One night in February 2003, three months before my wife Allene and I moved to Bocas del Toro, Panama, a severe cold front passed through New Braunfels, Texas, where we lived at the time. The next morning, I saw snow covering our yard, and it turned out the front had deposited a lot of snow and ice in its wake as it rolled on through the state. Snow is rare in south Texas. In fact, in the twenty years I spent growing up in Houston, I only recall it snowing twice. Both times it happened, everyone ─ kids and adults alike ─ went outside and played in it. We were building snowmen, having snowball fights, making snow angels, and desperately trying to find any kind of slope that we could use to slide down. The terrain around Houston is very flat, but fortunately in the field behind our house there was a big mound of dirt that my Dad had piled up with his tractor from excavating a big hole that was later supposed to become a swimming pool. So of course, all of us kids, including our cousins the Cloyds and the Blakers, gathered up garbage-can lids, cardboard boxes, pieces of plywood, and anything else we could use as a sled. Then we proceeded to make mincemeat of that tiny snow-covered hill, until we were all totally exhausted, with our clothes soaked, our feet and hands frozen and our lips turned blue. I know for sure that night we all slept well after experiencing such a joyous day.
Now flash forward to that day in February 2003 in New Braunfels. New Braunfels is in an area of Texas called the Hill Country, meaning there are plenty of slopes and hills around. We lived on seven acres of land and our property had a nice gentle slope to it from the far back corner, down past our house all the way to the street. I was 52 years old at the time but still a kid at heart, so I hurriedly ate my breakfast so I could get out there in that snow. Because Allene and I are both avid surfers, we also had taken up snow-skiing because of its similarities to surfing. We tried to take one or two ski trips every winter to New Mexico, Colorado or elsewhere and a few years earlier had purchased our own ski equipment. So right after breakfast I grabbed my skis, boots and poles and headed out the back door. Unfortunately, Allene had had hip replacement surgery the year before and was not cleared yet for skiing or surfing so she could not risk partaking in all the fun.
I put on my ski boots, hiked up to the far edge of our property, stepped into the ski bindings and made my first run all the way down to the street. Looking down the road after sliding to a stop, I was a little surprised not to see any of the neighbors’ kids out playing in the snow. I thought, “Well, maybe it’s just early and they’ll be out later.”
After making several more runs down the slope of our property, I decided I needed a bigger challenge. I walked back in the house and said, “Allene, will you drive me up to Canyon Lake? I want to ski Canyon Dam.”
She gave me one of those looks that meant “You’re nuts,” but she said, “Sure I will.”
We loaded my gear into her car and drove to Canyon Lake, twelve miles away. A short while into the trip, after passing many homes that had beautiful hills right nearby with untracked snow on them, I turned to Allene and said, “What’s going on here?”
She replied, “Yeah, I know, I was wondering the same thing. Where are all the kids?”
In fact, all the way to the dam we saw absolutely no one out playing in the snow. I was shocked to say the least. But it didn’t stop me. I ended up making two good runs down the dam before a park ranger came and ran us off saying the park was closed. I was tired anyway. No ski lifts at the dam and a very long hike back up in the snow.
On the drive home, Allene and I had a somber conversation about how we were living in a whole new world. We’d come to the realization that the kids nowadays would much rather prefer to stay indoors and be on their Gameboys and other personal devices than venture out into the snow. That was hard for me to grasp. But then again, it has always been hard for me to embrace change, especially technological ones.
I can remember when 4-track tape players first came out and I actually jumped on that pretty quickly because I loved music and it made it possible to buy all my favorite bands’ releases in a format that would play in my car. Oh man, was that great or what!?
But shortly afterwards, they came out with the 8-track player. I saw no need to go that format as I was totally happy with my 4-tracks. That is, until they quit making 4-track tapes, which basically forced everyone to buy an 8-track player if you wanted to listen to your bands’ new recordings in your car. For the first time, I smelled a rat. This was the beginning of the mass consumerism that would soon come to rule the world. But grudgingly, I went along with buying an 8-track player. Especially when I realized how much it helped to put on some cool music when I went parking with my girlfriend.
From there it progressed to cassettes, CDs, and now you can plug your personal device with all your music downloaded on it, directly into your car stereo system with a USB cable. But not me. I don’t have a personal device. I still listen to CDs or tune into this excellent Jazz radio station out of Costa Rica in our truck here in Panama. And I’ve never downloaded a song in my life. Not sayin’ I’m proud of that, it’s just not my thing yet.
