Ralph Higgins

Ralph Higgins
color pencil sketch by Gayle Higgins

Quotes I Like

“Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

-Albert Einstein


Monday, December 17, 2012

Gayle and I want to wish every reader a wonderful Christmas season. 

            For those who prefer, “holiday” to “Christmas,” remember that the word “holiday” has its origin in “Holy Day.”  But keep that under your hat and don’t let it get out into the public domain or we’ll be saying, “Happy Snow Season.”  Up here in the snowy mountains, where shoveling a driveway is our winter recreation, that may not be a happy greeting.

            I’m going to take a respite from my blog for awhile, but you can always go into the archives and scroll through my past posts.  You may find something interesting to read.

            Believe it or not, “unhinged” has weekly readers all across the U.S. and scattered in places like Canada, England, Denmark, Germany, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and Spain. These are regulars.

            There are also occasional readers in countries like Mexico, Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan, Alaska, France, and other far-away lands.  I’m sure many of these “sometimes” readers hit the site by accident.  I’ve also had several unusual visitors, including the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., a year or two ago.  But that just adds to the fun.

            I know that many of you are personal friends going back to our school days, but many are folks I’ve never met in person.  Thanks to all of you for reading my sometimes nonsensical ramblings.  I hope you’ll keep in touch through the blog, which I’ll keep online for anyone interested, or through my website at www.ralphhiggins.com, or by email higgins@digitalpath.net.

            I’ll be back unless the Mayan calendar is true, which is about as likely as the 12th Imam bursting out of his gopher hole riding a goat. But if it is true, just think - we can forget about shoveling snow, last-minute shopping, filing 2012 tax returns, and watching the country self-destruct.  It’s always good to look on the positive side. 

            And it’s also good to realize that the answer to the old song by Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” is “No.”  This is not all there is.  Sorry Peggy.

            Ever wonder why so many wealthy entertainers and athletes, who seem to have everything money can buy, get lost in drugs, alcohol, and go nuts or commit suicide?  Obviously, something is missing in their lives.

            Maybe the brilliant French physicist and philosopher, Pascal, had it right in the quote I featured at the top of this post.  It’s a quote worthy of serious contemplation – especially at Christmas.


Gayle and I want to wish all of you a great Christmas!

"Macho" snow dog Dakota

Girl Cat dressed for the season

Monday, December 10, 2012

Valve Oil and Brass

            Today’s post was on its way to my blog when I made the mistake of asking Gayle and my daughter Shannon to read it.  I thought it was funny and appropriately sarcastic, shedding light on the sea of insanity that we swim in these days.  Their impression was that it was “in poor taste,” so I deleted it.

            Believe me, I struggle with writing what I really want to write about regarding politics, social issues and our moral decline, but I also realize that people don’t need more negative stuff and if I step over the line, my wife will remind me. 

            I run these posts past her, since she is a woman and many readers are women.  What my buddies and I think is funny may offend others.  So Gayle said, “Why don’t you write something nice about Christmas.”  We still call it “Christmas.” 

            In a quick response to her request, I thought back on a Christmas that stands out in my memory.  As you know, the olfactory section of the brain is most closely related to memory.  Smell brings back images faster than any other sense.

            When I open my trumpet case, I smell the familiar odor of valve oil and brass.  That fleeting smell always reminds me of when I was a kid opening my first cornet case under the Christmas tree.  I was only six years old, but I’ll never forget that smell.

            Of all the gifts I received, that old horn stands out as the most memorable.  That memory lingers today.  Man, I wish I still had that cornet.

            A cornet differs from a trumpet in that it is more conical, which produces a softer, warmer sound.  I have a couple of flugelhorns that go even further in that “mellow” direction. 

            Christmas with the Higgins family was always centered on the birth of Jesus.  In our travels, Gayle and I have noticed that this event is sometimes celebrated more in third world countries than it is here in the U.S.

            Santa Claus also played a roll when I was a kid.  My dad always dressed up as Santa and, with only the lights from the Christmas tree gently lighting the scene, he would quietly enter the living room with a bag of gifts.

            My brother Tom and I, along with my mother and others, would watch the scene unfold from hiding places just feet away from Santa. Our hearts beat like jackhammers and we tried our best not to make noise.  It was something that Tom and I will never forget.

            Tom and I both carried on the tradition for our own kids, with the same Santa suit.  Now it’s the grandkids turn.  The sad part of the story is that I used to wear a pillow for a stomach.  Tom still does, but for years I’ve had trouble buttoning the suit without padding. 

            Christmas memories conflict so dramatically with what passes as Christmas today that I don’t get involved in the commercial aspects of it anymore.  We do our best to see family and friends, but avoid smiling snowmen.  In fact, Gayle and I once spent the holiday season on a cruise and Christmas day in Costa Rica to avoid the frenetic activities that have replaced the real “reason for the season.”

            When you subtract Christ from Christmas, what is left - a gift list, frantic shopping, depleting budgets, guilty reciprocations, a red-nosed reindeer, and colored lights? 

            As far as Gayle’s suggestion this morning to write about Christmas memories, all I need to do is open my old trumpet case and get a quick whiff of valve oil and brass.  That always does it.  

Monday, December 3, 2012

Where's Jimmy Hoffa?

     My previous post was a philosophical critique meant to encourage those of us who struggle with the changes of age and life in general.  I described “change” as a “constant” and “age” fits in the change category.

            They say that with age comes wisdom.  Or what passes as wisdom.  Sometimes an older guy will not answer a question immediately.  He will ponder it, stare at his coffee, and he may never answer.  This is sometimes considered a sign that his thoughts are much deeper than the question that was asked.  When I do this it’s usually because I forgot the question.

