Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Blogging

It’s been 4 months now since I started this blog. And it’s been a different experience than I expected.

My mind set is constantly shifting as to how to approach it, what to write about, how personal, formal, trivial or spontaneous to be. I’ve been more personal and more formal than I anticipated, and less trivial and spontaneous. I’m not posting as often as I thought I would, but on the other hand, I feel content about the quality of the postings.

More than content, really. I have a sense of building something here, that every posting adds a piece to something with a mood, tone, energy and message, that reflects a substantial bit of me and my life experience and perspective. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve been journaling a bit less. And I’ve been getting to my fiction less.

My initial motivation was that this be a vehicle for me to put more of my writing where others can read and comment on in, and also to become more spontaneous and quicker about expressing myself. Through my writing life, my self-consciousness has been a barrier. I’ve tended to hold on to my reactions and judgements about things, wanting to be sure I was right, that I had something intelligent to say. In a sense, I was reluctant to dialog – to have a back-and-forth, give-and-take interaction with others or with the world at large. Anything I put forward, I wanted to be complete and finished...and unassailable. This blogging was to force me to take more risks, to be more open and in-the-moment. And I’ve succeeded in all that. I’ve definitely moved in that direction in these pages, though these continue to be the areas I need to make more progress.

The biggest surprise has been the difficulty writing about certain things, or sometimes, coming up with a notion, and angle, a subject to write about. I’ve been true to my requirement that I have a spark, a sense of motivation, an energy about anything I post here. And the sparks don’t always come as expected. There are a number of things, in the world, in my work, I thought I’d have written about by now. Some are just too big or complex for me to have come up with a blog-sized approach to them. Other things...well, they resonate in my life, they find their way into my journal, but I just haven’t had the spark to get to them here.

The other bit gets right back to the question of self-consciousness. What is it anyway, about broadcasting details of my personal life – and sometimes the lives of others? What’s that all about? Vanity? Personal Therapy? Some of that, I guess. I do ask myself, on some level, whether I think what I post here could be interesting to anyone else. And who is my audience, anyway? Friends, strangers, the General Public? I don’t feel I’ve figured all of this out. I don’t have answers. But I surmise and extrapolate from my own experience.

I like reading biographical and auto-biographical pieces. I like to explore how others have dealt with issues and challenges and desires and with other human beings. It informs be, challenges me, sometimes inspires me, to get another’s take on life. Is that what I’m hoping to do here? That’s at least part of it.

Bottom Line is, I want, I intend to be more of a writer. To be a more active writer. To be a writer more involved with addressing the project and the puzzles of living. I want to write pieces that somehow nourish. And I believe that I have experience and perspectives that can give a reading experience that I appreciate as a reader: the experience of being more open, more connected, maybe more alive.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jammin with the Fellas

Last Saturday, I had maybe the most musical night of my entire life!


We had a cookout at the boathouse where we keep our sailboat, and the planned entertainment was a jam session. Quite a few of the boaters play instruments. One of our number, Whitey, drummed professionally for years, and a couple of the others had brief periods when they toured as well.


My own experience is much more limited, though in the last 5 years, as my confidence has grown with my sax playing, I’ve had half a dozen or so fun experiences jamming with others. I’ve also had a few humbling experiences, including the only other time I joined in with Whitey and some of his mates.


But Whitey is a loving and open spirit. And he got it that the past disaster had as much to do with me not getting time to feel out the others, or even tune up properly, as it had to do with any lack of musicianship. So he’d been all over me the last two weeks, making sure I was gonna show up, and with my horn, and ready to play.

Well, what a night it turned into!


We jammed and we grooved and we flowed! It was beautiful. The first couple of tunes started tentatively enough, each of us deferring to the others to choose a key or a rhythm, then building from there. But after awhile, spontaneity kicked in. Whoever got an inspiration just started in on something, and the others piled on. K.B. led the way, with a sweet, sensual guitar. Backing him was Vaughan, with his steel-string riding his lap, and Chris with an electric keyboard. Antii and Whitey took turns on the drum kit, but Antii also had an electric bass, the new instrument he’s learning, and both Vaughan and I took turns at that.


Yes! I took a turn on the bass! I’ve always loved bass, and have dabbled at it before, but it was a complete surprise to find myself grooving along, laying down the bottom while we rocked the open garage and folks danced up a storm.


