The Joy of Real Music

December 6, 2014

I haven’t posted here in quite some time. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. Most of my thinking, though, has been focused on what a dark and insane time it is we live in. Every time I’ve gone to write my thoughts, I’ve pulled back. I haven’t wanted to wallow in negativity. I’m sure there will be more of it in the future—analysis of what’s going on in this nasty old world of egotism, racism, and greed—but I can’t bear to do it at the moment. I had a nice memory float up today, so I’m going to write about that instead.

Back in the late 70s and early 80s I was a regular at a cafe here in San Francisco called The Tattoo Rose. The cafe was a very nice scene. There were poetry readings, open-mike nights for singers and songwriters, and the food was cheap, so it was a good hangout for people with unusual and interesting ideas. Several years before, I’d abandoned my old dream (a fantasy really) of becoming a musician. I still liked to play, though. I’d never taken the time when I was ambitious to learn music theory properly, so I took advantage of the atmosphere within the cafe to teach myself the nuances of chord construction and scales. The best instrument on which to study theory is the piano, and happily the cafe had one—a piano that was kept in tune and all of whose keys worked! I was a guitar player, but I knew which note was which on the piano, so I was able to work on my favorite aspect of music: chords, harmonies. But all I could do was play block chords. To avoid disturbing customers with my primitive skills, I only worked on it when business was slow.

One of my favorite musicians was Ray Charles. I loved the way he altered the chords to other people’s songs—songs like “Georgia On My Mind,” “Come Rain or Shine,” and “You Don’t Know Me.” He always came up with appealing, jazzy voicings that I could never figure out. All I knew was folk music and rock and roll. None of the Ray Charles songbooks I saw ever used his actual arrangements. They usually published the songwriter’s original version. One rainy afternoon, I was in a music store and found a Ray Charles songbook with the chords that Charles had used. Excited, I bought that book and hurried back to the cafe. When I got there, I found that the place was packed. I couldn’t stand to wait. I had to play those chords now. I took a chance and went to the piano, and when the cafe manager made no effort to stop me, I opened the book and started running through the chords—simple block chords, played very, very softly. People kept talking—it didn’t seem to disturb them—so I kept going. It was such an incredible pleasure to sound out those chords! I felt ecstatic. Nevertheless, I kept the volume low, barely audible. A lot of the chords were unfamiliar to me—flatted fifths, sharped ninths, and so on—and to keep the flow reasonably smooth, I had to slow everything down. I didn’t want to press my luck, so after about twenty minutes I shut the book and stood up to leave. The moment I did, the entire cafe broke into applause. It wasn’t merely polite applause; it was the kind of applause you get when you do a show and the audience has actually enjoyed your performance. As quiet as I’d been, they’d heard my joy—and all those beautiful chords.

Lean to the Left, Lean to the Right

November 4, 2014

The media talks about elections as if they were sporting events. Which team is going to win? Which one is pleasing the fans most? But it’s not like that. It’s serious business. Unfortunately, the fans have become inebriated. They want to feel good NOW. We have one party (the Democrats) that tries to serve both God and Mammon (Biblical language for money and worldly power) and ends up wispy and frightened. And we have another (the Republicans) that is all-out for Mammon, and therefore unconflicted—in an insane kind of way. When the Republicans are on the outs, they expend enormous amounts of energy trying to undermine the foundations and bring down the house. When they are in control, they pound the table, shouting “United We Stand!” It is not an exhortation; it’s a threat. I will never stand united with the Republicans. Never. Those lovers of Mammon can never represent me. If they do obtain the power they seek, then I go into radical dissident mode.

Pelican Dreams Opens in San Francisco

October 26, 2014
Opening Night

Opening night for Pelican Dreams at the Balboa Theater

Judy had her opening night party for Pelican Dreams Friday night at the Balboa Theater here in San Francisco. The film has been getting some excellent reviews, which is a relief. There was some concern that the general theme of the reviewers might be, “well, it’s not The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, but…” In fact, there has been little comparing. The new film is being taken on its own merits, which are considerable. The party was a lot of fun—and I say that as one who usually doesn’t do well at parties. I saw a lot of people I’ve met over the years all in one place. I met some new people, too. The party had a good feeling, which carried over to the screening.

