Archive for January, 2009

riding home

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009


Silver and thin lines of black.

Leather and steel.

Muscle, fiber and burning carbohydrates with the wind.

The surge of energy, the pulse of breath, the exhilaration of ascent;

turning to absorb the red and blue, the black and gray.

Keeping the motion steady and rhythmic while letting go
of patterns and expectations.

Crossing the barrier, transcending the wall, heading home.

compulsory service

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

What do we need?

Compulsory service.

When do we need it?


When DID we need it?

Decades ago.

When do we need it?


No exceptions, no exemptions. Do it NOW!

Upon completion of an education or earlier if chosen, after turning eighteen, whichever comes later.

Equality of obligation for all regardless of gender, religion, physical ability, age, sexual orientation, race, belief, size, shape, appearance, prior obligations, occupation or aesthetic tastes.

Complex and complicated to execute?


Needs to be nuanced?


There is something of value that everyone can do. Its that simple, regardless.

There is value in the equalizing that individuals experience through non-exceptional compulsory public service and it is what our country needs now to even survive the next few decades much less, years. A dedication to live as we pledge or perish as we whine in our clinging to divisions, entitlements and the shirking of civic responsibilities.

Uncle Sam Needs You!

More NOW, in far more ways, than ever before.

Building and maintaining an energy-independent infrastructure; teaching our young in skills and trades; caring for our weakest; defending our security; planting, nurturing and harvesting our crops; managing our financial and business transactions; building our economy; representing and transacting interests abroad; healing our epidemics including the over dependence on drugs and unhealthy lifestyle choices; and, promoting and establishing a deeply rooted sense of belonging and contributing to positive growth in all aspects tempered with an initiative for negotiating, resolving and working within our differences.

Sound draconian? Socialist? Communist? Utopian?

Whatever. Its what we need NOW not later. There may very well not be a later.

I know we can do it.

I know because our parents and their parents and those before them have done whatever was required to survive in spite of tremendous adversities and diversities.

We have let them down by taking for granted the freedoms and privileges that arose from their labors; by allowing self aggrandizement and acquisitiveness, greed and ambition to overshadow our shared needs in our own community, our country, our world.

Stumbling does not mean falling if we have enough momentum to recover our step. We are on our way, as it seems to appear in slow motion, to recovering our step, our pace toward a better future for the entire planet and all of its inhabitants. If only we can work together as one planet, with one race of human beings, capable of so much when pressed into service for the common good.

Life is short, so don’t be slackin’, get doin’. There are so many lives to follow yours.

inauguration day

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

The sun’s not up yet but I am.

The day is warm and the cat is hungry.

I’m awake and writing with nothing to say.

I’ve just arisen from a state in which I experienced the greatest stories in the most vivid colors and scents. They were stories of my life, about my children, about my loves, about my family, about my cars and abodes. Rich with meanings that branched between them like superhighways of my minds body, transporting me through time compressed into seconds. Years lived again in a new light, a new timeframe, an expanded perspective.

As the sounds of the day emerge, they recede into the activities of evolution. Changing and growing in the face of entropy, creating in the maelstrom of the chaos in which we exist for such a brief time.

Gotta go check my email and the bicycle ads on craigslist. Then for a bike ride and breakfast and back to sanding my gate. Until tomorrow evening when I again can enter that gate to dreamtime.

my own room

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

The idea of my own room brings to mind several times when I remember defining my “very own” space. Are these really different experiences or, is there possibly a theme …some underlying or obvious similarities.

As a child I shared a room with my sister until I was about 10, my sister 7. I got to move upstairs, all alone. It was a bit musty up there having been used mostly for storage. My parents wanted to make it “up to the minute” interesting and bought a huge bolt of burlap and glued it to the walls. This lent an even more characteristic smell that I came to associate positively with my own special place. My dad put up a table for my model trains, made from a huge sheet of plywood. We never built the elaborate train set-up we planned, which would have been like the ones we saw in the department stores’ windows downtown at Christmas. Instead, I used it more as a workbench to pursue my growing interest in radio and telephone technology.

