Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Poets of a Generaton

There must be a huge number of us baby boomers that have guitars stashed somewhere in our homes. Some of these guitars get taken out more than others. How many of us dreamed of hitting the road with our guitars slung over our backs, telling the stories of our lives through song. Singer songwriters were very rare before the 1960s. You had Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Hank Williams, but for the majority of performers there were the singers and then there were the song writers. The singer songwriter tradition goes back a long way in Europe, but in America it didn’t take off until the '60s. The popular music of the '30s and '40s was big band music, which borrowed its rhythms and inflections from the earlier "race music". In the '50s the focus shifted, the singers became more prominent and the bands faded into an accompaniment role, thanks in large part to the first singing super star Frank Sinatra. Song writers cranked out songs for a multitude of popular singers like Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como, Doris Day and Nat King Cole. When the boomers came on the scene, we rejected this nice sweet music and found our collective soul in black rhythm and blues. That fused with country music and gave us the earliest true rock 'n' roll of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. When “the music died” in 1959, with the exception of Motown, it was replaced by a bunch of white singers like Fabian, Connie Francis, Frankie Avalon, numerous Bobbys (Rydell, Vinton, Vee), Jimmy Clanton, Leslie Gore and Johnny Tillotson. We had again returned to the sweet unimaginative music of the early '50s, except now it had a back beat. The Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson were among the few who stayed true to the earlier rockabilly tradition. Folk music was also popular in the '50s, especially on college campuses. There were a ton of folk groups: The Four Freshman, The Brothers Four, the Limelighters, The Hi-Lo’s, the Four Preps, The New Christy Minstrels, and the most popular of all, The Kingston Trio. These groups influenced the harmonies of later rock 'n' roll groups, especially the Beach Boys. Some of these folk groups sang songs written by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers and others out of the civil rights/pro-worker movements. The most prominent was Joan Baez the Queen of activist folk singers. She bridged the gap between the earlier folkies and the '60s folk movement. Then along came Bob Dylan in the early '60s and “the rest is history”. Most of the folk music was still in the tradition of early English folk songs. Dylan drew on the depression era songs, black blues singers and the poetry of the Beatniks. Few of us boomers listened to Dylan’s music directly in those early years, but we became familiar with his music through others like the Byrds, Judy Collins and Peter Paul and Mary. There were other folk singers, some predating and some contemporaries of Dylan like Phil Ochs, Eric Anderson, Tom Paxton, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin and Paul Simon, who were also part of this change. These singer songwriters filled a gap replacing traditional folk songs with honest, authentic music drawn from their own lives. They were not your squeaky clean folksingers of the Down by The Dairy O, Tom Dooley tradition. They wrote their own material and didn’t wear matching shirts. The Folk tradition took off in the mid-'60s, fusing with Rock‘n’Roll and country. The singer songwriters of our generation were our poets and our voice. Artists like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, James Taylor, Crosby Stills and Nash, Leonard Cohen, Jackson Browne, Carol King and many more expressed the culture and the times through their songs. So let’s dust off those guitars and keep the movement alive. Peace.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Summer Exodus

The snowbirds have all gone home and Green Valley resembles a ghost town. I’ve talked to some of the people who live here all year round and they all say, “What a relief!” One woman said, “It’s like a vacation right here at home”. I asked her what it is a vacation from and she replied, “A vacation from all the people I see and the things I do. There’s just a lot more running around.” Well, Katie and I don’t have many friends here yet and we’re not involved in many activities so we haven’t been doing much running around. Maybe that’s coming. I do know I don’t have to wait for a machine at the fitness center now and the lap lanes at the pool are always available. We both retired last year and we’ve been in Arizona for about 6 months. There is no comparison between our life now and before retirement. Working full time and trying to fit in all the chores and activities around it, now that was running around. Everything is relative.
