Tuesday, September 28, 2010

My Inner Steve McQueen

Shortly after moving to Arizona, my motorcycle broke. Two of the four valves stuck open. I have no idea why and neither did the motorcycle mechanic who told me it would cost $2,000 to fix. I’m 62 years old and the thought crossed my mind, maybe it’s time to give it up. The service department is part of a motorcycle dealership and to get to it you have to walk through the showroom past all of the shiny new motorcycles. I’ve owned 5 motorcycles over the years and as I dejectedly left the service manager’s office and before I made it to the exit door of the showroom to the parking lot where Katie patiently waited in the car to drive me home, I saw number 6, a silver metal flake, 1100cc Honda Shadow Spirit. #1
Like so many guys of my generation, I blame Steve McQueen for initially igniting my motorcycle passion, specifically in his performance in the movie, The Great Escape and more specifically, one particular scene. I was 15 years old, sitting in a dark theater with a friend, totally transported to the WWII Nazi prison camp where the story takes place. Steve plays Captain Virgil Hilts, a captured Air Force pilot who had been shot down. The other prisoners, from various allied countries, have been digging an elaborate tunnel, but Captain Hilts wants no part of it. He escapes several times on his own by cutting the fence wire and slipping under it, but is always caught and put in the cooler, where he spends his time bouncing a baseball against the wall. The tunnelers see an opportunity in Captain Hilts and ask him to escape again, only this time, map out the area, allow himself to be caught and then bring back the important information that the tunnelers need for the escape. Captain Hilts reluctantly agrees. Steve’s character exemplified what’s good about the American spirit. He was highly independent, but when asked to sacrifice himself for the good of the others, he did so.
The night of the tunnel escape, only a small percentage of the prisoners make it out before being discovered by the guards. Captain Hilts made it and true to his character, continues on alone. Stringing a wire across a road, he successfully knocks a German soldier off his motorcycle. After killing the soldier, Captain Hilts puts on the German uniform and continues his flight on the motorcycle. When passing through a village, German soldiers stop him to ask him questions. Captain Hilts doesn’t speak German, so instead, makes a run for it on the road leading out of the town. The Germans chase after him.
The movie’s director cuts back and forth between various escapees, all attempting to get out of the country. Two of the escapees steal an airplane, several take a train, one rides on a bicycle. When the movie gets back to the motorcycle chase scene, we see the rolling green hills of the countryside. Then over the crest of one of the hills, Captain Hilts roars onto the screen. He has gotten rid of the German uniform and is now wearing a cut off sweat shirt and khakis. He stops the bike, looks in both directions trying to decide which way to go, then guns the motorcycle spinning it around to check out the other side. He does this several times until choosing a direction then takes off across the hills with the German Army in hot pursuit.
I was transfixed watching Steve handle the big German motorcycle like it was an extension of his body. Sometimes he raised himself up on the foot-pegs to negotiate a dip or bump. Spinning the bike around, he placed his foot on the ground just at the right time and in the right place to maintain control. His confidence was obvious. That was it for me. I didn’t just want to be like Steve McQueen, I wanted to be Steve McQueen. Since that wasn’t an option, I settled for some day getting a motorcycle and learning how to ride like that.
My first experience actually riding on a motorcycle was on the back of my friend Pettie’s Honda 90. We rode to an airport where his Dad ran an airline business. It was at least 50 miles outside of Ferguson where we lived. I remember being quite uncomfortable putting down the highway at a slower pace than the rest of the traffic. I’m sure the little Honda 90 was doing its best with its double load. It wasn’t quite a Steve McQueen moment, but the feeling of being on two wheels with my friend, tearing down the highway on a warm summer’s day was exhilarating.
Our friend Funnyboy owned 3 different motorcycles around this time. The smallest was a Honda 250cc Scrambler, his off road bike, a 500cc Triumph single cylinder, we called Thumper and his biggest bike and the most beautiful motorcycle I’d ever seen, a 650cc BSA Lightning, we called Beeza. It had a red and chrome tank with the signature gold sunburst on the sides and the letters BSA through the middle. One evening Funnyboy let me ride it. I felt he was making a big BSA Lightening mistake, but wanted to ride it so badly, I didn’t let on. He coached me on how to shift gears and I took it out onto the highway. I clumsily went through each gear, and when I reached the highest one, I opened up the throttle and totally scared the shit out of myself. I had the frightening realization that the only reason I didn’t fly off the backend was because I had a death hold on both hand grips. If I had opened my fingers even slightly, the bike would have shot out from under me and I’d have been left behind, bouncing down the highway.
