Sunday, December 20, 2015
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.
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
|Image from Yahoo.com|
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)
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
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.
Saturday, November 14, 2015
I first met Dan Fogelberg in the fall of 1969 at the Red Herring Coffeehouse in Urbana, Illinois, although it was not until March or April of 1970 that we spent any significant time together. I had seen Dan perform several times at the coffeehouse, and, like everyone else who saw him, was overwhelmed by his talent as a singer/songwriter. His vocals and guitar playing were extraordinary, and he was beginning to write songs that were better than anyone else's songs. His guitar work reminded me of a young Stephen Stills, who Dan idolized, and his vocals brought Jackson Browne or Neil Young to mind.
But Dan was more than an unusually good singer/songwriter; his presence on stage was magical. What set Dan apart from every other performer was his willingness to show his emotions and vulnerability on stage. He sang of and from the heart. That's what stunned everyone into adulation.
For several months I tried to figure out a way to approach Dan. I wanted to talk with him about music--and his music in particular. I wanted to find out what drove him, why he had written his songs. He lived on the north side of the University of Illinois campus, in a small basement apartment, so I showed up one night and knocked on his door. When the door opened, he looked at me and I asked, "Can we talk?" He said only, "Come on in." I first noticed a copy of James Joyce's Dubliners lying open on the linoleum floor of the entryway; maybe he had been reading. But when he invited me to sit down with him on the living room floor, I noticed his guitar out of the case. He'd been working on a song.
We talked for four hours straight--about music and love and life. We talked about our shared love of Gordon Lightfoot's music. I told him I'd just written my first song, "Morning Gray," and hadn't even learned the words or chords to it. At the end of four hours, when we were both exhausted, Dan said, "We haven't finished yet. Why don't you come back tomorrow night and bring your guitar." I returned the next night with my 12-string, and that session lasted another four hours, during which Dan played several of his songs, including a couple of new ones, and I played my one song. By the end of that song, Dan was playing lead guitar and singing a harmony on it.
During the next couple of years, we talked a lot about songwriting, and I was often the first person to hear a new song of his. He played the beautiful "Wysteria" for me the afternoon he wrote it. He didn't have a piano at his apartment, so I sometimes came upon him in Smith Music Hall (across the street from the Red Herring) working on a new song at an available piano. I sat next to him on the piano bench as he finished up his epic song, "The River." At one point I made a list of all of his songs that I'd heard. There were 85 of them, many of which he never performed on stage. (I remember titles like "The Subtract Blues" and "Malted Milk Blues" from a time when he was listening to Stephen Stills a lot.)
We had an interesting friendship. By the spring semester of 1971, I was living in a small room at Channing-Murray Foundation, which housed the Red Herring. Dan would knock on my door frequently, and we would put on a record or go out to McDonald's for a burger. We developed a "sixth sense" about each other, where we could feel the presence of the other person in a crowd of people. Maybe Dan had that with others, but he remarked matter-of-factly that we had it. I remember walking through the very crowded basement cafeteria of the student union one day, and as I came around a corner, he was sitting there, smiling, expecting me. He said, "I've been waiting for you; what took you so long?"
Dan pushed me to be a songwriter. Dan was the first to hear my early songwriting efforts, and he greatly encouraged me to keep writing. By sharing his songwriting ideas, I developed my own voice and style, and some of that style was borrowed directly from him. Two of those techniques jump to mind--the use of "internal" rhymes and alliteration. Dan liked rhyming two words that did not come at the end of successive lines, but were in the middle of those lines, so that at least two sets of rhymes resulted from two lines of lyrics. He also employed alliteration more often than most songwriters did. Here's an example of two lines I wrote but never used in a song:
Know how you're feeling, stealing the stars above
I'm staring at the ceiling, reeling from how I love you so
The internal rhymes of "feeling," "stealing," "ceiling" and "reeling" are obvious, but notice the alliteration with "stealing," "stars" and "staring." Those lines are a good example of the influence in craft I got from Dan's writing.
Of course, Dan's biggest influence on my songwriting was to urge me to not be afraid of writing from personal experiences and from the heart. As a tribute to him, I used the word "heart" in many of my early songs. It amazed me how he could translate a real event in his life into a song lyric that appealed and applied to all, without making it sound contrived or sentimental. That was the real beauty in his writing, and many of us aspired to that.
I would probably have stopped songwriting early in my "career" had it not been for Dan's pushing me. I was in full songwriting mode by December, 1970, when Albert Melshenker (then known as Steve Melshenker) asked me to join him in writing a folk opera, called The Ship. Albert was already an accomplished and prolific songwriter, and he liked my songs. When we asked Dan Fogelberg to join us in writing the folk opera, he initially agreed, but he soon bowed out to pursue his own career, which turned out to be a pretty good move.
