Sunday, March 30, 2014

Leaving Home

See that picture at the top?  That's the township of Swatara in northern Aitkin County, Minnesota.  And I mean, that's the whole township. My mom and brother Rolf and I lived there in 1954-1956.  The picture was taken in 1947 and the only difference when we lived there was that the road you're looking at was paved all the way to the top of the small hill you see, when the crossroad became gravel again.  The road coming at you goes west three miles over forested hill and dale until it meets up with US 169.  I walked that three miles many times because I could catch the bus to Aitkin at 169 and ride it the thirty-two miles into town to see my friends and my uncle.  Unfortunately, I also had to walk the three miles back home, usually at night, usually in winter. The last time I walked it in June, 1956, leaving my mom and brother behind, I caught the bus and rode it 2500 miles to Los Angeles to live with my dad and stepmother.  I never walked it back home again.

But I digress.  The house that you see straight on is the house where we lived for two years with the 5-8 grade teacher, I forget her name, even though she was my teacher.  Mom taught the 1-4 grades, and was therefore Rolf's teacher.  I don't know why either of them was hired, especially Mom.  Anyway, after their first year there was a trial of sorts and they were both fired for, I think, incompetence.  I can't think of any other reason.  The new 5-8 teacher that I had wasn't any better than the old one.  The school I refer to is in the second picture. You're looking at the back door.  To the left of that door were the two classrooms; to the right was an auditorium/gymnasium where dances were held and where we had recess if it was too cold or wet to play outside.  I don't think I was ever upstairs. This picture was taken before all the windows were broken.  The last time I saw it was on the occasion of Mom's funeral in '04 (which was in Aitkin, thank Minerva, not in Swatara; it was bad enough living in Swatara, no one should have to die there), all the windows were broken out.  Not a shred of glass left.   I have no happy memories of my two years at that school, but it was still sad to see the shell it had become.

But I digress again.  Back to the house.  The bottom right window was the living room, where the heater was.  The bottom left window was the kitchen without indoor plumbing; we had to catch the water from the sink in a pail and empty the pail down the two-hole toilet, which was out of sight to the far left.  The upstairs windows were our bedroom, where the three of us slept in the winter to stay warm.  Directly across from us was the bedroom where the other teacher slept.  To the left of those bedrooms was an attic with just a bunch of junk in it, where my mom hid her money in a coffee can.  The front of the house also had two windows, one on the right which looked into a small closet usually full of cat turds, as well as a very small room where I slept in all seasons but winter.  The window on the front left was the one Mom and Rolf watched and waved from and cried as I left Minnesota for California to live with my Dad.  For the full story on all of this, go to the Family label of this blog and look up--in this order--Mom and then Dad and then Rolf.  You'll be able to read all about it.

The store/gas station to your left also contained the post office, and was where we bought groceries and where I bought cream-filled cookies and milk to have while reading the science fiction library books I brought home while Mom and Rolf were still in school.  The building across the street was a small eatery where I would sit at the counter for hours, drinking cokes and rotting many of my teeth (with help from the cookies, of course).  I sat there and talked with older guys who smoked and  worked and who could drive. (They made me want to smoke, too, so when I graduated high school in Cali, I started to smoke and continued to do so for the next 54 years). All my school friends lived out in the country and came to school in buses so I never saw them outside of school.

So I have no happy memories of the township, either, much less the school.  It was especially sad seeing my brother cry as I walked away that June. 

But it was with a light heart that I caught the bus at Hwy. 169 headed via Greyhound for Aitkin and then Minneapolis and then Los Angeles.

I was thirteen.

Monday, February 17, 2014


Erin and I spent nine days in Thailand rehearsing, lecturing and giving workshops, thanks to Jodi Piriyapongrat of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and the U.S. Embassy there.  We were primarily in Bangkok but also flew up to Chiang Mai for a few days for the purpose of Embassy Outreach in their schools.

