Thursday, March 30, 2017

Return to the Classical Guitar

            Yesterday, after more than a decade of not playing my guitar, I had a lesson from my former teacher, Ray Reussner, who studied with Segovia in Spain and for many years thereafter. He led me to my familiar place by the window in the living room of his house, where he had set up two chairs with footstools and a music stand. Once again there was the familiar talk about fingernails, the stories about Segovia, the correction of technique, the beautiful sound of Ray Reussner on his guitar. I have at last returned.
Ray Reussner playing at Mission San Antonio in California
            The beginning of what I had returned to was almost twenty years ago when, realizing at last that I would never have a piano, I thought maybe a classical guitar would give me the same pleasure. The glow I felt when I walked out of the music store with a guitar in my hand promised as much
            I did enjoy it, but I became dissatisfied with my first teacher. There was something more I wanted from the guitar, but I didn't know what it was.
            When one of my students at Rogue Community College learned I played a classical guitar, he told me his father was friends with a guitarist in Williams who had been a student of Segovia. What a golden opportunity if I could take lessons from him! I asked for the name and phone number, but my student demurred. The man wasn't giving lessons or playing concerts or having anything more to do with the guitar than playing in his own home. I begged and pleaded and did everything but guarantee my student an A in the class if he would put me in touch with this guitarist until finally he got permission from Ray to give me his phone number.
            I called Ray at once and explained that I was new to the guitar and would like to take lessons from him.
            "No, no. I'm not doing that any more," he said, but then he relented – a bit. "Come on over and bring your guitar, and we'll see," he said.
            Was I going to have to audition for lessons from Ray Reussner? I worked up a piece to play for him, then put my guitar in my car and followed Ray's directions to his house.
            He greeted me at the door and led me through the vestibule and dining room into the living room of his beautiful house, which, I learned later, he had built himself. The footstool and music stand were ready. We sat down, and I played my piece.
            When I finished, he said, dismissively, "You play just like everyone else," and he took my guitar from me and played Mendelssohn's "Song without Words" on it.
            I almost fell out of my chair. This was it! This was what classical guitar was supposed to sound like. This was the way I wanted to play. I was ready to do anything to get Ray to agree to give me lessons.
            I think it was that reaction that did the trick: Ray accepted me as a guitar student. For years I came to his house for lessons. We would sit by the window in the living room and play guitars. He would tell Segovia stories. We would compare fingernails. He would play for me the latest piece he was working on. Taking lessons from Ray was like having a private Ray Reussner mini-concert at every lesson.
            I was crazy about my guitar. I practiced religiously. Unwilling to go three weeks without practicing, I carried my guitar to Sweden with me. 
I thought I would always be playing the guitar. 
Even when I started a Ph.D. program at the University of Oregon, I thought that, of course, I would keep playing. Soon enough, though, I realized that I couldn't be doing everything I had always done in my always full life and just add graduate school on top of it. Some things would have to be left behind. The guitar was one.
            Once I put the guitar down, it was difficult to pick it up again after graduation.  I knew how badly I would play. I knew my fingers were out of practice, that I had forgotten everything Ray had taught me. I knew I wouldn't be able to start again where I had left off, that I would have to go back to beginner's pieces. My fingers had become unwilling, and my pleasure stifled.
            Then at a gathering some time before Christmas last year, when people started playing music together, my son put a guitar in my hand. At first I couldn't remember a single chord. Then my fingers stumbled onto one or two. Other people left the room until only my son and I were playing together. As I played with him, the old pleasure began stirring in me. My New Year's resolution was to start playing my guitar again.
            That's all it took. Once I wrapped my arms around my beautiful guitar, the one Ray had made and that I had bought years ago, 

once I put my old music on my music stand (the one my son had made for me), 

once I heard again the beautiful tones of my guitar, I knew I had returned. The musicianship is rusty, but I have the best guitar teacher in the country, and I love my guitar and the music within it. Gradually, as before, Ray Reussner will help me coax that beauty into the world.


Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Golden Living Center That Belies Its Name

           Today is my sister Linda's birthday. She's eighteen months older than I, and she has Lewy body dementia. She lives in a facility in Georgia called the Golden Living Center.
Linda, behind me, in the North Carolina woods,
2009, the year before the onset of the disease
             I'll send her a card, as I do twice a week, anyway, a handmade card, on which I write a few lines – "Happy birthday," in this case, useless a wish though it is. I depend on her husband or another visitor to read it to her. 
I don't know how much of what I say registers with her. The idea is just to say, again and again, "You are not forgotten. I love you. I think about you. I am so, so sorry for what has happened to you."
Linda (center) with siblings in 2012, two years after the onset of the disease
            I put the card in an envelope and address it to her at the Golden Living Center.
           I choke every time I write those words. They are so outrageously inappropriate they're not even ironic. Golden living, indeed. There is nothing golden about Linda's life in that place. Her speech is garbled into nonsense. She is wheelchair bound, strapped in, even, because if she should try to stand (and who can blame her?), she is likely to fall, and a fall is so likely, I can't want her freed of that restraint, either. I cringe to think of her at the whim of some attendant or some visitor just to move from a bed to a wheelchair, from a spot in front of the television to a different spot by the window, though there is no view to look at. Then to sit there for hours, unable to talk or read or make her wants known. She spends hours in bed, hallucinating, sleeping, existing. None of those are golden hours.
            Nor is there any silver lining to the cloud hanging over her mind, unless being cared for in the most basic way – food, shelter, bathing – is enough to be thankful for. At least there is no abuse in this facility. At least the residents are kept clean and given adequate food. Is that the silver lining? Is that the best we can hope for at the Golden Living Center? What about a friendly touch? Someone to check in and say, "How are you?" Someone to bring her a glass of water, give her a massage, read my cards to her? That's a lot to ask for in a place like that, with over-worked attendants and demented patients.
Linda, seated, with sisters, in the first facility she lived in,
before the disease worsened (2014)
            How dare we call a place like that a "golden living center"? It doesn't even have flowers and bird cages, as at the first facility, along the back wall of the sunny porch, pictured above. There is hardly any space outdoors to wheel her around when we come to visit. I assume the healthy and well compensated people who named the place were thinking of the golden years of life, those years after retirement, before old age takes its toll. My sister falls within that time range, but there is nothing golden about these years for her. They are gray. They are the clouds without the silver linings, the dimness of daylight without golden sunshine, the fog of monotony, dreariness, and an empty mind. They are as dross.
            When I was a child there was a facility like this one, called the old folks' home. That's pretty bad, too, as though when one becomes old, that's what becomes of one. I visited the place with a Girl Scout troop once. An old woman in an upstairs room cried out in her delusions. Old men dozed in their wheelchairs on the porch. Would it be better to say they were at the Golden Living Center?
            I am sorry my sister is there. I am sorry her golden years have tarnished. I wish this disease had not chosen her. I wish there were some way to bring happiness into the grayness of her existence. I wish I didn't have to write "Golden Living Center" on the envelope when I write to her.
Linda at the "Golden Living" Center, with our brother and sister, 2016.
Maybe to visit her and wheel her in the sunshine to a small concrete patio
does bring her a moment of happiness.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


