models for graceful aging
Thursday, June 3 2004
Community colleges are great assets for communities, but they're not always the best places to actually learn things. This point was driven home today in Spanish class when the pace of our education suddenly ground to an inexplicable crawl. This was, I think, a result of back-channel demands being made by the slower members of the class, some of whom still occasionally ask "What does 'de' mean?" As we reviewed when to use "la" versus "el" and deconstructed the contraction "al," I began doodling pictures of smiley-faced people getting their heads chopped off by randomly flying axes, a doodle I've been perfecting for the past fifteen years. Later I drew a watch on my left wrist so I could watch time stand perfectly still. I'd said something the other day to Gretchen about how, when the class had first started, we'd all been in roughly the same boat in terms of ignorance, but now, three weeks and 72 hours into the course, there's a huge difference between the students who learn and those who don't. Today during a break when Gretchen and discussed this issue, I said that I'd be embarrassed to ask questions about things we'd already been taught and should have studied.
At the end of class, the students divided themselves into two roughly equal-sized groups to receive additional instructions from Adrian, a native Spanish speaker from Puerto Rico. The first group was comprised of the weaker students who needed help with written grammar. The second group consisted of stronger students who needed help with conversational Spanish. Gretchen and I were part of the second group, as were Brent and Dorothy, two 19 year old students who sit in the back of class and occasionally seem to be flirting with one another. Anyway, using our terribly broken present-tense-only Spanish, we got to talking to Adrian (who is also 19 and lives in Olive Bridge without a car) and it came out how old we are. Dorothy and Brent were astounded. They'd thought people in their thirties were old, but here we were, still full of youthful sass and not terribly overrun with wrinkles. "Wow," said Dorothy, "you make me feel a lot better about getting older!" Gretchen and Gus, models for graceful aging.
Today got her hair cut at hair salon in Uptown by a guy named Mark, perhaps the world's only straight hairdresser. He was so charmed by Gretchen that he invited her to come to an open mike event scheduled for later tonight at a nearby Uptown venue.
So that's what we did tonight. As open mikes go, this one was surprisingly good, with talented people performing everything from classical jazz to singer-songwriter to jam band jams. A strict two-song limit was being enforced, which had the effect of allocating an unusually large amount of time to the jam band. A singer songwriter dude pleaded for the opportunity to play a third song, an altercation that was off-mike but nonetheless obvious from the facial expressions visible on stage. Eventually the MC prevailed in his unwavering enforcement of the rules.
There was a fair amount of overlap between the venue's personnel and the performers, with the bartender taking breaks from his duties periodically to step behind the drum kit.
Before the show I'd been joking with Mr. Meat Locker about how it would all be white boy funk bands, but the funk was mostly biracial. In one especially poigniant performance, an elderly woman who had once been a professional jazz singer took the stage and performed a few standards. She couldn't hit the notes she wanted to, but she did the best she could with what she had left, making all the practiced stage moves from her better years.
Later it turned out that this old jazz singer was the grandmother of Ella (Mark the hairdresser's girlfriend). Ella's father, a thin tattooed gentleman with long stringy hair and broad shoulders, was there also, and Ella had never met either of them ever before. It was like one of those tear-jerking reunion shows on Sally Jesse Raphæl, except it was even more momentous than a simple reunion.
Mark was treating us like we were some combination of long-lost soul mates and celebrities, though we'd given him little reason (other than our attitude) to think either one. When we were preparing to leave he wouldn't hear of it, and insisted on introducing us to a whole bunch of new people, including a young professional boxer who didn't want us to leave either and wanted to buy us shots. Like us, tonight was the boxer's first night at the venue.
The place had a weird social energy overlaying a lot of creative talent. I detected an exhilarating micro-Renaissance quality that I've felt in other places at other times, and it made me want to be part of it. But it was also a little overwhelming.
As we were going back to our car, Mark took us into his hair salon and showed us his dog Cooper (whom Gretchen had met earlier today). Cooper was some sort of Rottweiler-terrier hybrid with a big orange head. Being about Sally's age, he had the same sort of regal disposition. He loved the affection but was too dignified to launch himself into transports of rapture. Mark told us all about his battles with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, his battle with occasional manifestations of skin cancer, and how he managed to straighten out his life after being busted for drug possession.
There was something intangibly delightful about Mark's personality. Everything he said was delivered in a soothingly self-effacing envelope, and despite his age, he retained a youthful sense of wonder about things. For us, Mark also proved to be something of a model for graceful aging. He was 48 years old, but he looked like he was still in his 30s. (His girlfriend Ella, the one who'd met her long-lost jazz-singing grandmother and lanky motorcycle-riding father for the first time tonight, is still in her 20s.)
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