I didn’t buy a bike of my own until I got out of the Army. It was a Honda 500 twin. I’ve been slowly upgrading to larger bikes ever since. And now I own the shiny silver Honda Shadow and live in a part of the country where I can ride most of the year on well maintained two lane roads that lead across expanses of land and into the mountains and all sorts of other interesting places. I’m happy to report my ageless, inner Steve McQueen is alive and well. And I’m following the advice of an old crusty Harley guy I once knew, “Remember, keep the shiny side up.”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The World Needs Us And Our Hippie Values

I recently read an article about the baby boom generation. The author was quick to point out the self indulgent nature of our generation and how we squandered what our parents’ generation worked so hard to leave us. Baby boomer bashing is all the rage these days and there’s nothing but praise for the “Greatest Generation”. It seems to me that each generation can be praised or condemned depending on what factors are accentuated. World War II gave our parents’ generation a cohesiveness which makes it easy to define them in a positive light. When the bad guys tried to take over the world, they stepped up to the plate, both on the home front and overseas, overcoming tremendous challenges and in the end saving the world. And there are many other positive qualities of this generation. They insured that greater numbers of us could get an education. We were well supplied with food, shelter and opportunities for work. In general, it could be said that our parents’ generation were good, decent, hard working people who sacrificed for the betterment of their families and the country.
But when you look at what the “Greatest Generation” left us, we had our challenges too. It was their generation who got us involved in Vietnam and then forced us to deal with it. For those of us who participated in that war, we came home with a seriously tarnished view of our country, our leaders and the people who supported them. We inherited a more dangerous world, the remnants of an arms race that caused us and the Russians to produce an arsenal of weapons that could totally annihilate all living beings on earth many times over. We inherited an America where capitalistic interests were confused with democracy and allowed to influence government decisions and policies at the expense of the natural environment. Capitalistic exploitation and military might became our primary forms of diplomacy around the world. The profit seeking super companies gobbled up small businesses and family farms. We inherited a dependency on the automobile because the highway system was given priority over other forms of transportation, like subways, trolleys and trains. This led to suburban sprawl which contributed to the death or near death of our cities and towns. We inherited a total dependency for energy on finite natural resources, with no plan of transitioning to renewable forms of energy. This insured our current dependency on foreign oil which continues to get us into all sorts of trouble.
In the 1960’s, our generation not only celebrated sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, (hey, we were young), but we also discovered that many of the priorities and values of the “Greatest Generation” were wrong. Subsequently the hippie movement was born. On college campuses across the country, young people began establishing a new set of values. The essence of these values were; all people on earth are brothers and sisters and we should work out our problems peacefully keeping this in mind. Every human deserves equal respect no matter their race, culture, sex, sexual orientation or age. Each individual has great potential and can make a difference by their personal choices and lifestyle. We should not continue to exploit our natural environment, but learn to live in harmony with it. We should strive to live more simply and not accumulate unneeded possessions. Animals have rights too and should be treated respectfully, even farm animals. Don’t blindly trust government and institutions, but look at what they are preaching and how they are acting, then decide for yourself whether to support them. All major religions have truth at the core and these truths are much greater than the differences on the surface. We should strive to live more simply, grow our food locally, and make more of the decisions about our lives at the local level. Peace and love are the guiding principles.
During my college days in the 70’s, I internalized the “hippie values” and was guided by them. They influenced how I thought and acted, how I voted, what I bought or didn’t buy, and the profession I chose. These values were sort of a “What would Jesus do?” guide for me. In fact maybe Jesus was the first true hippie. Using  hippie logic, I could also ask, what would Buddha do? What would Krishna do? Or what would Lao Tse do?