            Before I made a trip to Eugene last fall, I decided I should have snow tires put on my highway car, the Yaris. Because my bridge was being rebuilt, the Yaris was on the paved-road side of the creek, and I used my winter-and-trails car, the RAV 4, as a shuttle to and from the bridge site. I left it at the top of the muddy-muddy-muddy part of the road at the ford through the creek. When I came home from town, I would just park the Yaris on the paved road, cross the creek on a plank, and plow through all that mud to get to the RAV 4. I had been walking that way for two weeks. I didn't think I would have trouble carrying my snow tires with me across the creek on the planks to put them in the Yaris.       
            Two days before I left to have my tires changed, an all-night rain swelled the creek. I had to wade through water to get to the planks, and the creek was washing over them, too. The next morning, though, the water had subsided, so I managed easily enough carrying the tires across the creek to the Yaris and went on to town to have them mounted. But when the worker at Les Schwab started to put the tires on the car, he discovered that someone had slashed two of them with a knife. I didn't believe him at first – it must have been the claw of a cougar or the tooth of a bear. But the man was certain. He showed me the cuts. "Nothing but a knife could do that," he said.
            Who would have arbitrarily gone into my shed, way up here on the mountain, and slashed my tires? I don't know who, but someone did, some creepy, mean, malicious person. I left the tire shop upset, worried, and $335 poorer.
            By noon I was back at the broken bridge, carrying first groceries, then, one by one, my four highway tires back over the creek to the waiting RAV 4. When I still had two tires to carry, two teen-age girls, who live on the next property up the road but whom I had never met, appeared and offered to help me carry the tires. Gratefully, I gave one tire to one and the other tire to the other and followed them across the creek to the RAV 4. They charged up the road and through the mud as though they didn't have any burden at all, those strapping young country girls. Did I know, they asked as they put the tires in the back of my car, that their driveway went past their house and had a gate onto my road, up the hills, where the road leveled off? They would open the gate for me, they said, and until my bridge was repaired, I could use their driveway to access my own.
            My heart warmed towards these good neighbors. What can you say about a world with such good people in it?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ten Rules for Raising Children

 Today is my father's birthday. He died in 2005 at the age of 98 1/2, and I add the half year because it's as significant in the later years of life as in the beginning years. He was already planning his 100th birthday party, but in the end he didn't get to have it. This blog post is a tribute to his influence on my life.

    It's such a pity the way children are growing up these days. This younger generation – tch, tch, tch. Now when I was growing up, my father knew how to raise children. His methods deserve to be more widely known, so I give to you now "Ken Coogle's Ten Rules for Raising Children":
    (1) Raise them on a bizarre vocabulary and gruesome literature. Tell them they're "perspicacious" and "impudent" before they understand "doggie" and "Daddy." Teach them to recite "Butel-rotten-lotten-gitter-wetter-cotter-Hotten-totten-stridel-trotter-muder-ottentater.” Dangle them on your knee not with "Jack Be Nimble" but with "McGinty," who drowned in the sea "dressed in his best suit of clothes." Send them to bed dreaming of Sam MacGee dancing with glee on his funeral pyre in the frozen Yukon, and leave echoing through their lives the croaking refrain of the grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore, "Nevermore!"
    (2) When they ask for a kitten, don't give them a cute, cuddly little creature. Give them a wild kitten that bites and scratches, and tell them they'll have to gentle it and tame it if they want it to love them.
    (3) Don't ever rescue them from trees or let them climb back down the steps to the high dive. Tell them, "If you climbed the tree up, you'll have to climb it down," and "If you go up the steps, the only way down is off the diving board."
    (4) If your adolescent daughters think they're not popular with the boys, give them a pinball machine.
    (5) When your children ask questions, pull out the encyclopedia – and persist in spite of all groans and protests.
    (6) Never make it easy for them. If they ask for a swing, give them one that turns upside down. If your feet are dirty, take all your children with you to the Yukon River so you can wash your feet. Canoe with them past alligators in the Okefenokee; catch snakes, turtles, and chameleons to show to them, and encourage them to explore dark, dank caves.
    (7) Play games with them. Get down on the floor for jacks tournaments. Play pig, spoons, canasta, bridge, ping-pong, and badminton with them. But never just "let" them win. If they complain that you always win, just play left-handed to even the competition a little.
    (8) Make them spend every Sunday afternoon talking about family business.
    (9) Don't just give them piano and clarinet lessons. Get out your saxophone and play music with them.
    (10) Wear comfortable, old, tattered shirts, and when your children put their fingers in those holes and rip the shirt to shreds right off your back, just sit there and laugh.
    They're pretty good rules, I think. And so I'd like to offer a toast to the man who originated them:
    “Here's to the man who taught me to relish the sounds of words, to know the worth of gentleness and patience, to think about the way out before going in, to probe for answers and challenge my intellect, to take risks, to love nature, to value differing points of view, to win and lose fairly, to make music, and to laugh. Here's to my father.”

My father and mother with me and my siblings, about six months before he died.