The central location for all things pelican is http://www.pelicandreams.com. Theater dates, links to reviews, and so on. There will be more theaters added in the coming months. If you get the chance, check out the movie. It’s warm, smart, funny, and moving. It’s not really a nature documentary—not in the traditional sense. It’s a movie that stars pelicans and people. And it’s about real life.

I’m leaving tomorrow morning for Olympia, Washington, where I’m giving some talks at Evergreen College. I’m looking forward to it. Then back here to help Judy with more openings and back to work on Street Song.

Sneaker Synchronicity

October 14, 2014

Nearly every October, the City of San Francisco afflicts its citizenry with the screaming lunacy of the Blue Angels. (A friend describes them as a motorcycle gang in the sky, which, I think, nails it.) I think it’s best to restrain one’s hatreds, but the Blue Angels are one of the few things I will admit to feeling contempt for. It’s been my practice for several decades now to skip town the days of the horror show. A few years ago, Judy and I and a few like-minded friends started up a tradition of going up the coast to Drakes Beach to spend the day in the sand, eating, talking, and swimming. Sometimes I bring a book, and I decided to do so this year. I wanted something lightweight (meaning, not too heavy for my daypack), something I could dip into if I felt the urge to read, but could quit easily. I studied my shelves for some time before settling on a book of poems by Gary Snyder. Short nature poems at a wild beach. Perfect.

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach

Drakes Beach is narrow and ends abruptly at the base of a long wall of sheer white cliff. You can tell from the sea weed and the channels in the sand that the waves sometimes come up all the way to the base of the cliff. But they’ve never done it during any of our outings—and I’ve been there 15 times or more. I’ve sometimes wondered, in my ignorance, if it was something that happened only at night. When Judy and I arrived around noon, none of the others had shown up yet. The fingers of the waves were coming in closer than usual. Judy asked me, “Did you check the tides before we left?” I assured her that I had, although I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d read. It seemed to me that high tide was supposed to be at 2:40 pm. But that was for the Golden Gate. I’d understood the book to say that there is a one hour 20 minute time difference between the tide times at the Golden Gate and at Point Reyes Peninsula—where we were—which would put high tide at 1:20 pm. At 1:15 the waves were still a reasonable distance away, so we relaxed. I pulled out the book of poems and began reading. I kept one eye on the waves, though, and, while I couldn’t be sure, it looked as though they might be coming closer.

Other people on the beach were becoming uneasy. Not that there was any danger. It was more a question of “Are we going to have to move our stuff?” A small group of picnickers passed by on their way up the beach, and one of them stopped to ask me if I knew when high tide was. I told her what I thought I knew, but had to admit that I wasn’t sure. She had an accent, so I asked her where she was from. She said France, which led to a brief conversation. While we were talking, I remembered reading that the Coast Guard had issued a warning for sneaker waves that day. I asked her if she knew the term “sneaker wave.” She didn’t, so I thought I ought to explain it to her. She had difficulty understanding, and was more concerned with catching up to her friends. She let me think she’d understood and then left. A few minutes later, a guy approached me and asked if I was waiting for a particular wave, a wave that had a name. His question made no sense to me. I thought he was just being goofy, and I was a little rude until I realized that he was French, too, a friend of the woman, and was seeking clarification on what a “sneaker wave” was. As we talked, the surf kept throwing out an occasional longer wave. Last gasps of the high tide? Playing it safe, Judy and I moved our stuff a little closer to the cliff and onto a slightly elevated portion of the beach. The way the waves were breaking, I felt certain we were in a place that would stay above it all. I spotted a park ranger coming down the sand, so I trotted over to ask if she knew when high tide was. She said 2:40, which meant I’d misunderstood the tide log. It was obvious now that we were were going to have to abandon the beach entirely. Right at that moment, two of our friends, Bruce and Michele, showed up. As Judy and I greeted them a huge wave reared up, smacked down on the sand, and started rolling toward our stuff. The four of us hoisted everything up off the sand just in time. We were luckier than most. Up and down the beach, folks were mourning over their soaked picnic supplies. Just then the French girl walked by. “That was a sneaker wave,” I shouted.