The last of my songs that Dan heard was one that I wrote for him and his best friend, Elliott Delman, a month before both of them left Urbana for greater things. They were the only two people to ever hear the song, called Leave Easy. I misplaced the lyrics many years ago, but I still remember writing the song to tell him and Elliott what they meant to me.
Dan pushed me to perform in front of other people. I performed in front of coffeehouse audiences for the first time in the fall of 1970. Dan just told me that I'd be fine and he'd be there. He often played lead guitar for me after hearing my songs (at most) once. In the Red Herring 1970 Fall Folk Festival, I teamed up with Nancy and Judy Spratlin to play a bunch of original songs, and Dan sat in to play lead guitar and sing harmonies. Before going on stage, Dan told us that we were all good and deserved to be there in front of those 200 people. That meant the world to us.
I played solo many times after Dan left to pursue his career. Whenever stage fright would threaten to creep in, I thought of how Dan handled it--just try to play your best and let your heart show through. If you made a mistake, it was no big deal; the song was what mattered.
Feeling comfortable in front of an audience has stayed with me all of my life, whether it be leading a class in something like ballroom dancing or performing a new song at a friend's wedding. Dan was the first one to push me to enjoy performing.
And Finally.... By the early 1990's Dan and I had drifted apart, but I always picked up his new CD's and was amazed by his songs. I once asked him if, due to his prolific output, he was afraid of running out of ideas for songs, and he told me it was the opposite--the more he wrote, the more ideas he had.
One of my fondest memories of Dan is when I went to see him open the show for The Eagles at a large venue in Chicago, some time in the mid-1970's. I talked my way backstage near the end of his set and was standing with a group of about 20 people, including all of the guys from The Eagles, when Dan came off-stage after his last song. He handed his guitar to someone and then noticed me standing about 15 feet away. Without a word, he ran over and threw his arms around me. As we walked off together, I heard someone say, "Who is that guy?"
Dan Fogelberg died of prostate cancer on December 16, 2007. He and his wife, Jean, publicized his advanced disease with the sole goals of increasing prostate cancer awareness and raising money for the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Once again, Dan's influence greatly impacted my life, for I have had four prostate biopsies and one minor surgery. I have been fortunate to avoid cancer and take every opportunity to urge my male friends to monitor their prostate health. Jean continues to contribute her time and beautiful art to PCF.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
I met Reverend W. Edward Harris in late 1970, soon after he began to serve as minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana/Champaign (UUCUC). At that time, UUCUC owned the Channing-Murray Foundation (CMF), an on-campus student foundation at the University of Illinois. That foundation housed the very popular Red Herring Coffeehouse and was run by several full- and part-time staff members. Ed Harris visited CMF several times a month and held monthly staff meetings there. That's where I first met Ed and began to talk with him.
Ed Harris was from the South, born in Florida and raised mostly in Alabama. He had an affable, Southern accent and was a mix of homespun hospitality, empathy and kindness. I believe he was raised a Southern Baptist, but after getting his masters at Tufts University, he began working at the Arlington Street Unitarian Universalist Church in Boston, where he was ordained in 1968. The Arlington Street Church is one of the most prominent U-U churches in the country--liberal and community-oriented. (In 2004, it was the site of the first same-sex marriage in the United States.) Ed began working at the UUCUC immediately after his work at the Arlington Street Church.
Consistent with his Unitarian beliefs, Ed was a passionate civil rights and political activist. He served on the board of the American Civil Liberties Union and had been president of the Alabama Civil Liberties Union. He pioneered voter registration campaigns, served on the Birmingham Anti-Poverty Committee and worked extensively on the campaigns of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Carter. He also served on the Democratic National Committee.
I began to visit Ed frequently at UUCUC to have one-on-one conversations about a variety of things. I really enjoyed the work of the foundation, which not only provided many student services, but supported several community programs, such as a drug hotline, Alcoholics Anonymous, Big Brother and a farmers market. The full-time staff members were all conscientious objectors, and when I talked with them about their beliefs, I soon realized that they coincided with mine.
Ed pushed me to live by my values and take a political stance. Before I met Ed, my political views drifted back and forth between the Democratic and Republican Parties. My parents and friends had mostly been Republicans during my youth, but as I got into college I met more people who grew up as Democrats. One's party choice was up for grabs as the Vietnam War era began to unfold, as early as 1962. The first U.S. anti-war demonstrations were in 1964. By 1968, I was so much against Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam that I preferred Nixon in the 1968 election. My voting preference was completely out of sync with my personal beliefs and values.
