A New Year, New Work, and Beyond

Happy New Year! I haven’t made many resolutions beyond attempting to maintain my health (such as it is), but I would like to make good on a promise (“nothing promised that is not performed”; Robert Graves, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”) from the second-to-last post (“Mostly for Fun—Once Again”) and that was to offer some excerpts from or a portion of a new book project I’ve managed to make some steady progress on: “Going Solo” (the sequel to The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir).

It’s also not wise, I suppose, to start out the New Year with another disclaimer, or apology, but I would like to take a minute and say that I am (painfully) aware of the large number of typos that appeared in the last post (“More Jazz”) and would like to express hope that I’ve located and “fixed” most of them—so I also hope those of you who read the early version will take another look now (and yes, please do let me know if you find any fresh typos, ho ho). The excuse I’ll offer is that the Ice Age or cold spell that kept me out of my studio for a week or more also provided disadvantageous influence on my computer (which frequently shut down while I was composing and attempting to get “More Jazz” up and running)—but that inconvenience, thank goodness (and mercy), seems to have been corrected now.

The Holiday Season was bountiful (I received the giant Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2–just out–and that was just one gift!) and focused on good times with family, in both Galena, Nevada (as mentioned in the “More Jazz” post) and at home in Pacific Grove, California. I’ll “document” a few fine moments with a collage of photos—and then move on to “business.”  

Family at Reno Bobby and Megan Em and Blake

Murph  Bill and Betty in Reno  Steve and I Making Music1

Buddy5   Buddy and Dad

The cast of characters includes: the whole bunch up in Galena, granddaughter Megan and her beau Bobby, granddaughter Emily and grandson Blake, Em’s boyfriend Murph, my wife Betty and me (can’t remember the point I was trying to make, if there even was one, ho ho), son Steve and I making music in Pacific Grove (he’s got a fine ear, gets better and better on electric bass, and we enjoy jammin’), Steve’s wife Yoko with a neighborhood cat, Buddy, who’s taken up occasional residence in our home–and me contemplating Buddy’s most recent residency.

I’ll try to keep an introduction to the “Going Solo” project (work in progress) short. It’s a continuation of the overall memoir project I started with The Inherited Heart, and begins with reminiscence on going off to the University of Michigan at age seventeen. What follows is an excerpt from Chapter One:

FRESHMAN ON THE QUADRANGLE

On a fine bright autumn day in September, 1953, I was standing outside South Quad with friends from high school: the same bunch of guys—Dave Hershey, Duffy Gilchrist, Larry Coleman, Charlie Weir—with whom I’d had my picture taken for The Birmingham Eccentric (our home town “rag”), the five of us heading off for “college days” at the University of Michigan.

On this September day in 1953, we were talking to Ron Kramer, an athlete from East Detroit High School with whom I’d competed in track meets, although not directly, for he’d been a hurdler and I’d been a sprinter. Ron would eventually become a fraternity brother of mine (Sigma Chi), a football, basketball, and track star, a three-time All-American in football who would go on to play for the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, his jersey (#87) retired when he graduated from the University of Michigan—but we didn’t know that about him then.

On that fine bright day in 1953, he was just a guy familiar from high school years, and when we asked him where he was living on campus, he turned around and, pointing in the general direction of the giant eight story dormitory we all would share, said, “Up there!”

South Quadrangle was a recently constructed (1951) brick and limestone monstrosity that could house 1,232 male students, and did. Somewhat in the line of early 50’s architectural tokens of post-war pride such as Levittown, Holiday Inn, and Detroit’s Northridge Mall (or those Soviet edifices in Russia which, poorly constructed, would commence to crumble once set in place), South Quad advertised itself as providing students “the intimacy of life in a small college and the stimulating atmosphere of autonomous families residing within a large neighborhood community,” this by way of individual “houses” (each occupying two stories of the giant main
body and its two wings). I would live in Huber House, named after a distinguished teacher of medicine at the university. Charlie Weir and I had been selected to be roommates there.

The dorm sported a penthouse with a sun deck, which I never visited; a laundry room I also shunned; four immense dining rooms on the first floor (in one of which I would take my meals) and a large top level study room where I could usually find my brother Lance, who had preceded me in choosing to attend the University of Michigan by three years, and whom—somewhat in awe of him as an older brother now—I’d followed off to school, a mistake on my part as it would turn out, but I also didn’t know that yet.

