Readers of the Avery & Angela series know that the series is rich in music. In many ways Avery sees the world through the lens of music, his entire life feeling as though it’s scored or sound tracked in some way. As such, there are a LOT of musical references in the series and I thought it would be fun to give readers a little primer/listening guide, should they want to “listen along” to the book. Each link will lead you to a music clip or further reading if it’s not a song itself that’s referenced.
Page #3: This is the first mention of the Indigo Girls “Closer to Fine,” which appears later in the book as well.
Page #11: “Madam Marie” is not a song, but a reference to a character in the Bruce Springsteen song “4th of July, Asbury Park.” He mentions how “The cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do.” The character is widely considered to be based on the real Marie Costello, who’s story is fascinating in its own right.
Page #20: The Grape Street Pub in Manayunk, PA is a real music club that I had the privilege to perform during my brief stint living and working outside of Philadelphia in 1995-96. I played there at least once a week for that year, which was a really hard year for me. I got to know some amazing artists, like JUNE RICH, who are mentioned in the book a couple of times, especially their bassist who I was friendly with during that year.
It’s not overstating it to say that that club may be the only reason that I got through that year.
Page #22: Don McLean’s “American Pie” is mentioned here, along with a story about Avery forgetting the words to the song. This happened to me during a show at The College of Wooster in either 1992 or 1993. It’s the only performance of mine from the 1990’s of which there appears to be no audio recording. There are still too many words in that stupid song.
Page #47-John Mayer plays Albert King at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is referenced
Page #68: Astronaut playing David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in outer space is referenced.
Page #73: Closer to Fine performed, without using any of the words in the manuscript, because they wanted $300 for the rights.
Page #78: The Smiths song “There is a light” is referenced.
Page #79: Avery’s original song “There is a light that never goes out” is performed.
Page #92: Bobby Rydell “Wildwood Days” plays on the boardwalk a lot.
Page #93: John P. Kee’s “Jesus is Real” performed at the chapel. It's not performed this well in the book.
Pages #96-7: “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” performed at the chapel. I was able to get rights to this for the manuscript. The clip is the one I watched repeatedly as I wrote this scene.
Page #102: “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” plays at Winterwood. I've ruined this song for my eldest child. Ask me how sometime. It's funny. (to me)
Page #122: A Reggae version of the Beatles “Twist and Shout” is played by young upstarts “Skipping Detention.” Fun fact: the band I played with during the summer of 1991, “The Simpletons” used to goof around with the song in this way. The name “Skipping Detention” was created by a friend in response to a contest I ran on Facebook to find a unique name. The winner got nothing but bragging rights.
Pages #127-128: The songs “Into the Mystic,” “Good Riddance,” “Sweet Caroline,” and both Sam Cooke and Bruce Springsteen’s versions of “Mary’s Place” are referenced as being part of the evening set list for THE Cozy Morely’s at the Anchor Inn.
Fun Fact: Cozy Morley was a real entertainer in Wildwood, NJ for decades. There’s a statue of him to this day on North Wildwood. Also, the Anchor Inn was a real place. It’s gone now but I loved it, so I put it into my book because it’s my world.
Pages #132-133: AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” Beach Boy’s “I Get Around,” Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally,” Beiber’s “Love Yourself,” Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl,” and Flogging Molly’s “What’s Left of the Flag” are referenced as past of THE Cozy Morley’s set.
Page #135: “We’re Having a Party” is performed in the Southside Johnny style as opposed to the original Sam Cooke arrangement.
Page #139: "Everlong" by Foo Fighters is performed. I really wanted to get the rights to this but couldn’t afford them. I think the scene works well regardless and the clip I linked here is the one I watched over and over again writing this scene. Sorry about the spitting.
Page #144: Avery performs his original song, “The Garden” for the first time.
Page #193: “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen plays as Avery and Angie sit in the Tracer in Pin Oak Manor . Bruce was kind enough to allow me to use a few lines of his epic song. He and his people were simply amazing to work with.
Page #211: Flash Mob dance party on route 130 North to Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance.” The video (which is super fun) linked here is the one I watched as I wrote the scene, driving my son nuts. Fun fact: Pam and Kelly, who Avery dances with, are real friends who won the right to appear in that scene in one of my Facebook contests.
Page #221: Benny Goodman’s “Stompin’ at the Savoy” is referenced in backstory.
Page #252: “Penguin Dream Warriors” are not a real band, but they should be. I got the name as a combination of a Facebook contest response and a “Bloom County” book.
“Thunderegg” on the other hand a real band that you should be listening to right now. Their lead singer is a pal from childhood.
Page #258: Bruce’s “The Ties that Bind,” and “The Price you Pay” from the iconic “The River” album are referenced as is Sam Cooke’s “Wonderful World.” Fun Fact: The title of book #3 in the Avery & Angela series was almost “The Price you Pay.”
So, now you have a way to listen to every song in the book! There are original songs in books #2 and #3 as well that you can check out HERE!
Like and comment below and let me know what your favorites are! Thanks for your support and stay safe!
