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Saturday, June 18, 2016

For my father



Tomorrow is Father's Day.  It is one of those made-up holidays,  a guilt-inducing, greeting card industry sham.  I have always told my four kids not to worry about it - I don't need special attention on the third Sunday in June.  But it can be useful to reflect on your origins, so that is how I use both Mother's Day and Father's Day.

My father, Al Gillock, died over 25 years ago.  My two youngest kids never met their paternal grandfather. The internet was not up and running in 1991, but I decided to Google my dad's name to see what popped up. One of the items that was in the search results was a document called "San Leandro Shoreline History."  San Leandro was the town in the San Francisco Bay Area that was our home.  My father was active in the community, particularly when it came to the town's parks and recreational facilities. The picture above was in the San Leandro Shoreline History document, and my dad is in it. He is the guy with his hands in his pockets on the far left.  I was about 12 years old when this picture was taken; Dad was 52.  When I looked at the photo, I was surprised to see how trim Dad looked in 1966. I remember him from his later years, when I was in high school and college - he grew a beach ball stomach and did not take care of his physical health.  His lack of fitness was a motivating force in my life - I vowed not to become an old pot-bellied guy like my father, and that is the primary reason I drag my 61-year old butt out of bed at 5AM to hit the gym.  My dad was born and raised in the south in the 20's and 30's  - you can guess what that means (**cough--racist--cough**). I made it a point to settle in an integrated community;  my son-in-law is black - and I love him.

Fathers have an impact - we try to emulate them, or be as unlike them as possible.

There were other crumbs of information that came up in the Google search:

Born:  November 4, 1914 (World War I was in full swing, and the famous "Battle of the Bees" was fought on November 4, 1914).
Died: April 14, 1991
Place of Death:  Alameda CA, USA
Birthplace:  Tennessee
Gender: Male
Mother's Maiden Name: Yeargin
Education: 1 year of college (Southern Methodist University, I think; he dropped out to join the Army)
Military Service: Serial Number #3804354, enlisted March 12, 1941 (9 months before Pearl Harbor)
Professon: Salesperson (He actually spent most of his work life as a clerk in a canned food company warehouse in Oakland CA)
Social Security Number:  409-01-4709 from Social Security Death Master File

Al Gillock was a mystery to his youngest son.  He didn't talk to me much about his past or hopes for his future.  He was out in the evenings quite frequently - at various community board meetings, city council meetings, etc.  He smoked like a chimney and drank like a fish, had a mild heart attack in his late 50's and gave up both habits overnight (that is when he gained weight, I think).  I don't remember him tossing a baseball with me or doing all the little things that dads do with their kids.  He wasn't particularly successful in his career.  He was diagnosed with "manic depression" (now known as bipolar disorder) and went on disability when I was around 18 years old.

He did the best he could.

He was a gentle person and I don't think he ever spanked or struck me (if he did, I don't remember).  His mother died when he was young; I think that was the trauma that led to his mental health issues.  When Dad died, I was stunned by the size of the crowd that showed up to pay their respects at the funeral.  There was much about my father that was unknown to me.  I did know that he loved to collect coins, and he very much wanted to pass his collection down to me when he died.  During my recent divorce, my ex-wife got her hands on Dad's coin collection and sold most of it.  I am glad that my father did not live long enough to experience that little drama.

I have worked hard not to be like my dad, but he is part of me.  I look like the old man, I have his goofy sense of humor and I, too, used to drink like a fish on occasion.  I had negative feelings about my father, but those are all gone now.  He gave me my life.  I am sure that his life was a hard battle for him.

It has taken a long time, but I honor my father, at last.







Saturday, April 09, 2016

Statements that caught my attention today



Here are some things I read and heard today that grabbed me, caught my attention:

"To pay for their first date, he sold a pint of blood." (from obituary of Tom Coughlin, a disgraced Wal-Mart executive)

"Tyranny grows from ambitious people grabbing whatever levers of power are available." (from an interview with Eric O'Keefe, Republican grass-roots activist)

"The attitudes that drive domestic violence are deeply embedded in our culture, and are very persistent." (quote from Liz Roberts, Chief Program Officer, Safe Horizon - a victim services group in New York City)

"By the simplest and most basic economics, a price artificially raised tends to cause more to be supplied and less to be demanded than when prices are left to be determined by supply and demand in a free market." (Thomas Sowell from his book, "Basic Economics", 2011)

"Everything on both sides is still in play."  Peggy Noonan, WSJ, April 9, 2016

"The debate consisted largely of arguments based on circumstantial evidence." Christopher Chabris and Joshua Hart, associate professors of psychology at Union College

