Arrived in rainy Traverse City to the comfortingly familiar cadence of broadcaster Ed Ronco (formerly of KNKX Seattle!) on Interlochen Public Radio. Led a morning masterclass for Mr. Vieira’s excellent jazz ensemble at TC Central HS, then played tourist, sampling some of the tart and sweet cherry products for which the region is famous. Finished my visit with a short stroll down memory lane, to the Maritime Academy on Grand Traverse Bay, where Tom Knific gave me my first “pro” (aka paid) gig 40 years ago. Time sure has flown! Guess I’ve been having fun.
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A rejuvenating day off in Kalamazoo with dear friends Tom and Renata and their two beautiful Labradors, Annabelle and Fifa. Sketched a little duet arrangement of “Mean To Me” for this Thursday’s concert in Hillsdale, then took the dogs to the glorious 24-acre Meadow Run Dog Park in Oshtemo Township. In the evening Lisa joined us for savory mesquite-smoked ribs, Greek salad, oven-roasted rosemary potatoes, red wine, and chocolate truffles. Life is good!
After our thrilling show at the Blue Llama, I drove through the night to the quaint little village of Shelby in western Michigan for a 7 AM workshop. (Pro-tip for night-drivers: staying awake is easy when you’re scream-singing along with Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire” at the top of your lungs!)
The Shelby HS students were brave and bold — everyone improvised! — and their delightful teacher, Erin Ray, even played drums for our session.
Upon returning to Detroit, I visited the Dearborn HS program under the direction of Brian McCloskey. His jazzers meet even earlier — 6:40 AM — but these kids showed up ready to work!
Back-to-back “zero hours” on opposite sides of the state are no joke for a tired old road dog like me. Nevertheless, I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with such inspiring young students and teachers. Their energy and enthusiasm always seem to replenish the spirit.
Got my morning joe from the roadside diner before decamping to Green Mountain and the Wildcat Trail.
Found a secluded spot lakeside to work on my arrangement of “Shelter” by Jay Thomas.
Shared the trail and spectacular views of the valley with a few ambitious kids on mountain bikes.
Today’s meal: a mighty satisfying, spicy bowl of seafood pho with Vietnamese lettuce wraps and beer.
Made camp among the evergreens in the secluded equestrian community of Bridal Trail.
Grateful for the Icy Breeze, a tour bus air conditioner, white noise maker, and cooler, all in one (not a paid endorsement).
Tomorrow is the final day of this adventure. It’s been grand!
Woke up with the sun, grabbed an espresso from the bikini baristas, and hit the road for Seabeck, a mill town on Hood Canal.
Followed a beautifully maintained walking trail to a small waterfall. Not another human soul in sight.
Sketched an idea for vibraphone and double bass. Not what I’d planned, but could be something.
Today’s meal: steamed mussels with salad, bread, and wine. Almost as good as Bartje's!
Tonight’s lullaby: Clifford Brown with Strings.
Goodnight, Blue Moon.
Summer showers again last night as I slumbered, cozy and warm, under the covers. #vanlife
Woke up to the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee, then explored the forested hills around my campsite.
Nature walks really aren’t the same without the company of my canine companion (Scout stayed home this time), but at least I have the voice of Daddy Bill in my mind’s ear, narrating, identifying all the birds and plants!
Played some long tones over the water at sunset. It’s good to get away and recharge.
The writing plan, however, has been a bust so far — more “posing” than “composing,” sadly.
Nothing but false starts, insincere, derivative melodies, and ostensibly original ideas that lead nowhere.
Oh, well. Not giving up. Fail better tomorrow!
Today’s meal: mango salad with prawns and peanuts and a sensational rainbow roll.
Tonight’s entertainment: a download of Blade Runner, an enduring favorite.
Even fired up the propane heater for a little extra warmth and atmosphere.
I do love a rainy night.
Fell asleep to the comforting sound of gentle rain on the roof of the van. Pure bliss!
Enjoyed the morning java en route to a new encampment: the Stillaguamish River in Snohomish County. The wisdom of Matt Foley notwithstanding, I believe I’ll stay here awhile. This is living!
Walked around Lake Goodwin under stormy skies to work up an appetite, then visited the town of Stanwood to absolutely inhale a wood-fired pizza. So good.
Wrote no music at all today. Just listened to the rain.
Read my book. Napped a lot.
My kind of day.
Woke up to smoky skies courtesy of the Canadian wildfires.
Grabbed a coffee for the ferry and said goodbye, for now, to Whidbey Island.
Arrived on the peninsula just as a sudden cloudburst washed away the haze. Glorious!
Today’s meal, a frugal flugel favorite: teriyaki bento with sushi, sashimi, tempura, gyoza, and rice. Oishi!
Admired the sunflowers in Blueberry Park, then headed over to the pub gig with saxophonist Chris Bickley and his terrific band: Osama Afifi, Mark Ivester, and Brian Monroney, whose collection of guitar effects pedals delighted me.
After the show, in the mobile man cave, I finally listened to the SRJO recordings from our collaboration a few weeks ago.
Started the day with a hot cup of local java and a long walk along the Langley seawall.
Found a lovely practice spot, serenaded the critters, and did a bit of writing.
Today’s meal: a delicious chicken bánh mì, loaded with pickled veggies, on a crusty french baguette.
Returned to basecamp among the towering trees. No campfire allowed (burn ban) but I found a pleasant way to take the edge off the evening chill.
Life is good!
Getting away for a few days of writing, walking, and relaxing, as I van-camp around Puget Sound.
Visited the Seattle music studio of Bill Anschell for a little coffee and conversation, then continued north to Whidbey Island for a performance with guitarist John Stowell. So grateful to have these two wise mentors and good friends in my life.
Strolled around the scenic island town of Langley, where bunnies frolic among the whale skulls, then dined on rockfish, mixed greens, pinot noir, and cherry pie, overlooking the Saratoga Passage.
It was a good day.
Be a man. Cowboy up! Don’t whine. Don’t complain. Just do what needs to be done.
Accomplish more with less effort. Use the tools of habit and ritual. Be resourceful.
Book extended tours: midwest (2023), western states (2024), east coast (2025).
Recommit to meal planning, black coffee, portion control, and nature walks.
Use fewer words. Say precisely what you mean and then stop talking.
Update duo, quintet, and big band repertoire. Prepare new sets.
Make time for long, meandering conversations with friends.
Maintain tourbus in excellent condition. Service regularly.
Update home security and emergency response plans.
Boost income from workshops by raising fees 20%.
Seek a mentor, a drinking buddy, and a side hustle.
Make the composition retreat an annual event.
Schedule a full week of rest in every season.
Stay humble. Stay hopeful. Stay grateful.
Take Sassy on a birthday vacation.
Selectively apply for grants.
Reduce debt by 10%.
Listen to the rain.
Learn to bowl.
Yesterday the Jazz Noir band rehearsed in Phoenix for our upcoming show at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts. Scout chased a Gamble’s Quail and cooled off in front of the fan.
Today we traveled 281 miles to Gallup, New Mexico. The scenery on the drive was stunning. Highlights: snow in the White Mountains, a greasy spoon breakfast in Payson, and a lovely walk with Scout near Petrified Forest National Park.
Tomorrow’s destination: Santa Fe!
Scout and I have had a wonderful couple of days in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We explored the Redwood Glen and Palos Colorados trails, had a puppy party at the Oakland Dog Park, visited with friends old and new, and spent two nights on a farm! This afternoon we’re headed to the wine country.
