with the loud shrieks of a cooped-up maniac—not unlike the noises Mr. Bergara made when he and Mr. Madej returned to the “Winchester Mystery House.”

When I suggested to Nell, who had overheard my chorus of madness, that such vocalizing was an expression of stir-craziness, she observed “this is only the beginning.”

A short time later, as Nell was preparing Trader Joe’s chili and cornbread, she noted that when she spoke to her friend in Chicago it was 65 degrees and sunny, so that weather should be here soon.

“No,” I replied, “All of Chicago is on lockdown. The weather can’t leave.” She found that genuinely amusing—unlike the usual “that joke never gets funny” response my quips merit—saying, “That’s…that’s funny.”

Thanks, Nell. Thanks a lot.

Later that evening—early that morning—I wrestled with how I wanted to teach the girls about the early history of rock and roll, which I realized was not my strongest area. Girding myself to prepare a set of PowerPoint slides with links to YouTube videos, I quickly found this hour-long documentary from 1984. I watched it and decided it would be good enough.

Which it proved to be.

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I may only have been joking about the weather, but I did not expect to wake on Friday, April 3, 2020—thanks to Nell, since I had neglected to set my alarm—to a near-nor’easter. An hour-plus later, when I went downstairs, this is what greeted me in the “classroom”:

April 3

Dr. Dobby was back as well, albeit willing to stay in a supportive role:

Supportive Dr Dobby

I had briefly debated offering the girls the choice between Episode 2 of Jazz or the rock and roll documentary, but I realized I had already set up the latter with the Sister Rosetta Tharpe video. The girls liked the documentary, although our older daughter had a difficult time with Elvis Presley’s slicked-back hair, finding Jerry Lee Lewis much more attractive—well, at least until she realized he had married his 13-year-old cousin.

Her younger sister, meanwhile, quietly watched a few tears roll down my cheek when they showed footage of the February 3, 1959 plane crash which effectively ended the first phase of rock history. Later that night, in honor of Buddy Holly, I finally purchased 18 of his songs on iTunes.

After a 30-minute or so break, the three of us gathered in the classroom, where I “lectured” from these notes (which I admit are mostly cribbed from the Internet minefield which is Wikipedia):

April 3

Three observations I neglected to include in my notes, but which I improvised:

  1. An oversimplification of the Hegelian dialectic
  2. The replacement of the aging Dwight Eisenhower with the much younger John F. Kennedy in 1961
  3. How the emerging songwriting duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David found their muse around 1962 in the person of a New Jersey gospel singer named Dionne Warwick.

My point was that far from “dying,” American music other than rock and roll thrived between February 3, 1959 and the first appearance of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9, 1964. While there was no guarantee rock and roll would reemerge in those five years—let alone become the dominant pop music for generations to come—it is only with a particularly rock-centric hindsight we say “the music died,” with all due apologies to Don McClean.

And with that, at 5:12 pm, week three of home schooling came to a successful end.

Which Nell and I celebrated by watching the first three episodes of season two of Broadchurch, after consuming her scrumptious steak fajitas.

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On March 30, at 10:53 pm, I replied to a tweet to the effect one’s “pandemic” song is the #1 song on your 12th birthday:

Oh dear. 

Oh oh OH DEAR.

Mine is…

Kiss You All Over” by Exile

So inappropriate in so many ways.

Wow

The Billboard magazine week began on my birthday in 1978, so I could have fudged the issue by going with the previous #1: “Boogie Oogie Oogie” by A Taste of Honey. To be fair, I love both songs.

Meanwhile, when I explored the 20 number ones single of 1978 (accursed Wikipedia again…I am slipping), it was hard to miss the fact five were by the Bee Gees or their younger brother, Andy Gibb, and that they occupied the top spot a combined 22 weeks.

Despite being inundated by the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack when I was 11 and 12 years old, I have long since come to appreciate the excellent Bee Gees tracks of the mid- to late-1970s. However, I had continued to dismiss the younger Mr. Gibb for decades, despite his tragic death from heart failure in 1988.

And yet as I looked over those song titles—“(Love Is) Thicker Than Water” and “Shadow Dancing” among them—I found myself mentally humming them, surprised how good I recalled them being. I played snippets of them on iTunes, realizing I had forgotten he had had performed some of them—or I had never known it in the first place.

