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


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.

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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.