Viewing: The Desert - View all posts

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.

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

BILL MATHENY on LONELINESS 

“In Toni Morrison’s wonderful novel Beloved, one of the black men from Sweet Home -- can’t remember whether it’s Paul D. or Stamp Paid -- says there are two kinds of loneliness.

One kind is the loneliness that looks inward, rocks back and forth, sits and stares at the walls, finally just curls into the fetal position and withdraws from the world. The other kind is roaming loneliness. That’s where the feet can’t keep still. This kind of loneliness just keeps roaming around the country. 

Well, I’ve had the first kind of loneliness. It’s hell. It ain’t very healthful either. 

From now on I’ll take roaming loneliness. At least it’s alive

At least that.”

MEETING LELA | PART 2 — CHATTANOOGA 

“It’s good to know where you come from. 
It makes you what you are today. 
It’s DNA. It’s in your blood.” 

—Alexander McQueen 

 

In 1984 I was at boarding school in Michigan when my father called from Arizona to tell me about a long-distance phone call he had received from my mother. 

Her husband Tom had died after a prolonged bout with cancer. Now a widow in her forties, Lela was back in college studying to become a registered nurse. The reason (or pretense?) for her call was to ask for my social security number. Apparently she was updating her will and wanted to list me as beneficiary. 

“But you know how Lela is,” Dad said. “According to her you stand to inherit a mountain top of all things! I promised I’d let you know … even though it’s probably horseshit.” 

“Wait, where is she?” I asked my dad. 

“Did you get an address? What’s her phone number?” 

I already knew what he would say.

“Naw, I didn’t ask. Why do you care? She’s crazy!” 

Same old stubborn Daddy Bill.

I didn’t press him. Ever since Lela’s Irish goodbye in '79, I’d grown increasingly ambivalent about her. I had many questions, but it was clear to me that they would never be answered by her or by my father. 

A few years later just before my college graduation, Dad came to visit me in Boston. He’d recently divorced wife number four and he wanted to take me on a road trip.

We spent two weeks exploring New England, including one of his favorite birding spots, Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine. I would sit on the rocks for hours, playing my horn over the Atlantic, while Dad studied the flora and fauna of Acadia National Park. 

Dmitri Matheny - Mt. Desert Island, Maine | Summer 1988


In the evenings we’d enjoy delicious seafood dinners in Bar Harbor before retiring to our hotel, where we’d crack open a Sam Adams and reminisce. Perhaps because I’d been away for several years at Interlochen and Berklee, Dad was uncharacteristically talkative, so I took the opportunity to steer our conversation to wife number two, hoping to learn a little more about their brief time together and my own origin story. 

I noticed that if I asked Dad a direct question (“How did you and Lela meet?”) he would abruptly change the subject, but if I introduced the topic in a more oblique way (“Where did you live before I was born?”) he would begin to wax nostalgic and eventually would find his own way to Lela-land. 

I’ve forgotten much of what Dad told me during these late night chin wags, but I do recall him saying that Lela was raised in Chattanooga, not by her parents but by “two old maid aunts in a big house with white columns.” Apparently Lela and several members of her family (the Aults) had experienced “nervous breakdowns” and were “taken to the nut house.” Dad also mentioned a schizophrenic and homeless uncle who was known to wander the streets naked. “Every year they’d find him, clean him up, get him dressed, and bring him to Thanksgiving Dinner,” Dad said, shaking his head, adding “that whole family was crazy.” 

I didn’t give these accounts much credence, chalking them up to a combination of heartbreak, hearsay, and hyperbole, but a few years later, when I repeated these stories to my fiancée in California, she expressed concern. “It’s important for us to know the medical history on both sides of your family,” Larissa explained, “especially since we want kids of our own.”

I agreed, so Lara and I traveled to Tennessee on a Lela fact-finding mission. We didn’t learn much about the family but we did find out a few revelatory things about my mother's adolescence.

In the microfiche archives of the Chattanooga Public Library we found the obituary for Lela’s paternal grandmother and namesake, Lela Elizabeth Ault (born Bryson) 1878-1953.

 

Lela Bryson Ault
July 26, 1878
Dec 12, 1953


Since the article included an address for the Ault family home, we drove over to take a look and, sure enough, it was a big house with white columns, looking like something straight out of Gone With The Wind. We knocked on the door but no-one answered. 

Returning to the library we discovered my mother’s Chattanooga High School yearbooks. What a find! In official school portraits between 1957 and 1960, we see Lela Ault transform from a cute, mischievous girl into a mature, sophisticated young woman right before our eyes. 

Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee
(L-R) 1957-58, 1958-59, 1959-60


Her senior photo, in particular, is striking. There’s something deadly serious and almost defiant in her expression. At eighteen she already appears to be someone of substance, and the arts-centric bio blurb beneath the image supports this impression.

It turns out that Lela Ault was not only a visual artist in high school, but a prolific singer and performer as well. Who knew?! She sang in the choir and cantata, was a featured soloist in several student talent shows, and appeared in musical theater productions of Porgy & Bess, The Pajama Game and A Star Is Born. Moreover, as a member of the art service and specialty clubs, she was invited to perform off campus for various civic organizations around town. 

Prior to this moment I had no idea that Lela was a music person. In media interviews, whenever I was asked if I came from a musical family, I always answered “not especially” and credited my father’s excellent record collection as the catalyst for my career in jazz. I was raised to believe that nurture, not nature, had set me on this path.

But here, in the pages of a midcentury high school yearbook, was new evidence that I could not ignore: photos of my biological mother on stage, five years before my birth, singing jazz standards by George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. 

Lela Ault - Chattanooga High School, Tennessee | 1959-60
Singing "Summertime" and "The Man That Got Away"

 

A few days later we visited Daddy Bill's side of the family in Cookeville, Tullahoma, and Nashville.

“Did you know that Lela was a singer?” I asked my Aunt Maxine. 

“Oh, she had a lovely voice,” she replied. “We all thought so.” 

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

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 3 — TANGLE 

“The beginning of things is necessarily vague, 
tangled, chaotic, and exceedingly disturbing. 
How few of us ever emerge from such beginning!” 

—Kate Chopin 

 

By summer’s end I’ve discovered much to love about living in Arizona. 

The regional art, music and food are outstanding. The laidback lifestyle suits my temperament. The arid landscape is as vast and peaceful as the ocean. I like the way hawks wheel and keen overhead as the majestic saguaro watch silently like sentries. And most of all, I love the glorious sunsets. 

Some part of me knows my future lies elsewhere. If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. In the meantime, this seems like a good place to begin the next chapter of life’s journey. 

 If books and movies have taught me anything, it’s that one day 
the call to adventure will require me to leave this desert. 


Today is the first day of school. Daddy Bill and I are up early for our commute to the town of Marana, just northwest of Tucson. The drive is pleasant. The sky is overcast so it’s a little cooler than usual. The university jazz station is spinning some classic Miles, always a good omen, and our little Toyota still has its new car smell. 

My spirits are high. I’m excited to begin seventh grade, although I’m not entirely sure what to expect. None of the kids in our 22nd & Craycroft neighborhood go to school out there. I only know what Dad has told me, that it’s a public school in a rural area which takes its name from the Spanish word “maraña,” meaning tangle. And last week I overheard Dad on the phone saying something about “teaching basic English to the children of migrant farmworkers.” 

This morning as we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. “Things are going to be a little different here than they were at Brookstone, son,” Daddy Bill says. “Just be patient and keep an open mind.” It sounds rehearsed, like a prepared speech. I have the feeling he’s talking to himself as much as to me. 

 As we travel the long frontage road past dusty acres
of alfalfa and cotton, I begin to understand. 


Dad was an important man at Brookstone School, and because of his position, I pretty much had my run of the place. I literally grew up there, kindergarten through sixth grade. I knew everybody, even the high school kids, and always felt safe and supported. Saying goodbye to Brookstone was the most difficult part of leaving Georgia. 

My favorite class at Brookstone was a sixth grade social studies elective called MACOS: Man A Course of Study, in which we compared innate and learned behavior in humans with that of other primates, then presented our findings to a panel of university graduate students. Our instructor James Stockdale, son of the homonymous war hero, was my favorite teacher. He taught us to be curious, question all assumptions, and believe in ourselves. 

Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life. I thrived there, but since it was the only school I’d ever known, I took its brilliant faculty and innovative curriculum for granted. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to attend such an elite private school. I wasn’t aware that we were poor, that my classmates were rich, or that my tuition had been waived as part of Dad’s teaching salary. And I certainly couldn’t have known, at the time, the degree to which being part of that nurturing scholastic community had shaped my nascent love of learning, positive self-image and sense of entitlement. 

Brookstone School cast a long shadow over my life.


I only knew that I enjoyed school. Or so I thought. 

For Dad to describe Marana as “a little different” would prove to be the understatement of the century. Far from the stately red brick lecture halls and leafy woodlands of Brookstone, the Marana campus is little more than a few cement buildings and mobile classroom trailers surrounded by dirt, asphalt and gravel.

Based on the school’s exterior, I’m prepared to be underwhelmed by whatever awaits inside. But nothing could prepare me for the physical and emotional trauma I’m about to endure at Marana Junior High School.

I show up guileless and confident, ready to hit the books and eager to make friends. But for the first time in my young life, I simply don’t fit in. Back home I was a popular kid who excelled in music, art and academics, but my study skills and work ethic are meaningless here. The only things that seem to matter at Marana are football and fighting. 

There are fist fights every single day at Marana. Clashes erupt spontaneously, for no reason and without warning.

For the first week I’m able to keep my distance. I watch with detached curiosity as the other students beat each other’s brains in. I wonder what Mr. Stockdale would think of all this violence. Is it innate or learned? And why don’t any of the teachers try to put a stop to it? 

 There are fist fights every single day at Marana. 


Later I would learn that Dad had actually tried to separate two kids who were fighting, only to receive a dressing down from his boss. “Never, ever lay your hand on a student for any reason,” Principal Dewey cautioned, “or we could be sued.” Dad was flummoxed. “Even if they’re about to kill one another?” 

I’m mystified by all the aggression, but naively not afraid for my own safety. I’m new here. I’ve made no enemies. Plus my dad is on the faculty. No one would dare. But the main reason I feel secure is because I’m a good boy. I don’t get into fights. I get along with everybody … right? 

Wrong. A skinny little southern boy with no friends who doesn’t play football? A teacher's kid, who struts around with his nose in the air, talking funny, using big words, acting all cocky and superior? At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown. 

 At Marana Junior High this is a kid who needs a beatdown. 


I’m walking to my locker after gym when out of nowhere someone shoves me against the wall. “What the hell?” I react, more startled than afraid. But before I can even get a look at my assailant he's knocked me to the ground. 

The jackals encircle us, laughing and cheering. By the time I realize we're fighting it’s too late. The kid's knees are already pressed against my upper arms, pinning me to the concrete floor. I can't move. I'm practically immobile as he punches me repeatedly in the face. 

Nobody stops the fight. Neither of us are punished. I’m literally saved by the bell as everyone goes to class, leaving me alone and vanquished. I never even learn the kid’s name or what motivated him to attack me in the first place. 

After my nose stops bleeding I wash up and change my shirt. No cuts, just a few bruises. My head hurts and my ears are ringing, but I don’t look so bad.

On the drive home Dad doesn’t even notice that I’m hurt. This is a tremendous relief. I don’t want to get in trouble for fighting, and besides, I’m ashamed. My father was a champion boxer. If he finds out I can't defend myself I’ll be humiliated. 

But I have bigger problems. Word gets around: the new kid doesn't know how to fight. It’s open season on Georgia Boy. I now have a target on my back. 

Every few days somebody jumps me. It’s not like I’m being bullied, not like on TV. It’s never the same person and there’s rarely any preamble. Nobody threatens me or tries to take my lunch money. They just start shit. I never know when the next sucker punch is coming, or from which direction. And it’s this, the sheer senseless randomness of it, that terrifies me so and makes Marana my personal living hell. Never safe. Nowhere to hide. 

I hate this school. I’m learning nothing here except how vulnerable I am. Some of these big, mean-looking boys with facial hair are obviously older kids who’ve been held back. One of them is so strong that he comes up behind me, picks me up, and throws me against the lockers. 

But it isn’t only the big kids who pick fights. One day after school I’m walking to Dad’s janky classroom/trailer to practice my trumpet. I notice a group of athletes in my peripheral vision, but they’re all walking in the opposite direction so I pay them no mind. Suddenly a short freckle-faced kid with red hair breaks from the pack and runs straight at me. I flinch but stand my ground. I’m bigger than this one. He doesn’t scare me. 

“I’m gonna kick your ass,” he says.

“I don’t even know you,” I say. “What’s your problem?” 

“I think you’re a wet bag and a pussy” he snarls. 

So I’m standing there looking at this little ginger lunatic, wondering what in the hell a wet bag could be, when he knocks the horn case out of my hand and tackles me. By now I know the drill. There’s no reasoning with these idiots. I land a few solid punches, but the impact does more damage to my fists than his face. The kid is small but he’s fast and knows how to grapple. He gets the better of me again and again. I can’t believe it: I’m losing this fight, too. 

That evening the drive home is tense. Daddy Bill is silent and agitated. I look over from the passenger seat and notice he’s gripping the steering wheel so tightly that his knuckles are white. He's pissed. Did he see the fight? Am I in trouble? 

Suddenly Dad pulls over, gets out of the car, and says “come here, dammit.” And right there, in the twilight, on the shoulder of the highway, my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me the first of several lessons in self-defense. He shows me the boxer’s stance, some footwork, how to block and parry, how to throw a jab. 

 Right there, in the twilight on the shoulder of the highway, 
my Golden Gloves-gone-pacifist father gives me 
the first of several lessons in self-defense. 


“Don’t hit ’em in the head,” Dad says. “The head is hard. Hit ’em in the kidneys!” 

The old man is full of surprises. I should have gone to him from the beginning. 

Maybe I will survive this place after all.

Now all I need is a few friends. 

Next: 
SNAPSHOTS | PART 4 — CHUBASCO

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 2 — SEASONED TRAVELER 

“You've taken your first step into a larger world.” 
—Obi-Wan Kenobi 

 

When I was first starting out, my mentor Art Farmer told me what it really takes to persevere in this business. “Do you like to travel?” he asked. “Well, get used to it, because that’s the life of a musician.” 

I was reminded of his words a few years later when I asked record producer Cookie Marenco how to get the word out about my first CD. “You just need to go on tour,” she replied matter of factly. “It’s all about the tour. Your tour schedule determines everything: which stations play your music, what stores will carry it, when publications will review it, how people hear about it, and most importantly, whether anyone buys it.” 

Such advice may seem silly in this digital age of streaming music and social media. Today, virtually anyone with the right look or gimmick has the potential to “go viral” without ever leaving home. But back in the 20th century we had no choice but to hit the road and participate in the obligatory rain dance of (jargon alert!) flacks, hacks, trades, jocks, promos, co-ops, end caps, take ones, tip sheets, and street teams. The music business was an expensive and time-consuming hustle, and the whole megillah hinged on one’s willingness to travel. 

No problem here. Daddy Bill conscripted me into the vagabond lifestyle when I was still a toddler. I pretty much grew up in the backseat of his VW Fastback. By the time I left home at age 17, we had already moved nine times and taken dozens of road trips together. 

I pretty much grew up in the backseat of Daddy Bill’s VW Fastback 

By high school and college I’d begun to hit my wayfaring stride. I saved my pennies to fly from my father’s house in the Sonoran Desert to the snowy pines of Interlochen and the slushy streets of Boston. I rambled through New England for pick-up dates in the horn sections of touring Motown and pop acts, met up with Art for flugelhorn lessons on both coasts, and journeyed to Florida and California for gigs with Berklee friends. I even maxed out my first couple of credit cards chasing a particularly enthralling girl from New York City to London, Ontario, and back again. I was a novice nomad, but was already on a first name basis with half a dozen skycaps and flight attendants. 

So by 1995, when I began touring as a bandleader in support of my debut album Red Reflections, I was already a seasoned traveler. I well acquainted with the rules of the road: pack light, arrive early, sit tight, be cool, expect delays. 

I tried to find out everything I could about how to make the most of life on the road. Hal Galper had not yet published The Touring Musician, the resource that would ultimately become my bible, so I collected travel hacks wherever I could find them. I worked with agents to find the best deals, consulted a nutritionist for health and wellness ideas, and read magazines to collect business travel tips and tricks. I even asked experienced flyers to share their secrets for gaming the system, such as how to qualify for early boarding and how to gain admission to exclusive airport lounges with fireplaces, daybeds and private showers. 

But my number one travel guru, the person from whom I learned the most, was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies. We called Ruth “Felix The Cat” because her tiny magical travel bag always seemed to hold whatever anyone needed, be it an allen wrench, gaffer’s tape, a sewing kit or cold medicine. After years of touring with blues legend Charles Brown, Ruth knew everything there was to know about life on the road. She taught me how to “advance” each stop along the tour, insuring that all our backline tech and ground transportation needs were covered, as well as how to anticipate problems and prepare for every contingency.

The person from whom I learned the most was my friend and fellow road warrior, bassist Ruth Davies

Our first tours beyond the Bay Area were to other cultural hubs out west: Los Angeles, San Diego, Seattle, Portland, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, Phoenix. Eventually our circuit expanded to include a few midwest and east coast dates as well. We were still only traveling domestically, but since concert promoters rarely covered our travel costs, we learned to leverage frequent flyer miles and points-based affinity programs to receive discounted flights and hotel stays. 

Then in the late 1990s I lucked into a quasi-sponsorship arrangement with American Airlines which enabled me to fly at no cost whatsoever. Amazing! I would volunteer a few hours each week to assist my friend Bobbi, an event promotions manager for the carrier. In exchange she gave me vouchers for free air travel throughout the United States. 

In the late 1990s I flew free-of-charge on American Airlines throughout the United States

Since these were the same certificates used by official airline personnel, gate agents would often quietly upgrade me to first class, no questions asked. Unfortunately, however, I was required to fly “stand by” and was occasionally asked to give up my seat in order to accommodate a paying customer. Plus, no matter where my final destination was, American always seemed to route me through DFW. On more than one occasion, what should've been a two-hour hop from SF to Portland turned into an all day odyssey with a long layover in Dallas.  

Crazy, right? I didn’t mind. A free flight is a free flight. Plus, by that point I had trained myself to work at the gate and sleep on the plane. I took the earliest possible flight the day before a show so that any delays would only be a minor inconvenience. And I always brought my practice mute so that even long layovers would be time well-spent. 

Whenever possible, I chose to fly out of Oakland, my home airport. OAK was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO. They let you park right in front of the terminal, check-in was a breeze, and they even played classic jazz over the public address system. Within a few minutes of handing off your bags curbside, you could be relaxing at your gate, listening to Cannonball Adderley, and enjoying a nice hot cup of Peet’s coffee and a delicious veggie burger from Your Black Muslim Bakery. 

Oakland Airport was a dream back then, much smaller and way hipper than SFO

Those were the halcyon days, before the current era of shrinking seats, lost legroom and silly TSA “security theater.” After 9/11 lots of folks gave up on air travel entirely ... but not me.

I was about to take my first step into a larger world. 

Next: 
UP IN THE AIR
PART 3 — CITIZEN OF THE WORLD

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.

RECURRING DREAMS 

Since childhood I’ve been haunted by three recurring dreams: the clown, the flying dream, and the shadow man.

THE CLOWN

I know, I know.  

Coulrophobia is is such a cliché.  

But this one’s a bonafide nightmare.  

I’m a small child in a white void, lying on my back, pretending to be asleep. With my forearm draped across semi-closed eyes, I sneak a peek at the only other occupant of this ghostly expanse: a faux-jovial, bald circus clown with a floppy ruffled collar and a cone-shaped hat.

The colors of his clothes and make-up are washed out and faded, almost grey. He reminds me a little of Krinkles, the creepy Post Cereal huckster from Saturday morning cartoons. 

Krinkles, the creepy Post Cereal clown

The clown stands nearby but faces away, cradling a bright blue, plush velvet sofa pillow in his arms. He seems oblivious to my presence as he pantomimes what appears to be a fake television commercial. Silently mouthing his sales pitch into an imaginary camera, the clown gesticulates dramatically toward the pillow as if it’s a wonderful new product.

Suddenly the clown stops smiling and becomes very still. His face loses all expression as he slowly turns in my direction. I sense that he now knows I’m here, awake and watching.

We lock eyes. A terrifying chill runs up my spine. At that precise moment, I awaken, my heart racing. 

I can't rationally explain the terror of this nightmare. What's so scary about seeing and being seen? But to this day, nothing frightens me so much as making eye contact with a clown. 

I endured these nightmares nearly every evening until my teen years when, inexplicably, they ceased. Decades later my mother Lela would mention having taken me, as a toddler, to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, but I have no memory of that experience. I do remember, however, the framed portrait of a grinning clown that she painted in oils and hung on the wall of my bedroom. 

I never much cared for that picture, especially after the nightmares began. 

THE FLYING DREAM

Curiously, my favorite recurring dream -- the flying dream -- centers around the same blue pillow. 

In this one I walk over to the sofa, pick up the pillow and take it outside.

Somehow I understand that this pillow is a talisman, imbued with magical powers.

I clutch the pillow to my chest and begin kicking my legs furiously, like a dog paddling in a pool. Gradually my body begins to levitate a few inches above the ground.

My neighbors watch in amazement. The higher I rise, the easier flying becomes, and the less I need to kick. Eventually I am able to float effortlessly in the sky, still clinging to the precious pillow as I sail above the clouds, over the town and all the tiny buildings and people below.  
 

Why does the same blue pillow appear in both the clown nightmare and the wonderful flying dream?
 

I'm so deliriously happy that I feel my heart will burst from pure joy. I fly for miles, free and fearless, knowing that I’ll remain perfectly safe as long as I don’t let go of the magic pillow. I only awaken when I realize that I'm dreaming.

Although this wondrous nocturnal fantasy began around the same time as the awful clown dream, it returned more frequently and continued far longer, well into my adult years. I’ve flown over the Great Smoky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert and the Golden Gate Bridge. But was I dreaming or astral projecting?  

It’s been a few years since my last night flight, and I miss it.

I swear, if I ever see that pillow again, awake or dreaming, I’m just gonna grab it and give it a go.  

THE SHADOW MAN

I hesitate to call this mysterious figure either dream nor nightmare. He always seem to visit during the hypnagogic twilight state between sleep and wakefulness. 

It’s always the same story: I rouse in the wee hours with the uncanny sense of being watched. I open my eyes and peer around the room into the darkness. 

I'm not alone. There, in the corner, is the Shadow Man, a dark figure in silhouette with no discernible features except for a wide, flat-brimmed hat. He faces me, yet he has no face.  
 

Is the Shadow Man watching me, or watching over me?
 

I’ve seen him many times in my own bedroom, while visiting friends, even in hotels on the road. He follows me in my travels, appearing only at night. He never moves or utters a word. If I speak to him, he doesn’t answer. If I rub my eyes or turn on the light, he vanishes.  

Apparently my experience is not unique. The internet is overflowing with accounts of shadow people sightings all over the world. This is cold comfort for me, however, since it answers none of my questions.

Who is the Shadow Man? Is he real or an hallucination? What does he want? Does he intend harm or protection? Is he watching me, or watching over me? I may never know. 

His most recent visitation was five years ago, when my dog Scout was only a few months old. I awoke to find the puppy shivering at the foot of my bed, staring into the corner, her eyes like saucers. Even before I looked, I knew he was there.

“I’ll be damned,” I thought. “She sees him, too.”

FAME! PART 4 — JUST SOME JAZZ GUY 

“Stars twinkle until they wrinkle.” 
—Victor Mature 

That was well over 20 years ago. Since then I’ve weathered many career ups and downs, working both with and without the support of managers, agents, publicists and investors. 

Although I’m now a far better musician, I can definitely confirm that the accolades are much harder-won after middle age. Youth isn’t the only thing that’s wasted on the young. 

I’ve learned that good fortune is evanescent, and fame, like the TV show, is fleeting. Our desire to to be known is really just the struggle to be seen. When we chase respect or renown, deep down what we really want is love. 

I once heard an interview with veteran actor Sidney Poitier, in which he was asked what it’s like to be famous. “People don’t really know the man so much as the name,” he replied. 
 

Sidney Poitier is an actor, director, producer, author, humanitarian and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom

He went on to describe a recent experience at a cafe. After taking his coffee order at the counter, the barista, an attractive young woman with piercings and tattoos, hands Poitier a cardboard voucher. “Have a seat and I’ll let you know when it’s ready,” she says. 

A few minutes later she calls out his name. “Sidney Poitier? Macchiato for Sidney Poitier.” Poitier approaches the counter and hands her the chit, pleased to have been recognized. She looks at it and frowns. 

“No, no, you’re Joan of Arc ... see?” She points to the name scrawled in black magic marker on the small piece of cardboard. 

“Sidney Poitier!” she calls again over his shoulder. 

“That’s mine,” says an Asian-American gentleman in the back of the room, handing her his chit as he approaches the counter. 

Don’t you love it? 

Indeed, people don’t really know the man so much as the name. 

Not only that -- sometimes they don’t even know the name! 

Case in point, here’s a cafe story of my own: 

Not that long ago I was performing in New Mexico, one of my favorite southwest touring hubs. Following successful shows in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, I arrived in Taos, a small mountain village with a population of about 5,000. I got to town early as was my custom; the rest of my band would arrive just before soundcheck. 
 

Holly Pyle and Dmitri Matheny at The Outpost (Albuquerque NM) photo by Joseph Berg

Upon checking in at the hotel, I went out in search of coffee and found the perfect spot. I settled into a corner table with my book and a cup of dark, rich, aromatic happiness. 

“First time in Taos?” the barista asked. 

“Why, do I look like a tourist?” I laughed. 

“I just happen to know most of the other folks in here,” she explained. 

“No, I love Taos. Been here many times,” I said. 

“Have you heard about the big concert tonight?” she asked. “Everybody’s going.” 

“Concert?” I asked, intrigued. “Who’s playing?” 

“I dunno,” she said. 

Just some jazz guy.

FAME! PART 1 — I FEEL IT COMING TOGETHER 

Remember the song “Fame?” 

Not the groovy David Bowie ear worm. The other one: 

Fame! I’m gonna live forever 
I’m gonna learn how to fly 
High! I feel it coming together 
People will see me and cry 
Fame! I’m gonna make it to heaven 
Light up the sky like a flame 
Fame! I’m gonna live forever 
Baby remember my name 

Remember? 

“Fame” was a major showbiz anthem of the ‘80s, a big hit for Irene Cara, and the titular theme song of a popular movie and television series. 

I watched Fame every Thursday night. I had no idea whether New York’s High School for the Performing Arts was real or fictional, but the premise of a special school for talented teens? Seemed pretty magical to me. To this day, when I hear that song I can’t help but sing along. 

Lori Singer as "Julie" in Fame

My school in Arizona couldn’t have been less like Fame. Nobody at Canyon del Oro was gonna “learn how to fly” or “live forever,” least of all some skinny little pep band trumpeter with delusions of grandeur. 

I could really see myself thriving, however, in a place like that Fame school. It wasn’t the bright lights of New York City that attracted me so much as the notion of being among my own kind. 

How glorious it would be to collaborate every day with other young creatives! Learning from experts, making music together, attending plays and exhibits, talking about art! I just knew I could find friends in a place like that, and maybe even meet a girl like Julie, the gorgeous but shy cellist/dancer on Fame (huge crush). 

So when the opportunity came along for me to transfer to a private, arts-centered boarding school, I didn’t hesitate. 

Interlochen Center for the Arts (Interlochen MI), home of Interlochen Arts Academy and National Music Camp;  Inset: pep band trumpeter with delusions of grandeur

Interlochen Arts Academy was everything I’d dreamed of, a community of misfits and eccentrics, just like me. For the first time, I was living among kindred spirits my own age: painters, sculptors, actors, dancers, writers, musicians. I was home. 

Like LaGuardia High School, on which the Fame school was based, Interlochen emphasizes both arts and academics, attracting students from all over the world to prepare for higher education while training for careers in the arts. But unlike LaGuardia, which is situated in the heart of Manhattan’s upper west side near Juilliard and Lincoln Center, the Interlochen campus in located in a rural Michigan pine forest between two lakes. 

The secluded setting made my experience at Interlochen feel more like living in an artist colony than a boarding school. The year-round Interlochen Arts Academy had grown out of the prestigious summer National Music Camp, utilizing many of the same rustic cabins, classrooms and dormitories. 

I staked out my practice spot early on: the boiler room in the basement of our residence hall. Each morning I would take my horn down there to warm up with long tones and scales before the school day began.

I loved that cozy little bunker more than all the grand stages and recital halls on campus. It was my sanctuary. When I returned to IAA many years later as a visiting artist and clinician, that room was the first place I asked to see. Although the building had been renamed, I was gratified to find that my little boiler room had not changed a bit.

Interlochen is where it all began for me, no joke. It’s where I learned the discipline required to build a life in the arts, and how rewarding the artist’s life can be.

Top: IAA Jazz Combos, DM front, second from left; Middle: performing with IAA Studio Orchestra, Corson Auditorium; Bottom: Stud Orch rehearsal, DM rear left

“You've got big dreams.
You want fame?
Well, fame costs.
And right here is where
you start paying: in sweat.”
—Lydia Grant, 
Fame

Interlochen taught me to work hard and stay humble, an ethos that would inform nearly all my future life choices.

It’s where I came to understand the artist's vaunted, leadership role in society, the public expectation to fulfill one's calling, and the private responsibility to develop one's capabilities -- not necessarily in the pursuit of fame -- but toward the creation of something meaningful and lasting. 

The pressure to succeed in our lives and careers was explicit. Students who published a poem or won a concerto competition were celebrated by the entire student body. Those elite few who were named Presidential Scholars In The Arts were treated as mini-celebrities, with a pomp normally reserved for football team captains and homecoming royalty back home in the Lonesome Desert. A day did not pass without someone “sounding the call,” enjoining the Gifted Youth to get it together, buckle down, and level up.