            I’ll admit that sometimes I get carried away with hyperbole to make a point. But why write a story without a little exaggeration?  Or maybe extrapolating from a realistic idea to an absurdity?  That’s what makes writing fun for me.   

            For example, my friend Ed Wall, who has actually seen my infamous garage, considers it a “work of art” and in reality it is not as bad as I describe it.  And neither is my wife, Gayle.  She doesn’t really chase me around the house with an ax.  I hid the ax in the garage and keep sharp implements on high shelves. 

            Ed stated in his comment that Jimmy Hoffa could be in my garage somewhere under all the junk.  That’s not possible.  Based on reliable sources, Hoffa went through a series of facelifts and physical transformations and re-appeared as Nancy Pelosi.  You can see the terror in Nancy’s eyes.  She knows that someday her stretched face will crack open and old Jimmy will pop out, grinning like a hog eating briers.     

            When describing my cluttered garage, I’m going back in time to a very close buddy who had a warehouse that is actually the model for the exaggerated descriptions of my garage.

            His warehouse had tunnels leading through mountains of keepsakes and junk.  When I worked up the courage to venture into those tunnels, I wore a miner’s hat with a light and always left a trail of pennies to follow to get back out. Breadcrumbs wouldn’t work because of hungry life-forms lurking in the darkness. 

            My friend almost got a contract with the government for the Witness Protection Program, since his warehouse was the perfect hiding place.  Unfortunately it was discovered that two electricians and a plumber entered the maze for repair work and were never seen again.  That squelched the deal. 

            My garage is nothing like that.  So far everyone who has entered my garage has come out alive and relatively unscathed.  And so far Gayle hasn’t found the ax I hid.  She always says she’s looking for Christmas decorations upstairs, but I’m never sure.  It’s good to have a wife who keeps you on your toes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Just Let Go

       Gayle and I once watched a comedian do a routine on things we all experience in everyday life and the various conflicts that are inevitable.  After the description of each frustrating situation he would say, “Just let go.”  By the end of his routine, despite his humorous context, the message came through – “Just let go.”

            Our experiences in life are transitory.  Life itself is transitory.  Tragedies result in pain and scars that will never go away.  But there are things that we consider important that may not be as important as we think.  Maybe we should just let them go.

A minister’s biblical quote, “it came to pass,” may be a reminder that things “pass” and change – not always for the best, but change is inevitable.  The only constant in life is change.  Age seems to make this truth less palatable.

            I had an extra room built over my garage ostensibly for an apartment someday or maybe as a refuge if Gayle comes after me with a knife.  But the real reason for the extra space was to store all my junk.

We had a garage sale recently and Gayle had a ton of stuff to sell.  With my garage full of junk, I could hardly find anything to add to the sale.  I’m a pack rat.  I can’t seem to get rid of anything.  It’s a sickness.  I’m “fastidiously challenged.”

            As we age, “letting go” is a requirement that is forced on us.  Accepting the process can make life a little easier.

            We have to learn to let go of our kids, who leave the nest and move on with their own lives.  Sadly, we have to accept the passing of friends and relatives.  That’s a tough one.  But we even hold onto guilt and regrets.  Why?  The past is gone.  But it’s not easy to let it go.

Life is full of disappointments.  It’s important to understand that without expectations you can’t have disappointments.  How can you be disappointed if you didn’t have an expectation?  Lowering or eliminating expectations can temper disappointment. 

            I think women have a more difficult time adjusting to their physical changes as they age.  Society thrusts youthful beauty and air-brushed images on us as the female ideal.  It’s futile to swim against the current of time.  The real source of female beauty isn’t external anyway.

Some men can look in a mirror and see their grandfather and still think they look cool.  This despite Velcro straps on tennis shoes, an expanding belly, an incredible shrinking ass, and a bathroom scale that lies and adds 50 pounds for a pair of underpants and two socks.  

Speaking of mirrors, I actually try not to look in a mirror.  That’s why I look like a Caucasian version of boxing promoter Don King in the morning, which scares the hell out of Gayle at breakfast.

I could go on, but I’ve already cut this piece in half.  Cutting and editing for a writer is painful.  It’s like selling an important autographed book at a garage sale for a dime.  But I had to cut out some good stuff, because I’m learning to “let go.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Grand Finale

Levity seems more elusive these days, so I’m going to reach way back into my past as a musician for some humor.  I just had a fleeting thought of a scene that sticks in my memory.

Bay area locals may remember “Big Al’s Gashouse” in Palo Alto, not to be confused with the strip joint in San Francisco.  In fact, a few of you were in the audience when I was onstage blowing the last of my brains out through my trumpet. I could sure use some of those wasted brain cells today.

I remember arriving for my first performance with the five or six man Dixieland band that played onstage four nights a week at Big Al’s.  I only knew one man in the group and had no idea what we would be playing for the four hours we were scheduled to entertain the rowdy crowd. 

When I pulled into the parking lot I saw the marquee outside that read, “Tonight! - Ralph Higgins - Straight from Paris.”  That was intimidating, since I had never played with this band before.  And I had never even been to Paris

When a musician is hired for a job like this, he is expected to be able to play and improvise anything that pops up.  There is no written music.  Rehearsals don’t exist.  Someone picks a tune, a key, a tempo, and off you go.  It might be anyone in the group. Or in the audience. That’s just how it works.

We played on a small stage and kicked off the first number as the curtains opened. Between sets, we would sit behind the closed curtains, rest our “chops,” and have a few laughs. The drummer and trombone player would kill about a gallon of the devil’s brew over the course of the 4 hour performance.  I don’t remember what we were paid for the gig, but I’ll bet they had very little money left after the cost of their liquor.

