Posted tagged ‘remembering’

At 65

April 29, 2016

To me, old age is always fifteen years older than I am.
–  Bernard Baruch

So, I just recently turned 65.  I’m officially a “senior citizen,” which implies a general condition of being cast off.  I would prefer to be thought of as an aspiring “elder” with the connotations that native people (or First Nations folks, to be politically correct) give it.

I don’t feel “sixty-five,” whatever that is supposed to feel like.  I am most fortunate to be free of ill-health.  My gait so far is unaffected.  I still retain some lightness on my feet, and my range of motion in general is only marginally shrinking.

I still practice aikido and tai chi to a certain extent, although regrettably I haven’t had the opportunity to do much Western fencing in the last several years.  However, my level of interest in physically demanding pursuits has declined, and that, rather than not being able to do them, has become more a sign of aging.

I am also fortunate to have my wife as a companion of over 25 years: to have someone who cares for me, and for whom I can care.

The main thing about these milestones at 65, or 80, or 30 for that matter, is the opportunity for reflection.  They give an excuse to take the time to consider what the years might mean.

I graduated high school in 1969.  That is a whole cultural era away.  Or maybe more than one.  Mostly I think of the music, how important and central to my life and the lives of many of my generation it was:  the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Electric Prunes.  Wait: you don’t know about Paul Revere or the Prunes?  You’ve missed out.  Perhaps you haven’t had “too much to dream last night“?

The power of music in the culture was a convergence of technology, music industry ripeness, the Vietnam war and the resulting counterculture.  In an era without iPhones or multiple other digital distractions, including not even home computers, hard as that is now to imagine, music was central.

Its rebelliousness, youthfulness and exuberance were constantly being challenged and undermined by the status quo, but there was a balance of sorts for a while.  And, as hard as it was to see at the time, there was even a slow alteration of what was understood to be the “status quo.”

The fragmentation and loss of cultural significance for music as a whole is evident to me looking back.  Those of younger years might think that the efforts to stand out by Beyoncé, or Lady Gaga, or Sia amount to something, but not much really.  A meat dress worn by Lady Gaga doesn’t really cut it, although I do like Sia’s songwriting.  The efforts to get noticed in a fragmented musical environment overwhelmed by the powers of the modern corporation take on amusing forms.

I listen to the old music, and some of the new, as I finally get down to the first draft of a novel that I’ve been thinking about for years.  I am 30,000 words plus into a science-fiction thriller coming-of-age save-the-world extravaganza that, fingers crossed, I will actually finish some day before I die.

It is a time to reflect on mortality.  I like the idea of living as if we will live forever, of plans uncompromised by the reality of some future end.  But the eventual end does give poignancy to what we do, and who we do it with, and how we meet it with our hearts.

I have lived longer than either of my parents.  My mother died of multiple sclerosis in her early 60s.  My father died of a stroke in his mid-forties.  I realize now how short, how brief, their time was here.  I’m proud of them for what they were able to accomplish in their fleeting sojourns on this world, and sad that many of their dreams remained unrealized.

I have often been a late bloomer in my life, although others might not recognize the blooming as of much note.  But I have, and it gives me encouragement as I diligently peck away almost every day at the novel, wearing down that huge mountain, like a bird trailing a scarf across its rock periodically — it will shrink, if time is enough.

Speaking of blooming, one of my colleagues at work (I have yet to retire, perhaps in a year or so) was discussing with me about my plans and his.  Our conversation concluded by him saying, “Well, everything is coming up roses then….”

That caused me to think, “Yes, everything will be coming up roses, or if not, at least I may have the privilege of pushing them up myself.”  That’s not a bad fate, to perhaps someday be a ground for roses, or even more happily to think about, for some wildflowers….

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Growing Up With the Weavers (and Pete Seeger)

February 16, 2014

“For songs are the heart of our memory and let us live the search for meaning in our lives again and again.”
Judy Collins

I wrote about aspects of this a couple of years ago (Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival), but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, musician and human being extraordinaire, I wanted to revisit The Weavers.

The Weavers were the arch folk group of the 1950s and even into the 1960s, with Pete Seeger as one of the main quartet, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.

In essence, they sparked the entire folk music revival which in time led to the emergence of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others such as Dave Van Ronk (apparently inaccurately portrayed in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers), of folk rock and of rock itself in the cauldron of the 1960s.  The Weavers could even be seen as precursors of “world music” with their willingness to interpret and sing songs from many nationalities and traditions.

220px-The_Weavers_at_Carnegie_HallIt’s odd to me how little one hears these days of The Weavers or the songs they made famous, such as “Goodnight Irene” or “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”  It’s true they are the songs from a slightly older generation than mine, and I’m getting old too.  But I would still like to hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga give them a try….

