Sunday, August 26, 2012

Carlos & Rosa...the Party

                Whenever I see Carlos moving about the boat yard, fixing or cleaning something, an image comes to mind from history books and stories and old movies. He’s like the career soldier, back in a time when soldiers marched and dug ditches and fought face to face, necessarily unromantic about the highs and lows of living, just doing, always moving, taking care of the necessary thing. Right now, Carlos is inching along the docks with a net on a long pole, fishing the algae and moss and ferns from the water. He scoops it out in long sweeps and dumps it along the row of cut back hedges on the shore. Carlos is in his late forties, a short and wiry guy, built to last, to endure, to get stuff done. He is always moving. When the rest of us are lounging around the picnic tables, drinking and snacking, Carlos prowls the yard, restless energy pulsing through him. He has a beer he keeps close, but its usually sitting on a concrete block or balanced on some stacked timber, while he prunes the trees, cleans the washrooms, washes his car again, then goes for a quick run around the bay in his small power boat.
                He greets and exchanges words with everyone, always interested in the physical tasks they are dealing with. “Your motor’s running good now, eh? Yeah, the guy did a good job. Lots of cleaning. It was old, he said.” He looks out at the sky, “Ah, it’s a nice day. We got it so good here.” And he’s moving again, with that restless quality of always wanting to see what’s next.

                Yeah, the career soldier comes to mind when I see Carlos. A man who faces death everyday, and would be surprised to still be here after so long, except he’s not the kind to stop and think about it. If death comes, he’ll accept it like a layoff notice, but nothing more. There’s always something to do, after all.
                Rosa is Carlos’s wife. Rosa is as relentless and forward thrusting as Carlos in her way. But in her eyes there is an omnipresent mischief and playfulness that dances with everything and everybody. Rosa says hello and there’s a joke already forming, and a deep smile as bonded to that child you have inside you as you are to your own best memories of being that child. Rosa is rounder and browner than Carlos, steeped in round and brown she is, a warm bundle of welcoming energy. She keeps us all fed and connected and visible and laughable and smiling to ourselves. “Kirby,” she says, “Did you get lucky last night?” A raspy chortle bottoms her words. “I don’t know what kinda shape Marzenka was in. Maybe you shoulda woke her up.”

                Rosa is so much like Ponczka (Marzenka) that they could be sisters. Women who like to keep things stirred up, who can’t leave anything alone, ever. I have such an interesting life. And how full of wonderfully interesting people, inspiring and beautiful people. And I remain in awe. That after living so long, and so often thinking I’ve gotten to the end of something, that surprises and newness are done, don’t I right then meet a human being who does being a human being in a totally new, never before conceived of expression of personhood. So bountiful this humanity, this world
                It was a great party last night. The Third Annual Vanguard Navy League Pig Roast. We had beautiful weather, food and music, a day that started mellow and opened up into breezes and sun bolts and summer ease. I invited a friend, John T. To sit in with the musicians I knew would be assembling. And I brought along my sax, even pulled it out three times this week, in preparation.

                John T. Found himself a ready home here. When we got here, we didn’t know if there’d be a keyboard for him to play. But Chris got his out, and about an hour into the playing, what dya know, but a Hammond B-3 arrives, on a truck driven by a big man named Kid. Steve, another big guy, a natural performer with a tremallowed voice, led in the singing, and there was a steadily rocking guy I didn’t know on bass, and Phil on the congas. There were multiple drummers, including Peter, a twenty-something year old, who asked to sit early, and then hung around for most of the night.
K.B., our resident guitar maestro, joined in late and was brilliant as ever, and Chris joined on the keyboard, adding his nice flourishes. But my own personal surprise was discovering that Joe, with whom I’ve exchanged maybe twenty words in the years we’ve both been around here, is an amazing trumpet player. I finally met the guy, just yesterday, through his passion for his instrument and the music just came out. We got to lay into some smooth background harmonies together, and to noodle around a little on some breaks. But he broke out with a great solo, and then an exchange with Steve to finish off a piece, and had me knowing I wasn’t close to his league.
                 It was a great day and a great night. The season’s change is so apparent when the sky starts to darken around eight. And there’ve been moments of Fall in the air. Next weekend I go to Cloud alone, that it, unless I take cat Rufus along. He’s the only one of our three that I would even think about taking into the country, but Rufus is so calm and self-possessed that...maybe it’ll work.