A couple friends of mine, Jerry and Lyman and I, went down to the waterfront to a huge warehouse and each bought several old telephones that had been surplused and discarded by some phone company up in Alaska. At the time it was illegal to have any extension phones in your house that weren’t owned and installed by the phone company.

A neighbor of Lyman’s was a neat older man who had just retired from the phone company where he had been a lineman and installer. He gave us tips on how too tap into phone lines so as to not be detected. He gave Lyman some manuals filled with fascinating schematics and directions.

My room now, in addition to my own bed, my own radio (one with no cabinet that my dad had built as part of a class on radio building), a bedspread with the symbol of the National Lighthouse Service knit into it (from my grandpa Hansen) – right their, within easy reach – my own pirated, illegal, extension phone!

As my involvement with things electronic grew here in my own room-cum-laboratory, I had cobbled together a PA system from an old pair of headphones and a radio that I could put in my window and broadcast my comments, often derisive and sickly humorous, to passersby, my sister and friends.

Occasionally I would get “in trouble” for something like an argument with my sister or doing something erotically naive and irresponsible with a neighbor girl in a tent in my backyard (an adjunct of my room I guess). My punishment was restriction to my room.

Lucky for me I don’t think the pleasures of my own room (as punishment) caused me to purposefully commit acts of disobedience or depravity just to get to spend time there. It certainly didn’t take me long to unwind from the anger and humiliation of being caught once I was surrounded with the comforting engagements that made my room my “special place”.

learning appreciation

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

I’m not sure how I first ran onto this but, I’ve learned to appreciate the craft in everything that people make or do. Most likely it came from experiences I had early on. That’s how I’ve found I have learned most things of value in my life.

There are things that people do, often on their jobs, that are done repetitiously. Whether you are an attorney writing a brief, a grocery clerk ringing-up and bagging store items or a garbage truck driver picking up the trash; these are some things that are done with a highly developed skill and panache. That’s the craft I speak of.

Its often easy to overlook but, its everywhere, all the time. My appreciation stems from my experiences in developing some of those. Right after graduating from high school my friend Roy recommended me for a job where he worked, at the most popular drive-in and hang-out in the Seattle’s north end.

On a typical day I would show up about 15 minutes early to get into my uniform and have a coke before starting my shift. The uniform was standard restaurant whites with a simple wrap apron, a brown neckerchief shaped like the one I wore in boy scouts and a disposable paper hat. I punched in and walked onto the floor from the small backroom. The sunlight was reflecting off the spotless stainless steel counters and the sparkling hoods of the malted milk mixers. The smells of fresh french fries and the toasting buns for the first batch of burgers signaled the start of another day shift at Dick’s Drive-In. Sally, a trim and rather short young woman, was on her tip toes, reaching up to pour the last bits of crushed ice into the lifted top of the large soft drink dispenser that was shaped like a large wooden barrel. Her taught body fit nicely into the tight fitting and heavily starched white cotton dress. Her dark brown hair was held with a hairnet which lent a look of another time. Not real stylish by the standards of the ’60s but it was required by law. She had the starched little white and brown crown held on her head with bobby pins. Though I was still a virgin, my body and soul responded instinctively to the exhilaration.

“Working the grill” was seen as the top job, often reserved for the shift manager since the grill was located in the center of the carefully planned work area and offered an all inclusive vantage of what was going on, both inside and outside the glass enclosed restaurant. It was a weekday morning and there were just 4 of us. I was helping on the grill.

I reached down and grabbed the flat stainless steel weights that lie on the bottom burger buns that had just reached the right state of brownness. I gave them each a swift tap as I lifted them off by their handles, to assure that none of the moist fresh Langendorf buns stuck to them, and slid the one-foot by three foot panels atop the vent structure that rose above the grill surface and separated the cooking area from the front counter and walk space where Sally had just opened the small pass through window.