The Beatniks laid the groundwork for the Hippie movement. Their proponents were mainly writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg, and the philosophy was expressed in literary form. The pied pipers of our generation were musicians. They came out of the early 60’s folk music scene and were influenced by the songs of the labor and civil rights movements of the 50’s. Although he denies it, Bob Dylan was our first pied piper in his early years and then with the help of the Byrds showed our musician/poets how to translate the message into rock’n’roll. Unlike today, we were all listening to the same music back then and it was broadcasting the hippie values. The airwaves were full of positive message songs like, The Times They are a Changing, What’s Goin On, Imagine, All You Need is Love, Get Together, Peace Train, He Ain’t Heavy and the list could go on and on. Hollywood jumped on board as well and produced movies like The Graduate, Dr. Strangelove, Little Big Man and The China Syndrome
Across America in our towns and cities there are currently individuals who have kept the hippie values alive. They should be our guides into the future. They sell organically grown produce at farmers markets. They use recycled material in their homes and  renewable forms of energy. Many are partially or fully living off the grid. They buy locally and don’t shop at stores or buy products that exploit third world countries or do damage to the environment. And many of them are young people.
At the core of the sixties phenomenon was a significant paradigm shift in how we think about and live in the world. Those who never made this shift in thinking, cannot judge the movement accurately. Our generation inherited huge problems and much of the country is still in denial about them. But there are a significant number of us who embrace the hippie values. The sixties were a time of trial and error. Now in our older years, we should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, for the world needs us and our hippie values more than ever. Peace brothers and sisters.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Truth About Dancing

There was a segment on the news the other night about what dance moves men do that are attractive to women. Somebody actually did a study about this. They attached electrodes to various guys, had them dance and then computerized it. I think they had women watch the computer images and then rate the moves. My attention may have wandered during that part of the story. I’ve watched, and most guys look stupid when they dance, at least most white guys and the older they are the stupider they look. There are of course exceptions to this and one of them was a guy named Skeeter who was in the 8th grade when I was in the 7th.
In Junior High we had mandatory dances. We also had mandatory ballroom dance classes. I remember learning the box step, the fox trot and the jitterbug. At the actual dances most guys knew better than to do the box step. Even John Travolta would look dumb doing the box step. Variations on the fox trot and jitterbug were how we mostly danced. When practicing the jitterbug, we learned how to twirl our partner. Holding opposite hands, we stepped up and back and to the side and back, over and over until the teacher called out, “Ok gentlemen, twirl your partner”, and all the guys would lift their arms and under the girls would twirl.
It would be a good two years before I got my adolescent growth spurt. I was probably 4’ 9” weighing 70-80 pounds. Many of the girls’ bodies had filled out, especially the eighth graders and they seemed like giants, alluring yet intimidating. When I twirled these women/girls, they had to bend their knees and duck walk under my arm. At the real dance there would be no teacher telling us when to twirl the girl, and I was anxious about how and when to initiate it. Also, I was confused about how many twirls were appropriate for each dance. To reduce my anxiety, I decided I would do absolutely no twirling and of course no box step either.
At the dances, the boys wore coats and ties and the girls, pretty dresses. These occasions were torture for me. If I could have sat out every dance, I would have. I enjoyed listening to the music and watching the others dance. In fact that’s what I’ve done for the rest of my life, to the dismay of various girlfriends over the years. That was not an option at these dances, however. Slow dances were easy, especially when I had a partner my own size. We just hung on to each other and shuffled our feet around. It was embarrassing to slow dance with one of the women/girls though. I knew they were disappointed being stuck with the little guy and besides my eyes were right at chest level causing me some internal struggle. A few of them agreed to sit these dances out.
Watching the others dance, I noticed the girls moved their whole bodies, harmonized their movements with the music. The guys mechanically went through the dance steps, sometimes in time with the music and sometimes not. Most looked rather wooden, like dancing toy soldiers. A few did the box step and some were twirling their partners far too much.
Skeeter had dark hair and looked older, like a High Schooler. He already needed to shave. His girlfriend Cathy was blond, very sweet and one of the woman/girls. Skeeter wasn’t doing any of the steps we’d been taught in dance class. He moved his feet around in time with the music in a subtle but dramatic way, like he was kicking small rocks. He didn’t look smiley and goofy like the other guys, but had a sneer on his face like he knew the punch line of the joke. Every once in a while, he would look up at his partner and she would smile back at him in a way that made me want to figure out how to give a look like that. I never did.
There was a girl named Libby with whom I actually enjoyed dancing. She was slightly taller, but hadn’t filled out yet. Every time we danced, she seemed as happy to be with me as I was with her. She was a good talker and told me I was a pretty good dancer. I think she lied about that. We talked about how awkward we both felt at the dances and about some of our school classes. She appeared interested when I told her something about a particular song or singer. Once when it was girls’ choice, Libby walked right over and chose me. The song was Mister Blue by the Fleetwoods. This two and a half minute dance almost made up for the hours of torture.