As we were leaving, Bruce noticed that we’d missed one item, the book of poems by Gary Snyder. It was sitting in a shallow pool of seawater. He picked it up, handed it to me, and I saw the title again: Regarding Wave.

Speaking Gig at Evergreen College

October 10, 2014

For anyone within driving distance and who has the interest, I’m giving a talk at the Evergreen College Longhouse Education and Cultural Center at 7 pm on October 30. The theme of the talk is “Paying Attention.” It will be followed by a screening of the documentary film, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. I’m being brought up to Evergreen College under the auspices of the Willi Unsoeld Seminar Series. The event is free and open to the public. The address is 2700 Evergreen Parkway NW, Olympia WA.

I’m looking forward to this. A breath of fresh air. Hope to see you there.

Independence for Scotland

September 17, 2014

It’s not really my business, but if I lived in Scotland I would vote for independence. I think generally the world is better off with more smaller nations that correspond to an actual culture than meganations, whose sole aim is the acquisition of more power.

A country shall be small
and its populace small in number.
Implements that multiply men’s strength
shall not be used.
People are to take death seriously
and shall not travel far away.
Even though there be ships and carriages
no-one shall travel in them.
Let the people tie knots in ropes
and use them instead of script.
Make their food sweet
and their garments beautiful,
their dwellings peaceful
and their customs joyful.
Neighboring countries may be within eyesight
so that one can hear the cocks crow and the dogs bark
on either side.
And yet people shall die at great age
without having travelled hither and thither.

Tao Te Ching 80, translated by Richard Wilhelm

That passage used to bother me. It doesn’t anymore. I’ve come to agree with it.

The Madness of Consumerism

September 9, 2014

For the last couple of months, I’ve been reading Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. I can’t really recommend it. The author sees Western Civilization as flawed, but still capable of being repaired, albeit with some difficulty, whereas I see its flaws as being so fundamental that to fix them, which we must, is to create an entirely different animal. In any case, every now and then I find an interesting nugget. To wit:

Strange as it may seem to us, the underlying concern of American capitalism in the late nineteenth century was the possibility of sufficiency. Just as Marx had envisaged a world where everyone would have enough for a decent life, American capitalists were worried that people would stop buying their goods once they had enough things to live comfortably. There seemed no obvious reason why someone would replace a piece of furniture or a coat or a set of crockery simply because it was old. This problem was solved in large part through the influence of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, and principal promoter of his ideas in America. Bernays was intrigued by Freud’s view that people are bundles of emotion, passion and desire, and that the real motive for human action is the satisfaction of deep-seated desires rather than rational calculation. Bernays saw that American companies needed to transform the way that people thought about their purchases, so that they would forget about trying to fill their rational needs and instead aim to fulfill their desires. In the 1920s, consumerism, or consumptionism as it was then called, was born. Calvin Coolidge declared that an “American’s importance to his country is not as a citizen but as a consumer.” Rather than selling goods to its customers, the advertising industry began to sell happiness.

… Bernays, and his clients in American corporations found themselves in agreement with Freud’s view that democracy carried serious risks and should be discouraged. Other commentators such as Walter Lippman, the most influential columnist in America in the 1930s and 1940s, came to agree that democracy was an inappropriate way of governing such a complex country, and that the masses needed an elite to guide them…

… In 1928 President Hoover reinforced Coolidge’s sentiment and said that people were “constantly moving happiness machines.” Just as Freud had suggested that if our selfish desires are satisfied we feel docile and happy, and if they are thwarted we feel aggrieved, Hoover understood that when people are fulfilling their desires they are not inclined to be politically active.

Americans showed that if products were sold to them in the right way, they would buy and buy and that consumerism would make them politically conservative.

