That’s More Than I Need To Know

When I was in my second year of recovery in 1977 and working at Texas Mental Health Mental Retardation in Temple Texas, Our area hosted a symposium on Alcoholism and the helping Professionals, our special guest speaker was baseball legend Don Newcombe (sober since 1965) who was helping players with their Alcohol abuse, the keynote speaker was our resident psychiatrist from Temple, Texas M.R.M.R. who introduced his talk with this story.

An 8 year old boy needed to do a report on giraffes for his class, he went to the local library and asked the librarian for help, and she said, “Certainly young man, just go over to that book shelf and on the bottom, you’ll find everything you want to know about giraffes”. The young man went to the shelf and found one gigantic book half his size, the young lad wrestled it to the nearest table, and waded through this tome which had everything ever written about the history, origin, and physiology of this great creature. After a half hour of puzzling through this massive work, the poor frustrated young child lugged this giant book over to the librarian’s desk and placed it there. “Well young man did you find information for your class report?”, the librarian encouraged. The young man politely responded, “Yes mam, but that’s More than I Needed to know!”.

The Doctor further explained how we as helping professionals, learn our craft and are able to work successfully with our clients and patients, but for various reasons we sometimes  doubt our effectiveness or mistakenly become enamored with other professional’s style or reputation. Sometimes we modify our practice because duplicitous people come to us with the newest and respected approaches, which we then needlessly  saddle to our client’s relationship. Our Relationships falter or even worse become diluted and formulaic, the client becomes understandably guarded, confused, and even frightened, and we begin to doubt our abilitiesas competent care providers.  Fortunately we can do asimple  Values Clarification* of our motives and remember our purpose is to Care for the client (Hippocrates’ Do No Harm); Care meaning watchful attention, patient supervision, when we are unable to cure or resolve their issues. The doctor also mentioned that it is okay to know one’s limits, take joy and satisfaction that a client can be referred to an appropriate professional, and that by learning and honoring our limitations we teach our clients a valuable and therapeutic lesson…” you can’t win them all”, neither should we see “winning” as our ultimate measure for success. I learned a great deal from our doctor’s speech, and from “Duke Newcombe’s” impressive sharing about: going from fame, to alcoholic despair, and finally genuine recovery and mentorship, thirty-five years later I still use their good examples and advice to hopefully help others.

*Our Step 12 Clients refer to that process as continuing to take Personall Inventory (AA Step 10)

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But I’m Only A Child!

But the Lord said unto me, Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. KJV  Bible. Jeremiah 1:7

When I was almost 9 years old I used to go swimming with Black kids downtown at our main YMCA, I always had a good time and enjoyed the ride back home, that is until the night they forgot me at the pool’s dressing room and I had to walk 27 city blocks in the dark. The pool was closed and there was no-one top report my mishap to, I had no money for bus, taxi or telephone to call home, I did know the direction the YMCA took to get here so I’d just have to back track. I knew that I was near downtown fifth and Madison and my final destination would be twenty-seventh and Olive in the heart of Seattle’s Central area, I walked over left to Madison St. and started up the first of many steep hills, pushed one of the light change buttons which went berserk, scaring me as all four corner flashed erratically in concert with the central overhead traffic lights.  I quickly looked both ways as I had been trained, then darted across the street fleeing for my life, trying to be brave and focus on the momentous task at hand. What I was trying not to concern myself about were the possible threats to my safety in 1955 nocturnal Seattle, for a Black youth it was; bigoted old guard Irish cops (even though a Black policeman lived a block from me), the wilding white youth gangs that would beat up and rape minorities of any age as part of “Sowing their oats”, and any stranger not family wanting to give me a lift. Of course I’d leap into the vehicle of any of the YMCA staff who came to fetch me, or someone sent by my mom whom I would have immediately recognized.

I’m eight years old, well almost nine but have doubts that I can make the long trek, but I suddenly realized that I had marched five long hard uphill blocks, only twenty –one more blocks to go. I wasn’t totally dried off because I had just come out of the shower and was trying to catch up with my mates and staff, I was wearing a light jacket that mom grudgingly forced me to thankfully wear, and carrying a damp towel because I erroneously feared being punished for discarding it. This traveling or travail as the French say was more tiring than terrifying,  all the bright lights and dramatically lit gothic buildings, adorned with dramatic gargoyles, cute cherubs and celestial angels had its magic for me. And now I was at 10th avenue on Pill Hill, and took some comfort as I passed the St Francis Cabrini Hospital and St. James Cathedral, both adjacent buildings had a holy comforting quality, that urged me to see this a as a milestone of my journey. I trudged  the next five block past Seattle University on Broadway and Madison, my little tummy wanting that dinner mom would have waiting for me, but appreciative I was at least going down hill for a couple of blocks to 11th Avenue.