I also presented a couple of jazz workshops in area high schools, so this is a legit work trip, not a vacation (ahem).
That’s the best word I could find to express the particular brand of loss that consumed me after my father died.
I wasn’t in mourning so much as weary and resigned to the cruel finality of mortality, both his and, by extension, my own. I was even a little relieved because his suffering was over.
In a way, Dad and I had already progressed through the first four stages of grief together — from denial to depression — while he was still alive, in hospice care. Only acceptance remained.
I miss him terribly, but truth be told, I’ve been missing him since long before he passed away. I miss the man he used to be, before Parkinson’s and dementia robbed him of his mobility, wisdom and good judgement. By the time he succumbed to the disease, it had already been many years since we’d had a real conversation. Many years since I could benefit from his sage advice.
With both my parents now dead, and no siblings or children of my own, it’s no wonder that I felt like an orphan. I’d experienced an inkling of that emotion only once before … when my marriage ended.
Erica Jong describes divorce as “a ritual scarring that makes anything that happens afterward seem bearable.” She’s not wrong. I was gutted by the loss, not only of my wife and home, but of her family, whom I’d come to think of as my own. And I was surprised to lose nearly all the friends we’d collected over our 14 years together. It’s deeply unsettling and disorienting, after so many years, to no longer be responsible for, or accountable to, anyone.
But even during the dark days of my divorce, Daddy Bill was there to commiserate and console. He was in my corner always. He never wavered. And now he’s gone.
Because of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to be with him when he died, but I did visit him frequently during his final few years. I would return to Arizona for a week or more each season, and would sit with him for hours each day before heading off to the evening gigs that paid my travel costs.
It’s difficult to know whether these extended seasonal visits to his assisted living facility were a genuine comfort to my father. He was embarrassed by his circumstances, and often when I returned each morning he didn’t remember seeing me the previous day. But every now and then his eyes would twinkle and he'd say something remarkably funny or insightful. He was still in there.
Even in hospice care Dad somehow maintained a sweet disposition. For all his charm, however, he mostly avoided socializing with the other residents, opting instead to merely exchange pleasantries at meal time, then return to isolation. He had no interest in group activities or parlor games. He was a man who treasured his solitude, who loved to get outside and explore, but whose world had become oppressively small: a single twin bed in a tiny shared room. He often told me that he felt like a prisoner. It was heartbreaking.
Sadly, he was no longer a man of letters, either. Books, his lifelong companions, were no longer of any interest. His hands weren’t steady enough to write, his eyes weren’t strong enough to read, and his attention span wasn’t long enough to follow the narrative of a novel or movie. Much of the correspondence sent to him remained unread. He appreciated postcards, greeting cards, small talk, and short conversations, even phone calls, as long as someone could help him operate his device.
Most days I would just sit at his bedside and watch him drift in and out of sleep, while the TV spewed a continuous stream of conservative news and sports highlights. Sometimes we would talk about the weather or listen to an Eva Cassidy song. Occasionally we would venture into the other shared spaces of the care home, or sit outside on the patio, just for a change of scenery. But Dad needed to remain near the bathroom at all times, so we couldn’t go far.
When he was able, we would shuffle around the tiny patch of desert surrounding the house. He tried valiantly to do it without his wheelchair or walker, but it was only a matter of time before even these small, slow walks around the block were too much for him. Yet even during our last few walks, although he struggled to finish a thought, he could still recall the latin names of all the neighborhood flora and fauna!
Dad’s been gone for over a year now and the world is diminished by his absence. I miss him something awful. And I must confess, while I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, I do find myself talking to him in quiet moments. I wonder what he would think of my life choices. I hope he would approve.
Thankfully, I feel a little more “tethered” these days as I make a sincere effort to reconnect with distant friends and extended family. It’s especially comforting to spend time with other people who knew and loved him.
Mostly I just feel grateful for everything he was, and will remain, in memory.
It’s time to go inside myself
I’ve had my share of happiness
The greatest lessons life can teach —
To learn to live with loneliness
To look ahead and not grow weak
To feed on inner resources
A seed must die to germinate
A life must lose before it gains
Oblivion will give new strength
When passion’s gone the good remains
I’ve watched a child become a man
From womb to break I gave my all
A drink from Lethe I don’t need
Both pain and pleasure I’d recall
I’ve thrown my share of pearls to swine
I’ve loved a woman long and well
The silly prattle of a fool
I’ve known the joy of heav’n and hell
I’ve seen the timber wolf lope by
And watched the eagle wheel and soar
I’ve listened to the whip-poor-will
And heard the ocean swell and roar
I’ll have my share of happiness
As long as I can climb a hill
But when it comes my time to die
I’ll leave this life at my own will
“The more we share, the more we have.”
Early autumn, 1972. Rural Alabama. Late afternoon.
Daddy Bill and I are winding our way home in our muddy station wagon. We’re in high spirits, both of us having just spent several gratifying hours, each in our respective happy place.
Since dawn Dad has been wading through the saltwater marshes of Eufaula Wildlife Refuge, beating back cattails, stepping over gators, peering through his binoculars at shorebirds and raptors. Meanwhile I’ve been hunkering down in the backseat, oblivious to flora and fauna, blissfully engrossed in a new fistful of Green Lanterns, fresh off the spinner.
I know, I know. Daddy Bill isn’t likely to be voted Parent of the Year anytime soon. He thinks it’s a good idea to leave his seven-year-old kid alone for hours, in a parked car, in the middle of nowhere. But what can I say? This is how we live.
We relish our solitary pursuits then share our stories over catfish and okra at Bram's Diner. Dad holds forth on kingfishers, kestrels, sandpipers and snipes. I recount the latest exploits of hard traveling heroes Ollie and Hal. And so it goes.
After supper I’m riding shotgun and fiddling with the radio dial as Daddy Bill pilots our wagon homeward. Just before the Georgia line, as Paul Harvey is about to tell us “the rest of the story” -- BAM! A sudden jolt. A flash of white. The sound of crunching metal. Dad slams on the brakes as we skid along the red clay shoulder of the road. We lurch forward then slam backward again as a waterfall of broken glass cascades around us.
As soon as we tumble out of the car, we see him. There in the road, illuminated by our headlights, is the broken body of a very beautiful, very dead, white-tailed deer. The poor creature must have leapt right into us.
“You okay?” Daddy Bill asks.
“I think so.” I reply. “You?”
“Welp, I guess we’re both better off than he,” Dad says, nodding to the unfortunate young buck.
“Give me hand, will you?”
Pulling a tarp from the back of the wagon, we hoist the heavy carcass onto the roof and secure it with rope. Daddy Bill then turns on the emergency flashers and drives -- even more slowly than usual -- to the Columbus home of Coach Rutland. “Jim’s a hunter,” Dad explains. “He’ll know what to do.”
A few days later at Brookstone School, Mrs. Simmons calls to me in her sweet southern drawl.
“Deh-MAY-tray! What are you chewin’ back there?”
“Venison jerky, ma’am,” I confess.
“Bless your heart,” she smiles, “but it’s not polite to eat venison jerky in class unless you’ve brought enough to share with everybody.”
Fortunately I have plenty! More than enough to feed the multitude.
Roadkill. Sharing is caring.
“In Toni Morrison’s wonderful novel Beloved, one of the black men from Sweet Home -- can’t remember whether it’s Paul D. or Stamp Paid -- says there are two kinds of loneliness.
