Note: Fortunate Son, Part 2 is sitting half-written in my drafts folder. And there are, I suspect more installments to follow.”
This piece, I think, belongs much later in the Fortunate Son series, but for reasons which should, perhaps, be apparent it seemed necessary to “jump ahead” and get it down now.
When I woke up this morning, I realized I’d been dreaming, pretty extensively, about an old friend I’ve known since my earliest days in sobriety. She has always been one of the most dynamic, powerful women I’ve ever met.
But recently some serious health issues laid her low and she spent several weeks in hospital, many of those unconscious or only barely still connected here. I spent several afternoons, gowned up, sitting by her bedside holding her hand and whispering my love and respect in her ear—wasn’t sure for a while there if she’d be coming back or not.
I’m quite confident that if you had a chance to ask her Cora, like me, would tell you she is, on balance, pretty damned happy with how her life has played out. Her story is far, far different than mine, but it is one that lets her hold her head up.
And thinking about Cora after I awoke, my thoughts turned to the individual who actually first introduced me to recovery. I had met Cora through E, that’s what brought her to mind.
We stayed close for a time, I even turned out to be “that guy” who could step up in 1982, driving her back and forth from the San Lorenzo Valley to Packard Childrens Hospital at Stanford almost daily when her infant daughter was there for an extended period of time teetering on the edge of life. That was one of my first experiences in this Second Half of My Life with prioritizing being of service to someone else; putting their needs ahead of my own.
Eventually though, our paths drifted apart. A few years later, I learned E had returned to drinking, and was living a pretty limited and marginal life. Lost touch completely after that. I have no idea if she left the area, got sober again somewhere else, what? I know I never ran across her again, or heard rumors of her “in the rooms” around Santa Cruz County.
I don’t know if she’s still living. Perhaps she relocated, found her way back to sobriety in another community, and is living a contented life surrounded by grandkids. But it’s equally possible, perhaps even likely, that she died in her disease, taunted by the demons of alcoholism and the lies they whisper just inside our ears. I don’t know, and I won’t project on her.
Contemplating the possibilities though, especially looking at the contrast between Cora’s story and E’s, I had to confront the hard fact that many of us do not reach the end of our run here in a space where we can look at the arc of our time with a modicum of satisfaction and gratitude.
For too many folks, this journey is just a long, grinding, trek through a relentless vale of tears. I am truly, truly saddened that that’s the case.
And I realize yet again (a) how very goddamned lucky I am and (b) that I owe an ethical, even moral debt to those less fortunate. That I am bound both by love and duty to comprehend, acknowledge, and appreciate my good fortune.
I have not earned it, I am no more deserving of it than anyone else. I am profoundly grateful for it.
So much of what I’ve been able to witness and/or be a part of throughout my life are, frankly, the product of Happy Circumstance. Seemingly random occurrences which placed me in the right place and time, with the right people.
Start with the very fact of my existence. It would seem that my old man enjoyed a bit of good fortune himself. As World War II got into full swing, just about every able-bodied young man was expected to play some role in service to the war effort.
Lou elected to volunteer for the Coast Guard, which had been placed under the command of the Department of the Navy “for the duration.” After completing basic training, he was assigned to a ship, and traveled to San Francisco to assume his duties.
The ship was anchored in San Francisco Bay, off Treasure Island, with orders to depart for the South Pacific sometime in the next 48 hours when the hand of fate, as manifested through the military bureaucracy declared him an official Lucky Bastard.
Prior to the war, Lou had some experience working in a teller’s cage for a bank in Des Moines (it was the Depression—you took work where you found it). As a result of that background on his résumé, he’d been declared, in Navy parlance, a Storekeeper, which essentially meant he could drive a typewriter and add a column of figures.
Thus, when some gold-braided officer ashore determined that another half dozen or so enlisted men who were at least semi-literate were needed for clerical work, he was one of those who plucked from the rolls and ordered off his ship.
Thus, instead of spending the war (or as much of it as he survived) engaged in the ongoing floating hell that was the Pacific Theater, Lou’s war was fought in San Francisco Bay on Alameda and Treasure Islands, and he spent most of his off duty time in the City.
So the fact that I exist at all can really be tagged as a happy accident. The odds of him surviving four years in the South Pacific and finding his way home physically and mentally intact enough to father me (given how emotionally damaged he was already) have to be pretty slim.
San Francisco was a hell of a place to be in those years, especially for a guy dressed in Navy blues. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for a twenty-something kid from the Midwest who’d never been out of Iowa.
But I know this much. When he was mustered out after the war, he made a beeline back home, told his honey “we are NOT spending another winter in this, you won’t believe what I found” and started packing stuff into the old Chevy.