Ed Harris began to clarify the issues for me. I soon discovered that the man voiced his opinions, and that those opinions were based on deep beliefs. I had never met anyone who was passionate about civil rights; the extent of my civil rights knowledge came from what I saw on television and read in the newspaper, plus a few lessons I had learned from my father (such as driving through the streets of Detroit and seeing the immediate aftermath of the 1967 race riots).
Ed pressed the issues much further for me and others. For the first time in my life, I began to see that civil rights are fundamental to our existence as a civilized democracy. Voting rights are a vital part of those civil rights. It is important to stress that Ed did not flaunt his political affiliations in our discussions; he spoke only about his beliefs and actions. As a Unitarian minister, he was used to hearing all sides of an issue and speaking clearly and convincingly about what he thought was right.
Ed was a storyteller par excellence. Everyone in our little community had opinions about the Vietnam War and all of the different movements taking place in the 1960's, but none of us had seen the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement first-hand, led by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963, as Ed had. He helped shuttle people from the Birmingham Airport to the site of the Birmingham march. And on Sunday, September 15, 1963, Ed was one of a handful of white men who visited the homes of parents who had lost their daughters that day in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing [as told to me by his wife, Sandra]. Ed's stories could top anyone's, because they spoke of pivotal events in this country's civil rights movement.
Ed pushed me and others to live by our values and to take a political (and often moral) stance.
Ed pushed me to be aware of and act on my conscientious objector views. Ed had served in the United States Marine Corps, but he was very supportive of the nationwide Unitarian Universalist policy of providing alternate service positions to conscientious objectors. When the subject of military service (and the Vietnam War) came up between us, I readily voiced my scattered, unstructured beliefs that I was against wars and violent means of solving problems. Ed helped me place structure to those beliefs. He taught me what it was to be a conscientious objector, and questioned me extensively about what I thought and felt.
Ed knew I'd been in ROTC for four years (three in high school, one in college) and had even fired on a rifle team for three years, but he also knew about the transformation I'd experienced after my father's death in late 1968. During our talks, Ed was a counselor more than anyone else had been for me. After it was clear that I was, at heart, a conscientious objector, he provided counseling on how to apply for full CO status. Our discussions were the basis for my answers to the four questions each applicant must answer on their CO application. He reviewed my answers and wrote a wonderful letter to the draft board in support of my sincerity.
My CO status was approved in the late spring of 1971. I was the first person in my draft district to achieve full CO status without having to appear before the draft board. Part of the reason was that I had already begun my alternate service with Channing-Murray Foundation and had informed the draft board of that. I was sincere in my beliefs and sure that I wanted to commit to two years of alternate service, whether or not my draft number was reached for that year. (It wasn't.) But a big part of the reason was that Ed Harris pushed me to be aware of and act on my beliefs in the first place.
And Finally.... Ed Harris died on August 10, 2012, at the age of 77. After leaving Urbana Champaign in 1983, he led Unitarian Universalist congregations in Indianapolis, IN, Bethesda, MD, Evanston, IL and Manhasset, NY. We kept close contact through the 1980's and infrequent contact after that, mostly via Christmas letters. (Recently I renewed contact with Ed's wife, Sandra Harris, and it was great to speak with her again and talk about Ed.)
Ed became a wonderful writer and poet in the last third of his life. He had seven books published, including the acclaimed Miracle in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Memoir, 1954-1965. In 2000, he sent me a booklet of his American Sijo poems, called Still My Love for you Increases. His hand-written note to me said, "I am still working on my civil rights memoir - No Flame Like Birmingham [the original title?]. Got interested in sijo and put this little book together for my friends." He was a dear friend, beyond being a remarkable person in my life.
When I think of Ed, I can't help but think of the time at a CMF staff meeting, when several of us complained about the next-door sorority, whose members kept filling our parking lot spaces with cars and trash bins with garbage. He paused for effect and blurted out, "We're going to bomb that f*****g sorority." We were all stunned by his candor, considered his practical solution, and then burst out laughing. He made one phone call, and the problems were solved. Ed was a soft-spoken, humorous, humble person who knew how to get things done.
Ed did a lot of good things for a lot of people in his life. He certainly changed my life in profound ways. In our last communication, in 2001, he recommended a Unitarian minister in Dayton, Ohio, to perform the wedding ceremony for me and my wife, Suzanne. As with just about everything from Ed, that was pretty good advice.
