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-”

BEEP.

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?”

“Yeah,”

“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.

 

20140701_200151-1

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

Be well…

 

 

The Reward

Hello Everybody…

Surely some kind of metaphor.

Surely some kind of metaphor.

A couple of weeks ago, my buddy, Scott, asked if I would build a chest-of-drawers designed to fit into a specific space in his house.

“Sure,” I said. Then I drove out to his house in Pasadena, took measurements.

“Oh,” said Scott. “Make sure you take the measurements of the doorways and hallways. I had something built for me one time and the builder couldn’t fit it in the house!”

I took the measurements of all the doorways and the hallway, then Scott bought me lunch and as we ate I sketched out a design to his liking – just within all the measurements taken. Then I gave him an estimate.

“Sounds great,” Scott said. We went back to his house and he cut a check, handed it to me. “See you in a couple of weeks.”

Well I sought gold and diamond rings

My own drug to ease the pain that living brings

Walked from the mountain to the valley floor

Searching for my beautiful reward

Searching for my beautiful reward

(Lyrics from My Beautiful Reward, by Bruce Springsteen)

20140209_142912A few minutes later, I waited at a red light, peering through the heat waves that made the San Gabriel Mountains dance before me. Hmm, I’ve already been paid for the job. I rarely get paid-in-full before building. The check swelled in my wallet, made me sit lopsided. When I got to Hollywood, I went to the bank and deposited the heavy, bulbous check – a process which felt very weird, disrupting the flow of my blue-collar blood. The as-of-yet unearned money also felt weird to spend, the following week. But I spent it nonetheless. I was low on money and I had bills to pay.

From a house on a hill a sacred light shines

I walk through these rooms but none of them are mine

Down empty hallways I went from door to door

Searching for my beautiful reward

Searching for my beautiful reward

The next weekend, I bought oak plywood and took my time cutting out all the pieces of the chest-of drawers. After the last cut, I stood back and viewed all the individual pieces. I hope it all fits togetherIt will…trust the math.

Tuesday, I began assembling the drawers, making sure all the pieces matched up perfectly. If they didn’t, I took them apart, shaved a little of wood here and there with my wood file until I had a fine fit. Next, I sanded and stained the drawers. Ah, look at those beautiful drawers…cough. I cleared my throat, certain it was merely sawdust. Then I coughed again. Then another cough. A lingering tickle remained in my throat the rest of the night. When I awoke the next morning, I was caught in the grips of a full-on cold.

20140211_155323By Thursday, the cold was raging. My progress slowed as I began assembling the main structure of the chest-of-drawers. I couldn’t find the rhythm that led me to Zen Mode. There was much starting, stopping, and the project remained work. There was no harmony. Everything was a distraction…

…the mailman, the couple next door fighting, the couple next door having sex, the bubbling of hot grease and smell of fried food in the late afternoon, Spanish language, rap music, Tejano music, the car horns and squealing tires of rush hour…

…just as the first patrol of police helicopters hovered over Hollywood on Friday evening, I stood back and surveyed the chest-of-drawers. The piece of furniture seemed much larger than my measurements. I took out my tape measure, double checked the length, width and volume. It should fit, but it looks so huge. I imagined carrying the piece into Scott’s house, through the front door, into the hallway, rounding the corner into…what?…rounding the corner into…uh, oh…rounding the corner. I neglected to take the measurements of a corner from one hallway to another hallway that led into the room where the piece would live. But if it fits through all the hallways and doorways, then, theoretically, it should round the corner. Trust the math.

Trust. I’ve learned to trust over the last several years, but it still is one of the harder attributes I’ve had to practice. Doubt sprung from deep down in the well that the piece would, indeed, round the corner. Trust the math. Trust the math. Trust…cough, cough, cough. Oh, f#$k it. Just do a good job. At this point, you can undo anything. I went inside the bungalow and heated up some quinoa and forced myself to eat it.