The few people we have met in our short time here are mostly snowbirds. Some of them we’re going to miss and some not so much. We’re especially not going to miss the couple who sits out on their patio and talks loudly to each other. They must have lived in a big mansion on ten acres of land. Well now they are living in little bitty Villas that are close to each other and I want to tell them to use their “inside voices” while they’re down here, but haven’t had the nerve yet. Much to my dismay the lady with the yappy dog didn’t leave. Her family back where ever she’s from probably didn’t like the yappy little dog either.
I think there might be a little jealousy on our part as well for some of the snowbirds. They are going north to cooler places that are closer to their families. Of the couples we know who’ve gone back home, one couple went to Seattle, one to Canon Beach, Oregon, one to the northern California coast and one to Alaska. All are extremely beautiful areas in the summer. I’m not as envious of the ones going to the mid-west and the east. Images of oppressive humidity, bugs and too many people pop into my brain. I guess I’ve become a “west coast person”.
I know that my feelings about the east are not completely accurate. How did I turn into such a western snob? Growing up in Missouri, I thought it was a wonderful place to be. I remember taking off with my dog or on my bike at all times of the year. I loved being in the outdoors and didn’t at all feel deprived. I had my first glimpses of the west on our summer family vacations. I think that’s when the west began to work its way deep into my soul--the snowcapped mountains, the cool night air and the smell of evergreen trees. I remember after returning home trying to imagine those same mountains in the background of my home town of Ferguson. Flat country held no romance for me. The mountains were filled with the possibility of exploration. When I eventually moved to the west, it changed me forever. I developed a lifestyle that included biking, hiking and camping. Love of the outdoors and the active life seems more common for adults in the west.
A few years ago Katie brought home to dinner a man from her work. He was a physical therapist who lived in Missouri, but worked all over the country. He drove around in an RV and filled in at hospitals and clinics where ever they were in need of a therapist. He was a nice man who loved his job and all the traveling around. He commented on a few things he’d noticed about west coast people versus people from the Midwest that he thought was strange. First of all he said he had never seen so many adults riding bikes, “Where I’m from in Missouri only the kids ride bikes.” He also asked, “Why does every one carry a back pack?” He said he was tempted to stop people and ask them what they carried around in those packs. “If I have my wallet and my keys, I’m good to go.” He noticed too, especially in Washington and Oregon, all the drive through coffee places on almost every corner. “Don’t you people have time to have a cup of coffee before leaving the house?” He thought it strange that people drove or walked around carrying coffee cups. “At home having a cup of coffee is a time to sit and relax or maybe visit with a friend.” This was a few years ago and this coffee phenomenon is spreading thanks to Starbucks, but I remember when we were visiting my relatives in Missouri frantically driving around in vain in search of a good latte.
I’ve lived in Oregon and Washington for most of my life and I’ve been known to grab my back pack, hop on my bike and ride to the nearest latte stand. I’m happy to report we have several good coffee shops in our area here in Green Valley. They are pretty empty though, now that the snowbirds are gone.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Coffee with Roger

Roger and I went out to one of our local coffee shops the other day just to talk. Roger is my neighbor. We mainly talk about writing. Roger has written and published two books and is working on his third. I have published nothing. So when Roger talks about writing, I listen. As we sat talking and drinking our drinks, I ran some story ideas past him. He told me they were good ideas and that he thought I could write some good works, and he was sincere. Well, I’ve had good ideas before. In fact I’m loaded with good ideas, but I come up short on the great works department. Writing a great work takes sticking with one of those good ideas and following it through. When I wrote my unpublished novel, I was encouraged along by my writing teacher Mary. If I hadn’t been in her class I don’t think it ever would have been completed.
I’ve always had a lot of trouble deciding what I want to do. I can still hear my mom asking me when I was a kid, “What do you want?” The truth be told, my answer then and now, much of the time is, I have no idea. But the other day after meeting with Roger I thought, there are so many exciting and wonderful things to do in life and so little time. I foolishly thought this feeling of purpose and exhilaration would sustain me and propel me into many interesting and rewarding projects, but when I woke up this morning, sat down at my computer ready to go…nothing. I was staring at a blank page in front of me with the same blankness in my mind. When I tried to conjure up some of those wonderful ideas that I shared with Roger, instantly up popped multiple reasons why I couldn’t do it, shouldn’t do it or I’m just not that interested in doing it.
