Thursday, February 11, 2016

Article 12: Gail Montgomery

I met Gail Montgomery on March 8, 1988, when I went to her home to attend my first counseling session with her.  We went into her very crowded office and sat across from each other--she in a big chair and I on a sofa that I shared with several stacks of papers.  I was just out of a relationship and felt that I needed to work through issues that kept producing the same results.  A good friend of mine, Cynthia Bassett, recommended that I go to see Gail, who was a practicing psychotherapist.  I found in Gail one of the most remarkable people I've known in my life.

Everything about Gail was large--her physique, her voice, her laugh, her beaming countenance, her personality, her wit, her knowledge, her intellect. She had been raised as a Southern Baptist in Alabama and spent time in the Philippines as a missionary (where she caught malaria), only to question the "truth" of her religious upbringing and then walk away from it.  She became well-versed in many religions and would certainly have stood her own in a debate with any proselytiser.  She knew the practices and sacred writings of those religions, not just Christianity.

Gail was at her best in combining compassion and truth-telling.  Her philosophy as a psychotherapist was that the patient should see results in a short period of time--not just after years of therapy.  I would say that she was incredibly intuitive, but that's not quite accurate.  She was incredibly attentive and knowing.  If you were prepared to hear the truth about yourself, she was prepared to tell you.  She would address you directly and challenge you on anything you said that seemed unreasonable or false to her.  I can hear her voice now, "Oh, well I have to tell you, Steve, you're wrong about what you just said."  And then with a great deal of compassion and insight, she'd tell me why.  I think she was right almost every time.  One was immediately challenged when you engaged in conversation with Gail, and you had the choice of either walking away from the challenge or allowing yourself to be honest and vulnerable to learn something about yourself.

Gail was more than a psychotherapist--she was a healer, a shaman--and she employed many alternative healing methods in her counseling, if you were open to them.  For years she had led vision quests for women and had explored and used the healing practices of different cultures, such as the Cherokee medicine wheel and dowsing pendulums.  She discounted most New Age practices and remedies as gimmicks, preferring hundreds of her own "nutsy, cuckoo" means and remedies, as she referred to them.  She could laugh at herself and share with you the most practical solutions to problems, but her healing powers, even regarding the mundane, were truly astounding.

More than once I was caught off-guard when Gail described something that had happened in my life--a specific event and the approximate date--that I had never mentioned to her!  That was Gail and her magic.  Then we would work on releasing the negative energy I still held surrounding the event.  I learned that there is a difference between placing blame and recognizing responsibility; a person may have been responsible for hurting me, but I could choose to stop blaming them and thus let the event go, finally and forever.  It sounds simple when I say it, but it was only a simple process because Gail made it that way.  I had struggled with some of those things for many years.

One of the most amazing displays of Gail's power was an episode that I still remember vividly.  When I would release all of my attachment to some negative event in my life, Gail would say something like, "Ooh, that was a big energy shift."  So, I asked her once what she meant by "energy shift."  She explained that there's an actual, physical energy release when we let go of attachments or change beliefs, and that she could see that energy wave and determine if it was a small (unimportant) or big (important) shift.  After my dubious response to that, she asked if I'd like to see an energy shift for myself, and I answered, "Sure."  She closed her eyes, concentrated intently for about twenty seconds, and then my entire field of vision began to quiver and move, as one might see heat waves rising from the sands in a desert.  I closed my eyes, re-opened them, rubbed them and shook my head; the energy waves did not disappear but even increased in intensity.  After a minute the waves suddenly disappeared, and then Gail immediately opened her eyes.  When I told her what I'd seen, she nodded and said, "That's what I see."  I never had to question Gail's powers after that.  (I have since learned that "energy shifts" are fundamental to alternative healing practices, such as yoga and acupuncture, although it's rare that you see them.)

Gail and I explored a lot of things in five years.  Much of the early exploration was focused on love relationships, since my original reason for seeing Gail was to get past a failed relationship.  In the first three weeks of our work together, she totally surprised me by her insights and understanding, and I quickly got past the disappointment I'd felt from the break-up.  Then I learned about the mistakes I'd been making for years.  Probably the greatest lesson I learned from Gail was how to choose a woman who was good for me and "easy to live with," rather than someone who might "look good on paper" (my term), but needed rescuing from something or someone.

I had always chosen women based on how similar we were, but Gail used a wonderful analogy to debunk that theory.  I call it her "airplane and rope" analogy.  Two people can be as different as a rope and an airplane, as long as the airplane is attached to the rope and the rope is anchored to the ground.  The airplane teaches the rope to fly, while the rope keeps the airplane grounded.  That can work very well in a relationship.

Another life lesson that I learned from Gail is the art of manipulating people in a good way.  I made the statement to her once that I didn't like people who manipulated others, and she responded, "We all manipulate others. We just have to learn the difference between good and bad manipulation."  She gave the example of parents manipulating their kids to do homework all the time, which is an example of good manipulation.  It's a very useful tool for anyone to possess, and I learned it from Gail.

I chose to continue working with Gail once or twice a month until she and her husband, Ron Yukon, moved to Arkansas.  Thereafter, we spoke a few times each year, mostly to catch up on each other's life.  When I divorced from my first wife in early 1998, I immediately called Gail, and her compassion and comforting words were extraordinary.  She was my "first responder," and she set me on the course I needed for recovery.  I still give this advice to each friend who is going through an especially hard time:
  • Choose five simple things you can do to nurture yourself every day, and do them.  Those are your islands on which you feel safe.  I chose things like having a cup of tea and taking a walk with my dog.  I allowed myself to feel safe during those activities, and I allowed myself to hurt at other times.
  • Allow yourself to hurt and cry as much as you want.  Don't hold back for any reason.
  • Form a "support team" of people with whom you can communicate as often and as much as you need.  I found six people, including Gail, and they were my lifelines to normalcy.  I talked with them a lot.
  • Find a local psychotherapist you can work with face-to-face.  I found a wonderful woman, Kathy Wilkins, through one of my support team people.  When I asked Gail what I should say to Kathy, she told me to ask her to "be a witness to my grief."  Kathy liked that phrase; no one had ever made that request.
I said that Gail's compassion was extraordinary, but what she did for me was almost unbelievable.  It really speaks to Gail's powers as a psychotherapist and strength as a human being.  During one of our conversations, I noticed a slight catch in her voice near the end of our one-hour session, and I asked her if there was something wrong.  She paused and then said simply that they'd had a fire the previous night, and it had destroyed the house and everything they owned.  She had spent the entire hour working with me on my problems, while she was only hours away from having lost everything!  I don't think I've ever met anyone else who had such focus and thought so much of others before themselves.

