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THE SUNFLOWER 


To Georgia ... From Arizona

The Georgia clay bank 
   would surely erode 
Except for the Chinaberry tree 
   standing stark against the sky 

A sunflower bloomed 
   outside my patio door 
The sunflower was you 

September, somehow the saddest of months 
   except for October — 
      exquisite, mournful October 
Bringer of beautiful Autumn 

Now the mid-life crisis 
   takes a strange and different turn 
Some would say I’m crazy 
   though I would tend to doubt it 

Living on the fringe of civilization 
   like a desert cat 
I expend little energy 
   to find my food 

Trying to keep in touch 
   with the few friends I have 
I feel everything slipping 
   away from me 

Would you please 
   keep me informed 
      of any change of address 
Even after you marry? 

I promise not to interfere 
   with your new life 
Just to know 
   where you are 
      how you are 
To hear from you 
   once in a while 
      will be enough 

I can find 
   the minor key 
      in any song 

Because 
   I live my life 
     in a minor key 

Becoming used 
   to the freedom 
      of being alone 

I sit and suffer 
I mull over 
   all the things 
      that have happened 
And wonder why 

God, I have become 
   a desperate scribbler of lines 
Who doesn’t know whether 
   he creates or not except for 
A simple declarative act of love 

Besides, 
   every word 
      once spoken 
         becomes a cliché 

My head is full of poems 
But they won’t come out straight 
They are muddled 
   and mixed 
      and unintelligible 

I lie on the desert floor 
Looking at the Arizona night sky 
Looking at the myriad of stars 
That appear so 
   clear and clean and close 
Enough to touch 
Maybe if I could 
Then the thoughts 
   should come out 
      clear and clean 

Perhaps if I could touch a star 
A poem would come out right 

I love 
   this Golden Land 
      of Eternal Sunshine 

But I’ve had enough 
Of sitting in the sun 

A sunflower bloomed 
Outside my patio door 
The sunflower was you

      —Bill Matheny

GENERATIONAL WEALTH 

What did I know, what did I know 
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
 
—Robert Hayden 

When the time came for Daddy Bill to move into hospice care, it fell to me to clean out his stark little studio apartment. 

The task didn’t take long. I’d planned to rent a storage unit for his stuff, but this turned out to be entirely unnecessary. In the man’s eighty-something trips around the sun, he only accumulated enough possessions to fill a few small boxes. 

I was amazed. Not by Dad’s extreme minimalism (don’t forget I used to live with the guy), but by the eloquence of the items he deemed precious enough to keep. In his closet was a sleeping bag, camp stove and hand crank portable radio. Everything else was arranged in neat little dust-covered piles around the room. He had an axe, a battered pair of binoculars, an old fly rod, a few books and compact discs, a coffee cup, some framed photographs, a pocket knife, and a small leather pouch. That’s about it. 
 

 

The pouch was empty, but when I opened the drawstring to look inside, the familiar scent of Middleton’s Cherry Blend brought tears to my eyes. I was about nine years old when we last visited the Schley Family Farm in Georgia. I still remember sitting next to Daddy Bill, watching with rapt attention as Dr. Schley used his leather-crafting tools to carefully cut, punch and sew the pouch together. Once finished, he ceremoniously presented the soft little bag to my father, as if it was some kind of totem or talisman imbued with magic powers. The Schleys were important people in the Brookstone community, and Dad treasured this handmade gift. He stored his pipe tobacco in that leather pouch for years. 
 


In a drawer under the sink I found a mishmash of papers: old bank statements, love letters, canceled checks, poems, his birding “life list” handwritten on a yellow legal pad, and a stack of picture postcards, many of them from me, which had once adorned the thumbtack-covered walls of his Graham County hermit house. Resting on top, like a paperweight, was a small carved wooden sign: White Thorn Gallery. 
 


As far back as my great-great-grandfather, the Matheny men were all expert craftsmen. Daddy Bill and his brother Jim grew up working alongside their father in the Matheny Cabinet Shop, building and restoring heirloom furniture in mahogany, oak, walnut, cherry, maple and cedar. Almost everyone in our extended family today has at least one precious Matheny antique at home. 

But the only furniture my father owned at the end of his life was a single reclining armchair, purchased for him a few years ago by a generous friend. Everything else had long since been given away. He was funny that way. He gave all our furniture to one of his stepdaughters. He gave our car to my friend Kent. I have no doubt the old man would’ve eventually given that recliner away, too. 

So I followed his example and left that chair behind for the next tenant. I slipped my father’s poetry into my backpack, and boxed up the rest, stacking everything in the corner of Nedra’s garage for safekeeping. 

I suppose I’ll come back for that leather pouch someday. 

And maybe that fishing pole, too. 

I miss you, Daddy Bill.

HOW WE LIVE 

“The more we share, the more we have.” 
—Leonard Nimoy 

 

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.
 

MEETING LELA | PART 7 — BISCUITS & GRAVY 


“We all grow up with inherited genes 
and inherited sensibilities, and 
they run very, very deep.” 

—John Lithgow 

 

To recap: it turns out that my estranged mother, who left us when I was a baby, was a singer. Although she never recorded, Lela had an active performing career singing torch songs in Tennessee nightclubs with her combo. And apparently my father was a fan who regularly attended her gigs before they met and married.

So music, my passion in life, is what originally brought my parents together, yet neither of them thought to tell me. I chased my dream obliviously ignorant of this history. I chose this path all on my own, or so I thought until age 46, when Lela showed up to one of my gigs and dropped a DNA bomb on my self-made origin story. 

I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this. I didn't fully appreciated those MACOS nature/nurture lectures at Brookstone until this moment.

After Lela returned home to Michigan we took up where we had left off as penpals. She shared more wild yarns about America McGee (whose very existence I doubted), but the primary focus of our correspondence had now shifted to our shared interest in music.

“When you were singing, who were your influences?” I asked. “Any favorite artists or albums?” 

“Well, if you ever get a chance to hear a record that Nancy Wilson made with Cannonball Adderley, that one is very special to me,” she replied. “I played that album to death when it came out and learned all of it by heart. I was probably singing those songs while you were in the womb!” 
 


This revelation struck me like a thunderbolt. To find out that a classic jazz recording I’ve admired and enjoyed all my life also happened to be formative and personally significant for my mother? Damn. I wondered how much more we might have in common. 

Lela must have been curious about this as well, because a few days later a Zune portable media player arrived in the mail with this note: 

Here’s my music collection. 
This will tell you more about me 
than words can ever say.

 

She was right. Her cherished music encompassed many genres, from classical to country to jazz and blues, and I loved all of it. Our likes were so eerily similar, in fact, that it would feel self-congratulatory to compliment her excellent taste.

The overlap in our music libraries was uncanny. Of the several thousand songs and artists in Lela’s playlist, nearly all were already prized plums in my own collection. She sent Sarah Vaughan with Michel Legrand, Elly Ameling singing Schubert, Ahmad Jamal Live At The Pershing, Chet Baker on Pacific Jazz, all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, Patsy Cline Showcase, Anita O’Day Travelin’ Light, nearly everything Miles Davis did in the 1950s and ’60s, some recent recordings by Diana Krall and Shirley Horn, and soooo much Nancy Wilson, clearly her favorite. Lela even included Willie Nelson’s cover of “Stardust!” Amazing. 

Only a handful of the artists in her list were new to me (Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest, June Christie) and their songs resonated so deeply that they immediately became part of the soundtrack of my life. Driving around the Lonesome Desert at night, listening to my mother’s favorite music, made me feel a profound sense of connection to her in spite of the fact that we were basically strangers to one another.
 


I met Lela only once more. 

In April 2014, while on tour in Michigan, Sassy and I accepted an invitation to visit her at home in rural Potterville.

Lela and Bill Horton (of Mr. Bill’s Adventureland), her husband of 23 years, received us warmly. Lela even cooked biscuits and gravy for us! Sitting there at my mother’s kitchen table, watching her fix me breakfast for the first and only time in my life, flooded me with conflicting emotions. Gratitude. Wonder. Comfort. Melancholy. Loss. 

After our meal Bill gave us a tour of the rambling, ramshackle Horton house. The place was a packrat’s dream, filled to the rafters with papers, boxes, books, knickknacks, old computers, oxygen tanks, medical supplies and more. As Bill led us from room to room, Lela toddled behind, randomly tidying up and apologizing. “We don’t get many visitors.” 
 


I remember thinking how beautiful it was, that this frail and fragile couple were lovingly taking care of one another in their declining years. Will Sassy and I do the same? 

Bill was especially eager to show me their collection of records, tapes and compact discs. Lela had already sent me MP3s of most of it except for one major omission: the Hortons had amassed an impressive, damn near comprehensive stockpile of Dmitri Matheny CDs!

I was astonished. Not only did they own all my albums as a leader, they'd also somehow acquired a bunch of sideman recordings from my early years in San Francisco. Seeing this stash of obscure, out-of-print discs, I realized that Lela and Bill must have been quietly following my career for years, buying each new recording at the time of its release, long before I found Lela online. 

Flattering, yes, but also infuriating. I’ve had a website since 1995. Lela obviously knew where I was and what I was doing. Why had she never contacted me? I’ll likely never know.

In August 2018 I received a phone call from Bill Horton letting me know that my mother had died. He didn’t mention her cause of death, but I assume it was severe emphysema after a lifetime of smoking. 

“I also wanted to tell you that some years ago Lela and her brother inherited a parcel of land on a mountain near Chattanooga,” Bill said. “They sold it and she put her half of the money into a Vanguard account. You’re listed as beneficiary after I die. I’ll send you the paperwork.”

I remembered Lela's cryptic “mountaintop inheritance” call back in the 1980s. How about that? Another mystery solved.

I'm grateful that Lela and Bill Horton had so many good years together, and glad I had the chance to visit them before she died. Bill and I have stayed in touch since Lela’s passing and I’m glad. I’ve come to think of him as part of the extended family, especially now that both my mother and father are gone from this world.

