Do you remember them? Smoky Robinson and the Miracles, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, The Chiffons, The Shirelles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye. Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and near the end of the era, The Jackson Five. So many more. They provided a large part of the soundtrack during my high school years. This was 1964-1968 in the Calumet Region, a collection of small and medium sized cities in Northwest Indiana that today we would describe as a rustbelt, boarded up failure—a place that might find its way into a Bruce Springsteen song. But in the 60’s it was still crowded with blue-collar workers rotating through shifts in the steel mills and oil refineries that lined the shore of Lake Michigan.
The men in the factories worked shoulder to shoulder, but the neighborhoods, the schools, and, of course, the churches were pretty tightly segregated. Not by law, but by neighborhood redlining and taken-for-granted cultural practice. White families, mostly of Eastern European descent, lived in towns like Hessville, Highland, Munster, and Griffith. Black families resided mostly in East Chicago, Whiting, and Gary. Except for high school sporting events, our two communities rarely saw one another. But then there was the music.
Gary in the 1960s was not the nostalgic white Pleasantville conjured by Professor Harold Hill in “The Music Man” (Gary, Indiana, Gary, Indiana, My home sweet home”). That Gary was founded in 1906 as a start up, corporate-funded community, consisting mostly of houses built quickly and cheaply, for the thousands of workers needed for the new U.S Steel plant. Gary was named after Elbert Henry Gary, the Founding Chairman of U.S. Steel. At the beginning, those workers were recent white immigrants from Europe, but the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, and the Great Migration together unsettled the demographics, and by the late 1950’s Gary was a bustling majority African American city with a half-dozen AM radio stations featuring R&B artists like The Platters, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, and the breakout, cross-over artist, Ray Charles. Just before I entered high school, Berry Gordy kick-started Motown Records, and my friends and I listened in every night.
In a musical environment crowded with young white men like Bobby Rydel, Bobby Vinton, Pat Boone, Paul Anka, Ricky Nelson, and Fabian, Motown was a revelation. At every basement party I went to my freshman year, someone played “My Girl” by The Temptations at least three times. At sock hops in the high school gym, we danced to Smokey Robison belting out “Shop Around“ and Aretha’s in-your-face hit “Respect.” By my sophomore year, Motown stars like The Four Tops, The Supremes, and Stevie Wonder were playing all across the Chicagoland AM network, but my friends and I still tuned into the Gary stations when we could because it was there that we found newer sounds–less smooth, edgier, blusier, something that would soon be discovered and appropriated by more visible artists.
Motown became a part of my identity kit. It was the music that I remembered by, and that my brain played when I was happy. It came along for me at the right time and at the right place. I was 14, still open to something new that I could love, and very close to Gary where the music was everywhere and I could listen for free. It somehow made me proud when I learned that the Jackson Five–Michael included–had grown up in Gary.
When I went to college in Washington, D.C, one of the few records I had room for was “Taking Care of Business” which was a recording of a TV show that featured the Temptations and the Supremes. I listened to it in my dorm room whenever I got homesick. Before we all went digital, I carried around a box of Motown albums every time I moved until they became so scratched and worn that I had to tape a penny above the needle that so that it would stay in the groove.
When my kids were young, we would dance in the living room to The Temptations Greatest Hits. When I was putting the girls to sleep at night, after reading a book, I would often quietly sing “My Girl” to my girls. When our oldest daughter was married, she chose “My Girl” as the song that we would dance to when it was time for a father-of-the-bride moment. And our youngest chose “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” We danced, and the memories made us glad.
Retirement brings changes – for many of us, it’s a newfound wealth of unencumbered time. We spend that wealth lavishly, of course, on our commitments, from social justice and political work, service to our faith communities, or caretaking responsibilities, as well as our multiple avocations, whether hobbies, travel, or sports. But, in addition to these activities, we also may find, happily, that we have more time for reading.
When we retire, our reading lives may deserve thoughtful reflection, not only because we have more time to read, but also because our reasons for reading, our habits of reading, and the kinds of reading we seek out may be changing.
The reading we do when young is often required as schoolwork and often asks us to look ahead to the future—to college and to the adult lives we have not yet begun. When working and raising children, reading may become an infrequent pastime, practiced just before bed, in airports, or on vacation, as a way of filling the time between our daily obligations. But in retirement, reading can become less a pastime and more a pleasurable exploration of our lives, our pasts, and the complicated journeys we have undertaken. We can read about people like us and learn from them. Or we can read about people who aren’t like us and learn from them as well. Reading, viewed this way, can become a kind of self-care, a means of making our lived lives better.
What follow are six questions meant to help you reflect on your reading life. They are based on the six traditional basic questions of journalism: What? Who? When? Where? How? Why?
- What kinds of books do you usually read?As an exercise, write down the titles of the last three books that you read that you really liked. How did you come to read these books? Are they like books you have read before? Why are you attracted to books like these?
