Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Second Greatest Gift

I Have Received...

Having just posted below about "the greatest gift I have received", which I feel came from my mother, here's a post about the runner up.

The second greatest gift I have ever received came from my father. It isn't easy to pin it down to one clear thing...but if I had to generalize I would have to say that from my father I learned how to use tools to solve problems. 

The first tool he taught me to use was my eyes. And the problem at first was, What's this? He would point things out to me at an early age, usually Nature related because he was a biologist and avid birdwatcher. As he did this, he would often show me layers of meaning in what we were looking at...almost like bait intended to get me to keep looking. For instance, I remember one time he woke me up in the middle of the night when we were living in Italy (1967-8) to show me this tiny little gecko that was sitting in the bathtub. Then he caught it and showed me up close how small but really alive it was. Then he gently turned it over to show me that its skin was so thin at that size that we could see its inner workings, including its heart beating. So first of all he taught me to look at Nature, and then to keep looking because there's always more there.  

The next tool he taught me to use was probably my mind. In addition to showing me things, he would also start to ask me questions about what I was looking at, questions that would get me to think about what I was looking at and maybe to draw some conclusions about it. For instance, he showed me that mosquitoes tend to lay their eggs just above the water line in a puddle or bucket or pond. He told me that the eggs need to hatch in water and that the larvae of the mosquito needs water in order to live. So why, he asked me, did I think the mosquito laid its eggs above the water instead of in the water? In other words, what would be the survival advantage to doing this? Well I never figured it out, I was probably about 10, but I did wrack my brains for an afternoon trying. (Laying their eggs above water assures that whenever the water gets to the eggs and they hatch, it will be rising water. This means that they'll be a better chance of there being enough water to support the larval stages of the mosquito. If they always laid their eggs in the water, some of the water sources would dry out and the eggs or larvae would die. That was the best explanation he had been able to come up with himself.) He would also quiz my brother and me on things like simple math problems and brain teasers. If we couldn't figure a problem out, he would often ask us questions in a sequence designed to show us how we could. So he taught me to look and he taught me to think.  

Ingrained in all this looking and thinking was a sense of Nature appreciation and wonder at the balance of it all. We were looking at Nature to see how amazing it was. We were thinking about how it works in order to better appreciate it and also to learn from it. 

Around the time I was 8 years old my dad noticed while he was pushing me on a swing that I was singing a song to the rhythm of the swing and thought I might have musical talent. He himself was an avid folk-music fan and struggled to play the guitar and sing himself.  I think he was hoping I'd be better at it than he was. In any case, he bought me a guitar and found a guitar teacher for me. I started out on a classical guitar with nylon strings and learning classical guitar basics. At first my fingers hurt and I told my dad I didn't want to keep doing it. He said, "Well everybody's fingers hurt at first but they get used to it. I tell you what, if you still don't want to continue in 6 months, you can quit then." I think it was 6 months, maybe it was 3. But to me as a kid it seemed like forever. But he was right and in a matter of weeks I was liking it and didn't want to stop. Then we moved to Italy for a year and I had no teacher. So my dad taught me all the basic chords and I had access to his folk music song books. Sometimes he would have students over to the house and if one of them played guitar they would show me a little something. This continued when we went back to the states. Although my dad was always very encouraging of my budding musical efforts, I never really got back on track with solid basic training though, so while the tumult of moving to a different city and my parents divorce was going on, I developed some eccentric ways of playing within my fairly limited musical palate. This gift was less complete than the others but it turned out to be a very important one to me. No matter what my particular skill limitations, I have learned to use the guitar to express my thoughts and feelings in ways that are extremely pleasurable to me and therapeutic as well. I can't imagine my life without making music.

Another important tool I learned to use from my dad was humor. He was a very funny man with a huge joke repertoire who came from a family on his mother's side of very funny people. I don't recall any lessons or even conversations about humor but it was such a big part of how he related to the world, that I consider my sense of humor to be a gift from him. Partly it was learning by example how to put together the right ingredients to tell a funny joke or story, or make a funny comment. But it was also learning about what to use humor for and what not to use it for. By observation and example I was able to develop my own sense of humor and put it to my own uses, some of which are similar to the ones my dad put his humor to and some not. 