The other day Bill sent me an antique sepia photograph. 

“Lela would want you to have this,” he said. 

“It’s a picture of your great-great-grandmother ... Matilda America McGee.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 6 — GIFTS 

“All of us labor in webs spun
long before we were born.” 

—William Faulkner
 
 

The next morning I asked Lela the question that had kept me awake most of the night. “Same repertoire? What did you mean by that?” 

She smiled. “Well, you played Stormy Weather, My One And Only Love, and I’m Beginning To See The Light ... I did all those same tunes!” 

“What do you mean, you did those tunes?” I asked. “When? How? Where?” 

Her face registered genuine surprise. “You knew I was a singer, didn’t you?” 

“No, ma’am. I mean, I found some pictures of you in high school,” I stammered, “you know, singing musical theater stuff, but…” 

“Oh, honey! I was a jazz singer! Your father used to come to my gigs. That’s how we met!” she laughed. “Where did you think your gifts came from?” 

You could have knocked me over with a feather. 

“Lela, honestly, I always figured it was Dad’s record collection that set me on this path. Sketches of SpainRound About MidnightKind of Blue…” 

“Ooh, that’s just like him!” she interrupted, shaking her head. “First of all, those were my Miles Davis records.” She paused a moment. “He never told you? Really?” 
 


Nope. He told me you were crazy. He said you were a criminal. He said you “ran off in the middle of the night” and told me we were better off without you. But no, he never once mentioned anything about you singing jazz. 

Was it even true? Or was this just another of Lela’s tall tales? 

I was determined to find out. After she returned home to the midwest, I drove out to Daddy Bill's Hermit House to see if I could verify her story. I was a man on a mission. The three-hour drive through the Lonesome Desert gave me plenty of time to consider how I might broach the subject with my old man.

I arrived in the late afternoon to find him hunched over a bucket on his front porch, methodically shelling and cracking pecans with his blistered, blackened fingers. Pecan trees grew wild in the scrubby chaparral of Graham County. It had become Dad’s habit to harvest the nuts each autumn and gift large bags of them to family and friends during the winter holidays. I admired his resourcefulness.

“Hey Bub!” Daddy Bill greeted me cheerily. “You’re just in time.” 

He handed me a Sam Adams from the cooler. “Don't tell the Mormons,” he said with a wink.

Another glorious Arizona sunset.
 


“So. Dad. How did it feel to see Lela again after all these years?” 

He gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “Welp. She got old.” 

“You and I aren’t getting any younger either,” I laughed. “Anyway, did y’all have a good talk at the concert?” 

“She did most of the talking,” he said, adding “you know how she is.” He kicked a pile of pecan shells off the porch.

“Right. Listen, Dad. Lela told me she used to be a jazz singer.” 

My father rolled his eyes. “Aww, she was what we used to call a torch singer. But that was a long time ago. Before you were born.” 

“So it’s true?” I asked, astonished. “You didn't think your son -- the musician -- might want to know about that?” 

“Why would you care?” he said dismissively. “She wasn’t a big deal or anything. She just sang in nightclubs with her little combo.” 

Unbelievable. 

“Dad…what exactly do you think I do for a living?” 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 5 — UNDER THE STARS 

“The only thing new in the world
is the history you do not know.”
 
—Harry S. Truman

 

Since Lela’s last Irish goodbye, I’d grown up, moved out, finished high school in Michigan, graduated from college in Massachusetts, lived in California for twenty years, and traveled all over the world. I’d made my bones, married, divorced, and moved on. Suffice to say, it had been awhile. 

Then in 2009 I returned to the Lonesome Desert with my girlfriend Sassy. Daddy Bill’s health had taken a turn for the worse, so I bought us a house in a bedroom community outside of Phoenix and fixed up a room for him. He would often come to visit but always left after a day or two, stubbornly refusing to move in. “I don’t want to be a burden,” Daddy Bill said. “Besides, I prefer my little Hermit House by the Pinaleños.” 
 

 

In October 2012 the Dmitri Matheny Group played Music Under The Stars in Tucson. The open air concert felt like a homecoming. Presented by the very jazz society that gave me my first scholarship when I was fifteen, the event was held at Tohono Chul Park, my not-so-secret hideout during the CDO years. I’d spent many soul-restoring hours in the desert gardens of Tohono Chul back in the day, and I had returned to the Old Pueblo many times over the years for concerts. But this event was special. Both my father and biological mother were in the audience. 
 


The show was a grand success. The crowd was warmly receptive and our performance could not have gone better. I was so proud of my band, especially Akira Tana, who’d flown in from California for the occasion. But the great highlight, for me, was re-introducing Dad and Lela to one another after the show. 

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Daddy Bill said upon seeing Lela. “I thought you were dead.” 

“I thought you were dead,” Lela replied. 

Delightful.

I left them alone to chat a bit while I packed up my gear and settled up with the band. Eventually the old man hit the road back to Hermit House, and I returned home with Sass and our surprise overnight guest. 

Back at the Maricopa Cabana, Lela and I sat side-by-side on the living room sofa. Tee many martunis later, story time was in full effect. For all her past reticence, my mother was now a free-flowing fountain of information, and for once, not just about America McGee. In vino veritas! 

 

To summarize, Lela never wanted children but she loved my father and “decided to give him a son.” It was an especially difficult and prolonged pregnancy. Lela was in labor for days. The delivery, when it finally came on Christmas Day 1965, nearly destroyed us both. I was a breach birth. The doctor had to extract me with forceps. My father cried when he saw my misshapen skull. Everyone feared I might not survive. Eventually my head retained its natural shape, however, and I turned out to be perfectly healthy. 

 


“You were my miracle baby,” Lela smiled, shaking her head, “but you nearly killed me. I never blamed you, of course. But I had to get the hell out of there.” It was the closest thing to an explanation I’d ever heard. 

We continued to talk and imbibe into the wee hours until both of us were slurring our speech. When we finally called it a night, Lela was a little wobbly on her feet, so I gathered her bony frame in my arms and carried her down the hall to the guest bedroom. I could scarcely believe that this little old woman, this tiny weightless bird, had ever given birth to anyone. 

“Oh, about your concert,” she mumbled as I turned out the light.

“You and I do a lot of the same repertoire.”

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 3 — ADVENTURELAND 

“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!!?

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

MEETING LELA | PART 1 — THE FROSTY FROG 

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, 
a long, long way from home.” 

—Traditional 


When I was a kid in Tennessee and Georgia I knew very little about my mother. 

I knew her name. “Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books. I knew she was a talented artist, too. We had several of her framed oil paintings hanging on our walls. And I knew she was movie-star beautiful. Although Dad was reluctant to speak of Lela, he did give me a single photo of her which I treasured and kept hidden away in a drawer. 

“Lela Matheny” was written in ballpoint pen on the inside cover of all our books.

The only other thing I knew about Lela was that she broke my father’s heart. 

“Shortly after you were born,” Dad explained, “Lela ran off with her lover in the middle of the night. They took my car and went to Mexico. Lela got herself a Mexican divorce and a Mexican marriage to the other guy. As far as I know, they’re still together.” He would repeat this story many times over the years, always emphasizing the words “Mexican divorce” and “Mexican marriage” as if that particular detail somehow signified illegitimacy or proved how unjustly he’d been treated. 

If I felt any sadness over losing Lela I certainly wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t remember her, so how could I miss her? I was a happy kid with a loving father and a revolving door of kind female caregivers. But I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me. I wondered where she was, why she left, what her life was like now. 

Whenever I asked my Dad these things, he would repeat his “Lela ran off” refrain, and would shut down any follow-up questions with “Aw, you don’t want to know about her! She’s crazy!” 
 

I was understandably curious about the woman who gave birth to me.


As far as I knew our only contact with Lela was the birthday card I received each year at Christmas. There were never any messages inside, just “Love, Lela” in the same familiar handwriting. There were never any return addresses on the envelopes, either, but I always noticed the postmarks. Each year the card would arrive from a different place: Key West, Seattle, New York, Santa Fe, Ann Arbor. 

“Looks like Lela’s in Bozeman, Montana,” I said to Daddy Bill after my thirteenth birthday. “Why do you suppose she moves around so much?” 

I expected his customary evasiveness, but this time the old man surprised me. “Son, you’re old enough to know that your mother’s husband is a federal criminal,” Dad said soberly. “They have to keep moving because they’re on the lam. Tom is wanted by the feds.” 

“No kidding?” I asked. “What did he do?” 

“Mail order fraud,” Dad replied. “He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch.” 

I had no clue what a chinchilla was, but the notion that half my DNA might come from a mysterious, beautiful, crazy, vagabond artist/criminal? The idea intrigued me. I needed to meet this person.

"He sells fake chinchilla furs or somesuch."

It’s the summer of 1979 in Tucson, Arizona, and I’m living it up in our new Catalina Foothills apartment. Dad is teaching summer school so I have my run of the place. I get to sleep late and have friends over. We do whatever we want, when we want, free from adult supervision.

Our activities are fairly harmless: we crank up the air conditioner, make giant Dagwood sandwiches, drink gallons of sun tea, and watch creature features on the tube. We listen to records in the Den of Iniquity. Sometimes we ride our bikes down to the Circle K for Mad magazines and microwave burritos, or head over to the Coronado clubhouse to play air hockey and gawk at the high school girls sunning themselves by the pool. 

Any self-esteem I lost at Marana has been fully replenished. I now have friends, freedom and, thanks to my paperboy job, plenty of spending money. As if I needed any additional ego boost, they’ve been saying my name on the radio lately (“trumpet solo by Dmitri Matheny”) because I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall. I feel special again for the first time since we left Brookstone. 

 

I’m playing the mariachi classic “La Paloma” in the Fiesta de los Niños at El Con Mall.


It’s mid-morning when the phone rings in our dark apartment. I shuffle into the kitchen and wipe the sleep from my eyes as I lift the receiver. What have I won this time? 