“All of our burgers are prepared with a small amount of mild mustard and ketchup, sir” I heard her say. This was the mantra we could all recite in our sleep. Its what we were trained to say to our customers who wanted something different on their hamburgers. The owners of Dick’s Drive-In were pioneers in the fast food business and were geniuses when it came to organization and they had carefully planned out every aspect of service and thoughtfully choreographed the entire operation. The hamburgers were all the same; the only option being with cheese — a cheeseburger. There were little circles painted in red nail polish on the counters where salt shakers for the fries, stacks of plastic lids for the soft drinks or spare scoops for ice cream were to be placed. There were prescribed movements that had been studied and timed for maximum efficiency and customer service. It was a highly coordinated and effective operation in every aspect.

Sally was shouting out orders for burgers, tapping a mixing malted milkshake with one hand while reaching over to scoop a paper cup half full of crushed ice and then, single-handed, fill it with coke from the barrel dispenser on the counter just to the side of the window where she was serving the first person in what was becoming a fast growing line of hungry patrons. “May I help you next ma’m?” she shouted to the next in line, while snapping open up one of those cardboard trays that we gave out with multiple drink orders. It was policy to be serving as many customers at once as humanly possible. We all saw it as a challenge. We wrote down cash register counts of the number of sales each half hour. The most I recall was when one evening after a football game three of us had served 1,000 people in just one hour, mostly soft drinks probably, unless it was a Friday when the catholic school kids all rushed in at midnight to buy burgers. There were often fights to be broken up and fires maliciously started in the metal swing-top garbage cans that lined the concrete apron surrounding the service windows. The cops knew by now to be slow in responding to our calls. They must have tired of having to discipline the angry crowds of drunk teens. Meanwhile, inside we kept our cool and continued to serve them all with respect and speed.

But this was the lunch rush and the teens were a smaller part of our clientele. This was an older crowd, many whom were regulars. I remember one really old guy who came every day and loved to flirt with the counter girls. When ordering his fries he asked for “a shot of Red-Eye!” trying to sound like John Wayne or some other image of swaggering intent, when he wanted one of those little cups of ketchup we sold with the fries. Even then we questioned among ourselves the wisdom of someone his age eating so much of this greasy fare. When he didn’t come in for several days, we speculated he must have finally died of a peptic ulcer.

“Down to four cheese” Sally exclaimed. With a long bladed spatula, I lifted the buns two at a time and flipped them over and onto the warming tables shining surface. We were running a ‘48′, making 48 burgers, half of which would be cheese burgers, the others not. It took just 4 minutes to make a ‘48′. It begins with grabbing the bottom buns, six in each hand at a time, from the flat boxes that hung in specially constructed stainless shelves next to the grill. These are then quickly flung down onto the hot grill surface in neat rows, six deep. This is repeated until all 48 lie warming on the right side of the huge cooking surface. Flat weights made of stainless steel are placed atop each group of 24 to keep the buns in contact with the hot plate. Then this is repeated with the top buns on the far left side of the grill. Once the buns are toasting, a quick turn to the waist-high small doors into the 40-degree box, a large walk-in cooler right behind the grill where the meat, cheese and open condiments were kept, for grabbing neatly ordered and pre-counted stacks of meat patties. They are an eighth pound each and about 4-inches in diameter, stacked with pieces of wax paper in between them. they are placed in the middle section of the hot grill and the papers ripped off immediately. By this time the bottom buns will be toasted and need to be removed to the large stainless warming table, just to the right of the grill.

When the bottom buns were all lined up in 4 rows of twelve it was time to rapidly apply the “small amounts of mild mustard and ketchup.” We used conical shaped dispensers that had levers to release just the correct amount consistently, every time, without fail; as long as they remained full. Click, click, click, hitting all the buns squarely in the middle leaving what looked like a sloppy asterisk of moist condiment; then, slamming the dispensers quickly back into the carefully place stainless tubs that held them. First the ketchup in big splurts, then the mustard in smaller dabs. In the background, above the hum of the malt mixers and order taking you could hear the fry clerk bagging the crisp, warm tan potatoes, done to perfection. He slid the stainless tongs, held closed into the top little bag on the pile that rested in its place at the side of the french fire warmer and display. He released the tongs with a snap and placed the now open bag in his other hand, After salting and stirring the crisp potatoes, he took just the right amount and threw it into the bag. This was repeated until about a half dozen full bags lie ready for customers so they wouldn’t have to wait. The owners time and motion studies showed that it was more efficient to serve the french fries, and the ice cream desserts as well, through separate windows from where the main entrees were ordered. This caused some consternation for only a few customers as it really was far more efficient.