One kind is the loneliness that looks inward, rocks back and forth, sits and stares at the walls, finally just curls into the fetal position and withdraws from the world. The other kind is roaming loneliness. That’s where the feet can’t keep still. This kind of loneliness just keeps roaming around the country.
Well, I’ve had the first kind of loneliness. It’s hell. It ain’t very healthful either.
From now on I’ll take roaming loneliness. At least it’s alive!
At least that.”
“Truth is not only
stranger than fiction,
it is more interesting.”
—William Randolph Hearst
After the Tennessee trip I called my father.
“Did you know that Lela was serious about music when she was in high school? She performed in musical theater, was a soloist in the choir, and sang standards in talent shows around Chattanooga. You never thought to mention any of this to your son, the professional musician?”
Daddy Bill shrugged.
As fate would have it, Larissa and I divorced before ever having children, and I eventually lost interest in the mental and medical histories of my extended family. If crazy is in my genes, so be it.
But I remained curious about the length and depth of Lela’s relationship with music. When and how did she get her start? Did she continue to sing after high school? Is music still important to her? And does she know my work?
...now here's where the story really gets weird...
It’s 2008 on a rainy winter evening in San Francisco and I have insomnia. My South of Market loft is dark except for the glow of a single lamp and the faint flicker of a black and white movie on the tube. It’s Bogie and Bacall in a film I’ve seen many times. The volume is off but the images keep me company as I sip my scotch and surf the web.
As usual during these liminal moments between work and sleep, I start out with benign intentions (checking the weather forecast, perhaps, or looking up a recipe) but eventually my online meanderings devolve into mindless consumption of celebrity gossip.
I’m half in the bag when I notice that Marlowe is just about to enter the casino where Vivian Rutledge is singing. This is one of my favorite scenes, second only to Dorothy Malone in the bookshop, so I turn up the volume and listen.
And her tears flowed like wine,
Yes her tears flowed like wine.
She’s a real sad tomato,
She’s a busted valentine.
I dig Bacall’s relaxed, cool delivery and the meaningful looks she exchanges with Bogie. Something in her casual manner reminds me of Lela sitting atop that piano singing “The Man That Got Away.”
It’s been a while since I last searched for Lela online so I decide to give it another go. I plug every iteration of her name into the ancestry sites and search engines: Lela Ault (maiden name), Lela Matheny (married name), even Lela Conte (the name of her late husband), but no luck. I don’t know her precise age, social security number, where she lives, which last name she now uses, or even if she is still alive. My cyber-sleuthing has once again hit a dead end.
I’m about to give up entirely when I remember America McGee, the outlandish (and most likely imaginary) ancestor character from Lela’s shaggy dog stories back in ’79. On a lark I type that name into the search bar.
No joy, however, Google takes me to the Wikipedia page for American McGee, a video game designer. From there I bounce through various tech and gaming sites until I randomly arrive at Mr. Bill’s Adventureland, a multiplayer adventure game review site. By this point I've stopped looking for Lela; now I’m just aimlessly web surfing.
I’ve never been very interested in games of any kind, but for some reason I feel compelled to continue down this particular rabbit hole. I linger on the site for about an hour, reading all Mr. Bill’s reviews ... clicking, reading, then clicking again ... until I happen to land on the curious phrase “my wife Lela” — and I freeze.
I know that there are thousands of women named Lela all over the world. I’m well aware of this. But somehow, at this moment, I can just feel it in my bones: this is she.This one is my mother.
Without hesitating I click the contact button and write the following message: “Hi Mr. Bill, great website! I believe your wife Lela and I may know one another. Please give her my greetings. Sincerely, Dmitri Matheny.”
I hit send and immediately fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
When I awaken a few hours later, I see this response from Mrs. Lela Horton in rural Michigan:
Dmitri, I can't believe it!
How on earth did you find me!!?
“It’s good to know where you come from.
It makes you what you are today.
It’s DNA. It’s in your blood.”
In 1984 I was at boarding school in Michigan when my father called from Arizona to tell me about a long-distance phone call he had received from my mother.
Her husband Tom had died after a prolonged bout with cancer. Now a widow in her forties, Lela was back in college studying to become a registered nurse. The reason (or pretense?) for her call was to ask for my social security number. Apparently she was updating her will and wanted to list me as beneficiary.
“But you know how Lela is,” Dad said. “According to her you stand to inherit a mountain top of all things! I promised I’d let you know … even though it’s probably horseshit.”
“Wait, where is she?” I asked my dad.
“Did you get an address? What’s her phone number?”
I already knew what he would say.
“Naw, I didn’t ask. Why do you care? She’s crazy!”
Same old stubborn Daddy Bill.
I didn’t press him. Ever since Lela’s Irish goodbye in '79, I’d grown increasingly ambivalent about her. I had many questions, but it was clear to me that they would never be answered by her or by my father.
A few years later just before my college graduation, Dad came to visit me in Boston. He’d recently divorced wife number four and he wanted to take me on a road trip.
We spent two weeks exploring New England, including one of his favorite birding spots, Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. I would sit on the rocks for hours, playing my horn over the Atlantic, while Dad studied the flora and fauna of Acadia National Park.
Dmitri Matheny - Mt. Desert Island, Maine | Summer 1988
In the evenings we’d enjoy delicious seafood dinners in Bar Harbor before retiring to our hotel, where we’d crack open a Sam Adams and reminisce. Perhaps because I’d been away for several years at Interlochen and Berklee, Dad was uncharacteristically talkative, so I took the opportunity to steer our conversation to wife number two, hoping to learn a little more about their brief time together and my own origin story.
I noticed that if I asked Dad a direct question (“How did you and Lela meet?”) he would abruptly change the subject, but if I introduced the topic in a more oblique way (“Where did you live before I was born?”) he would begin to wax nostalgic and eventually would find his own way to Lela-land.
I’ve forgotten much of what Dad told me during these late night chin wags, but I do recall him saying that Lela was raised in Chattanooga, not by her parents but by “two old maid aunts in a big house with white columns.” Apparently Lela and several members of her family (the Aults) had experienced “nervous breakdowns” and were “taken to the nut house.” Dad also mentioned a schizophrenic and homeless uncle who was known to wander the streets naked. “Every year they’d find him, clean him up, get him dressed, and bring him to Thanksgiving Dinner,” Dad said, shaking his head, adding “that whole family was crazy.”
I didn’t give these accounts much credence, chalking them up to a combination of heartbreak, hearsay, and hyperbole, but a few years later, when I repeated these stories to my fiancée in California, she expressed concern. “It’s important for us to know the medical history on both sides of your family,” Larissa explained, “especially since we want kids of our own.”
I agreed, so Lara and I traveled to Tennessee on a Lela fact-finding mission. We didn’t learn much about the family but we did find out a few revelatory things about my mother's adolescence.
In the microfiche archives of the Chattanooga Public Library we found the obituary for Lela’s paternal grandmother and namesake, Lela Elizabeth Ault (born Bryson) 1878-1953.
Lela Bryson Ault
July 26, 1878
Dec 12, 1953
Since the article included an address for the Ault family home, we drove over to take a look and, sure enough, it was a big house with white columns, looking like something straight out of Gone With The Wind. We knocked on the door but no-one answered.
Returning to the library we discovered my mother’s Chattanooga High School yearbooks. What a find! In official school portraits between 1957 and 1960, we see Lela Ault transform from a cute, mischievous girl into a mature, sophisticated young woman right before our eyes.
Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee
(L-R) 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60
Her senior photo, in particular, is striking. There’s something deadly serious and almost defiant in her expression. At eighteen she already appears to be someone of substance, and the arts-centric bio blurb beneath the image supports this impression.
It turns out that Lela Ault was not only a visual artist in high school, but a prolific singer and performer as well. Who knew?! She sang in the choir and cantata, was a featured soloist in several student talent shows, and appeared in musical theater productions of Porgy & Bess, The Pajama Game and A Star Is Born. Moreover, as a member of the art service and specialty clubs, she was invited to perform off campus for various civic organizations around town.
Prior to this moment I had no idea that Lela was a music person. In media interviews, whenever I was asked if I came from a musical family, I always answered “not especially” and credited my father’s excellent record collection as the catalyst for my career in jazz. I was raised to believe that nurture, not nature, had set me on this path.
But here, in the pages of a midcentury high school yearbook, was new evidence that I could not ignore: photos of my biological mother on stage, five years before my birth, singing jazz standards by George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee | 1959-60
Singing "Summertime" and "The Man That Got Away"
A few days later we visited Daddy Bill's side of the family in Cookeville, Tullahoma, and Nashville.
“Did you know that Lela was a singer?” I asked my Aunt Maxine.
“Oh, she had a lovely voice,” she replied. “We all thought so.”
“That’s the great thing about being a teenager.
You think you’re a genius.”
Thirteen wasn’t quite the turning point I’d imagined last summer when I sold off all my comic books and action figures. I didn’t suddenly become cool. I wasn’t immediately transported to a magical land of heavy petting and house parties.
I was still the same skinny little kid, honking my horn. And I still had to make it through the rest of the school year at Marana. In my memory those last few months of seventh grade are a surreal blur.
I remember our teacher jumping up on top of her desk in a desperate attempt to win us over, howling “I’m WEIRD! I like WIZARDS!” And I remember how Jack quietly cleared his throat in response, a more subtle version of the snarky tween eye-roll.
I remember a big panic over an outbreak of Valley Fever which later turned out to be “merely” a respiratory irritation caused by low-flying crop dusters. Delightful.
Mostly I remember the awkward interactions with girls. There was prodigious Paula, who flashed her impressive tetas at me, then called me a “perv” for looking. And there was darling Debbie, who passed me a cryptic note on which she had scrawled, in big block letters, YOUR PENIS RUNNING OUT.
What the --? I blushed, checked my fly, then spent the entire rest of that period trying to figure out what she could possibly mean. Is this flirting? Should I write back? What should I say? After class I breathed a sigh of relief when she handed me a pen and said sweetly, “I noticed yours was running out of ink.”
Another year, another U-Haul.
It’s the summer of 1979 and Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the moving van at 22nd & Craycroft. “You about ready to go jump in that pool?” Daddy Bill asks. “You know it!” I answer enthusiastically.
I’m finally a teenager and everything’s new. New bike (got a ten-speed Schwinn for my birthday), new school (adios, Marana) and soon, a whole new me. The old man has even found us some great new digs over on the northwest side of town. I haven’t seen the place yet, but Daddy Bill promises we’ll have an even better view, a real air conditioner (adios, swamp cooler) and a swimming pool.
Dad chose a terrific location for us. Next year, his last at Marana, he'll enjoy a shorter weekday commute and easy weekend getaways to Mount Lemmon and Sabino Canyon. Most importantly for me, our new zip code means I can now go to Cross Junior High for eighth grade and Canyon Del Oro for high school. “It’s a better school district with more resources,” Daddy Bill says, “and I hear they have a pretty decent music program, too.”
We'll see next fall. In the meantime, summer vacation has only just begun and I’m excited to see our new place.
Moving from one modest two-bedroom apartment to another less than twenty miles away might sound like no big deal, but I feel like we’ve hit the lottery.
Coronado Apartments at Mona Lisa and Ina is a major upgrade. The complex feels almost like a luxury resort, with its grand Spanish Colonial architecture, tall palm trees, shady courtyards and manicured lawns.
The swimming pool is as advertised. There are also tennis courts, a fitness trail, and even a kid-friendly clubhouse with air hockey and billiards tables. Plenty of kids my age live at Coronado and in the middle-class suburb surrounding us, where ranch style family homes nestle safely in the shadows of the Catalina Foothills.
I love the new neighborhood and can’t wait to explore. I ride my ten-speed through miles of unspoiled desert scrub and citrus trees. Up at Ina and Oracle I discover a retail oasis called Casas Adobes Plaza where I grab a BLT at the drug store lunch counter before exploring a treasure trove of curiosities on the shelves of Bullard’s Hardware.
Life is good.
Jack comes over often and Dad enjoys his visits as much as I do. The three of us stand together on our balcony, listening to Ray Charles and admiring the colorful Santa Catalina mountains. Daddy Bill puffs his pipe and bends Jack’s ear about music and sports and whatnot. At sunset he throws three burger patties on the grill.
“Y’all like ’em charred, don’t you?” he asks with a wink.
After dinner I pull a box down from the closet shelf to show Jack my secret collection of stolen hood ornaments. The expression on his face is a curious mix of puzzlement and disapproval.
“What’s the point?” he asks.
“The point is to not get caught,” I say.
Meeting people is easy at Coronado, especially after I land a new job as paperboy, delivering the Tucson Citizen each evening and the Arizona Daily Star on Sunday mornings. Soon I know all the neighborhood kids and their parents by name. There are over 100 units in this apartment complex and almost everybody gets the paper.
Early on a summer Sunday before dawn, I sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of our building. I’m stuffing circular ads, Parade magazine, the coming week's TV listings and what Daddy Bill calls “the funny pages” into every fat copy of the Sunday Star. It’s a big job but I’ve learned the secret to getting it done quickly. You line up the stacks in a row, like an assembly line, then you get the rhythm and power through.
Twenty minutes later my hands are stained black with newsprint. I’m nearly ready to load up my big canvas delivery bag when I notice one of the inserts, a flyer for the March of Dimes Superwalk. I know better than to get distracted, but something special has caught my eye: the walkathon’s third prize, a Panasonic stereo with built-in tape deck and automatic record changer. The machine calls to me like the crystal in Clark Kent’s barn.
That week instead of the tips I usually collect on my rounds, I ask all my customers to sponsor me in the charity walk. “It’s for a good cause,” I explain, “and every page of sponsors I sign-up will put my name into the drawing again.” I’m determined to win that stereo.
I don’t remember how many miles I walked or how much money we raised for the fight against birth defects. What I do remember is filling seven entire pages with pledges. Lucky number seven. Seven chances to win.
The following Friday I wake to the sound of our telephone ringing. I stumble out of my bedroom into the kitchen, thinking Daddy Bill is probably calling to tell me when he’ll be back from birding. But when I lift the receiver, it’s not Dad on the line, but a hyper, exuberant Top 40 Radio DJ.
“Good morning! This is KTKT, the Old Pueblo’s number one station. Mr. Matheny, you are this year’s grand prize winner in the March of Dimes Superwalk, and will soon be the proud owner of a brand new Chevy Chevette. Congratulations! How do you feel?”
“I’m only thirteen,” I said. “I wanted to win the stereo.”
A few days later Daddy Bill takes me over to Matthews Chevrolet to claim my prize. Dad and I don’t quite know what to do about this car, since he already has a new Toyota wagon and I’m too young to drive. Fortunately, the dealership’s general manager comes up with a solution.