“Dmitri?” says an unfamiliar female voice. “This is Lela.” 

“Lela like my mother Lela?” I ask. 

“That’s me,” she says. “How are you?” 

“Surprised,” I reply.

“Listen, I’m in Tucson,” she says. “I live here. What are you up to today?” 

“Nothin’ much,” I reply, bewildered. 

“Would you like to go with me to the art museum?” 

Half an hour later I answer the door and there she is, the pretty lady from the photo, looking not unlike Suzanne Pleshette in her high-collared lime green pantsuit, white silk scarf, and oversized sunglasses. I lock up the apartment, follow to her car, and slide into the passenger seat next to her. I can’t believe she’s really here. 

Unlike my taciturn father, Lela turns out to be an absolute chatterbox. She talks nonstop as we walk through the museum galleries, jumping randomly from one non sequitur to the next, dramatically whispering then laughing loudly, dropping names I don’t know, passionately offering her opinion on every exhibit. The words tumble out of her but I barely comprehend their meaning. I’m too preoccupied with studying her every move and mannerism. Do I take after Lela? She strikes me as stylish and sophisticated, yet insecure and more than a little phony.  

After the museum we walk across the street to a frozen yogurt shop called the Frosty Frog. Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit, then lights a long slender cigarette, all the while babbling like the giddy guest on a late night talk show. Something in her affect makes me feel diminished, as if I’m merely a spectator in the movie of her life. It’s only at this moment, looking across the table at her, that I’m finally able to accept the reality of this surreal afternoon. 

So this is my mother. 

Lela orders a mint chip froyo to match the vivid green of her outfit.

When Daddy Bill gets home from work he finds me sitting silently in the living room. 

“How was your day, Bub?” he asks. 

“Well Dad,” I reply, “I think you ought to sit down for this.” 

In my memory the revelation that I’d spent the day with my bio-mom was a complete surprise to Daddy Bill. He didn’t mind that we'd met, but he seemed genuinely shocked to learn that Lela was in Tucson, and mystified by how she got our phone number. In hindsight I suspect he knew more than he let on. When it came to Lela, Dad played his cards very close to the vest. 

I rode my bike over to Lela and Tom’s place several times that summer. Their condo was modest, even smaller than our apartment, but it was brand new, adjacent to a magnificent golf course, and furnished with midcentury modern Scandinavian decor that looked like something you’d see in the pages of a high-end design catalog. 

Lela's husband Tom was an overly tan charmer with “trust me” eyes and a full head of gray-blond Banacek hair. He wore polo shirts and khakis, told silly jokes, brandished a fat bankroll, and flashed blindingly white teeth whenever he smiled, which was often. He spent most of his time either on the phone or on the links. 

“What exactly does Tom do for a living?” I asked Lela, thinking of the chinchillas and whatnot. 

“Oh, this and that,” Lela said with a dismissive wave of the hand. “Tom’s what’s known as an entrepreneur.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard the word. To this day when anyone uses it I think of Tom and his Cheshire Cat grin. 

I expected Dad’s reunion with his ex-wife, and the man she left him for, to be awkward, but the three of them got along just fine. They reclined in their chaise lounges, swilling gin cocktails and playing “remember when” like old friends. Later when we all went to dinner together at La Fuente, the mood was entirely convivial, or so it seemed to me. 

On one occasion Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson. I still remember how she taught me to use complementary colors for the shadows, and the way she demonstrated the proper technique for washing a paint brush by making small soapy circles in the palm of my hand. 

Dad invited Tom over to play tennis while Lela stayed behind to give me a painting lesson.

I tried to engage Lela in meaningful conversation but quickly learned that she had no interest in being real with me. Having grown up in the south I'm no stranger to tall tales, but Lela was a full-on fabulist. She seemed incapable of giving a straight answer.

A simple query like “do I have any brothers or sisters” prompted a hyperbolic description of her own brother, a strikingly handsome, independently wealthy, eccentric genius, more clairvoyant than Edgar Cayce, who lives in a mansion and invents rockets for a secret government agency. Ahem. 

When asked about her childhood, Lela launched into a series of Bunyanesque tales about a magical, mythical Cherokee ancestor named “America” who married a Scotsman named “McGee” to become “America McGee.” Each story was more outlandish than the previous, but none shed any light on Lela’s actual life.

Lela delivered these far-fetched family fables with earnest enthusiasm, oblivious to how ridiculous they sounded. Eventually I stopped asking questions altogether and just surrendered myself to her whimsy. 

We saw each other several times that summer but she never gave up any credible intel. Nor did she seem interested in learning anything about my life or thoughts or feelings. I learned what I could about Lela through observation alone. 

In late summer Daddy Bill and I were sharing a bag of Fritos and watching 60 Minutes when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m glad you’ve enjoyed getting to know Lela and Tom, but you’d better prepare yourself, son. At some point they’ll disappear again, probably without warning. I don’t want you to get your feelings hurt.” 

Dad was right. A few days later Tom’s name appeared in an Arizona Daily Star article about interstate commerce irregularities. I called the condo and, sure enough, the number was disconnected. I rode over on my bike and, no surprise, the place was empty. 

It would be another 23 years before I would meet Lela again. 

Lela in 1965 (L) when I was born, and in 2002 (R) when I met her the second time.

 

MEETING LELA
Part 1 — The Frosty Frog
Part 2 — Chattanooga
Part 3 — Adventureland
Part 4 — America McGee
Part 5 — Under The Stars
Part 6 — Gifts
Part 7 — Biscuits & Gravy

REFLECTIONS ON 9/11 

“War, what is it good for? 
Absolutely nothing.” 

—Barrett Strong
 


On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was at home in Berkeley, drinking my first cup of coffee and viewing the Today show when the news broke. I watched in horror and disbelief as the second plane hit the World Trade Center, in real time, on national television. 

It took awhile to get over the initial shock and accept the reality of what was happening, but the awful footage continued to be broadcast on every channel throughout the afternoon and evening. This was not fake. It was no movie. No superhero was coming to save the day. The tragedy of 9/11 and its painful consequences were very real indeed. 

 


One by one we heard from New York friends who survived the senseless attacks. None were injured, thank goodness, but all were traumatized. As we learned the names of those who died, however, our shock and sadness turned to anger.

I’m no conspiracy nut, but I must confess to harboring some rational skepticism about what really happened that day. The official 9/11 Commission report was neither comprehensive nor persuasive. Too many questions remain. 

Why was Al-Qaeda able to outwit the worldwide intelligence community? Doesn’t the USA have the most expensive and sophisticated military in the world? Is it really so easy for a plane to fly into the Pentagon, without alerting the Pentagon? And what about the laws of physics? Is the impact from two civilian airplanes truly all it takes to cause the total collapse of three New York City skyscrapers, directly into their own footprint, as if by controlled demolition? And if these atrocities were not perpetrated by a foreign government, but by an unsanctioned group of religious zealots from Saudi, UAE, Lebanon and Egypt, how exactly did these crimes justify prolonged American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? 

I raise these questions not to suggest the possibility of a false flag operation, but to highlight the cognitive dissonance of the day’s events. We may never know whether our government was complicit, or merely asleep at the wheel, but neither is excusable. When something so unthinkable occurs, and none of the official explanations make sense, you begin to doubt everything. 

Like many Americans, I experienced lingering feelings of vulnerability and disillusionment after 9/11. It was no longer possible to believe the fairytale that “it can’t happen here.” Even on the west coast, the attacks felt personal, regardless of whether you knew any of the victims personally. 

I remember sitting in my driveway the following spring, still mourning, listening to Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me, and wondering if our collective national sadness might be partly responsible for her album’s runaway success. We were wounded, and Norah’s soulful, melancholy music was just the medicine we needed. Grief brought us together. 

 


Unlike many, however, I did not feel patriotic after 9/11. Jingoism struck me as an entirely inappropriate reaction to such a catastrophic national blunder. I felt let down by our leaders, outraged that they had let this happen, and troubled by their simplistic, sloganistic responses. Instead of providing the answers and accountability we deserved, they gave us only facile exhortations to “go shopping” and “support the troops.” They curtailed our civil liberties and declared war on terror, an objective that is absurd on its face, not to mention unwinnable. 

I was also deeply disappointed by friends and neighbors. I’ve never heard so much anti-foreigner and anti-immigrant hate speech. It was heartbreaking. The concurrent sudden appearance of our flag everywhere, on front porches, car antennas and lapel pins, only underscored my sense of disconnection.
 


Can a liberal pacifist xenophile be a proud American? It's complicated. As an avowed Citizen of the World, I respect our institutions, but patriotism doesn’t come naturally. Like religious piety, bigotry, and football mania, patriotic pride is something that I’ve never really understood even though it has surrounded me all my life. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware of my good fortune at having been born white, male and North American in the 20th century, and am grateful for the rights and privileges that I enjoy in this country. I love that I can own property and speak my mind. But I’m also cognizant of the fact that I didn’t earn these blessings. They were stolen by my ancestors and built on the backs of subjugated people. And I know that even today, not all Americans are able to enjoy the same rights and privileges equally. 

I would have to say that I like the idea of America more than the reality. I’ve never bought into the myth of American Exceptionalism. I’ve done enough traveling to learn that the USA is not “the envy of the world,” as I was taught to believe in school, but is actually inferior to many other industrialized nations in education, infrastructure, health care and support for the arts. 

I also emphatically reject the notion that our democratic freedom is predicated on maintaining American hegemony and global military dominance. Freedom may not be free, but most wars are unnecessary. Sorry, Colonel Jessup, but we can handle the truth. We don’t all want you on that wall. Some of us don’t want walls at all.

20 years after the events of 9/11, the United States Armed Forces are finally withdrawing from Afghanistan. This has been the longest military action in our nation's history. 978 billion dollars were spent. Over 241,000 people were killed, including 71,000 civilians. 

Was it worth it?

