Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Oregon Country Fair

The annual Oregon Country Fair is in just a few weeks. If you lived through the ‘60s, this is a chance to go back in time. The Fair happens every July on a piece of land 13 miles outside of Eugene, Oregon, off Highway 126 near the town of Veneta. It’s a huge festival out in the woods that draws 45,000 people, over a 3-day period.
The festival got its start in 1969 to benefit an alternative children’s school and was held in Eugene. Originally called the Oregon Renaissance Fair, in 1976 the name was changed to the Oregon Country Fair. In 1970 it moved to its current location. I arrived in Eugene that fall. The country had dramatically changed while I was away in the Army. There were love-ins and be-ins, black riots in the big cities, assassinations, the riotous ‘68 Democratic Convention in Chicago and Richard Nixon was President. The music had changed too. While I played soldier, the youth were listening to radically different new rock ‘n’ roll groups like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, and The Grateful Dead. The Beatles had morphed into Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Buffalo Springfield and Cream had come and gone while I was away and The Animals, The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Yardbirds were gone forever. Timothy Leary advised American youth to “Turn on, tune in and drop out”.  Woodstock and Altamont were over, and journalists were describing the end of the ‘60s counter-culture movement. The party was over, and I had just arrived.
In 1970 right after I was released from the Army, I drove around the west in my brand-new MG. My constant dilemma was whether or not to pick up the long-haired hitchhiker on the side of the road. If it was a young woman, it was a no-brainer. After dropping off one mild-mannered long-haired guy, wrapped in a Mexican serape.  I realized he had taken off with my Seiko watch. I had placed it in front of the gear shift lever to keep track of time and Mr. Love and Peace stole it right out from under my nose. I wondered whether my flashy silver watch would impress the chicks at the commune where he was headed.  I didn’t stop for hitchhikers much after that. Having been indoctrinated by the military and traumatized by war, I viewed these young drifters as undisciplined, self-centered, naive, unrealistic slackers, but I also envied their free spirit and sense of community and belonging.
I enrolled at the Junior college in Eugene for fall quarter. Eugene appeared to have been one of the hubs of counter-culture activity. The remnants were everywhere. In 1972, the Oregon Renaissance Fair featured the Grateful Dead with proceeds going to the Springfield Creamery. That year the Creamery was struggling, so the money from the concert and a subsequent movie called “Sunshine Daydream” helped keep it afloat. The tickets were printed on yogurt labels.
Springfield Oregon is just across the river from Eugene. The Springfield Creamery was started by Chuck and Sue Kesey in 1960. Chuck is Ken Kesey’s brother. Ken was our local famous author and Merry Prankster. He often performed readings at the Fair. The Creamery limped along financially until it found a niche product, Nancy’s Yogurt. An interesting aside; according to the Springfield Creamery website, the sale of Nancy’s Yogurt didn’t take off until it was introduced to the Bay area by an ex-U of O student, Gilbert Rosborne, and his business partner, Huey Lewis, yeah, that Huey Lewis. Huey hadn’t quite made the big-time yet and he and Gil were earning money distributing underground comic books to natural food stores around the country. While passing through the Eugene area, they decided to add Nancy’s Yogurt to their inventory. They filled a rented U-Haul full of the yogurt with lots of bags of ice and hauled it all the way to San Francisco where the yogurt was well received.
In 1978, Katie and I worked in Ritta’s Burritos at the Oregon Country Fair.  Ritta and Katie were friends and worked as nurses’ aides at a local nursing home. I was in graduate school at the time and worked there too on the night shift. I was eager to get to know the cute Asian I’d see when I came on duty. I found out that she helped Ritta at her burrito booth every week at the Eugene Saturday Market. Neither of them knew me, but probably had seen me around the nursing home. For numerous Saturdays, I hung around the Saturday Market and bought a burrito for lunch. It took me quite a few Saturdays and a boat load of burritos before getting up my nerve to ask Katie out. When I finally did, she said yes to having herbal tea with me at Mamma’s Truck Stop.
Ritta's BurritosSoon we were a couple, and I too was working for Ritta in her burrito booth. We helped out one summer at the Oregon Country Fair. Ritta’s booth was extremely popular with a constant line out front, so we didn’t get a chance to see any of the entertainment venues or wander around looking at the various booths. We worked hard and steady all 3 days, but we didn’t mind. We were young and happy, and living in the hippest town in the Pacific Northwest.
The current Oregon Country Fair still manages to capture some of the magic of those times. We went back a few years ago. Ritta’s Burritos was still there with the ever-present crowd in front. As we stood there talking with Ritta, we heard the parade approaching long before it actually passed by. It was winding its way through the labyrinth of pathways. We waited as the drums and cymbals grew closer until at last, the long procession of costumed people, musicians, jugglers, men in underpants and topless women marched and danced by. After the last “Merry Prankster” disappeared around the corner, the dusty air hung heavy with the smell of patchouli and ganja. I noticed the people on the other side of the path, mostly aging boomers like us. They looked grimy, tired and dazed, probably aware that our time had passed, and we had long ago outgrown flower power. But, for a few hours at the Fair, we had all been hypnotized and transported by a groovy psychedelic time warp.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