That’s about as bald as it gets, isn’t it? And it is what has come to pass. There was a brief effort in the 1960s to stop it. But since then people have enthusiastically taken up the role of “consumer” again. The philosophies I study and believe in say that pursuing the satisfaction of one’s superficial desires can never truly satisfy. It merely leads to more desire and, ultimately, madness. I think that’s obvious. You don’t need to read any philosophy to understand that. A little real-life experience will do. Yet here are all these captains of industry pursuing this mad course and accusing those who don’t agree of being evil fools. We’re over a hundred years into it now and it has grown to massive levels. You never see any other point of view represented. No one advocates at the national level for living a simpler, less materialistic life. I’ve been reading about the feverish expectations for the new iPhone that’s supposed to be announced today, and it’s crazy. I still don’t have a cell phone, and I do just fine. I’ve never wanted one. But I’ve been reading commentators who fear what might happen if the new gadget doesn’t meet expectations. They warn that there could be real trouble. Every year at Christmas you see articles about how Christmas sales are doing and what it means for our well-being. Are we spending enough? We have to get out of this mindset. It has to be exposed for what it is. I think that if we don’t, reality will force a change on us. Wouldn’t it be better to do it gracefully?

More on My Visit with Mother

September 3, 2014

There’s a short piece near the end of my book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill where I go for a swim in San Francisco Bay and then join the South End Rowing Club. The piece was intended to symbolize my finally arriving in San Francisco after living here for more than 20 years, yet always feeling that I was just passing through. At the time I wrote that, it felt like a bit of a stretch, and it may still be. But I have gotten more into swimming this year. The water temperature in the bay has been unusually warm this year — probably not a good sign, although swimmers love it. (All the starfish have disappeared. All of them.) In the past the temp has rarely gotten above 63 degrees, but this year it has hit 66 degrees consistently, and occasionally even higher.

The South End Rowing Club was founded in 1873. It’s old blue-collar San Francisco—not fancy or expensive. The name is deceptive. Not only is the club at the north end of San Francisco, it caters mostly to swimmers. Originally, the club was at the south end of the city and catered to rowers. At some point, they moved the entire building from its original location to Aquatic Park. If you’ve ever been to the Hyde Street Pier near Fisherman’s Wharf or visited the old sailing ship the Balclutha, you’ve seen the club building. It sits on the beach of a protected cove. Most club swimmers never get out of the cove, and up until now, I’ve been one of those. My wife Judy on the other hand does the Alcatraz swim almost every year. Before I met her, I couldn’t swim—not properly at least. She taught me how to do “the crawl,” but I’ve never felt strong enough to do any out-of-the-cove swims. They’re a little scary. If you get into trouble, you’re way out in the bay, far from land. The club out-of-cove swims are done in groups and have pilots in boats, but it’s still a little intimidating for a weak swimmer. (Contrary to myth, there are no dangerous sharks in the bay.) There is one club swim, the Coghlan Beach Swim, that I’ve always sworn I’d do if all my conditions were met: They had to do it during the summer or fall when the water was warmer, it had to be non-competitive, and I had to have plenty of company. This year the club put together a special Coghlan Beach swim for newbies. So I started training.

Coghlan_Beach

Coghlan Beach with Alcatraz to the right in the background

The beach, named after an old time South End swimmer, Frank Coghlan, is a small spit of sand that has gathered against an artificial breakwater a mile west of the club. They drive you to the beach in a car and then all you have to do is swim out into the bay 20 yards or so, which puts you right out in the current. But it’s not as though you don’t have to do anything. If all you did was float, it would take you a long time to get back to the club. The morning of the swim, conditions were perfect. There was a strong flood tide, and the air was warm, but the sky overcast. People told me that on sunny mornings the sun can blind you. Judy swam with me and I had my own pilot in a row boat, a friend, David Kennedy. I’d expected to be at least a little nervous, but I wasn’t at all. It was fun watching the city float by, and, as I say, I was busy stroking, too busy to feel any anxiety. One technique I used to ease my fears was to look at my watch when my arm was underwater. I’d trained on up to a 53 minute swim, and I could see that I was going to get in earlier than that. The water looks and feels silky right now—deliciously so.