SNAPSHOTS | PART 5 — CHEVY MAN 

“That’s the great thing about being a teenager. 
You think you’re a genius.”

—Daveed Diggs 

 

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.” 

Next:
MEETING LELA | PART 1

SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO 

“Your vibe attracts your tribe.” 
—Anthony Bourdain 

“We go back like car seats.” 
—Harry Bosch
 

It can’t be an easy thing to raise a son. 

It’s a balancing act. To help him find his way in life while also allowing him the freedom to fail. To provide advantages and opportunities without coddling or spoiling him. To encourage excellence without setting unrealistic standards. To teach him both self-confidence and humility. To know when to protect him, when to counsel him, and when to let him face adversity alone. To balance his needs with your own. 

My father did his best. In 1978 when he decided to relocate us to Arizona, he had his reasons. He was heartbroken, depressed, and needed a change. The move proved troublesome for me, but I don’t begrudge Dad needing to prioritize his own mental and emotional health. It was never his intention to sabotage my education or put me in harm’s way. Kids are resilient. He knew I would adapt. 

It didn’t take Daddy Bill long, however, to realize that Marana was no place for either of us. He loved to teach but was spending most of his time enforcing classroom rules and trying to maintain order. I loved to learn but none of my classes were interesting, and I was always on guard, looking over my shoulder for the next attack.

Dad resolved to seek employment elsewhere as soon as his contract was up, and promised he would find a better school for me in Tucson the following year. In the meantime it was my job to survive seventh grade at Marana Junior High. 

Fortunately, life got easier for me at Marana. There was still plenty of student-on-student violence but somehow I was no longer a target. Is it because I carried myself differently after I’d learned a few moves? Possibly, but the more likely explanation is that I was spared because I finally made the right friends. 

I met Jack in Reading class (no joke, the class was called “reading”), and we hit it off immediately. Jack was different from the other kids. Like me, he was a displaced southerner (his family came from Virginia) with an artistic bent and diverse interests. He was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell. He was also an excellent writer. In fact, the only time I ever got in trouble at Marana, it wasn’t for fighting, but for laughing at one of Jack’s hilarious short stories. 

 

Jack was smart, articulate, creative, and funny as hell.

 

“Settle down, Dmitri,” said Mrs. Woods. 

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. 

“Don’t back-talk me! You go to the principal’s office right now!” she demanded. 

I told Principal Dewey that Mrs. Woods had misinterpreted my sincere polite response as sarcasm. “It’s how I was raised,” I explained. “At my old school in Georgia, you’d get in trouble if you didn’t say yes ma’am.” 

“Well, you’re here now. Lose that habit,” he said. “And I still have to give you detention for disrupting class.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

A few days later my new friend Jack introduced me to his pal Bennie, a charismatic football player with a winning smile and a terrific sense of humor. Bennie had cracked the code on how to flirt, too, and all the girls giggled whenever he was around. Ben’s upbeat attitude was infectious. I liked him right away and the three of us soon became fast friends. It didn’t surprise me at all when I later found out my new companions also happened to be Dad’s favorite English Lit students. 

 

Bennie’s upbeat attitude was infectious.

 

No fights found me after I started hanging out with Bennie and Jack. In a school where sports participation is one of the only real forms of social currency, the two of them were well-liked student athletes. They seemed to get along with everybody, even the so-called bad kids. I must have benefitted by association. Plus, Jack was taller than almost everyone else in our class. Nobody messed with him. 

We were the original three amigos. We hung out everyday at school and sometimes on the weekends. I liked to draw comic books for fun back then and remember creating Jack Fox and Blazin’ Ben as their superhero alter egos. 

For all its faults, Marana did one thing 100% right: almuerzo, or as we called it, lonche. Twenty-five cents would get you a man-sized portion of delicious Sonoran food, served up fresh daily in the school cafeteria. The ladies in the kitchen took great pride in their work and prepared a different main course for us each day: carnitas, tamales, machaca, fajitas, chile rellenos, enchiladas verdes, and more, always with a generous helping of frijoles refritos con arroz. Damn, I loved those Marana lunches. 

 

Damn, I loved those Marana lunches.

 

The other thing that made lunchtime so great was the game we always played. Bennie, Jack and I, and occasionally our friend Kevin, would take turns trying to make each other laugh with ridiculous jokes, silly voices and wordplay. Sometimes we would mimic absurd Steve Martin comedy routines or reenact entire skits by the Not Ready For Prime Time Players. Invariably we’d all end up doubled over in fits of laughter. The game never ended until the bell rang or Bennie spit milk out of his nose. Big fun. 

I loved those guys then and I love them still. 

I had no way of knowing, at the time, that Bennie would grow up to become one of the west coast's most popular radio personalities, or that he and his wife would generously let me stay with them while I found my first apartment in San Francisco. I couldn’t have known that Ben would one day introduce me to the O’Jays (with whom I would have the honor of working some years later), or how supportive he would be over the course of my future music career. I didn’t know that Ben and I would remain friends for life. 

And I certainly had no way of knowing, at the time, that Jack and I were destined to attend the same high school in Tucson, become college roommates in Boston, and remain close as adults as we both pursued careers in the performing arts. I couldn’t have known how much time we would spend playing in bands with each other, or discovering music together over many late nights at the turntable, poring over liner notes as we listened to his excellent collection of classic jazz on vinyl. I didn’t know we would one day stand up as “best man” at each other’s weddings, or that we would continue to confide in one another, sharing our troubles and triumphs well into late middle age. I didn’t know that Jack would be my best friend forever. 

All I knew was that I had finally found my tribe. I'm not sure whether I ever told them how our alliance had saved me. Jack and Ben made an otherwise miserable year not only bearable, but memorable in the best possible way. 

On December 25, my father and I celebrated the holiday on our balcony, grilling steaks and listening to our favorite seasonal album, Ella Wishes You A Swinging Christmas. After dinner we watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley, showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

We watched as heavy, dark clouds rolled over the valley,
showering the desert with a wondrous cleansing rain. 

 

The winter cloudburst felt auspicious, like a baptism or benediction. 

“Merry Christmas, Daddy Bill,” I said. 

“Happy Birthday, Bub,” he said. “You’re a teenager now.” 

“Yes, sir,” I replied, true to my roots. 

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 5 — CHEVY MAN

SNAPSHOTS | PART 2 — FIRST CONTACT 

“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.

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 3 — TANGLE

SNAPSHOTS | PART 1 — LEAVING 

Childhood memories are like polaroid photos in an old dusty box. 

They don’t provide a cohesive autobiographical narrative, only brief flashes of insight into the murky past. You sort through the random images, shuffling them like playing cards, until one of them finally whispers to you, and a shard of memory is revealed, darkly, like a half-forgotten scent or song fragment. 

It is from these small, disparate clues that you must fashion your origin story. But each time you take the box down from the shelf, there seem to be fewer snapshots inside. 

It’s the summer of 1978 in Columbus, Georgia. A U-Haul is parked in front of our little apartment at Warm Springs Court. Daddy Bill and I are loading our last few boxes into the back of the truck. 

Daddy Bill Matheny | Summer 1978 
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA
 

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asks. He’s been calling me “Bub Man” lately instead of Little Bub, and it feels right. I’m 12-and-a-half now, not a little kid anymore, and we’re about to begin a whole new life, far away from this place. 

The past year was an emotional roller coaster. Up and down, love and loss. Dad finished his seventh year at Brookstone School on a high note, winning a prestigious teacher’s award from the city and having the yearbook dedicated in his honor. Then he abruptly resigned. Devastated by divorce, he slept for days at a time, rarely coming out of his room. “The doctor has me on tranquilizers,” he explained. When finally he emerged from the darkness of depression, other women came around, comforting him, playing mother to me, and we were happy for a time. But eventually they left, too. 

When Dad’s last great love, Judy Mehaffey, moved to Nashville to pursue a songwriting career, her teenage son Jay came to live with us. Welcoming Jay into our home made sense. Our families were already intertwined. Jay’s mom and my dad, who still loved one another, were now prolific penpals. Jay’s older sister Kim, away at college, had been my babysitter and Dad’s star student at Brookstone. Kim and Jay’s father Lem (divorced from Judy, estranged from Jay) was the landlord of our little apartment complex. 

Confused? Welcome to my world. The important thing is this: for one glorious summer I had a brother. 

I was an only child who never especially wanted siblings. I cherished my solitude and was never bored. Daddy Bill and I were pals, and if I needed more companions there were always plenty of kids in the neighborhood. But Jay’s arrival in the summer of ’78 was right on time. 

We lived in a small, two-bedroom apartment. Jay slept on our couch and made the living room his domain. As a tween on the precipice of puberty, I was utterly fascinated by this confident, lanky 17-year-old now living in our midst. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world, the way he immediately made himself at home, blasting Frampton Comes Alive on the stereo, watching Midnight Special on the tube, drinking Sprite, talking on the phone, holding court. I didn’t even try to play it cool. I thought Jay hung the moon, and he knew it. 

Jay Mehaffey | Summer 1978   
Warm Springs Court, Columbus GA 

Dad knew it, too. Inviting Jay to move in may have sprung from a desire to help Judy, but it turned out to be the very best thing for all of us. Jay had a stabilizing influence in our home. His arrival prompted Dad to come out of his cave. Order was restored. We kept the pantry stocked, shared household chores, enjoyed regular meal times, and took road trips together.

Jay showed me how to assert my independence. Prior to Jay, I was Daddy Bill’s little sidekick, not so much a separate entity as an extension of his adult persona. I perceived Dad’s needs as my own; his moods became my moods. After Jay, I was my own man. There were three of us now, each with his own desires and responsibilities. We were a family. 

But Jay was more to me than an ersatz older brother. He was like a cosmic life coach, sent by the universe to guide me through the emotional, hormonally turbulent life transition from boyhood to early adolescence. Our alliance felt all the more momentous because we knew it to be temporary. Summer’s end would mean our separation. Jay would stay in Columbus to finish high school, and I would move out west with Daddy Bill. Dad had accepted a new teaching position in Tucson, so that was where I would turn 13, begin junior high, and meet my destiny. 