I enjoyed my new “environment,” not the huge dorm of which I would prove to be an insignificant part, but cruising—on my own at the start—State Street with its Student Union, student-flavored shops, and the Quadrangle, sturdy stone buildings perched at the end of each diagonal walkway, buildings which, if not exactly ivy-shrouded or draped with tendrils, leaves and flowers like Goethe’s Strasburg, were flanked, like Harvard’s yard, by trees of substantial color in autumn (football season at its height, small piles of leaves ablaze, giving off their sweet and sour scent), a season you knew would all too soon give way to that of winter girls one would come to love (just about every one of them!), decked out in stylish form-fitting coats with plaid scarves caressing, kissing their splendid necks, a chill breeze initiating a sweet dance among strands of their hair, driving me crazy.

My first experience of any adventure connected to Ann Arbor aside from solo strolls on State Street and across the Quadrangle came when I attended an “orientation” dance at the Student Union, where I enjoyed a “virgin” encounter with an extremely attractive Jewish girl named Rachel (What else?)—a virgin experience in that the town I grew up and “came of age” in, Birmingham, Michigan (just eighteen miles northeast of Detroit) only made room in my high school graduating class for a single Jewish girl, Carole Goldstein, just as the town housed a single African-American family, the Jacksons, whose son Bobbie was a classmate, a drummer with a rival band, and whose father worked for the post office.

Unlike my brother, who’d taken lessons at Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio and could manage rhumbas, waltzes, even tango with finesse, I didn’t dance well for, a drummer in my own band, I provided music for others to dance to, and never learned how myself—but Rachel acquitted herself quite well, and was so compatible that I accompanied her home, all the way to Ypsilanti, 7.9 miles from Ann Arbor, a journey that proved to be one of the more enjoyable, memorable bus rides (among a lifetime of both short and long) I’ve ever known—her head nested on my shoulder. She was a warm, fully congenial, affectionate young woman whom I fell in love with until, entering her household, I was introduced to her older brother, who wore a kippa or yarmulke and made it readily apparent that he did not approve of his sister being escorted home by such an obvious goy.

That home looked and smelled different than any I’d ever been in, bearing the appearance of things (artifacts and furniture) which had actually received use, and were not just on display as I felt so many were in my family’s household. Rachel’s living room was solemn, dark, and extended a candle-lit aura even without candles, free–however dim the light–of the post-war glare of luminescence (100 watt bulbs) I was accustomed to, or of any fashionable decorator-approved bright colors in upholstery or upon a wall. Her home held a secretive Old World ambiance, rather than Brand New, and I dug it—although I was not asked to remain within it for long. Hitchhiking back to Ann Arbor, I realized I’d seen the first and last of my new love Rachel, even if she herself might wish to see more of me.

That’s a sample from Chapter One. Here’s a portion of the Preface, in which I hoped to explain the book’s tentative title, “Going Solo,” and “tease” readers with a sort of Preview of Coming Attractions—a sampling of some of the smaller stories they would find within the larger story of life between ages seventeen and thirty.

Relatively early in the one and a half years I spent as a student at the University of Michigan, during what would prove to be a time of trial there, I stumbled on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke
that began, conventionally enough, with description of a work of art, an “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” a work of art with (in Stephen Mitchell’s translation) “the legendary head” missing, but the figure “still suffused with brilliance from inside”; its gaze (a gaze which lacking eyes should have been lost forever) “turned to low” but still gleaming “in all its power”; the stone (which
should otherwise “seem defaced”) bursting ”from all the borders of itself” like a star. Rilke went on to assert that standing before this work of art, “there is no place that does not see you.” And then came the killer last sentence:

“You must change your life.”

Great God, YES—but HOW? At age seventeen, I lost sleep over that last sentence. It wasn’t the poem’s quaint metaphysics that disturbed me. I was living so much within myself at the time; I was, within and unto myself, so different from my “appearance,” that the poem as a whole—up to that last sentence—made perfect sense to me, even with its unique perspective. But the bald fact of the assertion—“You must change your life”—caused massive consternation, because I knew it was true: I must change my life, but at the time I couldn’t imagine how I would even start to do such a thing, to go up against all that I was accustomed to or had been familiar with for seventeen years, no matter how much I might long to begin anew. The act seemed impossible, and would remain so for a year and a half, at the tail end of which time I did somehow find a way.

Allow me, if you will, one more large leap in time—twenty-seven years—to a realization long in birth, a new “acquaintance,” an experience that would fill in the pieces as to just how any transformation such as that which occurred between the ages of seventeen and nineteen could ever take place.

