Monday, September 22, 2014

Smitty's Funeral

My father donated his body to medical science. He was interested in medicine, but I think he was more interested in shocking his sisters.  It took almost three years before the medical school returned his ashes and, by the way, my brothers and I never got a word of thanks. As a fundraiser I find it appalling that such a significant and valuable donation would go unacknowledged; but I digress...

My brother Greg and I had decided to bury his ashes in the same plot as our mother. When the time came, we decided to do the deed during the family reunion. People would already be gathered, they could join us in memorializing him without making a special trip. Greg called Bryan several weeks prior to the reunion and told him the plan.  Bryan’s response was “so, what do you want me to do about it?”  Hard words were exchanged.  We didn't know if he was coming or not.

I made it to the church on time Friday night.  Bryan and his stepdaughter showed up shortly after I did.  He didn't make a huge scene as I feared, but he was awkward and unpleasant and somewhat incoherent. I couldn't tell if he was high or just not-quite-right. Saturday was the busiest day of the reunion and Greg's birthday to boot, so we had planned to have a small, quiet moment at the cemetery on Sunday so as to not distract from the main event. When Bryan showed up on Friday he pointedly avoided me. Instead, he started buttonholing our ancient aunts and uncles, our distant cousins. I couldn't tell what he was talking about, but he was loud. I watched as his interlocutors went from puzzled to somewhat alarmed.  I finally managed to maneuver him to a quieter corner and asked what he was upset about. It turned out that he was angry that we had planned the burial for Sunday instead of Saturday. He wouldn't come right out and say it, but it became clear that he didn't have enough money for two nights in the hotel. He wanted us to have the burial on Saturday so he could go home. If he had just asked if we could have the memorial on Saturday because he needed to get home, I would have said “of course” and that would have been the end of it. I didn't even need to know why, all he had to do was talk to me. But, that's not how he operated. He had to stir up a drama, he had to feed his self-fulfilling paranoia. 

We moved the ceremony up a day and my theater training kicked in. I tracked down my cousin the undertaker, got him to deliver the ashes a day early, spoke to each of the family patriarchs and matriarchs to let them know what was going on.  I spread the message that everyone was welcome but no-one was expected to attend. After all, it was supposed to be a fun family reunion, not a funeral.  Once we got to the cemetery, I stage managed the event so that we were in and out in less than and hour.  Greg taught me this song in the car on the way to the cemetery and we played it at the grave site:

It was a good choice. When we were done singing, we all took “three of four licks with the posthole digger” as my Uncle Boyd put it, and got Smitty planted next to my mama. Packed that red earth back on top of him, sang a chorus of Amazing Grace and got the hell out of there. Bryan left without saying goodbye. Greg and I drove back to the barbecue and listened to the old folks talk.  Apparently, my grandfather’s people came from a place in Kentucky called The Land Between the Lakes. They may have been displaced when their valley was dammed and flooded.  

That was the last time I saw Bryan. 

I will end on a story about someone else’s dysfunctional family, told to me by my undertaker cousin during that strange weekend.  There were terrible spring storms in Jonesboro that year and much flooding.  Some local yahoos decided to go swimming in the ditches to ride the currents. You know where this story is going; a 19 year old boy got stuck in a culvert and drowned. Heartbreaking. My cousin works for the funeral home that handled the arrangements, so I blame this story on him.

The boy’s family were all “swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool” as my cousin put it. They had very little money and less sense. They wouldn’t even consider cremation, they wanted a full funeral with all the trimmings. The undertaker took pity and waived all his fees, but even at cost, a full funeral with a casket, visitation, transportation and a plot came to $3000.  They didn’t have that kind of money. Instead, they made several large cardboard signs read “Broke. Need Donations for Funeral.” Members of the family stood with the signs at busy intersections and solicited spare change from passing motorists.

By then, the story had been picked up by the local newspaper and included a request for donations to cover funeral costs. The donations from the news article combined with the money they spare changed on the streets added up to several thousand dollars above and beyond the cost of the discounted funeral. Of course they didn’t offer to pay the full rate; they weren’t that stupid. There was much speculation at the funeral home about where the extra money would go. The next day, the whole family showed up for the funeral sporting matching tattoos in memory of the deceased.

