Monday, September 22, 2014

The Complexities and Gifts of Friendship-Part 1.

We sat in  TB's car outside the music building on a glorious fall afternoon, much like the days when we first met as college freshman, once again saying goodbye. Goodbyes in the past that had been uncertain and unsettling. Only this time it was different. I could see the moisture gathering around his eyes as he expressed his gratitude for my time and insight. As I crossed the Missouri River into Omaha last Saturday evening, I was still trying to sort it all out.

Friendships have always been challenging for me. Starting them has been easy, maintaining them has been a little harder while sustaining them has been extremely difficult. In spite of that, a friendship that began in a music theory classroom in 1975, presented me with an opportunity 43 years later to experience the complexities and gifts of friendship.

Thompson and I met in the fall of 1971, in the experimental music theory course we were both assigned to at Drake University. The music school was dabbling in an alternative way to teach music theory and we were the guinea pigs along with about 15 other students. We met as a group every morning for 3 hours under the guidance of the eccentric professor,  Dr. E. K. West, while our other freshman peers were wondering what in Bach's name we were doing up on the 3rd floor of Howard Hall.  Being part of an experimental curriculum and spending 3 hours together every day for a year drew the group together, as if we were a group of survivors on a life raft out at sea.

As I got to know Thompson, or TB, as he was to become to me, I discovered one of the more unique and complex humans I would ever befriend in my lifetime. We were opposites in many ways-TB came from an affluent family in the Chicago suburbs, pedigreed in his upbringing by sophisticated parents, with a rich exposure to the world of music, including being tutored by one of the clarinetist in the Chicago Symphony. I'm quite sure his scholarship was much higher than mine. And while he was his high school band director's primo student, he told me that he really didn't have any friends in high school and that he related more to the faculty than his peers.

I liked him from the start. Quirky, particular and introverted but with a sharp sense of humor, we quickly bonded over our shared angst with the teaching of "EK" in our experimental class. We roomed together on band tours, attended happy hour at the various watering holes around campus and went about surviving our freshman year in college. Things seemed to be going well for both of us, but as the year went on, signs of discontent were emerging. He began to talk about transferring to another school, perhaps looking for a more prestigious clarinet teacher or the chance to be a fish in a bigger pond, I'm not really sure. But he wasn't happy, in spite of achieving a good deal of success that year.

In late spring, he asked me to tag along on a weekend trip to Madison, Wisconsin, where he was planning on transferring for his sophomore year. He said needed to apply for summer jobs and make arrangements for attending school there. I remember we spent a night in a quaint, but rather homely motel in Mineral Point that became material for our shared sense of sarcasm.

When we returned to Des Moines, he announced he was leaving, the school year ended, we said our goodbyes, and quite frankly, I never thought I would see him again. But I do remember sincerely wishing him well, in spite on not being sure of what it really was he was looking for.

In August, I received a letter from Thompson stating that he was returning to Drake, and this part I'll never forget.....that he realized that he had friends here that he had never had before. So we simply picked up where we left off.  We shared the next 3 years together as classmates and band mates, socializing, making fun of faculty, and engaging in all the things college kids did back then. 

Our apartment was the first one on the top floor.
Because of his 9th hour decision to return to Drake, he spent his sophomore year in the dorm while I lived off campus with a friend from high school. For our junior year, we decided to get an apartment together. Thompson wanted a nice place, not some dumpy college apartment, consistent with his more refined tastes. I'd have settled for a cheaper dump.  We managed to convince a landlord to rent us a brand new 1 bedroom unit in a complex that was built smack dab in between the fraternity and sorority houses on Greek Row. Bruce, the landlord was not  keen on renting to 2 guys in this building,  but somehow we connived him into putting 2 single beds in place of the double. In return we agreed to keep an eye on the house next door which he had just rented to the Pi Kappa Alpha men, a fraternity with an Animal House reputation that they lived up to as we were about to discover. So for that year, we not only shared the apartment, we shared a bedroom.

