By Jon Berman
Long walks on the beach. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of my 99 year- old grandmother. Visiting her last week did not erase my memory of the stronger woman I knew growing up. Partly because she’s still walking- sometimes with a cane, but she’s still walking.
We used to walk down Nantasket Beach in Hull, Massachusetts, every day. Sometimes it was on the beach along with my mother, all the way to the end. Sometimes it was just with my then 70 year old grandmother from where we lived on D Street up to A Street, where she would reward my sisters and me with an ice cream. And sometimes we would sit on the porch and watch a storm roll in.
I couldn’t wait to get away from Hull back then. I was bored. But I wasn’t really… Now I look back at those memories and visit them in my mind. I tell stories and write songs about those memories, but nothing comes close to experiencing my grandmother today.
Every once in a while she complains. It could be getting tired at the end of the day, or that her legs just won’t do what she tells them to. She says: “it takes so long to do anything” and the response to her is “what’s your hurry? You’re 99!” and she laughs. The problem isn’t that she can’t do something, it just takes too long!
I can’t figure out where my roots in music came from because neither of my parents ever had an interest in music. My grandmother did, though. I’d say that she used to sing, but she still sings today. Only a couple times a month in a sing along group, but it is a continued love that she has. And that’s the thing…
My grandmother doesn’t stop. She genuinely enjoys life. She enjoys food, discussion, news, music, and learning. She’ll hear about something, and ask what someone thinks about it. She will see something on tv and it will challenge her to remember all she saw. But she will. It’s a challenge to get into a car and visit or go out to lunch. But she will. Some days are exhausting and uncomfortable. But she has will.
When I hear friends and family (or me!) complain of being tired, I think of my grandmother who raised three kids in Boston and still sets an example today. I still take off my hat when I see her. She doesn’t stand for hats on indoors.
A lot of times in my life I have seen the older generation as I’ve gone about the day, and watch as people pass them by. Often I’ll say good afternoon, which no doubt causes the other party to wonder what’s wrong with me, but I’d hate to see my grandmother ignored. Sometimes I’ll meet a new friend, hear an old story, or learn something new. Sometimes I just get a smile back implying “leave me alone crazy guy” or that someone’s just glad to be acknowledged. It may just be a moment, but it might make both of our days.
Jon Berman is a musician who lives in Blandford. He can be reached at email@example.com
By Jon Berman
When things are busy and going well, dreams and plans (and family vacations!) are put on hold for a while. The day to day tasks of equipment upkeep, travel, and keeping to an itinerary in my world take over life for a few months and working as a team member to further the goals of a 12 person unit take precedence. As the summer winds down, however, my thoughts begin to return to the real world of furthering my own projects and begin to outline a plan of attack. And that I need to make coffee.
I rarely watch tv anymore; I only get to watch my favorite teams- the Boston Red Sox and the New England Patriots if they happen to be on the tv where we’re playing that night. I rarely turn on my computer. This column is being written on my iPhone, the pocket sized device which has become my tool of choice for pretty much everything other than actually performing music, hanging out with family and friends, and driving.
But that’s for work. When it’s downtime for fifteen minutes, I pull out a guitar or a book. There’s no such word as boredom because there’s always a lyric to write, a cover to memorize, or a chapter to discover. The list of books I want to read gets longer every year. And there’s so much to get inspired by, which launches a new flurry of songs, a new series of books by an author that I discover in my travels.
This summer has been one long adventure. It seems every week ends with an exciting story that I hope has been passed on to my son in a way that sparks excitement and joy of life in him. It’s sitting on a million dollar bus with someone I’ve looked up to and been inspired by for 13 years, and appreciating just how generous that individual is. It’s playing a show 500 miles from home to people that tell you this is their only moment to relax for a week and thank us for coming. It’s the excitement when all the unpaid work begins to be replaced with slightly better pay. It’s the moment your son asks if he can sit and play guitar with you. It’s hugging the boy the morning you get home after hearing about the awful incident in Colorado a couple of weeks ago.
I’m clueless to what sets people off, and obviously there is a combination of issues, circumstances, and stress involved, but (and without sounding like a hippie) I hope that people begin to find love more. I don’t mean finding a relationship with another person, or a material object of obsession, but more of… appreciation of opportunity. There’s going to be moments of accomplishment and moments of utter defeat. There’s going to be moments of reward and moments of desperate last minute “hail mary” attempts that will fall short. There is opportunity in the professional sense in whatever one chooses to pursue as an occupation, and opportunity to just enrich one’s life.