Gail pushed me to be a happy person.  Although Gail and I covered a lot of territory in my years of working with her, it consistently brought me to a better place in my life.  After one especially probing session, I asked her what the purpose was of all the hard work I had been doing.  Her direct, all-inclusive answer was "to be happy."  I realized at about that time that I had changed from being a fundamentally unhappy person who had happy moments to a person who was fundamentally happy and had sad moments.  That was a huge shift in my life.

In effect, Gail gave me a paradigm for being a happy person.  Part of that paradigm was honestly facing events in my childhood.  Part of it was in learning how to better choose relationships in my adult life.  And a big part of it was in recognizing my own powers--what I could control and what I couldn't.

One of my fondest memories of Gail was when we parted after our last face-to-face session, almost five years after we'd begun.  She hugged me and told me that she thought I'd changed more than any man she had ever worked with.  That felt right to me, because I had really worked in becoming a happy person.

And finally....  Gail died of complications from diabetes on November 3, 2011.  Her husband, Ron Yukon, called to tell me shortly after her death, and we talked and cried for an hour.  A week later, Ron did an amazing thing--he hosted a memorial for Gail on the phone!  Moderated by another close friend of his, the memorial allowed all of us to tell stories about Gail, and dozens of people phoned in from all over the country to take part.

Gail holds the distinction of being the last remarkable person in my life.  Certainly I've known many people who were remarkable in their own right since then, but no one has had to reach out to change my life's path.  Gail's push set me in my final right direction.

In my last telephone session with Gail in March, 1998, I voiced the fear that, after my divorce, I would never find another woman to marry.  Gail immediately responded, "Oh, you'll find someone who you'll marry.  In fact, you already know her and will meet her again next September."  It was a few years later that Gail reminded me that she had told me that, and it had turned out to be true.  Nine years after first meeting Suzanne, I met her a second time in September, 1998, and we married in April of 2002.  Gail never ceased to amaze me.

Article 11: Chester M. Ratliff, Jr.

I met Chet Ratliff in late March, 1979, when I was one of the people who interviewed him for a job at Interactive Applications, Inc., where I worked from spring of 1978 through July, 1979.  I remember having a cup of coffee with him and conducting the interview at a small cafe near IAI, and it was immediately apparent to me that he'd be a great addition to the company.  Chet joined IAI soon thereafter as a systems analyst/programmer.

Probably two weeks after Chet joined IAI, he and I had lunch together, and the conversation quickly shifted from work topics to our personal lives.  I wish I could recall every detail of that conversation, but I don't.  I only remember my impressions of him--that he was thoughtful, modest, very bright, and as much interested in knowing me as I was in knowing him.  I found out that he'd graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in pure and applied mathematics and physics, with a chemistry minor, and that he had grown up and still lived in Berkeley.  So, each day he commuted about 90 miles to work and back!

Although many things, including our diverse and common interests, drew me to Chet, one of the most interesting things to me was how he communicated.  Over the years I heard many people tell him that he was unusually quiet, even wondering if he was shy or intimidated.  From our first conversation I saw him much differently--as a person who listened intently and only spoke when he had something of interest to say.  That set him apart from most people, including myself.  If Chet was quiet for a short time, it didn't mean he wasn't "present."  I thought he was more "present" than anyone I knew.

Our early conversations soon led to our doing many, many activities together.  I think it's typical that a person does a few types of activities with a close friend-- maybe meals together, movies, shopping, one sport.  Chet and I had lunches and dinners together, saw many movies (I'm still somewhat embarrassed that I convinced him to see "ABBA: The Movie"), and went to classical concerts.  He introduced me to the comedy and late-night jazz clubs in San Francisco; I took him to a bluegrass concert in Berkeley.  He owned two beautiful Jensen Healeys, which he personally maintained, so what I know about cars I learned from watching Chet work on his cars.  We attended car road races at Laguna Seca and Sears Point Raceways, went to see the Reno Air Races, saw several A's and Giants baseball games, and traveled to Santa Barbara for a weekend to watch the Junior National Volleyball Championships.

One of our favorite pastimes was watching basketball together, and we often went to see the Golden State Warriors play, especially when one of Chet's four NBA-playing cousins was in town.  (He introduced me to Caldwell Jones and Major Jones after games in Oakland.)  When you sit court-side at a professional basketball game, you get a new appreciation for the remarkable athleticism of those players.

But what we probably loved doing most was skiing together.  Chet pretty much taught me to ski, helped me pick out all of my equipment, and coached me down many scary slopes.  Besides being one of the most graceful, beautiful skiers I've ever seen, he was infinitely patient and encouraging of someone a lot less accomplished than he.  He bought us a pair of fluorescent orange Northface caps so we could always spot each other while skiing on a crowded hill.  (I still have that cap!)  In all the years we skied together, I only saw Chet fall twice, both times when he skied onto a narrow strip of snow that gave way.

As I progressed to an advanced intermediate level, we had more and more fun together. Although I have many memories of those days, I have two favorites.  Once while skiing down a narrow, steep hill late in the afternoon, he saw me struggling a bit, and over the sound of our skis, I heard him say, "Ski the hill; don't let the hill ski you."  He showed me that I had the control and ability to be there.  And then there was the time we got caught in a white-out snow storm at the top of Heavenly Valley, on the California side.  You could not see more than ten feet in front of you, and it was getting worse by the minute, so he led me down the entire mountain without stopping--almost five miles of hills and trails--while dodging people who had fallen.  He knew I was right behind him, and he only skied as fast as he knew I could ski.  Those were great days.

Yet, what I remember more than anything from our years together is our conversations about life.  Although I consider Chet remarkable in so many ways, it is through our talks that he most influenced my life.  I also know that I influenced his life.

Chet pushed me to do right things.  Because of the influence of my father, who I write about in the first article of this series, I grew up believing that I had a fairly good "moral compass"--the ability to do good and right things.  Not until I knew Chet did I realize that I had a bit to go.  I met Chet's parents, Chester Ratliff, Sr. and Christine Ratliff, soon after Chet and I met.  They were the most thoughtful, kind, generous people I'd ever met, and it was evident that Chet and his sister, Deborah, had acquired those traits from their parents.  Mr. and Mrs. Ratliff welcomed me as a member of their family, and I always loved spending time with them, even when Chet was not there with us.