The basic message I got from my dad was that I had tools, my eyes, my mind, my guitar, and my sense of humor and that I could use them to solve problems and make my life better. My eyes could help me see and appreciate what was going on around me, particularly in Nature; my mind could help me notice patterns and draw conclusions or theories from them; my guitar could express my thoughts and feelings for me and help me to understand them better; and my sense of humor could help me release tension as well as connect with other people in a direct and unmistakable way. 

So my father gave me some concrete tools and pointed me towards the work those tools could do. My mother gave me the space to figure out who I was so I could use those tools with a sense of personal purpose and meaning. I didn't end up a scientist but I do love Nature and have spent the better part of my life studying unforced balance in a pretty scientific manner. I didn't end up a full-time musician or comedian either but music and comedy are still central parts of my life. Basically, I ended up a T'ai-Chi teacher with a sense of humor who writes a lot of songs. I feel like this is the perfect life for me but without those tools, and without the space to figure out what really mattered to me, I don't know if I would have found it.

The Greatest Gift...

I Have Received…

(This post is a response to my friend Ed Taylor's request for stories about "the greatest gift you have received". Thanks Ed, for inspiring the following.)

I think the greatest gift I have ever received came from my mother. Not just that she "gave me life" but more importantly, that once I was alive she gave me space to find myself. At an early age I think she recognized that I was a sensitive internal kind of kid and whenever she could she gave me space to find my own way. 

This took many forms...sometimes when she noticed that I was feeling sad or somehow "off", she'd make time to do something special with me...even to the point of taking me out of school for a day for something like a "field trip" to a museum or something like that. Sometimes it just took the form of leaving me alone to work it out myself. 

When I was a bit older, Jr. high school age, we moved to big old Midwestern Victorian house, and I ended up with the entire 3rd floor to myself. It was kind of an attic apartment with lots of weird shaped rooms...She let me do whatever I wanted to with that space...I could decorate it any way I chose...Nail a tree branch to a door frame or collage all the walls with magazine pictures...later, I got really into animals and pets...I had all kinds of cages and terrariums up there...All she said was, "You can keep whatever creatures you like as long as they stay up there on the 3rd floor."...She let me lock my door at an early age too which was important to me...I always wanted my own space. This became especially important when my parents got divorced and during the usual "adolescent identity crisis" years.

Whatever I was interested in, as long as it was relatively safe and didn't harm anyone or anything, was OK with her. I never felt pressured to take any particular path...the only thing she encouraged me to do was to find things that I really enjoyed, things that gave me real pleasure. When I decided to take a year off after high school to pursue a career in music, she didn't pressure me to go to college even though I was virtually alone among my peers in not going. Instead, she gave me a couple of thousand dollars she had been planning to spend on my education and let me stay at home rent free. When that year became an ongoing thing...she decided to charge me the same $100 a month that she charged the boarders she would take in to help with the mortgage...She wanted me to have the experience of paying my way, at least somewhat. She did want to see that I was actually pursuing music and not just messing around...but she was never too pushy or intrusive about it. 

I think she knew I was going to be a late bloomer and trusted me to find my way eventually. I ended up living at home until I was 24 or so. But I left home having spent a lot of time educating myself...I read a ton of books...I had had a couple of serious relationships...I had written my first hundred songs or so...and I had worked some interesting jobs...I had gone through and come out the other side of my "lots of pets and animals" phase... and most importantly I had done a lot of soul searching and established a solid orientation towards pleasure and "feeling right" as a guide in life. 