                Next weekend I’ll be opening a kind of doorway, into being at this new place, and channeling what I bring into it. I want to write there this weekend, to use the opportunity of the quiet to create my own little Millay. That was one of the first thoughts that Ponczka had about Cloud – having our own little Millay, our own Art Colony.  I want to build a habit of consciousness for Cloud, and the values of focus, openness, rest and of honoring things that are worth honoring along the way, which can only come if I’m aware.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Brilliant Kid

Cain is sitting in a recessed doorway on Queen Street as we approach. He holds out a dirty hand when Boris introduces us. And he begins to talk. Over the course of the next half hour, I’m dazzled by the reach and complexity of this kid’s thinking. He begins by analysing the reactions he gets from passersby as he sits panning for spare change and simultaneously selling the small, colorful artwork he’s made. He makes references to Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and how their experience as labourers and hoboes influenced their work. He holds a sign in one hand, marker on a piece of cardboard, that reads, “I’m not begging”.
I couldn’t begin to describe how his conversation flows. But the kid is curious about everything it seems, and wondering and constructing theories about it all. Boris said that after first meeting him, he thought to introduce us, figuring that I would be able to get on his wavelength. And he’s right. I’m immediately intrigued by the obvious braininess of this young man. I ask him about the Ayn Rand book I see lying beside him.
“Yeah, I’m reading it,” he says, “but I have to alternate chapters of it with chapters of this one.” And he points to the other book sitting there, a metaphysical tome about the function of chance and randomness in life.  Cain does a little riff about how determinism figures into Rand’s thinking, and puts forward his objection to the notion of people, events and outcomes being controlled by any formal process. As he speaks, he makes little tangents into chaos theory and quantum physics, then mentions the spontaneity of Miles Davis’s recordings of the Jack Johnson sessions.
I ask him how old he is. Twenty-one. But he usually doesn’t tell people, having realized they make too many judgements about wisdom and maturity, and then issue arbitrary constraints accordingly. Along the way, he mentions the music of Sun Ra, and the writing of Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney and associate of Hunter S. Thompson, who appears in the latter’s work as Dr. Gonzo. The phrase “How does this kid know all this stuff” has by now become a repeating mantra in my mind.
Where’s he from? How long has he been out here, doing this? He’s from Manitoba, he says. And he’s been out wandering the middle provinces since he was about fifteen and began to really feel the limitations of what small city life and doctrinaire parents could offer him.
All the time that Cain and I are dialoguing, Boris is quiet and still, observant and within himself. The concern he’s expressed to me is that this kid is so afloat in his sea of ideation that he may never generate any movement in the concrete world. So I begin to ask Cain what he’d like to do. I point out to him that his powers of analysis and observation could create many opportunities in the world, that he could think and philosophize and construct theories – and even share them – in greater comfort than what’s to be found sleeping in doorways and parks.
He ruminates on this for awhile, then expounds on the potential worth of not being comfortable, of doing without, as creative impetus, and how he wants his life and art and writing to be rooted in an earthy reality. This might have seemed a page out of the “nobility of suffering” credo of starving artists everywhere, but it wasn’t. Cain was giving thoughtful expression to notions about how we as human beings function, how we find our best, what pressures are useful, and what freedoms limiting. And I couldn’t but feel that he was substantially right. As we talk, we’ve been sitting on a recessed stoop on the hip and happening stretch of Queen Street. We’ve faced a steady stream of empowered and beautiful youth, decked out in their fashionable don’t-you-want-to-be-me duds, practicing the look of vacant disinterest worn by those who are both watching and being watched while pretending to do neither. And I feel an admiration for Cain, who is so decidedly looking beyond all of this, and looking backward too, into himself, figuring out where he wants to go, before making his move.
I also feel the danger and seductiveness of this journey of his. I was so like him, thirty, almost forty years ago. I’d read and observed and pondered a lot too, when I was his age. But I think I wasn’t nearly so bold and skilled at synthesizing it all, at using all that to power my walk into an aimed walk. But Cain hasn’t aimed his walk yet, either. Brilliant as he is, he’s still a twenty-one year old, panning for change and selling simple designs on the sidewalk. And how easy it is to get lost after all. It happens even to the brilliant.
Cain is glad to have met me, I can tell. He’s as thrilled as I to encounter a kindred spirit, a mind that explores some of the same mysterious terrain as his own. I offer my services, I tell him, as an employee and representative of the people of this city, to help him to find a place, a stand, a perspective, a position, a path that will serve him, in health, hopefully in happiness as he pursues his explorations.
He’s thinking about it.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Straddling Worlds