After a leisurely cross country trip along the Southern Route (US 66), the young couple landed in the Bay Area, initially renting an apartment in Burlingame before buying a brand spanky new tract house in Santa Clara and moving just in time for me to be born just after the New Year in San Jose Hospital.
So, once again: Lucky Me. Instead of growing up in the summer heat and humidity and winter ice and snow of Iowa, I’m a Native Californian. Actually, better than that, I’m a Bay Area native (there are many Californias; each with its own unique personality).
It would be hard to overstate how fortunate I feel having had the chance to come of age in California in the latter half of the 20th Century. Visitors from places around the world come away impressed with one thing or another, depending on their tastes and priorities. Almost all seem to find something to carry away with them they see as memorable and exceptional.
There’s a lot to love. And it’s remarkable for its diversity as much as the special flavor of any particular piece. Whether it’s snow crowned mountains, sun kissed beaches, or stark desert; urban or wilderness, you can find it within our borders, often just a couple hours drive away.
Growing up in The Golden State, and spending the bulk of my life here has infused me with a depth of appreciation born of decades of intimate familiarity. I imagine a first time visitor may be, in some respects, more “wowed” by aspects that have long since become commonplace for me. But the other side of the coin is that living here for so long has built within me a rich sense of love for this corner of the planet. There may have been a time in my youth I didn’t fully appreciate what a privilege it is to be here; if so that time is long past.
It’s difficult for me to find the words to describe my love for this place, and my sense of connection to it. I spent my childhood within a few miles of San Francisco, and once I left home the bulk of my youth and young adulthood found me in the City, at the center of a cultural and artistic moment unparalleled in my lifetime.
So, that I love. I also love spending time under the cool, quiet canopy of groves of redwoods that were already old when the Roman Empire was spreading across the “known world.” I love the subtle but insistent beauty of our deserts.
I am nourished by the soul healing, ever shifting waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether those waters wash the sands of sun kissed beaches or crash dramatically against rock cliffs in the endless dance of dominance along those hard shores. Driving through the grass covered rolling hills of California live oak country infuses my heart with a lyrical gratitude that, after a lifetime of absorbing it, I still don’t understand.
And this barely scratches the surface. I’ve not even talked about the remarkable character of the birds, beasts, and fish that still find space for themselves in our ever more populated state. Haven’t begun to explore the wonders of our climate, and its perfect pairing to the needs of the human body.
Nor have I really done any unpacking of the story of humans on this land, from the earliest first peoples who lived quite comfortably, if simply, in the bounty nature provided for untold centuries on into the stories of successive waves of newcomers to the state (with all the good, and terribly bad those stories encompass); or spoken of the fascinating structures and other artifacts those generations left behind for us to explore and try to understand. And still today, there are parts we get right, and parts we get wrong.
Lucky me. I’ve had the privilege to call myself a California native for almost seven decades, now.
Turning once again to the specific fact of growing up in the Bay Area in the 1950s and ’60s, it’s important to note just how deeply I perceived myself a misfit, pretty much as far back as I can remember.
Some of that, no doubt, was the result of environmental factors, be it a childhood in an alcoholic home or the fact I was a poorly coordinated, unathletic, glasses-wearing kid who was an easy target for schoolyard bullies. Some a function of my own internal dialog. I never really felt a comfortable and confident sense of mastery; that I truly belonged anywhere, really.
And, as I commenced my fitful slide toward adolescence, and beyond, that sense that I didn’t fit grew increasingly to dominate my narrative. That was when the indescribable good fortune of being located a few miles from San Francisco, just as the City was becoming the center of the counter-cultural universe, really made itself apparent.
More on that is ahead in Part 2 of this narrative. For tonight, I’m wrung dry.
I posted this up on Facebook late Sunday. And, I confess, reaction was so strong I’ve been persuaded to repost it here so it sticks around.
I’m tired and more than ready to log off, but I wanted to at least acknowledge, and share a thought or two about Mother’s Day.
To those among my friends for whom this day remains a pure, happy celebration of love, my deep and sincere best wishes.
But, I’m keenly aware that there are a number of folks who, for various reasons, land somewhere between “mixed feelings” and “raw grief” this day.
And I send my heart’s desire for peace and comfort your way as well.
For the children who have lost a loving mother.
For those who feel they never knew a loving mother.
For the women who mourn the fact they were never able to have children.
For those who made a thoughtful, personal choice not to have children for good and valid reasons but who nevertheless feel left out, if not judged, on
days like this.
For the mothers who have had one or more children die or go missing, and are living their lives now carrying a gaping, invisible wound that never fully heals and will be with them all their days.