Life can be extremely difficult (see “FML” on various Facebook posts every day). One can lament missed vacations because of no time- or embrace new opportunities for a day trip to Mystic Seaport instead to hang with the family on an old fishing boat (and inspire me to reread Kipling’s Captains Courageous). I went to college for the wrong degree, which is now a useless piece of paper. But the experience led to many opportunities, and began a path that, while not always smooth enough to travel quickly, has enabled me to remember the smiling moments loving life when life becomes tough.
Find the love folks, and when life sucks, remember that moment. Get out a book to read before making any decisions. Pull out a guitar and pen your thoughts to paper and maybe discover a new song that may inspire someone else.
Find the love.
By Jon Berman
90 West, in the bus. Upstate NY. Last night we were on the ocean at Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury Beach, and we’re headed to Glens Falls NY. About an hour ago I could almost but not quite catch a glimpse of our house through the trees in Blandford as we rolled past at 70 miles per hour on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
I’m going through my wallet while sitting in the back, and among the receipts from the past week I pull out a business card that states “The Real Taste of Maine”. My mind travels back in time to that night a week ago, when we were there. It was in Bath, Maine where I met Warren.
The bar was typically blue collar, and the owner was a fan of the band. That meant a round of free drinks. It was after 11 pm. That meant no food.
After a two hour plus show that was not a good discovery. I was famished. Did I mention that we were in Maine? Talk about a ghost town. There wasn’t a light on in town except for a lonely streetlight, and any fishermen looking for a rowdy time were with us at the bar, negating any reason for any other institution to be open. And Ben Kenobi from Star Wars stepped forward.
Okay, it wasn’t him, but other than his thick Maine accent, he certainly reminded me of a tougher-looking version of Alec Guinness’s character. And as our slide guitarist told me- this man can hook you up with food. Warren stepped forward with a big smile and said,
“Who’s hungry? Get a spoon, or just eat it out of the cup. This will be the best chowder you’ve ever had”. A moment later, he reappeared, chowder in hand. As soon as I tasted my cup of Orr’s Island Seafood Chowder all was right for the night. I looked around the bar and saw amongst the fishermen, lobstermen, and day laborers members of the band talking to various people, drinking Shipyard Ale, and relaxing for the first time in a while. Warren wouldn’t accept payment, but gladly accepted a CD. What a guy.
It’s moments like these that give meaning to life on the road these days. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel around most of the country in a couple of the nicest buses with some of my best friends, and in my mind New England is the only place to return to. From the shores of Maine to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the rolling farmland of Vermont and the coast of Rhode Island, the hustle and history of Boston and the confusion amongst Connecticut folk as to whether the Yankees or the Red Sox are their home team. New England is full of people like Warren who we meet and spend a moment with- a moment that will return a smile to my face for the rest of my life.
Moments like the unlocked doors in Freeport Maine at L.L. Bean at 2am (we bought hats), hot cider and donuts at Cold Hollow Cider Mill in Waterbury, VT before they opened on a Sunday in November, a free dinner at Thames Waterside Grill in Bristol, RI with a view that cannot be beat, and a hike in New Hampshire with the family up Black Cap. Not to mention the countless moments of “am I really here?” in Boston.
Enjoy what we have within four hours in any direction. If you include the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge and Cooperstown , NY, you realize that there is so much culture and history to soak in driving around that there really isn’t time for boredom. And I hope to travel around these parts playing my songs for people and writing about life for a long time to come. And my next song will definitely have a part about Orr’s Island Seafood Chowder at midnight in Bath, Maine.
By Jon Berman
“The carrots are coming in!” was my wife’s excited explanation about the latest newsletter from Mountain View Farms, where we have a partial share in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. This was exciting news… especially to her. While I try to make healthier choices when it is time to eat, carrots don’t excite me. Cheeseburgers do. Chicken parmigiana does. Carrots are in neither. However, they are good for you and part of our share this week. So we trekked across the hills and back roads forty minutes to Mountain View Farm. It was 88 degrees in the shade, and humidity to match. I was not in a good mood. While I am a supporter of local foods and businesses, my idea of a hot summer day off is near the ocean with a guitar in my hand and a drink by my side. Inland is for fall and winter. I don’t need a farm share, I need a pilot’s license and a plane. Get me out of Easthampton, Massachusetts, stat.
My wonderful wife was picking this signal up, and suggested I head off to the air conditioned mall to pick up some items we needed at home while she and our six-year old went off with our friends to play in a slip and slide pool. This was a great idea. Relief was in sight.