Once when I was a college student I listened to a recorded conversation between Bertrand Russell and Aldous Huxley. They were both getting old at the time and I remember they were talking about death. One of them said one of the things they disliked most about dying was that there were still so many interesting things in life to investigate. I thought then as now, if I could only have that kind of passion about life.
Well, I should have started writing right away when I got home from the coffee shop, but it had been a long morning of conversing and I decided instead I needed a nap. I’d like to be able to get back to that inspired place whenever I want to. I can’t depend on having coffee with Roger and besides he and his wife Sue are snowbirds and have already returned to their home in California for the summer. When I honestly think about why I felt so enthusiastic and motivated the other day, it may have had more to do with feeling appreciated and worthy talking with an accomplished writer. It reminds me of Sally Field accepting her academy award, “You like me, you really like me.”
As I looked for a clue as to how to prime my own creative pump, I remembered Roger talking a little about dealing with students when he was teaching. He said it always bothered him when students told him that there was nothing they were interested in. He said he would tell them, “Just get started on something and the more knowledge you get about it, the more interesting it will become.” I thought that was excellent advice and plan to use it myself. Now if I could only figure out what to get started on.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The Under-Appreciated Tai Chi "Master"

An often difficult part of retirement and aging is adjusting to the loss of former roles and identities. Our work and community involvement gives us meaning and a sense of self worth. I thought I would easily slip into retired life and that I was beyond needing the status, respect and appreciation I sometimes felt through the professional and non-professional roles I played during those years. But the days can be long and there is that nagging feeling that I’m wasting my time and not getting any younger. I am slowly piecing a life together as a retired person. My decision that writing would be my main activity has been working out well so far. Everything and anything about my retired life here in Arizona is grist for the writer’s mill.
A writer’s life can be a lonely one however. I had been used to working with people in either a counselor or a teacher capacity over the years. Recently I decided I would like to again start teaching Tai Chi. I learned Tai Chi in the 70’s and have regularly practiced and taught since that time. In the 80’s I started learning Kung Fu and over the years have learned and practiced 30-40 different Tai Chi and Kung Fu forms. I’ve participated in tournaments, practiced sparring, given many demonstrations and for years with my friend, Chris, instructed and ran a Kung Fu/Tai Chi studio in Bellingham, Washington. You get the picture. I love Tai Chi and I love teaching it. I also love the Taoist philosophy that it springs from. I believe in and embrace “the way of non-resistance”. All that having been said, a few weeks ago I went to the Parks and Recreation Center in the town just north of us. I heard they didn’t have anyone teaching Tai Chi in the area and thought it would be a good place to start. I put in an application and waited. The other day I got a call and was asked to come in for an interview.
The interview happened yesterday. The young woman interviewing me was the director of programing for the center. I say young woman, she was probably in her 20’s but looked like she was about 13. The first thing she asked me was “Are you a certified Tai Chi instructor?” I had to answer that one with a “No”. She told me “We really want all our teachers here to be certified.” She didn’t know exactly where one gets certified to teach Tai Chi, but told me there was another person wanting to teach Tai Chi at the center also and this person had certification. I thought of Mr. Miyagi in the movie "The Karate Kid". Daniel, the teen aged main character desperately needs help defending himself against some school bullies. He is checking out Mr. Miyagi as a possible Karate teacher and asks him what belt he has. Mr. Miyagi looks down at his pants and says “J.C. Penney”.