What if this (pandemic) happened in my day? Part Five-1991, Senior Year. Also, some final thoughts and lessons learned
Hello again friends! As always, I hope that you and yours are well and managing this current crisis well. I’ve appreciated your feedback over email and social media to this series, of which this is the final part. I may write an afterword if the spirit moves me in the future but, we’ll see how it goes.
To be honest with you, dear reader, this is the one I’ve been a little afraid to write since I started this project. My senior year of high school was among the most difficult and heart-breaking years of my entire life. While I’ve written about it in other columns in the past, including what was once the most read blog of my career and the Don Henley/Duster blog, I’ve never looked at it in this particular “What if?” manner.
If you’re just joining us, here’s what I’m doing: For the purposes of this series, I’m going to examine my journals and albums and memory banks to explore how, on the first of March of the specific year in question, my life would have changed given current events. I will focus the examination as though it ran parallel in time to what our experience has been, so “stay at home” begins on March 13 and assumes that the remainder of the school year is cancelled. For each year, I’ll give a summary of what was happening and then I’ll discuss what might have been different had this pandemic happened then. I will also look into the months to come and summer and postulate about how things might have been affected.
I’m nervous about how this all might go. There are a few items in here that I’ve never really discussed publicly or written about.
Twelfth Grade: March, 1991
By the time we get to March of 1991, my life was a complete and total mess. My world was falling apart. Nearly all of my friendships and relationships were on the outs and I was barely keeping my head above water.
My father had died in October after a brief and intense battle with cancer, which we discussed a bit in part #4 of the series. His death and the way that I responded to it would have a dramatic impact on the course of my life for the next decade.
Outside of his illness and eventual death, I had been deeply involved in the band, music and drama programs in the fall. The marching band season in particular was significant for me in terms of having an outlet and connecting with my best friends at the time. The season had been a rousing success and I’d actually learned to play the trombone a little.
I had had a lead in the fall play, a quirky show called THE FOREIGNER. I had been cast as Owen Musser, who was the bad guy. I loved the part. I got to be a blisteringly awful character and I was having a blast with it, especially in light of the tumult I was living in my home life with a father dying of cancer and a mother watching the love of her life die of cancer. I hadn’t planned to do the show, with everything that had been going on, but the director at the time showed me the role and really encouraged me to come out for it. “I think you’ll have fun with this part,” he’d said, and he’d been right.
The day that my father died, I came into school in the mid-morning to pick up my books since I’d be out of school for a few days, and to tell a pair of select friends that my father had died. As I entered the building to get a pass from my house office, the first person I saw in the hallway was the director. Our conversation went like this:
Him: “What’s up?”
Me: “My father just died.”
Him: “Oh, wow. Are you still going to do my play?”
These are direct quotes. The play was over a month away. We’d already started rehearsals. I hadn’t even considered dropping out and told him so, in a bit of a daze before I excused myself to do what I’d come to do. I missed a few rehearsals but returned the next week.
I’d also been rehearsing since the previous April as a member of the New Jersey All State Chorus. It was a huge honor and apparently I was the first performer from HHS to make an All State Ensemble of any kind in decades. I missed one rehearsal the week that my father died, but I’d been able to meet the performance and memorization deadlines. Being part of All State had been a great experience and as October rolled on, I was looking forward to the two performances coming up in November. There was the long weekend in Atlantic City where we performed at the giant convention center in early November for the NJEA Teacher’s Convention and then the final performance up north at Roxbury High School a few weeks later, the day after THE FOREIGNER was set to close. (These details will matter in a moment)
We held two services at Trinity Church for my father. A prayer vigil on the 11th and a funeral service on the 12th. Both services filled the large Princeton church to capacity. Mourners from every corner of our life as a family were there. People he’d worked with, people from church, friends and family from all over. My friends came, my sister’s friends came, some of my teachers even came. We were surrounded with love and sympathy and attention. I accepted so many hugs that I wish I’d been able to bank them and feel them later. I gave the eulogy and it was well-received. It turned out that I ended up using it as the basis for my college essays later on.
After the services were done and everyone went home, soon, perhaps too soon, it was just me and my mother in our now much-emptier home. The loss of my father loomed large in our house, so we both, without even discussing it, simply spent as much time away from it as possible. I went to school and spent time with friends, went to rehearsals, started playing pool at the pool hall that used to be above that restaurant near Peddie Lake. I joined every musical group they’d let me into at school and dove even deeper into playing the bad guy in the fall play. It felt good to be the bad guy. It felt like a healthy outlet for what was going on inside of me: all of the things that I wasn’t talking to anyone about.
Two weeks before opening night, the director called the entire cast and crew together and announced that he was adding a Sunday matinee performance to the run of the show. This had never been done before, at least not in my four years in the program or my sister’s four years before that. Under normal circumstances, the chance to do another performance in front of another audience would have been exciting, and the rest of the cast and crew applauded and cheered the idea. I, however developed a brand-new pain in my stomach, completely unique to the ones I’d already been feeling for the previous month.