The Pier and the Opening

1) Alcatraz 2) The Pier 3) The Opening to the Cove

Just before the cove is a long pier, and the current really picks up when you get there. It was astonishing to see how fast we were flying past the pylons.

The Opening between Muni Pier and the Breakwater

The Opening between Muni Pier and the Breakwater

At the opening to the cove, I swam through and started making my way to the club beach. It took me 38 minutes to complete. I wasn’t tired at all. Actually, I wanted to do it again.

The South End Rowing Club Building

The South End Rowing Club Building

 

The Beach with the Opening in the background

The Beach with the Opening (1) in the background

It was good to have something take my mind off my obsession with my book for a while. I’ve never pictured myself trying it, but I now see swimming from Alcatraz as a real possibility. Judy will make sure I’m ready and get through it okay. Not this year, though.

I feel a little odd talking about my personal enjoyment at a time when the world seems to be heading straight to hell. I find the news hideous reading these days. But it is reality, and we do have to deal with it. I don’t see anyone saying what I think needs to be said, so I’ll be heading back in the direction of religion and politics soon enough. Meanwhile, back to the book.

Into the Arms of Mother

August 24, 2014
The starting point of the swim, with the finish line on the horizon.

The starting point of the swim, with the finish line on the horizon.

I successfully completed my swim this morning. 38 minutes. It wasn’t all that hard, but I feel wasted now. In a couple of days, I’m leaving for a week in LA and will write about the swim when I get back. (Judy’s new film Pelican Dreams is going to be released into theaters this fall, and we have to do some work on it down there.) I love open-water swimming. I couldn’t do the crawl before I met Judy. Now, I’m okay at it. Slow, though. I was able to do the 1.2 miles in 38 minutes because we swam it on a flood tide. It was astonishing how fast we were moving along the city shoreline. Fun to watch.

Staying in Contact with Mother

August 22, 2014

Baby Parrot

Baby Cherry-headed Conure

I still get called in every now and then to deal with the parrots. This morning someone telephoned to say that he had a parrot in a bush outside his front door, that it had been there for several hours without moving. He lived just up the street, so I put aside work on the book and headed over with a towel and a small travel cage that I use for emergencies. I was expecting to find a sick adult, or maybe a bird that had crashed into a window. To my surprise, it was a brand new baby. I’d never seen one out of the nest earlier than August 31st, and usually I didn’t start seeing them until early September. So this one was at least nine days ahead of schedule. Parrots rarely go so low to the ground, so he had to have been in some kind of trouble. When I walked toward him, he bolted away to a nearby bush. I heard parrots in some trees call out and he responded. The parents! The baby then flew up to a tall poplar where they were waiting for him. He looked a little weak and sloppy, but he made it. He’s in safe hands now. My hunch is that he fledged a little too soon, or else he’d been trying to keep up with his parents before he was ready to. At first after fledging (taking their first flight) the babies take only short flights and stay in a tree for most of the day waiting for the parents to come back and feed them. I always love seeing the babies. They look so fresh and innocent looking with their big baby eyes.

On another nature note, I belong to something called the South End Rowing Club, which Judy got me into. It’s not what its name might make it seem. It’s at the north end of the city and caters mostly to swimmers, but does have rowers and handball players, too. It’s a blue collar club—not a fancy white collar one. The building is real old and located right on the beach of a cove in San Francisco called Aquatic Park. Most people stick to the cove for their swims, but there are some intrepid swimmers who venture out into the bay itself, swimming Alcatraz and beyond. Judy’s one of those. After sticking to the safety of the cove for thirteen years, I’m about to do my first out-of-cove swim. I’ll be doing a 1.2 mile swim out in the bay along the shoreline from something called Coghlan Beach back to the cove. I’ll be doing it on a flood tide, so it should be relatively easy—like a log being washed along by the tide. I’ve been training for several weeks, and it’s done a lot to take my mind off my book frustrations. (Things are getting better in that department, by the way.) The swim is Sunday morning. Wish me luck.


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