Back on the grill, the patties were showing just a small amount of red blood and juice on the still uncooked top side, indicating it was time to turn them. Grabbing the spatula reserved especially for the meat, they were quickly flipped two at a time, then quickly salted from the coffee-mug sized aluminum shaker that rested in its assigned spot atop the grill back vent. Roy and I were doubling on this batch. He instinctively swung around, flipping the chrome handle of one of the smaller waist level doors on the 40-degree box, and grabbed two measured stacks of 12 cheese slices each. It was processed cheese with the wax paper sheets separating each slice. He swung back and dealt out the cheese slices like a Vegas blackjack dealer, ripping the paper dividers off as he went. This all took just a few seconds.

After tapping the bun weights on his left and slamming them down atop the grill back vent, Roy deftly lifted and placed the top buns onto the finished patties with the spatula. “Hot stuff!” he shouted as he began lifting the now turned, salted and completed meat patties covered by the soft rounded top buns from the hot grill. We were passing each other quickly and it was warming up more rapidly behind the grill now. The sun beat in and the heat of the grill and fry tanks just to our left helped the temperature reach around 125.

While Sally’s shouted order was still hanging in the air like a multi-colored banner I began the wrapping ritual. The thin tissue-like papers, one stack, white for regular hamburgers, the other, yellow for cheese were just to my right on the warming table. In one swift movement my right hand slapped the top paper on the pile, sliding it onto the table surface while my left picked up a burger. The two came together and in another swift gesture I folded first front to back then back to front enclosing the burger, leaving two open ends at each side. As my thumb held the partially wrapped object of a customer’s hunger, my fingers reached over to fold the loose ends into triangular shapes, first the front, then the back. With another flip of the wrists, these ends were tucked under the hot burger and it was rapidly fired off to its reserved portion of the warming table. Those working the front counter know just where to reach for either a hamburger or a cheeseburger without having to look.

The whole process of making 48 hamburgers takes only 4 minutes, start to finish. That’s 12 per minute or one every five seconds. Once learned, it is done without stress or error, time after time, day after day. It can get monotonous but it is more or less automatic and can even be relaxing and rewarding in its accomplishment, depending on one’s perspective and attitude at any given moment. Usually, its seen as a non-event. Just part of the job.

I love to watch grocery clerks that have been doing it for long enough to deftly whip those items through and bag them and handle payment and quickly move on to the next in line, all with a smile and small talk. I love seeing the garbage truck driver wheel that huge rig up in perfect alignment with the one of three cans they are assigned to pick-up. Then, while sitting in the cab, perhaps talking on a cell phone or grooving on some tunes, looking straight ahead, pull the lever that extends the mechanical arms, picking up the can and inverting it overhead into the waiting mouth of the truck. He then gives a couple of quick flips of the lever to bang the can to be sure its contents are all released before placing it back where it was, in between the other two. All this takes less than a minute and he’s off to the next house. All done as if the truck and its complex machinery were an extension of his body and the task nothing more difficult than swinging a hip over to nudge someone.

I take the opportunity to commend and remark on this deftness whenever its possible. We all need strokes, whenever and wherever we can get them.

I am an artist and have taught art and been in many artist’s studio and seen many types of art produced. There are parts of my own art, the crafting parts, that involve timing and rhythm in their execution. Done in repetition, they become a dance. A dance, like cooking food, checking groceries, operating a garbage truck. Maybe its selfish but I really thrill at seeing people doing ordinary tasks with mastery and aplomb. It reaffirms my feeling that we are all in a big dance. Check it out, you’ll see it everywhere if you are looking for it. Shall we dance?

scales, riffs and squawks

Monday, January 12th, 2009

I’m sitting here listening to someone nearby practicing on a trumpet. There are attempts at maintaining a singular note that squawk and crumble. There are occasions of what on a trumpet are something like harmonic steps, maybe fifth notes that I am familiar with from my bugle playing days. I was probably 11 or 12 years old and my parents had gotten me a new bugle. I was a boy scout and don’t recall whose idea it was I should become a bugler, there’s or mine.

Now the neighbor is doing halting scales. they sometimes get as far a 5 or 6 notes before the sounds collapse into that squawking sound. Its funny how I find myself hanging on each attempt, wondering if the entire scale will be achieved. I’m that invisible audience that is internally cheering them on.

What I find interesting is that every now and then, whoever the player is, just blows and comes out with some actually good sounding riffs. Then its right back to the scale attempts that always end in a cacophonous collapse to the squawk.

I can relate to this. As a child I wanted badly to play the trumpet. There was something about its very strong and positive musical statement that it made, especially when it was payed muted and the notes were bent in jazz and blues tunes. Maybe that explains the bugle. On the bugle, I didn’t have to learn scales, just those harmonics that made up the various bugle calls, revely, taps, etc. I don’t remember at what age I began playing music but, my first musical instruments were an ocarina, then a harmonica and a ukulele. I got fairly conversant with the harmonica since my dad was a good tutor. He had begun playing his harmonica on a vaudeville stage in Port Townsend when he was about 8 years old. When he met my mom in his early twenties, he was a saxophonist and clarinetist in local jazz dance bands. Benny Goodman was one of his idols as I recall.

My practicing neighbor just accomplished a complete scale both up and down, all eight notes. It was done rapidly and was quite successful in both tone and rhythm. Now they’re back the slower and definitely not as successful attempts. Now the notes are running: do-re-mi-blapph; do-re-muophtx. The neighborhood dogs are starting to bark, its that bad.

I could easily find this awful noise an irritant, an unneeded distraction on this beautiful warm, sunny Sunday morning while I am trying to write. To my pleasant surprise I find it inspiring. At first I thought of putting in my earplugs but now I hope the playing, if that’s what it can be called, continues.

So why is it easier to play a scale on a trumpet faster than slower? Perhaps its what I think they call amature, how you shape your mouth and position your tongue in mating with the mouthpiece; that careful pursing of the lips required to make a trumpet produce sound. The slower, or more aptly, sustained notes need to have a totally consistent pressure of the lips applied to the mouthpiece. This requires the development of the muscle control of the lips. Add to this the force of the wind blown through it. This is the crafting part of playing music. Mastery of these laborious at first details of playing an instrument is required in order to play music so the craft part is a positive contributor to the performance.

But what about those beautiful riffs I heard interspersed? They did consist mostly of rapidly played notes but, there was also a bit of sustained harmony as well.

I once decided to take up playing the sax, to follow in my dad’s path perhaps. I figured that maybe I had inherited sax genes from him. There certainly wasn’t any DNA for accordion or piano, both of which I spent several years and considerable amounts of my parents money on trying to learn. Picture a skinny little kid with that huge 120 bass Enrico Roselli accordion. Or, on the bench of a piano with my sister playing a duet in recital. the picture may be OK but I can’t attest for the sound. It all was a struggle for me.

I had found a persisting ability to play the harmonica and that fed nicely into my immersion into playing it when I was first separated from my family due to marital issues. I was living alone in an abandoned 3-story nurses’ quarters at the former site of the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital atop Seattle’s Queen Anne hill. My third floor rooms had views of both the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. There was no heat in the building other than a fireplace in my main room, which was useless since all the heat went up the chimney. This made the lack of a refrigerator less of an issue in those winter months. Cooking was done on a coleman stove. There was however one really great feature: an enclosed stairwell that spanned all three floors and the basement. It was a huge concrete and steel echo chamber. I spent many nights there wrapped in a heavy coat and cap, playing blues and just riffing with the awesome acoustic anomalies.

After several months, I moved into an apartment on Eastlake, just south of the University bridge, not too far from where I had lived in a houseboat a decade earlier. It had heat and a real kitchen. I missed the echo chamber and the solitude that allowed me to practice and play without any audience at all. But the new apartment was on a busy street,under the Interstate-5 bridge over the ship canal and my downstairs neighbor was a cabinet shop complete with noisy power tools.

I played along with records of my favorites; Clifton Chenier, Sonny Boy Williamson, Big Bill Brunzy, Muddy Waters and all the blues greats. I bought Tony ‘Little Son” Glover’s book on playing the blues harp (harmonica). I enjoyed playing along, bending, warping and holding long mournful notes punctuated with sensuous vibrato. I learned a lot.

This led to the saxophone. I rented a tenor sax, one that’s a little bigger and plays deeper notes that the more common alto. It was a Buesher, like my dad had played. It cost only $10 per month from a local music store, Kennely-Keyes.

My dad was still living then and gave me a few pointers on shaving reeds and breaking them in. I took it to his house once so he could try it out. It had been decades since he had played Stardust in the darkness of our living room when I was just three. He wasn’t too pleased, nor surprised by his loss of mastery.

I played along with records for awhile, getting acquainted with the complex keying and reed pressure changes. I was getting comfortable with the sounds I could make but had no idea how anyone else might perceive them. A guy I worked with at Walter Dorwin Teague Associates, Eric Hagerstrom, said he played the piano and had recently met a friend through his new wife that played a stand-up bass and dobro (a steel guitar). He suggested that since we all were into blues and jazz that we should get together sometime and jam. Since Eric had the piano, we met at his place on an evening when his wife was out.

These guys were far beyond me musically. Eric had played piano for years and knew many jazz standards and was able to improvise on some more abstract stuff as well. Mick (Mike Heltsley, subsequently founder of an art school and one of Seattle’s best Mexican restaurants, Agua Verde) had a beautiful old stand-up bass and a wonderful to this day dobro. He was at the time taking a class called Guitar Mechanics. He was quite accomplished already and found the mathematical approach allowing him to find new horizons for sound from his instruments, combining scale and tonal structures way beyond the ordinary. I showed up with my rented sax and my old leather doctor’s bag full of harmonicas, a jews harp, some kazoos and a washboard with several attachments and an assortment of thimbles to play it with. The attachments to the standard wooden-framed metal washboard included a cowbell, a couple jar lids and a kid’s cymbal and a foot-long screen-door spring. It was a small rhythm section on a neck strap.

At first I played rhythm accompaniment on the washboard and chimed in occasionally on the harp (blues harp, harmonica) which was held to my mouth on a neck support I had gotten for it. After a few numbers, both musically and herbally, they convinced me to get on the sax. I expressed my hesitation, explaining my novice level and feelings of inferiority, and gave it a shot.

We started out with some slower jazz stuff and I was able to ease into playing along, moving in and out of the melodies. It was surprising to me, it felt good! Was it just the beers, the good Columbian?

Eric brought out a reel-to-reel recorder. We had to find out what it sounded like. When you are playing like we had, at least for me – its hard to tell. When you are playing its like you ARE the music. It has color, light, sound and texture and the connection with the shared rhythms and melodic ramblings is all that exists at that moment. We decided to record about a half hour of playing. We wanted to be sure we had time enough to actually forget that we were recording.

It worked. Eric sort of took the lead by playing a familiar jazz tune, something smooth but mellow, nothing Kenny-G over-sweet. Mick’s thoomb, thoomb, dhoomb on the bass added a flowing warmth, alternating between melody and accompaniment. I floated in and out on sax, harp and percussion. It was like we were both singing and talking with one another, bouncing notes and progressions back and forth, weaving their colors into a tapestry of groove. When we played it back it sounded better than I thought it would. My part was probably the weak link. Sure, there were places it slowed or died or got momentarily awful but overall it wasn’t bad – for 3 graphic designers. With some editing it could have certainly sounded rather professional.

We got together every couple weeks or so. Sometimes the three of us at Eric’s, sometimes just Mick and me. He alternated bringing his dobro and bass.

One day I saw an announcement for a saxophone workshop at Joe Brazil’s music school. Joe is a Seattle jazz legend who has played with John Coltrane and others who at the time had a school housed in a community center in the Central District. I remembered seeing him a few times at the Llahngelhyn, an after-hours coffee house just south of the University Bridge across from the then infamous (not remotely like it is today) Red Robin. Musicians would drop-in to jam after finishing gigs around town. What a great place it was with the likes of poet Jesse Bernstein and musicians Chick Corea, Abdullah Ibrihim, Ralph Towner, McCoy Tyner and others, improvising and having a good time. My old friend and cohort John Rau documented many of these late night/early morning sessions in a beautiful series of black and white photographs. Perhaps I can get him to post some here or on his own site.

I decided it was time to take my playing beyond the entry level. I signed up for the classes. The instructor for the workshops was Carter Jefferson, a well known and very accomplished sax player who had backed up The Temptations, The Supremes, and Little Richard; played with Mongo SantaMaria and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and recorded with Woody Shaw. This looked like a great opportunity to learn from a true master.

I showed up at the old three or four story brick building that looked more like a monastery than a community center. Apparently it had been a Methodist (or some denomination) cathedral and school. There weren’t a lot of people around. Just someone who signed me in and introduced me to Carter. We talked a bit about my interest and intentions and then he led me downstairs and into one of a series of wood-framed windowed cubicles. It looked like sort of a public confessional booth. Jefferson asked if I would mind his playing my sax. Of course I couldn’t say no to this master of the instrument. He took it gently, ran his fingers up and down its keys, trying the feel of their action and response. He gave what appeared to be an assenting nod and brought the instrument slowly but purposefully up to his mouth. As his breath started to blow softly through the reed it began to emanate the softest, sweetest notes I had ever heard from my $10-a-month rented sax that I had been struggling to learn those past months. I didn’t recognize the tune but the way he easily moved through a range of notes in varying keys and with a dynamic rhythm was phenomenal. I couldn’t believe my ears. Here I was, getting a one-on-one solo performance from one of the world’s top jazz musicians. It was hypnotic. He didn’t play long but it was definitely sweet. He had me do a few scale exercises and, after my hour was up, sent me home with an assignment to learn to play scales in all the keys.

I was floating on a cloud as I carried my instrument out to my car, the notes of Carter Jefferson still reverberating in my head and soul. I hardly remembered anything of the drive home, his mellow notes and tones replaying so clearly in my mind the entire trip. As soon as I arrived back at my apartment I set about learning to play scales in all those keys.

I practiced for a week, day and night. As the days of practice wore on, I realized that something had changed. Playing this instrument I had come to love so much had suddenly become a laborious task. I felt as if I were pushing a huge rock up a very steep hill and it was getting huger by the minute. I didn’t return for any more classes. I felt humiliated by my inability to discipline myself in learning my chops. I still got together to jam with my friends but when career and life changes moved us apart, I dropped my playing. I returned the sax to the music store.

When I had to knuckle down to the structure of doing scales in many keys I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the instrument, and how much dedication and practice was involved in its mastery. I guess I had thought that Carter Jefferson would somehow show me some “tricks” to get all those magical sounds to emanate from me through that sax. Well, he had, I just couldn’t deal with what it really involved. So, in the end, I had played a few good riffs and occasionally and accidentally a whole good number.

A little over ten years later I ran across an alto sax in the Goodwill store. It was a nice looking Conn, complete with a case. I could picture some young student carrying it to school to play in the band or something. I got it, tried it a few times and packed it away. I may bring it out sometime, taking it to some remote place, and play it for myself. I’m sure no one else would enjoy my halting, atonal ramblings and blasts that I still enjoy playing on it.

So, my trumpet playing neighbor has finished their session. I think I heard a bit of clapping and “Good going!” coming from the direction of the musical attempts. Most likely the encouraging support of parents.

A beginner can have a few brilliant moments of creative output – like my neighbor and like myself. Consistent brilliance, mastery, requires the development of craft; physically (with the instrument), conceptually and emotionally. I know now that there are more ways to master music and instruments than learning scales and there are ways of learning scales by just playing. All learning styles work. Its just a matter of which feel good to the learner. Which methods provide the challenge,engagement and reward necessary to maintain persistence in reaching for mastery. They all require dedication and desire as well as lots of practice.

I feel a resurgent desire to make some music. I’m not sure if it will involve any of my wind instruments. Possibly a talking drum or maybe something of my own making. Stay tuned.