I remember stopping by his parents' home with him once to pick up a basketball from his room.  I noticed some old handwritten notes (really, heart-felt aphorisms) taped to his wall and read a few.  His mother had written them when he was a young kid, and I was stunned by their wisdom, simplicity, and caring, such as "Always be considerate of others" and "Do your best in whatever you do."  (These may be inexact wordings, but they are very much in the spirit of what was written on each small note.)  What I saw that day reinforced what I already knew about Chet--that he was a consistently, uncommonly good person, and the goodness was instilled by his parents every day as he grew up.

But being a good person does not necessarily mean that you do "right" things.  I think you develop that quality on your own when confronted by hundreds of situations in life, if you've already developed a good moral compass.  It might be an action as simple as picking up an object that someone else has dropped or helping an elderly person open a door or letting another car change lanes in front of you.  Chet so consistently did "right" things that it pushed me to be aware of what could be done, if only you paid attention to those around you.  Many of us lead good lives but remain mostly oblivious of others.  A frequent part of our conversations was centered on how people could do more "right" things if they paid attention and put themselves in the place of others--sort of a conscious, consistent Golden Rule.

Chet and I were sitting in a theater one day in 1980, watching Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when the movie was stopped, the lights came on, and we were all asked to leave the building.  After about 20 minutes, they allowed us back in the building and continued the movie.  Chet looked at me and said, "You know what that was, right?"  I nodded, and he immediately got up and walked out while the movie was playing.  A few minutes later he returned to his seat, the movie was stopped and the lights came on again--this time with the theater manager standing at the front.  He announced that there had been a bomb threat, the theater had been searched (with no bomb found), and he'd like to offer a full refund to anyone who wished to leave.  Between 10%-20% of a fully-packed theater got up and left.

How many people would even think to reach out to the manager in that situation, much less act on their thoughts?  I never asked Chet what he had discussed with the manager, but it was obviously the "right" thing to do.  He thought every person should know what happened and have the choice of staying or not staying.  Many times I saw Chet do similar "right" things that were automatic to him.  He "pushed" me by being a constant example of "right" action.  Over the years I've tried to emulate that trait, with varying degrees of success, and I still chide myself when I miss or avoid opportunities to do "right" things.  I often think of Chet when situations present themselves and I act to help someone.

Chet pushed me to look at my biases.  Growing up in the Bay Area, you are inevitably in contact with people of different races, nationalities, religions and cultures.  For Chet to have a white friend was certainly not unusual for him, but for me to have a friend who was black or Asian or Latino or Muslim or some other minority was unprecedented.  I grew up on the east side of town in Rockford, Illinois, which is predominantly white and, in particular, Swedish.  There were fewer than twenty "minority" students in my entire high school (of 2,700 students), only whites in my Sunday school and Jewish temple, and only one black student in my college dorm or any of my college classes.  I did not serve in the Armed Forces, nor did I ever work at a large company, so I almost never had occasion to meet people of other races, cultures and nationalities.

Yet, I did not grow up with any conscious bigotries.  My father, for the most part, saw to that.  Being Jewish, I was exposed to some biases from other students at times, and my father probably used those incidents as examples of how not to treat people.  However, I was dimly aware of my mother's "southern roots" biases, largely unspoken, and the truth was that my own racial thoughts and feelings had never been challenged.  I had been far too isolated in my life.

Chet and I never talked about how people might be biased, and so it is somewhat inaccurate to say that Chet "pushed me" to look at my biases.  What we did discuss was that all people should be treated the same, with respect and dignity and compassion, and from those conversations I intentionally pushed myself to look at whether I had any biases toward other people.  Was I quick to judge this race or that religion in any ways?  For that matter, did I identify people primarily by their race, their religion or their culture, thus automatically considering them as different from me?

I once accompanied Chet to a party of a few dozen people, and midway through the evening I realized that I was the only white person in the room.  What stunned me was not that I was the only white, but that I had not noticed it before.  Our biases begin when we notice differences between people and then magnify those differences into value judgments.  When we notice, share and enjoy our similarities first, our biases dissipate and are tossed aside, like getting rid of old, ill-fitting clothing.  It is so much easier to live that way.  Of the things that Chet brought into my life, that's what I value the most--an ease of living with and accepting other people.  I guess that's the definition of tolerance.

And Finally.... Chet and I live about 55 miles apart, so we don't get to see each other as often as we'd like.  Still, I am reminded of him often and he is always somewhere deep in my thoughts.  Now that the Warriors are playing so well, we should try to catch a game together again.

Article 10: Michael Edward Cowan

Mike and I are brothers.  We have the same father but different mothers, and he is ten years older than I am.  He grew up with his mother's parents in Detroit, and I did not even know about him until I was almost ten years old.  When my sister, Sue, and I were told that we had an older brother, our first question was, "Where is he?"  I think we greatly surprised our parents when we expressed unbounded excitement about having a brother; we wanted to meet him right away.

Soon after we were told about Mike, he came to visit us in Rockford, Illinois, on Labor Day weekend of 1959.  I do have a vivid memory of us going to Comiskey Park in Chicago that weekend to watch the White Sox and Indians play.  The two teams were in a tight pennant race, and we sat along the third-base line on a sunny day to watch a great game, won by the Indians.

Over the next few years, Mike would visit us every year or so, and we would write letters to each other.  We admired and worshiped our older brother; everything about him impressed us.  I remember playing baseball with him at our grade school's blacktop playground one time.  The gymnasium of the school had an all-brick wall, save for two small windows, a couple hundred feet from the playground's home plate, and Mike managed to break both of those windows in one weekend.  Man, could he hit a baseball.

Mike went to the University of Detroit, majoring in management with a minor in economics, and then he served in the U.S. Air Force from 1961 to 1965, primarily as a contracts officer.  He spent a year and a half in Greece, followed by almost two years in Turkey. After his military service, he worked at LTV Aerospace in Detroit as a contracts administrator, but he moved to California in 1967 to take a job with Lockheed, where he initially wrote and managed large construction projects.  I often wonder how my life would have been different had Mike and I grown up together.  Would I have gone into the military?  Would I have moved to California sooner than 1976?  Would I have followed in his footsteps in other ways?

I came to a crossroads in my life in 1976, when I decided to move away from Illinois.  It would either be a move to New York City, to be near my sister, or a move to the Bay Area in California, to be near Mike.  I wrote him a letter about a prospective move, and he phoned me immediately.  He had just started his own software company, International Data Applications, and he wanted me to come to San Jose to "interview" for a job with IDA. By the end of my ten-day visit, I was very excited about the company, had already found an apartment in Los Gatos for me and my dog, and knew it was the right move for me.  Mike went out of his way to not pressure me into working at IDA, for he even set up interviews at other companies.  After the first one, I decided that IDA was the right place for me.