I couldn’t do a Sunday matinee. I was already scheduled to be at the final All State Chorus concert that day. I had given this date to the director when the production had started, along with all of my other conflicts, because it would mean that I couldn’t take part in the “striking of the set” which we always did the day after a show closed. I felt bad that I would have to miss that as it was always a lot of work and a lot of fun and we’d get pizza. After the announcement I went to speak to him. The conversation (I didn’t write it down so I’m remembering it from 30+ years ago) went something like this:
Me: Uh, Mr. _______, I can’t do a Sunday show. I’ve got the All State concert.
Him: Oh, well I guess you’ll have to quit then.
Me: Um, what?
Him: Didn’t you just have that performance last week?
Me: There’s two. One in AC, the other in Roxbury.
Him: Well, you’ll have to miss it, then.
Me: I can’t miss it. It’s a required performance and I’ve been working on earning my spot in the group and then rehearsing with them for over a year!
Him: Well, I guess you’re out of my show then.
And I was kicked out. While I did my best to help my friend who’d been thrust into learning the role in two weeks, that event, for a variety of reasons, was the end of my time as a part of the drama program, the end of my friendships with that entire social group, and the first of what would be many more endings to come.
The All State Concert went well. I completed my obligations and was offered spots in three National Choirs. There was a small article in the local paper that my guidance counselor wrote. It ran in the bottom left hand corner of page nine, next to a nearly full-page advertisement for a local liquor store.
Later that month, I was voted a captain of the swim team and had enjoyed a pretty good season, earning my fourth varsity letter. The team had been a source of great comfort that season. It was a group of guys I liked and got along with and they were generally low-maintenance. At the time, I wouldn’t have named any of them my best friends, but we were a tight group and cared a lot about one another. I think, as I consider it now, that that team might have been the only group with which I didn’t have some sort of falling out during the year. I’d never considered that before. My season officially ended on March 9 at the State Meet, after which we all piled into our cars and drove to the Sweet Sixteen of a wonderfully awesome young woman who was a member of the diving team. It was a really great night, one that would take on new meaning about a month later.
Christmas, normally a high point of our family life was a bit more reserved in the wake of dad’s passing, but I worked really hard to try and pick up the slack. Dad was always ALL ABOUT Christmas, and I worked to have us continue some of our regular traditions while starting some new ones. I think it went as well as we could have hoped, although Mom insisted that we leave town right after the holiday and visit the Homestead, a resort in Virginia where we could ski if we wanted to, watch movies, meet rich people and dance with your grandmother after dinner in the grand ballroom. I did all those things, despite almost dying (twice) while trying to impress a redhead from Richmond with my first time-skiing skills. (I did not impress her.)
I barely finished my college applications on time. My guidance counselor, who was an absolute angel, had gotten my application fees waived so that I could apply to anything that moved since I hadn’t had a chance to do any college visits. “Apply now and we’ll figure it out later,” she’d said, and I did, applying to ten schools, one of which I’d visited.
I’d had a huge falling out with another group of friends around New Year’s and found myself, as we moved into February, largely connecting with friends from other schools or looking for new groups of people to hang out with.
I was alone a lot. I’d made some new friends and really cherished them before I seemed to fall apart and screw things up with them too. I was a mess. As we discussed in part #4, I know now that I was dealing with anxiety and panic attacks back then, perhaps never more acutely than I did senior year when I lost my dad, almost all of my friends, and several different communities I’d been a part of, both theater and music.
So, if the world had shut down on March 13, 1987,
how would my life have changed?
Short term? Probably not much. By the time we reached March, I think I was mostly looking forward to graduating and getting the hell out. I stopped regular journaling in January, which I regret. The only things on the horizon aside from graduation and Prom were the music program trip to Maine, which piggybacked the senior trip to the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. All of that would have been cancelled.
Losing the trip to Maine would have been a real loss. Outward Bound, in particular was a really good experience. With the exception of Band Camp back in September, that trip was really the first time I’d been able to get out of the house and away from everything that was going on within my house, which was largely sad. After an initial burst of energy and support from our friends and families, the “How are you holding ups?” and the “We’re here for you’s” dried up in the months after the funeral, as they are wont to do. It was difficult for my mother in that first year in particular as friends that my parents had known for years fell out of touch, as does happen when one part of a couple is gone. We realized who were “Dad’s friends” and who were “Mom’s friends” and there were moments that the clarity of that was painful. Outward Bound and the time in Maine was really centering for me and I returned from that trip with just enough peace and energy to finish the year. Sure, I felt like I was limping to the finish line, but I’d made it despite my feelings of ostracization.
My Prom date was awesome and I’d have been sad to miss the honor of escorting her. Knowing her, we likely would have made plans to dress up in our Prom outfits whenever things opened up and go to a diner and make that our Prom, complete with flowers and pictures and our own brand of “intellectualism.”
I accepted a small part in a friend’s one-act play at the end of the year. I played a douchebag. It was the easiest part I ever had to prepare for since that was very much how I felt most of the time. There were jokes made about “typecasting” at the time. I saw a video of the show recently and it’s funny. I wore Z Cavaricci pants, so there’s footage of that out there now.