“Tell you what young man,” Tommy Stubbs says magnanimously, “How about I just cut you a check for the sticker price? That’s three thousand, four hundred and fifty-five dollars.”
“That’ll work,” I say.
Dad drives me to the bank where I keep my yard sale winnings. I deposit three grand into the account and pocket the rest.
In a single afternoon I bring home the exact stereo I’ve been obsessing over, three new LPs (Don’t Look Back by Boston, I Am by Earth Wind & Fire, and Out of the Blue by ELO), and a ridiculous amount of swag from Spencer Gifts.
I get busy transforming my room into my own personal nightclub. First I hang a beaded curtain in the doorway and mask my windows with aluminum foil to block the sunlight. Then I install two 17” black lights, a strobe, and a miniature mirrored disco ball. I cover my shelves with luminous bric-à-brac and all the walls with posters: Farrah Fawcett, Lynda Carter, Lindsay Wagner, a florescent cobra. Once everything is perfect I wire the whole shebang so I can turn it all on at once, lights and music, with one flip of the switch.
The result is spectacular.
“What do you think?” I ask Daddy Bill.
He grimaces. “I think it looks like a Den of Iniquity.”
“The beginning of things is necessarily vague,
tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing.
How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!”
By summer’s end I’ve discovered much to love about living in Arizona.
The regional art, music and food are outstanding. The laidback lifestyle suits my temperament. The arid landscape is as vast and peaceful as the ocean. I like the way hawks wheel and keen overhead as the majestic saguaro watch silently like sentries. And most of all, I love the glorious sunsets.
Some part of me knows my future lies elsewhere. If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. In the meantime, this seems like a good place to begin the next chapter of life’s journey.
If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day
the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert.
Today is the first day of school. Daddy Bill and I are up early for our commute to the town of Marana, just northwest of Tucson. The drive is pleasant. The sky is overcast so it’s a little cooler than usual. The university jazz station is spinning some classic Miles, always a good omen, and our little Toyota still has its new car smell.
My spirits are high. I’m excited to begin seventh grade, although I’m not entirely sure what to expect. None of the kids in our 22nd & Craycroft neighborhood go to school out there. I only know what Dad has told me, that it’s a public school in a rural area which takes its name from the Spanish word “maraña,” meaning tangle. And last week I overheard Dad on the phone saying something about “teaching basic English to the children of migrant farmworkers.”
This morning as we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. “Things are going to be a little different here than they were at Brookstone, son,” Daddy Bill says. “Just be patient and keep an open mind.” It sounds rehearsed, like a prepared speech. I have the feeling he’s talking to himself as much as to me.
As we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres
of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand.
Dad was an important man at Brookstone School, and because of his position, I pretty much had my run of the place. I literally grew up there, kindergarten through sixth grade. I knew everybody, even the high school kids, and always felt safe and supported. Saying goodbye to Brookstone was the most difficult part of leaving Georgia.
My favorite class at Brookstone was a sixth grade social studies elective called MACOS: Man A Course of Study, in which we compared innate and learned behavior in humans with that of other primates, then presented our findings to a panel of university graduate students. Our instructor James Stockdale, son of the homonymous war hero, was my favorite teacher. He taught us to be curious, question all assumptions, and believe in ourselves.
Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life. I thrived there, but since it was the only school I’d ever known, I took its brilliant faculty and innovative curriculum for granted. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to attend such an elite private school. I wasn’t aware that we were poor, that my classmates were rich, or that my tuition had been waived as part of Dad’s teaching salary. And I certainly couldn’t have known, at the time, the degree to which being part of that nurturing scholastic community had shaped my nascent love of learning, positive self-image and sense of entitlement.
Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life.
I only knew that I enjoyed school. Or so I thought.
For Dad to describe Marana as “a little different” would prove to be the understatement of the century. Far from the stately red brick lecture halls and leafy woodlands of Brookstone, the Marana campus is little more than a few cement buildings and mobile classroom trailers surrounded by dirt, asphalt and gravel.
Based on the school’s exterior, I’m prepared to be underwhelmed by whatever awaits inside. But nothing could prepare me for the physical and emotional trauma I’m about to endure at Marana Junior High School.
I show up guileless and confident, ready to hit the books and eager to make friends. But for the first time in my young life, I simply don’t fit in. Back home I was a popular kid who excelled in music, art and academics, but my study skills and work ethic are meaningless here. The only things that seem to matter at Marana are football and fighting.
There are fist fights every single day at Marana. Clashes erupt spontaneously, for no reason and without warning.
For the first week I’m able to keep my distance. I watch with detached curiosity as the other students beat each other’s brains in. I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this violence. Is it innate or learned? And why don’t any of the teachers try to put a stop to it?
There are fist fights every single day at Marana.
Later I would learn that Dad had actually tried to separate two kids who were fighting, only to receive a dressing down from his boss. “Never, ever lay your hand on a student for any reason,” Principal Dewey cautioned, “or we could be sued.” Dad was flummoxed. “Even if they’re about to kill one another?”
I’m mystified by all the aggression, but naively not afraid for my own safety. I’m new here. I’ve made no enemies. Plus my dad is on the faculty. No one would dare. But the main reason I feel secure is because I’m a good boy. I don’t get into fights. I get along with everybody … right?
Wrong. A skinny little southern boy with no friends who doesn’t play football? A teacher's kid, who struts around with his nose in the air, talking funny, using big words, acting all cocky and superior? At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown.
At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown.
I’m walking to my locker after gym when out of nowhere someone shoves me against the wall. “What the hell?” I react, more startled than afraid. But before I can even get a look at my assailant he's knocked me to the ground.
The jackals encircle us, laughing and cheering. By the time I realize we're fighting it’s too late. The kid's knees are already pressed against my upper arms, pinning me to the concrete floor. I can't move. I'm practically immobile as he punches me repeatedly in the face.
Nobody stops the fight. Neither of us are punished. I’m literally saved by the bell as everyone goes to class, leaving me alone and vanquished. I never even learn the kid’s name or what motivated him to attack me in the first place.
After my nose stops bleeding I wash up and change my shirt. No cuts, just a few bruises. My head hurts and my ears are ringing, but I don’t look so bad.
On the drive home Dad doesn’t even notice that I’m hurt. This is a tremendous relief. I don’t want to get in trouble for fighting, and besides, I’m ashamed. My father was a champion boxer. If he finds out I can't defend myself I’ll be humiliated.
But I have bigger problems. Word gets around: the new kid doesn't know how to fight. It’s open season on Georgia Boy. I now have a target on my back.
Every few days somebody jumps me. It’s not like I’m being bullied, not like on TV. It’s never the same person and there’s rarely any preamble. Nobody threatens me or tries to take my lunch money. They just start shit. I never know when the next sucker punch is coming, or from which direction. And it’s this, the sheer senseless randomness of it, that terrifies me so and makes Marana my personal living hell. Never safe. Nowhere to hide.
I hate this school. I’m learning nothing here except how vulnerable I am. Some of these big, mean-looking boys with facial hair are obviously older kids who’ve been held back. One of them is so strong that he comes up behind me, picks me up, and throws me against the lockers.
But it isn’t only the big kids who pick fights. One day after school I’m walking to Dad’s janky classroom/trailer to practice my trumpet. I notice a group of athletes in my peripheral vision, but they’re all walking in the opposite direction so I pay them no mind. Suddenly a short freckle-faced kid with red hair breaks from the pack and runs straight at me. I flinch but stand my ground. I’m bigger than this one. He doesn’t scare me.
