Life Off World

Author Amy Ferris frequently posts personal ruminations in her Facebook account which touch my heart, and encourage me.

But Monday morning I woke up to one that felt exceptionally personal for me. I started to type a comment, but soon realized my post was growing far too long for a comment thread.

So, I switched gears, planning to repost her anecdote on my Facebook page, with a longish introduction.

Before too long though, as the words kept tumbling out, that ceased to be an option as well.

And thus, here I am. Dusting off this long underused blog site so I can unlimber all I have to say.

With Amy’s permission, let me begin by sharing her original post here. I’ll move on to my response down on the other side.

A lovely FB memory:

It started with a favor: could I drive him to the oncologist, he has a check-up, it’ll only be a half-hour at most, he asked.

Sure, I said, sure.

He is someone I have known for 26 years; a friend who I see at parties and dinner’s at his house or smaller dinner’s and smaller parties at other houses, and well, you can know someone 26 years and never have time alone with them.

We sat in my car for 45 minutes, on the way to the cancer center; me in the driver’s seat, he in the passenger seat and we caught up and got to know each other better.

So much I didn’t know.
So much I now know.
So much more I hope to know.

The waiting room was full of people. Old & young.
Women & men & children.
Folks who were just beginning treatment, folks who were in the midst of treatment, folks who had recurrences – young & old and white & black & brown and gay & straight and the nurse came out and asked for Amy and I raised my hand, and she told me that my friend needed an infusion, and would I mind waiting, because this kinda thing can take an hour or two or… of course, I said, of course I’ll wait for him, yes, tell him that, yes, sure. I’ll be right here when he comes out.

And I caught up on magazines that I no longer buy. People and Us and a slew of magazines I had no idea existed and the thing I noticed, that rocked me to my core, when I looked up from reading about famous people who I knew nothing about and now know so much about, the thing I noticed was how kind everyone was. Kind and generous and maybe it was a cupful, and maybe it was just a spoonful and maybe it was a teeny bit but kindness has hope in it – kindness is hope – and… here, sit here, she said as she stood up from her chair to offer it to a man with a walker who was looking for a place to sit, and the smile and the kiss that was returned when a man brought his wife or his girlfriend – someone he was sleeping with – a cup of water and the little girl whose hair was growing back and the older boy who gave her a thumbs up and the small frail woman who I know was younger than me but looked so much like my mother and… every fucking time I am sitting in a waiting room, which is so very often these days I feel like it is me who is waiting for a moment or two or three that brings humanity back to my life; restores it, offering up hope.

It is me who is waiting.

It happened at the coffee machine.

For the life of me I couldn’t get the machine to make cappuccino, and unlike the waiting room at Subaru or iKen’s surgeon’s office or other doctor’s offices, this machine was odd and strange and unfamiliar and twice I tried, twice, and… no foam, none, and it isn’t cappuccino without foam, it’s just plain fucking coffee and I huffed and I puffed and I was about to try one more time when … can I help, she asked. Can I help you? Maybe she was 15, maybe 16 years old. Maybe. Tall and lanky and pale as a ghost with braces on her teeth and yes, yes, you can help me, I said. Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure. And she made me a cappuccino and told me that the cup was hot, really really hot be careful, she said, and I thought my God… my God… here in this room filled with folks who have no idea how long they have, no idea how much time… this girl, this girl with braces and cancer gave me some of her time and I had no idea, none, when I honked the horn this morning to pick up my friend of 26 years who I now know a bit better than I did yesterday because in a car you can choose to be emotionally intimate in a way you can’t be with music blaring and people talking over each other and I had no idea, none what so ever, when I said yes that I was saying yes to something more than a favor, I said yes to hope.

We mustn’t lose hope.

Thank you, Amy.
Thank you for seeing us.

Not many folks who don’t belong to the Kancer Kidz Klub really can.

Oh, a lot of ’em care. And they try, they really do.
But they just don’t, maybe can’t, “get” us.