Of course, I still had a lot of learning to do...I pursued music in New York...got involved with a therapy-cult group for a while...I gave up music...moved out to the Northwest with my girlfriend at the time...lived in a little cabin in the San Juan islands...decided to move to Seattle pursue T'ai-Chi, Yoga and Bodywork...liked Yoga and Bodywork and did a lot of both but T'ai-Chi was love at first sight and the that became the main thing for me over time...I re-started and re-quit music several times, trying to find a way to do it that felt right...I became a T'ai-Chi teacher...met and married my wife Samarra...got tired of the city...quit teaching and moved to Iowa for a couple of years before moving to Ashland...figured out a new way to teach T'ai-Chi that really felt right to me...established myself as a teacher here...finally found a way to do music that felt right (recording everything I write and making it as freely available as I can and seeing what comes freely back) and living a life I truly feel good about. All of this involved letting go of some cherished dreams and replacing them with better and better ones...ones that were more and more in alignment with my nature.

A creative life is not an easy life. It demands constant work, attention and experimentation, but I've been living one since I can remember. The space my mom gave me as a little kid and then as a young adult gave me the time I needed to connect strongly to my inner "muse" and the courage to follow and trust it, wherever it led me. I think to be creative it's important to have a certain kind of confidence, and a willingness to explore and experiment. It's not confidence that something good will happen if you give something a try, it's more like confidence that nothing bad will happen if you give something a try. I will always be grateful for her for the space to do things my own way, in my own time. I'm sure I've made some dumb choices and certainly pursued some dead end paths, but the end result is a life I love, that truly feels like mine, that contributes to my community, and helps other people as well as myself find a less forced and more balanced approach to life. Vincent Van Gogh said that a man is truly blessed who has found his work and I totally agree. Without the space my mom gave me growing up, I don't know if I would have found mine. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Whatever Happened...

To Encores?

One thing that has changed in the music world since I was a kid is this: Musicians at major venues don't play encores anymore. And audiences have accepted it. What I mean by this is that they don't play true encores. 

To me, a true encore is when the band honestly says, "We're done.", and the crowd says "No, wait, play some more!", and the band changes its mind. This used to happen regularly. I've heard about Led Zeppelin concerts where they had to go down to the dressing room to tell the band that the audience was still out there clapping. 

I went to several shows in the 70's where bands played second and even third encores. And it didn't matter if the house lights came on. There was a powerful connection between crowds and bands and sometimes the crowd would not let the band go without getting more. Maybe now that so many people go to shows and mess with their phones and talk the whole time, they don't allow that connection to happen anymore. I don't know...

These days you're at a show and "Hmmmm...the band is saying goodnight but there's this huge monster hit that they haven't played yet...", and sure enough, after our little ritual of clapping and standing, out they come and there's that hit. 

And when the house lights come on, everyone immediately stops clapping and heads for their vehicles. I haven't been to a show where the band actually did something they hadn't precisely planned on doing in maybe 30+ years. And it's been that long since I've heard any applause at all even ten seconds after the house lights come on. 

People have given up on even the possibility of changing the band's mind. I've seen set lists that include these "encores". There's never more songs listed other than the official chosen songs, no "in case they want more" list. It's all show biz now. They say, "We're done.", in a fake way first...We keep clapping...They come out and do a few tunes...They say, "We're done.", for real, by turning up the house lights...and we all say OK, see ya! and run for our cars.

I think the last true encore I saw was at a Paul Simon show in the late 70's. 

All it takes is for audiences to care enough to not roll over when the lights come on. Whether it's in a club or a stadium, if people want more and keep clapping, I imagine even a somewhat jaded band would be moved enough to play another song or two. But it doesn't seem very likely to happen. People are just so obedient these days...

Now maybe it's just the shows I've been to, which admittedly have not been huge in number or extremely varied...maybe there are major acts who don't just execute a planned show and go home...maybe some are playing real encores when the energy is there...maybe some audiences don't immediately fold when the house lights come on. 

Has anybody out there been to any recent shows where the band ended up playing an encore after the house lights went up? Or where you felt that they played more than they had planned on playing? Let me know if you have. It's hard to imagine in today's world...