The Whole Song

Hello Everybody,

A few weeks ago, on my way up to North Dakota, I pulled off US Highway 281 at Lawton, Oklahoma and checked into a hotel.

20140823_115255Big beds, white sheets void of personality. White, fluffy, pillows. TV hanging on a wall covered with abstract wallpaper. The same comfortable yet impersonal ambiance of so many other hotels of which I’d sought repose. I always plan to do the same thing each night I spend in a hotel: take a bath, play my guitar, watch TV until I fall asleep. But what usually happens also happened in Lawton that night: after the bath and turning the AC as low as it can go, I crawled under the covers and quickly slipped into deep sleep.

My stay in the hotel in Lawton was no different. I went to sleep at 9, woke up at 6. Then I went down to the lobby and had the same continental breakfast.

I hadn’t had any coffee yet, therefore my diminished mental capacity made working the pancake pour-and-flip-and-wait contraption a difficult task. I managed to extract a serving of pancake batter out of the dispenser and pour it into the contraption, but something very wrong happened when I flipped the griddle…batter dripped out of it, spread all over the table.

“Wha…wha…what’s going on?” I exclaimed.

“Oh, you gotta let it wait for a while,” said the clerk, running to the table.

“Well, it’s…the instructions aren’t very clear.” They were.

“Oh, I know, they can be tricky,” said the clerk, a Latino man, tattoos on his neck and forearms. “Here, lemme get another one set up for you.” He did so. “Yeah, it’ll just beep when it’s ready. All you gotta do is wait, my friend.”

I waited, watched the lobby TV as I kept an ear our for the beep. A local news program was on—a well-coifed anchor was talking to a bald on top yet pony-tailed farmer.

“Tell us why you are here today?” asked the anchor to the farmer.

“I’m here to tell you this new proposal on the Clean Water Act by the EPA is just another way to keep water from us smaller farmers. It is a clear example of the overreach of Federal Government-”


I flipped the griddle, plucked the pancake out of it, sogged it up with syrup. When I turned around the anchor was saying…

“Well, (Mr Farmer), that’s very interesting. Thank you for coming to visit us this morning.” The anchor turned to the camera. “We’ll be right back.”

I sat down just in time to watch a commercial for Choctaw Defense. “One of the largest defensive contractors in the nation,” said a narrator, recorded over footage of Indians welding, working on assembly lines…sparks flying across the screen, “Choctaw Defense is responsible for thousands of jobs throughout Oklahoma. Completely owned by the Choctaw, located on the Choctaw Nation.”

I couldn’t find the commercial online, but I did find this, that basically says the same thing:

Indians building military equipment for the Military Machine that crushed them one hundred years ago. I heard the Great Mother crying as I swallowed the last piece of my cold, soggy pancake. Then I picked up my bag and guitar, walked toward the door.

“Hey,” shouted the clerk, “you play guitar?”


“Oh, cool, man. I do too. I play just down the road, at the Spanish speaking church down the way. That’s pretty much only where I play these days. I used to be in a band, played all over you know…back when I was wild, haha…but they really like us there at the church. Ok, man, well safe travels and God bless you.”

20140823_122552I continued north on US 281, which runs completely up and down the nation—Mexico to Canada. It’s also a military highway, meaning if we were ever invaded, or if Martial Law was declared throughout the country, US 281 would be a main transport vein for supplies, personel and weaponry. But it’d be hard to send all that military might up or down US 281 through Oklahoma. There, the highway shrinks to 2 lanes often, is not maintained as well as it is in Texas and of course has a slower speed limit than it does in the Lone Star State. I was losing time, so when I came to Alva near the border with Kansas, I turned east onto US 64, toward Interstate 35.

US 64 was small, bumpy, slow. There was no shoulder most of the way. I had to counter the high prairie winds to stay on the road. Lush crops grew right to the edge of the bar ditch, and nearly every farm had about 5 acre square of land cleared and leveled, where a huge oil derrick pumped away. Oilmen scurried around the rigs, enshrouded by red dirt clouds brought up by the wind. These scenes looked chaotic, busy, but not a sound came into the cab. There was only the gusts of the wind, and a classic rock station on the radio, playing a fine list including ACDC, Alice Cooper, CCR, all the greats. In between every other song would be the same commercial…

“Last year, Oklahoma experienced more earthquakes than in recent history. Did you know regular home insurance does not cover earthquake damage, however we can help…”

About 20 miles out of Cherokee, the station played a lo-fi recording of some local band. 3 chords, distortion just like a million other songs, and of course the tough yet curiously sensitive voice singing the lyrics…

I smoke, I drink

Just tryin not to think

I smoke, get drunk

Just tryin to change my luck

It was impossible to ingnore the glaring contradictions in such a set of lyrics (changing requires at least a little thinking and doing the same thing over and over never leads to change…just insanity) however, I was in Oklahoma, therefore I championed the effort, nonetheless.