For the single fathers who find themselves trying to be mother as well.
For the grandparents who thought they were headed for retirement but instead are now raising a “second family.”
For the mothers and children separated by incarceration, war, or politics.
And for all the others who’s particular situation I have not called out here, but who found themselves feeling “out of step” with the dominant narrative today.
May you all love and be loved; may you feel peace, safety, and connection; may you all sleep tonight with full hearts.
Note: I found the artwork that accompanies this post a couple days later on a friend’s Facebook page. Seemed to drive the same message so well, I thought I’d include it here. It was created by Boston artist Megan J. Smith for their Repeal Hyde Art Project. You may want to check out the project’s web site here.
I was hunting for something on YouTube this morning that I never did find. But in that way that YouTube (well, all of the internet really) has, my search took me down a couple different rabbit holes, eventually landing me someplace that really got me thinking.
Among the body of film clips and audio files of The Beatles that float around out there in the wild these days (much of it material from the Anthology project, or bits and pieces that didn’t make the final cut for that compilation) there are a number of purported bits of “the boys at work in the studio.” Many of these informal scraps appear to be at least semi-staged, quite likely at the behest of some Under Assistant West Coast Promo Man (in his seersucker suit) who wanted something “special” to leverage.
But what I stumbled upon this morning seems to be authentic “fly on the wall” audio of the band sitting around in studio trying to find the pieces to fit a remarkable new song George Harrison had brought in. The tune eventually became the wonderful Something on the Abbey Road album, but it’s a long way from it at this point.
I listened in fascination for a good nine minutes as the boys stumbled and wandered around the fully formed melody line, searching for the lyrics. As I heard them chase down several false trails, then back up and restart, I silently thanked the studio gods that some assistant engineer in master control had the presence of mind to roll tape “just in case.” It’s a revealing glimpse at process.
I also realized, after a bit, I was getting a revealing look at myself as well. I’m pretty sure I’ve talked here before about my lifelong affinity for music, of all types. Really from the time I was old enough to begin generating fully formed* thoughts and feelings I was attracted to music wherever I could find it.
*hmmmm…”fully formed” may be overly generous, even now.
Whether it was strolling oompah combos at the County Fair, watching variety shows on the huge mahogany black and white Capehart, my folks’ old big band records, or afternoons spent peeking around the corner into our living room as the neighboring teenage girls brought their precious rock ‘n’ roll 78s over to play for my lonely and welcoming mother in the living room (they’d kick off their shoes and dance in their bobby sox all afternoon—nobody at home would permit them to turn up the volume on “that damned noise”), I was locked in by the time I was 6 or 7 years old.
Fast forward a half-decade or so. By the time the first stirrings of puberty were beginning to cloud my young mind, my horizons had expanded beyond pop deeper into the roots of blues, jazz, folk and more.
I even went through a brief phase when I was 14 or so when I saved up, bought myself a used acoustic guitar and some tab books, and worked on reinventing myself as a “folk singer.” But within a year or so, I had to confront the reality that I had absolutely no native talent as a musician.
You know how you hear stories about kids who pick up some cast-off junk instrument, teach themselves how to get a noise out of it, and within weeks are astounded the adults around them? And they then grow up to be famous players, in demand by audiences around the world? If there is a 180 degree opposite of that kid, I was him. I was never gonna “astound the guys and win the girls” with my guitar virtuosity. Eventually I came to terms with that truth and let it go.
But my hunger to find a way to be near the music, to be there for the transcendent moments I already understood it can bring, stayed with me. And it wasn’t long before I came to realize that for every lead guitarist and killer piano player up on stage there needed to be a significant number of “support troops” to make a space for the magic to happen.
And thus, as I came of age in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I found myself on stages and around clubs, dance halls, and bands. Not as a performer, but as one of those necessary crew people. It was in the intensified cauldron of that scene, in that moment, that I began my lifelong, still ongoing, admiration for and relationship with people I’ve come to call The Creatives.
I speak here about artists of all stripes, be they performers (musicians, actors, jugglers and dancers—even, to some degree, athletes and politicians) or practitioners of more solitary arts, such as writers, painters, and the like.
I found, almost subconsciously, that the role of “support” is a comfortable fit for who I’ve come to understand myself to be. I truly do not have that gift/curse of The Creative, whose mind and psyche contains the odd admixture of talent and inspiration that drives them to express something, and gives them access to the necessary skills to execute. But I do have skills, talent and intelligence. And I get great satisfaction in putting them to work in service of The Creative.
I did that for a number of years in and around music.