I actually worked at IDA three separate times (1976-1978, 1979-1982 and 1987-1990).  We did a lot of software applications together, in international banking, real estate trust banking and property management.  The two of us visited banks all over the country, and in those years of working together, we made up for all of the years we missed by growing up separately.  Mike was a multi-engine, instrument-rated commercial pilot as well, so I'd often fly in the co-pilot seat next to him on trips.

I can easily say that Mike has been the most influential person in my life.  I have gone to him for advice many, many times, and he has helped me in countless ways.  Although he literally changed the path of my life by inviting me to move to California, I didn't need much of a push to do that.  But there are three areas in which Mike went out of his way to change the course of my life.

Mike pushed me to finish projects. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from Mike, based on one discussion we had in about 1980, is that I should not only have the mindset for starting projects, but for finishing them.  Mike asked me to head IDA's software team when I returned to the company in 1987, partially because he knew I could finish projects that I started.  When I first began working with IDA in 1976, I couldn't do that.  After my return in 1987, Mike didn't push me to finish things; he would tell me what had to be done, and he knew I'd do them.

Having the discipline of finishing projects that I start has influenced every part of my life.  I probably got in the habit of not finishing projects in the 1970's, when it was easy to start a song and not finish it or work on a never-ending, tedious project.  Mike changed my way of thinking about projects, so that, to this day, I will not start any type of project without having a goal, a plan, a clear start and a clear end in mind.  The alternative is having all sorts of unfinished work cluttering my life.

Because I am so project-oriented, it is not a surprise that Mike has so much influenced my professional career, but I am not alone.  When my last company, Quartet Systems, grew to its largest with eight people, five of us had started our careers at Mike's company more than 30 years ago.  Mike always looked out for his people, and he provided the work environment, corporate culture and support for a lot of good systems analysts.

Facebook has the words, "Done is better than perfect," painted on their walls.  Mike pushed me to adopt that policy in life long before Mark Zuckerberg was born.  Beyond being organized and creative, having the discipline to finish things has probably benefited me in life more than anything else.

Mike pushed me to write concisely.  As a contracts officer in the Air Force, Mike learned how to write very important, detailed documents.  Unlike anyone I've ever known, he could write a complete business contract off the top of his head.  (Sometimes he thought that he should have been an attorney, because his contracts were at least as good as any attorney could write.)  He also wrote a lot of technical and user documentation for Lockheed, Memorex and, most recently, Oracle.

When I began writing documentation for computer software systems in the late 1970's, I wrote like a novelist or songwriter.  My documents were twice as long as they had to be.  Mike pushed me to write in a much more concise fashion, without the use of a lot of adjectives and run-on sentences.  (My writing style in these articles is not the same style I use in my technical writing!)  Technical documents need to be clear and concise, unlike almost any other form of writing.

Mike gave me a phrase about presentations--both verbal and written--that he learned in the Air Force.  I think it's an invaluable guide in technical writing.  He said, "Tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them."  Translated, it means that your presentation should have an introduction, a body, and a summary that all holds together.  Countless times I've edited my documents to be more concise, thanks to Mike's influence.

Mike pushed me to be responsible with money. Mike was the first person to urge me to be a saver rather than a spender.  He used to tell me, "Pay yourself first."  He helped me set up my first IRA and stayed on me until I'd contributed the maximum amount each year.  More importantly, he pushed me to have a "saving" philosophy, rather than a "spending" philosophy when I was young, and that has served me throughout my life.

Part of being a saver, rather than a spender, is to learn how to invest wisely, while minimizing risk.  Except for a couple of financial advisers, I really have spent very little time discussing investing with people other than Mike.  During the 2008 and 2009 recession, he was the voice of reason among the many voices of panic.  He taught me to recognize opportunity rather than fear loss.

I remember one phone conversation in 2008 with Mike, after the Dow had dipped another 500 points that day.  His initial greeting was, "Well, did you buy or sell today?"  Few people really have the discipline (and time frame) to "buy low and sell high," but we discussed market dynamics frequently, and he did not let me panic.  As a result of our investing talks and approach, my wife and I regained our losses within eight months of the initial 2008 crash.

Maybe the greatest lesson I've learned from Mike regarding investing and saving is that I should always be mindful of different types of risk.  As socially liberal as we both are, it is amazing that we are both fiscally conservative and always have been.  Mike really pushed me to be that way, and it has made a great difference in my life.

And Finally....  Mike retired a couple years ago and lives near South Lake Tahoe with his wife of 42 years, Sumaye.  We don't get to see each other often, but we talk frequently.  There is no one I would rather spend a day with than Mike.  He is one of the very few people who can always make me laugh.  His wit reminds me of a couple of the old comedians, like Mort Sahl and Jackie Mason.  Subtle, but not without substance and bite.

When discussing one business associate, Mike once used the line, "Down deep he's pretty shallow."  Sadly, that perfectly described the person.  It's a funny line, but you have to think about it.

And then there was the time in a Philadelphia bank's conference room when Mike and I were surrounded by a roomful of bankers.  One banker joined the meeting late, announced that he'd just found out that he had conjunctivitis, and received no response from anyone.  He then spent the next two minutes explaining what conjunctivitis is (we all knew), at the end of which Mike said, under his breath so that only I could hear, "Oh, I thought it was too many run-on sentences."  I nearly died laughing, and no one in the room knew why except Mike.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Article 8: Margaret Cardwell

I met Margaret Cardwell in the summer of 1974, in an Urbana Park District extension building, two blocks from where I lived.  She was the instructor for my beginning ceramics class.  The ceramics studio occupied a single classroom in the old school building then owned by the Park District.  I had not taken a class in any visual art since my sixth-grade art class, so I had no idea what working with clay would be like.

I remember the studio was jam filled with equipment--6 or 8 kick-wheels, tables for hand-building, 2 electric kilns, many 5-gallon buckets filled with glazes, sinks, storage space for large packages of clay and rows of shelves for clay tools and unfinished projects.  It was foreign and intimidating to me, and I easily could have skipped the second class had it not been for Margaret's encouragement, kindness and expertise.  Learning to throw a piece of clay begins with a process called "centering," which is harder than it looks.  The irony was not lost on me, at a time when I was struggling to "center" my life.  If I could only center this chunk of clay and make something of it, maybe my life would follow suit.