It was during this time period that “The Twist” by Chubby Checker became popular. The ballroom dance steps and holding your partners hand was over. I noticed the guys didn’t look any better doing the twist than the other dances. At least there was no twirling to worry about. I was pleased to see that Skeeter didn’t succumb to the twist craze. He continued to stomp his feet around and give those looks to his partners.
I told Libby what I thought about Chubby Checker. His name said it all, a not very talented commercial version of the great Fats Domino. I went to a few dances in high school, but when they became optional, I opted out. I wouldn’t have minded a few more dances with Libby though. I wonder if Skeeter still dances. He probably doesn’t look as cool dancing in his sixties as he did back then.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An American National Treasure

I watched Pete Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration on PBS the other night. It was at Madison Square Garden and many celebrities were there to sing his songs. Pete looked good for 90. He was dressed in his working man’s clothes, a flannel shirt, jeans and a baseball cap. He doesn’t have much of a singing voice anymore, but that didn’t stop him from directing the large audience in several sing-alongs including Amazing Grace. Among the celebrities were Joan Baez, who looks and sounds great, Arlo looking the same with white hair, Emmylou Harris, a country songbird, and Bruce Springsteen, who spoke eloquently and from the heart about Pete. Roger McGuinn performed Turn, Turn, Turn on his Rickenbacker 12 string guitar with back up and it sounded just like the Byrds..
I briefly met Pete in 1969 at the Oleo Strut Coffee House in Killeen, Texas. The Oleo Strut was right outside Fort Hood where I was stationed. It was one of many coffee houses that sprung up outside Army forts, where GI’s who were sympathetic to the anti-war effort could come together. If you’re interested in reading more about this movement and the Oleo Strut go to www.underthehoodcafe.org/history.
I had over a year to serve in the Army after I returned from Vietnam. Most of the guys in my Intelligence Detachment were Vietnam Veterans as well and many of us had been in Nam during the TET offensive of 1968. The belief in the futility of the war and the lack of trust in our politicians and military leaders ran rampant among my fellow soldiers. We could congregate and talk openly at the Oleo Strut.
One of my fellow soldiers in the intelligence unit was a CID Special Agent. I think he was a Warrant Officer, but I’m not sure, he didn’t wear any rank. He must have been straight out of Special Agent training school at the time and I know he hadn’t been to Vietnam yet. The CID was the part of Intelligence that investigated Army personnel. We used to see him at the Oleo Strut, trying to look inconspicuous. He avoided making eye contact with us because if he did we would give him a little wave of recognition which in his mind would totally blow his cover. We were certain he was keeping files on us. We razed him a lot about it with our “what the fuck” veteran’s attitude. By the way, this attitude was born and cultivated in Vietnam. Whenever we broke the rules like sneaking into the local village or stealing another unit’s property we would say to each other, “What are they going to do send us to Nam?” We rationalized that if they put us in the brig they would be doing us a favor. For many of us that attitude carried over into civilian life.
The evening Pete was playing, I went down to the Oleo Strut with my buddies, Tony and Phil. Pete was dressed like he had just come off day shift at the factory. He had on a work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and workman’s pants and boots. His banjo hung around his neck. I don’t remember exactly what songs he played, but when he was through, Tony walked over to him and struck up a conversation. Phil and I joined them. True to his reputation, Pete was friendly and gracious. He was interested in our experiences as soldiers and what we thought about the war. He seemed to understand our dilemma of not feeling a part of the Army and the war effort and of not being accepted by the civilian population either. We were very grateful for his understanding and support and I hope one of us told him that at the time.
Tony asked him what he was up to and he told us about a ship he and some others were building, named the Clearwater. It was a Hudson Bay Sloop, following the blue prints of the old ships that used to run up and down the Hudson. He planned to sail it up and down the Hudson also, putting on concerts at the various river towns. His purpose was to raise awareness and money to clean up the river. He talked about it with such enthusiasm you could tell he was totally committed to this project. He was enlisting the help of fellow musicians and so far he said he had gotten Don McLean to sign on. This project is still going strong today, go to www.clearwater.org and read all about it.
On the PBS special the backdrop on the stage was decorated with an outline in lights of the Clearwater. The celebrities talked about Pete’s socially active life, singing his songs for all the injustices and downtrodden of the world. They also mentioned his many trips and benefit concerts up and down the Hudson Bay in the Clearwater. 