The eyes of The Past staring back at you...

The eyes of The Past staring back at you…

The Boss came on as I rolled down the main street of Cherokee – growling through the brilliant and most misunderstood tune of all time, Born in the USA – passing by one closed down storefront after the other. Born in the USA, I was born in the USA…Springsteen’s repetitive howl put me in a transe and suddenly Oklahoma quit being a feeding plain for Big Oil Predator’s and incubator for Societal Burn Out and transformed a wormhole through Spacetime…

I’m 9 years old. Ronald Reagan is on the TV. A lot of people are clapping. Born in the USA…Born in the USA…four more years…four more years…all those people in stiff suits with big shoulder pads and cemented hair…smiling…but why aren’t they singing the rest of the song:

Born down in a dead man’s town

The first kick I took was when I hit the ground

End up like a dog that’s been beat too much

Till you spend half your life just covering up

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the yellow man

Come back home to the refinery

Hiring man says “son if it was up to me”

Went down to see my V.A. man

He said “son don’t you understand”

Had a brother at Khe Sahn

Fighting off the Viet Cong

They’re still there, but he’s all gone

He had a woman he loved in Saigon

I got a picture of him in her arms

Down in the shadow of a penitentiary

Out by the gas fires of the refinery

Ten years burning down the road

Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go

Born in the USA…born in the USA…Reagan’s still clapping, confetti’s falling…fade out…fade it…I’m sitting in front of the old RCA watching an episode of 20/20…Hugh Downs does a story on the eminent nuclear holacaust, then Barbara Walters runs a story about Satan Worship in California and finally John Stossel does the feature story of the evening, about all the farmers committing suicide in creative ways so their families could collect the life insurance because insurance is there to help…if they did it just right…everything grows dark around the TV…I look behind me…my father’s not there, he’s in prison…my mom’s reading on the couch, but she fades away…static…static…Reagan clapping…confetti…static…I look back again…mom’s gone…it’s only Reagan and he’s still smiling like the smile was painted on…I hear the sounds of factories closing down in Michigan…I hear the bombs whistle down…one hand after another tapes an Out of Business sign on a mainstreet window…oh, yeah, and there’s AIDS, we’re all gonna catch AIDS…scrrrrrrrrrratch, scrrrrrrrrratch…Satan scratches his pitchfork across the front door…ding-dong…there’s the bell…momma? momma?

Swoosh…back in 2014 and on the on ramp to I-35 North. Wow, that was thirty years ago. 9 years old. 1984. Jesus, is that really The Past? Hmm…1984.

20140729_210052A few weeks later I was chatting with my friend, Matt Anderson, with whom I share an office at the North Dakota Museum of Art. I told him about the oil rigs in the farm fields outside all the small closed-down Oklahoma towns. In between our discussion, I’d glance at the world coming through on my computer screen that morning: shot down jet planes, beheaded journalists, deadly viruses, white military police and dead black kids and unmanned drones, ISIS, ISIL and East Asia and Eurasia and JLAW’s boobs and internet crime and thought crime and unpersons and RATS RATS RATS and BIG BROTHER RATS OH GOD RATS PLEASE OH GOD NO BIG BROTHER OK BIG BROTHER OH GOD PLEASE NO NOT GOD I MEAN BIG BROTHER PLEASE TAKE THE GODDAMN RATS AWAY I LOVE BIG BROTHER!!!…i love big brother (breath)…i love big brother (another breath)i love big brotheri love

20140905_173240“You know,” said Matt, “I got home the other day, checked in with Heather and Grace and Abigail. We ate dinner. Then I went outside, walked a ways from the house. The sun was at the horizon, shining across the crops, hitting me head on and made the hair stand up on my arms. It was still warm, but cooling down. It was so quiet out there. I said to myself, This, right now, is real. Heather, Grace and Abigail are real. The only thing that is real is Right Now. Then I went inside and watched Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with Heather and the girls. I can’t look at today’s headlines. I don’t know what to believe. I can’t watch dark TV shows. None of it feels real to me. My farm is real, though. I want to live on my farm with my family. Sell farm shares. Earn just enough money, I don’t want a lot of money. I want…I want more Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang.”

