Posts in Category: Personal

Terry Toppa, 1939-2021: a remembrance of my father

My father passed away on May 10 last year, after a short and unexpected battle with cancer (aside from some back pain, he was doing fine just a few weeks earlier). I wrote his obituary the next day. There was a short graveside committal service, where I also had the opportunity to say a few words about him. I want to share those words here, and his obituary. Two days ago, March 10, he would have been 83.

My remembrance of him

I want to thank all of you for coming today. It’s a testament to who my father was, and his place in our community, to see so many of you here today. A few days ago, the Newport Daily News columnist Jim Gillis offered a remembrance of my father. He wrote that whenever he saw Terry Toppa, they discussed two topics. One was small businesses in Newport, and the other was the Red Sox. At home I have a collection of about two dozen ticket stubs from all the Red Sox games I went to with my Dad in the late 70s and early 80s. I’ve kept them all these years because they represent some of the happy childhood memories he gave me, and the bond we shared. My father loved all his children and grandchildren, and found a way to share a bond with each of us.

Terry was also an accomplished athlete, and many of you here today know him from the tennis courts, or in earlier years, the basketball courts. As I grew up, my interests took me away from sports, and it was only when I was older that I realized he had never expressed even the slightest hint of disappointment, even though I’m sure he would have loved for me to follow in his footsteps. He loved me for who I am, just as he loved each of his children and step-children for who we are.

In many ways my father was my role model, and I like to think that many of my best qualities as a man and as a father I learned from him. Something my siblings and I all have in common is his work ethic. One of my early memories of him is watching him down on the floor with a hammer stapler, laying a carpet in a hot attic, sweat pouring off him, to start making it into a room for me and my sisters. Growing up in Newport, I was proud of all the different signs in town with the name Toppa on them. My father was the reason for several of them, from the different businesses he started over the years, and all of them were successful. Those accomplishments speak to more than just a work ethic – they also speak to his drive, imagination, and boldness.

Terry was an optimist, never expressed bitterness, and always looked for the best in people. He was known as a man of few words, but he always knew the right thing to say, and wisdom to share, when it mattered most. During his last couple weeks in the hospital, when we still weren’t sure if there might be a treatment for him, he told me this – “I’ve said I love you to all of you more in the past week than I have in my whole life, and I’m not going to stop saying it when this is over.” So the wisdom I’d like to share from him today is to not wait to express your love for each other.

Thank you all again for coming. It means a lot to me and all of Terry’s family that you are here with us today.

His obituary

Terrence Steven Toppa, 82, of Portsmouth, loving husband, father of four children and three step-children, passed away on Monday, May 10, 2021. Terry was born on March 10, 1939 in Newport, RI to Steven and Katherine (Shea) Toppa.

A lifelong Newporter, Terry was a loving husband and father, an accomplished athlete, and a successful entrepreneur. He raised three children, E’loise Tamer, Rebecca Toppa, and Michael Toppa (Maria) with his former wife Susan Killebrew. He married Patricia (McCarthy) Toppa on May 25, 1980, and together they raised their daughter Nicole Nicodemus (Keith). Terry also helped raise three step-children, Stephanie Pires, Melissa Henry (Rob), and Lewis Abramson (Anita).

In high school he was captain of the basketball, baseball, and football teams at De La Salle academy. He played on the basketball teams for the University of Rhode Island and then Providence College, where he graduated in 1963. He was ambidextrous and was well known for making certain basketball shots with either hand. Later in life he became an avid tennis player and made many friends on the courts at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He also won their meatball contest two years in a row with his famous meatballs.

In the 1960s Terry taught math at Thompson Junior High for three years and was an assistant football and basketball coach at Roger’s High School. He opened and operated several successful businesses in the Newport area. He opened Toppa’s Food Service (originally named The Toppa Company) in 1966 with his brother Paul. The Toppa’s delivery trucks are a common sight today in Newport. In 1990 he opened Toppa’s Maytag Laundry, and in 1985 he obtained his broker’s license and started Toppa Realty. He continued to work as a real estate broker for Re/Max of Newport for the rest of his career.