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
I met Paul Dale Anderson in early summer of 1967. Paul had opened a used bookstore on Main Street in Rockford, Illinois, and a friend told me I had to check it out. The store was called "The A," which stood for "The Arts." It was filled with old books and comic books, most (if not all) of which were originally owned by Paul. He simply didn't have enough space to store his thousands of old books, so he decided to open a bookstore and sell them.
But the store was more than just a bookstore and comic book shop. It was also a "head" shop, with black light posters, incense, pipes, beads and an assortment of things that would appeal to Love Generation youth. When you entered the front door, you left Rockford behind and entered an environment straight out of Chicago's Old Town or New York's Greenwich Village of the 1960's. There was no discernible organization to the place. Books were everywhere, posters were on the walls and ceiling, Paul's oil paintings were tucked here and there in nooks, and one or two chess boards were always set up, ready for use. Music (mostly classical and folk) played constantly on the 8-track cassette, and the smell of pipe tobacco and incense engulfed you as you entered the front door. The whole place was a challenge to all of your senses, and I loved it.
For the next couple of years, my sister and I spent a lot of time with Paul in that store. We kept the coffee fresh, waited on customers, worked the cash register, put posters on the walls and organized book shelves (to the extent they could be organized). We helped Paul set up a coffeehouse in the basement of the store, where several of the area folksingers would perform. We loved the atmosphere of the place, where there was always stimulating conversation, on-going chess games, music and books, books, books.
Paul grew up in Rockford and majored in journalism and philosophy at the University of Illinois. Five years older than I, he worked with Roger Ebert on the Daily Illini, the school's award-winning newspaper. He is the first Renaissance man I ever knew. In the years I spent with him, he was an accomplished actor, painter, writer and general bon vivant, with his habitual two-day beard, sly grin and hands that looked like he'd just cleaned and packed his pipe (which he probably had).
Paul Anderson pushed me to appreciate the arts. Paul was the first person to shove a book into my hands and say, "You have to read this." His tastes in art and literature defined "eclectic." He turned me on to the stories of Wolfe and Hemingway and Vonnegut and Salinger, the poems of T.S. Eliot, Gwendolyn Brooks and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the plays of Shakespeare and Shaw. He was the first to introduce me to fine art, especially the paintings of Edward Hopper and Winslow Homer.
On any given day we might be sitting in his shop, sipping coffee and awaiting the presence of customers, and he would grab some book off a shelf and read a passage aloud to whomever was there. You might get a poem by Emily Dickinson or a few pages from Kerouac or Heinlein.
That was one thing that was so great about knowing Paul: you never knew what you'd hear next from him, but it was likely to push you in a direction you hadn't expected. The sheer volume and breadth of his knowledge was astounding, and he shared it, kindly and thoughtfully, with others. His generosity changed the course of my life.
Paul Anderson pushed me to be a critical thinker. Paul was also the first person to highly encourage me to think critically about a subject. He started a series of drop-in discussions in his bookstore, and an evening's topic could be on anything--a work of art, a movie, politics, a person, a philosophy of life. It was called the Penny University. If you paid a penny to partake in the discussion, you could sit in and say as much or as little as you wished over the course of a couple hours.
It was typical for the Penny University to attract a number of bright people who were not shy in voicing their opinions and thoughts. Paul always encouraged me to jump into the conversations, although I was initially shy and unsure of myself in front of such an intellectual group. His respect for my opinions really pushed me to think critically about art, events and issues for the first time in my life. It is a habit and facility that I carry with me to this day.
And Finally.... Paul Dale Anderson has become a very well-known writer in the "horror, fantasy, science fiction, and suspense-thriller genres," as his website states. He's written, as of the website's last update, 27 novels and hundreds of short stories. He's taught creative writing and been an editor for several publications, a hotel manager, a librarian and a board-certified hypnotist. That's just the beginning of what Paul has accomplished in his lifetime, but we'll err on the side of modesty here.
More than anyone else, Paul helped me and my family when my father was gravely ill and after he died. (Ironically, his father died only three weeks after my father died, in December of 1968.) He was there for us throughout that ordeal, and I will always be grateful to him for his love and guidance during that time.
Periodically, I reread a short story of Paul's called "The Understanding." In it, he describes the two bronze lions outside the Art Institute of Chicago. It was the first I knew of those lions, guarding the gateway to some of the greatest art in the world. Paul, you opened the gates to all of art for me. Thank you, my friend.