"I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical."  Thomas Jefferson

"No one should underestimate how easy it is for government to slip into terrifying abuse." (from an interview with Eric O'Keefe, Republican grass-roots activist)

"He behaves like a tribal chieftain, a war-lord of art, riding roughshod over the niceties of conventional behavior, sometimes sulking in his tent, sometimes rousing his people to great heights, now making strategic decisions off the cuff, now mysteriously absenting himself. The egotism is so massive that it becomes epic, universal." Simon Callow. from his book "One-Man Band," 2016

"What is extreme or exotic to one culture hardly raises an eyebrow in another." Jeffrey Greene, from his book "In Pursuit of Wild Edibles," 2016

"The Highway to Hell seems to run directly through my PC." Joe Queenan, WSJ, April 9, 2016

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Family Drama - Act 1, Scene 2


Tough night for Mr. & Mrs. Smith of 1601 Main Street in Paducah!  As usual, Mr. Smith  doesn’t know what happened, exactly.  Mrs. Smith can make him feel guilty when he is not aware that he is doing anything wrong.  He is not sufficiently complementary, supportive or kind.  He is too critical. She said that he thinks that she is a loser (!) Actually, the only person he calls a “loser” is “himself.”   But nevermind.

Mr. Smith let himself drink 4 beers due to his stress/anger/frustration.  He is having many bad thoughts.  He needs to remember – all humans have issues, no one can fix someone else.  This world, and all the people in it, will pass away.  In 100 years, no one will remember Mr. Smith or what he has done during his life.  He is an unimportant, insignificant creature.  Humans are tortured by craving and clinging.  The path to contentment requires humans to abandon those things that they crave and those things to which they cling.  Loved persons must not be damaged by craving and clinging. Mr. Smith craves alcohol; he clings to a fictitious family bond that doesn’t really exist.  He works, tries to give everyone everything they ask for and yet he is still not satisfying his loved ones.  Material goods can never take the place of focused attention and true love.  Mr. Smith is a failed person.

He finds it easy to sink into despair.  He does fight it, successfully, every day.  If he ever stops fighting, his life might end.  Mr. Smith could never be so selfish to his family to end himself.  That is not a possibility.  But sometimes he wishes that he was that selfish.  He wants to disappear.

Negative thoughts negative thoughts.  Nonsense and stupidity.  He is just smarting from the tongue – lashing he received from Mrs. Smith.  He must get a grip.

Get a grip.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Years Roll On


This year is winding to a close, and I say good riddance.  This seems to be what I say at the end of every year.  Why don't I ever say, "What a great year!  Sure would like to live it over again without changing a thing!"  Humans tend to focus on their hurts and the negative events.  Read the news - not much uplifting stuff in there, really.  There is quite a lot of hyperbolic, catastrophic prose designed to increase readership/viewership.  We love that bad news and we pick at our scabs.

One of the few advantages of getting older is you stop believing the hype, usually. Our reality usually isn't as bad as some people say.  Things are also generally not as great as the optimists claim.  Every era is Dickensian - "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."

In youth and middle age, there are always so many plans to put in place and execute, children to raise, a world to save.   Getting stuff done is satisfying, of course, but the effort and focus takes heaps of energy.  As the years roll on, the planning time frame becomes shorter.  Some things can't get done with the remaining time and resources.  Content  older people embrace this and begin shedding those things that are no longer useful or possible.  Aging malcontents rail at the fading of the light, ruminate on past mistakes/missed opportunities, and spray negative crap on everyone.

Once you hit 50 or so, each passing year brings diminished physical abilities and endurance.  Yes, one can fight back via diet and exercise, but the slide will happen no matter how hard one resists it. The alleged offset to physical decline is the popular cliche' - aging brings wisdom.  I say, bullshit to that - wisdom comes from the right experiences at the right time.  There are wise teenagers and foolish octogenarians. If you are reasonably self-aware, you do learn to waste less time on anger and worry as you age.  Since many humans are in a constant state of angry fretfulness, the fact that old folks have let go of that mode of living makes them appear to be wise.

An interesting piece appeared in the New York Times a few days ago that ponders the reality of getting old.  The article quoted the great neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, who died in the summer of this year:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.”

So as the years roll on, may we all follow Dr. Sacks' path and focus on finding that sense of peace.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mr. G's Top Ten Christmas Songs


So we are fast approaching Christmas and we have been assaulted by the repetitious holiday soundtrack for the past eight weeks.  The trouble is not necessarily the songs, which are often well-constructed pieces.  It is generally the "dumbed-down" versions of the songs that are pumped through the loudspeakers at the mall that drive us all crazy.  The good news - so many marvelous artists have cranked out Christmas songs that you can find some truly outstanding versions of holiday favorites. So here is what I think we should all be listening to this season as we swig the eggnog and hang out under the mistletoe - my Top Ten list:

10.   Blind Boys of Alabama with Taj Mahal - Silent Night:  This is from the "Talkin' Christmas" album.  The vocal harmonies of the BB of A always sends chills down my spine, and Silent Night is a great vehicle to display the rich sound of this gospel singing group.