As I made my way back through town, a store sign caught my eye with the words “Luthier’s Co-op”. I had been on the hunt for a certain hard to come by guitar stand, so I parked my car and opened the door to the shop. I was not prepared for what I found.
It was not the guitar stand. It was a stage set up to play on. It was a bar with some choice beers on tap. It was my friend, and photographer, David Fried’s voice coming from the back. And I owed him a couple of beers for shooting my last album cover. It was one of those perfect moments where stars align, complete with air conditioning. Goodbye mall, hello a little slice of heaven right here in Easthampton.
David and I took a look at a few guitars, then took our rightful seats at the bar and started catching up on each other’s lives. We hadn’t spoken except once on the phone for about six months, so this was a good time. And the calculator in both our heads was figuring how to acquire more of the choice instruments we were surrounded by.
There’s something magical about any guitar shop- a music store doesn’t really sell pieces of wood, steel, and glue- it’s really selling dreams and opportunity. The idea of building one of these meccas with a bar – a prop to leave a lasting impression- and a reason for anyone to have Luthier’s Co-op as a choice destination, is certain to become an example for everyone- and another treasure I’ve uncovered here at home in western Massachusetts. It will definitely be a place I return to when we’re back.
By Jon Berman
If you’ve been reading this column all along you may have put together a few things about my life. I’m often amused by my family, I feel incredibly lucky to have the job I do, and my bathroom is in shambles and will be finished some time before the year 2030. What you may not have realized is that I’m a big fan of New England.
This past weekend my friend Mike and I performed in Hyannis while watching the fishing boats come in to the harbor. This week will bring the full band ocean side in Newport Rhode Island and the wooded hills of western Connecticut. Later this summer we’ll be in Maine and New Hampshire, followed by Vermont in the Fall. I love the opportunity to visit, experience, and perform all over New England. But for the first time in nine years I’ll miss my father in law’s traditional Independence Day cookout and picnic.
As traditional as New England itself, the annual Slate Fourth of July cookout is so part of the family tradition that no one is really invited. I’ve seen it happen, a discussion of fireworks and what someone might bring in an offhand discussion when my father in law runs into someone at the grocery store is invitation enough.
While the menu is mostly the same each year, the preparation is a production. Wendy’s father orders steaks from a butcher, shrimp and steamers are acquired, and side dishes are prepared and delivered to the house. Two boilers are set up and two grills are put in place. Multiple picnic tables are moved into position and by the time people start to arrive, coolers have been filled with ice and beverages.
And it magically becomes a traditional New England summer moment. The red, white and blue mixed with summer green grass and leaves on the trees blowing in the wind transports an outside viewer to a scene straight out of the 1800s. I expect to see a candidate for President show up in a straw hat at any time. It is a testament to the combination of the historic Lebanon, Connecticut setting and gathering of family, that on the holiday celebrating the independence and subsequent birth of a nation we can accidentally create an annual memory fit for the history books.
I won’t be there this year. The band will be in New Jersey that night, entertaining thousands of attendees with some rock and roll instead of backyard fireworks and canon booms. I’ll be glad to be there- I love my job. But there’s something special about being a quarter mile from where General George Washington stayed over in the late spring of 1781. Celebrating Independence Day and really thinking about family, foundation, and Sam Adams Summer Ale makes the holiday a New England event.
I won’t make it this year, but thanks for the meaningful memories, Mr. Slate.
By Jon Berman
What is education? Is it to prepare oneself for one’s own future? Is it to achieve a grade and compete with one’s peer group? Is it to occupy children’s time in order for their parents to go to work? For that matter, what is higher education for?
As the school year ends and guidance counselors, parents, university (because it’s no longer deemed competitive to call it college) admissions counselors (now called something like Assistant Director of Admissions) and students themselves ponder and advise others to attend one of these institutions of higher learning, decisions are made, futures are determined, and loans are secured to finance aspirations.
Last week, I ran into five young friends that scared me. We ran into each other at Four Main Street (I spend a lot of time there- it is like an old-school neighborhood bar and grill and a home-away-from-home rolled into one). One person was a young professional at the start of a banking career that, while thankful to have a job, was not looking forward to the career ahead of him. Three out of the remaining four did not have a reason to be in school.
The student who was on track (or better described as on a planned and laid- out track) was in a psych program at a prestigious college and was excited to be there. That’s what is supposed to happen.