A lot of people who used to come over to our house before we moved to Panama were amused or surprised when they saw me playing my collection of 78 records on an antique wind-up Victrola record player with a cone speaker. Even though I had a state-of-the-art big stereo system that would also play 78s, to me the records sounded better and more authentic on the old Victrola. I had a marvelous collection of 78 recordings, which included old Western Swing, Big Band Jazz, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and many country recordings including almost the complete set of Hank Williams. But reluctantly, with the drastic downsizing we had to do in order to move to Panama, I had to let all that go.
I have no idea why I’m so resistant to change. I’ve thought about it and thought about it but I just can’t come up with a rational explanation. Eventually, when I do embrace some new advancement in technology, I realize how stupid I was after I find how much better this particular product is compared to the old model.
Take surfboards, for example. When we moved to Panama in 2003, I was still surfing on my old 7-foot short board with a single fin. The 3-fin thruster set-up had been invented several years earlier and by this time pretty much every short-boarder had converted to this system. I think it was in 2005 when we went to Maui to visit family, the airline destroyed my board even though I had packed it very well. My parents said, “No worries, we’ll go look for a new board for you tomorrow and it’ll be your Christmas present from us.”
The next day was very frustrating as we hit all the surf shops looking for a single fin board like mine and couldn’t find one. Every single short board had three fins. Even most of the long boards had gone to three fins. So reluctantly, I finally picked out a board that had a shape I liked even though it had three fins. The next day I paddled it out into some beautiful 6-foot Ho’okipa waves. On the first wave I caught, immediately on making the first bottom turn, I realized how big of a mistake I’d made by not converting to the new design sooner. I can still remember clearly, me yelling out loud to myself, “You dumbass!” That board felt like a rocketship compared to my old one … so much faster and more maneuverable.
The surf leash had also been invented in this same time frame. It consisted of a hard rubber cord, six- or seven-feet long, which was tied to a leash plug that anchored it to the tail of the board and had a Velcro loop on the other end that wrapped around your ankle so you wouldn’t lose your board during a wipeout. Before leashes, you spent a lot of time swimming in after your board but that resulted in your becoming a good oceanic swimmer and learning how to survive in all kinds of conditions. To all of us who surfed pre-leash, we thought it was just part of the deal and that it made us better watermen. I, and all my surfing buddies, turned our noses down at leashes and derided anyone we saw using one, with comments like, “Hey man, why are you wearing that kook strap?”
In the ensuing years, I noticed most of my buddies had converted to wearing a kook strap themselves so I had to just shut my mouth and surf, still holding out on not using one. Then, on another trip to Maui, just off the plane, my brother-in-law and I paddled out into a solid 8- to 10-foot northwest swell at Ho’okipa. The wind was light offshore and the waves were reeling perfectly down the reef. I paddled into a bomb a little late on my very first wave and proceeded to get crushed. My board washed in along the cliff where it got caught in the rip and got carried around the point into the next bay over. It was a long swim through heavy waves and currents but finally I retrieved my board from the rocks and had to call it a day because my board was dinged up pretty bad and I was totally exhausted. The next day I went to a surf shop to buy resin and cloth to repair the dings. I also grabbed a leash and leash plug to install on my board while I was at it.
You’d think I would have learned a lesson from these two incidents. Nope. To this day, I still don’t own a smart phone. My phone is a dumb phone that I bought at a store here in Bocas del Toro for 28 bucks. It only sends or receives calls or texts. Maybe it can do more than that but if so, I don’t want to know anything about it. My friends always tell me, “Get a smart phone … it’ll change your life. “ I’m positive they are right, but for me, I’m not sure if that change would be for the better.
Allene and I have a game we like to play when we are out and about. When we are in a restaurant, sitting in an airport or even driving down Main Street here in Bocas, we like to watch how many people are on their phones. Try it sometime. You’ll be amazed. We’ve seen many times in a crowded restaurant where at every single table except ours, everyone is gazing at their phones, their fingers in a blur, dancing over their touch screens. We always get a kick out of this spectacle. Sad to see though, from my perspective.
We have a rule in our family. When we all go out to eat together, all devices have to be turned off before we enter the restaurant. We like to practice the ancient lost art of conversation. We actually enjoy interacting with one another, sharing laughs and a few new stories, which are always enhanced by a good meal and a few glasses of wine. I may be old-fashioned but I think it’s one of the great pleasures in life.