“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he says.
“I don’t even know you,” I say. “What’s your problem?”
“I think you’re a wet bag and a pussy” he snarls.
So I’m standing there looking at this little ginger lunatic, wondering what in the hell a wet bag could be, when he knocks the horn case out of my hand and tackles me. By now I know the drill. There’s no reasoning with these idiots. I land a few solid punches, but the impact does more damage to my fists than his face. The kid is small but he’s fast and knows how to grapple. He gets the better of me again and again. I can’t believe it: I’m losing this fight, too.
That evening the drive home is tense. Daddy Bill is silent and agitated. I look over from the passenger seat and notice he’s gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are white. He's pissed. Did he see the fight? Am I in trouble?
Suddenly Dad pulls over, gets out of the car, and says “come here, dammit.” And right there, in the twilight, on the shoulder of the highway, my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me the first of several lessons in self-defense. He shows me the boxer’s stance, some footwork, how to block and parry, how to throw a jab.
Right there, in the twilight on the shoulder of the highway,
my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me
the first of several lessons in self-defense.
“Don’t hit ’em in the head,” Dad says. “The head is hard. Hit ’em in the kidneys!”
The old man is full of surprises. I should have gone to him from the beginning.
Maybe I will survive this place after all.
Now all I need is a few friends.
SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO
“What makes the desert so beautiful
is that somewhere it hides a well.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Four days later we arrive, hot and tired, in the Old Pueblo.
Daddy Bill pilots our dusty U-Haul into an open parking space and squints upward through the windshield.
“I think that’s it, right up there,” he says, pointing to the third story. “Let’s check it out.” We’re both curious about this new apartment. Dad arranged the rental sight-unseen through an agency in Georgia. He mailed a check; they mailed the keys. Now we’re here.
I open the passenger side door and am nearly knocked over by the oven blast. “At least its a dry heat,” Daddy Bill says with a wink. “We’re definitely gonna need this,” he says, removing our portable ice chest from the front seat.
It’s late afternoon. The air is stifling. Cicadas buzz in the palo verde trees. We climb the exterior stairs, our footsteps echoing in the hollow cement stairwell.
The building itself is unremarkable, a typical example of the stark desert brutalist style of southwest architecture. Poured concrete blocks are stacked atop one another, textured with adobe and stained in shades of beige. There are rows of identical square windows, but nothing decorative, no arches, gables, or distinguishing features of any kind. This drab utilitarian structure could be anything: a factory, a hospital, a prison, you name it.
When we enter our apartment, however, I know we are home. On the opposite wall, sliding glass doors open to a balcony with a spectacular westward view. Brilliant hues of orange and violet paint the sky.
“Damn,” says Daddy Bill admiringly.
“What do you say we wait until dark to unload the truck?”
He reaches into the ice chest and hands me a cold one.
Watching the sunset from our balcony became a regular thing for us that summer, just as walking in the rain had been our routine down south.
Most mornings Daddy Bill would get up at the crack of dawn to go birding. “Gotta beat the heat,” he explained. Dad was smart that way, adapting to the climate, timing his excursions in synch with nature.
I, on the other hand, would blissfully sleep until noon, alone in the cool, dark apartment, lights off, blinds closed, swamp cooler cranked to the max. By the time Dad returned I would be on my second bowl of Raisin Bran and just about ready to start my day.
Like a fool I spent my afternoons outdoors under the relentless Sonoran sun, riding my bike, exploring. Whenever the heat became too much to bear, I would stop at the corner convenience store for a cold drink and a rejuvenating jolt of refrigeration. It was during one of these air conditioned interludes, standing in line at the Circle K, that I made first contact.
“You want a saleedo?” asked the girl.
She was blonde, tan, slender, freckle-faced, a little taller than I, and pretty, in a tomboyish Tatum O’Neal Bad News Bears sort of way. “I’m Cheryl,” she announced boldly, handing me a small, shriveled nugget of mysterious origin.
“Is it food?” I asked, dumbfounded. I studied the curious morsel she had placed in my hand. It was brown, misshapen, about the size of a buckeye, and dry as a bone. It looked like a piece of petrified animal scat.
“Just suck on it,” she giggled, popping one into her own mouth to demonstrate. I smiled. She smiled back.
Saladitos, for the uninitiated, are a Mexican snack of dried salted plums coated in chili and lime. Today you might find a sample in the international section of your favorite specialty food market. But back then, in the Summer of ’78, saladitos were a staple at every mini mart in Tucson, usually stored in a large glass jar right next to the cash register.
Cheryl consumed them like candy. “The best way to eat a saleedo is with a lemon or orange,” she stated matter-of-factly. “You cut the fruit in half, stick the saleedo in the middle, and suck out the juice. Soooo yummy.”
After that, the two of us were inseparable, riding our bikes every day on the street, along the sidewalk, and down the dry river beds, called “washes” by the locals. Cheryl was unlike any of the girls I knew back home. She was a wild child, free-spirited and fearless, always taking the lead, often getting into mischief, never waiting for permission to have fun. I was smitten.
One sweltering afternoon, Cheryl suggested that we go for a swim. “Do you know anyone with a pool?” I asked. “I know a place,” she answered cryptically.
To say we “snuck” into the Doubletree Hotel would not be accurate. Apparently a cute girl in a bikini can pretty much go wherever she pleases. Cheryl and I simply walked right in the front door and straight through the lobby, no questions asked. I was wearing running shorts, not swim trunks, but nobody cared. We parked ourselves poolside like hotel guests, ostensibly the entitled children of errant parents.
We had a blast splashing around in the Doubletree pool, teasing and taunting one another. I poked fun at Cheryl for being a juvenile delinquent, and she playfully mimicked my southern drawl, calling me “Jimmy Carter” and “Georgia Boy.” Eventually I remembered my dad and our sunset ritual, saying I should get home for dinner.
“Why don’t you come to my place?” Cheryl asked casually. “Just you, not your dad.”
The invitation took me by surprise. In all the time we’d spent together, Cheryl had never mentioned her home, and was weirdly evasive whenever I asked about her family. To me she was Feral Cheryl, untamed desert denizen. For all I knew she could have been a runaway.
We got on our bikes and I followed Cheryl home to a charming hacienda-style bungalow surrounded by colorful desert flowers, cacti in terracotta pots, and a welcoming ristra of chiles hanging over the front porch.
We walked around back and left our bikes by a large mesquite tree before entering the cottage through a side door. “Hellooo,” Cheryl called, kicking off her flip flops. There was no answer, but I wasn’t surprised. Something in the girl’s breezy, uninhibited manner told me what she already knew: we were alone.
“You hungry?” she asked. “I could eat,” I replied, trying to sound grown up. “I’m not ready for dinner just yet, but let me fix you something,” she said.
I then watched in amazement as my friend, still in her swimsuit, expertly prepared a cheeseburger just for me. I marveled at her casual, effortless skill as she sliced the ripe tomato, lightly toasted the bun, and browned the juicy burger in a cast iron skillet, all the while chattering away, hand on her hip, no big deal.
They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. I get that. Over the years I’ve shared many a special meal prepared by, or for, a beloved companion. But this was a first. I was just a twelve-year-old kid. No girl had ever cooked for me. The burger was delicious. If Jay could see me now, I thought.