Having done wheel-throwing now for many years, I look back on those first few weeks with a bit of awe.  The clay was gritty, the old kick-wheels were hard to turn at a steady speed, and we were elbow-to-elbow in an over-crowded classroom, but somehow Margaret taught all of us to make presentable pots.  She mixed in some hand-building projects as well, such as working with clay slabs and hand-rolled coils, and by the third week, I couldn't wait to get to class.  One night in class, Margaret approached me and, out of the clear blue, asked if I'd be available to join her and her husband, John, and two of their friends for dinner the following Saturday.  I was quite surprised but readily accepted.

Margaret and John lived in a beautiful home, about twelve miles west of Champaign/Urbana near Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve.  They had converted their garage into a studio for Margaret, but I don't actually remember any ceramics equipment there.  She was really an all-around visual artist, for she did oil painting, watercolors, collages, macrames and--the most surprising--large metal sculptures.  Next to three or four easels, you could see her acetylene tank and torch.  Their home was filled with a lot of incredible art work--mostly her paintings, sculptures, macrame pieces and ceramic pots.  I don't think she owned a dish or plate that she had not made. And, oh, by the way--she was the first gourmet cook I ever met!  Her dinners were exquisite.

Margaret and John were from California but spent years in Mexico and Positano, Italy, as Margaret dedicated her life to art and pottery.  John spent his time writing and eventually became an English professor.  (He always reminded me a little of Ernest Hemingway--tall, full gray-white beard, literate and articulate.)  They moved to the Champaign/Urbana area when John got a job at Parkland Junior College to teach English.  They were in their early 50's when I met them, and it was the second career for each of them.

Over the next two years I got to be quite close to Margaret and John.  I helped them plant their huge garden and partook in many wonderful meals and evening-long conversations with them.  I thought of them as having the gold standard in marriage relationships, and I still think that to this day.  At the center of that relationship was a constant respect and interest in each other, always with kind words and deeds.  Once I asked them if they ever got angry at each other, for I had never seen it.  After careful thought, Margaret responded, "Well, there was the time I made a batch of chocolate chip cookies and set them out to cool while I went to class.  John had eaten all of them by the time I got home.  I was pretty mad at him then."  I just nodded and smiled.

Margaret pushed me to create visual art.  Although one might argue that guitar playing is an art form involving one's hands, I really had never used my hands in creating a visual art before I met Margaret.  Ceramics is like painting, sculpture, macrame and drawing, in that you envision the finished object that people will view, and then you try to make it.  Margaret was very patient and encouraging in her teaching, but she also pushed me to be a good potter, giving me techniques that she didn't teach in her classes.  Of course, unlike most of the students, I had the benefit of seeing hundreds of things that she had made, so I asked questions others didn't know to ask.

Part of learning to be a better potter was learning how to run a ceramics studio.  In addition to the classes, a pottery club of 35-40 people used all of the studio's facilities.  Only four people, including Margaret, were in charge of running the studio, but she encouraged me to be the fifth person.  I joined the management team and learned how to mix glazes, stack and unstack the kilns and organize the shelves for classes.  In turn, I learned much more about ceramics than most of the other students.

There is a distinction to be drawn between the mentoring I've received from other instructors in California (especially Jill Getzan, an amazing ceramics artist and dear friend) and the frequent push I received from Margaret while I was first learning ceramics.  I can't overstate the importance Margaret played in my life during those years.  Working in clay was a stabilizing force for me.  When she pushed me to create visual art, Margaret helped me focus all of my attention on what I was making at the moment.  She pushed me to focus on art and other important things in life.  That is why she is on my remarkable person list.

And Finally....  Margaret Cardwell passed away on December 18, 2010, at the age of 92.  I last saw her and John in the fall of 1980, when I visited them in Illinois.  We went to the Covered Bridge Festival in Indiana during that visit, and I have a beautiful photo of them from that day.  Although I lost touch with Margaret and John after that visit, I still have all of the ceramic pieces I made in her classes, and I still think about the remarkable things they did for me.

Article 9: Stephen W. Porges

I met Steve Porges on a volleyball court in the summer of 1974.  I ran a summer outdoor league in Urbana, Illinois, and after the final matches were concluded, he asked if I would like to join their co-ed team to play in the upcoming fall indoor league in Champaign.  His team was comprised mostly of people from the University of Illinois Psychology Department, and it included his wife, Sue Carter.  Over the next two years, our team won five of the six park district leagues that we entered.  Steve and I were the big hitters and blockers, and our styles complemented each other, since he is left-handed and I am right-handed.  We could both jump well and were serious competitors, and we both thoroughly loved the sport.

As with many of the teams in those leagues, the tradition after each evening's matches was to grab a pizza and beer at the closest pizza restaurant, so we often sat together and talked for an hour after our matches.  That is how our friendship developed beyond being volleyball court mates.  One thing that set Steve apart from most of the other people was that he was so engaging and present.  He asked questions about me and my life, and he listened intently.  Years later I realized that people in my new home, California, get to know each other primarily by doing things together, while people in the Midwest get to know each other through talking and listening.  Steve was one of the great "listeners" in my life.

When I look back on the close friendship we developed during my last two years in Illinois, it isn't at all surprising to me.  We had both grown up Jewish and easily expressed our emotions and feelings, while enjoying a rye sense of humor.  We were both greatly influenced by music--Steve had been a very good classical clarinetist, and I had been in a folk band and was a songwriter.  We both loved volleyball and played a LOT of it during those two years--always on the same team.  And we both had found our professional callings in life--he as a neuropsychologist and I as a computer systems analyst.  We both loved talking about our work.

To begin to understand the impact that Steve has had on my life, I should say some things about his career and work.  Steve is probably the most intelligent person I've ever known well.  He currently holds the position of Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University and is a part time Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.  He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at the University of Maryland.  He's a former recipient of a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Development Award and has published over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers across an amazing number of disciplines, including anesthesiology, critical care medicine, ergonomics, exercise physiology, gerontology, neurology, obstetrics, pediatrics, psychiatry, psychology, space medicine and substance abuse.  In one interview of Steve a couple years ago (from which I took much of this biographical information), neuropsychologist Rick Hanson commented that, if a Nobel Prize were awarded in psychology, Steve would certainly have been a recipient by now.

To quote from the biography in Rick Hanson's "Hardwiring Happiness" series of interviews, "In 1994 [Steve] proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the vertebrate autonomic nervous system to the emergence of social behavior.  The theory provides insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders.  The theory...provides a theoretical perspective to study and to treat stress and trauma."  The titles of his two most recent books indicate the breadth and importance of Steve's work.  The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-regulation was published in 2011, and Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe was published in 2013.