I won’t go on too much about The Weavers’ or Pete Seeger’s history — there is a lot of detailed information about all that online.  But I would like to write a little about The Weavers’ meaning for me, and about Pete Seeger’s worth and appeal.

After my father died of a stroke when I was twelve in 1963, my younger brothers and I were introduced to the Weavers when our mother brought back three LP albums from a trip to Seattle.  She had gone there to see her mother  and to apply for veteran benefits from my Dad.  There was a My Fair Lady recording of the original musical, an album of swinging Bach and other composers by the Swingle Singers on the album Going Baroque, and The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, from a 1955 live performance still considered to be one of the best and most stirring by any folk group.

In central northern British Columbia where we lived on slim pickings after Dad died, it was exciting to have these brand new long-playing records.  Unfortunately, at first we had nothing to play them on, and resorted to bothering some church-group friends by always taking those three albums with us and insisting that we had to listen to them.  It was probably with the first veteran benefits’ cheque that Ma went out and purchased a battery-powered portable record player to listen to first those albums and then to all the many more that we, mother and boys, collected in the next few years.  The record player had to be battery, because we lived for quite a few years without electricity.

Sierra Exif JPEGIt strikes me now, as I recall some of this, how important recorded music was to the four of us, in a way that wasn’t quite so strong for many of our neighbours or friends.  None of us in our small family were particularly musical: I struggled to play the guitar poorly, and although we all sang boisterously along with “Wimoweh” and other such songs, we were out of tune mostly I’m sure.  But music is crucial to the memories of my boyhood and our lives together, and it began with The Weavers.

As the three boys grew into teenage-hood, our tastes in music changed of course, to the Ventures, the Beatles, then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and of course eventually Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks!

Pete Seeger After the Weavers

So after those early times, although we might still go back to listen occasionally, The Weavers and Pete Seeger faded from our preferred listening.

I would hear about Seeger from time to time through the years, usually as an activist during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the States, with his anthem “We Shall Overcome” (derived from a gospel song), and would sometimes listen to his songs “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, usually performed by others.

Later, in the last few years, his status as the grand old man of folk only grew.  Bruce Springsteen produced the “Seeger Sessions” and tour, dedicated to many of his songs.  Seeger’s album At 89 won a Grammy in 2008.

If you put “Pete Seeger” into a search engine now, you will run across many obituaries recounting his incredible influence as a musician and as an activist through the generations.  A good one is at the New York Times: “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94.”

But among the references to him I like best are ones like Bruce Springsteen’s introduction at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration, where he finished off his remarks, noting Seeger’s toughness, with:

“The very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.”

Bob+Dylan++Pete+Seeger+2943980698_ec9703aeec_oThere are the performances on Youtube like a rousing one from 1993, “If I Had a Hammer”, with Arlo Guthrie.  He could always get audiences to respond to him, to form impromptu communities of song around his presence.

And then there’s this performance from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 that illustrates, to me, that same point in a magnificent way.  The clip shows Seeger’s versatility as he chats with Cash while singing and playing with a fretless banjo and a guitar.  Then he gets up and starts to rouse the audience with “It Takes A Worried Man to Sing A Worried Song.”

At first the audience is hesitant and quiet.  We look at Seeger from the rear, a lone wooden chair on the stage, a spotlight beaming down, the audience in darkness beyond him.  The audience begins to join in a little; Johnny Cash comes striding into the scene with his guitar, adding his voice.  Pete waves his arm briefly at the audience, but so sure, as if it would automatically connect him with the people in front of him, and it does.  They begin clapping, they start to smile, their voices rise.  Pete calls out “You know, these old songs, they’re never going to die…. This song, it’s the whole human race!  …But you got to have hope….”  The two men tear into the last verse, playing face to face, and the audience claps and cheers as they finish.

You can see Pete vibrating with song, moving his feet a little, bending his knees, singing his heart out.  For those moments, he embodies the song, and its recognition of struggle and perseverance shines out of him.

He’s gone now.  That embodiment has given way.  The songs go on.

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Note:  The photo of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger is from the Broadsheet website.

New Mexico Pilgrimage

September 27, 2013

We’ve just returned from a trip to New Mexico.

As recounted elsewhere (Of Money, Marriage, Dogs and the Nahanni Valley), my parents first met while attending classes at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.  This was not long after the Second World War, in 1947-48 or so.

My father probably arrived direct from Michigan, where our family on his side were mainly farmers, except in the case of my grandfather, who for a time was the owner of a furniture factory.  There’s still a hamlet in Michigan, Bristol Corners, named after those who lived and died there for a few generations.

Dad had returned home after savage fighting as a Marine in the Pacific against the Japanese.   Before the war, he had painted sensitive oils and hunted with a passion.  After the war, damaged in some ways, I think he returned seeking the most peaceful thing he knew, and tried to study art at the University of New Mexico.

