Class Notes - March 24, 1999

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Class notes features

Road rave

I'm convinced I am the only member of my Princeton class who is "homeless" -- and probably one of only a handful of alumni who fit into this category. My wife, Judy, and I live in our family vehicle and move from city to city as the mood hits us. From a census statistician's point of view, there is no other way to classify us but homeless.

To clarify, while we are classified as homeless, we aren't "classic" homeless people like those whose lives have been reduced to living in shelters, under bridges, or in abandoned buildings. We are part of a new category of homeless senior citizens -- over 2 million strong and growing -- who have made the conscious decision to sell homes, furniture, and most worldly possessions to take to the open road. This new class of homeless people might have been called vagabonds or wanderers in another age. Today we're called full-timers, and we live yearround in an RV.

Our decision to become homeless came three years ago, and we tested the idea before we made the plunge. At the time, I had recently retired, and we owned a condominium in Virginia Beach as well as a 34-foot motor home. Our first lengthy trip in that motor home lasted three months, and we came back to our condo for two. Then we took off for four months and returned to the condo for six weeks. The third and final test was a five-month journey across the U.S. -- culminating in a visit to the Albuquerque Balloon Festival. There, sitting in our "home on wheels" we witnessed a thousand balloonists take to the skies in the course of 30 minutes. It was at that moment that we made the decision: our condo was nothing more than an expensive closet. When we told our friends and family of our decision, most freaked out. "Where will we go for Christmas?" one of our sons asked earnestly. "To your home," was our reply. In the two and a half years since we began our full-time sojourn, we have traveled more than 30,000 miles and have barely tapped the scenic vistas that America offers.

When we decided to sell the condo last spring and become full-timers, we purchased a new, larger motor home that made being homeless even more pleasant. Thirty-eight feet long and 12 feet wide when extended, our RV provides less than 360 square feet of living space. In contrast, our largest home had 4,800 square feet. But our motor home provides virtually all the amenities we grew used to in Virginia Beach. It is equipped with satellite TV, a washer/dryer, a convection oven, a microwave, a heatpump/airconditioner, an onboard computer (on which this piece was written), two TVs and VCRs, a sound system, leatherupholstered chairs, and conveniences that only motor-homers would appreciate, such as automatic levelers and backup cameras. Some of the homeless seniors we know travel in motor homes costing upwards of $900,000; our peripatetic lifestyle isn't a hardship in any way. And with a sport utility vehicle in tow, when we get to a new destination, we can take off to see the sights just like tourists on vacation.

People ask us if our decision resulted in our losing touch with family and friends, and there's no doubt that being a vagabond could do this. But we make the effort to route ourselves to see people. In October we visited our youngest son, who is attending the Lutheran Seminary in Berkeley, California. On the way out, we stopped in Lexington, Kentucky, to visit Judy's best friend from the '70s. We had Thanksgiving with Judy's sister in Philomath, Oregon. Over Christmas our sons flew to visit with us at an RV resort in Las Vegas. And in between we took time to see Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Flaming Gorge, Mt. Zion National Park, and Red Rock Canyon. As I write this on January 11, we're in Casa Grande, Arizona, where the daytime temperatures are in the 70s -- quite a contrast to the 20-degree temperature in Virginia.


Caravan friendships

We find that new friends are easier to meet now that we're on the road than when we owned the condo. There, people would pass us by on our walks with a nod. In contrast, in RV resorts and parks, everyone wants to become a friend, since all vagabonds need camaraderie; people always say hello and stop by to talk. We often caravan with our closest "homeless" friends, whom we met in Florida two years ago in a member RV resort. We've crossed the country together, gone sightseeing, and played games together just as though they were our nextdoor neighbors back home, only now they're parked on a nearby site.

Some of our friends in Virginia thought we were losing our marbles when we told them we were giving up our roots, but now seem envious. Being fulltimers isn't always easy, however. It's a chore to get mail; we use a mail-forwarding service and general delivery. We use a voice-mail service and check in daily. But the inconveniences on the road are far outweighed by the vistas ahead of us in every state, and the new friends we meet, not to mention the money we save by eliminating property taxes. For us, homelessness is a lifestyle we aren't prepared to give up until I no longer have the physical ability to navigate 55 feet of rig and extra vehicle along America's back roads. For now, it's the same home but a different yard each day, and we're loving it.

-- Rich Payne '55

A song is where the heart is
Weiss helps students tune in to music

Elissa Weiss '78, a founding member of The Salamone Trio, a group that performs Renaissance, medieval, and Jewish folk music, likes making music, but she just loves teaching a course called Everybody Can Sing!, which she holds in the living room of her one-bedroom apartment in New York City.

"We are all born able to sing with good voices. It's fear and tension that prevent us from using our voices the way we want to," Weiss says. In her 90-minute class, which meets weekly for four weeks, Weiss focuses on technique: helping students to sing in tune, match pitch, project, and create beautiful tones. She also includes rhythm training, or solfège, and lessons in correct breathing, which increases a singer's range and power.

Her students have included lawyers, social workers, psychotherapists, computer programmers, secretaries, nurses, architects, and librarians. "The first class I taught gave me so much energy," recalls Weiss. "There are dynamics involved in teaching. One of the things I learned right away is that it's important to keep things moving and not spend too much time on one person. I get as much joy from teaching as the students seem to get from learning."

A typical class opens with a guided meditation to help relax minds and muscles, followed by group humming to focus on breathing. In each class, Weiss goes over different aspects of music, including tuning, harmony, and rhythm, and she focuses on a particular musical style, such as Gregorian chant or the blues. The group might sing together then split into duets. One-on-one work with Weiss is optional. To close each class, the group sings students' favorite songs. In the final class, Weiss teaches a Gregorian chant that they sing together. "When the class is over, my living room feels as though it's alive," Weiss says. "I always hear the group singing in the hall as they wait for the elevator."