Cos we don’t live in the same world as you any more.
Oh, we’re not far away. Just over here.

Our world looks a lot like yours.
We do, or try to do, a lot of the same stuff you do—that we used to do.
But it’s different here. And if you don’t live here, you don’t know.

No, we aren’t all waiting to die.

Some of us are. And that’s okay. I mean, all humans do die, sooner or later. It’s just that some of us here have that official notice that our stop is coming up soon and we should gather our stuff.

But some of us are holding hope, and fighting like motherfuckers to get back over there to the old home world where you all are.

Oh, there’s a lot of stuff we have in common. Much of it wouldn’t sound unfamiliar to other folks back there who are dealing with aging, other debilitating diseases (be they exotic or commonplace), et cetera. Many folks back in the Home World also get the chance to experience extreme fatigue, random severe pain, our senses of taste, smell, sometimes others not working right.

There’s another thing all of us in the Klub have in common (and this kinda ties in with your experience when you gave you friend a ride to his appointment).

Waiting. We do a shit ton of waiting. Waiting to see the oncologist who is running behind because an earlier patient had a crisis. Waiting to see how the new bloodwork or scans came out. Waiting for the biopsy results. Waiting for the fucking infusion to be done. Waiting to see if they think they “got it all” after a surgery. Just a lot of waiting. And that can be extra frustrating if you’ve already been advised you’re on a short clock.

Oh, frustration. Shall we talk about feelings?

Yeah, frustration is one that’s always on offer.
Plenty of chances to feel frustrated; impatient.
Of course, those are terrific “opportunities for learning.” Because it is quickly apparent that setting up camp in that negativity isn’t going to accomplish fuck all. And it’s a toxic place to live. Not a good choice.
There’s already so much inescapable toxicity (one of the odd quirks of cancer treatment is that one of the basic principles seems to involve a delicate dance of slowly poisoning the patience within an inch of their lives in the hopes the cancer cells die off before the host body) that voluntarily choosing more pretty much doesn’t pencil out when you look at the cost – benefit balance.

What are some other pretty common feelings? Well, there’s hope (and I know that’s one that you’re fond of, Amy). A cancer diagnosis is certainly not always and inescapably terminal any more.

(Though it certainly CAN be – if there is any sort of “early detection” procedure you’ve been putting off because it seems yucky, or it might hurt, or there’s a copay. Stop. Just stop. Go make the fucking appointment. Get it done. We don’t WANT you over here in Kancer World if that can possibly be avoided.)

But I was talking about hope. There are certainly a lot of us in the Kancer Kids Klub who have been given to understand there’s every reason to expect we’ll come out the other side after a somewhat bumpy detour over here on the bad roads of Kancer World. And the dominant feelings for those Klub Members are pretty much hope and determination. Those folks step up, pull on their Fuck Cancer tee shirts and (for many) knit beanies over their newly hairless noggins and quite literally engage in daily battle. So they are feisty, determined and driven by hope. And the rest of us hold hope with them. They carry the torch for us all.

Confusion. There’s often a feeling of confusion; overwhelm. Especially for the newly diagnosed. Such a mass of complex, often technical information to take on board (along with well-meaning but useless input from friends who just feel compelled to tell you about their Aunt Ida who confounded her doctors after she went off to a private clinic in Minnesota and spent six months on a specially tailored diet of blender drinks made with 17 herbs known only to shamans in the ancient Celtic tradition and a secret blend of raw vegetables). So much to take on board at exactly that moment when your mind is still reeling from the emotional shock of hearing the “C-Word” and struggling to take in ANYTHING. Meanwhile, we’ve got to get up to speed on all this, because it’s going to be necessary for us to be the lead dogs in taking responsibility for our own medical advocacy.

I could continue, but I’m wearing myself out just typing all this. There is one other emotion that touches each of us. Some may admit it; articulate it more readily that others. But it touches all of us from time to time.