The woman who eventually would become my wife, Betty, and I once spent a sabbatical year living in Greece. One day I was walking on a beach on the island of Paros, where we spent four months, from March to June in 1980, and I saw a sign that read ithiotikos, which means “private,” or in this case, stationed in front of a piece of land, “Private Property.” It dawned on me that our word “idiot” stems from this word ihtiotikos, and that at one time, and apparently still, the wish or desire to remain “private” rendered one an idiot. You can trace the concept down through Greek history, beginning with the Homeric nobleman with his uncompromised public arête (proud courtly duty mixed with warlike valor), Hesiod’s lofty ideal of a hardworking peasantry (in the words of Werner Jaeger in his book Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture: the lasting value of “quiet incessant battle … against the elements and the hard earth”) to the advent of the polis: the city-state, each member or “citizen” of the community subjected to “a rigid code of life and conduct.” No time for “privacy” in those eras—or even a glimpse of a conception of it yet.

It took a man, a poet (who would become a hero of mine), Archilochus of Paros (680-C.-645 BC) to invent “personality,” but his discovery was less like what we know today (an individual totally wrapped up in just herself or himself, someone “exclusively subjective”), but a person who is able, in Werner Jaeger’s words again, to “express the objective world and its laws through his own personality … to represent them in himself … Personality, for the Greeks, gains its liberty and its consciousness of selfhood not by abandoning itself to subjective thought and feeling, but by making itself an objective thing; and, as it realizes that it is a separate world opposed to the external laws, it discovers its own inner laws.”

And that is what this book, “Going Solo,” is all about—the discovery of my own inner laws, but in my case the process took place or came about in the 20th century, not the 7th BC, so I would appear to be a slow starter, and I am. However, I recognized Archilochus immediately when I ran across him (and I would learn Ancient Greek just so I could read him as he should, or must be read—in his own voice), and I knew him as the hero, the mentor he was, and I’ve remained–as W.C. Fields said of the blonde who drove him to drink–“eternally grateful ever since.”

Archilochus himself remains within the Homeric hero tradition because, as a warrior, he made his living off a spear that provided his “wine and bread.” One of his more famous poems shows him—a shocking response in light of that heroic tradition (with its sacrificial “honor”)—just happy to “come home alive, “ having left his shield under a bush, a shield which when “some Thracian now goes strutting,” Archilochus claims a plague can take that particular implement, for he will find another “just as good.”

He laughs at his own inadequacy–a very new twist in Greek thought in the 7th century BC–and makes inadequacy a subject of self-esteem (just as self-mockery is a subject of personal pride in Mark Twain). “Even a hero has only one life to lose,” Archilochus claims, and Jaeger steps in again: “The record of a seemingly trivial incident in his eyes” becomes “a righteous crusade against the ideals of the tribe and the power of convention”—a serious fight on the part of Archilochus to impose a novel, original code for himself, who elsewhere had written: “If one cared for the gossip of the people one would never have much pleasure in life.”

Jaeger concludes: “A man who sees so clearly through the psychology of public opinion , and has realized the baseness of the mass of mankind, has lost all trace of respect for the voice of the people.” He has transferred the battle of man against tyche (destiny) from the heroic world to the world of daily life … he sees himself as a hero, acting and suffering with epic dignity and passion … it was Archilochus who first formulated the idea that a man could be free only in a life chosen by himself” …

At age nineteen, I set out to find such a life for myself, a La Vita Nuova, and the year and a half I spent at the University of Michigan would prove instrumental with regard to the change, even though the fortunate mutation itself did not take place fully until I went off to Pratt Institute on my own, and Brooklyn.

My year and a half of “preparation” and frustration at the University of Michigan ended in January 1955, and a truly exciting—stimulating in every way—adventure began. The first awakening was geographical. It began when I boarded the New York Central/Hudson River Line train in Detroit, and found myself spending a Coach class solitary evening (which I loved!) sleeplessly sluicing from my old home to a new one, first by way of Canada, then passing through such heretofore unencountered cities as Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Ithaca, Schenectady, Albany, and down alongside–as dawn came up in a mist—the Hudson River, delivered to the delightful, total confusion of Grand Central Station. From there, I undertook my first journey across the Brooklyn Bridge, into the borough itself, escorted by a reluctant cabbie who felt it was a pain-in-the-ass to have to drive some greenhorn all that way for the sake of what might prove to be a meager tip—which it did.