I could always tell which set we were in by the drummer.  The first set was fine.  Tempos were steady and his fills were good.  During the second set I would notice variations in tempo and his hair would be hanging over his forehead. By the third hour the drummer was missing beats and tempos were erratic. I’d check his hair, which by now was almost covering his face and flopping around like the hair on a rabid rocker. His hair was my hourglass. I knew how close we were to closing time by looking at the drummer.

At some point during the fourth and final set of the night, we’d hear a thundering crash as our beloved drummer lost his balance and fell off the drum stool, knocking cymbals and drums all over the stage.  The audience loved it and some probably sat through the night just waiting for this anticipated and predictable finale. 

Almost a half century later I can still hear the crash of those cymbals and the amazing scene of bouncing drums, flying drumsticks, and flailing legs as our drummer disappeared off the back of the stage.

That was a typical night at Big Al’s, but it doesn’t compare to the night the trombone player passed out in the middle of a solo and fell off the stage landing on the first row of tables.  He got a standing ovation. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Horse Record for A & M Records?

     A while back I wrote a few articles on music.  Today I thought it would be fun to mix music with a race horse - two seemingly incompatible subjects.

            I once worked as a free-lance writer/arranger for Almo Publications, which was the publishing arm of A&M Records in Hollywood.  This was back in the ‘70s.  A&M was founded and owned by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss.  Thus “A&M.”  The company was located in the old Charlie Chaplin studios and took up an entire city block. 

            As you know, Alpert was the trumpet player with the Tijuana Brass.  He is also an artist and a very good businessman.  His business partner was Jerry Moss.  I’ll get to Jerry in a minute.

            My job was to arrange the music of popular artists who were under contract with A&M Records and turn their music into instructional books and arrangements for all instruments.  I also had to provide instructions on how to play each instrument.  This was a daunting task, because I didn’t know “jack” about most of the instruments and had to research and study each one. But I was paid very well and I had a great partner in Hollywood

            Claudia Previn, daughter of Andre Previn, was my link at A&M.  She took my manuscripts and followed them through production to the series of published books.  Claudia was very bright and talented and we became good friends.  I don’t think either of us saw the value in publishing books on some of these music groups.  As I’ve said, some of what passes as music stretches the definition of music beyond reason and taste.  Nevertheless, I turned out 42 books in this particular project.
            These books included the hits of The Beatles, Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, and others.  Much of the music was good, but some was terrible.  The music of Kiss was so bad we didn’t even proof the piano arrangement.  The thought was that any mistake I may have made would be an improvement. 

            Now to the racehorse.  Herb Alpert’s partner at A&M, Jerry Moss, was the owner of the great horse, Giacomo, winner of the Kentucky Derby in 2005.  Giacomo (“James” in Italian) was named after the son of Sting, who recorded for A&M Records.   

Giacomo had 50-1 odds against him and paid Moss over 1.6 million dollars for the Derby win.  Giacomo was the most unlikely Derby winner in over 80 years and was the second-longest shot to win in the 131 year history of the Derby at that time.

            Jockey Mike Smith rode Giacomo to the win. Mike had suffered a broken back in a race several years prior when his horse stumbled and rolled over him. Being a jockey is one of the most dangerous of occupations.  This win was the greatest thrill of Mike’s career and was very emotional for him. Smith said he was “just hanging on for dear life,” as Giacomo broke for the finish line. 
            I’m sure some of you saw that race.  Now you know a little about the great horse Giacomo, his winning jockey, the background of Giacomo’s owner, and even a little about A&M Records.          

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Morning After

I’ve tried to keep my blog non-political, but, following last night’s election results, I’m filled with disgust, anger, and too many negative emotions to even begin to articulate them all.

The great intellectual and economist, Walter Williams, wrote that demographics alone would result in the outcome of the election we just witnessed. He was right.

The traditions that made our country great could not have been represented more clearly than the two men who stood up for our country as an alternative to the slide from greatness that we have witnessed over the past four years.  What a contrast in terms of experience, vision, economic alternatives, morality, and on and on.  But their vision was rejected.  Water seeks its lowest level and “free stuff” is addictive.

I once wrote that the world was witnessing the death rattles of western culture.  From the perspective of a world in chaos, when the last candle on the cake was blown out last night, America became a whiff of smoke as the former hope of the world.  The death rattles are gone and we may have heard the last gasp from a dying culture last night. 

Robert Bork, Antonin Scalia, Mark Steyn, and many others much smarter than I predicted this scenario in books that I’ve read.  Much has to do with world demographics and a moral, ethical, and philosophical shift in our country. Someone recently predicted that this may have been our last free election. 

I believe the adage that “There is none so blind as those who will not see.”  Ignorance is one thing, but the “will” not to see is harder to justify.

I’ve followed the movement that culminated in this election since the ‘60s.  I’ve studied the trends and the motivations of an insidious philosophy bent on “leveling the world’s playing field,” and, although I knew the results were inevitable, it is still painful to see how far we have descended from the days of relative freedom in a once great America

Maybe that’s why I like to write about the freedom of the ‘50s - back when I was a kid.  I’m thankful that I grew up back then.  I regret that my grandchildren will never experience that innocence, freedom and opportunity that my generation experienced.  Maybe it’s a blessing that they can’t make the comparison.

I could write an entire thesis on what I see happening and where I think we are headed, but I’ve tried to stay away from politics and negative stuff in my blog.  But after last night’s election results, I’m like a boiling caldron of disgust.

Gayle reminds me fairly emphatically that there is a greater plan and I agree.  But I feel like I’m playing in the orchestra on the Titanic and it’s hard for this Irish/Italian to passively stand by and not direct the passengers to the life jackets, despite the futility. 

I know that, for the most part, I’m preaching to choir.  Those who disagree with me can rest assured that I will do my best to stay away from controversy in my blog and simply tell stories that come to mind or pass on benign information, while basically leaving the world situation to those “with eyes to see.”