Fear. Any Kancer Kid who insists they are not visited at least by moments of fear and doubt is lying. Either to you or to themselves. Of course. It’s fucking scary over here in Kancer World. So many unknowns. Existentially unknown. And we in the Klub are well acquainted with our personal mortality. It’s up in our face 24/7.

So yes, Amy. What you noticed (careful noticer of things that you are) is dead on. We are all unique persons, and express ourselves as such. But if I was to generalize, I would offer this.

First, regardless of prognosis, being handed a cancer diagnosis does have a clarifying effect on one’s priorities. Seems that a lot of humans spend much of our lives pouring energy into things which, when you get right down to the bone, don’t really matter much. So, many of us find ourselves shifting our focus and reconsidering, given that our time in life is limited, just what we believe is important.

Also, I believe these common experiences have a tendency to tenderize the those of us in the Kancer Klub. This may manifest in different ways, but a lot of it seems to show up around how we take care of each other. Not so much the sweeping, magnificent gestures. But those little things. Being aware of who may need the seat worse (and, when that’s you, accepting the proffered courtesy and support with grace and gratitude—with respect for where it’s coming from); giving a stranger a hand with a balky vending machine; inviting that person juggling a dozen eggs, a half-gallon of milk, and a fussy child to go on ahead of you in the supermarket checkout line.

Sure, there are lots of folks who don’t live in Kancer World who go through their lives this way, and bless ‘em. The world needs more tender hearts. Badly.

But, I dunno. Members of the Klub, regardless of their politics, religious beliefs (or absence of), economic status, or cultural background just seem to have a baseline empathy quotient that’s a wee bit higher.

I don’t mean to suggest that “all us Kancer Kids are SPECIAL.” That’s a little self-centered, even for this old boomer.

I guess what I’m saying is that while we appear to be living right next to you, and be dealing with the same joys and challenges, there’s this thing that rather sets us aside just a degree or two. Most “regular folk” don’t even notice it and, if they do, even fewer know what to do with it; how to deal with us.

And you know? That’s really okay too.

Not just because, well, it has to be. But because, even though I live over here in Kancer World now (and, in my case, will apparently be living here until the day that Dark Bastard comes for me), like all of us, I originated on that same Home World as all you guys.

And in my younger years, I wasn’t really comfortable moving among the dead and dying either. With time, I like to think I got better, able to be there with a bit more ease and grace. But I do remember how hard it was; how clumsy I was at it.

And thus it’s such a treat—so validating—to feel like someone from the Home World; someone like the talented Amy Ferris (who has had, and has, her own mountains to climb and storms to weather) sees us. I mean, really SEES us.

So thank you for that.

 

A couple of notes before I go.

  • If you’re not familiar with her, Amy Ferris is not only an exceptional (and successful) screenwriter and novelist. She also devotes a lot of time and energy these days to encouraging others, especially women, to find their voices and share their stories.
    You can find her Amazon page for more.
    She’s also on social media. There is a Twitter account,  but she’s most active on Facebook. She uses that account almost like a mini-blog. It’s where I found the post that generated this response from me.
  • There is a small, private group on Facebook expressly to offer folks who have a cancer diagnosis a spot where we can talk strictly among ourselves about whatever we need, be it a request for experience and support, a need to vent with others also living in our strange land without worrying about rattling the civilians. No friends, loved ones, or caregivers. Just a few of us. It’s called The Kancer Kidz Koffee Klub and if you qualify by virtue of currently doing the Kancer Dance or having been a patient previously who has graduated you’re welcome to stop by and check us out.
  • Finally, it occurs to me that some of my remarks may have suggested a lack of respect for those we depend on for support. If so I apologize, for that is not my message. Almost without exception, my experience has been that all these folks are damned living saints. And a special word for the health care professionals who elect to work in oncology. There are a hell of a lot of jobs in medicine and care which demand a special balance of commitment, knowledge, and professionalism. But I am surprised and my heart is touched over and over by those special among special people who deal with us Kancer Kids.