I was angry and miserable and lonely by the time we got to graduation, so I would have been fine missing it. If it weren’t for my mother and sister attending, and me needing to actually obtain my physical diploma, I might have skipped it and driven to the beach.
The last events of note before things would have been locked down would have been the state swimming championship meet and the Sweet Sixteen party I mentioned above. Her party was Saturday, March 9. It was a great night that the team arrived at late. When we arrived, she ran across the room to hug us and tell each and every one of us how happy she was to see us and how grateful she was that we could make it. Her parents went out of their way to greet us and thank us as well and I can’t speak for the rest of the guys, but I danced all night, including a couple of slow songs with the guest of honor, including one dance to The Drifters, “Save the Last Dance for Me.” As I generally did anytime that I danced with a young lady in those days, I sang the song to her as we danced.
Less than a month later, she would die in a tragic accident. She was an amazing young woman. I can’t hear The Drifters today without thinking of her. I named a character in the very first novel I ever wrote after her. I wish it were a better novel so that it might see the light of day someday, but that’s unlikely. Before today, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about either of those two things.
If we’d been stuck at home starting on March 13, short term, my life wouldn’t have been very different. I spent most of my time in my room back then, playing my $5 guitar and listening to music and doing homework. I’m not really certain how my mom would have managed. She’d just started a new job as the director of the Senior Citizen’s center in our town and was very good at her job. It followed the same closure schedule as the school district, so she would have been closed down too. She poured herself into her new position that first year; without that outlet during that time, I have difficulty imagining how Mom would have been. Alone at home with only me and her grief? I really don’t know. Maybe I just don’t want to.
The longer-term impact of the pandemic would have been centered solely on my future. I’d applied to nine colleges: Hamilton, Drew, Wooster, Susquehanna, Haverford, Bates, Rutgers College, and Denison. I’d only officially visited one of them, Hamilton, back in the fall. I’d become infatuated with the school and had earned the interest of the swim coach there, so I’d applied early decision in hopes of improving my chances for acceptance. (It didn’t work) I’d visited Rutgers to hang out with friends, but didn’t really have any interest in going there at all. I just applied because I could and it was close. RU was much bigger than what I was looking for in a school. Plus, half of my high school was going to go there and I was looking to get away.
Acceptances and rejections were coming in mid to late March and so plans got made to visit the ones I was actually interested in. At the time, none of them thrilled me. It might well have been that I was still just too broken to really take much of an interest in the process, but my mother pushed me. She was relentless in getting me to write the essays, fill out the applications, all of that, and she didn’t relent when it came time to pick someplace. Many of the schools I’d applied to were on the “Common Application” so I just checked a box if the school seemed remotely like a good fit. Some, like Haverford I applied to because my dad was from the area, but I knew I was unlikely to get in. (I didn’t) Others, like Bates and Susquehanna, I thought I’d get into, but I only checked their boxes because they sounded interesting after reading the entire Peterson’s Guide to Colleges several times. I got into both but never planned a visit there. Denison and Wooster had been schools that my sister suggested, since she’d gone to a school in the same Ohio-based conference. The early leader in the clubhouse was Drew. It was a small-liberal arts school that was in Jersey but not super close to home. They had a great theater program and were close to NYC, where a lot of their students got work later on. That, and they wrote a personal note on my acceptance letter referencing my essay about my father. I learned later than they did that to every kid’s letter, but I was touched by it. I took a visit there sometime in March or April, and loved it with two exceptions: No swim team and no football team. But I figured I could live with that, especially because my mom had said I could take my car with me if I went to a school in Jersey.
So, that visit probably wouldn’t have happened if we’re on lockdown. Nor does the trip in April out to visit my sister in Columbus, Ohio when we visited Denison and The College of Wooster. I didn’t want to go, but as I’ve said, Mom was relentless about me picking a school. I was ready to just put the Drew sticker on the car and be done with it, but she insisted that I see the Ohio schools. “You might like one of them better and maybe they’ll offer a better scholarship,” she’d said. And on we drove.
We started with Denison. The swimming coach there had taken a very aggressive interest in me, setting up a formal meeting with me after my tour. My times were good for a high school senior, but his interest seemed excessive. I was getting a letter a week and numerous phone messages. I never seemed to be home when he called. Never one to shirk attention, I went to the interview. Short version of the story is this: My times were good for a high school male. They were national championship level for a female. My middle initial is “A” which when accidently combined with “ROBERT” makes “ROBERTA,” who the coach was really fired up about. He’d brought the women’s team captains to meet me, which I really enjoyed as they were all gorgeous and I was seventeen and single. Alas, once his error was made clear, he had no interest in me whatsoever. Neither did the young women, alas, but this was fine because I hated the campus and wouldn’t have gone there anyway.
I told Mom that we should just drive home to Jersey, that I’d just go to Drew and call it a day. I didn’t want to visit Wooster. I’d had enough. But she was driving and we had an appointment for a tour and an interview, so we went. I was grumpy when we arrived at Wooster, but something unexpected happened as I walked the campus with our tour guide. Every time our group passed someone on the pathways in-between buildings, they said hi to her.