                 Like many working people, when the weekend comes, I go into a world that is wholly different than the one I work in. Not only are the demands of my job stripped away, but I associate with an entirely different group of people than those I associate with on the job, whether client or colleague. My priorities become rearranged, and to some degree, my personality does too.

                This wasn’t always the case. In fact, I used to feel very strongly about there being a kind of seamless connectivity between my work life and my personal life. At one time, most of my friends were colleagues or people I met through work, and my freetime activities were often related to my work. But in recent years, I’ve turned from that.
                Lately, my private world has itself become much more varied. It isn’t just one alternate world I enter on weekends. There are several others I occupy, and different groups of people I connect with in various ways. And this weekend, Ponczka and I travelled into two of our precious other worlds, one of which was Cape Croker, where we attended the annual Pow Wow.

                And at Cape Croker, I had a surprise. Among the groups of dancers from Native communities of the region, was a group invited to demonstrate the drumming and dancing of Aztec cultures. And among the members of this troupe was a former colleague of mine. Ligia Segura and I worked together at Dixon Hall, more than six years ago now. We worked in different facilities, so didn’t have daily contact, but there was always a good vibe between us, a sense of being on the same wavelength and sharing important values about our work.
                Seeing her today cast Ligia in a totally different light. She was arrayed in a traditional outfit of leathers and silks, I believe, mostly blue, which she says represents water. Her headdress was a crown on slender feathers, each about two feet long, and around her ankles were arrangements of hollowed chestnuts that rattled pleasantly with her every step. She was radiant, and dignified in a way that underscored that she was representing something larger than herself. She danced barefoot, and with an energy and focus that was akin to what she brings to her work, but which I recognized as having a quality that would’ve been out of place when working with clients of the underclass, as we both do.

                We got to sit and speak for awhile, and I shared about the burnout I’ve been experiencing. And among Ligia’s words to me were encouragement that I cleanse myself of “all that doesn’t belong to me.” And she referred to her own spirituality, and the role it plays in keeping her healthy in the face of all the toxic energies we are faced with daily.
                That phrase of hers, about what “doesn’t belong to me” really penetrated. I immediately felt the truth of her observation, that burnout has a lot to do with picking up and carrying around toxins, expectations, worries, troubles, fears, traumas, even hopes, that don’t belong to me, or on my path. It also reminded me of the duality I’ve recently been living – keeping so much of my life separate from my work life. I’m realizing that the flipside of letting go of what doesn’t belong, is to carry what is mine wherever I go, into every place and every interaction. Because, if I carry my core into each of the worlds I straddle, however fractured my life may sometimes seem, there is a wholeness that will endure.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Miles on Miles

I've just finished listening to Miles: the Autobiography, about the great trumpeter and musical pioneer, Miles Davis. It was put to paper by Quincy Troupe, and narrated, in an incredible feat of channelling, by Dion Graham, who transforms his natural smooth bass tones into the same raspy undertones characteristic of Miles himself. I've only heard Miles's voice in brief audioclips of interviews, so of course I can't really know how well Graham captures it. But he reads the material so naturally, and with such feeling, that it was easy to feel I was listening to the Dark Prince himself through the almost 17 hours of the unabridged work.