I met Thom Bishop in the fall of 1970. Our paths crossed at The Red Herring Coffeehouse on the University of Illinois campus, where we each performed frequently. Thom would either perform solo or with his friend, Fred Rubin, and I always tried to catch their one-hour sets, because they were two of the best in the endless array of musical talent on campus. To me, Thom had a stage presence that was somewhere between Buddy Holly and John Lennon. The Buddy Holly comparison wasn't hard to make, because Thom did several Buddy Holly songs (like "That'll Be The Day" and "Peggy Sue") and just nailed them. But with his leather jacket and quick, penetrating wit, Thom reminded me of a young John Lennon.
Early in our friendship, Thom and I passed each other on the Herring steps one night and he asked where I was headed. I told him I was going to drop in and see a play at the nearby Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. I remember him saying, "You go to a lot of things there, don't you?" We chatted for a few minutes about our mutual love of theater, and in his modest, off-handed way, he suggested that I go to see Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot the next week. It turned out that Thom was starring in the play as one of the two main characters. It was then that I found out he was a theater major.
Although our friendship began to grow, the first pivotal night of conversation occurred a few months later, after I had moved into the building that housed The Red Herring. I was working at the coffeehouse almost every night and would see Thom quite often. At some point, the subject of Janis Ian's music came up, and I said that I was a big fan of hers. Thom said he'd never really listened to her music, so I invited him into my little room to listen to one of her songs. We sat and listened to two full albums, and we talked about music into the night.
Over the next two and a half years, we spent a lot of time together. We would play our new songs for each other when we finished them and attend each other's coffeehouse sets. For some reason (whether Thom asked me or I asked him), I sat in one night for one of Thom's sets, playing a second guitar and adding harmony to the songs I knew. It was completely unrehearsed. Midway through the set, he announced that he was going to do a song he'd just completed that week--one that I hadn't heard yet. I sat quietly next to him while he played the amazing "Mr. Arthur's Place," one of the greatest pieces of songwriting I've ever heard. What a treat to be sitting on stage next to someone performing an instant classic! (The song was later recorded by Michael Johnson and Mandy Patinkin.) When he finished, he looked over at me and grinned, just knowing he'd blown me away.
That is the nature of our friendship--subtle surprises and a closeness that is usually accompanied by an inexplicable magic. More than once, while walking alone on campus, I'd glance over to find him walking next to me, and we would continue a conversation from days past, without even saying hello. One of our favorite pastimes was to hop in his car late at night and drive on the country roads outside Urbana, either talking or listening to the night's sounds. I remember two particular episodes from those nocturnal rides.
One night as we were driving adjacent to a large cemetery, I saw a set of headlights keeping up with us from inside the cemetery. Near the end of 200-yard stretch, the headlights suddenly disappeared. Thom asked, "Did you see that?" I said something brilliant, like, "Yeah, headlights, what...?" We both knew there was no road in the cemetery, nor was it a reflection of our headlights, and then we both came to the same conclusion: some kid was still racing his car, long after he'd been killed doing it. It was our James Dean moment.
And then there was the time that Thom decided to stop along a country road in front of a dark, deserted farmhouse one warm summer night. Neither of us had been there before. There were high cornfields on all sides, and without a word we walked around the property to the back side of the barn, which was brightly lit by the shining moon. We stood there in silence for a minute, and then I had this stark impression that we had walked into an Andrew Wyeth painting. The light and air were eerily reminiscent of Wyeth, and we were the subject of his work. Thom knew exactly what I was saying. It did not seem so unusual for us to experience.
Thom pushed me to create. Thom may be the most creative person I've ever known. What's so impressive is that he's applied that creativity in so many ways--songwriting, acting, musical scores, and the writing of plays, short stories and novels. He's made several excellent albums, and his songs have been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan and Richie Havens, among others. I also highly recommend his debut novel, "Something Gorgeous," in which he has created a parallel, yet divergent, universe to "The Great Gatsby."
In his constant, unrelenting pursuit of art, he has always pushed me to create. The "push" has been subtle, more like a constant reminder. One of his favorite questions for me is not, "What are you doing these days," but "What are you creating these days?" Creating something is Thom's lifeblood, and, as trite as it may sound, his creativity has inspired me to create in my lifetime. He made me realize that I am not really at peace and satisfied with life unless I am creating something. I have produced songs, essays, stories, poems, blogs, works in glass and ceramics. All of those have given me great joy and a degree of accomplishment, but only one thing has given me complete fulfillment and pleasure--writing computer programs.