If Jay felt it was a drag to have a shadow that summer before his senior year, he certainly never showed it. He introduced me to his friends and let me tag along on their outings. He helped me find a job mowing lawns, taught me how to pop a wheelie on my bike, and hipped me to all kinds of music. At night I would make a pallet on the floor between the couch and coffee table, so we could continue talking into the wee hours. I’d stretch out flat, parallel to Jay on the couch above, and imagine that we were real brothers, sharing a room with bunk beds. 

Our late night heart-to-hearts offered a crash course in what I should expect from life over the next few years. We talked about all the things I didn’t feel comfortable discussing with my father: cliques, crushes, flirting, fighting, parties, popularity, petty rivalry, peer pressure, the prom. I asked Jay all about the rituals of dating and how to talk to girls. He answered solemnly in great detail, stressing the importance of things like having plenty of money (chicks are expensive), when to give a girl your letterman jacket (only if you’re serious), and how to unhook a bra clasp (always use both hands). He spoke earnestly, as if he’d been tasked with a sacred mission of passing along his accumulated teen wisdom. I was riveted and hung on his every word. 

Jay and I haven’t really stayed in touch since then, except to exchange Christmas cards once or twice, the way men do. But I sure hope he knows how important he was to me that summer, and how grateful I remain. 

When the moving van showed up I was ready. Packing up was a breeze. After all, I’m the minimalist son of an anti-capitalist. We didn’t have that many possessions to begin with. Plus, we’d already moved several times before, so I knew the routine: put your stuff in boxes; say goodbye to all your friends. 

Moving days are always bittersweet, but this one felt different. Inspired by everything I learned from Jay, I was committed to reinventing myself. I divided my belongings into two piles. One pile comprised only the essential things I’d need in my new life out west: clothes, books, trumpet, bike. We loaded them onto the truck. The other pile was all the “kid stuff” I would leave behind forever: comic books, action figures, toys.

Word got around quickly and the neighborhood kids descended like vultures. I sold everything I could and gave away the rest, pocketing a little over five hundred dollars.

“You about ready to hit the road, Bub Man?” Daddy Bill asked. “You bet,” I replied, climbing into the cab.

I didn't look back as we headed west. To the future.

Next:
SNAPSHOTS | PART 2 — FIRST CONTACT

UP IN THE AIR | PART 3 — CITIZEN OF THE WORLD 

“Remember, you’re not alone. 
You’re part of an international 
brotherhood of artists and musicians. 
We’re all in this together.” 

—Art Farmer 


I aspire to be a Citizen of the World. 

A world citizen is a xenophile whose identity transcends geography. Rather than swearing allegiance to a particular nation, ethnicity, or religion, the world citizen treats everyone with equal respect, and derives his rights and responsibilities from membership in the human race at large. He endeavors to be a man for all people. 
 

I aspire to be a Citizen of the World.

Art Farmer was such a man. At the height of his success, as his Jazztet was winning American popularity polls, Art relocated to Vienna, Austria, then commenced to tour internationally for decades. His extensive discography includes dozens of collaborations with musicians all over the world. Near the end of his storied life and career, he was awarded both the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor our nation bestows upon a jazz musician, and the prestigious Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class

World Citizen Art Farmer received the highest honors in both America and Austria 

Art had been an adventurer ever since he was a teen, when he and twin brother Addison set out for Los Angeles in search of their destinies. But even after many productive decades in the music business, Art never lost his humility or curiosity. He knew that his chosen career of traveling musician granted admission to the global creative class, an identity he cherished as the foundation of his enlightened worldview. 

“Remember, you’re not alone,” Farmer told a room full of aspiring jazz students at Stanford University. “You’re part of an international brotherhood of artists and musicians. We’re all in this together.” 

Art Farmer’s philosophy resonated deeply with me, perhaps even more than his brilliant, lyrical music. He was “beyond category,” a true Citizen of the World, and I was inspired to live by his example. 

In the years since my mentor’s passing, I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many opportunities for international travel with family, friends and fellow musicians. Occasionally I experienced little more than a hotel and concert hall, but whenever time would allow, I made sure to get out, see the sights, and break bread with the locals. I’ve watched the sunrise in Tuscany, climbed the cliffs of Santorini, serenaded penguins in Patagonia, viewed fireworks over Bangkok, and listened to evening prayers echo through the streets of Jakarta. I’ve visited an artist in Kyoto, a tea master in Uji, a winemaker in Alsace and a chocolatier in Brussels. I’ve met so many fascinating people in my travels, several of whom have become lifelong friends. 

I’m grateful to the bandleaders who invited me to be part of their international adventures, notably Suzan Lesna, Keiko Osamu, and especially Amina Figarova, with whom I recorded two albums and performed in a dozen different countries on tour. For several years in the late nineties and early aughts, Amina and her husband Bart generously hosted me at their home in the Netherlands each fall, an annual residency that enriched my life beyond measure. I love and admire them both as artists, friends, and world citizens. 

It was my privilege to record two albums with Amina for Munich Records 


Although I never became a pilot (holding out for a jetpack, I suppose), I never missed an opportunity to fly, and the long international flights were often most luxurious. Singapore Airlines provided big leather chairs, soft lighting, and an array of Asian delicacies. British Airways offered formal tea and cakes; Japan Airlines served sake and sushi. Virgin Airlines had spa treatments and sleeping pods. And KLM, my favorite, boasted a gorgeous cohort of leggy blonde stewardesses, whose fitted blue uniforms and winning smiles harkened back to the Golden Age of Air Travel. 

The airports, however, were chaotic, unpleasant places. Everyone was on high alert after 9/11. Departure meant grappling with the recently formed TSA, whose agents relished their nascent power like freshly minted mall cops. Arrival meant trying to appear inconspicuous under the gaze of scowling soldiers, in full riot gear, with machine guns. 

We learned to allow an extra hour or two for security screening, during which agents would empty our bags, disassemble our instruments, pat us down and shout commands over the hum of x-ray scanners. “Empty your pockets! Take off your belt and shoes! No liquids!” On one occasion I was pulled out of line, strip-searched down to my socks, and interrogated. “What is this?” barked the agent, holding up my tiny bottle of valve oil. “And exactly what sort of name is Dmitri?” he demanded suspiciously, squinting at the random assortment of stamps in my passport. 

But it wasn’t always so bad. One of my favorite airport memories was arriving in Baku, Azerbaijan for the 2002 Caspian Sea Jazz Festival. I’d been working with Amina for several years, and was thrilled to see her ancestral homeland for the first time. I wanted to find out what sort of Silk Road Shangri-La could produce such a regal, charismatic bandleader. I nicknamed Amina “The Diva,” and often teased her about her aristocratic lineage and manner, but I didn’t fully appreciate where she was coming from until that day. 

We arrived in Baku exhausted, to long lines of weary, grey-faced travelers. Prepared for a long wait at customs, we took our place at the back of the crowd. Suddenly a dapper gentleman in a dark suit appeared beside us. He smiled warmly, greeted us by name, placed our passports in his breast pocket, and handed Amina a giant bouquet of flowers, kissing her on both cheeks. The distinguished official then ushered us briskly through the crowd, past customs, down a private corridor and straight outside, where a ceremonial honor guard stood waiting at attention beside a row of shiny black town cars. “Apparently Amina is kind of a big deal around here,” I muttered to no-one in particular. 

I was right. The whole band was wined, dined, and treated like royalty. There were welcome gifts, guided tours, shopping excursions to the Taza Bazaar, and even a special banquet in Amina’s honor. We feasted on grilled lamb, champagne and caviar, serenaded by a traditional darbuka ensemble complete with belly dancer, who danced with all of us after dinner. The evening concluded with an astonishingly long series of celebratory cognac and vodka toasts to Amina, her family, and the band. It was a glorious evening. 

the whole band was wined, dined, and treated like royalty 

The festival itself was a triumph of concerts, workshops, jam sessions and creative collaboration. I’ll never forget the delightfully surreal evening we spent at the Caravan Jazz Club, where we performed the funk classic “Pass the Peas” with an international superband of Sax ’N Hop (Germany), Toots Thielemans (Belgium), our quintet (Azerbaijan, Belgium, Netherlands, USA), and half a dozen hungry young horn players. 

But the great highlight was our concert at the historic Respublika Palace theater. We played our hearts out, and the band never sounded better. Amina’s modern jazz compositions, especially the ones inspired by traditional Azeri folksongs, were a huge hit with the hometown crowd. The audience cheered wildly. 

the highlight was our concert at the historic Respublika Palace theater 

 

20 years later, I still aspire to be a Citizen of the World, but no longer wish to to travel so far, or so often. Touring is a young man’s game, and my jet-setter days best be behind me.

My new dream is a little more down-to-earth. I’m now in the market for a small camper van with a bed in the back, a simple “tour bus” in which my dog Scout and I can ramble around the western states together.

We’ll take our time, travel the back roads, see the sights, and break bread with the locals. 

And who knows? I might even play a gig or two.

SAVE OUR STAGES 

All the world’s a stage, 
and all the men and women merely players. 
They have their exits and their entrances, 
and one man in his time plays many parts.
 
—William Shakespeare 


Don’t it always seem to go 
that you don’t know what 
you got ’til it’s gone? 

—Joni Mitchell
 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about stages recently. Concert stages, stages of life, and all the stages on which we perform, both literally and figuratively. 

Social media is itself a kind of performance space, where people gather for creative expression and the exchange of ideas. Depending on the user, social media may offer an elevated platform for high-minded art and ideals, an open forum for lively discussion and debate, or a cynical echo chamber of fear mongering, conspiracy peddling, virtue signaling and performative activism. (Or you can just post puppy photos!)

The virtual stage provided by live-streaming technology has been a godsend for performers during the shutdown, enabling us to stay active and remain in touch with friends and fans. When all the nightclubs and concert halls went dark, musicians from every genre took to the internet almost immediately, becoming virtual “buskers” overnight. I used a platform called “StageIt” to produce my Quarantunes series of live-streaming solo shows.

I used a platform called “StageIt” to produce my Quarantunes series of live-streaming solo shows

Don’t get me wrong. Live-streaming is no substitute for the real deal. But it can be thrilling to play for an international audience without ever having to leave the house. Food for thought as we consider the post-pandemic commute. 

Of course, real life also offers myriad opportunities to perform. Willy Shakes was really onto something when he penned his famous “All The World’s A Stage” monologue. Like actors in a play, we inhabit various roles at different stages of life: the good son, the good spouse, the good worker, the good friend, the good man. 

As I look back over my own life and career, I can identify seven stages of development. Starting from juvenescent beginner’s luck, I survived adolescent optimism bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect, then as an adult, progressed through confirmation bias and plenty of denial before arriving at my current position, somewhere between middle aged rationalization and senior citizen rosy retrospection. (Shout out to Wikipedia for the psychobabble refresher!)

Through it all, my refuge and sanctuary has been the concert stage, a sacred space where artists and audiences meet in search of a shared transcendent experience. As the immortal Bobby Hutcherson once told me, “Think of the bandstand as an altar. Music is a spiritual calling, and the stage is our church.” 

The Immortal Bobby Hutcherson 

Mr. Hutcherson’s wise words carry extra resonance today, as the pandemic threatens to permanently shutter many of our most beloved venues. Ours is a precious and precarious ecosystem which we must never take for granted.  

The relationship between artist and venue is a symbiotic one. Simply put, we need each other. Too often, however, relations between performers and those who hire them are perceived as adversarial. If you don’t believe me, ask your musician friends whether they happen to know any jokes about club owners.

Those jokes don’t seem so funny now. After fifteen solitary months of playing my horn to an unseen audience over the internet, I’m jonesing hard for a real gig with a real band in a real venue. I miss the creative collaboration, intimacy and immediacy of live performance. Most of all, I miss seeing the faces of people in the audience as we experience the miracle of music together.

Small venues have been hit especially hard by the pandemic shutdown. Many went out of business almost immediately. Of those remaining, ninety percent report that they are at risk of closing without additional financial assistance. 

Enter Save our Stages, a bipartisan bill to provide billions of dollars in relief grants for venues. Recently signed into law as part of President Biden’s economic recovery plan, the Save Our Stages act is not perfect, but it’s a start. As Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar points out, “Independent venues were some of the first establishments to close down and will likely be some of the last to open. I refuse to sit by and let the music die.”

Save Our Stages is an emergency relief fund for live event venues and promoters 

She's 100% correct, and we all must do whatever we can to help. #saveourstages

Presently, as we anticipate turning the corner on COVID-19, there is reason for hope. My buddy Ed, a jazz guitarist and concert promoter in Ashland, Oregon, optimistically predicts a post-pandemic gold rush for events. He believes that audiences, having been deprived of live music for so long, will return in record numbers, more motivated than ever to buy tickets and support the arts.

Makes sense to me. The global health crisis provided us all with a chance to pause and reevaluate which things in life matter and which things don’t. I, for one, have learned that live music matters immensely, and stages are absolutely essential.

Joni Mitchell said it best: you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone.

MY THREE DEMONS 

“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.”

―Anaïs Nin

 

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.

HIGH ANXIETY 

It’s not just about me and my dream
of doing nothing. It
s about all of us!

—Peter Gibbons

Now is the age of anxiety.
—W.H. Auden 

Don’t make me dance.
—Lilia 

 

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.

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 5 — THE ROAD AHEAD 


“Adulthood and what they call maturity is 
the slow acceptance of what you will never be.” 
—Bryan Callen 


“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” 
—Jason Isbell 


As of today, about 71 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, representing 22 percent of the total US population. As the shots-in-arms number rises, so do our spirits. Restrictions on travel and events have already begun to relax. Folks are starting to get back out there. 

Progress is slower globally. According to UNICEF, 130 countries have yet to administer a single dose, leaving 2.5 billion people out of luck in the worldwide vaccination effort. Doses remain scarce in many countries, despite resource-sharing programs like COVAX. Same storm, different boats. 

Meanwhile, new COVID-19 variants continue to emerge. The experts are now saying that coronavirus will never be totally eradicated. It has already spread too far and is changing too fast. The primary goal of public health efforts is now to make the virus manageable, like seasonal flu. We may need to get a coronavirus shot every year. 

So hope in the air, but so is trepidation. We now consider the road ahead. 

I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine last month, and am scheduled for shot number two this weekend. With cautious optimism, I decided to dip my toe in the water, and agreed to play a couple of socially-distanced jazz festival gigs and teach at an adult jazz camp next month. 

Did I make the right call in accepting these jobs? The decision seemed reasonable at the time, but as May approaches, I can feel my blood pressure going up.

I'm nervous! Covid cases continue to rise, and hospitalizations have plateaued even as vaccinations increase. This thing is far from over. But health concerns are only a part of my ambivalence. 

This year in lockdown has taught me a great deal about myself as an artist and as a man. To put it simply, I’m not entirely sure that I even want to return to public life. 

When I was a young man, I believed that I was part of a sacred continuum. I regarded my musical heroes as ancestors, and felt that it was my responsibility to take up their mantle and follow their example. I fully expected that one day I would join them, in the grand succession, on Olympus. 

As I got older, I began to think about my legacy. I had no protégé, no students, and no children, yet I saved every concert program and news clipping. I imagined that these items would be valuable to future historians, biographers, and curators of retrospective exhibitions about my life and career. I even lugged my memorabilia around in a giant footlocker, which I called The Dmitri Museum without a trace of irony. 

 

The Dmitri Museum

 

When I hit midlife, after I'd been making a living in music for awhile, I began to realize that my career held no great significance. I’m neither a virtuoso nor an innovator. I can play, but my simple songs and modest independent recordings are not likely to be remembered by history. 

After some soul-searching I made peace with the demotion and embraced the more realistic role of blue collar bandleader. I'd lost interest in collecting museum exhibits anyway, so I scanned a few items, tossed the rest, and focused all my energies on filling the schedule. 

“If I’m not going to be important,” I thought, “I can at least be busy.” Over the next decades my bands and I spent over two hundred nights a year on the road, playing thousands of shows for small audiences in intimate venues. I took pride in our success, but I also felt like the dog that caught the car ... now what? 

Then came the big Pandemic Pause Button, and with it the chance to stop, think, and ask the big questions. Am I happy? Why did I choose this life? What other paths might I have taken? Should I stay the course, or find a new way? 

The first few weeks of the shutdown were especially challenging. My ego was attached to my manufactured identity as one of the hardest working, busiest cats around, and that had been taken away. I felt defanged and emasculated. But as weeks turned into months, I began to let all that go. Gradually I settled into a new rhythm. 

The pace of life during lockdown slowed to a stroll, my preferred tempo in all things. Each day was perfectly balanced: a little writing, a little teaching, a lot of relaxing. I puttered around the house, played my horn, wrestled with the dog, and took naps. I spent time outdoors, walking, gardening and fishing. I enjoyed home-cooked meals with Sassy and heart-to-heart talks with faraway friends. 

We also watched tons of movies. One that I found particularly inspiring was Harry Dean Stanton’s final picture Lucky, in which a 90-year-old man comes to terms with his own mortality in a small desert town. 

 

Harry Dean Stanton in Lucky (2017)

 

Lucky finds enlightenment in the minutia of life. “He has a routine,” observes film critic Matt Zoller Seitz, “and like many older people, it gives shape to his days.” Yes, indeed. 

Like Lucky, I’m a non-religious seeker, and ritual is important to me as I prepare for my own senescence. This year provided an unexpected, welcome preview of what daily life will be like when I retire. I was surprised to learn that I love this simple life, and that even without music and travel, I’m still me. 

This year of Liminal Time was a gift from the universe, an opportunity to reevaluate foundational assumptions. For example, as a child I was taught to see myself as a winner, and that idea was reinforced every time I excelled in school, work, music, life. But how can you be a winner if you never try things outside your comfort zone? How can you be a winner if you never attempt something at which you might lose? 

All my life I’ve parsed the world into two absurd, Randian categories: “things that matter” (where I win), and “things that are a foolish waste of time” (where I never lose, because I refuse to participate). I now see that what I believed to be discernment was actually a childish defense mechanism against the inevitable shame of failure. 

This cartoonish worldview served me for awhile as a useful delusion. It gave me strength during times of adversity. But it also deprived me of valuable life experience and depleted my capacity for empathy. It hindered my ability to make friends, because whenever I dismissed something as foolish, I would be equally dismissive of those who enjoyed or excelled at that thing. 

Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances. Art also said that there is really no such thing as losing. “There’s only winning or learning.” What he didn’t say, but I now believe, is that of the two, learning is best. 

 

Art Farmer was 100% correct when he told me that I don’t take enough chances.

 

Looking ahead, I’m not sure what my new normal will look like, but I hope to fashion a more balanced lifestyle, one with less busyness and more curiosity.

I do still have some ambition in the tank. I'll surely write more music, play more concerts, and record at least one more album before I call it quits. But I also feel the need to make space in my life for frivolous hobbies, silly games, small talk, chance encounters with strangers, taking chances, and exploring new interests. 

I’d like to spend fewer nights on the road. It’s time to begin my transition from “touring musician” to “northwest composer” and eventually “eccentric old guy at the diner.” 

The fact is, I may have no choice in the matter. Competition for post-pandemic work will be intense. Many venues, including several of my longtime clients, have gone out of business during this crisis. Others are now booking bands at unrealistically low wages. Most won’t return to live music at all until capacity restrictions are lifted. #SaveOurStages 

But if this year has taught me anything, it’s that work for work's sake is overrated. Been there, done that.