9.    Elvis Presley - Santa Claus is Back in Town:  Elvis is shoutin' them Christmas blues.  Great pelvis-shakin' double entendres in this tune ("Put out your milk and cookies, baby. Hang your pretty stockings just right. Santa's gonna come slidin' down your chimney tonight!"). Dat;'s whut I'm talkin' 'bout!

8.     Alice Cooper - Santa Claus is Coming To Town:  Alice just tears up this little kid's Christmas song and brings out its creepy, terrifying aspects.  Love it!

7.    Canadian Brass - Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella:  This is from the first Canadian Brass Christmas album, which came out in 1990, I think.  I love the solo French horn opening, and this sound grabs me since I am an old trombone player.

6.  Stevie Wonder - That's What Christmas Means to Me:  Stevie Wonder!!!! He could sing the phone book and I would love it.  This is a wonderful old-school Motown rave-up with chick background singers and Stevie's chromatic harmonica! Yezzzz!!

5.  Bing Crosby - Mele Kalikimaka:  We have to go into the way-back machine for this old chestnut.  This is the corny Hawaiian Christmas song with the Andrews Sisters singing backup. Good clean fun, folks.
::
4.  Ramon F. Veloz -  Paz en La Tierra (Joy to the World): This great Cuban artist turns this old carol into a dance tune.  It is joyous as hell, man.

3.  Albert King - Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin':  A hot and mildly dirty blues from one of the "Three Kings" (Albert, Freddie and BB - all gone now, dammit).  Albert could sang it and his blues guitar chops were killer!

2.  Eva Cassidy and Chuck Brown - The Christmas Song:  To be honest, the Christmas Song has never been my favorite holiday tune, but it is a good song for singers to show off their chops.  Eva Cassidy had chops to burn.  I still shed tears over her early death, and her voice is without peer. Chuck Brown is great, too, but he is overshadowed by Eva, IMHO.

1.  Dexter Gordon - Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas:  This is my favorite Christmas song done by the my favorite tenor saxophonist.  The ease and beauty of Dexter's tone and improvisations are without peer. He never overplayed, he always was lyrical, his heart came out in every phrase.  God, I miss that guy.

That's it - enjoy these tunes, and look for more.  There are a million wonderful Christmas songs that break out of the Musak and pop schlock mode.  And Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/Joyous Kwanzaa/Merry Festivus and a Happy New Year to us all!!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Fear and Loathing


I grew up in a segregated suburb in Northern California.  It was mostly white, with a smattering of Hispanic and Asian folks.  There was not one black person in town - they all lived over the city's border in Oakland.  My father was notoriously cheap, so we would drive to downtown Oakland to the Oakland Barber College to get our haircuts every three weeks or so (haircuts for 10 cents provided by student barbers - quality was inconsistent, but the price was right).  We went from a lilly-white environment to a mostly African American environment.  I can remember my seven-year old self feeling disoriented and fearful around these people that were different from me.  My dad's Tennessee bigotry and racist narrative about black people during these trips added to my unease.

Well, life unfolded and I grew up.  In high school, I fell in love with jazz, blues, soul and funk music. If I loved the music, I had to love the people that invented and performed it.  My heroes were Charlie Parker, Count Basie, James Brown, Miles Davis, Al Green, John Coltrane, J.J. Johnson, Roland Kirk, Otis Redding, Thelonius Monk.  I got out of the "white ghetto" and moved to Berkeley, went to Cal.  I actually got to meet and hang out with Real Black People!  I was thrilled.   The fearfulness of my childhood experiences in downtown Oakland became a faded memory.

So here is the obvious truth - fear and loathing springs from isolation and separation.  The cure to fear and loathing is to live with the people you find frightening.  Guess what?  Most of them are regular folks.  Just because our social infrastructure accommodates prejudiced thinking doesn't mean we have no choice regarding  how we behave towards people that come from backgrounds different from our own.  The other obvious truth - it is wrong to generalize about a large group based on misinformation or the actions of a tiny minority within that group.

The typical power move by authoritarian individuals or groups is to create fear and loathing.  This increases separation and inspires hatred. The authoritarians then promise to protect the fearful people from the hated ones, and to deliver retribution.   When people are gripped by fear and loathing, they can do some truly awful stuff - oppression, terrorist acts, all-out war, genocide, and miscellaneous depravity.   They also hand over their personal agency to the authoritarians that generate the depraved plan of action.