Terry was preceded in death by his parents and his brother Paul Toppa. He is survived by his wife Pat, his children and step-children, his sister Pat Olechnowicz, eleven grandchildren, a great grandchild, and numerous cousins, nieces, and nephews.

Ad for Sugar in 1966 Issue of Time

1966 ad for sugar in Time magazine

1966 ad for sugar in Time magazine

In 1995 I photocopied this ad from a 1966 issue of Time magazine. I was in grad school doing some research on the Vietnam war, and couldn’t help but notice it. It’s almost as over the top as the old Saturday Night Live fake ad for speed. I thought I lost the photocopy years ago, but found it in a box in my basement the other day.

If you can’t make out the “Note to Mothers” at the bottom, it says:

Note to Mothers: Exhaustion may be dangerous – especially to children who haven’t learned to avoid it by pacing themselves. Exhaustion opens the door a little wider to the bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait. Sugar puts back energy fast – offsets exhaustion. Synthetic sweeteners put back nothing. Energy is the first requirement of life. Play safe with your young ones – make sure they get sugar every day.

Of course, it’s the exact opposite of the truth:

Studies have shown that downing 75 to 100 grams of a sugar solution (about 20 teaspoons of sugar, or the amount that is contained in two average 12-ounce sodas) can suppress the body’s immune responses. Simple sugars, including glucose, table sugar, fructose, and honey caused a fifty- percent drop in the ability of white blood cells to engulf bacteria…[and] can reduce the ability of white blood cells to kill germs by 40 percent. The immune-suppressing effect of sugar starts less than thirty minutes after ingestion and may last for five hours…[and]…Sugar sours behavior, attention, and learning…

This got me wondering if these unhealthy effects of sugar were known at the time, so I did some looking around online. It seems like they weren’t, but of course, there was no scientific basis for all the claims in the ad, either. In 1972, Prof. John Yudkin published “Pure, White, and Deadly,” about the dangers of sugar, which promptly led to unjustified attacks on him and his work that ultimately led to the end of his career. At the time, the food industry was promoting a low-fat, high-sugar diet, so his research stood in the way of that. He wrote:

“Can you wonder that one sometimes becomes quite despondent about whether it is worthwhile trying to do scientific research in matters of health?” he wrote. “The results may be of great importance in helping people to avoid disease, but you then find they are being misled by propaganda designed to support commercial interests in a way you thought only existed in bad B films.”

I can think of some other areas where this is still the case today…

Watch Fish Story (フィッシュストーリー), Right Now

Fish Story movie poster

Fish Story movie poster

If you might like a movie that is equal parts…

  • Memento: but instead of the story unfolding in reverse, it unfolds in a completely jumbled sequence, going from 2012, to 1982, to 2009, to 1975, and then back to 2012. If you enjoy a movie that calls for your active mental participation, and you appreciate the movie maker’s attention to detail in making all the seemingly disparate threads of a story mesh together, then Fish Story is for you.
  • Anvil! The Story of Anvil: except instead of a story about a briefly famous band that falls into obscurity, the band in this story, Gekirin, goes from obscurity to oblivion. They write a punk song in 1975 that is ahead of its time, that almost no one appreciates, but ultimately is the key to saving the world (yes, punk rock can save the world, and fortunately, they actually wrote a great track for the movie).
  • Armageddon: in 2012, the destruction of life on earth by asteroid is imminent. Last ditch attempts to save humanity, involving space ships and nuclear warheads, are involved. If you’re wondering what a forgotten punk rock song from the 70s has to do with saving the earth from an asteroid 37 years later, well you’ll just have to watch the movie!
  • The Karate Kid and Power Rangers: a young man who isn’t sure why his father forced him to endlessly practice martial arts as a child finally finds his purpose.
  • High Fidelity: the cool record store owner in this movie has the same encyclopedic knowledge of music as John Cusack’s character, but his sadness does not come from girl troubles.
  • If You Give a Pig a Pancake (which is a children’s book, not a movie): after watching Fish Story, you might start thinking about causality, conditionality, and contingencies, but all I could think of was this book. Each step in the story makes sense by itself, but they all add up to a crazy spectrum of events.
  • …then you will enjoy Fish Story. There’s also a doomsday cult, a bitter old man, a brilliant mathematician, a hostage situation, and a love story, but I ran out of movie analogies. I encourage you to not read any plot summaries before watching it – a lot of the fun is watching the story unfold, as it definitely does not follow a predictable plot line. But I will share with you a bit of the review from Lost Turntable, which explains what makes it a good movie:

    Although the idea of Fish Story is more than a little silly, its conceit is not. At its heart, Fish Story is about how music can connect with people and change their lives in unexpected and amazing ways. It shows how music can give us courage and hope, and challenge us to make ourselves and those around us better. It shows how a song, a stupid little song that almost no one in the world knows about, can drastically affect and change for the better the lives of people who have never even heard it. And when you think of it like that, it’s not hard to imagine that a song could, somehow, actually save the world someday.

    Unlike modern American movie trailers that summarize the whole movie for you, the Japanese trailer for it gives you a sense of the movie without giving away the story (with subtitles).

    View on YouTube

    Unfortunately, it’s currently not available on Netflix streaming, but it used to be, and may come back in the future (here’s the Fish Story streaming page on Netflix if you want to check). Netflix does have it on DVD. It may be on other streaming services – there are several movies with this name, so definitely make sure you’re looking for the Japanese one.

    Originally published March 1, 2012

Big Country’s Stuart Adamson: Underrated

Big Country's Stuart Adamson

Big Country’s Stuart Adamson

Stuart Adamson was the singer, lead guitarist, and primary song writer for Big Country, my favorite band. I’ve always been dazzled by his guitar work, but not being a musician myself, I was never really able to find the right words to describe what I was hearing. When I meet folks who play guitar, I always have to recommend they give a listen to Big Country, as most are not familiar with Adamson’s work, but I’ve never been able to explain exactly why he’s so good. The other day I came across Tom Kercheval’s blog – he’s an independent musician – and not only is he a Big Country fan, he listed Adamson as his primary influence, and unlike me, he’s able to explain Adamson’s talent:

…the thing that always struck me about Stuart’s playing was not so much his lead playing (although it was great) but his rhythm guitar playing, particularly the odd chord structures he came up with. To this day, he’s one of the few guitar players that gives me fits when trying to figure out what he’s playing. His use of droning, open strings when playing chords was so appealling to me, and the Scottish/Celtic sound of the playing as well. He is so underrated. Beyond belief underrated. I still think the album Steeltown is a guitar masterpiece. Listen to that one with headphones and just hear the guitar symphony that is going on on most of those songs – tons of parts interweaving with each other, creating a huge, totally unique sound. Just brilliant. Like no one else.

In regard to Steeltown, I would add that it is also a masterpiece lyrically. Unfortunately, despite a 4-star review from Rolling Stone when it came out, it went nowhere in the pop charts. I think the album was musically too intricate, and lyrically too dense, to stand a chance on pop radio. But those are the qualities that have given it staying power – more than 20 years after it’s release, the opening track Flame of the West can still send chills down my spine.

This bio piece provides a good explanation for what inspired his songwriting, and what gives it the rare quality of being deeply personal yet political at the same time:

My mum and dad also had some great friends who played folk and country music (my mum does a mean Patsy Cline) and they would come to our house after the bars were closed and people would sing through the night. This made me aware of the power of the song and how music was interwoven with the lives of the working class Scots I grew up amongst. I would watch these big rough, hard men declare their love of family and the land — emotions they would be embarrassed to admit to in conversation — in songs old and new. I realised a lot of my schooling was solely aimed at my learning to accept my place in the British class system and railed against it. I believe the measure of a man is in his actions and not his social background (maybe this is why I like the US…another disenfranchised Celt)… A lot of the darkness of the Steeltown album comes from remembering my first experiences of the prejudice of class and nationality and the obvious truths that little had changed in my adulthood. The desire to write initially grew out of just wanting to be a “real” band and then I found I was driven to communicate some of the joy and frustration of the human experience…

Those are the people I grew up amongst and I could see the beauty in such simplicity as well as the anger and beaten acceptance. I think that frustration and learned apathy is the daily bread of the great majority of people in the world and as such represents the greater part of life experience, certainly in the western world and is to me a fertile source of inspiration.

Here’s the opening track from Steeltown, Flame of the West:

Originally published April 12, 2006

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