On Friday afternoon, as I discussed the formation of The Beach Boys—the American yin to The Beatles’ yang—our older daughter half-disgustedly proclaimed them the first “boy band.”  I indignantly shot down that comparison, repeating my contention one of the hardest things in all of art to do is write a memorable, three-plus-minute pop song. The Beach Boys did it many times…

…and so did Andy Gibb, I realized to my chagrin.

Which is why, before I purchased those Buddy Holly tunes, I bought six Andy Gibb tunes; I am enjoying them immensely.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gibb. Your songs remain your greatest legacy.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] Nevins, Francis M., Jr. 1988. Cornell Woolrich: First You Dream, Then You Die. New York, NY: The Mysterious Press, pg. 8.

Rituals and obsessions: a brief personal history

It started with “Taxman” by The Beatles.

Its distorted vocal opening had gotten stuck in my head despite my stated antipathy toward the band—really more pose than position, in retrospect.

Whenever I run a bath, I like to be in the tub while the faucet(s) run. Until quite recently,[1] when the tub was nearly full, I would turn off the cold water and turn on the hot water to its scalding limit, counting down “one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four” in the same slow tempo as the opening of “Taxman.” Only then would I turn off the hot water and settle in for a steamy cleansing soak.

I realize the actual track opens with “one-two-three-four, one-two” before George Harrison sings “Let me tell you how it will be/There’s one for you, nineteen for me.”

But, hey, my ritual, my rules.

At some point, I stopped employing that ritual to start a bath—only to replace it with one for exiting a bath, even as most of the water had drained around me. During my senior year at Yale, two other seniors and I lived off-campus. Our second-floor walkup had a bathtub, which I used most nights. One night, for…reasons, before the water fully drained, I squatted down and scooped up some water, quickly shaking it out of my hands as though I had just washed my hands in a sink. I repeated that sequence twice, except on the third iteration, I stood up, shaking out my hands as I did so. Only then did I step onto the bath mat.

I have performed this ritual—or some slight variant of it—every single time I have exited a bathtub since the fall of 1987. It is not as though I expect something bad will happen if I do not do so—I am not warding off anxiety; when that particular coin is flipped, it lands on depression for me nearly every time. It is simply that having started doing it, I continued to do it, making it an essential part of my bathtub “routine.”

Funnily enough, I have yet to mention this routine to my psychotherapist.

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In a recent post, I detailed ways the Netflix series Stranger Things had resonated with me at a deeply personal level. As of the evening of December 26, my wife Nell and I had watched the entire series—25 episodes over three seasons—twice, the second time with our two pre-teen daughters. Nell’s pithy takeaway: “I would watch it again.” Our younger daughter may already have, quietly watching in her bedroom on her new iPad. She now very much wants her friends to watch the show so she can discuss it with them…or at least have them understand why she suddenly—and with great affection—calls folks, mainly me, “mouth breather” or “dingus.”

Meanwhile, over the course of winter break, a small army of Funko Pop! figures appeared in our home, which our younger daughter arranged in rough chronological order; the short video I took of the sequence is my first ever “pinned” tweet.

Stranger Things tower.JPG

Clearly, I am not the only member of this household now utterly obsessed with the admittedly-excellent series. And one peek inside our younger daughter’s room, decorated in true Hufflepuff fashion, will reveal I am not the only member of this household who easily becomes obsessed.

But I am one of only two members of this household legally old enough to purchase and/or consume alcohol, and I am the only one who refused to drink alcohol until well into my college years—even as my high school classmates would try to get me to join them in beer drinking as we stayed in hotels for Youth in Government or Model UN—because I was very wary of my obsessive nature. I was well aware how often I could not simply enjoy something—I had to fully absorb it into my life.

Indeed, once I did finally sample that first Molson Golden in the converted basement seminar room I shared with two other Elis sophomore year, I liked it far more than I would have anticipated from sampling my father’s watered-down beer at various sporting events. Age prevented me from drinking too much, though, until I turned 21 early in my senior year. On my birthday, those same off-campus roommates took me to a local eatery called Gentree. An utter novice at drinking anything other than beer, I had no clue what to order; the gin and tonic I settled upon did nothing for me. Shortly thereafter, after a brief flirtation with Martini and Rossi (I still do not know how that bottle appeared in our apartment), I tried my first Scotch whisky.