We are seeing this play out right now, of course.   The so-called Islamic State extremists are using the old fear and loathing playbook, and it is working like a charm. The terrorists unleash mayhem against defenseless people, creating fear and loathing. Some politicians in the West  inject bigotry into the mainstream,which increases fear and loathing.  The stated goal of the Islamic State is to attract Western armies to the Middle East for the Islamic Apocalypse (that is why they are doing awful shit - to provoke a military response).  There are politicians in the United States that seem ready to fulfill this grand ISIS goal.  It seems pretty obvious and basic, but lots of people are stepping right into the trap.

It is always easier to destroy and cause misery than to cultivate and cause happiness.  People are lazy and opt for the easy path, in spite of its horrible costs.  And let's not forget the "other guy" dilemma - it makes no sense to be a pacifist if the other guy is a warlord.

Steven Pinker wrote a great book four years ago called "The Better Angels of Our Nature."  It is about the decline of violence throughout human history.  I wonder what Mr. Pinker would say about recent events.  Is it a bump in the road or a shift in direction?


Monday, October 26, 2015

Mark Murphy R.I.P.


Mark Murphy died last Thursday, October 22, 2015.  He was one of the most influential jazz vocalists in history, but wasn't all that famous.  He is sometimes mentioned along with Betty Carter as one of the key vocal jazz innovators of his generation.  The current crop of male jazz vocalists, the Kurt Ellings and Kevin Mahogonys, are Mark Murphy's offspring. If there was any justice in the world, Mark Murphy's passing would receive more attention than the death of Michael Jackson or Amy Winehouse.  Murphy's singing touched something  elemental in the human experience.  Here is the New York Times obituary.

I never had the opportunity to hear Mark Murphy perform in person, which is a damned shame.  I am told that his recorded work doesn't fully capture the energy and creativity he poured into performance.  I can say that his recorded music had a significant impact on me, however.

So here is the story.

When I was a student at U.C. Berkeley, I played trombone in the university's jazz band.  I dated a female trumpet player in the band - she was a terrific person and I was lucky that she liked me.  I was an idiot, however, and found my attention captured by my trumpet-playing girlfriend's best friend, "CM." CM was a member of the "unattainable" group of women for me - stunningly beautiful, brilliant and with a terrific pedigree (her father was a local news anchor back when local TV news people were royalty).   CM graced me with a little attention since I was dating her buddy.  I was very taken with CM but kept my mouth shut about it since she was way out of my league and I didn't want to be seen as the jackass that chased his girlfriend's best friend.  I also knew that the chase would be futile and I was too much of a coward to try.

CM and I shared musical interests, but she was way cooler than me.  She gave me an LP for my birthday and said "Just listen to this. Listen."  It was "Mark Murphy Sings," his 1975 studio album.  I had never heard of Mark Murphy - I was into the usual (Coltrane, Miles, Bird, Basie, Ellington) and the slightly odd (Mingus, Roland Kirk, Curtis Fuller, Sun Ra).  When I put Murphy's record on the turntable, I was quite impressed.  He put together some very nice versions of "Body and Soul," "Naima," "On the Red Clay," "Cantaloupe Island" and "Maiden Voyage."   But there was one track that grabbed me, and destroyed me - "How Are You Dreaming?" a song written by Bob Crewe, the songwriter/producer that came up with "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." The lyric and melody of this song are lush and charged with  longing.  It is still one of my favorite songs, and Mark Murphy delivers it with amazing technique and emotion. Murphy's version of this song wormed into my ear, went straight to my brain, then down into my heart.   Whenever I think about my lost love interests, or those women I longed for but lacked the courage to pursue, this song plays in my frontal lobe.  "How Are You Dreaming?" brings CM back into my memory, in her youthful glory.

Here is the link to the song.  If you are a sentimental fool like me, this will knock you over.

Good bye, Mr. Murphy.


Monday, August 31, 2015

What's the meaning of this?



Like many people, I have sought meaning in religion and spiritual pursuits.  After much wasted time, I have reached the following conclusion:   Life probably has no over-arching meaning.  We just exist and do the best we can within our limited understanding of the universe and each other.  It is helpful to believe in kindness and integrity.    We are all locked into a mystery that may not include a grand purpose to our existence, so we should be kind and honest with each other.  

There are small, difficult questions and large difficult questions.  On the small end of the spectrum, I include the following:

1.  Is it a good or bad idea to give money to folks begging on the street?
2.  When a family member or friend is doing something that is self-destructive, what is the right response?
3.  What is the difference between healthy self-care and toxic self-indulgence?
4.  Why do we negatively pre-judge people we have never met?