Steve was certainly laying the groundwork for his Polyvagal Theory in the years that I first knew him.  Many of our conversations included discussions about his initial theories linking physiology and behavior.  I recall discussing how he wanted to analyze the complex wave that is comprised of a person's vagus nerve signal and heart rate, break down that wave into its component frequencies, associate those frequencies with different afflictions, such as hypertension and autism, and then be able to predict and treat those afflictions if the frequencies were abnormal, even in newborns!  He told me once that he enjoyed discussing his theories with me because (a) I understood what he was saying, (b) I challenged him by asking questions and (c) I was not an academician.

I think Steve's greatest ability as a psychologist and theoritician is the far-reaching, interdisciplinary quality of his work.  His theories are not simply scientific postulations, but they have immense clinical and practical value in today's world.  To be successful in his research, Steve has had to be very good in a lot of disciplines, and one of those, interestingly, is mathematics. Important to the success of his research has been his "intuitive math abilities," as he likes to say.

Soon after we met, he told me that he had just learned about the Fourier transform, which (simply put) is a mathematical tool that decomposes a signal into its component frequencies, similar to breaking down a musical chord into its component notes.  In his research, Steve had been forced to re-invent auto- and cross-correlations, which is just one step away from the Fourier transform frequency extraction method, because he had never heard of Fourier transforms!  (Well, who has except for a mathematician?)  As a person who majored in math, that's pretty amazing to me.

In looking back over our years of friendship, it was difficult for me to define exactly how Steve changed the course of my life, mostly because the influences were complex and not typical of any relationship.  The impact of those influences has taken a lifetime to emerge, unlike the influences of other remarkable people I've known.  But these two influences have, indeed, changed my life greatly.

Steve pushed me to always maintain diverse interests. This may seem like an odd way to influence another person's life, but Steve was the first one to make me fully aware that you are healthier when you actively nourish all parts of your life.  Steve saw me through some difficult times, but amid each emotional upheaval, he pushed me to see the importance and value of different parts of me.  He urged me to integrate those interests and activities, so I would not be consumed by the loss of any one of them.  He would ask me about my music, my sports activities, my computer projects, my reading, my ceramics, my physical health, my relationships.  If I were feeling down about something, he'd urge me to go play volleyball.  If work wasn't going well, he'd urge me to write a new song.  If I were grappling with a philosophical question, he'd encourage me to work it out in the ceramics studio.

I shared a lot of experiences with Steve that led me to realize how important diverse interests are in a person's life--from competing together in volleyball to discussing a computer technique over lunch, from seeing violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the San Francisco Symphony (while he and Sue were on sabbatical at Stanford University in 1981) to attending a lecture he gave in a psychology class at U.C. Davis.  I always admired that Steve could pay such careful attention to each part of his life.

For many years I've been told by people that I have an inordinate number of interests and activities.  Steve pushed me to keep those interests alive, in effect creating my own health safety net.  It goes further than having a busy lifestyle.  If one can be deeply involved in diverse things, then life changes, such as retirement, need not be so challenging.

Integrating and nourishing my diverse interests led to the second influence Steve has had on me.

Steve pushed me to be more resilient.  Steve was really the first person to make me aware that mental health, emotional health and physical health are deeply connected.  (I may even add "spiritual" health.)  He would ask, "Are you taking care of yourself?"  He wasn't asking if I was taking my vitamins; he was inquiring whether I was paying attention to and taking care of all the parts of me.  I think his profound empathy and concern for other people has led him on a natural path in developing his Polyvagal Theory, which opens doors to exploring the range of human behavior when a person feels "safe," not safety from being isolated, but safety while interacting with other people.  In one interview, Steve stated, "We make the world better by making people safer."

Steve has pushed me towards safe places.  I remember telling him once in a phone conversation that I was feeling down about something, and an hour later he showed up at my door with two full bags of groceries, just to make sure I was eating well.  Who even thinks to do that for someone, much less carries through on the thought?  That night I ate well and felt better.

Resilience is the ability to stabilize oneself after a challenge.  I am still working on that set of skills, as we all are.  One of my favorite quotes from Steve is, "Healthy steady states are not steady," so we can expect life to throw us challenges.  As part of my physical health issues in the last twelve years, I have sought and received the support of many others, especially my wife, Suzanne, and through those experiences my resilience has improved.  There was a time in my life when I was a lot less resilient, but Steve was the first to push me towards more resilience.

And Finally... In this article I have not said much about Steve's wife, Sue Carter, who also became a dear friend of mine.  To quote a Wikipedia article on her, she "is a biologist and behavioral neurobiol-ogist.  She is an internationally recognized expert in behavioral neuroendocrinology.  In 2014 she was appointed Director of The Kinsey Institute and Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana University.  Dr. Carter was the first person to identify the physiological mechanisms responsible for social monogamy."  She was also the first to discover the relationship between oxytocin and social behavior.

Sue is such a warm, modest person that it was a long time before I discovered how highly regarded and accomplished she was in her field.  I was at Steve's and Sue's home one Saturday afternoon when I asked what they were doing that evening.  She responded that Masters and Johnson were joining them for dinner!  (I offered to bring the wine, but she said they had that covered.)  Now she's head of the Kinsey Institute, which was founded in 1947 by Dr. Alfred Kinsey (whose research was the basis for the Kinsey Reports).

My final words about Steve refer back to my article on Gary Usher in this series, where I mention that my search for a life's philosophy was first influenced by Gary.  For all practical purposes, that search lasted for nine years and culminated in a brief conversation that Steve and I had in a San Francisco deli one night, before going to the symphony.  We often discussed philosophical questions, and Steve knew I was searching for my "meaning in life," my theory to explain the reasons for living.

Suddenly, I got it, as simple as it could be.  I said, "Somehow life has always been a conflict for me between pursuing what I wanted to do and helping others.  Now I see that they have to work together.  The secret of life is to be the best you can be and to do good for others.  Isn't that right!?"  Steve looked up and replied, "Yes, that's right.  Would you pass the mustard?"

Friday, December 18, 2015

Defining A "Remarkable Person"

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All of us have known people we consider to be remarkable.  Some people have done remarkable things, while others have remarkable qualities about them.  My life has been filled with people who, in one way or another, were remarkable to me.  For the sake of this set of writings, I narrow my definition of the phrase, "remarkable person," to be someone who went out of their way to willfully and intentionally change the course of my life for the better.  Many people have influenced my life, but only a few have intentionally changed my "life path" by their words and actions.  All of the remarkable people I've known have pushed me to change in significant ways.  These writings are about them.