The new goal is a smaller, simpler, more sustainable life.

One shaped by ritual and routine, punctuated by moments of discovery and wonder.

That’s the life for me.

THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT | PART 1 — PHYSICAL HEALTH 

One year ago this week, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and we began sheltering in place. 

I took the warnings seriously, even though staying home meant figuring out how to pay the bills while simultaneously transitioning from touring performer to online music teacher (aka “building the plane as you fly it”). Planning for the worst while hoping for the best, I also took the opportunity to update my will and put my affairs in order. I resolved to hunker down and wait this thing out until it’s safe to get out there again. 

As you may remember, when this shutdown first began we were told to be patient, because “it could take several weeks before things return to normal.” Those weeks turned into months. Now it’s been a full year. 

Yesterday I received my first dose of the Moderna (aka Dolly Parton) vaccine. Hooray! Over 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated so far. According to the CDC, we should all continue to observe safety protocols until we reach about 80%, at which point we’re likely to achieve herd immunity. 

Why is this man smizing? After a full year of sheltering in place, he just received his first dose of Dolly Vax
 

So we’re now in a kind of arms race — a shots-in-arms race, if you will — against the dual forces of vaccine hesitancy and the evolving COVID-19 variants. The idea is to get most of the populace immunized before the virus mutates so much that the available vaccines become ineffective. 

Unfortunately, some states have already jumped the gun, prematurely abolishing mask-wearing laws. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson observes that such actions are “like designating a peeing section of the swimming pool.” 

Here in Lewis County, Washington, it’s fashionable to resist any attempts to suspend individual freedoms in the interest of public health. In other words, folks around these parts don’t take kindly to the government telling us what we can and cannot do. 

But even here, people seem to be getting the message. Our pop-up drive-thru vaccination site at the Lewis County Fairgrounds is proving to be very popular. I even noticed, in the long line of vehicles waiting for the vaccine, several campaign bumper stickers for our disgraced former president, who received his own immunization in secret after calling the pandemic a hoax. Sigh. 

Although many protested against state-mandated health measures,
Lewis County residents are now lining-up for vaccination

In the future, after this deadly pandemic is well behind us, those of us who were fortunate enough to survive may find it difficult to remember all the troubles we collectively endured over this past year. Beyond the considerable health and safety concerns, the coronavirus era has also been an unprecedented time of economic hardship, social unrest, political instability, ecological imbalance and existential crisis. 

So much struggle and sacrifice, fear and frustration, grief and loss. We worry about our sick friends, and we mourn those who died during the shutdown, including non-Covid deaths like that of my father, who succumbed to Parkinson’s while in hospice, just before Christmas, 1500 miles away. 

It’s been a long, hard year. Yet even as we reflect on its ravages, and at the risk of seeming insensitive to the suffering of others, we must acknowledge that some positive things have also transpired.

For example, my immediate family and I have enjoyed better health during this global pandemic than before it began. Ironic, 
I know.

You see, chronic low-grade illness is an occupational hazard for the touring musician. Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, we ply our trade among the great unwashed, exposing ourselves to all manner of viruses and infections on the road. 

It’s always something. You get food poisoning at a roadside diner. That night you go to work anyway, because what can you do? A fellow musician gives you a hug, and afterward you notice she has the sniffles. On the flight home, everybody is coughing and sneezing. Each day is another chance to catch a bug and pass it along to someone else. 

But it turns out, when you remove travel and social interaction from the equation, good health returns. In fact, during this year at home, no-one at my house was even mildly sick. Not once! Apparently, staying home not only limits your chances of exposure to coronavirus, it also provides a bulwark against the flu, upset stomach, sore throat, even the common cold. 

Home-cooked meals heal body and soul, especially when you harvest fresh vegetables from the garden

I’ve even lost weight! During this lockdown, I’ve been able to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest and practice good sleep hygiene, all with a consistency that I found impossible to maintain when traveling. 

Dare I say it? This health crisis has been good for my health. 

Next: 
THE HUNKER BUNKER REPORT
Part 2 — FISCAL HEALTH

FAME! PART 3 — MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU 

The old man was right. Fame is folly. The music business is no meritocracy. But sometimes the good guys do win. 

I’m gratified by the success of many of my friends and former schoolmates, now making names for themselves on the world stage. But I no longer expect to join their Olympian order. Age and experience have tempered my aspirations. As comedian Bryan Callen observed, “maturity is the slow acceptance of what you will never be.” 

I’m grateful to have at least achieved my dream of making a living as a touring musician and recording artist. And I’m thankful for all the truly extraordinary people I’ve been fortunate to know and collaborate with along the way. 

Recently, while sorting through some sheet music, I stumbled upon one of my old newsletters from the late 1990s. It occurs to me that the closest I ever came to any kind of notoriety was during that period, in the years right around the dawn of the new millennium. For that brief little stretch, the universe really seemed to smile on me. 

Starlight Cafe (1998) with Darrell Grant and bassist Bill Douglass

Starlight Cafe, my third CD for Monarch Records, was a modest success. The album received very good reviews and enough airplay on jazz and college radio that we were able to tour most of the year, returning to San Francisco each spring for our annual home season. Monarch promoted the new release with listening stations at flagship Virgin and Tower record stores, placement on airline in-flight channels, and full page ads in the jazz trades. Meanwhile, our excellent publicist worked wonders for us in the print and broadcast news media. It felt like we were everywhere.
 

Home Season performance at Yoshi's (Oakland CA) with vocalist Mary Stalling | photo by Stuart Brinin
 

“My stellar ascension has begun,” I thought naively. Gigs were plentiful. I was traveling internationally and meeting my heroes. Strangers were beginning to recognize me on the street. My phone never stopped ringing. Life was good. 

Looking back, I was the oblivious beneficiary of a momentary upsurge in this highly mercurial business. I didn’t know that we were in a boom economy, overdue for a downturn. Nor was I aware of quite how many previously closed doors had opened to me only because good people like Art Farmer, Herb Wong, Orrin Keepnews or Merrilee Trost had “put in a good word.” 
 

Art Farmer (1928-1999)
hero, mentor, friend

I was too inexperienced to see how my own good fortune was predicated on the hard work, personal connections and financial investments of other people. I was too busy and self-involved to question whether or not I deserved all the attention. I just thought my career was (finally) taking off. 

One night, upon arriving at a black tie gala in San Francisco with my bond trader wife, the event photographer crossed the room to greet us. “Well, well, if it isn’t my favorite couple, Rich and Famous,” he said archly. “She’s rich, and he’s famous.” Delightful. 

On another occasion I dropped off some clothes at the local dry cleaner. The proprietress, a lovely woman from Hong Kong named Mei, had clipped a recent news article about me from the Chronicle and attached it to the lobby wall. 

“Everybody see?” she said to the waiting customers in broken English. “My client! Very famous musician!” 

I was astonished. But when I returned a few days later to pick up the dry cleaning, the clipping had vanished. In its place was a New York Times article about composer John Adams! 

“Aw, Mei, you replaced me,” I pouted, feigning hurt feelings. “Is Mr. Adams your favorite client now?”

“Oh, yes!” she replied matter-of-factly. 

“He much more famous than you.”

 

Next:
FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY

LULLABY 

the smell of the rain 
the sound of the train 
my dog by the fire 
home again
 

As a boy in rural Tennessee, Billy Matheny slept in an attic bedroom, the slanted ceiling only a few inches above his bed. The Matheny house had a tin roof that sang when it rained, and the sound of raindrops would serenade young Billy to sleep. So Billy treasured the rain. And when he grew up, he passed that treasure along to his own son like a beloved family heirloom. 

The rainstorms in Georgia were magnificent.  

At the first thunderclap, Daddy Bill would throw open all the doors and windows of our little apartment, so we could enjoy the breeze and wait for the rain. If I close my eyes, I can still see him, puffing his pipe in that wingback chair, his legs crossed casually, unlaced hushpuppies hanging off the ends of his narrow naked feet.  

Sometimes there would be soft music playing on the turntable -- James Taylor perhaps, or Miles Davis -- but usually we would just sit and listen to the rain as it came down out of the clouds, into the pines, and onto the red clay just outside our open door.  

I remember hearing the peaceful, percussive patter of raindrops on the kudzu, accompanied by the low rumble of distant thunder. The aroma of Daddy Bill’s cherry blend tobacco. The fresh scent of damp earth. A sensory symphony of sounds and smells. 

As the storm grew more intense, Daddy Bill would cheer the crescendo, appreciating nature’s performance.

Then he’d look over at me with twinkly eyes and say, “Welp, it’s really coming down out there, Little Bub. Let’s go for a walk.” 

And just like that we would venture out into the storm, splashing along the sidewalk together. No umbrellas. No slickers or galoshes. Just the two of us, man and boy, in our street clothes, soaking wet and laughing. The neighbors must have thought we were out of our minds.

Dad and I moved from Georgia to Arizona in the summer of 1977, just in time for monsoon season.

The Arizona heat was exactly as advertised -- damn near unbearable -- but those dramatic summer storms were something else. They cleansed the land, revitalized flora and fauna, and replenished our spirits. 

We knew that rain-walking would be a bad idea in the Sonoran Desert around Tucson. The topography is flat, vegetation is sparse and low to the ground, and lightning routinely strikes anything vertical.

No matter. We were thrilled to appreciate the monsoons from the safety of our screened-in patio -- an exhilarating, fully immersive experience.

The rain would pour down all at once in a heavy torrent, punctuated by brilliant flashes of crackling electricity that filled the sky, turning the saguaro cacti into stark silhouettes. The river beds filled up and overflowed their banks, flooding the roadways. Sheets of rainwater pelted our windows relentlessly. Peals of thunder rattled the adobe walls.

It was glorious. 
 

Over the years, no matter where I happened to live or travel, the rain has remained a loyal friend.