Sorry, but I had to get this off my chest.  

My next blog will present an inside look at a record company, an historical race horse, and the interesting connection between them.  I think you’ll enjoy it. No more politics and I won’t wait a week to post it.  I just need to cool down.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Are We There Yet?

     Albert Einstein said, “I fear the day when the technology overlaps with our humanity.  The world will only have a generation of idiots.”

            Most parents have heard a voice from the back seat asking, “Are we there yet?”  If we’re not “there yet,” we're getting pretty darn close to the “day” old Al feared. 

Technology has exploded over the past few decades.  I remember using a couple of tin cans and a string to talk to my brother in another room when we were kids.  It was actually easier to yell at him, but we thought it was cool to talk long distance. 

Then came the party line telephone and the exciting opportunity to listen in on our neighbor Mildred complaining to Ethel about the theft of her prize watermelon during the night by evil neighborhood boys.  My friends and I would sometimes camp out overnight in my backyard and we’d always get hungry. Who doesn’t like watermelon?

            “Number please” was the voice of the operator, who could somehow facilitate a conversation, if the line was clear.  But methods of conversation today seem less personal.  We keep in touch with friends via email.  We don’t even have to say anything.  We can simply forward a joke.  But that's a form of contact and it maintains the connection.  And that's not bad.

            My wife says that boys and girls communicate differently.  Little girls sit face-to-face and look at each other as they talk.  Boys sit side-by-side staring at a dirt clod and talk to each other without making eye contact.  Evidently girls communicate more intimately and personally than boys.  Maybe eye contact is the key.  Today kids sit side-by-side and text each other.

All this techie stuff seems to come naturally to my grandkids.  How do they do it?  Maybe it’s some sort of neurological mutation caused by microwaves in the atmosphere or a dormant gene that hatched spontaneously in these kids caused by eating McDonald’s Happy Meals. 

I hope Einstein is wrong, but personal contact and communication does seem to be on the wane.  I use email.  And I use the computer. I also depend on my GPS to find my way from the kitchen to the bathroom. But since we can’t get cell phone reception here in the mountains, my cell phone is as useless as the breasts on a cloistered nun.  I only keep the phone as a status symbol.  Most folks up here rely on smoke signals.

I have to confess that all these computers and phones with buttons and beeps make me feel like an idiot. But I think my generation has managed to balance technology and humanity.  

Women still talk to women and make eye contact and men still talk while watching football on TV.   But how can you make eye contact when your team is in the red zone with a 6 point deficit and 3 seconds to go in the game?  Any guy who tries to make eye contact with another guy in a situation like that is too light in the loafers to be watching a football game anyway.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Last Pineapple

     My last post told a brief story about flying from Maui, Hawaii, to the island of Lanai in a “borrowed” plane.  I want to explain why my friend and I picked Lanai as our landing place.  I honestly can’t remember where we got the plane.

            Hawaiian pineapples were considered the best in the world.  The Dole Company had hundreds of acres of pineapples and employed a large workforce of locals to work the plantation on the island of Lanai.  But Cesar Chavez saw an opportunity to unionize these workers.  In the process the plantations had to shut down and jobs disappeared.

            Due to the increased cost of production, Dole was forced to close down the Lanai operation and move to the Philippines, where they could afford to do business.  The consequence of unionization was the unemployment of hundreds of American workers, who lost an opportunity to earn an income, and an island covered with rotting pineapples.  And we wonder why companies are forced to move out of our country to stay in business.         

Unions had a place in the industrial revolution.  Back when steelworkers were working 12 hour days, six days a week, and being paid pennies, I would have joined them in their rebellion.  But not now.  Today manufacturing has moved offshore, so unions have now moved into public service and government.

Teachers unions are a good example.  I taught high school back in the ‘70s and I was the only teacher on the staff who refused to join the union.  I personally saw incompetent teachers who could not be fired and were protected by tenure and the teachers unions.  I also saw the political orientation of the union, which I don’t support.

            My own father worked for 35 years paying exorbitant union dues all of those years.  Upon retirement he was told that the union had made some bad investments and the retirement fund was depleted.  I think that was when my mother had to go back to work.  So I’m not a big union sympathizer.  I’ve always preferred to succeed or fail on my own.  And I’ve had my share of failures.  I started and owned a number of small businesses without government help, but with plenty of government intrusion.

            There was one exception.  I joined the musician’s union when I was fourteen years old.  I had just been hired by the San Jose Symphony Orchestra to play French horn and trumpet as a regular member of the orchestra.  That was an honor.  Union membership was required for professional musicians, particularly in symphony orchestras.  I eventually qualified as a life member of the musicians union.  Despite that minor deviation, I remain a free enterprise/right-to-work guy.

            In any event, the destruction of the pineapple industry on Lanai worked well for my friends on Maui who ate the hell out of a ton of pineapples that my buddy and I salvaged from a deserted plantation.  The last pineapples from Lanai were personally delivered by a plane flown by a couple of unlicensed morons with elevated pulse rates, white knuckles, and pineapple juice dripping from their chins.           

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

A Pilot Wannabe

      I’ve taken a few flying lessons and always wanted to get a pilots license.  Too many things got in the way and I’ve never pursued that goal.  Gayle has always discouraged me, because she thinks I’d forget to put gas in the plane and not bother to go through the check list and prepare for a flight.  She thinks I’d just hop in, crank the sucker over and take off.  She thinks I’m too impulsive and unorganized to be a pilot. 

            I’ve lost friends in plane crashes and don’t mean to minimize the importance of proper flight training and the discipline and caution necessary to be a pilot.  But I have to admit to some stupid behavior when I was a kid.