Allene finally made me learn how to use the computer about three years ago. I guess she got fed up with having to do all my internet stuff because I was totally computer illiterate. If I needed to send an email, I would write it up longhand and she would type it up for me and send it. She sat me down one day and showed me how to go to Yahoo to check our email, how to google something, how to go to Google News and how to check the surf report. (The first thing I have to check every morning is the surf report, which really makes no sense at all. The ocean is less than 200 feet from our front steps and I can look right out the windows and see the waves breaking and what the conditions are like. Duh!) She said these are the basics and turned me loose.
Man, I was like a kid in a candy store. That first night, after Allene went to bed, I went to Google and typed in “Celebrity Sex Videos” and hit the enter key. Sure enough, it brought up a site that had sex videos of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and others. When clicking on a specific video, a new site would pop up and say Click Here, and before I knew it, I had several tabs open and some of the stuff was things even I didn’t want to see. I got scared and tried to exit the sites but didn’t know what I was doing, and more things kept popping up so I panicked and hit the OFF button on the computer.
The next morning Allene tried to turn the computer on but couldn’t get it to do anything. She said, “Clay, what did you do to the computer?” I sheepishly confessed to everything and unfortunately we had to take it to a specialist in town who found the computer infected with eight viruses.
Needless to say, from that point on I was banned from going to any porn sites and if I did, I would be banned from using the computer at all. I did learn my lesson, especially after having to fork over $150 to the guy who fixed the computer. To this day I have respected Allene’s ban, but one day I might get my own laptop and I’m not making any promises on what might happen.
In 2015 I released a Texas Trilogy of EPs called “Still Rockin’,” “Still Swingin’,” and “Still Country.” The compilation consisted of all never-before-released studio and live tracks. My agent in Nashville did a fine job of promoting the releases of each of the three EPs, actually getting iTunes to post the release of each one on their feature page, right up there alongside Willie Nelson’s, Merle Haggard’s and other major artists’ new releases. At some point later, he approached me and said, “Clay, I’m working really hard promoting your releases because I believe in them and think they are very good. But you’re not giving me any help. I think you need to get on social media and start re-connecting with your friends and fans if you want these to succeed, since you’re not performing anymore.”
I thought it over and realized he was right. Allene suggested I get with Angie Whittemore Brutto, who was one of Allene’s advertising managers back when Allene owned and edited the local newspaper here in Bocas del Toro, called the Bocas Breeze. Angie now has a company called PanamaInDesign that specializes in building websites for businesses, how to promote your business on social media, and designing ads and logos and flyers. I thought that consulting with Angie was an excellent idea not only because I respect her knowledge and business acumen, but also she’s one of the best surfers here in Bocas. Whenever we are surfing at the same spot, I’m always thrilled to see Angie not only taking off on some of the heaviest waves that come through, but surfing them better than even a lot of the guys.
The first thing Angie did was create a brand new website for me and secondly, build my official Clay Blaker music page on facebook. Knowing me, she didn’t tell me at the time that I also had to have a personal page as well. She broke that news to me a few weeks later and I was upset because no way would I have time to manage two pages. She patiently explained that the facebook rules don’t allow you to have one without the other, so I had to learn how to make do. Now, after getting the routine down, I absolutely love facebook.
Long ago, I admit I was really bad about staying in touch with friends and family. I just never could seem to find the time to sit down and write a letter or call someone. And I rationalized that it didn’t matter; that whenever I got together with someone again, we would just pick up where we left off. To me, facebook is a great tool that was invented to eliminate the aforementioned problem.
I like to go on facebook in the morning when I eat breakfast, check in to see what my friends or family are up to (and vice versa, they get to see what I’m doing). And I’m off of there in 15 or 20 minutes and go on about my day. Sometimes in the evenings after dinner, I’ll get on for a while and make a post, answer messages, comment on posts, or chat with someone. I think if you use it in this manner, facebook can enhance your life. The problem is that so many people fall into the black hole and it takes over their existence. I can tell by looking at the times of the posts by many of my facebook friends that they are on there day and night, and mostly posting boring, trivial and uninteresting stuff that I just blow past without reading. By all means, if you do experience something cool or interesting, write it up and post some photos. I definitely want to hear about that.
I doubt if the inventors of facebook realized as they were coming up with this thing, how big it would be and how much money it would make them. They’ve definitely created a monster, but it’s not gonna get me.