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is a musical based on an Ian Flemming’s novel about a goofy inventor with a flying car who travels to Vulgaria and goes up against an evil, wealthy Baron and Baroness who imprison all the children of the realm. It’s a sugar and cheese technocolor feast for the eye and mind…

Don’t waste your pucker on some all day sucker
And don’t try a toffee or cream
If you seek perfection in sugar confection
Well there’s something new on the scene
A mouth full of cheer
A sweet without peer
A musical morsel supreme!

But like all cheesey tales…

A gentle breeze from Hushabye Mountain
Softly blows o’er lullaby bay.
It fills the sails of boats that are waiting–
Waiting to sail your worries away.
It isn’t far to Hushabye Mountain
And your boat waits down by the key.
The winds of night so softly are sighing–
Soon they will fly your troubles to sea.
So close your eyes on Hushabye Mountain.
Wave good-bye to cares of the day.
And watch your boat from Hushabye Mountain
Sail far away from lullaby bay.

…they’re not so cheesey…

What makes the battle worth the fighting?
What makes the mountain worth the climb?
What makes the questions worth the asking?
The reason worth the rhyme?

…if we listen to all the words…

To me the answer’s clear;
it’s having someone near; someone dear
Someone to care for; to be there for.
I have You Two!
Someone to do for; muddle through for.
I have You Two!
Someone to share joy or despair with;
whichever betides you.
Life becomes a chore, unless you’re living for
someone to tend to be a friend to.
I have You Two!
Someone to strive for, do or die for.



Maybe the world can use a little more Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang…

Be well…



Full Circle

Hello Everybody,

The skinny white man and Indian woman fluttered about like balloons in the parking lot of the closed down coffee shop. He wore giant white tennis shoes and his pale thin and scabbed legs sprouted from them like sun-starved stalks of grain. She was barefooted, a tattoo here and there, and wore a black evening gown through which her beer belly desperately tried to escape. They both carried large duffel bags that seemed to be the only things keeping them from floating away forever. They twitched, spat, kicked at invisible objects on the ground, drifted away from each other only to collide again a few steps further down the sidewalk. I watched them from the window of the Chinese joint on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington state, where I dined that evening.


Yep, even in Washington State.

“Make sure you tell the waitress you want whatever you’re gonna get to be spicy,” said the young Indian host as she led me to my table, a few minutes before. “The cook doesn’t make it spicy and if you don’t get it spicy it’s…well…”

“Thanks for the tip,” I replied.

She turned away, took a few steps, then turned around. “Are you here for the hot rod show?”


“Why are you…here…then?”

“Heading back home to California.”

She smiled, walked away. I closed my eyes, rubbed them, rubbed them harder. I’d left Grand Forks, North Dakota the previous morning and had been driving straight on since, stopping only to sleep for 4 hours in my Jeep in a motel parking lot somewhere in Montana because there…

“Ain’t gonna be a motel room for you anywhere probably,” said one of the many hotel clerks I’d talked to along I-94 West. “It’s vacation season, they all headin down t’Yellowstone from every direction. And it’s construction season, too. And a course you got all the bikers headin down to Sturgis for the biker rally.”

I finally found a room at the Sunrise Valley Inn on the Yakima Reservation. $54. A dip in the mattress and a broken lamp, but a good air-conditioner. And of course, the Chinese restaurant next door with the Indian host and a leather-tanned gaunt shell of a waitress coming to my table and asking, “Hi there, honey, watch’a havin today?” just like out of some black and white TV show.

“I’ll have the General Tso’s Chicken.”

“Alright, I’ll be right back with it, dear.” Then she blew away to the kitchen like a tumbleweed.

I turned back to the window. The skinny white fellow and Indian woman had dropped the duffel bags and were moving about like pinatas being swung at by many invisible children.

20140810_205920I closed my eyes again, nearly falling asleep after a few seconds. I jerked my head and almost fell out of my booth. I looked around, no one among the half-dozen or so other customers seemed to notice or care. I rubbed my face, took a long gulp of ice water. It was after I swallowed the water that the decision I had to make – that I’d been able to outrun all the way from Grand Forks, ND – found me. The North Dakota Museum of Art had offered me the position of Director of Program Development. Nice salary. Insurance. Vacation. Personal and sick days. The whole shebang. I didn’t apply for the job, but I just so happened to be around when the guy who had it before gave notice. Laurel, the curator of the museum, said, “why don’t you take it?” I told her I’d think about it, then tried not to think about it. But now – in that Chinese restaurant on the Yakima Indian Reservation – take the job, don’t take the job echoed in my skull as I waited for my meal. I was torn. I didn’t want to leave LA, but the job promised creative freedom and a steady paycheck. I rubbed my eyes harder as if poking my fingers through my eyes and massaging my brain would somehow help me make the right decision. Right decision??? said one of the voices in my head. What the f#$k’s a right decision these days???