Cheryl then pulled a styrofoam container labeled “Eegee’s” from the freezer, then led me by the hand to the living room sofa. “This is my favorite thing on a hot day,” she said, feeding me a spoonful of the frozen tropical treat. “Mm, hmm,” I responded approvingly.
“It’s even better with rum!” she giggles, producing a bottle from nowhere like a sleight-of-hand magician. “Now all we need is a little music.” I see a radio on the side table and turn it on. The wail of a saxophone fills the room with sound: “Baker Street” by Gerry Rafferty. I feel like I'm in a movie.
Cheryl rests her head against my chest.
She looks up. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?”
“Fourteen,” I lie.
“So ... you ever gonna kiss me?” she asks.
“You've taken your first step into a larger world.”
When I was first starting out, my mentor Art Farmer told me what it really takes to persevere in this business. “Do you like to travel?” he asked. “Well, get used to it, because that’s the life of a musician.”
I was reminded of his words a few years later when I asked record producer Cookie Marenco how to get the word out about my first CD. “You just need to go on tour,” she replied matter of factly. “It’s all about the tour. Your tour schedule determines everything: which stations play your music, what stores will carry it, when publications will review it, how people hear about it, and most importantly, whether anyone buys it.”
Such advice may seem silly in this digital age of streaming music and social media. Today, virtually anyone with the right look or gimmick has the potential to “go viral” without ever leaving home. But back in the 20th century we had no choice but to hit the road and participate in the obligatory rain dance of (jargon alert!) flacks, hacks, trades, jocks, promos, co-ops, end caps, take ones, tip sheets, and street teams. The music business was an expensive and time-consuming hustle, and the whole megillah hinged on one’s willingness to travel.
No problem here. Daddy Bill conscripted me into the vagabond lifestyle when I was still a toddler. I pretty much grew up in the backseat of his VW Fastback. By the time I left home at age 17, we had already moved nine times and taken dozens of road trips together.
I pretty much grew up in the backseat of Daddy Bill’s VW Fastback
By high school and college I’d begun to hit my wayfaring stride. I saved my pennies to fly from my father’s house in the Sonoran Desert to the snowy pines of Interlochen and the slushy streets of Boston. I rambled through New England for pick-up dates in the horn sections of touring Motown and pop acts, met up with Art for flugelhorn lessons on both coasts, and journeyed to Florida and California for gigs with Berklee friends. I even maxed out my first couple of credit cards chasing a particularly enthralling girl from New York City to London, Ontario, and back again. I was a novice nomad, but was already on a first name basis with half a dozen skycaps and flight attendants.
So by 1995, when I began touring as a bandleader in support of my debut album Red Reflections, I was already a seasoned traveler. I well acquainted with the rules of the road: pack light, arrive early, sit tight, be cool, expect delays.
I tried to find out everything I could about how to make the most of life on the road. Hal Galper had not yet published The Touring Musician, the resource that would ultimately become my bible, so I collected travel hacks wherever I could find them. I worked with agents to find the best deals, consulted a nutritionist for health and wellness ideas, and read magazines to collect business travel tips and tricks. I even asked experienced flyers to share their secrets for gaming the system, such as how to qualify for early boarding and how to gain admission to exclusive airport lounges with fireplaces, daybeds and private showers.
But my number one travel guru, the person from whom I learned the most, was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies. We called Ruth “Felix The Cat” because her tiny magical travel bag always seemed to hold whatever anyone needed, be it an allen wrench, gaffer’s tape, a sewing kit or cold medicine. After years of touring with blues legend Charles Brown, Ruth knew everything there was to know about life on the road. She taught me how to “advance” each stop along the tour, insuring that all our backline tech and ground transportation needs were covered, as well as how to anticipate problems and prepare for every contingency.
The person from whom I learned the most was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies
Our first tours beyond the Bay Area were to other cultural hubs out west: Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Eventually our circuit expanded to include a few midwest and east coast dates as well. We were still only traveling domestically, but since concert promoters rarely covered our travel costs, we learned to leverage frequent flyer miles and points-based affinity programs to receive discounted flights and hotel stays.
Then in the late 1990s I lucked into a quasi-sponsorship arrangement with American Airlines which enabled me to fly at no cost whatsoever. Amazing! I would volunteer a few hours each week to assist my friend Bobbi, an event promotions manager for the carrier. In exchange she gave me vouchers for free air travel throughout the United States.
In the late 1990s I flew free-of-charge on American Airlines throughout the United States
Since these were the same certificates used by official airline personnel, gate agents would often quietly upgrade me to first class, no questions asked. Unfortunately, however, I was required to fly “stand by” and was occasionally asked to give up my seat in order to accommodate a paying customer. Plus, no matter where my final destination was, American always seemed to route me through DFW. On more than one occasion, what should've been a two-hour hop from SF to Portland turned into an all day odyssey with a long layover in Dallas.
Crazy, right? I didn’t mind. A free flight is a free flight. Plus, by that point I had trained myself to work at the gate and sleep on the plane. I took the earliest possible flight the day before a show so that any delays would only be a minor inconvenience. And I always brought my practice mute so that even long layovers would be time well-spent.
Whenever possible, I chose to fly out of Oakland, my home airport. OAK was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO. They let you park right in front of the terminal, check-in was a breeze, and they even played classic jazz over the public address system. Within a few minutes of handing off your bags curbside, you could be relaxing at your gate, listening to Cannonball Adderley, and enjoying a nice hot cup of Peet’s coffee and a delicious veggie burger from Your Black Muslim Bakery.
Oakland Airport was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO
Those were the halcyon days, before the current era of shrinking seats, lost legroom and silly TSA “security theater.” After 9/11 lots of folks gave up on air travel entirely ... but not me.
I was about to take my first step into a larger world.
UP IN THE AIR
PART 3 — CITIZEN OF THE WORLD
“One day, you’ll make peace with your demons,
and the chaos in your heart will settle flat.
And maybe for the first time in your life,
life will smile right back at you and
welcome you home.”
—Robert M. Drake
“We don't see things as they are,
we see them as we are.”
When Daddy Bill passed away last December, just before my 55th birthday, I felt something change in me.
Way down deep, beneath the ocean of love and gratitude for all that he was, below the waves of grief, loss and mourning, there was a feeling of release. Not relief, mind you, but release, as if by saying goodbye to this world, my father was giving me permission to let go of certain unrealistic expectations about my own place in it.
Before he died, I never fully appreciated the extent to which my professional ambitions were tethered to the desire to earn my father’s approval. Ironic, since he never pressured me in any way, and was always encouraging, no matter what. He believed in me. He loved my music and supported my life choices without reservation.
Daddy Bill has always been in my corner. His approval was a given. But because I admired him so and wanted to make him proud, I worked harder than I might have, and whenever I achieved anything, no matter how small, I couldn’t wait to tell him about it.
Daddy Bill has always been in my corner
Even during his last years, as Parkinson’s and dementia assailed his body and mind, we remained close. I visited him in Tucson every few months, and called him every Sunday. Because of his condition, we could only talk about small things: the weather, the news, what he had for breakfast. And though he was often confused or forgetful, he always remembered to tell me that he loved me, and would end every conversation with the same benediction: “you just keep playing that horn.”
I miss my father terribly, but paradoxically, I also feel his presence. I’m not a religious person, and I have no belief in an afterlife. I don’t pray to God, communicate with the ancestors or converse with my father’s ghost. But I do hear the “still small voice” of my own conscience, and it just so happens to speak with a comfortingly familiar, decidedly paternal, southern drawl.