The people in that country were wonderful to us, especially the teachers and their students.  We are also truly indebted to The Three Lads--three of Jodi's students--who drove us everywhere and were in all ways so helpful, including Wheelchair Management when distances were a bit long for my crutches.  The teachers received our work warmly and we even managed to make a few of the students laugh from time to time, despite language difficulties and necessity for translation.  Most Thais know English--it seems to be their second language--but the younger/less educated they are, the less they know.  Their kindness, however, knows no bounds.  While visiting Buddhist sites, we were at the Reclining Buddha (Obama saw it some years back) and I was in my wheelchair.  The steps into the shrine were just too tall for my crutches, so I was just going to stay out.  The man managing the entrance called up three of his buddies and the four of them lifted me up those steps and into the building, wheelchair and all.  (It was quite the sight; google it).  They also did the same thing at the exit.  You can't get any kinder than that and I really can't imagine anywhere else where that could have happened.

AND. . . . Jodi managed to get us housed in the Siam Kempinski Hotel in Bangkok (google Kempinski).  It was the most lavish, beautiful hotel with the best service that I have ever experienced.  And the included breakfasts were not to be believed.  Run by Germans, natch.  The handicapped room we were in was spectacular and was the finest and most efficient I have ever experienced.  And the mini-bar was included, as was morning coffee service.  Sigh.  Double Sigh.

Did I mention the food?  Well, now I did.  Wonderful, but my favorite is still tom yum soup.  The hotel's western food in one of their three restaurants wasn't bad either, though the wiener schnitzel left a bit to be desired.  Oh.  And I had to teach them how to make a martini, a task that seems to follow me all over the world.

The only bad thing about the adventure was 20-hours of flight time each way.  And our return flight Tokyo-Houston was delayed seven hours, which meant spending a night in a cheap hotel in Houston.  Groan.

Small prices to pay, though, for nine wonderful days.  Lucky us.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Billy's Bad Bod: Backwards, Hey

Yesterday afternoon I got discharged from the hospital after a long talk from the resident MD and my current nurse: take it easy for a week; realize that a good portion of your problem with your heart has to do with your thyroid, which is producing too much bad stuff, making your heart race, filling your lungs with water, scaring the shit out of you as you try to breathe. So I'm seeing a Thyroidologist  on 3 December to see if he can figure out how to deal with it.  And of course, new drugs to address the problem and drugs to address the drugs.  Get it?

Yeah, but my cardiologist said, as he prepared to poke et, al, 'you did indeed have a slight heart attack. You wanna call it congestive heart failure, go ahead."  This was the day before yesterday, and, boy, them surgical nurses was cute!  Naturally, I charmed them from here to Chattanooga.  Drugs weren't much (proponol), but the girls made up for it.  Procedures didn't take long and proved: 1) zapping my heart four times (I was asleep) couldn't bring my heart back into rhythm.  This is not uncommon, but I think they're blaming that dirty ole nasty thyroid; 2) the rapid pulses I had experienced the day before had not done substantive damage to the chambers of my heart.  This was very good news.  And the witch doctors and mechanics and medicine men will see what they can do with this almost-71-year-old-machine called my body.  BTW: everyone who came into my room to poke, zap, measure (every 3-4 hours) remarked how I looked more like fifty rather than 71.  Heh, heh. 

OK. Now the fun part.

I usually lie down to read in the afternoons, hoping I'll fall asleep.  I usually do. On Tuesday, I didn't. At about 300 I noticed a little difficulty breathing.  I got up, walked into the bathroom (not sure why), noticed a lot of difficulty breathing, came back out and dived for the cell phone on the bed.  911 was really good, and as fast as they could possibly be. Not fast enough: I was gulping shallow breaths so that by the time they tossed me into the Unit, I was a wild man: wouldn't calm down, kept tearing the cup off my face.  I could only speak one word at a time, and could not talk to Erin.  It was a mess.  Poor Erin: she was scared almost as poopless as I was when she came home and found me gone, and all my modes of transport still there.

So yeah, folks, I'll tell ya that not being able to breathe is quite possibly the worst thing that can happen to you: no defense; no cure.  In the ER, they opened both arms and the back of one hand and pumped me so full of stuff that I could almost not hold it.  The mainlining of Ativan put me out, thank God, and whatever else they pumped into me seemed to correct the breathing problem and the pulse of 130-140 (think about that for a second).  They told Erin that my situation was very severe.  Poor thing.  When I woke up, I was fine.