The bigger difficult questions that bother me include the following:

1.  What is the meaning of music?  It is not necessary for human survival, but we seem to need it badly.
2.  Why does the continued existence of one earthly organism depend on the death and consumption of some other earthly organism?
3.  Is it wrong to think about our personal needs in view of our insignificance in relation to the universe?
4.  Did the universe create life and consciousness or did life and consciousness create the universe?

The small questions clog up my day; the big questions pop up in the middle of the night when I can't sleep.  I have read lots of books that claim to have insights into these questions, large and small.  Most have not been helpful.

When it comes to monotheism, I am a non-believer.  But there is something, there is something.  The mysteries are very deep.  Physicists sometimes sound like preachers.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Dumping the Junk

For the past year or so, I have been walking around in a state of self-disgust. I have been preparing to move out of the family home for many months.  When a family of four lives in a large house for over 12 years  one expects a certain amount of accumulated material goods.  Our accumulated material goods far exceeded expected levels and strayed into the realm of moral turpitude.  Why do we have 5 computer printers (including 2 that have never been used)?  Why do we have 7 brooms??  Why do we have 37 vases???????

No one remembers.  .

After many trips to the thrift store with boxes of books, kitchen utensils and assorted bric-a-brac, I have moved.  The sale of the rambling old Victorian will close in two weeks.  I am unpacking stuff at the new two flat.  I don't have enough room for the junk I schlepped to the new place in spite of the weeding out completed during the move.  I must shrink my inventory significantly.

The act of dumping the junk is surprisingly difficult.  Holding an item and thinking about it carefully causes a trip down memory lane.   There is the small ceramic bowl hand made by my son, now 34, when he was a senior in high school.  There is the Nestle's Quick rabbit-head cup that all four of my kids used when they were small.  There are old guidebooks from Southeast Asia picked up when I was living in Singapore back in the mid- eighties.  There are several boxes of nice business and personal stationary with my old address that I had printed in 2004 when I thought I would be a solo consultant. And there are several boxes of busted harmonicas, saved for the day when I learn how to repair them (HA!! I have to face the fact that I am a "blow 'em and throw 'em" harp player).  I don't need any of these things now, but they are reeking with sentiment and family history.

This accumulation of stuff is a symptom of the uniquely American disease of Affluenza.  The expense of my horrific divorce has cured me of this malady; I am living in much reduced circumstances these days.  Now I just need to complete the right-sizing of my life and feel grateful to be rid of all the shit I never wanted in the first place.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Looking back in shame


The Confederate battle flag was lowered in Charleston SC this morning in the wake of the atrocities committed by the racist killer Dylann Roof, so I am nervous about putting the above image on my blog - I worry that folks might jump to conclusions.    Like many white people, I have my own connection to this flag,  and it was in the form of the image above.  A framed print of this "Johnny Reb" cartoon was on the wall of my childhood home, proudly placed there by my father.  Oh, and my middle name is "Lee."  My dad wanted me to carry the surname of General Robert E. Lee throughout my life.  Since Lee is a common name, it doesn't attract much attention.  But I know what my father intended.  My father's people are from the southern U.S. (although he moved to California, where I was born and raised).  When we would visit the family in Tennessee, I was startled by their casual bigotry.  They used to call me  a "damned Yankee" (and other things that weren't as benign).

I have avoided digging too deeply into my genealogy.    A complete and detailed family tree could reveal some slave-holding ancestors.  I carry enough shame over the racism of my extended family and my ancestors; I don't want to know if great-great-great granddaddy committed the crime of enslaving humans.  If that makes me a coward, so be it.

When I was a kid, I thought the cartoon rebel dude was kinda cool.  The whole "Southern heritage" thing was part of my upbringing, especially as it related to food.  My dad would occasionally encourage us to eat turnip greens, hush puppies, hot water hoe cakes, fried green tomatoes and Tennessee ham with red-eye gravy.  It seemed colorful and interesting.  But once I hit high school, I began to feel very uneasy about "Johnny Reb" on the wall.  The shame didn't kick in until later.  I began to feel (and still feel) that I should apologize to every black person I meet for the actions and attitudes of my ancestors.  I know it isn't my fault, but I am a product of this legacy.

I am a white male American  born in the middle of the 20th Century.  It is like I started the 100- yard dash at the 50-yard line.  My son-in-law is black.  It is like he started the 100-yard dash 25 yards behind the starting line.  The Confederate battle flag, white Southern heritage, white supremacist terrorism and the basic organization of American life reminds us that the past is not really past. Conditions have improved, but the nasty tribal instincts that create so much evil are alive and well.

