Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Word of Mouth

In the spirit of “don’t wait until it’s too late, to say what you think of someone” … particularly when it’s something nice! … I now offer up a brief testimonial for a local merchant.

Some years ago, as I was making the late-afternoon commute from my workplace in the Blackstone Valley to my home near Boston College [yes, I know it was a long commute], I stopped at a supermarket to grab some mobile supper, and when I came out of the store and tried to start my Saturn, it wouldn’t start. I turned the key and heard a “click” and absolutely nothing else. It was dark, and I was many miles from home with a car that was acting only as a gigantic paperweight.

Happily, luckily, across the street was a gas station with service bays, and it was open. I asked them if they could help with a dead battery or whatever it was. They could. The gentleman somehow produced a tow truck and got my car across the street, and did something (which escapes me) to fix the problem (the exact details of which also escape me). He allowed me to go home that night – and not have to, oh, I don’t know, spend the night in the produce section of Shaw’s, maybe.

Since then, I’ve taken my car to him when it needs a-fixin’. Currently I live in Worcester, MA, and this gentleman’s automotive service business is located in Milford, MA. Via a pair of major highways, that’s a 45-minute drive if the traffic behaves. Neither my first Saturn nor my current one have broken down since that night, so all my repairs have been of the sorts that have allowed me to bring my car to this gentleman to have it worked on.

His name is Ray Geara, and he used to run Milford Getty, until something happened and now the BP logo is out front. But it was, is, and will be, just Ray’s place.

When you visit Ray’s service station, many times you can’t find him. He’s there, okay; he’s just moving very very very fast. He’s running around – shuffling cars about – checking in with his talented staff of mechanics – checking in with newly-arrived customers, customers waiting for cars, customers who call his mobile phone … and he is always, without fail, the consummate customer service professional. Everyone he talks to, he treats as if their car is the most important one in the lot.

When I visit Ray, even if I arrive unannounced, nine times out of ten he will immediately find a way to clear a service bay and perform my oil change, inspection, or whatever other little tiny thing I need done. No waiting. Right in. Now. And that tenth time, he will apologize profusely for not being able to (and usually the reason is because he has a zillion cars in the lot, and I’ll look at him and say, “Ray, you’re a busy man”). He often says to me, “you come so far, from Worcester, you’re so good to do that, of course I take care of you.” I often reply, “I come this distance because you do great work, man.” And our Mutual Admiration Society skit spirals out of control. “You’re awesome.” “No, you’re awesome!” –Well, we’ve never actually performed that dialogue, but we sometimes get close.

And any time I’ve been sitting in Ray’s waiting room, while his folks are working on my car, and there’s someone else sitting there for the same reason, inevitably we get into a conversation that starts out, “Ray’s great, isn’t he?”

When I was growing up, my family took our cars to a pair of mechanics in town who knew our whole family by name; it wasn’t the era where guys in spiffy uniforms came charging out of the gas station, wearing white gloves and checking your oil, wiping your windshield and making conversation while they filled your tank … but that little routine was still a relatively recent memory.

But for most of the first years of my driving life, I got car repairs done at dealerships. Dealers’ maintenance people have two jobs: to fix things that go wrong, and to find other things to fix, usually fixing them first and telling their customers about it afterward. “Oh by the way, we found this and this and this and this. It’s all explained on the bill.” Which is of course, by that time, humongous.

By contrast, Ray and his people do great work; they do what you need done; and if they find something else that needs fixing, they talk about it as if it needs doing in order for your car to run safely, and never give a sense that they’re suggesting this because they need the extra dough. They don’t, as the Car Talk guys would say, appear to have boat payments to take care of.

In the past year or so, I’ve had a number of contractors and other professionals come to my house and perform work (chimney; roof work; removal of deceased animals; extermination of live insects; etc.). If I like their work, I make sure to recommend them to other people. My exterminator came highly recommended by a friend of mine. In short, I think word-of-mouth business is the best sort. It beats closing your eyes and landing your finger on a random spot on a Yellow Page.

So this is all a giant word-of-mouth reference. If you live anywhere near Milford, MA, and you need a car mechanic whom you can trust, Ray Geara’s your guy. He’s on Prospect Street (Route 140) in Milford, just down the street from the Milford Regional Medical Center (corner of Routes 140 and 16).

Across from the Shaw’s supermarket.

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August 31, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Perspective

The slight delay in blog posting hereabouts has had mostly to do with my month of July, which featured a whole lot of travel, at least half of which had to do with professional development.

First: to New Hampshire, for the New England Band Directors Institute, a three-day affair in which band directors from New England (and elsewhere) gather – with instruments – to attend workshops, to read new band literature, to be conducted by one or more massively influential band conductors, and to have our attitudes (unofficially) adjusted. We’re a relatively small group – people who are pretty passionate about a topic that maybe not a lot of other people may quite understand. If you’ve seen the movies “Mr. Holland’s Opus” or “Drumline”, at least in my opinion, you still might not understand it.

Then: to Gordon College, for a similar gathering of choral directors from Massachusetts. Same idea; same level of “the rest of the world may not quite embrace this subject nearly as tightly as we do”! Off the top of my head I can’t come up with any movies that have been made about choir directors, either. “The Choir”, maybe.