After a while I asked her, “Do you know all these people saying hi to you?”
“Not all of them,” she said, “But most of them. It’s a small school, people just do that here, I guess.”
After the year I’d had, I found that the more I walked the campus, the more I felt at home for the first time in a very long time. A school I’d only applied to because my sister said I should check that box on the common app would become among the most important places in my entire life. I actually got mad once I realized that I’d have to go there because I’d resigned myself to Drew, and now there was something so much better, but it was a change. I got over it pretty quickly.
That trip likely wouldn’t have happened if the pandemic hit in March 1991. In all likelihood, that would have meant that I never went to Wooster. I would never have met the guys who became my best friends. I would never have had any of the amazing experiences that I packed four years on the campus having. And I would not have met my wife.
If the world had locked down on March 13, I’m almost certain that a path to get to Wooster would have never materialized, especially if the colleges closed down as they have and may remain into the fall. Without a visit to campus, I can’t see any logical scenario that ends with my ending up at Wooster. Perhaps I would have taken a year off and tried to get a job. Maybe I would have gone and taken some courses at the local Community College. Maybe I would have revisited a late-breaking interest in the U.S. Coast Guard. Maybe I would have just gone to Drew, when things opened up. It’s hard to guess what I would have done, but it’s equally easy to anticipate that I might never have really considered Wooster. I was so broken and so ready to move onto anything, I would likely have found a simpler way forward. And I would have missed out on the most formative experience of my life, and several of the most important relationships in my life.
The impact of that would have been life-shattering.
What about the Summer?
That summer was pretty unspectacular in my memory. I worked at the summer camp at the community college again. I drove around. I spent some time with the few friends I had left. I was counting the days until I would leave for Wooster. I had everyone’s address that I wanted to write to and planned to write letters when I got there. I listened to music. I wrote songs. I gained confidence in my ability to write and perform my own stuff.
Everything was focused on going to college. If this pandemic happened then, I don’t know that I’d have been going at all.
The summer was a difficult one for my mother and me as well. The year had obviously been hard for both of us, but I think we were both in need of change, and dynamic change at that. I think she was as excited about my leaving for school as I was. If that summer had been the two of us stuck at home or in some form of social distancing, I imagine we’d have driven one another crazier than we actually did.
The bigger issue for me would have been the loss of Wooster and possibly the loss of college at all. I had to get out of that house. The truth is, I don’t really know what would have happened, and that, coupled with the consideration of the crippling loss of my time in Wooster, meeting and falling in love with my wife, making my very best of friends, really learning how to write and how to live on my own, has made this part of the series the most challenging to write for me. I’m kind of glad it’s done now, although a look at post-freshman year at Wooster would be entertaining. (I’m not doing it though.)
In the end, of all the years I examined, from 1987-1991, clearly our current crisis would have had the largest impact on my life in 1991.
You might say, as my children did when this all came up at dinner the other night, “Well, Mom lived in Jersey then. And she was interested in Drew too, right? Maybe you guys would have met there?”
Alas, my wife is ahead of me in almost every way, but most notably she was a year ahead of me at school. So, she would already have been at Wooster. She was a sophomore when I was a first year and while we knew one another, we didn’t start dating until my sophomore year. So I think it’s a safe assumption that my landing at Wooster is at best unlikely had this pandemic happened in 1991.
Realizing that makes me both sad and appreciative. I’m sad to think that there’s any version of my life that doesn’t result in my being with her and raising the children we have and living the life that we live together. It’s almost soul-crushing to consider. But it makes me appreciative of the fact that it did happen. The tendrils of our lives came together in such a way that we found one another, at just the right time and in just the right place. That fact that it happens at all is the miracle. It’s one I’m eternally grateful for.
So, as I bring this thought experiment to a close, I think I’ve learned a few things:
I’m sure there’s more, and maybe if I do an afterword after I’ve had a chance to sit with this a little longer, let it germinate as a whole five-part series, maybe I’ll have more to add to that list. I think in the end what I’ve really learned is that I’m very glad this didn’t happen in my day. I feel great empathy to the high school seniors and the rising ninth graders who will face particular challenges of transition during all of this. At the very least, today’s technology allows us all to maintain some kind of contact. I really struggle to think about how my schools would have handled distance learning in the late 1980’s.
I think we’ll get through this. I hope we’ll get through this. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it. It’s been a challenge for me to write but honestly, it’s the kind of challenge I needed to get back on the horse to finish the next novel. This was a fun thought experiment.
Let’s never do it again, OK? 😊
March 1990-Eleventh Grade
Aloha friends! I hope that this finds you and yours healthy and happy, all things considered. I’ve enjoyed working on this blog series so far, though I have to admit that this section was difficult to write. I think you’ll understand why as you read.
If you’re just joining us, here’s what I’m doing: For the purposes of this series, I’m going to examine my journals and albums and memory banks and begin discussion on the first of March of the specific year in question. I will begin the examination as though it ran parallel in time to what our experience has been, so “stay at home” begins on March 13 and assumes that the remainder of the school year is cancelled. For each year, I’ll give a summary of what was happening and then I’ll discuss what might have been different had this pandemic happened then. I will also look into the months to come and summer and postulate about how things might have been affected.
Click here to catch up on PART ONE-1987 and PART TWO-1988 and PART THREE-1989!
Eleventh Grade: March, 1989
I had had a pretty normal year as we arrive at March 1, 1990. I’d had a lead role in the fall production of HARVEY, earned a third varsity letter in swimming and placed in the top ten in my event at the county tournament. My grades were mostly good and after getting into MASSIVE trouble with my parents for betraying their trust in September, we were getting along for the most part. I had skipped doing the musical, which was originally supposed to be THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD but then became NO, NO, NANETTE after some ridiculousness on the part of several adults. I wanted to focus on swimming and didn’t really want to do either show, for a variety of reasons. I helped out a little with the stage and lighting crews, which was fun but very strange for me.
By March 1, I was looking forward to celebrating a one-year anniversary with my girlfriend. We’d stayed together despite the long distance and a good percentage of my journals reflect the experience of being a boyfriend and writing about my feelings and about the adventures that we had during our first year as a couple. We’d had some very cool experiences with our families, including her joining mine for Christmas Eve and me joining hers for my first Passover Seder and Hanukah. We had plans to celebrate at Hightstown’s famous “Coach & Four” restaurant, complete with having our names listed with “HAPPY ANNIVERSARY” on the road-side marquee, which I thought was awesome but the young lady found embarrassing.
I’d been fired from my job at the Market in Cranbury, due completely to the fact that they hired a new general manager for the store and he wanted a completely new staff. The owners allowed him to let people go at will. It took him a good month to get rid of me since I didn’t give him a reason to fire me until he decided the night before a swim tournament that I’d been given off for three months earlier that I could NOT in fact have the day off and I could either show up to work or be fired. So, I was fired. The owners felt bad enough about it to give me a month’s severance pay. My swim coach thought I was a hero to the team and went on about it for weeks. I was due to start a new job on March 5 at the Cranbury Food Sampler, right down the street.
I was in the American Studies program at HHS, which was a double period every day looking at both the literature and history of the American experience. It was a two-year program and I loved it. Among the assignments that we had all year was to keep a daily journal, so much of what I reviewed for this part of the series were those journals. They ended up being illuminating in a way that my own personal journals were not. I had to have an entry for every day, and while of course I didn’t write in it every day, I kept notes in my calendar and played catch up when I could. What resulted is a very interesting look at that year. What was particularly interesting to me were the entries where I don’t necessarily talk about a specific day, but about how I was feeling about something that had happened. I’ll get into what I learned from that shortly but it was unexpected and a real revelation.
My sister was in her last year of college. My father was still a teacher in East Brunswick. My mother actually was still at ECHO in Trenton, not yet at the East Windsor Senior center-I was wrong in part three. I was sixteen years old.
So, if the world had shut down on March 13, 1987, how would my life have changed?
It had been an interesting year to that point, as I discussed above. Much of my energy was focused on my relationships, both my friendships at school and my girlfriend at college. There are multiple entries throughout the year, and one in particular on March 1 that bring home the fact that I might not have been handling things all that well. I was deeply insecure about everything and probably more immature than I realized. One thing that is very clear through my journal reviews is that I was, even all the way back then, dealing with an anxiety disorder with panic attacks.
About eights years ago I had a panic attack that landed me in the hospital. Like Tony Soprano, but not nearly as cool. I got diagnosed then and began working with a therapist. One of the things that she asked me to do was to look back at my life and try to glean if this sort of feeling had happened before and there were some things I could point to, mostly occurring after October of 1990 (which we’ll get to) but I always suspected that if I was honest and really took a look at my youth, I’d probably discover that I’d had this a lot longer than even that. Suspecting it and seeing evidence of it are very different things, so it was with both fascination and embarrassment that I read through some of these entries; riddled with self-doubt, self-loathing, deep, deep insecurity, and abject panic at the thought of losing or disappointing the people in my life.
As I read them, I could remember the way it felt to write them; my hand flashing across the page, barely able to keep up with the speed at which my mind was racing. A lot of it is nonsense and my penmanship was atrocious at times, but I see in those musings a reflection of the version of me that had to pull over the minivan on the highway three minutes from my home, with my three little children in it, and wait for an ambulance to take me to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack.
So, yeah, I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks all the way back in high school. I didn’t know it. My parents didn’t know it. No one did. It’s not at all surprising that we didn’t: I was so over-scheduled that my parents and I never really saw one another unless they were driving me somewhere or during dinners. And, we weren’t really talking about my feelings when we talked. I was exceedingly good at hiding my feelings and playing the part of ‘well-adjusted’ young man. I was going from school to work to rehearsals almost every night. My family now has fallen into that hyper-programed overscheduling trap at times with our children, too. It’s something we work on.