Much to my dismay I didn’t come up with a poignant Martial Art Master-like comeback. I instead began trying to convince “Gidget”, how I was well beyond these petty certifications and told her of my many years of teaching and that by the way one of my former students is in the Martial Arts Hall of Fame. Who knows what else came spewing out of my mouth. It seems like it went on for quite a while. She patiently waited until my apparent soliloquy was over and then asked. “Is there some way you could get certified, maybe over the internet?” (I subsequently looked on the internet for Tai Chi certification and found one site that guaranteed teacher certification after only 4 weeks of training. And you didn’t need any previous experience in Tai Chi!) I went home from the interview discouraged and depressed. To misquote Marlon Brando in On The Waterfront, “I used to be somebody.”
This whole affair reminds of another personal incident. In 1995 my family and I traveled back to Missouri to visit relatives. We all went out to the private school I attended from 6th grade through 11th grade. Having grown up in the St. Louis area I wanted to go to all my old haunts. Puberty came late for me so for the first few years of high school I was exceptionally small for my age. On the wrestling team I was in the 95lb and under class. When we entered the school I recognized a coach that I’d known from all those years ago. “Coach Simon” I called as I spotted him walking down the hall. He stopped and came over to where we were standing. Introducing myself I said, “I’m Mike Yeager. I used to go to school here in the late 50’s and early 60’s.” I could see he was trying hard to remember who I was and after a few moments recognition spread across his face. “Oh yeah,” he said. “You were that little squirt.” Without hesitating I blurted out, “I’m a counselor now and I have two Master’s degrees.” He looked at me unimpressed and asked if we’d like a tour of the building. Ever since that time Katie and I joke about my “two Master’s degrees syndrome”. In fact when I returned home feeling dejected from my interview and told Katie how discouraged I was, her reply was simply “Maybe you should have told her you have two Master’s”.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My Wake Up Call

I’ve talked with many war veterans and most can tell you the exact moment when they realized war was not a game, the moment when they were blasted out of all their preconceived notions and fantasies about themselves as a soldier in a war, when their illusions of invulnerability were finally and ultimately shattered. They were no longer the hero of the story, but just another schmuck doing their best not to get themselves or their buddies killed. The following incident was that moment for me, my wake up call.
For the first several months in Vietnam I worked as an Intelligence Analyst. I kept files on enemy group size, location, weapons etc. and updated the maps to reflect the most current intelligence information. I voluntarily transferred to the Interrogation section because I didn’t want to continue being mainly a desk jockey and wasn’t getting along with my superior officer. I admired my friends who were Interrogators. I was trained as both an Intelligence Analyst and a POW Interrogator. Interrogators mostly worked at the base camp interrogating detainees, but routinely went out into the field to help the Infantry locate weapons or food caches or to screen villages. Except for Basic Training, I had no experience or training to prepare me for Infantry field operations.
The first mission I was sent out on was with a Marine platoon. They suspected VC activity in and around a small village and requested someone from Army Intelligence to question the local inhabitants. Chang, a Vietnamese Interpreter, and I were sent in one morning to question the villagers about the previous evening’s firefight. Chang was from Saigon and the other interpreters called him “Cowboy’. This was a term generally used for young Saigon punks who caused trouble. It was used affectionately when applied to Chang. He was a cocky little guy with a good sense of humor. I would work side by side with him for most of my year in Vietnam. He was out of the war for several months after being shot by “friendly fire” on New Year's eve 1967, but he recovered and we were back in business.
I was excited and nervous about my first field assignment. The Huey that transported us, landed in an open dry rice paddy. As it was touching down, the pilot yelled to Chang and me, his only “cargo”, to jump out quickly because the chopper was drawing fire and needed to get out of the area ASAP.
The skids didn’t even touch the ground when we jumped out. We found ourselves standing in front of a line of soldiers lying behind a shallow berm with rifles pointed toward the village. The officer-in-charge stood at the end of this line and was motioning for Chang and me to lie down, which we did. The sound of the helicopter was now far in the distance and silence surrounded us. We heard no gunfire. We lay listening for what seemed a long time. Then on the Captain’s command, we all rose and began walking toward the village.
