The Magick’s in the Music — Part I

Music always “loomed large” in my life and story.
From early on, it was far more to me than entertainment and diversion. It spoke to something deep inside me, reached and moved me in ways that few things did.

Some of that was an intellectual exercise, especially as I got into my teens and began to explore work outside the popular genres; blues and folk for the most part. The lyrics, and frank, often unpolished, performances spoke of truth to a boy who, appearance of privilege notwithstanding, felt himself an outcast, a stranger in his own land if you will.

Reading (be it novels, poetry, political polemics, or whatever came to hand) was a comfort in this regard as well; and the best writing brought at least momentary feelings of relief and transcendence. But there was all that and something more in the music.

By the time I was in my early to mid teens, I was slipping away many evenings to hang at the local folk coffeehouse, soaking up both the music and a social scene that seemed filled with other misfits. There was even a brief, abortive effort to learn to play guitar. I spent about a year transposing guitar chord charts (I was left handed), training my fingers into those awkward positions, learning to tune, and strumming my way earnestly through the simplest standards from Sing Out! magazine.

Eventually I had to confront the fact that I had no more aptitude for the guitar than I had found for the clarinet in 6th Grade Band Class when I tried to learn it in one of my earliest attempts to please my unpleasable father, who had played semi-professionally as a young man. I remember explaining to someone at the time: “I really love good guitar music. There is a lot of bad guitar playing in the world. I choose not to add to it.”

So, becoming a ramblin’ shamblin’ folk hero, nor a shredding guitar god were not to be my ticket out. Any more than I was gonna suddenly wake up one morning magically struck with physical coordination that would lead to a professional baseball or basketball career. But damn, I did love the music.

Lucky for me, the accident of birth had put me in the right place at the right time. Coming of age on the San Francisco Peninsula, just as the City’s folk scene was taking its first nascient steps toward transforming into the behemoth that became known within a few years as The San Francisco Sound.

Rock, folk, blues, a couple sprinkles of jazz (and even, in a handful of cases, classical training); it was all tossed into a blender along with the remnants of the North Beach “beat” culture of the ’50s and early ’60s, a significant dose of political thought provided by echoes of the civil rights movement and the inescapable fact that the Vietnam War hung over all our heads. Add some color and spice (provided in part by new frontiers in mind altering chemistry) and the sudden jolt of the Baby Boom effect — young people representing a higher percentage of the population than ever before and identifying themselves as distinct and apart from the broader culture. And wham, here I was, young and energetic, standing at the center of the whirlwind.

Take all of the above as setting, and it seems almost inevitable that a kid who’d been cutting school since sophmore year to hitchhike to San Francisco and spend his afternoons ensconsced in the basement of City Lights Bookstore reading material he’d never find in San Mateo, was bound to fall into the embryonic Haight-Ashbury scene and slip gratefully into the first environment in his young life where he didn’t feel like an outsider.

But let’s bring it back around to the music. Down on the Peninsula, bars that featured rock bands were beginning to supplant the folk scene, at least in my neck of the woods, and I found myself loitering outside the back doors of such establishments, hungry for the music. So hungry in fact that, at times, I’d slip into those back doors and join the folks a few years older who were clogging the small dance floor, free-form moving to the music. Of course, the bouncers were not amused, but damn I wanted to be there.

By 1966, something called “dance-concerts” were gaining traction in San Francisco. Events that did not rely on drink sales from a full bar to break even, and thus weren’t subject to strict “21 and over” requirements. I’d found my home away from home.

All this is by way of context and prelude to what I really wanted to talk about. That’s ahead in Part II.

Casting Call

I’ve vowed to essentially keep this space free from my seemingly boundless obsession with political junkiedom — there are plenty of folks in the blogosphere doing the commentary thing much better than I can (and, if you really want it, it’s pretty much unavoidable in my Facebook and Twitter feeds).

But my friend Claudia Lamb was struck with a bit of inspiration this morning on the Facebook machine, and it looked like something that might be fun to try here. It’s gonna require a little audience participation from you.

Unless you’re stationed in Antarctica, you pretty much couldn’t avoid the news the last day or two about Michael Wolff’s  new “tell all” from inside the White House. The presale marketing runup to this thing is without equal since the Harry Potter series ended. So, here’s the game.

You know damned well, the pitches are already well underway for the film rights and the jockeying has begun for the juiciest roles (hmmm…script by Aaron Sorkin?).

Now we get to be the collective Casting Director. In the comments, please offer your nominations to play the parts in the picture.

The ground rules (which I just made up): Any actor, living or dead will be considered. Non-actors MAY be accepted on a case by case basis.

 

Birthday Boy

I turned 68 today.
So, what did you do for your birthday, Ace?
Well, mostly I sat around in my sweats and, in consultation with a couple valued friends, one old and the other new (thanks, Bunny and Alys!) finally got this long threatened blog up and live.
Expect the look and feel of it to get tweaked over the coming days and weeks, but at least it’s here and I can start dropping random thoughts.