I've been a fan of Miles Davis since I was a teenager and bought Bitches Brew when I was sixteen or so. I wasn't familiar with any of his earlier music until more than a decade later. Sure, I'd heard some of it, at home and on the radio over the years. But to my young ears, most jazz from before the mid 60's was old-timey. The only real exception to this was John Coltrane, whose "My Favorite Things" was perhaps the first piece of music that I deeply loved, perhaps initiating me into my lifelong love of the art form. My mother was a singer, and during my childhood I was exposed to other great musci that she and my father loved, and I developed appreciation for the likes of Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Nat "King" Cole and Jimmy Smith. But mostly, as I entered my teens, I was enamored of the new music of my time, from artists like the Supremes and the Temptations of Motown, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Booker T. & the MG's, and the Isley Brothers. Among the artists who won me over to jazz were Ramsey Lewis, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Wes Montgomery - a kind of mixed bag of styles. But Bitches Brew changed my listening forever.

I was more intrigued by BB than I was appreciative of it at first. It was a long time before I really "got" much of the album. But to this day, I can remember lying of the floor of the living room of Mr. B, one of the faculty who lived in my prep school dorm, with his headphones on, listening to the long cut, "Spanish Key". And the music, with it's polyrhythms, and shape-shifting tonalities carried me off to some tropical place in my mind, where palm trees swayed, and the women from the album's surreal cover danced under the sun. From that single listening, and for the rest of my life, I saw Miles Davis as a musical visionary. I knew that his music was far ahead of where my listening was, and that I would have to travel a ways before I'd catch up. But from then on, I trusted that however weird or discordant his music might sound to me at first listen, if I trusted and kept coming back to it, there was substance and richness to be discovered.

To a greater or lesser extent, my experience with BB was a template for experiences to come, in regards to the music of Miles Davis. It was the same with Live/Evil, ditto with On the Corner, and the pattern repeated itself with a number of his post '80 efforts, following his 5 year hiatus from performing. I would buy one of his albums expecting something that followed predictibly from his last, and would find instead that he had a whole new sound. Occasionally, in the case of his more accessible albums, like Jack Johnson, We Want Miles or Tutu, I'd be completely engaged right from the start. But more often, there'd be bits I'd "get", and others I didn't. But over time, beauties in the music would reveal themselves to me. Not always, but enough so that I never tired of checking out what Miles was up to now.

Despite my great respect for Miles, and love of his music, I wasn't the type to read biographies or interviews, so I didn't know much more about him than I learned from reading the backs of his albums. And while I was a fan, I didn't rush out a buy all of his albums. Throughout my twenties and thirties, I was constantly discovering new artists whose music opened new aural doorways I wanted to enter into. I never had a lot of money, so had to make choices in my record-buying. Miles wasn't always at the top my shopping list. Nor was his music necessarily what I enjoyed most at any particular time.

But there were a couple of obvious things about Miles that hightened my regard for him. First off, so many of my other favorite artists had played with him early in their careers. These included Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, Billy Cobham, Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Bennie Maupin, Airto, Keith Jarrett and oh, so many others. When I finally came around to giving a serious listen to more music from pre-1965, I was shocked to learn that my first musical idol, Coltrane, had himself been a disciple of Miles. That Miles had played a role in the development of so many, well...geniuses, suggested a lot about him. The other thing was that Miles named so many of his compositions after other people, including several of the musicians he'd worked with. In addition to the two album titles mentioned above that fit into this category, other great favorites of mine are the tunes "Duran", named for the pugilist, Roberto, and "Mademoiselle Mabry", named for one of his early wives, Betty.

