The Long and Winding Road [effective 2018.04.21]

So yesterday I made the longish drive up to San Jose for the “routine check-in appointment” with my oncologist.

We covered where I’m at, and how things have (and haven’t) progressed since they upgraded me last summer and declared me officially “advanced” now—which was, you may recall, the impetus for launching this blog in the first place.

At the time I graduated to Advanced Prostate Cancer Patient, she’d told me that, given my situation, I should expect to metastasize “within a year,” and that, on average, survivability after that point is generally a year or two. So, I brought that up with her yesterday. Because here I sit, eight months later, jaunty jolly, waiting for the damned shoe to drop and my quality of life to start getting shitty fairly quickly.

Here’s the thing: At the time they escalated my diagnosis, the “doubling rate” on my PSA count was rolling like a runaway gravel truck with blown airbrakes on a stretch of road coming off the mountain. Fast and getting faster.

So, concurrent with my newly acquired Big Boy status, they deployed some new (new to my personal ecology, not new to the field) pharmaceutical weapons which are sometimes helpful.

I’d been receiving injections of a drug called Lupron ever since my number started to creep up again a few years back. They had given it to me for several years after my radiation treatments back when I was first diagnosed in the early ’90s, but then discontinued it when things stabilized. They sent me on my way with instructions to get my PSA checked more often than the average guy, which I did.

If you’re not familiar, Lupron suppresses testosterone production. See, testosterone is like Happy Meals for prostate cancer cells, and the idea is that, by removing that from the body, you starve out the little bastards.

It’s actually pretty effective, for a while. But the thing about cancer is that it’s persistent, and creative. Eventually, when it gets tired of being malnourished, it mutates itself so it can comfortably find sustenance elsewhere, and starts replicating again like cellular level bunny rabbits.

So anyway (sorry this is so “long way ’round,” I’m tired and I guess I’m feeling like I need to spell this out at this point), I’d been back on Lupron for two or three years when they decided I’m officially Advanced (and therefore ultimately terminal) now. And, while continuing the periodic injections, they added a daily oral medication, Casadex, to the mix.

As I understand it, Casadex essentially inhibits the ability of my cancer cells to bind with ANY of the hormones in my body, including any residual testosterone, and the three or four other things I never knew we have that exist on the biological spectrum somewhere between testosterone and estrogen (which, by the way, we all have within us as well).

Often, though not always, this effectively slows down the cancer’s progression until it once more adjusts to the changing ecosystem in my body and gets cooking again.

The good news is that it seems to have worked like a champ in my case. My PSA numbers have been knocked way down, and stabilized at a level that, in a guy who didn’t have the cancer, would be just dandy. Unfortunately I do, so the effect is temporary. In time, we’ll see my numbers start to get away again; but that is then. This is now.

Anyway (finally!), what this all boils down to in the near term is this: The oncologist’s officially operable wisdom at the moment is that I can expect to metastasize one to two years from the time of my advanced restaging (last summer).

So, I’m still on the long offramp, but it’s appearing at the moment that the ramp may be a bit longer, and I may be rolling a bit slower, than we were previously led to believe. Which I embrace, without reservation, as delightful news.


There’s an old joke about the difference between an optimist and a pessimist that goes something like this.

The two old friends find themselves in The Big City for the first time, encountering that modern wonder known as the “skyscraper.” They’re standing on the sidewalk in front of a building famous for its observation deck, debating whether they should go up and check out the views.
The pessimist flat refuses to get on the elevator and go up to check it out. “I just KNOW something will go wrong and one of us will fall!” he declares.

“OK, fine,” responds the optimist. “I’m going up by myself,” he vows and steps into the elevator.
Once up on the eighty ninth floor, he heads outdoors to the observation deck and is immediately vindicated. It’s a beautiful, sunny day, and he’s standing at the highest point in the city taking it all in.
It’s so spectacular, he leans out for a better look and, sure enough, loses his footing and tumbles off into free fall.
But remember I told you he’s the eternal optimist. As he’s falling eighty nine stories to certain death, he calls out to folks looking out their office windows as he passes each story, “Doing great so far!”


Some days—hell, a lot of days any more—I find myself identifying with that mythical optimist. Yes, I know how this ends. But in the meanwhile, I’m doing great so far.

Just a little moment to share

Somewhere in a box of unsorted cassette tapes, stashed somewhere in my stuff, there is (I hope) still a tape I made of Elizabeth Cotten performing live in a tiny club (I can’t even remember the name of the establishment) on Upper Grant Avenue one night in the 1970s.
It was a magical evening for the 50 or so folks who were there.
I’ve spent a significant portion of my adult life in and around music and musicians; I can’t think of anyone more gracious, charming, and warm than Libba Cotten.
The woman (who must have been in her 80s then) just held the room in the palm of her hand all evening, exuding a center of love, peace and humility which was remarkable.
Oh, and yes. Even then, she could play and she could sing. In her simple, direct fashion, to be sure. But in a way that compelled respect; not by force, but by generosity.
One of the privileges of my life to have spent an evening breathing the same air as she.

Been quiet here too long

I actually thought of two or three fresh topics in my sleep last night, and this isn’t any of them. They’ve gone on the list on the whiteboard, and I vow I’m gonna find the time to write some of this out.
But, in the meanwhile, seems right to at least check in, show the flag, and say a little about current events in the ongoing scenic railway of my life.
What follows is essentially a cut and paste of this morning’s Facebook “status update.” But it is words. Describing events of some importance to me. And thus…

The holiday? Well, truth be told I did not observe April Fools, or either of the other major points on the liturgical calendars of believers in a couple of our major faith traditions yesterday.
I did however enjoy the opportunity to spend the weekend in the Big City with some Quality Companionship.
Dinner and a looong hang with a man I’ve known for a solid half-century, who has to be counted one of my closest friends in this life, extending into a lovely Sunday Brunch (featuring another old and valued friend) that took half a day.
Both of us are at the far end of our arcs now (though, if I had to bet money I’d say my offramp is a couple exits ahead of his, but who knows?). There was, at least for me, deep pleasure and satisfaction in comparing notes on rich lives well lived; at times together, at other points in parallel.
And, as a bonus, I even enjoyed finally having an opportunity to actually get to know his life partner of the past eight years a bit better. We’ve met a number of times, but never really the chance to get beyond surface stuff before.
 
Then, before coming back home to our little valley last night, a chance for some comfortable quality time with another City Denizen who began as an “interesting acquaintance” a few years ago, and has evolved to “good friend.” The funny thing is that we moved in so many of the same circles when I was still in SF some 40 years ago, but apparently never met.
And yet, we “have history.” So many loved ones in common, we’ve even compared enough notes to establish we were actually in the same rooms for the same shows on several, if not numerous, occasions. Have to have been a few nights we actually passed within a few feet of each other backstage, it seems.
I don’t think there are enough years left to either of us to really unpack all the intersections, but it’s a delight to find my regard for someone I initially respected as a writer and musician expanding as I come to understand the amount of heart and passion in play.
I have been, and continue to be, privileged to live a life filled with truly remarkable people and my heart spills over with love and gratitude.
 
Some days are discouraging, and I almost lose sight of that until it’s time for me to sign off with my wishes that you all Rest in the Love. Other times, like this weekend (and this morning’s retrospection) it would take someone far more obtuse than I can be to miss it.
 
Happy Monday, folks.

What Condition My Condition Is In [effective 2018.02.23]

Because several folks have asked recently (and I thank you for your interest and concern), it appears it’s time for a progress report / update.

I had bloodwork done last week, and got an email from the oncologist on Tuesday advising that my “PSA remains stable .”
So apparently the assumption, based on my numbers, is that the cancer has not significantly metastasized yet, and is still getting its little cellular brain wrapped around the fact that we added Casadex to the mix (I’m also on a schedule of injections of Lupron, which is time-released into my body — how much detail on this stuff do you really want?).

That’s reassuring because I’ve noticed something about myself, and how I’m processing all this. Despite the fact that, as we’ve discussed before, I feel like I’m “in a pretty good place” about the fact we’re working our way through the late innings here, there is a part of me that remains pretty emotionally invested in just how things are going, and is rooting pretty hard at this point for this to take a while to play out.
And, as a result of that, I’m a little “over-vigilant” about relatively subtle shifts in things like when and how I fatigue, my overall pain level — and any new or unexpected spikes in same, along with other new manifestations of aspects of how I am in the world that might be indicative of something.*

At any rate, things remain dandy (all things considered) for now.
Working on some exciting projects with Yoshimi that I don’t have permission to talk about yet, but I think it’s going to be very cool.
We’re still in the process of getting ready for what I’m calling “The Last Great Road Trip” this Fall. At some point I expect I’ll get all self-indulgent and bore you with extensive details of the plans. We’ve been saving up for this since long before I got my diagnosis upgrade last summer. And yes, if you have spare change you’d like to toss in the pot, all support is welcome. Here’s the GoFundMe for that.

One other thing I should make note of, since we’re here talking about prostate cancer. If you’ve been keeping score at home (or, perhaps you actually read the “set up” backgrounder the first time you came here) you know I’ve been living with prostate cancer for 18 years now, and only recently have the medicos finally stood me up against the wall and declared me “advanced,” and therefore a short-timer.
Well, as a result of that I’m always interested in who else is a member of our large, and involuntary “Big C Club.” I count myself lucky, indeed, that I’m able to play the role of Trail Guide from time to time when somebody I know has that initial diagnosis dropped on their head.
No matter who you are, or what the specifics of your diagnosis and prognosis, my observation is that it always seems to rattle us when “The C Word” gets tossed into our lives. It’s a different country out here, and it can be damned helpful to have somebody to hang with, especially early days, who knows the lay of the land a bit.
In that regard, I rode along with a friend and his wife last week to be the “extra set of ears” and, if necessary, advocate at his initial consult with the radiology oncology Doc (he was still in the process of learning about his options and deciding if getting sliced and diced or nuked looked better for him).

A couple cool things happened on that trip. First, while we sat in the waiting room before being called in for our appointment, an old and dear friend and her husband emerged from down the hall. I recognized that “I’m keeping a good front up but my world just imploded and I’m scared as shit” look on her face. As he went to the desk to take care of whatever business was needed with the front office staff she hurried over and asked “what are you doing here?”
I quickly gestured to Ed and replied “I’m just a ride-along buddy today, what’s up with you guys?” This radiology oncology clinic treats all sorts of cancers, not just prostate, so I knew it might be any number of things.
She quickly gave me the bare bones of her husbands situation, which sounds like it’s gonna be no fun, but survivable, and I let her know I’m glad to be available to either or both of ’em to be “that guy” you talk it out with.
It’s such a privilege to be able to offer that unquestioning support. I find these days that the “connectedness” to my fellow humans has become one of the things I’ve come to value the most in this season of my life. So grateful when chances to live out that conviction present themselves.

Now here’s the other interesting thing: This is the same practice where I turned up every freaking morning for two months to get zapped with targeted external beam radiation 18 years ago. And when we were called back for our consult the Doctor looked at me for a minute or two and said “I know you!”
Yup. He swore up and down that, nearly two decades (and god nose how many patients later) he still remembered treating me. Of course, where I go in my head is that “must have been even more of a PITA than I realized” place. But I could see our quick exchange did a lot to boost the comfort and confidence of my friend and his wife, who are still in those early stages when the rational part of your brain is trying to settle down the emotional side, which is seriously freaked out.
So, nice piece of serendipity. Well played, Universe.

One final point about my membership in our huge Involuntary Club. I’m always interested when another New Member arrives at our clubhouse. Thus, I found this video that posted on the internet today of note. Perhaps you will as well.

And that’s about it from here for tonight. As you know, it is not my intention here to wallow in matters medical, but I reckon the occasional update for the interested is a reasonable use of the forum.

Cheers!
_________________
*For instance: I am, at the moment, in the midst of a persistent bout with vertigo. Now that’s something I have never experienced in my life, but which has presented itself several times over the last year or so for periods ranging from a couple hours to a day and a half or so. It’s not a big deal. I Googled a couple times ago when, for the first time, it lingered for more than 24 hours. The consensus from a number of mainstream medical sources was “not to worry — odds are, like 99% that it’s not significant. But the fact that I even bothered to look it up speaks to a level of concern that my body may be betraying me that I’ve never had before.

 

“Living in the Spaces Between the Music”

Renée LeBallister dancing with Quicksilver Messenger Service (John Cipollina, guitar) at Frost Amphitheater, Stanford University. 26 March 1970 Photographer unknown.

Had the chance Sunday to sit over a long, leisurely coffee with an old and dear friend from my sweet youth. Renée LeBallister, known to many Bay Area concert goers in the late ’60s through the mid ’70s as “Renée the Dancer”, or even just “That Amazing Dancing Lady” was passing through, and made time to get together.

We covered a lot of ground over the course of a two and half hour visit, from the night a grumbling Bill Graham swept the stage for her before a Quicksilver Messenger Service set because Cipollina insisted “she dances or I don’t play” to what it meant for a little lost girl to find her chance to “live in the spaces between the music” and create a way to hold fast and reinvent herself.
I came to know her first when I worked for Chet Helms at his Family Dog venues. She enjoyed a slot on the Permanent Guest List, a unique phenomenon of all Chester’s events and facilities.
The common oral history about San Francisco’s music scene of that time is that Chet Helms “was a horrible businessman” while Graham was the guy who always knew how to make the bottom line run in the black. Which is true, as far as it goes, but doesn’t really tell the whole story.

There are reasons that underlay Bill Graham’s reputation as a tough taskmaster and master negotiator, many of them good and honorable, and I expect I’ll explore them in another post at some point. For now, suffice it to say we did indeed need someone like him to keep the collective ship afloat. And the music scene has held far less texture since his death. Or, as the Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner is said to have observed in conversation outside Graham’s memorial service: “Bill was an asshole, but he was our asshole.”

Ultimately, Chet Helms never really saw himself as a “concert promoter” in the Graham mold. Chester (who was, by the way, a preacher’s kid) always was focused on evangelizing for the transformative possibilities we all believed  were inherent in the counter culture we were collectively engaged in inventing on the fly.
In that context, the Family Dog’s primary task was not to “entertain” or “put on a good show.” It was to provide the space, and the seed elements, to facilitate attendees/participants in creating an environment where unexpected, potentially spiritually uplifting, educational, and just plain ecstatic events might occur.
Chet relied on many tools to nurture that potential experience including immersive light shows, the best music he could book, what passed for state of the art audio systems in those days; all of it fostering an environment that strongly prioritized participation (especially dancing) over spectating.  Really any and every piece he could dream up and toss into the stew that was “a night with the Dog.”
Now this is where the Permanent Guest List comes into play. Because one of the factors that Chet had determined contributed greatly to fostering the  “vibe” he sought to create was seeding the crowd with folks who, in one way or another, added an element to the pageant (could be aural, visual, aromatic — any number of things). And he also looked for people who could function as catalyst, inspiring audience members to get more actively involved (for further reference, check any number of live Grateful Dead recordings in which Bob Weir implores: “Come on everybody, get up and dance. It won’t kill ya!”).

AC with Renée Berg (née: Leballister).
Aptos, CA 18 February 2018
Photo: Luther Berg

All of which, brings me back ’round to Renée. She fit the bill on both counts. Anyone who ever watched her on stage with The Dead, Quicksilver, or a number of other San Francisco bands will tell you, all these decades later, that they still recall her fluid and seamless connection with, and interpretation of, the music. Not to mention her trademark back bends that took  her to an almost horizontal position from the waist up, while continuing to dance and move gracefully in a manner that seemed to defy the laws of physics. It could be a hypnotic, almost other-worldly thing to witness.
And yet, simultaneously, Renée was also able to encourage mere mortals to move their bodies as well. Like many of the musicians of the time her goal, whether she was on stage with a band or down on the floor with the crowd, was to affirm and inspire participation. She got a hell of a lot of people on their feet who, objectively, were whole orders of magnitude less graceful than she but who, nevertheless, had a hell of a good time “shakin’ that thang.”

After we closed the Family Dog on the Great Highway, I worked for Chet’s old partner Bob Cohen, who had a semi-thriving live sound reinforcement business by then, renting PA rigs and crews to bands and clubs as needed through much of the ’70s.
But after a time, Bob grew frustrated when, on a couple live recording jobs, he couldn’t communicate between the truck and crew inside the venue due to the fact there wasn’t an intercom and headset system capable of overcoming the sound pressure levels of live rock concerts. So, trained engineer that he was, Cohen invented his own system because he needed it. It featured sealed headphones so the on-stage and front of house crews could hear, and a noise-canceling mic so our talk back transmissions would be intelligible to him in the recording truck.
That system eventually became the original ClearCom product and Bob soon found himself out of the sound business, keeping his workers busy assembling headsets for sale.*

That was my signal to move on, I transitioned to a series of jobs in clubs and supporting small to mid level bands on gigs. I continued to run into Renée  from time to time at events, but contact was sporadic.

Sometime around 1980 I moved down to Santa Cruz County and lost track of her completely, as I did many folks from my rock ‘n’ roll youth. It’s only been in the last decade or so, with the advent of Facebook, that I’ve reconnected with most friends, colleagues, and fellow cosmic warriors from those days.
And it was just a few years back that one of my dearest friends, still working and known in the circles where it matters as one of the best live sound guys in the Bay Area, told me Renée had relocated to Southern California and gave me her married name(!) so I could track her down.
Thus we got hooked up on The Facebook, did that quick two or three paragraph mini-biography private message thing that you do, and started following each other’s feeds. A couple years ago, she and Luther were passing through the area and stopped by for one of those somewhat stilted “getting to reknow you” visits.
But this trip up (they were in the area to support a daughter who is transferring from their local community college to Cal State Monterey Bay) we really had a chance to “set a spell,” comb back over our mutual inventories of bands, scenes, and and friends (living and dead), and compare notes about how each of us experienced that unique moment in space/time that was the San Francisco Music Scene in the Age of Hippie.

Looking back together from the vantage point of our current late season of life, with some understanding and perspective — and yes, some tender sympathy for those young, damaged kids who were trying to find themselves a better way — was a warm and mellow exercise.
At least for me, in light of my medical prospects, there’s a certain urgency to having these sort of conversations. But I think all of us in our age cohort, regardless of our health status or other factors, are pretty clear at this point that “leaving it for later” really means “it’s unlikely that’s actually going to happen.” We’ve all lost far too many people we love over the past five or ten years as the herd thins and we age out.

So it’s important for us to spend this time with each other when we can. Not just for nostalgia value, though that can certainly be pleasant enough at times. But to compare notes; to check each other’s  recollections; to share experiences and lessons learned.
Just one example: Much as it’s comfortable for me to self-identify as “a good ally,” supportive and always the guy who can be relied upon, it truly is stunning at times to realize the stuff I missed; just completely didn’t see, thanks to my unconscious privilege and sense of entitlement as a cis white male.
Listening to some of Renée’s tales of what she had to endure as a single woman making her way in the very male dominated and macho structure of the music scene of that time was a real education for me. The assumptions that were automatically made about who she was in that world, why she was there and what she ought to be willing to do to secure her place in it were, frankly, appalling.

Like so many of the “flower children,” Renée was working to shake off the scars and traumas of a difficult, abusive upbringing. And some of the coping skills that partially formed kid had come up with to find her place in the world were, ultimately, unhealthy and didn’t serve her well.
But she also had a remarkable talent, the motivation to develop it into a unique and beautiful performance art, and the grace, wit, and intelligence to learn to apply it, finding for herself room to live in the space between the music.
And all of us who saw her dance, danced with her, or had the privilege to share a little time found ourselves and our lives the richer for it.

It was such a delight to hang with you yesterday, Renée. I do hope the universe aligns such that we have the chance to do it again. And if not, I truly treasure the reconnection regardless.

___________
*After a few years, Cohen sold ClearCom to some corporate behemoth, netting enough money to ensure a life of comfortable retirement from that point forward. Sometimes, necessity is indeed a mother.

 

John Perry Barlow

Word came yesterday that John Perry Barlow’s run is finally complete; the last several years have been a damned rough road for him and, in that sense, I’m grateful to hear he was able to just lay his hammer down and let go in his sleep.

I’ve said a little, and reposted some things over on Facebook. And I’m certainly gratified to see some of the “younger folk,” who know Barlow primarily, if not exclusively, from his terribly important work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (the internet ecosystem in which we function and thrive today would, in many ways, not exist without the vision and labor of JPB and his cyber-compadres) posting up on the Twitter machine and vowing to continue to carry the fight forward in his memory. Aside: I think that’s so terribly important now. My cohort and I are old, with some hard earned life lessons but without the energy it always has and always will require to carry the fight to the entrenched power.

John Perry Barlow “back when.” Date and photo credit unknown.

But I wanted to take a moment here to recall, and pass along some thoughts he shared a while back.
See, my history with Barlow dates back  to when we were both young and frisky, running wild in and around scenes involving a gang of colorful outlaws that was becoming known, even then, as The Dead Family. I was never a fully pledged member of that brotherhood; I had an instinct for preserving my options and independence that kept me from completely buying in, at any level. But it’s fair to say I had a cordial and respectful “peer to peer working relationship,” if we can even try to characterize stuff that was happening in the 1960s and ’70s with 21st Century terminology.

Whatever you choose to call it, I knew Barlow when we were both playing the role of free-range, hard riding, young blood “neo cowboys.” It was a period when a lot of interesting exploration occurred, fun things happened, dangerous territory was occupied, and mistakes were made.
Some of us have survived. Some didn’t. Most of us who remained learned a lesson or two — some of us more slowly than others.

So, all of this is by way of getting around to sharing with you something Barlow posted up a decade or so ago, when he turned 60. To clarify, the introductory remarks are from that vantage point. They set up a list of, as he characterized them, “Principles of Adult Behavior” that he had first drafted half a lifetime earlier, when he hit the then overly mysticised age of 30. Took me a hell of a lot longer to get my brain lined up with all this (I started out with some damned screwed up ideas about what life is about — had a lot of unlearning to do first in order to make room to get my head screwed on properly). But I am comfortable today saying this reasonably well encapsulates a great deal of what I know.

So long, Barlow. Happy trails, and fair winds.

FINALLY, A LITTLE GIFT FOR US ALL…

I didn’t think I would live to 30 either. I was shocked, shocked I
tell you, to find myself on the eve of my 30th birthday, weirdly
alive. In this, I was quite out of step with most of my friends to
that point, more than half of whom were already back in the sweet realm of infinity and love. Chickenshits. If you’re going to
volunteer in the first place, go right into the Special Forces.

In any event, it occurred to me that, past 30, I could no longer
defend my peccadillos on basis of youth. I would have to acquire some minimal sense of responsibility. While I didn’t want to be a grown-up, I wanted at least to act like one in the less toxic and stultifying sense of the term.

So, I sat down around 2 am on October 3, 1977 and I drew up this list of behavioral goals that I hoped might assist in this process. Now, thirty years later, I can claim some mixed success. Where I’ve failed, I’m still working on it. I give these to you so that you can provide me with encouragement in becoming the person I want to be.
And maybe, though they are very personally targeted, they may even be of some little guidance to you.

Anyway, this is what I wrote that night:

PRINCIPLES OF ADULT BEHAVIOR

1. Be patient. No matter what.
2. Don’t badmouth:
Assign responsibility, never blame.
Say nothing behind another’s back you’d be unwilling to say,
in exactly the same tone and language, to his face.
3. Never assume the motives of others are, to them, less noble
than yours are to you.
4. Expand your sense of the possible.
5. Don’t trouble yourself with matters you truly cannot change.
6. Expect no more of anyone than you yourself can deliver.
7. Tolerate ambiguity.
8. Laugh at yourself frequently.
9. Concern yourself with what is right rather than whom is right.
10. Never forget that, no matter how certain, you might be wrong.
11. Give up blood sports.
12. Remember that your life belongs to others as well. Do not
endanger it frivolously. And never endanger the life of another.
13. Never lie to anyone for any reason.
14. Learn the needs of those around you and respect them.
15. Avoid the pursuit of happiness. Seek to define your mission
and pursue that.
16. Reduce your use of the first personal pronoun.
17. Praise at least as often as you disparage.
18. Never let your errors pass without admission.
19. Become less suspicious of joy.
20. Understand humility.
21. Forgive.
22. Foster dignity.
23. Live memorably.
24. Love yourself.
25. Endure.

I don’t expect the perfect attainment of these principles. However, I post them as a standard for my conduct as an adult. Should any of my friends or colleagues catch me violating any one of them, bust me.

John
Perry Barlow

October 3, 1977

Hold me to these please.

And thank you so much for all the love you’ve given me, despite all of my efforts to resist it.

May the Good Light shine on you,

The Ancient Barlow


**************************************************************
John Perry Barlow, Peripheral Visionary
Co-Founder & Vice Chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Berkman Fellow, Harvard Law School

Peter S. Beagle Remembers Ursula K. LeGuin

Photo Credit: Self-Rescuing Princess Society

I haven’t had the time (or the temerity, for that matter, given what that woman could do with the English language) to gather and post my thoughts on Ursula LeGuin’s death, though I’ve been mourning her all week.
But my gods, she was a hero whose work saved my life more than a few times.
I shall miss her, and treasure her words the rest of my days.
I was delighted this afternoon when a dear friend passed along this remembrance from the remarkable Peter S. Beagle*. He’s done a wonderful job of describing the hole in the firmament she leaves behind.
[A note: Mr. Beagle has graciously invited us to share these thoughts across the internet. It should go without saying (though I suppose it must be said) that, if you pass this along in any way, he should be credited and that the following is © 2018 Peter S. Beagle, All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.)

In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin
Peter S. Beagle

​It takes the shiny off everything. Everything. Including the pure shameless pride of being declared a Damon Knight Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. All of it.

I’m a good writer. I know that perfectly well, after some sixty years of doing whatever it is I do, and then doing it over. But I’m not shuffling my feet, looking down and mumbling shyly when I say that on my best day, with the wind at my back and the fish biting, I couldn’t have carried Ursula K. LeGuin’s spare gym socks. I know that equally well. Sharing a great honor with her won’t ever change that.

I didn’t know her well. She lived in Portland, and I’ve been all over northern California in the last half-century, with six years out for the Seattle area. We hadn’t yet met when I followed her by a week into the Clarion West workshop (1972, was it?), to be greeted by a note saying, “Welcome, Unicorn! Make the little kobolds work their tails off!” Mostly we ran into each other at various conventions, grabbing coffee where we could. I do like to recall a serious conversation, initiated by me in increasing alarm at having become known more and more, in the intervening years, as the Unicorn Guy. Meanwhile, Ursula’s recently-published Earthsea novels had, as far as I was concerned, put paid to dragons as literary figures: I felt – and still feel – that dragons should be off-limits to all other writers, no matter how gifted or inventive they might be. But I was younger then, and had the chutzpah to offer to trade my unicorns even-up for her dragons. “Unicorns are really easy to housebreak. They always ask to go outside.” I remember that I was even willing to throw in a utility infielder, if she insisted.

Ursula’s response: “Do you know how impossible it is to keep dragons off the curtains? And they’re absolute hell on carpets!” We never did make the deal, but not for my lack of trying. As I say, I was younger then.

I’ve often told the story of appearing onstage with Ursula and Vonda McIntyre in 1975, at Oregon State University in Corvallis, the three of us speaking about being considered genre writers, inhabitants of a certain ghetto: our work generally tolerated – even loved, in certain corners of the ghetto – but almost invariably unrespected as real, proper, literary fiction. Some of the male students in the back of the auditorium began to complain loudly that they’d come to hear talk about ​ good old rocket-jockey science fiction, and not this “shrill feminism!​”​ Ursula, sitting on my left, turned to Vonda on my right, saying severely, “Vonda, I don’t know how many times I’ve told you about being shrill!” Vonda responded calmly, – without missing a beat, “No, Ursula dear – I’m strident. You’re shrill.”

Me? I sat between them, absolutely vain of actually knowing those two women, and trying very hard not to giggle. I can’t honestly remember whether I managed it or not.

In fact, she was never shrill. Fierce, yes. Intense, yes, with a great many things that she wanted to say, since no one else was saying them. Deadpan funny, always, even at her most passionate. Pissed-off, certainly, of course, as she bloody well should have been – as she bloody well needed to be. She meant business, Ursula did, and never a doubt of it. But kind, always, with the angry compassion of her Space Crone. Forever fiercely, stubbornly kind.

In my introduction to the 2017 Tachyon anthology NEW VOICES OF FANTASY, I wrote:

“Years ago, knowing that I was scheduled to speak at the annual meeting of [SFWA]…Ursula LeGuin​,​ wisest of us all, warned me as follows: ‘Remember that most of your audience will be drunk by the time you get up to speak, and remember always that all of us feel, to one degree or another, that mainstream fiction has been stealing our ideas – and even our classic cliches – for generations, and selling them back to us as Magic Realism. Tell them that, loudly and repeatedly, and the ones who can still stand up will be buying you drinks all night. And never forget that this is a small, highly incestuous group, and a lot of people have been married to, or sleeping with other members of the group – so watch what you say.'”

There’s nothing I can say about her now that isn’t all over the Internet today, and won’t be providing endless exhausting doctorates, seminars, fellowships and festivals tomorrow, and in the years to come. She was the master. She still is. She lived as full and honorable a life as anyone could have, and she got her work done. But I don’t believe for a minute that she ever thought she’d gotten her work done. The truly great ones never do. There’s always more.

_________________
*By the way, word also came the same day news of LeGuin’s death arrived, that Peter Beagle is the 2018 recipient of the Damon Knight Grand Master Award – a lifetime achievement award bestowed by fellow authors in the SFWA “for his contributions to the literature of Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Beagle joins the ranks of such writers as Robert A. Heinlein, Ann McCaffrey, Ray Bradbury, the aforementioned Ursula LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison, Fredrick Pohl, and numerous others. An honor richly deserved for so many reasons.

 

 

The Magick’s in the Music — Part II

It’s worth noting, as an aside, that my obsession with music dovetailed nicely with my co-occurring fascination with radio. Once again, the happy accident of growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1950s and ’60s exposed me to some of the most wonderful stations and air talent in the history of broadcasting.
I’ll return to this later, because the unique and intersecting subcultures of broadcasting are another area where I was privileged to enjoy several decades of involvement that enriched me in ways beyond my wildest adolescent flights of fantasy. But, for the moment, let’s stay focused on the music, the musicians, and the scene in which it flourished.

As I touched on in Part I, music can play many roles for those open to it. Several approaches seem most suited to stimulate and challenge the intellect, be that through political and literary lyric themes, or the complex constructions of much modern jazz, classical compositions and yes, even some improvisational rock explorations.
Other music best serves to inspire emotional response of various sorts. That may be the lush and juicy love songs that serve as the sound track to so many romantic explorations, the exhilarating party themes that get rooms full of people on their feet dancing, the sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes wry life stories rolled out in much blues and country, the pride and inspiration engendered by anthemic declarations or cherished cultural heritage music (be it Celtic, African High Life, sea chanteys, gamelan music, or any of a hundred other “outside the commercial mainstream” genres that each hold their own unique truth), or the transcendence of liturgical compositions and hymns.
Of course, there’s plenty of intersection, overlap, and multi-function stuff in play as well.
I’m just scratching the surface here; my point is that music can, and often does, play a significant role in what defines us as humans.

The place and time in which I began my transformation from childhood toward adulthood positioned me perfectly to satisfy my longing to get closer to that special space.
I was so young; in some ways I still could not know what I didn’t know, but I was acutely aware of my lack of specific skills. However, the ceremony requires more than the shaman to work its magick. And I was able to find a toehold as San Francisco (for reasons beyond the scope of our current discussion) made its transition from one of the country’s premier jazz towns to the epicenter of a massive existential pivot in the shape and scope of rock music and its place in the broader cultural context.

My first “job” in the music business?  I figured out that I could hang out around the corner on Cole Street, outside the stage door of the Straight Theater on the afternoon of a show, help load in band equipment from vans and trucks to the stage, and earn myself “free admission” to that night’s concert.
It was a small thing, but proved to be my foot in the door. That led to a semi-paying regular gig for a few weeks taking care of the dressing room for actors in an experimental play the theater mounted for a month or two.
A couple things happened as a result of this. First, I had the opportunity to be present, as “staff,” not just “audience,” at several events that eventually took on semi-legendary status in certain circles.
One such that comes to mind was the night I found myself “peaking” in the balcony when Neal Cassady joined the Grateful Dead for an extemporaneous stream of consciousness ramble while the band vamped behind him. Frankly, in my — ahem — altered condition, Neal’s exposition seemed to go on for hours, or perhaps months. I gather (based at least in part on this recorded fragment) that the objective elapsed time was somewhere around 20 or 30 minutes. So, that was a thing that happened.
Another was the night we hosted the American premiere of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour film. The band had donated the loan of a print which was flown in from England for screening to benefit striking air talent and engineers at KMPX, the precursor to the legendary KSAN, and radio giant Tom Donahue’s initial foray into programming what came to be known as “underground radio” on the then neglected FM band of the broadcast dial.
In retrospect, a number of exceptionally unusual things happened in and around the Straight. But, perhaps equally important for me, my face became a “known individual” to a number of crew and musicians around town.

That made the transition pretty smooth when I fell in with the cleaning crew over at the Family Dog’s Avalon Ballroom. It had soon become clear, even to a rank rookie like me, that the Straight (interesting as the scene might be) was never going to become a stable venue, so employment prospects were shaky at best. At that point, the Avalon and the Fillmore Auditorium, Bill Graham’s venue, pretty much dominated the scene.
Of course, not much was required to get by in those days. Survival consisted of a few folks getting together and figuring out how to hustle up sixty or seventy bucks a month to rent a flat, scraping together enough food to keep going, and managing one way or another (often by “making little ones out of big ones” and engaging in a little retail activity) to keep the flow going in order to maintain our heads.
So, once again, my initial “foot in the door” at the Avalon consisted of working for free. The paid cleanup crew enjoyed the option of placing folks on the guest list (Chet was always pretty damned loose with the guest list; there were reasons which I expect we’ll discuss in the fullness of time) and I became a regular “guest” in exchange for being a reliable extra pair of hands after the show when it was time to sweep and mop.
That led to a “promotion” up to full membership on the paid cleaning crew, as more senior swampers either moved up or moved on. Hanging on to the edges as “staff”, I was able to stay with the Family Dog during the transition period after the Avalon closed and before Chet acquired the old Beach Pavilion venue out on the Great Highway. During that interregnum the Dog mostly subsisted on mail order poster sales, along with a modicum of band management and one-off gigs in various venues. But I was able to stick with the circus and ride the momentum out to the beach, where it became an “all hands on deck” effort, involving probably a couple dozen of us, maybe more, as paid staff and well over a hundred volunteers who pitched in to get the hall up and running while earning themselves some future show passes.
I’ll fill out more of that part of the story in the next installment.

 

Nights and Weekends Too

It’s a little tough to make out, but the cracked and worn clay poker chip  that accompanies this post commemorates “1 year” of continuous sobriety.

It was passed along to me by a dear friend who had found his way into recovery fourteen or fifteen months ahead of me. He’d picked it up at the “Tuesday Downtown” meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in San Francisco, one of the longest running meetings in one of the hardest drinking cities in the United States. I hung on to this talisman; carried it in my pocket for several years. Then, as you can see, the wear and tear cracked it in two. Since then, it has resided in a place of honor in my late Dad’s jewelry box, along with the cuff links and tie tacs I never wear. It means my life to me.

I’m sharing it with you tonight because today (January 16, 2018) I celebrated 36 years of continuous sobriety. That’s more than half my life and it has, in so many ways, made all the difference.

Look, I enjoyed more than my share of opportunities before I turned 31 to be present with exceptional people for remarkable events. One of the primary motivations for doing this blog is to pass along some of those stories while I still can. But here’s a thing that was true for me: I was never able to fully participate in those remarkable events because I carried so much of the classic alcoholic baggage with me.
I was always working so hard to keep the front up; to be “cool” enough, knowledgeable enough, useful enough. It was all an effort not to be found out for the fraud I believed myself to be. You could say I had some self-esteem issues (one of these days we’ll have to talk about what growing up in an alcoholic household and having to guess at what “normal” looks and feels like does to a child’s sense of self).

So, by the time I found myself trying to get a grip on what life might look like without drinking and using drugs — desperately wondering whether such a life was even possible for me, I had pretty well torn through all aspects of what most might consider a “normal life.”
And yet, I hadn’t overdosed (yeah, a few close calls); I hadn’t drunk myself to death (that sort of “suicide on the installment plan” takes a lot longer than you might imagine). So, I was pretty much at the end of my rope.

Fortunately for me, I fell in with a loosely confederated gang of folks in Santa Cruz County who, much to my surprise, seemed to be a lot like me in many respects. And yet they somehow seemed to have found a way to live, even enjoy the hell out of themselves, while not taking anything. I was intrigued to say the least.
And these folks (at a time when not many people were happy to see me coming any more) were willing to open their hearts and their lives to me, and show me how they were managing to pull this off. Virtually all of ’em had harrowing tales to tell of their “old lives.” Sometimes physically dangerous, sometimes just stories of living in that dark and desperate state of soul-sickness that no drink or drug can cure.

One of the things they taught me (a bit by talking about it, mostly by example) was a way of approaching life that meant confronting one’s demons and secrets, going to whatever lengths where necessary to make peace with them, and sharing that process both with fellow travelers and with those coming up the road behind us.
We live out loud and we pass it on, because that is what we do. It is what we MUST do to survive. An earlier generation of folks in recovery had been much more circumspect about such things. But by the time I stumbled through the door, a new sensibility was taking hold. One which was committed to acknowledging feelings and actively working to heal.
I’m talking about this in particular because word came this week that one of the pioneers of this more freewheeling approach has died.

This guy was a reasonably successful “medium big deal” out there in the outside world. Lived in Southern California and worked as a professional screenwriter. Any number of TV shows and films you watched and enjoyed if you’re “of a certain age” came out of Bob’s typewriter.
But Bob was a deeply damaged human being. He’d had an upbringing that made my alcoholic family look like Ozzie and Harriet. And he had generated plenty of chaos, and frequently behaved like an first class asshole, in adulthood. The man had serious demons to excise.
And as he did what he had to do to find his place to stand in sobriety, he by god told everybody around him about his process. He couldn’t help it. Storytelling was in the man’s blood. As a result, Bob E. had a hell of an impact within the recovery community. By dumb luck and happenstance, I’d fallen in with a mentor in recovery who had, in turn, been mentored by a man (another writer) who’d been Bob’s best friend for a number of years.
So Bob’s brave journey through the fires had a direct influence on how I came to understand what living sober looks like, and his hard won wisdom was passed from mouth to ear in a direct line.

But Bob had a significant, even life changing effect on thousands who didn’t enjoy that direct connection. Because he was so good at telling a tale, and because his message was in many ways a radical departure from what had come before, he was invited to speak at gatherings large and small across the country. And recordings (remember cassettes?) of many of those speeches were passed from hand to hand, copied and recopied like the most rare and transcendent Grateful Dead shows got shared around between Deadheads.

So, I’m 36 years clean and sober, Bob Earll is dead and gone, his dear friend Tom (coming up on a half-century of recovery himself) is on the other side of world, grieving a loss as intense (if not more so) as any blood family and staying close to many of us who love him through the mysterious magic of the internet. And we, those of us in recovery, continue to do our best to hold each other up, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. Because that’s what we do. As best we can.

_______________
Edit: A handful of “morning after” edits for typos and word flow. 2018.01.17

Mini Review: “The Shape of Water”

Note: What follows is, essentially, a rewrite of my Facebook post about the picture. So, if you caught that, you can probably safely skip this entry.

So, Yoshimi and I caught a late afternoon / early evening screening at the local multiscreen “cafe and lounge,” in the modern parlance. We both found it wonderful and recommend “The Shape of Water” without hesitation.

Also worth noting this is a film that, I think, benefits from viewing on a theater screen. Not a big “action picture” with lots of stunning effects and crap blowing up, which is sometimes why you want the big screen experience.
But just a beautifully crafted production, with every element exquisite. Locations (I was never in Baltimore in the early ’60s — come to think of it, I’ve never been in Maryland at all, but this film sure as hell put me there), set decoration, props, costuming, cinematography (gods, the cinematography!) all so richly executed that the clean, undistracted focus of the theater really enhances the experience.

I won’t say much about the story. It’s hard to talk much about specifics. I think the film needs to be allowed the space to unspool the tale on its own terms. Plus, unless you live under a media rock you already know the rough shape of it. del Toro (who has always had a certain affection and affinity for “monsters” retrieves and retells the tale of The Creature From the Black Lagoon for our modern era (though the picture is set in 1962). There is love; there are bad guys; there are flawed, imperfect, and damaged people. Events occur; choices and personal agendas have consequences.

The writing is elegant and lean, the performances range from exceptionally good to, in the case of Sally Hawkins, career-making. Worthy of special note in supporting roles: Richard Jenkins who (as he so often does) infuses his character with a depth and implied back story a lesser actor might have missed and Morgan Kelly, who does more with his Pie Guy character than perhaps even the writers imagined.

One other thing: If you have someone who can fill that role, it’s an excellent “date movie.”