“Midnight in Paris”, Search for the Golden Age

Katie and I went to the movies in the middle of the day on a Monday, one of the many luxuries of retirement. I still get excited when we enter the theater and smell the popcorn, though we rarely eat any. There are few things as satisfying as seeing a good movie on the big screen. At this time of year, the previews of coming attractions are all summer blockbusters. Most of them are action-packed movies relying heavily on special effects. Obviously, these movies are meant to attract the younger crowd. I’m rarely interested in seeing any of them.
We saw “Midnight in Paris” and both really enjoyed it. It is a typical Woody Allen movie. The main character Gil, played by Owen Wilson, one of the best Woody Allen substitutes yet, is a romantic. He is faced with the choice of either trying to live his dream or conforming to the norms and expectations of others. Gil is on vacation with his fiancée and her parents in Paris. He is thrilled to be there, in the very place where many of his heroes gathered back in the twenties. He sees this time in history as the golden age of Paris. He’s always wanted to live and write in Paris, but instead “sold out” to become a Hollywood screenwriter. His fiancée, Inez, gives him little to no support for his romantic vision and her parents, conservative right wing republicans, just don’t like him.  Inez expects Gil to continue on in his secure and lucrative job in Hollywood, but to  Gil this is beginning to feel like a shallow and empty pursuit.
In an attempt to immerse himself in the Paris magic, Gil takes a walk by himself through the city streets. At midnight, he is invited into an old taxi by some party goers who turn out to be Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The cab transports him back in time to the roaring ‘20s. He does this night after night, meeting and partying with many of his literary and artistic heroes. These famous characters of the time are portrayed stereotypically and humorously through Woody’s eyes. I loved seeing Owen Wilson channeling Woody and conversing with Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Gertrude Stein and others.
As in many of Woody’s movies, the protagonist struggles with a deeper existential question. After experiencing Paris in the’20s, he  is transported further back in time to another golden age, the turn of the century, and he comes to realize that the romantic vision of another life in another time or place is only that, a romantic vision and nothing more.
Gil had traveled to Paris earlier in his life and realized that he missed an opportunity to experience his dream back then. He doesn’t want to miss it again, and the movie ends with a positive ‘follow your dream’ message. Gil chooses to stay in Paris and write his novel in present time, and begin to live in his own golden age.
For many of us retirees, this is our time to catch up on  missed opportunities. Some will always remain missed, but others can be realized to some degree or other. At this age, life looks different than it did when we were young. So many of the dreams we had were dreams of the young—dreams of becoming something greater than how we perceived  ourselves.  At various times in my life I  dreamed of being a professional baseball player, a rock ‘n’ roll star and a famous writer living  in southern Europe. In retirement I can still keep active physically,  play music and  write, right here where I am. Many retirees like myself are trying to transform  the golden years into the golden age.
I’m having a little trouble letting go of the writer in southern Europe dream.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dealing With Retirement Anxiety

The snowbirds have returned to their homes in the north and we’re entering our second summer in Arizona. It’s the beginning of June and we haven’t hit 100 degrees yet, but we’ve been uncomfortably close several times. There’s a slight feeling of dread as the weather heats up. We know we’ll be stuck indoors much of the time.
The mornings are beautiful, by far the best part of the day. The temperatures are in the high 60s to mid 70s, the birds and bunnies are scurrying around doing their thing and we can sit in the fresh morning air reading and sipping our tea and coffee. If there is anything that needs to be done outside, I know I’d better do it now, because in a few hours it will be too damned hot. But since we live in a condo, there’s really not much that needs doing.
Around 11:00 the day becomes more of a  challenge. We close the windows and doors to capture the coolness, let down the shades to keep out the sun and our cloistered cave-like existence begins. The other day we watched a movie in the middle of the afternoon. I remember as a kid watching TV on hot summer days, but not since then. Now some part of me feels like I’m doing something wrong. Luckily another part overrides it by saying, You’re retired, it’s incredibly hot outside and there’s really nothing you have to do right now. By the time the movie was over, my work ethic anxiety had passed.
My biggest problem with retirement so far is battling the feeling that I should be doing something but I don’t know what.  “Should” is the operative word in that sentence and implies following the rules or doing what is expected of me. But there aren’t many rules in retirement and with only a few exceptions, no one expects me to be doing anything. So that leaves me with the thought, I can do whatever I want, which in turn leads to, Well then, what do I want? This questions drops me into an old familiar place even deeper and darker and more confusing than What should I do?
I remember getting stuck in this place when I was a child. I felt bored a lot during the summer months. I remember my mom asking me “What do you want?” or “What do you feel like doing?” I always had trouble coming up with an answer. My dad’s flippant advice to  me was, “Do something, even if it’s wrong.” Like many of the crazy things he used to say, there was some truth in it. When I would make my best guess and start doing something, sure enough, that feeling of boredom would pass. I made the decision before quitting work that writing would be one of my main activities in retirement, I‘ve tried to stick with that decision, but sometimes I haven’t the foggiest idea what to write about. So using my dad’s advice, I just start by writing something like,“I have no idea what to write about today” and more often than not something starts taking shape.
When I was still in the Army in the late ‘60s, I decided I was going to exercise on a regular basis. I started running around a local track. Soon I discovered that exercise helped me to feel better about myself and my life. It relaxed the anxiety within. I still exercise regularly for the same reasons, but I never feel like exercising. You’d think that after all these years I would, but it’s still a struggle to get started. I have to push through the feeling every time. This reminds me of what Woody Allen said on the subject, something like, ”When I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until it goes aNappingway.” There is truth in this saying too. All things pass in time. So in this year and a half of retirement, I’ve learned that when the boredom becomes too great and when I can’t figure out what I want to do or what I should do, I take a nap.