The immediate family arrived in a beat up old pick up truck, pulled into the handicap space next to the front door and started tailgating, drinking cheap beer from the can and white liquor from Solo cups.  When the visitation was over and they were assembling for the procession to the cemetery, the paterfamilias approached the undertaker with a question. He said that his brother, the deceased’s Uncle, was driving a brand new truck, much nicer than his own.  Could Dad ride in Uncle’s truck in the place of honor directly behind the hearse instead of driving his old truck? Of course, says the undertaker. When the hearse pulled out, a half-ton, AAA tow truck pulled in behind it. Uncle’s shiny new rig was a wrecker.  The family climbed aboard and off they all drove to the cemetery. 

Now THAT’s a funeral. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014



By Thomas Carlyle

The wind blows east, the wind blows west,
And the frost falls and the rain:
A weary heart went thankful to rest,
And must rise to toil again, ’gain,
And must rise to toil again.

The wind blows east, the wind blows west,
And there comes good luck and bad;
The thriftiest man is the cheerfulest;
’Tis a thriftless thing to be sad, sad,
’Tis a thriftless thing to be sad.

The wind blows east, the wind blows west;
Ye shall know a tree by its fruit:
This world, they say, is worst to the best;—
But a dastard has evil to boot, boot,
But a dastard has evil to boot.

The wind blows east, the wind blows west;
What skills it to mourn or to talk?
A journey I have, and far ere I rest;
I must bundle my wallets and walk, walk,
I must bundle my wallets and walk.

The wind does blow as it lists alway;
Canst thou change this world to thy mind?
The world will wander its own wise way;
I also will wander mine, mine,
I also will wander mine.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Prufrock Feels The Coming of Autum

Summer's is gone but the heat hasn't died down. At least the nights are cool and the quality of the light has changed. Darker blues, deeper shadows. Twilight creeps out from under the trees a little earlier with each passing day, spreading across the evening "like a patient etherized  upon a table."

Fires rage just to the south. Weed California is burning tonight. We watch columns of smoke rise and spread like a contagion, wondering if, when, wild fire will crest the ridge and drop down into our valley.

I came out of Jimmy Giancarlo's memorial service tonight to find a mercifully, if briefly, blue sky. Appropriate. Dear Jimmy was a man with a blue sky disposition. He maintained the highest artistic standards without ever being negative or dismissive or harshly critical. He had a way of getting what he wanted by validating others. In all our interactions, from the artistic to the mundane, he never made me feel "less than."  He lifted up everyone around him. I aspire to his example. I wish all of my collaborators were as inclusive, inspiring, affirming, committed, generous.

Another good man gone, while evil seems to live forever. And then there are those who inhabit that gray space between good and evil, the ones who cause me so much confusion and pain.  People like me.

I grow old, I grow old.  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

I had a dream about a woman I know, one of those people who leave me feeling "less than." She talks incessantly about her family, her job, her travels, her beliefs, her life, her friends; in short, about herself.  Her sense of entitlement is profound, she denies herself nothing. She brings out the Little Red Hen in me: who is going to pick the wheat and grind the grain and bake the bread while Ducky Lucky is touring Europe?   In my dream she was talking, talking, talking about herself until I couldn't take it any more and screamed "Will you SHUT THE FUCK UP!!" It shocked me awake.

Why don't I say something similar (if not quite so hostile) in the waking world? Because, I don't see how it would change anything for the better. The reality is, I'm jealous of her. She grew up wealthy and lives her life in the certainty that she deserves whatever she wants. I grew up poor and live my life in the fear that I deserve nothing.

If I had no fear, what would I do?

Maybe I would quit my job and hit the road, visit places just because they interest me, write about any damn thing that crosses my mind, play music on corners and at street fairs, talk to strangers, cross against the light; you know, break the rules. I have a little money, a credit card, a house I could sell.  I have skills.

It ain't gonna happen, at least not yet. I've been homeless and broke. I'm not going back.

I traded freedom for security because I couldn't figure out how to have both. I went to school, got a job and never looked back.  For decades now, I have walked the endless treadmill of day after working day, playing by the rules, paying my bills, avoiding extraordinary risk, forgoing extraordinary reward. I've been good, Lord. I've done my penance for my wicked, misspent youth.

Is it too late for me to dive back into the unknown?

Do I dare disturb the universe?

Monday, September 8, 2014

Laying Bare

I spent more than five hours in a recording studio yesterday with the Bathtub Gin Serenaders and now I'm scared to death.

It's ironic that our "lead singer" Ila quit the band less than two months before we finally made it back into the studio. I put "lead singer" in quotes because Eric and I sing lead on several songs and on others, Ila, Melissa and I sang 3-part harmony.  However, Ila was the big personality with the big voice who stood out front, and she bailed out with very little warning. All credit to my collaborators, they refused to let her departure stand in the way of our project. We rearranged the 3-part harmonies for Eric, Melissa and me and I stepped up to the mic and took the lead.