My main turn was with the sax, and I wasn’t perfect, but I did pretty well. The biggest piece was getting over being self-conscious. And I was sooo conscious of the mike, which others kept coming over to adjust, moving it closer to my bell, to better pick up my sound. I was tightening up when blowing into the mike, thinking way too much about every note I aimed for. But each time I turned away – which I did a lot at first, to find a pocket to play out of – I immediately loosened up and began to play fluidly. Finally, I caught on, and was able to forget myself a little, and to bring out the sense of play that frees me, that finds the melody, the energy, the magic that brings any music alive.


And we, as a group, we soared. When I was able to pull out of my head, and to listen to what we were cooking up...it was awesome. K.B. was a total revelation. It took him awhile to loosen up too, but when he did, he took charge. His riffs! His creativity! The ways he was bending his notes, adding pedal effects, creating harmonies and embellishments...a virtuoso! And when I or Vaughan or Chris was soloing, K.B. provided the perfect rhythmic accompaniment, accenting and enhancing all of our flourishes.


But what made it such an expansive night for me was...I SANG!


It was totally unplanned. But, we’d gotten loose and easy and high from our playing, and from how well we sounded together. And when Karen got up to grab the mike, and did a version of “Mercedes Benz” that had half the audience joining in, I was inspired to follow her up with “Dock of the Bay”. I got so into it, I even found myself improvising lyrics, and playing into the audience. And Ron even jumped in at the end to provide the whistle chorus!


Ponczka was astonished. “My Kirb!” she kept exclaiming. “You sang! You sang so good!” And she urged me to sing more, which I didn’t plan to do. But a bit later, K.B. got going on a funky guitar riff, and Chris and Antii joined in on it. And next thing, I was grabbing the mike again and going into “Papa was a Rolling Stone”.


I really surprised myself. I realized the next day that I’d never have sung, or likely even played the bass, if I’d thought about it ahead of time. Even the sax playing had to come about with some spontaneity. In fact, with the previous embarrassment in mind, I’d only been able to bring my sax by telling myself it wasn’t a commitment to play, that I’d “see what happened”, just let it go how it was gonna go. And by flowing with the moment, I was open to experiences that I never saw coming. And it was exhilarating!


I want to do MORE!


And imagine if I begin to WRITE like that!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Snaggle, Gap & Prop

Recently, I lost my first adult tooth. Number 21, middle, upper left incisor.

When it was pulled a couple of weeks ago, I was ready to be done with it. For reasons I still don’t understand, that tooth started to “migrate” fifteen or twenty years ago, slipping downward and angling outward, giving me an ever broader and more uneven space between by front teeth. Over time, the snaggle tooth became an irritant. When the gum infections started, my dentist told me that sooner or later the tooth was coming out. It began to loosen, and shifted downward even more. And when that final toothache made it impossible to bite in the area, the good dentist and I agreed that it was time.

Now I never thought I’d have any particularly strong reaction to losing a tooth. I was surprised that the experience struck me as a rite of passage into old age. I didn’t want to let a part of me go, knowing it would never grow back or truly be replaced. I turned 56 this year, and nothing until now has made me feel so much that I was slipping beyond middle age.

Once the tooth was gone, however, I quickly got used to the gap in the middle of my face. It didn’t look nearly so bad as I’d imagined. I didn’t feel the need to hide it; in fact, I almost went out of my way to show it off to folks. The gap was free of discomfort in a remarkably short time. I was eating the same night, and chewing by the next. I even found I could play my sax with hardly any adjustment at all. The biggest problem was a slight lisp in my speech.

I’ve been thinking about where to go from here. My dentist’s assumption – and Ponczka’s – was that I’d get a permanent replacement as soon as possible. But I don’t know if I want that. There’s a sense of wanting to honor my gap, and the now absent snaggle tooth that served me so long, by leaving it as is. I don’t know that I want a disguise. So, one of my thoughts is to get a decorative and symbolic replacement. Top of my list would be a tooth fashioned of obsidian. It would be functional, but at the same time an acknowledgment of the biological fact. But we’ll see. It will be at least a couple of months of healing before any permanent steps can be taken.

In the meantime, today I was given my temporary prop tooth, fit to a piece of plastic molded to the roof of my mouth. It looks incredibly real. My teeth look better than they have in two decades. But it feels like I have a small shoe horn in my mouth, and it distorts my speech more than the gap does. My dentist insists that I wear it at least 12-14 hours a day. To protect my gum, she says, for the permanent work she’s already planning for me.