Living with TB gave me insights into his persona that I had only seen glimpses of prior to sharing an apartment. He didn't sleep very restfully, was extremely particular about how he kept his personal belongings and could be moody and brooding at times. In spite of that , we managed to get through the year with our friendship intact, making sure to give each lots of space. One thing that may helped us to survive the close quarters was that I spent most weekends with the woman I was to marry the next summer, who was teaching in a town about an hour away.

Thompson and I on graduation day, May 1975
The summer after my junior year, I got married and Thompson was best man. He moved in with another guy for his senior while  I was living about 20 miles outside of town.  We only saw each other in classes we shared and in band practice. And with both of us student teaching and working, we didn't do as much socially not much socially that year. Whatever closeness we gained in our junior seemed to fade during our senior year. Time flew by and before long it was graduation day. We shook hands outside of Veterans Auditorium and wished each other well as I headed out to small town Iowa and he headed back to the Chicago suburbs, both to begin our teaching careers. I wondered then if I would ever see him again.

While I still considered TB a close friend, I wasn't always sure where I stood with him. So it wasn't terribly surprising that we drifted apart, with few exchanges other than an occasional Christmas card. In fact, I only saw him once from 1975 and 2006 and that was at a music festival back at Drake in the late 70's and as I recall, the demands of supervising students and other matters kept us from having anything other than a superficial exchange of pleasantries.

In the days prior to the Internet, it was easy to loose track of someone. Now it is virtually impossible to fall off the grid. At some point in the last 90's when Google and other search capabilities became available, I learned that TB had landed in North Dakota for a number of years as the Chair of a small college music department and that he was currently the Dean of Humanities at a community college in Illinois.  Tempted as I was to reach out to him, I balked. Perhaps again I was unsure of where I stood with him.

That was all to change in 2006 when I received a letter from him which was followed shortly thereafter by a phone call.

To be continued............

Thursday, September 18, 2014

If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time

I would not. Not one minute, not one second.

Would I be tempted? Of course. Who wouldn't want to take back a decision or words, made or spoken in a moment of haste that left a trail of hurt, regret or remorse that still haunts you years after it occurred? The ugly, sad or disappointing things that still linger when you find yourself looking at your life in the rear-view mirror, evaluating how well you have or haven't lived your life.

What got me thinking about this was a 2-page ad in the Sunday Parade magazine this past week. You know that news magazine that is stuffed somewhere in between all the advertisements you usually toss in the trash before hunkering down with your paper and cup of coffee. I know, many of you not only don't read the Parade magazine, you don't read the news "paper" anymore. Talk about showing my age. I still love the serendipity of discovering what might lie on the next page I turn. But back to the ad that got my attention.

It started off with this header:

 Anti-Aging News Special Report-Turn Back Time with the "Anti-Aging" Breakthrough Everyone is Talking About!

My first thought was, "There's that anti-aging thing again. Why are we against aging? I'm for aging....gracefully, I might add."

Then my next thought was, "Who is talking about this? I don't know anyone who is talking about this. It says EVERYONE is talking about it. Did I miss something?"

But what has stuck with most and has led to this blog post,  is the idea of turning back the hands of time. Besides being the subject of the Tryone Davis R&B hit "Turn Back The Hands Of Time" in early 1970, which reached #1 in the R&B charts  and sold over one million copies, the wish or hope to that we could find some magical way to go back and change some moment in our past is a much older preoccupation than Tyrone's 45 rpm single from 1970.

Who doesn't have some regrets about the way we treated someone, or a decision we made failed to make, or any opportunity that we may have let slip through our fingers? I don't think we are human if we haven't traveled down this dusty old back road every now and then.

 Even if we choose to avoid this subject, people, places and things have a way of reminding us of things we just as soon forget. This weekend, I am traveling back to the city of my youth and where I attended college for an alumni band reunion. There's a ton of personal history there, most of it good, some of it not so good. And like it or not, memories will get triggered, they always do.

Like the summer my then girlfriend was living with my sister and a third roommate in an apartment for the summer. One evening when I was hanging out there, I helped myself to some cheese slices from the refrigerator, without anyone seeing me take them. When the 3rd roommate discovered the missing cheese, she accused the other 2 of stealing her food. I remained mute and a roommate war broke out that led to hard feelings and a bad ending.