When I say that a person "went out of their way," I don't mean that it was an inconvenience for them.  Perhaps a more accurate statement would be that they chose to spend time with me (and I with them), which led to my learning things that I would have learned from no one else--maybe ever.

As a metaphor for how each of these people influenced me, imagine yourself sitting alone in a rowboat, paddling diligently toward an inviting, unknown, obscure shore.  Suddenly there is a gentle (or strong) wind that changes your direction and gives you reason and inspiration to go that way.  You don't fight against the wind, because the direction seems right to you.  You trust the wind.

That is how these remarkable people have affected my life.  In fact, most of these people certainly affected the direction of many lives.  What is truly remarkable is that they all affected mine.

The Distinction Between Great Friends, Mentors and Remarkable People

In my life I've had an inordinate number of great friends.  These are people with whom I've shared a deep love and many, many life-changing experiences.  They are people with whom I stood on an "equal" footing, even though at any moment, by the very nature of friendships, one of us might be reaping more benefit than the other.

There is an element of time with a great friendship.  It not only takes time to develop, but a great friendship also takes time to flourish and even to die.  I've never had a great friendship where I knew the person for less than a year, although by one year's time, I usually know such a friendship is developing.  Good friendships become great friendships when you've devoted sufficient time to know each other very well.  For me that has always involved a lot of conversation and a willingness from both of us to let our vulnerabilities show.

Seldom do great friendships involve mentoring, although a mentor can evolve into a great friend.  I've had many wonderful mentors who did not turn into "great friends," either because we did not ever have an "equals" relationship or because we did not spend enough time together as "equals."  My mentors were all very good teachers, and I benefited from their wisdom and talent in countless ways.

Curiously, a remarkable person (in the context of these writings) can be a great friend, a mentor, both or neither.  It is important to make that distinction.  The common thread was that each remarkable person pushed me in a new direction, for my benefit alone.  Sometimes we became great friends, and sometimes there was a mentoring relationship--but in two or three cases there was neither.

My List Of Remarkable People

I first made my list of remarkable people in 1980, while I was reading G. I. Gurdjieff's Meetings With Remarkable Men.  Since then, over the course of 35 years, I have refined the concept very little, although I have added two people to and removed two people from the original list. (The two people removed from the list turned into great friends but did not, alas, change the path of my life.)

For a long time I wondered why I hadn't added others to the list, since the last person was added in about 1990.  Then the realization came to me that I didn't need more remarkable people in my life, because they had all, cumulatively, pushed me in the right direction and I had finished my formative changes.  Not coincidentally, 1990 was when I first realized that I was a happy person.  In retrospect, my happiness was the sum of the changes these people had brought into my life.

Here is a list of the twelve remarkable people I've known.  They are listed in chronological order, by when they first greatly influenced my life in remarkable ways.  Of the twelve people, six are already deceased as of this writing.  Amazingly, seven of them achieved a notable degree of "fame" in their lifetimes and were published writers of one type or another.
  • Gerard Aaron Cowan (businessman, my father, deceased)
  • Paul Dale Anderson (artist, writer, actor, great friend)
  • Paul A. Friedman (university professor, writer)
  • Daniel Grayling Fogelberg (singer-songwriter, artist, great friend, deceased)
  • W. Edward Harris (Unitarian minister, writer, poet, civil rights activist, deceased)
  • Thomas Burke Bishop, Jr. (singer-songwriter, writer, actor, playwright, great friend)
  • Gary Lee Usher (music producer, songwriter, deceased)
  • Margaret Cardwell (ceramics artist, painter, sculptor, great friend, deceased)
  • Stephen W. Porges (distinguished scientist, university professor, writer, great friend)
  • Michael Edward Cowan (businessman, my brother, great friend)
  • Chester M Ratliff (computer analyst, great friend)
  • Gail Montgomery (psychologist, shaman, deceased)
I will profile each of these people in subsequent articles.  For many, the exact dates of contact are unclear, although the approximations are quite close to the actual dates.  I especially want to define how each person changed the direction of my life--how I was forever changed by knowing the person.  I am honored to be able to talk about them.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Article 7: Gary Lee Usher

I met Gary Usher in the early spring of 1972.  He was hired by Electra Records to produce our group's album, The Ship: A Contemporary Folk Music Journey. We were delighted that someone of Gary's experience in the music business was going to be producing our album, for he was a well-known songwriter and producer.  He collaborated with Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys on many songs, including "409" and "In My Room," and he produced albums for The Beach Boys and The Byrds, along with many other "surfer" and "hot rod" bands.  He also discovered the comedy group, The Firesign Theatre.

After it was announced that Gary would be producing our album, he made a trip to Urbana, Illinois, to meet us.  The entire group and several other people, including our managers, Roger Francisco and Peter Berkow, were gathered at Rofran Studios late one afternoon to greet Gary.  When he entered the studio, he chatted with everyone for half an hour and then suggested that we go have dinner and see a movie ("A Clockwork Orange").  I had stayed on the periphery of the conversation, for I was a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation.  As everyone filed out of the studio, he hung back and walked over to me.  Only I heard him say, "When you regain your self-confidence, you're going to be really something."  Just those words and nothing more, and we walked out together.

In April of that year, Gary came back to Urbana to hear the group perform The Ship to a sold-out concert hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.  Over 2,000 people saw that concert, and it was probably the best we'd ever performed the folk opera.  In May we hit the road for Los Angeles, where we were to spend six weeks recording the album at Elektra Recording Studios.  We arrived in L.A. on a Friday afternoon and were invited to visit Gary at his home that night.  There we spent a couple of hours discussing what to expect at the recording sessions, which were to begin the following Monday.  Harry Chapin would be recording in the studio during the day, and our sessions would be after his from 4:00 pm to midnight, five days a week.  (His cello player, Tim Scott, was on our album.)  In the studio next to ours, Bread would be recording Guitar Man.  We were pretty excited about what lay ahead.  As we were leaving, Gary took me and my writing partner, Albert Melshenker, aside and invited us to come to dinner at his home the following night.