As of this morning I feel great except for a pronounced weakness in the legs: to be expected after over three days on my back and butt.  Looking forward to a real breakfast, a little college football (no a lot).  Probably a nap.

All told: happy to be here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Anecdote V: Billy Basque

I discovered Basqueland (Euskadi in Basque) in the beginning of the new millenium, 2000.  The USC Chamber Choir had won the competition in Varna, Bulgaria the year before, thus qualifying us to compete with the winners of five similar competitions in what is known as the Grand Prix of Choral Singing.  We lost to a Russian children's choir, but that is another topic.

We were housed in a beautiful seaside town west of San Sebastian called Zarautz (someone once said that a Basque typewriter only has x's, k's, and z's). The town had a gorgeous promenade and our hotel was in the main plaza: la Plaza Muzika.  Basque country is half in Spain and half in southern France, all of it beautiful.  Simply and quickly put: It was love at first sight for me.  And since most Basques also speak Castilian Spanish (castellano) I could stumble my way through happy hours and stores even though Spanish is my weakest language.  I fared marginally better in French Basqueland even though that was my second weakest language. The other three in order of strength are English, German and Italian.

I vowed I would return.  Two years later, for my 60th birthday, and after winning another competition, our English friends and four other close friends met in San Sebastian and we spent two weeks exploring the area, including to the land of the Three Musketeers where we got to sample a number of Armagnacs and visit a farm where ducks gave up their livers for foix gras (another great story, but not for here).  We were a party of eight living like lords, including an evening at the world-famous Basque restaurant, Arzak, that took three hours and was worth every minute (worth every Euro, too).

Again, I vowed I would return.  So our party of eight visited Zarautz and I visited a real estate office for rental information.  The fall of '02 was a sabbatical for me, so I made arrangements to rent an apartment on the fourth floor of a building right on the Bay of Biscay.  I arrived on 1 October and stayed for a month, finishing the book I had started in September.  That month cost me $3000, a thousand each for rent, plane fare, and food and drink (ca. $33/day).  At that time, the dollar and the Euro were almost exactly equal (yea!).

Here's what those days were like.

I got up at 830, put my espresso on the stove, and went out to the seaside balcony to open a window and watch the folks running on the beach and strolling the Paseo. When the espresso was ready, I brought it into the coffee table in the lounge and drank it with my roll, serrano ham, and manchego cheese.

I started writing at 930 and wrote until 1230, when I went in to shower and shave.  Then I would go to lunch between 100 and 130, always choosing the restaurant's lunch special that was usually three courses, with dessert being ice cream.  I went back to my FourthFloorSeasideApartment (ahem) at 300, napped for a half hour, and resumed writing at 330.  I was always armed with a novel at both lunch and dinner, by the way, because I didn't have enough Spanish for cheery conversations with strangers.

At 630 I stopped writing and proofed what I had done during the day.  With my first martini by my side, of course.  At 730, I left the apartment, walked the Paseo for a while, had my second martini in the bar right across my street (I had taught them how it was made) and made my way to a restaurant at 830.  This was a relatively expensive meal because I always ordered foix gras if they had it, with a small glass of red vermouth, followed by a meat entree of some kind and a suitable Spanish wine.  At 1030 I went home, got into bed and read one of my novels until midnight.

About once per week, I would buy my breakfast at the small coffee shop across the street and read the paper, which was my only source of news (television news was far too fast for me to comprehend).  My paper was El PaĆ­s Vasco ('the Basque Country') and I could slowly make my way through it with about 75% comprehension. It was there that I read about the latest shootings in the US and the terrorist bombing on Bali.  On Saturdays, I rented computer time at a small shop and read about college football in the US, called home and the like.

