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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.

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.