It was love at first sip.

Over the next few years, I never drank enough for anyone to become, you know, concerned, but I did feel like I needed to have a glass of J&B or Cutty Sark with soda water—usually lemon Polar Seltzer—every day. When a close friend came to visit me in the Boston suburb of Somerville in January 1992, he presented me with a bottle of Glenfiddich—one of the better single-malt Scotches—and it was like having a revelation within a revelation, as this photograph from that night depicts.

Glenfiddich Jan 1992.jpg

This photograph reminds me I spent the 1990s and a significant chunk of the following decade living in turtlenecks—of all colors—because I decided one day while getting my hair cut, I liked the way the white cloth band looked around my neck. You know, the one hair stylists use to keep freshly-cut hair from dropping inside your shirt.

Eventually, I settled on Johnnie Walker Black (light rocks, club soda on the side[2]) as my primary poison—though I also developed a taste for a port wine called Fonseca Bin 27. Between 1991 and 1993, I spent way too much time at the bar of an terrific restaurant called Christopher’s. In 2005, I used old credit card receipts, which I had stuffed into a desk drawer for years, to calculate I spent $1,939.23 there (roughly $3,500 in 2019) in just those three years—and that sum excludes cash payments. Apparently, a hallmark of being both obsessive and a math geek is the construction of Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to calculate inconsequential values.

It would be another 10 years before I worked Scotch into my emerging Friday night bath ritual—the one with the curated music and the darkness and the single large pine-scented candle from L.L. Bean and the lavender milk bath stuff and the way I would turn off every light before walking into the candle-lit bathroom with my full tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black, or 10-year-old Laphroaig on special occasions. Ahh, that delectably peaty aroma…

More recently, Nell and I moved away from beer and whisky, respectively, toward red wine, going so far as to join Wine of the Month Club. Well, I also developed a taste for rye whisky, be it neat, mixed with ginger ale or in an Old Fashioned.

The point of this borderline-dipsomaniac history is that my high school instincts about my obsessive nature were remarkably close to the mark. Prior to being diagnosed with depression, I self-medicated with alcohol far more than I ever wanted to admit to myself. Perhaps not coincidentally, I recently cut my alcohol consumption down to almost nothing, though my stated reason is the toll it was taking on my sinuses, which have had more than enough trouble already.[3]

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Family lore holds I learned to read at the age of 2½, which my elementary school educator wife tells me is physiologically impossible. Whenever it was, by the time I was eight or so, I had already amassed a solid library of books.

And then I learned about the Dewey Decimal System.

With that, it no longer sufficed to organize my books alphabetically by subject or author or title, or even to use the Library of Congress classification system. No, I had to Dewey-Decimalize them, which meant going to Ludington Library, where I spent a great deal of my childhood and teenage years, to photocopy page after page of classification numbers. I still have a few books from those days, penciled numbers in my childish handwriting on the first page just inside the cover. I even briefly ran an actual lending library out of my ground-floor playroom—the one rebuilt after the fire of March 1973.

Meanwhile, my mother, our Keeshond Luvey and I spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 living in the “penthouse” of the Strand Motel in Atlantic City, NJ; my father would make the 60-mile drive southeast from Havertown, PA most weekends. In those years, the roughly 2½ miles of Pacific Avenue between Albany and New Hampshire Avenues were dotted with cheap motels and past-their-time hotels. The Strand was one of the better motels, with a decent Italian restaurant just off the lobby, dimly lit with its semi-circular booths upholstered in blood-red leather; I drank many a Shirley Temple over plates of spaghetti there. In that lobby, as in every lobby of every motel and hotel along the strip, was a large wooden rack containing copies of a few dozen pamphlets advertising local attractions.

At first, I simply took a few pamphlets from the Strand lobby to peruse later. Then I wanted all of them. Then I began to prowl the lobbies—yes, at seven, eight years old I rode the jitney by myself during the day, at just 35¢ a ride—of every motel and hotel along Pacific Avenue, and a few along Atlantic Avenue one block northwest, collecting every pamphlet I could find. They were all tossed into a cardboard box; when the winter felt like it was lasting too long, I would dump the box out on my parents’ bed and reminisce.

In the year after that second summer, I became attuned to pop music, leaving Philadelphia’s premiere Top 40 radio station, WIFI 92.5 FM, on in my bedroom for hours at a time, while I did homework, read or worked diligently on…projects.