Also spent a good chunk of time in radio which, at first blush, might seem to run counter to what I just said. But really, in reflecting on my broadcasting career, I was always, again, able to make myself a useful and valuable “member of the team.”
And the nature of the medium means that still put my in front of a mic (and yes, I loved doing that work). But here too, I was never the most high profile personality on air. Most of the time I was “the news guy,” doing important work, but never putting myself in front of the story. And my stints as a music host were all relatively anonymous weekend shifts or fill in work for “the regular talent.”
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to apply that “support staff” mindset in work with two different authors; one working on an important biography, the other producing fiction pieces after decades of focusing her talents in completely different arenas.
In one case, I served (by remote electronic connection—the internet is a remarkable tool sometimes) as essentially a combination proofreading editor and beta reader. Devising and implementing a system for making notes and communicating them to an author several thousand miles away was an interesting challenge.
For the other, I’ve been more directly involved in virtually all the “non-creative” aspects of producing, packaging and taking to market, two books now, with more to follow.
In the latter case, it’s been a pretty intense learning curve in which I’ve had to bring many aspects of my skill-set to bear in new areas where I have limited, if any experience. Fortunately for me it appears I am, among other things, an autodidactic polymath. Which is, I learned this afternoon, a $20 way of saying I am one adept at self-education “whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas.” Impressed? I was.
The thing I’m trying to say about this is that, once again, I find myself sliding easily into that “I’m the support guy” role for a new sub-category of Creative. And, once again, I’m deriving significant satisfaction and fulfillment from being the facilitator.
Look, I’ve come a long way ’round to get back home to this point: While initially motivated as a young person simply by a desire to be present and a part of what seemed to be important and exciting events, that yearning brought me to come to see myself as bringing value to life by applying my skills and talents in support of The Creative.
And, as a result of that, I’ve enjoyed more than my share of opportunities to stand close to the white hot energy of the Creative Crucible as much as anyone not endowed with the gift/curse themselves is likely to be able. Due to that, I believe I have come to have a certain familiarity, if not intimacy, with that process, and a number of people within whom it moves.
That close view has taught me some things over the years. Early on I absorbed the lessons, but did not yet have the life experience or perspective to put the education in context. With the more contemplative mind set this season of my life has brought comes, I think, a deepening understanding of it all.
In younger days, it was hard to get much beyond the basic transactional lessons. “I really love Xyz’s music, but geez he’s an asshole to deal with.” “What a delight it was to spend the evening with Abc. Supremely talented, and so easy to present. She just brings light to the entire building when she walks in.” Stuff like that.
Fairly quickly, because I did spend so much time “inside the bubble,” I also learned that, as a culture, we are damned hard on our artists. We bestow a certain celebrity upon them, but then make demands on their attention and activities that are, frankly, selfish and unreasonable. Then we resent them if they don’t accede to those demands, on our timetable.
But here’s the thing (and this is the piece I find myself coming to somewhat late in life). I feel terribly grateful for the trust Creatives place in me when we take our respective roles and do the things we must. And I have ever-deepening respect and sympathy for those among us who carry the Creative gift/curse.
To be the individual who brings the magic is truly a remarkable gift from the universe, and the gods of the arts. But that gift comes with a heavy, heavy cost to those upon whom it is bestowed. Beyond the often terrible weight of the relationship with “fans” that I touched on above, the very act of creating often generates a staggering vulnerability for the Creative.
And the more profound and moving the art, the greater the extent to which it leaves the one who puts it out there naked before the world. Also, I’ve never known a truly talented individual who wasn’t wracked from time to time with agonies of insecurity and self-doubt; what some call “impostor syndrome,” regardless the level of their accomplishments. It seems an inevitable byproduct of the work.
Different individuals deal with it in different ways. As noted above, some create a deeply loving and supportive “family” among those they work with and all who surround them while others grow prickly and withdrawn.
It breaks a lot of people. That, along with the basic raw talent, is why the ranks of the truly magical are so small. Many, for one reason or another, drop out along the way. It’s also why we have so many tales of alcoholism and addiction, failed relationships, and deaths at age 27.
What I know to be true is this: Being a Creative is a damned difficult job, harder and more challenging than anything most of us ever have to bear and sustain. Thus, today I have deep, deep respect for the courage (even if it’s courage born of desperation) of those who do the work.
The human condition is enriched by the presence of these gifted ones among us. And to whatever small degree I have been able to ease the yoke of the gift for a few of them here and there, it’s a life well lived and it has been my privilege to assist.
Plus, I got to be present for a hell of a lot of cool stuff.
Oh, I expect I owe it to you to show you the video that sparked this almost 2000 words of rumination. Here ’tis.
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.