What would have happened if I had just fessed up? How might all of our lives been altered in a more positive way if I had behaved differently. I'll be reminded of that when I drive near the campus and the apartment where this took place some 40 years ago.

A musician who career and work I have followed closely, Bill Champlin, had a band back in the the late 60's, the Sons of Champlin, that were known for their excessive pot smoking, on and off stage. To this day they are still considered to be a band that was ahead of it's time, but one that flamed out early. When asked why this was, Bill often responds with, "When opportunity knocked, we answered the phone".  How much potential did I squander or fail to realize?

I've stopped wishing I could go back and have a character mulligan on the list of decisions, actions, inaction's, squandered opportunities or other regrets about my life- I don't want any do-overs, even if I could. Here's why:

I have this crazy theory or belief that if I was to be able to go back and change just one action or situation, big or small, good or bad, it would put everything else about my life that has happened since at risk. Everything. Who knows, I may not even be alive to write this blog if I had fessed up about the cheese. That's how interconnected, interdependent and tightly woven I believe our lives are. And I simply cold not risk not having the life I have today. 

I've also learned that there are ways to make peace with your past. To  make amends. To be forgiven. And to receive grace. There was a time in my life when I lived with a heavy weight of regret and guilt. I was shown a way forward from that bondage, gratefully.

So no, I don't want to turn back the hands of time, even if I could, even if everyone was
talking about it.

It's not worth the risk.

There is so much to look forward to.

And it would just get in the way of aging gracefully.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday, September 7, 2014

As the band plays on....

There is a smell that is  burned into my olfactory memory...a blend of aging brass, musk, valve oil and the crushed velvet that lined the inside of the old Conn alto saxophonecase-the saxophone that my Dad rented from the Alonzo Leach music store in downtown Des Moines. By today's standards, the saxophone would be considered a clunker, but I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever laid my hands on. Little did I know that first time I opened up the instrument case and breathed in it's distinct odor, that I would still be repeating that ritual some 50 years later.

 I began playing the alto saxophone in 1963, taking lessons at the Catholic school I attended. The diocese had recently initiated a band program so there wasn't a full band yet. I vaguely remember a few attempts at a band rehearsal with a handful of students, but nothing else stands out in my memory.

At the end of my 6th grade year, my parents informed us that we were all going to be attending the neighborhood public schools the next school year. And this I remember distinctly...they had a school band and it was a class. Like English or Math, you could take Band class. 3rd hour on my schedule if my memory serves me well.

The junior high band was led by Mr. Bagley, an old-school band leader by any era, who also led the band at the high school I would attend 3 years later. When I walked into the band room, the other students were taking out their instruments and putting them together so I followed their cue. On our music stands was a folder of music. After taking roll, reviewing class rules and a few other first week of school-type announcements, Mr. Bagley asked us to pull the "Uncle Sam A-Strut" march folio out of folders and turn to the first march, "The Lexington March",  and prepare to play.

They say that our brains experience 20,000 moments in a day. Moments are a series of 3-4 second bursts that are strung together to create memory. We forget most of what happens to us because it isn't very memorable. But we experience, capture and retain the best and worst moments of our lives.

My memory captured those first moments of band practice that day as we attempted to sight read the "Lexington March" and locked them away forever. To this day, those first sounds of a full band....reeds and brass, treble and bass, percussion, melody, harmony, timber and texture, melodies and counter-melodies, resonate in my brain. The sound of band music picked me up and took me to a place I had never been before, to place I where I belonged. 

That first day in band rehearsal was followed by thousands of rehearsals and performances in school and college bands, combos, jazz bands, marching bands, summer bands, and band camps as I pursued my education, majoring in music education in college. From there, I led the rehearsals for 10 years as I played the role that Mr. Bagley played for me, that of band director in small town Iowa schools.

There haven't been many times since then that I haven't had a band to rehearse or perform in. Playing in a band is in my blood, my DNA, my soul and my heart. 