But I remain undecided. The snaggle-tooth is gone, and that’s well enough. I came by it honestly, but also lost it honestly, meaning that, the deterioration and eventual yanking of that tooth directly reflect an arc of my life, from my early life laziness about flossing, to the eventual surrender to the pressures of pain. And the gap may have a thing or two to teach me yet, lessons that may well come in the reactions of others. But I remain suspicious of the prop. For me, it’s tainted by an aura of untruth, like the plastic surgeries and baldness treatments I’m also wary of. Something about the artifice of a flawless presentation worries me. If the motive behind the prop will be to hide something, don’t I want to fully understand what it is I’m hiding, and why? I think this is something I’ll be thinking about the next little while.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Abbey and Max

Abbey Lincoln died the other day. She was a jazz singer. When I was in my early teens, and living in a high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Abbey lived in an apartment a few floors up with her then husband, Max Roach, the Drum King of bebop. Max himself died about three years ago.
As an eleven year old, just getting introduced to the trumpet, with a Mom who sang professionally, and who’d played Miles and Ellington and Coltrane lps on our record player, along with the Ray Charles and Dinah Washington, along with the show tunes and soundtrack albums, it would’ve been really special to know the music they’d created and had been a part of introducing to the world. But I didn’t have a clue.
If Mom had been there, and had expressed her appreciation of the music, it might have sunk in. But she wasn’t there, and Dad’s enthusiastic explanation that these folks were “Jazz Giants” just didn’t register. I remember listening to a tune or two by each of them, but honestly, it must’ve sounded very ‘old timey’ to my young ears, which were then into the Temptations and Aretha, Kool & the Gang and soul brother number 1, James Brown.
It wasn’t until many years and a couple of life stages later that I’d begin to go backward in my music appreciation. Backward into older styles and earlier decades, to the far roots of the fusion that captured my ear in the 70’s – back to the bebop, as wild and revolutionary as any music of that or any other decade.
It’s good though that I got to know Abbey and Max simply as good people, as the friendly and generous neighbours that they were. Our father, who was a social being down to his bones, sometimes went to boxing matches or ball games with Max. And one of their nephews hung out with my brother and I one summer. But other than those indifferent listens to tunes I would only have the ear to appreciate years later, I don’t recall that my life ever ran up against the musical side of Max and Abbey’s. They were just the famous couple that lived upstairs: very grounded, at the same time very dignified, cooler than most, but regular people nonetheless.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Sailing the Good Ship Ponczka

Ponczka was born to captain her own ship.
On our first date, by way of introducing herself, alerting me that I was dealing with a woman of substance, and letting me know what I was in for, she announced how in the office of the architectural design company where she worked, she had all the guys trained. “They all know,” she declared, “that when it comes to working with me, it’s my way or the highway!” and she burst out with her characteristic, cartoony laugh.
Ponczka likes to steer her own course, and she has unlimited ideas about where she’d like to go and what she’d like to do. Which is what led to my role as First Mate and lackey on the Good Ship Ponczka, otherwise known as Bubbles, or Wannabe, or the Bathtub.
Let me tell you how I first learned that sailing was in my future.
Among other things, Ponczka is an artist, a painter of acrylic cityscapes which sell really well, and which her buyers tell her capture the spirit and energy of the city. She generally participates in two or three outdoor art shows a year, where she sits and drinks her red wine, with old friends who visit, and with the new friends she invariably makes, cajoling and laughing her way into the graces of both other artists and potential customers.
A few years ago, she was working the Queen West Art Crawl, and I, as always, was keeping her company and making coffee and food runs. Upon returning from one such errand, I found Ponczka excited and beaming.
“I just got us a sailboat!” she announced.
“I was gone about 45 minutes,” I said. “What happened?”
Well, you see, she’d done some painting, outdoors, en plein air, on the Toronto Islands. And some of the pieces featured boats in the small marina at Hanlan’s Point. Now, she was no sailor. She’d been sailing maybe three or four times in her life, twice the sailing I’d done. But she’d said, during the one sail we’d had together, that she always thought she’d like to have a boat someday. And she repeated this notion to a guy who stopped to admire her paintings. He focused on the boat paintings, and said how he admired them, as he was a passionate sailor. He had no money, but once she mentioned her longing, he let her know that he did have a couple of boats that had been sitting in cradles unused for a couple of years. And by the time I returned with fish and chips and club soda, the two of them had hatched a deal. For a bit of cash and three paintings, Ponczka would become the owner of a twenty foot sail boat.
I admit I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect. I knew from sailing friends that the hobby is obsessive, labor intensive and expensive. Some hobbyists spend way more time on upkeep and maintenance than actually sailing. And didn’t we have enough hobbies and sidelines to keep us busy? But I kept my tongue bit down to a nub and the deal was finalized. After all, I wasn’t against the idea so much as ambivalent. There was lots that appealed about owning a sailboat: it was large enough to sleep on and would be like a miniature, mobile cottage; there seemed to be a community of interesting and friendly boaters ready to welcome us; it was both a green pursuit and a beautiful science, channelling the forces of wind and waves; and then there was simply the romance of blowing about on the vast lake, exploring an entirely other dimension of city life, one that echoed through the ages of human kind.
The hardest part for me has been feeling unnatural in the alien environment of the sea. And to me, any natural body of water larger than a pond might as well be the sea...or the ocean. The liquid part of the world operates differently than the solid part, and the laws of physics that I know and understand, don’t apply there as consistently as they should.
So we got the boat, and Ponczka was immediately won over. From the beginning, she’d have sailed every weekend if she could. She had her moments, sure. On one of our first sails, tutored by a sailing friend, she was like a kid bouncing with eagerness to get on board and out on the water, and five minutes later was bouncing with nervous upset and annoyance at the lapping and slapping light waves, and insisting we head for shore.
But all that’s in the past. Now Ponczka is the intrepid captain who wants to sail when she wants to sail. Phooey on those forecasts that say there’s a sixty percent chance of rain.
“Look at the sky. You can plainly see it’s not gonna rain. Besides, it’s perfect for sailing. If it starts to storm, we put down the engine and head back in.”
I’m the one reminding her that, well, we don’t really know what we’re doing. It can get hairy out here in a hurry...
I don’t feel safe.
So, like in everything else, we find a tolerable compromise, and we sail the edges of storm clouds, drink wine and have a hell of a time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Flowing on a Hot Summer Night