Beyond that, the first weekend of the musical would have happened. I still would have made an ass of myself taking the late bus to my girlfriend’s house without telling her I was coming over or being invited, and the last hurrah on March 13 would have been the “Teen Leadership Seminar” that I attended at Columbia University with a few other kids from HHS who were (like me) in leadership roles on campus. It was a really powerful day and the overall message, given in the keynote by a man named Michael Pritchard was all about the “power of choice.” I held onto and use that phrase with myself and with the young people I’ve taught and raised to this day. The power to make choices is among the most important and powerful responsibilities we move from childhood to adulthood, and it’s a power that once given is pretty difficult to take away, so making good, thoughtful choices is important. It was a point my father made a few times to me, so it really resonated.
Everything else that was on my radar at that point would have been cancelled: Our anniversary dinner, the rest of the musical, the Prom, the music program trip to Culpepper, Virginia, the auditions for the production of the One Acts, where I’d played “The Snake” in the one act musical “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” which went on to win multiple drama festival awards. I would have missed the SAT’s (I’d have been fine with that), the auditions for All-State Chorus, which I made and later became a very important experience for me in the spring and fall of 1990, plus my very first overnight visits to colleges, both Rutgers and URI, to visit friends and my girlfriend, respectively. These were trips for fun, not for college interest, but it was my first glimpse at college life. All of that would have been cancelled.
I have a difficult time imagining that I’d have respected a stay-at-home order entirely. I was far too impulsive and insecure to not at least try to ride my bike over to try and see people. That would have really depended on both my parents and the tolerance levels of the people I’d have wanted to visit.
A popular young man from HHS and his brother were tragically killed in a car accident at the end of March/early April. I’d idolized him when I was seven and playing PAL baseball, since he was at the time, the best player in the league. He was only a year or two older than I was, but he seemed like a grown-up to seven-year-old me. My mom was friendly with his mom. I don’t want to open such a tragedy to conjecture, but it’s something I wrote about extensively on April 1.
My sister would likely have simply stayed home from spring break in March. Her graduation, which was the only time we had extended family from both sides together in the same place at once, would not have happened. As such, it would have been my parents and sister and I together in that house going forward. We probably would have avoided one another until dinner time, in-between battles for the use of our one house phone line and me going out for “bike rides” where I’d probably say I was staying in the neighborhood but really trying to go see my girlfriend or other friends. I could see myself being a big proponent of setting up social-distancing gatherings among the kids in the Manor neighborhood, but without current tech, I’d have had to do it all on the phone. We had a phone book, so I believe I could have gotten it done.
All of this, for me though has felt like preamble to May 28, 1990. Assuming life imitated life up to that point, we’d have merrily rolled along until that particular Memorial Day weekend.
My father was extremely fit, taught Phys Ed, helped coach the golf team and with the exception of a disc problem in his back when I was little, I couldn’t remember him ever being sick. I’m sure he had a sniffle once or twice, but he’d never let it show. Taking a day off of work was anathema to him. He’d seemed a little run down at my sister’s graduation in early May, but it was a long drive out there and had been an emotional weekend for everyone. We were all a little drained.
As it happened, after a few more days of lethargy, my mom was having none of it. Without telling me where they were going, she took him up to what we called the MET, which was the Medical Emergency Treatment center: sort of a larger version of our current “minute clinics.” The doctor there sent them straight to Princeton hospital for more bloodwork. I wrote that day: “I really don’t know what’s up-it’s something with his blood. Yeah, I’m scared but I really don’t want to get all worked up about it until I know what’s up.” He spent the next eight nights in the hospital. When he came home, it was with a cancer diagnosis. It scared the hell out of me, in large part due to the fact that my family had already lost my eldest sister to cancer when I was a newborn. I’d grown up with an acute understanding of the way cancer can affect the life of a family. It was terrifying, but I tried to soldier on, performing in “Diary of Adam and Eve” and signing “Imagine” and “Your Song” at the Drama Club end of year dinner and going to academic awards nights and All-State Chorus rehearsals, none of which would have happened if this pandemic intervened.
Might we have caught his cancer a month earlier if we’d all been home together? Would it have made a difference in the eventual outcome? I think the answer to both of those are ‘no,” but it’s impossible to know. It would certainly have impacted the experience of his illness for all of us.
I spent parts of those first eight days at the hospital with him, sometimes with my mom, other times with my girlfriend. We were in the last month of our relationship, but she was very patient and kind and I’ll always appreciate that. The initial prognosis was positive. My journal says “It’s scary-the doctor says he has a lot going for him: perfect health, us, the best doctor (him) in the world. He’s got good chances but it’s a new field but there’s a lot happening in it. Bone Marrow cancer or something. He has a low number of platelets or something. There’re just no straight answers. I don’t like it.”
I can’t imagine that I’d have been allowed anywhere near the hospital if this crisis were happening then, nor can I imagine the hecticness that starting cancer treatment during a pandemic would have involved. I think my mother would have been kept from the hospital too, meaning my father would have faced the earliest days of his treatment alone.