20140213_161310Serrano peppers, cilantro, garlic, onions, you should be very tasty, but I can’t taste you, I mused as I shoveled forkfuls of the quinoa pilaf into my mouth. My nose ran and I sneezed, coughed. Night had fallen and the view out the window was black night accompanied only by soft Hollywood noise. The kitchen light painted sharp yellow over the dishes in the dish rack, the stove, refrigerator and my forearms. Groceries, bills, parking tickets, etc. My money’s spent. I relocated the remaining pile of quinoa from one side of the plate to another. And I’ve already been paid. There’s no money at the end of the job. No reward. I got up and scratched the uneaten quinoa into the trash, washed the plate. What if it doesn’t fit. WHAT IF IT DOESN’T FIT, TODD?! I switched off the kitchen light and made my way down the hallway, imagining pushing the chest-of-drawers down it. How can I keep living this way, I thought. With no security, from job to job, jumping from one lily pad to the next, with no idea where the next lily pad lay. I turned on the light to my room. Stop looking at the Big Bad Future, Todd. Just do a good job.

Well your hair shone in the sun

I was so high I was the lucky one

Then I came crashing down like a drunk on a barroom floor

Searching for my beautiful reward

Searching for my beautiful reward

I spent Saturday sealing all the pieces with polyurethane. As I waited for the first coat to dry, I set my alarm for 20 minutes and tried to take a nap. I was tired from coughing. But when I lay down, I couldn’t doze off, so I lay there with my eyes open…

…and watched my life passed before my eyes. Still frames from childhood to Now, as if someone were turning the pages of a family album in front of me. I saw things I did do, things I didn’t. My chest cavity sounded like a tire rolling over loose gravel, every time I exhaled. I’m hollow. There’s just a few pebbles inside. Hmm…I haven’t written a blog for a couple of weeks. I’m bereft of anything to say. I’m done writing. The room began to glow a bit, a little brighter at the apex of each inhale. What am I if I never write again? Cough, cough. My vision faded in and out. What if this is it? What if I died, right now? What if everything gently fades out for good? How do I feel about that? Am I satisfied? Am I satisfied, Todd? I…I…I think I…The alarm went off. The photo album slammed shut. I got up and went back to work.

20140215_191318I finished the job just as the sun was setting on Saturday. The rich, shiny wood shone in the golden light. A strong, beautiful piece of work. I built this? When did I do a thing like that? I put a blanket over it, cleaned up, took my tools inside, then I went out for some ice cream.

As I walked back to my bungalow, East Hollywood felt like a foreign land. People walked different, as if gravity were stronger or weaker than it had been the on Friday. The sound of cars motoring down the boulevard rang in the key of F-Sharp instead of F. The air hit my skin in a way I’d never felt before. A weeks old pile of human feces that’d stood just outside of the entrance to an open lot had mysteriously disappeared. The “L” in the neon sign of the Hollywood Premiere Motel had been repaired. For months, it read, Hollywood Premiere Mote. But now the “olly” in Hollywood was burned out, so the sign now read, H—-wood Premeire Motel. I walked toward the marquis as if I were navigating by stars. Or has it always been Motel, not Mote, and H—-wood, instead of Hollywood? Am I the foreigner? Was the pile of shit never here?

Tonight I can feel the cold wind at my back

I’m flyin’ high over gray fields my feathers long and black

Down along the river’s silent edge I soar

Searching for my beautiful reward

Searching for my beautiful reward

20140215_173955On Sunday, I delivered the chest-of-drawers to Scott’s house. My palms sweated in anticipation of maneuvering the piece around the curve in the hallway. I coughed, sneezed, my head pounded as I pushed, lifted and twisted…

…it fit just fine. I laughed in relief. Math is good, I said to myself. Math is pure, like string music, like supernovas. We should trust math.

Scott was very pleased with the final product. He also cut me another check for the extra time it took to build and for the extra materials I had to purchase. Then he tipped me generously. A nice, pretty, fat number graced the check. It felt good in my hands. But not as good as it felt sliding the chest-of-drawers around that corner.

“Thanks so much,” said Scott, as I left. “Hope you feel better soon.”

“I’m sure I will,” I said.

Be well…