I recall walking to class through the Concourse, a long hall of glass display cases, where the photos and accomplishments of notable Academy graduates were displayed. Seeing all their awards and accolades, knowing that these extraordinary young women and men -- now making waves in Hollywood, Chicago, the capitals of Europe -- had started their journeys in this very place? Inspiring! Intimidating, too.

If there is an Interlochen Doctrine, it is the notion of artistic talent as both a precious gift and a sacred responsibility.

“What will you contribute?” asked one of our teachers from the stage of Kresge Auditorium, the pledge Dedicated To The Promotion Of World Friendship Through The Universal Language Of The Arts adorning the wall behind her.

“What will you create for posterity?” she challenged us. “History remembers the artists and the conquerors, creators and destroyers. You are creators! Tomorrow’s leaders. So make your lives count! We’re counting on you.” 

That kind of ideological rhetoric, grandiose as it was, really resonated with me.

I've never worked harder or had more fun than I did at Interlochen. I'm grateful to have made several lifelong friends there, too, including my mentor and jazz professor, bassist Tom Knific, now a dear colleague and frequent collaborator. 

And yes, I even got to know a “Julie” or two ... but that’s a story for another time.

Next: 
FAME! PART 2 — JAZZ FAMOUS?

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.

REMEMBERING WILLIAM D. MATHENY 

William Douglas Matheny

October 24, 1936 — December 19, 2020

William Douglas Matheny, 84, died December 19, 2020 in Tucson, Arizona.  

He was born October 24, 1936 in Nashville, Tennessee, the eldest son of William Ewing Matheny and Gladys Ella Bruce Capley Matheny.  

Bill attended Columbia High School in Columbia, Tennessee, where he distinguished himself as an honor student and a champion amateur boxer in the regional Golden Gloves competition.  

He majored in English and History at Belmont College (Nashville, Tennessee), earning his Bachelor of Arts in 1960 prior to studying Russian Language at Syracuse University (Syracuse, New York). He earned a Master of Arts In Teaching with an emphasis in Russian Studies from Vanderbilt University (Nashville, Tennessee) in 1971. 

Matheny served in the United States Air Force Security Service from 1961-63, and worked as a buyer for Castner-Knott Department Stores from 1963-70 before beginning his career as a schoolteacher. 

From 1971-78, Matheny served as Chair of the English Department for Brookstone School, a private college preparatory academy in Columbus, Georgia, where he taught English, Russian Humanities, Ornithology and Social Studies. A member of the prestigious Cum Laude Society, he was much beloved by his students, and was awarded the Columbus Chamber of Commerce “Star Teacher” award in 1977.  

Matheny relocated to Arizona in the summer of 1977, where he worked briefly in the Marana School District before becoming head of the history department at Green Fields Country Day School from 1980-89. In 1989, he helped to organize and lead a Green Fields student/teacher exchange trip abroad to Kiev, Ukraine. 

Bill was known for his intelligence, relaxed, southern charm, and curiosity about the natural world. An amateur poet, avid birder and accomplished naturalist, Matheny traveled extensively throughout North America admiring flora and fauna. He contributed to several annual bird counts for the National Audubon Society, and published the first official birding checklist for Graham County, Arizona. 

Throughout his life, Matheny generously shared his love of nature with others, inspiring many of his students, friends and family members to develop their own deep appreciation for the natural world. This is his great and lasting legacy. 

Bill is survived by his companion Nedra, his son Dmitri, stepdaughters Janice and Brenda, and his siblings, Jim, Maxine, Pat, Debbie and Dawn. 

In keeping with his wishes, there will be no funeral or memorial services.  

Those who wish to celebrate his life may make a donation in his memory to any cause or charity they choose to support.  

In Bill’s own words: “Look around. If you see someone in need, please try to help that person.”

50TH BIRTHDAY CELEBRATION 

You’re invited to 
THE NASH 
for Dmitri Matheny’s
50th Birthday Bash

It’s the ideal location 
for jazz jubilation on an auspicious occasion
our quinquagenarian celebration 
at one of the best clubs in the nation


Saturday
DECEMBER 19  
7:30 to 9:30 pm 

join us for cake, prizes, games 
and live music, featuring


Nick Manson piano
T-Bone Sistrunk bass
John Lewis drums
Dmitri Matheny flugelhorn
and surprise guests

Tickets
$15 general
$12.50 advance

THE NASH
110 E Roosevelt Street Phoenix
thenash.org | 602-795-0464