I hate the thought of that. It makes me angry and deeply, deeply sad to consider.
What about the Summer?
Dad was in and out of the hospital all summer. I don’t know how his treatment would have been affected by this current crisis. Would he have had the chance to get treatment at all? Would it have been completely in-patient, never getting to see his family and many friends? Would we have had a completely telephone-based relationship during the final months of his life? I’ve read numerous articles about patients having their treatments cancelled or postponed and I can’t imagine that wouldn’t have been an issue for his treatment. For what it’s worth, none of the treatments for his form of cancer worked and he would die in the fall, but he fought bravely and with humor until the end. For all I know, he might have simply been home that summer and we’d have taken care of him as best we could. I don’t know, but I know that his health and battle would have colored everything that summer, just as it did in real life.
Sometime that summer we made what we all sort of knew would be a last trip to his beloved Jersey shore in Wildwood. It was deeply emotional but necessary. I don’t think that trip would have happened, either, but if we were going to break the lockdown rules for anything, it would have been that.
Despite his illness, my parents decided that I should try and have as normal an existence as possible. I worked two jobs that summer and spent time with friends when I could. I imagine the camp counselor job I worked would have been cancelled. The Food Sampler may have stayed open in some capacity, I don’t know. If the lockdown continued all summer, I think we would have simply been home. I think the relationships that were ending would have still ended and the friendships that grew might still have grown. That said, I did a very poor job of telling my friends about how things were going with my dad. I was even evasive about it with my girlfriend, both before and after we broke up in July. We remained friends and spent time together and talked, but I remember that both she and my friends were pretty shocked when he died.
By the time school started in the fall, my senior year, I was certain that my father was dying. I’m not certain why but I just had a sense of it coming. I had one moment where I was brutally honest with two friends in September, but beyond that, I simply kept it all to myself. That was a mistake, one that I’d pay for in a number of ways in the coming months. But we’ll cover that in part five.
In the end, this was as difficult one to write and postulate about. So much of what was important to me in March was a product of the year that I’d had up until that point. My memories of that year and many of those experiences are shrouded in the fact that my dad developed cancer later.
In one singular moment I went from being a regular high school junior, worrying about: Prom and class officer activities, my friends and whether or not they really liked me, lamenting the fact that I’d done something boneheaded to upset someone, and whether or not I’d make All-State Chorus and win the Swim team sportsmanship award, and how I’d do on the SAT’s (spoiler alert-not well) and that sort of stuff to then worrying about: whether or not I had enough cash to pay for the parking at Princeton Hospital if I just popped in to see him before choir practice. Or worrying that he’s going to die just as he and I were really starting to develop a relationship to one another. Or worrying that if my hand slips while I’m holding him up so he can go to the bathroom, he could break a hip. Or worrying that if I didn’t get home from the pharmacy fast enough, the $1,100 a dose INTERFERON vials will warm up too much and be useless. Or worrying that my sister’s constant driving back and forth from Ohio to New Jersey would result in her having an accident on the road. Or worrying that I’ll never get to sleep myself because my mother is crying herself to sleep because she was fighting so tenaciously for him all day, every day, keeping a positive spin on everything, not surrendering an inch as she fought for the life of the love of her life. My mother was an absolute force of nature that summer. I tried so hard to emulate her fortitude through it all.
In the end, I think if this pandemic had struck my life in March of 1990, it would have had an impact at first. I would have missed some things I was looking forward to, but the real impact would have come later and is somewhat dependent on how this all ends up playing out in real life now. I don’t know where we’ll be at the end of this month, although I have a hard time seeing it be very different than it is now. My life from May through October of 1990 was all about my father’s cancer. I sprinkled some living in there, in between days, but in essence, that’s what life became about. This one I’ll have to revisit perhaps in hindsight, if and when we see the lockdowns lifted at some point. I think I would have seen less of my father in his months of battling his cancer and I think that would have been sad. When he died, I’d done my best to say everything I could think to say to him. Regardless, I think the experience of caring for my father as he fought cancer would have been immeasurably changed and I can’t imagine it would have been changed for the better.
The other learning from this edition of the series was that I truly do understand now that I was, even before Dad got sick, struggling with an undiagnosed anxiety disorder that would affect the rest of my life. It’s actually a little comforting to add that all up, in its own way.
I appreciated very much the feedback I received from a point I made in part three that I’ll repeat here: if you have young people in your life, understand that they, like us, are having their lives immeasurably changed by all of this. I have the luxury of looking back and saying “what if?” They won’t. It simply will be the reality that shaped their lives. I think the series, for me, has really brought about some strong feelings about the impact that certain years would have had on the way that my life ended up. Grade eight would have been significant, as we discussed in part one. Grade eleven might have been big but it’s hard to anticipate. I know for a fact that the biggest of all will likely be part five, coming next week, which will look at my twelfth-grade year. It’s not a spoiler since you already know that my father died in October of 1990. So, let’s just say that by the time we get to March 1991, there are a lot of things in motion in regards to my future.
Thanks for reading and stay safe!
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