The waitress came. “Here ya go, honey.”

I dug into the plate with a fork, twisted the lo mein noodles, stabbed at a piece of radio-active orange chicken. Starving but not hungry. Tired but wired. I took a bite…oh, I forgot to order it spicy.

Back to the window. The skinny white man stood in the middle of the street, peering down the street in one direction then the other…I took a bite…his eyes were the size of silver dollars…tasteless…the woman squatted down and began digging through one of the duffel bags…I swallowed…her gown drifted up over her ass…chew, chew…she didn’t mind…swallow, another bite…she pulled a tube of toothpaste and a bottle of water out of the bag, shouted at the skinny guy…lukewarm, tough flesh of fowl…he scrambled over to her and they each squirted a load of toothpaste into their mouth, brushed their teeth with their fingers…chew, chew, swallow…then they each took a huge swig from the water bottle, gurgled, spat…another bite, sweet rubber…then they hovered down the street together like balloons not quite light enough to escape into the darkening sky.

Bite…take the job, don’t take the job, take the…chew.

An old Asian women came out from the kitchen and began wiping down tables. The gaunt waitress followed her from table to table.

“I’m ain’t gonna do that for him no more,” the waitress said to the old woman.

“Mmm-hmm,” said the old Asian woman.

“Not gonna put myself through it again.”

take it, don’t take it…


“Not for him or any other man.”


Another bite.

“I’m done with other people causin me problems.”

Chew. No expectations.


The waitress came over. “You done, honey?”


She handed me a check. “Have a good evening and come back.” Then she resumed following the little Asian woman from table to table. I paid the bill and left.

“Have a safe trip back home to California,” said the young Indian host on my way out.

Home? California? Take it…don’t…

I walked back to my room at the Sunrise Valley Inn, turned the AC as low as it would go and went to sleep.

The parking lot was full of classic cars the next morning. Male baby-boomers stood around wearing Hawaiian shirts, shorts, smoking and talking to each other about their cars. Female baby-boomers were putting luggage in the trunks of the cars. I threw my bag in the Jeep and headed out of town on Highway 12.

Three of the old cars followed me, westward, through the Cascade Mountains. Sunlight wiggled through the tall pines. The morning was comfortably warm. I rolled the windows down and let the sweet wet pine scented air come in. Everything felt so fine, like that moment of weightlessness between jumping high on a trampoline and descending again. I was on a road I’d never been on before, seeing things I’d never seen before. Where I really like to be. But every time I glanced in my side-view mirror and saw the old cars, it was as if I were transported to 1962, or thereabouts…when those drivers were young, working men, not retired old fogies…hey, if you take the job, you can work for 25 years then you can be an old retiree driving a classic car with a smoking habit on top of a zipper scar on your chest from a triple bypass underneath a Hawaiian shirt, too. Ok, I will ask you what you’ve been afraid to ask yourself, are you…that would be me…SELLING OUT if you…me…take the job?

20140803_080808-1I pulled off at the next observation area to let the three old cars pass me. I got out of the car, stretched my legs, took a few deep breaths, looked out across the valley to see Mount Rainier. Big beautiful giant bald Mount Rainier. I’ve seen you Mount Rainier, you are real to me now…that weird feeling weightlessness came back, but seconds later so was…take the job, don’t take the job, take the job…

From there I hauled ass toward the coast of Oregon. Logging, logging, logging. Like patchwork over the mountains, clusters of tall trees grew next to clusters of shorter trees that’d been planted to replace the felled trees that’d been shipped down to the mills along the giant Columbia River that twisted faithfully with the highway. At Astoria, the Columbia spilled into the Pacific Ocean. There, I turned south on Highway 101 and began the long slow trek down the Oregon coast.

…take it…don’t take it…take it…

My view out the left window was of the deep green forest. The view out the right was the endless Pacific. The smell of pine mixed with the smell of salt air. The sun was high in the cloudless blue sky.