Then to the mid-Atlantic, for some professional development wrapped up in a vacation: my annual pilgrimage to the American Shakespeare Center, in Staunton, VA. Tucked away in the mountains of Virginia, this little theater is modeled after the one in which William Shakespeare his own self put on his, um, skits. And it’s populated by some really fine actors. This year I saw “Hamlet”, which is perhaps a bit less light than the plays I’d seen there previously – “Much Ado About Nothing” (in which the ASC made me forget Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson and Denzel Washington and Kate Beckinsale, and instead remember Sarah Fallon and Rene Thornton, Jr.), and “The Taming of the Shrew”. With all due respect: Shakespeare enthusiasts are passionate but they don’t usually get nearly the attention that Tom Cruise and things blowing up do, on the big screen. Sometimes for good reason: the English Department professor who taught the Shakespearean Lit course that I took during my sophomore year at UMass seemed just plain deranged sometimes – in his view, every single element of a Shakespearean play represented some sort of sexual imagery. (Sometimes, Doc, “the dagger I see before me, the handle towards my hand” is just a dagger!) Anyway, if you tell the average American someone that you adore “Twelfth Night”, they may wonder if you mean some sort of winter holiday celebration.

Most recently: my annual two-week total-immersion course in the art of the drum major, courtesy of the West Chester, PA and UMass-Amherst versions of the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. Now, talk about a gathering of rather passionate and relatively not-understood people: not only are they what the media would condescendingly call “band geeks”, but these young people will be their bands’ “head band geeks”! And they’ll be taught by people who have made band directing, and also drum major instruction, a large and important part of their lives. A documentary about this activity may not guarantee a major TV network knockout ratings, exactly.

But for 13 summers, I’ve participated in what is, for me, arguably the most professionally and personally enjoyable fortnight of the year. Until this year, I got to work for George N. Parks, who may not have been well-known outside the marching music industry, but inside of it he was the top dog. How lucky I was, for 12 years, to be able to look over and say, “hey, Mr. Parks, how do?” while most of the students and other participants in the West Chester and UMass clinics would see him coming and whisper, “–that’s George Parks!” with a certain amount of hero worship audible in those whispers. He was a genuine Hall-of-Famer, after all. And following his passing this past year, the DMA company took a deep breath, gathered itself and continued on; and during my two weeks of immersion this summer, I got to watch another master teacher, Heidi Sarver, gather up the reins and lead students – and staff – through this experience.

More than once, we DMA staff members have watched the kids go from being slightly bewildered new DMA students to being truly passionate student leaders, and we’ve heard their explosive cheering and nearly-foaming-at-the-mouth reactions to the goings-on, led by Mr. Parks … and we’ve quietly remarked, “it’s a good thing they’re on the good side of the Force.” To an outsider, the exhortations of the staff and the responses of the kids could easily seem right on the edge of, or maybe further into the realm of, a cult. No one is speaking in tongues, mind you; but when 300 or 400 high school students suddenly bellow “Together! In! Out! Frozen! Up! With Pride! With Pride!” and the listener has no idea what any of it means, I can imagine that it can make for some nervous wondering.

(The kids are just describing how various body parts are, in the attention position, but it may not be totally obvious.)

 

It’s occurred to me that I actually belong to a number of groups that fit this description: they … WE … are passionate about a particular topic; we commit a great deal of our personal time to it; we don’t always understand why the outside world doesn’t also treasure that topic; and we get a little miffed when the outside world says things like, “…I don’t get it. It’s weird.”

I will of course list these.

[] Marching band. (As is partly chronicled above; as is surely chronicled in most of the posts in this blog since last September.) This is an activity that can create marvelous sounds and images; and, taught right, it can yield philosophies for life and strategies for dealing with people and events that can be used in a lifelong way. (“Band is a place for everyone.”) Or … it can be the silliest-looking thing on planet Earth. As my DMA colleague Jamie Weaver once said to a roomful of student leaders, “let’s be honest, gang, we’re running around a field playing instruments that shouldn’t be outside, waving flags, and wearing chickens on our heads.”

[] Musical theater. For the love of heaven, please let’s set aside the stereotypes about theater people and their particular orientations. Statistically speaking, most activities in the world feature one person out of every ten who’s not facing the same way as the other nine, and does that excuse abusive behavior? Sorry, no. … Anyway, musical theater: done right, it gives young people the chance to discover the fun of performance, in an environment where they don’t have to decide it’s what they want to do forever, but could! Done wrong, it sounds like the “Whose Line Is It Anyway” activity where two actors play a scene in different styles suggested by the audience: when someone calls out “community theater!”, the actors get stilted and awful and break character and giggle.

[] Curling. An intriguing sport that I don’t play, I just watch, probably for lack of opportunity – and the fact that if I crouch down to play catcher in baseball, at least I’m using two feet; if I go to launch the curling rock and have to slide along the ice, I’m quickly going from one foot to one backside and an elbow, and zero dignity. It’s a sport, but it doesn’t look like the four major spectator sports at all, and I certainly understand why other people might look at someone standing on a sheet of ice with a little broom in their hand and might cry out, as commentator Charlie Pierce has done, “…SPORTS?!!!?”