Let me repeat that: I stepped up to the mic and took the lead. Holy shit.

We recorded some standards by Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Louis Armstrong, and added some originals:  Eric wrote two songs, I wrote two songs and Melissa wrote one. What right do I have to record Gerswhin and Berlin? What right do I have to include my measly original tunes on the same record with those giants? Who the hell do I think I am?

It's too late for take backs now.

I'm singing songs that were sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Anita O'Day. I'm no Ella Fitzgerald; hell, I'm no Ila, but I have a voice.  I'm sure as hell not a composer but, I wrote two songs and we recorded them. Scary.

My collaborators are so kind, so supportive. They seem to genuinely value my contributions.  I can't quite wrap my head around that. I'm used to being devalued and disrespected in the musical community because, and this is the truth, I'm not a very good musician. I have a great ear, a great feel for time and tempo, but not much musicianship or technical skill. But, here's the weird thing: a lot of people now think of me as a good musician. Some of them are even other musicians.

My skeptical mind keeps looking for the catch, sure that the world is setting me up for a fall.  What if I'm really terrible but no-one will tell me to my face? My fearful mind imagines the world laughing behind my back.  The band is just starting to gig without Ila and I fret about perpetrating a bait and switch. I feel like apologizing before I begin to play, sure that I'll chase the audience away.

What if I suck?

So, what if I do? If that's the worst that happens, it's not so bad. I've survived worse.

I wish my mama was here tonight. She would set me straight. She never let me tear myself down or beat myself up.  She believed I could do anything.

OK then mama, this is for you.  What talent I have, what courage, what grace, it comes from you. When I sing, I sing in your voice.

I sing in her voice.  How can I keep from singing?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hard Work, Good Times

Another Camp Out in the books and I didn't take a single photograph. This one was taken by my dear little friend Lauren Smith. What kind of a chronicler am I? Boswell would not approve. (Can you imagine a contemporary Boswell, smart phone in hand, snapping selfies with Dr. Johnson in some London haunt?)

On Friday, the valley was so smokey from the nearby fires, I feared this would go down as the Camp Out in Hell. It was dense.  Ah, but we were granted a reprieve. By the time I walked up to the house on Friday night (actually, Saturday morning) I could see the Milky Way. The rest of the weekend was gloriously sunny, blue and beautiful; the weather gods were good.

Sequoia and I cooked soup and bread on Friday night for our arriving guests. Our guests cooked for us all day long on Saturday and Sunday. That does not seem like a fair trade. They fed a whole lot of meat to a whole lot of people, more people than they anticipated I'm sure. I feel guilty that they worked so hard for so many hours only to see the fruits of their labor devoured in minutes. In the future, I must do a better job of organizing menus and assigning tasks so the burden is more evenly distributed.  Next year, we're going to fire up the pizza oven again and let the barbecue chefs take it easy.

James Dean staged a performance by his two bands on Saturday night, quite the extravaganza with electric music and black lights.  He laid out heart and soul and I'm grateful to him for such a beautiful contribution.

If the Colestin Camp Out was my child, it would be be graduating high school and heading off to college this year.  At the first camp out 19 years ago,  Ruthe confided in me that she was pregnant. That little sprout became our Lauren, who is heading off to Oregon State University.  Lewis McBennet (formerly Claire), couldn't be with us this weekend, but his mother was  also pregnant at the first camp out and he's off to the University of Oregon in a couple of weeks. Cat and Dutch's beautiful Sierra also graduated high school this summer and has started her journey into the grown up world.  What a privilege and a joy to watch these beautiful young women leave the nest.

It feels like the end of an era, campers. The years just flow by like a broken down dam. We watch our children grow into adults, disconcerted when they reflect our weakness back at us, gratified when they mirror our strengths, delighted when they develop their own, unique talents and traits. We are alarmed to learn that they also have their own unique destinies, which are outside of our control  If we're lucky, we are allowed to watch them grow into their power as our own power wanes. They become stronger and smarter as I get slower and stupider. It's a long process of letting go, giving over, and it's not easy. If we are very lucky, we live long enough to learn that getting old is a stone cold bitch, but it beats the alternative. 

A Day for Duets

James and Joni, sweet. As a female harmony singer, I love it when men take the harmony part. They usually want the melody