Japan has a designation for people called “Living National Treasure”. The goal is to recognize and preserve the art and the level of knowledge and skill of the individual because it is important to the culture. Pete Seeger is an “American National Treasure” for the art of folk singing and the spirit of nonviolent activism in our country. I cherish the memory of that day we met him in the Oleo Strut.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Discovering Our Strengths

Margaret was a 73 year old woman who was my counseling client for several years. Her diagnosis was chronic depression for which she had been on medication and in therapy for over 10 years. As a child she had been mildly depressed off and on, but her depression got dramatically worse as an adult after her husband died.
During the nearly two years I worked with her, she had recurring suicidal thoughts, but never made any serious attempts. We weren't  making much progress in therapy. Each week I questioned her about her medication and assumed our weekly visits were somehow helping her to “maintain”.
In the community mental health center the push was to help each client return to their highest level of functioning as quickly as possible. When brief therapy models came on the scene, the therapists were encouraged to take workshops to learn all about it. I was somewhat resistant to this type of therapy. I believed therapy was about helping the client see more clearly why they thought and behaved the way they did by uncovering primary experiences from their past and seeing how the dysfunctional themes manifest in their current life. This takes time.
The first brief therapy workshop I attended was presented by In Soo Kim Berg. She and her husband developed Solution Focused Brief Therapy in the 70’s. My resistance broke down quickly after listening to Ms. Berg. She was a dynamic speaker who passionately believed in what she presented. I knew I would never become a complete convert to the brief model, especially for long term deep seated problems. I was comfortably rooted in a more Existential-Humanistic approach. But I left the workshop with one major idea that changed the way I did therapy.
In brief therapy the counselor does not focus on the history of the problem. There is almost no probing into the past to find its origins. The focus instead is on the client’s history of finding their own solutions to life’s problems. The solutions come out of their own past successes, what they did right, instead of what they did wrong.
Margaret came in one day very distraught. She said she had received a letter from the Department of Social and Health Services saying that they had paid her too much over the past year and she now owed them $800. The letter went on to say that DSHS would take legal action if she didn’t pay them back within a short period of time. Margaret lived in subsidized housing and was on a fixed income. Her medications were expensive and she only got partial help paying for them. She had no money to spare. She was in an agitated state over this and at risk for plunging back into deep depression.
Influenced by the workshop, I decided not to focus on the problem, but to work on uncovering Margaret’s strengths. I remembered her telling me during an earlier session that when she was a young woman, after graduating from engineering school, she got a job working in the fledgling aerospace industry. She was one of few women in a male dominated field and was proud of this. She said she felt like “one of the guys” and that she “could hold my own with the best of ‘em.”
As she droned on about her miserable life, how everybody took advantage of her and how she was again a victim of the “system”, I interrupted. I asked her to tell me more about her time in the aerospace industry. She didn’t see how this was relevant, but she reluctantly agreed. I kept up the questioning in my best “Colombo” style until she started getting into it and began spontaneously recounting experiences from that period. As the session progressed, I witnessed her transformation. The powerless, depressed woman that initially came in to the session had straightened up and become more animated and alive. In her once cloudy eyes, I now saw fire and clarity. I never once mentioned the letter from DSHS and when the session ended, I knew she was infused with a forgotten part of her self, a part that was confident, assertive and capable of handling whatever came her way.
At the following week’s session, Margaret didn’t mention the letter. Finally I asked her about it. “Margaret, what happened concerning the money DSHS said you owed them?” “Oh that!” she replied in a rather nonchalant way. “When I got home after our last session, I called my state representative and gave him a piece of my mind. He was very nice and finally said ‘Margaret, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of everything’. A few days later I received another letter from DSHS saying I didn’t owe them anything”.
I never became a brief therapy convert, but it is my belief that we all have many parts that make up our personality. Some of these parts are dysfunctional and some are highly functional. When we are stuck in one of life’s dilemmas, we sometimes forget to draw on the more capable parts. Margaret had temporarily forgotten the part that “held her own with the best of ‘em” and over a number of years had come to identify with being a depressed, powerless victim.
That one session did not cure her depression, but it changed how we worked together. She was eventually able to get off medication altogether and rarely felt depressed. My therapy with other clients changed as well. We spent more time discovering and developing  strengths and less time focusing on problems.