My mother was there from her home in Illinois, the daughter of an executive who spent the war in Washington, D.C. as a “dollar a year” man, and of a housewife and church organist.  Political science was her major as befitted an opinionated and socially conscious young woman.

My parents met, and decided they wanted to raise a family rather than wait to complete any degrees.  They married and departed New Mexico, poor as winter, drifting first to San Francisco and then eventually to the Pacific Northwest.

But their photos from that time, and the few items of the southwest we had about us as I grew up — a colorful patterned cloth, a rough Navajo rug, the Hopi prints they gave my grandmother — always seemed to me to be of exotic and adventurous origin.

The few black and white photos especially, the stark shadows and brilliant light on adobe walls graced by noir characters in wide-brimmed hats, have always lurked in my memory.

So when casting about for a new place to have a vacation, the thought of New Mexico, and making it a kind of casual pilgrimage to where my parents once found themselves together, made sense to me.  Both my parents are long gone, my father in his forties and my mother in her early sixties.  The trip in part became a way to reconnect with who they were.

Flowers By the RoadI’ve briefly travelled in neighboring Arizona and did not much like it — too hot and desert desolate for me, at least where we crossed.  But New Mexico, as my wife and I started our journey in Albuquerque and eventually travelled to Santa Fe and Taos, seemed  to be an environment of more interest — nubby pines, occasional rock hills in subtle earthen hues with mountains in the distance, even some greenery and flowers from recent heavy rains and careful irrigation.  And the skies!  The big sparkling blue skies, often filled with the most amazing clouds.

We stayed at a hotel on the outskirts of Old Town in Albuquerque, and took a day to visit the University of New Mexico.   I wanted to see if the university could possibly have any record of my parents.

It’s a big, modern campus: young people scurrying to classes in bright sunshine with iPods and smartphones in hand.  We tried to find an administration building, and finally found an office where I was given a phone number and an email address for an assistant registrar.  In a campus Starbucks, I used my wife’s iPad to introduce myself, and hoped he could check the school’s records.  We didn’t hear anything back immediately, and we went on to explore Old Town for the rest of that day.

(If you ever get to Albuquerque’s Old Town and want a meal, be sure to go to the Church Street Cafe — the best southwestern food we found all trip.  Nothing too fancy or trendy, just tasty and reasonably priced.   Huevos rancheros!)

Eventually we ventured by rental car to Santa Fe for a couple of days, then on up to Taos and the pueblo there, and back to Santa Fe, and then Albuquerque for the flight home.   We enjoyed Santa Fe a lot — there’s a surfeit of art galleries everywhere and we even ventured to narrow Canyon Road and its end-to-end galleries. Santa Fe also has an opera house out of town in the desert.  One of our neighbours, an opera buff, recently attended there for a week of performances in August.   It’s not a huge structure but large enough, with open sides that let the audience take in the sunsets as they watch Madame Butterfly or whatever is being performed.  (I’m not an opera buff.)

And Santa Fe also has the Georgia O’Keefe museum.  Its paintings reflect her passion for the New Mexico landscape, which was a coming home for her to a place she had never seen before.

Taos too had its charms, primarily the pueblo which has had people living in it for roughly 1000 years.

Taos PuebloIn Santa Fe we heard by email from the university registrar.  Their electronic records only went back to 1950.  They would have to search hard copies by hand.  What were my parents’ birthdates?  1918 and 1927, I sent back, a little shocked since not really thinking about those dates for many years, how far back they are now surprised me.  I realized that had my father lived until today, he would be 95.

We’ve returned home now and not heard more from the university, although I hope some young assistant continues to burrow diligently through their dusty records.  But whatever they find, or if they don’t, is not so important.

When my father was in art school there, he seems to have been fascinated by Roman Catholic iconography.  He was not a religious man at all, he had no use for organized spirituality — although I remember he always emphasized that he was agnostic rather than an atheist.  But I recall, and my brothers may still have some samples, the stylized and detailed colored woodblock prints of St. Francis of Assisi and the small squared-off sculptures of St. Francis that he had done and kept for years where we lived.  This is interesting to me, given my father’s necessarily cruel and violent life during the war and his pre-war affinity for hunting juxtaposed against St. Francis’s storied love of man and animals.

I too consider organized religion pernicious, although I have Buddhist and Taoist sympathies, but I made it a point to stand next to the ornate doors of the small St. Francis Cathedral in Santa Fe and have my photo taken by my wife.  I’m sure my father and mother must have been there at some time.

I like to think my father stood where I stood, and looked out into the New Mexico sunshine.

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Notes:

Photos from top down —

1) Along the road, driving to Santa Fe.

2) The pueblo at Taos.

I will be posting photos from the trip from time to time on my photography blog, The Suspended Moment.