Stanford Professor Donald Knuth once said, "Computer programming is an art, because it applies accumulated knowledge to the world, because it requires skill and ingenuity, and especially because it produces objects of beauty." Over my 42 years of creating computer programs, in 13 languages and almost 50 business markets, I have always approached the process as I would approach writing a novel--with inspired ideas, a deep and organized structure, work discipline, clarity of purpose, a good plot and a flair for words. I remember talking with a friend in the early 1980's about "elegant solutions" in computer programming, and what we were really discussing was one's desire to create beautiful, useful things with computers.
I associate that unabashed urge in me to create with the example Thom has set and encouraged as long as I have known him.
And Finally.... Thom lives in Boulder, Colorado, and teaches at both Naropa University and the University of Colorado. He is an associate professor of creative writing at Naropa's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, which is a program co-founded in 1974 by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. He is also a lecturer for the U. of C.'s Film Studies Department.
Whenever we talk (and we both feel it is not nearly often enough), it is like walking side-by-side again and having our chats about music and literature and life and what we're creating. It is a place of real comfort for me.
I remember getting a call from Thom some time in the early 1980's, when he was in Nashville or New York or Chicago or Los Angeles working on a project. He told me that a mutual friend of ours, songwriter Fred Koller, was getting married the following Saturday on a beach in Santa Cruz, and would I please show up and take a bottle of Champagne from both of us? It was just the type of thing he knew I'd do, and Fred was delighted when I walked up to him on the beach and told him Thom sent his regrets for not attending but wished him well.
Thom showed up in my life unexpectedly, just at the right time.
Monday, October 26, 2015
I met Paul Friedman at the University of Illinois in the fall of 1968, when I took the first of two short story courses from him. As I recall, Paul was one of three professional writers hired by the university to teach literature. (Subsequent to my course work with Paul, he became director of the creative writing program at U of I.) On that first day of class, he walked in wearing jeans, a Navy pea coat and a wool cap. None of us recognized him as the instructor until he sat down at the desk in the front of the room. When he spoke, it was apparent that he was from New York and somewhat reserved in front of 25 people. He did not fit the prototype of an opinionated university literature professor.
As it turned out, I learned more about literature from Paul Friedman than from any other person in my life. Over the span of one year's time, we covered a couple dozen short story writers, somewhat in chronological order. For each author, we read between eight and fifteen short stories. We'd discuss one or two of those stories in class and then be tested on any of the stories when the infrequent tests rolled around. Much of our grade was based on our participation in class and the papers we were required to write. We started with Nathaniel Hawthorn and progressed through Edgar Allan Poe, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, D. H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, among several others.
Autumn of 1968 was not a good time in my life, because I knew my father was terminally ill and would probably die before the end of the year. I was struggling to decide whether I should pursue a career in computer science or as an English professor. I very much wanted to be able to tell him my decision before he died. In the first course I took from Paul Friedman, just as we began reading James Joyce's Dubliners, I realized that I knew very little about how to read a story. I read the words and could remember the plot and characters, but the deeper meanings eluded me. Although I loved literature, I suspected there was much, much more in a story than what I was understanding.
So, I decided to visit Paul in his office and ask for help. I had no idea what I was going to say to him, but my request for help quickly turned into a confession that my father was dying and I very much wanted to learn to read on a level that did justice to the brilliance and depth of the stories AND that somehow those two things were related. Paul understood and told me he would help, but I left without knowing how that would happen.
In class the next day we began discussing "The Sisters" from Joyce's Dubliners. He said that James Joyce always wrote stories that could be interpreted on multiple levels, perhaps more levels than any other writer, and that it was possible for all of us to understand those levels with a little work. Very soon I noticed three things happening that stunned me. First, Paul was actually using phrases that we had used the previous day in our conversation, with meanings that were very different from our original meanings. He was teaching James Joyce using some of our own words! Second, he did not look in my direction at all for the better part of an hour. Although I was one of his more active students, he was obviously addressing me without looking at me. Last, because Paul was teaching on multiple levels, I was understanding the story on multiple levels--for the first time. It was an amazing thing to experience.
At the end of the hour, after he gave the assignment for the next class and students began gathering their books to leave, he turned deliberately and stared right at me for a few moments. I knew part of that hour had been for my benefit alone. He smiled kindly and walked out.
Paul pushed me to learn to read. From the day that Paul introduced the concept of multiple levels and the use of symbols in a story, I began reaching for those deeper meanings and enjoyed reading much more. He taught us to use the Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA) to research stories in depth. The PMLA contains a cross-reference of all critical articles that have been written about any particular story over the course of a year. One story I researched was "The Cask of Amontillado" by Poe. After reading seven or eight critical articles about that story, I was ready to write a term paper on it, because I understood it through and through.