The Deal on the Thing — Part 1

EDITOR’S NOTE: What follows is a recycled mashup of a couple of Facebook posts published not long after my prostate cancer was rediagnosed as “advanced” and my prognosis adjusted to “inevitable” (not a technical term).

These are some things I know

[First published 22 July 2017]

*          *          *          *          *

Hello, friends. This is the public iteration of a memo that went out a week or so ago to a very limited list of friends and family members. If you already saw that, there’s really very little new here, other than a little more clarity on what I’m currently understanding to be the “next right thing(s)” for me to do.

If you did NOT see the earlier note, and you’re wondering why, since you and I are indeed pretty close, my apologies. In the initial rollout, I felt it necessary to, for a time, really hold this information in a small group while I went through some processing of my own. One of the toughest pieces for me in the initial exercise was making the calls about who I looped in when. But I think it’s time to “go public”.

To be clear: I’m not asking for anything here. I don’t need any advice, or anecdotes about what happened with Aunt Millie (bless her heart), or assurances of your “thoughts and prayers” (though, if it is your practice do have such conversations with your personal higher power, I certainly don’t object to having a good word put in on my behalf). But it’s been my custom for some time now to pretty much just lay my life out here. I know that’s weird for some folks, but it seems to work for me. And now, more than ever, doing what works for me seems like the way to go.

*          *          *          *          *

Down to business.

Depending on how closely you follow Facebook (and what determinations the algorithms have been making about what you should be seeing in your news feed), you may have noted me doing the Happy Dance earlier this month when the news came through that a series of scans (specifically bone, CT, and bone density) all came back clear and “normal” (yeah, I know). As most of you know, I’ve been living with prostate cancer for a number of years, and normal scans indicate there is no evidence the bastard has metastasized yet. So, yay.

I did have a phone consult with my oncologist a few days later to discuss those results. She began the conversation with “well, the good news is that all your scans look normal.” Now, I’ve been around long enough to know that when somebody’s opener is “the GOOD news is…” that a shoe is about to drop. And yup, there’s more.

Here’s the deal. After living with the beast inside me for 17 years, [edit: 18 years as of December 2017] I have now officially graduated to “advanced” classification. All right, what does that mean? At the moment, nothing except that we’re adding a new oral medication to my daily drug regime. One whose job it is to prevent any of my hormones – not just any residual testosterone the Lupron isn’t suppressing, but the other secondary hormones we all produce that are somewhere in the spectrum between testosterone and estrogen – to prevent those hormones from binding with the cancer cells (which promotes more rapid growth). Apparently, it does that job pretty well, but basically we’re retarding progress, not stopping it, and certainly not reversing anything.

So, the net result is that expectations are that the cancer should become metastatic within a year or so, likely moving into either my bones or lymph system. Once that occurs, and depending on how it presents, there are a handful of treatment options – various chemo approaches, possibly radium injections if it’s in the bones. None of those are “cures’, they’re a way to buy some time. And once we get there, we take a closer look at the options and the tradeoffs.

Again, let me emphasize that, at the moment, I’m in exactly the same position I was in a month ago – just taking one more pill in the morning. No big lifestyle changes in the offing. The only immediate potential shift will be whether the new hormone blocker creates significant side effects for me (most common are hot flashes and fatigue). Should know that within a few days.

But what’s true is that, after a remarkable SEVENTEEN YEAR RUN since I got my initial diagnosis and the news that surgery was not an option due to how advanced the cancer was when we found it, I now find myself at the head end of what appears to be a long, gently sloping offramp. From here, I can’t quite make out what the end of the ramp looks like, or just how far out it is. But the inescapable fact is that this is, indeed, my exit ramp.

I, of course, have complex and mixed feelings about this and one thing I’ve already learned over recent days is that getting clarity on what those feelings are, owning them all, but choosing which ones to feed and which not to nurture (without denying any of ‘em) is apparently going to continue for however much time is left to me.

But again, my life today is physically no different than it was a month ago and, in the words of my oncologist, “at this point we’re treating numbers, not tumors.”

What has shifted is the context. An end result which has always (well, for the last 17 years) been out there in the “eventually” category is now, while not immediate, in the room with me and demanding acknowledgment and attention.

As you might imagine, this reorders priorities somewhat. There’s really not much room now for postponing stuff until some vague “later”. If it’s important, it’s time to address it.

I have been encouraged by a couple of folks to look for some way to articulate things I know, things I’ve learned, things I’ve seen. I am seriously contemplating (not for too long, I trust) how to best do that.

Not sure just what that looks like yet – if you have thoughts about it PM me. I know I’m NOT interested in doing a “this is my life working my way through the endgame of cancer” blog or podcast. It’s already been done, and done well. More than once.