But I take heart.  Two of my grandchildren are mixed kids, and they have friends of all shades.  My community is more open and friendly towards various cultures, ethnic groups and creeds than most places. We can continue to improve our understanding of each other.  As the singer Pearl Bailey liked to say, "There is only one race - the human race."

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Everyday Heroes


These are troubling times, but I suppose humans have been making this assertion since the origin of our species.  Certainly we have perpetuated and witnessed savagery and injustice from the beginning of human history.  The first 15 years of the 21st century AD have simply continued the trend.  But there is always hope. Hope!

When you dig into the individual lives, you learn that regular folks are often secret heroes.  Some are bearing heavy burdens, some have overcome long odds through determination, and others are true to a dream regardless of the difficulty of the path.  Here are three stories:

N:  N is 83 years old, a self-described "tough old Irish chick."  She is widowed and white-haired, but her eyes are bright and her voice is strong.  Her 50-something son, C,  lives in a "garden apartment" in the basement of her home - he has bi-polar disorder.    C had accepted treatment and was doing well - driving for Uber, coaching hockey for a youth league and volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Unfortunately, he decided that he was no longer ill and stopped taking his medication.  This is typical behavior among bipolar people - lack of insight into their own condition is part of the disease.  In short order, C became manic - driving cross-country, spending money like a drunk, talking fast and crazy,  causing consternation among his family and friends.  N has refused to banish him from her home, even though his mania is potentially dangerous - he has verbally abused and threatened his mom.  She is having trouble sleeping, her concern for her son grows daily.  She has heard from many that she needs to protect herself - "safety first" is the prime directive for folks that have mentally ill loved ones.  N is determined to continue to fulfill her maternal duty even though her son is a middle-aged man.  She projects a combination of courage and anxiousness.

E:  For his entire life, E has been dedicated to music.  He is a sideman with great talent and has played with many famous stars, particularly blues people.  His music has taken him on tour around the world, to Europe and Asia.  E is also an extremely considerate person.  He does not forget the people he cares about; he checks in on his friends faithfully, especially when they are going through a bad patch.  Now, E is going through a bad patch.  The proliferation of free digital music and the fading interest in the blues among younger people has caused gigs to dry up.  The oversupply of musicians has kept the pay scale for live club dates at 1970's levels.  Many of the famous old blues stars that E supported are retiring, or dying.  As a sideman, E has depended on others to generate work. The pickings have been slim and he can barely make ends meet.  He has resorted to selling some of his beloved instruments to pay the bills.  And yet, he has not given up on his dream of a life in music.  He has formed a band and is striving to get bookings - driving for miles into the far suburbs to find a venue that will pay a living wage (or any wage) for excellent live music. E works harder for less money.  In spite of his travails, he is the one helping others, providing support to friends, committing acts of kindness daily.

S:  S is a small businessperson, running a retail establishment. Her shop employs happy people that greet customers by name. A first-generation American, S has a bright smile and is a wonderful conversationalist.  She also has suffered terrible losses - a failed marriage, and, the most horrible thing, the death of one of her children.  This would cause most of us to struggle and withdraw, but S carries on.  She has a new partner and a new home, closer to her business.  She has grieved and survived,  Perhaps the pain is still sharp, but she doesn't show it to the people that come into her shop.  She has a cheerful greeting for everyone and her business appears to be thriving.  And here is the most impressive thing - she radiates empathy. This is a woman who has refused to buckle.

I don't think that these three people consider themselves to be especially heroic, but they are.  Perhaps many of the people we pass on the street have similar stories.  And, for some reason, this gives me hope. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Dumpstaphunk - Second Generation Stankiness




Alright now let's tick it off:

1.  Dumpstaphunk is from New Orleans, where funk was born in that stanky debauched atmosphere. Yezz...
2.  The personnel includes second generation funkmasters, from the Neville family no less.
3.   TWO BASS PLAYERS!! Now that is a helluva funky idea! The bottom is punched up in this band fer sure! And both of the bassmen sing!!
4.   Sly & the Family Stone - type vocals; extra greasy and sweet. The vocalists toss lines around amongst themselves, just like the Family Stone did.
5.   Wah-Wah pedals!  This band works those puppies to death.

This New Orleans syncopated funk is damned hard to execute.  All the casual offbeats, intricate hesitations and locked-in grooves take mad skills to pull off.  Listen to these folks show us how its done!

When I was an impressionable young punk in the 1970's, this music infected me.  In New Orleans, funk never faded.  This is what young people listen to and play down there.  When I listen to Dumpstaphunk, I feel transported to a different world - a world in which  mastering an instrument is considered a noble calling; a world where music is performed, not programmed.  I am very thankful for Dumpstaphunk and their fellow travelers in the old school world of real funk musicianship.