[] Left-leaning politics. Thanks to my upbringing and my observations during the later years of my public and collegiate education, I see certain issues certain ways. I have to work really hard to read right-leaning political essays and comprehend how anybody could view the same issues in such a different light. (My suspicion, based on some recent historical non-fiction that I’ve read, is that the radical, reactionary right-wing politics currently in vogue are only distantly related to the beliefs put forth as “classic” Republican platform planks.) That said, I have a few friends and colleagues who are Republicans and occasionally they’ve said things and I’ve seen their points. I like those people because sometimes they’re mystified by my politics but we’re still friends anyhow.

[] Star Trek. Enough said. … Although I will say this: in fourth grade, I wore a Captain Kirk shirt on school picture day. I do not do the equivalent thing now. I went to one Trek convention, in Boston in 1992, mainly because it featured Patrick Stewart as the keynote speaker and I’d go to the ends of the earth to listen to that guy improv for an hour. (On the subway, heading into Boston, I sat next to a family of four, also going to the convention … and Mom, Dad, Jimmy and Jane all wore full Starfleet uniforms. I decided it was okay for them and that I was okay where I was.)

So, once in a while you bump into a group of people, enthusiasts regarding a particular topic, who are so passionate that it blinds them to the possibilities that [1] their activity may not be the best thing since sliced bread, and that [2] other people who “don’t get it” should be allowed to “not get it” and not take abuse for it.

For example, I’m a big ol’ fan of “A Prairie Home Companion”, which may be the only remaining weekly variety show left on American radio. Every week, as my dad would have said, “I have my folksy humor batteries fully charged”. Late in the two-hour show, Garrison Keillor largely improvises a twenty-minute monologue purporting to chronicle the recent week’s current events in “the little town that time forgot”, Lake Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average – and where all the characters are right on the edge of being stereotypical homespun, myopic and faintly backward Midwesterners. I have heard more marvelous parables acted out by these characters than I can count. The musicians on the program are some of the finest in America. The writing is superb. But plenty of Midwesterners, Lutherans and others have mistaken Keillor’s works for mockery. For every 99 Keillor admirers, there’s one listener that doesn’t get the joke, or doesn’t get that sometimes all it is is a gentle joke.

This summer, I read a book by the marvelous writer Sarah Vowell, called “Radio On”. It’s a diary of a year of listening to the radio. Vowell doesn’t just listen to one station in one city; she listens wherever she goes, to many different stations with different formats, and makes some very astute comments about sounds coming out of her radio and about large issues as illuminated by those sounds. Some of her comments rake NPR over the coals, but manage to avoid whitewashing NPR and its listeners as snooty elitists, while still making some good points about ways in which NPR could probably lighten up a bit. In a couple of chapters, Vowell dumps on Garrison Keillor pretty firmly. I happen not to share her disdain. She may be a little too acerbic and sharp-tongued and smart-ass by nature (which generally works for her) to appreciate Keillor’s act; but I wouldn’t begrudge her the opportunity to be so. I happen to like “Prairie Home” for a lot of reasons besides his observations about humans via his mythical little town, and I wish someone could explain it to Ms. Vowell in a way that would break through her deflectors (hello!; Star Trek nerd reference!) and help her understand what he’s going for. But I get why she and other people might not “get it.”

 

In my first job out of college, I worked in the light-manufacturing department of a biotechnology company. I often would assemble thousands of little plastic pieces, or do equally repetitive things, in a given week. For about three weeks that winter, I was (figuratively, and sort of literally) pinned behind my drill press while another manufacturing department member tried doggedly to get me to join his church. By the time those three weeks had become three weeks, it was borderline harassment. I finally whispered to my department supervisor that if Jacques (not his real name) said one more word to me about how great my life would become if I joined the Houston Church of Christ (not its real name; a singular organization not affiliated with the more well-known Church of Christ denomination) and about why the church I did attend was just not sufficient to ensure my ascent into Heaven at the end of this earthly life … then I was going to march straight into the office of the president of this 40-member company and take up his valuable time asking him to supervise the removal this yahoo from my life.

Astonishing how easy it is to stumble into situations where, inadvertantly, you can poke a nest with a stick – and run afoul of a swarm of True Believers.

So I try to forgive people for not understanding the meaning of “Starred Thoughts™”, or for not agreeing that Jean-Luc Picard became a better starship captain right around the beginning of season three, or for rooting for the Canadiens over the Bruins, or vice-versa. And I hope we can convince more people, someday soon, that if they do accidentally poke the bear, they should at least be left alive – figuratively, literally, whichever. Because if some of the people who populate our nation’s capitol have inadvertantly taught us anything in the past few weeks, it’s this:

A little perspective can only be helpful.

August 9, 2011 Posted by | band, blogging, DMA, drum major, education, entertainment, GNP, government, humor, Internet, literature, marching band, media, music, news, npr, politics, radio, science fiction, sports, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment