Monday, December 8, 2014

"Personal Successes," Ch. 8 of BUT...AT WHAT COST

The sixties and seventies were said to be the decades of drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. Ash and I missed many of the influencing factors of the sixties by about five years, so we didn’t become a part of it. However, many of our younger friends did, and we were somewhat influenced by them.

Folks tend to discount or ignore peer and cultural influences on beliefs and behaviors, but I think they are crucial to developing one’s world view. There are very clear differences in perceptions of right and wrong between the generations, for example. Because our exposures were different, our beliefs will likely be different. Five years can make a big difference because cultural rules and expectations can change a lot in five years. I believe the younger you are, the more likely you are to accept new culturally imposed standards. I also think one’s teen years and early twenties are most often the years those tendencies in belief are set in clay, if not in stone.

Think about which kind of music you prefer. Not all, but most of us are firmly fixed in our preferences, and they usually reach back to our “formative” years. I still love doo-wop and Sarah Vaughn. My social values didn’t change much after that time either.

Ash and I were either out-of-country or too consumed with more pressing matters to be drawn very far into the drugs, sex, and rock and roll culture. I think that era was primarily instigated by the coming of “the pill.”

The “pill” was approved in 1960, but didn’t gain popularity until a little later. When it did, it allowed many (especially the youth who think about little else besides sex) to abandon caution and make new rules to explain their promiscuity. Think flower children and communal living. Hippies (or flower children) rejected traditional marriage and preached “free love” and peace. Theirs was a simplistic, idealistic, and socially liberal point of view – a live-and-let-live, anything-goes philosophy. A far cry from Grandma’s moral teachings!

Also think feminism. Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963. Before the pill, contraception was not assured. Post-pill, women could fool around with much less concern for their futures. They could plan a career and still have fun. Among other things, that’s what feminists proposed. Changes in technology beget changes in philosophy. Let’s face it – biologically speaking, people have always been driven by sex. It was only moral teachings and practicality that sometimes kept our drives in line. When the primary practical consideration (pregnancy) was eliminated by assured contraception, many more people than ever had before followed their urges. Only those with firm moral convictions adhered to the old rules.

For many of us who were caught in an era of changing beliefs, cognitive dissonance raised its ugly head. When anyone’s beliefs clash with their behaviors, they usually change one or the other, and most often it’s their beliefs. It’s impossible to believe you’re a “good girl” when you’ve done something you believe is “bad.” Therefore, you change your beliefs as to what is “bad.” Betty Friedan and the flower children offered that out-of-wedlock sex was not bad. They provided new philosophies and new rules to excuse or defend what others called promiscuity.

Cultural expectations change all the time; some folks go with the new, some stay with the old, and others create some blend of the opposing views. Certainly, where and when you grew up can make a big difference in how those changes will be perceived. Ash and I stayed “old school,” but did not reject those who were not.

The drugs part? We were a little squishy on that. We didn’t indulge in the sixties, but with the seventies came new friends.

We bought an old fixer-upper house in 1970, outside Montgomery, New York. My grandmother gave us the $5000 for the down-payment (she had inherited a fair amount of money from a great-aunt she hardly knew), and we got a ten-year mortgage on the rest of the $17,000 property. Ash’s yearly salary as a chemist at the time was about $18,000.

The house needed new plumbing, new wiring, a new kitchen and insulation in all the outside walls. We didn’t hire anyone. As noted before, Ashley knew how to do everything, and I was his somewhat willing peon. I did all the dirty, unskilled jobs.

Knocking down plaster ceilings was particularly bad. Besides being dirty, it was somewhat dangerous. I ended up tying a colander to my head as a helmet to defend against the falling debris. As I recall, I also fashioned a face mask out of a scarf so I wouldn’t breathe in so much plaster dust. Pretty.

It took us many years to finish. Well, you never finish, but we got it more livable in five years or so. It took that long because we didn’t work on any project full time. It would be months and months between the tear-downs and the put-ups. Ash tends to do only that which is absolutely necessary… and then stops. Once the insulation was in, the sheet rock installation might wait for another year. And the taping might resume six months after that. I got somewhat proficient at fixing some things myself. I was not really proficient, but proficient enough to start anyway. This led to a happy discovery. He would be so frustrated at my incompetence he’d usually finish what I started. I learned this trick accidentally, but I employed it time after time when I just couldn’t wait any longer. I did teach myself how to paint, wall-paper, upholster, and make curtains, though. It was a case of going without or learning how to do it.

Meanwhile, life was rolling along. Randy and Beth’s activities led me to new friends in the PTA and Little League, and Ashley’s activities led him to a group of new friends who lived near his hay fields – yes, hay fields. Ash made extra money baling and selling hay. He bought old farm equipment, fixed it, and found land-owners who wanted their acreage mowed in exchange for the hay. I spent many an afternoon putting hay in barns, and so did Randy and Beth as soon as they were big enough to be helpful.