Band rehearsal is a ritual that is woven though the story of my life. For nearly all of the past 50 years, fall brings the start of the school year, the changing of the season and the first band practice. And for most of those 50 years, I've loaded my saxophone in a car, or walked it to school for the first rehearsal of the year.

Tomorrow evening at 7:15, band rehearsal will begin again. After taking July and August off, the Nebraska Wind Symphony, an adult community concert band, will convene in a rehearsal hall on a college campus in midtown Omaha. And once again, like I've done so many times before, I will walk into a rehearsal room, joining up with an odd and eccentric (me included) group of adult musicians to play band music.

The moment will come when the band begins to play, usually a B-flat concert scale in unison whole notes, just to shake off the rust and warm our ears and instruments. And at that moment, I am always transported back to that first rehearsal of junior high band, in the fall of 1965, where  I experienced the sound of all those instruments resonating through me, for the first time in my life. It is a moment I never forgot.  And while I am much older than when I walked into that band room back in 7th grade, when the first downbeat is cued and the music begins to sound, I will be ageless. Time will stand still. Nothing else will be in my awareness.

There will only be the sound of music as the band plays on.


Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Upside of Aging

I'm for aging. I am not for anti-aging.

And I'm for aging as gracefully as I can as you can probably tell by the new title and focus of my blog.

"So what?"  you might be thinking.  "What's the big deal about being for aging when it's going to happen whether you want it to or not?"

The opportunity to grow old is a relatively new thing for most of us humans when you look at life expectancy from a broad historical perspective.  For most of our human existence, we didn't live all that long. We've added 30 years of life expectancy between 1900 and 1999 alone. And the number of years is going up as we speak.

In other words, if I had been born 100 years ago it wouldn't have mattered if I was for aging because the odds were it wasn't going to happen.

Yet, this recent addition to our life spans has not been a walk in the park.  The desire to stay young, look young and act young that is pervasive in our culture seems to have trumped any benefits that come with aging. In fact, "older" has more often been viewed as an ending rather than a beginning. As a time for reduced growth rather than new learning. As a time to wind down rather than ramp up.

I bet anyone reading this can come up with a list of negative words or pejoratives about older people.

Geezer, old fart, coot, and biddy come to mind. Spry, perky, chipper, feisty, sweet, little and grandmotherly (which especially a problem if you are male like me) are attempts to be cute which really aren't cute. Older people are often perceived as unable to learn, set in their ways, and resistant to change.

In doing some research on this topic, I discovered that even the term "elderly",  which was preferred to "old" back in the early part of the 20th century, is now commonly viewed as politically incorrect. I know some people who prefer "older" to "old".   I suspect this debate will rage for a while as a whole bunch of us boomers age together. Needless to say, negative words outnumber positive words when it comes to aging, so it seems to me.

Then there are the "still" comments--- "still driving, still jogging, still working, still whatever...."

Didn't you all know that 90 is the new 50?

I'm not ready to declare myself as the word police for people over 60 or to develop a hyper-sensitivity to every comment that might marginalize an older person's dignity.

But I am excited about the notion of focusing on the benefits that come with living a longer life, in an attempt to age gracefully.

It may be just a coincidence, but no sooner did I refocus my blog when I started seeing articles and stories about the upside of aging. They just appeared. Coincidence or reticular activator phenomenon, I've begun to gather stories, articles, research and any other information I can find that focuses on the upside of aging. Some of it is new, some is old, some is conventional wisdom, some defies conventional wisdom. All of it is fuel for my mission to become an advocate for the upside of aging.

Here is a what I've gleaned so far:

Lives that live to 100 or 90 have to be paced differently than lives that live to 50.  Pacing sounds a lot better than fading or giving up.

There are some very powerful gains that come with aging-- We become more emotionally stable....less drama and fewer meltdowns, I suspect. We gain more knowledge and our expertise deepens. So the old stereotype of a feeble, forgetful mind is not only unfair, it is incomplete.

For example, younger people may learn faster but older people know more. In other words, it may take me a little longer to find the right word but I know more of them.