Now I was at the crossroads of Madison/11th Avenue/and Union Street, if I continued up Madison St. I could veer off at 21st and Madison to the YMCA on 23rd and Olive which was just five blocks from my home. Only twelve more long block and this one last five block medium incline past the Temple De Hirsh – Jewish temple, as I started down 18th and Madison I let the quickening  momentum of my youthful stride almost entice me to skip along past Mt. Zion Church. I was getting happy and excited that I was so close to home, that nothing bad had befallen me, and that I would soon be again at my home with my mother and siblings. I glanced up at the bus as I passed the YMCA on 23rd Ave with sadness, that should have been my transportation to this destination, but the excitement overtook me at the joy of being only four downhill blocks from home. Finally home my mother looked at me with an expression of guarded surprise and relief, she was incredulous that 8 year old precocious son had remembered the path home, and more amazingly traveled close to thirty city blocks without incident.  She did contact Mr. Matthews who ran the YMCA, who being a decent caring gentleman, was very surprised and concerned about our mishap, I think standing next to Mom on the phone restrained her “misgivings”.

All was well, I ate and prepared for bedtime, and had no trouble falling of to sleep, and the next time I was at my local YMCA mister Matthew apologized to me profusely and promised I would never be left again! I wish I could say I was never left again but in my teen years, on a beach trip to LakeSammamish I cut my foot on broken glass, was forgotten by the YMCA bus staff and had to walk home from the beach. Thank God for giving me a good sense of direction.

Ten To One, What Odds Do You Hold Out For Our Youth?

It was another long day of working for my mentor; I appreciated the job and tried to do a good job, finishing the cleanup so I could catch the one o:clock AM bus ride home. I drug myself up to the bus stop for my fifteen minute wait, and leaned in the crevice of the adjacent store, to rest against the wall and have a smoke. Just as I lit up a cigarette a young white 16  year old boy, scampered in my direction with a look of stark  terror on his face, sliding behind me and grabbing onto my back for dear life. All of a sudden we were joined by a young gang of ten hostile street punks, different sizes and races led by one sixteen year old Asian, who signaled the menacing gang to block our exit by executing a half moon formation.

“Help me, please help me!” the terrified young boy behind me begged.

I flipped my cigarette at their feet and surveyed the ring leader and his band, remarking to myself silently, “I’m gonna miss my bus.”,  then regaining my concentration and remembering my training that young opponents can still be dangerous. The leader must have read my mind, he brazenly challenged as he looked at his crew,

“You can’t take us all !”

“I don’t need to take you all, but you will be the first.”

The young leader responded by posturing in a Kung Fu stance, with the others attentive and waiting for his next move, and I just looked him up and down and laughed.

“I don’t know where you trained, but your feet are too close together, and you’re all off balance”, I shouted at the startled lad.

“Is this what your Sifu (Master) taught you, to pick on weaklings?”, “I’m sure I can find out who he is and have a talk with him.”, I further mocked.

“Let’s get this over with, you’re gonna make me miss my bus, so if you don’t take off right away I’m going to make you All pay!”, I threatened the group as I moved forward and gently pushed their young target closer to the wall.

As I moved forward the group retreated backwards, alternately staring at me and then seeking direction from their leader, who initially moved into an attack stance and then backed away in a sign of submission.

“It’s not over!”, I shouted to everyone, “ If I ever hear of  you attacking this kid or any other, we will do this again!”

The unraveled young cubs followed their chagrined pack leader around the corner onto the main street, my young friend moved to my side and thanked me for my help, and started for the bus around the same corner as his attackers.

“Are you going to be alright?”, I asked the youngster.

“Yeah”, he responded adding, “That’s my bus and I’ll be okay from here.”

“You got to find some new friends and also find someplace to hang, I don’t know what your story is, but this should be a wakeup call”, I admonished him, but believed my words to be  an unheeded caution.

“I’ll be okay”, he aasserted as he stared at the bus, seeming eager to escape warning.