At Interlochen I would sit on the dock and watch raindrops dance on the surface of Green Lake. In San Francisco, where I lived for 20 years, it wasn't uncommon for the entire month of January to be wet. Even in Boston’s Back Bay, where winter weather vexed my college years, thunder showers were a rare gift. I would sit at the Trident Bookstore Cafe, writing letters, drinking coffee and daydreaming as stormy skies benevolently baptized the red bricks of Newbury Street. 

Rainy weather has been my welcome companion on the road, throughout the Americas, and around the world. Whether gentle or tumultuous, her arrival always feels like a personal message of support from the universe, assuring me that everything is going to be just fine.

Here in Washington State, where I now live with my girlfriend Sassy and our dog Scout, I have fully embraced my birthright as an avowed pluviophile! We receive about 73 inches of rainfall annually -- nearly twice the national average -- yet folks here seldom carry an umbrella. In the Pacific Northwest, rain is simply a fact of life. 

Now when I go storm-strolling with Scout, the neighbors don’t even bat an eye. They just wave to us as we splash along happily from puddle to puddle.  

Last month, we lost my father to Parkinson’s Disease. I miss him terribly, but I also feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for everything he was and will remain, in memory. Among his many life lessons, Daddy Bill taught me to love the rain.  

Shortly before he died, I received a surprise early birthday gift from Sass: my very own tin Rain Roof, professionally installed, affixed to the awning over my bedroom window.

Such a thoughtful gift. What a tribute! What a solace!

No one knows what the future may bring, but at least for tonight, all will be well.

Tonight the rain will come, and she will sing us a lullaby.

Tomorrow is a new day.

A YEAR LIKE NO OTHER 

HINDSIGHT IS 2020

>Sigh<  What a year. 

Anxiety, uncertainty, sadness, frustration.

Isolation. Loneliness. Loss. Grief.

Hyper-vigilance. News-bingeing. Doom-scrolling. Self-medicating. 

Economic instability. Racial unrest. Joblessness, homelessness, food insecurity. 

Explosions. Invasions. Protests. Riots. Wildfires. Floods. Hurricanes. Murder hornets! Nazis! 

Police brutality. Political corruption. Voter suppression. Rampant stupidity. 

And all this during a deadly global pandemic.  

After such a year as this, can one possibly feel hopeful? Or grateful?  

For years I’ve made a modest living as a bandleader, traveling thousands of miles, playing hundreds of shows, employing dozens of musicians annually. And back in February, this was shaping up to be our most productive year yet! We had three different touring programs in the works, 217 confirmed gigs on the books, and plans for several exciting new creative collaborations.  
  
Then suddenly everything was canceled, and 2020 became a year like no other. 

THE DAMNDEMIC

For a horn player, the prospect of an invisible, airborne respiratory disease is deeply troubling.  

Some of my musical heroes were among the first killed by Covid. And many of those who recovered continue to suffer lingering symptoms of fatigue, mental fogginess and difficulty breathing.  

My conclusion: even if Covid-19 doesn’t take my life, it could very well take away my livelihood.  

I dared not risk contracting or spreading the virus. I put my affairs in order, updated my will, circled the wagons and canceled all non-essential activities. Sassy and I resolved to stay home, mask up, hunker down, and wait for the vaccine. We traveled nowhere, not even to the bedside of my father in hospice. That was especially difficult. But we were in lockdown. 

Keeping safe from Covid, however, was far from our only concern. 

FILTHY LUCRE

Unlike my colleagues with day jobs, I was a full-time musician in 2020 BC (Before Covid).  

I had no salaried teaching position, no private students. I made my living almost entirely from performances on tour.

When all our gigs were canceled, my family suddenly found itself with no income. 

How the hell were we supposed to pay our bills?! 

I thought of Art Farmer, my late, great mentor, whose wisdom has never steered me wrong.  

Art successfully reinvented himself many times over the course of his storied career. Among his invaluable life lessons, he taught that change is inevitable, and the key to survival is adaptability.  

“Eventually you learn,” he once told me, “to recognize change as the herald of opportunity.”  

Art died before the new millennium. He certainly could never have predicted what would happen to the performing arts in 2020 … but isn’t that the point?  

When the unthinkable happens, and all seems lost, new possibilities emerge. 

With that in mind, I reached out to a few trusted colleagues for advice. 

THE PIVOT

We came up with this strategy: 

    •    ask longterm clients to consider postponements rather than cancellations 
    •    where possible, convert to an internet-based, home business model 
    •    prioritize incremental income from streaming, royalties and residuals
    •    develop a range of new online digital products and services 
    •    leverage social media for advertising and virtual event promotion 
    •    sell digital downloads and custom commissions of new work 
    •    learn how to live-stream and begin playing “karaoke-style” solo shows 
    •    apply for every available pandemic relief grant and assistance program 
    •    cultivate a virtual network of individual patrons and supporters 
    •    build a virtual tip jar and begin soliciting individual contributions 
    •    launch a teaching studio and begin offering private lessons online  
    •    create distance learning curricula for music educators 
    •    present online workshops for college and high school music students 
    •    join with fellow artist/educators to produce a virtual arts festival 
    •    save money, cut costs, downsize, and sell off unwanted items 
    •    learn to do routine minor repairs on my instrument at home 
    •    plant a vegetable garden and begin growing our own food 

I’m delighted to report that we accomplished all these things and more

And with a little help from our friends, we managed to survive this turbulent year, optimism intact.  

Presently, as we prepare for the holidays at home, we’re filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude.  

GRATITUDE

We’re so grateful, for so many things. 

So grateful for my father, for everything that he was, and will remain, in memory. Grateful for his long, adventure-filled life. Grateful for his caregivers at Sedona Garden and Harmony Hospice. Grateful for his companion Nedra, and for everyone who visited, called, and loved him. Grateful that I was able to spend so much time with him over the years. Ever grateful for him, always.

Grateful for our health! We promise never again to take it for granted. 

Grateful for Sassy and Scout, for our little house, and the simple life we share. Grateful for home-cooked meals by the fire, and for the soothing sound of the rain on my new rainroof, an early birthday gift from Sass. Grateful to have a home at all, especially now, as so many are facing eviction. 

Grateful to all the essential workers, first responders, health care professionals, vaccine developers, farmers, truckers, delivery people and grocers who labored tirelessly on our behalf this year.  

Grateful for technology! As difficult as this quarantine has been, imagine how much worse it was for folks during the previous pandemic 100 years ago. At least we are able to stay in touch with one another! Grateful for many virtual heart-to-hearts via email, text and videophone! Grateful for Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, and social media. 

Grateful, too, for the things I learned during this solitary period of self-discovery. I found out, for example, that my work doesn’t define me. It turns out that I don’t actually need to perform to be happy. Grateful for this unexpected, but welcome, preview of my own future, and the opportunity to know what it will feel like when I finally get off the road and retire. I learned that the simple rituals of this rural life -- walking, reading, gardening, watching movies, listening to music, talking with a friend, playing with the dog, ruminating, puttering around the house -- these will be enough for me. How comforting! 

Grateful to everyone who voted in the recent election, despite the many attempts to disenfranchise voters. Grateful for the courageous poll workers, election officials, cyber-security experts and legal professionals who stood up against craven efforts to undermine the democratic process. 

Grateful, also, for all the brave investigative journalists, fact-checkers, whistleblowers, anti-racists, anti-fascists and compassionate activists who stand up, speak truth to power, and call out deplorable behavior. Grateful for decency. 

Grateful for family and friends, including several important people from my past with whom I reconnected this year. So grateful to have them in my life. Most of all, I’m astonished by all the good people who generously offered us help, even when we were reluctant to ask.

You kept our lights on and our creative fires burning.

You made sure that we never lost hope. 

So grateful for Adam, Amy, Andrea, Andy, Annabelle, Annette, Aragon High School, Arrivederci Wine & Jazz, Bill, BJ, BMI, Barbara, Benjamin, Beth, Bill, Bloomfield Hills High School, Bob & Sue, Brandon, Bruce, California Jazz Conservatory, Carlos, Caruccio’s, ChiChi & Kent, Chris, Clairdee, Curtis, Dan, Danielle, David, Debbie, Derek & Michelle, Destiny, Dick, Donna, Dorothy Jean, Earshot Jazz, Eastern Oregon University, Eric, Evan, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Flo, Fudgie, Geraldine, Grays Harbor College, Greg, Hillsdale High School, Hope College, Jack, Janice, Jazz Foundation of America, Jazz In AZ, Jazz Night School, Jeff, Jenny, Jerry, Jo, John, Jordan, Joseph, Josie Anne, Joyce, JP, Judith, Judy, Kander, Karen & Bob, Keith, Kelso High School, Kent, Kurt, La Grande High School, Larissa, Louise, Lower Columbia College, Lydia, Lynne, Mabey, Manieri Foundation, Marge, Mark, Mary, Mesa Community College, Michael, Michelle, Mike, Mt. Hood Community College, MusiCares, Nedra, Nine Mile Falls School District, Noal, Noir City Festival, Ott & Hunter Winery, Paradise Valley Country Club, Patti & George, Peaches & Rocket, Phyllis, Randy, Rick, RK, Rob, Ron, Ruben, Sam, Sandi, San Mateo Union High School District, Sassy, Scottsdale Unified School District, Seasons Performance Hall, Seattle JazzED, Sequoia Union High School District, Shanna, Shelley, Sheri & Julian, StageIt, Sue, Sumner-Bonney Lake School District, Susan, Swingin’ Sounds, Terry, Teutonic Wine Company, Tom, Triple Door, Vespers In The Valley, Western Washington University, West Valley College, Wind Rose Cellars, and Wilson. 

From the bottom of our hearts, thank you. We endeavor to be worthy, and pledge to "pay it forward" whenever and however we can. 

From our Quaranteam to yours: we appreciate you. Please stay safe, stay healthy, and remember that you’re not alone.  

We’re all in this together! 

Happy New Year!

~Dmitri