Remembering Jerilyn

I first met Jerilyn Brandelius when she came to San Francisco from Southern California in, I think, 1969. Someone (she told me once, but I forget who) introduced her to Chet Helms who was, of course, in dire need of a personal assistant/factotum to ensure follow up and follow through on all manner of business items, and keep the office on track and focused.

This was right around the time Chet had acquired the lease on the old Beach Pavilion building out on the Great Highway, across the road from Kellys Cove and comfortably tucked between Playland at the Beach and Sutro Heights.

In the weeks before we opened, as we got the building ready to do service to Chester’s vision of creating a space somewhere in between a dance hall and house of worship where people, music, lights, the Pacific Ocean could all come together and create magic(k), I had managed to find enough ways to be useful to create a full-time job for myself as Head Hey–You. Did everything from take tickets at the door, to help with stage managing and sound, to cleaning out perennially clogging toilets in the restrooms and sweeping and waxing the dance floor after shows.

So, Jere and I were “work colleagues.” But of course, when you worked for Chet Helms, it was never “just a job.” We were all “family.” Mates in that same ongoing effort to help Chet create something special that might lead—well, who knew where? And I learned things about who I wanted to be in life, and made connections with people that would endure over the years (even when we found ourselves out of contact for decades).

Jerilyn was one of those people. I loved her to the bottom of my heart then, and always have. And she WAS one that I lost contact with for many years. After the Family Dog on the Great Highway went under, I moved on to work for several bands, one of the Bay Area’s few (at the time) sound reinforcement companies that had the equipment and knowledge to work rock and roll shows, and several clubs and other music venues.

Photo: ©Ed Perlstein

She, meanwhile, ended up in Marin County in a relationship with a musician from a well-known band, and got focused on raising her two kids, along with a tribe of other children associated with the “family” that surrounded that band—Oh, I’ll go ahead and say it. It is somewhat integral to the story, and no secret. After the Family Dog family broke up, she was absorbed into that vast amoeba which was the Grateful Dead family in the 1970s.

One of the reasons that becomes important at this point is that part of the legacy she leaves is a whole second generation of “Dead kids,” now in their 40s and 50s, who grew up more or less as a free range pack of young ’uns airing it out across the acres of various ranches and other properties scattered across Northern Marin County. In many ways, Jerelyn had stepped up into the role of fierce mama bear, not just for Creek and Christina, her two children, but for all the kids rattling around. More than one has told me that growing up in that somewhat ‘fluid’ scene, they always felt secure in the knowledge they could seek out Jere for her counsel and guidance; or just to have their backs. She became in some respects the most reliable adult in their world.

We didn’t have much occasion to connect, unless we happened to run into each other backstage at a show. While she had gone North, I had elected, post Dog, to remain in San Francisco and dig in to the more urban scene there.

Eventually I dropped out of the music business and moved down to Santa Cruz County, losing touch with her completely.

I later learned that after her relationship with that band member went the way of so many rock and roll pairings in that era where a good looking guy spent much of his time on the road being the center of the party while his “old lady” kept the home fires burning, Jerelyn easily transitioned into an office manager role for an East Bay chapter of the Hells Angels MC.

Because she was just that centered and secure in being Jerelyn Brandelius that there was never any doubt about her competency to take care of the myriad threads of necessary bank account management, tax reporting, regulatory compliance, and all the other things a fraternal organization that size is accountable for—especially one that’s a highly visible target for every investigator and prosecutor out to make a name for himself.

Photo: © Lilli Heart

Of course, despite the fact her romantic relationship had gone south, her ties to the Dead Family always remained strong. The relationship held value for her, and for them, and she could be found around band (and family) related events right until the end.
Jerelyn’s profile in the broader universe of Deadheads exploded after the publication in late 1989 of the Grateful Dead Family Album, a massive coffee table book with cover art by iconic San Francisco artist Stanley Mouse offering almost 250 pages of photographs, many of them behind-the-scenes candids shot by Jerelyn, accompanied by text of her reminiscences and often droll observations on the scene over the years.