Sunday, February 15, 2015

Moving On


In December 2002, my family moved about four blocks.  We moved into an old house - very old, built in 1880. It is a local historical landmark - there is a plaque on the porch declaring its status. The place was being sold by a divorcing couple - the former husband was living alone in the rambling old building.  He was having a tough time, struggling with Lyme disease and the loss of his marriage.  When he moved out, he left lots of stuff behind, including some very cool beer mugs that I still use.

The house had "good bones" but was in need of attention.  It was a wooden structure that really had never been properly scraped, prepped and painted since it was built. There were non-functioning bathrooms and a funky, do-it-yourself finished basement with warped wood paneling on the walls and smelly wall-to-wall carpeting laid on top of a cold, damp concrete floor.  We moved in, my wife and our two girls, and we rolled up our sleeves.  The old house ate money at a rapid pace, but we got it into decent shape.  The list of projects is never cleared in a 125+ year old house.  I replaced two rotted porches and re-painted the whole house again last year.

Like the previous owners, our marriage fell apart in this old house.  After almost three years of litigation, the divorce became final last month.  Our home  must be sold .  The two young kids that moved into the house with us in 2002 are now young adults.  We will be closing on a two-flat, pictured above, in a couple of days.  Two-flats are a common form of housing in Chicagoland - they are great for extended families or live-in owners that need some income from a renter. I will put my two young adults in the downstairs unit and I will take the upstairs unit.

It will be good to be out of this old Victorian.  It takes too much attention and diligence.  The place will never be completely "fixed up."   The old house echoes with memories and scenes from a family in turmoil.  We had some terrific, happy times in this old house, but also some nightmare experiences. It is definitely time to move on.

We are downsizing and getting ready for a different situation.  There is quite a bit of uncertainty around this transition - we are all a little jittery.  And the two-flat needs work, too, so I will have a new list of projects.  The conventional wisdom ranks moving as number 3 on the list of most stressful life events - of course, death of a loved one is number 1 and  divorce is number 2.  Loss of job is number 4.

This feels like a new start, but there is no joy attached to the event.  I am 60 years old and the idea of a new start is not exciting.  But we will grind through this.  With luck, we will be settled and centered by the fall.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Two Virutous Concepts that are Not Really That Virtuous


The Good Provider:  This is a well-known and honored concept - a  virtuous individual, stepping up to take care of a group of people, usually blood relations (but not always).  It is a "talking point" when folks describe their primary relationships.  A wife tells her friends at the play group, "I can be a stay-at-home mom because my husband is a good provider; I don't have to work."   The husband tells his buddies at the bar, "I can pursue my passion for music/art/golf/whatever because my wife is a good provider;  I don't have to work."  Offspring of the Good Provider tell their friends, "I can use mom's/dad's credit card to buy dinner for all of you because he/she is a Good Provider."  Those receiving the support of a Good Provider have economic security and a less difficult path through the financial jungle. The Good Provider gains contentment and a sense of fulfilled responsibility through his/her ability to "take care" of the family. 

But there is a dark side to the Good Provider concept...

The working member of the single-earner household may be physically absent from the family or emotionally distant or abusive or sodden with drink every night, but he/she can wrap himself/herself in the golden banner of "the Good Provider" to offset these faults.   The Good Provider concept is totalitarianism on a very small scale.  It is a concept that breeds dependency and authoritarianism.  It is corrosive to human relationships - those receiving support are fearful of losing it and resentful of the power of the Good Provider.  The Good Provider may be angry and judgmental when the dependents do not perform up to his/her standards, and can engage in economic blackmail to force compliance.  The folks that depend on the Good Provider learn how to be helpless, or may develop a sense of entitlement, or may turn consumption into a weapon to keep the Good Provider focused on his role. And the Good Provider is trapped - he/she has to labor diligently to maintain the flow of treasure required to support the family unit.  If a job is lost, or a business fails, or health problems prevent continued employment, the Good Provider can sink into despair over the loss of his/her purpose.

The Good Provider can be a virtuous concept, but it often leads to misery and pain for all that have believed the hype.

Never Give Up:  "Never Give Up" is a concept that is hard to resist.  Steely determination and persistence in the face of resistance and adversity are almost always judged to be virtuous.  It is memorialized in clichés - "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."  If you Google "never give up quotes" you will find nuggets from Winston Churchill,  Harriet Beecher Stowe, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Clint Eastwood, Alice Cooper and Nicki Minaj.   Successful people almost always overcome some setbacks before achieving success, right? 

Well, yes, but...