I wrote six hours/day every day in that October except for three, when I rented a car, drove to Gascony to buy Armagnac, stayed at a neat little Auberge and came home, whereupon I drove around the mountain to a restaurant that I could see from my balcony but had never been to because I didn't want to decipher bus schedules.  It was all fish there, with a grill that was kept burning all day.  They brought around a large platter with raw fish on it, I chose the one I wanted and they grilled it.  It was exquisite, as were the side dishes.  I had draft beer for dessert, drove back and returned the car  (a small Peugot).

If this sounds like heaven, that's exactly what it was.  And no, I was not lonely, though I occasionally did long to speak English.  Fortunately, a German chorus came into town for a few days (they won Tolosa that year) and I spoke it with them once German became too much work for me (usually after the third beer).  I only learned one word of Basque ('augur') and have forgotten utterly what it means, though I think it meant goodbye in the sense of 'hey, later, dude.'

I'd do it again if I could.  You want to read about these unique people who I dearly love, I recommend Mark Kurlanski's A Basque History of the World, which I bought just before my Birthday Jaunt in '02 .  Don't google them until you do.  Okay?  Okay.

Grafitti message in English on the side of a building in the passage just below me: "Tourist--you are neither in France nor Spain."  Got that?  Good.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Anecdote IV: Billy Banker

After I quit being a Dock Donkey in the fall of '62, I decided I would try to do something that wasn't hard labor and maybe even be able to work in the daytime(!).

So I applied to Citizens National Bank (long since defunct).  I was interviewed by a wonderful older woman who tried to make sure that I was willing to make a career of banking and not quit and go back to school after a short time.  I promised her that banking was all I ever thought about and couldn't imagine doing anything else.  I was a good liar and got hired.

So I worked full time at a small branch out in the San Gabriel Valley, Hacienda Heights, and got my teller training there, in fact.

I soon learned that banking was not for me: I was fast but not at all thorough thus didn't always balance to the penny at the end of the day and everyone had to stick around til they found my error.  This made me very popular. I also learned that many of the general public are righteous assholes who considered the entire bank staff to be their servants.  The servile manager and assistant manager did nothing to dispel this impression.  Plus the pay for us tellers was pissant.  Wanna know why?  'Cause almost all of the tellers were women and we all know what they're worth!  And those women made lunch in the staff lounge torture for me: all they talked about was pregnancy, children and Las Vegas.  I soon learned to bring a book to work.

About mid-year I told that sweet woman who interviewed me that I was indeed going back to school in the fall of '63.  She was disappointed.  She decided to make the most of my impermanence by making me a sub teller for any branch in the entire LA basin that needed one.  So I filled in for vacation people, sick people and the like, driving all over the basin to various branches and rarely being in the same place for more than week.  It forestalled boredom, at least, and I knew the end was in sight.

So I re-entered UCLA in the fall of '64 but needed money for rent and food and gas and my church choir check just wouldn't do it.  I applied at the Bank of America branch in downtown Westwood and was hired as a Boy Friday, I could walk from campus to the bank.  I helped the Operations Officer, did my time at the Customer Bitch Desk (the bank was never wrong), and helped the Assistant Operations Officer track down problems.  In essence, there wasn't any job in that bank I couldn't do (except approve loans) and there was much glamour in it because a lot of movie and TV actors had their accounts with us.  And lemme tell ya, when Zubin Mehta's wife, Nancy Kovack, entered that lobby, time and people stood still.  Holy Moley, what a dish she was. (Mehta took over the LA Phil at only 29, btw.  Nancy quit here acting jobs).

Of course, when things got busy in the lobby, I went on the teller line, usually at the request of John Heenan, the O.O.  When the lobby got a bit crowded, he'd yell "Dehning, get on that line."  I'd open my window and that lobby would empty out in minutes.  I was a real whiz on that line!  Of course, I didn't always balance out to zeros at the end of the day, but that was a small price to pay for the Dehning Blitz on the crowd, especially on Fridays.

I worked 25 hours/week at that bank until January of '66, when I finished at UCLA and went across town to enter USC.  Each semester, I got a letter from the UCLA counseling office warning me that such a time consuming job was detrimental to my studies, which was correct, but I had to work, and in those last three semesters at UCLA I never got anything less than a B, but of course damned few A's.  The A's came when I entered grad school and was only in classes I loved and in which I had a deep interest.  Funny how that works.