Sly and the Family Stone is on the box. "Stand". The front door is bungeyed open, and the kitchen door open and screened, and a breeze breezes through. It's been too hot to eat and too sticky to sleep really good. The wine helps smother those first hours, but eventually I wake with a layer of sweat on my brow and sticking me to the sheets.

It's the season for three and four short showers in a day. Thirty seconds, then padding barefoot and dripping through the house until I'm cool and dry...for half an hour.

I've been playing tunes, flipping through and listening to albums I haven't listened to in awhile. And I'm going for summer music. Donald Byrd's "Free Form". Branford Marsalis's "Royal Garden Blues", The Temptations "Wish it Would Rain", and Freddie Hubbard's "The Black Angel", which my buddy Thomps and I listened to daily one blistering summer in Greenfield, Mississippi. The opening of the album with it's plucky bass and plinking keyboard, and Hubbard's syrupy spikes of sound, still drips with sweat for us, these decades later.

I wanted to swim today, but got to the lake with my swim trunks still in my backpack at home, so sat there on the beach anyway, as the sky cooled, watching the hundreds of people. It's a welcome, beautiful sight, reminding me that we humans are a species after all, swarming down to the water, every shape and age and kind of us, drawn there as much as the seagulls, and maybe as alike as them. There's lots of splashing, some swimming, all sorts of watercraft, from boards to sails, a few people standing and wading. But mostly, we come and watch the water, or lie beside it, drawn into thought, or sleep, or back into our childhoods.

It's a good way to end this day.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Cape Croker

I’ve been going to Cape Croker for eight years. It’s a camp site on an Ojibway Reserve, just north of Wiarton, in the Purple Valley, on the east side of the Bruce Peninsula. I’ve come to feel about the place that it’s one of my spiritual grounding spots. It’s a place I go to for stripping down, to becoming a more basic me. I carry and practice some indulgences there, but I also find ways to release my grip on situations, problems and obsessions that imprison me in my day-to-day life.

I started coming here with Ponczka, the year after we met, a short time after we bought our house and began living together.

My previous history of camping had been insubstantial, but meaningful. I used to make excursions to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. I approached it then with a city dweller’s spontaneous indulgence, venturing out with no equipment but an old sleeping bag, a few items from my kitchen, some canned food, bread, peanut butter and juice. The coastline was a graveyard of old timber, and one of the chief pleasures of these excursions was to set myself a roaring fire and keep it going throughout the two or three evenings and nights. The other highlight was the upward-looking hope for skies clear enough to reveal the thick-with-stars band of the Milky Way. On some trips I enjoyed the stars every night; on others, not at all; such was the ambivalence of a Washington coast sky.

