Ken AshfordPersonal1 Comment

I really don’t know what to write.  I don’t know how to begin.

This blog has been in existence for over 12 years.  It was around before Facebook and Twitter and before most people even knew the word “blog”.  And at times, it has been a platform for personal things (shows I’m doing, etc.), but it has evolved more into a lengthy observation of the world I live in.  I guess that’s because as I get older, I’m more interested in that than I am in, well, me.  But I can’t not write about my brother Doug, who passed away on February 26, 2015.  I intended to do it on the one-month anniversary of his death.  But I didn’t; the thoughts hadn’t coalesced.

Almost six months on, and my thought still hadn’t coalesced.

And here it is.  One year.

What can you say about a guy such as this?  How can you reduce a life to a blog post?  It somehow seems obscene.  That was sort of my thought as I sat with my mother and sister as we agonized over the wording of Doug’s obituary.

And yet, not to do it.  Well, like I said, I can’t not.

Doug was born on September 29, 1961.  I came less than a year later (363 days, in fact).  And my sister the following year.  All of us were born in Omaha, Nebraska.  Because Doug was the oldest, he blazed the trail for Julie (my sister) and me — the first to go to kindergarten, etc.

Our family was living in Ossining, New York when my father died of liver cancer.  I was five years old at the time, so Doug would have been six.  I don’t remember much about Doug during that time, but my mother tells a story of how some visiting relative told Doug, “Well, you are the man of the family now”.  To this day, she believes that single statement changed Doug — that he became more serious and somber.  I can imagine the effect a proclamation like that could have had on a six-year-old — suddenly feeling responsible for a family but not really knowing how to go about it.

Obviously, I don’t remember seeing a change in Doug.  But I never really saw him as being somber, serious, or attempting to act in a fatherly or protective manner.  Being so close in age to him, I saw him as funny and interesting.  He wasn’t old enough for me to look up to and revere.  He was closer to being a twin.  He was a playmate.

Still, he was nurturing to me, but I don’t know if that was due to the “man of the family” comment or just some innate characteristic.  For example, he went to kindergarten in Ossining at Brookside Elementary School, and would come home and teach me what he was learning.  By the time I entered kindergarten the next year, I was already reading — “The Little White House” to be precise.  I think (or at least, I hope) Doug and I passed this knowledge on to Julie.

Doug had the cool bedroom in Ossining.  It had a huge map — not a poster, really.  It was built into the wall, as I recall.  I wasn’t sure what a map really was, or what it represented.  And I certainly couldn’t “read” it.  But it was cool-looking and kind of grown-up, and I guess I was impressed (as much as a four year old can be) that Doug had this map thing in his bedroom.

Following the death of my father, our family moved to Concord, New Hampshire, which I still consider “home”.  Doug and I shared a bedroom for many years growing up.  We shared a lot of the same interests — the typical interests of kids in the 1970s — but as that decade progressed, it was obvious to me that he was cooler.  He seemed to be more on the cutting edge of things.  In the mid-seventies, he would talk about, and watch, this strange show from England on — what? — public television called “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.  And in 1975, he stayed up late to watch the first episode of a new live-telecast show on NBC called “NBC’s Saturday Night” (later to become “Saturday Night Live”).  He knew about these things and discovered them before anybody knew about them.  Now, of course, those shows and those performances are embedded in our culture, but he seemed to know, even in his early teens, that he was paying attention to something new and different.

Certainly, that carried over into music.  The popular weekly radio show back then (AM only, kids) was “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem.  I have many memories of listening to that with Doug.  And it was clear that our musical taste started to diverge at some point.  If I were to describe it today, I would say that Doug was more Lennon-y, and I was more McCartney-ish — meaning that he seemed to embrace the more arty music (which was rare in the mid-1970s) whereas I was fine with the bubble gum pop.

Back then, our family had formed close ties with the Zanes family — a rather eccentric and new age-y family (certainly compared to our stoic family) — and I think Doug’s friendship with Dan Zanes influenced his musical taste.  Dan loved music as well, and together Doug and Dan (and to a lesser extent, Warren Zanes and me) discovered the discography of musicians past, most notably The Beatles.  Dan eventually picked up a guitar.  My brother did as well, but never found the knack.

By this time, Doug and I were buying what all teens and pre-teens bought in the mid-1970s — 45 rpms of the hit songs we heard on American Top 40.  They were 99 cents.  I don’t remember what our allowance was, but we could easily buy several on a Saturday morning.  But at French’s Music Store in downtown Concord (to which we often walked unescorted, even though it two miles away, because it was the 70s), Doug would start to venture to the “oldies” section.  Soon his 45 rpm collection started containing all sorts of music unfamiliar to me, and certainly music not on American Top 40.

77460508_2c5e7e5fcfEventually, he ventured into albums.  The first album in his collection is pictured at the right, although to be honest, I think it was a gift rather than something he bought.  I remember the day he came home with a very fancy album, the cover of which was made of leather.  It has a gold symbol on the front and the words “Jesus Christ Superstar”, and you opened it up, and it had pages containing all the words of this… what was it — an opera?!?  I was kind of impressed.  Again, he seemed to know what it was he was buying, and it was definitely a cool purchase, I thought, especially as I looked at the plastic turntable and my 45 rpm — Andy Kim’s “Rock Me Gently” — going round and round.*

Perhaps I should digress and explain, to those who don’t know, why I am focusing on music so much as I travel through Doug’s early years.  As many people who knew him later in life know very well, music was a huge part of Doug’s life.  He was an amateur deejay, t be sure, but more than that, he was music ambassador.  He was the guy who said, “Listen to this.  You’ll like this”, and was almost always right.  Even as he rejected popular music trends (disco, rap, etc), he seemed to have his pulse on alternative trends in music.  He was an aficionado.  In a way,