Weiss, who grew up in Florida, played the clarinet in high school. She went to Princeton to study math but majored in economics; she wrote her thesis on the U.S. money supply. She took one music course, Kenneth Levy's The Symphony, which she now draws on for her own teaching. "I learned an enormous amount about Analysis, a method of analyzing musical scores which can be used by non-musicians," Weiss says, "and I constantly use the information Professor Levy taught us about form." She also joined the marching band, Glee Club, and chapel choir and took regular voice lessons. After graduating, Weiss worked at McCarter Theatre for a year, then became the accounting manager at the Metropolitan Opera Guild in New York, where she still works four days a week.

Weiss's favorite moment is when a student realizes that yes, he or she can sing. "I'm blown away every time I discover a student's real voice," Weiss says. "I'm convinced that singing and dancing are more important for our identity as humans than walking and talking. It's so sad that we dance and sing as children, then something happens and we don't do those things daily any more. We sold our birthright for a mess of pottage, as the Bible says. That pottage is all the practical stuff which adds tension and makes us forget why it's fun to be alive."

-- Art Fazakas

Row, row, row your boat
Fiercely down the Thames

Even at a top U.S. crew school like Princeton, rowers Morgan Crooks and Martin Crotty, both members of the Class of 1998, learned early on that public attention was not in the cards for the practitioners of their lonely trade. Americans simply refuse to get worked up about something so untelegenic and lacking in easily identifiable individual distinction. Mention to a Yank that the English treat rowing as an honest-to-goodness spectator sport and he will likely laugh and chalk the fact up to the same quaint, old-world backwardness responsible for left-side driving, 240-volt electrical current, and cricket.

Which is why, prepared though they claim to be, Crooks and Crotty are bound to gulp in astonishment on April 3 when they first experience the apocalyptic battle between good and evil known as the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. The event, known universally as simply The Boat Race, lasts less than 20 minutes, but still brings out a side of this happy and normally sedate breed rarely seen outside football stadiums and the House of Commons. Once a year, and all over a few students messing about in boats, this nation of shopkeepers applies for collective membership in Monty Python's Silly Party.

In the week leading up to the race, London sports pages lead with news from the weigh-in and the trash talking of the boat captains (British version: "The other boat looks awfully tough but I fancy we'll take them"). When the two crews at last line up, 6 million people tune in on television, making it one of the nation's five most watched sporting events, along with the FA Cup and Wimbledon finals. Along the banks, 250,000 people line the four-and-a-half mile Thames River course between Putney and Mortlake in West London and scream their lungs out, with many a mood for the entire upcoming year dependent on the outcome.


It's been grim

The mood has been grim of late at Oxford, which has endured a six-year losing streak. People here haven't felt so humiliated since the 1640s when Oliver Cromwell, a Cambridge man, purged Royalist fellows from Oxford's colleges. But Crotty and Crooks, who helped Princeton's varsity heavyweights to the national championship last spring, hope to help the Dark Blues turn the tide this year.

Crotty, from Hamburg, New York, has rowed for the U.S. for the last two years in the coxed fours at the World Rowing Championships. Crooks, from Lethbridge, Alberta, rowed in the Canadian eight at the 1997 World Championships and in a pair at last year's. Both hope to row in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

It's difficult to overstate how much rides on the contest. When it's finally over, rowers in the competing boats will have put in two hours of training for each stroke they take during the race. And there are no second chances. At Princeton, the season lasts all year. Here the season lasts the 18 or so minutes it takes to row the course and ends forthwith. "It's a little different focus," says Crotty, "a little narrower. You don't want to be careless because you have to get it right. I know I only get one shot at it."

"From the moment you arrive, all you hear about is The Race," says Crooks, whose pairs partner for Canada at the World Championships, Brad Crombie, will be in the Cambridge boat. But the appropriate attitude is quickly instilled. "From day one I was able to hate the filthy 'Tabs' [Cantabs, from the Latin for Cambridge]," he adds.

Crotty and Crooks are training for an event far different from what they knew at Princeton. Crews must battle tides, currents, and snakish bends -- none of which is present on the comparatively placid waters of Lake Carnegie. The course is also several times longer than the 2,000-meter ones to which American collegians are accustomed. "Because they're used to a very competitive training environment, I'm sure they'll adapt to it well," says Oxford coach Sean Bowden, who coached the Cambridge boat to victory three times in the early 1990s and has now been recruited to halt Oxford's slide. "They may not know exactly what The Boat Race is, but they know what racing is."

The two plan to train full-time for the Olympics next year, but are grateful that the year in Oxford, where they are studying sociology, has given them a chance to row with a top-notch crew and also see a bit of the world. "It's the perfect mix of rowing and still more education," says Crooks. "We didn't put our lives on hold for the Olympics, but we didn't blow our chance for the Olympics either."

Crotty and Crooks live together in East Oxford, along with Topher Bordeau '98, who captained Princeton's heavyweights last year and who will be in one of the reserve boats against Cambridge. The three keep each other straight with training, academics, and making sure nobody starts speaking British. "If somebody says 'turn on the telly,' nobody moves, and we just ignore him until he uses the proper terminology," Crotty says.

And how would Princeton's 1998 national champion crew fare against Oxford's eight, which features Swedish and German Olympians and several British stars? Just fine, Crotty says with confidence. "If we trained for this race, I think we'd win it." The "we," of course, is still Princeton. A year out and an ocean away, even true Blue blood still runs orange and black.

-- Justin Pope '97

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