This bit of the Peninsula, over which shone the ever rotating beacon of the lighthouse on Destruction Isle, and where grey waves crashed and roared constantly, yet in different moods and intensities, became a spirit grounding place for me. Not the first or only such place; there have been many: the castle lake in Central Park, the bridge over the Charles in Cambridge. Lots of parks. And other places, too. The top of the Health Service hospital in Seattle, from where on early mornings I could not distinguish the snow on the peaks of the Cascades from wisps of morning cloud.

Lots of places have been invitations, to plug in, to settle, to release.... There are many metaphors and images to use. It strikes one in so many different ways, to be lifted up out of the everyday and given a glimpse of oneself removed from the fleeting cares and habits, to stand a bit more naked, to others, but mainly to oneself. Images arise of treasures that have come my way, in the form of people, places and experiences. I recall faces I thought I had forgotten, along with the names and the particulars of our brief encounters. I remember driving around in the middle of the night, at the end of my first day in San Francisco, with Rose, a woman I met while shooting pool in a bar. There was the bunch of guys sitting around a camp fire together in New Orleans, right where the Mississippi empties out into the Gulf of Mexico, on the night of Mardi Gras, with the revellers prancing and parading just a block away. There was the room in the barn outside of Austerlitz, New York, quiet and heavy with creative concentration and the coming on of Spring. There were the long moments of stillness on remote highways, moments that would’ve been lonely without all that space spreading everything out, so that loneliness became something entirely else, and waiting for that car to come over the horizon was like planting seeds you know will only come up when you are long gone.

Cape Croker is the inheritor of all my expectations and wants of spiritual places. And yet, its free of any claims I might have. I am happy when I go there, regardless of anything that might go wrong, or the discomforts brought on by mosquitos, storms and cold, blowing air. Peace and contentment emanate out of every stone and tree. It’s a place that relieves me of any sense of hurry or expectation bound by a clock. Time feels so abundant there that it’s impossible to feel that there could not be enough. And though I am aware of having felt that way, just a day before, and that I will surely feel that way again, while in those moments of tranquility, none of that matters. I slow down, until the gliding of the clouds across the sky becomes a ballet, and I note the change in the tide when it happens, and silence reveals itself for the constant chorus of life that it is.

We usually travel to Cape Croker on a Friday night, leaving a little after 9, and arriving in Cape Croker well after midnight. By that time, Ponczka is always asleep, and I have the pleasure of setting up tent and air mattress by myself in the dark, trying not to make noise or use the flashlight any more than necessary. Sometimes I’ll start a fire. Other nights, if it’s clear, and especially if it’s the first trip of the year, and my first opportunity in months to see a star-filled sky, I’ll take a few minutes to gaze upward. Sometimes the glow of the moon is all the light that’s wanted.

There’s always a shift after the first twenty-four hours at Cape Croker. During the first day, tarps and gazebo go up, the hammock is slung between the trees; there comes the first dip into the sound, then the second. The kitchen area comes into being as food is prepared. And whatever is cooked comes with a flavour as though offered up directly by the nature all around us.

After a night’s sleep, I always awaken with a sense of being home, of belonging in this place where the rhythms invade and take me over, until I am myself in a way I haven’t been in awhile, if only because I haven’t taken the moments to feel and to know it. I play my sax, and l practice Tai Chi, and meditate, partly because these are good things to do, but more because the place invites me to move my body and spirit, to stretch and open. I make music because I feel the music waiting to come out, and I WANT to play. And my sax will play me, to the extent that I release myself to it. I find and live a different shading of myself, I breathe deeper.

The earth all through Purple Valley is thick with rocks. Escarpments to the north and south of the camping beach form cliffs of craggy formations, eroding slowly in geological time, years passing between rock falls. It’s an area of small ranches with weather beaten sheds, with cows and horses grazing between the clumps of stone. Ponczka and I watch the slow decay of two buildings we’d love to live in: a mansion on the main street in Wiarton, with thick panes of bowed glass framing the main room, a dumbwaiter and separate servant’s stairwell. The other is a school on the edge of the reserve. We dream of living there, our lives rooted in such a place, where weeks and months pass slowly, where growing old would not seem unnatural. We would start an Art Colony, where painters, writers and musicians would come to experience their spirit's release.