            My brother Tom is the best pilot I’ve ever known.  I’m not saying that because he’s my brother.   I’ve flown with him and he is an excellent pilot.  He retired as a Captain with TWA and was known for his landing skills, among others.  They say he can land a commercial airliner so gently that the passengers can’t tell when the wheels touch the ground.  He was contacted by the Clinton administration to investigate a well publicized plane crash and earned the respect of the big shots at TWA, including the CEO, who came to Tom’s retirement party.  Tom is the real deal.

            I was just a “wannabe” pilot.  The first time I flew a plane was with an old bush pilot who was mentally deranged. He was going to teach me how to fly.  I sat behind him and followed his instructions, placing my feet on the pedals and holding onto the stick.   “Just feel what I do as we take off,” he said.

            We took off and gained altitude very quickly.  When we leveled off this maniac flipped the plane upside down.  I thought it was fun and, as dirt and debris fell from the floor in my face, I noticed that both of us had our hands on the roof.  We were upside down and the pilot wasn’t flying the plane.  “Okay.  It’s your turn.  Fly the plane,” the maniac ordered.  He had no intention of taking the controls.

            Somehow I managed to coordinate the pedals with the stick and got the plane back on the level.  We both got a laugh out of that, but I’m not sure that’s the best way to learn to fly.  It’s like tossing a kid in a lake and saying, “Okay.  Now swim.” 

            In another act of youthful foolishness, I was in Maui where a good Canadian friend managed a small airport.  He didn’t have a pilot’s license either, but had taken a lesson or two.  So one day, when the airport was empty, we “borrowed” a plane and flew over to the island of Lanai. We made it without incident, loaded the plane with pineapples, and flew back to Maui.

Another thing I remember was when my brother turned the controls over to me as we flew a small plane over Monterey Bay. I spotted a party boat loaded with fishermen and decided to dive-bomb the boat.  The fishermen heard the engine screaming from the sky and seemed to be running back and forth on the deck in panic.  It looked like a nest of ants when you lift up a rock.  The older fishermen probably thought it was a Kamikaze pilot caught in a time warp. 

Tom and I were both laughing until I yanked back on the controls to pull out of the dive.  Tom grabbed the controls to prevent the wings from breaking off.  I guess you need to be gentler when pulling out of a dive.  That’s the only time I ever saw fear on my brother’s face.  

I’ve told Gayle some of these stories from my youth.  Maybe that’s what undermined her confidence in my potential as a pilot.  For some reason Gayle thinks I would be better at barbequing burgers than flying a plane.  I have no idea why she would think that way. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

More on Music

       I opened the subject of music in my last two posts.  That’s a subject I enjoy personally, so I think I’ll add a little “more on music.”  My last post dealt with “moron music.”

Back when I was teaching high school in the ‘70s, I signed a contract with Frank Sinatra’s publishing company in Nashville for a couple of songs I had written. I learned a few things about song writing during that period.  Of course, even back then there was melody, harmony, structure, and other elements of music. I’m just talking about popular music – not complex classical or good jazz.  Classical and jazz are more complicated.

One trick in writing a “popular song” is that the song needs a “hook.”  A hook is a musical phrase, a lyric, or some musical device that implants the song in your memory and “hooks” you on the song.  Many times the hook will be in the chorus of the song with the verse leading to a powerful and memorable chorus with strong phrasing. The title of the song is usually the hook, but not always.

Although a hook can be in the chorus, many times the hook is placed close to the beginning of the song – usually the first lyric.  The classic Kenny Rogers song, “Lady” is an example of the perfect placement of the hook.  The first word of this song is the hook - “Lady” combined with its memorable interval jump of a musical fifth.   That’s a textbook hook. 

That technique is very common, especially in country western music.  If you think about it, you’ll come up with a ton of examples – “Something,” “Hello Walls,” “Crazy,” “Feelings,” “Moon River.”   Those just popped into my mind, but using the title as the hook and placing it as the fist word or words is a common songwriting technique that works well. 

Speaking of the song, “Moon River,” the song uses a word with no meaning in the context of the lyric line, but creates a subliminal connection of sorts.  It’s almost a secondary hook.  The phrase is, “My huckleberry friend.” 

Much like Doc Holiday’s saying, “I’ll be your huckleberry,” no one really knows what the word means outside of the actual berry itself, but the word conjures up a sentiment of some kind.  That’s why I titled my book, “The Huckleberry Days of the ‘50’s.”  I don’t know what it means either, but it sounds good.  It has a nostalgic feel.  It reminds me of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer and that’s the image I wanted to convey with the book.

            I guess I’m “hooked” on music, but I thought it might be interesting to look at why some songs stick in your mind.  Your homework assignment is to listen to songs you like and see if you can pick out the hook. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

Rap Crap

            This must have happened to you.  You’re sitting at a stop light and your car begins to vibrate - then bounce. You begin to feel vibrations going through your entire body.  Is it an earthquake?    Is it a jackhammer?  Is your car giving birth to a hybrid?

            None of the above.  It’s some moron in the car next to you blaring rap crap for the world to hear.  The more people who can hear it, the cooler this dingbat thinks he is.  Either that or he’s deaf . . . or soon will be.  He’s bouncing in the seat as though someone put cayenne pepper in his underpants and his hat's on sideways. That's a dead give-away.

            Some of the stuff kids listen to now would be hard to define as music.  Evidently all the elements of music have now been deleted except rhythm.  I guess we've gone back to banging on hollow logs and jumping around a camp fire.  What are the “songs” that these young people will look back on nostalgically in 30 or 40 years?   How much of the noise will they even remember?  

When my folks were young it was Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, and Sinatra.  That was music.  When I was young it was Fats Domino, Little Richard, Pat Boone, and Elvis.  Now it’s whatever it is. 