Monday, January 12th, 2009

Am I speaking in a tongue unknown? In a vernacular yet to be touched?

Beyond these limited words are emotions and devotions, meanings and leanings, words and birds.

In the ears of the beholder a vision that has the scent of something textural. The music of the law, the rhythm of numbers, the colors of servitude and the subtle scents of labor and love meld into a fabric that warms and feeds. Nourishment for our growth and inevitable entropy.

Getting only now beyond the medium to the message and finding that indeed the two are inseparably intertwined into a synergistic organism that throbs with its very existence, metamorphosing and never still. I cling to it because there is nothing else that can be done.

A light is nothing if it doesn’t illumine something. It can be in a sound or a touch, a word or a gesture; its origins are unimportant in light of its landing site. Energy is constant and constantly transmuting. Here we are.

Does intention matter if the outcome is positive? Does the outcome matter if the intention is positive?

Is there positive without negative to contrast? Is there neutrality anywhere or is there a fourth pole that is neither a combination or separation of the known?

My contention is that it all matters, all at once and inclusively. Everything just is. We filter this maelstrom with our individually unique set of holes in the sieve of our consciousness and spit it out in a language of our own understanding.

The Tower of Babel is an enduring metaphor of our social condition; America the dream of our solution to misunderstandings and divisions. The visions of frontiers yet to be reached drive us on to new discoveries and illumination. Along that path we feel both the burning sensation of entropic decay and the scintillating sting of creative discovery.

Throw it all into the mix that brings about the cataclysmic reactions that birth new ideas and possibilities; random words, images, unheard of combinations, the improbable and the impossible. If the world gives you an explosion, surf the percussive waves to be carried beyond the pervasive comfort zone to those new frontiers we pay so much lip service to. “Life is short. Time to stop slacking.” — Su Job (1956-2008)

So, look around. Are you on top of the wave or just being swept along? Are you speaking the language that expresses your essence or the one of convention? Be and just do. Don’t wait. I love you.

pruning day

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Green against light blue and white.

Branches reaching skyward soon to be topped. Seeking the view, the control over nature.

Shaping content, bending the branch, making a difference, leaving a mark. Is it worthwhile or just a passing breeze. Being, doing.

“If you are what you do, when you don’t, you aren’t” — William J. Byron

Orange and yellow, tan and lines of darker brown. Warming the cool, lighting the ground.

Good morning world.

morning light

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Cinnamon, ginger.

Cloves and someone gently touching my head.

Sunshine through the window and the lingering warmth of spiced hot chocolate in my mouth.

The chair I’m in fades from beneath me to deposit me softly into a garden of rich, dark and soothing colors.

Slowly at first, images of never-before-seen plants stretch out before me on a vast plain. Sounds of birds’ wings softly caress my eardrums with a scintillating sensation that goes into the core of my body. Off in the distance I see the beginning of a long stairway.

As I glide effortlessly closer it appears to be a moving escalator. My foot knows intuitively to step forward onto it and I am immediately whisked upward, faster than I would have thought. My mind takes awhile to catch up with the sensations in my body. Its a bit dizzying but pleasant.

I enter onto a higher plateau where it is noticeably brighter with a soft yellow-orange glow all around me. I struggle to open my eyes through blue, purple, red and finally more familiar images start to take form.

The comforting smells of garlic and oil lingering from last night’s meal, along with the glow of cayenne from the mornings chocolate place me squarely in the present – refreshed and ready to tackle the day’s work.

first sunday morning

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

Yellow, tan, green.

57 degrees and sunny with a slight breeze.

Thoughts of friends past and passed – and passing perhaps.

All passing on something whether intended or not for the edification of who knows.

Red, black, white.

Sawhorses ready for work. Buckets of rain water evaporating.

Are we what we do? Are we not just being? Does it matter what we do?

Painting, building, pruning and writing. Occupations, diversions, obsessions or passions.

Blue, brown, gray.

Seeking meaning and bearing into an ever renewing frontier.

Centering on oneness with the vast spreading network of energy and matter.

Life, love; energy and enterprise. It only gets better in every way, even when it appears not to.