But even throughout the 1970s, there still was no sign of this.  Yes, he religiously read the liner notes to albums, but didn’t we all?  It was like reading the cereal boxes at breakfast — you just did it.  And yes, he was into music, but what teenager of any generation can say otherwise?  In fact, Doug was quite well-rounded.  He played on the junior high school soccer team, and was on the swim team.  I remember how Doug, Dan, Warren and me were on a street hockey team, which is a New England thing.  He was very good in school, especially math.  He did Junior World Nations.**

He and I invented a game called “garageball” and would play it throughout the summer, almost every summer.  The game consisted of standing at the end of our driveway, kicking a ball onto the roof of our garage, and then running up and catching it before it hit the ground.  If you were the kicker and you caught the ball, you got a point.  If the other person caught the ball, then that person would get to kick.  If you missed the garage altogether (including kicking it OVER the garage), you lost “service” and the other player got to kick. Being the kicker, you had a better chance of placing the ball in an advantageous place.  We played to 21 (had to win by 2), and we were fairly matched, as I recall, although since I was always the player on the left, I had a slight advantage given the configuration of the garage roof.

Doug got involved in the drama club at Concord High School and I am pretty sure that he was then one who recommended me to play drums in the orchestra pit for L’il Abner, and then Godspell.  I think that was my introduction to theater.  I stayed with it more than he did.

I think Doug really hit his stride in college at Middlebury.  There he discovered college radio, and I think that was the perfect fit for him.  He could explore music, he could share music, he could talk about it.  I think he enjoyed being behind that microphone more than anything else.

Most people know about Doug’s extensive music knowledge, but he was also film buff.  After college, he lived at various places in the Somerville/Cambridge area — a great place to be if you are someone (like Doug) with an interest in folk music and film.  I remember him getting into film noir and I’m sure he was a regular at places like the Brattleboro Theater.

After his passing, many people would talk or write about things that Doug introduced them to.  For me, it was Suzanne Vega.  I was still in college at Tufts, and Doug was in Cambridge and he said I should go with him to see this girl.  I really didn’t want to go, thinking I was going to see some hippy-dippy thing that just wasn’t for me.  But it was Suzanne Vega, long before her “Luka” hit (although it was in her repertoire) — just this small frail girl (yeah, girl) playing her acoustic guitar singing in a coffee club to me, my brother and about 12 other people.  And I really liked it.  Doug was always correct about what people would like and not like, it seems.

And like many of his friends, I got a sense of — what’s the word — victory — when I turned Doug on to something that hadn’t previously come across his vast entertainment knowledge.  I remember one Christmas — my mother, Doug, and I were driving to my sister’s in Maine, and I played for him a mash-up.  It was called “Paperback Believer“, which was the Beatles singing “Paperback Writer” on top of the Monkees’ “I’m A Believer”.  I expected his reaction to be a scoffing “Oh, that’s sacrilege”, but instead, he said — very dryly and quietly and looking out the window: “Brilliant”.

“Are you being sarcastic?”  I asked.

:”No,” he replied.  “That’s brilliant.”

Score!  And I know other people who really felt victorious when you get that approval from Doug on matters within his bailiwick.  I also take credit for exposing him to The Simpsons, which he thought was just a cartoon about a kid running around yelling “Cowabunga” before he realized that it had clever writers and guest stars like Stephen Jay Gould.

I was telling someone the other day that Doug and I were wired the same.  It is not surprising really.  We grew up in the same house, had similar experiences and friends, and were exposed to the same world.  But our humor was the same.  Someone would say something and I would have a quip (a jest, a bon mot), but it would be an obscure reference to something that only Doug and I would know.  And I would look over at Doug and see him smiling at the same joke…. that neither of us had said out loud. Or he would shake his head to me as if to say, “No, Ken, don’t say what you’re about to say, because nobody will understand the humorous reference, and then we’ll have to spend the next five minutes explaining it.”  That was the kind of relationship I had with him.  That was so cool to have that unspoken connection.

Doug never complained.  I know he had many reasons to.  The recent economic downturn hit him pretty hard, and he was let go around the age of 50 — a terrible position to be in.  As a computer tech guy, he was competing with people much younger than him, and I’m sure it was frustrating trying to find work.  But he took it in stride.

It was the same with his illness. When he got sick with the cancer, he went through a HIPEC procedure.  That’s basically where they cut you open and fill you up with highly concentrated, heated chemotherapy treatment that is delivered directly to the abdomen (unlike the more common chemotherapy delivery, which circulates throughout the body).  I hear horror stories about chemotherapy, but Doug never seemed to complain.  I remember him commenting on Facebook that chemotherapy “isn’t that bad”, and he was talking the aggressive treatment he had received.  He had very good doctors — Boston being a good hospital town — and it all seemed to be going well (meaning, tumorless).

When it came back, it came back quickly, and took him relatively quickly, or so it seemed.  He attended our nephew’s wedding a couple months before he died (Doug, I mean — our nephew is fine — sorry for dangling that participle).  He was in great pain, but again, he soldiered through, walking when he could and taking rests.  Even when he was in hospice, he was upbeat and positive (when he was alert) — so much so, in fact, that I wonder if he knew his days were numbered.

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t see something or hear something and think, with happiness more than sadness, “Doug would have liked that”.

And rather than mourn his loss, I actually feel sorry for people who never got to know him at all.  Isn’t that odd?  Maybe not.

Anyway, I’ll probably come back to this page and amend it from time to time.  Maybe I will even spellcheck this post one of these days. But for now, it is time to hit “publish”.

*  This is probably not true.

** Or whatever it was called.

Tributes to Doug

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