Today is a remarkable day. I am 50 and very pleased with it as well. I have my health, three beautiful children and my lovely wife. I live in a civilised country with a deep history, a well-tended countryside, a great sense of humour, and a health system that works most of the time.
I was only supposed to come here for a year back in 1993 … oh well…
Turning 50 is a moment to pause and take stock. Five decades. Born into the Cold War at a time when an LED calculator created intense joy and curiosity, and now writing this short blog on a laptop connected to the Internet through eduroam wifi. And as I get older, the simpler my tastes become: a comfortable place to sit, really good coffee, and the fastest broadband in the world.
Despite my birth year, I was not a child of the 60s, but a child of the 70s. Long hair, bell-bottom jeans, blue suede Puma sneakers, a silk shirt with horses on it, a jean coat, and a beat up trombone. I loved our family home in Hemlock Hollow and when not outside running through the woods or swimming in the pond, I was in my room learning and practicing magic; a life-long pursuit that continues to fascinate and enchant me.
The Nixon resignation and our extraction from the Vietnam War were my earliest memories of a decade that saw some of the best rock music ever recorded (although I did not quite appreciate that at the time).
We huddled in my brother’s bedroom listening to Queen (an imported vinyl LP my dad brought back from Amsterdam), Bachman Turner Overdrive, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Moody Blues, the Doobie Brothers, and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
All that changed in the late 1970s when I discovered punk and New Wave music from the UK. Gone were the self-indulgent dirges; replaced by quick tempo tunes with cockney accents, the ‘nutty’ sound, and political lyrics that spoke of a rebellious generation taking on the establishment.
My brother’s bedroom was replaced by my friend’s back room den with 100s of imported LPs from bands like the Angelic Upstarts, the Cure, U2, the Specials, Madness, the Selector, the Sex Pistols, Joe Jackson, and the Stranglers, which were complemented by surf punk from California like the Dead Kennedys, Agent Orange, and so many others. We learned to slam dance and survive the mosh pit. We wore vintage clothes, pointy shoes, and pork pie hats.
Throughout these years, I was also seduced by jazz, from traditional to hard bop, to jazz rock fusion. The house was full of great music from Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Blood Sweat and Tears, the Modern Jazz Quartet and countless others. I had a long battle learning to play the trombone and a continuing passion to learn how to play jazz, as well as many stints with many different bands: concert band, big band, pit orchestras, marching band, blues bands, and small jazz combos.
The 1980s were a time of deep learning and reacting against Reagan’s America. High School (studies, band, and swimming) in Central Pennsylvania gave way to University life at Penn in the middle of the end of the Cold War. I read the New York Times daily and followed all the foreign policy stories from the Iran-Contra scandal to democratic transitions in Latin America, to the Falklands/Malvinas, to anti-apartheid protests around the world. I wrote my final year dissertation on US Foreign Policy in Chile during the Allende period, abandoned my plans to go to law school, and followed my dream to study Latin America.
Three years in the late 80s in Georgetown included intense study of Latin America, exposure to liberation theology, time in Brazil to hone my Portuguese and follow the first democratic presidential election since 1961, and a short stint at the World Bank before setting off west to pursue a PhD in political science.
The 1990s saw me for a short spell in Boulder, Colorado, where the long hair made a brief return and where I met an English Professor, who, over a glass of single malt invited me to come to the UK. With visions of ivy-covered halls and greens full of students debating philosophy, I landed at the University of Essex (cough); itself an intellectually stimulating place with a radical past. One project turned into another until I found myself traveling the world to over 39 countries working on human rights projects, teaching students from places that were forbidden in my youth like Tajikistan to people who were part of Reagan’s Evil Empire. The Cold War was over, but new forms of tyranny, oppression and conflict were upon us.
Y2K never happened, but 9/11 did, which like the Kennedy Assassination for the generation before me, has been etched on my mind since that fateful day. En route to an appointment in town, I heard an early news report about the attack, while later in the day I found myself standing very still in front of a TV in a clothing store In Colchester UK watching the towers come down; towers I visited as kid on a special trip to New York with my father to pick up my Dutch grandfather who had arrived at JFK airport.
The ‘noughties’ were spent teaching, writing, traveling, playing jazz and performing magic. My three real passions in life remain politics, magic and jazz. In their own way, these passions all share a subversive streak, where big disruptions come from those who foment new ideas (we can change history), question orthodoxy (why not flatten the fifth note in a diatonic scale?), and unsettle our sense of reality (is it deduction, deception, or something more?).
50 seemed a long way away as a kid, where I often yearned to be older, but as Ferris says, life moves pretty fast. I agree, but it also moves slow enough to savour the journey, and this journey thus far has been fantastic.
So, as I savour this particular day, happy birthday to me, and many thanks to all my friends and family who have made the journey thus far unforgettable.
In honour of this day, I share with you a new poem that I call The Pond. I hope you like it.
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