Anyway, I never had any plan to learn a lot more about Miles Davis. But I'm sure glad I came across this audiobook - more than twenty years after his death - and gave it a listen. I found it endlessly fascinating. Miles speaks so much about the music, his feel for it, his constant hunger for innovation, and his seeking after the textures and rhythms he heard in his head and distilled from the life around him. And he speaks endlessly about the musicians he played and explored with, learned from, had ongoing musical dialogues with, nurtured, hired and fired.

Miles rattles off the names of hundreds of musicians in the bio. And he speaks with such critical appreciation of so many of them. He criticizes a few, particularly individuals he took into one of his groups who couldn't or wouldn't perform up to his standards. But mostly he speaks about what each musician brought to his work that he prized. He praises the technique, the tonality and musicality, the creative powers of a great many artists, even of many he never performed with. He speaks in glowing terms about the influence they had on his playing, and on his thinking. And he expresses his great joy and exuberance about playing with them. Among the great many who receive this treatment are Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Tony Williams, Fats Navarro, Billy Eckstein, Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Ahmad Jamal, Willie Nelson, Cannonball Adderley, Gil Evans, Max Roach, Al Foster, and it just goes on and on and on.

He also reveals himself to be an extremely contradictory person. He reveals a great sensitivity, but was often cruel and insensitive. He cites his love of women, yet was frequently abusive and dismissive of those in his life. He proclaims his indifference to what others think, yet could be so brittle and sensitive about slights, rebukes and his perceptions of disrespect. His experiences of racism filled him with deep anger towards whites who presumed higher privilege or superiority, but he otherwise accepted whites as collaborators, friends and lovers without a thought. It seems there was much to like and even love about him, but also that it was often difficult to penetrate to that soft, vulnerable core, through a veneer that was cynical, mercurial and distrustful. I don't imagine I'd have liked him very much, but it's easy to see how many found him irresistable and compelling.

In the end, his autobiography underscores the very ordinary humanity - both beautiful and flawed - behind a pioneering genius of music. What I personally loved so much about Miles Davis was that he extended his art form into previously unknown realms. He thereby made the act of listening to music into a growth experience. As much as I love jazz, it saddens me that so much of it these days is merely the reworking of classics, in styles that were staked out decades ago. To me, the key thing about jazz as an artform is that it embraces change. In fact, change is its essential ingredient, whether that be expressed in the improvisation of musicians or in the constant incorporation of new instruments, elements and voices. Miles frustrated many of his fans even as he exhilarated others, by exploding their expectations, stretching their imaginations, their spirits, their ears. And while he clearly enjoyed the adulation of his audience, he led it and didn't follow it. And more than twenty years after his death, I for one am still "getting" all that heavy music he laid down.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Blissfully Ill

        For the last three days I've been sick, laying on the couch, overdosing on the Olympics.
There's a luxurious aspect to being ill. Of course I can only say that because I have the protection of a union structure I work within, and sicktime benefits with my employer, the City of Toronto. I can tend to my malady without worry that my job will be pulled, that I'll have to scrounge with less money for food, rent and other neccessities. And of course, I have the protection of a really outstanding health care system that covers me simply because I am a resident of this fine country. I also happen to be a citizen, but I had health care coverage long before I took that step.

       The great thing about being sick, when you have all these protections, is that it allows you to be ill without also being guilty, or ashamed, or in a position of creating a burden for others. And so I get to reacquaint myself with the couch cushions and the remote; I get to take naps all through the day, and play stupidly on the internet.

      And this is also a time to refresh, which is something I really need. One of the ways I choose to look at illness is as a communication from life itself about ways I am out of balance. It alerts me, and directs me toward what will restore balance. That may be rest or movement, or both. It may have something to do with what I'm eating and drinking. It may be a motiovator to get back to regular meditation, or writing, or communicating with family and friends. Whatever the imbalance, the need, the illness leads me toward it.

       One of the best aspects of illness is the freedom it gives to attend to what you really need. It's maybe the one time that the pressure is off. And so, odd as it is, there's legitimacy to the fact that being sick can feel good