In the village Chang and I began questioning the villagers, who consisted of old men, old women and children. The Marines had lined a bunch of them up for us. Not one of them knew anything about VC activity on the night before. It was my job to decide which ones to take back to base camp for further questioning. I asked Chang to make his best guess and he and I picked out a few people who seemed most suspect and most likely to spill the beans under persuasive conditions.
We then headed out and down the road to another small hamlet. Walking along the road in single file, I thought about the TV show Combat that my Dad and I liked to watch together. In the show they did a lot of walking along dirt roads. Inevitably they would begin to receive fire from the woods and the soldiers would all have to take cover. That’s exactly what happened to us. We heard automatic rifle fire coming from the thick brush and we all jumped to the side of the road and lay there quietly listening. I still had not broken out of my romantic view of combat. My heart was beating fast and as I lay there with my M-16 ready to return fire, I thought, This is really cool.
As a kid I used to imagine I was the star of a television show. I was usually a spy in enemy territory, a James Bond type character slipping in and out of my house unnoticed while my parents, the enemy, sat watching TV. I was also the narrator, “And now our hero Mike Yeager, under the cover of darkness, slips into the enemy headquarters and locates the secret papers.” The secret papers were usually located in my bedroom dresser. If my mom said “Mike, what are you doing in there?” I momentarily broke out of my TV fantasy, sort of like a commercial break, and answered “Nothing mom, just looking for something”, and then smoothly transitioned back into the plot of the story. “That was a close call for our hero Mike Yeager, whose position was almost detected by the officer-in-charge.” I, of course, always managed to sneak back out of the enemy headquarters undetected and with the secret papers in hand.
The automatic rifle fire stopped. Nobody was hurt and so we continued along the rode until entering a small cluster of huts surrounding a well. While the Marines searched the huts, Chang and I stood by the well questioning a young woman. I heard a shot and a bullet ricocheted off the top of the well inches from where I was standing. That was my wake up call. That son of a bitch was shooting at me. The Marines kicked into gear and took off into the brush toward the area where the shot came from. One of the sergeants asked me to cover him while he walked out across an open area. “What do you mean cover you?” I guess I couldn’t remember what Rick Jason and Vick Marrow in “Combat” did in a situation like this. He calmly told me to stand at the edge of the clearing, keep my eyes and ears open and be ready to fire while he walked across the clearing. The rest of the Marines headed up the hill toward where the rifle fire was coming from. My mental state had changed completely. This wasn’t cool anymore. These seasoned Marines were reacting as they should. I remember thinking, These guys are crazy, they’re going to get us all killed. At the same time, I knew my life was in their hands. I was the “green soldier” and as the saying goes, if they told me to jump, I would have replied “How high?”
During the entire mission I was on high alert, keenly aware of my surroundings. But after nearly being shot, I became aware of a growing fear deep within me. I learned how to manage it and continued to function in my duties as a soldier, but by the end of my year tour, I dreaded missions out in the field. I had seen too many horrible things that can happen in war and I became progressively more certain that I would not make it home alive.
On that first mission, the Marines never found who was shooting at us. And our hero "Mike Yeager" was no where to be found and did not save the day. The romance of combat was gone forever.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Desert in Bloom

Most of the snowbirds have taken flight. In April they started to pull out and this last weekend there was a major exodus. Our laundry building was crowded with people trying to return home with clean clothes and I had to wait a long time to get an elliptical trainer at the fitness center. I guess they were trying to lose those few extra pounds they’d gained living the good life. I read that the population of Green Valley has around 20,000 permanent residents and it more than doubles when the snowbirds are here. Even though the heat is coming, the “year rounders” like ourselves, look forward to less traffic, the pool all to ourselves and an empty fitness center. Basically we like just having less people to contend with. There are a lot less activities going on in the summer, but we don’t go to very many anyway, so that’s not a big deal.
April and May are two months when many of the plants in the desert bloom. All those people who went back to Michigan or Ohio or Washington are going to miss it. Katie and I have been wandering around with our camera lately taking pictures. So if any of the snowbirds look at my blog they will see some of what they are missing.