Wednesday, August 04, 2010

End of an Era

Last weekend I suddenly felt my age as if I had moved from middle age to senior years. Reasons were simple to understand: our youngest, Sarah, was off to her Summer Start orientation at Western Washington University and I felt that my 40+ years of parenting was approaching its end. The other cause for feeling like I did was having filled and signed retirement forms. The monetary value of said benefit amounts to little more than pocket change. The Scandinavian and generally European pension system, luxurious compared to ours in monetary terms, was initially created because people had on average 5-10 years of "golden years" left. These days, of course, people live longer and it remains to be seen how long the benefits can stay at current levels. Take my father as an example: he left work at a mandatory retirement age of 65. In two years his pension had climbed to a higher amount than his salary had been and today he is enjoying his thirty-fifth year of ever increasing pension. Now that he needs permanent care, the system takes a set percentage of his net income; in other words he ends up paying more than someone with a lower earnings for the exact same care.

In my youth I knew many people who passed away soon after their mandatory retirement. Although people knew they would be taken care of, many felt utterly useless being forced away from their jobs, and as a result their health would deteriorate. This "broken heart" syndrome is an unfortunate byproduct of the European system. Many people, for example those in education, are in the middle of their most productive years. Some are able to continue their creativity: my father started writing and doing research more vigorously than before. A large history book was commissioned and he was paid handsomely for years, on top of his pension. My pianist in Finland was a professor in the Sibelius Academy with an excellent class. He, too, had to leave, but at least the employer was able to hire him as an hourly instructor. He would also travel within the country performing and giving master classes and private lessons. Feeling useful, he reached his 90s. Part of the logic behind the mandatory retirement is to provide young people with job opportunities.

A couple days ago the New York Times had a heartbreaking story of "99ers", people who have exhausted their now-extended unemployment benefits and who have nothing but despair to look forward to. Yesterday's editorial touched the topic of our Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan paying too much attention to laws of other countries. This seems to annoy many Republican hardliners. On one hand we are eager to promote the American system as an ideal one for other nations to follow, yet we don't want to allow others criticize faults in ours, no matter how educated and civilized the people are. Basic human rights should be universal and they include education for all and taking care of the sick and less fortunate. Americans cry "Socialism" whenever such ideas are discussed; they could as well blame "Christianity" as those principles are well established in that religion which majority of Americans claim to follow.

Understandably this "milestone" in my life affected my dreams and death was very much present in them. Waking up in the middle of the night I decided that I would try to outlive certain other people, to have their obituaries appear before mine. No tears would be shed and I know that we wouldn't end up in the same place, assuming afterlife exists. First thing in the morning I went to check my email, fearing that something had happened to my dad. Nothing alarming appeared in my inbox to my relief, but later during the day I saw a headline Local Conductor Killed in a Crash. For a split second Schadenfreude took over until I learned the identity of the previous night's victim. George Shangrow was one of this city's and state's most gifted musicians. His show on a local radio station, "Live by George", was so popular that many people tuned in just to hear him talk, not necessarily to listen to the music.

Then Seattle did what it excels in, getting rid of the top talent and promoting mediocrity instead. This has happened over and over again, in academia, arts and probably in many other fields. We build fancy temples for very average sports or arts groups and then we call these organizations "world class". Media's PR machinery does its best to elevate the not-so-gifted while destroying the lives of those truly deserving. Someone (no name here) decided that George was too popular and witty, and it was time to have him fired from the radio station. I remember him sitting by our dining table not long afterward, still feeling like lightning had struck him. He was worried about finances and told how he had visited his doctor (whom I knew well) to get medications to help him cope. He had told the doctor about his disastrous situation and was shocked when a bill came in the mail. I said "George, this is America: you can't expect anything for nothing" but he was too upset to comprehend this fact. Of course he had his Orchestra Seattle and other gigs, but his pride and the former feeling of certain security in life had been smashed for good.

George was an extraordinary multi-talented musician who was equally at ease in front of the microphone, at the keyboard of a harpsichord or piano or on the podium. Many years ago he was conducting a couple school concerts with a local orchestra. I had never seen kids so excited: he turned the concert into a funny, entertaining but informative show. Needless to say, he was never invited back to conduct (to my knowledge), although his incredible ability of reading a continuo line with the left and improvising with the right hand was acceptable to the same organization numerous times, as it would have been hard to find someone else locally. He was a true pro: my father, a critical music lover himself, was present at one of George's live broadcasts when one or both of us appeared as guests, and my dad didn't stop praising the host's incredible ease with the microphone. Rumors are that a local string player recently needed a dozen takes during a recording of a most standard work: George on the keyboard would have been perfect with just one.

After he was ousted we stopped listening to the classical station. Yesterday I was driving toward the Canadian border, to pick our little one up from her orientation in Bellingham. Normally I like to tune in to the station in B.C. transmitting in Quebecoise French but for some reason yesterday's conditions were not the best for listening. Scanning through the dial I realized that the same Seattle station which had turned George's life upside down was trying to cash in by repeatedly playing music he had recorded with his orchestra and chorus. Since his abrupt departure the station's popularity has gone downhill: I found it ironic that George was resurrected from the dead to help them. Of course there were many listeners who were grateful to hear his music making one more time, but I wish the circumstances had been different.

You will live on in our memories, George.

“Retirement” © Elliot Shoemaker
George Shangrow © John Cornicello