One of my proudest moments in learning to read was an in-class discussion I had with Paul concerning Ernest Hemingway's "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." The story really comes down to interpreting whether the old waiter or the young waiter says each line, as they observe an old patron sitting in their late-night cafe. The source of each comment is not revealed by Hemingway; that's the whole challenge of the five-page story. At the end of an hour, I had at least partially swayed Paul to my interpretation, but my elated feeling of success faded that evening. Something bothered me about it, and I went to the library to research the story in depth. Several articles into my research, I discovered that a publisher's error had misprinted two lines of dialogue in the story--running them together as if one person had said them. Of all stories for such an error to occur! And, yes, our edition had that error in it!
At the next class, I told Paul that we both had been right in our analysis. Of course, the victory was mine because I had learned from him how to read on a consistently deeper level.
Paul pushed me to appreciate rewriting. Paul once told me that there's no such thing as good writing--only good rewriting. I have used that quote more than any other quote in my life, and it has been a very valuable piece of advice I've passed along to others. Although Paul never critiqued my writing other than term papers, for I was primarily writing songs in those days, he has been looking over my shoulder for decades. Whenever I've written something--a letter, technical paper, proposal, business report, song, essay or blog--it is the rewriting that has been most critical to its clarity and success. That's been true for 45 years.
And Finally.... For many years, Paul and I would meet over coffee and discuss books and life. I remember discussing Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Raymond Carver with him, and our opinions coincided about those writers. I was also delighted to be given signed copies of two of his books, "And If Defeated Allege Fraud" and "Serious Trouble".
We primarily knew each other during the last six years of the Vietnam War. I saw him during campus demonstrations in 1970, where he was an island of common sense amid the oceans of student emotions. Because I believed strongly in the precepts of being a conscientious objector and discussed those beliefs with Paul, I asked him to write a letter in support of my sincerity--not in support of my position, but in support of my sincerity--and send it to my draft board. He wrote a most incredible letter, which I still have. The depth of his letter revealed not only that he was a beautiful writer, but that he knew me well.
Paul lives in the Los Angeles area now and is still writing every day. Before contacting him recently, I last heard from Paul in 1997, after I had written to him and thanked him for all he'd added to my life. In a style that instantly recalls his writing and his teaching voice, he replied in a letter, "I appreciate what you said, and since in certain ways it is as--what?--hard to hear certain things--even very nice things--as it is to say them, let me simply be direct and economical: It was great of you to say what you said; I'm extremely pleased."
So am I, Paul.
Monday, October 12, 2015
My father, Gerard Aaron Cowan ("Jerry"), was born in New York City in 1908 and was raised in a Jewish New York family with money. His father was a tailor, and his mother was a dress designer. They owned and lived in a five-story brownstone building on the upper west side of Manhattan, and a 1910 census documents that my father, his parents, two sisters, two or three cousins and three servants lived in the building. It appears that my grandparents separated some time in the 1920's, when my grandfather moved to San Francisco to manage a clothing store. Both of them died in the 1930's.
In the 1990's, I was very fortunate to find over 2,000 family letters in old boxes saved by one of my aunts. Although the exact reasons are not ever mentioned in those letters, I surmise that the Great Depression and poor investments were the primary causes of the loss of wealth in my father's family. Prior to 1930, there were many references to vacations, including extended trips to Europe, and purchases of gifts. Beginning in the early 1930's, all of that disappeared and was replaced by frequent requests for small loans and references to good deals on small purchases. Such was probably the case for millions of families in the United States at that time.
I have several pictures of my father as a young man. In all of them he was well-dressed and "dapper." He looked very much like Humphrey Bogart, with the same self-assurance and carriage. One early picture shows him in riding togs atop a handsome horse. He was always the cosmopolitan man-about-town.
I know my father did not attend college, and there's some question about whether he even finished high school. He was, however, really intelligent and an entrepreneur at heart. All of what he did in his life was self-taught, for he was a voracious reader and resourceful dreamer. During his life he chose to work in building supplies and kitchen designing, and at least three times he built his own small company. He was an incredible draftsman and could design an entire kitchen in under ten minutes. As a young kid, I saw him do that many times, and I still have his drafting board, which he built for himself almost 60 years ago. He was also a born salesman; he could sell ice to an Eskimo.
My father was 60 years old when he died of colon cancer. I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. All of my summer jobs were spent doing work at his little building supply company, where he taught me accounting, inventory, draftsmanship, sales and hard, physical labor. Those were great summers, except for the last one, when I ran the business and visited him in the hospital twice a day. My father insisted that I return to college at the end of that summer for my sophomore year; another person he hired would step in to run the company for a few months.