Maybe that’s why there are so many of the old groups made up of some of the original singers performing their songs from the past. Some of these guys can barely make it to the stage, but there’s a demographic that remembers and appreciates them.  The fact that they can still sing and perform is encouraging.  I heard Dave Brubeck perform when he was in his ‘80s.  He was still great.  Brubeck’s bass player was so old we thought he was a cadaver held up by wires.

The Beach boys may not be “boys” anymore, but their harmony still beats the blaring cacophony of noise that accompanies some weird-looking skinny dude banging on a guitar while shrieking incoherently.  Even worse are the angry rappers chattering, twitching, grabbing their crotch and inventing new ways to use profanity.

Nowadays a hyperkinetic mob convulsing to loud and abrasive sounds is considered a “concert.”  I played in several symphony orchestras over many years and the term “concert” has an entirely different meaning to me.  

One of my all-time favorite movies is “Amadeus” because of its great music.  The musical score soars to heights we rarely hear anymore.  To hear Murray Abraham, who played the envious Antonio Salieri, describe the beauty of Mozart’s compositions is a treat in music appreciation.  Compare the genius of Mozart with what passes as music today. Fortunately, you can still find good music, but you won’t hear it at a stop light.

*   *   *

P.S. – If you are in the mood for something nostalgic, go to my website at www.ralphhiggins.com and click on the music page.  Chuck Montgomery, a good friend of mine since kindergarten, is the film editor for the TV series COPS.  He was learning how to put a video online and sent the “Sierra Autumn” video to me for my website.  This was actually his first shot at a video. I think he did well, but I would have been happy if he had omitted the photos of me with my old horn.  You can see by the battle scars on my trumpet that it has seen a lot of front line action.

Gayle shot some photos of our area and Chuck added a cut from my CD on this short video.  Unfortunately the video gets stuck and jerks around once in a while, but give it a try.  Just hit the arrow. You can also hear a couple of brief samples from my CD, which may bring back some memories.  Even old guys can blow air through a brass pipe and sing in the shower.

 If you go to the art page you can see some of Gayle's wonderful creations.  You can click on the website from this blog page.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Music and Emotions

I don’t think we realize the extent to which we are bombarded daily with messages meant to influence our thoughts and behavior.

When you turn on the radio in the morning while pouring your first cup of coffee, the odds are high that you’ll hear a commercial – someone trying to sell you something. If you hit a talk show, there is an agenda that is intended to influence your thinking.

When you drive to work, billboards, signs on trucks, and even license plates carry messages.

To get away from commercialism, you may switch to music, but music is also designed to affect your mind and emotions. Music in a minor key can make you sad or sentimental. Music with a hard beat can make you want to jump around or dance. Music as a background in a movie will enhance the emotion the film producer wants to elicit. Turn off the sound some time and the crying child won’t produce the level of emotion that the violins will produce when combined with the scene.

If you’re old enough, you may remember the thrill of the “Thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver,” as the Lone Ranger galloped out of your radio to the trumpet call from the William Tell Overture.

For a laugh, turn off the music when you see kids dancing on TV. Back in the late middle ages a neurological disorder caused groups of people to go into a dancing frenzy until they collapsed from exhaustion. It was called, “Saint Vitus Dance.” Basically, they all went nuts and it was contagious. All they were missing was one of today’s moronic rappers pacing around on a wooden wagon while screaming obscenities. Today’s rap is the perfect combination of St. Vitus Dance and Tourette Syndrome. It’s good to know we’ve made such progress in terms of musical sophistication.

Classical music can be a powerful driver of emotions. Tristan und Isolde by the German composer, Richard Wagner, is one of my favorites. I played it many years ago with the San Jose Symphony Orchestra, but it doesn’t have much of a trumpet part and as a trumpet player I sat stoically until the trumpet entrance at the peak of the musical buildup. While the string players were working up a sweat sawing madly with bows spewing resin and broken strings whipping the air, I had to count measures finally adding a handful of trumpet notes to the brass entrance. Despite that, it’s a great piece of music.

Personally I enjoy everything from classical music to jazz, from country western to well-written ballads, but some of what is called “music” today falls far outside the true definition of “music.” I may get into this topic a little more in my next blog. Maybe we can take a look at the songwriting process and what makes a song a hit. Until then…

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Blog Break

I have a "love-hate" relationship with my computer and have threatened to blow it away with a 12 gauge shotgun, put it on a raft, lay the mouse by its side, light it on fire, and push it out into the pond at the ranch.  That's what's called a "vikings funeral," but the vikings use a dead guy and his dog on the raft.  I'm too much of a dog lover, so the closest I can get is the computer mouse.

Well, I didn't get the satisfaction of personally killing my computer.  It caught a virus and died of natural causes.  Sorry, but it looks like a couple of weeks without a blog until it's released from ICU or a replacement is up and running.

See ya then.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

'Til the End of Time

Retirement provides more than ample time for contemplation and rumination.  Maybe too much time to wrestle with existential questions for which we’ll never find answers - concepts like “time” itself. 

My buddy Dakota and I walk daily in the woods.  It’s quiet in the forest and provides an ideal environment for mulling over questions of existence, the vastness of the universe, and the insignificance of our tiny planet in that context, among other things.

Creek running through the ranch
  Given our human intellectual limitations, it’s futile to try to use reason to find answers to the many haunting questions that bubble to the surface. But I find that it’s a good exercise for putting my life in perspective.

Let’s look at a couple of things about “time” without considering theological implications, if that’s possible.  Some scientists say that hypothetically the original configuration of the universe may have been a state of infinite density where all mass, energy, space, and time are contained in a single mathematical point with no dimensions.  This, of course, would be prior to the theoretical “Big Bang,” when the universe is said to have sprung into existence. 