But I’m getting too buried in the biographical minutia here. I need to circle back to how it is that she rests so deep in my heart, a half-century on from our first association.

I guess it was maybe 15 years or so ago that a young friend of mine from down here in Santa Cruz County—a second-generation Deadhead if you will, phoned me filled with excitement after a trip to the Bay Area for a show.
Seems he’s been manning the Wharf Rats table (a subset of Deadheads in drug and alcohol recovery) when Jerilyn stopped by. He’d heard me tell tales of our history when he’d gushed about the Family Album book, and he mentioned to her that he knew me.

Remember that, at this point, we’d probably been out of touch for a couple of decades. Well, she was apparently excited to reconnect, giving him her phone number to pass along to me. So the kid came home feeling like a minor rock star.

That’s how we finally got back in touch, so many years later. We managed to get together a few times over the next couple of years, but I wasn’t at a time in my life when I was getting to the City much and she only occasionally came south, usually to support friends playing a gig somewhere in the Santa Cruz area.
Then the damned liver thing happened. Among other qualifying hoops they make liver transplant candidates jump through is a requirement they abstain from alcohol and drugs. I was able to add my voice to others from within the family in assuring her there is, indeed, life after recovery. That doing this deal clean and sober actually turns out, in a lot of ways, to be the most colorful trip of all.

Scared the hell out of me when word came she was going in for her transplant; I’d had a few other friends receive organ transplants and knew, at least in a general way, what a major deal it was. Of course, if I allowed myself to feel concerned, I wasn’t reckoning with just what a badass Jerilyn has always been.

As expected, it was a long, difficult, post-transplant recovery period. But sooner than you’d think we were making the pilgrimage North, groping around Ft. Baker in the dark, trying to find the Presidio Yacht Club. Once we finally stumbled in, we found the place packed with folks, both famous and obscure, there to celebrate Jerilyn’s first return from the dead.

In recent years, it’s become easier to keep in touch with the rise of social media. And, as my life focus shifted, I began to make it up to San Francisco a bit more often.

Photo: © Rosie McGee

As it turned out, liver failure couldn’t hold a candle to the next gut punch the universe had lined up. In January of 2014, Jere’s daughter Christina (who I’d had the opportunity to amuse from time to time in the Family Dog days when she would hit that fussy spot little kids do when they really need some attention—just at the same moment her mom was engaged in an important long distance phone call nailing down next week’s booking) died far too young, succumbing to an asthma attack.

Possessing the terrible qualifier of having walked through the death of an adult child with my spouse, I like to believe I was able to be there for her in a way few others could be. We didn’t spend a ton of time together, and there wasn’t a lot of conversation. But our connection deepened in a way that’s beyond my ability to find words for.

This past half-dozen years or so, we stayed in consistent touch even though the 90 miles or so that separated us meant we still didn’t manage to get in the same place at the same time more than maybe three or four times a year.

Deborah Grabien, Sam Cutler, Jerilyn Brandilius Photo: Holly Howard

But I believe there remained a level of love and connection between us that continued to deepen, without the need to speak of it, on each and every occasion we spent some time together, whether she had drafted me for chauffeur duty, giving her a ride to or from a gig someplace or we turned up at the same soiree—more often than not one of the legendary get togethers at Chez Grabien, where the company, the food, and the music were always exceptional.

We could usually manage to get ourselves off to the side someplace for a while where we could just sit and share space and unspoken history. Might be 15 minutes; might be a couple of hours. Usually, little was said once the initial check-in business was out of the way. How’s your health? What are you listening to lately?

For several years, there would be the obligatory quick catchup on John Perry Barlow (songwriting partner with Bob Weir, and later in life the visionary who birthed the Electronic Frontier Foundation); she was principally responsible for his caretaking over several years at the end of his life.

Because, you see, that was a thing Jerilyn did. I think I mentioned her being the rock at the center of the world of a whole generation of Dead family kids. She did the same thing for Barlow. She had also spent a period of time back working for Chet Helms again in what turned out (to everyone’s surprise) to be the last few years of his life.