- Who are you as a reader?Is there a pattern to your reading life? Do you read more non-fiction than fiction? More literature set in contemporary settings or literature set in the past? Are you interested in a specific genre (mysteries, spy novels, science fiction, romance, horror, classics)? Again, as an exercise, draw a line and place slashes on that line for every decade of your life. See if you can come up with two or more book titles for each decade. Has there been a change over time? Has there been continuity? What’s the pattern?
- When do you read?Do you have habitual times—before bed, in the quiet morning, while eating lunch alone, on peaceful afternoons on the porch? Do you set aside a special reading time on most days? Do you read different things at different times? Why?
- Where do you read?Make a list of the places where you commonly read. Why do you read in those places? What is your most comfortable place to read? Do you have to read in private when it’s quiet or can you read in noisier public spaces? When you’re traveling, how do you know when you’ve found a good place to read? Explain.
- How do you read?Are you a slow or a fast reader? Do you read different books at different speeds? Do you read more than one book at a time? Are you usually prone or in a sitting position? Do you take notes and underline? Do you read print books only, or do you read digital or listen to audible books as well? Do you like one medium better than the others? Do you read one kind of book in one medium and others in different media? Why?
- Why do you read?This is probably the most important question of all, and it probably has the most answers. It might be useful, though, to consider your most important reasons for reading and try to find books that address those reasons. The great novelist, essayist, and public intellectual Marilynne Robinson argues that reading about people different from us can have deep effects on our ability to empathize with others in real life. On the other hand, reading about people like ourselves might help us learn more about who we are. There are so many good reasons to read.
I hope you are having a good reading life.
Have you read anything lately or in recent years that gave you a new perspective? Share your comments below.
The year 1969 was not altogether different from this year — the country was deeply divided by politics, race, culture, geography, and most especially, by generation. In September of that year, I was beginning my sophomore year at Indiana University in Bloomington, financed by a state scholarship and a summer job in a steel mill where my father worked. I lived with a buddy in an old, two-bedroom trailer on the edge of town, and I was looking forward to my second year as an English major and to a life away from the oil refineries and steel mills that dominated my home town and the lives of our families. But that sense of hope and well being quickly dissolved when I learned that I would be losing my college deferment, and thus become eligible for the military draft, at a lottery to take place on Dec. 1.*
I had been opposed to the Vietnam war on political and moral grounds ever since I started learning about it as a high school student. I knew I couldn’t fight in a war I hated, but I had few resources to draw on if my birthday was drawn early in the lottery. I had no friends in high places, no doctors who would write an excuse. My rapidly lapsing Catholicism would be of little help in applying for conscientious objector status, and I didn’t have the courage to simply take myself to Canada. Like many of my friends, I was a hot mess of fear, anger, and anxiety.
My roommate and I spent many nights talking about what we would do if drafted and what we could do before then that might make a difference. We had seen a poster advertising a march against the war that was to take place in Washington, DC on November 15. After a good deal of discussion, but without consultation with our parents, we decided to go to the march and for good measure to organize a group from Indiana to go with us.
We contacted a bus company who gave us a price and guaranteed at least ten buses to make the trip. We set up a table in the student union and began signing students up, collecting checks, and advising people on what to bring and what to expect. In the end, 85 students in 4 buses made the overnight trip to DC where we met a crowd larger than we had ever seen.
We strategically planted ourselves near some Porto-pot- ties and spent the day shouting slogans, singing songs, and trying unsuccessfully to get near the stage where there were speeches and name-brand bands. But we never made it. By four o’clock we were tired and hungry, so we started moving toward the edge of the crowd. But instead, we found ourselves near the Justice Department where a smaller, but much more serious demonstration was beginning to take place. Police officers with gas masks and billy clubs were lined up near a construction wall, and before we knew it, they were moving toward us, shooting tear gas canisters and using their clubs to drive the crowd back. When I saw a girl, on her knees, holding her bloodied head, I began to run as fast as I could back to our waiting buses.
Two weeks later, on the night of the lottery, we crowded into dormitory lounges to watch birthdays being drawn from a barrel. They only drew 125 numbers on TV, and my Jan. 7th birthday was not among them. I got up early the next morning, raced to get the student newspaper, and scanned the full list of birthdays in order. My number was 317. I was very unlikely to be drafted. I felt enormous relief and enormous guilt. Many of my friends were not so lucky.
A few days later, I happened to remember my mother’s stories of my birth, and that I had entered the world quite late on the night of Jan. 7, 1950. At 11:58 p.m. to be exact. Out of curiosity, I looked back at the list of birthdays on the lottery list to see what my number would have been if I had been born on January 8. My number would then have been 6. My life’s trajectory was changed forever, not by the war, not by my protests against it, not by the draft. But because my young, strong mother decided late one night to give one more painful push.
* On Dec. 1, 1969, the Selective Service conducted two lotteries to determine the order of call to military service in Vietnam for men born from 1944 to 1950. It was the first time a lottery system had been used since 1942. The lottery numbers assigned in December were used during calendar year 1970.