Back in 1973, my parents had bought me a World Book Encyclopedia set, complete with the largest dictionaries I had ever seen. The W-Z volume had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. Late in 1976, I received a copy of the 1977 World Almanac and Book of Facts, which also had a comprehensive timeline of key events in world history. And I soon noticed some events were on one timeline but not the other.

Thus, in February 1977, with WIFI 92 as my personal soundtrack, I began to write out a collated timeline, drawing from both sources. Thirty-six lined notebook pages hand-written in pencil later, I had only gotten as far as June 30, 1841—so I decided to slap a red construction paper cover on it and call it Volume I.

Important Events and Dates.JPG

I assigned it Dewey Decimal value 909.

You could say I came to my senses—or I bought a copy of the astounding Encyclopedia of World History—because I never did “publish” a Volume II. In April 1978,[4] however, I wrote a similarly non-knowledge-advancing booklet—no cool cover this time—called 474 PREFIXES, ROOTS AND SUFFIXES. This volume, assigned Dewey Decimal number 423, was only 10 pages long, despite being more comprehensive.

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Even before I immersed myself in hours of 1970s Top 40 radio, I had heard bits and pieces of New Year’s Eve countdowns of the year’s top songs. The first one I remember hearing was at the end of 1974, because I heard Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in April 1974—though I could be mixing it up with John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” released as a single the previous year.

In January 1980, Solid Gold debuted with a two-hour special counting down the top 50 songs of 1979. I was particularly curious to know the ranking of my favorite song at the time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk;” if memory serves, it led off the show at #50. A few days earlier, my cousins and I had listened in the house we then shared to WIFI-92’s top 100 songs of 1979 countdown.

I was vaguely aware there were weekly magazines that tracked top songs and albums, but I did not buy a copy of Cashbox until late April 1980.[5] My Scotch whisky revelation nearly eight years later was a mere passing fancy compared to this slender combination of music and data. I pored over its charts for hours, even calling my best friend to all but read the singles and album charts to him; utterly disinterested, he was nonetheless very patient with my exuberance. That fall, I noticed that every Saturday, the Philadelphia Bulletin published that week’s Billboard top 10 singles, albums—and two other categories, possibly country and soul. Reading these charts—literally covering them with a napkin which I slid up to uncover each song/album from #10 to #1—became a staple ritual of my regular Saturday morning brunch with my father, from whom my mother had separated in March 1977. Not satisfied with reading them, I clipped each set of charts so I could create my own rankings along the lines of “top songs, September 1980 to March 1981.”

On December 31, 1980 and January 1, 1981, I heard two radio stations present their “Top 100 of 1980” countdowns. I listened to the first one with my cousins in my maternal grandmother’s apartment in Lancaster, PA; my mother and her sister were also there. The second one my mother and I heard in the car driving home, although we lost the signal halfway through the countdown; I still was able to hear one of my favorite songs then: “More Love” by Kim Carnes. The following weekend, I found a paper copy of yet another 1980 countdown while visiting the Neshaminy Mall with my mother and severely mentally-impaired sister, who lives near there. It was probably there I also found Billboard’s yearend edition, which I purchased—or my mother purchased for me.

After a delirious week perusing its contents, I obtained a copy of the first official weekly Billboard of 1981, for the week ending January 10—albeit released Tuesday, January 6. One week later, I bought the January 17 edition, then the January 24 edition, then the January 31 edition. In fact, I bought every single issue of Billboard for the next seven-plus years, ritualistically digesting its charts using the same uncovering method as the charts published in the Bulletin. I brought each issue to school with me, where my friends and I would pore over its contents during lunch period. Later, I happily scrutinized airplay charts from a selection of Top 40 radio stations across the country—I underlined particular favorites—while waiting to make deliveries for Boardwalk Pizza and Subs in the spring and summer of 1984.

On the few occasions I did not have the $4 purchase price, I sold an album or two to Plastic Fantastic, then located on Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr, PA, to make up the difference; this was after cajoling my mother to drive me to the excellent newspaper and magazine store which then stood a short walk down Lancaster Avenue from Plastic Fantastic. While new issues of Billboard were released every Tuesday, in 1981 and 1982, I would have heard the new week’s Top 40 singles counted down the previous Sunday night on the American Top 40 radio program, then hosted by Casey Kasem.

Sometime in 1981, I began to compile weekly lists of the Top 10 groups, male artists and female artists…so it is not all surprising that over winter break from my sophomore year of high school, I calculated my own “Top 100 of 1981” lists. In the days prior to Excel, this meant I gathered all 51 weekly issues (the final chart of the year freezes for a week) into what I would later call a “mountain of Billboards” on the floor of my bedroom—sometimes the mountain would migrate into the living room—and tally every single and album that had appeared in the top 10 on blank sheets of paper, using acronyms to save my hands from cramping. I used a combination of highest chart position, weeks at that position, total weeks on the chart, and weeks topping such charts as Adult Contemporary, Rock, Country and Soul to generate my rankings. There would always be fewer than 100 singles or albums entering the top 10 in any given year so I would then move into the top 20 for singles and top 30 for albums. I had ways—long since forgotten—of adding up an artist’s singles and albums “points,” allowing me to produce an overall top 100 artist countdown.

Digging into my record collection, and pestering friends for whatever tracks they had, on January 1, 1982, I sat in my bedroom with my cousin and DJ’d my first Top 100 countdown, using a snippet of “Lucifer” by Alan Parsons Project for “commercial breaks.”

That first year, I stuck to the primary charts, but ambition seized me over the next few years, and I began to contemplate creating sub-generic lists; I would usually run out of steam after a week or so, however.  Fueling this obsessive data compiling were large navy mugs filled with a mixture of black coffee and eggnog. Even after enrolling at Yale in September 1984,[6] I would look forward to arriving back in our Penn Valley, PA apartment so I could dive into Billboard mountain and immerse myself in that year’s charts. I would come up for air to visit with family and friends, of course, but then it was right back into the pile, MTV playing on my bedroom television set.

Over the years, I never threw any issues away, which meant schlepping them with me on the Amtrak train from New Haven, CT to Philadelphia; my poor mother had to move giant piles of them twice, in 1986 (~275 issues) and 1987 (~325). They were a bit lighter then because I had gotten into the habit of taping some of the beautiful full-page ads depicting covers of albums being promoted that week. It started with Icehouse by Icehouse, then Asia by Asia; when my mother moved from our Penn Valley apartment, I had taped up a line of pages running nearly halfway around the walls of my bedroom.

Then, one week in September 1988, I did not buy the new edition of Billboard. Most likely, my musical tastes were shifting after I discovered alternative-rock station WHFS. Another explanation is that election data had been slowly replacing music chart data over the past four years. Moreover, I had landed on a new obsession: baseball, specifically the Philadelphia Phillies. Whatever the reason, I have not bought a Billboard since then, though I still have two Joel-Whitburn-compiled books from the late 1980s.

Besides the Phillies and American politics, I have had a wide range of obsessions since then, most recently film noir, Doctor Who, David Lynch/Twin Peaks and, of course, Stranger Things. My obsession with Charlie Chan is old news. But none of these had quite the immersive allure those piles of Billboards had in the 1980s.

Alas, my mother finally threw out all of them in the 1990s. While I wish she had at least saved the eight yearend issues, perhaps it is all for the best. Did I mention a college girlfriend once broke up with me—on Valentine’s Day no less—because I alphabetized my collection of button-down Oxford shirts by color, solids to the left of stripes?

Until next time…

[1] Nell reminds me that at some point in the year before our October 2007 wedding, she came into the bathroom while I was counting down. She apparently interrupted me because I told her, “Now I have to start again!”

[2] For reasons long since forgotten, I switched to Jack Daniels—bourbon—for a few years around 2000. I must have talked a lot about that being my default adult beverage order, because on a first date in December 2000, my soon-to-be girlfriend (my last serious relationship before Nell, for those keeping score at home) waited expectantly for me to ask for “that thing you always order.”

[3] I have long joked that if my upper respiratory system were a building, it would have been condemned decades earlier. In October 2011, I finally had surgery to repair a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps. I may still snore, but it longer sounds like I am about to stop breathing.

[4] April 19, to be exact

[5] I remember “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s being listed, which narrows the editions to April 19 and April 26.

[6] I was so obsessed with Billboard, I actually suggested I analyze its charts for a data analysis course I took my sophomore year. Not surprisingly, that was a non-starter with the professor.