Last week, I was driving home from town, which is on the other side of the island from where we live in Boca del Drago. I was passing through the indigenous village at Drago, a community of 800 or so people of the Gnöbe tribe, which has a school, recreation center, baseball/soccer field, a couple of small stores, six churches and many small dwellings scattered along the road and back into the fields and jungle. When we first moved here nearly 15 years ago, if we were driving home at night after a dinner in town, when we passed through the village it was pitch black, only occasionally seeing the flicker of a candle or a kerosene lamp in a few of the houses. Nowadays, when we come through the village at night, almost all the houses have electric lights from solar panels or small generators. But the difference when you see something flickering now is that it’s a television screen in nearly every house. And the paradox is that most of these houses still don’t have indoor plumbing. Not only are they seeing all the same stupid shows and commercials that everyone else in the world watches, but they even have the Panamanian version of MTV. When you see young people walking around the village these days, many of the guys are dressed like black hip-hop artists with the baggy pants, Nike shoes, and baseball caps turned sideways on their heads. And some of the girls are out and about in short, tight skirts with sexy blouses. Ah well, they probably don’t realize that by acquiring television, it has permanently changed their culture. And I’m the last person anyone should ever ask to know whether that change is good or bad. Time will tell.
But getting back to that day last week as I was driving through the village, what happened next, really put the icing on the cake. I was nearing the end of the village and I happened upon one of the buses that run from town to Drago and back, that was unloading passengers. I came to a stop and realized that it was our friends Balbino, his wife Dora, and their children. They are a very nice Gnöbe family who were returning home from a hard day’s work from the small restaurant they own at Starfish Beach. After visiting a moment with Dora and her daughter Paola (in Spanish, as Balbino and his family do not speak English), Balbino stuck his head in the passenger window of my truck and said, “Hey Clay, I’ve got some music here on my iPhone that I really like and I want you to listen to.” I replied curiously (thinking, “Wow, Balbino has an iPhone!”), “Okay, let’s hear it.” He scrolled around on his iPhone then touched a place on the screen and I heard the opening strains of “I Want to Hear it From You,” which is from a video of me performing with my band on YouTube. We listened a while and then we both got a good laugh as he clicked it off. He said he had no idea that I used to be an entertainer, and I have absolutely no idea how he came across that video. We said our goodbyes and as I drove away shaking my head in disbelief, chuckling to myself, for some reason the thought popped into my head about the day I skied Canyon Dam and how on the way home Allene and I agreed that we were living in a whole new world. At the time, we had absolutely no idea how prophetic that statement was.
In 1969, as I was entering my freshman year at the University of Houston, I didn’t have a clue as to what I wanted to study. My two loves in life were surfing and music but everyone around me always said, “Oh, you can’t make a living doing either of those.” So it had me convinced that I needed to find something else to do with the rest of my life. I made an appointment with one of the freshman counselors and this guy persuaded me to enroll in the computer science program. He said, “Clay, this is going to be the coming thing and will be huge. You need to get in on the ground floor.”
So I took the bait and decided to major in Computer Programming. On the first day of class, the professor said that the university had recently gotten their first computer and that we were going to follow him to go look at it. We all walked a short ways across campus and entered a good-sized building. He said, “There it is!” We all stood there with our mouths agape, gawking at this monstrous machine that took up the whole building. This was before the microchip of course, and before computers became small. So, all the classes had to use this one computer and there was no keyboard. Everything was done with these cardboard data cards that you punched holes in and fed into the computer. After the first week of class, or maybe even sooner, I realized I hated this stuff.
Shortly thereafter, I discovered the music library on the third floor of the Cougar Den, where I could check out all the latest records, take them into a private booth, stack them on the turntable, lie down on a comfy couch, put the headphones on and drift away. And from that moment on, that’s where I would be during Computer Class, unless there were waves, and then I and my cohorts would skip school altogether and head for the beach.
When I look back to the day when one giant computer served a whole university and think forward to where we’ve arrived at today, it is just totally mind-boggling. I think this is either the end or the beginning of everything. And right now as I’m sitting here on our front porch gazing out at Bird Island, wracking my brain trying to come up with an intelligent ending for this story, something to tie it all together, my wife Allene just came out and saved the day. She sat down here at the table beside me and said, “Hey, Clay … check out this new thing I just got on the Kindle.”
She held the Kindle in front of us and spoke to it. “Alexa, can you play some Clay Blaker music?” This very polite female voice came on and said, “Hold on while I look.” A moment later, the voice came back with, “Here is some Clay Blaker music.” And one of my songs started playing.
I looked at Allene and said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
At that point it occurred to me that this is way, way, WAY more of a new world that I ever imagined in my wildest dreams, and that wanting to or not, Ol’ Clay is being dragged into the twenty-first century, slowly but surely, kicking and screaming all the way, while at the same time trying to avoid falling into that big black hole that’s out there waiting to suck him in. Don’t hold your breath. It’s not gonna happen to me!