I had a great boss who once told me, "It is always best to escape with your life."  People sometimes end up in dire circumstances because they refuse to accept a core reality - some things can't or won't happen no matter how much effort and determination are expended to achieve those things.  And, yes, there are clichés backing this concept, too - "Cut your losses."  "Live to fight another day." And so on.  Fighting for an impossible outcome, or clinging to a doomed relationship, or pursuing goals without the resources to achieve them - these are examples of times when it is best to quit trying.


These two "virtuous concepts" have guided me my entire life.  It is humbling to realize that the organizing principals of my life may be fatally flawed.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Jeff Bond, drummer and great guy - RIP



I know that there are massive tragedies happening in the world - Syria, Israel/Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan and on and on.  But tonight I want to talk about an individual human tragedy.  Even great disasters are just a mass accumulation of individual human tragedies.

I went to high school with a guy named Jeff Bond.  Jeff was the son of the choral music/drama teacher at our school.  Everyone in his family had talent.  His dad was an operatic baritone, his brother, Bill, played the tuba; his sister Claudia was an excellent violinist.  Jeff was a very high-energy drummer.  He could kick the high school jazz band and make that group of youngsters swing harder than teenagers are supposed to swing.  He could play funky drums that would make James Brown squeal.  He was a dancer and a trickster.  His sense of humor was infectious.   It was an honor to play in the jazz band with him; he was an exciting fireball of a percussionist.  Whenever I hear that old Todd Rundgren tune, "Bang on the Drum All Day, " I think of Jeff.  I found 2 pictures of Jeff - his high school yearbook pic from 1973 and another, more recent shot. I also found one of his drum solos on the web.  Jeff just wanted to play, man.

So Jeff graduated from Pacific High and headed out to beat the drums for a living.  He played with some very big names - Mel Torme' was one that I remember, but there were many others.  After doing the road thing for a while, Jeff settled in Reno and made a living playing drums in the casinos.  He married, had a couple of kids and worked at being a good family man.  Like most working musicians, Jeff felt the impact of the digital revolution and the  "music for free" cultural shift - the casino work became less plentiful.  He finally took a full-time non-musical job as a school bus driver in Carson City NV.

So we lost Jeff last Friday to cancer.  I thought of him often, and we communicated once in a while via email.  But I let the friendship slip away - I knew better, but Chicago is far away from Reno and I was wrapped up in my family and work. I didn't see Jeff much at all after I left California in 1976.   I heard that he was sick a little while ago; Jeff was not one to call old friends with his troubles, so the news had to come via third parties.  He died too goddamn young.  He left a wife and two daughters who loved him to pieces, I'm sure.   Jeff's death is another individual human tragedy.

Jeff, I am sorry you are gone, brother.  And I apologize for being a shitty friend.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Main & Chicago Avenue, Evanston IL - Update on a vacant lot


Feast your eyes on this ugly beast of a building!    It is what has been proposed for the vacant lot on the southeast corner of Main Street and Chicago Avenue.  Yes, it does match the other ugly beast buildings on the northwest and northeast corners of the intersection, but that doesn't make this a good idea. For those of us who live in south Evanston, this is another injury.

I see this vacant lot almost every day, and have come to appreciate the open space.  There used to be an old two-story commercial building at that location called "the Main," but it was knocked down by some developers right before the financial crisis.  I wrote about the loss of The Main when it happened.  The vacant lot is sometimes used by dog owners now.  It is good to have a vacant piece of land in the concrete valley.  The new building will increase the grimness of the landscape.  It also appears that the developers are not including enough parking for a multifamily development of this scale, so there will be more folks searching for street parking - already a scarce commodity in the neighborhood.

The new development will add a bunch of living units to the neighborhood.  Congestion is already a problem and this building will make things worse.  There will be first-floor retail space; the neighborhood is rotten with empty storefronts already.  I foresee more national chains/fast food places taking up the slots (we have a Subway and a Starbucks at the corner already; I expect Dunkin Donuts, Panera Bread and the rest of the usual crowd of homogenized retailers.

I sound like a grumpy NIMBY.  Certainly we need tax revenues in our town, but it isn't clear that this development will make a significant difference (especially in view of the Tax Increment Financing deal that the city government has awarded to this parcel). I know that this vacant lot needs to be filled and the location at the transit hub of Main and Chicago makes this a great place for a high rise.  Nevertheless, the proposed structure will not be attractive and will increase the hassle of living in the area.  Maybe I am wrong and it will be prettier in real life than it is in an artist's sketch.  Maybe the congestion won't be any worse.  But I think these outcomes are quite unlikely.

For anyone who is interested, here is a link to the presentation the developers made last fall to a community meeting.