The young man’s bus took off and I immediately lit up one of my two and a half pack a day smokes, I was a couple of years sober but still craved nicotine and drank far too much coffee, and as this incident proved I had some interesting adventure awaiting me. Now that I was a recovering alcoholic I didn’t, take drugs, curse, or fight, the idea of fighting street youths even in self-defense, still bothered me because recovery had brought back my soul and spirit. I mused on weather my young plaintiff had chosen the right champion, and pictured tomorrow’s headline proclaiming Youth and  Black Man Beaten By Young Thugs!, I have no illusions that taking on a gang of antagonist  (again) could guarantee me victory. My recovering alcoholic friends often speak of the trials and tribulations that sober life offers, and further deferred to the helpful advice found in books by; Karl Jung, Manuel Smith, Leo Buscaglia, John Bradshaw and several African American authors I studied in the sixties. This first two year plus sober business was rather overwhelming, at times I felt like an imposter acting as though I were a seriously sober person, all the while fearful I would be found out and drummed out of the Recovery Corp.

I have had several and dramatic battles during my past thirty-fives years of recovery life, some fights I’ve chosen to engage in, others I’ve just as eagerly ran away from.  I have become aware, that I don’t have to be a pawn in other’s sick behavior. That little kid I protected would now be about 51 years old, I envision him having been able to make a decision and escape that horrendous youthful street life, but the memory of him gives me empathy for today’s street youth.  I would hope that we adults can take a second to discover ways to protect our children, forego a couple of Lattes or video rentals and contribute to children action support groups. There are homeless and helpless children that watch us ignoring them every day.

You couldn’t go to my aunt’s house and leave without sharing a meal, she made certain hungry children felt welcome to partake in whatever they had, and she encouraged those children to return anytime. I am sometimes hurrying off to a recovering or church function; and pass by the local food bank or Home Front and Backpack children’s donation sites, rationalizing that I do so much in other areas, that I can dismiss this responsibility.  I am an adult child of the charity (meaning love) of my formative neighborhood; I need to start giving back what was feely given me, and I want to be an example of someone grateful for the generosity of others.

It’s The Work… Not The Skill

I’ve lugged my drums up to rehearsal on the Bellingham WWSC campus, my girlfriend Mickey landed me a job as jazz drummer for Walter Zuber Armstrong, who now was apparently about to replace me with a younger improved model. A young Black man from the Seattle neighborhood who’d studied with Tommy Joe Henderson and Wayne Bibb, both musical percussionists that transcended the label and ordinary skills of most drummers, my link with those two Masters of Rhythm was that I had once dreamed of being a studio drummer and percussionist. My expert instructors; Bruce Ford (Ford’s Music), Fred Zeufeld (Viceroys/ Surprise Package), ­­­­Bill Richardson, and some other highly skilled and sensitive mentors, not only taught me essential drumming techniques like, sticking , and accentuating beats. But also how to interpret the music on the page, so I could  artistically play Bolero in an orchestra with feeling, or jam to Cherokee in a large or small band. Again watching musicians like Kay Kuniyuki, Wayne Bibb, Tommy Joe Henderson, gave me a sense of timing and love for the music, my teacher Fred Zeufeld suggested I observe (sheet music and records) two famous drummers Elvin Jones and Ed Thigpin (Oscar Peterson Trio), but I was enthralled with all drummer stylist from around the world such as West African, Raga, Taiko.

Now at age twenty I was a moderate moving toward  heavy drinker*, who didn’t have any real ambition to put in the long hours of practice, and seek a gig in a band or try my hand at studio work. My girlfriend set me up to play with Walter Zuber Armstrong (John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, and Prince Lashay), a superior wind musician whom excelled in any wind instrument from saxophone to shakuhachi, and from the beginning taught me the difference in playing music and becoming a true musician.  I was used to listening to Trane, Bird, Ellington, and a host of excellent artists, but I didn’t know how to listen deeply for the purpose of joining and communicating with another musical family member. I didn’t understand that improvisation was not an act of musical independence, but rather a shared spiritual act of interdependence, not walking along my own musical path but dancing in the direction of a communal destination. I used to love going by Walter’s place to watch him practice, he would regale me with stories of being on the road, or getting jammed up when gigging with this or that famous musician. I loved him because he reminded me of my Uncle Lacey, handsome and talented saxophonist and pianist of the 1940 – 1950’s music scene; who excelled  at a time  in apartheid Seattle when black musician’s playing, were limited to “Chitlin Circuit” venues and local taverns. This tall strikingly handsome, immaculately dressed man similar  my father, was an image of what I wished to become and accomplish in order to achieve my goals.  My father and uncle were role models who took  different paths in life,  but both brothers were required to put in hard work, and accept any difficulties that tried to sabotage their progress.