In 1929 Edwin Hubble discovered that light from distant galaxies shifts toward the red end of the spectrum. Based on the “Doppler Shift” concept, this means that the universe is expanding.  It indicates that the universe had a beginning.  This notion flies in the face of Bertrand Russell’s assertion that the universe is just “there” and that’s “all there is to it.” Russell was an atheist, so that seems like an easy out.

Part of the Ranch
It’s been said that if this expansion had been different by even one part in a million million, no life would have been possible. 

According to Immanuel Kant a beginning of time is inconceivable.  Just think about it.  It is inconceivable. The obvious question pops up, “What happened before that?”  “Was there anything before that?”

It’s like that with space.  If there’s an end to space, let’s say a brick wall, what’s on the other side of the wall?  You can go nuts thinking about this stuff.

Albert Einstein said that according to the theory of relativity, if mass and motion disappeared from the universe there would no longer be space and time.  So in essence, time began with the creation of the universe; not before it.  This was understood long before Einstein by Philo Judaeus in 10 or 20 B.C. and later by Augustine. It’s not a new concept.  There was no “time” before creation or the big bang or however the whole thing began.

Could our universe be floating in a sea of timelessness?  Is our universe an anomaly?  Does time only pertain to our universe?  Remember, without matter and motion there is no time or space.  Is there anything outside of our universe? 
View from the trail

When you think of the word “Eternity” does that mean an extension of time - that time continues on forever?  I don’t think so.  It may mean that time ceases to exist. 
Here’s how I see it.  Picture a lone helium-filled balloon floating high in the air.  Imagine that time, space, matter, and motion only exist inside that balloon. Imagine our entire universe inside that balloon.  Imagine that the vast space outside of that balloon is “timelessness.”  Our universe may be afloat in timelessness.  That’s just a metaphor I use to simplify this concept in my mind.

And if you believe in God, He must exist outside of those parameters; outside of that balloon with full access inside, but unconfined by the space-time continuum in which we are confined. 

Just something to think about the next time you walk in the woods. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

No Girls Allowed

One of the three categories for my blog is, “When I was a kid.”  I’ve written relatively few things that fall in this category, so I thought you might enjoy a story that goes far back in the history of mankind.  Back to the early ‘50s, back when I was a kid. 

This story was taken from my book, “The Huckleberry Days of the ‘50s.”  If you’ve read that book this will be a repeat, but if not, you may enjoy a tale of fort-building and a prank perpetrated on my poor brother by my good friend, Dick Whitaker and me back when we were kids.  Most, or “some” of this is true, but I’ll admit that I sometimes exaggerate a little bit.  It’s called, “artistic license.”

*   *   *

Dick and I had a fort at one end of a large field behind my house and my brother Tom, seeking to emulate his older brother, built a fort at the opposite corner of the large open field.  I have to admit that Tom was a better builder of forts than either Dick or I were and Tom also had the advantage of having a girlfriend with whom to share his hidden castle.  He hadn’t yet grasped the concept that forts were for boys only.  In fact, he hadn’t even grasped the concept that girls weren’t boys.

Tom smiling at our pet duck, Donald,
        who fooled us by laying an egg.
Girls should not be allowed in a boy’s fort.  Everyone knew that.  But my little brother was actually a step ahead, despite the three-year age difference between us.  He had a girlfriend, although he didn’t know it.  But ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Neither Dick nor I were particularly pleased with that development.  We didn’t have girl friends and we knew they were different from boys.  We may not have been clear on exactly what the difference was, but we knew there was a difference.  All we knew was that we didn’t want them hanging around our forts.

This was long before the hormones kicked in and boys just didn’t play with girls...yet.  But Tom thought the neighbor girl was just another boy with long hair and a high voice who giggled and ran funny.  I think he figured it all out in his third year of college, but by then his fort was gone and the little neighborhood girl had married a guy who built bomb shelters.

So to express our displeasure with Tom and his girlfriend, Dick and I lit Tom’s fort on fire while he and the little girl were inside playing doctor.  I never thought to ask him what they were doing in there, because it was just too much fun watching them clambering out of the smoke into the sunlight and fresh air, coughing, spitting and blinking their eyes.

Tom tripped over his stethoscope while stumbling out.  That was a dead give-away.  If we had given him another ten minutes to complete his exam, he may have resolved some of the questions that haunted him for so many years.

Tom gave Dick his stethoscope and gave up on the idea of becoming a doctor when he failed to bring his pet turtle back to life.  The fact that the turtle had been buried for three weeks may have been a factor in Tom’s failure to resuscitate the unfortunate critter.

 Meanwhile Dick proudly wore the stethoscope around his neck until his senior year in high school.  Dick’s medical practice seemed to gain traction after he learned to precede his exams by stating reassuringly, “It’s okay. I’m a doctor.”

*   *   *

            I want to add that the kid staring happily at the duck gave up fort-building to become a highly respected airline Captain with TWA.  I’m obviously very proud of my brother.  (But don’t believe the stethoscope stuff.)

Friday, August 24, 2012


            What do I write about when my mind is a blank?  Maybe just a quick review of the past week.  Maybe I’ll just do my “unhinged” thing and ramble about nothing.

Friedrich Nietzsche said that “if you stare into the abyss long enough, the abyss stares back at you.”  To put it into context, his preceding statement was, “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster.”  Maybe it’s a warning to not become that very thing we struggle against.   I think I’ve been staring into the political abyss too much lately.  Gayle hides in the back bedroom when I start yelling at the TV, so maybe it’s time for some nonsense.