My other conversation partners were having difficulty expressing what they wanted out of an education. Two students were at a state college (now called a university) without solid majors or an idea of what they wanted in life, let alone a career. The final student was at a community college but not enthused. All five had spent or were spending considerable amounts of money preparing for their future, but only one had an idea of what they wanted to be prepared for. Scary stuff.
I propose a change. By the time my son gets to high school, I’d like to see all the persons involved in the guidance of a high school student be focused on preparing students for decision making and options to choose from.
See, while it may have been a good idea for students to go to college thirty years ago, now that has turned into too many students attending the same type of college- and many unable to secure jobs in a chosen field, or, upon graduating, still not knowing what they want out of life other than the ability to pay off the loan they took out to get them to this point. Furthermore, in order to choose candidates for many professional fields, industries are insisting on advanced degrees, making the bachelor degree in many ways obsolete and graduates unqualified on paper.
It’s time for us to recognize that the student who attended a tech school in Connecticut has the same or greater earning potential as the college graduate in Massachusetts. It’s time for us to recognize that if we prepare all the students in Massachusetts the same, they will all only be qualified for the same type of higher education. Then they will be prepared only to compete with each other for similar occupations- creating a surplus of people with potential that have difficulty making decisions and few occupational options if they haven’t figured out what they want before graduating high school.
And what if they change their mind? The track that has to be laid to switch to another track in life leaves many on what becomes a dead end. The lack of decision making skills and education so focused on academic excellence leaves little room for imagination, creative thinking, and history to learn from.
It’s time for us to start rethinking what education is. The challenges ahead for young people in our world are not predictable. The rows of desks in a concrete and cinder block building are obsolete. We have gotten to the point where students are accomplishing simply what they are told they must accomplish, and receive a diploma and possibly an award for doing so before traveling a path they are told they must travel to further prepare for a future that they haven’t thought about.
This is not education.
By Jon Berman
I’m in the back of a fifteen person passenger van, on a short trip with the band to Concord, Massachusetts to play at a small theater. It’s only one afternoon, but it does prevent me from hanging with my son before bed. The amount of times I need to say good night to TMan (our nickname for Thatcher), from a loading dock or stairway in the back of a theater is pretty depressing, but not compared with military personnel serving on the other side of the world for extended tours of duty. And my job is certainly more fun.
Usually upon arrival, saying hello to the crew and any friends takes a few minutes. For me, setting up my horn and microphone system comes next, but off to the side of the stage so it’s not in the way of any crew or wiring going on. Sometimes I use a guitar, depending on the band I’m working with, tonight there’s no need so it’ll stay in the case.
I love watching everything get set. Sometimes we’re all helping, but most of the time there’s a crew paid to do the hard work. So it’s neat to see this black box or platform at the end of a field get transformed into a showcase stage, with lights, sound systems, backdrops, and sometimes video screens assembled, erected and checked before we take the stage for sound check.
Sound check is the work part of the day as much as any other for me. Last minute notes, rehearsing a new song, and figuring out problems all happens here, and when you’re playing in a different space every night there’s so many variables to take into account. I have an added challenge that the bands and performance situations that are part of my job vary in size, scope, and audience.
In a week’s time I’ve found myself performing at a local bar, an upscale restaurant, a university student center, a theater, the Esplanade Hatch Shell, and a backyard barbecue. Respectively, those performances consisted of a duo at the bar, solo saxophone at the restaurant, my own songs on guitar at the college, one band in the theater, and a different band in the final two appearances of the week. The audiences ranged from a few people out in the bar to an estimated 100,000 opening for Collective Soul and the Gin Blossoms in Boston. Most of the time, however, there will be a week with restaurants followed by a week with one of the bands.
After soundcheck I usually have something light to eat, call home to say goodnight, and hang out with the crew and bands for some catch up. Then we get the warning and as our intro music goes on we head to the stage. The show is what everyone sees – it’s the fun part of the day. Then we get off stage (or in a restaurant simply say goodnight) and meet a few people that want to say hi. Sometimes it’s a quick exit to the waiting van or bus, and sometimes it’s signing a few CDs and talking with some listeners before breaking down the gear.
By the time we’re rolling again, there’s email to check, Facebook to update, and notes on improvements in my performance to note. I keep a log of every show and venue, to remember names, problems, and the best part of the night. Sometimes we head to a hotel, sometimes sleep
on the bus. But nights like tonight are the best.
Tonight, we are headed home!
Jon Berman is a musician who lives in Blandford. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org