I had struggled with Walter’s group as I learned fundamentals of jazz musicianship and deflation of my ego, I now wanted to be the best possible band member, no longer wanting to shine or be singled out for my prowess.

Walter assured me that the new drummer was just “an addition” to the group, but I’d been in this scenario before and expected to be eased out in due time, yet until that dismissal  I had some serious work to do. I spent my days in the practice  studio laboring over fundamental rudimentary sticking patterns and drum fills, I committed our playing repertoire to memory … mentally I brought the band to practice with me. I took to heart every criticism, suggestion, and unspoken concerns of my band members, I sincerely developed a spirit of cooperation regarding the new drummer, and I tried to admire and compliment his talents. At our next rehearsal Walter and the band surprisingly found me greatly improved, so it was decided that both drummers go on our scheduled gigs to British Columbia, Canada, most importantly my young drumming partner and I now respected each other’s skills and complementary styles. Our first stop was at Walter’s girlfriend’s teaching job, a secondary school in Burnaby, British Columbia, where we enthusiastically performed then entertained audience questions. As we were departing our appreciative young patrons, we were suddenly surrounded by the Canadian Royal Mounted Police, because “coloured people (me and Walter)” had been seen entering the campus and fowl play was suspected. I was livid and at first refused to be interrogated. Being Black I had been subject to this treatment since age five, seen my father bruised and beaten by Seattle Police for “being drunk while colored”, and later watched my single -parent mother  being terrorized by Seattle Police who were angry at her tenants.

A quick aside: Mom was polite and quiet during the haranguing, and then the next day she contacted our family lawyer Philip Burton, who threatened SPD with legal action if they even “think of harassing my client again!”

I jokingly said to other band members as we left, “Huh, Critics, guess that’s our first Canadian Review?”, we laughed because it was funny but were shaken because we’d been initiated into a racial bias, at eight I watched SPD night patrols beating up eight year old kids and raiding Seattle’s famous Black jazz club Birdland (Miles Davis, Quincy Jones, Lacey Wilburn, Lady Rose, Ray Charles, Larry Coryell , Tiny Tony & Mary Lee Rush) to roust the Negros and assert their police dominance. I would be on my guard until we returned to Bellingham, where I could be serviled by Good Ole American Cops, I believed the band now had a healthier respect for the tribulations and “Dues” paid by Walter and other Black musical artists. Simon Frasier University and University of British Columbia were good gigs without incident, Vancouver BC was one of the cleanliest cities I’ve ever seen, Vancouver also had great tourist attractions; Stanley Park, Chinatown (which I knew from Kodokan Judo days), strong beer, and Cuban Cigars ( cough, cough!).  Our most important gig would be a special concert for the patrons of the Vancouver Art Museum, whom also supported Walter and his career as a performer and recording artist, so for this performance the group would be formally attired in suits and dresses. I was wearing a blue surge Brooks Brother’s suit, French silk tie, and highly polished black combat boots, at intermission Walter glared at my footwear choice and barked., “You go sit behind the drums!”.

But the Gig, The Gig was the best we had to offer, and it was six musicians playing as one, performing an eclectic blend of jazz songs rich in Japanese, Classical European, and African American traditional motifs. Last song before the break was entitled Gitano (Gypsy, I coined it after my nickname), reminiscent of a Kansas City – Dizzy Gillespie bebop feel, there’s a break near the end for the drummer, where the young drummer took a solo; I answered him with a classic jazz riff, responding in kind and we begin to talk to each other via our drums, each playing Gitano’s melody and urging each other to employ skillful replies, we crescendoed as a united driving force and then the  young drummer acknowledged me taking the  lead, and I played out the opening tune’s intro on my drums as a signal for the group to commence.   The audience went wild, the band looked at each other in acknowledged joy, and we two drummers knew that we been part of a magical event that we could have only accomplished as a team.

I wasn’t part of the group for much longer, but I enjoyed the Vancouver reviews we got, let’s be real I enjoyed the reviews I got, because I worked my behind off and was able to gain a sence of  humility in the bargain.  I was let go from the band before Walter’s album was created, consoled myself that I had gained in wisdom and musicianship, which was essential when I started on an eighteen month battle to become sober.

Yeah Right …really it hurt like Hell!

I did play in a couple of groups after that, but being a percussionist isn’t about “play” it’s about work and dedication, and my opinion is that being a great musician isn’t enough – if you are not willing to totally commit yourself, to the daily arduous task of preparation.   _____________________________________________________________________

* August 28th will be my 36th year alcohol and drug free! JNG