Next:  Billy Basque.  Watch this space.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Anecdote III: Midnight Cowboys

I had passed my written and oral exams for the DMA in May of 1969, after studying full time for three months.  Marge had been working full time as a long-term sub at a local high school the entire spring semester.  We had made plans to leave for Europe, flying on 7 September from LAX to Zurich.  We had saved $3000 and planned to stay for six months.  It turned out to be seven months and I had to borrow 700 from my life policy to make it back home.

So we left the house we were renting in Granada Hills and moved in with my dad and stepmother for the summer to avoid rent.  They loved having us around, actually.  Marge worked for a temp agency based on her Flying Fingers at the keyboard.  But I, almost the revered Dr. Dehning, got a job at Sears as a janitor.  Stores need to be cleaned at night, so we worked the graveyard shift from 11P-7A.

That store sparkled when it opened in the morning.  We were a crew of eight plus a foreman, all of whom were black except me and Mac, and Mac, it turned out, was gay.  I found this out after about a month one night at lunch (we got 45 minutes for it, plus two 15-minute breaks during our shift, thanks to the union).  One of our tasks was crushing all the boxes that were opened during the day.  It was a big machine in the floor that crushed them and then they had to be dragged out.  It required a two-man crew, and Mac and I were always sent down there to do it.  Maybe it was the WhiteGuys thing or maybe they thought I was gay, too.

Anyway, back to lunch.  One of the crew was about 6'6" and built like a Sequoia.  His name was Snake and he was the neatest guy; I liked him best.  So I asked him finally, "is Mac homosexual?"  "From his heart," Snake said.  Actually it came out 'frumis hawt.'  Turned out that Mac also had false teeth.  Hmm.  Snake really liked me, too, and he wasn't gay, thank god.  (We still said 'homo' or 'queer' in those days; 'gay' was a long way off.)

In addition to crushing boxes, other duties for the crew included cleaning sinks and toilets, mopping service floors, polishing mirrors and windows, and polishing floors.  In short, ensuring that the place was spic and span by 700.  We had weekly staff meetings run by our foreman, Charles, regarding techniques and the like: "Now I found out that some of you are cleaning the sinks by just wiping them down.  That's no good.  You gotta use (holding up a bottle) diss here Bab-O (emphasis on the O.")

I usually wound up polishing the floors with a big electric buffer and I did a damned fine job.  Those suckers gleamed when I finished with them. I was proud of my work. Take a look at how much floor space there is in a department store next time you go in one, you'll be impressed with my industry and diligence.  If nothing else, my patience (and no radios or ear phones to get me through the boredom).

All told, I'm very glad I had that experience.  Doing semi-hard, mind-numbing work with those men gave me an appreciation of what a lot of the work force had to live with on a daily basis.  Yeah, it paid well, but it grew old quickly and I was glad to leave at the end of August.  I never told those guys why I was leaving, and I sure as hell didn't tell them that I almost had a doctorate.  And nowadays, when someone is angry that garbage collectors and janitors make almost as much money as they do, I tell 'em, "They got it coming, you don't like it, then YOU go and collect garbage or clean toilets.  No one's stopping you."

I never did ask Mac why he had false teeth.

Next:  Billy Banker.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Teachers Live For III (with sincere thanks to TJ Harper)

Thank you Dr. William Dehning.

Today, I heard a recording of the Martin Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir and I was immediately immobilized by the intense emotions and recollections of my time learning this work from and making music with the finest rehearsal technician I know.

One of the most remarkable musical experiences I have ever had was singing this tremendous work as a member of the USC Chamber Choir under the direction of Dr. William Dehning. Perhaps even more remarkable and substantive to me than our memorable ACDA National performance in Los Angeles with all of its ovations and Bravos! (Thank you, Jon Talberg)

Sometimes we forget where we come from and it takes a while, or something, to remind us of this. I am grateful for the lessons I learned during my time at USC, but I am most thankful for the opportunity to study and learn from this great educator, interpreter, and musician.