I really had one purpose in mind when I returned to college. I wanted to be able to tell my father, before he died, what I would be doing for the rest of my life. I had been a math major, but was tiring of that, so I was taking my first computer science course and continuing with my English literature studies. I would either pursue a career in computers or become an English professor. Although I loved reading, I fell in love with computer programming, and I told him of my decision a couple weeks before he died, on December 4, 1968.
I could list dozens of things he taught me, and they would probably be very similar to what other boys learned from their fathers. My great love of sports, especially golf and baseball, came from him. But beyond the normal things a father teaches a kid, he taught me, by example, how to conduct oneself in life. I wanted to be like him, so I constantly observed him. I would say that he was the greatest influence on my life, and thus, the most remarkable person.
My father pushed me to think analytically. He never told me I had to be anything, but he gave me the analytical tools to succeed in whatever I chose to do. He taught my sister and me to play chess when I was 7 years old (and my sister was 6 years old). He began teaching me math shortcuts and puzzles when I was 8 years old, such as how to multiply two numbers in the teens (e.g., 19 x 17) "in my head," without the use of paper and pencil. He was equally good at both deductive and inductive reasoning, and, by his example, I became good at both. He constantly challenged me to be analytical.
My father pushed me to work hard. No one in my life ever pushed me to work as hard as my father did. When kids were working 20 hours a week at summer jobs, I was working 50 hours and getting paid for 40 hours, at $2 an hour. Most of it was physical labor, like unloading a semi truck filled with boxed kitchen cabinets. He didn't have to tell me twice to do things, because he worked harder and longer than I did. Instead, he would bring me a soda pop (temperatures were often in the 90's) and tell me to rest for awhile, then get back to work.
It was natural that my discipline for physical labor carried over into my school work. Working three or four hours on homework was nothing compared with unloading a hot truck for eight hours. School was a vacation from summers in that respect.
My father pushed me to take on responsibilities. Where my mother wanted to do things for me, my father wanted me to do things for myself or for others. When given a task by my father, I was never asked whether it was done yet. He knew I was focused on finishing the task, so he gave me greater and greater responsibilities. On the day I returned home from my freshman year of college, I was told that he was dying of cancer and that I would have to run the family business for the summer. He gave me his car and asked me to drive him to the hospital.
Because of his great push, both direct and subtle, for me to take on increased responsibilities, I never thought that I couldn't do something when I was growing up. I learned that from him, too. There was no room for self-doubt or excuses, because I didn't see either in him. (I did go through years of self-doubt after his death, and I was pushed by other remarkable people to get past that, as I address in other articles.)
My father pushed me to be organized. My friends know me as someone who is organized to a fault. I get that from my father. In running a small kitchen business, he knew where every piece of paper was, and he pushed me to be equally as organized. Since every kitchen sale was a project, from initial design to delivery of the cabinets and appliances for installation, he pushed me to be project-oriented. I am that way to this day. He typically had 20 projects going at once, so he pushed me to multi-task like he did.
My father pushed me to practice kindness and be respectful. As a young man, my father probably faced much more anti-Semitism than I ever did. He changed the spelling of the family name from "Cowen" to "Cowan," to make it appear more Irish. (His father had changed the spelling from "Cohen" to "Cowen.") He believed, in business and in one's daily life, that you should practice kindness and respect all people. I remember distinctly and was surprised at how highly he spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King, as he first made me aware of the civil rights problems in this country in the 1960's.
He was described by people as a "gentleman," but that really came down to treating people in an honorable, fair and caring way. His deals were sealed by handshakes, and he taught me to address all people properly and with respect. If I ever forgot to do that, I heard about it.
Although there were many times I saw his kindness and respect of others, no episode stays with me more than the time that he and I delivered a few kitchen cabinets to a retirement center. He had donated the cabinets and could easily have dropped them off at the back of the building, but we parked and walked through the building from the front entrance. He intentionally got several steps ahead of me and forced me to walk through the hallways alone, gazing at all of the seniors sitting in wheelchairs or using walkers. It was an overwhelming experience. When we were done delivering the cabinets, he said only, "I hope you were paying attention." His intent, I'm sure, was to show me that seniors should not be put somewhere and forgotten.
And Finally.... It's easy to over-emphasize the influence that my father had in my life, but if anything, I have under-estimated in this article what he did for me. My mother did a lot of things for us kids also--she taught us to read, got us to schools and took care of us--but she never pushed me the way my father did. He changed the course of my life more than any other person has.