But I’m contemplating some sort of blog or blog/podcast combo. It’s not that I’m convinced I have some life-changing “wisdom for the ages” to share. But it is fair to say I’ve been fortunate to have enjoyed an unusually interesting life and if there’s some way to articulate and pass along some of the lessons I’ve picked up from that body of experience it seems a good use of my time.

[Note: This blog is the product of the above ruminations. The possibility exists that at some future point a good friend with some experience in that area may sweep some of this up, organize it, and create a book of some sort. We shall see – or you may at any rate.]

And that’s What I Know So Far.

 

You asked…

[First published 7 August 2017]

[Note: A couple weeks after I announced my graduation to the Advanced Class, and my trading in of my urologist for an oncologist, one of my dearest friends sent me a private message to inquire where I was at in processing the Big News. My response to her.]



“I mean, really how are you?”

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

Turns out the answer’s not as simple as I’d like it to be.

I’ve done my level best to be honest with myself over these last three weeks since the news dropped.

And I felt like I’ve done pretty well on the emotional and intellectual side. It’s a complex cascade of emotions, of course. That’s so nakedly obvious it would require a serious, consistent, life-long commitment to denial to miss it. I, from Day One, was committed to coming at this quite the opposite. Meet everything in the complex stew of reactions head on. Examine them directly and with clear eyes. Make conscious choices about what to feed, and what to acknowledge and set aside.

It’s a good plan. There’s a lot to do, and a dauntingly limited amount of time and resources to get it done. And that’s been the way I’ve elected to approach this season of life. I really have NO desire to piss away any more of my limited supplies than necessary curling up into a self-indulgent ball of fear and woe. What the hell does that serve?

But now, three weeks in, I’m beginning to find the flaws in execution. There are a number of them.

Ironically, one stumbling block is that physically things aren’t really a hell of a lot different than they were a month ago. Side effects from the new meds are minimal. I’ve noticed I’m drinking more water now, but that’s both trivial and something I’ve needed to do for a long time. My fatigue quotient may be a bit higher, but that’s so damned hard to quantify because I already don’t have near as much gas in the tank as I did for most of my life, for multiple reasons.

So with no obvious physical indicators that this beast is getting away from me, this becomes entirely a theoretical mental exercise. And there’s a pathway for self-sabotage (aided and abetted by people who love me) very available down that alleyway.

Why? In part because I’m inclined to default toward optimism. For many years now (I suspect, at least in part, due to having now spent more than half my life in recovery from alcoholism and addiction) I’ve been that guy who falls off the top of the Empire State Building and calls out to folks gazing out their windows on every floor “doing OK so far!” So there’s a temptation to normalize.

And that’s fed by dealing with family members who are not at all eager to let go and, despite the fact we’re all old enough to know better, have little inclination to stare death in the face.

One of the things about me is that I tend to “emotionally caretake” those I love. And I find that I love a lot of folks (a good thing). But it puts me on the dangerous edge of falling into people-pleasing. The problem with people pleasing is that you can lose yourself there.

So, I’ve got a spouse and partner who, despite some relationship difficulties that had reared their heads before this turn of events (and which we were, with professional help, working on when the medical grenade turned the status quo on its head) finds herself not wanting to examine too closely the prospect of making her way alone in the world after three and a half decades in a partnership. And I’ve got siblings who insist on holding on tight to the fact that we don’t have a date certain, so it’s all good, right? Plus a daughter and adult grandkid who have (with my encouragement) come to regard me as a reliable North Star in their lives and feel most unready to let go of that.

Now, as a people-pleaser I slip into reinforcing all those points of view without even realizing I’m doing it. And that undercuts my desire to focus clearly and walk through all this with eyes wide open. So I realized, when the question was asked, that I’ve begun the process of packing my reality in cotton batting, the easier to manage it for myself and those around me. And goddamn it I don’t want to do that! It cheapens the truth of it.

*          *          *          *          *

I’m also frustrated with myself that I’m not making more headway putting together some sort of blog/podcast project yet. One of the very first things I knew when the news came that my countdown clock is running was that I carry within me a unique body of experience and life lessons. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to live an exceptionally interesting and informative life. I was “there for the party” far more often than most folks get to be, and I’ve absorbed some knowledge (I refuse to call it “wisdom”) along the way. And if I don’t manage some sort of brain dump download over the next while or so, I just take that with me when I go. I have no idea if it’s of possible use to anyone else, but it feels like I need to make the effort to make it available in case it is. I’ve got some random scraps of writing – portions of this can probably be recycled, for instance. But still no coherent vehicle.