Lately that voice has been telling me to make peace with my demons. We all have our demons, right? I have three, and they have tortured me for as long as I can remember. Their names are Grandiosity, Imposter Syndrome, and Polarized Thinking.
In the past I’ve tried to fight my demons without success. To make peace would require a new strategy: that I stop fighting, and instead try to understand them and where they’re coming from. Think of it as Cognitive Distortion Diplomacy.
my three demons have tortured me for as long as I can remember
Grandiosity is the biggest and loudest of my demons. He infects me with toxic superiority and an exaggerated sense of my own importance. He robs me of rational thought and empathy, and fills me with bogus, superstitious beliefs: that I’m special, that I’m chosen, that I’m destined for greatness, and that the universe magically conspires to assist me at every turn. Grandiosity distorts my positive aspirations and work ethic, transforming them into an unearned and ugly feeling of entitlement.
Imposter Syndrome is Grandiosity’s evil twin sister. Whenever Grandiosity sleeps, she awakes, to drain my delusional overconfidence and replace it with extreme self-doubt. Imposter Syndrome perniciously whispers that I’m an untalented fraud, that my entire career has been nothing but a long con, and that any past accomplishments and accolades are meaningless. Imposter Syndrome says “You’re not special at all. You’re the worst thing a person can be: you’re ordinary.”
Of the three, however, Polarized Thinking may be the most dangerous demon of all. He provides the fuel that sustains the others. He inflicts an absurd all-or-nothing worldview of black and white extremes, in which I’m either destined for success or doomed to failure. Polarized Thinking says there can be no in-between, no shades of gray. If Grandiosity is born of the hope that I’m special, and Imposter Syndrome is the fear that I’m not, Polarized Thinking is the erroneous belief that these are the only two options.
If I’m ever to let go of unrealistic expectations, and come home to the life that I truly want, then making peace with these demons is paramount. I may never be able to silence them entirely, but If I can just see them for the maladaptive, habitual, self-sabotaging ways of thinking that they are, perhaps I can diminish their destructive power and re-integrate them into a more realistic sense of self.
In other words, I must learn to perceive things clearly as they are, unclouded by hope and fear. I must become like Manjushri, the bodhisattva of keen awareness, whose flaming sword represents the transcendent wisdom which cuts through duality and delusion.
Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of keen awareness
Who knows what the future will hold? None of us control the narrative of our lives, not really. But to the extent that one can shape a life story, I now aspire to a smaller, simpler, more sustainable one.
I will “keep playing that horn” for at least a few more years. But while my love of music is undiminished, any ambitious desires to prove myself or make my mark have waned considerably. The truth is, there is no longer anything to prove. Not to my father, not to myself, not to anyone.
Look at it this way: my dream was to become a professional jazz artist, to travel, make records, and share my music.
As it turns out, I did precisely that, and I've enjoyed it for nearly 40 years.
Maybe now it’s time to dream a new dream. Why not?
Whatever the new dream turns out to be, I'm sure Daddy Bill would approve.
“It’s not just about me and my dream
of doing nothing. It’s about all of us!”
“Now is the age of anxiety.”
“Don’t make me dance.”
I’m a big fan of CBS Sunday Morning. The show’s bright, optimistic tone, cheerful sun iconography, and calming nature videos are usually a welcome comfort. But this week’s episode made me anxious.
The entire show was dedicated to the encouragement of widespread tourism, as if we’re already living in a post-pandemic world. From host Jane Pauley to travel guru Rick Steves to the lemon merchants of the Amalfi Coast, everyone seemed to be singing from the same reckless hymn sheet. There was even a segment promoting revenge tourism, the idea that pleasure travel is even more fun now, as a giant middle finger to COVID-19.
Are you kidding me? Aren’t we being a little premature?
CBS Sunday Morning is usually a welcome comfort, but this episode made me anxious
I dig that people are restless, and I understand we’re all feeling more hopeful as vaccinations increase. But the virus is still surging in many areas, and some of those new variants are scary. There are now 141 million cases worldwide, including 32 million in the USA of which 566,000 have proven fatal. This thing ain’t over yet. Is now really the time to cheerlead for non-essential travel?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been a travel enthusiast all my life. In the 1970s of my youth, Daddy Bill and I road-tripped everywhere, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Florida Keys to the Sonoran Desert. In the decades since I’ve had the privilege of making new friends in Azerbaijan, Barbados, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, England, France, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Thailand and nearly every one of these United States. #AlphabeticalHumbleBrag
I'm profoundly grateful for my travels, and I wholeheartedly agree with the late Anthony Bourdain (a personal hero), who contended that travel, if we do it right, is our best defense against racism and xenophobia. You dig?
xenophile hero Anthony Bourdain and friends showing us how its done
Cultural tourism literally brings us together! That’s one of the reasons I chose this career. Travel is the lifeblood of our business. You don’t meet many xenophobic musicians.
But this year? I’m not feeling it.
Don’t be surprised. After all, I’m the Proletarian Contrarian. My entire life has been an exercise in cognitive dissonance. Swimming against the current? It’s kinda my thing.
While most of my friends were leading responsible lives, raising families and being good citizens, I was traveling 57,000 miles a year to honk my horn among the great unwashed. It stands to reason that now, when I feel afraid to venture beyond my front gate, the rest of the world can’t wait to get on a plane!
As one sidelined traveler told the Wall Street Journal, “The moment can’t come soon enough to actually hit the road again. We’re all kind of clamoring for the celebration party.”
Not all of us, pal. As usual, I’m out of step with the zeitgeist.
I just got my second shot of Dolly Vax.
I’m very grateful, but also anxious.
grateful, but also anxious
Some of my uneasiness is just a lingering reaction to the white coat effect. I always experience irrational fear and agitation around doctor stuff. The stakes are higher this time (i.e., deadly global plague), which only exacerbates matters.
I’m also anxious about the uncertainty of it all. Maybe I’ll have a bad reaction to the vaccine. Maybe the vax won’t work, and I’ll still catch covid. Or maybe it will work, and the next bug is the one that gets me. See what I mean?
And it’s not only the pandemic that makes me nervous. I’m justifiably worried over the state of the world. So much vitriol and violence in the news. Racial unrest. Joblessness, homelessness, food insecurity. Explosions. Invasions. Protests. Riots. Wildfires. Floods. Hurricanes. Police brutality. Political corruption. Voter suppression. Cancel culture. Rampant stupidity. Nazis! Four full years of enduring daily presidential messages of hate. (Aren’t we all still suffering PTSD from that SOB?)
Then there’s the hypervigilance. I don’t mind telling you, I’m straight up terrified of catching a stray bullet. It seems every week there’s another random, senseless mass shooting in this country. I’m always checking over my shoulder and looking for the exits. How does anyone feel safe in a crowd anymore?
Some of this anxiety is grief-related. I’m still mourning the loss of my father. I feel untethered, like an orphan. Facing a world without him in it fills me with dread.
facing a world without him in it fills me with dread
So I’m delighted the vaccines are here, and grateful to have received mine. And I’m glad that people are feeling more hopeful, but not if it means we all have to go rushing back.
Because if I’m being truly honest here, the main reason I feel anxious is this: I’m simply not ready.
I’m just not ready to go back. Not yet. I’m not ready for the ambitious workaday world with all its expectations and obligations. I’m not ready to leave the safety and security of my Hunker Bunker. And I’m definitely not ready to resume that relentless hustle and grind.
I’m here for the music, not the dance.