The aging brain also has strengths of its own--research has shown that older people allow more extraneous information to enter into problem solving than younger people. How about that for different kind of creative brain? Substance over speed--I'll take that at this stage of life.

And just for the record, this isn't a competition about what's better- young or old. Both have value, both are needed.

Then I came across an article that reported that older people often draw as much happiness from ordinary experiences — like a day at the zoo, or a picnic at a park, as they do from extraordinary ones. It seems that as we age, with many of the self-defining tasks behind us, our ability to find meaning in the more ordinary aspects of life increases. It probably doesn't hurt that we may appreciate the ordinary more when we are aware of the decreasing number of years we have to enjoy them.

This gives me hope for the future. As long as we can cover our basic living expenses, then doing inexpensive, everyday things can lead to good older life as readily as someone who has the magic retirement income suggested by the financial planning industry.

So when you add it all up, aging comes with emotional balance, improved perspective and better mental health-a combination of characteristics that to many, compromises the very definition of wisdom.
And speaking of wisdom, I 'm attempting to acquire some as I transition towards retirement in the next several years.

Rather than viewing retirement  as an ending, I'm going to viewing it as a beginning. A beginning of a transition where I clear the ground for the next stage of growth in my life. Like the speeches given at commencement ceremonies to graduates every spring.

Here's the question that I've been asking myself lately:

"What is it, at this point in my life, that is waiting quietly backstage for an entrance cue? What new growth is ready to germinate in this season of my life?"

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day in the Garden

A female goldfinch sampling the sunflowers.
Although there are 3 weeks left in summer, the sights and smells of fall are in the air. No place is more evident of this than in the garden where Labor Day is being celebrated today with a flurry of activity by humans, insects and birds. 

Sweet Autumn clematis draping the fence.
Omaha has been deluged with over 12 inches of rain the last couple of weeks resulting in the garden looking overgrown, disheveled and in need of a hard trim. Several hours of pruning, cutting, whacking and pulling has it looking a bit more civilized and ready for fall.  Besides, it's nearly time for the fall show-offs to take the stage-the mums, asters, snowbank boltonia and sweet autumn clematis are all worthy of a less crowded, more presentable platform to show their blooms.
The plumes of a red canna.
A dragonfly parked on a daylily stick.
Monarch butterfly on a Zowie zinnia.
The vegetable season is winding down so out went the withering cucumber and squash vines. A few more tomatoes and pole beans will be forthcoming and a fall crop of mixed greens and radishes was planted. In a couple of weeks, I will plant the spring bulbs-a statement of optimism to dream about on those cold, blustery winter nights when you think that spring will never arrive.

 The praying mantis trying to blend in.
A dahlia about to bloom.
But winter can wait for it is now nearly autumn, the second best season of the year. Warm days, cool nights, chili in the crockpot, college football, long sleeved shirts and the sweet smell of harvest in the air.  We ate breakfast out on the deck this morning-a perk we won't be afforded in several more weeks, but for now we relish the opportunity to be outside.

Summer Joy Sedum and a yellow jacket.
Today, on this Labor Day, nature is clearly at work. The butterflies are frantically feeding on zinnias, a praying mantis was munching on a helenium plant and a grasshopper was sitting on a dahlia. A dragon-fly came for a visit amongst the bees and the chirpy goldfinch sampled the sunflower seeds. A few mums are blooming, the sweet Autumn clematis is cuing up for her spectacular fall show while the canna and zinnias make their last stand hoping for a late frost.

Butterfly bush

I wouldn't want to to live anywhere but in the land of 4 seasons where change is a constant and each season has it's blessings and challenges. As I age and enter into the next stage of life, I am aware that I have fewer rather than more of these seasons  ahead of me. Rather than being morose about that fact,  I am grateful to experience all that each season has to offer, never knowing for sure when it will be the last.

Blue Agastache


A canna plume taken against summer sky.
A few early mums.

Sweet Autumn-millions of sweet fragrant flowers
Two monarchs

The grasshopper on a dahlia stem.