*          *          *          *          *

I’ll just say it here: I’m freaked AF about the economics as well. Both our short-term shortfall (the apartment is without a tenant and has been a black hole we throw money into for repairs over the past month+, and we’re really missing the cash flow from that crap radio producer job I quit a few months back), and the long term planning for Yoshimi. We’ve been saving up for this Last Great Tour to Europe for well over a year now, and we have another year to go before our planned departure. And we’ve had to dip into the kitty this past month to “borrow from ourselves” for apartment repairs and living expenses. And beyond that, I have no idea what her budget looks like without me here keeping balls in the air.

We are going in to see our old friend Ed the Undertaker tomorrow to set up a “death insurance policy” that will cover the basic costs of burning my leftovers when the time comes, so that’s a positive step moneywise, and, not incidentally, another little milestone along the way of making all this real for Yoshimi. And goddamn it! I hate like hell putting her in this position. It damned near destroyed her when Jude died – that’s 17 years ago now, and his memory is still with her every day. At the best of times, her relationship with me has never run as deep as the ties between a single mother (which she was most of his childhood) and her only child. How could it? But for the past 34 years, I’ve been the one who was there to backstop her when the world tried to knock her down. I’m going to be both the instrument of her trauma AND unavailable to help her stand. That sucks.

*          *          *          *          *

And I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a nod to the cold nugget of fear in my gut. I’m determined not to be governed by it, but I can’t pretend it isn’t there. Everything I’ve said above is just all detail work around the edges of the central fact that we are discussing the End of Me. That’s daunting.

It’s the single constant of life for all humans. We die at the end. Sometimes the end is sooner, sometimes later. But that’s how it all turns out. We know this intellectually. Some of us live in fear of that Great Fact. We as a culture have a terribly dysfunctional structure built up around death. But that’s a different conversation.

This is distinctly personal. And relatively immediate, though not so much so that I’m spared plenty of time to contemplate it.

I know plenty of folks who enjoy some sort of faith tradition or belief narrative that brings them great comfort in contemplating their death — an emotional certitude about a post-termination existance. I don’t begrudge them that mindset at all. It beats the hell out of going kicking and screaming into those final moments.

But I have no such soothing expectation of “passing over”. I just don’t. I’ve tried on a few over the course of my life, but none truly seemed to fit me well. And it sure AF would be intellectually and existentially dishonest to grasp for some “late conversion” now in the interests of finding some reassurance. I’m not a vehement denier, either. Too uncertain to claim atheism as my home turf either. Just put it all down, for me, as a “known unknown.”

That’s who I am. Problem with it, though, is that logic dictates that however it plays out, the consciousness/ego construct I’m used to regarding as my “self” most probably ends when my run in this body (frustrating vehicle though it may be) is finished.

And frankly, I’ve gotten pretty used to being “me” over these last seven decades or so. The idea that final encores will be played, the system shut down, and loadout begun in the relatively near future is sobering, to say the least.

All right, Deb. I’ve taken sixteen hundred words now to say: “How am I really? Fuck if I know, but I truly appreciate you asking.” I honestly do.

 

Why we’re here.

 

Just what is it that we are embarking upon here, and why?

Well, as you may know, I was delivered the news a few months back that, after living with inoperable prostate cancer for the past 17 years, the bastard has finally grown impatient. My doctor expects metastasis within the year (which would, I imagine, likely mean sometime between now and the end of next summer) and, at that point, an educated guess says I’m good for another one to three years. If you’re interested in my initial reactions to that news, you’ll find the story here.
But the long and short of it is this: While the dark one who comes for us all one day may not yet be in the room with me, he IS in the building, and is in the process of making his way to my floor.

* * * * *

For a while, now, I’ve been fond of speaking of “seasons of life”. I find it an aesthetically pleasing metaphor, and useful in many ways.
But there’s another common trope that, I’m thinking, centers well on my situation these days. That’s the one where people speak of “chapters” – as in “leaving home for college turned the page to a new chapter in my life.”
If we belabor the model a little bit, we can look at each of our lives as a book on the shelf in the library of human existence. We all contain, or embody, a book. Some are thicker; some short but powerful. Some are more dramatic, others more practically helpful. But the library of human existence is full of books.
I’m pretty happy with mine. It’s been a hell of a read, with plenty of unexpected turns along the way. Mostly interesting, a lot of it fun. Some heartbreaking chapters as well.
But here’s the thing. Since I’ve been made privy to a rough estimate of the page count remaining, I realize I have the chance to do what, in many ways, is the most challenging part of the work for many writers. Can I make my book end well?
There are a few chapters left to get down here. And in many of the best books, one of the jobs those final chapters serve is to provide the chance to tie up the loose ends, sum up the arc of the story, and punch up an ending worthy of the pages that went before.
I think that’s a part of the task(s) I am about here. And it strikes me that it may also be why, despite a lifetime of speaking into microphones, and loving it, I’m drawn to do most of this in print, rather than in a podcast.