As you know, Gayle and I live in a hollow log here in the forest.  I remember staring into a crevasse when walking my dog and seeing two eyes staring back at me.  I wasn’t sure if it was a forest gnome or the abyss itself staring back at me.  Turns out it was a ground squirrel.  That’s about as philosophical as I’m going to get today.
            Actually Greenhorn Ranch is certainly far from the “Deliverance” archetype, but life is simple and basic here.  For example, it’s always special to roast a road-killed possum over the fire, but last Monday Gayle and I left our hideaway and celebrated our 20th anniversary. 

We went to our favorite restaurant, which happens to be hidden deep in the forest at the end of a long dirt road.  Some of you have been there with us.  It’s called Firewoods at the Gray Eagle Lodge. It’s a large log building that sits on the edge of a river with small cabins running up to a picturesque waterfall.  Great ambience and equally good food.

                                                                                           Our fish pond 
         Things have been quiet on the western front, with the exception of massive fires.  For several days the smoke was so thick we couldn’t see the tops of the pine trees that surround our home.  Fire is the primary concern in the mountains.  As of today the fires are still not under control.  Other than that, we’ve had a number of bear and mountain lion sightings on our road.  The bears are attracted to the ranch and the scraps left in garbage cans after the outdoor barbeques. The lions are a greater threat.

Since I take my dog up in the hills every day and let him run and explore, I’m concerned enough    about his safety that I sometimes carry one of those horrible, sinful, tools that makes a loud “bang” and puts holes in things. 

I remember the admonition by one of our great government intellects, former Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, who proposed the development of “safer bullets.”  Since I never understood her meaning, I use the old fashioned ones.   

There are other things I’m aware of when hiking with my buddy, Dakota.  There is a horse trail behind our property that is used to run the horses from the guest ranch, just a city block from us, into the woods where they are kept during the summer.  The wranglers drive the horses down that trail at a full gallop, but fortunately you can hear them coming.
                                   The stampede

This past week my dog and I were walking the trail when I heard a commotion at the ranch and suspected that the stampede may be coming in our direction. I picked up the pace and found a place to get off the trail with my dog. I could hear the herd coming full bore.  Less than five seconds after my dog and I ducked under a fence, fifty or more horses raced a few feet past us at an all-out run.  That was close, but I love it.  

If you’re my age you will remember the William Tell Overture followed by the “Thundering hoof beats of the great horse Silver.”  If you don’t remember the Lone Ranger you may not relate to the thrill and power of those of the equine persuasion. 

            I’m rambling in my attempt to avoid interjecting political punches as we approach a turning point in the American way of life.  All that aside, I think Gayle and I are fortunate to be able to walk to the guest ranch, watch the city slickers learn how to ride a horse, stop at the ranch house for a red beer, and basically get back home in time to listen to the Lone Ranger, the Cisco Kid, and The Shadow on the radio.   

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Granite Veil

            You may think that my blog has turned into a “book selling” venture. It hasn’t, but I do have some of my books that I will introduce from time to time.  It’s a way to add variety to the blog.  At least that’s my excuse. But if you enjoy my blog, I think you will enjoy my novel, Granite Veil

            Granite Veil is the story of Steve Sanford, a Los Gatos real estate entrepreneur, and his quest for vengeance after the brutal murder of his wife.  The story winds through a series of violent encounters that are presented in juxtaposition with Steve’s profound spiritual journey.  Steve ends up in Folsom Prison with plenty of time to think.

The book is 310 pages of thought-provoking philosophical and theological debates carried through the story on the back of a murder mystery.  Granite Veil is a metaphorical reference to the fact that it was inside the gray granite walls of Folsom Prison that Steve was able to see through his intellectual preconceptions and find truth.  But Steve’s quest for retribution lands him in Folsom Prison, where he is the target of a hit put on him by someone on the outside.

The scenes inside the prison are authentic.  The California Department of Corrections provided me with a personal guided tour of Folsom for the novel, so my descriptions of activities, cell blocks, and procedures are accurate.  For example, I can confirm that hands holding mirrors pop out of the bars as you walk through cell blocks and prisoners really do make license plates.

Here’s what the back cover of the books says:

·        How did Steve end up in Folsom Prison during the most violent decade in the prison’s history and what are his chances for survival?
·        What is the true identity of the prison’s biggest, strongest, and most feared inmate and why is he focused so intently on Steve?
·        Who is the stunningly beautiful woman working to free Steve?
·        What is the surprising secret of Cell Block #5, which so dramatically catalyzed Steve’s philosophical search for truth?
·        Finally, can black and white truth exist in a world of gray?

Most of the folks who have read the book liked it.  A few disagreed with my premise, 
but very few.  I tried to cast doubt on some widely held beliefs, which can be uncomfortable for some.  Other readers were unable to put the books down, which is what I like to hear. 

            This novel can be purchased on Amazon for over $20.00 plus shipping and handling.   I have it for sale on my website for $13.95 plus $4.00 s/h.  Since those who put up with reading my blog deserve compensation, the novel is available to you for $8.95 plus $4.00 s/h. 

So for $12.95 I’ll send you signed copy of Granite Veil.  That’s getting close to my publishing cost and it’s a good deal.  Shipping costs are for domestic sales only.  If you are out of the country, which many of you are, let me know and I’ll check on shipping costs for you.

            To avoid confusion with Amazon and others, please reference my blog in a request by email (higgins@digitalpath.net).  Or you can send a check for $12.95 to: Ralph Higgins, 2252 Greenhorn Ranch Rd, Quincy, CA 95971 with your return address.

            Many of my books are available on my website (ralphhiggins.com), however most of the roughly 80 books I’ve done were with major publishers and I don’t have the rights to sell them.  I can only sell the books where I own the copyright.

            Okay.  That’s it for the sales pitch.  But I know that you’ll enjoy Granite Veil.  Until next week…