Gary had a way of making everyone feel special.  He would somehow try to connect with each person in a particular way.  (Mark Hamby, maybe the most athletic of us guys in The Ship, was invited to a game of flag football on Sunday of that weekend.  I remember that Lee Majors was part of that game.)  Well, Mel and I were very happy to attend dinner with Gary Usher.  On that evening, it was just the four of us, including Gary's wife, Bonnie.  She was a lovely, gracious person, but our attention was clearly on Gary, who was seated across the large table from us.  When dinner was over, Bonnie cleared the dishes and did not return for the rest of the evening.  I think Mel and I both wondered what was in store for us.

Gary continued with the following: "I want to tell you a parable and ask you a question, and then I'd like you to answer the first thing that comes into your mind.  Imagine that you are at the bottom of a deep pit with many other people.  All you can see above you is blue sky, and you don't know what is outside the pit.  The walls are almost impossible to climb, and for many days people try to climb out--either alone or with the help of others--with no success.  Finally, you are the first to reach the top and climb out."  During the entire recitation, Gary had been looking directly at me, but at that moment he snapped his fingers, pointed to Mel and asked, "What's the first thing you do?"  Mel immediately replied, "I look around to see what's there."  Then Gary pointed to me and asked the same question.  I replied, "I reach down for the next person."  I had given it no thought; the answer was just there.  Gary pointed to me and said, "You're right.  Now we can begin the rest of the evening."

Gary told us that he'd created a concept album, and we, along with one other person, would be the first to hear it in its entirety.  At that moment, as if on cue, the front doorbell rang, and in walked a beautiful woman, who Gary introduced as "a neighbor who does the Maybelline eye makeup commercials."  Albert and I probably thought the same thing--this isn't Illinois any longer.

I should describe Gary's living room, where we were to listen to the recording.  It was a large room with hardwood floors, about 20' x 40' in size, high ceilings and a very big fireplace on one long wall, opposite a wall of sliding glass doors that led to the garden.  In each of the four corners of the room stood a huge audio speaker tower.  Suspended from the ceiling, facing the fireplace, was a six-foot-wide (very silent) porch swing, and on the floor between the swing and fireplace was a white bear rug.  Except for a couple of incidental chairs, that's all the room contained.

We were already out of our comfort zone when Gary gave us his instructions.  He had brought out a large, scrapbook-like manuscript and said he'd like us to lie down in front of the fire and read the book, pausing at each point that said "STOP FOR NEXT SONG."  To enhance the experience, he wanted us to smoke some marijuana first, so we all did that, chatted for 10 minutes until we were first feeling its effects, and then lay down and began to read.  Gary sat on the swing while we lay facing the fireplace, book in front of us.  If you've ever tried to read something while you're stoned (and I admit it's been well over 30 years since last I tried), you know that it's a real chore.  Each of us struggled through the pages, and when we reached a stopping point, Gary would stand up, walk to a hidden sound system on one side of the room, and play the next song.

What we heard that night was extraordinary--quadraphonic sound with lush, layered vocals and all of the instruments played by Gary.  It was my first experience with "surround sound."  Here we were in Los Angeles to record a concept album, and he had labored for years to make his own concept album, with an accompanying book!  I have since learned that what he played for us were the demo tapes of an album called Beyond A Shadow Of Doubt, but the project was never finished.  As I recall, it was the story of a person's journey into a foreign, Hobbit-like land, complete with adventures, challenges and morals.  I don't believe the book was illustrated, but Gary did show us extensive architectural drawings afterward that depicted the civilization he'd created.

I think Mel was only too happy to get out of there, but I could have talked with Gary all night.  On the way back to our motel, we joked about events of the evening, but I had been forever affected by the experience.  What had really impacted me was the parable.  Gary knew what I would answer, because it was his answer also.  I have serious doubts that we would have been witness to his project, had I not answered his question in that way.

Gary pushed me to explore metaphysics and philosophies.  Two days later we began recording our album.  During that six-week marathon, it was not the time or the place to have in-depth conversations with Gary, but during the first week he pushed me in a surprising direction, by telling me that I should read The Morning Of The Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier.  I immediately got the book and began reading about occult and paranormal phenomena--metaphysics.  It was a whole new world to me.

Gary's message, in several brief conversations, was not that I should adopt the metaphysical ideas and beliefs as my own, but that I should be aware of them.  That year was the beginning of nine years of intense philosophical exploration for me.  I suppose I can say that I was "searching for the meaning of life," but that's over-simplistic.  I was looking for a belief system--a way to conduct one's life--that worked for me.  Gary planted the seeds and gave me a push to do that exploration.

During those eight years I searched through many disparate philosophies, including metaphysics, Buddhism, the Hawaiian Huna religion, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (which is a philosophy unto itself), Hinduism, and especially G. I. Gurdjieff's teachings (which grew out of his Meetings With Remarkable Men book).  I read "New Age" books and "Old Age" books.  I experienced a prior-life regression hypnosis, which was really quite enjoyable and revealing.  Mostly, I talked with countless people about their beliefs.  Gary really opened the door to that exploration.

[In my article on Stephen Porges, I'll discuss the de facto end to that exploration.]

Gary pushed me to be observant.  If there's one characteristic that described Gary Usher, it was that he was observant of others, which is a great irony, because he did not "get" what we really wanted to do on our album.  Roger Francisco and Billy Panda had to remix the tracks, once we'd heard the finished product.  Gary's vision was to over-produce the songs with accompanying strings and all sorts of vocal effects--much like the album from his own project; our vision was to do a folk album with no added effects.

But on a personal level, Gary was as observant and intuitive as anyone I've ever met. By nature he was quiet, but he watched people intently.  That really interested me.  I was usually a quiet person from introspection; what if I was a quiet person from observation of others?  That seemed to be an approach that was consistent with my search for a personal belief system.  The transition from being centered on self to observing those around me was further developed in the books I read the next few years, but the start of that transition was with Gary.  He did see my struggles with self-confidence, from the day he met me, and he encouraged me in a direction that restored my self-confidence.  That transition begins in looking outside yourself, not in constantly trying to correct something inside.

And Finally....Gary Usher died of lung cancer on May 25, 1990, at the age of 51.  It was really not until after his death that Gary's impact on the history of music was realized and documented.  Stephen J. McParland wrote a five-volume biography of Gary Usher, entitle The California Sound (An Insider's Story), which I have not read.  Although I was contacted by McParland and gave him some information about our group, The Ship, and our six weeks with Gary, I don't know if the information ever made it into the biography.  I was not so much interested in Gary's place in musical history; I was interested in his place in my history.

Of all of the remarkable people I have known, I knew Gary for the shortest length of time.  We did not have any contact after the recording sessions were finished.  Even so, I will always remember that parable. Gary was the one who reached down for me.