I not only proved to be a greenhorn kid when it came to cabs. Once installed, or housed, in a small room of my own in a once grand brownstone on Willoughby Avenue, on my first visit to Pratt Institute (close by), I was greeted, in friendly fashion, by Khosrov “Koo” Adjootin, Acting Dean and Director of The Art School. The hospitable manner slackened somewhat when he escorted me to a revolving display of art work by current students—a display that made it abundantly clear that, compared to my own stuff (I’d submitted a portfolio of my own work for acceptance), I’d traveled all this way to discover that just about every student enrolled in the prestigious school stood head and shoulders above me in terms of native talent and actual accomplishment. This would prove to be all too true for a time—although the story I would like to tell has a relatively happy ending. This greenhorn would manage to “catch up,” and, if I may be permitted an immodest moment, perhaps even surpass a few of those extraordinary students.

Pratt Institute, in 1955, was an outstanding institution—one of the best, if not the best (in my, again, humble opinion) art school in America. The faculty alone was exceptional: Phillip Guston, Franz Kline, Jack Tworkov, James Brooks, Cal Albert, Richard Lindner, Maitland Graves, Fred Castellon—many of whom had been productive WPA artists, but were now flourishing in the heyday of Abstract Expressionism. Tight bonds existed between visual artists, jazz musicians, and poets on the rise. Somewhat later, when I’d landed a gig playing what I was attempting at the time to pass off as jazz at a place nearby called Bruno’s, or The 456 Club, my sculpture teacher, Cal Albert, brought his “good friend” Hal Overton to the club one night—the man who would provide arrangements for Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert. I had the thrill, once I’d vacated the piano bench, of playing guitar with this master pianist, arranger, composer.

I also, while in New York, experienced the thrill of having a beer with Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan at Basin Street; sat religiously at the horseshoe bar of Hickory House hearing Marian McPartland perform (and her young drummer Joe Morello, with an occasional appearance by Oscar Peterford on cello); stood in awe before the high bandstand that housed Cozy Cole on drums at the Metropole in Times Square, and acquired Pee Wee Russell’s trembling (until his fingers touched the keys on his clarinet) autograph one night at Eddie Condon’s in the Village, another club at which I took up residence.

I moved out of my tight but decorous quarters on Willoughby Avenue, and began to room with a fellow student, Marshall Henrichs, in a walk-up flat in a Slum Clearance zone, which meant we could not always count on accessible gas, water, or electricity. It was a fun “La Boheme” existence, up to a point, which included a coterie of Marsh’s friends (one was the daughter of a professor I would have for a required class in humanities), all of whom seemed to regard one another as “brilliant” (I was excluded; I sat at the edge and just listened) and would discuss everything with ease, it seemed, from Herbert Read’s latest theories on art to those of Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, with a taste of Camus and John Paul Sartre tossed in for good measure.

Just as I was finding myself in well over my head in my classes, I felt out of place, or sorts, with this group—until I discovered that Marsh himself seldom read past page thirty-eight of any book being discussed, and that I could! He seemed surprised when I actually read all of Jacques Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry, M.C. D’Arcy’s The Mind and Heart of Love, and George Santayana’s The Sense of Beauty, philosophical works I could actually understand and enjoy! Marsh did introduce me to the poetry of Dylan Thomas, by way of Caedmon Records (my God, what a voice!) and a book, The Collected Poems I opened when my roommate went out on a date one night with his hair awry, wild and frowzy, wearing a checkered shirt, mismatched checkered sport coat and a dark tie riddled with bright dots. When I opened the book I found a photo of Thomas wearing the same outrageous outfit.

The most fortunate discovery I made that first year came at the hands of Tetsuo Yamashita, an older student at Pratt who lived above me on Willoughby Avenue. He recognized and took pity on my somewhat lonely, “homesick” state and suggested that we visit friends of his who lived up in Manhatten’s Hell’s Kitchen: Bill and Mary Kochiyama and their, at that time, four children, living in apartment 3E in the projects at 50 Amsterdam Avenue. Bill was a handsome, hip, calm, cool veteran of the 442nd Division, a war hero, who taught me that you could be compassionate, gentle, understanding and still be a man; and Mary, her name changed to Yuri after I’d left New York, would become famous as a major human rights activist. She was present at the Audubon Ballroom when her friend Malcolm X was shot and while others were “diving for cover,” Yuri “put Malcolm’s safety above her own”—Life magazine printing a photo of “an Asian woman … cradling Malcolm’s head”—and that woman was Yuri. I will devote a chapter to this extraordinary couple and family who may well have saved my life by their example.