Woodcutting and stacking was another chore Ash created for us. In lieu of fixing the boiler, Ash had installed two wood burning stoves – our sole sources of heat. He built a wood-splitter out of found items, so he wouldn’t have to hand-split the bigger pieces with an ax (which only he was strong enough to do), and also attached a woodshed to the barn. Now, I like to save money as much as the next guy, but the shed had a bright white sheet-steel roof. Free, but not in keeping with House Beautiful. Aesthetics mattered to Ashley, but only on other people’s properties, not on ours.

Whoopee! Now, all of us could split and stack wood. It was a more efficient process, but the kids and I HATED it. But, we hated being cold all winter too.

We never lacked for wood, but there was seldom enough heat to be comfortable, because the stoves were too small. The whole wood-burning scene was horrible. We whined, but Ashley thought it was “good for us.” That’s when oil prices were relatively high, so we did save a lot of money. A little later he built a bigger wood burning stove aptly named “the goose” because it had an eighteen-inch pointed beak protruding into the middle of the dining room. We were warmer, but damn, was it ugly!

For me, the best part of the seventies was singing again. My friend Carolyn, who stood up for us when we were married, lived in Montgomery. When I arrived, she immediately introduced me to Alice who was producing the PTA variety show – another serendipitous meeting. I was invited to join Alice, Carolyn, Jean and Ginnie’s barbershop quartet – making it a quintet, but I guess they didn’t care. We practiced a couple of times a week and performed at charities, church groups, and nursing homes. We specialized in captive audiences. We all loved to sing and became fast friends.

Ashley’s haying endeavors led us in another direction, away from the traditional, into the semi-traditional. These friends were about five years younger than we were, not exactly flower children, but not exactly “old school” either. They smoked pot, grew pot, and some in the group seemed to change partners somewhat indiscriminately. Excepting Al, Bill, Sloopy, and later Carol, I felt like a fish out of water with most of these people. It wasn’t only the drugs and sex, or their values, per se; it was something else, something more subtle. They just didn’t seem to be grown-ups yet. I don’t think most people really grow up until they have children or some other important responsibilities, and none of these new friends had kids, yet.

They were not stoned all the time, but there was always enough pot to go around at parties. I have always hated feeling out of control, so didn’t partake. Ash did. I should add here that none that I knew of went on to harder stuff. In my experience, with these friends, pot was NOT a “gateway” drug. For some, it is, but for most it seems to be on a par with alcohol – for social use only.

Ashley grew pot for two or three years and holds the record for growing the biggest plant, but he didn’t smoke it at home. That was one of few areas of disagreement I won. When I deemed that the kids should not be exposed to pot in any form, including standing high in the garden, he finally agreed and stopped growing it.

Not long after our becoming “Montgomeryites,” a jazz club opened. I had dismissed all hopes of singing that genre ever again, but there it was in our dinky, little village – “The Shoestring.”

Good jazz pianists are hard to come by in the burbs. I had been extremely lucky to have had one in my class at school. From ninth grade on, I had had Johnnie Foster, an accompanist who could play in any key and could play any song after hearing it once. He went on to play with Odetta and bassist Charlie Mingus – definitely the big time.

At one of the band’s rehearsals in our basement, my dad played a song from Dave Brubeck’s Time Out album. Never having heard it before, John sat down at the piano and played it. Pure musical genius!

In my wildest dreams, I never expected to have another chance to sing my favorite songs in a style I loved with another great piano player. Ron was not Johnnie, but he was darned good. We went to the Shoestring, I gathered my courage, and asked to sing. Drunks ask to sing all the time, and are generally refused, but I didn’t ask until we were regulars at the club, and I wasn’t a drunk. They let me, and I sang there for drinks most week-ends for years to come. Ron and I practiced and expanded my repertoire to include some Jackie and Roy duets and some newer pop songs. Life couldn’t have been much better – except for having to stand on a stack of newspapers to do the dishes, so my feet wouldn’t freeze.

As one might suppose, Ashley wasn’t entirely happy being a chemist. It was much too sedentary and boring for him. Denny, the band’s drummer, solved that problem. He was a contractor specializing in pre-engineered steel buildings. After he got to know Ash and recognized his many talents, he offered him a partnership. Done! Thus, our free shed roof.

Meanwhile, Randy and Beth were both thriving academically and on the fields – Beth, mostly academically; Randy, mostly on the fields. Once Randy outgrew his hyper-activity, both were “easy” kids to raise. Each had his/her own talents and tendencies – and each filled me with extreme pride and joy. And I’m not just saying that because they will be reading this. Considering the rather extreme lifestyle they had to put up with, they fared very well. I thank my mom and dad for many of their successes.

We are serializing Judy Axtell's memoir BUT...AT WHAT COST, for which I was coach and editor. It is available in paperback from the publisher, Outskirts Press, and from on-line booksellers like  

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