Every now and then, I’d come to a town. Most were bustling with tourists, with a few ratty drifters about, but others had more drifters, less tourists. The money just wasn’t in those towns, so neither was the heavy traffic, and I passed through those towns quickly. I couldn’t figure out why some towns had the tourists industry and some didn’t. Because you’ve never been able to get a grasp on the nature of money, Todd. But now with this job you can, though you’d no longer be your own boss. And you’d be in an office, wearing a tweed sports coat with leather elbow patches…look down from your desk…your feet are so cozy in those leather dress shoes…maybe on your two-week vacation you can come back here and be a tourist, if your boss ALLOWS you…shut up!

20140803_083901-1I pulled off the 101 somewhere south of Cannon Beach late that afternoon. I took a trail through a downward sloping meadow of high grass. The crashing of waves grew louder until suddenly I was feet away from the sharp jagged drop down to the ocean. The blue-green water below crashed into white foam against the dark grey stones 100 feet below. The sun was a couple of hours above the horizon, where the blue ocean stopped. Just like that, the ocean ended with a straight line as if everything started and stopped in straight surgical lines. No loose ends, what if’s or maybe’s. No emotional entanglement, no broken hearts. Just start…just stop…begin…end…psst…take it, don’t take it…or, just jump. It would be so easy, just lift one foot and then Geronimooooooo…

I continued onto the trail which ran along the ledge leading into a forest. Under the canopy of the trees, no grass grew. Only eons of dead limbs and leaves lay on the ground. The ocean breeze couldn’t reach me, and only a the stray sun ray could find me, peaking at me from behind a tree every now and then. But eventually, I was able to shake that sun ray, and found a place so quiet and dark where Existence reduced to a low hum and dull glow. On the trail before me lay a pile of fresh animal droppings. Too big for a squirrel, raccoon. What if it’s a bear, a mountain lion, Todd?! A pang of fear rushed through me, but was followed by total calm. I took a deep breath. My shoulders, my jaw, my back, relaxed as I let it out. A bear? A tiger? I wouldn’t run. Life’s been good. I wouldn’t run. The crashing waves sounded a million miles away. Tiny little snaps of twigs here and there. What are you gonna do? Me? Yeah, you. I’m gonna take the job. You are, why? Because it scares me more than not taking it. I’ve gotta do the things that scare me. Good answer, Todd. I know it is.

20140803_202012A few nights later, in Hollywood, I told my buddy Luis about the job offer, the ocean, the forest, the droppings, the decision.

“Sounds to me like you got a direct f#$king sign,” he said. “And a ticket out of Bohemia.”

“That’s what scares me, leaving Bohemia. I’m not sure if I wanna leave, or it’s just what I’m used to. You know, I saw a sign in Oregon, somebody was hiring carpenters—”

“You’ve done that, bro,” said Luis. “You know how to barely get by on building things. This is The Universe giving you something new. It’s the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new chapter.”

Luis was in between chapters of his own book, too. He’d been in LA all summer, performing for Independent Shakespeare Company’s summer festival. When the summer ended, he’d be returning to Houston to begin a new job heading up a youth poetry program in high schools across the city. He’d be drawing a steady salary, and could wear a tweed jacket with leather elbows to work, if he wanted to. We spent most of the night telling ourselves that we’ve reached the end of struggling to get by on whatever we can, that where we were headed was something bigger, better for the both of us.

“Man,” said Luis, as we walked down the dark Hollywood street – just after midnight – through it’s shadows, distant sirens and it’s eternal echoing of whispered promises, “I didn’t know I was a bohemian until somebody told me the other night that I was, in fact, a bohemian. I just called it living. But I’m done with barely scraping by, shit…I’m done starving, bro.”

We we got to my car I hugged Luis, said farewell. Then we stood there, staring at each other with something resembling smiles but more like silly, scary expressions of wonder.

“Man, we made it,” he said. “The next chapter. Travel safe, bro, talk to you soon.”

20140803_203409I pulled out of LA the next morning. Around noon I hit the bridge over the Colorado River and the end of California. My heart rate sped up, I grew shaky. “Man oh man,” I remember whispering. When I passed over the river, the last 14 years – LA to Chicago to New York back to LA – passed before me, and kept going. I felt like a part of me…died. Yep, died. But that’s ok, where things die, new things grow.

A fast drive to Texas. A fast week with my mom and sisters. Then a long drive straight up the middle of America. I’d left Grand Forks on August 1st, drove 7,500 miles in a complete circle around The West and by the time I arrived in Grand Forks on August 26th I was exhausted and huge chunks of me were missing. But new things are growing…

Be well…