As always, also, at this time in my life, I was attracted to a bevy of beauties—exceptionally talented and handsome young women—and I’d best reserve a chapter (or two) for that experience as well. I will mention just two: a fellow student with an Irish background named Mary Jane, oldest daughter in a family of eight kids who lived in Syracuse, a splendidly bright girl who introduced me to T.S. Eliiot, Hart Crane, e.e. Cummings, Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rimbaud—as well as innocent pleasures (in retrospect) that would cure me of any lingering inclination toward becoming a Trappist monk. The second young woman, Beverly Song, was a nursing student and hula dancer I met while playing piano at a benefit concert (more about these down the line also), a stunning creature of Korean descent from Hawaii who taught me how to sing “Kaimana Hila,” phonetically, and for whom I slept on a sand trap (13th hole) in midwinter in White Plains, after having deposited her at her dorm at the close of a disastrous date (I no more managed to impress her with impersonations of Dylan Thomas reciting his poetry at top voice than I had with the light summer sport coat I’d worn, in winter), having arrived at the station just after the last train left for New York City—and I woke up in the morning with pneumonia, and covered with snow … but more about this small love drama in a future chapter as well.

I hope to take this book from age seventeen to age thirty, when I’d been married to my “childhood sweetheart,” Betty, for ten years. We began our life together in Hawaii, living in a shack on the Wailua River in Kauai, a Garden of Eden with mangos, papayas, crayfish in the river and neither of us, city kids by birth, possessing a clue as to what to do with it all, although we did manage, deliciously, to manufacture a boy child, Timothy Blake. We would then move to San Francisco, where, in 1958, I took a job as an elevator operator at the White House Department Store, living on the edge of the Beat Movement (City Lights and Vesuvio saloon would become homes away from home, and Kenneth Rexroth lived just around the corner from where we resided on Hayes Street)–but that’s enough “Previews of Coming Attractions” for now.

And I hope you’ve enjoyed this sampling! If you liked what you read, I’ll post more down the line. Again, I’ll toss in a collage of photos from that time—and then close out this post.

Me at 19 when I went to Art School in NYC  Tetsuo Yamashita  Bill at Pratt1

Bill Kochiyama  Yurie K at AwardCeremony    Sketch of Mary and Bill KSketch I Did of Audee

Bill with Drummer Biggie Olsen  Coney Island with K Kids2  442nd Association Queens

Mary Jane and Me  Coney Island Oil Painting1  Betty in Hawaii

Cast of Characters: Me in Central Park (looking out over my city!), Tetsuo Yamashita, Fledgling artist (me), Bill Kochiyama, Yuri (at ceremony in which a University of Michigan residence hall was named after her), sketches I did of Mary (Yuri), Bill, and Audee, me with drummer Biggie Olsen (of combo I had at 456 Club), Betty (friend then, now wife) and I at Coney Island with two Kochiyama kids, 442nd Association Queens (Beverly Song at far right, Mary Jane far left), Mary Jane with me, an oil painting I did at Coney island while at Pratt,  and Betty in Kauai, circa 1957.

In the next post, I’d like to celebrate another local (Monterey, California) hero: the remarkable jazz drummer/vocalist, Dottie Dodgion. See you then!

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Author: William Minor

I am a writer and musician who has published twelve books: most recent: Gypsy Wisdom: New & Selected Poems; also The Inherited Heart: An American Memoir, a comic novel (Trek: Lips. Sunny, Pecker and Me); three books on jazz (most recent: Jazz Journeys to Japan: The Heart Within), and seven books of poetry. A professional musician since the age of sixteen, I have released three CDs (most recent: Love Letters of Lynchburg--spoken word and original musical score commissioned by the Historic Sandusky Foundation in Virginia). I was educated at The University of Michigan, Pratt Institute, The University of Hawaii, UC-Berkeley (MFA in Painting and Drawing), and San Francisco State College (MA in Language Arts). I taught for thirty-two years (English, Creative Writing, Humanities at The University of Hawaii, Wisconsin State University-Whitewater, and Monterey Peninsula College). Originally trained as a visual artist, I have exhibited woodcut prints and paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Art, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian Institution. I have been married to Betty for fifty-nine years and we have two grown sons: Timothy and Stephen. We live in Pacific Grove, California where, retired from teaching, I just write and play music, both of which I love.

1 thought on “A New Year, New Work, and Beyond”

  1. Looking forward to the next installment. Happy Birthday tomorrow. I just had 75th last Friday and I’m guessing you are about 77. I can’t remember sht like that and don’t want to. Love,to you and the Betty, Lee

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