Jerilyn was fierce. Fiercely loyal. Fiercely protective. Fiercely supportive of those she loved. And if one of hers was in trouble she was there to hold steady with them in the storm.

Of course, that fierceness meant she could also be a world-class pain in the ass when she was fighting for something. That could, on occasion, rub ‘outsiders’ the wrong way. And, if I’m totally honest, it would on occasion drive those who loved her up the wall as well.

But it was never born of malice, always passion.

After her stroke a couple years back, Jerilyn once more pulled out all that fight and determination. It pissed her off no end to find herself physically compromised, and she threw herself into all the recommended physical therapy, dietary guidelines, and lifestyle recommendations (at least as best she could make them fit her world) to regain a huge percentage of her capacity.

I think she fatigued quicker. And I’m sure (though we never discussed it in detail) she was finding herself carrying a greater and greater pain load on a daily basis. Hell, we all live with chronic pain at this age; especially those of us who ran our bodies so hard when we were young and heedless.

But, as somebody pointed out the other day, there was a part of Jerilyn that never fully came back after Christina died. There never is really, is there? The death of a child cuts a chunk out of a mother that can’t be healed or filled in. And she loved as fiercely as any mother I’ve ever known.

It’s funny. There’s that word again. Fierce. Absolutely, Jerilyn was one of the most badass, determined women I have ever known. And she walked through enough shit for any three people in her life, with her head up all the way. So, yeah. Fierce.

And yet all my memories of her are tender, sweet, infused with love. No, we didn’t spend a lot of time together. We never had, really. But she has been a part of my life since the earliest days working for Chet, when I was beginning to figure out who I was going to grow up to be. How I would carry myself in this world.

So, going forward from here for as long as I remain, I’ll carry myself in a world now missing one of the touchstones of my life. We were never married; we were never lovers. I don’t think we ever even intentionally got high together. Dosed at a few of the same shows, I’m sure. But that hardly counts around that rolling circus.

I am grateful that the closest inner circles of family were able to be there as her body wound down and her spirit departed. I know that Betty was there. I understand Weir was able to come and sing her home as the machines stopped and it all finished.

I am going to miss the hell out of her. I already do. This has been such a bastard of a year, for everyone. I suppose it even makes a certain amount of sense that this would be when Jerilyn finally reached that point where she had to lay her hammer down.

I will get my head wrapped around accepting it, same as all the rest of this year. Because we have to, don’t we? But I don’t goddamn like it. And I shall, indeed, feel her absence the rest of my days.

“Fare you well. Fare you well. I love you more than words can tell.”

Photo: © Rosie McGee

Plans are in the works for a virtual gathering on line to celebrate the life and memory of Jerilyn. I will post an update here, and on my Facebook page when details become available.

Making the Most of Those Strawbs

It’s the height of berry season, and you might find this little foodie piece  featuring tips from the California Strawberry Commission useful.

Let me add one other ‘tip’ that isn’t mentioned here. BUY LOCAL!
That’s always a good idea anyway. You’ll pay a little more at your farmers’ market, or a local roadside stand if you have one,  but you can usually find food that was in the ground a day or two ago.

And, as the video in the link suggests , that’s especially important with strawbs. By their nature, they don’t hang around long off the vine. And the big growers and coops—those ‘brand names’ you’re used to finding in the produce section of the supermarket? Well the best case scenario is that fruit was picked damned near a week ago before you see it and has hung out in a series of coolers before it makes its way to you.
Those big operations have in-house, cutting edge labs that work year-round on hybridizing berries for shelf-life, size, and appearance. And they’re damned good at it.

Unfortunately, that specialized breeding always comes with tradeoffs. And especially in the case of strawberries, when you breed for those commercially desirable characteristics there is a price to pay in texture, sugar and moisture content, and most of all: flavor.

It’s just no damned fun eating supermarket berries any more.
Fortunately, in most parts of the country (and ESPECIALLY here in our little valley) you don’t have to!

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.

“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

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

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.

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.