Progress Report #96

February 20, 2015

The world is going crazy so fast that it’s impossible to keep up with all the developments. Every time I plan a post, it’s made obsolete by something new. Putin and the Ukraine, the Islamic State, Climate Change, Greece vs. Germany, Republican (as in GOP) insanity, fracking. It never ends. You have to arrive at a deep point of view to say something that can’t be washed away by our contemporary lunacy. Maybe if I could post every day…But I’ve been hard at work on my book, and I’m going to confine myself to that for the moment.  I do have an idea for something I want to say that can’t be washed away by the madness. And I do hope to get to it soon. As for Street Song

I recently finished Chapter Four. Finished. I’m making real progress now. I have found my approach and my voice. All I need to do now is to keep moving forward. I’ve just had to abandon the sequential order of the chapters for a little while, though. My agent wants me to work up some sample chapters from the latter half of the book so she can have something to shop around. I’ve already started that work. The first one I’m working on deals with my first days as a street singer in Berkeley, which was the point where I began to stake my life on making it as a musician. I had a firm rule: I was not going to make any money other than through my music. I would sink or swim with it. The other chapter will begin from a point some time after I sank, namely my first weeks on the streets of North Beach in San Francisco with no money, no home, and no job—not even any ID. Some of that material is in the book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. So after all these years, Street Song is finally moving forward in a real way. There will be no going back, no prolonging of the work. My aim is to get it finished.

I recently received a copy of the Japanese edition of Wild Parrots. I don’t understand a thing, but it’s nice to look at. I’m having some friends who can read Japanese look at it for me. The only thing I know right now is that the credentials of the translator are impeccable. I’m told that he’s the Japanese equivalent of a Harvard professor.

Swimming in the Rain

February 12, 2015
Swimming in the Rain

Mark and Judy Go Swimming. Photo by Emily Wick

In the drink

In the drink

A Word on Terrorism

February 2, 2015

I care about language. I don’t like to see it abused or misused. I don’t like what has happened to the word “awesome,” for instance. The word has lost its meaning. You have to go hunting for some other word to take its place. Recently I was trying to compose something that touched upon the shootings in Paris and I found myself deliberately avoiding the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” They’ve become propaganda terms, used in the same way that “communism” and “communist” were once used: They’re intended to stop all debate. Which of us isn’t against terrorism? A common line of reasoning is “I don’t care why they’re doing it. There’s never any justification for terrorism.” If you say, “No, there’s never any justification, but there are reasons it happens,” the subtlety goes right past them. You’re dead in the water. You’ve become a “terrorist sympathizer.” It should be pointed out that, contrary to the way the media uses the word, terrorism is not a philosophy. It’s a tactic. And it’s a tactic that the United States Government is not above using. The military described the opening days of its assault on Bagdad as employing a strategy known as “Shock and Awe,” which did kill many civilians along with military targets. What is Shock and Awe if not the very definition of terror? And we decapitate our enemies, too, but from a distance with remote-controlled missiles. How is that any less barbaric? So I avoid using the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” You end up playing some ideologue’s game when you do.

Okay. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I’m free to say what I wanted to say in my original post. Next time.

The Wild Parrots Go to Japan

January 12, 2015
The Cover for the Japanese Edition of the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

The Cover for the Japanese Edition of the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

The translator for the Japanese edition of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Masayoshi Kobayashi, sent me an electronic image of the cover this weekend. The book has been printed and will be released between January 15 and 20. I’m very happy about this. It’s my first overseas edition. They changed the title to Observation Sketches (Record, Description, Notes) on the Wild Parrots in the City, thinking that Telegraph Hill wouldn’t mean anything to most Japanese. That’s fine with me. There are a number of references to Japan and Japanese culture in the book—particularly Zen. I hope it resonates. I would like to thank Masayoshi who read my book in English, liked it, and took it upon himself to find a Japanese publisher. I’ll be getting my own copy in a week or so. Looking forward to that!

End of Year Progress Report, #95

December 31, 2014

This has been a difficult year for work on my book Street Song. Chapter Two proved to be a problem of sorts. There is a Preface and a Chapter One, and both were much easier. Chapter One is more a chain of impressions and images than a narrative. Chapter Two was the first long chapter of story, so it was where I had to struggle to find the voice and approach I want to use for the rest of the book. It took an incredibly long time. But I’m satisfied now. I’m working on Chapter Three, which shouldn’t take too long. And then it’s on to each chapter in succession. I’ve been working on this project for a little over eight years now. I figure that means it will end up either very good indeed, or else it’s an impossible pile of crap. I’ve shown what I’ve finished to a handful of friends, and it’s been well-received, which gives me hope. I intend to make strong progress this year. I also want to turn my attention back to this blog some. Out of necessity (the book) I’ve been neglecting it. But I have been thinking about it and what I want to do with it. Unless work on the book insists on my full attention, expect more frequent posts. There are certain things I’ve refrained from saying here, and I’d rather not do that anymore. Things are getting “seriouser and seriouser” in this weird old world. We need more frank discussion.

In the meantime, my best wishes for a happy New Year. May all beings flourish.

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 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.


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